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Posts Tagged ‘Economics’

I’ve always been puzzled by those who criticize capitalism (“it’s unfair!” and “it’s coercive!”) and urge its overthrow or replacement.

I actually agree with them that markets can be harsh, especially in the short run (think of the damage to the typewriter industry when personal computers exploded on the scene).

But the critics are unable to suggest a successful alternative to capitalism.

This is why I keep reissuing my challenge for them to identify a single nation that has ever become rich because of big government.

Needless to say, my left-wing friends have never provided an answer.

(Some of them say the Nordic nations and other countries in Western Europe are relatively rich, and that’s true, but I point out that those jurisdictions became rich in the 1800s and early 1900s when government was very small.)

By contrast, we have lots of evidence that modern prosperity is the result of free markets.

And so long as we give capitalism enough breathing room to function, we’ll get even more prosperity in the future.

Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute, in a column for Bloomberg, debunks the notion that capitalism is failing.

Use of the term “late capitalism” has exploded during the past decade… Capitalism may have once delivered broad prosperity, the critics argue, but now the system serves to entrench the elite. …Now is an odd time to argue that capitalism is broken. Only 35 U.S. workers out of every 1,000 are looking for jobs but unable to find them — the unemployment rate is lower than it has been in a half-century. The rate at which people in their prime working years hold jobs is higher than it has been in over a decade. …The level of inequality is high, but this is an odd decade to bemoan its rise. …from the beginning of the Great Recession, when criticism of capitalism became much more common, to 2016 (the last year data are available), inequality actually decreased by 7 percent.

Here’s the part of the column that is most interesting.

…critics of modern capitalism seem to be confused about the market’s ability to distribute benefits. …In a 2004 paper, the economist and Nobel laureate William Nordhaus concluded that “most of the benefits of technological change are passed on to consumers,” not the innovators themselves. Using data from 1948–2001, his model suggests that innovators capture only 2.2 percent of the total social value they create. Applying a back-of-the-envelope calculation using Nordhaus’s result to Bezos suggests he has created $5.4 trillion in value for the rest of society. A team of economists…recently attempted to measure the benefit of several new digital services that are free to consumers. …The typical U.S.-based Facebook user in their study values the social networking site at $42.17 per month. …Because they are free, these services are not well captured in current national income statistics. Brynjolfsson and his coauthors calculate that the benefits from Facebook alone would have added between 0.05 and 0.11 percentage points to the annual growth in U.S. gross domestic product growth starting in 2004. …Capitalism has delivered significant increases in purchasing power for typical households. The phrase “late capitalism” suggests that capitalism is spent and exhausted. It isn’t.

Interestingly, the academic researchers confirmed the insights provided in this video.

Though it is helpful to have some rigorous evidence to confirm how free enterprise has made our lives better.

The Wall Street Journal recently editorialized about the blessings of capitalism.

…deregulation and tax reform unleashed a surge of business investment…which has drawn workers off the sidelines and raised wages. …wages for the bottom 10% of earners over age 25 rose an average 5.9% annually compared to 2.4% during Barack Obama’s second term, according to the latest demographic data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. …Less educated workers have also seen the strongest gains. Wages have risen at a 6.1% annual clip for workers over 25 without a high school degree and 3.9% for those with some college—both about three times faster than during the second Obama term. …Socialism-loving young people are getting the biggest pay raises. Wages have increased on average 5.8% annually for teens, 4.4% for 20 to 24-year-olds and 4.8% for 25 to 34-year-olds during the Trump Presidency. …Forty million fewer people last year lived in households receiving government assistance than in 2016, and the food-stamp rolls have shrunk by 9.5 million over the past three years. Reduced government dependence is a social good far beyond the lower costs to taxpayers. …Between 2016 and 2018 the number of taxpayers earning less than $25,000 declined 5% while increasing 8% for those making between $100,000 to $200,000 and 13.9% for those making more than $200,000, according to IRS data.

Here’s the graphic that accompanied the editorial.

By the way, I always warn never to over-rely on short-term economic data.

Yes, the recent numbers look good, but what if they are – at least in part – the result of a monetary policy-driven bubble?

That wouldn’t be an argument against better tax policy and better regulatory policy, of course, but it might mean some of the gains are illusory (much as the good economic news in 2006 now looks rather hollow considering we now know the country was in the midst of a Fed-created bubble).

This is why I prefer to look at multi-decade comparisons. And when you compare market-oriented nations with statism-oriented countries, it becomes very obvious that capitalism is the only way to deliver broadly shared prosperity.

P.S. Regarding capitalism vs. statism, here’s the best-ever tweet.

P.P.S. And here’s the best-ever counter-tweet.

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I wrote last week about the ongoing shift of successful people from high-tax states to low-tax states.

And I’ve periodically confirmed this trend by doing comparisons of high-profile states, such as Texas vs. California and Florida vs. New York.

Today, I’m going to focus on Connecticut.

I actually grew up in the Nutmeg State and I wish there was some good news to share. But Connecticut has been drifting in the wrong direction ever since an income tax was imposed about 30 years ago.

And the downward trend may be accelerating.

A former state lawmaker has warned that the golden geese are escaping the state.

A former state representative says wealthy Connecticut residents are leaving the state at “an alarming pace.” Attorney John Shaban says when he returned to private practice in Greenwich in 2016, one of his most popular services became helping some of the state’s top earners relocate to places like Florida… “Connecticut started to thrive 20, 30 years ago because people came here. We were a tax haven, we were a relatively stable regulatory and tax environment, and we were a great place to live,” says Shaban. …Shaban says many small businesses now require little more than a laptop to operate, and that’s making it easier for small business owners to relocate out of state.

The exodus of rich people has even caught the attention of the U.K.-based Economist.

Greenwich, Connecticut, with a population of 60,000, has long been home to titans of finance and industry. …It has one of America’s greatest concentrations of wealth. …You might think a decade in which rich Americans became richer would have been kind to Greenwich. Not so. …the state…raised taxes, triggering an exodus that has lessons for the rest of America…  Connecticut increased income taxes three times. It then discovered the truth of the adage “easy come, easy go”. …Others moved to Florida, which still has no income tax—and no estate tax. …Between 2015 and 2016 Connecticut lost more than 20,000 residents—including 2,050 earning more than $200,000 per year. The state’s taxable-income base shrank by 1.6% as a result… Its higher income taxes have bitten harder since 2018, when President Donald Trump limited state and local tax deductions from income taxable at the federal level to $10,000 a year.

For what it’s worth, the current Democratic governor seems to realize that there are limits to class-warfare policy.

Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont said he opposes higher state income tax rates and he linked anemic growth with high income taxes. …when a caller to WNPR radio on Tuesday, January 7 asked Lamont why he doesn’t support raising the marginal tax rate on the richest 1 percent of Connecticut residents, Lamont responded: “In part because I don’t think it’s gonna raise any more money. Right now, our income tax is 40 percent more than it is in neighboring Massachusetts. Massachusetts is growing, and Connecticut is not growing. We no longer have the same competitive advantage we had compared to even Rhode Island and New York, not to mention, you know, Florida and other places. So I am very conscious of how much you can keep raising that incremental rate. As you know, we’ve raised it four times in the last 15 years.” …Connecticut has seven income tax rate tiers, the highest of which for tax year 2019 is 6.99 percent on individuals earning $500,000 or more and married couples earning $1 million or more. That’s 38.4 percent higher than Massachusetts’s single flat-tax rate for calendar year 2019, which is 5.05 percent.

I suppose it’s progress that Gov. Lamont understands you can’t endlessly pillage a group of people when they can easily leave the state.

In other words, he recognizes that “stationary bandits” should be cognizant of the Laffer Curve (i.e., high tax rates don’t lead to high tax revenues if taxable income falls due to out-migration).

But recognizing a problem and curing a problem are not the same. Lamont opposes additional class-warfare tax hikes, but I see no evidence that he wants to undo any of the economy-sapping tax increases imposed in prior years.

So don’t be surprised if Connecticut stays near the bottom in rankings of state economic policy.

P.S. The last Republican governor contributed to the mess, so I’m not being partisan.

P.P.S. Though even I’m shocked by the campaign tactics of some Connecticut Democrats.

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Just as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, there are some consistent patterns with government.

Politicians, for instance, will enact a policy that distorts the economy and causes damage (with regards to trade, bailouts, guns, health, whatever). And they’ll then point to the damage and assert that even more intervention is needed.

I call this Mitchell’s Law, though I certainly don’t claim to be the first to observe this distressing tendency.

Today, we’re going to examine a classic example of this phenomenon by looking at how politicians are distorting the housing market with supply restrictions that produce higher costs, and then compounding their mistake with subsidies and price controls.

Edward Pinto of the American Enterprise Institute offers some economic analysis.

Recently there has been a flurry of legislative proposals to add yet more housing subsidies to the housing sector, already one of the most heavily subsidized. …These are the most recent in a long history of ill-conceived policies that increase housing demand but do nothing about supply. The result: higher home prices and rents, particularly for low-income and minority households, the very ones these initiatives profess to help. …layers of subsidies combined with federal, state, and local regulations act to drive up costs while simultaneously constraining supply. …For example, Los Angeles has a median home price that is 8.8 times median income, up from 4.2 times in 1979. And median rent in LA is 49% of the median income, up from 32% in 1979. These results are largely driven by (i) easy access to credit which drive demand and prices ever higher, (ii) local land use restrictions and regulations that constrain new supply and drive building costs higher, and (iii) housing subsidies that make it even more difficult for market rate housing to compete. …Market-based solutions are the only way to bring home prices and rents back in line with median incomes and improve accessibility.

While there are plenty of bad housing policies in Washington (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Department of Housing and Urban Development, mortgage-interest deduction, etc), much of the problem is caused by state and local governments.

Kevin Williamson of National Review cites a regulation in Dallas to show that government intervention causes problems.

…smaller secondary residences built on the lots of other houses..have long been a go-to source of cheap housing in college towns and other places with substantial itinerant populations of temporarily penniless young people. …Dallas…prohibited the building and rental of these residences in the 1970s on the theory that this would help to improve the living conditions on the south side of town… To the great surprise of nobody except politicians and their creatures, prohibiting the construction and rental of affordable housing did not do much to help poor people in Dallas connect with affordable housing. …The politicians have decided that there is an affordable-housing crisis in America. They should know: They created it. …Why? Because people who own homes have more political power than people who might want to buy one at some point in the future.

The Wall Street Journal opined today about the inane anti-housing policies in the Beaver State.

Politicians bemoan the lack of affordable housing, but their policies often create the problem. Look no further than Oregon… Oregon’s population grew by nearly 400,000 between 2010 and 2019. But the state added a mere 37 housing permits for every 100 new residents… Oregon’s land-use rules have been dysfunctional for decades. …strict limits on urban expansion…urban growth boundaries… Rising housing prices are the inevitable result of this government-imposed scarcity. …Portland has enforced an “inclusionary zoning” requirement on new residential buildings with 20 or more units. The city now compels many landlords to rent up to a fifth of new units at below-market rates. …Permits for 20-plus-unit residential buildings plummeted 64% in 25 months after inclusionary zoning took effect, while applications to build smaller multi-family structures spiked… The rest of Oregon is following Portland’s bad example with more price controls. Last year it became the first state to impose universal rent control.

To show the impact of regulatory restrictions, the invaluable Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute has a must-read comparison of Los Angeles with two Texas cities.

Adjusting for population, there are about 600 homeless people per 1 million population in Houston and Dallas, but nearly five times as many in LA at 2,707. The comparisons…highlight the simple economic logic that if you restrict the supply of new housing units (especially multifamily homes, duplexes, and large apartment buildings) in states like California with onerous building, land use, and zoning regulations, those restrictions are guaranteed to result in higher housing costs, higher apartment rents, and ultimately a greater homeless population. …The increasing rents, escalating home prices, and growing homelessness problem in California cities like LA are a direct result of local and state restrictions that artificially constrict the supply of new housing units. The solution is therefore simple, but politically unpopular and probably not politically feasible: California should increase its supply of housing by reducing its onerous restrictions on building new housing units.

Here’s his accompanying table. Notice how Dallas and Houston are much more affordable than Los Angeles.

And there’s less homelessness as well, in large part because housing is cheaper.

Kevin Williamson wrote in National Review about the anti-housing policies of New York’s governor.

Some of the inflated expenses associated with life in New York can be avoided… But you have to live somewhere. As in the Bay Area, Washington, and other Democrat-dominated cities, housing is the real killer in New York City and environs. …Like most U.S. cities advertising themselves as “progressive,” New York has a lot of political leaders who talk about affordable housing and a lot of political policies that keep affordable housing — and many other kinds of housing — from being built. This is not accidental: People who already own property typically have a lot more political influence than people in the first-time home-buyer market. …At the behest of moneyed environmental interests, Cuomo has stood athwart the building of practically any new conventional energy infrastructure, including pipelines for clean-burning natural gas. …Much of New York’s gas comes from Pennsylvania and West Virginia, but there isn’t enough carrying capacity to get it to New York. And New York has plenty of gas of its own, too, but New Yorkers can’t use it — thanks again to Cuomo, who has banned modern gas-extraction techniques in the state, again at the behest of the anti-energy ideologues who enjoy an outsized financial footprint in the Democratic party.

In addition to zoning laws and other land-use restrictions, the government also makes construction more expensive, as explained in a report in the Wall Street Journal.

The average cost for home builders to comply with regulations for new home construction has increased by nearly 30% over the last five years, according to new research from the National Association of Home Builders. Regulatory costs such as local impact fees, storm-water discharge permits and new construction codes, which have risen at roughly the same rate as the average price for new homes, make it increasingly difficult for builders to pursue affordable single-family construction projects… The cost of regulation imposed during the land development and construction process on average represented $84,671 of the cost of the average new single-family home in March. That is up from $65,224 in 2011, the last time the home-building industry group conducted a similar survey on regulatory costs. …A study this week from housing research firm Zelman & Associates found that local infrastructure “impact fees” have increased by 45% on average since 2005 in 37 key home building markets across the country, to about $21,000 per home.

Here’s a sobering graphic from the article.

All this regulation is bad for macroeconomic performance.

A recent study by two economists finds that land-use restrictions result in substantial misallocation of labor, causing a non-trivial reduction in economic output and family income.

The increase in spatial wage dispersion is driven at least in part by cities like New York, San Francisco, and San Jose, which…adopted land use restrictions that significantly constrained the amount of new housing that can be built. As described by Glaeser (2014), since the 1960s coastal US cities have gone through a property rights revolution that has significantly reduced the elasticity of housing supply… Instead of increasing local employment, productivity growth in housing-constrained cities primarily pushes up housing prices and nominal wages. The resulting misallocation of workers lowers aggregate output and welfare of workers in all US cities. This paper measures the aggregate productivity costs of local housing constraints… We use data from 220 metropolitan areas in the United States from 1964 to 2009… we calculate that increasing housing supply in New York, San Jose, and San Francisco by relaxing land use restrictions to the level of the median US city would increase the growth rate of aggregate output by 36.3 percent. In this scenario, US GDP in 2009 would be 3.7 percent higher, which translates into an additional $3,685 in average annual earnings. …We conclude that local land use regulations that restrict housing supply in dynamic labor markets have important externalities on the rest of the country. Incumbent homeowners in high productivity cities have a private incentive to restrict housing supply. …this lowers income and welfare of all US workers.

So how can this problem be fixed?

In a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, Cathy Reisenwitz explains that state and local politicians need to remove barriers.

America is in the middle of a housing crisis. The cause is simple: we’re not building housing fast enough to keep up with jobs. While the number of U.S. households grew by 11.2 million between 2005 and 2015, we only added about 9.9 million new housing units. …this isn’t a problem Washington can fix. That’s because this problem, and its solution, lies in cities and towns across the country. …Cities across the country make it impossible to build enough housing to meet demand by blocking, restricting, and delaying housing developments. …Even in areas where you can technically build multi-unit homes, other land-use restrictions make it all-but-impossible. These exclusionary land use practices include height restrictions, setback requirements, parking minimums, community review, aesthetic considerations, and minimum lot sizes. …A recent statistical analysis…showed that in 44 out of 50 states, the more land-use regulations on the books, the more homes cost. Reducing land use regulations is the right move for getting Americans out of poverty and into work.

Let’s close with some good news.

Salim Furth has a new article for City Journal, and he argues that all the evidence is actually changing minds and leading to some deregulation.

Last year, Democratic- and Republican-led states and municipalities passed legislation addressing housing affordability, a hopeful sign that housing deregulation is beginning to attract bipartisan support… Encouragingly, Arkansas and Texas have squelched such requirements through bipartisan state legislation. Arkansas has restored autonomy to homeowners on virtually all building-design choices, from color to roof pitch, while Texas has purged local restrictions on building materials. …North Carolina and Texas…passed legislation requires cities and counties to issue project approvals within a few weeks. In Texas, a developer can now move forward with construction if a municipality takes more than 30 days to review a completed application. North Carolina now imposes a 15-business-day limit for building permits involving one- and two-family dwellings. …State legislators will likely continue to address housing-supply restrictions in the years ahead. …The battle over rent control and inclusionary zoning could intensify as well, as it already has in California and Oregon. …policymakers in blue and red states alike should consider how current regulations restrict housing supply and drive up prices.

The bottom line is that housing across the nation will be much more affordable if state and local governments let markets operate.

Here’s a map showing estimates of land-use restrictions in major metropolitan areas. The goal for the nation should be more green and less red.

Incidentally, Fairfax, VA, is part of the D.C. area, so that red spot indicates that my home’s value is being subsidized (as are the homes of Washington’s parasite class).

But since I believe in a just society, I hope my part of the map becomes green, even if it means my home becomes less valuable (folks on the left are willing to hurt the poor so long as they also hurt the rich, whereas I’m willing to sacrifice myself so long as unjust favoritism for others also vanishes).

 

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

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

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

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

All of this was very predictable.

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

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

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

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

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

And what did the experts find?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In this interview on Fox Business, I repeated my oft-stated concern that the Federal Reserve’s easy-money policy of artificially low interest rates (avidly supported by Trump) may have created the conditions for a boom-bust cycle.

For today’s column, though, I want to focus on the part of the interview where I fret about structural rather than cyclical factors.

More specifically, whenever there is angst and concern about household debt, I get rather frustrated because some folks want to blame the American people for not saving enough.

That may be true, but I point out that the real problem is that the federal government lures people into being short-sighted.

Given all these policies, I’m actually surprised that the national savings rate isn’t much lower.

By the way, I should emphasize that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with debt. It’s perfectly sensible for many households to borrow to buy a house, a car, or to finance education.

As I noted in the interview, what matters is keeping a sound ratio of debt to assets, and a sound ratio of interest expense to income.

It’s not easy for people to be sensible, however, when there are so many anti-savings policies from Washington.

I’ll close with a bit of good news.

Because the United States is a quasi-tax haven for foreigners, we do attract an immense amount of money from overseas. So even though the federal government discourages us from saving, we have access to capital from all over the world.

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Yesterday, most of us celebrated Christmas.

Today, all of us should celebrate the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which officially happened on this date in 1991 (aided and abetted by a Texas grocery store).

A 2016 FEE column by Richard Ebeling documents the relentless evil of Soviet communism.

…the curtain was lowered on the 75-year experiment in “building socialism” in the country where it all began following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, led by Vladimir Lenin in November 1917. Some historians have estimated that as many as 200 million people worldwide may have died as part of the 20th century dream of creating a collectivist “paradise on earth.” The attempt to establish a comprehensive socialist system in many parts of the world over the last 100 years has been one of the cruelest and most brutal episodes in human history. …as many as 68 million innocent, unarmed men, women, and children may have been killed in Soviet Russia alone over those nearly 75 years of communist rule in the Soviet Union. …This murderous madness never ended. In the 1930s, during the time of the Great Purges instituted by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to wipe out all “enemies of the revolution” through mass executions, millions were sent to the Gulag prisons that stretched across all of the Soviet Union to be worked to death as slave labor to “build socialism.” …Soviet central planning even had quotas for the number of such enemies of the people to be killed in each region of the Soviet Union, as well as the required numbers to be rounded up to be sent to work in the labor camps in the frigid wastelands of the Siberia and the Arctic Circle… The nightmare of the socialist experiment, however, did not end with Stalin’s death in 1953. Its form merely changed in later decades. As head of the KGB in the 1970s, Yuri Andropov (who later was General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union after Leonid Brezhnev’s death in 1982), accepted a new theory in Soviet psychiatry which said opposition to the socialist regime was a sign of mental illness.

Based on the sheer number of victims, Stalin understandably has the worst reputation of all Soviet dictators.

But let’s not forget that Lenin was a horrible human being as well.

Lenin’s streak of cruelty began long before he came to power. By his early 20s, his zealous dedication to Marxism led him to believe that anything justified revolution. When a famine broke out in the Volga region in 1891—one that would kill 400,000 people—Lenin welcomed the event, hoping that it would topple the Czarist regime. …Later, in 1905, when Czarist forces killed hundreds of striking workers and 86 children in Moscow, Lenin refused to mourn for the dead and, instead, hoped the event would further enflame class antagonisms. In his eyes, human lives were expendable… While in exile, Lenin railed against the imperial government for its oppressive ways—for instance, its censorship of the opposition and dismissal of parliament. Of course, once in power, Lenin repeated these policies and usually exceeded their cruelty, imprisoning and confiscating the property of his opponents. …Lenin appointed the homicidal Felix Dzerzhinsky to head up the Cheka (the secret police)… In less than a year, hundreds, if not thousands, were executed… He marked wealthy peasants, or kulaks, as enemies of the revolution and encouraged violence against them. He imposed fixed grain prices at low rates, straining peasants who already were living on the margins, seized their grain, and left them to starve. When the peasants began resisting, Lenin ordered government officials to torture them or apply poison gas.

By the way, it’s not directly relevant to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but I can’t resist sharing this story from the BBC.

Karl Marx’s Grade I-listed memorial in Highgate Cemetery has been “mindlessly vandalised”. The marble plaque on the imposing sculpture’s base has been attacked, seemingly with a hammer. A cemetery spokesman said they did not know when it had happened, but believed it was within the last couple of days. No witnesses have come forward. …Ian Dungavell, chief executive of Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust, said: “This is mindless vandalism, not political commentary. …This is not the first time the monument has been damaged. In 1970 a pipe bomb blew up part of the face, swastikas have been painted on it and emulsion paint has been thrown at it.

My only comment it that the memorial wasn’t “mindlessly vandalised.” There were 100 million reasons why it was defaced.

Now let’s look at the economic performance of the Soviet Union.

I’ll start with the simple and near-tautological observation that there’s no longer a Soviet Union in large part because its economy became so anemic.

Yet some people believed that the Soviet Union’s version of socialism could be economically successful. I wrote about their naivete as part of my collection of essays on the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution.

I suppose we can partially forgive them because much of the economic misery in the Soviet Union was hidden from outsiders.

What’s less forgivable is that some people still make absurd claims about the Soviet economy. Consider this screenshot of the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on the economy of the Soviet Union. I’ve highlighted in red the parts that are laughable.

Though, to be fair, there wasn’t a problem with unemployment and job security in the Soviet Union. Just like slaves in Alabama in 1830, Soviet workers were victims of state coercion. They were forced to show up at the collective farms and state-run industries.

And state coercion was the basis of a failed system. Contrary to whoever authored that Wikipedia entry, the Soviet Union did not enjoy high growth rates.

A 1994 World Bank study by William Easterly and Stanley Fischer exposed the Soviet Union’s very poor track record.

Soviet growth from 1960 to 1989 was the worst in the world after we control for investment and human capital; the relative performance worsens over time. …The declining Soviet growth rate from 1950 to 1987 can be accounted for by a declining marginal product of capital with a constant rate of growth of total factor productivity. The Soviet reliance on extensive growth (rising capital-to-out-put ratios) was no greater than that of market economies, such as Japan and the Republic of Korea, but a low elasticity of substitution between capital and labor implied especially acute diminishing returns to capital compared with the case in market economies.

“Worst in the world” is quite an achievement.

Not that any sentient being should be surprised. Politicians are bureaucrats don’t do a good job of allocating labor and capital.

If you want prosperity, it’s not a good idea to have central planning and other features of socialism.

Here’s a fascinating look at the world’s largest economies (by overall size, not on a per-capita basis) from 1961-1989.

Here’s a chart based on the Maddison database, so we can make comparisons based on per-capita economic output.

As you can see, even though convergence theory says poor countries should grow faster than rich countries, the gap between the United States and the Soviet Union grew ever larger.

Last but not least, here’s a chart that compares the Soviet Union’s claims about growth (blue) with both CIA estimates (red) and later revisions from a Russian economist (green).

There are two lessons to be learned.

That latter point may be relevant for people who think China is an economic powerhouse.

P.S. The Soviet Union is gone, but most of the countries that emerged from the wreckage are still struggling with a legacy of statism and intervention.

P.P.S. In addition to celebrating today, we also should celebrate November 9.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the White House has been publicizing some positive numbers.

Such as an increase in investment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll close with three caveats.

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

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

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