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Updated: 38 min 56 sec ago

What Lessons Can We Learn by Comparing U.S. and European Economic Performance?

Tue, 10/12/2021 - 12:19pm

I freely admit that I don’t like President Biden’s fiscal agenda in part because of my libertarianism. Simply stated, I’m instinctively skeptical when someone wants to expand government.

But I’m also an economist who believes in cost-benefit analysis. Moreover, I recognize that there are “public goods” that the private sector can’t – or isn’t allowed to – provide.

So I’m a big believer in looking at evidence to see if a proposed expansion of government makes sense.

As such, if we review the economic performance of nations that have already adopted Biden-type policies – such as Western Europe’s welfare states, that should tell us whether those policies are a good idea for the United States.

Well, if that kind of evidence matters, the answer surely is negative.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized on this topic a few days ago and reached a similar conclusion.

Here are some key excerpts.

“To oppose these investments is to be complicit in America’s decline,” Mr. Biden said Tuesday, adding that “other countries are speeding up and America is falling behind.” …You have to admire the audacity of pitching higher taxes and more social welfare as the path to national revival, especially when the global evidence is the opposite. The result of Mr. Biden’s expanded entitlements is likely to be reduced incentives to work and invest, slower economic growth, lower living standards.

The editorial is filled with hard data on the sub-par performance of various European nations.

That’s the lesson from Europe’s cradle-to-grave welfare states… European jobless rates tend to be much higher than in the U.S., especially for the young. In 2019 labor participation was 62.6% in the U.S. versus 49.7% in Italy, 55% in France, 57.7% in Spain, 59.3% in Portugal and 61.3% in Germany. …U.S. GDP growth still averaged 2.3% from 2010 to 2019, surpassing Italy (0.27%), Portugal (0.86%), Spain (1.07%), France (1.42%) and Germany (1.97%). …Mr. Biden’s plan would empower the government, pile burdens on the private economy, and erode upward mobility by encouraging people not to work. That’s the real recipe for decline.

And let’s not forget that scholarly research also shows that bigger government leads to economic weakness.

P.S. the WSJ editorial also made a very important point that European-style welfare expansions necessarily require huge tax increases on lower-income and middle-class households.

Europe’s little-discussed secret is that its cradle-to-grave welfare states are financed by the middle class via value-added and payroll taxes. The combined employer-employee social security tax rate is 36% in Spain, 40% in Italy and 65% in France. Value-added taxes in most European economies are around 20%. There simply aren’t enough rich to finance their entitlements.

For what it’s worth, Biden wants people to believe that all his new entitlement expansions can be financed with class-warfare taxes on upper-income households.

Even Paul Krugman admits that is preposterously false.

P.P.S. What’s especially revealing is that European nations have been falling further behind the United States, making them members of the “Anti-Convergence Club.”

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Image credit: Sébastien Bertrand | CC BY 2.0.

The IMF Should Be Eliminated, not Expanded

Mon, 10/11/2021 - 12:04pm

I’m not a fan of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Since I work mostly on fiscal issues, I don’t like the fact that the bureaucracy is an avid cheerleader for ever-higher taxes (which is disgustingly hypocritical since IMF employees get lavishtax-free salaries).

But the biggest problem with the IMF is that it promotes “moral hazard.” More specifically, it provides bailouts for irresponsible governments and for those who foolishly lend to those governments.

The net result is that bad behavior is rewarded, which is a recipe for more bad behavior.

All of which explains why some nations (and their foolish lenders) have received dozens of bailouts.

Oh, and let’s not forget that these endless bailouts also lead to a misallocation of capital, thus reducing global growth.

In an article for the New York Times, Patricia Cohen reports on discussions to expand the IMF’s powers.

Once narrowly viewed as a financial watchdog and a first responder to countries in financial crises, the I.M.F. has more recently helped manage two of the biggest risks to the worldwide economy: the extreme inequality and climate change. …long-held beliefs like the single-minded focus on how much an economy grows, without regard to problems like inequality and environmental damage, are widely considered outdated. And the preferred cocktail for helping debt-ridden nations that was popular in the 1990s and early 2000s — austerity, privatization of government services and deregulation — has lost favor in many circles as punitive and often counterproductive.

There’s a lot to dislike about the above excerpts.

Starting with the article’s title, since it would be more accurate to say that the IMF’s bailout policies encourage fires.

Multiple fires.

Looking at the text, the part about “extreme inequality” is nonsensical, both because the IMF hasn’t done anything to “manage” the issue, other than to advocate for class-warfare taxes.

Moreover, there’s no support for the empty assertion that inequality is a “risk” to the world economy (sensible people point out that the real problem is poverty, not inequality).

Ms. Cohen also asserts that the “preferred cocktail” of  pro-market policies (known as the Washington Consensus) has “lost favor,” which certainly is accurate.

But she offers another empty – and inaccurate – assertion by writing that it was “counterproductive.”

Here are some additional excerpts.

The debate about the role of the I.M.F. was bubbling before the appointment of Ms. Georgieva… But she has embraced an expanded role for the agency. …she stepped up her predecessors’ attention to the widening inequality and made climate change a priority, calling for an end to all fossil fuel subsidies, for a tax on carbon and for significant investment in green technology. …Sustainable debt replaced austerity as the catchword. …The I.M.F. opposed the hard line taken by some Wall Street creditors in 2020 toward Argentina, emphasizing instead the need to protect “society’s most vulnerable” and to forgive debt that exceeds a country’s ability to repay.

The last thing the world needs is “an expanded role” for the IMF.

It’s especially troubling to read that the bureaucrats want dodgy governments to have more leeway to spend money (that’s the real meaning of “sustainable debt”).

And if the folks at the IMF are actually concerned about “society’s most vulnerable” in poorly run nations such as Argentina, they would be demanding that the country copy the very successful poverty-reducing policies in neighboring Chile.

Needless to say, that’s not what’s happening.

The article does acknowledge that not everyone is happy with the IMF’s statist agenda.

Some stakeholders…object to what’s perceived as a progressive tilt. …Ms. Georgieva’s activist climate agenda has…run afoul of Republicans in Congress… So has her advocacy for a minimum global corporate tax.

It would be nice, though, if Ms. Cohen had made the article more balanced by quoting some of the critics.

The bottom line, as I wrote last year, is that the world would be better off if the IMF was eliminated.

Simply stated, we don’t need an international bureaucracy that actually argues it’s okay to hurt the poor so long as the rich are hurt by a greater amount.

P.S. The political leadership of the IMF is hopelessly bad, as is the bureaucracy’s policy agenda. That being said, there are many good economists who work at the IMF and they often produce high-quality research (see hereherehereherehereherehereherehere, and here). Sadly, their sensible analyses doesn’t seem to have any impact on the decisions of the organization’s top bureaucrats.

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Image credit: IMF | Public Domain.

The Economic Damage of Biden’s Fiscal Agenda

Sun, 10/10/2021 - 12:37pm

President Biden’s fiscal agenda of higher taxes and bigger government is not a recipe for prosperity.

How much will it hurt the economy?

Last month, I shared the results of a new study I wrote with Robert O’Quinn for the Club for Growth Foundation.

We based our results on a wide range of economic research, especially a scholarly study from the Congressional Budget Office, and found a big drop in economic output, employment and labor income.

Most troubling was the estimate of a long-run drop in living standards, which would be especially bad news for young people.

Today, I want to share some different estimates of the potential impact of Biden’s agenda.

A study for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, authored by  E. J. Antoni, Vance Ginn, and Stephen Moore, found even higher levels of economic damage. Here are some main excerpts.

President Biden and congressional Democrats seek to spend another $6.2 trillion over the next decade, spread across at least two bills that comprise their “Build Back Better” plan. This plan includes heavy taxing, spending, and debt, which contributes to reducing growth rates for GDP, employment, income, and capital stock.  Compared to baseline growth over the next decade, this plan will result in estimated dynamic economic effects of 5.3 million fewer jobs, $3.7 trillion less in GDP, $1.2 trillion less in income, and $4.5 trillion in new debt. …There are many regulatory changes and transfer payments in current legislation whose effects have not been included in this paper but are worth mentioning in closing since they will have many of the same effects as the tax increases discussed in this paper. Extending or expanding the enhanced Child Tax Credit, Earned Income Tax Credit, Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, and more, disincentivizes working, reducing incomes, investment, and GDP. Just the changes to these three tax credits alone are expected to cause a loss of 15,000 jobs… Permanently expanding the health insurance premium tax credits would similarly have a negative effect… Regulatory changes subsidizing so-called green energy while increasing tax and regulatory burdens on fossil fuels also result in a less efficient allocation of resources.

If we focus on gross domestic product (GDP), the TPPF estimates a drop in output of $3.7 trillion, which is higher than my study, which showed a drop of about $3 trillion.

Part of the difference is that TPPF looked at the impact of both the so-callled infrastructure spending package and Biden’s so-called Build Back Better plan, while the study for the Club for Growth Foundation only looked at the impact of the latter.

So it makes sense that TPPF would find more aggregate damage.

And part of the difference is that economists rarely agree on anything because there are so many variables and different experts will assign different weights to those variables.

So the purpose of sharing these numbers is not to pretend that any particular study perfectly estimates the effect of Biden’s agenda, but rather to simply get a sense of the likely magnitude of the economic damage.

Speaking of economic damage, here’s a table from the TPPF showing state-by-state job losses.

I’ll close by noting that you can also use common sense to get an idea of what will happen if Biden’s agenda is approved.

He wants to make the United States more like Western Europe’s welfare states, so all we have to do is compare U.S. living standards and economic performance to what’s happening on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

And when you do that, the clear takeaway is that it’s crazy to “catch up” to nations that are actually way behind.

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Image credit: Gage Skidmore | CC BY-SA 2.0.

Biden’s Dishonest Budget Gimmickry

Fri, 10/08/2021 - 12:18pm

Having been in Washington for close to 40 years, I’ve seen lots of budget dishonesty, but nothing compares to Joe Biden’s claim that his profligate budget proposals have zero cost.

According to the official numbers, that’s a $3.5 trillion lie.

In reality, as I noted in July, it’s much bigger.

Let’s investigate this issue. I’ll start by noting that I have mixed feelings about the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB). They think controlling red ink should be the main focus of fiscal policy, whereas I think controlling spending should be the top goal.

That being said, CRFB’s staff have a well-deserved reputation for being thorough and careful when producing fiscal analysis.

So it’s worth noting that the group estimates that the Biden’s fiscal agenda would actually cost between $5 trillion and $5.5 trillion over 10 years, much higher than the “official” estimate of $3.5 trillion.

Here are some of the bottom-line numbers from their report.

That’s a truncated version of their table. If you want to see all the gory details, click here.

You’ll also be able to read the group’s analysis, including these key excerpts.

While the actual cost of this new legislation will ultimately depend heavily on details that have yet to be revealed, we estimate the policies under consideration could cost between $5 trillion and $5.5 trillion over a decade, assuming they are made permanent. In order to fit these proposals within a $3.5 trillion budget target, lawmakers apparently intend to have some policies expire before the end of the ten-year budget window, using this oft-criticized budget gimmick to hide their true cost. …To fit $5 trillion to $5.5 trillion…into a $3.5 trillion budget, background documents to reporters explain that “the duration of each program’s enactment will be determined based on scoring and Committee input.”  In other words, tax credits and spending programs will be set to expire at some point before the end of the decade, in the hope that future lawmakers will extend these programs. …This budget gimmick…would obscure the true cost of the legislation

The Wall Street Journal opined about Biden’s gimmickry.

Democrats are grasping for ways to finance their cradle-to-grave welfare state, with the left demanding what they claim is $3.5 trillion over 10 years. The truth is that even that gargantuan number hides the real cost of their plans. The bills moving through committees are full of delayed starts, phony phase-outs, and cost shifting to states designed to fit $3.5 trillion into a 10-year budget window… Start with the child allowance… Democrats have hidden the real cost by extending the allowance only through 2025. Even if Republicans gain control of Congress and the White House in 2024, Democrats and their media allies will bludgeon them to extend the payments… Democrats are using a different time shift to disguise the cost of their Medicare expansion…delaying the phase-in of the much more expensive dental benefit to 2028. This “saves” $420 billion over 10 years, but the costs explode after that. …the new universal child-care entitlement…gives $90 billion to the states—but only from 2022 to 2027. …The bottom line: $3.5 trillion is merely the first installment of a bill that would put government at the commanding heights of family life and the economy for decades to come. Tax increases will follow as far as the eye can see.

Regarding the final sentence of the above excerpt, the tax increases in Biden’s budget are merely an appetizer.

Ultimately, a European-sized welfare state requires European-style taxes on lower-income and middle-class households.

In other words, a value-added tax, along with higher payroll taxes, higher energy taxes, and higher income tax rates on ordinary workers (with this unfortunate Spaniard being a tragic example).

But we do have a tiny bit of good news.

A small handful of Democrats are resisting Biden’s budget, which means the package presumably will have to shrink in order to get sufficient votes.

But this good news may be fake news if Biden and his allies in Congress simply expand the use of dishonest accounting.

Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute documents some of this likely dishonesty in a column for the New York Post.

How does Congress cut a $3.5 trillion spending bill down to $1.5 trillion? By using gimmicks to hide its true cost. …Progressives have been abusing these gimmicks from the start. They began with a reconciliation proposal that would cost nearly $5 trillion over the decade. Then, in order to cut the bill’s “official” cost closer to $4 trillion, the bill’s authors included a December 2025 expiration of the $130 billion annual expansion of the child tax credit… Of course, no one believes that Congress will actually allow the child tax credit to be reduced at the end of 2025… Democrats purposely selected for “expiration” a popular middle-class benefit that they know even a future Republican Congress or president would not dare take away from voters. …expensive child care subsidies, family leave, and “free” community college benefits may also have their full cost hidden with fake expiration dates early into the 10-year scoring window. Lawmakers fully expect to extend these policies later, ultimately raising the cost of the total reconciliation bill closer to the $3.5 trillion target (or even higher). …Progressives are also discussing delaying the proposed new Medicare dental benefits until 2028, which legitimately saves money within the 10-year scoring window but also hides a larger long-term cost.

I realize that it’s not a big revelation to write that politicians are dishonest (Washington, after all, is a “wretched hive of scum and villainy“).

And I also realize that that the main problem with Biden’s plan is the economic damage it will cause, not the reliance on phony accounting.

But truth should matter a little bit, even in a town where lying about fiscal policy is a form of art.

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Image credit: Marc Nozell | CC BY 2.0.

The Grim Economics of Higher Corporate Tax Rates

Thu, 10/07/2021 - 12:15pm

There are many reasons to reject Joe Biden’s proposal for higher corporate tax rates, and I listed many of them when I narrated this nine-minute video.

This two-minute video from the Tax Foundation has a similar message.

The main message is that workers, consumers, and shareholders are the ones who actually pay when suffer when politicians impose higher taxes on business.

And the damage grows over time because higher corporate tax rates reduce investment, which inevitably leads to lower wages.

By the way, while a low tax rate is very important, there are many other policy choices that determine the overall damage of business taxation.

This is just a partial list. There are other policies – such as alternative minimum taxation, book incomeloopholes, and extenders – that also can increase the damage of the corporate taxation.

The bottom line is that we know the sensible approach to business taxation, but the Biden Administration is motivated instead by class warfare and grabbing revenue.

P.S. For more information on corporate taxation and wages, click herehereherehere, and here.

P.P.S. For more information on corporate tax rates and corporate tax revenue, click hereherehere, and here.

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Image credit: Vinícius Pimenta | Pexels License.

How Free Markets Made Us Rich

Wed, 10/06/2021 - 12:12pm

Don BoudreauxDeirdre McCloskey, and Dan Hannan have all explained how capitalism enabled mass prosperity after endless stagnation and poverty.

There’s a similar message in this video from Kite & Key Media. The most relevant parts start at 2:30, though I recommend watching the entire video.

But if you don’t have time to watch any of the video, here are four of the key points.

  1. We are much richer, on average, than we were 50 years ago. This is a point I made both in June and September, and it’s worth adding that the all income groups tend to rise together.
  2. There was almost no growth for much of world history, a dismal reality that is beyond the comprehension of politicians such as Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley.
  3. Technological progress enabled by capitalism not only ended mass poverty, but it also brings many luxuries within reach of lower-income and middle-class people.
  4. As shown by basket cases such as VenezuelaLebanon, and North Korea, bad policy can wreck economic progress.

Regarding point #4, my only complaint with the video is that some viewers might conclude that economic growth will be automatic so long as politicians don’t make catastrophic Venezuelan-style policy mistakes.

It would have been nice to point out that, yes, the worst-possible set of policies produces the worst-possible economic damage, but also to explain that a modest amount of statism can hurt growth by a modest amount and a lot of statism can hurt growth by a significant amount.

In other words, there’s a spectrum of possible policy outcomes (I’ve also referred to this as the “socialism slide“) and it’s best to get as close to laissez-faire capitalism as possible.

Remember, even small differences in economic growth lead to big differences in long-run living standards. And the “size of the pie” is a good predictor of whether a nation enjoys broadly shared prosperity.

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Image credit: Erik Scheel | Pexels License.

The “Pandora Papers”

Tue, 10/05/2021 - 12:39pm

Remember the supposedly breathtaking revelations from the “Panama Papers” back in 2016?

We were told those stolen documents were an indictment against so-called tax havens, but the real lesson was that politicians and other government insiders are very prone to corruption.

Well, it’s happened again. Thieves stole millions of documents (the “Pandora Papers”) from various firms around the world that specialize in cross-border investment.

Some journalists want us to believe that these documents are scandalous, but I poured cold water on this hysteria in an interview with the BBC.

If you don’t want to listen to me pontificate for about five minutes, here are the main points from the interview.

  • International investment is a good thing (much like international trade) and it necessarily requires the use of “offshore” entities such as companies, funds, and bank accounts.
  • Politicians don’t like cross-border investment because economic activity tends to migrate to places with lower tax rate, and this puts downward pressure on tax rates.
  • There is no evidence that people in the private sector use “offshore” entities in ways that are disproportionately dodgy.
  • By contrast, there is considerable evidence that politicians use “offshore” in ways that are disproportionately dodgy.
  • More than 99 percent of people engage in legal tax avoidance and that’s a good thing because it keeps money out of the hands of profligate politicians.
  • People should not have to share their private financial affairs, such as bank accounts and investment holdings, with the general public.

It’s not worth a separate bullet point, but my favorite part of the interview is when I noted the grotesque hypocrisy of the International Monetary Fund, which pimps for higher taxes all around the world, yet its employees get tax-free salaries.

The bottom line is that tax competition and so-called tax havens should be applauded rather than persecuted.

We should instead be condemning the “tax hells” of the world. Those are the jurisdictions that cause economic misery.

Since we’re on this topic, let’s also enjoy some excerpts from an article in Reason by Steven Greenhut.

Leftists are thrilled by the Biden administration’s plan to stamp out the bogeyman of tax havens—low-tax jurisdictions where corporations and other investors can keep their money away from the prying hands of the government. …Let’s dispense with the outrage about tax havens. There is nothing wrong with companies and individuals that shelter their earnings from governments, which are like organized mobs that can never seize enough revenue. …If you believe that tax havens are immoral, then you should not claim any deductions on your tax bill. President Joe Biden apparently thinks it’s wrong for corporations to locate their headquarters in low-tax Bermuda, Ireland, and Switzerland, yet why does his home of Delaware house so many U.S. corporate headquarters? …Tax havens provide pressure on big-spending governments to limit tax rates, and lower tax rates boost economic activity, create jobs, and incentivize investors to invest more. …Those who oppose tax havens simply want the government to take more money and have more power.

I’ll close by noting that many Nobel Prize-winning economists defend tax competition as a necessary check on the greed of the political class.

P.S. There was also a manufactured controversy involving stolen documents back in 2013.

P.P.S. My work on this issue has been…umm…interesting, resulting in everything from a front-page attack by the Washington Post to the possibility of getting tossed in a Mexican jail.

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Image credit: geralt | Pixabay License.

Biden’s Tax Hike: The Political Calculus and Economic Cost

Mon, 10/04/2021 - 12:37pm

There are lots of reasons (here are five of them) to dislike the version of the Biden tax hike that was approved by the tax-writing committee in the House of Representatives.

From an economic perspective, it is bad for prosperity to penalize work, saving, investment, and productivity.

So why, then, do politicians pursue such policies?

Part of the answer is spite, but I think the biggest reason is they simply want more money to spend.

And if the economy suffers, they don’t worry about that collateral damage so long as their primary objective – getting more money to buy more votes – is achieved.

But the rest of us should care, and a new report from the Tax Foundation offers a helpful way of showing why pro-tax politicians are misguided.

Here’s a table showing that the economy will lose almost $3 of output for every $1 that politicians can use for vote buying.

I added my commentary (in red) to the table.

My takeaway is that it is reprehensible for politicians to cause nearly $3 of foregone prosperity so that they can spend another $1.

Garrett Watson, author of the report, uses more sedate language to describes the findings.

Using Tax Foundation’s General Equilibrium Model, we estimate that the Ways and Means tax plan would reduce long-run GDP by 0.98 percent, which in today’s dollars amounts to about $332 billion of lost output annually. We estimate the plan would in the long run raise about $152 billion annually in new tax revenue, conventionally estimated in today’s dollars, meaning for every $1 in revenue raised, economic output would fall by $2.18. When the model accounts for the smaller economy, it estimates that the plan’s dynamic effects would reduce expected new tax collections to about $112 billion annually over the long run (also in today’s dollars), meaning for every $1 in revenue raised, economic output would fall by $2.96.

This is excellent analysis.

But I think it’s important to specify that political cost-benefit analysis (from the perspective of politicians) is not the same as economic cost-benefit analysis.

From an economic perspective, the foregone economic growth is a cost and the additional tax revenue for politicians also is a cost.

And I’ve augmented the table (again, in red) to show that the additional spending is yet another cost.

In other words, politicians are the main winners from Biden’s tax hike, and some of the interest groups getting additional handouts also might be winners (though I’ve previously pointed out that many of them wind up being losers as well in the long run).

P.S. The Tax Foundation model only measures the economic damage of higher taxes. If you also measure the harmful impact of more spending, the estimates of foregone economic output are much bigger.

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Image credit: Biden13 | CC BY 2.0.

What Can We Learn by Comparing Taiwan and Cuba?

Sun, 10/03/2021 - 12:30pm

Economists of all types agree with “convergence theory,” which is the notion that poor countries should grow faster than rich countries.

Though they are usually wise enough to also say “ceteris parisbus,” which means the theory applies if other variables are similar (the translation from Latin is “other things equal”).

I’m very interested in this theory because we can learn a lot when we look at nations that don’t have “equal” policies.

And the biggest lesson is that you have divergence rather than convergence if one nation follows good policies and the other one embraces statism.

Take a look, for instance, at what’s happened to per-capita economic output (GDP) since 1950 in Taiwan and Cuba.

The obvious takeaway from these numbers from the Maddison database is that Taiwan has enjoyed spectacular growth while Cuba has suffered decades of stagnation.

If this was a boxing match between capitalism and socialism, the refs would have stopped the fight several decades ago.

By the way, some folks on the left claim that Cuba’s economic misery is a result of the U.S. trade embargo.

In a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, Emmanuel Rincón explains the real reason why these two jurisdictions are so wildly divergent.

…the Communist Party of Cuba has blamed the United States for Cuba’s misery and poverty, alluding to the “blockade” that the U.S. maintains against Cuba. However, …the rest of the world can trade freely with the island. …Taiwan’s economy is one of the most important in the world, with a poverty rate of 0.7%, as opposed to Cuba, which has one of the most depressed economies on the planet and 90% of its population living in poverty. What is the difference between the two islands? The economic and political model they applied in their nations. …Taiwan has the sixth freest economy according to the Index of Economic Freedom… While Taiwan took off with a capitalist model, Cuba remained anchored in the old revolutionary dogmas of Fidel Castro… With popular slogans such as redistribution of wealth, supposed aid to the poor, and socialism, Fidel Castro began to expropriate land and private companies to be managed by the state…today the GDP of the Caribbean island is five times less than that of Taiwan, and 90% of its population lives in poverty, while in the Asian island only 0.7% of its population is poor. It is definitely not the fault of the “blockade”, but of socialism.

To be sure, Cuba would be slightly less poor if there was unfettered trade with the United States, so maybe Taiwan would only be four and one-half times richer rather than five times richer in the absence of an embargo.

The moral of the story is that there’s no substitute for free markets and small government.

P.S. Though I appreciate the fact that our friends on the left are willing to extol the virtues of free trade, at least in this rare instance.

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Image credit: Max Pixel | CC0 Public Domain.

Curtailing Destructive Subsidies for Flood Insurance

Sat, 10/02/2021 - 12:22pm

Unless my memory is more faulty than usual, I don’t think I’ve written a single favorable article about any of Joe Biden’s policies. Which isn’t a surprise considering his knee-jerk embrace of higher taxes and bigger government.

But it’s now time to praise the President.

Why?

Because his administration is taking some long-overdue steps to reduce the damaging impact of federal flood insurance. Darryl Fears and Lori Rozsa explain what’s happening in an article for the Washington Post.

…8 million Americans…moved to counties along the U.S. coast between 2000 and 2017, lured by the sun, the sea and heavily subsidized government flood insurance that made the cost of protecting their homes much less expensive, despite the risk of living in a flood zone near a vast body of water. …the Federal Emergency Management Agency will incorporate climate risk into the cost of flood insurance for the first time, dramatically increasing the price for some new home buyers. Next April, most current policyholders will see their premiums go up and continue to rise by 18 percent per year for the next 20 years. …wealthy customers with high-value homes will see their costs skyrocket by as much as $14,400 for one year. About 3,200 property owners — mostly in Florida, Texas, New Jersey and New York — fall in that category. …Homeowners in inland states such as Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska, where creeks, streams and rivers overflow during heavy rains, will also see price increases in their government-backed flood insurance. …“It is now going to say if you’re in a risky place, you’re going to get charged more for it, and other people aren’t footing the bill,” VinZant said. …As of last year, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) run by FEMA was $20 billion in debt from massive payouts to customers.

And here’s some of what the Wall Street Journal reported, in an article by Arian Campo-Flores.

Chris Dailey and his wife are building a new home in coastal St. Petersburg, Fla., that will sit 7 feet above the flood level expected during a major storm. So he was stunned to learn that under the federal flood insurance program’s revamped pricing, his annual premium is slated to soar to $4,986 from $441. …he plans to go through with the project, which is about a block and a half from a canal that leads to Tampa Bay, but worries about the ability to sell it in the future. The National Flood Insurance Program—the main provider of flood coverage in the U.S., with more than five million policies—is rolling out an overhauled pricing method starting Friday in an effort to reflect more accurately the flood risk that individual properties face. …Under the new system, dubbed “Risk Rating 2.0,” some policyholders in especially vulnerable areas will face big premium increases while others in less-exposed spots will see smaller increases or even decreases. …Developers may rethink where they build, and coastal real-estate markets could take a hit. “There is no greater risk-communication tool than a pricing signal,” said Roy Wright, president of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety… Some members of Congress, mainly from coastal states, are urging a delay in implementing the new rating system. Senators including Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and John Kennedy (R., La.) wrote a letter last week to the FEMA administrator expressing concern about sharp premium increases.

The most important sentence in the above excerpt was Roy Wright’s observation about the role of prices.

Subsidies distort prices, causing inefficient and foolish choices – such as building homes that are prone to flood damage.

In a free market, by contrast, prices force people to internalize costs and benefits.

Indeed, in an article for Reason, Ronald Bailey points out that private insurers use prices to – gasp – reflect actual risk.

“Insurers cherry-pick homes, leave flooded ones for the Feds,” runs a very odd headline over at E&E News. The article goes on to explain, “Taxpayers could be forced to spend billions of dollars to bail out the federal government’s flood program as private-sector insurers begin covering homes with little risk of flooding while clustering peril-prone properties in the indebted public program.” Well, yes. …The E&E News article strangely claims that “an increased number of people with flood coverage could help reduce flood damage by making homeowners more aware of their risk.” Of course that’s right, but not being able to purchase any flood insurance at all would be a much more effective and compelling way to make homeowners aware of their risks. …Instead of decrying private insurers for sensibly refusing to cover houses located in high-risk flood zones, the E&E News article should instead have been arguing for ending the government’s National Flood Insurance Program altogether.

Let’s close by looking at how Canada handles this issue.

In a 2019 article for the New York Times, Christopher Flavelle explains that Canada recognized years ago that it doesn’t make sense to subsidize homeowners who make risky decisions.

Unlike the United States, which will repeatedly help pay for people to rebuild in place, Canada has responded to the escalating costs…by limiting aid after disasters, and even telling people to leave their homes. …In 2015, Canada made it harder for lower levels of government to get federal money after disasters. The next year, British Columbia said flood victims who had chosen not to buy private flood insurance would be ineligible for government aid. This year the federal government went further still, warning that homeowners nationwide would eventually be on their own. If people deliberately rebuild in danger zones, at some point “they are going to have to assume their own responsibility for the cost burden,” Public Security Minister Ralph Goodale told reporters in April. “You can’t repeatedly go back to the taxpayer and say, ‘Oh, it happened again.’” …Quebec also limited disaster aid, and not just inside the special zone. After this spring’s flooding, the province said it would set an upper threshold for assistance at $100,000 over the lifetime of the house. After that, homeowners face a choice: They can sell to the government, which will pay no more than $250,000, regardless of market value. Or they can get money to rebuild one last time — but in doing so, they forfeit any future financial assistance.

Two cheers for the Canadians. They’ve been more rational than policy makers in the United States (the ones at FEMA, at least in the past, have been especially incompetent).

But not three cheers. In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Professor Walter Block explains how our neighbors to the north are still imperfect.

The best policy is…laissez-faire capitalism. Treat people as adults—allow them to take whatever flooding risks they choose, but on their own nickel. They should be free to build wherever they want, and to indemnify themselves against risk by buying insurance on the open market. But they should not receive a dime of taxpayers’ money for rebuilding.

Amen. Get the government out of the insurance business.

Capitalism is almost always the right answer.

P.S. If you don’t believe in miracles, you probably will after learning that even Bernie Sanders is semi-sensible on this issue.

The Failure of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society

Fri, 10/01/2021 - 12:22pm

When asked to list the worst presidents of the 20th century, Woodrow WilsonFranklin Roosevelt, and Richard Nixon belong on the list.

But this Reason video with Amity Shlaes shows why Lyndon Johnson also is among the worst of the worst.

You should watch every second of the video, but if you don’t have 33 minutes to spare, here’s a helpful summary.

Johnson declared war on poverty, jacked up federal spending on education, and pushed massive new entitlement programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, which promised to deliver high-quality, low-cost health care to the nation’s elderly and poor. …But did the Great Society achieve its goals of eradicating poverty, sheltering the homeless, and helping all citizens participate more fully in the American Dream? In Great Society: A New History, Amity Shlaes argues that Lyndon Johnson’s bold makeover of the government was a massive failure.

Massive failure may be an understatement.

LBJ’s two big entitlement programs, Medicare and Medicaid, are the biggest reason why America will suffer a future fiscal crisis.

And his so-called War on Poverty was a disaster for both taxpayers and poor people.

How much of a disaster?

Let’s augment Amity’s analysis with these excerpts from Jason Riley’s column in the Wall Street Journal.

Entitlement programs were dramatically expanded in the 1960s in the service of a war on poverty, yet poverty fell at a slower rate after the Great Society initiatives were implemented, and overall dependency on the government for food, shelter and other basic necessities increased. …Liberals pitch these social programs in the name of helping underprivileged minority groups and reducing inequality, but the lesson of the 1960s is that government relief can put in place incentives that have the opposite effect. Between 1940 and 1960 the percentage of black families living in poverty declined by 40 points… No welfare program has ever come close to replicating that rate of black advancement… Moreover, what we experienced in the wake of the Great Society interventions was slower progress or outright retrogression. Black labor-force participation rates fell, black unemployment rates rose, and the black nuclear family disintegrated. In 1960 fewer than 25% of black children were being raised by a single mother; within four decades, it was more than half. …The welfare state is often discussed in relation to its effect on racial and ethnic minorities, yet crime, single parenting and drug abuse also increased among poor whites in the aftermath of the Great Society. When the government indulges and subsidizes counterproductive behavior, we tend to get more of it.

What’s depressing is that Biden wants to replicate LBJ’s mistakes. His new entitlements will mean slower growth and more dependency.

P.S. Amity Shlaes also has done great work to highlight the achievements of one of America’s best presidents.

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Image credit: LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto | Public Domain.

Defend Vaping, Save Lives

Thu, 09/30/2021 - 12:12pm

Competent and honest people in the world of public policy understand that decisions have costs and benefits.

Simply stated, there is no such thing as a free lunch, though politicians like to pretend otherwise (to cite an especially absurd example, the Biden Administration is actually claiming that a multi-trillion dollar expansion of the welfare state has “zero cost”).

One of the more perverse examples of free-lunch thinking is the campaign in Washington against the use of electronic cigarettes (usually referred to as vaping).

Rational and sensible people understand that vaping has big benefits (regular cigarettes are a far more dangerous way of enjoying nicotine), while also recognizing potential costs (some people who would not become smokers might choose to vape).

Sadly, both politicians and bureaucrats myopically fixate on the potential costs while paying little or no attention to the tangible benefits.

Regarding politicians, Alan Viard of the American Enterprise Institute criticizes Democrats in the House of Representatives for pushing a tax on vaping.

The proposal would apply the federal tobacco tax to e-cigarettes for the first time. (The tobacco tax rate would also be doubled). Under the proposal, e-cigarettes would be taxed based on their nicotine content. Linking the tax to nicotine is misplaced… As Satel has commented, “The virtue of vaping is that it uncouples deadly smoke from nicotine, which, contrary to common impression, has no appreciable role in causing cancer.” …e-cigarettes offer a life-saving alternative to cigarettes, enabling smokers to more easily quit their deadly habit. …two academic research studies…found that e-cigarette taxes have increased cigarette smoking. Another recent study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health, similarly found that “higher e-cigarette tax rates increase traditional cigarette use.” …Taxes should reduce smoking, not increase it. E-cigarette taxes pose a threat to public health.

Regarding bureaucrats, Jacob Sullum explains for Reason that the notoriously incompetent Food and Drug Administration is strangling the e-cigarette industry with red tape.

Electronic cigarettes, which deliver nicotine without tobacco or combustion, are the most important harm-reducing alternative to smoking ever developed, one that could prevent millions of premature deaths in the United States alone. Yet bureaucrats and politicians seem determined to negate that historic opportunity through regulations and taxes that threaten to cripple the industry. …the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)…says…every vaping device and nicotine liquid sold in the U.S. is “marketed unlawfully” and “subject to enforcement action at the FDA’s discretion.” …it is not enough for a manufacturer to show its products are far less hazardous than conventional cigarettes. Nor is it enough to show that nontobacco flavors are enormously popular among former smokers, because the FDA might still conclude, however implausibly, that the risk of underage consumption outweighs the welfare of smokers interested in making the potentially lifesaving switch to vaping. …The folly of the obsession with preventing underage vaping was apparent in San Francisco, where a ban on flavored ENDS seems to have boosted smoking by teenagers and young adults.

By the way, this is a global issue.

As you might predict, the notoriously incompetent World Health Organization is on the wrong side.

In a column for CapX, Mark Oates explains how that bureaucracy needs to be slapped down.

The World Health Organisation has once again defied scientific advice by baldly stating that ‘E-cigarettes are not proven cessation aids’. The WHO’s stance flies in the face of all the available evidence. …with around 7 million people dying every year due to smoking-related illnesses, getting policy right in this area could have a huge impact. …we appear to be fighting a losing battle against an international consensus to over-regulate or even ban vaping products which are proven to be the most successful and popular quitting aids available.

And some nations are imposing anti-science policies.

In a column for the Sydney Morning Herald, Alex Wodak and Colin Mendelsohn explain that Australia is about to make a big mistake.

Every year, 21,000 Australians die prematurely from smoking cigarettes. That is more deaths than from alcohol, plus prescription drugs, plus illicit drugs, plus road crash deaths, plus HIV, plus suicide. Governments have moral and health obligations to reduce smoking-related deaths by adopting policies that minimise the harm caused by the inhalation of tobacco smoke. …Currently Australians can import nicotine liquid for vaping from overseas or purchase it from a small number of participating pharmacies… From October 1, importation of nicotine liquid will be closely monitored by the Australian Border Force. …the problem is that in Australia, nicotine for vaping is treated as a medicine regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, or TGA. The TGA includes nicotine liquid for vaping in the Poisons Standard while explicitly excluding cigarettes. The net effect is that a much less dangerous way of consuming nicotine is highly restricted while cigarettes, responsible for the deaths of up to two of every three long-term smokers, are readily available from 20,000 outlets.

I’ll close by reiterating that vaping should be defended because it saves lives.

From a cost-benefit perspective, people who want nicotine definitely should vape rather than smoke.

But I also can’t resist making a liberty argument.

Even if vaping was dangerous, it should still be legal. Adults should be free to make choices about the risks they incur.

That means they should be allowed to engage in all sorts of risky behaviors, such as parachuting, eating unhealthy food, hang gliding, smoking, and scuba diving.

And they also should be free to engage in not-so-risky behaviors, such as vaping.

P.S. The vaping tax is a blatant violation of Biden’s promise not to impose taxes on people making less than $400,000 per year, though I imagine nobody is surprised that he was lying (a bipartisan problem in Washington).

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Image credit: Vaping360 | CC BY 2.0.

Biden’s Budget: Affordable Isn’t Sensible

Wed, 09/29/2021 - 12:06pm

A couple of days ago, I shared the most-recent data about “actual individual consumption” in nations that are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

My goal was to emphasize my oft-stated point about people in the United States enjoying higher living standards – in large part because European nations are saddled with a bigger fiscal burden of government.

President Biden, however, wants to make the United States more like Europe.

What’s happening this week in Congress may determine whether he succeeds.

Since I’m policy wonk rather than a political pundit, I don’t pretend to have any great insight on matters such as vote counting.

But I feel compelled to warn that adoption of Biden’s plan would have a negative economic impact.

And I’m not the only one raising alarm bells.

Professor Greg Mankiw of Harvard opined for the New York Times about Biden’s fiscal plan. He starts be noting that Biden’s plan is affordable.

President Biden and many congressional Democrats aim to expand the size and scope of government substantially. …People of all ages are in line to get something… If there is a common theme, it is that when you need a helping hand, the government will be there for you. …Western European nations have more generous social safety nets than the United States. The Biden plan takes a big step in that direction. Can the United States afford to embrace a larger welfare state? From a narrow budgetary standpoint, the answer is yes.

But affordable is not the same as sensible.

He points out that a bigger government will mean a smaller economy.

The costs of an expanded welfare state…extend beyond those reported in the budget. There are also broader economic effects. Arthur Okun, the former economic adviser to President Lyndon Johnson, addressed this timeless issue in his 1975 book, “Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff.” …As policymakers attempt to rectify the market’s outcome by equalizing the slices, the pie tends to shrink. …Which brings us back to Western Europe. Compared with the United States, G.D.P. per person in 2019 was 14 percent lower in Germany, 24 percent lower in France and 26 percent lower in the United Kingdom. …In other words, most European nations use that leaky bucket more than the United States does and experience greater leakage, resulting in lower incomes. By aiming for more compassionate economies, they have created less prosperous ones.

And less prosperous economies mean lower living standards, as honest folks on the left (such as Okun) openly admit.

That’s bad news for everyone, including lower-income people who theoretically are supposed to benefit from the various new and expanded redistribution programs in Biden’s fiscal plan.

Yes, they may get money from government in their pockets in the short run, but even a small reduction in economic growth will lead to larger income losses in the long run.

The bottom line is that the American experiment has been successful. Why put it at risk by copying nations that aren’t as successful.

After all, you don’t want to “catch up” to countries that are lagging.

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Image credit: Shaw Girl | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Biden’s Economic Alchemy: $3.5 Trillion = Zero

Tue, 09/28/2021 - 12:17pm

Last week, I wrote about a new study which estimates that Biden’s fiscal agenda of bigger government and higher taxes would reduce economic output by about $3 trillion over the next decade.

Perhaps more relevant, that foregone economic growth would translate into more than $10,000 of lost compensation per job. And a lifetime drop in living standards of more than 4 percent for younger people.

And these numbers are based on research by the Congressional Budget Office, which is hardly a bastion of libertarian analysis.

The Biden White House has a different perspective.

How different? Well, the President actually claims that expanding the burden of government won’t cost anything. I’m not joking. Here are some excerpts from an article in the Washington Post by Seung Min Kim and Tony Romm.

President Biden promised Friday that his sweeping domestic agenda package will cost “nothing” because Democrats will pay for it through tax hikes on the wealthy and corporations… The remarks were an attempt by Biden to assuage some of the cost concerns pointedly expressed by the moderate Democrats about the size of the legislation… The total spending outlined in the plan is $3.5 trillion… “It is zero price tag on the debt we’re paying. We’re going to pay for everything we spend,” Biden said in remarks from the State Dining Room at the White House.

Biden’s strange analysis has generated some amusing responses.

For instance, Gerard Baker opined in the Wall Street Journal about Biden’s magical approach.

…this is a novel way of estimating the cost of something. That eye-wateringly expensive dinner you had last week didn’t really cost you anything because you paid for it. …You could have used the money to invest in your children’s college fund. You could have paid off some of your credit card bill, the debt on which has quadrupled in the last year. But you chose instead to blow it on a few morsels of raw fish and a couple of bottles of 1982 Château Lafite Rothschild. Don’t worry, It didn’t cost you anything.

Biden and his team definitely deserve to be mocked for their silly argument.

For all intents and purposes, they want us to believe that there’s no downside if you combine anti-growth spending increases with anti-growth tax increases – so long as there’s no increase in red ink.

But there’s actually a fiscal theory that sort of supports what the White House is saying.

  • Capital (saving and investment) is a key driver of productivity and long-run growth.
  • Budget deficits divert capital from the economy’s productive sector to government.
  • Budget deficits raise interest rates, reducing incentives for investment.
  • Therefore, budget deficits are bad for prosperity.

For what it’s worth, all four of those statements are correct.

But the theory is nonetheless wrong because it elevates one variable – fiscal balance – while ignoring other variables that have a much bigger impact on economic performance.

For instance, the Congressional Budget Office at one point embraced this approach – even though it led to absurd implications such as growth being maximized with tax rates of 100 percent.

For further background, here’s a table I prepared back in 2012.

The White House today is basically embracing the IMF’s “austerity” argument that deficits/surpluses are the variable that has the biggest impact on growth.

P.S. Folks on the left must get whiplash because some days they embrace the Keynesian argument that deficits are good for growth and other days they argue that a big expansion of government will have zero cost because there is no increase in the deficit.

P.P.S. The folks on the right who focus solely on tax cuts also are guilty of elevating one variable while ignoring others (humorously depicted in this cartoon strip).

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Image credit: Gage Skidmore | CC BY-SA 2.0.

Swiss Voters Reject Bidenomics

Mon, 09/27/2021 - 12:58pm

Biden wants lots of class-warfare tax increases to fund a big increase in the welfare state.

That would be bad news for the economy, but his acolytes claim that voters favor the president’s approach.

Maybe that’s true in the United States, but it’s definitely not the case in Switzerland. By a landslide margin, Swiss voters have rejected a plan to impose higher tax rates on capital.

It’s nice to see that every single canton rejected the class-warfare initiative.

In an article for Swissinfo.ch, Urs Geiser summarizes the results.

Voters in Switzerland have rejected a proposal to introduce a tax on gains from dividends, shares and rents. The left-wing people’s initiative targeted the wealthiest group in the country. Final results show 64.9% of voters and all of the country’s 26 cantons dismissing the proposed constitutional reform, in some cases with up to 77% of the vote. …The Young Socialists who had launched the proposal admitted defeat, accusing the political right and the business community of “scare mongering”… The Young Socialists, supported by the Social Democrats, the Greens and the trade unions had hoped to increase tax on capital revenue by a factor of 1.5 compared with regular income tax. …Opponents argued approval of the initiative would jeopardise Switzerland’s prosperity and damage the sector of small and medium-sized companies, often described as the backbone of the country’s economy.

For what it’s worth, I’m not surprised that the Swiss rejected the proposal. Though I was pleasantly surprised by the margin.

Though perhaps I should have been more confident. After all, the Swiss have a good track record when asked to vote on fiscal and economic topics.

Though not every referendum produces the correct result. In 2018, Swiss voters rejected an opportunity to get rid of most of the taxes imposed by the central government.

P.S. Professor Garett Jones wrote a book, 10% Less Democracy, that makes a persuasive case about limiting the powers of ordinary voters (given my anti-majoritarian biases, I was bound to be sympathetic).

This implies that direct democracy is a bad idea. And when you look at some of the initiatives approved in places such as California and Oregon, Garett’s thesis makes a lot of sense. But the Swiss seem to be the exception that proves the rule.

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Image credit: bigbirdz | CC BY 2.0.

The Big Takeaway from a Look at Comparative Living Standards

Sun, 09/26/2021 - 12:17pm

A very persuasive argument against Biden’s fiscal agenda is that it makes no sense to copy the fiscal policies of European welfare states.

Indeed, I routinely share this column from January, which looks at three different measures of comparative prosperity – all of which show the United States is way ahead of nations on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

One of the three data sources is this comparison of “actual individual consumption” (AIC) in the member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

We now have updated AIC numbers. Here’s a look at the OECD’s latest data. As you can see, people in the United States enjoy levels of consumption 50 percent above the average for developed nations.

The U.S. is even way ahead of oil-rich Norway and the tax havens of Luxembourg and Switzerland.

By the way, if you look at the OECD’s technical definition, AIC includes “government expenditure on individual consumption goods and services,” so the gap between the United States and other nations is not a statistical quirk based on whether government is (or is not) paying for things.

P.S. I can’t resist a couple of closing observations. If you click on the OECD’s link for AIC, you’ll notice that there are seven years of data, thus showing which nations are moving in the right direction or wrong direction (relative to other OECD countries).

  • Eastern European nations tend to have the largest increases, as one might expect based on convergence theory (these nations fell way behind because of communist mismanagement). But the biggest increase was enjoyed by Lithuania, which also is very highly ranked for economic liberty. Not a coincidence.
  • Nations that suffered noticeable declines include Japan (no surprise), along with Italy and Greece (even less of a surprise).

The moral of the story is that smaller government is part of the recipe for greater prosperity, even if that’s not the approach preferred by vote-buying politicians.

P.P.S. Click here is you want an estimate of how much economic damage would be caused by Biden’s fiscal agenda.

Measuring the Economic Damage of the Biden Fiscal Plan

Fri, 09/24/2021 - 12:11pm

More than 12 years ago, I shared this video containing lots of data and research on the negative relationship between government spending and economic performance.

Since then, I’ve share numerous additional studies showing that bigger government dampens growth, mostly from scholars in academia.

Now it’s time for me to directly contribute to this debate.

In a study just published by the Club for Growth Foundation, co-authored with Robert O’Quinn (former Chief Economist at the Department of Labor), we estimated the likely economic impact of President Biden’s so-called Build Back Better plan to expand the welfare state.

Here are our main findings.

What’s especially noteworthy about our study is that we based our analysis on research published earlier this year by the Congressional Budget Office. In other words, a very establishment source.

And here are some excerpts from what we wrote.

President Biden has proposed to increase the burden of federal spending substantially over the next 10 years, diverting nearly $5.5 trillion from the private sector to the government… Most, but not all, of this new spending would be financed with higher tax rates on work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship. …Based on scholarly academic research, including new findings from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, Biden’s tax-and-spend agenda contained in his reconciliation bill will accelerate America’s fiscal decline and undermine economic performance. …the Biden’s reconciliation bill, which increases the spending burden by 1.9 percent of GDP, will reduce the economy’s growth rate by about 0.2 percent each year. That…translates into more than $3 trillion less national income over the next decade. And the nation’s economic output will be $613 billion lower in 2031 compared to what it would be in the absence of President Biden’s fiscal agenda. …The cumulative loss of employee income over the next 10 years will exceed $1.6 trillion. Some of that will be in the form of lower wages and some of that will be a consequence of lost jobs. On average, each worker in a nonfarm job will lose $10,391 in total compensation.

These results shouldn’t be a surprise.

Biden’s fiscal agenda would made the United States more like Europe and the economic data unambiguously demonstrate that Europeans suffer from significantly lower living standards.

P.S. I especially like the CBO study because it shows the amount of damage caused by more spending varies based on how the outlays are financed.

As this chart illustrates, class-warfare taxation is the worst way of financing a bigger burden of government.

P.P.S. The good news is that Biden probably won’t be able to convince Congress to approve all of his proposals for new spending and higher tax rates. The bad news is even approving half of the Biden’s plan would cause considerable damage to American prosperity and competitiveness.

P.P.P.S. For policy wonks, there are two main types of research involving the economic impact of government spending. For those focusing on short-run economic results, there’s a debate about Keynesian economics – whether more government spending can artificially generate some growth, particularly if the outlays are financed with debt.

I’m skeptical of the Keynesian argument, but it’s not relevant for today’s column, which focuses on how government spending impacts long-run economic results. And when looking at long-run data, most of the research suggests that government is too big. Indeed, it’s worth noting that there’s even research supporting my view from generally left-leaning international bureaucracies such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the European Central Bank.

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Image credit: Biden13 | CC BY 2.0.

Economic Backsliding by China, Part II

Thu, 09/23/2021 - 12:03pm

Two years ago, I wrote that China needed to choose between “Statism and Stagnation or Reform and Prosperity.”

Sadly, as I noted last month in Part I of this series, it seems that President Xi is opting for the former.

Which is unfortunate since China needs a lot more growth to get anywhere near U.S. levels of prosperity.

Yet that’s not very likely when the United States is ranked #6 and China is ranked #116 for economic liberty.

For what it’s worth, China’s score is likely to drop in future years rather than rise, and I’m certainly not the only one to notice that China has economic problems.

Writing for the Atlantic, David Frum looks at the country’s shaky economic outlook.

China’s economic, financial, technological, and military strength is hugely exaggerated by crude and inaccurate statistics. Meanwhile, U.S. advantages are persistently underestimated. The claim that China will “overtake” the U.S. in any meaningful way is polemical and wrong… China misallocates capital on a massive scale. More than a fifth of China’s housing stock is empty—the detritus of a frenzied construction boom that built too many apartments in the wrong places. China overcapitalizes at home because Chinese investors are prohibited from doing what they most want to do: get their money out of China. …More than one-third of the richest Chinese would emigrate if they could, according to research by one of the country’s leading wealth-management firms.

David mentioned “inaccurate statistics,” which is a big problem in China.

But I also worry about bubble statistics, which is an issue the Wall Street Journal editorialized about earlier this year.

…credit has exploded, with total public and private debt expected to exceed 270% of GDP in 2020, up 30 points in one year. Most of that has gone to state-owned firms and exporters. Smaller, more productive private companies that serve the domestic market report credit shortages. This undermines long-term growth… Unless China can unlock and expand its productive private economy, it will never be able to manage the burden of the debt Beijing has created.. China’s unbalanced recovery represents an enormous lost opportunity for the Chinese people.

David Ignatius of the Washington Post opines on President Xi’s embrace of bad policy.

President Xi Jinping has moved down a Maoist path this year toward tighter state control of the economy — including “self-criticism” sessions for Chinese business and political leaders whose crime, it seems, was being too successful. Xi’s leftward turn represents a major change… The result is a severe squeeze on what Xi views as “undisciplined” entrepreneurs. …Xi’s crackdown has rocked the Chinese economy. The top six technology stocks have lost more than $1.1 trillion in value over the past six months… Xi is animated by what he has called his “China Dream,” of a nation of unparalleled wealth and power — and also the egalitarian ideals of socialism.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Dennis Kwok and Johnny Patterson warn that private investors should not trust the Chinese government.

Beijing’s crackdown on private businesses has wiped out hundreds of billions of dollars in market value in the past two months. Under the policies of “advancement of the state, and retreat of private enterprises” and “common prosperity,” the state’s tightening of control will increase. …Beijing assails “foreign forces” for seeking to curb China’s rise as a great nation. That refrain is constantly pushed by state media… Investors and shareholders of Wall Street firms must understand that there has been a paradigm shift in Mr. Xi’s China. Long gone are the days of pragmatism. What the Chinese state wants, the Chinese state gets.

In an article for the Atlantic, Michael Schuman explains how China’s heavy subsidies for electric cars haven’t produced vehicles that can compete with Tesla and other western  vehicles.

Do Chinese state programs actually work? …bureaucrats have never stopped meddling with markets. State direction, state money, and state enterprises remain core features of the Chinese economic model. President Xi Jinping has even reversed the trend toward greater economic freedom, notably with a hefty dose of state-led programs aimed at accelerating the progress of specific sectors. …China’s industrial program has resulted in a lot of production, but only questionable competitiveness. Even Beijing’s spendthrift bureaucrats seem to have awoken to that—sort of. They’ve been rolling back direct subsidies to carmakers, with an eye on eliminating them.

In other words, industrial policy is backfiring on China.

The former Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, opined for the Wall Street Journal about China’s resurgent statism

In recent months Beijing killed the country’s $120 billion private tutoring sector and slapped hefty fines on tech firms Tencent and Alibaba. Chinese executives have been summoned to the capitol to “self-rectify their misconduct” and billionaires have begun donating to charitable causes in what President Xi Jinping calls “tertiary income redistribution.” China’s top six technology stocks have lost more than $1.1 trillion in value in the past six months… Mr. Xi is executing an economic pivot to the party and the state… Demographics is also driving Chinese economic policy to the left. The May 2021 census revealed birthrates had fallen sharply to 1.3—lower than in Japan and the U.S. China is aging fast. The working-age population peaked in 2011… While the politics of his pivot to the state may make sense internally, if Chinese growth begins to stall Mr. Xi may discover he had the underlying economics very wrong.

That final sentence is key.

Free enterprise is only tried-and-true recipe for economic prosperity. Chinese leaders are wrong to think they can get faster growth with more intervention.

Simply stated, China appears to be moving further left on this spectrum when it desperately needs to move to the right.

The bottom line is that I’m not optimistic about the future of China.

The country needs a Reagan-style agenda (the approach used by SingaporeHong Kong, and Taiwan) to achieve genuine convergence.

P.S. Amazingly, both the IMF and OECD are encouraging more statism in China.

P.P.S. I used to be hopeful about China. During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, China was horrifically impoverished because of socialist policies. According to the Maddison database, the country was actually poorer under communism than it was 1,000 years ago. But there was then a bit of economic liberalization starting in 1979, which generated very positive results. As a result, there was a significant increase in living standards and a huge reduction in poverty. But that progress has ground to a halt.

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Image credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office | CC BY 2.0.

Economic Freedom and Income Mobility

Wed, 09/22/2021 - 12:56pm

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the abstract from their study.

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

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

We learn that labor market freedom is most important.

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

Wonky readers may enjoy the aforementioned Table 5.

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

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

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Image credit: Vinicius Altava | Pexels License.

Americans Are Getting Richer, but the Relevant Question is “How Quickly?”

Tue, 09/21/2021 - 12:45pm

Our friends on the left believe (or at least claim to believe) that the United States is an unfair nation because the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

More specifically, they assert that the economy is a fixed pie and that when people like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos become rich, then there is less prosperity for everyone else.

This is grotesquely inaccurate, as I explained earlier this year.

We have a great opportunity to revisit this issue because the Census Bureau just released its annual report on Income and Poverty in the United States. I went to Table A2 and created this chart to show how inflation-adjusted income has increased over time for the average household.

In other words, families are earning more, no matter how we measure the average (“median” is the household in the middle and “mean” is the average of all households).

By the way, when you break down the data by quintiles, as I did back in 2018, you find that a big overlap in the economic well-being of all income groups.

Simply stated, we rise and fall together based on the health of the overall economy. That’s true for the poor, true for the rich, and true for the middle class.

Which is why growth is so important, especially for the least fortunate.

But it’s not simply about growth. It’s also about people’s decisions.

Mark Perry, an invaluable scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, crunched the data from the Census Bureau’s report and here are some of his key findings.

On average, there are five times more income earners per household in the top income quintile households (2.0) than earners per household in the lowest-income households (0.40). …the average number of earners per household increases for each higher income quintile, demonstrating that one of the main factors in explaining differences in income among US households is the number of earners per household. …More than six out of every ten American households (64.7%) in the bottom fifth of households by income had no earners in 2020. …more evidence of the strong relationship between average household income and income earners per household. …the key demographic factors that explain differences in household income are not fixed over our lifetimes and are largely under our control (e.g., staying in school and graduating from high school and college, getting and staying married, working full-time, etc.), which means that individuals and households are not destined to remain in a single-member, low-income quintile forever.

The bottom line is that income is correlated with work, which is hardly a surprise.

But it also is correlated with other choices such as marriage and graduation, as the great Walter Williams sagely observed.

Let’s wrap up looking at some additional data from Mark Perry.

Our left-leaning friends routinely assert that the middle class is shrinking.

It turns out that they’re right, but not because people are becoming poor. Instead, more and more households are earning above $100,000.

The moral of the story is that free enterprise delivers great results, assuming that politicians don’t smother it with excessive taxes, spending, regulation, and intervention.

And if we want faster growth, we need smaller government.

P.S. We can learn a very important lesson about the effect of big government by comparing living standards in the United States and other developed nations.

P.P.S. For those who want to learn more about income mobility, I strongly recommend this video from Russ Roberts.

P.P.P.S. This data on global income also shows that the economy is not a fixed pie.

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Image credit: Pictures of Money | CC BY 2.0.

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If you have Constitutional values, believe in fiscal restraint, limited government, and a free market economy - then join us or just come and listen to one of our excellent speakers. We meet every Tuesday from 6-8 pm at Mixon Fruit Farms in the Honeybell Hall, 2525 27th St. East, Bradenton, Florida. Map it

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