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Posts Tagged ‘Economics’

Most readers care about economic developments and economic comparisons involving the United States.

Some readers also care about what’s happening in other major nations, such as China, Germany, Italy, France, Japan, and the United Kingdom.

Relatively few readers, by contrast, care about economic developments in nations with comparatively small economic footprints, such as Peru.

That’s understandable, but I want to cite Mary Anastasia O’Grady’s recent column in the Wall Street Journal because she focuses attention on the very important – and very unsavory – relationship between big government and corruption.

Her column is about political turmoil in Peru, but what she writes applies everywhere in the world.

…it’s hard to see how an electorate that so often votes for populism at the polls can extricate itself from the grasp of crooked politicians. The hard left’s solution, which is to rewrite the 1993 constitution and give the state a larger role in the economy, would make things worse. …Peruvians are frustrated. They have been told that by voting they can secure an honest government. But elected officials repeatedly turn out to be self-interested and corrupt. …Yet as fast as they throw the bums out and bring in new ones, more scandals arise. At the core of this dysfunction is a state with vast powers to redistribute wealth. …Even voters who say they want less corruption may find that change conflicts with their self-interest. The siren song of populism draws them to politicians who can hand out plenty of government jobs and other goodies in a world of weak institutional checks.

Amen.

I made the same point, for instance, in this 2009 video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. And I was focusing on the United States.

Simply stated, when politicians have more power over the allocation of a nation’s resources, the greater their incentive to abuse that power.

To be sure, it’s not a linear relationship.

A country’s political culture also matters. Some nation’s have developed very low levels of tolerance for corruption, so there’s not a strong relationship between corruption and the size of government.

As you can see from Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, the Nordic nations are among the countries that are especially good in this regard.

But nation’s from the developing world, including the perennial bottom-dweller Venezuela, tend to get poor scores.

The moral of the story is that it’s especially important to limit government (and therefore limit opportunities for corruption) in countries that don’t have high scores.

I’m including this data because Peru, unfortunately, is in the bottom half of nations.

Not a terrible score when compared to Venezuela, but weak compared to Chile.

That being said, I want to close with a dose of optimism about Peru.

Today’s final visual is a chart showing how economic freedom in the country dramatically increased starting in the mid-1980s when the “Washington Consensus” was ascendant. And, just as Prof. William Easterly found in his research, this eventually kick-started much better economic performance.

P.S. It is worrisome that Peruvian economic policy stopped improving beginning about 2005. And based on Ms. O’Grady’s column, it seems unlikely that policy will get better in the near future.

P.P.S. Chile remains (at least for now) the big economic success story of Latin America, though Panama deserves a bit of attention as well.

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Previous editions of the case for capitalism (Part I, Part II, and Part III) have focused on big-picture analyses of markets vs statism. Today, let’s look at a specific product that free enterprise has delivered.

Younger readers may take smartphones for granted, but I was born during the Eisenhower Administration and grew up with no Internet, no cell phones, and clunky government-sanctioned telephone monopolies.

So I’m still sometimes amazed at how quickly smartphones have evolved. As shown by this image, dozens of bulky products now exist in the a device not much bigger than a checkbook (younger readers may not even be familiar with those!).

In an article for the American Enterprise Institute, Bret Swanson explains what has happened.

“What would an iPhone have cost in 1991?” The purpose is to measure — at least in a rough way — the progress of technology by looking at the components and features integrated in smartphones owned by billions of people. In past years we’ve focused on the three most basic (and easily measurable) components: computation, digital storage, and communications bandwidth. This time, we will also look at another revolutionary facet of smartphones: their cameras. …The iPhone 12, unveiled last month, has three 12-megapixel cameras, which is 36 times the number of pixels of the original DCS 100. At $15,000 per megapixel, circa 1991, that’s $540,000 worth of photographic power in every smartphone. Of course, this most basic measure doesn’t begin to account for the radical improvements in image quality and a hundred other features that make today’s smartphone cameras far superior in many ways to the very best cameras of the past. …Building today’s iPhone in 1991 would thus have cost at least $51 million, with $540,000 worth of cameras thrown in for free.

Maybe I’m too much of a cheerleader for free enterprise, but it seems very impressive that people can now buy, for less than $1,000, something that would have cost $51 million less than 30 years ago.

Not to mention that you don’t need to hire someone to carry around dozens of pieces of equipment.

If you want to peruse the details, here’s Swanson’s chart.

And here’s a timeline showing the prices of phones starting in the 1980s.

Keep in mind, by the way, that a smartphone today is far, far superior to a cell phone in the past.

Now think about sectors of our economy run by the government (Postal Service, air traffic control, etc) or heavily regulated and controlled by government (health care, agriculture, etc).

Call me crazy, but I’ll pick capitalism. It’s an ethical system that delivers prosperity and reduces poverty,

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Japan is an interesting country to examine if you want insights about public policy.

Overall, I have a pessimistic view of Japan, but not because it has terrible policy by world standards (it’s currently ranked #20 for economic liberty).

Instead, my concern is that it is drifting in the wrong direction (it was ranked in the top 10 for economic freedom in the mid-1950s) and the country is dealing with grim demographics.

But not everyone shares my view. Indeed, some people even think Japan is a role model. Here are some excerpts from a column in the Japan Times by Jesper Koll of Wisdomtree Investments.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden can learn a lot from Japan. …the overall result generated by the Japanese economic system is extremely positive. Japan is the global best-in-class for balancing both income growth and income distribution. …an economy must both grow and distribute the spoils of wealth creation in a fair and equitable way.

So why does Mr. Koll think Japan does a good job?

Mostly because of economic outcomes for lower-income people.

At the end of last year, the median net financial wealth — all financial assets minus liabilities — for households in Japan stood at $104,000. In the United States, it was $62,000. …Japan does have an underbelly of poor people, but compared to America, relatively few are truly left behind financially. …America has more than two times more very wealthy people than Japan, but it also has more than five times more poor people. …In the past eight years, the bottom 10% of income earners saw a $15,000 rise in earnings in Japan, from $17,000 to $32,0000. In contrast, their American counterparts got only $10,000 more income, from $18,000 to $28,000.

For what it’s worth, I’m a bit skeptical of whether the experiences of ethnically homogeneous Japan are directly applicable to an ethnically heterogeneous society such as the United States.

I also think it’s strange that Koll compares the last eight years, which mixes the stagnation of the Obama years with the somewhat better performance of the Trump years.

But it’s interesting that he concludes by observing that you help low-income people with tight labor markets rather than the kind of class-warfare tax policy that Biden has been advocating.

How did Japan successfully bring up the poor? Not by taxing the rich, but by…positive demographic dynamics…because the growing scarcity of labor is forcing steadfast improvement in the type of employment contracts offered, i.e., not just part-time, but full-time as well as solid pay increases at the bottom end of the employment attractiveness spectrum.

But what about Koll’s point about lower-income people being better off in Japan than in the United States?

On that issue, I’m very skeptical.

His article doesn’t include links to data sources, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of his numbers.

But here’s a chart that I first shared earlier this year, which I’ve augmented in red to highlight how the bottom 10 percent of people in the United States are at the same level of middle-income people in Japan.

Call me crazy, but the above data don’t suggest that the United States should copy Japan.

Or what about this chart, which I originally shared back in 2019. It shows that the bottom 20 percent of people in the United States are doing better than the average person in Japan (highlighted in red).

Once again, these numbers don’t lead me to think that America should be copying Japan.

I won’t bother with another chart, but I also invite readers to peruse the OECD’s AIC data, which shows the average person in the United States being way ahead of the average person in Japan.

The bottom line is that I’m all in favor of Joe Biden using other nations as role models. But I would go with Singapore before Japan. Or perhaps he could adopt an a la carte approach, picking the best of the best from around the world (Switzerland’s fiscal rule, Monaco’s tax system, Chile’s private pension regime, etc).

P.S. Japan only ranks in the middle third when looking at the societal capital of nations.

P.P.S. I used to assume that Japan had a competent government sector, stories like this and this have changed my perspective.

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In Part I of this series, I expressed some optimism that Joe Biden would not aggressively push his class-warfare tax plan, particularly since Republicans almost certainly will wind up controlling the Senate.

But the main goal of that column was to explain that the internal revenue code already is heavily weighted against investors, entrepreneurs, business owners and other upper-income taxpayers.

And to underscore that point, I shared two charts from Brian Riedl’s chartbook to show that the “rich” are now paying a much larger share of the tax burden – notwithstanding the Reagan tax cuts, Bush tax cuts, and Trump tax cuts – than they were 40 years ago.

Not only that, but the United States has a tax system that is more “progressive” than all other developed nations (all of whom also impose heavy tax burdens on upper-income taxpayers, but differ from the United States in that they also pillage lower-income and middle-class residents).

In other words, Biden’s class-warfare tax plan is bad policy.

Today’s column, by contrast, will point out that his tax increases are impractical. Simply stated, they won’t collect much revenue because people change their behavior when incentives to earn and report income are altered.

This is especially true when looking at upper-income taxpayers who – compared to the rest of us – have much greater ability to change the timing, level, and composition of their income.

This helps to explain why rich people paid five times as much tax to the IRS during the 1980s when Reagan slashed the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent.

When writing about this topic, I normally use the Laffer Curve to help people understand why simplistic assumptions about tax policy are wrong (that you can double tax revenue by doubling tax rates, for instance). And I point out that even folks way on the left, such as Paul Krugman, agree with this common-sense view (though it’s also worth noting that some people on the right discredit the concept by making silly assertions that “all tax cuts pay for themselves”).

But instead of showing the curve again, I want to go back to Brian Riedl’s chartbook and review his data on of revenue changes during the eight years of the Obama Administration.

It shows that Obama technically cut taxes by $822 billion (as further explained in the postscript, most of that occurred when some of the Bush tax cuts were made permanent by the “fiscal cliff” deal in 2012) and raised taxes by $1.32 trillion (most of that occurred as a result of the Obamacare legislation).

If we do the math, that means Obama imposed a cumulative net tax increase of about $510 billion during his eight years in office

But, if you look at the red bar on the chart, you’ll see that the government didn’t wind up with more money because of what the number crunchers refer to as “economic and technical reestimates.”

Indeed, those reestimates resulted in more than $3.1 trillion of lost revenue during the Obama years.

I don’t want the politicians and bureaucrats in Washington to have more tax revenue, but I obviously don’t like it when tax revenues shrink simply because the economy is stagnant and people have less taxable income.

Yet that’s precisely what we got during the Obama years.

To be sure, it would be inaccurate to assert that revenues declined solely because of Obama’s tax increase. There were many other bad policies that also contributed to taxable income falling short of projections.

Heck, maybe there was simply some bad luck as well.

But even if we add lots of caveats, the inescapable conclusion is that it’s not a good idea to adopt policies – such as class-warfare tax rates – that discourage people from earning and reporting taxable income.

The bottom line is that we should hope Biden’s proposed tax increases die a quick death.

P.S. The “fiscal cliff” was the term used to describe the scheduled expiration of the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts. According to the way budget data is measured in Washington, extending some of those provisions counted as a tax cut even though the practical impact was to protect people from a tax increase.

P.P.S. Even though Biden absurdly asserted that paying higher taxes is “patriotic,” it’s worth pointing out that he engaged in very aggressive tax avoidance to protect his family’s money.

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I’m a big fan of New Zealand because the nation is a great example of how sweeping free-market reforms lead to very good results.

Perhaps most impressive, New Zealand has very high levels of societal capital, ranking #1 in the new Global Index of Economic Mentality.

And the country also gets very high scores from Economic Freedom of the World and the Index of Economic Freedom.

But that doesn’t mean policy is perfect. The current Primer Minister already has demonstrated she has a very limited understanding of economics, and now she’s proving her lack of knowledge by imposing a version of “comparable worth.”

In a column for the New York Times, lavishes praise on this misguided scheme, which would give politicians and bureaucrats the power to decide that certain professions are systematically underpaid based on the share of female workers.

…a New Zealand law aimed at eliminating pay discrimination against women in female-dominated occupations…provides a road map for addressing the seemingly intractable gender pay gap. …Instead of “equal pay for equal work,” supporters of pay equity call for “equal pay for work of equal value,” or “comparable worth.” They ask us to consider whether a female-dominated occupation such as nursing home aide, for instance, is really so different from a male-dominated one, such as corrections officer… What is at stake is…a societywide reckoning with the value of “women’s work.” How much do we really think this work is worth? But also: How do we decide? …In effect, New Zealand is engaged in a countrywide effort to…fundamentally rethink the value of the work typically done by women. But where equal pay processes are relatively straightforward, pay equity, when done properly, challenges us to think deeply and objectively about a job and its components. …To negotiate the New Zealand social workers’ settlement, for instance, a working group composed of union officials, delegates from the Ministry of Children, social workers and employer representatives undertook a comprehensive assessment… Unions in New Zealand are currently pursuing over a dozen public sector claims, covering, among others, library assistants, clerical workers and customer-facing roles.

Ms. Sussman writes about an “intractable gender pay gap,” but the academic evidence suggests that this concept is nonsensical.

Simply stated, if women were systematically underpaid, investors and businesses would reap enormous profits by by setting up female-only firms to take advantage of pay differentials.

Heck, it’s worth noting that even a member of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors refused to support similar arguments in the United States.

For what it’s worth, the New Zealand legislation mostly seems to be a back-door way to funnel more pay to bureaucrats.

New Zealand has, so far, been able to take the steps it has because the government pays for these wages. It’s not yet clear when, or whether, these efforts will work their way into the private sector. The vast majority of New Zealand’s businesses are small, with some 95 percent of firms employing fewer than 20 people. …proponents of pay equity say arguments about affordability miss the point. “Employers are not entitled to make even small profits on the backs of underpaid women,” said Linda Hill, a member of the Coalition for Equal Value, Equal Pay, a group of feminists who have worked in different fields on this issue for years. “Businesses that can’t pay fair wages aren’t viable businesses.”

Wow, Ms. Hill must be the New Zealand version of Hillary Clinton (who, when asked about the potential impact of the 1993 Hillarycare legislation, infamously and dismissively said that “I can’t be responsible for every undercapitalized entrepreneur in America”).

By the way, Ms. Sussman likes the idea of imposing comparable worth in the United States, which she explicitly acknowledges is the opposite of free markets.

In America, where state support for gender equality has never been less robust, pay equity’s financial obligation will likely fall on individuals. Are we willing to pay more, say, at the grocery store, or to the home health aides who look after our elderly? Are we willing to re-examine the assumptions embedded in what we have been told are “free markets” for labor?

The bottom line is that comparable worth is a form of government-imposed price controls, in this case dictating the price of labor.

And, as explained in videos from Marginal RevolutionLearn Liberty, and Russ Roberts, it’s a very bad idea to let politicians interfere with prices.

P.S. For those who want to fully understand the economics of “comparable worth,” read this superb report by one of my colleagues from grad school, Professor Deb Walker.

P.P.S. New Zealand was not included in the study I wrote about last week, so it’s unclear how much bureaucrats already are overpaid.

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China is a success if you consider how economic freedom increased after Mao’s death and hundreds of millions of people were lifted out of unimaginable poverty. But I explain in this interview that China is also a failure because the reforms were too limited and the country may now be drifting in the wrong direction.

All you really need to know is that China only ranks #124 in the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World. To be sure its score is much higher than it was back in the 1970s, but it’s still way behind even nations such as Greece.

And China is paying a price for excessive government. This chart shows data on economic freedom and economic prosperity for Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and China – and you can see how China’s growth isn’t so impressive when compared to the more market-oriented nations of East Asia.

I wrote way back in 2010 that Americans don’t need to fear the “Chinese Tiger, and it seems I’m not the only one to peruse the data and express skepticism about China’s economic outlook.

In an article for the Atlantic, Michael Schuman explains that China is unlikely to catch the United States.

Can China do better? Sure, it will almost certainly continue to gain wealth and influence. But to become No. 1, Beijing must overcome hurdles…the U.S. has retained a host of advantages that are often overlooked or underappreciated. …The total output of the U.S. economy was $20.5 trillion in 2018, significantly larger than China’s $13.6 trillion. Calculated on a per-person basis, the gap is even more glaring. …a much better comparison is of national wealth… By this metric, Americans remain significantly richer than the Chinese. In one estimate, U.S. household wealth was $106 trillion in mid-2019…compared with an estimated $64 trillion for China. …China is vulnerable to falling into the “middle-income trap.” That’s where many high-growth, emerging economies tend to end up: After reaching a comfortable level of income, they stall and struggle to leap into the ranks of the world’s most advanced economies… Only a small handful of developing nations, including South Korea and Singapore, have managed that jump in recent times. …China could get stuck in this snare. The heavy hand of the state in China’s economy—a source of envy for many U.S. policy makers—may be dragging it down. Bureaucrats direct bank loans, subsidies, and other resources to notoriously bloated and inefficient state-owned enterprises, loss-making “zombie” companies, and useless infrastructure projects, amassing a potentially destabilizing mountain of debt and killing off much-needed productivity gains.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, former Secretary of State George Shultz opines on China’s challenges.

People are justifiably worried about China. It is wrecking Hong Kong… Xi Jinping’s statist economic strategy has returned to the Maoist model, putting private enterprise under the thumb of the Communist Party… China’s next 20 years are unlikely to repeat its past 20. Take the labor force. Growth in gross domestic product is a factor of a country’s labor-force and productivity growth. …But the labor force of Mr. Xi’s China is now declining… local governments and businesses are now swamped in contingent debts, often off-book. An example is high-speed rail. State-owned China Railway took on nearly $1 trillion in debt… we should recall…Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s calls for markets and personal freedom as engines of human prosperity… Mr. Xi’s campaign to stamp out intellectual discourse in China has threatened…the country’s economic prospects.

In another piece for the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page, Kevin Rudd (former Prime Minister of Australia) and Daniel Rosen also paint a less-than-optimistic picture of what’s happening in China.

Despite repeated commitments from Chinese authorities to open up and address the country’s overreliance on debt, the China Dashboard has observed delayed attempts and even backtracking on reforms. …An honest look at the forces behind China’s growth this year shows a doubling down on state-managed solutions, not real reform. State-owned entities, or SOEs, drove China’s investment-led recovery. In the first half of 2020, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, fixed-asset investment grew by 2.1% among SOEs and decreased by 7.3% in the private sector. …Perhaps the most significant demonstration of mistrust in markets is the “internal circulation” program first floated by President Xi Jinping in May. …expect more subsidies to producers and other government interventions, rather than measures that empower buyers. Dictating to markets and decreeing that consumption will rise aren’t the hallmarks of an advanced economy. …For years, the world has watched and waited for China to become more like a free-market economy…the multiple gauges of reform we have been monitoring through the China Dashboard point in the opposite direction. China’s economic norms are diverging from, rather than converging with, the West’s. …Though Beijing talks about “market allocation” efficiency, it isn’t guided by what mainstream economists would call market principles. The Chinese economy is instead a system of state capitalism in which the arbiter is an uncontestable political authority.

The most impressive evidence comes from an article in the Journal of Applied Corporate Finance.

Authored by Professor Michael Beckley from Tufts University, it’s a comprehensive explanation of why China is lagging.

China’s economy is big but inefficient. It produces vast output but at enormous expense. Chinese businesses suffer from chronically high production costs… The United States, by contrast, is big and efficient. American businesses are among the most productive in the world… China’s economy is barely keeping pace as the burden of propping up loss-making companies and feeding, policing, protecting, and cleaning up after one-fifth of humanity erodes China’s stocks of wealth. …To become an economic superpower, a country needs to amass a large stock of wealth—and to do that it must be big and efficient. It must not only mobilize vast inputs, but also produce significant output per unit of input. …How productive is China’s economy? Remarkably, nearly all of China’s economic growth since 2007 can be attributed to inputs: hiring workers and spending money. China’s productivity growth has not only been unspectacular; it has been virtually nonexistent.5 By contrast, productivity improvements have accounted for roughly 20% of U.S. economic growth over the past decade, as it has for most of the past 100 years.

Here’s some additional data on problems with China’s state-driven economic system.

China’s private sector is relatively efficient, but it is shackled to a bloated state sector that destroys nearly as much value as it creates. Private firms generate roughly two-thirds of China’s wealth and an estimated 80% of its innovations, but the Chinese government prioritizes political control over economic efficiency and thus funnels 80% of loans and subsidies to state-owned enterprises. As a result, state zombie firms are propped up while private companies are starved of capital. All told, more than one-third of China’s industrial capacity goes to waste and nearly two-thirds of China’s infrastructure projects cost more to build than they will ever generate in economic returns. Total losses from this waste are difficult to calculate, but the Chinese government estimates that it blew nearly $7 trillion on “ineffective investment” between 2009 and 2014. …At $40 trillion and counting, China’s debt is not only the largest ever recorded by a developing country, it has risen faster than any country’s, nearly quintupling in absolute size between 2007 and 2019. …the U.S. stock of human capital is several times greater than China’s. China has four times the population of the United States, but the average American worker generates seven times the output of the average Chinese worker. …China also loses 400,000 of its most highly educated workers every year to foreign countries in net terms, including thousands of scientists, engineers, and “inventors” (people that have registered at least one patent). The United States, by contrast, nets one million workers annually from all foreign countries, including roughly 20,000 inventors and 15,000 scientists and engineers, 5,000 of whom come from China. …The United States generates roughly 40% more wealth per unit of energy than China.

We’ll close with this chart from Professor Beckley’s article.

The bottom line is that China is not close to the United States. It’s not even catching up.

P.S. I want China to liberalize and prosper. That would be good for the people of China and it would be good for the world. I’m simply pointing out we won’t get that happy outcome if China persists is following bad ideas such as central planning and industrial policy.

P.P.S. Sadly, China will move further in the wrong direction if it takes awful fiscal advice from the International Monetary Fund or Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

P.P.P.S. If you want an example of sloppy and/or malignant media bias, check out how the New York Times tried to blame free markets for the failure of China’s government-run health system.

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During the campaign, Joe Biden proposed a massive tax increase, far beyond what either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton put forth when they ran for the White House.

Some people speculate that Biden isn’t actually that radical, and that his class-warfare agenda was simply a tactic to fend off Bernie Sanders, so it will be interesting to see how much of his political platform winds up as actual legislative proposals in 2021.

That being said, we can safely assume three things.

  1. Biden will propose higher taxes.
  2. Those tax increases will target upper-income taxpayers such as entrepreneurs, investors, and business owners.
  3. Those tax increases will be a very bad idea.

The main argument that Biden and his supporters will use to justify such a plan is that “rich” taxpayers are not paying their fair share.

More specifically, we’ll be told that upper-income households are not pulling their weight thanks to the cumulative impact of the Reagan tax cuts, the Bush tax cuts, and the Trump tax cuts.

There’s just one problem with this argument. As shown by this multi-decade data from Brian Riedl’s chartbook, it’s wildly, completely, and utterly inaccurate. The richest 20 percent are now shouldering a much greater share of the tax burden.

Every other group, by contrast, is now paying a smaller share of the tax burden.

Some folks on the left assert that the above chart is misleading. They say the chart merely shows that the rich have been getting richer and everyone else is falling behind.

The solution, they argue, is to catch up with the rest of the world by making the tax system more “progressive.”

Their assertions about income trends are wrong, but let’s leave that for another day and focus on so-called progressivity.

Once again, Riedl’s chartbook is the go-to source. As shown in this chart, it turns out that rich people pay a higher share than their counterparts in every other developed nation.

Please notice, by the way, the additional explanation in the lower-left portion of the chart, The numbers displayed do not include the value-added taxes that are imposed by every other nation, which are regressive or proportional depending on the time horizon. This means that the overall American tax code is far more tilted against the rich than shown by this chart.

But the key point to understand, as I’ve noted before, is that difference between Europe and the United States is not the taxation of the rich. The real reason that America has the most progressive tax system is that European nations impose much heavier taxes on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers.

P.S. At the risk of stating the obvious, this is not desirable since class-warfare taxes generally cause the most economic damage on a per-dollar-collected basis.

P.P.S. It’s also worth remembering that higher tax rates on the rich don’t necessarily lead to higher tax revenues.

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For years, public finance experts have been warning about fiscally irresponsibility by state and local governments.

Many of those governments have been spending too much money and making overly expensive promises to interest groups such as government employees. Combined with the fact that these jurisdictions are driving away taxpayers, this leaves them vulnerable to potential crisis if the economy falters.

Which, of course, is exactly what happened with the coronavirus.

As is so often the case, Washington responded in an imprudent manner. As part of multi-trillion dollar emergency legislation (the CARES Act), Congress directly funneled hundreds of billions of dollars to state and local governments.

That legislation also gave the nation’s central bank, the Federal Reserve, the authority to steer money to those same governments.

Notwithstanding all this generosity, state and local politicians are now asking for even more money. In part, this is a fight over the provisions of a potential new “stimulus” bill from Congress.

But it’s also a battle over the fate of the Federal Reserve’s ability to interfere with the allocation of capital by directing money to state and local governments.

In a report for the New York Times, Jeanna Smialek and explain what’s happening.

A political fight is brewing over whether to extend critical programs that the Federal Reserve rolled out to help keep credit flowing to…municipalities amid the pandemic-induced recession. …Those programs expire on Dec. 31, and it is unclear whether the Trump administration will agree to extend them. The Federal Reserve chair, Jerome H. Powell, and Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, must together decide whether they will continue the programs — including one that buys state and local bonds, another purchasing corporate debt and another that makes loans to small and medium-size businesses. …Mnuchin…has signaled that he would favor ending the one that buys municipal bonds. And he is under growing pressure from Republicans to allow all five of the Treasury-backed programs to sunset. …The financial terms for buying state and local debt…are not generous enough to compete in a market functioning well… Their main purpose has been to reassure investors that the central bank is there as a last-ditch option if conditions worsen.

However, economic conditions have dramatically improved since the coronavirus first hit, so there’s no longer any argument that financial markets are dealing with crisis conditions.

But that doesn’t seem to matter to politicians who want to subsidize bad fiscal policy at the state and local level.

Some Democrats had begun eyeing the municipal program as a backup option in the event that state and local government relief proved hard to pass through Congress. While the program’s terms are unattractive now, they could in theory be sweetened under a Biden administration Treasury Department. …If a coronavirus vaccine is rolled out in the coming weeks, the Treasury Department may be less inclined to extend the programs. Mr. Trump could also block a reauthorization by pressuring Mr. Mnuchin, leaving Mr. Biden with fewer economic stimulus tools at his disposal. …state and local governments are facing budget shortfalls, albeit smaller ones than some had initially projected.

Nick Timiraos reports on the issue for the Wall Street Journal.

Divisions over their future are being amplified by partisan gridlock in Congress over whether to provide more economic stimulus. Democrats, looking ahead to President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration in January, see the programs as a potential tool to deliver more aid if Congress doesn’t act, while some Republicans are worried about relying on central bank lending powers as a substitute for congressional spending decisions. …A decision not to renew the programs…could also deprive some…governments of access to low-cost credit if market conditions worsen. …If the Trump administration decides not to extend the programs, Mr. Biden’s Treasury Department could determine whether to reactivate them in some fashion after the new administration takes office Jan. 20.

The bottom line is that a Biden Administration likely will be able to give states and localities a bailout, even if Congress doesn’t approve a new “stimulus,” and even if the Trump Administration doesn’t extend the Federal Reserve’s authority. But at least the incoming Biden people would have to jump through a few hoops.

Which is very unfortunate since it will reward the jurisdictions that behaved recklessly. A classic example of “moral hazard.”

I’ll close with this critical bit of data from Chris Edwards. As you can see, state and local governments actually have profited from the coronavirus since they got far more money from the CARES Act than they lost because of diminished tax revenue.

P.S. For what it’s worth, the Federal Reserve has always had the ability to steer money to state and local governments, both as part of normal monetary policy operation and because of its vast emergency powers. The good news is that it has not gone down that path.

And the best way to make sure it doesn’t go down that path in the future is to eliminate or restrict such powers. Private markets, which reflect the preferences of consumers, should determine the allocation of capital. We don’t want to copy the mistakes of China and have government making those choices.

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Given my complete and utter disdain for socialism, I’m obviously a big fan of this discussion between Rand Paul and John Stossel.

In the video, Paul and Stossel draw a distinction between market-friendly welfare states in Scandinavia and genuinely socialist nations such as the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and modern-day Venezuela.

That’s because, from a technical perspective, the defining feature of socialism is government ownership and control of the “means of production” and government-directed allocation of resources. In the most extreme cases, you even get policies such as state-run factories and collective farms.

Usually accompanied by central planning and price controls.

On this basis, Scandinavian nations are not socialist. Yes, they make the mistake of high tax burdens accompanied by lots of redistribution, but there’s very little government ownership and control. Markets drive the allocation of labor and capital, not politicians and bureaucrats.

And it’s also fair to say (assuming we rely on the technical definition) that politicians such as Obama and Biden aren’t socialist.

But what if don’t use the technical definition?

YouGov did a survey late last year to ascertain what ordinary Americans think. Here is their view of the policies that are (or are not) socialist. As you can see, the most-socialist policy is government-run utility companies and the least-socialist policy is separation of church and state.

I’m fascinated to see that so many Americans view government-run schools as socialist, much more so than a wealth tax or income tax.

It’s also interesting that Republicans and Democrats have somewhat similar opinions, other than on the topic of gun control.

But my main takeaway is that ordinary people aren’t that different than economists. They think – quite correctly – that socialism means control rather than redistribution.

But they had a better understanding after World War II, as noted by James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute.

When someone calls themself a “socialist” or says they think “socialism” has a lot of good ideas, what do they mean? …Back in 2018, Gallup updated a question it first asked in 1949: “What is your understanding of the term ‘socialism’?” …23 percent of Americans today understand socialism as referring to some form of equality vs. 12 percent in 1949; 10 percent think the means something about the public provision of benefits like free healthcare vs. 2 percent in 1949; and 17 percent define socialism as government control of business and the economy vs. 34 percent in 1949. …this idea of “control” is an interesting one. …The danger this view holds for human freedom and progress is obvious to us today — or should be… Skepticism of applied socialism — or any socioeconomic system without political freedom at its core — stemmed from harsh experience, not learned ideology. For many people, “socialism” meant “control,” with that control inevitably leading to terrible outcomes. One should hope these lessons do not need to be relearned.

Even some folks on the left draw a distinction between market-accepting left-wing policies (redistributionism) and market-disdaining control-oriented policies (socialism).

A few years ago, Jonathan Chait made those points in an article for New York.

…in the United States, liberalism faces greater pressure from the left than at any time since the 1960s, when a domestic liberal presidency was destroyed by the VietnamWar. While socialism remains highly unpopular among the public as a whole, Americans under the age of 30 — who have few or no memories of communism — respond to it favorably. …Meanwhile, Jacobin magazine has given long-marginalized Marxist ideas new force among progressive intellectuals. …Sanders’s success does not reflect any Marxist tendency. It does, however, reflect a…generational weakening of the Democratic Party’s identification with liberalism over socialism. …Years ago, he supported the Socialist Workers Party, a Marxist group that favored the nationalization of industry. Today he…holds up Denmark as the closest thing to a real-world model for his ideas. But, while “socialism” has meant different things throughout history, Denmark is not really a socialist economy. …it combines generous welfare benefits…with highly flexible labor markets — an amped-up version of what left-wing critics derisively call “neoliberalism.” While Denmark’s success suggests that a modern economy can afford to fund more generous social benefits, it does not reveal an alternative to the marketsystem.

David Brooks of the New York Times started out as a socialist, but he figured out that government-controlled economies simply don’t work.

I was a socialist in college. …My socialist sympathies didn’t survive long once I became a journalist. I quickly noticed that the government officials I was covering were not capable of planning the society they hoped to create. It wasn’t because they were bad or stupid. The world is just too complicated. …Socialist planned economies — the common ownership of the means of production — interfere with price and other market signals in a million ways. They suppress or eliminate profit motives that drive people to learn and improve. …Capitalism creates a relentless learning system. Socialism doesn’t. …living standards were pretty much flat for all of human history until capitalism kicked in. Since then, the number of goods and services available to average people has risen by up to 10,000 percent. …capitalism has brought about the greatest reduction of poverty in human history. …places that instituted market reforms, like South Korea and Deng Xiaoping’s China, tended to get richer and prouder. Places that moved toward socialism — Britain in the 1970s, Venezuela more recently — tended to get poorer and more miserable. …Over the past century, planned economies have produced an enormous amount of poverty and scarcity. …Socialism produces economic and political inequality as the rulers turn into gangsters. A system that begins in high idealism ends in corruption, dishonesty, oppression and distrust.

And, from the Wall Street Journal, here are George Melloan’s first-hand observations on the track record of socialism.

All economic systems are capitalist. A modern economy can’t exist without the accumulation of capital to build factories and infrastructure. The difference lies in who owns the capital—individuals or the state. …Having first visited the mother of socialism, the Soviet Union, in April 1967, I can extract a few historical nuggets… The Soviet state owned everything. State enterprises compensated their workers with rubles. …And those rubles bought very little, because the command economy produced very little (except weapons), and most of what it produced was shoddy. …stores were short on goods. …Rents were cheap, if you didn’t mind squalor. …Prices and production quotas were set by a huge Soviet planning bureaucracy called Gosplan, staffed by thousands of “economists.” Free-market pricing efficiently allocates resources. Price controls created waste as factories produced a lot of what nobody wanted. …Britain, where I was living at the time, was conducting a socialist experiment… After World War II, the Labour Party of Prime Minister Clement Attlee had nationalized coal, steel, electricity and transportation, with damaging and wasteful consequences. …I interviewed a steelworker in Sheffield who lived with his wife and two children in a “back to back” house with only a single door, at the front. …He didn’t own a car and had few other conveniences. A worker for U.S. Steel in Pittsburgh would have been appalled at such conditions.

Based on the above excerpts, which come from the right, left, and center, it would seem that capitalism has prevailed over socialism.

I like to think that’s true, but I do wonder whether there’s a point when redistributionism gets so extensive (and the accompanying taxes become so onerous) that it morphs into control. In other words, socialism.

And I also worry that there are indirect ways for government to control the allocation of resources.

In a column for the Washington Post, George Will wisely frets about backdoor socialism from the Federal Reserve.

…the Federal Reserve has, Eberstadt says, “crossed a Rubicon.” Wading waist-deep into political policies, the Fed is adopting, Eberstadt says, “the role of managing and even micromanaging the American economy through credit allocation, potentially lending vast sums not only to financial institutions but also directly to firms it judges suitable for government support. …It is by no means inconceivable that the current crisis will propel it to a comparably dominant position in domestic commercial credit.” If socialism is government allocation of economic resources (and hence of opportunity), …in the 2008 financial crisis, the Federal Reserve launched “creditor bailouts, propping up asset prices to keep investors from losing money, buying unprecedented assets.” The risk of moral hazard — incentives for reckless behavior — is obvious. …Central banks buying trillions of assets are thereby “allocating credit.” Which is the essence of socialism. The Fed buying government and corporate debt creates something difficult to unwind — what Cochrane calls “an entirely government-run financial system”: an attribute of socialism. …Near-zero interest rates…create, Eberstadt says, “zombie companies” that “can only survive in a low-interest [rate] environment.” The result is rent-seeking and economic sclerosis, because “America cannot succeed unless a lot of its firms fail — including its largest ones. Bankruptcy and reallocation of resources to more productive ends are the mother’s milk of dynamic growth.” The pandemic has propelled government toward promiscuously picking economic winners and losers. As has been said, governments are not good at picking winners, but losers are good at picking governments.

Let’s close by returning to the YouGov survey.

Here’s a look at the nations that the American people think are (or are not) socialist. Their top choices are correct, but they’re wildly wrong to have the Nordic nations ranked as more socialist than France, Spain, or Italy.

It’s also bizarre to rank New Zealand below the United States when the Kiwis routinely score higher than the United States in the major measures of economic liberty.

I’m equally baffled that people Mexico and India have more economic liberty than Canada.

The moral of the story is that the countries with the biggest welfare states are not necessarily the nations with the most government control over the allocation of labor and capital.

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In another display of selfless masochism, I watched the TrumpBiden debate last night.

The candidates behaved better, for whatever that’s worth, but I was disappointed that there so little time (and even less substance) devoted to economic issues.

One of the few exceptions was the brief tussle regarding the minimum wage. Trump waffled on the issue, so I don’t give him any points, but Biden fully embraced the Bernie Sanders policy of basically doubling the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

This is very bad news for low-skilled workers and very bad news to low-margin businesses.

The economic of this issue are very simple. If a worker generates, say, $9 of revenue per hour, and politicians say that worker can’t be employed for less than $15 per hour, that’s a recipe for unemployment.

Earlier this month, Professor Steven Landsburg on the University of Rochester opined for the Wall Street Journal on Biden’s minimum-wage policy.

It isn’t only that I think Mr. Biden is frequently wrong. It’s that he tends to be wrong in ways that suggest he never cared about being right. He makes no attempt to defend many of his policies with logic or evidence, and he deals with objections by ignoring or misrepresenting them. …Take Mr. Biden’s stance on the federal minimum wage, which he wants to increase to $15 an hour from $7.25. …So why does Mr. Biden want to raise the minimum wage…? He hasn’t said, so I have two guesses, neither of which reflects well on him. Guess No. 1: He’s dissembling about the cost. …The minimum wage…comes directly from employers but indirectly (after firms shrink and prices rise) from consumers. A minimum wage is a stealth tax on eating at McDonald’s or shopping at Walmart. …Mr. Biden should acknowledge the cost of wage hikes and argue for accepting it. Instead he’s silent about the cost, hoping he can foist it on people who won’t realize they’re footing this bill. Guess No. 2: He’s rewarding his friends and punishing his enemies. New York is going to vote for Mr. Biden. The state also has a high cost of living and high wages—so New Yorkers would be largely unaffected by the minimum-wage hike. Alabama is going to vote against Mr. Biden. Alabama has a low cost of living and relatively low wages—so under the Biden plan Alabama firms would shrink, to the benefit of competitors in New York. Alabama workers and consumers would pay a greater price than New Yorkers.

And Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute recently highlighted some of the adverse effects for unskilled workers.

It’s an economic reality that workers compete against other workers, not against employers, for jobs, and higher wages in the labor market. And it’s also true that lower-skilled, limited-experience, less-educated workers compete against higher-skilled, more experienced, more educated workers for jobs. …If the minimum wage is increased…, that will…take away from unskilled workers the one advantage they currently have to compete against skilled workers – the ability to offer to work for a significantly lower wage than what skilled workers can command. …Result of a minimum wage hike to $15 an hour? Demand for skilled workers goes up, demand for unskilled workers goes down, and employment opportunities for unskilled workers are reduced.

Since I recently shared videos with Milton Friedman’s wisdom on both taxes and spending, here’s what he said about the minimum wage.

Let’s share one last bit of evidence. Mark Perry’s article referenced some new research by Jeffrey Clemens, Lisa Kahn, and Jonathan Meer.

Here’s what those scholars found in a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

We investigate whether changes in firms’ skill requirements are channels through which labor markets respond to minimum wage increases. …Data from the American Community Survey show that recent minimum wage changes resulted in increases in the average age and education of the individuals employed in low-wage jobs. Data on job vacancy postings show that the prevalence of a high school diploma requirement increases at the same time. The shift in skill requirements begins within the first quarter of a minimum wage hike. Further, it results from both within-firm shifts in postings and across-firms shifts towards firms that sought more-skilled workers at baseline. Given the poor labor market outcomes of individuals without high school diplomas, these findings have substantial policy relevance. This possibility was recognized well over a century ago by Smith (1907), who noted that the “enactment of a minimum wage involves the possibility of creating a class prevented by the State from obtaining employment.” Further, negative effects may be exacerbated for minority groups in the presence of labor market discrimination.

So why do politicians push for higher minimum wages, when all the evidence suggests that vulnerable workers bear the heaviest cost?

Part of the answer is that they don’t understand economics and don’t care about evidence.

But there’s also a more reprehensible answer, which is that they do understand, but they want to curry favor with union bosses, and those union bosses push for higher minimum wages as a way of reducing competition from lower-skilled workers.

P.S. Here’s my CNBC debate with Joe Biden’s top economic advisor on this issue.

P.P.S. Here’s a rather frustrating discussion I had on the minimum wage with Yahoo Finance.

P.P.P.S. But if you’re pressed for time, don’t listen to me pontificate. Instead, watch this video.

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The good news is that the election season is almost over. The bad news is that we’ll have a president next year who does not embrace classical liberal principles of free markets and social tolerance.

But that doesn’t mean Trump and Biden are equally bad. Depending on what issues you think are most important, they’re not equally bad in what they say. And, because politicians often make insincere promises, they’re not equally bad in what they’ll actually do.

Regarding Trump, we have a track record. We know he’s pro-market on some issues (taxes and red tape) and we know he’s anti-market on other issues (spending and trade).

Regarding Biden, we have his track record in the United States Senate, where he routinely voted to expand the burden of government.

But we also have his presidential platform. And that’s the topic for today’s column. We’re going to review the major economic analyses that have been conducted on his proposals.

We’ll start with a report from Moody’s Analytics, authored by Mark Zandi and Bernard Yaros, which compares the economic impacts of the Trump and Biden agendas.

The economic outlook is strongest under the scenario in which Biden and the Democrats sweep Congress and fully adopt their economic agenda. In this scenario, the economy is expected to create 18.6 million jobs during Biden’s term as president, and the economy returns to full employment, with unemployment of just over 4%, by the second half of 2022. During Biden’s presidency, the average American household’s real after-tax income increases by approximately $4,800, and the homeownership rate and house prices increase modestly. Stock prices also rise, but the gains are limited. …Near-term economic growth is lifted by Biden’s aggressive government spending plans, which are deficit-financed in significant part. …Greater government spending adds directly to GDP and jobs, while the higher tax burden has an indirect impact through business investment and the spending and saving behavior of high-income households. …The economic outlook is weakest under the scenario in which Trump and the Republicans sweep Congress and fully adopt their economic agenda. …Trump has proposed much less expansive support to the economy from tax and spending policies.

Here’s the most relevant set of graphs from the report.

The Moody’s study is an outlier, however. Most other comprehensive analyses are less favorable to Biden.

For instance, a study for the Hoover Institution by Timothy Fitzgerald, Kevin Hassett, Cody Kallen, and Casey Mulligan, finds that Biden’s plan will weaken overall economic performance.

We estimate possible effects of Joe Biden’s tax and regulatory agenda. We find that transportation and electricity will require more inputs to produce the same outputs due to ambitious plans to further cut the nation’s carbon emissions, resulting in one or two percent less total factor productivity nationally. Second, we find that proposed changes to regulation as well as to the ACA increase labor wedges. Third, Biden’s agenda increases average marginal tax rates on capital income. Assuming that the supply of capital is elastic in the long run to its after-tax return and that the substitution effect of wages on labor supply is nontrivial, we conclude that, in the long run, Biden’s full agenda reduces fulltime equivalent employment per person by about 3 percent, the capital stock per person by about 15 percent, real GDP per capita by more than 8 percent, and real consumption per household by about 7 percent.

Wonkier readers may be interested in these numbers, which show that there’s a modest benefit from unwinding some of Trump’s protectionism, but there’s a lot of damage from the the other changes proposed by the former Vice President.

In a report authored by Garrett Watson, Huaqun Li, and Taylor LaJoie, the Tax Foundation estimated the impact of Biden’s proposed policies. Here are some of the highlights.

According to the Tax Foundation General Equilibrium Model, Biden’s tax plan would reduce the economy’s size by 1.47 percent in the long run. The plan would shrink the capital stock by just over 2.5 percent and reduce the overall wage rate by a little over 1 percent, leading to about 518,000 fewer full-time equivalent jobs. …Biden’s tax plan would raise about $3.05 trillion over the next decade on a conventional basis, and $2.65 trillion after accounting for the reduction in the size of the U.S. economy. While taxpayers in the bottom four quintiles would see an increase in after-tax incomes in 2021 primarily due to the temporary CTC expansion, by 2030 the plan would lead to lower after-tax income for all income levels.

Table 2 from the report is worth sharing because it shows what policies have the biggest economic impact.

The bottom line is that it’s not a good idea to raise the corporate tax burden and it’s not a good idea to worsen the payroll tax burden.

Here are some excerpts by a study authored by Professor Laurence Kotlikoff for the Goodman Institute.

The micro analysis is based on The Fiscal Analyzer (TFA), which uses data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finance to calculate how much representative American households will pay in taxes net of what they will receive in benefits over the rest of their lives. …The key micro issues…are the degree to which the Vice President’s reforms alter relative remaining lifetime net tax burdens and lifetime spending of the rich and poor within specific age cohorts and the impact of the reforms on incentives to work, i.e., remaining lifetime marginal net tax rates. The macro analysis is based on the Global Gaidar Model (GGM)…a dynamic, 90-period OLG, 17-region general equilibrium model. …The analysis includes three sets of findings. The first is the change in lifetime net taxes defined as the change in lifetime net taxes. The second is the percentage change in lifetime spending, defined as the change in the present value of outlays on all goods and services as well as bequests, averaged across all survivor path. The third is the lifetime marginal net tax rate from earning an extra $1,000. TFA’s lifetime marginal net tax rate measure takes full account of so-called double taxation. …The GGM predicts a close to 6 percent reduction in the U.S. capital stock. The GGM predicts close to a 2 percent permanent reduction in annual U.S. GDP.  The GGM predicts a roughly 2 percentage-point reduction in wages of U.S. workers, with a larger reduction in the wages of high-skilled workers.

In a study for the Committee to Unleash Prosperity, Professor Casey Mulligan estimated the following effects.

This study addresses the impact of these tax rate changes on economic behavior – work, investment, output and growth. This study finds that the Biden tax agenda will reduce production, incomes, and employment per capita by increasing taxation of both labor and business capital. Employment will be about 3 million workers less in the long run (five to ten years). This employment effect is primarily due to the agenda’s expansion of health insurance credits, which raises the average marginal tax rates on labor income by 2.4 percentage points. Biden also plans to increase taxes on businesses and their owners by a combined 6 to 10 percentage points. These taxes will reduce long-run wages, GDP per worker, and business capital per worker in the long run. By decreasing both the number of workers per capita and GDP per worker, respectively, these two key elements of Biden’s agenda reinforce to significantly reduce GDP per capita and average household incomes. I estimate that, as a result of Biden’s tax agenda, real GDP per capita would be 4 to 5 percent less, which is about $8,000 per household per year in the long run. The two parts of the tax agenda combine to reduce real per capita business capital by 7 to 12 percent in the long run.

Here’s a table from the study.

I’ll add two points to the above analyses.

First, the reason that the Moody’s study produces wildly different results is that its model is based on Keynesian principles. As such, a bigger burden of government spending is assumed to stimulate growth.

For what it’s worth, I think borrowing and spending can lead to short-run increases in consumption, but I’m very skeptical that Keynesian policies can generate increases in national income (i.e., what we produce rather than what we consume) over the medium-run or long-run.

All of the other studies rely on models that estimate how government policies impact incentives to engage in productive behavior. They don’t all measure the same things (some of the studies look solely at taxes, some look at overall fiscal policy, and some also include a look at regulatory proposals) but the methodologies are similar.

Second, I’ll re-emphasize the point I made at the beginning about how politicians routinely say things during campaigns that are either insincere or impractical.

For instance, Trump promised to restrain domestic discretionary spending by $750 billion and he actually increased it by $700 billion.

Likewise, I don’t expect Biden (assuming he prevails) to deliver on his campaign promises. In this case, that’s good news since he won’t increase taxes and spending by nearly as much as what he’s embraced during the campaign (in my fantasy world, he turns out be like Bill Clinton and actually delivers a net reduction in the burden of government).

P.S. For those on the losing side of the upcoming election, I’ll remind you that Australia is probably the best option if you want to escape the United States. Though you may want to pick Switzerland if you have a lot of money.

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Back in July, I wrote a three-part series designed to identify the states with the greediest politicians.

The results sometimes matched expectations. Florida generally looked very responsible, for instance, while New York looked rather profligate.

But other results were mixed. In particular, Alaska and Wyoming have very good tax systems, but they use energy taxes to finance bloated public sectors.

Today, let’s build on that research by reviewing two new reports than rank state economic policy.

First, we have the American Legislative Exchange Council’s 2020 Report on Economic Freedom. It’s based on several factors, but I can’t help but notice that the 10-best-ranked states include five with no income tax and three with flat taxes.

If you look at the 10 states at the bottom of the rankings, by contrast, they almost all have so-called progressive taxes. The only exceptions are Alaska, which (as noted above) finances a big government with energy taxes, and Illinois, which has a flat tax that currently is under assault by the state’s big spenders.

Now let’s look at the Tax Foundation’s newly released State Business Tax Climate Index.

As you can see, the top 10 is dominated by states that either don’t tax income, or have flat taxes, and the one state (Montana) with a so-called progressive tax compensates by having no sales tax.

Every state in the bottom 10, meanwhile, has a discriminatory income tax.

The two reports cited above measure different things. But both use good data and rely on sound methodology, so it’s very interesting to see which states score well (and score poorly) in both.

The states that crack the top 10 in both reports are South Dakota, Florida, New Hampshire, Utah, and Indiana.

And the states that languish in the bottom 10 in both reports are Louisiana (they should have adopted Bobby Jindal’s plan when they had a chance) and New Jersey (not exactly a surprise).

P.S. I recently wrote about Chris Edwards’ Report Card on America’s Governors. So if we mesh those results (New Hampshire was in the top category while New Jersey was in the bottom category) with today’s results, the folks in the Granite State get the triple crown while the folks in the Garden State get a booby prize.

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I’ve written favorably about the pro-growth policies of low-tax states such as Texas, Florida, and Tennessee, while criticizing the anti-growth policies of high-tax states such as Illinois, California, and New York.

Does that mean we should conclude that “red states” are better than “blue states”? In this video for Prager University, Steve Moore says the answer is yes.

The most persuasive part of the video is the data on people “voting with their feet” against the blue states.

There’s lots of data showing a clear relationship between the tax burden and migration patterns. Presumably for two reasons:

  1. People don’t like being overtaxed and thus move from high-tax states to low-tax states.
  2. More jobs are created in low-tax states, and people move for those employment opportunities.

There’s a debate about whether people also move because they want better weather.

I’m sure that’s somewhat true, but Steve points out in the video that California has the nation’s best climate yet also is losing taxpayers to other states.

Since we’re discussing red states vs blue states, let’s look at some excerpts from a column by Nihal Krishan of the Washington Examiner.

States run by Republican governors on average have economically outperformed states run by Democratic governors in recent months. …Overall, Democratic-run states, particularly those in the Northeast and Midwest, had larger contractions in gross domestic product than Republican-run states in the Plains and the South, according to the latest state GDP data for the second quarter of 2020, released by the Commerce Department on Friday. Of the 20 states with the smallest decrease in state GDP, 13 were run by Republican governors, while the bottom 25 states with the highest decrease in state GDP were predominantly Democratic-run states. …Republican-controlled Utah had the second-lowest unemployment rate in the country in August at 4.1%, and the second-lowest GDP drop, at just over 18% in the second quarter. Nevada, run by Democrats, had the highest unemployment rate, at 13.2%. It was closely followed by Democratic-run Rhode Island, 12.8%, and New York, 12.5%.

Krishan notes that this short-run data is heavily impacted by the coronavirus and the shutdown policies adopted by various states, so it presumably doesn’t tell us much about the overall quality (or lack thereof) of economic policy.

I wrote about some multi-year data last year (before coronavirus was a problem) and found that low-tax states were creating jobs at a significantly faster rate than high-tax states.

But even that data only covered a bit more than three years.

I prefer policy comparisons over a longer period of time since that presumably removes randomness. Indeed, when comparing California, Texas, and Kansas a few years ago, I pointed out how a five-year set of data can yield different results (and presumably less-robust and less-accurate results) than a fifteen-year set of data.

P.S. What would be best is if we had several decades of data that could be matched with rigorous long-run measures of economic freedom in various states – similar to the data I use for my convergence/divergence articles that compare nations. Sadly, we have the former, but don’t have the latter (there are very good measures of economic freedom in the various states today, but we don’t have good historical estimates).

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Every so often, I’ll grouse about media sloppiness/media bias, most often from the Washington Post or New York Times, but also from other outlets (Reuters, Time, ABC, the Associated Press, etc).

Let’s add to the collection today by perusing an interesting – but frustrating – article in the New York Times about Venezuela’s near-decimated oil industry.

Authored by Sheyla Urdaneta, Anatoly Kurmanaev and , it provides a thorough description of how the energy sector in oil-rich Venezuela has collapsed.

For the first time in a century, there are no rigs searching for oil in Venezuela. Wells that once tapped the world’s largest crude reserves are abandoned… Refineries that once processed oil for export are rusting hulks… Fuel shortages have brought the country to a standstill. At gas stations, lines go on for miles. …The country that a decade ago was the largest producer in Latin America, earning about $90 billion a year from oil exports, is expected to net about $2.3 billion by this year’s end… More than five million Venezuelans, or one in six residents, have fled the country since 2015, creating one of the world’s greatest refugee crises, according to the United Nations. The country now has the highest poverty rate in Latin America, overtaking Haiti.

But here’s what shocked me. The article never once mentions socialism. Or statism. Or leftist economic policy.

Instead, there is one allusion to “mismanagement” and one sentence that refers to government policy.

…years of gross mismanagement… Hugo Chávez, appeared on the national stage in the 1990s promising a revolution that would put Venezuela’s oil to work for its poor majority, he captivated the nation. …Mr. Chávez commandeered the country’s respected state oil company for his radical development program. He fired nearly 20,000 oil professionals, nationalized foreign-owned oil assets and allowed allies to plunder the oil revenues.

Almost 1800 words in the article, yet virtually no discussion of how maybe, just maybe, Venezuela’s hard shift to the left (as illustrated by the chart, economic freedom has steadily declined this century) may have contributed to the collapse of the country’s major industry.

This is journalistic malpractice. Sort of like writing about 2020 and not mentioning coronavirus or writing about 1944 and not mentioning World War II.

For those of you who do care about facts, it’s worth knowing that Venezuela has the world’s lowest level of economic liberty according to Economic Freedom of the World and second-to-lowest level of economic liberty according to the Index of Economic Freedom.

In a column for USA Today, Daniel di Martino writes about the awful consequences of his nation’s drift to socialism.

All my life, I lived under socialism in Venezuela until I left and came to the United States as a student in 2016. Because the regime in charge imposed price controls and nationalized the most important private industries, production plummeted. No wonder I had to wait hours in lines to buy simple products such as toothpaste or flour. …My family and I suffered from blackouts and lack of water. The regime nationalized electricity in 2007 in an effort to make electricity “free.” Unsurprisingly, this resulted in underinvestment in the electrical grid. By 2016, my home lost power roughly once a week. …The real reason my family went without water and electricity was the socialist economy instituted by dictators Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro. The welfare programs, many minimum-wage hikes and nationalizations implemented by their regimes resulted in a colossal government deficit that the central bank covered by simply printing more money — leading to rampant inflation. …I watched what was once one of the richest countries in Latin America gradually fall apart under the weight of big government.

And he issues a warning about what could happen to the United States.

…neither Medicare for All nor a wealth tax alone would turn the United States into Venezuela overnight. No single radical proposal would do that. However, if all or most of these measures are implemented, they could have the same catastrophic consequences for the American people that they had for Venezuela.

The good news, so to speak, is that it would take many decades of bad policy to turn the U.S. into an economic basket case. There’s even a somewhat famous quote from Adam Smith (“there is a great deal of ruin in a nation“) about the ability of a country to survive and withstand lots of bad public policy.

But that doesn’t mean it would be a good idea to see how quickly the U.S. could become Venezuela. As I pointed out when writing about Argentina, it’s possible for a rich country to tax, spend, and regulate itself into economic crisis.

P.S. If you like gallows humor, you can find Venezuela-themed jokes here, here, here, here, here, and here.

P.P.S. I speculated about the looming collapse of Venezuela in both 2018 and 2019. Sadly, it looks like the regime will last at least until 2021.

 

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While I generally don’t think recycling is economically sensible, I am going to reuse this 2013 BBC interview because it’s time (again) to criticize the economic illiteracy of Pope Francis.

As I’ve previously explained, it’s good to care for the less fortunate. Indeed, as I explain in the interview, it’s part of being a good person.

It’s misguided, however, to think that higher taxes and bigger government are an effective way of lifting people out of poverty.

Indeed, we have centuries of evidence demonstrating that only capitalism produces mass prosperity.

Sadly, Pope Francis has a Peronist mindset on economic matters. So when he issues his thoughts on economic matters, we get erroneous cliches rather than helpful analysis.

A story from the Associated Press summarizes the Pope’s new attack on economic liberty.

Pope Francis says…the “magic theories” of market capitalism have failed and that the world needs a new type of politics that promotes dialogue and solidarity… The document draws its inspiration from…the pope’s previous preaching on the injustices of the global economy. “…not everything can be resolved by market freedom,” he wrote. …As an outgrowth of that, Francis rejected the concept of an absolute right to property for individuals… He repeated his criticism of the “perverse” global economic system, which he said consistently keeps the poor on the margins while enriching the few… Francis also rejected “trickle-down” economic theory… “Neo-liberalism simply reproduces itself by resorting to magic theories of ‘spillover’ or ‘trickle’ — without using the name — as the only solution to societal problems,” he wrote. “There is little appreciation of the fact that the alleged ‘spillover’ does not resolve the inequality.

And here’s how NPR reported the Pope’s anti-market message.

The document..is a scathing description of laissez faire capitalism… Once the pandemic passes, the pope writes, “our worst response would be to plunge even more deeply into feverish consumerism and new forms of egotistic self-preservation.” …Francis says the marketplace cannot resolve every problem, and he denounces what he describes as “this dogma of neoliberal faith” that “resort[s] to the magic theories of ‘spillover’ or ‘trickle.’ ” A good economic policy, he says, creates jobs — it doesn’t eliminate them.

The Pope is right that good policy creates jobs, by the way, but he’s wildly wrong to think that there’s a better alternative than capitalism.

For what it’s worth, I’m guessing that he doesn’t like the fact that capitalism means “creative destruction,” which does result in millions of jobs being eliminated every year. But, barring a recession, that same process also leads to the creation of an even greater number of new jobs.

Equally important, this is the process that results in higher productivity, higher wages, and higher living standards.

The bottom line is that a statist economic agenda – at best – offers the poor a life of dependency (especially when you consider the very high implicit marginal tax rates created by redistribution programs).

Capitalism, by contrast, gives the poor opportunity and upward mobility (as I noted a few years ago, it would be much better to be a poor person in Hong Kong than in France).

P.S. I strongly recommend what Thomas Sowell and George Will wrote about the Pope’s anti-market ideology.

P.P.S. Mauritius is a powerful example of why the Pope is very fallible on economic matters.

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Yesterday’s column featured some of Milton Friedman’s wisdom from 50 years ago on how a high level of societal capital (work ethic, spirit of self-reliance, etc) is needed if we want to limit government.

Today, let’s look at what he said back then about that era’s high tax rates.

His core argument is that high marginal tax rates are self-defeating because the affected taxpayers (like Trump and Biden) will change their behavior to protect themselves from being pillaged.

This was in the pre-Reagan era, when the top federal tax rate was 70 percent, and notice that Friedman made a Laffer Curve-type prediction that a flat tax of 19 percent would collect more revenue than the so-called progressive system.

We actually don’t know if that specific prediction would have been accurate, but we do know that Reagan successfully lowered the top tax rate on the rich from 70 percent in 1980 to 28 percent in 1988.

So, by looking at what happened to tax revenues from these taxpayers, we can get a pretty good idea whether Friedman’s prediction was correct.

Well, here’s the IRS data from 1980 and 1988 for taxpayers impacted by the highest tax rate. I’ve circled (in red) the relevant data showing how we got more rich people, more taxable income, and more tax revenue.

The bottom line is that Friedman was right.

Good tax policy (i.e., lower rates on productive behavior) can be a win-win situation. Taxpayers earn more and keep more, while politicians also wind up with more because the economic pie expands.

Something to keep in mind since some politicians in Washington want a return to confiscatory taxes on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

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When I write about regulation, I mostly focus on cost-benefit analysis.

Simply stated, red tape makes it more expensive for people and businesses to do things, much as adding obstacles makes it more difficult for someone to get from Point A to Point B.

So a relevant question is whether proposed regulations generate enough benefits to justify the added expense (I’m generally skeptical, but those are empirical matters).

But there’s another question we should ask, which is why governments create new rules and red tape in the first place?

Those are all plausible explanations.

But one thing that never occurred to me is that we may get more regulation if we live in a state or nation with lots of people.

That’s a topic that James Bailey, James Broughel, and Patrick A. McLaughlin investigated in a new study from the Mercatus Center. Here’s a description of their methodology.

…very few academic studies have advanced scholars’ understanding of the relationship between regulation and population. This article is intended to help fill this gap in the literature. We aim to test whether this population-regulation connection holds using more recent, more refined, and more comprehensive measures of regulation. …This study is the first to use RegData to measure why some polities are more regulated than others, the first to use the full State RegData (released in October 2019) for any econometric analysis, and the first to combine federal and state RegData for the United States with RegData datasets for other countries (Australia and Canada).

Here is some of the key data from the United States, Canada, and Australia.

The United States has about an order of magnitude more people than Canada, along with about an order of magnitude more regulatory restrictions than Canada. Conversely, Australia is less populous than Canada but has nearly twice as many regulatory restrictions. On a per capita basis, Canada, with only 0.0023 restrictions per capita for the entire time period examined, appears somewhat less regulated than the United States (at about 0.0032 restrictions per capita) and significantly less regulated than Australia (whose restrictions per capita rise from about 0.0053 in 2005 to a peak of 0.0095 in 2012, and taper slightly to 0.0092 in 2018). We note, however, that both the Canadian and the Australian regulatory systems are fairly decentralized compared to that of the United States, delegating a considerable amount of autonomy and authority to provincial governments.

The study includes some interesting charts.

First, we see that there are a lot more regulatory restrictions in the United States than in Canada and Australia.

Though if you adjust for population size, Australia has the most red tape.

Kudos to Canada for having the lowest level of red tape, both in absolute terms and in per-capita terms. As I wrote a few years ago, there are many Canadian policies we should emulate.

One common feature of the U.S., Canada, and Australia is that all three nations have some degree of federalism, which means that some government policies are handled at the state/provincial level.

And this means the Mercatus study has another way of measuring the relationship between population and red tape. In the United States, we learn that more people means more regulations.

Figure 3 compares the 2000 population and 2018 regulatory restriction counts of 46 US states and the District of Columbia. We see a strong positive correlation between population and regulatory restrictions. Running a basic linear regression with no controls, we find that, on average, an increase in population of 1,000 people is associated with a statistically significant increase of 9 regulatory restrictions. …we next take the log of both population and regulatory restrictions and run a simple linear regression on these variables…which show that, on average, a 10 percent increase in population is associated with a 3.27 percent increase in regulatory restrictions.

Here’s the relevant chart from the study.

Congratulations to South Dakota for having the lowest level of red tape (the state also scores well on fiscal policy).

Canada and Australia have fewer subnational governments, but the study finds a similar relationship between population size and regulatory restrictions.

While Canada and Australia do not have enough provinces to support proper regression analysis, Figures 4 and 5 plot their subnational populations against their subnational regulatory restrictions. The results are also suggestive of a positive population-regulation correlation.

Here’s the chart for Canada.

And here’s the chart for Australia.

The relationship between red tape and population isn’t a perfect fit, either in the U.S. or in the other two countries. But there certainly seems to be some level of correlation.

But why?

The authors offer some potential answers.

…we show that larger polities consistently have more regulation. This provides support for previous theoretical work that posited a fixed cost associated with regulating. Specifically, the fixed costs of establishing new bureaus, staffing them, and funding them to implement and enforce regulations may fall on a per capita basis with a larger population. In addition to the fixed cost explanation, Mulligan and Shliefer offer other alternative explanations for why regulation may increase with population levels…the scope of activities to regulate becomes larger as population increases.

Sounds like we should turn the 50 states into 500 states (to help ensure good political outcomes, let’s leave California, New York, and Illinois alone and subdivide the libertarian-leaning states).

Not only would we get less red tape, we’d also benefit from additional regulatory diversity and additional regulatory competition.

P.S. Our friends on the left want to go in the opposite direction, favoring global regulation.

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I’ve previously written that Keynesian economics is like Freddy Kreuger. No matter how many times it is killed off by real-world evidence, it comes back to life whenever a politician wants to justify a vote-buying orgy of new spending.

And there will always be Keynesian economists who will then crank up their simplistic models that churn out results predicting that a bigger burden of government spending somehow will produce additional growth.

They never bother to explain why they think draining funds from the private sector is good for growth, of course, or why they think politicians supposedly spend money more wisely than households and businesses.

Nonetheless, there are some journalists who are willing to act as stenographers for their assertions.

In a September 25 story for the Washington Post, Tory Newmyer gives free publicity to Keynesian predictions that the economy will grow faster if Biden wins and then imposes his profligate agenda – which they underestimate to include $7.3 trillion of new spending and $4.1 trillion of new taxes over the next 10 years.

A Democratic sweep that puts Joe Biden in the White House and the party back in the Senate majority would produce 7.4 million more jobs and a faster economic recovery than if President Trump retains power. …Moody’s Analytics economists Mark Zandi and Bernard Yaros…see the higher government spending a Biden administration would approve — for emergency relief programs, infrastructure, and an expanded social safety net — giving the economy a potent injection of stimulus. …while a Biden administration would seek to offset some of his proposed $7.3 trillion in new spending over the next decade with $4.1 trillion in higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, “the net of these crosscurrents is to boost economic activity,” the economists write.

Here’s one of the charts that was included in the story, which purports to show how bigger government leads to faster growth.

If there was a contest for the world’s most inaccurate economist, Zandi almost surely would win a gold medal.

But his laughable track record is hardly worth mentioning. What matters more is that we have decades of real-world experience with Keynesian economics. And it never works.

It’s also worth pointing out that Keynesians have been consistently wrong with predicting economic damage during periods of spending restraint.

Now let’s look at another example of how Keynesian predictions are wrong.

Professor Casey Mulligan from the University of Chicago analyzed what happened when turbo-charged unemployment benefits recently ended.

July was the final month of the historically disproportionate unemployment bonus of $600 per week. The termination or reduction of benefits will undoubtably make a difference in the lives of the people who were receiving them, but old-style Keynesians insist that the rest of us will be harmed too. …Paul Krugman explained in August that “I’ve been doing the math, and it’s terrifying. . . . Their spending will fall by a lot . . . [and there is] a substantial ‘multiplier’ effect, as spending cuts lead to falling incomes, leading to further spending cuts.” GDP could fall 4 to 5 percent, and perhaps as much as ten percent… Wednesday the Census Bureau’s advance retail-sales report provided our first extensive look at consumer spending in August, which is the first month with reduced benefits (reduced roughly $50 billion for the month). Did consumer spending drop by tens of billions, starting our economy on the promised path toward recession?

Not exactly. As shown in this accompanying chart, “…retail sales increased $3 billion above July.”

Professor Mulligan explains why Keynesian economics doesn’t work in the real world.

Two critical elements are missing from the old-style Keynesian approach. The first piece is that employment, which depends on benefits and opportunity costs to employer and employee, is a bigger driver of spending than government benefits are. For every person kept out of work by benefits, that is less aggregate spending that is not made up elsewhere in the economy. The second missing piece is that taxpayers and lenders to our government finance these benefits and therefore have less to spend and save on other things. Even a foreign lender who decides to lend that extra $1 million to our government may well be lending less to U.S. households and companies. At best, redistribution from workers to the unemployed reallocates demand rather than increasing its total.

Amen.

At best, Keynesian policy enables a transitory boost in consumption, but there’s no increase in production. At the risk of stating the obvious, a nation’s gross domestic income does not increase when the government borrows money from one group of people and redistributes it to another group of people.

P.S. Since today’s topic is Keynesian economics here’s the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally entertaining sequel, which features a boxing match between Keynes and Hayek. And even though it’s not the right time of year, here’s the satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols.

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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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I’ve shared many videos (here, here, here, here, here, and here) explaining how government has made America’s health system expensive and inefficient. I especially recommend my 2019 speech to the European Resource Bank.

Now let’s add this video to our collection.

One lesson to take from all these videos is that the main problem with America’s health care system is multiple forms of government intervention (MedicareMedicaid, the tax code’s healthcare exclusion, etc).

And the main symptom of all that intervention is pervasive “third-party payer,” which is the term for a system where people buy goods and services with other people’s money.

And guess what happens when people go shopping with other people’s money?

Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute explains that third-party payer leads to higher costs.

One of the reasons that the costs of medical care services in the US have increased more than twice as much as general consumer prices since 1998 is that a large and increasing share of medical costs are paid by third parties (private health insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, Department of Veterans Affairs, etc.) and only a small and shrinking percentage of health care costs are paid out-of-pocket by consumers. …It’s no big surprise that overall health care costs have continued to rise over time as the share of third-party payments has risen to almost 90% and the out-of-pocket share approaches 10%. Consumers of health care have significantly reduced incentives to monitor prices and be cost-conscious buyers of medical and hospital services when they pay only about $1 out of every $10 spent themselves, and the incentives of medical care providers to hold costs down are greatly reduced knowing that their customers aren’t paying out-of-pocket and aren’t price sensitive.

The best part of his article is when he compares cosmetic medical care to regular medical care to show how market forces – when allowed – lead to lower costs in the health sector.

Cosmetic procedures, unlike most medical services, are not usually covered by insurance. Patients typically paying 100% out-of-pocket for elective cosmetic procedures are cost-conscious and have strong incentives to shop around and compare prices at the dozens of competing providers in any large city. Providers operate in a very competitive market with transparent pricing and therefore have incentives to provide cosmetic procedures at competitive prices. Those providers are also less burdened and encumbered by the bureaucratic paperwork that is typically involved with the provision of most standard medical care with third-party payments. Because of the price transparency and market competition that characterizes the market for cosmetic procedures, the prices of most cosmetic procedures have fallen in real terms.

Here’s Mark’s chart showing how costs have changed over the past 20 years.

Pay special attention to the bottom right, where I’ve highlighted in red  how competition and markets have lowered relative prices for cosmetic care – which starkly contrasts with the health sectors where government plays a dominant role.

Singapore seems to have the most-market-oriented system in the world.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, George Shultz and Vidar Jorgensen explain that the system is successful because people spend their own money.

If the U.S. wants lower costs, better outcomes, faster innovation and universal access, it should look to the country that has the closest thing to a functioning health-care market: Singapore. The city-state spends only 5% of GDP on medical care but has considerably better health outcomes than the U.S. …What does Singapore do that’s so effective? …All health-care providers in Singapore must post their prices and outcomes so buyers can judge the cost and quality. …Singaporeans are required to fund HSAs through a system called MediSave and to purchase catastrophic health insurance. As a result, patients spend their own money on health care and get to pocket any savings. …The combination of transparency and financial incentives has led to price and quality competition so intense that health-care costs are 75% lower in Singapore than in the U.S. …Singapore’s system of health-care finance shouldn’t seem foreign to Americans, nor should we doubt that it could work here. The U.S. has already seen that the combination of competition and price transparency can be successful: Witness the falling prices for Lasik and cosmetic surgery, which aren’t covered by insurance.

My modest contribution to this discussion is to share this OECD data showing that almost all other member nations are better than the United States on this issue.

No wonder heathcare is more expensive in the United States.

P.S. There’s also more government spending on healthcare in the United States, per capita, than there is in almost every other nation.

P.P.S. Government-created third-party payer also has led to higher costs and widespread inefficiency in higher education.

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Earlier this month, as part of my ongoing series about convergence and divergence, I wrote about why South Korea has grown so much faster than Brazil.

My main conclusion is that nations need decent policy to prosper, and Johan Norberg shares a similar perspective in this video.

Let’s see what academic researchers have to say about this topic.

In an article for the Journal of Economic Literature, Paul Johnson and Chris Papageorgiou have a somewhat pessimistic assessment about the outlook for lower-income countries.

In its simplest form, convergence suggests that poor countries have the propensity to grow faster than the rich, so to eventually catch up to them. …there is a broad consensus of no evidence supporting absolute convergence in cross-country per capita incomes—that is poor countries do not seem to be unconditionally catching up to rich ones. …Our reading of the evidence…is that recent optimism in favor of rapid and sustainable convergence is unfounded. …with the exception of a few countries in Asia that exhibited transformational growth, most of the economic achievements in developing economies have been the result of removing inefficiencies, especially in governance and in political institutions. But as is now well known, these are merely one-off level effects.

Here’s a table from their study.

As you can see, high-income countries (HIC) generally grew faster last century, which is evidence for divergence.

But in the 2000s, there was better performance by middle-income countries (MIC) and low-income countries (LIC).

That seems to be evidence that the “Washington Consensus” for pro-market policies generated good results.

Indeed, maybe I’m just trying to be hopeful, but I like to think that the last several decades have provided a roadmap for convergence. Simply stated, nations have to shift toward capitalism.

For another point of view, Dev Patel, Justin Sandefur and Arvind Subramanian have a somewhat upbeat article published by the Center for Global Development.

…the basic facts about economic growth around the world turned completely upside down a quarter century ago—and the literature doesn’t seem to have noticed. …While unconditional convergence was singularly absent in the past, there has been unconditional convergence, beginning (weakly) around 1990 and emphatically for the last two decades. …Looking at the 43 countries the World Bank classified as “low income” in 1990, 65 percent have grown faster than the high-income average since 1990. The same is true for 82 percent of the 62 middle-income countries circa 1990. …It’s not “just” China and India, home to a third of the world’s population on their own: developing countries on average are outpacing the developed world.

Here’s a pair of graphs from the article. On the left, we see nations of all income levels grew at roughly the same rate between 1960 and today.

But if we look on the right at the data from 2000 until the present, low-income and middle-income countries are enjoying faster growth.

That article, however, doesn’t include much discussion of why there’s been some convergence.

So let’s cite one more study.

In a report for the European Central Bank, Juan Luis Diaz del Hoyo, Ettore Dorrucci, Frigyes Ferdinand Heinz, and Sona Muzikarova look for lessons from European Union nations.

…sound policymaking plays a key role in the attainment of real convergence, primarily via adequate measures and reforms at national level. …for a given euro area Member State to achieve economic convergence it needs to improve its institutional quality, i.e. that of those institutions and governance standards that facilitate growth… some euro area countries have not met expectations in terms of delivery of sustainable convergence… in the period 1999-2016 income convergence towards the EU average occurred and was significant in some of the late euro adopters (the Baltics and Slovakia), but not in the south of Europe. …Several low-income euro area members have, in fact, only just maintained (Slovenia and Spain) or even increased (Greece, Cyprus and Portugal) their income gaps in respect of the EU average.

Let’s close with two charts from the ECB study.

First, look at this chart tracking the relative performances of Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Ireland compared to the average of Western European nations.

What stands out is that Ireland went from being a relatively poor nation to a relatively rich nation.

Needless to say, I would argue that Ireland’s dramatic improvement is closely correlated with a shift toward free markets that began in the 1980s.

Indeed, Ireland currently has the 10th-highest level of economic freedom for all countries.

Next, here’s a chart reviewing how various European nations have performed since 1999.

Ireland grew the fastest, given where it started. But notice how Slovakia and the Baltic nations also have been star performers.

So the nations that have adopted free-market reforms have grown faster than one might expect based on convergence theory.

And you won’t be surprised to see that the nations that have lagged – Greece and Italy – are infamous for statist policies and an unwillingness to reform.

The bottom line – assuming you want to improve the lives of people in poor nation – is that the world needs more capitalism and less government.

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Every single economic school of thought agrees with the proposition that investment is a key factor in driving wages and growth.

Even foolish concepts such as socialism and Marxism acknowledge this relationship, though they want the government to be in charge of deciding where to invest and how much to invest (an approach that has a miserable track record).

Another widely shared proposition is that higher tax rates will discourage whatever is being taxed. Even politicians understand this notion, for instance, when arguing for higher taxes on tobacco.

To be sure, economists will argue about the magnitude of the response (will a higher tax rate cause a big effect, medium effect, or a small effect?).

But they’ll all agree that a higher tax on something will lead to less of that thing.

Which is why I always argue that we need the lowest-possible tax rates on the activities – work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship – that create wealth and prosperity.

That’s why it’s so disappointing that Joe Biden, as part of his platform in the presidential race, has embraced class-warfare taxation.

And it’s even more disappointing that he specifically supports policies that will impose a much higher tax burden on capital formation.

How much higher? Kyle Pomerleau of the American Enterprise Institute churned through Biden’s proposals to see what it would mean for tax rates on investment and business activity.

Former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has proposed several tax increases that focus on raising taxes on business and capital income. Taxing business and capital income can affect saving and investment decisions by reducing the return to these activities and distorting the allocation across different assets, forms of financing, and business forms. Under current law, the weighted average marginal effective tax rate (METR) on business assets is 19.6 percent… Biden’s tax proposals would raise the METR on business investment in the United States by 7.8 percentage points to 27.5 percent in 2021. The effective tax rate would rise on most assets and new investment in all industries. In addition to increasing the overall tax burden on business investment, Biden’s proposals would increase the bias in favor of debt-financed and noncorporate investment over equity-financed and corporate investment.

Here’s the most illuminating visual from Kyle’s report.

The first row of data shows that the effective tax rate just by almost 8 percentage points.

I also think it’s important to focus on the last two rows. Notice that the tax burden on equity increases by a lot while the tax burden on debt actually drops slightly.

This is very foolish since almost all economists will acknowledge that it’s a bad idea to create more risk for an economy by imposing a preference for debt (indeed, mitigating this bias was one of the best features of the 2017 tax reform).

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Back in 2017, I shared this video explaining why capitalism is unquestionably the best way to help poor people.

I’m recycling the video today because it’s a great introduction for a discussion about how best to help poor people.

As part of my Eighth Theorem of Government, I made the point that it’s wrong to fixate on inequality. Instead, the goal should be poverty reduction.

And the best way to help the poor, as I noted when criticizing Pope Francis’ support for statism in a BBC interview, is free markets and limited government.

Now we have additional evidence for this approach thanks to a new study from the Hoover Institution.

Authored by Ed Lazear, former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, it uses hard data from Economic Freedom of the World and the Index of Economic Freedom to see how poor people do in capitalist nations compared to socialist nations.

If you’re pressed for time, here are the key passages from the introduction.

This study analyzes income data from 162 countries over multiple decades, coupled with measures of economic freedom, size of government, and transfers to determine how various parts of society fare under capitalism and socialism. The main conclusion is that the poor, defined as having income in the lowest 10 percent of a country’s income distribution, do significantly better in economies with free markets, competition, and low state ownership. More impressive is that moving from a heavy emphasis on government to a free market enhances the income of the poor substantially. …Changing freedom from the Mexico level to the Singapore level is predicted to raise the income of the poor by about 40 percent. All income groups benefit from the change, but the change typically helps the poor more than other income groups.

For those interested, let’s now dig into the details.

The study specifically looks at the degree to which state ownership (i.e., textbook socialism) has an impact on income.

As one might suspect, more state ownership means lower income.

A number of measures of free-market capitalism and socialism have been suggested. The analysis starts by examining the metric that most closely matches the dictionary definition of socialism, namely, the amount of state ownership of capital… The basic approach in this section is to examine the relation of income of three groups to state ownership. …All coefficients on the state ownership index are positive, strong, and statistically significant. For example, using the coefficient in column 4, a one standard deviation increase in private ownership increases median income by about 19 percent of the mean value of the log of median income. Also interesting is that the lowest income groups benefit as much or more from private ownership as the highest income groups. …The cross-country correlation between private ownership and income ten years in the future is positive and strong. It is also true that median income seems to rise over time within a country as the country moves toward more private ownership and less state ownership.

The study highlights several interesting examples.

For instance, it shows that poor people immensely benefited from China’s partial shift to capitalism, even though inequality increased (something I pointed out a few years ago).

Here’s the data on Chile, which shows both rich and poor benefited from that nation’s shift to capitalism.

By the way, I have several columns (here, here, here, and here) documenting how poor people have been the big winners from Chile’s pro-market reforms.

Next we have the example of South Korea.

That data is especially powerful, by the way, when you compare South Korea and North Korea.

Last (and, in this case, least), we have the data from the unfortunate nation of Venezuela.

Chavez’s family personally gained from socialism, but this chart shows how the rest of the nation has stagnated.

So what’s the bottom line?

Lazear summarizes his results.

…there is no evidence that, as a general matter, high-income groups benefit more from a move toward capitalism than low-income groups. The effect of changing state ownership and economic freedom on income is not larger for the rich than for the poor. Second, income growth is positively correlated across deciles. The situation is closer to a rising tide lifting all boats than to the fat man becoming fat by making the thin man thin. Finally, there is no consistent evidence across the large number of countries and time periods examined of any strong and widespread link between income growth and inequality. There are examples, like China, where income growth was coupled with large increases in inequality, but others like Chile, where strong income growth came about without much change in inequality, and South Korea, where inequality declined slightly as economic freedom and income grew over time.

Amen. This analysis underscores my oft-made argument that inequality is irrelevant and that policy makers instead should have a laser-like focus on economic growth.

Assuming, of course, that they want poor people to climb the economic ladder to prosperity.

P.S. The Lazear study points out that Scandinavian nations are definitely not socialist based on measures of state ownership.

Some might define socialist economies as merely being those that have high levels of redistribution, meaning high taxes and transfers. …It is certainly true that the Scandinavian countries have higher taxes and transfers than non-Scandinavian countries… Scandinavian countries all have low state ownership index values…and high values of the economic freedom index. The values for Scandinavia look much more like those for the United States than they do for pre-1985 China or post-2000 Venezuela. …Perhaps a more accurate description of Scandinavia is that the countries rely primarily on private ownership and markets but have chosen to have a large government transfer program, which implies not only high transfers but also high taxes.

I’ll simply add that the high transfers and high taxes have negative consequences for Scandinavian nations, but those countries at least have very pro-market policies in other areas to compensate for the damage caused by bad fiscal policy.

P.P.S. For my friends on the left who may suspect that Lazear cherry-picked his examples. I’ll simply challenge them to show a contrary example.

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The latest edition of Economic Freedom of the World has been released by the Fraser Institute. The good news is that the United States is in the top 10 (we dropped as low as #18 during Obama’s first term).

The bad news is that Australia jumped in front of the United States, so America is now #6 instead of #5 like last year.

Here are the 20 jurisdictions in the world with the highest levels of economic liberty.

Here are some of the highlights from the report.

Hong Kong and Singapore, as usual, occupy the top two positions. The next highest scoring nations are New Zealand, Switzerland, United States, Australia, Mauritius, Georgia, Canada, and Ireland. The rankings of some other major countries are Japan (20th), Germany (21st), Italy (51st), France (58th), Mexico (68th), Russia (89th), India (105th), Brazil (105th), and China (124th). The 10 lowest-rated countries are: Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Republic of Congo, Algeria, Iran, Angola, Libya, Sudan, and, lastly, Venezuela.

It’s not exactly a surprise that Venezuela is in last place, though keep in mind that a few basket-case nations aren’t included in the rankings because of inadequate data (most notably, North Korea and Cuba).

Some people may be surprised that Hong Kong is still #1, but there’s a good (albeit temporary) reason.

Between 1997 and 2018, there was no evidence of significant policy changes in Hong Kong as the result of the 1997 establishment of Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region within China. Our data indicate that there have not been any major changes in tax and spending policy, monetary stability, or regulatory policy. In fact, Hong Kong’s 2018 rating of 8.94 is its highest since the financial crisis in 2008. However, it will be surprising if the apparent increase in the insecurity of property rights and the weakening of the rule of law caused by the interventions of the Chinese government in 2019 and 2020 do not result in lower scores

For those interested in the United States, here are the scores for the five major components.

For what it’s worth, I think American monetary policy should be ranked lower, but I admit that’s a subjective opinion that can’t be quantified (at least not yet).

Our worst score is for trade. Though that’s not just the fault of Trump. Yes, he’s caused a decline, but the U.S. score has been on a downward trajectory for almost 20 years.

Speaking of Trump, readers who get upset by my periodic criticisms of the President (such as what I wrote yesterday) may be interested in knowing that the U.S. now has a lower score (8.22 out of 10) than it did in Obama’s last year (8.32 out of 10).

P.S. Last but not least, here’s a map showing which nations are in various categories. All you really need to know is that it’s good to be blue and bad to be red.

P.P.S. China’s low score explains why I don’t think there’s any danger of that nation becoming an economic powerhouse (a point I first made back in 2010). At least not until and unless President Xi has the wisdom to allow a second wave of pro-growth reform.

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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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What’s the best economic news of the past 40 years?

Those are all good choices, but let’s not overlook Israel.

This chart from Economic Freedom of the World shows that economic freedom dramatically expanded in that nation between 1980 and 2000 (and has since gradually risen).

Israel’s shift away from the voluntary socialism of the kibbutz has paid big dividends. The nation has become far more prosperous.

I’ve already written how Israel benefited from supply-side reduction in tax rates.

Today, let’s learn about the country’s shift to private social security.

To find out what happened, let’s look at some excerpts from an article in Economics and Business Review. Authored by Moshe Manor and Joanna Ratajczak, it starts by observing there’s been a global shift to private social security systems.

The first paradigmatic shift towards a private pension system was performed in Chile in 1981 and had its followers in Latin America… The Chilean example inspired the World Bank to propose that such a shift should become a key element of the pension reform for postsocialist countries… The shift towards private pension schemes was assumed to meet demographic challenges and the secondary goals of the pension system, especially economic growth accomplished thanks to an acceleration of domestic savings.

This has been a very positive development for the countries that made the shift, by the way.

But let’s focus specifically on the reform in Israel. Here’s some of what the authors wrote.

Israel…abandoned a controlled economy and introduced the market economy only in the last three decades. …In the last 30 years Israel has faced many reforms of the pension system as part of broader economic reforms. …the stabilization programme allowed the Ministry of Finance (MOF) to start a series of structural changes, including pension reforms… The reasons for the reforms were not strictly economic but they also were based on neoliberal economic beliefs, political motives and international relations. …The USA feared Israel’s possible economic collapse and requested that the Israelis execute reforms designed according to Milton Friedman’s neoliberal principles in order to gain American economic support.

For what it’s worth, I’m in favor of “neoliberalism” when it’s defined as pro-market (which seems to be the case in many parts of the world).

Here’s a description of how the reform moved the country from a defined benefit model (often unfunded) to a funded defined contribution model.

The pension reforms were intended to stabilize the system and prepare it for the future difficulties such as ageing and poverty relief; they were also meant to develop the capital market and reduce the burden on the state budget. The main steps included introduction of the mandatory private pension pillar.. The reforms also eliminated PAYG for new joiners and turned the system from actuarially imbalanced, DB…to actuarially balanced, DC, privately managed and invested in capital markets. …The comparison of the reforms in Israel and those in Chile…shows a large similarity: shutting down the PAYG system to new joiners; a shift to funds which are privately managed, DC type, invested in capital markets system; a mandatory pension in the second pillar; development of the local capital markets using the pension accumulation; reduction of government involvement in pensions and of the burden on the state budget.. The main differences encompass low contribution rates in Chile that led to low net replacement rates, while in Israel the contribution rates and net replacement rates are high.

Oddly, the article never states how much of a worker’s paycheck goes to mandatory savings (i.e., the contribution rate).

So here’s a blurb from a recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Since January 2008, mandatory contributions have applied to earnings up to the national average wage for all employees… Initially the rates were modest with a total contribution of 2.5% but increased to 15% (5% from employees and 10% from employers) by 2013. In 2014 the contribution rate increased further to 17.5% (5.5% from employees and 12% from employers)and since January 2018 increased to 18.5% (6% from employees and 12.5% from employers). Six percentage points out of the employers’ contribution provides severance insurance which, if utilised, diminishes the pension.

That is a significantly higher level of mandated private savings when compared to countries such as Australia and Chile.

Sadly, the United States isn’t part of that conversation since we’re still stuck with our actuarially bankrupt Social Security scheme.

P.S. While researching this column, I read the OECD’s recent Survey about Israel’s economy. The bureaucrats in Paris groused that there’s a lot of inequality and poverty in that country.

This set of data perfectly illustrates why the OECD is an untrustworthy and biased bureaucracy.

As noted by my Eighth Theorem of Government, it should focus on economic growth to reduce poverty rather than fixating on whether some people are getting richer faster than others are getting richer.

Speaking of which, the supposed poverty data doesn’t actually measure poverty. Instead, “relative poverty” is simply the share of people are below “50% of median household income,” which the OECD then dishonestly characterizes as a measure of poverty (this is how the OECD came up with the absurd claim that there’s more poverty in the United States than in comparatively poor countries such as Turkey and Portugal).

Ironically, the same OECD report admits that Israel is out-performing other developed nations.

Israel is growing faster, as you can see, while also reducing government debt at a time when it’s going up in other countries (I’m sure coronavirus has since wreaked havoc with the Israeli economy, but that’s also true for other OECD countries).

Yet the OECD can’t resist grousing about inequality and lying about poverty.

P.P.S. Shifting back to social security reform, here are some of the other nations (beside Israel, Chile, and Australia) that now benefit from private savings instead of empty political promises: DenmarkSwitzerlandHong KongNetherlandsFaroe Islands, and Sweden.

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Traditional economics, specifically convergence theory, tells us that poor nations should grow faster than rich nations.

I’m more interested, however, in why convergence often doesn’t happen, or only partially happens.

And I’m extremely interested in why we often see divergence, which occurs when two countries are at a similar level of development, but then one grows much faster than the other.

Let’s consider the example of Brazil vs, South Korea.  has an interesting article, published by the Center for Macroeconomics and Development, that looks at how the two countries have diverged over the past 50 years.

Here’s the chart that depicts the dramatic difference.

The author analyzes many of the reasons that South Korea has enjoyed faster growth.

It’s especially worth noting that Brazil’s protectionism has been self-defeating.

The “middle-income trap” has captured many developing countries: they succeeded in evolving from low per capita income levels, but then appeared to stall, losing momentum along the route toward the higher income levels… Such a trap may well characterize the experience of Brazil and most of Latin America since the 1980s. Conversely, South Korea maintained its pace of evolution, reaching a high-income status… The path from low- to middle- and then to high-income per capita corresponds to increasing the shares of population moved from subsistence activities to simple modern tasks and then to sophisticated ones. …South Korea relied extensively on international trade to accelerate their labor transfer by inserting themselves into the labor-intensive segments of global value chains… with the “helping winners and saving losers” of Brazil’s industrial policies…, the temptation to use surpluses to accumulate wealth in ways to maximize frontiers of interaction with the public sector prevails… Brazil’s long-standing high levels of trade protection and closure also favored such an option… The Brazilian economy pays a price in terms of productivity foregone because of its lack of trade openness.

As a big fan of trade, I obviously agree with this analysis.

But I also think that’s not the full story.

If you compare the scores the two countries get from the most-recent edition of Economic Freedom of the World, you’ll find that South Korea scores better on trade.

But you’ll also notice that there are much bigger gaps when looking at scores for size of government, legal system and property rights, and regulation (and the gaps for the latter two indices have existed for decades).

The bottom line is that there are many policy reasons why Brazil lags behind South Korea.

So if Brazil wants to break out of the “middle-income trap,” it needs to follow the tried-and-true recipe for growth and prosperity (what used to be known as the “Washington Consensus“).

P.S. And that means ignoring poisonous advice from the International Monetary Fund and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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Yesterday, the Congressional Budget Office released updated budget projections. The most important numbers in that report show what’s happening with the overall fiscal burden of government – measured by both taxes and spending.

As you can see, there’s a big one-time spike in coronavirus-related spending this year. That’s not good news, but more worrisome is the the longer-run trend of government spending gradually climbing as a share of economic output (and the numbers are significantly worse if you look at CBO’s 30-year projection).

Most reporters and fiscal wonks overlooked the spending data, however, and instead focused on the CBO’s projection for government debt.

Since government spending is the problem and borrowing is merely a symptom of that problem, I think it’s a mistake to fixate on red ink.

That being said, Figure 3 from the CBO report shows that there’s also an upward-spike in federal debt.

And it is true (remember Greece) that high levels of debt can, by themselves, produce a crisis. This happens when investors suddenly stop buying government bonds because they think there’s a risk of default (which happens when a government is incapable or unwilling to make promised payments to lenders).

I think some nations are on the verge of having that kind of crisis, most notably Italy.

But what about the United States? Or Japan? And how’s the outlook for Europe’s welfare states?

In other words, what nations are approaching a tipping point?

A new study from the European Central Bank may help answer these questions. Authored by Pablo Burriel, Cristina Checherita-Westphal, Pascal Jacquinot, Matthias Schön, and Nikolai Stähler, it uses several economic models to measure the downside risks of excessive debt.

The 2009 global financial and economic crisis left a legacy of historically high levels of public debt in advanced economies, at a scale unseen during modern peace time. …The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is a different type of shock that has dramatically affected global economic activity… Fiscal positions are projected to be strongly hit by the crisis…once the crisis is over and the recovery firmly sets in, keeping public debt at high levels over the medium term is a source of vulnerability… The main objective of this paper is to contribute to the stabilisation vs. sustainability debate in the euro area by reviewing through the lens of large scale DSGE models the economic risks associated with regimes of high public debt.

Here’s what they found, none of which should be a surprise.

…we evaluate the economic consequences of high public debt using simulations with three DSGE models… Our DSGE simulations also suggest that high-debt economies…can lose more output in a crisis…have less scope for counter-cyclical fiscal policy and…are adversely affected in terms of potential (long-term) output, with a significant impairment in case of large sovereign risk premia reaction and use of most distortionary type of taxation to finance the additional public debt burden in the future.

Here’s a useful chart from the study. It shows some sort of shock on the left (2008 financial crisis or coronavirus being obvious examples), which then produces a recession (lower GDP) and rising debt.

That outcome isn’t good for nations with “low” levels of debt, but it can be really bad for nations with “high” debt burdens because they have to deal with much higher interest payments, much bigger tax increases, and much bigger reductions in economic output.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think the study actually gives us any way of determining which nations are near the tipping point. That’s because “low” and “high” are subjective. Japan has an enormous amount of debt, yet investors don’t think there’s any meaningful risk that Japan’s government will default, so it is a “low” debt nation for purposes of the above illustration.

By contrast, there’s a much lower level of debt in Argentina, but investors have almost no trust in that nation’s especially venal politicians, so it’s a “high” debt nation for purposes of this analysis.

The United States, in my humble opinion, is more like Japan. As I wrote last year, “We probably won’t even have a crisis in the next 10 years or 20 years.” And that’s still my view, even after all the spending and debt for coronavirus.

The study concludes with some common-sense advice about using spending restraint and pro-market reforms to create buffers (some people refer to this as “fiscal space“).

Overall, once the COVID-19 crisis is over and the economic recovery firmly re-established, further efforts to build fiscal buffers in good times and mitigate fiscal risks over the medium term are needed at the national level. Such efforts should be guided by risks to debt sustainability. High debt countries, in particular, should implement a mix of fiscal discipline and wide-ranging growth-enhancing reforms.

Needless to say, there’s an obvious and successful way of achieving this goal.

P.S. Here’s another chart from the ECB study that is worth sharing because it confirms that not all tax increases do the same amount of economic damage.

We see that consumption taxes (red line) are bad, but income taxes on workers (green line) are even worse.

And if the study included an estimate of what would happen if there were higher income taxes on saving and investment, there would be another line showing even more economic damage.

P.P.S. History shows that nations can reduce very large debt burdens if they follow my Golden Rule.

P.P.P.S. There’s a related study from the IMF that shows how excessive spending is a major warning sign that nations will be vulnerable to fiscal crisis.

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If Donald Trump wins the 2020 election, I don’t expect any serious effort to rein in the burden of government spending.

And if Joe Biden wins the 2002 election, I don’t expect any serious effort to rein in the burden of government spending.

At the risk of understatement, this is rather unfortunate since fiscal policy in the United States is on a very worrisome path.

Thanks to demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs, the federal budget – assuming it is left on autopilot – is going to consume an ever-larger share of the nation’s economic output.

And that means fewer resources for the economy’s productive sector.

In a new study from the Hoover Institution, Professor John F. Cogan, Daniel L. Heil, and Professor John B. Taylor investigate the potential consequences of bigger government – and the potential benefits of spending restraint.

In this paper we consider an illustrative fiscal consolation proposal that restrains the growth in federal spending. The policy is to hold federal expenditures as a share of GDP at about the 20 percent ratio that prevailed before the pandemic hit. We estimate the policy’s impact using a structural macroeconomic model with price and wage rigidities and adjustment costs. The spending restraint avoids a potentially large increase in future federal taxes and prevents the outstanding debt relative to GDP from rising from its current level. The simulations show that the consolidation plan boosts short-run annual GDP growth by as much as 10 percent and increases long-run annual GDP growth by about 7 percent.

The authors believe that there will be some tax increases over the next few decades – an assumption that I fear will be accurate.

…our baseline assumes that future Congresses will enact tax increases to finance a portion of rising future federal spending. Specifically, we have assumed that Congress will finance half of the projected higher baseline outlays with higher tax rates. The tax rate increases are assumed to be gradually phased-in and are in the form of equi-proportionate increases in personal income tax rates, corporate income tax rates, and social insurance tax rates. Under these assumptions, tax rates will be about 20 percent higher in 2045 than in 2022.

Here are their projection over the next 25 years.

The authors then create an alternative scenario based on spending restraint, including entitlement reform.

To illustrate the potential positive impact of a fiscal consolidation plan on economic growth, we have chosen a stylized long-term budget policy that reduces the growth in federal spending, maintains federal tax rates at their current levels, and limits the outstanding federal debt relative to GDP to its pandemic high level. …the spending side of the plan has three essential elements. One, reductions in government spending from the baseline which come exclusively from permanent changes in entitlement programs; the principal source of the federal government’s long-term fiscal imbalance. …Two, the plan contains an immediate one-time reduction in entitlement program spending that permanently lowers the overall level of government spending. Three, the plan permanently reduces the growth in entitlement spending thereafter from this lower level.

They then estimate what happens to the fiscal burden of government if policy makers choose spending restraint instead of bigger government and tax increases.

In 2033, ten years from the initiation of the policy, total federal spending as a percent of GDP, including interest on the debt, would be 3.3 percent lower than baseline expenditures. In twenty years, it would be 5.7 percent lower. …the consolidation plan would maintain all federal tax rates.at their current statutory levels. …revenue as a share.. of GDP would rise slightly over time due to real bracket creep. Thus, the plan is designed to prevent the approximately 15 percent tax rate increases that are presumed in the budget baseline.

Here’s a chart from the study that shows how the burden of redistribution spending and social insurance programs is significantly smaller with the restraint approach.

Now we get to key results.

Cogan, Heil, and Taylor use a model of the U.S. economy to estimate what happens if there is spending restraint instead of bigger government.

Unsurprisingly, there’s more prosperity when there’s a smaller burden of spending.

The impact of the consolidation strategy is shown in Figure 4. Observe that there is a substantial increase in real GDP in the short run, and that this positive change occurs throughout the simulation through 2045. The short-run increase of about 0.5 percent in the first two years following the policy’s implementation amounts to about a 10 percent increase in the real GDP growth rate. Over the longer-term, GDP increases by about 3.7 percent after 25 years. This is equivalent to a 7 percent increase in the economy’s real growth rate.

This chart from the study shows the economic benefits of spending restraint.

These results are consistent with what other economists have produced.

Heck, even economists at left-leaning international bureaucracies such as OECD, World Bank, and IMF have acknowledged that smaller government is better for prosperity.

P.S. The unanswered question, of course, is how to convince self-interested politicians to choose spending restraint instead of buying votes with other people’s money. A spending cap is probably a necessary but not sufficient condition (it’s an approach that has been very successful in Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Colorado – and which was recently adopted in Brazil).

P.P.S. Even small differences in economic growth have a significant long-run impact on living standards.

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