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Posts Tagged ‘Redistribution’

As illustrated by my recent three-part series (here, here, and here), I care about helping the poor rather then hurting the rich.

More broadly, I want a bigger economic pie so that everyone can have a larger slice. And I don’t particularly care if some people get richer faster than other people get richer (assuming they are earning money honestly and not relying on government favoritism).

In other words, it doesn’t bother me if someone like Bill Gates is getting richer faster than I’m getting richer, so long as there’s an economic environment that gives both of us a chance to prosper based on how much value we are providing to others.

But some folks are fixated on how the pie is sliced.

For instance, the Peterson Institute for International Economics recently tweeted that there is too much inequality in the United States (compared to Europe) and that something should be done to “fix” this supposed problem.

This type of data irks me because some people will assume that rising levels of income for the rich somehow imply falling levels of income for everyone else.

That may be true in nations with despotic socialist governments, such as Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela, where the ruling class lines it pockets at the expense of the general population.

However, let’s focus on the United States and Europe, since the Peterson Institute wants readers to think that politicians in Washington should “fix” the distribution of income in America so that we resemble our friends on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

But first we must answer two very important questions: Are the non-rich in the United States suffering because rich people are doing well? And are the non-rich in Europe better off than the non-rich in America?

Earlier today, I answered those questions with three tweets.

I started with this tweet pointing out that average living standards are far higher in the United States than they are in Europe.

I then shared this tweet pointing out that the bottom 10 percent of people in America would be middle class compared to their counterparts in Europe.

I then concluded with this tweet showing that the bottom 20 percent of people in the United States have incomes higher than the average income in most European countries.

The moral of this story is that ordinary people are better off in America.

And that’s almost certainly because there’s generally more economic freedom in the United States – including lower tax burdens and less enervating redistribution.

P.S. While the Peterson Institute is very misguided on the tradeoff between inequality and growth, it is quite good on trade-related issues (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

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Back in 2017, I compared the welfare state vision of “positive rights” with the classical liberal vision of “negative rights.”

To elaborate, here’s a video from Learn Liberty that compares these visions.

For what it’s worth, I don’t like the terms “positive rights” and “negative rights” for the simple reason that an uninformed person understandably might conclude that “positive” is good and “negative” is bad.

Needless to say, I don’t think it’s good for people to think they have a right to other people’s money.

That’s why I prefer Professor Skoble’s use of the terms “liberties” and “entitlements,” which we also find in this slide from Professor Imran Ahmad Sajid of the University of Pakistan.

As you might expect, there are plenty of politicians who try to buy votes with an agenda of “positive rights.” Bernie Sanders, for instance, constantly argued that people have a “right” to all sorts of goodies.

But he wasn’t the first to make the case for unlimited entitlements.

Franklin Roosevelt was one of America’s worst presidents, in part because his policies deepened and lengthened the Great Depression. But also because he pushed the idea that people have the right to get all sorts of taxpayer-financed handouts.

Let’s see what some other people have to say about this topic.

In his National Review column, Kevin Williamson looks at the logical fallacy of positive rights.

Positive rights run into some pretty obvious problems if you think about them for a minute, which is why so much of our political discourse is dedicated to moralistic thundering specifically designed to prevent such thinking. Consider, in the American context, the notion that health care is a right. Declaring a right in a scarce good such as health care is intellectually void, because moral declarations about rights do not change material facts. If you have five children and three apples and then declare that every child has a right to an apple of his own, then you have five children and three apples and some meaningless posturing — i.e., nothing in reality has changed, and you have added only rhetoric instead of adding apples. In the United States, we have so many doctors, so many hospitals and clinics, so many MRI machines, etc. This imposes real constraints on the provision of health care. If my doctor works 40 hours a week, does my right to health care mean that a judge can order him to work extra hours to accommodate my rights? For free? If I have a right to health care, how can a clinic or a physician charge me for exercising my right? If doctors and hospitals have rights of their own — for example, property rights in their labor and facilities — how is it that my rights supersede those rights?

And here’s what he says about “negative rights.”

A negative right is a right to not be constrained. The right to free speech, for example, implies only non-interference. The right to freedom of the press doesn’t mean the government has to give you a press. The good of negative freedom is, in the economic sense, not rivalrous — your exercise of free speech doesn’t leave less freedom of speech out there for others to enjoy

And Larry Reed opines on the issue for the Foundation for Economic Education.

America is a nation founded on the notion of rights. …Despite the centrality of rights in American history, it’s readily apparent today that Americans are of widely different views on what a right is, how many we have, where rights come from, or why we have any in the first place. …if you need something, does that mean you have a right to it? If I require a kidney, do I have a right to one of yours? Is a right something that can or should be granted or denied by majority vote?

He helpfully provides a list of negative rights (a.k.a., liberties).

And he argues that positive rights (a.k.a., entitlements) are not real rights.

The bottom line, he explains, is that so-called positive rights impose obligations on other people.

Indeed, they can only be provided by coercion.

The first list comprises what are often called both “natural rights” and “negative rights”—natural because they derive from our essential nature as unique, sensate individuals and negative because they don’t impose obligations on others beyond a commitment to not violate them. The items in the second are called “positive rights” because others must give them to you or be coerced into doing so if they decline. …while I believe neither you nor I have a right to any of those disparate things in the second list, I hasten to add that we certainly have the right to seek them, to create them, to receive them as gifts from willing benefactors, or to trade for them. We just don’t have a right to compel anyone to give them to us or pay for them.

There’s not much I can add to this issue, given the wisdom contained in the video and in the articles by Williamson and Reed.

So I’ll close with the should-be-obvious point that a system based on entitlements only works if there are enough people pulling the wagon to support all the people riding in the wagon.

But that kind of society contains the seeds of its own downfall (think Greece or Venezuela) because it subsidizes dependency and penalizes production.

Which means, as Margaret Thatcher warned us, that positive rights can’t be provided when politicians run out of other people’s money.

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There’s a lot of speculation that we’re in the midst of a political realignment, with Democrats becoming the party of the rich and the Republicans becoming the party of the working class.

I don’t pretend to know whether this realignment is happening or what form it will take, but there is plenty of evidence that Democrats are focusing on policies that disproportionately benefit those with high incomes.

And those policies often are at the expense of ordinary people, which is an especially repugnant form of redistribution.

Their efforts to restore the state-and-local tax deduction are an obvious example, but they also favor other tax breaks that are utilized overwhelmingly by rich people.

They also favor big subsidies for higher education, which mostly benefit kids from well-to-do families (and well-paid college bureaucrats).

And now they want to provide another windfall for the college crowd.

Jonah Goldberg opines on this perverse form of redistribution in a column for the New York Post.

…a coalition of 236 progressive groups led by teachers unions called on Biden to cancel student debt on his first days in office. Biden himself has already urged Congress to cancel $10,000 as part of a pandemic relief package. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have called for even greater debt forgiveness. Sanders’ plan would cost an estimated $1.6 trillion dollars. …Most Americans, especially most poor Americans, don’t have student debt, because most didn’t go to college in the first place. Moreover, most people who did go to college have no or very little student debt. …only 6 percent of borrowers owe more than $100,000. Virtually all of them borrowed so much because they attended graduate school. …do they deserve help more than truck drivers, mechanics or short-order cooks? One reason teachers unions — a huge source of donations and political organizing for the Democratic Party — want loan forgiveness is that teachers and administrators can boost their pay by going back to school to get advanced degrees. Other municipal and federal workers — another major constituency for Democrats — have similar rules. Using the pandemic as an excuse to reward workers who are far less likely to lose their jobs and more likely to find new employment if they do, seems awfully self-serving.

Writing last year for the Washington Examiner, Brad Polumbo argues for the principle of individual responsibility.

College is way too expensive, but nonetheless, most young people who are buried in student loans or struggling to pay off their debt only have themselves to blame. The average student is now graduating with $30,000 in debt…the median monthly payment is just $222. If you can’t afford that, as a college graduate, it’s probably your own fault. …If you chose to major in gender studies, French, or anything similarly impractical, it’s your own fault that you’re stuck with a lower starting salary and might struggle to make payments. That’s unfortunate, but it’s no justification for shirking your responsibility to pay back what you owe or asking taxpayers to bear the burden of your mistakes. …people who find themselves buried in hundreds of thousands in student loan debt have their own decisions to blame. …They chose expensive dream schools… To bail them out at taxpayer expense is to punish people who made responsible decisions and encourage recklessness from future generations. …to the millions of borrowers who’ve made terrible decisions, don’t ask for a bailout — it’s your own damn fault.

Some of you may be thinking that Polumbo’s argument made sense last year, but we’re now struggling with coronavirus-caused economic turmoil and perhaps debt forgiveness would help the economy.

But that’s not the case according to the number crunchers at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. They show that loan forgiveness isn’t “stimulus” even if one uses discredited Keynesian analysis.

…loan forgiveness…is the not the equivalent of sending $1.5 trillion of cash to households. …because borrowers often pay back their loans over 10, 15, or even 30 years, debt cancellation will increase their available cash by only a fraction of the total loan forgiveness. …Not only would loan cancellation provide relatively little spendable cash to households, but the cash it does offer would be poorly targeted from a stimulus perspective. …The majority of those most affected by the current economic crisis likely have little or no student debt. Over 70 percent of current unemployed workers do not have a bachelor’s degree, including 43 percent who did not attend college at all. …Indeed, about two-fifths of all student debt is held by households with graduate degrees. 

So if loan forgiveness isn’t the answer, are there any desirable policies?

Mike Riggs, writing for Reason, explains we need less government rather than more government.

…subsidies have…driven up the cost of education at a rate multiple times higher than inflation. …The most libertarian policy preference in my view is two-pronged: get the federal government out of the lending and guaranteeing game, and make student loan debt reasonably dischargeable in bankruptcy. These two policies would realign the incentives of colleges, lenders, and students to bring down prices and saddle fewer potential students with loans they are unlikely to repay.

Amen.

I don’t like loan forgiveness, but I do sympathize with many indebted students because when Uncle Sam started dispensing grants and loans, colleges and universities responded with dramatic tuition increases and then used the money to create fat, waste, and inefficiency.

Let’s end this column with some satire.

First, the geniuses at Babylon Bee produced this gem, which could be based on Jonah Goldberg’s column.

One local plumbing contractor, Sam Caughorn, is really looking forward to paying the tab on his neighbor’s $89,000 gender studies degree. …According to studies, there are millions of white girls working at coffee shops across the country while struggling under the crushing student debt they acquired by irresponsibly obtaining college degrees that gave them no marketable job skills. Benevolent politicians have proposed transferring all the wealth from trade workers and minority business owners to help indebted white girls with their student loans so they can still afford their daily latte and cat food expenses. Local gender studies major Amber White is looking forward to having all her debt forgiven, thanks in part to the contributions of plumbers like Sam Caughorn. …According to sources, Sam Caughorn owns a successful business he started right after high school. He also has 5 kids, a nice house, and serves as a deacon at his church. “I guess I can spare some change for poor disadvantaged girls like Amber,” he said. 

Second, here’s a cartoon that could be based on the column I cited from Brad Polumbo.

P.S. The way federal intervention has screwed up higher education is very similar to the way federal intervention has also made the health sector expensive and inefficient.

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I’m a voracious consumer of publications that rank economic liberty and national competitiveness. Simply stated, these apples-to-apples rankings tell us which countries have policies that are friendly to growth (and thus the places that will enjoy rising living standards).

I’m also very interested in “societal capital,” which is the degree to which the people of a nation believe in values such as self reliance, work, individual initiative, and personal responsibility.

In some sense, societal capital may be more important for a nation’s long-run prosperity than how it scores in any particular index.

That’s because it’s probably just a matter of time before a country with low levels of societal capital winds up adopting bad policy.

That being said, other than occasional examples of cross-country polling data, I’ve never seen a good way of ranking nations based on societal capital.

But that’s now changed, thanks to a new report called the Global Index of Economic Mentality.

In an article for National Review, Professor Steve Hanke of Johns Hopkins University summarizes the key findings.

GIEM scores measure the public’s embrace of the idea of economic freedom. A high GIEM score indicates that citizens in a particular country support the idea that their government should not play a major role in directing or regulating economic activity or in redistributing income. Citizens of high-scoring countries typically back an institutional framework that prioritizes private initiative, free competition, and personal responsibility — in short, a system of free enterprise. …The GIEM study found that countries that embrace a free-market mentality have more efficient economic institutions and higher per capita GDP than those who support socialist, interventionist mentalities.

New Zealand is in first place and United States is in fourth place.

New Zealand comes out on top with the highest score on the inaugural Global Index of Economic Mentality, followed by the Czech Republic, Sweden, the United States, and Denmark. This year’s lowest scorer is Bosnia, preceded by Bangladesh, Myanmar, Montenegro, and Azerbaijan.

There’s some very bad news for Chile, which may explain why people in that nation just voted to potentially replace the constitution which has delivered unimaginable prosperity.

Rather surprisingly, Chile is the lowest GIEM scorer in Latin America, even a notch below Argentina, and 64th overall. These data suggest that while the Chicago Boys…accomplished innumerable free-market reforms — reforms that have led to a great improvement in prosperity and the second-highest GDP per capita of any country in South America — they have failed to convince the Chilean public of the benefits of the free-market system that has lifted them out of poverty.

And there’s bad news for the United States because young people have very worrisome views.

If we look at country-by-country demographics, there is not much difference between the economic mentality of those over 40 years old and under 40 years old for most countries. But there are notable exceptions. The countries with the most significant difference in economic mentality between the two age groups are the United States, New Zealand, and Australia. In these countries, the younger generations possess a significantly weaker attachment to free-market ideas than do older generations, with the U.S. as the most extreme case. It makes one wonder what brand of economics is being peddled in high schools and universities in the United States.

For what it’s worth, if only young people were counted, America would rank #14 rather than #4. Not horrible, but definitely a shift in the wrong direction.

Let’s close by looking at some data from a PowerPoint presentation about this new index.

First we have the methodology.

Second, here are the scores for the 74 nations.

Last but not least, here’s the U.S. score compared to the average score in other regions.

As you can see, Americans have very good attitudes about preferring markets and disliking redistribution, but we score quite poorly on the issue of personal responsibility.

P.S. I’m not surprised to see good scores for the Nordic nations, and it’s also good to see high scores for Georgia and Estonia, though I’m somewhat shocked that Switzerland is in the middle of the pack. But I’m not surprised to see poor scores for China and Italy.

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Joe Biden has a very misguided economic agenda. I’m especially disturbed by his class-warfare tax agenda, which will be bad news for American workers and American competitiveness.

The good news, as I wrote earlier this year, is that he probably isn’t serious about some of his worst ideas.

Biden is a statist, but not overly ideological. His support for bigger government is largely a strategy of catering to the various interest groups that dominate the Democratic Party. The good news is that he’s an incrementalist and won’t aggressively push for a horrifying FDR-style agenda if he gets to the White House.

But what if Joe Biden’s health deteriorates and Kamala Harris – sooner or later – winds up in charge?

That’s rather troubling since her agenda was far to the left of Biden’s when they were competing for the Democratic nomination.

And it doesn’t appear that being Biden’s choice for Vice President has led her to moderate her views. Consider this campaign ad, where she openly asserted that “equitable treatment means we all end up at the same place.”

The notion that we should strive for equality of outcomes rather than equality of opportunity is horrifying.

For all intents and purposes, Harris has embraced a harsh version of redistributionism where everyone above average is punished and everyone below average is rewarded.

This goes way beyond a safety net and it’s definitely a recipe for economic misery since people on both sides of the equation have less incentive to be productive.

I’m not the only one to be taken aback by Harris’ dogmatic leftism.

Robby Soave, writing for Reason, is very critical of her radical outlook.

Harris gives voice to a leftist-progressive narrative about the importance of equity—equal outcomes—rather than mere equality before the law. …Harris contrasted equal treatment—all people getting the same thing—with equitable treatment, which means “we all end up at the same place.” …This may seem like a trivial difference, but when it comes to public policy, the difference matters. A government should be obligated to treat all citizens equally, giving them the same access to civil rights and liberties like voting, marriage, religious freedom, and gun ownership. …A mandate to foster equity, though, would give the government power to violate these rights in order to achieve identical social results for all people. 

And, in a column for National Review, Brad Polumbo expresses similar reservations about her views.

Whether she embraces the label “socialist” or not, Harris’s stated agenda and Senate record both reveal her to be positioned a long way to the left on matters of economic policy. From health care to the environment to housing, Harris thinks the answer to almost every problem we face is simply more government and more taxpayer money — raising taxes and further indebting future generations in the process. …Harris…supports an astounding $40 trillion in new spending over the next decade. In a sign of just how far left the Democratic Party has shifted on economics, Harris backs more than 20 times as much spending as Hillary Clinton proposed in 2016. …And this is not just a matter of spending. During her failed presidential campaign, Harris supported a federal-government takeover of health care… The senator jumped on the “Green New Deal” bandwagon as well. She co-sponsored the Green New Deal resolution in the Senate that called for a “new national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II and the New Deal era.” …she supports enacting price controls on housing across the country. …The left-wing group Progressive Punch analyzed Harris’s voting record and found that she is the fourth-most liberal senator, more liberal even than Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. Similarly, the nonpartisan organization GovTrack.us deemed Harris the furthest-left member of the Senate for the 2019 legislative year. (Spoiler alert: If your voting record is to the left of Bernie Sanders, you might be a socialist.)

To be fair, Harris is simply a politician, so we have no idea what she really believes. Her hard-left agenda might simply be her way of appealing to Democratic voters, much as Republicans who run for president suddenly decide they support big tax cuts and sweeping tax reform.

But whether she’s sincere or insincere, it’s troubling that she actually says it’s the role of government to make sure we all “end up at the same place.”

Let’s close with a video clip from Milton Friedman. At the risk of understatement, he has a different perspective than Ms. Harris.

Since we highlighted Harris’ key quote, let’s also highlight the key quote from Friedman.

Amen.

P.S. It appears Republicans will hold the Senate, which presumably (hopefully?) means that any radical proposals would be dead on arrival, regardless of whether they’re proposed by Biden or Harris.

P.P.S. Harris may win the prize for the most economically illiterate proposal of the 2020 campaign.

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Bernie Sanders was considered a hard-core leftist because his platform was based on higher taxes and higher spending.

Elizabeth Warren also was considered a hard-core leftist because she advocated a similar agenda of higher taxes and higher spending.

And Joe Biden, even though he is considered to be a moderate, is currently running on a platform of higher taxes and higher spending.

Want to know who else is climbing on the economically suicidal bandwagon of higher taxes and higher spending? You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the pro-tax International Monetary Fund just published its World Economic Outlook and parts of it read like the Democratic Party’s platform.

Here are some of the ways the IMF wants to expand the burden of government spending.

Investments in health, education, and high-return infrastructure projects that also help move the economy to lower carbon dependence… Moreover, safeguarding critical social spending can ensure that the most vulnerable are protected while also supporting near-term activity, given that the outlays will go to groups with a higher propensity to spend their disposable income… Some fiscal resources…should be redeployed to public investment—including in renewable energy, improving the efficiency of power transmission, and retrofitting buildings to reduce their carbon footprint. …social spending should be expanded to protect the most vulnerable where gaps exist in the safety net. In those cases, authorities could enhance paid family and sick leave, expand eligibility for unemployment insurance, and strengthen health care benefit coverage…social spending measures…strengthening social assistance (for example, conditional cash transfers, food stamps and in-kind nutrition, medical payments for low-income households), expanding social insurance (relaxing eligibility criteria for unemployment insurance…), and investments in retraining and reskilling programs.

And here’s a partial list of the various class-warfare taxes that the IMF is promoting.

Although adopting new revenue measures during the crisis will be difficult, governments may need to consider raising progressive taxes on more affluent individuals and those relatively less affected by the crisis (including increasing tax rates on higher income brackets, high-end property, capital gains, and wealth) as well as changes to corporate taxation that ensure firms pay taxes commensurate with profitability. …Efforts to expand the tax base can include reducing corporate tax breaks, applying tighter caps on personal income tax deductions, instituting value-added taxes.

Oh, by the way, if nations have any rules that protect the interests of taxpayers, the IMF wants “temporary” suspensions.

Where fiscal rules may constrain action, their temporary suspension would be warranted

Needless to say, any time politicians have a chance to expand their power, temporary becomes permanent.

When I discuss IMF malfeasance in my speeches, I’m frequently asked why the bureaucrats propose policies that don’t work – especially when the organization’s supposed purpose is to promote growth and stability.

The answer is “public choice.” Top IMF officials are selected by politicians and are given very generous salaries, and they know that the best way to stay on the gravy train is to support policies that will please those politicians.

And because their lavish salaries are tax free, they have an extra incentive to curry favor with politicians.

P.S. I wish there was a reporter smart enough and brave enough to ask the head of the IMF to identify a single nation – at any point in history – that became rich by expanding the size and cost of government.

P.P.S. There are plenty of good economists who work for the IMF and they often write papers pointing out the economic benefits of lower taxes and smaller government (and spending caps as well!). But the senior people at the bureaucracy (the ones selected by politicians) make all the important decisions.

 

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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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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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Barack Obama’s strategy during the 2008 campaign was very shrewd. His statist policy positions and doctrinaire Senate voting record (almost identical to Bernie Sanders) made him very appealing to the left, yet he also made himself acceptable to other voters with a calm and moderate demeanor (Mayor Buttigieg is trying to follow the same strategy for 2020, albeit with less success so far).

Obama’s one major “oops moment” in an otherwise very disciplined campaign occurred one month before the election when he admitted that he wanted to “spread the wealth around.”

Elizabeth Warren isn’t following Obama’s script since she’s running as an out-of-the-closet leftist, but she just experienced her own “oops moment.”

Writing for PJ Media, Megan Fox explains that Senator Elizabeth Warren inadvertently – but very clearly – acknowledged that her plan penalizes people with individual integrity and personal responsibility.

Elizabeth Warren was confronted at an Iowa town hall event by a voter who wanted to know if he could get back the money that he paid for his daughter’s college education since Warren’s running on forgiving student loan debt. “My daughter is in school,” he said. “I saved all my money just to pay… Can I have my money back?” Warren replied, “Of course not!” The man continued to push Warren for an explanation for why some people can have a free education while others have to pay. “So you’re going to pay for people who didn’t save any money and those of us who did the right thing get screwed?” he asked. …the plan is really just a bribe to current college students with debt as it does not address students who take out student loans in the future. …That’s what we would normally call a hustle.

Katherine Timpf of National Review has a first-hand account of why Sen. Warren’s scheme rubs many people the wrong way.

…this guy…is…absolutely right… When he references the sacrifices that he and his family had to make to pay for his daughter’s college, what he’s implicitly saying is that his choice to be financially responsible has cost him things that money cannot replace. …I wrote about some of the sacrifices that I myself had to make to avoid shouldering a debt that I knew I couldn’t repay. …I found out that I’d been accepted to Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism. I was absolutely thrilled by this; it had been my dream since childhood to attend this exact school… Then, I realized I’d never be able to repay the $80,000 loan I’d have to take out to attend my dream school. …I withdrew. It was a tough decision — and the consequences were even tougher. …Unless Elizabeth Warren can go back in time and put me in a Columbia classroom during the time I spent cleaning those Boston Market bathrooms, her plan wouldn’t be “fair.” Unless she can give me the hours of my life back that I spent sitting alone covered in scabies cream, her plan wouldn’t be “fair.” …Elizabeth Warren can’t “pay me back” for a loan that I decided against taking out — a decision that I’d made precisely because I did not expect that anyone else would pay it back for me. …In other words? No — I don’t think that I should have to pay for someone else making an irresponsible decision when they could have made a responsible one.

Warren’s comments are getting lots of negative attention because people now have an easy-to-understand example of how her policies reward bad behavior and punish good behavior.

  • If you save for your kid, you’re a chump.
  • If you display personal responsibility, you’re a chump.
  • If you work hard, you’re a chump.
  • If you sacrifice today for a better tomorrow, you’re a chump.
  • If you invest, you’re a chump.
  • If you think it’s your job to take care of your family, you’re a chump.

There are many reasons to oppose redistribution programs. For instance, I was on TV just last month explaining how government programs encourage debt instead of savings.

What Warren has done, though, is to remind us something more important – that these programs are especially bad because they erode societal capital. They teach people it’s okay to live off the government and that they don’t need to worry about hard work and self reliance.

And when enough people adopt that attitude and a nation reaches a “tipping point,” then you wind up with a society where too many people are riding in the wagon and not enough people are pulling the wagon.

Think Greece.

P.S. I thought the big “oops moment” for Obama in 2008 occurred when he openly argued that he wanted higher capital gains taxes even if the government didn’t collect any extra revenue because of concomitant economic damage. In other words, like many folks on the left, he was willing to impose hardship on ordinary people just to hurt people with high incomes.

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I generally identify three big problems with the tax code.

But it may be time to include another item. Politicians have learned how to use “refundability” as a tool to redistribute income through the tax system.

A “refundable” provision gives money to selected people who file tax returns, even if they don’t pay any tax.

In other words, refundability isn’t the same as over-paying your taxes and then getting your money back after filing a tax return.

Nor is it like a traditional tax preference, where you can lower your tax bill if you do something politicians like – such as having a mortgage or contributing to charity.

With refundability, you get money even if your tax liability is zero.

For instance, the “earned income tax credit” is now the federal government’s fastest-growing redistribution program and 88 percent of the money is actually spending rather than a tax break.

Writing about this issue back in 2010, I referred to refundability as a form of political alchemy. Politicians can increase spending but pretend they are cutting taxes.

And it’s a bipartisan problem. Republicans utilize this gimmick and Democrats utilize this gimmick.

The most-recent example is a proposal by Senators Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Michael Bennet (D-CO), and I’ve highlighted the relevant portions of their press release.

Create a New Young Child Tax Credit: Create a new tax credit of $2,500 per child for children up to age six. The first $1,500 would be fully refundable, meaning that every taxpayer receives that amount regardless of income (up to the current law phase-out levels of $200,000 for individuals and $400,000 for couples). The next $1,000 would phase in at a 15 percent rate beginning at the first dollar of income, and begin phasing down at current law income thresholds. Reform Existing Child Tax Credit: Make critical reforms to a key measure that provides a $2,000 credit per child for children from age six up to age 17, including eliminating the current $1,400 cap on refundability, making the first $1,000 per child fully refundable regardless of income up to the phase-out threshold, and making the next $1,000 per child phase-in at a 15 percent rate starting at the first dollar income.

To make matters worse, Romney and Bennet want to finance this additional redistribution spending by imposing capital gains taxes on the assets of dead people.

So more spending financed by higher taxes. Perhaps now people will understand why I was so hostile to Romney when he was running for President in 2012.

I’ll close with a comment about political honesty and transparency.

If Senators Romney and Bennet proposed to have the government send checks to people for having kids, I wouldn’t support that idea. But I would give them credit for introducing an honest proposal for more redistribution.

But they instead chose to mask their agenda by laundering additional redistribution through the tax code.

The bottom line is that we already have record amounts of redistribution in America. And refundable provisions of the internal revenue code are the fastest-growing type of redistribution.

Adding to the problem is not a good idea.

P.S. Unsurprisingly, as is so often the case with redistribution programs, there’s rampant fraud with the EITC and other refundable tax provisions.

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Arthur Okun was a well-known left-of-center economist last century. He taught at Yale, was Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors for President Lyndon Johnson, and also did a stint at Brookings.

In today’s column, I’m not going to blame him for any of LBJ’s mistakes (being a big spender, creating Medicare and Medicaid).

Instead, I’m going to praise Okun for his honesty. Is his book, Equality and Efficiency: The Big Trade Off, he openly acknowledged that higher taxes and bigger government – policies he often favored – hindered economic performance.

Sadly, some folks on the left today are not similarly honest.

A column in the New York Times by Jim Tankersley looks at the odd claim, put forth by Elizabeth Warren and others, that class-warfare taxes are good for growth.

Elizabeth Warren is leading a liberal rebellion against a long-held economic view that large tax increases slow economic growth… Generations of economists, across much of the ideological spectrum, have long held that higher taxes reduce investment, slowing economic growth. …Ms. Warren and other leading Democrats say the opposite. …that her plans to tax the rich and spend the revenue to lift the poor and the middle class would accelerate economic growth, not impede it. …That argument tries to reframe a classic debate…by suggesting there is no trade-off between increasing the size of the pie and dividing the slices more equitably among all Americans.

Most people, when looking at why some nations grow faster and become more prosperous, naturally recognize that there’s a trade-off.

So what’s the basis of this counter-intuitive and anti-empirical assertion from Warren, et al?

It’s partly based on their assertion that more government spending is an “investment” that will lead to more growth. In other words, politicians ostensibly will allocate new tax revenues in a productive manner.

Ms. Warren wrote on Twitter that education, child care and student loan relief programs funded by her tax on wealthy Americans would “grow the economy.” In a separate post, she said student debt relief would “supercharge” growth. …Ms. Warren is making the case that the economy could benefit if money is redistributed from the rich and corporations to uses that she and other liberals say would be more productive. …a belief that well-targeted government spending can encourage more Americans to work, invest and build skills that would make them more productive.

To be fair, this isn’t a totally absurd argument.

The Rahn Curve, for instance, is predicated on the notion that some spending on core public goods is correlated with better economic performance.

It’s only when government gets too big that the Rahn Curve begins to show that spending has a negative impact on growth.

For what it’s worth, modern research says the growth-maximizing size of government is about 20 percent of economic output, though I think historical evidence indicates that number should be much lower.

But even if the correct figure is 20 percent of GDP, there’s no support for Senator Warren’s position since overall government spending currently consumes close to 40 percent of U.S. economic output.

Warren and others also make the discredited Keynesian argument about government spending somehow kick-starting growth, ostensibly because a tax-and-spend agenda will give money to poor people who are more likely to consume (in the Keynesian model, saving and investing can be a bad thing).

Democrats cite evidence that transferring money to poor and middle-class individuals would increase consumer spending…liberal economists say taxes on high-earners could spur growth even if the government did nothing with the revenue because the concentration of income and wealth is dampening consumer spending.

This argument is dependent on the notion that consumer spending drives the economy.

But that’s not the case. As I explained two years ago, consumer spending is a reflection of a strong economy, not the driver of a strong economy.

Which helps to explain why the data show that Keynesian stimulus schemes routinely fail.

Moreover, the Keynesian model only says it is good to artificially stimulate consumer spending when trying to deal with a weak economy. There’s nothing in the theory (at least as Keynes described it) that suggests it’s good to endlessly expand the public sector.

The bottom line is that there’s no meaningful theoretical or empirical support for a tax-and-spend agenda.

Which is why I think this visual very succinctly captures what Warren, Sanders, and the rest (including international bureaucracies) are proposing.

P.S. By the way, I think Tankersley’s article was quite fair. It cited arguments from both sides and had a neutral tone.

But there’s one part that rubbed me the wrong way. He implies in this section that America’s relatively modest aggregate tax burden somehow helps the left’s argument.

Fueling their argument is the fact that the United States now has one of the lowest corporate tax burdens among developed nations — a direct result of President Trump’s 2017 tax cuts. Tax revenues at all levels of government in the United States fell to 24.3 percent of the economy last year, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported on Thursday, down from 26.8 percent in 2017. America is now has the fourth lowest tax burden in all of the O.E.C.D.

Huh? How does the fact that we have lower taxes that other nations serve as “fuel” for the left?

Since living standards in the United States are considerably higher than they are in higher-taxed Europe, it’s actually “fuel” for those of us who argue against class-warfare taxation and bigger government.

Though maybe Tankersley is suggesting that America’s comparatively modest tax burden is fueling the greed of U.S. politicians who are envious of their European counterparts?

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Building on the success of state-level reforms in KansasMaine, Wisconsin, Alabama, and Georgia, the Trump Administration has proposed to tighten rules that impose work requirements on childless and able-bodied adults who receive food stamps.

Since I want to get Washington out of the business of redistribution, this is not the ideal solution.

But are work requirements better than the status quo?

Here’s some of what National Review wrote about the proposal.

Our food-stamp program has some bizarre loopholes… In theory, the program has a strict time limit for “ABAWDs,” or able-bodied adults without dependents… But in practice, the executive branch has broad discretion to waive the limit for large geographic areas with weak labor markets — and previous administrations used that discretion promiscuously. As of 2017, about a third of the U.S. population lived in waived areas. …Under the new rule, effective in April of next year, these waivers won’t be granted to areas with unemployment below 6 percent. And states will be far more limited in the geographical configurations they can request waivers for. …Many on the left complain about the rule simply because it will reduce the number of people on food stamps — by about 700,000, roughly 2 percent of total food-stamp enrollment… But…there is clearly room for cuts. (Despite the recovery, total enrollment is about double what it was in 2000.) …The 1996 welfare reform proved the effectiveness of this approach.

As you might expect, this proposal is causing angst for some lawmakers.

Congresswoman Marcia Fudge condemned the proposal in a column for the Washington Post.

…taking food from the tables of hungry Americans during the holidays…that’s the latest act of cartoonish villainy by the Trump administration. …the Agriculture Department played the part of the Grinch, finalizing a rule to cut billions of dollars from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. The rule will remove nearly 700,000 from the program…, representing a callous escalation of the Trump administration’s war on people in need. …both red and blue states want the flexibility this rule will eliminate. The rule will dramatically reduce the flexibility of states to decide how best to serve the needs of their own citizens.

My view on food stamps (as well as other redistribution programs) is that Washington should have no role.

So if Congresswoman Fudge wants her state to give goodies to able-bodied adults with no children, that would be a decision for Ohio’s politicians (or, even more relevantly, Oregon’s politicians).

I’m fine with that type of flexibility, but there’s a catch that Ms. Fudge doesn’t mention. She wants taxpayers from across the country to subsidize that decision.

That’s not the way it should work. I’m all in favor of “the flexibility of states,” but that principle should apply to both raising money and spending money.

By the way, work requirements are not just an issue for the food stamp program.

There are also discussions about whether people getting Medicaid should have an obligation to work.

Writing for the Federalist, John Daniel Davidson applauds an initiative from the White House to move in that direction.

The Trump administration…will allow states to impose work requirements on abled-bodied adults to qualify for Medicaid. …it’s about time. …imposing work requirements on able-bodied adults will…help enrollees far more than Medicaid coverage will, mostly by giving them a strong incentive to secure full employment. …By putting millions of able-bodied adults on the Medicaid rolls, Obamacare created perverse incentive for those enrollees to limit their income so they could keep their Medicaid coverage. …Work requirements are a proven way to unwind perverse incentives and improve people’s lives. …progressives consider work requirements insulting and demeaning.

It was also a major focus of the very successful 1996 welfare reform legislation.

In an article for City Journal, Kay Hymowitz points out that law is still yielding big dividends.

…the Census Bureau released its report on the nation’s income, poverty, and health-insurance coverage for 2018. …poverty in single-mother households sank to its lowest rate . . . ever. What’s more, the decline took place entirely among black and Hispanic single-mother families. …this is a “Wow!” moment. …More black and Hispanic women have jobs and are working more hours. “The rise in full-time, year-round work led to an increase in incomes and earnings at the household level,” the Census Bureau found. Better yet, the growing number of hours worked by single mothers led to a decline in child poverty of 2.5 percentage points. …the 1996 welfare-reform law…overturned Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which had entitled poor single mothers to cash benefits. As a result, unemployment among the growing number of single mothers was high. Essentially, welfare reform said no more free lunch, instituting work requirements and replacing open-ended AFDC with a time-limited grant to poor mothers (TANF, or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families). …full-time, year-round work can reduce poverty and…poor minority women can improve their lives and the lives of their children through nine-to-five labor. Any “welfare-reform-is-a-failure” narrative should collapse under the weight of such demonstrated facts.

And it’s worth pointing out that one of America’s major redistribution programs – the EITC – is entirely based on work.

Recipients only get a handout if they also earn some money.

Regarding the desirability of work requirements, we can learn from what’s happened in other countries.

In an article from last year, Ryan Streeter of the American Enterprise Institute found good news from work-oriented reforms, especially in Nordic nations.

A majority of Americans, including 55 percent of people living in poverty, believe the purpose of welfare is to help people get on their feet, not just to dispense benefits. Eight in 10 low-income respondents believe working should be required to receive welfare benefits. …Welfare reformers might draw some lessons from unlikely places…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. …Similarly, the British government combined six welfare programs with varying requirements into a single “universal credit.” …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.

Regarding the reforms in the United Kingdom, here are some excerpts from a report by Emily Top for E21.

The UK overhauled its welfare system with the Welfare Reform Act 2012. …In addition to simplifying the programs into one, the Act required claimants to agree to a “Claimant Commitment,” in which they sought the services of a work coach to improve their job prospects and get hired. …the program has led to an increase in UK labor force participation as well as a decrease in dependence on benefits. During the same period that the labor force participation rate in the U.S. declined from 84 percent to 82 percent for prime age workers, the rate in the UK increased from 84 percent to 86 percent.

Let’s close by looking at some academic research on work requirements in the United States.

Three professors studied the impact of Bill Clinton’s welfare reform on recipients and found significant societal benefits.

The US Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996, often referred to as ‘welfare reform’, was a major policy shift in the US that sought to dramatically reduce dependence of single parents on government benefits by promoting work… The key strategy for reducing dependence was to promote employment by imposing work requirements as a condition for receiving benefits in concert with a lifetime limit on receipt of cash assistance. …The reforms have been successful in that welfare caseloads have declined dramatically – 78% since their peak in 1994. …In a series of recent papers, we investigated the effects of welfare reform in the US – which is still in effect today – on women’s illicit drug use and other types of crime… We found robust evidence that welfare reform led to a 10%–21% decline in illicit drug use among women at risk of relying on welfare, as well as associated declines in drug-related arrests (6%–7%), drug-related hospital emergency department episodes (7%–11%), and possibly drug-related prison admissions (11%–19%). These findings provide some support of the ‘mainstreaming’ argument underlying welfare reform. …We found that welfare reform led to decreases in female arrests for property crime – which is the type of crime women are most likely to commit (Campagniello 2014) – by 4–5%… The findings from this study point to broad-based work incentives – and, by inference, employment – as an important determinant of female property crime…

These are all good outcomes.

Though the best news – both for taxpayers and poor people – is contained in this chart from their research.

P.S. While the Trump proposal is not my ideal policy, it does compare well with the Obama Administration’s efforts to expand food stamp dependency – including bribes for states that signed up additional recipients.

P.P.S. With all redistribution programs, there is an ever-present challenge – highlighted by Thomas Sowell – of how to avoid trapping people in dependency with high implicit marginal tax rates.

P.P.P.S. There’s also a moral issue of whether people should feel ashamed for taking government handouts.

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Last year, I wrote a column that investigated why the left is fixated on the unequal distribution of income and wealth, yet doesn’t seem to care at all about unequal distribution of attractiveness.

The question becomes even more intriguing when you consider that attractiveness is oftentimes nothing more than luck, simply a matter of winning the genetic lottery.

People with lots of income and wealth, by contrast, generally work very hard to offer goods and services of value to society, so they actually earn their riches.

Let’s review some additional evidence about good luck for people with good looks.

The Economist shares data from a new book about the advantages enjoyed by attractive people.

Just why are pedestrians likelier (three times as likely, according to one study) to defy traffic laws to follow a man across the road when he is wearing a suit than the same man dressed in denim? Similarly motorists stuck at a traffic light are slower to honk their horn if the car in front has a prestige brand. …A further piece of research cited by the authors involved undergraduates who were shown photos of 50 chief executives from the Fortune 1000 list of big firms. Half of these bosses were from the most profitable groups and half from the least profitable. The undergraduates were asked to judge, on looks alone, which executives had qualities such as competence and dominance. Remarkably, the students tended to pick out those executives who led the most successful companies. …it seems more probable that people with a certain type of appearance are likely to get promoted than it is to believe they are innately more competent than everyone else. …When participants in a study were shown pictures of male employees of a business consultancy, with similar clothes and masked faces, they perceived the taller men more positively in terms of team leadership skills. Indeed, research has shown that taller and more attractive men earn more than their shorter and plainer colleagues. …Physical characteristics also affect recruitment at lower levels. A group of Italian researchers sent CVs to a range of employers, some with photos and some without. Applicants deemed attractive by independent scorers were 20% more likely to get an interview than the same application without a photo.

Being attractive doesn’t just help people get better jobs and earn more income.

Here’s some data that may be even more important to a lot of people.

This study was conducted to quantify the Tinder socio-economic prospects for males based on the percentage of females that will “like” them. Female Tinder usage data was collected and statistically analyzed to determine the inequality in the Tinder economy. It was determined that the bottom 80% of men (in terms of attractiveness) are competing for the bottom 22% of women and the top 78% of women are competing for the top 20% of men. The Gini coefficient for the Tinder economy based on “like” percentages was calculated to be 0.58. This means that the Tinder economy has more inequality than 95.1% of all the world’s national economies. In addition, it was determined that a man of average attractiveness would be “liked” by approximately 0.87% (1 in 115) of women on Tinder.

Here’s a chart showing that only the most attractive men have an advantage on the hook-up site.

Here’s an explanation of the chart, as well as some discussion of how the system is wildly unequal.

The area in blue represents the situations where women are more likely to “like” the men. The area in pink represents the situations where men are more likely to “like” women. The curve doesn’t go down linearly, but instead drops quickly after the top 20% of men. Comparing the blue area and the pink area we can see that for a random female/male Tinder interaction the male is likely to “like” the female 6.2 times more often than the female “likes” the male. …the wealth distribution for males in the Tinder economy is quite large. Most females only “like” the most attractive guys. …Figure 3 compares the income Gini coefficient distribution for 162 nations and adds the Tinder economy to the list. …The Tinder economy has a higher Gini coefficient than 95.1% of the countries in the world.

And here’s the chart from the article showing how Tinder inequality compares to economic inequality among nations.

Regular guys don’t do very well and unattractive guys get the short end of the stick.

…the most attractive men will be liked by only approximately 20% of all the females on Tinder. …Unfortunately, this percentage decreases rapidly as you go down the attractiveness scale. According to this analysis a man of average attractiveness can only expect to be liked by slightly less than 1% of females (0.87%). This equates to 1 “like” for every 115 females. …The bad news is that if you aren’t in the very upper echelons of Tinder wealth (i.e. attractiveness) you aren’t likely to have much success.

Whether your goal is income/wealth or sex/relationships, the bottom line is that it helps to be attractive.

And being attractive is largely the result of luck. Which brings us back to the issue of why leftists don’t try to address this very meaningful form of inequality. Where are their plans to prevent discrimination against those of us who didn’t win the looks lottery? And to imposes taxes on those who wound up with favorable genes?

P.S. Libertarians are sometimes accused of being autistic dorks, and you don’t find many females at libertarian events, all of which presumably means male libertarians might benefit from government redistribution of dating partners. But we are moral and don’t favor government coercion and intervention, even when we might gain an advantage.

P.P.S. Here’s what would happen if Elizabeth Warren applied her class-warfare approach to dating.

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When “basic income” became an issue a few years ago, I was instinctively opposed because I don’t want Uncle Sam sending big checks to everyone in the country.

But I admitted that there were a few reasonable arguments for the idea. Most notably, plans for a basic income usually assumed that these checks would be a substitute for the existing social welfare state.

Since that system has been bad news for both taxpayers and poor people, a swap sounds very tempting.

But I’ve repeatedly warned (over and over again) that any theoretical attributes don’t matter because politicians almost certainly would pull a bait-and-switch by adding a basic income on top of all current redistribution programs.

Andrew Yang is now proving my point. When asked about potential budgetary savings to accompany his proposal for basic income, the candidate for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination asserted that the new handouts would be in addition to the existing welfare state.

At the risk of understatement, Yang has turned his proposal into an expensive joke.

America’s social welfare state already is unaffordable and he wants to make it a larger burden with a big new entitlement.

But fiscal policy isn’t the focus of today’s column.

Instead, I want Yang’s announcement to be a teachable moment about the “slippery slope.”

Simply stated, we should always be wary about the potential downsides of any possible reform. Especially if the wrong people are in charge.

Indeed, this wariness shall be enshrined as our “Fifth Theorem of Government.”

This Theorem is rather useful when contemplating certain issues.

And now we know it applies to discussions of basic income.

P.S. Here are the other four theorems.

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.

P.P.S. All these theorems are actually just elements of “public choice,” which is the common-sense economic theory that people in the public sector largely are seeking to benefit themselves.

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Three years ago, I shared a cartoon that succinctly summarized the problem with socialism and the welfare state.

It’s the same lesson that we also get from Thomas Sowell, which is that redistribution over time creates an ever-larger number of dependents financed by ever-higher taxes on workers.

Or, as this Wizard-of-Id parody and this Little-Red-Hen parody make clear, why work hard if you can get things for free?

Now I have a different way of illustrating the problem with socialism. Here’s a very clever tweet from Young Americans Against Socialism.

Very clever and amusing.

I will add this short video to my collection of socialism humor, but it actually makes a very serious point.

Socialists and other redistributionists want equality of outcomes, but they don’t think about the unintended consequences of such an approach.

Some people will be lured into sloth and dependency, for instance, while others – particularly those with greater ability and/or greater work ethic – will choose to be less productive (especially because they also get hit with higher tax burdens to finance all the handouts).

Bastiat wrote that the failure to consider the “unseen” was the defining quality of a bad economist.

And since we’re on that topic, here’s an example of Crazy Bernie failing to appreciate that actions have unintended consequences.

A perfect metaphor for what would happen to the economy if some of his policies were imposed on the economy.

Except Bernie would still have his comfortable life. It’s the rest of us who would suffer.

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By offering all sorts of freebies to various constituencies, Bernie Sanders has positioned himself as the true-believing socialist in the Democratic race (even though he’s actually a member of the “top-1 percent”).

But he has plenty of competition. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren are strong competitors in the free-lunch Olympics, and most of the rest of the candidates are saying “me, too” as well.

Assuming these candidates get a warm reception, this is a worrisome development.

Part of America’s superior societal capital is (or has been) our immunity to the free-lunch message.

If that’s changing, it will be very hard to be optimistic about the future.

Antony Davies of Duquesne University and James Harrigan of the University of Arizona wrote for FEE about the dangerous – and seductive – ideology of something-for-nothing.

…politicians are tripping over each other to offer voters more “free” things, including everything from health care and college to a guaranteed basic income. But voters should be fostering a healthy sense of skepticism. If there is one eternal and immutable fact in economics, it is that nothing is free. Nothing. …as voters, our healthy skepticism seems to go right out the window. When politicians promise all sorts of “free” things, it doesn’t occur to many of us that those things can’t possibly be free. It doesn’t occur to us that, like businesses seeking our dollars, politicians will tell us whatever it takes to get hold of our votes. …Don’t be so gullible…when you hear Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders tell you how health care and higher education will be free for everyone, remember that…health care and higher education cannot and will never be free.

Davies and Harrigan are economically right. Indeed, they are 100 percent right.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

But there are lunches that financed by others. And that’s why I’m worried about support for Sanders and other hard-left Democrats.

I don’t want America to turn into Europe, with people thinking they have a “right” to a wide array of goodies, paid for by someone else.

So what’s the alternative to the something-for-nothing ideology of the modern left?

Bobby Jindal, the former Louisiana governor, recently opined on this topic in the Wall Street Journal.

Progressives are changing the Democratic Party’s focus…to subsidizing everything for everybody. …Democrats now promise free college, free health care and more—for everyone. Republicans can’t outspend Democrats, but they can make the case for freedom and against the idea that everything is “free”… The Republican ideal is…an aspirational society. …becoming dependent on government is the American nightmare. …Republicans have to do more than mock the Green New Deal…if they want to persuade young voters of the case for limited government and personal freedom. …“free” means more government control at the expense of consumer autonomy. When progressives promise government will pay for health care and college, they are really saying government will run medicine and higher education. …“Free” means less efficiency, more expense and lower quality. …“Free” means robbing from America’s children. …Despite proposed marginal rates as high as 70% or even 90%, none of the tax plans Democrats have put forward would raise nearly enough revenue to pay for the promised spending. …Republicans can’t outbid Santa Claus. Americans are willing to work hard and sacrifice for a better life but need to know how pro-growth policies benefit them. Voters may be tempted by progressives’ crazy plans… They will embrace effective market-based solutions that promote freedom if Republicans offer them.

Gov. Jindal has a great message about trumpeting growth as an alternative to redistribution.

Though I’m not brimming with confidence that Republicans are overly sincere when they use this type of rhetoric.

And some of them, like Trump, don’t even bother with pretending that they want to curtail dependency and shrink the social welfare state.

And that does not bode well for America’s future.

P.S. As is so often the case on issues of policy and ethics, Professor Walter Williams is a great source of wisdom.

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Even though I (correctly) doubted the Trump Administration’s sincerity, I applauded proposed reductions in foreign aid back in 2017.

I very much want to reduce poverty in poor nations, of course, but the evidence is very strong that government handouts don’t do a very good job.

Moreover, we also have lots of data showing poor nations can enjoy dramatic improvements in living standards so long as they adopt good policy.

Hong Kong, Singapore, Chile, and Botswana are very good examples.

Yet some people haven’t learned this lesson. Consider the current debate over Trump’s threat to end aid to Central America if illegal immigration isn’t reduced.

A column in Fortune makes the case that handouts to Central America are necessary to reduce human smuggling.

President Donald Trump ordered the State Department to cut funding for Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador this weekend in retaliation for the recent influx of migrants from these nations, reversing a longstanding policy that says aid helps abate immigration. …According to Liz Schrayer, president and CEO of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition—a nonprofit coalition of businesses and NGOs dedicated to American development and diplomacy—pulling back aid “exasperates the exact root causes that are creating the migration numbers’ increase.” …“It will only result in more children and families being forced to make the dangerous journey north to the U.S.-Mexico border,” said the five Democratic lawmakers in a statement.

A piece in the New York Times makes the same argument.

The Trump administration’s decision to cut off aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to punish their governments for failing to curb migration is a rash response to a real policy dilemma. …it will exacerbate migration from the region without twisting Central American politicians’ arms. …The decision to cut off aid is bound to drive up migration numbers.

Ironically, the author admits that aid is ineffective.

…we shouldn’t pretend that the aid itself was doing much good… it is mostly distributed inefficiently in large blocks by foreign contractors.

Though he seems to share the naive (and presumably self-interested) arguments of international bureaucrats about the potential efficacy of aid.

Central American governments and elites have gotten away with abdicating their fiduciary, social and legal responsibilities to their citizens. They have failed to collect tax revenue and to invest in social programs and job creation that alleviate the plight of their poor.

Even some small-government conservatives seem to think that more aid would make recipient nations more prosperous and thus reduce illegal immigration.

What President Trump is doing now — cutting aid — is wrong. …As former White House Chief of Staff and SOUTHCOM Commander, General John Kelly, has noted, “If we can improve the conditions, the lot in life of Hondurans, Guatemalans, Central Americans, we can do an awful lot to protect the southwest border.” …We risk undermining our longterm national interests by cutting foreign aid. We should, instead, spend it wisely in those countries to ensure stable governments that view us as allies and work with them to root out crime, corruption, and cartels. The present policy to cut foreign aid cuts off our national nose to spite our face.

This is not an impossible prescription.

But it’s also the triumph of hope over experience.

In the real world, we have mountains of evidence that foreign aid weakens recipient economies by subsidizing corruption and larger burdens of government.

Let’s look at some analysis on this issue.

In a piece published by CapX, Matt Warner recommends less redistribution rather than more.

…the poor know how to get themselves out of poverty. They just need more opportunity to do it. The question we must ask ourselves is: to what degree are our current development aid strategies aligned with this insight? …If the intervention itself is part of the problem, what can outsiders really do to help? Today there are at least 481 research and advocacy organisations in 92 countries pushing reform agendas to provide more economic opportunity and prosperity for all. The “Doing Business” report provides a blueprint for change. Local reform organisations, supported by private philanthropy, provide the leadership to achieve it and the world’s poor will show us their own paths to prosperity if we will all just learn to get out of their way.

Writing for Barron’s, Paul Theroux notes that Africa regressed when it was showered with aid.

Africa receives roughly $50 billion in aid annually from foreign governments, and perhaps $13 billion more from private philanthropic institutions… Africa is much worse off than when I first went there 50 years ago to teach English: poorer, sicker, less educated, and more badly governed. It seems that much of the aid has made things worse. …Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo calls aid a “debilitating drug,” arguing that “real per-capita income [in Africa] today is lower than it was in the 1970s, and more than 50% of the population — over 350 million people — live on less than a dollar a day, a figure that has nearly doubled in two decades.” The Kenyan economist James Shikwati takes this same line on aid, famously telling the German magazine Der Spiegel, “For God’s sake, please stop.”

Brad Lips of the Atlas Network explains why aid often is counterproductive.

The international community has donated more than $1.8 trillion to poor countries since 2000 – but this development aid hasn’t lifted many people out of poverty. Arguably, it has made some recipient nations poorer. …the aid has bred corruption, fostered dependence and impeded reforms that deliver sustainable economic growth. …Between 1970 and 2000 – a period in which aid to Africa skyrocketed – annual gross domestic product growth per capita on the continent fell from about 2 percent to zero growth, according to a study by an economist at New York University.

A column in the U.K.-based Times is very blunt about what all this means.

…the international development secretary should have abolished her department as soon as she was appointed to it… We kid ourselves that this aid works, to salve our consciences about being better off. But as we know, the money benefits charities, quangos, bureaucrats, tyrants and the predatory elite, and all these years later your average African is no better off.

Let’s close by looking at a thorough 2005 study from the International Policy Network. Authored by Fredrik Erixon, it documents the failure of foreign aid.

…the ‘gap theory’…assumes that poor countries are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty because they are unable to save and hence have insufficient capital to invest in growth-promoting, productivity-enhancing activities. But there simply is no evidence that this savings/investment ‘gap’ exists in practice. As a result, aid has failed to ‘fill the gap’. Instead, it has, over the past fifty years, largely been counterproductive: it has crowded out private sector investments, undermined democracy, and enabled despots to continue with oppressive policies, perpetuating poverty. …The reason countries are poor is…because they lack the institutions of the free society: property rights, the rule of law, free markets, and limited government. … many studies point to the fact that government consumption in SubSaharan Africa has increased when aid has increased.

Here’s the evidence showing has more development assistance is associated with weaker economic performance.

By the way, the International Monetary Fund deserves unrestrained scorn for recommending higher tax burdens on Africans, thus making economic growth even harder to achieve.

Now let’s look at how two Asian regions have enjoyed growth as aid lessened.

Last but not least, here’s some very encouraging data from Africa.

I already mentioned that Botswana is an exception to the rule. As you can see, that nation’s success is definitely not the result of more handouts.

The bottom line is that President Trump is right, even if his motives are misguided.

Foreign aid is not the recipe for prosperity in Central America.

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Redistribution has a corrosive impact on both ends. Recipients are harmed because they get trapped in dependency, and workers are harmed because taxes discourage productive behavior.

Yet young people seem susceptible to this ideology, even when they are among the main victims.

While it might be tempting to shrug and assume they’re hopelessly clueless, this video shows young people are quite capable of grasping why redistribution is a bad idea.

I’ve previously shared a similar video, as well as a couple of written versions of this redistribution challenge.

In this case, though, we have some additional analysis.

Here are some excerpts from the accompanying article.

…for the first time ever, more young people say they’d prefer to live in a socialist country over a capitalist one. Whether it’s free healthcare, free college tuition, or universal basic income, students around America increasingly support higher taxes on the wealthy in order to pay for these progressive policies.  But would they support similar policies if they had skin in the game? …Campus Reform‘s Cabot Phillips went to Florida International University in Miami to test the waters on a “Socialist GPA” policy in which students with higher GPAs would be forced to “spread the wealth” and give some of their GPA points to students with lower GPAs. Despite the overwhelming number of students who initially said they’d support socialist policies, few agreed to go along with such a plan.

Interestingly, the students actually are quite perceptive when they apply incentives in their own lives.

“I’ve lost a lot of sleep so I don’t know if that would be fair,” one student said, while another answered no because “I like, study all day for my grades.” Yet another student, after expressing her support for socialism in America conceded, “I guess it would be kind of hypocritical for me to say no.” Another student, trying to justify his refusal to abide by such a policy, said, “you study for your grades, and they reflect how much time you’re studying.”

As a wonky economist, the first thing I wondered about is how young people would react if they were asked about a small amount of redistribution (say 1/10th of a point of a GPA) compared to a large amount of redistribution (a full point of GPA).

I’m guessing they would realize that the damage of the latter would be more than 10 times the damage of the former – which is exactly the same thing you find when you examine the deadweight losses of ever-higher tax rates.

Two final points.

  • First, many young people don’t understand socialism. They think it’s just a proxy for caring. Or even for being sociable. It’s incumbent on advocates of freedom to help them understand the adverse implications (i.e., redistributing money is just as bad as redistributing GPAs).
  • Second, it won’t be easy to make an ethical appeal to young people if they perceive (and many do) that capitalism is the same as cronyism. Which is why self-styled conservatives (or Trumpians) who support favors for special interests do a lot of damage to the cause of freedom.

P.S. Since they are huge net losers from the current system, young people should be very amenable to a message of genuine entitlement reform.

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It seems like every Democrat in the country plans to run against Trump in 2020 and presumably all of them will feel compelled to issue manifestos outlining their policy agendas.

Which gives me lots of material for my daily column. I’ve previously written about statist initiatives from Bernie Sanders and bizarre ideas put forth by Elizabeth Warren.

Today, let’s review the two big ideas that have been unveiled by Kamala Harris, the Senator from California who just announced her bid for the White House.

We’ll start with her idea to create a federal subsidy for rent payments. I wrote about this new handout last year, and warned that it would enrich landlords (much as tuition subsidies enrich colleges and health subsidies enrich providers).

Here’s some of what Professor Tyler Cowen wrote for Bloomberg about the proposal.

One of the worst tendencies in American politics is to restrict supply and subsidize demand. …The likely result of such policies is high and rising prices, restricted access and often poor quality. If you limit the number of homes and apartments, for example, but give buyers subsidies, that is a formula for exorbitant prices. That is what makes early accounts of Senator Kamala Harris’s economic plans so disappointing. …Consider Harris’s embrace of subsidies for renters, as reflected by her recent sponsorship of the Rent Relief Act of 2018. Given the high price of housing in many parts of the U.S., it is easy to see why the idea might have appeal. But the best and most sustainable way of producing cheaper housing is to build more homes and apartments. The resulting increase in supply will cause prices to fall… That is basic supply and demand, with supply doing the active work. The Harris bill, in contrast, calls for tax credits to renters. …There is an obvious problem with this approach. If you subsidize renters, that will push up the price of apartments. Furthermore, economic logic suggests that big rent increases are most likely in those cases where the supply of apartments is relatively fixed, a basic principle of what is called “tax incidence theory.” In sum, most of the gains from this policy would go to landlords, not renters.

In other words, this is a perfect plan for a politician who understands “public choice” theory.

Ordinary voters think they’re getting a freebie, but the benefits actually go to those with political influence and power.

Now let’s look at her $2.7 trillion tax cut. I believe that people should be allowed to keep the lion’s share of any money they earn, so my gut instinct is to cheer.

But it’s always good to be skeptical when a politician is offering something that sounds too good to be true.

Kyle Pomerlau of the Tax Foundation has done the heavy lifting and looked closely at the details. He has a thorough explanation of her plan and its likely impact.

The “LIFT the Middle-Class Act” (LIFT) would create a new refundable tax credit available to low- and middle-income taxpayers. …LIFT would provide a refundable credit that would match a maximum of $3,000 in earned income ($6,000 for married couples filing jointly). …The credit would begin to phase out for single taxpayers starting at $30,000 of adjusted gross income (AGI) and $80,000 for single taxpayers with children, and begin phasing out for married taxpayers at $60,000 of AGI. The phaseout rate for all taxpayers would be 15 percent. …LIFT’s impact on the economy is primarily through its effect on the labor force. LIFT phases in from the first dollar of earned income to the maximum credit of $3,000 per tax filer. It then phases out starting at different levels of income, depending on a tax filer’s marital status and whether they have children. These phase-ins and phaseouts create implicit marginal subsidies and tax rates that impact individuals’ incentive to work.

At the risk of oversimplifying, Harris is proposing a new version of the earned income credit.

And that means some taxpayers get subsidized for working and some taxpayers get penalized.

For taxpayers in the credit phaseout range, tax liability would increase by 15 cents for each additional dollar earned. This means that these taxpayers would face an additional implicit marginal tax rate of 15 percent, which would reduce these taxpayers’ incentive to work additional hours. In contrast, taxpayers in the phase-in range of the credit would get $1 for each additional $1 of income they earn. As such, these taxpayers would benefit from an effective marginal subsidy rate, or negative marginal tax rate, of 100 percent. A negative tax rate of 100 percent would increase the incentive for these taxpayers to work additional hours.

Kyle crunches the numbers to determine the overall economic impact.

While the positive labor force effects of the phase-in of the credit could offset the negative effect of the phaseout, we find that, on net, the size of the total labor force would shrink under this policy. This is primarily due to the large number of taxpayers that would fall in the phaseout range of the credit relative to the number of individuals that would benefit from the phase-in. …We estimate that the credit…would reduce economic output by 0.7 percent and result in about 825,906 fewer full-time equivalent jobs.

Here’s the relevant table from the Tax Foundation’s report.

This is remarkable. It would seem impossible to design a $2.7 trillion tax cut that actually hurts the economy, but Sen. Harris has succeeded in that dubious achievement.

For all intents and purposes, she has figured out how to have an anti-supply-side tax cut.

And there are two other problems that deserve attention.

  • First, as noted in Kyle’s paper, the tax cut is “refundable.” This means that money goes to people who don’t pay taxes. In other words, it is government spending being laundered through the tax code. So Harris claims to be cutting taxes, but part of what she’s doing is expanding redistribution and making government bigger (and encouraging more fraud).
  • Second, Harris is very cagey about how the numbers work in her proposal. Does she want the tax cuts (and new spending) financed by more borrowing? By printing money? By offsetting class-warfare tax increases? Some combination of the three? Whatever the answer, the negative economic damage will be substantially higher if financing costs are included.

Considering the poor design and upside-down economics of the rent subsidy scheme and the new tax credit, the bottom line is rather obvious: Kamala Harris wants to buy votes, and she has decided that it is okay to hurt the economy in hopes of achieving her political ambitions.

No wonder she fits in so well in Washington!

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There was a book last decade by Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, that asked why lower-income voters in the state didn’t vote for greater levels of redistribution.

The author claimed these voters were sidetracked by cultural issues, which may very well be part of the story. I like to think that these Kansans also were motivated by ethics and that they realized it would be wrong to use government coercion to take money from other people.

And maybe, unlike the folks at the IMF, they were not motivated by envy and they realized that high taxes and more redistribution would make them worse off over time because of the negative impact on overall prosperity.

Well, it appears that the folks in Kansas aren’t that different from people in India, Morocco, Nigeria, Mexico, and South Africa. At least that’s the takeaway from some new research that Christopher Hoy wrote about for the World Bank. Here’s the issue he investigated.

Social commentators and researchers struggle to explain why, despite growing inequality in many countries around the world,  there is often relatively limited support among poorer people for policies where they are set to benefit (such as increases in cash transfers or in the minimum wage). …Conventional theories of preferences for redistribution, such as the Meltzer-Richard Hypothesis, imply that if poor people were made aware they were relatively poorer than most other people in their country, they would become more supportive of redistribution. Yet there is little empirical evidence that evaluates this prediction. …empirical evidence is needed to understand how poorer people’s misperceptions of their relative position in the national income distribution effects their support for redistribution.

Here’s the methodology he used.

I conducted the first cross country survey experiment on preferences for redistribution in the developing world… The experiment involved over 16,000 respondents in five developing countries that make up almost 25% of the global population (India, Nigeria, Mexico, South Africa and Morocco). …To test whether informing poor people of their relative position in the national income distribution makes them more supportive of redistribution, I randomly allocate half of the respondents in each country to be told which quintile their household belongs to in the national income distribution (based upon their reported household income and the number of household members). …After the treatment they were asked if they thought the gap between the rich and poor was too large and whether the government was responsible for closing this gap.

And here are some of the results.

People tend to think they are in the middle of the income distribution, regardless of whether they are rich or poor. …poor people who perceived themselves to be in the bottom two quintiles of the distribution were between 15 to 28 percentage points more likely to prefer lower levels of inequality than poor people who perceived themselves to be in the top two quintiles. …Surprisingly, telling poor people that they are poorer than they thought makes them less concerned about the gap between the rich and poor in their country…there was no effect from the treatment on these people’s support for the government to close the gap between the rich and poor.

Here’s a chart showing how people became less sympathetic to government-coerced redistribution after learning more about their own economic status.

The author speculates on possible reasons for these results.

A plausible channel that is causing this effect is people using their own living standard as a ‘benchmark’ for what they consider acceptable for others. …people…realise two points. Firstly, there are fewer people in their country with a living standard they considered to be relatively poor than they had thought. Secondly, what they had considered to be an ‘average’ living standard (their own standard of living) is actually relatively poor compared to other people in their country. I show how both of these points would lead people to respond by being less likely to be concerned about the gap between the rich and poor in their country. …there are opposing channels through which poorer people’s preferences for redistribution respond to information about their relative position. On the one hand, poorer people may be more supportive if they are set to benefit from redistribution. However, on the other hand they may be less supportive if they are less concerned about the absolute living standard of people who are relatively poor.

These are all plausible answers.

Though I have the same questions about this research as I did about Frank’s book. Do people in these five developing nations have any level of moral aversion to redistribution and/or do they understand (at least implicitly) that a tax-and-redistribute model is a recipe for national economic decline?

Perhaps a more practical way of looking at the issue is to ask whether lower-income people care most about economic growth or economic inequality.

Many of the professional left, including the ideologues at the IMF, are fixated on the latter and they’re willing to hurt the poor if the rich suffer even greater harm (in other words, Margaret Thatcher was right about their motives).

By contrast, I strongly suspect the average lower-income person is far more interested in more prosperity for their family and far less concerned about the prosperity of the rich family on the other side of town. They presumably are unaware of the powerful Chinese data on poverty reduction and inequality, but they instinctively understand that a rising tide lifts all boats.

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Washington is a place that gets infatuated with trendy ideas. A few years ago, everyone was talking about a “universal basic income” because of the strange assumption that millions of people will be unemployable in the future.

That idea was mostly embraced by folks on the left (though not Joe Biden), but there’s now a related idea on the right to provide “wage subsidies” so that unemployable (or difficult to employ) people can get work.

A leading proponent is Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute, who wrote The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America.

National Review published an excerpt from his book.

Work has enormous social value for the individuals who engage in it and for the formation and stability of their families, the opportunities of their children, and the vibrancy of their communities. Ideally, the labor market would settle in a place where productive, family-supporting work was available to all people in all places. But nothing in the theory of economics guarantees such an outcome… If we really want to “pay for jobs” — and we should — then we should do it directly. …a…“Federal Work Bonus,”…an additional $3 into your check for every hour worked? That would be a wage subsidy. …a wage subsidy aims to produce that effect in the labor market. Workers unwilling to sell their labor for less than $12 per hour may be worth only $9 per hour to an employer. No job will emerge in that scenario. With the insertion of a $3-per-hour wage subsidy, by contrast, the employer can pay the $9 per hour that the work is worth and the worker can receive the $12 per hour that he demanded. Thus will appear a job where none existed before. …The value of the subsidy would be set relative to a “target wage” of, say, $15 per hour and would close half the gap between the market wage and the target. A worker would initially receive a subsidy of $3 per hour in this case, equal to approximately $6,000 per year if he worked full-time.

The wage subsidy Cass advocates is similar to the “earned income tax credit,” which is basically a redistribution program that is administered through the tax code.

But Cass wants the EITC to be universally available rather than primarily targeted at households with children.

The federal earned income-tax credit (EITC) already operates something like a wage subsidy, offering low-income households large tax refunds that can exceed what they paid in taxes to begin with. But the EITC gets paid long after the income is earned — at tax time the following year — based on an opaque formula. It creates none of a wage subsidy’s immediate, transparent effect in the labor market. …The EITC also skews its benefits heavily toward households with children. A single person working full-time at minimum wage would get a credit of $41, less than 1 percent of what his colleague with kids can expect.

For what it’s worth, Cass acknowledges that employers might capture some of the benefits of a wage subsidy.

If the government offers a $3 subsidy atop a $9-per-hour job, the result will not necessarily be a $12-per-hour job. The employer might instead cut the market wage to $8, to which the government would add $3.50 — half the $7 gap to the target wage of $15 — leaving the worker with $11.50. …How workers and employers respond to the subsidy will vary based on labor-market conditions. What we do know from studies of the EITC and a similar program in the United Kingdom is that, in those instances, roughly 75 percent of the financial benefit accrued to workers.

Now let’s discuss the policy implications.

Cass openly admits that a wage subsidy is a form of redistribution, and – much to my dismay – he doesn’t object if at least some of that new spending is financed by higher taxes.

Subsidizing wages is a particularly well-tailored response to the challenges that globalization presents for American workers. First, the wage subsidy is the appropriate mechanism for redistributing gains from the economy’s “winners” to its “losers.” It comes closest to doing this directly, by taking tax revenue drawn from higher earners and inserting it directly into the paychecks of lower earners. …it is redistribution. And yes, high-income taxpayers will finance it. …The roughly $200 billion price tag for a wage subsidy might require some new tax revenue, but its funding could come largely from the existing safety net, which already dedicates more than $1 trillion annually to low-income households — including many with workers.

The following excerpt also rubbed me the wrong way since he seems to be saying that it would be better if Washington had expanded redistribution instead of lowering the corporate tax rate.

…in debates over the 2017 tax-reform package, which ultimately increased the ten-year federal deficit by $1.5 trillion for the sake of reducing the corporate tax rate, while failing to deliver even the small EITC increase for childless workers that Ryan had once championed. Indeed, while the Khanna proposal in its 2017 form is not a serious one, even it could have been implemented more cheaply than the tax reform that ultimately passed. The deficit spending would have been equally costly, but at least the labor market and its low-wage workers would have been the chief beneficiaries. …the Republican party’s relative disinterest in the labor market is made apparent by its preference for a tax cut over a wage subsidy.

This is very troubling. In the long run, faster growth is much better for low-income workers.

I’m not the only skeptic of this plan.

Writing for the Week, AEI’s Jame Pethokoukis argues that Cass bases his idea on a misreading of the economy.

One of his innovative analytical insights is that economic growth from globalization is bad for workers. …This is a terrible reading of history… America would be worse off today if it had somehow kept the closed “golden age” economy of the 1950s and 1960s. Its lack of openness greatly harmed American workers… Too much of American industry became complacent, unproductive… Likewise, would America have a more thriving economy today without Silicon Valley? …Cass’ reading of the data isn’t much better as he adopts the stance of many leftists that most Americans are no better off than decades ago. Yet a recent Congressional Budget Office study shows a nearly 50 percent increase in middle-class incomes since 1970, with incomes for the bottom fifth up some 80 percent.

And Michael Strain, also with the American Enterprise Institute, was similarly critical in a column for Bloomberg.

Economic growth is under attack. Or, more specifically, the idea that public policy should place a large amount of emphasis on the economy’s rate of growth is under assault… Traditionally, conservatives have placed a premium on growth as the best way to advance the fortunes of all Americans. But in recent years, some on the right have [been] playing down the importance of growth to the well-being of many working-class Americans. The latest argument for that position comes from Oren Cass… Cass argues that the results from decades of policies designed to encourage GDP growth are “embarrassing” and have “steered the nation off course.” …conservatives have been right in their traditional focus on growth. Let’s recall why. …the hot U.S. economy is the best jobs program available for lower-wage and vulnerable workers. …this strength is benefiting low-wage workers more than other groups. …Growth doesn’t just help low-income and working-class households in the short term. Over longer periods, seemingly small changes in the growth rate have large consequences. In the past four decades, for example, real GDP per person has increased from about $28,000 to over $55,000, growing at about 1.7 percent per year. If growth instead had been 1 percent, average GDP per head would be about three-quarters what it is today.

Needless to say, I strongly agree with Strain’s final point about the importance of faster growth.

Though I confess to being at a disadvantage when judging these anti-Cass columns since I haven’t read the book.

However, to the degree that Cass truly has given up on growth (i.e., accepting some form of the “secular stagnation” hypothesis), then I side with Pethokoukis and Strain.

But that’s not my main concern. Here are the four reasons that motivate my objection to wage subsidies.

  1. Redistribution should not be a responsibility of the federal government. Indeed, I want all redistribution devolved to state and local governments (or to the private sector).
  2. Cass says the program will cost $200 billion. Like with most government programs, I assume the actual fiscal burden will wind up being much higher. Especially after the left starts a bidding war.
  3. Existing wages subsidies are riddled with fraud because the government effectively gives people lots of money simply for filing a tax return, yet rarely bothers to confirm they actually earned the income.
  4. Wage subsidies actually turn into wage penalties (i.e., punitive implicit marginal tax rates) when income rises above the target level and the handouts are withdrawn.

The bottom line is that Cass is right that it’s better to subsidize work rather than idleness.

However, Americans already are too dependent on Uncle Sam. It would be even better if we simply achieved more growth by adopting the tried-and-tested recipe for prosperity.

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Imagine being a poor person and getting to choose your country. Which one would you select?

The answer probably depends on your goals in life. If you want to emulate “Lazy Robert” and be a moocher, you could pick Denmark. You’ll surely get more than enough money to survive.

Denmark’s also not a bad choice if you have a bit of ambition. It ranks #16 in the latest edition of Economic Freedom of the World, largely because it has a very laissez-faire approach on trade, regulation, and other non-fiscal policies. So there’s a decent chance you could climb the economic ladder.

But if you have lots of ambition and definitely want a better life for your children and grandchildren, you’d presumably pick a nation such as Singapore, which routinely gets very high grades from Economic Freedom of the World.

There’s a lot of economic liberty, which has resulted in huge improvements in living standards. Indeed, people in Singapore are now much richer than Americans.

The last thing you would do, however, is pick a stagnant country such as Greece. Or a miserably impoverished nation such as Zimbabwe.

Unless you’re one of the buffoons at Oxfam. That “charity” just produced an inequality study that says Singapore is one of the world’s worst nations, ranking far below places where people are very poor with very bleak lives.

Here’s how Oxfam describes its report.

In 2015, the leaders of 193 governments promised to reduce inequality under Goal 10 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Without reducing inequality, meeting SDG 1 to eliminate poverty will be impossible. In 2017, …Oxfam produced the first index to measure the commitment of governments to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. The index is based on a new database of indicators, now covering 157 countries, which measures government action… The report recommends that all countries should develop national inequality action plans to achieve SDG 10 on reducing inequality. These plans should include delivery of universal, public and free health and education and universal social protection floors. They should be funded by increasing progressive taxation and clamping down on exemptions and tax dodging.

In other words, the study is a measure of whether nations have punitive welfare states, not whether poor people have better lives.

The assertion in the second sentence that poverty can’t be reduced without reducing inequality is especially absurd. Unless, of course, you choose a dishonest definition of poverty (which is what we get from leftist groups like the UN and OECD, not to mention the Equal Welfare Association, Germany’s Institute of Labor Economics, and the Obama Administration).

But let’s focus on Singapore. Here are some excerpts from a Reuters story on the controversy over that nation’s poor score.

Oxfam on Wednesday rejected Singapore’s defense of its low taxes after the NGO ranked the wealthy city state among the 10 worst-offending countries in fuelling inequality with its low-tax regime. Oxfam’s Commitment to Reducing Inequality (CRI) index ranked Singapore 149th of 157, below Afghanistan, Algeria, and Cambodia, and marginally higher than Haiti, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. …Oxfam’s head of inequality policy, Max Lawson, said the impact of Singapore’s tax policy went beyond its borders, serving as a tax haven for the rich and big corporations. …Singapore Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee said on Tuesday…“Yes, the income tax burden on Singaporeans is low. And almost half the population do not pay any income tax,”…“Yet, they benefit more than proportionately from the high quality of infrastructure and social support that the state provides,” he said. “In Oxfam’s view, Singapore’s biggest failing is our tax rates, which are not punitive enough.” Lee also said 90 percent of Singaporeans owned their homes and home ownership was 84 percent even among the poorest 10 percent of households. “No other country comes close,” he said.

Minister Lee is correct, of course.

Singapore is a great place to be poor, in part because the bottom 10 percent in Singapore would be middle class or above in many of the nation’s that get better scores from Oxfam’s ideologues. But mostly because it’s a place where it’s possible to become rich rather than remain poor.

There are some other aspects of the Oxfam study that merit attention, including the curious omission of some of the world’s most left-wing nations, such as Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea.

In the case of North Korea, I’m willing to believe that there simply wasn’t enough reliable data. But why aren’t there scores for Cuba and Venezuela? I strongly suspect that authors deliberately omitted those two hellholes because they didn’t want to deal with the embarrassment of incredibly poor nations getting very high scores (which is what made Jeffrey Sachs’ SDG Index an easy target for mockery)

Also, I’d be curious to learn why Hong Kong isn’t ranked? Taxes are even lower and there’s even less redistribution in Hong Kong, so maybe it would have been last rather than merely in the bottom 10.

Was Oxfam worried about looking foolish, so they left prosperous Hong Kong out of the study?

That’s my guess. The last thing the left wants is for people to understand that poor nations only become rich nations with free markets and small government.

The bottom line is that Oxfam is an organization that has been hijacked by hard-left activists. Given it’s track record of shoddy reports, it’s now a joke rather than a charity.

P.S. The OECD also produced a shoddy study that grossly mischaracterized Singapore and totally ignored Hong Kong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds like good news, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I’ve repeatedly argued that faster growth is the only effective way of helping the less fortunate.

Class warfare and redistribution, by contrast, are not effective. Such policies are based on the fallacy that the economy is a fixed pie, and proponents of this view fixate on inequality because they mistakenly believe that additional income for the rich means less income for the poor.

Today, let’s look at some numbers that prove that a fixation on inequality is misguided. The Census Bureau this week released its annual report on Income and Poverty in the United States. That publication includes data (Table A-2) showing annual inflation-adjusted earnings by income quintile between 1967-2017.

To see if my left-leaning friends are right about the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor, I calculated the annual percent change for each quintile. Lo and behold, the data actually show that there’s a very clear pattern showing how all income quintiles tend to rise and fall together.

The lesson from this data is clear. If you want policies that help the poor, those also will be policies that help the middle class and rich.

And if you hate the rich, you need to realize that policies hurting them will almost certainly hurt the less fortunate as well.

One other lesson is that all income quintiles did particularly well during the 1980s and 1990s when free-market policies prevailed.

P.S. Many people (including on the left) have pointed out that the Census Bureau’s numbers under-count compensation because fringe benefits such as healthcare are excluded. This is a very legitimate complaint, but it doesn’t change the fact that all income quintiles tend to rise and fall together. For what it’s worth, adding other forms of compensation would boost lower quintiles compared to higher quintiles.

P.P.S. Here’s an interesting video from Pew Research showing how the middle class has become more prosperous over the past few decades.

P.P.P.S. The Census Bureau’s report also has the latest data on poverty. The good news is that the poverty rate fell. The bad news is that long-run progress ground to a halt once the federal government launched the ill-fated War on 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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When I argue against tax increases, I generally rely on two compelling points.

  1. Higher taxes will undermine prosperity by penalizing productive behavior.
  2. More money for politicians will trigger more spending, so red ink will increase.

When I argue against centralization and urge Swiss-style federalism, I also rely on two very strong points.

  1. Local governments will be more responsible if they raise and spend their own funds.
  2. Competition among local jurisdictions will encourage better public policy.

Now let’s mix these issues together by looking at some academic research on what happens when politicians get a windfall of revenue from a  centralized source.

Well, according to new research from Italy’s central bank, bigger government means more corruption.

…large financial transfers from a central unit of government to lower levels of government…come with the risk of exacerbating the agency problem due to the fact that the funds are collected at a higher level and then managed locally with typically little transparency on the actual amount of resources received by each local area. This moral hazard problem may increase incentives for local administrators to extract rents from the funds received. …growing evidence suggests that illegal practices and rent seeking are still often associated with the receipt of transfers from a central government. …we investigate the relationship between financial transfers from a central level of government to local administrations and the coincident occurrence of white collar crimes at the same local level drawing from the case of EU funding to Southern Italy. …The South of Italy has been one of the largest recipients of EU funds: in the most recent programming period it received 25 billion euro out of the 35 billion total allocated to Italy and managed at the local level. The empirical analysis exploits a unique administrative dataset of criminal episodes in Italy and matches them to the records of all the transfers from the EU to each single municipality over the period 2007-2014. We find evidence of a significant positive relationship between EU funds and the occurrence of corruption and fraudulent behaviors in the recipient municipality in the same year. …the robustness analysis we performed provided evidence that the correlation between transfers and corruption that we estimate is likely not just spurious or due to confounding effects

As far as I’m concerned, these results belong in the “least surprising” category. Of course you get more corruption when government gets bigger.

Now let’s look at another study. A few years ago, academic scholars produced even more compelling research from Brazil.

The paper studies the effect of additional government revenues on political corruption and on the quality of politicians, both with theory and data. The theory is based on a version of the career concerns model of political agency with endogenous entry of political candidates. The evidence refers to municipalities in Brazil, where federal transfers to municipal governments change exogenously according to given population thresholds. We exploit a regression discontinuity design to test the implications of the theory and identify the causal effect of larger federal transfers on political corruption and the observed features of political candidates at the municipal level. In accordance with the predictions of the theory, we find that larger transfers increase political corruption and reduce the quality of candidates for mayor. …The empirical findings accord well with the implications of the theory. Specifically, an (exogenous) increase in federal transfers by 10% raises the incidence of a broad measure of corruption by 12 percentage points (about 17% with respect to the average incidence), and the incidence of a more restrictive measure—including only severe violation episodes—by 10.1 percentage points (about 24%).

By the way, this persuasive research isn’t just an argument for smaller government and fewer transfers.

It’s also why foreign aid generally has harmful effects on recipient countries. Handouts line the pockets of the political elite and enable a bigger burden of government.

It’s also one of the reasons why I’ve referred to the International Monetary Fund as a “dumpster fire.” That bureaucracy leverages its money (the U.S. is the biggest backer) to encourage higher tax burdens and more redistribution in countries that already are suffering from too much bad policy.

The two studies we’ve reviewed today are simply an exclamation point.

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Last week, I shared a graph showing that there are more guns than people in the United States, and I wrote that it was the “most enjoyable” chart of the year, mostly because it gets my leftist friends so agitated.

But I’m more likely to share gloomy visuals.

  • The “most depressing” chart about Denmark, which shows a majority of the population lives off government.
  • A “very depressing” chart about the United States, which shows how big business profits from cronyism.
  • The “most depressing” chart about Japan, which shows that the tax burden has nearly doubled since 1965.

Now it’s time to add to that list. There’s a website called “Our World in Data,” which is a great resource if you’re a policy wonk who likes numbers. But some numbers are quite depressing.

For instance,if you peruse the “public spending” page, you’ll find a chart showing the dramatic expansion of redistribution spending as a share of economic output.

These numbers are very similar to the table I shared from Vito Tanzi back in 2013, which isn’t surprising since Professor Peter Lindert is the underlying source for both sets of data.

While the above chart is depressing to a libertarian, it’s nonetheless instructive because it confirms my argument that the western world became rich when government was very small and redistribution was tiny or even nonexistent.

For instance, nations in North America and Western Europe largely made the transition from agricultural poverty to middle-class prosperity during the “golden century” between the Napoleanic wars and World War I. And that was a period when redistribution spending basically didn’t exist and most nations didn’t even have income taxes (the U.S. didn’t make that mistake until 1913).

And even as recently as 1960, welfare states were very small compared to their current size. Indeed, redistribution spending in western nations averaged only about 10 percent of economic output, about half the size of today’s supposedly miserly American welfare state.

These points are important because some folks on the left misinterpret Wagner’s Law and actually try to argue that bigger government is good for growth.

P.S. South Korea has been a great success story for the past five decades, but that redistribution trendline is very worrisome.

P.P.S. The trendline for Greece helps to explain why that nation is bankrupt.

P.P.P.S. The chart shows that Canada is better than the United States, though that may not last since Canada’s current Prime Minister is seeking to undermine his nation’s competitive advantage.

P.P.P.P.S. While fiscal trends in the western world have been unfavorable, that bad news has been offset by positive trends for trade liberalization. Whether we see a big step backwards because of Trump remains to be seen.

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I’m a big believer that some images do a great job of capturing an issue.

Speaking of socialism, let’s look at some more images that reveal the essence of that bankrupt ideology.

Here’s a cartoon from Libertarian Reddit that does a great job of showing the real difference between capitalism and socialism.

Perfectly stated. Reminds me of the insights offered by Thatcher and Churchill.

Sadly, if you provide the statists with real-world evidence, many of them still prefer the world in top-right frame rather than the bottom-right frame.

Heck, the IMF actually publishes studies supporting equal levels of poverty.

As you might suspect, there are plenty of socialists who enjoy the benefits of capitalism while urging statism for everyone else. Think, for instance, about all the leftists who use tax havens.

Or this hipster millennial.

Maybe he could have a ménage à trois with Pajama Boy and Julia? Though only if everyone is guaranteed equal levels of disappointment.

Next is a helpful reminder from Bernie Sanders about the very thin line between socialism and communism.

Though I’m not sure there’s a meaningful difference.

Last but not least, this gem from Libertarian Reddit appealed to my juvenile sense of humor.

Basically the same message you find in the last item in this collection of socialism humor.

P.S. Here’s my two-part series (here and here) on the bizarre allure of socialism.

P.P.S. For additional examples of socialism humor, click here, here, here, here, and here.

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