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Posts Tagged ‘Economics’

I can understand why immigration reform is so contentious since it touches on all sorts of hot-button issues, such as jobs, politics, national identity, and the welfare state.

But I don’t understand why there’s a controversy just because Governor Walker of Wisconsin supports a specific part of the immigration system that provides easier access for foreigners who are willing to invest money and create jobs in America.

Seems like a win-win situation, but check out these excerpts from a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

We’ll start with a description of the program.

Congress created the EB-5 program in 1990… Under the Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Immigrant Investor Program, foreigners can obtain these visas by investing $500,000 in high unemployment areas — or $1 million elsewhere — in projects generating or saving 10 jobs over two years. According to The New York Times, the federal government puts the green card applications from these foreign investors on the fast track. In general, it takes about two years to obtain legal residency through the program; other visa programs take much longer.

Not let’s get to the controversy over Governor Walker’s support.

…there’s one federal visa program you won’t hear him attack. It’s the controversial and deeply troubled immigrant investor program. The program — known as EB-5 — puts wealthy foreigners on the path to U.S. citizenship if they invest at least $500,000 in an American commercial project that will create or preserve 10 jobs. Critics have called the abuse-riddled program a “scam” that essentially sells green cards to the affluent and their families, with more than 80% of those in the program coming from China. …David North, a fellow with the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, said…the program is flawed in its premise. “I think it’s immoral, fattening and otherwise unattractive to sell visas, which is what we’re doing now,” North said.

By thew way, there are reasons to be unhappy about the EB-5 program, at least in the way it operates.

I’ve already shared examples of how political insiders are manipulating the program for cronyist purposes.

But today let’s look at the concept of whether it’s good to have an “economic citizenship” program.

And we’ll start the very relevant point that any immigration system is going to be arbitrary.

  • A lottery system is arbitrary because you get to come to America because of luck.
  • A family-reunification system is arbitrary because you get to come to America because of your genes.
  • A system based on refugee status is arbitrary because you get to come to America based on geopolitical circumstances.
  • Even an “open borders” system is arbitrary because you don’t get to come to America if you’re a terrorist, criminal, have communicable diseases, etc.

So if a system is going to be based on arbitrary factors, what’s wrong with deciding that one of the criteria is economic benefit to the United States?

Indeed, maybe I’m too myopic because of my background and training, but it seems like economic benefit should be a factor that everyone can support. After all, these won’t be people seeking handouts from the welfare system.

Consider these passages from a recent New York Times story about all the EB-5 money that’s boosting the Empire State’s economy.

Through a federal visa program known as EB-5, foreigners, more than 80 percent of them from China, are investing billions of dollars in hotels, condominiums, office towers and public/private works in the hope it will result in green cards. Twelve-hundred foreigners have poured $600 million into projects at Hudson Yards; 1,154 have invested $577 million in Pacific Park Brooklyn, the development formerly known as Atlantic Yards; and 500 have put $250 million into the Four Seasons hotel and condominium in the financial district. The list of projects involving EB-5 investments also includes the International Gem Tower on West 47th Street and the New York Wheel on Staten Island. …In the last four years, the program’s popularity has surged. In fiscal year 2010, 1,885 visas were issued. But by fiscal year 2013 that figure jumped 354 percent to 8,564, according to government data. Last year, the entire annual allotment of 10,000 visas had been claimed by August — before the end of the fiscal year in October. This year the quota was reached even earlier, on May 1.

As an aside, this program isn’t attractive to those with lots of money because of America’s punitive tax system.

“This program is not for the very rich in China, because the superwealthy do not want to pay U.S. taxes.” Instead, he said, the wealthiest Chinese prefer to have their legal residences in low tax jurisdictions like Hong Kong or Singapore, and then take advantage of 10-year tourist visas to the United States.

While I’m tempted to now explain why we should fix our bad tax system, let’s stick to the topic of immigration and delve further into the issue of whether it’s good to attract economically successful foreigners to America.

Some scholars say the answer is yes, but they think the EB-5 program is inefficient.

Here’s some of what Professor Eric Posner of the University of Chicago Law School wrote for Slate.

The program is a mess. …it’s almost impossible to figure out whether a specific investment generates jobs rather than reshuffles them from one place to another. There have also been examples of outright fraud and political cronyism. Part of the problem is a lack of documentation but the real problem is that the program is misconceived. …the price we charge for citizenship is extraordinarily low. …A shrewd investor will find an investment that pays a couple percentage points below the market rate. If he invests $500,000 in order to obtain, say, a 6 percent return rather than an 8 percent return, then the true price he pays for U.S. citizenship is $10,000 in foregone return.

So what’s the alternative?

Gary Becker, the late University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate, once proposed that the United States should sell citizenship to foreigners for a flat fee. The EB-5 program approximates Becker’s proposal, albeit in the most inefficient way possible. Becker argued that citizenship is a scarce good just like tomatoes and hula hoops, and is thus subject to the law of supply and demand. America owns visas and should sell them to willing buyers at the market-clearing price. We would attract immigrants who are skilled enough to earn wages that would cover the fee, and we would gain again from the tax on their wages once they began work in this country. These types of immigrants—the ones who could afford the fee—would be least likely to burden the public fisc by needing welfare payments.

The Becker plan, which Posner basically supports, certainly would be simpler than the EB-5 program.

And it presumably eliminates the instances of corrupt cronyism that taint that otherwise good system.

Moreover, many of the nations with economic citizenship programs use this approach.

But here’s the downside. If you sell citizenship directly, the money goes to the government rather than to the productive sector of the economy.

That might be acceptable if it meant that the politicians reduced or eliminated some tax. But I fear the real-world impact would be to simply give the crowd in Washington more money to waste.

So perhaps the real challenge is to figure out some smarter way of operating the EB-5 program so we get even more private investment and job creation while also reducing opportunities for cronyist intervention.

P.S. If you want to enjoy some immigration-themed humor, here’s some involving Peru and Canada.

P.P.S. While I don’t like government getting more money, that shouldn’t be the only factor when grading a policy proposal. I fretted, for instance, that pot legalization in Colorado would be a mixed blessing because it would generate more tax revenue. But thanks to Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, the politicians haven’t been able to spend all the new money, so it’s unambiguously a win-win situation.

P.P.P.S. The Princess of the Levant is in America because of the immigration lottery, so I certainly won’t be complaining too much about arbitrary systems. [correction: The PoTL has informed me that her U.S. residency is the result of her grandfather’s application and not the lottery]

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The American Enterprise Institute has published a comprehensive budgetary plan entitled, “Tax and spending reform for fiscal stability and economic growth.”

Authored by Joseph Antos, Andrew G. Biggs, Alex Brill, and Alan D. Viard, all of whom I know and admire, this new document outlines a series of reforms designed to restrain the growth of government and mitigate many of the tax code’s more punitive features.

Compared to current law, the plan is a huge improvement.

But huge improvement isn’t the same as perfect, so here’s my two cents on what’s really good, what’s partially good, and what has me worried.

I’ll start with something that’s both good and bad.

According to the latest CBO estimates, federal tax revenues for 2015 will absorb 17.7 percent of GDP and spending will consume 20.4 percent of economic output. Now look at this table showing the impact of the AEI proposal. As you can see, the burden of taxes and spending will both be higher in the future than today.

That’s obviously bad. One would think a conservative organization would present a plan that shrinks the size of government!

But here’s the catch. Under current law, the burden of government is projected to climb far more rapidly, largely because of demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs. So if we do nothing and leave government on auto-pilot, America will be saddled with a European-sized welfare state.

From that perspective, the AEI plan actually is good since it is based on reforms that stop most – but not all – of the already-legislated expansions in the size of the public sector.

So here’s the bottom line. Compared to what I would like to see, the AEI plan is too timid. But compared to what I fear will happen, the AEI plan is reasonably bold.

Now let’s look at the specific reforms, staring with tax policy. Here’s some of what’s in the report.

The goal of our tax reform is to eliminate the income tax’s inherent bias against saving and investment and to reduce other tax distortions. To achieve this goal, the income tax system and the estate and gift taxes would be replaced by a progressive consumption tax, in the form of a Bradford X tax consisting of a…37 percent flat-rate firm-level tax on business cash flow and a graduated-rate household-level tax, with a top rate of 35 percent, on wages and fringe benefits.

At the risk of oversimplifying, the AEI folks decided that it was very important to solve the problem of double taxation and not so important to deal with the problem of a discriminatory and punitive rate structure. Which is sort of like embracing one big part of the flat tax while ignoring the other big part.

We’d have a less destructive tax code than we have now, but it wouldn’t be as good as it could be. Indeed, the plan is conceptually similar to the Rubio-Lee proposal, but with a lot more details.

Not that I’m happy with all those additional details.

To address environmental externalities in a more cost-effective and market-based manner, energy subsidies, tax credits, and regulations would be replaced by a modest carbon tax. The gasoline tax would be increased to cover highway-related costs.

I’m very nervous about giving Washington a new source of revenue. And while I’m open (in theory) to the argument that a carbon tax would be a better (less worse) approach than what we have now, I’m not sure it’s wise to trust that politicians won’t pull a bait and switch and burden us with both a costly energy tax and new forms of regulatory intervention.

And I definitely don’t like the idea of a higher gas tax. The federal government should be out of the transportation business.

There are also other features that irk me, including the continuation of some loopholes and the expansion of redistribution through the tax code.

Child and dependent care expenses could be deducted… A 15 percent refundable credit for charitable contributions… A 15 percent refundable credit for mortgage interest… A refundable credit for health insurance…the EITC for childless workers would be doubled relative to current law.

Though I should also point out that the new tax system proposed by AEI would be territorial, which would be a big step in the right direction. And it’s also important to note that the X tax has full expensing, which solves the bias against investment in a depreciation-based system.

But now let’s look at the most worrisome feature of the plan. It explicitly says that Washington should get more money.

… we also cannot address the imbalance simply by cutting spending… The tax proposals presented in this plan raise necessary revenues… Over time, tax revenue would gradually rise as a share of GDP… The upward path of tax revenue is necessary to finance the upward path of federal spending.

This is very counterproductive. But I don’t want to regurgitate my ideological anti-tax arguments (click here if that’s what you want). Let’s look at this issue from a strictly practical perspective.

I’ve reluctantly admitted that there are potential tax-hike deals that I would accept, at least in theory.

But those deals will never happen. In the real world, once the potential for additional revenue exists, the appetite for genuine spending restraint quickly evaporates. Just look at the evidence from Europe about the long-run relationship between taxes and debt and you’ll see that more revenue simply enables more spending.

Speaking of which, now let’s shift to the outlay side of the fiscal ledger.

We’ll start with Social Security, where the AEI folks are proposing to turn Social Security from a substandard social insurance program, which is bad, to a flat benefit, which might even be worse since it involves a shift to a system that is even more focused on redistribution.

The minimum benefit would be implemented immediately, increasing benefits for about one third of retirees, while benefits for middle- and high-earning individuals would be scaled down to the wage-indexed poverty level between now and 2050.

Yes, the system they propose is more fiscally sustainable for government, but what about the fact that most workers are paying record amounts of payroll tax in exchange for a miserly monthly payment?

This is why the right answer is personal retirement accounts.

The failure to embrace personal accounts may be the most disappointing feature of the AEI plan. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the authors veered in this unfortunate direction because they put the cart of debt reduction ahead of the horse of good policy.

To elaborate, a big challenge for real Social Security reform is the “transition cost” of financing promised benefits to current retirees and older workers when younger workers are allowed to shift their payroll taxes to personal accounts. Dealing with this challenge presumably means more borrowing over the next few decades, but it would give us a much better system in the long run. But this approach generally isn’t an attractive option for folks who fixate on near-term government debt.

That being said, there are spending reforms in the proposal that are very appealing.

The AEI plan basically endorses the good Medicare and Medicaid reforms that have been part of recent GOP budgets. And since those two programs are the biggest drivers of our long-run spending crisis, this is very important.

With regards to discretionary spending, the program maintains sequester/Budget Control Act spending levels for domestic programs, which is far too much since we should be abolishing departments such as HUD, Agriculture, Transportation, Education, etc.

But since Congress presumably would spend even more, the AEI plan could be considered a step in the right direction.

Finally, the AEI plan calls for military spending to consume 3.8 percent of economic output in perpetuity. National defense is one of the few legitimate functions of the federal government, but that doesn’t mean the Pentagon should get a blank check, particularly since big chunks of that check get used for dubious purposes. But I’ll let the foreign policy and defense crowd fight that issue since it’s not my area of expertise.

P.S. The Heritage Foundation also has thrown in the towel on personal retirement accounts and embraced a basic universal flat benefit.

P.P.S. On a completely different topic, here’s a fascinating chart that’s being shared on Twitter.

As you can see, the United States is an exception that proves the rule. I don’t know that there are any policy implications, but I can’t help but wonder whether America’s greater belief in self-reliance is linked to the tendency of religious people to believe in individual ethics and moral behavior.

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In my ultimate fantasy world, Washington wouldn’t need any sort of broad-based tax because we succeeded in shrinking the federal government back to the very limited size and scope envisioned by our Founding Fathers.

In my more realistic fantasy world, we might not be able to restore constitutional limits on Washington, but at least we could reform the tax code so that revenues were generated in a less destructive fashion.

That’s why I’m a big advocate of a simple and fair flat tax, which has several desirable features.

The rate is as low as possible, to minimize penalties on productive behavior.

There’s no double taxation, so no more bias against saving and investment.

And there are no distorting loopholes that bribe people into inefficient choices.

But not everyone is on board, The class-warfare crowd will never like a flat tax. And Washington insiders hate tax reform because it undermines their power.

But there are also sensible people who are hesitant to back fundamental reform.

Consider what Reihan Salam just wrote for National Review. He starts with a reasonably fair description of the proposal.

The original flat tax, championed by the economists Robert Hall and Alvin Rabushka, which formed the basis of Steve Forbes’s flat-tax proposal in 1996, is a single-rate tax on consumption, with a substantial exemption to make the tax progressive at the low end of the household-income distribution.

Though if I want to nit-pick, I could point out that the flat tax has effective progressivity across all incomes because the family-based exemption is available to everyone. As such, a poor household pays nothing. A middle-income household might have an effective tax rate of 12 percent. And the tax rate for Bill Gates would be asymptotically approaching 17 percent (or whatever the statutory rate is).

My far greater concerns arise when Reihan delves into economic analysis.

…the Hall-Rabushka tax would be highly regressive, in part because high-income households tend to consume less of their income than lower-income households and because investment income would not be taxed (or rather double-taxed).

This is a very schizophrenic passage since he makes a claim of regressivity even though he acknowledged that the flat tax has effective progressivity just a few sentences earlier.

And since he admits that the flat tax actually does tax income that is saved and invested (but only one time rather than over and over again, as can happen in the current system), it’s puzzling why he says the system is “highly regressive.”

If he simply said the flat tax was far less progressive (i.e., less discriminatory) than the current system, that would have been fine.

Here’s the next passage that rubbed me the wrong way.

…there is some dispute over whether ending the double taxation of savings would yield significant growth dividends. Chris William Sanchirico of Penn Law School takes a skeptical view in a review of the academic research on the subject, in part because cutting capital-income taxation as part of a revenue-neutral reform would require offsetting increases in labor-income taxation, which would dampen long-term economic growth in their own right.

I’m not even sure where to start. First, Reihan seems to dismiss the role of dynamic scoring in enabling low tax rates on labor. Second, he cites just one professor about growth effects and overlooks the overwhelming evidence from other perspectives. And third, he says the flat tax would be revenue neutral, when virtually every plan that’s been proposed combines tax reform with a tax cut.

On a somewhat more positive note, Reihan then suggests that lawmakers instead embrace “universal savings accounts” as an alternative to sweeping tax reform.

Instead of campaigning for a flat tax, GOP candidates ought to consider backing Universal Savings Accounts (USAs)… The main difference between USAs and Roth IRAs is that “withdrawals could be made at any time for any reason,” a change that would make the accounts far more attractive to far more people. …Unlike a wholesale shift to consumption taxation, USAs with a contribution limit are a modest step in the same general direction, which future reformers can build on.

I have no objection to incremental reform to reduce double taxation, and I’ve previously written about the attractiveness of USAs, so it sounds like we’re on the same page. And if you get rid of all double taxation and keep rates about where they are now, you get the Rubio-Lee tax plan, which I’ve also argued is a positive reform.

But then he closes with an endorsement of more redistribution through the tax code.

Republicans should put Earned Income Tax Credit expansion and other measures to improve work incentives for low-income households at the heart of their tax-reform agenda.

I want to improve work incentives, but it’s important to realize that the EIC is “refundable,” which is simply an inside-the-beltway term for spending that is laundered through the tax code. In other words, the government isn’t refunding taxes to people. It’s giving money to people who don’t owe taxes.

As an economist, I definitely think it’s better to pay people to work instead of subsidizing them for not working. But we also need to understand that this additional spending has two negative tax implications.

  1. When politicians spend more money, that either increases pressure for tax increases or it makes tax cuts more difficult to achieve.
  2. The EIC is supposed to boost labor force participation, but the evidence is mixed on this point, and any possible benefit with regards to the number of people working may be offset by reductions in actual hours worked because the phase out of the EIC’s wage subsidy is akin to a steep increase in marginal tax rates on additional labor supply.

In any event, I don’t want the federal government in the business of redistributing income. We’ll get much better results, both for poor people and taxpayers, if state and local government compete and innovate to figure out the best ways of ending dependency.

The rest of Reihan’s column is more focused on political obstacles to the flat tax. Since I’ve expressed pessimism on getting a flat tax in my lifetime, I can’t really argue too strenuously with those points.

In closing, I used “friendly fight” in the title of this post for a reason. I don’t get the sense that Mr. Salam is opposed to good policy. Indeed, I would be very surprised if he preferred the current convoluted system over the flat tax.

But if there was a spectrum with “prudence” and “caution” on one side and “bold” and “aggressive” on the other side, I suspect we wouldn’t be on the same side. And since it’s good for there to be both types of people in any movement, that’s a good thing.

P.S. I got a special treat this morning. I was at Reagan Airport for a flight to Detroit at the same time as a bunch of America’s World War II vets arrived on an Honor Flight to visit the WWII Memorial.

Here’s my rather pathetic attempt to get a photo of one of the vets being greeted.

Since I’ll never be in demand as a photographer, you should watch this video to learn more about this great private initiative to honor World War II veterans.

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There’s an old saying that you shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds you. Unfortunately, politicians in Washington don’t follow that advice.

Let me explain. All economic theories – even Marxism and socialism – agree that capital formation is a necessary condition for long-run growth and higher wages.

The Marxists and the socialists are misguided in thinking that government has the capacity to be in charge of saving and investing, but at least they recognize that you have to set aside some of today’s income to finance tomorrow’s growth. And they even understand that capital formation leads to more productivity and higher wages.

The politicians, however, act as if they don’t understand the importance of saving and investment. Or, based on the policies we get from Washington, maybe they simply don’t care about the well-being of workers, savers, and investors.

Which is a very short-sighted attitude since capital formation leads to a bigger tax base (i.e., more income that they can tax), which is something they presumably should care about!

I’m pondering this conundrum because of a thought-provoking column. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Thomas Duesterberg and Donald Norman explore the very important question of why corporations are in very strong shape while investment is lagging.

Corporate profits and cash flow are strong, cash on the books of American firms is at record highs… Yet capital investment, which is one of the main pillars of growing productivity and rising living standards, is historically weak. …In 2014, real gross domestic product was 8.7% above the level it reached just before the onset of the great recession in late 2007, …yet gross private investment was just 3.9% higher. Private investment net of depreciation—an even better measure of keeping up production and innovation capacity—was $524 billion in 2013 (the last year for which we have good data), compared with $860 billion in 2006.

Why is this a problem?

For the simple reason that less investment means lower productivity. And lower productivity translates into stagnant wages.

Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that labor productivity grew at an average rate of just 1.5% a year between 2005 and 2014, and by 0.7% a year since 2011. These numbers compare poorly with the average annual growth rates of 3.3% between 1948 and 1973, and 3.2% between 1996 and 2004.

So why has investment been weak?

You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that bad government policy is at the top of the list. Having the world’s highest corporate tax rate obviously doesn’t help.

…one clear factor—noted by many economic analysts—is corporate tax rates, including effective tax rates. These rates can sway decisions about where companies locate new production or research facilities.

Mindless regulation and red tape also puts a costly burden on the economy’s productive sector.

Regulation is also a growing burden. For example, a 2012 study by NERA Economic Consulting notes that the number of major regulations in the manufacturing sector has grown at the compound annual rate of 7.6% since 1998, compared with only 2.2% average annual growth in GDP. …in the World Economic Forum’s annual “Global Competitiveness Report.” …in the category for “burden of government regulation” the latest report ranks the U.S. 82nd of 144.

America also is falling behind in trade.

More than 400 regional free trade agreements have come into effect since 1995, but the United States is party to just two of these and to 10 smaller-scale bilateral agreements. Europe has 38 separate FTAs, and Mexico has added Europe and all of Latin America to its arsenal, which is one reason cited by Audi recently in locating its newest plant there instead of in the U.S.

Last but not least, the overall policy environment in Washington is creating “regime uncertainty.”

A number of studies—including one at Stanford led by Nicholas Bloom and Scott Baker, and at the University of Chicago led by Steven Davis—have employed sophisticated models to chart what is seen as a secular trend in growth of uncertainty that is tied to growth in government regulation, spending, taxes…major shifts in monetary policy probably also contribute to uncertainty.

In other words, investment is lagging both because of the bad policies that have been imposed and because of the expectation/fear that there will be additional burdens coming from Washington.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that corporations are sitting on record piles of cash. Simply stated, it doesn’t make much sense to invest if there’s little hope of future profits.

And don’t be surprised that banks also are sitting on record piles of cash for the same reason.

When I share this kind of information with some of my leftist friends, I frequently get a visceral response about how they won’t shed any tears just because there are fewer profitable opportunities for “fatcat investors” and “rich corporations.”

That reaction doesn’t bother me, at least in the sense that I never lose sleep about the financial health of Warren Buffett or General Electric.

But then I ask my statist friends whether we should be concerned about the “collateral damage” that occurs when lower levels of investment result in less productivity growth, which translates into stagnant wages for ordinary Americans.

Here’s the bottom line. If you punish investors, you also punish workers. This is why, as Walter Williams has explained, the class-warfare mentality is so destructive.

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America has a giant long-run problem largely caused by poorly designed entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

So when I wrote last month about proposals by some Democrats to expand Social Security, I was less than enthusiastic.

…demographic changes and ill-designed programs will combine to dramatically expand the size of the public sector over the next few decades. So it’s really amazing that some politicians, led by the clownish Elizabeth Warren, want to dig the hole deeper. …I’m surprised demagogues such as Elizabeth Warren haven’t rallied behind a plan to simply add a bunch of zeroes to the IOUs already sitting in the so-called Social Security Trust Fund. …If Hillary winds up endorsing Warren’s reckless plan, it will give us another data point for our I-can’t-believe-she-said-that collection.

But it turns out I may have been too nice in my analysis.

As reported by USA Today, independent researchers have discovered that Social Security is even more bankrupt than suggested by official estimates.

New studies from Harvard and Dartmouth researchers find that the SSA’s actuarial forecasts have been consistently overstating the financial health of the program’s trust funds since 2000. “These biases are getting bigger and they are substantial,” said Gary King, co-author of the studies and director of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science. “[Social Security] is going to be insolvent before everyone thinks.” …Once the trust funds are drained, annual revenues from payroll tax would be projected to cover only three-quarters of scheduled Social Security benefits through 2088.

By the way, I’m not overly enamored with this analysis since it is based on the assumption that the Social Security Trust Fund is real when it’s really nothing but a collection of IOUs.

But if you don’t believe me, perhaps you’ll believe the Clinton Administration, which admitted back in 1999 (see page 337) that the Trust Fund is just a bookkeeping gimmick.

These balances are available to finance future benefit payments and other trust fund expenditures–but only in a bookkeeping sense. …They do not consist of real economic assets that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits. Instead, they are claims on the Treasury, that, when redeemed, will have to be financed by raising taxes, borrowing from the public, or reducing benefits or other expenditures.

In other words, what really matters is that Social Security spending is climbing too fast and consuming an ever-larger share of economic output.

That means – in the absence of reform – that more and more money will be diverted from the economy’s productive sector, in the form of taxes or borrowing, to finance benefits.

And when I write “more and more money,” that’s not a throwaway statement.

Returning to the USA Today report, academic experts warn that the long-term shortfall in the program is understated because it is based on 75-year estimates even though the program doesn’t have an expiration date.

The bigger problem with the Social Security Administration is not disclosure, it’s accounting, said Laurence Kotlikoff, a Boston University professor of economics… Kotlikoff…wants the agency to calculate its liabilities using fiscal gap accounting, which considers the difference between the government’s projected financial obligations and the present value of all projected future tax and other revenue. …Under this accounting system, SSA’s projected unfunded liabilities would be $24.9 trillion (instead of the $10.6 trillion projected in 2088). …17 Nobel Prize-winning economists have endorsed Kotlikoff’s push for the SSA and other government agencies to use the fiscal gap accounting method more broadly. “We have a situation that is like Enron accounting,” Kotlikoff said. “And the public doesn’t want to hear about it.”

At the risk of being pedantic, I’m also not enamored with either approach mentioned in the above passage.

Sure, we should acknowledge all expenses and not arbitrarily assume the program disappears after 75 years, but the approach used to calculate “unfunded liabilities” is artificial since it is based on how much money would need to be invested today to finance future promised benefits (whether for 75 years or forever).

Needless to say, governments don’t budget by setting aside trillions of dollars to meet future expenses. Social Security, like other programs, is funded on a pay-as-you-go basis.

That’s why the most appropriate way to measure the shortfall is to take all projected future deficits, adjust them for inflation, and calculate the total. When you do that, the Social Security shortfall is a staggering $40 trillion.

And that’s based on just a 75-year estimate, so the real number is much higher.

Though keep in mind that this is just an estimate of the fiscal shortfall. What really matters is the total level of spending, not how much is financed with red ink.

Which is why the only real answer is genuine reform.

For further information, here’s the video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity on the need to modernize the system with personal retirement accounts.

But if you prefer to trust politicians, you can always support the left’s favored solution.

P.S. You can enjoy some previous Social Security cartoons here, here, and here. And we also have a Social Security joke if you appreciate grim humor.

P.P.S. The “Trust Fund” is real only in the sense that the government’s legal authority to pay benefits will be constrained when the IOUs are used up. That’s why the USA Today article says that the government at that point would be able to pay only about 3/4ths of promised benefits (though one imagines that future politicians will simply override that technical provision and require full payments).

P.P.P.S. Many nations have adopted genuine reform based on private retirement savings, including Australia, Sweden, the Faroe Islands, Chile, and The Netherlands.

P.P.P.P.S. Because of lower life expectancies, African-Americans are very disadvantaged by the Social Security system. A system of personal accounts presumably wouldn’t help them live longer, but at least they would have a nest egg to pass on to their kids.

P.P.P.P.P.S. And don’t fall for the false argument that financial markets are too unstable for personal retirement accounts

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I wrote just yesterday about new evidence showing that decentralized government is more efficient.

Part of the reason is because local governments are easier for voters to monitor and more likely to reflect the actual preferences of residents.

Another reason is tax competition. It’s relatively easy to “vote with your feet” by moving from one community to another, and this makes it difficult for interest groups and politicians to impose excessive tax burdens.

Now we have some serendipity.

I’m in Gdansk, Poland, for a Liberty Fund seminar on “Economic Growth, Entrepreneurship, and the Future of the Welfare State.”

Two of the readings, by great scholars from the Austrian school of economics, had passages about the importance of decentralization.

In 1960, here’s some of what Friedrich Hayek wrote in his classic, The Constitution of Liberty.

While it has always been characteristic of those favoring an increase in governmental powers to support maximum concentration of these powers, those mainly concerned with individual liberty have generally advocated decentralization. There are strong reasons why action by local authorities offers the next-best solution…it has many of the advantages of private enterprise and fewer of the dangers of coercive action by government. Competition between local authorities or between larger units within an area where there is freedom of movement…will secure most of the advantages of free growth. Though the majority of individuals may never contemplate a change of residence, there will usually be enough people, especially among the young and more enterprising, to make it necessary for the local authorities to provide as good services at a reasonable costs as their competitors. It is usually the authoritarian planner who…supports the centralist tendencies.

I should have remembered that quote from my collection of pro-tax competition statements by Nobel laureates.

In any event, I’m glad my memory was refreshed.

And here’s some of what Ludwig von Mises wrote in his 1944 book, Omnipotent Government. He approached the issue from the opposite direction, explaining that proponents of redistribution needed centralization so their intended victims couldn’t escape by moving across city borders.

Every step toward more government interference and toward more planning means at the same time an expansion of the jurisdiction of the central government. …It is a very significant fact that the adversaries of this trend toward more government control describe their opposition as a fight against Washington…against centralization. …This evolution is not accidental. It is the inevitable outcome of policies of interference and planning. …There can be no question of adopting these measure for only one state. It is impossible to raise production costs within a territory not sheltered by trade walls.

And remember that there’s academic evidence showing that decentralization limits redistribution.

So the statists were smart to oppose welfare reform, since that meant decentralization and less wasteful and counterproductive spending.

Just as the statists are smart to push for a nationwide sales tax cartel. And just as the statists are wise to push for an end to international tax competition.

All of which means, of course, that the rest of us (at least those of us who value liberty) should follow the wisdom of Hayek and Mises.

P.S. Hayek even has groupies.

P.P.S. And Hayek even came back to life for Part I and Part II of the Hayek v Keynes rap videos.

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In early November of last year, I shared some remarkable data from a groundbreaking study published by the European Central Bank (ECB).

The study looking at public sector efficiency (PSE) in developed nations and found that “big governments spend a lot more and deliver considerably less.”

Later in the month, I wrote about a second ECB study that looked at a broader set of nations and further confirmed that smaller government produces better results.

The first ECB study clearly concluded that “small” government is more efficient and productive than either “medium” government or “big” government. Based on the second ECB study, we can conclude that it’s even better if government is…well, I guess we’ll have to use the term “smaller than small.”

Today, we can augment this research by looking at a new study from the International Monetary Fund.

The IMF’s new working paper on “Fiscal Decentralization and the Efficiency of Public Service Delivery” shows that it’s not only good to have small government, but that it’s also good to have decentralized government. Here are the main findings.

This paper analyzes the impacts of fiscal decentralization on the efficiency of public service delivery. …The paper’s findings suggest that fiscal decentralization can serve as a policy tool to improve performance… an adequate institutional environment is needed for decentralization to improve public service delivery. Such conditions include effective autonomy of local governments, strong accountability at various levels of institutions, good governance, and strong capacity at the local level. Moreover, a sufficient degree of expenditure decentralization seems necessary to obtain a positive outcome. And finally, decentralization of expenditure needs to be accompanied by sufficient decentralization of revenue to obtain favorable outcomes.

Here’s some explanation of why it’s better to have decisions made by sub-national governments.

Local governments possess better access to local preferences and, consequently, have an informational advantage over the central government in deciding which provision of goods and services would best satisfy citizens’ needs. …Local accountability is expected to put pressure on local authorities to continuously search for ways to produce and deliver better public service under limited resources, leading to “productive efficiency.” …Decentralization…encourages competition across local governments to improve public services; voters can use the performance of neighboring governments to make inferences about the competence or benevolence of their own local politicians… Fiscal decentralization may lead to a decrease in lobbying by interest groups.

I especially like the fact that the study recognized the valuable role of tax competition in limiting the greed of the political class.

The study also noted that genuine federalism leads to spending competition, though I get the impression that the authors seems to think this is a negative outcome.

Fiscal decentralization can also obstruct the redistribution role of the central government.

For what it’s worth (and based on previous academic research), I agree that decentralization makes it harder for government to be profligate.

But that’s a good thing. I want to “obstruct” economically destructive redistribution.

Now let’s look at the specific finding from the study.

…expenditure decentralization seems to improve the efficiency of public service delivery in advanced economies… To quantify this effect, one could say that a 5 percent increase in fiscal decentralization would lead to 2.9 percentage points of efficiency gains in public service delivery. …about one third of public expenditure would need to be shifted to the local authorities to obtain positive outcomes from fiscal decentralization.

Though it’s worth emphasizing that decentralization works when the sub-national levels of government are completely responsible for raising and spending their own money.

Revenue decentralization shows positive and statistically significant impacts on public service delivery for advanced economies and emerging economies and developing countries. …These findings might imply the need to accompany expenditure decentralization with sufficient revenue decentralization to ensure improvement of performance.

I’ve already argued that federalism is good politics and good policy.

Now we have evidence that it’s good government.

And who would have guessed that the normally statist IMF would be the bearer of this good news.

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