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Posts Tagged ‘Big Government’

Earlier this year, extrapolating from a study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, Robert O’Quinn (former Chief Economist at the Department of Labor) and I authored a study on the economic impact of Biden’s fiscal plan.

The results are not pretty.

Lost jobs, lost wages, lower living standards, and lost competitiveness.

But those estimates were based on the parameters of Biden’s economic plan in the summer.

His agenda has since been modified, which raises the question of how the current proposal would affect economic performance.

In a piece for Canada’s Fraser Institute (publishers of Economic Freedom of the World and Economic Freedom of North America), Robert and I updated our numbers and explained the implications of Biden’s tax-and-spend agenda.

According to independent experts at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the actual cost of the president’s policies is closer to $4.9 trillion. Some of this new spending will be financed with red ink, but President Biden also has embraced higher tax rates on work, saving, investment and entrepreneurship. Indeed, if his plan were enacted, the United States would have both the highest corporate tax rate and the highest capital gains tax rate in the developed world. …But how much would the economy be hurt? There are groups such as the Tax Foundation that do excellent work measuring the adverse effects of higher tax rates. But it’s also important to measure the harmful impact of a bigger welfare state. …Based on that CBO study, and using the CBO fiscal and economic baselines, we calculated the following unpalatable outcomes if Build Back Better bill (pushed by the president and Democrats in Congress) becomes law and growth is reduced by 2/10ths of 1 per cent per year.

And here are the results.

The good news is that the latest version of Biden’s plan doesn’t do quite as much damage as what was being discussed earlier this year.

The bad news is that our economy will be much weaker (and our results are in line with other estimates, including those done before the election and since the election).

Not that we should be surprised. If the United States becomes more like Europe, we’ll be more likely so suffer from European-style anemia.

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At the risk of understatement, I’m not a fan of the International Monetary Fund.

My main objection is that the bureaucracy’s various policies – especially bailoutsmake it easier for irresponsible politicians to expand the burden of government spending and increase deficits and debt.

Needless to say, that approach doesn’t work. The best evidence is that many governments wind up in a never-ending cycle of tax-spend-debt-crisis-bailout, followed by further rounds of tax-spend-debt-crisis-bailout.

Moreover, the net effect of these policies is to divert capital from the economy’s productive sector. So it’s the economic equivalent of a lose-lose policy.

When criticizing the IMF, I usually focus on how the bureaucrats relentlessly urge higher taxes. Indeed, I often complain about how the bailouts are provided only if countries agree to raise taxes (another lose-lose situation).

Today, though, I want to write about another bad IMF policy. Earlier this year, the bureaucrats (with support from the Biden Administration) allocated $650 billion of new Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) – sort of a version of IMF-created money.

You can learn about SDRs by clicking here and here, so I won’t bore people with a description of how they work.

For purposes of our discussion, what matters is that the IMF uses SDRs to enable more government spending.

And that’s not a recipe for prosperity, either for national economies or the global economy.

Earlier this year, Mary Anastasia O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal highlighted how SDRs are rewarding very dodgy governments in Latin America.

Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega is jailing, killing and disappearing his political opponents. …At the International Monetary Fund, he’s a valued member. So too are the governments of socialist, deadbeat Argentina and of El Salvador, which every day slips further into arbitrary, authoritarian rule. These are some of the bad actors in the Western Hemisphere who received more “special drawing rights” from the IMF on Aug. 23 as part of a new $650 billion general allocation. …SDRs are created out of thin air but can be converted, on demand, into hard currency. …Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who led the charge for this new round of SDRs, claims the transaction is cost-free… In fact, the conversion of SDRs to dollars is a subsidized, perpetual loan. For poor countries the subsidy is above 90% of the loan value. …There was a time when large multilateral handouts were conditioned on attempts at good governance. Those days are gone.

In a column last month for the Wall Street Journal, D.J. Nordquist and Dan Katz also analyzed the impact of the IMF’s policy.

…the International Monetary Fund announced in August a new general allocation of special drawing rights equivalent to $650 billion. …All IMF members, even rogue nations, receive them, so Iran got some $5 billion and Belarus $1 billion. …The allocation added more than $17 billion to Russia’s record-high reserves…the IMF and other proponents justified the SDR allocation on grounds that its benefits outweighed the harms… But because of the IMF shareholding formula… Only 3% of the general allocation flowed to low-income countries. …the IMF publicly indicated it would collaborate with the World Bank and other international financial institutions to ensure that SDRs were put to productive uses… Unfortunately, the IMF appears to have fallen into a classic trap of international organizations: acting based on aspirations rather than binding agreements. …Public confidence in international financial institutions has been understandably shaken as a result of corruption investigations into the IMF’s emergency pandemic-relief loans, theft of World Bank assistance by elite government officials, and serious questions regarding inappropriate Chinese influence at the World Bank, the World Health Organization, and elsewhere.

I’ll close by noting that SDRs are a great deal for politicians and bureaucrats. They get more spending, all of which seems free. And since almost nobody understands how this racket works, there’s near-zero democratic accountability.

P.S. Shifting gears, here’s are some excerpts from an article on the IMF’s website. It has nothing to do with the SDR issue, but it is a window into the the IMF’s statist mindset. The bureaucracy is lauding an economist, Mariana Mazzucato, who argues for industrial policy.

Mazzucato has been stirring the pot in economics and public policy for nearly a decade. Her main message is that governments around the world need to seize their power to lead innovation for the betterment of humanity. …Government is for setting big goals, defining the missions necessary for achieving them, encouraging and investing in innovation, and governing the process so that the public benefits. …She made the case for rethinking the role of government in her 2013 book, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths. …“State capacity has really been hollowed out because of the narrow way that we think about the state,” she says. …That’s particularly evident in the United Kingdom and the United States, where political leaders defunded public health and devalued government itself, eroding public trust and government’s capacity to respond to crises, she says. …Mazzucato urged “citizens’ dividends” and government equity stakes in businesses linked to government funding.

As illustrated by this video, letting politicians distort the economy is a recipe for stagnation and corruption.

P.P.S. There are many good economists who work at the IMF and they often produce high-quality research (see hereherehereherehereherehereherehere, and here). Sadly, their sensible analyses doesn’t seem to have any impact on the policy decisions of the organization’s top bureaucrats.

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A couple of years ago, to help build the case against socialism, I showed how West Germany enjoyed much faster growth and much more prosperity than East Germany.

The obvious lesson to be learned from this example of “anti-convergence” is that market-oriented economies out-perform state-controlled economies.

I want to revisit this topic because I recently dealt with someone who claimed that government spending via the Marshall Plan deserves the credit for West Germany’s post-war economic renaissance.

What does the evidence say? Was foreign aid from the United States after World War II a key driver (for Keynesian or socialist reasons) of the West German economy.

The answer is no.

Professor David Henderson explained the role of the Marshall Plan for Econlib.

After World War II the German economy lay in shambles. …less than ten years after the war people already were talking about the German economic miracle. What caused the so-called miracle? The two main factors were currency reform and the elimination of price controls, both of which happened over a period of weeks in 1948. A further factor was the reduction of marginal tax rates later in 1948 and in 1949. …Marshall Plan aid to West Germany was not that large. Cumulative aid from the Marshall Plan and other aid programs totaled only $2 billion through October 1954. Even in 1948 and 1949, when aid was at its peak, Marshall Plan aid was less than 5 percent of German national income. Other countries that received substantial Marshall Plan aid exhibited lower growth than Germany.

Moreover, the money that was dumped into Germany as part of the Marshall plan was offset by money that was taken out of the country.

…while West Germany was receiving aid, it was also making reparations and restitution payments well in excess of $1 billion. Finally, and most important, the Allies charged the Germans DM7.2 billion annually ($2.4 billion) for their costs of occupying Germany.

Inconvenient facts like this make the socialism or Keynesian argument very difficult to maintain.

In a 1990 study on whether there should be something similar to the Marshall Plan for Eastern Europe, Melanie Tammen summarized some of the research on how the original plan for Western Europe was a flop.

…those that received relatively large amounts of aid per capita, such as Greece and Austria, did not recover economically until U.S. assistance was winding down. Germany, France, and Italy, on the other hand, began their recovery before receiving Marshall Plan funds. As for Belgium, it embarked on a radical monetary reform program in October 1944, only one month after liberation. Belgium’s economic stabilization and recovery were well under way by 1946, fully two years before the arrival of U.S. aid. Great Britain, conversely, received more Marshall Plan aid than any other nation but had the lowest postwar economic growth rate of any European country. The critical problem facing Europe was…simply bad economic policy.

Kai Weiss of the Austrian Economic Center in Vienna also addressed this issue. Here’s some of what he wrote for the Foundation for Economic Education.

Common knowledge says that the United States’ Marshall Plan was responsible for the rapid economic growth, rebuilding the country by throwing a lot of money at it. But that’s a mistaken view. …why was there a “Wirtschaftswunder”? …two main reasons: a monetary reform and the freeing of the economy by abolishing price controls and cutting taxes. All of this was implemented thanks to one man: Ludwig Erhard. …What Erhard did was unthinkable in a hostile environment. The Allied forces, still heavily controlling Germany, left the Nazi price controls and rationing intact. But when Erhard became Secretary of the Economy in West Germany, he quickly ended all price controls and stopped rationing — to the dismay of the US advisors. …He, not a Keynesian Project like the Marshall Plan, enabled the miracle.

Speaking of Ludwig Erhard, here’s a video clip on what he did to trigger West Germany’s prosperity.

I have one minor disagreement with that video.

It states that Germany combined “free markets with a strong welfare state.”

That’s a very accurate description of, say, current policy in Denmark.

But total social welfare spending in Germany was less than 20 percent of GDP for the first few decades after World War II, considerably less than social welfare spending today in the United States.

At the risk of being pedantic, it would be more accurate to state that Germany combined free markets with a medium-sized welfare state.

Let’s close with one final bit of evidence.

Here’s a look at the most pro-market nations in the decades after the war. Germany (outlined in red) was never at the top of the list, but it was almost always in the top 10.

Was Germany a libertarian paradise?

Hardly.

But the main takeaway from today’s column is that it’s even more absurd to claim that Germany’s post-war growth was because of big government.

P.S. Regarding Eastern Europe, western nations ultimately decided to create a cronyist institution, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, in hopes of boosting post-Soviet economies. Needless to say, that was a mistake. Many nations have enjoyed good growth after escaping communist tyranny, but the cause was good policy rather than handouts.

P.P.S. The Erhard video is an excerpt from The Commanding Heights, a must-watch video that basically tells the economic history of the 20th century).

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First we got Biden’s $1.9 trillion so-called stimulus.

Then we got his $1 trillion-plus infrastructure boondoggle.

Now Congress may be on the verge of approving the President’s budget, which (if we use honest numbers) is a $5 trillion plan to expand the welfare state.

And…

So it’s hardly a surprise that recent changes will lead to a much-larger burden of government spending.

This is bad news for our economy, as measured by my recent study (with similar findings from a wide range of academics – as well as normally left-leaning bureaucracies such as the IMF, World Bank, and OECD).

For purposes of today’s column, let’s put America’s fiscal decline in global context.

Here are some excerpts from a very depressing article in the Economist, starting with some discussion of how Biden’s spending binge is similar to the mistakes made by other nations.

President Joe Biden is building on what started as emergency pandemic-related policy, expanding the child-tax credit, creating a universal federally funded child-care system, subsidising paid family leave and expanding Obamacare. America’s government spending remains somewhat below the developed-world average. But this change is not just a matter of catching up; the target is moving. Government spending as a share of gdp in the oecd as a whole has consistently inched higher in the six decades since the club was formed in 1961.

There’s then some discussion about how a few nations – most notably Sweden and New Zealand – enjoyed period of genuine spending restraint, but accompanied by depressing observations about how fiscal responsibility is very rare.

Examples of genuine state retrenchment in developed countries are few and far between. Sweden managed it in the 1980s. In the early 1990s Ruth Richardson, then New Zealand’s finance minister, cut the size of the state drastically. …State spending is now six percentage points lower as a share of gdp than it was in 1990. But this is a rare achievement, and perhaps one doomed to pass. …This is a sorry state of affairs if you believe that low taxes and small government are the right, and possibly the only, conditions for reliable, enduring economic growth. …an argument made by Friedrich Hayek, an Austrian philosopher, Milton Friedman, an American economist, and others in the mid-20th century.

There’s also some historical analysis showing how the burden of government used to be relatively minor.

From 1274 to 1691 the English government raised less than 2% of gdp in tax. …In the 1870s the governments of rich countries were spending about 10% of gdp. In 1920 it was nearer 20%. It has been growing ever since (see chart 2).

Here’s the aforementioned chart 2, and there are a lot of depressing numbers, though notice how Switzerland does better than other nations.

I’ve previously shared a version of this data, calling it the “world’s most depressing chart” – all of which was made possible by the imposition of income taxes.

But there is some good news. The ever-rising fiscal burden of government has been somewhat offset by reductions in other bad policies.

Governments have not grown more powerful by all measures. Bureaucrats no longer, as a rule, set wages or prices, nor impose strict currency controls, as many did in the 1960s or 1970s. In recent decades the public sector has raised hundreds of billions of dollars from privatisations of state assets such as mines and telecoms networks. If you find it faintly amusing to hear that, from 1948 to 1984, the British state ran its own chain of hotels, that is because the “neoliberal” outlook on the proper place of government has triumphed.

Last but not least, there’s some discussion of “public choice,” which explains why politicians and bureaucrats have incentives to expand the size and scope of government.

Governments and bureaucrats are at least partly self-interested: “public-choice theory” says that unrestrained bureaucracies will defend their turf and seek to expand it. …Politicians have their own incentives to expand the state. It is generally more rewarding for a politician to introduce a new programme than it is to close an old one down; costs are spread across all taxpayers while benefits tend to be concentrated, thus eliciting gratitude from interest groups

I’ll close by reiterating my warning that ever-rising spending burdens not only lead to less growth, but they also will lead to Greek-style fiscal crises.

Europe will get hit first, but it’s just a matter of time before the United States suffers a similar fate.

P.S. There is a simple solution to avoid such crises, and a specific policy to achieve that solution. But don’t hold your breath waiting for politicians to tie their own hands.

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I regularly cite data about Europe’s sub-par economic outcomes in hopes of driving home the point that the United States should not copy that continent’s approach of onerous fiscal burdens.

Which is now a very relevant topic with Biden pushing for a big expansion of the welfare state.

This is not a good idea. Americans are richer than their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic. Even more remarkably, lower-income people in the United States often have living standards equal to – or even greater than – middle-income Europeans.

Another way of making this point is to compare economic outcomes in American states compared to European countries.

I first did that back in 2015, citing data to show that all be the very-richest European nations would be considered poor if they were part of the United States.

I want to augment that comparison today. I’m motivated by a National Review column by Charles Cooke. As a former European, he realizes it would be a mistake for the United States to copy European policies.

Schrager writes, “Americans can’t spend like they used to. Store shelves are emptying, and it can take months to find a car, refrigerator or sofa. If this continues, we may need to learn to do without — and, horrors, live more like the Europeans. That actually might not be a bad thing.” Counterpoint: Yes, it would. …having spent a great deal of time in both places, I can assure you that it is considerably easier to live in America than it is to live in Europe, and that one of the main reasons for that — beyond Americans’ being so stonkingly rich — is that Americans are far, far more demanding of their marketplaces. …We do not, under any circumstances, need to “learn to do without.”

I want to focus on the “stonkingly rich” part of the above excerpt.

Cooke links to a 2014 column in the Washington Post by Hunter Schwarz. Here are the key passages.

If Britain were to join the United States, it would be the second-poorest state, behind Alabama and ahead of Mississippi. The ranking, determined by Fraser Nelson, an editor of The Spectator magazine, was made by dividing the gross domestic product of each state by its population, and it  took into account purchasing power parity for cost of living. Several other European countries were also included… Norway was the top European country on the list, between Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Here’s the Nelson data, which shows that only oil-rich Norway and pro-market Switzerland look good.

Some readers may be questioning the use of numbers from 2014 and 2015.

That’s a reasonable suspicion since perhaps European countries have closed the gap over the past few years.

But that’s not the case. The United States has grown faster in recent years, so updated state/country numbers would make Europe look even worse.

P.S. A Swedish think tank, Timbro, produced similar calculations back in 2004.

Here are those comparisons, showing again that European countries would be viewed as poor if they were states.

P.P.S. After a period of “convergence” after World War II, European countries have actually been falling further behind the United States in recent decades. Needless to say, it’s not good to be part of the “anti-convergence club.”

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Biden’s budget plan is based on fraudulent numbers, but it is also based on the fraudulent idea that a big, European-style welfare state can be financed without fleecing lower-income and middle-class taxpayers.

I’ve repeatedly pointed out that this is not true, but it’s time to turn this fiscal fact into a Theorem of Government.

Some of my friends on the left don’t agree with the first sentence of this Theorem. In some cases, I think they sincerely believe that big government can be entirely financed by going after upper-income taxpayers.

This is why I added the second sentence. After all, surely some of Europe’s welfare states would have figured out how to shield poor and middle-class people from high tax burdens if that was possible.

Yet that’s not the case. As illustrated by this unfortunate Spaniard, ordinary people in Europe get fleeced by their governments.

The good news (sort of) is that there are some honest folks on the left who openly admit a big welfare state means big taxes on ordinary people.

I even include them on my page of “honest leftists.”

And now we have a new member of that club. Congressman Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania recently admitted that his party’s agenda will require taxes on those of us with modest incomes.

Here are some excerpts from a report by Emily Brooks.

Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb acknowledged that enacting all of the Democrats’ sweeping policy visions would require Democrats to raise taxes on the middle class rather than relying on tax increases on the rich. “If we want to propose a lot of new spending and adventurous new government programs in our party, we have to have the confidence to ask … the middle class and people like that to contribute to it. And I think that’s … what we’re missing right now,” Lamb, a Democrat representing a swing district northwest of Pittsburgh, said last week. …”Some of the focus on the billionaires and the ultra-wealthy that people are putting in the news right now — it’s fine, it’s valid, it’s not enough to fund everything we want to do,” Lamb said.

Needless to say, I disagree with Cong. Lamb’s policy agenda. If we adopt European-style fiscal policy, it will mean anemic, European-style economic malaise.

And that will translate into lower living standards for the masses.

But at least he’s being honest about what he wants.

P.S. To elaborate, a small government can be financed by a few rich people. That’s basically the story of Hong Kong. A medium-sized government can be financed in large part by the rich. That’s sort of the story of the United States (though ordinary people pay of a lot of payroll taxes). But there’s no way to finance a Biden-style agenda without going after ordinary taxpayers.

P.P.S. Here are my other Theorems of Government.

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Back in 2017, I shared my Second Theorem of Government to warn why it is so important to resist new government giveaway programs.

And I used Obamacare as a costly example.

Simply stated, it’s much easier to block new handouts than it is to take away goodies once people have been conditioned to think they can and should rely on government.

In some sense, this is not just about economics. It’s also about preserving societal capital.

All of which helps to explain why it is so important to resist some of Biden’s proposed giveaways, such as parental leave and per-child handouts.

And if you want some extra evidence, look at places where people have become accustomed to living off others.

In her column for the Wall Street Journal, Mary Anastasia O’Grady writes about the basket case of Argentina.

Socialist ideologues know that the welfare state is addictive. New entitlements create dependencies that, once born, demand to be fed and to grow no matter the party in power. Argentina proves the rule. The Argentine electorate may be about to throw out the hard-left Peronists… The bad news is that even if peronismo loses its unchecked power in Argentina’s National Congress, it’s probably too late to avoid another fiscal and monetary crisis. …Both legislative chambers are likely to remain heavily populated by advocates of European socialism.

She shares some history about Argentina’s descent from prosperity to dependency, and points out how the entitlement mindset makes much-needed reforms very difficult.

Even when supposedly right-of-center governments win elections.

One hundred years ago Argentina was one of the world’s most prosperous nations. But as the roaring ’20s wound down, continental fascism gained cachet. …Gen. Juan Perón, who ruled from 1946 through 1955 and again briefly in 1973-74, was especially fond of Benito Mussolini’s Italy. …statism sticks once it’s in place. …fiscal profligacy endured and support for rigid labor laws remained intransigent. …even with Argentine inflation above 50%, widespread price controls and the economy sputtering for a decade, a viable alternative to populism hasn’t emerged.

For more information about the economic tragedy of Argentina, you can click here, here, and here.

To be frank, however, I’m not overly concerned about that country. Like Greece, I view it as a lost cause.

What worries me is that the United States may wind up on a slippery slope if more entitlements are added to our already-creaky and burdensome welfare state.

P.S. Argentina probably wouldn’t be such a basket case if the IMF didn’t provide endless bailouts.

P.P.S. It wasn’t too long ago that Biden seemed to understand the importance of societal capital.

 

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Thanks to socialism, Venezuela is a basket case.

This video from John Stossel asks if the United States can and should learn from this bad example.

The easy answer is yes. Indeed, you can click here and here to get 56 examples of why we should not copy Venezuela’s descent to statism.

The main thing to understand is that the world is an economic laboratory and the various countries are experiments showing what works and what doesn’t work.

Nations such as Venezuela clearly are wretched examples of what happens if there is a large amount of bad policy.

Other nations, by contrast, are examples of what happens if there’s a medium level of bad policy. Think Greece, Argentina, and Italy.

While countries such as the United States and Denmark show what happens if there is a (comparatively) modest amount of bad policy.

All this is depicted in the “socialism slide,” which I created back in 2019 to show how nations score in the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World.

The good news is that the United States would have to fall a long way down the slide before approaching Venezuela-style economic despotism.

Even Biden’s plan would represent just a small step in that wrong direction.

P.S. I’m focused on the dangers of copying Venezuela’s bad economic policies, but I agree about the downsides of the other two policies – gun control and speech control – mentioned in the video.

P.P.S. I’ll never stop being amazed that the New York Times wrote about Venezuela’s economic crisis and never once mentioned socialism.

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During his 2012 reelection campaign, Barack Obama created a fictional character named Julia and showed how she could mooch off taxpayers from cradle to grave.

Given Biden’s reputation as a plagiarizer, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that the White House has reincarnated Julia as part of a push to trap more people in government dependency.

Here is the story of Linda and Leo.

The shocking part of the story, right at the start, is that Linda actually has a job in the private sector.

But Linda soon figures out that she can use the coercive power of government to take money from her neighbors.

She starts with Biden’s per-child handout.

She then puts her son into government-subsidized child care (with no discussion, of course, of how third-party payer causes prices to skyrocket).

I can only imagine the nursery rhymes he’ll hear in that setting.

She then enrolls him in a “free” pre-K program, presumably unaware that such programs have no evidence of success (but at least Biden will be happy that this program creates more unionized teachers to fight against quality education).

Next, her son enters taxpayer-funded community college (another third-party payer problem).

After college, he gets a job, which is nominally in the private sector, but which largely exists because of government distortions (all jobs are not created equal).

Last but not least, Linda gets to rely on taxpayers in her old age, thanks to other programs that are designed to produce additional overpaid government employees.

Let’s close this depressing celebration of dependency by shifting to humor.

Here’s a tweet about Biden’s people plagiarizing Obama’s people.

While I appreciate the satire, I’m quite worried about the long-run impact of Biden’s agenda (i.e., becoming Greece).

P.S. Regarding Obama’s Julia, here’s a great Michael Ramirez cartoon and here’s some clever Iowahawk satire.

P.P.S. And here’s my two-cartoon set on what happens as more and more people are lured into the wagon of government dependency.

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After the people of the United Kingdom voted to escape the European Union, I wondered whether the Conservative Party would “find a new Margaret Thatcher” to enact pro-market reforms and thus “take advantage of a golden opportunity” to “prosper in a post-Brexit world.”

The answer is no.

The current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, deserves praise for turning the Brexit vote into Brexit reality, but his fiscal policy has been atrocious.

Not only is he failing to be another Margaret Thatcher, he’s a bigger spender than left-leaning Tory leaders such as David Cameron and Theresa May.

Let’s look at some British media coverage of how Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) have sided with government over taxpayers.

Allister Heath of the Telegraph has a brutal assessment of their profligacy.

Rishi Sunak’s message, repeated over and over again, as he unveiled a historic, epoch-defining rise in public spending financed by ruinous tax increases. It was a Labour Budget with a Tory twist and the kind of Spending Review that Gordon Brown would have relished… the cash was sprinkled in every possible direction. Sunak is Chancellor, but he was executing Boris Johnson’s cakeist vision: a meddling, hyperactive, managerialist, paternalistic and almost municipal state which refuses to accept any limits to its ambition or ability to spend. …The scale of the tax increases is staggering. …This will propel the tax burden from 33.5 per cent of GDP before the pandemic to 36.2 per cent by 2026-27, its highest since the early 1950s… The picture on spending is equally grim: we are on course for a new normal of around 41.6 per cent of GDP by 2026-27, the largest sustained share of GDP since the late 1970s. …The Budget and Spending Review are thus a huge victory for Left-wing ideas, even if the shift is being implemented by Right-wing Brexiteers who have forgotten that the economic case for Brexit wasn’t predicated on Britain becoming more like France or Spain. …Labour shouldn’t be feeling too despondent: the party may not be in office, but when it comes to the economy and public spending, they are very much in power.

Writing for CapX, James Heywood explains one of the adverse consequences of big-government Toryism.

Simply stated, the U.K. will go from bad to worse in the Tax Foundation’s International Tax Competitiveness Index.

…in the Cameron-Osborne era, the Conservatives focused on heavily on making Britain competitive and business-friendly, with significant cuts to the headline rate of corporation tax. …in his recent Tory conference speech, Boris Johnson trumpeted the virtues of an ‘open society and free market economy’, promising that his was a government committed to creating a ‘low tax economy’.  Unfortunately, when it comes to UK tax policy the direction of travel is concerningly divorced from the rhetoric. The latest iteration of the US-based Tax Foundation’s annual International Tax Competitiveness Index placed the UK 22nd out of 37 OECD countries when it comes to the overall performance of our tax system. …Nor does the UK’s current ranking factor in the Government’s plans for future tax rises. …the headline rate of corporation tax had fallen to 19% and was set to fall to 17% by 2020. That further fall had already been cancelled during Sajid Javid’s brief stint as Chancellor, in order to pay for additional NHS spending. At the last Budget, Rishi Sunak went much further, setting out plans to gradually raise the rate from 19% to 25% in April 2023. That is a huge tax measure by anyone’s standards… On top of that we have the recently announced Health and Social Care Levy… If we factor all these new measures into the Tax Foundation’s Competitiveness Index, the UK falls to a dismal 30th out of 37 countries.

For what it’s worth, the United Kingdom’s competitiveness decline will be very similar to the drop in America’s rankings if Biden’s fiscal plan is enacted.

In other words, there’s not much difference between the left-wing policy of Joe Biden and the (supposedly) right-wing policy of Britain’s Conservative Party.

No wonder a British cartoonist thought it was appropriate to show Rishi Sunak morphing into Gorden Brown, the high-tax, big-government Chancellor of the Exchequer under Tony Blair.

I’ll close with the observation that conservatives and libertarians in the United Kingdom need to create their own version of the no-tax-hike pledge.

That pledge, organized by Americans for Tax Reform, has helped protect many (but not all) Republicans from politically foolish tax hikes.

It is good politics to have a no-tax pledge, but I’m much more focused on the fact that opposing tax hikes is good policy.

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I don’t know whether to be amused or frustrated, but I can’t help but notice that folks on the left frequently argue that the United States needs to make government bigger in order to “catch up” or “shrink the gap” with Europe.

President Biden even has said that America is “falling behind” because the fiscal burden of government is lower than it is in other nations.

My response is always to point out that there is a gap between the United States and other developed nations, but that gap always shows that people in America are more prosperous, with far higher levels of consumption.

Heck, lower-income people in the United States often are better off than middle-class people in Europe.

And what’s especially remarkable is that the gap is growing rather than shrinking, even though convergence theory tells us Europe should be growing faster.

So why should we want to copy the policies of nations that have lower living standards?

Yet none of this information was included in a New York Times article about paid parental leave by Claire Cain Miller. Instead, the focus of the article is how the United States “lags” behind other nations.

Congress is now considering four weeks of paid family and medical leave… If the plan becomes law, the United States will no longer be one of six countries in the world — and the only rich country — without any form of national paid leave. But it would still be an outlier. Of the 185 countries that offer paid leave for new mothers, only one, Eswatini (once called Swaziland), offers fewer than four weeks. …Globally, the average paid maternity leave is 29 weeks, and the average paid paternity leave is 16 weeks… Besides the United States, the only other countries with no paid maternity leave are the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Suriname and Tonga.

The bottom line is that our government does not provide some of the goodies provided by politicians in other nations, but we have a much stronger economy that produces much higher living standards.

And there’s lots of evidence that there’s more prosperity in the United States precisely because the welfare state is smaller and the tax burden is not as onerous.

I’ll close by acknowledging that there is a very legitimate Arther Okun-style argument to accept weaker growth in exchange for more handouts from government.

In the case of parental leave, I don’t find that argument persuasive (for reasons explained here, here, here, here, and here), but reasonable people can disagree.

What’s not reasonable, however, is whining that the United States “lags” other nations without acknowledging Okun’s tradeoff.

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Remember back when Joe Biden said paying more tax is patriotic?

He was being a hypocrite, of course, since he aggressively sought to lower his own tax burden.

But he was also behaving exactly as “public choice” theory predicts.

Politicians naturally want more of our money, and they’ll use any excuse to justify reaching into our pockets.

Some journalists have embraced this viewpoint, waving the flag of taxes-über-alles with gusto and enthusiasm.

Here are some excerpts from Catherine Rampell’s recent column in the Washington Post.

There are some types of income, however, for which little or no third-party reporting exists. These income categories — including partnership, proprietorship and rental income — accrue disproportionately to high earners. The government has much less ability to tell when these filers are misreporting; as a result, they can more easily get away with cheating. …Tax cheating is not a victimless crime. …everyone else must pay more to fill the shortfall. One solution is to have the IRS conduct more audits. …tax enforcement has plummeted as the IRS has been starved of resources. …More reporting would also deter would-be tax cheats… This solution is exactly what Democrats have proposed as part of their big budget bill. …banks would — once a year — also report the sums of all deposits and withdrawals for certain accounts. …The GOP seeks to exploit the confusion of honest, rank-and-file taxpayers.

And, a few days ago, Binyamin Appelbaum of the New York Times wrote that it was “rotten” to oppose higher taxes.

Resistance to taxation is the rotten core of the modern Republican Party. Republicans in recent decades have sharply reduced the federal income tax rates imposed on wealthy people and big companies, but their opposition to taxation goes beyond that. They are aiding and abetting tax evasion. Republicans have hacked away at funding for the Internal Revenue Service over the past decade, enfeebling the agency. …they valorize Americans who find ways to pay less, a normalization of antisocial behavior that may be even more damaging… The Republican Party was reborn in the 1970s under the banner of resistance to taxation, led by anti-tax men like Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan. …Republicans like to talk about liberty, by which they mean a narrow and negative kind of freedom from civic duty and mutual obligation. …the rise of anti-tax activism was inextricably intertwined with the decline of a white electoral majority. …Progressive taxation is…a small price to pay for prosperity. …We create and maintain our society through our contributions.

Both of these columns are filled with factual mistakes, most notably the discredited claim that the IRS is being starved of money (it’s budget, adjusted for inflation, has doubled since the early 1980s).

They also seem willing to accept the self-serving numbers from the IRS, whereas the world’s top academic experts estimate the United States is near the top for tax compliance.

With this in mind, Biden’s aggressive proposal for automatic snooping on bank accounts is like using a sledgehammer to kill a fly.

And it’s also worth noting that neither Rampell nor Appelbaum address the topic of IRS leaks and bureaucratic corruption. Shouldn’t those problems be fixed before giving the IRS more power, more money, and more of our private data?

I’ll close by wondering whether either Rampell or Appelbaum have voluntarily paid extra tax to demonstrate their own “patriotism”?

Or, if that’s asking for too much flag waving, maybe they can tell us whether they take advantage of rules (everything from IRAs and 401(k)s to itemized deductions) that allow households to protect some of their income from government.

For what it’s worth, I suspect that they are both hypocrites, just like other folks on the left (John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Gov. Pritzker, Tim Geithner, etc) who embrace higher taxes for you and me while making sure they pay as little as possible.

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I will be very happy if politicians reject Biden’s tax-and-spend agenda because they realize it will undermine U.S. competitiveness and reduce American prosperity.

But I’ll be pleased if they simply reject his budget because they’re scared of voters.

And that may be the stronger factor. Gallup released new data on how Americans view big government, and my friends on the left won’t be happy.

For what it’s worth, I wish 80 percent of respondents preferred less government, but I’ll accept 50 percent.

Especially since only 19 percent want more government.

And here’s some related data on whether people want government to do more or do less.

Once again, 52 percent is far too low.

But at least we don’t have the bad results from last year.

Interestingly, independents have turned sharply against big government.

These results are grabbing attention in Washington.

In some cases, people are happy, as illustrated by this column by Tarren Bragdon for National Review.

Manchin is taking stands that enjoy broad public support. …he’s advocating policies that align with the views of a clear majority of Americans. Manchin is a man of the mainstream — not just the West Virginia mainstream, but the national mainstream. …Gallup’s 2021 research shows that more than three-quarters of Americans are concerned about federal spending and deficits, with about half worried “a great deal.” A spring Ipsos poll found that three out of four Americans think too much national debt will hurt the economy. …an April CivicScience poll, a stunning 87 percent of American adults expressed concerns about rising inflation. …Morning Consult found this week that only 35 percent of voters want the child tax credit made permanent, while 52 percent want it to expire.

In other cases, people are unhappy, as shown by this column by Catherine Rampell for the Washington Post.

Inconvenient but true: Americans want government to do less. Not more. Democrats cannot afford to just hand-wave this problem away. …the nation was again grappling with trying circumstances when this poll was conducted last year. …the public demanded more from the government. If there are no atheists in a foxhole, there are fewer libertarians in a pandemic. Fast-forward to today. Gallup conducted this poll again a month ago — and found that the share saying government should do more to solve problems has fallen back down to earth. …This is likely to present a problem for the Democratic Party, which is trying to pass a cradle-to-grave expansion of the welfare state.

Here’s Ms. Rampell’s repackaging of some of the polling data, which is helpful since it shows the big drop in support for statism by independents.

The bottom line is that I’m not a big fan of basing public policy on opinion polls.

But I also try to be practical. Biden fiscal agenda would be very bad for the United States.

It makes no sense to copy Europe’s welfare states when living standards on the other side of the ocean are significantly lower than they are in America.

So if politicians vote against higher taxes and more spending because of public opinion, I won’t complain (even though I wish they made sensible decisions because they read International Liberty).

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I freely admit that I don’t like President Biden’s fiscal agenda in part because of my libertarianism. Simply stated, I’m instinctively skeptical when someone wants to expand government.

But I’m also an economist who believes in cost-benefit analysis. Moreover, I recognize that there are “public goods” that the private sector can’t – or isn’t allowed to – provide.

So I’m a big believer in looking at evidence to see if a proposed expansion of government makes sense.

As such, if we review the economic performance of nations that have already adopted Biden-type policies – such as Western Europe’s welfare states, that should tell us whether those policies are a good idea for the United States.

Well, if that kind of evidence matters, the answer surely is negative.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized on this topic a few days ago and reached a similar conclusion.

Here are some key excerpts.

“To oppose these investments is to be complicit in America’s decline,” Mr. Biden said Tuesday, adding that “other countries are speeding up and America is falling behind.” …You have to admire the audacity of pitching higher taxes and more social welfare as the path to national revival, especially when the global evidence is the opposite. The result of Mr. Biden’s expanded entitlements is likely to be reduced incentives to work and invest, slower economic growth, lower living standards.

The editorial is filled with hard data on the sub-par performance of various European nations.

That’s the lesson from Europe’s cradle-to-grave welfare states… European jobless rates tend to be much higher than in the U.S., especially for the young. In 2019 labor participation was 62.6% in the U.S. versus 49.7% in Italy, 55% in France, 57.7% in Spain, 59.3% in Portugal and 61.3% in Germany. …U.S. GDP growth still averaged 2.3% from 2010 to 2019, surpassing Italy (0.27%), Portugal (0.86%), Spain (1.07%), France (1.42%) and Germany (1.97%). …Mr. Biden’s plan would empower the government, pile burdens on the private economy, and erode upward mobility by encouraging people not to work. That’s the real recipe for decline.

And let’s not forget that scholarly research also shows that bigger government leads to economic weakness.

P.S. the WSJ editorial also made a very important point that European-style welfare expansions necessarily require huge tax increases on lower-income and middle-class households.

Europe’s little-discussed secret is that its cradle-to-grave welfare states are financed by the middle class via value-added and payroll taxes. The combined employer-employee social security tax rate is 36% in Spain, 40% in Italy and 65% in France. Value-added taxes in most European economies are around 20%. There simply aren’t enough rich to finance their entitlements.

For what it’s worth, Biden wants people to believe that all his new entitlement expansions can be financed with class-warfare taxes on upper-income households.

Even Paul Krugman admits that is preposterously false.

P.P.S. What’s especially revealing is that European nations have been falling further behind the United States, making them members of the “Anti-Convergence Club.”

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I’m not a fan of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Since I work mostly on fiscal issues, I don’t like the fact that the bureaucracy is an avid cheerleader for ever-higher taxes (which is disgustingly hypocritical since IMF employees get lavish, tax-free salaries).

But the biggest problem with the IMF is that it promotes “moral hazard.” More specifically, it provides bailouts for irresponsible governments and for those who foolishly lend to those governments.

The net result is that bad behavior is rewarded, which is a recipe for more bad behavior.

All of which explains why some nations (and their foolish lenders) have received dozens of bailouts.

Oh, and let’s not forget that these endless bailouts also lead to a misallocation of capital, thus reducing global growth.

In an article for the New York Times, Patricia Cohen reports on discussions to expand the IMF’s powers.

Once narrowly viewed as a financial watchdog and a first responder to countries in financial crises, the I.M.F. has more recently helped manage two of the biggest risks to the worldwide economy: the extreme inequality and climate change. …long-held beliefs like the single-minded focus on how much an economy grows, without regard to problems like inequality and environmental damage, are widely considered outdated. And the preferred cocktail for helping debt-ridden nations that was popular in the 1990s and early 2000s — austerity, privatization of government services and deregulation — has lost favor in many circles as punitive and often counterproductive.

There’s a lot to dislike about the above excerpts.

Starting with the article’s title, since it would be more accurate to say that the IMF’s bailout policies encourage fires.

Multiple fires.

Looking at the text, the part about “extreme inequality” is nonsensical, both because the IMF hasn’t done anything to “manage” the issue, other than to advocate for class-warfare taxes.

Moreover, there’s no support for the empty assertion that inequality is a “risk” to the world economy (sensible people point out that the real problem is poverty, not inequality).

Ms. Cohen also asserts that the “preferred cocktail” of  pro-market policies (known as the Washington Consensus) has “lost favor,” which certainly is accurate.

But she offers another empty – and inaccurate – assertion by writing that it was “counterproductive.”

Here are some additional excerpts.

The debate about the role of the I.M.F. was bubbling before the appointment of Ms. Georgieva… But she has embraced an expanded role for the agency. …she stepped up her predecessors’ attention to the widening inequality and made climate change a priority, calling for an end to all fossil fuel subsidies, for a tax on carbon and for significant investment in green technology. …Sustainable debt replaced austerity as the catchword. …The I.M.F. opposed the hard line taken by some Wall Street creditors in 2020 toward Argentina, emphasizing instead the need to protect “society’s most vulnerable” and to forgive debt that exceeds a country’s ability to repay.

The last thing the world needs is “an expanded role” for the IMF.

It’s especially troubling to read that the bureaucrats want dodgy governments to have more leeway to spend money (that’s the real meaning of “sustainable debt”).

And if the folks at the IMF are actually concerned about “society’s most vulnerable” in poorly run nations such as Argentina, they would be demanding that the country copy the very successful poverty-reducing policies in neighboring Chile.

Needless to say, that’s not what’s happening.

The article does acknowledge that not everyone is happy with the IMF’s statist agenda.

Some stakeholders…object to what’s perceived as a progressive tilt. …Ms. Georgieva’s activist climate agenda has…run afoul of Republicans in Congress… So has her advocacy for a minimum global corporate tax.

It would be nice, though, if Ms. Cohen had made the article more balanced by quoting some of the critics.

The bottom line, as I wrote last year, is that the world would be better off if the IMF was eliminated.

Simply stated, we don’t need an international bureaucracy that actually argues it’s okay to hurt the poor so long as the rich are hurt by a greater amount.

P.S. The political leadership of the IMF is hopelessly bad, as is the bureaucracy’s policy agenda. That being said, there are many good economists who work at the IMF and they often produce high-quality research (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Sadly, their sensible analyses doesn’t seem to have any impact on the decisions of the organization’s top bureaucrats.

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President Biden’s fiscal agenda of higher taxes and bigger government is not a recipe for prosperity.

How much will it hurt the economy?

Last month, I shared the results of a new study I wrote with Robert O’Quinn for the Club for Growth Foundation.

We based our results on a wide range of economic research, especially a scholarly study from the Congressional Budget Office, and found a big drop in economic output, employment and labor income.

Most troubling was the estimate of a long-run drop in living standards, which would be especially bad news for young people.

Today, I want to share some different estimates of the potential impact of Biden’s agenda.

A study for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, authored by  E. J. Antoni, Vance Ginn, and Stephen Moore, found even higher levels of economic damage. Here are some main excerpts.

President Biden and congressional Democrats seek to spend another $6.2 trillion over the next decade, spread across at least two bills that comprise their “Build Back Better” plan. This plan includes heavy taxing, spending, and debt, which contributes to reducing growth rates for GDP, employment, income, and capital stock.  Compared to baseline growth over the next decade, this plan will result in estimated dynamic economic effects of 5.3 million fewer jobs, $3.7 trillion less in GDP, $1.2 trillion less in income, and $4.5 trillion in new debt. …There are many regulatory changes and transfer payments in current legislation whose effects have not been included in this paper but are worth mentioning in closing since they will have many of the same effects as the tax increases discussed in this paper. Extending or expanding the enhanced Child Tax Credit, Earned Income Tax Credit, Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, and more, disincentivizes working, reducing incomes, investment, and GDP. Just the changes to these three tax credits alone are expected to cause a loss of 15,000 jobs… Permanently expanding the health insurance premium tax credits would similarly have a negative effect… Regulatory changes subsidizing so-called green energy while increasing tax and regulatory burdens on fossil fuels also result in a less efficient allocation of resources.

If we focus on gross domestic product (GDP), the TPPF estimates a drop in output of $3.7 trillion, which is higher than my study, which showed a drop of about $3 trillion.

Part of the difference is that TPPF looked at the impact of both the so-callled infrastructure spending package and Biden’s so-called Build Back Better plan, while the study for the Club for Growth Foundation only looked at the impact of the latter.

So it makes sense that TPPF would find more aggregate damage.

And part of the difference is that economists rarely agree on anything because there are so many variables and different experts will assign different weights to those variables.

So the purpose of sharing these numbers is not to pretend that any particular study perfectly estimates the effect of Biden’s agenda, but rather to simply get a sense of the likely magnitude of the economic damage.

Speaking of economic damage, here’s a table from the TPPF showing state-by-state job losses.

I’ll close by noting that you can also use common sense to get an idea of what will happen if Biden’s agenda is approved.

He wants to make the United States more like Western Europe’s welfare states, so all we have to do is compare U.S. living standards and economic performance to what’s happening on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

And when you do that, the clear takeaway is that it’s crazy to “catch up” to nations that are actually way behind.

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Having been in Washington for close to 40 years, I’ve seen lots of budget dishonesty, but nothing compares to Joe Biden’s claim that his profligate budget proposals have zero cost.

According to the official numbers, that’s a $3.5 trillion lie.

In reality, as I noted in July, it’s much bigger.

Let’s investigate this issue. I’ll start by noting that I have mixed feelings about the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB). They think controlling red ink should be the main focus of fiscal policy, whereas I think controlling spending should be the top goal.

That being said, CRFB’s staff have a well-deserved reputation for being thorough and careful when producing fiscal analysis.

So it’s worth noting that the group estimates that the Biden’s fiscal agenda would actually cost between $5 trillion and $5.5 trillion over 10 years, much higher than the “official” estimate of $3.5 trillion.

Here are some of the bottom-line numbers from their report.

That’s a truncated version of their table. If you want to see all the gory details, click here.

You’ll also be able to read the group’s analysis, including these key excerpts.

While the actual cost of this new legislation will ultimately depend heavily on details that have yet to be revealed, we estimate the policies under consideration could cost between $5 trillion and $5.5 trillion over a decade, assuming they are made permanent. In order to fit these proposals within a $3.5 trillion budget target, lawmakers apparently intend to have some policies expire before the end of the ten-year budget window, using this oft-criticized budget gimmick to hide their true cost. …To fit $5 trillion to $5.5 trillion…into a $3.5 trillion budget, background documents to reporters explain that “the duration of each program’s enactment will be determined based on scoring and Committee input.”  In other words, tax credits and spending programs will be set to expire at some point before the end of the decade, in the hope that future lawmakers will extend these programs. …This budget gimmick…would obscure the true cost of the legislation

The Wall Street Journal opined about Biden’s gimmickry.

Democrats are grasping for ways to finance their cradle-to-grave welfare state, with the left demanding what they claim is $3.5 trillion over 10 years. The truth is that even that gargantuan number hides the real cost of their plans. The bills moving through committees are full of delayed starts, phony phase-outs, and cost shifting to states designed to fit $3.5 trillion into a 10-year budget window… Start with the child allowance… Democrats have hidden the real cost by extending the allowance only through 2025. Even if Republicans gain control of Congress and the White House in 2024, Democrats and their media allies will bludgeon them to extend the payments… Democrats are using a different time shift to disguise the cost of their Medicare expansion…delaying the phase-in of the much more expensive dental benefit to 2028. This “saves” $420 billion over 10 years, but the costs explode after that. …the new universal child-care entitlement…gives $90 billion to the states—but only from 2022 to 2027. …The bottom line: $3.5 trillion is merely the first installment of a bill that would put government at the commanding heights of family life and the economy for decades to come. Tax increases will follow as far as the eye can see.

Regarding the final sentence of the above excerpt, the tax increases in Biden’s budget are merely an appetizer.

Ultimately, a European-sized welfare state requires European-style taxes on lower-income and middle-class households.

In other words, a value-added tax, along with higher payroll taxes, higher energy taxes, and higher income tax rates on ordinary workers (with this unfortunate Spaniard being a tragic example).

But we do have a tiny bit of good news.

A small handful of Democrats are resisting Biden’s budget, which means the package presumably will have to shrink in order to get sufficient votes.

But this good news may be fake news if Biden and his allies in Congress simply expand the use of dishonest accounting.

Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute documents some of this likely dishonesty in a column for the New York Post.

How does Congress cut a $3.5 trillion spending bill down to $1.5 trillion? By using gimmicks to hide its true cost. …Progressives have been abusing these gimmicks from the start. They began with a reconciliation proposal that would cost nearly $5 trillion over the decade. Then, in order to cut the bill’s “official” cost closer to $4 trillion, the bill’s authors included a December 2025 expiration of the $130 billion annual expansion of the child tax credit… Of course, no one believes that Congress will actually allow the child tax credit to be reduced at the end of 2025… Democrats purposely selected for “expiration” a popular middle-class benefit that they know even a future Republican Congress or president would not dare take away from voters. …expensive child care subsidies, family leave, and “free” community college benefits may also have their full cost hidden with fake expiration dates early into the 10-year scoring window. Lawmakers fully expect to extend these policies later, ultimately raising the cost of the total reconciliation bill closer to the $3.5 trillion target (or even higher). …Progressives are also discussing delaying the proposed new Medicare dental benefits until 2028, which legitimately saves money within the 10-year scoring window but also hides a larger long-term cost.

I realize that it’s not a big revelation to write that politicians are dishonest (Washington, after all, is a “wretched hive of scum and villainy“).

And I also realize that that the main problem with Biden’s plan is the economic damage it will cause, not the reliance on phony accounting.

But truth should matter a little bit, even in a town where lying about fiscal policy is a form of art.

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Economists of all types agree with “convergence theory,” which is the notion that poor countries should grow faster than rich countries.

Though they are usually wise enough to also say “ceteris parisbus,” which means the theory applies if other variables are similar (the translation from Latin is “other things equal”).

I’m very interested in this theory because we can learn a lot when we look at nations that don’t have “equal” policies.

And the biggest lesson is that you have divergence rather than convergence if one nation follows good policies and the other one embraces statism.

Take a look, for instance, at what’s happened to per-capita economic output (GDP) since 1950 in Taiwan and Cuba.

The obvious takeaway from these numbers from the Maddison database is that Taiwan has enjoyed spectacular growth while Cuba has suffered decades of stagnation.

If this was a boxing match between capitalism and socialism, the refs would have stopped the fight several decades ago.

By the way, some folks on the left claim that Cuba’s economic misery is a result of the U.S. trade embargo.

In a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, Emmanuel Rincón explains the real reason why these two jurisdictions are so wildly divergent.

…the Communist Party of Cuba has blamed the United States for Cuba’s misery and poverty, alluding to the “blockade” that the U.S. maintains against Cuba. However, …the rest of the world can trade freely with the island. …Taiwan’s economy is one of the most important in the world, with a poverty rate of 0.7%, as opposed to Cuba, which has one of the most depressed economies on the planet and 90% of its population living in poverty. What is the difference between the two islands? The economic and political model they applied in their nations. …Taiwan has the sixth freest economy according to the Index of Economic Freedom… While Taiwan took off with a capitalist model, Cuba remained anchored in the old revolutionary dogmas of Fidel Castro… With popular slogans such as redistribution of wealth, supposed aid to the poor, and socialism, Fidel Castro began to expropriate land and private companies to be managed by the state…today the GDP of the Caribbean island is five times less than that of Taiwan, and 90% of its population lives in poverty, while in the Asian island only 0.7% of its population is poor. It is definitely not the fault of the “blockade”, but of socialism.

To be sure, Cuba would be slightly less poor if there was unfettered trade with the United States, so maybe Taiwan would only be four and one-half times richer rather than five times richer in the absence of an embargo.

The moral of the story is that there’s no substitute for free markets and small government.

P.S. Though I appreciate the fact that our friends on the left are willing to extol the virtues of free trade, at least in this rare instance.

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When asked to list the worst presidents of the 20th century, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Richard Nixon belong on the list.

But this Reason video with Amity Shlaes shows why Lyndon Johnson also is among the worst of the worst.

 

You should watch every second of the video, but if you don’t have 33 minutes to spare, here’s a helpful summary.

Johnson declared war on poverty, jacked up federal spending on education, and pushed massive new entitlement programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, which promised to deliver high-quality, low-cost health care to the nation’s elderly and poor. …But did the Great Society achieve its goals of eradicating poverty, sheltering the homeless, and helping all citizens participate more fully in the American Dream? In Great Society: A New History, Amity Shlaes argues that Lyndon Johnson’s bold makeover of the government was a massive failure.

Massive failure may be an understatement.

LBJ’s two big entitlement programs, Medicare and Medicaid, are the biggest reason why America will suffer a future fiscal crisis.

And his so-called War on Poverty was a disaster for both taxpayers and poor people.

How much of a disaster?

Let’s augment Amity’s analysis with these excerpts from Jason Riley’s column in the Wall Street Journal.

Entitlement programs were dramatically expanded in the 1960s in the service of a war on poverty, yet poverty fell at a slower rate after the Great Society initiatives were implemented, and overall dependency on the government for food, shelter and other basic necessities increased. …Liberals pitch these social programs in the name of helping underprivileged minority groups and reducing inequality, but the lesson of the 1960s is that government relief can put in place incentives that have the opposite effect. Between 1940 and 1960 the percentage of black families living in poverty declined by 40 points… No welfare program has ever come close to replicating that rate of black advancement… Moreover, what we experienced in the wake of the Great Society interventions was slower progress or outright retrogression. Black labor-force participation rates fell, black unemployment rates rose, and the black nuclear family disintegrated. In 1960 fewer than 25% of black children were being raised by a single mother; within four decades, it was more than half. …The welfare state is often discussed in relation to its effect on racial and ethnic minorities, yet crime, single parenting and drug abuse also increased among poor whites in the aftermath of the Great Society. When the government indulges and subsidizes counterproductive behavior, we tend to get more of it.

What’s depressing is that Biden wants to replicate LBJ’s mistakes. His new entitlements will mean slower growth and more dependency.

P.S. Amity Shlaes also has done great work to highlight the achievements of one of America’s best presidents.

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A couple of days ago, I shared the most-recent data about “actual individual consumption” in nations that are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

My goal was to emphasize my oft-stated point about people in the United States enjoying higher living standards – in large part because European nations are saddled with a bigger fiscal burden of government.

President Biden, however, wants to make the United States more like Europe.

What’s happening this week in Congress may determine whether he succeeds.

Since I’m policy wonk rather than a political pundit, I don’t pretend to have any great insight on matters such as vote counting.

But I feel compelled to warn that adoption of Biden’s plan would have a negative economic impact.

And I’m not the only one raising alarm bells.

Professor Greg Mankiw of Harvard opined for the New York Times about Biden’s fiscal plan. He starts be noting that Biden’s plan is affordable.

President Biden and many congressional Democrats aim to expand the size and scope of government substantially. …People of all ages are in line to get something… If there is a common theme, it is that when you need a helping hand, the government will be there for you. …Western European nations have more generous social safety nets than the United States. The Biden plan takes a big step in that direction. Can the United States afford to embrace a larger welfare state? From a narrow budgetary standpoint, the answer is yes.

But affordable is not the same as sensible.

He points out that a bigger government will mean a smaller economy.

The costs of an expanded welfare state…extend beyond those reported in the budget. There are also broader economic effects. Arthur Okun, the former economic adviser to President Lyndon Johnson, addressed this timeless issue in his 1975 book, “Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff.” …As policymakers attempt to rectify the market’s outcome by equalizing the slices, the pie tends to shrink. …Which brings us back to Western Europe. Compared with the United States, G.D.P. per person in 2019 was 14 percent lower in Germany, 24 percent lower in France and 26 percent lower in the United Kingdom. …In other words, most European nations use that leaky bucket more than the United States does and experience greater leakage, resulting in lower incomes. By aiming for more compassionate economies, they have created less prosperous ones.

And less prosperous economies mean lower living standards, as honest folks on the left (such as Okun) openly admit.

That’s bad news for everyone, including lower-income people who theoretically are supposed to benefit from the various new and expanded redistribution programs in Biden’s fiscal plan.

Yes, they may get money from government in their pockets in the short run, but even a small reduction in economic growth will lead to larger income losses in the long run.

The bottom line is that the American experiment has been successful. Why put it at risk by copying nations that aren’t as successful.

After all, you don’t want to “catch up” to countries that are lagging.

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Two years ago, I wrote that China needed to choose between “Statism and Stagnation or Reform and Prosperity.”

Sadly, as I noted last month in Part I of this series, it seems that President Xi is opting for the former.

Which is unfortunate since China needs a lot more growth to get anywhere near U.S. levels of prosperity.

Yet that’s not very likely when the United States is ranked #6 and China is ranked #116 for economic liberty.

For what it’s worth, China’s score is likely to drop in future years rather than rise, and I’m certainly not the only one to notice that China has economic problems.

Writing for the Atlantic, David Frum looks at the country’s shaky economic outlook.

China’s economic, financial, technological, and military strength is hugely exaggerated by crude and inaccurate statistics. Meanwhile, U.S. advantages are persistently underestimated. The claim that China will “overtake” the U.S. in any meaningful way is polemical and wrong… China misallocates capital on a massive scale. More than a fifth of China’s housing stock is empty—the detritus of a frenzied construction boom that built too many apartments in the wrong places. China overcapitalizes at home because Chinese investors are prohibited from doing what they most want to do: get their money out of China. …More than one-third of the richest Chinese would emigrate if they could, according to research by one of the country’s leading wealth-management firms.

David mentioned “inaccurate statistics,” which is a big problem in China.

But I also worry about bubble statistics, which is an issue the Wall Street Journal editorialized about earlier this year.

…credit has exploded, with total public and private debt expected to exceed 270% of GDP in 2020, up 30 points in one year. Most of that has gone to state-owned firms and exporters. Smaller, more productive private companies that serve the domestic market report credit shortages. This undermines long-term growth… Unless China can unlock and expand its productive private economy, it will never be able to manage the burden of the debt Beijing has created.. China’s unbalanced recovery represents an enormous lost opportunity for the Chinese people.

David Ignatius of the Washington Post opines on President Xi’s embrace of bad policy.

President Xi Jinping has moved down a Maoist path this year toward tighter state control of the economy — including “self-criticism” sessions for Chinese business and political leaders whose crime, it seems, was being too successful. Xi’s leftward turn represents a major change… The result is a severe squeeze on what Xi views as “undisciplined” entrepreneurs. …Xi’s crackdown has rocked the Chinese economy. The top six technology stocks have lost more than $1.1 trillion in value over the past six months… Xi is animated by what he has called his “China Dream,” of a nation of unparalleled wealth and power — and also the egalitarian ideals of socialism.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Dennis Kwok and Johnny Patterson warn that private investors should not trust the Chinese government.

Beijing’s crackdown on private businesses has wiped out hundreds of billions of dollars in market value in the past two months. Under the policies of “advancement of the state, and retreat of private enterprises” and “common prosperity,” the state’s tightening of control will increase. …Beijing assails “foreign forces” for seeking to curb China’s rise as a great nation. That refrain is constantly pushed by state media… Investors and shareholders of Wall Street firms must understand that there has been a paradigm shift in Mr. Xi’s China. Long gone are the days of pragmatism. What the Chinese state wants, the Chinese state gets.

In an article for the Atlantic, Michael Schuman explains how China’s heavy subsidies for electric cars haven’t produced vehicles that can compete with Tesla and other western  vehicles.

Do Chinese state programs actually work? …bureaucrats have never stopped meddling with markets. State direction, state money, and state enterprises remain core features of the Chinese economic model. President Xi Jinping has even reversed the trend toward greater economic freedom, notably with a hefty dose of state-led programs aimed at accelerating the progress of specific sectors. …China’s industrial program has resulted in a lot of production, but only questionable competitiveness. Even Beijing’s spendthrift bureaucrats seem to have awoken to that—sort of. They’ve been rolling back direct subsidies to carmakers, with an eye on eliminating them.

In other words, industrial policy is backfiring on China.

The former Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, opined for the Wall Street Journal about China’s resurgent statism

In recent months Beijing killed the country’s $120 billion private tutoring sector and slapped hefty fines on tech firms Tencent and Alibaba. Chinese executives have been summoned to the capitol to “self-rectify their misconduct” and billionaires have begun donating to charitable causes in what President Xi Jinping calls “tertiary income redistribution.” China’s top six technology stocks have lost more than $1.1 trillion in value in the past six months… Mr. Xi is executing an economic pivot to the party and the state… Demographics is also driving Chinese economic policy to the left. The May 2021 census revealed birthrates had fallen sharply to 1.3—lower than in Japan and the U.S. China is aging fast. The working-age population peaked in 2011… While the politics of his pivot to the state may make sense internally, if Chinese growth begins to stall Mr. Xi may discover he had the underlying economics very wrong.

That final sentence is key.

Free enterprise is only tried-and-true recipe for economic prosperity. Chinese leaders are wrong to think they can get faster growth with more intervention.

Simply stated, China appears to be moving further left on this spectrum when it desperately needs to move to the right.

The bottom line is that I’m not optimistic about the future of China.

The country needs a Reagan-style agenda (the approach used by Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan) to achieve genuine convergence.

P.S. Amazingly, both the IMF and OECD are encouraging more statism in China.

P.P.S. I used to be hopeful about China. During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, China was horrifically impoverished because of socialist policies. According to the Maddison database, the country was actually poorer under communism than it was 1,000 years ago. But there was then a bit of economic liberalization starting in 1979, which generated very positive results. As a result, there was a significant increase in living standards and a huge reduction in poverty. But that progress has ground to a halt.

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With regards to fiscal policy, part of my mission is to proselytize in favor of lower tax rates and a smaller burden of government spending.

But another goal is simply to make sure people understand basic facts about the budget.

For instance, how many people know that Republican presidents (notwithstanding their rhetoric) generally increase spending at a faster rate than Democrats?

Not many.

And ever fewer people know that Republican presidents even increase domestic spending (discretionary outlays plus entitlements) faster than Democrats.

The only exception to this rule is Ronald Reagan.

Which explains why folks on the left don’t like him, which is a perfectly reasonable reaction from their perspective.

But what’s not reasonable is the way some of them butcher facts in pursuit a big-government agenda.

For instance, Paul Waldman of the Washington Post has a column claiming that Joe Biden is finally, after 40 years, ending the Reagan revolution.

…the old-school plutocrats who have long controlled the party’s policy agenda…are getting very frightened of the reconciliation bill Democrats are negotiating. …The reconciliation bill really does represent an undoing of Reaganism. …The bill would reverse what Ronald Reagan wrought on government spending… Reagan famously said that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” His great achievement was to make that the default assumption of public debate, the paradigm under which the country would operate for decades. It held sway even during periods of Democratic rule. Bill Clinton embraced the Reagan paradigm… the Democratic reconciliation bill is most revolutionary. It would reinforce the safety net — largely temporary programs such as unemployment insurance and food stamps, meant to help when you experience a crisis — but it would also create a new system of social infrastructure… All of which would go far beyond what was in place before Reagan. …it really is a threat to the legacy of Reaganism.

Some of what Waldman wrote is correct.

Reagan did point out that “government is the problem.”

And we did get a bit of Reagan-style spending restraint under Bill Clinton (though one can certainly argue that the post-1994 GOP Congress deserves some or all of the credit).

But he is wildly wrong in his main point about a dominant Reagan-inspired paradigm on government spending.

Let’s go to the Historical Tables of the Budget, published by the Office of Management and Budget.

Here’s a chart based on Table 8.2, which shows total domestic spending (column E + column H) in inflation-adjusted dollars. As you can see, outlays have exploded in the post-Reagan years (and I included both 2019 and 2020 data to show that it’s not just the coronavirus-related spending increases from last year).

Now let’s look at Table 8.4, which allows us to show domestic spending (also column E + column H) as a share of economic output.

We see that the burden of such outlays declined significantly under Reagan. Sadly, all that progress evaporated (and then some) by 2019.

The bottom line is that Biden does have a big-government agenda.

But that’s not exactly a new paradigm. Every other president in the post-Reagan era has sided with government over taxpayers.

I miss the Gipper.

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The Biden Administration’s approach to tax policy is awful, as documented here, here, here, and here.

We’ve now reached the stage where bad ideas are being turned into legislation. Today’s analysis looks at what the House Ways & Means Committee (the one in charge of tax policy) has unveiled. Let’s call this the Biden-Pelosi plan.

And we’re going to use some great research from the Tax Foundation to provide a visual summary of what’s happening.

We’ll start with a very depressing look at the decline in American competitiveness if the proposal becomes law (the good news is that we’ll still be ahead of Greece!).

Next, let’s look at the Tax Foundation’s map of capital gains tax rates if the plan is approved.

Unsurprisingly, this form of double taxation will be especially severe in California.

Our third visual is good news (at least relatively speaking).

Biden wanted the U.S. to have the developed world’s highest corporate tax rate. But the plan from the House of Representatives would “only” put America in third place.

Here’s another map, in this case looking at tax rates on non-corporate businesses (small businesses and other entities that get taxed by the 1040 form).

This is not good news for America’s entrepreneurs. Especially the ones unfortunate enough to do business in New York.

Last but not least, here’s the Tax Foundation’s estimate of what will happen to the economy if the Biden-Pelosi tax plan is imposed on the nation.

There are two things to understand about these depressing growth numbers.

  • First, small differences in growth rates produce very large consequences when you look 20 years or 30 years into the future. Indeed, this explains why Americans enjoy much higher living standards than Europeans (and also why Democrats are making a big economic mistake to copy European fiscal policy).
  • Second, the Tax Foundation estimated the economic impact of the Biden-Pelosi tax plan. But don’t forget that the economy also will be negatively impacted by a bigger burden of government spending. So the aggregate economic damage will be significantly larger when looking at overall fiscal policy.

One final point. In part because of the weaker economy (i.e., a Laffer Curve effect), the Tax Foundation also estimated that the Biden-Pelosi tax plan will generate only $804 billion over the next 10 years.

P.S. Here’s some background for those who are not political wonks. Biden proposed a budget with his preferred set of tax increases and spending increases. But, in America’s political system (based on separation of powers), both the House and Senate get to decide what they like and don’t like. And even though the Democrats control both chambers of Congress, they are not obligated to rubber stamp what Biden proposed. The House will have a plan, the Senate will have a plan, and they’ll ultimately have to agree on a joint proposal (with White House involvement, of course). The same process took place when Republicans did their tax bill in 2017.

P.P.S. It’s unclear whether the Senate will make things better or worse. The Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Ron Wyden, has some very bad ideas about capital gains taxation and politicians such as Elizabeth Warren are big proponents of a wealth tax.

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Time to update our series on “great moments in foreign government.”

We’ll start with Jersey. I wrote a few years ago about the (relatively) good tax laws in that British dependent territory off the coast of France.

But there are two ways those laws could be improved. First, officials could abolish its income tax because a zero income tax is better than a flat tax.

And with tax policy heading in the wrong direction in the United Kingdom, that would further enhance Jersey’s competitive advantage.

Sadly, the island’s lawmakers haven’t opted for that choice.

But they did approve a second reform. As reported by the New York Times, Jersey has joined the 20th century.

Lawmakers on the island of Jersey have approved scrapping a decades-old law that prevented married women from talking to the tax authorities without the permission of their husband or filing taxes under their own names… a popular tax haven, …its financial laws have not always kept up with the times: Under its current tax law, introduced in 1928, only the husband in a heterosexual marriage can pay taxes, with his wife’s earnings considered part of his income. …Things became a bit more modern in 2013, when a box appeared on income tax forms that husbands could tick rather than giving written permission. When civil unions and same-sex marriages became legal on the island, the law allowed the older partner to take the role of “husband” and the younger “wife.” …Under the proposal backed by a majority of lawmakers on Tuesday, taxpayers would be considered as individuals. …Legislation to bring in the changes will be drafted later this year and should come into effect in 2021.

Next, we’ll visit Indonesia, where the guy who drafted a law actually got some first-hand experience with how the law is implemented. The Daily Mail has the amusing details.

An Indonesian man working for an organisation which helped draft strict religious laws ordering adulterers to be flogged has himself been whipped after he was caught having an affair with a married woman. Mukhlis, who is a member of the Aceh Ulema Council and only goes under one name like many Indonesians, was beaten 28 times with a rattan cane in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh on Thursday. Mukhlis grimaced and flinched during the punishment, before his married companion was brought to the stage and flogged some 23 times.

Now let’s travel to Switzerland, which is a sensible country (at least by standards of the modern world) with all sorts of admirable policies.

But, as reported by the Economist, that nation’s politicians have some weird ideas. Such as a strategic coffee reserve.

The 15 big Swiss coffee retailers, roasters and importers, such as Nestlé, are required by law to store heaps of raw coffee. Together, these mandated coffee reserves amount to about 15,000 tonnes—enough for three months’ consumption. The government finances the storage costs through a levy on imports of coffee. All 15 companies are in favour of maintaining the coffee reserve—as long as they are paid for it. IG Kaffee, a lobby group, asks why the government wants to scrap a stockpile that has served Switzerland so well.

Not as strange as Germany’s coffee tax or Japan’s coffee enemas, but still rather odd.

Last but not least, the Venezuelan government is well known for economic mismanagement.

But BBC reports that it also should be known for military incompetence.

A Venezuelan navy coastal patrol boat sank in the Caribbean after allegedly ramming a cruise ship that it had ordered to change direction. …The incident took place near La Tortuga Island, a Venezuelan federal dependency, on 30 March.Columbia Cruise Services, which operates the Resolute, said the cruise ship had been carrying out routine engine maintenance in international waters…shortly after midnight, the Naiguata radioed the Resolute, questioning its intentions, and ordered the captain to follow it to a port on Isla Margarita, to the east. “While the master was in contact with the head office, gunshots were fired and, shortly thereafter, the navy vessel approached the starboard side at speed… and purposely collided with the RCGS Resolute,” it added. “The navy vessel continued to ram the starboard bow in an apparent attempt to turn the ship’s head towards Venezuelan territorial waters.” …the patrol boat began taking on water.

The moral of all these stories is that governments piss away money in very interesting and novel ways.

But while these stories are somewhat entertaining, they also confirm that it’s never a good idea to give politicians more money when they’ve repeatedly shown that they squander the revenues they already have.

P.S. Here are my posts about “great moments in local government” and “great moments in state government.”

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I periodically warn that the United States is on a path to become a European-style welfare state.

That sounds good to some people since it implies lots of goodies paid for by other people.

So I always explain that there’s a downside. The economic data clearly show that there’s been less growth in Europe and this has real-world consequences.

This is why it’s so depressing that Joe Biden has a radical agenda of higher tax rates and much bigger government.

He wants us to copy an approach that has produced inferior outcomes.

The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal has been sounding the alarm.

In a recent column, Professor Josef Joffe contemplates the impact of more dependency on America’s economy.

America is the land of “predatory capitalism,” German chancellor Helmut Schmidt liked to say. …President Biden’s tax plans might soon make Europe look like a capitalist heaven by comparison. …The middle class will pay the bill. …Reversing course won’t be easy because gifts, once given, are hard to take back, whether in the U.S. or in Europe. …As government expands and hands out more goodies, it also tightens its grip on the economy. It shrinks the private sector, the engine of U.S. wealth creation. It is no accident that Europe has grown more slowly over the past 40 years as government spending, regulations and taxes have increased.

Prof. Joffe’s point about the durability of entitlements (“once given, are hard to take back”) is vitally important.

This is why it is so important to block Biden’s per-child handouts.

Dan Henninger made similarly important points a couple of months ago.

The club Mr. Biden is joining…is one the U.S. has stayed out of since World War II. That is the club known as the European welfare state. It is the government-directed system of lifetime paternalism built up by the nations of Western Europe after 1945. …Public welfare has never been America’s reason for being, notwithstanding our substantial spending on social support programs. Despite the entitlement creations of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society, the U.S., unlike Europe, has remained a nation driven and led by capitalist initiative. For current-generation Democrats, that fact is anathema. …The March stimulus bill already had one foot inside the economic club of Europe’s door.

For what it’s worth, I’m not quite as positive about the United States as Henninger. Our welfare state is a significant burden, though he is right that it is smaller than the welfare states in Europe.

Let’s not quibble about that point, though, because Henninger has another observation that is spot on.

Biden’s agenda is a recipe for big tax increases on the middle class.

Europe became famous for its perpetual-motion tax machine, which suppressed the continent’s entrepreneurial instincts. Besides income taxes, Europe relies heavily on the collection of notoriously high value-added taxes…total tax revenue from all governments in the U.S. as a percentage of GDP is 24%, compared with an average of more than 40% in seven European nations… Those European tax levels will never fall. Their governments gotta have the money. Mr. Biden purports that his proposed $3 trillion in tax increases hit only corporations and “the wealthiest.” But if his entitlements become law, European levels of middle-class taxation—perhaps a VAT or carbon tax—are inevitable. Mr. Biden’s plans to increase Internal Revenue Service audits lay the groundwork for that.

Amen.

Honest folks on the left openly admit that this is true.

I’ll close with two final points.

First, it would be a mistake to copy Europe’s welfare states, but there are worse things that could happen. Those nations may lag the United States, but they are generally richer than other parts of the world.

But I’m not sure “better than Venezuela” is a persuasive selling point.

Second, because of demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs, we’re already on a path to become a European welfare state.

But I’m not sure “let’s drive faster over the cliff” is a persuasive selling point.

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I’ve made the case for capitalism (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V) and the case against socialism (Part I, Part II, and Part III), while also noting that there’s a separate case to be made against redistribution and the welfare state.

This video hopefully ties together all that analysis.

If you don’t want to spend 10-plus minutes watching the video, I can sum everything up in just two sentences.

  1. Genuine socialism (government ownershipcentral planning, and price controls) is an utter failure and is almost nonexistent today (only in a few basket-case economies like Cuba and North Korea).
  2. The real threat to free enterprise and economic liberty is from redistributionism, the notion that politicians should play Santa Claus and give us a never-ending stream of cradle-to-grave goodies.

For purposes of today’s column, though, I want to focus on a small slice of the presentation (beginning about 2:00).

Here’s the slide from that portion of the video.

I make the all-important point that profits are laudable – but only if they are earned in the free market and not because of bailoutssubsidiesprotectionism, or a tilted playing field.

This is hardly a recent revelation.

I first wrote about this topic back in 2009.

And many other supporters of genuine economic liberty have been making this point for much longer.

Or more recently. In a new article for City Journal, Luigi Zingales emphasizes that being pro-market does not mean being pro-business.

The first time I visited the Grand Canyon many years ago, I was struck…by a sign that said, “Please don’t feed the wild animals.” Underneath was an explanation: you shouldn’t feed them because it’s not good for them. …We should post something of this kind on Capitol Hill as well—with the difference being that the sign would read, “Please don’t feed the businesses.” That’s not because we don’t like business. Quite the opposite: we love business so much that we don’t want to create a situation where business is so dependent on…a system of subsidies, that it is unable to compete and succeed… This is the…difference between being pro-market and being pro-business. If you are pro-business, you like subsidies for businesses; you want to make sure that they make the largest profits possible. If, on the other hand, you are pro-markets, you want to behave like the ranger in the Grand Canyon: …ensuring that markets remain competitive and…preventing businesses from becoming too dependent on a crony system to survive.

Amen.

Cronyism is bad economic policy because government is tilting the playing field and luring people and businesses into making inefficient choices.

But I also despise cronyism because some people mistakenly think it is a feature of free enterprise (particularly the people who incorrectly assume that being pro-market is the same as being pro-business).

The moral of the story is that we should have separation of business and state.

P.S. There’s one other point from Prof. Zingales’ article that deserves attention.

He gives us a definition of capitalism (oops, I mean free enterprise).

We use the term “free markets” so often that we sometimes forget what it actually means. If you look up “free markets” in the dictionary, you might see “an economy operating by free competition,” or better, “an economic market or system in which prices are based on competition among private businesses and not controlled by a government.”

For what it’s worth, I did the same thing for my presentation (which was to the New Economic School in the country of Georgia).

Here’s what I came up with.

By the way, the last bullet point is what economists mean when they say things are “complementary.”

In other words, capital is more valuable when combined with labor and labor is more valuable when combined with capital – as illustrated by this old British cartoon (and it’s the role of entrepreneurs to figure out newer and better ways of combining those two factors of production).

One takeaway from this is that Marx was wrong. Capital doesn’t exploit labor. Capital enriches labor (just as labor enriches capital).

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I just got back from Medellin, Colombia, where I gave a presentation to the Liberty International World Conference.

My topic was “The Fatal Mix of Demographic Change and the Welfare State” and I made my usual points about how poorly designed entitlement programs are going to wreak havoc, in large part because of demographic change.

Simply stated, tax-and-transfer programs collapse when there are too many beneficiaries and too few taxpayers.

This means politicians will be forced to act and I included this slide to show some of their main options (including my favorite, genuine entitlement reform).

But I noted in my speech that this was just a partial list of how politicians can respond.

  • They can also reduce payments to beneficiaries (an option that I view as very unlikely)
  • They can also finance promised benefits by printing money (I hope this also is very unlikely).

But there’s another option that I didn’t mention.

Politicians can indirectly finance their vote buying with “financial repression.” If you’re not familiar with that concept, Joseph Sternberg tells you what you need to know in a must-read column in Wall Street Journal.

He starts with some discussion of how repression worked in the past.

Government spending is conventionally understood as a matter of increased taxation and debt, a framing that has the virtue of being true. But that conversation is incomplete without also exploring the concept of financial repression—which ultimately underlies both the taxes and debt. …in spendthrift developing countries. Governments would suppress interest rates on domestic savings to below the rate of inflation to reduce rates on lending. The point was to service government borrowing and subsidize credit to politically favored industries. In the process, they’d create a substantial wealth transfer from private creditors to debtors… Developed economies have deployed this gimmick too. Regulation of the rates banks paid on savings was an important, and not the only, bit of financial repression perpetrated against Americans.

And he warns how repression can work today.

Financial repression nowadays consists of several overlapping phenomena beyond the classic suppression of bank interest rates. A nonexhaustive list: more-intrusive management of assets and credit allocation in the banking system via reserve requirements, capital regulations and the like; a blurring of the line between fiscal and monetary policy such that monetary authorities subsidize the fiscal authority’s borrowing while the fiscal authority creates new credit subsidies for other parties; and any press release from Sen. Elizabeth Warren demanding a new regulation on this sort of lending or that sort of borrowing. …A gaze through the lens of financial repression offers a new view of how dangerous Washington’s spending boondoggles are. …Unfettered government spending also forces voters to pay via inflation and low returns on savings in the here and now. …The redirection of savers’ resources to politically favored “borrowers” (either directly via loan guarantees or more often indirectly via the disbursement of government grants raised via deficit financing) creates inefficiency and waste.

Here’s the bottom line.

…rampant misallocation of capital and the attendant distortions of saving and investment…will create a materially worse future.

In some sense, financial repression is a back-door form of industrial policy since politicians are putting their thumbs on the scale and hindering the efficient allocation of capital.

And that’s why there’s less growth and people wind up with lower living standards as time passes.

If you’re interested in this topic (and you should be), I shared some very worrisome analysis back in 2015.

P.S. If politicians succeed in their “war on cash,” that will give them another tool for financial repression.

P.P.S. History teaches us that there is a way of climbing out of a fiscal hole without using repression.

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When I share examples of socialism humor and communism humor, I sometimes wonder whether we should laugh about ideologies that have imposed so much death and misery on the world.

For instance, I’ve shared some jokes about the horrid consequences of Venezuelan socialism.

Including jokes dealing with widespread hunger.

But now I feel a bit guilty.

Not because I’ve been mocking communism and socialism. Both are evil and deserve endless scorn.

Instead, I feel a bit guilty because I’ve actually encountered real victims of Venezuelan statism.

I’m currently in Medellin, Colombia, where I’ll be speaking tomorrow to the Liberty International World Conference.

But I first spent a week with some friends in Cartagena, a beautiful colonial city on the Atlantic Ocean.

Great food, nice beaches, friendly people, and perfect weather, but I noticed there were quite a few beggars. But these were not like the well-fed panhandlers you can find at suburban intersections in the United States, or the bums in cities like New York, San Francisco, or Washington.

Many of them were gaunt mothers with young children, and I was told they were all from Venezuela.

I had no way of confirming that information, of course, but we were only a few hundred miles from the Venezuelan border. And since millions of people have fled that nation’s horrific conditions, it makes sense that some of them wound up in Cartagena.

The most heart-wrenching part of my experience is when we left a pizza restaurant one evening. I had a box with about six leftover slices (a nutritious breakfast for the next morning).

But within two blocks, I gave them all away to various children who must have sensed I was a soft touch.

And I couldn’t help but compare their suffering with the multi-billion stash of stolen loot amassed by Chavez’s daughter.

The bottom line is that I still plan on sharing satire about the misery that socialism has caused in Venezuela. But I’ll be very cognizant of the fact that there are countless stories of horrible suffering because of big government.

P.S. I wish Bernie Sanders and the other leftists could see (and understand) how Venezuelan socialism has caused so much human misery.

P.P.S. And I wish reporters from the New York Times had enough sense (or integrity) to recognize that the misery is a consequence of socialism.

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Our friends on the left who want more government spending generally have a short-run argument and a long-run argument.

  • In the short run, they assert that more government spending can stimulate a weak economy. This is typically known as Keynesian economics and it means temporary borrowing and spending.
  • In the long run, they claim that big government is an investment that leads to better economic performance. This is the “Nordic Model” and it means permanent increases in taxes and spending.

In many ways, the debate about short-run Keynesianism is different than the debate about the appropriate long-run size of government.

But there is one common thread, which is that proponents of more government pay too much attention to consumption and too little attention to production.

I wrote a somewhat wonky column about this topic back in April, but let’s take another look at this issue.

In a column last month for the Wall Street Journal, Andy Kessler shared some economic fundamentals.

Here’s how capitalism works—pay attention if you took the social-justice version of Econ 101. SIPPC: Save. Invest. Produce. Profit. Consume. Save means postponing consumption, money and time. Only then you can invest, especially your human capital, in something productive. Usually this means doing more with less, being efficient and effective. This is when innovation happens. Wealth comes only from productivity, not from giving away money. …Supply first and then consume…, creating incentives to put money into the hands of entrepreneurs and clearing a path for them to innovate by getting government out of the way.

In some sense, this is simply the common-sense observation that you can’t consume (or redistribute) unless someone first produces.

But it’s also a deeper message about what actually drives production.

There are no shortcuts. You can’t induce demand without supply. Didn’t the lockdowns prove that? Stimulus checks did little good given that there were few places to spend them until businesses were allowed to reopen. We’re now perversely sitting on almost $3 trillion in excess savings and even more new government debt. Yet the government stimulus mentality continues in Congress. …Through taxes and currency depreciation, demand-side spending steals savings needed to invest in future supply, which is why it never works. It is why the Great Depression lasted so long, why Japan lost two decades, and why 2009-16 saw subpar U.S. economic growth. When demand drops, government spending and giveaways make things worse. The only solution to kickstart production is to increase investment and make jobs more plentiful by cutting taxes and easing regulation. ..Price signals tell entrepreneurs what to supply. But price signals are only as good as their inputs. Minimum-wage laws mess up labor price signals. Tariffs mess up trade price signals. The Federal Reserve’s bond-buying blowouts mess up interest-rate price signals.

Amen. We know the policies that lead to more prosperity, but politicians constantly throw sand in the gears.

Simply stated, bigger government diverts resources from the productive sector of the economy. And that makes it more difficult to get the innovation and investment that are necessary for rising wages.

To be sure, there are some types of government spending that arguably help a private economy function.

But that’s not what we get from much of the federal government (Department of Housing and Urban DevelopmentDepartment of EducationDepartment of EnergyDepartment of AgricultureDepartment of Transportation, etc).

Which is why the growth-maximizing size of government is far smaller than what we are burdened with today.

P.S. I can’t resist sharing this additional segment of Mr. Kessler’s column.

Modern Monetary Theory, known as MMT—what economist John Christensen called the “Magic Money Tree”—is the worst of demand-side nonsense. MMT believers think that to boost aggregate demand we can have government print money and spend, spend, spend. We tried this in the 1960s and ’70s with Great Society programs

At the risk of understatement, I agree with his concerns.

P.P.S. It’s worth noting that the World BankOECD, and IMF have all published research showing the benefits of smaller government.

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I’ve written many times about how big businesses often climb in bed with politicians to lobby for anti-market policies such as subsidies, bailouts, and protectionism.

To get these special favors, they often deploy the “baptists and bootleggers” strategy, which means finding some nice-sounding reason for special interest policies.

For instance, the big health insurance firms lobbied for Obamacare because they liked the idea of getting undeserved profits by having the government force people to buy their products.

But they pretended that their motive was more access to health care.

Another example is the way some large companies are embracing “stakeholder capitalism” to curry favor with politicians and interest groups.

Today, let’s look at an additional version of this unsavory phenomenon.

The BBC reports that the CEO of a pretend-meat company likes the idea of big tax on his more tasty competitors.

The founder of the world’s biggest plant-based meat company has suggested that a tax on meat could help tackle some of the problems from growing meat consumption. Asked if he backed a tax on meat, Beyond Meat’s Chief Executive, Ethan Brown told the BBC “the whole notion of a Pigouvian tax, which is to tax negative, you know, things that are high in externalities, I think is an interesting one. I’m not an economist, but overall that type of thing does appeal to me”. …A tax on meat consumption would definitely be beneficial to companies such as Beyond Meat because it would make their products cheaper in comparison, says Rebecca Scheuneman, an equity analyst at US financial services firm Morningstar.How much of an advantage it would give “depends how significant the tax would be”, she told the BBC.

The woman from Morningstar is quite correct that a tax on meat would help the bottom line of companies that offer competing products.

Just as I wrote in 2012 that a tax increase on small businesses would tilt the playing field in favor of big businesses.

Matthew Lesh of the London-based Adam Smith Institute wrote about a potential meat tax in an article for CapX.

Beyond Meat’s call for a meat tax is a textbook example of ‘bootleggers and baptists’: a policy supported by a coalition of profiteering rent seekers hiding on the moral high ground. …does any of that make a new meat tax a good idea? …a cost-benefit analysis conducted by the University of Bristol concluded that a meat tax “could do more harm than good”. The researchers found it would cost £242 million a year but only save £100 million per annum in reduced carbon emissions. …Then there’s the most simple argument of all – most people enjoy meat. We get satisfaction and it provides important nutrients. …most people do not want to stop eating meat and there is substantial growing demand from the rising middle class in Asia and Africa.

While he makes a good point about the costs and benefits of meat taxation, I especially like Mr. Lesh’s point about people wanting to consume meat.

This is also why I don’t want politicians imposing sugar taxes.

Or taxes on other things that fall into disfavor, such as tobacco.  Or things that rise into favor, such as marijuana.

There are plenty of things in life that are unhealthy and/or dangerous. Maybe I’m just a knee-jerk libertarian, but I think adults should be free to make their own choices about the levels of risk they’re willing to incur.

And I certainly don’t want nanny state policies that – in reality – are the result of big companies trying to get unearned profits.

Remember, only earned profits are moral.

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