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Posts Tagged ‘Donald Trump’

Washington is a cesspool of waste, fraud, and abuse.

All taxpayers, to avoid having their income squandered in D.C., should go above and beyond the call of duty to minimize the amount they send to the IRS.

Which is why today’s column is a bipartisan love fest for Donald Trump and Joe Biden – both of whom have been very aggressive in limiting their tax liabilities.

Here are some details from the report in the New York Times about Trump’s leaked tax returns.

Donald J. Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes the year he won the presidency. In his first year in the White House, he paid another $750. He had paid no income taxes at all in 10 of the previous 15 years — largely because he reported losing much more money than he made. …His reports to the I.R.S. portray a businessman who takes in hundreds of millions of dollars a year yet racks up chronic losses that he aggressively employs to avoid paying taxes. …They report that Mr. Trump owns hundreds of millions of dollars in valuable assets, but they do not reveal his true wealth. …Most of Mr. Trump’s core enterprises — from his constellation of golf courses to his conservative-magnet hotel in Washington — report losing millions, if not tens of millions, of dollars year after year. …Business losses can work like a tax-avoidance coupon: A dollar lost on one business reduces a dollar of taxable income from elsewhere. The types and amounts of income that can be used in a given year vary, depending on an owner’s tax status. But some losses can be saved for later use, or even used to request a refund on taxes paid in a prior year.

It’s worth noting that the leaked returns didn’t show any unknown business ties to Russia. Nor do they suggest any criminality.

Instead, Trump appears to have relied on using losses in some years to offset income in other years – a perfectly legitimate practice.

Now let’s look at some of what CNBC reported about Joe Biden’s clever tactic to save lots of money.

…consider borrowing a tax-planning tip from Joe Biden. The former vice president…reported about $10 million in income in 2017 from a pair of S-corporations… The two entities were paid for the couple’s book deals and speaking gigs. …both S-corps generated a lot of income, they paid out modest salaries in comparison. …In 2017, the two companies paid the couple a combined $245,833 in wages. …any amounts the Bidens received as a distribution wasn’t subject to the 15.3% combined Social Security and Medicare tax. …Tim Steffen, CPA and director of advanced planning at Robert W. Baird & Co. in Milwaukee. “…if you don’t report that income to the business as wages, then that portion of the income avoids Social Security and Medicare taxes,” he said.

So how much did this aggressive strategy save  the family?

The article doesn’t do all the math, but it certainly seems like the Biden household avoided having to cough up any payroll taxes on more than $9.75 million.

There’s a “wage base cap” on Social Security taxes (thankfully), so it’s possible that their tax avoidance only saved them about $283,000 (what they would have paid in Medicare taxes – 2.9 percent rather than 15.3 percent).

But that’s still a nice chunk of change – about four times as much as the average household earned that year.

As far as I’m concerned, we should applaud both Trump and Biden. Tax avoidance is legal. Even more important, it’s the right thing to do.

Though my applause for Biden is somewhat muted because he said in 2008 that paying more tax is patriotic. So he’s guilty of tax hypocrisy, which seems to be a common vice for folks on the left (the Clintons, John Kerry, Obama’s first Treasury Secretary, Obama’s second Treasury Secretary, Governor Pritzker of Illinois, etc).

For all his flaws, at least Trump isn’t a hypocrite on this issue (though all his spending may pave the way for future tax increases).

P.S. Here’s a story about the greatest-ever tactic for escaping taxes.

P.P.S. And here’s my favorite adults-only story about tax avoidance.

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Last November, I criticized Nancy Pelosi’s scheme to impose European-style price controls on pharmaceutical drugs in the United States.

I wasn’t the only one who objected to Pelosi’s reckless idea.

We have forty centuries of experience demonstrating that price controls don’t work. The inevitable result is shortages and diminished production (sellers won’t produce sufficient quantities of a product if they are forced to lose money on additional sales).

Which helps to explain why the Wall Street Journal also was not a fan of Pelosi’s proposal

Here’s some of the paper’s editorial on the adverse impact of her proposed intervention.

Mrs. Pelosi’s legislation would direct the secretary of Health and Human Services to “negotiate” a “fair price” with drug manufacturers… Any company that refuses to negotiate would get slapped with a 65% excise tax on its annual gross sales that would escalate by 10% each quarter. Yes, 65% on sales. …The bill also sets a starting point for Medicare negotiations at 1.2 times the average price of drugs in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan and the U.K.—all of which have some form of socialized health system. …foreign price controls have reduced access to breakthrough treatments. …Price controls are also a prescription for less innovation since they reduce the payoff on risky research and development. …Only about 12% of molecules that enter clinical testing ultimately obtain FDA approval, and those successes have to pay for the 88% that fail. …Price controls would hamper competition by slowing new drug development. The U.S. accounts for most of the world’s pharmaceutical research and development, so there would be fewer breakthrough therapies for rare pediatric genetic disorders, cancers or hearing loss.

A damning indictment of knee-jerk interventionism, to put it mildly.

Well, a bad idea from Democrats such as price controls doesn’t magically become a good idea simply because it subsequently gets pushed by a Republican (unless, of course, you qualify as a partisan as defined by my Ninth Theorem of Government).

Unfortunately, we now have a new example of bipartisan foolishness.

Andy Quinlan of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity opined on President Trump’s misguided plan to adopt European-style price controls.

…other nations have been free riders on America’s innovative pharmaceutical industry. …they have enacted socialist price controls to limit what they pay knowing that the largest market would pick up the slack to ensure a steady supply of new lifesaving drugs. It needs to stop, but President Trump’s recent executive order is not the right way to do it. …his “Most Favored Nations” Executive Order to…limit…prescription medication payments made through Medicare… But this is a flawed way of thinking about the problem. Other nations are…engaging in theft via price controls. …drugs can take months or even a year longer to arrive in countries with socialist healthcare systems. Patients suffer as a result… Another likely consequence is less innovation. Some drugs in this new price environment will no longer be cost effective to be developed. Patients again will suffer. …Getting foreign jurisdictions to pay for their share of pharmaceutical innovation by putting a stop to price manipulation is a noble goal. But it should not come at the expense U.S. industry and patients.

A study by Doug Badger for the Galen Institute points out that the Trump Administration’s approach – for all intents and purposes – would use Obamacare’s so-called Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation to impose foreign price controls on prescription drugs in the United States.

The Affordable Care Act created CMMI and vested it with extraordinary powers. …The statute also shields CMMI projects against administrative and judicial review. …two HHS secretaries have claimed authority under CMMI to mandate a Medicare Part B payment mechanism without having to seek new legislation. …the Trump administration issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) announcing its intention to propose a far more sweeping Medicare Part B drug demonstration project….to…scrap the ASP Medicare reimbursement methodology in favor of one based on drug prices paid in other countries. …CMS is considering the establishment of an “international price index” (IPI). It would calculate the IPI based on the average price per standard unit of a drug in select foreign countries.

This is troubling for several reasons.

…the other countries on the proposed list have lower living standards than do Americans, as measured by per capita household disposable income… The median disposable per-capita income in the IPI countries is thus about one-third less than in the U.S. …Medicare reimbursement for physician-administered drugs would largely be based on international reference prices in which the regulatory agency of one government sets drug prices based at least in part on those set by regulatory agencies in other countries. …for all the different payment methodologies Congress has devised for medical goods and services, it has never based reimbursement on prices that prevail in foreign countries. The agency’s role is to implement congressionally-established reimbursement systems, not to create them out of whole cloth.

As you might expect, the Wall Street Journal has also weighed in on Trump’s plan.

The editorial points out there will be very adverse consequences if the President imposes European-style price controls.

Mr. Trump signed an executive order that could make…life-saving therapies less likely. Mr. Trump has been threatening drug makers for months with government price controls. …The President’s order directs the Department of Health and Human Services to require drug makers to give Medicare the “most favored nation” (i.e., lowest) price that other economically developed countries pay. …This ignores some crucial details. …Other countries also have to wait longer for breakthrough therapies, which is one reason the U.S. has much higher cancer survival rates. …The larger reality is that developing novel therapies isn’t cheap and can take years—sometimes decades—of research. Most products in clinical pipelines fail, and even those that succeed aren’t guaranteed to produce a profit. …The risk for all Americans is that drug makers will shelve therapies for hard-to-treat diseases that are in the early stages of development because of the high failure rate and low expected profit. This risk is most acute for therapies that treat rarer forms of diseases… The victims will be the cancer patients of the future, including perhaps some reading this editorial.

The bottom line, as I noted in the above interview and as many others have observed, is that other nations are free-riding on American consumers.

They get access to most of the drugs at low prices (since pharmaceuticals are cheap to produce once they are finally approved).

But the net result, as I tried to illustrate in this modified image, is that American consumers finance the lion’s share of new research and development.

This isn’t fair.

But we’d be jumping from the frying pan into the fire if we had European-type price controls that stifled innovation by pharmaceutical companies.

Sure, we’d enjoy lower prices in the short run, but we would have fewer life-saving drugs in the future.

P.S. There’s an analogy between prescription drugs and NATO since Americans bear a disproportionate share of costs for both. However, there’s a strong argument that there’s no longer a need for NATO. By contrast, I don’t think anyone thinks it would be a good idea to stifle the development of new drugs.

P.P.S. As an alternative, a friend has been urging me to support the idea of using the coercive power of government to mandate that American-based pharmaceutical companies charge market prices when selling overseas – an approach that would give foreign governments a choice of paying more or not getting the drugs. That seems like a better approach, at least in theory, but my friend has no answer when I point out that those companies would then have an incentive to leave the United States (as many firms did before Trump lowered the corporate tax rate to improve U.S. competitiveness).

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Regular readers know that I give Trump mixed grades on economic policy.

He gets good marks on issues such as taxes and regulation, but bad marks in other areas, most notably spending and trade.

Which is why I’ve sometimes asserted that there has been only a small improvement in the economy’s performance under Trump compared to Obama.

But I may have to revisit that viewpoint. The Census Bureau released its annual report yesterday on Income and Poverty in the United States. The numbers for 2019 were spectacularly good, with the White House taking a big victory lap.

Here are the three charts that merit special attention.

First, we have the numbers on inflation-adjusted median household income. You can see big jumps for all demographic groups.

Next, here’s a look at whether Americans are getting richer or poorer over time.

As you can from this chart, an ever-larger share are earning high incomes (a point I made last month, but this new data is even better).

Last but not least, here’s the data on the poverty rate.

Once again, remarkably good numbers, with all demographic groups enjoying big improvements.

We’ll see some bad news, of course, when the 2020 data is released at this point next year. But that’s the result of coronavirus.

So let’s focus on whether Trump deserves credit for 2019, especially since I got several emails yesterday from Trump supporters asking whether I’m willing to reassess my views on his policies.

At the risk of sounding petulant, my answer is no. I don’t care how good the data looks in any particular year. Excessive government spending is never a good idea, and it’s also never a good idea to throw sand in the gears of global trade.

But perhaps we should rethink whether the positive effects of some policies are stronger and more immediate while the negative effects of other policies are weaker and more gradual.

I’ll close with two cautionary notes about “sugar high” economics.

For what it’s worth, we’re not going to resolve this debate because coronavirus has been a huge, exogenous economic shock.

Though if (or when) the United States ever gets to a tipping point of too much debt, there may be some retroactive regret that Trump (along with Obama and Bush) viewed the federal budget as a party fund.

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During the Obama years, I frequently criticized the Administration’s bad policy choices. On a wide range of issues.

But I also expressed disappointment when President Obama arbitrarily and unilaterally decided to override or overlook laws that were inconvenient to his agenda.

Or when he asserted powers that didn’t exist.

Simply stated, I care about the rule of law.

And I care about the rule of law regardless of which political party holds power.

Which is why I’m disgusted that the Trump Administration has stretched the law beyond the breaking point so that the Centers for Disease Control can run roughshod over private rental contracts.

In his column for the Washington Post, George Will observes the CDC is engaged in an unprecedented power grab.

…the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention…this month asserted a power to prohibit — through the end of 2020, but actually for as long as the CDC deems “necessary” — the eviction of private tenants from privately owned residences because of unpaid rent. This, even though eviction levels have been below normal during the lockdown. The CDC’s order protects tenants earning up to $99,000 — almost quadruple the official poverty line of $26,200 for a family of four. Or, for those filing joint tax returns, tenants earning up to $198,000, who are in the top quintile of U.S. households. …Noncompliant landlords can be fined up to $100,000 and incarcerated for up to a year. …A regulation promulgated by the executive branch grants vast — almost limitless, the CDC clearly thinks — discretion to an executive branch bureaucrat, the CDC director… And, if today’s director is correct, the director is authorized to curtail some property rights and abrogate some contracts nationwide, to suspend some state laws and strip state courts of jurisdiction in eviction cases. …The CDC presents all this as just another anti-infection protocol. Try, however, to imagine an activity or legal arrangement that the CDC, citing the regulation, could not overturn by fiat in the context of even a seasonal infectious disease such as the flu. Ilya Somin, law professor at George Mason University and another Cato adjunct scholar, notes: “Pretty much any economic transaction or movement of people and goods could potentially spread disease in some way.”

Christian Britschgi opines for Reason about the Trump Administration’s assault on property rights.

…the CDC’s eviction moratorium is an excellent example of how a patchwork of extreme, temporary policy interventions intended to stem the coronavirus pandemic has created a self-perpetuating justification for expanding government power across the board. …Over time, the economic damage and mass unemployed caused by a prolonged pandemic and continually extended shelter-in-place orders have fueled justifications for extending and expanding eviction moratoriums. After all, how can someone be expected to pay the rent if they aren’t legally allowed to work? Now a federal eviction moratorium covering all rental properties is being justified as necessary to ensure compliance with shelter-in-place orders. …the CDC’s order..ratchets up the government’s power in a way that won’t be easily undone.

Writing for the Foundation for Economic Education, Brad Polumbo explains why the CDC’s actions are so worrisome.

Under the direction of the Trump administration, the CDC instituted a unilateral order halting many evictions. It essentially nationalizes millions of private rental properties and strips landowners of their basic rights. …For legal justification, the Trump administration cites one vague law that says during a pandemic the CDC director “may take such measures to prevent such spread of the diseases as he/she deems reasonably necessary, including inspection, fumigation, disinfection, sanitation, pest extermination, and destruction of animals or articles believed to be sources of infection.” ….Across the country, millions of landlords will have tenants occupying their property and have no way to force them to pay rent or remove them if they won’t. …the federal government is trampling over private contracts and essentially seizing all affected rental properties as the domain of the state. …

Brad also makes the all-important point that the CDC’s regulation will actually make rental housing more expensive in the long run (sort of like the way rent control backfires).

…the CDC’s overreach will undoubtedly have severe economic consequences. This move will worsen the housing crisis in the long-run and make housing more expensive for everyone by decreasing supply. Many landlords will be unable to make their mortgage and property tax payments without rental income or any remedy for nonpayment. This will result in them losing their property and its eventual removal from the market. …this unprecedented invasion of contract rights and private property is sure to discourage future would-be landlords from renting out their property or entering the market. The long-term impact will be less housing overall, which means higher prices.

Congressman Thomas Massie of Kentucky is one of the nation’s most principled lawmakers.

Here’s his succinct analysis of what just happened.

Though I have a slight disagreement with Massie’s tweet.

This latest power grab by the federal government isn’t socialism. That would involve the government owning and operating rental properties.

Under the CDC edict, rental properties are still privately owned. It’s just that government controls how the property is used.

That’s a different economic system, as Thomas Sowell has explained.

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With the election less than two months away, there’s a lot of discussion and debate about Trump’s performance.

I put together a report card last year showing that his economic policies have been a mixed bag, with good grades on tax and regulation, but bad grades on trade and spending.

Today, let’s focus specifically on fiscal issues and try to identify the best and worst changes that have occurred during his presidency.

Let’s start with the good news.

For what it’s worth, I’m somewhat conflicted between two different provisions of the 2017 tax reform.

I’m a huge fan of the cap on the state and local tax deduction. For years, I had been arguing that it was very foolish for the federal tax system to subsidize high-tax states.

So I was delighted that the 2017 law restricted this subsidy (and I’m further delighted that we’re already seeing a positive impact with people “voting with their feet” against states such as New York, Illinois, and California).

However, that reform is not permanent. Like many other provisions of that law, it automatically expires at the end of 2025.

Which is why I’m going to choose the lower corporate tax rate as Trump’s best policy. Not only is that reform permanent (at least until/unless Joe Biden takes office), but it was enormously important for American competitiveness since the United States used to have the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world.

And the rate is still too high today, especially if you include the impact of state corporate tax rates, but at least the 2017 reform took a big step in the right direction.

And that big step is good news for jobs, wages, investment, and competitiveness.

Now for the bad news.

I could make the case that Trump’s overall spending increase is the problem.

Indeed, in a column for Reason, Matt Welch points out that Trump has not been a fiscal conservative.

The most traditional way to measure the size of government is to count how much money it spends. In Barack Obama’s last full fiscal year of 2016…, the federal government spent $3.85 trillion… In fiscal year 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic triggered a record amount of spending, the federal government was on course to cough up $4.79 trillion… So under Trump’s signature, before any true crisis hit, the annual price tag of government went up by $937 billion in less than four years—more than the $870 billion price hike Obama produced in an eight-year span… You can argue plausibly that Joe Biden and the Democratic Party will grow the government more. But the fact is, the guy railing against socialism…has grown spending faster than his predecessor and shown considerably less interest in confronting the entitlement bomb.

All of this is true, but I want to focus on specific policies, not just the overall spending performance.

Which is why I would argue that Trump’s worst fiscal policy is captured by this table from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

It shows what Trump promised compared to what he delivered and I’ve highlighted his awful record on non-defense discretionary spending (which is basically domestic spending other than entitlements). He promised $750 billion of reductions over 10 years and instead he saddled the American economy with $700 billion of additional increases.

P.S. Click here if you want background info on the different types of federal spending. But all you probably need to know is that many parts of the federal government that shouldn’t exist (Department of Education, Department of Agriculture, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Transportation, etc) get much of their funding from the non-defense discretionary budget.

P.P.S. Trump has failed to address entitlements, which is reckless, but that’s a sin of omission. The increase in non-defense discretionary is a sin of commission.

P.P.P.S. I also thought about listing Trump’s failure to follow through on his proposal to get rid of taxpayer subsidies for the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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Way back in early 2017, I warned in an interview that Trump would be a big spender (sadly, I was right). But I wasn’t being reflexively anti-Trump.

Here’s a clip from that same program where I speculated that Trump might have the political skill to win support from private-sector union workers.

In honor of Labor Day, let’s elaborate on this topic.

I’ll start with the political observation that Trump seems to do much better than other Republicans at getting support from working-class voters. Even workers who belong to unions (much to the dismay of their left-leaning leadership) appear to be disproportionately sympathetic.

Though it’s important to emphasize, as I said in the interview, the distinction between government bureaucrat unions and private-sector unions.

The unions that represent government employees have an incentive to lobby for bigger government since that means more lavishly paid members paying more dues. So those unions reflexively support higher taxes, more spending, and additional red tape.

Yet those are the policies that undermine private-sector job creation and reduce the competitiveness of companies operating in America. And that’s bad for all private workers – including those that belong to unions.

Which is why I speculated in the interview whether Trump would have the “political cunning” to convince those private-sector union members that their interests are not the same as those of bureaucrats.

I guess we’ll see on election day.

By the way, I have very mixed feelings on Trump’s strategy. Some of his policies are good (lower taxes and less red tap), but he also tries to appeal to union workers with policies that are bad (most notably, protectionism).

P.S. Feel free to enjoy some good cartoons mocking unionized bureaucrats by clicking hereherehere, and here.

P.P.S. I often tell my Republican friends that they’ll have more success appealing to private-sector union members if they come across as pro-market (which implies neutrality between employers and employees) rather than pro-business (which implies siding with employers).

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Yesterday’s column featured some anti-Trump humor.

Today, in the interest of providing equal time, here’s some pro-Trump satire.

We’ll start with this nightmare for left-wing parents.

By the way, I raised my daughter correctly, though I now worry she’s drifting in the wrong direction.

The satirists at the Babylon Bee report on anti-Trumpism in the media.

At his press conference last night, President Trump told everyone to stay hydrated and drink lots of water. “Water’s tremendous, very powerful stuff,” he said. “You won’t believe the things they can do with water. …It’s amazing. You can freeze it and make ice, I’m told. Ice is great for lots of things. Ice cream. Ice cubes. Igloos.” …Horrified journalists scrambled to warn Americans not to drown themselves in their pools and bathtubs. “Trump says water is good — but this is very misleading,” said Rachel Maddow. “Did you know that water kills many people every year? …Plus, do you know what’s hidden in water? Sharks. This president wants you to die from a shark attack!” Representatives for various bottled water companies quickly released a statement distancing themselves from the president’s remarks and warning everyone not to submerge themselves in the ocean for minutes at a time.

If I was still doing my weekly updates of coronavirus-themed humor, this next image would be perfect.

It’s a satirical look at casualty predictions for various events compared to the death toll from the virus.

I’m especially amused by the inclusion of “net neutrality” since folks on the left hysterically claimed the Internet would grind to a halt if that Obama-era policy was repealed.

Next, we have a old joke that has been reconfigured for the Trump era.

A CNN reporter walks into a neighborhood tavern and is about to order a drink when he sees a guy at the end of the bar wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. It didn’t take an Einstein to know the guy was a Donald Trump supporter.

The CNN guy shouts over the bartender, loudly enough that everyone in the bar could hear, “Drinks for everyone in here, bartender, except for that Trump supporter.”

After the drinks were handed out, the Trump guy gives the CNN guy a big smile, waves at him and say, in an equally loud voice, “Thank you!”

This infuriates the CNN reporter, so he once again loudly orders drinks for everyone except the guy wearing the Trump hat. As before, this doesn’t seem to bother the Trump guy. He just continues to smile and again yells, “Thank you!”

So the CNN guy again loudly order drinks for everyone except the Trump guy. And again the Trump guy just smiles and yells back, “Thank you!”

At that point, the aggravated CNN reporter asks the bartender, “What the hell is the matter with that Trump supporter? I’ve ordered three rounds of drinks for everyone in the bar but him and all the silly ass does is smile and thank me. Is he nuts?”

“Nope,” replies the bartender. “He owns the place.”

As usual, I’ve saved the best for last.

I’ll close with the observation that it’s always the right time to make fun of politicians. We should mock Republicans. We should mock Democrats.

And we should mock individual politicians – not only Biden and Trump, but also Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren.

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I recently shared some Joe Biden humor, so now it’s time to target Trump.

But there’s so much of it that today’s column will feature anti-Trump humor today, and we’ll look at pro-Trump humor tomorrow.

We’ll start with this video mocking the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russia.

Not quite as good as Iowahawk’s video about the Pelosi GTxi, but very well done.

Next we have a helpful suggestion from Microsoft.

The following cartoon strip is especially painful to me since so few Republicans are publicly opposing Trump’s wasteful spending.

Here’s a cartoon that made me laugh.

The artist, Mike Lukovich, is very clever for a leftist.

Here’s the Trump version of a joke that seems to circulate every four years.

Donald Trump met with the Queen of England, and he asked her, “Your Majesty, how do you run such an efficient government? Are there any tips you can give me?”

“Well,” replied the Queen, “the most important thing is to surround yourself with intelligent people.”

Trump frowned, and then asked, “But how do I know the people around you are really intelligent?”

The Queen took a sip of tea. “Oh, that’s easy; you just ask them to answer an intelligent riddle.”

The Queen pushed a button on her intercom. “Please send Theresa May in here, would you?”

Theresa May walked into the room and said, “Yes, Your Majesty?”

The Queen smiled and said, “Answer me this, if you would, Theresa. Your mother and father have a child. It is not your brother and it is not your sister. Who is it?”

Without pausing for a moment, Theresa May answered, “That would be me.”

“Yes! Very good,” said the Queen.

Trump went back home to ask Mike Pence the same question. “ Mike, answer this for me. Your mother and your father have a child. It’s not your brother and it’s not your sister. Who is it?”

“I’m not sure,” said Pence. “Let me get back to you on that one.” He went to his advisers and asked everyone, but none could give him an answer.

Finally, Pence ran in to Sarah Palin in a restaurant the next night. Pence asked, “Sarah, can you answer this for me? Your mother and father have a child and it’s not your brother or your sister. Who is it?”

Sarah Palin answered right back, “That’s easy, it’s me!”

Pence smiled, and said, “Thanks!”

Pence then, went back to speak with Trump. “Say, I did some research and I have the answer to that riddle.

It’s Sarah Palin!”

Trump got up, stomped over to Pence, and angrily yelled, “No, you idiot! It’s Theresa May!”

Ouch. Reminds me of this Obama joke.

Next we have a cartoon that puts the GOP in the role of being Jerry Falwell, Jr. (if you don’t get the reference, I reluctantly invite you to click here).

As usual, I save the best for last.

Here’s a message from Stormy Daniels.

P.S. Other examples of Trump-themed humor can be found here, here, herehereherehere, and here.

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The best feature of libertarians is that we are very principled and look at everything through the lens of the non-aggression principle.

By contrast, the worst feature of politics, as explained by the Ninth Theorem of Government, is that it encourages people look at everything through the lens of partisanship.

In other words, there’s a desire to always make your team look good and the other team look bad, even if you have to torture data.

Here’s an example.

In a column for the New York Times, Michael Tomasky asserts that Democratic presidents have a much better track record on the economy than their Republican counterparts.

Mr. Biden and his party’s No. 1 job between now and Election Day: Make it clear that Democrats have been better stewards of the economy — for decades, and by far. Many people don’t believe this. …But it’s true. …the country has done better for decades under Democrats, by nearly every major economic measure. From John Kennedy through Barack Obama — 56 years during which, as it happens, we had a Democratic president for 28 years and a Republican president for 28 — we saw more than 50 million jobs created under Democrats and just 24 million jobs created under Republicans. Even the stock market has performed better under Democratic presidents. …just toting up numbers by the months each party had in power is imprecise. But there’s no better way to do it.

Any decent social scientist will quickly identify are all sorts of problems with Tomasky’s methodology.

  • What about the impact of which party has full or partial control of Congress?
  • Is it right to blame (or credit) presidents for what happens in their first year or two, before they’ve had a chance to enact and implement new policies?
  • Should other variables be measured, such as median household income or labor force participation?

But let’s set aside these concerns, as well as others that can be listed, and accept Tomasky’s numbers. Does this mean that the economy does better when Democrats are in the White House?

That’s certainly a possible interpretation, but it’s far more accurate to say that the economy does better when a president – regardless of party – adopts good policy (or, to be more accurate, if good policy is implemented during their presidency).

I’ve previously ranked presidents based on what happened to the burden of government spending during their tenures. And one thing that stands out is that Republicans seem to be even worse than Democrats – even when looking at what happened to domestic spending (with Reagan and Johnson being the only two exceptions).

And I’ve also graded many of the modern presidents (Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama) based on their overall record on economics. If you peruse their performances, you’ll see there’s no obvious connection between good policy and partisan affiliation.

But I’ve never put together a best-to-worst list, so here’s my ranking of every president since Kennedy.

Let me elaborate – and also add some caveats.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think there’s good modern-quality data on JFK (or, to be more accurate, I’ve never searched for it), but I included him since he’s part of Tomasky’s analysis. That being said, he may be ranked too low. Yes, he spent too much money and implemented some bad policies, but he also lowered tax rates and pushed for free trade.

I also think it’s too early to grade Trump, but I included him since I know that will be of interest to readers. As you might imagine, I like what he’s done on taxes and red tape, but his record on other issues is bad – and getting worse. I’m especially concerned about the consequences and impact of the Fed’s easy-money policy, an approach Trump certainly supports.

Johnson and Nixon are unambiguously terrible, while Reagan is the star performer.

Clinton was surprisingly good (feel free to give the credit to Newt Gingrich if you want, but we didn’t need veto overrides to get the good policies of the 1990s).

The rest of the presidents were generally bad. I put them in reverse chronological order since I didn’t see any logical way of differentiating between them.

I can’t resist citing one more segment from Tomasky’s column.

Republican failures are not an unhappy coincidence. They’re a result of conservative governing practice. Republicans no longer fundamentally believe in the workings of government, so they don’t govern well. Their contempt for government is a result of conservative economic theory.

This is nonsense, as should be obvious from what I’ve already written. Republicans do not have a track record of “conservative governing.”

With one exception. We had relatively competent governance from the one GOP president who did have a “contempt for government” (actually, just contempt for big government).

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Politicians and interest groups periodically fan the flames of temporary panic to push for misguided policy. We’ve already seen three big examples this century.

  • The so-called PATRIOT Act was enacted in the feverish aftermath of 9-11, but many of its provisions simply added bureaucracy and gave government new/expanded powers unrelated to fighting terrorism.
  • The TARP bailout allegedly was needed to save us for financial collapse, but in reality was a substitute for a policy (FDIC resolution) that would have recapitalized the banking system without bailing out Wall Street.
  • Obama’s stimulus scheme had to be enacted to supposedly save the nation from another depression, but unemployment soared beyond administration projections and cronies got rich from boondoggles.

The same thing is now happening with the Postal Service, which ostensibly is on the verge of catastrophic collapse because of an expected increase in mail-in voting and sabotage by the Trump Administration.

The real story, though, is that bureaucracy has been losing money at a rapid pace for years and the only sensible solution is privatization. But that would upset the various postal unions and related interest groups, so they’ve created a make-believe crisis in hopes of getting more cash from taxpayers.

And this has nothing to do with Trump vs. Biden.

Let’s look at some rational voices on this topic, starting with this column by Charles Lane of the anti-Trump Washington Post.

Harder to account for is the progressive left’s idealization of the USPS, which began well before the uproar over new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s cost-cutting and its alleged impact on election mail. …when you look at what the agency actually does, a lot of it turns out to be a federally underwritten service for — profit-seeking businesses.Of the 142.6 billion pieces of mail of all kinds that the USPS handled in 2019, 53 percent was advertising material, a.k.a. junk mail, up from 48 percent in 2010. Junk mail makes up an even bigger share — 58 percent — of what individual households receive. …Companies pay a special rate, 19 cents apiece, to send these items (in bulk), as opposed to the 55 cents for a first-class stamp. …Some progressives are stuck in the pre-Internet age. Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said, apropos alleged mail delays: “I am not exaggerating when I say this is a life-and-death situation. The Post Office…delivers Social Security checks to seniors who rely on those benefits to survive.” He is exaggerating — a lot. Over 99 percent of all Social Security payments are sent by the more secure route of direct deposit; a 2013 law mandates it. …Crying “privatization” is the perennial scare tactic of progressives who oppose postal reform. That’s an odd one, too: Several European countries and Japan…have either fully or partially privatized their postal services. Actually, privatization is highly unlikely in the United States, given resistance from the two key lobbies — junk mailers and postal unions — that most influence Congress on this issue. …Something must be done to stem the Postal Service’s losses, which have totaled $83.1 billion since 2006, and to reduce its unfunded pension and health-care liabilities, which exceed $120 billion.

Here’s a twitter thread debunking some of the political hysteria about missing mailboxes.

And how about this column by Nick Gillespie of the anti-Trump Reason magazine.

By now you’ve probably heard that President Donald Trump and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy “are sabotaging democracy in plain sight” through a mix of nefarious ploys, ranging from removing “blue Post Office drop boxes” to scrapping mail-sorting machines to allegedly mandating a slowdown in delivering the mail. …The truth is far less incendiary… Here’s a little bit of math that should give voters succor. In 2016, about 140 million total votes were cast in the presidential election…with “nearly 24 percent…cast using by-mail absentee voting.” …Assume, for the sake of argument, that the same number of votes will be cast this year as in 2016. Even if all voters used the mail and posted their ballots on exactly the same day, that would comprise only 30 percent of the amount of mail the USPS says it processes every single day. So if the USPS screws up delivering votes in a timely and efficient manner this fall, it won’t be because of any sinister actions by the White House. It will be because of longstanding, well-documented managerial and cultural problems… For those who are interested in the post office’s chronically bad performance and “unsustainable” situation, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has produced a long list of studies on where the problems come from and how they might be addressed. The short version is that Congress has blocked all sorts of serious reforms to an operation that has seen a 33 percent decline in mail volume since 2006.

And here’s another twitter thread that’s worth a look.

 

Or what about this article by Jack Shafer from (probably anti-Trump) Politico.

The USPS really is hurting finanically, and really is worried about delivering ballots on time. It’s legitimate to worry about postal delays botching the vote, if a mass of votes are cast by mail just before Election Day. But don’t extrapolate from news accounts, USPS union protestations and candidate carping… the USPS has sent letters to 46 states expressing its doubts about delivering all the ballots in time to be counted. But, as the Washingtonn Post also mentioned in its story, those letters were in the works before Trump’s new postmaster general took office. …What about those vanishing USPS mail collection boxes? As it turns out, the USPS has been culling the boxes since 2000, when their numbers peaked and 365,000 of them stood sentinel on U.S. streets. Today, their numbers have dwindled to 142,000. Why has the USPS deleted them? Because the volume of first-class has nose-dived.

So what’s actually going on?

As I noted at the beginning of this column, we’re getting scammed. The folks who benefit from the current system want to create a sense of panic so they can get a big bailout for the Postal Service.

The Wall Street Journal (which isn’t anti-Trump, but understands how Washington works) opined accurately on what’s really happening.

Mrs. Pelosi is trying to put on a political show, starring Democrats as the saviors of the post office. She says she wants to pass a bill that “prohibits the Postal Service from implementing any changes to operations or level of service it had in place on January 1.” Also in the mix may be a $25 billion cash infusion. Then Chuck Schumer will demand that the Senate come back to town for the same vote. By the way the letter-carriers union endorsed Joe Biden on the weekend.

My modest contribution to this discussion is to unveil aTenth Theorem of Government.

I’ll close with a prediction that politicians at some point in the future will manufacture a crisis (probably about deficits and debt) in order to impose a value-added tax.

P.S. Here are the nine previous Theorems of Government.

  • The “First Theorem” explains how Washington really operates.
  • The “Second Theorem” explains why it is so important to block the creation of new programs.
  • The “Third Theorem” explains why centralized programs inevitably waste money.
  • The “Fourth Theorem” explains that good policy can be good politics.
  • The “Fifth Theorem” explains how good ideas on paper become bad ideas in reality.
  • The “Sixth Theorem” explains an under-appreciated benefit of a flat tax.
  • The “Seventh Theorem” explains how bigger governments are less competent.
  • The “Eighth Theorem” explains the motives of those who focus on inequality.
  • The “Ninth Theorem of Government” explains how politics often trump principles.

 

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Way back in January of 2017, I predicted for a French TV audience that Donald Trump would be a big spender like George Bush instead of a small-government conservative like Ronald Reagan.

Sadly, I was right.

I crunched the numbers earlier this year and showed that Trump has been a big spender, no matter how the data is sliced.

Perhaps most shocking, he’s even allowed domestic spending to increase faster than it did under Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama.

That’s a terrible track record, especially compared to Reagan’s impressive performance (by the way, these calculations were made before all the coronavirus-related spending, so updated numbers would make Trump look even worse by comparison).

Anyhow, I’m looking at this issue today because of a recent story in the Washington Post.

The Reagan Foundation just told the Trump people to stop using the Gipper’s likeness in their fundraising appeals.

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, which runs the 40th president’s library near Los Angeles, has demanded that President Trump and the Republican National Committee (RNC) quit raising campaign money by using Ronald Reagan’s name and likeness. …What came to the foundation’s attention — and compelled officials there to complain — was a fundraising email that went out July 19… The solicitation offered, for a donation of $45 or more, a “limited edition” commemorative set featuring two gold-colored coins, one with an image of Reagan and one with an image of Trump. …Proceeds from the coin sales went to the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, a joint fundraising operation that benefits both the Trump campaign and the RNC. …In the 1990s, both Reagan and his wife Nancy signed legal documents that granted the foundation sole rights to their names, likenesses and images. …the RNC accepted the foundation’s demand regarding the fundraising emails.

It’s unclear why the Reagan Foundation made the request.

For what it’s worth, I hope officials were motivated at least in part by disappointment with Trump’s anti-conservative record on government spending (and also on trade).

Simply stated, Trump is no Reagan.

While I’m a big fan of the Gipper, I don’t pretend he had a perfect track record. But I think it’s correct to say that his goal was to advance liberty by shrinking government, even if there were occasional detours.

For instance, Holman Jenkins noted in his Wall Street Journal column that Reagan always had the right long-run goals even when he made short-run comprises on trade that were unfortunate.

Reagan slapped import quotas on cars, motorcycles, forklifts, memory chips, color TVs, machine tools, textiles, steel, Canadian lumber and mushrooms. There was no market meltdown. Donald Trump hit foreign steel and aluminum, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell more than 600 points… The real difference is that Reagan’s protectionist devices were negotiated. They were acts of cartel creation… This was unattractive but it wasn’t a disaster, and Reagan’s protectionism quickly fell away when a global upswing began. …Mr. Trump wants a spectacle with himself at the center. …His confused and misguided ideas about trade are one of his few long and deeply held policy commitments.

And if you need more evidence, look at what Reagan said about trade here, here, and here.

Can you imagine Trump giving such remarks? Or even understanding the underlying principles?

There are also important differences in the populism of Trump and Reagan, as explained by Jonah Goldberg of the American Enterprise Institute.

…there are different kinds of conservative populism. Until recently, right-wing populism manifested itself in the various forms of the tea party, which emphasized limited government and fiscal restraint. That populism…is very different from Trump’s version. …Reagan’s themes and rhetoric were decidedly un-Trumpian. The conservative populist who delivered “A Time for Choosing” used broadly inclusive language, focusing his ire at a centralized government that reduced a nation of aspiring individuals to “the masses.” …Reagan’s populist rhetoric was informed by a moderate, big-hearted temperament, a faith in American exceptionalism… He warned of concentrated power that corrodes self-government.

I’ll close with the observation that Trump has enacted some good policies, especially with regard to taxes and red tape.

The bottom line is that I’m not trying to convince anyone to vote for Trump or to vote against Trump.

Instead, I simply want people to be consistent and principled advocates of economic liberty instead of blind partisans.

As explained in my Ninth Theorem of Government.

In other words, I don’t care if you’re an enthusiastic supporter of Trump. Just don’t let that support lead you to somehow rationalize that wasteful spending and protectionism are somehow good ideas.

And I don’t care if you’re an enthusiastic never-Trumper. Just don’t let that hostility lead you to somehow decide that tax cuts and deregulation are bad ideas.

P.S. In my speeches over the past few years, I’ve run into many people who tell me that Trump must be good because the media hates him the same way they hated Reagan. It’s certainly true that the establishment press has visceral disdain for both of them. I’ll simply point out that media hostility is a necessary but not sufficient condition for determining whether a Republican believes in smaller government.

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I know pro-market people who plan on voting to re-elect Trump because they like his record on taxes or regulation. I also know pro-market people who plan on voting against Trump because they don’t like his record on spending or trade.

I understand their motives. What baffles me, however, are people who have decided – because of their views on Trump – to change their views on policy issues. Which is one of the clever aspects of this amusing video from Ryan Long.

By the way, this is not a new phenomenon.

During the 2001-2008 period, I constantly interacted with people who were against proposals for bigger government when Bill Clinton was in the White House, but then decided to rationalize George Bush’s profligacy and interventionism.

There’s a word for this: Hypocrisy.

This accusation certainly applies to politicians, who face pressure to “be a team player” when a member of their party is in the White House and issuing foolish proposals.

But it also applies to ordinary people. And this Ninth Theorem of Government is dedicated to both groups.

I’ll close by revisiting what I wrote about understanding the motives of pro-market people who are either voting for Trump or against Trump.

That being said, I don’t the pro-Trump voters to suddenly decide that it’s a good idea to squander money or impose trade taxes. I want them to vote for Trump in spite of those bad policies.

And I don’t want the anti-Trump voters to decide that it’s a a good idea to oppose pro-growth tax cuts and deregulation.  I want them to vote against Trump in spite of those good policies.

This analysis also applies to folks who are motivated by other issues (immigration, foreign policy, guns, judges, decorum, etc). Simply stated, put principles first.

P.S. Here are the eight previous Theorems of Government.

  • The “First Theorem” explains how Washington really operates.
  • The “Second Theorem” explains why it is so important to block the creation of new programs.
  • The “Third Theorem” explains why centralized programs inevitably waste money.
  • The “Fourth Theorem” explains that good policy can be good politics.
  • The “Fifth Theorem” explains how good ideas on paper become bad ideas in reality.
  • The “Sixth Theorem” explains an under-appreciated benefit of a flat tax.
  • The “Seventh Theorem” explains how bigger governments are less competent.
  • The “Eighth Theorem” explains the motives of those who focus on inequality.

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In early 2019, I released this video summarizing some of the evidence for free trade.

The bad news is that I must not be very persuasive. Trump continued with protectionist policy.

The good news is that we now have more evidence against that form of government intervention.

But first, I’m going to start with a bit of theory. Here’s a chart from the Council of Foreign Relations showing the relationship between prosperity and trade balances.

And here’s the explanation, courtesy of Benn Steil and Benjamin Della Rocca.

President Trump says that America running a trade deficit means that “jobs and wealth are being given to other countries.” …this statement is logically and historically false. The left-hand figure above shows that the relationship between trade deficits and growth in the United States, going back nearly 30 years, is the opposite. Rising growth tends to increase imports through higher consumption. The imports have not meant that “jobs and wealth are being given to other countries”: they have been a sign of a strong U.S. economy.

This is spot on. As I explained in my video on the trade deficit, people in richer, faster-growing countries can afford to buy more goods and services (regardless of where they are produced) than people in countries with anemic economic performance.

Indeed, this is why (at least in the pre-coronavirus era) America’s trade deficit was expanding.

Now let’s shift to the additional evidence that has accumulated since the video was produced.

Here’s are the key findings from a study by Kyle Handley, Fariha Kamal, and Ryan Monarch, which was just published by the Federal Reserve.

Using 2016 confidential firm-trade linked data, we document the implied incidence and scope of new import tariffs. Firms that eventually faced tariff increases on their imports ac-counted for 84% of all exports and they represent 65% of manufacturing employment. For all affected firms, the implied cost is $900 per worker in new duties. To estimate the effect on U.S. export growth, we construct product-level measures of import tariff exposure of U.S. exports from the underlying firm micro data.More exposed products experienced 2 percentage point lower growth relative to products with no exposure. The decline in exports is equivalent to an ad valorem tariff on U.S. exports of almost 2% for the typical product and almost 4% for products with higher than average exposure.

Here are some results of a recent study by Stephen J. Redding, Mary Amiti, and David Weinstein.

Using data from 2018, a number of studies have found that recent U.S tariffs have been passed on entirely to U.S. importers and consumers. …Using another year of data including significant escalations in the trade war, we find that U.S. tariffs continue to be almost entirely borne by U.S. firms and consumers. We show that the response of import values to the tariffs increases in absolute magnitude over time, consistent with the idea that it takes time for firms to reorganize supply chains.

Here’s a chart from the study showing how Trump basically tripled average trade taxes over the past couple of years.

Next we have a 2019 study authored by Davide Furceri, Swarnali A. Hannan, Jonathan D. Ostry, and Andrew K. Rose.

We estimate impulse response functions from local projections using a panel of annual data that spans 151 countries over 1963‐2014. Tariffs increases are associated with persistent economically and statistically significant declines in domestic output and productivity, as well as higher unemployment and inequality, real exchange rate appreciation and insignificant changes to the trade balance. Output and productivity impacts are magnified when tariffs rise during expansions and when they are imposed by advanced (as opposed to developing) economies; effects are asymmetric, being larger when tariffs go up than when they fall. Results are robust to a large number of perturbations to our methodology, and hold using both macroeconomic and industry‐level data.

These charts from their study paint a damning picture.

The bottom line is that Trump’s trade policies are hurting the U.S. economy (just like China’s protectionist policies are hurting that nation’s economy).

P.S. A great mystery is how some analysts understand that it’s bad to have higher taxes on trade, yet also think it’s perfectly okay to impose even bigger tax increases on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship. The folks at the International Monetary Fund are very guilty of this type of fiscal hypocrisy.

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There are plenty of people on the left who write serious and substantive articles about fiscal policy. For instance, I strongly disagree with many of the policy prescriptions from the IMF and the OECD, but those international bureaucracies are reasonably rigorous with data.

Heck, they even use real data when they’re being dishonest.

Some people, though, churn out analysis that is utterly disconnected from reality. I’m even thinking of creating a Fiscal Fantasyland Club to commemorate their fact-deprived writings.

  1. In a column for the Washington Post, Dana Milbank blamed the “disastrous philosophy” of “anti-government conservatism” for leaving the federal government without the resources to fight the coronavirus.
  2. In an article for the Atlantic, George Packer told readers that the federal government screwed up because it has been subjected to “steady defunding” by right-wing ideologues intent on “squeezing it dry.”
  3. Another columnist for the Washington Post, Dan Balz, claims that the botched response to coronavirus was caused by “underinvestment” and “hollowing out” of the federal budget.

The reason we may need a special club (akin to my collection of “Poverty Hucksters“) is that all of these writers are wildly wrong.

Even a cursory look at budget data confirms that the federal government has been getting bigger over time.

Much bigger.

As such, only someone who is completely ignorant or totally dishonest is capable of writing an article based on the notion that there have been reductions in the burden of federal spending.

If I create this club, I know who will be fourth member.

Writing for the Bulwark, Richard North Patterson argues that President Trump’s personal shortcomings are somehow connected to Reagan-type opposition to big government.

He starts with one of my favorite quotes from The Gipper and then tells us that this type of hostility to statism is no longer appropriate or desirable.

In 1986, Ronald Reagan cheerfully gibed: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’” Then it seemed amusing. But 34 years later, the convergence of COVID-19 and a racial conflagration makes Reagan’s quip sound myopic. …Only government can ensure the safety of our food and drugs and protect our natural environment. And government can help navigate our racial fissures, and provide the economic and public health interventions indispensable to combating a deadly pandemic.

Given that Washington’s response to the coronavirus has been spectacularly incompetent, well beyond what even libertarians would have predicted, it’s remarkable that Patterson thinks this is a moment in time when people should embrace big government.

And let’s not forget that today’s racial unrest was triggered by government misbehavior, enabled by corrupt deals between local politicians and government employee unions.

But the real problem with Patterson’s rhetoric is that he seems to assume that an argument for some government is the same as an argument for lots of government.

He’s obviously not familiar with the Rahn Curve, which is based on the insight that some government may be good for growth (assuming the outlays are for core public goods) but that lots of government (particularly when spending is for consumption and redistribution) is bad for growth.

To be fair, I understand why Patterson, who is mostly known for being a very successful novelist, isn’t familiar with the academic research on the growth-maximizing size of government.

But since he’s decided to pontificate on these issues, he should feel an obligation to know some basic data.

For instance, he’s a wealthy man and presumably has traveled the world. Hasn’t he noticed that nations with big governments don’t do a better job of providing public goods – even if we use an expansive concept of what government should be doing?

Let’s look at some more of his article.

Patterson not only rejects the notion of smaller government, he seems to embrace bigger government.

What was once a philosophical preference for limited government has degenerated into phobia. “Long before Trump,” GOP strategist Stuart Stevens observes, “the Republican Party adopted as a key article of faith that more government was bad. But somewhere along the way, it became ‘all government is bad.’ Now we are in a crisis that can be solved only by massive government intervention.” …Witnessing so much death and disturbance, one cannot but ponder how poorly Reagan’s casual nostrum has aged. Farhad Manjoo nails it: “The most comforting words I can think of now, amid so much uncertainty, chaos and confusion, are these: ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”

There’s a lot of nonsense in those few sentences. Regarding Manjoo’s quote, I’ll simply repeat my earlier observation about how the federal government has hindered rather than helped the fight against the coronavirus.

The quote from Stuart Stevens is even stranger, at least the the latter part, because it is so completely contrary to real-world data.

While it is true that Reagan briefly reoriented Republicans and did a good job of controlling spending while he was in office, every other Republican in recent history has been a big spender.

They’ve even increased domestic spending at a faster rate than Democratic presidents.

Yet Stevens wants people to believe that’s the track record of a party that thinks “all government is bad.”

I also want to debunk the notion that there’s been a “decades-long gutting of government,” as asserted in the subtitle of Patterson’s article.

Here’s a chart that I shared back in April, which shows that federal spending has tripled since 1980 – and that’s after adjusting for inflation.

If you read Patterson’s entire article, you’ll find that he mostly focuses on President Trump’s chaotic management of the executive branch.

Since I’ve gone on TV and referred to Trump as being akin to the crazy uncle you deal with during family holidays, I’m certainly not going to argue with his criticisms of the White House’s governing style.

But surely it should be possible to criticize the president without relying on make-believe budget analysis.

P.S. I wonder if Patterson and other members of the Fiscal Fantasyland Club have been tricked into thinking that there have been budget cuts.

P.P.S. If Patterson decides to learn and use real budget data, I hope he’ll join me in criticizing Trump for being a big spender.

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Notwithstanding dalliances in other fields, I’m a policy wonk.

But I will pontificate (often incorrectly) on politics when asked, which is what happened in this interview about the electoral impact of the coronavirus.

My basic point is that Trump is much better than the average Republican about “controlling the narrative.”

In other words, he doesn’t allow the media to frame issues in a way that is adverse to his interests.

Given Trump’s Jekyll-Hyde approach to economic policy, I have mixed feelings about his Jedi-like ability.

But I will point out why narratives are so important in public policy.

Since I’ve shifted to my comfort zone of public policy, I’ll also say something about trade.

One of the big risks from the coronavirus is that it will weaken global trade. Which led me to mention in the interview that hopefully Trump might learn from this growing crisis that expanded trade is good for prosperity.

Though I admit I’m not very optimistic given his mercantilist perspective.

P.S. Textbook discussions of “robber barons” and “sweatshops” are other examples of how bad narratives lead to distorted history.

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Early last year, I shared a video explaining that trade deficits generally don’t matter. I even suggested trade deficits might be a sign of economic strength because foreigners who earned dollars were anxious to invest them in the American economy.

I’m recycling this video to make a point about trade and the economy for both Trump supporters and Trump critics.

For Trump supporters, I want them to understand that the trade deficit has increased under his policies. The data from the latest Commerce Department report show that the yearly trade deficit has increased from about $500 billion at the end of the Obama years to a bit over $600 billion during the Trump years.

And the reason I’m making this point is that I want Trump supporters to realize that they shouldn’t be upset about trade balances. Indeed, they should be happy because there’s a strong argument that the trade deficit is increasing in large part because Trump’s pro-growth tax reform and regulatory reform and making America more attractive for foreign investors.

For Trump critics, I want them to understand the same point, though from a different perspective. Many of them have been (correctly) critical of Trump’s protectionism. And they’ve been happy to point out that his taxes on foreign goods haven’t reduced the trade deficit.

But I would like them to contemplate why the economy has continued to grow. Hopefully, they will realize that pro-market policies in other areas are offsetting the damage of protectionism and therefore be more supportive of capitalism.

The Wall Street Journal opined on this topic last year.

President Trump can take a bow that his tax reform and deregulation are working as intended. …The trade deficit grew… This is not bad economic news. Imports grew faster than exports as the U.S. economy accelerated and much of the world slowed. The dollar grew stronger as capital flowed into the U.S., and the trade deficit grew to offset the larger capital inflows as it must by definition under the national income accounts. …a larger trade deficit is a benign byproduct of a healthier American economy. Supply-side policies revived animal spirits and gave the economy a second wind. …The best way to respond to a trade deficit is to ignore it.

From a left-of-center perspective, Fareed Zakaria made the same point in a recent column for the Washington Post.

Trump campaigned relentlessly on the notion that America’s economy was being ruined by large trade deficits. …He promised on the campaign trail in June 2016, “You will see a drop like you’ve never seen before.”In reality, the trade deficit has risen substantially under Trump. …when the United States has grown robustly, its trade deficit has tended to rise. If you want to achieve a sharp decline in the trade deficit, it’s easy — just trigger a recession. …while the United States has a deficit in manufactured goods with the rest of the world, it runs a huge surplus in services (banking, insurance, consulting, etc.). …The United States is also the world’s favorite destination to invest capital, by a large margin. As Martin points out, when you look at this entire picture, “the trade deficit should be something to brag about rather than denounce.” …Trump’s trade policy has been an enormously costly exercise, forcing Americans to pay tens of billions in taxes on imported goods, then using tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer funds to compensate farmers for lost income (because of retaliatory tariffs)… All to solve a problem that isn’t really a problem.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center, writing for Reason, summarizes the issue.

President Donald Trump hates the trade deficit. …If elected, he promised, he would “end our chronic trade deficits.” …free traders…explained, a country’s trade balance is determined overwhelmingly by factors such as the U.S dollar serving as a reserve currency, the ratio of savings to investment opportunities at home and abroad, and the relative attractiveness of that country’s investment climate. As long as the United States is growing and remains an attractive place to invest, we Americans will continue to run trade deficits with the rest of the world. …They want these dollars, in part, to buy American exports. …More important, and often overlooked: Foreigners want dollars also to invest in America’s powerful economy. …the current-account deficit is a mirror image of the capital-account surplus. This is why Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute describes imports as “job-generating foreign investment surpluses for a better America.” It is thus no surprise that as the American economy grew, the trade deficit also grew.

I’ll close with a chart that’s in the video because it reinforces the three columns cited above.

As you can see, the link between the trade deficit and an investment surplus isn’t just a theoretical construct. It’s an accounting identity.

The bottom line is that people on both sides of the political debate should ignore the trade deficit and instead focus on the tried-and-true recipe for generating prosperity.

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I pointed out yesterday that Donald Trump has increased domestic spending at a faster rate than Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, or Jimmy Carter.

The day before, I castigated him for proposing a budget that expands the burden of government spending by $2 trillion over the next decade.

And two days before that, I explained that he hasn’t really changed the trend line on jobs.

So it’s safe to say I don’t go out of my way to say nice things.

But I’m also very fair. I don’t hesitate to praise politicians whenever they do good things, or to point out evidence that their policies are having a desirable effect.

And here’s a tweet that suggest Trump has made a positive difference.

This is an amazing shift.

Especially since Trump hasn’t actually fixed the problems that lead some successful people to expatriate.

But he has moved policy in the right direction is some of those areas thanks to the 2017 tax legislation.

His other achievement, which is probably even more important, is that he’s not Hillary Clinton. In other words, we’re not getting the bad tax policies that might have occurred in a Clinton Administration.

So it’s understandable that there’s been a big drop in the number of expatriates. The type of people who might move (the “canaries in the coal mine“) now think things are getting better rather than worse.

By the way, we’re talking about small numbers of people. But they’re often exactly the type of people – entrepreneurs, inventors, and innovators – that help drive growth.

P.S. I’ll add today’s column to my collection of noteworthy tweets.

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Trump’s new budget was released yesterday and almost every media outlet wrote about supposed multi-trillion dollar spending cuts when, in reality, the President’s budget actually calls for nearly $2 trillion of additional spending over the next 10 years.

The bottom line is that Trump is more akin to a big-government Republican rather than a Reagan-style conservative.

Today, let’s take a look at Table 3.2 of the Historical Tables of the Budget to assess how Trump’s record on spending compares to other modern presidents.

I’ve done this exercise in the past, starting in 2012 and most recently in 2017, but this is the first year we have enough data to include Trump’s performance.

And if we simply look at overall spending numbers (adjusted for inflation, of course), we get the shocking result that Obama increased spending at the slowest rate.

This surprising outcome is due in part to factors such as falling interest rates, a slowdown in military expenditures, and the fiscal impact of the 2010 elections (in other words, gridlock can be beneficial).

Trump, meanwhile, is near the bottom of the list (though not as bad as George W. Bush and LBJ).

What happens, though, if we remove interest payments from the data? After all, those outlays truly are uncontrollable (barring a default) and they mostly reflect spending decisions of prior administrations.

So if we want to judge a president’s fiscal policy, we should look at “primary spending,” which is the term used by budget geeks when looking at non-interest spending.

This measure doesn’t radically alter the results, but some presidents wind up looking better and others fall.

Another way of looking at the numbers is to remove the fiscal impact of bailouts, such as TARP (and also the savings & loan bailouts of the late 1980s).

The reason for this alteration is that the bailouts cause a big spike in spending when they occur, and then cause a drop afterwards because repayments actually are considered “negative spending,” as are the premiums that banks pay each year (I’m not kidding).

So presidents who are in office when the bailouts occur wind up looking worse, even though their policies may not have contributed to the problem. And the presidents who are in office when the repayments occur (remember, those count as negative spending) wind up looking better than they really are.

Here are the adjusted rankings (calculated by subtracting rows 46, 50, and 51 of Table 3.2). As you can see, Obama takes a bit of a tumble and Reagan is now the most fiscally prudent president.

Last but not least, now let’s also remove defense spending so we can see which presidents did the best (and the worst) when it comes to social welfare spending.

This is the most important category for those of us who believe the federal government should get out of the business of income redistribution and social insurance.

Reagan easily tops the list, limiting outlays to 0.5 percent annual growth. The other thing that’s remarkable is that every other Republican was worse than Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama.

For what it’s worth, Trump is the best of the non-Reagan Republicans, though that is damning with very faint praise.

The first President Bush was awful on spending, and Nixon was catastrophically terrible.

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I would prefer not to write about President Trump’s new budget, largely because I know it’s not a serious proposal.

Even before he was elected, I pointed out that Trump was a big-government Republican who had no intention of dealing with serious fiscal issues such as the rising burden of entitlement spending.

So I wasn’t surprised that he capitulated to swamp-friendly budget deals in 2017, 2018, and 2019. And I’m depressingly confident that the same thing will happen this year.

That being said, I want to comment on how the media is covering his latest budget.

Take a look at some of the headlines that are dominating the news this morning.

From Reuters.

From New York magazine.

From the Washington Times.

From NBC.

From the Associated Press.

From Bloomberg.

From International Business Times.

From Fox.

From the Wall Street Journal.

All of these headlines make is seem like Trump is proposing a Reagan-style budget with lots of cuts, especially with regards to domestic programs.

All of that would be great news…if it was true.

In reality, here’s what Trump is projecting for total spending over the next 10 years.

Can you find the spending cuts?

And here’s what’s happening with domestic spending (mandatory outlays plus domestic discretionary) according to Trump’s budget.

Can you find the spending cuts?

Last but not least, here’s Trump’s plan for domestic discretionary spending.

Can you find the spending cuts?

So why is there such a big disconnect in the media? Why are there headlines about cutting and slashing when government is growing by every possible measure?

For the simple reason that the budget process in Washington is pervasively dishonest, as I’ve explained in interviews with John Stossel and Judge Napolitano. Here are the three things you need to know.

  1. The politicians created a system that automatically assumes big increases in annual spending, called a baseline.
  2. When there’s a proposal to have spending grow slower than the baseline, the gap between the proposal and the baseline is called a cut.
  3. It’s like being on a diet and claiming progress because you’re gaining two pounds each month rather than five pounds.

Defenders of this system argue that programs should get built-in increases because of things such as inflation, or because of more old people, which leads to more spending for programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

It’s certainly reasonable for them to argue that budgets should increase for these reasons.

But they should be honest. Be forthright and assert that “Spending should climb X percent because…”

Needless to say, that won’t happen. The pro-spending politicians and interest groups like the current approach because it allows them to scare voters by warning about “savage” and “draconian” spending cuts.

Remember how Obama said the sequester would wreak havoc because of massive cuts? Except there weren’t any cuts, massive or otherwise. As Thomas Sowell pointed out, Obama was trying to deceive voters.

P.S. The British also use dishonest budgeting.

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There’s endless “spin” in over-politicized and self-serving Washington, with Democrats and Republicans both trying to convince people why any particular bit of economic data is either wonderful news or horrible news.

Since I care about policy rather than politics, I like to think I’m largely immune from this tendency. I criticize either Republicans or Democrats when they do something wrong, and I also offer praise when either Republicans or Democrats do something right.

That applies to Trump, of course.

For instance, the Department of Labor just released new numbers on the job market and Trump loyalists are bragging that this is additional confirmation that the president has steered the economy into glorious prosperity after the supposed wretched misery of the Obama years.

Is that true?

Well, here’s a chart showing total employment in the United States, taken directly from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. We see that jobs have been increasing, but can anybody identify a change in the trend line when Trump took office in January 2017?

For what it’s worth, the average monthly increase in employment has actually been smaller under Trump than it was under Obama.

Though Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute correctly observes that it’s harder to get more jobs when the unemployment rate is low.

Now that we’ve looked at total employment, let’s examine the BLS numbers for the unemployment rate.

Yes, we see better numbers during the Trump years, but we’ve been getting better numbers ever since 2010.

Can anyone look at this data and make a compelling case that there was some big change starting in 2017?

Next we have the BLS chart showing the employment-population ratio, which measures the share of the adult population which is actually employed (a key factor since economic output is a function of the quantity and quality of both labor and capital).

Notice, once again, that there’s no obvious change in the trend line when Trump took over from Obama.

It’s not good news, by the way, that the employment-population ratio is still below where it was before the 2008 crisis.

Though it’s worth noting that the employment-population numbers look much better if they’re adjusted for demographic change.

But adjusting the numbers for demographic change doesn’t have any impact on the point I’m making today. Notice that there hasn’t been any obvious change in the trend since Trump got to the White House.

So why do I keep making the point that the trend hasn’t changed?

Because I want people to understand that policy matters, not partisan affiliation. And the bottom line is that the trend line hasn’t noticeably changed because Trump hasn’t noticeably changed the overall level of economic freedom compared to Obama.

Yes, Trump has moved policy in the right direction on some issues (taxes and regulation), but he’s also moved policy in the wrong direction on other issues (trade and spending). Simply stated, his bad policies are offsetting his good policies.

Obama moved policy in the wrong direction, of course, but that was largely during his first two years. There was a policy stalemate his final six years.

And in terms of overall economic liberty, the post-2010 policy stalemate under Obama produced similar scores to the zig-zag policy we’re getting under Trump. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the trend lines are so similar.

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At the beginning of the Trump era, many of us (including me) warned that his statements on trade were nonsensical.

And when Trump shifted from bad rhetoric to bad policy, Johan Norberg pointed out why trade wars are very misguided.

As you might expect, Johan is correct. More government intervention in global commerce has led to bad consequences.

Trump’s tax increases on trade have produced bad results for the American economy. Consumers have been hurt, businesses have been hurt, exporters have been hurt, and specific sectors such as farming and manufacturing have been hurt.

All of this was very predictable.

Indeed, the Trump Administration’s own economists warned back in 2018 that a trade war would backfire. Here are some excerpts from a report in the New York Times.

A White House economic analysis of President Trump’s trade agenda has concluded that Mr. Trump’s tariffs will hurt economic growth in the United States… The findings from the White House Council of Economic Advisers have been circulated only internally and not publicly released… The administration has hit Canada, Mexico, Japan and the European Union with steel and aluminum tariffs and…tariffs on a range of Chinese goods. In return, many of those countries have either imposed or threatened reciprocal tariffs on everything from steel to pork to orange juice, a move that economists say will depress economic growth. …many economists have been warning that the administration’s trade approach will undercut economic growth and partially offset any boost from the $1.5 trillion tax cut that Congress passed and Mr. Trump signed… Wall Street research firms have warned that those tariffs, and the retaliatory tariffs that trading partners have threatened in response, will slow growth in the United States. …In a…survey of an expert panel of academic economists assembled by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, no economist agreed with the statement, “Imposing new U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum will improve Americans’ welfare.”

Needless to say, Trump ignored the good advice from his economists and imposed a bunch of tax increases on trade.

We now have some hard evidence about the wisdom of this approach. Economists at the Federal Reserve crunched the numbers as part of a new study.

While there are already vast theoretical and empirical literatures documenting the effects of changes in trade policy, …there are virtually no modern episodes of a large, advanced economy raising tariffs in a way comparable to the U.S. in 2018-2019. …these tariffs…were imposed, in part, to boost the U.S. manufacturing sector by protecting against what were deemed to be the unfair trade practices of trading partners, principally China. …This paper provides the first comprehensive estimates of the effect of recent tariffs on the U.S. manufacturing sector. …We measure the import protection channel as the share of domestic absorption affected by newly imposed tariffs. We account for declines in competitiveness associated with increased input costs as the share of industry costs subject to new tariffs.Finally, we measure an industry’s potential exposure to retaliatory tariffs by U.S. trading partners as the share of industry-level exports subject to new retaliatory tariffs. …We then relate the measures for these three channels of tariff exposure to monthly data on manufacturing employment, output, and producer prices.

And what did the experts find?

We find that tariff increases enacted in 2018 are associated with relative reductions in manufacturing employment and relative increases in producer prices. In terms of manufacturing employment, rising input costs and retaliatory tariffs each contribute to the negative relationship, and the contribution from these channels more than offsets a small positive effect from import protection. For producer prices, the relative increases associated with tariffs are due solely to the rising input cost channel. …we find that shifting an industry from the 25th percentile to the 75th percentile in terms of exposure to each of these channels of tariffs is associated with a reduction in manufacturing employment of 1.4 percent, with the positive contribution from the import protection effects of tariffs (0.3 percent) more than offset by the negative effects associated with rising input costs (-1.1 percent) and retaliatory tariffs(-0.7 percent).

In other words, the small benefits that go to the industries that are sheltered from competition are very much outweighed by the damage to other sectors of the economy (a lesson that Trump could have learned if he studied real-world evidences, such as the Great Depression).

The Wall Street Journal opined about the Fed’s study.

One mystery of the Trump -era economy has been why U.S. manufacturing slumped sharply in late 2018 and 2019 after surging the year before. The Occam’s razor culprit is the onset of trade war… Federal Reserve economists Aaron Flaaen and Justin Pierce examine the impact of the tariff outbursts of 2018 on U.S. manufacturing employment, output and prices. This is important work because 2018 marked the start in earnest of President Trump’s campaign to change the world trading order, using tariffs as his preferred bludgeon. …Mr. Trump justified his campaign in part as a way to revive American manufacturing while protecting against unfair trade practices. So how has that worked out? …the economists have bad news for tariff lovers. …the higher costs from tariffs swamped benefits to specific firms from import protection. The tariffs cost more jobs than they created. …As the Fed economists conclude, “We find the impact” from protection “is completely offset in the short-run by reduced competitiveness from retaliation and higher costs in downstream industries.” ….A previous Fed study looked at uncertainty and found it has cut U.S. GDP growth by about a percentage point, which explains the deceleration to 2% from 3% in the last year.

At the risk of sounding like a dogmatic libertarian, we now have additional confirmation that it’s not a good idea to expand the footprint of government.

That’s true about taxes. That’s true about spending. That’s true about regulation. And it’s true about trade.

P.S. Wonky readers may be interested in this chart from the Fed study, which shows the impact of Trump’s trade war on employment, production, and producer prices.

P.P.S. Trump is right when he asserts that other nations have bad protectionist policies. Unfortunately, he wrongly thinks that reducing trade deficits somehow will address those bad policies. Instead, he should have targeted the specific bad policies (such as Chinese cronyism), ideally by utilizing the World Trade Organization.

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Yesterday’s column was my annual end-of-year round-up of the best and worst developments of the concluding year.

Today I’ll be forward looking and give you my hopes and fears for the new year, which is a newer tradition that began in 2017 (and continued in 2018 and 2019).

With my glass-half-full outlook, we’ll start with the things I hope will happen.

Supreme Court strikes down civil asset forfeiture – It is nauseating that bureaucrats can steal property from citizens who have never been convicted of a crime. Or even charged with a crime. Fortunately, this disgusting practice already has attracted attention from Clarence Thomas and other sound-thinking Justices on the Supreme Court. Hopefully, this will produce a decision that ends this example of Venezuela-style government thuggery.

Good free-trade agreements for the United Kingdom – This is a two-pronged hope. First, I want a great agreement between the U.S. and the U.K., based on the principle of mutual recognition. Second, I want the best-possible agreement between the U.K. and the E.U., which will be a challenge since the political elite in Brussels has a spiteful desire to “punish” the British people for supporting Brexit.

Maduro’s ouster in Venezuela – I already wished for this development in 2018 and 2019, so this is my “Groundhog Day” addition to the list. But if I keep wishing for it, sooner or later it will happen and I’ll look prescient. But I actually don’t care about whether my predictions are correct, I just want an end to the horrible suffering for the people of Venezuela.

Here are the things I fear will happen in 2020.

A bubble bursts – I hope I’m wrong (and that may be the case since I’ve been fretting about it for a long time), but I fear that financial markets are being goosed by an easy-money policy from the Federal Reserve. Bubbles feel good when they’re expanding, but last decade should have taught us that they can be very painful when they pop.

A loss of economic liberty in Chile and/or Hong Kong – As shown by Economic Freedom of the World, there are not that many success stories in the world. But we can celebrate what’s happened in Hong Kong since WWII and what’s happened in Chile since the late 1970s. Economic liberty has dramatically boosted prosperity. Unfortunately, Hong Kong’s liberty is now being threatened from without and Chile’s liberty is now being threatened from within.

Repeal of the Illinois flat tax – The best approach for a state is to have no income tax, and a state flat tax is the second-best approach. Illinois is in that second category thanks to a long-standing provision of the state’s constitution. Needless to say, this irks the big spenders who control the Illinois government and they are asking voters this upcoming November to vote on whether to bust the flat tax and open the floodgates for an ever-growing fiscal burden. By the way, it’s quite likely that I’ll be including the Massachusetts flat tax on this list next year.

I’ll also add a special category for something that would be both good and bad.

Trump gets reelected – Because Trump is producing better tax policy and better regulatory policy, and because of my hopes for judges who believe in the Constitution’s protections of economic liberty, it would be good if he won a second term.

Trump gets reelected – Because Trump is producing worse spending policy and worse trade policy, and because of my concerns never-ending Keynesian monetary policy from the Federal Reserve, it would be bad if he won a second term.

Happy New Year, everyone.

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I wrote yesterday that the Trump tax plan is yielding significant benefits, but one of my caveats at the end of the column warned that Trump’s weak record on spending undermines the long-run sustainability of lower tax rates.

The latest example of Trump’s profligacy is the $1.4 trillion spending bill for the 2020 fiscal year that was just approved (this is the “discretionary” money for the parts of the budget that are annually appropriated, so keep in mind that there’s also more than $3 trillion of “mandatory” spending for entitlement programs in 2020).

This pork-filled spending bill became inevitable when Trump surrendered to the Democrats this summer and agreed to bust the spending caps (something politicians also did in 2013, 2015, and 2018).

It’s hard to capture the utterly reckless nature of the new spending bill.

Here’s how Senator Rick Scott described the legislation.

…a giant spending package — 2,313 pages long — that was…negotiated in secret, spends $1.4 trillion, and is chock full of member projects and special-interest giveaways. …more than $4,200 for every man, woman, and child in America. …This package includes $25 million for the “operation, maintenance, and security” of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It includes a $7.25 million increase in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the largest increase in a decade. …It includes more than $1 billion in new foreign-aid funding without any discussion about what we’re getting for this funding. …This bill spends $1.4 trillion, with no cuts or reforms. …How many more trillions of dollars do we need to spend before we wake up to the danger…? We need to reform the way Washington works, and we need to do it now.

The Wall Street Journal was similarly dismayed, opining about the bipartisan spending orgy and pointing out the real problem is that all this spending violates the Golden Rule of fiscal policy.

Congress has left town for the year but alas not before another bipartisan spending party that has typified the Trump Presidency. …The budget problem isn’t a shortage of revenue. CBO says tax receipts grew 4% last fiscal year, through September, and 3% in the first two months this year. Economic growth is feeding the Treasury. But spending is growing much faster: 8% last fiscal year, more than four times the inflation rate, and 6% in October and November this year. In addition to the latest discretionary bills, spending on Social Security (6%), Medicare (6.1%) and Medicaid (9.2%) continue to soar this year. Neither party shows any inclination to do anything about those programs, except expand them. Mr. Trump may yet join Barack Obama in the spending record books.

Regarding the final sentence in the above excerpt, I will predict now that Trump will exceed Obama’s profligacy.

And I’ll have the numbers to prove that early next year when I update my data on presidential spending.

In the meantime, I’ll close with this very depressing chart from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

The bottom line is that Republican big spenders are enablers of Democratic big taxers.

  • In a couple of years, when there’s a big fight to get rid of the Trump tax cuts, every Republican who supported this awful deal (including Trump) will be responsible.
  • When there’s a Democratic president and a big push for class-warfare taxes, every Republican who supported this awful deal (including Trump) will be responsible.
  • When there’s a big fight after that to impose a European-style value-added tax, every Republican who supported this awful deal (including Trump) will be responsible.

Gee, isn’t bipartisanship wonderful?

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The Trump tax plan, which was signed into law right before Christmas in 2017, had two very good features.

The former was important because the federal tax code was subsidizing high tax burdens in states such as New Jersey, Illinois, and California.

The latter was important because the United States, with a 35 percent corporate rate, had the highest tax burden on businesses among developed nations.

The 21 percent rate we have today doesn’t make us a low-tax nation, but at least the U.S. corporate tax burden is now near the world average.

There were many other provisions in the Trump tax plan, most of which moved tax policy in the right direction.

Now that a couple of years have passed, what’s been the net effect?

In a column for today’s Wall Street Journal, former Trump officials Gary Cohn and Kevin Hassett make the case that the tax plan has produced good results.

…the tax cut reduced the cost of installing new plant and machinery by about 10%, suggesting that capital spending would jump by the same amount. This would increase the amount of capital per worker and drive up productivity and wages. …This predicted increase in capital has materialized, and has translated into additional economic growth. …Capital spending was 4.5% higher in 2018 than pre-TCJA blue-chip forecasts, and this trend continued in 2019. This extra capital improved productivity and wages… Over the past year, nominal wages for the lowest 10% of American workers jumped 7%. The growth rate for those without a high-school diploma was 9%. …when President Obama hiked marginal tax rates, …labor-force participation dropping 0.7% after the tax increase for workers 35 to 44, but dropping 1.5% for workers over 55. After passage of the TCJA, the opposite pattern emerged, with labor-force participation for those between 35 and 44 increasing 0.4%, and labor-force participation for those over 55 increasing 1.3%. … Before Mr. Trump took office in January 2017, the Congressional Budget Office forecast the creation of only two million jobs by this point. The economy has in fact created seven million jobs since January 2017. …the U.S. is the only Group of Seven country that will post growth above 2% this year.

And the White House has been publicizing some positive numbers.

Such as an increase in investment.

I suppose one can argue that the Blue Chip consensus forecast was wrong and that the Trump tax plan had no effect, but that seems like an after-the-fact rationalization.

The White House also has been touting an increase in prime-age labor force participation.

These are impressive numbers. I’ve argued, for instance, that the employment/population ratio may now be a more important variable than the unemployment rate.

Regardless, the best numbers I’ve seen aren’t from the White House.

Andy Puzder recently shared this chart showing that workers in low-wage industries (the blue line) are enjoying the biggest gains.

I want everyone’s wages to increase, which is why I’m a big supporter of reforms that boost investment and productivity.

But I especially applaud when those reforms increase wages for those with modest incomes.

I’ll close with three caveats.

  1. Because Trump has been very weak on the issue of government spending, it’s quite likely that his tax cuts eventually will be repealed or offset by other tax increases.
  2. Trump obviously was talking nonsense when he claimed his tax plan would produce annual growth of 4 percent or higher. That being said, even more-modest increases in growth are very desirable.
  3. Trump’s tax increases on trade are bad for prosperity and therefore are offsetting some of the benefits of his tax reductions on corporate and household income.

The bottom line is that Trump has made tax policy better (or less worse), but always remember that tax policy is just one piece of a large puzzle when looking at economic policy.

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When I was in London last week for Boris Johnson’s landslide victory, many people asked me whether Trump would win again in 2020.

Since I was wrong about 2016, I told them I wasn’t the right person to ask.

That being said, Trump has some positive economic tailwinds.

For those of you who care about political outcomes, there’s a new CNN poll of battleground states.

It’s good news for Republicans, particularly if one assumes that there are some people who don’t want to admit that they will vote for Trump (which seems to have been true in 2016).

Political betting markets also are pointing to a Trump victory.

Here’s a screenshot showing the 2019 odds of success for the various candidates. As you can see Trump’s numbers are trending upwards – including a positive bump after the House voted for impeachment!

Both polls and betting markets were wrong in 2016, so take all this data with a grain of salt.

For those who care about economic policy, I’ll simply regurgitate my usual comment that Trump is good on some issues (taxes and regulation) and bad on other issues (trade and spending).

I expect this pattern to continue if he’s reelected.

The big wild card is monetary policy.

As I said in the interview, I worry there’s a bubble caused by an easy-money approach. And bad things happen when bubbles pop.

P.S. I should have mentioned that the employment-population data is not as positive as the unemployment-rate data.

P.P.S. I mentioned macroeconomic political forecasts in the interview. I wrote about those predictions back in October.

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One of my big 2018 worries was that Trump would wreck NAFTA.

We dodged that bullet, but my two cents is that the new deal is underwhelming.

The bottom line is that his revisions to the pact – which is now called USMCA – create some new barriers to trade.

But there also are a few good parts of the deal.

And at least a source of economic uncertainty is now in the past. Indeed, that’s the real victory. There’s now presumably no risk that Trump will cause a meltdown of North American trade.

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial hits the nail on the head.

Donald Trump is the most protectionist American President since Herbert Hoover, so one of our trade-policy goals of the last three years has been damage control. That’s the best case now for supporting Mr. Trump’s revisions to the North American Free Trade Agreement…  the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal puts to rest Mr. Trump’s threats to abandon the 1994 agreement and blow up continental trade. The new deal preserves most of the tariff-free trade in the original Nafta. …There’s particular political value in committing both Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the left-wing economic nationalist known as AMLO, and Mr. Trump, the Republican mercantilist, to open trading rules for North America.

Sadly, the Trump Administration pushed for some European-style managed trade and regulatory harmonization.

The shame is that in many respects the new deal is worse than Nafta, especially its bows to politically managed trade. …This raises the cost of manufacturing, making North American products less competitive worldwide. Also reducing North American competitiveness is a new rule mandating that 40% of an auto qualifying for tariff-free trade in the region has to be produced by workers earning $16 an hour. Mandating wage rates ignores the relationship between productivity and output and sets a bad precedent for future trade deals. …The unions battered Mexico to allow a new enforcement process that will give American unions a new way to intrude in Mexican labor disputes. …North American auto production costs will also rise thanks to a new layer of protection for U.S. steel. The new deal mandates that 70% of steel used in North American vehicles must be made on the continent… Our concern now is that the deal’s concessions to politically managed trade will become the new baseline for future negotiations. …Senators will have to consider whether these bad precedents are worse than the benefit of saving most of the original Nafta.

I mentioned in the interview that the International Monetary Fund did an analysis of USMCA.

Here’s what the IMF set out to measure.

This paper uses a global, multisector, computable-general-equilibrium model to provide an analytical assessment of five key provisions of USMCA: (1) higher vehicle and auto parts regional value content requirement, (2) new labor value content requirement for vehicles, (3) stricter rules of origin for USMCA textile and apparel trade, (4) agricultural trade liberalization that increases U.S. access to Canadian supply-managed markets and reduces U.S. barriers on Canadian dairy, sugar and sugar products, and peanuts and peanut products, and (5) trade facilitation measures. In the context of successful ratification of USMCA, the paper also examines the effect of the removal of U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Canada and Mexico and their reciprocal withdrawal of surtax countermeasures.

And what are the results?

Mostly nothing. There are  few good provisions and a few bad provisions, so the net result is trivial.

Indeed, it’s worth emphasizing that the the most unambiguously positive result will be the removal of Trump’s anti-growth taxes on imports of steel and aluminum.

At the aggregate level, effects of the USMCA are relatively small. According to the analysis of this paper, key provisions in USMCA would lead to diminished economic integration in North America, reducing trade among the three North American partners by more than US$4 billion (0.4 percent) while offering members a combined welfare gain of US$538 million. Effects of the USMCA on real GDP are negligible. …The results show that the tighter rules of origin in the auto sector and the labor value content requirement would not achieve their desired outcomes. The new rules lead to a decline in the production of vehicles and parts in all three North-American countries, with shifts toward greater sourcing of both vehicles and parts from outside of the region. …The three countries would gain much from ending the dispute triggered by the U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum. USMCA scenario is extended to include the removal of U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs and a reciprocal elimination of Canadian and Mexican retaliatory import surtaxes. The extension would increase the welfare gain for the Canada, Mexico and the United States by $2.5 billion.

P.S. I mentioned an ideal free trade agreement in the interview. I also should have pointed out that unilateral free trade also is a good option. Assuming, of course, one understands the benefits of trade.

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This week featured lots of angst-ridden headlines about the annual budget deficit for the 2019 fiscal year (which ended on September 30) jumping to $984 billion, an increase of more than $200 billion.

For reasons I’ve previously outlined, I don’t lose too much sleep about the level of government borrowing. What’s far more important is the burden of government spending.

Whether the budget is financed by taxes or borrowing, the level of spending is what really matters. Simply stated, that number measures the amount of money that politicians divert from the economy’s productive sector.

That being said, it’s sometimes very illuminating to look at why red ink goes up and down.

So I went to the Treasury Department’s most-recent Monthly Treasury Statement and looked at the raw numbers. What did I find?

Lo and behold, the deficit jumped to $984 billion because outlays are increasing twice as fast as revenue.

Perhaps even more discouraging, the burden of spending is rising more than four times faster than needed to keep pace with inflation.

These are very discouraging numbers, especially when you keep in mind that this is the calm before the storm. Because of poorly designed entitlement programs and an ageing population, our fiscal situation will deteriorate even faster in the future.

Unless there’s much-needed reform.

But I’m not holding out much hope. Trump is a big spender and Congress is filled with big spenders.

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There’s an entire field of economics called “public choice” that analyzes the (largely perverse) incentive structures of politicians and bureaucrats.

But is economic analysis also helpful to understand voting and elections?

In the past, I’ve suggested that political betting markets are a useful place to start since “you are seeing estimates based on people defending their views with cold, hard cash.”

In his Bloomberg column, Professor Tyler Cowen takes a more rigorous look at the potential insights of political betting markets.

Prediction markets…are a quick way to get an overview of the state of the campaign. President Donald Trump is currently at about 0.40 to be re-elected… Under normal assumptions about the uncertainty of future economic growth, the markets rate Trump’s chances of winning at 40%. …it is a useful corrective to the argument that Trump is toast — or, alternatively, that he is a shoo-in.  The market incorporates the relevant uncertainties in both directions. (Interestingly, Trump’s re-election odds have stayed pretty steady over the last week or so of negative news.) In many cases, prediction markets…“see through” the day-to-day volatility that may buffet the polls but not affect the final outcome. …Prediction markets…also made me think that a possible Hillary Clinton candidacy…is perhaps an undercovered story. …It is not a valid criticism of prediction markets to say that they didn’t predict Trump, say, or Brexit. The purpose of prediction markets is not to foresee particular upsets. They can, however, tell you in advance what would be an upset — much like probability theory can tell you that getting three heads in a row is unlikely but is of no help in predicting exactly when it will happen.

There are also people who build models that predict elections based largely on economic factors.

The Washington Post just published a very interesting review of how three of these models show Trump comfortably winning.

President Trump is on a fast track to an easy reelection. That’s the conclusion reached by economic forecasters… Moody’s Analytics projects the president will win handily next year if the economy doesn’t badly stumble — and in fact, rack up a greater margin in the electoral college than the 304-to-227 victory he secured against Hillary Clinton in 2016. …The finding jibes with those of other forecasting models that rely on measures of the economy’s strength to predict which major party’s candidate will win the White House next. Oxford Economics sees Trump winning 55 percent of the popular vote next year barring a “significant downturn” in the economy. …by the reckoning of the firm’s model, three key economic indicators — unemployment, inflation and real disposable income growth — all favor Trump’s reelection. They outweigh a “negative exhaustion factor” with Trump that dents his support in the projection. …Another model, assembled by Trend Macrolytics, accurately predicts every presidential victor back to 1952 by focusing on the effects of the economy and incumbency on the electoral college, according to Donald Luskin, the firm’s chief investment officer. It projects Trump will win reelection next year with 354 electoral votes — a margin that seems staggering on its face.

Here’s the Moody’s electoral map, which doubtlessly will cause sleepless nights for the anti-Trump crowd.

Wow, not only do they show Trump winning every state he won in 2016, but they show him picking up New Hampshire, Virginia, and Minnesota.

So which approach is more accurate, betting markets of election models?

Given my inaccurate 2016 predictions, I’m probably not the right person to ask.

I’ll simply observe that both approaches have erred in the past.

And if you believe in guilt by association, some of the people who put together political prediction models also put together deeply flawed Keynesian economic models.

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Earlier this year, I shared a short video about the benefits of the World Trade Organization.

Here’s a more substantive version (though still only four minutes).

I wanted to keep the video short, so I focused primarily on how the United States disproportionately benefits because other nations are pressured to reduce their trade taxes down to American levels.

Though I also pointed out that all countries benefit as global trade increases.

This is particularly relevant when you ponder President Trump’s trade spat with China. Yes, it would be good for the United States if China liberalized its economy and got rid of its mercantilist policies.

But it also would be good for China.

That’s why free trade is a good idea. It’s good if it’s unilateral free trade. It’s good if it’s bilateral free trade. And it’s good if it’s multilateral free trade.

Since we’re discussing the WTO, let’s look at some scholarly evidence.

An article by three Stanford political scientists for International Organization finds that the WTO has been beneficial for global trade.

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) have been touted as premier examples of international institutions, but few studies have offered empirical proof. This article comprehensively evaluates the effects of the GATT/WTO and other trade agreements since World War II. Our analysis is organized around two factors: institutional standing and institutional embeddedness. We show that many countries had rights and obligations, or institutional standing, in the GATT/WTO even though they were not formal members of the agreement. We also expand the analysis to include a range of other commercial agreements that were embedded with the GATT/WTO. Using data on dyadic trade since 1946, we demonstrate that the GATT/WTO substantially increased trade for countries with institutional standing, and that other embedded agreements had similarly positive effects. Moreover, our evidence suggests that international trade agreements have complemented, rather than undercut, each other.

Meanwhile, a French think tank looks at some of the evidence in favor of the WTO’s rules-based approach to reducing trade taxes.

…the World Trade Organisation (WTO) which held a dominant position after WWII with its multilateral rules has lost influence…. From the point of view of a consumer or producer, the higher volatility of trade policy is nothing positive. …Handely and Limao (2015), Handley (2014), Pelc (2013) as well as Bacchetta and Piermartini (2011) also find empirical support for welfare gains from a rules compliant trade policy. …After WWII the average level of tariffs decreased constantly and predictably as part of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and its successor the WTO, which are based on member commitment and reciprocity. …multilateral agreements such as the WTO offer mechanisms which provide incentives even for mercantilist politicians to reduce barriers of trade.

Here’s a chart from the study, which shows how trade taxes have been falling in the post-World War II era.

In other words, the WTO process has been successful. President Trump’s tactic of escalating tariffs, by contrast, has not worked.

By way of background, the WTO is actually nothing more than a dispute-resolution forum for the GATT system (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) that was created back in the late 1940s.

And, unlike the International Monetary Fund or Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, this is a part of the “post-war order” that’s worth preserving.

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The 2008 financial crisis was largely the result of bad government policy, including subsidies for the housing sector from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

This video is 10 years old, but it does a great job of explaining the damaging role of those two government-created entities.

The financial crisis led to many decisions in Washington, most notably “moral hazard” and the corrupt TARP bailout.

But the silver lining to that dark cloud is that Fannie and Freddie were placed in “conservatorship,” which basically has curtailed their actions over the past 10 years.

Indeed, some people even hoped that the Trump Administration would take advantage of their weakened status to unwind Fannie and Freddie and allow the free market to determine the future of housing finance.

Those hopes have been dashed.

Cronyists in the Treasury Department unveiled a plan earlier this year that will resuscitate Fannie and Freddie and recreate the bad incentives that led to the mess last decade.

This proposal may be even further to the left than proposals from the Obama Administration. And, as Peter Wallison and Edward Pinto of the American Enterprise Institute explained in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, this won’t end well.

…the president’s Memorandum on Housing Finance Reform…is a major disappointment. It will keep taxpayers on the hook for more than $7 trillion in mortgage debt. And it is likely to induce another housing-market bust, for which President Trump will take the blame.The memo directs the Treasury to produce a government housing-finance system that roughly replicates what existed before 2008: government backing for the obligations of the government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac , and affordable-housing mandates requiring the GSEs to encourage and engage in risky mortgage lending. …Most of the U.S. economy is open to the innovation and competition of the private sector. Yet for no discernible reason, the housing market—one-sixth of the U.S. economy—is and has been controlled by the government to a far greater extent than in any other developed country. …The resulting policies produced a highly volatile U.S. housing market, subject to enormous booms and busts. Its culmination was the 2008 financial crisis, in which a massive housing-price boom—driven by the credit leverage associated with low down payments—led to millions of mortgage defaults when housing prices regressed to the long-term mean.

Wallison also authored an article that was published this past week by National Review.

He warns again that the Trump Administration is making a grave mistake by choosing government over free enterprise.

Treasury’s plan for releasing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from their conservatorships is missing only one thing: a good reason for doing it. The dangers the two companies will create for the U.S. economy will far outweigh whatever benefits Treasury sees. Under the plan, Fannie and Freddie will be fully recapitalized… The Treasury says the purpose of their recapitalization is to protect the taxpayers in the event that the two firms fail again. But that makes little sense. The taxpayers would not have to be protected if the companies were adequately capitalized and operated without government backing. Indeed, it should have been clear by now that government backing for private profit-seeking firms is a clear and present danger to the stability of the U.S. financial system. Government support enables companies to raise virtually unlimited debt while taking financial risks that the market would routinely deny to firms that operate without it. …their government support will allow them to earn significant profits in a different way — by taking on the risks of subprime and other high-cost mortgage loans. That business would make effective use of their government backing and — at least for a while — earn the profits that their shareholders will demand. …This is an open invitation to create another financial crisis. If we learned anything from the 2008 mortgage market collapse, it is that once a government-backed entity begins to accept mortgages with low down payments and high debt-to-income ratios, the entire market begins to shift in that direction. …why is the Treasury proposing this plan? There is no obvious need for a government-backed profit-making firm in today’s housing finance market. FHA could assume the important role of helping low- and moderate-income families buy their first home. …Why this hasn’t already happened in a conservative administration remains an enduring mystery.

I’ll conclude by sharing some academic research that debunks the notion that housing would suffer in the absence of Fannie and Freddie.

A working paper by two economists at the Federal Reserve finds that Fannie and Freddie have not increased homeownership.

The U.S. government guarantees a majority of mortgages, which is often justified as a means to promote homeownership. In this paper, we estimate the effect by using a difference-in-differences design, with detailed property-level data, that exploits changes of the conforming loan limits (CLLs) along county borders. We find a sizable effect of CLLs on government guarantees but no robust effect on homeownership. Thus, government guarantees could be considerably reduced,with very modest effects on the homeownership rate. Our finding is particularly relevant for recent housing finance reform plans that propose to gradually reduce the government’s involvement in the mortgage market by reducing the CLLs.

For those who care about the wonky details, here’s the most relevant set of charts, which led the Fed economists to conclude that, “There appears to be no positive effect of the CLL increases in 2008 and no negative effect of the CLL reductions in 2011.”

And let’s not forget that other academic research has shown that government favoritism for the housing sector harms overall economic growth by diverting capital from business investment.

The bottom line is that Fannie and Freddie are cronyist institutions that hurt the economy and create financial instability, while providing no benefit except to a handful of insiders.

As I suggested many years ago, they should be dumped in the Potomac River. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration is choosing Obama-style interventionism over fairness and free markets.

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