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Posts Tagged ‘International Monetary Fund’

Do you want to understand the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) pernicious role in the global economy?

Here’s a simple analogy that will tell you everything you need to know. Let’s say you have two friends.

  • Friend A, who continuously gets in financial trouble because of compulsive gambling and alcoholism.
  • Friend B, who continuously gets in financial trouble because he loses money by giving loans to Friend A.

Assuming you’re a good person, you will scold both your friends for irresponsible and imprudent behavior. And you certainly won’t aid and abet their recklessness.

But if that’s your attitude, you’ll never get a lucrative (and tax-free!) job at the IMF.

That’s because the role of the IMF is enabling bad fiscal policy by governments (i.e., Friend A) and then providing bailouts so that the institution that lend money to those governments (i.e., Friend B) are insulated from their foolish choices.

To make matters worse, the IMF usually imposes “conditionality” on bailouts so that governments – for all intents and purposes – are bribed or extorted to impose higher taxes. Sort of akin to giving Friend A (the alcoholic gambler) access to more cash.

All of which explains why we see a lather-rinse-repeat cycle of nations making the same mistakes over and over again.

It’s so predictably destructive that I was only half joking when I told an audience in El Salvador that they should ban all flights containing IMF bureaucrats.

In an article for National Review, Professor Steve Hanke explains why the IMF should be shuttered. But what makes his column especially interesting is that he digs into the history of the bureaucracy.

We learn, for instance, that the IMF supposedly existed to help countries abide by the post-WWII system of fixed exchange rates. So when that system disappeared in the early 1970s, the IMF should have gone away as well.

Established as part of the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement, the IMF was designed to be primarily responsible for extending short‐​term, subsidized credits to countries experiencing balance‐​of‐​payments problems under the post-war, international, pegged‐​exchange-rate system. In 1971, however, Richard Nixon, then U.S. president, closed the gold window, triggering the 1973 collapse of the Bretton Woods agreement and, logically, the demise of the IMF. It was then that the IMF should have been mothballed.

Like any self-interested bureaucracy, the IMF figured out new reasons to exist.

And new reasons to expand.

The oil crises of the 1970s were the first to allow the IMF to reinvent itself. Those shocks were deemed to “require” more IMF lending to facilitate, yes, balance‐​of‐​payments adjustments. …with the onset of the Mexican debt crisis, more IMF lending was “required” to contain the crisis and prevent U.S. bank failures. …Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union. What a “jobs for the boys” bonanza that was! And, the list goes on and on with every crisis providing yet another opportunity for the ineffective IMF to pump out more credit… Today, things have become so politicized that even an international organization, like the IMF, has been able to grant itself a license to meddle in what used to be none of its business… While the IMF’s protean attributes are truly breathtaking, its most recent meddling gives yet another reason to put an end to it.

Steve is right.

But let’s conclude by contemplating the biggest reason to support his conclusion.

Should we abolish the IMF because it’s repugnant that big banks and other lenders are the main beneficiaries of the bailouts?

Should we abolish the IMF because it’s disgusting that corrupt politicians in poor nations get more opportunities to impose bad policy?

Should we abolish the IMF because it’s tragic that the bureaucracy lowers global growth by enabling the misallocation of capital?

Those are all good reasons, but I think the strongest argument for abolishing the IMF is that the bureaucracy perpetuates poverty. Look at this table, also prepared by Professor Hanke, which shows the nations that have received the most bailouts.

Are any of these nations economic success stories?

Hardly.

Instead, this is primarily a list of nations that have been mired in a sad cycle of poverty thanks in part to wasteful and corrupt governments that were aided and abetted by the IMF.

The bottom line is that the people of the United States should no longer be underwriting this awful organization.

P.S. The IMF is an equal-opportunity dispenser of bad advice. Relying on incredibly shoddy analysis and zero-sum thinking, the bureaucrats are encouraging higher taxes in developed nations as well.

P.P.S. No wonder I’ve referred to the IMF as the “Dr Kevorkian of Global Economic Policy” and the “Dumpster Fire of the Global Economy.”

P.P.P.S. Though there was a brief period when the IMF was semi-sympathetic to good policy advice.

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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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When I did this video about public-sector compensation almost 10 years ago, I focused on why it is unfair that bureaucrats get much higher levels of compensation than people working the private sector.

Today, let’s consider the economic consequences of excessive bureaucracy.

And what will make this column particularly interesting is that I’ll be citing some research from economists at the International Monetary Fund (a bureaucracy which is definitely not an outpost of libertarian thinking).

The two authors, Alberto Behar and Junghwan Mok, investigated whether nations lowered unemployment rates by employing more bureaucrats.

The contribution of this paper is to investigate the effects of public hiring of workers on labor market outcomes, specifically unemployment and private employment. In particular, does public hiring increase (“crowd in”) private employment or decrease (“crowd out”) private employment? …It is arguably the case that a private-sector job is more desirable than a public-sector job from a public policy point of view…there is evidence that a large government share in economic activity can be negative for long-term growth because of the distortionary effects of taxation, inefficient government spending due in part to rent-seeking or lower worker productivity, and the crowding out of private investment. …Crowding out could occur through a number of channels. Derived labor demand can be affected through crowding out of the product market, possibly via higher taxes, higher interest rates, and competition from state-owned enterprises. It can occur through the labor market, where higher wages, more job security, or a higher probability of finding a public-sector job can make an individual more likely to seek or wait for public-sector employment rather than search for or accept a job in the private sector… Finally, it can occur in the education market, where individuals seek qualifications appropriate for entering the public sector rather than skills needed for productive employment

As you can see, the authors sensibly consider both the direct and indirect effects of public employment.

Yes, hiring someone to be a bureaucrat obviously means that person is employed, but it also means that resources are being diverted to government.

And that imposes costs on the economy’s productive sector.

So the real question is the net impact.

In their study for the IMF, the authors cite other academic research suggesting that government employment crowds out (i.e., reduces) private employment.

…there is prior evidence that crowding-out effects are sufficiently large to increase unemployment in a number of advanced countries. However, there has hitherto not been a thorough investigation of how public employment affects labor market outcomes in developing countries. We fill this gap in the literature by investigating the effects of public employment on both private employment and on unemployment. An important part of our contribution lies in the assembly of the dataset to expand the number of non-OECD countries… The most related and relevant work to this paper is by Algan et al. (2002), who explore the consequences of public-sector employment for labor market performance. Using pooled cross-section and annual time-series data for 17 OECD countries from 1960 to 2000, they run regressions of the unemployment rate and/or the private-sector employment rate on the public-sector employment rate. Empirical evidence from the employment equation suggests that the creation of 100 public jobs crowds out 150 private-sector jobs.

In the study, the authors look at two main measures of public sector employment.

And, as you can see in Figure 4, they look at data for nations in different regions.

They wisely utilize the broader measure of public employment, which includes the people employed by state-owned enterprises.

We have collected data for up to 194 countries over the period 1988–2011. …Our contribution to the literature includes the assembly of data on public and private employment and other indicators for a wide range of developing and advanced countries. …Definitions of “public sector” are different across countries and organizations, so we choose two definitions and generate corresponding public employment datasets, namely a “narrow” measure also referred to as “public administration” and a “broad” measure. …This dataset includes not only governmental agencies but also state-owned enterprises (SOEs). We call this the ‘broad’ measure of public employment, preserving the term ‘public sector’.

In Figure 7, they use a scatter diagram to show some of the data.

The diagram on the left is most relevant since it shows that private employment (vertical axis) declines as government jobs (horizontal axis) increase.

And when they do the statistical analysis, we get confirmation that government jobs displace employment in the economy’s productive sector.

…all coefficients indicate a very strong negative relationship between public- and private-sector employment rates. For example, 100 new public jobs crowd out 98 private job… Taken together with the unemployment results, public employment just about fully crowds out private-sector employment regardless of the definition, such that a rise in government hiring would be offset by decreases in private employment… Regressions of unemployment on public employment and of private employment on public employment, each of which is based on two definitions of public employment, find robust evidence that public employment crowds out private employment. …Public-sector hiring: (i) does not reduce unemployment, (ii) increases the fiscal burden, and (iii) inhibits long-term growth through reductions in private-sector employment. Together, this would imply that public hiring is detrimental to long term fiscal sustainability.

The final part of the above excerpt is critical.

In addition to not increasing overall employment, government jobs also increase the fiscal burden of government and undermine long-run growth.

So the long-term damage is even greater than the short-run damage.

P.S. The IMF isn’t the only international bureaucracy to conclude that government employment is bad for overall prosperity. A few years ago, I shared research from the European Central Bank which also showed negative macroeconomic consequences from costly bureaucracy.

P.P.S. While I’m usually critical of the IMF because it has a statist policy agenda, it’s not uncommon for the professional economists who work there to produce good research. In the past, I’ve highlight some very good IMF studies on topics such as spending caps, the size of government, taxes and business vitality, fiscal decentralization, the Laffer Curve, and class-warfare taxation.

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It seems that the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have an ongoing contest to see which bureaucracy can be the biggest cheerleader for bad fiscal policy.

  • They compete (OECD vs IMF) to promote more spending.
  • They compete (OECD vs IMF) to push higher tax burdens.
  • They compete (OECD vs IMF) to advocate class warfare.

You can even see them competing to encourage bad policy in various nations.

In Japan, for instance, the OECD has been pushing for higher taxes while the IMF has been pushing for Keynesian spending.

But now the IMF is upping the ante by adding its bad advice on tax policy.

Japan’s politicians raised the value-added tax just two months ago.

But that’s not enough for the IMF. The bureaucrats already are urging a far bigger increase in the levy.

Japan needs to raise its consumption tax further to fund growing social security costs, the International Monetary Fund recommended… The tax “would need to increase gradually” to 15% by 2030 and 20% by 2050, the IMF said in a report. …IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva praised the smooth implementation of the Oct. 1 hike that took the consumption tax to 10% from 8%.

Needless to say, one of the main lessons from this sordid experience is that it’s never a good idea to give politicians a new source of revenue.

Look at what’s happened ever since the VAT was first imposed in 1989.

And now the IMF wants to push the rate up to 15 percent. And then 20 percent.

By the way, it’s worth noting that Japan’s politicians actually welcome this bad advice.

The nation faces a big demographic crunch (increasing life expectancy and low birth rates), and that means entitlement spending is on track to consume an ever-larger share of economic output.

To give you an idea of what’s happening, here’s a chart from the IMF’s report on Japan. It only looks at health-related spending, so keep in mind that the red line would be significantly hihger if Japan’s version of Social Security was included.

The bottom line is that Japan’s politicians want options to finance a growing burden of government spending.

And since decades of failed Keynesian policy have saddled the nation with record levels of debt, ever-larger sources of tax revenue are their preferred choice.

Sadly, the IMF is more than happy to rationalize that bad approach.

P.S. Japan’s politicians could reform entitlements, of course, but don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen. Instead, expect this “depressing chart” to get even more depressing.

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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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I’m a big fan of globalization, so does that make me a globalist?

That depends on what is meant by that term. If it means free trade and peaceful interaction with other nations, the answer is yes.

But if it means global governance by anti-market bureaucracies such as the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the answer is a resounding no.

So I have mixed feelings about this video from Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute.

I can’t resist nit-picking on some of his points.

While I have disagreements with Dalibor, that definitely doesn’t put me in the same camp as Donald Trump.

The President is an incoherent mix. He combines odious protectionism with mostly-empty rhetoric about globalism. And he does all that without understanding issues – and, in some cases, his actions are contrary to his rhetoric.

Dan Henninger wrote about these issues two days ago for the Wall Street Journal.

He wisely warns that failures by national governments (most notably unaffordable welfare states and incompetent administrative states) are creating openings for unpalatable alternatives.

Global governance is one distressing possibility. Henninger worries about Chinese-style administrative authoritarianism.

President Trump at the United Nations this week elaborated on his long-running antagonism toward globalism. …There is merit to these concerns, but I think the critics of “globalism,” including most prominently Mr. Trump, underestimate the near-term danger of the serious difficulties appearing today in national democratic governance. Democracies maintain their legitimacy in the public’s eye only if they demonstrate a reasonable capacity to address society’s inevitably complex challenges. …it’s clear that many of the 21st century’s independent nations are having a remarkably difficult time executing their sovereign responsibilities. …Mr. Trump’s concerns about undemocratic governance by remote international bureaucracies are plausible, but the greater threat is more imminent. If the expansion of an increasingly dysfunctional administrative state inside the world’s sovereign democracies is inexorable and unreformable, the future will belong to China’s brand of administrative authoritarianism. …Elizabeth Warren and her multiple plans—heavily dependent on criminal prosecutions and intense oversight—is flirting with a milder version of this future.

Henninger is certainly correct that nations mostly get in trouble because of their own mistakes.

For instance, I’ve pointed out that the fiscal crisis in Europe should not be blamed on the euro.

That being said, global governance often creates moral hazard, which tends to exacerbate and encourage bad policy by national governments.

Let’s now look at an interesting column that John Bolton (Trump’s former National Security Advisor) wrote on global governance for the U.K.-based Times back in 2016. Here are some of the key passages.

He makes the should-be-obvious point that not all international bureaucracies are alike.

…international organisations sometimes act as if they are governments rather than associations of governments and sprout bureaucracies with pretensions beyond those of cosseted elites in national capitals. …International bodies take many different forms, and it serves no analytical purpose to treat them interchangeably. Nato, for example, is not equivalent to the United Nations. Neither is equivalent to the European Union. Each has different objectives, and different implications for constitutional and democratic sovereignty. …Nato is America’s kind of international partnership: a classic politico-military alliance of nation states. It has never purported to assume sovereign functions, and is as distant as is imaginable from the EU paradigm.

He explains that some of them – most notably the IMF – are counterproductive and should be shut down.

Proposals to reform the UN and its affiliated bodies such as the World Bank and the IMF are almost endless. The real question is whether serious, sweeping reform of these organisations…is ever possible. …In 1998, during the Asian financial crisis, the former secretaries of the Treasury William Simon and George Shultz, and Walter Wriston, a former chairman of Citibank, wrote in The Wall Street Journal: “The IMF is ineffective, unnecessary, and obsolete. We do not need another IMF, as Mr. [George] Soros recommends. Once the Asian crisis is over, we should abolish the one we have.” …We should consider privatising all the development banks… We should ask why US taxpayers are compelled to provide subsidised interest rates for loans by international development banks.

Amen.

He also opines about Brexit.

…the Brexit referendum was, above all else, a reassertion of British sovereignty, a declaration of independence from would-be rulers who, while geographically close, were remote from the peasantry they sought to rule. …The Brexit decision was deplored by British and American elites alike… It does not surprise Americans that British elites have not reconciled themselves to losing… London and Washington can fashion a new economic relationship, perhaps involving Canada, with the potential for significant economic growth. Let the EU wallow in strangling economic regulation, and the euro albatross that Britain wisely never joined.

He’s right, especially the final sentence of that excerpt.

I’ll conclude by reiterating my observation that we should distinguish between good globalization and bad globalization.

The good kind involves trade, peaceful interaction, and jurisdictional competition, all of which are consistent with sovereignty.

The bad kind of globalism involves international bureaucracies acting as supranational governments – almost always (as Nobel laureate Edward Prescott observed) with the goal of enabling and facilitating a larger burden of government.

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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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There’s general agreement among public finance experts that personal income taxes and corporate income taxes, on a per-dollar-collected basis, do the most economic damage.

And I suspect there’s a lot of agreement that this is because these levies often have high marginal tax rates and often are accompanied by a significant bias against income that is saved and invested.

Payroll tax and consumption taxes, by contrast, are thought to be less damaging because they generally don’t have “progressive rates” and they are “neutral,” meaning they rarely involve any double taxation of saving and investment.

But “less damaging” is not the same as “no damage.”

Such taxes still drive a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption, so they do result in less economic activity (what economists refer to as “deadweight loss“).

And the deadweight loss can be significant if the overall tax burden is sufficiently onerous (as is the case in many European nations).

Interestingly, the (normally pro-tax) International Monetary Fund just released a study on this topic. It looked at the impact of taxes on work in the new member states (NMS) of the European Union. Here’s a summary of what the authors wanted to investigate.

Given demographic and pension pressures facing many EU28 countries amidst low labor market participation rates together with still high tax wedges, the call to review public policies has gained renewed prominence in the EU political debate. …tax wedges remain high and participation rates, while having increased importantly in a few countries over 2000-17 , are still around or below 70 percent in many of them. This hints at the need for addressing structural problems to improve economic fortunes. In this paper we focus our attention on hours worked (per working age population). …At country level, hours worked reflect labor supply decisions and could be thought of a measure of labor utilization. Long-run changes in labor supply are driven by incentives, of which taxes are perceived to be central. Assessing the importance of taxation on hours is key to provide new insights for potential policy actions.

And here’s what they found.

We study the role of taxes in accounting for differences in hours worked across NMS over the 1995-17 period… We find that consumption and labor taxes significantly discourage labor supply and can explain close to 21 percent of the observed variation of hours across NMS. …Higher tax rates reduce households’ net labor income and real purchasing power, inducing them to substitute consumption for leisure, which cannot be taxed. …Our findings show that, conditional on other factors, taxes are an important determinant of hours. Point estimates suggest a high elasticity of hours to taxes (close to 0.5), which is robust to the inclusion of other factors.

What’s interesting about the new member states of Eastern Europe is that many of them have flat taxes and low corporate rates.

So the personal and corporate income taxes are not a major burden.

But they so have relatively high payroll taxes (a.k.a., social insurance taxes) and relatively onerous value-added taxes.

So it’s hardly a surprise that these levies are the ones most associated with deadweight loss.

We find that social security contributions deter hours the most, followed by consumption taxes and, to a lesser extent, personal income taxes. …Consumption and personal income taxes are found to affect hours per worker, but not employment rates. On the other hand, social security contributions are negatively associated with employment rates, but do not seem to affect hours per worker. …In line with the literature, we document that women’s employment rate is more sensitive to changes in tax policies. We find the elasticity of employment rate to social security contributions to be 7 percent larger for women vis-à-vis men.

Here’s one of the charts from the study.

And here’s an explanation of what it means.

Figure 4 shows the evolution of hours and effective taxes. Hours worked increased substantially for Group 1, while it remained stable in Group 2 (Panel (a)). In both groups, the effect of the GFC is noticeable as hours sharply declined after 2008. Panel (b) shows the evolution of the average effective tax rate in each group. Interestingly, countries in Group 1, which observed an increase in hours, had lower effective tax rates (below 40 percent) throughout the period. In addition, we observe a negative correlation between hours and taxes for most of the sample. For Group 1, the large increase in hours – between year 2000 and the GFC – happened at the same time taxes declined

Here’s another chart from the IMF report.

And here’s some of the explanatory text.

Figure 5 depicts the relationship between hours worked and taxes across countries. In Panel (a), we observe a negative correlation between hours and taxes in levels for each group, with the negative correlation being stronger in Group 2 than in Group 1 (it has a steeper slope). Panel (b) shows total log changes in hours and taxes throughout the period. It also displays a negative correlation.

Looking at the conclusion, a key takeaway from the study is that there is a substantial loss of economic activity because of theoretically benign (but in reality onerous) taxes on consumption and labor.

Our modelling exercise shows that taxes influence the long-run trend in hours and our econometric exercise shows that the findings are robust to the inclusion of other labor market determinants. Furthermore, we document an elasticity of hours to overall taxes close to 0.5. We find that differences in tax burden can explain up to 21 percent in the variation of hours worked across NMS. The main takeaway of this study is that excessive tax burden, either in the form of consumption or labor taxes, can lead to substantial deadweight losses in terms of labor supply. .. overall tax burden – and not only labor taxes – should be considered when thinking about incentives from tax schemes.

Yes, incentives do matter.

And it’s good that an IMF report is providing good evidence for lower tax rates.

But I’m not optimistic we’ll get pro-growth changes. There’s been a lack of good reform this decade from the new member states from Eastern Europe. Combined with demographic decline (and the associated pressure for higher tax rates), this does not bode well.

P.S. While the professional economists at the IMF often produce good research and sensible advice, the bureaucracy’s political leaders almost always ignore those findings and instead push for bad tax policy. Including in the new member states from Eastern Europe.

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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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It’s not easy to identify the worst international bureaucracy.

Some days, I’m tempted to pick the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. After all, the Paris-based bureaucracy is infamous for pushing bigger government and higher taxes.

Other days, I want to select the International Monetary Fund, which leverages its bailout authority to relentlessly coerce governments into imposing higher taxes to finance bigger budgets.

At least for today, I’m going to argue that the IMF wins the dubious prize of being the worst.

That’s because the bureaucracy is doubling down on its ideological zeal for bigger government. Here are some excerpts from a speech earlier this week by the organization’s top bureaucrat, Christine Lagarde (who, incidentally, receives a lavish tax-free salary).

Our issue today is international corporate taxation. …I believe we need new rules in this area. …reasons why a new approach is urgent. …the three-decade long decline in corporate tax rates, undermines faith in the fairness of the overall tax system. …New IMF research published two weeks ago analyzes various options in…better addressing profit-shifting and tax competition.

Ms. Lagarde wants to boost the tax burden on business, and she complained about the fact that corporate tax rates have come down in recent decades.

What she cleverly didn’t acknowledge, though, is that the IMF’s own research shows that lower rates have not resulted in less revenue.

But you have to give Lagarde and her minions credit. They act on their beliefs.

The IMF has been pushing for big tax increases in Bahrain.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has called on the Bahrain government to take further action to shore up its shaky financial position, saying a large package of revenue and expenditure measures – including new taxes – is “urgently needed”. …the IMF set out a number of policy ideas – including the controversial tax proposal – in a statement… Bikas Joshi, the official who led the IMF team that visited Bahrain…went on to say that a “large fiscal adjustment is a priority” for the country…he said. “The implementation of a value-added tax, as planned, would be important. Additional revenue measures—including consideration of a corporate income tax—would be welcome.”

The IMF has been warning against tax cuts and instead pushing for tax increases in Ireland.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has urged the Government not to cut taxes in the upcoming budget, warning it risked “over-stimulating” Ireland’s fast-growing economy. …The fund recommended boosting housing supply through State-backed social housing projects… It recommended the Government pursues a small budget surplus in 2019… To achieve this, it advised broadening the tax base. One way this could be done was by increasing the tax on diesel… In addition, the IMF recommended getting rid of various tax exemptions and preferential rates such as the lower 9 per cent VAT rate for the hospitality sector.

The IMF has urged so many taxes that it created a backlash in Jordan.

Thousands of Jordanians heeded a strike call…to protest at major, IMF-guided tax rises they say will worsen an erosion in living standards. …warning the government that sweeping tax amendments…would impoverish employees already hit by unprecedented tax hikes implemented earlier this year. …tens of thousands of public and private sector employees accused the government of caving in to International Monetary Fund (IMF) demands and squeezing a middle class… The amendments, which would double the income tax base, are a key condition of a three-year IMF economic program that aims to generate more state revenue… Jordan earlier…raised taxes on hundreds of food and consumer items.

The examples are part of a pattern. I’ve also written about the IMF pimping for higher taxes in big countries, in small countries, and even entire continents.

Needless to say, the IMF also agitates for tax increases in the United States.

And it’s even specifically targeted poor nations for tax increases! Maybe now you’ll understand why I joked about nations not allowing IMF bureaucrats to visit.

I want to close today’s column by returning to Lagarde’s speech because there was another part of her speech that belies belief. She actually wants people to think that higher taxes and bigger government are a recipe for more growth.

…the current situation is especially harmful to low-income countries, depriving them of much-needed revenue to help them achieve higher economic growth.

Yes, your eyes are not deceiving you. The IMF’s top bureaucrat made the absurdly anti-empirical argument that higher taxes are good for growth.

Even though that’s directly contrary to evidence on the factors that enabled North America and Western Europe to become rich.

Sadly, this is now a common rhetorical tactic by international bureaucracies. The OECD does the same thing, as does the United Nations.

I guess they all think if they repeat nonsense often enough, people will somehow conclude up is down and black is white.

For what it’s worth, I’ll wait for them to name a single country that ever became rich by imposing higher taxes and bigger government.

P.S. There are some good economists working in the research division of the IMF, and they periodically publish good research on topics such as spending caps, debt, decentralization, the size of government, demographics, government spending, and taxation. Too bad the bureaucrats working on policy never read those studies.

P.P.S. My favorite IMF study was the one that accidentally provided very compelling evidence against the value-added tax.

P.P.P.S. My least favorite IMF studies were the ones that actually suggested that it would be desirable if everyone had lower living standards so long as rich people disproportionately suffered. Disgusting.

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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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Donald Trump and other populist leaders frequently are condemned for undermining the “rules-based system” that is the basis of the “postwar order.”

What exactly is meant by this criticism? In the case of Trump, is it disapproval of his protectionism?

Yes, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The broader accusation is that Trump and the others are insufficiently supportive of the so-called “international architecture” of treaties and organizations (the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, World Bank, G-7, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, NATO, etc) that western nations created after World War II.

And the critics are right, in my humble opinion.

But that’s besides the point. What’s really needed is a case-by-case analysis to determine whether the aforementioned treaties and organizations are making the world a better place.

To help understand this topic, let’s look at some excerpts from an anonymously authored article in  the latest issue of Cayman Financial Review.

What is the oft-cited “postwar order” that ostensibly is being threatened by populism? …begin with some history. There have been three major attempts to create an international architecture in hopes of discouraging war and encouraging peaceful commerce among world’s countries. The first occurred after the Napoleonic wars, the second occurred after World War I, and the third occurred after World War II.

The article explains that first postwar order was a big success, with 100 years of relative peace and prosperity between 1815 and 1914.

But the second postwar order, which followed World War I, was a miserable failure.

…the urgent economic problems that World War I had created – the need for demobilization, the restoration of the gold standard, the resumption of international trade flows, and the reconstruction of war-ravaged areas. Reparations burdened Germany and contributed to hyperinflation. …Germany depended on American loans to make its reparations payments to France and the United Kingdom. In turn, France and the United Kingdom depended on German reparations to repay their wartime loans from the United States. This financial merry-go-round was inherently unstable. …In the 1930s, many countries tried economic nationalism to escape from the Great Depression. Abandonment of the interwar gold standard, high tariffs to discourage imports, and competitive devaluations to boost exports became widespread. However, these “beggar-thy-neighbor” failed economically, caused the collapse of international trade, and contributed to rising international tensions.

And this grim experience was in the minds of policymakers as they sought to restore a system based on peace and open commerce.

…neither Churchill nor Roosevelt wanted to punish ordinary Germans, Italians or Japanese. Instead of the postwar harshness of Clemenceau, Churchill and Roosevelt favored the postwar magnanimity of Metternich, in which Germany, Italy, and Japan would be reconstructed as democratic capitalist countries. …both Churchill and Roosevelt thought that other new international organizations would be needed to help finance postwar reconstruction, provide stable exchange rates, and promote the progressive liberalization of international trade. …At the risk of oversimplifying, there are four major pieces of what is now loosely though of as the postwar order.

1. The United Nations and other multilateral bodies
2. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank
3. The World Trade Organization and affiliated trade pacts
4. NATO and other military/security alliances

The article is filled with details on how these various institutions evolved.

But for our purposes, let’s focus on ostensible threats to this order. Here’s what “Hamilton” wrote.

All four components of the current international architecture have critics, but they should be examined separately.

  1. The United Nations is routinely condemned for being ineffective, wasteful and anti-Western. However, the UN part of the post-war order is not under serious threat. However, the OECD is subject to considerable attacks because of its statist policy agenda.
  2. The IMF and World Bank are routinely condemned for being wasteful and anti-market. The IMF also is singled out for bailout policies that are said to encourage profligacy in developing nation and to reward sloppy lending practices by big western banks. Notwithstanding the instability than many say is caused by the IMF, this part of the postwar order is not under serious threat.
  3. The WTO and regional FTAs are under threat from a populist backlash in the United States and Europe, driven in large part by angst over financial prospects for lower-skilled workers. This part of the postwar order is under serious threat, especially because U.S. laws give the president significant unilateral powers over trade policy.
  4. NATO and other security arrangements are being questioned for both cost and changing geopolitical factors (e.g., the rise of China, Islamic terrorism). While unlikely at this point, dramatic policy changes from the United States could substantially alter the structure and/or operation of these military alliances.

How depressing. The part I like is the part that is under assault.

Here are the key points from the article’s conclusion.

The so-called postwar order is not a monolithic entity. …Some have been very successful. Consider, for instance, the sweeping reduction in trade barriers and the concomitant rise in cross-border commerce. …But other parts of the post-war order do not have very strong track records. Bureaucracies such as the IMF and OECD arguably deserve some hostile attention because of their support for anti-market policies. Policymakers who want to preserve the best parts of the post-war order may want to consider whether it is time to jettison or reform the harmful parts.

This is spot on.

Parts of the “postwar order” should be preserved. The World Trade Organization definitely belongs on that list. And presumably nobody wants to disrupt or eliminate the parts of the “international architecture” that facilitate things such as cross-border air travel, international shipping, and global telecommunications.

But the helpful work of those entities doesn’t change the fact that other entities engage in activities that are counterproductive. A “rules-based order” is only good, after all, if it advancing good rules.

Needless to say, the answer to all of these questions is no.

Which brings to mind the old saying about “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

As “Hamilton” wrote, the bad parts of the postwar order should be jettisoned to preserve the good parts.

For those interested in this topic, Adam Tooze of Columbia University has a very interesting article on the same topic.

Published in Foreign Policy, his article basically applies a “public choice” description of how the current postwar order evolved. And he says it initially was not very successful

For true liberals in both the United States and Europe, who hankered after the golden age of globalization in the late 19th century, the resulting Cold War economic order was a profound disappointment. The U.S. Treasury and the first generation of neoliberals in Europe fretted against the U.S. State Department and its interventionist economic tendencies. Mavericks such as the young Milton Friedman—true advocates of free markets in the way we take for granted today—demanded a bonfire of all regulations. …The reality of the liberal order that supposedly came into existence in the postwar moment was the more or less haphazard continuation of wartime controls. It would take until 1958 before the Bretton Woods vision was finally implemented. Even then it was not a “liberal” order by the standard of the gilded age of the 19th century or in the sense that Davos understands it today. International mobility of capital for anything other than long-term investment was strictly limited.

Tooze argues that genuine liberalism (i.e., open markets and trade) didn’t really take hold until the 1980s, with the market-based revolution of Thatcher and Reagan, the “Washington Consensus,” and the collapse of communism.

The stakeholders in the 1970s were obstreperous trade unions, and that kind of consultation was precisely the bad habit that the neoliberal revolutionaries set out to break. …the global victory of the liberal order required a more far-reaching struggle. …the market revolution of the 1980s…  the aftermath of the Cold War, the moment of Western triumph. …the defeat of inflation, this was the age of the Washington Consensus.

For those not familiar with this particular piece of jargon, the “Washington Consensus” refers to the 1980s-era acceptance of free markets as the ideal route for economic development.

And “neoliberal” refers to classical liberalism, not the modern dirigiste version of liberalism found in the United States.

I’ll close by recycling this visual, which attempts to distinguish between good globalism and bad globalism.

The image uses the example of trade and jurisdictional competition, so I don’t pretend is captures all the issues and controversies that we discussed today.

But it reinforces why it is wrong to blindly accept and support the anti-market components of the postwar order simply because there are other parts that deserve our support. The goal is more global prosperity, not less.

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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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I’m happy to discuss theory when debating economic policy, but I mostly focus on real-world evidence.

That’s because my friends on the left always have a hard time answering my two-question challenge, which simply asks them to name one success story for big government.

They usually point to Sweden and Denmark, but get discouraged when I point out that those nations became rich when government was relatively small.

And I’m embarrassed to admit that some of my fellow economists once thought that communist nations grew faster than capitalist nations.

But let’s not digress. I raise this topic because there are many critics of capitalism who admit that free markets generate more wealth, but they assert that society would be better off if incomes were lower so long as rich people suffered more than poor people.

This strikes me as morally poisonous. But it also gives me an opportunity to cite a new study from the International Monetary Fund that allows us to further analyze this issue.

The IMF report starts by noting that globalization (free trade, liberalization, etc) has been good for global prosperity.

Over the course of the last decades the world economy has witnessed rapid integration. Most countries have opened up their economies and experienced an unprecedented rise in the flow of goods and capital across borders. This phenomenon – now widely known as economic globalization – was coincident with rising living standards in a large number of countries. Many developing countries have experienced episodes of strong economic growth and substantial poverty reduction as they integrated their economies with the rest of the world.

Sounds like good news, right?

It is good news, but those who fixate on inequality are worried.

…while globalization might on average be good for growth, more might not always be better for all. …When we shift the analysis to how income gains from globalization are distributed within countries, we also find globalization to have different effects on different incomes…gains are, however, distributed unequally both across and within countries. …Within countries, income inequality increases as a consequence of globalization. The income gains resulting from globalization tend to go primarily to the top of the national income distributions.

In other words, rich people are getting richer at a faster pace.

This phenomenon is captured in these two charts, which show that globalization is associated with more growth and more inequality.

But what’s important is that poor people also are getting richer.

In the subsample of developing countries where the gains from globalization are generally larger, however, they also reach the bottom of the income distribution and reduce poverty. … We find…some evidence of a poverty reducing effect of globalization in developing countries.

Consider, for example, the remarkable data I shared about China. Income inequality increased at the same time that poverty dramatically declined.

And those results seem to hold for the rest of the world, especially in developing nations.

So now let’s look at the most important chart from the IMF study, which shows that all income groups enjoy more prosperity with globalization.

Yes, rich people benefit the most, so official inequality numbers will increase.

But put yourself in the shoes of a poor person. Would you be willing to forego your additional income in order to deny additional income for a rich person? I suspect the vast majority of poor people would think that’s a crazy question.

But, as Margaret Thatcher pointed out, there are plenty of folks on the left who think that’s a perfectly reasonable position. Including, incidentally, some of the people at the IMF.

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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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I’m not a fan of international bureaucracies, but they’re not universally bad. Yes, we almost always get a bad policy agenda from the left-leaning political appointees who run these organizations.

But it’s also true that the professional economists at these bureaucracies oftentimes produce solid reasearch. A good example is the new study of the American fiscal system by three economists at the International Monetary Fund.

They start with an observation that should be uncontroversial, but is nonetheless surprising given the tendency of the IMF’s leadership to advocate more taxes.

The consensus is that reducing distortionary taxes on labor and capital income can stimulate economic activity by encouraging an increase in labor supply and higher savings. Indeed, the empirical literature on tax multipliers is vast and points to measurable effects of reducing taxes on output and employment.

I’m delighted by these two sentences. Makes me wonder why the political types who run the IMF overlook these basic insights when they’re bullying governments into enacting higher tax rates!

But let’s set that aside and look at the specific findings in this report. Here’s what the IMF tried to calculate.

We simulate three types of tax policy changes (i) A “middle-class tax cut” which reduces the effective tax rates for households earning between 0.5 to 4 times the median income and is offset by lower government spending; (ii) A “middle-class tax cut” and an EITC expansion that is fully financed by an increase in consumption taxes; (iii) tax cut for high income groups that is also combined with an EITC expansion and financed by a higher consumption tax.

Since I’ve pointed out that not all tax cuts are created equal, I think this kind of research can be very helpful.

Here are the core findings from the IMF’s analysis.

The model generates positive effects on growth, consumption and investment that are broadly in line with the recent empirical literature on PIT multipliers. Despite the positive macro response, supply side effects are never strong enough to prevent cuts from being revenue losing (i.e., tax cuts do not “pay for themselves”). …A tax cut for the middle-class, financed from a lump-sum reduction in government spending, results in a loss of revenues of 0.8 percent of GDP but raises the steady state GDP by just under 1 percent after 5 years (i.e., a personal income tax multiplier of 1.1). …growth effects are smaller when lower personal income taxes are paid for with a VAT. …Tax cuts for higher income groups tend to have a stronger aggregate impact than tax cuts for the middle class. Indeed, in the simple case where the tax cuts are paid for by lump sum cuts in government spending, the personal income tax multiplier is around 3. … tax cuts that are incident on high income households increase income polarization.

This all makes sense. Lower tax rates are good for growth, particularly if offset by reductions in the burden of government spending.

And since lower tax rates are only self-financing in very rare circumstances, I have no problem with the conclusion about lower revenues.

Indeed, the concluding section about “income polarization” was the only part of the above excerpt that rubbed me the wrong way. And even then, I’m only irked because of the implication that lower tax rates might be a bad idea if the rich get richer faster than the poor get richer.

While I like the overall findings, I want to focus on two details from the study.

First, let’s look at the results for middle-class tax cuts. The IMF researchers looked at two versions, with one tax cut financed by lower spending and the other tax cut financed by higher consumption taxation.

As you can see from these two charts, you get more growth and higher wages when you simultaneously reduce taxes and spending.

Second, let’s look at the IMF’s comparison of middle-class tax cuts and tax cuts for high-income people. The conclusion is that you get more bang-for-the-buck when lowering tax rates at the top.

…there are larger growth effects when the tax cut is incident on the higher income groups. The reasons behind this are two-fold: First, the top quintile responds to lower taxes by saving more which, in the closed economy version of the model, leads to more capital formation and a decline in the equilibrium real interest rate. Second, those receiving a reduction in their tax rate supply more high-skilled labor which helps boost output.

By the way, I should hasten to add that this isn’t an argument against middle-class tax relief. As far as I’m concerned, all taxpayers are sending too much money to politicians.

I’m merely highlighting this analysis because some types of tax cuts have larger growth effects. For what it’s worth, I’m not even sure I agree with the IMF’s analysis of why lower tax rates on the rich produce more growth. I suspect the main reason for the stronger results is that high-income taxpayers have much greater ability to change their behavior in response to altered incentives.

In any event, here’s the IMF’s comparison of the two types of tax cuts and what happens to output, consumption, and investment.

P.S. Since we’re discussing the occasional good work of international bureaucracies, here’s my favorite World Bank study and here’s my favorite OECD study.

P.P.S. I’ve never seen any good research from the United Nations. I’m not claiming there’s never been an economically sound study from that bureaucracy. All I’m saying is that I’ve never run across an example.

P.P.P.S. I don’t know if the European Central Bank should be characterized as an international bureaucracy, but it definitely has the highest percentage of quality research (see here, here, here, here, here, and here for examples).

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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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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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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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Okay, I’ll admit the title of this post is an exaggeration. There are lots of things you should know – most bad, though some good – about international bureaucracies.

That being said, regular readers know that I get very frustrated with the statist policy agendas of both the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

I especially object to the way these international bureaucracies are cheerleaders for bigger government and higher tax burdens. Even though they ostensibly exist to promote greater levels of prosperity!

I’ve written on these issues, ad nauseam, but perhaps dry analysis is only part of what’s needed to get the message across. Maybe some clever image can explain the issue to a broader audience (something I’ve done before with cartoons and images about the rise and fall of the welfare state, the misguided fixation on income distribution, etc).

It took awhile, but I eventually came up with (what I hope is) a clever idea. And when a former Cato intern with artistic skill, Jonathan Babington-Heina, agreed to do me a favor and take the concept in my head and translate it to paper, here are the results.

I think this hits the nail on the head.

Excessive government is the main problem plaguing the global economy. But the international bureaucracies, for all intents and purposes, represent governments. The bureaucrats at the IMF and OECD need to please politicians in order to continue enjoying their lavish budgets and exceedingly generous tax-free salaries.

So when there is some sort of problem in the global economy, they are reluctant to advocate for smaller government and lower tax burdens (even if the economists working for these organizations sometimes produce very good research on fiscal issues).

Instead, when it’s time to make recommendations, they push an agenda that is good for the political elite but bad for the private sector. Which is exactly what I’m trying to demonstrate in the cartoon,

But let’s not merely rely on a cartoon to make this point.

In an article for the American Enterprise Institute, Glenn Hubbard and Kevin Hassett discuss the intersection of economic policy and international bureaucracies. They start by explaining that these organizations would promote jurisdictional competition if they were motivated by a desire to boost growth.

…economic theory has a lot to say about how they should function. …they haven’t achieved all of their promise, primarily because those bodies have yet to fully understand the role they need to play in the interconnected world. The key insight harkens back to a dusty economics seminar room in the early 1950s, when University of Michigan graduate student Charles Tiebout…said that governments could be driven to efficient behavior if people can move. …This observation, which Tiebout developed fully in a landmark paper published in 1956, led to an explosion of work by economists, much of it focusing on…many bits of evidence that confirm the important beneficial effects that can emerge when governments compete. …A flatter world should make the competition between national governments increasingly like the competition between smaller communities. Such competition can provide the world’s citizens with an insurance policy against the out-of-control growth of massive and inefficient bureaucracies.

Using the European Union as an example, Hubbard and Hassett point out the grim results when bureaucracies focus on policies designed to boost the power of governments rather than the vitality of the market.

…as Brexit indicates, the EU has not successfully focused solely on the potentially positive role it could play. Indeed, as often as not, one can view the actions of the EU government as being an attempt to form a cartel to harmonize policies across member states, and standing in the way of, rather than advancing, competition. …an EU that acts as a competition-stifling cartel will grow increasingly unpopular, and more countries will leave it.

They close with a very useful suggestion.

If the EU instead focuses on maximizing mobility and enhancing the competition between states, allowing the countries to compete on regulation, taxation, and in other policy areas, then the union will become a populist’s dream and the best economic friend of its citizens.

Unfortunately, I fully expect this sage advice to fall upon deaf ears. The crowd in Brussels knows that their comfortable existence is dependent on pleasing politicians from national governments.

And the same is true for the bureaucrats at the IMF and OECD.

The only practical solution is to have national governments cut off funding so the bureaucracies disappear.

But, to cite just one example, why would Obama allow that when these bureaucracies go through a lot of effort to promote his statist agenda?

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