Posts Tagged ‘Incentives’

When I give speeches about the economic case for small government, one of my main points is that people in the private sector (workers, investors, managers, entrepreneurs, etc) are motivated by self interest to allocate labor and capital efficiently. To be more specific, the pursuit of higher pay and greater profit will lead people to allocate resources productively.

I freely admit that people in the private sector make mistakes (most new business ventures ultimately fail, for instance), but I explain that’s part of a dynamic process in a market economy. Every success and every mistake leads to feedback, both via the price system and also via profits and losses. All of which leads to continuous changes as people – especially entrepreneurs – seek to better serve the needs and wants of consumers, since that’s how they can increase their income and wealth.

In other words, Adam Smith was right when he said that self interest encourages people to focus on making others better off.

By contrast, when politicians and bureaucrats allocate resources (either directly via spending programs, or indirectly via regulation or tax distortions), feedback mechanisms are very weak. Once politicians intervene, they never seem to care if they are generating positive results. There are plenty of examples, however, of government imposing high costs while producing no benefits. Or even producing harm.

And let’s not forget that “Public Choice” teaches us that interest groups will manipulate government to obtain unearned benefits.

The main lesson from all this information is that it’s good to have small government rather than large government.

But there’s a secondary lesson about how the economic harm of government can be reduced if market forces somehow can be part of the process. And that’s why a new study from two Italian economists at the Centre for Economic and International Studies is worth sharing.

The abstract of the study is a good summary.

We empirically investigate the effect of oversight on contract outcomes in public procurement. In particular, we stress a distinction between public and private oversight: the former is a set of bureaucratic checks enacted by contracting offices, while the latter is carried out by private insurance companies whose money is at stake through so-called surety bonding. We analyze the universe of U.S. federal contracts in the period 2005-2015 and exploit an exogenous variation in the threshold for both sources of oversight, estimating their causal effects on costs and execution time. We find that: (i) public oversight negatively affects outcomes, in particular for less competent buyers; (ii) private oversight has a positive effect on outcomes by affecting both the ex-ante screening of bidders – altering the pool of winning firms – and the ex-post behavior of contractors.

In other words, normal bureaucratic waste, featherbedding, and cost overruns are less likely when the private sector does the oversight.

And here’s an excerpt from the text for those who want more details.

…we propose a distinction between public and private oversight, depending on its source. Public oversight includes all formal checks – cost certifications, pricing data transmission, production surveillance – which the contracting authorities enact during the contract awarding phase and execution. It typically involves considerable paperwork for both the buyer and the sellers. At the cost of some red tape, it is aimed at alleviating the moral hazard problem… On the other hand, private oversight involves third parties – surety companies – issuing bonds (surety bonds) to secure the buyer against unpredictable events. If the seller fails to fulfill contractual tasks, contracting authorities make claims to recover losses. A surety is then called on either to complete the public work by themselves (i.e. with their own resources or by subcontracting) or to refund the authority of the bond value. Being liable in case of unsatisfactory contract outcomes, the sureties have strong incentives both to screen bidders (ex ante) and to monitor contractors (ex post). They help mitigate the asymmetry of information between the buyer and the sellers thanks to their experience of the market – i.e. access to private information – and the screening enacted through price discrimination on premia, which directly affects offers placed by potential contractors. Hence, private oversight enhances the selection of the best contractors and provides a second tier of monitoring of contractors’ progresses.

This is encouraging. It would be nice to have smaller government, but it also would be nice to get the most bang for the buck when the government does spend money.

To be sure, there are probably many parts of government that are impervious to market forces.

But surely there are many ways to protect taxpayers by creating incentives to save money.

  • For instance, on the programmatic level, we can enlist the private sector to fight rampant Medicare and Medicaid fraud by allowing private investigators to keep a slice of any recovered funds.
  • And on the sectoral level, we can achieve big educational gains with school choice, thus giving schools a bottom-line incentive to attract students with better outcomes.
  • Last but not least, we can rely on the competitive impact of federalism to encourage better macroeconomic policy by state and local governments.

The moral of the story, needless to say, is that the private sector does a better job than government. So let’s do what we can to unleash market forces. Be more like Hong Kong and less like Venezuela.

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While I sometimes make moral arguments against the current tax system (because it is corrupt, because it doesn’t treat people equally, because it provides unearned wealth for insiders, etc), my main arguments are based on economics.

High tax rates on workers and entrepreneurs discourage productive behavior.

Double taxation on income that is saved and invested discourages capital formation.

Tax preferences and other loopholes bribe people to use resources inefficiently.

These are the principles that explain why I like tax reform, why I promote the Laffer Curve, and why I advocate for tax competition.

Maybe it’s time, however, for a back-to-basics primer on taxes and behavior. That’s why I’m very glad that Professors Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University (and the Marginal Revolution blog) are producing videos on various economic principles.

And I particularly like a video they produced which uses supply and demand curves to show how taxes reduce economic output.

But before we watch that video on taxes and “deadweight loss,” here’s a video on how supply and demand curves interact.

Feel free to skip this video if you feel confident in your understanding of these economic concepts (and also feel free to watch this video on the demand curve and this video on the supply curve if you don’t have any background knowledge and need to start at the beginning).

Now let’s look at their first-rate video on how taxes lead to less economic output and foregone value for both buyers and sellers.

Very well done. I particularly like the closing example showing how the so-called luxury tax backfired.

Here are a few of my thoughts to augment Professor Tabarrok’s analysis.

1. The video looks at how taxes affect the equilibrium level of output for an unspecified product. Keep in mind that this analysis applies to “products” such as labor and investment.

2. It should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that ever-higher tax rates impose ever-higher levels of deadweight loss.

3. The point about avoiding taxes on goods where there is high “elasticity” has important lessons for why it is foolish to impose class-warfare tax rates on people who have considerable control over the timing, level, and composition of their income.

4. This analysis does not imply that all taxes are bad. Or, to be more precise, the analysis does not lead to the conclusion that all taxes are counterproductive. If government uses money to provide valuable public goods, the overall effect on the economy may be positive.

P.S. I’ve shared a couple of tests that allow people to determine their philosophical/political leanings, including the libertarian/anarchist purity quiz, the circle test to see where you are on the spectrum from socialism to voluntarism, and a candidate affinity test.

I’m a sucker for these quizzes, even when they don’t make sense.

And if you like these tests (particularly one that does make sense), then you’ll enjoy this quiz from David Boaz’s new book, The Libertarian Mind: A Manifesto for Freedom.

You’ll be shocked to learn I got a perfect score. Which is probably a good thing since David is one of my bosses.

The Princess of the Levant will snicker at the thought of me being described as “cosmopolitan,” but I’ll tell her that even a rube can have a cosmopolitan vision of society.

And remember, libertarians also have the self confidence to enjoy self-deprecating humor, so we must be good folks.

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I’ve written many times about America’s looming fiscal collapse, and I’ve also pontificated about America’s costly and failed welfare state.

I even have speculated about when America reaches a tipping point, with too many people riding in the wagon of government dependency (as illustrated by these famous cartoons, which even have a Danish equivalent).

If you read all my posts on these issues, I like to think you’d be very well informed on these topics. But if you want to save time, my colleague Tom Palmer put all these issues together in a recent speech in Australia.

Best of all, he includes lots of great material on the moral and historical aspects of this discussion.

The good news is that there are signs of progress, at least outside the United States. Denmark, for instance, has cut back on its welfare state.

And now, even the United Kingdom has engaged in some serious welfare reform.

Here are some excerpts from a column in the UK-based Telegraph.

 Why should there have been this improvement in the labour market? …The most convincing explanation is surely the Government’s welfare reforms. They have made it more difficult and less attractive to live off benefits, thereby increasing the supply of workers. In economists’ jargon, the natural rate of unemployment has fallen.

Another Telegraph column digs into the details.

…more jobs are being created in Britain than in the rest of Europe put together. …There has clearly been a game-changer… What confounded the eggheads was that the number of workers is growing four times faster than the number of working-age people: in other words, Britons have become far more likely than pretty much anyone else to look for –and find – work. Why?

The answer is simple economics and incentives.

Fewer people now claim the three main out-of-work benefits than at any time during the Labour years. This, of course, is perfectly explained by IDS’s reforms, which make it a lot harder to live on welfare. Those who have been on incapacity benefit for years have been summoned to assessment centres to see what work they’re fit to do. Far more of the unemployed are being penalised for missing job interviews. A benefits cap has been imposed; housing benefit is being reformed; and the so-called “spare room subsidy” has been abolished, making life more expensive for those on benefits with unused rooms. …this is not about punishing “shirkers”, but helping good people trapped in a bad system. Fixing that system means making life harder for people who have it pretty tough already, at least for a short while. But under the Labour regime, such people were being led down the path to dependency and poverty. A new road had to be built, leading to work. And only now is it becoming clear quite how many people are taking it.

Here’s a chart showing how actual job creation is beating the forecasts.

These are remarkable numbers, particularly when you compare them to the job forecast put forth by the Obama White House, which grossly over-stated the number of jobs that would exist under the so-called stimulus.

The key takeaway is that incentives matter. When you give people unemployment insurance, you reduce incentives to find work. When you give people Obamacare, you reduce incentives to earn income. When you give people welfare and food stamps, you reduce incentives for self-reliance.

And when you add together the panoply of redistribution programs operated by government, it’s easy to see why far too many people are being trapped in government dependency.

If you like charts, here’s a very sobering image of how the welfare state destroys incentives for upward mobility. And if you like anecdotes, here’s a dismal story about government making leisure more attractive than productivity.

P.S. At least one honest leftist acknowledges that there’s a problem.

P.P.S. On a lighter note, here’s a satirical Declaration of Dependency from the left.

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Obamacare was put together by people who don’t understand economics.

This is probably the understatement of the year since I could be referring to many features of the bad law.

The higher tax burden on saving and investment, making an anti-growth tax system even worse.

The exacerbation of the third-party payer problem, which is the nation’s biggest healthcare problem.

The increased burden of government spending, worsening America’s entitlement crisis.

Those are all significant problems, but today I want to focus on how Obamacare encourages people to be less productive. And I’m going to use a rather unexpected source. The left-leaning San Francisco Chronicle has a financial advice column that inadvertently show how Obamacare discourages people from earning income.

The article nonchalantly explains that people may want to reduce their income so they can get more goodies from the government.

People whose 2014 income will be a little too high to get subsidized health insurance from Covered California next year should start thinking now about ways to lower it to increase their odds of getting the valuable tax subsidy. “If they can adjust (their income), they should,” says Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow with the Kaiser Family Foundation. “It’s not cheating, it’s allowed.” Under the Affordable Care Act, if your 2014 income is between 138 and 400 percent of poverty level for your household size, you can purchase health insurance on a state-run exchange (such as Covered California) and receive a federal tax subsidy to offset all or part of your premium. …getting below the 400 percent poverty limit could save many thousands of dollars per year.

You may be thinking that this is just a theoretical problem, but the article cites a very real example.

To get a subsidy, the couple’s modified adjusted gross income for 2014 income would need to fall below $62,040, which is 400 percent of poverty for a family of two. …Proctor estimates that her 2014 household income will be $64,000, about $2,000 over the limit. If she and her husband could reduce their income to $62,000, they could get a tax subsidy of $1,207 per month to offset the purchase of health care on Covered California. That would reduce the price of a Kaiser Permanente bronze-level plan, similar to the replacement policy she was quoted, to $94 per month from $1,302 per month. Instead of paying more than $15,000 per year, the couple would pay about $1,100.

To put it in even simpler terms, this couple has figured out that they can get almost $14,000 of other people’s money by reducing how much they earn by just $2,000.

That, in a nutshell, is the perfect illustration of the welfare state. It tells people that they can get more by producing less. And the system is based on the theory that there will always be some suckers who work hard to provide the subsidies.

But as we’ve seen in Greece, Italy, Spain, and elsewhere, this system eventually breaks down as more and more people learn that it’s easier to ride in the wagon than it is to pull the wagon (as powerfully illustrated by these two cartoons).

And remember that the United States isn’t too far behind Europe’s welfare states.

Thanks to the plethora of welfare programs and income-redistribution schemes that already exist, millions of Americans have an incentive to earn less money and get trapped in government dependency. This graph, for instance, shows that various handouts mean that a single mom with $29,000 of income can be better off than a self-reliant person with $69,000 of income.

And a local CBS station discovered that a low-income household could be eligible for more than $80,000 of goodies from the government. Earning more money, though, would mean fewer handouts.

The same problem exists, by the way, in other nations such as Denmark and the the United Kingdom.

Remember Julia, the mythical moocher created by the Obama campaign to show the joys of government dependency? As illustrated by this Ramirez cartoon, Julia symbolizes the entitlement mentality. But the cartoon doesn’t go far enough. It should show how Julia decides to lead a less productive and less fulfilling life because she gets hooked on the heroin of handouts.

P.S. Some honest liberals recognize that redistribution can trap people in poverty.

P.P.S. Unsurprisingly, Thomas Sowell explains this issue with blunt and powerful logic.

P.P.P.S. To close with some humor, here’s a new Declaration of Dependency put together for our leftist friends. Though they may want to think twice before asking for a divorce from Red State America.

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I’m a big fan of Chuck Asay’s political cartoons. My favorite is his nothing-left-to-steal masterpiece.

And his tractor cartoon and his regime-uncertainty cartoon are brilliant indictments of Obamanomics.

Here’s another classic. It shows the impact of the welfare state on incentives for work, self reliance, and independence.

Asay Welfare CartoonIn six cartoon frames, he cleverly explains the economics of labor supply in a welfare state. Heck, there are many economists who could learn something from Asay’s work.

With gems like this, no wonder he came in second place in my political cartoonist contest.

This unsigned Wizard-of-Id parody has the same basic message about labor supply and handouts, and here’s a chart with some staggering real-world evidence of how the welfare state discourages people from productive behavior.

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Back in 2011, I linked to a simple chart that illustrated how handouts and subsidies create very high implicit marginal tax rates for low-income people and explained how “generosity” from the government leads to a tar-paper effect that limits upward mobility.

Earlier this year, I shared an amazing chart that specifically measured how the welfare state imposes these high implicit tax rates. Unbelievably, some people would be better off earning $29,000 rather than $69,000.

Simply stated, the multitude of redistribution programs are worth a lot of money, but you begin to lose those goodies if you begin to live a productive and independent life.

And since we know that rich people respond to high tax rates by declaring less income to the government, we shouldn’t be surprised that poor people also respond to incentives.

We also shouldn’t be surprised to learn that other nations have these same perverse policies. Here are some excerpts from a powerful piece for the UK-based Spectator.

…today’s Sunday Times magazine has a long piece asking whether there is a “fundamental difference in our attitudes to work”. It’s still one of the most important questions in Britain today: what’s the use of economic growth if it doesn’t shorten British dole queues? And should we blame these industrious immigrants; aren’t the Brits just lazy? …The quality of the British debate is so poor that we almost never look at this from the point of view of the low-wage worker. Every budget, the IFS will dutifully work out if it has been “fair” – ie, gives the most to the poorest. The LibDems will judge a budget by this metric. That’s a nice, easy, simple graph. But what about destroying the work incentive? Each budget and each change to tax should be judged on how many people are then ensnared in the welfare trap. I adapted the below (nasty, complex) graphs from an internal government presentation, which still make the case powerfully. The bottom axis is money earned from employer and the side axis is income retained. The graphs are complex but worth studying, if only to get a feel for the horrific system confronting millions of the lowest-paid in Britain today.

Here are the two charts. the author is correct. They are quite complex. But they show that there’s no much incentive to work harder, whether you’re a young person or a single parent.

After showing these amazing charts, the author makes some very powerful additional observations.

…if I was in a position of a British single mother I have not the slightest doubt that I would choose welfare. Why break your back on the minimum wage for longer than you have to, if it doesn’t pay? Some people do have the resolve to do it. I know I wouldn’t. …So let’s not talk about “lazy” Brits. The problem is a cruel and purblind welfare system which still, to this day, strengthens the welfare trap with budgets passed without the slightest regard for its effect on the work incentives on the poorest. …Meanwhile, the cash-strapped British government is still creating still the most expensive poverty in the world.

The final sentence in the excerpt really sums it up, noting that the government is “creating the most expensive poverty in the world.” Sort of like a turbo-charged version of Mitchell’s Law. The politicians create a few redistribution programs. Poverty begins to get worse. So then they add a few more handouts to address the problems caused by the first set of programs. Lather, rinse, repeat.

In other words, this poster applies in all nations.

P.S. If you want some real-world examples of the horrible impact of the British welfare state, you can see how the welfare state destroys lives, creates perverse incentives, and turns people into despicable moochers.

P.P.S. We have the same problems in America, and even leftists are beginning to admit this is bad for poor people. Heck, just look at this chart showing that the poverty rate was falling until the War on Poverty began.

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In my explanations of the Laffer Curve, I’ve shown evidence that high tax rates discourage productive behavior and boost the underground economy.

And if higher tax rates are sufficiently onerous, the resulting reductions in taxable income can completely offset the revenue-generating impact of higher tax rates. Indeed, this is what’s already happened with the “Snooki tax.”

And the same thing happens in reverse. If lower tax rates lead to a big enough increase in taxable income, the government actually collects more revenue – which is exactly what happened when the top tax rate was lowered in the 1980s.

I’ve also tried to explain, shifting from economics to philosophy, that confiscatory tax rates are unfair and immoral. And I’m glad to see that most Americans agree, with 75 percent of all people saying that nobody should ever face a tax rate of more than 30 percent.

Notwithstanding that polling data, though, I fear that many people don’t really understand the economics of taxation. So I’m happy to share this little story that periodically winds up in my inbox.


Suppose that every day, ten men go out for beer and the bill for all ten comes to $100. If they paid their bill the way we pay our taxes, it would go something like this…

  • The first four men (the poorest) would pay nothing
  • The fifth would pay $1
  • The sixth would pay $3
  • The seventh would pay $7
  • The eighth would pay $12
  • The ninth would pay $18
  • The tenth man (the richest) would pay $59

So, that’s what they decided to do.

The ten men drank in the bar every day and seemed quite happy with the arrangement, until one day, the owner threw them a curve ball.

“Since you are all such good customers,” he said, “I’m going to reduce the cost of your daily beer by $20″. Drinks for the ten men would now cost just $80.

The group still wanted to pay their bill the way we pay our taxes. So the first four men were unaffected. They would still drink for free. But what about the other six men ? How could they divide the $20 windfall so that everyone would get his fair share?

The bar owner suggested that it would be fair to reduce each man’s bill by a higher percentage the poorer he was, to follow the principle of the tax system they had been using, and he proceeded to work out the amounts he suggested that each should now pay.

  • And so the fifth man, like the first four, now paid nothing (100% saving).
  • The sixth now paid $2 instead of $3 (33% saving).
  • The seventh now paid $5 instead of $7 (28% saving).
  • The eighth now paid $9 instead of $12 (25% saving).
  • The ninth now paid $14 instead of $18 (22% saving).
  • The tenth now paid $49 instead of $59 (16% saving).

Each of the six was better off than before. And the first four continued to drink for free. But, once outside the bar, the men began to compare their savings.

“I only got a dollar out of the $20 saving,” declared the sixth man. He pointed to the tenth man,”but he got $10!”

“Yeah, that’s right,” exclaimed the fifth man. “I only saved a dollar too. It’s unfair that he got ten times more benefit than me!”

“That’s true!” shouted the seventh man. “Why should he get $10 back, when I got only $2? The wealthy get all the breaks!”

“Wait a minute,” yelled the first four men in unison, “we didn’t get anything at all. This new tax system exploits the poor!”

The nine men surrounded the tenth and beat him up.

The next night the tenth man didn’t show up for drinks so the nine sat down and had their beers without him. But when it came time to pay the bill, they discovered something important. They didn’t have enough money between all of them for even half of the bill!

And that, boys and girls, journalists and government ministers, is how our tax system works. The people who already pay the highest taxes will naturally get the most benefit from a tax reduction. Tax them too much, attack them for being wealthy, and they just may not show up anymore. In fact, they might start drinking overseas, where the atmosphere is somewhat friendlier.


Very well done. Reminds me of the PC version of the story about the ant and the grasshopper, or perhaps the joke about using two cows to explain various economic and political systems.

And if you like those, you’ll appreciate this modern fable about bureaucracy, featuring an ant and a lion.

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