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Posts Tagged ‘Dependency’

Ten days ago, I shared some data and evidence illustrating how redistribution programs result in high implicit tax rates and thus discourage low-income people from climbing the economic ladder.

Simply stated, why work harder or work more when an additional dollar of income only leads to a net benefit of 10 cents or 20 cents? Or why work harder or work more when you can actually wind up being worse off?

Or why work at all if the governments provides enough goodies?

But don’t ask such questions if you’re in the same room as Helaine Olen of the Washington Post. She is very upset that some people think welfare payments discourage work.

It’s a dangerous myth, this idea that government help causes some people to just loaf off. It’s also untrue. Reminder: Before the pandemic, most working-age people receiving benefits like food stamps worked. They just didn’t earn enough money. …the temporary child tax credit signed into law this year by President Biden demonstrates the opposite. It is an extraordinary success. Almost 90 percent of families with children under age 18 are eligible to receive a monthly check from the federal government through the end of the year. …Many other developed nations offer almost all residents a child allowance of some sort.

If you read the entire column, you’ll notice that she provides very little evidence, particularly considering her very bold assertion that a negative link between redistribution and labor supply is “a dangerous myth.”

Yet we know from the experience of welfare reform in the 1990s that work requirements did boost labor supply.

And don’t forget about the very recent evidence that turbo-charged unemployment benefits encouraged more joblessness.

We also have evidence from overseas showing that there’s a negative relationship between handouts and idleness.

Including research from the Netherlands and the Nordic nations such as Denmark. And the same is true in Canada. And the United Kingdom.

Ms. Olen seems primarily motivated by her support for permanent per-child handouts, as President Biden has proposed.

And she wants us to believe that everyone will continue to work, even if they can get $3000-plus for each kid, along with all the other goodies that are provided by Uncle Sam (often topped up by state governments).

For what it’s worth, I think she admits her real agenda toward the end of her column.

…an argument can be made that the children of the irresponsible deserve more support from us, not less. Children can’t push their parents to get with the work-and-education program. As a result, you’re not “helping” children if you insist on financially punishing their parents for not making an “effort.” …human infrastructure matters too.

In other words, Ms. Olen seems to share Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s view that money should be given to people “unwilling to work.”

Which is how some of our friends actually view the world. They think there is a right to other people’s money. Which is why they support big handouts, including so-called basic income.

The bottom line is that Biden’s per-child handouts and other expansions of the welfare state clearly would make work less attractive for some people.

Not all people, of course, because it takes time to erode societal capital.

But why would we want a society where a growing number of people think it’s okay to live off of others?

P.S. There is scholarly research that redistribution programs lure older people out of the workforce.

P.P.S. There is also scholarly research showing redistribution programs discourage households from building wealth.

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Washington is filled with dishonest and self-serving analysis. Much of that shoddy output is driven by privileged groups seeking bailouts, subsidies, protectionism, or a tilted playing field.

But that’s not the only type of dishonest and self-serving you find in Washington.

Let’s take the example of President Biden’s proposal to gut welfare reform with per-child handouts.

The micro-economic problem with that policy is that it reduces incentives to work – as illustrated by this Wizard-of-Id parody or this cartoon about socialism.

The macro-economic problem with that policy is that it’s part of a radical expansion in the burden of government that will make the U.S. more like Europe.

For today’s topic, though, I want to call attention to a recent report by the Democratic staff of the Joint Economic Committee. It relies on the sloppiest and most disingenuous analysis imaginable.

To recycle a term from 2015, let’s call it primitive Keynesianism.

Here’s the relevant excerpt.

The Treasury Department released information on how much money went to each state, which allows us to estimate the impact of the newly expanded CTC on local economies. Using an estimated multiplier of 1.25—or how much additional spending each $1 in CTC payments will generate, as people use their funds to buy goods and services that in turn generate income for other people and businesses—implies that the expanded CTC will generate nearly $19.3 billion in spending in local economies each month. This increased economic activity is a boon to local businesses, creating jobs in communities across the United States.

You’ll notice an astounding omission.

Nowhere in the JEC “report” is there any acknowledgement that politicians can’t “inject” money into local economies without first taxing or borrowing the money from the private sector.

Honest Keynesians acknowledge that there’s no magic money tree. They know the government can’t put money in our right pocket without first removing from our left pocket.

So they make arguments about things such as the “marginal propensity to consume.”

I disagree with that argument, but at least the folks making that case are being ethical.

The JEC report, by contrast, is utter garbage.

But I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. They’re trying to sell very bad policy, so the staff have no choice but to produce nonsensical “research.”

P.S. Arthur Okun would be very disappointed.

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Joe Biden wants to dramatically expand the welfare state (more than $5 trillion of new spending over the next 10 years).

In this discussion with Ross Kaminsky of KHOW in Denver, I warn that the President’s proposal for per-child handouts is an especially bad idea.

In part, my opposition to per-child handouts is motivated by a desire to protect the welfare reform law enacted in the 1990s.

As I noted in the interview, that reform reduced dependency and it reduced poverty. And Biden’s plan, for all intents and purposes, will repeal that law since it will be possible to get big chunks of money while not working, simply by having kids.

But since I’m a public finance economist, I’m also motivated by opposition to a massive new entitlement program.

At the risk of understatement, we don’t need to spend another $1.1 trillion when we can’t even afford all the programs that already are burdening taxpayers.

Others share my concern about the impact of Biden’s plan.

Matt Weidinger dissects per-child handouts in an article for National Review.

This year, parents don’t need to have paid taxes at all to collect an annual allowance of up to $3,600 per child. …According to the New York Times, “more than 93 percent of children — 69 million” will benefit from the new federal giveaway. …No work is expected from parents collecting them. That’s reminiscent of welfare programs before bipartisan 1996 reforms that required parents to work or attend training in order to receive government checks. In fact, the biggest beneficiaries of the new child allowance will be parents who earn less than $2,500 per year — including those who don’t work or pay taxes at all. …As explained in a 2019 report proposing child allowances in the U.S., the idea comes “from other countries.” …American policy-makers could merely be following suit. But it seems more likely that they’re just searching for a palatable way to package their current explosion of new spending, a spin on a return to the failed policies of the past: bigger benefits, for more people, funded by others’ tax dollars. After all, calling such payments “welfare” just wouldn’t do, would it?

David Henderson of the Hoover Institution also explains why Biden’s scheme is misguided.

Child allowances are a bad idea. It’s wrong to forcibly take money from some and give to others simply because they have children. Moreover, child allowances would create increased dependence, are not targeted at the needy, could reduce the work effort of lower-income women, and would add to the already huge federal budget… Scott Winship, the director of poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute…worries that child allowances will undercut the successful welfare reform of the mid-1990s and thereby cause a substantial number of unmarried low-income mothers to stop working. …in the 1990s he thought welfare reform would increase child poverty and he now admits that he was wrong. He writes that in the United States, “Poverty among the children of single parents fell from 50 percent in the early 1980s to 15 percent today, with an especially sharp decline during the 1990s.” …the urgent need is to get federal spending under control. This means slowing the growth of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, the three programs most responsible for the coming federal deficits. But it also means not adding major new programs.

By the way, Henderson’s column focuses on Mitt Romney’s plan, but his criticisms apply equally (actually, even more) to Biden’s proposal.

I’ll close with some encouraging polling data that was shared by G. Elliott Morris of the Economist.

Biden’s plan has only 29 percent support (versus 43 percent opposition).

I suspect that polling data would look even better if the pollsters had been honest and asked whether people favored expanded redistribution payments based on number of kids (“refundable” tax credits are simply spending that gets laundered through the tax code).

The bottom line is that the United States already has a big problem with government dependency. Per-child handouts will make a bad situation even worse.

P.S. Some advocates of the handouts say we need to copy Europe, but they never explain why “catching up” is a good idea when Europeans have much lower living standards.

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Over the past couple of years, one of the most disturbing – and also revealing – things to happen in Washington is when Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed giving more money to people “unwilling to work.”

As discussed in this interview, the left seems to want more dependency.

This is a very unfortunate development. Just four years ago, Joe Biden rejected no-strings-handouts such as “basic income.”

But now he’s proposing a massive expansion of the welfare state, including huge per-child handouts that effectively would repeal Bill Clinton’s very successful welfare reform.

The obvious takeaway is that many politicians in Washington want to create a society where government dependency is normal and desirable.

That may be a good vote-buying strategy, but it has horrible consequences. Both morally and economically.

Let’s address one of the specific issues from the interview.

Regarding bonus unemployment benefits. I warned that we should be careful about over-interpreting short-run data. And that’s especially true because the states providing extra payments for joblessness are generally the states that also had the most onerous lockdown policies during the pandemic.

So, if unemployment is dropping in a state, is it because extra benefits have been cancelled, or is it a result of relaxed lockdown policies? Or is it something else, like lower tax rates?

One obvious way of trying to answer these questions is to ask people why they’re not working.

Here are the results of a recent poll, as reported by Λxios.

About 1.8 million out-of-work Americans have turned down jobs because of the generosity of unemployment insurance benefits, according to Morning Consult poll results released Wednesday. …U.S. businesses have been wrestling with labor supply shortages as folks capable of working have opted not to work for a variety of reasons. … Morning Consult surveyed 5,000 U.S. adults from June 22-25, 2021. Of those actively collecting unemployment benefits, 29% said they turned down job offers during the pandemic. In response to a follow-up question, 45% of that group said they turned down jobs specifically because of the generosity of the benefits.

So our friends on the left tell us that bigger handouts have no adverse economic consequences while the people getting the payments openly admit that they aren’t working because they can live off the taxpayers.

I know which group I believe.

P.S. Both this Wizard-of-Id parody and this cartoon do a great job of showing the economics of incentives.

P.P.S. Since the interview also included some discussion of basic income, here’s a recent study showing how those universal handouts would cripple work incentives.

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When I first looked at the issue of “basic income,” back in 2013, my gut reaction was deep skepticism.

That’s because I feared many people would drop out of the labor force if they could live off government handouts (as illustrated by this Wizard-of-Id parody).

It’s true that the current amalgamation of welfare programs also discourages work and creates dependency, but a government-provided basic income could make a bad situation worse.

Especially if politicians didn’t get rid of other redistribution programs (a very realistic concern).

That being said, what’s the evidence, either pro or con?

There was an experiment in Finland, which poured cold water on the concept.

And now we have some U.S.-focused research. Four economists from the University of Chicago (Mikhail Golosov, Michael Graber, Magne Mogstad, and David Novgorodsky) investigated this topic in a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Here’s a description of their methodology, which used lottery winnings as a proxy for the effect of government handouts.

How do Americans respond to idiosyncratic and exogenous changes in household wealth and unearned income? Economists and policymakers are keenly interested in this question. the earnings responses to such shocks are important…to assess the effects of public policy such as…universal basic income. However, giving a credible answer to this question has proven difficult. …We analyze a wide range of individual and household responses to lottery winnings and explore the economic implications of these responses for a number of key questions. …our analyses are based on a population-level panel data set which is constructed by combining the universe of worker tax records with third-party-reported lottery winnings. 

And here are some of their results.

We find that Americans respond to an exogenous increase in household wealth by significantly reducing their employment and labor earnings. For an extra 100 dollars in wealth, households reduce their annual earnings by approximately 2.3 dollars on average. …the introduction of a UBI will have a large effect on earnings and tax rates. For example, even if one abstracts from any disincentive effects from higher taxes that are needed to finance this transfer program, each dollar of UBI will reduce total earnings by at least 52 cents.

At the risk of understatement, this data should be the death knell for this bad idea.

Especially when you consider the impact of the higher tax rates that would be necessary to fund the basic income.

As illustrated by Figure 5.1 from the study, tax-financed handouts would be bad news for America’s economy.

P.S. Swiss voters overwhelmingly rejected a referendum for basic income back in 2016 (perhaps my speech in Switzerland convinced a few people?).

P.P.S. Interestingly, Joe Biden expressed skepticism about the idea back in 2017, but he obviously has had a change of heart, given his current support for big, per-child handouts.

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The United States has a big economic advantage over Europe in part because the burden of welfare spending is lower.

This means fewer people trapped in government dependency in America. And it means a smaller tax burden in America.

But some of our friends on the left think it is bad news that the United States isn’t more like Europe.

They want more redistribution in America and they may get their wish if Congress approves Biden’s so-called American Families Plan.

The Economist has an article about Biden’s radical proposal, which would, as they correctly note, “Europeanise the American welfare state.”

President Joe Biden is proposing an ambitious reweaving of the American safety-net, which the White House says will cost $1.8trn. The American Families Plan has bits of the European welfare state that have long been missing in the country—a child allowance, paid family leave, universal pre-school, subsidised child care and free community college—but contains no reference to work requirements. …So how did Democrats go from Clintonism—which implicitly conceded the Reaganite critique that too much governmental assistance is a very bad thing—to its present-day unconcern about (even relish for) deficit-financed expansions of the safety-net?

Here are some of the specific details from the story, including discussion of Biden’s plan for per-child handouts.

This would bring America more in line with the rest of the developed world: the average government spending on benefits such as child allowances, family leave and early education is 2.1% of GDP in the OECD club of mostly rich countries. In America, it is just 0.6%. …A generous child allowance is the main anti-poverty tool in most rich countries—and also one that America lacks. One such scheme was created this year as part of the covid-19 relief bill that the president signed in March. It will pay most families $3,000 per year per child ($3,600 for young children)… The president’s plan proposes to extend these payments until 2025. Some Democrats think they should simply be made permanent.

The Wall Street Journal opined about Biden’s plan last month.

It’s more accurate to call this the plan to make the middle class dependent on government from cradle to grave. The government will tell you sometime later, after you’re hooked to the state, how it will force you to pay for it. We’d call the price tag breathtaking, but by now what’s another $2 trillion? …But the cost, while staggering, isn’t the only or even the biggest problem. The destructive part is the way the plan seeks to insinuate government cash and the rules that go with it into all of the major decisions of family life. The goal is to expand the entitlement state to make Americans rely on government and the political class for everything they don’t already provide. …This is now about mainlining benefits to middle-class families so they become addicted to government—and to the Democratic Party that has become the promoting agent of government.

I agree with the WSJ. Biden wants to create more dependency, even if that means eviscerating Bill Clinton’s very successful welfare reform.

For my contribution to this discussion, I want to make two points about the practical implications of Biden’s plan to “Europeanise” the United States.

First, it is impossible to have a European-sized government without massive tax increases. And since there aren’t enough rich people to finance big government, that inevitably means low-income and middle-class taxpayers will have to be hit with much bigger fiscal burdens. Which is exactly what has happened in Europe (and lots of honest people on the left openly admit a bigger welfare state would require similar policies in the United States).

Second, it is impossible to have a European-sized government and still maintain a big economic advantage over Europe. Higher spending and higher taxes will combine to reduce work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship. Simply stated, European fiscal policy will lead to European economic results, and that will be very bad news for ordinary Americans since living standards are 30 percent-40 percent lower on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

It’s also worth noting that the United States ranks very high in societal capital, and that presumably will erode if more people are lured into government dependency.

P.S. Biden used to oppose a government-guaranteed income, correctly realizing it would undermine the work ethic.

P.P.S. The United States already faces a huge long-run challenge because of entitlement spending, so it’s remarkable – in a bad way – that Biden wants to step on the gas rather than hit the brakes.

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I wrote two days ago about subsidized unemployment, followed later in the day by this interview.

This controversy raises a fundamental economic issue.

I explained in the interview that employers only hire people when they expect a new worker will generate at least enough revenue to cover the cost of employment.

There’s a similar calculation on the part of individuals, as shown by this satirical cartoon strip.

People decide to take jobs when they expect the additional after-tax income they earn will compensate them for the loss of leisure and/or the unpleasantness of working.

Which is why many people are now choosing not to work since the government has increased the subsidies for idleness (a bad policy that began under Trump).

The Wall Street Journal editorialized about this issue a couple of days ago.

White House economists say there’s no “measurable” evidence that the $300 federal unemployment bonus is discouraging unemployed people from seeking work. They were rebutted by Tuesday’s Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Jolts survey, which showed a record 8.1 million job openings in March. …But these jobs often pay less than what most workers could make on unemployment. That explains why the number of job openings in many industries increased more than the number of new hires in March. …The number of workers who quit their jobs also grew by 125,000. …some quitters may be leaving their jobs because they figure they can make more unemployed for the next six months after Democrats extended the bonus into September.

Dan Henninger also opined on the issue for the WSJ. Here’s some of what he wrote.

President Biden said, “People will come back to work if they’re paid a decent wage.” But what if he’s wrong? What if his $300 unemployment insurance bonus on top of the checks sent directly to millions of people (which began during the Trump presidency) turns out to be a big, long-term mistake? …Mr. Biden and the left expect these outlays effectively to raise the minimum wage by forcing employers to compete with Uncle Sam’s money. …Ideas have consequences. By making unemployment insurance competitive with market wage rates in a pandemic, the Biden Democrats may have done long-term damage to the American work ethic. …The welfare reforms of the 1990s were based on the realization that transfer payments undermined the work ethic. The Biden-Sanders Democrats are dropping that work requirement for recipients of cash payments.

Amen.

I made similar arguments about the erosion of the work ethic last year when discussing this issue.

And this concern applies to other forms of redistribution. Including, most notably, the foolish idea of big per-child handouts.

P.S. The WSJ editorial cited above mentioned the Labor Department’s JOLT data. Those numbers are also useful if you want proof that federal bureaucrats are overpaid, and you’ll also see that the same thing is true for state and local government employees.

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In Part I of this series, I explained why it’s absurd to think illegal immigration can be stopped by sending foreign aid to less-developed countries, such as many of those in Central America.

Simply stated, government-to-government handouts have never been a successful strategy for turning poor nations into rich nations. Indeed, aid actually discourages countries from following the recipe that does deliver prosperity.

In today’s column, let’s address Milton Friedman’s famous dilemma about the incompatibility of open borders and welfare.

Like most libertarians, I want to solve the problem by getting rid of the welfare state.

Immigrants are a big net plus so long as they are coming to work and be productive.

Indeed, because of their entrepreneurial skills and work ethic, immigrants from many nations wind up earning more than native-born Americans.

That’s something to celebrate. The American Dream in action!

But will that story of success continue if the welfare state is expanded?

Two advocates of increased immigration are worried. First, Jason Riley of the Wall Street Journal recently explained that Biden’s agenda is a recipe for immigrant dependency.

…it is a growing belief on the political left that people should be allowed to enter the U.S. on their terms rather than ours, and that it is our collective responsibility to take care of them if they can’t take care of themselves. Milton Friedman said that open immigration and large welfare states are incompatible, and today’s progressives in Congress and the White House are eager to test that proposition. …Another concern is the left’s determination to sever any connection between work and benefits, something all the more worrisome since it is occurring while destitute foreign nationals with little education are being lured here en masse. …Earlier this month, the Biden administration quietly announced that it would no longer enforce a policy that limited the admission of immigrants who were deemed likely to become overly dependent on government benefits. What could go wrong? …In countries like Italy and France, generous aid programs have attracted poor migrants who are more likely than natives to be heavy users of welfare and less likely to be working. It’s a mistake to think it can’t happen here.

In a column last year for Reason, Shikha Dalmia warned that welfare programs undermine support for immigration.

…economists Alberto Alesina, Armando Miano, and Stefanie Stantcheva…administered online questionnaires to 24,000 respondents in six countries: U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Italy, and Sweden. The explicit aim was to study attitudes toward legal, not illegal, immigration. …restrictionists have succeeded most spectacularly is in depicting immigrants as welfare queens. …In America, over 25 percent of respondents said the person with the  ..immigrant-sounding name would pay less in taxes than he collected in welfare… The study’s findings pose a particular dilemma for Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.), who wants to combine grandiose welfare schemes like free health care, pre-K, and college for everyone with generous immigration policies, because the mere mention of immigration reduces support for such schemes. Respondents who were asked about immigration became less concerned about inequality and less supportive of soak-the-rich schemes. …as long as immigrants are seen as succeeding through their own grit, natives may have no real objection to them. What is most likely to sour the public on immigration are the grandiose universal freebies… Immigrants should be wary of Democrats bearing gifts.

Both Riley and Dalmia raise good points.

My modest contribution to this discussion is to provide a practical example.

In his so-called American Rescue Plan, Joe Biden included a huge giveaway program that will shower $3,000-$3,600 to non-rich households for every kid they have.

This is a one-year, one-time handout, but many Democrats (and some Republicans!) want to make these enormous per-child payments a permanent part of America’s welfare state.

If that happens, the incentive to move to the United States almost surely will skyrocket.

Here’s a map I made, showing the annual handout for two children in the United States and the average per-capita income in some nearby nations.

At the risk of stating the obvious, there will be a huge incentive to migrate to America – but not for the right reasons. And my little example doesn’t include the value of any of the dozens of other redistribution programs in Washington.

The bottom line is that we shouldn’t have a welfare system that rewards dependency, whether for people in the country legally or illegally.

And if you like immigration in theory, you should be especially opposed to handouts that will undermine public support for newcomers in practice.

P.S. It’s much better to have immigration policies such as the ones proposed by former Congressman Jared Polis and current George Mason University Professor Tyler Cowen.

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My series on poverty and inequality (see here, here, and here) focuses on why we should try to help the poor rather than hurt the rich.

We’ll continue with that theme in Part IV, which begins with this video by Russ Roberts of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Russ makes some great points throughout the video about the importance of creating the conditions for upward mobility.

Here are some of the main takeaways.

  1. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting richer as well.
  2. Cronyism is bad, especially when it winds up subsidizing the rich.
  3. We should focus on reducing poverty rather than fixating on inequality.

Regarding that final point, my favorite part is when he said that, “Focusing on inequality as something inherently bad can blind us to the problems of poverty. Inequality and poverty aren’t the same thing.  …I’m much more concerned about those at the bottom who are left behind.”

In effect, he was stating his version of the Eighth Theorem of Government. At least the first half of it (he’s probably too nice to impugn the motives of those who focus on inequality).

I also like the fact that he points out the need to get rid of licensing.

And he repeatedly argues that we need to improve the quality of education, though I wish he had explicitly stated that this means we have to replace the government’s failed education monopoly with a choice-based system.

But no need to nit-pick. The video is great, as are his other videos that I have shared over the years (see here, here, here, and here).

P.S. For those who have trouble believing that the poor, middle class, and rich can all simultaneously enjoy rising incomes, click here, here, and here for evidence.

P.P.S. I also think this data from China is very powerful.

P.P.P.S. The people who fixate on inequality favor policies that would make the United States more like Europe, so it’s worth noting that lower-income people in America are usually better off than middle-class people on the other side of the Atlantic.

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Building on the success of state-level reforms in KansasMaine, Wisconsin, Alabama, and Georgia, the Trump Administration has proposed to tighten rules that impose work requirements on childless and able-bodied adults who receive food stamps.

Since I want to get Washington out of the business of redistribution, this is not the ideal solution.

But are work requirements better than the status quo?

Here’s some of what National Review wrote about the proposal.

Our food-stamp program has some bizarre loopholes… In theory, the program has a strict time limit for “ABAWDs,” or able-bodied adults without dependents… But in practice, the executive branch has broad discretion to waive the limit for large geographic areas with weak labor markets — and previous administrations used that discretion promiscuously. As of 2017, about a third of the U.S. population lived in waived areas. …Under the new rule, effective in April of next year, these waivers won’t be granted to areas with unemployment below 6 percent. And states will be far more limited in the geographical configurations they can request waivers for. …Many on the left complain about the rule simply because it will reduce the number of people on food stamps — by about 700,000, roughly 2 percent of total food-stamp enrollment… But…there is clearly room for cuts. (Despite the recovery, total enrollment is about double what it was in 2000.) …The 1996 welfare reform proved the effectiveness of this approach.

As you might expect, this proposal is causing angst for some lawmakers.

Congresswoman Marcia Fudge condemned the proposal in a column for the Washington Post.

…taking food from the tables of hungry Americans during the holidays…that’s the latest act of cartoonish villainy by the Trump administration. …the Agriculture Department played the part of the Grinch, finalizing a rule to cut billions of dollars from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. The rule will remove nearly 700,000 from the program…, representing a callous escalation of the Trump administration’s war on people in need. …both red and blue states want the flexibility this rule will eliminate. The rule will dramatically reduce the flexibility of states to decide how best to serve the needs of their own citizens.

My view on food stamps (as well as other redistribution programs) is that Washington should have no role.

So if Congresswoman Fudge wants her state to give goodies to able-bodied adults with no children, that would be a decision for Ohio’s politicians (or, even more relevantly, Oregon’s politicians).

I’m fine with that type of flexibility, but there’s a catch that Ms. Fudge doesn’t mention. She wants taxpayers from across the country to subsidize that decision.

That’s not the way it should work. I’m all in favor of “the flexibility of states,” but that principle should apply to both raising money and spending money.

By the way, work requirements are not just an issue for the food stamp program.

There are also discussions about whether people getting Medicaid should have an obligation to work.

Writing for the Federalist, John Daniel Davidson applauds an initiative from the White House to move in that direction.

The Trump administration…will allow states to impose work requirements on abled-bodied adults to qualify for Medicaid. …it’s about time. …imposing work requirements on able-bodied adults will…help enrollees far more than Medicaid coverage will, mostly by giving them a strong incentive to secure full employment. …By putting millions of able-bodied adults on the Medicaid rolls, Obamacare created perverse incentive for those enrollees to limit their income so they could keep their Medicaid coverage. …Work requirements are a proven way to unwind perverse incentives and improve people’s lives. …progressives consider work requirements insulting and demeaning.

It was also a major focus of the very successful 1996 welfare reform legislation.

In an article for City Journal, Kay Hymowitz points out that law is still yielding big dividends.

…the Census Bureau released its report on the nation’s income, poverty, and health-insurance coverage for 2018. …poverty in single-mother households sank to its lowest rate . . . ever. What’s more, the decline took place entirely among black and Hispanic single-mother families. …this is a “Wow!” moment. …More black and Hispanic women have jobs and are working more hours. “The rise in full-time, year-round work led to an increase in incomes and earnings at the household level,” the Census Bureau found. Better yet, the growing number of hours worked by single mothers led to a decline in child poverty of 2.5 percentage points. …the 1996 welfare-reform law…overturned Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which had entitled poor single mothers to cash benefits. As a result, unemployment among the growing number of single mothers was high. Essentially, welfare reform said no more free lunch, instituting work requirements and replacing open-ended AFDC with a time-limited grant to poor mothers (TANF, or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families). …full-time, year-round work can reduce poverty and…poor minority women can improve their lives and the lives of their children through nine-to-five labor. Any “welfare-reform-is-a-failure” narrative should collapse under the weight of such demonstrated facts.

And it’s worth pointing out that one of America’s major redistribution programs – the EITC – is entirely based on work.

Recipients only get a handout if they also earn some money.

Regarding the desirability of work requirements, we can learn from what’s happened in other countries.

In an article from last year, Ryan Streeter of the American Enterprise Institute found good news from work-oriented reforms, especially in Nordic nations.

A majority of Americans, including 55 percent of people living in poverty, believe the purpose of welfare is to help people get on their feet, not just to dispense benefits. Eight in 10 low-income respondents believe working should be required to receive welfare benefits. …Welfare reformers might draw some lessons from unlikely places…the Scandinavian welfare systems are arguably more pro-work than ours… For instance, to deal with declining labor force participation, Denmark eliminated permanent disability benefits for people under 40 and refashioned its system to make employment central. Sweden reformed its welfare system to focus on rapid transitions from unemployment to work. Their program lowers jobless assistance the longer one is on welfare. …Similarly, the British government combined six welfare programs with varying requirements into a single “universal credit.” …An evaluation of the new program, which encourages work, found that 86 percent of claimants were trying to increase their work hours and 77 percent were trying to earn more, compared to 38 percent and 55 percent, respectively, under the previous system.

Regarding the reforms in the United Kingdom, here are some excerpts from a report by Emily Top for E21.

The UK overhauled its welfare system with the Welfare Reform Act 2012. …In addition to simplifying the programs into one, the Act required claimants to agree to a “Claimant Commitment,” in which they sought the services of a work coach to improve their job prospects and get hired. …the program has led to an increase in UK labor force participation as well as a decrease in dependence on benefits. During the same period that the labor force participation rate in the U.S. declined from 84 percent to 82 percent for prime age workers, the rate in the UK increased from 84 percent to 86 percent.

Let’s close by looking at some academic research on work requirements in the United States.

Three professors studied the impact of Bill Clinton’s welfare reform on recipients and found significant societal benefits.

The US Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996, often referred to as ‘welfare reform’, was a major policy shift in the US that sought to dramatically reduce dependence of single parents on government benefits by promoting work… The key strategy for reducing dependence was to promote employment by imposing work requirements as a condition for receiving benefits in concert with a lifetime limit on receipt of cash assistance. …The reforms have been successful in that welfare caseloads have declined dramatically – 78% since their peak in 1994. …In a series of recent papers, we investigated the effects of welfare reform in the US – which is still in effect today – on women’s illicit drug use and other types of crime… We found robust evidence that welfare reform led to a 10%–21% decline in illicit drug use among women at risk of relying on welfare, as well as associated declines in drug-related arrests (6%–7%), drug-related hospital emergency department episodes (7%–11%), and possibly drug-related prison admissions (11%–19%). These findings provide some support of the ‘mainstreaming’ argument underlying welfare reform. …We found that welfare reform led to decreases in female arrests for property crime – which is the type of crime women are most likely to commit (Campagniello 2014) – by 4–5%… The findings from this study point to broad-based work incentives – and, by inference, employment – as an important determinant of female property crime…

These are all good outcomes.

Though the best news – both for taxpayers and poor people – is contained in this chart from their research.

P.S. While the Trump proposal is not my ideal policy, it does compare well with the Obama Administration’s efforts to expand food stamp dependency – including bribes for states that signed up additional recipients.

P.P.S. With all redistribution programs, there is an ever-present challenge – highlighted by Thomas Sowell – of how to avoid trapping people in dependency with high implicit marginal tax rates.

P.P.P.S. There’s also a moral issue of whether people should feel ashamed for taking government handouts.

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While he’s not as outwardly radical as Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Kamala Harris, Andrew Yang has joined together two very bad ideas – universal handouts and a value-added tax.

Needless to say, I was not overflowing with praise when asked to comment.

At the risk of understatement, giving every adult a $12,000-per-year entitlement would be a recipe for bigger government and more dependency.

Even Joe Biden understands that this would erode societal capital.

And the ever-sensible Swiss, in a 2016 referendum, overwhelmingly rejected universal handouts.

Needless to say, it also would be a catastrophic mistake to give Washington several new sources of revenue to finance this scheme. A big value-added tax would be especially misguided.

Let’s take a closer look at Yang’s plan. As I noted in the interview, the Tax Foundation crunched the numbers.

Andrew Yang said he wants to provide each American adult $1,000 per month in a universal basic income (UBI) he calls a “Freedom Dividend.” He argued that this proposal could be paid for with…a combination of new revenue from a VAT, other taxes, spending cuts, and economic growth. …We estimate that his plan, as described, could only fund a little less than half the Freedom Dividend at $1,000 a month. A more realistic plan would require reducing the Freedom Dividend to $750 per month and raising the VAT to 22 percent.

If you’re interested, here are more details about his plan.

…individuals would need to choose between their current government benefits and the Freedom Dividend. As such, some individuals may decline the Freedom Dividend if they determine that their current government benefits are more valuable. The benefits that individuals would need to give up are Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needed Families (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and SNAP for Women, Infants, and Child Program (WIC). To cover the additional cost of the Freedom Dividend, Yang would raise revenue in five ways: A 10 percent VAT…A tax on financial transactions…Taxing capital gains and carried interest at ordinary income rates…Remove the wage cap on the Social Security payroll tax…A $40 per metric ton carbon tax.

By the way, Yang has already waffled on some of his spending offsets, recently stating that the so-called Freedom Dividend wouldn’t replace existing programs.

In any event, the economic and budgetary effects would be bad news.

…his overall plan would reduce the long-run size of the economy and the tax base. The three major taxes in his plan (VAT, carbon tax, and payroll tax increase), while efficient sources of revenue, would tend to reduce labor force participation by reducing the after-tax returns to working. Using the Tax Foundation Model, we estimate that the weighted average marginal tax rate on labor income would increase by about 8.6 percentage points. The resulting reduction in hours worked would ultimately reduce output by 3 percent. We estimate that Yang would lose about $124 billion each year in revenue due to the lower output.

Here’s how the Tax Foundation scores the plan.

As you can see, the VAT, the financial transactions tax, the higher capital gains tax, and the increase in the payroll tax burden don’t even cover half the cost of the universal handout.

P.S. When the Tax Foundation say a tax is an “efficient source of revenue,” that means that it would result in a modest level of economic damage on a per-dollar-collected basis. This is why they show a rather modest amount of negative revenue feedback (-$124 billion).

I think they’re being too kind. Extending the Social Security payroll tax to all income would result in a huge increase in marginal tax rates on investors, entrepreneurs, and other high-income taxpayers. As explained a few days ago, those are the people who are very responsive to changes in tax rates.

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Even though I (correctly) doubted the Trump Administration’s sincerity, I applauded proposed reductions in foreign aid back in 2017.

I very much want to reduce poverty in poor nations, of course, but the evidence is very strong that government handouts don’t do a very good job.

Moreover, we also have lots of data showing poor nations can enjoy dramatic improvements in living standards so long as they adopt good policy.

Hong Kong, Singapore, Chile, and Botswana are very good examples.

Yet some people haven’t learned this lesson. Consider the current debate over Trump’s threat to end aid to Central America if illegal immigration isn’t reduced.

A column in Fortune makes the case that handouts to Central America are necessary to reduce human smuggling.

President Donald Trump ordered the State Department to cut funding for Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador this weekend in retaliation for the recent influx of migrants from these nations, reversing a longstanding policy that says aid helps abate immigration. …According to Liz Schrayer, president and CEO of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition—a nonprofit coalition of businesses and NGOs dedicated to American development and diplomacy—pulling back aid “exasperates the exact root causes that are creating the migration numbers’ increase.” …“It will only result in more children and families being forced to make the dangerous journey north to the U.S.-Mexico border,” said the five Democratic lawmakers in a statement.

A piece in the New York Times makes the same argument.

The Trump administration’s decision to cut off aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to punish their governments for failing to curb migration is a rash response to a real policy dilemma. …it will exacerbate migration from the region without twisting Central American politicians’ arms. …The decision to cut off aid is bound to drive up migration numbers.

Ironically, the author admits that aid is ineffective.

…we shouldn’t pretend that the aid itself was doing much good… it is mostly distributed inefficiently in large blocks by foreign contractors.

Though he seems to share the naive (and presumably self-interested) arguments of international bureaucrats about the potential efficacy of aid.

Central American governments and elites have gotten away with abdicating their fiduciary, social and legal responsibilities to their citizens. They have failed to collect tax revenue and to invest in social programs and job creation that alleviate the plight of their poor.

Even some small-government conservatives seem to think that more aid would make recipient nations more prosperous and thus reduce illegal immigration.

What President Trump is doing now — cutting aid — is wrong. …As former White House Chief of Staff and SOUTHCOM Commander, General John Kelly, has noted, “If we can improve the conditions, the lot in life of Hondurans, Guatemalans, Central Americans, we can do an awful lot to protect the southwest border.” …We risk undermining our longterm national interests by cutting foreign aid. We should, instead, spend it wisely in those countries to ensure stable governments that view us as allies and work with them to root out crime, corruption, and cartels. The present policy to cut foreign aid cuts off our national nose to spite our face.

This is not an impossible prescription.

But it’s also the triumph of hope over experience.

In the real world, we have mountains of evidence that foreign aid weakens recipient economies by subsidizing corruption and larger burdens of government.

Let’s look at some analysis on this issue.

In a piece published by CapX, Matt Warner recommends less redistribution rather than more.

…the poor know how to get themselves out of poverty. They just need more opportunity to do it. The question we must ask ourselves is: to what degree are our current development aid strategies aligned with this insight? …If the intervention itself is part of the problem, what can outsiders really do to help? Today there are at least 481 research and advocacy organisations in 92 countries pushing reform agendas to provide more economic opportunity and prosperity for all. The “Doing Business” report provides a blueprint for change. Local reform organisations, supported by private philanthropy, provide the leadership to achieve it and the world’s poor will show us their own paths to prosperity if we will all just learn to get out of their way.

Writing for Barron’s, Paul Theroux notes that Africa regressed when it was showered with aid.

Africa receives roughly $50 billion in aid annually from foreign governments, and perhaps $13 billion more from private philanthropic institutions… Africa is much worse off than when I first went there 50 years ago to teach English: poorer, sicker, less educated, and more badly governed. It seems that much of the aid has made things worse. …Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo calls aid a “debilitating drug,” arguing that “real per-capita income [in Africa] today is lower than it was in the 1970s, and more than 50% of the population — over 350 million people — live on less than a dollar a day, a figure that has nearly doubled in two decades.” The Kenyan economist James Shikwati takes this same line on aid, famously telling the German magazine Der Spiegel, “For God’s sake, please stop.”

Brad Lips of the Atlas Network explains why aid often is counterproductive.

The international community has donated more than $1.8 trillion to poor countries since 2000 – but this development aid hasn’t lifted many people out of poverty. Arguably, it has made some recipient nations poorer. …the aid has bred corruption, fostered dependence and impeded reforms that deliver sustainable economic growth. …Between 1970 and 2000 – a period in which aid to Africa skyrocketed – annual gross domestic product growth per capita on the continent fell from about 2 percent to zero growth, according to a study by an economist at New York University.

A column in the U.K.-based Times is very blunt about what all this means.

…the international development secretary should have abolished her department as soon as she was appointed to it… We kid ourselves that this aid works, to salve our consciences about being better off. But as we know, the money benefits charities, quangos, bureaucrats, tyrants and the predatory elite, and all these years later your average African is no better off.

Let’s close by looking at a thorough 2005 study from the International Policy Network. Authored by Fredrik Erixon, it documents the failure of foreign aid.

…the ‘gap theory’…assumes that poor countries are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty because they are unable to save and hence have insufficient capital to invest in growth-promoting, productivity-enhancing activities. But there simply is no evidence that this savings/investment ‘gap’ exists in practice. As a result, aid has failed to ‘fill the gap’. Instead, it has, over the past fifty years, largely been counterproductive: it has crowded out private sector investments, undermined democracy, and enabled despots to continue with oppressive policies, perpetuating poverty. …The reason countries are poor is…because they lack the institutions of the free society: property rights, the rule of law, free markets, and limited government. … many studies point to the fact that government consumption in SubSaharan Africa has increased when aid has increased.

Here’s the evidence showing has more development assistance is associated with weaker economic performance.

By the way, the International Monetary Fund deserves unrestrained scorn for recommending higher tax burdens on Africans, thus making economic growth even harder to achieve.

Now let’s look at how two Asian regions have enjoyed growth as aid lessened.

Last but not least, here’s some very encouraging data from Africa.

I already mentioned that Botswana is an exception to the rule. As you can see, that nation’s success is definitely not the result of more handouts.

The bottom line is that President Trump is right, even if his motives are misguided.

Foreign aid is not the recipe for prosperity in Central America.

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One of the more elementary observations about economics is that a nation’s prosperity is determined in part by the quantity of quality of labor and capital. These “factors of production” are combined to generate national income.

I frequently grouse that punitive tax policies discourage capital. There’s less incentive to invest, after all, if the government imposes extra layers of tax on income that is saved and invested.

Bad tax laws also discourage labor. High marginal tax rates penalize people for being productive, and this can be especially counterproductive for entrepreneurship and innovation.

Though we shouldn’t overlook how government discourages low-income people from being productively employed. Only the problem is more on the spending side of the fiscal equation.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, John Early and Phil Gramm share some depressing numbers about growing dependency in the United States.

During the 20 years before the War on Poverty was funded, the portion of the nation living in poverty had dropped to 14.7% from 32.1%. Since 1966, the first year with a significant increase in antipoverty spending, the poverty rate reported by the Census Bureau has been virtually unchanged. …Transfers targeted to low-income families increased in real dollars from an average of $3,070 per person in 1965 to $34,093 in 2016. …Transfers now constitute 84.2% of the disposable income of the poorest quintile of American households and 57.8% of the disposable income of lower-middle-income households. These payments also make up 27.5% of America’s total disposable income.

This massive expansion of redistribution has negatively impacted incentives to work.

The stated goal of the War on Poverty is not just to raise living standards, but also to make America’s poor more self-sufficient and to bring them into the mainstream of the economy. In that effort the war has been an abject failure, increasing dependency and largely severing the bottom fifth of earners from the rewards and responsibilities of work. …The expanding availability of antipoverty transfers has devastated the work effort of poor and lower-middle income families. By 1975 the lowest-earning fifth of families had 24.8% more families with a prime-work age head and no one working than did their middle-income peers. By 2015 this differential had risen to 37.1%. …The War on Poverty has increased dependency and failed in its primary effort to bring poor people into the mainstream of America’s economy and communal life. Government programs replaced deprivation with idleness, stifling human flourishing. It happened just as President Franklin Roosevelt said it would: “The lessons of history,” he said in 1935, “show conclusively that continued dependency upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber.”

In another WSJ column on the same topic, Peter Cove reached a similar conclusion.

America doesn’t have a worker shortage; it has a work shortage. The unemployment rate is at a 15-year low, but only 55% of Americans adults 18 to 64 have full-time jobs. Nearly 95 million people have removed themselves entirely from the job market. According to demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, the labor-force participation rate for men 25 to 54 is lower now than it was at the end of the Great Depression. The welfare state is largely to blame. …insisting on work in exchange for social benefits would succeed in reducing dependency. We have the data: Within 10 years of the 1996 reform, the number of Americans in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program fell 60%. But no reform is permanent. Under President Obama, federal poverty programs ballooned.

Edward Glaeser produced a similar indictment in an article for City Journal.

In 1967, 95 percent of “prime-age” men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. During the Great Recession, though, the share of jobless prime-age males rose above 20 percent. Even today, long after the recession officially ended, more than 15 percent of such men aren’t working. …The rise of joblessness—especially among men—is the great American domestic crisis of the twenty-first century. It is a crisis of spirit more than of resources. …Proposed solutions that focus solely on providing material benefits are a false path. Well-meaning social policies—from longer unemployment insurance to more generous disability diagnoses to higher minimum wages—have only worsened the problem; the futility of joblessness won’t be solved with a welfare check. …various programs make joblessness more bearable, at least materially; they also reduce the incentives to find work. …The past decade or so has seen a resurgent progressive focus on inequality—and little concern among progressives about the downsides of discouraging work. …The decision to prioritize equality over employment is particularly puzzling, given that social scientists have repeatedly found that unemployment is the greater evil.

Why work, though, when government pays you not to work?

And that unfortunate cost-benefit analysis is being driven by ever-greater levels of dependency.

Writing for Forbes, Professor Jeffrey Dorfman echoed these findings.

…our current welfare system fails to prepare people to take care of themselves, makes poor people more financially fragile, and creates incentives to remain on welfare forever. …The first failure of government welfare programs is to favor help with current consumption while placing almost no emphasis on job training or anything else that might allow today’s poor people to become self-sufficient in the future. …It is the classic story of giving a man a fish or teaching him how to fish. Government welfare programs hand out lots of fish, but never seem to teach people how to fish for themselves. The problem is not a lack of job training programs, but rather the fact that the job training programs fail to help people. …The third flaw in the government welfare system is the way that benefits phase outs as a recipient’s income increases. …a poor family trying to escape poverty pays an effective marginal tax rate that is considerably higher than a middle class family and higher than or roughly equal to the marginal tax rate of a family in the top one percent.

I like that he also addressed problems such as implicit marginal tax rates and the failure of job-training programs.

Professor Lee Ohanian of the Hoover Institution reinforces the point that the welfare state provides lots of money in ways that stifle personal initiative.

Inequality is not an issue that policy should address. …Society, however, should care about creating economic opportunities for the lowest earners. …a family of four at the poverty level has about $22,300 per year of pre-tax income. Consumption for that same family of four on average, however, is about $44,000 per year, which means that their consumption level is about twice as high as their income. …We’re certainly providing many more resources to low-earning families today. But on the other hand, we have policies in place that either limit economic opportunities for low earners or distort the incentives for those earners to achieve prosperity.

I’ve been citing lots of articles, which might be tedious, so let’s take a break with a video about the welfare state from the American Enterprise Institute.

And if you like videos, here’s my favorite video about the adverse effects of the welfare state.

By the way, it isn’t just libertarians and conservatives who recognize the problem.

Coming from a left-of-center perspective, Catherine Rampell explains in the Washington Post how welfare programs discourage work.

…today’s social safety net discourages poor people from working, or at least from earning more money. …you might qualify for some welfare programs, such as food stamps, housing vouchers, child-care subsidies and Medicaid. But if you get a promotion, or longer hours, or a second job, or otherwise start making more, these benefits will start to evaporate — and sometimes quite abruptly. You can think about this loss of benefits as a kind of extra tax on low-income people. …Americans at or just above the poverty line typically face marginal tax rates of 34 percent. That is, for every additional dollar they earn, they keep only 66 cents. …One in 10 families with earnings close to the poverty line faces a marginal tax rate of at least 65 percent, the CBO found. …You don’t need to be a hardcore conservative to see how this system might make working longer hours, or getting a better job, less attractive than it might otherwise be.

To understand what this means, the Illinois Policy Institute calculated how poor people in the state are trapped in dependency.

The potential sum of welfare benefits can reach $47,894 annually for single-parent households and $41,237 for two-parent households. Welfare benefits will be available to some households earning as much as $74,880 annually. …A single mom has the most resources available to her family when she works full time at a wage of $8.25 to $12 an hour. Disturbingly, taking a pay increase to $18 an hour can leave her with about one-third fewer total resources (net income and government benefits). In order to make work “pay” again, she would need an hourly wage of $38 to mitigate the impact of lost benefits and higher taxes.

Agreeing that there’s a problem does not imply agreement about a solution.

Folks on the left think the solution to high implicit tax rates (i.e., the dependency trap) is to make benefits more widely available. In other words, don’t reduce handouts as income increases.

The other alternative is to make benefits less generous, which will simultaneously reduce implicit tax rates and encourage more work.

I’m sympathetic to the latter approach, but my view is that welfare programs should be designed and financed by state and local governments. We’re far more likely to see innovation as policy makers in different areas experiment with the best ways of preventing serious deprivation while also encouraging self-sufficiency.

I think we’ll find out that benefits should be lower, but maybe we’ll learn in certain cases that benefits should be expanded. But we won’t learn anything so long as there is a one-size-fits-all approach from Washington.

Let’s close with a political observation. A columnist for the New York Times is frustrated that many low-income voters are supporting Republicans because they see how their neighbors are being harmed by dependency.

Parts of the country that depend on the safety-net programs supported by Democrats are increasingly voting for Republicans who favor shredding that net. …The people in these communities who are voting Republican in larger proportions are those who are a notch or two up the economic ladder — the sheriff’s deputy, the teacher, the highway worker, the motel clerk, the gas station owner and the coal miner. And their growing allegiance to the Republicans is, in part, a reaction against what they perceive, among those below them on the economic ladder, as a growing dependency on the safety net, the most visible manifestation of downward mobility in their declining towns. …I’ve heard variations on this theme all over the country: people railing against the guy across the street who is collecting disability payments but is well enough to go fishing, the families using their food assistance to indulge in steaks.

It’s not my role to pontificate about politics, so I won’t address that part of the column. But I will say that I’ve also found that hostility to welfare is strongest among those who have first-hand knowledge of how dependency hurts people.

P.S. If you want evidence for why Washington should get out of the business of income redistribution, check out this visual depiction of the welfare state.

P.S. The Canadians can teach us some good lessons about welfare reform.

P.P.S. The Nordic nations also provide valuable lessons, at least from the don’t-do-this perspective.

P.P.P.S. Last but not least, there’s a Laffer-type relationship between welfare spending and poverty.

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America has a major dependency problem. In recent decades, there’s been a significant increase in the number of working-age adults relying on handouts.

This is bad news for poor people and bad news for taxpayers. But it’s also bad news for the nation since it reflects an erosion of societal capital.

For all intents and purposes, people are being paid not to be productive.

Guided by the spirit of Calvin Coolidge, we need to reform the welfare state.

Professor Dorfman of the University of Georgia, in a column for Forbes, pinpoints the core problem.

The first failure of government welfare programs is to favor help with current consumption while placing almost no emphasis on job training or anything else that might allow today’s poor people to become self-sufficient in the future. …It is the classic story of giving a man a fish or teaching him how to fish. Government welfare programs hand out lots of fish, but never seem to teach people how to fish for themselves. The problem is not a lack of job training programs, but rather the fact that the job training programs fail to help people. In a study for ProPublica, Amy Goldstein documents that people who lost their jobs and participated in a federal job training program were less likely to be employed afterward than those who lost their jobs and did not receive any job training. That is, the job training made people worse off instead of better. …Right now, the government cannot teach anyone how to find a fish, let alone catch one.

And Peter Cove opines on the issue for the Wall Street Journal.

…the labor-force participation rate for men 25 to 54 is lower now than it was at the end of the Great Depression. The welfare state is largely to blame. More than a fifth of American men of prime working age are on Medicaid. According to the Census Bureau, nearly three-fifths of nonworking men receive federal disability benefits. The good news is that the 1996 welfare reform taught us how to reduce government dependency and get idle Americans back to work. …Within 10 years of the 1996 reform, the number of Americans in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program fell 60%.

Interestingly, European nations seem to be more interested in fixing the problem, perhaps because they’ve reached the point where reform is a fiscal necessity.

Let’s look at what happened when the Dutch tightened benefit rules.

A fascinating new study from economists in California and the Netherlands sheds light on how welfare dependency is passed from one generation to the next – and how to save children from lives of idleness.

A snowball effect across generations could arise if welfare dependency is transmitted from parents to their children, with potentially serious consequences for the future economic situation of children. …there is little evidence on whether this relationship is causal. Testing for the existence of a behavioural response, where children become benefit recipients because their parents were, is difficult… Our work overcomes these identification challenges by exploiting a 1993 reform in the Dutch Disability Insurance (DI) programme… The 1993 reform tightened DI eligibility for existing and future claimants, but exempted older cohorts currently on DI (age 45+) from the new rules. This reform generates quasi-experimental variation in DI use… Intuitively, the idea is to compare the children of parents who are just over 45 years of age to children whose parents are just under 45. .

Here’s the methodology of their research.

The first step is to understand the impact of the 1993 reform on parents. Figure 1 shows that parents who were just under the age 45 cut-off, and therefore subject to the harsher DI rules, are 5.5 percentage points more likely to exit DI by the year 1999 compared to parents just over the age 45 cut-off. These treated parents saw a 1,300 euro drop in payments on average. …the reform changed other outcomes as well. There is a strong rebound in labour earnings.

This chart from their research captures the discontinuity.

Here are the main results.

The second step is to see how children’s DI use changed based on whether the reform affected their parents. We measure a child’s cumulative use of DI as of 2014, by which time they are 37 years old on average. Figure 2 reveals a noticeable jump in child DI participation at the parental age cut-off of 45. There is an economically significant 1.1 percentage point drop for children if their parent was exposed to the reform, which translates into an 11% effect relative to the mean child participation rate of 10%. …welfare cultures, defined as a causal intergenerational link, exist.

This second chart illustrates the positive impact.

But here’s the most important part of the research.

Reducing access to redistribution to parents is a good way of boosting income and education for children.

…we examine whether a child’s taxable earnings and participation in other social support programmes change. Cumulative earnings up to 2014 rise by approximately €7,200 euros, or a little less than 2%, for children of parents subject to the less generous DI rules. In contrast, we find no detectable change in cumulative unemployment insurance receipt, general assistance (i.e. traditional cash welfare), or other miscellaneous safety net programs. Looking at a child’s educational attainment, there is intriguing evidence for anticipatory investments. When a parent is subject to the reform which tightened DI benefits, their child invests in 0.12 extra years of education relative to an overall mean of 11.5 years. …these findings provide suggestive evidence that children of treated parents plan for a future with less reliance on DI in part by investing in their labour market skills.

And it’s also worth noting that taxpayers benefit when welfare eligibility is restricted.

These strong intergenerational links between parents and children have sizable fiscal consequences for the government’s long term budget. Cumulative DI payments to children of the targeted parents are 16% lower. This is a substantial additional saving for the government’s budget, especially since there is no evidence that children substitute these reductions in DI income for additional income from other social assistance programmes. Furthermore, there is a fiscal gain resulting from the increased taxes these children pay due to their increased labour market earnings. Overall, we calculate that through the year 2013, children account for 21% of the net fiscal savings of the 1993 Dutch reform in present discounted value terms. This share is projected to increase to 40% over time.

Ryan Streeter of American Enterprise Institute explains that other European nations also are reforming.

Welfare reformers might draw some lessons from unlikely places, such as Scandinavia. While progressives like to uphold Nordic democratic socialism as a model for America, the Scandinavian welfare systems are arguably more pro-work than ours… For instance, to deal with declining labor force participation, Denmark eliminated permanent disability benefits for people under 40 and refashioned its system to make employment central. Sweden reformed its welfare system to focus on rapid transitions from unemployment to work. Their program lowers jobless assistance the longer one is on welfare. The Nordic model is more focused on eliminating reasons not to work such as caregiving or lack of proper training than providing income replacement. Similarly, the British government combined six welfare programs with varying requirements into a single “universal credit.” The benefit is based on a sliding scale and decreases as a recipient’s earnings increase, replacing several differing formulas for phasing out of welfare programs with one. An evaluation of the new program, which encourages work, found that 86 percent of claimants were trying to increase their work hours and 77 percent were trying to earn more, compared to 38 percent and 55 percent, respectively, under the previous system. …Scandinavia and Britain learned a while ago that successful welfare reform is not just about how much money a country spends on people who earn too little. It’s really about how to help them find and keep a good job. It’s time for America to catch up.

Amen.

For what it’s worth, I think we’ll be most likely to get good results if we get Washington out of the redistribution business.

In effect, block grant all means-tested programs to the states and then phase out the federal funding. That would give states the ability to experiment and they could learn from each other about the best way of helping the truly needy while minimizing incentives for idleness.

P.S. This WIzard-of-Id parody is a very good explanation of why handouts discourage productive work.

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There is a lot of good news about the job market in America.

The official unemployment rate, released just yesterday, is down to 4.1 percent, which is the lowest its been since the end of the Clinton years. Even more impressive, the number of people getting unemployment benefits (i.e., getting paid not to work) has dropped to the lowest level since the early 1970s.

I don’t want to rain on this parade, but the numbers aren’t as good as they seem.

Back during the Obama years, I repeatedly pointed out the real health of the labor market should be measured by looking at either the rate of labor force participation or the employment-population ratio.

These are the numbers that give us a more accurate picture of the extent to which labor is being productively utilized (remember, national income is determined by the quality and quantity of labor and capital in the economy).

So let’s dig into the government’s database on labor force statistics and see where we stand when examining these more-insightful numbers.

We’ll start with the data on the rate of labor force participation, which is basically a measure of those working and looking for work as a share of the adult population. As you can see, that rate dropped significantly at the end of the Bush years/beginning of the Obama years. And it hasn’t recovered even though the recession ended back in 2009.

By the way, we shouldn’t expect this rate to be 100 percent, or even anywhere close to that high. After all, the 16-and-up population includes plenty of full-time students, retired people, disabled, stay-at-home moms (or dads), and others.

But I worry about the downward trend.

Now let’s look at the employment-population ratio, which is slightly more encouraging. We see a precipitous drop during the recession, but at least the number has been trending in the right direction for several years.

Though it’s nonetheless semi-depressing that the increase has been rather slow and we haven’t come anywhere close to recovering from the downturn.

To help understand the rate of joblessness, here’s a video from the Mercatus Center.

And to better understand the rate of employment, here’s a video from Nicholas Eberstadt at the American Enterprise Institute.

As far as I’m concerned, the key factoid is near the end, where he points out that we would have 10 million additional working-age men productively employed if the rate of employment today was the same as it was in 1965.

And that’s largely the fault of government programs – such as unemployment insurance, disability, Obamacare, licensing, etc – that make it easier for people to choose to be unproductive.

Speaking of which, let’s close with some excerpts from one of Jason Riley’s columns in the Wall Street Journal.

Peter Cove dropped out of a graduate program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison more than 50 years ago to enlist in Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. These days, he’s fighting a war on dependency. …Mr. Cove moved to New York in 1965 to work for the city’s new Anti-Poverty Operations Board… Mr. Cove…noticed… “The government’s unprecedented expenditures failed to bring about the decline in poverty that Johnson had promised. Instead, they made things worse.” Between 1962 and 2012, the percentage of the U.S. population receiving government assistance in the form of cash transfers almost doubled to 21% from 11.7%. …Between 1965 and 2011, the official poverty rate was essentially flat, while government spending per person on poverty programs rose by more than 900% after inflation. “…But as welfare spending soared, the decline in poverty came to a grinding halt.” …Mr. Cove…came to understand that the answer to poverty is prosperity, that the private sector is the better generator of prosperity, and that the best antipoverty program is a job. “Not only does big government get in the way when it provides disincentives to work, it also has a profoundly negative effect on community,”… The increase in government dependency that Mr. Cove laments predates President Obama by decades, but it did accelerate on Mr. Obama’s watch.

Great points, particularly about how the welfare state actually undermined progress on reducing poverty and also eroded societal capital.

All of which is captured in this Wizard-of-Id satire.

P.S. Some honest leftists admit that the welfare state has caused collateral damage.

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Federalism is the gold standard for reforming redistribution programs. This was the approach used in the very successful Clinton-era welfare reform, and it should be replicated for other means-tested programs.

The core argument is that the federal government does a very poor job of managing such programs, resulting in a maze of handouts that produce lots of fraud and dependency.

If states were in charge of such programs, by contrast, there would be lots of innovation and experimentation. This would help policy makers understand the best way of taking care of the truly destitute while helping others transition to productive and self-sufficient lives.

Today, let’s look specifically at food stamps. I’ve already explained why federalism is the right way of fixing the program.

And here are some additional reasons to support reform.

Writing for USA Today, Jim Bovard opined on the program’s glaring shortcomings – many of which were exacerbated by the Obama Administration’s efforts to expand dependency.

Why did the food stamp program spiral out of control? The Obama administration believed that maximizing handouts would maximize prosperity… So the feds bankrolled massive recruiting campaigns to sway people to abandon self-reliance. A North Carolina social services agency won a USDA “Hunger Champions Award” for attacking “mountain pride” as a reason not to accept government handouts. In Alabama, people received fliers proclaiming: “Be a patriot. Bring your food stamp money home.” The state of Florida paid individual recruiters to sign up at least 150 new food stamp recipients per month. …enrollment also skyrocketed after Obama effectively suspended the three-month limit for able-bodied adults without dependents to collect food stamps. From 2008 to 2010, the number of able-bodied recipients doubled.

Jim points out several reasons why the program is bad for the economy and bad for poor people.

A 2012 Journal of Public Economics study concluded that receiving food stamps sharply reduces work hours by single mothers. …state governments have little or no incentive to police the program because losses from fraud or waste don’t come out of state budgets. …the program is a dietary disaster. Walter Willett, chair of Harvard University’s Department of Nutrition, observed in 2015, “We’ve analyzed what (food stamp) participants are eating and it’s horrible food. It’s a diet designed to produce obesity and diabetes.” A 2017 study published in BMC Public Health found that food stamp recipients were twice as likely to be obese as eligible non-recipients. …A 2016 USDA report revealed that soft drinks and other sweetened beverages are the most common purchase in food stamp households, accounting for almost 10% of monthly expenditures. “Desserts, salty snacks, candy and sugar” account for another 10% of food stamp expenditures.

And it’s definitely bad for taxpayers. In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Kristina Rasmussen explained how rich people are able to bilk the system.

Consider the food stamp program’s longstanding policy of “broad-based categorical eligibility.” You probably assume that food stamps go to poor people only. But this policy, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture instituted during the Clinton administration, allows state food-stamp programs to grant benefits to anyone who has moderately low wage income, regardless of net worth. A family with a seven-figure bank account can be eligible for food stamps. That’s how lottery winners—including actual millionaires—wind up getting food stamps. In 2012 Amanda Clayton of Detroit was revealed to be receiving $200 in monthly food aid despite having won $1 million the year before. “I feel that it’s OK because I have no income,” she said, “and I have bills to pay. I have two houses.” In 2011 Leroy Fick of Bay County, Mich., was found to be receiving food assistance despite having taken home $850,000 in lottery winnings the previous year. …more than 30 states continue to have no asset limits. All you need to collect food aid is two things: an income below a multiple of the poverty line, ranging from 130% to 200%; and eligibility for some sort of benefit funded by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the main welfare program for single parents. And there’s the “one weird trick.” The state spends TANF dollars to print a welfare brochure. The brochure itself is defined as a “benefit,” which everybody is “eligible” to receive, thereby meeting the USDA requirement. Of the 47 million Americans who received food stamps in 2014, some four million got them under “broad-based categorical eligibility”—most because their wealth would have made them ineligible otherwise.

The good news is that the White House wants to reform the scandal-plagued program.

The bad news is that Trump and his people have chosen paternalism rather than federalism.

Here’s what is in the Administration’s budget (scroll to page 128).

The Budget would also create a new approach to nutrition assistance that combines traditional SNAP benefits with U.S. Department of Agriculture Foods provided directly to households. This cost-effective approach supports American agriculture, prevents certain types of program abuse, provides state flexibility in delivering food benefits, and ensures the nutritional value of the benefits provided. …Under the proposal, households receiving $90 or more per month in SNAP benefits will receive a portion of their benefits in the form of a USDA Foods package, which would include items such as shelf-stable milk, ready to eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit, vegetables, and meat, poultry or fish. …This cost-effective approach will generate significant savings to taxpayers with no loss in food benefits to participants.

I can understand that people don’t like it when food stamp recipients are buying junk food. Or luxury items.

And I can also understand the desire to make dependency somewhat discomforting.

But I have zero faith in the federal government’s ability to send food boxes to people every month and somehow save money and avoid extra bureaucracy.

What’s frustrating about the plan in Trump’s budget is that they actually proposed a semi-decent policy of partial federalism last year. So I view this as a step in the wrong direction.

By the way, the fact that I don’t like the plan doesn’t mean I agree with some of the leftist critics. As this “perplexed meme” illustrates, the folks who correctly mock the White House’s proposal are also the same ones who want the government to have massive powers over matters that are far more complex than delivering food.

While the budget plan takes the wrong approach, the White House has done something good via the regulatory process by giving states more flexibility for work requirements.

Kansas, Maine, Wisconsin, and Alabama have achieved good results already, and now the same thing is happening in Georgia, as noted by PJ Media.

Thousands of Georgia residents who depend on food stamps are losing their benefits because they have failed to meet the state’s new requirements that force the able-bodied without children to find jobs. …“The greater good is people being employed, being productive and contributing to the state,” Bobby Cagle, director of the state Department of Family and Children Services, said. …State Rep. Greg Morris (R) said the fact that thousands of people have lost their benefits only showed the magnitude of the problem of welfare fraud in Georgia. He said the new mandate is working. “This is about protecting taxpayer dollars from abuse, and taking people off the cycle of dependency,” Morris said. However, Benita Dodd, vice president of the conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation, wrote that saving taxpayer dollars was not the program’s ultimate goal. “The goal must be to focus aid on those who truly need help and restore the dignity of work to able-bodied adults,” Dodd wrote. “Reducing dependency and promoting economic opportunity help end the cycle of poverty, reinforce the temporary nature of assistance and encourage personal responsibility.”

The bottom line is that I don’t know how much work should be required, or what kind. I also don’t know whether the idea of direct food delivery in Trump’s budget is necessarily a bad idea.

Which is why I want decentralization of the program. Let states try different approaches and then learn from each other. That’s good for taxpayers and good for poor people.

Which is basically what I said in this interview more than six years ago.

P.S. Here’s a map showing which states (as of a few years ago) had the highest rate of food stamp dependency.

P.P.S. And here’s a table showing which states have the highest levels of food stamp dependency relative to the eligible population.

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I’ve written that it’s theoretically possible for Greece to pay its debts and restore prosperity.

After all, it’s simply a matter of obeying fiscal policy’s Golden Rule and reforming a suffocating tax system.

But I’ve always figured none of that will happen because Greek voters would never vote for a government that favors Reagan-style or Thatcher-style economic reforms.

Simply stated, there are too may Greek people living off the state. But that’s just part of the problem. An even bigger obstacle to reform is that the people have decided that it’s morally acceptable to mooch off the government.

As a result, I’ve assumed that Greece has passed a tipping point because the moral foundation of Greek society has been corroded by dependency. And it’s very difficult to put that toothpaste back in the tube.

But maybe I’ve been wrong. Courtesy of the great people at the Atlas Network, here’s some remarkable polling data from Greece.

…the people may finally be fed up with big government, runaway spending, public-sector corruption, and job-killing regulations. A recent in-depth survey, published by the daily Kathimerini newspaper and the new think tank Dianeosis, reveals that Greek society seems to be experiencing an ideological sea change.

On a philosophical level, Greeks seem to be embracing the principles of classical liberalism.

In Greece, the term “liberalism” retains its classical meaning of support for individual liberty, free markets, and social tolerance. The latest finding from the Dianeosis poll shows that 27 percent of respondents identify as either liberal or neoliberal, together making the largest ideological group for the country’s overall population. These ideas have taken even stronger hold among the rising generation, with an astonishing 50 percent of Greek youth identifying as either liberals or neoliberals.

And this translates into greater support for small-government policies.

About 60 percent agree that government is intervening too much in economic matters, and thereby prevents the private sector from creating jobs and wealth.

Here’s some of the relevant polling data.

It’s also encouraging to see that there was movement in the right direction between April 2015 and December 2016.

On a policy level, the Greeks now seem to recognize that the state is too big.

Even more telling is that the majority of Greeks, 55 percent, believe that lower taxation is preferable even if that results in less government welfare. This finding is particularly important because two years ago only 39.2 percent agreed with that statement.

Here are those numbers from the survey.

The last bit of good news from the survey is that Greeks have positive feelings about market-oriented terms.

Greeks today also seem to show overwhelming support for many fundamental concepts of the free-market tradition. About 73 percent agreed that “markets” have a positive connotation…a primary reason for this turn toward free markets is that the government regimes in Greece have clearly failed, thereby tainting their devotion to destructive statism and populism. This has caused many Greeks to consider economic freedom as a viable solution for the country’s devastating problems.

On the other hand, the country they most want to mimic is Sweden.

And it’s not even close (though I wonder if this chart would look different if Switzerland and Hong Kong were options).

You may be wondering (like me) how the Greeks can tell pollsters they want smaller government while simultaneously picking Sweden as a role model?

The pessimistic answer is that Greeks don’t know what they’re talking about. Or maybe they are hypocrites, willing to pay lip service to economic liberty but ultimately yearning for a cradle-to-grave welfare state.

The optimistic answer is that Sweden actually is a pretty good role model.

Check out this comparison of Greece and Sweden, based on data from Economic Freedom of the World. Sweden is ranked #27, which is in the top-20 percent of nations for economic liberty. Greece, by contrast, is way down at #116.

Yes, both countries have terrible fiscal policy, but it turns out that Sweden is very market-oriented in areas like money, trade, regulation, and rule of law. And even though it still has a long way to go, Sweden significantly improved fiscal policy in the 1990s and has even enjoyed some modest improvement in recent years.

That’s definitely not the case in Greece.

In other words, I certainly don’t mind if Swedish policy is the short-run goal for Greek voters. If they ever get to that point, then I’ll try to convince them to go the Full Hong Kong.

P.S. In the real world, are there any examples of countries that have escaped statism and enjoyed something akin to a Greece-to-Sweden jump in economic liberty?

The answer is yes. Chile would be an obvious example, as would certain post-Soviet Bloc nations such as Estonia.

It would be great to add Greece to the collection.

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Back in 2014, I shared a report that looked at the growth of redistribution spending in developed nations.

That bad news in the story was that the welfare state was expanding at a rapid pace in the United States. The good news is that the overall fiscal burden of those programs was still comparatively low. At least compared to other industrialized countries (though depressingly high by historical standards).

I specifically noted that Switzerland deserved a lot of praise because redistribution spending was not only relatively modest, but that it also was growing at a slow rate. Yet another sign it truly is the “sensible country.”

But I also expressed admiration for Canada.

Canada deserves honorable mention. It has the second-lowest overall burden of welfare spending, and it had the sixth-best performance in controlling spending since 2000. Welfare outlays in our northern neighbor grew by 10 percent since 2000, barely one-fourth as fast as the American increase during the reckless Bush-Obama years.

But I didn’t try to explain why Canada had good numbers.

Now it’s time to rectify that oversight. I went to the University of Texas-Arlington last week to give a speech and had the pleasure of meeting Professor Todd Gabel. Originally from Canada, Professor Gabel has written extensively on Canadian welfare policy and he gave me a basic explanation of what happened in his home country.

I asked him to share some of his academic research and he sent me several publications, including two academic studies he co-authored with Nathan Berg from the University of Otago.

Here are some excerpts from their 2015 study published in the Canadian Journal of Economics. Gabel and Berg explain welfare reform in Canada and look at which policies were most successful.

During the 1990s and 2000s, Canada’s social assistance (SA) system transitioned from a relatively centralized program with federal administrative controls to a decentralized mix of programs in which provinces had considerable discretion to undertake new policies. This transition led to substantially different SA programs across provinces and years… Some provincial governments experimented aggressively with new policy tools aimed at reducing SA participation. Others did not. In different years and by different amounts, nearly all provinces reduced SA benefit levels and tightened eligibility requirements.

By the way, the SA program in Canada is basically a more generous version of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program in America, in part because there are not separate programs for food and housing.

The study includes this remarkable chart showing a significant drop in Canadian welfare dependency, along with specific data for three provinces.

The authors wanted to know why welfare dependency declined in Canada. Was is simply a result of a better macroeconomic environment? Or did specific reforms in welfare policy play a role?

…what role, if any, did new reform strategies undertaken by provinces play in observed declines in SA participation. This paper attempts to address this question by measuring disaggregated effects of new reform strategies on provinces’ SA participation rates, while controlling for changes in benefit levels, eligibility requirements, labour market conditions, GDP growth and demographic composition.

Their conclusion is that welfare reform helped reduce dependency.

…our econometric models let the data decide on a ranking of which mechanisms—reductions in benefit levels, tightened eligibility requirements, improved macro-economic conditions or adoption of new reform strategies—had the largest statistical associations with declines in participation. The data suggest that new reforms were the second most important policy reform after reductions in employment insurance benefits. … In the empirical models that disaggregate the effects of different new reform strategies, it appears that work requirements with strong sanctions for non-compliance had the largest effects. The presence of strong work requirements is associated with a 27% reduction in SA participation.

Here’s their table showing the drop in various provinces between 1994 and 2009.

The same authors unveiled a new scholarly study published in 2017 in Applied Economics, which is based on individual-level data rather than province-level data.

Here are the key portions.

A heterogeneous mix of aggressive welfare reforms took effect in different provinces and years starting in the 1990s. Welfare participation rates subsequently declined. Previous investigations of these declines focused on cuts in benefits and stricter eligibility requirements. This article focuses instead on work requirements, diversion, earning exemptions and time limits – referred to jointly as new welfare reform strategies.

Here’s their breakdown of the types of reforms in the various provinces.

And here are the results of their statistical investigation.

The empirical models suggest that new reform strategies significantly reduced the probability of welfare participation by a minimum of 13% overall…the mean person in the sample faces a reduced risk of welfare participation of 1.1–1.3 percentage points when new reform strategies are present… the participation rates of the disabled, immigrants, aboriginals and single parents, appear to have responded to the presence of new reform strategies significantly more than the average Canadian in our sample. The expected rate of welfare participation for these groups fell by two to four times the mean rate of decline associated with new reform policies.

The bottom line is that welfare reform was very beneficial for Canada. Taxpayers benefited because the fiscal burden decreased. And poor people benefited because of a transition from dependency to work.

Let’s close by looking at data measuring redistribution spending in Canada compared to other developed nations. These OECD numbers include social insurance outlays as well as social welfare outlays, so this is a broad measure of redistribution spending, not just the money being spent on welfare. But it’s nonetheless worth noting the huge improvement in Canada’s numbers starting about 1994.

Canada now has the world’s 5th-freest economy. Welfare reform is just one piece of a very good policy puzzle. There also have been relatively sensible policies involving spending restraint, corporate tax reform, bank bailoutsregulatory budgeting, the tax treatment of saving, and privatization of air traffic control.

P.S. If it wasn’t so cold in Canada, that might be my escape option instead of Australia.

P.P.S. Given the mentality of the current Prime Minister, it’s unclear whether Canada will remain an economic success story.

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The notion that government should automatically give everyone money – a policy known as “universal basic income” – is now getting a lot of attention.

From an economic perspective, I acknowledge that the idea should not be summarily rejected. Here’s some of what I wrote earlier this year.

…there actually is a reasonable argument that the current welfare state is so dysfunctional that it would be better to simply give everyone a check instead.

But I’m nonetheless very skeptical. Simply stated, the math doesn’t work, people would have less incentive to work, and there would be “public choice” pressures to expand the size of the checks.

So when the topic came up as part of a recent interview, I criticized the proposal and praised Swiss voters for rejecting – by an overwhelming margin – a referendum that would have created a basic income in that nation.

My reaction was probably even more hostile than normal because I don’t like it when guilt-ridden rich people try to atone for their wealth by giving away my money.

Moreover, it’s silly for Zuckerberg to use Alaska as an example because of its oil wealth and small population.

That being said, if I had more time, I would have been more nuanced and pointed out that we hopefully will learn more from some of the experiments that are happening around the world. Especially what’s happening on the other side of the north pole from Alaska.

The New York Times published an in-depth preview of Finland’s experiment late last year. Here’s a description of the problem that Finnish policymakers want to solve.

…this city has…thousands of skilled engineers in need of work. Many were laid off by Nokia… While entrepreneurs are eager to put these people to work, the rules of Finland’s generous social safety net effectively discourage this. Jobless people generally cannot earn additional income while collecting unemployment benefits or they risk losing that assistance. For laid-off workers from Nokia, simply collecting a guaranteed unemployment check often presents a better financial proposition than taking a leap with a start-up.

For anyone who has studied the impact of redistribution programs on incentives to work, this hardly comes as a surprise.

Indeed, the story has both data and anecdotes to illustrate how the Finnish welfare state is subsidizing idleness.

In the five years after suffering a job loss, a Finnish family of four that is eligible for housing assistance receives average benefits equal to 73 percent of previous wages, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That is nearly triple the level in the United States. …the social safety net…appears to be impeding the reinvigoration of the economy by discouraging unemployed people from working part time. …Mr. Saloranta has his eyes on a former Nokia employee who is masterly at developing prototypes. He only needs him part time. He could pay 2,000 euros a month (about $2,090). Yet this potential hire is bringing home more than that via his unemployment benefits. “It’s more profitable for him to just wait at home for some ideal job,” Mr. Saloranta complains.

So the Finnish government wants to see if a basic income can solve this problem.

…the Finnish government is exploring how to change that calculus, initiating an experiment in a form of social welfare: universal basic income. Early next year, the government plans to randomly select roughly 2,000 unemployed people — from white-collar coders to blue-collar construction workers. It will give them benefits automatically, absent bureaucratic hassle and minus penalties for amassing extra income. The government is eager to see what happens next. Will more people pursue jobs or start businesses? How many will stop working and squander their money on vodka? Will those liberated from the time-sucking entanglements of the unemployment system use their freedom to gain education, setting themselves up for promising new careers? …The answers — to be determined over a two-year trial — could shape social welfare policy far beyond Nordic terrain.

The results from this experiment will help answer some big questions.

…basic income confronts fundamental disagreements about human reality. If people are released from fears that — absent work — they risk finding themselves sleeping outdoors, will they devolve into freeloaders? “Some people think basic income will solve every problem under the sun, and some people think it’s from the hand of Satan and will destroy our work ethic,” says Olli Kangas, who oversees research at Kela, a Finnish government agency that administers many social welfare programs. “I’m hoping we can create some knowledge on this issue.” …Finland’s concerns are pragmatic. The government has no interest in freeing wage earners to write poetry. It is eager to generate more jobs.

As I noted above, this New York Times report was from late last year. It was a preview of Finland’s experiment.

People have been getting checks for several months. Are there any preliminary indications of the impact?

Well, the good news is that recipients apparently like getting free money. Here are some excerpts from a report by Business Insider.

…some of the 2,000 recipients are already reporting lower levels of stress. The $600 they receive each month might not be much, but it’s enough to put some people’s anxiety at ease.

But the bad news is that the handouts are giving people the flexibility to reject work.

Marjukka Turunen, head of Kela’s legal benefits unit, told Kera News. “There was this one woman who said: ‘I was afraid every time the phone would ring, that unemployment services are calling to offer me a job,'”… Scott Santens, a basic income advocate and writer…says basic income redistributes power into the middle-class — namely, to turn down unappealing jobs.

The last sentence of the excerpt is particularly worrisome. Some advocates think universal handouts are good precisely because people can work less.

It’s obviously too early to draw sweeping conclusions, especially based on a couple of anecdotes.

However, a recent column in the New York Times by two left-leaning Finns suggests that the data will not be favorable to universal handouts. The authors start with a basic explanation of the issue.

Universal basic income is generating considerable interest these days, from Bernie Sanders, who says he is “absolutely sympathetic” to the idea, to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and other tech billionaires. The basic idea behind it is that handing out unconditional cash to all citizens, employed or not, would help reduce poverty and inequality… As a rich country in the European Union, with one of the highest rates of social spending in the world, Finland seemed like an ideal testing ground for a state-of-the-art social welfare experiment. …Kela, the national social-insurance institute, randomly selected 2,000 Finns between 25 and 58 years of age who were already getting some form of unemployment benefits. The subsidies were offered to people who had been unemployed for about one year or more, or who had less than six months of work experience.

But then they denigrate the study.

…the Finnish trial was poorly designed… The trial size was cut to one-fifth of what had originally been proposed, and is now too small to be scientifically viable. Instead of giving free money to everyone, the experiment is handing out, in effect, a form of unconditional unemployment benefits. In other words, there is nothing universal about this version of universal basic income. …The government has made no secret of the fact that its universal basic income experiment isn’t about liberating the poor or fighting inequality. Instead, the trial’s “primary goal” is “promoting employment,” the government explained in a 2016 document proposing the project to Parliament. Meaning: The project was always meant to incentivize people to accept low-paying and low-productivity jobs.

Maybe I’m reading between the lines, but it sounds like they are worried that the results ultimately will show that a basic income discourages labor supply.

Which reinforces my concerns about the entire concept.

Yes, the current system is bad for both poor people and taxpayers. But why would anyone think that we’ll get better results if we give generous handouts to everyone?

So if we replace all those handouts with one big universal handout, is there any reason to expect that somehow people will be more likely to find jobs and contribute to the economy?

Again, we need to wait another year or two before we have comprehensive data from Finland. But I’m skeptical that we’ll get a favorable outcome.

P.S. The Wizard-of-Id parody shown above contains a lot of insight about labor supply and incentives. As does this Chuck Asay cartoon and this Robert Gorrell cartoon.

P.P.S. Since I rarely write about Finland, I should point out that it is ranked #20 for economic liberty, only four spots behind the United States (and the country is more pro-market than America when looking at non-fiscal policy factors).

P.P.P.S. On the minus side, Finland has decided that broadband access is somehow a human right. On the plus side, the country’s central bank produces good research on the burden of government spending, and its former president understood the essential flaw of Keynesian economics.

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I like sharing topical items on the 4th of July.

  • In 2010, I contemplated the challenging issue of libertarians and patriotism. My view, for what it’s worth, is captured by this t-shirt.
  • In 2011, I pondered research about the partisan implications of patriotism and the 4th of July.
  • In 2012, I shared an inspirational video about freedom and individualism from Ronald Reagan.
  • In 2013, I discussed the proper meaning of patriotism in the aftermath of revelations about NSA snooping.
  • In 2014, I decided on a humorous approach with one a Remy video about government being “up in your grill.”
  • In 2015, I waded into the controversial topic of what happens when flag burning meets the modern regulatory state.
  • In 2016, I looked at how government has increased the cost of celebrating Independence Day.

I actually did two columns in 2011. I also put together a satirical Declaration of Dependence for my left-wing friends. Here’s how it started.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people should be made equal, that they are endowed by their government with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are jobs, healthcare and housing.

I’m definitely not in the same league as P.J. O’Rourke or Mark Steyn, but I thought I was being at least halfway funny and somewhat clever.

But Bernie Sanders must have read it and took it seriously, at least if this tweet is any indication.

In other words, he’s saying you have a “right” that is predicated on other people paying for you.

When I first saw that tweet, the first thing that came to mind was the cartoon about the choice between “work hard” and “free stuff.”

Then I thought about the failure of nations that go too far down the path of redistribution, such as Greece and Venezuela.

And I wondered whether Senator Sanders actually understands what he’s saying. In other words, is he crazy, blind, or evil?

Or perhaps immoral? In his Washington Times column, Richard Rahn looked at the ethical implications.

Sen. Bernie Sanders keeps repeating that “all Americans have a right to health care” — nice applause line, but what does it mean? There is no such right mentioned in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Health care is not a free good — someone has to pay for it. Ask yourself — who should pay for your health care? …Do you have the obligation to pay for someone else’s health care? If so, how much and why? …The 13th Amendment to the Constitution prohibits “involuntary servitude” and slavery. At what point does a tax on someone’s labor — where the proceeds of that tax are largely used to provide income or services to others — constitute “involuntary servitude”? …Those who think they have the right to the labor of those they revile, i.e., the “rich,” have the same mentality of the slaveholder who also thought he had the right to others’ labor.

Ultimately, this is about a conflict between the classical liberal vision of “negative liberty” and the welfare state vision of “positive liberty.”

Here’s how I explained the difference a few years ago.

Libertarians, along with many conservatives, believe in the right to be left alone and to not be molested by government. This is sometimes referred to in the literature as “negative liberty,” which is just another way of saying “the absence of coercive constraint on the individual.” Statists, by contrast, believe in “positive liberty.” This means that you have a “right” to things that the government will give you… Which means, of course, that the government has an obligation to take things from somebody else. How else, after all, will the government satisfy your supposed right to a job, education, healthcare, housing, etc.

I also should have pointed out that negative liberty doesn’t impose obligations on other people. My freedom of speech doesn’t conflict with your freedom of speech. My freedom or religion doesn’t conflict with your freedom of religion. My freedom to earn and produce doesn’t conflict with your freedom to earn and produce.

But that’s not true with so-called positive liberty. If I have a “right” to health care, that means the government will use coercion. Either indirectly by using the tax code to take money from other people, or directly as explained by Senator Rand Paul.

P.S. Before Bernie, there was FDR, who was also misguided or malicious about the supposed right to other people’s money.

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I don’t know if Dr. Seuss would appreciate my title, which borrows from his children’s classic.

But given how I enjoy comparative rankings, I couldn’t help myself after perusing a new study from WalletHub that ranks states on their independence (or lack thereof).

Being a policy wonk, what really caught my attention was the section on government dependency, which is based on four criteria.

As you can see, the four factors are not weighted equally. The “federally dependent states” variable is considered four times as important as any of the other variables.

That’s important, to be sure, but is it really more important (or that much more important) than the other categories?

Moreover, I’m not sure the “tax freedom day” variable is a measure of dependency. What’s really captured by this variable, given the way the tax code doesn’t tax low-income people and over-taxes high-income people, is the degree to which state have lots of rich people or poor people. But that’s not a measure of dependence (particularly if the rich people stole money instead of earning it).

But I’m quibbling. I might put together a different formula with some different variables, but WalletHub has done something very interesting.

And if we look at their 25 least-dependent states, you see a very interesting pattern. Of the 10-most independent states, only three of them are Trump-voting red states (Kansas, Nebraska, and Utah).

The other seven are blue states. And some of them – such as Illinois, New Jersey, and California – are dark blue states.

And the #11 and #12 states also were Hillary states as well.

Which raises an interesting question. Why are voters in those states in favor of big government when they don’t disproportionately benefit from handouts?

Are they culturally left-wing, putting social issues above economic issues?

Or are they motivated by some issue involving foreign policy and/or defense?

Or maybe masochistic?

Beats me.

By the way, the WalletHub email announcing the report included a very interesting factoid that may explain why Hillary lost Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania has the lowest percentage of government workers (local, state and federal), at 10.8 percent. Alaska has the nation’s highest percentage, at 25.1 percent.

Though I can’t see those details in the actual report, which is disappointing. I’d like to see a ranking of the states based solely on the number-of-bureaucrats criteria (we have data comparing countries, for those interested).

Now let’s shift to the states that have the highest levels of dependency.

If you look at the bottom of the final image, you’ll notice that it’s a reverse of the top-10. Seven of the most-dependent states are red states that voted for Trump.

Only New Mexico, Oregon, and Maine supported Hillary (and Trump actually won one-fourth of Maine’s electoral votes).

So this raises a separate question. Are red state people voting against their interests? Should they be voting for politicians who will further expand the size and scope of government so they can get even more goodies from Uncle Sam?

For what it’s worth, a leftist actually wrote a book entitled What’s the Matter with Kansas, which examined why the people of the Sunflower State weren’t voting for statism.

Well, part of the answer may be that Kansas is one of the most independent states, so perhaps the author should have picked another example.

But even if he had selected Mississippi (#49), I suspected the answer is that low-income people don’t necessarily think that it’s morally right to steal money from other states, even if the loot is laundered through Washington.

In other words, people is those states still have social capital or cultural capital.

It’s also possible, of course, that voters in red states with lots of dependency (at least as measured by WalletHub) are instead motivated by cultural issues or foreign policy issues.

There’s even a very interesting study from Professor Alesina at Harvard, which finds that ethnically diverse jurisdictions can be more hostile to redistribution (and homogeneous societies like the Nordic nations are more supportive of a large welfare state).

And since many of the red states at the bottom of the rankings also happen to be states with large minority populations, perhaps that’s a partial explanation.

Though California has a very large minority population as well, yet it routinely votes for more redistribution.

The bottom line is that we probably can’t draw any sweeping conclusions from this data.

Though it leaves me even more convinced that the best approach is to eliminate all DC-based redistribution and let states decide how much to tax and how much to spend. In other words, federalism.

P.S. I put together my own ranking of state dependency, based on a formula involving welfare usage and poverty. Vermont was the worst state and Nevada was the best state.

P.P.S. I also shared calculations based solely on the share of eligible people who signed up for food stamps. Interestingly, Californians rank as the most self-reliant. Maybe my predictions of long-run doom for that state are a bit exaggerated.

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There are a lot of positive things to be said about Norway.

In other words, Norway is a typical Nordic nation, with open markets, light regulation, free trade, and honest government. That’s the good news.

The bad news, at least from my perspective, is that Norway also is a typical Nordic nation in that it has a big welfare state.

But unlike the other Nordic nations, Norway also has a lot of oil. And, just like Alaska, it’s very easy to finance a big public sector when a government has access to a huge amount of petroleum-related revenue.

So does this make the country special? Is Norway a welfare-state Nirvana? In some sense, the answer is yes. As I’ve noted before, if a country wants a big welfare state, it makes a lot of sense to have very market-oriented policy in other areas to compensate. And if the country also happens to be rich with oil, that’s presumably not a bad combination.

But I would argue, of course, that Norway would be in better shape if the fiscal burden of government wasn’t so onerous.

And there’s growing evidence to validate my concerns. Bloomberg reports that falling oil prices are exposing problems with Norway’s extravagant welfare state.

More than a fifth of its working age population relied on unemployment or sick-leave benefits throughout 2016, according to a study by the Norwegian Labor and Welfare Administration, or NAV. With welfare payments up 3 percent in 2016, the growing dependence will likely make it harder for Norway to wean itself off oil and gas production. While the discovery of petroleum 50 years ago…helped make the world’s most generous welfare system possible — declining resources…means that the country will need to find other legs to stand on to keep up its standard of living.

Norway isn’t in any immediate danger, but I wonder whether it can still prosper when the oil runs out.

Simply stated, the welfare state may have eroded the country’s work ethic (something that’s also a problem in America).

That’s something that the stewards of the system readily admit. The agency’s acronym has even become a verb, to NAV, which means `being on benefits.’ “To uphold the Norwegian welfare system we need more people at work and not on passive benefits,” said Sigrun Vageng, the head of NAV, in an emailed answered to questions.

The problem of dependency has even spread to the richer parts of the country.

…dependency on state handouts now runs deeper. It also spread to the nation’s richest regions after the plunge in oil prices… Welfare payments in Rogaland, the regional center of the oil industry and home to Statoil ASA, rose a whopping 13 percent last year. Some 19 percent received benefits on average each month in Rogaland. In Oslo, it was 15 percent.

And once there are too many people riding in the wagon of government dependency, it’s not easy to rejuvenate a nation’s social capital.

…with an increasing share of its working age population on welfare benefits instead of paying taxes, the desired changes could prove a difficult task for whoever is in power. And many are also pulling out of the workforce altogether. The percentage of people of working age in employment fell to 70.6 percent in 2016, a 21-year low… “This comes as a big cost for the society, both through lost tax revenues and the direct expenses from social benefit payments,” said Jeanette Strom Fjaere, an economist at DNB.

On the bright side, Norway has set aside lots of oil money.

Norway…has over the past 20 years built up a sovereign wealth fund.

In other words, Norway is the opposite of Venezuela. It hasn’t squandered its oil wealth on bigger government.

On the dark side, it has reached the point where its sovereign wealth fund is shrinking rather than growing.

…the government last year started withdrawing cash for the first time.

Some people say this is similar to America’s Social Security system, which has a Trust Fund that is now being depleted. I reject that analogy for the simple reason that Norway’s fund is filled with real assets. The Social Security Trust Fund, by contrast, is nothing but a pile of IOUs (as even the Clinton Administration acknowledged).

But I’m digressing. Let’s close by observing that development economists sometimes write about a “resource curse” that exists when politicians feel they can impose lots of bad policy because it is easy to generate revenue by selling natural resources.

Some argue that Norway, with its commitment to the rule of law and markets, is the exception to the rule. Yes, its welfare state is excessive, but not because of oil. Indeed, there’s more welfare spending as a share of GDP in Denmark, Sweden, and Finland.

Though don’t forget that Norway’s GDP is boosted by all the oil wealth, so I’m guessing per-capita welfare outlays are higher than in neighboring countries (an important distinction, as illustrated by this data on government health spending).

So perhaps a version of the resource curse will hit Norway. But it won’t be because of a Venezuelan-style kleptocracy. Instead, it will be because the welfare state lures too many people into dependency. And when the oil money runs out, fixing that problem will be very difficult.

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I’m agnostic about President’s Trump’s budget. It has some good proposals to save money and control the burden of government spending, but after he got rolled by the big spenders earlier this year, I wonder if he’s serious about tackling wasteful government.

Nonetheless, I’m the libertarian version of Sisyphus. Except instead of trying to roll a boulder up a hill, I have the much harder task of trying to convince the crowd in Washington to shrink the size and scope of the federal government.

So I’ve written in favor of some of Trump’s proposals.

  • Shutting down the wasteful National Endowment for the Arts.
  • Defunding National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
  • Terminating the scandal-plagued Community Development Block Grant program.
  • Block-granting Medicaid and reducing central government funding and control.
  • Curtailing foreign aid payments that enable bad policy in poor nations.

Today, let’s add to this list by looking at what’s being proposed to control spending on food stamps.

Here are the key details from the Trump budget.

The Budget provides a path toward welfare reform, particularly to encourage those individuals dependent on the Government to return to the workforce. In doing so, this Budget includes Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) reforms that tighten eligibility and encourage work… SNAP—formerly Food Stamps—has grown significantly in the past decade. …despite improvements in unemployment since the recession ended, SNAP participation remains persistently high. The Budget proposes a series of reforms to SNAP that close eligibility loopholes, target benefits to the neediest households, and require able-bodied adults to work. Combined, these reforms will reduce SNAP expenditures while maintaining the basic assistance low-income families need to weather hard times. The Budget also proposes SNAP reforms that will re-balance the State-Federal partnership in providing benefits by establishing a State match for benefit costs. The Budget assumes a gradual phase-in of the match, beginning with a national average of 10 percent in 2020 and increasing to an average of 25 percent by 2023.

This is not the approach I prefer. It would be better to create a block grant that slowly phases out over a number of years (as part of an overall plan to get the federal government out of the redistribution racket).

Nonetheless, the Trump proposal would save money for taxpayers. Here are the projected savings from the budget.

To put those numbers in context, the Congressional Budget Office projects that food stamp outlays will be about $70 billion per year if current policy is left in place.

Folks on the left are predictably warning that any restrictions on the program will cause poor people to go hungry.

Yet it seems that many of these people are happy to give up their food stamps in order to avoid productive activity. I’ve already discussed examples from Maine, Wisconsin, and Kansas. Now let’s look at a news report from Alabama.

Thirteen previously exempted Alabama counties saw an 85 percent drop in food stamp participation after work requirements were put in place on Jan. 1, according to the Alabama Department of Human Resources. …there were 5,538 adults ages 18-50 without dependents receiving food stamps as of Jan. 1, 2017. That number dropped to 831 – a decline of about 85 percent – by May 1, 2017. …Statewide, the number of able-bodied adults receiving food stamps has fallen by almost 35,000 people since Jan. 1, 2016. …Nationwide, there are about 44 million people receiving SNAP benefits at a cost of about $71 billion. The Trump administration has vowed to cut the food stamp rolls over the next decade, including ensuring that able-bodied adults recipients are working.

The same thing is happening in Arkansas.

Food stamp enrollment dropped by 25,000 people in Arkansas in 2016, after the state reinstated work requirements limited individuals to three months of benefits unless they found or trained for a job… Arkansas stopped granting waivers to work requirements January 1, 2016, and by April, 9,000 people were off of food stamps, also called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Another 15,000 more lost their benefits between April and November… J.R. Davis, a spokesman for Hutchinson’s office, told Arkansas Online. “If you’re receiving these SNAP benefits, you can continue to receive those SNAP benefits, but you have to work if you’re between 18 and 49 — that’s a conservative philosophy that the governor believes.”

By the way, recipients often don’t need to actually work to satisfy the work requirements. They can simply be enrolled in some sort of job-training program, many of which are run by the government at no direct cost to participants.

Yet a huge proportion of these able-bodied adults would rather give up food stamps than participate. Maybe I’m heartless, but this suggests that they are not actually dependent on handouts.

Let’s close by augmenting our list of con artists (the Octo-mom, college kids, etc) who mooch off the food stamp program. As reported by the Daily Caller, one of Mayor de Blasio’s cronies in New York City pretended to be poor so he could steal money from taxpayers.

A religious leader and big-time fundraiser for Democratic New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has been charged with welfare fraud for getting around $30,000 in food stamps. Yitzchok “Isaac” Sofer, a Hasidic religious leader, hosted a fundraiser for de Blasio’s 2013 mayoral campaign at the same time he was receiving food stamps illegally. …FBI…agents found that Sofer has been on food stamps since the beginning of 2010, and received more than $30,000 in benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) since 2012, according to court documents… On his food stamp application in 2012, Sofer claimed to make $250 a week, or about $13,000 a year…in 2012, however, he listed his income for 2011 at $100,000, and assets at more than $600,000, according to the criminal complaint. Sofer still has ties with de Blasio’s office.

Sounds like he’s a wonderful human being. Let’s call him Exhibit A for the decline of social capital in the United States (though certain fast food restaurants might be an even more ominous sign of eroding cultural norms).

P.S. Even if Trump isn’t sincere about wanting to control food stamp spending, I guess I shouldn’t be too depressed. After all, at least he’s not proposing to make the problem worse. By contrast, the Obama Administration actually bribed states to lure more people into food stamp dependency. And, if you can believe it, Obama’s Agriculture Secretary argued that food stamps stimulate the economy.

P.P.S. Speaking of states, here are the states with the most and least food stamp dependency, and here is a ranking of states looking at the ratio of recipients compared to the eligible population.

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A couple of years ago, filled with disgust at the sleazy corruption of the federal Leviathan, I put forth a simple explanation for what happens in Washington, DC.

I call it the “First Theorem of Government,” and I think it accurately reflects the real purpose and operation of government. Except I probably should have added lobbyists and contractors. And it goes without saying (though I probably should have said it anyhow) that politicians are the main beneficiaries of this odious racket.

I think this theorem has stood the test of time. It works just as well when Republicans are in charge as it does when Democrats are in charge.

But it doesn’t describe everything.

For instance, Republicans have won landslide elections in recent years by promising that they will repeal Obamacare the moment they’re in charge. Well, now they control both Congress and the White House and their muscular rhetoric has magically transformed into anemic legislation.

This is very disappointing and perhaps I’ll share some of Michael Cannon’s work in future columns about the policy details, but today I want to focus on why GOP toughness has turned into mush.

In part, this is simply a reflection of the fact the rhetoric of politicians is always bolder than their legislation (I didn’t agree with 98 percent of what was said by Mario Cuomo, the former Governor of New York, but he was correct that “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”)

But that’s just a small part of the problem. The real issue is that it’s relatively easy for GOP politicians to battle against proposed handouts and it’s very difficult to battle against existing handouts. That’s because government goodies are like a drug. Recipients quickly get hooked and they will fight much harder to preserve handouts than they will to get them in the first place.

And that’s the basic insight of the “Second Theorem of Government.”

Here’s a recent interview on FBN. The topic is the Republican reluctance to fully repeal Obamacare. I only got two soundbites, and they both occur in the first half of the discussion, but you can see why I was motivated to put forth the new theorem.

Simply stated, I’m disappointed, but I’m more resigned than agitated because this development was so sadly predictable.

And here are a couple of follow-up observations. I guess we’ll call them corollaries to the theorem.

  1. You break it, you buy it – Government intervention had screwed up the system well before Obamacare was enacted, but people now blame the 2010 law (and the Democrats who voted for it) for everything that goes wrong with healthcare. Republicans fear that all the blame will shift to them if their “Repeal and Replace” legislation is adopted.
  2. Follow the money – What’s partly driving GOP timidity is their desire not to anger many of the interest groups – such as state governments, hospitals, doctors, insurance companies, etc – who benefit from various Obamacare handouts. That’s what is motivating criticism for politicians such as Ohio’s John Kasich and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski.
  3. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater – The “Cadillac Tax” is the one part of Obamacare that’s worth preserving because it will slowly cut back on the distorting tax preferences that lead to over-insurance and third-party payer. For what it’s worth, the GOP plan retains that provision, albeit postponed until 2025.
  4. The switch in time that saved…Obamacare – I’m still upset that Chief Justice John Roberts (aka, the reincarnation of the 1930s version of Justice Roberts) put politics above the Constitution by providing the decisive vote in the Supreme Court decision that upheld Obamacare. If the law had been blocked before the handouts began, we wouldn’t be in the current mess.

For these reasons (as well as other corollaries to my theorem), I’m not brimming with optimism that we’ll get real Obamacare repeal this year. Or even substantive Obamacare reform.

P.S. Now you know what I speculated many years ago that Obamacare would be a long-run victory for the left even though Democrats lost many elections because of it. I sometimes hate when I’m right.

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While President Trump apparently intends to waste taxpayer money for more childcare subsidies and presumably is going to duck the critical issue of entitlement reform, there is some good news for advocates of limited government and fiscal responsibility. According a recent news report., he’s not a big fan of outlays for foreign aid.

The White House budget director confirmed Saturday that the Trump administration will propose “fairly dramatic reductions” in the U.S. foreign aid budget later this month. …news outlets reported earlier this week that the administration plans to propose to Congress cuts in the budgets for the U.S. State Department and Agency for International Development by about one third. …The United States spends just over $50 billion annually on the State Department and USAID.

Trump’s skepticism of foreign aid is highly appropriate. Indeed, he’s probably being too soft on the budget for foreign aid.

Government-to-government handouts have a terrible track record. Indeed, the main impact of such transfers is to undermine good reform and enrich corrupt elites in poor nations.

Moreover, if the goal is to actually create prosperity in developing countries, there is no substitute for free markets and limited government.

Let’s look at some additional evidence about the harmful impact of aid.

We’ll start with a rather amazing admission from a 2016 study published by the International Monetary Fund.

Foreign aid is a sizable source of government financing for several developing countries and its allocation matters for the conduct of fiscal policy. This paper revisits fiscal effects of shifts in aid dependency in 59 developing countries from 1960 to 2010. …we show that upward shifts and downward shifts in aid dependency have asymmetric effects on the fiscal accounts. Large aid inflows undermine tax capacity and public investment while large reductions in aid inflows tend to keep recipients’ tax and expenditure ratios unchanged. …we find that the undesirable fiscal effects of aid are more pronounced in countries with low governance scores and low absorptive capacity, as well as those with IMF-supported programs.

Wow, I’m not a big fan of the IMF, but you have to give the authors credit for honesty. They admit that aid is especially harmful in nations that are also receiving IMF bailouts.

But the main takeaway is that foreign governments simply use foreign aid money as an excuse to raise and spend their own money. That outcome presumably should irk leftists. From my perspective, such nations have too much spending, regardless of whether it’s being financed by their own taxpayers or foreign taxpayers.

Instead, these nations should be copying the small-government policies that enabled western nations to move from agricultural poverty to middle class prosperity.

Let’s consider a couple of real-world examples.

We’ll start in South Sudan, where aid has subsidized awful behavior. Ian Birrell explains in an article for CapX.

…the fledgling state stumbles from the savagery of civil war into the horror of famine. …sadly these events also illustrate another example of the dismal failure of Western aid policies. …our politicians would be wise to stop spouting their usual nonsense about saving the world’s poor and start considering the corrosion caused by the billions already poured in to this failed state, pursuing naive ideas about state building based on floods of cash. …Experts such as the academic Alex de Waal say “looting food aid was elevated to military strategy” by militia commanders who later controlled the country. Despite these activities, $1 billion a year was handed over in aid in the years before independence, rising to $1.4 billion following arrival as the 193rd nation represented at the UN. …An estimated $4 billion was missing “or simply put, stolen”… But still aid poured in, leading to public spending per capita more than three times the levels seen in neighbouring Kenya. …there was a fake ministry of finance to deal with gullible donors and well-meaning armies of advisers, while the real version carried on under the generals with its backdoor dealings. …For all the fine words and good intentions, the West has ended up assisting and empowering a callous kleptocracy – again.

The bottom line is that foreign aid enabled and subsidized an awful government doing awful things.

Now let’s look at another African jurisdiction, only this one has been neglected by the international community.

But as Negash Tekie explains in another article of CapX, benign neglect can be a positive thing.

Over the years, the West has spent many millions to help stabilise the Horn of Africa, and alleviate the grinding poverty of many of its residents. …In Somalia, meanwhile, the international community is still trying – as it has for decades – to build a functioning government. Yet despite massive amounts in aid, …there is little hope of either building resilient and inclusive state institutions. What a stark contrast there is with neighbouring Somaliland. …Somaliland is, admittedly, desperately poor… But it is, in a volatile region, a beacon of security and stability. …Somaliland…claimed its independence from Somalia in May 1991, amid the chaos of the civil war there. But international bodies, and the African Union, have refused to recognise it.

But this absence of recognition has been a blessing in disguise.

The result has been that, without international aid and support, Somaliland has had to fall back on its own resources. In contrast to other African nations, state-building programmes and public services have been entirely financed by domestic income, rather than being supported by international donors. …countries that are dependent on aid can afford to neglect tax collection, countries without it are forced to use taxation appropriately. In 1990-2000, the Somaliland ministry of finance reported that “95 per cent of the resource that finance the activities are locally mobilised, mostly through taxation”. Not only are taxes collected in a non-coercive manner… For example, in early 2000s the government attempted to increase taxes on the private sector and proposed a VAT rate of 30 per cent, but the business sector lobbied against it and the policy was reversed. …A number of aid experts have argued that heavy dependence on external assistance undermines democracy, creates a dependency culture, diminishes political accountability and makes the state more accountable to donors than its own citizens.Somaliland is an example that…the inhabitants of the Horn of Africa can still build functioning states. …Somaliland is a lesson to the world in how to achieve successful state-building without aid.

Somaliland is far from a success story, and the article acknowledges big problems with drought, Chinese influence, and other factors, but at least there are some positive developments.

The key lesson is that the absence of aid has a very sobering effect.

And you know I get a “thrill up my leg” when I read about a place that fights against the value-added tax.

So I’m crossing my fingers that Somaliland stays independent and begins to prosper.

Let’s close by sharing a startling confession by a former senior aid bureaucrat in the United Kingdom.

Foreign aid spending is “out of control” and the department responsible for it should be abolished, according to its own former minister of state. …Grant Shapps, who was second-in-command at the Department for International Development (DfID) until 14 months ago, attacked its “profoundly worrying” tendency to “shovel cash out of the door”. …Shapps, whose criticisms are unprecedented from a former insider, said he had “agonised” for more than a year about going public. …He described how, in the Foreign Office, he would protest to African dictators about their “denial of human rights and democratic values” but “then, with my DfID hat on, I would rifle through my red box [of ministerial papers] to find cheques for hundreds of millions of pounds payable to the same countries. …Money was thrown at wasteful multilateral aid providers, such as the European Union and the United Nations, to reach the required spending level.

Too bad we don’t have enough ethical bureaucrats to blow the whistle on similar examples of waste and corruption in America’s foreign-aid system (though at least we have two former officials who were in charge of the federal government’s asset-forfeiture office and now say it should be shut down).

P.S. Next time leftists want to make a satirical video attacking libertarianism, they should use Somaliland rather than Somalia.

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The United States is going to become another Greece, and it’s largely because of poorly designed entitlement programs. As the old saying goes, demography is destiny.

Let’s look at just one piece of that puzzle. James Capretta of the American Enterprise Institute has a very sobering summary of how Medicaid has metastasized into one of the largest and fastest-growing entitlement programs.

You should read the entire article, but if you’re pressed for time, I’m going to share two grim charts that tell you what you need to know.

First, we have a look at how the burden of Medicaid spending, measured as a share of national output, has increased over time.

What makes this chart particularly depressing is that Medicaid was never supposed to become a massive entitlement program.

It was basically created so the crowd in Washington could buy a few votes. Yet the moment politicians decided that it was the federal government had a role in subsidizing health care for the indigent, it was just a matter of time before the program was expanded to new groups of potential voters.

And every time the program was expanded, that increased the burden of spending and further undermined market forces in the health sector.

This is why entitlement programs are so injurious to a nation.

But Medicaid isn’t just a problem because of its adverse fiscal and economic impact.

The program also is exacerbating the redistribution culture in the United States as more and more people get trapped in the web of dependency.

Which brings us to our second chart from Capretta’s article. Here’s a look at the share of the population being subsidized by Medicaid.

As a fiscal wonk, I realize I should care more about the budget numbers, but I actually find this second graph more depressing. In my lifetime, we’ve gone from a nation where the federal government had no role in the provision of low-income healthcare, and now nearly one out of every five Americans is on the federal teat.

Even though we’re far richer than we were in the mid-1960s when the program was created, which presumably should have meant less supposed need for federal subsidies.

For further background on the issue, here’s a video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

I urge you to pay close attention to the discussion that starts at 1:48. I explain that programs with both federal and state spending create perverse incentives for even more spending. This is mostly because politicians in either Washington or state capitals can expand eligibility and take full credit for new handouts while only being responsible for a portion of the costs. But it also happens because the federal match gives states big incentives to manipulate the system to get more transfers.

P.S. All of which explains why I think Medicaid reform should be the first priority when looking at how to fix the entitlements mess, even before Medicare reform and Social Security reform.

P.P.S. I’m not overflowing with optimism that Trump will tackle the issue, but there is a feasible scenario for him fixing the program.

P.P.P.S. Regardless, one would hope all politicians would agree that it’s time to tackle rampant Medicaid fraud.

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Which state gets the biggest share of its budget from the federal government?

Nope, not even close. As a matter of fact, those two jurisdictions are among the 10-least dependent states.

And if you’re guessing that the answer is New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Connecticut, or some other “blue state,” that would be wrong as well.

Instead, if you check out this map from the Tax Foundation, the answer is Mississippi, followed by Louisiana, Tennessee, Montana, and Kentucky. All of which are red states!

So does this mean that politicians in red states are hypocrites who like big government so long as someone else is paying?

That’s one way of interpreting the data, and I’m sure it’s partially true. But for a more complete answer, let’s look at the Tax Foundation’s explanation of its methodology. Here’s part of what Morgan Scarboro wrote.

State governments…receive a significant amount of assistance from the federal government in the form of federal grants-in-aid. Aid is given to states for Medicaid, transportation, education, and other means-tested entitlement programs administered by the states. …states…that rely heavily on federal assistance…tend to have modest tax collections and a relatively large low-income population.

In other words, red states may have plenty of bad politicians, but what the data is really saying – at least in part – is that places with a lot of poor people automatically get big handouts from the federal government because of programs such as Medicaid and food stamps.  So if you compared this map with a map of poverty rates, there would be a noticeable overlap.

Moreover, it’s also important to remember that the map is showing the relationship between state revenue and federal transfers. So if a state has a very high tax burden (take a wild guess), then federal aid will represent a smaller share of the total amount of money. By contrast, a very libertarian-oriented state with a very low tax burden might look like a moocher state simply because its tax collections are small relative to formulaic transfers from Uncle Sam.

Indeed, this is a reason why the state with best tax policy, South Dakota, looks like one of the top-10 moocher states in the map.

This is why it would be nice if the Tax Foundation expanded its methodology to see what states receive a disproportionate level of handouts when other factors are equalized. For instance, what happens is you look at federal aid adjusted for population (which USA Today did in 2011). Or maybe even adjusted for the poverty rate as well (an approached used for the Moocher Index).

P.S. For what it’s worth, California has the nation’s most self-reliant people, as measured by voluntary food stamp usage.

P.P.S. And it’s definitely worth noting that the federal government deserves the overwhelming share of the blame for rising levels of dependency in the United States.

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At the start of the year, I argued that capitalism was the way to get more growth in poor nations.

Foreign aid, by contrast, hasn’t worked very well.

…there’s a big difference between good intentions and good results. If you examine the evidence, it turns out that redistribution from rich nations to poor nations is just as counterproductive as redistribution within a society.

But don’t believe me. Professor William Easterly of NYU spent many years at the World Bank working on issues relating to economic development and he’s written entire books on the failure of foreign aid.

And here’s some of what he wrote for Cato back in 2006.

The West’s efforts…have been even less successful at goals such as promoting rapid economic growth, changes in government economic policy to facilitate markets, or promotion of honest and democratic government. The evidence is stark: $568 billion spent on aid to Africa, and yet the typical African country no richer today than 40 years ago. Dozens of “structural adjustment” loans (aid loans conditional on policy reforms) made to Africa, the former Soviet Union, and Latin America, only to see the failure of both policy reform and economic growth. The evidence suggests that aid results in less democratic and honest government, not more. …Economic development happens, not through aid, but through the homegrown efforts of entrepreneurs and social and political reformers. While the West was agonizing over a few tens of billion dollars in aid, the citizens of India and China raised their own incomes by $715 billion by their own efforts in free markets.

One of the best critiques of foreign aid was written by an Indian back in 1972. The late Minoo Masani, who began his political career as a believe in socialism, learned through experience that markets work better than handouts.

…government-to-government aid distorts the international division of labour. It comes in the way of the natural laws of the market which should decide which country should produce what. …Government-to-government loans encourage socialism, communism and Statism, concentration of power, and waste. When a government aids another government, who disburses that aid? The government of that country. Aid thus transfers economic power from the people, the industrialists, the businessmen and the people to the hands of bureaucrats and politicians. The patronage the politician can dispense increases; the politicisation of economic life goes on. So, in a very direct way, every rupee of aid given by America or any other country or the World Bank to any aided country, including India, directly strengthens the forces of Statism, socialism and communism and weakens the forces of people’s free enterprise. It also breeds irresponsibility and waste.

He makes a great point that it is private investment that produces sustainable growth, not government-to-government transfers.

…one of the greatest disadvantages of government-to-government aid is that it discourages the investment of private equity capital in these countries. It does so because when one gets government-to-government aid at cheap rates, the temptation is not to raise equity capital abroad. This is a pity because our countries need foreign equity capital desperately. When foreign capital comes into India from any part of the world, it brings in foreign plant or machinery and engages Indian labour to work on it. It takes its profits out of the country only when it makes a profit. So such investment is in the interests of the Indian people. When a government-to-government loan comes, we have to repay the capital and the interest to the foreign government, however badly the money may have been wasted by our government. This is against the interests of the Indian people. So foreign private equity capital is good for India; government-to-government loans are bad for India. Let us hope we shall be spared them from now on.

Let’s look at some real-world evidence from the modern era.

In her recent Wall Street Journal column, Mary Anastasia O’Grady explains how aid has stifled the private sector in Haiti.

…why are so many Haitians still living in such dire poverty in the 21st century? Paradoxically, the answer may be tied to the way in which humanitarian aid, necessary and welcome in an emergency, easily morphs into permanent charity, which undermines local markets and spawns dependency. …The trouble is their assumption, too often, that poverty is caused by a lack of money or resources. This produces the wrong solution, one that prescribes getting as much free stuff to the target economy as possible. …The country has also been the recipient of billions of dollars in foreign-government bilateral and multilateral aid over the last quarter century. This enormous giving has created harmful distortions in the local economy because when what would otherwise be traded or produced by Haitians is given away, it drives entrepreneurs out of business.

Mary shares a couple of concrete examples.

The country was once self-sufficient in rice thanks to the work of rural peasants. That changed, according to the testimony of one development expert in the film, in the early 1980s. That’s when Haiti opened its rice market and the U.S. began dumping subsidized grain in the country with the goal of ending hunger—and helping Arkansas rice growers with U.S. taxpayer money. Most Haitian farmers could not compete with Uncle Sam’s generosity, and they lost their customers. …Donations of bottled water, clothing, shoes and even solar panels destroy local businesses in the same way. Just ask Jean-Ronel Noel, who co-founded the solar-panel company Enersa in his garage in the mid-2000s and expanded it to more than 60 employees. He is proud of his workforce…comes mainly from Port-au-Prince’s notorious slums. …The company was doing a robust business until the 2010 earthquake. “After the earthquake we were competing mostly against NGOs . . . coming with their solar panels . . . and giving them away for free. So what about local businessmen?” As Alex Georges, Mr. Noel’s partner puts it, “The demand stopped because it’s hard to compete with free.”

And here is the problem from a national and cultural perspective.

Mr. Noel zeroes in on another related problem: “Those NGOs are changing the mentality of the people. Now you have a generation with a dependency mentality.”

In other words, handouts from rich nations are destroying the social capital of Haiti.

Let’s go back to 2009 and see what Dambisa Moyo wrote about foreign aid to her home continent.

Kibera, the largest slum in Africa…is…just a few yards from…the headquarters of the United Nations’ agency for human settlements… Kibera festers in Kenya, a country that has one of the highest ratios of development workers per capita. …Giving alms to Africa remains one of the biggest ideas of our time — millions march for it, governments are judged by it, celebrities proselytize the need for it. Calls for more aid to Africa are growing louder, with advocates pushing for doubling the roughly $50 billion of international assistance that already goes to Africa each year. Yet evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that aid to Africa has made the poor poorer, and the growth slower. The insidious aid culture has left African countries more debt-laden, more inflation-prone, more vulnerable to the vagaries of the currency markets and more unattractive to higher-quality investment. It’s increased the risk of civil conflict and unrest… Aid is an unmitigated political, economic and humanitarian disaster.

She has some very grim numbers.

…aid can provide band-aid solutions to alleviate immediate suffering, but by its very nature cannot be the platform for long-term sustainable growth. …Over the past 60 years at least $1 trillion of development-related aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa. Yet real per-capita income today is lower than it was in the 1970s, and more than 50% of the population — over 350 million people — live on less than a dollar a day, a figure that has nearly doubled in two decades. …The most obvious criticism of aid is its links to rampant corruption. Aid flows destined to help the average African end up supporting bloated bureaucracies in the form of the poor-country governments and donor-funded non-governmental organizations. …A constant stream of “free” money is a perfect way to keep an inefficient or simply bad government in power.

If foreign aid money was “merely” wasted, that would be a bad outcome.

But that’s the optimistic version of the story.

In reality, the evidence suggests that these handouts actually subsidize bad policy in the developing world.

None of this would surprise the late Peter Bauer.

Lord Bauer was famous for observing that “government-to-government transfers . . . are an excellent method for transferring money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.”

That’s good, if you happen to be a third world kleptocrat and you have a nice bank account filled with stolen funds in New York.

But if you’re a poor person in a poor country, you’re the one victimized by a bigger government that’s riddled with more corruption.

Amazingly, many western politicians accept corruption as the price of giving away money.

But this brings me back to where we started. If foreign aid achieved good results, then there would be a utilitarian case for accepting a degree of waste and corruption.

But since the evidence shows that these programs lead to slower growth and less prosperity, it’s a lose-lose-lose situation.

Here’s a video trailer for a great documentary on how foreign aid is helpful, but only for the people in charge of the programs.

Let’s close with something that probably should be called Bauer’s Paradox since I’m almost sure he said something making this point.

But until I find proof (maybe it was Easterly or some other scholar), we won’t attribute this sentiment to anyone in particular. We’ll simply go with a rather anodyne title.

But even if the title is boring, this Paradox makes a critical point. The poor nations that have become rich nations in recent decades did not rely on handouts and redistribution.

Instead, they generated growth by limiting the size and scope of government while allowing markets to function.

The nations that got the most aid, however, have stayed relatively poor.

P.S. The foreign aid bureaucrats and contractors have been the only real beneficiaries, much as the “poverty pimps” are the only real beneficiaries of the failed War on Poverty.

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Over the years, I’ve shared some clever images, jokes, and cartoons to expose the flawed mindset of those who hope to achieve coerced equality of outcomes with redistribution and high tax rates.

The size of a pizza vs the share of a slice.

The modern version of the Little Red Hen.

Washington’s Byzantine welfare state.

Chuck Asay’s overburdened tractor.

A left-wing nursery rhyme.

The Wizard-of-Id parody.

Two pictures showing how the welfare state begins and ends.

A socialist classroom experiment (including a video version).

The economics of redistribution in one image.

As you can see, this is a common-sense issue. When you give people money on the condition that they don’t earn much money, you create a perverse incentive for them to be unproductive.

Especially since, when people work more and earn more, they get hit by a combination of fewer handouts and more taxes. The net result is very high implicit marginal tax rates, in some cases rising above 100 percent.

Needless to say, it’s very foolish to have a welfare state that puts people in this untenable situation where the welfare state becomes a form of economic quicksand.

And it’s also foolish to punish the people who are pulling the wagon with high tax rates and pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

Russell Jaffe, one of our Cato interns, helpfully cranked out a clever little image showing how redistribution is bad for both those who receive and those who pay.

No wonder the welfare state and War on Poverty have been bad news for both taxpayers and poor people.

And the problem is getting worse, not better.

Let’s begin to wrap up. I shared a Thomas Sowell quote at the beginning to today’s column.

Now let’s read some of his analysis.

He aptly and succinctly summarized why redistribution is a no-win proposition (h/t: Mark Perry).

The history of the 20th century is full of examples of countries that set out to redistribute wealth and ended up redistributing poverty. …It is not complicated. You can only confiscate the wealth that exists at a given moment. You cannot confiscate future wealth — and that future wealth is less likely to be produced when people see that it is going to be confiscated. …Those who are targeted for confiscation can see the handwriting on the wall, and act accordingly. …We have all heard the old saying that giving a man a fish feeds him only for a day, while teaching him to fish feeds him for a lifetime. Redistributionists give him a fish and leave him dependent on the government for more fish in the future.

So what’s the bottom line?

The simple (and correct) answer is to dismantle the welfare state. State and local governments should be in charge of “means-tested” programs, ideally with much less overall redistribution (a goal even some Scandinavian nations are trying to achieve).

In effect, the goal should be to replicate the success of the Clinton-era welfare reform, but extending the principle to all redistribution programs (Medicaid, food stamps, EITC, etc).

P.S. Some honest leftists admit that the welfare state cripples independence and self reliance.

P.P.S. For those who like comparisons, you can peruse which states provide the biggest handouts and also which nations have the most dependency.

P.P.P.S. To end on a sour note, our tax dollars are being used by the Paris-based OECD to produce junk research that argues more tax-financed redistribution somehow is good for growth.

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I’m like a broken record when it comes to entitlement spending. I’ve explained, ad nauseam, that programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, and Social Security must be reformed.

In part, genuine entitlement reform is a good idea because you get better economic performance when you replace tax-and-transfer schemes with private savings and competitive markets.

Demographic 2030But reform also is desperately needed because of changing demographics. Simply stated, leaving all the entitlement programs on autopilot is a recipe for a Greek-style fiscal crisis.

If you want a rigorous explanation of the issue, my colleague Jeff Miron has a must-read monograph on the topic. You should peruse the entire study, but here’s the key conclusion if you’re pressed for time.

…this paper projects fiscal imbalance as of every year between 1965 and 2014, using data-supported assumptions about gross domestic product (GDP) growth, revenue, and trends in mandatory spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs. The projections reveal that the United States has faced a growing fiscal imbalance since the early 1970s, largely as a consequence of continuous growth in mandatory spending. As of 2014, the fiscal imbalance stands at $117.9 trillion, with few signs of future improvement even if GDP growth accelerates or tax revenues increase relative to historic norms. Thus the only viable way to restore fiscal balance is to scale back mandatory spending policies, particularly on large health care programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Jeff’s report is filled with sobering charts. I’ve picked out three that deserve special attention.

First, here’s a look back in history at the growing fiscal burden of entitlement programs.

Second, here’s a look forward at how the fiscal burden of entitlement programs will get even worse in coming decades.

Keep in mind, by the way, that the two above charts only show the fiscal burden of entitlement programs (sometimes referred to as “mandatory spending” since the laws “mandate” that money be given to anyone who is “entitled” based on various criteria).

When you add discretionary (annually appropriated) spending to the mix, as well as interest that is paid on the national debt, the numbers get even more grim.

Jeff adds everything together and shows, for each year between 1965 and 2014, the “present value” of the gap between what the government is promising to spend and how much revenue it is projected to collect.

These numbers are especially horrific because “present value” is a measure of how much money the government would have to somehow obtain and set aside in order to have a nest egg capable of offsetting future deficits.

Needless to say, the federal government did not have access to $118 trillion (yes, trillion with a “t”) in 2014. And if there were updated numbers for 2015 and 2016 (which would probably be even higher than $118 trillion), the federal government still wouldn’t have access to that amount of money either.

Especially since the total annual output of the American economy is about $18 trillion.

So now you can understand why international bureaucracies like the IMF, BIS, and OECD estimate that the fiscal challenge in the United States may be even bigger than the problems in decrepit welfare states such as France and Italy.

Let’s get another perspective on the issue. James Capretta of the Ethics and Public Policy Center warns about the scope of the problem.

Despite what presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have been saying on the campaign trail, the need to reform the nation’s major entitlement programs cannot be wished away. The primary cause of the nation’s fiscal problems, now and in the future, is the rapid rise in entitlement spending. In 1970, spending on Social Security and the major health care entitlement programs was 3.6 percent of GDP. In 2015, spending on these programs was 10.3 percent of GDP. By 2040, CBO expects spending on these programs to reach 14.2 percent of GDP. …entitlement reform is needed to put the federal government’s finances on a more stable foundation.

He outlines his preferred reforms, some of which I heartily embrace and some of what I think are too timid, but the key point is that he succinctly explains the need to act soon to avoid a giant long-term problem.

…reforms are not intended to create budgetary balance in the short-run. Large-scale change cannot be implemented in the major programs without significant transition periods, which means the reforms need to be enacted soon to reduce costs in fifteen, twenty, and twenty-five years. Skeptics may say it’s pointless to worry about fiscal problems that are more than twenty years off. They’re wrong. …The result is a misallocation of resources that undermines long-term economic growth. …Entitlement reform is an absolute necessity, as will soon become evident to everyone, one way or another.

The recent testimony by Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute also is must reading.

In just two generations, the government…has effectively become an entitlements machine. …transfers have become a major component in the family budget of the average American household-and our dependence on these government transfers continues to rise. …Fifty years into our great social experiment of massive expansion of entitlement programs, there is ample evidence to indicate that the unintended consequences of this reconfigutation of American political and economic life have been major and adverse.

You should read the entire testimony, which is a comprehensive explanation of how entitlements are eroding American exceptionalism.

And I’ve previously shared some of Eberstadt’s work on the growing dependency crisis in America.

In effect, our “social capital” of self reliance and the work ethic is being replaced by an entitlement mentality.

At the risk of understatement, that won’t end well. Heck, I don’t know which part is more depressing, the ever-growing burden of spending or the fact that more and more Americans think it’s okay to live off the labor of others.

All I can say for sure is that this combination never was, is not now, and never will be a recipe for national success.

Let’s conclude with some sage observations by George Melloan of the Wall Street Journal. He summarizes the problem as being a combination of too much spending and too little political courage. Here’s the too-much-spending part.

…we seem richer than we actually are because we have borrowed so heavily from future generations. …the nation’s slow growth and rising debt are already reducing the opportunities for upward mobility. …Recent projections of the future cost of current government obligations certainly won’t relieve…people’s worries. Those promises have expanded far beyond any reasonable projection of the government’s ability to extract enough revenue to cover them. …The Congressional Budget Office projects a steady rise in “mandatory” (i.e., entitlement) costs as a share of GDP out into the distant future. …The upshot: Americans are deep in debt, mainly thanks to government excesses.

And here’s the too-little-political-courage part.

The only real answer is that the entitlement programs will have to be reformed, and sooner better than later, because the longer reform is postponed the greater the fiscal imbalance will become and the greater its drain will be… Donald Trump is out to lunch on this issue, as he is on most questions that require more than a fatuous sound-bite answer. As for Hillary…, forget about it.

Sigh, how depressing. It seems like America will be “Europeanized.”

For additional background on the issue of debt, unfunded liabilities, and present value, this video is a great tutorial.

P.S. I must have taken LSD or crack earlier this year. That’s the only logical explanation for saying I was optimistic about entitlement reform.

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