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Posts Tagged ‘Poverty’

Writing last week about the new edition of Economic Freedom of the World, I largely focused on the jurisdictions that got high scores (Hong Kong, Singapore, and New Zealand) and countries that got low scores (Venezuela in last place, of course).

But I also included a chart showing that higher levels of economic liberty are correlated with higher levels of income.

That’s hardly a surprise for anyone who’s compared North Korea and South Korea. Or West Germany and East Germany.

But what about income mobility? Do free markets give low-income people an opportunity to climb the economic ladder?

Some new research from Vincent Geloso of George Mason University and James Dean of West Virginia University answers that question.

Here’s the abstract from their study.

Economic freedom is robustly associated with income growth, but does this association extend to the poorest in a society? In this paper, we employ Canada’s longitudinal cohorts of income mobility between 1982 and 2018 to answer this question. We find that economic freedom, as measured by the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of North America (EFNA) index, is positively associated with multiple measures of income mobility for people in the lowest income deciles, including a) absolute income gain; b) the percentage of people with rising income; and c) average decile mobility. For the overall population, economic freedom has weaker effects.

And here’s the part of the study that I found most interesting.

We learn that labor market freedom is most important.

When focusing on the bottom decile’s average decile mobility (see table 5), we must note this variable only measures upward decile mobility, as those in the poorest decile cannot move down a decile and the upper decile can only move down or stay put. As a result, the effect of economic freedom is likely somewhat understated because of these mathematical boundaries. Nevertheless, we see that greater economic freedom increases the lowest decile’s upward decile mobility. In essence, higher amounts of economic freedom improve the relative gains of those at the bottom of the distribution, allowing them to move to higher deciles. Here, again, we see that the labor market freedom component is key for the nation’s poorest, such that an additional point of labor market freedom allows those beginning in the poorest decile to move up an additional 0.145 deciles… To put that number into perspective, using the differences in economic freedom between Quebec and Alberta (i.e. the lowest and highest economic freedom units in our data) is again useful. The greater labor market freedom of Alberta entails that the poorest Albertans have 0.44 extra deciles of mobility on average than the poorest Quebeckers.

Wonky readers may enjoy the aforementioned Table 5.

The bottom line is that free markets and limited government are the recipe to help poor people climb the economic ladder, not class warfare and redistribution (as I explained here, here, here, and here).

It’s much better to focus on how to make poor people rich rather than trying to make rich people poor.

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Ten days ago, I shared some data and evidence illustrating how redistribution programs result in high implicit tax rates and thus discourage low-income people from climbing the economic ladder.

Simply stated, why work harder or work more when an additional dollar of income only leads to a net benefit of 10 cents or 20 cents? Or why work harder or work more when you can actually wind up being worse off?

Or why work at all if the governments provides enough goodies?

But don’t ask such questions if you’re in the same room as Helaine Olen of the Washington Post. She is very upset that some people think welfare payments discourage work.

It’s a dangerous myth, this idea that government help causes some people to just loaf off. It’s also untrue. Reminder: Before the pandemic, most working-age people receiving benefits like food stamps worked. They just didn’t earn enough money. …the temporary child tax credit signed into law this year by President Biden demonstrates the opposite. It is an extraordinary success. Almost 90 percent of families with children under age 18 are eligible to receive a monthly check from the federal government through the end of the year. …Many other developed nations offer almost all residents a child allowance of some sort.

If you read the entire column, you’ll notice that she provides very little evidence, particularly considering her very bold assertion that a negative link between redistribution and labor supply is “a dangerous myth.”

Yet we know from the experience of welfare reform in the 1990s that work requirements did boost labor supply.

And don’t forget about the very recent evidence that turbo-charged unemployment benefits encouraged more joblessness.

We also have evidence from overseas showing that there’s a negative relationship between handouts and idleness.

Including research from the Netherlands and the Nordic nations such as Denmark. And the same is true in Canada. And the United Kingdom.

Ms. Olen seems primarily motivated by her support for permanent per-child handouts, as President Biden has proposed.

And she wants us to believe that everyone will continue to work, even if they can get $3000-plus for each kid, along with all the other goodies that are provided by Uncle Sam (often topped up by state governments).

For what it’s worth, I think she admits her real agenda toward the end of her column.

…an argument can be made that the children of the irresponsible deserve more support from us, not less. Children can’t push their parents to get with the work-and-education program. As a result, you’re not “helping” children if you insist on financially punishing their parents for not making an “effort.” …human infrastructure matters too.

In other words, Ms. Olen seems to share Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s view that money should be given to people “unwilling to work.”

Which is how some of our friends actually view the world. They think there is a right to other people’s money. Which is why they support big handouts, including so-called basic income.

The bottom line is that Biden’s per-child handouts and other expansions of the welfare state clearly would make work less attractive for some people.

Not all people, of course, because it takes time to erode societal capital.

But why would we want a society where a growing number of people think it’s okay to live off of others?

P.S. There is scholarly research that redistribution programs lure older people out of the workforce.

P.P.S. There is also scholarly research showing redistribution programs discourage households from building wealth.

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Why do folks on the left support punitive policies such as high tax rates and a bigger burden of government?

Some of them are motivated by resentment against those who have achieved success. These are the people who support the hate-and-envy message of politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Others folks on the left, by contrast, are motivated by sympathy for the less fortunate.

That’s a noble sentiment. Where they go wrong is in thinking that the economy is a fixed pie. This leads them to the mistaken conclusion that some people are poor because other people are rich.

Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I think these people can be convinced to support good policy if they learn the facts about how free markets and limited government are a proven recipe for prosperity.

This is why I shared data earlier this year showing how per-capita economic output jumped dramatically once capitalism was allowed starting a couple of hundred years ago.

Today, let’s look at how poor people have been the biggest winners. Professor Max Roser of Oxford University recently shared a profoundly important tweet about the dramatic reduction in global poverty. We see not only that poverty rates have plummeted, but also that falling poverty rates are correlated with increases in per-capita GDP.

In other words, everyone is getting richer. There’s no fixed pie.

As you might expect, regions that are friendlier to capitalism have enjoyed bigger increases in prosperity and bigger reductions in poverty.

The bottom line is that people who care about the poor should be the biggest advocates of free enterprise.

P.S. It’s worth noting that, according to both U.S. data and global data, the big reduction in poverty occurred before welfare states were created.

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Here are four things to understand about poverty and dependency.

Now let’s add a fifth item.

  • The United States adopted welfare reform in the mid-1990s.

Today’s column examines whether this was a bad development or good development.

We’ll start with a harsh critic.

In his column for the New York Times, Charles Blow wants Democrats to repeal Clinton’s welfare reform.

Clinton’s record, particularly with respect to Black and brown Americans and the poor, was marked by catastrophic miscalculation. …the welfare reform bill, …Clinton promised would “end welfare as we know it.” One of its central provisions was block-grant assistance to the states. …the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities pointed out in 2020, the block grant to states “has been set at $16.5 billion each year since 1996; as a result, its real value has fallen by almost 40 percent due to inflation.” …With the passage of the “American Rescue Plan,” the Democrats, alone, took another major step away from the mistakes of the Clinton legacy by increasing aid to families with children and to workers.

Reading the column, it seems like blacks must have suffered immensely because of the 40 percent reduction in the block grant.

But now let’s consider whether welfare reform was a good thing.

According to the data, the answer is yes. This chart, based on the Census Bureau’s data (specifically Table B-5), shows that the poverty rate for African Americans has declined since welfare reform was enacted.

To be sure, one could argue that the post-welfare reform decline was simply a continuation of a positive trend. But that doesn’t change the fact that there’s certainly no evidence that the 1996 legislation led to bad results.

Moreover, research from the Brookings Institution makes a persuasive case that welfare reform deserves credit for some of the post-1996 progress.

Why? Because it sent a message – both practically and rhetorically – that permanent dependence on Uncle Sam was a bad thing. As a result, more people entered the workforce and poverty dropped.

That seems like a result that should be celebrated.

Unfortunately, Biden’s so-called American Rescue Plan contains big per-child handouts that are not dependent on being in the workforce.

The only silver lining to that dark cloud is that the handouts are only for 2021.

But the pro-redistribution crowd already is clamoring to make that provision a permanent giveaway. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, they want to “restore welfare as we knew it.”

P.S. Based on what I’ve read in his columns, Charles Blow is a hard-core leftist on economic issues. But he’s semi-reasonable on gun rights, so that’s one point in his favor.

P.P.S. Welfare reform is just one example of the good policies that were enacted during the Clinton years.

P.P.P.S. We can learn lessons about welfare and dependency by looking at data from Europe and Canada.

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My series on poverty and inequality (see here, here, and here) focuses on why we should try to help the poor rather than hurt the rich.

We’ll continue with that theme in Part IV, which begins with this video by Russ Roberts of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Russ makes some great points throughout the video about the importance of creating the conditions for upward mobility.

Here are some of the main takeaways.

  1. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting richer as well.
  2. Cronyism is bad, especially when it winds up subsidizing the rich.
  3. We should focus on reducing poverty rather than fixating on inequality.

Regarding that final point, my favorite part is when he said that, “Focusing on inequality as something inherently bad can blind us to the problems of poverty. Inequality and poverty aren’t the same thing.  …I’m much more concerned about those at the bottom who are left behind.”

In effect, he was stating his version of the Eighth Theorem of Government. At least the first half of it (he’s probably too nice to impugn the motives of those who focus on inequality).

I also like the fact that he points out the need to get rid of licensing.

And he repeatedly argues that we need to improve the quality of education, though I wish he had explicitly stated that this means we have to replace the government’s failed education monopoly with a choice-based system.

But no need to nit-pick. The video is great, as are his other videos that I have shared over the years (see here, here, here, and here).

P.S. For those who have trouble believing that the poor, middle class, and rich can all simultaneously enjoy rising incomes, click here, here, and here for evidence.

P.P.S. I also think this data from China is very powerful.

P.P.P.S. The people who fixate on inequality favor policies that would make the United States more like Europe, so it’s worth noting that lower-income people in America are usually better off than middle-class people on the other side of the Atlantic.

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Back in 2014, I shared two videos, one narrated by Prof. Don Boudreaux and the other narrated by Prof. Deirdre McCloskey, making the point that grinding poverty and material deprivation were the norm for most of human history. It wasn’t until capitalism emerged a few hundred years ago that we made the jump from agricultural poverty to industrial prosperity.

I know at least one person who didn’t watch those videos.

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley isn’t as well known as other members the “The Squad,” especially Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar (jointly featured in this bit of satire), but she deserves some sort of recognition for being totally clueless about economics and history. Indeed, she may even deserve some sort of prize for uttering the year’s most economically illiterate sentence.

The two aforementioned videos illustrate why her statement is nonsensical, but let’s share some updated numbers to illustrate why she is profoundly wrong.

The Our World in Data site, maintained by Max Roser at Oxford University, is a great resource for researchers. If you go to the section on economic growth, you’ll find lots of information and many charts examining what has happened to living standards over long periods of time.

For instance, here’s a look at gross domestic product (GDP) over the past 2000 years. As you can see, per-capita economic output was very low (and very flat) until capitalism emerged in the 1700s and 1800s.

Thanks to capitalism’s emergence (along with the rule of law), we are vastly better off today than our ancestors.

Here’s another look at the data, but let’s focus on just the past 200 years. Yes, the 1800s was the era of the “industrial revolution” and so-called sweatshops, but that was a building block to our current prosperity.

To be fair to Congresswoman Pressley, it’s only the first part of her statement (“poverty is not naturally occurring”) that is grossly inaccurate and economically illiterate.

She then added that poverty “is a policy choice,” presumably because she wants people to believe that more redistribution can make it go away. That part of her statement also is wrong, according to both U.S. data and global data, but not quite as ludicrously erroneous.

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My late friend Walter Williams was a first-rate economist, an important public intellectual, and a truly great American. He also was an amazing communicator, with an unparalleled ability to make important points in a succinct and easy-to-understand manner.

My favorite Walter quote is about how capitalism enabled positive-sum wealth creation.

Today, though, I want to share Walter’s quote about the simple rules for life that basically eliminate poverty.

Sadly, the current welfare state undermines those rules and instead lures many people into self-destructive behaviors. Choices that are bad for them and bad for society.

  • Have kids out of wedlock? No problem, Uncle Sam will take care of you with a plethora of handouts.
  • Watch TV on the sofa all day rather than work? No problem, Washington will provide you with benefits.

As an economist, I’m especially concerned that redistribution programs discourage employment. That’s bad for the economy. Even more important, it’s very bad for people who get trapped in lives of dependency.

Oh, and let’s not forget that the welfare state also is a big burden on taxpayers.

The reason for highlighting these problems is that Senator Mitt Romney has unveiled a plan (the “Family Security Act”) to have the federal government provide universal child allowances.

The good news is that his plan will mitigate some of the problems with the current system. The bad news is that his proposal will exacerbate other problems.

Here are some excerpts from the Senator’s summary of the proposal.

The Family Security Act would provide a monthly cash benefit for families, amounting to $350 a month for each young child, and $250 a month for each school-aged child. …Promoting marriage; Providing equal treatment for both working and stay-at-home parents; and Reforming and consolidating outmoded federal programs, including by fully paying for the new proposal….a new national commitment to American families by modernizing and streamlining antiquated federal policies into a monthly cash benefit. …The bill consolidates overlapping and often duplicative federal policies into direct support for families. …deficit-neutral.

That description sounds nice, and the proposal would be beneficial in some ways.

Most notably, there would not be high implicit marginal tax rates on work (a big problem in the current system) since people would get the child allowances regardless of employment status.

But there are some serious drawbacks to the plan. Here are four things that cause concern.

First, it increases the burden of government.

Senator Romney (as well as proponents of the plan such as the Niskanen Center) highlight the fact that the plan is “deficit neutral.” But that doesn’t tell us whether the plan increases or reduces the size and scope of the federal government.

Unfortunately, if you take a close look at the Senator’s summary, it’s clear the proposal would be a net increase in the burden of spending.

Here’s the relevant table, which ostensibly shows Romney’s new spending along with the “spending offsets” that make the plan deficit neutral.

For what it’s worth, I’m disappointed that the Senator (his staff?) chose to be dishonest. Three of the “spending offsets” are actually measures that would increase tax revenue (circled in red).

And when you fix that dodgy bit of accounting, Romney’s plan would add more than $45 billion per year to America’s fiscal burden.

Second, why would anyone think it’s a good idea to copy Europe?

According to an article from HuffPost, “The U.S. is one of the only developed countries that doesn’t pay parents a child benefit or child allowance. Romney’s proposal shows there is bipartisan support for the policy.”

This is an accurate observation, but it’s hardly persuasive. Yes, European nations generally send people money simply because they have children.

But why on earth would we want to copy nations where living standards are far below American levels? Heck, poor people in America tend to be more prosperous than middle-class people in Europe.

By the way, some like Romney’s plan because they think it will boost marriage rates and fertility rates (i.e., lure people into having more children). Seems like that might be theoretically true, but the data show that European birth rates are very low, significantly below American levels.

In other words, don’t hold your breath waiting for more marriages and more children.

Third, it undermines federalism by giving Washington a bigger role rather than smaller role.

I’ve argued that the so-called War on Poverty has been very bad news. We have a Byzantine system of handouts that require an army of bureaucrats to administer dozens of handouts that subsidize bad behavior.

It’s created dependency and the data show it actually has had a negative impact on the trend of poverty reduction and self sufficiency (same thing has happened in other nations as well).

The right approach is to get Washington out of the business of income redistribution. We’re far more likely to get good outcomes if we let states decide (and learn from each other on) how best to reduce poverty.

Fourth, it is akin to a “basic income” that may have a very corrosive impact on societal capital.

I was very opposed to Andrew Yang’s plan to provide universal handouts, in large part because I feared it would undermine personal independence, the work ethic, the spirit of self reliance, and other traits that are critical for a successful society. And I also didn’t trust (for good reason) Yang’s claim that his scheme would replace other redistribution programs.

Well, Romney’s proposal is like a starter version of a basic income, but with the handouts based on the number of children.

I fear this will enable some people to decide they can drop out of the labor force.

Scott Winship of the American Enterprise Institute shares my concerns.

The Romney proposal would take us back to the bad old days in key ways, and policymakers are playing Russian roulette with low-income families’ wellbeing. …some people (including future people) who would choose single parenthood or non-work except that the current safety net makes it unaffordable would be able to afford these choices under child allowances. For them, child allowances are allowances for behavior that would be expected to hurt their own long-term prospects and, more importantly, the wellbeing of their children.

I’ll conclude by observing that Romney’s plan is nowhere near as bad as Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez’s scheme for universal handouts.

But that’s hardly the test for good legislation. For those who prefer smaller government, less dependency, and less centralization, Romney’s plan is bad news.

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My recent three-part series (here, here, and here) explained why policy makers should seek to reduce poverty rather than inequality.

I want to expand on that point today by showing why growing the pie is more important than how it is sliced.

I’ve previously opined on why economic growth is important, showing that the United States today would be almost as poor as Mexico if our rate of economic growth since 1895 was just one-percentage point less than it actually was.

Moreover, I also showed in that 2017 column how much smaller increments of additional growth over time can mean thousands of dollars of additional income for an average household.

And, the previous year, I shared two excellent videos from Marginal Revolution University while writing about Hong Kong’s remarkable jump from poverty to prosperity.

For today’s column, I want to expand on this point using the economic growth page from Max Roser’s great site, Our World in Data. We’ll start with this chart showing how per-capita economic output dramatically increased a few hundred years ago.

This kind of data won’t be news to regular readers. I’ve already shared great videos from Deirdre McCloskey and Don Boudreaux that make the same point about the explosion of prosperity in the modern era.

And if anyone somehow thinks this growth doesn’t matter, Roser’s page shows that there are countless ways of graphing the relationship between economic output and good outcomes, such as how long we live, child mortality, access to electricity, hunger, and literacy.

The bottom line is that we are unimaginably rich compared to prior generations, largely thanks to the rule of law, expanded trade, and limited government.

That recipe for growth and prosperity works anywhere and everywhere it is tried. Here’s another chart showing how other parts of the world are being to prosper thanks to economic liberalization.

I want to cite two additional charts from Roser’s page.

First, here’s a chart showing productivity rates in selected nations. Why is this important? Because economic prosperity is basically driven by how much we work and how productive we are.

There are all sorts of interesting things embedded in the above chart.

Our final chart shows the importance of convergence.

Once again, there are some important observations embedded in the above chart.

  • Very poor nations such as Botwsana and China can enjoy meaningful gains with partial economic liberalization.
  • Western nations can enjoy more prosperity over time, but they won’t catch the United States so long as they are burdened with too much government.
  • Singapore shows that full convergence is not only possible, but also that laissez-faire countries can even surpass the United States.

P.S. I can’t resist recycling my “never-answered question” in hopes of getting any of my left-leaning friends to cite a single example of their policies producing mass prosperity.

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Ethical people, regardless of ideology, should be motivated by an empathetic desire to help the poor rather than a spiteful thirst to punish the rich.

That was the message in Part I and Part II of this series. That’s also today’s message, and we’ll start with this video.

There’s a lot of information in this video, broken down into five thematic points.

  1. Profit (earned through voluntary exchange) is good, while plunder (obtained through government coercion) is bad.
  2. Because people are different, it is important to distinguish between equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes.
  3. People don’t understand inequality, and that leads many of them to overlook the important problem of poverty.
  4. We are getting richer over time, meaning that the middle class is only disappearing because some are becoming rich.
  5. Thanks to the spread of pro-market policies, the entire world is becoming more prosperous with better life outcomes.

For today’s column, let’s focus on item #3 and I want to specifically take this opportunity to explain why we should be aware of how a type of data known as the “Gini coefficient” is used (and sometimes misused).

By way of background, the Gini coefficient measures the distribution of income in a society. As seen in this illustration from Wikipedia, a high coefficient means some people have a lot more income than others and a low coefficient means most people have similar levels of income.

I’ve never been a big fan of the Gini coefficient for three reasons.

First, it’s often used by folks on the left who want higher taxes and more redistribution. Though that’s actually an indictment of how the coefficient is misused.

Second, it doesn’t tell us whether inequality is the result of something good (some people getting rich by providing especially valuable goods and services) or the result of something bad (some people grabbing undeserved loot thanks because of bailouts, subsidies, protectionism, industrial policy, and cronyism).

Third, it does not tell us whether a society is poor or prosperous.

Regarding that final point, Professor Davies pointed out in the video that the most equal nations in the world are Sweden and Afghanistan.

But having similar Gini coefficients is utterly meaningless because it turns out that the similar scores are for radically different reasons – i.e., people in Afghanistan are equally impoverished and people in Sweden are equally prosperous.

And I can’t resist pointing out that Sweden’s superior results are surely correlated with the fact that Swedes enjoy far higher levels of economic liberty (Sweden is #22 and Afghanistan is #136 according to the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom).

You could also do a comparison between nations with very different Gini coefficients.

The United States, for instance, is much more “unequal” than Afghanistan. But I can’t imagine anyone in America wanting to trade places. After all, almost everyone in the U.S. is far richer than almost everyone in Afghanistan.

Or, if you prefer comparing developed nations, I’ve previously noted that poor people in the United States have the same amount of income as middle-class people in nations with lower levels of inequality.

I’ll close with one final bit of data that shows why Gini coefficients should be viewed with caution. Here’s another visual from the Wikipedia page, this one showing how world inequality increased substantially between 1820 and 2002.

Was that increase in inequality a bad outcome?

Of course not. It was simply a result of the Western world becoming rich because of limited government and the rule of law.

And now that developing nations are finally shifting to market-oriented policies, their incomes also are increasing (which, as a side effect, means global inequality is decreasing).

In other words, we should pay attention to the recipe for growth and prosperity, not the Gini coefficient.

P.S. While I’m not a fan of the Gini coefficient, the so-called trade deficit will always be my least favorite statistic.

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I began yesterday’s column with a short clip of me explaining why we should focus on reducing poverty, not reducing inequality.

Here’s a more thorough discussion of the same topic.

The video makes three central points, all of which are very sound.

  1. The economy is not a fixed pie, the rest of us don’t become poor when someone else becomes rich.
  2. In a free society, there will be unequal outcomes because we have all make different choices in life.
  3. Fixating on the irrelevant issue of inequality distracts from addressing the real problem of poverty.

I want to focus on #3 because it’s very distressing that some folks on the left are more interested in hurting the rich rather than helping the poor.

Indeed, some of them are so motivated by spite that they even advocate for policies that will hurt poor people so long as rich people are hurt even more.

I normally try to avoid sounding judgemental, but that’s morally reprehensible.

The decent thing to do is figure out the policies that will help people climb the economic ladder.

With that in mind, here are some highlights from a recent FEE column by Gonzalo Schwarz. He begins with the common-sense observation that it’s best to focus on upward mobility.

…economic mobility, poverty, and income inequality…are not the same, and the policy responses to address them vary. …the income inequality narrative has come to dominate our current public policy discourse, especially in the United States. …The rich are getting richer, but the poor are getting richer too… Policies that aim to remove the barriers faced by people looking to climb the income ladder should be rigorously discussed and pursued.

He then points out that policies to reduce inequality often backfire.

Schwarz cites the minimum wage as an obvious example since it is a recipe for joblessness when politicians mandate pay levels that exceed the value of many low-skill workers.

But my interest in public finance leads me to share this excerpt.

Policy solutions aimed at reducing income inequality will not necessarily positively impact those looking to escape poverty… Quite often, these goals can come into conflict. …A…popular public policy “solution” to address income inequality is to raise the corporate income tax (CIT) and use the proceeds to fund government programs… A recent Harvard Business School working paper…find that a reduction in state corporate income taxes increases real investment, a key driver of economic growth. This is consistent with data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which published a wide-ranging 2008 paper that found that taxes on income tend to hamper economic growth significantly more than other tax instruments.

Schwarz’s conclusion is spot on.

Pursuing an agenda focused on boosting upward social mobility is more conducive to the discovery of the barriers in the way of human flourishing and wealth creation. Breaking down these barriers, both artificial and natural, is the best way to ensure that each and every person has the opportunity to achieve their American Dream. Certainly, we don’t need more income inequality to achieve broader prosperity but chasing the inequality red herring puts that goal at risk.

I’ll add my two cents to this discussion by noting that President John F. Kennedy was right to observe that a rising tide lifts all boats.

Data from the Census Bureau shows that all income groups tend to rise and fall together.

In other words, if you’re hurting the rich, you’re probably hurting the poor as well. And vice-versa.

And if you’re enacting policies that help the rich, then incomes for everyone else are probably rising as well.

P.S. Regular readers already know this, but I’ll make the should-be obvious point for any new readers that there are some types of government policy (bailouts, subsidies, protectionism, industrial policy, cronyism, etc) that produce unjust forms of inequality.

In other words, it’s good when people become rich by providing the rest of us with goods and services we value, but it’s not good for them to get rich by climbing into bed with politicians.

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I have a couple of cameos in a new left-leaning documentary film, Race to the Bottom. I shared a clip two day ago with my views on corporate tax and the Laffer Curve.

Today, here’s what I said about the left’s mistaken views on inequality.

The fundamental problem is that I think some of our friends on the left are primarily motivated by disdain for the rich.

Indeed, their envy and resentment is so strong that they’re happy to support policies that hurt the poor, so long as the rich suffer a disproportionate amount of harm.

Consider this sarcastic visual.

I hope this visual greatly exaggerates the problem, but I’ve previously shared substantive research suggesting that the folks on the left are fixated on punishing success.

That agenda does not produce good results.

In a thorough article for Reason, David Henderson of the Hoover Institution explores the issues of poverty and inequality.

Most of what is framed as a problem of inequality is better conceived as either a problem of poverty or a problem of unjustly acquired wealth. …It’s important to distinguish the concepts of inequality and poverty. …Many people who worry about income inequality want to tax higher-income people more. Given what economists know about the harmful effects from raising already high marginal tax rates even higher, tax increases could certainly reduce measured inequality—because they would cause higher-income people to reduce their taxable income by working less, by taking more pay in the form of untaxed fringe benefits, or by investing more in municipal bonds, whose interest is not taxable by the feds. Of course, none of this would make lower-income people better off. Indeed, to the extent that higher taxes discourage capital accumulation, they slow the growth of worker productivity. One of the main ways to increase worker productivity is to increase the amount of capital per worker. With a slower growth rate of capital, worker productivity will grow more slowly—and so will real wages. This makes lower-income people worse off than they would have been.

Henderson uses Lydon Johnson as an example of how some people use government favoritism to line their pockets.

But he wisely notes that any inequality that arises from “unjustly acquired wealth” is a symptom of the real problem of cronyism.

Great wealth, meanwhile, is a problem only to the extent that it is unjustly extracted. Government favoritism to politically powerful people may increase income and wealth inequality, as it did in the case of Lyndon Johnson and his wife. But it is the government favoritism, not inequality per se, that is the true problem.

As a quick aside, Lyndon Johnson almost certainly ranks as one of America’s worst presidents (along with failures such as Hoover, Roosevelt, Nixon, and Wilson).

And, having read Henderson’s article, I now have an additional reason to despise LBJ.

I’ll close by recycling my Eighth Theorem of Government, which is simply another way of expressing my oft-made point that we should try to improve life for the poor rather than worsen life for the rich.

Indeed, I sometimes think this theorem is a good way of discerning who is a good person and who is a bad person.

Regarding the latter, we should recognize that some people are simply misguided. These are the folks who actually think that there’s a fixed amount of income and wealth, so they mistakenly believe that if someone like Bill Gates gets rich, the rest of us somehow lose.

Smart folks on the left know that’s not true, so I give them credit for that, but I also think they are reprehensible for being motivated by a desire to hurt the rich, even when that means the rest of us suffer as well.

The bottom line is that market-driven growth is good for everyone, especially the poor.

P.S. The most accurate political analysis of inequality came from Margaret Thatcher.

P.P.S. Here’s the world’s best-ever tweet about inequality.

P.P.P.S. For more wonky readers, I suggest this data and this data about China and this data about the world.

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Regular readers know that I give Trump mixed grades on economic policy.

He gets good marks on issues such as taxes and regulation, but bad marks in other areas, most notably spending and trade.

Which is why I’ve sometimes asserted that there has been only a small improvement in the economy’s performance under Trump compared to Obama.

But I may have to revisit that viewpoint. The Census Bureau released its annual report yesterday on Income and Poverty in the United States. The numbers for 2019 were spectacularly good, with the White House taking a big victory lap.

Here are the three charts that merit special attention.

First, we have the numbers on inflation-adjusted median household income. You can see big jumps for all demographic groups.

Next, here’s a look at whether Americans are getting richer or poorer over time.

As you can from this chart, an ever-larger share are earning high incomes (a point I made last month, but this new data is even better).

Last but not least, here’s the data on the poverty rate.

Once again, remarkably good numbers, with all demographic groups enjoying big improvements.

We’ll see some bad news, of course, when the 2020 data is released at this point next year. But that’s the result of coronavirus.

So let’s focus on whether Trump deserves credit for 2019, especially since I got several emails yesterday from Trump supporters asking whether I’m willing to reassess my views on his policies.

At the risk of sounding petulant, my answer is no. I don’t care how good the data looks in any particular year. Excessive government spending is never a good idea, and it’s also never a good idea to throw sand in the gears of global trade.

But perhaps we should rethink whether the positive effects of some policies are stronger and more immediate while the negative effects of other policies are weaker and more gradual.

I’ll close with two cautionary notes about “sugar high” economics.

For what it’s worth, we’re not going to resolve this debate because coronavirus has been a huge, exogenous economic shock.

Though if (or when) the United States ever gets to a tipping point of too much debt, there may be some retroactive regret that Trump (along with Obama and Bush) viewed the federal budget as a party fund.

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Back in 2017, I shared this video explaining why capitalism is unquestionably the best way to help poor people.

I’m recycling the video today because it’s a great introduction for a discussion about how best to help poor people.

As part of my Eighth Theorem of Government, I made the point that it’s wrong to fixate on inequality. Instead, the goal should be poverty reduction.

And the best way to help the poor, as I noted when criticizing Pope Francis’ support for statism in a BBC interview, is free markets and limited government.

Now we have additional evidence for this approach thanks to a new study from the Hoover Institution.

Authored by Ed Lazear, former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, it uses hard data from Economic Freedom of the World and the Index of Economic Freedom to see how poor people do in capitalist nations compared to socialist nations.

If you’re pressed for time, here are the key passages from the introduction.

This study analyzes income data from 162 countries over multiple decades, coupled with measures of economic freedom, size of government, and transfers to determine how various parts of society fare under capitalism and socialism. The main conclusion is that the poor, defined as having income in the lowest 10 percent of a country’s income distribution, do significantly better in economies with free markets, competition, and low state ownership. More impressive is that moving from a heavy emphasis on government to a free market enhances the income of the poor substantially. …Changing freedom from the Mexico level to the Singapore level is predicted to raise the income of the poor by about 40 percent. All income groups benefit from the change, but the change typically helps the poor more than other income groups.

For those interested, let’s now dig into the details.

The study specifically looks at the degree to which state ownership (i.e., textbook socialism) has an impact on income.

As one might suspect, more state ownership means lower income.

A number of measures of free-market capitalism and socialism have been suggested. The analysis starts by examining the metric that most closely matches the dictionary definition of socialism, namely, the amount of state ownership of capital… The basic approach in this section is to examine the relation of income of three groups to state ownership. …All coefficients on the state ownership index are positive, strong, and statistically significant. For example, using the coefficient in column 4, a one standard deviation increase in private ownership increases median income by about 19 percent of the mean value of the log of median income. Also interesting is that the lowest income groups benefit as much or more from private ownership as the highest income groups. …The cross-country correlation between private ownership and income ten years in the future is positive and strong. It is also true that median income seems to rise over time within a country as the country moves toward more private ownership and less state ownership.

The study highlights several interesting examples.

For instance, it shows that poor people immensely benefited from China’s partial shift to capitalism, even though inequality increased (something I pointed out a few years ago).

Here’s the data on Chile, which shows both rich and poor benefited from that nation’s shift to capitalism.

By the way, I have several columns (here, here, here, and here) documenting how poor people have been the big winners from Chile’s pro-market reforms.

Next we have the example of South Korea.

That data is especially powerful, by the way, when you compare South Korea and North Korea.

Last (and, in this case, least), we have the data from the unfortunate nation of Venezuela.

Chavez’s family personally gained from socialism, but this chart shows how the rest of the nation has stagnated.

So what’s the bottom line?

Lazear summarizes his results.

…there is no evidence that, as a general matter, high-income groups benefit more from a move toward capitalism than low-income groups. The effect of changing state ownership and economic freedom on income is not larger for the rich than for the poor. Second, income growth is positively correlated across deciles. The situation is closer to a rising tide lifting all boats than to the fat man becoming fat by making the thin man thin. Finally, there is no consistent evidence across the large number of countries and time periods examined of any strong and widespread link between income growth and inequality. There are examples, like China, where income growth was coupled with large increases in inequality, but others like Chile, where strong income growth came about without much change in inequality, and South Korea, where inequality declined slightly as economic freedom and income grew over time.

Amen. This analysis underscores my oft-made argument that inequality is irrelevant and that policy makers instead should have a laser-like focus on economic growth.

Assuming, of course, that they want poor people to climb the economic ladder to prosperity.

P.S. The Lazear study points out that Scandinavian nations are definitely not socialist based on measures of state ownership.

Some might define socialist economies as merely being those that have high levels of redistribution, meaning high taxes and transfers. …It is certainly true that the Scandinavian countries have higher taxes and transfers than non-Scandinavian countries… Scandinavian countries all have low state ownership index values…and high values of the economic freedom index. The values for Scandinavia look much more like those for the United States than they do for pre-1985 China or post-2000 Venezuela. …Perhaps a more accurate description of Scandinavia is that the countries rely primarily on private ownership and markets but have chosen to have a large government transfer program, which implies not only high transfers but also high taxes.

I’ll simply add that the high transfers and high taxes have negative consequences for Scandinavian nations, but those countries at least have very pro-market policies in other areas to compensate for the damage caused by bad fiscal policy.

P.P.S. For my friends on the left who may suspect that Lazear cherry-picked his examples. I’ll simply challenge them to show a contrary example.

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Back in 2017, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity released this video, which shows that free markets and small government are the best recipe for poor nations that want to become rich nations.

The CF&P video was motivated in part by a need to debunk international bureaucracies such as the OECD and IMF, which abandoned the “Washington Consensus” for economic liberalization and instead have been making the odd argument that prosperity can be achieved with higher taxes and a bigger burden of government spending.

Needless to say, neither of these international organizations has bothered to explain how such dirigiste policies produce more growth.

But the politicians who fund and control such bureaucracies doubtlessly appreciate the message.

You probably won’t be surprised that the United Nations also is on the wrong side of this issue.

A recent report from the New York City-based group regurgitates the anti-market viewpoint.

The argument that pro-market policies automatically benefit the poor is likewise at odds with the evidence. Traditional pro-growth polices, such as lower corporate tax rates, labor ‘reforms,’ deregulation, austerity-driven cuts to services, and privatization can have devastating effects on the well-being of poor people and the state’s capacity to reduce poverty. …There are various ways to reduce extreme inequality, but redistribution is an essential element. …Significant redistribution is indispensable. …Fair and equitable taxation can lay the foundations for a society that respects and promotes well-being for all. …Low tax revenue has hobbled the capacity of governments to undertake redistributive policies. …The time has come to take social protection seriously.

For those who don’t follow these issues closely, “social protection” is the buzz phrase to describe an ever-bigger welfare state.

As you might imagine, the report doesn’t provide any evidence to justify the assertion that higher taxes and bigger government will lead to less poverty and deprivation.

Which is an excuse to recycle my “never-answered question” since I’m still waiting for someone to show me a nation that became rich with the types of statist policy that the U.N. has embraced.

The most remarkable part of the report is buried toward the end. The United Nations actually argues that the poor will be better off if there is less economic growth.

A ‘pro-poor’ growth scenario necessitates a far smaller increase in global GDP and eradicates poverty much sooner. If every country reduced its Gini index by 1 percent per year, it would have a larger impact on global poverty than increasing each country’s annual growth one percentage point above current forecasts.

This is bad math, bad logic, and terrible economics.

And it assumes politicians can deftly re-slice a shrinking pie so that poor somehow get more than they have now (while ignoring Thomas Sowell’s sage warning that wealth can only be redistributed one time).

I’d like the United Nations (or any person or group) to show me a single example – at any point in world history – where less growth has improved conditions for poor people.

For what it’s worth, I can show lots of evidence that growth is the best recipe for helping the less fortunate, even though folks on the left may not be happy since rich people also benefit from economic growth.

I can’t resist pointing out one additional passage from the report. And this one was on the first page.

Poverty is a political choice.

In reality, poverty is the normal state of human existence (an observation that Tim Worstall also made in his CapX column criticizing the U.N. report).

What’s unusual – as explained in videos by Don Boudreaux and Deirdre McCloskey – is that parts of the world became rich beginning a couple of hundred years ago thanks to a new approach called capitalism.

(Though I suppose those five words from the U.N. report can be viewed as accurate. After all, governments perpetuate poverty by failing to copy the good policies of places such as Hong Kong and Singapore. But that’s not what the report means. Instead, we’re supposed to believe that politicians are allowing poverty by not choosing big government.)

P.S. If there was a contest for worst analysis from an international bureaucracy, I still think the IMF deserves to win since it has explicitly embraced the crazy notion that it’s okay to hurt the poor so long as the rich are hurt even more.

P.P.S. Indeed, the report I’m writing about today isn’t even the U.N.’s worst publication. That “honor” belongs to the 2018 report that blatantly lied about the prevalence of poverty in the United States.

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Back in 2016, I shared an image that showed how the welfare state punishes both the poor and rich.

Rich people are hurt for the obvious reason. They get hit with the highest statutory tax rates, and also bear the brunt of the double taxation (the extra layers of tax on saving and investment resulting from capital gains taxes, double taxes on dividends, death taxes, etc).

But I also pointed out that the poor are penalized because they get trapped in dependency.

In large part, this is because they face bad incentives when they work and try to become self sufficient. Not only do they get hit by federal and state taxes, but they also can lose access to various redistribution programs. And the combination of those two factors can produce very high implicit marginal tax rates.

I cited an astounding example of this phenomenon in 2012, showing that a single mother in Pennsylvania would be better off earning $29,000 rather than $57,000. In other words, her implicit marginal tax rate on an extra $28,000 would be 100 percent (thus fulfilling FDR’s odious dream, albeit against a different set of victims).

How pervasive is this problem?

A new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research gives us the answer. Authored by David Altig, Alan J. Auerbach, Laurence J. Kotlikoff, Elias Ilin, and Victor Ye, it estimates implicit marginal tax rates for various segments of the population.

A plethora of federal and state tax and benefit policies jointly determine Americans’ incentives to work. …complex and often arcane provisions that condition tax payments and benefit receipts on labor income, asset income, total income, and the level of assets. …The myriad features of our fiscal system raise this paper’s central questions: What are the typical levels of marginal net tax rates facing Americans of different ages and resource levels, taking the entire federal and state fiscal system into account? …How much does one’s choice of the state in which to live impact one’s incentive to work? …We address these questions by running 2016 Survey-of-Consumer-Finances (SCF) data through The Fiscal Analyzer (TFA).

The five economists discovered that lower-income people are often hit by very high marginal tax rates on work (τL).

Our main findings, which focus on the fiscal consequences of SCF household heads earning $1,000 more in our base year – 2018, are striking. One in four low-wage workers face lifetime marginal net tax rates above 70 percent, effectively locking them into poverty. Over half face remaining lifetime marginal net tax rates above 45 percent. …marginal net lifetime tax rates are generally higher for those in the lowest quintile than for those in the middle three quintiles… The potential poverty trap arising under our fiscal system is highlighted by the 75th τL-percentile values for the bottom quintiles. Moving from the youngest to the oldest cohorts, these values are 67.4 percent, 75.9 percent, 69.3 percent, 76.5 percent, 74.4 percent, and 73.9 percent. Hence, one in four of our poorest households, regardless of age, make between two and three times as much for the government than they make for themselves in earning an extra $1,000.

This graph from the study shows how poor people can even face marginal tax rates of more than 100 percent (which I’ve highlighted in red). The vertical axis is the tax rate and the horizontal axis is household prosperity.

Subjecting poor people to very high implicit tax rates is horrible economic policy, just like it’s horrible policy to hit any other group of people with high marginal tax rates.

Simply stated, when people are punished for engaging in productive economic behavior, they respond by reducing their work, their saving, their investment, and their entrepreneurship.

Interestingly, some states are better (or less worse) than others.

One’s choice of state in which to live can dramatically affect marginal net tax rates. Across all cohorts, the typical bottom-quintile household can lower its remaining lifetime marginal net tax rate by 99.7 percentage points by switching states! …The typical household can raise its total remaining lifetime spending by 8.1 percent by moving from a high-tax to a low-tax state, holding its human wealth, housing expenses, and other characteristics fixed. …To illustrate how τL varies from state to state, we calculate the median τL for households in the 30-39 age cohort in the lowest resource quintile in each state. …Figure 11 shows the cross-state variation in median lifetime marginal tax rates. …median rates varies between a low of 38.8 percent in South Carolina and a high of 55.0 percent in Connecticut. Clearly, where people live can matter a lot for their incentives to work.

Here’s a map showing the marginal tax rate on people in the bottom 20 percent. The obvious takeaway is that you don’t want to be a poor person in Connecticut, Minnesota, or Illinois.

For what it’s worth, tax rates are still too high in the best states (South Carolina, Texas, Indiana, and South Dakota).

The bottom line is that the welfare state is bad news for both taxpayers and recipients. All of which may help to explain why the poverty rate stopped falling once the government declared a “War on Poverty.”

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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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Back in 2013, I talked to the BBC about Pope Francis and his bizarre hostility to free enterprise.

Sadly, it doesn’t appear that the Pope took my advice (though I think it’s amusing that at least someone in the Vatican is paying attention).

There’s a wealth of evidence that markets are the best way of helping the poor. But the Pope wants more government.

Moreover, there’s also plenty of data showing that higher tax rates and more spending hurt the poor. Yet the Pope wants more government.

And there’s lots of research on capitalism and upward mobility for the less fortunate. Nonetheless, the Pope wants more government.

For instance, he’s once again advertising his ignorance about economics, development, and fiscal policy.

Pope Francis blasted the practice of tax cuts for the rich as part of a “structure of sin” and lamented the fact that “billions of dollars” end up in “tax haven accounts” instead of funding “healthcare and education.” Speaking at the seminar set up by the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences  the Pope criticized “the richest people” for receiving “repeated tax cuts” in the name of “investment and development.” These “tax haven accounts” impede “the possibility of the dignified and sustained development of all social agents,” claims the Pope.  He added that “the poor increase around us” as poverty is rising around the world. This poverty can be ended if the wealthiest gave more.

Wow. Sounds more like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rather than a religious leader.

Libertarian Jesus must be very disappointed.

In an attempt to add some rigorous analysis to the discussion, Professors Antony Davies and James Harrigan wrote a column for the Foundation for Economic Education on capitalism and its role in global poverty reduction.

Galileo ran afoul of the Inquisition in 1633 when he was found “vehemently suspect of heresy.” …One might think that being this profoundly wrong about something well outside the realm of theology would cause the magisterium, and the pope specifically, to tread very carefully even 386 years later. But one would be wrong. Because here comes Pope Francis yet again, offering economic opinions from the bulliest of pulpits about something he understands no better than a garden-variety college freshman. …According to the pontiff, “the logic of the market” keeps people hungry. But “the market” has no logic. The market isn’t a thing, let alone a sentient thing. “The market” is the sum total of individual interactions among billions of people. …Whenever a trade occurs, both sides are better off for having made it. We know this because if they weren’t, the trade wouldn’t occur. …Not surprisingly to anyone but perhaps Pope Francis, some of the first financial speculation in which humans ever engaged involved food. Financial speculation and its more evolved cousins, options and futures contracts, evolved precisely as a means to fight hunger. …speculators took some of the risk of price fluctuations off the backs of farmers, and this made it possible for farmers to plant more food.

Davies and Harrigan inject some hard data into the debate.

If these arguments are too esoteric for Francis, there is also overwhelming evidence. Economic freedom measures the degree to which a country’s government permits and supports the very sorts of markets against which Francis rails. …If we list societies according to their economic freedom, the same pattern emerges again and again and again. Whether comparing countries, states, or cities, societies that are more economically free exhibit better social and economic outcomes than those that are less economically free. …even Francis should be able to see it quite clearly from his Vatican perch. …Extreme poverty rates for the half of countries that are less economically free are around seven times the extreme poverty rates for the half of countries that are more economically free.

Here’s one of the charts from their column.

As you can see, the state-controlled economies on the left have much higher levels of poverty than the market-driven economies on the right.

They also share some economic history.

…if the world around Francis doesn’t provide enough compelling evidence, the world prior to Francis certainly does. At the turn of the 18th century, around 95 percent of humans lived in extreme poverty. That was at the advent of the Industrial Revolution and of capitalism. …the extreme poverty rate fell from 95 percent to below ten percent. With the flourishing of capitalism, the extreme poverty rate fell tenfold at the same time that the number of humans grew tenfold.

Amen. Videos by Deirdre McCloskey and by Don Boudreaux confirm how the world went from near-universal poverty to mass prosperity (at least in the nations that embraced free markets and the rule of law).

By contrast, there’s not a single example of a nation that became rich and reduced poverty with big government.

P.S. Mauritius is a good test case of why Pope Francis is wrong. Very wrong.

P.P.S. To learn more about why Pope Francis is off base, I also recommend the wise words of Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams.

P.P.P.S. To be fair, there was plenty of bad economics in the Vatican before Francis became Pope. And also some sound thinking.

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I periodically see tweets that deserve attention because they reveal something very important, usually in a clever and succinct fashion.

Today, let’s add to this collection.

I’ve argued, over and over again, that the best way to help the poor is to focus on policies designed to boost growth rather than policies designed to reduce inequality.

Simply stated, the former approach is a recipe for making everyone more prosperous, while the latter approach means everyone fights for bigger slices of a shrinking pie.

When making this argument, I sometimes ask people whether they would rather be a poor person in Hong Kong or France? There’s no welfare state in the former, but lots of opportunity, whereas France has plenty of handouts but not much hope for upward mobility.

But no matter how often I’ve tried to analyze and explain why we shouldn’t fixate on inequality, I’ve never come close to cramming this much insight into such a concise observation.

Kudos to @Jon_StewartMill. In just ten words, he captures the key insight that I’ve tried to get across in several dozen columns.

I’ll close with some speculation about why some people fixate on inequality. What makes them focus on trying to drag down the rich instead of finding ways to build up the poor?

I’m not sure, though there is polling data to suggest that some people really are motivated by envy and resentment of success.

But I suspect that politicians who play the class-warfare card simply think it’s a way of maximizing votes.

Even worse than the politicians are the “poverty hucksters” who deliberately lie about poverty in hopes of advancing a redistributionist agenda.

P.S. The most powerful numbers on why growth matters more than inequality come from China.

P.P.S. The most reprehensible effort to reduce inequality (by making everyone poorer) came from the IMF.

P.P.P.S. The most accurate political analysis of inequality came from Margaret Thatcher.

P.P.P.P.S. The best satire on the issue of inequality can be found in this “modest proposal.”

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By every possible measure, Chile is the most successful country in Latin America.

Income has soared and poverty has plummeted thanks to market-based reforms.

It’s not perfect, of course. The nation’s economic freedom score – 7.89 on a 0-10 scale – is good enough for a #13 ranking, but there’s still room for improvement.

But there’s also plenty of room for economic decline, and that might be the unfortunate outcome if politicians respond in a misguided way to recent protests.

Especially if they take advice from the wrong sources. For instance, the New York Times opined yesterday about the supposed shortcomings of the Chilean model.

Chile is often praised as a capitalist oasis, a prospering and stable nation on a continent where both prosperity and stability have been in short supply. But that prosperity has accumulated mostly in the hands of a lucky few. As a result, Chile has one of the highest levels of economic inequality in the developed world. …Chileans live in a society of extraordinary economic disparities. …What makes Chile an outlier among those 36 nations is that the government does less than nearly any other developed nation to reduce economic inequality through taxes and transfers. As a result, Chile has the highest level of post-tax income inequality among O.E.C.D. members. …Even after increases in recent years, the Chilean government still spends a smaller share of total economic output than every other nation in the O.E.C.D. The obvious path for Chile is for the government to spend more money.

As is sometimes the case with the New York Times, parts of the editorial are downright false. Income in Chile has jumped significantly for all quintiles, not just a “lucky few.”

And even the parts that are technically accurate are very misleading.

Notice, for instance, what the NYT is doing with inequality numbers. It is comparing Chile with rich nations, mostly from Europe.

But what happens if Chile is compared to other countries from Latin America.

That tells an entirely different story, as you can see from this poverty map (dark red is bad, light yellow is good) produced by the Center for Distributive, Labor, and Social Studies in Argentina.

All of a sudden, Chile looks very good.

Even if you use U.N. numbers that rely on the left’s misleading definition of poverty (i.e., based on relative income), Chile is a success story compared to other nations in the region.

It’s especially important to understand that Chile is getting good results for the right reason.

Poverty is falling because of the private economy rather than coercive redistribution. Here are some excerpts from a recent U.N. release.

In an analysis of the countries with the greatest reductions in poverty in the 2012-2017 period, in Chile, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, the increase in income from wages in lower-income households was the source that contributed the most to that reduction, while in Costa Rica, Panama and Uruguay, the main factor was pensions and transfers received by lower-income households.

Sadly, some people in Chile don’t have the fortitude to build on the market reforms that have boosted national prosperity.

Indeed, it appears there will be backsliding according to the aforementioned New York Times editorial

Sebastián Piñera, the billionaire elected president in 2017, …proposed a slate of reforms, including an increase in the top income tax rate, an increase in retirement benefits, and a guaranteed minimum monthly income. …Andrónico Luksic Craig, chairman of Quiñenco, a financial and industrial conglomerate, wrote on Saturday on Twitter that he was ready to pay higher taxes.

I’m disappointed but never surprised when politicians unravel progress.

But it’s always discouraging when guilt-ridden rich people embrace statist policies (sounds familiar, huh?).

For the sake of the Chilean people, let’s hope this is empty rhetoric.

P.S. Since we’re on the topic of Chile, here are some excerpts from the abstract of a study in the Journal of Development Economics that estimated the heavy economic cost of the nation’s detour to socialism in the 1970s.

…we look at share prices in the Santiago exchange during the tumultuous political events that characterized Chile in the early 1970s. …deploying previously unused daily data and exploiting two largely unexpected shocks which involved substantial variation in policies and institutions, providing a rare natural experiment. Allende’s election and subsequent socialist experiment decreased share values, while the military coup and dictatorship that replaced him boosted them, in both cases by magnitudes unprecedented in the literature. The most parsimonious interpretation of these share price changes is that they reflected, respectively, the perceived threat to private ownership of the means of production under a socialist government, and its subsequent reversal.

By the way, this in no way should be interpreted as support for the Pinochet dictatorship.

But what it does say is that dictatorships that allow economic freedom produce much better results than dictatorships impose totalitarian economic policies in addition to totalitarian political policies.

Which is basically the point Milton Friedman made when asked about his connection to Chile.

For what it’s worth, Pinochet eventually allowed a transition to democracy, which somewhat atones for his sins.

P.S. To be fair, the NYT editorial was merely misguided, which is better than the wild inaccuracy that has characterized some analyses.

P.P.S. If you want to learn about Chile’s reforms, here are columns about the private social security system and the national school choice system. And this World Bank comparison of Chile and Venezuela is very instructive as well.

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I’ve created a new page to showcase various “Poverty Hucksters.”

These are people and institutions that use data about income distribution to mislead and lie about the prevalence of poverty in the United States.

This rogue’s gallery includes:

What is their dodgy tactic? Here’s how I described the methodology in 2018.

…the bureaucrats…have put together a measure of income distribution and decided that “relative poverty” exists for anyone who has less than 50 percent of the median level of disposable income.

More recently, I explained why this approach is senseless, at least if one wants to measure actual poverty

…an artificial and misleading definition of poverty. One that depends on the distribution of income rather than any specific measure of poverty. Which is insanely dishonest. It means that everyone’s income could double and the supposed rate of poverty would stay the same. Or a country could execute all the rich people and the alleged rate of poverty would decline.

Now we have a new member of this ill-begotten group of hucksters.

Here’s an excerpt from an article in the latest issue of the Economist.

…international comparisons…make…America a true outlier. When assessed on poverty relative to other countries (the share of families making less than 50% of the national median income after taxes and transfers), America is among the worst-performing in the OECD club of mostly rich countries (see chart). Despite its higher level of income, that is not because it starts with a very large share of poor people before supports kick in—it is just that the safety net does not do as much work as elsewhere. On this relative-poverty scale, more than a fifth of American children remain poor after government benefits, compared with 3.6% of Finnish children.

And here’s the accompanying chart.

Needless to say, any chart that purports to show less poverty in Mexico than the United States is laughably inaccurate.

But that’s the kind of perverse outcome that is generated when using a ridiculously dishonest approach.

I suppose the Economist deserves a bit of credit. In both the article and in the chart, they acknowledge (at least for careful readers) that they’re measuring the share of the population with less than 50 percent of a society’s median income, not the share of people living in poverty.

So why, then, do they refer to the “poverty rate”?

I have no idea if the reporter is dishonest or incompetent, but I can say with certainty that the Economist has done a disservice to readers.

P.S. The Economist relied on dodgy data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. And if you read the columns about the other Poverty Hucksters, you’ll find that most of them also relied on numbers from that left-leaning, Paris-based bureaucracy. Yet another example of why the OECD is the worst international bureaucracy, at least on a per-dollar-spent basis.

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I first opined about Pope Francis in 2013, when I told a BBC audience why the Pope was wrong on economic policy.

The following year, I expanded on that point, explaining that statist policies are bad for the poor. And I revisited the issue again last year.

I’m not the only one making these arguments. In a column for Reason, Stephanie Slade explained why Pope Francis is deeply misguided.

I’ve had some harsh words to describe Pope Francis. …the pontiff’s ignorance of basic economics has led him to a bad conclusion about which public policies are best able to reduce the crushing yoke of poverty in the world. …as a matter of empirical fact, markets are the single greatest engine for growth and enrichment that humanity has yet stumbled upon. …He seems to be arguing that an outlook that places the individual above “the common good” is morally suspect. …his statements betray a shallowness in his understanding of the philosophy he’s impugning. If he took the time to really engage with our ideas, he might be surprised by what he learned. …what Pope Francis calls an “antisocial” paradigm…is better known by another name: the liberty movement, a cooperative and sometimes even rather social endeavor among people who cherish peaceful, voluntary human interactions.

Sadly, there’s zero evidence that Pope Francis has learned any economics since taking up residence in the Vatican.

For instance, he just visited Mauritius, a small island nation to the east of Madagascar.

His economic advice, as reported by Yahoo, was extremely primitive.

Pope Francis on Monday urged Mauritius, a prosperous magnet for tourists and a global tax haven, to shun an “idolatrous economic model” that excludes the youth and the poor… While the island is a beacon of stability and relative prosperity, Pope Francis honed in on the struggles of the youth… “It is a hard thing to say, but, despite the economic growth your country has known in recent decades, it is the young who are suffering the most. They suffer from unemployment, which not only creates uncertainty about the future, but also prevents them from believing that they play a significant part in your shared history,” said the pope. …Since independence in 1968, Mauritius has developed from a poor, agriculture-based economy, to one of Africa’s wealthiest nations and financial services hub. …General unemployment is low compared to the rest of the continent at 6.9 percent in 2018 according to the World Bank…

I’m glad the article acknowledges that Mauritius has been economically successful.

Though I’m frustrated by the failure to explain why.

So I’ll redress that error of omission by showing that Mauritius dramatically expanded economic liberty in the 1980s and 1990s. The nation’s absolute score jumped from 5.11 in 1980 to 8.07 in the most-recent estimates from Economic Freedom of the World.

It’s done such a good job that Mauritius is now ranked as the world’s 9th-freest economy.

So what has greater economic liberty produced?

More national prosperity.

A lot more. Based on the Maddison data, you can see that living standards (as measured by per-capita GDP) have tripled over the past three-plus decades.

I confess that I’ve never been to Mauritius.

So maybe it’s possible that the country is filled with “idolotrous” folks who think of nothing but money.

But I’m guessing that people in Mauritius are just like the rest of us. But with one key difference in that they’ve been following the recipe for growth and prosperity.

Too bad Pope Francis instead believes in the Peronist model that has wreaked so much havoc in Argentina.

P.S. The Pope should read Stephanie Slade’s column. Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell also should be on his list.

P.P.S. Methinks Pope Francis should have a conversation with Libertarian Jesus. He could start herehere, and here.

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I religiously read just about everything from Thomas Sowell, John Stossel, Walter Williams, Tim Carney, and other libertarian-minded experts

But I also make a point to regularly read non-libertarians such as Desmond Lachman, Will Wilkinson, Dalibor Rohac, and Noah Smith even though I sometimes – or even often – disagree with their policy prescriptions.

What matters is that they generally have intelligent and thoughtful observations on issues that I care about.

But they’re not necessarily accurate. For instance, Noah Smith recently wrote an interesting column for Bloomberg about whether people are poor because of their own behavior or because of external factors.

Here are the passages that caught my attention.

…there is at least one rich country where people…work hard, avoid risky, self-destructive behavior and make wise life choices. That country is Japan. And it still has plenty of poverty. …Given all of this good behavior, conservatives might expect that Japan’s poverty rate would be very low. But the opposite is true; Japan has a relatively high number of poor people for an advanced country. Defined by the percentage of the population earning less than half of the median national income, Japan’s poverty rate is more than 15% — a little lower than the U.S., but considerably higher than countries such as Germany, Canada or Australia… This suggests that there is something very wrong with the conservative theory of poverty.

Fortunately, I don’t need to explain what’s wrong with Smith’s analysis.

Writing for National Review, Kevin Williamson has already pointed out his errors.

Smith here relies on a useless measure of “relative” poverty, the share of the population earning less than half of the median income. You can see the limitations of that approach: A uniformly poor society in which 99 percent of the people live on 50 cents a day and 1 percent live on 49 cents a day would have a poverty rate of 0.00; a rich society with incomes that are rising across-the-board but are rising much more quickly for the top two-thirds would have a rising poverty rate… It would be far better to consider poverty in absolute terms, but our progressive friends are strangely resistant to that.

It is indeed strange that so many folks on the left have decided to use an artificial and misleading definition of poverty. One that depends on the distribution of income rather than any specific measure of poverty.

Which is insanely dishonest. It means that everyone’s income could double and the supposed rate of poverty would stay the same.

Or a country could execute all the rich people and the alleged rate of poverty would decline.

No wonder the practitioners of this approach often produce absurd data, such as the OECD’s assertion that there’s more poverty in the United States than in basket case economies such as Greece and Italy.

Shame on Noah Smith. He should know better.

I’ll continue to read his work, so he’s not being kicked out of my club of non-libertarian writers.

But I will add him to list of people and groups who are guilty of peddling fake poverty data. These “poverty hucksters” include the OECD, of course, and also the United Nations, the New York Times, the Equal Welfare Association, Germany’s Institute of Labor Economics, the Obama Administration, and the European Commission.

P.S. A “poverty pimp,” by contrast, is someone who personally profits from administering the welfare state.

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I’m doing my third field trip to the United Nations.

In 2012, I spoke at a conference that was grandiosely entitled, “The High Level Thematic Debate on the State of the World Economy.” I was a relatively lonely voice trying to explain that a bigger burden of government would hinder rather than promote economic development.

In 2017, I was a credentialed observer to the 14th Session of the Committee of Experts on International Cooperation in Tax Matters, as well as the Special Meeting of ECOSOC on International Cooperation in Tax Matters. I somehow survived having to spend several days listening to government officials wax poetic about various schemes to extract more money from the productive sector of the economy.

This year, I”m at the U.N. participating in the 17th International Forum of the Convention of Independent Financial Advisors. My panel focused on taxation and the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Here are the goals, which presumably are widely desirable.

The controversial part is how to achieve these goals.

Many of the folks at the U.N. assert that governments need more money. A lot more money.

A new Fund to support UN activities that will help countries achieve the Sustainable Development Goals was launched today by UN Deputy-Secretary-General Amina Mohammed at a ministerial meeting to review financing for sustainable development. …Ms. Mohammed said the new Fund will “provide some muscle” to help UN country teams support countries’ efforts and priorities to achieve the 2030 Agenda – the global agenda that sets out 17 goals to promote prosperity and improve people’s well-being while protecting the environment. “It will help us hit the ground running and to pick up the pace,” for financing the Goals, she said, cautioning that it was still only part of the estimated $300 trillion that will be needed.

Needless to say, $300 trillion is a lot of money. Even when spread out between now and 2030.

To put that number in perspective, the annual GDP (economic output) of the United States is about $20 trillion.

My concern, whether the number is $300 or $300 trillion, is that folks at the United Nations have a very government-centric view of development.

Which is why I tried to explain that the only successful recipe for progress is free markets and small government.

Take a look at this list of the top-25 jurisdictions as ranked by the United Nations.

And what do these places have in common?

They generally became rich when government was a very minor burden.

This means the 1800s and early 1900s for nations in North America and Western Europe.

And it means the post-World War II era for some of the Pacific Rim jurisdictions.

I concluded with my challenge, asking participants to identify a single nation – anywhere in the world at any point in history – that became rich with big government and high taxes.

The answer is none. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

The bottom line is that many people at the U.N. have a sincere desire to help the world’s less-fortunate people. But they need to put facts and empirical data above statist ideology.

P.S. Maybe the U.N. doesn’t do the right thing about fighting poverty because it has some people who are very dishonest about the topic?

P.P.S. I don’t know whether to classify this as absurd or dishonest, but Jeffrey Sachs actually claimed that Cuba ranks about the United States in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals.

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I’m currently in Chile, enjoying the warm sun and doing research on the nation’s impressive economic performance.

I met yesterday with Jose Pinera, the former minister who created Chile’s incredibly successful system of personal retirement accounts (he’s also one of the people Gary Johnson should have mentioned when he was asked to identify an admirable foreign leader).

Back in 2013, I shared some of Jose’s data showing how the economy took off after Chile enacted pro-market reforms.

I was especially impressed by the stunning reduction in the poverty rate, which had dropped from 50 percent to 11 percent (it’s now down to 7.8 percent).

In other words, capitalism has been great news for poor Chileans. Simply stated, when given more freedom and opportunity, most of them escape poverty.

Interestingly, Reuters reports that even the IMF recognizes Chile’s superior performance.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) hailed Chile’s strengthening economy in a report published on Friday while encouraging President Sebastian Pinera to push forward with promised structural reforms. In a statement following its annual consultation with Chile, the IMF praised Pinera’s proposed reform drive… Conservative billionaire Pinera took office in March with a strong mandate to make changes to the country’s pension system and labor laws and simplify the tax code. …The bank praised his early efforts, which it said were aimed at “re-invigorating investment and economic growth.”

Hmmm…, makes me wonder if the IMF (given its dismal track record) actually understands why Chile has become so prosperous.

Though the World Bank has praised the country’s pro-market reforms, so international bureaucracies sometimes stumble on the right answer.

But let’s not get distracted. Today, I want to share further evidence about how pro-market reforms produce big benefits for the less fortunate.

Here’s a chart from an article in the latest edition Economia y Sociedad. The article is in Spanish, but a translation of the relevant passage tells us that, “in Chile, the income of the poorest 20% of the population has risen at a rate (8.2% per year) that is 50% higher than that to which the income of the richest 20% has risen ( 5.3% per year).”

In other words, a rising tide lifts all boats (just as in the U.S.), but the bottom quintile is enjoying the biggest increases.

Sounds like great news. And it is great news. But some people put on blinders.

My left-leaning friends loudly assure me that they are motivated by a desire to help poor people. Yet if that’s true, why aren’t they falling over themselves to praise Chile? Why are they instead susceptible to waxing rhapsodic about the hellhole of Venezuela or bending over backwards to defend Cuba’s miserable regime?

And why do some anti-capitalist economists engage in absurd examples of cherry picking in failed efforts to discredit Chile’s accomplishments?

The bottom line is that Chile became the Latin Tiger thanks to economic liberty. That’s great news for the country, but especially good for the less fortunate.

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One of the more elementary observations about economics is that a nation’s prosperity is determined in part by the quantity of quality of labor and capital. These “factors of production” are combined to generate national income.

I frequently grouse that punitive tax policies discourage capital. There’s less incentive to invest, after all, if the government imposes extra layers of tax on income that is saved and invested.

Bad tax laws also discourage labor. High marginal tax rates penalize people for being productive, and this can be especially counterproductive for entrepreneurship and innovation.

Though we shouldn’t overlook how government discourages low-income people from being productively employed. Only the problem is more on the spending side of the fiscal equation.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, John Early and Phil Gramm share some depressing numbers about growing dependency in the United States.

During the 20 years before the War on Poverty was funded, the portion of the nation living in poverty had dropped to 14.7% from 32.1%. Since 1966, the first year with a significant increase in antipoverty spending, the poverty rate reported by the Census Bureau has been virtually unchanged. …Transfers targeted to low-income families increased in real dollars from an average of $3,070 per person in 1965 to $34,093 in 2016. …Transfers now constitute 84.2% of the disposable income of the poorest quintile of American households and 57.8% of the disposable income of lower-middle-income households. These payments also make up 27.5% of America’s total disposable income.

This massive expansion of redistribution has negatively impacted incentives to work.

The stated goal of the War on Poverty is not just to raise living standards, but also to make America’s poor more self-sufficient and to bring them into the mainstream of the economy. In that effort the war has been an abject failure, increasing dependency and largely severing the bottom fifth of earners from the rewards and responsibilities of work. …The expanding availability of antipoverty transfers has devastated the work effort of poor and lower-middle income families. By 1975 the lowest-earning fifth of families had 24.8% more families with a prime-work age head and no one working than did their middle-income peers. By 2015 this differential had risen to 37.1%. …The War on Poverty has increased dependency and failed in its primary effort to bring poor people into the mainstream of America’s economy and communal life. Government programs replaced deprivation with idleness, stifling human flourishing. It happened just as President Franklin Roosevelt said it would: “The lessons of history,” he said in 1935, “show conclusively that continued dependency upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber.”

In another WSJ column on the same topic, Peter Cove reached a similar conclusion.

America doesn’t have a worker shortage; it has a work shortage. The unemployment rate is at a 15-year low, but only 55% of Americans adults 18 to 64 have full-time jobs. Nearly 95 million people have removed themselves entirely from the job market. According to demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, the labor-force participation rate for men 25 to 54 is lower now than it was at the end of the Great Depression. The welfare state is largely to blame. …insisting on work in exchange for social benefits would succeed in reducing dependency. We have the data: Within 10 years of the 1996 reform, the number of Americans in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program fell 60%. But no reform is permanent. Under President Obama, federal poverty programs ballooned.

Edward Glaeser produced a similar indictment in an article for City Journal.

In 1967, 95 percent of “prime-age” men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. During the Great Recession, though, the share of jobless prime-age males rose above 20 percent. Even today, long after the recession officially ended, more than 15 percent of such men aren’t working. …The rise of joblessness—especially among men—is the great American domestic crisis of the twenty-first century. It is a crisis of spirit more than of resources. …Proposed solutions that focus solely on providing material benefits are a false path. Well-meaning social policies—from longer unemployment insurance to more generous disability diagnoses to higher minimum wages—have only worsened the problem; the futility of joblessness won’t be solved with a welfare check. …various programs make joblessness more bearable, at least materially; they also reduce the incentives to find work. …The past decade or so has seen a resurgent progressive focus on inequality—and little concern among progressives about the downsides of discouraging work. …The decision to prioritize equality over employment is particularly puzzling, given that social scientists have repeatedly found that unemployment is the greater evil.

Why work, though, when government pays you not to work?

And that unfortunate cost-benefit analysis is being driven by ever-greater levels of dependency.

Writing for Forbes, Professor Jeffrey Dorfman echoed these findings.

…our current welfare system fails to prepare people to take care of themselves, makes poor people more financially fragile, and creates incentives to remain on welfare forever. …The first failure of government welfare programs is to favor help with current consumption while placing almost no emphasis on job training or anything else that might allow today’s poor people to become self-sufficient in the future. …It is the classic story of giving a man a fish or teaching him how to fish. Government welfare programs hand out lots of fish, but never seem to teach people how to fish for themselves. The problem is not a lack of job training programs, but rather the fact that the job training programs fail to help people. …The third flaw in the government welfare system is the way that benefits phase outs as a recipient’s income increases. …a poor family trying to escape poverty pays an effective marginal tax rate that is considerably higher than a middle class family and higher than or roughly equal to the marginal tax rate of a family in the top one percent.

I like that he also addressed problems such as implicit marginal tax rates and the failure of job-training programs.

Professor Lee Ohanian of the Hoover Institution reinforces the point that the welfare state provides lots of money in ways that stifle personal initiative.

Inequality is not an issue that policy should address. …Society, however, should care about creating economic opportunities for the lowest earners. …a family of four at the poverty level has about $22,300 per year of pre-tax income. Consumption for that same family of four on average, however, is about $44,000 per year, which means that their consumption level is about twice as high as their income. …We’re certainly providing many more resources to low-earning families today. But on the other hand, we have policies in place that either limit economic opportunities for low earners or distort the incentives for those earners to achieve prosperity.

I’ve been citing lots of articles, which might be tedious, so let’s take a break with a video about the welfare state from the American Enterprise Institute.

And if you like videos, here’s my favorite video about the adverse effects of the welfare state.

By the way, it isn’t just libertarians and conservatives who recognize the problem.

Coming from a left-of-center perspective, Catherine Rampell explains in the Washington Post how welfare programs discourage work.

…today’s social safety net discourages poor people from working, or at least from earning more money. …you might qualify for some welfare programs, such as food stamps, housing vouchers, child-care subsidies and Medicaid. But if you get a promotion, or longer hours, or a second job, or otherwise start making more, these benefits will start to evaporate — and sometimes quite abruptly. You can think about this loss of benefits as a kind of extra tax on low-income people. …Americans at or just above the poverty line typically face marginal tax rates of 34 percent. That is, for every additional dollar they earn, they keep only 66 cents. …One in 10 families with earnings close to the poverty line faces a marginal tax rate of at least 65 percent, the CBO found. …You don’t need to be a hardcore conservative to see how this system might make working longer hours, or getting a better job, less attractive than it might otherwise be.

To understand what this means, the Illinois Policy Institute calculated how poor people in the state are trapped in dependency.

The potential sum of welfare benefits can reach $47,894 annually for single-parent households and $41,237 for two-parent households. Welfare benefits will be available to some households earning as much as $74,880 annually. …A single mom has the most resources available to her family when she works full time at a wage of $8.25 to $12 an hour. Disturbingly, taking a pay increase to $18 an hour can leave her with about one-third fewer total resources (net income and government benefits). In order to make work “pay” again, she would need an hourly wage of $38 to mitigate the impact of lost benefits and higher taxes.

Agreeing that there’s a problem does not imply agreement about a solution.

Folks on the left think the solution to high implicit tax rates (i.e., the dependency trap) is to make benefits more widely available. In other words, don’t reduce handouts as income increases.

The other alternative is to make benefits less generous, which will simultaneously reduce implicit tax rates and encourage more work.

I’m sympathetic to the latter approach, but my view is that welfare programs should be designed and financed by state and local governments. We’re far more likely to see innovation as policy makers in different areas experiment with the best ways of preventing serious deprivation while also encouraging self-sufficiency.

I think we’ll find out that benefits should be lower, but maybe we’ll learn in certain cases that benefits should be expanded. But we won’t learn anything so long as there is a one-size-fits-all approach from Washington.

Let’s close with a political observation. A columnist for the New York Times is frustrated that many low-income voters are supporting Republicans because they see how their neighbors are being harmed by dependency.

Parts of the country that depend on the safety-net programs supported by Democrats are increasingly voting for Republicans who favor shredding that net. …The people in these communities who are voting Republican in larger proportions are those who are a notch or two up the economic ladder — the sheriff’s deputy, the teacher, the highway worker, the motel clerk, the gas station owner and the coal miner. And their growing allegiance to the Republicans is, in part, a reaction against what they perceive, among those below them on the economic ladder, as a growing dependency on the safety net, the most visible manifestation of downward mobility in their declining towns. …I’ve heard variations on this theme all over the country: people railing against the guy across the street who is collecting disability payments but is well enough to go fishing, the families using their food assistance to indulge in steaks.

It’s not my role to pontificate about politics, so I won’t address that part of the column. But I will say that I’ve also found that hostility to welfare is strongest among those who have first-hand knowledge of how dependency hurts people.

P.S. If you want evidence for why Washington should get out of the business of income redistribution, check out this visual depiction of the welfare state.

P.S. The Canadians can teach us some good lessons about welfare reform.

P.P.S. The Nordic nations also provide valuable lessons, at least from the don’t-do-this perspective.

P.P.P.S. Last but not least, there’s a Laffer-type relationship between welfare spending and poverty.

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Last September, I shared some very encouraging data showing how extreme poverty dramatically has declined in the developing world.

And I noted that this progress happened during a time when the “Washington Consensus” was resulting in “neoliberal” policies (meaning “classical liberal“) in those nations (confirmed by data from Economic Freedom of the World).

In other words, pro-market policies were the recipe for poverty reduction, not foreign aid or big government.

Sadly, the Washington Consensus has been supplanted. Bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are now pushing a statist agenda based on the bizarre theory that higher taxes and more spending somehow produce prosperity.

To add insult to injury, some people now want to rewrite history and argue that free markets don’t deserve credit for the poverty reduction that already has occurred.

Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, writing for Our World in Data, wants readers to conclude that redistribution programs deserve credit.

…the share of people living in extreme poverty around the world has fallen continuously over the last two centuries. …many often say that globalization in the form of ‘free-market capitalism’ is the main force to be thanked for such remarkable historical achievement. …this focus on ‘free-market capitalism’ alone is misguided. …Governments around the world have dramatically increased their potential to collect revenues in order to redistribute resources through social transfers… The reach of governments has grown substantially over the last century: the share of total output that governments control is much larger today than a century ago.

And for evidence, Mr. Ortiz-Ospina included this chart.

I shared a version of this data back in June, asserting that the explosion of social welfare spending made this “the western world’s most depressing chart.”

So does Ortiz-Ospina have a compelling argument? Does poverty go down as welfare spending goes up?

Nope. Johan Norberg points out that there is a gaping flaw in this argument. An enormous, gigantic hole.

Wow. This isn’t just a flaw. It’s malpractice. It’s absurd to argue that welfare spending in developed nations somehow led to poverty reduction in developing countries.

I hope Mr. Ortiz-Ospina is just an inexperienced intern, because if he really understands the data, one might be forced to conclude that he’s dishonest.

But let’s set that issue aside. Johan closes his video by explaining that poverty in rich nations declined before modern welfare states. I want to expand on that point.

Johan cited Martin Ravallion, so I tracked down his work. And here’s the chart he put together, which I’ve modified to show (outlined in red) that extreme poverty basically disappeared between 1820 and 1930.

And guess what?

That was the period when there was no welfare state. Not only is that apparent from Our World in Data, it’s also what we see in Vito Tanzi’s numbers.

Here’s Tanzi’s table, which I first shared five years ago. And I’ve circled in red the 1880-1930 data to underscore that there was virtually no redistribution during the years poverty was declining.

The bottom line is that poverty in the western world fell during the period of small government. Yet some people want to put the cart before the horse. They’re making the absurd argument that post-1950s welfare spending somehow reduced poverty before the 1930s.

That’s as absurd as Paul Krugman blaming a 2008 recession in Estonia on spending cuts that took place in 2009.

P.S. For those who want U.S.-specific data, it’s worth noting that dramatic reductions in American poverty all occurred before Washington launched the so-called “War on Poverty.”

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If you look at the top of your screen on my home page, you’ll notice that I have a collection of special pages such as the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame and examples of what happens when you mix government and sex.

I’m thinking of creating a new page, but I need a pithy way of describing leftists who lie about poverty. And there are plenty of them.

Today, we identify some additional members who are eligible for this disreputable club.

And we’ll start with the European Commission.

Here’s a chart from a recent report that supposedly shows poverty rates in various European nations.

If you compare the “at-risk-of-poverty rate” for various nations, you’ll notice some very odd outcomes.

For instance, the tiny tax haven of Luxembourg is one of the world’s wealthiest nations, yet it supposedly has more poverty than Hungary. And super-rich Switzerland has more poverty than Slovakia. And oil-rich Norway has more poverty than the Czech Republic.

Are all those rich nations in Western Europe really suffering from higher poverty rates than some of the Eastern European countries still recovering from communist rule?

Of course not. The chart is based on a big, fat lie.

And I know it’s a lie because if you look in the glossary at the end of the long report, you’ll see that the bureaucrats openly admit that their so-called poverty chart has nothing to do with poverty and nothing to do with living standards (I’ve underlined the most important parts).

Interestingly, the bureaucrats in Brussels included a chart in the study revealing the level of inaccuracy for each country.

Here’s a look at the dishonest poverty rate (the blue diamond) compared to a measure of “severe material deprivation” that presumably does a better job of showing the real number of poor people (the red diamond).

By the way, I’m not a huge fan of the European Commission’s measure of “severe material deprivation” since it includes variables such as having a car, a color TV, and the money to take a one-week vacation.

But that’s a separate story.

Let’s look at other new members of our club.

An Eduardo Porter column in the New York Times also used the dishonest definition of poverty.

How can it be that the United States spends so much money fighting poverty and still suffers one of the highest child poverty rates among advanced nations? One in five American children is poor by the count of LIS, a data archive tracking well-being and deprivation around the world. …the United States tolerated more child poverty in 2012 than 30 of the 35 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a grouping of advanced industrialized nations. The percentage of children who are poor is more than three times as high in the United States as it is in Norway or the Netherlands. America has a larger proportion of poor children than Russia.

And here’s a chart from the article that definitely makes the United States look bad.

But, unless you read the column carefully, you would have missed this all-important detail.

…international standards that set the poverty line at one-half the income of families on the middle rung of the income ladder.

In other words, everything in the article, and all the numbers in the chart, have nothing to do with actual poverty. Instead, we’re simply looking at an indirect measure of income distribution.

And the United States is made to look bad because our median income is generally much higher than it is in other nations.

How absurd.

You’ll think I’m joking, but you can dramatically reduce “poverty,” based on this dishonest definition, if you randomly kill rich people.

Let’s conclude by looking at the U.K.-based Guardian‘s article about supposed poverty in Hong Kong.

A record number of Hong Kong residents live in poverty, with one fifth of the population falling below the poverty line despite economic growth, according to new government figures. The number of people living below the poverty line rose to 1.35 million in 2016, about 20% of the city’s population. The number is the highest number of poor since the government began publishing statistics in 2009. Despite opulent wealth, Hong Kong is a deeply unequal society. …The number of poor rose despite the government raising the poverty line last year. For single person households it is set at HK$4,000 (£388). It is HK$9,000 (£873) for a two person home and HK$15,000 (£1,455) for a family of three.

There’s a small problem and big problem with this article. The small problem is that it states that the number of poor people increased “despite” an increase in the poverty line.

Huh?!?

If the government raises the threshold, of course it will seem like more people are poor. The article should replace “despite” with “because.”

Tom Worstall, writing for CapX, explains the big problem in the article.

One of the great injustices of our age is, as The Guardian reported…, that 20 per cent of the people in Hong Kong, one of the richest places on the planet, live in poverty. …The Guardian [is] waxing indignant over things it doesn’t understand. …there’s an important underlying point: inequality – not poverty – is being measured here. The international definition of poverty is less than $1.90 a day. There’s no one in Hong Kong on this at all, therefore there’s no poverty. …we’re told that the poverty line in Hong Kong is HK $4,000 per month (roughly £380) for an individual which certainly doesn’t seem like much. Yet when we plug that into a comparison of global incomes we find that, accounting for price differences across geography, it’s firmly in the top fifth of all global incomes. In other words, the poorest 20 per cent in Hong Kong are still find themselves in the richest 20 per cent of all humans.

Given the praise I’ve heaped on Hong Kong, I also can’t resist sharing this excerpt even though it’s a separate topic.

As Hong Kong so vividly demonstrates, the…economy in which the poverty line is defined as being rather rich by global standards must have something going for it. According to the World Bank’s figures, back in 1960 Hong Kong was at around the average level of income for the planet, with GDP per capita at a little over $400 (in 1960 dollars). Today the figure is slightly over $40,000 per head while the global average has only struggled up to $10,000 or so. An over performance by a factor of four isn’t that bad over half a century, is it?

Amen.

If we actually care about reducing genuine poverty, there’s no substitute for the miracle of compounding growth.

Which is why our friends on the left, if they actually cared about poor people (and I think most of them genuinely do care), should focus on growth rather than being fixated on redistribution.

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When writing about the statist agenda of international bureaucracies, I generally focus my attention on the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Today, let’s give some attention to the United Nations.

Based on this story from the Washington Post, the bureaucrats at the UN have concluded that America is a miserable and awful nation.

…a new United Nations report that examines entrenched poverty in the United States…calls the number of children living in poverty “shockingly high.” …the report, written by U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston, says the United States tops the developed world with the highest rates of youth poverty… The results of the report are not out of line with a number of others…in recent years by different organizations in which the United States has turned up at or near the top on issues such as poverty rates.

But I’ve learned from personal experience (see here and here) that the United Nations is guided by statist ideology and I should be extremely skeptical of any of its findings.

For instance, when it intervenes in policy (global warming and gun control, for instance, as well as the Internet, the War on Drugs, monetary policy, and taxpayer-financed birth control), the UN inevitably urges more power and control for government.

So let’s take a jaundiced look at some of the assertions in this new report, starting with that dramatic claim of record child poverty in America.

The United States…has the highest youth poverty rate in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)… The consequences of neglecting poverty… The United States has one of the highest poverty…levels among the OECD countries… the shockingly high number of children living in poverty in the United States demands urgent attention. …About 20 per cent of children live in relative income poverty, compared to the OECD average of 13 per cent.

So is it true that poverty is very high in the USA and is it also true that America has the highest rate of child poverty of all OECD countries? Even higher than Mexico, Greece, and Turkey? And what is the source of this remarkable assertion?

If you look at footnote #51, you’ll see reference to an OECD publication that contains this supposedly damning chart.

But if you look at the fine print at the bottom, you’ll discover that the chart on child poverty doesn’t actually measure child poverty. Instead, the bureaucrats at the OECD have put together a measure of income distribution and decided that “relative poverty” exists for anyone who has less than 50 percent of the median level of disposable income.

In other words, the United States looks bad only because median income is very high compared to other nations.

Which is the same dishonest data manipulation that the OECD uses when exaggerating America’s overall poverty rate (other groups that have used this deliberately dishonest methodology include the Equal Welfare Association, Germany’s Institute of Labor Economics, and the Obama Administration).

The bottom line is that the key finding of the UN report is based on a bald-faced lie.

By the way, I’m not surprised to see that the UN report also cites the IMF to justify statist policies.

In a 2017 report, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) captured the situation…, stating that the United States economy “is delivering better living standards for only the few”, and that “household incomes are stagnating for a large share of the population, job opportunities are deteriorating, prospects for upward mobility are waning, and economic gains are increasingly accruing to those that are already wealthy” …A much-cited IMF paper concluded that redistribution could be good for growth, stating: “The combined direct and indirect effects of redistribution — including the growth effects of the resulting lower inequality — are on average pro-growth.”

For what it’s worth, the IMF’s research on growth and inequality is embarrassingly bad.

Here’s another big takeaway from the UN report.

The United States…has the highest…infant mortality rates among comparable OECD States. …The infant mortality rate, at 5.8 deaths per 1,000 live births, is almost 50 per cent higher than the OECD average of 3.9.

I’m not an expert on infant mortality. Indeed, I’ve never looked at infant mortality data. But given the UN’s reliance on dodgy and dishonest numbers in other areas, I’m skeptical whether these numbers are true.

And, according to Johan Norberg, the numbers about high levels of infant mortality in the United States are false.

The UN report contains many other ideologically motivated attacks on the United States.

For instance, America is a bad country because taxes supposedly are too low.

The United States has the highest rate of income inequality among Western countries. The $1.5 trillion in tax cuts in December 2017 overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy and worsened inequality. …The tax cuts will fuel a global race to the bottom, thus further reducing the revenues needed by Governments to ensure basic social protection and meet their human rights obligations. …There is a real need for the realization to sink in among the majority of the American population that taxes are not only in their interest, but also perfectly reconcilable with a growth agenda.

While the above passage is remarkable for the level of economic illiteracy, I confess that I chortled with glee when I read the part about how the recent tax reform “will fuel a global race to the bottom.”

As I wrote last year and this year, the fact that other governments will face pressure to reduce tax rates is something to celebrate.

Here’s one final excerpt. The UN report also bashes the United States because we don’t view dependency as a human right.

Successive administrations, including the current one, have determinedly rejected the idea that economic and social rights are full-fledged human rights, despite their clear recognition not only in key treaties that the United States has ratified… But denial does not eliminate responsibility, nor does it negate obligations. International human rights law recognizes a right to education, a right to health care, a right to social protection for those in need and a right to an adequate standard of living.

Needless to say, a problem with this vision of “positive rights” is that it assumes there will always be a supply of chumps willing to work hard so the government can tax away their money to finance all the goodies. But Greece shows us that it’s just a matter of time before that games ends with disaster.

In other words, Thomas Sowell is right and Franklin Roosevelt was wrong.

Let’s close with some good news. As the Washington Post just reported, the UN’s dishonest anti-American screed apparently will prove costly to that bloated bureaucracy.

Alston arrived in Washington last fall on a mission from the U.N. Human Rights Council to document poverty in America. …he was told by a senior State Department official that his findings may influence the United States’ membership in the human rights body. …“I think I was being sent a message.” Two other people at the meeting, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed Alston’s account. …Nikki Haley announced this week that the United States would withdraw from the Human Rights Council.

Good for Ambassador Haley.

Her actions stand in stark contrast to some of her predecessors, who apparently believed in taxpayer-financed self-flagellation.

Alston said he was initially invited by the U.S. government under President Barack Obama to study poverty in America. The invitation was extended again by U.S. officials under then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in 2017, he said. “We look forward to welcoming Mr. Alston to the United States for a country visit this December,” Flacelia Celsula, part of the U.S. delegation at the United Nations, said in a meeting of the Human Rights Council on June 8, 2017.

It goes without saying that Mr. Alston should have the freedom write leftist reports. He also should have the freedom to spread lies in those reports. But I don’t want American tax dollars to finance his ideological bilge.

Which brings us to the obvious takeaway. As seems to be the case with all international bureaucracies, the United Nations wastes money at a prodigious pace. With any luck, Alston’s nonsense will convince American policymakers that deep budget cuts for the UN are long overdue.

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America has a major dependency problem. In recent decades, there’s been a significant increase in the number of working-age adults relying on handouts.

This is bad news for poor people and bad news for taxpayers. But it’s also bad news for the nation since it reflects an erosion of societal capital.

For all intents and purposes, people are being paid not to be productive.

Guided by the spirit of Calvin Coolidge, we need to reform the welfare state.

Professor Dorfman of the University of Georgia, in a column for Forbes, pinpoints the core problem.

The first failure of government welfare programs is to favor help with current consumption while placing almost no emphasis on job training or anything else that might allow today’s poor people to become self-sufficient in the future. …It is the classic story of giving a man a fish or teaching him how to fish. Government welfare programs hand out lots of fish, but never seem to teach people how to fish for themselves. The problem is not a lack of job training programs, but rather the fact that the job training programs fail to help people. In a study for ProPublica, Amy Goldstein documents that people who lost their jobs and participated in a federal job training program were less likely to be employed afterward than those who lost their jobs and did not receive any job training. That is, the job training made people worse off instead of better. …Right now, the government cannot teach anyone how to find a fish, let alone catch one.

And Peter Cove opines on the issue for the Wall Street Journal.

…the labor-force participation rate for men 25 to 54 is lower now than it was at the end of the Great Depression. The welfare state is largely to blame. More than a fifth of American men of prime working age are on Medicaid. According to the Census Bureau, nearly three-fifths of nonworking men receive federal disability benefits. The good news is that the 1996 welfare reform taught us how to reduce government dependency and get idle Americans back to work. …Within 10 years of the 1996 reform, the number of Americans in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program fell 60%.

Interestingly, European nations seem to be more interested in fixing the problem, perhaps because they’ve reached the point where reform is a fiscal necessity.

Let’s look at what happened when the Dutch tightened benefit rules.

A fascinating new study from economists in California and the Netherlands sheds light on how welfare dependency is passed from one generation to the next – and how to save children from lives of idleness.

A snowball effect across generations could arise if welfare dependency is transmitted from parents to their children, with potentially serious consequences for the future economic situation of children. …there is little evidence on whether this relationship is causal. Testing for the existence of a behavioural response, where children become benefit recipients because their parents were, is difficult… Our work overcomes these identification challenges by exploiting a 1993 reform in the Dutch Disability Insurance (DI) programme… The 1993 reform tightened DI eligibility for existing and future claimants, but exempted older cohorts currently on DI (age 45+) from the new rules. This reform generates quasi-experimental variation in DI use… Intuitively, the idea is to compare the children of parents who are just over 45 years of age to children whose parents are just under 45. .

Here’s the methodology of their research.

The first step is to understand the impact of the 1993 reform on parents. Figure 1 shows that parents who were just under the age 45 cut-off, and therefore subject to the harsher DI rules, are 5.5 percentage points more likely to exit DI by the year 1999 compared to parents just over the age 45 cut-off. These treated parents saw a 1,300 euro drop in payments on average. …the reform changed other outcomes as well. There is a strong rebound in labour earnings.

This chart from their research captures the discontinuity.

Here are the main results.

The second step is to see how children’s DI use changed based on whether the reform affected their parents. We measure a child’s cumulative use of DI as of 2014, by which time they are 37 years old on average. Figure 2 reveals a noticeable jump in child DI participation at the parental age cut-off of 45. There is an economically significant 1.1 percentage point drop for children if their parent was exposed to the reform, which translates into an 11% effect relative to the mean child participation rate of 10%. …welfare cultures, defined as a causal intergenerational link, exist.

This second chart illustrates the positive impact.

But here’s the most important part of the research.

Reducing access to redistribution to parents is a good way of boosting income and education for children.

…we examine whether a child’s taxable earnings and participation in other social support programmes change. Cumulative earnings up to 2014 rise by approximately €7,200 euros, or a little less than 2%, for children of parents subject to the less generous DI rules. In contrast, we find no detectable change in cumulative unemployment insurance receipt, general assistance (i.e. traditional cash welfare), or other miscellaneous safety net programs. Looking at a child’s educational attainment, there is intriguing evidence for anticipatory investments. When a parent is subject to the reform which tightened DI benefits, their child invests in 0.12 extra years of education relative to an overall mean of 11.5 years. …these findings provide suggestive evidence that children of treated parents plan for a future with less reliance on DI in part by investing in their labour market skills.

And it’s also worth noting that taxpayers benefit when welfare eligibility is restricted.

These strong intergenerational links between parents and children have sizable fiscal consequences for the government’s long term budget. Cumulative DI payments to children of the targeted parents are 16% lower. This is a substantial additional saving for the government’s budget, especially since there is no evidence that children substitute these reductions in DI income for additional income from other social assistance programmes. Furthermore, there is a fiscal gain resulting from the increased taxes these children pay due to their increased labour market earnings. Overall, we calculate that through the year 2013, children account for 21% of the net fiscal savings of the 1993 Dutch reform in present discounted value terms. This share is projected to increase to 40% over time.

Ryan Streeter of American Enterprise Institute explains that other European nations also are reforming.

Welfare reformers might draw some lessons from unlikely places, such as Scandinavia. While progressives like to uphold Nordic democratic socialism as a model for America, the Scandinavian welfare systems are arguably more pro-work than ours… For instance, to deal with declining labor force participation, Denmark eliminated permanent disability benefits for people under 40 and refashioned its system to make employment central. Sweden reformed its welfare system to focus on rapid transitions from unemployment to work. Their program lowers jobless assistance the longer one is on welfare. The Nordic model is more focused on eliminating reasons not to work such as caregiving or lack of proper training than providing income replacement. Similarly, the British government combined six welfare programs with varying requirements into a single “universal credit.” The benefit is based on a sliding scale and decreases as a recipient’s earnings increase, replacing several differing formulas for phasing out of welfare programs with one. An evaluation of the new program, which encourages work, found that 86 percent of claimants were trying to increase their work hours and 77 percent were trying to earn more, compared to 38 percent and 55 percent, respectively, under the previous system. …Scandinavia and Britain learned a while ago that successful welfare reform is not just about how much money a country spends on people who earn too little. It’s really about how to help them find and keep a good job. It’s time for America to catch up.

Amen.

For what it’s worth, I think we’ll be most likely to get good results if we get Washington out of the redistribution business.

In effect, block grant all means-tested programs to the states and then phase out the federal funding. That would give states the ability to experiment and they could learn from each other about the best way of helping the truly needy while minimizing incentives for idleness.

P.S. This WIzard-of-Id parody is a very good explanation of why handouts discourage productive work.

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I’m conflicted.

I’ve repeatedly expressed skepticism about the idea of governments providing a “basic income” because I fear the work ethic will (further) erode if people automatically receive a substantial chunk of money.

Moreover, I also fear that a basic income will lead to an ever-expanding burden of government spending, particularly once net beneficiaries figure out they can vote themselves more money.

Given these concerns, I should be happy about this report from the New York Times.

For more than a year, Finland has been testing the proposition that the best way to lift economic fortunes may be the simplest: Hand out money without rules or restrictions on how people use it. The experiment with so-called universal basic income has captured global attention… Now, the experiment is ending. The Finnish government has opted not to continue financing it past this year, a reflection of public discomfort with the idea of dispensing government largess free of requirements that its recipients seek work. …the Finnish government’s decision to halt the experiment at the end of 2018 highlights a challenge to basic income’s very conception. Many people in Finland — and in other lands — chafe at the idea of handing out cash without requiring that people work. …Finland’s goals have been modest and pragmatic. The government hoped that basic income would send more people into the job market to revive a weak economy. …The basic income trial, which started at the beginning of 2017 and will continue until the end of this year, has given monthly stipends of 560 euros ($685) to a random sample of 2,000 unemployed people aged 25 to 58. Recipients have been free to do as they wished… The Finnish government was keen to see what people would do under such circumstances. The data is expected to be released next year, giving academics a chance to analyze what has come of the experiment.

The reason I’m conflicted is that the current welfare state – both in the United States and other developed nations – is bad for both taxpayers and poor people.

So I like the idea of experimentation. There has to be a better way of alleviating genuine suffering without trapping poor people in dependency or punishing taxpayers.

Indeed, one of my arguments for radical decentralization in America is that states will try different approaches and we’ll have a much better chance of learning what works and what doesn’t.

And maybe we’ll learn that there are some benefits of providing a basic income. But, as reported by the U.K.-based Guardian, it’s unclear whether the Finnish experiment lasted long enough or was comprehensive enough to teach us anything.

The scheme – aimed primarily at seeing whether a guaranteed income might incentivise people to take up paid work by smoothing out gaps in the welfare system…it was hoped it would shed light on policy issues such as whether an unconditional payment might reduce anxiety among recipients and allow the government to simplify a complex social security system… Olli Kangas, an expert involved in the trial, told the Finnish public broadcaster YLE: “Two years is too short a period to be able to draw extensive conclusions from such a big experiment. We should have had extra time and more money to achieve reliable results.”

I will be interested to see whether researchers generate any conclusions when they look at the two years of data from the Finnish experiment.

That being said, there already has been some research that underscores my concerns.

The OECD is not my favorite international bureaucracy, but its recent survey on Finland included some sobering estimates on the cost of a nationwide basic income.

In a basic income scenario, a lump-sum benefit replaces a number of existing benefits, financed by increasing income taxation by nearly 30% or around 4% of GDP. …the basic income requires significant increases to income taxation. …Financing a basic income at a meaningful level thus would require considerable additional tax revenue, and heavier taxation of income would at least partially undo any improvement in work incentives.

And in a report on basic income last year, the OECD poured more cold water on the idea.

…large tax-revenue changes are needed to finance a BI at meaningful levels, and tax reforms would therefore need to be an integral part of budget-neutral BI proposals. …abolishing tax-free allowances and making BI taxable means that everybody would pay income tax on the BI, and on all their other income. Tax burdens would go up for most people as a result, further increasing tax-to-GDP ratios that are currently already at a record-high in the OECD area. …There are also major concerns about unintended consequences of a BI. An especially prominent one is that unconditional income support would reduce the necessity for paid work.

Indeed, it’s difficult to see how work incentives aren’t adversely affected. Why go through the hassle of being employed when you can sit at home and play computer games all day?

P.S. Given the option of voting on a basic income in 2016, Swiss voters overwhelmingly rejected the notion.

P.P.S. Former Vice President Joe Biden actually agrees with me about one of the downsides of basic income.

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