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This century has not been good news for economic liberty in the United States.

According to Economic Freedom of the World, America has dropped from being the 3rd-freest economy of the world in 2001 to the 12th-freest economy in the most recent rankings.

Perhaps more important, our aggregate score has fallen from 8.20 to 7.81 over the same period.

So why has the U.S. score dropped? Was it Bush’s spending binge? Obama’s stimulus boondoggle? All the spending and taxes in Obamacare? The fiscal cliff tax hike?

I certainly think all those policies were mistaken, but if you dig into the annual data, America’s score on “size of government” only fell from 7.1 to 7.0 between 2001 and 2012.

Which means economic freedom in the United States mostly declined for reasons other than fiscal policy. In other words, our score dropped because of what happened to our scores for trade policy, monetary policy, regulatory policy, and property rights and rule of law.

That triggered my curiosity. If America is #12 in the overall rankings, how would we rank if fiscal policy was removed from the equation?

Here are the results, showing the top 25 jurisdictions based on the four non-fiscal policy factors. As you can see, the United States drops from #12 to #24, which means we trail 14 European nations in these important measures of economic freedom.

If you look in the second column, you’ll notice how many of those European nations have double-digit increases when you look at their non-fiscal rankings compared to their overall rankings.

This is for two reasons.

First, their fiscal scores are terrible because of high tax rates and a stifling burden of government spending.

Second, these same nations are hyper-free market on issues such as trade, regulation, money, rule of law and property rights.

In other words, the data back up points I’ve made about policy in nations such as Denmark and Sweden.

In an ideal world, countries should have free markets and small government. In Northern Europe, they manage to get the first part right. Which is important since non-fiscal factors account for 80 percent of a nation’s overall grade.

Now let’s return to the issue of America’s decline.

Here are the non-fiscal rankings from 2001. As you can see, the United States was #5 at the time, scoring higher than even Singapore and Hong Kong. And the U.S. was behind only three European nations back in 2001.

For what it’s worth, America’s score has fallen primarily because of a significant drop in the trade category (from 8.7 to 7.7) and a huge drop for rule of law and property rights (from 8.7 to 7.0).

In other words, it’s not good for prosperity when a nation begins to have problems such as protectionism and politicized courts.

P.S. The erosion of America’s score for non-fiscal factors is particularly disappointing since improvements in those factors have played a big role in protecting the world from the negative economic consequences of more spending and taxes.

P.P.S. I think this is an example of correlation rather than causation, but the above rankings for non-fiscal economic liberty seem somewhat similar to the rankings I shared last week looking at overall societal freedom.

I created the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame as a way of giving special attention to government employees who go above and beyond the call of duty in their efforts to get paid way too much in exchange for doing far too little.

While my standard practice is to bestow this honor on individual bureaucrats, sometimes I bend the rules and give the award to an entire group, such as the paralegals at the Patent and Trademark Office who were paid – and even given bonuses – even though they were never assigned any work.

Well, not doing work must be part of the culture at that bureaucracy. The Washington Post reports on an employee who apparently was supposed to do some actual work but instead gamed the system.

A federal patent examiner racked up more than 18 weeks of pay last year for work he didn’t do, but his manager didn’t notice until he received an anonymous letter claiming the employee only showed up for his job sporadically and turned in work that was “garbage.” …The examiner, a poor performer for years who was never disciplined, came and went as he pleased… He frequently told colleagues he was leaving work to go to the local golf driving range, play pool or grab a beer — then claimed a full day on the job on his time sheet. On most of the days when the examiner was gaming the system, “there was no evidence” he even went to the office or did any work on his government-issued laptop, investigators found.

My initial reaction to this story is that American bureaucrats need to learn some lessons from their foreign counterparts.

Doing zero work for 18 weeks and still getting paid may sound impressive, but it’s trivial compared to the Indian bureaucrat who managed to get paid up until last year even though he stopped showing up for work back in 1990. Or the lavishly compensated Italian government employee who only worked 15 days over a nine-year period.

But I’m not an Indian or Italian taxpayer. I get irked by when my tax dollars are being squandered.

So why didn’t his supervisor notice that something was amiss?

Well, perhaps that person didn’t notice because he or she was never around.

The examiner’s supervisor works from home more than 30 hours a week.

And even if the supervisor was paying attention, it might not have mattered.

…union rules allowed supervisors limited oversight over their employees.

Though there were plenty of warning signs that should have been noticed.

“Despite numerous red flags and the [patent office’s] internal controls, the agency did not review [the examiner’s] time and attendance records to determine if he was claiming time for work he did not perform,” the 27-page investigation by Acting Inspector General said. The patent office had received numerous complaints from inventors and their attorneys that the examiner was not responsive to their e-mails and phone calls.

If you’re a taxpayer, you’ll be delighted to know that the bureaucrat was making a very comfortable salary.

And even though the scam has been ended, you’ll also be happy to learn that he or she will leave with a clean personnel record.

The employee, a GS-11 making more than $70,000, quit two hours before he was scheduled to meet with the inspector general’s office, the report said. The union representing patent examiners told him that if he resigned, his personnel record would stay clean, not showing that he was under investigation for falsifying hours.

Gee, isn’t that wonderful. Anybody want to guess whether this person winds up working for another government agency?

The final part of the story nicely captures much of what’s wrong with Washington.

An independent review last month by the National Academy of Public Administration…praised the agency’s telework program as a model in the federal government that’s good for morale

Yeah, I bet it’s good for morale. If I got (over)paid and didn’t have to do much work, I might feel happy as well.

Actually, that’s not true. For better or worse, I passionately care about the future of the country and the cause of human liberty. So I’d be doing exactly what I’m doing even if I had to do it as a hobby. I’m just lucky that I get to ply my trade at America’s most effective think tank.

What’s the biggest economic fallacy on the left? What’s the defining mistake for our statist friends?

One obvious answer is that many of them hold the anti-empirical belief that the economy is  a fixed pie and that one person can’t climb the economic ladder unless another person falls a few rungs.

There’s no doubt that the fixed-pie myth is an obstacle to sound thinking, but I’m wondering whether an even bigger problem is the pervasive belief on the left that there are easy shortcuts to prosperity.

Keynesian fiscal policy, for instance, is based on the notion that more growth is just a simple question of having the government spend more money.

And Keynesian monetary policy is based on a similarly simplistic assumption that more growth is generated by having central banks create more money.

To be sure, both policies may seem to work in the short run since people suddenly perceive that they have more money. But perceptions and reality may be different, particularly if the short-run boost in the economy is an illusory bubble.

And that’s why I’m not a big fan of QE-type policies designed to “stimulate” growth with artificially low interest rates.

As I explain in this brief FBN interview, any short-run gain is offset by long-run pain.

And I’m not the only one who has a jaundiced view.

The Wall Street Journal also is not happy with the Federal Reserve, opining that the real economy has stagnated as financial assets have been propped up by easy money.

…the Fed has only itself to blame for its economic and political predicament. …One lesson here is that the Fed’s great monetary experiment since the recession ended in 2009 looks increasingly like a failure. Recall the Fed’s theory that quantitative easing (bond buying) and near-zero interest rates would lift financial assets, which in turn would lift the real economy. …But while stocks have soared, as have speculative assets like junk bonds and commercial real estate, the real economy hasn’t. This remains the worst economic recovery by far since World War II…the economic expectations of Fed Chairs Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen have been consistently wrong. …the Fed now finds itself caught between a slowing global economy and its promise to begin normalizing rates this year. …One result has been to increase economic uncertainty and market volatility.

Another result is that easy-money policies give politicians an excuse to avoid the real reforms that would boost long-run growth.

I definitely think that’s been a problem in Europe. Politicians keep waiting for magical results from the European Central Bank when the real obstacle to prosperity is a stifling burden of taxation, spending, and regulation.

The bottom line is that politicians all over the world are exacerbating bad fiscal and regulatory policy with bad monetary policy.

To augment this analysis, here’s a video from the Fraser Institute about the insight of Friedrich Hayek, who warned that government intervention, particularly via monetary policy, caused booms and busts by distorting market signals.

Needless to say, last decade’s financial crisis is a case study showing the accuracy of Hayek’s Austrian-school analysis.

But politicians never seem to learn. Or maybe they just don’t care. They focus on the short run (i.e., the next election) and it always feels good when the bubble is expanding.

And when the government-created bubble bursts, they can simply blame greed, or rich people, or find some other scapegoat (and then repeat the same mistakes as soon as the dust settles).

P.S. For a more detailed look at Austrian economics, check out this lecture. And Austrian-school scholars also have the best analysis of the Great Depression.

P.P.S. And for a more conventional critique of easy-money policies, here are some highlights from a speech by a member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee.

At the risk of oversimplifying, there are two types of statists.

The first type is generally insincere and simply views bigger government and increased dependency as a strategy to obtain and preserve political power. Most inside-the-beltway leftists in Washington are in this category.

The second type genuinely cares about the less fortunate but makes the mistake of thinking that good intentions somehow lead to good results. You could call these people the Pope Francis leftists.

As you might imagine, there’s very little hope of persuading the first category of statists. You could show them all the data and evidence in the world, for instance, that a flat tax would boost prosperity, and they’ll simply shrug and tell you to jump in a lake because genuine tax reform would reduce the power and influence of Washington’s political elite.

But the second group of statists should be persuadable. That’s why I share so many comparisons of nations with smaller government and freer markets versus countries with bigger government and more intervention. I want open-minded folks on the other side to see how good policy leads to better economic performance, particularly since the poor will be big beneficiaries. That should be compelling, especially when combined with the data on how the welfare state simply traps poor people in government dependency.

I then try to augment that macro data with specific micro examples of how policies that seem compassionate actually backfire.

Is it compassionate, for instance, to increase the minimum wage if that means low-skilled workers can’t get jobs?

Alternatively, is it compassionate to extend unemployment benefits if that means people are less likely to get jobs?

Anyhow, all this discussion is simply to provide some context for a very good piece on the pitfalls of John Kasich and so-called compassionate conservatism.

In her Wall Street Journal column, Kimberly Strassel takes aim at Governor Kasich and other folks who think big government is somehow good for the poor.

…here’s one way to divide the arena: small-government reformers and big-government surrenderists. That debate is at the center of a bigger GOP meditation on how to better appeal to the poor and minorities. Mr. Kasich has emerged as the most eloquent and compelling spokesperson for the go-big camp. …his theme: that it’s OK to be “conservative” and have a “big heart.” It’s his way of excusing his decision to embrace ObamaCare’s expansion of Medicaid, putting that welfare program on track to consume 50% of Ohio’s operating budget in 2016.

Needless to say, Ms. Strassel doesn’t think Kasich’s embrace of Obamacare demonstrates a big heart.

Instead, it’s just the latest manifestation of the big-government conservatism that failed so badly last decade.

This is “compassionate conservatism”—or at least a bastardized version of it. George W. Bush first used that phrase to explain how conservative policies made everyone better off. But it would later turn into a license for Republicans to embrace government for their own conservative ends. Giant new education spending was needed to create school “accountability”; a new Medicare drug entitlement would create health-care “competition;” green-energy subsidies bolstered “national security.” …The philosophy got a revamp in the past year in the self-styled “reformicon” movement. …it’s Compassionate Conservatism 2.0.

And what happens when you cede the moral high ground and agree with the statists that bigger government somehow benefits people?

…underpinning the entire compassionate-conservative movement is a glum surrender to the entitlement state. The left has won; all that remains is to argue that conservative big-government is better managed than liberal big-government.

Ms. Strassel is much more impressed with what she calls the “small-government reformers.”

…there is another approach to compassion. It’s the version made popular by Jack Kemp, and embraced by House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan—and a growing list of converts. It holds that there is nothing whatsoever compassionate about consigning low-income Americans to a government health-care system that delivers second-class outcomes. There’s nothing compassionate about making today’s working poor pay into a bleeding Social Security system… There’s nothing compassionate about propping up a federally run poverty industrial-complex that spends most of its money on itself. The Kemp-Ryan view knows that government is the problem, not the answer—not in any form. The answer is to devolve the money and power back to states and communities…spreading the gospel of smaller government, in the name of helping those most vulnerable.

Amen. Kemp was a hero in the battle to lower confiscatory tax rates, leading to a victory that was enormously successful in the 1980s. And Ryan deserves endless praise for his efforts to reform entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

This is the approach that offers the most hope to the less fortunate because it enables growth and job creation.

Big-government conservatism, by contrast, undermines economic dynamism by acquiescing to the idea of an ever-growing state.

By the way, none of this suggests that John Kasich is universally bad on policy or that Paul Ryan is universally good. Kasich, after all, was Chairman of the House Budget Committee in the 1990s when genuine spending restraint led to a balanced budget. And Paul Ryan’s otherwise good ideas on tax reform have been marred by occasional flirtation with a value-added tax.

What ultimately matters is whether a politician is – on balance – pushing to shrink the size and power of the federal government. So ultimately it’s an imperfect process of deciding which lawmaker is 75 percent good and which one is 65 percent good (or, in too many cases, comparing one who is 10 percent good with one who is 5 percent good).

P.S. If “Libertarian Jesus” is correct and genuine compassion is defined as helping others with your own money, then Americans have much bigger hearts than their European counterparts.

P.P.S. Speaking of compassion, here’s an anti-Obama joke featuring some Pennsylvania cops.

Bernie Sanders, Vermont’s pseudo-socialist senator, thinks that America can learn from Europe.

He’s right.

But he’s also wrong. That’s because he thinks that Europe is a role model to emulate rather than a warning signal of mistakes to avoid. Needless to say, that’s borderline crazy.

Heck, even President Obama has pointed out that the United States out-performs our European counterparts.

In his Washington Post column, Robert Samuelson warns that it would be a mistake to follow the European model of more taxes and additional regulation. He starts with (what should be) an obvious point about businesses responding to incentives.

We can learn from Europe about job creation, but many Americans may reject the underlying lesson. It is: If you price labor too high — pay workers more than they produce — businesses will slow or stop hiring.

He then points out that bad incentives in Europe are leading to bad results.

Europe’s economy is in the doldrums. Growth in the eurozone (the 19 countries using the euro) is weak… Eurozone unemployment is 11.1 percent, barely down from the peak of about 12 percent. This contrasts with the United States, where the jobless rate has dropped from 10 percent in October 2009 to 5.3 percent now.

And what exactly are the bad incentives in Europe?

Simply stated, governments are imposing too many burdens on the economy’s productive sector.

In a fascinating article in the latest “Journal of Economic Perspectives,” economist Christian Thimann — a former top adviser at the European Central Bank and now at the French investment bank AXA — argues that Europe’s debt crisis and the weak recovery both stem from high wage and compensation costs. “Jobs fail to be created in a number of [eurozone] countries not because of a ‘lack of demand’ as often claimed,” Thimann writes,” but mainly because wage costs are high relative to productivity, social insurance and tax burdens are heavy, and the business environment is excessively burdensome.”

Which brings us back to the point Samuelson made earlier.

If the costs of new workers exceed the likely benefits in higher sales and profits, companies will hire less or not at all.

And just in case the implications aren’t obvious, he spells it out.

…we should not ignore the implications for the United States. …it’s tempting to load the costs of social policies onto business. …The Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) requires firms to provide health insurance for workers; a $15 minimum wage would raise labor costs sharply for many firms; and there are proposals mandating paid maternity and sick leave. All these seem worthy causes, but we need to be alert to unintended consequences. If we make hiring too expensive, there will be less hiring.

Amen. As I’ve already noted, businesses aren’t charities. They won’t hire new workers if that means lower profits!

But Europe has a lot of these policies, so unemployment is higher. And we have politicians in America who want to copy Europe’s mistakes.

The problem is not just that politicians are making it more expensive to hire workers. Bad government policy also is making it more expensive to do almost anything.

The U.K.-based Telegraph has a story looking at how some European governments are making other business activities needlessly costly and difficult.

…doing business in Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain is more difficult, expensive and slower than in stronger, neighbouring countries. …Looking at the average time it takes to get construction permits, electricity connected, contracts enforced and goods exported shows the disparity.

This chart shows that the problem is especially acute in Southern Europe.

Let’s close by making a very important point about differences within Europe. While it’s sometimes useful and interesting to look at big-picture comparisons (such as average unemployment in the EU vs US or average income in the EU vs US), it’s also important to realize that European nations (notwithstanding pressures for harmonization, centralization, and bureaucratization from the European Commission) still have considerable leeway to determine their own economic policies.

And if you peruse Economic Freedom of the World, you’ll see that Northern European nations such as Finland (#10), Denmark (#19), Germany (#28), and the Netherlands (#34) are all considered market-friendly, while Southern European countries such as Spain (#51), France (#58), Italy (#79), and Greece (#84) are much lower in the rankings.

The Nordic nations are especially interesting. They have large welfare states, but they have very pro-market policies in other areas. So to elaborate on what Senator Sanders asserted, we actually could learn some good lessons from Scandinavian nations in areas other than fiscal policy.

P.S. Since we picked on Bernie Sanders already, let’s create some balance by also mocking Hillary Clinton.

Here’s a clever satirical video about her email scandal.

And if that doesn’t satisfy your craving, click here for more Hillary humor.

I’ve argued (repeatedly) that we should abolish the Department of Transportation and allow states to make decisions on how to fund and whether to fund transportation projects.

As an interim measure to control federal spending, involvement, and intervention, I’ve explained that Congress should do nothing to increase revenues into the highway trust fund.

Supporters of centralization disagree, arguing that there would be inadequate transportation funding if the federal government doesn’t have a large – and growing – role. Most of them want a higher gas tax to finance an expansion of federal transportation spending.

I’ve never thought this claim made sense. After all, how do you magically get more roads built by sending money in a leaky budget to Washington, only to then turn around and send those funds in a leaky budget back to the states? Seems to me like that’s nothing more than a unsavory recipe for an additional layer of bureaucracy and lobbying.

Well, we now have some very powerful evidence from a report in the Washington Post that states will act – at least once they conclude that “free” money from Uncle Sam won’t be as forthcoming.

While Congress remains stalled on a long-term plan for funding highways, state lawmakers and governors aren’t waiting around. Nearly one-third of the states have approved measures this year that could collectively raise billions of dollars through higher fuel taxes, vehicle fees and bonds to repair old bridges and roads and relieve traffic congestion, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. The surge of activity means at least half of the states — from coast to coast, in both Republican and Democratic areas — now have passed transportation funding measures since 2013. And the movement may not be done yet. …The widespread focus on transportation funding comes as state officials are becoming frustrated by federal inaction in helping to repair roads and bridges described as crumbling, aging and unsafe.

By the way, I have no idea if these states are making sensible decisions. Indeed, based on what was proposed (and rejected) in Michigan, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that many of these initiative contain wasteful pork-barrel projects (just like when funded from DC). And my colleague Chris Edwards has poked holes in the assertion that we’re facing an infrastructure crisis.

But who cares? The beauty of federalism is that states are free to make their own decisions so long as they’re playing with their own money.

If they waste the money and make bad choices, at least the damage will be contained. And voters presumably have some ability to change the direction of policy if repeated mistakes are made.

To get a sense of how things would work at the state level with real federalism, here are some excerpts from a column in the Tampa Tribune by Karen Jaroch, a member of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit agency.

…what if you could pay less at the pump? With passage of H.R. 2716 — the Transportation Empowerment Act — this could be possible. H.R. 2716 would devolve the responsibility for our surface transportation programs (including transit) to the states by incrementally decreasing the federal gas tax over five years from 18.3 cents to 3.7 cents per gallon. That reduction would empower the states to fund and manage it — not politicians and Washington bureaucrats. The bill was filed by Florida’s U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Ponte Vedra Beach, and cosponsored by Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, with Sen. Marco Rubio co-sponsoring the bill’s twin in the Senate.

I can understand why Florida lawmakers are especially interested in decentralization.

As you can see from this map and table, the Sunshine State is one of many that lose out because of the redistribution inherent in a centralized scheme.

The real question if why politicians in California, Texas, and Ohio aren’t also pushing for federalism.

Though it’s important to underscore that this issue shouldn’t be determined based on which states get more money or less money. It’s really about getting better decisions when states raise and spend their own money.

Particularly when compared to a very inefficient Washington-centric system, as Ms. Jaroch explains.

Well-heeled lobbyists and those in Congress who would see their power base decline are in opposition. …The feds fund roughly 30 percent of Florida’s transportation infrastructure; however, the costly regulations, red tape and strings they tack on permeate the process almost universally. As a board member of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART), I’ve witnessed the agency routinely shackled by federal handcuffs that are common when accepting federal funds. H.R. 2716 would wrest control from D.C. bureaucrats and politicians in 49 other states that have never commuted on our streets and roads and instead empower state and local agencies like HART that are better positioned to make these decisions. …A new state-led process would be controlled entirely by Floridians and would be absent the horse trading and infighting between 49 other states, two houses of Congress, a president of a different party and a myriad of federal agencies.

Last but not least, state and local governments will be far less likely to engage in boondoggle spending if they can’t shift some of the cost to Uncle Sam.

P.S. While decentralization is a good first step, the ideal end point is to have more private-sector involvement in transportation.

P.P.S. If you think the federal government’s involvement is bad now, you probably don’t even want to know about some of the ideas floating around Washington for further greedy and intrusive revenue grabs.

I’m a huge fan of the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World.

I always share the annual rankings when they’re released and I routinely cite EFW measures when writing about individual countries.

But even a wonky economist like me realizes that there is more to life than economic liberty. So I was very excited to see that Ian Vásquez of the Cato Institute and Tanja Porčnik of the Visio Institute have put together The Human Freedom Index.

Here’s their description of the Index and some of the key findings.

The Human Freedom Index… presents a broad measure of human freedom, understood as the absence of coercive constraint. It uses 76 distinct indicators of personal and economic freedom… The HFI covers 152 countries for 2012, the most recent year for which sufficient data is available. …The United States is ranked in 20th place. Other countries rank as follows: Germany (12), Chile (18), Japan (28), France (33), Singapore (43), South Africa (70), India (75), Brazil (82), Russia (111), China (132), Nigeria (139), Saudi Arabia (141), Venezuela (144), Zimbabwe (149), and Iran (152).

Hong Kong and Switzerland are the top jurisdictions.

Here’s the Freedom Index‘s top 20, including scores on both personal freedom and economic freedom.

The United States barely cracks the top 20. We rank #12 for economic freedom but only #31 for personal freedom.

It’s worth noting that overall freedom is strongly correlated with prosperity.

Countries in the top quartile of freedom enjoy a significantly higher per capita income ($30,006) than those in other quartiles; the per capita income in the least-free quartile is $2,615. The HFI finds a strong correlation between human freedom and democracy. Hong Kong is an outlier in this regard. The findings in the HFI suggest that freedom plays an important role in human well-being

And here are some notes on methodology.

The authors give equal weighting to both personal freedom and economic freedom.

One of the biggest challenges in constructing any index is the organization and weighting of the variables. Our guiding principle is that the structure should be simple and transparent. …The economic freedom index receives half the weight in the overall index, while safety and security and other personal freedoms that make up our personal freedom index receive the remaining weight.

Speaking of which, here are the top-20 nations based on personal freedom. You can also see how they scored for economic freedom and overall freedom.

To be succinct, Northern European nations dominate these rankings, with some Anglosphere jurisdictions also getting good scores.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that nations with economic freedom also tend to have personal freedom, but there are interesting exceptions.

Consider Singapore, with ranks second for economic freedom. That makes the country economically dynamic, but Singapore only ranks #75 for personal freedom.

Another anomaly is Slovenia, which is in the top 20 for personal freedom, but has a dismal ranking of #105 for economic freedom.

By the way, the only two nations in the top 10 for both economic freedom and personal freedom are Switzerland and Finland.

I’ve already explained why Switzerland is one of the world’s best (and most rational) nations. Given Finland’s high ranking, I may have to augment the nice things I write about that country, even though I’m sure it’s too cold for my reptilian temperature preferences.

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