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Posts Tagged ‘Economics’

The Biden Administration’s approach to tax policy is awful, as documented here, here, here, and here.

We’ve now reached the stage where bad ideas are being turned into legislation. Today’s analysis looks at what the House Ways & Means Committee (the one in charge of tax policy) has unveiled. Let’s call this the Biden-Pelosi plan.

And we’re going to use some great research from the Tax Foundation to provide a visual summary of what’s happening.

We’ll start with a very depressing look at the decline in American competitiveness if the proposal becomes law (the good news is that we’ll still be ahead of Greece!).

Next, let’s look at the Tax Foundation’s map of capital gains tax rates if the plan is approved.

Unsurprisingly, this form of double taxation will be especially severe in California.

Our third visual is good news (at least relatively speaking).

Biden wanted the U.S. to have the developed world’s highest corporate tax rate. But the plan from the House of Representatives would “only” put America in third place.

Here’s another map, in this case looking at tax rates on non-corporate businesses (small businesses and other entities that get taxed by the 1040 form).

This is not good news for America’s entrepreneurs. Especially the ones unfortunate enough to do business in New York.

Last but not least, here’s the Tax Foundation’s estimate of what will happen to the economy if the Biden-Pelosi tax plan is imposed on the nation.

There are two things to understand about these depressing growth numbers.

  • First, small differences in growth rates produce very large consequences when you look 20 years or 30 years into the future. Indeed, this explains why Americans enjoy much higher living standards than Europeans (and also why Democrats are making a big economic mistake to copy European fiscal policy).
  • Second, the Tax Foundation estimated the economic impact of the Biden-Pelosi tax plan. But don’t forget that the economy also will be negatively impacted by a bigger burden of government spending. So the aggregate economic damage will be significantly larger when looking at overall fiscal policy.

One final point. In part because of the weaker economy (i.e., a Laffer Curve effect), the Tax Foundation also estimated that the Biden-Pelosi tax plan will generate only $804 billion over the next 10 years.

P.S. Here’s some background for those who are not political wonks. Biden proposed a budget with his preferred set of tax increases and spending increases. But, in America’s political system (based on separation of powers), both the House and Senate get to decide what they like and don’t like. And even though the Democrats control both chambers of Congress, they are not obligated to rubber stamp what Biden proposed. The House will have a plan, the Senate will have a plan, and they’ll ultimately have to agree on a joint proposal (with White House involvement, of course). The same process took place when Republicans did their tax bill in 2017.

P.P.S. It’s unclear whether the Senate will make things better or worse. The Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Ron Wyden, has some very bad ideas about capital gains taxation and politicians such as Elizabeth Warren are big proponents of a wealth tax.

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The Fraser Institute in Canada has released its latest edition of Economic Freedom of the World, an index that measure and ranks nations based on whether they follow pro-growth policy.

Based on the latest available data on key indicators such as taxes, spending, regulation, trade policy, rule of law, and monetary policy, here are the top-20 nations.

You may be wondering how Hong Kong is still ranked #1.

In this summary of the findings, the authors explain that EFW is based on 2019 data. In other words, before Beijing cracked down. This means Hong Kong will probably not be the most-free jurisdiction when future editions are released.

The most recent comprehensive data available are from 2019. Hong Kong remains in the top position. The apparent increased insecurity of property rights and the weakening of the rule of law caused by the interventions of the Chinese government during 2020 and 2021 will likely have a negative impact on Hong Kong’s score, especially in Area 2, Legal System and Property Rights, going forward. Singapore, once again, comes in second. The next highest scoring nations are New Zealand, Switzerland, Georgia, United States, Ireland, Lithuania, Australia, and Denmark.

The United States was #6 in last year’s edition and it remains at #6 this year.

There are some other notable changes. The country of Georgia jumped to #5 while Australia dropped to #9.

Perhaps the most discouraging development is that Chile dropped to #29, a very disappointing result (and perhaps a harbinger of further decline in the nation that used to be known as the Latin Tiger).

And it’s also bad news that Canada has deteriorated over the past five years, dropping from #6 to #14.

The good news is that the world, on average, is slowly but surely moving in the right direction. Not as rapidly as it did during the era of the “Washington Consensus,” but progress nonetheless.

By the way, the progress is almost entirely a consequence of better policy in developing nations, especially the countries that escaped the tyranny of Soviet communism.

Policy has drifted in the wrong direction, by contrast, in the United States and Western Europe.

Indeed, the United States currently would be ranked #3 if it still enjoyed the level of economic liberty that existed in 2000.

In other words, the BushObamaTrump years have been somewhat disappointing.

Let’s look at another chart from the report. I’ve previously pointed out that there’s a strong relationship between economic freedom and national prosperity.

Well, here’s some additional evidence.

Let’s close by considering some of the nations represented by the red bar in the above chart.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Venezuela is once again ranked last. Though it is noteworthy that its score dropped from 3.31 to 2.83. I guess Maduro and the other socialists in Venezuela have a motto, “when you’re in a hole, keep digging.”

Argentina isn’t quite as bad as Venezuela, but I also think it’s remarkable that its score dropped from 5.88 to 5.50. That’s a big drop from a nation that already has a bad score.

Given these developments (as well as what’s happening in Chile), it’s not easy to be optimistic about Latin America.

P.S. There isn’t enough reliable data to rank Cuba and North Korea, so it’s quite likely that Venezuela doesn’t actually have the world’s most-oppressive economic policies.

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The welfare state and the so-called war on poverty has been very bad news for taxpayers.

But it’s also very bad news for poor people, in part because various redistribution programs can lure them out of the productive economy and into total dependency on government (and this will become an even bigger problem if Biden’s per-child handouts are approved).

But it’s also bad news because redistribution programs can result in very high implicit tax rates for low-income people who try to improve their lives by climbing the economic ladder.

I shared an example back in 2012, which showed how a single mother in Pennsylvania would be worse off with $57,000 of income instead of $29,000.

In other words, she would be dealing with a de facto marginal tax rate of more than 100 percent.

If you want to understand how this happens, Professors Craig Richardson and Richard McKenzie wrote about this topic in an article for The Library of Economics and Liberty.

…by expanding public assistance programs, the President’s plan will unavoidably impose a higher, hidden tax rate—known as an “implicit marginal income tax rate” (which we shorten to implicit tax rate)—on low-wage workers who receive welfare benefits. Those workers will pay an implicit tax rate because many welfare benefits are reduced as earnings rise. Ironically, the poorest Americans often pay implicit tax rates that are far higher than the IRS’s explicit marginal income-tax rates imposed on the country’s highest income earners. …Consider a household that receives benefits from only two welfare programs, with one tapering off at 20 cents for each added dollar earned and another tapering off at 40 cents for each added dollar earned. Those cuts create an implicit tax rate of 60 percent, which means the worker has only 40 cents in additional spendable income for each added dollar earned. This implicit tax rate can be expected to affect work incentives in much the same way that a federal income tax rate does.

The authors cite a real-world example.

…consider a real-life, low-income single mother of two children in Forsyth County, North Carolina earning $10 an hour in a full-time job, which means she has a monthly earned income of $1,600 (or $19,200 annually). Suppose the single mother receives monthly benefits from five welfare programs: $425 in food stamps, $1,471 in subsidized childcare, $370 in housing subsidies, $180 in WIC benefits, and $493 in an earned income tax credit (EITC). Her monthly welfare benefits will total $2,939 (or $35,271 a year). Now, suppose the single mother takes a new job paying $15 an hour, a 50 percent increase. Her monthly earned income will rise by $800 to $2,400 (with her annual income rising to $28,800 a year, an annual earnings increase of $9,600). However, she will face decreases in four out of her five monthly benefit streams, with each benefit reduction based on the same $800-increase in earnings (a problem known among welfare researchers as the “cumulative stacked effect”). The single mother will lose $231 in food stamps, $80 in childcare benefits, $216 in housing benefits, and $166 in EITC. Her total decrease in monthly benefits will reach $694 (which means her annual benefit total will drop by $8,328).4 Her implicit tax rate on her added monthly earnings of $800 is 87 percent—more than two times the highest explicit marginal tax rate proposed for the rich. …In addition, the single mother will be required to pay an added $185 a month in federal and state income taxes on her added earned monthly income of $800, which is an explicit tax rate of 23 percent. Adding the 87 percent implicit tax rate to the 23 percent explicit tax rate leads to an overall tax rate of 110 percent. Her raise has left her $79 per month poorer in lost wages and benefits—surely a strong disincentive for her to take the higher paying job.

Here’s a table showing those results.

If you want more evidence, check out Chart 7 from this column and Figure 8 from this column.

And the same problem exists in other nations as well.

P.S. Obamacare may have lured as many as 2 million people into full dependency.

P.P.S. I already mentioned how Biden’s per-child handouts could lure many more into full dependency, but “basic income” could be far worse.

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Thomas Sowell is a great economist, but his expertise extends to other fields of study. Everything from history to education.

But he’s also famous for being a great communicator, with dozens of well-known quotes.

I use one of them on my rotating banner because it succinctly summarizes why the left has to rely on emotional appeals rather than rigorous evidence.

For purposes of today’s column, I want to cite one of his other quotes, this one dealing with the fact that tradeoffs are an inevitable reality.

Simply stated, if you want more of one thing, you have to accept less of another thing.

And this has important implications for regulatory policy – especially about the value of cost-benefit analysis.

Let’s look at two examples.

First, here’s the abstract from a study by Jordan Nickerson from MIT and David Solomon from Boston College.

Since 1977, U.S. states have passed laws steadily raising the age for which a child must ride in a car safety seat. These laws significantly raise the cost of having a third child, as many regularsized cars cannot fit three child seats in the back. Using census data and stateyear variation in laws, we estimate that when women have two children of ages requiring mandated car seats,they have a lower annual probability of giving birth by 0.73 percentage points. Consistent with a causal channel, this effect is limited to third child births, is concentrated in households with access to a car, and is larger when a male is present (when both front seats are likely to be occupied). We estimate that these laws prevented only 57 car crash fatalities of children nationwide in 2017. Simultaneously, they led to a permanent reduction of approximately 8,000 births in the same year, and 145,000 fewer births since 1980, with 90% of this decline being since 2000.

This raises all sorts of challenging questions, such as what’s the value of a life saved compared to the value of lives that might have existed (a philosopher might have a different answer than an actuary at the Social Security Administration!).

And let’s not forget that you seemingly could save more lives if there were mandatory 5-mph speed limits, but that policy also has tradeoffs that could produce more deaths elsewhere.

For what it’s worth, I think parents should get to decide whether they need a car seat for a 7-year old (and thus have more children), but I’m not going to pretend there are no negative consequences.

Let’s look at another example.

In a post for Marginal Revolution, Prof. Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University points out that you can save lives in India by selling cars with abysmally low safety ratings.

These cars are very inexpensive. A Renault Kwid, for example, can be had for under $4000. In the Indian market these cars are competing against motorcycles. Only 6 percent of Indian households own a car but 47% own a motorcycle. Overall, there are more than five times as many motorcycles as cars in India. Motorcycles are also much more dangerous than cars. …The GNCAP worries that some Indian cars don’t have airbags but forgets that no Indian motorcycles have airbags. Even a zero-star car is much safer than a motorcycle. Air bags cost about $200-$400…and are not terribly effective. (Levitt and Porter, for example, calculated that air bags saved 550 lives in 1997 compared to 15,000 lives saved by seatbelts.) At $250, airbags would increase the cost of a $5,000 car by 5%. A higher price for automobiles would reduce the number of relatively safe automobiles and increase the number of relatively dangerous motorcycles and thus an air bag requirement could result in more traffic fatalities.

Unlike the issue of car seats for kids, there’s no moral ambiguity on this topic.

Indians should be allowed to buy “unsafe” cars because there will be far fewer fatalities and serious injuries.

By the way, cost-benefit analysis is not a panacea. Benjamin Zycher of the American Enterprise Institute wrote a few years ago that such analysis can be counterproductive if you have a biased and ideologically driven bureaucracy such as the Environmental Protection Agency.

But even halfway competent and fair cost-benefit analysis would be very helpful in the world of public policy.

Then again, politicians and bureaucrats probably have incentives to not produce that kind of information..

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I’m a big believer in focusing on results rather than reputation or rhetoric. For instance, many Republican politicians talk a good game about spending restraint. But when you crunch the numbers, it turns out that they often increase spending even faster than Democrats.

What’s true about politicians (the gap between reputation and reality) can also be true about countries.

Folks on the left seem to think Denmark is a big-government paradise, while many people on the right now think Hungary is a beacon of freedom.

But if you look at the data from the latest edition of Economic Freedom of the World, it turns out the Denmark (#11) ranks much higher for economic liberty than Hungary (#53).

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center wrote an interesting article for Reason about the strange way that some Americans have decided to embrace the two nations.

Yet she explains Denmark is hardly a socialist role model.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) on the left and Fox News host Tucker Carlson on the right…have recently pointed to pet foreign countries as exemplars of what America should strive to be. Yet Sanders and Carlson are each misled by a superficial understanding of what these countries are really about. …Let’s look more closely at Denmark: Yes, the country has some big government policies… That said, not only is Denmark more economically free than it is socialist, but the country has also spent the last 30 years running away from the socialism that Sanders wants the United States to run toward.

And she notes that Hungary is hardly a hotbed of laissez-faire policy.

Orban…has created a patronage economy where licenses and aid are handed to businesses that are friendly to his administration. He even passed a law that gives the state considerable control over churches and other religious institutions. …these policies…could backfire spectacularly on these conservatives. Once the limits on state power are gone, if the progressive left truly gets into power, it will have a much easier time implementing the very agenda that these conservatives fear the most. …I wonder what we are to make of these conservatives who have become the biggest cheerleaders for many progressive spending programs.

Since Veronique mentioned government spending, I decided to peruse the IMF’s World Economic Outlook Database to see whether Hungary’s right-leaning government has adopted right-leaning spending policies during Viktor Orban’s time in power.

Compared to Denmark, the answer is no. As you can see from the chart, nominal spending has increased four times faster in Hungary.

By the way, inflation was higher in Hungary during the period, but a comparison based on inflation-adjusted numbers would make Denmark’s performance look even better since there was almost no “real” growth in the burden of spending last decade (yes, Denmark has followed my Golden Rule).

For what it’s worth, the goal of today’s column is not to denigrate Hungary, which has some very attractive policies (such as a 9 percent corporate tax rate).

And I also like that Hungary resists the pro-centralization, pro-harmonization ideology of the European Union (I especially hope that Hungary will block the EU from embracing Biden’s awful proposal for a global corporate minimum tax).

That being said, I’m not going to laud Hungary as a role model when it should be (and could be) doing a much better job of limiting the size and scope of government.

Let’s close by also seeing how Denmark compares to Hungary in the latest edition of the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. As you can see, Denmark (#10) does much better than Hungary (#55).

P.S. Supporters can argue, with some merit, that it’s not completely fair to compare Denmark and Hungary because the latter is still hamstrung by having to overcome decades of communist tyranny. But it’s worth noting that other nations that emerged from Soviet enslavement, such as Georgia and the Baltic countries, have managed to achieve much higher levels of economic freedom.

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Public finance theory teaches us that the capital gains tax should not exist. Such a levy exacerbates the bias against saving and investment, which reduces innovation, hinders economic growth, and lowers worker compensation.

All of which helps to explain why President Biden’s proposals to increase the tax burden on capital gains are so misguided.

Thanks to some new research from Professor John Diamond of Rice University, we can now quantify the likely damage if Biden’s proposals get enacted.

Here’s some of what he wrote in his new study.

We use a computable general equilibrium model of the U.S. economy to simulate the economic effects of these policy changes… The model is a dynamic, overlapping generations, computable general equilibrium model of the U.S. economy that focuses on the macroeconomic and transitional effects of tax reforms. …The simulation results in Table 1 show that GDP falls by roughly 0.1 percent 10 years after reform and 0.3 percent 50 years after reform, which implies per household income declines by roughly $310 after 10 years and $1,200 after 50 years. The long run decline in GDP is due to a decline in the capital stock of 1.0 percent and a decline in total hours worked of 0.1 percent. …this would be roughly equivalent to a loss of approximately 209,000 jobs in that year. Real wages decrease initially by 0.2 percent and by 0.6 percent in the long run.

Here is a summary of the probable economic consequences of Biden’s class-warfare scheme.

But the above analysis should probably be considered a best-case scenario.

Why? Because the capital gains tax is not indexed for inflation, which means investors can wind up paying much higher effective tax rates if prices are increasing.

And in a world of Keynesian monetary policy, that’s a very real threat.

So Prof. Diamond also analyzes the impact of inflation.

…capital gains are not adjusted for inflation and thus much of the taxable gains are not reflective of a real increase in wealth. Taxing nominal gains will reduce the after-tax rate of return and lead to less investment, especially in periods of higher inflation. …taxing the nominal value will reduce the real rate of return on investment, and may do so by enough to result in negative rates of return in periods of moderate to high inflation. Lower real rates of return reduce investment, the size of the capital stock, productivity, growth in wage rates, and labor supply. …Accounting for inflation in the model would exacerbate other existing distortions… An increase in the capital gains tax rate or repealing step up of basis will make investments in owner-occupied housing more attractive relative to other corporate and non-corporate investments.

Here’s what happens to the estimates of economic damage in a world with higher inflation?

Assuming the inflation rate is one percentage point higher on average (3.2 percent instead of 2.2 percent) implies that a rough estimate of the capital gains tax rate on nominal plus real returns would be 1.5 times higher than the real increase in the capital gains tax rate used in the standard model with no inflation. Table 2 shows the results of adjusting the capital gains tax rates by a factor of 1.5 to account for the effects of inflation. In this case, GDP falls by roughly 0.1 percent 10 years after reform and 0.4 percent 50 years after reform, which implies per household income declines by roughly $453 after 10 years and $1,700 after 50 years.

Here’s the table showing the additional economic damage. As you can see, the harm is much greater.

I’ll conclude with two comments.

P.S. If (already-taxed) corporate profits are distributed to shareholders, there’s a second layer of tax on those dividends. If the money is instead used to expand the business, it presumably will increase the value of shares (a capital gain) because of an expectation of higher future income (which will be double taxed when it occurs).

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I periodically warn that the United States is on a path to become a European-style welfare state.

That sounds good to some people since it implies lots of goodies paid for by other people.

So I always explain that there’s a downside. The economic data clearly show that there’s been less growth in Europe and this has real-world consequences.

This is why it’s so depressing that Joe Biden has a radical agenda of higher tax rates and much bigger government.

He wants us to copy an approach that has produced inferior outcomes.

The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal has been sounding the alarm.

In a recent column, Professor Josef Joffe contemplates the impact of more dependency on America’s economy.

America is the land of “predatory capitalism,” German chancellor Helmut Schmidt liked to say. …President Biden’s tax plans might soon make Europe look like a capitalist heaven by comparison. …The middle class will pay the bill. …Reversing course won’t be easy because gifts, once given, are hard to take back, whether in the U.S. or in Europe. …As government expands and hands out more goodies, it also tightens its grip on the economy. It shrinks the private sector, the engine of U.S. wealth creation. It is no accident that Europe has grown more slowly over the past 40 years as government spending, regulations and taxes have increased.

Prof. Joffe’s point about the durability of entitlements (“once given, are hard to take back”) is vitally important.

This is why it is so important to block Biden’s per-child handouts.

Dan Henninger made similarly important points a couple of months ago.

The club Mr. Biden is joining…is one the U.S. has stayed out of since World War II. That is the club known as the European welfare state. It is the government-directed system of lifetime paternalism built up by the nations of Western Europe after 1945. …Public welfare has never been America’s reason for being, notwithstanding our substantial spending on social support programs. Despite the entitlement creations of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society, the U.S., unlike Europe, has remained a nation driven and led by capitalist initiative. For current-generation Democrats, that fact is anathema. …The March stimulus bill already had one foot inside the economic club of Europe’s door.

For what it’s worth, I’m not quite as positive about the United States as Henninger. Our welfare state is a significant burden, though he is right that it is smaller than the welfare states in Europe.

Let’s not quibble about that point, though, because Henninger has another observation that is spot on.

Biden’s agenda is a recipe for big tax increases on the middle class.

Europe became famous for its perpetual-motion tax machine, which suppressed the continent’s entrepreneurial instincts. Besides income taxes, Europe relies heavily on the collection of notoriously high value-added taxes…total tax revenue from all governments in the U.S. as a percentage of GDP is 24%, compared with an average of more than 40% in seven European nations… Those European tax levels will never fall. Their governments gotta have the money. Mr. Biden purports that his proposed $3 trillion in tax increases hit only corporations and “the wealthiest.” But if his entitlements become law, European levels of middle-class taxation—perhaps a VAT or carbon tax—are inevitable. Mr. Biden’s plans to increase Internal Revenue Service audits lay the groundwork for that.

Amen.

Honest folks on the left openly admit that this is true.

I’ll close with two final points.

First, it would be a mistake to copy Europe’s welfare states, but there are worse things that could happen. Those nations may lag the United States, but they are generally richer than other parts of the world.

But I’m not sure “better than Venezuela” is a persuasive selling point.

Second, because of demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs, we’re already on a path to become a European welfare state.

But I’m not sure “let’s drive faster over the cliff” is a persuasive selling point.

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I’ve made the case for capitalism (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V) and the case against socialism (Part I, Part II, and Part III), while also noting that there’s a separate case to be made against redistribution and the welfare state.

This video hopefully ties together all that analysis.

If you don’t want to spend 10-plus minutes watching the video, I can sum everything up in just two sentences.

  1. Genuine socialism (government ownershipcentral planning, and price controls) is an utter failure and is almost nonexistent today (only in a few basket-case economies like Cuba and North Korea).
  2. The real threat to free enterprise and economic liberty is from redistributionism, the notion that politicians should play Santa Claus and give us a never-ending stream of cradle-to-grave goodies.

For purposes of today’s column, though, I want to focus on a small slice of the presentation (beginning about 2:00).

Here’s the slide from that portion of the video.

I make the all-important point that profits are laudable – but only if they are earned in the free market and not because of bailoutssubsidiesprotectionism, or a tilted playing field.

This is hardly a recent revelation.

I first wrote about this topic back in 2009.

And many other supporters of genuine economic liberty have been making this point for much longer.

Or more recently. In a new article for City Journal, Luigi Zingales emphasizes that being pro-market does not mean being pro-business.

The first time I visited the Grand Canyon many years ago, I was struck…by a sign that said, “Please don’t feed the wild animals.” Underneath was an explanation: you shouldn’t feed them because it’s not good for them. …We should post something of this kind on Capitol Hill as well—with the difference being that the sign would read, “Please don’t feed the businesses.” That’s not because we don’t like business. Quite the opposite: we love business so much that we don’t want to create a situation where business is so dependent on…a system of subsidies, that it is unable to compete and succeed… This is the…difference between being pro-market and being pro-business. If you are pro-business, you like subsidies for businesses; you want to make sure that they make the largest profits possible. If, on the other hand, you are pro-markets, you want to behave like the ranger in the Grand Canyon: …ensuring that markets remain competitive and…preventing businesses from becoming too dependent on a crony system to survive.

Amen.

Cronyism is bad economic policy because government is tilting the playing field and luring people and businesses into making inefficient choices.

But I also despise cronyism because some people mistakenly think it is a feature of free enterprise (particularly the people who incorrectly assume that being pro-market is the same as being pro-business).

The moral of the story is that we should have separation of business and state.

P.S. There’s one other point from Prof. Zingales’ article that deserves attention.

He gives us a definition of capitalism (oops, I mean free enterprise).

We use the term “free markets” so often that we sometimes forget what it actually means. If you look up “free markets” in the dictionary, you might see “an economy operating by free competition,” or better, “an economic market or system in which prices are based on competition among private businesses and not controlled by a government.”

For what it’s worth, I did the same thing for my presentation (which was to the New Economic School in the country of Georgia).

Here’s what I came up with.

By the way, the last bullet point is what economists mean when they say things are “complementary.”

In other words, capital is more valuable when combined with labor and labor is more valuable when combined with capital – as illustrated by this old British cartoon (and it’s the role of entrepreneurs to figure out newer and better ways of combining those two factors of production).

One takeaway from this is that Marx was wrong. Capital doesn’t exploit labor. Capital enriches labor (just as labor enriches capital).

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Long-time readers know that I periodically pour cold water on the notion that China is an economic superstar.

Yes, China did engage in some economic liberalization late last century, and those reforms should be applauded because they were very successful in reducing severe poverty.

But from a big-picture perspective, all that really happened is that China went from terrible policy (Maoist communism) to bad policy (best described as mass cronyism).

Economic Freedom of the World has the best data. According to the latest edition, China’s score for economic liberty rose from a horrible 3.69 in 1990 to 6.21 in 2018.

That’s a big improvement, but that still leaves China in the bottom quartile (ranking #124 in the world). Better than Venezuela (#162), to be sure, but way behind even uncompetitive welfare states such as Greece (#92), France (#58), and Italy (#51).

And I fear China’s score will get even worse in the near future.

Why? Because it seems President Xi is going to impose class-warfare tax increases.

In an article for the Guardian, Phillip Inman shares some of the details.

China’s president has vowed to “adjust excessive incomes” in a warning to the country’s super-rich that the state plans to redistribute wealth… The policy goal comes amid a sweeping push by Beijing to rein in the country’s largest private firms in industries, ranging from technology to education. …Xi…is expected to expand wealth taxes and raise income tax rates… Some reforms could be far reaching, including higher taxes on capital gains, inheritance and property. Higher public sector wages are also expected to be part of the package.

And here are some excerpts from a report by Jane Li for Quartz.

Chinese president Xi Jinping yesterday sent a stark message to the country’s wealthy: It is time to redistribute their excessive fortunes. …Another reason for the Party’s focus on outsize wealth is to reduce rival centers of power and influence in China, which has also been an impetus for its crackdown on the tech sector… China already has fairly high income tax rates for its wealthiest. That includes a top income tax rate of 45% for those who earn more than 960,000 yuan ($150,000) a year… Upcoming moves could include…a nationwide property tax.

These stories may warm the hearts of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, but they help to explain why I’m not optimistic about China’s economy.

If you review the Economic Freedom of the World data, you find that China is especially bad on fiscal policy (“size of government”), ranking #153.

That’s worse than China does even on regulation.

Yet the Chinese government is now going to impose higher taxes to fund even bigger government?!?

Is the goal to be even worse than Venezuela and Zimbabwe?

P.S. Many wealthy people in China (maybe even most of them) achieved their high incomes thanks to government favoritism, so there’s a very strong argument that their riches are undeserved. But the best policy response is getting rid of industrial policy rather than imposing tax increases that will hit both good rich people and bad rich people.

P.P.S. I’ve criticized both the OECD and IMF for advocating higher taxes in China. A few readers have sent emails asking whether those international bureaucracies might be deliberately trying to sabotage China’s economy and thus preserve the dominance of Europe and the United States. Given the wretched track records of the OECD and IMF, I think it’s far more likely that the bureaucrats from those organizations sincerely support those bad policies (especially since they get tax-free salaries and are sheltered from the negative consequences).

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Like most libertarians, I favor drug legalization for the simple reason that people should have control over their own bodies, even if they’re doing something stupid.

But I’ve never claimed legalization is a zero-cost policy. Instead, as I wrote in 2018, “I think the social harm of prohibition is greater than the social harm of legalization.”

These two flowcharts both make the same point about why the War on Drugs is foolish.

 

Apparently, voters and politicians are beginning to get the message. More and more states have moved in the direction of legalization.

Have the results been positive?

In an article for National Review, Aron Ravin has a very critical assessment of legalization.

…the old-fashioned, party-pooper folk with whom I find myself sympathizing tend to fall back on one point: Weed is unhealthy. Since 2002, the proportion of Americans twelve and older who reported having used marijuana in the last year has increased by over 60 percent. …Pot smoke can cause lung cancer in the same way tobacco can, and secondhand marijuana smoke may have even more carcinogens than cigarettes. Marijuana smoke can also compromise the immune system, and there’s a growing amount of scientific literature indicating a significant correlation between any form of cannabis consumption and psychosis.

As a non-user, I’m very sympathetic to the health argument.

Regularly drawing any kind of smoke into one’s lungs simply can’t be healthy.

That being said, regularly eating big mounds of french fries also can’t be healthy, but that’s not an argument for criminalization.

Ravin then asserts that legalization is a failure because there are still black markets.

Advocates claimed that legalization would cripple the black market and weaken Mexican cartels. They argued that legalizing weed would reduce children’s access to it, as licensed distributors would have a greater incentive to card than criminal dealers, and that users would actually be healthier, as the government would be better able to regulate and inspect the stuff they were smoking. …Top that all off with the Cato Institute’s promises of billions of dollars in new tax revenue and billions more in law-enforcement expenses saved, and you’d have to be silly to disagree. But the libertarians got it wrong.

And he has some good evidence about the continued presence of illegal sales.

…the predicted benefits rested on one assumption: that legal weed would render criminal dealers obsolete much in the same way that repealing prohibition weakened bootlegging mobsters. But that has not happened. It has been nearly a decade since Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, and the state is dealing with a larger black market than ever before. …Upwards of 80 percent of all of California’s marijuana sales go through the black market. Massachusetts (70 percent) isn’t faring much better, and Nevada is growing desperate. …Legal dispensaries simply cannot match the low prices offered by their criminal competition when they’re being stifled by so much regulation and taxation, legalization advocates say. Yet weren’t generating tax revenue and protecting users major arguments for legalization in the first place?

I will admit that Ravin makes one very strong point. If libertarians were arguing that legalization would simultaneously deliver lots of tax revenue and also eliminate the black market, that doesn’t make sense.

Simply stated, excessive taxation means illegal sellers will stay in business because their prices will be much lower than their legal (but highly taxed) competitors.

That being said, at least one libertarian (ahem, me) explicitly pointed out that generating additional tax revenue was actually an argument against legalization (I included this issue in my collection of Libertarian Quandaries).

Let’s look at another perspective on legalization.

Jacob Sullum has a largely upbeat assessment of what’s happened, though he agrees that excessive taxation is a problem.

Here are some excerpts from his Reason column.

…when it comes to taxes, New York legislators do not seem very keen on helping the industry—or consumers. …The THC levy may amount to a tax as high as 30 percent, depending on costs, THC content, and product type. That’s on top of a 13 percent marijuana sales tax, which is in addition to general state and local sales taxes that can run as high as 8.9 percent. New Jersey plans to impose an excise tax ranging from less than 3 percent to more than 30 percent, depending on the average retail price per ounce… The state also will allow local governments to collect multiple taxes from growers, manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers… New Mexico’s marijuana sales tax is simple and modest by comparison: 12 percent initially, rising gradually to 18 percent by July 2030. States such as Alaska, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, and Michigan tax marijuana even more lightly. These states seem to recognize that heavy taxes make it harder for licensed retailers to compete with black-market dealers. It’s a lesson that some politicians will have to learn all over again.

A 2018 Bloomberg article is a good primer on the issue of pot taxation.

What’s the optimal tax rate on legal marijuana if the goal is to eliminate the black market? …There are signs that California, with its longstanding pot culture and thriving black market, is taxing weed too much, while Washington state has already moved to lower its rate. …Lawmakers debating the issue are typically trying to balance two goals: generating revenue to boost state coffers while also creating a legal market that will put street dealers out of business. …The economics of elastic demand hold that consumers will buy less of a product as it gets more expensive, and the theory is being tested in the various legal markets around the U.S. …Oregon and California…have struggled to eliminate the black market, in part because high tax rates and regulatory red tape have made it attractive for some producers, sellers and customers to stay underground. …Light taxation and liberal licensing under Colorado’s adult-use law slashed the black market to 33 percent of cannabis sales last year, Adams said. In contrast, illicit sales were 78 percent of California cannabis sales and were even higher this year under adult-use laws that imposed extraordinary taxes and regulatory hurdles.

For those interested, I’ve written a few times (here, here, here, and here) about California’s over-taxation of marijuana.

I also have two columns (here and here) about Colorado’s experience.

So what’s the bottom line?

I fully expect that politicians in most states will continue to set tax rates too high, which means black market sales of marijuana will remain strong.

Why will they make this mistake? For the same reason they have excessively high tax rates on income, on sales, on property, on booze, and everything else.

Greedy politicians can’t resist the temptation to over-tax anything and everything in hopes of getting their hands on more money to buy more votes.

That’s America’s real (and bipartisan) addiction problem.

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Our friends on the left who want more government spending generally have a short-run argument and a long-run argument.

  • In the short run, they assert that more government spending can stimulate a weak economy. This is typically known as Keynesian economics and it means temporary borrowing and spending.
  • In the long run, they claim that big government is an investment that leads to better economic performance. This is the “Nordic Model” and it means permanent increases in taxes and spending.

In many ways, the debate about short-run Keynesianism is different than the debate about the appropriate long-run size of government.

But there is one common thread, which is that proponents of more government pay too much attention to consumption and too little attention to production.

I wrote a somewhat wonky column about this topic back in April, but let’s take another look at this issue.

In a column last month for the Wall Street Journal, Andy Kessler shared some economic fundamentals.

Here’s how capitalism works—pay attention if you took the social-justice version of Econ 101. SIPPC: Save. Invest. Produce. Profit. Consume. Save means postponing consumption, money and time. Only then you can invest, especially your human capital, in something productive. Usually this means doing more with less, being efficient and effective. This is when innovation happens. Wealth comes only from productivity, not from giving away money. …Supply first and then consume…, creating incentives to put money into the hands of entrepreneurs and clearing a path for them to innovate by getting government out of the way.

In some sense, this is simply the common-sense observation that you can’t consume (or redistribute) unless someone first produces.

But it’s also a deeper message about what actually drives production.

There are no shortcuts. You can’t induce demand without supply. Didn’t the lockdowns prove that? Stimulus checks did little good given that there were few places to spend them until businesses were allowed to reopen. We’re now perversely sitting on almost $3 trillion in excess savings and even more new government debt. Yet the government stimulus mentality continues in Congress. …Through taxes and currency depreciation, demand-side spending steals savings needed to invest in future supply, which is why it never works. It is why the Great Depression lasted so long, why Japan lost two decades, and why 2009-16 saw subpar U.S. economic growth. When demand drops, government spending and giveaways make things worse. The only solution to kickstart production is to increase investment and make jobs more plentiful by cutting taxes and easing regulation. ..Price signals tell entrepreneurs what to supply. But price signals are only as good as their inputs. Minimum-wage laws mess up labor price signals. Tariffs mess up trade price signals. The Federal Reserve’s bond-buying blowouts mess up interest-rate price signals.

Amen. We know the policies that lead to more prosperity, but politicians constantly throw sand in the gears.

Simply stated, bigger government diverts resources from the productive sector of the economy. And that makes it more difficult to get the innovation and investment that are necessary for rising wages.

To be sure, there are some types of government spending that arguably help a private economy function.

But that’s not what we get from much of the federal government (Department of Housing and Urban DevelopmentDepartment of EducationDepartment of EnergyDepartment of AgricultureDepartment of Transportation, etc).

Which is why the growth-maximizing size of government is far smaller than what we are burdened with today.

P.S. I can’t resist sharing this additional segment of Mr. Kessler’s column.

Modern Monetary Theory, known as MMT—what economist John Christensen called the “Magic Money Tree”—is the worst of demand-side nonsense. MMT believers think that to boost aggregate demand we can have government print money and spend, spend, spend. We tried this in the 1960s and ’70s with Great Society programs

At the risk of understatement, I agree with his concerns.

P.P.S. It’s worth noting that the World BankOECD, and IMF have all published research showing the benefits of smaller government.

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I’m not a big fan of the Federal Reserve, mostly because of its Keynesian monetary policy.

Incumbent politicians often applaud when the central bank intervenes to create excess liquidity and artificially low interest rates. That’s because the Keynesian approach produces a short-run “sugar high” that seems positive.

But such policies also create boom-bust conditions.

Indeed, the Federal Reserve deserves considerable blame for some of the economy’s worst episodes of the past 100-plus years – most notably the Great Depression, 1970s stagflation, and the 2008 financial crisis.

So what’s the solution?

I’ve previously pointed out that the classical gold standard has some attractive features but is not politically realistic.

But perhaps it’s time to reassess.

In a column for today’s Wall Street Journal, Professors William Luther and Alexander Salter explain the differences between a gold standard and today’s system of fiat money (i.e., a monetary system with no constraints).

Under a genuine gold standard, …Competition among gold miners adjusts the money supply in response to changes in demand, making purchasing power stable and predictable over long periods. The threat of customers redeeming notes and deposits for gold discourages banks from overissuing… Fiat dollars aren’t constrained by the supply of gold or any other commodity. The Federal Reserve can expand the money supply as much or as little as it sees fit, regardless of changes in money demand. When the Fed expands the money supply too much, an unsustainable boom and costly inflation follow.

They then compare the track records of the two systems.

…nearly all economists believe the U.S. economy has performed better under fiat money than it would have with the gold standard. This conventional wisdom is wrong. The gold standard wasn’t perfect, but the fiat dollar has been even worse. …in practice, the Fed has failed to govern the money supply responsibly. Inflation averaged only 0.2% a year from 1790 to 1913, when the Federal Reserve Act passed. Inflation was higher under the Fed-managed gold standard, averaging 2.7% from 1914 to 1971. It has been even higher without the constraint of gold. From 1972 to 2019, inflation averaged 4%. …the Fed…has also become less predictable. In a 2012 article published in the Journal of Macroeconomics, George Selgin, William D. Lastrapes and Lawrence H. White find “almost no persistence in the variance of inflation prior to the Fed’s establishment, and a very high degree of persistence afterwards.” …One might be willing to accept the costs of higher inflation and a less predictable price level if a Fed-managed fiat dollar reduced undesirable macroeconomic fluctuation. But that hasn’t happened. Consider the past two decades. The early 2000s had an unsustainable boom, as the Fed held interest rates too low for too long.

There was also a column on this issue in the WSJ two years ago.

James Grant opined about (the awful) President Nixon’s decision to make Federal Reserve policy completely independent of the gold anchor.

Richard Nixon announced the suspension of the Treasury’s standing offer to foreign governments to exchange dollars for gold, or vice versa, at the unvarying rate of $35 an ounce. The date was Aug. 15, 1971. Ever since, the dollar has been undefined in law. …In the long sweep of monetary history, this is a new system. Not until relatively recently did any central bank attempt to promote full employment and what is called price stability (but is really a never-ending inflation) by issuing paper money and manipulating interest rates. …a world-wide monetary system based on the scientifically informed discretion of Ph.D. economists. The Fed alone employs 700 of them.

But Grant says the gold standard worked reasonably well.

A 20th-century scholar, reviewing the record of the gold standard from 1880-1914, was unabashedly admiring of it: “Only a trifling number of countries were forced off the gold standard, once adopted, and devaluations of gold currencies were highly exceptional. Yet all this was achieved in spite of a volume of international reserves that, for many of the countries at least, was amazingly small and in spite of a minimum of international cooperation . . . on monetary matters.” …Arthur I. Bloomfield wrote those words, and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York published them, in 1959.

The new approach, which Grant mockingly calls the “Ph.D. standard,” gives central bankers discretionary power to do all sorts of worrisome things.

The ideology of the gold standard was laissez-faire; that of the Ph.D. standard (let’s call it) is statism. Gold-standard central bankers bought few, if any, government securities. Today’s central bankers stuff their balance sheets with them. In the gold-standard era, the stockholders of a commercial bank were responsible for the solvency of the institution in which they held a fractional interest. The Ph.D. standard brought the age of the government bailout and too big to fail.

By the way, the purpose of today’s column isn’t to unreservedly endorse a gold standard.

Such as system is very stable in the long run but can lead to short-term inflation or deflation based on what’s happening with the market for gold. And those short-term fluctuations can be economically disruptive.

I was messaging earlier today with Robert O’Quinn, the former Chief Economist at the Department of Labor (who also worked at the Fed) and got this reaction to the Luther-Salter column.

Which is better matching the long-term growth of the economy and the demand for money? The profitability of gold mining or central bank decision-making? A good monetary rule may be better than a classical gold standard. The difficulty is sustaining a good rule.

The ;problem, of course, is that I don’t trust politicians (and their Fed appointees) to follow a good rule.

  • Especially in a world where many of them believe in Keynesian boom-bust monetary policy.
  • Especially in a world where many of them think the Fed should prop up or bailout Wall Street.
  • Especially in a world where many of them might use the central bank to finance big government.
  • Especially in a world where many of them support a “war against cash” to empower politicians.

The bottom line is that we have to choose between two imperfect options and decide which one has a bigger downside.

P.S. Since a return to a classical gold standard is highly unlikely (and because the libertarian dream of “free banking” is even more improbable), the best we can hope for is a president who 1) makes good appointments to the Fed, and 2) supports sound-money policies even when it means short-run political pain. We’ve had one president like that in my lifetime.

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China is not going to surpass the United States as the world’s dominant economy.

As I first wrote back in 2010, China is a paper tiger. Yes, there was some pro-market reform last century, which helped reduce mass poverty, but China only took modest steps in the right direction.

According to the latest edition of Economic Freedom of the World, China scores just 6.21, which places it 124th out of 162 nations.

Is that better than a score of 3.69, which is where China was in 1990?

Yes, of course.

But does that score indicate that China will become richer than the United States, which has a current score of 8.22 (the world’s 6th-highest level of economic liberty)?

Of course not.

My answer might change of China engaged in more economic liberalization, as I have urged. But it seems the opposite is happening and China is backsliding toward more state control.

And that means the United States almost surely will remain far more prosperous.

(While Joe Biden is doing his best to drag economic policy in the wrong direction, but it would takes decades of far-worse policy to bring the U.S. down to the level of France (#58) or Greece (#92), much less all the way down to being on par with China).

But some people must not be very familiar with data about China and its economy.

For instance, President Trump’s former top trade official, Robert Lighthizer, wrote that the United States should copy China’s cronyism in a column in the New York Times.

I’m not joking. Mr. Lighthizer openly embraces industrial policy and protectionism.

…we need a multifaceted long-term strategy. …Our strategy must include…an industrial policy that includes subsidies to foster the development of the most advanced science and technology…and a robust plan to combat China’s unfair trade practices. …The Senate legislation would achieve some of what is needed. It calls for $200 billion to bolster scientific and technological innovation, $52 billion to rebuild our capacity to make semiconductors, and a supply-chain resiliency program… The House should perfect the provisions of the Senate bill that restructure and enhance federal support for science and innovation and strip out those that weaken our trade laws and encourage Chinese imports.

Geesh, no wonder Trump’s trade policy was such a disaster.

Lighthizer not only doesn’t understand economics, he also doesn’t know history.

Adam Thierer of the Mercatus Center points out that the current angst about China is a repeat verse of a song we heard over and over again in the late 1980s.

Back then, everyone though Japan was on the verge of overtaking the United States, ostensibly because that nation had wise politicians and bureaucrats who knew how to pick winners and losers.

Thierer’s article tells us what really happened.

In 1949, the Japanese government created the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) to work with other government bodies (especially the Bank of Japan) to devise plans for industrial sectors in which they hoped to make advances. Although not as heavy-handed as Chinese planning authorities are today, MITI came to have enormous influence over private-sector research and investment decisions during the next five decades. The organization used a variety of the same policy levers that Chinese officials do today, with a particular focus on trade management and industrial policy investments in sectors perceived to be “strategic” for future economic advance. …By the late 1970s…, U.S. officials and market analysts came to view MITI with a combination of reverence and revulsion, believing that it had concocted an industrial policy cocktail that was fueling Japan’s success at the expense of American companies and interests. …By the end of the 1980s, fears about “Japan Inc.” had reached a fever pitch. …Just as Japan phobia was reaching its zenith in the early 1990s, Japan’s fortunes began taking a turn for the worse. The Japanese stock market crashed in 1990… Japan suffered a brutal economic downturn that became known as the Lost Decade, which really lasted almost two decades. …by the late 1990s many scholars came to view most Japanese industrial policy initiatives as a costly bust.

Amen.

I wrote that Japan was a “basket case” back in 2013. A bit of hyperbole, to be sure, but I was trying to drive home the point that the nation’s politicians have made some costly mistakes.

Not just industrial policy, but also tax increases, Keynesian spending, and other forms of intervention.

No wonder the country has gone downhill in terms of competitiveness.

But let’s not focus too much on Japan (which, despite all my grousing, still ranks #20 for economic liberty).

For purposes of today’s column, the main points are 1) that China is no threat to overtake the United States, and 2) that copying that nation’s industrial policy would be a mistake.

P.S. If China wants to pursue industrial policy and other forms of cronyism, that’s a mistake that mostly hurts the Chinese people. To the extent such policies are designed to subsidize exports (as Lighthizer argues), the best response is to utilize the World Trade Organization, not to copy China’s misguided interventionism.

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I have plenty of politician humor, collectivism humor, libertarian humor, and gun control humor.

I also have big-government humor and European humor.

But only a very limited collection of economics humor.

Today, we’ll make up for that oversight, starting with this cartoon strip about the Federal Reserve’s easy-money policy.

Next we have a cartoon about incentives and the welfare state.

For our third item, I’ve generally cited supply and demand curves when trying to explain “deadweight loss,” but they also explain how prices are determined.

And since they’re a core tool of economics, what better choice for a tattoo?

Our fourth item is about a company that is more worried about stakeholders rather than shareholders.

Last but not least, here’s my favorite item.

It shows what happens if economists are very sinful during their lives.

To be fair, while it’s very common for Krugman to screw up, he’s not always wrong.

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In my four-part series on inequality (here, here, here, and here), I argue that that it is more important to instead focus on reducing poverty – especially since we know the policies needed to achieve that latter goal.

In this discussion, I contemplate why some folks don’t understand that message.

One reason is that some of them don’t care.

As explained by the Eighth Theorem of Government, they are motivated first and foremost by a desire for bigger government.

And it doesn’t matter whether they are driven by ideology or “public choice.” The bottom line is that helping people climb the economic ladder is – at best – a secondary concern.

But what about the well-meaning folks on the left? Is there a way of convincing them to channel their compassion in a better direction?

As mentioned in the interview, these are the people who generally believe that the economy is a fixed pie. As such when someone like Jeff Bezos is rich, they think it means other people are poor.

So it should be simple to show them that this isn’t true. There is a wealth of data showing how good (or even just decent) policies create more prosperity.

Looking specifically at the United States, we’re much richer today than we were in the past. And that’s true whether you go back 200 years or if you simply compared today’s economy with where America was after World War II.

And the same pattern exists in other market-based nations.

But here’s what frustrates me. When I share this data with my left-leaning friends, they seem to have some sort of mental block that prevents them from reaching the obvious conclusion.

A few of them will pivot, acknowledge that broad-based growth happens, but then argue that growth is unaffected by policy.

In other words, nations can become more prosperous whether government is big or government is small.

Needless to say, there’s also a wealth of data showing that this isn’t true.

At which point the honest and intelligent folks on the left will explicitly or implicitly embrace Arthur Okun’s argument that it’s okay to have less growth if there’s more equality.

That’s when I point out that even small differences in growth make a big difference to income levels over just a few decades. Which means poor people ultimately will be richer if there’s more economic liberty.

So if they really care about the well-being of the less fortunate, they should be the biggest advocates of free markets and limited government.

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Last year, I weighed in on the debate about whether companies should be operated for the benefit of owners (shareholders) or for the broader community (stakeholders).

Unsurprisingly, I sided with Milton Friedman and argued that businesses have a responsibility to maximize profits – assuming, of course, ethical behavior.

Moreover, I cited research showing how this is the approach that actually produces the maximum benefits for the rest of us (i.e., stakeholders).

But some people are not convinced by these insights.

David Gelles of the New York Times has a glowing profile of a former CEO, Hubert Joly, largely because of his apparent hostility to free markets.

Hubert Joly took over Best Buy in 2012… Since stepping down as chief executive in 2019, Mr. Joly has taken up a post teaching at Harvard Business School… In his book, on the speaking circuit and in meetings with other executives, Mr. Joly has taken up a campaign against the capitalist st atus quo. “…on the top of my F.B.I. most wanted list…is Milton Friedman, with his shareholder primacy — the excessive, obsessive focus on profits as the key thing that matters.”

Mr. Joly’s overt disdain for Friedman’s position seems noteworthy.

But it also seems hypocritical.

Why?

Because Joly did exactly what Friedman recommended. He is viewed as a successful CEO because he made changes that had the effect of making shareholders richer.

…the electronics retailer was struggling… Sales and profits were sagging, and the stock price had cratered. …Eschewing the conventional wisdom — that Best Buy should slash wages and cut costs in a bid to jack up profitability — Mr. Joly began investing in the company. He gave workers better perks… The strategy worked, and Best Buy shares soared during his tenure.

So why, then, is Mr. Joly so hostile to Friedman when he followed his approach?

Beats me, but I’m guessing he somehow thinks Friedman’s maxim means that a CEO should “slash wages” and close stores. And that sounds mean and heartless.

But Joly showed that Friedman’s maxim could be fulfilled in a different way. He figured out how to please consumers so that it was possible to expand the business and make workers better off.

Which is actually what capitalism – oops, I mean free enterprise – is all about. People getting richer over time as competition and liberty combine to raise living standards.

Sometimes that happens because a poorly run company contracts (the seemingly heartless process of creative destruction) and sometimes that happens because a well-run company expands.

P.S. There’s one more quote from Mr. Joly that I want to address. As part of his interview with the NYT, he seemingly played the role of a guilt-ridden rich guy.

“I’m on the record saying that the more taxes I pay, the happier I am.”

To be fair, he didn’t actually say that he supported tax increases, either on himself or anyone else. It’s possible that he was really saying that he likes earning more money, which then results in a higher tax bill.

But just in case he was doing some left-wing virtue signalling in favor of tax increases, I’m glad to inform him that there is a website at the Treasury Department that allows him to voluntary turn more money over to the crowd in Washington.

Somehow, I suspect he’ll be like other hypocrites on the left and fail to take advantage of that opportunity.

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I critiqued Biden’s proposal for a global corporate tax cartel as part of a recent discussion with South Africa’s Free Market Foundation.

Here’s the segment where I explain why it would be bad for developing nations.

At the risk of stating the obvious, Joe Biden is pushing this policy because he wants more tax revenue to fund his misguided plan for a bigger welfare state in the United States.

And the same is true for politicians in other big nations such as France, Japan, and Germany.

So as negotiations continue and rules are decided, rest assured that those countries will look after themselves and politicians from developing nations will be lucky to get a few crumbs from the table.

This discussion gives me a good excuse to put together this list of the potential winners and losers from a global tax cartel.

Since I slapped this together in five minutes, I won’t pretend it’s comprehensive.

But it’s hopefully more complete than a simple statement that politicians are the winners and people in the private sector are the losers.

Speaking of losers, my list includes “Nations with sensible tax policy,” and that’s a good reason to share this story from the New York Times. It’s about Janet Yellen’s efforts to convince Irish politicians to sacrifice their nation’s economic advantage.

The United States is hopeful that Ireland will drop its resistance to joining the global tax agreement… The agreement, which gained the support of the Group of 20 nations on Saturday, would usher in a global minimum tax of at least 15 percent. It would also change how taxing rights were allocated, allowing countries to collect levies from large, profitable multinational firms based on where their goods and services were sold. …Ms. Yellen held high-stakes meetings in Brussels this week with Paschal Donohoe, Ireland’s finance minister… She needs Mr. Donohoe’s support because the European Union requires unanimity among its members to formally join the deal.

So you may be wondering what Ms. Yellen said? Did she have some clever and insightful argument of how Ireland would benefit (or at least not be hurt) if politicians create a global tax cartel?

Nope. The best she could come up with is that Ireland’s tax system wouldn’t be as bad as the one she wants for the United States.

Ms. Yellen told her Irish counterpart that Ireland’s economic model would not be upended if it increased its tax rate from 12.5 percent…it would still have a large gap between its rate and the 21 percent tax rate on foreign earnings that the Biden administration has proposed.

And her weak argument is even weaker when you consider that she’s already pushing for a much-higher minimum tax.

The bottom line is that Ireland has reaped enormous benefits from its decision to enact a low corporate tax rate. But if a global tax cartel is imposed, it would simply be a matter of time before that country gets relegated to being an economic backwater on the periphery of Europe.

P.S. Part of the discussion in the video was about developing nations having the right to copy the economic model (no income tax and no welfare state) that enabled North American and Western Europe to become rich in the 1800s. Sadly, I don’t think many politicians in the developing world are interested in that approach nowadays, but rich nations shouldn’t make it impossible.

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Part I of this series looked at socialism’s track record of failure, while Part II pointed out that greater levels of socialism lead to greater levels of misery.

For Part III, let’s start with this video on the economics of socialism.

If the world was governed by logic, there would be no need to address this topic for a third time.

After all, the evidence is overwhelming that capitalism (oops, I mean free enterprise) does a better job than socialism.

But it seems that we don’t live in a logical world. We have too many people who have an anti-empirical belief in bigger government.

And, if the polling data is accurate, the problem seems especially acute with young people.

I’ve wondered whether sub-par government schools are part of the problem. Are they mis-educating kids?

I don’t know if that was a problem in the past, but Richard Rahn warns in the Washington Times that it will probably be a problem in the future.

Recent polls have shown rising support for socialism and an increasingly negative view of capitalism, particularly among the young.  …Most of those who say they support socialism are probably unaware that it has failed every place and time that it has been tried. …They may also not be aware that socialism relies on coercion to function… By contrast, capitalism relies on the voluntary exchange of goods and services… Last week at the NEA’s annual meeting, the delegates demanded that the union issue a study criticizing, among many things, “capitalism.” Has anyone thought through the alternatives – a system based on slavery or serfdom…? Under capitalism, investment and productive labor are allocated by individual consumer choice. …Under socialism, there is no good mechanism for meeting consumer demand; the socialist leaders decide what the people should have. There is no mechanism for creating and encouraging innovation – that is why socialist states normally only produce something new after it has already been produced in a capitalist country… So why then are the teachers’ unions advocating that capitalism be attacked, and socialism be applauded? The answer is simple, willful ignorance.

I’ve always supported school choice because I want better educational outcomes, especially for poor and minority students.

In recent months, I’ve wondered we also need school choice because of what teacher unions are doing on issues such as critical race theory and school re-openings.

Now it seems we need choice simply to protect kids from the risk of being propagandized.

P.S. Or protect kids from nonsensical forms of discipline.

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I like capitalism, both because it’s moral and it delivers superior results compared to any alternative.

I even have a 2-part series (here and here) on “defending capitalism” and a 5-part series on the “case for capitalism.”

Perhaps most important, it’s a system that delivers great results if the goal is lifting people out of poverty.

Is it possible, though, that “capitalism” is a tarnished word?

That may be the case, according to new polling data from the United Kingdom.

Edward Malnick recently wrote about Frank Luntz’s research, which is finding knee-jerk hostility to the “C” word.

Dr Frank Luntz is testing public opinion in Britain to find an alternative to “capitalism”, after 170 years of use, because he fears it is becoming a “bad word”. …Capitalism itself is already a “bad word” in the US and is fast becoming so in the UK too, he says, adding: “It’s one of the key things I’m trying to figure out … does this country need an alternative to the word capitalism? I think it does. We’re about to find out.” Questions on capitalism, and voters’ approach to it, form part of a giant survey Dr Luntz has put together as part of a project for the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) think tank, at which he has based himself for the summer.

Nick King of the Centre for Policy Studies suggests we use something other than “capitalism” when describing an agenda of limited government.

…language matters. Capitalism is unpopular. But to many of capitalism’s advocates, terms like free enterprise and open markets can be used interchangeably with it and other polling suggests these concepts are more favourably received. If a phrase is more appealing than capitalism to those who reject it as a concept, then it makes sense for those who believe in the benefits of this system to adopt the language which people more readily accept.

I’m perfectly happy to talk about “free enterprise” rather than “capitalism.”

I even wrote about making that verbal shift back in 2016, though I obviously still frequently use “capitalism” when talking about economic liberty.

But perhaps I need to be more disciplined. Especially if I want my message to be heard by young people.

Kristian Niemietz of London’s Institute of Economic Affairs has a very depressing assessment of what millennials are thinking.

Surveys show that there is a lot of truth in the cliché of the ‘woke socialist Millennial’. Younger people really do quite consistently express hostility to capitalism, and positive views of socialist alternatives of some sort. For example, around 40 per cent of Millennials claim to have a favourable opinion of socialism and a similar proportion agree with the statement that ‘communism could have worked if it had been better executed’. …67 per cent of younger people say they would like to live in a socialist economic system. Young people associate ‘socialism’ predominantly with positive terms, such as ‘workers’, ‘public’, ‘equal’ and ‘fair’. Very few associate it with ‘failure’ and virtually nobody associates it with Venezuela, the erstwhile showcase of ‘21st Century Socialism’. Capitalism, meanwhile, is predominantly associated with terms such as ‘exploitative’, ‘unfair’, ‘the rich’ and ‘corporations’. …When presented with an anti-capitalist statement, the vast majority of young people agree with it… However, when presented with a diametrically opposed pro-capitalist statement, we often find net approval for that statement too. This suggests that when young people embrace a socialist argument, this is often not a deeply-held conviction.

None of this is a surprise. I’ve written a couple of times about the foolish views of young people.

Heck, I was writing about this problem way back in 2013.

I’m tempted to conclude that young people are simply stupid and we shouldn’t allow them to vote.

But I realize that’s not a constructive sentiment. So perhaps instead we should send them to live for a year in Greece, Argentina, or Italy. And if that doesn’t sober them up, they can spend a second year in Venezuela, North Korea, or Cuba.

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Almost everybody (even, apparently, Paul Krugman) agrees that you don’t want to be on the downward-sloping part of the Laffer Curve.

That’s where higher tax rates do so much economic damage that government collects even less revenue.

But I would argue that tax increases that produce more revenue also are a bad idea.

Sometimes they are even a terrible idea. For instance, there are tax increases that would destroy $5 of private income for every $1 of revenue they collect.

That would not be a good deal, at least for those of us who aren’t D.C. insiders.

Heck, according to research from economists at the University of Chicago and Federal Reserve, there are some tax increases that would destroy even greater levels of private income for every additional dollar that politicians got to spend.

The simple way of thinking about this is that you don’t want to be at the revenue-maximizing point of the Laffer Curve.

Because the closer you get to that point, the greater the damage to the private sector compared to any revenue collected.

To help understand this key point, let’s review a new study from Spain’s central bank. Authored by Nezih Guner, Javier López-Segovia and Roberto Ramos, it investigates the impact of higher tax rates.

They first look at what happens when progressivity (τ) is increased.

In the first experiment, we…change…the entire tax schedule, so that all households below the mean labor income face lower average taxes, while those above the mean income face higher average taxes. Since…richer individuals face higher taxes, all else equal, the government collects more taxes. All else, however, is not equal since more progressive taxes lower incentives to work and save. As a result, a higher τ might result in lower, not higher, revenue. The question is where the top of the Laffer curve is. We find that the tax revenue from labor income is maximized with τ = 0 .19. The increase in tax collection is, however, very small: the tax revenue from labor income increases only by 0.82% (or about 0.28% of the GDP). The tax revenue from labor income is, however, only one part of the total tax collection. There are also taxes on capital and consumption. With τ = 0 .19, while the tax collection from labor income is maximized, the total tax collection declines by 1.55%. This happens since with a higher τ, the aggregate labor, capital and output decline significantly. Indeed, the total tax collection falls for any increase in τ, and the level of τ that maximizes total tax revenue is much lower, τ = 0 .025, than its benchmark value.

The key takeaway is that more progressivity puts Spain on the wrong (downward-sloping) side of the Laffer Curve.

Here’s Table 6, which shows big declines in output, labor supply, and investment as progressivity increases.

Here’s some of the accompanying explanation.

The upper panel of Table 6 shows that capital, effective labor and output decline monotonically with τ. Hence, as the economy moves from τ = 0 .1581 to τ = 0 .19, the government is collecting higher taxes from labor, but the aggregate labor supply and output decline. For τ higher than 0.19, the decline in labor supply dominates and tax collection from labor income is lower. …The level of τ that maximizes the total tax collection is 0.025, which implies significantly less progressive taxes than in the benchmark economy. …In the economy with τ = 0 .025, the aggregate capital, labor and output increase significantly. The steady state output, for example, is almost 11 percentage points higher than the benchmark economy. As a result, the government is able to collect higher taxes despite lowering taxes on the top earners.

The authors also put together an estimate of Spain’s Laffer Curve, with the red-dashed line showing total tax revenue.

The authors also looked at what happens if politicians simply increase top tax rates.

They found that there are scenarios that would enable the Spanish government to collect more revenue.

We find that it is possible to generate higher total tax revenue by increasing taxes on the top earners.The main message of our quantitative exercises is that…the extra revenue is not substantial. Higher progressivity has significant adverse effects on output and labor supply, which limits the room for collecting higher taxes. As a result, the only way to generate substantial revenue is with significant increases in marginal tax rates for a large group

But notice that those higher taxes would have “significant adverse effects on output and labor supply.”

Which brings us back to the earlier discussion about the desirability of causing a lot of damage to the private economy in order to give politicians a bit more money to spend.

The authors have a neutral tone, but the rest of should be able to draw the logical conclusion that higher taxes would be a big mistake for Spain.

And since the underlying economic principles apply in all nations, we also should conclude that higher taxes would be a big mistake for the United States.

P.S. We conducted a very successful experiment in the 1980s involving lower tax rates. Biden now wants to see what happens if we try the opposite approach.

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I’ve been arguing against Biden’s proposed increase in business taxation by pointing out that higher corporate taxes will be bad news for workers, consumers, and shareholders.

Everyone agrees that shareholders get hurt. After all, they’re the owners of the businesses. Higher corporate taxes directly reduce the amount of money available to be paid as dividends.

But we also should recognize that higher corporate taxes can be passed along to consumers, so they also lose. Even more important, we should recognize that higher tax burdens also reduce incentives for business investment, and this can have a negative impact on worker compensation.

A 2017 study from the Tax Foundation, authored by Steve Entin, thoroughly explored this question and included a table summarizing the academic research.

Alex Durante updated the Tax Foundation’s summary of the research in a just-released report.

Here are the results of two new studies.

In a large study of German municipalities over a 20-year period, Fuest et al. (2018) find that slightly more than half of the corporate tax burden falls on workers. …Baker et al. (2020) find that consumers could also be impacted by corporate tax changes. Looking at specific product prices with linked survey and administrative data at the state level, the authors found that a 1 percentage-point increase in the corporate tax rate increased retail prices by 0.17 percent. Combining this estimate with the wage response estimated in Fuest et al., the authors calculated that 31 percent of the corporate tax incidence falls on consumers, 38 percent on workers, and 31 percent on shareholders.

If you want more information about the German study, I wrote about it a couple of years ago. Solid research.

Here’s my two cents on the issue: Shareholders pay 100 percent of the direct costs of the corporate tax. But we need to also consider the indirect costs, most notably who bears the burden when there’s less investment and slower wage growth.

If you ask five economists for their estimates of indirect costs, you’ll probably get nine different answers. So it’s no surprise that there’s no agreement about magnitudes in the academic research cited above.

But they all agree that workers lose when corporate rates increase, and that’s a big reason why we can confidently state that Biden’s class-warfare agenda is bad for ordinary people.

The bottom line is that the person (or business) writing a check to the IRS isn’t the only person who suffers because of a tax.

And the lesson to learn is that we should be lowering the corporate, not increasing it.

P.S. Here’s my primer on the overall issue of corporate taxation.

P.P.S. Here’s some research about the link between corporate tax and investment.

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Last week, I shared Part I of my discussion with John Stossel about “capitalism myths.” Here’s Part II.

In the first video, we discussed three myths about free enterprise.

  • Myth #1 – Capitalists get rich by ‘taking’ money from others.
  • Myth #2 – The rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer.
  • Myth #3 – Monopolies destroyed the free market.

Here are the final four myths.

Myth #4: Free markets create unsafe workplaces.

Proponents of government intervention often claim that greedy capitalists will skimp on safety in order to get more profits. To support their argument, they cite data on how workplace deaths have declined since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was created.

That data is accurate, bu what they fail to mention is that workplace deaths were falling at exactly the same rate before OSHA.

This is because wealthier societies, created by capitalism, have both the capacity and desire to invest more in safety.

Myth #5: Capitalism created evil Robber Barons.

During the 1800s, the United States experienced an “industrial revolution,” and many people became enormously wealthy (though only by the standards of that era).

The anti-capitalist crowd asserted that these people were “robber barons” who profited at the expense of ordinary people.

Yet this was the era when the nation evolved from agricultural poverty to middle-class prosperity, as shown by Oxford University’s Our World in Data.

Notice how per-capita economic output grew especially fast in the last half of the 1800s when the industrial revolution was in full swing.

Myth #6: Capitalism just isn’t good for us.

This myth is based on the stereotype that capitalism is a soulless and materialistic system.

And there certainly are some people who are so myopically fixated on their personal wealth that they don’t properly enjoy the intangible benefits of family, community, and leisure.

But that’s a failing of human nature, not of markets. There surely are plenty of materialistic and soulless people, after all, who use socialism to get wealthy.

The key difference, as the great Walter Williams noted, is that you have to serve other people to get wealthy in a capitalist society, whereas you use government coercion to get rich when government controls the economy.

Myth #7: Capitalism will eliminate our jobs.

It’s certainly true that jobs are destroyed by capitalism. As noted in the video, the personal computer destroyed typewriter jobs.

This is the process of “creative destruction” and we should all recognize that it can be very bad news for people who have careers that are upended by technological change (such as candle makers when the electric light bulb was invented).

What’s special about capitalism, though, is that this process is what makes all of us richer over time.

Even the children and grandchildren of people who lost their jobs.

The bottom line, as I said to conclude the video, is that, “No other system, anywhere in the world, has ever come close to capitalism’s ability to generate mass prosperity.”

 

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Politicians impose higher tax costs on tobacco because they want less smoking. And environmentalists want higher gas prices so there will be less driving.

And, as explained in this video, higher minimum wages for low-skilled labor will reduce employment.

For economists, none of this is surprising and none of this is newsworthy.

Minimum wage laws are a form of price controls, and we have centuries of evidence that bad things happen when politicians try to rig the market.

When I discuss this issue, people often respond by asserting that businesses will treat people like dirt in the absence of government intervention.

I answer them by agreeing with their premise (businesses would like to pay everyone as little as possible), but I then share this data, which shows that they’re wrong on facts. To be more specific, nearly 99 percent of workers make more than the minimum wage.

In other words, the free market leads to higher wages (which is why today’s workers earn so much more than previous generations).

And we’ll continue to enjoy economic progress, so long as politicians give the private sector enough breathing room to create more prosperity.

Which is why a mandate for higher minimum wages would be a bad idea.

Indeed, research published by the Harvard Business Review shows that the minimum wage even can be bad news for the workers who don’t lose their jobs.

Here is a description of the methodology used by the authors (Qiuping Yu, Shawn Mankad, and Masha Shunko).

…minimum wage policies…can influence firms’ behavior in a variety of complex, interrelated ways. In addition to changing employment rates, studies suggest that firms may strategically respond to minimum wage increases by changing their approaches in other areas, such as worker schedules. This can have significant implications for employee welfare… To address these challenges, we conducted a study in which we…looked at worker schedule and wage data from 2015 to 2018 for more than 5,000 employees at 45 stores in California — where the minimum wage was $9 in 2015, and has increased every year since then — and at 17 stores in Texas, where the minimum wage was $7.25 for the duration of our study. We then controlled for statewide economic and employment differences between California and Texas in order to isolate just the impact of increasing the minimum wage.

Here are some of their results.

For every $1 increase in the minimum wage, we found that the total number of workers scheduled to work each week increased by 27.7%, while the average number of hours each worker worked per week decrease by 20.8%. …which meant that the total wage compensation of an average minimum wage worker in a California store actually fell by 13.6%. This decrease in the average number of hours worked not only reduced total wages, but also impacted eligibility for benefits. We found that for every $1 increase in minimum wage, the percentage of workers working more than 20 hours per week (making them eligible for retirement benefits) decreased by 23.0%, while the percentage of workers with more than 30 hours per week (making them eligible for health care benefits) decreased by 14.9%. …our data suggests that the combination of reduced hours, eligibility for benefits, and schedule consistency that resulted from a $1 increase in the minimum wage added up to average net losses of at least $1,590 per year per employee — equivalent to 11.6% of workers’ total wage compensation.

Gee, is anybody surprised to see bad results from California?

But let’s focus on the minimum wage, not on the (formerly) Golden State.

Here’s the bottom line: I’ve explained that a higher minimum wage is theoretically bad.

And I’ve shown that it leads to higher unemployment.

But this new research is important because it shows that a higher minimum wage also backfires on the workers who don’t lose their jobs.

That’s an argument I’ve made before, but it needs to become a bigger part of the discussion.

The goal should be to help people climb the ladder of economic opportunity, which is why the minimum wage should be abolished rather than increased.

P.S. It’s disgusting that labor bosses push for a higher minimum wage to hurt low-skilled workers who compete with union members and it’s disgusting that big companies like Amazon push for a higher minimum wage to hurt small businesses that compete with them for customers

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When studying the economic of taxation, one of the most important lessons is that there should be low marginal tax rates on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

That’s also the core message of this video from Prof. John Cochrane.

I wrote a primer on marginal tax rates back in 2018. I wanted to help people understand that the incentive to engage in additional productive behavior is impacted by how much people get to keep if they earn additional income.

So what matters isn’t the tax on income that’s already been generated. The key variable is the marginal tax on the additional increment of income. As illustrated by the accompanying visual.

I’ve shared real-life examples of how the American tax system can result in very high marginal tax rates, especially when you include the extra layers of tax on income that is saved and invested (producing extremely high effective marginal tax rates).

For today’s column, let’s look at a real-world example from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

The U.K.-based Telegraph has a story illustrating how marginal tax rates often can be much higher than the official statutory tax rate.

More than a third of a million people now face paying income tax at a rate of 60pc because of government stealth tax policies… 336,000 people earned between £100,000 and £125,000 in 2018-19, the last year for which data was available. …This group is meant to pay income tax at a rate of 40pc, but risks falling foul of a costly trap which results in their earnings being subject to effective income tax rates that are far higher. The trap is sprung once someone starts to earn more than £100,000, as this is the point at which the Government begins to withdraw the £12,570 tax-free personal allowance. For every £1 earned over £100,000, the state reduces the allowance by 50p. The result is that each additional £1 of income effectively incurs 60p of income tax… Once National Insurance is factored in, the true rate is even higher.

Here’s a chart that was part of the article.

It shows that anyone earning £50,000 or above is losing at least 40 percent to the tax authorities. That statutory rate is both punitive and excessive.

But you also can see how the marginal tax rate jumps to 60 percent once taxpayers hit £100,000 on income.

At the risk of understatement, high marginal tax rates are bad news for the economy.

That’s true in the United Kingdom, the United States, and everyplace else in the world.

To use economic jargon, “deadweight losses” grow exponentially as tax rates are increased.

In regular English, this simply means that class-warfare tax policy (ever-higher tax rates on the so-called rich) causes the most economic damage. Even the left-leaning OECD agrees with this analysis.

You may be wondering why a supposedly conservative government in the United Kingdom allows such a destructive policy.

Sadly, there is no good answer. As you can see from this excerpt, Boris Johnson’s government sounds a lot like what the U.K. would have experienced if Jeremy Corbyn won the last election.

The Government said it was aware of the effect of the 60pc tax trap but said it had to take a “balanced approach”. “We want to keep taxes low to support working people to keep more of what they earn, but it’s only fair that those with the broadest shoulders bear the biggest burden as we rebuild the public finances and fund public services,” a spokesman said.

P.S. If President Biden’s tax plan is any indication, our friends on the left seem to be motivated by spite and envy, so they don’t care that high tax rates have negative consequences.

P.P.S. A wealth tax could easily result in marginal tax rates of more than 100 percent.

P.P.P.S. The politicians in Washington also believe in very high implicit tax rates on low-income people.

P.P.P.P.S. The various plans for per-child handouts would create another big spike in marginal tax rates for a large cohort of American taxpayers.

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Back in 2009 and 2010, when I had less gray hair, I narrated a four-part series on the economic burden of government spending.

Here’s Part II, which discusses the theoretical reasons why big government reduces prosperity.

I provide eight examples to illustrate how and why government spending can hinder economic growth.

The last item is what I called the “stagnation cost,” which is the tendency of politicians and bureaucrats to throw good money after bad because there is no incentive to adapt.

When giving speeches, I usually refer to this as the “inertia cost.”

But, regardless of what I call it, I explain that every government program has a group of beneficiaries that are strongly motivated to keep their gravy train moving even if money is being wasted.

And since politicians like getting votes from those beneficiaries, it’s very difficult to derail programs.

In an article for National Review, Sean-Michael Pigeon offers one very plausible explanation for why this happens.

He says politicians fall victim to the fallacy of sunk costs.

…we need an understanding of government inefficiency… One reason government spending is so needlessly costly is somewhat paradoxical: The state is wasteful precisely because people are so concerned about wasting money. …This is a classic sunk-cost fallacy: Costs that can’t be recovered are “sunk,” and therefore irrelevant for future decision-making. But while this fallacy is well known in economics, sunk costs are a big deal in the practical world of politics. Nobody wants to waste money, and politicians don’t want to cause waste directly. No member of Congress wants to be publicly responsible for a half-built bridge, especially when they have to tell taxpayers they still have to foot the bill for it. …Congress’s unwillingness to cut the funding of poorly run projects is a significant reason government projects always spend too much. …Politicians are nervous about cutting ongoing projects because they don’t want to leave taxpayers empty-handed, but stomaching sunk costs is worth it. Not only is it economically sound to stop government agencies from bleeding money, but it also sets the precedent that shoddy work will be held accountable. …to save money, sometimes you have to lose money.

In other words, it would be good to stop the bleeding.

But that’s not politically easy. Mr. Pigeon has examples in his column, but he should have included California’s (supposed) high-speed rail project.

That boondoggle has been draining money from state and federal coffers for about a decade. Cost estimates have exploded (something that almost always happens with government projects), yet construction has barely started.

Yet now Biden wants to increase federal subsidies for that money pit, along with other long-distance rail schemes.

And you won’t be surprised that a big argument from supporters is that we’ve already wasted billions and billions of dollars on the project, so therefore we should continue to waste even more money (sort of like hitting yourself on the head with a hammer because it feels good when you stop).

The big-picture bottom line is that the burden of federal spending should be reduced so that politicians have less ability to waste money.

And that also means that Americans will be able to enjoy more growth and more prosperity.

The targeted bottom line is that we should get Washington out of infrastructure.

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I was a big fan of (and occasional guest on) John Stossel’s TV show, and I’m now a big fan of his videos (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

So it was an honor to appear in his latest video about “Capitalism Myths.”

It’s a two-part series. In this first video, we discussed three myths about free enterprise.

Myth #1 – Capitalists get rich by ‘taking’ money from others.

Since voluntary exchange, by definition, is mutually beneficial, this is a truly absurd argument. Indeed, only the most vapid politicians and pundits suggest otherwise.

The most definitive research in this area came from Professor William Nordhaus of Yale, who estimated that, “innovators are able to capture about 2.2 percent of the total social surplus from innovation.”

Translated from economic jargon, that means the rest of society gets nearly 98 percent of the value created by rich entrepreneurs.

Myth #2 – The rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer.

This is an issue I’ve repeatedly addressed, showing how poverty was the natural state of humanity until capitalism appeared a few hundred years ago.

Now we are incomprehensibly rich by comparison. At least in market-oriented nations.

Focusing on more-recent data, I’ve shown that living standards have dramatically increased in the post-World War II era.

In the video, John and I also discussed the Census Bureau’s data showing that the middle class is shrinking, but only because more people are becoming rich.

Myth #3 – Monopolies destroyed the free market.

Supporters of government intervention commonly argue that capitalism produces monopolies, meaning big producers capture the market and exploit consumers.

This is a rather puzzling argument since monopolies almost always are the result of government favoritism.

Even if we go back to the days of the so-called Robber Barons, we find that the consumers were only exploited when politicians decided to prohibit competition.

P.S. Next week, the second video will look at four other myths about capitalism.

P.P.S. On a related note, I have a five-part series (Part IPart IIPart III, and Part IV, and Part V) on “The Case for Capitalism.”

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I’ve spent several decades trying to convince people that we should have free markets and small government in order to increase national prosperity.

Indeed, I’ve even pointed out how very small increases in annual growth can lead to big improvements in living standards over just a couple of decades.

But some folks on the left are not very receptive to this argument. They genuinely (but incorrectly) seem to think the economy is a fixed pie (which also explains, at least in part, why they are so focused on redistribution).

So let’s share some hard data in hopes of getting them to understand that more prosperity is possible.

We’ll start will this chart of inflation-adjusted per-capita economic output in the United States, which comes from Oxford University’s Our World in Data.

The obvious takeaway from this data is that Americans are much richer today than they were after World War II. Adjusted for inflation, we’re now about four times richer than our grandparents.

Some of our friends on the left may be thinking these numbers are distorted, that average output has only increased because the rich have gotten so much richer.

Well, it is true that the rich have gotten richer. But it’s also true that the rest of us have become richer as well.

Which is why I shared data earlier this year showing median living standards rather than mean (average) living standards.

Folks on the left may also suspect that the post-1950 data is an anomaly. In other words, maybe I’m guilty of cherry-picking data.

That’s a common practice in the world of policy, so I don’t blame people for being suspicious.

So take a look at this chart, which I also first shared earlier this year. It shows that the increase in living standards has been even more dramatic if you look at changes since 1820.

By the way, none of these observations are new. Back in 1997, Micahel Cox and Richard Alm wrote a must-read article for the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank’s Annual Report.

Here are some of their findings.

What really matters…isn’t what something costs in money; it’s what it costs in time. Making money takes time, so when we shop, we’re really spending time. The real cost of living isn’t measured in dollars and cents but in the hours and minutes we must work to live. …A pair of stockings cost just 25¢ a century ago. This sounds wonderful until we learn that a worker of the era earned only 14.8¢ an hour. So paying for the stockings took 1 hour 41 minutes of work. Today a better pair requires only about 18 minutes of work. …In calculating our cost of living, a good place to start is with the basics—food, shelter and clothing. In terms of time on the job, the cost of a half-gallon of milk fell from 39 minutes in 1919 to 16 minutes in 1950, 10 minutes in 1975 and 7 minutes in 1997. A pound of ground beef steadily declined from 30 minutes in 1919 to 23 minutes in 1950, 11 minutes in 1975 and 6 minutes in 1997. Paying for a dozen oranges required 1 hour 8 minutes of work in 1919. Now it takes less than 10 minutes, half what it did in 1950.

These two visuals from the article are very informative.

First, look at how consumer products went from rare luxuries early in the 20th century to everyday products by the end of the century.

Equally important, these products have become cheaper and cheaper over time.

As illustrated by this second visual from the article.

All the data in the Cox-Alm article is more than 20 years old, so the numbers would be even more impressive today.

Indeed, you can see some more up-to-date data from Mark Perry, Steve Horwitz, and James Pethokoukis.

Professor Don Boudreaux put these numbers in context a few years ago in a column for the Foundation for Economic Education. Here’s some of what he wrote.

What is the minimum amount of money that you would demand in exchange for your going back to live even as John D. Rockefeller lived in 1916? …Think about it. …If you were a 1916 American billionaire you could, of course, afford prime real-estate.  You could afford a home on 5th Avenue or one overlooking the Pacific Ocean…  But when you traveled from your Manhattan digs to your west-coast palace, it would take a few days, and if you made that trip during the summer months, you’d likely not have air-conditioning in your private railroad car. …You could neither listen to radio (the first commercial radio broadcast occurred in 1920) nor watch television. …Obviously, you could not download music. …Your telephone was attached to a wall.  You could not use it to Skype. …Even the best medical care back then was horrid by today’s standards: it was much more painful and much less effective. …Antibiotics weren’t available. …Dental care wasn’t any better. …You were completely cut off from the cultural richness that globalization has spawned over the past century. …I wouldn’t be remotely tempted to quit the 2016 me so that I could be a one-billion-dollar-richer me in 1916.  This fact means that, by 1916 standards, I am today more than a billionaire.  It means, at least given my preferences, I am today materially richer than was John D. Rockefeller.

The bottom line is that we have become richer and we can continue to become richer.

But how fast things improve is partly a function of government policy. If we can impose some restraints on the size and scope of government, that will give the private sector some breathing room to grow and prosper.

In other words, we don’t need perfect policy, but it is important to at least have good policy.

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During the Obama years, I shared a cartoon strip that cleverly makes the point that some people will choose not to work if they can get enough goodies from the government.

That Wizard-of-Id parody has been viewed more than 56,000 times, which suggests many readers also thought it was worth sharing.

But it obviously hasn’t been shared often enough with the crowd in Washington. Politicians have created a welfare state that penalizes work and rewards dependency.

Especially now that there are bonus payments for staying unemployed. Which makes it hard to businesses to find workers.

Our friends on the left, however, think there’s a solution to this problem.

In his column for the New York Times, David Leonhardt says there is not a labor shortage because employers can simply raise wages.

The idea that the United States suffers from a labor shortage is fast becoming conventional wisdom. But before you accept the idea, it’s worth taking a few minutes to think it through. Once you do, you may realize that the labor shortage is more myth than reality. …one of the beauties of capitalism is its mechanism for dealing with shortages. In a communist system, people must wait in long lines when there is more demand than supply for an item. That’s an actual shortage. In a capitalist economy, however, there is a ready solution. …When a company is struggling to find enough labor, it can solve the problem by offering to pay a higher price for that labor — also known as higher wages. More workers will then enter the labor market. Suddenly, the labor shortage will be no more. …Sure enough, some companies have responded to the alleged labor shortage by doing exactly this. …companies that have recently announced pay increases include Amazon, Chipotle, Costco, McDonald’s, Walmart, J.P. Morgan Chase and Sheetz convenience stores.

Leonhardt is correct that businesses can lure workers back into the job market by boosting wages. I’m glad he recognizes how the price system works.

But he completely ignores the issue of whether some jobs will simply disappear because they’re not worth the amount of money that would be required to out-compete government handouts.

That’s the key argument from the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial on the topic.

…the U.S. labor market turned in its second disappointing result in a row in May, according to Friday’s Labor Department report. That’s what happens when government pays Americans not to work. Employers created 559,000 net new jobs in the month, which sounds great until you notice that 1.5 million fewer workers in May said they were unable to work because their employer closed or lost business due to the pandemic. …The civilian labor force shrank in May by 53,000, and the number of men over age 20 who were employed fell by 8,000. …What gives? The Occam’s razor explanation is that in March the Biden Administration and Congress ladled out another mountain of cash to Americans—work not required. The extra $300 a week in enhanced jobless benefits is one problem, since millions of Americans can make more staying on the couch. …This is on top of regular jobless benefits, plus new or extended cash payments such as the $3,000 per child tax credit, additional ObamaCare subsidies, and the $1,400 checks to individuals. Again, no work required.

For all intents and purposes, politicians in DC have been undoing the great achievement of welfare reform. That 1996 law was designed to push people from idleness into employment, and it was largely successful.

But over the past couple of decades, laws like Obamacare have given people goodies without any conditionality, which has resulted in many people deciding once again that they don’t need to work.

And if Biden’s per-child handouts are made permanent, expect the problem to get even worse.

Since we started with a cartoon, let’s close with another cartoon.

This gem from Henry Payne captures the problem facing many small businesses.

Big companies have enough financial depth that they can adapt. They have considerable ability to get rid of low-skilled jobs, invest in labor-saving technologies, and even give some raises to employees they retain.

Many small businesses, however, are simply out of luck. That’s one group of victims.

The other victims are the people who get goodies from politicians. Yes, the various handouts make their lives easier in the short run, but once they get trapped in the quicksand of government dependency, it’s very difficult to escape.

P.S. Because he said some sensible things about “basic income” back in 2017, I had hoped Biden would be better on this issue. I should have known better based on his track record.

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Biden campaigned for higher taxes and a bigger welfare state, so I haven’t been surprised by his misguided fiscal agenda.

That being said, I was modestly hopeful that he would move trade policy in the right direction after four years of Trump’s protectionism.

To be sure, I didn’t think he would do the right thing because of some long-hidden belief in sound economics. But I figured he might reduce trade barriers simply to do the opposite of his predecessor.

We should be so lucky. Regardless of the policy, we’ve been getting statism.

Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post is not impressed by Biden’s protectionism.

Several months after he left office, some of President Donald Trump’s most foolish economic policies remain in place: his sweeping trade restrictions. …Trump began waging a series of trade wars three years ago — not primarily with U.S. adversaries, mind you, but with friends. Among the dumbest and most self-sabotaging measures were global tariffs levied on nearly $50 billion of imported steel and aluminum. …the countries most affected by Trump’s move were our close economic and military allies, including the European Union, Canada and Japan. …Despite Trump’s claims otherwise, the cost of the tariffs was primarily passed through to American consumers and companies. Downstream firms that use steel or inputs made of steel, which employ about 80 times more workers than the steel industry does, faced higher costs. One estimate found that Trump’s steel tariffs alone cost U.S. consumers and businesses about $900,000 for every job created or saved.

Getting rid of taxes on imported steel and aluminum would be a positive step for the economy.

But the real goal should be getting rid of all Trump’s taxes on global trade. Garrett Watson from the Tax Foundation recently shared estimates of how this would benefit the American economy.

…repealing the tariffs imposed under President Trump’s administration would be one of the simplest ways policymakers could boost economic growth. …About $460 billion worth of goods were subject to the tariffs, raising prices for consumers. In fact, we estimated the tariffs were about an $80 billion annual tax increase, reducing consumer purchasing power. …According to the Tax Foundation model, repealing tariffs imposed since 2018 would raise long-run GDP by 0.1 percent, long-run incomes (gross national product) by 0.2 percent, and create about 83,000 full-time equivalent jobs. This growth would boost after-tax incomes by about 0.3 percent for people across the income spectrum, helping low-income and middle-class taxpayers. …Repealing the tariffs would be a simple option to boost growth because it can be done without congressional authorization by President Biden, and would provide timely relief to businesses and households.

The last sentence is key. Trump had lots of unilateral authority to impose bad trade policy, and Biden has lots of unilateral authority to undo bad trade policy.

The fact that he hasn’t exercised that authority makes him just as guilty of anti-market trade policy as Trump.

The next thing to watch for is whether he continues Trump’s bad policy of sabotaging the World Trade Organization.

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When I debate public policy with leftists, I frequently stump them by asking for an example of a country where their ideas have worked.

They get flummoxed for the simple reason that no nation has ever become rich with big government.

There are some rich nations that have big governments, to be sure, but they all became rich in the 1800s and early 1900s, back when government was a tiny burden (and there often were no income taxes).

That’s true for the United States. And it’s true for Western Europe.

It’s also worth noting that places that have become rich in the modern era, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, have small governments and low tax burdens.

I’m making these points because Jim Tankersley of the New York Times has a thorough article on the Biden Administration’s budgetary philosophy.

And that philosophy is based on a completely different perspective. Indeed, the headline and subtitle are a very good summary of the entire article.

Here are some passages that further capture the Biden approach.

President Biden’s $6 trillion budget bets on the power of government to propel workers, families and businesses to new heights of prosperity…by redistributing income and wealth from high earners and corporations to grow the middle class. …it sets the nation on a new and higher spending path, with total federal outlays rising to $8.2 trillion by 2031… That spending represents an attempt to expand the size and scope of federal engagement in Americans’ daily lives… Mr. Biden also seeks to expand the government safety net in an effort to help Americans — particularly women of all races and men of color — work and earn more, rather than relying on corporate America to funnel higher wages to workers. …Mr. Biden is pushing what amounts to a permanent increase in the size of the federal footprint on the U.S. economy. Since 1980, annual federal spending has been, on average, about one-fifth the size of the nation’s economic output; under Mr. Biden’s plans, that would grow to close to one-fourth.

The article is definitely correct about one thing. As I wrote yesterday, Biden wants a big expansion of government spending.

But is he correct about the consequences? Will bigger government “help Americans” and allow more of them to “enjoy prosperity”?

If the evidence from Europe is any indication, adopting bigger welfare states is not a recipe for more prosperity.

For instance, OECD data on “actual individual consumption” show that people in the United States enjoy much higher living standards than their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

There’s also very powerful data showing that poor Americans (those at the 20th percentile) have higher living standards than most middle-class Europeans.

There’s even data showing that very poor Americans (those at the 10th percentile) have living standards equal to most middle-class Europeans.

The bottom line is that Biden wants higher taxes and more redistribution, but that’s been a big failure in the part of the world that has tried that approach.

Not that we should be surprised. Both theory and evidence tell us that bigger government is bad for prosperity.

P.S. There’s a very sobering example of what happens when a rich nation decides to dramatically curtail economic liberty.

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