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Updated: 37 min 24 sec ago

The OECD Urges a Big Energy Tax on American Families

Fri, 09/11/2020 - 12:12pm

It’s not easy to identify the worst international bureaucracy.

As you can see, it’s hard to figure out which bureaucracy is the worst.

I’ve solved this dilemma by allowing a rotation. Today, the OECD is at the top of my list.

That’s because the top tax official at that Paris-based bureaucracy, Pascal Saint-Amans, has a new article about goals for future tax policy.

…policy flexibility and agility may be what is needed to help restore confidence. …Governments should seize the opportunity to build a greener, more inclusive and more resilient economy. Rather than simply returning to business as usual, the goal should be to “build back better” and address some of the structural weaknesses that the crisis has laid bare.

So how do we get a “more resilient economy” with less “structural weakness”?

According to the bureaucrats at the OECD, we achieve that goal with higher taxes. I’m not joking. Here are some additional excerpts.

Today, taxes on polluting fuels are nowhere near the levels needed… Seventy percent of energy-related CO2 emissions from advanced and emerging economies are entirely untaxed.

Here’s a chart from the article showing how nations supposedly are under-taxing energy use.

But it’s not just energy taxes.

The OECD wants a bunch of other tax increases, including a digital tax deal that specifically targets America’s high-tech firms.

It’s also disturbing that the bureaucrats want higher taxes on “personal capital income,” particularly since even economists at the OECD have specifically warned that those types of taxes are particularly harmful to prosperity.

Fair burden sharing will also be central going forward. …consideration should be given to strengthening…social protection in the longer run. …Governments will need to find alternative sources of revenues. The taxation of property and personal capital income will have an important role to play… Rising pressure on public finances as well as increased demands for fair burden sharing should provide new impetus for reaching an agreement on digital taxation.

By the way, “social protection” is OECD-speak for redistribution spending. In other words, “fair burden sharing” means a bigger welfare state financed by ever-higher taxes.

The bureaucrats apparently think we should all be like Greece and Italy.

I want to close by revisiting the topic of environmental taxation. If you peruse the above chart, you’ll see that the OECD wants all nations to impose (at a minimum) a €30-per-ton tax on carbon.

What would that imply for American taxpayers? Well, if we extrapolate from estimates by the Tax Policy Center and Tax Foundation, that would be a tax increase of more than $400-per-year for every man, woman, and child in the United States. That’s $1600 of additional tax for each family of four.

P.S. The OECD has traditionally tailored its analysis to favor Democrats, but even I am surprised that Saint-Amans used the Biden campaign slogan of “build back better” in his column. I’m sure that was no accident. The bureaucrats at the OECD must be quite confident that Biden will win. Or they must feel confident that Republicans will be too stupid to exact any revenge if Trump prevails (probably a safe assumption since Republicans gave the bureaucracy lots of American tax dollars even after a top OECD official compared Trump to Hitler).

P.P.S. To add insult to injury, OECD bureaucrats get tax-free salaries, so they have a special exemption from the bad policies they want for the rest of us.

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Image credit: OECD Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The Best and Worst Fiscal Policies of Trump’s Presidency

Thu, 09/10/2020 - 12:26pm

With the election less than two months away, there’s a lot of discussion and debate about Trump’s performance.

put together a report card last year showing that his economic policies have been a mixed bag, with good grades on tax and regulation, but bad grades on trade and spending.

Today, let’s focus specifically on fiscal issues and try to identify the best and worst changes that have occurred during his presidency.

Let’s start with the good news.

For what it’s worth, I’m somewhat conflicted between two different provisions of the 2017 tax reform.

I’m a huge fan of the cap on the state and local tax deduction. For years, I had been arguing that it was very foolish for the federal tax system to subsidize high-tax states.

So I was delighted that the 2017 law restricted this subsidy (and I’m further delighted that we’re already seeing a positive impact with people “voting with their feet” against states such as New York, Illinois, and California).

However, that reform is not permanent. Like many other provisions of that law, it automatically expires at the end of 2025.

Which is why I’m going to choose the lower corporate tax rate as Trump’s best policy. Not only is that reform permanent (at least until/unless Joe Biden takes office), but it was enormously important for American competitiveness since the United States used to have the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world.

And the rate is still too high today, especially if you include the impact of state corporate tax rates, but at least the 2017 reform took a big step in the right direction.

And that big step is good news for jobs, wages, investment, and competitiveness.

Now for the bad news.

I could make the case that Trump’s overall spending increase is the problem.

Indeed, in a column for Reason, Matt Welch points out that Trump has not been a fiscal conservative.

The most traditional way to measure the size of government is to count how much money it spends. In Barack Obama’s last full fiscal year of 2016…, the federal government spent $3.85 trillion… In fiscal year 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic triggered a record amount of spending, the federal government was on course to cough up $4.79 trillion… So under Trump’s signature, before any true crisis hit, the annual price tag of government went up by $937 billion in less than four years—more than the $870 billion price hike Obama produced in an eight-year span… You can argue plausibly that Joe Biden and the Democratic Party will grow the government more. But the fact is, the guy railing against socialism…has grown spending faster than his predecessor and shown considerably less interest in confronting the entitlement bomb.

All of this is true, but I want to focus on specific policies, not just the overall spending performance.

Which is why I would argue that Trump’s worst fiscal policy is captured by this table from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

It shows what Trump promised compared to what he delivered and I’ve highlighted his awful record on non-defense discretionary spending (which is basically domestic spending other than entitlements). He promised $750 billion of reductions over 10 years and instead he saddled the American economy with $700 billion of additional increases.

P.S. Click here if you want background info on the different types of federal spending. But all you probably need to know is that many parts of the federal government that shouldn’t exist (Department of EducationDepartment of AgricultureDepartment of Housing and Urban DevelopmentDepartment of Transportation, etc) get much of their funding from the non-defense discretionary budget.

P.P.S. Trump has failed to address entitlements, which is reckless, but that’s a sin of omission. The increase in non-defense discretionary is a sin of commission.

P.P.P.S. I also thought about listing Trump’s failure to follow through on his proposal to get rid of taxpayer subsidies for the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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

Evidence for Charter Schools

Wed, 09/09/2020 - 12:11pm

I’m a huge fan of school choice. Simply stated, private schools deliver far superior results for children compared to costly and bureaucratic government schools.

Moreover, given the way minorities are poorly served by the status quo, school choice should be the civil rights issue of the 21st century.

But what about charter schools, which are hybrid creatures. They’re government schools, but they’re largely independent of bureaucratic constraints, and they also have to compete for students, which means they face similar incentives and get to operate in a similar fashion to private schools.

I’ve never analyzed the degree to which these schools are successful, but I remember being stunned when I was writing last year about “National Education Week” and saw a map showing the incredibly high demand for charter schools from parents in poor areas of Washington, DC.

What did those parents know that I didn’t know?

Well, it turns out that they must know that charter schools are a much better option than regular government schools.

There’s some new research, just published by Education Next, by Professor Paul Peterson and Danish Shakeel of Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance that looks at the comparative performance of charter schools.

Here’s a description of the study’s methodology.

…we track changes in student performance at charter and district schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests reading and math skills of a nationally representative sample of students every other year. We focus on trends in student performance from 2005 through 2017 to get a sense of the direction in which the district and charter sectors are heading. We also control for differences in students’ background characteristics. This is the first study to use this information to compare trend lines. Most prior research has compared the relative effectiveness of the charter and district sectors at a single point in time.

They wanted to investigate this topic because charter schools are increasingly popular.

School systems in 43 states and the District of Columbia now include charter schools, and in states like California, Arizona, Florida, and Louisiana, more than one in 10 public-school students attend them. In some big cities, those numbers are even larger: 45 percent in Washington, D.C., 37 percent in Philadelphia, and 15 percent in Los Angeles. Nationwide, charter enrollment tripled between 2005 and 2017, with the number of charter students growing from 2 percent to 6 percent of all public-school students. …one in three charter students is African American.

Here are the results.

As you can see, charter schools are attracting more students because parents want better outcomes.

Our analysis shows that student cohorts in the charter sector made greater gains from 2005 to 2017 than did cohorts in the district sector. The difference in the trends in the two sectors amounts to nearly an additional half-year’s worth of learning. The biggest gains are for African Americans and for students of low socioeconomic status attending charter schools. …The average gains by 4th- and 8th-grade charter students are approximately twice as large as those by students in district schools.

Here are the relevant charts from the study.

Here’s a chart showing that charter schools produce bigger gains in both math and reading, whether looking at students in 4th grade or 8th grade.

The next chart shows that black student are big beneficiaries when they can choose something other than a traditional government school

Last, but not least, our final visual looks at the gains for disadvantaged students.

This is all good news.

But there’s also some bad news.

Joe Biden wants to curry favor with teacher unions and that means he has come out against charter schools and other reforms that threaten the existing education monopoly.

This puts him to the left of Obama on this issue (as is the case on many issues). Heck, he’s also to the left of the Washington Post.

So if Biden wins, this could be very bad news for poor kids that don’t have any other educational alternatives.

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

New York City’s Spending Problem

Tue, 09/08/2020 - 12:08pm

New York is in trouble from bad economic policy, especially excessive taxing and spending.

This is one of the reasons why there’s been a steady exodus of taxpayers from the Empire State.

The problem is especially acute for New York City, which has been suffering from Mayor Bill De Blasio’s hard-left governance.

To be sure, not all of the city’s problems are self-inflicted. The 2017 tax reform removed the IRS loophole for state and local tax payments, which means people living in places such as NYC no longer can artificially lower their tax liabilities. And the coronavirus hasn’t helped, either, particularly since Governor Cuomo bungled the state’s response.

The net result of bad policy and bad luck is that New York City has serious economic problems. And this leads, as one might expect, to serious fiscal problems.

What’s surprising, however, is that the normally left-leaning New York Times actually wrote an editorial pointing out that fiscal restraint is the only rational response.

New York is facing…a budget hole of more than $5 billion… Mayor Bill de Blasio has asked the State Legislature to give him the authority to borrow… But borrowing to meet operating expenses is especially hazardous. Cities that do so over and over again are at greater risk of the kind of bankruptcy faced by New York in the late 1970s and Detroit in 2013. …Before Mr. de Blasio adds billions to the city’s debt sheet…he needs to find savings. …The city’s budget grew under Mr. de Blasio, to $92 billion last year from about $73 billion in 2014, his first year in office. Complicating matters, the mayor has hired tens of thousands of employees over his tenure, adding significantly to the city’s pension and retirement obligations. …the mayor will have to be creative, make unpopular decisions and demand serious cost-saving measures… One way to begin is with a far stricter hiring freeze. …The mayor will need to do something he has rarely been able to: ask the labor unions to share in the sacrifice. …There are other cuts to be made.

Wow, this may be the first sensible editorial from the New York Times since it called for abolishing the minimum wage in 1987.*

Mayor De Blasio, needless to say, doesn’t want any form of spending restraint. Depending on the day, he either wants to tax-and-spend or borrow-and-spend.

Both of those approaches are misguided.

Kristin Tate explained in a column for the Hill that the middle class suffers most when class-warfare politicians such as De Blasio impose policies that penalize the private sector.

Finance giant JPMorgan is…slowly relocating many of its operations and jobs to lower tax locations in Ohio, Texas, and Delaware. The Lone Star State currently hosts 25,000 of its employees, and Texas will likely surpass the New York portion in coming years. The resulting move will harm the middle earners of New York far more than that of the wealthy… The exodus is part of a trend sweeping traditionally Democratic states over the last several years. …A whopping 1,800 businesses left California in 2016 alone, while manufacturing firm Honeywell moved its headquarters from New Jersey to greener pastures in North Carolina. …the primary losers in this formula are middle class workers. Between the loss of jobs and revenue, these states and cities press even harder on millions of middle income taxpayers to make up the difference. …Many of the Democrats…who are in charge of the blue state economic models…love to preach that their proposals will make the economy fairer by targeting the most productive members of their states and cities. However, the encompassing butterfly effect spells bad news for people like you and me. Every time you vote for a proposition or a candidate promising a repeat of bad policy, just remember that it will ultimately be the middle class that will pay the largest share.

My contribution to this discussion is to point out that New York City’s fiscal problems are the entirely predictable result of politicians spending too much money over an extended period of time.

In other words, they violated my Golden Rule.

Indeed, the burden of government spending has climbed more than three times faster than inflation during De Blasio’s time in office.

If this story sounds familiar, that’s because excessive spending is the cause of every fiscal crisis (as I’ve noted when writing about CyprusAlaskaIrelandAlbertaGreecePuerto RicoCalifornia, etc).

My final observation is that New York City’s current $5 billion budget shortfall would be a budget surplus of more than $6 billion if De Blasio and the other politicians had adopted a spending cap back in 2015 and limited budget increases to 2 percent annually.

*The New York Times also endorsed the flat tax in 1982, so there have been rare outbursts of common sense.

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Image credit: Bill de Blasio | CC BY-SA 2.0.

Unions and Labor Day: The Divergent Interests of Government Bureaucrats and Private-Sector Workers

Mon, 09/07/2020 - 12:05pm

Way back in early 2017, I warned in an interview that Trump would be a big spender (sadly, I was right). But I wasn’t being reflexively anti-Trump.

Here’s a clip from that same program where I speculated that Trump might have the political skill to win support from private-sector union workers.

In honor of Labor Day, let’s elaborate on this topic.

I’ll start with the political observation that Trump seems to do much better than other Republicans at getting support from working-class voters. Even workers who belong to unions (much to the dismay of their left-leaning leadership) appear to be disproportionately sympathetic.

Though it’s important to emphasize, as I said in the interview, the distinction between government bureaucrat unions and private-sector unions.

The unions that represent government employees have an incentive to lobby for bigger government since that means more lavishly paid members paying more dues. So those unions reflexively support higher taxes, more spending, and additional red tape.

Yet those are the policies that undermine private-sector job creation and reduce the competitiveness of companies operating in America. And that’s bad for all private workers – including those that belong to unions.

Which is why I speculated in the interview whether Trump would have the “political cunning” to convince those private-sector union members that their interests are not the same as those of bureaucrats.

I guess we’ll see on election day.

By the way, I have very mixed feelings on Trump’s strategy. Some of his policies are good (lower taxes and less red tap), but he also tries to appeal to union workers with policies that are bad (most notably, protectionism).

P.S. Feel free to enjoy some good cartoons mocking unionized bureaucrats by clicking hereherehere, and here.

P.P.S. I often tell my Republican friends that they’ll have more success appealing to private-sector union members if they come across as pro-market (which implies neutrality between employers and employees) rather than pro-business (which implies siding with employers).

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Image credit: Alfred Palmer | Public Domain.

Israel’s Shift to Private Social Security

Sun, 09/06/2020 - 12:50pm

What’s the best economic news of the past 40 years?

Those are all good choices, but let’s not overlook Israel.

This chart from Economic Freedom of the World shows that economic freedom dramatically expanded in that nation between 1980 and 2000 (and has since gradually risen).

Israel’s shift away from the voluntary socialism of the kibbutz has paid big dividends. The nation has become far more prosperous.

I’ve already written how Israel benefited from supply-side reduction in tax rates.

Today, let’s learn about the country’s shift to private social security.

To find out what happened, let’s look at some excerpts from an article in Economics and Business Review. Authored by Moshe Manor and Joanna Ratajczak, it starts by observing there’s been a global shift to private social security systems.

The first paradigmatic shift towards a private pension system was performed in Chile in 1981 and had its followers in Latin America… The Chilean example inspired the World Bank to propose that such a shift should become a key element of the pension reform for postsocialist countries… The shift towards private pension schemes was assumed to meet demographic challenges and the secondary goals of the pension system, especially economic growth accomplished thanks to an acceleration of domestic savings.

This has been a very positive development for the countries that made the shift, by the way.

But let’s focus specifically on the reform in Israel. Here’s some of what the authors wrote.

Israel…abandoned a controlled economy and introduced the market economy only in the last three decades. …In the last 30 years Israel has faced many reforms of the pension system as part of broader economic reforms. …the stabilization programme allowed the Ministry of Finance (MOF) to start a series of structural changes, including pension reforms… The reasons for the reforms were not strictly economic but they also were based on neoliberal economic beliefs, political motives and international relations. …The USA feared Israel’s possible economic collapse and requested that the Israelis execute reforms designed according to Milton Friedman’s neoliberal principles in order to gain American economic support.

For what it’s worth, I’m in favor of “neoliberalism” when it’s defined as pro-market (which seems to be the case in many parts of the world).

Here’s a description of how the reform moved the country from a defined benefit model (often unfunded) to a funded defined contribution model.

The pension reforms were intended to stabilize the system and prepare it for the future difficulties such as ageing and poverty relief; they were also meant to develop the capital market and reduce the burden on the state budget. The main steps included introduction of the mandatory private pension pillar.. The reforms also eliminated PAYG for new joiners and turned the system from actuarially imbalanced, DB…to actuarially balanced, DC, privately managed and invested in capital markets. …The comparison of the reforms in Israel and those in Chile…shows a large similarity: shutting down the PAYG system to new joiners; a shift to funds which are privately managed, DC type, invested in capital markets system; a mandatory pension in the second pillar; development of the local capital markets using the pension accumulation; reduction of government involvement in pensions and of the burden on the state budget.. The main differences encompass low contribution rates in Chile that led to low net replacement rates, while in Israel the contribution rates and net replacement rates are high.

Oddly, the article never states how much of a worker’s paycheck goes to mandatory savings (i.e., the contribution rate).

So here’s a blurb from a recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Since January 2008, mandatory contributions have applied to earnings up to the national average wage for all employees… Initially the rates were modest with a total contribution of 2.5% but increased to 15% (5% from employees and 10% from employers) by 2013. In 2014 the contribution rate increased further to 17.5% (5.5% from employees and 12% from employers)and since January 2018 increased to 18.5% (6% from employees and 12.5% from employers). Six percentage points out of the employers’ contribution provides severance insurance which, if utilised, diminishes the pension.

That is a significantly higher level of mandated private savings when compared to countries such as Australia and Chile.

Sadly, the United States isn’t part of that conversation since we’re still stuck with our actuarially bankrupt Social Security scheme.

P.S. While researching this column, I read the OECD’s recent Survey about Israel’s economy. The bureaucrats in Paris groused that there’s a lot of inequality and poverty in that country.

This set of data perfectly illustrates why the OECD is an untrustworthy and biased bureaucracy.

As noted by my Eighth Theorem of Government, it should focus on economic growth to reduce poverty rather than fixating on whether some people are getting richer faster than others are getting richer.

Speaking of which, the supposed poverty data doesn’t actually measure poverty. Instead, “relative poverty” is simply the share of people are below “50% of median household income,” which the OECD then dishonestly characterizes as a measure of poverty (this is how the OECD came up with the absurd claim that there’s more poverty in the United States than in comparatively poor countries such as Turkey and Portugal).

Ironically, the same OECD report admits that Israel is out-performing other developed nations.

Israel is growing faster, as you can see, while also reducing government debt at a time when it’s going up in other countries (I’m sure coronavirus has since wreaked havoc with the Israeli economy, but that’s also true for other OECD countries).

Yet the OECD can’t resist grousing about inequality and lying about poverty.

P.P.S. Shifting back to social security reform, here are some of the other nations (beside Israel, Chile, and Australia) that now benefit from private savings instead of empty political promises: DenmarkSwitzerlandHong KongNetherlandsFaroe Islands, and Sweden.

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Image credit: 401(K) 2012 | CC BY-SA 2.0.

Why Did South Korea Diverge from Brazil?

Sat, 09/05/2020 - 12:54pm

Traditional economics, specifically convergence theory, tells us that poor nations should grow faster than rich nations.

I’m more interested, however, in why convergence often doesn’t happen, or only partially happens.

And I’m extremely interested in why we often see divergence, which occurs when two countries are at a similar level of development, but then one grows much faster than the other.

Let’s consider the example of Brazil vs, South Korea.  Otaviano Canuto has an interesting article, published by the Center for Macroeconomics and Development, that looks at how the two countries have diverged over the past 50 years.

Here’s the chart that depicts the dramatic difference.

The author analyzes many of the reasons that South Korea has enjoyed faster growth.

It’s especially worth noting that Brazil’s protectionism has been self-defeating.

The “middle-income trap” has captured many developing countries: they succeeded in evolving from low per capita income levels, but then appeared to stall, losing momentum along the route toward the higher income levels… Such a trap may well characterize the experience of Brazil and most of Latin America since the 1980s. Conversely, South Korea maintained its pace of evolution, reaching a high-income status… The path from low- to middle- and then to high-income per capita corresponds to increasing the shares of population moved from subsistence activities to simple modern tasks and then to sophisticated ones. …South Korea relied extensively on international trade to accelerate their labor transfer by inserting themselves into the labor-intensive segments of global value chains… with the “helping winners and saving losers” of Brazil’s industrial policies…, the temptation to use surpluses to accumulate wealth in ways to maximize frontiers of interaction with the public sector prevails… Brazil’s long-standing high levels of trade protection and closure also favored such an option… The Brazilian economy pays a price in terms of productivity foregone because of its lack of trade openness.

As a big fan of trade, I obviously agree with this analysis.

But I also think that’s not the full story.

If you compare the scores the two countries get from the most-recent edition of Economic Freedom of the World, you’ll find that South Korea scores better on trade.

But you’ll also notice that there are much bigger gaps when looking at scores for size of government, legal system and property rights, and regulation (and the gaps for the latter two indices have existed for decades).

The bottom line is that there are many policy reasons why Brazil lags behind South Korea.

So if Brazil wants to break out of the “middle-income trap,” it needs to follow the tried-and-true recipe for growth and prosperity (what used to be known as the “Washington Consensus“).

P.S. And that means ignoring poisonous advice from the International Monetary Fund and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Even after the Coronavirus Spending Spree, It’s Simple to Balance the Budget Without Tax Increases

Fri, 09/04/2020 - 12:17pm

There are two reasons why I generally don’t write much about government debt.

  • First, red ink is not desirable, but it’s mostly just the symptom of the far more important problem of excessive government spending.
  • Second, our friends on the left periodically try to push through big tax increases by hypocritically exploiting anxiety about red ink.

The one thing I can state with full certainty, however, is that tax increases are guaranteed to make a bad situation worse.

We’ll get a weaker economy (perhaps much weaker since the left is now fixated on pushing for the kinds of tax increases that do the most damage).

Equally worrisome, the biggest impact of a tax increase is that politicians won’t feel any need to control spending or reform entitlements. Indeed, it’s quite likely that they’ll respond to the expectation of higher revenue by increasing the spending burden.

To complicate matters further, any tax increase probably won’t generate that much additional revenue because of the Laffer Curve.

All of which explains why budget deals that include tax increases usually lead to even higher budget deficits.

This analysis is very timely and relevant since advocates of bigger government somehow claim that the new fiscal forecast from the Congressional Budget Office is proof that we need new taxes.

So I’m doing the same thing today I did back in January (and last August, and in January 2019, and many times before that starting back in 2010). I’ve crunched the numbers to see what sort of policies would be needed to balance the budget without tax increases.

Lo and behold, you can see from this chart that we wouldn’t need draconian spending cuts. All that’s needed for fiscal balance is to limit spending so that it grows slightly less than 1 percent per year (and this analysis even assumes that they get to wait until 2022 before imposing a cap on annual spending increases).

To be sure, politicians would not want to live with that kind of limit on their spending. So I’m not optimistic that we’ll get this type of policy in the near future.

Especially since the major parties are giving voters a choice between big-spender Trump and big-spender Biden.

But the last thing that we should do is worsen the nation’s fiscal outlook by acquiescing to higher taxes.

P.S. It’s worth noting that there was a five-year nominal spending freeze between 2009 and 2014 (back when the Tea Party was influential), so it is possible to achieve multi-year spending restraint in Washington.

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Image credit: pxhere | CC0 Public Domain.

Is America Approaching the Tipping Point of Too Much Debt?

Thu, 09/03/2020 - 12:02pm

Yesterday, the Congressional Budget Office released updated budget projections. The most important numbers in that report show what’s happening with the overall fiscal burden of government – measured by both taxes and spending.

As you can see, there’s a big one-time spike in coronavirus-related spending this year. That’s not good news, but more worrisome is the the longer-run trend of government spending gradually climbing as a share of economic output (and the numbers are significantly worse if you look at CBO’s 30-year projection).

Most reporters and fiscal wonks overlooked the spending data, however, and instead focused on the CBO’s projection for government debt.

Since government spending is the problem and borrowing is merely a symptom of that problem, I think it’s a mistake to fixate on red ink.

That being said, Figure 3 from the CBO report shows that there’s also an upward-spike in federal debt.

And it is true (remember Greece) that high levels of debt can, by themselves, produce a crisis. This happens when investors suddenly stop buying government bonds because they think there’s a risk of default (which happens when a government is incapable or unwilling to make promised payments to lenders).

I think some nations are on the verge of having that kind of crisis, most notably Italy.

But what about the United States? Or Japan? And how’s the outlook for Europe’s welfare states?

In other words, what nations are approaching a tipping point?

new study from the European Central Bank may help answer these questions. Authored by Pablo Burriel, Cristina Checherita-Westphal, Pascal Jacquinot, Matthias Schön, and Nikolai Stähler, it uses several economic models to measure the downside risks of excessive debt.

The 2009 global financial and economic crisis left a legacy of historically high levels of public debt in advanced economies, at a scale unseen during modern peace time. …The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is a different type of shock that has dramatically affected global economic activity… Fiscal positions are projected to be strongly hit by the crisis…once the crisis is over and the recovery firmly sets in, keeping public debt at high levels over the medium term is a source of vulnerability… The main objective of this paper is to contribute to the stabilisation vs. sustainability debate in the euro area by reviewing through the lens of large scale DSGE models the economic risks associated with regimes of high public debt.

Here’s what they found, none of which should be a surprise.

…we evaluate the economic consequences of high public debt using simulations with three DSGE models… Our DSGE simulations also suggest that high-debt economies…can lose more output in a crisis…have less scope for counter-cyclical fiscal policy and…are adversely affected in terms of potential (long-term) output, with a significant impairment in case of large sovereign risk premia reaction and use of most distortionary type of taxation to finance the additional public debt burden in the future.

Here’s a useful chart from the study. It shows some sort of shock on the left (2008 financial crisis or coronavirus being obvious examples), which then produces a recession (lower GDP) and rising debt.

That outcome isn’t good for nations with “low” levels of debt, but it can be really bad for nations with “high” debt burdens because they have to deal with much higher interest payments, much bigger tax increases, and much bigger reductions in economic output.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think the study actually gives us any way of determining which nations are near the tipping point. That’s because “low” and “high” are subjective. Japan has an enormous amount of debt, yet investors don’t think there’s any meaningful risk that Japan’s government will default, so it is a “low” debt nation for purposes of the above illustration.

By contrast, there’s a much lower level of debt in Argentina, but investors have almost no trust in that nation’s especially venal politicians, so it’s a “high” debt nation for purposes of this analysis.

The United States, in my humble opinion, is more like Japan. As I wrote last year, “We probably won’t even have a crisis in the next 10 years or 20 years.” And that’s still my view, even after all the spending and debt for coronavirus.

The study concludes with some common-sense advice about using spending restraint and pro-market reforms to create buffers (some people refer to this as “fiscal space“).

Overall, once the COVID-19 crisis is over and the economic recovery firmly re-established, further efforts to build fiscal buffers in good times and mitigate fiscal risks over the medium term are needed at the national level. Such efforts should be guided by risks to debt sustainability. High debt countries, in particular, should implement a mix of fiscal discipline and wide-ranging growth-enhancing reforms.

Needless to say, there’s an obvious and successful way of achieving this goal.

P.S. Here’s another chart from the ECB study that is worth sharing because it confirms that not all tax increases do the same amount of economic damage.

We see that consumption taxes (red line) are bad, but income taxes on workers (green line) are even worse.

And if the study included an estimate of what would happen if there were higher income taxes on saving and investment, there would be another line showing even more economic damage.

P.P.S. History shows that nations can reduce very large debt burdens if they follow my Golden Rule.

P.P.P.S. There’s a related study from the IMF that shows how excessive spending is a major warning sign that nations will be vulnerable to fiscal crisis.

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Image credit: Andy Withers | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Two Rivals for the Politician of the Year Award

Wed, 09/02/2020 - 12:47pm

Back in July, I asked “Why are there so many bad and corrupt people in government?” and suggested two possible explanations.

  1. Shallow, insecure, and power-hungry people are drawn to politics because they want to control the lives of others.
  2. Good people run for political office, but then slowly but surely get corrupted because of “public choice” incentives.

Both answers are correct, of course. The real debate is whether one type dominates (based on decades of up-close interaction, I’m guessing there are more from category #1).

In any event, there are plenty of things to dislike about politicians. What’s especially galling is when they decide they don’t have to abide by the laws and regulations they impose on the rest of us.

Consider, for example, the oleaginous example of Nancy Pelosi. The Speaker of the House apparently feels she doesn’t have to obey the rules imposed on everyone else.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited a San Francisco hair salon on Monday afternoon for a wash and blow-out, despite local ordinances keeping salons closed amid the coronavirus pandemic… In security footage…, the California powerhouse is seen walking through eSalon in San Francisco with wet hair, and without a mask over her mouth or nose. …Salons in San Francisco had been closed since March and were only notified they could reopen on Sept. 1 for outdoor hairstyling services only. Salon owner Erica Kious…cast Pelosi’s visit as a double standard. “It was a slap in the face that she went in, you know, that she feels that she can just go and get her stuff done while no one else can go in, and I can’t work,”…Kious told Fox News that she had expected to be able to reopen her salon in July, and prepared her space in accordance with local guidelines. “There were rules and regulations to go by to safely reopen, which I did, but I was still not allowed to open my business,” she said.

By the way, I can’t resist sharing this additional passage from the story.

“No one can last anymore,” she said. “I have also lost 60 percent of my clientele because everyone is fleeing the city.”

I’ll simply add that there are good reasons to escape San Francisco. And those reasons existed before the coronavirus.

But that’s just a start. There are also good reasons to leave California.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to the topic of repugnant politicians so we can see that that Pelosi isn’t the only hypocrite.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney also deserves attention for his two-faced behavior.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney publicly apologized on Monday after he was busted for sneaking across the border to enjoy a meal at a Maryland restaurant over the weekend. …in Philadelphia, indoor dining is still fully forbidden under restrictions imposed by the city government—the one that Kenney runs. …his do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do approach to COVID-19 undermines the legitimacy of the harsh restrictions Philadelphia has imposed on its own restaurant industry and demonstrates a callous disregard for how those policies have impacted the city’s residents and businesses. Kenney can drive across the border to Maryland easily, but a Philly bar can’t pick up and move to Delaware to escape the city’s lockdowns.

This online comment about Kenney’s hypocrisy is priceless.

By the way, Kenney is infamous for imposing a soda tax that hurt Philly merchants since consumers simply stocked up at stores outside the city. So at least he’s consistent in hurting all types of businesses.

In any event, both Pelosi and Kenney deserve consideration if there’s a 2020 Politician of the Year contest (previous contestants for that honor include D.C. Councilman Jack EvansPhilippines President Rodrigo DuterteMalaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, and French President Francois Hollande).

Or maybe we need a Hypocrite of the Year contest. Though normally that’s a honor reserved for rich politicians who advocate for higher taxes on ordinary people, yet figure out clever ways of protecting their own money (such as Joe BidenSenator Elizabeth WarrenSenator John KerryBill and Hillary ClintonCongressman Alan GraysonGovernor J.B. Pritzker, and Tom Steyer).

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

The Economic Benefits of Spending Restraint

Tue, 09/01/2020 - 12:32pm

If Donald Trump wins the 2020 election, I don’t expect any serious effort to rein in the burden of government spending.

And if Joe Biden wins the 2002 election, I don’t expect any serious effort to rein in the burden of government spending.

At the risk of understatement, this is rather unfortunate since fiscal policy in the United States is on a very worrisome path.

Thanks to demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs, the federal budget – assuming it is left on autopilot – is going to consume an ever-larger share of the nation’s economic output.

And that means fewer resources for the economy’s productive sector.

In a new study from the Hoover Institution, Professor John F. Cogan, Daniel L. Heil, and Professor John B. Taylor investigate the potential consequences of bigger government – and the potential benefits of spending restraint.

In this paper we consider an illustrative fiscal consolation proposal that restrains the growth in federal spending. The policy is to hold federal expenditures as a share of GDP at about the 20 percent ratio that prevailed before the pandemic hit. We estimate the policy’s impact using a structural macroeconomic model with price and wage rigidities and adjustment costs. The spending restraint avoids a potentially large increase in future federal taxes and prevents the outstanding debt relative to GDP from rising from its current level. The simulations show that the consolidation plan boosts short-run annual GDP growth by as much as 10 percent and increases long-run annual GDP growth by about 7 percent.

The authors believe that there will be some tax increases over the next few decades – an assumption that I fear will be accurate.

…our baseline assumes that future Congresses will enact tax increases to finance a portion of rising future federal spending. Specifically, we have assumed that Congress will finance half of the projected higher baseline outlays with higher tax rates. The tax rate increases are assumed to be gradually phased-in and are in the form of equi-proportionate increases in personal income tax rates, corporate income tax rates, and social insurance tax rates. Under these assumptions, tax rates will be about 20 percent higher in 2045 than in 2022.

Here are their projection over the next 25 years.

The authors then create an alternative scenario based on spending restraint, including entitlement reform.

To illustrate the potential positive impact of a fiscal consolidation plan on economic growth, we have chosen a stylized long-term budget policy that reduces the growth in federal spending, maintains federal tax rates at their current levels, and limits the outstanding federal debt relative to GDP to its pandemic high level. …the spending side of the plan has three essential elements. One, reductions in government spending from the baseline which come exclusively from permanent changes in entitlement programs; the principal source of the federal government’s long-term fiscal imbalance. …Two, the plan contains an immediate one-time reduction in entitlement program spending that permanently lowers the overall level of government spending. Three, the plan permanently reduces the growth in entitlement spending thereafter from this lower level.

They then estimate what happens to the fiscal burden of government if policy makers choose spending restraint instead of bigger government and tax increases.

In 2033, ten years from the initiation of the policy, total federal spending as a percent of GDP, including interest on the debt, would be 3.3 percent lower than baseline expenditures. In twenty years, it would be 5.7 percent lower. …the consolidation plan would maintain all federal tax rates.at their current statutory levels. …revenue as a share.. of GDP would rise slightly over time due to real bracket creep. Thus, the plan is designed to prevent the approximately 15 percent tax rate increases that are presumed in the budget baseline.

Here’s a chart from the study that shows how the burden of redistribution spending and social insurance programs is significantly smaller with the restraint approach.

Now we get to key results.

Cogan, Heil, and Taylor use a model of the U.S. economy to estimate what happens if there is spending restraint instead of bigger government.

Unsurprisingly, there’s more prosperity when there’s a smaller burden of spending.

The impact of the consolidation strategy is shown in Figure 4. Observe that there is a substantial increase in real GDP in the short run, and that this positive change occurs throughout the simulation through 2045. The short-run increase of about 0.5 percent in the first two years following the policy’s implementation amounts to about a 10 percent increase in the real GDP growth rate. Over the longer-term, GDP increases by about 3.7 percent after 25 years. This is equivalent to a 7 percent increase in the economy’s real growth rate.

This chart from the study shows the economic benefits of spending restraint.

These results are consistent with what other economists have produced.

Heck, even economists at left-leaning international bureaucracies such as OECDWorld Bank, and IMF have acknowledged that smaller government is better for prosperity.

P.S. The unanswered question, of course, is how to convince self-interested politicians to choose spending restraint instead of buying votes with other people’s money. A spending cap is probably a necessary but not sufficient condition (it’s an approach that has been very successful in SwitzerlandHong Kong, and Colorado – and which was recently adopted in Brazil).

P.P.S. Even small differences in economic growth have a significant long-run impact on living standards.

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Image credit: Bjoertvedt | CC BY-SA 3.

Principles of (Sensible) Taxation

Sat, 08/29/2020 - 12:06pm

Two weeks ago, I shared some video from a presentation to the New Economic School of Georgia (the country, not the state) as part of my “Primer on the Laffer Curve.”

Here’s that portion of that presentation that outlines the principles of sensible taxation.

Just in case you don’t want to watch me pontificate for nearly 14 minutes, here’s the slide from the presentation that most deserves attention since it captures the key principle of good tax policy.

Simply stated, the more you tax of something, the less you get of that thing.

By the way, I had an opportunity earlier this year to share some similar thoughts about the principles of sound tax policy with the United Nations’ High-Level Panel on Financial Accountability Transparency & Integrity.

Given my past interactions with fiscal people at the U.N., I’m not overflowing with optimism that the following observations with have an impact, but hope springs eternal.

The ideal fiscal environment is one that has a vibrant and productive economy that generates sufficient revenue with modest tax rates that do not needlessly penalize productive behavior. Public finance experts generally agree on the following features

  • Low marginal tax rates. A tax operates by increasing the “price” of whatever is being taxed. This is most obvious in the case of some excise taxes –such as levies on tobacco –where governments explicitly seek to discourage certain behaviors. …but there should be a general consensus in favor of keeping tax rates reasonable on the behaviors –work, saving, investment, risk-taking, and entrepreneurship –that make an economy more prosperous.
  • A “consumption-base.” Because of capital gains taxes, death taxes, wealth taxes, and double taxation of interest and dividends, many nations impose a disproportionately harsh tax burden on income that is saved and invested. This creates a bias against capital formation, which is problematical since every economic theory –including various forms of socialism –share the view that saving and investment are necessary for rising wages and higher living standards.
  • Neutrality. Special preferences in a tax system distort the relative “prices” of how income is earned or how income is spent. Such special tax breaks encourage taxpayers to make economically inefficient choices simply to lower their tax liabilities. Moreover, loopholes, credits, deductions, exemptions, holidays, exclusions, and other preferences reduce tax receipts, thus creating pressure for higher marginal tax rates, which magnifies the adverse economic impact.
  • Territoriality. This is the simple notion that governments should not tax activity outside their borders. If income is earned in Brazil, for instance, the Brazilian government should have the authority over how that income is taxed.The same should be true for all other nations.

By the way, “consumption-base” is simply the jargon used by public-finance economists when referring to a tax system that doesn’t impose double taxation (i.e., extra layers of tax on income that is saved and invested).

Here’s a flowchart I prepared showing the double taxation in the current system compared to what happens with a flat tax.

P.S. At the risk of understatement, it’s impossible to have a good tax system with a bloated public sector, which means it’s not easy to be optimistic about future fiscal policy in the United States.

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Image credit: Chris Tolworthy | CC BY 2.0.

The Case for Capitalism, Part III

Fri, 08/28/2020 - 12:36pm

Part I of this series featured Dan Hannan explaining how the emergence of capitalism led to mass prosperity, while Part II featured Madeline Grant explaining how competition and cooperation make markets so successful.

Today, in Part III, Andy Puzder compares capitalism with socialism.

The core theoretical argument in the video is that capitalism is based on serving the needs of consumers.

As captured by one of my favorite quotes from Professor Walter Williams, you only make yourself better off in a free market system by serving others.

In a socialist system, by contrast, the only people who get rich are the government elites who plunder the people.

I also like that the video explains that Nordic nations are not socialist. As I’ve also pointed out, there’s no government ownershipcentral planning, and price controls in nations such as Sweden and Denmark.

Those countries do have higher tax burdens and more costly welfare states, which is the main reason they generally rank below the United States in measures of national economic liberty.

More important, the larger fiscal burden in Scandinavia help to explain why Americans enjoy higher living standards.

Indeed, my one complaint about the above video is that it didn’t show any of the data about relative levels of prosperity.

Yes, I want people to understand that Nordic nations have market-based economies, but I also want them to understand that those countries could be significantly more prosperous with less-onerous fiscal policy.

The most powerful data in that regards comes from a Swedish researcher who put together data showing that Americans of Scandinavian descent are much richer than their counterparts who are still in Scandinavia.

So the moral of the story is not only that capitalism is better than socialism, but also that capitalist nations with medium-sized governments do better than capitalist nations with large-sized governments.

P.S. Needless to say, capitalist jurisdictions with small-sized government do best of all.

The Economic History of the 20th Century

Thu, 08/27/2020 - 12:29pm

It’s not often (actually, only once) that I share a video lasting nearly two hours. But this video – revolving around the intellectual rivalry between pro-market Hayek and pro-intervention Keynes – is an excellent summary of 20th-century economic policy.

We learn about the growth of socialism and communism during and after World War I.

This then led economists from the Austrian school – including Hayek – to explain why that approach (genuine socialism, meaning government ownershipcentral planning, and price controls) was doomed to failure.

But other forms of intervention and redistribution gained new adherents, especially when Keynes argued that the Great Depression was the fault of capitalism (for what it’s worth, I think the video fails to include analysis on how the New Deal actually lengthened and deepened the downturn).

Unfortunately, the Keynesian narrative dominated and the video informs us that the people of the United Kingdom voted for a socialist government when World War II ended. Which then led to the nationalization of the economy’s “commanding heights” and the enactment of the welfare state.

The United States didn’t veer as sharply to the left after the war, but there was no meaningful challenge to the the statist consensus that arose in the 1930s.

On the bright side, Germany rejected socialism by getting rid of price controls and allowing markets to flourish (the video overstated the degree to which a welfare state was imposed). But that was the exception to the rule. The world was gravitating to statism, including the developing world.

My favorite part of the video is that we learn about the creation of the Mont Pelerin Society and the emergence of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School.

That was the start of the laissez-faire counterrevolution. But it didn’t yield immediate results.

The left was in charge of economic policy from the end of the war through the 1970s in the USA and UK, regardless of which political party held power.

But bad policy sooner or later leads to bad results.

And that changed the political environment.

The latter part of the video tells the very happy story on how the sensible ideas of Hayek and Friedman eventually translated into the historic elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

If you watch the entire video, you’ll learn about how Reagan and Thatcher successfully overcame major challenges as they shifted their nations toward economic liberty (most notably, Reagan tamed inflation and Thatcher denationalized state-run companies).

And you’ll see that most of the world then followed – including the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

You even get some sympathetic quotes about capitalism from leftists such as Gordon BrownLarry Summers, and Jeffrey Sachs at the end of the video.

So it seems like a happy ending. And capitalism indeed was the dominant force in economic policy about 20 years ago when the video was released.

Sadly, the track record of the 21st century (Bush IIObama, and Trump) has not been overly favorable for believers in economic liberty.

America Still Needs Reaganism

Wed, 08/26/2020 - 12:17pm

I’m skeptical of “common-good capitalism” in the same way I’m suspicious about “nationalist conservatism” and “reform conservatism” (and it should go without saying that I didn’t like the “kinder-and-gentler conservatism” and “compassionate conservatism” we got from the Bushes).

Here’s what I prefer.

Whether you call it libertarianism or small-government conservatism, this is the approach I wish Republicans would follow (or Democrats, if the spirit of Grover Cleveland still exists in that party).

But there are many self-styled conservatives who disagree. They think Reagan and his successful policies are passé.

Interestingly, the desire to move beyond Reaganism comes from pro-Trump and anti-Trump outlets.

David Brooks, a never-Trumper with a column in the New York Times, thinks Reagan’s anti-government approach is misguided.

If you came of age with conservative values and around Republican politics in the 1980s and 1990s, you lived within a certain Ronald Reagan-Margaret Thatcher paradigm. It was about limiting government, spreading democracy abroad, building dynamic free markets at home and cultivating people with vigorous virtues… For decades conservatives were happy to live in that paradigm. But as years went by many came to see its limits. It was so comprehensively anti-government that it had no way to use government to solve common problems. …Only a return to the robust American nationalism of Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay and Theodore Roosevelt would do: ambitious national projects, infrastructure, federal programs to increase social mobility. The closest National Greatness Conservatism came to influencing the party was John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid. He was defeated by a man, George W. Bush, who made his own leap, to Compassionate Conservatism. …The Reformicons tried to use government to build strong families and neighborhoods. …Most actual Republican politicians rejected all of this. They stuck, mostly through dumb inertia, to an anti-government zombie Reaganism long after Reagan was dead and even though the nation’s problems were utterly different from what they were when he was alive. …there is a posse of policy wonks and commentators supporting a new Working-Class Republicanism… But if there is one thing I’ve learned over the decades, it is never to underestimate the staying power of the dead Reagan paradigm.

Maybe I’m just an “anti-government zombie,” but my response is to ask why Brooks thinks the federal government should be in charge of state and local infrastructure.

Even more important, it would be nice if he could identify a government program that successfully promotes social mobility. There are several hundred of them, so the fact that he doesn’t offer any examples is quite revealing.

By contrast, the Reagan approach of of free markets and limited government works anywhere and everywhere it is tried. And he was right that big government is bad government.

But at least Brooks’ column reminds me to add “national greatness conservatism” to my list of failed philosophical fads.

Now let’s shift to an article from the Trump-friendly American Conservative. Rod Dreher also argues that Reaganism is no longer relevant.

Reagan nostalgia has long been a bane of contemporary conservatism, because it prevented conservatives from recognizing how much the world has changed since the 1980s and how conservatism needed to change with it to remain relevant. …by the time Trump came down that escalator, Reagan conservatism was about as relevant to the real world as FDR’s New Deal liberalism was in 1980. It is no insult to Reagan to say so. Until Trump arrived on the scene, it was difficult for right-wing dissenters from orthodox Reaganism—critics of free trade, immigration skeptics, antiwar conservatives, and others—to break free of the margins to which establishment conservatives had exiled them. …It is impossible to see the clear outlines of a post-Trump future for the Republicans, but…Reaganism—the ideology of globalized free markets, social and religious conservatism, and American military and diplomatic domination—is never coming back.

Sadly, I don’t think Dreher is correct about “New Deal liberalism” being irrelevant.

How else, after all, would someone categorize Obama’s policies? Or Biden’s platform? It’s “We shall tax and tax, and spend and spend, and elect and elect,” just as FDR advisor Harry Hopkins stated.

And Reagan’s policies are definitely still relevant, at least if the goal is to improve the well-being of the American people.

Yes, Dreher is right that “the world has changed since the 1980s,” but that doesn’t mean that good policy in 1980 is no longer good policy in 2020.

I think the problem may be that people think Reaganomics is nothing more than lower tax rates, perhaps combined with a bit of inflation fighting. And it’s definitely true that Reagan’s tax rate reductions and his restoration of sound money were wonderful achievements.*

But the Reagan economic agenda was also about spending restraint, deregulation, trade liberalization (he got the ball rolling on NAFTA and the WTO), and other pro-market reforms.

To be sure, Reagan’s policy record wasn’t perfect. But the policies he preferred were the right ones to restore American prosperity in the 1980s.

And while there are different problems today (the need for entitlement reform, for instance), the Reaganite approach of smaller government is still the only good answer.

*Let’s also remember to applaud Reagan for the policies that resulted in the unraveling of the Soviet Empire.

P.S. As explained in the Fourth Theorem of Government, pro-growth, Reagan-style policy can be smart politics.

“Stakeholder Capitalism”: When Big Business Curries Favor from Big Government

Tue, 08/25/2020 - 12:10pm

Milton Friedman was one of the the 20th century’s greatest defenders of capitalism and individual freedom.

He had marvelous insights on issues such as fiscal policySwedentax competition, and other people’s money, but one of my favorite Friedman quotes is about the role of business.

This should be non-controversial, but we need to remember that big companies are not necessarily strong proponents of free enterprise.

Yes, they like lower tax rates and a few other market-oriented policies, but many large firms are more than happy to climb into bed with big government so they can gain special advantage from subsidies, handouts, bailouts, and protectionism.

So we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the trade association for corporate CEOs of has disavowed Friedman.

Business Roundtable is modernizing its principles on the role of a corporation. Since 1978, Business Roundtable has periodically issued Principles of Corporate Governance that include language on the purpose of a corporation. Each version of that document issued since 1997 has stated that corporations exist principally to serve their shareholders. …We therefore provide the following Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, which supersedes previous Business Roundtable statements and more accurately reflects our commitment… This statement represents only one element of Business Roundtable’s work to ensure more inclusive prosperity.

You can read the new language here. There’s only one pages of text and you’ll notice that it’s a lot of vapid jargon without any measurable commitments.

Indeed, the letter is so vague that some observers think it’s irrelevant.

In a column for the Washington Post, James Copland of the Manhattan Institute points out that profit-maximizing companies already consider the interests of so-called stakeholders.

Critics and supporters of business alike have characterized the statement as a major shift away from “shareholder” capitalism toward an alternative “stakeholder” model pushed by some progressive academics and policymakers. It isn’t. The Business Roundtable’s statement unequivocally states that “the free-market system is the best means of generating good jobs, a strong and sustainable economy, innovation, a healthy environment and economic opportunity for all.” To be sure, it proclaims that each of the chief executives signing on shares “a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders” — including customers, suppliers, employees and the broader community. But that’s a truism. No business can long survive without meeting such stakeholders’ needs. …The corporate signatories do not suggest in any way weakening the fiduciary duties of the boards and managers of ordinary for-profit shareholder corporations to manage such companies’ affairs for shareholders’ benefit. …there is a big difference between saying that a for-profit shareholder corporation should be sensitive to varying constituencies’ concerns and saying that its principal purpose is something different from the traditional view. One needn’t be an expert in public-choice economics or corporate governance to understand that politicizing corporate decision-making would be inefficient.

Lucian Bebchuk and Roberto Tallarita of Harvard Law School, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, share some real-world evidence that the CEOs are engaging in empty posturing.

Although the Roundtable described the statement as a radical departure from shareholder primacy, observers have been debating whether it signaled a significant shift in how business operates or was a mere public-relations move. …We contacted the companies whose CEOs signed the Business Roundtable statement and asked who was the highest-level decision maker to approve the decision. Of the 48 companies that responded, only one said the decision was approved by the board of directors. …The most plausible explanation for the lack of board approval is that CEOs didn’t regard the statement as a commitment to make a major change in how their companies treat stakeholders. …a review of the board-approved corporate governance guidelines of the companies whose CEOs joined the statement…mostly reflect a clear “shareholder primacy” approach. …The evidence is clear: Notwithstanding statements to the contrary, corporate leaders are generally still focused on shareholder value.

I think these two columns are accurate.

The vast majority of the CEOs who signed the Business Roundtable’s letter presumably have no intention of making unprofitable decisions solely to curry favor with the broader community.

That being said, the letter is still bad news because it basically acquiesces to the left’s misguided view that profits are somehow bad for society.

The Wall Street Journal made this point in an editorial in defense of the Friedman position.

The mucky-mucks of the Business Roundtable are tweeting in unison how “proud” they are to have abandoned the corporate purpose of serving shareholders for the more politically au courant “stakeholder” model. …media cheerleaders seem especially pleased that the CEOs have thrown the late, great economist Milton Friedman over the side. …The attempt to smear Friedman’s counsel as amoral is false. His point was that profitable businesses serve the common good better than executives who spend money on “social responsibility” but preside over business failure. The second point is Friedman’s warning that CEOs who put social responsibility above shareholders will find it redounds to their detriment. They feed the public belief that free markets and business are “wicked and immoral” and must be curbed by “external forces,” which typically means politicians.

In a column for National Review, Andrew Stuttaford also fears that the letter gives a green light to those who want more regulation by government.

The executives who retool a company’s mission to suit a particular conception of “social responsibility” are spending shareholders’ money on a moral agenda… Often repackaged as a demand that corporations be measured by the extent to which they match arbitrary and ever-tightening E (environmental), S (social), and G (governance) standards, it is now a way of corralling private enterprise without the bother of legislation. …the flourishing (and profitable) ecosystem that ESG investing has created…encompasses consultancies, advocacy organizations, “chief sustainability officers,” and many, many more rent-seekers besides. ESG is bad news for investors, but it is not a bad way of filling the wallets of those that feed off it. …In effect, therefore, many companies…will be forced to change the way they do business as they try to keep up with ever-more-stringent rules set not by democratically elected legislators but by the unaccountable, the ambitious, the greedy, and the fanatical.

Speaking of unaccountable and greedy, that’s a good description of Elizabeth Warren’s legislation to give Washington greater control of major companies.

Professor Greg Mankiw of Harvard opined about this issue last month for the New York Times.

If you open any standard economics textbook, such as one of mine, you will be told that a firm’s objective is to maximize profit. …Given the vast range of economic and political problems the world faces, this approach is often said to be too narrow. …former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.,…joined in the criticism. “It’s way past time we put an end to the era of shareholder capitalism, the idea the only responsibility a corporation has is with shareholders… They have a responsibility to their workers, their community, to their country.” …In forsaking a mandate of narrow self-interest for one of broad social welfare, this approach to corporate management sounds noble, perhaps even obvious. But it is more problematic under closer scrutiny. …this approach to corporate management expects executives to be broadly competent social planners rather than narrowly focused profit maximizers. It’s unlikely that corporate executives, with their business training and limited experience, have the skills to play this role well. …One lesson of Econ 101 is that the self-interested behavior of consumers and businesses, directed by market forces and constrained by competition, can lead to desirable outcomes.

In an op-ed earlier this year for the Wall Street Journal, Vivek Ramaswamy opined that he and his fellow CEOs should not have a special role in determining economic policy.

‘Stakeholder capitalism” is…the fashionable notion that companies should serve not only their shareholders, but also other interests and society at large. …My main problem with stakeholder capitalism is that it strengthens the link between democracy and capitalism at a time when we should instead disentangle one from the other. …Managers of corporations gain their positions by maximizing profits and minimizing losses. …But these business leaders have no special standing to decide whether a minimum wage for American workers is more important than full employment, or whether minimizing society’s carbon footprint is more important than raising prices on consumer goods. …I have no special standing to legislate my morals because I am a CEO. I do, however, make the final decision about our company’s research-and-development budget. …the reason many corporate executives are speaking up in favor of stakeholder capitalism is that they think they will gain popularity at a time when it is unpopular to be perceived as a pure capitalist. …Some may argue that companies will be more successful in serving shareholders over the long run if they also serve societal interests. If that’s true, then classical capitalism should do the job, since only companies that serve society will ultimately thrive, and “stakeholder capitalism” would be superfluous.

But some CEOs can’t resist the temptation.

The Wall Street Journal opined about the social-justice posturing of one of the the CEOs who signed the Business Roundtable’s letter.

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink…has assumed a role as self-styled conscience of the business world in telling CEOs how to run their companies. …BlackRock is the world’s largest asset manager, with some $7.43 trillion in client assets. He is now threatening to vote against corporate directors and management if they don’t do what he says, and he is especially exercised about climate change. …Corporations in which BlackRock invests will also have to comply with the rules from a “Sustainability Accounting Standards Board” on issues such as labor practices and workforce diversity. …Like his friends at the Business Roundtable, Mr. Fink is big on “stakeholder” capitalism. …If he means serving employees, customers, suppliers and communities, he is merely saying what any successful company already does. But our guess is that by stakeholders Mr. Fink really means regulators and politicians. …We can’t help but wonder if Mr. Fink, after a profitable life in business, is auditioning to be Treasury Secretary.

In an article for the Foundation for Economic Education, Professor T. Norman Van Cott makes the all-important point that successful companies automatically generate benefits for people other than shareholders.

The marketplace is an arena where buyers and sellers both win. Do buyers and sellers really care about each other? …I sure am grateful that I don’t have to depend on the good-heartedness of Florida orange producers to send oranges to Indiana. It’s not that the orange producers and I aren’t well-meaning, just that oranges would not find their way to Indiana if good-heartedness were the motivation for commerce. …Microsoft provides a wonderful example…the shareholder value of Microsoft, as large as it is, surely pales in comparison to what its customers around the world gain. …Microsoft has achieved its immense shareholder value not because its customers, workers, suppliers, and communities are poorer. Indeed, nothing could be further from the truth. Its stakeholders have been enriched immeasurably by its pursuit of maximum shareholder value.

Writing for USA Today, Professor Steve Hanke is very critical of the Business Roundtable.

…the Business Roundtable launched a major attack on property rights, the bedrock of capitalism. …the Roundtable, which represents nearly 200 of America’s blue-chip companies, downgraded shareholders. According to the Roundtable, the purpose of a corporation will no longer be to conduct business with the sole objective of generating profits for shareholders. Owners of corporations (read: shareholders) will now just be one of five “stakeholders”… The Roundtable’s new anti-capitalist mission statement promises to dilute and muffle shareholders’ voices and further politicize corporate governance. …The great Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter concluded in his 1942 classic “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy” that businessmen would “never put up a fight under the flag of their own ideals and interest.” …Schumpeter concluded that businessmen, through their ignorance and cowardice, would assist those who wished to destroy capitalism.

Megan McArdle also is skeptical. Here’s some of what she wrote for the Washington Post.

…business leaders have no right to do charity on someone else’s dime. You might admire plumbers who donate fixtures to needy families, but not if they donated the fixtures you’d purchased for your own bathroom. That is essentially what stakeholder capitalists are demanding of chief executives: Take the money and power that shareholders have entrusted to you and divert those resources to benefit someone else. …if “stakeholder capitalism” means anything, it must mean companies doing things that make shareholders at least somewhat worse off. …Corporate social responsibility…can be even less accountable than good old-fashioned shareholder capitalism. Money is relatively easy to measure: Shareholders have more of it at the end of the quarter, or they don’t, and either way you know how the boss is doing. But if the chief executive pours that cash into better-upholstered offices, more-generous fringe benefits and a slew of charitable causes, who’s to say whether the company’s goals are being met? …As Harvard health-care economist Amitabh Chandra noted on Twitter after the Business Roundtable’s announcement, “appealing to an amorphous ‘social mission’ ” has allowed nonprofit hospitals “to foil regulators, acquire their competition, and increase market power.” Beware of any proposal that might make the rest of the economy look more like the health-care sector.

Robert Samuelson’s column in the Washington Post points out that previous episodes of “corporate social responsibility” did not yield good outcomes.

…we’ve already been here. In the first decades after World War II, large U.S. corporations adopted a social and political model very much like the model recommended by the Roundtable. There was much talk of “stakeholders,” not shareholders. Companies were supposed to attend to their social responsibilities. “Capitalism” as a term went out of style… The corporate responsibility fad of the 1950s and 1960s was premised on the belief that…companies could achieve both their traditional financial goals as well as the less traditional agenda of providing higher living standards and employment security. …What we know with hindsight is that this confidence was a conceit of a moment in time. …These lessons of history have been either forgotten or ignored. But they have not gone away. Rather than heap endless new responsibilities on companies, we’d be better off having them tend to their traditional tasks — including maximizing profits.

By the way, the problem of big business rejecting capitalism isn’t limited to the CEOs of the Business Roundtable.

Writing for Project Syndicate, Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum (the folks who put on the Davos conference for the establishment’s high flyers) argues for a middle ground between free markets and Chinese-style cronyism.

What kind of capitalism do we want? …we have three models to choose from. The first is “shareholder capitalism,” embraced by most Western corporations, which holds that a corporation’s primary goal should be to maximize its profits. The second model is “state capitalism,” which entrusts the government with setting the direction of the economy, and has risen to prominence in many emerging markets, not least China. …the third has the most to recommend it. “Stakeholder capitalism,” a model I first proposed a half-century ago, positions private corporations as trustees of society… We should seize this moment… To that end, the World Economic Forum is releasing a new “Davos Manifesto,” which states that companies should pay their fair share of taxes, show zero tolerance for corruption, uphold human rights throughout their global supply chains, and advocate for a competitive level playing field…a new measure of “shared value creation” should include “environmental, social, and governance” (ESG) goals as a complement to standard financial metrics. …Business leaders now have an incredible opportunity. By giving stakeholder capitalism concrete meaning, they can move beyond their legal obligations and uphold their duty to society.

Given that per-capita living standards are much lower in China than they are in the United States, I’m baffled that Schwab thinks it’s a good idea to move halfway toward the decrepit Chinese model of cronyism and industrial policy.

Does he think that people in North America and Western Europe should only be twice as rich as people in China instead of four-to-six times richer?

Let’s wrap up. The president of the Business Roundtable just wrote a one-year anniversary review of his group’s campaign for so-called stakeholder capitalism.

It’s been a year since 181 CEOs of America’s largest companies overturned a 22-year-old policy statement that defined a corporation’s principal purpose as maximizing shareholder return. …Companies have held to their commitments. …many Roundtable companies were making substantial investments in worker training, better wages and benefits, and support for struggling communities. They called for increases in the federal minimum wage and paid family medical leave. …In recent weeks, CEOs have made new commitments to promote racial equality and diversity in their own companies. …Far from undermining shareholders or capitalism, the many actions major corporations are taking to support all stakeholders will pay dividends… Business Roundtable CEOs reject…quick-hit, short-term capitalism. They agree with many of the nation’s largest investors that the health of both companies and capitalism depends on investments in all stakeholders.

Sounds very noble and caring, at least for the folks who don’t understand economics.

Which is why I almost laughed out loud when I saw this tweet, which is based on this article published by the Atlantic. The Roundtable is trying to curry favor with statists, but some folks on the left are smart enough to see that it’s all empty posturing.

So what’s my contribution to this debate?

Most of what I would say is captured in the excerpts above. Simply stated, it’s not a good idea to mix big business with big government.

But I will take this opportunity to unveil another one of my theorems.

P.S. Back in 2012, I criticized the Business Roundtable for embracing tax increases on small businesses, so you can see that the Eleventh Theorem of Government is way overdue.

P.P.S. You can peruse the other ten theorems of government by clicking here.

The Case for Capitalism, Part II

Mon, 08/24/2020 - 12:03pm

Yesterday, in Part I of this series, we enjoyed a video from the U.K.-based Centre for Economic Education, about how capitalism lifted the world from deprivation and oppression (also see videos by Don Boudreaux and Deirdre McCloskey).

Today, in Part II of the Case for Capitalism, here’s a video from CEE that explains how markets provide you a cup of coffee.

An obvious takeaway from the video is that consumers benefit from global markets, which hopefully helps to explain why free trade is desirable.

But there are four other messages that are even more widely applicable.

  1. Capitalism is based on competition, but also should be understood as a system of cooperation.
  2. Voluntary exchange means that both buyers and sellers expect to benefit from a transaction.
  3. Prices should be set by unfettered markets rather than politicians, regulators, or bureaucrats.
  4. Our prosperity is a result of the invisible hand (spontaneous order) rather than central planning.

In other words, the growth-producing concept of classical liberalism (as opposed to the statist version of liberalism that now exists in the United States).

All of which reminds me of this observation by Joseph Schumpeter, an influential economist from the Austrian School.

This quote isn’t as famous as what he said about creative destruction, but it deserves to be highlighted since it succinctly explains how capitalism is the system that delivers big benefits for ordinary people.

P.S. The degree to which nations enjoy convergence (or divergence) is generally a consequence of whether they allow free markets and limited government.

The Case for Capitalism, Part I

Sun, 08/23/2020 - 12:59pm

This video from Dan Hannan crams 10,000 years of human history into 5 minutes. We learn about the “stationary bandit” of government and find out how our ancestors endured pervasive oppression and misery.

But there’s a happy ending to the story. It’s called capitalism.

There are many useful insights in this video.

We learn why it was important to replace arbitrary government with the “rule of law” so that property rights could be protected and so that people wanting to buy and sell no longer had to get permission from the state.

And once capitalism was unleashed beginning a few hundred years ago, living standards dramatically improved (these videos by Don Boudreaux and Deirdre McCloskey have lots of evidence).

Hannan makes the all-important point that capitalism is the opposite of exploitation. It enriches people, but also liberates them.

And, as indicated by one of my favorite quotes from Walter Williams, it means we help ourselves by helping others.

As Hannan concludes, “the free market is the fairest and justest model yet devised.”

P.S. Not everyone has the same definition of fair and just, so I’ll simply observe that market-oriented nations always and easily out-perform state-controlled economies.

For what it’s worth, nobody on the left has ever come up with a response to my never-answered question.

———
Image credit: Jacob Bøtter | CC BY 2.0.

Time to Shut Down the Ethanol Racket

Fri, 08/21/2020 - 12:50pm

When I wrote yesterday that Trump’s overall rating on economic policy was “bad,” a few people wrote to complain.

I did acknowledge in the column that it may be too soon to give the current president a grade, but it’s not looking good. He not only has a bad record on big issues such as spending and trade, but he also is prone to cronyist policies in other areas.

Such as goodies for the coal industry.

Such as goodies for the housing lobby.

And goodies for corn growers, which is the topic of today’s column.

But we’re not going to look at traditional agriculture subsidies (which are awful in their own right). Instead we’re going to focus on government handouts that bribe corn growers and others into turning crops into fuel.

This is a policy that’s bad for taxpayers, bad for consumers, bad for the environment, and probably bad for motherhood and apple pie.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute wrote last year about this boondoggle.

President Trump has again sought changes to the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS)… The previous reform effort granted ethanol producers and corn growers their request to raise the amount of ethanol allowed year-round in gasoline from 10 to 15 percent (E-15)… But this did not create peace. Pro-RFS forces soon demanded both E-15 and fewer small refinery waivers. Now, the administration has announced that, while it will still grant small refinery exemptions, it will reallocate the waived amounts to non-exempt refineries and thus preserve the 15 billion gallon maximum set out in the law. It will also ease the labelling requirements for gas stations selling E-15. …Lost in the debate between the biofuels industry and the petroleum industry is what the RFS means for consumers. Gasoline prices are relatively low right now, but not because of the RFS. And we are always one bad corn crop away from an ethanol-induced price spike. …The proposed changes can only add to the upward pressure on pump prices.

The year before, the Independent Institute criticized Trump’s approach.

…instead of terminating the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) — which mandates a sharp increase in renewable fuel consumption by 2022 — the Trump administration has doubled-down on biofuels. President Trump has said that he supports ramping up ethanol production even further by allowing gasoline containing 15 percent ethanol to be sold year-round. Doing so would expand ethanol use and encourage the EPA to ratchet that percentage up in subsequent years. …a comprehensive meta-analysis in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics found the greenhouse gas benefits of ethanol to be almost zero. For other pollutants like nitrogen oxides (NOx) and ozone, ethanol actually is worse than gasoline. Because 40 percent of the nation’s corn crop is used in the production of biofuels, ethanol production also raises food costs. As a result, consumers pay higher prices for beef, milk, poultry and pork, among other items. …Because the RFS moved corn growing to areas that require more water, more fertilizer, and more acreage, prairies and other wild-lands are disappearing, soil is eroding, groundwater is being depleted, and ocean dead zones are expanding. …If ethanol truly were a good substitute for gasoline, no E10 or E15 mandate would be necessary.

Ironically, Trump’s misguided handouts aren’t necessarily buying him any friends.

As reported by Bloomberg, one of the big recipients says it may diversify away from ethanol unless subsidies are increased.

American ethanol makers have for years been reliant on a government policy that mandates biofuel use. But industry stalwart Green Plains Inc. wants to break away from that dependence… The Omaha, Nebraska-based company has lost faith that the ethanol industry will get the support it needs from parts of the Trump administration, said Chief Executive officer Todd Becker. …“We are going to spend half a billion dollars transforming this company to be not dependent on government policy,” Becker said in an interview. The EPA is “no friend of ethanol. They’ve done everything they can to destroy the market for us. They’ve done everything they can to destroy this industry.” …The U.S. ethanol industry was born out of government support. In the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter asked agribusiness leaders to make biofuels… The industry got another boost in 2007, when the Renewable Fuels Standard expanded the mandate to blend ethanol into gasoline.

This takes chutzpah. Ethanol arguably could be the most subsidized product in the United States, yet beneficiaries say they may exit the industry without ever-increasing handouts.

I’m not sure how to react to this supposed threat.

  • Should I say, “Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry”?
  • Should I channel Clint Eastwood and say, “Go ahead, make my day”?
  • Or should I simply say, “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out”?

The bottom line is that ethanol handout were bad policy when they were first created and they are bad policy today. These handouts are misguided when Democrats are in charge, and they’re misguided when Republicans are in charge.

I’d like Trump to switch his position because of a newfound appreciation for free enterprise, but I’ll be happy if he shifts in the right direction simply because he doesn’t appreciate greedy complaints from the ethanol industry.

P.S. Trump isn’t the only Republican who is bad on this issue. Indeed, the GOPers who support free markets – such as Rand Paul and Ted Cruz – may be in the minority of the Party.

Which Party Does Better on the Economy?

Thu, 08/20/2020 - 12:44pm

The best feature of libertarians is that we are very principled and look at everything through the lens of the non-aggression principle.

By contrast, the worst feature of politics, as explained by the Ninth Theorem of Government, is that it encourages people look at everything through the lens of partisanship.

In other words, there’s a desire to always make your team look good and the other team look bad, even if you have to torture data.

Here’s an example.

In a column for the New York Times, Michael Tomasky asserts that Democratic presidents have a much better track record on the economy than their Republican counterparts.

Mr. Biden and his party’s No. 1 job between now and Election Day: Make it clear that Democrats have been better stewards of the economy — for decades, and by far. Many people don’t believe this. …But it’s true. …the country has done better for decades under Democrats, by nearly every major economic measure. From John Kennedy through Barack Obama — 56 years during which, as it happens, we had a Democratic president for 28 years and a Republican president for 28 — we saw more than 50 million jobs created under Democrats and just 24 million jobs created under Republicans. Even the stock market has performed better under Democratic presidents. …just toting up numbers by the months each party had in power is imprecise. But there’s no better way to do it.

Any decent social scientist will quickly identify are all sorts of problems with Tomasky’s methodology.

  • What about the impact of which party has full or partial control of Congress?
  • Is it right to blame (or credit) presidents for what happens in their first year or two, before they’ve had a chance to enact and implement new policies?
  • Should other variables be measured, such as median household income or labor force participation?

But let’s set aside these concerns, as well as others that can be listed, and accept Tomasky’s numbers. Does this mean that the economy does better when Democrats are in the White House?

That’s certainly a possible interpretation, but it’s far more accurate to say that the economy does better when a president – regardless of party – adopts good policy (or, to be more accurate, if good policy is implemented during their presidency).

I’ve previously ranked presidents based on what happened to the burden of government spending during their tenures. And one thing that stands out is that Republicans seem to be even worse than Democrats – even when looking at what happened to domestic spending (with Reagan and Johnson being the only two exceptions).

And I’ve also graded many of the modern presidents (Richard NixonRonald ReaganGeorge H.W. BushBill ClintonGeorge W. BushBarack Obama) based on their overall record on economics. If you peruse their performances, you’ll see there’s no obvious connection between good policy and partisan affiliation.

But I’ve never put together a best-to-worst list, so here’s my ranking of every president since Kennedy.

Let me elaborate – and also add some caveats.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think there’s good modern-quality data on JFK (or, to be more accurate, I’ve never searched for it), but I included him since he’s part of Tomasky’s analysis. That being said, he may be ranked too low. Yes, he spent too much money and implemented some bad policies, but he also lowered tax rates and pushed for free trade.

I also think it’s too early to grade Trump, but I included him since I know that will be of interest to readers. As you might imagine, I like what he’s done on taxes and red tape, but his record on other issues is bad – and getting worse. I’m especially concerned about the consequences and impact of the Fed’s easy-money policy, an approach Trump certainly supports.

Johnson and Nixon are unambiguously terrible, while Reagan is the star performer.

Clinton was surprisingly good (feel free to give the credit to Newt Gingrich if you want, but we didn’t need veto overrides to get the good policies of the 1990s).

The rest of the presidents were generally bad. I put them in reverse chronological order since I didn’t see any logical way of differentiating between them.

I can’t resist citing one more segment from Tomasky’s column.

Republican failures are not an unhappy coincidence. They’re a result of conservative governing practice. Republicans no longer fundamentally believe in the workings of government, so they don’t govern well. Their contempt for government is a result of conservative economic theory.

This is nonsense, as should be obvious from what I’ve already written. Republicans do not have a track record of “conservative governing.”

With one exception. We had relatively competent governance from the one GOP president who did have a “contempt for government” (actually, just contempt for big government).

———
Image credit: DonkeyHotey | CC BY 2.0.

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