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I’ve put forth lots of arguments against tax increases, mostly focusing on why higher tax rates will depress growth and encourage more government spending.

Today, let’s look at a practical, real-world example.

I wrote a column for The Hill looking at why Greece is a fiscal and economic train wreck. I have lots of interesting background and history in the article, including the fact that Greece got into the mess by overspending and also explaining that politicians like Merkel only got involved because they wanted to bail out their domestic banks that foolishly lent lots of money to the Greek government.

But the most newsworthy part of my column was to expose the fact that “austerity” hasn’t worked in Greece because the private sector has been suffocated by giant tax hikes.

…the troika…imposed the wrong kind of fiscal reforms. …what mostly happened is that Greek politicians dramatically increased the nation’s already punitive tax burden. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s fiscal database tells a very ugly story. …on the eve of the crisis, the tax burden in Greece totaled 38.9 percent of GDP. This year, taxes are projected to reach 52.0 percent of economic output. Every major tax in Greece has been dramatically increased, including personal income taxes, corporate income taxes, value-added taxes, and property taxes. It’s been a taxpalooza… What’s happened on the spending side of the fiscal ledger? Have there been “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts? …there have been some cuts, but the burden of government spending is still a heavy weight on the Greek economy. Outlays totaled 54.1 percent of GDP in 2009 and now government is consuming 52.2 percent of economic output.

For what it’s worth, the spending numbers would look better if the economy was stronger. In other words, Greece’s performance wouldn’t be so dismal if GDP was growing rather than shrinking.

And that’s why tax increases are so misguided. They give politicians an excuse to avoid much-needed spending cuts while also hindering growth, investment and job creation.

Let’s close by reviewing Greece’s performance according to Economic Freedom of the World. The overall score for Greece has dropped slightly since 2009, but the real story is that the nation’s fiscal score has dramatically worsened, falling from 5.61 to 4.66 on a 0-10 scale. In other words, during a period of time in which Greece was supposed to sober up and become more fiscally responsible, the politicians engaged in an orgy of tax hikes and Greece went from a failing grade for fiscal policy to a miserably failing grade.

Here’s a the relevant graph from the EFW website. As you can see, the score has been dropping for a decade, not just since 2009.

This is remarkable result. Greek politicians should have been pushing the nation’s fiscal score to at least 7 out of 10, if not 8 out of 10. Instead, the score has gone in the wrong direction because of tax increases.

Though I don’t expect Hillary and Bernie to learn the right lesson.

P.S. For more information, here’s my five-picture explanation of the Greek mess.

P.P.S. And if you want to know why I’m so dour about Greece’s future, how can you expect good policy from a nation that subsidizes pedophiles and requires stool samples to set up online companies?

P.P.P.S. Let’s close by recycling my collection of Greek-related humor.

This cartoon is quite  good, but this this one is my favorite. And the final cartoon in this post also has a Greek theme.

We also have a couple of videos. The first one features a video about…well, I’m not sure, but we’ll call it a European romantic comedy and the second one features a Greek comic pontificating about Germany.

Last but not least, here are some very un-PC maps of how various peoples – including the Greeks – view different European nations.

Back in the 1980s, I would get very agitated when folks made excuses for brutal communist regimes by asserting that the United States also did bad things. This “moral equivalence” argument is now being recycled by Donald Trump, who basically excuses Putin’s brutality because America supposedly isn’t in any position to throw stones.

Here’s the interview, set to start at the point where Trump discusses Putin.

This is wrong. Absurdly wrong.

Though let’s start by acknowledging that the United States is far from perfect. Our history includes black eyes such as slavery, mistreatment of native populations, incomplete legal rights for women, internment of Japanese-Americans, Jim Crow laws, persecution of gays, and other sins.

Even today, we have plenty of bad policies that restrict human liberty, often exacerbated by examples of thuggish actions by government.

But, at the risk of sounding jingoistic and patriotic, the United States began with a wonderful set of ideals and our history largely reflects a struggle to extend those ideals to the entire population.

Now let’s look at Putin.

When I tweeted my column about Russia’s flat tax two days ago, I screwed up by making a joke about the Trump-Putin “bro-mance.” I got savaged on Twitter by people who accused me of somehow endorsing (or at least accepting) the many repressive policies that exist in Russia.

The silver lining to Trump’s disturbing interview is that it gives me an opportunity to make clear my disapproval of both Putin and the silly doctrine of moral equivalence.

With regards to Russia’s president, do we have any reason to believe that he is motivated by the principles of classical liberalism? Does anyone think he wants to make Russia a free society? That he respects human rights and the rule of law?

Heck, even Trump didn’t dispute the premise that he’s a killer.

Moreover, how can anyone believe in moral equivalence when there’s a huge gap between the United States and Russia on measures of liberty.

Consider, for instance, the Human Freedom Index. As you can see, the United States is far from perfect. We’re ranked #23 for overall freedom, #28 for personal freedom, and #16 for economic freedom.

But we look good compared to Russia, which is #115 for overall freedom, #110 for personal freedom, and #102 for economic freedom.

And the Freedom House rankings show an equally dramatic difference.

The United States has a score of 90 on a 0-100 scale, with the highest rating for political rights and civil liberties.

Russia, by contrast, only has a score of 22 and gets the next-to-last rating for political rights and civil liberties.

To conclude, some folks sometimes say the continuing imperfections in the United States mean that there’s only a “difference in degree” between us and Russia.

My response is that if the “difference in degree” is large, then you also have a “difference in kind.”

There is no moral equivalence.

P.S. On a separate topic, you won’t be surprised by this report from the Washington Times.

More than half of IRS employees found to have intentionally cheated on their taxes last year were allowed to keep their jobs, according to numbers released by the inspector general that suggest the agency is still reluctant to punish its own staffers for breaking tax laws.

Yet another example of hypocrisy in government. I’ve noted the IRS has thieving employees, incompetent employees, thuggish employees, brainless employees, protectionist employees, wasteful employees, and victimizing employees. Now it has slapped-on-the-hand employees.

Trump Humor

Donald Trump should be an easy target for political humorists, but I’ve mostly been disappointed in the quality of the anti-Trump satire.

That may be because comedians think he’s a raging conservative, so their jokes based on that theme strike someone like me (who fears Trump is a big-government populist) as senseless.

After all, clever humor should take something true and then mock it by taking it to an absurd extreme. Indeed, this is why I can appreciate even anti-libertarian humor if it’s well done.

Fortunately, we have foreigners who are willing to do the job that American humorists won’t do. Beginning with the Netherlands (from what I can tell), some clever people in other nations have produced videos “welcoming” Trump.

Here’s the Dutch version.

The Danes also got into the game.

And since I’m a big fan of Switzerland, I obviously can’t resist sharing the Swiss version.

And the German contribution links Trump to the former head of the National Socialist Workers Party.

Last but not least, the Belgians get into the act.

By the way, there are many other examples for anyone who wants to kill some time seeing how other nations introduce themselves to Trump. Just do a search on YouTube.

Meanwhile, we presumably remember how the Obama Administration wanted to seize our guns. In the same spirit, the Onion has an amusing look at how the Trump Administration wants to take away our facts.

Alarmed at the prospect of unconstitutional overreach by the Trump administration, millions of fearful Americans have already begun stockpiling facts before the federal government comes to take them away, sources confirmed Friday. “I know my rights as an American, so you’d better believe I’m getting my hands on as many facts as possible and keeping them somewhere safe where this First Amendment–hating president of ours can’t snatch them all up,” said Pittsburgh resident David Edelman, 38, adding that he was worried that President Trump planned to not only suspend production of facts, but also seize existing ones, leaving Americans and their families completely defenseless. …A spokesperson for the Trump administration dismissed such fears, saying that the president merely wanted to keep facts away from certain dangerous people.

The videos and the article from the Onion are good additions to my sparse collection of Trump humor. Previous examples can be seen here, here, here, here, and here.

February 5 Addendum: For my left-wing friends and others who are bending over backwards to misread this column, saying nice things about Russia’s flat tax doesn’t mean (as noted below) that Russia’s overall economic policy is admirable. And it obviously doesn’t imply anything favorable about Russia’s dismal political system or Putin himself. I like the Russia flat tax for the same reason that I like trade liberalization in China and Social Security reform in Chile. Every so often, bad governments stumble upon a good policy and I think that’s laudable because I want people to have better lives. Sadly, I don’t think the Putin-Trump “bromance” will lead to a flat tax in the US, but that would be an unexpected and nice silver lining to that dark cloud.

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I’m obviously a big fan of a simple and fair flat tax.

In part, my support for fundamental reform is driven by my desire for a low rate, for no double taxation, and for the elimination of loopholes. Those are the economic reasons for reform.

But I also am very much motivated by the moral case for tax reform. It offends me that we have 70,000-plus pages of special favors for the friends and contributors of politicians. I value the rule of law, so I want everyone in America to play by the same rules.

And I confess that I’m jealous that other nations have adopted this common-sense reform while we’re still stuck with a punitive and unfair internal revenue code.

But the silver lining to this dark cloud is that we can learn from the experiences of other nations.

A recent report looks at what’s happened in Russia following the introduction of the flat tax.

On December 23, 2016, in his annual end-of-year press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that despite his “many doubts” at the initial stage of introducing a flat 13-percent personal income tax in 2001, tax reform in Russia has been a major success. …Putin claimed that in 2001, when the tax reform was introduced, he was “concerned that the budget would lose revenue, because those who earn more would have to pay less.” He said he was also concerned “whether social justice would be ensured and so on.” However, as the reform gained traction, “personal-income tax collection has increased – pay attention – seven times,” Putin said. …Daniel Mitchell, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, told Polygraph.info that two factors contributed to a significant increase in personal income tax revenue: “the low rate made tax evasion and avoidance much less attractive, and increased incentives to earn income.”

I appreciated the chance to talk to the reporter and get quoted in the story, but I am naturally suspicious about the claims of government officials. So I wondered about Putin’s claim about a seven-fold increase in income tax receipts.

I know there were good results in the first few years after reform. I authored a study for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity last decade, and there was data at the time showing an impressive increase in revenues from the personal income tax. That data certainly bolstered the argument for tax reform.

But we now have almost another full decade of data. Has the Russian flat tax continued to produce good results? Is the low tax rate continuing to encourage both the earning of income and reporting of income?

To answer these questions, I had my intern cull through various IMF Article IV consultation reports on Russia to get up-to-date data on personal income tax receipts in Russia. And what did I learn? Was Putin wrong?

Yes, Putin’s claim of a seven-fold increase in tax receipts was completely misleading. There was actually a 10-fold jump in personal income tax revenue.

In other words, the flat tax is a success. In today’s Washington, you would say the Russian government is winning bigly.

But there are caveats.

  • Russia has experienced significant inflation, at least compared to the United States. So if you factor out increases in the price level, personal income tax revenues are “only” about three times higher today than they were before the flat tax was implemented.
  • Moreover, a flat tax is not a panacea. Notwithstanding the good results it has delivered, Russia has an unimpressive ranking of #102 from Economic Freedom of the World. In other words, there’s still a long way to go if Russia wants to become a rich nation.

But these caveats don’t change the main conclusion, which is that the Russian flat tax works. Just as it works in Hong Kong. And just as it works in Jersey. It works wherever it is tried.

Let’s look at another example. Writing for Forbes, Fahim Mostafa explains that the Hungarian flat tax also has been a big success.

A fair number of Eastern European nations have…chosen this system of taxation over its progressive counterpart. Among the latest to join this club is Hungary, replacing progressive rates from 17% to 32% with a flat tax of 16% on income effective from 2012 onward… There is reason to believe that the implementation of this system has largely benefited the Eastern European nation. …The results from the following years have been remarkable. Total government revenue in 2015 (the last year for which OECD data is available at this time) stood at 23.8% higher than the maximum prior to the flat tax reform… According to the OECD, public debt in Hungary has been decreasing steadily since 2011. Increased revenues allow for this debt to be paid. …The flat tax has boosted consumption in Hungary, greatly increasing taxes collected from sales. Total tax revenue has shot up despite the massive cuts made to income tax. Politicians seeking to implement this policy in their own nation would do well to point out the example of Hungary.

I’ll add two comments.

First, the same caveats I applied to Russia apply to Hungary. The country is ranked #57 from Economic Freedom of the World, so it’s great that there’s a successful flat tax, but a lot more reform is needed for Hungary to become a role model for overall market-friendly reform.

Second, the author should probably make a change to the column. Instead of writing that “tax revenue has shot up despite the massive cuts,” it might be more accurate to write that “tax revenue has shot up because of the massive cuts.”

Yes, every so often you can find examples of nations being on the downward-sloping portion of the Laffer Curve, either because tax rates are ridiculously high (the U.S. before Reagan) or because a nation is developing or transitioning and needs low tax burdens to boost growth and encourage compliance.

It’s never my goal to boost revenue for governments, of course, but there’s surely a lesson to be learned about the benefits of low tax rates when both taxpayers and the government wind up with more money.

P.S. If we really want to learn from other places about the ideal tax system, we should check out Bermuda, Monaco, and the Cayman Islands.

I’m glad that Donald Trump wants faster growth. The American people shouldn’t have to settle for the kind of anemic economic performance that the nation endured during the Obama years.

But does he understand the right recipe for prosperity?

That’s an open question. At times, Trump makes Obama-style arguments about the Keynesian elixir of government infrastructure spending. But at other times, he talks about lowering taxes and reducing the burden of red tape.

I don’t know what’s he’s ultimately going to decide, but, as the late Yogi Berra might say, the debate over “stimulus” is deja vu all over again. Supporters of Keynesianism (a.k.a., the economic version of a perpetual motion machine) want us to believe that government can make the country more prosperous with a borrow-and-spend agenda.

At the risk of understatement, I disagree with that free-lunch ideology. And I discussed this issue in a recent France24 appearance. I was on via satellite, so there was an awkward delay in my responses, but I hopefully made clear that real stimulus is generated by policies that make government smaller and unleash the private sector.

If you want background data on labor-force participation and younger workers, click here. And if you want more information about unions and public policy, click here.

For today, though, I want to focus on Keynesian economics and the best way to “stimulate” growth.

The question I always ask my Keynesian friends is to provide a success story. I don’t even ask for a bunch of good examples (like I provide when explaining how spending restraint yields good results). All I ask is that they show one nation, anywhere in the world, at any point in history, where the borrow-and-spend approach produced a good economy.

Simply stated, there are success stories. And the reason they don’t exist is because Keynesian economics doesn’t work.

Though the Keynesians invariably respond with the rather lame argument that their spending schemes mitigated bad outcomes. And they even assert that good outcomes would have been achieved if only there was even more spending.

All this is based, by the way, on Keynesian models that are designed to show that more spending generates growth. I’m not joking. That’s literally their idea of evidence.

Since you’re probably laughing after reading that, let’s close with a bit of explicit Keynesian-themed humor.

I’ve always thought this Scott Stantis cartoon best captures why Keynesian economics is misguided. Simply stated, it’s silly to think that the private sector is going to perform better if politicians are increasing the burden of government spending.

But I’m also amused by cartoons that expose the fact that Keynesian economics is based on the notion that you can become richer by redistributing money within an economy. Sort of like taking money out of your right pocket and putting it in your left pocket and thinking that you now have more money.

Expanding on this theme, here’s a new addition for our collection of Keynesian humor. It’s courtesy of Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek, and it shows the Keynesian plan to charge the economy (pun intended). You don’t need to know a lot about electricity to realize this isn’t a very practical approach.

Is this an unfair jab? Maybe, but don’t forget that Keynesians are the folks who think it’s good for growth to pay people to dig holes and then pay them to fill the holes. Or, in Krugman’s case, to hope for alien attacks. No wonder it’s so easy to mock them.

P.S. If you want to learn more about Keynesian economics, the video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity is a good place to start.

P.P.S. And if you like Keynesian videos, here’s the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally entertaining sequel, which features a boxing match between Keynes and Hayek. And even though it’s no longer the right time of year, here’s the satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols.

House Republicans, as part of a generally laudable tax reform plan, want to replace the corporate income tax with a “destination-based cash-flow tax.”

I’ve addressed that topic a couple of times.

  • Left-leaning advocates like “destination-based” tax systems such as the DBCFT because such systems undermine tax competition and give politicians more ability to increase tax rates.
  • The “border adjustability” in the plan is contrary to the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and there’s a significant risk that politicians might try to “fix” the plan by turning it into a value-added tax.
  • In theory, the import tax in the DBCFT is not necessarily protectionist, but the machinations of to justify that assertion, combined with the conflict it creates in the business community, undermine the consensus for reform.

I had a chance to speak about the DBCFT to a gathering put on by the Washington International Trade Association. I hit on all my main reasons for being worried about the border adjustable provisions.

For those who want additional information, I was preceded on the panel by Gordon Gray of the American Action Forum and followed by John Veroneau of Covington and Burling (and formerly with the Office of U.S. Trade Representative). You can watch the entire event by clicking here.

Regarding my remarks, I think the most relevant thing I said was when I shared new data from the Congressional Budget Office and pointed out that we can simultaneously balance the budget within 10 years and have a $3 trillion tax cut if politicians simply exercise a modest bit of spending restraint and limit annual budget increases to 1.96 per year.

And the most important thing that I said was when I warned that proponents of good policy should never do anything that might create the conditions for a value-added tax in the United States. Some people say the most important rule to remember is to never feed gremlins after midnight, but I think it’s even more important not to give politicians a new source of revenue.

Unless, of course, you want bigger government and more red ink.

In 2016, there were three very worthy candidates for the highly coveted Politician of the Year Award.

  • In May, I gave the prize to Rodrigo Duterte, the newly elected president of the Philippines, because he assured voters that none of his mistresses were on the public payroll. Gee, what a swell guy!
  • In July, I had to reopen the balloting since it was revealed that the follicly-challenged President of France, Francois Hollande, was squandering more than $100,000 per year on a hair stylist.
  • And that same month, the Prime Minister of Malaysia became a strong contestant when it was revealed that hundreds of millions of dollars were mysteriously diverted from the government’s cronyist investment fund.

Well, we now have an early contestant for the 2017 prize.  And it’s going to be a group award. Romania’s Social Democrats have just voted to legalize abuse of power. I’m not joking, Here are some excerpts from a report by the EU Observer.

Romania’s left-wing government scrapped some anti-corruption rules, in a move likely to allow leading politicians to avoid criminal persecution. The cabinet of social democrat Sorin Grindeanu…passed an emergency measure to decriminalise some offences. Abuse of power will no longer be prosecuted if it is deemed to have caused financial damage of less than €44,000. …Changes will enter into force within 10 days, without need for approval by the parliament.

Wow. This is so absurd that I wonder whether there’s more to the story.

For instance, I wrote two years ago about the nation of Georgia getting rid of an entire division of the national police force, which sounds like a move to enable crime. But there was a story behind the story. It turns out that lawmakers in Tbilisi got rid of highway cops because the force was pervasively corrupt, basically doing nothing other than extorting money from motorists. So eliminating the force was actually an anti-corruption step.

In the case of Romania, though, I haven’t found any sign of mitigating circumstances. It appears that politicians simply want get-out-of-jail-free cards.

For what it’s worth, many Romanians are not happy that their politicians have made stealing legal.

Some 10,000 people gathered outside the government’s headquarters, calling the government “thieves” and “traitors” and imploring the cabinet to resign. …critics say the measure will clear several leading politicians who are under investigation or on trial in abuse-of-power cases. …Romania’s centre-right president Klaus Iohannis said he would refuse to swear in anyone with a criminal record. On Tuesday, Iohannis announced “a day of mourning for the rule of law”. “The government ignored the dream of millions of Romanians who want live in a country free of corruption,” he posted on Facebook. Laura Codruta Kovesi, the chief prosecutor at Romania’s National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), said she had only seen a draft of the bill, but its contents would render the fight against corruption in Romania “irrelevant”.

By the way, political corruption appears to be a non-trivial problem.

According to Transparency International, Romania is ranked #57 in the Corruption Perceptions Index, which is the weakest score of any EU nation other than Italy, Greece, and Bulgaria.

But let’s close with some good news. I’ve written (over and over and over again) that big government facilitates corruption. Simply stated, politicians in places like Romania (or the United States!) wouldn’t have favors to sell if the government didn’t have favors to dispense.

So if you want less corruption, shrink the size of the public sector.

And Romania is moving in the right direction. After decades of horrific communist tyranny, it became a transition economy when the Soviet Union collapsed. Ever since, like many other countries in the region, Romania has been trying to shed the shackles of statism so that a market economy can function.

There’s been some success. Romania is one of the many flat tax nations in Eastern Europe. And it ranks #22 in Economic Freedom of the World, which is rather impressive (though it only ranks #61 for the size-of-government category, so there’s obviously room for improvement).

The continuing challenge, not only in Romania, but all over the world, is convincing politicians to reduce the size and scope of government when that means they’ll have less opportunity to line their own pockets. Sort of like asking foxes to guard henhouses.

And it’s not just the fault of politicians. What can really sabotage a nation is when a sufficiently large share of the overall population decides that it’s morally acceptable to loot and mooch. In that case, politicians are simply a reflection of societal rot.

It’s much easier to restore physical capital than it is to restore cultural capital.

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