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Posts Tagged ‘Economics’

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

Now let’s add this video to our collection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No wonder heathcare is more expensive in the United States.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a table from their study.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s cite one more study.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The study highlights several interesting examples.

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

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

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

Next we have the example of South Korea.

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

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

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

So what’s the bottom line?

Lazear summarizes his results.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some of the highlights from the report.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s start with the good news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now for the bad news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I guess we’ll see on election day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the chart that depicts the dramatic difference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are their projection over the next 25 years.

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

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

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

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

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

Now we get to key results.

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

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

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

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

These results are consistent with what other economists have produced.

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

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

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

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Two weeks ago, I shared some video from a presentation to the New Economic School of Georgia (the country, not the state) as part of my “Primer on the Laffer Curve.”

Here’s that portion of that presentation that outlines the principles of sensible taxation.

Just in case you don’t want to watch me pontificate for nearly 14 minutes, here’s the slide from the presentation that most deserves attention since it captures the key principle of good tax policy.

Simply stated, the more you tax of something, the less you get of that thing.

By the way, I had an opportunity earlier this year to share some similar thoughts about the principles of sound tax policy with the United Nations’ High-Level Panel on Financial Accountability Transparency & Integrity.

Given my past interactions with fiscal people at the U.N., I’m not overflowing with optimism that the following observations with have an impact, but hope springs eternal.

The ideal fiscal environment is one that has a vibrant and productive economy that generates sufficient revenue with modest tax rates that do not needlessly penalize productive behavior. Public finance experts generally agree on the following features

  • Low marginal tax rates. A tax operates by increasing the “price” of whatever is being taxed. This is most obvious in the case of some excise taxes –such as levies on tobacco –where governments explicitly seek to discourage certain behaviors. …but there should be a general consensus in favor of keeping tax rates reasonable on the behaviors –work, saving, investment, risk-taking, and entrepreneurship –that make an economy more prosperous.
  • A “consumption-base.” Because of capital gains taxes, death taxes, wealth taxes, and double taxation of interest and dividends, many nations impose a disproportionately harsh tax burden on income that is saved and invested. This creates a bias against capital formation, which is problematical since every economic theory –including various forms of socialism –share the view that saving and investment are necessary for rising wages and higher living standards.
  • Neutrality. Special preferences in a tax system distort the relative “prices” of how income is earned or how income is spent. Such special tax breaks encourage taxpayers to make economically inefficient choices simply to lower their tax liabilities. Moreover, loopholes, credits, deductions, exemptions, holidays, exclusions, and other preferences reduce tax receipts, thus creating pressure for higher marginal tax rates, which magnifies the adverse economic impact.
  • Territoriality. This is the simple notion that governments should not tax activity outside their borders. If income is earned in Brazil, for instance, the Brazilian government should have the authority over how that income is taxed.The same should be true for all other nations.

By the way, “consumption-base” is simply the jargon used by public-finance economists when referring to a tax system that doesn’t impose double taxation (i.e., extra layers of tax on income that is saved and invested).

Here’s a flowchart I prepared showing the double taxation in the current system compared to what happens with a flat tax.

P.S. At the risk of understatement, it’s impossible to have a good tax system with a bloated public sector, which means it’s not easy to be optimistic about future fiscal policy in the United States.

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Part I of this series featured Dan Hannan explaining how the emergence of capitalism led to mass prosperity, while Part II featured Madeline Grant explaining how competition and cooperation make markets so successful.

Today, in Part III, Andy Puzder compares capitalism with socialism.

The core theoretical argument in the video is that capitalism is based on serving the needs of consumers.

As captured by one of my favorite quotes from Professor Walter Williams, you only make yourself better off in a free market system by serving others.

In a socialist system, by contrast, the only people who get rich are the government elites who plunder the people.

I also like that the video explains that Nordic nations are not socialist. As I’ve also pointed out, there’s no government ownershipcentral planning, and price controls in nations such as Sweden and Denmark.

Those countries do have higher tax burdens and more costly welfare states, which is the main reason they generally rank below the United States in measures of national economic liberty.

More important, the larger fiscal burden in Scandinavia help to explain why Americans enjoy higher living standards.

Indeed, my one complaint about the above video is that it didn’t show any of the data about relative levels of prosperity.

Yes, I want people to understand that Nordic nations have market-based economies, but I also want them to understand that those countries could be significantly more prosperous with less-onerous fiscal policy.

The most powerful data in that regards comes from a Swedish researcher who put together data showing that Americans of Scandinavian descent are much richer than their counterparts who are still in Scandinavia.

So the moral of the story is not only that capitalism is better than socialism, but also that capitalist nations with medium-sized governments do better than capitalist nations with large-sized governments.

P.S. Needless to say, capitalist jurisdictions with small-sized government do best of all.

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It’s not often (actually, only once) that I share a video lasting nearly two hours. But this video – revolving around the intellectual rivalry between pro-market Hayek and pro-intervention Keynes – is an excellent summary of 20th-century economic policy.

We learn about the growth of socialism and communism during and after World War I.

This then led economists from the Austrian school – including Hayek – to explain why that approach (genuine socialism, meaning government ownershipcentral planning, and price controls) was doomed to failure.

But other forms of intervention and redistribution gained new adherents, especially when Keynes argued that the Great Depression was the fault of capitalism (for what it’s worth, I think the video fails to include analysis on how the New Deal actually lengthened and deepened the downturn).

Unfortunately, the Keynesian narrative dominated and the video informs us that the people of the United Kingdom voted for a socialist government when World War II ended. Which then led to the nationalization of the economy’s “commanding heights” and the enactment of the welfare state.

The United States didn’t veer as sharply to the left after the war, but there was no meaningful challenge to the the statist consensus that arose in the 1930s.

On the bright side, Germany rejected socialism by getting rid of price controls and allowing markets to flourish (the video overstated the degree to which a welfare state was imposed). But that was the exception to the rule. The world was gravitating to statism, including the developing world.

My favorite part of the video is that we learn about the creation of the Mont Pelerin Society and the emergence of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School.

That was the start of the laissez-faire counterrevolution. But it didn’t yield immediate results.

The left was in charge of economic policy from the end of the war through the 1970s in the USA and UK, regardless of which political party held power.

But bad policy sooner or later leads to bad results.

And that changed the political environment.

The latter part of the video tells the very happy story on how the sensible ideas of Hayek and Friedman eventually translated into the historic elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

If you watch the entire video, you’ll learn about how Reagan and Thatcher successfully overcame major challenges as they shifted their nations toward economic liberty (most notably, Reagan tamed inflation and Thatcher denationalized state-run companies).

And you’ll see that most of the world then followed – including the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

You even get some sympathetic quotes about capitalism from leftists such as Gordon Brown, Larry Summers, and Jeffrey Sachs at the end of the video.

So it seems like a happy ending. And capitalism indeed was the dominant force in economic policy about 20 years ago when the video was released.

Sadly, the track record of the 21st century (Bush II, Obama, and Trump) has not been overly favorable for believers in economic liberty.

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I’m skeptical of “common-good capitalism” in the same way I’m suspicious about “nationalist conservatism” and “reform conservatism” (and it should go without saying that I didn’t like the “kinder-and-gentler conservatism” and “compassionate conservatism” we got from the Bushes).

Here’s what I prefer.

Whether you call it libertarianism or small-government conservatism, this is the approach I wish Republicans would follow (or Democrats, if the spirit of Grover Cleveland still exists in that party).

But there are many self-styled conservatives who disagree. They think Reagan and his successful policies are passé.

Interestingly, the desire to move beyond Reaganism comes from pro-Trump and anti-Trump outlets.

David Brooks, a never-Trumper with a column in the New York Times, thinks Reagan’s anti-government approach is misguided.

If you came of age with conservative values and around Republican politics in the 1980s and 1990s, you lived within a certain Ronald Reagan-Margaret Thatcher paradigm. It was about limiting government, spreading democracy abroad, building dynamic free markets at home and cultivating people with vigorous virtues… For decades conservatives were happy to live in that paradigm. But as years went by many came to see its limits. It was so comprehensively anti-government that it had no way to use government to solve common problems. …Only a return to the robust American nationalism of Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay and Theodore Roosevelt would do: ambitious national projects, infrastructure, federal programs to increase social mobility. The closest National Greatness Conservatism came to influencing the party was John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid. He was defeated by a man, George W. Bush, who made his own leap, to Compassionate Conservatism. …The Reformicons tried to use government to build strong families and neighborhoods. …Most actual Republican politicians rejected all of this. They stuck, mostly through dumb inertia, to an anti-government zombie Reaganism long after Reagan was dead and even though the nation’s problems were utterly different from what they were when he was alive. …there is a posse of policy wonks and commentators supporting a new Working-Class Republicanism… But if there is one thing I’ve learned over the decades, it is never to underestimate the staying power of the dead Reagan paradigm.

Maybe I’m just an “anti-government zombie,” but my response is to ask why Brooks thinks the federal government should be in charge of state and local infrastructure.

Even more important, it would be nice if he could identify a government program that successfully promotes social mobility. There are several hundred of them, so the fact that he doesn’t offer any examples is quite revealing.

By contrast, the Reagan approach of of free markets and limited government works anywhere and everywhere it is tried. And he was right that big government is bad government.

But at least Brooks’ column reminds me to add “national greatness conservatism” to my list of failed philosophical fads.

Now let’s shift to an article from the Trump-friendly American Conservative. Rod Dreher also argues that Reaganism is no longer relevant.

Reagan nostalgia has long been a bane of contemporary conservatism, because it prevented conservatives from recognizing how much the world has changed since the 1980s and how conservatism needed to change with it to remain relevant. …by the time Trump came down that escalator, Reagan conservatism was about as relevant to the real world as FDR’s New Deal liberalism was in 1980. It is no insult to Reagan to say so. Until Trump arrived on the scene, it was difficult for right-wing dissenters from orthodox Reaganism—critics of free trade, immigration skeptics, antiwar conservatives, and others—to break free of the margins to which establishment conservatives had exiled them. …It is impossible to see the clear outlines of a post-Trump future for the Republicans, but…Reaganism—the ideology of globalized free markets, social and religious conservatism, and American military and diplomatic domination—is never coming back.

Sadly, I don’t think Dreher is correct about “New Deal liberalism” being irrelevant.

How else, after all, would someone categorize Obama’s policies? Or Biden’s platform? It’s “We shall tax and tax, and spend and spend, and elect and elect,” just as FDR advisor Harry Hopkins stated.

And Reagan’s policies are definitely still relevant, at least if the goal is to improve the well-being of the American people.

Yes, Dreher is right that “the world has changed since the 1980s,” but that doesn’t mean that good policy in 1980 is no longer good policy in 2020.

I think the problem may be that people think Reaganomics is nothing more than lower tax rates, perhaps combined with a bit of inflation fighting. And it’s definitely true that Reagan’s tax rate reductions and his restoration of sound money were wonderful achievements.*

But the Reagan economic agenda was also about spending restraint, deregulation, trade liberalization (he got the ball rolling on NAFTA and the WTO), and other pro-market reforms.

To be sure, Reagan’s policy record wasn’t perfect. But the policies he preferred were the right ones to restore American prosperity in the 1980s.

And while there are different problems today (the need for entitlement reform, for instance), the Reaganite approach of smaller government is still the only good answer.

*Let’s also remember to applaud Reagan for the policies that resulted in the unraveling of the Soviet Empire.

P.S. As explained in the Fourth Theorem of Government, pro-growth, Reagan-style policy can be smart politics.

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Yesterday, in Part I of this series, we enjoyed a video from the U.K.-based Centre for Economic Education, about how capitalism lifted the world from deprivation and oppression (also see videos by Don Boudreaux and Deirdre McCloskey).

Today, in Part II of the Case for Capitalism, here’s a video from CEE that explains how markets provide you a cup of coffee.

An obvious takeaway from the video is that consumers benefit from global markets, which hopefully helps to explain why free trade is desirable.

But there are four other messages that are even more widely applicable.

  1. Capitalism is based on competition, but also should be understood as a system of cooperation.
  2. Voluntary exchange means that both buyers and sellers expect to benefit from a transaction.
  3. Prices should be set by unfettered markets rather than politicians, regulators, or bureaucrats.
  4. Our prosperity is a result of the invisible hand (spontaneous order) rather than central planning.

In other words, the growth-producing concept of classical liberalism (as opposed to the statist version of liberalism that now exists in the United States).

All of which reminds me of this observation by Joseph Schumpeter, an influential economist from the Austrian School.

This quote isn’t as famous as what he said about creative destruction, but it deserves to be highlighted since it succinctly explains how capitalism is the system that delivers big benefits for ordinary people.

P.S. The degree to which nations enjoy convergence (or divergence) is generally a consequence of whether they allow free markets and limited government.

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This video from Dan Hannan crams 10,000 years of human history into 5 minutes. We learn about the “stationary bandit” of government and find out how our ancestors endured pervasive oppression and misery.

But there’s a happy ending to the story. It’s called capitalism.

There are many useful insights in this video.

We learn why it was important to replace arbitrary government with the “rule of law” so that property rights could be protected and so that people wanting to buy and sell no longer had to get permission from the state.

And once capitalism was unleashed beginning a few hundred years ago, living standards dramatically improved (these videos by Don Boudreaux and Deirdre McCloskey have lots of evidence).

Hannan makes the all-important point that capitalism is the opposite of exploitation. It enriches people, but also liberates them.

And, as indicated by one of my favorite quotes from Walter Williams, it means we help ourselves by helping others.

As Hannan concludes, “the free market is the fairest and justest model yet devised.”

P.S. Not everyone has the same definition of fair and just, so I’ll simply observe that market-oriented nations always and easily out-perform state-controlled economies.

For what it’s worth, nobody on the left has ever come up with a response to my never-answered question.

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

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

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

Here’s an example.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me elaborate – and also add some caveats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In 2018, I shared a video from Professor Russ Roberts (a.k.a., @econtalker) on the economic status of the middle class, followed by a video last year on whether the rich are the only ones earning more income.

Today, we’ll look at his video on household income and mobility.

All of his videos are models of clarity, but nonetheless they require close attention because they are filled with so much useful information.

You’ll learn that some people manipulate numbers to paint a grim picture about economic mobility in America. But when you do honest apples-to-apples comparisons, you’ll see that capitalism is capable of delivering big benefits to ordinary people so long as it has enough breathing room to function.

In other words, we’re getting richer – as I wrote last year.

And, as I pointed out in an interview on CNBC, we should care about growth and opportunity instead of fretting whether some people get richer faster than other people get richer.

I’m writing on this topic today because there’s a new report from the Brookings Institution, authored by Stephen Rose, that looks at income trends. And it’s methodologically sound because it follows the same people over time, thus allowing the all-important apples-to-apples comparisons.

…the PSID panel data follow the experiences of the same respondents year after year. Even from one year to the next, many individuals’ incomes change significantly. This is particularly true at the tails of the distribution: nearly one-third of individuals in the bottom and top income quintiles are there temporarily because of an unexpected positive or negative event (Rose 1994). Multiyear incomes are therefore more equal than single-year incomes. …Piketty and Saez…argue that middle-class incomes have been stagnating. But their cross-sectional approach does not reflect individual experiences because they are comparing “similarly-situated people” and not looking at the experiences of the same individuals over time.

And what does Professor Rose find?

He points out that there are now a lot more “upper middle class” people in America (his data are adjusted for inflation, which is another way of ensuring apples-to-apples comparisons).

…the higher income classes expanded significantly during the first period. Between 1967 and 1981, the upper middle class tripled in size (from 6% to 18%) and the MMC grew by 3 percentage points (from 47% to 50%). Offsetting these gains were a corresponding shrinkage of the lower middle class (LMC) from 31% to 20% and the poor/near-poor (PNP) from 16% to 11%. In the later period (2002 to 2016), the changes were in the same direction, but more modest. The upper middle class (UMC) grew by 4 percentage points, the size of the MMC declined by 3 points, while the shares of the LMC and PNP were largely unchanged. In previous work, I argued that the differences between the UMC and those with lower incomes were the key driver of rising inequality.

Since Brookings is a left-of-center think tank, it’s not a surprise that Rose has a somewhat negative interpretation (“rising inequality”) of this data.

But he’s actually giving us good news.

Robert Samuelson, in his column for the Washington Post, wrote about Professor Rose’s new study and put together a table based on his data.

And I’ve augmented the table with some arrows to call attention to what’s happened in the 50 years between 1967 and 2016. The bottom line that America now has fewer lower-income and middle-income people and a lot more upper-income people.

Perhaps it is true that we have more inequality today than we did in 1967, but only very twisted people (such as those who work for the IMF) would want to erase all the gains we’ve enjoyed since that time.

To be sure, all income groups could do even better with pro-growth policies such as tax reform and spending restraint. And we also could adopt policies that are especially beneficial for the less fortunate, such as school choice and licensing reform.

Sadly, the politicians who rant and rave about inequality are more interested in punishing the rich rather than helping the poor.

P.S. Margaret Thatcher debunked the left’s view of inequality in her farewell remarks to Parliament.

P.P.S. With apologies to Jonathan Swift, here’s David Azerrad’s “modest proposal” to end inequality.

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Last week, I shared some data showing how the economy enjoyed a strong recovery from recession in the early 1920s when President Warren Harding cut government spending.

(And these were genuine cuts, not the nonsense we get from today’s politicians, who claim they’ve cut spending simply because the budget increases by 5 percent rather than 7 percent.)

What happened nearly 100 years ago is very relevant today since we still have advocates of Keynesian economics who claim that more spending (especially debt-financed spending) is a recipe for more growth.

To show why this view is misguided, let’s now look at what happened in the 1940s after World War II came to an end.

In a column for today’s Wall Street Journal, Professor Richard Vedder explains that the Keynesians predicted economic disaster because of big reductions in government spending.

…many Americans assumed the end of the war would mean a resumption of the Depression, which was cut off by the World War II military buildup. In the middle of the fighting, America’s leading Keynesian economist, Alvin Hansen of Harvard, said: “When the war is over, the government cannot just disband the Army, close down munitions factories, stop building ships, and remove economic controls.” …When the sudden end of combat became apparent in late August 1945, economist Everett Hagen predicted that the unemployment rate in the first quarter of 1946 would be 14.8%.

So what actually happened?

Vedder points out that the Keynesian predictions of massive unemployment were wildly inaccurate.

Millions of military personnel did become jobless within months and defense spending plummeted, putting more out of work. In June 1946 federal employment was almost precisely 10 million less than a year earlier. Yet the sharp rise in overall unemployment didn’t occur. The total unemployment rate for 1946 was 3.9%… Perhaps most interesting for today, all this occurred as the U.S. moved from an extremely expansionary fiscal policy—with budget deficits equal to almost 25% of gross domestic product in 1944 (the equivalent of more than $5 trillion today)—to an extremely contractionary one. The U.S. by 1947 was running a budget surplus exceeding 5% of output—the equivalent of more than $1 trillion today. …This was the complete reverse of the expectation of the newly dominant Keynesian economists.

In the following chart, you can see the numbers from the Office of Management and Budget’s Historical Tables (Table 1.2), which show that fiscal policy between 1945 and 1948 was very contractionary, at least as defined by the Keynesians.

There definitely were huge spending cuts (the real kind, not the fake kind) during those years, and big deficits also became big surpluses.

Professor Vedder’s column explained that this anti-Keynesian policy didn’t produce mass unemployment.

But what about economic growth?

Well, you’ll see in the chart below the data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis for the 1945-48 period. There was a recession in 1946, which could be interpreted as evidence for Keynesianism.

But then look what happened in the next couple of years. There were more budget cuts, deficits became surpluses, and the economy enjoyed a strong rebound.

According to Keynesian theory, these two charts can’t exist. There can’t be an economic recovery when spending and deficits are falling.

Yet that’s exactly what happened after World War II (just as it happened under Harding, as Thomas Sowell observed).

Maybe, just maybe, Keynesianism is simply wrong. Maybe it’s nothing more than the economic version of a perpetual motion machine?

P.S. It’s also worth noting that huge increases in spending and debt under Hoover and Roosevelt didn’t produce good results in the 1930s.

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Last week, I gave a presentation on the Laffer Curve to a seminar organized by the New Economic School in the nation of Georgia.

A major goal was to help students understand that you can’t figure out how changes in tax rates affect tax revenues without also figuring out how changes in tax rates affect taxable income.

As you might expect, I showed the students a visual depiction of the Laffer Curve, explaining that the government won’t collect any revenue if the tax rate is zero (the left point of the horizontal axis), but also pointing out that the government won’t collect any revenue if tax rates are 100 percent (the right point on the horizontal axis).

The curve between those two points shows how much tax is collected at various tax rates.

The upward-sloping part of the curve shows the “region of increasing revenue” (i.e., where higher tax rates produce more revenue) and the downward-sloping part of the curve shows the “region of declining revenue” (i.e., where higher tax rates produce less revenue).

I noted in my remarks that this is not a controversial concept.

Indeed, I’d wager that every economist in the world will agree.

Just in case you think I’m exaggerating, you can see in this video that even Paul Krugman agrees that there is a Laffer Curve.

Needless to say, this doesn’t mean that we agree on the shape of the Laffer Curve.

Even more important, we presumably don’t agree on the ideal point on the Laffer Curve.

I’m guessing he would want to be at the revenue-maximizing point, whereas I explained in the presentation that it’s much better to at the growth-maximizing point.

To show why this is an important distinction, I specifically cited research from two economists (one from the University of Chicago and one from the Federal Reserve) in hopes of getting students to understand that higher tax rates will destroy a lot of private income for every dollar of additional revenue that politicians will collect.

If you look at the nearby image, you’ll see that’s especially true for taxes on “capital” since households have much more control over the timing, level, and composition of business and investment income.

Maybe I’m just a wild-eyed libertarian, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to destroy lots of private income just so politicians get a bit of extra revenue to spend.

This does not mean, by the way, that the Laffer Curve is a panacea, or some sort of free lunch.

I should have shown the students this one-minute video clip of me pointing out that it’s only in rare circumstances that a tax cut generates enough additional growth (and therefore enough additional taxable income) to be self-financing.

To be sure, self-financing tax cuts do exist.

In the presentation, I shared the IRS data showing that the federal government collected fives times as much money from the rich after President Reagan reduced the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent.

And I also shared the OECD data showing that industrialized nations are collecting more revenue from income taxes today, as a share of economic output, than they were back in 1980 when top tax rates on personal and corporate income were much higher.

And I also could have cited interesting results from Canada, Denmark, HungaryIreland, ItalyPortugal, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom.

I’ll close by recycling my three-part video series from 2008 on the Laffer Curve (assuming you’re not already tired of my voice after the 22-minute presentation at the start of today’s column).

The first video discusses the theory.

The second video looks at the evidence.

And the third video shines a spotlight on the Joint Committee on Taxation’s primitive methodology for producing revenue estimates.

The good news is that the Joint Committee on Taxation has been dragged kicking and screaming in the right direction since 2008, so the present process for estimating the revenue impact of change in tax policy is somewhat more accurate.

P.S. Here’s my response to Matt Yglesias’ supposed debunking of the Laffer Curve.

P.P.S. I used to think my friends on the left could be persuaded since they presumably don’t want tax rates to be so high that revenues decline. But it seems many of them actually are motivated by a desire to punish success rather than a desire to maximize revenue for government.

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I went to George Mason University for my Ph.D. specifically because of my interest in both “public choice” and “Austrian theory.”

The former deals with analyzing how politicians, bureaucrats, and voters really behave (as opposed to the naive view you may have learned in a civics class), and the latter refers to a particular type of economic analysis that was developed by scholars (mostly based in Vienna) in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

I occasionally put in a plug for Austrian economics, largely because it has a lot to offer when analyzing business cycles, monetary policy, and entrepreneurship (it is generally similar to other market-friendly schools of thought when looking at other issues, such as public finance, trade, and regulation).

But I’ve never done a column explaining Austrian economics. It’s time to rectify that oversight thanks to a 7-part video series narrated by Professor Steve Horwitz.

Part I discusses the marginal revolution (which supplanted the labor theory of value) and notes that Austrians emphasize subjective value.

Analyzing behavior “on the margin” is important for good economics. It’s why, for instance, that we should focus primarily on marginal tax rates rather than average tax rates.

In Part II, Steve discusses how Ludwig von Mises showed back in 1920 that genuine socialism (rather than Nordic-style redistributionism, which didn’t even exist back then) was not feasible in part because governments have no rational way of setting prices and sensibly allocating resources.

If you want an amusing version of what you just watched, check out this video I shared last year.

In Part III, Steve elaborates on the role of knowledge, citing the important work of Friedrich Hayek on the importance of decentralization, prices, and private property.

One of the implications of this work is that central planning is not feasible.

In Part IV, Steve discusses Israel Kirzner’s work on entrepreneurship, which Austrian scholars point out is the source of innovation.

Part V is Steve’s explanation of how money evolved via spontaneous order.

The above video focuses on the origin of metallic money. It’s also worth noting that paper money was developed by the private sector.

In Part VI, Steve discusses the Austrian theory of business cycles, which focuses on how monetary policy can cause distortions that lead to booms and busts. And a key insight is that the false booms make busts inevitable.

Another insight from the above video is that the best response to a downturn is to do nothing, even though that’s not a popular answer for politicians – particularly compared to the Keynesian prescription of more spending.

In the final video, Part VII, Steve explains the Austrian view of marginal utility.

Here’s a bonus video featuring Tyler Cowen’s analysis of the Austrian theory of business cycles (the topic Steve covered in Part VI)

P.S. I shared a longer video on the Austrian theory of the business cycle back in 2013.

P.P.S. And no discussion of Austrian economics is complete without sharing Part I and Part II of the Hayek vs-Keynes rap contest.

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There are all sorts of regulations, some of which affect the entire economy and some of which target certain sectors. Moreover, regulations vary widely since – depending on the example – they may tell people and business what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and who to do it with.

This is why it’s probably best to think of government red tape as an obstacle course that increases the difficulty of engaging in commerce.

An expensive obstacle course.

Some new research published by Italy’s central bank gives us an opportunity to understand the consequences of red tape.

The study, authored by Lucia Rizzica, Giacomo Roma, and Gabriele Rovigatti, looked at a real-world example of product market regulation (PMR) governing retail hours in Italy.

In this paper we focus on how the regulation of shops opening hours affects the relevant market size and structure. This dimension of PMR has traditionally been a controversial issue in the policy debate, as it involves social, political, economic, and even religious considerations. …we tackle these questions empirically and estimate the effects of full deregulation in shop opening hours on the level and composition of employment and on the number of shops and their size distribution…we focus on Italy and build a novel dataset of Italian municipalities 2007-2016, including their regulatory status, and exploit the variation provided by the staggered implementation at the municipal level of a deregulation reform enacted from1998 onwards.

Here’s a visual from the study, showing the variation over time in the number of municipalities with no regulation, medium regulation, and heavy regulation.

The good news is that Italy actually got rid of rules dictating when stores could be open and this gave the economists an opportunity to measure what happened.

Our estimates show that, in the context of a general contraction of the retail sector and of the economy as a whole, deregulating shops opening hours helped lowering the decrease in both the number of workers and establishments, with an estimated positive impact of about 3% and 2%, respectively. …On top of it, individual-based estimates show that the sector’s labor force structure changed towards a higher prevalence of employees over self-employed, together with a general increase in the number of hours worked and earnings of employees, especially of those with permanent contracts. Our results are robust to a number of checks… In Table 2 we present our baseline results. In columns (1)-(2) we report the estimates of the liberalization effect on the number of workers, and in columns (3)-(4) those on the number of plants in each municipality. …the resulting estimated effect of liberalization in the newly liberalized municipalities is a 3.4% increase in the number of individuals working in the wholesale and retail sector, and a 2.1% increase in the number of shops. …Finally, we show that the reform also had a positive effect on the activity of complementary services, such as restaurants and financial services and, overall, on total employment in affected areas.

For wonky readers, here’s the table mentioned in the above excerpt.

So what’s the bottom line?

…from a policy perspective, our results provide support to the idea that a more flexible regulation of the business environment boosts economic growth… We find no evidence that this leads to a worsening of employment conditions, on the contrary permanent dependent workers enjoyed an increase in their earnings.

It’s great to see that deregulation produced more jobs and higher earnings.

But one thing that we don’t find in the study, unfortunately, is any estimate of how deregulation also benefited consumers thanks to lower prices and greater convenience.

In other words, eliminating or reducing red tape is a win-win situation for just about everybody (with the only exception being the cronyists who gain undeserved advantages because of regulation).

P.S. While I’m glad that Italy got rid of rules limiting retail hours, the country – as measured by the World Bank – still has a lot of needless red tape.

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Largely because of my support for jurisdictional competition, I’m a big fan of federalism.

Simply stated, our liberties are better protected when there’s decentralization since politicians are less like to over-tax and over-spend when they know potential victims of plunder have the option of moving across a border.

Indeed, I cited some academic research back in 2012 which showed that there as less economy-weakening redistribution in nations with genuine federalism (see, for instance, how Vermont politicians were forced to backtrack when they try to impose government-run healthcare).

Now let’s look at some additional scholarly evidence. A study published by the OECD, authored by Hansjörg Blöchliger, Balázs Égert and Kaja Fredriksen, investigates the impact of federalism on outcomes in developed nations.

Here are the key findings from the abstract.

This paper presents empirical research on the potential effects of fiscal decentralisation on a set of outcomes such as GDP, productivity, public investment and school performance. The results can be summarised as follows: decentralisation, as measured by revenue or spending shares, is positively associated with GDP per capita levels. The impact seems to be stronger for revenue decentralisation than for spending decentralisation. Decentralisation is strongly and positively associated with educational outcomes as measured by international student assessments (PISA). While educational functions can be delegated either to sub-central governments (SCG) or to schools, the results suggest that both strategies appear to be equally beneficial for educational performance. Finally, investment in physical and – especially – human capital as a share of general government spending is significantly higher in more decentralised countries.

Here’s some detail from the body of the paper about the pro-growth impact of decentralization (especially when sub-national governments are responsible for raising their own funds).

Across countries, sub-central fiscal power, as measured by revenue or spending shares, is positively associated with economic activity. Doubling sub-central tax or spending shares (e.g. increasing the ratio of sub-central to general government tax revenue from 6 to 12%) is associated with a GDP per capita increase of around 3%. …Revenue decentralisation appears to be more strongly related with income gains than spending decentralisation. This empirical finding may reflect that “true” fiscal autonomy is better captured by the sub-central revenue share, as a large part of sub-central spending may be mandated or regulated by central government. … the estimated relationship never becomes negative and is not hump-shaped, i.e. “more decentralisation always tends to be better”.

The part of “more decentralisation always tends to be better” is a good result.

But it’s also a sad result since the United States has moved in the wrong direction in recent decades.

Though we’re still less centralized than most nations, as you can see from this chart from the OECD study.

Kudos to Canada and Switzerland for leading the world in federalism.

Here are some additional details from the study. I’m especially interested to see that the authors acknowledge how jurisdictional competition helps to explain why nations with federalism perform better.

Decentralised fiscal frameworks can raise TFP through an increase in the efficiency and productivity of the public sector… Public sector productivity is influenced by competition between SCGs and inter-jurisdictional mobility. Most SCGs aim at attracting and retaining mobile production factors, in order to promote investment and economic activity. They can do so by using fiscal policy, among other instruments. Since firms are choosing their location based on where they expect the highest returns on investment, and since returns depend (partly) on public inputs, SCGs have an incentive to raise the productivity of their public sector. SCGs may also try to improve the relationship between taxation and public service levels, by lowering taxes… The more decentralised a country, the stronger these competitive forces could be. Competition and inter-jurisdictional mobility could be weakened by large intergovernmental transfer systems, in particular fiscal equalisation.

As a aside, it’s rather ironic that that the professional economists at the OECD produce rigorous studies (here’s another one) showing the benefits of jurisdictional competition while the political appointees push for anti-growth policies such as tax harmonization.

Let’s close by looking at the study’s estimates of how nations would enjoy more prosperity by shifting in the direction of decentralization.

…an assessment of what a country might gain in terms of higher GDP if it moved to the benchmark of the most decentralised country. To be more specific, the gains were calculated for each federal country if it moved tax decentralisation to the level of Canada, and for each unitary country if it moved tax decentralisation to the level of Sweden (Figure 6). Further decentralisation could potentially be associated with an average increase of GDP of around 1% to 2% for federal countries and 3% to 4% for unitary countries, with values for more centralised countries being larger.

Here’s the accompanying chart.

Since the U.S. still has some federalism, our gain isn’t very large, but nations such as Austria, Belgium, Slovakia, Ireland, Luxembourg, and the United Kingdom could get big boosts.

P.S. I didn’t focus on the findings about better educational outcomes in decentralized nations. But I can’t resist pointing out that this is an additional reason to abolish the Department of Education.

P.P.S. Here’s a video discussing how Switzerland benefits from federalism.

P.P.P.S. And here’s what scholars from the Austrian school of economics wrote about federalism.

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We did not get good policy during the economic crisis of the 1930s. Indeed, it’s quite likely that bad decisions by Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt deepened and lengthened the Great Depression.

Likewise, George Bush and Barack Obama had the wrong responses (the TARP bailout and the faux stimulus) to the economic downturn of 2008-09.

But people in government don’t always make mistakes. If we go back nearly 100 years ago, we find that Warren Harding oversaw a very rapid recovery from the deep recession that occurred at the end of Woodrow Wilson’s disastrous presidency.

In a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, Robert Murphy has a very helpful tutorial on what happened.

…the U.S. experience during the 1920–1921 depression—one that the reader has probably never heard of—is almost a laboratory experiment …the government and Fed did the exact opposite of what the experts now recommend. We have just about the closest thing to a controlled experiment in macroeconomics that one could desire. To repeat, it’s not that the government boosted the budget at a slower rate, or that the Fed provided a tad less liquidity. On the contrary, the government slashed its budget tremendously… If the Keynesians are right about the Great Depression, then the depression of 1920–1921 should have been far worse. …the 1920–1921 depression was painful. The unemployment rate peaked at 11.7 percent in 1921. But it had dropped to 6.7 percent by the following year and was down to 2.4 percent by 1923. …the 1920–1921 depression “purged the rottenness out of the system” and provided a solid framework for sustainable growth. …The free market works. Even in the face of massive shocks requiring large structural adjustments, the best thing the government can do is cut its own budget and return more resources to the private sector.

Writing for National Review, David Harsanyi points out that there are many reasons why Warren Harding should be celebrated over Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson was one of the most despicable characters in 20th-century American politics: a national embarrassment. The Virginian didn’t merely hold racist “views;” he re-segregated the federal civil service. He didn’t merely involve the United States in a disastrous war in Europe after promising not to do so; he threw political opponents and anti-war activists into prison. Wilson, the first president to show open contempt for the Constitution and the Founding, was a vainglorious man unworthy of honor. Fortunately, we have the perfect replacement for Wilson: Warren Harding, the most underappreciated president in American history… Harding, unlike Wilson — and most of today’s political class, for that matter — didn’t believe politics should play an outsized role in the everyday lives of citizens. …Where Wilson had expanded the federal government in historic ways, creating massive new agencies such as the War Industries Board, Harding’s shortened term did not include any big new bureaucracies… Wilson left the country in a terrible recession; Harding turned it around, becoming the last president to end a downturn by cutting taxes, and slashing spending and regulations. Harding cut spending from $6.3 billion in 1920 to $3.3 billion by 1923.

Walter Block, in an article for the Mises Institute, explains that what happened almost 100 years ago can provide a good road map if President Trump wishes to restore prosperity today (especially when compared to the disastrous policies of Hoover and Roosevelt).

…let us look back a bit at some economic history regarding recessions and depressions… The depression in 1921 was short lived—maybe not a V, but at least a very narrow U. …Happily, during the 1921 depression, the government of President Warren G. Harding did not intervene…and the entire episode was over not in a matter of weeks (the V) or years (a fattish U), but months (a narrow U). The Great Depression, which stretched from 1929–41 (a morbidly obese U) stemmed from identical causes. …But Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt “fixed” this by propping up heavy industries whose extent was overblown by the previous artificially lowered interest rates, in an early “too big to fail” paroxysm. The Smoot-Hawley Tariff added insult to injury, and put the kibosh on any early recovery. …I now predict the sharpest of Vs, but if and only if, all other things being equal, the Trump administration cleaves to market principles. …So, Mr. President, embrace the free enterprise system, attain a V, a very narrow and sharp one, and the prognostication for November will be significantly boosted.

Professor Block’s analysis is very sound…except for the part where he speculates that Trump will do the right thing and copy Harding.

Given Trump’s awful track record on spending, it would be more accurate to speculate that I’ll be playing in the outfield for the Yankees when they win this year’s World Series.

Suffice to say, though, that it would be great to find another Warren Harding. Here’s a chart based on OMB data showing that he actually cut spending (and we’re looking at genuine spending cuts, not the make-believe spending cuts that happen in DC when politicians boost the budget by less than previously planned).

According to fans of Keynesian economics, these spending cuts should have tanked the economy, but instead we got a boom.

P.S. By the way, something similar happened after World War II.

P.P.S. Back in 2012, I shared some insightful analysis from Thomas Sowell about Harding’s economic policy.

P.P.P.S. Harding also lowered tax rates.

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In early June, I pontificated about the upside-down incentives that are created when government pays people more to be idle than they could get by working.

This is a real-world concern because the crowd in Washington earlier this year approved a $600-per-week bonus for people getting unemployment benefits.

And that resulted in many people getting far more from benefits than they could get from employment. In some cases, even twice as much.

Anyhow, that bonus expired at the end of July, which has triggered a debate on whether to renew the policy.

In her Washington Post column, Catherine Rampell argues that super-charged benefits don’t discourage employment.

State benefits, on average, cover about 40 percent of the typical worker’s lost wages…  Given the extraordinary economic crisis, federal lawmakers wanted to “top up” state benefits so that workers would get close to 100 percent of their lost wages. …So Congress passed a $600 weekly supplement because it seemed about the right amount to make the average worker whole. …a majority of unemployed workers received more in benefits than they earned in their most recent paychecks. …this prompted concerns that the benefits themselves might slow down the recovery, discouraging people from returning to work because being on the dole was too darn comfortable. …five…recent studies…concluded the…$600 federal supplement does not appear to have depressed job growth. …Yes, at some point, …fears about work disincentives may materialize, as the economy recovers and job opportunities become more plentiful. We’re nowhere near that point now.

The Wall Street Journal also opined on this topic, specifically debunking one of the studies cited by Ms. Rampell.

Most Americans understand intuitively that if people make more money by not working, fewer people will work. Then there are politicians and economists who want to pass out more money while claiming that disincentives to work are irrelevant. …a study by Yale economists…purportedly finds the $600 federal enhancement to jobless benefits hasn’t affected the incentive to work. …Yet the study excluded part-time workers and those who hadn’t been working at a business in their sample last year. In other words, the study focused on workers with more loyalty to their employers. …Notably, states with more generous unemployment benefits for low-wage workers generally have had larger declines in labor-force participation. In Kentucky the lowest-paid 25% of unemployed workers on average have made 216% of what they did working. The state’s labor-force participation has declined 4.8 percentage points since February. …If you subsidize not working, you get less work.

In this Rampell vs. WSJ debate, I’m more sympathetic to the latter.

When the big fight over extended unemployment benefits during the Obama years was finally resolved, it showed that people are significantly more likely to find jobs when they’re no longer getting paid for not working.

This doesn’t mean that it will be easy (especially in an environment where there is still uncertainty about the coronavirus), or that we shouldn’t have sympathy for people facing pressure to find jobs after losing their previous positions.

But if we want prosperity and rising living standards, there’s really no alternative.

I’ll close with another excerpt from Ms. Rampell’s column She cites an economist who found that some people went back to work even though they received less money than they were getting from the government.

Evercore ISI economist, Ernie Tedeschi, …observed that in June, around 70 percent of unemployment recipients who resumed working had been receiving more from benefits than their prior wage — yet nonetheless returned to work.

This is largely good news since it shows that America still enjoys a high degree of societal capital (work ethic, desire to earn rather than get handouts, etc).

But this underscores why we shouldn’t erode that valuable form of capital by making people feel like chumps for doing the right thing (a point I emphasized earlier this year when criticizing Elizabeth Warren’s dependency agenda).

Otherwise we wind up with the real-world version of this satirical Wizard-of-Id cartoon.

P.S. Speaking of satire, Nancy Pelosi actually argued that paying people not to work was a form of stimulus.

P.P.S. Here are a couple of anecdotes, one from Ohio and one from Michigan, about the perverse impact of excessive unemployment benefits during the last downturn.

P.P.P.S. If you want more academic literature on the relationship between government benefits and joblessness, click here and here.

P.P.P.P.S. Last but not least, prominent economists on the left (including Paul Krugman) actually agree the unemployment benefits encourage joblessness.

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Because of changing demographics and poorly designed entitlement programs, the burden of government spending in the United States (in the absence of genuine reform) is going to increase dramatically over the next few decades.

That bad outlook will get even worse thanks to all the coronavirus-related spending from Washington.

This is bad news for America since more of the economy’s output will be consumed by government, leaving fewer resources for the private sector. And that problem would exist even if all the spending was magically offset by trillions of dollars of unexpected tax revenue.

Many people, however, think the nation’s future fiscal problem is that politicians will borrow to finance  that new spending. I think that’s a mistaken view, since it focuses on a symptom (red ink) rather than the underlying disease (excessive spending).

But regardless of one’s views on that issue, fiscal policy is on an unsustainable path. And that means there will soon be a fight between twho different ways of addressing the nation’s grim fiscal outlook.

  • Restrain the growth of government spending.
  • Divert more money from taxpayers to the IRS.

Fortunately, we now have some new evidence to help guide policy.

A new study from the Mercatus Center, authored by Veronique de Rugy and Jack Salmon, examines what actually happens when politicians try to control debt with spending restraint or tax increases.

Here’s what the authors wanted to investigate.

Fiscal consolidation can take two forms: (1) adopting a debt-reduction package driven primarily by tax increases or (2) adopting a package mostly consisting of spending restraint. …What policymakers might not know is which of these two forms of consolidation tend to be more effective at reining in debt levels and which are less harmful to economic performance: tax-based (TB) fiscal consolidation or expenditure-based (EB) fiscal consolidation.

Here’s their methodology.

Our analysis focuses on large fiscal consolidations, or consolidations in which the fiscal deficit as a share of GDP improves by at least 1.5 percentage points over two years and does not decrease in either of those two years. …A successful consolidation is defined as one in which the debt-to-GDP ratio declines by at least 5 percentage points three years after the adjustment takes places or by at least 3 percentage points two years after the adjustment. …Episodes in which the consolidation is at least 60 percent revenue increases are labeled TB, and episodes in which the consolidation is at least 60 percent spending decreases are labeled EB.

And here are their results.

…of the 45 EB episodes, more than half were successful, while of the 67 TB episodes, less than 4 in 10 were successful. …The results in table 2 show that while in unsuccessful adjustments most (74 percent) of the changes are on the revenue side, in successful adjustments most (60 percent) of the changes are on the expenditure side. In successful adjustments, for every 1.00 percent of GDP increase in revenues, expenditures are cut by 1.50 percent. By contrast, in unsuccessful adjustments, for every 1.00 percent of GDP increase in revenues, expenditures are cut by less than 0.35 percent. From these findings we conclude that successful fiscal adjustments are those that involve significant spending reductions with only modest increases in taxation. Unsuccessful fiscal adjustments, however, typically involve significant increases in taxation and very modest spending reductions.

Table 2 summarizes the findings.

As you can see, tax increases are the least effective way of dealing with the problem. Which makes sense when you realize that the nation’s fiscal problem is too much spending, not inadequate revenue.

In my not-so-humble opinion, I think the table I prepared back in 2014 is even more compelling.

Based on IMF data, it shows nations that imposed mutli-year spending restraint and how that fiscally prudent policy generated very good results – both in terms of reducing the spending burden and lowering red ink.

When I do debates at conferences with my left-wing friends, I almost always ask them to show me a similar table of countries that achieved good results with tax increases.

Needless to say, none of them have ever even attempted to prepare such a list.

That’s because nations that repeatedly raise taxes – as we’ve seen in Europe – wind up with more spending and more debt.

In other words, politicians pull a bait-and-switch. They claim more revenue is needed to reduce debt, but they use any additional money to buy votes.

Which is why advocates of good fiscal policy should adamantly oppose any and all tax increases.

Let’s close by looking at two more charts from the Mercatus study.

Here’s a look at how Irish politicians have mostly chose to restrain spending.

And here’s a look at how Greek politicians have mostly opted for tax increases.

It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that the Greek approach has been very unsuccessful.

P.S. For fiscal wonks, one of the best parts of the Mercatus study is that it cites a lot of academic research on the issue of fiscal consolidation.

Scholars who have conducted research find – over and over again – that spending restraint works.

In a 1995 working paper, Alberto Alesina and Roberto Perotti observe 52 efforts to reduce debt in 20 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries between 1960 and 1992. The authors define a successful fiscal adjustment as one in which the debt-to-GDP ratio declines by at least 5 percentage points three years after the adjustment takes place. In successful adjustments, government spending is reduced by almost 2.2 percent of gross national product (GNP) and taxes are increased by less than 0.5 percent of GNP. For unsuccessful adjustments, government expenditure is reduced by less than 0.5 percent of GNP and taxes are increased by almost 1.3 percent of GNP. These results suggest that successful fiscal adjustments are those that cut spending and include very modest increases in taxation.

International Monetary Fund (IMF) economists John McDermott and Robert Wescott, in a 1996 paper, examine 74 episodes of fiscal adjustment in which countries attempted to address their budget gaps. The authors define a successful fiscal adjustment as a reduction of at least 3 percentage points in the ratio of gross public debt to GDP by the second year after the end of an adjustment. The authors then divide episodes of fiscal consolidation into two categories: those in which the deficit was cut primarily (by at least 60 percent) through revenue increases, and those in which it was reduced primarily (by at least 60 percent) through expenditure cuts. Of the expenditure-based episodes of fiscal consolidation, almost half were successful, while of the tax-based episodes, less than one out of six met the criteria for success.

Jürgen von Hagen and Rolf Strauch observe 65 episodes in 20 OECD countries from 1960 to 1998 and define a successful adjustment as one in which the budget balance stands at no more than 75 percent of the initial balance two years after the adjustment period. …it does find that successful consolidations consist of expenditure cuts averaging more than 1.2 percent of GDP, while expenditure cuts in unsuccessful adjustments are smaller than 0.3 percent of GDP. The opposite pattern is true for revenue-based adjustments: successful consolidations consist of increases in revenue averaging around 1.1 percent, while unsuccessful adjustments consist of revenue increases exceeding 1.9 percent.

American Enterprise Institute economists Andrew Biggs, Kevin Hassett, and Matthew Jensen examine over 100 episodes of fiscal consolidation in a 2010 study. The authors define a successful fiscal adjustment as one in which the debt-to-GDP ratio declines by at least 4.5 percentage points three years after the first year of consolidation. Their study finds that countries that addressed their budget shortfalls through reduced spending burdens were far more likely to reduce their debt than countries whose budget-balancing strategies depended upon higher taxes. …the typical successful adjustment consists of 85 percent spending cuts and just 15 percent tax increases.

In a 1998 Brookings Institution paper, Alberto Alesina and coauthors reexamined the research on the economic effects of fiscal adjustments. Using data drawn from 19 OECD countries, the authors assess whether the composition of fiscal adjustments results in different economic outcomes… Contrary to the Keynesian view that fiscal adjustments are contractionary, the results of this study suggest that consolidation achieved primarily through spending reductions often has expansionary effects.

Another study that observes which features of fiscal adjustments are more or less likely to predict whether the fiscal adjustment is contractionary or expansionary is by Alesina and Silvia Ardagna. Using data from 20 OECD countries during 1960 to 1994, the authors label an adjustment expansionary if the average GDP growth rate in the period of adjustment and in the two years after is greater than the average value (of G7 countries) in all episodes of adjustment. …The authors conclude, “The composition of the adjustment appears as the strongest predictor of the growth effect: all the non-expansionary adjustments were tax-based and all the expansionary ones were expenditure-based.”

French economists Boris Cournède and Frédéric Gonand adopt a dynamic general equilibrium model to compare the macroeconomic impacts of four debt reduction scenarios. Results from the model suggest that TB adjustments are much more costly than spending restraint when policymakers are attempting to achieve fiscal sustainability. Annual consumption per capita would be 15 percent higher in 2050 if consolidation were achieved through spending reductions rather than broad tax increases.

In a review of every major fiscal adjustment in the OECD since 1975, Bank of England economist Ben Broadbent and Goldman Sachs economist Kevin Daly found that “decisive budgetary adjustments that have focused on reducing government expenditure have (i) been successful in correcting fiscal imbalances; (ii) typically boosted growth; and (iii) resulted in significant bond and equity market outperformance. Tax-driven fiscal adjustments, by contrast, typically fail to correct fiscal imbalances and are damaging for growth.”

Economists Christina and David Romer investigated the impact of tax changes on economic activity in the United States from 1945 to 2007. The authors find that an exogenous tax increase of 1 percent of GDP lowers real GDP by almost 3 percent, suggesting that TB adjustments are highly contractionary.

…the IMF released its annual World Economic Outlook in 2010 and included a study on the effects of fiscal consolidation on economic activity. The results of studying episodes of fiscal consolidation for 15 OECD countries over three decades…reveals that EB fiscal adjustments tend to have smaller contractionary effects than TB adjustments. For TB adjustments, the effect of a consolidation of 1 percent of GDP on GDP is −1.3 percent after two years, while for EB adjustments the effect is just −0.3 percent after two years and is not statistically significant. Interestingly, TB adjustments also raise unemployment levels by about 0.6 percentage points, while EB adjustments raise the unemployment rate by only 0.2 percentage points.

…a 2014 IMF study…estimates the short-term effect of fiscal consolidation on economic activity among 17 OECD countries. The authors of the IMF study find that the fall in GDP associated with EB consolidations is 0.82 percentage points smaller than the one associated with TB adjustments in the first year and 2.31 percentage points smaller in the second year after the adjustment.

Focusing on the fiscal consolidations that followed the Great Recession, Alesina and coauthors…find that EB consolidations are far less costly for economic output than TB adjustments. They also find that TB adjustments result in a cumulative contraction of 2 percent of GDP in the following three years, while EB adjustments generate very small contractions with an impact on output not significantly different from zero.

A study by the European Central Bank in 2018…finds that macroeconomic responses are largely caused by differences in the composition of the adjustment plans. The authors find large and negative multipliers for TB adjustment plans and positive, but close to zero, multipliers for EB plans. The composition of adjustment plans is found to be the largest contributor to the differences in economic performance under the two types of consolidation plans.

The bottom line is that nations enjoy success when they obey fiscal policy’s Golden Rule. Sadly, that doesn’t happen very often because politicians focus mostly on buying votes in the short run rather than increasing national prosperity in the long run.

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My view of the U.S. economic policy often depends on whether I’m writing about absolute levels of laissez-faire or relative levels of laissez-faire.

If my column is about the former, I generally complain about excessive spending, punitive taxation, senseless red tape, easy-money monetary policy, and trade protectionism.

But if I’m writing about relative levels of economic liberty, I often turn into a jingoistic, pro-American flag-waver.

That because – with a few exceptions such as Singapore, Hong Kong, New Zealand, and Switzerland – the United States enjoys more economic freedom than other nations.

And because of the relationship between policy and prosperity, this means that Americans tend to have much higher living standards than their counterparts in other nations. Even when compared to people in other developed countries.

(Which is why it’s so disappointing that many American politicians want to make the U.S. more like Europe.)

Let’s examine some data. In a column for National Review, Joseph Sullivan compares recent increases in living standards for major nations.

If you want to answer questions about how economic wellbeing for individuals in a country has evolved, the actual change in the value of real GDP per capita may tell you more than the rate of its change. Why? Individuals buy goods and services with dollars and cents — not the rates of change that economists, politicians, and pundits tend to focus on when it comes to growth. …By this metric, between 2016 and 2019, economic growth in the U.S. was the best in its class. …The U.S. surpasses…its peers…by no small margin. It bests the silver medalist in this category, Finland, by $1,100. That is almost as big as the $1,160 that separates the runner-up from the peer country that comes in dead last, Sweden.

Here’s the chat from his article.

The key takeaway is that Americans started the period with more per-capita GDP and the U.S. lead expanded.

That’s one way of looking at the data.

A 2017 report from the Pew Research Center also has some fascinating numbers about the relative well-being of the middle class in different nations.

…the middle class in a country consists of adults living in households with disposable incomes ranging from two-thirds to double the country’s own median disposable household income (adjusted for household size). This definition allows middle-class incomes to vary across countries, because national incomes vary across countries. …That raises a question: What shares of adults in Western European countries have the same standard of living as the American middle class? …When the Western European countries the Center analyzed are viewed through the lens of middle-class incomes in the U.S., the share of adults who are middle class decreases in most of them. …In most Western European countries studied, applying the U.S. standard shrinks the middle-class share by about 10 percentage points… Applying U.S. incomes as the middle-class standard also boosts the estimated shares of adults who are in the lower-income tier in most Western European countries… Overall, regardless of how middle class fortunes are analyzed, the material standard of living in the U.S. is estimated to be better than in most Western European countries examined.

The main thing to understand is that there’s a big difference between being middle class in a rich country and being middle class in a not-so-rich country.

And if you peruse the chart from the Pew Report, you’ll notice that a lot of middle-class Europeans would be lower-income if they lived in the United States.

And if you looked at the issue from the other perspective, as I did last year, many poor Americans would be middle class if they lived in Europe.

Let’s augment that analysis by looking at a graphic the Economist put together several years ago. It’s based on the OECD’s Better-Life Index, which is a bit dodgy since it includes measures such as the Paris-based bureaucracy’s utterly dishonest definition of poverty.

That being said, notice that the bottom 10 percent of Americans would be middle class (or above!) if they lived in other nations.

I’ll close with the data on Actual Individual Consumption from the OECD, which are the numbers that (I believe) most accurately measure relative living standards between nations (indeed, I shared data from this source in 2010, 2014, and 2017).

As you can see, the United States easily surpasses other industrialized nations, with a score of 145.9 in 2017 (compared to the average of 100).

My final observation is that all this data is contrary to traditional convergence theory, which assumes that poor nations should grow faster than rich nations.

In other words, Europe should be catching up to the United States.

Indeed, that actually happened for a couple of decades after World War II, but then many European nations expanded welfare states in the 1960s and 1970s, while the U.S. for more economic freedom under both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton in the 1980s and 1990s.

And since policies diverged, convergence stalled.

The bottom line is that rich nations can consistently out-perform poor nations if they have allow more economic freedom.

P.S. Not only do ordinary Americans have a big edge over their European counterparts, they also enjoy much lower taxes.

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

Sadly, I was right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simply stated, Trump is no Reagan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As explained in my Ninth Theorem of Government.

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

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

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

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I participated in a debate yesterday on “tax havens” for the BBC World Service. If you read last month’s two-part series on the topic (here and here), you already know I’m a big defender of low-tax jurisdictions.

But it’s always interesting to interact with people with a different perspective (in this case, former Obama appointee David Carden and U.K. Professor Rita de la Feria).

As you might imagine, critics generally argue that tax havens should be eliminated so politicians have greater leeway to increase tax rates and finance bigger government. And if you listen to the entire interview, that’s an even bigger part of their argument now that there’s lots of coronavirus-related spending.

But for purposes of today’s column, I want to focus on what I said beginning at 49:10 of the interview.

I opined that it’s reasonably to issue debt to finance a temporary emergency and then gradually reduce the debt burden afterwards (similar to what happened during and after World War II, as well as during other points in history).

The most important part of my answer, however, was the discussion about how revenues didn’t decline when tax rates were slashed beginning in 1980.

Let’s first take a look at what happened to top tax rates for 24 industrialized nations from North America, Western Europe, and the Pacific Rim. As you can see, there’s been a big reduction in tax rates since 1980.

In the interview, I mentioned OECD data about taxes on income and profits, which can be found here (specifically data series 1000). So let’s see what happened to revenues during the period of falling tax rates.

Lo and behold, it turns out that revenue went up. Not just nominal revenues. Not just inflation-adjusted revenues. Tax revenues even increased as a share of gross domestic product.

In part, this is the Laffer Curve in action. Lower tax rates meant better incentives to engage in productive behavior. That meant higher levels of taxable income (the variable that should matter most).

For what it’s worth, I suspect that the lower tax rates – by themselves – did not cause tax revenue to rise. After all, there are many policies that determine the overall vitality of an economy.

But there’s no question that there’s a lot of “revenue feedback” when tax rates are changed.

The bottom line is that the folks advocating higher tax rates shouldn’t expect a windfall of tax revenue if they succeed in imposing class-warfare tax policy.

P.S. For the folks on the left who are motivated by spite rather than greed, it doesn’t matter if higher tax rates generate more money.

P.P.S. Interestingly, both the IMF and OECD have admitted, at least by inference, that lower corporate tax rates don’t result in lower tax revenues.

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