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When I write about Estonia, I generally have something nice to say.

Today, I want to add to my praise for this Baltic nation.

Unlike politicians in many other nations, lawmakers in Estonia responded wisely when they saw a tax increase was backfiring.

As Estonia tries to recover its alcohol customers lost to neighbouring Latvia due to high excise duty, the parliament in Tallinn has passed a 25% cut in excise duty rate. Estonian public broadcaster ERR reports that the bill was passed on Thursday, June 13, in the Riigikogu by landslide. In the final reading, the bill was passed by 70-9 MP in favour backing the cutting of the alcohol excise duty rates for beer, cider and hard liquor by 25% beginning July 1. The amendments to the Estonian Alcohol, Tobacco, Fuel and Electricity Excise Duty Law…are aimed at reducing cross-border trade of Estonians buying their drinks much cheaper in northern Latvia.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that Estonian politicians shouldn’t have increased excise taxes on booze in the first place.

And they may have fixed the problem because they got on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve (i.e., tax revenue was falling), not because of a philosophical preference for lower tax rates.

But rectifying a mistake is definitely better than doubling down on a mistake, which is how politicians in many other nations probably would have reacted.

This approach, combined with the good policies listed above, helps to explain why Estonia is one of the few economic success stories to emerge from the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

Though, in closing, I’ll note that the country needs additional pro-market reform to deal with the challenge of demographic decline.

P.S. Read what Estonia’s Minister of Justice wrote about totalitarian socialism.

P.P.S. Also read about how Paul Krugman earned an “exploding cigar” with some sloppy analysis about Estonia.

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I’m a big fan of many of the economic reforms that have been implemented in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

All three of the Baltic nations rank highly according to Economic Freedom of the World. Estonia and Lithuania are tied for #13, and Latvia isn’t far behind at #23.

Rather impressive for nations that suffered decades of communist enslavement.

But this doesn’t mean I’m optimistic for the future of these countries.

Simply stated, they need a lot more reform to prepare themselves for demographic decline.

And demographic decline is a huge issue, in large part because young people are moving away. Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg report.

According to the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, nine of the world’s countries most at risk of losing citizens over the next few decades are former East bloc nations. Porous borders and greater opportunity in the west have lured people away. …The trend is hitting especially hard in the Baltics. Latvia, with a current population of 1.96 million, has lost about 25 percent of its residents since throwing off Soviet control in 1991. The U.N. predicts that by 2050, it will have lost an additional 22 percent of its current population…and by 2100, 41 percent. In Estonia, with a population of 1.32 million, the U.N. foresees a 13 percent decline by 2050 and a 32 percent drop by 2100. And in Lithuania, the current population of 2.87 million is expected to drop by 17 percent by 2050. By 2100, it will have lost 34 percent. …Latvian demographer Mihails Hazans said that, as of 2014, one in three ethnic Latvians age 25 to 34 — and a quarter of all Latvians with higher education — lived abroad.

Part of the issue is also fertility.

Here’s a chart from the World Bank showing that all three Baltic nations are way below the replacement rate.

The combination of these two factors helps to explain this map.

As you can see, the Baltics don’t quite face the same challenges as Moldova.

But that’s the only silver lining in these grim numbers.

By the way, people should be free to emigrate.

And women should be free to choose how many children to have.

But when a country also has a welfare state and – over time – there are more and more old people and fewer and fewer young taxpayers, that’s a recipe for some sort of Greek-style fiscal crisis.

Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem.

The Baltic nations need to copy Hong Kong. Fertility rates are even lower there, but the jurisdiction doesn’t face a big long-run fiscal challenge since people mostly rely on private savings rather than tax-and-transfer welfare states.

P.S. One of the reasons I like the Baltic nations is that they cut spending (actual spending cuts, not fake DC-style reductions in planned increases) when they were hit by the global financial crisis last decade.

P.P.S. Even better, Paul Krugman wound up beclowning himself by trying to blame Estonia’s 2008 recession on spending cuts that occurred in 2009.

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In my research and travels, I come across all sorts of strange stories about tax policy.

While I’m quite amused by these oddball examples, I actually prefer writing about overseas tax policies that provide teachable moments about big issues such as the Laffer Curve, taxes and growth, tax competition, and how higher tax burdens “feed the beast” by enabling more government spending.

Let’s look at some new examples and see what we can learn about politicians and fiscal policy.

We’ll start with a Bloomberg story from the Ukraine, where taxpayers go above and beyond to escape extortionary taxes on foreign vehicles.

Take a close look at the cars crawling through Kiev’s traffic-laden streets and you’ll notice something odd: a surprisingly large number of them aren’t registered in Ukraine. The explanation isn’t a sudden inflow of tourists, but rather a work-around by local drivers who crave foreign-made vehicles and refuse to pay restrictively high import duties to buy them. Instead, schemes have popped up where buyers effectively acquire cars from nearby nations and bring them across the border on temporary arrangements. They must then leave and re-enter Ukraine every year, or sometimes more frequently. “It’s amazing,” said Oleksandr Zadnipryaniy, a 30-year old entrepreneur who paid about $3,000 for a second-hand Opel Vectra from Lithuania. “Taxes are exorbitant. Why must poorer Ukrainians pay three times as much as richer Europeans?”

The answer to Mr. Zadnipryaniy’s question is that they don’t pay the tax. At least not if this chart is any indication.

Needless to say, I’m on the side of taxpayers and don’t have sympathy for the politicians, who are motivated by a desire to extract revenue and curry favor with domestic interest groups.

Such cars represent a headache for the government. Dodging import duties trims budget revenue… Cracking down is also tricky. …Drivers blame the government, accusing it of pandering to local car lobbies by setting high import duties.

Now let’s shift to another story about tax avoidance, though this one doesn’t have a happy ending.

The BBC reports that a big tax hike may put an end to “booze cruises” from Finland to Estonia

The Estonian government is set to impose a 70% rise in taxation on alcoholic drinks in July, Finnish broadcaster YLE reports. It’s a blow to drinkers from Finland who, since Estonian independence in 1991, have taken the short 54-mile (87km) ferry trip from Helsinki to Tallinn to enjoy prices which are less than half of those back home. …a 12-euro crate of beer will increase to 18 euros, making the concept of the money-saving “booze cruise” much less inviting.

But fortunately Finns still have an option.

Finnish tourist Erno Sjogren said that the tax rise might make him think again – but not on giving up the concept. Speaking to Helsingin Sanomat as he loaded his car outside an Estonian supermarket, he said he would consider taking his trade to Latvia instead – a 2.5-hour drive cross-country from the ferry port in the Estonian capital. The Latvian town of Ainazi is already benefitting, Helsingen Sanomat says, with the appropriately named SuperAlko store visible from the Estonian border and offering cheaper prices than its Baltic neighbours.

Let’s toast to tax competition!

Last but not least, I’m a giant fan of decentralization and a partial fan of secession (done properly and for good reasons), but you don’t automatically get results.

Consider what’s happening in Scotland, as reported by the U.K.-based Times.

Nicola Sturgeon has given her clearest indication to date that Scots will be in line for substantial income tax rises next year. In an interview due to be published today the first minister dismissed suggestions that a high-tax agenda would deter businesses, arguing instead that paying for good public services could be just as attractive to investors and people as low taxes. Ms Sturgeon’s comments came as the Scottish parliament backed a motion calling for higher taxes to pay for public services.

Ugh. I’m sympathetic to Scottish independence, but stories like this make me pessimistic about what will happen if politicians like Sturgeon are in charge of an independent nation.

Assuming, of course, she’s actually ignorant enough to believe that investors want higher taxes.

And I haven’t written about whether Catalonia should be independent of Spain, but this blurb from the EU Observer leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

Catalonia’s regional government said Monday that increases in staff at the tax office, from 321 to 800, have made the Spanish region ready to collect taxes for an independent Catalonia if citizens vote for independence on 1 October. A law to organise the referendum will be to a vote on Wednesday, but the national government in Madrid has dismissed the bill as a way to “cheat democracy”.

Technically, this won’t be bad news if the 479 new tax bureaucrats replace a similar number (or larger number) of officials that formerly harassed people on behalf of the national government in Madrid.

But I’m automatically suspicious that politicians and bureaucrats will maneuver to be the winners of any change. This isn’t an argument against secession, but it is a warning that independence won’t yield economic benefits if there’s no reduction in the burden of government.

Advocates of an independent Catalonia should first and foremost be making plans to unleash the private sector, to make themselves the Hong Kong or Singapore of Europe.

Assuming, of course, that they would want their new country to be highly ranked by Economic Freedom of the World.

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I like the Baltic nations, as illustrated by what I wrote last year.

I’m a big fan of…Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. These three countries emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Empire and they have taken advantage of their independence to become successful market-driven economies. One key to their relative success is tax policy. All three nations have flat taxes. And the Baltic nations all deserve great praise for cutting the burden of government spending in response to the global financial crisis/great recession (an approach that produced much better results than the Keynesian policies and/or tax hikes that were imposed in many other countries).

No wonder the Baltic nations are doing a good job of achieving economic convergence.

I’ve specifically praised Estonia on several occasions.

Estonia’s system is so good (particularly its approach to business taxation) that the Tax Foundation ranks it as the best in the OECD. …Estonia…may be my favorite Baltic nation if for no other reason than the humiliation it caused for Paul Krugman.

Indeed, I strongly recommend this TV program that explored the country’s improbable success. And here’s some data showing that Estonia is leading the Baltics in convergence.

Now I have a new reason to admire Estonia. Having experienced the brutality of both fascism and communism, they have little tolerance for those who make excuses for totalitarianism. And the issue has become newsworthy since Greece decided to boycott a ceremony to remember the victims of communism and fascism.

Estonian Minister of Justice Urmas Reinsalu responded to his Greek counterpart, Stavros Kontonis following the uproar caused by the decision by Greece to not participate in the recent European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism in Estonia.

The letter sent by Reinsalu is a masterpiece of moral clarity. He unambiguously condemns all ideologies that are contrary to free societies. Let’s look at some excerpts.

Our values are human rights, democracy and the rule of law, to which I see no alternative. This is why I am opposed to any ideology or any political movement that negates these values or which treads upon them once it has assumed power. In this regard there is no difference between Nazism, Fascism or Communism.

Amen. That’s basically what I wrote just a few days ago.

Reinsalu points out that free societies (sometimes called liberal democracies, with “liberal” used in the “classical liberal” sense) don’t oppress people, which is inherent with fascist and communist regimes.

Condemnation of crimes against humanity must be particularly important for us as ministers of justice whose task it is to uphold law and justice. …Every person, irrespective of his or her skin colour, national or ethnic origin, occupation or socio-economic status, has the right to live in dignity within the framework of a democratic state based on the rule of law. All dictatorships – be they Nazi, Fascist or Communist – have robbed millions of their own citizens but also citizens of conquered states and subjugated peoples.

The Estonian Justice Minister refers to the bitter experience of his nation.

Unlike Greece, Estonia has the experience of living under two occupations, under two totalitarian dictatorships. …In light of the experience of my country and people, I strongly dispute your claim that Communism also had positive aspects. ……in 1949, …the communist regime deported nearly 2 percent of the population of Estonia only because they as individual farmers refused to go along with the Communist agricultural experiment and join a collective farm. This was in addition to the tens of thousands who had already been imprisoned in the Gulag prison camps or deported and exiled earlier. Thousands more would follow, taken into prison up to mid-1950.

He points out that communism is incompatible with freedom.

…it is not possible to build freedom, democracy and the rule of law on the foundation of Communist ideology. …this has been attempted… This has always culminated in economic disaster and the gradual destruction of the rule of law…there are also countries and peoples for whom the price of a lesson in Communism has been millions of human lives.

The bottom line, he writes, is that all forms of totalitarianism should be summarily rejected.

…we must condemn all attempts or actions that incite others to destroy peoples or societal groups…there is no need to differentiate. It makes no difference to a victim if he is murdered in the name of a better future for the Aryan race or because he belongs to a social class that has no place in a Communist society. We must remember all of the victims of all totalitarian and authoritarian dictatorships.

Kudos for Minister Reinsalu. He doesn’t shrink from telling the truth about communism and other forms of dictatorship.

None of this should be interpreted to mean that western societies are perfect. Heck, I spend most of my time criticizing bad policy in the United States and other western nations. But there’s no moral equivalence.

Here’s Reinsalu’s entire letter, which contains additional points.

I’ll close by elaborating on one of his points. Reinsalu wrote about the miserable track record of communism and made some powerful points.

But I think he was too diplomatic. He should have highlighted the jaw-dropping body count of communist regimes.

He did mention some of the horrid policies of the Soviet Union (perhaps more than 60 million victims), but he also could have listed the incomprehensible misery that communism caused in places such as Cuba, Cambodia, and North Korea. Or China back in the Mao era.

That being said, his letter is a very powerful indictment of the moral bankruptcy of his Greek counterpart (which perhaps isn’t a surprise given the ideology of the Syriza government).

And it’s also an indictment of all of the apologists for communist tyranny.

P.S. Poland is another country that experienced the dual brutality of fascism and communism. So it shouldn’t be surprise that Poles share the same moral clarity as Estonians.

Perhaps this is why Poland has done a reasonably good job of undoing bad Soviet policies.

P.P.S. While I’m a fan of nations such as Estonia and Poland, they need further market-based reforms to compensate for demographic decline.

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I’m a fan of the Baltic nations in part because they were among the first to adopt flat tax systems after the collapse of the Soviet empire. But tax reform was just the beginning. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have liberalized across the board as part of their efforts to become prosperous.

Economic Freedom of the World is always the first place to check when you want to understand whether countries have good policy. And the dataset for the Baltic nations does show that all three nations are in the top quartile, with Lithuania and Estonia cracking the top 20.

So are these market-oriented policies paying dividends? Has the shift in the direction of free markets and limited government resulted in more prosperity?

The short answer is yes. The European Central Bank has released some very interesting analysis on the economic performance of these countries.

The Baltic States have been able to maintain an impressive rate of convergence towards the average EU per capita income over the past 20 years. …these three countries have each pursued a strongly free-market and pro-business economic agenda… The three countries are different in many ways, but share a number of key features: very high levels of trade and financial openness and very high labour mobility; high economic flexibility with wage bargaining mainly at firm level; relatively good institutional framework conditions; and low levels of public debt.

And this has translated into strong growth, which has resulted in higher incomes.

The Baltic States are among the few euro area countries (along with Slovakia) in which real GDP per capita in purchasing power standard (PPS) terms has shown substantial convergence towards the EU average over the last 20 years. While in 1995 their average per capita income (in PPS) stood at only around 28% of the EU15 average, in 2015 it reached 66.5% (see Chart A).

Here’s the chart showing how quickly the Baltic countries are catching up to Western Europe.

The ECB report also measured how fast the Baltic nations have grown compared to theory.

The long-term convergence performance of the Baltic States has exceeded what would have been expected based on their initial income level.

And here’s the chart showing how they have over-performed.

The ECB study says that the Baltic countries have been especially good about replacing cronyism with the rule of law.

One of the possible reasons for the fairly strong convergence performance of the Baltic States is the strong improvement in institutional quality in these countries… The Worldwide Governance Indicators of the World Bank, which is a composite indicator of institutional quality, suggests that institutional quality has improved markedly in the Baltic States – especially in Estonia – over the recent decades.

I agree. Indeed, I’ve written that Estonia is a good role model, having reduced corruption by limiting the power of politicians and bureaucrats.

The report also credits the three countries with rapid rebounds from the financial crisis, which is a point I made back in 2011.

While the crisis hit the Baltic States hard, the adjustment of imbalances was very fast. The rapid adjustment in fiscal balances and private sector balance sheets implied that the Baltic States could avoid the accumulation of a large debt overhang. In addition, the fast reduction in unemployment helped to decrease the risk of hysteresis, thus avoiding lasting consequences for potential growth. …The external adjustment of the Baltic States was facilitated by painful but effective internal devaluation. …This relatively fast adjustment in the Baltic States was facilitated in part by a strong initial rebound in employment growth, supported by an adjustment in labour costs.

I also think genuine spending cuts helped produce the quick economic rebound.

Though the report does warn that there are not guarantees that the Baltic countries will fully converge with Western Europe.

International experience suggests that countries that reach a middle income level, like the Baltic States, tend to find it difficult to converge further and achieve a high income level. A World Bank study suggests that out of 101 middle-income economies in 1960, only 13 had become high-income economies by 2008.

This is a good point. As I explained two years ago, full convergence is very difficult. North America and Western Europe became rich in part because of very small public sectors in the 1800s and early 1900s. Indeed, there was virtually no welfare state until the 1930s and the level of redistribution was comparatively small until the 1960s.

Unfortunately, this is one area where the Baltic nations are weak. Yes, the burden of government spending may be modest compared to other EU countries, but the public sector nonetheless consumes more than 35 percent of GDP. And even though these nations have flat taxes, they also have stifling payroll taxes and government-fueling value-added taxes.

Another problem (not just in the Baltic region, but all through Eastern Europe) is that the demographic outlook is unfriendly, which means that the welfare state automatically will become a bigger burden over time.

If the Baltic countries want genuine convergence (or if they want to surpass Western Europe), that will require additional reform, particularly efforts to reduce the burden of government spending to the levels found in Hong Kong and Singapore.

Unfortunately, it’s more likely that policy will move in the other direction. There are constant efforts to repeal the flat tax systems in the Baltic countries. And efforts by the European Commission to harmonize business taxation ultimately may undermine the pro-growth approach to business taxation in the region as well.

P.S. For those who want an in-depth look at a Baltic nation, I recommend this video about Estonia. And if you want some amusement, check out how Paul Krugman wanted people to believe that Estonia’s 2008 recession was caused by 2009 spending cuts.

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I’m a big fan of the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

These three countries emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Empire and they have taken advantage of their independence to become successful market-driven economies.

One key to their relative success is tax policy. All three nations have flat taxes. Estonia’s system is so good (particularly its approach to business taxation) that the Tax Foundation ranks it as the best in the OECD.

And the Baltic nations all deserve great praise for cutting the burden of government spending in response to the global financial crisis/great recession (an approach that produced much better results than the Keynesian policies and/or tax hikes that were imposed in many other countries).

But good policy in the past is no guarantee of good policy in the future, so it is with great dismay that I share some very worrisome news from two of the three Baltic countries.

First, we have a grim update from Estonia, which may be my favorite Baltic nation if for no other reason than the humiliation it caused for Paul Krugman. But now Estonia may cause sadness for me. The coalition government in Estonia has broken down and two of the political parties that want to lead a new government are hostile to the flat tax.

Estonia’s government collapsed Wednesday after Prime Minister Taavi Roivas lost a confidence vote in Parliament, following months of Cabinet squabbling mainly over economic policies. …Conflicting views over taxation and improving the state of Estonia’s economy, which the two junior coalition partners claim is stagnant, is the main cause for the breakup. …The core of those policies is a flat 20 percent tax on income. The Social Democrats say the wide income gaps separating Estonia’s different social groups would best be narrowed by introducing Nordic-style progressive taxation. The two parties said Wednesday that they will immediately start talks on forming a coalition with the Center Party, Estonia’s second-largest party, which is favored by the country’s sizable ethnic-Russian majority and supports a progressive income tax.

And Lithuanians just held an election and the outcome does not bode well for that nation’s flat tax.

After the weekend run-off vote, which followed a first round on October 9, the centrist Lithuanian Peasants and Green Union party LGPU) ended up with 54 seats in the 141-member parliament. …The conservative Homeland Union, which had been tipped to win, scored a distant second with 31 seats, while the governing Social Democrats were, as expected, relegated to the opposition, with just 17 seats. …The LPGU wants to change a controversial new labour code that makes it easier to hire and fire employees, impose a state monopoly on alcohol sales, cut bureaucracy, and above all boost economic growth to halt mass emigration. …Promises by Social Democratic Prime Minister Butkevicius of a further hike in the minimum wage and public sector salaries fell flat with voters.

The Social Democrats sound like they had some bad idea, but the new LGPU government has a more extreme agenda. It already has proposed to create a special 4-percentage point surtax on taxpayers earning more than €12,000 annually (the government also wants to expand double taxation, which also is contrary to the tax-income-only-once principle of a pure flat tax).

So the bad news is that the flat tax could soon disappear in Estonia and Lithuania.

But the good news, based on my discussions with people in these two nations, is that the battle isn’t lost. At least not yet.

In both cases, policy can’t be changed unless all parties in the coalition government agree. Fortunately, they haven’t reached that point.

And hopefully that point will never be reached if Estonia and Lithuania want long-run success.

All of the Baltic nations get reasonably good scores from Economic Freedom of the World. Ditching the flat tax will cause their scores to decline.

Given that fiscal policy is only 20 percent of a nation’s grade, adopting some bad tax policy may not seem like the end of the world.

But the flat tax isn’t just good policy. It also has symbolic value, telling both domestic entrepreneurs and global investors that a country has a commitment to a system that won’t impose extra punishment just because a person contributes more to national economic output.

By the way, the LPGU Party is very correct to worry about emigration. The Baltic nations (like most countries in Eastern Europe) face a very large demographic problem. And every time a young person leaves for better opportunities elsewhere (even if that better opportunity is a big welfare check), that makes the long-run outlook even more challenging.

But imposing a more punitive tax system is exactly the opposite of what should happen if the goal is faster growth so that people don’t leave the nation.

Let’s close with a famous quote from John Ramsay McCulloch, a Scottish economist from the 1800s.

To be sure, progressive taxation didn’t lead to total catastrophe, so McCulloch’s warning may seem overwrought by today’s standards.

But the so-called progressive income tax did lead to the modern welfare state. And the modern welfare state, when combined with demographic change, is threatening immense economic and societal damage in many nations.

So what he wrote in 1863 may turn out to be very prescient for historians in 2063 who wonder why the western world collapsed.

P.S. If Estonia and Lithuania move in the wrong direction, Latvia could be a big winner. That nation already has received some positive attention for being fiscally responsible, and it also has withstood pressure from the IMF to impose bad tax policy. So Latvia is well positioned to reap the benefits if Estonia and Lithuania shoot themselves in the foot.

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A couple of days ago, I wrote about the new rankings from the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report and noted that America’s private sector is considered world class but that our public sector ranks poorly compared to many other developed nations.

To elaborate on the depressing part of that observation, let’s now look at the Tax Foundation’s recently released International Tax Competitiveness Index.

Lots of data and lots of countries. Estonia gets the top score, and deservedly so. It has a flat tax and many other good policies. It’s also no surprise to see New Zealand and Switzerland near the top.

If you’re curious about America’s score, you’ll have to scroll way down because the United States ranks #31, below even Belgium, Spain, and Mexico.

If you look at how the U.S. ranks in the various categories, we have uniformly poor numbers for everything other than “Consumption Taxes.” So let’s be very thankful that the United States doesn’t have a value-added tax (VAT). If we did, even France would probably beat us in the rankings (I hope Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are paying attention to this point).

And if you wonder why some nations with higher top tax rates rank above the U.S. in the “Individual Taxes” category, keep in mind that there are lots of variables for each category. And the U.S. does poorly in many of them, such as the extent to which there is double taxation of dividends and capital gains.

By the way, there is some “good” news. Compared to the 2014 ranking, the United States is doing “better.” Back then, there were only two nations with lower scores, Portugal and France. In the new rankings, the U.S. still beats those two nations, and also gets a better score than Greece and Italy.

But we’re only “winning” this contest of weaklings because the scores for those nations are falling faster than America’s score.

Here’s the 2014-2016 data for the United States. As you can see, we’ve dropped from 54.6 to 53.7.

P.S. The Tax Foundation’s International Tax Competitiveness Index is superb, but I hope they make it even better in the future by adding more jurisdictions. As of now, it only includes nations that are members of the OECD. That’s probably because there’s very good and comparable data for those countries (the OECD pushes very bad policy, but also happens to collect very detailed numbers for its member nations). Nonetheless, it would be great to somehow include places such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands (all of which punch way above their weight in the international economy). It also would be desirable if the Tax Foundation added an explicit size-of-government variable. Call me crazy, but Sweden probably shouldn’t be ranked #5 when the nation’s tax system consumes 50.4 percent of the economy’s output (this size-of-government issue is also why I asserted South Dakota should rank above Wyoming in the Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index).

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