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Posts Tagged ‘Welfare State’

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.

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I’ve written several times that the left wants big tax hikes on poor and middle-class taxpayers. Simply stated, that’s the only way they can finance a European-sized welfare state.

Some of them even admit they want to pillage ordinary taxpayers.

Now we have another addition to our list. Writing in today’s Washington Post, two law professors from UCLA openly argue in favor of tightening the belts of average Americans to enable a bigger federal government.

…we need more tax revenue from the middle class, not less.

They start by complaining that middle-income taxpayers have benefited from big tax cuts over the past 35 years.

Middle-class tax burdens are at historic lows. The Congressional Budget Office reported in 2016 that the average federal income tax rate for the middle class — here meaning the middle 60 percent of the income distribution — declined from 7.8 percent in 1979 to 3.4 percent in 2013. Focusing on all federal taxes (not just income taxes), the average tax rate dropped from 19.2 to 13.8 percent over the same period. With these lower tax rates, the share of taxes paid by the middle class has also declined. The middle class paid 35 percent of income taxes in 1979 but only 16 percent in 2013, while its share of all federal taxes fell from 43 to 30 percent.

As far as I’m concerned, this is good news, not something to bemoan. Indeed, my goal is to have similar reductions in tax burdens for all taxpayers.

But the authors raise a very valid point. We will have giant tax increases in the future and people at all income levels will be adversely impacted. Though there is one way of avoiding that grim European future.

Unless Congress is willing to dramatically cut major entitlement programs.

Incidentally, we don’t need to “dramatically cut” those programs. The authors are relying on dishonest Washington budget math.

In reality, the problem is solved and tax increases are averted so long as reforms are adopted to ensure that entitlement programs no longer grow faster than the private sector.

But that’s not what the authors want. They actually look forward to big tax increases.

What the middle class needs is not meager tax cuts but a muscular commitment to robust public institutions designed to benefit middle-income individuals. The higher taxes could come from our current income tax (from tax increases on the middle class and the wealthy) or a broad-based consumption tax (such as a VAT or carbon tax).

I’m greatly amused by the language they use. They want readers to believe that bloated European-style welfare states are “robust public institutions” and that politicians grabbing more money to buy more votes is a way of showing “muscular commitment.”

I’m also not surprised that they embraced a carbon tax or value-added tax.

By the way, the column compares the United States with other industrialized nations. Simply stated, we win (at least from my perspective).

Data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reveal that American families with children face substantially lower average income-tax rates (in some cases, less than half) than similar families in other developed countries. And this is before factoring in consumption taxes, which represent a large share of middle-class tax burdens in most countries, but not in the United States.

Those are remarkable numbers. Income taxes grab a much bigger share of family income in Europe. And then governments take an even bigger slice thanks to onerous value-added taxes.

The authors would argue that Europeans get “robust public institutions” in exchange for all that money, but what they really get is less growth and lower living standards.

Indeed, it’s worth noting that the richest European nations are on the same level (or below) the poorest American states.

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for higher tax burdens.

The bottom line is that left-wing politicians usually pontificate about raising taxes on the rich, but the truly honest folks on the left openly admit that the real targets are lower-income and middle-class households.

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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.

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The world’s best welfare state arguably is Finland.

Yes, the burden of government spending is enormous and the tax system is stifling, but the nation gets extremely high scores for rule of law and human liberty. Moreover, it is one of the world’s most laissez-faire economies when looking at areas other than fiscal policy.

Indeed, depending on who is doing the measuring, Finland ranks either slightly above or slightly below the United States when grading overall policy.

Yet even the best welfare state faces a grim future because of demographic change. Simply stated, redistribution programs only work if there is a sufficiently large supply of new taxpayers to finance promised handouts.

And that supply is running dry in Finland. Bloomberg reports that policymakers in that nation are waking up to the fact that there won’t be enough future taxpayers to finance the country’s extravagant welfare state.

Demographics are a concern across the developed world, of course. But they are particularly problematic for countries with a generous welfare state, since they endanger its long-term survival. …the Aktia Bank chief economist said in a telephone interview in Helsinki. “We have a large public sector and the system needs taxpayers in the future.” …According to the OECD, Finland already has the lowest ratio of youths to the working-age population in the Nordics. …And it also has the highest rate of old-age dependency in the region. …The situation is only likely to get worse, according to OECD projections.

Here are a couple of charts showing dramatic demographic changes in Nordic nations. The first chart shows the ratio of children to working-age adults.

And the second charts shows the population of old people (i.e., those most likely to receive money from the government) compared to the number of working-age adults.

As you can see, the numbers are grim now (green bar) but will get far worse by the middle of the century (the red and black bars) because the small number of children today translates into a small number of working-age adults in the future.

To be blunt, these numbers suggest that it’s just a matter of time before the fiscal crisis in Southern Europe spreads to Scandinavia.

Heck, it’s going to spread everywhere: Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia, the developing world, Japan and the United States.

Though it’s important to understand that demographic changes don’t necessarily trigger fiscal and economic problems. Hong Kong and Singapore have extremely low fertility rates, yet they don’t face big problems since they are not burdened by western-style welfare states.

By the way, the article also reveals that Finland’s government isn’t very effective at boosting birthrates, something that we already knew based on the failure of pro-natalist government schemes in nations such as Italy, Spain, Denmark, and Japan.

Though I’m amused that the reporter apparently thinks government handouts are a pro-parent policy and believes that more of the same will somehow have a positive effect.

Finland, a first-rate place in which to be a mother, has registered the lowest number of newborns in nearly 150 years. …the fertility rate should equal two per woman, Schauman says. It was projected at 1.57 in 2016, according to Statistics Finland. That’s a surprisingly low level, given the efforts made by the state to support parenthood. …Finland’s famous baby-boxes. Introduced in 1937, containers full of baby clothes and care products are delivered to expectant mothers, with the cardboard boxes doubling up as a makeshift cot. …Offering generous parental leave…doesn’t seem to be working either. …The government has been working with employers and trade unions to boost gender equality by making parental leave more flexible and the benefits system simpler.

Sigh, a bit of research would have shown that welfare states actually have a negative impact on fertility.

The bottom line is that entitlement reform is the only plausible way for Finland to solve this major economic threat.

P.S. Since the nation’s central bank has published research on the negative impact of excessive government spending, there are some Finns who understand what should be done.

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I argued last year that leftists should be nice to rich people because upper-income taxpayers finance the vast majority of the American welfare state according to government data.

Needless to say, my comment about being “nice” was somewhat sarcastic. But I was making a serious point about the United States having a very “progressive” fiscal system. The top-20 percent basically pay for government and those in the bottom half are net recipients of that involuntary largesse.

I also pointed out a huge difference between the United States and Europe. Governments on the other side of the Atlantic impose much higher burdens on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers.

Here’s some of what I wrote.

…the big difference between the United States and Europe is not taxes on the rich. We both impose similar tax burden on high-income taxpayers, though Europeans are more likely to collect revenue from the rich with higher income tax rates and the U.S. gets a greater share of revenue from upper-income taxpayers with double taxation on interest, dividends, and capital gains (we also have a very punitive corporate tax system, though it doesn’t collect that much revenue). The real difference between America and Europe is that America has a far lower tax burden on lower- and middle-income taxpayers. Tax rates in Europe, particularly the top rate, tend to take effect at much lower levels of income. European governments all levy onerous value-added taxes that raise costs for all consumers. Payroll tax burdens in many European nations are significantly higher than in the United States.

So do this mean European politician don’t like ordinary people?

I could make a snarky comment about the attitudes of the political elite, but I’ll resist that temptation and instead point out that taxes in Europe are much higher for the simple reason that government is much bigger and that means some segment of the population has to surrender more of its income.

But here’s the $64,000 question that we want to investigate today: Why are European governments pillaging lower-income and middle-class taxpayers instead of going after the “evil rich” and “greedy corporations”?

Part of the answer is that there aren’t enough rich people to finance big government. But the most important factor is the Laffer Curve. Politicians can impose higher tax rates on upper-income taxpayers and companies, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into higher revenue. Simply stated, well-to-do taxpayers have considerable ability to earn less income and/or report less income when tax burdens increase, and they do the opposite when tax burdens decrease.

That’s true in the United States, and it’s true in European countries such as Sweden, France, Russia, Denmark, and the United Kingdom.

So even if politicians want to fleece upper-income taxpayers, that’s not a successful method of generating a lot of revenue.

Which is why a shift from a medium-sized welfare state (such as what exists in the United States) to a large-sized welfare state (common in Europe) means huge tax increases on ordinary taxpayers.

I’ve made this point before, but now I have some additional evidence thanks to a new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The Paris-based bureaucracy is probably my least-favorite international organization because of its advocacy for statism, but it collects and publishes lots of useful statistics about fiscal policy in the industrialized world.

And here are three charts from the new study that tell a very persuasive story (and a depressing story for ordinary taxpayers).

First, we can see how the average tax burden has increased substantially over the past 50 years.

And who is paying all that additional money to politicians?

As you can see from this second chart, income tax revenues have become a less-important source of revenue over time while social insurance taxes (mostly paid by lower-income and middle-class taxpayers) have become a more-important source of revenue.

The third chart shows the evolution of the value-added tax burden. This levy takes a big bite out of the paychecks of ordinary people and the rate keeps climbing over time (and if we looked just at European governments that are part of the OECD, the numbers are even more depressing).

Now let’s put this data in context.

The United States now has a medium-sized welfare state financed mostly by upper-income taxpayers.

But because of dramatic demographic changes, we are doomed to have a large-sized welfare state. At least that’s what will happen if we don’t reform entitlement programs.

And if we leave policy on auto-pilot and there’s a substantial increase in the burden of government spending, it’s simply a matter of time before politicians figure out new ways of taking more money from lower-income and middle-class taxpayers.

Yes, they may also impose higher rates on “rich” taxpayers, but that will be mostly for symbolic purposes since those levies won’t generate substantial revenue.

Last but not least, don’t forget that European fiscal burdens will mean anemic European economic performance.

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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.

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According to leftists like Bernie Sanders, European nations have wonderfully generous welfare states financed by high tax rates on the rich.

They’re partly right. There are very large welfare states in Europe (though I wouldn’t use “wonderfully” and “generous” to describe systems that have caused economic stagnation and high levels of unemployment).

But they’re wrong about how those welfare states are financed. Yes, tax rates on the rich are onerous, but not that much higher than in the United States. Instead, the big difference between America and Europe is that ordinary people pay much higher taxes on the other side of the Atlantic.

Indeed, I’ve previously cited Tax Foundation data showing that the United States arguably has the most “progressive” tax system in the developed world. Not because we tax the rich more, but simply because we impose comparatively modest burdens on everyone else.

And now we have some new evidence making the same point. Joseph Sternberg of the Wall Street Journal has some very sobering data on how the German tax system imposes a heavy weight on poor and middle-income taxpayers.

Europeans believe their tax codes are highly progressive, giving lower earners a break while levying significant proportions of the income of higher earners and corporations to fund generous social benefits. But that progressivity holds true only for direct taxes on personal and corporate income. Indirect taxes, such as the value-added tax on consumption and social-security taxes (disguised as “contributions”), are a different matter. The VAT disproportionately affects lower earners, who spend a higher proportion of their incomes. And social taxes tend to kick in at lower income levels than income taxes, and extract a higher and more uniform proportion of income. …if you look at the proportion of gross household income paid in all forms of tax, the rate varies by only 25 points. The lowest-earning 5% of households pay roughly 27% of their income in various taxes—mainly VAT—while a household in the 85th income percentile pays total taxes of around 52%, mostly in social-security taxes that amount to nearly double the income-tax bill.

Here’s a chart the WSJ included with the editorial.

As you can see, high payroll taxes and the value-added tax are a very costly combination.

And the rest of Europe is similar to Germany.

…Germany is not unique. The way German total revenues are split among income taxes, social taxes and the consumption tax is in line with the rest of Western Europe, as are its tax rates, according to OECD data. If other countries are more progressive than Germany, it’s only because Germany applies its second-highest marginal income-tax rate of 42% at a lower level of income than most.

Speaking of the OECD, here’s the bureaucracy’s data on the burden of government spending.

Germany is in the middle of the pack, with the public sector consuming 44 percent of economic output (Finland edges out France and Greece for the dubious honor of having the most expensive government).

The overall burden of the public sector is far too high in the United States, but we’re actually on the “low” side by OECD standards.

According to the data, total government spending “only” consumes 37.7 percent of America’s GDP. Only Ireland, Switzerland, and Latvia have better numbers (though my friend Constantin Gurdgiev explains we should be cautious about Irish economic data).

But I’m digressing. The point I want to emphasize is that punitive taxes on poor and middle-income taxpayers are unavoidable once politicians decide to impose a large welfare state.

Which is why I’m so inflexibly hostile to any tax increase, especially a value-added tax (or anything close to a VAT, such as the BAT) that would vacuum up huge amounts of money from the general population. Simply stated, politicians in Washington will have a hard time financing a bigger burden of government if they can only target the rich.

Sternberg makes the same point in his column.

Tax cuts have emerged as an issue ahead of Germany’s national election next month, with both major parties promising various timid tinkers… Not gonna happen. The VAT and social taxes are too important to the modern welfare state. The great lie is that there are a) enough “rich people,” b) who are rich enough, that c) taxing their incomes heavily enough can pay for generous health benefits and an old-age pension at 65. None of those propositions are true, and the third is especially wrong in an era of globally mobile capital and labor. That leaves the lower and middle classes, and taxes concealed in price tags or dolled up as “insurance contributions” to obscure exactly how much voters are paying for the privilege of their welfare states. …reform of the indirect taxes that impose such a drag on European economies awaits a more serious discussion about the proper role of the state overall.

Exactly.

There’s no feasible way to ease the burden on ordinary German taxpayers (or regular people in other European nations) unless there are sweeping reforms to reduce the welfare state.

And the moral of the story for Americans is that we better enact genuine entitlement reform if we don’t want to suffer the same fate.

P.S. If you don’t like German data, for whatever reason, I wrote last year about Belgium and made the same point about how a big welfare state necessarily means a bad tax system.

P.P.S. By the way, even the OECD admitted that European nations would grow faster if the burden of government was reduced.

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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.

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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.

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Whenever there’s a terrorist attack, I automatically feel a combination of anger, horror, and sadness. Like all normal people.

But it’s then just a matter of time before I also begin wonder whether we’ll learn that the dirtbag terrorist was financed by welfare.

Which is an understandable reaction since that’s now the normal pattern. Over and over and over and over and over again, we learn that taxpayers were supporting these murderous losers while they plotted and planned their mayhem.

And it’s not random. They’re actually told by hate-filled Imams to sign up for handouts. And European courts protect terrorist households that use welfare to finance death and destruction.

It’s gotten to the point where I even created a special terror wing in the Moocher Hall of Fame.

And it’s happened again. The piece of human filth who murdered 22 people at a concert in Manchester was able to finance his terrorism with handouts from the British government.

The Telegraph has some of the odious details about tax-financed death and destruction.

Salman Abedi is understood to have received thousands of pounds in state funding in the run up to Monday’s atrocity even while he was overseas receiving bomb-making training. Police are investigating Abedi’s finances, including how he paid for frequent trips to Libya where he is thought to have been taught to make bombs at a jihadist training camp. …Abedi’s finances are a major ‘theme’ of the police inquiry amid growing alarm over the ease with which jihadists are able to manipulate Britain’s welfare and student loans system to secure financing. One former detective said jihadists were enrolling on university courses to collect the student loans “often with no intention of turning up”.

But he probably accessed other types of benefits as well, particularly since he never worked and had plenty of cash.

…the Department for Work and Pensions refused to say if Abedi had received any benefits, including housing benefit and income support worth up to £250 a week, during 2015 and 2016. Abedi, 22, never held down a job, according to neighbours and friends, but was able to travel regularly between the UK and Libya. Abedi also had sufficient funds to buy materials for his sophisticated bomb while living in a rented house in south Manchester. Six weeks before the bombing Abedi rented a second property in a block of flats in Blackley eight miles from his home, paying £700 in cash. He had enough money to rent a third property in the centre of Manchester from where he set off with a backpack containing the bomb. Abedi also withdrew £250 in cash three days before the attack and transferred £2,500 to his younger brother Hashim in Libya

Time for another example. Remember the piece of human garbage in London who mowed down some innocent people with his car before murdering a policeman?

Well, he also was subsidized by taxpayers.

Khalid Masood, the radical ISIS terrorist responsible for London’s Westminster terror attack, did not have a job and was receiving government benefits before engaging in his attack. …Masood had a violent criminal history, including several knife attacks. …Terrorists receiving government welfare is a common theme discovered in many post-terror attack investigations.

Seems like Abedi and Masood should have had their own episode of “Benefits Street.”

There are also new reports on welfare-subsidized terror from continental Europe.

A story in USA Today offers a depressing summary.

Governments across Europe have accidentally paid taxpayer-funded welfare benefits such as unemployment funds, disability pensions and housing allowances to Islamic State militants who have used the money to wage war in Iraq and Syria, authorities and terrorism experts say. Danish officials said this week that 29 citizens were given $100,000 in public pension benefits because they were considered too ill or disabled to work, and they then fled to Syria to fight for the radical group. …Other countries that also have paid benefits to Islamic State fighters…It took eight months before welfare authorities cut off benefits paid to a Swedish national who had joined the terror group in its Syrian stronghold Raqqa. …Authorities concluded that several of the plotters in the Brussels and Paris terror attacks that killed 162 people in 2015 and 2016 were partly financed by Belgium’s social welfare system while they planned their atrocities. …radical Islamic cleric Anjem Choudary, who was jailed for terrorist activities, urged followers to claim “jihadiseeker’s allowance” — a reference to the nation’s welfare system. His phrase echoes a manual released by the militant group in 2015. How to Survive in the West: A Mujahid Guide advises that “if you can claim extra benefits from a government, then do so.”

By the way, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry about the Belgian government’s response.

Are they reducing the welfare state? Of course not.

But you’ll be happy to know that imprisoned radicals lose access to the government teat.

Philippe de Koster, director of Belgium’s agency that fights money laundering and terrorism financing, said steps have since been taken to prevent that from happening again. For example, those convicted of terrorism can no longer receive benefits while in jail.

I’ve already written about welfare-subsidized terrorism in the Nordic nations.

Here’s another story about developments in Scandinavia.

The report examined hundreds of individuals who left to join extremist groups such as Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) between 2013 and 2016. Commissioned at the request of the Financial Supervisory Authority, it has found that the majority was still receiving living allowance, child benefit, maintenance support and parental benefits while abroad, having other people handle their mail to make it look like they were still at home.

The problem seems especially acute in Sweden.

Close to every person who left Sweden to fight for terror groups in the Middle East received welfare to support themselves abroad, according to a new government report. A study of 300 Swedish citizens who fought in Syria and Iraq between 2013 and 2016 shows jihadis are getting increasingly good at getting away with welfare fraud. The individuals often use a person in Sweden to handle paperwork and create the illusion that they’re still in the country. …The most attractive option are government loans to study abroad. The loans are easy to get and thousands of dollars are paid out at once. …The Danish Security and Intelligence Service (PET) recently identified several cases of Danish citizens receiving early pension because they were deemed too sick or disabled to work. They later left the country to fight for Islamic State while the payments continue to get deposited into their accounts. …PET has tried to cut off the benefits since 2014, but current legislation doesn’t allow the payment agency to cut early pensions simply because the recipient is believed to be a terrorist.

Let’s close with something that it either astounding or depressing, or actually both. All of the examples cited above are nations with bloated welfare states. Governments in all those countries consume more than 40 percent of economic output, and more than 50 percent of GDP in some cases.

Belgium is in that latter category, yet one official actually said that it was very difficult to fight terrorism “due to the small size of the Belgian government.”

To me, this is a reminder that the natural incompetence of government becomes worse the bigger it gets.

P.S. Today’s column mocks European government for welfare-subsidized terrorism, but American readers should be careful about throwing stones in glass houses.

The dirtbags who bombed the Boston Marathon were mooching off taxpayers.

And the U.S. refugee program includes automatic eligibility for handouts, making it, in part, a “terrorist-funding welfare scam.”

P.P.S. I suppose a concluding caveat would be appropriate. I’m not making an argument that welfare causes terrorism. That almost would be as silly as the leftists who claim that terrorism is caused by inequality or climate change. Though I do wonder whether people who get government handouts feel a sense of self-loathing that leaves them vulnerable to jihadist ideology.

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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.

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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.

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When I warn about the fiscal and economic consequences of America’s poorly designed entitlement programs (as well as the impact of demographic changes), I regularly suggest that the United States is on a path to become Greece.

Because of Greece’s horrible economy, this link has obvious rhetorical appeal.

But there’s another nation that may be a more accurate “role model” of America’s future. This other country, like the United States, is big, relatively rich, and has its own currency.

For these and other reasons, in an article for The Hill, I suggest that Japan is the nation that may offer the most relevant warning signs. I explain first that Japan shows the failure of Keynesian economics.

…ever since a property bubble burst in the late 1980s, Japan’s economy has been in the doldrums, and its politicians deserve much of the blame. They’ve engaged in repeated binges of so-called Keynesian stimulus. But running up the national credit card hasn’t worked any better in Japan than it did for President Barack Obama. Instead of economic rejuvenation, Japan is now saddled with record levels of debt.

In other words, Japan already is a basket case and may be the next Greece. And all this foolish policy has been cheered on by the IMF.

I then highlight how Japan shows why a value-added tax is a huge mistake.

Japan’s politicians also decided to impose a value-added tax (VAT) on the nation. As so often happens when a VAT gets adopted, it turns into a money machine, as legislators start ratcheting the rate higher and higher. That happened in Europe back in the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s happening in Japan today.

And regular readers know my paranoid fear of the VAT taking hold in the United States.

But here’s the main lesson in the column.

The combination of demographic changes and redistribution programs is a recipe for fiscal crisis.

…the biggest economic threat to the country is the way Japan’s welfare state interacts with demographic changes. It’s not that the welfare state is enormous, particularly compared with European nations, but the system is becoming an ever-increasing burden because the Japanese people are living longer and having fewer children. …America faces some of the same problems. …if we don’t reform our entitlement programs, it’s just a matter of time before we also have a fiscal crisis.

To be sure, as I note in the article, Japan’s demographic outlook is worse. And that nation’s hostility to any immigration (even from high-skilled people) means that Japan can’t compensate (as America has to some degree) for low birth rates by expanding its population.

Indeed, the demographic situation in Japan is so grim that social scientists have actually estimated the date on which the Japanese people become extinct.

Mark August 16, 3766 on your calendar. According to…researchers at Tohoku University, that’s the date Japan’s population will dwindle to one. For 25 years, the country has had falling fertility rates, coinciding with widespread aging. The worrisome trend has now reached a critical mass known as a “demographic time bomb.” When that happens, a vicious cycle of low spending and low fertility can cause entire generations to shrink — or disappear completely.

Though I guess none of us will know whether this prediction is true unless we live another 1750 years. But it doesn’t matter if the estimate is perfect. Japan’s demographic outlook is very grim.

By the way, the problem of aging populations and misguided entitlements exists in almost every developed nation.

But I mentioned in the article for The Hill that there are two exceptions. Hong Kong and Singapore have extremely low birthrates and aging populations. But neither jurisdiction faces a fiscal crisis for the simple reason that people largely are responsible for saving for their own retirement.

And that, of course, is the main lesson. The United States desperately needs genuine entitlement reform. While I’m not overflowing with optimism about Trump’s view on these issues, hope springs eternal.

P.S. In yesterday’s column about Germany, I listed bizarre policies in Germany in the postscripts. My favorite example from Japan is the regulation of coffee enemas. And the Japanese government has even proven incompetent at giving away money.

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Whenever mass shootings occur, some people quickly jump to conclusions before there’s any evidence.

Folks on the right are occasionally guilty of immediately assuming Islamic terrorism, which is somewhat understandable. Folks on the left, meanwhile, are sometimes guilty of instinctively assuming Tea Party-inspired violence (I’m not joking).

I confess that I’m prone to do something similar. Whenever there is a terrorist attack, I automatically wonder if we’ll find out welfare payments and other goodies from the government helped subsidize the evil actions.

In my defense, there’s a reason I think this way. Whether we’re talking about Jihadi John or the Tsarnaev brothers, there are lots of examples of dirtbag terrorists getting handouts from taxpayers.

It happens a lot in other nations. And it’s now happening with disturbing frequency in the United States.

It’s even gotten to the point where I’ve created a special terror wing in the Moocher Hall of Fame. And, as more evidence accumulates, the medieval savage who drove a truck through a Christmas market in Germany may be eligible for membership.

Here’s some of what we know, as reported by the Daily Caller.

Berlin truck attack terrorist Anis Amri used several different identities to claim multiple welfare checks simultaneously in different cities around Germany. Amri, the Tunisian refugee who killed 12 and injured 48 at a Christmas market in Berlin Dec. 19… The investigation was closed in November because Amri’s whereabouts were unknown. …Welfare is a common way for terrorists to fund their activities in Europe.

The U.K.-based Express reveals that the terrorist was very proficient at ripping off taxpayers before deciding to kill them.

Despite being shot dead in Italy just days after the attack, the Tunisian refugee is now under investigation for fraud after conning German authorities into handing over cash to fund his terror exploits. After travelling from Tunisia to Europe in 2011, he used up to eight different aliases and several different nationalities – at times even claiming to be from Egypt or Lebanon. Reports claim Amri carried several different false identity documents and used aliases to collect welfare in cities across Germany.

The story also has details on how welfare payments subsidized previous terrorist actions.

Welfare fraud was key to funding terror attacks in Brussels in March and in Paris last year. Terrorists collected around £45,000 in benefits which they used to pay for the brutal attacks in the major European cities. …Meanwhile, Danish authorities came under fire recently after it emerged 36 Islamic State fighters continued to receive benefits for months after leaving the country to join other members of the brutal regime in Syria and Iraq.

And while I’m not sure RT is a legitimate news source, it says Amri used 14 identities for mooching.

Anis Amri, the Tunisian man accused of driving a truck into a crowd of Christmas market shoppers in Berlin, used at least 14 different identities, a German police chief said. …Among other things, this allowed the man to receive social benefits under different names in different municipalities, the police chief said.

A close associate (and suspected co-conspirator) of Amri also was mooching off the system according to news reports.

A spokeswoman for the office of Germany’s chief prosecutor on Wednesday said authorities have taken a second Tunisian suspect into custody following raids in Berlin on Tuesday. …However, she added that there was insufficient evidence to charge the suspect. In a separate statement, the federal prosecutor’s office announced the man had been charged with committing social welfare fraud and would remain in custody. …the suspect had previously been detained on suspicion of supplying explosives intended for a prospective attack in Dusseldorf. …The 26-year-old suspect allegedly had dinner with Amri at a restaurant the night before the attack, according to Köhler. The suspect allegedly met Amri in late 2015. “Süddeutsche Zeitung” reported that the two men traveled together from Italy to Germany that year.

Gee, sounds like a model citizen. Merkel must be proud of her caring and sharing welfare state.

Last but not least, a story in the U.K.-based Telegraph has some added details on the sordid history of welfare-funded terrorism in Europe.

The jihadists suspected of carrying out the bomb and gun attacks in Paris and Brussels used British benefits payments to fund international terrorism, a court has heard. …Zakaria Bouffassil, 26, from Birmingham is accused of handing over the cash which had been withdrawn from the bank account of Anouar Haddouchi, a Belgian national, who had been claiming benefits while living in the West Midlands with his wife. Kingston Crown Court heard how thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money continued to be paid into Haddouchi’s bank account, even after he had left Britain for Syria and had begun fighting for Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (Isil). …On the opening day of their trial, jurors heard how some of the most notorious and wanted terrorists in Europe had used British taxpayers’ money to fund their activities in Syria and elsewhere.

Though I suppose I shouldn’t say “sordid history.” This is more like societal suicide.

After all, we’re not talking about welfare payments for a tiny fraction of terrorists. It really is a theme.

I linked to some examples above, and if you want more evidence, click here, here, here, here, and here.

By the way, I’m not claiming that welfare causes terrorism. Though I do wonder if Mickey Kaus has a point when he does make that link.

…extreme anti-social terrorist ideologies (radical Islam, in particular) seem to breed in “oppositional” cultures supported by various government welfare benefits. …The social logic is simple: Ethnic differences make it easy for those outside of, for example, French Arab neighborhoods to discriminate against those inside, and easy for those inside to resent the mainstream culture around them. Meanwhile, relatively generous welfare benefits enable those in the ethnic ghetto to stay there, stay unemployed, and seethe. Without government subsidies, they would have to overcome the prejudice against them and integrate into the mainstream working culture. Work, in this sense, is anti-terrorist medicine.

I don’t particularly like government-provided welfare of any kind, but I definitely think there should be strict rules against handouts for immigrants. And if that makes them less susceptible to terrorist ideologies, that’s a big fringe benefit.

P.S. It goes without saying that politicians aren’t trying to subsidize terrorism. It’s just a byproduct of bad policy. They do, however, explicitly and deliberately subsidize terrorism insurance for big companies. A rather unique example of corporate welfare.

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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.

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I’m in Sweden today, where I just spoke before Timbro (a prominent classical liberal think tank) about the US elections and the implications for public policy.

My main message was pessimism since neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton support genuine entitlement reform.

But I’ve addressed that topic many times before. Today, motivated by my trip, I want to augment my analysis about Sweden from 10 days ago.

In that column, I highlighted some research from Professor Olle Kranz showing that Sweden became a rich nation during a free-market era when government was relatively small. And as you can see from his chart (I added the parts in red), this is also when per-capita economic output in Sweden caught up with – and eventually surpassed – per-capita GDP in other advanced countries.

Then Sweden began to lose ground. Some of this was understandable and inevitable. Sweden didn’t participate in World War II, so its comparative prosperity during the war and immediately afterwards was a one-time blip.

But the main focus of my column from last week was to show that Swedish prosperity began a sustained drop during the 1960s, and I argued that the nation lost ground precisely because statist policies were adopted.

In other words, Sweden enjoyed above-average growth when it relied on policies I like and then suffered below-average growth when it imposed the policies (high tax rates, massive redistribution, etc) that get Bernie Sanders excited.

Today, let’s build upon Professor Kranz’s analysis by extending his calculations. He did his research in the early part of last decade, and we now have many years of additional data that can be added to the chart.

But before doing that, it’s worth noting that the years of additional data basically coincide with a period of market-oriented reforms in Sweden. A study from the Reform Institute in Stockholm explains some of what happened, starting with the stagnation caused by the era of big government.

The seventies and eighties saw Sweden’s tax burden rise from an average European level to the world’s highest. The public sector expanded vastly. All facets of the welfare system were made more generous in international comparison. Meanwhile, labour market regulation increased… Throughout these years, Swedes’ individual after-tax real income stagnated, private sector job creation ceased, and public debt spiralled higher. This culminated in a severe economic crisis in the early 1990s. By then, Sweden had fallen to 14th place in the GDP per capita rankings of OECD countries.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that this economic misery led to market-oriented reforms.

When the onset of the financial crisis coincided with election of a market-oriented centre-right government in 1991, the reform process began in earnest. Most emphasis at the time was placed on reforms that opened significant sectors in the economy to greater competition. Moreover, an important feature of these regulatory reforms was that the crisis spurred local authorities to implement less burdensome regulation. …significant changes were introduced to the tax system, macroeconomic policy framework, and social insurance system. …every aspect of the Swedish economy has changed due to implementation of reforms. …public sector employment has declined.

To be sure, none of the means Sweden became Hong Kong. It is currently ranked only #38 by Economic Freedom of the World, and its score only improved from 6.92 in 1990 to 7.46 today, hardly a huge jump.

But we nonetheless can now check whether this period of modest reform yielded any dividends. And, looking at an updated and extended version of Professor Kranz’s chart, there certainly seems to be a clear relationship between pro-market policy and Swedish prosperity.

Call me crazy, but it seems like there’s a lesson here about the right recipe for growth.

P.S. The 16 countries in the comparison are Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

P.P.S. If you’re so disposed, you can watch my speech in Stockholm on Timbro’s Facebook page. If you prefer YouTube, the folks at CEPOS in Denmark saw the same speech (I only oppose wasteful forms of recycling) and they posted it yesterday.

P.P.P.S. If you’re interested in more information about market-oriented reforms in Sweden, check out Lotta Moberg’s video and Johan Norberg’s video.

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Sweden punches way above its weight in debates about economic policy. Leftists all over the world (most recently, Bernie Sanders) say the Nordic nation is an example that proves a big welfare state can exist in a rich nation. And since various data sources (such as the IMF’s huge database) show that Sweden is relatively prosperous and also that there’s an onerous fiscal burden of government, this argument is somewhat plausible.

A few folks on the left sometimes even imply that Sweden is a relatively prosperous nation because it has a large public sector. Though the people who make this assertion never bother to provide any data or evidence.

I have five responses when confronted with the why-can’t-we-be-more-like-Sweden argument.

  1. Sweden became rich when government was small. Indeed, until about 1960, the burden of the public sector in Sweden was smaller than it was in the United States. And as late as 1970, Sweden still had less redistribution spending than America had in 1980.
  2. Sweden compensates for bad fiscal policy by having a very pro-market approach to other areas, such as trade policy, regulatory policy, monetary policy, and rule of law and property rights. Indeed, it has more economic freedom than the United States when looking an non-fiscal policies. The same is true for Denmark.
  3. Sweden has suffered from slower growth ever since the welfare state led to large increases in the burden of government spending. This has resulted in Sweden losing ground relative to other nations and dropping in the rankings of per-capita GDP.
  4. Sweden is trying to undo the damage of big government with pro-market reforms. Starting in the 1990s, there have been tax-rate reductions, periods of spending restraint, adoption of personal retirement accounts, and implementation of nationwide school choice.
  5. Sweden doesn’t look quite so good when you learn that Americans of Swedish descent produce 39 percent more economic output, on a per-capita basis, than the Swedes that stayed in Sweden. There’s even a lower poverty rate for Americans of Swedish ancestry compared to the rate for native Swedes.

I think the above information is very powerful. But I’ll also admit that these five points sometimes aren’t very effective in changing minds and educating people because there’s simply too much information to digest.

As such, I’ve always thought it would be helpful to have one compelling visual that clearly shows why Sweden’s experience is actually an argument against big government.

And, thanks to the Professor Deepak Lal of UCLA, who wrote a chapter for a superb book on fiscal policy published by a British think tank, my wish may have been granted. In his chapter, he noted that Sweden’s economic performance stuttered once big government was imposed on the economy.

Though the Swedish model is offered to prove that high levels of social security can be paid for from the cradle to the grave without damaging economic performance, the claim is false (see Figure 1). The Swedish economy, between 1870 and 1950, grew faster on average than any other industrialised economy, and the country became technologically one of the most advanced and richest in the world. From the 1950s Swedish economic growth slowed relative to other industrialised countries. This was due to the expansion of the welfare state and the growth of public – at the expense of private – employment.57 After the Second World War the working population increased by about 1 million: public employment accounted for c. 770,000, private accounted for only 155,000. The crowding out by an inefficient public sector of the efficient private sector has characterised Sweden for nearly half a century.58 From being the fourth richest county in the OECD in 1970 it has fallen to 14th place. Only in France and New Zealand has there been a larger fall in relative wealth

And here is Figure 1, which should make clear that what’s good in Sweden (rising relative prosperity) was made possible by the era of free markets and small government, and that what’s bad in Sweden (falling relative prosperity) is associated with the adoption and expansion of the welfare state.

But just to make things obvious for any government officials who may be reading this column, I augment the graph by pointing out (in red) the “free-market era” and the “welfare-state era.”

As you can see, credit for the chart actually belongs to Professor Olle Krantz. The version I found in Professor Lal’s chapter is a reproduction, so unfortunately the two axes are not very clear. But all you need to know is that Sweden’s relative economic position fell significantly between the time the welfare state was adopted and the mid 1990s (which presumably reflects the comparative cross-country data that was available when Krantz did his calculations).

You can also see, for what it’s worth, that Sweden’s economy spiked during World War II. There’s no policy lesson in this observation, other than to perhaps note that it’s never a good idea to have your factories bombed.

But the main lesson, which hopefully is abundantly clear, is that big government is a recipe for comparative decline.

Which perhaps explains why Swedish policymakers have spent the past 25 years or so trying to undo some of those mistakes.

Addendum on November 3, 2016: A Swedish researcher kindly sent me a clear copy of Professor Kranz’s chart, so the axes are now very clear.

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Because of my disdain for the two statists that were nominated by the Republicans and Democrats, I’m trying to ignore the election. But every so often, something gets said or written that cries out for analysis.

Today is one of those days. Hillary Clinton has an editorial in the New York Times entitled “My Plan for Helping America’s Poor” and it is so filled with errors and mistakes that it requires a full fisking (i.e., a “point-by-point debunking of lies and/or idiocies”).

We’ll start with her very first sentence.

The true measure of any society is how we take care of our children.

I realize she (or the staffers who actually wrote the column) were probably trying to launch the piece with a fuzzy, feel-good line, but let’s think about what’s implied by “how we take care of our children.” It echoes one of the messages in her vapid 1996 book, It Takes a Village, in that it implies that child rearing somehow is a collective responsibility.

Hardly. This is one of those areas where social conservatives and libertarians are fully in sync. Children are raised by parents, as part of families.

To be fair, Hillary’s column then immediately refers to poor children who go to bed hungry, so presumably she is referring to the thorny challenge of how best to respond when parents (or, in these cases, there’s almost always just a mother involved) don’t do a good job of providing for kids.

…no child should ever have to grow up in poverty.

A laudable sentiment, for sure, but it’s important at this point to ask what is meant by “poverty.” If we’re talking about wretched material deprivation, what’s known as “absolute poverty,” then we have good news. Virtually nobody in the United States is in that tragic category (indeed, one of great success stories in recent decades is that fewer and fewer people around the world endure this status).

But if we’re talking about the left’s new definition of poverty (promoted by the statists at the OECD), which is measured relative to a nation’s median level of income, then you can have “poverty” even if nobody is poor.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s assume we’re using the conventional definition of poverty. Let’s look at how Mrs. Clinton intends to address this issue.

She starts by sharing some good news.

…we’re making progress, thanks to the hard work of the American people and President Obama. The global poverty rate has been cut in half in recent decades.

So far, so good. This is a cheerful development, though it has nothing to do with the American people or President Obama. Global poverty has fallen because nations such as China and India have abandoned collectivist autarky and joined the global economy.

And what about poverty in the United States?

In the United States, a new report from the Census Bureau found that there were 3.5 million fewer people living in poverty in 2015 than just a year before. Median incomes rose by 5.2 percent, the fastest growth on record. Households at all income levels saw gains, with the largest going to those struggling the most.

This is accurate, but a grossly selective use of statistics.

If Obama gets credit for the good numbers of 2015, then shouldn’t he be blamed for the bad numbers between 2009-2014? Shouldn’t it matter that there are still more people in poverty in 2015 than there were in 2008? And is it really good news that it’s taken Obama so long to finally get median income above the 2008 level, particularly when you see how fast income grew during the Reagan boom?

We then get a sentence in Hillary’s column that actually debunks her message.

Nearly 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 will experience a year in poverty at some point.

I don’t know if her specific numbers are accurate, but it is true that that there is a lot of mobility in the United States and that poverty doesn’t have to be a way of life.

Hillary then embraces economic growth as the best way of fighting poverty, which is clearly a true statement based on hundreds of years of evidence and experience.

…one of my top priorities will be increasing economic growth.

But then she goes off the rails by asserting that you get growth by spending (oops, I mean “investing”) lots of other people’s money.

I will…make a historic investment in good-paying jobs — jobs in infrastructure and manufacturing, technology and innovation, small businesses and clean energy.

Great, more Solyndras and cronyism.

And fewer jobs for low-skilled workers, if she gets here way, along with less opportunity for women (even according to the New York Times).

And we need to…rais[e] the minimum wage and finally guarantee… equal pay for women.

The comment about equal pay sounds noble, though I strongly suspect it is based on dodgy data and that she really favors the very dangerous idea of “comparable worth” legislation, which would lead to bureaucrats deciding the value of jobs.

Then Hillary embraces a big expansion of the worst government department.

…we also need a national commitment to create more affordable housing.

And she echoes Donald Trump’s idea of more subsidies and intervention in family life.

We need to expand access to high-quality child care and guarantee paid leave.

And, last but not least, she wants to throw good money after bad into the failed Head Start program.

…we will work to double investments in Early Head Start and make preschool available to every 4-year-old.

Wow, what a list. Now perhaps you’ll understand why I felt the need to provide a translation of her big economic speech last month.

The moral of the story, based on loads of evidence, is that making America more like Europe is not a way to help reduce poverty.

P.S. The only other time I’ve felt the need to fisk an entire article occurred in 2012 when I responded to a direct attack to my defense of low-tax jurisdictions.

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Statists occasionally get very angry about some of my views.

My support for “tax havens” periodically seems to touch a raw nerve, for instance, though I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised since some people are so crazy that they have even urged military action against these low-tax jurisdictions.

I also get some angry responses when I praise Ronald Reagan’s achievements. I’ve even had a few leftists get all agitated simply because I occasionally share a hypothetical poll from 2013 showing that Reagan would beat Obama in a landslide.

But what really gets these folks angry is when I argue that recipients of welfare and redistribution should feel shame and embarrassment. As far as they’re concerned, I’m being a heartless jerk who wants to inflict emotional pain on vulnerable people.

Though, to be fair, their anger usually dissipates when I explain that my real goal is to protect people from long-term dependency on government. And it’s also hard for them to stay agitated when I point out that I’m basically making the same argument as Franklin Roosevelt, who famously warned about welfare being “a narcotic” and “a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”

In other words, I don’t like the welfare state because I care about both the best interests of taxpayers and also about the best interests of poor people. And this is why I repeatedly share data showing how American was making impressive progress against poverty before there was a welfare state. But once the federal government declared a “War on Poverty,” the poverty rate stopped falling.

But that’s only part of my argument. I also think there are very worrisome implications for overall society when people start thinking that they have a “right” to welfare and redistribution. At the risk of sounding like a cranky libertarian, I fear that any nation will face a very grim future once too many people lose the ethic of self-reliance and think it’s morally and ethically acceptable to be moochers.

Indeed, my theory of “Goldfish Government” is based in part on what happens when a sufficient number of voters think it’s okay to steal from their neighbors, using government as a middleman. Short-sighted politicians play a big role in this self-destructive process, of course, along with unfavorable demographic changes.

And when people want examples, I just point to nations such as Greece, Italy, and France. Or states such as California and Illinois.

At this stage, a clever leftist will usually interject and argue I’m being unfair. They’ll say that Nordic nations such as Denmark and Sweden are proof that a big welfare state is compatible with a prosperous and stable society.

Au contraire, as our French friends might say. Yes, the Nordic nations may be relatively successful big-government countries, but there are three very important things to understand.

  1. The Nordic nations became comparatively rich in the 1800s and early 1900s when economic policy was dominated by free markets and small government.
  2. The adoption of high taxes and big welfare states (particularly an explosion in the burden of government spending starting in the 1960s) weakened economic performance.
  3. In recent years, Nordic nations have sought to undo the damage of big government with pro-market reforms and limits on the fiscal burden of government.

But let’s specifically focus today on whether the Nordic nations are somehow an exception to the rule that welfare and redistribution have a pernicious impact on a society. In other words, does welfare in nations such as Denmark and Sweden undermine “social capital”? Is there a negative impact on the work ethic and spirit of self-reliance?

Fortunately, we have some very good data from a new, must-read book by Nima Sanandaji, who grew up in Sweden. Entitled Debunking Utopia: Exposing the Myth of Nordic Socialism, Nima’s book is a comprehensive analysis of public policy in that part of the world, both what’s good and what needs improvement.

One of his 11 chapters is about “The Generous Welfare Trap” and it’s filled with very valuable information about the human and societal cost of the welfare state.

Though I can’t resist pointing out that he starts his analysis by citing President Roosevelt.

Franklin D. Roosevelt…was concerned that the institution he was fostering…might destroy the spirit of self-reliance. Two years into his presidency, he held a speech to Congress…the president warned that…”continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.” …In today’s political climate, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s view on public benefits would seem quite harsh.

Nima then looks at whether the Nordic nations somehow might be proof that FDR was wrong.

Yet there has been a persistent conviction among the modern proponents of welfare states that it is indeed-somehow-possible to create stable systems with generous benefits and high taxes. The main line of reasoning is based on the Nordics. The welfare states in this part of the world seem to, at least at first glance, succeed in providing extensive services and generous cash benefits without eroding personal responsibility. If generous welfare works in Sweden and Denmark, why not also in the rest of the world?

The problem, as Nima points out, is that these policies don’t work in his part of the world.

And not just because of the fiscal burden. His main point is that the welfare state is weakening people’s integrity.

…the World Values Survey shows that erosion of norms is very much a thing in the Nordics. In the beginning of the 1980s, 82 percent of Swedes and 80 percent of Norwegians agreed with the statement “Claiming government benefits to which you are not entitled is never justifiable.” …However, as the population adjusted their behavior to new economic policies, benefit morale dropped steadily. In the survey conducted between 2005 and 2008, only 56 percent of Norwegians and 61 percent of Swedes believed  that it was never right to claim benefits to which they were not entitled. The survey conducted between 2010 and 2015 only included Sweden out of the Nordic countries. It found that benefit morale had continued to fall, as merely 55 percent of Swedes answered that it was never right to overuse benefits. …Over time even the Nordic people have changed their attitudes as social democratic policies have made it less rewarding to work hard and more rewarding to live off the government.

By the way, at the risk of nit-picking, I would have advised Nima to use the term “benefit morality” rather than “benefit morale.” Though I assume almost all readers will understand the point he’s making.

Returning to our topic, Nima also cites some scholarly research that basically echoes my “Theorem of Societal Collapse.”

Martin Halla, Mario Lackner, and Friedrich G. Schneider performed an empirical analysis of the dynamics of the welfare state. They explained that…”the disincentive effects may materialize only with considerable time lags.” ..However, after some time the expansion of welfare programs leads to a deterioration of benefit morale. The three researchers concluded that “the welfare state destroys its own (economic) foundation and we have to approve the hypothesis of the self-destructive welfare state.”

The bottom line, he explains, is that the Nordic nations have been the best possible example of how a welfare state can operate.

But even in these nations, the narcotic of government dependency has slowly but surely done its damage.

Although Nordic welfare states seemed initially able to avoid this moral hazard, today we know beyond doubt that this was not the case. Even the northern European welfare states-founded in societies with exceptionally strong working ethics and emphasis on individual responsibility-have with time caught up to Roosevelt’s harsh predictions.

The good news is that Nordic nations are trying to undo the damage of the welfare state. Many governments in the region are scaling back the generosity of handouts and trying to restore the work ethic.

I don’t want to give away too much information. You need to buy his book to learn more. And the other 10 chapters are just as enlightening.

I’ll close by simply observing that Calvin Coolidge (as quoted by Ronald Reagan) understood today’s topic way back in the 1920s.

P.S. I’ve also cited Nima’s great work on how people of Nordic descent in America are much more productive than their cousins who remained in Scandinavia, as well as his work showing that Nordic nations originally became rich because of Hong Kong-style economic policy. And I’ve also shared some of his fascinating research on the policies that generate super-entrepreneurs.

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As a general rule, I like immigration and I don’t like redistribution.

As such, I share the late Milton Friedman’s concern about the risks of having a welfare state combined with open borders. And based on many conversations all over the country, I think that’s a big reason why many people oppose amnesty (augmented by Republican partisans who fear, probably with some validity, that changing the political landscape of America is the real reason Senator Schumer is a big advocate of amnesty).

So how can we reap the benefits of immigration without the risk of a bigger welfare state?

In part, we should have programs designed to attract people with skills and education.

I’m a big advocate and defender, for instance, of the EB-5 program that gives a preference for foreigners who invest in America’s economy and create jobs.

And if you peruse Mark Perry’s chart, we must be doing something right. Look at all these immigrant groups that are boosting per-capita income for the United States (including people from Lebanon, home of the Princess of the Levant).

I’ve always thought far more Americans would be sympathetic to immigration if they could be convinced that people were coming to America for the right reasons – i.e., to earn money rather than mooch off taxpayers.

With that in mind, Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University has a Bloomberg column about Denmark that cites the great work of Nima Sanandaji about how Americans of Nordic descent have much higher incomes than the people remaining in Nordic nations. Tyler’s entire article is worth reading, but I want to focus on a quasi-open-borders proposal that he puts forth in his conclusion.

For all the anti-immigrant sentiment that is circulating at the moment, would it hurt the U.S. to have fully open borders with Denmark? It would boost American gross domestic product and probably also improve American education. History teaches that serious assimilation problems would be unlikely, especially since many Danes already speak English. Open borders wouldn’t attract Danes who want to live off welfare because the benefits are so generous at home. How’s this for a simple rule: Open borders for the residents of any democratic country with more generous transfer payments than Uncle Sam’s.

I can’t think of any reasonable objection to this idea. Everything Tyler says makes sense. People like “Lazy Robert” won’t be lining up to get plane tickets to America. Instead, we’ll get the young and aspirational Danes.

For what it’s worth, I even think he understates the case since the type of people who would migrate to America wouldn’t just boost GDP. They almost surely would do something arguably more important, which is to boost per-capita GDP.

Just think of all the productive entrepreneurs who would take the opportunity to escape over-taxed Denmark and come to the United States. Along with ambitious and skilled people from nations such as Italy, France, and Sweden (though our welfare state is very expensive, so I admit I’m just guessing at nations which would be eligible based on Tyler’s rule about “more generous transfer payments”).

By the way, Denmark apparently has learned a lesson about the risks of being a welfare magnet.

A story from Spiegel Online has the details.

Denmark’s strict immigration laws have saved the country billions in benefits, a government report has claimed. …The extremely strict laws have dramatically reduced the flow of people into Denmark in recent years, and many government figures are delighted with the outcome. “Now that we can see that it does matter who comes into the country, I have no scruples in further restricting those who one can suspect will be a burden on Denmark,” the center-right liberal integration minister, Søren Pind, told the Jyllands Postennewspaper. Pind was talking after the ministry’s report — initiated by the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party (DPP) — came to the conclusion that by tightening immigration laws, Denmark has saved €6.7 billion ($10 billion) over the last 10 years, money which otherwise would supposedly have been spent on social benefits or housing. According to the figures, migrants from non-Western countries who did manage to come to Denmark have cost the state €2.3 billion, while those from the West have actually contributed €295 million to government coffers.

Sounds like Danish lawmakers don’t want to add even more passengers to the nation’s already-overburdened “party boat.”

And who can blame them. The nation already has a crippling problem of too many people depending on government.

P.S. If you want to enjoy some immigration-related humor, we have a video about Americans migrating to Peru and a story about American leftists escaping to Canada.

P.P.S. For those interested in the issue of birthright citizenship (a.k.a. anchor babies), I’ve shared some interesting analysis from Will Wilkinson and George Will.

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Does the economic chaos in Greece suggest that government should be bigger?

Is Venezuela’s economic collapse evidence that larger governments boost growth?

Should we learn from Italy’s pervasive stagnation that public sectors should be expanded?

Most people, looking at this real-world evidence, would quickly answer no to these questions.

But Eduardo Porter is not most people. Writing for the New York Times, he openly argues that government should be bigger. Much bigger.

Over the last six years, according to the Pew Research Center, four out of every five — or more — have said the government makes them feel either angry or frustrated. …These frustrated Americans may not fully realize it, under the influence of decades worth of sermons about government’s ultimate incompetence and venality. But there’s a strong case for more government — not less — as the most promising way to improve the nation’s standard of living.

He bases much of his column on the work of four left-wing academics.

Here’s his summary of their work.

The scholars laid out four important tasks: improving the economy’s productivity, bolstering workers’ economic security, investing in education to close the opportunity deficit of low-income families, and ensuring that Middle America reaps a larger share of the spoils of growth. Their strategy includes more investment in the nation’s buckling infrastructure and expanding unemployment and health insurance. It calls for paid sick leave, parental leave and wage insurance for workers who suffer a pay cut when changing jobs. And they argue for more resources for poor families with children and for universal early childhood education.

Improving productivity would be a very good idea. Indeed, producing more output per unit of capital and labor is basically how we become richer.

But while Porter and the statist academics might recognize that higher productivity is a good destination, the route they choose (bigger government, more punitive tax burden, additional regulation, lots of mandates, etc) will move the economy in the opposite direction.

If we want more growth, the best way to boost productivity is with capital formation and entrepreneurship. But  leftists, with their fixation on inequality, are reflexively opposed to the types of tax reforms that enable more saving, investment, and risk-taking.

Instead, they want the suffocating embrace of the European welfare state.

They propose raising government spending by 10 percentage points of the nation’s gross domestic product ($1.8 trillion in today’s dollars), to bring it to some 48 percent of G.D.P. by 2065. …Here are some other things Europeans got from their trade-off: lower poverty rates, lower income inequality, longer life spans, lower infant mortality rates, lower teenage pregnancy rates and lower rates of preventable death. And the coolest part, according to Mr. Lindert — one of the authors of the case for big government — is that they achieved this “without any clear loss in G.D.P.”

There are several assertions here that cry out for correction (poverty indices should measure actual poverty rather than income distribution) and elaboration (is inequality bad when all income classes in America have more income than their counterparts in Europe?), but the most absurd claim is the “coolest part” about Europe making government bigger without sacrificing prosperity.

This is absurd. Living standards in Europe (even Western Europe) are far below American standards. And even though convergence theory tells us that poorer nations should grow the fastest, Europe no longer is closing the gap with the United States.

Indeed, the gap is actually widening.

So how does Porter justify his anti-empirical statements? For evidence of his remarkable assertion about European growth, Porter’s column includes this chart, which (we are supposed to believe) shows that “many countries where government has grown the most have also experienced stronger economic growth.”

In reality, though, this chart merely shows the long-established relationship known as Wagner’s Law, which is that politicians figure out how to redistribute lots of money once nations become comparatively wealthy.

If Porter bothered to follow the academic evidence, he would see that nations can enjoy rapid growth and become rich during periods with small government and free markets, but growth slows considerably once politicians impose high tax rates and lots of redistribution.

By the way, Porter’s column contains two rather interesting accidental admissions. He confesses that a) a value-added tax is necessary to finance big welfare states (and one of the academics cited by Porter has explicitly acknowledged this point), and b) he admits that income taxes impose considerable economic damage.

Europe’s reliance on consumption taxes — which are easier to collect and have fewer negative incentives on work — allowed them to collect more money without generating the kind of economic drag of the United States’ tax structure, which relies more on income taxes.

Porter is completely correct about the role of the VAT in enabling much bigger government. This helps to explain why I’m so fixated on smothering every VAT proposal in its infancy, even when proposed with ostensibly good intentions (for instance, the Rand Paul tax plan and Ted Cruz tax plan).

Though he seems to be implying that a VAT isn’t bad for the economy. This is nonsense. First, the VAT enables bigger government, which necessarily damages the economy because capital and labor are diverted from the more productive and efficient private economy.

And a VAT also is bad for the economy because it drives a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption. Which is exactly the same argument against payroll taxes and income taxes on wages and salaries. The only accurate argument he could make is that VATs don’t do as much damage, per dollar raised, as income tax systems that include double taxation of saving and investment.

But I’m digressing.

Let’s close by re-focusing on the main topic of whether more government spending is associated with better economic performance.

I could cite research by the World Bank to show that Porter and his academic buddies are wrong. I also could share research from the European Central Bank. Or plenty of other sources.

But I (not-so-humbly) think these two videos from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity are the best summary.

Here’s the empirical evidence on government spending and growth.

And here’s the empirical evidence on the growth-maximizing size of government (hint: much smaller than Porter suggests).

If this hasn’t exhausted your interest in this topic, click here for my entire four-part video series on the economics of government spending.

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Over the years, I’ve shared some clever images, jokes, and cartoons to expose the flawed mindset of those who hope to achieve coerced equality of outcomes with redistribution and high tax rates.

The size of a pizza vs the share of a slice.

The modern version of the Little Red Hen.

Washington’s Byzantine welfare state.

Chuck Asay’s overburdened tractor.

A left-wing nursery rhyme.

The Wizard-of-Id parody.

Two pictures showing how the welfare state begins and ends.

A socialist classroom experiment (including a video version).

The economics of redistribution in one image.

As you can see, this is a common-sense issue. When you give people money on the condition that they don’t earn much money, you create a perverse incentive for them to be unproductive.

Especially since, when people work more and earn more, they get hit by a combination of fewer handouts and more taxes. The net result is very high implicit marginal tax rates, in some cases rising above 100 percent.

Needless to say, it’s very foolish to have a welfare state that puts people in this untenable situation where the welfare state becomes a form of economic quicksand.

And it’s also foolish to punish the people who are pulling the wagon with high tax rates and pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

Russell Jaffe, one of our Cato interns, helpfully cranked out a clever little image showing how redistribution is bad for both those who receive and those who pay.

No wonder the welfare state and War on Poverty have been bad news for both taxpayers and poor people.

And the problem is getting worse, not better.

Let’s begin to wrap up. I shared a Thomas Sowell quote at the beginning to today’s column.

Now let’s read some of his analysis.

He aptly and succinctly summarized why redistribution is a no-win proposition (h/t: Mark Perry).

The history of the 20th century is full of examples of countries that set out to redistribute wealth and ended up redistributing poverty. …It is not complicated. You can only confiscate the wealth that exists at a given moment. You cannot confiscate future wealth — and that future wealth is less likely to be produced when people see that it is going to be confiscated. …Those who are targeted for confiscation can see the handwriting on the wall, and act accordingly. …We have all heard the old saying that giving a man a fish feeds him only for a day, while teaching him to fish feeds him for a lifetime. Redistributionists give him a fish and leave him dependent on the government for more fish in the future.

So what’s the bottom line?

The simple (and correct) answer is to dismantle the welfare state. State and local governments should be in charge of “means-tested” programs, ideally with much less overall redistribution (a goal even some Scandinavian nations are trying to achieve).

In effect, the goal should be to replicate the success of the Clinton-era welfare reform, but extending the principle to all redistribution programs (Medicaid, food stamps, EITC, etc).

P.S. Some honest leftists admit that the welfare state cripples independence and self reliance.

P.P.S. For those who like comparisons, you can peruse which states provide the biggest handouts and also which nations have the most dependency.

P.P.P.S. To end on a sour note, our tax dollars are being used by the Paris-based OECD to produce junk research that argues more tax-financed redistribution somehow is good for growth.

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As I’ve pointed out before, the big difference between the United States and Europe is not taxes on the rich. We both impose similar tax burden on high-income taxpayers, though Europeans are more likely to collect revenue from the rich with higher income tax rates and the U.S. gets a greater share of revenue from upper-income taxpayers with double taxation on interest, dividends, and capital gains (we also have a very punitive corporate tax system, though it doesn’t collect that much revenue).

The real difference between America and Europe is that America has a far lower tax burden on lower- and middle-income taxpayers.

  • Tax rates in Europe, particularly the top rate, tend to take effect at much lower levels of income.
  • European governments all levy onerous value-added taxes that raise costs for all consumers.
  • Payroll tax burdens in many European nations are significantly higher than in the United States.

This makes for interesting cross-border comparisons, but it also raises an overlooked point about political attitudes. Why are leftists so hostile to successful people?

Think about it this way. If a farmer has five cows but one of the cows produces most of his milk, at the very least he would treat that cow with great care and concern.

Left-wing politicians in the United States, by contrast, express contempt and disdain for the upper-income taxpayers who finance our welfare state.

Let’s look at some of the numbers

The invaluable Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute points out that the top-20 percent bear the lion’s share of the fiscal burden in the United States.

CBO provides detailed data on American households for each income quintile in 2013 for: a) average household “market income”(includes labor income, business income, income from capital gains, and retirement/pension income), b)average household transfer payments (payments and benefits from federal, state and local governments including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)), and c) average federal taxes paid by households (including income, payroll, corporate, and excise taxes).

Mark presents that data in an easy-to-understand format and highlights the relevant numbers in red. The key takeaway is that the top-20 percent basically finance our Leviathan.

To make the issue even clearer, Mark created a chart showing the data from the sixth line in the above table.

Again, the only possible conclusion to reach is that higher-income households are the net financiers of big government.

Now let’s augment Mark’s analysis by examining some research from Scott Greenberg and John Olson of the Tax Foundation.

They also review the new CBO numbers and their focus in the tax burden on the top-1 percent (i.e., people who actually are rich).

One of the main takeaways from this year’s report is that the richest Americans pay a lot in taxes. In 2013, the top 1 percent of households paid an average of 34.0 percent of their income in federal taxes. To compare, the middle 20 percent of households paid only 12.8 percent of their income in taxes. Moreover, taxes on the rich are much higher than they’ve been in recent years. …in 2013, the top 1 percent of taxpayers paid a higher tax rate (34.0 percent) than in the year President Reagan took office (33.2 percent).

And here’s the chart accompanying their analysis.

There are all sorts of interesting stories inside this graph, such as the interaction of capital gains taxes and stock market performance (the top-1 percent tend to be significant investors).

There are also interesting stories that aren’t captured by this graph, such as the fact that rich people have great ability to adjust their taxable income when tax rates climb and fall (which was one of the reasons rich people paid a lot more tax when Reagan dropped the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent). Also, the average tax rate is less important than marginal tax rates if you want to understand how much damage the tax code imposes on the economy.

But for our purposes today, all that matters is that rich people over the past several decades have coughed up, on average, about 31 percent of their income to Uncle Sam.

That’s a lot of money. In effect, the federal government gets a dividend when successful taxpayers earn money.

Which brings us back to the perplexing fact that leftists have nothing but scorn for the folks who finance the welfare state.

Indeed, some statists have so much contempt for successful people that they want to push tax rates to high that the rich no longer would want to earn additional money. Which means, of course, that the IRS wouldn’t be collecting any money.

I don’t know whether the right metaphor is a farmer abusing the cow that produces most of the milk or a shareholder who sabotages the company paying good dividends, but the only possible conclusion is that leftists hate rich people more than they like big government.

If you think I’m exaggerating and such people don’t exist, watch this video – especially beginning about the 4:30 mark.

P.S. To be fair, leftists don’t hate all rich people. They’re willing to shower bailouts, subsidies, and handouts on wealthy people who give them lots of campaign contributions.

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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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