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In my presentations about how to deal with budgetary deterioration and fiscal crisis, I often share with audiences a list of nations that have achieved very positive results with spending restraint.

The middle column shows how these countries limited the growth of government spending for multi-year periods.

The next column of numbers reveals how multi-year spending restraint leads to significant reductions in the amount of economic output that is diverted to the government.

And when you address the underlying problem of excessive government spending, you automatically ameliorate the symptom of red ink, as shown in the final column of numbers.

At this point, I usually ask the audience whether they’ve ever seen a similar table that purports to show nations that have obtained similarly good results with tax increases.

The answer is no, of course, though it’s not really a fair question to people who don’t study fiscal policy.

More important, I ask the same question when I have debates with my statist friends from left-wing organizations. They generally try to change the subject. Some of them bluster about “fairness.” And a few of them think Sweden is an acceptable answer until I point out that it became rich when government was small but began to lose ground once a large welfare state was imposed beginning in the 1960s (as explained in this video).

But Sweden wouldn’t be a good answer even if its economy hadn’t slowed down. That’s because the question is how to climb out of a fiscal hole. In which case Sweden actually provides evidence for my position!

To understand why tax increases aren’t the right way to deal with a fiscal mess, let’s look at Greece. From the moment the crisis began, Greek politicians started raising taxes. And they haven’t stopped, with many of the tax hikes being cheered by international bureaucracies.

This is a never-ending story.

With new chapters being written all the time. Here’s a report from Reuters on the latest “reform” package from Greece. As you might suspect, it’s basically a bunch of tax hikes. Here’s what the politicians approved on social insurance taxes.

Sets social security contributions at 20 percent of employees’ net monthly income – with 13.3 percent burdening employers and 6.7 percent employees. Reforms the social security contribution base from notional to actual incomes for the self-employed, including farmers and lawyers, forcing them to make a contribution to pension funds which is phased in over a five-year period to 20 percent of their income.

There are also income tax increases.

Lowers the income tax-free threshold, or personal allowance, to an average of around 8,800 euros a year from around 9,500; makes income bands narrower, increases tax coefficients. Lowest tax band is now 22 percent on a gross income of 20,000 a year compared to 22 percent for 25,000 euros which existed previously. The upper tax band, of 45 percent, is now imposed on gross incomes exceeding 40,000 as opposed to 42 percent on income above 42,000 under the previous arrangement. Includes EU farming subsidies on taxable income.

And there are further income tax hikes as part of the “solidarity” levy, which is basically another income tax.

Solidarity Levy…on net incomes ranges from the lowest 2.2 percent on incomes from 12,000 to 20,000 a year, to 5.0 percent up to 30,000, and 6.5 percent up to 40,000. The highest band is 10 percent on incomes above 220,000. By comparison, the highest band in that category was 8.0 percent before the new reform was pushed through, on earnings exceeding half a million euros.

And there also will be more double taxation.

Dividends Tax: Increases to 15 percent from 10 percent.

You would think this big package of tax hikes might satisfy the crowd in Athens for a year or two.

But that would be a very bad assumption. Amazingly, the politicians in Greece already are looking for additional victims, as reported by ABC News.

Already, a new bill is being prepared, calling for higher taxes on a range of products, from tobacco to beer to broadband Internet connections. This bill is expected to pass later in the month.

And they’re not exactly apologetic about their tax-aholic actions.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his ministers defended their plans, saying…that taxes were better than spending cuts. …Labor Minister George Katrougalos, who introduced the bill, said that…the bill’s provisions showed the way forward for social policy in a Europe dominated by pro-market “neoliberals.”

Sadly, Mr. Katrougalos may be correct. I won’t be surprised if the rest of Europe follows Greece off the cliff.

Though he’s smoking crack if he thinks the rest of the continent is dominated by neoliberals (i.e., classical liberals or libertarians).

Not that we’ve established that Greece has been trying to solve its fiscal mess with tax hikes, let’s look at the results.

Has debt been reduced? Hardly, though to be fair it seems to have stabilized.

In any event, we haven’t seen the big reductions in debt that are associated with spending restraint

And what about the economy? Here, the news is uniformly grim, doubtlessly in large part because of all the tax hikes.

It’s rather ironic this chart is based on periodic IMF forecasts since that bureaucracy is infamous for advocating endless tax hikes.

One wonders if the IMF bureaucrats will eventually learn some lessons?

I’m not holding my breath, just like I’m not optimistic that Greek politicians will address the real problem in their country of excessive dependency caused by a bloated public sector.

But maybe the rest of us (other than Hillary and Bernie) can learn what not to do.

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. To offset the grim message of today’s column, let’s close with 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.

According to Economic Freedom of the World, there are five major factors that determine a nation’s economic performance.

Here’s the recipe for growth and prosperity.

  • Rule of law and property rights.
  • Small government.
  • Stable monetary policy.
  • Reasonable regulatory policy.
  • Free trade.

This great publication is the first thing I check when I want to see whether a country leans in the direction of markets or whether it is burdened by a lot of statism. And it allows for meaningful comparisons between nations since it relies on global data sources.

But not all economic variables have good data sources that allow apples-to-apples comparisons. It’s very difficult to measure the degree to which various governments interfere with the price system by imposing controls (either minimum or maximum price limits).

Identifying the degree of cronyism in an economy also is a challenge since there are not reliable numbers for the degree to which politicians in various nations provide favors for particular firms or sectors.

So I was very interested when I saw that the Economist has put together a ranking that shows the degree to which a nation’s billionaires either earn their wealth via markets or cheat their way to wealth via cronyism.

It obviously doesn’t cover nearly as many nations as Economic Freedom of the World, but perhaps the folks at the Economist have come up with a methodology that eventually will allow a specific measure of cronyism in the future.

The article explains how the rankings were derived.

…for the past 20 years, from Malaysia to Mexico, crony capitalists—individuals who earn their riches thanks to their chumminess with government—have had a golden era. Worldwide, the worth of billionaires in crony industries soared by 385% between 2004 and 2014, to $2 trillion. The Economist’s crony-capitalism index tries to measure the extent of this graft for a number of important countries. Industries that have a lot of interaction with the state are vulnerable to crony capitalism (a full list of industries is provided in the table below). These activities are often legal but always unfair (Donald Trump, a casino and property tycoon, earns the 104th spot in our individual crony ranking). …Germany is cleanest, where just a sliver of the country’s billionaires derives their wealth from crony sectors. Russia fares worst in our index: wealth from the country’s crony sectors amounts to 18% of its GDP.

I’m glad to have these new numbers, but I’m not completely sold on the methodology used by the Economist.

Is all banking and finance really cronyism? That seems a bit of a stretch. While there are some indications that Warren Buffett is now a cronyist, I’m not aware of any evidence suggesting he used government connections to become rich in the first place.

And what about energy and chemicals? That description may apply to some rich people in the U.S. and elsewhere, but there are plenty of examples (the Koch brothers) of billionaires in this sector that have earned their wealth.

And speaking of wealth, why did the article compare wealth (which is a stock) and GDP (which is a flow)? I realize the Economist needed some sort of benchmark, but they chose an approach that has dubious methodological value.

All that being said, I suspect that the countries near the top of that list have a genuine problem with cronyism and the ones near the bottom do a better job of letting market forces operate.

So congratulations to Germany and South Korea and boos for Russia and Malaysia.

And a bit of applause for the United States. We have some egregious forms of cronyism that benefit the undeserving rich, but most American billionaires apparently earn their money.

Now let’s zoom out and look at the historical case against cronyism with this superb video from Prager University.

The bottom line is that scams like Solyndra are the modern version of what many railroads did in the 1800s.

I didn’t realize, though, that Uncle Sam also squandered money trying to invent the airplane.

P.S. You can enjoy other great videos from Prager University by clicking here, here, here, here, here, and here.

From an economic perspective, too much government spending is harmful to economic performance because politicians and bureaucrats don’t have very good incentives to spend money wisely.

More specifically, labor and capital will be misallocated because people in government generally are guided by political motivations.

By contrast, there’s a bottom-line incentive in the private sector to use resources wisely. This generates the most prosperity for society because the only way to earn income in a free market is to produce goods and services that other people value.

That’s sort of a macro perspective.

From a micro perspective, when government allocates money, you can only make yourself better off by taking from others. In a market economy, you make yourself better off by serving others.

In other words,enlightened self interest (you can even call it “greed” if you prefer) is channeled productively in a free market system, as Adam Smith observed several hundred years ago.

Now let’s look at a visual perspective, as illustrated by this image I saw on Reddit‘s libertarian page.

Whoever put this together was quite clever to highlight the fact that people in the private sector generally buy in the top-left quadrant while people in government generally buy in the bottom-right quadrant.

And if you want to see the late Milton Friedman discuss this concept, here’s a video for your viewing pleasure.

I’ll simply add a few observations. One of the reasons I often compare market-oriented nations and government-oriented nations is to highlight how countries are more likely to become prosperous when most resources are allocated by private decisions rather than political decisions.

In other words, South Korea out-performs North Korea because its economy is largely driven by decisions in quadrant 1.

Just like Chile out-performs Argentina and Argentina out-performs Venezuela for the same reason.

P.S. This video on profit, narrated by Walter Williams, is a good addition to the insight of Smith and Friedman.

I wrote last month about Secretary of State John Kerry being a giant hypocrite because he’s been a critic of so-called tax havens, yet he and his family benefits immensely from investments in various low-tax jurisdictions.

But perhaps that’s something that Obama requires when selecting people for that position. It turns out that Kerry’s predecessor also utilized tax havens.

Earlier this year, the New York Post editorialized about Hillary Clinton’s attack against tax havens, which they found to be absurd since the Clinton family benefits significantly from places such as the Cayman Islands.

Hillary Clinton last week lunged into her most flagrant fit of hypocrisy yet. …she took new aim at the rich — including their use of tax dodges. She told MSNBC: “We can go after some of these schemes … the kind of…routing income through the Bahamas or the Cayman Islands or wherever.” Huh. …the Clintons’ family wealth has grown big-time thanks to firms with significant holdings in places like . . . the Caymans. As The Daily Caller notes, Bill Clinton spent years as a partner in his (now-ex-) buddy Ron Burkle’s investment fund Yucaipa Global — registered in the Cayman Islands. …It’s a family thing: Chelsea Clinton’s hubby, Marc Mezvinsky, is a partner in a hedge fund with multiple holdings incorporated in the Cayman Islands.

This isn’t to criticize Cayman, by the way. It’s one of the best jurisdictions in the world if you want high levels of honest governance and very sensible tax and regulatory policies.

But shouldn’t politicians practice what they preach? So why aren’t Kerry and Clinton instead investing in France or Greece to show their support for high tax burdens?

By the way, the editorial also cited the Clinton family’s house, which is owned by a trust to help dodge the death tax, something that I also called attention to back in 2014.

Let’s shift from taxes to the environment. Writing for Real Clear Politics, Ed Conard takes aim at the moral preening of Leonardo DiCaprio.

Time Magazine released its list of the top 100 Most Influential People and placed Leonardo DiCaprio on the cover of its magazine for the personal example he sets on climate change. How Ironic! …According to the leaked Sony documents for example, DiCaprio took six private roundtrip flights from Los Angeles to New York over a 6-week period and, a private jet to the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland. Pictures of him vacationing on big yachts… What hypocrisy! He enjoys the very luxuries that he admonishes others not to indulge.

Oh, wait, he buys carbon offsets, the modern version of purchasing an indulgence.

But Mr. Conard is not very impressed by that bit of moral preening.

So who really paid for DiCaprio’s grossly polluting ways? The rest of the world of course, not DiCaprio. …A person’s consumption is their true cost to the rest of society, not their income, nor their unspent wealth. Does the tax DiCaprio imposes on himself for polluting the world reduce his polluting consumption? Hardly! In fact, it encourages more of it. …DiCaprio, and others like him, buy carbon offsets to sooth their guilt—guilt they never needed to incur in the first place. …they sooth their guilt by voting to spend someone else’s income helping others. They think they have done a good deed when they have really done nothing at all.

I’m not sure I agree that carbon is pollution, and I also don’t like referring to consumption as a cost, but he’s right on the money about DiCaprio being a fraud or a phony (something that Michelle Fields exposed in a recent interview).

Let’s now shift back to taxes.

When I was in Montreal last year for a conference on tax competition, one of the highlights was hearing Governor Sam Brownback talk about his pro-growth tax policy. My least favorite part of the conference, by contrast, was hearing Margaret Hodge, a politician from the United Kingdom, pontificate about the evils of tax avoidance.

And the reason that was such an unpleasant experience is that she’s a glaring hypocrite. Here are some excerpts from a report published by the International Business Times.

Labour’s Margaret Hodge was, according to The Times, among the beneficiaries in 2011 of the winding-up of a Liechtenstein trust that held shares in the private steel-trading business set up by her father. The Times reports that just under 96,000 Stemcor shares handed to Hodge in 2011 came from the tiny principality, which is renowned for low tax rates. Three quarters of the shares in the family’s Liechtenstein trust had previously been held in Panama, which Ms Hodge described last month as “one of the most secretive jurisdictions” with “the least protection anywhere in the world against money laundering”.

Let’s close by identifying one more hypocritical “champagne socialist” from the United Kingdom, as reported by the U.K.-based Telegraph.

Dame Vivienne is now accused of hypocrisy over tax avoidance allegations that put her in direct conflict with one of the Green Party’s main policies. The most recent company accounts show Dame Vivienne’s main UK business is paying £2 million a year to an offshore company set up in Luxembourg for the right to use her name on her own fashion label. Tax experts have described the arrangement as “tax avoidance” that cheats the UK Treasury out of about £500,000 a year. The model is similar to one used by Starbucks, the coffee chain, which found itself at the centre of a protest over its use of Luxembourg to reduce its tax bill in the UK. …One City accountant, who studied the accounts of Vivienne Westwood Ltd, said: “This has to be tax avoidance. Why else would you make these payments to a company in Luxembourg? It makes the Green Party hypocrites for taking her money and Westwood a hypocrite for backing a party with policies she does not appear to endorse.”

So we can add Ms. Hodge and Ms. Vivienne to the list of American leftists who also utilize tax havens to minimize their tax burdens.

And all of the people above, as well as those above, will be charter members of the Statist Hall of Fame whenever I get around to setting up that page.

And there are a lot more that deserve to be mocked for their statist hypocrisy.

I wrote yesterday about the Obama Administration’s head-in-the-sand approach regarding the anti-competitive nature of America’s corporate tax system (though maybe fiddling while Rome burns is a better metaphor).

Fortunately, some nations have more sensible policy makers. Even in Europe, which might come as a surprise to the pair of class warriors battling for the Democratic nomination.

Consider, for instance, what’s happening in Norway.

Norway will cut the corporate income tax rate to 23 percent from the current 27 percent by 2018…the country’s political parties announced on Wednesday. The basic personal tax rate will also be cut to 23 percent from 27 percent. …As part of the deal, further reductions in the company tax rate will be considered in the future. The compromise included…a small cut in Norway’s wealth tax.

What’s most remarkable about this story from Scandinavia is not that there’s a tax cut, though that surely would be a shock to Bernie Sanders’s mythological view of the Nordic nations.

I think it’s even more noteworthy that Norway already has a far lower corporate tax rate than the United States, yet the government is implementing a further reduction.

And Croatia also is poised to move policy in the right direction.

The reports from government circles that, as part of the tax reform, it could abolish the highest income tax rate of 40 percent have been welcomed by many observers. …“We support such a move. Croatia has a huge ‘brain drain’ of highly educated people, and they fall into the category of those whose salaries are covered by the 40 percent tax rate. Therefore, this decision would contribute to such people remaining in Croatia”, said Bernard Jakelić, the deputy director of the Croatian Employers’ Association. …Former Finance Minister Boris Lalovac (SDP) agreed that the abolition of the tax bracket would be a step in the right direction. …“Croatia is the only country in the region which has such a high rate of income tax. None of the countries in the region have income tax rates higher than 25 percent, and many countries have a flat tax. Its abolition would simplify the tax system and contribute to the reduction of the shadow economy. After all, the taxation of income at a rate of 25 percent is enough”, said Lalovac.

I especially like that the former finance minister makes both an argument based on tax competition and an argument based on the moral principle that there should be a limit on how much government should tax.

Maybe GOPer some day will be smart enough to include a moral component when seeking better tax policy. Especially if they learn that it’s politically persuasive.

So where can voters find a candidate who might implement such reforms in the United State?

Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post suggests that there is a “fiscally conservative” option already available.

Suppose you’re a hardcore fiscal conservative. …All you care about is getting the nation’s fiscal house in order. …the candidate you should vote for might surprise you. …the most fiscally conservative presidential contender left standing is…

Drum roll, please.

…Hillary Clinton.

No, it isn’t April Fool’s Day.

Ms. Rampell wants us to believe that Hillary Clinton is fiscally conservative because her agenda of much bigger government is matched by proposals for much higher taxes.

I’m not joking. Here’s what Rampell wrote.

Here’s the bottom line for the nation’s bottom line: Clinton’s spending increases and other proposals that cost money have a total price tag of about $1.8 trillion over the next decade. But her offsets, which come mostly from tax hikes, would save an estimated $1.9 trillion over that same period… Maybe when (if) voters start to notice this, Clinton will finally receive the praise she’s been due, from arithmetic fans and fiscal conservatives alike.

I suppose this is the point where I should explain that good fiscal policy is defined by a modest-sized government and a tax code that is designed to raise revenue in a relatively non-destructive fashion, not by whether lots of wasteful spending is okay if accompanied by lots of destructive tax hikes (i.e., a fixation on fiscal balance).

But I’ve made that point many times before, so instead I’ll merely observe that Ms. Rampell is either shockingly uninformed or (more likely) she thinks that she has some really stupid right-leaning readers who can be easily tricked into voting for Clinton.

And since we’re focusing on Mrs. Clinton’s ideological bona fides, ask yourself whether Ira Stoll of the New York Sun was describing a “fiscally conservative” candidate last December.

Call it Hillary’s Reichsfluchtsteuer. The former secretary of state and senator from New York, Hillary Clinton, reportedly will announce on Wednesday plans to impose an “exit tax” on companies that move their headquarters out of America or merge with foreign firms to escape America’s unreasonably high corporate taxes. …the Reichsfluchtsteuer, or Reich flight tax, was a 25% levy imposed originally…by the pre-Hitler, centrist government of Heinrich Brüning… Not exactly something to try to emulate. …As I pointed out back in 2012, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a product of the United Nations, says, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own” and “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.” …it is unjust to force people or companies to stay where they do not want to be. …In 1963, at the Berlin Wall, President Kennedy said,Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.” Hillary Clinton’s exit tax would do exactly what Kennedy said we’ve never had to do: set up a virtual wall, in the form of a tax, to prevent companies from leaving America.

There’s something rather odious about a politician who wants to extort money from taxpayers as a price for re-domiciling. As a general rule, only very evil regimes levy such taxes.

Speaking of unsavory regimes, let’s play a fill-in-the-blank game. Here’s the first sentence from a recent Associated Press story.

___________ is looking to increase revenue from taxation.

Is the answer Hillary Clinton? That’s a good answer, but not correct in this case. What about Bernie Sanders of Barack Obama? Once again, smart guesses but not accurate for this story.

Give up? Well, here’s your answer.

The Islamic State extremist group is looking to increase revenue from taxation.

I share this item because this it reminded me of the time I gave a speech about reforming the welfare state and a leftist in the audience basically accused me of being a racist because the KKK also didn’t like the welfare state. The fact that I urged reform in part because poor people are hurt by such programs apparently didn’t matter to my accuser.

That being said, if we accept his logic, I guess this means we can accuse Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Barack Obama of being in favor of Islamic terrorism because they share a goal with the Islamic State crazies.

Sigh. Needless to say, Hillary isn’t a radical Islamist. Just like Obama isn’t a communist simply because he was endorsed last election by the former head of the U.S. Communist Party.

I just wish folks on the left were equally prudent about avoiding absurd guilt-by-association charges.

P.S. Bruce Bartlett also claimed (presumably for the same disingenuous reason) that Obama is a conservative because of his proposed tax hikes, so Ms. Rampell is not alone.

Imagine if you had the chance to play basketball against a superstar from the NBA like Stephen Curry.

No matter how hard you practiced beforehand, you surely would lose.

For most people, that would be fine. We would console ourselves with the knowledge that we tried our best and relish he fact that we even got the chance to be on the same court as a professional player.

But some people would want to cheat to make things “equal” and “fair.” So they would say that the NBA player should have to play blindfolded, or while wearing high-heeled shoes.

And perhaps they could impose enough restrictions on the NBA player that they could prevail in a contest.

But most of us wouldn’t feel good about “winning” that kind of battle. We would be ashamed that our “victory” only occurred because we curtailed the talents of our opponent.

Now let’s think about this unseemly tactic in the context of corporate taxation and international competitiveness.

The United States has the highest corporate tax rate in the industrialized world, combined with having the most onerous “worldwide” tax system among all developed nations.

This greatly undermines the ability of U.S.-domiciled companies to compete in world markets and it’s the main reason why so many companies feel the need to engage in inversions.

So how does the Obama Administration want to address these problems? What’s their plan to reform the system to that American-based firms can better compete with companies from other countries?

Unfortunately, there’s no desire to make the tax code more competitive. Instead, the Obama Administration wants to change the laws to make it less attractive to do business in other nations. Sort of the tax version of hobbling the NBA basketball player in the above example.

Here are some of the details from the Treasury Department’s legislative wish list.

The Administration proposes to supplement the existing subpart F regime with a per-country minimum tax on the foreign earnings of entities taxed as domestic C corporations (U.S. corporations) and their CFCs. …Under the proposal, the foreign earnings of a CFC or branch or from the performance of services would be subject to current U.S. taxation at a rate (not below zero) of 19 percent less 85 percent of the per-country foreign effective tax rate (the residual minimum tax rate). …The minimum tax would be imposed on current foreign earnings regardless of whether they are repatriated to the United States.

There’s a lot of jargon in those passages, and even more if you click on the underlying link.

So let’s augment by excerpting some of the remarks, at a recent Brookings Institution event, by the Treasury Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Tax Affairs. Robert Stack was pushing the President’s agenda, which would undermine American companies by making it difficult for them to benefit from good tax policy in other jurisdictions.

He actually argued, for instance, that business tax reform should be “more than a cry to join the race to the bottom.”

In other words, he doesn’t (or, to be more accurate, his boss doesn’t) want to fix what’s wrong with the American tax code.

So he doesn’t seem to care that other nations are achieving good results with lower corporate tax rates.

I do not buy into the notion that the U.S. must willy-nilly do what everyone else is doing.

And he also criticizes the policy of “deferral,” which is a provision of the tax code that enables American-based companies to delay the second layer of tax that the IRS imposes on income that is earned (and already subject to tax) in other jurisdictions.

I don’t think it’s open to debate that the ability of US multinationals to defer income has been a dramatic contributor to global tax instability.

He doesn’t really explain why it is destabilizing for companies to protect themselves against a second layer of tax that shouldn’t exist.

But he does acknowledge that there are big supply-side responses to high tax rates.

…large disparity in income tax rates…will inevitably drive behavior.

Too bad he doesn’t draw the obvious lesson about the benefits of low tax rates.

Anyhow, here’s what he says about the President’s tax scheme.

The President’s global minimum tax proposal…permits tax-free repatriation of amounts earned in countries taxed at rates above the global minimum rate. …the global minimum tax plan also takes the benefit out of shifting income into low and no-tax jurisdictions by requiring that the multinational pay to the US the difference between the tax haven rate and the U.S. rate.

The bottom line is that American companies would be taxed by the IRS for doing business in low-tax jurisdictions such as Ireland, Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Bermuda.

But if they do business in high-tax nations such as France, there’s no extra layer of tax.

The bottom line is that the U.S. tax code would be used to encourage bad policy in other countries.

Though Mr. Stack sees that as a feature rather than a bug, based on the preposterous assertion that other counties will grow faster if the burden of government spending is increased.

…the global minimum tax concept has an added benefit as well…protecting developing and low-income countries…so they can mobilize the necessary resources to grow their economies.

And he seems to think that support from the IMF is a good thing rather than (given that bureaucracy’s statist orientation) a sign of bad policy.

At a recent IMF symposium, the minimum tax was identified as something that could be of great help.

The bottom line is that the White House and the Treasury Department are fixated at hobbling competitors by encouraging higher tax rates around the world and making sure that American-based companies are penalized with an extra layer of tax if they do business in low-tax jurisdictions

For what it’s worth, the right approach, both ethically and economically, is for American policy makers to focus on fixing what’s wrong with the American tax system.

P.S. When I debunked Jeffrey Sachs on the “race to the bottom,” I showed that lower tax rates do not mean lower tax revenue.

One of the more interesting policy debates, both in America and around the world, is whether convoluted and counterproductive welfare states should be scrapped and replaced with a “basic income” payment from the government.

Finland is experimenting with the concept.

Authorities in Finland are considering giving every citizen a tax-free payout of €800 (£576) each month. Under proposals being draw up by the Finnish Social Insurance Institution (Kela), this national basic income would replace all other benefit payments, and would be paid to all adults regardless of whether or not they receive any other income. …the basic income is intended to encourage more people back to work. At present, many unemployed people would be worse off if they took on low-paid temporary jobs due to loss of welfare payments.

This idea has been, or will be, tried in a few places.

…previous experiments where a basic income has been successfully trialed. The Canadian town of Dauphin experimented with a basic income guarantee in the 1970s and the results – both social and economic – were largely positive. …The Dutch city of Utrecht is also planning to introduce a basic income, albeit solely for welfare recipients. From next month more than 250 unemployed residents of the city will be given a monthly sum to live on, with researchers monitoring the outcome to determine what effect it has on employment.

In a column for City Journal, Guy Sorman has a positive assessment of the Finnish plan.

…each citizen will be free to use the money as he or she sees fit. The idea is that people are responsible for their actions. If someone decides to spend their €800 on vodka, that is their decision, and has nothing to do with the government. In return for the UBI, however, the public accepts the elimination of most welfare services. Currently, the Finnish government offers a variety of income-based assistance programs for everything from housing to children’s education to property insulation. Axing these programs should free up enough public resources to finance the UBI. The bureaucracy that currently governs welfare payments will disappear. …The Left is cheered by the socialistic idea of government-assistance-for-all. The Right looks forward to the unprecedented drop in bureaucratic control over citizens… The Finnish government is expecting the negative income tax to have a beneficial effect on employment and growth.

Though apparently the scheme will have a limited rollout.

Finland’s trial of a basic income model is set to start in 2017 and will involve a payment of 550 euros to those selected to participate.

And those selected will be a limited group.

…the full, unconditional basic income proposal would be too expensive. Instead the trial will target people already in receipt of benefits and offer a basic income at the same level to replace them. …People would then be able to take on new work without losing their social security payments, which could remove one of the disincentives to employment. People with income-linked unemployment benefits, which are higher than the state-provided basic unemployment benefit, would continue to receive them. …The trial will focus on individuals aged 25 to 63 with low incomes as that group will provide the best data on whether or not the basic income increases employment.

Here’s more reporting about the potential Dutch experiment.

…in Utrecht, one of the largest cities in the Netherlands, and 19 other Dutch municipalities, a tentative step… “We don’t call it a basic income in Utrecht because people have an idea about it – that it is just free money and people will sit at home and watch TV,” said Heleen de Boer, a Green councillor in that city, which is half an hour south of Amsterdam. Nevertheless, the municipalities are, in the words of de Boer, taking a “small step” towards a basic income for all by allowing small groups of benefit claimants to be paid £660 a month – and keep any earnings they make from work on top of that. Their monthly pay will not be means-tested. They will instead have the security of that cash every month, and the option to decide whether they want to add to that by finding work. …The motivation behind the experiment in Utrecht, according to Nienke Horst, a senior policy adviser to the municipality’s Liberal Democrat leadership, is for claimants to avoid the “poverty trap” – the fact that if they earn, they will lose benefits, and potentially be worse off.

The concept is also gaining traction in New Zealand.

Leader of the opposition Andrew Little said his Labour party was considering the idea as part of proposals to combat the “possibility of higher structural unemployment”. …Mr Little confirmed his party would debate the idea at its conference on employment at the end of March. He said significant changes to way people worked were “unavoidable” and “we expect that in the future world of work there will be at least a portion of the workforce that will rapidly move in and out of work”.

You’ll have noticed that some of the arguments for basic income seem very reasonable. Improve incentives to work and reduce bureaucracy.

Indeed, this is why the idea has support among some sensible people. I cited some of them in my article back in 2013, but there are several more.

Sam Bowman explains his support for the concept in a column for the London-based Adam Smith Institute.

For me, it’s about improving the capitalism we already have. …it would be an improvement, for three main reasons.

His first reason is that some people would benefit from more money, though I’m not sure this has anything to do with “improving capitalism.”

Our existing welfare system is designed for a world where finding a job would be enough to give most people a tolerable standard of living. But in-work poverty is an increasing problem…a basic income would reorient the whole system towards helping people who don’t have enough money, irrespective of why that is.

His second reason is that it would be good to streamline the welfare state.

Our existing welfare system has built up a large amount of unnecessary complexity that could be streamlined. …benefits are fundamentally about giving money to people who do not have enough of it. Housing benefit, the pension credit, jobseeker’s allowance, income support and tax credits all do this. …Reducing complexity is valuable but not the only, or indeed the main, appeal of the basic income.

And his third reason is that a basic income could be matched with other reforms that would boost economic performance.

Many other policies that would increase total wealth are not very progressive…doing these things ends up making lower earners pay more tax than we would like. …An easy way to correct that would be to redistribute the overall wealth gain to those poor natives so that they too are made better off in the short run as well as the long run.

Writing for National Review, Iain Murray adds his sympathetic analysis.

Anyone who wants some creature comforts, which most of poor do…would be encouraged to work rather than the reverse. …Most people will use money to make their lives better. Indeed, there is some evidence that most poor people suddenly presented with what amounts to capital will become capitalists. This is surely a good thing. …The lack of a welfare bureaucracy will also encourage charity and mutual aid for the really hard cases.

Though he does recognize that there are “two big, and possibly irresolvable, caveats.”

…unless we were to find some way of exempting this from the political process, politicians would…turn it into a UBI plus extra, targeted, welfare system.  …it still relies on robbing Peter to pay Paul, even if Peter gets some of the money back.

Now let’s shift back from theory to the real world. Switzerland is poised to vote early next month on a referendum that would provide a rather generous government-guaranteed income every month.

Switzerland will become the first country in the world to vote on the introduction of unconditional income at the national level. But it has not won much support from traditional politicians, even those on the left. …The federal government estimates the cost of the proposal at 208 billion francs a year. Around 153 billion taxes would have to be levied from taxes, while 55 billion francs would be transferred from social insurance and social assistance spending.

Why is the cost so expensive? Because, as explained in another article, the referendum would provide “a basic income of about 2,500 francs ($2,600) a month.”

Which may explain why it appears the traditionally sensible Swiss voters almost certainly will vote against the scheme by an overwhelming margin.

Seventy-two percent were against establishing the unconditional stipend, which the initiators say would “enable the entire population have a decent existence and participate in public life,” the survey found. Just 24 percent support it, while 4 percent were still undecided, had voting been conducted this month. “Support for the ‘no’-camp is expected to increase as the campaign progresses,” pollster gfs.bern said in its survey for broadcaster SRG published on Friday. “This indicates a clear rejection on the day of the ballot.” The basic income vote will take place on June 5.

For what it’s worth, I’m at a conference in Switzerland, where I spoke earlier today on this topic as part of a panel that included my colleague Michael Tanner, along with former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Swiss Professor Reiner Eichenberger.

I urged the audience to oppose the referendum because of what I called a nope-hope-dope argument.

  1. The “nope” part is my rejection of the belief on the left that technology will destroy jobs. We’ve had major changes in the economy, leading first to big losses in agricultural jobs and then significant losses in manufacturing jobs. But those changes didn’t lead to less employment. Instead, those jobs were lost as part of changes that made all of us much wealthier. So while I have no idea what will happen in the future, I have considerable faith that market forces will create productive options for people.
  2. The “hope” part is my admiration of the private initiatives that are taking place and my semi-support for the local experiments that are taking place. I want poor people to have more money and I want them to have hope. And these experiments by private charities and local governments may teach us useful things that help us reform the very inefficient welfare states operated by central governments.
  3. And the “dope” part of my presentation was my description of the people who think that we would get good results with a basic income scheme operated by central governments. Simply stated, I fear that such a proposal would be too generous, thus reducing over time incentives to work (perfectly captured by this Wizard-of-Id parody). I also fear it would require economically destructive tax rates, either explicitly to fund a basic income for everyone, or implicitly because it would be phased out like the EITC and therefore drive a larger wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption for a huge number of taxpayers.

Here, for posterity, is a photo of the panelists.

I did mention, by the way, that it would be very interesting to see an individual Swiss canton conduct an experiment, replacing all current redistribution schemes with a basic income.

And since the supporters of the referendum tweeted that statement, I’ll interpret that as a sign that I’m a consensus builder!

But I have to confess that the organizers of the conference probably should have cast me aside and instead invited Professor David Henderson of the Naval Postgraduate School.

In a new article for the Independent Institute, he looks the real-world numbers for the United States and throws very cold water on the idea of the basic income guarantee. Here’s an excerpt of his calculation of the fiscal cost of such a scheme.

The annual BIG expenditure for U.S. citizens, then, would be approximately $2.068 trillion. This expenditure estimate does not include any expenditure for administering the program or for monitoring for fraud. In other words, it is a minimum estimate. …Assume, as Zwolinski advocates, that such a program would displace all 126 federal antipoverty programs and all state and local government antipoverty programs. …Notice what would happen. A $2.068 trillion program would replace programs whose total expenditures in 2012 were $952 billion. Even rounding up the $952 billion to $1 trillion, the program that Zwolinski advocates is more than twice as costly in budgetary terms as current antipoverty programs. …How would Zwolinski fund this major increase in federal spending? …he would need to have the federal government increase taxes from their estimated $2.993 trillion to $4.361 trillion, an increase of 45.7 percent.

Those fiscal costs could be reduced with a clawback mechanism (i.e., means testing the basic income grant), but that would require very high implicit marginal tax rates.

Zwolinski suggests a way around the huge tax increases that I have laid out: the way proposed by Charles Murray in his book In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State (2006). That method is to tax $5,000 of the $10,000 grant with a 20-percentage-point increase in the marginal tax rate on people who make $25,000 or more. At the $50,000 income level, $5,000 of the grant would be paid back. This method does reduce the amount of other taxation required, but, of course, it increases marginal tax rates over a range of incomes by 20 percentage points. …This increase would be a substantial disincentive to work and a substantial incentive to make money in the underground economy.

And he also cites what I fear would be an enormous problem, which is that we couldn’t trust politicians to keep the basic income grant at a modest level, and we also couldn’t trust them to permanently eliminate other redistribution problems.

…there is another major problem: the “public-choice” problem. …those who advocate further government programs…must show that there is a high probability that such government programs will not grow further. …in the case of a BIG, they must show that there is a high probability that a scaled-down BIG really would replace all of the existing programs for the poor and near poor. This is hard to do because the various interest groups that favor the existing programs will not sit back: they will fight to keep some or all of those programs. Zwolinski…writes that if the BIG “were implemented via a constitutional amendment, many of the public choice considerations could be reduced, I think, to an acceptable level.”11 Yet, as Randy Barnett (2004) and Robert Levy and William Mellor (2008) show, even strict constitutional limits on federal government power have yielded to the U.S. president, Congress, and the courts.

Think of this as presenting the same challenge presented by a national sales tax or value-added tax. There are good arguments for those proposals, but the most powerful objection is that politicians can’t be trusted to permanently eliminate or reduce existing income taxes.

So if a basic income isn’t the answer, what should we do?

I agree with the scholars from the Austrian School that decentralization is the right approach. We already did that for basic welfare payments during the Clinton years, and we should do it for all other forms of income redistribution, perhaps starting with food stamps and Medicaid.

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