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Posts Tagged ‘IMF’

Bernie Sanders was considered a hard-core leftist because his platform was based on higher taxes and higher spending.

Elizabeth Warren also was considered a hard-core leftist because she advocated a similar agenda of higher taxes and higher spending.

And Joe Biden, even though he is considered to be a moderate, is currently running on a platform of higher taxes and higher spending.

Want to know who else is climbing on the economically suicidal bandwagon of higher taxes and higher spending? You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the pro-tax International Monetary Fund just published its World Economic Outlook and parts of it read like the Democratic Party’s platform.

Here are some of the ways the IMF wants to expand the burden of government spending.

Investments in health, education, and high-return infrastructure projects that also help move the economy to lower carbon dependence… Moreover, safeguarding critical social spending can ensure that the most vulnerable are protected while also supporting near-term activity, given that the outlays will go to groups with a higher propensity to spend their disposable income… Some fiscal resources…should be redeployed to public investment—including in renewable energy, improving the efficiency of power transmission, and retrofitting buildings to reduce their carbon footprint. …social spending should be expanded to protect the most vulnerable where gaps exist in the safety net. In those cases, authorities could enhance paid family and sick leave, expand eligibility for unemployment insurance, and strengthen health care benefit coverage…social spending measures…strengthening social assistance (for example, conditional cash transfers, food stamps and in-kind nutrition, medical payments for low-income households), expanding social insurance (relaxing eligibility criteria for unemployment insurance…), and investments in retraining and reskilling programs.

And here’s a partial list of the various class-warfare taxes that the IMF is promoting.

Although adopting new revenue measures during the crisis will be difficult, governments may need to consider raising progressive taxes on more affluent individuals and those relatively less affected by the crisis (including increasing tax rates on higher income brackets, high-end property, capital gains, and wealth) as well as changes to corporate taxation that ensure firms pay taxes commensurate with profitability. …Efforts to expand the tax base can include reducing corporate tax breaks, applying tighter caps on personal income tax deductions, instituting value-added taxes.

Oh, by the way, if nations have any rules that protect the interests of taxpayers, the IMF wants “temporary” suspensions.

Where fiscal rules may constrain action, their temporary suspension would be warranted

Needless to say, any time politicians have a chance to expand their power, temporary becomes permanent.

When I discuss IMF malfeasance in my speeches, I’m frequently asked why the bureaucrats propose policies that don’t work – especially when the organization’s supposed purpose is to promote growth and stability.

The answer is “public choice.” Top IMF officials are selected by politicians and are given very generous salaries, and they know that the best way to stay on the gravy train is to support policies that will please those politicians.

And because their lavish salaries are tax free, they have an extra incentive to curry favor with politicians.

P.S. I wish there was a reporter smart enough and brave enough to ask the head of the IMF to identify a single nation – at any point in history – that became rich by expanding the size and cost of government.

P.P.S. There are plenty of good economists who work for the IMF and they often write papers pointing out the economic benefits of lower taxes and smaller government (and spending caps as well!). But the senior people at the bureaucracy (the ones selected by politicians) make all the important decisions.

 

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At the risk of understatement, I’m not a fan of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The international bureaucracy is the “Johnny Appleseed” of moral hazard, using bailouts to reward profligate governments and imprudent lenders.

The IMF also is infamous for encouraging higher tax burdens, which is especially outrageous since its cossetted employees are exempt from paying tax on their lavish salaries.

In recent years, the IMF has been using inequality as a justification for statist policies. Most recently, the lead bureaucrat at the IMF, Kristalina Georgieva, cited that issue as a reason for governments to impose higher taxes to fund bigger welfare states.

…inequality has become one of the most complex and vexing challenges in the global economy. Inequality of opportunity. Inequality across generations. Inequality between women and men. And, of course, inequality of income and wealth. …The good news is we have tools to address these issues… Progressive taxation is a key component of effective fiscal policy. At the top of the income distribution, our research shows that marginal tax rates can be raised without sacrificing economic growth. …Gender budgeting is another valuable fiscal tool in the fight to reduce inequality…. The ability to scale up social spending is also essential… A cornerstone of our approach to issues of economic inclusion is our social spending strategy.

What’s especially remarkable is that the IMF has claimed that the punitive policies actually will lead to more growth, in stark contrast to honest people on the left who have always acknowledged the equity-efficiency tradeoff.

The economics editor at the left-leaning Guardian, Larry Elliott, is predictably delighted with the IMF’s embrace of Greek-style fiscal policy.

Raising income tax on the wealthy will help close the growing gap between rich and poor and can be done without harming growth, the head of the International Monetary Fund has said. Kristalina Georgieva, the IMF’s managing director, said higher marginal tax rates for the better off were needed as part of a policy rethink to tackle inequality. …The IMF managing director, who succeeded Christine Lagarde last year, said higher taxes on the better off…would help fund government spending to expand opportunities for those “communities and individuals that have been falling behind.” …Georgieva said the IMF recognised that social spending policies are increasingly relevant in tackling inequality. …She added that many less well-off countries needed to scale up social spending.

Ironically, the IMF actually has admitted that this approach is bad for prosperity.

It has produced research on something called “equally distributed equivalent income” to justify lower levels of income so long as economic misery is broadly shared.

I’m not joking. You can click here to see another example of the IMF embracing poverty if it means the rich disproportionately suffer.

In other words, negative-sum economics. Though Margaret Thatcher was more eloquent in her description of this awful ideology.

At first, this column was going to be a run-of-the-mill anti-IMF diatribe.

But as I contemplated how the people fixated on inequality are willing to treat the poor like sacrificial lambs, it occurred to me that this is a perfect opportunity to unveil my Eighth Theorem of Government.

P.S. Here are my other theorems of government.

  • The “First Theorem” explains how Washington really operates.
  • The “Second Theorem” explains why it is so important to block the creation of new programs.
  • The “Third Theorem” explains why centralized programs inevitably waste money.
  • The “Fourth Theorem” explains that good policy can be good politics.
  • The “Fifth Theorem” explains how good ideas on paper become bad ideas in reality.
  • The “Sixth Theorem” explains an under-appreciated benefit of a flat tax.
  • The “Seventh Theorem” explains how bigger governments are less competent.

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I’m not a big fan of the International Monetary Fund for the simple reason that the international bureaucracy undermines global prosperity by pushing for higher taxes, while also exacerbating moral hazard by providing bailouts to rich investors who foolishly lend money to dodgy and corrupt governments.

Six years ago, I complained that the bureaucrats wanted a giant energy tax, which would have diverted more than $5,000 from an average family’s budget.

That didn’t go anywhere, but the IMF hasn’t given up. Indeed, they’re now floating a new proposal for an enormous global energy tax.

To give credit to the IMF, the bureaucrats don’t mince words or disguise their agenda. The openly stated goal is to impose a giant tax increase.

Domestic policies are thus needed to give people and businesses greater incentives (through pricing or other means) to reduce emissions…international cooperation is key to ensure that all countries do their part. …The shift from fossil fuels will not only transform economic production processes, it will also profoundly change the lives of many people and communities. …Carbon taxes—charges on the carbon content of fossil fuels—and similar arrangements to increase the price of carbon, are the single most powerful and efficient tool… Even so, the global average carbon price is $2 a ton… To illustrate the extra effort needed by each country…, three scenarios are considered, with tax rates of $25, $50, and $75 a ton of CO2 in 2030.

The IMF asserts that the tax should be $75 per ton. At least based on alarmist predictions about climate warming.

What would that mean?

Under carbon taxation on a scale needed…, the price of essential items in household budgets, such as electricity and gasoline, would rise considerably… With a $75 a ton carbon tax, coal prices would typically rise by more than 200 percent above baseline levels in 2030… The price of natural gas…would also rise significantly, by 70 percent on average…carbon taxes would undoubtedly add to the cost of living for all households… In most countries, one-third to one-half of the burden of increased energy prices on households comes indirectly through higher general prices for consumer products.

Here’s a table from the publication showing how various prices would increase.

The bureaucrats recognize that huge tax increases on energy will lead to opposition (remember the Yellow Vest protests in France?).

So the article proposes various ways of using the revenues from a carbon tax, in hopes of creating constituencies that will support the tax.

Here’s the table from the report that outlines the various options.

To be fair, the microeconomic analysis for the various options is reasonably sound.

And if the bureaucrats embraced a complete revenue swap, meaning no net increase in money for politicians, there might be a basis for compromise.

However, it seems clear that the IMF favors a big energy tax combined with universal handouts (i.e., something akin to a “basic income“).

A political consideration in favor of combining carbon taxation with equal dividends is that such an approach creates a large constituency in favor of enacting and keeping the plan (because about 40 percent of the population gains, and those gains rise if the carbon price increases over time).

And other supporters of carbon taxes also want to use the revenue to finance a bigger burden of government.

Last but not least, it’s worth noting that the IMF wants to get poor nations to participate in this scheme by offering more foreign aid. That may be good for the bank accounts of corrupt politicians, but it won’t be good news for those countries.

And rich nations would be threatened with protectionism.

Turning an international carbon price floor into reality would require agreement among participants…participation in the agreement among emerging market economies might be encouraged through side payments, technology transfers…nonparticipants could be coerced into joining the agreement through trade sanctions…or border carbon adjustments (levying charges on the unpriced carbon emissions embodied in imports from nonparticipant countries to match the domestic carbon tax).

I’m amused, by the way, that the IMF has a creative euphemism (“border carbon adjustments”) for protectionism. I’m surprised Trump doesn’t do something similar (perhaps “border wage adjustment”).

For what it’s worth, the bureaucracy criticized Trump for being a protectionist, but I guess trade taxes are okay when the IMF proposes them.

But let’s not digress. The bottom line is that a massive global energy tax is bad news, particularly since politicians will use the windfall to expand the burden of government.

P.S. Proponents sometimes claim that a carbon tax is a neutral and non-destructive form of tax. That’s inaccurate. Such levies may not do as much damage as income taxes, on a per-dollar-collected basis, but that doesn’t magically mean there’s no economic harm (the same is true for consumption taxes and payroll taxes).

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The International Monetary Fund is infamous for its advocacy of higher taxes.

Heck, it’s not merely advocacy. The international bureaucracy uses bailout money as a tool to coerce politicians into approving higher tax burdens.

This is so reprehensible that I’ve referred to the IMF as the “Dumpster Fire of the Global Economy” and called it the “Doctor Kevorkian of Global Economic Policy.”

The bureaucrats also are quite inventive when it comes to rationalizing tax increases.

For instance, a new report from the IMF suggests that a minimum tax level is critical for achieving rapid growth and development.

Is there a minimum tax to GDP ratio associated with a significant acceleration in the process of growth and development? We give an empirical answer to this question by investigating the existence of a tipping point in tax-to-GDP levels. We use two separate databases: a novel contemporary database covering 139 countries from 1965 to 2011 and a historical database for 30 advanced economies from1800 to 1980. We find that the answer to the question is yes. Estimated tipping points are similar at about 12¾ percent of GDP. For the contemporary dataset we find that a country just above the threshold will have GDP per capita 7.5 percent larger, after10 years. The effect is tightly estimated and economically large.

Here’s a depiction of the IMF’s perspective.

At some level, there is a correlation between prosperity and taxation. For instance, some poor nations in the developing world are so corrupt and incompetent that they are incapable of collecting much tax revenue.

But that doesn’t mean higher taxes would somehow make those nations richer. After all, correlation does not imply causation (i.e., crowing roosters don’t cause the sun to rise).

Professor Bryan Caplan of George Mason University points out the methodological shortcomings is the “state capacity” theory.

In recent years, many social scientists…have fallen in love with the concept of “state capacity.” …To my mind, this is scarcely better than saying, “Good government is good; bad government is bad.” Matters would be different, admittedly, if the state capacity literature showed that good government is the crucial ingredient required for success.  But researchers rarely even try to show this.  Instead, they look at various societies and say, “Look at how well-run the governments in successful countries are – and look at how poorly-run the governments in unsuccessful countries are.”  The casual causal insinuation is palpable. …why not just ditch your premature focus on “state capacity” in favor of an open-minded exploration of social capacity?  Good government might be the crucial ingredient for success.  But maybe good government is a byproduct of wealth, trust, intelligence, freedom, or some cocktail thereof. …While good social outcomes all tend to go together, the state capacity literature fails to show that government is the crucial factor that makes all the others possible.

Two other scholars from George Mason University, Professor Peter Boettke and Rosolino Candela, address the issue in an academic study.

This paper reconceptualizes and unbundles the relationship between public predation, state capacity and economic development. …we argue that to the extent that a causal relationship exists between state capacity and economic development, the relationship is proximate rather than fundamental. State capacity emerges from an institutional context in which the state is constrained from preying on its citizenry in violation of predefined rules limiting its discretion. When political constraints are not established to limit political discretion, then state capacity will degenerate from a means of delivering economic development to a means of predation.

They cite Mancur Olson’s work on “political bandits” to understand the limited conditions that would be necessary for there to be a causal relationship between taxes and growth.

Olson’s famous distinction between a “stationary bandit” and a “roving bandit” provides an illustration of our point regarding the emphasis placed on initial conditions. Olson provides a powerful argument for understanding how the self-interest of a revenue-maximizing ruler will align with the political conditions necessary for wealth maximization, not only for himself, but also for his subjects. In a world of roving banditry, a political ruler will have little incentive to invest in fiscal technologies required for regular taxation and judicial technologies that secure property rights and enforce contracts. Only when a bandit has settled down will he or she be incentivized to invest in the provision of public goods that encourage individuals to accumulate wealth, rather than concealing it from predators. However, by Olson’s own admission, his stationary bandit argument is a necessary, though not a sufficient condition for taming public predation.

Their conclusion is that constitutional constants on government are needed to ensure taxes aren’t a tool for additional predation.

In unbundling the relationship between state capacity and economic development, we have distinguished between the protective state, the productive state and the predatory state. To the extent that expansions in state capacity are consistent with economic development, this is because a credible commitment to a set of rules that constrain political discretion have been established. …Fundamentally, economic development requires a protective state from which state capacity emerges as a byproduct. If, however, political constraints are not established to limit political discretion, then state capacity will degenerate from a means of delivering economic development to a means of predation.

Professor Mark Koyama of George Mason University also has written wisely on this topic.

I’m not an academic, so I have a much simpler way of thinking about this issue.

When the IMF (and other bureaucracies) assert that higher taxes are good for growth, I explain that it’s all based on fairy dust or magic beans.

P.S. In a perverse way, I admire the IMF. The bureaucracy’s rationale for existence (dealing with fixed exchange rates) disappeared decades ago, yet the IMF managed to reinvent itself and is now bigger and more bloated than ever.

P.P.S. You won’t be surprised to learn that IMF bureaucrats receive tax-free salaries while pushing for higher taxes on everyone else.

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A few years ago, I put together a basic primer on corporate taxation. Everything I wrote is still relevant, but I didn’t include much discussion about international topics.

In part, that’s because those issues are even more wonky and more boring than domestic issues such as depreciation. But that doesn’t mean they’re not important – especially when they involve tax competition. Here are some comments I made in March of last year.

The reason I’m posting this video about 18 months after the presentation is that the issue is heating up.

The tax-loving bureaucrats at the International Monetary Fund have published a report whining about the fact that businesses utilize low-tax jurisdictions when making decisions on where to move money and invest money.

According to official statistics, Luxembourg, a country of 600,000 people, hosts as much foreign direct investment (FDI) as the United States and much more than China. Luxembourg’s $4 trillion in FDI comes out to $6.6 million a person. FDI of this size hardly reflects brick-and-mortar investments in the minuscule Luxembourg economy. …much of it is phantom in nature—investments that pass through empty corporate shells. These shells, also called special purpose entities, have no real business activities. Rather, they carry out holding activities, conduct intrafirm financing, or manage intangible assets—often to minimize multinationals’ global tax bill. …a few well-known tax havens host the vast majority of the world’s phantom FDI. Luxembourg and the Netherlands host nearly half. And when you add Hong Kong SAR, the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda, Singapore, the Cayman Islands, Switzerland, Ireland, and Mauritius to the list, these 10 economies host more than 85 percent of all phantom investments.

That’s a nice list of jurisdictions. My gut instinct, of course, is to say that high-tax nations should copy the pro-growth policies of places such as Bermuda, Singapore, the Cayman Islands, and Switzerland.

The IMF, however, thinks those are bad places and instead argues that harmonization would be a better approach.

…how does this handful of tax havens attract so much phantom FDI? In some cases, it is a deliberate policy strategy to lure as much foreign investment as possible by offering lucrative benefits—such as very low or zero effective corporate tax rates. …This…erodes the tax bases in other economies. The global average corporate tax rate was cut from 40 percent in 1990 to about 25 percent in 2017, indicating a race to the bottom and pointing to a need for international coordination. …the IMF put forward various alternatives for a revised international tax architecture, ranging from minimum taxes to allocation of taxing rights to destination economies. No matter which road policymakers choose, one fact remains clear: international cooperation is the key to dealing with taxation in today’s globalized economic environment.

Here’s a chart that accompanied the IMF report. The bureaucrats view this as proof of something bad

I view it as prudent and responsible corporate behavior.

At the risk of oversimplifying what’s happening in the world of international business taxation, here are four simple points.

  1. It’s better for prosperity if money stays in the private sector, so corporate tax avoidance should be applauded. Simply stated, politicians are likely to waste any funds they seize from businesses. Money in the private economy, by contrast, boosts growth.
  2. Multinational companies will naturally try to “push the envelope” and shift as much income as possible to low-tax jurisdictions. That’s sensible corporate behavior, reflecting obligation to shareholders, and should be applauded.
  3. Nations can address “profit shifting” by using rules on “transfer pricing,” so there’s no need for harmonized rules. If governments think companies are pushing too far, they can effectively disallow tax-motivated shifts of money.
  4. A terrible outcome would be a form of tax harmonization known as “global formula apportionment.” This wouldn’t be harmonizing rates, as the E.U. has always urged, but it would force companies to overstate income in high-tax nations.

Why does all this wonky stuff matter?

As I said in my presentation, we will suffer from “goldfish government” unless tax competition exiss to serve as a constraint on the tendency of politicians to over-tax and over-spend.

P.S. Sadly, America’s Treasury Secretary is sympathetic to global harmonization of business taxation.

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Back in 2016, I wrote “The Economic Case for Brexit.”

My argument was based on the fact the European Union was a slowly sinking ship, both because of grim demographics and bad public policy.

Getting in a lifeboat can be unnerving, but Brexit was – and still is – better than the alternative of continued E.U. membership.

But not everyone shared my perspective.

The BBC reported that year that Brexit would produce terrible consequences according to the International Monetary Fund.

Christine Lagarde said she had “not seen anything that’s positive” about Brexit and warned that it could “lead to a technical recession”. …The IMF said in a report on the UK economy that a leave vote could have a “negative and substantial effect”. It has previously said that such an outcome could lead to “severe regional and global damage”. The Fund said a Brexit vote would result in a “protracted period of heightened uncertainty” and could result in a sharp rise in interest rates, cause volatility on financial markets and damage London’s status as a global financial centre.

Yet none of these bad predictions were accurate.

Not right away and not in the three years since U.K. voters opted for independence.

Not that we should be surprised. The IMF has a very bad track record on economic forecasting. And the forecasts are probably especially inaccurate when the bureaucrats, given the organization’s statist bias, are trying to influence the outcome (the IMF was part of “Project Fear”).

But a history of bias and inaccuracy hasn’t stopped the IMF from continuing to interfere with British politics. Here are some excerpts from a story earlier this week.

Boris Johnson has been warned that a No Deal Brexit is one of the biggest risks facing the global economy. In a broadside against the new Prime Minister’s ‘do or die’ pledge to leave the European Union at the end of October with or without a deal, the International Monetary Fund said a chaotic departure could cause havoc across the world. …No Deal is one of the gravest threats to international economic performance, the IMF said. …Eurosceptics have long criticised the IMF for anti-Brexit rhetoric and it has been one of the loudest opponents of No Deal, saying in April that it could trigger a lengthy UK recession.

I was both disgusted and upset when I read this story.

I don’t like when the IMF subsidizes bad policy with bailouts, and I also don’t like when it promotes bad policy with analysis.

Fortunately, I don’t need to do any substantive number crunching because Professor Steve Hanke of Johns Hopkins University has a superb Forbes column on this exact issue.

No sooner than Boris Johnson put his foot over the threshold of 10 Downing Street, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) offered its unsolicited advice… In a preemptive strike, the Philosopher Kings threw cold water on the idea of a no deal, asserting that it would be a disaster. …such meddling is nothing new for the IMF. Indeed, a bipartisan Congressional commission (The International Financial Advisory Commission, known as the Meltzer Commission) concluded in 2000 that the IMF interferes too much in the domestic politics of member countries.

Professor Hanke is perplexed that anyone would listen to IMF bureaucrats given their awful track record.

…the IMF’s ability to…thrive…is quite remarkable in light of the IMF’s performance. As Harvard University’s Robert Barro put it, the IMF reminds him of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 “in which the fire department’s mission is to start fires.” Barro’s basis for that conclusion is his own extensive research.  His damning evidence finds that: A higher IMF loan participation rate reduces economic growth. IMF lending lowers investment. A greater involvement in IMF programs lowers the level of the rule of law and democracy. And if that’s not bad enough, countries that participate in IMF programs tend to be recidivists. In short, IMF programs don’t provide cures, but create addicts.

This is why I’ve referred to the IMF as the “dumpster fire” of the world economy and also called the bureaucracy the “Dr. Kevorkian” of international economic policy.

By the way, here’s Professor Hanke’s table of the IMF’s main addicts.

I wrote just two weeks ago about the IMF’s multiple bailouts of Pakistan, the net effect of what have been to subsidize bigger government.

Let’s close with more of Professor Hanke’s analysis.

The original reason for its creation has completely vanished.

The IMF, which was born in 1944, was designed to provide short-term assistance on the cheap to countries whose currencies were pegged to the U.S. dollar via the Bretton Woods Agreement. …But, in 1971, when President Richard Nixon closed the gold window, the Bretton Woods exchange-rate system collapsed. And, with that, the IMF’s original purpose was swept into the dustbin. However, since then, the IMF has used every rationale under the sun to reinvent itself and expand its scope and scale. …And, in the process of acquiring more power, it has become more political.

Sadly, he is not optimistic about shutting down this destructive – and cossetted – bureaucracy.

The IMF should have been mothballed and put in a museum long ago. After all, its original function was buried in 1971, and its performance in its new endeavors has been less than stellar. But, a museum for the IMF is not in the cards. …About all we can do is realize that the IMF is a political hydra with an agenda to serve the wishes of the political elites who allow it to grow new heads.

P.S. Here’s my explanation of how the U.K. can prosper in a post-Brexit world.

P.P.S. Here’s some academic research explaining how E.U. membership has undermined prosperity for member nations.

P.P.P.S. If you want Brexit-related humor, click here and here.

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I’ve labeled the International Monetary Fund as the “dumpster fire” of the world economy.

I’ve also called the bureaucracy the “Dr. Kevorkian” of international economic policy, though that reference many not mean anything to younger readers.

My main complaint is that the IMF is always urging – or even extorting – nations to impose higher tax burdens.

Let’s look at a fresh example of this odious practice.

According to a Reuters report, IMF-supported tax increases are provoking economic strife in Pakistan.

Markets and wholesale merchants across Pakistan closed on Saturday in a strike by businesses against measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund… Markets and wholesale merchants across Pakistan closed on Saturday in a strike by businesses against measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund. …Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government..is having to impose tough austerity measures having been forced to turn to the IMF for Pakistan’s 13th bailout since the late 1980s. …Under the IMF bailout, signed this month, Pakistan is under heavy pressure to boost its tax revenues.

I’m not surprised the private sector is protesting against IMF-instigated tax hikes.

We see similar stories from all over the world.

But what really grabbed my attention was the reference to 13 bailouts. Good grief, you would think the IMF bureaucrats would learn after five or six attempts that they shouldn’t throw good money after bad.

That being said, I wondered if the IMF was pushing for big tax hikes because they had demanded – and received – big spending cuts in exchange for the previous 12 bailouts.

So I went to the IMF’s World Economic Outlook Database to peruse the numbers…and I discovered that the IMF’s repeated bailouts actually led to big increases in the burden of spending.

The IMF’s numbers, which go back to 1993, show that outlays have tripled. And that’s after adjusting for inflation!

Looking closely at the chart, I suppose one could argue that Pakistan was semi-responsible up until the turn of the century. Yes, the spending burden increased, but at a relatively mild rate.

But the brakes definitely came off this century. Enabled by endless bailouts from the IMF, Pakistan’s politicians definitely aren’t complying with my Golden Rule.

I’ll close with one final point.

The IMF types, as well as others on the left, actually want people to believe that Pakistan should have a bigger burden of government spending.

According to this novel theory, the public sector in the country, which currently consumes more than 20 percent of GDP, is too small to finance the “investments” that are needed to enable more prosperity.

Yet if this theory is accurate, why is Pakistan’s economy stagnant when there are prosperous jurisdictions with smaller spending burdens, such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan?

And if the theory is accurate, why did the United States and Western Europe become rich in the 1800s, back when governments only consumed about 10 percent of economic output?

This video tells you everything you need to know.

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The International Monetary Fund is one of my least favorite international bureaucracies because the political types who run the organization routinely support bad policies such as bailouts and tax increases.

But there are professional economists at the IMF who do good work.

While writing about the mess in Argentina yesterday, for instance, I cited some very sensible research from one of the IMF’s economists.

Today, I’m going to cite two other IMF scholars. Serhan Cevik and Fedor Miryugin have produced some new research looking at the relationship between firm survival and business taxation. Here’s the basic methodology of their study.

While creative destruction—through firm entry and exit—is essential for economic progress, establishing a conducive ecosystem for firm survival is also necessary for sustainable private sector development… While corporate income taxes are expected to lower firms’ capital investment and productivity by raising the user cost of capital, distorting factor prices and reducing after-tax return on investment, taxation also provides resources for public infrastructure investments and the proper functioning of government institutions, which are key to a firm’s success. …the overall impact of taxation on firm performance depends on the relative weight of these two opposing effects, which can vary with the composition and efficiency of taxation and government spending. … In this paper, we focus on how taxation affects the survival prospects of nonfinancial firms, using hazard models and a comprehensive dataset covering over 4 million nonfinancial firms from 21 countries with a total of 21.5 million firm-year observations over the period 1995–2015. …we control for a plethora of firm characteristics, such as age, size, profitability, capital intensity, leverage and total factor productivity (TFP), as well as systematic differences across sectors and countries.

By the way, I agree that there are some core public goods that help an economy flourish. That being said, things like courts and national defense can easily be financed without any income tax.

And even with a very broad definition of public goods (i.e., to include infrastructure, education, etc), it’s possible to finance government with very low tax burdens.

But I’m digressing.

Let’s focus on the study. As you can see, the authors grabbed a lot of data from various European nations.

And they specifically measured the impact of the effective marginal tax rate on firm survival.

Unsurprisingly, higher tax burdens have a negative effect.

We find that the tax burden—measured by the firm-specific EMTR—exerts an adverse effect on companies’ survival prospects. In other words, a lower level of EMTR increases the survival probability among firms in our sample. This finding is not only statistically but also economically important and remains robust when we partition the sample into country subgroups. …digging deeper into the tax sensitivity of firm survival, we uncover a nonlinear relationship between the firm-specific EMTR and the probability of corporate failure, which implies that taxation becomes a detriment to firm survival at higher levels. With regards to the impact of other firm characteristics, we obtain results that are in line with previous research and see that survival probability differs depending on firm age and size, with older and larger firms experiencing a lower risk of failure.

For those that like statistics, here are the specific results.

Here are the real-world implications.

Reforms in tax policy and revenue administration should therefore be designed to cut the costs of compliance, facilitate entrepreneurship and innovation, and encourage alternative sources of financing by particularly addressing the corporate debt bias. In this context, the EMTR holds a special key by influencing firms’ investment decisions and the probability of survival over time, especially in capital intensive sectors of the economy. Importantly, the challenge for policymakers is not simply reducing the statutory CIT rate, but to level the playing field for all firms by rationalizing differentiated tax treatments across sectors, capital asset types and sources of financing.

There are some obvious takeaways from this research.

For what it’s worth, this IMF study basically embraces the sensible principles of business taxation that you find in a flat tax.

Too bad we can’t convince the political types who run the IMF to push the policies supported by IMF economists!

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In a video I shared two months ago included a wide range of academic studies showing that government-imposed trade barriers undermine economic prosperity.

Not that those results were a surprise. Theory teaches us that government intervention is a recipe for economic harm. And we certainly have painful history showing the adverse consequences of protectionism.

When I debate the issue, I like to cite real-world examples, such as the fact that the nations with the lowest trade barriers tend to be very prosperous while protectionist nations are economic laggards.

No wonder there’s such a strong consensus among economists.

Today, we’re going to add to pro-trade consensus.

A new study from the International Monetary Fund investigates the macroeconomic impact of trade taxes. Here’s the basic outline of the methodology.

Some economies have recently begun to use commercial policy, seemingly for macroeconomic objectives. So it seems an appropriate time to study what, if any, the macroeconomic consequences of tariffs have actually been in practice. Most of the predisposition of the economics profession against protectionism is based on evidence that is either a) theoretical, b) micro, or c) aggregate and dated. Accordingly, in this paper, we study empirically the macroeconomic effects of tariffs using recent aggregate data. …Our panel of annual data is long if unbalanced, covering 1963 through 2014; more recent data is of greater relevance, but older data contains more protectionism. Since little protectionism remains in rich countries, we use a broad span of 151 countries, including 34 advanced and 117 developing countries.

And here are the results.

Our results suggest that tariff increases have adverse domestic macroeconomic and distributional consequences. We find empirically that tariff increases lead to declines of output and productivity in the medium term, as well as increases in unemployment and inequality. … a one standard deviation (or 3.6 percentage point) tariff increase leads to a decrease in output of about .4% five years later. We consider this effect to be plausibly sized and economically significant… Why does output fall after a tariff increase? …a key channel is the statistically and economically significant decrease in labor productivity, which cumulates to about .9% after five years. …Protectionism also leads to a small (statistically marginal) increase in unemployment…we find that tariff increases lead to more inequality, as measured by the Gini index; the effect becomes statistically significant two years after the tariff change. To summarize: the aversion of the economics profession to the deadweight losses caused by protectionism seems warranted; higher tariffs seem to have lower output and productivity, while raising unemployment and inequality. … there are asymmetric effects of protectionism; tariff increases hurt the economy more than liberalizations help.

These graphs show the main results.

The simple way to think about this data is that protectionism forces an economy to operate with sand in the gears. Another analogy is that protectionism is like having to deal with permanent and needless road detours. You can still get where you want to go, but at greater cost.

The bottom line is that things simply don’t function smoothly once government intervenes.

Lower growth, reduced productivity, and higher unemployment are obvious and inevitable consequences, as shown in the IMF study.

And while I don’t worry about inequality when some people get richer faster than other people get richer in a genuine free market, it’s morally disgusting for politicians to support protectionist policies that are especially harmful to the poor.

P.S. Everything in the IMF study about the damage of trade taxes also applies to the economic analysis of other forms of taxation. Indeed, deadweight losses presumably are even higher when considering income taxes. So the IMF deserves to be castigated for putting politics above economics when it pimps for higher taxes.

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I’m not a big fan of the International Monetary Fund and I regularly criticize the international bureaucracy for its relentless advocacy in favor of higher taxes.

But that’s not what worries me most about the IMF.

To be sure, higher fiscal burdens undermine economic vitality, and I regularly warn that such policies will reduce an economy’s potential long-run growth rate.

That being said, tax increases generally don’t threaten macroeconomic stability.

If we’re looking at policies that can trigger short-run crises, I’m more concerned about the IMF’s bailout policies. For all intents and purposes, the IMF subsidizes “moral hazard” by reducing the perceived cost (to financial institutions) of lending money to dodgy governments and reducing the perceived costs (to governments) of incurring more debt.

Why not take more risk, after all, if you think the IMF will step in to socialize any losses? In other words, when the IMF engages in a few bailouts today, it increases the likelihood of more bailouts in the future.

That’s the bad news. The worse news is that the bureaucrats want a bigger figurative checkbook to enable even bigger future bailouts.

The good news is that the U.S. government can say no.

But will it? The U.K.-based Financial Times reported a few days ago that the United States might support an expansion of the IMF’s bailout capacity.

The Trump administration has left the door open for a US funding boost to the IMF, calling for a “careful evaluation” of the global lender’s finances to make sure it has enough money to rescue struggling economies. …The IMF — led by Christine Lagarde, a former French finance minister — is hoping to get its members to increase the fund’s permanent reserves… This year, the Trump administration has been among the most enthusiastic supporters of the IMF’s $57bn loan package to Argentina— its largest in history.

The next day, the FT augmented its coverage.

The IMF is set to embark on a major fundraising drive…the success of Ms Lagarde’s campaign is highly uncertain, with potentially profound consequences not only for the fund but for the global economy. …supporters of the fund say there are many possible scenarios in which it would be essential. If a recession and financial crisis were to hit in the coming years,central bankers may well struggle to find monetary remedies… a US Treasury spokesman left the door open to new possible contributions from America to the IMF. …Optimists point to a surprise decision by the Trump administration in April to support a $13bn boost to World Bank resources… there is still scepticism of the IMF among his top lieutenants at the Treasury department, including David Malpass, the undersecretary for international affairs. …Even if they were on board, economic and national security hawks at the White House who disdain multilateralism as a loss of sovereignty could be an additional obstacle, not to mention Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The previous IMF quota increase, pushed by the Obama administration — which raised America’s permanent commitment to the fund to about $115bn — finally scraped through Congress in 2016, after a half-decade delay.

I was very saddened a couple of years ago when the GOP Congress agreed to expand the IMF’s bailout authority, especially since a similar effort was blocked in 2014 when Democrats still controlled the Senate.

The issue today is whether the Trump Administration will repeat that mistake.

Back in 2012, I stated that the IMF issue was a “minimum test” for Republicans. Well, the issues haven’t changed. Everything I wrote then still applies today.

I hope Trump does the right thing and rejects expanded bailout authority for the IMF for the sensible reason that it’s foolish to subsidize more borrowing by badly governed nations.

But I’m not picky. I’ll also be happy if Trump says no simply because he’s miffed that the IMF attacked him (accurately but unfairly) during the 2016 campaign and dissed his tax plan earlier this year.

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Way back in early 2011, I wrote about the likelihood of various nations suffering a Greek-style meltdown. After speculating on the importance of debt burdens and interest payments, I concluded that

…which nation will be the next domino to fall? …Some people think total government debt is the key variable…that’s not necessarily a good rule of thumb. …Japan’s debt is nearly 200 percent of GDP, yet Japanese debt is considered very safe… The moral of the story is that there is no magic point where deficit spending leads to a fiscal crisis, but we do know that it is a bad idea for governments to engage in reckless spending over a long period of time. That’s a recipe for stifling taxes and large deficits. And when investors see the resulting combination of sluggish growth and rising debt, eventually they will run out of patience.

As I noted earlier this year, it’s not easy to predict the point at which “investors no longer trust that they will receive payments on government bonds.”

Though that would be useful information, which is why a new study from the International Monetary Fund could be very helpful. The researchers look at how to measure fiscal crisis.

The literature on fiscal crises and on early warning indicators is limited, although it has expanded in recent years. Most of the past literature focused on sovereign external debt defaults alone …the canonical fiscal crisis is a debt crisis, when the government is unable to service the interest and or principle as scheduled. … It is important to note, however, that fiscal crises may not necessarily be associated with external debt defaults. They can be associated with other forms of expropriation, including domestic arrears and high inflation that erodes the value of some types of debt. …a fiscal crisis is identified when one or more of the following distinct criteria are satisfied: …Credit events associated with sovereign debt (e.g., outright defaults and restructuring). …Recourse to large-scale IMF financial support. …Implicit domestic public default (e.g., via high inflation rates). …Loss of market confidence in the sovereign.

The goal is to figure out the conditions that precipitate problems.

…The objective of this paper is to better understand the structural weaknesses that make countries prone to entering a fiscal crisis. …We use two of the more common approaches to build early warning systems (EWS) for fiscal crises: the signal approach and logit model. …event studies indicate that a fiscal crisis tends to be preceded by loose fiscal policy (Figure 3.1). In the run-up to a crisis, there is robust real expenditure growth.

Some of the obvious variables, as noted above and also in Figure 3.1 (the dashed vertical line is the year a crisis occurs), are whether there’s a rising burden of government spending and whether the economy is growing.

For readers who like wonky material, the authors explain the two approaches they use.

In order to construct early warning systems for fiscal crises, we adopt two alternative approaches that have been used in the literature. We first use the signal approach, followed by multivariate logit models. …The signals approach involves monitoring the developments of economic variables that tend to behave differently prior to a crisis. Once they cross a specific threshold this gives a warning signal for a possible fiscal crisis in the next 1-2 years. …Logit model…early warning systems…draw on standard panel regression…with a binary dependent variable equal to one when a crisis begins (or when there is a crisis). …The main advantage of this approach is that it allows testing for the statistical significance of the different leading indicators and takes into account their correlation.

Then they crunch a bunch of numbers.

Here’s what they find using the signal approach.

…current account deficit, degree of openness, use of central bank credit to finance the deficit, size of the fiscal (overall or primary) deficit and pace of expansion in public expenditures—all these increase the probability of a future crisis.

And here’s what they conclude using the logit approach.

The results, by and large, highlight similar leading indicators as the signals approach… The probability of entering a crisis increases with growing macroeconomic imbalances due to large output gaps and deteriorating external imbalances. The results also indicate a role for fiscal policy, via public expenditures growth. … high expenditure growth could contribute to a deterioration in the current account and a large output gap, making the fiscal position vulnerable to changes in the economic cycle.

The bottom line is that both approaches yield very similar conclusions.

Our results show that there is a small set of robust leading indicators (both fiscal and non-fiscal) that help assess the probability of a fiscal crisis. This is especially the case for advanced and emerging markets. For these countries, we find that domestic imbalances (large output or credit gaps), external imbalances (current account deficit), and rising public expenditures increase the probability of a crisis. …Our results suggest that indeed fiscal variables matter. Strong expenditure growth and financing pressures (e.g., need for central bank financing) can help predict crises.

Some of this data is reflected in Figure 5.2.

And here’s the bottom line, starting with the claim that governments are being semi-responsible because we don’t actually see many fiscal crises.

…we find that some types of vulnerabilities are consistently relevant to explain fiscal crises. This raises the question why governments do not act as they see signals. In large measure they do, as crises among advanced economies are rare. Still, the occurrence of crises may reflect overly optimistic projections about the future… Our results show that a relatively small set of robust leading indicators can help assess the probability of a fiscal crisis in advanced and emerging markets with high accuracy. …countries can reduce the frequency of fiscal crises by adopting prudent policies and strengthening risk management. Fiscal crises are more likely when economies build domestic and external imbalances. This calls for avoiding excessively loose polices when domestic growth is above average. For fiscal policy, this means avoiding procyclical increases in expenditures.

The key takeaway is that spending restraint is a very important tool for avoiding a fiscal crisis.

Yes, a few other factors also are important (central bankers should avoid irresponsible monetary policy, for instance), but some of these are outside the direct control of politicians.

Which is why this new research underscores the importance of some sort of spending cap, preferably enshrined in a jurisdiction’s constitution like in Hong Kong and Switzerland.

P.S. While there haven’t been many fiscal crises in developed nations, that may change thanks to very unfavorable demographics and poorly designed entitlement programs.

P.P.S. I hope the political decision makers at the IMF read this study (as well as prior IMF studies on the efficacy of spending caps) and no longer will agitate for tax increases on nations that get into fiscal trouble.

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When I write about the economics of fiscal policy and need to give people an easy-to-understand explanation on how government spending affects growth, I share my four-part video series.

But. other than a much-too-short primer on growth and taxation from 2016, I don’t have something similar for tax policy. So I have to direct people to various columns about marginal tax rates, double taxation, tax favoritism, tax reform, corporate taxation, and tax competition.

Today’s column isn’t going to be a comprehensive analysis of taxes and growth, but it is going to augment the 2016 primer by taking a close look at how some taxes are more destructive than others.

And what makes today’s column noteworthy is that I’ll be citing the work of left-leaning international bureaucracies.

Let’s look at a study from the OECD.

…taxes…affect the decisions of households to save, supply labour and invest in human capital, the decisions of firms to produce, create jobs, invest and innovate, as well as the choice of savings channels and assets by investors. What matters for these decisions is not only the level of taxes but also the way in which different tax instruments are designed and combined to generate revenues…investigating how tax structures could best be designed to promote economic growth is a key issue for tax policy making. … this study looks at consequences of taxes for both GDP per capita levels and their transitional growth rates.

For all intents and purposes, the economists at the OECD wanted to learn more about how taxes distort the quantity and quality of labor and capital, as illustrated by this flowchart from the report.

Here are the main findings (some of which I cited, in an incidental fashion, back in 2014).

The reviewed evidence and the empirical work suggests a “tax and growth ranking” with recurrent taxes on immovable property being the least distortive tax instrument in terms of reducing long-run GDP per capita, followed by consumption taxes (and other property taxes), personal income taxes and corporate income taxes. …relying less on corporate income relative to personal income taxes could increase efficiency. …Focusing on personal income taxation, there is also evidence that flattening the tax schedule could be beneficial for GDP per capita, notably by favouring entrepreneurship. …Estimates in this study point to adverse effects of highly progressive income tax schedules on GDP per capita through both lower labour utilisation and lower productivity… a reduction in the top marginal tax rate is found to raise productivity in industries with potentially high rates of enterprise creation. …Corporate income taxes appear to have a particularly negative impact on GDP per capita.”

Here’s how the study presented the findings. I might quibble with some of the conclusions, but it’s worth noting all the minuses in the columns for marginal tax, progressivity, top rates, dividends, capital gains, and corporate tax.

This is all based on data from relatively prosperous countries.

A new study from the International Monetary Fund, which looks at low-income nations rather than high-income nations, reaches the same conclusion.

The average tax to GDP ratio in low-income countries is 15% compared to that of 30% in advanced economies. Meanwhile, these countries are also those that are in most need of fiscal space for sustainable and inclusive growth. In the past two decades, low-income countries have made substantial efforts in strengthening revenue mobilization. …what is the most desirable tax instrument for fiscal consolidation that balances the efficiency and equity concerns. In this paper, we study quantitatively the macroeconomic and distributional impacts of different tax instruments for low-income countries.

It’s galling that the IMF report implies that there’s a “need for fiscal space” and refers to higher tax burdens as “strengthening revenue mobilization.”

But I assume some of that rhetoric was added at the direction of the political types.

The economists who crunched the numbers produced results that confirm some of the essential principles of supply-side economics.

…we conduct steady state comparison across revenue mobilization schemes where an additional tax revenues equal to 2% GDP in the benchmark economy are raised by VAT, PIT, and CIT respectively. Our quantitative results show that across the three taxes, VAT leads to the least output and consumption losses of respectively 1.8% and 4% due to its non-distorting feature… Overall, we find that among the three taxes, VAT incurs the lowest efficiency costs in terms of aggregate output and consumption, but it could be very regressive… CIT, on the other hand, though causes larger efficiency costs, but has considerable better inequality implications. PIT, however, deteriorates both the economic efficiency and equity, thus is the most detrimental instrument.

Here’s the most important chart from the study. It shows that all taxes undermine prosperity, but that personal income taxes (grey bar) and corporate income tax (white bar) do the most damage.

I’ll close with two observations.

First, these two studies are further confirmation of my observation that many – perhaps most – economists at international bureaucracies generate sensible analysis. They must be very frustrated that their advice is so frequently ignored by the political appointees who push for statist policies.

Second, some well-meaning people look at this type of research and conclude that it would be okay if politicians in America imposed a value-added tax. They overlook that a VAT is bad for growth and are naive if they think a VAT somehow will lead to lower income tax burdens.

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The good news about China is that economic liberalization has produced impressive growth in recent decades, which has helped bring hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

The bad news is that China started from such a low position that per-capita income is still quite low compared to rich nations.

So what does the economic future hold? Will China continue its upward trajectory?

That’s certainly possible, but it depends on the Chinese government. Will there be additional liberalization, giving the economy more “breathing room” to grow?

Not if the government listens to the bureaucrats at the International Monetary Fund. I wrote three years ago about an IMF study that recommended huge tax increases in China.

And now there’s another IMF report pushing for big tax hikes. Only instead of arguing that higher taxes somehow will produce more growth by financing a bigger burden of government (which – no joke – was the core argument in the 2105 study), this new report claims higher taxes will produce more growth by reducing inequality.

Here’s the basic premise of the paper.

…economic growth has not benefited all segments of the population equally or at the same pace, causing income disparities to grow, resulting in a large increase in income inequality… This is especially of concern as the recent literature has found that elevated levels of inequality are harmful for the pace and sustainability of growth… The paper discusses what additional policies can be deployed to improve equity in opportunities and outcomes, with particular focus on the role for fiscal policy.

But a key part of the premise – the blanket assertion that inequality undermines growth – is junk.

As I noted in 2015 when debunking a different IMF study, “..they never differentiate between bad Greek-style inequality that is caused by cronyism and good Hong Kong-style inequality that is caused by some people getting richer faster than other people getting richer in a free market.”

Let’s dig into the details of this new IMF study.

Here’s the problem, at least according to the bureaucrats.

Income inequality in China today, as measured by the Gini coefficient, is among the highest in the world. …Furthermore, the Gini coefficient has rapidly increased over the last two decades, by a total of about 15 Gini points since 1990.

And here’s the chart that supposedly should cause angst. It shows that inequality began to rise as China shifted toward capitalism.

But why is this inequality a bad thing, assuming rich people earned their money honestly?

When markets are allowed to function, people become rich by providing value to the rest of us. In other words, it’s not a zero-sum game.

Ironically, the IMF study actually makes my point.

…much of China’s population has experienced rising real incomes. …even for the bottom 10 percent incomes rose by as much as 63 percent between 1980 and 2015… This has implied that China reduced the share of people living in poverty immensely. Measured by the headcount ratio, the population in poverty decreased by 86 percentage points from 1980 to 2013 (see figure 6), the most rapid reduction in history.

And here’s the aforementioned Figure 6, which is the data worth celebrating.

Any normal person will look at this chart and conclude that China should do more liberalization.

But not the bureaucrats at the IMF. With their zero-sum mentality, they fixate on the inequality chart.

Which leads them to make horrifyingly bad recommendations.

…several reforms could be envisaged to make fiscal policy more inclusive, both on the tax and expenditure side. …revenues from PIT contribute only around 5 percent of total revenues, a much lower share than the OECD average of 25 percent. Increasing the reliance on PIT, which more easily accommodates a progressive structure, could allow China to improve redistribution through the tax system. …While the PIT in China already embeds a progressive schedule with marginal rates increasing with income from 3 to 45 percent, …redesigning the tax brackets would ensure that middle and high income households with higher ability to pay contribute more to financing the national budget… Property and wealth taxes remain limited in China. Such taxes are broadly viewed as progressive, because high-income households usually tend also to have more property and wealth. …Consideration should therefore be given to adopt a recurrent market-value based property tax.

And why do IMF bureaucrats want all these additional growth-stifling taxes?

To finance a larger burden of government spending.

China still lags other emerging economies and OECD countries in public spending on education, health and social assistance. …social expenditure will need to be boosted.

In other words, the IMF is suggesting that China should copy welfare states such as Italy and France.

Except those nations at least enjoyed a lengthy period before World War II when government was very small. That’s when they became relatively rich.

The IMF wants China to adopt big government today, which is a recipe to short-circuit prosperity.

P.S. I don’t think the IMF is motivated by animus towards China. The bureaucrats are equal-opportunity dispensers of bad advice.

P.P.S. The OECD also is trying to undermine growth in China.

P.P.P.S. There are some senior-level Chinese officials who understand the downsides of a welfare state.

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A couple of months ago, I thought I did something meaningful by sharing six separate examples of the International Monetary Fund pressuring sub-Saharan African nations to impose higher tax burdens. This was evidence, I suggested, that the IMF had a disturbing agenda of bigger government for the entire region.

I didn’t imply the bureaucrats were motivated by racism. After all, the IMF has pushed for higher taxes in the United States, in China, in Latin America, in the Middle East, and in Europe. (folks who work at the IMF don’t pay taxes on their own salaries, but they clearly believe in equal opportunity when urging higher taxes for everyone else).

Nonetheless, I thought it was scandalous that the IMF was systematically agitating for taxes in a region that desperately needs more investment and entrepreneurship. And my six examples were proof of a continent-wide agenda!

But it turns out that I wasn’t exposing some sort of sinister secret. The IMF just published a new report where the bureaucrats openly argue that there should be big tax hikes in all sub-Saharan nations.

Domestic revenue mobilization is one of the most pressing policy challenges facing sub-Saharan African countries. …the region as a whole could mobilize about 3 to 5 percent of GDP, on average, in additional revenues. …domestic revenue mobilization should be a key component of any fiscal consolidation strategy. Absent adequate efforts to raise domestic revenues, fiscal consolidation tends to rely excessively on reductions in public spending.

Notice, by the way, the term “domestic revenue mobilization.” Such a charming euphemism for higher taxes.

And it’s also worth pointing out that the IMF openly urges more revenue so that governments don’t have to impose spending restraint.

Moreover, the IMF is happy that there have been “substantial gains in revenue mobilization” over the past two decades.

Over the past three decades, many sub-Saharan African countries have achieved substantial gains in revenue mobilization. For the median sub-Saharan African economy, total revenue excluding grants increased from around 14 percent of GDP in the mid-1990s, to more than 18 percent in 2016, while tax revenue increased from 11 to 15 percent. …Two-thirds of sub-Saharan African countries now have revenue ratios above 15 percent, compared with fewer than half in 1995. …the region still has the lowest revenue-to-GDP ratio compared to other regions in the world. The good news is that there are signs of convergence. Over the past three decades, the increase in sub-Saharan Africa’s revenue ratio has been double that for all emerging market and developing economies.

To the bureaucrats at the IMF, the “convergence” toward higher taxes is “good news.”

However, there is some data in the report that is genuine good news.

In most regions of the world, there has been a trend in recent years toward reducing rates for the CIT and the personal income tax (PIT). In sub-Saharan African countries, the average top PIT rate has been reduced from about 44 to 32 percent since 2000, while average top CIT rates have been reduced by more than 5 percentage points during the same period.

Here are two charts showing the decline in tax rates, not only in Africa, but in most other regions.

By the way, the IMF bureaucrats appear to be surprised that revenues went up as tax rates went down. I guess they’ve never heard of the Laffer Curve.

Despite this decline in rates, total direct taxes (PIT and CIT) as a percentage of GDP have been trending upward.

But the IMF obviously didn’t learn from this evidence (or from the evidence it shared last year).

Rather than proposing lower tax rates, the report urges a plethora of tax hikes.

Successful experiences in revenue mobilization have relied on efforts to implement broad-based VATs, gradually expand the base for direct taxes (CIT and PIT), and implement a system to tax small businesses and levy excises on a few key items.

Wow. I don’t know what’s worse, claiming that tax increases are good for growth, or pushing higher taxes in the world’s poorest region.

Let’s close by debunking the IMF’s absurd contention that bigger government would be good for Africa.

I suppose the simplest response would be to share my video series about the economics of government spending, especially since I cite a wealth of academic research.

But let’s take an even simpler approach. The IMF report complained that governments in sub-Saharan Africa don’t have enough money to spend.

The good news, as illustrated by this chart (based on data from the bureaucracy’s World Economic Outlook database), is that the IMF is accurate about relative fiscal burdens.

The bad news is that the IMF wants us to believe that a low fiscal burden is a bad thing. The bureaucrats at the IMF (and at other international bureaucracies) actually want people to believe that bigger government means more prosperity. Which is why the report urges big tax hikes.

But you won’t be surprised to learn that the IMF doesn’t provide any evidence for this bizarre assertion.

Though I’ve had folks on the left sometimes tell me that bigger government must be good for growth because rich nations in the western world have bigger governments while poor nations in Africa have comparatively small governments.

If you want to get in the weeds of public finance theory, the IMF bureaucrats are misinterpreting Wagner’s Law.

But there’s no need to delve into theory. When people make this assertion to me, I challenge them to identify a poor nation that ever became a rich nation with big government.

It’s true, of course, that there are rich nations that have big governments, but all of those countries became rich in the 1800s when government was very small and welfare state programs were basically nonexistent.

So let’s take the previous chart, which supposedly showed too little spending in sub-Saharan Africa, and add another column (in red) showing the level of government spending in North America and Western Europe in the 1800s.

The obvious takeaway is that African nations should cut taxes and reducing spending. The exact opposite of what the IMF recommends.

In other words, the IMF’s agenda of bigger government and higher taxes is a recipe for continued poverty.

But keep in mind that fiscal policy is just one piece of the puzzle. As explained in Economic Freedom of the World, a nation’s prosperity also is affected by regulatory policy, trade policy, monetary policy, and quality of governance.

And nations in sub-Saharan Africa generally score even lower in those areas than they do for fiscal policy. So while those countries should reduce their fiscal burdens, it’s probably even more important for them to address other policy mistakes.

To end on an upbeat note, here’s a video from Reason about how free markets can help bring prosperity to Africa.

I also recommend this video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity since it does a great job of debunking the argument that higher taxes and bigger government are a recipe for prosperity.

And this video about Botswana is a good case study of how African nations can enjoy more prosperity with market-oriented policy.

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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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The worst-international-bureaucracy contest is heating up.

In recent years, the prize has belonged to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for reasons outlined in this interview. Indeed, I’ve even argued that subsidies for the OECD are the worst expenditure in the federal budget, at least when measured on a damage-per-dollar-spent basis.

But the International Monetary Fund stepped up its game in 2017, pushing statism to a much higher level.

  • In June, I wrote about the IMF pushing a theory that higher taxes would improve growth in the developing world.
  • In July, I wrote about the IMF complaining that tax competition between nations is resulting in lower corporate tax rates.
  • In 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.
  • In November, I wrote about the IMF publishing a study expanding on its claim that equal poverty is better than unequal prosperity.

And the IMF is continuing its jihad against taxpayers in 2018.

The head bureaucrat at the IMF just unleashed a harsh attack on the recent tax reform in the United States, warning that other nations might now feel compelled to make their tax systems less onerous.

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde said the Trump administration’s $1.5 trillion tax cut could prompt other nations to follow suit, fueling a “race to the bottom” that risks hemming in public spending. …It also will fuel inflation, she said. “What we are beginning to see already and what is of concern is the beginning of a race to the bottom, where many other policy makers around the world are saying: ‘Well, if you’re going to cut tax and you’re going to have sweet deals with your corporates, I’m going to do the same thing,”’ Lagarde said.

Heaven forbid we have lower tax rates and more growth!

Though the really amazing part of that passage is that Ms. Lagarde apparently believes in the silly notion that tax cuts are inflationary. Leftists made the same argument against the Reagan tax cuts. Fortunately, their opposition we ineffective, Reagan slashed tax rates and inflation dramatically declined.

What’s also noteworthy, as illustrated by this next excerpt, is that Lagarde doesn’t even bother with the usual insincere rhetoric about using new revenues to reduce red ink. Instead, she openly urges more class-warfare taxation to finance ever-bigger government.

The IMF chief’s blunt assessment follows an unusually public disagreement between the fund and President Donald Trump’s administration last fall over an IMF paper arguing that developed nations can share prosperity more evenly, without sacrificing growth, by shifting the income-tax burden onto the rich. Competitive tax cuts risk holding back governments in spending on anything from defense and infrastructure to health and education, Lagarde said.

What makes her statements so absurd is that even IMF economists have found that higher taxes and bigger government depress economic activity. But Ms. Largarde apparently doesn’t care because she’s trying to please the politicians who appointed her.

By the way, keep in mind that Ms. LaGarde’s enormous salary is tax free, as are the munificent compensation packages of all IMF employees. So it takes enormous chutzpah for her to push for higher taxes on the serfs in the economy’s productive sector.

But it’s not just Lagarde. We also have a new publication by two senior IMF bureaucrats that urges more punitive taxes on saving and investment.

Although Thomas Piketty has famously proposed a coordinated global wealth tax of the wealthiest at two percent, there are now very few effective explicit wealth taxes in either developing or advanced economies. Indeed between 1985 and 2007, the number of OECD countries with an active wealth tax fell from twelve to just four. And many of those were, and are, of limited effectiveness. …This hot topic of how tax systems can assist in addressing excessive increases in wealth inequality was discussed at the regular IMF-World Bank session on taxation last October. …some among the very rich recognize some social benefit from being taxed more heavily (for instance, Bill Gates’ father). Perhaps then there is more that can be done to foster that sense of social responsibility… The exchange of tax information between countries is a powerful tool…and perhaps ultimately game-changing approach to the taxation of the wealthy…we do see good cause to be less pessimistic than even a few years ago.

Once again, we can debunk the IMF by….well, by citing the IMF. The professional economists at the bureaucracy have produced research showing that discriminatory taxes on capital are very bad for prosperity.

But the top bureaucrats at the organization are driven by either by statist ideology or by self interest (i.e., currying favor with the governments that decide senior-level slots).

The bottom line is that perhaps the IMF should be renamed the Anti-Empirical Monetary Fund.

And with regards to worst-international-bureaucracy contest, I fully expect the OECD to quickly produce something awful to justify its claim to first place.

P.S. I’m not a fan of the United Nations, but that bureaucracy generally is too ineffective to compete with the IMF and OECD.

P.P.S. The World Bank also does things I don’t like (as well as some good things), but it generally doesn’t push a statist policy agenda, at least compared to the nefarious actions of OECD and IMF.

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Since there’s a big debate about whether there should be tax cuts and tax reform in the United States, let’s see what we can learn from abroad.

And let’s focus specifically on whether changes in tax policy actually produce “revenue feedback” because of the Laffer Curve. In other words, if tax rates change, does that incentive people to alter how much they work, save, and invest, thus changing the amount of taxable income they earn and report?

I’ve written about how the Laffer Curve has impacted revenue in nations such as France, Russia, Ireland, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

Now let’s go to Africa. In a column for BizNis Africa, Kyle Mandy of PwC explicitly warns that South Africa is at the wrong spot on the Laffer Curve.

At the time of the 2017 Budget in February, a number of commentators, including myself, warned National Treasury and Parliament that the tax increases announced in the Budget, particularly on personal income tax, would likely push tax revenues very close to the top of the Laffer curve, i.e. the point at which tax revenues are maximised and beyond which tax rate increases will actually result in a decrease in tax revenues.

Before continuing with the article, I can’t resist making an important point. The author understands that it is a bad idea to be on the downward-sloping part of the Laffer Curve. As he points out, that’s when tax rates are so punitive that “tax rate increases will actually result in a decrease in tax revenues.”

That’s correct, of course, but it’s almost as important to understand that it’s also a very bad idea to be at the “top of the Laffer Curve.” As noted in a study by economists from the Federal Reserve and the University of Chicago, that’s the point where economic damage is so great that a dollar of tax revenue can be associated with $20 of damage to the private sector.

Now that I got that off my chest, let’s look at some of the details in the article about South Africa.

The evidence…suggests that, in the current environment, South Africa has maximised the tax revenues that it can extract from its citizens and has possibly even gone past that point and is now on the downward slope of the curve. Why do I say this? The last few years have seen significant tax increases… These tax increases saw the main budget tax: GDP ratio increase from 24.5% in 2012/13 to 26% in 2015/16, primarily led by increases in personal income tax. However, since then the tax:GDP ratio has stalled at 26% in both 2016/17 and in the revised forecast for 2017/18. It is not unreasonable to expect that the tax:GDP ratio for 2017/18 may fall below 26% in the final outcome. The stalling of the tax:GDP ratio comes despite significant tax increases in each of 2016/17 and 2017/18 which were expected to deliver ZAR18 billion and ZAR28 billion of additional tax revenues respectively.

Once again, I can’t resist the temptation to interject. That final sentence should be changed to read “the stalling of the tax:GDP ratio comes because of significant tax increases.”

Mr. Mandy concludes his column by warning that the current approach is leading to bad results and noting that further tax hikes would make a bad situation even worse.

…the South African Revenue Service has acknowledged that it has seen a decline in levels of compliance. …So what does all of this mean for tax policy and fiscal policy generally? Simply put, National Treasury have been placed in an invidious position. Increasing taxes further in the current environment could be self-defeating and result in a decline in the tax:GDP ratio. This risk is particularly prevalent insofar as further tax increases in the form of personal income tax are concerned. Increasing the corporate tax rate would further dent investor confidence and economic growth.

The good news is that even South Africa’s government seems to realize there is a problem.

Here are some excerpts from a recent story.

Finance minister Malusi Gigaba has received President Jacob Zuma’s stamp of approval for an inquiry into tax administration and governance at the South African Revenue Service (Sars). According to the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS), tax revenue is expected to fall almost R51 billion short of earlier estimates in the current fiscal year. …The probe also comes amid warnings that further tax hikes could be futile and may even result in a decline in the country’s tax-to-GDP ratio. …National Treasury has introduced various tax hikes over the past few years. The main budget tax-to-GDP ratio increased from 24.5% in 2012/13 to 26% in 2015/16, mainly as a result of higher effective personal income tax rates. But the tax-to-GDP ratio has subsequently stalled at 26% in 2016/17 and in the latest 2017/18 forecast and it is not inconceivable that the final outcome for the current fiscal year could fall below 26%… Gigaba seems to be aware of the dangers of additional tax hikes and warned in his MTBPS that it could be “counterproductive”.

I’m glad that there’s a recognition that higher taxes would backfire, but that’s not going to fix any problems.

The pressure for higher taxes will be relentless unless the South African government begins to control spending. The government should adopt a constitutional spending cap, which would alleviate budget pressures and create some “fiscal space” for lower tax rates.

But I’m not confident that will happen, particularly if the International Monetary Fund gets involved. Desmond Lachman, formerly of the IMF and now with the American Enterprise Institute, writes that the country is in trouble.

South Africa is in trouble. Per capita income has been in decline for several years and its economy is in recession for the second time in eight years. Unemployment remains at over 27%. Meanwhile, the rand is floundering on the foreign exchange market… In view of the favourable global economic environment, the country’s predicament is even more troubling. Interest rates have rarely been lower and capital flows to emerging markets have seldom been stronger. …If South Africa’s economy is performing poorly in this environment, it will probably struggle even more when central banks start to normalise their interest rate policies and when the global economic environment becomes more challenging.

He has the right description of the problem, but I’m worried about his proposed solution.

IMF assistance can hasten restoration of confidence. …An IMF programme would not be popular politically within South Africa but the government does not appear to have any realistic alternative.

Simply stated, the IMF has a very bad track record of pushing for higher taxes.

That doesn’t necessarily mean its bureaucrats will push for bad policy in South Africa, but past performance sometimes is a good predictor of future behavior.

For what it’s worth, the IMF is fully aware that the burden of government has been increasing. Here’s a blurb from the most recent Article IV report on South Africa.

During the past few years, the share of both revenues and expenditures continued its rising trend. The size of general government in South Africa is one of the highest among international peers at a similar level of development. Primary expenditures rose by 1.5 percentage points of GDP between 2012/13 and 2015/16, owing primarily to public enterprise-related transfers (0.8 percent of GDP, including a 0.6 percent of GDP equity injection for Eskom in 2015/2016) as well as relatively generous wage agreements combined with an increase in consolidated government employment (0.3 percent of GDP). In recent years, including the 2017 budget, higher personal income taxation has been the main tax  policy instrument to collect revenue combined with higher excise rates.

And here’s a section of the data table showing the expanding burden of both taxes and spending.

Unfortunately, the IMF never says that this growing fiscal burden is a problem. Instead, the focus is solely on the fact that spending is higher than revenue. In other words, the IMF mistakenly fixates on the symptom of red ink instead of addressing the real problem of excessive government.

So if the bureaucrats do an intervention, it almost certainly will result in bailout money for South Africa’s politicians in exchange for a “balanced” package of spending cuts and tax increases.

But the spending cuts likely will be either phony (reductions in planned increases, just like they do it in Washington) or will quickly evaporate. But the higher taxes will be real and permanent. Just like in most other nations where the IMF has intervened. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Speaking of misguided international bureaucracies, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development already has been pushing bad policy on South Africa. The bureaucrats even brag about their impact, as you can see from this Table in the OECD’s recent Economic Survey on South Africa.

The OECD is happy that income tax rates have increased and that there’s more double taxation on dividends, but the bureaucrats are still hoping for a new energy tax, expansion of the value-added tax, and more property taxes.

They must really hate the people of South Africa. No wonder the OECD is known as the world’s worst international bureaucracy.

I’ll close by noting that the country’s problems are not limited to fiscal policy. The country is only ranked #95 by Economic Freedom of the World. And it was as high as #46 in 2000.

Instead of pushing for higher taxes, that’s the problem the OECD and IMF should be trying to fix. But given their track record, that’s about as likely as me playing centerfield next year for the Yankees.

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I’m not a fan of the International Monetary Fund. Like many other international bureaucracies, it pushes a statist agenda.

The IMF’s support for bad policy gets me so agitated that I’ve sometimes referred to it as the “dumpster fire” or “Dr. Kevorkian” of the global economy.

But, in a perverse way, I admire the IMF’s determination to advance its ideological mission. The bureaucrats will push for tax hikes using any possible rationale.

Even if it means promoting really strange theories like the one I just read in the bureaucracy’s most recent Fiscal Monitor.

Welfare-based measures can help policymakers when they face decisions that entail important trade-offs between equity and efficiency. …One way to quantify social welfare in monetary units is to use the concept of equally distributed equivalent income.

And what exactly is “equally distributed equivalent income”?

It’s a theory that says big reductions in national prosperity are good if the net result is that people are more equal. I’m not joking. Here’s more about the theory.

…a welfare-based measure of inequality…with 1 being complete inequality and 0 being complete equality. A value of, say, 0.3 means that if incomes were equally distributed, then society would need only 70 percent (1 − 0.3) of the present national income to achieve the same level of welfare it currently enjoys (in which incomes are not equally distributed). The level of income per person that if equally distributed would enable the society to reach the same level of welfare as the existing distribution is termed equally distributed equivalent income (EDEI).

Set aside the jargon and focus on the radical implications. The IMF is basically stating that “the same level of welfare” can be achieved with “only 70 percent of the present national income” if government impose enough coercive redistribution.

In other words, Margaret Thatcher wasn’t exaggerating when she mocked the left for being willing to sacrifice national well-being and hurt the poor so long as those with higher incomes were subjected to even greater levels of harm.

Not surprisingly, the IMF uses its bizarre theory to justify more class-warfare taxation.

Figure 1.16 shows how the optimal top marginal income tax rate would change as the social welfare weight on high-income individuals increases. Assuming a welfare weight of zero for the very rich, the optimal marginal income tax rate can be calculated as 44 percent, based on an average income tax elasticity of 0.4… Therefore, there would appear to be scope for increasing the progressivity of income taxation…for countries wishing to enhance income redistribution.

But not just higher statutory tax rates.

The bureaucrats also want more double taxation of income that is saved and invested. And wealth taxation as well.

Taxes on capital income play an equally important role in shaping the progressivity of a tax system. …An alternative, or complement, to capital income taxation for economies seeking more progressive taxation is to tax wealth.

The article even introduces a new measure called “progressive tax capacity,” which politicians doubtlessly will interpret as a floor rather than a ceiling.

Reminds me of the World Bank’s “report card” which gave better grades to nations with “high effort” tax systems.

Though I guess I should look at the bright side. It’s good news that the IMF estimates that the “optimal” tax rate is 44 percent rather than 100 percent (as the Congressional Budget Office implies). And I suppose I also should be happy that “progressive tax capacity” doesn’t justify a 100 percent tax rate.

I’m being sarcastic, of course. That being said, there is a bit of genuinely good analysis in the publication. The bureaucrats actually acknowledge that growth is the way of helping the poor, which is a point I’ve been trying to stress for several years.

…many emerging market and developing economies…experienced increases in inequality during periods of strong economic growth. …Although income growth has not been evenly shared in emerging market economies, all deciles of the income distribution have benefited from economic growth, even when inequality has increased. …Benefiting from high economic growth, East and South Asia and the Pacific region, in particular, showed remarkable success in reducing poverty between 1985 and 2015 (Figure 1.8). Likewise, a period of strong growth has led to a sustained decline in absolute poverty rates in sub-Saharan Africa and in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Here are two charts from this section of the Fiscal Monitor. Figure 1.7 shows that the biggest gains for the poor occurred in the emerging market economies that also saw big increases for the rich. And Figure 1.8 shows how global poverty has fallen.

I’m not saying, by the way, that inequality is necessary for growth.

My argument is merely that free markets and small government are a recipe for prosperity. And as a nation becomes richer thanks to capitalism, it’s quite likely that some people will get richer faster than others get richer.

I personally hope the poor get richer faster than the rich get richer, but the other way around is fine. So long as all groups are enjoying more prosperity and poverty is declining, that’s a good outcome.

P.S. My favorite example of rising inequality and falling poverty is China.

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As a general rule, the International Monetary Fund is a statist organization. Which shouldn’t be too surprising since its key “shareholders” are the world’s major governments.

And when you realize who controls the purse strings, it’s no surprise to learn that the bureaucracy is a persistent advocate of higher tax burdens and bigger government. Especially when the IMF’s politicized and leftist (and tax-free) leadership dictates the organization’s agenda.

Which explains why I’ve referred to that bureaucracy as a “dumpster fire of the global economy” and the “Dr. Kevorkian of global economic policy.”

I always make sure to point out, however, that there are some decent economists who work for the IMF and that they occasionally are allowed to produce good research. I’ve favorably cited the bureaucracy’s work on spending caps, for instance.

But what amuses me is when the IMF tries to promote bad policy and accidentally gives me powerful evidence for good policy. That happened in 2012, for example, when it produced some very persuasive data showing that value-added taxes are money machines to finance a bigger burden of government.

Well, it’s happened again, though this time the bureaucrats inadvertently just issued some research that makes the case for the Laffer Curve and lower corporate tax rates.

Though I can assure you that wasn’t the intention. Indeed, the article was written as part of the IMF’s battle against tax competition. As you can see from these excerpts, the authors clearly seem to favor higher tax burdens on business and want to cartelize the global economy for the benefit of the political class.

…what’s the problem when it comes to governments competing to attract investors through the tax treatment they provide? The trouble is…competing with one another and eroding each other’s revenues…countries end up having to…reduce much-needed public spending… All this has serious implications for developing countries because they are especially reliant on the corporate income tax for revenues. The risk that tax competition will pressure them into tax policies that endanger this key revenue source is therefore particularly worrisome. …international mobility means that activities are much more responsive to taxation from a national perspective… This is especially true of the activities and incomes of multinationals. Multinationals can manipulate transfer prices and use other avoidance devices to shift their profits from high tax countries to low, and they can choose in which country to invest. But they can’t shift their profits, or their real investments, to another planet. When countries compete for corporate tax base and/or real investments they do so at the expense of others—who are doing the same.

Here’s the data that most concerns the bureaucrats, though they presumably meant to point out that corporate tax rates have fallen by 20 percentage points, not by 20 percent.

Headline corporate income tax rates have plummeted since 1980, by an average of almost 20 percent. …it is a telling sign of international tax competition at work, which closer empirical work tends to confirm.

But here’s the accidental admission that immediately caught my eye. The authors admit that lower corporate tax rates have not resulted in lower revenue.

…revenues have remained steady so far in developing countries and increased in advanced economies.

And this wasn’t a typo or sloppy writing. Here are two charts that were included with the article. The first one shows that revenues (the red line) have climbed in the industrialized world as the average corporate tax rate (the blue line) has plummeted.

This may not be as dramatic as what happened when Reagan reduced tax rates on investors, entrepreneurs, and other upper-income taxpayers in the 1980, but it’s still a very dramatic and powerful example of the Laffer Curve in action.

And even in the developing world, we see that revenues (red line) have stayed stable in spite of – or perhaps because of – huge reductions in average corporate tax rates (blue line).

These findings are not very surprising for those of us who have been arguing in favor of lower corporate tax rates.

But it’s astounding that the IMF published this data, especially as part of an article that is trying to promote higher tax burdens.

It’s as if a prosecutor in a major trial says a defendant is guilty and then spends most of the trial producing exculpatory evidence.

I have no idea how this managed to make its way through the editing process at the IMF. Wasn’t there an intern involved in the proofreading process, someone who could have warned, “Umm, guys, you’re actually giving Dan Mitchell some powerful data in favor of lower tax burdens”?

In any event, I look forward to repeatedly writing “even the IMF agrees” when pontificating in the future about the Laffer Curve and the benefits of lower corporate tax rates.

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I don’t like international bureaucracies that push statist policies.

In a perverse way, though, I admire their brassiness. They’re now arguing that higher taxes are good for growth.

This isn’t a joke. They never offer any evidence, of course, but it’s now routine to find international bureaucrats asserting that there will be more prosperity if more resources are taken out of the private sector and given to politicians (see the 3:30 mark of this video for some evidence).

Christine Lagarde, the lavishly paid head of the IMF, is doubling down on this bizarre idea that higher tax burdens are a way to generate more growth for poor nations.

…we are here to discuss an equally powerful tool for global growth — domestic resource mobilization. …taxes, and the improvement of tax systems, can boost development in incredible ways… So today, allow me first to explain the IMF’s commitment to capacity development and second, to outline strategies governments can use to generate stable sources of revenue…the IMF has a third important development mission — capacity development.

Keep in mind that all of the buzz phrases in the preceding passages – “resource mobilization” and “capacity development” – refer to governments imposing and collecting more taxes.

Again, I’m not joking.

…the focus of our event today — enabling countries to raise public tax revenues efficiently.

And there’s plenty of rhetoric about how higher taxes somehow translate into more prosperity.

Resource mobilization can, if pursued wisely, become a key pillar of strong economy… For many developing countries, increased revenue is a necessary catalyst to reach the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, and can be a driver of inclusive growth. Yet in some countries revenue remains stagnant, as the resources needed to enhance economic and civic life sit on the sidelines.

Wow, money that the government doesn’t grab apparently will just “sit on the sidelines.”

Lagarde’s entire speech was a triumph of anti-empiricism.

For instance, the western world went from poverty to prosperity in the 1800s when government was very small, averaging less than 10 percent of economic output.

Yet Lagarde makes an unsubstantiated assertion that today’s poor nations should have tax burdens of at least 15 percent of GDP (the OECD is even worse, arguing that taxes should consume 25 percent of economic output).

How significant is the resource problem? Developing countries typically collect between 10 to 20 percent of GDP in taxes, while the average for advanced economies is closer to 40 percent. IMF staff research shows that developing countries should aim to collect 15 percent of GDP to improve the likelihood of achieving stable and sustainable growth.

By the way, I should not that the IMF partnered with Oxfam, the radical left-wing pressure group, at the conference where her speech was delivered (sort of like the OECD cooperating with the crazies in the Occupy movement).

Moreover, her support for higher taxes is rather hypocritical since she doesn’t have to pay tax on her munificent salary.

I’ve also written about the various ways the IMF has endorsed higher taxes in the United States.

It’s also worth noting that the IMF boss thinks America should have a bigger welfare state as well. Here’s some of what she said about policy in the United States.

Policies need to help lower income households – including through a higher federal minimum wage, more generous earned income tax credit, and upgraded social programs for the nonworking poor. …There is a need to deepen and improve the provision of reasonable benefits to households… This should include paid family leave to care for a child or a parent, childcare assistance, and a better disability insurance program. I would just note that the U.S. is the only country among advanced economies without paid maternity leave at the national level.

The IMF even figured out a way to criticize the notion of lower corporate taxation in the United States.

The IMF…said that already highly leveraged U.S. companies may not be in a position to translate a cash-flow boost from U.S. Republican tax reform proposals into productive capital investments that can aid sustainable growth. Instead, the Fund said the slug of cash, which is likely to include repatriation of profits held overseas by multinational corporations, could be channelled into risks such as purchases of financial assets, mergers and dividend payouts. Such temptations would be highest in the information technology and health care sectors, according to the report. “Cash flow from tax reforms may accrue mainly to sectors that have engaged in substantial financial risk taking,” the IMF said. “Such risk taking is associated with intermittent large destabilising swings in the financial system over the past few decades.”

Basically, the bureaucrats at the IMF want us to believe that money left in private hands will be poorly used.

That’s a strange theory, but the oddest part of this report is that the IMF actually argued that a small repatriation holiday in 2004 somehow caused the recession of 2008 (almost all rational people put the blame on the Federal Reserve and the duo of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac).

The report noted that past major tax changes typically were followed by increases in financial risk-taking, including the tax reforms in 1986 and a corporate tax repatriation “holiday” in 2004. In both cases, these led to leverage buildups that were followed by recessions, in 1990 and 2008. …inflation and interest rates could rise more sharply than expected. This could increase market volatility and raise debt service costs for already-stretched corporate balance sheets, the IMF said. …”Tighter financial conditions could lead to distress” for weaker firms, the IMF said, noting that resulting losses would be borne by banks, life insurers, mutual funds, pension funds, and overseas institutions.

But the U.S. isn’t special.

The IMF wants higher tax burdens everywhere. Such as the Caribbean.

Over the past decade, governments in the Caribbean region have introduced the value-added tax (VAT) to modernize their tax system, rapidly mobilize revenue… VAT…has boosted revenues, the VAT has not reached its potential. …The paper also finds that although tax administration reforms can boost revenues, countries have just started… These reforms need to intensify in order to have a more significant impact on compliance and revenue.

Writing for the Weekly Standard, Irwin Stelzer has a very dim assessment of the International Monetary Fund’s actions.

He starts with some background information.

The original vision of the IMF was as an agency attending to global stability… Along with the World Bank, the agency was created at an alcohol-fueled conference of 730 delegates from 44 nations, convened 72 years ago in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. No matter that the delegates from one of the important attendees, the Soviet Union, did not speak English: Harry Dexter White, the head of the U.S. delegation, was a Soviet agent who kept Moscow informed of the goings-on. …Today’s IMF includes 189 nations, has some 2,700 employees and an annual budget in excess of $1 billion, almost 18 percent of which comes from U.S. taxpayers.

He then points out that the IMF has a bad habit of putting dodgy people in charge.

In 2004 Rodrigo Rato took the top chair and served until 2007, when he resigned to face trial in Spain for a variety of frauds involving over 70 bank accounts, and the amassing of a €27 million fortune in a web of dozens of companies. Sr. Rato was succeeded by Dominique Strauss-Kahn… Strauss-Kahn did a reasonable job until arrested in New York City on charges of imposing himself on a hotel maid whose testimony proved so incredible that all criminal charges were dropped. But DSK did settle her civil suit for a reported $1.5 million… Madame Christine Lagarde, former French finance minister, took over as managing director. …Lagarde now faces a criminal trial in France for approving a 2008 arbitration decision award of £340 million to a major financial supporter of then-president Nicolas Sarkozy that was later reversed by an appeals court.

And he notes that these head bureaucrats are lavishly compensated.

…her job…pays $500,000 per year, tax free, plus benefits and a $75,000 allowance to be paid “without any certification or justification by you, to enable you to maintain, in the interests of the Fund, a scale of living appropriate to your position as Managing Director.” The salary is twice the take-home pay of the American president, who must pay taxes on his $400,000 salary… Vacations and sick leave follow generous European standards.

Last but not least, he points out that IMF economists have a lousy track record.

All of which might be money well spent if the IMF had been reasonably successful in one of its key functions—forecasting the outlook for the international economy. …one can’t help wondering what is going on in the IMF’s highly paid forecasting shop. A study of the 189 IMF members by the Economist finds 220 instances between 1999 and 2014 in which an economy grew one year before sinking the next. “In its April forecasts the IMF never once foresaw the contraction looming in the next year.” The magazine’s random-number generator got it right 18 percent of the time.

If all the IMF did was waste a lot of money producing inaccurate forecasts, I wouldn’t be overly upset.

After all, economists seemingly specialize in getting the future wrong. My problem is that the IMF pushes bad policy.

Let’s close with a defense of the bureaucracy.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute argues that the IMF is needed because of future crises.

A number of recent senior U.S. Treasury nominations, who are known for their antipathy towards the International Monetary Fund, seems to signal that President Trump might want to have a smaller IMF. Before he yields to the temptation of trying to downsize that institution, he might want to reflect on the fact that there is a high probability that during his term he will be confronted with a global economic crisis that will require a large IMF… It is generally not a good idea to think about downsizing the fire brigade on the eve of a major conflagration. In the same way, it would seem that President Trump would be ill-advised to think about reigning in the IMF at a time when there is the real prospect of a global economic crisis during his term of office.

I actually agree with much of what Desmond wrote about the possibility of economic and fiscal crisis in the near future.

The problem, though, is that the IMF is not a fire brigade. It’s more akin to a collection of fiscal pyromaniacs.

P.S. In the interest of fairness, I want to acknowledge that we sometimes get good analysis from the IMF. Economists from that bureaucracy have concluded (two times!) that spending caps are the most effective fiscal rule. They also made some good observations about tax policy earlier this year. And IMF researchers in 2016 concluded that smaller government and lower taxes produce more prosperity. Moreover, an IMF study in 2015 found that decentralized government works better.

P.P.S. On the other hand, I was greatly amused in 2014 when the IMF took two diametrically opposed positions on infrastructure spending in a three-month period. And I also think it’s funny that IMF bureaucrats inadvertently generated some very powerful evidence against the VAT.

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Since I’ve referred to the International Monetary Fund as both “the Dumpster Fire of the Global Economy” and “the Dr. Kevorkian of Global Economic Policy,” readers can safely conclude that I’m not a fan of the international bureaucracy. My main gripe is that senior bureaucrats routinely make the mistake of bailing out profligate governments (often as a back-door way of bailing out banks that foolishly lent to those governments), and they compound that mistake by then insisting on big tax hikes.

But as I’ve noted when writing about international bureaucracies, the professional economists who work for these organizations often produce very good work.

And that’s true even for the IMF. The bureaucracy published a study a few years ago entitled “The Size of Government and U.S.–European Differences in Economic Performance” and it has some useful and interesting conclusions. Here are some excerpts, along with my observations. We’ll start with the question the authors want to answer.

How much of a drag is the modern welfare state on economic performance? … One standard approach has been to estimate the disincentive effects of taxes and deduce that lower taxes would imply higher welfare. However, in the context of modern democracies, this argument begs the question why voters prefer an inferior economic outcome (a higher tax burden) instead of voting for parties that would minimize taxes.

Actually, we don’t need to “beg the question.” We get bad policy because voters get seduced into voting for politicians who promise to pillage the “rich” and give goodies to everyone else. And since voters generally don’t understand that this approach leads to “an inferior economic outcome,” the process can continue indefinitely (or until the ratio between those pulling the wagon and those riding in the wagon gets too imbalanced).

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to the main focus of the study. The authors note that Europe isn’t converging with the United States, which is what standard economic theory says should be happening.

The academic debate over the long-term failure of European countries to catch up with U.S. economic performance also points to the need for a better assessment of the economic effects of large governments. Over the last three decades, European countries have not made inroads in closing a gap in per capita income vis-à-vis the US. …This paper focuses on…the role of the size of the public sector… The literature studying the impact of government on economic performance is large. Theory has focused on welfare effects—stressing the distortionary impact of taxation and government spending… observed government sizes generally tend to be too large, thus depressing welfare in many countries, or actual policies depart from allocationally optimal ones, especially in the “Rhineland-model” European economies.

And here are some of the results.

… a higher tax wedge results in lower hours worked. Moreover, the equation can be used to predict hours worked as a function of the tax wedge. …based on these calibrations, and using the welfare measure described in Appendix II, the steady-state welfare effects of varying the size of government can be analyzed. Table 2 provides the results of two such thought experiments: (i) to cut the marginal tax rate by five percentage points and (ii) to adopt U.S. taxation levels (in both accompanied by offsetting changes in spending), with the welfare change measured in the incremental consumption equivalent of the tax cuts. For example, had Belgium between 1990–99 cut marginal income tax rates by five percentage points, it would have reaped a welfare gain equivalent to 7⅓ percent of aggregate consumption (or of 21 percent if it had adopted US tax levels). These are large potential welfare gains from cutting back government.

Here’s a table from the study showing the theoretical gains from lowering tax rates, either by 5-percentage points, or all the way down to American levels.

But the authors note that their model is incomplete, with some countries doing better than what’s implied by their fiscal systems.

The basic model has considerable difficulties in accounting for labor supply in very high-tax countries, which it frequently underpredicted (e.g., the Nordic countries, excluding Norway…). …One group comprising Sweden and Denmark… Both countries are often singled out as countries with large government, but, as seen in the previous, both also have higher than predicted labor supply in the baseline model.

The study tries to explain such differences by considering whether some governments spend money in an effective manner on “active labor market policies” that produce higher levels of labor supply.

Perhaps that’s a partial explanation, but I think there’s a much simpler way of making sense of the data. The Nordic nations, as I’ve repeatedly written, have strongly pro-market policies once fiscal policy is taken out of the equation.

So if you just look at fiscal policy, they should be way behind the United States. But since they are more market-oriented than America in other areas (trade, rule of law, regulation, and monetary policy), that shrinks the gap.

That being said, I’m not going to be too critical of the IMF study since it does reach a very sensible conclusion.

…the size of government does play a significant role in explaining lower European labor supply…the size of European governments appears to imply large welfare costs. …Moreover, government policies that do not directly increase the size of government, e.g., regulation, are observed to also impart significant costs.

By the way, don’t assume this IMF study is an outlier. When economists at international bureaucracies are free to do real research without interference by their political masters, it’s not uncommon for them to produce sensible results.

Last but not least, here’s the video I narrated on the “Rahn Curve” and the growth-maximizing size of government.

Now if we could just get Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to understand this research, we’ll be in good shape (actually, since those two are poster children for the theory of Public Choice, who am I kidding?).

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I must be perversely masochistic because I have the strange habit of reading reports issued by international bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, United Nations, and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But one tiny silver lining to this dark cloud is that it’s given me an opportunity to notice how these groups have settled on a common strategy of urging higher taxes for the ostensible purpose of promoting growth and development.

Seriously, this is their argument, though they always rely on euphemisms when asserting that politicians should get more money to spend.

  • The OECD, for instance, has written that “Increased domestic resource mobilisation is widely accepted as crucial for countries to successfully meet the challenges of development and achieve higher living standards for their people.”
  • The Paris-based bureaucrats of the OECD also asserted that “now is the time to consider reforms that generate long-term, stable resources for governments to finance development.”
  • The IMF is banging on this drum as well, with news reports quoting the organization’s top bureaucrat stating that “…economies need to strengthen their fiscal frameworks…by boosting…sources of revenues.” while also reporting that “The IMF chief said taxation allows governments to mobilize their revenues.”
  • And the UN, which has “…called for a tax on billionaires to help raise more than $400 billion a year” routinely categorizes such money grabs as “financing for development.”

As you can see, these bureaucracies are singing from the same hymnal, but it’s a new version.

In the past, the left agitated for higher taxes simply in hopes for having more redistribution.

And they’ve urged higher taxes because of spite and hostility against those with high incomes.

Some folks on the left also have supported higher taxes on the theory that the economy’s performance is boosted when deficits are smaller.

But now, they are advocating higher taxes (oops, excuse me, I mean they are urging “resource mobilization” to generate “stable resources” so there can be “financing for development” in order to “strengthen fiscal frameworks”) on the theory that bigger government is the way to get more growth.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn, however, that these reports from international bureaucracies never provide any evidence for this novel hypothesis. None. Zero. Zilch. Nada. The null set.

They simply assert that governments will be able to make presumably wonderful growth-generating “investments” if politicians can squeeze more money from the private sector.

And I strongly suspect that this absence of evidence is deliberate. Simply stated, international bureaucracies are willing to produce shoddy research (just look at what the IMF and OECD wrote about the relationship between growth and inequality), but there’s a limit to how far data can be tortured and manipulated.

Especially when there’s so much evidence from real scholars that economic performance is weakened when government gets bigger.

Not to mention that most sentient beings can look around the world and look at the moribund economies of nations with large governments (such as France, Italy, and Greece) and compare them with the better performance of places with smaller government (such as Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Singapore).

But if you read the aforementioned reports from the international bureaucracies, you’ll notice that some of them focus on getting more growth in poor nations.

Perhaps, some statists might argue, government is big enough in Europe, but not big enough in poorer regions such as sub-Saharan Africa.

So let’s look at the numbers. Is it true that governments in the developing world don’t have enough money to provide core public goods?

The answer is no.

But before sharing those numbers, let’s look at some historical data. A few years ago, I shared some research demonstrating that countries in North America and Western Europe became rich in the 1800s and early 1900s when the burden of government spending was very modest.

One would logically conclude from this data that today’s poor nations should copy that approach.

Yet here’s the data from the International Monetary Fund on government expenditures in various poor regions of the world. As you can see, the burden of government spending in these areas is two or three times larger than it was in America and other nations that when they made the move from agricultural poverty to middle class prosperity.

The bottom line is that small government and free markets is the recipe for growth and prosperity in all nations.

Just don’t expect international bureaucracies to share that recipe since one of the obvious conclusions is that we therefore don’t need parasitical bodies like the IMF, OECD, World Bank, and UN.

P.S. Unsurprisingly, Hillary Clinton also has adopted the mantra of higher-taxes → bigger government → more growth.

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I’m not a fan of the International Monetary Fund. The bureaucracy was created in 1944 to manage and coordinate the system of fixed exchange rates created as part of the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement. But once fixed exchange rates disappeared, the over-funded bureaucracy cleverly adopted a new rationale for its existence and its main role now is to bail out insolvent nations (what that really means, of course, is that it exists to bail out big banks that foolishly lend money to profligate third-world governments).

As part of this new mission, the IMF acts like the Pied Piper of tax hikes. The bureaucrats parachute into nations, refinance and restructure the debt of those countries, and insist on a bunch of tax increases in hopes that more revenue will then be available to service the new debt.

Needless to say, this is not exactly a recipe for growth and prosperity. The private sector in these countries gets hammered with tax increases, the big banks in rich nations get indirect bailouts, and the real problem of bloated government generally is left to fester and metastasize.

This is why I’ve referred to the IMF as the Dr. Kevorkian of the global economy. But the bureaucracy is bad for other reasons. It also has decided that it should grade all nations on their economic policies and it routinely uses that self-assigned authority to recommend big tax hikes all over the world. Including lots of tax increases in the United States.

The IMF even tries to interfere with American elections. Just recently, the chief bureaucrat of the organization launched a not-too-subtle attack on Donald Trump.

Though in this case, which involved trade barriers, the IMF actually is on the right side (the bureaucracy generally has a pro-tax bias, but the one big exception is that it favors lower taxes on global trade).

Anyhow, the IMF’s Managing Director warned that additional protectionist taxes on global trade threaten the global economy. And even though she didn’t specifically mention the Republican nominee, you can see from the various headlines I’m sharing that reporters put 2 + 2 together and realized that Ms Lagarde was criticizing Trump.

And he deserves condemnation. The post-World War II shift to lower trade taxes has been a big victory for economic freedom (indeed, tariff reductions have helped offset the damage caused by increasingly bad fiscal policy over the past several decades).

Nonetheless, there is something quite unseemly about an international bureaucracy taking sides in an American election (who do they think they are, the IRS?). Especially since American taxpayers underwrite the biggest share of the IMF’s activities.

Let’s look specifically at an analysis of the IMF’s actions from the UK-based Guardian.

The managing director of the International Monetary Fund, has launched a thinly veiled attack on the anti-free-trade sentiments expressed by US presidential candidate Donald Trump… Lagarde made it clear she strongly opposed the Republican candidate’s policies, which include higher US tariffs and a barrier along the border with Mexico. …“There is a growing risk of politicians seeking office by promising to ‘get tough’ with foreign trade partners through punitive tariffs or other restrictions on trade…” She added that throughout history there had been arguments about trade. “But history clearly tells us that closing borders or increasing protectionism is not the way to go…”

By the way, while I agree with her comments on trade, her comments about a “barrier along the border with Mexico” reek of hypocrisy.

Christine Lagarde criticises his policies including plans for…a US-Mexico border wall.

Those who have visited the IMF’s lavish headquarters can confirm that there is a very heavily guarded barrier separating the IMF from the hoi polloi and peasantry of Washington.

Call me crazy, but a bureaucracy with lots of security to prevent unauthorized people from entering its building is in no position to lecture a nation for wanting security to prevent unauthorized people from crossing its borders. And I say this as someone who generally favors immigration.

But let’s set that issue aside. There’s actually a very serious sin of omission in the IMF’s analysis that needs to be addressed.

The international bureaucracy (correctly) opposes trade taxes and wants to build on the progress of recent decades by further reducing government-imposed barriers to cross-border economic activity. As noted above, this is the right position and I applaud the IMF’s defense of lower tariffs and expanded trade.

That being said, the level of protectionism has fallen significantly in the post-World War II era. In other words, trade taxes already are reasonably low. Yes, it would be better if they were even lower (ideally zero, like in Hong Kong).

My problem (or, to be more accurate, one of my problems) with the IMF is that the bureaucracy acts as if the world economy is hanging in the balance if there’s some sort of increase in the currently low tax burden on trade.

Yet what about the tax burden on behaviors that actually generate the income people use to purchase goods from other nations? Top tax rates on personal income average more than 40 percent in the developed world, dwarfing the average tariffs of trade.

And the burden on income that is saved and invested is even higher because of double taxation, which is especially destructive since all economic theories – including Marxism and socialism – agree that capital formation is a key to long-run growth and higher living standards (i.e., the ability to buy more goods, including those produced in other nations).

So here’s the question that must be asked: If it is bad to have very modest taxes on the share of people’s income that is used to buy goods produced in other nations, then why isn’t it even worse to have very onerous taxes on the productive behaviors that generate that income?

In other words, if the IMF is correct (and it is) to criticize Trump for threatening to increase the modest tax rates that are imposed on global trade, then why doesn’t the IMF criticize Hillary Clinton for threatening to increase the rather harsh tax rates that are imposed on working, saving, and investment?

Maybe Madame Lagarde’s army of flunkies and servants (one of the many perks she gets, in addition to a munificent tax-free salary) can explain that sauce for a goose is also sauce for a gander.

By the way, I can’t resist addressing one final aspect to this story. The Guardian‘s report notes that Lagarde wants to offset the supposedly harmful impact of trade by further increasing the size and scope of government.

…the solution was for governments to provide direct financial support for those with low skills through higher minimum wages, more generous welfare states, investment in education and a crackdown on tax evasion.

Wow, that’s a lot of economic illiteracy packed into one sentence fragment.

Now you understand why I refer to the IMF as the dumpster fire of global economics.

P.S. While the IMF likes to push bad policy for the United States, the bureaucracy’s proposals for China are akin to a declaration of economic warfare.

P.P.S. The IMF’s flip-flop on infrastructure spending reveals a lot about the bureaucracy’s inner workings.

P.P.P.S. While the IMF often produces sloppy and dishonest research, every so often the professional economists on the staff slip something  useful past the political types. Though my all-time-favorite bit of IMF research was the study that inadvertently showed why a value-added tax is so dangerous.

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The International Monetary Fund is a left-leaning bureaucracy that was set up to monitor the fixed-exchange-rate monetary system created after World War II.

Unsurprisingly, when that system broke down and the world shifted to floating exchange rates, the IMF didn’t go away. Instead, it created a new role for itself as self-styled guardian of economic stability.

Which is a bit of a joke since the international bureaucracy is most infamous for its relentless advocacy of higher taxes in economically stressed nations. So much so that I’ve labeled the IMF the Dr. Kevorkian of the world economy.

Or if that reference is a bit outdated for younger readers, let’s just say the IMF is the dumpster fire of international economics. Heck, if I was in Beijing, I would consider the bureaucracy’s recommendations for China an act of war.

To get an idea of the IMF’s ideological bias, let’s review it’s new report designed to discredit economic liberty (a.k.a., “neoliberalism” in the European sense or “classical liberalism” to Americans).

Here’s their definition.

The neoliberal agenda—a label used more by critics than by the architects of the policies— rests on two main planks. The first is increased competition—achieved through deregulation and the opening up of domestic markets, including financial markets, to foreign competition. The second is a smaller role for the state, achieved through privatization and limits on the ability of governments to run fiscal deficits and accumulate debt.

The authors describe the first plank accurately, but they mischaracterize the second plank.

At the risk of nitpicking, I would say “neoliberals” such as myself are much more direct than they imply. We want to achieve “a smaller role for the state” by reducing the burden of government spending.

Sure, we want to privatize government-controlled assets, but that’s mostly for reasons of economic efficiency rather than budgetary savings. And because we care about what actually works, we’re fans of spending caps rather than balanced budget rules.

But let’s set all that aside and get back to the report.

The IMF authors point out that governments have been moving in the right direction in recent decades.

There has been a strong and widespread global trend toward neoliberalism since the 1980s.

That sounds like good news.

And the report even includes a couple of graphs to show the trend toward free markets and limited government.

And the bureaucrats even concede that free markets and small government generate some good results.

There is much to cheer in the neoliberal agenda. The expansion of global trade has rescued millions from abject poverty. Foreign direct investment has often been a way to transfer technology and know-how to developing economies. Privatization of state-owned enterprises has in many instances led to more efficient provision of services and lowered the fiscal burden on governments.

But then the authors get to their real point. They don’t like unfettered capital flows and they don’t like so-called austerity.

However, there are aspects of the neoliberal agenda that have not delivered as expected. …removing restrictions on the movement of capital across a country’s borders (so-called capital account liberalization); and fiscal consolidation, sometimes called “austerity,” which is shorthand for policies to reduce fiscal deficits and debt levels.

Looking at these two aspects of neoliberalism, the IMF proposes “three disquieting conclusions.”

I’m much more worried about stagnation and poverty than I am about inequality, so part of the IMF’s analysis can be dismissed.

Indeed, based on the sloppiness of previous IMF work on inequality, one might be tempted to dismiss the entire report.

But let’s look at whether the authors have a point. Are there negative economic consequences for nations that allow open capital flows and/or impose budgetary restraint?

They argue that passive financial flows (indirect investment) can be destabilizing.

Some capital inflows, such as foreign direct investment—which may include a transfer of technology or human capital—do seem to boost long-term growth. But the impact of other flows—such as portfolio investment and banking and especially hot, or speculative, debt inflows—seem neither to boost growth nor allow the country to better share risks with its trading partners… Although growth benefits are uncertain, costs in terms of increased economic volatility and crisis frequency seem more evident. Since 1980, there have been about 150 episodes of surges in capital inflows in more than 50 emerging market economies…about 20 percent of the time, these episodes end in a financial crisis, and many of these crises are associated with large output declines… In addition to raising the odds of a crash, financial openness has distributional effects, appreciably raising inequality. …there is increased acceptance of controls to limit short-term debt flows that are viewed as likely to lead to—or compound—a financial crisis. While not the only tool available—exchange rate and financial policies can also help—capital controls are a viable, and sometimes the only, option when the source of an unsustainable credit boom is direct borrowing from abroad.

I certainly agree that there have been various crises in different nations, but I’m wondering whether the IMF is focusing on the symptoms rather than the underlying diseases.

What happened in the various nations, for instance, to trigger sudden capital flight? That seems to be a much more important question.

In some cases, such as Greece, the problem obviously isn’t capital flight. It’s the reckless spending by Greek politicians that created a fiscal crisis.

In other cases, such as Estonia, there was a bubble because of an overheated property market, and there’s no question the economy took a hit when that bubble popped.

But there’s a very strong case that Estonia’s open economy has generated plenty of strong growth over the years to compensate for that blip.

And it’s worth noting that criticisms of Estonia’s market-oriented policies often are based on grotesque inaccuracies, as was the case when Paul Krugman tried to blame the 2008 recession on spending cuts that occurred in 2009.

So I’m very skeptical of the IMF’s claim that capital controls are warranted. That’s the type of policy designed to insulate governments from the consequences of bad policy.

Now let’s shift to the fiscal policy issue. The IMF report correctly states that “Curbing the size of the state is another aspect of the neoliberal agenda.”

But the authors make a big (perhaps deliberate) mistake by then blaming neoliberals for adverse consequences associated with the “austerity” imposed by various governments.

Austerity policies not only generate substantial welfare costs due to supply-side channels, they also hurt demand—and thus worsen employment and unemployment. …in practice, episodes of fiscal consolidation have been followed, on average, by drops rather than by expansions in output. On average, a consolidation of 1 percent of GDP increases the long-term unemployment rate by 0.6 percentage point.

The problem with this analysis is that it doesn’t differentiate between tax increases and spending cuts.

And since much of the “austerity” is the former variety rather than the latter, especially in Europe, it borders on malicious for the IMF to blame neoliberals (who want less spending) for the economic consequences of IMF-endorsed policies (mostly higher taxes).

Especially since research from the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund (!) show that spending restraint is the pro-growth way of dealing with a fiscal crisis.

Let’s now look at what the IMF authors suggest for future policy. More taxes and spending!

…policymakers should be more open to redistribution than they are. …And fiscal consolidation strategies—when they are needed—could be designed to minimize the adverse impact on low-income groups. But in some cases, the untoward distributional consequences will have to be remedied after they occur by using taxes and government spending to redistribute income. Fortunately, the fear that such policies will themselves necessarily hurt growth is unfounded.

Wow, the last couple of sentences are remarkable. The bureaucrats want readers to believe that a bigger fiscal burden of government won’t have any adverse consequences.

That’s a spectacular level of anti-empiricism. I guess they want us to believe that nations such as France are economically stronger economy than places such as Hong Kong.

Wow.

Last but not least, here’s a final excerpt that’s worth sharing just because of these two sentences.

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde said the institution believed that the U.S. Congress was right to raise the country’s debt ceiling “because the point is not to contract the economy by slashing spending brutally now as recovery is picking up.”  …Policymakers, and institutions like the IMF that advise them, must be guided not by faith, but by evidence of what has worked.

We’re supposed to believe the IMF is guided by evidence when the chief bureaucrat relies on Keynesian theory to make a dishonest argument. I wish that “slashing spending” was one of the options on the table when the debt limit was raised, but the fight was at the margins over how rapidly the burden of spending should climb.

But if Lagarde can make that argument with a straight face, I guess she deserves her massive tax-free compensation package.

P.S. Since IMF economists have concluded (two times!) that spending caps are the most effective fiscal rule, I really wonder whether the authors of the above study were being deliberately dishonest when they blamed advocates of lower spending for the negative impact of higher taxes.

P.P.S. I was greatly amused in 2014 when the IMF took two diametrically opposed positions on infrastructure spending in a three-month period.

P.P.P.S. The one silver lining to the dark cloud of the IMF is that the bureaucrats inadvertently generated some very powerful evidence against the VAT.

P.P.P.S. Let’s close with something positive. IMF researchers last year found that decentralized government works better.

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I thought the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development had cemented its status as the world’s worst international bureaucracy when it called for a Keynesian spending binge even though the global economy is still suffering from previous schemes for government “stimulus.”

But the International Monetary Fund is causing me to reconsider my views.

First, some background about the IMF. Almost all of the problems occur when the political appointees at the top of the organization make policy choices. That’s when you get the IMF’s version of junk science, with laughable claims about inequality and growth, bizarrely inconsistent arguments about infrastructure spending, calls for massive energy taxes,

By contrast, you do get some worthwhile research from the career economists (on issues such as spending caps, fiscal decentralization, and the Laffer Curve).

But that kind of professional analysis gets almost no attention. The IMF’s grossly overpaid (and untaxed!) Managing Director seemingly devotes all her energy to pushing and publicizing bad policies.

The Wall Street Journal reports, for instance, that the IMF is following the OECD down the primrose path of fiscal recklessness and is also urging nations to throw good money after bad with another Keynesian spending spree.

The world’s largest economies should agree to a coordinated increase in government spending to counter the growing risk of a deeper global economic slowdown, the International Monetary Fund said Wednesday. …the IMF is pushing G-20 finance ministers and central bankers meeting in Shanghai later this week to agree on bold new commitments for public spending.

Fortunately, at least one major economy seems uninterested in the IMF’s snake-oil medicine.

The IMF’s calls will face some resistance in Shanghai. Fiscal hawk Germany has been reluctant to heed long-issued calls by the U.S., the IMF and others to help boost the eurozone’s weak recovery with public spending.

Hooray for the Germans. I don’t particularly like fiscal policy in that nation, but I at least give the Germans credit for understanding at the end of the day that 2 + 2 = 4.

I’m also hoping the British government, which is being pressured by the IMF, also resists pressure to adopt Dr. Kevorkian economic policy.

The International Monetary Fund has urged the UK to ease back on austerity… IMF officials said the Treasury had done enough to stabilise the government’s finances for it to embark on extra investment spending… The Treasury declined to comment on the IMF report. The report said: “Flexibility in the fiscal framework should be used to modify the pace of adjustment in the event of weaker demand growth.” …Osborne has resisted attempts to coordinate spending by G20 countries to boost growth, preferring to focus on reducing the deficit in public spending to achieve a balanced budget by 2020.

But you’ll be happy to know the IMF doesn’t discriminate.

It balances out calls for bad policy in the developed world with calls for bad policy in other places as well. And the one constant theme is that taxes always should be increased.

I wrote last year about how the IMF wants to sabotage China’s economy with tax hikes.

Well, here are some excerpts from a Dow Jones report on the IMF proposing higher tax burdens, tax harmonization, and bigger government in the Middle East.

The head of the International Monetary Fund on Monday urged energy exporters of the Middle East to raise more taxes… “These economies need to strengthen their fiscal frameworks…by boosting non-hydrocarbon sources of revenues,” Christine Lagarde said at a finance forum in the United Arab Emirates capital. …Ms. Lagarde called on the Persian Gulf states to introduce a valued added tax, which, even at a relatively low rate, could lift gross domestic product by 2%, she said. …Ms. Lagarde, who on Friday clinched a second five-year term as the IMF’s managing director, also urged governments in the region to consider raising corporate income taxes and even prepare for personal income taxes. Income taxes in particular could prove a sensitive move in the Gulf, which in recent decades has attracted millions of workers from abroad by offering, among other things, light-touch tax regimes. Ms. Lagarde also wants to discourage “overly aggressive tax competition” among countries that allow international companies and wealthy individuals to shift their wealth to lower tax destinations.

Wow, Ms. Lagarde may be the world’s most government-centric person, putting even Bernie Sanders in her dust.

She managed, in a single speech, to argue that higher taxes “strengthen…fiscal frameworks” even though that approach eventually leads to massive fiscal instability. She also apparently claimed that a value-added tax could boost economic output, an idea so utterly absurd that I hope the reporter simply mischaracterized her comments and that instead she merely asserted that a VAT could transfer an additional 2 percent of the economy’s output into government coffers. And she even urged the imposition of income taxes, which almost certainly would be a recipe for turning thriving economies such as Dubai back into backward jurisdictions where prosperity is limited to the oil-dependent ruling class.

And it goes without saying that the IMF wants to export bad policy to every corner of the world.

The IMF chief said taxation allows governments to mobilize their revenues. She noted, however, that the process can be undermined by “overly aggressive tax competition” among countries, and companies abusing the system of international taxation. …She argued that the automatic exchange of taxpayer information among governments could make it harder for businesses to follow the scheme.

And don’t forget that the IMF oftentimes will offer countries money to implement bad policy, like when the bureaucrats bribed Albania to get rid of its flat tax.

P.S. Now perhaps you’ll understand why I was so disappointed that last year’s budget deal included a provision to expand the IMF’s authority to push bad policy around the world.

P.P.S. In other words, American taxpayers are being forced to subsidize the IMF so it can advocate higher taxes on American taxpayers! Sort of like having to buy a gun for the robber who wants to steal your money.

P.P.P.S. Though I’ll also be grateful that the IMF inadvertently and accidentally provided some very powerful data against the value-added tax.

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I very rarely feel sympathy for the people of Greece. Indeed, events over the past five years have even led me to write that “I hate the Greeks.”

I also disparaged the people of Greece by stating on TV that they’ve been trying to loot and mooch their way through life.

So you can see that I generally believe in the tough-love approach.

But there comes a point when even a curmudgeon like me is going to say enough is enough and that the Greek people have suffered enough already.

And I had that experience yesterday. Check out this headline from a story in yesterday’s EU Observer.

Economic advice from the French government?!? Isn’t that a bit like asking the Chicago Cubs for suggestions on how to win the World Series?

What are the French advisers going to do, propose ways to make the government even bigger? Suggest ways of driving even more entrepreneurs out of the country?

For Heaven’s sake, this is the last thing the people of Greece need.

Sort of reminds me of a headline I saw attached to a report by Reuters a few years ago.

Geesh, the Greeks already suffered because of an invasion by people working for the German government back in the 1940s. Seems like another deployment of German bureaucrats would be adding insult to injury.

Particularly since it would create the worst of all worlds, marrying Teutonic tax efficiency (for example, taxing prostitutes with parking meters) with Greek profligacy (for example, subsidies for pedophiles).

I’m not sure where that would end, but it surely wouldn’t be a good place.

Now let’s make a more serious point about tough love and Greek suffering.

Back in early 2010, about the time the Greek fiscal crisis was becoming a big issue, I warned that a bailout would actually make things worse. I suggested it would be better to let Greece default, both because it would penalize foolish investors who lent too much money to the Greek government and because it would force Greece to live within its means.

That would have meant short-run pain, to be sure, but I think that approach would have involved the least amount of aggregate suffering.

But the political class ignored my helpful advice and instead decided that bailouts would be a better idea. But how has that worked out? The Greek economy has been moribund and the Greek people are now saddled with far more debt. Yes, some short-run pain was mitigated, but only at the cost of much more pain over the past few years (with more pain in the future).

Interestingly, the International Monetary Fund’s top economist unintentionally has confirmed my analysis. Here’s some of what Olivier Blanchard recently posted as part of an effort to defend the IMF’s choices back in 2010.

Had Greece been left on its own, it would have been simply unable to borrow. …Even if it had fully defaulted on its debt, given a primary deficit of over 10% of GDP, it would have had to cut its budget deficit by 10% of GDP from one day to the next.  These would have led to much larger adjustments and a much higher social cost.

Blanchard obviously thinks reducing government spending by 10 percent of GDP would have imposed too much “social cost,” but imagine if Greece had bitten the bullet back in 2010. Sort of like what Estonia did in 2009.

Yes, there would have been a challenging adjustment. Interest groups would have received fewer handouts. Greek bureaucrats would have lost jobs and/or had their pay reduced. Payments to vendors would have been delayed. State-run TV may have been shut down. The regulatory apparatus probably would have been cut back. And I’m sure the Greek government probably would have raised taxes as well.

Now imagine how much better off Greece would be today if it went with that approach.

We don’t have a parallel universe where we can see the results of that different approach, but consider the fact that Estonia had a deeper downturn than Greece, presumably in part because it undertook strong measures, but since that time has been Europe’s fastest-growing economy.

Greece, by contrast, has been Europe’s slowest-growing economy. Hmmm…seems like this should be part of any discussions about “social cost.”

So what lessons can we learn?

I realize there are lots of factors that determine economic performance and that it’s impossible to isolate the impact of either Estonia’s spending-cut policy or Greece’s bailout policy. But it would take a very bizarre and untenable set of assumptions to conclude that Estonia didn’t make smarter policy choices.

The only silver lining to Greece’s dark cloud is that it’s not too late to do the right thing.

P.S. Since we ended by speculating about the good results of my tough-love approach, let’s also enjoy some Greek-related humor.

This cartoon is quite  good, but this this one is my favorite. And the final cartoon in this post also has a Greek theme.

We also have a couple of videos. The first one features a video about…well, I’m not sure, but we’ll call it a European romantic comedy and the second one features a Greek comic pontificating about Germany.

Last but not least, here are some very un-PC maps of how various peoples – including the Greeks – view different European nations.

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When I wrote the other day that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development was the worst international bureaucracy, I must have caused some envy at the International Monetary Fund.

One can imagine the tax-free bureaucrats from the IMF, lounging at their lavish headquarters, muttering “Mitchell obviously hasn’t paid enough attention to our work.”

And they may be right. The IMF has published some new research on inequality and growth that merits our attention. I hoped it would be a good contribution to the discussion, but I was disappointed (albeit not overly surprised) to see that the authors put ideology over analysis.

Widening income inequality is the defining challenge of our time. …Equality, like fairness, is an important value.

Needless to say, they never explain why inequality is a more important challenge than anemic growth.

Moreover, they never differentiate between bad Greek-style inequality that is caused by cronyism and good Hong Kong-style inequality that is caused by some people getting richer faster than other people getting richer in a free market.

And they certainly don’t define “fairness” in an adequate fashion.

But let’s not get hung up on the rhetoric. The most newsworthy part of the study is that these IMF bureaucrats produced numbers ostensibly showing that growth improves if more income goes to those at the bottom 20 percent.

…we find an inverse relationship between the income share accruing to the rich (top 20 percent) and economic growth. If the income share of the top 20 percent increases by 1 percentage point, GDP growth is actually 0.08 percentage point lower in the following five years, suggesting that the benefits do not trickle down. Instead, a similar increase in the income share of the bottom 20 percent (the poor) is associated with 0.38 percentage point higher growth.

And this correlation leads them to make a very bold assertion.

…there does not need to be a stark efficiency-equity tradeoff. Redistribution through the tax and transfer system is found to be positively related to growth for most countries.

Followed by some policy suggestions for more class-warfare tax policy to finance additional redistribution.

…the redistributive role of fiscal policy could be reinforced by greater reliance on wealth and property taxes, more progressive income taxation… In addition, reducing tax expenditures that benefit high-income groups most and removing tax relief—such as reduced taxation of capital gains, stock options, and carried interest—would increase equity.

Those are some bold leaps in logic that the authors make. And we’ll look at some new, high-quality research on the efficiency-equity tradeoff below, but first let’s consider the IMF’s supposed empirical findings on growth and income.

Several questions spring to mind:

  • Did they cherry pick the data? Why look at the relationship between growth and income gains in the previous five years rather than one year, three years, or ten years?
  • Why do they assume the correlation they found in the five-year data somehow implies causation for future growth? Roosters crow before the sun comes up, after all, but they don’t cause sunrises.
  • Was there any attempt to look at other hypotheses? One thing that instantly came to my mind was the possibility that recessions often are preceded by easy-money policies that create asset bubbles. And since those asset bubbles tend to artificially enrich savers and investors with higher incomes, perhaps that explains the correlation in the IMF’s data.
  • Perhaps most important, why assume that faster income growth for the bottom 20 percent automatically means there should be more redistribution through the tax and transfer system? Maybe that income growth is the natural – and desirable – outcome of good Hong Kong-type policies?

There are all sorts of other questions that could and should be asked, but let’s now shift to the IMF’s bold assertion that their ostensible correlation somehow proves that there’s no tradeoff between growth (efficiency) and redistribution (equity).

Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute investigated the degree to which Arthur Okun was right about a tradeoff between growth and redistribution.

Forty years ago, the economist Arthur Okun wrote a seminal book with a self-explanatory title: Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff.  …Okun’s tradeoff seems to be forgotten by many on the left, who advocate expanded government spending at every turn… What is needed is some kind of controlled experiment.. When the financial crisis began, countries varied tremendously in the extent to which they redistributed income. Some, such as Ireland and Sweden, redistributed a lot; others, such as the U.S. and Switzerland, not so much. Now, seven years later, some countries have recovered smartly. Others have not. If we go back and sort countries by how much they redistributed before the crisis, how does the growth experience compare? …The vertical axis plots how much redistribution there was in each country in 2008. The horizontal axis plots the rate of per capita national-income growth that each country averaged during the four years between 2008 and 2012. In some sense, then, the chart asks the question, “To what extent does variation in the size of the welfare state in 2008 explain variation in how economies recovered from the crisis between 2008 and 2012?” …As one can see in the chart, …the data show a clear pattern: the heavy redistributors have done much worse.

And here’s Kevin’s chart, and it clearly shows the redistribution-oriented nations had relatively slow growth (the top left of the chart).

The bottom line is that Kevin’s hypothesis and data are much more compelling that the junky analysis from the IMF.

But you don’t need to be an expert in economic jargon or statistical analysis to reach that conclusion.

Just look around the globe. The real-world evidence is so strong that only an international bureaucrat could miss it. The nations that follow the IMF’s advice, with lots of redistribution and class-warfare taxation, are the ones that languish.

After all, Greece, Italy, and France are not exactly role models.

While jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore routinely set the standard for growth.

And nations with medium-sized welfare states, such as Switzerland, Australia, and the United States, tend to fall in the middle. We out-perform Europe’s big-government economies, but we lag behind the small-government economies.

Let’s close by looking at some additional findings from the IMF study.

I was actually surprised to see that the bureaucrats admitted that inequality (more properly defined as some people getting richer faster than others get richer) was the natural result of positive economic developments.

We find that less-regulated labor markets, financial deepening, and technological progress largely explain the rise in market income inequality in our full sample over the last 30 years.

So why, then, is “inequality” a “defining challenge”?

Needless to say, the IMF never gives us a good answer.

I also was struck by this passage from the IMF study.

Figure 18 indicates that rising pre-tax income concentration at the top of the distribution in many advanced economies has also coincided with declining top marginal tax rates (from 59 percent in 1980 to 30 percent in 2009).

And here is the chart, which the IMF would like you to believe is evidence that lower tax rates have contributed to inequality (even though the bureaucrats already admitted that natural forces have led some to get richer faster than others).

Yet this chart simply shows that supply-siders were right. Reagan, Kemp, and other tax cutters argued that lower tax rates would lead rich people to earn – and declare – more taxable income.

And that’s exactly what happened!

Heck, I’ve already shared incredibly powerful data from the IRS on this occurring during the 1980s in the United States, so it’s no surprise it happened in other nations as well.

But I don’t want to be reflexively critical of the IMF. The study did have some useful data.

And there was even one very good recommendation for helping the poor by cutting back on misguided anti-money laundering laws.

Country experiences also suggest that policies such as granting exemptions from onerous documentation requirements, requiring banks to offer basic accounts, and allowing correspondent banking are useful in fostering inclusion.

Since I’ve written that anti-money laundering laws are ineffective at fighting crime while putting costly burdens on those with low incomes, I’m glad to see the IMF has reached the same conclusion.

And here’s a chart from the IMF study showing how poor people are less likely to have accounts at financial institutions.

By the way, the World Bank has produced some very good research on how the poor are hurt by inane anti-money laundering rules.

So kudos to some international bureaucracies for at least being sensible on that issue.

But speaking of international bureaucracies, I started this column by joking about the contest to see which one produced the worst research with the worst recommendations.

And while the IMF’s new inequality study definitely deserves to be mocked, I must say that it’s not nearly as bad as the drivel that was published by the OECD.

So our friends in Paris can rest on their laurels, confident that they do the best job of squandering American tax dollars.

P.S. Since I pointed out that the IMF inadvertently ratified one of the key tenets of supply-side economics, let’s remember that the IMF also confirmed one of the key reasons to oppose a value-added tax.

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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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It’s not very often that I applaud research from the International Monetary Fund.

That international bureaucracy has a bad track record of pushing for tax hikes and other policies to augment the size and power of government (which shouldn’t surprise us since the IMF’s lavishly compensated bureaucrats owe their sinecures to government and it wouldn’t make sense for them to bite the hands that feed them).

But every so often a blind squirrel finds an acorn. And that’s a good analogy to keep in mind as we review a new IMF report on the efficacy of “expenditure rules.”

The study is very neutral in its language. It describes expenditure rules and then looks at their impact. But the conclusions, at least for those of us who want to constrain government, show that these policies are very valuable.

In effect, this study confirms the desirability of my Golden Rule! Which is not why I expect from IMF research, to put it mildly.

Here are some excerpts from the IMF’s new Working Paper on expenditure rules.

In practice, expenditure rules typically take the form of a cap on nominal or real spending growth over the medium term (Figure 1). Expenditure rules are currently in place in 23 countries (11 in advanced and 12 in emerging economies).

Such rules vary, of course, is their scope and effectiveness.

Many of them apply only to parts of the budget. In some cases, governments don’t follow through on their commitments. And in other cases, the rules only apply for a few years.

Out of the 31 expenditure rules that have been introduced since 1985, 10 have already been abandoned either because the country has never complied with the rule or because fiscal consolidation was so successful that the government did not want to be restricted by the rule in good economic times. … In six of the 10 cases, the country did not comply with the rule in the year before giving it up. …In some countries, there was the perception that expenditure rules fulfilled their purpose. Following successful consolidations in Belgium, Canada, and the United States in the 1990s, these countries did not see the need to follow their national expenditure rules anymore.

But even though expenditure limits are less than perfect, they’re still effective – in part because they correctly put the focus on the disease of government spending rather than symptom of red ink.

Countries have complied with expenditure rules for more than two-third of the time. …expenditure rules have a better compliance record than budget balance and debt rules. …The higher compliance rate with expenditure rules is consistent with the fact that these rules are easy to monitor and that they immediately map into an enforceable mechanism—the annual budget itself. Besides, expenditure rules are most directly connected to instruments that the policymakers effectively control. By contrast, the budget balance, and even more so public debt, is more exposed to shocks, both positive and negative, out of the government’s control.

One of the main advantages of a spending cap is that politicians can’t go on a spending binge when the economy is growing and generating a lot of tax revenue.

One of the desirable features of expenditure rules compared to other rules is that they are not only binding in bad but also in good economic times. The compliance rate in good economic times, defined as years with a negative change in the output gap, is at 72 percent almost the same as in bad economic times at 68 percent. In contrast to other fiscal rules, countries also have incentives to break an expenditure rule in periods of high economic growth with increasing spending pressures. … two design features are in particular associated with higher compliance rates. …compliance is higher if the government directly controls the expenditure target. …Specific ceilings have the best performance record.

And the most important result is that expenditure limits are associated with a lower burden of government spending.

The results illustrate that countries with expenditure rules, in addition to other rules, exhibit on average higher primary balances (Table 2). Similarly, countries with expenditure rules also exhibit lower primary spending. …The data provide some evidence of possible implications for government size and efficiency. Event studies illustrate that the introduction of expenditure rules is indeed followed by smaller governments both in advanced and emerging countries (Figure 11a).

Here’s the relevant chart from the study.

And it’s also worth noting that expenditure rules lead to greater efficiency in spending.

…the public investment efficiency index of DablaNorris and others (2012) is higher in countries that do have expenditure rules in place compared to those that do not (Figure 11b). This could be due to investment projects being prioritized more carefully relative to the case where there is no binding constraint on spending

Needless to say, these results confirm the research from the European Central Bank showing that nations with smaller public sectors are more efficient and competent, with Singapore being a very powerful example.

One rather puzzling aspect of the IMF report is that there was virtually no mention of Switzerland’s spending cap, which is a role model of success.

Perhaps the researchers got confused because the policy is called a “debt brake,” but the practical effect of the Swiss rule is that there are annual expenditures limits.

So to augment the IMF analysis, here are some excerpts from a report prepared by the Swiss Federal Finance Administration.

The Swiss “debt brake” or “debt containment rule”…combines the stabilizing properties of an expenditure rule (because of the cyclical adjustment) with the effective debt-controlling properties of a balanced budget rule. …The amount of annual federal government expenditures has a cap, which is calculated as a function of revenues and the position of the economy in the business cycle. It is thus aimed at keeping total federal government expenditures relatively independent of cyclical variations.

Here’s a chart from the report.

And here are some of the real-world results.

The debt-to-GDP ratio of the Swiss federal Government has decreased since the implementation of the debt brake in 2003. …In the past, economic booms tended to contribute to an increase in spending. …This has not been the case since the implementation of the fiscal rule, and budget surpluses have become commonplace. … The introduction of the debt brake has changed the budget process in such a way that the target for expenditures is defined at the beginning of the process, which must not exceed the ceiling provided by the fiscal rule. It has thus become a top-down process.

The most important part of this excerpt is that the debt brake prevented big spending increases during the “boom” years when the economy was generating lots of revenue.

In effect, the grey-colored area of the graph isn’t just an “ideal representation.” It actually happened in the real world.

Though the most important and beneficial real-world consequence, which I shared back in 2013, is that the burden of government spending has declined relative to the economy’s productive sector.

This is a big reason why Switzerland is in such strong shape compared to most of its European neighbors.

And such a policy in the United States would have prevented the trillion-dollar deficits of Obama’s first term.

By the way, if you want to know why deficit numbers have been lower in recent years, it’s because we actually have been following my Golden Rule for a few years.

So maybe it’s time to add the United States to this list of nations that have made progress with spending restraint.

But the real issue, as noted in the IMF research, is sustainability. Yes, it’s good to have a few years of spending discipline, but the real key is some sort of permanent spending cap.

Which is why advocates of fiscal responsibility should focus on expenditure limits rather than balanced budget requirements.

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The International Monetary Fund isn’t my least-favorite international bureaucracy. That special honor belongs to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, largely because of its efforts to undermine tax competition and protect the interests of the political class (it also tried to have me arrested, but I don’t hold that against them).

But the IMF deserves its share of disdain. It’s the Doctor Kevorkian of global economic policy, regularly advocating higher taxes and easy money even though that’s never been a recipe for national prosperity.

And it turns out that the IMF also is schizophrenic. The international bureaucracy’s latest big idea, garnering an entire chapter in the October World Economic Outlook, is that governments should spend more on infrastructure.

Barack Obama’s former chief economist supports the IMF scheme. Here some of what he wrote for the Washington Post.

…the IMF advocates substantially increased public infrastructure investment, and not just in the United States but in much of the world. It further asserts that under circumstances of high unemployment, like those prevailing in much of the industrialized world, the stimulative impact will be greater if this investment is paid for by borrowing… Why does the IMF reach these conclusions? …the infrastructure investment actually makes it possible to reduce burdens on future generations. …the IMF finds that a dollar of investment increases output by nearly $3. …in a time of economic shortfall and inadequate public investment, there is a free lunch to be had — a way that government can strengthen the economy and its own financial position.

Wow, That’s a rather aggressive claim. Governments spend $1 and the economy grows by $3.

Is Summers being accurate? What does the IMF study actually say?

It makes two big points.

The first point, which is reflected in the Summers oped, is that infrastructure spending can boost growth.

The study finds that increased public infrastructure investment raises output in the short term by boosting demand and in the long term by raising the economy’s productive capacity. In a sample of advanced economies, an increase of 1 percentage point of GDP in investment spending raises the level of output by about 0.4 percent in the same year and by 1.5 percent four years after the increase… In addition, the boost to GDP a country gets from increasing public infrastructure investment offsets the rise in debt, so that the public debt-to-GDP ratio does not rise… In other words, public infrastructure investment could pay for itself if done correctly.

But Summers neglected to give much attention to the caveats in the IMF study.

…the report cautions against just increasing infrastructure investment on any project. …The output effects are also bigger in countries with a high degree of public investment efficiency, where additional public investment spending is not wasted and is allocated to projects with high rates of return. …a key priority in economies with relatively low efficiency of public investment should be to raise the quality of infrastructure investment by improving the public investment process through, among others, better project appraisal, selection, execution, and rigorous cost-benefit analysis.

Perhaps the most important caveat, though, is that the study uses a “novel empirical strategy” to generate its results. That should raise a few alarm bells.

So is this why the IMF is schizophrenic?

Nope. Not even close.

If you want evidence of IMF schizophrenia, compare what you read above with the results from a study released by the IMF in August.

And this study focused on low-income countries, where you might expect to find the best results when looking at the impact of infrastructure spending.

So what did the author find?

On average the evidence shows only a weak positive association between investment spending and growth and only in the same year, as lagged impacts are not significant. Furthermore, there is little evidence of long term positive impacts. …The fact that the positive association is largely instantaneous argues for the importance of either reverse causality, as capital spending tends to be cut in slumps and increased in booms… In fact a slump in growth rather than a boom has followed many public capital drives of the past. Case studies indicate that public investment drives tend eventually to be financed by borrowing and have been plagued by poor analytics at the time investment projects were chosen, incentive problems and interest-group-infested investment choices. These observations suggest that the current public investment drives will be more likely to succeed if governments do not behave as in the past.

Wow. Not only is the short-run effect a mirage based on causality, but the long-run impact is negative.

But the real clincher is the conclusion that “public investment” is productive only “if governments do not behave as in the past.”

In other words, we have to assume that politicians, interest groups, and bureaucrats will suddenly stop acting like politicians, interest groups, and bureaucrats.

Yeah, good luck with that.

But it’s not just a cranky libertarian like me who thinks it is foolish to expect good behavior from government.

Charles Lane, an editorial writer who focuses on economic issues for the left-leaning Washington Post, is similarly skeptical.

Writing about the IMF’s October pro-infrastructure study, he thinks it relies on sketchy assumptions.

The story is told of three professors — a chemist, a physicist and an economist — who find themselves shipwrecked with a large supply of canned food but no way to open the cans. The chemist proposes a solvent made from native plant oils. The physicist suggests climbing a tree to just the right height, then dropping the cans on some rocks below. “Guys, you’re making this too hard,” the economist interjects. “Assume we have a can opener.” Keep that old chestnut in mind as you evaluate the International Monetary Fund’s latest recommendation… A careful reading of the IMF report, however, reveals that this happy scenario hinges on at least two big “ifs.”

The first “if” deals with the Keynesian argument that government spending “stimulates” growth, which I don’t think merits serious consideration.

But feel free to click here, here, here, and here if you want to learn more about that issues.

So let’s instead focus on the second “if.”

The second, and more crucial, “if” is the IMF report’s acknowledgment that stimulative effects of infrastructure investment vary according to the efficiency with which borrowed dollars are spent: “If the efficiency of the public investment process is relatively low — so that project selection and execution are poor and only a fraction of the amount invested is converted into productive public capital stock — increased public investment leads to more limited long-term output gains.” That’s a huge caveat. Long-term costs and benefits of major infrastructure projects are devilishly difficult to measure precisely and always have been. …Today we have “bridges to nowhere,” as well as major projects plagued by cost overruns and delays all over the world — and not necessarily in places you think of as corrupt. Germany’s still unfinished Berlin Brandenburg airport is five years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, to name one example. Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford’s Said Business School studied 258 major projects in 20 nations over 70 years and found average cost overruns of 44.7 percent for rail, 33.8 percent for bridges and tunnels and 20.4 percent for roads.

Amen. Governments are notorious for cost overruns and boondoggle spending.

It happens in the United States and it happens overseas.

It’s an inherent part of government, as Lane acknowledges.

In short, an essential condition for the IMF concept’s success — optimally efficient investment — is both difficult to define and, to the extent it can be defined, highly unrealistic. As Flyvbjerg explains, cost overruns and delays are normal, not exceptional, because of perverse incentives — specifically, project promoters have an interest in overstating benefits and understating risks. The better they can make the project look on paper, the more likely their plans are to get approved; yet, once approved, economic and logistical realities kick in, and costs start to mount. Flyvbjerg calls this tendency “survival of the unfittest.” …Governments that invest in infrastructure on the assumption it will pay for itself may find out that they’ve gone a bridge too far.

Or bridge to nowhere, for those who remember the infamous GOP earmark from last decade that would have spent millions of dollars to connect a sparsely inhabited Alaska island with the mainland – even though it already had a very satisfactory ferry service.

Let’s close with two observations.

First, why did the IMF flip-flop in such a short period of time? It does seem bizarre for a bureaucracy to publish an anti-infrastructure spending study in August and then put out a pro-infrastructure spending study two months later.

I don’t know the inside story on this schizophrenic behavior, but I assume that the August study was the result of a long-standing research project by one of the IMF’s professional economists (the IMF publishes dozens of such studies every year). By contrast, I’m guessing the October study was pushed by the political bosses at the IMF, who in turn were responding to pressure from member governments that wanted some sort of justification for more boondoggle spending.

In other words, the first study was apolitical and the second study wasn’t.

Not that this is unusual. I suspect many of the economists working at international bureaucracies are very competent. So when they’re allowed to do honest research, they produce results that pour cold water on big government. Indeed, that even happens at the OECD.

But when the political appointees get involved, they put their thumbs on the scale in order to generate results that will please the governments that underwrite their budgets.

My second observation is that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with the IMF’s theoretical assertions in the August study. Infrastructure spending can be useful and productive.

It’s an empirical question to decide whether a new road will be a net plus or a net minus. Or a new airport runway. Or subway system. Or port facilities.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that we’re far more likely to get the right answers to these empirical questions if infrastructure spending is handled by state and local governments. Or even the private sector.

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