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Posts Tagged ‘Big Government’

When I argue with my statist friends about the proper size and scope of government, they accuse me of not wanting public services.

My typical response is to explain that I am a strong supporter of markets as the method to get high-quality roads, schools, and healthcare.

But I’m wondering whether this answer pays too much attention to the trees and doesn’t focus on the forest.

After all, the debate isn’t whether we should be Liberland or Venezuela. It’s whether government should be bigger or smaller compared to what we have now.

So the next time I tussle with my left-leaning buddies, I’m going to share this chart (based on data from the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database) and ask them why we can’t be like the fast-growing, small-government nations of Asia.

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To elaborate, not only do jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore enjoy impressive growth, they also get very high scores for infrastructure, education, and health outcomes.

In other words, these nations are role models for “public sector efficiency.”

What they don’t have, by contrast, are expensive welfare states that seem to be correlated with poor outcome for basic public services.

For all intents and purposes, I want to focus the debate on how much government is necessary to get the things people want, sort of like I did in Paris back in 2013.

I asked the audience whether they thought that their government, which consumes 57 percent of GDP, gives them better services than Germany’s government, which consumes 45 percent of GDP. They said no. I then asked if they got better government than citizens of Canada, where government consumes 41 percent of GDP. They said no. And I concluded by asking them whether they got better government than the people of Switzerland, where government is only 34 percent of economic output… Once again, they said no.

I assume (hope) Americans also would say no given these choices. And hopefully they would say yes when asked if we should be like Hong Kong and Singapore.

P.S. If I rotated the above chart clockwise by 90 degrees we’d have a pretty good approximation of the downward-sloping portion of the Rahn Curve.

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Like any sensible person, I want victimless crimes to be legalized. In part because I believe in freedom, but also for utilitarian reasons.

  • I don’t approve of drugs and I’ve never used drugs, but I think the social harm of prohibition is greater than the social harm of legalization.
  • I don’t particularly like alcohol and I am almost a teetotaler, but I’m glad there’s now a consensus that the social harm of prohibition was greater than the social harm of legalization.
  • I don’t approve of prostitution and I’ve never consorted with a prostitute (other than the political ones in DC), but I think the social harm of prohibition is greater than the social harm of legalization.

So it won’t surprise you to learn that I want gambling to be legal because the social harm of prohibition is greater than the social harm of legalization.

But that definitely doesn’t mean I want government to be in charge, which is why I’m not a fan of state-sponsored lotteries.

Joe Setyon, in a column for Reason, points out that politicians are the only group that actually benefits from these schemes.

At some point in the near future, the record-high Mega Millions jackpot is going to make someone very, very rich. But as is usually the case when it comes to the lottery, the biggest winner will be the government. …there are a few things us suckers need to keep in mind about the lotto. First, the majority of lottery revenue goes back to the government. In 2015, The Atlantic estimated that 40 percent of all lottery ticket sales are allocated to state governments. …Meanwhile, some states that allow lotteries crush their competition with strict gambling regulations. In Texas, for instance, most forms of gambling are illegal. This means the government has a near-monopoly. The double standard for public and private gambling operations is obvious. Ultimately, the lottery system is a kind of regressive tax on low-income earners. “If the promised return is by far illusory—and it is—it would be hard to argue that those purchases do not constitute a tax on those who believe the state’s hype,” Fiscal Policy Institute research associate Brent Kramer wrote in 2010.

And here’s an article from CNBC that reveals the unpalatable tax consequences for the “lucky” people who happen to win a big prize.

…there’s at least one guaranteed recipient of a chunk of the loot — the IRS. …If you happen to beat the astronomical odds and hit all winning numbers in either game, be aware that the taxation of your prize starts before even reaching you. Whether you take your haul as a lump sum or as an annuity spread out over three decades, your win is reduced by a 24 percent federal tax withholding… The immediate cash option for Mega Millions is $904 million. The federal withholding would reduce that by $217 million. For the $354.3 million Powerball lump sum, it would mean $85 million getting shaved off the top. …However, that’s just the start of what you’d owe. The top income tax rate for individuals is 37 percent… That rate applies to adjusted gross income of $500,000 or more. In other words, hitting either jackpot would mean facing that top rate. …On top of the federal withholding, you’ll owe state taxes on the money unless you live where lottery wins are untaxed. …Translation: You might pay north of 45 percent altogether in taxes, depending on where you purchased the ticket and where you live.

In other words, the government pillages people when they buy tickets.

And then the government pillages the tiny fraction of people who actually win something.

As I wrote above, the only real winners are politicians.

The biggest losers, by the way, are poor people.

Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute summed up this sad state of affairs in a column for the Wall Street Journal.

Powerball—the lottery shared by 44 states, the District of Columbia and two territories—is just one of the sweepstakes run by 47 jurisdictions in the U.S. These games produce nearly $70 billion a year in government revenue and enjoy profits of about 33%—much higher than margins in the private gambling industry. Who are these lotteries’ most loyal customers? Poor people. …the poorest third of Americans buy more than half of all lotto tickets… Scholars have dug up evidence that states intentionally direct such ads at vulnerable citizens. A marketing plan for Ohio’s lottery some years back recommended scheduling campaigns to coincide with the distribution of “government benefits, payroll and Social Security payments.” …the average return from $1 spent on lottery tickets is 52 cents… After a state introduces the lotto, the bottom third of households shift about 3% of their food expenditures and 7% of their mortgage payments, rent and other bills. Effectively, the lottery works like a regressive tax. …Is there any set of policies more contradictory than pushing lotto tickets on poor people, and then signing them up for welfare programs that make them financially dependent on the government?

Here’s some additional analysis from the Wall Street Journal, this time from Holman Jenkins.

Gambling is what economists call an “inferior good”—demand is higher among those at the lower end of the income scale. As economist Sam Papenfuss argued in a 1998 paper, state-sponsored gambling became popular as a way for high-income taxpayers to recoup some of the money spent on programs for the poor. State-sponsored gambling in the form of lotteries (now in 44 states) arrived on the same antitax wave that gave us property-tax caps and other antitax measures in the 1970s and ’80s. It should not surprise anyone that Democrats, as big supporters of the welfare state, have been the biggest supporters (though by no means exclusively so) of gambling as a way to finance it.

Last but not least, here are excerpts from a column I wrote for the Washington Times more than 20 years ago.

…government-run lotteries represent bad public policy. The No. 1 objection is that they lead to more government spending. …Perhaps even more disturbing, government lotteries victimize the poor. More than any other group, lower-income residents are the ones who play the lottery, often shelling out hundreds of dollars each year in the hope of striking it rich. Yet these are precisely the people who should avoid lotteries. As an investment, lotteries are lousy, paying out only about half of what they take in. …why should state governments be running lotteries? If nothing else, lotteries show how much better consumers are treated by the free market system. Private gambling operations pay out about 90 cents for every dollar wagered (even higher for games such as blackjack), a far better deal than the miserly return provided by government-run lotteries. …This analysis applies to illegal gambling as well. Bookies traditionally allow customers to bet against the point spread for sporting events, and they make their money by applying a 10 percent charge on the money wagered by those who make losing bets.

Two decades later and I wouldn’t change a single thing I wrote.

I don’t like when politicians mistreat rich people, but I get far more upset when they do things that impose disproportionate costs on poor people. This is one of the reasons I don’t like government flood insurance, Social Security, the Export-Import Bank, the mortgage interest deduction, or the National Endowment for the Arts.

And lotteries definitely belong on that list as well.

I’m not a paternalist. I support legal gambling and I don’t want to prohibit poor people from making (what I think) are misguided decisions.

But at least leave the gambling to the private sector so poor people will get back, on average, 90 cents of every dollar they bet.

P.S. I just had a horrifying thought. What if politicians decided to legalize prostitution because they wanted more revenue. But instead of legalizing and taxing (like they do – often to excess – with marijuana), what if they followed the lottery approach and we wound up with government-run brothels?!?

P.P.S. To be fair, the government will continue to give you food stamps if you become a lottery millionaire.

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My left-leaning friends periodically tell me that there’s a big difference between their benign policies of democratic socialism and the wretched track records of Marxist socialism, national socialism, and other forms of totalitarianism.

I agree. Living in a European welfare state, after all, is much better than living in a hellhole like Cuba, North Korea, Zimbabwe, or Venezuela.

Not only do you enjoy the rule of law (no Khmer Rouge-style concentration camps!), but you also enjoy considerable prosperity compared to the rest of the world.

But there are two things to understand about that prosperity.

Let’s consider the case of Greece. I’ve written many times about the debilitating impact of high tax rates and wasteful spending in that nation. It has the least economic freedom of all nations in Western Europe, so it’s no surprise that it is falling further behind.

But sometimes a compelling example is the best way of helping people understand the harmful impact of big government.

We were on Filis Street — a warren of alleyways and dingy two-story houses — which has been home to Athenian brothels for most of the past century. The trade is more desperate now because of Greece’s lost decade since the 2008 financial crisis, which has left no profession unscathed. The collapsed economy and the arrival of tens of thousands of migrants have pushed even more women into prostitution — even as prices have fallen through the floor. …“I had a flower shop for 18 years — and now I’m here out of necessity, not out of joy,” said Dimitra, a middle-aged woman who lost her shop in the crisis and now works as a madam…the number of prostitutes in the city had increased by 7 percent since 2012, yet prices have dropped drastically, both for women working on the streets and in brothels. “In 2012, it would require an average of 39 euros” for a client to hire a prostitute in a brothel, Mr. Lazos said, “while in 2017 just €17 — a 56 percent decrease.”

The saddest part of the story is the commentary of the prostitutes.

“I hate sex,” Elena said. “I like the money, not the job.” Anastasia…has worked as a prostitute since she was 14. She’s now 33, and says the work is harder than ever. “People don’t have money anymore,” she said… Monica, a 30-year-old Albanian prostitute…spends six to eight hours a day trying to entice clients, but most do not stay. “They don’t have money,” she said. “They haven’t had money for the past seven years.” …Many Greek men are simply too poor to pay anymore.

I support legal prostitution, in part because the alternative of pushing these unfortunate women even further into the underground economy would be worse.

But that doesn’t change the fact that these women don’t have good lives. And the misery of democratic socialism in Greece is making their lives even sadder.

The bottom line is that I now have three awful anecdotes from Greece to help illustrate the wretched impact of big government. In addition to the price-cutting prostitutes we discussed today, let’s not forget that Greece subsidizes pedophiles and requires stool samples to set up online companies.

Needless to say, I hope we never go that far in the wrong direction.

The moral of the story is that socialism (however defined) has never worked in any form at any time in history.

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I’ve warned many times that Italy is the next Greece.

Simply stated, there’s a perfect storm of bad news. Government is far too big, debt is too high, and the economy is too sclerotic.

I’ve always assumed that the country would suffer a full-blown fiscal crisis when the next recession occurs. At that point, tax receipts will fall because of the weak economy and investors will realize that the nation no longer is able to pay its bills.

But it may happen even sooner thanks to a spat between Italy’s left-populist government and the apparatchiks at the European Commission.

Here’s what you need to know. There are (poorly designed) European budget rules, known as the Maastricht Criteria, that supposedly require that nations limit deficits to 3 percent of GDP and debt to 60 percent of GDP.

With cumulative red ink totaling more than 130 percent of GDP, Italy obviously fails the latter requirement. And this means the bureaucrats at the European Commission can veto a budget that doesn’t strive to lower debt levels.

At least that’s the theory.

In reality, the European Commission doesn’t have much direct enforcement power. So if the Italian government tells the bureaucrats in Brussels to go jump in a lake, you wind up with a standoff. As the New York Times reports, that’s exactly what’s happened.

In what is becoming a dangerous game of chicken for the global economy, Italy’s populist government refused to budge on Tuesday after the European Union for the first time sent back a member state’s proposed budget because it violated the bloc’s fiscal laws and posed unacceptable risks. …the commission rejected the plan, saying that it included irresponsible deficit levels that would “suffocate” Italy, the third-largest economy in the eurozone. Investors fear that the collapse of the Italian economy under its enormous debt could sink the entire eurozone and hasten a global economic crisis unseen since 2008, or worse. But Italy’s populists are not scared. They have repeatedly compared their budget, fat with unemployment welfare, pension increases and other benefits, to the New Deal measures of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Repeating the failures of the New Deal?!? That doesn’t sound like a smart plan.

That seems well understood, at least outside of Italy.

The question for Italy, and all of Europe, is how far Italy’s government is willing to go. Will it be forced into submission by the gravity of economic reality? Or will Italian leaders convince their voters that the country’s financial health is worth risking in order to blow up a political and economic establishment that they say is stripping Italians of their sovereignty? And Brussels must decide how strict it will be. …the major pressure on Italy’s budget has come from outside Italy. Fitch Ratings issued a negative evaluation of the budget, and Moody’s dropped its rating for Italian bonds to one level above “junk” last week.

So now that Brussels has rejected the Italian budget plan, where do things go from here?

According to CNBC, the European Commission will launch an “Excessive Deficit Procedure” against Italy.

…a three-week negotiation period follows in which a potential agreement could be found on how to lower the deficit (essentially, Italy would have to re-submit an amended draft budget). If that’s not reached, punitive action could be taken against Italy. Lorenzo Codogno, founder and chief economist at LC Macro Advisors, told CNBC…“it’s very likely that the Commission will, without making a big fuss, will move towards making an ‘Excessive Deficit Procedure’…to put additional pressure on Italy…” Although it has the power to sanction governments whose budgets don’t comply with the EU’s fiscal rules (and has threatened to do so in the past), it has stopped short of issuing fines to other member states before. …launching one could increase the already significant antipathy between Brussels and a vociferously euroskeptic government in Italy. Against a backdrop of Brexit and rising populism, the Commission could be wary of antagonizing Italy, the third largest euro zone economy. It could also be wary of financial market nerves surrounding Italy from spreading to its neighbors… Financial markets continue to be rattled over Italy’s political plans. …This essentially means that investors grew more cautious over lending money to the Italian government.

For those who read carefully, you probably noticed that the European Commission doesn’t have any real power. As such, there’s no reason to think this standoff will end.

The populists in Rome almost certainly will move forward with their profligate budget. Bureaucrats in Brussels will complain, but to no avail.

Since I’m a nice guy, I’m going to give the bureaucrats in Brussels a much better approach. Here’s the three-sentence announcement they should make.

  1. The European Commission recognizes that it was a mistake to centralize power in Brussels and henceforth will play no role is overseeing fiscal policy in member nations.
  2. The European Commission (and, more importantly, the European Central Bank) henceforth will have a no-bailout policy for national governments, or for those who lend to national governments.
  3. The European Commission henceforth advises investors to be appropriately prudent when deciding whether to lend money to any government, including the Italian government.

From an economic perspective, this is a far superior approach, mostly because it begins to unwind the “moral hazard“that undermines sound financial decision making in Europe.

To elaborate, investors can be tempted to make unwise choices if they think potential losses can be shifted to taxpayers. They see what happened with the various bailouts in Greece and that tells them it’s probably okay to continue lending money to Italy. To be sure, investors aren’t totally blind. They know there’s some risk, so the Italian government has to promise higher interest payments

But it’s highly likely that the Italian government would have to pay even higher rates if investors were convinced there would be no bailouts. Incidentally that would be a very good outcome since it would make it more costly for Italy’s politicians to continue over-spending.

In other words, a win-win situation, with less debt and more prudence (and maybe even a smaller burden of government!).

My advice seems so sensible that you’re probably wondering if there’s a catch.

There is, sort of.

When I talk to policy makers, they generally agree with everything I say, but then say my advice is impractical because Italy’s debt is so massive. They fret that a default would wipe out Italy’s banks (which imprudently have bought lots of government debt), and might even cause massive problems for banks in other nations (which, as was the case with Greece, also have foolishly purchased lots of Italian government debt).

And if banks are collapsing, that could produce major macroeconomic damage and even lead/force some nations to abandon the euro and go back to their old national currencies.

For all intents and purposes, the Greek bailout was a bank bailout. And the same would be true for an Italian bailout.

In any event, Europeans fear that bursting the “debt bubble” would be potentially catastrophic. Better to somehow browbeat the Italian government in hopes that somehow the air can slowly be released from the bubble.

With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why the bureaucrats in Brussels are pursuing their current approach.

So where do we stand?

  • In an ideal world, the problem will be solved because the Italian government decides to abandon its big-spending agenda and instead caps the growth of spending (as I recommended when speaking in Milan way back in 2011).
  • In an imperfect world, the problem is mitigated (or at least postponed) because the European Commission successfully pressures the Italian government to curtail its profligacy.
  • In the real world, though, I have zero faith in the first option and very little hope for the second option. Consider, for instance, the mess in Greece. For all intents and purposes, the European Commission took control of that nation’s fiscal policy almost 10 years ago. The results have not been pretty.

So this brings me back to my three-sentence prescription. Yes, it almost certainly would be messy. But it’s better to let the air out of bubbles sooner rather than later.

P.S. The so-called Basel Rules contribute to the mess in Europe by directing banks to invest in supposedly safe government debt.

P.P.S. If the European Union is going to impose fiscal rules on member nations, the Maastricht criteria should be jettisoned and replaced with a Swiss-style spending cap.

P.P.P.S. Some of the people in Sardinia have the right approach. They want to secede from Italy and become part of Switzerland. The Sicilians, by contrast, have the wrong mentality.

P.P.P.P.S. Italy is very, very, very well represented in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

P.P.P.P.P.S. You’ll think I’m joking, but a columnist for the New York Times actually argued the United States should be more like Italy.

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I want higher wages.

Indeed, that’s a big reason why I favor better tax policy. I want low rates and less double taxation so we get more entrepreneurship and investment, which then will lead to higher productivity and more compensation for workers.

With this in mind, let’s look at some good news from a story in the New York Times.

Amazon said on Tuesday that it would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for its United States employees, a rare acknowledgment that it was feeling squeezed by…a tight labor market. The raises apply for part-time workers and those hired through temporary agencies. …The new wages will apply to more than 250,000 Amazon employees, including those at the grocery chain Whole Foods, as well as the more than 100,000 seasonal employees it plans to hire for the holiday season.

This is an encouraging development. My support for pro-market policies is partly driven by philosophy (freedom to engage in voluntary exchange, etc), but also motivated by a desire to help people become more prosperous.

It’s too soon to say for sure, but perhaps we’re seeing evidence that last year’s tax reform is paying dividends. Of course, it’s also possible that we’re in a bubble that’s about to pop, but let’s hope that’s not the case.

In any event, there’s also some bad news in the story. Amazon’s decision may not simply be a business decision. It also might be a way of appeasing the crowd in Washington.

The company now employs about 575,000 people worldwide, up more than 50 percent in the past year…the pay of those workers has become a growing issue for activists… “I think they saw the writing on the wall…,” Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont said in an interview after the announcement. …Mr. Sanders and labor organizers have criticized the wages and conditions of Amazon’s work force. …As recently as last month Amazon was resisting the pressure.

The most nauseating aspect of this is that Amazon’s boss issued a groveling tweet to Crazy Bernie.

Since I’ve shared the good news and bad news, now let’s look at the ugly news.

Having decided to boost wages for his workers, Bezos now want to impose higher costs on smaller companies that compete against Amazon.

The company said it would also lobby Washington to raise the federal minimum wage, which has been set at $7.25 for almost a decade.

This is a classic example of cronyism. A big company is using the coercive power of government to unfairly tilt the playing field.

The Wall Street Journal opined about this oleaginous development.

Jeff Bezos…the Amazon CEO showed he also has impeccable political timing. His decision to raise Amazon’s minimum wage to $15 an hour will buy the tech company some political insurance… Mr. Bezos also announced that Amazon will now lobby Congress to raise the national minimum wage from $7.25 an hour. If Amazon is already paying $15, it’s no competitive sweat for Mr. Bezos to look virtuous for the media and politicians.

The WSJ also commented on the implicit extortion.

Speaking of government, Amazon’s wage increase may also buy some insurance against a looming assault from Congress. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist and likely presidential candidate in 2020, has introduced the Stop Bezos Act that would tax Amazon to finance government transfer payments like food stamps. …Mr. Bezos also wants to hold off the federal antitrust cops, but that may cost more than $15 an hour. Politics aside, Amazon’s wage increase wouldn’t be possible if the U.S. economy hadn’t risen out of its eight-year Obama doldrums. As always, the best way to raise living standards is faster growth, not political coercion.

Amen.

Sadly, this is not the first time Amazon has climbed into bed with politicians. It is currently seeking special handouts from state and local governments for a new headquarters complex.

P.S. If you want to understand why government-imposed mandates for higher minimum wages are misguided, there’s very powerful evidence from Seattle. Simply stated, workers lose jobs and income.

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I’ve written many times about socialism, which is sometimes a frustrating task because the definition is slippery.

I suspect the average supporter of Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez thinks that socialism is big government, with lots of handouts financed by class warfare taxation. Since that’s the common perception, is that the definition we should use?

The technical definition of socialism, though, is government ownership of the means of production, which entails central planning, price controls, and other forms of intervention. So, at the risk of being pedantic, is that how the term should be defined?

As an economist, I prefer the latter approach. Which is why I’ve pushed back (though not necessarily in a favorable way) against those who called Obama a socialist.

A few years ago, I tried to reconcile this definitional conflict by creating a diagram to show that there are several strains of socialism (or statism, leftism, progressivism, or whatever you want to call it).

I also created a 2×2 matrix to show how various nations should be characterized when measuring redistribution and intervention.

If you think I’m somehow being unfair, check out this recent column in the New York Times. Even an advocate for socialism has a hard time saying what it is.

Public support for socialism is growing. Self-identified socialists like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib are making inroads into the Democratic Party… Membership in the Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organization in the country, is skyrocketing, especially among young people. …what do we mean, in 2018, when we talk about “socialism”? …Socialism means different things to different people. For some, it conjures the Soviet Union and the gulag; for others, Scandinavia and guaranteed income. But neither is the true vision of socialism. What the socialist seeks is freedom. …when the basic needs of life compel submission to the market and subjugation at work, we live not in freedom but in domination. Socialists want to end that domination: to establish freedom from rule by the boss, …from the obligation to sell for the sake of survival.

His claim that socialism is freedom sounds bizarre.

And it is bizarre. But it’s not new. It’s the crazy idea of “positive liberty” that was the basis of FDR’s so-called economic bill of rights.

Basically, we should all be “free” to live off of other people (though this cartoon sums up why that approach doesn’t work).

Though that’s just the start. Socialism eventually will mean…well, the proletariat will decide at some point.

There’s not much discussion, yet, of classic socialist tenets like worker control or collective ownership of the means of production. …today’s socialism is just getting started. …In magazines and on websites, in reading groups and party chapters, socialists are debating the next steps: state ownership of certain industries, worker councils and economic cooperatives… Mass action — sometimes illegal, always confrontational — will determine socialism’s final form. …As Marx and Engels understood…it is workers who get us there, who decide what and where “there” is. That, too, is a kind of freedom. Socialist freedom.

Is that the “freedom” to set up gulags and exterminate enemies?

I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Writing for Bloomberg, Professor Noah Smith is both sympathetic and worried about the putative resurgence of socialism.

Observing the disaster that is Venezuela, many free-market proponents are inclined to say that socialism always fails. To bolster their claim, they can also point to the Soviet Union, to North Korea, or to Vietnam and China before those countries implemented free-market reforms. Those self-described communist systems generated vast poverty and famine… defenders of socialism have their own historical examples to cite. …Though one can quibble over the definition of the word “socialism,” there’s little question that the so-called social democracies of Denmark and Sweden offer some of the world’s highest living standards.

That being said, Smith is concerned that advocates of socialism don’t understand the risks of too much government. He cites a couple of examples, including the failure of price controls and also how India suffered from statism before starting reforms in 1991.

But his comments about the United Kingdom and the Thatcher reforms may be the most important, because the Brits actually tried real socialism (i.e., government ownership of the means of production).

…the U.K. provides a cautionary tale. After World War II, the U.K. nationalized industries like steel, coal, aviation, electricity, rail transport and some manufacturing. But the British economy lagged behind its continental European peers during the midcentury. Manufacturing and transportation especially stagnated. By the time Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, both France and Italy were richer in per capita terms… Thatcher unleashed a wave of privatizations, along with other free-market policies. Britain…growth accelerated, and by 1997 it had caught up and passed France and Italy.

Here’s a chart from his column showing how the U.K. fell behind when it was socialist but then regained the lead following pro-market reforms.

Professor Smith’s cautionary words are noteworthy since he (based on having read dozens of his columns) leans to the left.

And here’s another criticism of socialism, this time from an unabashed liberal (in the modern sense of the word, not classical liberalism). Bill Scher has a withering review of a new book by a group of socialists.

Felix Biederman, Matt Christman, Brendan James, Will Menaker and Virgil Texas—of the socialist, satirical podcast Chapo Trap House…make bank by selling you a candy-coated version of socialism, one that may offend real socialists even more than liberal gruel-peddlers like myself. …The indoctrination begins with a condemnation of America’s containment of Soviet communism. …“Who cares?” if the Soviets won the Cold War, they write. …After blaming American-led capitalism for the world’s ills, the authors take aim at their favorite target: liberals. …In their evisceration of liberals and establishment Democrats, we get the usual left-wing criticisms of the Barack Obama and Bill Clinton presidencies… The Chapo crew’s romp through the history of feckless liberalism doesn’t stop with Obama and Clinton. Jimmy Carter is slammed… Lyndon Johnson is excoriated… Not even Franklin Delano Roosevelt escapes.

By the way, I can’t resist interjecting to point out that socialists had good reasons to condemn Bill Clinton’s presidency. After all, economic freedom increased during his tenure.

Though I suppose they also should be free to criticize other Democratic administrations for the supposed sin of not moving to the left at a faster rate.

The conclusion of Scher’s review is brutal.

After slogging through 276 of the book’s 282 pages of bad history…, the authors finally get around to their grand plan. Spoiler alert! This is literally it, in its entirety:

“After setting everyone on equal footing (by seizing the billionaires’ money, socializing their wealth, and handing the keys of production over to workers), you’re looking at an economy that requires something like a three-hour workday, with machines taking care of most of the drudgery; and—as our public fund pays for things like health care, education, scientific research, and infrastructure—all this technology actually makes work quicker, easier, and more enjoyable.”

The notion that socialism is going to slough off all that annoying labor to our forthcoming legion of robot slaves may come as a surprise to many socialists. …The Chapo hosts’ aversion to hard work extends to this book. Why suffer the details of how this nonworkers’ paradise, free of paper pushing and ditch digging, is going to be realized, when you can take in more than $1 million a year by dressing up stale arguments and thin policy ideas with inside jokes? The infomercial socialists of Chapo have exploited the free market expertly, and at least saved themselves from the 9-to-5 prison.

Until reading this review, I confess that these clowns were unknown to me.

But I’m going to take a wild guess that (like Michael Moore) they don’t share their wealth with the masses.

Let’s close by now perusing a serious economic analysis of socialism. Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute looks at Why Socialism Failed.

Socialism is the ultimate Big Lie. While it falsely promises prosperity, equality, and security, it delivers the exact opposite: poverty, misery, inequality, and tyranny. Equality is achieved under socialism only in the sense that everyone is equal in his or her misery. …Socialism does not work because it is not consistent with fundamental principles of human behavior. …it is a system that ignores incentives. …A centrally planned economy without market prices or profits, where most of the property is owned or controlled by the state, is a system without an effective incentive mechanism to direct economic activity. …The strength of market-based capitalism can be attributed to an incentive structure based upon the three Ps: (1) Prices determined by market forces, (2) a Profit-and-Loss system of accounting, and (3) Private Property Rights. The failure of socialism in countries like Venezuela can be traced directly to its neglect of these three incentive-enhancing features.

Here’s some of what Mark wrote about socialism and prices.

The only alternative to a market price is a government-imposed price that always transmits misleading information about relative scarcity. Inappropriate behavior results from a controlled price because false information is transmitted by an artificial, non-market price. …The situation in socialist Venezuela provides a current example of the chaos and inefficiencies that are guaranteed to result from government price controls. As could be easily predicted, the widespread price controls imposed by the socialist regime in Venezuela in recent years led to chronic shortages of basic goods like milk, flour, rice and toilet paper, and long lines of customers waiting for hours to buy groceries at stores that frequently have mostly empty shelves.

Here are excerpts from his analysis of socialism and profits.

A profit system is an effective monitoring mechanism that continually evaluates the economic performance of every business enterprise. The firms that are the most efficient and most successful at serving consumers are rewarded with profits. … the profit system provides a strong disciplinary mechanism that continually redirects resources away from weak, failing, and inefficient firms toward those firms that are the most efficient and successful at serving consumers. …Under central planning, there is no profit-and-loss system of accounting to accurately measure the success or failure of various firms and producers. Without profits, there is no way to discipline firms that fail to serve the public interest and no way to reward firms that do. … Instead of continually reallocating resources towards greater efficiency, socialism falls into a vortex of inefficiency and failure.

And here are portions of what he wrote about socialism and property rights.

The failure of socialism around the world is a “tragedy of commons” on a global scale. …When assets are publicly owned, there are no incentives in place to encourage wise stewardship. While private property creates incentives for conservation and the responsible use of property, public property encourages irresponsibility and waste. …Public ownership encourages neglect and mismanagement. …Venezuela today is moving in the opposite direction. Under Hugo Chavez, the private property and assets of foreign-owned oil companies from the US, France, and Italy were nationalized and converted to state-owned, state-managed assets. The results were completely predictable: corruption, lack of investment, deteriorating capital assets, mismanagement and a sharp and ongoing decline.

His conclusion is especially powerful.

By their failure to foster, promote, and nurture the potential of their people through incentive-enhancing institutions, centrally planned, socialist economies deprive the human spirit of its full development. Socialism fails because it kills and destroys the human spirit… Programs like socialized medicine, free college, guaranteed jobs, free housing, and living wage laws will continue to entice us… But those programs, like all socialist programs, will fail in the long run…because they ignore the important role of incentives. …Socialism is being repackaged and recycled by today’s left-leaning politicians including Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez and is being taken seriously by a new young and gullible generation, many who weren’t even alive when the historic events of the 1980s and 1990s occurred including the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the lessons from history about the defects, deficiencies, and failures of socialism are very clear. As we’ve learned from countless examples throughout history, including now Venezuela, the main difference between capitalism and socialism is this: Capitalism works.

Amen.

The observation that capitalism works and socialism fails is the point of my two-question challenge for my left-leaning friends.

To be sure, my challenge applies to conventional leftists as well as all varieties of socialists.

The advocates of bigger government surely should be required to show at least one example of how their policies work in the real world. But they can’t.

I’ll close by sharing this wonderful video of Dan Hannan explaining why liberty is better than socialism.

If you enjoyed that video, you can also watch Hannan in action here and here.

P.S. If you want to laugh at socialism, check out this collection.

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Ever since 2010, I’ve been pointing out that Venezuela is a horrifying and tragic example of what happens when the private sector in a country is almost completely suffocated by excessive government.

And with the country now in a death spiral, you would think it’s a perfect time for further commentary. I sometimes wonder, though, what I can write that isn’t ridiculously repetitive.

But a couple of recent conversations have convinced me of the need to address two points.

First, it’s important to emphasize that not all statism is created equal. When writing recently about Denmark, I created a chart to show how that country was much more pro-market than France. And that same chart showed that France was much more capitalist than Greece.

And guess which country was the most statist? If you said Venezuela, you’re right.

And the lesson from this data is that the degree of statism matters. Venezuela is a total mess because of total statism, Greece is in trouble because of lots of statism, France is anemic because of run-of-the-mill statism, and Denmark does okay because it’s only statist in one area (fiscal policy).

Imagine you were a teacher and these countries were students. Here are the grades you’d assign for economic policy.

F – Venezuela
D – Greece
C – France
B – Denmark

Second, I want to answer a question that often gets asked, which is how long can the current government survive?

Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer. That’s partly because bad policy doesn’t cause overnight collapse (Adam Smith noted more than 200 years ago, “there is great deal of ruin in a nation”).

Venezuela historically has propped up its statist regime with oil revenue, but that’s shrinking as an option because of government incompetence.

Thousands of workers are fleeing Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, abandoning once-coveted jobs made worthless by the worst inflation in the world. …Desperate oil workers and criminals are also stripping the oil company of vital equipment, vehicles, pumps and copper wiring, carrying off whatever they can to make money. The double drain — of people and hardware — is further crippling a company that has been teetering for years yet remains the country’s most important source of income. …Venezuela is on its knees economically, buckled by hyperinflation and a history of mismanagement. Widespread hunger, political strife, devastating shortages of medicine and an exodus of well over a million people in recent years have turned this country, once the economic envy of many of its neighbors, into a crisis.

At the end of the day, the regime can rely on force. And Venezuela’s politicians cleverly have put the army in charge of graft and shakedowns, thus earning at least temporary loyalty.

Venezuela’s military has come to oversee the desperate and lucrative water trade as reservoirs empty, broken pipes flood neighborhoods and overwhelmed personnel walk out. Seven major access points in the capital of 5.5 million people are now run by soldiers or police, who also took total control of all public and private water trucks. Unofficially, soldiers direct where drivers deliver — and make them give away the goods at favored addresses. President Nicolas Maduro’s autocratic regime has handed lucrative industries to the 160,000-member military as the economic collapse gathers speed, from the mineral-rich region of the Arco Minero del Orinoco to top slots at the state oil producer to increasingly precious control over food and water.

Moreover, it’s difficult for people to revolt since the regime has followed the totalitarian playbook and banned private guns.

So it’s no surprise that many disaffected people (the ones who otherwise might revolt) are simply escaping the country.

Hundreds turn up each day, many arriving penniless and gaunt… Once they cross, many cram into public parks and plazas teeming with makeshift homeless shelters, raising concerns about drugs and crime. The lucky ones sleep in tents and line up for meals provided by soldiers — pregnant women, the disabled and families with young children are often given priority. …this is happening in Brazil, where a relentless tide of people fleeing the deepening economic crisis in Venezuela… The tens of thousands of Venezuelans who have found refuge in Brazil in recent years are walking proof of a worsening humanitarian crisis that their government claims does not exist. …more Venezuelans are leaving home each month than the 125,000 Cuban exiles who fled their homes during the 1980 Mariel boat crisis.

And the ones who haven’t left still have some options besides starve or revolt.

A few years ago, there were so many donkeys, or burros, in the Venezuelan state of Falcón that they were a problem — herds everywhere, causing highway crashes and blocking airport runways. But over the past three years, the herds have shrunk dramatically as thousands of burros have been slaughtered for their meat by Venezuelans suffering through a near-famine. …The collapse of the Venezuelan economy is radically changing the eating habits in the oil-producing country, where large sectors of the population are being forced to pick through garbage and slaughter domestic animals to sate their hunger. …The clandestine slaughter of the animals also has become a sanitary and environmental problem, Stefaneli added. There are no sanitary controls, and the burro has been disappearing from its native habitats. …Years back, residents of Paraguana used to eat goat, fish and beef. And when those were in short supply they ate rabbits, grains and even iguanas. Burro meat was not liked because it’s tough and smells, even from far away, according to residents who have eaten it. But it has become a necessity for many people.

The bottom line is that Venezuela is in free-fall, but I don’t know where the bottom is. And I don’t know what will happen when the country hits rock bottom.

But if you hold a gun to my head, I’ll predict that the regime somehow collapses in 2020.

P.S. The silver lining of Venezuela’s dark cloud is that we have some grim humor from inside and outside the country.

P.P.S. Venezuela is such a disaster that even the World Bank acknowledged Chile’s market-oriented system is far superior.

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