Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Redistribution’

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

According to research from the Bank for International Settlements, the long-term fiscal outlook for the United Kingdom is very grim. The data generated by the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development isn’t quite as dour, but those bureaucracies also show very significant long-run fiscal challenges.

The problem in the U.K. is the same as the problem in the United States. And France. And Germany. And Japan. Simply stated, the welfare state is becoming an ever-larger burden in large part because the elderly population is expanding in developed nations compared to the number of potential taxpayers.

The good news, as noted in this BBC story, is that some folks in the United Kingdom realize this is bad news for young people.

Lord Willetts…said the contract between young and old had “broken down”. Without action, young people would become “increasingly angry”.

The bad news is that these folks apparently think you solve the problem of young-to-old redistribution by adding a layer of old-to-young redistribution.

I’m not joking.

A £10,000 payment should be given to the young and pensioners taxed more, a new report into inter-generational fairness in the UK suggests. The research and policy organisation, the Resolution Foundation, says these radical moves are needed to better fund the NHS and maintain social cohesion. …The foundation’s Intergenerational Commission report calls for an NHS “levy” of £2.3bn paid for by increased national insurance contributions by those over the age of 65. It says that all young people should receive a £10,000 windfall at the age of 25 to help pay for a deposit on a home, start a business or improve their education or skills.

To be fair, proponents of this idea are correct about young people getting a bad deal from the current system. And they are right about older people getting more from government than they pay to government.

“There’s no avoiding the pressures for more spending on healthcare and social care, the question is how we meet those pressures,” he replied. “Extra borrowing is unfair on the younger generation. “Extra taxes on the working population – when especially younger workers have not really seen any increase in their pay – will be very unfair. “It so happens that the older people who will benefit most from extra spending on health care have got some resources, so at low rates, it’s reasonable to expect them to contribute.

But I fundamentally disagree with their conclusion that bigger government is the answer.

“It is better than any of the alternatives.”

For what it’s worth, what’s happening in the U.K. is an example of Mitchell’s Law. Young people are getting a bad deal because of programs created by government.

But rather than proposing to unwind the programs that caused the problem, the folks at the Resolution Foundation have decided that creating additional programs financed by additional taxes is the way to go.

By the way, you won’t be surprised to learn that the group also has other bad ideas.

The report calls for the scrapping of the council tax system, replacing it with a new property tax which would raise more money from wealthier homeowners. The proceeds would be used to halve stamp duty for first-time buyers.

Let’s close by looking at some interesting data about the attitudes of the young.

…a poll undertaken for the Intergenerational Commission also suggested people were more pessimistic in Britain about the chances of the next generation having “better lives” than the one before it – compared with almost any other country.

Here’s the chart showing data for the U.K. and several other nations.

Congratulations to France for having the most pessimistic young people (maybe this is why so many of them would move to the U.S. if they had the chance).

And I think the South Koreans are too glum and the Chinese are too optimistic. The Italians also are too upbeat. But otherwise these numbers generally make sense.

P.S. I was very pessimistic about the U.K. in 2012, but had a more upbeat assessment last summer. Now the pendulum has now swung back in the other direction.

P.P.S. If the Brits screw up Brexit, I’ll be even more downbeat about the nation’s outlook.

Read Full Post »

I’m conflicted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

Federalism is the gold standard for reforming redistribution programs. This was the approach used in the very successful Clinton-era welfare reform, and it should be replicated for other means-tested programs.

The core argument is that the federal government does a very poor job of managing such programs, resulting in a maze of handouts that produce lots of fraud and dependency.

If states were in charge of such programs, by contrast, there would be lots of innovation and experimentation. This would help policy makers understand the best way of taking care of the truly destitute while helping others transition to productive and self-sufficient lives.

Today, let’s look specifically at food stamps. I’ve already explained why federalism is the right way of fixing the program.

And here are some additional reasons to support reform.

Writing for USA Today, Jim Bovard opined on the program’s glaring shortcomings – many of which were exacerbated by the Obama Administration’s efforts to expand dependency.

Why did the food stamp program spiral out of control? The Obama administration believed that maximizing handouts would maximize prosperity… So the feds bankrolled massive recruiting campaigns to sway people to abandon self-reliance. A North Carolina social services agency won a USDA “Hunger Champions Award” for attacking “mountain pride” as a reason not to accept government handouts. In Alabama, people received fliers proclaiming: “Be a patriot. Bring your food stamp money home.” The state of Florida paid individual recruiters to sign up at least 150 new food stamp recipients per month. …enrollment also skyrocketed after Obama effectively suspended the three-month limit for able-bodied adults without dependents to collect food stamps. From 2008 to 2010, the number of able-bodied recipients doubled.

Jim points out several reasons why the program is bad for the economy and bad for poor people.

A 2012 Journal of Public Economics study concluded that receiving food stamps sharply reduces work hours by single mothers. …state governments have little or no incentive to police the program because losses from fraud or waste don’t come out of state budgets. …the program is a dietary disaster. Walter Willett, chair of Harvard University’s Department of Nutrition, observed in 2015, “We’ve analyzed what (food stamp) participants are eating and it’s horrible food. It’s a diet designed to produce obesity and diabetes.” A 2017 study published in BMC Public Health found that food stamp recipients were twice as likely to be obese as eligible non-recipients. …A 2016 USDA report revealed that soft drinks and other sweetened beverages are the most common purchase in food stamp households, accounting for almost 10% of monthly expenditures. “Desserts, salty snacks, candy and sugar” account for another 10% of food stamp expenditures.

And it’s definitely bad for taxpayers. In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Kristina Rasmussen explained how rich people are able to bilk the system.

Consider the food stamp program’s longstanding policy of “broad-based categorical eligibility.” You probably assume that food stamps go to poor people only. But this policy, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture instituted during the Clinton administration, allows state food-stamp programs to grant benefits to anyone who has moderately low wage income, regardless of net worth. A family with a seven-figure bank account can be eligible for food stamps. That’s how lottery winners—including actual millionaires—wind up getting food stamps. In 2012 Amanda Clayton of Detroit was revealed to be receiving $200 in monthly food aid despite having won $1 million the year before. “I feel that it’s OK because I have no income,” she said, “and I have bills to pay. I have two houses.” In 2011 Leroy Fick of Bay County, Mich., was found to be receiving food assistance despite having taken home $850,000 in lottery winnings the previous year. …more than 30 states continue to have no asset limits. All you need to collect food aid is two things: an income below a multiple of the poverty line, ranging from 130% to 200%; and eligibility for some sort of benefit funded by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the main welfare program for single parents. And there’s the “one weird trick.” The state spends TANF dollars to print a welfare brochure. The brochure itself is defined as a “benefit,” which everybody is “eligible” to receive, thereby meeting the USDA requirement. Of the 47 million Americans who received food stamps in 2014, some four million got them under “broad-based categorical eligibility”—most because their wealth would have made them ineligible otherwise.

The good news is that the White House wants to reform the scandal-plagued program.

The bad news is that Trump and his people have chosen paternalism rather than federalism.

Here’s what is in the Administration’s budget (scroll to page 128).

The Budget would also create a new approach to nutrition assistance that combines traditional SNAP benefits with U.S. Department of Agriculture Foods provided directly to households. This cost-effective approach supports American agriculture, prevents certain types of program abuse, provides state flexibility in delivering food benefits, and ensures the nutritional value of the benefits provided. …Under the proposal, households receiving $90 or more per month in SNAP benefits will receive a portion of their benefits in the form of a USDA Foods package, which would include items such as shelf-stable milk, ready to eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit, vegetables, and meat, poultry or fish. …This cost-effective approach will generate significant savings to taxpayers with no loss in food benefits to participants.

I can understand that people don’t like it when food stamp recipients are buying junk food. Or luxury items.

And I can also understand the desire to make dependency somewhat discomforting.

But I have zero faith in the federal government’s ability to send food boxes to people every month and somehow save money and avoid extra bureaucracy.

What’s frustrating about the plan in Trump’s budget is that they actually proposed a semi-decent policy of partial federalism last year. So I view this as a step in the wrong direction.

By the way, the fact that I don’t like the plan doesn’t mean I agree with some of the leftist critics. As this “perplexed meme” illustrates, the folks who correctly mock the White House’s proposal are also the same ones who want the government to have massive powers over matters that are far more complex than delivering food.

While the budget plan takes the wrong approach, the White House has done something good via the regulatory process by giving states more flexibility for work requirements.

Kansas, Maine, Wisconsin, and Alabama have achieved good results already, and now the same thing is happening in Georgia, as noted by PJ Media.

Thousands of Georgia residents who depend on food stamps are losing their benefits because they have failed to meet the state’s new requirements that force the able-bodied without children to find jobs. …“The greater good is people being employed, being productive and contributing to the state,” Bobby Cagle, director of the state Department of Family and Children Services, said. …State Rep. Greg Morris (R) said the fact that thousands of people have lost their benefits only showed the magnitude of the problem of welfare fraud in Georgia. He said the new mandate is working. “This is about protecting taxpayer dollars from abuse, and taking people off the cycle of dependency,” Morris said. However, Benita Dodd, vice president of the conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation, wrote that saving taxpayer dollars was not the program’s ultimate goal. “The goal must be to focus aid on those who truly need help and restore the dignity of work to able-bodied adults,” Dodd wrote. “Reducing dependency and promoting economic opportunity help end the cycle of poverty, reinforce the temporary nature of assistance and encourage personal responsibility.”

The bottom line is that I don’t know how much work should be required, or what kind. I also don’t know whether the idea of direct food delivery in Trump’s budget is necessarily a bad idea.

Which is why I want decentralization of the program. Let states try different approaches and then learn from each other. That’s good for taxpayers and good for poor people.

Which is basically what I said in this interview more than six years ago.

P.S. Here’s a map showing which states (as of a few years ago) had the highest rate of food stamp dependency.

P.P.S. And here’s a table showing which states have the highest levels of food stamp dependency relative to the eligible population.

Read Full Post »

Writing a column every day is a recipe for making an occasional mistake.

Sometimes the errors are minor, such as when I put Tucson in New Mexico rather than Arizona.

And sometimes they are less trivial, such as when I mischaracterized subsidies for the Postal Service or when I incorrectly criticized the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

In an event, I always try to acknowledge and fix my mistakes.

And that’s why I want to write today about Oxfam. Early last year, I wrote a column criticizing the group’s statist orientation, asserting in my title that the group was a leftist joke instead of a real charity.

Time to correct the record. But I want to begin by noting that my title was only partly wrong. Oxfam is very much a left-wing organization. In prior columns, I’ve shared critiques of the group’s statist ideology from Tim Carney, Marian Tupy, and Tony Travers.

And before I get to the part about fixing my mistake, I want to augment this list by sharing the views of two more experts. We’ll start with some excerpts from a column in the Wall Street Journal by David Henderson.

Oxfam recently published a 76-page report, “Reward Work, Not Wealth,” that advocates taxing the rich to reduce inequality and help the poor. …There are two ways to close the gap. The first is to concentrate on making the poor better off. Mostly that has happened, thanks to liberalized international trade and reduced costs for shipping goods. Just as Walmart and Amazon have cut costs for Americans, the introduction of container shipping crushed transportation costs for the world. The second way to reduce inequality is to make the rich worse off.

Needless to say, Oxfam prefer the approach that gives more power and money to government.

Any guess which method Oxfam’s report emphasizes? “Governments should use regulation and taxation to radically reduce levels of extreme wealth,” the authors conclude. …The document’s title, “Reward Work, Not Wealth,” is strange: Wealth is one of the main rewards for productive work. High taxes on wealth and the wealthy reduce the incentive to produce.

And Oxfam, to its credit, understands that confiscatory taxes will require a global tax cartel.

…the report…effectively advocates…the creation of a tax cartel. Since capital is extremely mobile and will go where it is lightly taxed—witness the corporate “inversions” of American companies—the report suggests “a new generation of international tax reforms.” Negotiating tax rates would take place under the aegis of “a new global tax body that ensures all countries participate on an equal footing.”

Reading Henderson’s column, we have additional confirmation that Oxfam is a run-of-the-mill statist organization that myopically believes in class warfare.

So you might think the group is no different that other leftists groups such as the United Nations or the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Or no different than politicians such as Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

But Oxfam also has a reputation for beclowning itself with shoddy analysis.

Johan Norberg mocked the group’s ideology-over-results approach when he noted that Oxfam is distressed about an era of “neoliberalism” in the world (meaning, in this case, the European definition of pro-market classical liberalism), yet that’s also the period of time when the poor enjoyed huge gains.

For what it’s worth, I wrote a study 17 years ago debunking some of Oxfam’s sloppy work.

And here’s some of what Tim Worstall just wrote for the U.K.’s Adam Smith Institute.

Buried in Oxfam’s latest report about how disastrously unequal the world is we’ve got an assumption which is so breathtakingly foolish as to kill off any belief in the sense or sensibility of the organisation’s mindset. They’re trying to insist that the minimum wage in a place should be very much higher than GDP per capita in that same place. …the garment trade in Bangladesh…minimum wage there is…5,000 taka a month, or £50. …Yes, a low sum and most assuredly we’d all like it to be much higher. But Oxfam’s claim is that this should be a living wage of more like £250 a month (perhaps $250). Something which simply cannot happen. GDP per capita in Bangladesh is some $1,500 a year or so. We cannot have a minimum wage twice that. This would be the same claim as insisting that the UK minimum wage should be $80,000 a year (say, £60,000). …It’s a demand based upon the most aggressively stupid misunderstanding of what ails Bangladesh, isn’t it? ……to get this so wrong seriously calls into doubt Oxfam’s right to anything more than a contemptuous sneer. …Sorry folks, but Oxfam is deluded.

Tim concludes with some very wise words.

Bangladesh’s problem is not global inequality, the thing Oxfam is whining about, it’s Bangladesh’s poverty. …The cure for poverty is economic growth, the very thing which has reduced that global absolute poverty from 40% of all humans to under 10% in just these past three decades of that very neoliberal globalisation.

Now it’s finally time for my correction. When I wrote last year that Oxfam was “not a real charity,” I was merely implying that the group was a bad charity since it advocated policies that hurt poor people.

But thanks to new revelations about Oxfam’s involvement in horrific sex-crimes scandals, I’ve learned it doesn’t deserved to be called a charity of any kind. Check out these excerpts from a CNN report.

Oxfam’s deputy chief executive has resigned amid a growing sex crimes scandal involving the organization’s aid workers in Haiti and Chad. …Oxfam announced the resignation after a meeting with UK government officials Monday, at which it had fought to keep millions of pounds in public funding. …Oxfam received about £32 million (about $44 million) from the government last financial year, according to public records.

And the money from British taxpayers is just the tip of the iceberg.

Here’s a shocking bit of information from the conclusion of  David Henderson’s column.

Oxfam’s annual budget exceeds $1 billion, and it gets almost half of that from governments and the United Nations. So maybe it’s time for a new name. Oxgov.

Almost half of its budget from taxpayers?!? At best, that makes them a government contractor rather than a charity.

I’ll conclude with two points.

  • First, I think Oxfam should lose public funding. But not because some of its employees engaged in sexual predation. Yes, that’s bad, but I certainly don’t think sex abuse was ever part of the organization’s mission. Instead, it should lose funding because taxpayer money should not go to leftist organizations that advocate for bigger government (the same argument I use, by the way, when urging an end to OECD handouts).
  • Second, instead of telling people that “Oxfam is a letist joke rather than a real charity,” I’ll have to changes the second part of the sentence. Maybe “Oxfam is a leftist joke and it mooches from taxpayers.” I’m not sure that rolls off the tongue gracefully, so I’m open to other suggestions.

P.S. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the International Monetary Fund partners with Oxfam. I guess the old saying is right that birds of feather flock together.

Read Full Post »

Back in 2014, I shared a report that looked at the growth of redistribution spending in developed nations.

That bad news in the story was that the welfare state was expanding at a rapid pace in the United States. The good news is that the overall fiscal burden of those programs was still comparatively low. At least compared to other industrialized countries (though depressingly high by historical standards).

I specifically noted that Switzerland deserved a lot of praise because redistribution spending was not only relatively modest, but that it also was growing at a slow rate. Yet another sign it truly is the “sensible country.”

But I also expressed admiration for Canada.

Canada deserves honorable mention. It has the second-lowest overall burden of welfare spending, and it had the sixth-best performance in controlling spending since 2000. Welfare outlays in our northern neighbor grew by 10 percent since 2000, barely one-fourth as fast as the American increase during the reckless Bush-Obama years.

But I didn’t try to explain why Canada had good numbers.

Now it’s time to rectify that oversight. I went to the University of Texas-Arlington last week to give a speech and had the pleasure of meeting Professor Todd Gabel. Originally from Canada, Professor Gabel has written extensively on Canadian welfare policy and he gave me a basic explanation of what happened in his home country.

I asked him to share some of his academic research and he sent me several publications, including two academic studies he co-authored with Nathan Berg from the University of Otago.

Here are some excerpts from their 2015 study published in the Canadian Journal of Economics. Gabel and Berg explain welfare reform in Canada and look at which policies were most successful.

During the 1990s and 2000s, Canada’s social assistance (SA) system transitioned from a relatively centralized program with federal administrative controls to a decentralized mix of programs in which provinces had considerable discretion to undertake new policies. This transition led to substantially different SA programs across provinces and years… Some provincial governments experimented aggressively with new policy tools aimed at reducing SA participation. Others did not. In different years and by different amounts, nearly all provinces reduced SA benefit levels and tightened eligibility requirements.

By the way, the SA program in Canada is basically a more generous version of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program in America, in part because there are not separate programs for food and housing.

The study includes this remarkable chart showing a significant drop in Canadian welfare dependency, along with specific data for three provinces.

The authors wanted to know why welfare dependency declined in Canada. Was is simply a result of a better macroeconomic environment? Or did specific reforms in welfare policy play a role?

…what role, if any, did new reform strategies undertaken by provinces play in observed declines in SA participation. This paper attempts to address this question by measuring disaggregated effects of new reform strategies on provinces’ SA participation rates, while controlling for changes in benefit levels, eligibility requirements, labour market conditions, GDP growth and demographic composition.

Their conclusion is that welfare reform helped reduce dependency.

…our econometric models let the data decide on a ranking of which mechanisms—reductions in benefit levels, tightened eligibility requirements, improved macro-economic conditions or adoption of new reform strategies—had the largest statistical associations with declines in participation. The data suggest that new reforms were the second most important policy reform after reductions in employment insurance benefits. … In the empirical models that disaggregate the effects of different new reform strategies, it appears that work requirements with strong sanctions for non-compliance had the largest effects. The presence of strong work requirements is associated with a 27% reduction in SA participation.

Here’s their table showing the drop in various provinces between 1994 and 2009.

The same authors unveiled a new scholarly study published in 2017 in Applied Economics, which is based on individual-level data rather than province-level data.

Here are the key portions.

A heterogeneous mix of aggressive welfare reforms took effect in different provinces and years starting in the 1990s. Welfare participation rates subsequently declined. Previous investigations of these declines focused on cuts in benefits and stricter eligibility requirements. This article focuses instead on work requirements, diversion, earning exemptions and time limits – referred to jointly as new welfare reform strategies.

Here’s their breakdown of the types of reforms in the various provinces.

And here are the results of their statistical investigation.

The empirical models suggest that new reform strategies significantly reduced the probability of welfare participation by a minimum of 13% overall…the mean person in the sample faces a reduced risk of welfare participation of 1.1–1.3 percentage points when new reform strategies are present… the participation rates of the disabled, immigrants, aboriginals and single parents, appear to have responded to the presence of new reform strategies significantly more than the average Canadian in our sample. The expected rate of welfare participation for these groups fell by two to four times the mean rate of decline associated with new reform policies.

The bottom line is that welfare reform was very beneficial for Canada. Taxpayers benefited because the fiscal burden decreased. And poor people benefited because of a transition from dependency to work.

Let’s close by looking at data measuring redistribution spending in Canada compared to other developed nations. These OECD numbers include social insurance outlays as well as social welfare outlays, so this is a broad measure of redistribution spending, not just the money being spent on welfare. But it’s nonetheless worth noting the huge improvement in Canada’s numbers starting about 1994.

Canada now has the world’s 5th-freest economy. Welfare reform is just one piece of a very good policy puzzle. There also have been relatively sensible policies involving spending restraint, corporate tax reform, bank bailoutsregulatory budgeting, the tax treatment of saving, and privatization of air traffic control.

P.S. If it wasn’t so cold in Canada, that might be my escape option instead of Australia.

P.P.S. Given the mentality of the current Prime Minister, it’s unclear whether Canada will remain an economic success story.

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

One of my pet peeves is when people characterize Robin Hood as some sort of left-wing redistributionist. As I’ve explained, that’s utter nonsense.

If you read the book or watch the movie starring Errol Flynn, Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham were the bad guys because they over-taxed the peasants. Robin Hood was the good guy because he rescued the money from the tax collectors and returned it to the people who earned it.

Kudos to Ted Cruz, who tried to educate (a poorly informed) Bernie Sanders on this topic.

Cruz accidentally promoted Prince John to King John (or is my aging memory betraying me and did Prince John declare himself King at some point?), but he’s 100 percent correct on the fundamental point.

And now I’m wondering which modern leftists should play the roles of the bad guys from Robin Hood if there’s a remake of the movie. Perhaps Obama should be Prince John, which might be a better fit than the other movie roles people have imagined for our former president.

And the Sheriff of Nottingham obviously could be played by our corrupt IRS Commissioner. He would be a natural for the role.

But let’s not get too distracted. The focus today is on whether Robin Hood belongs to Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party. This image reinforces the point that the latter is a better fit.

Just in case the message isn’t clear, here’s a nice clip from the cartoon version of Robin Hood.

I’m delighted that children actually were exposed to this message. I suggest sharing this clip widely with your kids, grandkids, nieces, nephew, etc, etc.

For what it’s worth, I also tried to correct the record about Robin Hood in a TV interview back in 2012.

P.S. Leftists aren’t the only people to mischaracterize Robin Hood, as I noted when discussing an otherwise-solid column by Cal Thomas.

P.P.S. Since Cal Thomas mentioned Robin Hood as part of a column explaining that Jesus wasn’t a socialist, I can’t resist showing Libertarian Jesus, who dispenses wisdom here and here.

Read Full Post »

Imagine that we’re in a parallel universe and that you’re the lookout on the Titanic. But in this make-believe world, you have all sorts of fancy radar that allows you to detect icebergs with lots of advance notice. Furthermore, imagine that you detect danger and give lots of warning to the Captain and other officers.

How would you feel if they then decided to ignore your warnings and continued on their course to disaster? You’d probably tear your hair out in frustration.

And that’s a pretty good description of how I feel about the easy-to-predict, visible-to-the-naked-eye, baked-in-the-cake, bound-to-happen fiscal crisis that will occur because of the combination of demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs.

It’s happening in the United States. It’s happening in Europe. It’s happening in Asia. Heck, this is a worldwide problem.

Simply stated, welfare states were created back when everyone assumed that there would always be a “population pyramid,” which means relatively few old people (who collect a lot of money from entitlement programs) at the top, plenty of workers (also known as taxpayers) in the middle, and lots of children (i.e., future taxpayers) at the bottom.

In that world, a modest-sized welfare state isn’t a good idea, but at least it is mathematically sustainable.

Today, by contrast, such a welfare state is a problem because we’re living longer and having fewer children.

And in the future, that kind of welfare state is a recipe for a Greek-style fiscal crisis because demographic trends will be even less favorable. To be blunt, there won’t be enough people pulling the wagon compared to the mass of people riding in the wagon.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, here’s some additional data on this global problem. We’ll start with this look at how the population pyramid is becoming a population cylinder. The key thing to notice is the growth of the over-65 cohort.

And here’s a different way of looking at the same data, but stretching out to 2100.

I didn’t add a red line at age 65, but it’s easy to see that the number of older people will dramatically increase without a concomitant increase in the number of working-age people who are expected to pay the taxes to finance pensions and health care.

So what’s all this mean? Here’s a sobering thought from Prospect.

The ageing populations of the advanced economies and the larger emerging ones combines with past falls in the birth rate to mean that the share of total world population who are of prime working age has been falling since 2012. After a four-decade rise, the trend has reversed with that fall projected to last throughout the 2020s, 2030s and 2040s. A slower-growing global workforce will be a big challenge for the global economy.

A “big challenge” may win the prize for understatement.

Bloomberg has a column on the implications of this massive demographic shift. Notice the data on the number of workers per retiree in various nations.

Rising dependency ratios — or the number of retirees per employed worker — provide one useful metric. In 1970, in the U.S., there were 5.3 workers for every retired person. By 2010 this had fallen to 4.5, and it’s expected to decline to 2.6 by 2050. In Germany, the number of workers per retiree will decrease to 1.6 in 2050, down from 4.1 in 1970. In Japan, the oldest society to have ever existed, the ratio will decrease to 1.2 in 2050, from 8.5 in 1970. Even as spending commitments grow, in other words, there will be fewer and fewer productive adults around to fund them.

The bottom line is that there are enormous unfunded liabilities.

Arnaud Mares of Morgan Stanley analyzed national solvency, or the difference between actual and potential government revenue, on one hand, and existing debt levels and future commitments on the other. The study found that by this measure the net worth of the U.S. was negative 800 percent of its GDP; that is, its future tax revenue was less than committed obligations by an amount equivalent to eight times the value of all goods and services America produces in a year. The net worth of European countries ranged from about negative 250 percent (Italy) to negative 1,800 percent (Greece). For Germany, France and the U.K., the approximate figures were negative 500 percent, negative 600 percent and negative 1,000 percent of GDP.

Wow, it’s depressing that the long-run outlook for the United States is worse than it is for some of Europe’s most infamous welfare states. Though I guess we shouldn’t be totally surprised since I’ve already shared similarly grim estimates from the IMF, BIS, and OECD.

I’ll close with some (sort of) good news.

Notwithstanding some of the estimates I’ve shared, America actually is in better shape than these other nations. If we enact genuine entitlement reform, ideally sooner rather than later, the long-run numbers dramatically improve because spending and debt no longer would be projected to rise so dramatically (whereas government already is an enormous burden in Europe).

This isn’t idle theory. Policymakers don’t have much control over demographics, but they can reduce the fiscal impact of demographic change by adopting better policy.

To cite the most prominent examples, jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore have very long lifespans and very low birthrates, yet their public finances don’t face nearly as much long-run pressure because they never made the mistake of setting up western-style welfare states.

The solution, therefore, is for America and other nations to copy these successful jurisdictions by replacing tax-and-transfer entitlements with systems based on private savings.

P.S. For what it’s worth, I’m not overflowing with optimism that we’ll get the reforms that are needed with Trump in the White House.

Read Full Post »

Most economic policy debates are predictable. Folks on the left urge higher taxes and bigger government while folks on the right advocate lower taxes and smaller government (thanks to “public choice” incentives, many supposedly pro-market politicians don’t follow through on those principles once they’re in office, but that’s a separate issue).

The normal dividing line between right and left disappears, however, when looking at whether the welfare state should be replaced by a “universal basic income” that would provide money to every legal resident of a nation.

There are some compelling arguments in favor of such an idea. Some leftists like the notion of income security for everybody. Some on the right like the fact that there would be no need for massive bureaucracies to oversee the dozens of income redistribution programs that currently exist. And since everyone automatically would get a check, regardless of income, lower-income people seeking a better life no longer would face very high implicit tax rates as they replaced handouts with income.

But there are plenty of libertarians and small-government conservatives who are skeptical. I’m in this group because of my concern that the net result would be bigger government and I don’t trust that the rest of the welfare state would be abolished. Moreover, I worry that universal handouts would erode the work ethic and exacerbate the dependency problem.

And I have an ally of the other side of the ideological spectrum.

Former Vice President Joe Biden…will push back against “Universal Basic Income,”… UBI is a check to every American adult, but Biden thinks that it’s the job that is important, not just the income. In a blog post…timed to the launch of the Joe Biden Institute at the University of Delaware, Biden will quote his father telling him how a job is “about your dignity. It’s about your self-respect. It’s about your place in your community.”

I often don’t agree with Biden, but he’s right on this issue.

Having a job, earning a paycheck, and being self-sufficient are valuable forms of societal or cultural capital.

By contrast, a nation that trades the work ethic for universal handouts is taking a very risky gamble.

Let’s look at what’s been written on this topic.

In an article for the Week, Damon Linker explores the importance of work and the downside of dependency.

…a UBI would not address (and would actually intensify) the worst consequences of joblessness, which are not economic but rather psychological or spiritual. …a person who falls out of the workforce permanently will be prone to depression and other forms of psychological and spiritual degradation. When we say that an employee “earns a living,” it’s not merely a synonym for “receives a regular lump sum of money.” The element of deserving (“earns”) is crucial. …a job can be and often is a significant (even the primary) source of a person’s sense of self-worth. …A job gives a person purpose, a reason to get up in the morning, to engage with the world and interact with fellow citizens in a common endeavor, however modest. And at the end of the week or the month, there’s the satisfaction of having earned, through one’s own efforts, the income that will enable oneself and one’s family to continue to survive and hopefully even thrive.

Dan Nidess, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, opines about the downsides of universal handouts.

At the heart of a functioning democratic society is a social contract built on the independence and equality of individuals. Casually accepting the mass unemployment of a large part of the country and viewing those people as burdens would undermine this social contract, as millions of Americans become dependent on the government and the taxpaying elite. It would also create a structural division of society that would destroy any pretense of equality. …UBI would also weaken American democracy. How long before the well-educated, technocratic elites come to believe the unemployed underclass should no longer have the right to vote? Will the “useless class” react with gratitude for the handout and admiration for the increasingly divergent culture and values of the “productive class”? If Donald Trump’s election, and the elites’ reactions, are any indication, the opposite is likelier. …In the same Harvard commencement speech in which Mr. Zuckerberg called for a basic income, he also spent significant time talking about the need for purpose. But purpose can’t be manufactured, nor can it be given out alongside a government subsidy. It comes from having deep-seated responsibility—to yourself, your family and society as a whole.

An article in the American Interest echoes this point.

…work, for most people, isn’t just a means of making money—it is a source of dignity and meaning and a central part of the social compact. Simply opting for accelerated creative destruction while deliberately warehousing the part of the population that cannot participate might work as a theoretical exercise, but it does not mesh with the wants and desires and aspirations of human beings. Communities subsisting on UBIs will not be happy or healthy; the spectacle of free public redistribution without any work requirement will breed resentment and distrust.

Writing for National Review, Oren Cass discusses some negative implications of a basic income.

…even if it could work, it should be rejected on principle. A UBI would redefine the relationship between individuals, families, communities, and the state by giving government the role of provider. It would make work optional and render self-reliance moot. An underclass dependent on government handouts would no longer be one of society’s greatest challenges but instead would be recast as one of its proudest achievements. Universal basic income is a logical successor to the worst public policies and social movements of the past 50 years. These have taken hold not just through massive government spending but through fundamental cultural changes that have absolved people of responsibility for themselves and one another, supported destructive conduct while discouraging work, and thereby eroded the foundational institutions of family and community that give shape to society. …Those who work to provide for themselves and their families know they are playing a critical and worthwhile role, which imbues the work with meaning no matter how unfulfilling the particular task may be. As the term “breadwinner” suggests, the abstractions of a market economy do not obscure the way essentials are earned. A UBI would undermine all this: Work by definition would become optional, and consumption would become an entitlement disconnected from production. Stripped of its essential role as the way to earn a living, work would instead be an activity one engaged in by choice, for enjoyment, or to afford nicer things. …Work gives not only meaning but also structure and stability to life. It provides both socialization and a source of social capital. It helps establish for the next generation virtues such as responsibility, perseverance, and industriousness. …there is simply no substitute for stepping onto the first rung. A UBI might provide the same income as such a job, but it can offer none of the experience, skills, or socialization.

Tyler Cowen expresses reservations in his Bloomberg column.

I used to think that it might be a good idea for the federal government to guarantee everyone a universal basic income, to combat income inequality, slow wage growth, advancing automation and fragmented welfare programs. Now I’m more skeptical. …I see merit in tying welfare to work as a symbolic commitment to certain American ideals. It’s as if we are putting up a big sign saying, “America is about coming here to work and get ahead!” Over time, that changes the mix of immigrants the U.S. attracts and shapes the culture for the better. I wonder whether this cultural and symbolic commitment to work might do greater humanitarian good than a transfer policy that is on the surface more generous. …It’s fair to ask whether a universal income guarantee would be affordable, but my doubts run deeper than that. If two able-bodied people live next door to each other, and one works and the other chooses to live off universal basic income checks, albeit at a lower standard of living, I wonder if this disparity can last. One neighbor feels like she is paying for the other, and indeed she is.

In a piece for the City Journal, Aaron Renn also comments on the impact of a basic income on national character. He starts by observing that guaranteed incomes haven’t produced good outcomes for Indian tribes.

…consider the poor results from annual per-capita payments of casino revenues to American Indian tribes (not discussed in the book). Some tribes enjoy a very high “basic income”—sometimes as high as $100,000 per year— in the form of these payments. But as the Economist reports, “as payment grows more Native Americans have stopped working and fallen into a drug and alcohol abuse lifestyle that has carried them back into poverty.”

And he fears the results would be equally bad for the overall population.

Another major problem with the basic-income thesis is that its intrinsic vision of society is morally problematic, even perverse: individuals are entitled to a share of social prosperity but have no obligation to contribute anything to it. In the authors’ vision, it is perfectly acceptable for able-bodied young men to collect a perpetual income while living in mom’s basement or a small apartment and doing nothing but play video games and watch Internet porn.

Jared Dillian also looks at the issue of idleness in a column for Bloomberg.

I do not like the idea of a universal basic income. Its advocates fundamentally misunderstand human nature. What they do not realize about human beings is that for the vast majority of them, a subsistence level of income is enough — and those advocates are blind to the corrosive effects that widespread idleness would have on society. If you give people money for doing nothing, they will probably do nothing. …A huge controlled experiment on basic income has already been run — in Saudi Arabia, where most of the population enjoys the dividends of the country’s oil wealth. Saudi Arabia has found that idleness leads to more political extremism, not less. We have a smaller version of that controlled experiment here in the U.S. — for example, the able-bodied workers who have obtained Social Security Disability Insurance payments and are willing to stay at home for a piddling amount of money. …the overarching principle is that people need work that is worthwhile, for practical and psychological reasons. If we hand out cash to anyone who can fog a mirror, I figure we are about two generations away from revolution.

By the way, it’s not just American Indians and Saudi Arabians that are getting bad results with universal handouts.

Finland has been conducting an experiment and the early results don’t look promising.

The bottom line is that our current welfare system is a dysfunctional mess. It’s bad for taxpayers and recipients.

Replacing it with a basic income probably would make the system simpler, but at a potentially very high cost in terms of cultural capital.

That’s why I view federalism as a much better approach. Get Washington out of the redistribution racket and allow states to compete and innovate as they find ways to help the less fortunate without trapping them in dependency.

Read Full Post »

Let’s consider some good news about America.

Some folks on the left like to claim that the middle class is shrinking and that therefore we need bigger government and more redistribution to protect these Americans from falling into poverty.

Well, the first half of that statement is true. The middle class is becoming smaller. But here’s the good news. As I noted in 2015 when sharing some data from Pew, the middle class is shrinking because more and more households are earning six-figure incomes.

Now we have more confirmation. Courtesy of Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute, here’s a nice chart based on data from the Census Bureau’s new report on income and poverty in the United States.

Want to feel even better?

In a column for CNBC, Professor Daniel Smith of Troy University explains that government data understates the improvements in living standards. He points out that total compensation has increased much faster than wages.

Complaints that the rich are getting richer while the majority have hit a brick wall in wage growth have led to calls to impose regulations and taxes aimed at creating a “fair” economy. This mantra, however, is wrought with holes and erroneous interpretation of the data… Over the last few decades, employees have been receiving an increasingly larger portion of their overall compensation in the form of benefits such as health care, paid vacation time, hour flexibility, improved work environments and even daycare. …Total compensation, which adds these benefits to wages and salaries, shows that earnings have actually increased more than 45 percent since 1964.

And he notes that income gains are understated if measured against the PCE index rather than the consumer price index.

Furthermore, “purchasing power,” the amount of stuff people can buy with each dollar, has changed dramatically… CPI is notorious for overstating inflation, and thus understating the growth of real wages received by workers. Adjusting the data with the more appropriate Personal Consumption Expenditure index brings the growth in average hourly wages from 5.58 percent to more than 35 percent and the growth in total compensation of employees from more than 45 percent to more than 87 percent.

The bottom line is we’re able to buy more and better for less work.

But even that index fails to grasp the drastic increase in what workers get for their wages. …100.5 hours of work was required to purchase a washing machine in 1959 compared to just 23.3 hours of work (for the average worker) in 2013. Purchasing a TV demanded an astounding 127.8 hours of work in 1959, whereas a worker in 2013 could purchase one with only 20.7 hours of work. Moreover, the improved quality of these goods over the past few decades is staggering. …Today’s iPhones and other smart-phone models seem like a different species from their predecessors… We’ve seen the same progress in knee-replacement surgeries, computers, the Internet, vacuum cleaners, and other technologies we’ve come to rely on.

Professor Smith wrote this piece back in 2014, but these arguments apply just as well today as they did back then.

Though I don’t want to be a Pollyanna. There are very worrisome trends in our economy, especially increased dependency and reduced labor force participation.

So if you prefer to look at the glass as being half empty, Nicholas Eberstadt of the American University authored an article that is very pessimistic assessment about recent trends.

It turns out that the year 2000 marks a grim historical milestone of sorts for our nation. For whatever reasons, the Great American Escalator, which had lifted successive generations of Americans to ever higher standards of living and levels of social well-being, broke down around then—and broke down very badly. …it should be painfully obvious that the U.S. economy has been in the grip of deep dysfunction since the dawn of the new century. …It took America six and a half years—until mid-2014—to get back to its late 2007 per capita production levels. And in late 2016, per capita output was just 4 percent higher than in late 2007—nine years earlier. By this reckoning, the American economy looks to have suffered something close to a lost decade. …Between 2000 and 2016, per capita growth in America has averaged less than 1 percent a year. To state it plainly: With postwar, pre-21st-century rates for the years 20002016, per capita GDP in America would be more than 20 percent higher than it is today. …If 21st-century America’s GDP trends have been disappointing, labor-force trends have been utterly dismal. Work rates have fallen off a cliff since the year 2000 and are at their lowest levels in decades.

I don’t disagree with any of this. Growth has been weak this century.

Which is hardly a surprise since we’ve seen an erosion of economic liberty (thanks Bush and Obama!).

But I also want to keep things in perspective. Weak growth is better than no growth. Our living standards are increasing, even if they could – and should – be rising at a faster clip.

So let me swing back to the Pollyanna side by sharing a chart which ostensibly is bad news because it shows rising inequality. But I view it as good news because it shows that all of us are at least 40 percent richer – in real terms – than we were back around 1980.

By the way, Thomas Sowell has pointed out that higher-income households tend to do better because they have more people working, while lower-income households feature lots of dependency. Moreover, if Professor Smith and others are right, the increase in living standards is far greater than what this chart shows anyhow. But even if you accept this data at face value, we are all getting richer over time.

Yes, growth rates should be faster and incomes should be climbing more rapidly. Especially at the bottom. Whether you look at global data or country-specific data, that’s an argument for free markets and small government.

As I wrote last year, we don’t need perfect policy to get more prosperity. Just give the private sector some breathing room.

Read Full Post »

I confess that I’m never sure how best to persuade and educate people about the value of limited government.

Regular readers presumably will put me in the second camp since most of my columns involve data and evidence on the superior outcomes associated with markets compared to statism.

That being said, I actually don’t think we will prevail until and unless we can convince people that it is ethically wrong to use government power to dictate and control the lives of other people.

So I’m always trying to figure out what motivates people and how they decide what policies to support.

With this in mind, I was very interested to see that nine scholars from five continents (North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia), representing six countries (Canada, United States, Argentina, Netherlands, Israel, and Australia) and four disciplines (psychology, criminology, economics, and anthropology), produced a major study on what motivates support for redistribution.

Why do people support economic redistribution? …By economic redistribution, we mean the modification of a distribution of resources across a population as the result of a political process. …it is worthwhile to understand how distributive policies are mapped into and refracted through our evolved psychological mechanisms.

The study explain how human evolution may impact our attitudes, a topic that I addressed back in 2010.

The human mind has been organized by natural selection to respond to evolutionarily recurrent challenges and opportunities pertaining to the social distribution of resources, as well as other social interactions. …For example, it was hypothesized that modern welfare activates the evolved forager risk-pooling psychology — a psychology that causes humans to be more motivated to share when individual productivity is subject to chance-driven interruptions, and less motivated to share when they think they are being exploited by low-effort free riders. Ancestrally, sharing resources that came in unsynchronized, high-variance, large packages (e.g., large game) allowed individuals to buffer each other’s shortfalls at low additional cost.

Here’s how the authors structured their research.

…we propose that the mind perceives modern redistribution as an ancestral game or scene featuring three notional players: the needy other, the better-off other, and the actor herself. …we use the existence of individual differences in compassion, self-interest, and envy as a research tool for investigating the joint contribution of these motivational systems to forming attitudes about redistribution.

And here’s how they conducted their research.

We conducted 13 studies with 6,024 participants in four countries to test the hypothesis that compassion, envy, and self-interest jointly predict support for redistribution. Participants completed instruments measuring their (i) support for redistribution; (ii) dispositional compassion; (iii) dispositional envy; (iv) expected personal gain or loss from redistribution (our measure of self-interest); (v) political party identification; (vi) aid given personally to the poor; (vii) wealthy-harming preferences; (viii) endorsement of pro-cedural fairness; (ix) endorsement of distributional fairness; (x) age; (xi) gender; and (xii) socioeconomic status (SES).

Now let’s look at some of the findings, starting with the fact that personal compassion is not associated with support for coerced redistribution. Indeed, advocates of government redistribution tend to be less generous (a point that I’ve previously noted).

Consider personally aiding the poor—as distinct from supporting state-enacted redistribution. Participants in the United States, India, and the United Kingdom (studies 1a–c) were asked whether they had given money, food, or other material resources of their own to the poor during the last 12 mo; 74–90% of the participants had. …dispositional compassion was the only reliable predictor of giving aid to the poor. A unit increase in dispositional compassion is associated with 161%, 361%, and 96% increased odds of having given aid to the poor in the United States, India, and the United Kingdom. …Interestingly, support for government redistribution was not a unique predictor of personally aiding the poor in the regressions… Support for government redistribution is not aiding the needy writ large—in the United States, data from the General Social Survey indicate that support for redistribution is associated with lower charitable contributions to religious and nonreligious causes (61). Unlike supporting redistribution, aiding the needy is predicted by compassion alone.

But here’s the most shocking part of the results.

The people motivated by envy are often interested in hurting those above them than they are in helping those below them.

…consider envy. Participants in the United States, India, and the United Kingdom (studies 1a–c) were given two hypothetical scenarios and asked to indicate their preferred one. In one scenario, the wealthy pay an additional 10% in taxes, and the poor receive an additional sum of money. In the other scenario, the wealthy pay an additional 50% in taxes (i.e., a tax increment five times greater than in the first scenario), and the poor receive (only) one-half the additional amount that they receive in the first scenario. That is, higher taxes paid by the wealthy yielded relatively less money for the poor, and vice versa… Fourteen percent to 18% of the American, Indian, and British participants indicated a preference for the scenario featuring a higher tax rate for the wealthy even though it produced less money to help the poor (SI Appendix, Table S3). We regressed this wealthy-harming preference simultaneously on support for redistribution… Dispositional envy was the only reliable predictor. A unit increase in envy is associated with 23%, 47%, and 43% greater odds of preferring the wealthy-harming scenario in the United States, India, and the United Kingdom.

This is astounding, in a very bad way.

It means that there really are people who are willing to deprive poor people so long as they can hurt rich people.

Even though I have shared polling data echoing these findings, I still have a hard time accepting that some people think like that.

But the data in this study seem to confirm Margaret Thatcher’s observation about what really motivates the left.

The authors have a more neutral way of saying this. They simply point out that compassion and envy can lead to very different results.

Compassion and envy motivate the attainment of different ends. Compassion, but not envy, predicts personally helping the poor. Envy, but not compassion, predicts a desire to tax the wealthy even when that costs the poor.

Since we’re on the topic or morality, markets, and statism, my colleague Ryan Bourne wrote an interesting column for CapX looking at research on what type of system brings out the best in people.

It turns out that markets promote cooperation and trust.

…experimental work of Herbert Gintis, who has analysed the behaviours of 15 tribal societies from around the world, including “hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, nomadic herders, and small-scale sedentary farmers — in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.” Playing a host of economic games, Gintis found that societies exposed to voluntary exchange through markets were more highly motivated by non-financial fairness considerations than those which were not. “The notion that the market economy makes people greedy, selfish, and amoral is simply fallacious,” Gintis concluded. …Gintis again summarises, “movements for religious and lifestyle tolerance, gender equality, and democracy have flourished and triumphed in societies governed by market exchange, and nowhere else.”

Whereas greater government control and intervention produce a zero-sum mentality and cheating.

…we might expect greed, cheating and intolerance to be more prevalent in societies where individuals can only fulfil selfish desires by taking from, overpowering or using dominant political or hierarchical positions to rule over and extort from others. Markets actually encourage collaboration and exchange between parties that might otherwise not interact. This interdependency discourages violence and builds trust and tolerance. …In a 2014 paper, economists tested Berlin residents’ willingness to cheat in a simple game involving rolling die, whereby self-reported scores could lead to small monetary pay-offs. Participants presented passports and ID cards to the researchers, which allowed them to assess their backgrounds. The results were clear: participants from an East German family background were far more likely to cheat than those from the West. What is more, the “longer individuals were exposed to socialism, the more likely they were to cheat.”

All of which brings me back to where I started.

How do you persuade people to favor liberty if they are somehow wired to have a zero-sum view of the world and they think that goal of public policy is to tear down the rich, even if that hurts the poor?

Though the internal inconsistency of the previous sentence maybe points to the problem. If the poor and the rich are both hurt by a policy (or if both benefit from a policy), then the world clearly isn’t zero-sum. And we now from voluminous evidence, of course, that the world isn’t that way.

But how to convince people, other than making the same arguments over and over again?

P.S. Jonah Goldberg and Dennis Prager both have videos with some insight on this issue.

Read Full Post »

The notion that government should automatically give everyone money – a policy known as “universal basic income” – is now getting a lot of attention.

From an economic perspective, I acknowledge that the idea should not be summarily rejected. Here’s some of what I wrote earlier this year.

…there actually is a reasonable argument that the current welfare state is so dysfunctional that it would be better to simply give everyone a check instead.

But I’m nonetheless very skeptical. Simply stated, the math doesn’t work, people would have less incentive to work, and there would be “public choice” pressures to expand the size of the checks.

So when the topic came up as part of a recent interview, I criticized the proposal and praised Swiss voters for rejecting – by an overwhelming margin – a referendum that would have created a basic income in that nation.

My reaction was probably even more hostile than normal because I don’t like it when guilt-ridden rich people try to atone for their wealth by giving away my money.

Moreover, it’s silly for Zuckerberg to use Alaska as an example because of its oil wealth and small population.

That being said, if I had more time, I would have been more nuanced and pointed out that we hopefully will learn more from some of the experiments that are happening around the world. Especially what’s happening on the other side of the north pole from Alaska.

The New York Times published an in-depth preview of Finland’s experiment late last year. Here’s a description of the problem that Finnish policymakers want to solve.

…this city has…thousands of skilled engineers in need of work. Many were laid off by Nokia… While entrepreneurs are eager to put these people to work, the rules of Finland’s generous social safety net effectively discourage this. Jobless people generally cannot earn additional income while collecting unemployment benefits or they risk losing that assistance. For laid-off workers from Nokia, simply collecting a guaranteed unemployment check often presents a better financial proposition than taking a leap with a start-up.

For anyone who has studied the impact of redistribution programs on incentives to work, this hardly comes as a surprise.

Indeed, the story has both data and anecdotes to illustrate how the Finnish welfare state is subsidizing idleness.

In the five years after suffering a job loss, a Finnish family of four that is eligible for housing assistance receives average benefits equal to 73 percent of previous wages, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That is nearly triple the level in the United States. …the social safety net…appears to be impeding the reinvigoration of the economy by discouraging unemployed people from working part time. …Mr. Saloranta has his eyes on a former Nokia employee who is masterly at developing prototypes. He only needs him part time. He could pay 2,000 euros a month (about $2,090). Yet this potential hire is bringing home more than that via his unemployment benefits. “It’s more profitable for him to just wait at home for some ideal job,” Mr. Saloranta complains.

So the Finnish government wants to see if a basic income can solve this problem.

…the Finnish government is exploring how to change that calculus, initiating an experiment in a form of social welfare: universal basic income. Early next year, the government plans to randomly select roughly 2,000 unemployed people — from white-collar coders to blue-collar construction workers. It will give them benefits automatically, absent bureaucratic hassle and minus penalties for amassing extra income. The government is eager to see what happens next. Will more people pursue jobs or start businesses? How many will stop working and squander their money on vodka? Will those liberated from the time-sucking entanglements of the unemployment system use their freedom to gain education, setting themselves up for promising new careers? …The answers — to be determined over a two-year trial — could shape social welfare policy far beyond Nordic terrain.

The results from this experiment will help answer some big questions.

…basic income confronts fundamental disagreements about human reality. If people are released from fears that — absent work — they risk finding themselves sleeping outdoors, will they devolve into freeloaders? “Some people think basic income will solve every problem under the sun, and some people think it’s from the hand of Satan and will destroy our work ethic,” says Olli Kangas, who oversees research at Kela, a Finnish government agency that administers many social welfare programs. “I’m hoping we can create some knowledge on this issue.” …Finland’s concerns are pragmatic. The government has no interest in freeing wage earners to write poetry. It is eager to generate more jobs.

As I noted above, this New York Times report was from late last year. It was a preview of Finland’s experiment.

People have been getting checks for several months. Are there any preliminary indications of the impact?

Well, the good news is that recipients apparently like getting free money. Here are some excerpts from a report by Business Insider.

…some of the 2,000 recipients are already reporting lower levels of stress. The $600 they receive each month might not be much, but it’s enough to put some people’s anxiety at ease.

But the bad news is that the handouts are giving people the flexibility to reject work.

Marjukka Turunen, head of Kela’s legal benefits unit, told Kera News. “There was this one woman who said: ‘I was afraid every time the phone would ring, that unemployment services are calling to offer me a job,'”… Scott Santens, a basic income advocate and writer…says basic income redistributes power into the middle-class — namely, to turn down unappealing jobs.

The last sentence of the excerpt is particularly worrisome. Some advocates think universal handouts are good precisely because people can work less.

It’s obviously too early to draw sweeping conclusions, especially based on a couple of anecdotes.

However, a recent column in the New York Times by two left-leaning Finns suggests that the data will not be favorable to universal handouts. The authors start with a basic explanation of the issue.

Universal basic income is generating considerable interest these days, from Bernie Sanders, who says he is “absolutely sympathetic” to the idea, to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and other tech billionaires. The basic idea behind it is that handing out unconditional cash to all citizens, employed or not, would help reduce poverty and inequality… As a rich country in the European Union, with one of the highest rates of social spending in the world, Finland seemed like an ideal testing ground for a state-of-the-art social welfare experiment. …Kela, the national social-insurance institute, randomly selected 2,000 Finns between 25 and 58 years of age who were already getting some form of unemployment benefits. The subsidies were offered to people who had been unemployed for about one year or more, or who had less than six months of work experience.

But then they denigrate the study.

…the Finnish trial was poorly designed… The trial size was cut to one-fifth of what had originally been proposed, and is now too small to be scientifically viable. Instead of giving free money to everyone, the experiment is handing out, in effect, a form of unconditional unemployment benefits. In other words, there is nothing universal about this version of universal basic income. …The government has made no secret of the fact that its universal basic income experiment isn’t about liberating the poor or fighting inequality. Instead, the trial’s “primary goal” is “promoting employment,” the government explained in a 2016 document proposing the project to Parliament. Meaning: The project was always meant to incentivize people to accept low-paying and low-productivity jobs.

Maybe I’m reading between the lines, but it sounds like they are worried that the results ultimately will show that a basic income discourages labor supply.

Which reinforces my concerns about the entire concept.

Yes, the current system is bad for both poor people and taxpayers. But why would anyone think that we’ll get better results if we give generous handouts to everyone?

So if we replace all those handouts with one big universal handout, is there any reason to expect that somehow people will be more likely to find jobs and contribute to the economy?

Again, we need to wait another year or two before we have comprehensive data from Finland. But I’m skeptical that we’ll get a favorable outcome.

P.S. The Wizard-of-Id parody shown above contains a lot of insight about labor supply and incentives. As does this Chuck Asay cartoon and this Robert Gorrell cartoon.

P.P.S. Since I rarely write about Finland, I should point out that it is ranked #20 for economic liberty, only four spots behind the United States (and the country is more pro-market than America when looking at non-fiscal policy factors).

P.P.P.S. On the minus side, Finland has decided that broadband access is somehow a human right. On the plus side, the country’s central bank produces good research on the burden of government spending, and its former president understood the essential flaw of Keynesian economics.

Read Full Post »

In addition to his exemplary work as a Senior Fellow for the Cato Institute, Johan Norberg narrates some great videos for Free to Choose Media. Here are some that caught my eye.

But my favorite video, which I shared back in January, is his concise explanation of why policy makers should focus on fighting poverty rather than reducing inequality.

I’m posting it again to set the stage for a discussion on inequality and fairness.

Now let’s dig into the main topic for today.

A study by three academics from Yale’s Department of Psychology concludes that people want fairness rather than equality.

…there is no evidence that people are bothered by economic inequality itself. Rather, they are bothered by something that is often confounded with inequality: economic unfairness. Drawing upon laboratory studies, cross-cultural research, and experiments with babies and young children, we argue that humans naturally favour fair distributions, not equal ones, and that when fairness and equality clash, people prefer fair inequality over unfair equality.

My former grad school classmate Steve Horwitz wrote about the aforementioned study

…what we really care about is something other than inequality per se. We care about upward mobility, or average income overall, or how well the least well off do. …A recent study in Nature argued, with evidence, that what bothers people more than inequality per se is “unfairness.” People will accept inequality if they feel the process that produced it is fair. …when I give talks about inequality. I point out the number of Apple products visible in the room and ask them if they think the wealth Steve Jobs and other Apple founders accumulated over their lifetimes was objectionable. Is that the kind of inequality they object to? Students are usually hard-pressed to articulate why Jobs’ wealth is wrong… I also remind them that economic studies show that only about 4% of the total benefits of innovation accrue to the innovator. The rest goes to consumers.

Steve cites Nozick and Hayek to bolster his argument before then making the key point that markets produce material abundance based on genuine fairness.

As Robert Nozick argued in Anarchy, State, and Utopia: if each step in the evolution of the market is fair by itself, how can the pattern of income that emerges be unfair? …Hayek…observed in The Constitution of Liberty that if we want equality of outcomes, we will have to treat people unequally. If, however, we treat people equally, we will get unequal outcomes. Hayek’s argument was premised on the fact that human beings are not equal in our native intelligence, strength, skills, and abilities. …If people really care about fairness, then supporters of the market should be insisting on the importance of equality before the law. …Equality of outcomes requires that we treat people differently, and this will likely be perceived as unfair by many. Equality before the law corresponds better with notions of fairness even if the outcomes it produces are unequal. …If what appear to be concerns about inequality are, in fact, concerns about unfairness, we have ways of addressing them that demonstrate the power of exchange and competitive markets. Markets are more fair because they require that governments treat us all equally and that none of us have the ability to use political power to protect ourselves from the competition of the marketplace and the choices of consumers. In addition, market-based societies have been the best cure for poverty humans have ever known.

Writing for CapX, Oliver Wiseman analyzes other scholarly research on equality and fairness.

A 2012 study by behavioural economists Dan Ariely and Mike Norton generated some attention for demonstrating that Americans wanted to live in a more equal country. But more equal is not the same thing as fully equal. …if you let people choose between equal and unequal societies – and then tell them that they themselves will be assigned a level of wealth within it completely at random – most people choose inequality. And that preference is observable across the political spectrum, in different countries and at a range of ages.

But people don’t want undeserved inequality since that is the result of unfair interventions (i.e., cronyism).

This paper’s conclusions help explain much of the outcry over economic inequality in recent years. Occupy Wall Street and the very idea of the “one per cent” emerged just after the financial crisis plunged much of the world into recession, and US and British banks were handed billion-dollar bailouts to steady the ship. The anger didn’t come from the fact that bankers were so well paid. It came from the perception that they’d made that money by piling up risk rather than being particularly clever or hard-working – risk that was now being underwritten by the taxpayer. The wealth wasn’t just distributed unequally, but unfairly. The market mechanisms that most people accepted as the rules of the economic game suddenly seemed rigged. …Voters, in other words, don’t want equality – they want fairness. …As the Soviets found, true economic equality cannot be accommodated within a system that allows people tolerable levels of economic and political freedom. But fairness, by contrast, is something capitalism can – and should – deliver.

Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University cites some additional academic research buttressing the conclusion people don’t object to fair types of inequality.

…most Americans don’t mind inequality nearly as much as pundits and academics suggest. A recent research paper, by Graham Wright of Brandeis University, found that polled attitudes about economic inequality don’t correlate very well with the desire for government to address it. There is even partial evidence, once controls are introduced into the statistics, that talk of inequality reduces the support for doing something about it. …It’s not obvious why such counterintuitive results might be the case. One possibility is that…talk about economic inequality increases political polarization, which lowers the chance of effective action. Or that criticizing American society may cause us to feel less virtuous, which in turn may cause us to act with less virtue. …A variety of other research papers have been showing that inequality is not a major concern per se. One recent study by Matthew Weinzierl of Harvard Business School shows that most Americans are quite willing to accept economic inequality that stems from brute luck, and that they are inclined to assume that inequality is justified unless proved otherwise.

Last but not least, Anne Bradley of the Institute for Humane Studies augments this analysis by explaining the difference between ethical market-driven inequality versus unfair cronyist-caused inequality.

The question of whether income inequality is bad hinges on the institutions within that society and whether they support entrepreneurship and creativity or thuggery and exploitation. Income inequality is good when people earn their money by discovering new and better ways of doing things and, through the profit mechanism, are encouraged to bring those discoveries to ordinary people. …Rising incomes across all income groups (even if at different rates) is most often the sign of a vibrant economy where strangers are encouraged to serve each other and solve problems. Stagnant incomes suggest something else: either a rigged economy where only insiders can play, or an economy where the government controls a large portion of social resources, stalling incomes, wealth, and wellbeing.

She includes a very powerful example of why it can be much better to live in a society with high levels of (fair) inequality.

Consider the following thought experiment: knowing nothing other than the Gini index scores, would you rather live in a world with a Gini of .296 (closer to equality) or .537 (farther from equality)? Many people when asked this question choose the world of .296. These are the real Gini scores of Pakistan (.296) and Hong Kong (.537). If given the choice, I would live in Hong Kong without thinking twice. Hong Kong has a thriving economy and high incomes, and it is the world leader in economic freedom. The difference between these two countries could not be more striking. In Pakistan, there might be more income equality, but everyone is poorer. It is difficult to emerge out of poverty in Pakistan. Hong Kong provides a much richer environment where people are encouraged to start businesses, and this is the best hope for rising incomes, or income mobility.

Her example of Hong Kong and Pakistan is probably the most important takeaway from today’s column.

Simply stated, it’s better to be poor in a jurisdiction such as Hong Kong where there is strong growth and high levels of upward mobility. Indeed, I often use a similar example when giving speeches, asking audiences whether poor people are better off in Hong Kong, which has only a tiny welfare state, or better off in nations such as France and Greece, which have bloated welfare states but very little economic dynamism.

The answer is obvious. Or should be obvious, at least to everyone who wants to help the poor more than they want to punish the rich (and there are plenty in the latter camp, as Margaret Thatcher explained).

And I’m now going to add my China example to my speeches since inequality dramatically increased at the same time that there was a stupendous reduction in poverty.

Once again, the moral of the story should be obvious. Focus on growth. Yes, some rich people will get richer, but the really great news is that the poor will get richer as well. And so long as everyone is earning money through voluntary exchange rather than government coercion, that also happens to be how a fair economy operates.

Read Full Post »

Time for another trip down Memory Lane to the early years of the Obama Administration.

Two days ago, I wrote about the market-wrecking price controls in Obamacare. And yesterday, I shared a new study exposing the utter failure of Obama’s Cash-for-Clunkers scheme. Now let’s take a look at the track record of the “Obamaphone.”

Though let’s start by noting that federal subsidies for phone service existed well before Obama took office. He simply took a misguided program and made it bigger. Here’s a concise explanation of the program from a story I shared in 2014.

The Federal Communications Commission program…charges a dollar or two per line on every American’s phone bill. The revenue generated by the “Universal Service Fund fee” is then used to pay select phone companies $9.25 per month for each poor person they sign up for a free phone. …its cost doubled in five years to $1.75 billion in 2011, and in some states, the number of phones given out exceeded the total eligible population.

But since big government is a recipe for big corruption, you won’t be surprised to learn that a bigger program of phone subsidies has produced scandalous levels of waste, fraud, and abuse. The Government Accountability Office has just released a report revealing widespread incompetence and malfeasance in the “Lifeline” program. Here are some highlights from GAO’s one-page summary.

GAO found weaknesses in several areas. For example, Lifeline’s structure relies on over 2,000 Eligible Telecommunication Carriers that are Lifeline providers to implement key program functions, such as verifying subscriber eligibility. This complex internal control environment is susceptible to risk of fraud, waste, and abuse as companies may have financial incentives to enroll as many customers as possible.

Yes, you read correctly. The private companies that are mooching off this program are in charge of determining eligibility, even though they get more handouts by signing up more recipients.

As you might expect, this is a green light for massive fraud.

Based on its matching of subscriber to benefit data, GAO was unable to confirm whether about 1.2 million individuals of the 3.5 million it reviewed, or 36 percent, participated in a qualifying benefit program, such as Medicaid, as stated on their Lifeline enrollment application.

Readers are welcome to plow their way through GAO’s full 89-page report, but news reports have teased out the most important details.

Here are some excerpts from a story in the Washington Times.

The controversial “Obamaphone” program, which pays for cellphones for the poor, is rife with fraud, according to a new government report released Thursday that found more than a third of enrollees may not even be qualified. Known officially as the Lifeline Program, the phone giveaway became a symbol of government waste in the previous administration. …the program has stashed some $9 billion in assets in private bank accounts rather than with the federal treasury, further increasing risks and depriving taxpayers of the full benefit of that money. “…everything that could go wrong is going wrong,” said Mrs. McCaskill, ranking Democrat on the Senate’s chief oversight committee and who is a former state auditor in Missouri. “We’re currently letting phone companies cash a government check every month with little more than the honor system to hold them accountable, and that simply can’t continue,” she said. …More than 5,500 people were found to be enrolled for two phones, while the program was paying for nearly 6,400 phones for persons the government has listed as having died. Investigators also submitted fraudulent applications to see what would happen, and 12 of the 19 phone carriers they applied to approved a phone.

The Daily Caller’s report also highlighted the program’s rampant fraud.

A massive portion of Obamaphone recipients are receiving the benefit after lying on their applications, according to a new 90-page report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). An undercover sting operation showed ineligible applications were approved 63 percent of the time, and a review that found that 36 to 65 percent of beneficiaries in various categories had lied in easily-detectable ways but were approved anyway. The fraud reached unheard-of proportions because the Federal Communications Commission let the task of screening for eligibility fall to phone companies that profit off of enrolling as many people as possible. …All someone has to do to apply for free cell phone service is say that they are on another welfare program, such as food stamps or disability, known as SSI. But nationwide, “only 35.5 percent of people claiming eligibility based on SSI could actually be confirmed as eligible,” the GAO found. …Special interests have aggressively employed a bootleggers-and-Baptists model, with companies who profit greasing the wheels of government with donations and influence-peddling and using poor people as props in marketing campaigns. …The wife of the CEO of TracFone, the largest beneficiary of Obamaphones, was a mega-fundraiser for former President Barack Obama. …And a Pew Research Center report found that the problem of lack of access to technology is far less than it once was, the GAO noted. The FCC’s own data shows that “millions of Lifeline-eligible households are obtaining voice service without Lifeline,” while the fraud rates show that many of the people who do sign up are wealthier than those who don’t.

Again, keep in mind that subsidized telephone service isn’t an Obama invention.

He merely built upon a bad idea that existed for decades.

But also keep in mind that the waste, fraud, and abuse in the Obamaphone program is an inherent part of big government.

There’s fraud in the Medicare program. There’s fraud in the EITC program. There’s fraud in food stamps. There’s fraud in Medicaid. There’s fraud in the disability program. There’s welfare fraud.

But I don’t want to merely pick on what are perceived to be Democrat programs.

There’s also lots of waste, fraud, and abuse at the Pentagon.

Simply stated, when you give away free money, people will do dodgy things to get some of it.

P.S. Given the pervasive parasitical corruption of Washington, nobody should be surprised to learn that plenty of Republican lobbyists are willing to shill for the Obamaphone program.

Read Full Post »

I periodically share data showing that living standards are higher in the United States than in Europe.

My goal isn’t to be jingoistic. Instead, I’m warning readers that we won’t be as prosperous if we copy out tax-and-spend friends on the other side of the Atlantic (just like I try to draw certain conclusions when showing how many low-tax jurisdictions have higher levels of economic output than the United States).

I’m sometimes asked, though, how America can be doing better than Europe when we have more poverty.

And when I ask them why they thinks that’s the case, they will point to sources such as this study from the German-based Institute of Labor Economics. Here’s some attention-grabbing data from the report.

The United States has the highest poverty rate both overall and among households with an employed person, but it stands farther away from the other countries on its in-work poverty rate than its overall poverty rate. The contrast between the US and three other English-speaking countries — Australia, Ireland, and the United Kingdom — is particularly striking. Compared to those three nations, the United States has an overall poverty rate only a little higher but an in-work poverty rate that is much higher.

And here’s the main chart from the study, with the United States as the bottom. It appears that there twice as much poverty in the USA as there is in a stagnant economy like France.

There even appears to be more poverty in America than there is in Spain and Italy, both of which are so economically shaky that they required bailouts during the recent fiscal/financial crisis.

Sounds horrible, right?

Yes, it does sound really bad. However, it’s total nonsense. Because what you read in the excerpt and see in the graph has nothing to do with poverty.

Instead, it’s a measure of income distribution.

And, if you read carefully, the study actually admits there’s a bait-and-switch.

The…approach to measuring poverty is a “relative” one, with the poverty line set at 60 or 50 percent of the median income.

Think about what this means. A country where everyone is impoverished will have zero or close-to-zero poverty because everyone is at the median income. But as I’ve explained before, a very wealthy society can have lots of “poverty” if some people are a lot richer than others.

And since the United States is much richer than other nations, this means an American household with $35,000 of income can be poor, even though they wouldn’t count as poor if they earned that much elsewhere.

This is like grading on a rigged curve. And if you read the fine print of the IZA study, you’ll see that the “poverty” threshold for a four-person household magically jumps by $16,260.

For a household of four (two adults, two children) the difference between the official US threshold and the 60-percent-of-median threshold amounts to more than $16,000 ($24,000 versus $40,260). This means that the size of the working poor population in America according to the official poverty measure is significantly lower than the size obtained in studies using a relative threshold.

In other words, you can calculate a much higher poverty rate if you include people who aren’t poor.

By the way, since the IZA report acknowledges this bait-and-switch approach, I guess one would have to say that the study technically is honest.

But it’s still misleading because most people aren’t going to read the fine print. Instead, they’ll see the main chart showing higher “poverty” and assume that there is a much higher percentage of actual poor people in the United States.

Moreover, some people may understand that there’s a bait-and-switch and simply want to help fool additional people.

And I’m guessing that this is exactly what the authors and the IZA staff expected and wanted. And if that’s the case, then the study is deliberately misleading, even if not technically dishonest.

I’ll close by stating that I don’t mind if folks on the left want to argue that market-based societies are somehow unfair because some people are richer than others. And it’s also fine for them to argue that we should be willing sacrifice some of our national prosperity to achieve more after-the-fact equality of income.

But I’d like for them to be upfront about their agenda and not hide behind dodgy data manipulation.

P.S.When you do apples-to-apples comparisons of the United States with the best-performing economies of Europe, you find that the poor tend to be at the same level, but every other group is better off in America.

P.P.S. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that both the Obama Administration and the leftists at the OECD prefer the “relative” definition of poverty.

P.P.P.S. The problem with our statist friends, as Margaret Thatcher explained, is that some of them are so upset about inequality that they’re willing to make everyone poorer if that’s what it takes to reduce income differences.

P.P.P.P.S. Indeed, this “Swiftian” column about reducing inequality is satire, but one wonders whether statists would actually accept such an outcome.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Data from China demonstrates why our attention should be on poverty reduction rather than inequality.

Read Full Post »

If there was a ranking of international bureaucracies, the World Bank would be my favorite (or, to be more accurate, least unfavorite). Yes, it sometimes produces bad studies, but it also is the source of good research on topics such as government spending, Social Security reform, tax complexity, financial regulation, and economic liberty. And the rankings in Doing Business are a very helpful way of measuring and comparing regulatory burdens (which is why leftists are so hostile to the project). Moreover, it’s hard to dislike an organization that has a mission of fighting poverty (even if it sometimes thinks redistribution is the right strategy).

The United Nations would be next on the list. The good news is that it has many well-meaning people. The bad news is that is has some very misguided projects. But since it isn’t very effective, I confess that it doesn’t command much of my attention.

At the bottom would be either the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The IMF is notorious for supporting bailouts and advocating tax increases. Depending on my mood, it’s either the “Dr. Kevorkian of economic policy” or the “dumpster fire of the global economy.” Yes, I try to be fair and will acknowledge occasional good research (on taxation, government spending, financial regulation, spending caps, etc), but there’s no question that the net impact of the IMF is negative.

The OECD also is on the wrong side when looking at the big picture. Once again, I’ll admit that there are occasional good studies (on spending caps, tax policy, government spending, etc). But those glimmers of good news are overwhelmed by a statist agenda on a wide range of policies. Most recently, the Paris-based bureaucracy proposed more taxes and more spending for the American economy. And if you’re interested in other examples, I’ve attached a list of examples at the bottom of this column.

But the main purpose of this column is to review a new publication from the OECD. As part of its so-called “Bridging the Gap” project, the bureaucrats in Paris just issued a new report that reads as if it was taken from the campaign speeches of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

Here are some of the lowlights, starting with a misguided fixation on inequality.

Fiscal redistribution through taxes and transfers plays a crucial role in containing the impact of market income inequality on disposable income… Policies aimed at promoting growth should consider how growth will have an impact on many other outcomes, and how to ensure that those policies avoid the “grow first, distribute later” assumption that has characterised the economic paradigm until recently. It is now clear that growth strategies need to consider from the outset the way in which their benefits will be distributed to different income groups. … Inequalities tear at the fabric of our societies. Inequality of incomes translates seamlessly into inequality of opportunities for children, including education, health and jobs, and lower future prospects to flourish individually and collectively. …inequalities are reaching a tipping point

I’m tempted to joke that the bureaucrats want a “distribute first, grow never” approach, but let’s focus on the fact that the real goal should be reducing poverty rather than reducing inequality.

If I’m poor, I want an opportunity to increase my income. And if there’s a policy that will help give me that opportunity, it doesn’t matter if that policy enables Bill Gates to increase his income at a faster rate.

That’s why there’s no substitute for economic growth if you really want to help the less fortunate.

But the not-so-subtle message of the OECD report is that poor people are poor because rich people are rich. The bureaucrats are concerned with how to re-slice the pie rather than how to expand the size of the pie.

The really troubling material is in the final chapter, but I can’t resist commenting on a few items that appeared earlier in the report.

Such as the fact that the bureaucrats were not happy when unemployment benefits in the United States were curtailed.

…redistribution helped cushion increases in market income inequality, but its role has since tended to fall in a majority of OECD countries in the most recent years…it reflects the phasing out of fiscal stimulus, as in the United States, where the extension of unemployment benefit duration carried out in 2008-09 was rolled back in 2011.

Too bad nobody told the authors that the job market improved in America when subsidies for joblessness were cut back.

But that kind of mistake is predictable since the OECD puts such a high value on coercive redistribution.

I’m also not surprised that the bureaucrats are upset that tax competition has resulted in lower tax rates.

Globalisation has increased the difficulty for governments in taxing mobile capital income. Increased levels of capital mobility have led to certain reductions in statutory income tax rates…, which has reduced the progressivity of tax systems… The distributional effects of these reductions in statutory tax rates, especially the reduction in top personal income tax rates, has been a contributing factor to the rise in inequalities.

And the OECD even regurgitated its bizarre hypothesis that inequality reduces growth.

Widespread increases in income inequality are a source of concern…for their potential impact on economic performance. …recent OECD work estimates that rising inequality between 1985 and 2005 might have contributed to knocking more than 4 percentage points off growth between 1990-2010.

The final chapter, though, is where the OECD unveils its Bernie Sanders/Jeremy Corbyn agenda. I guess young people might say that the bureaucrats were “letting their statism freak flag fly.”

Governments have a vital role to play…targeted social investment, redistributive fiscal policy and comprehensive labour market support…fiscal policy is the key mechanism for redistributing market incomes and it is important that it is set up to prioritise support for vulnerable population groups at all points in the economic cycle.

And what are some of these policies?

The OECD wants to expand the welfare state, even though such policies already have caused fiscal crises in many nations.

The size of means-tested programmes is relatively small in many countries and there is room for expansion, by either making those programmes more generous or by extending their coverage.

The bureaucrats also want more double taxation on income that is saved and invested.

…enhancing tax progressivity via savings tax reform. Income from savings is taxed progressively, though at lower rates than labour and with a lot of variation in taxation across asset types. …There is therefore scope to increase the fairness and the neutrality of the taxation of capital income…removing tax expenditures…strengthening progressivity of tax bases. …tax expenditures such as tax deductions for private pension contributions…are regressive since higher income taxpayers tend to save… Removing such tax expenditures could simultaneously reduce inequality and make the tax system more efficient.

There’s also an embrace of punitive property taxes.

Increased taxation of residential property could increase both growth and strengthen progressivity. …if designed well can fall mostly on high-wealth, high-income households.

Amazingly, the OECD even wants more onerous death taxes, even though such policies have a very negative impact on capital formation.

Strengthening inheritance and gift taxes can support inclusive growth. … Inheritance taxes can…help achieve intergenerational equity goals. …In order to be effective, inheritance taxes must also be combined with taxes on gifts and wealth transfers during the taxpayers’ lifetime, as well as with measures to address avoidance and evasion.

The bureaucrats want more subsidies for joblessness.

Sufficiently generous unemployment benefits and social-assistance systems with a wide coverage are also a key.

And they even endorse an idea that is so economically absurd that it was rejected by President Obama’s main economic adviser.

Promoting gender equality in access to employment and job quality is a key component of inclusive growth. …gender pay gaps remaining at about 15% across the OECD, on average, with little change in recent years.

Here’s another passage urging a bigger welfare state.

Compensatory policies that redistribute income also have a role to play in…lowering post-redistribution inequality. …strong and well-designed social safety nets programmes are all the more needed.

And here’s a specific policy for more housing subsidies.

Access to affordable housing is a challenge for inclusion, and solutions include not only better housing policies but also better urban planning and governance of land use. …Explicit policies to support access to housing include housing allowances, social housing arrangements and different kinds of financial support towards homeownership.

As you can see, that’s an impressive collection of statist policies, even for the OECD.

P.S. I wrote last year that some folks on the left enjoy very lavish incomes while crusading about inequality. The same is true of the OECD, where bureaucrats not only are lavishly compensated (a general rule for international organizations), but they also enjoy tax-free incomes while urging higher taxes on the rest of us.

P.P.S. Here are additional examples of very dodgy research from the OECD.

P.P.P.S. Don’t forget that the OECD’s statist agenda is financed by your tax dollars.

Read Full Post »

There are a lot of positive things to be said about Norway.

In other words, Norway is a typical Nordic nation, with open markets, light regulation, free trade, and honest government. That’s the good news.

The bad news, at least from my perspective, is that Norway also is a typical Nordic nation in that it has a big welfare state.

But unlike the other Nordic nations, Norway also has a lot of oil. And, just like Alaska, it’s very easy to finance a big public sector when a government has access to a huge amount of petroleum-related revenue.

So does this make the country special? Is Norway a welfare-state Nirvana? In some sense, the answer is yes. As I’ve noted before, if a country wants a big welfare state, it makes a lot of sense to have very market-oriented policy in other areas to compensate. And if the country also happens to be rich with oil, that’s presumably not a bad combination.

But I would argue, of course, that Norway would be in better shape if the fiscal burden of government wasn’t so onerous.

And there’s growing evidence to validate my concerns. Bloomberg reports that falling oil prices are exposing problems with Norway’s extravagant welfare state.

More than a fifth of its working age population relied on unemployment or sick-leave benefits throughout 2016, according to a study by the Norwegian Labor and Welfare Administration, or NAV. With welfare payments up 3 percent in 2016, the growing dependence will likely make it harder for Norway to wean itself off oil and gas production. While the discovery of petroleum 50 years ago…helped make the world’s most generous welfare system possible — declining resources…means that the country will need to find other legs to stand on to keep up its standard of living.

Norway isn’t in any immediate danger, but I wonder whether it can still prosper when the oil runs out.

Simply stated, the welfare state may have eroded the country’s work ethic (something that’s also a problem in America).

That’s something that the stewards of the system readily admit. The agency’s acronym has even become a verb, to NAV, which means `being on benefits.’ “To uphold the Norwegian welfare system we need more people at work and not on passive benefits,” said Sigrun Vageng, the head of NAV, in an emailed answered to questions.

The problem of dependency has even spread to the richer parts of the country.

…dependency on state handouts now runs deeper. It also spread to the nation’s richest regions after the plunge in oil prices… Welfare payments in Rogaland, the regional center of the oil industry and home to Statoil ASA, rose a whopping 13 percent last year. Some 19 percent received benefits on average each month in Rogaland. In Oslo, it was 15 percent.

And once there are too many people riding in the wagon of government dependency, it’s not easy to rejuvenate a nation’s social capital.

…with an increasing share of its working age population on welfare benefits instead of paying taxes, the desired changes could prove a difficult task for whoever is in power. And many are also pulling out of the workforce altogether. The percentage of people of working age in employment fell to 70.6 percent in 2016, a 21-year low… “This comes as a big cost for the society, both through lost tax revenues and the direct expenses from social benefit payments,” said Jeanette Strom Fjaere, an economist at DNB.

On the bright side, Norway has set aside lots of oil money.

Norway…has over the past 20 years built up a sovereign wealth fund.

In other words, Norway is the opposite of Venezuela. It hasn’t squandered its oil wealth on bigger government.

On the dark side, it has reached the point where its sovereign wealth fund is shrinking rather than growing.

…the government last year started withdrawing cash for the first time.

Some people say this is similar to America’s Social Security system, which has a Trust Fund that is now being depleted. I reject that analogy for the simple reason that Norway’s fund is filled with real assets. The Social Security Trust Fund, by contrast, is nothing but a pile of IOUs (as even the Clinton Administration acknowledged).

But I’m digressing. Let’s close by observing that development economists sometimes write about a “resource curse” that exists when politicians feel they can impose lots of bad policy because it is easy to generate revenue by selling natural resources.

Some argue that Norway, with its commitment to the rule of law and markets, is the exception to the rule. Yes, its welfare state is excessive, but not because of oil. Indeed, there’s more welfare spending as a share of GDP in Denmark, Sweden, and Finland.

Though don’t forget that Norway’s GDP is boosted by all the oil wealth, so I’m guessing per-capita welfare outlays are higher than in neighboring countries (an important distinction, as illustrated by this data on government health spending).

So perhaps a version of the resource curse will hit Norway. But it won’t be because of a Venezuelan-style kleptocracy. Instead, it will be because the welfare state lures too many people into dependency. And when the oil money runs out, fixing that problem will be very difficult.

Read Full Post »

I’m agnostic about President’s Trump’s budget. It has some good proposals to save money and control the burden of government spending, but after he got rolled by the big spenders earlier this year, I wonder if he’s serious about tackling wasteful government.

Nonetheless, I’m the libertarian version of Sisyphus. Except instead of trying to roll a boulder up a hill, I have the much harder task of trying to convince the crowd in Washington to shrink the size and scope of the federal government.

So I’ve written in favor of some of Trump’s proposals.

  • Shutting down the wasteful National Endowment for the Arts.
  • Defunding National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
  • Terminating the scandal-plagued Community Development Block Grant program.
  • Block-granting Medicaid and reducing central government funding and control.
  • Curtailing foreign aid payments that enable bad policy in poor nations.

Today, let’s add to this list by looking at what’s being proposed to control spending on food stamps.

Here are the key details from the Trump budget.

The Budget provides a path toward welfare reform, particularly to encourage those individuals dependent on the Government to return to the workforce. In doing so, this Budget includes Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) reforms that tighten eligibility and encourage work… SNAP—formerly Food Stamps—has grown significantly in the past decade. …despite improvements in unemployment since the recession ended, SNAP participation remains persistently high. The Budget proposes a series of reforms to SNAP that close eligibility loopholes, target benefits to the neediest households, and require able-bodied adults to work. Combined, these reforms will reduce SNAP expenditures while maintaining the basic assistance low-income families need to weather hard times. The Budget also proposes SNAP reforms that will re-balance the State-Federal partnership in providing benefits by establishing a State match for benefit costs. The Budget assumes a gradual phase-in of the match, beginning with a national average of 10 percent in 2020 and increasing to an average of 25 percent by 2023.

This is not the approach I prefer. It would be better to create a block grant that slowly phases out over a number of years (as part of an overall plan to get the federal government out of the redistribution racket).

Nonetheless, the Trump proposal would save money for taxpayers. Here are the projected savings from the budget.

To put those numbers in context, the Congressional Budget Office projects that food stamp outlays will be about $70 billion per year if current policy is left in place.

Folks on the left are predictably warning that any restrictions on the program will cause poor people to go hungry.

Yet it seems that many of these people are happy to give up their food stamps in order to avoid productive activity. I’ve already discussed examples from Maine, Wisconsin, and Kansas. Now let’s look at a news report from Alabama.

Thirteen previously exempted Alabama counties saw an 85 percent drop in food stamp participation after work requirements were put in place on Jan. 1, according to the Alabama Department of Human Resources. …there were 5,538 adults ages 18-50 without dependents receiving food stamps as of Jan. 1, 2017. That number dropped to 831 – a decline of about 85 percent – by May 1, 2017. …Statewide, the number of able-bodied adults receiving food stamps has fallen by almost 35,000 people since Jan. 1, 2016. …Nationwide, there are about 44 million people receiving SNAP benefits at a cost of about $71 billion. The Trump administration has vowed to cut the food stamp rolls over the next decade, including ensuring that able-bodied adults recipients are working.

The same thing is happening in Arkansas.

Food stamp enrollment dropped by 25,000 people in Arkansas in 2016, after the state reinstated work requirements limited individuals to three months of benefits unless they found or trained for a job… Arkansas stopped granting waivers to work requirements January 1, 2016, and by April, 9,000 people were off of food stamps, also called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Another 15,000 more lost their benefits between April and November… J.R. Davis, a spokesman for Hutchinson’s office, told Arkansas Online. “If you’re receiving these SNAP benefits, you can continue to receive those SNAP benefits, but you have to work if you’re between 18 and 49 — that’s a conservative philosophy that the governor believes.”

By the way, recipients often don’t need to actually work to satisfy the work requirements. They can simply be enrolled in some sort of job-training program, many of which are run by the government at no direct cost to participants.

Yet a huge proportion of these able-bodied adults would rather give up food stamps than participate. Maybe I’m heartless, but this suggests that they are not actually dependent on handouts.

Let’s close by augmenting our list of con artists (the Octo-mom, college kids, etc) who mooch off the food stamp program. As reported by the Daily Caller, one of Mayor de Blasio’s cronies in New York City pretended to be poor so he could steal money from taxpayers.

A religious leader and big-time fundraiser for Democratic New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has been charged with welfare fraud for getting around $30,000 in food stamps. Yitzchok “Isaac” Sofer, a Hasidic religious leader, hosted a fundraiser for de Blasio’s 2013 mayoral campaign at the same time he was receiving food stamps illegally. …FBI…agents found that Sofer has been on food stamps since the beginning of 2010, and received more than $30,000 in benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) since 2012, according to court documents… On his food stamp application in 2012, Sofer claimed to make $250 a week, or about $13,000 a year…in 2012, however, he listed his income for 2011 at $100,000, and assets at more than $600,000, according to the criminal complaint. Sofer still has ties with de Blasio’s office.

Sounds like he’s a wonderful human being. Let’s call him Exhibit A for the decline of social capital in the United States (though certain fast food restaurants might be an even more ominous sign of eroding cultural norms).

P.S. Even if Trump isn’t sincere about wanting to control food stamp spending, I guess I shouldn’t be too depressed. After all, at least he’s not proposing to make the problem worse. By contrast, the Obama Administration actually bribed states to lure more people into food stamp dependency. And, if you can believe it, Obama’s Agriculture Secretary argued that food stamps stimulate the economy.

P.P.S. Speaking of states, here are the states with the most and least food stamp dependency, and here is a ranking of states looking at the ratio of recipients compared to the eligible population.

Read Full Post »

Every so often, I share an image that is unambiguously depressing. Usually because it suggest that freedom is slowly eroding.

I now have another addition to that depressing list.

Just as the Minneapolis Federal Reserve has an interactive website that allows users to compare recoveries and recessions, which is very useful for comparing Reaganomics and Obamanomics, the St. Louis Federal Reserve has an interactive website that allows users to compare national and regional economic data.

And that’s the source of today’s depressing chart. It shows median inflation-adjusted household income for the entire nation and for the District of Columbia. As you can see, the nation’s capital used to be somewhat similar to the rest of the nation. But over the past 10 years, DC residents have become an economic elite, with a representative household “earning” almost $14,000 more than the national average.

By the way, I put quotation marks around “earning” in the previous sentence for a very specific reason.

There is nothing wrong with some people accumulating lots of wealth and income if their prosperity is the result of voluntary exchange.

In the case of Washington, DC, however, much of the capital’s prosperity is the result of coercive redistribution. The lavish compensation of federal bureaucrats is a direct transfer from taxpayers to a gilded class, while the various lobbyists, contractors, cronyists, politicians, and other insiders are fat and happy because of a combination of direct and indirect redistribution.

I should also point out that the entire region is prospering at the expense of the rest of the nation.

By the way, some people will be tempted to argue that rising income levels in DC are simply a result of gentrification as higher-income whites displace lower-income blacks. Yes, that is happening, but that begs the question of where the new residents are getting all their income and why the nation’s capital is an increasingly attractive place for those people to live.

The answer, in large part, is that government is a growth industry. Except it’s not an industry. It’s increasingly just a racket for insiders to get rich at the expense of everyone else.

P.S. To close on a semi-humorous note, some cartoons are funny even if the underlying message is depressing.

Read Full Post »

Certain redistribution programs are called “entitlements” because anybody who meets various criteria is “entitled” to automatically get money or other benefits.

Economists worry that such programs (particularly the “means-tested” entitlements) create perverse incentives since some people will choose to work less and earn less in order to maximize the amount of handouts they receive. Such behavior is immoral, but understandable. People learn that if they make sacrifices and work more, the reward is taxation, whereas if they work less (or not at all), the reward is freebies from the government.

And the problem presumably is worse in places where there is a greater amount of redistribution (if you’re curious, here’s the data on which states and countries have the most profligate package of benefits).

But the problem goes beyond simply luring people into idleness with bad incentives. When politicians create programs that give away money, they also create opportunities for outright fraud. Which is a pervasive problem, as illustrated by these examples.

Let’s travel to Minnesota to get a sense of the magnitude of the problem.

Minnesota’s Pioneer Press reports on a government audit that found one-third of welfare recipients improperly received handouts.

A review by Minnesota’s legislative auditor has found that some of Minnesota’s welfare programs do a poor job of ensuring benefits don’t go to ineligible people… It found significant error rates in the Temporary Assistance For Needy Families program, which provides cash and other benefits to low-income families with children. …the audit found eight of 24 families it reviewed weren’t eligible for benefits they received.

That’s not a large sample size, so we don’t know if the actual overall error rate is higher or lower than 33 percent, but the audit certainly suggests that there is a major problem.

It’s also not clear how much of the problem is caused by accident and how much is caused by fraud. Presumably the latter, but it’s quite possible that some people aren’t knowingly bilking the system.

But in some cases, there’s no ambiguity. The Sun has a horror story about a stunning case of welfare fraud.

Fozia Dualeh, 39, was charged with felony theft in Anoka County District Court, as prosecutors say she received $118,000 in government aid over roughly an 18 month period. According to the complaint, Dualeh exploited three public benefit programs from January 2015 to August 2015 which included $24,176 in food support, $85,582 in child care assistance and $8,996 in medical assistance overpayments.

Wow, almost $120K over 1-1/2 years. That’s an impressive haul, though perhaps not too surprising given the dozens of handout programs that – when combined – make idleness relatively lucrative.

In any event, Ms. Dualeh claimed she was eligible for that huge package of handouts because her husband was no longer part of the family.

But that wasn’t true.

A search of the home by authorities in late October 2015 led to the discovery of Dualeh’s husband, who is also the children’s father, Abdikhadar Ismail, hiding under a blanket in the master bedroom, charges said. Several articles of mens clothing were found in a chest, as well as numerous documents and mail throughout the home belonging to Ismail. Ismail also listed the family’s address on two vehicles and with his employer, a residential health care business.

Given the large sums of money involved, the Center of the American Experiment probably deserves an award for most-understated headline on this issue.

Though at the risk of being a pedantic libertarian, I would prefer if the headline said “Lucrative” instead of “Profitable.” After all, as Walter Williams has explained that profit is a meritorious reward for serving others.

But we can all probably agree that Ms. Dualeh deserves membership in the Moocher Hall of Fame.

P.S. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ms. Dualeh was introduced to the welfare system thanks to America’s poorly designed refugee program.

P.P.S. On the broader issue of redistribution and economics, this Wizard-of-Id parody contains a lot of insight about labor supply and incentives. As does this Chuck Asay cartoon and this Robert Gorrell cartoon.

Read Full Post »

It’s time to make a very serious point, albeit with a bit of humor and sarcasm.

A couple of years ago, I shared an image of Libertarian Jesus to make the point that it’s absurd to equate compassion and virtue with government-coerced redistribution.

We all can agree – at least I hope – that it is admirable to help the less fortunate with our own time and/or money. Indeed, I’m proud that Americans are much more likely to be genuinely generous than people from other countries (and it’s also worth noting that people from conservative states are more generous than people from leftist states).

But some of our statist friends go awry when they think it’s also noble and selfless to support higher tax rates and bigger government. How is it compassionate, I ask them, to forcibly give away someone else’s money? Especially when those policies actually undermine progress in the fight against poverty!

With this in mind, here’s another great example of Libertarian Jesus (h/t: Reddit).

Amen (pun intended), I’m going to add this to my collection of libertarian humor.

But don’t overlook the serious part of the message. As Cal Thomas succinctly explained, it’s hardly a display of religious devotion when you use coercion to spend other people’s money.

This is why I’ve been critical of Pope Francis. His heart may be in the right place, but he’s misguided about the policies that actually help the less fortunate.

For what it’s worth, it would be helpful if he was guided by the moral wisdom of Walter Williams rather than the destructive statism of Juan Peron.

P.S. I’m rather amused that socialists, when looking for Christmas-themed heroes, could only identify people who practice non-coercive generosity.

P.P.S. On a separate topic, Al Gore blames climate change for Brexit.

Brexit was caused in part by climate change, former US Vice-President Al Gore has said, warning that extreme weather is creating political instability “the world will find extremely difficult to deal with”.

I’m beginning to lose track and get confused. Our statist friends have told us that climate change causes AIDS and terrorism, which are bad things. But now they’re telling us climate change caused Brexit, which is a good thing.

Maybe the real lesson is that Al Gore and his friends are crackpots.

Read Full Post »

President Trump has released his budget blueprint. From a big picture perspective, the size of government won’t change. He’s kicking the can down the road on entitlements, which is obviously disappointing for people who can add and subtract. He does cut some domestic programs, but taxpayers won’t reap the benefits since those savings will be spent elsewhere, mostly for a bigger Pentagon budget.

But I’m going to be optimistic today (the glass isn’t 9/10ths empty, it’s 1/10th full). Let’s look at the good parts of his budget.

First, some background. Redistribution is bad public policy since it simultaneously encourages inactivity and dependency among recipients and discourages activity and initiative by taxpayers.

That’s the standard argument against conventional handouts such as welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, EITC, and housing subsidies. The plethora of such programs in Washington is bad news for both taxpayers and poor people.

But there’s another type of redistribution that’s far worse, and that’s when politicians use the coercive power of government to take money from lower-income people in order to provide goodies for upper-income people.

This is why I am so unrelentingly hostile to programs like the Export-Import Bank, agriculture subsidies, so-called disaster relief, green-energy scams like Solyndra, and Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac subsidies.

Indeed, I even developed a “Bleeding Heart Rule” back in 2012 to describe how such giveaways are morally reprehensible.

Now let’s add another program to the list.

The National Endowment of the Arts is a federal program that subsidizes art, with upper-income people reaping the vast majority of the benefits.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that President Trump is proposing to defund this elitist bureaucracy.

Before explaining why the program should be abolished, let’s look at the case for federal involvement. This is how the NEA describes its mission.

The National Endowment for the Arts is an independent federal agency that funds, promotes, and strengthens the creative capacity of our communities by providing all Americans with diverse opportunities for arts participation.

That sounds noble. But are we really supposed to believe that our communities won’t have any creative capacity without some handouts from the federal government to museums and other politically connected organizations that primarily serve rich people?

And for those of us who have this old-fashioned notion that the federal government should be constrained by the Constitution, it’s also worth noting that art subsidies are not one of the enumerated powers in Article 1, Section 8.

Here is the pro-NEA argument from a column in the New York Times.

Sadly, it has become clear that the N.E.A. is, once again, under threat of being abolished… The N.E.A.’s budget is comparatively minuscule — $148 million last year, or 0.004 percent of the total federal budget — while the arts sector it supports employs millions of Americans and generates billions each year in revenue and tax dollars. …the N.E.A., founded in 1965, serves three critical functions: It promotes the arts; it distributes and stimulates funding; and it administers a program that minimizes the costs of insuring arts exhibitions through indemnity agreements backed by the government. …The grants, of course, receive the most attention, if not as much as they deserve. Thousands are distributed in all 50 states, reaching every congressional district, urban and rural, rich and poor. …They support live theater for schools; music, dance and jazz festivals; poetry and literary events; arts programs for war veterans; and, of course, museum exhibitions.

This actually makes my point. The NEA spends $148 million per year, which is just a tiny fraction of what is spent by the private sector.

In other words, we had museums, plays, music festivals, and art programs before the NEA was created and all of those activities will exist if the NEA is abolished.

All that will change is that politicians and bureaucrats won’t be doling out special grants to select institutions and insiders that have figured out how the manipulate the system.

The column also has some absurd hyperbole.

I fear that this current call to abolish the N.E.A. is the beginning of a new assault on artistic activity. Arts and cultural programming challenges, provokes and entertains; it enhances our lives. Eliminating the N.E.A. would in essence eliminate investment by the American government in the curiosity and intelligence of its citizens.

The author actually wants readers to conclude that a failure to subsidize is somehow akin to an assault on artistic creativity. Oh, and don’t forget that our curiosity and intelligence somehow will suffer.

Here’s a story about an interest group that wants to keep the gravy train on the tracks.

The heads of five Boston arts museums are pushing back against feared Trump administration cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The museums’ directors say in an open letter that the agencies…help foster knowledge of the arts, create cultural exchanges, generate jobs and tourism, and educate young people. They say NEA and NEH funding has been instrumental at each of the Boston museums.

My immediate reaction is that there are lots of rich people and well-heeled companies in Boston. Surely NEA handouts can be replaced if these museum directors are remotely competent.

I’ll also take a wild guess that the directors of these five museums earn an average of more than $500,000 per year. Perhaps it’s not right for them to be using tax dollars to be part of the top 1 percent. Heck, trimming their own salaries might be an easy place for them to get some cost savings.

But enough from me. Let’s look at what some others have written about the NEA.  Let’s start with George Will’s assessment.

…attempting to abolish the NEA is a fight worth having, never mind the certain futility of the fight. …Government breeds advocacy groups that lobby it to do what it wants to do anyway — expand what it is doing. The myriad entities with financial interests in preserving the NEA cloyingly call themselves the “arts community,” a clever branding that other grasping factions should emulate… The “arts community” has its pitter-patter down pat. The rhetorical cotton candy — sugary, jargon-clotted arts gush — asserts that the arts nurture “civically valuable dispositions” and a sense of “community and connectedness.” And, of course, “diversity” and “self-esteem.” Americans supposedly suffer from a scarcity of both. …the NEA’s effects are regressive, funding programs that are…“generally enjoyed by people of higher income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier.” …Americans’ voluntary contributions to arts organizations (“arts/culture/humanities” institutions reaped $17 billion in 2015) dwarf the NEA’s subventions, which would be replaced if those who actually use the organizations — many of them supported by state- and local-government arts councils — are as enthusiastic about them as they claim to be. The idea that the arts will wither away if the NEA goes away is risible.

Now let’s hear from members of the “arts community” who understand that art doesn’t require handouts.

We’ll start with Patrick Courrielche, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal about the need to free the arts from federal dependence.

The NEA, created in 1965, has become politically tainted and ill-equipped to handle today’s challenges. Mr. Trump and Congress should ax it as soon as possible. …For the American arts to flourish—and for art to reach all Americans—artists must be able to make a living from their efforts.

And a theater director from Brooklyn explains in the Federalist why the art world will be better off without the NEA.

…as Trump prepares to spike the ball and end the game by axing the NEA, there is reason to be optimistic that this decision will be very good for the arts in America. …Arts institutions, which receive the bulwark of NEA funding, are failing badly at reaching new audiences, and losing ground. This is a direct result of the perverse market incentives our nonprofit arts system creates… As the artistic director of an unsubsidized theater company in New York City for more than a decade, I had to compete in a closed marketplace, where wealthy gatekeepers and the government rather than ticket sales pay the bills. …The industry receives more free money than it did a decade ago, and has fewer attendees. That is a broken system by any estimation. …Taking away free government money for the arts won’t make art disappear. After all, art is older than government. It will force artists and arts organizations to finally come to terms with their market realities. Audiences are better than experts at deciding what art is good or important. If a piece of art is so good that nobody to wants to pay for it, maybe it isn’t all that good. …In the American tradition, vaudeville, jazz, standup comedy, and many other art forms were created and grew within the free market, free from government assistance. Under this system there was a tremendous appetite for high art among Americans… President Trump is wise to get the government out of the art game, and all of us will be better off for his decision.

Here’s another artist, writing for PJ Media, about the benefits of ending federal handouts.

For over a decade as a theatre artist, my salary was made possible by taxpayers funding the arts. …In hindsight, and after much reflection and a better understanding of economics, I am truly sorry, and ask the taxpayer to forgive my thievery. However, spilled milk can’t be put back into the bottle. That doesn’t mean that we have to keep spilling the milk, though. It’s way past time to defund and shutter the National Endowment for the Arts. … The NEA and their supporters will trot out research about how many dollars are added to local economies due to things like theatres, symphonies, and museums. Of course, as almost every person with at least half a semester of Economics under their belt is screaming, the NEA’s argument embraces the broken window fallacy. The economic stimulus felt and supposedly generated by the arts community comes at the expense of other markets. …The National Endowment for the Arts model artificially props up mostly unwanted markets by using tax dollars that get funneled through inefficient and wasteful bureaucracies. …What it does to the arts is create a marketplace that supports bad art. …Don’t misunderstand, I love art. Like, a lot. And I’m willing to pay for it, as are many other patrons of the arts. If the National Endowment for the Arts were to be defunded and shuttered, it would help clear the deck of bad art that people aren’t willing to pay the real cost for. …art does enhance life, but having your life enhanced at the expense of others is not a right. People don’t have a right to other people’s money just so they can watch a play or visit a museum. …It’s time for the National Endowment for the Art to be defunded and shuttered.

Amen.

Since I started today’s column with optimism, I’ll be balanced and end with pessimism. I very much doubt that Congress will defund the NEA bureaucracy.

In part, this is a classic example of “public choice.” The recipients of the handouts have strong incentives to mobilize and lobby to keep their goodies. Taxpayers, by contrast, mostly will be disengaged because their share of the cost is trivial.

But it gets worse. The NEA also is very clever. A Senator once told me that it was difficult to vote against the bureaucracy because the “arts community” cleverly placed the wives of major donors on local arts councils. That made it difficult to vote against the NEA, though this Senator did say that making this tough vote would be worthwhile. Yes, there would be some short-term grousing by interest groups (and donor wives) if the agency actually was shut down, but that would quickly dissipate as people saw the arts were able to survive and thrive without sucking at the federal teat.

For the sake of the nation, let’s hope most lawmakers think this way.

Read Full Post »

The tax-and-transfer welfare state is in deep trouble. I explained last year that the United States faces a very serious long-run challenge.

Many of our entitlement programs were created based on the assumption that we would always have an expanding population, as represented by a population pyramid. …however, we’ve seen major changes in demographic trends, including longer lifespans and falling birthrates. The combination of these two factors means that our population pyramid is slowly, but surely, turning into a population cylinder. …this looming shift in America’s population profile means massive amounts of red ink as the baby boom generation moves into full retirement.

In other words, in the absence of genuine entitlement reform, America will have a Greek-style fiscal mess at some point in the future. Or, as I wrote yesterday, maybe we should call it a Japan-style mess.

Demographic 2030Simply stated, we’re going to have too many people collecting benefits and too few people generating income.

The outlook is even worse in Europe. Indeed, the fiscal crisis has already started in many nations in Southern Europe. And the crisis will spread to many countries in Northern Europe. And it will hit Eastern Europe as well, notwithstanding some good economic reforms in that region.

Unfortunately, most politicians are reluctant to undertake the entitlement reforms that would avert this crisis.

So what’s their alternative solution? In many cases, they don’t have one. In other cases, they act as if higher tax burdens can solve the problem, even though that probably means even more people will be discouraged from productive lives and instead decide to ride in the wagon of government dependency (higher taxes also would enable even more spending, but that’s a separate story).

Another potential answer is sex. To be more specific, governments around the world are urging people to procreate more so that there will be additional future taxpayers to finance the welfare state.

I’m not kidding.

Let’s start with the new effort in Spain.

Europeans across the continent are having so many fewer babies that national populations from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean are skewing towards the older end of the spectrum, with not enough young, productive people to keep economies thriving and to look after the rest of the aging population. Spanish women have 1.3 children on average. In 2015, Spain’s death rate outstripped the birth rate… Edelmira Barreira Diz was appointed as “commissioner for the demographic challenge” last month.

I think “sex commissioner” would have been a better title. Heck, that probably would have enticed a certain former American president to apply for the position.

Here’s a chart from the story showing declining fertility rates.

There’s a similar effort for government-encouraged babies in Italy.

Italy is facing a dramatic demographic change, with increasingly fewer children being born. So the Health Ministry recently launched an ad campaign to remind people of Sept. 22 being “fertility day.” …another ad claiming that fertility was “a common good” — a comparison that reminded some of fascist propaganda from the 1920s which urged women to have more babies to support the nation. …As a social welfare state, Italy’s pensions system and economy relies on a certain number of younger people joining the workforce every year.

The Danish government also wants women to think they have an obligation to produce future taxpayers.

In Denmark, for instance, schoolchildren are now taught in class that they should have more babies. “…we just thought, maybe we should actually also tell them about how to get pregnant,” Marianne Lomholt, national director of Sex and Society, told the New York Times. …Denmark’s Education Ministry now has teachers talk not only about the dangers of sex and pregnancies, but also about their benefits.

Also in Denmark, private companies are jumping on this bandwagon (sexwagon?) of more sex as a solution to demographic-entitlement crisis.

Denmark has a sex problem. …not exactly a sex problem, per se. It’s more like a baby problem. …Denmark’s perennially low birth rate…has left people worried… “We are concerned. The fewer Danes means fewer people to support the aging population…” …can vacation sex save the Kingdom of Denmark? Spies thinks it can, so the company has sweetened the deal. According to its promotion, the company will give prizes to couples who get pregnant while on vacations purchased through them.

Given the grim demographic outlook in Japan, nobody should be surprised that the government there is agitating for more future taxpayers.

A comprehensive plan to reverse Japan’s crashing population numbers was unveiled on Thursday by a government task force… Shigeru Ishiba, minister in charge of overcoming population decline and reviving local economies, was more blunt. “Japan will die off” without proper countermeasures, he warned. …The strategy outlined in the government plan is to encourage young people to relocate to areas outside the major metropolitan regions by fostering jobs and economic growth in small local communities that are now in danger of simply disappearing for lack of inhabitants.

Huh?!? Japan’s repeated forays into Keynesian economics haven’t generated good results nationally, so I’m not holding my breath that this new campaign will be “fostering jobs and economic growth” in targeted communities.

For a final example, let’s shift to China, where a government that formerly forced women to have abortions is suddenly looking at ways to subsidize an extra child.

China is considering introducing birth rewards and subsidies to encourage people to have a second child… the country issued new guidelines in late 2015 allowing all parents to have two children amid growing concerns over the costs of supporting an aging population. …China began implementing its controversial “one-child policy” in the 1970s in order to limit population growth, but authorities are now concerned that the country’s dwindling workforce will not be able to support an increasingly aging population.

Since coerced redistribution isn’t nearly as odious as coerced abortion, I guess this is another sign of progress in China.

But I’m not sure that will be enough to produce enough future taxpayers for China. Or any other nation.

The only sustainable welfare state, given modern demographics, is no welfare state.

Or, to be more accurate, the right approach is to start with the default assumption that people are responsible for saving and investing to support themselves in retirement. There are lots of nations that now have systems of personal retirement accounts, and this puts them in much stronger position than nations that rely solely on tax-and-transfer entitlement schemes. Hong Kong is a good example, as are Chile and Australia.

By the way, countries with private social security systems have safety-net programs for destitute seniors, but that’s far more affordable than automatic payments to everyone in retirement.

P.S. On a related note, there’s a big debate in academic circles about whether the welfare state (specifically young-to-old redistribution) actually sows the seed of its own destruction by inducing lower fertility rates. Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review summarized some of the evidence for this hypothesis back in 2012.

A 2005 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research by economists Michele Boldrin, Mariacristina De Nardi, and Larry E. Jones points out that “the size and timing of the growth in government pension systems” matches up nicely with fertility trends in the U.S. and Europe. They expanded on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and fertility fell on both sides, after World War II; and they expanded more in Europe, where fertility fell further. In their model, entitlements account for roughly half of the decline in fertility, and 60 percent of the difference between European and American fertility. When a pension system expands by 10 percent of GDP, the average number of children per woman drops by 0.7 to 1.6. “These findings are highly statistically significant and fairly robust to the inclusion of other possible explanatory variables.” A 2007 paper by Isaac Ehrlich and Jinyoung Kim, also for the NBER, reached similar conclusions, finding that pension programs explained a little under half of the decline in fertility rates, and a little more than half of the decline in marriage rates, in developed countries between 1965 and 1989. One implication of this finding is that pension programs have contributed to their own financial woes by suppressing fertility.

Some researchers have concluded that other types of redistribution spending can boost fertility, though other scholars are more skeptical.

I haven’t studied this literature on subsidized babies enough to have a strong opinion.

For what it’s worth, I suspect the government can provide enough handouts to induce motherhood (heck, one of the motives for the welfare reform that was adopted during Bill Clinton’s presidency was a concern that the old system was encouraging women to have children out of wedlock).

But I’m very doubtful that such policies would fix the demographic/entitlement crisis that threatens most nations. In part, because I’m skeptical about the ability of governments to cause large shifts in fertility, but also because recreating a population pyramid only works if the additional children wind up being productive workers in the private sector.

In other words, the goal isn’t really a population pyramid as much as it’s a shift in the ratio of producers versus dependents in a nation.

As such, if many of the babies induced by handouts come from mothers that rely on welfare, and if those children are less likely to grow up to be net payers of tax rather than net consumers of tax, then baby subsidies are not going to solve the problem.

Read Full Post »

As I peruse the news, I periodically see headlines that are misleading in some fashion.

And if the headline is sufficiently off-key or bizarre, I feel compelled to grouse.

Now I have a new example, though I’m not sure whether to call it dishonest or clueless.

The EU Observer has a brief report that poverty has reached record levels in Germany.

Despite a booming economy, 12.9 million people in Germany were living below the poverty line in 2015, the Equal Welfare Association reported on Thursday. Based on figures from the Federal Statistical Office the alliance found a record high poverty rate of 15.7 percent in 2015.

By the way, I can’t resist pointing out that there is no “booming economy” in Germany. Growth in 2016 was only 1.9 percent.

Yes, that’s decent by European standards of stagnation and decline, but it’s far from impressive in any other context.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to the main point of today’s column.

As you can see from the story’s headline, the implication is that lots of people are left behind and mired in deprivation even though the economy is moving forward.

But there’s a problem with both the story and the headline.

If you read carefully, it turns out that both the story (and the study that triggered the story) have nothing to do with poverty.

No link at all. None. Zero. Nada. Zilch.

I’m not joking. There’s no estimate of the number of people below some measure of a German poverty line. There’s no calculation of any sort about living standards. Instead, this story (and the underlying report) are about the distribution of income.

…people [are] defined as poor when living on an income less than 60 percent of that of the median German household.

One might be tempted at this point to dismiss this as a bit of journalistic sloppiness. Indeed, one might even conclude that this is a story about nothing.

After all, noting that some people are below 60 percent of the median income level is about as newsworthy as a report saying that half of people are above average and half are below average.

But there actually is a story here. Though it’s not about poverty. Instead, it’s about an ongoing statist campaign to redefine poverty to mean unequal distribution of income.

I’m not joking. For instance, the bureaucrats at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development actually put out a study claiming that there was more poverty in the United States than in nations such as Greece, Portugal, and Turkey.

How could they make such a preposterous claim? Easy, the OECD bureaucrats didn’t measure poverty. Instead, they concocted a measure of the degree to which various countries are close to the left-wing dream of equal incomes.

And the Obama Administration also tried to manipulate poverty statistics in the United States in hopes of pushing this statist agenda of coerced equality.

Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation wrote about what Obama tried to do.

…the Obama administration…measure, which has little or nothing to do with actual poverty, will serve as the propaganda tool in Obama’s endless quest to “spread the wealth.” …The current poverty measure counts absolute purchasing power — how much steak and potatoes you can buy. The new measure will count comparative purchasing power — how much steak and potatoes you can buy relative to other people. …In other words, Obama will employ a statistical trick to ensure that “the poor will always be with you,” no matter how much better off they get in absolute terms. …The weird new poverty measure will produce very odd results. For example, if the real income of every single American were to magically triple over night, the new poverty measure would show there had been no drop in “poverty,” because the poverty income threshold would also triple. …Another paradox of the new poverty measure is that countries such as Bangladesh and Albania will have lower poverty rates than the United States, even though the actual living conditions in those countries are extremely bad.

Even moderates such as Robert Samuelson recognized that Obama’s agenda was absurd. Here is some of what he wrote.

…the new definition has strange consequences. Suppose that all Americans doubled their incomes tomorrow, and suppose that their spending on food, clothing, housing and utilities also doubled. That would seem to signify less poverty — but not by the new poverty measure. It wouldn’t decline, because the poverty threshold would go up as spending went up. Many Americans would find this weird: People get richer but “poverty” stays stuck.

To put this all in context, the left isn’t merely motivated by a desire to exaggerate and misstate poverty. That simply the means to an end.

What they want is more redistribution and higher tax rates. The OECD openly admitted that was the goal in another report. Much as all the fixation about inequality in America is simply a tool to advocate bigger government.

P.S. Germany is an example of a rational welfare state. While the public sector is far too large, the country has enjoyed occasional periods of genuine spending restraint and German politicians wisely avoided a Keynesian spending binge during the last recession.

P.P.S. Though Germany also has its share of crazy government activity, including a big green-energy boondoggle. And lots of goofy actions, such as ticketing a one-armed man for have a bicycle with only one handlebar brake, taxing homeowners today for a street that was built beginning in the 1930s, making streetwalkers pay a tax by using parking meters, and spending 30 times as much to enforce a tax as is collected.

Read Full Post »

Which state gets the biggest share of its budget from the federal government?

Nope, not even close. As a matter of fact, those two jurisdictions are among the 10-least dependent states.

And if you’re guessing that the answer is New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Connecticut, or some other “blue state,” that would be wrong as well.

Instead, if you check out this map from the Tax Foundation, the answer is Mississippi, followed by Louisiana, Tennessee, Montana, and Kentucky. All of which are red states!

So does this mean that politicians in red states are hypocrites who like big government so long as someone else is paying?

That’s one way of interpreting the data, and I’m sure it’s partially true. But for a more complete answer, let’s look at the Tax Foundation’s explanation of its methodology. Here’s part of what Morgan Scarboro wrote.

State governments…receive a significant amount of assistance from the federal government in the form of federal grants-in-aid. Aid is given to states for Medicaid, transportation, education, and other means-tested entitlement programs administered by the states. …states…that rely heavily on federal assistance…tend to have modest tax collections and a relatively large low-income population.

In other words, red states may have plenty of bad politicians, but what the data is really saying – at least in part – is that places with a lot of poor people automatically get big handouts from the federal government because of programs such as Medicaid and food stamps.  So if you compared this map with a map of poverty rates, there would be a noticeable overlap.

Moreover, it’s also important to remember that the map is showing the relationship between state revenue and federal transfers. So if a state has a very high tax burden (take a wild guess), then federal aid will represent a smaller share of the total amount of money. By contrast, a very libertarian-oriented state with a very low tax burden might look like a moocher state simply because its tax collections are small relative to formulaic transfers from Uncle Sam.

Indeed, this is a reason why the state with best tax policy, South Dakota, looks like one of the top-10 moocher states in the map.

This is why it would be nice if the Tax Foundation expanded its methodology to see what states receive a disproportionate level of handouts when other factors are equalized. For instance, what happens is you look at federal aid adjusted for population (which USA Today did in 2011). Or maybe even adjusted for the poverty rate as well (an approached used for the Moocher Index).

P.S. For what it’s worth, California has the nation’s most self-reliant people, as measured by voluntary food stamp usage.

P.P.S. And it’s definitely worth noting that the federal government deserves the overwhelming share of the blame for rising levels of dependency in the United States.

Read Full Post »

Since I can’t even keep track of schools of thought on the right (libertarians, traditional conservatives, neocons, reform conservatives, compassionate conservatives, Trump-style populists, etc), I’m not going to pretend to know what’s happening on the left.

But it does appear that something significant – and bad – is happening in the statist community.

Traditionally, folks on the left favored a conventional welfare state, which revolved around two components.

  1. Means-tested programs for the ostensible purpose of alleviating poverty (e.g.., Medicaid, food stamps, welfare, etc).
  2. Social-insurance programs for the ostensible purpose of alleviating sickness, unemployment, and aging (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, etc).

This agenda was always a bad idea for both macro and micro reasons, and has become a very bad idea because of demographic changes.

But now the left has expanded its goals to policies that are far more radical. Instead of a well-meaning (albeit misguided) desire to protect people from risk, they now want coerced equality.

And this agenda also has two components.

  1. A guaranteed and universal basic income for everyone.
  2. Taxes and/or earnings caps to limit the income of the rich.

Taking a closer look at the idea of basic income, there actually is a reasonable argument that the current welfare state is so dysfunctional that it would be better to simply give everyone a check instead.

But as I’ve argued before, this approach would also create an incentive for people to simply live off taxpayers. Especially if the basic income is super-generous, as was proposed (but fortunately rejected by an overwhelming margin) in Switzerland.

I discuss the pros and cons in this interview.

By the way, one thing that I don’t mention in the interview is my fear that politicians would create a basic income but then not fully repeal the existing welfare state (very similar to my concern that politicians would like to have a national sales tax or value-added tax without fully eliminating the IRS and all taxes on income).

Now let’s shift to the left’s class-warfare fixation about penalizing those with high incomes.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, of course. We’ve had ideologues such as Bernie Sanders, Thomas Piketty, and Matt Yglesias arguing  in recent years for confiscatory tax rates. It appears some modern leftists actually think the economy is a fixed pie and that high incomes for some people necessitate lower incomes for the rest of us.

And because of their fetish for coerced equality, some of them even want to explicitly cap incomes for very valuable people.

The nutcase leader of the U.K. Labour Party, for instance, recently floated that notion. Here are some excerpts from a report in the Guardian.

Jeremy Corbyn has called for a maximum wage for the highest earners… The Labour leader would not give specific figures, but said radical action was needed to address inequality. “I would like there to be some kind of high earnings cap, quite honestly,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday. When asked at what level the cap should be set, he replied: “I can’t put a figure on it… It is getting worse. And corporate taxation is a part of it. If we want to live in a more egalitarian society, and fund our public services, we cannot go on creating worse levels of inequality.” Corbyn, who earns about £138,000 a year, later told Sky News he anticipated any maximum wage would be “somewhat higher than that”. “I think the salaries paid to some footballers are simply ridiculous, some salaries to very high earning top executives are utterly ridiculous. Why would someone need to earn more than £50m a year?”

This is so radical that even other members of the Labour Party have rejected the idea.

Danny Blanchflower, a former member of Corbyn’s economic advisory committee, said he would have advised the Labour leader against the scheme. In a tweet, the former member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee said it was a “totally idiotic, unworkable idea”. …Labour MPs expressed reservations… Reynolds also expressed some uncertainty. “I’m not sure that I would support that,” she told BBC News. “I would like to see the detail. I think there are other ways that you can go about tackling income inequality… Instinctively, I don’t think [a cap] probably the best way to go.”

The good news, relatively speaking, is that Crazy Corbyn has been forced to backtrack.

Not because he’s changed his mind, I’m sure, but simply for political reasons. Here’s some of what the U.K.-based Times wrote.

Jeremy Corbyn’s attempt to relaunch his Labour leadership descended into disarray yesterday as he backtracked on a wage cap… The climbdown came after members of the shadow cabinet refused to back the idea of a maximum income while former economic advisers to Mr Corbyn criticised it as absurd.

There don’t seem to be many leftists in the United States who have directly embraced this approach, though it is worth noting that Bill Clinton’s 1993 tax hike included a provision disallowing deductibility for corporate pay over $1 million.

And that policy was justified using the same ideology that politicians should have the right to decide whether some people are paid too much.

In closing, I can’t help but wonder whether my statist friends have thought about the implications of their policies. They want the government to give everyone a guaranteed basic income, yet they want to wipe out high-income taxpayers who finance the lion’s share of redistribution.

I’m sure that work marvelously in the United States. Just like it’s producing great outcomes in place like Greece and Venezuela.

Read Full Post »

If there was an award for the most dramatic political development of 2016, it would presumably be the election of Donald Trump.

If there was an award for the best policy reform of 2016, my vote would be the constitutional spending cap in Brazil.

If there was an award for the greatest outburst of sensibility in 2016, it would be the landslide vote in Switzerland against a government-guaranteed income.

But what about an award for the most compelling article of 2016? Well, we still have a few days left in the year, so it’s theoretically possible that I’ll change my mind, but as of today the award would go to my friend Deirdre McCloskey for her December 23 column in the New York Times.

She addresses the fundamental issue of whether policy should be designed to reduce poverty or increase equality. Here’s some of what she wrote.

Eliminating poverty is obviously good. And, happily, it is already happening on a global scale. …We need to finish the job. But will we really help the poor by focusing on inequality? …The Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt put it this way: “Economic equality is not, as such, of particular moral importance.” Instead we should lift up the poor… Another eminent philosopher, John Rawls of Harvard, articulated what he called the Difference Principle: If the entrepreneurship of a rich person made the poorest better off, then the higher income of the entrepreneur was justified.

But Deirdre doesn’t limit herself to philosophical arguments.

She looks at the practical issues, such as whether governments have the ability (or motives!) to correctly re-slice the economic pie.

A practical objection to focusing on economic equality is that we cannot actually achieve it, not in a big society, not in a just and sensible way. …Cutting down the tall poppies uses violence for the cut. And you need to know exactly which poppies to cut. Trusting a government of self-interested people to know how to redistribute ethically is naïve. Another problem is that the cutting reduces the size of the crop. We need to allow for rewards that tell the economy to increase the activity earning them. …An all-wise central plan could force the right people into the right jobs. But such a solution, like much of the case for a compelled equality, is violent and magical. The magic has been tried, in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China. So has the violence.

Deirdre notes that people sometimes are drawn to socialism, in part because of how we interact with family and friends.

But you can’t extrapolate those experiences to broader society.

Many of us share socialism in sentiment, if only because we grew up in loving families with Mom as the central planner. Sharing works just fine in a loving household. But it is not how grown-ups get stuff.

When redistributionist principles are imposed on broader society, bad things happen.

As a matter of arithmetic, expropriating the rich to give to the poor does not uplift the poor very much. …And redistribution works only once. You can’t expect the expropriated rich to show up for a second cutting. In a free society, they can move to Ireland or the Cayman Islands. And the wretched millionaires can hardly re-earn their millions next year if the state has taken most of the money.

In other words, you get a shrinking pie rather than a growing pie. As Tom Sowell also has observed, people don’t produce as much when the government seizes the fruits of their labor.

And in that kind of world, it’s theoretically possible that poor people will have a greater share, but they still wind up a smaller amount (moreover, in practice the government elite wind up with all the wealth).

So what’s the bottom line?

Deirdre cites South Korea as an example of a nation where poor people now enjoy much better lives thanks to growth, and she then asks readers the key question: Will the poor benefit more from the classical liberal principles of rule of law and free markets, or will they benefit more from coercive redistribution?

Her explanation is magnificent.

It is growth from exchange-tested betterment, not compelled or voluntary charity, that solves the problem of poverty. …Which do we want, a small one-time (though envy-and-anger-satisfying) extraction from the rich, or a free society of betterment, one that lifts up the poor by gigantic amounts? We had better focus directly on the equality that we actually want and can achieve, which is equality of social dignity and equality before the law. Liberal equality, as against the socialist equality of enforced redistribution, eliminates the worst of poverty. …To borrow from the heroes of my youth, Marx and Engels: Working people of all countries unite! You have nothing to lose but stagnation! Demand exchange-tested betterment in a liberal society. Some dare call it capitalism.

Glorious!

I’ve also addressed this issue, on multiple occasions, and I think the resolution of this growth-vs-redistribution debate may very well determine the future of our nation. So I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say Deirdre’s column is the most important article of 2016.

Read Full Post »

Learning from the tremendous success of welfare reform during the Clinton Administration, the entire Washington-based welfare state should be junked.

It’s a complicated and costly mess that traps poor people in dependency while ripping off taxpayers and creating very comfortable lives for “poverty pimps.”

It would be much simpler (and more effective) to simply take all the money that’s now being spent on these programs and send it to the states as part of a “block grant” and let them figure out how best to help poor people without some of the negative consequences caused by the current plethora of programs.

I’ve previously written about how this would be a very desirable reform of Medicaid. Today, let’s build upon some previous analysis and explain why it would be good to get Washington out of the business of Food Stamps.

Let’s start with the fact that the program subsidizes purchases that have nothing to do with avoiding genuine hunger and deprivation. Indeed, as documented in a story in The Federalist, Food Stamps subsidize a considerable amount of unhealthy food.

New data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture reveals food stamp recipients spent more money on sweetened beverages than they did on fruits, vegetables, bread, cereal, or milk. The USDA analyzed transactional data from a leading grocery store in 2011 and found that Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) households spent a greater percentage of money on unhealthier foods than those who didn’t use taxpayer funds to pay for their groceries. …The recent USDA study only looked at data from one grocery store retailer. It did not examine how SNAP funds were spent at convenience stores, which presumably would have significantly increased the amount of unhealthy foods purchased with taxpayer dollars.

Here are some of the details.

…The second largest expenditure for SNAP households was sweetened beverages, whereas the second largest expenditure for non-SNAP households was vegetables. …SNAP households spent 7.2 percent of their money on vegetables, while non-SNAP households spent 9.1 percent of their grocery money on this category of food. When comparing fruit purchases, the gap widens slightly: SNAP households spent 4.7 percent on fruits, and non-SNAP households spent an averages of 7.2 percent in the same category.

Here’s the comparison of purchases from those with food stamps and those using their own money.

As one might suspect, the problem has gotten worse during the profligate Bush-Obama era.

During President Obama’s tenure, the numbers and percentages of Americans using taxpayer’s money to buy their groceries has drastically increased. SNAP participation has increased 78 percent in the past ten years and remains near its all-time high… Food stamp usage also dramatically increased during President George W. Bush’s tenure… That’s because Bush signed a dramatic expansion of food welfare inside a farm bill. This expansion, among other things, made it easier to sign up and made non-citizens eligible to use U.S. taxpayers’ funds to fund grocery excursions.

By the way, I think poor people (indeed, all people) should be able to eat anything they want. That being said, there’s something perverse about subsidizing and encouraging unhealthy patterns.

Particularly when obesity is one of the biggest health problems in low-income communities.

The program also has always had major problems with fraud, as illustrated by a recent scandal in Florida.

The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida announced the largest food stamp fraud bust in U.S. history Wednesday afternoon. …500 people had their identities stolen in Palm Beach County to be used to get fake Electronic Benefit Transfer cards which were then exchanged for cash… Federal charges were filed against 22 retail store owners or operators in connection with schemes to illegally redeem food stamp benefits for cash, the Justice Department said. Indictments allege the retailers received more than $13 million in federal payments.

Even millionaires bilk the system.

A Geauga County millionaire—who comes from royalty—has been indicted on charges he illegally received food stamps and medicaid assistance. Ali Pascal Mahvi is facing four felony counts which could put him behind bars for more than four years if convicted. …Meyer informed Mahvi of the indictment at Mahvi’s 8,000 square foot home. …Prosecutors say Mahvi defrauded Medicaid out of $45,000 and about $8,400 in food stamps. Mahvi, who is the son of an Iranian prince, estimates his worth at about $120 million. His $800,000 home features five bedrooms and five bathrooms, an in-ground swimming pool, and stable with horses. Mahvi, who says he owns 70 percent of a resort in St. Lucia, says he’s played by the rules.

And some scammers become millionaires from the other end of the system.

Convenience store owner Vida Ofori Causey out of Worcester, Mass. was charged in federal court Monday after pleading guilty to $3.6 million worth of food stamp fraud. …“Causey purchased the benefits at a discounted value of approximately fifty cents for every SNAP dollar,” a press release from Department of Justice stated. “By so doing, Causey caused the USDA to electronically deposit into a bank account controlled by her the full face value of the SNAP benefits fraudulently obtained.” As a result, recipients had cash on hand to buy restricted items. The restricted items could include alcohol, cigarettes and even drugs.

Stories like this reinforce the argument that states should be in charge of the program, if for no other reason than there will be fiscal pressure not to waste so much money.

Moreover, there’s considerable evidence that states are more sensible in their approach. I’ve already written about good reforms in Maine and Wisconsin. Well, the Daily Caller has encouraging news that the good news in those states is part of a national trend.

The number of people receiving food stamps has declined sharply due in part to the reinstatement of work requirements earlier this year, according to a report Wednesday. …“Caseloads fell sharply in April, especially in states reinstating a three-month time limit for unemployed childless adults without disabilities, new Agriculture Department data show,” CBPP detailed in its report. “The data, covering the first month in which most of the roughly 20 states that imposed the time limit in January began cutting people off.” The USDA has required food stamp work requirements since an overhaul of the program in 1996. Able-bodied adults without children are required to work at least 20 hours a week or else lose their benefits after three months. …Work requirements have now been restored in a total of 40 states compared to 44 states this past June that had either a waiver or a partial waiver.

And let’s look specifically at some positive developments in Kansas.

…before Kansas instituted a work requirement, 93 percent of food stamp recipients were in poverty, with 84 percent in severe poverty. Few of the food stamp recipients claimed any income. Only 21 percent were working at all, and two-fifths of those working were working fewer than 20 hours per week. Once work requirements were established, thousands of food stamp recipients moved into the workforce, promoting income gains and a decrease in poverty. Forty percent of the individuals who left the food stamp ranks found employment within three months, and about 60 percent found employment within a year. They saw an average income increase of 127 percent. Half of those who left the rolls and are working have earnings above the poverty level. Even many of those who stayed on food stamps saw their income increase significantly. …Furthermore, with the implementation of the work requirement in Kansas, the caseload dropped by 75 percent. Previously, Kansas was spending $5.5 million per month on food stamp benefits for able-bodied adults; it now spends $1.2 million.

P.S. In the long run, the block grant should be phased out so the federal government isn’t involved at all in the business of income redistribution. If we care about the limits on federal power in Article 1, Section 8, then states should be responsible for choosing how much to raise in addition to choosing how to spend.

P.P.S. Just in case you think fraud and waste is a rare problem in the program, here are some other examples.

With stories like this, I’m surprised my head didn’t explode during this debate I did on Larry Kudlow’s show.

P.P.P.S. While I periodically mock California, folks in the Golden State deserve praise for being the least likely to use Food Stamps. Their neighbors in Oregon, by contrast, are very proficient at mooching.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: