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Posts Tagged ‘International Monetary Fund’

Inequality is now a major dividing line in the world of public policy.

Supporters of limited government think it’s not a big issue and instead focus on the policies that are most likely to generate growth. Simply stated, they tend not to care if some people get richer faster than other people get richer (assuming, of course, that income is honestly earned and not the result of cronyism).

Folks on the left, by contrast, think inequality is inherently bad. It’s almost as if they think that the economy is a fixed pie and that a big slice for the “rich” necessarily means smaller slices for the rest of us. They favor lots of redistribution via punitive taxes and an expansive welfare state.

When talking to such people, my first priority is getting them to understand that it’s possible for an economy to grow and for all income groups to benefit. I explain how even small differences in long-run growth make a big difference over just a few decades and that it is very misguided to impose policies that will discourage growth by penalizing the rich and discouraging the poor.

I sometimes wonder how vigorously to present my argument. Is it actually true, as Thatcher and Churchill argued, that leftists are willing to hurt poor people if that’s what is necessary to hurt rich people by a greater amount?

Seems implausible, so when I recently noticed this amusing humor on Reddit‘s libertarian page, I was not going to share it. After all, it presumes that our friends on the left genuinely would prefer equal levels of poverty rather than unequal levels of prosperity.

But, after reading a new study from the International Monetary Fund, I’m wondering if I’m underestimating the left’s fixation with inequality and the amount of economic damage they’re willing to inflict to achiever greater equality of outcomes.

Here are some introductory passages to explain the goal of the research.

…it is worth reemphasizing some lessons from the “old masters” in economics who addressed this topic a few decades ago—including Arthur M. Okun and Anthony B. Atkinson in the 1970s. Their lessons—on how to elicit people’s views on inequality and how to summarize societal welfare using a monetary indicator encompassing both average incomes and their distribution—remain relevant for fiscal policymakers today. …a satisfactory theory of welfare must recognize that welfare depends on both the size and the distribution of national income. …This primer seeks to encourage more widespread use by policymakers of the tools developed by welfare theory. …the primer provides an in-depth, step-by-step refresher on two specific tools chosen because of their simplicity and intuitive appeal: Okun’s “leaky bucket” and Atkinson’s “equally-distributed-equivalent income.”

Please note that the IMF explicitly is saying that it wants policymakers to change laws based on what’s in the study.

And, as you continue reading, it should become obvious that the bureaucrats are pushing a very radical agenda (not that we should be surprised given the IMF’s track record).

Here’s the bureaucracy’s take on Okun and his pro-redistribution agenda.

Okun (1975) proposed a thought experiment capable of eliciting people’s attitudes toward the trade -off between equality and efficiency: Okun asked the reader to consider five families: a richer one making $45,000 (in 1975) and four poorer ones making $5,000. Would the reader favor a scheme that taxed the rich family $4,000 and transferred the proceeds to the poorer families? In principle, each poorer family would receive $1,000. But what if 10 percent leaked out, with only $900 reaching the recipients? What would the maximum acceptable leak be? The leak represented not only the administrative costs of tax-and-transfer programs (and, one might add, potential losses due to corruption), but also the fact that such programs reduce the economic incentives to work. …Okun reported his own answers to the specific exercise he proposed (his personal preference was for a leakage of no more than 60 percent). ….Okun was willing to accept that a $4,000 tax on the rich household [would] translate, with a 60 percent leakage, into a $400 transfer to each of the four poor households.

The only good part about Okun’s equity-efficiency tradeoff is that he acknowledges that redistribution harms the economy. The disturbing part is that he was willing to accept 60 percent leakage in order to take money from some and give it to others.

It gets worse. When the IMF mixes Okun with Atkinson, that’s when things head in the wrong direction even faster. As I noted last month, Atkinson has a theory designed to justify big declines in national income if what’s left is distributed more equally. I’m not joking.

And that IMF wants to impose this crazy theory on the world.

Atkinson (1970) showed that under the assumptions above and having identified a coefficient of aversion to inequality, it becomes easy to summarize the well-being of all households in an economy with a single, intuitive measure: the equally-distributed-equivalent income (EDEI), i.e., the income that an external observer would consider just as desirable as the existing income distribution. …The percentage loss in mean income—compared with the initial situation—that an observer would find acceptable to have a perfectly equal distribution of incomes was introduced by Atkinson (1970) as a measure of inequality.

The study then purports to measure “aversion to inequality” in order to calculate equally-distributed-equivalent income (EDEI).

The greater the observers’ aversion to inequality, the lower the EDEI. Table (2) reports for a few alternative ε coefficients, for the example above.

Here’s a table from the study, which is based on a theoretical rich person with $45,000 and a theoretical poor person with $5,000 of income. A society that isn’t very worried about inequality (ε = 0.2) is willing to sacrifice about $4,000 on overall income to achieve the desired EDEI. But a nation fixated on equality of outcomes might be willing to sacrifice $32,000 (more than 60 percent of overall income!).

I’ve augmented the table with a few of the aggregate income losses in red.

In other words, nations that have a higher aversion to inequality are the ones that prefer lots of misery and deprivation so long as everyone suffers equally.

Another use of this data is that it allows the IMF to create dodgy data on income (sort of like what the OECD does with poverty numbers).

It appears the bureaucrats want to use EDEI to claim that poorer nations have more income than richer nations.

…the ranking of countries based on the EDEI often differs significantly from that based on mean income alone. For instance, South Africa’s mean income is more than double that of the Kyrgyz Republic, and substantially above that of Albania. However, those countries’ lower inequality implies that their EDEI is significantly higher than South Africa’s. …Similarly, the United States’ mean income is considerably above that of the United Kingdom or Sweden. However, for an inequality aversion coefficient of ε=1.5, Sweden’s EDEI is above that of the United States, and for ε=2.0 also the United Kingdom’s EDEI is above that of the United States.

Here’s a table from the study and you can see how the United States becomes a comparatively poor nation (highlighted in red) when there’s an “aversion” to inequality.

In other word, even though the United States has much higher living standards than European nations, the IMF is peddling dodgy numbers implying just the opposite.

But the real tragedy is that low-income people will be much more likely to remain poor with the policies that the IMF advocates.

P.S. Fans of satire may appreciate this “modest proposal” to reduce inequality. I imagine the IMF would approve so long as certain rich people are excluded.

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The cossetted bureaucrats at the International Monetary Fund are on a roll. In the past few months, they’ve published reports pushing a very misguided and statist agenda.

  • 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.

Now let’s add to that awful collection.

A new IMF report tries to quantify the fiscal implications of a new agenda for so-called sustainable development from the United Nations.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) launched in September 2015 establish ambitious objectives to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all by 2030… From inception, it was clear this ambition would have to be accompanied by significant efforts to boost the financing resources available to developing countries.

By the way, “financing resources” is basically bureaucrat-speak for more revenue to finance bigger government.

But not just bigger government. We’re talking huge amounts of money and much, much bigger government.

…the numbers are likely to be very large. For example, Schmidt-Traub (2015) estimated that the average annual investment increase required in low-income countries (LICs) to attain these goals could reach up to $400 billion (or 50 percent of their GDP).

The article speculates that private investors and foreign aid will cover some of this cost, but the focus is on the degree to which poor nations independently have the capacity to expand the burden of government spending.

…the heavy burden imposed on the public sector cannot be overstated…requires assessing the fiscal space in LICs. … fiscal space captures the ability of a government to raise spending… The purpose of this paper is to develop a new metric of fiscal space in LICs.

The good news, from the IMF’s warped perspective, is that there’s lots of leeway to expand government in these countries, presumably enabled by big tax increases. The bad news is that there’s not enough “fiscal space” to finance the desired expansion of government.

…the fiscal space available in LICs may be in the double digits but, not surprisingly, it will be insufficient to undertake the spending needed to achieve the SDGs.

For those that care, here are some specific results.

…fiscal space in LICs is estimated to be in the double digits, with the median value reaching up to 16 percent of GDP for the full sample.

And here is a chart showing the estimates of fiscal space for resource-dependent poor countries are regular poor countries, based on various conditions.

And here’s another chart showing the potential “fiscal space” in low-income countries.

Though keep in mind that even very big increases in government would not produce the large public sectors envisioned by UN bureaucrats.

…the fiscal space available in LICs is dwarfed by the incremental annual spending needs that must be financed by the public sector to achieve the SDGs—estimated at around 30 percent of GDP.

Now that I’ve shared the IMF’s analysis, let me explain why it is anti-empirical nonsense.

Simply stated, the bureaucrats want us to reflexively assume that bigger government is the way to achieve the “sustainable development goals.” Yet the only sure-fire method of achieving those goals is to become a high-income nation. Those are the places, after all, that have achieved low poverty, clean environments, equal rights, and other desirable features that are part of the UN’s goals.

That being said, the world’s successful western countries all became rich when government was very small. Indeed, there was almost no redistribution spending in the western world as late as 1930. Yes, those nations generally adopted expensive and debilitating welfare states once they became rich, thus producing less growth and fiscal problems, but at least they they first achieved prosperity with lengthy periods of free markets and small government.

Moreover, there’s not a single example of a country that adopted big government and then became rich (and therefore capable of achieving the UN’s goals). So the notion that higher taxes and bigger governments can produce better outcomes for poor nations is utter bunk.

These issues were addressed in a recent video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

And I suppose I should link to my video on the recipe for growth and prosperity.

The bottom line is that the IMF has come up with analysis that – if followed – will ensure continued poverty and misery in the developing world. With that in mind, I think I was being too nice when I referred to that bureaucracy as the Dr. Kevorkian of global economic policy.

P.S. I don’t want anyone to conclude the IMF is biased against poor countries. They also push for higher taxes and bigger government in rich countries.

P.P.S. While they are infamous for urging higher taxes all around the world, IMF bureaucrats don’t have to suffer the consequences since they receive very lavish tax-free salaries. What a reprehensible scam.

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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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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 written that the International Monetary Fund is the Dumpster Fire of the Global Economy” and “the Dr. Kevorkian of Global Economic Policy,” I don’t think anyone could call me a fan of that international bureaucracy.

But I’ve also noted that the real problem with organizations like the IMF is that they have bad leadership. The professional economists at international bureaucracies often produce good theoretical and empirical work. That sensible research doesn’t make much difference, though, since the actual real-world policy decisions are made by political hacks with a statist orientation.

For instance, the economists at the IMF have produced research on the benefits of smaller government and spending caps. But the political leadership at the IMF routinely ignores that sensible research and instead has a dismal track record of pushing for tax increases.

Hope springs eternal, though, so I’m going to share some new IMF research on tax policy that is very sound. It’s from the second chapter of the bureaucracy’s newest Fiscal Monitor. Here are some excerpts, starting with an explanation of why the efficient allocation of resources is so important for prosperity.

A top challenge facing policymakers today is how to raise productivity, the key driver of living standards over the long term. …The IMF’s policy agenda has therefore emphasized the need to employ all policy levers, and in particular to promote growth-friendly fiscal policies that will boost productivity and potential output. Total factor productivity (TFP) at the country level reflects the productivity of individual firms…aggregate TFP depends on firms’ individual TFP and also on how available resources (labor and capital) are allocated across firms. Indeed, the poor use of existing resources within countries—referred to here as resource misallocation—has been found to be an important source of differences in TFP levels across countries and over time. …What is resource misallocation? Simply put, it is the poor distribution of resources across firms, reducing the total output that can be obtained from existing capital and labor.

The chapter notes that creative destruction plays a vital role in growth.

Baily, Hulten, and Campbell (1992) find that 50 percent of manufacturing productivity growth in the United States during the 1980s can be attributed to the reallocation of factors across plants and to firm entry and exit. Similarly, Barnett and others (2014) find that labor reallocation across firms explained 48 percent of labor productivity growth for most sectors in the U.K. economy in the five years prior to 2007.

And a better tax system would enable some of that growth by creating a level playing field.

Simply stated, you want people in the private sector to make decisions based on what makes economic sense rather than because they’re taking advantage of some bizarre quirk in the tax code.

Potential TFP gains from reducing resource misallocation are substantial and could lift the annual real GDP growth rate by roughly 1 percentage point. …Upgrading the design of their tax systems can help countries chip away at resource misallocation by ensuring that firms’ decisions are made for business and not tax reasons. Governments can eliminate distortions that they themselves have created. …For instance, the current debt bias feature of some tax systems not only distorts financing decisions but hampers productivity as well, especially in the case of advanced economies. …Empirical evidence shows that greater tax disparity across capital asset types is associated with higher misallocation.

One of the main problems identified by the IMF experts is the tax bias for debt.

And since I wrote about this problem recently, I’m glad to see that there is widespread agreement on the economic harm that is created.

Corporate debt bias occurs when firms are allowed to deduct interest expenses, but not returns to equity, in calculating corporate tax liability. …Several options are available to eliminate the distortions arising from corporate debt bias and from tax disparities across capital asset types, including the allowance for corporate equity system and a cash flow tax. …In the simplest sense, a CFT is a tax levied on the money entering the business less the money leaving the business. A CFT entails immediate expensing of all investment expenditures (that is, 100 percent first-year depreciation allowances) and no deductibility of either interest payments or dividends. Therefore, if it is well designed and implemented, a CFT does not affect the decision to invest or the scale of investment, and it does not discriminate across sources of financing.

By the way, regular readers may notice that the IMF economists favor a cash-flow tax, which is basically how the business side of the flat tax operates. There is full expensing in that kind of system, and interest and dividends are treated equally.

This is also the approach in the House Better Way tax plan, so the consensus for cash-flow taxation is very broad (though the House wants a destination-based approach, which is misguided for several reasons).

But let’s not digress. There’s one other aspect of the IMF chapter that is worthy of attention. There’s explicit discussion of how high tax rates undermine tax compliance, which is music to my ears.

Several studies have shown that tax policy and tax administration affect the prevalence of informality and thus productivity. Colombia provides an interesting case study on the effect of taxation on informality. A 2012 tax reform that reduced payroll taxes was found to incentivize a shift of Colombian workers out of informal into formal employment. Leal Ordóñez (2014) finds that taxes and regulations play an important role in explaining informality in Mexico. For Brazil, Fajnzylber, Maloney, and Montes-Rojas (2011) show that tax reductions and simplification led to a significant increase in formal firms with higher levels of revenue and profits. While a higher tax burden contributes to the prevalence of informality… For 130 developing countries, a higher corporate tax rate is found to increase the prevalence of cheats among small manufacturing firms, lowering the share of sales reported for tax purposes.

In closing, I should point out that the IMF chapter is not perfect.

For instance, even though it cites research about how high tax rates reduce compliance, the chapter doesn’t push for lower rates. Instead, it endorses more power for national tax authorities. Makes me wonder if the political folks at the IMF imposed that recommendation on the folks who wrote the chapter?

Regardless, the overall analysis of the chapter is quite sound. It’s based on a proper understanding that growth is generated by the efficient allocation of labor and capital, and it recognizes that bad tax policy undermines that process by distorting incentives for productive behavior.

The next step is convince Ms. Lagarde and the rest of the IMF’s leadership to read the chapter. They get tax-free salaries, so is it too much to ask that they stop pushing for higher taxes on the rest of us?

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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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