One of the great flaws of Keynesian economics is that proponents assume policy makers are angels who are motivated solely by a desire to help people by boosting the economy when there’s a downturn.

Needless to say, that’s an absurd assumption. To cite just one real-world example, we can see how Obama’s stimulus scheme was simply an opportunity for politicians and interest groups to do what they like doing regardless of the economy’s performance, which is to have fun with other people’s money. Think scams like Solyndra, but expanded to almost all parts of the federal budget.

This sober-minded assessment of how government really works is sometimes categorized as being part of “public choice economics.”

Here’s what I wrote about this theory earlier this year, as part of a column explaining why politicians will keep spending even if they know it will lead to disaster.

…there’s an entire school of thought in economics, known as “public choice,” which is based on making real-world assumptions about the self-interested behavior of politicians and interest groups. …In other words, both voters and politicians can have an incentive for ever-larger government, even if the end result is Greek-style fiscal chaos because taxes and spending reach ruinous levels. I call this “Goldfish Government” because some think that a goldfish lacks the ability to control its appetite and therefore will eat itself to death when presented with unlimited food. …America’s Founding Fathers had the right solution. They set up a democratic form of government, but they strictly limited the powers of the central government. This system worked remarkably well for a long period, but then the Supreme Court decided that the enumerated powers listed in the Constitution were just a suggestion.

One of the key insights of public choice theory is that we often get excessive government because the people getting handouts from any particular program have a very strong incentive to lobby for those goodies while the average taxpayer often does not have the time, knowledge, energy, or incentive to to either learn what’s happening or to figure out how best to fight against the various counterproductive redistribution programs.

Here’s a video from Learn Liberty that explains how “concentrated benefits” and “dispersed costs” produce bad outcomes (and if you have any doubts that this is true, just think about the Export-Import Bank or farm subsidies).

By the way, I hope everyone noticed, in the hypothetical law that was discussed, that half the money collected from taxpayers would be burned.

This is an under-appreciated reason why redistribution is so damaging. I’ve tried to make this point by talking about how federal spending involves taxing people around the nation, carrying the money in a leaky bucket to Washington, pouring some of it down a toilet, and then carrying it in a leaky bucket back to interest groups in various parts of the nation.

Building on these concepts, Professor Ben Powell uses the example of farm subsidies to explain how we get bad policy (think ethanol).

Kudos to Ben (who also narrated a great video on “sweatshops”). I particularly like his explanation of how interest groups recycle money back to politicians.

Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that the federal government is a racket that lines the pockets of insiders at the expense of taxpayers.

Last but not least, here’s Professor Mark Pennington from the University of London discussing public choice, market failure, and government failure.

If you’re interested, I recommend that you also watch Part II, Part III, and Part IV of Mark’s presentation.

At this stage, you may be thinking that fixing the mess in Washington is hopeless. After all, if it’s in the self interest of politicians to expand the burden of government to buy votes and win their next elections, then aren’t we doomed to have “goldfish government”?

That’s certainly what’s happened in nations such as Greece that presumably have reached and surpassed a “tipping point” of too much government dependency.

But here’s why I think there’s still hope for the United States.

…asking politicians to reduce government is like asking burglars to be in favor of armed homeowners. …we know politicians generally have bad incentives. But it’s not hopeless. While I certainly enjoy mocking politicians, they’re not totally immoral or even amoral people. Many of them do understand there’s a problem. Indeed, I would argue that recent votes for entitlement reform are an example of genuine patriotism – i.e., doing the right thing for the country. So is there a potential solution? Maybe. Let’s use an analogy from Greek mythology. Many politicians generally can’t resist the siren song of a go-along-to-get-along approach. But like Ulysses facing temptation from sirens, they recognize that this is a recipe for a bad outcome. So they realize that some sort of self-imposed constraint is desirable. And that’s why I’m somewhat hopeful that we can get them to impose binding spending caps. We know there are successful reforms by looking at the evidence. And we know there is growing support from fiscal experts. And we even see that normally left-leaning international bureaucracies such as theOECD and IMF acknowledge that spending caps are the only effective fiscal rule. So if Ulysses can bind himself to the mast and resist the sirens, perhaps we can convince politicians to tie their own hands with a Swiss-style spending cap.

P.S. Though whenever I think about the 2016 election, I confess that’s it’s hard to be optimistic.

One (hopefully endearing) trait of being a policy wonk is that I have a weakness for jurisdictional rankings. At least if they’re methodologically sound.

This is why I was so happy a couple of weeks ago when I got to peruse and analyze the 2016 version of Economic Freedom of the World (even if the results for America were rather depressing).

Heck, sometimes I even can’t resist commenting on methodologically unsound rankings, such as the profoundly stupid “Happy Planet Index” that puts despotic hellholes such as Cuba and Venezuela above the United States.

Given my interest in rankings, you can appreciate how excited I am that my colleague at Cato, Chris Edwards, just unveiled the 2016 version of his Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors and that the Tax Foundation just released its annual State Business Tax Climate Index. It’s sort of like Christmastime for me.

Here’s the big news from Chris’ Report Card. As a Virginia resident, I’m not terribly happy the Governor McAuliffe scores a D (not that his GOP predecessor was any good). It’s also perhaps somewhat newsworthy that Governor Pence earned an A (so he seems committed to smaller government even if the guy he’s paired with doesn’t share the same philosophy).

And here’s the Tax Foundation’s map showing each state’s ranking, with top-10 states in blue and bottom-10 states in light orange.

If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that zero-income-tax states are disproportionately represented among the states with the best scores.

All this is quite interesting (at least to me), but it occurred to me that it might be even more illuminating to somehow meld these two rankings together.

After all, Chris’s Report Card is a measure of whether a state is moving in the right direction or wrong direction while the Tax Foundation is more of a comparative measure of how a state ranks at a given point in time compared to other states.

So I created the following matrix that looks only at the states that received A or F in the Cato Report Card and also were either in the top 10 or bottom 10 of the Tax Foundation Index.

As you might guess, the best place to be is in the top-left portion of the matrix since that shows a state that is both moving in the right direction while also having a very competitive tax system. So kudos to Florida and Indiana (with honorable mention for North Carolina, which received an A in the Cato Report Card but just missed cracking the top 10 in the Tax Foundation Index).

The bad news, if you look at the bottom-left quadrant, is that there are three states with good tax systems but bad governors. South Dakota, Oregon, and Nevada are in strong shape today, but it’s hard to be optimistic about those states preserving their lofty rankings since policy is moving in the wrong direction.

And the worst place to be is the bottom-right quadrant, which means that a state has both a bad tax system and a bad policy environment.

Last but not least, the sad news is that the top-right quadrant is empty, which means there aren’t any bad states moving aggressively in the right direction.

So the bottom line is that American citizens should think about moving to Florida and Indiana. Especially if they live in Vermont, California, or Connecticut.

P.S. It would be even better to move to Monaco, Hong Kong, or the Cayman Islands, but those presumably aren’t very practical options for most of us.

P.P.S. Actually, the best place for an American taxpayer to live is Puerto Rico since it’s a legal tax haven.

What are the main problems with government bureaucrats?

Is it that they’re paid too much? Given that they get far more compensation than workers in the economy’s productive sector, that certainly true.

Is it that there are too many of them? Well, we have lots of bureaucracies that shouldn’t exist, such as HUD, Education, Transportation, Agriculture, etc. So that’s true as well.

But there’s another possible answer. People employed by government take advantage of preferential rules in ways that should get all decent people upset.

Writing for Reason, Eric Boehm tells us about a cop who successfully mugged taxpayers in Paterson, New Jersey.

Despite not having to show up for work since June 2007, Manuel Avila received periodic increases in pay, managed to double his monthly pension and qualified for free healthcare for the rest of his life at the expense of city taxpayers. Avila qualified for all those benefits while spending the past nine years on paid leave from the Paterson, New Jersey, police department because he was under investigation for having sex with a female prisoner at the city’s jail.

Wow, go fishing every day, get pay increases, a fat pension, and free healthcare. Where can I sign up for that deal?

Government, of course.

And let’s not overlook sex with a female prisoner, which gives a whole new meaning to the notion of fringe benefits. Reminds me of the Pennsylvania bureaucrat who came up with the clever idea of trading welfare benefits for sex.

But the story is actually more disturbing (at least from the perspective of taxpayers) than you think.

It gets worse, though, because that crime would never have happened if Avila’s bosses hadn’t already been trying to give his retirement benefits a little boost. …Avila—apparently with plenty of help, or at least an abundance of people willing to look the other way—was able to boost his annual pension to about $70,000 from an estimated $32,000 if he had been forced to retire in 2007 when a police psychiatrist recommended removing Avila from the force. “But instead of forcing Avila out of the police department, city law enforcement officials decided to allow him to stay on the job for another six months so he could reach a critical pension milestone of 20 years, the court records show,” the Paterson Press wrote. While there, he was charged with sexually assaulting a female prisoner. Those charges were dropped in 2010 after the city paid an undisclosed amount of money to the accuser as part of a settlement, but Avila remained on paid leave from the department until finally retiring this year.

This is galling. If Mr. Avila misbehaved and was declared unfit, why wasn’t he immediately terminated?

And now that we’ve learned about this scandal, why aren’t the officials who enabled this ripoff being fired?

At the risk of repeating myself, the answer is government.

There are two broader policy lessons from this scandal.

First, the use of “defined benefit” pension systems for bureaucrats should be discontinued. By way of background, these “DB” plans promise workers guaranteed monthly payments based on formulas including factors such as years worked and highest pay levels. There is no reason why DB plans can’t be feasible and successful (indeed, the Netherlands has a private Social Security system based on this model), but politicians at the state and local level repeatedly have demonstrated that they are incapable of operating this type of system, both because they promise lavish benefits (on top of overly generous pay levels) as a means of buying political support (using our money) from government workers and because they then don’t set aside enough money to finance the generous benefits they have promised. That system may be good for getting reelected in the short run, but it’s also why there’s a multi-trillion dollar shortfall that is contributing to deep fiscal problems in states such as Illinois and California. To stop from going deeper in the red, states should switch to “defined contribution” plans, which work similar to the IRAs and 401(k)s that are now prevalent in the private sector.

Second, something needs to be done to curtail the power of government unions. It’s not just that they conspire with politicians to get excessive pay for bureaucrats, but they compound that damage by also insisting on rules that make it very difficult to discipline or terminate problem employees. In the private sector, employees generally work “at will,” which means they can be fired without reason (this is one of the reasons the United States is near the top in the World Bank’s Doing Business ranking. In government, by contrast, slackers, trouble makers, and other undesirable employees are shielded from this discipline. And that results in cases (such as the example discussed above) that are bad for taxpayers and bad for government. I don’t know if this means that unions should be prohibited (as even President Franklin Roosevelt believed), but surely one lesson to be learned is that there needs to be a much tougher approach when contract negotiations take place.

P.S. Let’s shift to a different topic. I’ve written many times about the gap between intentions and results in government. It’s very common to see politicians vote for laws that (at least in some cases) they think will help people, but they fail to recognize the indirect or second-order effects of government intervention.

Now we have another example. Almost all politicians will agree that it’s a good idea to prohibit child labor in poor nations. But what if poor families don’t have any better options? Could it be that government intervention will hurt the people who are supposed to be helped?

According to the World Bank (not normally a hotbed of libertarian thought), the answer is yes.

The study explores the law that increased the minimum employment age from 14 to 16 in Brazil in 1998, and uncovers its impact on time allocated to schooling and work in the short term and on school attainment and labor market outcomes in the long term. The analysis uses cross-sectional data from 1998 to 2014… The estimates show that the ban reduced the incidence of boys in paid work activities by 4 percentage points or 27 percent. …The study follows the same cohort affected by the ban over the years, and finds that the short-term effects persisted until 2003 when the boys turned 18. The study pooled data from 2007 to 2014 to check whether the ban affected individuals’ stock of human capital and labor market outcomes. The estimates suggest that the ban did not have long-term effects for the whole cohort, but found some indication that it did negatively affect the log earnings of individuals at the lower tail of the earnings distribution.

So the bottom line is that lower-skilled workers missed a chance to earn money when they were young and they then suffered income losses over time as well.

Bastiat certainly wouldn’t be surprised by this outcome. And if the lower-skilled workers understood how they were hurt, I’m sure that they wouldn’t feel very grateful to politicians for their “compassion.”

P.P.S. This reminds me of the “sweatshop” controversy. The left wants to ban factory work in the developing world because they don’t understand or appreciate that such jobs are a great opportunity when nations are at a certain stage of development.

P.P.P.S. This isn’t the first time that the World Bank has produced good research. In 2014, the bureaucrats released a good study showing how high tax rates facilitate corruption. And in 2012, they issued a study explaining how large public sectors undermine prosperity.

I live-tweeted last night’s debate between the Governor Mike Pence and Senator Tim Kaine.

As the debate closed, I summed up my reaction with two tweets, one of which sadly observed that Donald Trump does not share Ronald Reagan’s belief in smaller government and more freedom.

And because I’m fair and balanced, I also reminded people that Hillary Clinton is no Bill Clinton. Indeed, I pointed out that her vote rating in the Senate was almost identical to Bernie Sanders’.

That doesn’t mean Bernie and Hillary are identical.

I’ve remarked many times that he wants America to become Greece at 90 miles per hour while she seems content for the country to become Greece at 55 miles per hour.

But, in practice, they were almost always on the same side when it came time to cast votes on the floor of the Senate.

In any case, my tweet obviously touched a nerve since there were a bunch of (mostly incoherent) responses. And I also got this reaction from a law professor at the University of Baltimore.

I assume he thinks I was being juvenile to say that Senator Sanders is crazy. Since I actually am juvenile in many ways (particularly my sense of humor), I might be tempted to plead guilty.

But let’s actually contemplate how the Vermont Senator should be labeled.

Sanders is a virulent and dogmatic supporter of coercive statism. Even columnists for the Washington Post have criticized him for being too far to the left.

But he’s not a real socialist (which technically means government ownership of the means of production). And even though his policies are based on coercion, I certainly don’t think he is a totalitarian.

Yet he’s not a rational leftist like you find in the Nordic nations (where they at least compensate for large welfare states by being very market-oriented about trade, regulation, etc).

All this explains why, when categorizing different types of leftists, I put him in the “crazies” group along with the Syriza Party of Greece.

And while “crazies” might be a pejorative bit of shorthand, I do think folks like Bernie Sanders are largely detached from reality.

But I don’t want people to be upset with me, so I’m going to reconsider how Sanders should be categorized.

To help with this chore, let’s consider a few additional bits of information, starting with an item from his Senate office that contains this remarkable passage.

These days, the American dream is more apt to be realized in South America, in places such as Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina, where incomes are actually more equal today than they are in the land of Horatio Alger. Who’s the banana republic now?

By the way, it’s not clear if this is a column written by Sanders or whether he just endorses the sentiments expressed therein.

Though it doesn’t really matter since – at the very least – he obviously agrees with the message.

So let’s think about what it means that Sanders views Argentina and Venezuela as role models.

Argentina used to be one of the richest nations in the world, ranked in the top 10 at the end of World War II. But then decades of statism, starting with Peron and continuing through Kirchner, wreaked havoc with the nation’s economy and Argentina has plummeted in the rankings.

And I’ve written many times about the basket case of Venezuela, so there’s already ample information to discredit anyone who thinks that nation should be emulated.

But let’s add one more straw to the camel’s back. Here are some excerpts from a very depressing story about the human misery being caused by big government in that country.

Klaireth Díaz is a 1st-grade teacher at Elías Toro School… Last year, she says, attendance was painfully low. Every day, of a class of 30 children at least 10 would be absent. “The reason was always lack of food,” she told Fox News Latino. She said she had a student who skipped class every single Thursday and when she asked his mother about it, she explained that Thursday was the day of the week assigned to her family to buy food at government-regulated prices – which involves standing in line starting sometimes as early as 3 a.m.

Food lines?!? That’s what Bernie Sanders thinks is a success story?

Though I guess if everyone has to wait in lines for food, at least they’re all equally poor (though even that’s not true since the ruling-class leftists in Venezuela have plundered the nation’s treasury).

In other words, maybe this image isn’t a joke or satire after all.

But it gets worse. The food lines apparently don’t provide enough food.

Across the country, teachers have said they have seen children faint or fall asleep because they haven’t had enough to eat. …As the school year progressed last year, Diaz said, she noticed more and more kids had stopped bringing lunch. …According to a poll conducted last month by More Consulting among 2,000 respondents in Caracas, in 48 percent of the times children do not attend school, the cause is related to the food. Either they are feeling too weak for lack of nutrition, or their parents rather use the transport money to buy food, or they are in the food lines with their parents. The poll revealed that 36.5 percent of children eat only twice a day and 10.2 percent just once.

So maybe Bernie Sanders isn’t crazy. If he views Venezuela as a role model, maybe he’s morally blind. Or genuinely evil.

But I’m a nice guy, so I’m sticking with crazy since I would hate to think that even a crank like Sanders willfully embraces the monstrous outcomes found in Venezuela.

P.S. I haven’t written about Ecuador, but if forced to choose among Bernie’s various success stories, I guess that would be my pick since it is 142 out of 159 in the rankings from Economic Freedom of the World, which surely is better than being Argentina (156) or Venezuela (dead last at 159).

To be fair to Sanders, at least he didn’t list Cuba, which is such an economic hell-hole that (if reliable numbers were available) it would presumably rank below even Venezuela.

Because of his support for big government, I don’t like Donald Trump. Indeed, I have such disdain for him (as well as Hillary Clinton) that I’ve arranged to be out of the country when the election takes place.

The establishment media, by contrast, is excited about the election and many journalists are doing everything possible to aid the election of Hillary Clinton. In some cases, their bias leads to them to make silly pronouncements on public policy in hopes of undermining Trump. Which irks me since I’m then in the unwanted position of accidentally being on the same side as “The Donald.”

For instance, some of Trump’s private tax data was leaked to the New York Times, which breathlessly reported that he had a huge loss in 1995, and that he presumably used that “net operating loss” (NOL) to offset income in future years.

As I pointed out in this interview, Trump did nothing wrong based on the information we now have. Nothing morally wrong. Nothing legally wrong. Nothing economically wrong.

All that people really need to know is that NOLs exist in the tax code because businesses sometimes lose money (the worst thing that happens to individuals, by contrast, is that we get laid off and have zero income). With NOLs, companies basically get a version of “income averaging” so that they’re taxed on their long-run net income (i.e., total profits minus total losses).

In other words, this is not a controversy. Or it shouldn’t be.

But if you don’t believe me, let’s peruse the pages of The Flat Tax, which was written by Alvin Rabushka and Robert Hall at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and is considered the Bible for tax reformers.

Here’s what it says about business losses in Chapter 5.

Remember that self-employed persons fill out the business tax form just as a large corporation does. Business losses can be carried forward without limit to offset future profits (assuming your bank or rich relatives will keep lending you money). There is no such thing as a tax loss under the individual wage tax. You can’t reduce your compensation tax by generating business losses. Well-paid individuals who farm as a hobby or engage in other dubious sidelines to shelter their wages from the IRS had better enjoy their costly hobbies; the IRS will not give them any break under the flat tax.

And here’s the business postcard for the flat tax. As you can see, it’s a very simple system based on the common-sense notion that profits equal total receipts minus total expenses.

And it allows “carry-forward” of losses, which is just another term for a company being able to use NOLs in one year to offset profits in a subsequent year.

But it’s not just advocates of the flat tax how hold this view.

A news report for the Wall Street Journal notes that NOLs are very normal in the business world for the simple reason that companies sometimes lose money.

The tax treatment of losses, bound to become a subject of national debate, is a typically uncontroversial feature of the income-tax system. The government doesn’t pay net refunds when business owners lose money, but it lets taxpayers use those losses to smooth their tax payments as they make money. That reflects the fact that “the natural business cycle of a taxpayer may exceed 12 months,” according to a congressional report.

Megan McArdle of Bloomberg also comments on this make-believe controversy.

At issue is the “net operating loss,” an accounting term that means basically what it sounds like: When you net out your expenses against the money you took in, it turns out that you lost a bunch of money. However, in tax law, this has a special meaning, because these NOLs can be offset against money earned in other years. …this struck many people as a nefarious bit of chicanery. And to be fair, they were probably helped along in this belief by the New York Times description of it, which made it sound like some arcane loophole wedged into our tax code at the behest of the United Association of Rich People and Their Lobbyists. …Every tax or financial professional I have heard from about the New York Times piece found this characterization rather bizarre. The Times could have just as truthfully written that the provision was “particularly prized by America’s small businesses, farmers and authors,” many of whom depend on the NOL to ensure that they do not end up paying extraordinary marginal tax rates — possibly exceeding 100 percent — on income that may not fit itself neatly into the regular rotation of the earth around the sun.

I like how she zings the NYT for its biased treatment of the issue.

She also explains why the law allows NOLs and why businesses (including, presumably, Trump’s companies) would prefer to never be in a position to utilize them.

“If someone has a $20 million gain in one year and a $10 million loss in the second year, that person should be treated the same as someone who had $5 million in each of the two years,” says Alan Viard, a tax specialist at the American Enterprise Institute, who like all the other experts, seemed somewhat surprised that this was not obvious. “There are definitely tax provisions narrowly targeted to various industries that you could take issue with,” says Ron Kovacev, a tax partner at Steptoe and Johnson. “The NOL is not one of them.” …Losing $900 million dollars may save you $315 million or so on future or past taxes. But astute readers will have noticed that it is not actually smart financial strategy to lose $900 million in order to get out of paying $315 million to the IRS. Most of us would rather have the other $585 million than a tax bill of $0. …If Trump managed to pay no taxes for years, the most likely way he did this was by losing sums much vaster than the unpaid taxes. This is fair, it is right, it is good tax policy.

In other words, Trump used NOLs, but he would have greatly preferred to avoid the big $916 million loss in the first place.

Ryan Ellis, writing for Forbes, doesn’t suffer fools gladly on this issue.

…political reporters don’t know a damned thing about taxes. …That ignorance was on display in vivid colors over the weekend. We were told that this tricky NOL was some sort of “loophole” that only super-rich bad guys like Donald Trump got to use. We were told that this relieved him of having to pay taxes for 18 years, a laughably arbitrary, made up number that is the tautological output of simple arithmetic and wild assumptions. …It’s not difficult to see how political reporters got played like a fiddle here. Most of them have never actually run a business, much less learned about the tax rules surrounding them.

I especially like that Ryan also nails the NYT for bias, in this case because the reporters used made-up number to imply that he didn’t pay tax for almost two decades.

And Ryan also notes that NOLs are very common (and were even used in 2015 by Trump’s opponent).

…a net operating loss is very common in businesses. As Alan Cole of the Tax Foundation pointed out this morning, about 1 million taxpayers had an NOL in 1995. It results from business deductions exceeding business income in a particular year. …Trump’s not the only presidential candidate this year who once had a big loss on his taxes. In 2015, the Clintons realized a capital loss of nearly $700,000. That will be available in perpetuity to offset capital gains they might incur. Unlike an NOL, a capital loss can slowly be used to offset other income, albeit at a slow $3000 per year net of any other gains offset.

Now that we’ve established that there’s nothing remotely scandalous about NOLs, let’s see whether there are any lessons we can from this kerfuffle.

Let’s return to the Wall Street Journal story cited earlier in this column.

Real-estate developers can generate losses more easily than other taxpayers. …Unlike investors in other businesses, they can use those losses to offset other income. …Bryan Skarlatos, a tax lawyer at Kostelanetz & Fink LLP, said…“Trump appears to have a perfect storm of allowable real-estate losses that can be offset against streams of income from salaries from his companies and royalty fees from the use of his name,” Mr. Skarlatos said. “Most taxpayers who have large real-estate losses don’t have such large steady streams of other ordinary income; they just have losses that may turn into profits in the future when they sell the real estate.”

This doesn’t tell us whether Trump actually did use his NOLs to offset other income, though I’m guessing the answer is yes. And as I speculated in the above interview, I wonder whether the losses were real losses or paper losses.

And others have suggested that Trump actually lost other people’s money and he was able to use their losses to offset some of his income.

I have no idea if that’s even possible, just as I have no idea whether his losses were real.

But I do know that a flat tax would put an end to any possible gamesmanship since it is a cash-flow system (which means it is based on actual transactions that take place, not whether companies use currency).

In a world with a flat tax, Trump would be allowed to “carry forward” losses, but only if they are real. And as explained above, he wouldn’t be able to use those losses to offset income that gets reported on the individual postcard.

So as I argued in the interview, let’s rip up the corrupt and destructive internal revenue code and copy the simple and fair flat tax that is used by Hong Kong.

If nothing else, Belgian politicians deserve credit for perseverance. One year ago, the nation was considering a “tax shift” that would reduce taxes on labor and increase taxes on consumption.

I pointed out that this didn’t make much sense since it wouldn’t alter the wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption. In other words, the government might not take as much when you earned your income, but it would compensate by taking more when you consumed your income, so there would be no improvement in your living standards and therefore no incentive to be more productive and earn more money.

Now the government in Belgium is considering a different “tax shift.” Here are some excerpts from a report in the Financial Times.

The Belgian government is rolling out a “tax shift” policy that Charles Michel, the country’s 40 year-old prime minister, says is aimed…to support people on low to medium incomes by reducing the taxes and social security charges on labour — some of the highest in Europe — and to make up the shortfall by boosting taxes on capital.

I’m underwhelmed by this approach.

Though let’s start with what’s good. The government should be lowering taxes on work. As the article notes, employees in Belgium are treated worse than medieval serfs, who only had to surrender one-third of their output to the Lord of the Manor.

…according to 2015 OECD data, is that an unmarried Belgian worker without children faced the highest “tax wedge” as a proportion of income of any citizen in the 35-country club. It stood at 55.3 per cent, compared with an average of 35.9 per cent. The burden results from a combination of high social security charges and a 50 per cent tax rate kicking in at a relatively low level — around €38,000.

Here’s one of the charts from the article. As you can see, greedy politicians get the lion’s share of the money when a Belgian worker chooses to earn income.

At the risk of understatement, the overall tax burden in Belgium is stifling.

Here’s another chart, this one showing how long European workers must toil before satisfying the tax demands of their governments.

I don’t know if the methodology is similar to the Tax Freedom Day calculations for the United States, and it’s unclear whether this is just a measure of the tax burden on labor income, or whether it also captures other taxes that workers pay (corporate income tax, value-added tax, excise taxes, etc). But it’s clear than Belgian workers have a terrible system.

Now for the bad news. Belgian politicians want to cut taxes on workers, but they say they want to compensate by imposing higher taxes on saving and investment.

That’s not a good idea since the productivity – and therefore compensation – of workers is very much linked to the amount of machinery, tools, and technology that’s available. So when politicians increase the tax burden on saving and investment, that reduces an economy’s stock of capital, and workers wind up with less pre-tax income than they would have earned otherwise.

Let’s see what Belgium’s government is trying to achieve. Here’s another blurb from the article.

Some changes, including a new financial speculation tax, were driven through last year and there are more to come. One of Mr Michel’s coalition partners, the Flemish Christian Democrats, is even pushing for a French-style wealth tax. …The speculation tax is estimated to bring in only about €20m this year, considerably less than the €34m initially predicted by the government. Also, there is little support for a more comprehensive inheritance tax. To Michel Maus, a tax law professor at Brussels Free University, the government’s efforts so far to increase taxation of capital amount to “window dressing” and “a bit political propaganda”.

I suppose the relative dearth of specific tax hikes on saving and investment is the good news inside the bad news.

Indeed, while the government did impose a tax on “speculation” (and discovered a Laffer Curve-effect when revenues came in below projections), there actually are some proposals to reduce the tax burden on saving and investment. For instance, the government has announced a move to lower the nation’s 33.99 percent corporate tax rate.

Under Minister Van Overtveldt’s current plan, the corporate tax rate would be reduced to 28% in 2017, 24% in 2018 and 20% in 2020, and would ultimately apply to companies of all sizes. At 20%, Belgium’s corporate tax rate would fall just below the EU average and would place the country in a more competitive – but not a leading – position within its peer group. …In addition, the Finance Minister is considering abolishing the Fairness Tax as well as the minimum tax on capital gains on shares, as advocated by the Chamber. The plan also includes a full tax deduction on qualifying dividends received from subsidiaries, as is the case in the Netherlands and Luxembourg, in lieu of the current deduction of 95%.

There are some offsetting tax hikes in this new plan, so this proposal presumably isn’t as good as it sounds, but it’s hard to argue with an initiative that drops the corporate rate by almost 14 percentage points.

So while I don’t like the theoretical concept of a tax shift from labor to capital, the net effect of all the tax changes in Belgium may be positive for the simple reason that the anti-growth part of the shift isn’t happening.

But regardless of what eventually happens, it is unlikely that Belgium will make much long-run progress because the country is burdened by one of the largest public sectors in the world.

Here some data from the OECD on the burden of government spending in Western Europe (and the United States). As you can see, Belgium isn’t as bad as France, but it’s worse than Greece, Sweden, and Italy.

The bottom line is that you can’t have a non-punitive tax system when government is consuming half of what the private sector produces.

So I think I’m semi-happy with what Belgian politicians are doing in the short run (reserving the right to change my mind as more details are unveiled), but I don’t have much long-term hope in the absence of effective reforms to shrink the burden of government spending.

But hope springs eternal. Maybe the government will adopt a Swiss-style spending cap.

P.S. Here’s a story that tells you everything you need to know about Belgium’s bloated public sector.

P.P.S. And if you look at America’s long-run fiscal projections, the problems in Belgium today will be problems in the United States in the not-too-distant future.

I’m somewhat chagrined that my collection of libertarian-oriented humor contains more jokes created by statists to make fun of libertarians rather than the other way around.

Since everyone should have the ability to laugh at themselves, I certainly don’t mind sharing clever humor mocking libertarians (such as the how-the-world-sees-libertarians collage).

That being said, I would like to augment my collection with more mockery of statists (such as Libertarian Jesus).

Well, the good news (so to speak) is that the Tweedledee and Tweedledum choice that we’ve been given by the two main parties is a target-rich environment for political humor.

Building on what I shared last week, let’s look at some amusing analysis of the Clinton-Trump (Clump) contest.

Some masochistic readers may have watched the first Clump debate and you may even be thinking about subjecting yourself to one of the upcoming debates. If you do, this drinking game may help preserve your sanity.

But if you’re not a heavy drinker (or don’t want to become one within the first 10 minutes of the next debate), perhaps you can modify the game so it resembles the state-of-the-union bingo game I shared back in 2012.

Our next bit of humor is from the folks at Balanced Rebellion, who put together this clever video giving Democrats and Republicans an option to preserve their dignity.

Heck, since they equate their idea to Tinder, maybe they can even turn it into a dating service after the election.

P.S. Some folks have written to ask why I haven’t produced election predictions, like I did back in 2012. I suppose I’ll force myself to do that in the next few weeks, but I can safely say at this point that America will lose regardless of who wins.

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