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During his final days in office, I gave a thumbs-down assessment of Barack Obama’s presidency. Simply stated, he increased the burden of government during his tenure, and that led to anemic economic numbers.

Now the economy seems to be doing a bit better, which is leading my friends on the left to make two impossible-to-reconcile claims.

  1. It is doing better, but Obama deserves credit.
  2. The economy isn’t doing better.

I’ve previously explained that the first argument doesn’t hold water. Today, let’s address the second argument.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, former CEO Andy Puzder claims that Trump easily wins over Obama when you look at the numbers.

For eight years under President Obama, the growing burden of government suppressed the economic recovery that should have followed the recession of 2008-09. Mr. Obama nonetheless has claimed responsibility for today’s boom, asking Americans in September to “remember when this recovery started.” Yet it wasn’t until President Trump took office that the economy surged. …The result is a rising tide that is lifting boats across every class and region of the country. …Today unemployment rests at 3.7%, near a 50-year low. Since the government began reporting the data, unemployment has never been as low as it is today for African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and people with only a high-school education.

It’s certainly good news that unemployment rates have dropped. But labor-force participation numbers still haven’t fully recovered, or even come close to fully recovering, so the data on jobs is not quite as impressive as it sounds.

That being said, Puzder has a compelling indictment of Obama’s performance.

During a typical recovery, the economy grows at a rate between 3% and 4%, and the Obama administration predicted such a surge in its 2010 midsession review. It never came. The “recovery” of those years often felt much like a recession.

Amen. This echoes my criticism of Obamanomics. He made the U.S. a bit more like Europe, so it’s no surprise that growth was weak.

Let’s now look at Puzder’s evidence that Trump has done a better job. He compares the end of the Obama economy with the beginning of the Trump economy.

GDP growth staggered along at 1.5% in Mr. Obama’s final six full quarters in office. …growth doubled to 3% during Mr. Trump’s first six full quarters. …the increase in job openings over Mr. Trump’s first 21 months has averaged an impressive 75,000 a month. Over Mr. Obama’s last 21 months in office, the number of job openings increased an average of 900 a month. …During Mr. Obama’s last 21 months, the number of employed Americans increased an average of 157,000 a month. Under Mr. Trump, the increase has accelerated to 214,000 a month, a 36% improvement. …In Mr. Obama’s final 21 months, weekly earnings rose an average of $1.31 a month. Under Mr. Trump, weekly earnings have increased an average of $1.84 cents a month: a 40% improvement that’s come mostly since tax reform took effect in January. Over that period, weekly earnings have grown an average of $2.31 a month, a 76% increase over Mr. Obama’s last 21 months. …The unemployment rate declined 13% during Mr. Obama’s last 21 months, but from there it has dropped another 23% during Mr. Trump’s tenure.

All of this data is compelling, but I caution my GOP/Trump friends about relying on short-run economic data to make their case.

For instance, what if the economy is in a false boom caused by easy money? If that leads to a recession, will they want Trump to take the blame?

Or let’s consider a more tangible example. Trump and his supporters used to make a big deal out of rising stock prices, but that argument no longer appears to be very persuasive.

Let’s close with two charts that take different sides. The first one is from MSNBC, which makes a persuasive case that reductions in unemployment under Trump are simply a continuation of the trend.

On the other hand, this second chart, which comes from the White House, shows that economic outcomes are better than what the Obama Administration predicted.

This also is compelling data, and I’ve explained that even small improvements in economic performance are very desirable.

Though it remains to be seen whether this additional growth is either real or sustainable.

The bottom line is that there’s no reason to expect big economic improvements under Trump, at least in the long run. His good policies on taxes and regulation are offset by bad policies on spending and trade.

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We had an election yesterday in the United States (or, as Mencken sagely observed, an advance auction of stolen goods). Here are five things to keep in mind about the results.

First, the GOP did better than most people (including me) expected.

This tweet captures the zeitgeist of last night.

The Senate results were especially disappointing for the Democrats. It does appear the Kavanaugh fight worked out very well for Republicans.

Second, better-than-expected election news for the GOP does not imply better-than-expected news for public policy. Given Trump’s semi-big-government populism, I fear this tweet is right about the increased risk of a counterproductive infrastructure package and a job-destroying increase in the minimum wage.

For what it’s worth, I think we’ll also get even more pork-filled appropriations spending. In other words, busting the spending caps after already busting the spending caps.

The only thing that might save taxpayers is that Democrats in the House may be so fixated on investigating and persecuting Trump that it poisons the well in terms of cooperating on legislation.

Fingers crossed for gridlock!

Third, there was mixed news when looking at the nation’s most important ballot initiatives.

On the plus side, Colorado voters rejected an effort to replace the flat tax with a discriminatory system (in order to waste even more money on government schools), California voters sensibly stopped the spread of rent control, Washington voters rejected a carbon tax, Florida voters expanded supermajority requirements for tax increases, and voters in several states legalized marijuana.

On the minus side, voters in four states opted to expand the bankrupt Medicaid program, Arizona voters sided with teacher unions over children and said no to expanded school choice, and voters in two states increased the minimum wage.

Fourth, Illinois is about to accelerate in the wrong direction. Based on what happened last night, it’s quite likely that the state’s flat tax will be replaced by a class-warfare-based system. In other words, the one bright spot in a dark fiscal climate will be extinguished.

This will accelerate the out-migration of investors, entrepreneurs, and businesses, which is not good news for a state that is perceived to be most likely to suffer a fiscal collapse. It’s just a matter of time before the Land of Lincoln becomes the land of bankruptcy.

Interesting, deep-blue Connecticut voters elected a Republican governor. Given the state’s horrific status, I suspect this won’t make a difference.

Fifth, Obama was a non-factor. Democrats lost almost every race where he campaigned.

Though I should point out that he deserves credit for trying to have an impact in close races. Many top-level politicians, looking to have a good “batting average,” only offer help to campaigns that are likely to prevail.

That being said, this adds to my hypothesis that Obama was basically an inconsequential president.

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If you look at my election predictions from 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016, you’ll see that my occasional insights are matched by some big misses. So I don’t think I offer any special insight.

But since readers seem to enjoy these biennial predictions, I’ll once again go out on a limb. The bottom line is that my Democratic friends will be happy.

Since so many Democratic seats are up, it will be a big defeat if Republicans stay at 51 seats in the Senate. And the loss of more than 45 seats in the House is approaching bloodbath territory.

This outcome is why I advised my GOP friends that it might have been better to lose the 2016 presidential election.

Now let’s consider the potential economic implications, which is what I care about.

The first-order effect is that we’ll have gridlock and that’s not a bad outcome as far as I’m concerned. Simply stated, that means less legislation, which presumably means less mischief from Washington.

But not all gridlock is created equal. Here’s a chart published a couple of days ago by the Washington Post. I’ve highlighted in green relative stock market performance when there’s good gridlock with a Republican Congress and not-so-good gridlock with a Democratic Congress.

I don’t think S&P performance is the best indicator of prosperity, and the “sample size” produced by American elections it rather small, so I caution against over-interpreting this data.

That being said, I’ve crunched budget numbers and revealed that Republican presidents generally allow more spending than Democrats. The only exception to this rule is Ronald Reagan.

Unfortunately, as I warned the day after the 2016 election, Trump is no Reagan. As such, I wouldn’t be surprised if the net result (assuming my predictions are remotely accurate) is that the already-excessive growth of spending becomes an even bigger problem.

P.S. There are some very important ballot initiatives that will be decided today.

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The mid-term elections take place on Tuesday and the crowd in DC is focused on who will control the House and Senate. I’ll make my (sometimes dubious, sometimes accurate) congressional predictions next Monday.

The goal today is to call attention to the key initiatives and referendums that also will occur next week.

As a matter of logic, I can’t really argue with the notion that voting is a waste of time. Nonetheless, I hope the right people in certain states will be illogical.

As far as I’m concerned, the most important contest is in Colorado, where voters are being asked to replace the state’s flat tax with a discriminatory system of graduated rates. Here’s how CNBC describes the awful proposal.

Amendment 73 would break up its current flat tax of 4.63 percent, adding four new individual income tax brackets. Taxpayers earning less than $150,000 would see no change; at $150,001, a new rate of 5 percent would kick in, with a new top rate of 8.25 percent on taxable income over $500,000. The measure also includes a boost in the corporate income rate (from 4.63 percent to 6 percent).

Since I’m a fan of the flat tax (combined with TABOR, it helps to explain the state’s prosperity), I obviously hope voters reject this self-destructive scheme to turn Colorado into California.

The second-most important referendum is probably the battle over school choice in Arizona. Here’s how Reason characterizes that battle.

…since we’ve grown accustomed to the idea that governments should mug us in order to fund an army of loyal employees and their fumbling attempts to hammer knowledge into our kids’ heads, attempts to provide widely accessible alternatives to government schooling inevitably involve diverting some of those stolen funds. And diverting those funds requires political battles against entrenched allies of the state monopoly—such as that playing out in Arizona over an effort to expand a school voucher program. …Last year, lawmakers voted to expand eligibility for the empowerment scholarship accounts program to all students, with participation capped at around 30,000 kids. But opponents of school choice won a battle to put the program’s expansion on the ballot as Proposition 305. …As of last week, polling on Proposition 305 conducted by Suffolk University and the Arizona Republic shows a plurality of Arizona voters (41 percent) supporting expansion of the program, with 32 percent opposed and 27 percent undecided.

The third-most important referendum is actually four different measures. There are proposals to expand Medicaid in Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, and Utah.

The Wall Street Journal editorializes about these dangerous initiatives.

One of the worst deals in state spending is coming to a red state near you, and that’s expanding Medicaid to adult men above the poverty line. …Expansion extends the benefit to prime-age adults without children up to 138% of the poverty line. The feds pay more than 90% of the cost for the new beneficiaries… Every state that has expanded Medicaid has blown the budget by spending more money on more people. The cost overruns are more than double on average. …Medicaid is already the fastest growing line item in nearly every state in the country. …The idea that the feds will continue to pick up 90% of the tab forever is fantasy. The GOP has vowed to equalize the funding formula and make states pay closer to 30% to 50% like they do for traditional Medicaid. States shouldn’t assume that Democrats will be more merciful when they want to pay for something else and stick more of the Medicaid bill on states.

The fourth-most important measure to watch is a referendum for a big carbon tax in the state of Washington. The Wall Street Journal opined about this revenue grab.

Two years ago nearly 60% of Washington voters rejected a ballot initiative to impose a “revenue neutral” carbon tax. Green groups opposed the referendum because it wouldn’t generate money for environmental largess. …Liberals have now fixed what they thought was the fatal flaw of the first referendum—namely, revenue neutrality. This year’s initiative would impose a $15 per ton carbon “fee” that would increase by $2 per year. …the $2.3 billion in revenue it is projected to generate over the next five years would mostly be earmarked for “clean air and energy” programs… But revenues are fungible, and the carbon tax proceeds would invariably finance government spending in other areas. …The tax would raise gas prices by 13 cents a gallon in 2020 and 59 cents a gallon by 2035. Washington currently has the third highest gas prices in the country after Hawaii and California… National Economic Research Associates estimates that the tax would cost Washington households on average $440 in 2020 and would reduce state economic growth by 0.4% over the next two years. …liberals care more about increasing tax revenue to spend than they do about reducing emissions.

This is exactly why I warn against a national carbon tax. No matter what proponents say, it will wind up being an excuse to finance even more wasteful spending.

Last but not least, our fifth-most important ballot initiative is from California, which has a very misguided referendum that would allow more rent control in the state. Michael Tanner has an appropriate description of this scheme in National Review.

But the prize for perhaps the worst ballot idea goes — naturally — to California, which will vote on whether to allow local communities to impose rent control. Approval can be guaranteed to benefit the wealthy and middle class while reducing the availability of rental housing for the poor. It’s almost as if the measure’s supporters had never glimpsed an economics textbook.

For what it’s worth, one of the state’s Senators, Kamala Harris, has a national plan to wreck housing markets.

Here are some additional initiatives on taxes which merit a brief mention, particularly since they may have an impact on competitiveness.

  • Arizona has an initiative to prevent politicians from imposing any new sales taxes on services.
  • There’s a measure to increase tobacco taxes in South Dakota.
  • In California, there’s a referendum to repeal a recent hike in the gas tax and to require future increases to be approved by voters.
  • There’s also an initiative in the Golden State to boost the sales tax to finance more transportation spending.
  • In Florida, where there’s an initiative to require a two-thirds vote of the legislature to increase revenue.
  • Oregon voters will choose whether to impose a requirement that three-fifths of the legislature vote for indirect revenue increases.
  • North Carolina voters will decide whether to lower the maximum-allowable tax rate from 10 percent to 7 percent.

From a libertarian perspective, I’ll also be paying attention to a measure to restrict gun rights in the state of Washington, as well as an initiative to legalize marijuana in Michigan.

There are initiatives to increase the minimum wage in Arkansas (to $11.00 per hour) and Missouri (to $12.00 per hour). If they are approved, the consequences will be both negative and predictable.

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Time for some political humor.

Though some may consider this tragedy rather than comedy since the theme will be the potential contest between Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren in 2020.

But some people are happy about the possible match-up. For instance, both likely candidates are a gold mine for satirists.

We’ll start with Elizabeth “Soul Woman” Warren, She claimed Indian ancestry to give herself an advantage when seeking university jobs, but this produced enough mockery that she felt compelled to get a DNA test.

Which led to some brutal mockery (h/t: Powerline blog). Here’s the one that got the most laughs from me.

Maybe Nike can replace Colin Kaepernick?

Here’s another amusing image.

Let’s look at three additional choices.

If a tiny share of DNA is enough to claim Indian status, then the AFLAC duck gets to be a bald eagle.

And if Warren picks Crazy Bernie as her running mate, they already have a campaign poster.

But before we get to 2020, we have this year’s midterm elections. Trump is dragging down GOP candidates, but Democrats also have some liabilities.

Now let’s turn our attention to Trump.

A friend sent me a great site for Putin/Trump memes. Here’s the one that earned the biggest chuckle from me.

And this one also is amusingly brutal.

And I can’t resist sharing this option as well.

For those of you who like Trump because of his “recreational choices,” you may want to jump ship to someone with better qualifications.

Last but not least, here’s a look back at our dismal choice from 2016.

 

Reminds me of the meme about libertarians.

Given the choice between Trump and Hillary, it is kind of amazing that Gary Johnson did so poorly. Though the Onion has a theory about why that happened.

Makes you wonder how they will bungle (what presumably will be) an equally good opportunity in 2020.

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Move over, Crazy Bernie, you’re no longer the left’s heartthrob. You’ve been replaced by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an out-of-the-closet socialist from New York City who will enter Congress next January after beating a member of the Democratic leadership.

Referring to the boomlet she’s created, I’ve already written about why young people are deluded if they think bigger government is the answer, and I also pointed out that Norway is hardly a role model for “Democratic socialism.”

And in this brief snippet, I also pointed out she’s wrong to think that you can reduce corporate cronyism by giving government even more power over the economy.

But there’s a much bigger, more important, point to make.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez wants a radical expansion in the size of the federal government. But, as noted in the Washington Examiner, she has no idea how to pay for it.

Consider…how she responded this week when she was asked on “The Daily Show” to explain how she intends to pay for her Democratic Socialism-friendly policies, including her Medicare for All agenda. “If people pay their fair share,” Ocasio-Cortez responded, “if corporations paid — if we reverse the tax bill, raised our corporate tax rate to 28 percent … if we do those two things and also close some of those loopholes, that’s $2 trillion right there. That’s $2 trillion in ten years.” She should probably confer with Democratic Socialist-in-arms Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., whose most optimistic projections ($1.38 trillion per year) place the cost of Medicare for All at roughly $14 trillion over a ten-year period. Two trillion in ten years obviously puts Ocasio-Cortez a long way away from realistically financing a Medicare for All program, which is why she also proposes carbon taxes. How much she expects to raise from this tax she didn’t say.

To be fair, Bernie Sanders also didn’t have a good answer when asked how he would pay for all the handouts he advocated.

To help her out, some folks on the left have suggested alternative ways of answering the question about financing.

I used to play basketball with Chris Hayes of MSNBC. He’s a very good player (far better than me, though that’s a low bar to clear), but I don’t think he scores many points with this answer.

Indeed, Professor Glenn Reynolds of the University of Tennessee Law School required only seven words to point out the essential flaw in Hayes’ approach.

Simply stated, there’s no guarantee that a rich country will always stay rich.

I wrote earlier this month about the importance of long-run economic growth and pointed out that the United States would be almost as poor as Mexico today if growth was just one-percentage point less every year starting in 1895.

That was just a hypothetical exercise.

There are some very sobering real-world examples. For instance, Nima Sanandaji pointed out this his country of Sweden used to be the world’s 4th-richest nation. But it has slipped in the rankings ever since the welfare state was imposed.

Venezuela is another case study, as Glenn Reynolds noted.

Indeed, according to NationMaster, it was the world’s 4th-richest country, based on per-capita GDP, in 1950.

For what it’s worth, I’m not familiar with this source, so I’m not sure I trust the numbers. Or maybe Venezuela ranked artificially high because of oil production.

But even if one uses the Maddison database, Venezuela was ranked about #30 in 1950, which is still impressive.

Today, of course, Venezuela is ranked much lower. Decades of bad policy have led to decades of sub-par economic performance. And as Venezuela stagnated, other nations become richer.

So Glenn’s point hits the nail on the head. A relatively rich nation became a relatively poor nation. Why? Because it adopted the statist policies favored by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

I want to conclude, though, with an even better example.

More than seven years ago, I pointed out that Argentina used to be one of the world’s richest nations, ranking as high as #10 in the 1930s and 1940s (see chart to right).

Sadly, decades of Peronist policies exacted a heavy toll, which dropped Argentina to about #45 in 2008.

Well, I just checked the latest Maddison numbers and Argentina is now down to #62. I was too lazy to re-crunch all the numbers, so you’ll have to be satisfied with modifications to my 2011 chart.

The reverse is true as well. There are many nations that used to be poor, but now are rich thanks to the right kind of policies.

The bottom line is that no country is destined to be rich and no country is doomed to poverty. It’s simply a question of whether they follow the right recipe for growth and prosperity.

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In 2016, I posed a rhetorical question about whether young people are so stupid that they shouldn’t be allowed to vote. After all, many of them thought Bernie Sanders would make a good president (of America, not Greece or Venezuela).

Well, maybe we really should increase the voting age. It seems 2016 was not an anomaly. Millennials are dangerously ignorant.

Here’s some analysis from CNN.

Millennials are…bringing a distinctly Millennial approach to policy and governing. And that might include Democratic socialism. Case in point: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old Democratic socialist who won her primary in New York Tuesday in an upset over a 10-term incumbent. More than any other generation before them, Millennials are OK with socialism. A 2016 Gallup poll found 55% of those then aged 18-29 said they had a positive view of it (it’s worth noting 57% supported capitalism and 78% supported free enterprise). …Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign was instrumental in mainstreaming Democratic socialism.

What’s particularly galling is that young people are pessimistic about their economic future and they’ve decided to blame capitalism for problems that exist because of excessive government!

Millennials’ economic situation also plays a role. …A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found Millennials born in the ’80s have a net worth 34% below what was expected. And student debt since 2009 has doubled to $1.4 trillion… For many cash-strapped Millennials in debt, Democratic socialism isn’t radical, it’s a way to fix a system they believe failed them.

In other words, young people want to make Mitchell’s Law a never-ending reality.

Let’s look at another example. Here’s some of what Michelle Goldberg wrote in a fawning column in the New York Times.

…all over the nation, people, particularly women, are working with near supernatural energy to rebuild democracy from the ground up… For younger people who see Donald Trump’s election as the apotheosis of a rotten political and economic system, it often means trying to remake that party as a vehicle for democratic socialism. …Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old democratic socialist, shook the Democratic Party by toppling Joseph Crowley, a 19-year incumbent, chairman of the Queens County Democratic Party and potential heir to House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. …the real red wave may be democratic socialism’s growing political influence, especially among young people. …The D.S.A., to which Ocasio-Cortez belongs, is the largest socialist organization in America. Its growth has exploded since the 2016 election… Many of the D.S.A.’s goals, reflected in Ocasio-Cortez’s platform, are indistinguishable from those of progressive democrats. But if the D.S.A. is happy to work alongside liberals, its members are generally serious about the “socialist” part of democratic socialist. Its constitution envisions “a humane social order based on popular control of resources and production, economic planning, equitable distribution, feminism, racial equality and non-oppressive relationships.”

In other words, these cranks are real socialists. They actually want government to own and manage the means of production (“popular control of resources and production” and “economic planning”).

This is a problem for the non-crazy left.

Talk of popular control of the means of production is anathema to many older Democrats, even very liberal ones. …After Ocasio-Cortez’s win, Pelosi denied Republican claims that socialism is ascendant in the Democratic Party. It’s hard to blame her for being defensive, since for generations “socialist” was considered a slur, and it’s one that’s hurled at Democrats indiscriminately.

But young people seem prone to fantasy.

…one recent survey shows that 61 percent of Democrats between 18 and 34 view socialism positively. The combination of the Great Recession, the rising cost of education, the unreliability of health insurance and the growing precariousness of the workplace has left young people with gnawing material insecurity. They have no memory of the widespread failure of Communism, but the failures of capitalism are all around them.

Needless to say, Ms. Goldberg doesn’t list the “failures of capitalism,” but it’s a very safe bet that she’s blaming free markets for problems caused by government (a common theme in US economic history).

No wonder young people are so deeply confused. This is probably what they’re taught in government schools.

But there is a silver lining. Courtesy of Libertarian Reddit, we can enjoy some humor poking fun at Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s overly earnest form of socialism.

Amusing, but very unfair to religion. After all, we can’t go back in time to confirm details from the bible.

But we can look today at countries like Cuba, Greece, Venezuela, and North Korea to confirm the utter insanity of supporting any type of socialism.

Let’s close with a video from 2013. It’s about Obamanomics and young people, but it’s really about why big government makes it hard for young people to get ahead.

I especially like the explanation of how young people are big losers because of the entitlement state.

Makes me wonder if Ms. Ocasio-Cortez will take the lead on, say, Social Security reform when she gets to Congress?

Needless to say, I won’t be holding my breath.

P.S. Young people aren’t a (totally) lost cause. They may not like capitalism, perhaps because they confuse it with cronyism, but they are sympathetic to “free enterprise.”

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