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Posts Tagged ‘Higher Taxes’

I’ve been in Prague the past few days for a meeting of the European Resource Bank. I spoke today about a relatively unknown international bureaucracy called the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and I warned that it is going through a process of OECD-ization, which is simply my way of saying it is pursuing bad policy.

I’ll write about that issue in the near future, but today’s topic is based on a presentation from Michael Jäger of the Barvarian Taxpayers Association. He shared some depressing data on how the German government imposed a surtax for the ostensibly limited purpose of helping the finance the reunification of West Germany and East Germany.

But limited apparently means forever.

You’ll notice two things in the chart he shared..

  • First, the German government has been the big winner from this new levy, collecting €214 billion euros over the past 15 years and spending less than €157 billion euros. In other words, the politicians now have a lot of extra loot to spend elsewhere.
  • Second, revenues continue to rise even though the ostensible purpose of the tax is disappearing. Herr Jäger is pressuring the German government to eliminate the tax, but Frau Merkel apparently has little interest in reducing the nation’s tax burden.

To save non-German speakers from having to translate, the dark blue bars are “federal allocations to new states” and the light blue bars are “revenues from the solidarity surcharge.”

The big lesson to learn from this data is that temporary taxes are like temporary programs. They will last forever unless politicians somehow can br pressured to reduce their grip on the economy.

And that’s not easy, though I told some participants in the conference that it could be done. The United States government actually repealed a temporary telephone tax that was imposed to help finance the Spanish-American War.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the tax wasn’t repealed until last decade, more than 100 years after that war ended. I’m not joking.

Another painful lesson is that taxes on the rich often wind up penalizing other people. The Spanish-American War telephone tax was supposed to hit rich people since they were the ones who first utilized telephone technology.

But then the rest of us eventually got telephones as well, and we also had to pay the tax.

Just as the income tax was first imposed on just a tiny handful of very wealthy people, but it eventually morphed into a malignant tax code that now bedevils tens of millions of households with modest incomes.

Something to keep in mind when the crowd in Washington says we should have a value-added tax. Based on what’s happened in Europe, I guarantee it would just be a matter of time before that tax became more onerous to finance an ever-expanding burden of government spending.

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Five former Democratic appointees to the Council of Economic Advisers have a column in today’s Washington Post asserting that we should not blame entitlements for America’s future fiscal problems.

The good news is that they at least recognize that there’s a future problem.

The bad news is that their analysis is sloppy, inaccurate, and deceptive.

They start with an observation about red ink that is generally true, though I think the link between government borrowing and interest rates is rather weak (at least until a government – like Greece – gets to the point where investors no longer trust its ability to repay).

The federal budget deficit is on track to exceed $1 trillion next year and get worse over time. Eventually, ever-rising debt and deficits will cause interest rates to rise. …the growing debt will take an increasing toll.

But the authors don’t want us to blame entitlements for ever-rising levels of red ink.

It is dishonest to single out entitlements for blame.

That’s a remarkable claim since the Congressional Budget Office (which is not a small government-oriented bureaucracy, to put it mildly) unambiguously shows that rising levels of so-called mandatory spending are driving our long-run fiscal problems.

CBO’s own charts make this abundantly clear (click on the image to see the original column with the full-size chart).

So how do the authors get around this problem?

First, they try to confuse the issue by myopically focusing on the short run.

The primary reason the deficit in coming years will now be higher than had been expected is the reduction in tax revenue from last year’s tax cuts, not an increase in spending.

Okay, fair enough. There will be a short-run tax cut because of the recent tax legislation. But the column is supposed to be about the future debt crisis. And that’s a medium-term and long-term issue.

Well, it turns out that they have to focus on the short run because their arguments become very weak – or completely false – when we look at the overall fiscal situation.

For instance, they make an inaccurate observation about the recent tax reform legislation.

…the tax cuts passed last year actually added an amount to America’s long-run fiscal challenge that is roughly the same size as the preexisting shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare.

That’s wrong. The legislation actually increases the long-run tax burden.

And that’s in addition to the long-understood reality that the tax burden already is scheduled to gradually increase, even measured as a share of economic output.

Once again, the CBO has a chart with the relevant data. Note especially the steady rise in the burden of the income tax (once again, feel free to click on the image to see the original column with the full-size chart).

The authors do pay lip service to the notion that there should be some spending restraint.

There is some room for…spending reductions in these programs, but not to an extent large enough to solve the long-run debt problem.

But even that admission is deceptive.

We don’t actually need spending reductions. We simply need to slow down the growth of government. Indeed, our long-run debt problem would be solved if imposed some sort of Swiss-style or Hong Kong-style spending cap so that the budget couldn’t grow faster than 3 percent yearly.

In any event, they wrap up their column by unveiling their main agenda. They want higher taxes.

Additional revenue is critical…responding to the looming fiscal challenge required a balanced approach that combined increased revenue with reduced spending. Two bipartisan commissions, Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin, proposed such approaches that called for tax reform to raise revenue as a percent of GDP…set tax policy to realize adequate revenue.

As I already noted, the tax burden already is going to climb as a share of GDP. But the authors want an increase on top of the built-in increase.

And it’s very revealing that they cite Simpson-Bowles, which is basically a left-wing proposal of higher taxes combined with the wrong type of entitlement reform. To be fair, the Domenici-Rivlin plan  has the right kind of entitlement reform, but that proposal is nonetheless bad news since it contains a value-added tax.

The bottom line if that the five Democratic CEA appointees who put together the column (I’m wondering why Austan Goolsbee didn’t add his name) do not make a compelling case for higher taxes.

Unless, of course, the goal is to enable a bigger burden of government.

Which is the message of this very appropriate cartoon.

Needless to say, this belongs in my “Government in Cartoons” collection.

P.S. Entitlement spending is not only to blame for our future spending problems. It’s also the cause of our current spending problems.

P.P.S. In a perverse way, I actually like the column we discussed today. Five top economists on the left put their heads together and tried to figure out the most compelling argument for higher taxes. Yet what they produced is shoddy and deceptive. In other words, they didn’t make a strong argument because they don’t have a strong argument. Reminds me of Robert Rubin’s anemic argument last year against the GOP tax plan.

P.P.P.S. Four former presidents offer good advice on the topic of taxation.

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I’m a big fan of federalism because states have the flexibility to choose good policy or bad policy.

And that’s good news for me since I get to write about the consequences.

One of the main lessons we learn (see here, here, here, here, and here) is that high-earning taxpayers tend to migrate from states with onerous tax burdens and they tend to land in places where there is no state income tax (we also learn that welfare recipients move to states with bigger handouts, but that’s an issue for another day).

In this interview with Stuart Varney, we discuss whether this trend of tax-motivated migration is going to accelerate.

I mentioned in the interview that restricting the state and local tax deduction is going to accelerate the flight from high-tax states, which underscores what I wrote earlier this year about that provision of the tax bill being a “big [expletive deleted] deal.”

I suggested that Stuart create a poll on which state will be the first to go bankrupt.

And there’s a lot of data to help people choose.

Technically, I don’t think bankruptcy is even possible since there’s no provision for such a step in federal law.

But it’s still an interesting issue, so I decided to create a poll on the question. To make it manageable, I limited the selection to 10 states, all of which rank poorly in one of more of the surveys listed above. And, to avoid technical quibbles, the question is about “fiscal collapse” rather than bankruptcy, default, or bailouts. Anyhow, as they say in Chicago, vote early and vote often.

P.S. I asked a similar question about bankruptcies in developed nations back in 2011. Back then, it appeared Portugal might be the right answer. Today, I’d pick Italy.

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If you were exempted from taxation, you’d presumably be very happy. After all, even folks on the left do everything they can to minimize their tax payments.

Now imagine that you are put in charge of tax policy.

Like Elizabeth Warren, you obviously won’t volunteer to start paying tax, but what would you recommend for other people?

Would you want them to also enjoy tax-free status, or at least get to experience a smaller tax burden? Or would you take a malicious approach and suggest tax increases, comforted by the fact that you wouldn’t be affected?

In this theoretical scenario, I hope most of us would choose the former approach and seek tax cuts.

But not everybody feels the same way. The bureaucrats at the International Monetary Fund actually do receive tax-free salaries. Yet instead of seeking to share their good fortune with others, they routinely and reflexively urge higher taxes on the rest of us. Here are some articles, all from the past 12 months, that I’ve written about the IMF’s love affair with punitive taxation.

  • Last June, I wrote about the IMF pushing a theory that higher taxes would improve growth in the developing world.
  • Last July, I wrote about the IMF complaining that tax competition between nations is resulting in lower corporate tax rates.
  • Last October, I wrote about the IMF asserting that lower living standards are desirable if everyone is more equally poor.
  • Also in October, I wrote about the IMF concocting a measure of “fiscal space” to justify higher taxes across the globe.
  • Last November, I wrote about the IMF publishing a study expanding on its claim that equal poverty is better than unequal prosperity.
  • This February, I wrote about the IMF advocating more double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

Needless to say, I especially don’t like it when the IMF urges higher taxes in America.

But I think everybody should have more freedom and prosperity, so I also don’t like it when the IMF pushes tax hikes elsewhere. I don’t like it when the tax-free bureaucrats advocate higher taxes on an entire region. I don’t like it when they push a high-tax agenda on big countries. I don’t like it when they urge tax increases on small countries.

What upsets me most of all, however, is that the IMF is trying to punish very poor nations is sub-Saharan Africa.

This came to my attention when I saw a Bloomberg report about the IMF recommending policy changes in Ivory Coast. At first glance, I thought the IMF was doing something sensible, supporting faster growth and higher income.

Ivory Coast must improve its tax system if the world’s biggest cocoa producer wants to maintain economic growth of at least 7 percent, the International Monetary Fund said. Jose Gijon, the resident representative for the Washington-based lender, said in an interview in the commercial capital of Abidjan Wednesday. “…if it wants to become an emerging country and for that, it needs higher income.”

But I found out that the bureaucrats wanted higher income for the government.

“The key for Ivory Coast is revenue…The government needs to create sufficient fiscal space…”

Unsurprisingly, local politicians like the idea of getting more loot.

The government seeks to gradually increase its tax revenue to 20 percent of gross domestic product from 15.9 percent now, Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly said in 2017.

How sad. Ivory Coast (now usually known as Côte d’Ivoire) is a very poor country, with living standards akin to those of the United States in 1860. Yet rather than recommend the policies that allowed the United States and other western nations to become rich, such as no income tax and very small government, the IMF wants to fatten the coffers of a corrupt and ineffective public sector.

Here’s something else that is sad. This seems to be the advice the IMF gives to all nations in sub-Saharan Africa.

Consider this story from Kenya.

Kenyans should brace themselves for higher taxes after the Government caved in to the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) demands. …It made the commitment to the IMF in a letter of intent that spells out a raft of measures that are likely to eat into consumers’ pockets. …The sectors to be hit include agriculture, manufacturing, education, health, tourism, finance, social work, and energy. …The Government hopes to squeeze an extra Sh40 billion in taxes from these sectors. This is likely to have a ripple effect by pushing up the cost of goods and services… The Government intends to increase income tax by over Sh100 billion in the financial year 2018/19.

We also have the IMF’s perverse approach to “tax reform” in Nigeria.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has advised Nigeria to embark on a full Value Added Tax (VAT) reform. …The lender’s Mission Chief for Nigeria, African Department, Mr Amine Mati, …said government must raise taxes… In addition, government should also increase taxes on alcohol and tobacco and broaden VAT.

The bureaucrats also want more tax revenue in Tanzania.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) Deputy Managing Director, Tao Zhang has hailed Tanzania for managing to boost tax collection… The visiting IMF leader said it was vital to mobilise more…public resources by strengthening tax collection… “it is crucial to mobilise more…public resources within Tanzania, especially by strengthening tax collection…” he said at a public lecture he gave in Dar es Salaam yesterday.

The IMF is even using a $190 million bribe to advocate higher taxes in Ghana.

Ghana needs to improve revenue collection…to achieve its fiscal targets, the International Monetary Fund said. …“Fiscal consolidation has to be revenue-based,” Koliadina told reporters in the capital, Accra. …A positive outcome of the fifth and sixth reviews of the program will lead to the IMF disbursing $190 million to Ghana, Koliadina said.

Last but not least, let’s look at the IMF’s misguided advice for Botswana.

The Government of Botswana should seek to strengthen its revenue base…, the International Monetary Fund has said. …”The authorities agreed that there is a significant potential to boost domestic revenues through tax administration and tax policy reforms that could…provide additional funding for future fiscal expenditures,” the report stated.

Higher taxes to finance bigger government? Wow, talk about economic malpractice.

Since Botswana has been one of the few bright spots in Africa, I hope lawmakers tell the IMF to get lost. But I worry that politicians will be happy to take the IMF’s bad advice.

How tragic.

These are the only nations I investigated, so I guess it’s possible that there’s a sub-Saharan nation where the IMF hasn’t recommended higher taxes. Heck, it’s even theoretically possible that the bureaucrats may have suggested lower taxes somewhere on the continent (though that’s about as likely me playing pro football next season).

I’ll simply note that the IMF openly admits that it wants higher taxes all across the region.

Tax revenues play a critical role for countries to create room in their budgets to increase spending on social services…raising tax revenues is the most growth-friendly way to stabilize debt. More broadly, building a country’s tax capacity is at the center of any viable development strategy…we see potential in many countries of sub-Saharan Africa to raise tax revenues by about one percent of GDP per year over the next five or so years. …Since building the capacity to collect more from personal income taxes takes time, in the next few years VAT and excise taxes likely offer the biggest potential for additional revenue. For example, recent studies by the IMF indicate a revenue potential of about 3 percent of GDP from VAT in Cape Verde, Senegal, and Uganda, and ½ percent of GDP from excises for all countries in sub-Saharan Africa. …It is also important to consider newer sources of revenue, such as property taxes. …Raising revenues is often a politically difficult task. But the current economic junction in sub-Saharan Africa together with sustained development needs creates an imperative for action now.

I’m almost at a loss for words. It’s mind-boggling that anybody could look at policy in sub-Saharan Africa and conclude that the recipe for growth is giving more money to politicians.

And I’m equally flabbergasted that the IMF openly claims that bigger government is good for growth. Unsurprisingly, the bureaucrats never try to justify that bizarre and anti-empirical assertion.

For those who are interested in genuinely sensible information on how poor nations can become rich nations, I strongly recommend this video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

P.S. Back in 2015, to mock the pervasive statism at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, I created a fake fill-in-the-blanks/multiple-choice template. A similar exercise for the IMF would only require one short sentence: “The nation of __ should raise taxes.”

P.P.S. In other words, this cartoon is very accurate.

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A couple of decades can make a huge difference in the political and economic life of a jurisdiction.

And here’s something especially amazing from a bit more than five decades in the past. New Jersey used to have no state income tax and no state sales tax.

Yes, your eyes are not deceiving you. The basket case of New Jersey used to be a mid-Atlantic version of New Hampshire. But once the sales tax was imposed in 1966 and the income tax was imposed in 1976, it’s been all downhill ever since.

An article in the City Journal helps to explain the state’s fiscal decay.

Brendan Byrne, a Democratic former governor of the Garden State, …told mayors that the state would need a “large revenue package”… The heart of the package would be a new statewide income tax, which went into permanent effect in 1977. Byrne promised that the additional money would help relieve the high property-tax burden on New Jersey’s citizens… Four decades later, the plan has failed. …politicians and special interests don’t see new streams of tax revenue as a means to replace or eliminate an existing stream, but rather as a way of adding to the public coffers. (For those who entertain fantasies of a value-added tax replacing the federal income tax, take heed.) New Jersey’s income tax started with a top rate of about 2.5 percent; it’s now around 9 percent.

Needless to say, nothing politicians promised has happened.

Property taxes haven’t been reduced. They’ve gone up. The government schools haven’t improved. Instead, the test scores in the state are embarrassing. And debt hasn’t gone down. Red ink instead has skyrocketed.

And what’s amazing – and depressing – is that New Jersey politicians continue to make a bad situation worse. Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg report.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy proposed taxing online-room booking, ride-sharing, marijuana, e-cigarettes and Internet transactions along with raising taxes on millionaires and retail sales to fund a record $37.4 billion budget that would boost spending on schools, pensions and mass transit. …Murphy, a Democrat…has promised additional spending on underfunded schools and transportation in a credit-battered state with an estimated $8.7 billion structural deficit for the fiscal year that starts July 1. …Murphy said Tuesday in his budget address to lawmakers. “A millionaire’s tax is the right thing to do –- and now is the time to do it.” …The budget…would…restore the state’s sales tax to 7 percent from 6.625 percent… Murphy’s proposal would almost triple the direct state subsidy for New Jersey Transit, which has been plagued by safety and financial issues.

More taxes, more spending, followed by even more taxes and more spending.

I wonder if Greek taxpayers would want to tell their counterparts in New Jersey how that story ends.

Assuming, of course, there are any taxpayers left in the Garden State. There’s already been a big exodus of productive people who are tired of being treated like fatted calves.

And don’t forget that New Jersey taxpayers no longer have unlimited ability to deduct their state and local taxes on their federal tax return. So these tax hikes will hurt much more than past increases.

In any event, taxpayers better escape before the die.

Though I know one guy who won’t be leaving.

P.S. Anybody want to guess whether New Jersey collapses before California, Illinois, or Connecticut? They’re all in the process of committing slow-motion suicide.

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I wrote last month about the risk of Trump harming American workers, consumers, and producers by pulling the United States out of NAFTA.

That’s still a danger to the U.S. economy, but it’s been pushed to the back burner by a more immediate threat – the President’s unilateral decision to impose big tax increases on steel and aluminum imports.

American trade law (specifically the Trade Expansion Act of 1962) does give Trump the authority to impose such taxes, but it’s worth noting that Congress has the power to change the law and negate the President’s short-sighted actions.

To be sure, such a change presumably would require two-thirds support to override a Trump veto. And I have no idea how many congressional Republicans are loyal to free markets rather than Trump, and I also don’t know how many congressional Democrats would vote against Trump’s protectionism, either because they support trade or because they simply don’t like the President.

But I do know that there would be lots of support. In today’s Washington Post, Charles Koch makes a principled case for open trade and condemns the President’s protectionism.

Countries with the freest trade have tended to not only be the wealthiest but also the most tolerant. Conversely, the restriction of trade — whether through tariffs, quotas or other means — has hurt the economy and pitted people against each other. Tariffs increase prices, limit choices, reduce competition and inhibit innovation. Equally troubling, research shows that they fail to increase the number of jobs overall. …History is filled with examples of administrations that have implemented trade restrictions with devastating results. At the dawn of the Great Depression, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act raised U.S. tariffs on more than 20,000 imported goods, which accelerated our decline instead of correcting it. More recently, President George W. Bush’s 30 percent steel tariff led to increased consumer costs and higher unemployment. And President Barack Obama’s 2009 decision to raise tariffs on Chinese tires ultimately burdened consumers with $1.1 billion in higher prices. The cost per job saved was nearly $1 million , not considering all the lost jobs that went unmeasured.

And he specifically condemns the new trade taxes Trump has imposed.

The administration’s recent decision to impose major steel and aluminum tariffs — on top of higher tariffs on washing machines and solar panels — will have the same harmful effect. …those who can least afford it will be harmed the most. Having just helped consumers keep more of their money by passing tax reform, it makes little sense to take it away via higher costs.

Mr. Koch also observed that we’ve become richer during a period when trade taxes fell.

It is no coincidence that our quality of life has improved over the years as the average U.S. tariff on imported goods has fallen — from nearly 20 percent in 1932 to less than 4 percent in 2016.

This is an under-appreciated point. I’ve argued – and shared evidence – that trade liberalization played a key role in offsetting the damage of higher fiscal burdens in the post-WWII era. Yet Trump wants to reverse some or all of this progress.

The Wall Street Journal also opined on this issue.

President Trump could reduce the benefits of his tax cuts and regulatory rollback with protectionism. This risk became more serious after the Commerce Department…recommended broad restrictions on aluminum and steel imports that would punish American businesses and consumers. …the wide-ranging economic damage from restricting imports would overwhelm the narrow benefits to U.S. steel and aluminum makers.

The protectionists try to justify tariffs on the basis of national defense, but this is a silly argument since we’re not relying on potential enemies.

Canada accounts for 43% of aluminum imports—more than twice as much as China and Russia combined. Steel imports are also diversified with Canada (17%), South Korea (12%) and Mexico (9%) accounting for three of the top four foreign sources. China accounts for about 2% of steel and 10% of aluminum imports.

The WSJ then lists some of the harmful effects of trade taxes.

About 16 times more workers are employed today in U.S. steel-consuming industries than the 140,000 American steelworkers. Economists Joseph Francois and Laura Baughman found that more U.S. workers lost jobs (200,000) due to George W. Bush’s 2002 steel tariffs than were employed by the entire steel industry (187,500) at the time. …Raising the cost of steel and aluminum inputs would impel many manufacturers to move production abroad to stay competitive globally. Does Mr. Trump want more cars made in Mexico? …Oh, and don’t forget that other countries could retaliate with trade barriers that hurt American exporters. …Why would Mr. Trump undercut his achievements with trade barriers that harm American workers and consumers?

Irwin Stelzer, writing for the Weekly Standard, also is quite critical.

…the president doesn’t like trade deficits—job killers as he sees it—and so he has put tariffs on washing machines and solar panels and now is deciding what costs and restrictions to place on imports of steel and aluminium. …Never mind that such measures will raise the costs of steel and aluminum-using industries such as autos, making them less competitive with imports that can keep their costs down by buying cheaper, un-tariffed metals. One economic study after George W. Bush imposed tariffs on steel in 2002 concluded that job losses in steel-consuming industries exceeded the number that would have been lost had the entire American steel industry gone out of business. …if that causes job losses scattered among a lot of other industries and states, then so be it. Trump figures that those voters won’t make the connection between the job losses and the steel tariffs.

Last but not least, Tom Mullen eviscerates protectionism in a piece for CapX.

When Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, it…was to refute the kinds of protectionist ideas championed by conservatives like Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton in Smith’s day, Abraham Lincoln eighty years later, and Trump today. Bastiat remade Smith’s case in 1848. Henry Hazlitt did so again in 1946. …What is unseen is the money American consumers no longer have when the tariffs are put in place. For example, the tariff may result in them paying $200 for the same pair of sneakers they previously paid $100 for. That means they no longer have $100 they previously had after buying the sneakers, which they could spend on other products. Whatever jobs they were supporting with that $100 are now lost. …When the ledger is balanced, Americans, in general, are far better off without the tariff.

Here’s more on the economic poison of protectionism.

The lower prices Americans pay for automobiles, clothing, Apple iPhones, and Bobcats allow them to patronise those American industries which operate more efficiently than their overseas competitors. That’s called “comparative advantage,” something else free market advocates since Adam Smith have been educating people about. …No matter what spurious arguments special interests make in favour of tariffs, they are, at the end of the day, just another tax. …And don’t forget, all the unseen, negative consequences of tariffs apply equally to foreigners. If they are taxing imports on automobiles, their citizens have less money to spend on other products. Their businesses that use imported materials must raise their prices and become less competitive. Any advantage they appear to gain in one sector, they lose in another, with the same overall net loss as we experience.

Amen.

Protectionism is a no-win game. Politicians in Country A take aim at businesses in Country B, but the main casualties are inside their own borders. Consumers lose, taxpayers lose, and all the upstream and downstream businesses in the supply chain lose.

Which is why researchers inevitably find that trade barriers are associated with net job losses. In other words, the “unseen” losses are far larger than the “seen” gains.

Which is exactly what Bastiat warned about more than 150 years ago.

P.S. Shifting gears, I’ve periodically complained about the immoral and amoral actions of large corporations. Simply stated, big businesses oftentimes are perfectly happy to use the coercive power of government to grab unearned wealth.

Koch Industries is a noble exception. Here’s another excerpt from Charles Koch’s Washington Post column.

One might assume that, as the head of Koch Industries — a large company involved in many industries, including steel — I would applaud such import tariffs because they would be to our immediate and financial benefit. But corporate leaders must reject this type of short-term thinking, and we have. …We only support policies that are based on equality under the law and that help people improve their lives. This is why we successfully lobbied to end direct ethanol subsidies, despite being one of the largest ethanol producers in the United States. It is why we fought against the inclusion of a border adjustment tax in the tax-reform package, even though it would have greatly increased our profits by increasing costs to consumers.

I’m obviously pleased that the folks at Koch are on the right side of the ethanol and BAT issues, but that’s a secondary matter. What’s praiseworthy is that the company rejects all cronyism. Even when it would benefit.

If more businesses acted that way, there would be a lot more support for free enterprise.

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I sometimes sardonically comment about Democratic politicians playing Santa Claus, but Republicans can play that game as well.

Trump and his allies in Congress recently agreed on a big-spending budget deal that lavishes more money on both the Pentagon and domestic programs, and that was only a few weeks after agreeing on a tax reform plan that lower taxes (though only for nine years).

Even if I like part of what’s been happening, that kind of populist approach at some point becomes unsustainable. And when the D.C. swamp ultimately has to choose between lower taxes or higher spending, they’ll go with the latter and make things even worse by jacking up the tax burden.

My frustration is apparent in this recent interview.

And I’m not the only one who sees the long-run dangers.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Professor Edward Lazear of Stanford explores the economic damage of ever-expanding government.

The budget deal President Trump signed earlier this month will send federal spending and the deficit skyrocketing. On top of this spending explosion, the administration now plans to add a $500 billion infrastructure bill. …over time high spending necessitates high taxes, and high taxes reduce work and restrain growth. Economic trends in developed nations consistently show that low taxes and hard work are linked to robust growth.

He looks at some of the cross-country evidence.

European countries trail the U.S. in working hard and controlling taxes, and their economies have lagged in comparison. France has a tax-to-GDP ratio of about 44%, and in Italy it’s 43%. The French and Italians work almost 30% fewer hours per person than Americans. Notably, the French economy has flatlined since 2010 while Italy’s has contracted. …Data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development suggests that a 1% increase in a nation’s tax rate is associated with a 1.4% decrease in hours worked per person in the working-age population.

Here’s the part that resonated with me. It’s excessive spending that ultimately is the problem.

…taxes are ultimately dictated by spending. Countries can borrow to finance short-run spending, but they must eventually levy taxes to repay the loans. Whether a government raises taxes now or later to pay for expenditures is a minor consideration compared with its decision to spend in the first place. …Higher spending goes hand in hand with higher taxes, higher deficits, fewer worked hours and less growth. The international comparisons suggest that a 4% increase in spending is associated with a decrease of roughly 0.5 percentage point in the average annual growth rate. Furthermore, it is spending—rather than the deficit—that correlates with sluggish growth. …Deficits often coincide with low growth because deficit increases are usually caused by heightened spending, not reduced taxes. Raising taxes, or keeping them high without lowering spending, stifles growth.

Heck, even the OECD has produced research on the negative impact of government spending on economic performance.

And this approach can lead to a downward spiral.

To the extent that government spending goes to programs such as welfare that directly discourage work, it has an additional growth-reducing effect. When fewer people work, those who do must be taxed even more to cover public expenses. These heightened taxes on labor discourage work in turn, pushing more potential workers toward government support.

In other words, if we stay on this path, we’ll eventually become Greece. Not a good idea, to put it mildly.

Since we’re on the topic, let’s look at some additional evidence. Three economists from Australia and the United Kingdom did a meta-analysis of studies on the relationship between government spending and economic growth. Here are some of the findings.

One of the most contentious issues in economics is whether ‘big government’ is good or bad for economic growth. …Theoretically, big government can have both negative and positive effects on growth. …In this study, we include all effect-size estimates reported by empirical studies that examine the direct effect of government size on growth.

Here’s what they found.

… findings indicate that: (i) total government expenditures have a medium and adverse effect on per-capita income growth in developed countries only; (ii) the effect of government consumption on per-capita income growth is also medium in developed countries and in developed and LDCs pooled together; and (iii) neither total expenditures nor government consumption has a significant effect on per-capita income growth in LDCs.

I’m not surprised that they didn’t find a strong link in poor nations. The data show that those countries are generally too mismanaged and corrupt to collect much revenue. Therefore, as I noted in my recent analysis of Indian economic policy, they can’t spend much.

What’s primarily holding back those countries is weak rule of law, excessive regulation, and protectionism.

But I’m digressing. The study also acknowledges the Rahn Curve, though they call it the Armey Curve.

…government size tends to have a negative effect on per-capita income growth as the level of income increases. This finding ties in with the Armey curve hypothesis (Armey, 1995), which posits an inverted-U relationship between government size and economic growth. The theoretical argument here is that government size may be characterised by decreasing returns. Another theoretical argument relates to the distortionary nature of taxes, which is minimal for low levels of taxation, but beyond a certain threshold, they grow rapidly and become extremely large.

Quite true.

Sadly, some people mistakenly conclude that if a little bit of government is associated with more prosperity, then a bloated public sector must be even better.

On a related note, Professor Alexander Salter dismisses the assertion (pushed by international bureaucracies) that big government is a pre-condition for prosperity. Here’s some of what he wrote.

Why are Western countries like the United States and Germany so much richer today than other countries around the world? …One explanation for the success of the West is, in a word, liberty. Over the last few hundred years, classical liberal ideas such as the rights of man and the rule of lawput constraints on European governments’ power, which resulted in a strong protection of private property rights. This resulted in meteoric economic growth, which delivered the modern cornucopia of wealth. …Free countries get rich; unfree countries stay poor.

But there’s a competing theory.

…another explanation — state capacity…is the idea that economic development requires strong, centralized states to uphold the rule of law and provide crucial public goods. …The state capacity literature in economics…places heavy emphasis on a single, strong, central legal authority. In this framework, the fractured and decentralized legal authorities in medieval and early modern Europe are now seen as antithetical to economic development.

Salter is skeptical of the second theory.

…it is undeniable that economic growth in the West did not take off until the rise of modern nation-states. … While governance institutions obviously began centralizing at the beginning of the modern era, …that’s insufficient as a causal explanation. …the state capacity literature has a hard time dealing with a very troubling counterexample: the totalitarian states of the 20th century: like the USSR and China. These states had plenty of capacity, as evidenced by their ability to murder millions of their own citizens… Needless to say, these kinds of things aren’t conducive to economic development.

So he concludes that the first theory must be the answer, at least in part.

…whatever is “doing the work” of promoting economic growth, it is upstream of the creation of states. …State capacity may or may not be a valuable steppingstone to an explanation, but it is not itself an explanation that social scientists should accept. …it seems the old hypothesis — that the big ideas of classical liberalism created Western economic growth — is worth another look!

My bottom line, for what it’s worth, is that the classical-liberalism approach is the necessary condition, but that doesn’t automatically make it a sufficient condition.

In a column last year on the emerging micro-state of Liberland, I tried to square the circle. Here’s some of what I wrote after looking at the literature on state capacity.

…the key to prosperity is having a state strong enough and effective enough to provide rule of law, but to somehow constrain that state so that it doesn’t venture into destructive redistribution policies. This is why competition between governments played a key role in the economic development of the western world. When governments have to worry about productive resources escaping, that forces them to focus on things that help an economy (i.e., rule of law) while minimizing the policies that hinder prosperity (i.e., high taxes and spending). …America’s Founding Fathers dealt with the same issues… Their solution was a constitution that explicitly limited the size and scope of the federal government. …that system worked reasonably well until the 1930s.

I find this issue fascinating, but I suspect most people are more concerned about the real-world consequences rather than the theoretical underpinnings.

So I’ll end on a pessimistic note by observing that we normally get bad fiscal policy from Democrats and worse fiscal policy from Republicans (Reagan being the only modern-era exception).

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