Archive for the ‘Welfare State’ Category

As a general rule, I like immigration and I don’t like redistribution.

As such, I share the late Milton Friedman’s concern about the risks of having a welfare state combined with open borders. And based on many conversations all over the country, I think that’s a big reason why many people oppose amnesty (augmented by Republican partisans who fear, probably with some validity, that changing the political landscape of America is the real reason Senator Schumer is a big advocate of amnesty).

So how can we reap the benefits of immigration without the risk of a bigger welfare state?

In part, we should have programs designed to attract people with skills and education.

I’m a big advocate and defender, for instance, of the EB-5 program that gives a preference for foreigners who invest in America’s economy and create jobs.

And if you peruse Mark Perry’s chart, we must be doing something right. Look at all these immigrant groups that are boosting per-capita income for the United States (including people from Lebanon, home of the Princess of the Levant).

I’ve always thought far more Americans would be sympathetic to immigration if they could be convinced that people were coming to America for the right reasons – i.e., to earn money rather than mooch off taxpayers.

With that in mind, Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University has a Bloomberg column about Denmark that cites the great work of Nima Sanandaji about how Americans of Nordic descent have much higher incomes than the people remaining in Nordic nations. Tyler’s entire article is worth reading, but I want to focus on a quasi-open-borders proposal that he puts forth in his conclusion.

For all the anti-immigrant sentiment that is circulating at the moment, would it hurt the U.S. to have fully open borders with Denmark? It would boost American gross domestic product and probably also improve American education. History teaches that serious assimilation problems would be unlikely, especially since many Danes already speak English. Open borders wouldn’t attract Danes who want to live off welfare because the benefits are so generous at home. How’s this for a simple rule: Open borders for the residents of any democratic country with more generous transfer payments than Uncle Sam’s.

I can’t think of any reasonable objection to this idea. Everything Tyler says makes sense. People like “Lazy Robert” won’t be lining up to get plane tickets to America. Instead, we’ll get the young and aspirational Danes.

For what it’s worth, I even think he understates the case since the type of people who would migrate to America wouldn’t just boost GDP. They almost surely would do something arguably more important, which is to boost per-capita GDP.

Just think of all the productive entrepreneurs who would take the opportunity to escape over-taxed Denmark and come to the United States. Along with ambitious and skilled people from nations such as Italy, France, and Sweden (though our welfare state is very expensive, so I admit I’m just guessing at nations which would be eligible based on Tyler’s rule about “more generous transfer payments”).

By the way, Denmark apparently has learned a lesson about the risks of being a welfare magnet.

A story from Spiegel Online has the details.

Denmark’s strict immigration laws have saved the country billions in benefits, a government report has claimed. …The extremely strict laws have dramatically reduced the flow of people into Denmark in recent years, and many government figures are delighted with the outcome. “Now that we can see that it does matter who comes into the country, I have no scruples in further restricting those who one can suspect will be a burden on Denmark,” the center-right liberal integration minister, Søren Pind, told the Jyllands Postennewspaper. Pind was talking after the ministry’s report — initiated by the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party (DPP) — came to the conclusion that by tightening immigration laws, Denmark has saved €6.7 billion ($10 billion) over the last 10 years, money which otherwise would supposedly have been spent on social benefits or housing. According to the figures, migrants from non-Western countries who did manage to come to Denmark have cost the state €2.3 billion, while those from the West have actually contributed €295 million to government coffers.

Sounds like Danish lawmakers don’t want to add even more passengers to the nation’s already-overburdened “party boat.”

And who can blame them. The nation already has a crippling problem of too many people depending on government.

P.S. If you want to enjoy some immigration-related humor, we have a video about Americans migrating to Peru and a story about American leftists escaping to Canada.

P.P.S. For those interested in the issue of birthright citizenship (a.k.a. anchor babies), I’ve shared some interesting analysis from Will Wilkinson and George Will.

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Does the economic chaos in Greece suggest that government should be bigger?

Is Venezuela’s economic collapse evidence that larger governments boost growth?

Should we learn from Italy’s pervasive stagnation that public sectors should be expanded?

Most people, looking at this real-world evidence, would quickly answer no to these questions.

But Eduardo Porter is not most people. Writing for the New York Times, he openly argues that government should be bigger. Much bigger.

Over the last six years, according to the Pew Research Center, four out of every five — or more — have said the government makes them feel either angry or frustrated. …These frustrated Americans may not fully realize it, under the influence of decades worth of sermons about government’s ultimate incompetence and venality. But there’s a strong case for more government — not less — as the most promising way to improve the nation’s standard of living.

He bases much of his column on the work of four left-wing academics.

Here’s his summary of their work.

The scholars laid out four important tasks: improving the economy’s productivity, bolstering workers’ economic security, investing in education to close the opportunity deficit of low-income families, and ensuring that Middle America reaps a larger share of the spoils of growth. Their strategy includes more investment in the nation’s buckling infrastructure and expanding unemployment and health insurance. It calls for paid sick leave, parental leave and wage insurance for workers who suffer a pay cut when changing jobs. And they argue for more resources for poor families with children and for universal early childhood education.

Improving productivity would be a very good idea. Indeed, producing more output per unit of capital and labor is basically how we become richer.

But while Porter and the statist academics might recognize that higher productivity is a good destination, the route they choose (bigger government, more punitive tax burden, additional regulation, lots of mandates, etc) will move the economy in the opposite direction.

If we want more growth, the best way to boost productivity is with capital formation and entrepreneurship. But  leftists, with their fixation on inequality, are reflexively opposed to the types of tax reforms that enable more saving, investment, and risk-taking.

Instead, they want the suffocating embrace of the European welfare state.

They propose raising government spending by 10 percentage points of the nation’s gross domestic product ($1.8 trillion in today’s dollars), to bring it to some 48 percent of G.D.P. by 2065. …Here are some other things Europeans got from their trade-off: lower poverty rates, lower income inequality, longer life spans, lower infant mortality rates, lower teenage pregnancy rates and lower rates of preventable death. And the coolest part, according to Mr. Lindert — one of the authors of the case for big government — is that they achieved this “without any clear loss in G.D.P.”

There are several assertions here that cry out for correction (poverty indices should measure actual poverty rather than income distribution) and elaboration (is inequality bad when all income classes in America have more income than their counterparts in Europe?), but the most absurd claim is the “coolest part” about Europe making government bigger without sacrificing prosperity.

This is absurd. Living standards in Europe (even Western Europe) are far below American standards. And even though convergence theory tells us that poorer nations should grow the fastest, Europe no longer is closing the gap with the United States.

Indeed, the gap is actually widening.

So how does Porter justify his anti-empirical statements? For evidence of his remarkable assertion about European growth, Porter’s column includes this chart, which (we are supposed to believe) shows that “many countries where government has grown the most have also experienced stronger economic growth.”

In reality, though, this chart merely shows the long-established relationship known as Wagner’s Law, which is that politicians figure out how to redistribute lots of money once nations become comparatively wealthy.

If Porter bothered to follow the academic evidence, he would see that nations can enjoy rapid growth and become rich during periods with small government and free markets, but growth slows considerably once politicians impose high tax rates and lots of redistribution.

By the way, Porter’s column contains two rather interesting accidental admissions. He confesses that a) a value-added tax is necessary to finance big welfare states (and one of the academics cited by Porter has explicitly acknowledged this point), and b) he admits that income taxes impose considerable economic damage.

Europe’s reliance on consumption taxes — which are easier to collect and have fewer negative incentives on work — allowed them to collect more money without generating the kind of economic drag of the United States’ tax structure, which relies more on income taxes.

Porter is completely correct about the role of the VAT in enabling much bigger government. This helps to explain why I’m so fixated on smothering every VAT proposal in its infancy, even when proposed with ostensibly good intentions (for instance, the Rand Paul tax plan and Ted Cruz tax plan).

Though he seems to be implying that a VAT isn’t bad for the economy. This is nonsense. First, the VAT enables bigger government, which necessarily damages the economy because capital and labor are diverted from the more productive and efficient private economy.

And a VAT also is bad for the economy because it drives a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption. Which is exactly the same argument against payroll taxes and income taxes on wages and salaries. The only accurate argument he could make is that VATs don’t do as much damage, per dollar raised, as income tax systems that include double taxation of saving and investment.

But I’m digressing.

Let’s close by re-focusing on the main topic of whether more government spending is associated with better economic performance.

I could cite research by the World Bank to show that Porter and his academic buddies are wrong. I also could share research from the European Central Bank. Or plenty of other sources.

But I (not-so-humbly) think these two videos from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity are the best summary.

Here’s the empirical evidence on government spending and growth.

And here’s the empirical evidence on the growth-maximizing size of government (hint: much smaller than Porter suggests).

If this hasn’t exhausted your interest in this topic, click here for my entire four-part video series on the economics of government spending.

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Over the years, I’ve shared some clever images, jokes, and cartoons to expose the flawed mindset of those who hope to achieve coerced equality of outcomes with redistribution and high tax rates.

The size of a pizza vs the share of a slice.

The modern version of the Little Red Hen.

Washington’s Byzantine welfare state.

Chuck Asay’s overburdened tractor.

A left-wing nursery rhyme.

The Wizard-of-Id parody.

Two pictures showing how the welfare state begins and ends.

A socialist classroom experiment (including a video version).

The economics of redistribution in one image.

As you can see, this is a common-sense issue. When you give people money on the condition that they don’t earn much money, you create a perverse incentive for them to be unproductive.

Especially since, when people work more and earn more, they get hit by a combination of fewer handouts and more taxes. The net result is very high implicit marginal tax rates, in some cases rising above 100 percent.

Needless to say, it’s very foolish to have a welfare state that puts people in this untenable situation where the welfare state becomes a form of economic quicksand.

And it’s also foolish to punish the people who are pulling the wagon with high tax rates and pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

Russell Jaffe, one of our Cato interns, helpfully cranked out a clever little image showing how redistribution is bad for both those who receive and those who pay.

No wonder the welfare state and War on Poverty have been bad news for both taxpayers and poor people.

And the problem is getting worse, not better.

Let’s begin to wrap up. I shared a Thomas Sowell quote at the beginning to today’s column.

Now let’s read some of his analysis.

He aptly and succinctly summarized why redistribution is a no-win proposition (h/t: Mark Perry).

The history of the 20th century is full of examples of countries that set out to redistribute wealth and ended up redistributing poverty. …It is not complicated. You can only confiscate the wealth that exists at a given moment. You cannot confiscate future wealth — and that future wealth is less likely to be produced when people see that it is going to be confiscated. …Those who are targeted for confiscation can see the handwriting on the wall, and act accordingly. …We have all heard the old saying that giving a man a fish feeds him only for a day, while teaching him to fish feeds him for a lifetime. Redistributionists give him a fish and leave him dependent on the government for more fish in the future.

So what’s the bottom line?

The simple (and correct) answer is to dismantle the welfare state. State and local governments should be in charge of “means-tested” programs, ideally with much less overall redistribution (a goal even some Scandinavian nations are trying to achieve).

In effect, the goal should be to replicate the success of the Clinton-era welfare reform, but extending the principle to all redistribution programs (Medicaid, food stamps, EITC, etc).

P.S. Some honest leftists admit that the welfare state cripples independence and self reliance.

P.P.S. For those who like comparisons, you can peruse which states provide the biggest handouts and also which nations have the most dependency.

P.P.P.S. To end on a sour note, our tax dollars are being used by the Paris-based OECD to produce junk research that argues more tax-financed redistribution somehow is good for growth.

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As I’ve pointed out before, the big difference between the United States and Europe is not taxes on the rich. We both impose similar tax burden on high-income taxpayers, though Europeans are more likely to collect revenue from the rich with higher income tax rates and the U.S. gets a greater share of revenue from upper-income taxpayers with double taxation on interest, dividends, and capital gains (we also have a very punitive corporate tax system, though it doesn’t collect that much revenue).

The real difference between America and Europe is that America has a far lower tax burden on lower- and middle-income taxpayers.

  • Tax rates in Europe, particularly the top rate, tend to take effect at much lower levels of income.
  • European governments all levy onerous value-added taxes that raise costs for all consumers.
  • Payroll tax burdens in many European nations are significantly higher than in the United States.

This makes for interesting cross-border comparisons, but it also raises an overlooked point about political attitudes. Why are leftists so hostile to successful people?

Think about it this way. If a farmer has five cows but one of the cows produces most of his milk, at the very least he would treat that cow with great care and concern.

Left-wing politicians in the United States, by contrast, express contempt and disdain for the upper-income taxpayers who finance our welfare state.

Let’s look at some of the numbers

The invaluable Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute points out that the top-20 percent bear the lion’s share of the fiscal burden in the United States.

CBO provides detailed data on American households for each income quintile in 2013 for: a) average household “market income”(includes labor income, business income, income from capital gains, and retirement/pension income), b)average household transfer payments (payments and benefits from federal, state and local governments including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)), and c) average federal taxes paid by households (including income, payroll, corporate, and excise taxes).

Mark presents that data in an easy-to-understand format and highlights the relevant numbers in red. The key takeaway is that the top-20 percent basically finance our Leviathan.

To make the issue even clearer, Mark created a chart showing the data from the sixth line in the above table.

Again, the only possible conclusion to reach is that higher-income households are the net financiers of big government.

Now let’s augment Mark’s analysis by examining some research from Scott Greenberg and John Olson of the Tax Foundation.

They also review the new CBO numbers and their focus in the tax burden on the top-1 percent (i.e., people who actually are rich).

One of the main takeaways from this year’s report is that the richest Americans pay a lot in taxes. In 2013, the top 1 percent of households paid an average of 34.0 percent of their income in federal taxes. To compare, the middle 20 percent of households paid only 12.8 percent of their income in taxes. Moreover, taxes on the rich are much higher than they’ve been in recent years. …in 2013, the top 1 percent of taxpayers paid a higher tax rate (34.0 percent) than in the year President Reagan took office (33.2 percent).

And here’s the chart accompanying their analysis.

There are all sorts of interesting stories inside this graph, such as the interaction of capital gains taxes and stock market performance (the top-1 percent tend to be significant investors).

There are also interesting stories that aren’t captured by this graph, such as the fact that rich people have great ability to adjust their taxable income when tax rates climb and fall (which was one of the reasons rich people paid a lot more tax when Reagan dropped the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent). Also, the average tax rate is less important than marginal tax rates if you want to understand how much damage the tax code imposes on the economy.

But for our purposes today, all that matters is that rich people over the past several decades have coughed up, on average, about 31 percent of their income to Uncle Sam.

That’s a lot of money. In effect, the federal government gets a dividend when successful taxpayers earn money.

Which brings us back to the perplexing fact that leftists have nothing but scorn for the folks who finance the welfare state.

Indeed, some statists have so much contempt for successful people that they want to push tax rates to high that the rich no longer would want to earn additional money. Which means, of course, that the IRS wouldn’t be collecting any money.

I don’t know whether the right metaphor is a farmer abusing the cow that produces most of the milk or a shareholder who sabotages the company paying good dividends, but the only possible conclusion is that leftists hate rich people more than they like big government.

If you think I’m exaggerating and such people don’t exist, watch this video – especially beginning about the 4:30 mark.

P.S. To be fair, leftists don’t hate all rich people. They’re willing to shower bailouts, subsidies, and handouts on wealthy people who give them lots of campaign contributions.

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Changing demographics is one of the most powerful arguments for genuine entitlement reform.

When programs such as Social Security and Medicare (and equivalent systems in other nations) were first created, there were lots of young people and comparatively few old people.

And so long as a “population pyramid” was the norm, reasonably sized welfare states were sustainable (though still not desirable because of the impact on labor supply, savings rates, tax policy, etc).

In most parts of the world, however, demographic profiles have changed. Because of longer life expectancy and falling birth rates, population pyramids are turning into population cylinders.

This is one of the reasons why there is a fiscal crisis in Southern European nations such as Greece. And there’s little reason for optimism since the budgetary outlook will get worse in those countries as their versions of baby-boom generations move into full retirement.

But while Southern Europe already has been hit, and while the long-run challenge in Northern European nations such as France has received a lot of attention, there’s been inadequate focus on the problem in Eastern Europe.

The fact that there’s a major problem surprises some people. After all, isn’t the welfare state smaller in these countries? Haven’t many of them adopted pro-growth reforms such as the flat tax? Isn’t Eastern Europe a success story considering that the region was enslaved by communism for many decades?

To some degree, the answer to those questions is yes. But there are two big challenges for the region.

First, while the fiscal burden of government may not be as high in some Eastern European countries as it is elsewhere on the continent (damning with faint praise), those nations tend to rank lower for other factors that determine overall economic freedom, such as regulation and the rule of law.

Looking at the most-recent edition of Economic Freedom of the World, there are nine Western European nations among the top 30 countries: Switzerland (#4), Ireland (#8), United Kingdom (#10), Finland (#19), Denmark (#22), Luxembourg (#27), Norway (#27), Germany (#29), and the Netherlands (#30).

For Eastern Europe, by contrast, the only representatives are Romania (#17), Lithuania (#19), and Estonia (#22).

Second, Eastern Europe has a giant demographic challenge.

Here’s what was recently reported by the Financial Times.

Eastern Europe’s population is shrinking like no other regional population in modern history. …a population drop throughout a whole region and over decades has never been observed in the world since the 1950s with the exception of…Eastern Europe over the last 25 consecutive years.

Here’s the chart that accompanied the article. It shows the population change over five-year periods, starting in 1955. Eastern Europe (circled in the lower right) is suffering a population hemorrhage.

By the way, it’s not like the trend is about to change.

If you look at global fertility data, these nations all rank near the bottom. And they also suffer from brain drain since a very smart person, even from fast-growing, low-tax Estonia, generally can enjoy more after-tax income by moving to an already-rich nation such as Switzerland or the United Kingdom.

So what’s the moral of the story? What lessons can be learned?

There are actually three answers, only two of which are practical.

  • First, Eastern European nations can somehow boost birthrates. But nobody knows how to coerce or bribe people to have more children.
  • Second, Eastern European nations can engage in more reform to improve overall economic liberty and thus boost growth rates.
  • Third, Eastern European nations can copy Hong Kong and Singapore (both very near the bottom for fertility) by setting up private retirement systems.

The second option obviously is good, and presumably would reduce – and perhaps ultimately reverse – the brain drain.

But the third option is the one that’s absolutely required.

The good news is that there’s been some movement in that direction. But the bad news is that reform has taken place only in some nations, and usually only partial privatization, and in some cases (like Poland and Hungary) the reforms have been reversed.

And even if full pension reform is adopted, there’s still the harder-to-solve issue of government-run healthcare.

Eastern Europe has a very grim future.

P.S. I’m a great fan of the reforms that have been adopted in some of the nations in Eastern Europe, but none of them are small-government jurisdictions. Yes, the welfare state in Eastern European countries is generally smaller than in Western European nations, but it’s worth noting that every Eastern European nation in the OECD (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia) has a larger burden of government spending than the United States.

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Led by Speaker Paul Ryan, House Republicans have put forth an anti-poverty agenda.

It’s definitely worth reading just for the indictment of the current welfare state. There are some excellent charts, including versions of ones that I’ve already shared on the $1 trillion-plus fiscal burden of current welfare programs, as well as the “bloated, jumbled, and overlapping bureaucracy” that administers all that money.

But there are some charts that deserve to be reproduced, either because they contain new insights or because they make very important economic points.

Regarding the former, here’s a chart that indirectly shows that the most effective anti-poverty program is work. Specifically a full-time job.

So the real challenge is why there are some households with persistent multi-generational poverty.

And, as Thomas Sowell already has told us, that’s a behavioral problem.

But it’s somewhat understandable behavior because government in many cases makes dependency more attractive than self-sufficiency.

Here’s a chart showing the implicit marginal tax rates that apply if a poor household tries to climb out of poverty. The bottom line is that handouts are so generous that it’s very difficult for a poor person to be better off by working instead of mooching.

No wonder dependency is a growing problem!

Some folks say the solution to this problem is to reduce the “phase-out” of benefits, but that’s a recipe for making the welfare state vastly more expensive and giving handouts to people who are not poor. That’s the approach in some European nations and it hasn’t worked.

Here’s another chart that basically makes the same point about the upside-down incentive structure created by redistribution programs. It shows that a poor household can enjoy a much higher standard of living with low earnings than with high earnings.

The bottom line is that the current welfare state is a disaster for both poor people and taxpayers.

And this video is an excellent introduction to that topic.

But let’s focus on the GOP anti-poverty plan. They put together a powerful indictment of what we have now, but what are they proposing as a solution?

Here’s where we get good news and bad news. The good news is that there is a focus on work, as explained in a column for Forbes by Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute.

…the report declares that “Our welfare system should encourage work-capable welfare recipients to work or prepare for work in exchange for benefits, and states should be held accountable for helping welfare recipients find jobs and stay employed.” The blueprint points toward greater use of work requirements and time limits for food stamp recipients and beneficiaries of federal housing benefits who are able to work. …This emphasis on work generalizes the experience from the landmark 1996 welfare reform legislation, which increased work among single-parent families, reduced welfare receipt and (most importantly) lowered poverty.

So far so good, and Scott also notes that the key to work is reducing the appeal of being on the dole.

Most of the success of welfare reform in encouraging work can be attributed to the ways that it has made receipt of benefits less attractive relative to work. People largely left welfare or chose not to enroll independently of state work promotion efforts.

But here’s the problem. There’s no big attempt to reduce benefits in the GOP proposal.

Indeed, it doesn’t even turn programs over to the states, which presumably would lead to better policy since sub-national governments wouldn’t want to be overly generous lest they attract welfare migration.

But the dog that didn’t bark in the new agenda is the consolidation and block granting proposed in Speaker Ryan’s Budget Committee discussion draft from 2014. Rather, the blueprint appears to envision increased use of state waivers in the various programs… It is worth recalling that in the 2014 discussion draft, the “opportunity grants” that would have combined a dozen federal programs and funded them at a fixed level were proposed as a pilot program in a few states.

Though at least the plan apparently doesn’t increase the fiscal burden of the welfare state by further expanding the EITC, which already is the federal government’s most costly redistribution program.

The antipoverty blueprint mentions the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)…only in passing. On the one hand, the report points out that an expanded EITC would be one way to reduce some of the high marginal tax rates that recipients of federal aid face when they contemplate working. On the other, the program’s high rate of improper payments is also emphasized, rightfully, as a problem that must be addressed.

Scott also points out that the Republican plan also foresees a much more aggressive attempt to measure what works and doesn’t work. Which is good, though hardly necessary since we already know that a one-size-fits-all approach from Washington is a recipe for ever-higher costs and ever-increasing dependency.

Indeed, there’s even a Laffer Curve-type relationship between welfare spending and poverty.

Let’s check out a couple of other reactions.

From the left, Jordan Weissman of Slate is predictably unimpressed.

As part of his effort to convince Americans that the Republican Party is [not] a band of nihilistic anti-government lunatics—House Speaker Paul Ryan unveiled…an anti-poverty plan. Which is a laugh riot. …Most of the agenda is a rehash of, or at least a variation on, material Ryan has trotted out before. Inspired by the welfare reforms of the 1990s, the speaker still wants to push more safety net beneficiaries to go to work, devolve more program control down to state and local officials, and yet somehow increase accountability and carefully monitor results… There’s also some talk about increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-wage workers—which is one of those nice, liberal-conservative consensus positions that never seems to go anywhere.

From the right, Kevin Williamson sympathizes with the GOP/Ryan approach, but also makes a more important point in his National Review column.

Paul Ryan has just introduced a welfare-reform proposal… We already knew what was going to be in it — work requirements and time limits for able-bodied adults — because there are only so many meaningful avenues of reform. We also know what the Left’s response is going to be: that this is cruel, callous, punitive, etc. But there are really only two choices: Get people moving toward economic self-sufficiency or sustain them forever in the soul-killing state of dependency. There isn’t a third option. Not really. This is only partly about money. We are a very, very rich society, and we can afford to provide decently for people who cannot care for themselves, including children and those who are physically or mentally disabled. But that isn’t our problem: Our problem isn’t people who are physically disabled but people who are morally disabled, people who wouldn’t take a bus 15 minutes to work at a gas station, much less walk 15 miles to do so.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that the only good welfare reform is one that shifts all programs to the states as part of a block grant. But since funding redistribution is not a function of the federal government, that block grant should then disappear over time.

Last but not least, we need to understand that economic growth is easily the most powerful and effective anti-poverty program. That’s why the poverty rate fell from 90 percent to 15 percent in America before we had a welfare state.

And it’s no coincidence that we stopped making progress once the so-called War on Poverty began.

P.S. On the topic of poverty, it’s worth remembering that the White House has tried to redefine poverty as part of a dishonest campaign to promote class warfare policies. And the leftist bureaucrats at the OECD are pushing the same disingenuous approach.

P.P.S. If you want to know which states have the highest welfare benefits, click here. And if you want to know which ones have the highest overall levels of redistribution, click here.

P.P.P.S. There’s at least one honest leftist who understands the human cost of redistribution.

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Like America’s Founders, I like constitutional constraints on government and dislike untrammeled majoritarianism.

So my gut instinct is to reject Swiss-style direct democracy as a governing system.

Yet I have to give credit to the Swiss people for being very sensible when asked to vote in national referendums. Here are some recent results.

And don’t forget they voted by a landslide margin in favor of a spending cap back in 2001.

Now they’ve done it again.

Voters were asked today to decide whether every adult should automatically receive more than $2,500 per month as part of a guaranteed basic income.

Sounds like a nice free lunch, right? That offer might be very attractive in a place like France, but Swiss voters apparently understand that government can’t give all that money to people without first taking that amount of money from people. They rejected Bernie-nomics by an overwhelming margin.

In Switzerland, there don’t appear to be left-wing blue states and right-wing red states. Instead, the entire nation favors limited government. Even the French-speaking parts of the country voted against the scheme.

I’d like to take credit for these results. I was in Switzerland early last month to discuss and debate this plan. Here’s what I said (click here to watch the entire panel discussion).

In reality, I’m sure my remarks didn’t have any impact on the outcome. Nonetheless, it’s nice to be on the winning side.

Though you may have noticed that I said some nice things about a guaranteed basic income in my presentation. That’s because, as I wrote back in 2013, these plans also would get rid of the current dysfunctional welfare state.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal a couple of days ago, Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute makes the best possible case for an automatic government-provided income.

The UBI has brought together odd bedfellows. Its advocates on the left see it as a move toward social justice; its libertarian supporters (like Friedman) see it as the least damaging way for the government to transfer wealth from some citizens to others. Either way, the UBI is an idea whose time has finally come… First, my big caveat: A UBI will do the good things I claim only if it replaces all other transfer payments and the bureaucracies that oversee them. If the guaranteed income is an add-on to the existing system, it will be as destructive as its critics fear.

Here are the highlights of Murray’s plan.

…the system has to be designed with certain key features. In my version, every American citizen age 21 and older would get a $13,000 annual grant deposited electronically into a bank account in monthly installments. …The UBI is to be financed by getting rid of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, housing subsidies, welfare for single women and every other kind of welfare and social-services program, as well as agricultural subsidies and corporate welfare. As of 2014, the annual cost of a UBI would have been about $200 billion cheaper than the current system. By 2020, it would be nearly a trillion dollars cheaper. …Under my UBI plan, the entire bureaucratic apparatus of government social workers would disappear.

And while he acknowledges that some people will stop working and live off their handouts, he makes a reasonably persuasive argument that some people will be encouraged to enter the labor force.

Under the current system, taking a job makes you ineligible for many welfare benefits or makes them subject to extremely high marginal tax rates. Under my version of the UBI, taking a job is pure profit with no downside until you reach $30,000—at which point you’re bringing home way too much ($40,000 net) to be deterred from work by the imposition of a surtax. Some people who would otherwise work will surely drop out of the labor force under the UBI, but others who are now on welfare or disability will enter the labor force.

Sounds good, but then consider all the leftists who support a basic income scheme and imagine how such a system would work if they were in charge.

That’s what worries me. If Charles Murray was economic czar and there was never a risk of his plan being modified, I’d be sorely tempted to say yes.

But that’s not a plausible scenario. In the real world, a guaranteed basic income might start small and the current welfare state might be curtailed as part of the original deal, but I would be very worried about subsequent reforms that would expand the size of the handout (much as the EITC has been expanded in America) and reinstate misguided redistribution programs.

Perhaps this is why, in a column for the Financial Times, John Kay is not very sanguine about the numbers.

Bernie Sanders, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, has expressed sympathy for basic income while stopping short of endorsement. Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister of Greece, is a proponent. …Yet simple arithmetic shows why these schemes cannot work. Decide what proportion of average income per head would be appropriate for basic income. Thirty per cent seems mean; perhaps 50 per cent is more reasonable? The figure you write down is the share of national income that would be absorbed by public expenditure on basic income. The Swiss government reckoned spending on social welfare would approximately double. To see the average tax rate implied, add the share of national income taken by other public sector activities — education, health, defence and transport. Either the basic income is impossibly low, or the expenditure on it is impossibly high.


P.S. On a separate topic, the death of Mohamed Ali, the larger-than-life superstar boxer, has generated a lot of reminiscing.

Well, courtesy of Mike Flynn, here’s my favorite Ali historical flashback.

P.P.S. Speaking of athletic superstars (at least in our fantasies), the Beltway Bandits finally prevailed in a 2016 softball tournament. Here’s our team photo after winning the Crabtown Classic.

P.P.S. Returning to the main topic of today’s column, here’s an amusing cartoon strip on the notion of a basic income.

It’s from the same person who put together the “magic boats” cartoon strip about the minimum wage.

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