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We Need a Separation Between Politics and Banking

Tue, 01/28/2020 - 2:22am

Originally published by Townhall on January 27, 2020.

This week, the House Financial Services Committee will convene a hearing to question efforts to modernize the Community Reinvestment Act. Not only are the reforms proposed by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) that aim to prevent a repeat of the subprime lending crisis and reduce compliance burdens on banks long overdue, but the administration should go further and clarify the CRA’s role in preventing ideologically based lending discrimination.

Last month, Senator David Perdue (R-GA) and 14 other senators wrote to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), Federal Reserve System Board and the OCC to highlight “a disturbing trend in the financial services industry.” Specifically, they note that, “Over the past few years, one after another, the largest banks in the United States have steadily “derisked” from industries such as firearm manufacturers, private prison services, and fossil fuel producers,” and that, “according to the public statements of the banks and their executives, these actions are mainly designed to curry favor with partisan interest groups.”

Banks benefit from taxpayer-backed deposit insurance along with other implicit protections and are required by the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) to meet the credit needs of their local communities. Historically, the focus of CRA has been on ensuring that low and moderate-income neighborhoods have access to credit, but serving local communities surely means also serving the lawfully, creditworthy businesses upon which they rely.

What good is the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms if manufacturers and sellers of firearms are denied the access to credit that any business needs to operate?

Activists and their allies in Congress that are pressuring banks to restrict access to financial services recognize the potential to shape the economy toward their desired ends. Such an end-run around the legislative process is attractive when their desired legislation proves politically unpopular or conflicts with constitutional protections.

And thanks to Operation Choke Point, they know just how effective such tactics can be. The Obama-era program was created to serve an arguably legitimate purpose “to attack Internet, telemarketing, mail, and other mass market fraud against consumers,” but regulators quickly abused the program to serve ideological ends by targeting lawful industries like gun manufacturers and dealers, short-term lenders, tobacco sellers, and oil and gas companies. Even individual porn stars saw their accounts closed for “moral” reasons.

Choke Point was effectively ended in 2017 when, according to the agency’s press release, the FDIC issued a Financial Institution Letter “encouraging supervised institutions to take a risk-based approach in assessing individual customer relationships, rather than declining to provide banking services to entire categories of customers without regard to the risks presented by an individual customer or the financial institution’s ability to manage the risk.”

Federal regulators, in other words, were forced to admit that they couldn’t simply create a “hit list” of industries that liberals find distasteful and then tell banks that serving them would create a “reputational risk” that might trigger an enforcement action. That stance was bolstered in 2019 with settlement of a lawsuit brought by short-term lenders targeted by the government.

But activists nevertheless saw the program as a proof of concept that they now seek to replicate. For instance, the group Real Money Moves, which includes Hollywood celebrities, athletes and prominent feminists, operates at what it calls “the intersection of money and justice” and works to target “extractive industries” like fossil fuels and private corrections.

They have a right to invest their funds however they please, but banks should not be bowing to their demands for lending discrimination. Nor should the government, under the rules of the CRA, allow them to do so.

Even worse, Financial Services Committee members are using the implicit power that comes with the position to intimidate bank CEOs into dropping clients. At one hearing, Rep. Carolyn Maloney badgered a CEO to go “above and beyond the law” to impose “common-sense gun safety policies” on clients, and she praised two other banks that dropped gun manufacturers for opting not to “finance gun slaughter.” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has similarly gone after banks for working with firms that build federal immigration detention facilities with some notable success, while others have targeted fossil fuels and, by extension, sought to raise energy costs on consumers.

That these attacks to some degree have worked will only serve to encourage expansion into new policy areas.

One can take issue with one or more of these industries and still see the downsides of allowing wholesale lending discrimination, or of permitting politicians to effectively enact far-reaching policy changes without passing actual legislation. Imagine the chaos that would ensue if conservatives and Republican politicians retaliated and pressured banks into dropping abortion providers, tech giants, legal marijuana growers, or the news media. Where would the escalation stop?

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Image credit: Myfuture.com | CC BY-ND 2.0.

The Correct Fiscal Goal Is Smaller Government, not Budget Neutrality or Deficit Neutrality

Mon, 01/27/2020 - 12:55pm

About 10 years ago, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity released this video to explain that America’s real fiscal problem is too much spending and that red ink is best viewed as a symptom of that problem.

wrote a primer on this issue two years ago, but I want to revisit the topic because I’m increasingly irked when I see people – over and over again – mistakenly assume that “deficit neutrality” or “budget neutrality” is the same thing as good fiscal policy.

  • For instance, advocates of a carbon tax want to use the new revenues to finance bigger government. Their approach (at least in theory) would not increase the deficit. Regardless, that’s a plan to increase the overall burden of government, which is not sound fiscal policy.
  • Just two days ago, I noted that Mayor Buttigieg wants the federal government to spend more money on health programs and is proposing an even-greater amount of new taxes. That’s a plan to increase the overall burden of government, which is not sound fiscal policy.
  • Back in 2016, a columnist for the Washington Post argued Hillary Clinton was a fiscal conservative because her proposals for new taxes were larger than her proposals for new spending. That was a plan to increase the overall burden of government, which is not sound fiscal policy.
  • And in 2011, Bruce Bartlett argued that Obama was a “moderate conservative” because his didn’t raises taxes and spending as much as some on the left wanted him to. Regardless, he still increased the overall burden of government, which is not sound fiscal policy.

To help make this point clear, I’ve created a simple 2×2 matrix and inserted some examples for purposes of illustration.

At the risk of stating the obvious, good fiscal policy is in the top-left quadrant and bad fiscal policy is in the bottom-two quadrants.

Because of “public choice,” there are no real-world examples in the top-right quadrant. Why would politicians collect extra taxes, after all, if they weren’t planning to use the money to buy votes?

P.S. In 2012, I created a table showing the differences on fiscal policy between supply-siders, Keynesians, the IMF, and libertarians.

P.P.S. I also recommend Milton Friedman’s 2×2 matrix on spending and incentives.

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Image credit: Martin Jacobsen | CC BY-SA 3.0.

Senator Warren’s Redistribution Agenda Will Erode Societal Capital

Sun, 01/26/2020 - 12:52pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think Greece.

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

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Image credit: DonkeyHotey | CC BY 2.0.

Oracle Case Shows More Reform Needed at Anti-Discrimination Agency

Sun, 01/26/2020 - 12:36pm

Originally published by Morning Consult on January 27, 2020.

The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs is the Department of Labor agency tasked to enforce Executive Order 11246, which lays out the affirmative action and anti-discrimination requirements imposed on government contractors. And given the size and scope of the government, that includes companies employing almost a quarter of the U.S. workforce. Thus, its actions can have a profound impact on the economy.

Unfortunately, OFCCP has long been accused of allowing its auditors to run wild and abuse their authority at the expense of due process. Now, it is also pursuing enforcement actions based on statistical analysis that is fundamentally flawed. Consider the case of Oracle, which is fighting a record claim that it owes over $400 million to its female, Asian American and African American employees for underpayment over a four-year period.

The government’s case against Oracle is built primarily upon the theory of disparate impact, which holds that the presence of unequal outcomes between demographic groups is proof of discrimination even if rules or policies are racially neutral.

There are circumstances where a disparate impact is indicative of a problematic policy, but other times it can be the result of factors beyond a company’s control, such as unequal levels of education, or that aren’t even bad, like average differences resulting from the aggregate of individual choices.

For instance, the fact that the NHL is 93 percent white is less likely to be explained by racial discrimination as the fact that it began as a Canadian sport and has yet to garner as much interest from minority youths as other major sports. It might be argued that the sport is expensive, and that therefore socioeconomic factors contribute to racial disparities. But is it proper to then hold a team or the league liable for society-wide issues?

Likewise, a corporation can’t be held accountable for factors outside its control. Even the government understands this, which is why it tries to control for things like education and experience before using statistics to prove discrimination. In the case of Oracle, the OFCCP simply didn’t do a good job of this task.

Specifically, the government claims that Oracle employees have equivalent levels of experience if they are of similar age and have worked at Oracle for the same length of time, but the particulars of their work are ignored. Likewise, with education, only the degree level is considered, but not its relevance to a particular job.

How can the government honestly say that any compensation differences are evidence of discrimination when using such poor proxies for education and experience? Perhaps the fact that the Oracle case was launched two days before Barack Obama left office should be considered telling.

To be fair, the agency took a first step toward reform in 2018 when it rescinded the vague, open-ended guidelines of the Obama era that led the agency to often rely exclusively on statistical evidence of discrimination, and even to deny contractors opportunity to provide nondiscriminatory explanations for pay differences.

New rules sought to bring transparency for contractors, as well as to move away from the exclusive use of statistical evidence. Changes were made to how OFCCP groups employees to better ensure they are only compared to those of similar circumstances for the purposes of pay analysis. Unfortunately, the Oracle case shows those rules can be skirted simply by using poorly constructed controls.

OFCCP has been repeatedly accused of abusive tactics going back decades, relying on the threat that it may exercise its power to debar contractors and render them ineligible for current or future government contracts to keep objections to a minimum. That, along with lackluster oversight over its auditors, has made for a culture of fear where few companies dare defend themselves.

As one of the few to truly fight back, a victory by Oracle in its case might do much to caution the agency against such overreach in the future, but stricter oversight would be even more useful. Should the Trump administration withdraw the flawed case against Oracle, premised on old guidelines, it would also save taxpayers from continuing to finance an overzealous prosecution.

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Image credit: Oracle PR | CC BY 2.0.

The “Public Option” Is a Slow-Motion Version of Medicare-for-All

Sat, 01/25/2020 - 12:48pm

Government intervention has made a mess of health care in America. Programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, along with the tax code’s healthcare exclusionhave created a massive third-party-payer problem.

The inevitable result is systemic inefficiency and ever-rising prices.

Some politicians look at these government-created problems and want us to believe that the right solution is to have even more government.

Consider, for example, the radical Medicare-for-All scheme that is supported by “Crazy Bernie” and “Looney Liz.” That’s like driving in the wrong direction at 100 miles per hour.

It’s also a bad idea to head the wrong direction at 50 miles per hour.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Lanhee Chen exposes the reckless nature of the so-called public option that is supported by other candidates.

Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Mike Bloomberg claim they’re proposing a moderate, less disruptive approach to health-care reform when they advocate a public option—a government policy offered as an alternative to private health insurance—in lieu of Medicare for All. Don’t believe it. …those effects are predicated on two flawed assumptions: first, that the government will negotiate hospital and provider reimbursement rates similar to Medicare’s fee schedules and far below what private insurers pay; second, that the government would charge “actuarially fair premiums,” which cover 100% of provided benefits and administrative costs.

Mr. Chen explains that politicians can’t resist buying votes by offering ever-more goodies at ever-lower costs (I made similar points in a video explaining why Obamacare would be a fiscal boondoggle).

Political pressure upended similar financing assumptions in Medicare Part B only two years after the entitlement’s creation. The Johnson administration in 1968 and then Congress in 1972 had to intervene to shield seniors from premium increases. Objections from health-care providers to low reimbursement rates have regularly led to federal spending increases in Medicare and Medicaid.

And when politicians offer more goodies at lower cost, that means someone else will have to pay.

Either taxpayers today (higher income taxes and payroll taxes) or taxpayers tomorrow (more borrowing).

If premiums can’t rise to cover program costs, or reimbursement rates are raised to ensure access to a reasonable number of providers, who’ll pay? Taxpayers… If Congress’s past behavior is a guide, a public option available to all individuals and employers would add more than $700 billion to the 10-year federal deficit. The annual deficit increase would hit $100 billion within a few years. Some 123 million people—roughly 1 in 3 Americans—would be enrolled in the public option by 2025, broadly displacing existing insurance. These estimates don’t include the costs of additional Affordable Care Act subsidies and eligibility expansions proposed by Messrs. Biden, Buttigieg and Bloomberg. …if tax increases to pay for a politically realistic public option were limited to high-income filers, the top marginal rate would have to rise from the current 37% to 73% in 2049… Congress could enact a new broad-based tax similar to Medicare’s 2.9% Hospital Insurance payroll tax. The new tax would be levied on all wage and salary income and would reach 4.8% in 2049.

Mr. Chen also reminds us that the public option would surely have a very bad effect on private insurance.

Beyond fiscal considerations, the public option would quickly displace employer-based and other private insurance. …Consumers seeking coverage would be left with fewer insurance options and higher premiums. …Longer wait times and narrower provider networks would likely follow for those enrolled in the public option, harming patients’ health and reducing consumer choice.

For those of you who like lots of numbers, I also recommend a new report from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

The folks at CRFB are a bit misguided in that they focus too much on deficits and debt when they should be mostly concerned about the size of government.

But they do reliable work and their new report, Primary Care: Estimating Leading Democratic Candidates’ Health Plans, is filled with horrifying data.

We’ll start with this table looking at the details of the plans that have been put forth by Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders, and Warren. The red numbers are new spending. The black numbers are offsets (mostly tax increases).

As you can see from the above table, Warren and Sanders are definitely in the go-rapidly-in-the-wrong-direction camp.

But that shouldn’t distract us from the fact that Biden and Buttigieg also are proposing a big expansion in the burden of government.

Here’s another graphic from the CRFB report, but I’m focusing solely on the numbers for Biden and Buttigieg so that it’s clear to see that they both want about $2 trillion of new spending over the next decade.

If you look closely at the numbers for Buttigieg in Figure 2, you’ll notice that his health plan supposedly will reduce the deficit by $415 billion over 10 years (the difference between $3.3 trillion of new spending and $2.85 trillion of cost reductions and offsets).

Does that make his plan desirable? Of course not. What he’s really proposing (and this is how CRFB should have presented the data) is $1.65 trillion of net new spending (the difference between his “new spending” and his “cost reductions” ) accompanied by $2.1 trillion of new taxes.

P.S. Most of the “cost reductions” in Buttigieg’s plan are achieved with price controls on prescription drugs. At the risk of understatement, that’s a very costly way of trying to save money.

P.P.S. And if his plan is ever enacted, don’t forget that the actual amount of “new spending” will be much higher than the estimate of “new spending.”

European Tax Greed and American Tech Companies

Fri, 01/24/2020 - 12:27pm

There are many boring topics in tax policy, such as the debate between expensing and depreciation for business investment.

International tax rules also put most people to sleep, but they’re nonetheless important.

Indeed, the United States government is currently squabbling with several European governments about the appropriate tax policy for U.S.-based tech companies.

report from the New York Times last July describes the controversy.

France is seeking a 3 percent tax on the revenues that companies earn from providing digital services to French users. It would apply to digital businesses with annual global revenue of more than 750 million euros, or about $845 million, and sales of €25 million in France. That would cover more than two dozen companies, many of them American, including Facebook, Google and Amazon. …Mr. Lighthizer said the United States was “very concerned that the digital services tax which is expected to pass the French Senate tomorrow unfairly targets American companies.” …France’s digital tax adds to the list of actions that European authorities have taken against the tech industry… And more regulation looms. Amazon and Facebook are facing antitrust inquiries from the European Commission. …Britain provided further details about its own proposal to tax tech companies. Starting in 2020, it plans to impose a 2 percent tax on revenue from companies that provide a social media platform, search engine or online marketplace to British users.

For the latest developments, here are excerpts from an article in yesterday’s New York Times.

A growing movement by foreign governments to tax American tech giants that supply internet search, online shopping and social media to their citizens has quickly emerged as the largest global economic battle of 2020. …At the core of the debate are fundamental questions about where economic activity in the digital age is generated, where it should be taxed and who should collect that revenue. …The discussions, which are expected to last months, could end with an agreement on a global minimum tax that all multinational companies must pay on their profits, regardless of where the profits are booked. The negotiations could also set a worldwide standard for how much tax companies must remit to certain countries based on their digital activity. …Mr. Mnuchin expressed frustration on Thursday in Davos that a digital sales tax had become such a focus of discussion at the World Economic Forum. …American tech firms are eager for a deal that would prevent multiple countries from imposing a wide variety of taxes on their activities.

Daniel Bunn of the Tax Foundation has an informative summary of the current debate.

In March of 2018, the European Commission advanced a proposal to tax the revenues of large digital companies at a rate of 3 percent. …The tax would apply to revenues from digital advertising, online marketplaces, and sales of user data and was expected to generate €5 billion ($5.5 billion) in revenues for EU member countries. The tax is inherently distortive and violates standard principles of tax policy. Effectively, the digital services tax is an excise tax on digital services. Additionally, the thresholds make it function effectively like a tariff since most of the businesses subject to the tax are based outside of the EU. …the European Commission was unable to find the necessary unanimous support for the proposal to be adopted. The proposal was laid aside… the French decided to design their own policy. The tax was adopted in the summer of 2019 but is retroactive to January 1, 2019. Similar to the EU proposal, the tax has a rate of 3 percent and applies to online marketplaces and online advertising services. …The United Kingdom proposed a digital services tax at 2 percent as part of its budget in the fall of 2018. The tax has already been legislated and will go into force in April of 2020. …The tax will fall on revenues of search engines, social media platforms, and online marketplaces. …The OECD has been working for most of the last decade to negotiate changes that will limit tax planning opportunities that businesses use to minimize their tax burdens. …The reforms have two general objectives (Pillars 1 and 2): 1) to require businesses to pay more taxes where they have sales, and 2) to further limit the incentives for businesses to locate profits in low-tax jurisdictions. …This week in Davos, the U.S. and France…agreed to continue work on both Pillar 1 and Pillar 2… The burden of proof is on the OECD to show that the price the U.S. and other countries may have to pay in lost revenue or higher taxes on their companies (paid to other countries) will be worth the challenge of adopting and implementing the new rules.

At the risk of over-simplifying, European politicians want the tech companies to pay tax on their revenues rather than their profits (such a digital excise tax would be sort of akin to the gross receipts taxes imposed by some American states).

And they want to use a global formula (if a country has X percent of the world’s Internet users, they would impose the tax on X percent of a company’s worldwide revenue).

Though all you really need to understand is that European politicians view American tech companies as a potential source of loot (the thresholds are designed so European companies would largely be exempt).

For background, let’s review a 2017 article from Agence France-Presse.

…are US tech giants the new robber barons of the 21st century, banking billions in profit while short-changing the public by paying only a pittance in tax? …French President Emmanuel Macron…has slammed the likes of Google, Facebook and Apple as the “freeloaders of the modern world”. …According to EU law, to operate across Europe, multinationals have almost total liberty to choose a home country of their choosing. Not surprisingly, they choose small, low tax nations such as Ireland, the Netherlands or Luxembourg. …Facebook tracks likes, comments and page views and sells the data to companies who then target consumers. But unlike the economy of old, Facebook sells its data to French companies not from France but from a great, nation-less elsewhere… It is in states like Ireland, whose official tax rate of 12.5 percent is the lowest in Europe, that the giants have parked their EU headquarters and book profits from revenues made across the bloc. …France has proposed an unusual idea that has so far divided Europe: tax the US tech giants on sales generated in each European country, rather than on the profits that are cycled through low-tax countries. …the commission wants to dust off an old project…the Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base or CCCTB — an ambitious bid to consolidate a company’s tax base across the EU. …tax would be distributed in all the countries where the company operates, and not according to the level of booked profit in each of these states, but according to the level of activity.

This below chart from the article must cause nightmares for Europe’s politicians.

As you can see, both Google and Facebook sell the bulk of their services from their Irish subsidiaries.

When I look at this data, it tells me that other European nations should lower their corporate tax rates so they can compete with Ireland.

When European politicians look at this data, it tells them that they should come up with new ways of extracting money from the companies.

P.S. The American tech companies are so worried about digital excise taxes that they’re open to the idea of a global agreement to revamp how their profits are taxed. I suspect that strategy will backfire in the long run (see, for instance, how the OECD has used the BEPS project as an excuse to impose higher tax burdens on multinational companies).

P.P.S. As a general rule, governments should be free to impose very bad tax policy on economic activity inside their borders (just as places such as Monaco and the Cayman Islands should be free to impose very good tax policy on what happens inside their borders). That being said, it’s also true that nations like France are designing their digital taxes American companies are the sole targets. An indirect form of protectionism.

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Image credit: TheDigitalArtist | Pixabay License.

The Economic Consequences of War

Thu, 01/23/2020 - 12:30pm

Back in 2010, I wrote about the absurd contention, promoted by some advocates of Keynesian economics, that wars are good for prosperity.

According to this crackpot theory, destroying wealth is a net positive because people then have to spend money to rebuild.

Now this “conceptual bad penny” is showing up again.

The New York Times, in an article about Iran’s economy, includes some analysis suggesting that war would stimulate growth.

…some experts suggest that the regime’s hard-liners may eventually come to embrace hostilities with the United States as a means of stimulating the anemic economy. …Iran has in recent years focused on forging a so-called resistance economy in which the state has invested aggressively, subsidizing strategic industries, while seeking to substitute domestic production for imported goods. …it appears to have raised employment. Hard-liners might come to see a fight with Iran’s archenemy, the United States, as an opportunity to expand the resistance economy.

Needless to say, Iran is marching in the wrong direction. Not only would a war be devastating for the country’s prosperity, but Iran also is making a big mistake by pursuing a policy of “import substitution.”

That’s basically the Peronist approach that helped trigger Argentina’s big economic decline. Though, to be fair, Iran presumably is doing the wrong thing for geopolitical reasons (avoiding sanctions) rather than protectionist reasons.

There are some Keynesians in other parts of the world who think war is good for growth, in part based on a misreading of America’s economic history.

In a piece for the Foundation for Economic Education, Professor Burton Folsom exposes a great weakness in their argument, pointing out that advocates of Keynesian wrongly expected a return to depression when government spending dropped after World War II.

On the surface, World War II seems to mark the end of the Great Depression. During the war more than 12 million Americans were sent into the military, and a similar number toiled in defense-related jobs. Those war jobs seemingly took care of the 17 million unemployed in 1939. Most historians have therefore cited the massive spending during wartime as the event that ended the Great Depression. …In truth, building tanks and feeding soldiers—necessary as it was to winning the war—became a crushing financial burden. …In other words, the war had only postponed the issue of recovery. …President Roosevelt and his New Dealers sensed that war spending was not the ultimate solution; they feared that the Great Depression—with more unemployment than ever—would resume after Hitler and Hirohito surrendered. Yet FDR’s team was blindly wedded to the federal spending that…had perpetuated the Great Depression during the 1930s. …Roosevelt’s death in the last year of the war prevented him from unveiling his New Deal revival. But President Harry Truman was on board for most of the new reforms. …Republicans and southern Democrats refused to give Truman his New Deal revival. …Instead they cut tax rates to encourage entrepreneurs to create jobs for the returning veterans. …In 1945 and 1946 Congress repealed the excess-profits tax, cut the corporate tax to a maximum 38 percent, and cut the top income tax rate to 86 percent. In 1948 Congress sliced the top marginal rate further, to 82 percent.

Let’s be thankful that FDR (and then Truman) didn’t succeed in the plan for an “economic bill of rights” that would have radically expanded the power of government.

For those interested, there are other possible economic consequences of war.

In a scholarly study for the Journal of Monetary Economics, Professors Dan Ben-David and David H. Papell find that moments of significant economic disruption – such as wars – often are followed by periods of above-average and better-than-expected growth.

In this paper, we use up to 130 years of annual aggregate and per capita GDP data for 16 countries to investigate whether output exhibits a trend break and whether economic growth is constant or changing over time. …This study provides empirical evidence that, for nearly every one of the countries, the years that provide the strongest evidence for a trend break are associated with a sharp decline in GDP. These breaks are associated with World War II for most of the countries and either World War I or the Great Depression for the remainder. While countries do tend to exhibit relatively constant growth rates for extended periods of time, the occurrence of a major shock to the economy and the resultant drop in levels are usually followed by sustained growth that exceeds the earlier steady state growth. …On average, aggregate postbreak steady state growth rates are 79 percent higher than the average prebreak rates. The results are even stronger for the per capita case, where all fifteen countries exhibit postbreak growth rates that exceed prebreak rates. In the per capita case, the steady state postbreak rates are 163 percent higher than the steady state prebreak rates.

Their study doesn’t explain why the economy expands beyond the pre-disruption trend, but one obvious explanation is that wars erode the power of privileged interest groups and thus reduce the deadweight cost of cronyism. Especially for nations that lose wars and have to start from scratch.

That’s not an excuse to have a war, of course, but it does suggest that dark clouds can have silver linings.

But sometimes dark clouds have dark linings.

In a column for Vox, Dylan Matthews examines research about the link between war and harsh tax rates.

…for the first century of American history, the federal government was funded mainly through tariffs, not income taxes. It was only in the early 20th century that the 16th Amendment authorizing income taxes passed… A recent paper by UC – Berkeley grad student Juliana Londoño Vélez provides an intriguing explanation for this evolution. Progressive taxation wasn’t an inevitable effect of democracy… It was an accidental effect of the 20th century’s massive wars. …The first federal income tax proposal came during the War of 1812, and one was implemented briefly during the Civil War. While the Progressive Era brought a renewed push, and the 16th Amendment and an accompanying income tax law were passed four years before US entry into World War I, it wasn’t until the US joined the conflict that the tax’s scale expanded to modern levels. …World War I also greatly expanded the French income tax; in 1920, to help pay for reconstruction, the top rate grew from 2 percent to 50 percent. …Londoño Vélez’s argument is quantitative. She compiled data on top income tax rates for sixteen rich, developed countries, and pairs it with data on mass mobilizations for war. …Londoño Vélez found that “no country had high taxes on the rich before the advent of war, with [the] top rate rarely exceeding 10 percent … the Wars created substantial income tax progressivity, with periods of mass war mobilization coinciding with significant rises in the top income tax rate.” …Londoño Vélez also finds that war mobilization has a significant effect on income tax rates five years on, suggesting that the effect on taxes persisted.

Here’s Figure 1 from the article, showing how tax burdens jumped because of World War I and then jumped again because of World War II.

My two cents is that wars may have been the initial excuse for income taxes and high rates, but politicians eventually would have concocted other reasons (based on their self interest) to extract lots of money.

Indeed, “Wagner’s Law” is an entire hypothesis based on the notion that politicians figure out how to grab ever-greater amounts of money as nations get richer.

That being said, it’s good to have another reason to oppose war.

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Image credit: Army Signal Corps Collection | Public Domain.

Joe Biden: Worse than Barack Obama, Worse than Hillary Clinton

Wed, 01/22/2020 - 12:53pm

Given their overt statism, I’ve mostly focused on the misguided policies being advocated by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

But that doesn’t mean Joe Biden’s platform is reasonable or moderate.

Ezra Klein of Vox unabashedly states that the former Vice President’s policies are “far to Obama’s left.”

The rhetorical clash between “leftists” and “moderates” is obscuring the deeper truth: This is the most progressive Democratic primary in history, and even if, say, Biden won the nomination, he’d be running on a platform far to Obama’s left. https://t.co/x3CMj5XqAn

— Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) December 20, 2019

This is an issue where folks on both ends of the spectrum agree.

In a column for the right-leaning American Spectator, George Neumayr also says Biden is not a moderate.

Biden likes to feed the mythology that he is still a moderate. …This is, after all, a pol who giddily whispered in Barack Obama’s ear that a massive government takeover of health care “was a big f—ing deal,”…and now pronouncing Obamacare only a baby step toward a more progressive future. It can’t be repeated enough that “Climate Change” Joe doesn’t give a damn about the ruinous consequences of extreme environmentalism for Rust Belt industries. His Climate Change plans read like something Al Gore might have scribbled to him in a note. …On issue after issue, Biden is taking hardline liberal stances. …“I have the most progressive record of anybody running.” …He is far more comfortable on the Ellen show than on the streets of Scranton. He has given up Amtrak for private jets, and, like his lobbyist brother and grifter son, has cashed in on his last name.

If you want policy details, the Wall Street Journal opined on his fiscal plan.

Mr. Biden has previously promised to spend $1.7 trillion over 10 years on a Green New Deal, $750 billion on health care, and $750 billion on higher education. To pay for it all, he’s set out $3.4 trillion in tax increases. This is more aggressive, for the record, than Hillary Clinton’s proposed tax increases in 2016, which totaled $1.4 trillion, per an analysis at the time from the left-of-center Tax Policy Center. In 2008 Barack Obama pledged to raise taxes on the rich while cutting them on net by $2.9 trillion. Twice as many tax increases as the last presidential nominee: That’s now the “moderate” Democratic position. …raising the top rate for residents of all states. …a huge increase on today’s top capital-gains rate of 23.8%… This would put rates on long-term capital gains at their highest since the 1970s. …Raise the corporate tax rate to 28% from 21%. This would…vault the U.S. corporate rate back to near the top in the developed world. …the bottom line is big tax increases on people, capital and businesses. There’s nothing pro-growth in the mix.

And the ever-rigorous Peter Suderman of Reason wrote about Biden’s statist agenda.

Biden released a proposal to raise a slew of new taxes, mostly on corporations and high earners. He would increase tax rates on capital gains, increase the tax rate for households earning more than $510,000 annually, double the minimum tax rate for multinational corporations, impose a minimum tax on large companies whose tax filings don’t show them paying a certain percentage of their earnings, and undo many of the tax cuts included in the 2017 tax law. …as The New York Times reports, Biden’s proposed tax hikes are more than double what Hillary Clinton called for during the 2016 campaign. …Hillary Clinton…pushed the party gently to the left. Four years later, before the campaign is even over, the party’s supposed moderates are proposing double or even quadruple the new taxes she proposed.

The former Veep isn’t just a fan of higher taxes and more spending.

He also likes nanny-state policies.

Joe Biden says he is 100% in favor of banning plastic bags in the U.S. …let’s take a quick walk through the facts about single-use plastic bags at the retail level. …the plastic bags typically handed out by retailers make up only 0.6% of visible litter. Or put another way, for every 1,000 pieces of litter, only six are plastic bags. …They make up less than 1% of landfills by weight… 90% of the plastic bags found at sea streamed in from eight rivers in Asia and two in Africa. Only about 1% of all plastic in the ocean is from America. …Thicker plastic bags have to be used at least 11 times before they yield any environmental benefits. This is much longer than their typical lifespans. …Though it might seem almost innocuous, Biden’s support for a bag ban is symptom of a greater sickness in the Democratic Party. It craves unfettered political power.

Let’s not forget, by the way, that Biden (like most politicians in Washington) is corrupt.

Here are some excerpts from a Peter Schweizer column in the New York Post.

Political figures have long used their families to route power and benefits for their own self-enrichment. …one particular politician — Joe Biden — emerges as the king of the sweetheart deal, with no less than five family members benefiting from his largesse, favorable access and powerful position for commercial gain. …Joe Biden’s younger brother, James, has been an integral part of the family political machine… HillStone announced that James Biden would be joining the firm as an executive vice president. James appeared to have little or no background in housing construction, but…the firm was starting negotiations to win a massive contract in war-torn Iraq. Six months later, the firm announced a contract to build 100,000 homes. …A group of minority partners, including James Biden, stood to split about $735 million. …With the election of his father as vice president, Hunter Biden launched businesses fused to his father’s power that led him to lucrative deals with a rogue’s gallery of governments and oligarchs around the world. …Hunter’s involvement with an entity called Burnham Financial Group…Burnham became the center of a federal investigation involving a $60 million fraud scheme against one of the poorest Indian tribes in America, the Oglala Sioux. …the firm relied on his father’s name and political status as a means of both recruiting pension money into the scheme.

I only excerpted sections about Biden’s brother and son. You should read the entire article.

And even the left-leaning U.K.-based Guardian has the same perspective on Biden’s oleaginous behavior.

Biden has a big corruption problem and it makes him a weak candidate. …I can already hear the howls: But look at Trump! Trump is 1,000 times worse! You don’t need to convince me. …But here’s the thing: nominating a candidate like Biden will make it far more difficult to defeat Trump. It will allow Trump to muddy the water, to once again pretend he is the one “draining the swamp”, running against Washington culture. …With Biden, we are basically handing Trump a whataboutism playbook. …his record represents the transactional, grossly corrupt culture in Washington that long precedes Trump.

I’ll close by simply sharing some objective data about Biden’s voting behavior when he was a Senator.

According to the National Taxpayers Union, he finished his time on Capitol Hill with eleven-consecutive “F” scores (hey, at least he was consistent!).

And he also was the only Senator who got a lifetime rating of zero from the Club for Growth.

Though if you want to be generous, his lifetime rating was actually 0.025 percent.

Regardless, that was still worse than Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren.

So if Biden become President, it’s safe to assume that America will accelerate on the already-baked-in-the-cake road to Greece.

P.S. Of course, we’ll be on that path even if Biden doesn’t become President, so perhaps the moral of the story is to buy land in Australia.

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Image credit: Marc Nozell | CC BY 2.0.

Fight on the Right, Part III: State Capacity Libertarianism

Tue, 01/21/2020 - 12:26pm

In this podcast discussion with Gene Tunny, I pontificate on several fiscal issues, including the ideal size of governmentWagner’s Law, and the importance of quality governance.

The conversation is a good introduction to the debate about “state capacity” generally and “state capacity libertarianism” more specifically.

Regarding the former, I explained last year why it would be a bad idea to expand the size and power of governments.

Most advocates of increased state capacity are on the left. For instance, Joseph E. Stiglitz, Todd N. Tucker, and Gabriel Zucman argue in an article for Foreign Affairs that high taxes and big government are a necessary condition for prosperity.

…markets have not flourished without the help of the state. …The invisible hand of the market depended on the heavier hand of the state. The state requires something simple to perform its multiple roles: revenue. It takes money to build roads and ports, to provide education for the young and health care for the sick, to finance the basic research that is the wellspring of all progress, and to staff the bureaucracies that keep societies and economies in motion. No successful market can survive without the underpinnings of a strong, functioning state. …States lay the basis for the healthy, educated populations that can participate in and contribute to the successful flourishing of markets. Allowing states to collect their fair share of revenue in the form of taxes will not usher in a dystopian era of oppressive government.

Their argument, in my humble opinion, is strikingly anti-empirical.

  • According to their theory, it was impossible for western nations to become rich in the 1800s when government was very small and there was no welfare state. Yet it happened.
  • According to their theory, it is impossible to provide public goods if government consumes only a modest share of economic output. Yet that’s not what we see in the real world.

For purposes of today’s column, let’s focus on the issue of “state capacity libertarianism.”

Professor Tyler Cowen from George Mason University basically asserts that libertarians should accept a “strong state” and focus on making it effective.

Strong states remain necessary to maintain and extend capitalism and markets.  This includes keeping China at bay abroad and keeping elections free from foreign interference, as well as developing effective laws and regulations for intangible capital, intellectual property, and the new world of the internet. …A strong state is distinct from a very large or tyrannical state.  A good strong state should see the maintenance and extension of capitalism as one of its primary duties…high levels of state capacity are not inherently tyrannical.  Denmark should in fact have a smaller government, but it is still one of the freer and more secure places in the world… Many of the failures of today’s America are…failures of state capacity.  Our governments cannot…much improve K-12 education, fix traffic congestion, or improve the quality of their discretionary spending. …Public health improvements are another major success story of our time, and those have relied heavily on state capacity.

Depending on how one interprets Tyler’s column, there’s some room for agreement.

  • If “strong state” means a jurisdiction that has the rule of law, I assume everyone favors quality governance.
  • If “strong state” means that a nation can survive with a big welfare state, Denmark shows that is possible.
  • If “strong state” means government re-focusing on provision of genuine public goods, I’m very sympathetic.

But there’s also room for disagreement.

In a column for the American Institute for Economic Research, Vincent Geloso and Alexander W. Salter make the critical point that proponents of state capacity get the causality backwards.

Cowen contends that state capacity (broadly, the government’s ability to accomplish its intended policy goals) is not inimical to liberty and development. In essence, a strong state can protect property rights and provide important public goods, which may support and even extend markets, so long as it is appropriately constrained. Thus, a strong and capable state promotes liberty and economic growth simultaneously. …If anything, the relationship runs backward – greater development invites greater state capacity. …while it doesn’t make much sense to claim state capacity causes development, it makes much more sense to claim development causes state capacity. …A rich country with a weak state invites the predation from other countries. The inability to defend a certain stock of appropriable wealth is a lure… The weak state-capacity country has two choices. The first is to be conquered and absorbed by the strong-state-capacity country. The second is to invest in state capacity (i.e. a centralized-hierarchical fiscal bureaucracy that can harness resources for the purposes of producing national defense and/or others). …growth generates an externality in the form of heightened attention from potential predators. …As such, state capacity is not causing growth. It is a product of growth.

Professor Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University, is very skeptical of state capacity libertarianism, in part because he finds little evidence for the proposition that strong government is a predicate for growth.

…it’s worth asking exactly what Tyler means by “state capacity.” He does not provide a very clear definition. …Tyler fails to specify how we measure the type of “capacity” he considers important… state capacity theorists have not done a good job of differentiating cases where state capacity is the cause of good outcomes from those where it is a result of them (e.g.—a state in a wealthier society has more capacity than one in a poor society, even if the state did little to create that wealth). …looking at some of the greatest evils and injustices out there, I see many that libertarianism is very well-equipped to handle. …In each of these areas, there are enormous gains to be had simply by having government engage in less of the activity that is causing the problem to begin with. …none of these incremental reforms require much, if any, state capacity that doesn’t already exist. …The problems with education, traffic congestion, and discretionary spending are not a lack of “capacity” but a combination of inherent flaws of government and poor incentives.

He also is justifiably concerned that a strong government inevitably will misbehave, presumably for “public choice” reasons.

…even if “[a] good strong state” should see “the maintenance and extension of capitalism as one of its primary duties,” it doesn’t follow that it actually will. To the contrary, the more power the state has, the greater the temptation for politicians to misuse it, especially in a context where they are appealing to poorly informed voters. …at this point in history, it doesn’t seem like the US and other Western democracies lack the capacity to do such things as provide a modicum of security and public goods. Rather, the problem is that our governments are engaging in way too many other functions, many of which are both harmful in themselves and divert resources away from the things that government should do.

For what it’s worth, my view of state capacity libertarianism is the same as my view of national conservatism. And compassionate conservatismkinder-and-gentler conservatismcommon-good capitalism, and reform conservatism as well.

I will be highly skeptical until someone shows me the tiniest shred of evidence that further reducing economic liberty can lead to more prosperity.

P.S. While they’re definitely not libertarian, international bureaucracies are big advocates of boosting state capacity. They argue that bigger government will somehow kick-start grow in developing nations. Here’s my sarcastic – yet accurate – depiction of their methodology.

For those who disagree, all that I ask is that you successfully answer at least one of these two questions. Until and unless that happens, there’s no alternative to the tried-and-true recipe for prosperity.

P.P.S. Here’s Part I and here’s Part II of my “Fight on the Right” series.

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Image credit: pxhere | CC Public Domain.

IMF Research on the Adverse Impact of Government Bureaucracy on Private Employment

Mon, 01/20/2020 - 12:41pm

When I did this video about public-sector compensation almost 10 years ago, I focused on why it is unfair that bureaucrats get much higher levels of compensation than people working the private sector.

Today, let’s consider the economic consequences of excessive bureaucracy.

And what will make this column particularly interesting is that I’ll be citing some research from economists at the International Monetary Fund (a bureaucracy which is definitely not an outpost of libertarian thinking).

The two authors, Alberto Behar and Junghwan Mok, investigated whether nations lowered unemployment rates by employing more bureaucrats.

The contribution of this paper is to investigate the effects of public hiring of workers on labor market outcomes, specifically unemployment and private employment. In particular, does public hiring increase (“crowd in”) private employment or decrease (“crowd out”) private employment? …It is arguably the case that a private-sector job is more desirable than a public-sector job from a public policy point of view…there is evidence that a large government share in economic activity can be negative for long-term growth because of the distortionary effects of taxation, inefficient government spending due in part to rent-seeking or lower worker productivity, and the crowding out of private investment. …Crowding out could occur through a number of channels. Derived labor demand can be affected through crowding out of the product market, possibly via higher taxes, higher interest rates, and competition from state-owned enterprises. It can occur through the labor market, where higher wages, more job security, or a higher probability of finding a public-sector job can make an individual more likely to seek or wait for public-sector employment rather than search for or accept a job in the private sector… Finally, it can occur in the education market, where individuals seek qualifications appropriate for entering the public sector rather than skills needed for productive employment

As you can see, the authors sensibly consider both the direct and indirect effects of public employment.

Yes, hiring someone to be a bureaucrat obviously means that person is employed, but it also means that resources are being diverted to government.

And that imposes costs on the economy’s productive sector.

So the real question is the net impact.

In their study for the IMF, the authors cite other academic research suggesting that government employment crowds out (i.e., reduces) private employment.

…there is prior evidence that crowding-out effects are sufficiently large to increase unemployment in a number of advanced countries. However, there has hitherto not been a thorough investigation of how public employment affects labor market outcomes in developing countries. We fill this gap in the literature by investigating the effects of public employment on both private employment and on unemployment. An important part of our contribution lies in the assembly of the dataset to expand the number of non-OECD countries… The most related and relevant work to this paper is by Algan et al. (2002), who explore the consequences of public-sector employment for labor market performance. Using pooled cross-section and annual time-series data for 17 OECD countries from 1960 to 2000, they run regressions of the unemployment rate and/or the private-sector employment rate on the public-sector employment rate. Empirical evidence from the employment equation suggests that the creation of 100 public jobs crowds out 150 private-sector jobs.

In the study, the authors look at two main measures of public sector employment.

And, as you can see in Figure 4, they look at data for nations in different regions.

They wisely utilize the broader measure of public employment, which includes the people employed by state-owned enterprises.

We have collected data for up to 194 countries over the period 1988–2011. …Our contribution to the literature includes the assembly of data on public and private employment and other indicators for a wide range of developing and advanced countries. …Definitions of “public sector” are different across countries and organizations, so we choose two definitions and generate corresponding public employment datasets, namely a “narrow” measure also referred to as “public administration” and a “broad” measure. …This dataset includes not only governmental agencies but also state-owned enterprises (SOEs). We call this the ‘broad’ measure of public employment, preserving the term ‘public sector’.

In Figure 7, they use a scatter diagram to show some of the data.

The diagram on the left is most relevant since it shows that private employment (vertical axis) declines as government jobs (horizontal axis) increase.

And when they do the statistical analysis, we get confirmation that government jobs displace employment in the economy’s productive sector.

…all coefficients indicate a very strong negative relationship between public- and private-sector employment rates. For example, 100 new public jobs crowd out 98 private job… Taken together with the unemployment results, public employment just about fully crowds out private-sector employment regardless of the definition, such that a rise in government hiring would be offset by decreases in private employment… Regressions of unemployment on public employment and of private employment on public employment, each of which is based on two definitions of public employment, find robust evidence that public employment crowds out private employment. …Public-sector hiring: (i) does not reduce unemployment, (ii) increases the fiscal burden, and (iii) inhibits long-term growth through reductions in private-sector employment. Together, this would imply that public hiring is detrimental to long term fiscal sustainability.

The final part of the above excerpt is critical.

In addition to not increasing overall employment, government jobs also increase the fiscal burden of government and undermine long-run growth.

So the long-term damage is even greater than the short-run damage.

P.S. The IMF isn’t the only international bureaucracy to conclude that government employment is bad for overall prosperity. A few years ago, I shared research from the European Central Bank which also showed negative macroeconomic consequences from costly bureaucracy.

P.P.S. While I’m usually critical of the IMF because it has a statist policy agenda, it’s not uncommon for the professional economists who work there to produce good research. In the past, I’ve highlight some very good IMF studies on topics such as spending caps, the size of governmenttaxes and business vitalityfiscal decentralization, the Laffer Curve, and class-warfare taxation.

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

Defending the Second Amendment in Virginia

Sun, 01/19/2020 - 12:52pm

Other than an occasional column about events in my home county of Fairfax, I’ve never written about public policy in Virginia.

This is because the Commonwealth has had a dull profile. It doesn’t have a track record of notably good policies, such as Florida and Texas, and it doesn’t have a track record of notably bad policies, such as Illinois or New Jersey.

But that’s changed now that Democrats have total control of government and are trying to restrict Second Amendment rights.

Here are excerpts from a report immediately after last November’s elections.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday said he will reintroduce gun control measures in the upcoming legislative sessions now that Democrats have taken control “…These are common-sense pieces of legislation,” he told CNN’s John Berman on “New Day.” “I will introduce those again in January. And I’m convinced, with the majority now in the House and the Senate, they’ll become law…”Northam and Democrats will now have an advantage in the assembly to pursue gun control measures that Republicans have pushed against and blocked. …A ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and reinstating Virginia’s one-handgun-a-month law were among eight policy proposals Northam introduced ahead of the session.

From a policy perspective, Northam and his allies are misguided.

In a tweet,Stephen Gutowski debunks some of the Governor’s demagoguery.

The FBI reported Virginia had 297 murders involving a firearm in 2018. Rifles, of which the AR-15s Governor Northam has supported confiscating are only a subset, were involved in 8 murders. https://t.co/jb5XzL8kQX https://t.co/IQEUP0mpHJ

— Stephen Gutowski (@StephenGutowski) January 9, 2020

And the invaluable John Lott touches on another error in his Townhall column,

Democrats, who just took control of the Virginia state legislature, are about to pass a law that will dramatically limit the ability of people with concealed handgun permits from other states to carry in Virginia. …Currently, Virginia recognizes concealed handgun permits issued by all other states. Out-of-state permit holders can carry in Virginia as long as they follow local laws and carry photo identification. …If state Democrats and Henning get their way, criminals will only need to look for an out of state license plates to know who to attack. …There’s no good reason not to issue permits much more generously. Permit holders are extremely law-abiding… Police rarely commit crimes… But permit holders are even more law-abiding, facing a conviction rate that is just one-tenth as often. …there is a reason that over 86% of police chiefs and sheriffs support national reciprocity. And over 90 percent of street officers support concealed handgun laws. These are the people who see first-hand how reciprocity and concealed carry works. Overwhelmingly academic research finds that letting people carry concealed handguns reduces crime.

But this isn’t just an issue of bad policy (I strongly recommend this column if you want to learn more about the senselessness of proposals to impose gun control).

It’s also an example of how ordinary citizens can – and should – engage in civil disobedience.

The Wall Street Journal recently opined on how counties are voting to become sanctuaries for the Second Amendment.

Eighty-six of Virginia’s 95 counties have passed…sanctuary measures opposing restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms. They suggest that the counties might not enforce new state laws limiting gun rights. …Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has made gun control a priority… Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw would make it a felony to sell, manufacture, purchase or possess so-called assault weapons and large-capacity magazines. …one state representative wants to call in the National Guard to enforce gun laws, and another has introduced a bill that requires firing police officers who don’t enforce a gun statute. …But the sanctuary movement has a point about the Constitution. The Supreme Court confirmed in its landmark Heller ruling that individuals have the right to bear arms, but politicians have often ignored it. …Sanctuary counties that decline to enforce Virginia laws are endorsing lawlessness. But it is no less lawless when the courts or politicians ignore Supreme Court decisions.

And the Washington Examiner reports on protests from citizens across the state.

Some 100,000 Virginia gun owners who have rallied at county and town meetings for “gun sanctuaries”…the Virginia Citizens Defense League, which is leading the gun sanctuary movement…issued an “alert” to supporters to start lobbying lawmakers in Richmond against gun control. He said that the new anti-gun laws from Democrats are “pouring in like a waterfall.” …Van Cleave’s group and another organization, Gun Owners of America, have helped to spark a pro-gun movement in Virginia that did not exist before Democrats swept the November 2019 elections. In the two months since, they led the sanctuary movement that has won approval in 94% of the state. …“Virginia had been a very free state for a long time. This is where freedom started…people are looking at Virginia, saying our freedom started here and … we’ll be damned if it ends here,” he added.

Indeed, there’s a big protest planned in Richmond for January 20.

And the Governor is quite nervous, as reported by NPR.

Fearing potential violence, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is declaring a state of emergency and is banning firearms and other weapons on the Capitol grounds in Richmond ahead of a gun rights demonstration… The event, hosted by Virginia Citizens Defense League, is expected to draw thousands of armed demonstrators, some from out of state. …On a Facebook page organizing the gun rights demonstration hosted by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, several commenters expressed frustration at Northam’s move to restrict guns from the Capitol grounds. One wrote, “This is simply a move to infringe on not only our 2nd Amendment rights but our 1st Amendment rights as well.”

By the way, there are sanctuary movements and other forms of civil disobedience all across the nation.

I’ve already written about such efforts in Colorado and Connecticut, and the Wall Street Journal reports on what’s now happening in New Mexico and Illinois.

…in New Mexico, 30 of 33 county sheriffs have signed a letter pledging to not help enforce several gun-control measures supported by Democrats in Santa Fe, according to the state’s sheriff association. The sheriffs, who are elected, say they are heeding the wishes of voters in the counties they serve. More than two dozen counties in the state have enacted “sanctuary” resolutions backing the sheriffs and affirming that no tax dollars in their jurisdictions should go to enforcing the proposed laws. …Elsewhere, about 60 counties in Illinois have approved—some by ballot measures—pro-Second Amendment resolutions, according to the Illinois State Rifle Association. …More than half of Washington’s sheriffs have denounced a gun-control package…as an unconstitutional and unenforceable step toward banning semiautomatic weapons. …In 2013, Colorado sheriffs joined a lawsuit in protest of expanded background checks and restrictions on higher-capacity ammunition magazines… Colorado sheriffs have very rarely charged anyone with violations, according to Dave Kopel, an attorney and scholar who represented the plaintiffs.

The article cites a law professor who explains that there is a downside to civil disobedience.

Norman Williams, a Willamette University law professor…drew a distinction between prosecutorial discretion and a categorical refusal to enforce a law. The latter undermines the rule of law, he said.

That’s a very fair point. But I also agree with the Wall Street Journal‘s argument that it is also “lawless when the courts or politicians ignore Supreme Court decisions.”

And that’s a perfect description of the actions of Northam and the rest of the anti-gun crowd.

Let’s close with a map showing the widespread resistance to the Virginia Governor’s anti-Second Amendment efforts.

Hopefully, more green has been added to this map over the past two weeks (though keep in mind that a big chunk of the state’s population lives in the handful of localities – Richmond, Northern Virginia, etc – that have not joined the resistance).

P.S. As noted above, civil disobedience is not the ideal way to deal with bad government policy. But when laws are immoral, despicable, and/or unconstitutional (everything from wretched Jim Crow laws to predatory traffic cameras), then I fully understand why ordinary citizens choose not to comply.

P.P.S. On a related note, citizens can also resist bad law by engaging in “jury nullification.”

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Image credit: Craig | CC BY 2.0.

How Do We Rescue Young People from Socialism?

Sat, 01/18/2020 - 12:41pm

started fretting about the socialist tendencies of young people early last decade.

And when Sanders attracted a lot of youth support in 2016, I gave the issue even more attention, and I’ve since continued to investigate why so many young people are sympathetic to such a poisonous ideology with a lengthy track record of failure and deprivation.

Some of the recent polling data is very discouraging.

And if you want to be even more depressed, here are some tweets with the most-recent data about the the views of young people.

It’s not just that they have warm and fuzzy thoughts about so-called democratic socialism.

I’m completely horrified to learn that more than one-third of young people even have a positive perception of communism.

36% of millennials polled say that they approve of communism, which is up significantly from 28% in 2018. https://t.co/WVFGJmZ3ba

— MarketWatch (@MarketWatch) October 28, 2019

In other words, wearing Che t-shirts isn’t just a vapid fashion statement. These kids are either overtly evil or utterly oblivious. Yes, I realize I sound like a curmudgeon (“you kids get off my lawn!”), but how else should I react when I see these numbers from Axios.

50% of millennials and 51% of Generation Z have a somewhat or very unfavorable view of capitalism. https://t.co/LxESSusLk4 — Axios (@axios) October 28, 2019

For what it’s worth, the same problem exists in the United Kingdom.

And it may be even more lopsided.

Latest student voting intention:

Labour 72%
Lib Dems 10%
Conservatives 8%
SNP 3%
Brexit Party 2%
Plaid Cymru 2%
Green 1%

ICM 29 Nov-2 Dec#GE2019

— Matthew Goodwin (@GoodwinMJ) December 5, 2019

(Though I’m very relieved the misguided views of young people didn’t prevent a victory for Boris Johnson last month.)

For today’s column, let’s keep our focus on the United States.

What’s the underlying cause of bad polling numbers in America?

In a column for the Washington Times, Robert Knight explains that many young people have been spoon-fed a leftist version of American history.

Why do so many young people hate America and think we’d be better off as a socialist country? …reading and believing Howard Zinn’s best-selling ‘A People’s History of the United States’… First published in 1980, “A People’s History” has sold more than 2.5 million copies and is in virtually every school district, university and local library. …Everything Zinn wrote was couched in the language of Marxist class warfare. Key events were omitted. The mass slaughter that followed the Communist takeover of Cambodia? Good luck finding it in “A People’s History.” …Zinn was a member of numerous Soviet front groups, and he helped found the socialist New Party… Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Zinn warned that concern over communism was due to “hysteria,”… In a chapter titled “The Coming Revolt of the Guards,” …Zinn states flatly that “capitalism has always been a failure for the lower classes. It is now beginning to fail for the middle class.” …Zinn envisions a utopian future in which “certain basic things” would be “…available — free — to everyone: food, housing, health care, education, transportation.” …The reason this insane, economically illiterate, un-American scheme appeals to so many is that they’ve been miseducated via Howard Zinn into thinking that they live in a bad country that must be rebuilt as a socialist paradise.

Jarrett Stepman opined on the adverse consequences of historical illiteracy in a piece for the Daily Signal.

As young Americans are losing an understanding of civics and American history, they increasingly embrace socialism. …younger generations have a far sunnier view of socialism and communism than their elders. …Perhaps worse than nostalgia for the Soviet Union, “57% of millennials (compared to 94% of the Silent Generation) believe the Declaration of Independence better guarantees freedom and equality over the Communist Manifesto.” That’s appalling. …there’s not only been a worrisome decline in inculcating informed patriotism in young Americans, but a willful attempt to re-educate them to turn them against the foundations of America itself. …So far, we have escaped the curse of socialism… But a troubling collapse in a basic understanding of our history, along with the malignant attempt to reframe our country’s origins to make us more susceptible to doctrines outside our tradition, means that the specter of socialism now hangs over us.

Amen. The government’s education monopoly too often gives kids a diet of statist pabulum. This is another reason why we need school choice.

But it’s not just bad history in government schools.

It’s also bad policy in government.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Mene Ukueberuwa shares some insights from Edward Glaeser, a professor at Harvard who warns that statist policies are leading young people to support bigger government.

Bernie Sanders…has become an unlikely voice of the young generation. …this axis of today’s struggle could change politics for generations to come, as millennials reject the country’s capitalist consensus and embrace socialism in record numbers. …Critics often blame today’s socialist surge on millennials’ laziness. …One free-market economist has a different explanation. Edward Glaeser, a Harvard professor…, argues that young people have radicalized politically because “there are a number of ways in which the modern American economy isn’t working all that well for them.” Many public policies make it harder to get a job, save money or find an affordable home, leaving young idealists thinking, “Why not try socialism?” But that cure would merely worsen the disease. Mr. Glaeser decries policies that constrain the job market and increase the cost of living compared with what the economy would produce if left alone. …Consider the housing market. “In the 1960s and earlier,” Mr. Glaeser says, “America basically had a property-rights regime that meant that anyone who had a plot of land could pretty much put up anything reasonable on that plot of land.” …The shift of income toward those Mr. Glaeser calls the “entrenched” is most explicit in entitlement programs. …They’re funded by payroll taxes, which snag a disproportionate share of low-earners’ paychecks. Taxpayers also pony up ever more to fund the retirements of government employees.

Glaeser is right.

Government intervention is increasing the price of housing for the young. Entitlement programs are pillaging the young. And bureaucrat pensions are a scam that victimizes the young.

For all intents and purposes, Prof. Glaeser is describing Mitchell’s Law.

Bad policy causes bad results, which leads some people (in this case, young people) to want more bad policy.

So the obvious solution, he argues, is to get rid of the bad policies that are causing problems in the first place.

And maybe young people will realize that they should support free markets and limited government!

“They say, ‘Well, there are a whole bunch of projects—a whole bunch of government spending that helps old people. I want mine. If we’re going to spend a huge amount on Medicare, why aren’t we spending a whole lot on education for me?’” …To give newcomers a chance, Mr. Glaeser would curtail the influence of entrenched groups and restore incentives for “a capitalism that is inclusive, and that provides a place of opportunity for more people.” …Mr. Glaeser insists that this message would be likelier to catch on if it were backed by policy reforms that make work more fruitful. A program of plentiful job opportunities, cheaper housing, and tax cuts financed by curtailed entitlements could be a significant step toward replacing socialism in the hearts of Mr. Sanders’s young supporters.

For what it’s worth, bad history and bad policy are both good explanations, but they don’t fully explain why young people are misguided.

I suspect many young people also think support for socialism is a way of signalling that you’re a nice person. That you care about others.

I’m not sure how we solve this problem, but this clever video from Kristian Niemietz suggests that part of the answer may be satire.

Though I may be biased since I have an entire collection of humor that targets socialism and communism.

P.S. When it hits close to home, college students actually reject socialism, though maybe they should have learned that lesson in kindergarten.

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Image credit: Michael Vadon | CC BY 2.0.

Capitalism Wins

Fri, 01/17/2020 - 12:35pm

I’ve always been puzzled by those who criticize capitalism (“it’s unfair!” and “it’s coercive!”) and urge its overthrow or replacement.

I actually agree with them that markets can be harsh, especially in the short run (think of the damage to the typewriter industry when personal computers exploded on the scene).

But the critics are unable to suggest a successful alternative to capitalism.

This is why I keep reissuing my challenge for them to identify a single nation that has ever become rich because of big government.

Needless to say, my left-wing friends have never provided an answer.

(Some of them say the Nordic nations and other countries in Western Europe are relatively rich, and that’s true, but I point out that those jurisdictions became rich in the 1800s and early 1900s when government was very small.)

By contrast, we have lots of evidence that modern prosperity is the result of free markets.

And so long as we give capitalism enough breathing room to function, we’ll get even more prosperity in the future.

Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute, in a column for Bloomberg, debunks the notion that capitalism is failing.

Use of the term “late capitalism” has exploded during the past decade… Capitalism may have once delivered broad prosperity, the critics argue, but now the system serves to entrench the elite. …Now is an odd time to argue that capitalism is broken. Only 35 U.S. workers out of every 1,000 are looking for jobs but unable to find them — the unemployment rate is lower than it has been in a half-century. The rate at which people in their prime working years hold jobs is higher than it has been in over a decade. …The level of inequality is high, but this is an odd decade to bemoan its rise. …from the beginning of the Great Recession, when criticism of capitalism became much more common, to 2016 (the last year data are available), inequality actually decreased by 7 percent.

Here’s the part of the column that is most interesting.

…critics of modern capitalism seem to be confused about the market’s ability to distribute benefits. …In a 2004 paper, the economist and Nobel laureate William Nordhaus concluded that “most of the benefits of technological change are passed on to consumers,” not the innovators themselves. Using data from 1948–2001, his model suggests that innovators capture only 2.2 percent of the total social value they create. Applying a back-of-the-envelope calculation using Nordhaus’s result to Bezos suggests he has created $5.4 trillion in value for the rest of society. A team of economists…recently attempted to measure the benefit of several new digital services that are free to consumers. …The typical U.S.-based Facebook user in their study values the social networking site at $42.17 per month. …Because they are free, these services are not well captured in current national income statistics. Brynjolfsson and his coauthors calculate that the benefits from Facebook alone would have added between 0.05 and 0.11 percentage points to the annual growth in U.S. gross domestic product growth starting in 2004. …Capitalism has delivered significant increases in purchasing power for typical households. The phrase “late capitalism” suggests that capitalism is spent and exhausted. It isn’t.

Interestingly, the academic researchers confirmed the insights provided in this video.

Though it is helpful to have some rigorous evidence to confirm how free enterprise has made our lives better.

The Wall Street Journal recently editorialized about the blessings of capitalism.

…deregulation and tax reform unleashed a surge of business investment…which has drawn workers off the sidelines and raised wages. …wages for the bottom 10% of earners over age 25 rose an average 5.9% annually compared to 2.4% during Barack Obama’s second term, according to the latest demographic data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. …Less educated workers have also seen the strongest gains. Wages have risen at a 6.1% annual clip for workers over 25 without a high school degree and 3.9% for those with some college—both about three times faster than during the second Obama term. …Socialism-loving young people are getting the biggest pay raises. Wages have increased on average 5.8% annually for teens, 4.4% for 20 to 24-year-olds and 4.8% for 25 to 34-year-olds during the Trump Presidency. …Forty million fewer people last year lived in households receiving government assistance than in 2016, and the food-stamp rolls have shrunk by 9.5 million over the past three years. Reduced government dependence is a social good far beyond the lower costs to taxpayers. …Between 2016 and 2018 the number of taxpayers earning less than $25,000 declined 5% while increasing 8% for those making between $100,000 to $200,000 and 13.9% for those making more than $200,000, according to IRS data.

Here’s the graphic that accompanied the editorial.

By the way, I always warn never to over-rely on short-term economic data.

Yes, the recent numbers look good, but what if they are – at least in part – the result of a monetary policy-driven bubble?

That wouldn’t be an argument against better tax policy and better regulatory policy, of course, but it might mean some of the gains are illusory (much as the good economic news in 2006 now looks rather hollow considering we now know the country was in the midst of a Fed-created bubble).

This is why I prefer to look at multi-decade comparisons. And when you compare market-oriented nations with statism-oriented countries, it becomes very obvious that capitalism is the only way to deliver broadly shared prosperity.

P.S. Regarding capitalism vs. statism, here’s the best-ever tweet.

P.P.S. And here’s the best-ever counter-tweet.

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Image credit: Jacob Bøtter | CC BY 2.0.

Taxes Will Be a Royal Pain for Meghan and Harry

Thu, 01/16/2020 - 12:45pm

I’m part of the small minority that thinks the big news from the United Kingdom is that “Brexit” will finally happen, thanks to Boris Johnson’s landslide victory last month.

Most everyone else seems more focused on the latest development with the royal family. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, better known as Harry and Meghan, have decided to partially extricate themselves from the cloistered world of the monarchy – in part so they can take advantage of “the freedom to make a professional income.”

More power to them, I guess, if they can monetize their celebrity status.

The U.K.-based Economist expects that they’ll rake in lots of money.

In stepping down as “senior royals” while pronouncing that they “value the freedom to make a professional income” the Duke and Duchess threaten to unleash the spirit of capitalism on the very core of the monarchy. …The Sussexes are determined to turn themselves into a global brand. Their first move after they announced that they were stepping down from many of their royal duties was to unveil the name of their brand, Sussex Royal… Various branding experts have pronounced that Harry and Meghan have “a ready-made brand” that could earn them as much as £500m in their first year. InfluencerMarketingHub, a website, points out that, with 10m Instagram followers, they could expect $34,000 for a sponsored post. …They will need more than Prince Harry’s inheritance, which is estimated at £20m-30m, to keep up with the global super-rich.

I don’t have a rooting interest in their financial success. Indeed, I suspect they’ll wind up being annoying hypocrites like Harry’s dim-bulb father, lecturing us peasants about our carbon footprints while they fly around the world in private jets.

That being said, I am interested in the intricacies of international taxation.

And that will be a big issue for the couple according to Town and Country.

Now that Meghan and Harry intend to retreat from their royal roles, attain “financial independence,” and live part-time in North America, Meghan and Archie’s tax and citizenship plans are a little up in the air. …Meghan is still a US citizen, and therefore required to pay US taxes on her worldwide income. Prince Harry could technically elect to be treated as a US tax payer and file jointly with Meghan, but “he would never do that,” explains Dianne Mehany, a lawyer specializing in international tax planning. …When Meghan and Harry announced their engagement back in 2017, Harry’s communications team confirmed to the BBC that Meghan “intends to become a UK citizen and will go through the process of that.” …Once gaining UK citizenship, Meghan could elect to relinquish her US citizenship, and save herself the trouble and expense of filing US tax returns. “The only problem there is, she would have to pay the exit tax,” Mehany notes…regardless of what type of employment or contract work Meghan pursues, it will be taxable in the US. …”The real tricky thing,” Mehany notes, “is to make sure they don’t spend too much time in the United States, so that Harry becomes a resident of the United States, at which point his entire worldwide wealth would become subject to US taxation, which I know they want to avoid.”

For all intents and purposes, Meghan and Harry will face the same challenges as a multinational company.

  • Multinational companies have to figure out where to be “domiciled” just as Meghan and Harry have to figure out the best place to reside.
  • Multinational companies have to figure out where to conduct business, just as Meghan and Harry have to figure out where they will work.
  • Multinational companies have to figure out how to protect their income from taxes, just as Meghan and Harry will try to protect their income.

For what it’s worth, the Royal couple already is being smart.

As reported by the U.K.-based Telegraph, they’re minimizing their exposure to the rapacious California tax system.

The Duchess of Sussex has moved her business to a US state used by the super-rich to protect their interests from scrutiny. The Duchess’s company Frim Fram Inc was moved out of California in December and incorporated in Delaware, which tax experts suggest could be done to avoid being hit with tax liabilities in California. …the move was made on New Year’s Eve…”You would want to do it on New Year’s Eve simply because if you go one minute into the next year you would owe some taxes to California for the year of 2020,” said Alan Stachura, from financial services firm Wolters Kluwer. …Mr Stachura, who helps companies incorporate in Delaware, added that the state offers “a tax benefit for items like trademarks and royalties”. …Experts say there are several benefits in moving a corporation to Delaware, including the state’s flexible business laws and its low personal income tax rates. …A source said that as the Duchess is no longer resident in California it was appropriate for the registration to be moved.

I can’t resist commenting on the last line of the excerpt. The fact that Meghan is no longer a resident of California is irrelevant.

After all, she’s not becoming a resident of Delaware.

Instead, she and her husband are being rational by seeking to minimize the amount of their money that will be diverted to politicians (the same is true of everyone with any sense in the United Kingdom, whether they are on the right or on the left).

It’s a shame Meghan and Harry feel too insecure to acknowledge that reality.

P.S. The Town and Country article noted that Prince Harry “would never” allow himself to become a tax resident of the United States because he wants “to avoid” America’s worldwide tax system. That’s completely understandable. He probably learned about the nightmare of FATCA after marrying Meghan and wants to make sure he’s never ensnared by America’s awful internal revenue code.

The Impossibly Expensive Promises of Bernie Sanders

Wed, 01/15/2020 - 12:27pm

I’ve written about some of Elizabeth Warren’s statist proposals, but watching last night’s Democratic debate convinced me that I need to pay more attention to Bernie Sanders’ agenda.

When he ran for president last time, I warned that his platform of $18 trillion of new spending over 10 years would be “very expensive to your wallet.”

This time, “Crazy Bernie” has decided that his 2016 agenda was just a down payment. He now wants nearly $100 trillion of new spending!

Even CNN acknowledges that his platform has a staggering price tag.

…the new spending programs Sen. Bernie Sanders has proposed in his presidential campaign would at least double federal spending over the next decade… The Vermont independent’s agenda represents an expansion of government’s cost and size unprecedented since World War II… Sanders’ plan, though all of its costs cannot be precisely quantified, would increase government spending as a share of the economy far more than the New Deal under President Franklin Roosevelt, the Great Society under Lyndon Johnson or the agenda proposed by any recent Democratic presidential nominee, including liberal George McGovern in 1972, according to a historical analysis shared with CNN by Larry Summers, the former chief White House economic adviser for Barack Obama… Summers said in an interview. “The Sanders spending increase is roughly 2.5 times the size of the New Deal and the estimated fiscal impact of George McGovern’s campaign proposals.

My former colleague Brian Riedl has the most detailed estimates of the new fiscal burdens that Sanders is proposing.

Here’s some of what he wrote last year for City Journal.

All told, Sanders’s current plans would cost as much as $97.5 trillion over the next decade, and total government spending at all levels would surge to as high as 70 percent of gross domestic product. Approximately half of the American workforce would be employed by the government. …his Medicare For All plan would increase federal spending by “somewhere between $30 and $40 trillion over a 10-year period.” He pledges to spend $16.3 trillion on his climate plan. And his proposal to guarantee all Americans a full-time government job paying $15 an hour, with full benefits, is estimated to cost $30.1 trillion. …$3 trillion to forgive all student loans and guarantee free public-college tuition—plus $1.8 trillion to expand Social Security, $2.5 trillion on housing, $1.6 trillion on paid family leave, $1 trillion on infrastructure, $800 billion on general K-12 education spending, and an additional $400 billion on higher public school teacher salaries. …Such spending would far exceed even that of European social democracies. …Sanders’s tax proposals would raise at most $23 trillion over the decade. …Tax rates would soar. Sanders would raise the current 15.3 percent payroll tax to 27.2 percent… Sanders proposes a top federal income-tax rate of 52 percent…plus a 10 percent net investment-income surtax for the wealthy.

By the way, class-warfare taxes won’t pay for all these promises.

Not even close, as you can see from this chart Brian put together.

By the way, the above chart is a static snapshot. In the real world, there’s no way to collect 4.7 percent of GDP (red bar on the left) with confiscatory taxes on the rich.

if Sanders ever had a chance to impose all his class-warfare tax ideas, the economy would tank, so revenues as a share of GDP would decline.

And here’s another one of his visuals, looking at the spending proposals that Democratic candidates are supporting.

Senator Sanders, needless to say, favors all of these proposals.

As Brian noted in his article, the Sanders fiscal agenda is so radical that America would have a bigger burden of government spending than decrepit European welfare states such as GreeceFrance, and Italy.

To his credit, Bernie acknowledges that all his new spending can’t be financed by class-warfare levies (unlike the serially dishonest Elizabeth Warren).

But the new taxes he proposes would finance only a tiny fraction of his spending agenda. If Washington ever tried to adopt even part of his platform, it inevitably would mean a European-style value-added tax.

P.S. Even if tens of trillions of dollars of revenue magically floated down from Heaven, bigger government would still be bad for the economy since politicians and bureaucrats would be in charge of (mis)allocating a much greater share of labor and capital.

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

Connecticut’s Continuing Decline

Tue, 01/14/2020 - 12:20pm

wrote last week about the ongoing shift of successful people from high-tax states to low-tax states.

And I’ve periodically confirmed this trend by doing comparisons of high-profile states, such as Texas vs. California and Florida vs. New York.

Today, I’m going to focus on Connecticut.

I actually grew up in the Nutmeg State and I wish there was some good news to share. But Connecticut has been drifting in the wrong direction ever since an income tax was imposed about 30 years ago.

And the downward trend may be accelerating.

A former state lawmaker has warned that the golden geese are escaping the state.

A former state representative says wealthy Connecticut residents are leaving the state at “an alarming pace.” Attorney John Shaban says when he returned to private practice in Greenwich in 2016, one of his most popular services became helping some of the state’s top earners relocate to places like Florida… “Connecticut started to thrive 20, 30 years ago because people came here. We were a tax haven, we were a relatively stable regulatory and tax environment, and we were a great place to live,” says Shaban. …Shaban says many small businesses now require little more than a laptop to operate, and that’s making it easier for small business owners to relocate out of state.

The exodus of rich people has even caught the attention of the U.K.-based Economist.

Greenwich, Connecticut, with a population of 60,000, has long been home to titans of finance and industry. …It has one of America’s greatest concentrations of wealth. …You might think a decade in which rich Americans became richer would have been kind to Greenwich. Not so. …the state…raised taxes, triggering an exodus that has lessons for the rest of America…  Connecticut increased income taxes three times. It then discovered the truth of the adage “easy come, easy go”. …Others moved to Florida, which still has no income tax—and no estate tax. …Between 2015 and 2016 Connecticut lost more than 20,000 residents—including 2,050 earning more than $200,000 per year. The state’s taxable-income base shrank by 1.6% as a result… Its higher income taxes have bitten harder since 2018, when President Donald Trump limited state and local tax deductions from income taxable at the federal level to $10,000 a year.

For what it’s worth, the current Democratic governor seems to realize that there are limits to class-warfare policy.

Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont said he opposes higher state income tax rates and he linked anemic growth with high income taxes. …when a caller to WNPR radio on Tuesday, January 7 asked Lamont why he doesn’t support raising the marginal tax rate on the richest 1 percent of Connecticut residents, Lamont responded: “In part because I don’t think it’s gonna raise any more money. Right now, our income tax is 40 percent more than it is in neighboring Massachusetts. Massachusetts is growing, and Connecticut is not growing. We no longer have the same competitive advantage we had compared to even Rhode Island and New York, not to mention, you know, Florida and other places. So I am very conscious of how much you can keep raising that incremental rate. As you know, we’ve raised it four times in the last 15 years.” …Connecticut has seven income tax rate tiers, the highest of which for tax year 2019 is 6.99 percent on individuals earning $500,000 or more and married couples earning $1 million or more. That’s 38.4 percent higher than Massachusetts’s single flat-tax rate for calendar year 2019, which is 5.05 percent.

I suppose it’s progress that Gov. Lamont understands you can’t endlessly pillage a group of people when they can easily leave the state.

In other words, he recognizes that “stationary bandits” should be cognizant of the Laffer Curve (i.e., high tax rates don’t lead to high tax revenues if taxable income falls due to out-migration).

But recognizing a problem and curing a problem are not the same. Lamont opposes additional class-warfare tax hikes, but I see no evidence that he wants to undo any of the economy-sapping tax increases imposed in prior years.

So don’t be surprised if Connecticut stays near the bottom in rankings of state economic policy.

P.S. The last Republican governor contributed to the mess, so I’m not being partisan.

P.P.S. Though even I’m shocked by the campaign tactics of some Connecticut Democrats.

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Image credit: Pixnio | Public Domain.

A Practical Reason to a Support a Spending Cap Instead of a Balanced-Budget Requirement

Mon, 01/13/2020 - 12:15pm

I gave a speech this past weekend about the economy and fiscal policy, and I made my usual points about government being too big and warned that the problem would get much worse in the future because of demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs.

Which is probably what the audience expected me to say.

But then I told the crowd that a balanced budget requirement is neither necessary nor sufficient for good fiscal policy.

Which may have been a surprise.

To bolster my argument, I pointed to states such as IllinoisCalifornia, and New Jersey. They all have provisions to limit red ink, yet there is more spending (and more debt) every year. I also explained that there are also anti-deficit rules in nations such as GreeceFrance, and Italy, yet those countries are not exactly paragons of fiscal discipline.

To help explain why balanced budget requirements are not effective, I shared this chart showing annual changes in revenue over the past two decades for the federal government (Table 1.1 of OMB’s Historical Tables).

It shows that receipts are very volatile, primarily because they grow rapidly when the economy is expanding and they contract – sometimes sharply – when there’s an economic downturn.

I pointed out that volatile revenue flows make it very difficult to enforce a balanced budget requirement.

Most important, it’s extremely difficult to convince politicians to reduce spending during a recession since that’s when they feel extra pressure to spend more money (whether for Keynesian reasons of public-choice reasons).

Moreover, a balanced budget requirement doesn’t impose any discipline when the economy is growing. If revenues are growing by 8%, 10%, or 12% per year, politicians use that as an excuse for big increases in the spending burden.

Needless to say, those new spending commitments then create an even bigger fiscal problem when there’s a future downturn (as I’ve noted when writing about budgetary problems in jurisdictions such as CyprusAlaskaIrelandAlbertaGreecePuerto RicoCalifornia, etc).

So what, then, is the right way of encouraging or enforcing prudent fiscal policy?

I told the audience we need a federal spending cap, akin to what exists in SwitzerlandHong Kong, and Colorado. Allow politicians to increase spending each year, preferably at a modest rate so that there’s a gradual reduction in the fiscal burden relative to economic output.

I’ve modified the above chart to show how a 2% spending cap would work. Politicians could increase spending when revenues are falling, but they wouldn’t be allowed to embark on a spending spree when revenues are rising.

Spending caps create a predictable fiscal environment. And limiting spending growth produces good outcomes.

If you’re still not convinced, this CF&P video hopefully will make a difference.

P.S. Spending caps work so well that even left-leaning international bureaucracies such as the OECD and IMF have acknowledged that they are the only effective fiscal rule.

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

Some Folks on the Left Are Honest…but Very Wrong

Sun, 01/12/2020 - 12:58pm

As part of my collection of honest leftists, I have a bunch of columns highlighting how some advocates of big government (including, to their credit, Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang) don’t hide from reality.

I’m unalterably opposed to their policies, but at least they openly admit that huge tax increases on ordinary people are needed in order to finance a European-style welfare state.

Now we have two more honest statists to add to our list.

In a column for the Washington Post, Eric Harris Bernstein and Ben Spielberg openly embrace huge tax increases on Americans with modest incomes.

They start by complaining that the tax burden is lower in the United States compared to other western nations.

A no-new-middle-class-taxes pledge…is seriously misguided. Middle-class taxes are a necessary and desirable part of a comprehensive, progressive policy framework… Democratic presidential candidates should make the case for middle-class taxes, not run from them. Here is a basic fact: The United States is a low-tax country. In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, the United States ranked fourth-lowest in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (a consortium of 36 economically developed countries) in terms of tax revenue collected as a percentage of the economy — behind nations like Germany, Israel, Latvia and Canada. The gap between U.S. and average OECD revenue has widened over time, from 1.3 percentage points of gross domestic product in 1965 to 10 percentage points more recently. That’s nearly $2 trillion per year in forgone revenue from lower tax rates.

Interestingly (though not surprisingly), they don’t acknowledge that Americans are far richer than people in other advanced nations.

So maybe, just maybe, there’s a relationship between tax policy and economic outcomes.

The authors then complain that Reagan triggered an era of lower taxes for the non-rich. Oh, the horror!

In 1979, the year before Ronald Reagan was elected president, the average household in the middle quintile of the income distribution paid 19.1 percent of its income in federal taxes, according to data from the Congressional Budget Office. By 2016, that rate had dropped 5.2 percentage points, more than a quarter, to 13.9 percent. The story is similar for the second and fourth quintiles, which saw their rates decline by 5.6 and 3.8 percentage points respectively over the same period.

Here’s a graphic that accompanied the column.

As you can see, readers are supposed to conclude that the United States is “below average” compared to other developed nations.

What would it mean if politicians reversed all the tax cuts that started under Reagan?

The most revealing factoid from the column is their calculation that middle-income families should be paying $3800 more to the IRS every year.

In 2016, middle-quintile families paid $3,800 less in taxes than they would have at 1979 rates… Low middle-class taxes in the United States stand in stark contrast to the approach in other developed countries, which raise more revenue from the middle class through some combination of taxes on goods and services, payroll taxes, and income taxes.

And don’t forget that the authors don’t just want to go back to 1979 tax rates.

They want America to become another France.

Somehow, I suspect America’s middle-class does not want to be pillaged like their European counterparts.

Amazingly, it gets even worse. The authors want more debt-financed spending and they even endorse the perpetual motion machine of “modern monetary theory.”

Of course, middle-class tax increases are not the only means of providing these public goods. Trillions of dollars can be raised through various taxes on the rich… And funding public investments with government debt, which modern monetary theory’s adherents recommend, is a far better approach than requiring every program to have a designated “payfor.” The government is uniquely positioned to borrow money, and we shouldn’t let unsubstantiated, theoretical concerns about debt levels prevent us from addressing the concrete and urgent needs of today.

I could end the column at this point and simply observe that it’s good to find honest folks on the left, even if they’re wildly wrong.

But the authors of the column unintentionally have given me an excuse to make a key point about taxes, growth, the economy, and the Laffer Curve.

Their graphic inserted above reveals that the overall tax burden in France consumes 46.1 percent of GDP in France, nearly twice as high as the United States.

But high tax rates don’t necessarily produce high tax revenues.

Indeed, I crunched data from the International Monetary Fund and found that per-capita revenues in France are only about 10 percent higher than they are in the United States.

I’m sure Art Laffer won’t be surprised by these results. Neither would Ibn Khaldun.

The bottom line is that most people in Europe are subject to much higher tax rates, which leads to lower living standards and weaker economies, which means there’s not even a lot of tax revenue to spend.

Would your family be willing to give up $10,000, $15,000, or $20,000 of income just so politicians could spend an extra $2,000 per household?

New York vs. Florida, Round #3

Sat, 01/11/2020 - 12:13pm

looked last year at how Florida was out-competing New York in the battle to attract successful taxpayers, and then followed up with another column analyzing how the Sunshine State’s low-tax policies are attracting jobs, investment, and people from the Empire State.

Time for Round #3.

new article in the Wall Street Journal explains how successful investors, entrepreneurs, and business owners can save a massive amount of money by escaping states such as New York and moving to zero-income-tax states such as Florida.

This table has the bottom-line numbers.

As explained in the article, taxpayers are discovering that the putative benefits of living in a high-tax state such as New York simply aren’t worth the loss of so much money to state politicians (especially now that the 2017 tax reform sharply reduced the tax code’s implicit subsidy for high-tax states).

There’s a way for rich homeowners to potentially shave tens of thousands of dollars from their tax bills. They can get that same savings the next year and the following years as well. They can cut their taxes even further after they die. What’s the secret? Moving to Florida, a state with no income tax or estate tax. Plenty of millionaires and billionaires have been happy to ditch high-tax states like New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and California. …A New York couple filing jointly with $5 million in taxable income would save $394,931 in state income taxes by moving to Florida… If they had moved from Boston, they’d save $252,500; from Greenwich, Conn., they’d knock $342,700 off their tax bill. …Multimillionaires aren’t just moving their families south, they are taking their businesses with them, says Kelly Smallridge, president and CEO of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County. “We’ve brought in well over 70 financial-services firms” in the past few years, she says. “The higher the taxes, the more our phone rings.”

An article in the Wall Street Journal late last year explained how states such as Florida are big beneficiaries of tax migration.

David Tepper, Paul Tudor Jones and Barry Sternlicht are among the prominent transplants who have pulled up roots in New York, New Jersey or Connecticut in recent years for Florida. New Yorker Carl Icahn has said he is moving his company to Miami next year. …The loss of the super-wealthy isn’t just a matter of reputation. The exodus of billionaires can crimp state budgets. …The SALT cap has widened the gap between Florida and other states with no income tax, such as Wyoming, and New York City, where residents can owe income taxes at rates that approach 13%.

In a column for National Review, Kevin Williamson analyzes the trade-offs for successful people…and the implications for state budgets.

…one of the aspects of modern political economy least appreciated by the class-war Left: Rich people have options. …living in Manhattan or the nice parts of Brooklyn comes with some financial burdens, but for the cool-rich-guy set, the tradeoff is worth it. …metaphorically less-cool guys are in Florida. They have up and left the expensive, high-tax greater New York City metropolitan coagulation entirely. …Florida has a lot going for it…: Lower taxes, better governance, superior infrastructure… The question is not only the cost, but what you get for your money. Tampa is not as culturally interesting as New York City. …the governments of New York City and New York State both are unusually vulnerable to the private decisions of very wealthy households, because a relatively small number of taxpayers pays an enormous share of New York’s city and state taxes: 1 percent of New Yorkers pay almost half the taxes in the state, and they know where Florida is. New York City has seen some population loss in recent years, and even Andrew Cuomo, one of the least insightful men in American politics, understands that his state cannot afford to lose very many millionaires and billionaires. “God forbid if the rich leave,” he has said. New York lost $8.4 billion in income to other states in 2016 because of relocating residents.

Earlier in 2019, the WSJ opined on the impact of migration on state budgets.

Democrats claim they can fund their profligate spending by taxing the rich, but affluent New Yorkers are now fleeing to other states. The state’s income-tax revenue came in $2.3 billion below forecast for December and January. Mr. Cuomo blamed the shortfall on the 2017 federal tax reform’s $10,000 limit on state-and-local tax deductions. But the rest of the country shouldn’t have to subsidize New York’s spending, and Mr. Cuomo won’t cut taxes.

To conclude, this cartoon cleverly captures the mentality of politicians in high-tax states.

Needless to say, grousing politicians in high-tax states have no legitimate argument. If they don’t provide good value to taxpayers, they should change policies rather than whining about out-migration.

By the way, this analysis also applies to analysis between nations. Why, for instance, should successful people in France pay so much money to their government when they can move to Switzerland and get equivalent services at a much-lower cost.

Heck, why move to Switzerland when you can move to places where government provides similar services at even lower cost (assuming, of course, that anti-tax competition bureaucracies such as the OECD don’t succeed in their odious campaign to thwart the migration of people, jobs, and money between high-tax nations and low-tax nations).

P.S. If you want to see how states rank for tax policy, click hereherehere, and here.

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Image credit: DonkeyHotey | CC BY 2.0.

The Federal Government’s Harassment of Oracle

Fri, 01/10/2020 - 12:41pm

Regulatory policy has been one of the bright spots of the Trump Administration (along with tax policy).

But it’s not a perfect record.

In a column for Townhall, Steve Sherman describes how the Labor Department launched a regulatory attack against Oracle in the final days of the Obama Administration.

President Obama was not a good president, but he was really good at issuing midnight regulations… Obama’s army of left-wing lawyers were also busy writing up last minute lawsuits… President Obama’s administration went after the tech companies Palantir, Google, then Oracle by alleging discrimination using statistics gathered as part of routine audits of these government contractors. In all of these suits, no actual evidence of discrimination was presented, merely statistics gathered that claimed to prove discrimination. This type of evidence would be tossed out in a real court, but with these suits, they were handled administratively and internally at the Department of Labor. …Oracle was so outraged by continued harassment that they fought back and sued the federal government for violating the Constitution’s separation of powers arguing that the lawsuits statutory authority.

So why am I criticizing the Trump Administration for regulatory harassment that was launched under Obama?

For the simple reason that some of Trump’s appointees have allowed the assault to continue, as former Congressman Bob Barr explained for the Daily Caller.

The Trump administration has performed admirably in reducing the regulatory red tape that has strangled American businesses… But for reasons not entirely clear, the Department of Labor has lagged behind other agencies in this regard. One clear example is the way the department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) has continued unnecessary and counterproductive Obama-era litigation against tech companies… In a 2017 study, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce…set forth in extensive detail that the OFCCP in recent years had become enamored of faulty, statistics-based challenges to companies engaged in federal contracts… A number of lawsuits reflecting this abusive approach to regulatory enforcement were filed against large tech companies in the waning months of the Obama administration. …the Department of Labor sued…, just two days before President Trump was sworn in, Oracle. …the Labor Department instead has become…a regulatory bully searching for ways to punish companies. …Hopefully, …Donald Trump and Eugene Scalia…will step in and make sure that the small but powerful agency…gets on board the administration’s drive to actually reduce federal regulatory burdens

The Washington Post has some details on the dispute between Oracle and the federal government.

…the Labor Department…alleges Oracle, the database management company founded by billionaire Larry Ellison, paid some women as much as 20 percent less than their male peers, or $37,000, in 2016. The lawsuit was filed by the department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which audits companies with government contracts worth more than $100 million a year. …The hearing in San Francisco has broad significance for the tech industry because the allegations against Oracle are similar to the department’s claims that other tech giants, including Google and Palantir, exercised systemic bias against minority and female employees in hiring, pay or promotion. …Oracle’s lawyer argued that the Labor Department’s expert witness compared employees based on broad job titles and failed to take into account that a software developer who worked on Oracle’s product PeopleSoft is valued differently in the market than developers who work on the artificial intelligence of machine learning. …The department claims Oracle’s college recruiting program hired 500 graduates between 2013 and 2016 for product development roles at its Redwood Shores, Calif., headquarters, 90 percent of whom were Asian. During the same period, Oracle only hired six black people through the recruitment program. …The agency argues that pay disparities stem from Oracle’s practice of…relying on prior salaries to set their pay at Oracle.

The key thing to understand is that the federal government is unable to find any victims of actual discrimination.

As the Wall street Journal opines, bureaucrats are relying on statistical differences.

Protecting the constitutional separation of powers is back in political fashion as more businesses challenge abuses of administrative agencies. One case worth watching is Oracle’s lawsuit arguing that the Labor Department has usurped the federal judiciary and other executive agencies. Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) filed a discrimination complaint against Oracle in the waning days of the Obama Administration. During a routine audit, the OFCCP in 2014 conducted a statistical analysis of Oracle’s workforce. And what do you know? The agency says it discovered disparities based on race and sex that it claimed were prima facie evidence of discrimination. …In sum, the agency said Oracle discriminated against every class of worker in one way or another. It demanded that Oracle lose current and forgo future federal contracts plus pay up to $400 million in restitution to its alleged victims. Yet its case all but collapsed at an administrative trial this month. The Labor office presented no evidence of intentional discrimination or even witnesses who claimed as much. …Oracle is suing the OFCCP for violating the Administrative Procedure Act and separation of powers. …the agency investigates, prosecutes, tries and punishes businesses even though it has no legislative authority to do so.

I’ll close by citing Thomas Sowell’s column for Jewish World Review on how “disparate impact” is basically a scam.

“Disparate impact” statistics have for decades been used, in many different contexts, to claim that discrimination was the reason why different groups are not equally represented as employees or in desirable positions… The implicit assumption is that such statistics about particular outcomes would normally reflect the percentage of people in the population. But, no matter how plausible this might seem on the surface, it is seldom found in real life… Blacks are far more statistically “over-represented” among basketball stars in the NBA… Hispanics are similarly far more “over-represented” among baseball stars than in the general population. Asian Americans are likewise far more “over-represented” among students at leading engineering schools like M.I.T. and Cal Tech than in the population as a whole. None of this is peculiar to the United States. You can find innumerable examples of such group disparities in countries around the world and throughout recorded history.

Sowell isn’t just theorizing.

He wrote a thoroughly researched book on exactly this issue.

The bottom line is that groups – on average – sometimes have different interests and aptitudes.

Walter Williams observed about ten years ago that, “Not every choice based on race represents racism and if you think so, you risk misidentifying and confusing human behavior.”

And there’s no evidence that Oracle even made decisions based on race to begin with.

So the bureaucrats at the Department of Labor are using bad methodology to harass and extort a company.

Left-leaning administrations have a track record of pushing bad policies on their way out of office, so I’m not surprised the Obama Administration launched the attack on Oracle. But I am surprised that the Trump Administration has allowed the legal assault against the company to continue.

P.S. While I normally don’t think the federal government should have any power to interfere with regards to market outcomes for hiring, pay, promotion, and association, it’s legitimate for Uncle Sam to put conditions on companies that bid on federal contracts. I just wish they would fight actual examples of bias, not mere statistical differences.

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Image credit: wp paarz | CC BY-SA 2.0.

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