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Posts Tagged ‘Big Government’

Let’s take a look at President Obama’s economic legacy.

The Washington Examiner opines on President Obama’s remarkable claim that he saved the world economy.

President Obama…wants to be remembered for…[being]…the savior of the American and global economies. “There are things I’m proud of,” he said, citing Obamacare, then added, “Saving the world economy from a Great Depression, that was pretty good.”

Not so fast. Looking at the economy’s anemic numbers the editors are less than impressed.

Obama will end eight years in office without presiding over a thriving economy of the sort America enjoyed in the past. It also suggests that even the mediocre growth of recent years depended on high oil prices, which have collapsed by more than half. This is the bitter fruit of creationist economics, the erroneous belief that government activity can somehow conjure new wealth and value.

The Wall Street Journal is similarly dour about Obama’s economic legacy.

When did Americans decide that 1% or 2% economic growth is acceptable, that puny wage increases are inevitable, and that we should all merely shrug and get used to the country’s diminished expectations? …the first quarter is further evidence of what has been the weakest economic expansion in the postwar era. …All of this continues the slow-or-slower pace of this entire expansion that began nearly seven years ago. Each year has had a similar GDP dip, and growth has never exceeded 2.5% (2010). The American economy hasn’t grown by more than 3% since 2005 (3.3%), the longest such stretch of malaise that we can find in the Bureau of Economic analysis tables going back to 1930. …Faster growth is possible, but it will take better policies.

In a column for Bloomberg, Narayana Kocherlakota, looks at what’s happened and compares it to what CBO projected would happen.

it’s not hard to see why many people are disappointed with the performance of the economy during Obama’s time in office. In January 2009, at the beginning of Obama’s first term, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office issued a 10-year forecast for the U.S. economy, including such indicators as unemployment, gross domestic product, the budget deficit, government debt and interest rates. …The unemployment rate has come closest to expectations. …Elsewhere, the story is less positive. Total income growth in the U.S. has fallen well short of expectations, in both nominal and inflation-adjusted terms. …the federal budget deficit…still much larger than the CBO forecast in 2009 — as is the ratio of government debt to GDP.

Here’s his chart.

Last, but not least, Louis Woodhill shares some numbers that capture Obama’s real legacy.

America’s elites have largely given up on growth, and are now distracting themselves with academic musings about “secular stagnation.” …assuming 2.67% RGDP growth for 2016, Obama will leave office having produced an average of 1.55% growth. This would place his presidency fourth from the bottom of the list of 39*, above only those of Herbert Hoover (-5.65%), Andrew Johnson (-0.70%) and Theodore Roosevelt (1.41%)

What makes this final comparison so damning is that Obama had the comparative good fortune to enter office in the middle of a recession. Which means, all things equal, that his numbers should look very positive.

Instead, he’s managed to compile one of the worst track records.

When I do comparisons, I like using the interactive recession/recovery site of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, which allows users to compare every recession and recovery since the end of World War II.

Here’s how President Obama (red line) ranks on GDP growth.

As you can see, whether your starting point is the beginning of the recovery or the beginning of the recession, Obama is in last place.

He does slightly better on employment. He still has one of the worst records (again, the red line), but he does beat George W. Bush’s also-anemic performance on job creation.

By the way, some of you may be wondering why the employment data for Obama is so weak when the unemployment rate has significantly fallen.

The answer is that the unemployment rate doesn’t count people who have given up on finding a job, whereas the Minneapolis Fed data counts how many new jobs are being created.

And it’s the amount of people productively employed that matters if we want more economic output, so the Minneapolis Fed data is far more important and revealing than the official unemployment rate numbers.

Unfortunately, Obama and his team haven’t figured out (or simply don’t care) that jobs are more likely to be created when government is smaller rather than bigger.

By the way, this analysis presumably won’t be very compelling for Obama supporters because they’ll simply assert things could have been much worse without his policies.

They may even believe the President’s claim that he saved the American economy from a Great Depression.

But they overlook the fact that the economy normally bounces back quickly from a downturn. It was only during the 1930s, when Hoover and Roosevelt competed to impose bad policy, that a recession became a depression.

The bad news is that President Obama’s policies haven’t helped today’s economy, but the good news is that his policies are nowhere near as harmful as the combined statist agendas of Hoover and Roosevelt.

So if we want to learn a lesson on what works, the economy’s very strong boom under Reagan is a good case study. And if you want to go back further, the anti-Keynesian booms after World War I and World War II also teach important lessons.

P.S. President Obama is completely correct when he points out that America’s economy is generally stronger than European economies. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to realize what this implies.

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There’s a very powerful statement, variously attributed to Alexis de Toqueville, Benjamin Franklin, or Alexander Tytler, that basically warns that democracy is doomed when people figure out they can vote themselves money.

There’s no evidence that any of them actually spoke or wrote those words, though I guess it doesn’t matter that the quote didn’t originate with someone like Franklin. What does matter is that it accurately captures something very important, which is the tendency for governments to over-tax and over-spend once people decide that it’s okay to use government coercion to take other people’s money.

But it’s still nice to be able to cite something accurate. With this in mind, I came up with my Theorem of Societal Collapse. And I think it’s actually more accurate than the vote-themselves-money quote because democracy doesn’t necessarily lead to statism. What leads to bad outcomes is democracy combined with bad values.

And a pervasive belief in redistributionism is a bad value. Heck, it’s a self-destructive value. Consider Greece. When you add together the people getting welfare and disability to the people getting pension payments to the people on the government payroll, it turns out that a majority of people in the country are riding in the wagon of government dependency.

That’s bad. But what makes the Greek situation so hopeless is that those are the same people who vote. Which means there’s very little chance of getting a government that would implement good policy.

After all, why would the recipients of other people’s money vote for politicians who support limits on redistribution?

But I’m not just blaming voters. Politicians also deserve scorn and disdain because they are the ones who often seek votes by promising to take other people’s money.

Some observers would like to believe that these politicians will use their supposed superior expertise and knowledge about public policy to make appropriate tradeoffs and prevent the system from becoming over-burdened.

But that’s somewhat naive.

Indeed, 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. Here’s a partial description from the Library of Economics and Liberty.

As James Buchanan artfully defined it, public choice is “politics without romance.” The wishful thinking it displaced presumes that participants in the political sphere aspire to promote the common good. …public officials are portrayed as benevolent “public servants” who faithfully carry out the “will of the people.” …public choice, like the economic model of rational behavior on which it rests, assumes that people are guided chiefly by their own self-interests… As such, voters “vote their pocketbooks,” supporting candidates and ballot propositions they think will make them personally better off; bureaucrats strive to advance their own careers; and politicians seek election or reelection to office. Public choice, in other words, simply transfers the rational actor model of economic theory to the realm of politics. …collective decision-making processes allow the majority to impose its preferences on the minority.

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.

Indeed, public choice scholars explicitly recognize that unconstrained democracy can lead to bad results.

Public choice scholars have identified…deep…problems with democratic decision-making processes.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that their research suggests ways to compensate for the natural tendency of ever-expanding government.

Like that founding father of the American constitutional republic, public choice recognizes that men are not angels and focuses on the importance of the institutional rules… If, for example, democratic governments institutionally are incapable of balancing the public budget, a constitutional rule that limits increases in spending and taxes to no more than the private sector’s rate of growth will be more effective.

Hmmm…., a rule that limits the government so it doesn’t grow faster than the private sector.

Sounds like an idea worth embracing.

But while I like anything that builds support for the Golden Rule, I’m not sure it’s a sufficient condition for good policy.

Simply stated, we have too many examples of nations that followed the Golden Rule for several years, only to then fall off the wagon with a new splurge of spending.

There are two ways to deal with this problem. First, make the spending restraint part of a jurisdiction’s constitution, as we see in Switzerland and Hong Kong.

Second, augment the internal constraint of a spending cap with the external constraint of tax competition. Bluntly stated, destructive tax policies will be less likely when politicians are afraid that taxpayers will move across borders.

I spoke about this topic at a recent conference in Slovakia.

I also discuss the critical role of demographic change toward the end of my speech.

P.S. 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.

P.P.S. While it’s bad news to combine democracy with bad value, I want to emphasize that the problem is bad values. Most non-democratic societies have policies that are so evil and destructive (think Cuba and North Korea) that they make France seem like a beacon of economic liberty.

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The ongoing cluster-you-know-what of Obamacare is a source of unhappy satisfaction.

Part of me is glad the law is such a failure, but it’s tragic that millions of people are suffering adverse consequences. These are folks who did nothing wrong, but now are paying more, losing employment, suffering income losses, and/or being forced to find new plans and new doctors.

And it seems we get more bad news every day, as noted in a new editorial from Investor’s Business Daily.

ObamaCare rates will skyrocket next year, according to its former chief. Enrollment is tumbling this year. And a big insurer is quitting most exchanges. That’s what we learned in just the past few days.

Why do we know these three bad things are happening? Because that’s what we’re being told by Mary Tavenner, the former head of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services for the Obama Administration who has now cashed out and is pimping for the health insurance companies that got in bed with the White House to foist Obamacare on the American people.

IBD gives us the sordid details.

Why will 2017 rates spike even higher? In addition to the cost of complying with ObamaCare’s insurance regulations and mandates, there’s the fact that the ObamaCare exchanges have failed to attract enough young and healthy people needed to keep premiums down. Plus, two industry bailout programs expire this year, Tavenner notes. Oh, and she admits that people are gaming ObamaCare just like critics said they would: buying coverage after they get sick — since insurance companies can no longer turn them down or charge them more — then dropping it when they’re done with treatments. “That churn increases premiums. So you have to kind of price over that.”

And that’s just one slice of bad news.

Here’s more.

ObamaCare enrollment has already dropped an average of more than 14% in five states since February — a faster rate of decline than last year — as people get kicked off for not paying premiums. Finally, we learned on Tuesday that UnitedHealth Group (UNH) is planning to drop out of almost every ObamaCare market it currently serves after losing $1 billion on those policies. …Skyrocketing premiums, fewer choices in the marketplace, and people fleeing ObamaCare in droves after signing up. This isn’t exactly what Obama promised when he signed ObamaCare into law.

For those who were paying attention, none of this is a surprise. It was always a fantasy to think that more government intervention was going to improve a healthcare system that already was cumbersome and expensive because of previous government interventions.

By the way, IBD isn’t the only outlet to notice the ongoing disaster of Obamacare.

Let’s look at some other recent revelations.

Chris Jacobs writes that “For millions of Americans, the Left’s insurance utopia has rapidly deteriorated into a bleak dystopia” and that “the ‘cheaper prices’ that the president promised evaporated as quickly as the morning dew.”

John Graham explains that “CBO estimates Obamacare will leave 27 million uninsured through 2019 – an increase of almost one quarter” and that “CBO estimates 68 million will be dependent on the program this year through 2019 – an increase of almost one third in the welfare caseload.”

Betsy McCaughey opines that, “Obamacare is already hugely in the red. …over the next ten years Obamacare will add $1.4 trillion to the nation’s debt” and that “Insurers struggling with Obamacare are already drastically reducing your choice of doctors and hospitals to cut costs.”

Devon Herrick reveals that “Obamacare has caused more people to reach for their wallets after a medical encounter — not less” and that “all but the most heavily subsidized Obamacare enrollees would be better off financially if they skipped coverage and pay for their own medical care out of pocket.”

Jeffrey Anderson observes that “it seems possible that Obamacare has actually reduced the number of people with private health insurance” and that “Obamacare is basically an expensive Medicaid expansion coupled with 2,400 pages of liberty-sapping mandates.”

John Goodman notes that “Prior to Obamacare, many employers of low-wage workers offered their employees a “mini med” plan, covering, say, the first $25,000 of expenses” and that “Those plans are now gone… employees…are…completely uninsured”

The CEO of CKE Restaurants warns that “fewer people buying insurance through the exchanges, the economics aren’t holding up” and that “Ten of the 23 innovative health-insurance plans known as co-ops—established with $2.4 billion in ObamaCare loans—will be out of business by the end of 2015 because of weak balance sheets.”

Critics of Obamacare now get to say “we told you so.”

As the Washington Examiner opines:

…conservatives screamed a simple fact from the rooftops: Obamacare will not work. No one wanted to listen then, but their warnings are now coming into fruition. Obamacare, as constructed, attempted to fix a dysfunctional health care payment system by creating an even more complicated system on top of it, filled with subsidies, coverage mandates, and other artificial government incentives. But its result has been a system that plucked Americans out of coverage they like and forced them to pay more for less. …Taxpayers and insurance customers alike should demand replacing Obamacare with a system that reduces costs and improves quality by injecting actual choice and competition into the insurance market.

I especially like the last part of the excerpt. Which is why we need to go well beyond simply repealing Obamacare if we want to restore market forces to the healthcare sector.

P.S. I wrote about that it’s tragic that so many people are suffering because of Obamacare. I should add that there are some victims who actually are getting what they deserve.

P.P.S. In the long run, I fear taxpayers will be the biggest (and most undeserving) victims.

P.P.P.S.Though, in fairness, the law does have at least one redeeming feature.

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Since Pope Francis is very critical of capitalism, I suppose it’s fitting that he had a special meeting with America’s crazy-Uncle-in-the-attic, Bernie Sanders.

With my sixth-grade sense of humor, I confess that my initial instinct (perhaps motivated by the famous line from Animal House about “a wimp and a blimp“) was to write about “the Pope and the dope,” but I’m going to be somewhat mature and instead share some excerpts from a very good column by Charles Lane, an editorial writer for the Washington Post.

Here’s some of what he wrote before Senator Sanders’ departure.

Democratic socialist presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will depart soon for the Vatican… In keeping with Pope Francis’s call for a “moral economy,” Sanders has said he’ll discuss “how we address the massive levels of wealth and income inequality that exist around the world, how we deal with unemployment, how we deal with poverty and how we create an economy that works for all people rather than the few.”

While inequality should be a non-issue (assuming income is earned honestly), it is very desirable to reduce poverty and boost wealth for the less fortunate. As such, Lane suggests that the Vermont Senator read some of the research from World Bank economist Branko Milanovic.

…real income went up between 70 percent and 80 percent for those around the world who were already earning at or near the global median, including some 200 million Chinese, 90 million Indians and 30 million people each in Indonesia, Egypt and Brazil. Those in the bottom third of the global income distribution registered real income gains between 40 percent and 70 percent, Milanovic reports. The share of the world’s population living on $1.25 or less per day — what the World Bank defines as “absolute poverty” — fell from 44 percent to 23 percent.

And here are the most important passages.

Was all this progress because of big government? Nope, people were lifted out of poverty because the power of government was reduced.

Did this historic progress, with its overwhelmingly beneficial consequences for millions of the world’s humblest inhabitants, occur because everyone finally adopted “democratic socialism”? …To the contrary: The big story after 1988 is the collapse of communism and the spread of market institutions, albeit imperfect ones, to India, China and Latin America. This was a process mightily abetted by freer flows of international trade and private capital… The extension of capitalism fueled economic growth, which Milanovic correctly calls “the most powerful tool for reducing global poverty and inequality.” And he’s no supply-sider, but instead a left-leaning critic of modern economic orthodoxy — as his new book, “Global Inequality,” makes clear.

The final sentence is worth highlighting. Mr. Milanovic is not a libertarian firebrand. And since Charles Lane is an editorial writer at the Washington Post, it’s safe to assume that he isn’t an advocate of small government either.

For what it’s worth, they’re probably both supporters of something akin to the Nordic Model, which allows for a large welfare state and high tax rates, but otherwise is very sympathetic to free markets (i.e., open trade, light regulation, stable money, strong property rights, etc).

In other words, if we created a scale or a spectrum, there would be a big difference between the crazy left and the rational left. And the socialists and totalitarians would be in their own category.

The flags of the Nordic nations represent the rational left. I’ve put the Greek flag next to Bernie Sanders to represent the crazy left.

I actually had a hard time coming up with an example of a genuine socialist (i.e., government ownership of the means of production) who wasn’t also a totalitarian, but eventually settled on Clement Attlee, the United Kingdom’s misguided post-WWII Prime Minister who nationalized industries.

And Hitler and Stalin obviously are representatives of the totalitarian left.

I’ve placed Obama and Clinton on the spectrum based on what I think they actually believe, not what they say. So even though Hillary and Bernie are singing from the same nutty song sheet, I suspect she’s exaggerating her leftism and he’s downplaying his.

P.S. Returning to our original focus about which policies actually help the poor, Bono also understands that there’s no substitute for free markets.

P.P.S. My goal, of course, is to help rational leftists understand that free markets are just one ingredient in the recipe for prosperity. We also should have small government.

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As I’ve repeatedly explained, governments generally get in fiscal trouble because politicians can’t resist spending lots of money when the economy is buoyant and therefore generating lots of tax revenue.

And this is why I’m a huge fan of spending caps. If outlays can’t grow faster than, say, 3 percent annually, that make it difficult for politicians to enact unsustainable spending commitments (as we’ve seen in Greece, Alberta, Puerto Rico, California, and Alaska) in years when there is extra revenue.

Now I have a new example, and it’s extra painful because the politicians literally want me to pay for their profligacy.

Here’s part of what was recently written in the Washington Post about the supposed budget hardships in my home county of Fairfax in Virginia.

Virginia’s largest municipality is fraying around the edges. A population that is growing older, poorer and more diverse is sharpening the need for basic services…even as a sluggish local economy maintains a chokehold on the revenue stream. Since the 2008 recession, local officials have whittled away at programs to the tune of $300 million. …Since 2008, the county has eliminated 700 jobs. Libraries operate on shorter schedules and with fewer books, class sizes have swelled past 32 students in some schools… County agencies are stretching out vehicle maintenance — including for school buses and fire engines — and officials say aging athletic courts and deteriorating playgrounds await nearly $20 million in repairs. …The county slashed $3.8 million in summer school funding in 2015 and is trying to use $374,000 less in paper this year.

But all this budget “slashing” apparently isn’t enough to balance the budget.

…there is no fat left to trim. Instead, they are searching for ways to raise taxes… The county is searching for new revenue to cover some of what officials estimate are hundreds of millions of dollars worth of unmet needs. …“We’ve been punting for seven years now,” said John C. Cook (R-Braddock), a county supervisor. “There’s really nothing easy left to cut.” …the County Board of Supervisors will decide whether to raise residential property taxes by as much as four cents — to $1.13 per $100 of assessed value.

Gee, sounds like the government has “cut spending to the bone” and imposed “savage austerity,” which means higher taxes are the only option, right?

Not exactly, Professor Don Boudreaux of George Mason University digs through the data and exposes the truth.

What budget cuts?  In fiscal year 2016 Fairfax County’s government will spend $7.13 billion dollars – the highest inflation-adjusted annual expenditure in County history.  And this real expenditure is the highest in County history even on a per-capita basis.  …Fairfax County’s government today spends, per county resident, 168 percent more real dollars than it spent in 1975, 144 percent more than in 1986, 30 percent more than in 2001, and 1.6 percent more than in 2008 – the year that your reporter suggests marks the beginning of Fairfax County’s budget austerity. …it is emphatically not true that the Fairfax leviathan has cut its spending or suffered budget cuts.  Quite the opposite.

Don included a table of data, which I’ve put into a chart.

Let me know if you can find where spending was “slashed.”

Remember, this is inflation-adjusted spending, and also per-capita-adjusted spending, which means we can do apples-to-apples comparisons.

And the comparison that really matters is that the local government is now spending more than twice as much as it did 30 years ago.

  • Are the schools more than twice as good? No.
  • Are the roads more than twice as good? No.
  • Are the parks more than twice as good? No.

So where did all the money go? Beats me, though I’m going to take a wild guess that the country bureaucracy is now far bigger and getting paid much more.

In other words, the same theorem of government that explains the behavior of Washington also applies at the local level.

P.S. Let’s close with a very appropriate joke about the type of people who create fiscal crises.

A father told his 3 sons when he sent them to the university: “I feel it’s my duty to provide you with the best possible education, and you do not owe me anything for that. However, I want you to appreciate it. As a token, please each put $1,000 into my coffin when I die.”

And so it happened. His sons became a doctor, a lawyer, and a financial planner, each very successful financially. When their father’s time had come and they saw their father in the coffin, they remembered his wish.

First, it was the doctor who put 10 $100 bills onto the chest of the deceased.

Then, came the financial planner, who also put $1,000 there.

Finally, it was the heartbroken lawyer’s turn.He dipped into his pocket, took out his checkbook, wrote a check for $3,000, put it into his father’s coffin, and took the $2,000 cash.

He later went on to become a member of Congress…

If you want more jokes about politicians, click here.

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If you follow the contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, most of the tax discussion is about who has the best plan to squeeze the rich with ever-higher tax rates.

For those motivated by spite and envy, Bernie Sanders “wins” that debate since he wants bigger increases in the tax rates on investors, entrepreneurs, business owners, and other upper-income taxpayers.

For those of us who don’t earn enough to be affected by changes in the top tax rates, this may not seem to be a relevant discussion. Some of us like the idea of higher tax rates on our well-to-do neighbors because we expect to get a slice of the loot and we think it’s morally okay to use government to take other people’s money. Others of us don’t like those higher rates because we don’t resent success and we also worry about the likely impact on incentives to create jobs and wealth.

But all of us are making a mistake if we think that the policy proposals from Bernie and Hillary won’t mean higher taxes on ordinary Americans.

Here are three basic proposition to help explain why lower-income and middle-income taxpayers are the ones who face the biggest threat.

  1. Hillary and Bernie want government to be much bigger, because of both built-in expansions of entitlements and a plethora of new handouts and subsidies.
  2. There’s not much ability to squeeze more money from the “rich” and America already has the developed world’s most “progressive” tax system.
  3. The only practical way to finance bigger government is with big tax hikes on the middle class, both with higher income taxes and a value-added tax.

There’s not really any controversy about the first proposition. We know the two Democratic candidates are opposed to genuine entitlement reform, so that means the burden of government spending automatically will climb in coming decades. And we also know that Hillary and Bernie also want to create new programs and additional spending commitments, with the only real difference being that Bernie wants government to expand at a faster rate.

So let’s look at my second proposition, which may strike some people as implausible, particularly the assertion that America has the most “progressive” tax system. After all, don’t European nations impose higher tax rates on the “rich” than the United States?

Yes and no, but first let’s deal with the issue of whether the rich are a never-ending spigot of tax revenue. The most important thing to understand is that there’s a huge difference between tax rates and tax revenue. If you don’t believe me, simply look at the IRS data from the 1980s, which shows that upper-income taxpayers paid far more to Uncle Sam at a 28 percent tax rate in 1988 than they paid at a 70 percent tax rate in 1980.

And keep in mind that there are incredibly simple – and totally legal – steps that well-to-do taxpayers can take to dramatically lower their tax exposure.

The bottom line is that high tax rates penalize productive behavior and encourage inefficient tax planning, the net effect being that higher tax rates won’t translate into higher revenue.

Moreover, as shown by a different set of IRS data, the American tax system already is heavily biased against the so-called rich. Even when compared with other countries. There are some nations that impose higher top tax rates than America, to be sure, but that’s only part of the story. The “progressivity” of a tax system is based on what share of the burden is paid by the rich.

And if you look at this data from the Tax Foundation, particularly the two measures of progressivity in columns 1 and 3, you can see that the United States gets a greater share of taxes from the rich than any other developed nation.

By the way, the data is from the middle of last decade, so the numbers are probably different today. But since we’ve taken more people off the tax rolls in the past 10 years in America while also increasing tax rates on upper-income households, I would be shocked if the United States didn’t still have the most “progressive” tax code.

In any event, the most important takeaway from the Tax Foundation data is that America has the most “progressive” tax system not because we impose the highest tax rates on the rich, but rather for the simple reason that the tax burden on lower-income and middle-income taxpayers is comparatively mild.

In other words, the tax burden on the rich in America is not particularly unusual. Some nations impose higher tax rates and some countries impose lower tax rates. But because other taxpayers in the U.S. pay very low effective tax rates, that’s why the overall tax code in the United States is so tilted against the rich.

Which brings us to the third proposition about the middle class being the main target of Hillary and Bernie.

Simply stated, the only practical way of financing bigger government is by raising the tax burden on lower-income and middle-income Americans. As already explained, there’s not much leeway to generate more tax revenue from the “rich.”

In other words, the rest of us have a bulls-eye painted on our backs. Our tax burden is relatively low by world standards and there are simple and effective ways that politicians could grab more of our income.

Let’s look at some of the details. The folks at the Pew Research Group crunched the data for 39 developed nations to compare tax burdens for various types of middle-income households. As you can see, taxpayers in the United States are relatively fortunate, particularly if they have kids.

Here are some excerpts from the article.

…most research has concluded that, at least among developed nations, the U.S. is on the low end of the range.  We looked at 2014 data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s database of benefits, taxes and wages, which has standardized data from 39 countries going back to 2001 and allows comparisons across different family types. …We calculated this for four different family types: a single employed person with no children; two married couples with two children, one with both parents working and the other with one worker; and a single working parent. In all cases, the U.S. was below the 39-nation average – in some cases, well below. …Much of the difference in relative tax burdens among different countries is due to the taxes that fund social-insurance programs, such as Social Security and Medicare in the U.S. These taxes tend to be higher in other developed nations than they are in the U.S.

And here’s the most shocking part of the article. The aforementioned data only considers income taxes and payroll taxes.

…the OECD data don’t include…other national taxes, such as…value-added taxes.

This is a huge omission. The average VAT in Europe is now 21 percent, so the actual tax burden on taxpayers in other nations is actually much higher than shown in the chart prepared by Pew.

Let’s look at the scorecard.

  • Non-rich Europeans pay higher income tax rates.
  • Non-rich Europeans pay higher payroll taxes.
  • Non-rich Europeans pay the value-added tax.

And because all these taxes on lower-income and middle-income people are the only effective and realistic way to finance European-sized government, this is the future Hillary and Bernie want for America. Even though they won’t admit it.

P.S. I can’t resist pointing out that the countries most admired by Bernie Sanders, Denmark and Sweden, both have tax systems that are far less “progressive” than the United States according to the Tax Foundation data. And the reason for that relative lack of progressivity is because of a giant fiscal burden on lower-income and middle-income taxpayers. And that’s what will happen in the United States if entitlements aren’t reformed.

P.P.S. Since I’m a fan of the flat tax, does that mean I like the countries with lower scores in column 3 of the Tax Foundation table? Yes and no. A lower score obviously means that a nation’s tax code isn’t biased against successful taxpayers, but it’s also important to look at the overall size of the public sector. Sweden’s tax system isn’t very progressive, for instance, but everyone pays a lot because of a bloated government. It’s far better to be in Switzerland, which has the right combination of a modest-sized government and a non-discriminatory tax regime.

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Senator Bernie Sanders wants to dramatically increase the burden of government and he claims that his policies won’t lead to economic misery because nations such as Sweden show that you can be a prosperous country with a big welfare state.

Perhaps, but there are degrees of prosperity. And a large public sector imposes a non-trivial burden on Nordic nations, resulting in living standards that lag U.S. levels according to OECD data.

Moreover, according to research by a Swedish economist, people of Scandinavian descent in America produce and earn much more than their counterparts at home.

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of the Nordic Model.

But there actually are some things we can learn from places such as Sweden. And not just things to avoid.

As Johan Norberg explains in this short video (you may have to double-click and watch it on the YouTube site), there are some very good policies in his home country. Indeed, in some ways, his nation is more free market than America.

I especially like Johan’s explanation about how Sweden became a rich country before the welfare state was adopted.

And he’s right that Sweden had a smaller government and a lower tax burden than the United States for a long period.

Indeed, there was very little income redistribution until the 1960s.

But once the welfare state was adopted, the Swedes went crazy and dramatically increased tax rates and the burden of government spending. And, as Johan explained, that’s when Sweden’s relative prosperity began to drop.

And big government eventually led to an economic crisis in the early 1990s, which has sobered up Swedish officials and policy in recent decades has been moving in the right direction.

Including significant reductions in the budget and lower tax rates (though the fiscal burden is still far too high).

I particularly like Johan’s advice to copy what works. We should partially privatize our Social Security system (actually, we should be like Australia and have full privatization, but we should at least get the ball rolling). And we should have extensive school choice like Sweden. Moreover, let’s copy the Swedes and get rid of the death tax.

Sweden is actually a very pro-market country, albeit one that is weighed down by a large welfare state and excessive taxation. Interestingly, if you look at the non-fiscal policy variables from Economic Freedom of the World, Sweden actually ranks much higher than the United States (along with many other Nordic nations).

The bottom line is that Sweden actually is somewhat like the United States. There are some very bad policies and some fairly decent policies. America ranks above Sweden in a couple of areas, but lags in other areas. The net result is that we’re both more market-oriented than the average western nation (compare Sweden and Greece, for instance), but both well behind the pace setters for economic liberty, Hong Kong and Singapore.

For more information on this topic, here’s a video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that features another Swede explaining what works and doesn’t work in her country.

P.S. Denmark is a lot like Sweden. A crushing tax burden and extravagant welfare state, but also hyper-free market policies in other areas (and maybe some fiscal progress if Denmark continues to follow the Golden Rule).

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