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Posts Tagged ‘Welfare State’

Changing demographics is one of the most powerful arguments for genuine entitlement reform.

When programs such as Social Security and Medicare (and equivalent systems in other nations) were first created, there were lots of young people and comparatively few old people.

And so long as a “population pyramid” was the norm, reasonably sized welfare states were sustainable (though still not desirable because of the impact on labor supply, savings rates, tax policy, etc).

In most parts of the world, however, demographic profiles have changed. Because of longer life expectancy and falling birth rates, population pyramids are turning into population cylinders.

This is one of the reasons why there is a fiscal crisis in Southern European nations such as Greece. And there’s little reason for optimism since the budgetary outlook will get worse in those countries as their versions of baby-boom generations move into full retirement.

But while Southern Europe already has been hit, and while the long-run challenge in Northern European nations such as France has received a lot of attention, there’s been inadequate focus on the problem in Eastern Europe.

The fact that there’s a major problem surprises some people. After all, isn’t the welfare state smaller in these countries? Haven’t many of them adopted pro-growth reforms such as the flat tax? Isn’t Eastern Europe a success story considering that the region was enslaved by communism for many decades?

To some degree, the answer to those questions is yes. But there are two big challenges for the region.

First, while the fiscal burden of government may not be as high in some Eastern European countries as it is elsewhere on the continent (damning with faint praise), those nations tend to rank lower for other factors that determine overall economic freedom, such as regulation and the rule of law.

Looking at the most-recent edition of Economic Freedom of the World, there are nine Western European nations among the top 30 countries: Switzerland (#4), Ireland (#8), United Kingdom (#10), Finland (#19), Denmark (#22), Luxembourg (#27), Norway (#27), Germany (#29), and the Netherlands (#30).

For Eastern Europe, by contrast, the only representatives are Romania (#17), Lithuania (#19), and Estonia (#22).

Second, Eastern Europe has a giant demographic challenge.

Here’s what was recently reported by the Financial Times.

Eastern Europe’s population is shrinking like no other regional population in modern history. …a population drop throughout a whole region and over decades has never been observed in the world since the 1950s with the exception of…Eastern Europe over the last 25 consecutive years.

Here’s the chart that accompanied the article. It shows the population change over five-year periods, starting in 1955. Eastern Europe (circled in the lower right) is suffering a population hemorrhage.

By the way, it’s not like the trend is about to change.

If you look at global fertility data, these nations all rank near the bottom. And they also suffer from brain drain since a very smart person, even from fast-growing, low-tax Estonia, generally can enjoy more after-tax income by moving to an already-rich nation such as Switzerland or the United Kingdom.

So what’s the moral of the story? What lessons can be learned?

There are actually three answers, only two of which are practical.

  • First, Eastern European nations can somehow boost birthrates. But nobody knows how to coerce or bribe people to have more children.
  • Second, Eastern European nations can engage in more reform to improve overall economic liberty and thus boost growth rates.
  • Third, Eastern European nations can copy Hong Kong and Singapore (both very near the bottom for fertility) by setting up private retirement systems.

The second option obviously is good, and presumably would reduce – and perhaps ultimately reverse – the brain drain.

But the third option is the one that’s absolutely required.

The good news is that there’s been some movement in that direction. But the bad news is that reform has taken place only in some nations, and usually only partial privatization, and in some cases (like Poland and Hungary) the reforms have been reversed.

And even if full pension reform is adopted, there’s still the harder-to-solve issue of government-run healthcare.

Eastern Europe has a very grim future.

P.S. I’m a great fan of the reforms that have been adopted in some of the nations in Eastern Europe, but none of them are small-government jurisdictions. Yes, the welfare state in Eastern European countries is generally smaller than in Western European nations, but it’s worth noting that every Eastern European nation in the OECD (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia) has a larger burden of government spending than the United States.

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Led by Speaker Paul Ryan, House Republicans have put forth an anti-poverty agenda.

It’s definitely worth reading just for the indictment of the current welfare state. There are some excellent charts, including versions of ones that I’ve already shared on the $1 trillion-plus fiscal burden of current welfare programs, as well as the “bloated, jumbled, and overlapping bureaucracy” that administers all that money.

But there are some charts that deserve to be reproduced, either because they contain new insights or because they make very important economic points.

Regarding the former, here’s a chart that indirectly shows that the most effective anti-poverty program is work. Specifically a full-time job.

So the real challenge is why there are some households with persistent multi-generational poverty.

And, as Thomas Sowell already has told us, that’s a behavioral problem.

But it’s somewhat understandable behavior because government in many cases makes dependency more attractive than self-sufficiency.

Here’s a chart showing the implicit marginal tax rates that apply if a poor household tries to climb out of poverty. The bottom line is that handouts are so generous that it’s very difficult for a poor person to be better off by working instead of mooching.

No wonder dependency is a growing problem!

Some folks say the solution to this problem is to reduce the “phase-out” of benefits, but that’s a recipe for making the welfare state vastly more expensive and giving handouts to people who are not poor. That’s the approach in some European nations and it hasn’t worked.

Here’s another chart that basically makes the same point about the upside-down incentive structure created by redistribution programs. It shows that a poor household can enjoy a much higher standard of living with low earnings than with high earnings.

The bottom line is that the current welfare state is a disaster for both poor people and taxpayers.

And this video is an excellent introduction to that topic.

But let’s focus on the GOP anti-poverty plan. They put together a powerful indictment of what we have now, but what are they proposing as a solution?

Here’s where we get good news and bad news. The good news is that there is a focus on work, as explained in a column for Forbes by Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute.

…the report declares that “Our welfare system should encourage work-capable welfare recipients to work or prepare for work in exchange for benefits, and states should be held accountable for helping welfare recipients find jobs and stay employed.” The blueprint points toward greater use of work requirements and time limits for food stamp recipients and beneficiaries of federal housing benefits who are able to work. …This emphasis on work generalizes the experience from the landmark 1996 welfare reform legislation, which increased work among single-parent families, reduced welfare receipt and (most importantly) lowered poverty.

So far so good, and Scott also notes that the key to work is reducing the appeal of being on the dole.

Most of the success of welfare reform in encouraging work can be attributed to the ways that it has made receipt of benefits less attractive relative to work. People largely left welfare or chose not to enroll independently of state work promotion efforts.

But here’s the problem. There’s no big attempt to reduce benefits in the GOP proposal.

Indeed, it doesn’t even turn programs over to the states, which presumably would lead to better policy since sub-national governments wouldn’t want to be overly generous lest they attract welfare migration.

But the dog that didn’t bark in the new agenda is the consolidation and block granting proposed in Speaker Ryan’s Budget Committee discussion draft from 2014. Rather, the blueprint appears to envision increased use of state waivers in the various programs… It is worth recalling that in the 2014 discussion draft, the “opportunity grants” that would have combined a dozen federal programs and funded them at a fixed level were proposed as a pilot program in a few states.

Though at least the plan apparently doesn’t increase the fiscal burden of the welfare state by further expanding the EITC, which already is the federal government’s most costly redistribution program.

The antipoverty blueprint mentions the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)…only in passing. On the one hand, the report points out that an expanded EITC would be one way to reduce some of the high marginal tax rates that recipients of federal aid face when they contemplate working. On the other, the program’s high rate of improper payments is also emphasized, rightfully, as a problem that must be addressed.

Scott also points out that the Republican plan also foresees a much more aggressive attempt to measure what works and doesn’t work. Which is good, though hardly necessary since we already know that a one-size-fits-all approach from Washington is a recipe for ever-higher costs and ever-increasing dependency.

Indeed, there’s even a Laffer Curve-type relationship between welfare spending and poverty.

Let’s check out a couple of other reactions.

From the left, Jordan Weissman of Slate is predictably unimpressed.

As part of his effort to convince Americans that the Republican Party is [not] a band of nihilistic anti-government lunatics—House Speaker Paul Ryan unveiled…an anti-poverty plan. Which is a laugh riot. …Most of the agenda is a rehash of, or at least a variation on, material Ryan has trotted out before. Inspired by the welfare reforms of the 1990s, the speaker still wants to push more safety net beneficiaries to go to work, devolve more program control down to state and local officials, and yet somehow increase accountability and carefully monitor results… There’s also some talk about increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-wage workers—which is one of those nice, liberal-conservative consensus positions that never seems to go anywhere.

From the right, Kevin Williamson sympathizes with the GOP/Ryan approach, but also makes a more important point in his National Review column.

Paul Ryan has just introduced a welfare-reform proposal… We already knew what was going to be in it — work requirements and time limits for able-bodied adults — because there are only so many meaningful avenues of reform. We also know what the Left’s response is going to be: that this is cruel, callous, punitive, etc. But there are really only two choices: Get people moving toward economic self-sufficiency or sustain them forever in the soul-killing state of dependency. There isn’t a third option. Not really. This is only partly about money. We are a very, very rich society, and we can afford to provide decently for people who cannot care for themselves, including children and those who are physically or mentally disabled. But that isn’t our problem: Our problem isn’t people who are physically disabled but people who are morally disabled, people who wouldn’t take a bus 15 minutes to work at a gas station, much less walk 15 miles to do so.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that the only good welfare reform is one that shifts all programs to the states as part of a block grant. But since funding redistribution is not a function of the federal government, that block grant should then disappear over time.

Last but not least, we need to understand that economic growth is easily the most powerful and effective anti-poverty program. That’s why the poverty rate fell from 90 percent to 15 percent in America before we had a welfare state.

And it’s no coincidence that we stopped making progress once the so-called War on Poverty began.

P.S. On the topic of poverty, it’s worth remembering that the White House has tried to redefine poverty as part of a dishonest campaign to promote class warfare policies. And the leftist bureaucrats at the OECD are pushing the same disingenuous approach.

P.P.S. If you want to know which states have the highest welfare benefits, click here. And if you want to know which ones have the highest overall levels of redistribution, click here.

P.P.P.S. There’s at least one honest leftist who understands the human cost of redistribution.

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Like America’s Founders, I like constitutional constraints on government and dislike untrammeled majoritarianism.

So my gut instinct is to reject Swiss-style direct democracy as a governing system.

Yet I have to give credit to the Swiss people for being very sensible when asked to vote in national referendums. Here are some recent results.

And don’t forget they voted by a landslide margin in favor of a spending cap back in 2001.

Now they’ve done it again.

Voters were asked today to decide whether every adult should automatically receive more than $2,500 per month as part of a guaranteed basic income.

Sounds like a nice free lunch, right? That offer might be very attractive in a place like France, but Swiss voters apparently understand that government can’t give all that money to people without first taking that amount of money from people. They rejected Bernie-nomics by an overwhelming margin.

In Switzerland, there don’t appear to be left-wing blue states and right-wing red states. Instead, the entire nation favors limited government. Even the French-speaking parts of the country voted against the scheme.

I’d like to take credit for these results. I was in Switzerland early last month to discuss and debate this plan. Here’s what I said (click here to watch the entire panel discussion).

In reality, I’m sure my remarks didn’t have any impact on the outcome. Nonetheless, it’s nice to be on the winning side.

Though you may have noticed that I said some nice things about a guaranteed basic income in my presentation. That’s because, as I wrote back in 2013, these plans also would get rid of the current dysfunctional welfare state.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal a couple of days ago, Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute makes the best possible case for an automatic government-provided income.

The UBI has brought together odd bedfellows. Its advocates on the left see it as a move toward social justice; its libertarian supporters (like Friedman) see it as the least damaging way for the government to transfer wealth from some citizens to others. Either way, the UBI is an idea whose time has finally come… First, my big caveat: A UBI will do the good things I claim only if it replaces all other transfer payments and the bureaucracies that oversee them. If the guaranteed income is an add-on to the existing system, it will be as destructive as its critics fear.

Here are the highlights of Murray’s plan.

…the system has to be designed with certain key features. In my version, every American citizen age 21 and older would get a $13,000 annual grant deposited electronically into a bank account in monthly installments. …The UBI is to be financed by getting rid of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, housing subsidies, welfare for single women and every other kind of welfare and social-services program, as well as agricultural subsidies and corporate welfare. As of 2014, the annual cost of a UBI would have been about $200 billion cheaper than the current system. By 2020, it would be nearly a trillion dollars cheaper. …Under my UBI plan, the entire bureaucratic apparatus of government social workers would disappear.

And while he acknowledges that some people will stop working and live off their handouts, he makes a reasonably persuasive argument that some people will be encouraged to enter the labor force.

Under the current system, taking a job makes you ineligible for many welfare benefits or makes them subject to extremely high marginal tax rates. Under my version of the UBI, taking a job is pure profit with no downside until you reach $30,000—at which point you’re bringing home way too much ($40,000 net) to be deterred from work by the imposition of a surtax. Some people who would otherwise work will surely drop out of the labor force under the UBI, but others who are now on welfare or disability will enter the labor force.

Sounds good, but then consider all the leftists who support a basic income scheme and imagine how such a system would work if they were in charge.

That’s what worries me. If Charles Murray was economic czar and there was never a risk of his plan being modified, I’d be sorely tempted to say yes.

But that’s not a plausible scenario. In the real world, a guaranteed basic income might start small and the current welfare state might be curtailed as part of the original deal, but I would be very worried about subsequent reforms that would expand the size of the handout (much as the EITC has been expanded in America) and reinstate misguided redistribution programs.

Perhaps this is why, in a column for the Financial Times, John Kay is not very sanguine about the numbers.

Bernie Sanders, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, has expressed sympathy for basic income while stopping short of endorsement. Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister of Greece, is a proponent. …Yet simple arithmetic shows why these schemes cannot work. Decide what proportion of average income per head would be appropriate for basic income. Thirty per cent seems mean; perhaps 50 per cent is more reasonable? The figure you write down is the share of national income that would be absorbed by public expenditure on basic income. The Swiss government reckoned spending on social welfare would approximately double. To see the average tax rate implied, add the share of national income taken by other public sector activities — education, health, defence and transport. Either the basic income is impossibly low, or the expenditure on it is impossibly high.

Exactly.

P.S. On a separate topic, the death of Mohamed Ali, the larger-than-life superstar boxer, has generated a lot of reminiscing.

Well, courtesy of Mike Flynn, here’s my favorite Ali historical flashback.

P.P.S. Speaking of athletic superstars (at least in our fantasies), the Beltway Bandits finally prevailed in a 2016 softball tournament. Here’s our team photo after winning the Crabtown Classic.

P.P.S. Returning to the main topic of today’s column, here’s an amusing cartoon strip on the notion of a basic income.

It’s from the same person who put together the “magic boats” cartoon strip about the minimum wage.

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Incentives matter.

Sometimes that can be explained with wonky discussions of marginal tax rates or welfare traps.

But that may not be the best approach when trying to convince someone with no aptitude for economics. So what’s the best way of introducing such concepts to, say, a Bernie Sanders supporter?

You can point to the economic chaos in places such as Greece and Venezuela and explain that Margaret Thatcher was right when she warned that socialists eventually run out of other people’s money.

But that’s probably not too effective because they’ll simply point to Sweden and Denmark and you’ll have a hard time educating them that those countries became successful when government was small and that they’ve been falling behind ever since big welfare states were imposed.

So perhaps we first need to help them understand very simple notions.

That’s why, when trying to introduce basic concepts, I’ll often share clever images and cartoons.

Here’s a great addition to that collection (h/t: Zero Hedge). It basically shows why redistributionism is doomed to failure because a lot of people inevitably will decide that life is easier when you’re a consumer rather than a producer.

Definitely worth sharing, I hope you’ll agree.

I view this cartoon as being very similar to the second frame of the famous riding-in-the-wagon cartoons I first posted back in 2011.

Which gives me an opportunity to end today’s column with a very serious point. When redistribution programs are first created, politicians generally argue that they make sense because a lot of people will pay very small amounts to help a handful of folks who are genuinely needy.

That sounds compassionate and affordable. And perhaps it is, but there are two reasons why programs that sound reasonable in the beginning eventually morph into modern welfare states.

  1. Politicians figure out they can buy votes by making the wagon more comfortable and attractive (i.e., public choice economics).
  2. A growing number of people figure out that it’s better to ride in the wagon rather than pull the wagon (i.e., erosion of social capital).

And when you combine these two factors with changing demographics, it’s easy to understand why the future is so grim for so many countries.

P.S. Here’s the Danish version of why redistributionism fails.

P.P.S. Since “keep half” was a big part of today’s image, I can’t resist sharing again this satirical lesson about fairness for a supporter of Bernie Sanders.

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One of the more interesting policy debates, both in America and around the world, is whether convoluted and counterproductive welfare states should be scrapped and replaced with a “basic income” payment from the government.

Finland is experimenting with the concept.

Authorities in Finland are considering giving every citizen a tax-free payout of €800 (£576) each month. Under proposals being draw up by the Finnish Social Insurance Institution (Kela), this national basic income would replace all other benefit payments, and would be paid to all adults regardless of whether or not they receive any other income. …the basic income is intended to encourage more people back to work. At present, many unemployed people would be worse off if they took on low-paid temporary jobs due to loss of welfare payments.

This idea has been, or will be, tried in a few places.

…previous experiments where a basic income has been successfully trialed. The Canadian town of Dauphin experimented with a basic income guarantee in the 1970s and the results – both social and economic – were largely positive. …The Dutch city of Utrecht is also planning to introduce a basic income, albeit solely for welfare recipients. From next month more than 250 unemployed residents of the city will be given a monthly sum to live on, with researchers monitoring the outcome to determine what effect it has on employment.

In a column for City Journal, Guy Sorman has a positive assessment of the Finnish plan.

…each citizen will be free to use the money as he or she sees fit. The idea is that people are responsible for their actions. If someone decides to spend their €800 on vodka, that is their decision, and has nothing to do with the government. In return for the UBI, however, the public accepts the elimination of most welfare services. Currently, the Finnish government offers a variety of income-based assistance programs for everything from housing to children’s education to property insulation. Axing these programs should free up enough public resources to finance the UBI. The bureaucracy that currently governs welfare payments will disappear. …The Left is cheered by the socialistic idea of government-assistance-for-all. The Right looks forward to the unprecedented drop in bureaucratic control over citizens… The Finnish government is expecting the negative income tax to have a beneficial effect on employment and growth.

Though apparently the scheme will have a limited rollout.

Finland’s trial of a basic income model is set to start in 2017 and will involve a payment of 550 euros to those selected to participate.

And those selected will be a limited group.

…the full, unconditional basic income proposal would be too expensive. Instead the trial will target people already in receipt of benefits and offer a basic income at the same level to replace them. …People would then be able to take on new work without losing their social security payments, which could remove one of the disincentives to employment. People with income-linked unemployment benefits, which are higher than the state-provided basic unemployment benefit, would continue to receive them. …The trial will focus on individuals aged 25 to 63 with low incomes as that group will provide the best data on whether or not the basic income increases employment.

Here’s more reporting about the potential Dutch experiment.

…in Utrecht, one of the largest cities in the Netherlands, and 19 other Dutch municipalities, a tentative step… “We don’t call it a basic income in Utrecht because people have an idea about it – that it is just free money and people will sit at home and watch TV,” said Heleen de Boer, a Green councillor in that city, which is half an hour south of Amsterdam. Nevertheless, the municipalities are, in the words of de Boer, taking a “small step” towards a basic income for all by allowing small groups of benefit claimants to be paid £660 a month – and keep any earnings they make from work on top of that. Their monthly pay will not be means-tested. They will instead have the security of that cash every month, and the option to decide whether they want to add to that by finding work. …The motivation behind the experiment in Utrecht, according to Nienke Horst, a senior policy adviser to the municipality’s Liberal Democrat leadership, is for claimants to avoid the “poverty trap” – the fact that if they earn, they will lose benefits, and potentially be worse off.

The concept is also gaining traction in New Zealand.

Leader of the opposition Andrew Little said his Labour party was considering the idea as part of proposals to combat the “possibility of higher structural unemployment”. …Mr Little confirmed his party would debate the idea at its conference on employment at the end of March. He said significant changes to way people worked were “unavoidable” and “we expect that in the future world of work there will be at least a portion of the workforce that will rapidly move in and out of work”.

You’ll have noticed that some of the arguments for basic income seem very reasonable. Improve incentives to work and reduce bureaucracy.

Indeed, this is why the idea has support among some sensible people. I cited some of them in my article back in 2013, but there are several more.

Sam Bowman explains his support for the concept in a column for the London-based Adam Smith Institute.

For me, it’s about improving the capitalism we already have. …it would be an improvement, for three main reasons.

His first reason is that some people would benefit from more money, though I’m not sure this has anything to do with “improving capitalism.”

Our existing welfare system is designed for a world where finding a job would be enough to give most people a tolerable standard of living. But in-work poverty is an increasing problem…a basic income would reorient the whole system towards helping people who don’t have enough money, irrespective of why that is.

His second reason is that it would be good to streamline the welfare state.

Our existing welfare system has built up a large amount of unnecessary complexity that could be streamlined. …benefits are fundamentally about giving money to people who do not have enough of it. Housing benefit, the pension credit, jobseeker’s allowance, income support and tax credits all do this. …Reducing complexity is valuable but not the only, or indeed the main, appeal of the basic income.

And his third reason is that a basic income could be matched with other reforms that would boost economic performance.

Many other policies that would increase total wealth are not very progressive…doing these things ends up making lower earners pay more tax than we would like. …An easy way to correct that would be to redistribute the overall wealth gain to those poor natives so that they too are made better off in the short run as well as the long run.

Writing for National Review, Iain Murray adds his sympathetic analysis.

Anyone who wants some creature comforts, which most of poor do…would be encouraged to work rather than the reverse. …Most people will use money to make their lives better. Indeed, there is some evidence that most poor people suddenly presented with what amounts to capital will become capitalists. This is surely a good thing. …The lack of a welfare bureaucracy will also encourage charity and mutual aid for the really hard cases.

Though he does recognize that there are “two big, and possibly irresolvable, caveats.”

…unless we were to find some way of exempting this from the political process, politicians would…turn it into a UBI plus extra, targeted, welfare system.  …it still relies on robbing Peter to pay Paul, even if Peter gets some of the money back.

Now let’s shift back from theory to the real world. Switzerland is poised to vote early next month on a referendum that would provide a rather generous government-guaranteed income every month.

Switzerland will become the first country in the world to vote on the introduction of unconditional income at the national level. But it has not won much support from traditional politicians, even those on the left. …The federal government estimates the cost of the proposal at 208 billion francs a year. Around 153 billion taxes would have to be levied from taxes, while 55 billion francs would be transferred from social insurance and social assistance spending.

Why is the cost so expensive? Because, as explained in another article, the referendum would provide “a basic income of about 2,500 francs ($2,600) a month.”

Which may explain why it appears the traditionally sensible Swiss voters almost certainly will vote against the scheme by an overwhelming margin.

Seventy-two percent were against establishing the unconditional stipend, which the initiators say would “enable the entire population have a decent existence and participate in public life,” the survey found. Just 24 percent support it, while 4 percent were still undecided, had voting been conducted this month. “Support for the ‘no’-camp is expected to increase as the campaign progresses,” pollster gfs.bern said in its survey for broadcaster SRG published on Friday. “This indicates a clear rejection on the day of the ballot.” The basic income vote will take place on June 5.

For what it’s worth, I’m at a conference in Switzerland, where I spoke earlier today on this topic as part of a panel that included my colleague Michael Tanner, along with former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Swiss Professor Reiner Eichenberger.

I urged the audience to oppose the referendum because of what I called a nope-hope-dope argument.

  1. The “nope” part is my rejection of the belief on the left that technology will destroy jobs. We’ve had major changes in the economy, leading first to big losses in agricultural jobs and then significant losses in manufacturing jobs. But those changes didn’t lead to less employment. Instead, those jobs were lost as part of changes that made all of us much wealthier. So while I have no idea what will happen in the future, I have considerable faith that market forces will create productive options for people.
  2. The “hope” part is my admiration of the private initiatives that are taking place and my semi-support for the local experiments that are taking place. I want poor people to have more money and I want them to have hope. And these experiments by private charities and local governments may teach us useful things that help us reform the very inefficient welfare states operated by central governments.
  3. And the “dope” part of my presentation was my description of the people who think that we would get good results with a basic income scheme operated by central governments. Simply stated, I fear that such a proposal would be too generous, thus reducing over time incentives to work (perfectly captured by this Wizard-of-Id parody). I also fear it would require economically destructive tax rates, either explicitly to fund a basic income for everyone, or implicitly because it would be phased out like the EITC and therefore drive a larger wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption for a huge number of taxpayers.

Here, for posterity, is a photo of the panelists.

I did mention, by the way, that it would be very interesting to see an individual Swiss canton conduct an experiment, replacing all current redistribution schemes with a basic income.

And since the supporters of the referendum tweeted that statement, I’ll interpret that as a sign that I’m a consensus builder!

But I have to confess that the organizers of the conference probably should have cast me aside and instead invited Professor David Henderson of the Naval Postgraduate School.

In a new article for the Independent Institute, he looks the real-world numbers for the United States and throws very cold water on the idea of the basic income guarantee. Here’s an excerpt of his calculation of the fiscal cost of such a scheme.

The annual BIG expenditure for U.S. citizens, then, would be approximately $2.068 trillion. This expenditure estimate does not include any expenditure for administering the program or for monitoring for fraud. In other words, it is a minimum estimate. …Assume, as Zwolinski advocates, that such a program would displace all 126 federal antipoverty programs and all state and local government antipoverty programs. …Notice what would happen. A $2.068 trillion program would replace programs whose total expenditures in 2012 were $952 billion. Even rounding up the $952 billion to $1 trillion, the program that Zwolinski advocates is more than twice as costly in budgetary terms as current antipoverty programs. …How would Zwolinski fund this major increase in federal spending? …he would need to have the federal government increase taxes from their estimated $2.993 trillion to $4.361 trillion, an increase of 45.7 percent.

Those fiscal costs could be reduced with a clawback mechanism (i.e., means testing the basic income grant), but that would require very high implicit marginal tax rates.

Zwolinski suggests a way around the huge tax increases that I have laid out: the way proposed by Charles Murray in his book In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State (2006). That method is to tax $5,000 of the $10,000 grant with a 20-percentage-point increase in the marginal tax rate on people who make $25,000 or more. At the $50,000 income level, $5,000 of the grant would be paid back. This method does reduce the amount of other taxation required, but, of course, it increases marginal tax rates over a range of incomes by 20 percentage points. …This increase would be a substantial disincentive to work and a substantial incentive to make money in the underground economy.

And he also cites what I fear would be an enormous problem, which is that we couldn’t trust politicians to keep the basic income grant at a modest level, and we also couldn’t trust them to permanently eliminate other redistribution problems.

…there is another major problem: the “public-choice” problem. …those who advocate further government programs…must show that there is a high probability that such government programs will not grow further. …in the case of a BIG, they must show that there is a high probability that a scaled-down BIG really would replace all of the existing programs for the poor and near poor. This is hard to do because the various interest groups that favor the existing programs will not sit back: they will fight to keep some or all of those programs. Zwolinski…writes that if the BIG “were implemented via a constitutional amendment, many of the public choice considerations could be reduced, I think, to an acceptable level.”11 Yet, as Randy Barnett (2004) and Robert Levy and William Mellor (2008) show, even strict constitutional limits on federal government power have yielded to the U.S. president, Congress, and the courts.

Think of this as presenting the same challenge presented by a national sales tax or value-added tax. There are good arguments for those proposals, but the most powerful objection is that politicians can’t be trusted to permanently eliminate or reduce existing income taxes.

So if a basic income isn’t the answer, what should we do?

I agree with the scholars from the Austrian School that decentralization is the right approach. We already did that for basic welfare payments during the Clinton years, and we should do it for all other forms of income redistribution, perhaps starting with food stamps and Medicaid.

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Senator Bernie Sanders wants to dramatically increase the burden of government and he claims that his policies won’t lead to economic misery because nations such as Sweden show that you can be a prosperous country with a big welfare state.

Perhaps, but there are degrees of prosperity. And a large public sector imposes a non-trivial burden on Nordic nations, resulting in living standards that lag U.S. levels according to OECD data.

Moreover, according to research by a Swedish economist, people of Scandinavian descent in America produce and earn much more than their counterparts at home.

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of the Nordic Model.

But there actually are some things we can learn from places such as Sweden. And not just things to avoid.

As Johan Norberg explains in this short video (you may have to double-click and watch it on the YouTube site), there are some very good policies in his home country. Indeed, in some ways, his nation is more free market than America.

I especially like Johan’s explanation about how Sweden became a rich country before the welfare state was adopted.

And he’s right that Sweden had a smaller government and a lower tax burden than the United States for a long period.

Indeed, there was very little income redistribution until the 1960s.

But once the welfare state was adopted, the Swedes went crazy and dramatically increased tax rates and the burden of government spending. And, as Johan explained, that’s when Sweden’s relative prosperity began to drop.

And big government eventually led to an economic crisis in the early 1990s, which has sobered up Swedish officials and policy in recent decades has been moving in the right direction.

Including significant reductions in the budget and lower tax rates (though the fiscal burden is still far too high).

I particularly like Johan’s advice to copy what works. We should partially privatize our Social Security system (actually, we should be like Australia and have full privatization, but we should at least get the ball rolling). And we should have extensive school choice like Sweden. Moreover, let’s copy the Swedes and get rid of the death tax.

Sweden is actually a very pro-market country, albeit one that is weighed down by a large welfare state and excessive taxation. Interestingly, if you look at the non-fiscal policy variables from Economic Freedom of the World, Sweden actually ranks much higher than the United States (along with many other Nordic nations).

The bottom line is that Sweden actually is somewhat like the United States. There are some very bad policies and some fairly decent policies. America ranks above Sweden in a couple of areas, but lags in other areas. The net result is that we’re both more market-oriented than the average western nation (compare Sweden and Greece, for instance), but both well behind the pace setters for economic liberty, Hong Kong and Singapore.

For more information on this topic, here’s a video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that features another Swede explaining what works and doesn’t work in her country.

P.S. Denmark is a lot like Sweden. A crushing tax burden and extravagant welfare state, but also hyper-free market policies in other areas (and maybe some fiscal progress if Denmark continues to follow the Golden Rule).

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I realize it’s presumptuous, but I periodically make grandiose claims that a single column will tell readers “everything” they need to know about a topic. I’ve used that tactic when writing about tax loopholes, entitlements, fiscal policy, bureaucracy (twice), tax evasion, France, Greece, corporate inversions, and economic policy.

Sometimes I even claim a single image, chart, or cartoon provides a reader with “everything” needed to understand an issue. Examples include the minimum wage, economic policy, the welfare state, supply-side economics, the tax code, Europe’s fiscal crisis, Social Security reform, demographics, overpaid bureaucrats, healthcare economics, inequality, fiscal policy, and the Ryan budget (twice).

Needless to say, I don’t actually think these columns give readers “everything” on a topic. But I do hope the information makes a compelling and informative point about an issue.

So it’s time to expand this tactic and present one sentence that tells readers “everything” they need to know about the failure of big government. And it’s not even the full sentence, just the bolded portion in this excerpt from a BuzzFeed story about how Belgium is trying to deal with terrorism.

One Belgian counterterrorism official told BuzzFeed News last week that due to the small size of the Belgian government and the huge numbers of open investigations…virtually every police detective and military intelligence officer in the country was focused on international jihadi investigations. …the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said. “It’s literally an impossible situation.”

When I read that sentence, my jaw dropped to the floor. Belgium has one of the biggest and most bloated governments in the world.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Go to the OECD’s collection of data and click on Table 25 and you’ll see that the public sector in Belgium consumes almost 54 percent of the nation’s economy. That’s bigger even than the size of government in Sweden and Italy.

So the notion that fighting terrorism is hampered by the “small size of the Belgian government” is utterly absurd.

The real problem is that politicians and bureaucrats have become so focused on redistributing money to various interest groups that there’s not enough attention given to fulfilling the few legitimate functions of government. Not just in Belgium, but all over the world. Here’s what I wrote on this issue back in 2012.

…today’s bloated welfare state interferes with and undermines the government’s ability to competently fulfill its legitimate responsibilities. Imagine, for instance, if we had the kind of limited federal government envisioned by the Founding Fathers and the “best and brightest” people in government – instead of being dispersed across a vast bureaucracy – were concentrated on protecting the national security of the American people. In that hypothetical world, I’m guessing something like the 9-11 attacks would be far less likely.

What I said about America back then is even more true about Belgium today. Big governments are clumsy and ineffective, and bigger governments are even more incompetent. There’s even scholarly research confirming that larger public sectors are associated with higher levels of inefficiency.

And the same point has been made by folks such as Mark Steyn and Robert Samuelson (though David Brooks inexplicably reaches the opposite conclusion).

The good news is that the American people have an instinctive understanding of the problem. When asked to describe the federal government, you’ll notice that “effective” and “efficient” are not the words people choose.

P.S. On a related note, I argued in a column from 2014 that the federal government should be much smaller so it could more effectively focus on genuine threats such as the Ebola virus.

P.S. It’s worth pointing out that Israel, which faces far greater security challenges than Belgium, manages to do a better job with a government that is not nearly as large.

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