Tag: data

Robert H. Frank, A 200% Tax Even Socialists Will Hate

In the latest issue of Forbes, Cornell University economist Robert H. Frank is pushing “A Tax Even Libertarians Can Love.” I hope he wasn’t counting on this libertarian’s support.

What he advocates is “replacing the income tax with a progressive tax on spending. …A family’s income minus its savings is its consumption, and that amount minus a large standard deduction – say, $30,000 a year for a family of four – would be its taxable consumption. …Rates would start low, perhaps 20%, then rise gradually with total consumption. …With savings tax-exempt, top marginal tax rates on consumption would have to be significantly higher than current top rates on income.”

His concept of “significantly higher” includes tax rates of 100-200% on marginal income that isn’t saved.  This is about minimizing affluence, not maximizing revenues.  There is ample evidence from Emmanuel Saez and others that the amount of reported income drops sharply as marginal tax rates rise above 25-30% (and even less on capital gains).

In his 2007 book, Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class, Frank suggests marginal tax rates of 50% above $220,000  and rising to 200%.  Since seniors (like me) commonly finance retirement from past savings, Frank’s tax scheme amounts to rapid confiscation of past savings.

For young people, Frank’s tax can’t possibly encourage savings because it discourages earning any income in the first place.  Consumption is, after all, the motive for both earning and saving.   The prospect of facing future consumption taxes of 50-200% would surely discourage saving much, because the rewards from invested savings (namely, future consumption) would be subjected to such prohibitive tax brackets. Under this steeply progressive tax on unsaved income, any income exempt from taxes today would be subject to brutal taxes whenever folks wanted to buy anything of value, like a car or house, or to retire on their accumulated savings.

In another April 25 piece in The New York Times, Mr. Frank shifts from promoting confiscatory taxes on consumption to defending small tweaks to the current tax regime. “The current [tax] system is much fairer than many people believe, and the president’s proposal will make it both fairer and more efficient.” That comment was aimed at the tea parties.  Yet tax party protesters clearly understood, as Frank does not, that the president’s first wave of proposed tax increases come nowhere near paying for his grandiose spending plans.  My estimate of last October, that Obama’s plans would add $4.3 trillion to the deficits over ten years is now looking much too generous, if not wildly optimistic.

In the New York Times piece, Frank argues that income differences are mainly a matter of luck.  As he often does, Frank pretends to possess evidence about this topic that other economists have missed.  He says, “economists have only begun to realize [that] pay differences often vastly overstate differences in performance.”

In his book, whenever Frank alludes to what “the evidence suggests,” his sources are usually suspect, obsolete or invisible. He claims “regulations, like cartoons are data.”  He cites an unpublished master’s thesis, unidentified surveys and “casual impressions.”

Frank  claims “happiness can be measured reliably” by brain waves.  Explaining this better in the Economic Journal in 1997, he noted that people who say they are happy show “greater electrical activity in the left prefrontal region of the brain” which “is rich in receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine, higher concentrations of which been shown independently to be correlated with positive affect.”  If we accept the amount of dopamine in the brain as the gauge of happiness, however, then the happiest people are those who routinely abuse crack and meth.

In the second chapter of Falling Behind, his first graph lists a Census Bureau URL as the source for household income data from 1949 to 1979.  Click on that link and you will find the data only go back to 1967.   In reality, all of Frank’s income and wealth graphs actually came from Chris Hartman at inequality.org. Hartman is not an economist or statistician, but a “researcher, writer, editor, and graphic designer with experience in politics, higher education, and publishing.”  Hartman’s non-facts used in Robert Frank’s first graph actually came from a 1994 book from the Economic Policy Institute, reflecting the “authors’ analysis…  of unpublished census data.” Frank’s comparison of CEO pay with “average wages” came from Hartman’s flawed calculations for United for a Fair Economy, which were critiqued on page 131 of my textbook Income and Wealth. And Frank’s demonstrably false claim that “asset ownership has become even more heavily concentrated during recent years” is likewise from inequality.org.

In short, Professor Frank often bases his remarkably strong opinions on fragile facts.

Private Zips Past Public

Govexec.com reports: “Private sector zips past government in Recovery Act tracking.”

If you want to find out where governments are spending the $800 billion in federal stimulus money, the story reports that you would do better to go to www.recovery.org than www.recovery.gov. The latter is the government website that stimulus-overseer, VP Joe Biden, could not remember the name of. The former is a project of the business research firm Onvia.

The private www.recovery.org does have useful data and charts. But Onvia should have paired the chart ”Estimated Jobs Created by State” with another one titled “Estimated Jobs Destroyed by State” to illustrate the financing burden of all the new spending.

The Beginnings of Earmark Transparency

Under reforms announced in March, House members have to publicly declare the earmarks they’re requesting from the Appropriations Committee. Most of the requests have now been published and WashingtonWatch.com has assembled a state-by-state catalogue of links to Members’ earmark requests.

Getting earmark requests published is progress. Getting them published in uniform, machine-readable formats would allow the public to do really thorough oversight of all the projects that Members of Congress think federal taxpayer dollars should go to.

In December, we had a policy forum called “Just Give Us the Data!” where we explored some of the current issues in government transparency.

Comments on Criticism of Cato Ad

Our friends at www.realclimate.org and www.ryanavent.com have been taking shots at the statements in our ad, so I’d like to offer a little commentary.

We make three factual assertions.

First, we say that “surface temperature changes over the past century have been episodic and modest”. We cite Brohan et al., Journal of Geophysical Research (2006 and updates) and Swanson and Tsonis, Geophysical Research Letters, 2009. The first is the latest update of the East Anglia temperature history, which long has been the IPCC staple. It is the one most cited over the years by the IPCC because it was the first long history that contained much more than simply World Weather Records data updated with local records at the end of a month. At any rate, both it and other global histories indeed show modest warming, about 0.8degC from 1900-2000, and indeed it is episodic. Everyone (well probably almost everyone…there are some real people who don’t believe it is right) pretty much agrees that there are two periods of warming, 1910-45 and 1977-98, with a slight cooling in between and no trend after. If that’s not “episodic”, I don’t know what is. The Swanson paper in fact specifically quantifies these episodes. The paragaph near the end of it that says this may mean that warming will be faster than we thought was pure speculation. It could just have easily been argued (as I do) that the lack of recent warming more likely indicates that 21st century warming will be lower than forecast by oceanic feedback because lack of warming simply delays any water vapor amplification. Pure and simple.

The second assertion is that, “after controlling for population growth and property values, there has been no increase in damages from severe weather events”. The citation is short – a note in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, by Pielke Jr. et al, 2005. The et al. numbers over ten other large-name scientists/analysts, and the reference list is the important part. There are a large number of citations on climate-related damages for various places and/or periods. We couldn’t list them all in this format, so we chose a single citation that could be consulted and an interested reader would find all the subsidiary supporting material.

Finally we state that “the computer models forecasting rapid temperature change abjectly fail to explain recent climate behavior”, citing Douglas et al., International Journal of Climatology, 2007, which showed the major disparity between forecasts of the upper tropospheric tropical “warm spot”, a hallmark of greenhouse projections, and observations in the radiosonde record. Yes it is true that Santer et al. have published a lengthy rebuttal, but it is extremely dense and marks just another go-round-and-round over this issue. Douglas et al. have a response but it hasn’t been published yet. The debate will go on and on. Further, it is quite apparent from comparing midrange multimodel estimates from the IPCC to observed temperatures, and those indeed projected for coming years, that there is a signficant disconnect developing between the models and surface temperature. They simply don’t anticipate multidecadal periods without warming. Oh yes, since this has happened, all of the sudden models can be forced to “explain” it, but that’s not prospective. Instead, it is retrospective adjustment. Such work wouldn’t be performed if there weren’t something wrong.

That’s more than enough to negate President-elect Obama’s statement that “The science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear”!

New Study: ‘Drug Decriminalization in Portugal’

On July 1, 2001, a nationwide law in Portugal took effect that decriminalized all drugs, including cocaine and heroin. Drug possession for personal use and drug usage itself are still legally prohibited, but violations of those prohibitions are deemed to be exclusively administrative violations and are removed completely from the criminal realm.

In a new study, constitutional lawyer and Salon.com writer Glenn Greenwald examines the Portuguese model and the data concerning drug-related trends in Portugal, and argues that, “judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalization framework has been a resounding success.”

Greenwald will speak at the Cato Institute Friday, April 3, about the success of the decriminalization program.

[ipaper docId=13784156 access_key=key-1b7m6y33q9et1f73i1st height=600 width=500 /]

Here’s A “Toxic Asset” for You…

The Obama administration seems obsessed with making American taxpayers eat toxic assets. And I’m not talking about bad paper, derivatives, or any other inscrutable financial stinkers. I’m talking about good ol’ American public schooling.

Truth be told, after listening to the president’s presser last night, even I started to think that the key to American economic success is “investing” in education. After all, once you’ve heard something for about the twentieth time, you start to believe it. I mean, that’s how propaganda works, right? But somehow my mind refused to give in, and it forced me to remember:

We’ve been “investing” in government schools for decades, and have been reaping nothing but AIG-like results!

I actually laid out the startlingly awful returns we’ve gotten for our education dollars in several blog entries last month, but thought I’d revisit the basic, revolting facts one more time. I want it to be absolutely clear that lavishing more money on education isn’t change, nor, given what we get for the money, could it possibly be the key to long-term economic success.

So what have we invested? Let’s start with total outlays for elementary through post-secondary education, taken from table 26 of the latest Digest of Education Statistics. In 1969 we spent a total of $347 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars. In 2007, we spent $981 billion, a 183 percent increase.

How about public k-12 spending on a per-pupil basis? Again using Digest data (table 181) – which understates total expenditures by excluding such things as “state administration expenditures” – we can see that we’ve been spending increasingly sizable amounts. After adjusting for inflation, in 1969 we spent $5,161 per child. By 2005, that number had more than doubled, hitting $11,643. And what has that “investment” yielded?

Other than massive bloat, bupkus! Looking at National Assessment of Educational Progress long-term trend scores for 17-year-olds – essentially, our schools’ final products – we see almost complete academic stagnation. In mathematics, the average scale score was 304 (out of 500) in 1973, and only a measly 3 points higher in 2004! That’s a one percent increase in math outcomes for a roughly 100 percent increase in funding! And that actually beats the “return” in reading, where 17-year-olds were at 285 in 1971 and, yup, 285 in 2004!

How about higher education? Here we don’t have very good outcome measures and it is difficult to break down overall per-pupil expenditures. What we do have, however, suggests another bad investment.

To get a feel for expenditures, we can examine the State Higher Education Executive Officers report (figure A) showing that total revenue collected per full-time-equivalent student at public institutions, adjusted for inflation, grew from $8,463 in 1983 to $11,037 in 2008, a 30 percent increase. We can also look at aid per student, most of which came through government. According to data from the College Board (table 3), in 1983 the average full-time-equivalent student received $3,769 in inflation-adjusted aid. In 2007 she got $10,392, a 176 percent increase.

What are the returns on these investments? Again, lots of bloat, but from what we can tell, relatively little of educational value. Graduation rates, for one thing, seem to be falling.

According to the Population Studies Center, within eight years of graduating high school, 51.1 percent of students in the high school class of 1972 had finished college degrees. In contrast, only 45.3 percent of 1992’s high school class had done the same. And grads seem to be getting less well educated; according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, between 1992 and 2003 literacy levels dropped for both Americans whose education maxed out at a bachelor’s degree and those with graduate degrees. Whether it was graduates’ ability to read prose, documents, or handle math, scores went down while costs went up.

So all told, what do we have to show for our education investment? Pretty much just empty bank accounts. And yet, some politicians just can’t seem to get enough of those toxic assets!

Awesome, Fearsome, Awesome - Or Maybe Silly

This video is making the rounds because Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) muses in it that perhaps the Internet shouldn’t have been invented.

He immediately grants, “That’s a stupid thing to say” - perhaps for political reasons, or perhaps because he recognizes that the Internet makes us much better off despite every risk it carries and security flaw in it.

But he goes on to overstate cybersecurity risks excessively, breathlessly, and self-seriously. Not quite to the point of stupid - maybe we can call it “silly.”

The Department of Defense, he says, is “attacked” three million times a day. Well, yeah, but these “attacks” are mostly repetitious use of the same attack, mounted by “script kiddies” - unsophisticated know-nothings who get copies of others’ attacks and run them just to make trouble. The defense against this is to continually foreclose attacks and genres of attack as they develop, the way the human body develops antibodies to germs and viruses.

It’s important work, and it’s not always easy, but securing against attacks is an ongoing, stable practice in network management and a field of ongoing study in computer science. The attacks may continue to come, but it doesn’t really matter when the immunities and failsafes are in place and continuously being updated.

More important than this kind of threat inflation is the policy premise that the Internet should be treated as critical infrastructure because some important things happen on it.

Of cyber attack, Rockefeller says, “It’s an act … which can shut this country down. Shut down its electricity system, its banking system, shut down really anything we have to offer. It is an awesome problem.”

Umm, not really. Here’s Cato adjunct scholar Tim Lee, commenting on a report about the Estonian cyber attacks last year:

[S]ome mission-critical activities, including voting and banking, are carried out via the Internet in some places. But to the extent that that’s true, the lesson of the Estonian attacks isn’t that the Internet is “critical infrastructure” on par with electricity and water, but that it’s stupid to build “critical infrastructure” on top of the public Internet. There’s a reason that banks maintain dedicated infrastructure for financial transactions, that the power grid has a dedicated communications infrastructure, and that computer security experts are all but unanimous that Internet voting is a bad idea.

Tim has also noted that the Estonia attacks didn’t reach parliament, ministries, banks, and media - just their Web sites. Calm down, everyone.

But in the debate over raising the bridge or lowering the river, Rockefeller is choosing the policy that most enthuses and involves him: Get critical infrastructure onto the Internet and get the government into the cyber security business.

That’s a recipe for disaster. The right answer is to warn the operators of key infrastructure to keep critical functions off the Internet and let markets and tort law hold them responsible should they fail to maintain themselves operational.

I have written elsewhere about maintaining private responsibility for cyber security. My colleague Ben Friedman has written about who owns cyber security and more on the great cyber security freakout.