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Posts Tagged ‘Economics’

When the Commerce Department announced in February that the United States had a record trade deficit for 2021, I shared this video to help make the point that those trade numbers were that year’s “least important economic news.”

The main thing to understand is that a trade deficit is simply the flip side of an investment surplus.

When Americans use dollars to buy goods from other nations, those dollars are only valuable to foreigners because they can use them to buy things from America.

In many cases, they buy American goods and services. But they also use many of those dollars to invest in the U.S. economy.

That’s generally a positive thing. It’s a vote of confidence about America’s economic future.

Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe shares my viewpoint. He recently opined on this issue, echoing the important insight about the link between trade flows and investment flows.

The US trade deficit hit an all-time high in March, widening to nearly $110 billion as the nation imported considerably more goods than it exported. That can’t be good, right? Actually, it’s fine. …It’s not an indication of actual economic weakness. …Quite the contrary: All things being equal, imports are usually evidence of economic vitality and success. …The dollars Americans spend on imports aren’t “lost.” They are exchanged for desirable and affordable goods, services, parts, and commodities that strengthen Americans’ economy while elevating their US lifestyle. Better still, those dollars then come back to the United States, where they are used to invest in American assets or buy American exports, creating even more value and putting even more Americans to work. …a trade “deficit” isn’t a debt we owe. It is an accounting entry that tells us how much more we were enriched by foreigners than they were by us. ..the US economy has some real problems. Happily, the trade deficit isn’t one of them. Imports are good. And more imports? They’re good too.

This does not mean, however, that everyone is a winner.

As I explain in this video, jobs are destroyed when there is trade between nations. But I also point out that jobs are destroyed by trade inside a nation’s borders.

That’s bad news for workers in sectors that are dying (such as typewriter makers after personal computers hit the market).

What’s important is whether the new jobs that are created exceed the number of jobs that are lost.

This is what is called “creative destruction.” It’s painful, but it is why we are much richer today than we were in the past.

The good news is that this usually happens…at least if politicians resist the temptation to over-tax, over-spend, and over-regulate.

The bottom line is that free trade is much better for long-run prosperity than protectionism.

Unless, of course, you think it’s a good idea to copy the policies of Herbert Hoover.

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I’m more than happy to condemn Joe Biden for his bad policy proposals, such as higher tax rates, fake stimulus, red tape, and a bigger welfare state.

But as I discuss in this segment from a recent interview, he bears very little blame for today’s high inflation rate.

If you want to know who is responsible for 8.5 percent inflation, the highest in four decades, this chart tells you everything you need to know.

Simply stated, the Federal Reserve has created a lot more money by expanding its balance sheet (which happens, for example, when the central bank purchases government bonds using “open market operations”).

Notice, by the way, that the Fed dramatically expanded its balance sheet beginning in March 2020. That was almost one year before Biden was inaugurated.

At the risk of stating the obvious, Biden does not have the power of time travel. He can’t be at fault for a monetary policy mistake that happened when Trump was president.

That being said, I don’t want anyone to think that Biden believes in good monetary policy.

  • Biden has never made any sort of statement favoring monetary restraint by the Fed.
  • Neither the president not his senior advisors have urged the Fed to reverse its mistake.
  • Biden renominated Jerome Powell to be Chairman of the Fed’s Board of Governors.
  • None of Biden’s other nominees to the Federal Reserve have a track record of opposing easy money.

The bottom line is that the Fed almost surely would have made the same mistake in 2020 if Biden was in the White House.

But he wasn’t, so he gets a partial free pass.

P.S. Speaking of time travel, Paul Krugman blamed Estonia’s 2008 recession on spending cuts that took place in 2009.

P.P.S. Here’s my two cents on how people can protect themselves in an inflationary economy.

P.P.P.S. Only one president in my lifetime deserves praise for his approach to monetary policy.

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Thomas Piketty is a big proponent of class-warfare tax policy because he views inequality as a horrible outcome.

But a soak-the-rich policy agenda, echoed by many other academics such as Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, is fundamentally misguided. If people really care about helping the poor, they should focus instead on reforms that actually have a proven track record of reducing poverty.

The fact that they fixate on inequality makes me wonder about their motives.

And it also leads me to find their work largely irrelevant. I don’t care if they produce detailed long-run data on changes in inequality.

I prefer detailed long-run data on changes in poverty.

That being said, it appears that some of Piketty’s data is sloppy.

I shared some evidence about his bad numbers back in 2014. And, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, Phil Magness of the American Institute for Economic Research and Professor Vincent Geloso of George Mason University expose another glaring flaw

…the Piketty-Saez theory is less a matter of history than an accounting error caused by their misunderstanding of World War II-era tax statistics. …It’s true that income inequality declined in the early part of the 20th century, but the cause had more to do with the economic devastation of the Great Depression than the New Deal tax regime. …they failed to account properly for historical changes in how the Internal Revenue Service reported income-tax statistics. As a result, their numbers systematically overstate the levels of top income concentrations by as much as a third …Between 1943 and 1944 the tax collection agency shifted from tracking “net income” to “adjusted gross income,” or AGI…a truer depiction of annual earnings… Yet Messrs. Piketty and Saez didn’t bring pre-1944 IRS records into line with AGI accounting standards. Instead, they applied a fixed and arbitrary adjustment to all years before the AGI accounting change that conveniently scaled upward to the highest income brackets. …They used the wrong accounting definition for personal income and neglected to adjust their data for wartime distortions on tax reporting. When we corrected these problems, something stunning happened. The overall level of top income concentration flattened, and the timing of its leveling shifted away from the World War II-era tax rates that Messrs. Piketty and Saez place at the center of their story.

Here’s a chart that accompanied the column, showing how accurate data changes the story.

Since today’s column debunks sloppy class warfare, let’s travel back to 2014, when Deirdre McCloskey reviewed Pikittey’s tome for the Erasmus Journal of Philosophy and Economics.

She also thought his fixation on envy was misguided.

…in Piketty’s tale the rest of us fall only relatively behind the ravenous capitalists. The focus on relative wealth or income or consumption is one serious problem in the book. …What is worrying Piketty is that the rich might possibly get richer, even though the poor get richer too. His worry, in other words, is purely about difference, about the Gini coefficient, about a vague feeling of envy raised to a theoretical and ethical proposition. …Piketty and much of the left…miss the ethical point…of lifting up the poor…by the dramatic increase in the size of the pie, which has historically brought the poor to 90 or 95 percent of “enough”, as against the 10 or 5 percent attainable by redistribution without enlarging the pie. …the main event of the past two centuries was…the Great Enrichment of the average individual on the planet by a factor of 10 and in rich countries by a factor of 30 or more.

But she also explained that he doesn’t understand how the economy works.

The fundamental technical problem in the book…is that Piketty the economist does not understand supply responses. In keeping with his position as a man of the left, he has a vague and confused idea about how markets work, and especially about how supply responds to higher prices. …Piketty, it would seem, has not read with understanding the theory of supply and demand that he disparages, such as in Smith (one sneering remark on p. 9), Say (ditto, mentioned in a footnote with Smith as optimistic), Bastiat (no mention), Walras (no mention), Menger (no mention), Marshall (no mention), Mises (no mention), Hayek (one footnote citation on another matter), Friedman (pp. 548-549, but only on monetarism, not the price system). He is in short not qualified to sneer at self-regulated markets…, because he has no idea how they work.

And she concludes with a reminder that some of our left-wing friends seem most interested in punishing rich people rather than helping poor people.

The left clerisy such as…Paul Krugman or Thomas Piketty, who are quite sure that they themselves are taking the ethical high road against the wicked selfishness…might on such evidence be considered dubiously ethical. They are obsessed with first-act changes that cannot much help the poor, and often can be shown to damage them, and are obsessed with angry envy at the consumption of the uncharitable rich, of which they personally are often examples, and the ending of which would do very little to improve the position of the poor. They are very willing to stifle through taxing the rich the market-tested betterments which in the long run have gigantically helped the rest of us.

Amen. If you want to know what Deirdre means by “betterment,” click here and watch her video.

P.S. Click herehere, here, and here for my four-part series on poverty and inequality. Though what Deirdre wrote in 2016 may be even better.

P.P.S. I also can’t resist calling attention to the poll of economists at the end of this column.

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In Part I of this series, Professor Don Boudreaux explained the folly of price controls, and Professor Antony Davies was featured in Part II.

Now let’s see some commentary from the late, great, Milton Friedman.

As Professor Friedman explained, the economics of price controls are very clear.

When politicians and bureaucrats suppress prices, you get shortages (as all students should learn in their introductory economics classes).

Sometimes that happens with price controls on specific sectors, such as rental housing in poorly governed cities.

Sometimes it happens because of economy-wide price controls, as we saw during Richard Nixon’s disastrous presidency.

In all cases, price controls are imposed by politicians who are stupid or evil. That’s blunt language, but it’s the only explanation.

Sadly, there will never be a shortage of those kinds of politicians, as can be seen from this column in the Wall Street Journal by Andy Kessler.

Here are some excerpts.

On the 2020 campaign trail, Joe Biden declared, “ Milton Friedman isn’t running the show anymore.” Wrong! …Lo and behold, inflation is running at 7.9%, supply chains are tight, and many store shelves are empty. Friedman’s adage “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon” has stood the test of time. But what scares me most is the likely policy responses by the Biden administration that would pour salt into this self-inflicted wound. It feels as if price controls are coming. …Prices set by producers are signals, and consumers whisper feedback billions of times a day by buying or not buying products. Mess with prices and the economy has no guide. The Soviets instituted price controls on everything from subsidized “red bread” to meat, often resulting in empty shelves. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s National Recovery Agency fixed prices, prolonging the Depression, all in the name of “fair competition.” …Price controls don’t work. Never have, never will. But we keep instituting them. Try finding a cheap apartment in rent-controlled New York City. …Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a leader among our economic illiterate, noted in February that high prices are caused in part by “giant corporations…”

He closes with a very succinct and sensible observation.

Want to whip inflation now? Forget all the Band-Aids and government controls. Instead, as Friedman suggests, stop printing money.

In other words, Mr. Kessler is suggesting that politicians do the opposite of Mitchell’s Law.

Instead of using one bad policy (inflation) as an excuse to impose a second bad policy (price controls), he wants them to undo the original mistake.

Will Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren take his advice?

That’s doubtful, but I’m hoping there are more rational people in the rooms where these decisions get made.

Maybe some of them will have read this column from Professor Boudreaux.

Prices are among the visible results of the invisible hand’s successful operation, as well as the single most important source of this success. Each price objectively summarizes an inconceivably large number of details that must be taken account of if the economy is to perform even moderately well. Consider the price of a loaf of a particular kind and brand of bread. …The price at the supermarket of a loaf of bread, a straightforward $4.99, is the distillation of the economic results of the interaction of an unfathomably large number of details from around the globe about opportunities, trade-offs, and preferences. The invisible hand of the market causes these details to be visibly summarized not only in the price of bread, but in the prices of all other consumer goods and services, as well as in the prices of each of the inputs used in production. …These market prices also give investors and entrepreneurs guidance on how to deploy scarce resources in ways that produce that particular mix of goods and services that will today be of greatest benefit for consumers.

I have two comments.

First, Don obviously buys fancier bread than my $1.29-a-loaf store brand (used to be 99 cents, so thanks for nothing to the Federal Reserve).

Second, and far more important, he’s pointing out that market-based prices play an absolutely critical role in coordinating the desires of consumers and producers.

When politicians interfere with prices, it’s akin to throwing sand in the gears of a machine.

For more information on the role of prices, I strongly recommend these videos from Professors Russ Roberts, Howard Baetjer, and Alex Tabarrok.

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Since I wrote yesterday about Ukraine’s terrible economic policy, fairness requires that I make the same points about Russia’s similarly dirigiste system.

We’ll start with Russia’s scores from the latest edition of Economic Freedom of the World.

Not exactly a good set of numbers, particularly with regards to “size of government.” And it’s safe to assume that Russia’s overall score will decline when a new version is released later this year.

But I want to make the point that Russia faced serious economic problems well before Putin decided to invade Ukraine.

Indeed, he may have attacked in part to distract from Russia’s ongoing economic problems.

To some degree, this is a story of weak demographics, as I observed last month.

But Putin is making a bad situation worse.

Consider what George Will wrote for the Washington Post back in 2020.

n Putin’s ramshackle Russia…as recently as 2018, almost a third of medical facilities lacked running water, 40 percent lacked central heating and more than half lacked hot water. …in Catherine Belton’s exhaustive new book…, “Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West…” says that “by 2012 more than 50 percent of Russia’s [gross domestic product] was under the direct control of the state and businessmen closely linked the Putin.” …state-directed capital allocation actually is crony socialism.

It’s sometimes not easy to measure crony socialism (which technically should be called fascism), but even the International Monetary Fund recognizes its downsides.

Here’s some research from the IMF, authored by Gabriel Di Bella, Oksana Dynnikova, and Slavi Slavov.

The size of the Russian State…economic footprint remains significant. Concretely, the state’s size increased from about 32 percent of GDP in 2012 to 33 percent in 2016, not far from the EBRD’s estimate of 35 percent for 2005-10. …a deep state footprint is reflected in a relatively high state share in formal sector activity (close to 40 percent) and formal sector employment (about 50 percent). The deep footprint is also reflected in market competition and efficiency. Although sectors in which the state is present are more concentrated, concentration is large even in sectors where the state’s share is low. …Finally, state-owned enterprises’ performance appears weaker than that of privately-owned firms, which may be subtracting from growth.

Last December, Jarret Decker analyzed Russia’s state-controlled economy in an article for Reason.

There’s a thorough discussion of how the oligarchs gained control of key sectors of the economy, as well as this discussion of other policy mistakes.

The 1990s in Russia and throughout most of the former Soviet Union were a time of dizzying change… As price controls were lifted and the money supply increased, inflation exploded. In 1992, Russian inflation was about 2,000 percent, with another 1,000 percent inflation the following year. Life savings disappeared almost overnight. …plummeting social indicators were all tied to the disastrous performance of the Russian economy, a chaotic mix of large enterprises still under state control, a central government heavily in debt…the “crown jewels” of the former Soviet economy—in sectors such as oil and gas, mining, and steel production—remained under state control. …in GDP per capita, Russia has fallen far behind its fellow former Soviet republics in the Baltic region, with output per person about half of Estonia’s and about 40 percent less than Lithuania’s and Latvia’s. Not coincidentally, the Baltic countries all rank in the top 30 in the world in the Heritage Foundation’s 2021 Index of Economic Freedom.

I’ll wrap up with a story that is particularly disappointing to me.

One of the few good policies Putin implemented was a flat tax.

But rather than build on that successful reform, he decided to reverse it and adopt a system with discriminatory rates. Here are some excerpts from a 2020 report in the Moscow Times.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday signed a law on increasing income tax for high earners in the first move away from a flat tax system in place since 2001. Starting next year, the tax rate will rise from 13% to 15% on incomes over 5 million rubles (about $65,800/55,370 euros at the current exchange rate). …The reform is expected to give state coffers an additional 60 billion rubles, the president said… The current flat tax system was introduced in 2001 and was among the key reforms of Putin’s first presidential term.

The bottom line is that the yoke of communism has been removed but statism remains.

Which explains why Russia is not converging with the United States, as theory would predict. Here is a chart based on the Maddison database.

This is quite depressing, especially if the economy’s poor performance gave Putin an extra incentive to “wag the dog” with military aggression.

But let’s end on an optimistic note. It’s possible that Putin has miscalculated and his attack on Ukraine eventually will result in his ouster.

The best-case scenario is that he gets replaced with a free-market reformer. The Russian version of Mart Laar, perhaps. Then Russia could become a success story, which is exactly what we’ve seen in the Baltic nations.

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Regarding Russia’s reprehensible attack on Ukraine, I’ve written three columns.

Today, let’s address the topic of foreign aid for Ukraine, specifically whether American taxpayers should help restore that country’s economy once the conflict ends.

I’ll start by recycling an observation I made back in 2014, which is that Ukraine has been an economic laggard because of statist economic policies.

More specifically, I compared Poland (which has engaged in substantial liberalization) and Ukraine (which has not) and showed a growing gap between the two nations (another case study for the anti-convergence club).

Now let’s look at some updated data from the latest edition of Economic Freedom of the World.

As you can see, Ukraine is a cesspool of statism, ranking a miserable #129 out of 165 jurisdictions.

That’s lower than Russia, which is #100.

And the same is true if you look at the latest edition of the Index of Economic Freedom, which ranks Ukraine #130 and Russia #113.

At the risk of stating the obvious, giving economic aid to Ukraine would be flushing money down the toilet.

Unless, of course, western nations such as the United States somehow made aid contingent on sweeping economic liberalization.

We know what works. Don BoudreauxDeirdre McCloskey, and Dan Hannan have all explained how Western Europe and North America became rich in the 1800s and early 1900s with the tried-and-true approach of free markets and limited government.

Even a curmudgeonly libertarian like me would relax my long-standing hostility to aid under those conditions.

The odds of that happening, however, are slim to none. And I would put my money on none, as explained by the “Foreign Aid Paradox.”

P.S. Some people incorrectly claim Western Europe recovered after World War II because of government aid (the “Marshall Plan”). The real credit belongs with people like Ludwig Erhard.

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I’ve written about President Warren Harding’s under-appreciated economic policies.

He restored economic prosperity in the 1920s by slashing tax rates and reducing the burden of government spending.

I’ve also written many times about how President Franklin Roosevelt’s economic policies in the 1930s were misguided.

And that’s being charitable. For all intents and purposes, he doubled down on the bad policies of Herbert Hoover. As a result, what should have been a typical recession wound up becoming the Great Depression.

But I’ve never directly compared Harding and FDR.

Ryan Walters, who teaches history to students at Collins College, has undertaken that task. In a piece for the Foundation for Economic Education, he explains how Harding and Roosevelt took opposite paths when facing similar situations.

Both men came into office with an economy in tatters and both men instituted ambitious agendas to correct the respective downturns. Yet their policies were the polar opposite of one another and, as a result, had the opposite effect. In short, Harding used laissez faire-style capitalism and the economy boomed; FDR intervened and things went from bad to worse. …Unlike FDR, who was no better than a “C” student in economics at Harvard, Harding understood that the old method of laissez faire was the best prescription for a sick economy.

Here’s some of what he wrote about Harding’s successful policies.

America in 1920, the year Harding was elected, fell into a serious economic slide called by some “the forgotten depression.” …The depression lasted about 18 months, from January 1920 to July 1921. During that time, the conditions for average Americans steadily deteriorated. Industrial production fell by a third, stocks dropped nearly 50 percent, corporate profits were down more than 90 percent. Unemployment rose from 4 percent to 12, putting nearly 5 million Americans out of work. …Harding campaigned on exactly what he wanted to do for the economy – retrenchment. He would slash taxes, cut government spending, and roll back the progressive tide. …Under Harding and his successor, Calvin Coolidge, and with the leadership of Andrew Mellon at Treasury, taxes were slashed from more than 70 percent to 25 percent. Government spending was cut in half. Regulations were reduced. The result was an economic boom. Growth averaged 7 percent per year, unemployment fell to less than 2 percent, and revenue to the government increased, generating a budget surplus every year, enough to reduce the national debt by a third. Wages rose for every class of American worker.

And here’s what happened under FDR.

Basically the opposite path, with horrible consequences.

FDR certainly inherited a bad economy, like Harding, yet he made it worse, not better, prolonging it for nearly a decade. With the stock market crash in October 1929, the American economy slid into a steep recession, which Herbert Hoover…proceeded to make worse by intervening with activist government policies – increased spending, reversing the Harding-Coolidge tax cuts, and imposing the Smoot-Hawley tariff. …once in office FDR set in motion a massive government economic intervention called the New Deal. …under FDR taxes were tripled and new taxes, like Social Security, were added, taking more money out of the pockets of ordinary Americans and businesses alike. Between 1933 and 1936, FDR’s first term, government expenditures rose by more than 83 percent. Federal debt skyrocketed by 73 percent. In all, spending shot up from $4.5 billion in 1933 to $9.4 billion in 1940. …The results were disastrous. …Unemployment under Roosevelt averaged a little more than 17 percent and never fell below 14 percent at any time. And, to make matters worse, there was a second crash in 1937. From August 1937 to March 1938, the stock market fell 50 percent.

At the risk of understatement, amen, amen, and amen.

Sadly, very few people understand this economic history.

This is mostly because they get spoon fed inaccurate information in their history classes and now think that laissez-faire capitalism somehow failed in the 1930s.

And they know nothing about what happened under Harding.

P.S. What happened in the 1920s and 1930s also is very instructive when thinking about the growth-vs-equality debate.

P.P.S. Shifting back to people not learning history (or learning bad history), it would be helpful if there was more understanding of how supporters of Keynesian economics were completely wrong about what happened after World War II.

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Having addressed Biden’s track record on subsidies, inflation, protectionism, household income, and fiscal policy, let’s finish our series by reviewing the president’s record on regulatory issues.

The first place to start is the Federal Register, which is Uncle Sam’s official site for new rules.

Though it gives us conflicting information. The number of pages (a crude measure of regulatory zeal, as I noted a few years ago) actually decreased during Biden’s first year. But only compared to Trump’s last year.

To understand what’s really going on, let’s look at the Forbes article from which the above table was taken.

Clyde Wayne Crews of the Competitive Enterprise Institute sifts through the data and concludes that Biden is a fan of expanded red tape.

The Federal Register is the daily depository of rules and regulations produced by hundreds of federal departments and agencies. …Under Biden, the regulatory establishment has its Hall Pass back, and it shows. The Federal Register page count ended the year with 74,532 pages. …The 2020 count under Trump was far higher, at 86,356. There had been “only” 61,308 pages back in Trump’s first year of 2017, which had been the lowest count in a quarter-century… Trump’s first year represented a 35 percent drop… But Trump’s final year made him number two… How come? Well, …removing rules that ought not have been written in the first place still requires writing new rules to do it. …So, paradoxically, any concerted Trump moves on “one-in, two-out” in service of deregulating and removing that which came decades before required fattening the Register to some extent. …Despite Biden’s lower Federal Register page count, we’re nonetheless back in the mode of not just unapologetically but combatively fattening the Federal Register. …several hundred of Trumps rules had been deemed “deregulatory” for purposes of his one-in, two-out program… Biden’s revivalist counts are embedded with no such purpose… Trump definitely left a mark. Biden is working on erasing it.

Incidentally, I don’t think regulatory experts from the left would disagree with the above assessment.

For instance, Brookings has a regulatory tracker that monitors what’s been happening since Biden took office and you will not find any evidence that the current administration is interested in limiting or reducing red tape.

Let’s wrap up by looking at a specific example of Biden’s regulatory excess. It’s about domestic energy production, which is a very timely issue given what is happening in Ukraine.

Ben Cahill of the Center for Strategic and International Studies summarized some of what Biden did to hinder America’s ability to produce energy.

President Joe Biden has followed through on a campaign pledge by introducing a moratorium on new oil and gas leasing on federal lands and waters. With nearly 25 percent of U.S. oil and gas production coming from federal lands, the policy shift may have significant implications for future investment and production. …This pause will not affect existing operations or permits for existing leases, and private lands will not be affected. …A more permanent leasing ban would have a significant impact, although visible offshore production declines may not materialize for up to 10 years, given the typical timeframe for planning, exploration, appraisal, and development. Onshore production declines could conceivably show up faster.

As you can see, the main damage is to future energy production rather than current energy production.

Needless to say, the same is true about the Biden Administration’s limitations on energy exploration and development in Alaska.

And don’t forget about pipelines (and geopolitics!), as mentioned in this column by Kevin Williamson for National Review.

The Biden administration already is reaching out to Caracas, where officials describe the initial conversation as “cordial” and “respectful.” I’ll bet it is. And Maduro’s isn’t the only tyrannical tuchus that requires kissing: President Joe Biden is said to be planning a personal trip to Riyadh to beg Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to ramp up Saudi production. …Right about now, President Biden must be wishing he had an extra pipeline to Canada. The thought has occurred to Alberta premier Jason Kenney, who observes about Keystone XL: “If President Biden had not vetoed that project, it would be done later this year — 840,000 barrels of democratic energy that could have displaced the 600,000 plus barrels of Russian conflict oil that’s filled with the blood of Ukrainians.” …We could spare ourselves some of these calculations by maximizing our own output — not only of crude oil and natural gas but also of refined-petroleum products. That would also mean building the necessary pipeline infrastructure and reforming our antiquated maritime regulations to enable the transportation of those fuels.

The bottom line is that the Biden Administration wants more regulation and red tape.

That has adverse consequences for economic dynamism and growth.

Especially when bureaucrats at the regulatory agencies ignore cost-benefit analysis (or put their thumbs on the scale to get a result that matches their ideological preferences).

And, in the case of energy, regulatory policy can have significant geopolitical implications as well.

P.S. You can click here to learn something about Obama’s record on the issue, and click here to learn a bit about Trump’s track record as well.

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As part of my ongoing efforts to show that free enterprise produces better results than statism, I often use data on per-capita economic output – especially when comparing nations over long periods of time.

And I’ll sometimes build upon those numbers by comparing consumption levels in different nations.

But what if we’re looking at one country rather than several nations?

In the case of the United States, it is useful to peruse data on GDP and consumption, but I’m also a big fan of using the Census Bureau’s data on inflation-adjusted median household income (though even this data isn’t perfect because household sizes are declining over time).

These numbers allow us to gauge, over multi-year periods, whether government policies are making life better for average families. Or whether they are producing stagnation.

But what if we don’t have several years of data?

That’s a very relevant question since we’re in the midst of my series on Bidenomics.

The president has only been in office for a little over one year, so we don’t even have medium-run data, much less long-run data. Moreover, I’m always cautious about using data for just one month, one quarter, or one year. After all, you don’t know if something is a real trend, or just a statistical blip.

That being said, if we want to give a preliminary grade to Biden’s economic performance, the best data would be inflation-adjusted earnings.

On this basis, Joe Biden is doing a bad job. Here’s Chart 1 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ report on what happened to hourly earnings in 2021, adjusted for inflation.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s not good news if most of the bars are in negative territory. I’ve also highlighted (in red) the key takeaways for the year.

Sophisticated observers will point out that hourly earnings are only one piece of the compensation puzzle.

So I then went to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ report that also includes fringe benefits.

And if you look at Chart 4, which measures compensation after adjusting for inflation, you’ll notice very depressing data for 2021.

Now that we’ve looked at some grim data, let’s contemplate whether Joe Biden deserves blame.

The answer is probably yes, but I’ll share five caveats.

  • First, it’s just one year of data, so always be wary of statistical blips (maybe inflation is just transitory).
  • Second, only a few Biden policies have actually been enacted (though I’m not a fan of his biggest achievement).
  • Third, those policies may not have been in place long enough to have a meaningful effect on the economy.
  • Fourth, keep in mind that the pandemic scrambled economic data (though perhaps in a way that should have meant a boom in 2021).
  • Fifth, bad news in 2021 could merely be a continuation of a preexisting trend, in which case Trump maybe deserves blame.

Regarding the final point, notice in Chart 4 that the data was heading south at the end of 2020, when Trump was still in the White House.

Was that merely a statistical blip? If not, were the numbers bad because of something Trump did, or were they related to the pandemic? Or perhaps the bad numbers at the end of 2020 were related to investors and entrepreneurs fearing a future Biden agenda?

The bottom line is that we should ignore partisan labels and instead focus on policy. If government is becoming a bigger burden, then we can expect slower growth.

As such, it is very reasonable to think that 2021’s bad data is – at least in part – a consequence of Biden’s dirigiste policy agenda.

P.S. If he is able to resuscitate his so-called Build Back Better plan, expect more bad data in 2022.

P.P.S. For previous columns in this series, click here, here, and here.

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In Part I of this series, I pointed out that Biden’s plethora of proposed handouts and subsidies would lead to higher prices and more inefficiency. And in Part II, I explained that his discussion of inflation was embarrassingly inaccurate.

In today’s column, we’re going to analyze his strident support for protectionist “Buy America” provisions, which drive up costs for taxpayers by making it harder for foreign firms to compete for government contracts and thus give American firms the ability to charge higher prices.

How much of a burden are these policies? How much more are taxpayers having to pay because governments can’t opt for the lowest qualified bidder?

According to research shared by the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE), American taxpayers lose $94 billion per year.

The good news (if we have a very generous definition of “good”) is that procurement protectionism “only” pushes up costs in the United States by 5.6 percent.

Our dirigiste friends in the European Union suffer much more. Their procurement protectionism results in average markups of 17.6 percent, costing European taxpayers a staggering $471 billion.

But taxpayers are not the only losers.

In a 2017 study for PIIE, Gary Hufbauer and Euijin Jung explain that nations also lose exports because of procurement protectionism.

Buy American provisions are often enacted because politicians associate the patriotic slogan with the creation of domestic jobs. In fact, these laws are counterproductive: They are costly for taxpayers, they curtail exports, and they lose more jobs than they create. “Buy American” was bad policy in 1930 and does even more harm today. …Buy American dulls competition for everything that federal, state, and local governments purchase. Consequently, taxpayers pay inflated prices for new infrastructure, the latest information technology, and routine maintenance of subways, bridges, and airports. …Quantification is difficult, but the major federal Buy American laws probably equate to tariff equivalent barriers of at least 25 percent on federal purchases. State laws vary in scope and protective degree, but on average they probably entail at least 10 percent tariff equivalent barriers. …When Buy American policies are championed at home they are emulated abroad—in the form of Buy European, Buy Mexican, Buy Japanese, and other local content laws and policies. Consequently, US goods and services face severe barriers in foreign procurement markets. …US exports could expand by $189 billion annually if OECD countries all repealed their existing local content laws.

The Heritage Foundation’s Tori Smith authored a report when Trump was pushing his version of procurement protectionism. Here’s some of what she wrote.

Domestic content requirements, like those found in the Buy American Act, the Berry Amendment, and various other laws, result in additional regulatory burdens for producers, and increase costs for American taxpayers. All for little or no gain: The policies are unlikely to stimulate job growth in target industries. …Existing laws and provisions regarding domestic content requirements…are extremely onerous and complicated burdens. They have three main effects: (1) creating additional regulatory hurdles for producers; (2) costing American taxpayers more than they would otherwise pay for government projects; and (3) they are unlikely to yield job growth in target industries like the steel sector.

Here are the most important passages from her report.

…to eliminate all existing domestic content requirements….would create hundreds of thousands of American jobs across the country and contribute billions of dollars to U.S. gross domestic product.

And this chart shows how various states would benefit if there was open competition for government procurement.

I’ll close with three additional points.

First, it’s disappointing that Biden is continuing Trump’s protectionist policies. It’s even more disappointing that he wants to expand upon them. This is one area where people thought Biden might move policy in the right direction.

For some historical perspective on the failure of the Trump-Biden approach, the National Taxpayers Union helpfully shared the views of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.

Second, some national security experts make a very reasonable argument that the Pentagon should not make itself dependent on purchases from nations such as China.

But this is at most an argument for “Buy from Allied Nations,” not an argument for “Buy America.”

Third, Biden is perversely consistent. Everything he is doing will increase costs for taxpayers and consumers in order to bestow undeserved benefits on special-interest groups.

P.S. The argument for competition in the market for government procurement is the same as the general argument for free trade. And since we’re on the topic of trade, remember that dollars sent overseas as part of a procurement contract will come back to the United States, either to purchase American exports or as part of investment in the U.S. economy.

P.P.S. None of this changes the fact that the public sector should be much smaller. In a libertarian society, there would be far lower levels of government procurement.

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Joe Biden’s economic policy has been a disaster.

  • He’s bad on the issues where Trump was bad (spending and trade).
  • He’s bad on the issues where Trump was good (most notably, taxes).
  • And he’s bad on the issues where Trump had a mixed record (regulation).

Based on his track record as a long-time Senator, none of this is a surprise. According to vote ratings from the Club for Growth and National Taxpayers Union, Biden was to the left of even Crazy Bernie.

Unfortunately, a bad president (anyone remember Nixon?) can do a lot more damage than a bad senator.

Today is Part I of a series of columns analyzing Biden’s failure.

We’ll start with his so-called Build Back Better plan. Joe Biden didn’t explicitly mention “BBB” is his State of the Union address, but he did promote almost all of the specific policies that are in that plan.

And he even made the preposterous argument that some of those policies would help bring inflation under control.

I’ve repeatedly explained why the president’s plan for a bigger welfare state is bad news, but this tweet from Americans for Prosperity’s Akash Chougule does a great job of debunking Biden’s argument in a very succinct fashion.

You may recognize the chart. As I pointed out last year, it shows that prices rise rapidly in areas where government subsidies distort the market.

In areas where the free market operates, by contrast, prices actually tend to decline.

I’ll close with the observation that Biden’s Build Back Better is a clunky amalgamation of new and expanded entitlements. His per-child handout is the most expensive, and it’s especially pernicious because it would undo the success of Bill Clinton (and Newt Gingrich’s) welfare reform.

But if there was a prize for the most economic damage per dollar spent, Biden’s scheme for government-dictated childcare would be the worst of the worst since he subsidizes demand while also restricting supply. If it gets approved, the chart may need a new vertical axis because Biden will screw up the market for childcare even more than the government has screwed up the markets for health care and higher education.

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I’ve previously explained that “creative destruction” is the best and worst part of capitalism. This new video has more details.

I have three goals with this video.

First, I explain that trade destroys jobs. But protectionists won’t be happy with my message because I point out that all trade destroys jobs – whether we are looking at trade inside a country or trade that crosses national borders.

To be more specific, jobs are destroyed because of changes in trade that are caused by innovation. And I cite several examples.

  • The invention and adoption of the light bulb destroying jobs in the candle-making industry.
  • The invention and adoption of the automobile destroying jobs in the horse-and-buggy industry.
  • The invention and adoption of the personal computer destroying jobs in the typewriter industry.

Second, I explain that this creative destruction boosts our living standards. Americans are far more prosperous today than we were 50 years ago or 100 years ago.

And I specifically point out in the video that this is true even for the descendants of candle makers, blacksmiths, and typewriter makers.

Third, I share data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics about massive annual job losses in the private sector that occurred in 2017 and 2018, but I also pointed out that an ever larger amount of new jobs were created in those two years.

For today, I’m going to update those numbers by also showing what happened in 2019. As you can see from the chart, the United States lost more than 85 million jobs during those three years (the orange bars), but those losses were fortunately offset by a gain of nearly 91 million private-sector jobs (the blue bars).

There’s also data for 2020 and part of 2021, and those numbers tell an unhappy story because we still haven’t recovered from pandemic-related job losses (notwithstanding President Biden’s false claims in his State of the Union speech last night).

The moral of the story is that major job losses are an unavoidable feature of a modern economy. And that’s true regardless of the level of cross-border trade.

Which is why policymakers should focus on making sure we have sensible policies (low tax rates, efficient markets, spending restraint, open trade, etc) that allow high levels of new job creation in the United States.

P.S. Creative destruction also means that some companies disappear and are replaced by new ones.

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I’ve written columns about wonky economic concepts such as “deadweight loss” and “public goods.” Today’s topic is “rent seeking,” which is part of “public choice” and is described by Professor Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University.

To elaborate, here’s a video from Professor Michael Munger from Duke University.

The basic message of both videos is that “rent seeking” occurs when interest groups manipulate the political system to obtain undeserved riches.

And there are all sorts of examples of policies that exist solely because interest groups get politicians to tilt the playing field – including trade barriers, farm subsidies, occupational licensing, and bureaucrat salaries.

As pointed out in the videos, these rent-seeking policies reduce prosperity.

But what’s the origin of the term? In the modern era, it’s often associated with Gordon Tullock, one of the founders of public choice school of economic analysis.

But the term actually was coined a couple of hundred years ago by David Ricardo, as explained by Professor David Henderson of the Naval Postgraduate School.

Rent seeking” is one of the most important insights in the last fifty years of economics and, unfortunately, one of the most inappropriately labeled. …People are said to seek rents when they try to obtain benefits for themselves through the political arena. …But why do economists use the term “rent”? Unfortunately, there is no good reason. David Ricardo introduced the term “rent” in economics. It means the payment to a factor of production in excess of what is required to keep that factor in its present use. …What is wrong with rent seeking? Absolutely nothing. I would be rent seeking if I asked for a raise. My employer would then be free to decide if my services are worth it. Even though I am seeking rents by asking for a raise, this is not what economists mean by “rent seeking.” They use the term to describe people’s lobbying of government to give them special privileges. A much better term is “privilege seeking.”

To elaborate, there’s nothing wrong with rent seeking as defined by Ricardo.

But rent seeking is now associated with “privilege seeking,” which obviously is very unsavory.

Ben Casselman of FiveThirtyEight also wrote on rent seeking.

Imagine you run a barbershop and you learn that someone is planning to open a rival business down the street. What do you do? One option, of course, would be to compete the old-fashioned way by offering lower prices or better service. But the old-fashioned way is hard! Wouldn’t it be nice if you could keep your competitor from setting up shop in the first place? There’s evidence that a growing number of businesses in the U.S. are trying to do exactly that. And while that may be good for them, it’s bad for entrepreneurs, workers and the economy as a whole. …Economists call this kind of behavior “rent-seeking,” which is another way of saying “gaming the system to make more money than you’ve earned.” …There is evidence that rent-seeking, in various forms, is becoming more common in the U.S. economy. In a recent paper, economist Dean Baker argued that rent-seeking has driven much of the recent increase in income inequality. And while Baker is a liberal, conservatives are also concerned about rent-seeking, such as land-use restrictions that make it hard to build housing in high-priced coastal cities.

The bottom line is that politicians spend much of their time buying their way to reelection by providing undeserved goodies to various interest groups. You can call it rent seeking. You can call it corruption. Or you can call it politics.

But one obvious takeaway is that shrinking the size and scope of government is the only effective way of reducing rent seeking.

P.S. If you’re in the mood for more economic wonkiness, here are several videos that explain “Austrian economics” and two videos that explain the price system.

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When I first wrote about the Index of Economic Freedom back in 2010, the United States was comfortably among the world’s 10-freest nations with a score of 78 out of 100.

By last year, America had dropped to #20, with a very mediocre score of 74.8.

Sadly, the United States is continuing to decline. The Heritage Foundation recently released the 2022 version of the Index and the United States is now down to #25, with an even-more-mediocre score of 72.1.

As you can see, the biggest reason for the decline is bad fiscal policy (we can assume that Biden’s so-called stimulus deserves much of the blame).

So what nations got the best scores?

Our next visual shows that Singapore has the world’s freest economy, narrowly edging out Switzerland.

Notice, though, that Singapore’s score dropped and Switzerland’s improved. So it will be interesting to see if the “sensible nation” takes the top spot next year.

Also notice that only 7 nations qualified as “Free,” meaning scores of 80 or above.

The United States is in the “Mostly Free” category, which is for nations with scores between 70 and 80.

By the way, notice that the United States trails all the Nordic nations. Indeed, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, and Norway get scores in the upper-70s.

How is this possible when those countries have high-tax welfare states? Because they follow a very laissez-faire approach for all of their other policies (trade, regulation, monetary policy, etc).

I’ll close with a depressing look at how the United States has declined over the past two decades. I already mentioned that the U.S. gets a score of 72.1 in the 2022 version. That’s far below 81.2, which is where America was back in 2006.

P.S. The Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World shows a similar decline for the United States.

P.P.S. Taiwan is an under-appreciated success story.

P.P.P.S. New Zealand is still in the “Free” group, but it’s decline is worrisome.

P.P.P.P.S. Kudos to Estonia for climbing into the top group.

P.P.P.P.P.S. The bottom three nations are Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea.

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The Laffer Curve is a method for illustrating the relationship between tax rates, taxable income, and tax revenue.

But it’s important to realize that there are actually lots of varieties.

The Laffer Curve for capital gains taxes, for instance, will look different than the Laffer Curve for payroll taxes. Or corporate taxes. Or marijuana taxes.

In every case, the shape of the curve will depend on what’s being taxed and the ability of affected taxpayers to alter their behavior.

And the shape of the Laffer Curve also will depend on whether one is measuring the short-run revenue impact of tax changes or the long-run impact of tax changes.

Given all these varieties, no wonder so many people, both right and left, sometimes misstate its meaning.

Let’s try to expand our understanding of the Lafffer Curve by looking at some new research.

Professor Aaron Hedlund of the University of Missouri authored a study on the Laffer Curve for the Show Me Institute.

Here’s what he wants to understand.

Empirically, recent research provides a variety of estimates for the revenue-maximizing and welfare-maximizing tax rates, but one lesson that emerges is that analyses that only take into account the response of hours worked to tax increases are bound to greatly overestimate the amount of new revenue that can be raised while underestimating the economic damage from lost GDP growth and wages. This paper examines the relationship between tax rates and revenue by taking a broader view that encompasses the responses of skill acquisition, entrepreneurship, innovation, and the labor market behavior of dual-earner families. The bottom line that emerges is that these additional margins of adjustment imply significantly lower revenue-maximizing and welfare-enhancing tax rates.

He then explains that some economists fail to look at all possible behavioral responses.

Traditionally, much of the economic analysis aimed at finding this peak rate has focused on how the income tax rate affects an individual’s willingness to work, both with regard to hours worked and the decision to enter the labor force at all. Moreover, until the recent arrival of better data, much of the academic research considered only the response of heads of households. …This assumption of tax rate insensitivity led economists Peter Diamond and Emmanuel Saez to conclude that the optimal—revenue maximizing—top income tax rate is 73%. Moreover, in an analysis that also considers the social insurance benefits of progressive taxation—specifically, the ability of redistribution to soften the blow of unexpected economic hardship—economists Fabian Kindermann and Dirk Krueger provide justification for a top rate that approaches 90%. However, both studies omit the many other margins of behavioral adjustment that accompany any significant change to tax rates.

When all behavioral responses are measured, it turns out that the revenue-maximizing rate is much lower.

In one study that accounts for the sensitivity of entrepreneurs to tax rates, increasing the progressivity of the income tax code leads to a revenue-maximizing top rate of only 33%. Furthermore, in this case revenues only increase by 5%—amounting to less than one percentage point of GDP. Another study finds even starker results when looking at the subset of superstar entrepreneurs. In an analysis that incorporates the positive spillovers of ideas and innovation on economic growth, economist Charles Jones finds that the revenue-maximizing tax rate may even be as low as 29%. Furthermore, he shows that raising the top income tax rate to 75% could reduce GDP by over 8%, which would greatly blunt the impact on revenues by shrinking the tax base.

Figure 5 from the study shows how the revenue-maximizing rate varies depending on which factors are included in the study.

My two cents on this issue is to remind readers that we don’t want to maximize revenue for politicians.

As such, I don’t care if the revenue-maximizing rate in 29 percent or 73 percent.

I want to be at the growth-maximizing rate, which is where the government only collects the amount of money that is necessary to finance genuine public goods.

Needless to say, that means tax rates (and spending burdens) far lower than today.

P.S. Tax accountants have a very good understanding of the Laffer Curve.

P.P.S. Heck, even the thugs from ISIS understand the Laffer Curve.

P.P.P.S. Sadly, it doesn’t matter if some leftists understand the Laffer Curve.

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Three years ago, I unveiled this video to help explain that trade deficits are nothing to worry about.

The most important thing to understand from the video is that the flip side of a trade deficit is a capital surplus.

To be more specific, foreigners earn dollars by selling products to Americans. They then use those dollars to buy goods and services from American producers, or they use those dollars to invest money in the American economy.

And when foreigners choose to invest their dollars, that necessarily is accompanied by a trade deficit.

At the risk of understatement, it’s not bad that foreigners want to invest in the United States.

Why am I discussing this topic today?

Because we have final data on trade flows for 2021. Here are some excerpts from a report by Ana Swanson for the New York Times.

The U.S. trade deficit in goods soared to record levels in 2021, topping $1 trillion… The overall trade deficit in both goods and services also hit an annual record, rising 27 percent as the country’s imports far outpaced its exports, according to data released by the Commerce Department… Imports surged by $576.5 billion, or 20.5 percent, rising sharply from a slump at the onset of the pandemic, as both the quantity and the price of the foreign products that Americans purchased increased. Businesses spent heavily on equipment and machinery… Exports grew 18.5 percent, or by $394.1 billion.

The correct reaction to this story is a big yawn.

Simply stated, I don’t care if Americans bought more from foreigners than foreigners bought from Americans. Just like I don’t care that I have a trade deficit with my local grocery stores (I’m always buying food from them and they never buy anything from me!).

Here’s another sentence from the story that deserves some attention.

Mary Lovely, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said the ballooning trade deficit last year mostly reflected the country’s continued strong economic growth.

To elaborate, if the United States economy is growing, that means Americans can afford to buy more stuff, regardless of where those goods and services originate.

And if other places in the world are growing slower (such as Europe), that means people from those areas can’t afford to buy as much stuff that originates in the United States.

P.S. A few years ago, I criticized Trump’s trade deal with China.

At the risk of patting myself on the back, I was right. Here are a few more sentences from the NYT story.

The data also revealed the shortcomings of a trade deal that Mr. Trump signed with China in 2020. …China committed to buying an additional $200 billion worth of American goods and services above a 2017 baseline by the end of 2021. But those purchases did not materialize. …China actually bought none of the additional $200 billion of exports that the trade deal had promised. …the trade deal Mr. Trump signed in 2020 “did not address the core problems” with China’s state-led economy.

P.P.S. While it is generally a good thing when foreigners invest in the U.S. economy, that’s only true if they investing in the private sector (stocks, bonds, real estate, etc). By contrast, if foreigners are using dollars to buy government bonds, that obviously doesn’t help growth.

But the problem isn’t that foreigners are buying government debt. That’s merely a symptom of the actual problem, which is excessive spending by politicians in Washington.

The moral of the story is that free trade is desirable…and small government is desirable.

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Every few years (2012, 2015, 2019), I warn that easy-money policies by the Federal Reserve are misguided.

But not just because such policies eventually can lead to price inflation, which now has become a problem in the United States.

Bad monetary policy also can lead to asset inflation. In other words, bubbles. And it’s no fun when bubbles burst.

The obvious lesson to be learned is that central banks such as the Fed shouldn’t try to steer the economy with Keynesian-style monetary policy.

I’m motivated to write about this issue because the Washington Post recently invited some people to offer their ideas on how to fight inflation.

Some of the ideas were worthwhile.

Some of the ideas were bad, or even awful.

If asked to contribute, what would I have suggested?

Being a curmudgeonly libertarian, I would have channeled the spirit of Milton Friedman and pointed out that bad monetary policy by central banks is the cause of inflation. Simply stated, it is appropriate to blame central banks if there are sustained and permanent increases in the overall price level.

And the only way to fix inflation is for central banks to unwind the policy mistakes that caused the problem in the first place.

Some of the respondents did mention the need for Federal Reserve to rectify its mistakes, so I’m not the only one to think monetary policy is important.

But I’m very fixated on assigning blame where it belongs, so I would not have mentioned any other factor.

For instance, in an article just published by the Austrian Economics Center in Vienna, Robert O’Quinn and I explain that bad fiscal policy does not cause inflation.

Are we seeing higher levels of price inflation because of fiscal profligacy?  Some Republican U.S. Senators and Representatives have blamed this acceleration of price inflation on Biden’s blowout of federal spending. There are many good reasons to criticize Biden’s spending spree. It is not good for the economy to increase the burden of government spending and push for higher tax rates… But that does not necessarily mean deficit spending is inflationary. …Price inflation occurs when the supply of money exceeds the demand for money… Notably, none of the mechanisms that central banks use for monetary policy (buying and selling government securities, setting interest rates paid on reserves, loans to financial institutions, etc) have anything to do with federal spending or budget deficits.  The Fed and other central banks can maintain price stability regardless of whether governments are enacting reckless fiscal policies.

In the article, we cited Japan as an example of a country with huge levels of debt, yet prices are stable.

By contrast, prices are rising in the United States because of Keynesian monetary policies by the Federal Reserve (often with the support of politicians).

What’s causing inflation, if not budget deficits and government debt? …central banks have been pursuing an inflationary policy. But they’ve been pursuing that approach not to finance budget deficits, but instead are motivated by a Keynesian/interventionist viewpoint that it is the role of central banks to “stimulate” the economy and/or prop up the financial market with easy-money policies.

I’ll close by observing that there can be a link between bad fiscal policy and inflation.

In basket-case nations such as Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and Argentina, politicians periodically use central banks to finance some of their excessive spending.

Some governments, particularly in less-developed countries, cannot easily borrow money and they rely on their central banks to finance their budget deficits. And that is clearly inflationary.

Because of changing demographics and poorly designed entitlement programs, it’s possible that the United States and other western nations eventually may get to this point.

Heck, I speculated just a couple of days ago that the European Central Bank may be doing this with Italy.

But the United States hasn’t yet reached that “tipping point.” There are still plenty of investors willing to buy the federal government’s debt (especially since the dollar is the world’s reserve currency).

The bottom line is that we should pursue good fiscal policy because it makes sense. And we should pursue good monetary policy because it makes sense. But the two are not directly connected.

P.S. On the topic of inflation, Ronald Reagan deserves immense praise for standing firm for good policy in the 1980s.

P.P.S. On the topic of the Federal Reserve, the central bank also should be criticized for interfering with the allocation of credit. And financial repression as well.

P.P.P.S. On the topic of basket-case economies, let’s hope that the American policy makers don’t embrace “modern monetary theory.”

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I only share long videos when they satisfy key criteria, such as being very informative and very educational.

This video from Arthur Brooks is both.

What I like most is that he does a very good job of showing that concern for the disadvantaged is the most important reason to support free markets and limited government.

And he does this by exploring some very interesting and challenging topics, such as Denmark’s unusual mix of free markets and a welfare state (I’ve referred to that country’s public policy as a combination of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).

But I want to focus on his discussion of India’s partial economic liberalization. We’ll start by perusing the most-recent edition of Economic Freedom of the World to confirm that there was a significant increase in economic liberty during the 1990s.

But it’s also important to stress that India’s partial economic liberalization was…well, partial.

India is currently ranked #108 for economic freedom, which is mediocre at best, and it does especially poorly in areas such as regulation and trade.

The good news is that the country’s policies are not as bad as Venezuela’s. The bad news, though, is that it’s also nowhere close to being as good as Singapore.

If you want to understand economic policy in India, you should read this study by Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar.

He starts by explaining the awful policies that existed prior to 1991.

India was in such poor shape before 1991 that it takes an effort to recall how bad things were. …India’s slow-growing, inward-looking socialism made it unimportant in global terms, save as an aid recipient. …India’s poverty ratio did not improve at all between independence in 1947 and 1983; it remained a bit under 60 percent. …In 1991, it took two years for anyone to get a telephone landline connection. N. R. Narayana Murthy, head of top software company Infosys, recalls that in the 1980s, it took him three years to get permission to import a computer and over one year to get a telephone connection. …In 1991 Indian politicians and industrialists feared that economic liberalization would mean the collapse of Indian industry… Before 1991 very high tax rates (up to a 58 percent corporate tax) plus a high wealth tax meant that businesses kept income off the books.

There was a decent amount of economic liberalization in the 1990s.

After 1991 direct tax rates gradually came down substantially (to 30 percent plus surcharges for individuals and corporations). The wealth tax on shares was abolished, making it possible to raise shareholder value without being penalized for it. …The corporate tax was cut from a maximum of 58 percent to 30 percent, yet corporate tax collections increased from 1 percent of GDP to almost 6 percent at one point. …Personal income tax rates also fell from 50 percent to 30 percent, but once again collections rose, from 1 percent of GDP to almost 2 percent. …economic liberalization has facilitated the rise to the top of a vast array of new entrepreneurs. …In the two decades since 1991, India’s literacy rate has shot up by a record 21.8 percentage points, to 74 percent…much faster in the era of reform than in the earlier era of socialism. …Life expectancy in India is up from an average of 58.6 years in 1986-91 to 68.5 years. Infant mortality is down from 87 deaths per 1,000 births to 40.

This partial liberalization has produced good results, as illustrated by Table 2.

India’s growth rate has improved, which is why various social indicators (poverty, literacy, mortality) have improved.

But India should not be considered a role model.

There is still far too much government.

How can we sum up 25 years of economic reform? Three major trends are visible. First, the vast majority of successes have been private‐​sector successes, whereas the vast majority of failures have been government failures, mainly in service delivery. Second, wherever markets have become competitive and globalized, the outcomes have been excellent. …In the 1990s, the government gradually opened up the economy, abolishing industrial and import licensing, freeing foreign exchange regulations, gradually reducing import tariffs and direct tax rates, reforming capital and financial markets, and generally cutting red tape. Those changes enabled India to boom and become a potential economic superpower. But some areas were never liberalized, such as land and natural resources, and those areas have been marked by massive scams.

I’ll close by sharing this chart, which is based on the Maddison database.

As you can see, per-capita economic output climbed faster after a few pro-market reforms were implemented.

After giving some speeches in India back in 2018, here’s how I summarized my conflicted assessment.

Indians are enormously successful when they emigrate to the United States. And they also do very well when they migrate to Singapore, South Africa, and other places around the world. Yet Indians in India remain comparatively poor. …There’s a saying in the country that “India grows at night, while government sleeps.” …In other words, policy is generally not friendly, but the private sector manages to find “breathing room” to operate in spite of government. So poverty is falling, slowly but surely.

It would be great if poverty could fall much faster, but the current government doesn’t seem to have any interest in the policies that would make that happen.

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To explain why politicians should not interfere with prices, I’ve shared videos from Marginal Revolution, Don Boudreaux, Learn Liberty, and Russ Roberts.

To add to that collection, here’s part of a lecture by Professor Antony Davies.

The bottom line is that price controls have a history of failure, anywhere and everywhere they’ve been tried.

But some folks on the left want to resuscitate this awful idea, as reported in an article in the New York Times by Ben Casselman and

America’s recent inflation spike has prompted renewed interest in an idea that many economists and policy experts thought they had long ago left behind for good: price controls. …the phrase “price controls” has, at least for many people, called to mind images of product shortages and bureaucratic overreach. …As consumer prices soared this fall, however, a handful of mostly left-leaning economists reignited the long-dormant debate, arguing in opinion columns, policy briefs and social-media posts that the idea deserves a second look. …Few economists today defend the Nixon price controls. But some argue that it is unfair to consider their failure a definitive rebuttal of all price caps. …Democrats and the administration have stopped short of suggesting actual price limits.

In a column for the U.K.-based Guardian, Professor Isabella Weber of the University of Massachusetts Amherst argues for price controls to counter corporate greed.

Inflation is near a 40-year high.In 2021, US non-financial profit margins have reached levels not seen since the aftermath of the second world war. This is no coincidence. large corporations with market power have used supply problems as an opportunity to increase prices and scoop windfall profits. we need…a serious conversation about strategic price controls… Price controls would buy time to deal with bottlenecks that will continue as long as the pandemic prevails. Strategic price controls could also contribute to the monetary stability needed to mobilize public investments towards economic resilience, climate change mitigation and carbon-neutrality. The cost of waiting for inflation to go away is high. 

For what it’s worth, I agree that businesses want as much profit as possible (just as workers want wages to be as high as possible).

But the notion that corporate greed is causing inflation is laughable. After all, weren’t businesses also greedy in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s? Yet we didn’t see a big uptick in consumer prices.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that the vast majority of economists, both right and left, reject Prof. Weber’s hypothesis.

Needless to say, the Federal Reserve deserves blame for inflation, not greedy companies (or greedy workers).

It’s possible, of course, that today’s rising prices are partly or even mostly transitory. But, given the easy-money policy we’ve had (including under Trump), it’s perhaps more likely that prices are going up as an inevitable consequence of mistakes by the central bank.

Let’s close with Alberto Mingardi’s 2020 column in the Wall Street Journal about how a product-specific price control failed.

Italy is trying to control the price of face masks, …a fixed price of 50 European cents… The Italian newspaper Il Foglio reports that the government is buying face masks wholesale at a price between 38 and 70 European cents each—essentially admitting it can’t abide by its own price controls. …The Civil Protection Department, Italy’s national body that deals with emergencies, …discouraged entrepreneurs from importing masks, right as more masks were needed. …Those who were buying up masks to hoard risked government confiscation. These moves clamped down on price gouging but created a shortage. …pharmacists can’t get masks cheap enough to sell at a retail price of 50 European cents. …The price fixers have promised a subsidy to pharmacists to mitigate losses. But the price was fixed by executive order, whereas the subsidy was merely promised. Quite a few pharmacists elected to stop selling masks.

P.S. Politicians in Washington want to impose price controls on the pharmaceutical industry. That concerns me since I’m getting older and might be in a position where I would benefit from new therapeutics. But companies will have much less incentive for research and innovation if government makes it very difficult to make money.

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There are many well-meaning people who support statist policies such as punitive taxation because they believe in the zero-sum fallacy, which is explained in this short video by Madsen Pirie of London’s Adam Smith Institute.

The zero-sum fallacy is especially noxious because it naturally leads to all sorts of misguided policies. Not just class-warfare taxation, but also protectionism and the welfare state.

But I can understand why people are drawn to such ideas. If they sincerely believe that people like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk only become richer because the rest of us become poorer, it’s hard to blame them.

This is why I repeatedly share evidence showing that the zero-sum fallacy is, well, a fallacy.

Indeed, one very powerful lesson from the above examples is that poor people have been huge winners from economic growth.

As shown by U.S. Census Bureau data, there’s a strong correlation between rising income and falling income among all groups.

Given the importance of this issue, let’s take a closer look at the zero-sum fallacy.

In an article for the Foundation for Economic Education, John Williams used the example of a poker game to explain this cornerstone of bad economics.

Economic activity is depicted in terms of a poker game. One player’s chips are observed to have increased. Immediately one concludes that some other player has lost chips. Poker is, as they say, a zero-sum game: Gains enjoyed by one party must be balanced by losses suffered by another. So it is, people embracing the fallacies of “static wealth” and “the zero-sum game” insist, with economic exchanges. “Winners” must be balanced by corresponding “losers.” …According to the mercantilists, wealth was a constant, a given—like the chips in a poker game. If one community—and typically the mercantilists thought in terms of communities—improved its overall economic situation, another community must have lost out. …What Adam Smith perceived, essentially, was first that “wealth” was not something static and given like gold, or, indeed, poker chips, but rather consisted of goods and services that could be created, and second that both parties to an economic exchange could improve their respective situations. …There are two winners, not one. This is a positive-sum, rather than a gem-sum game.

This type of thinking may even be hard-wired in our brains, as explained by Professor Paul Rubin of Emory University in a column for the Wall Street Journal.

…the worldview of Marxists and woke leftists alike is fundamentally primitive. …It is the economic view of the world that evolved in our brains before the development of the modern economy. …Zero-sum thinking was well-adapted to this world. Since there was no economic growth, incomes and wealth didn’t grow. If one person had access to more food or other goods, or greater access to females, it was likely because of expropriation from others. Since there was little capital, a “labor theory of value”—the idea that all value is created by labor alone—would have been appropriate… Adam Smith and other economists challenged this worldview in the 18th century. They taught that specialization of labor was valuable, that capital was productive, and that labor and capital could work together to increase income. …the creation of wealth would benefit everyone in a society, not only the wealthy. …Members of the woke left want to return to policies based on this primitive economic thinking. One of their major errors is thinking that the world is zero-sum. …Dislike of the rich makes sense in a world where one can become rich only by exploiting others, but not in a society full of creativity and useful inventions.

Prof. Rubin also wrote about this topic back in 2010.

P.S. The good news is that very few left-leaning economists believe in the zero-sum fallacy. They recognize that growth benefits all income groups. Where they go wrong is thinking that bigger government is needed for growth and/or thinking that less growth is okay if rich people suffer more than poor people (they tend to be so fixated on inequality that they overlook very good news).

P.P.S. Just as poor people aren’t poor because of rich people (at least the ones that get rich by markets rather than cronyism), poor nations aren’t poor because of rich nations.

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I have shared five videos (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V) that make the case for capitalism.

Here’s a sixth example.

The video notes that poverty was the natural condition for humanity (notwithstanding the economic illiteracy of Congresswoman Pressley).

But then, starting a couple of hundred years ago, capitalism gained a foothold and – for the first time in world history – there were nations with mass prosperity.

We learn about how various places became rich, including the United States, Hong Kong, and New Zealand.

The narrator also pointed out that Ireland experienced a period of dramatic market-driven growth.

Which gives me a good excuse to make the following comparison, which shows the dramatic divergence between Ireland and Greece beginning in the mid-1980s.

Why the stunning divergence (one of many examples I’ve collected)?

Ireland controlled spending and cut tax rates and now routinely ranks among the nations with the most economic liberty.

Greece, by contrast, has imposed more and more government over time.

Let’s close with this tweet, which nicely summarizes Walter Williams’ famous observation.

P.S. This comparison of Sweden and Greece also makes the key point about the superiority of markets over statism.

P.P.S. Don Boudreaux and Deirdre McCloskey have must-watch videos on how capitalism enabled (some) nations to escape poverty.

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As I warned a few days ago, Biden’s so-called Build Back Better plan is not dead.

There’s still a significant risk that this economy-sapping plan will get enacted, resulting in big tax increases and a larger burden of government spending.

Proponents of a bigger welfare state say the President’s plan should be approved so that the United States can be more like Europe.

This argument is baffling because it doesn’t make sense to copy countries where living standards are significantly lower.

In some cases dramatically lower.

Let’s explore this issue in greater detail.

In a column for Bloomberg, Allison Schrager analyzes America’s supply-chain problems and the impact on consumption patterns.

But what caught my eye were the numbers comparing the United States and Europe.

Americans can’t spend like they used to. Store shelves are emptying, and it can take months to find a car, refrigerator or sofa. If this continues, we may need to learn to do without — and, horrors, live more like the Europeans. That actually might not be a bad thing, because the U.S. economy could be healthier if it were less reliant on consumption. …We consume much more than we used to and more than other countries.  Consumption per capita grew about 65% from 1990 to 2015, compared with about 35% growth in Europe. …What would that mean for the U.S. economy? European levels of consumption coexist with lower levels of growth.

Here’s the chart that accompanied her article.

As you can see, consumption in the United States is far higher than it is in major European nations – about $15,000-per-year higher than the United Kingdom and about double the levels in Germany, Belgium, and France.

So when someone says we should expand the welfare state and be more like Europe, what they’re really saying is that we should copy nations that are far behind the United States.

Some of you may have noticed that Ms. Schrager is citing per-capita consumption data from the World Bank and you may be wondering whether other numbers tell a different story.

After all, if higher levels of consumption in America are simply the result of borrowing from overseas, that would be a negative rather than a positive.

So I went to the same website and downloaded the data for per-capita gross domestic product instead. I then created this chart (going all the way back to 1971). As you can see, it shows that Americans not only consume more, but we also produce more.

For those interested, I also included Japan and China, as well as the average for the entire world.

The bottom line is that it’s good to be part of western civilization. But it’s especially good to be in the United States.

Since we’re on the topic of comparative economics, David Harsanyi of National Review recently wrote about the gap between the United States and Europe.

More than anything, it is the ingrained American entrepreneurial spirit and work ethic that separates us from Europe and the rest of the world. …Europe, despite its wealth, its relatively stable institutions, its giant marketplace, and its intellectual firepower, is home to only one of the top 30 global Internet companies in the world (Spotify), while the United States is home to 18 of the top 30. …One of the most underrated traits we hold, for instance, is our relative comfort with risk — a behavior embedded in the American character. …Americans, self-selected risk-takers, created an individual and communal independence that engendered creativity. …Because of a preoccupation with “inequality” — one shared by the modern American Left — European rules and taxation for stock-option remuneration make it difficult for start-up employees to enjoy the benefits of innovation — and make it harder for new companies to attract talent. …But the deeper problem is that European culture values stability over success, security over invention…in Europe, hard work is less likely to guarantee results because policies that allow people to keep the fruits of their labor and compete matter far less.

In other words, there’s less economic dynamism because the reward for being productive is lower in Europe (which is simply another way of saying taxes are higher in Europe).

P.S. The main forcus of Ms. Schrager’s Bloomberg article was whether the U.S. economy is too dependent on consumption.

It feels like our voracious consumption is what fuels the economy. But that needn’t be the case. Long-term, sustainable growth doesn’t come from going deep into debt to buy stuff we don’t really need. It comes from technology and innovation, where we come up with new products and better ways of doing things. An economy based on consumption is not sustainable.

I sort of agree with her point.

Simply stated high levels of consumption don’t cause a strong economy. It’s the other way around. A strong economy enables high levels of consumption.

But this doesn’t mean consumption is bad, or that it would be good for America to be more like Europe.

Instead, the real lesson is that you want the types of policies (free markets and limited government) that will produce innovation and investment.

That results in higher levels of income, which then allows higher levels of consumption.

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Regarding fiscal policy, almost everyone’s attention is focused on Biden’s growth-sapping plan to increase the burden of taxes and spending.

People are right to be concerned. If the President’s plan is approved, the already-grim fiscal outlook for United States will get even worse.

This battle will be decided in next 12 months, hopefully with a defeat for Biden’s dependency agenda.

Regardless of how that fight is resolved, though, we’re eventually going to get to a point where sensible people are back in charge. And when that happens, we’ll have to figure out how to restore the nation’s finances.

That requires figuring out the appropriate goal. Here are two options:

  • Keeping taxes low.
  • Controlling debt.

These are both worthy objectives.

But, as a logic teacher might say, they are necessary but not sufficient conditions.

Here’s a chart showing how a policy of low taxes (the orange line) presumably enables faster growth, but also creates the risk of an eventual economic crisis if nothing is done to control spending and debt climbs too high (think Greece).

By contrast, the chart also shows that it’s theoretically possible to avoid an economic crisis with higher taxes (the blue line), but it means less growth on a year-to-year basis.

The moral of the story is that the economy winds up in the same place with either tax-financed spending or debt-financed spending.

Which is why we should consider a third goal.

  • Limiting spending.

The economic benefits of this approach are illustrated in this second chart. We enjoy faster year-to-year growth. And, because spending restraint is the best way of controlling debt, the risk of a Greek-style economic crisis is averted.

Now for some caveats.

I made a handful of assumptions in the above charts.

  • The economy grows 2.0 percent annually for the next 31 years with tax-financed spending
  • The economy grows 2.5 percent annually with debt-financed spending, but suffers a 10 percent decline in Year 31.
  • The economy grows 3.0 percent annually for the next 31 years with smaller government (thus enabling low taxes and less debt).

Anyone can create their own spreadsheet and make different assumptions.

That being said, there’s a lot of evidence that higher tax burdens hinder growth, that ever-rising debt burdens can lead to crisis, and that less government spending produces stronger growth.

So feel free to make your own assumptions about the strength of these effects, but let’s never lose sight of the fact that spending restraint should be the main goal for post-Biden fiscal policy.

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

The results are not pretty.

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

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

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

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

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

And here are the results.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The answer is no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have one minor disagreement with that video.

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

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

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

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

Let’s close with one final bit of evidence.

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

Was Germany a libertarian paradise?

Hardly.

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

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

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

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There are certain topics that seem to be slam-dunk wins for those who favor free markets and limited government, and one reason I make this assertion is that folks on the left don’t even bother to make counter-arguments.

Here are just a few examples:

Prior to today, I also would have included this example:

But now I can no longer include Chile’s economic renaissance because I finally found someone who concocted an alternative explanation.

As part of a column in today’s Washington Post about Chile’s upcoming presidential election, Anthony Faiola made this claim about that nation’s economic performance.

After Pinochet’s ruthless rule came to an end in 1990, the newly democratic nation witnessed a historic period of economic growth. Gross domestic product growth between 1990 and 2018 averaged 4.7 percent annually, well above the Latin American average. Over that same period, democratic governments increased social spending. Extreme poverty (below $1.5 per day) was virtually wiped out.

But now let’s consider whether this alternative explanation is accurate.

Mr. Faiola wants readers to believe that the positive developments in Chile (“historic period of growth” and “extreme poverty…was virtually wiped out”) occurred after 1990.

But if that’s the case, why did per-capita living standards begin to climb much earlier?

As shown by these two charts, it’s far more likely that the dramatic rise in per-capita economic performance around 1980 is the result of a big increase in economic liberty (as measured by Economic Freedom of the World) that also was occurring around that time.

(There is a separate measure of economic freedom for the years before 1970, so the orange and blue lines are discontinuous.)

One should always be careful about interpreting numbers. For instance, national economic data at a given moment in time will be affected when there are periods of global recession, such as the early 1980s and 2008.

Which is why it is important to look at longer periods of time. And when looking at decades of data for Chile, the big jump in prosperity clearly began after the economy was liberalized, not after Pinochet ceded power in 1990.

We’ll close with some bad news and good news.

The bad news, as captured by the bottom-half of the stacked charts abvoe, is that there hasn’t been much pro-market reform in recent decades.

But the good news is that Chile hasn’t deteriorated. The nation has endured some left-leaning governments, but economic freedom has remained high by world standards. Which means the economy continues to grow.

P.S. I’ll add some worrisome news. The left in Chile wants a new constitution that would give politicians more power over the economy. If that effort is successful, I fear the country will suffer Argentinianstyle decline.

P.P.S. I suppose Mr. Faiola deserves some credit for cleverness. Some leftists have tried to argue Chile is a failed “neoliberal experiment.” Given the nation’s superior performance, that’s obviously an absurd strategy. So Faiola came up with a new hypothesis that acknowledges the growth, but tries to convince readers that it’s all the result of things that happened after 1990. He’s wildly wrong, but at least he tried.

P.P.P.S. I have a three-part series (here, here, and here) on how low-income people have been big winners as a result of Chile’s shift to free enterprise.

P.P.P.P.S. Here’s a column on Milton Friedman’s indirect contribution to Chilean prosperity.

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Back in May, as part of a discussion about the tradeoff between free markets (efficiency) and redistribution (equity), I put together a chart to show how poor people are better off in the long run if policy makers focus on the former rather than the latter.

I made sure to assume that pro-market policies would generate only a small increase in growth.

However, thanks to “the miracle of compounding growth,” even that tiny increase results in the poor being better off when compared to a world with less growth and more redistribution.

But I was just providing a theoretical example, and it would be easy to change some assumptions to show that the poor would have better lives (as measured by consumption levels) with bigger government.

Fortunately, there’s a new study, authored by Justin Callais of Texas Tech University and Vincent Geloso of George Mason University, that looks at hard data to see which approach is best for poor people.

Here’s a description of their methodological approach, which uses the positive liberty vs negative liberty construct.

While it is true that economic freedom speaks directly to negative liberty, it also speaks indirectly to positive liberty because of its welldocumented effects on economic growth, health outcomes and education. We build on these works by using a rich dataset of estimates of income mobility of people born in the 1980s. …the dataset employed includes a larger number of poor and rich countries. Combining these data with those of the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World (henceforth EFW) index, we try to measure its indirect effect (through growth and income levels) on intergenerational income mobility in a horse race with income inequality.

For all intents and purposes, they want to see which effect dominates in this flowchart.

And here’s the way they describe the chart.

…the true effect of economic freedom on intergenerational mobility is 𝛽1 + 𝛼1𝛽2. As long as 𝛽1 + 𝛼1𝛽2 > β3, economic freedom’s effects outweigh those of income inequality on positive liberty (as intergenerational income mobility is a standin for positive liberty).

So what did they find?

We find that economic freedom has both a direct and indirect effect on intergenerational income mobility. More importantly, those effects are more important than those of income inequality. We argue that our results militate for the claim that good institutions matter more to securing positive liberty than income redistribution does.we find that the lifetime institutional environment is a strong predictor of incomes today. The indirect effect of economic freedom (through income levels) on mobility is again strong and negatively correlated (indicated greater income mobility). economic freedom has both a direct and indirect effect on intergenerational income mobility. Economic freedom provides the legal right to engage in commerce, but through economic freedom’s impact on income, the institutional environment speaks to increasing the practical and realistic choice sets of people to better their situation.

The bottom line is that the poor are better off with economic freedom (i.e., negative liberty). Free markets lead to more upward mobility and higher living standards.

So if you want less poverty, push for more capitalism.

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There are some issues – such as class-warfare tax rates and the minimum wage – where intelligent people on the left will privately admit being wrong (or at least they will admit adverse consequences).

Another example is rent control.

Indeed, it’s so obvious that imposing price controls on housing will create shortages that some folks on the left even admit publicly that it’s a bad idea.

Yet leftist politicians are drawn to the policy for the simple reason that renters outnumber landlords.

Simply stated, they’re willing to impose considerable damage so long as they can grab a few extra votes.

Let’s look at some evidence about the folly of rent control, and we’ll start with a hot-off-the-presses column by Ryan Mills for National Review.

Democratic leaders in Minnesota’s capital city are scrambling for solutions after developers put several large projects on hold across St. Paul in the wake of last week’s election, when residents approved what may be the strictest rent-control policy in the country. …left-wing activists on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River succeeded in their effort to cap rent increases at 3 percent annually, including on new construction, a step most communities that have imposed rent-control policies have specifically avoided out of concern that it would discourage future investments. The St. Paul initiative passed last week with 53 percent support. …Large developers who spoke to the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press told reporters that they’re pausing their projects across the city, and they are “re-evaluating what – if any – future business we’ll be doing in St. Paul.” Lenders are pulling out of new projects, they say, worried about the impact of the new policy. …dozens of buildings…have had 2022 rehabilitation projects stopped.

Wow. Sounds like St. Paul wants to supplant Minneapolis as the worst-governed city in the state.

Speaking of poorly governed cities, Christian Britschgi of Reason wrote early last year about what’s happening with rent control in New York City.

When the New York legislature passed major changes to the state’s rent regulations in June 2019, critics warned the new law would reduce investment in, and renovations of, rental properties in New York City. …those predictions are bearing out. …sales of apartment buildings in the Big Apple fell by 36 percent in 2019, and…the money spent on those sales fell by 40 percent. The prices investors were paying for rent-stabilized units—where allowable rent increases are set by the government and usually capped at around 1 or 2 percent per year—fell by 7 percent. …69 percent of building owners have cut their spending on apartment upgrades by more than 75 percent since the passage of the state’s rent regulations. Another 11 percent of the landlords in the survey decreased investments in their properties by more than 50 percent.

Some European cities also have adopted price controls on housing.

In a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, Jon Miltimore explains the damage this approach has caused in Stockholm.

Stockholm is just one of many Swedish cities struggling with a housing shortage. It’s not just that prices are too high; wait times for flats are also stunningly long. In Stockholm, for example, the average waiting time for a typical property is about nine years…, but wait-time in Stockholm’s most attractive neighbourhoods can run double that. …For younger Swedes in particular, the housing situation is a real problem—and it stems from Sweden’s decades-long embrace of rent control policies, which stretch back to World War II. …the results of Sweden’s rent control policies were quite predictable. The reality is price controls and other government regulations can’t fix housing problems.

The mess in Stockholm has even attracted attention from the BBC, as illustrated by the excerpt in this tweet.

Jon Miltimore also wrote about disastrous impact of rent control in Berlin.

In February 2020, Berlin introduced the so-called Mietendeckel—a cap on rent—to keep Berlin from becoming the next London or New York, cities where pricey rents have driven out many lower- and middle-class residents. The rent caps didn’t apply to everyone, however. They applied to properties built prior to 2014, freezing rent at June 18, 2019 levels. …Well, a year later, and the results of Berlin’s experiment are in. …Housing supply has shrunk and many landlords have reportedly exited the market, making the shortage much worse. …The lesson? Rent control has effects on housing supply, and those effects are not good.

And it you want more bad news from Germany, Berlin voters just approved a scheme to confiscate some apartments.

Here’s the story from the EU Observer.

Berliners voted in favour of expropriating apartments owned by big real-estate companies, with 56 percent of voters in the German capital saying ‘yes’ in the non-binding referendum at this weekend, the Financial Times reported on Monday. Now Berlin’s new municipal government has to decide how to proceed, since the expropriation of housing units could be legally challenged as against the German constitution.

I don’t know the outcome (if any) of the court challenge, but I do know that rent control is horrible policy.

And other economists agree.

P.S. Price controls are also bad news for pharmaceutical products and emergency supplies.

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I’ve shared lots of socialism humor and communism humor, but only a few examples of economics humor.

So let’s use today’s column as an opportunity to augment that limited collection.

We’ll start with a couple of items about the minimum wage. I wrote a column back in 2009 about why unions support a higher minimum wage.

Now we have an example of why investors might support that policy as well.

Here’s the second item about the minimum wage, and it depicts the response I often use when discussing the issue.

Here’s some satire mocking economists, though it’s more of a stereotype about clever folks from Wall Street.

Sort of reminds me of the “two cows” parable.

Next we have a joke about monetary policy, sort of the humor version of this long video.

Last but not least, nobody should be surprised that this is my favorite item from today’s collection.

It reminds people that “free” government in Europe is actually very, very, expensive for ordinary people.

Adding insult to injury, Europeans have considerably less income to begin with.

At the risk of being momentarily serious, this is why I’m baffled that Biden wants to make the U.S. more like Europe.

Shouldn’t we copy nations that are richer than America rather than poorer?

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Way back in 2009, I shared a meme that succinctly summarizes how Washington operates.

It’s basically a version of Mitchell’s Law. To elaborate, governments cause problems and politicians then use those problems as an excuse to make government even bigger.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

I worry the same thing may be about to happen because of the current concern about “supply chain” issues, perhaps best illustrated by the backlog of ships at key ports, leading to shortages of key goods.

Some of this mess is fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, but it’s being exacerbated by bad policy.

In a column for Reason, J.D. Tuccille points out that government is the problem, not the solution.

…supply-chain issues…create shortages and push prices up around the world. …Lockdowns also changed people’s lives, closing offices and factories and confining people at home. That resulted in massive and unpredictable shifts in demand and unreliable supply. …”Market economies tend to be pretty good at getting food on the supermarket shelves and fuel in petrol stations, if left to themselves,” agrees Pilkington. “That last part is key: if left to themselves. Heavy-handed interference in market economies tends to produce the same pathologies we see in socialist economies, including shortages and inflation. That has been the unintended consequence of lockdown.” …The danger is that people see economic problems caused by earlier fiddling and then demand even more government intervention. …if the government were to further meddle in the market to allocate products made scarce by earlier actions, it’s hard to see how the result wouldn’t be anything other than increased supply chain chaos.

Allysia Finley opines for the Wall Street Journal about California’s role in the supply-chain mess.

The backup of container ships at the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports has grown in recent weeks… The two Southern California ports handle only about 40% of containers entering the U.S., mostly from Asia. Yet ports in other states seem to be handling the surge better. Gov. Ron DeSantis said last month that Florida’s seaports had open capacity. So what’s the matter with California? State labor and environmental policies. …business groups recently asked Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency and suspend labor and environmental laws that are interfering with the movement of goods. …One barrier is a law known as AB5. …Trucking companies warned that the law could put small carriers out of business and cause drivers to leave the state. …there’s little doubt the law hinders efficiency and productivity. …State officials have also pressed localities to attach green mandates to permits for new warehouses, which can be poison pills. …This boatload of regulations is making it more expensive and difficult to store goods arriving at California ports.

Needless to say, I’m not surprised California is making things worse.

The state seems to have some of the nation’s worst politicians.

But let’s set that aside and close with some discussion about one of the differences between government and the private sector.

This may surprise some readers, but people and businesses in the private sector make mistakes all the time.

So part of the supply-chain mess presumably is a result of companies and entrepreneurs making bad guesses.

That being said, there’s a big feedback mechanism in the private sector. It’s called profit and loss.

So when mistakes are made, there’s a big incentive to quickly change.

With government, by contrast, there’s very little flexibility (as we saw during the pandemic). And when politicians and bureaucrats do act, they often respond to political incentives that lead them to make things worse.

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