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Posts Tagged ‘Big Government’

I’ve made very serious (and hopefully substantive) arguments about why small government and free markets are the recipe for prosperity.

Simply stated, profit and loss is a powerful feedback mechanism, and entrepreneurs and business owners who want to make money face constant pressure to attract consumers by offering better products at affordable prices.

These forces are so powerful that the private sector even does a good job in some areas that most people assume are reserved for government, such as criminal justice, roads, and airport security.

But let’s examine this issue today from a whimsical perspective. I found a couple of clever images on Reddit‘s libertarian page.

Here’s the first example, which will make instantaneous sense for anyone who’s ever walked into a McDonald’s and a DMV on the same day.

The second example is more elaborate, but makes a similar point. Those of us with gray hair have seen the amazing developments produced by the private sector in this collage.

But can anyone think of something that has improved in the public sector?

For what it’s worth, the two cars in the column for the private sector don’t look that different. But, once again, those with gray hair will probably remember how often they used to break down in the past. The computerized engines have greatly improved operations and maintenance. Not to mention map programs, built-in TVs for the kids in the back seat, and other positive changes.

Let’s close with a serious point. Yes, business owners are greedy. They’re looking out for their own self interest. They would love to charge us high prices.

But a system of free enterprise means that they can only earn money if they cater to our needs and wants. And so long as politicians aren’t showering them with bailouts, subsidies, protection, or handouts, that means they compete to provide us ever-better goods and services at ever-more-affordable prices.

In other words, Adam Smith was right.

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There are some core functions of government, even in a libertarian world. The most prominent examples are national defense by the central government and public safety at the state/local level.

So how do we make sure those functions are handled competently? I’ve argued that we’ll get the best results if the public sector is streamlined and elected officials have more ability to focus on genuine “public goods.”

Not everyone shares my perspective. Fareed Zakaria asserts in today’s Washington Post that hurricanes and wildfires show the need for bigger government. I’m not joking. Here’s how he starts.

…one cannot help but think about the crucial role that government plays in our lives. But while we accept, even celebrate, the role of government in the wake of…disasters, we are largely blind to the need for government to mitigate these kinds of crises in the first place.

I would argue that natural disasters sometimes show competence and courage by state and local first responders (along with private volunteers), but I’m much less sanguine about the role of the federal government, which comes in after the danger is over and starts spreading around money in ways that increase the likelihood of future problems.

But let’s set that aside and consider Zakaria’s broader argument about whether the United States is suffering from inadequate government. I’m not sure what world he’s living in, but he seems to think that America is some sort of libertarian dystopia, with an anemic public sector.

Ever since President Ronald Reagan, much of the United States has embraced an ideological framework claiming that government is the source of our problems. …Reagan argued for a retreat from the vision of an activist state and advocated instead a strictly limited role for government, one dedicated to core functions such as national defense. …Reagan’s worldview…has stayed in place for decades as a rigid ideology, even though we have entered a new age in which America has faced a very different set of challenges, often desperately requiring an activist government.

I wish this was true. I’d be delighted if “Reagan’s worldview” was “in place for decades.”

In reality, government spending is much higher today than it was in the 1980s. Even after adjusting for inflation, the federal budget is twice as big today as it was during the Reagan years (and it’s huge compared to its size for much of America’s history).

Call me crazy, but that’s not my definition of a “strictly limited…government.”

What’s especially amazing is one of the examples Zakaria used to justify more government.

We watched as financial institutions took on more and more risk, with other people’s money, effectively gambling in a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose system. Any talk of regulation was seen as socialist. Even after the system blew up, causing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the calls soon came to deregulate the financial sector once again.

Does he really not know that the financial services sector has been heavily regulated for decades?

Even more amazing, does he not know that government policies such as Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac subsidies and TARP bailouts are what creates the heads-I-win, tails-you-lose environment?

Does he really think a bigger federal government is the way to solve these problem when it was federal intervention that caused the financial crisis?

To be fair, he does raise some issues that are a challenge, such as how to have free trade with countries that use government intervention to distort trade. But he doesn’t offer any suggestions of how to solve such problems while avoiding the risk of 1930s-style tit-for-tat protectionism.

His closing comment basically argues that we need more government because of what is sometimes called creative destruction.

We are living in an age of revolutions, natural and human, that are buffeting individuals and communities. We need government to be more than a passive observer of these trends and forces. It needs to actively shape and manage them. Otherwise, the ordinary individual will be powerless.

I’m tempted to respond that we’ve always had creative destruction. And, yes, it is very disruptive. But it’s also why we’re much richer today that we were in the past.

And it’s very likely that we wouldn’t be nearly as rich today if people like Zakaria had power “to actively shape and manage” the economy in the 1800s and 1900s. Heck, the reason why places such as Greece and Venezuela are such a mess is that politicians did a steroid-fueled version of shaping and managing.

Let’s close by circling back to the issue of how to increase government effectiveness. The European Central Bank produced a very rigorous study back in 2003 that measured public sector performance and public sector efficiency in OECD nations.

What the economists found, unsurprisingly, is that smaller governments did a better job than medium governments. And, needless to say, medium governments did a better job than big governments.

And the ECB came up with equally strong results in a 2006 study that looked at a larger list of countries.

It’s also worth mentioning, given current debates over whether certain activities are better handled in Washington or at the state level, that the International Monetary Fund (yes, even the IMF) found that decentralized systems do a measurably better job in delivering public services.

These studies echo what I wrote, using the Ebola virus as an example, about how smaller government is naturally more competent. And Mark Steyn made the same point, albeit in a more entertaining fashion.

P.S. My all-time favorite example of the disconnect between big government and competent government is Belgium, where the public sector consumes more than 50 percent of the economy’s output, yet a bureaucrat said it was hard to fight terrorism “due to the small size of the Belgian government.”

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I wrote a four-part series about how governments are waging a war against cash, with the first two columns looking at why politicians are so interested in taking this radical step.

  • In Part I, I looked at the argument that cash should be banned or restricted so governments could more easily collect additional tax revenue.
  • In Part II, I reviewed the argument that cash should be curtailed so that governments could more easily impose Keynesian-style monetary policy.

Part III and Part IV are also worth reading, though I confess you’ll just get additional evidence to bolster what I wrote in the first two columns.

Today, let’s look at a real-world example of what happens when a government seeks to curtail cash. It happened in India last November, and I wrote about the disruption that was caused when the government banned certain notes.

But maybe the short-run costs were acceptable because there are long-run benefits. That’s certainly possible, but the evidence suggests that the Indian government is doing long-run damage.

Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute has a new column on what’s happening with India’s economy. He is not impressed.

There is certainly a long-standing and extensive corruption problem. The discussion of “black money” has become so absurd, however, that it has little relation to corruption. …Taking currency notes out of circulation in a surprise move late last year was said to target black money inside the country. Seizure of cash was justified by a huge amount of hidden funds. …For political reasons, black money is being wildly exaggerated as an economic issue. …Directly related to hoping there is trillions in black money is wanting to tax those mythical trillions. All governments chase revenue but India’s pursuit seems especially misguided. …Good policy enhances competition and individual economic rights for the sake of greater productivity and personal income. Being obsessed with black money, tax revenue, and GDP growth does nothing to enhance competition or individual rights and leaves ordinary Indians worse off.

India’s central bank is even more critical, bluntly stating that the plan failed, as reported by the BBC.

Indians returned almost all of the high-currency notes banned in last year’s shock government crackdown on illegal cash, the central bank says. It said 15.28tn rupees ($242bn) – or 99% – of the money had made its way back into the banking system. Ministers had hoped the move would make it difficult for hoarders of undeclared wealth to exchange it for legal tender. The news that it did not will raise questions about the policy, which brought chaotic scenes across India. …Many low-income Indians, traders and ordinary savers who rely on the cash economy were badly hit. …As per the RBI data, it’s safe to say that demonetisation has been a failure of epic proportions. …Agriculture, the rural economy and property – which rely largely on cash transactions – were sectors hit by the ban. It also contributed to a slowdown in economic growth.

Indeed, the former head of the central bank warned the government ahead of time that the plan wouldn’t work. Here are some details from a Bloomberg story.

Raghuram Rajan was governor of the Reserve Bank of India in February 2016, when he was asked by the government for his views on demonetization… “Although there may be long-term benefits, I felt the likely short-term economic costs would outweigh them, and felt there were potentially better alternatives to achieve the main goals,” he wrote in the book. “I made these views known in no uncertain terms.” …speculation has raged over who thought up the policy, with the debate getting more divisive last week as a slew of data showed demonetization contributed to a growth slump without meeting its targets. …the cash ban devastated small businesses. More than 1.5 million jobs were said to be lost and newspapers reported deaths linked to the decision.

Rajan correctly observed that the best way to boost tax compliance is with low tax rates.

“It’s not that easy to flush out the black money,” Rajan had said, using the local term for cash stashed away illegally to avoid tax. He added that he’d rather focus on the incentives for black money, such as tax rates.

Amen. This is a point I’ve made over and over and over and over again.

Meanwhile, the Indian Express also has a column, written by a former Chief Economist at the World Bank, on how demonetization has been a failure.

…a wealth of analysis and data have become available. Demonetisation’s half-anniversary is a good time to take stock of this historic decision. The verdict is clear. It was a monetary policy blunder. It achieved next to nothing, and inflicted a large cost on the poor and the informal sector. …demonetisation took the wind out of India’s sails. My calculation is that around 1.5 percentage points of growth were lost to it.

A column in the Harvard Business Review pours cold water on the notion that demonetization is an effective way of reducing corruption.

The original reason given for the drastic demonetization action was to expose the so-called “black” market, fueled by money that is illegally gained and undeclared for tax purposes. …banks were estimated to have received 14.97 trillion rupees (around $220 billion) by the December 30 deadline, or 97% of the 15.4 trillion rupees’ worth of currency demonetized. …These rates of deposits defied expectations that vast troves of undeclared wealth would not find their way back to the banks and that black marketeers would lose this money since they would not be able to deposit their undeclared cash without being found out. This didn’t happen.

It probably “didn’t happen” because the government was wildly wrong when it claimed that cash was the problem.

…when corrupt people need places to park their ill-gotten gains, cash normally is not at the top of their list. Only a tiny proportion of undeclared wealth is held in cash. In an analysis of income-tax probes, the highest level of illegal money detection in India was found to be in 2015–2016, and the cash component was only about 6%. The remaining was invested in business, stocks, real estate, jewelry, or “benami” assets, which are bought in someone else’s name.

Indeed, the Washington Post reports that the new notes already are being used for illegal purposes.

For the first few weeks of demonetization, it was common to meet Indians who felt that their collective suffering and inconvenience was justified because it would ultimately usher in a less corrupt, more equal India. But as the initiative enters its second month, more and more reports are emerging of seizures of vast quantities of hoarded cash in the new notes. Like water reaching the sea, the corrupt, it seems, have found ways to navigate around the government’s new obstacles. …A sense is building that while millions of Indians languish in ATM lines, the old black money system is simply restarting itself with the new notes.

The real story is that the corruption is caused by government, not cash.

The biggest question is how people are getting their hands on such huge stashes of the new currency. …one way: visiting your local politician.

What’s especially disappointing is that the United States government took money from American taxpayers and used those funds to encourage India’s failed policy.

And here are some excerpts from a report by the Hindu.

The United States on Wednesday described India’s demonetisation drive as an “important and necessary” step to curb illicit cash and actions. “…this was, we believe, an important and necessary step to crack down on illegal actions,” Mark Toner, State Department spokesperson, said in response to a question. …Acknowledging that the move inconvenienced people, Mr. Toner said it was “a necessary one to address the corruption.”

It’s worth pointing out that the U.S. government was encouraging India’s bad policy during the waning days of the Obama Administration, so it’s possible that taxpayers no longer will be funding bad policy now that Trump is in the White House.

I hope there’s a change, but I won’t hold my breath. The permanent bureaucracy has a statist orientation and it takes a lot of work for political appointees to shift policy in a different direction. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think that will happen

P.S. The Indian government also is hurting the nation – and poor people – with a value-added tax. Bloomberg has a report on some of the misery.

Before Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced the country’s new goods and services tax on July 1, Ansari said he was earning 6,000 rupees ($93) a day selling leather jackets, wallets, bags and belts. But India’s new tax classified leather products as luxury items and raised the rate to 28 percent — more than double the 13.5 percent tax levied until June 30. Since then, his business has collapsed. “My business is down nearly 75 percent,” Ansari said… India’s vast informal economy — which accounts for more than 90 percent of the workforce — is struggling under India’s new tax rates…broader pain being felt by many small-and-medium-sized businesses in India’s informal sector, said K.E. Raghunathan, president of the All India Manufacturers Organisation.

The bottom line is that India needs more economic liberty, building on some good reforms in the 1990s. Unfortunately, politicians today are delivering bigger government.

P.P.S. If you want to read about some symptoms of India’s bloated government, the country has a member in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame, it also produced the most horrifying example of how handouts create bad incentives, and it mistreats private schools to compensate for the wretched failure of government schools.

P.P.P.S. Here’s a very powerful factoid. America has many immigrant populations that earn above-average incomes. But, by far, Indian-Americans are the most successful.

Just imagine, then, how fast India would grow and how rich the people would be with Hong Kong-style economic liberty?

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I wrote last week about evil of totalitarian ideologies such as communism and fascism and pointed out that both antifa and Nazis should be treated with complete disdain and ostracism.

And that led me to find common ground with my left-of-center friends, even though I don’t like many of their policies.

I don’t like redistribution…programs are financed with taxes and that the internal revenue code is enforced by coercion…if you catch me in a cranky mood, I’ll be like the stereotypical libertarian at Thanksgiving dinner and wax poetic about what’s wrong with the system. That being said, I much prefer the coercion found in western democracies compared to the totalitarian versions of coercion found in many other parts of the world. At least we have the rule of law, which limits (however imperfectly) capricious abuse by government officials. …our Constitution still protects many personal liberties, things that can’t be taken for granted in some places. Moreover, there is only a trivially small risk of getting abused by the state in western nations because you have unpopular views. And there’s little danger of persecution by government (at least nowadays) based on factors such as race and religion. This is what makes liberal democracy a good form of government (with “liberal” in this case being a reference to classical liberalism rather than the modern version). Unfortunately, there are some people in America that don’t believe in these principles.

Now let’s look at an aspect of this issue from a left-of-center perspective.

Writing for the New Republic, John Judis analyzes the different types of socialism. He starts with some personal history of his time as a socialist activist.

In the early 1970s, I was a founding member of the New American Movement, a socialist group… Five years later, I was finished with…socialist organizing. …nobody seemed to know how socialism—which meant, to me, democratic ownership and control of the “means of production”—would actually work… Would it mean total nationalization of the economy? …wouldn’t that put too much political power in the state? The realization that a nationalized economy might also be profoundly inefficient, and disastrously slow to keep up with global markets, only surfaced later with the Soviet Union’s collapse. But even then, by the mid-1970s, I was wondering what being a socialist really meant in the United States.

He then notes that socialism has made a comeback, at least if some opinion polls (but not others) and the campaign of Bernie Sanders are any indication.

…much to my surprise, socialism is making a comeback. The key event has been the campaign of self-identified democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, who almost won the Democratic nomination and is now reputedly the most popular politician in America. Several opinion polls have also found that young people now think favorably of socialism and ill of capitalism… For the first time since the ‘60s, socialism looks like a politics with a future in the United States.

But Judis notes that it’s unclear what socialism means.

The old nostrums about ownership and control of the means of production simply don’t resonate in 2017. …In the 2016 campaign, however, Sanders began to define a socialism that could grow… I think there is an important place for the kind of democratic socialism that Sanders espoused.

He says there are many flavors of socialism, but ultimately puts them in two camps.

There is no scientific definition of socialism… It’s a political tradition with many different flavors—Marxist, Christian, social-democratic, Fabian, Owenite, Leninist, Maoist. In looking at the choices facing American socialists now, …a choice between a socialism rooted in Marx’s apocalyptical promise of revolution, or the abolition of capitalism and a socialism that works more gradually toward the incorporation of public power and economic equality within capitalism. One could be called “Marxist socialism” and the other “social democratic”—or, to borrow from John Maynard Keynes, “liberal socialism.”

And “liberal socialism” basically means capitalism combined with European-style redistributionism.

In Western Europe, …socialists were forced to define their objectives more clearly. And what has emerged is a liberal conception of socialism. …social democracy has probably reached its acme in the Nordic countries, where the left has ruled governments for most of last half-century. …That’s not Marx’s vision of socialism, or even Debs’s. In Europe, workers have significant say in what companies do. They don’t control or own them. Private property endures. …private capital is given leave to gain profits through higher productivity, even if that results in layoffs and bankruptcies. But the government is able to extract a large share of the economic surplus that these firms create in order to fund a full-blown welfare state.

Which means “liberal socialism” is, well, liberalism (the modern version, i.e., statism, though Thomas Sowell has a more unflattering term to describe it).

By the standards of Marxist socialism, this kind of social democracy appears to be nothing more than an attenuated form of capitalism. …But…As the Soviet experiment with blanket nationalization showed, it can’t adjust to the rapid changes in industry created by the introduction of automation and information technology. …the market is a better indicator of prices than government planning. …the older Marxist model of socialism may not even be compatible with popular democracy. …What’s the difference between this kind of socialist politics and garden-variety liberalism? Not much. …American socialists need to do what the Europeans did after World War II and bid goodbye to the Marxist vision of democratic control and ownership of the means of production. They need to recognize that what is necessary now—and also conceivable—is not to abolish capitalism, but to create socialism within it.

For what it’s worth, the leftists I know are believers in “liberal democracy,” which is good, and they also are believers in “liberal socialism,” which is good, at least when compared to “Marxist socialism.” Sort of like comparing Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to Nicolás Maduro and Kim Jong Un.

I disagree with Obama and Clinton, of course, and I would argue that what they want is bad compared to small-government capitalism.

But I utterly despise the totalitarian regimes in Venezuela and North Korea.

Let’s conclude by highlighting a key difference between “liberal socialists” and supporters of small government. My leftist friends are content to allow capitalism so long as they can impose high taxes on “economic surplus” to finance lots of redistribution.

They think that such policies don’t cause significant economic harm. I try to explain to them that punishing success and subsidizing dependency is not a good recipe for long-run prosperity. And I also tell them that demographic changes make their policies very unsustainable.

But at least these decent people on the left are not totalitarians. So when I look at this amusing image from Reddit‘s libertarian page, I agree that everyone who supports big government is a collectivist of sorts. But “Social Democracy” (assuming that’s akin to “liberal socialism”) is not really the same creature as the other forms of collectivism (assuming “social justice” is akin to antifa).

Which is why this image is more accurate.

The bottom line is that Nordic-style big government is misguided, but state-über-alles totalitarianism is irredeemably horrible.

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Back in April, I looked at the candidates running for the French presidency and half-jokingly wondered which one would win the right to preside over the country’s decline.

But once the field was winnowed to two candidates, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, I wrote that voters should pick the socialist over the socialist. My title was sarcastic, but I was making a serious point that Marine Le Pen had a very statist platform, whereas I cited evidence that Macron had some sensible proposals.

Mr. Macron aims to rebalance the economy by cutting 120,000 public sector jobs, streamlining the pension system and dropping state spending back to 52 percent of G.D.P. Mr. Macron leads an emerging centrist consensus that recognizes that…the main obstacle retarding France’s economy is its attachment to a welfare state culture of…generous benefits. …Mr. Macron…once said that stifling taxes threaten to turn France into “Cuba without the sun”.

Indeed, in addition to the reforms listed in the Macron has proposed to lower France’s corporate tax rate to 25 percent, and he also want to liberalize labor markets.

All of which seems rather surreal. After all, Macron was a minister in the failed socialist government of Francois Hollande, so who would have thought that we would be the one to lead an effort to shrink the burden of government?

Yet consider the fiscal agenda President Macron is pushing.

France’s 2018 budget will focus on cutting taxes to boost economic activity as the government seeks to cement its support among the business community, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said. …Philippe told RTL Radio on Wednesday he wants to lower levies that “hurt the competitiveness of our country.” Government ministries this week received letters setting out their spending limits for 2018. President Emmanuel Macron is seeking cuts of 20 billion euros ($23 billion) and tax reductions of 11 billion euros next year… “We have to get out of the spiral of public spending,” government spokesman Christophe Castaner said in a separate interview on France Inter. “France has been addicted to ever increasing spending, paid for by taxes.”

Wow. I wish the Republicans in Washington were as sensible as these French socialists (actually, since they created a new party, it would be more accurate to say they are former socialists).

But there is precedent for this kind of surprise. It was the left-wing parties that started the process of pro-market reforms in Australia and New Zealand. And it was a Social Democrat government in Germany that enacted the labor-market reforms that have been so beneficial for that nation.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that French voters may have buyer’s regret.

The Wall Street Journal recently opined on this topic.

…the question isn’t whether Emmanuel Macron can save France. The question is whether France can save itself. Voters have the best chance in a generation to revive an economy in decline, yet they seem to quail at the critical moment. …voters are having second thoughts about economic reform. Mr. Macron’s approval started falling in July after he announced plans to cut housing benefits—by €5 a month for each recipient. Feminists are in arms over his plan to reduce the government’s women’s-rights budget to €20 million ($23.6 million) from €30 million. That’s before he gets to the labor reforms that will dominate the autumn.

Shifting from the editorial page, the WSJ has a report on the growing opposition to reform.

As Emmanuel Macron sets out to shake up France’s rigid labor market, the young president is losing the public support he may need to weather protests by the country’s powerful unions. …Mr. Macron will have to tread carefully in rolling out his labor reforms in September. For months, the 39-year-old president has been in talks with powerful labor unions in a bid to contain planned street protests. Now the prospect is growing that the ranks of those demonstrations could swell with students, retirees and other segments of French society… Mr. Macron’s government wants to make it easier for French firms to hire and fire workers. …The hard-left General Confederation of Labor, France’s most militant union, is already calling for strikes and demonstrations.

It’s not surprising, of course, to see opposition from those seeking to protect their privileges.

Though it theoretically shouldn’t matter since Macron’s party has a huge majority in the French Assembly.

That being said, politicians do have a habit of buckling when faced with voter unrest.

And Macron is committing some unforced errors, as reported by the U.K.-based Telegraph.

Emmanuel Macron spent €26,000 (£24,000) on makeup during his first three months as president of France, it has emerged. …Le Point reported that his personal makeup artist – referred to only as Natacha M – put in two bills, one for €10,000 and another for €16,000.The Elysee Palace defended the high fee saying: “We called in a contracter as a matter of urgency”. The same makeup artist also applied foundation to Mr Macron during his presidential campaign. Aides said that spending on makeup would be “significantly reduced”. …Le Point put the overall figure for Mr Hollande’s makeup at €30,000 per quarter. Nicolas Sarkozy, meanwhile, paid a whopping €8,000 per month for his, according to Vanity Fair.

Since it appears that these costs are borne by taxpayers, this is all rather depressing.

Macron, however, at least can claim that he’s not the most frivolous with other people’s money. Monsieur Hollande won the prize for waste when you add his hairdresser to the equation.

…all these sums pale into comparison with the £99,000 Mr Hollande paid his personal barber. The huge amount sparked accusations of “shampoo Socialism”. …The hairdresser, Olivier Benhamou, was hired to work at the Elysée Palace in 2012 for the duration of Mr Hollande’s five-year term.  Mr Benhamou also reportedly enjoyed a housing allowance and family benefits.

As I wrote about this last year and suggested that this narcissistic waste made Hollande eligible to win the “Politician of the Year” contest.

But let’s shift back to the serious issue of economic liberalization.

To be blunt, France’s economy is suffocating from statism. I’m not even sure what’s the biggest problem.

The answer is “all of the above,” with is why France desperately needs pro-market reform.

We’ll learn later this year whether Macron can save his country.

P.S. The story that tells you everything you need to know about France was the poll last decade revealing that more than half the population would flee to America if they had the opportunity.

P.P.S. If it wasn’t for France, we never would have had the opportunity to enjoy this very clever and amusing Scott Stantis cartoon.

P.P.P.S. Or watch this rather revealing Will Smith interview about French taxation.

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To be blunt, Republicans are heading in the wrong direction on fiscal policy. They have full control of the executive and legislative branches, but instead of using their power to promote Reaganomics, it looks like we’re getting a reincarnation of the big-government Bush years.

As Yogi Berra might have said, “it’s deja vu all over again.”

Let’s look at the evidence. According to the Hill, the Keynesian virus has infected GOP thinking on tax cuts.

Republicans are debating whether parts of their tax-reform package should be retroactive in order to boost the economy by quickly putting more money in people’s wallets.

That is nonsense. Just as giving people a check and calling it “stimulus” didn’t help the economy under Obama, giving people a check and calling it a tax cut won’t help the economy under Trump.

Tax cuts boost growth when they reduce the marginal tax rate on productive behavior such as work, saving, investment, or entrepreneurship. When that happens, people have an incentive to generate more income. And that leads to more national income, a.k.a., economic growth.

Borrowing money from the economy’s left pocket and then stuffing checks (oops, I mean retroactive tax cuts) in the economy’s right pocket, by contrast, simply reallocates national income.

Indeed, this is one of the reasons why the economy didn’t get much benefit from the 2001 Bush tax cut, especially when compared to the growth-oriented 2003 tax cut. Unfortunately, Republicans haven’t learned that lesson.

Republicans have taken steps in the past to ensure that taxpayers directly felt the benefits of tax cuts. As part of the 2001 tax cuts enacted by President George W. Bush, taxpayers received rebate checks.

The article does include some analysis from people who understand that retroactive tax cuts aren’t economically beneficial.

…there are also drawbacks to making tax changes retroactive. …such changes would add to the cost of the bill, but would not be an effective way to encourage new spending and investments. “It has all of the costs of the tax cuts but none of the economic benefits,” said Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget President Maya MacGuineas, who added that “you don’t make investments in the rear-view mirror.”

I’m not always on the same side as Maya, but she’s right on this issue. You can’t encourage people to generate more income in the past. If you want more growth, you have to reduce marginal tax rates on future activity.

By the way, I’m not arguing that there is no political benefit to retroactive tax cuts. If Republicans simply stated that they were going to send rebate checks to curry favor with voters, I’d roll my eyes and shrug my shoulders.

But when they make Keynesian arguments to justify such a policy, I can’t help but get upset about the economic illiteracy.

Speaking of bad economic policy, GOPers also are pursuing bad spending policy.

Politico has a report on a potential budget deal where everyone wins…except taxpayers.

The White House is pushing a deal on Capitol Hill to head off a government shutdown that would lift strict spending caps long opposed by Democrats in exchange for money for President Donald Trump’s border wall with Mexico, multiple sources said.

So much for Trump’s promise to get tough on the budget, even if it meant a shutdown.

Instead, the back-room negotiations are leading to more spending for all interest groups.

Marc Short, the White House’s director of legislative affairs, …also lobbied for a big budget increase for the Pentagon, another priority for Trump. …The White House is offering Democrats more funding for their own pet projects.

The only good news is that Democrats are so upset about the symbolism of the fence that they may not go for the deal.

Democrats show no sign of yielding on the issue. They have already blocked the project once.

Unfortunately, I expect this is just posturing. When the dust settles, I expect the desire for more spending (from both parties) will produce a deal that is bad news. At least for those of us who don’t want America to become Greece (any faster than already scheduled).

Republican and Democratic congressional aides have predicted for months that both sides will come together on a spending agreement to raise spending caps for the Pentagon as well as for nondefense domestic programs.

So let’s check our scorecard. On the tax side of the equation, we’ll hopefully still get some good policy, such as a lower corporate tax rate, but it probably will be accompanied by some gimmicky Keynesian policy.

On the spending side of the equation, it appears my fears about Trump may have been correct and he’s going to be a typical big-government Republican.

It’s possible, of course, that I’m being needlessly pessimistic and we’ll get the kinds of policies I fantasized about in early 2016. But I wouldn’t bet money on a positive outcome.

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The internal revenue code is a reprehensible mess that torments taxpayers and undermines American competitiveness.

The good news is that Americans don’t like the tax system.

The bad news is that they don’t dislike it nearly as much as they should. At least in my humble opinion.

There are two reasons for the inadequate level of disdain.

  • First, nearly half of all households are no longer are subject to the income tax. Indeed, the system is actually a revenue generator for some households since the EITC wage subsidy is a redistribution program laundered through the tax code.
  • Second, many people get a warm and fuzzy feeling when they file their taxes because of the expectation that they will get a sizable refund, even though that payment from the IRS is simply a reflection of having paid too much tax during the prior year.

For those of us who want to scrap the tax system, this is a challenge.

And I’m not shy about admitting the problem.

About three-quarters typically get money back, with refunds so far this year averaging almost $3,000. For many, it will be the single biggest payment they receive all year. …the fact that so many people are getting paid by the IRS, and not the other way around, takes some of the edge off a day when they’re trying to stoke public anger at the tax system. “The fact that people are looking forward to tax time rubs me the wrong way,” said Dan Mitchell, a tax expert at the libertarian Cato Institute. “I would like them to be upset.”

I also have a good idea of why the problem exists.

It’s withholding. And it started back during World War II. Here’s some background.

During the war, tax rates went up, and a broader number of people were expected to pay them. Professor Anuj Desai from the University of Wisconsin Law School said there was a saying that income tax went from “a class tax to a mass tax.” …“The thought was that if we withhold a little bit every bit every paycheck, people won’t have to worry about the problem of coming up with a huge chunk of money,” Desai said. But withholding is also a remarkably efficient way for the government to raise money, and policymakers knew that. …“You could never have the taxes that were levied during World War II without withholding. It was absolutely essential for that purpose,” economist Milton Friedman said in an interview… Friedman worked with the Treasury Department at the time withholding was introduced. Withholding stuck around after the war, much to Friedman’s chagrin. “Unfortunately, once you got it installed, it’s almost impossible to get rid of it,”  Friedman said. “It’s too useful to the people in power.”

Jeffrey Tucker of the Foundation for Economic Education elaborates.

The problem is…the withholding tax. Instead of being collected directly from the payer, the government  collects them “at the source,” which is to say that they are collected from the institution that pays wages and salaries — on behalf of the taxpayer. …one of the most amazingly brilliant innovations of the modern state. This tinkering with the system — the creation of the institution called withholding — has created an illusion that paying taxes is really about getting free money! When the check arrives from the government a month or so later, the taxpayer is actually tempted to think: wow, this is really great! A pillaging has been spun to look like a gift. …Withholding dramatically changed the psychology of paying taxes. It almost feels like you aren’t paying any at all. The worker gets used to how much after-tax income she makes and adapts to it quickly. Then when tax time arrives, there is no more to pay. Instead you file and find yourself on the receiving end of what seems like an unexpected gift of a check from government. Yet in reality your refund is nothing more than the belated return of a zero-interest loan you were forced to provide the government.

Exactly.

Every time I talk to somehow who is happy about a refund, I ask them whether they will give me an interest free loan instead. After all, I’d be happy to collect money from them all year long and then return it the following April.

But I’m digressing.

Jeffrey points out how the political dynamics of tax day would change in the absence of withholding.

If we really wanted to make a wonderful change in favor of transparency and decency, one that would mark a shift in people’s perceptions of the costs of government, the withholding tax could just be repealed completely. …every taxpayer would pay the full amount owed to the government every April 15 and otherwise receive full compensation the rest of the year. Such a seemingly small change would have a dramatic effect on public perceptions of taxation and government. Even from the age of 16, every citizen would have a more pungent reminder of the costs of government. We would no longer live the illusion that we can all get something for nothing and that government isn’t really expensive after all.

Ben Domenech of the Federalist agrees.

The overwhelming majority of Americans pay their taxes by having them extracted from their paychecks before they ever see the money. Operating under the fiction that the government is giving you money as opposed to returning what it has already taken is damaging to the psyche of the nation’s taxpayers. …Withholding was originally mandated as a wartime step, but its continuation since then disguises the property rights involved, essentially offers the government an interest free loan, and shields taxpayers from the ramifications of federal spending. The country would be better off if everyone experienced what entrepreneurs and business owners do: writing the most sizable checks every year to the government, and watching that hard-earned money walk out the door.

By the way, this isn’t merely impractical libertarian fantasy.

There’s a real-world example of a tax system where people actually write checks to the government and are much more aware of the cost of the public sector. It’s called Hong Kong, which is – not coincidentally – an economic success story in large part because of a good fiscal system.

And I would argue that good fiscal system exists because taxpayers are directly sensitive to the cost of government (it also helps that there’s a spending cap in Hong Kong).

Let’s close with some government propaganda. This Disney cartoon was produced before withholding. As you can see the government basically had to make the case that people should set aside money out of their paychecks so they would have enough money to make periodic tax payments.

This was a plausible case when seeking to finance a war against National Socialism and Japanese imperialism. It wouldn’t be nearly as persuasive today when the government seems to specialize in financing waste, fraud, and abuse.

P.S. At the bottom of this column, you can watch a much better cartoon from the 1940s.

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