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Posts Tagged ‘Economics’

Left-wing columnists at the Washington Post have hit upon a theme. In late October, Ruth Marcus wrote a column asserting that tax cuts are “dangerous.”

I explained why her argument was nonsensical, but that clearly didn’t have any impact since Robert Rubin has a new column in the same paper with the same theme. He claims to have identified five “dangers” in the Republican tax plan.

It’s a remarkably weak list, but I guess it merits a response, both because Rubin served as Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary and because I feel compelled to once again slap down the claim that tax cuts are dangerous.

I debunk each one of Rubin’s points below, but you’ll also notice that I first restate (fairly, I think) what he’s really trying to say since his writing style is so bureaucratically obtuse.

Rubin Claim #1:

…business confidence would likely be negatively affected by creating uncertainty about future policy and heightening concern about our political system’s ability to meet our economic policy challenges.

What he’s really saying: We don’t know what will happen in the future (“uncertainty”) and it would be good if taxes were higher so politicians could spend more (“ability to meet…challenges”).

Why he’s wrong: Since it’s very difficult for today’s politicians to restrict the behavior of future politicians, it is true that there will be policy uncertainty. But that’s just as true if we leave the corporate tax rate at 35 percent as it will be if the rate is reduced the 20 percent. I’m also unimpressed by his desire for government to have more cash to meet challenges since it’s far more likely that government is the cause of problems rather than the solution.

Rubin Claim #2:

…our country’s resilience to deal with inevitable future economic and geopolitical emergencies, including the effects of climate change, would continue to decline.

What he’s really saying: If there’s a tax cut, politicians will have less money, which means it will be harder (a “decline” in “resilience”) to spend money in the future.

Why he’s wrong: Once again, I feel compelled to point out that very few problems can be solved with more government spending. Indeed, that’s usually a recipe for making a problem worse (the welfare state, for example). But the most glaring flaw with Rubin’s argument about “future…emergencies” is that there’s no long-run tax cut. The GOP tax plan is revenue-neutral after 10 years. So how can a plan that doesn’t lower the long-run revenue baseline impact the government’s ability to do anything?

Rubin Claim #3:

…funds available for public investment, national security and defense spending…would continue to decline as debt rises, because of rising interest costs and the increased risk of borrowing to fund government activities.

What he’s really saying: Less tax money going to Washington could mean higher interest payments (“increased risk of borrowing”), which would displace other forms of spending.

Why he’s wrong: There’s actually some truth to this argument, at least in the first 10 years when there actually is a tax cut. If I was being snarky, I could ask why Rubin wasn’t making the same argument when the faux stimulus was being debated. Or when the Obamacare boondoggle was being discussed. Why does he think deficits are only bad when tax cuts are on the agenda (just like CBO), but deficits are “stimulus” when spending goes up? I may sue for whiplash since folks on the other side keep changing their minds on red ink.

Rubin Claim #4:

Treasury bond interest rates would be highly likely to increase over time because of increased demand for the supply of savings and increased concern about future imbalances.

What he’s really saying: A tax cut will lead to higher deficits, which will lead to higher interest rates (“increased demand for the supply of savings”).

Why he’s wrong: I believe in supply-and-demand curves, so it’s theoretically true that interest rates should increase when government competes against private borrowers. That being said, even big shifts in U.S. deficits are just a drop in the bucket in a world where global capital markets amount to tens of trillions of dollars. Here’s a slide from a speech I gave to the Leadership Program of the Rockies earlier this month in Denver. If I had space, I would have added “but in reality the impact is minimal” to the third sentence.

Rubin Claim #5:

…at some unpredictable point, fiscal conditions…would likely be seen as sufficiently serious to cause severe market and economic destabilization.

What he’s really saying: Tax cuts will mean more red ink, which could ultimately lead to a Greek-style fiscal crisis (“severe..destabilization”).

Why he’s wrong: It’s certainly true that America faces very worrisome long-run fiscal problems, but those challenges are entirely due to a rising burden of government spending. And since the GOP plan is only a tax cut in the first 10 years, it’s absurd to say the GOP plan will have any meaningful impact on that dismal outlook. If Rubin really was concerned about America’s fiscal situation, he would be aggressively arguing for genuine entitlement reform.

I could have shortened that entire section by collapsing his five “dangers” into one teenager-type rant: “OMG, the economy will be in danger with tax cuts and the government won’t be able to spend on good things.”

To which I could have replied: “LOL.”

To be fair, there actually is a semi-serious section in Rubin’s column. He summarizes the left’s economic argument against lower tax rates.

…tax cuts will not increase growth and, given their fiscal effects, would likely have a significant and increasingly negative impact. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center’s latest report estimated that, over 10 years, the average increase in our growth rate would be roughly zero, counting the crowding out of private investment by increasing deficits but not counting other adverse effects of worsening our fiscal outlook. The Penn Wharton Budget Model, using the same approach, estimates virtually no increase in long-term growth. …These estimates reflect three underlying views held by mainstream economists. First, individual tax cuts will not materially induce people to work more. Second, corporate tax cuts will likely have limited effect on investment or decisions about where to locate business activity, given the many other variables at play. Third, deficit-funded tax cuts will have little short-term effect on growth, except perhaps for some temporary overheating, because we are at roughly full employment.

Now allow me to translate: It is quite possible to generate bad numbers if you build models that, 1) assume lower tax rates have very little impact on incentives to engage in productive behavior, and 2) assume larger deficits cause interest rates to increase significantly and therefore measurably reduce investment.

The real question is whether those theoretical models are correct given so much of the empirical evidence on the other side. After all, what are you going to believe, the models or your lying eyes?

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Inequality is now a major dividing line in the world of public policy.

Supporters of limited government think it’s not a big issue and instead focus on the policies that are most likely to generate growth. Simply stated, they tend not to care if some people get richer faster than other people get richer (assuming, of course, that income is honestly earned and not the result of cronyism).

Folks on the left, by contrast, think inequality is inherently bad. It’s almost as if they think that the economy is a fixed pie and that a big slice for the “rich” necessarily means smaller slices for the rest of us. They favor lots of redistribution via punitive taxes and an expansive welfare state.

When talking to such people, my first priority is getting them to understand that it’s possible for an economy to grow and for all income groups to benefit. I explain how even small differences in long-run growth make a big difference over just a few decades and that it is very misguided to impose policies that will discourage growth by penalizing the rich and discouraging the poor.

I sometimes wonder how vigorously to present my argument. Is it actually true, as Thatcher and Churchill argued, that leftists are willing to hurt poor people if that’s what is necessary to hurt rich people by a greater amount?

Seems implausible, so when I recently noticed this amusing humor on Reddit‘s libertarian page, I was not going to share it. After all, it presumes that our friends on the left genuinely would prefer equal levels of poverty rather than unequal levels of prosperity.

But, after reading a new study from the International Monetary Fund, I’m wondering if I’m underestimating the left’s fixation with inequality and the amount of economic damage they’re willing to inflict to achiever greater equality of outcomes.

Here are some introductory passages to explain the goal of the research.

…it is worth reemphasizing some lessons from the “old masters” in economics who addressed this topic a few decades ago—including Arthur M. Okun and Anthony B. Atkinson in the 1970s. Their lessons—on how to elicit people’s views on inequality and how to summarize societal welfare using a monetary indicator encompassing both average incomes and their distribution—remain relevant for fiscal policymakers today. …a satisfactory theory of welfare must recognize that welfare depends on both the size and the distribution of national income. …This primer seeks to encourage more widespread use by policymakers of the tools developed by welfare theory. …the primer provides an in-depth, step-by-step refresher on two specific tools chosen because of their simplicity and intuitive appeal: Okun’s “leaky bucket” and Atkinson’s “equally-distributed-equivalent income.”

Please note that the IMF explicitly is saying that it wants policymakers to change laws based on what’s in the study.

And, as you continue reading, it should become obvious that the bureaucrats are pushing a very radical agenda (not that we should be surprised given the IMF’s track record).

Here’s the bureaucracy’s take on Okun and his pro-redistribution agenda.

Okun (1975) proposed a thought experiment capable of eliciting people’s attitudes toward the trade -off between equality and efficiency: Okun asked the reader to consider five families: a richer one making $45,000 (in 1975) and four poorer ones making $5,000. Would the reader favor a scheme that taxed the rich family $4,000 and transferred the proceeds to the poorer families? In principle, each poorer family would receive $1,000. But what if 10 percent leaked out, with only $900 reaching the recipients? What would the maximum acceptable leak be? The leak represented not only the administrative costs of tax-and-transfer programs (and, one might add, potential losses due to corruption), but also the fact that such programs reduce the economic incentives to work. …Okun reported his own answers to the specific exercise he proposed (his personal preference was for a leakage of no more than 60 percent). ….Okun was willing to accept that a $4,000 tax on the rich household [would] translate, with a 60 percent leakage, into a $400 transfer to each of the four poor households.

The only good part about Okun’s equity-efficiency tradeoff is that he acknowledges that redistribution harms the economy. The disturbing part is that he was willing to accept 60 percent leakage in order to take money from some and give it to others.

It gets worse. When the IMF mixes Okun with Atkinson, that’s when things head in the wrong direction even faster. As I noted last month, Atkinson has a theory designed to justify big declines in national income if what’s left is distributed more equally. I’m not joking.

And that IMF wants to impose this crazy theory on the world.

Atkinson (1970) showed that under the assumptions above and having identified a coefficient of aversion to inequality, it becomes easy to summarize the well-being of all households in an economy with a single, intuitive measure: the equally-distributed-equivalent income (EDEI), i.e., the income that an external observer would consider just as desirable as the existing income distribution. …The percentage loss in mean income—compared with the initial situation—that an observer would find acceptable to have a perfectly equal distribution of incomes was introduced by Atkinson (1970) as a measure of inequality.

The study then purports to measure “aversion to inequality” in order to calculate equally-distributed-equivalent income (EDEI).

The greater the observers’ aversion to inequality, the lower the EDEI. Table (2) reports for a few alternative ε coefficients, for the example above.

Here’s a table from the study, which is based on a theoretical rich person with $45,000 and a theoretical poor person with $5,000 of income. A society that isn’t very worried about inequality (ε = 0.2) is willing to sacrifice about $4,000 on overall income to achieve the desired EDEI. But a nation fixated on equality of outcomes might be willing to sacrifice $32,000 (more than 60 percent of overall income!).

I’ve augmented the table with a few of the aggregate income losses in red.

In other words, nations that have a higher aversion to inequality are the ones that prefer lots of misery and deprivation so long as everyone suffers equally.

Another use of this data is that it allows the IMF to create dodgy data on income (sort of like what the OECD does with poverty numbers).

It appears the bureaucrats want to use EDEI to claim that poorer nations have more income than richer nations.

…the ranking of countries based on the EDEI often differs significantly from that based on mean income alone. For instance, South Africa’s mean income is more than double that of the Kyrgyz Republic, and substantially above that of Albania. However, those countries’ lower inequality implies that their EDEI is significantly higher than South Africa’s. …Similarly, the United States’ mean income is considerably above that of the United Kingdom or Sweden. However, for an inequality aversion coefficient of ε=1.5, Sweden’s EDEI is above that of the United States, and for ε=2.0 also the United Kingdom’s EDEI is above that of the United States.

Here’s a table from the study and you can see how the United States becomes a comparatively poor nation (highlighted in red) when there’s an “aversion” to inequality.

In other word, even though the United States has much higher living standards than European nations, the IMF is peddling dodgy numbers implying just the opposite.

But the real tragedy is that low-income people will be much more likely to remain poor with the policies that the IMF advocates.

P.S. Fans of satire may appreciate this “modest proposal” to reduce inequality. I imagine the IMF would approve so long as certain rich people are excluded.

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Over the past few weeks, I’ve written several columns about the 100th anniversary of communism. I’ve looked at that evil ideology’s death toll, and I’ve written about the knaves and fools who defended and promoted communism in the west (included, sad to say, some economists). And I’ve even shared some anti-communist humor to offset the dour material in the other columns.

Let’s continue that series today by looking at the very practical question of what happens when a nation breaks free from communist enslavement?

Professor James Gwartney and Hugo Montesinos from Florida State University analyzed the economic performance of former Soviet Bloc nations (they refer to them as formerly centrally planned – or FCP – countries) over the past 20 years.

The good news is that these countries have been growing, especially if they get decent scores from Economic Freedom of the World.

The economic record of the FCP countries during 1995-2015 was impressive. This was particularly true for the seven FCP countries that moved the most toward economic liberalization. The average growth of real per capita GDP of these seven countries exceeded 5 percent during 1995-2015. Real per capita GDP more than doubled in six of the seven countries during the two decades. …While the real GDP growth of the middle group was slower, it was still impressive. The population weighted annual real growth of per capita GDP of the middle group was 3.78 percent.

And to elaborate on the good news, growth rates in FCP nations has been faster than growth rates in rich countries.

But that’s to be expected. Convergence theory tells us that poorer places should grow faster than richer places (at least in the absence of unusual circumstances).

But government policy can be a wild card. As you can see from Table 14 of the report, Gwartney and Montesinos parsed the data and found that the FCP nations that adopted the most pro-market reforms have enjoyed the fastest growth rates, while growth rates were less impressive in the FCP countries with lesser amounts of economic liberalization (relative growth rates highlighted in red below).

The goal, of course, is for FCP nations to catch up with rich nations.

And there has been a decent amount of convergence.

…the relative income increases are impressive. The ratio of the mean per capita GDP of the most economically free group compared to the high-income economies more than doubled, soaring from 19.9 percent in 1995 to 40.6 percent in 2015. The parallel ratio for the middle group increased by approximately 50 percent from 36.9 percent in 1995 to 53.0 percent in 2015. Finally, the ratio for the bottom group increased from 13.0 percent in 1995 to 24.6 percent in 2015, an increase of 90 percent. The largest increases in relative income were registered by Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, Armenia, Albania, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The ratio for each of these countries more than doubled between 1995 and 2015. Note that five of these eight countries are in the group with the highest 2015 EFW ratings.

There’s country-specific data in Table 13 of the report.

And you can see, once again, that the nations with the most economic freedom and enjoying the fastest convergence rates. From the top group, I’ve highlighted both Georgia and the Baltic countries for their impressive results. And I also highlighted Poland and Slovakia from the second group because both countries have converged at a rapid pace thanks to some good policies.

Looking at the bottom group, it’s sad to see Ukraine doing so poorly, but that’s a predictable result given the near-total absence of economic freedom in that unfortunate country.

The obvious moral of the story is that nations will grow faster and generate more prosperity if they follow the recipe of free markets and limited government.

So let’s take a look at that recipe by examining how FCP nations have performed when looking at the various ingredients. More specifically, Economic Freedom of the World looks at five major policy areas: fiscal, trade, money, regulation, and legal.

And it’s that final category (which measures factors such as property rights, the rule of law, and government corruption) where these countries have not done a good job.

…the FCP countries…have a major shortcoming: their legal systems are weak and little progress has been made in this area. Given their historic background, this is not surprising. Under socialism, legal systems are designed to serve the interests of the government. Judges, lawyers, and other judicial officials are trained and rewarded for serving governmental interests. Protection of the rights of individuals and private businesses and organizations is unimportant under socialism.

Here’s some fascinating data from Table 17, which shows how scores for the five major categories have changed over time in both FCP nations and countries from Western Europe. You’ll see that FCP countries have liberalized policy and closed the gap in Area 3 (money), Area 4 (trade), and Area 5 (regulation). And you’ll also see how the FCP nations do a better job in Area 1 (fiscal), which I’ve highlighted in red. But the most startling – and depressing – result in the absence of progress in Area 2 (legal), which is also highlighted in red.

These results, for all intents and purposes, are a much more detailed version of an article I wrote for the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformers in Europe earlier this year.

Unfortunately, even though we have the same diagnosis, we don’t really have an easy solution. In this final excerpt, the authors explain that it’s not that easy to change the culture of a nation’s political class.

It is a major challenge to convert a socialist legal system into one that enforces contracts in an unbiased manner, protects property rights, permits markets to direct economic activity, and operates under rule of law principles. …Economists have provided policy-makers with step by step directions about how to achieve monetary and price stability, liberalized trade regimes, and adopt tax structures more consistent with growth and prosperity. …But, a recipe for developing a sound legal system is largely absent. We know what a sound legal system looks like, but we have failed to explain how it can be achieved.

I don’t even thank socialism deserves the full blame (though it deserves the blame for many bad things). There are many nations in many regions of the world that get very bad scores because of inadequate rule of law and weak property rights. But I fully agree that it’s not easy to fix.

But I’ll close with a very upbeat observation that all of the FCP nations are better off because the Soviet Union collapsed and communism is fading from the world. Liberal socialism may not be good for an economy, but it’s paradise compared to Marxist socialism.

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Back on November 2, I summarized the good and not-so-good features of the tax plan put forth by House Republicans. Here are the parts that made me happy.

And what was the most disappointing part of the plan?

  • Absence of spending restraint.

Regarding my disappointment, I’m not just being a curmudgeonly libertarian. The bill is filled with timid and convoluted provisions, as well as some undesirable revenue-raising provisions, precisely because of congressional rules on long-run deficit neutrality. As I’ve noted in some of my TV interviews, Republicans are pushing sub-par policy because you can’t fit a football player’s body into Pee Wee Herman’s clothes.

If Republicans were willing to impose some modest spending restraint, by contrast, that would have given them enormous flexibility for large tax cuts (while also balancing the budget!).

But I’m a semi-realist about Washington. I’m not going to make the perfect the enemy of the good (or, in this case, the sort-of-decent the enemy of the I-guess-this-is-acceptable).

Now let’s look at what Senate Republicans have unveiled. In some cases, my grades are identical to the House bill because many of the major provisions are quite similar. But there are some noteworthy differences.

Lower corporate rate: A-

America’s high corporate tax rate is probably the most self-destructive feature of the current system. If the rate is permanently reduced from 35 percent to 20 percent, that will be a huge boost to competitiveness. The only downside is that the lower rate is deferred until 2019.

Lower individual rates: C+

The proposal is relatively timid on rate reductions for households. This is disappointing, but not unexpected since lower individual tax rates mean considerable revenue loss.

Ending deduction for state and local taxes: A+

Next to the lower corporate tax rate, this is the best part of the proposal. It generates revenue to use for pro-growth provisions while also eliminating a subsidy for bad policy on the part of state and local governments. Indeed, the Senate bill goes farther than the House bill since it includes property taxes. So I’ve retroactively changed my grade for the House bill from A+ to A- so I can give the Senate bill an A+.

Curtailing mortgage interest deduction: C

The deduction remains for home mortgages, but is curtailed for home equity loans. A timed improvement that will only slightly reduce the distortion that creates a bias for residential real estate compared to business investment.

Death tax repeal: C+

There’s no repeal. Just an increase in the amount of family savings that can be protected from the tax. Better than nothing, to be sure, but disappointing.

Change to consumer price index: C

It is quite likely that the consumer price index overstates inflation because it doesn’t properly capture increases in the quality of goods and service. Shifting to a different price index will lead to higher revenues because tax brackets and other provisions of the tax code won’t adjust at the same rate. That’s fine, but I’m dissatisfied with this provision since it should apply to spending programs as well as the tax code.

Reduced business interest deduction: C+

The business interest deduction is partially undone, which is a step toward equal treatment of debt and equity. It’s not the right way of achieving that goal, but it does generate revenue to finance other pro-growth changes in the legislation.

Now let’s zoom out and grade the overall plan in terms of major fiscal and economic goals.

And you’ll see that all I’ve done is repeat exactly what I wrote about the House bill.

Restraining the growth of government: F

In my fantasy world, I want a return to the very small federal government created and envisioned by the Founding Fathers. In the real world, I simply hope for a modest bit of spending restraint. This legislation doesn’t even pretend to curtail the growth of government, which is unfortunate since some fiscal prudence (federal budget growing about 2 percent per year) would have allowed a very large tax cut while also balancing the budget within 10 years.

Collecting revenue in a less-destructive manner: B

This is a positive proposal. It will mean more jobs, increased competitiveness, and higher incomes. The wonks in Washington doubtlessly will debate whether these positive effects are small or large, but I’m not overly fixated on that issue. Yes, I think the growth effects will be significant, but I also realize that many other policies also determine economic performance. The most important thing to understand, thought is that even small increases in growth make a big difference over time.

Now let’s take a closer look at how the House and Senate plans differ.

The Tax Foundation put together a very helpful comparison. I’ve broken it into three parts so I can interject some final commentary.

For this first section, since I already gave my two cents about itemized deductions, I’ll simply observe that the Senate plan is slightly better on individual income tax rates.

For this second section, I’ll merely note that the first provision is basically an attempt to give relief to small businesses that are subject to the individual income tax.

The provisions are complicated because it’s not easy to lower tax rates for “Schedule C” income in a way that doesn’t benefit taxpayers who aren’t perceived as being conventional small businesses.

For this final section, the part that’s disappointing to me is “international income.” Both the House and Senate adopt territorial taxation for businesses, which is very good.

But the congressional plans then claw back a bunch of money with OECD-style “base-erosion” policies and Obama-style global minimum taxes. It’s unclear if the net effect is modestly positive or modestly negative, but it’s not what many of us wanted when we pushed for territoriality.

I’ll close by noting that I’m actually pleasantly surprised by the two plans. Yes, I’m grading on a curve, but I had very low expectations this year. I basically hoped to get a lower corporate rate with a bit of window dressing.

And at one point we were actually forced to play defense because Republicans were looking at a very troubling proposal for a “border-adjusted tax.”

So even though I fantasize about a flat tax, I’m reasonably happy about where we are now.

The bottom line is that there’s now a good chance of getting legislation that drops the corporate rate to 20 percent while also eliminating the deduction for state and local income taxes. Those are two very good policies. And if we somehow get death tax repeal, that means three substantive, pro-growth reforms. Fingers crossed.

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To “commemorate” the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution in Russian, I’ve been sharing a series of columns on the evil of communism.

Today, I’m going to target my profession.

But I’m going to bend over backwards to be fair. I’m not going to condemn the economists back in the 1920s and 1930s who were sympathetic to central planning. They were horribly wrong, but that was before economists from the Austrian School prevailed in the “Socialist Calculation Debate.” So we’ll give them an undeserved pass.

And we’ll even excuse the wrongheaded thinking of economists who sympathized with communism in the first couple of decades after World War II. After all, maybe they were just naive when they blindly accepted and regurgitated statistics from the Soviet Union (just as I think some people today are being somewhat gullible when they accept stats today from Beijing).

But there’s no excuse for any sentient being – especially an economist – to have praised the decrepit communist economic model by the time we got to the 1980s.

Yet some very prominent economists were guilty of whitewashing the sins of communism. I condemned Paul Samuelson two years ago (albeit only in a postscript) for his Pollyannish assessment of the Soviet economy. There was absolutely no excuse for him to write that, “…the Soviet economy is proof that…a socialist command economy can function and even thrive.”

Especially since he made that claim shortly before the Berlin Wall collapsed. That takes a special type of ignorance.

But Samuelson wasn’t the only academic economist to disseminate nonsense. Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution shares some additional examples of mal-education.

…an even more off-course analysis can also be found in another mega-selling textbook, McConnell’s Economics (still a huge seller today).  Like Samuelson, McConnell estimated Soviet GNP as half that of the United States in 1963 but he showed that the Soviets were investing a much larger share of GNP and thus growing at rates “two to three times” higher than the U.S.  Indeed, through at least ten (!) editions, the Soviets continued to grow faster than the U.S. and yet in McConnell’s 1990 edition Soviet GNP was still half that of the United States!

Professor Tabarrok speculates on why some economists were so wrong.

To make their predictions, Samuelson and McConnell relied heavily on the production possibilities frontier (PPF), the idea that the fundamental tradeoff for any society was between “guns and butter.”

To be sure, the production possibilities frontier is a useful analytical tool for economists.

But these economists erred in assuming that central planners could allocate resources efficiently. More specifically, they looked at high levels of supposed investment in communist nations and assumed that would mean faster rates of growth.

That theory is correct, but only if capital is being allocated by the private sector in a system governed by market prices. Government investment, by contrast, is a recipe for pork, inefficiency, corruption, and waste.

If we were constructing an Economist Hall of Shame, we’d also want to include Lester Thurow, who was basically the Paul Krugman of the 1980s. As recounted in this Hoover Institution interview, he also pimped for the Soviet Union right up until the point it collapsed.

ZINSMEISTER But why have persons proven to have been calamitously mistaken been allowed to wriggle away? For instance, here’s a quote from Lester Thurow—dean of MIT’s business school, for heaven’s sake—writing in 1989: “Can economic command significantly accelerate the growth process? The remarkable performance of the Soviet Union suggests it can. Today it is a country whose economic achievements bear comparison with those of the United States.” Why isn’t this fellow laughed out of court?

CONQUEST These people were had for suckers. They believed figures and images and statements about the Soviet Union that did not accord with reality. This was also enforced in the Soviet Union. You had to believe the place was happy, well fed, and so forth. …there were two different Soviet Unions, the real one and the one put forward in the West. Often the unreal one was backed by huge amounts of impressive, phony statistics. It takes two to sell the Brooklyn Bridge; you need both a crook and a sucker. The apologists in this country swallowed the rubbish about communism because they didn’t like the people putting forth the opposite view.

Let’s close with an amazing – and depressing – observation.

An article by Professor Bryan Caplan for the Foundation for Economic Education looks at Princeton Review‘s AP Economics and notes that there are still some economists suffering from moral blindness.

When I was first learning economics, I was surprised by how pro-communist many economics textbooks were. …textbooks were very positive relative to communism’s historical record. …Many textbook authors were, in a phrase, communist dupes.

Sadly, some communist dupes still exist and they work at Princeton Review. Caplan highlights this excerpt from the book.

Communism is a system designed to minimize imbalance in wealth via the collective ownership of property. Legislators from a single political party – the communist party – divide the available wealth for equal advantage among citizens. The problems with communism include a lack of incentives for extra effort, risk taking, and innovation. The critical role of the central government in allocating resources and setting production levels makes this system particularly vulnerable to corruption.

Bryan then explains why AP Economics is nonsense.

The official communist line was that collective ownership would lead to high economic growth – and ultimately cornucopia. And in practice, communist regimes made collective ownership an end in itself. Just look at their repeated farm collectivizations that caused horrifying famines in the short-run, and low agricultural productivity in the long-run. …Communist regimes began with the mass murder of their political enemies, businessmen, and their families. Next, they seized the peasants’ land, leading to hellish famines. …And no communist regime has ever tried to “divide wealth for equal advantage.” Bloodbaths aside, communist regimes always put Party members’ comfort above the very lives of ordinary citizens.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Good people rejected communism from its inception because it was based on the immoral notion that individuals should be subjugated to the state (the same ideology in fascism and other collectivist movements).

As I noted above, I’m willing to forgive others (at least in the early decades) for thinking that communism might be economically successful.

But I have nothing but scorn for those who were pimping for totalitarianism in the 1980s (or still today). Economists already are the subject of derision and it’s easy to understand why after seeing how some of them excused an evil system.

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House Republicans have unveiled their much-anticipated tax plan.

Is this something to celebrate? Well, that depends on whether you’re grading on a curve. Compared to a pure, simple, and fair flat tax, it’s timid and disappointing.

But compared to today’s wretched and unfair tax code, there are some very positive changes.

At the end of 2015, I reviewed the major tax plans put forth by the various presidential candidates, grading them on issues such as tax rates, double taxation, and simplicity.

Trump’s plan got the lowest score, though “B-” nonetheless represented a non-trivial improvement over the status quo.

And since he wound up in the White House, nobody should be surprised to see that many of his priorities are reflected in the House plan.

So let’s grade the major provisions of this new proposal (with the caveat that grades may change as more details emerge).

Lower corporate rate: A

America’s high corporate tax rate is probably the most self-destructive feature of the current system. If the rate is permanently reduced from 35 percent to 20 percent, that will be a huge boost to competitiveness.

Lower individual rates: C+

The proposal is relatively timid on rate reductions for households. This is disappointing, but not unexpected since lower individual tax rates mean considerable revenue loss.

Ending deduction for state and local income taxes: A-

Next to the lower corporate tax rate, this is the most encouraging part of the proposal. It generates revenue to use for pro-growth provisions while also eliminating a subsidy for bad policy on the part of state and local governments.

Curtailing mortgage interest deduction: B-

Instead of allowing mortgage interest deduction on homes up to $1 million, the cap is reduced to $500,000. A modest but positive improvement that will reduce the distortion that creates a bias for residential real estate compared to business investment.

Death tax repeal: A-

Don’t die for six years, because that’s how long it will take before the death tax is repealed. But if we actually get to that point, this will represent a very positive change to the tax system.

Change to consumer price index: C

It is quite likely that the consumer price index overstates inflation because it doesn’t properly capture increases in the quality of goods and service. Shifting to a different price index will lead to higher revenues because tax brackets and other provisions of the tax code won’t adjust at the same rate. That’s fine, but I’m dissatisfied with this provision since it should apply to spending programs as well as the tax code.

Reduced business interest deduction: C+

The business interest deduction is partially undone, which is a step toward equal treatment of debt and equity. It’s not the right way of achieving that goal, but it does generate revenue to finance other pro-growth changes in the legislation.

Here’s a useful summary from the Wall Street Journal of changes to business taxation.

Now let’s zoom out and grade the overall plan in terms of major fiscal and economic goals.

Restraining the growth of government: F

In my fantasy world, I want a return to the very small federal government created and envisioned by the Founding Fathers. In the real world, I simply hope for a modest bit of spending restraint. This legislation doesn’t even pretend to curtail the growth of government, which is unfortunate since some fiscal prudence (federal budget growing about 2 percent per year) would have allowed a very large tax cut while also balancing the budget within 10 years.

Collecting revenue in a less-destructive manner: B

This is a positive proposal. It will mean more jobs, increased competitiveness, and higher incomes. The wonks in Washington doubtlessly will debate whether these positive effects are small or large, but I’m not overly fixated on that issue. Yes, I think the growth effects will be significant, but I also realize that many other policies also determine economic performance. The most important thing to understand, thought is that even small increases in growth make a big difference over time.

The bottom line is that half a loaf (or, in this case, a fourth of a loaf) is better than nothing. House Republicans have a good plan. Now the question is whether the Senate makes it better or worse (hint: don’t be optimistic).

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I fully agree with my leftist friends who say that corporations want to extract every penny they can from consumers. I also (mostly) agree with them when they say corporations are soulless entities that don’t care about people.

But after they’re done venting, I then try to educate them by pointing out that the only way corporations can separate consumers their money is by vigorously competing to provide desirable goods and services at attractive prices.

Moreover, their “soulless” pursuit of those profits (as explained by Walter Williams) will lead them to be efficient and innovative, which boosts overall economic output.

Moreover, in a competitive market, it’s not consumers vs. corporations, it’s corporations vs. corporations with consumers automatically winning.

Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute makes a very valuable point about what happens in a free economy.

Comparing the 1955 Fortune 500 companies to the 2017 Fortune 500, there are only 59 companies that appear in both lists (see companies in the graphic above). In other words, fewer than 12% of the Fortune 500 companies included in 1955 were still on the list 62 years later in 2017, and more than 88% of the companies from 1955 have either gone bankrupt, merged with (or were acquired by) another firm, or they still exist but have fallen from the top Fortune 500 companies (ranked by total revenues).

It’s not just the Fortune 500.

…corporations in the S&P 500 Index in 1965 stayed in the index for an average of 33 years. By 1990, average tenure in the S&P 500 had narrowed to 20 years and is now forecast to shrink to 14 years by 2026. At the current churn rate, about half of today’s S&P 500 firms will be replaced over the next 10 years.

Here’s Mark’s list of companies that have stayed at the top of the Fortune 500 over the past 62 years.

Mark then offers an economic lesson from this data.

The fact that nearly 9 of every 10 Fortune 500 companies in 1955 are gone, merged, or contracted demonstrates that there’s been a lot of market disruption, churning, and Schumpeterian creative destruction over the last six decades. It’s reasonable to assume that when the Fortune 500 list is released 60 years from now in 2077, almost all of today’s Fortune 500 companies will no longer exist as currently configured, having been replaced by new companies in new, emerging industries, and for that we should be extremely thankful. The constant turnover in the Fortune 500 is a positive sign of the dynamism and innovation that characterizes a vibrant consumer-oriented market economy.

He also emphasizes that consumers are the real beneficiaries of this competitive process.

…the creative destruction that results in the constant churning of Fortune 500 (and S&P 500) companies over time is that the process of market disruption is being driven by the endless pursuit of sales and profits that can only come from serving customers with low prices, high-quality products and services, and great customer service. If we think of a company’s annual sales revenues as the number of “dollar votes” it gets every year from providing goods and services to consumers… As consumers, we should appreciate the fact that we are the ultimate beneficiaries of the Schumpeterian creative destruction that drives the dynamism of the market economy and results in a constant churning of the firms who are ultimately fighting to attract as many of our dollar votes as possible.

Incidentally, Mark did this same exercise in 2014 and 2015 and ascertained that there were 61 companies still remaining on the list.

So creative destruction apparently has claimed two more victims.

Or, to be more accurate, the needs and desires of consumers have produced more churning, leading to greater material abundance for America.

I’ll close with two points.

All of which explains why I want separation of business and state.

The bottom line is that an unfettered market produces the best results for the vast majority of people. Yes, people are greedy, but that leads to good outcomes in a capitalist environment.

But we get awful results if cronyism is the dominant system, and that seems to be the direction we’re heading in America.

P.S. Even when corporations try to exploit people in the third world, the pursuit of profits actually results in better lives for the less fortunate.

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