Tag: economics

Elinor Ostrom, RIP

Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in economics—though that is hardly the most significant aspect of her work—has died at 78. My old friend Mario Rizzo of New York University examined her scholarly accomplishment in 2009 when she won the Prize:

The work of Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in economics, is not very well-known among economists. In fact, I would venture the guess than most economists had not heard of her before the prize was announced yesterday morning.

Two reasons for this are that her degree is in political science and she has written for publications outside of the mainstream economics journals. Additionally, her work, by and large, lacks the high degree of mathematical formalism now so characteristic of economics.

Yet the Nobel Prize Committee has done a great service to economics and the greater social-scientific community. When a well-known economist receives the prize little is gained apart from the recognition of a job well done and perhaps some wider public recognition. I do not think that great contributions are made in any discipline because of the incentive effects of an improbable prize. However, in this case the Nobel Committee has brought extraordinary work to the attention of an economics discipline that has become excessively specialized and, perhaps increasingly irrelevant to the real world, as Paul Krugman and others have recently suggested.

Professor Ostrom’s work is highly relevant to important issues in economic development, common-pool resources, the development of social norms, and the solution of various collective action problems. Her work is also methodologically diverse. She uses experimental methods, field research, and evolutionary game theory. She is not afraid to draw on various disciplines when appropriate: economics, political science, evolutionary psychology, cultural anthropology and so forth.

She is a very worthy intellectual descendant of Adam Smith who realized that the study of trade based on self-interest needed to be supplemented by a broader view of humankind – individuals capable of the so-called “moral sentiments” like honesty, benevolence, and loyalty, as well as the standard vices.

Much of Ostrom’s work centers on developing and applying a broader conception of rationality than economists usually employ. The standard conception of rationality is not the rationality of real human beings but the rationality of cognitively-unlimited lightning-fast calculators. This is a purely imaginary construct. On the other hand, Olstrom’s “thick rationality” is the result of trial and error, use of relatively simple heuristics, employment of rules, and the embodiment of cultural norms. To reject standard, improbable rationality is notto reject rationality. It is rather to develop more sophisticated, and yet more realistic, models of rationality.

“Thick rationality” is a bottom-up phenomenon. It recognizes the importance of local knowledge and diverse approaches in the management of resources. For example, many top-down irrigation projects in developing countries have failed because they have concentrated on the physical aspects of water delivery. Ostrom believes that the institutional aspects are more important. Irrigation systems built by farmers themselves are often more efficient. They deliver more water, are better repaired, and result in higher farm productivity than those built by international agencies. Often these agencies take no notice of local customs, knowledge and incentive structures; the knowledge of the bureaucrat is inferior to the knowledge of the individuals on the ground.

The central problem on which her employment of the notion of “thick rationality” can shed light is what she calls “social dilemmas.” These are circumstances in which interacting individuals can easily succumb to maximizing their short-term interests to the detriment of their long term interests. To return to our irrigation example, suppose farmers share the use of a creek for irrigation. They face a collective problem of organizing to clear out the fallen trees and brush from the previous winter. Each farmer would like to have the others do it. There are incentives to free-ride on the “public spiritedness” of others – however, everyone may think this way and nothing will get done. Ostrom finds that cooperation will often take place while the “thin” theory of rationality predicts that it will not. She finds that factors such as face-to-face contact (likely when there are small numbers), the equality of each farmer’s stake in the benefits of irrigation, and the ease of monitoring the farmer’s contribution to brush removal all make the likelihood of cooperation greater.

Elinor Ostrom has and continues to expand the power of a broader conception of rationality – one that Adam Smith would have recognized and been comfortable with – to explain the multifarious forms of human cooperation that conventional economists have been unable to explain. This is a major contribution.

Paul Dragos Aligica and Peter Boettke of George Mason University showed excellent prescience in publishing a book in the summer of 2009, just a few months before the Nobel Prize was awarded, on the work of Ostrom, her husband Vincent, and their colleagues at Indiana University, Challenging Institutional Analysis and Development: The Bloomington School.

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New Study from UK Think Tank Shows How Big Government Undermines Prosperity

It seems I was put on the planet to educate people about the negative economic impact of excessive government. I must be doing a bad job, because the burden of the public sector keeps rising.

But hope springs eternal. To help make the case, I’ve cited research from international bureaucracies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and European Central Bank. Since most of those organizations lean to the left, these results should be particularly persuasive.

I’ve also cited the work of academic scholars from all over the world, including the United States, Australia, and Sweden. The evidence is very persuasive that big government is associated with weaker economic performance.

Now we have some new research from the United Kingdom. The Centre for Policy Studies has released a new study, authored by Ryan Bourne and Thomas Oechsle, examining the relationship between economic growth and the size of the public sector.

The chart above compares growth rates for nations with big governments and small governments over the past two decades. The difference is significant, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The most important findings of the report are the estimates showing how more spending and more taxes are associated with weaker performance.

Here are some key passages from the study.

Using tax to GDP and spending to GDP ratios as a proxy for size of government, regression analysis can be used to estimate the effect of government size on GDP growth in a set of countries defined as advanced by the IMF between 1965 and 2010. …As supply-side economists would expect, the coefficients on the tax revenue to GDP and government spending to GDP ratios are negative and statistically significant. This suggests that, ceteris paribus, a larger tax burden results in a slower annual growth of real GDP per capita. Though it is unlikely that this effect would be linear (we might expect the effect to be larger for countries with huge tax burdens), the regressions suggest that an increase in the tax revenue to GDP ratio by 10 percentage points will, if the other variables do not change, lead to a decrease in the rate of economic growth per capita by 1.2 percentage points. The result is very similar for government outlays to GDP, where an increase by 10 percentage points is associated with a fall in the economic growth rate of 1.1 percentage points. This is in line with other findings in the academic literature. …The two small government economies with the lowest marginal tax rates, Singapore and Hong Kong, were also those which experienced the fastest average real GDP growth.

The folks at CPS also put together a short video to describe the results. It’s very well done, though I’m not a big fan of the argument near then end that faster growth is a good thing because it generates more tax revenue to finance more government. Since I’m a big proponent of the Laffer Curve, I don’t disagree with the premise, but I would argue that additional revenues should be used to finance lower tax rates.

Since I’m nit-picking, I’ll also say that the study should have emphasized that government spending is bad for growth because it inevitably and necessarily leads to the inefficient allocation of resources, and that would be true even if revenues magically floated down from heaven and there was no need for punitive tax rates.

This is my message in this video on the Rahn Curve.

When the issue is government, size matters, and bigger is not better.

In the Lake Wobegon Fantasy World, All Investments Make Money

I sometimes wonder whether journalists have the slightest idea of how capitalism works.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen breathless reporting on the $2 billion loss at JP Morgan Chase, and now there’s a big kerfuffle about the falling value of Facebook stock.

In response to these supposed scandals, there are all sorts of articles being written (see here, here, here, and here, for just a few examples) about the need for more regulation to protect the economy.

Underlying these stories seems to be a Lake Wobegon view of financial markets. But instead of Garrison Keillor’s imaginary town where “all children are above average,” we have a fantasy economy where “all investments make money.”

I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble or shatter any childhood illusions, but losses are an inherent part of the free market movement. As the saying goes, “capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell.”

Moreover, losses (just like gains) play an important role in that they signal to investors and entrepreneurs that resources should be reallocated in ways that are more productive for the economy.

Legend tells us that King Canute commanded the tides not to advance and learned there are limits to the power of a king when his orders had no effect.

Sadly, modern journalists, regulators, and politicians lack the same wisdom and think that government somehow can prevent losses.

But perhaps that’s unfair. They probably understand that losses sometimes happen, but they want to provide bailouts so that nobody ever learns a lesson about what happens when you touch a hot stove.

Government-subsidized risk, though, is just as foolish as government-subsidized success.

Should International Bureaucracies Get Taxing Powers or Direct Funding?

Over the years, I’ve strenuously objected to schemes that would enable international bureaucracies to levy taxes. That’s why I’ve criticized “direct funding” proposals, most of which seem to emanate from the United Nations.

Interestingly, the American left is somewhat divided on these schemes. House Democrats have expressed sympathy for global taxes, but the Obama administration has come out against at least certain worldwide tax proposals.

Unfortunately, proponents of global taxes are like the Energizer Bunny of big government, relentlessly pushing a statist agenda. If the world economy is growing, it’s time for a global tax. If the world economy is stagnant, it’s time for a global tax. If it’s hot outside or cold outside, it’s time for a global tax (since “global warming” is one of the justifications for global taxation, I’m not joking).

Given this ongoing threat, I’m glad that Brian Garst of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity has put together a two-page Libertas explaining why international bureaucracies should not get taxing powers or direct funding.

…it would be imprudent to give international bureaucracies an independent source of revenue. Not only would this augment the already considerable risk of imprudent budgetary practices, it would exacerbate the pro-statism bias in these organizations. …The issue of taxing powers and direct funding has become an important issue because international organizations are challenging the contribution model and pushing for independent sources of revenue. The United Nations has been particularly aggressive in pushing for global taxes, seeking to expand its budget with levies on everything from carbon to financial transactions.

He then highlights one of the most dangerous proposals, a scheme by the World Health Organization to impose a “Solidarity Tobacco Contribution.”

Another subsidiary of the United Nations, the World Health Organization (WHO), is also looking to self-fund through global taxes. The WHO in 2010 publicly considered asking for global consumer taxes on internet activity, online bill paying, or the always popular financial transaction tax. Currently the WHO is pushing for increased excise taxes on cigarettes, but with an important condition that they get a slice of the added revenue. The so-called Solidarity Tobacco Contribution would provide billions of dollars to the WHO, but with no ability for taxpayers or national governments to monitor how the money is spent.

I have to give the left credit. They understand that few people are willing to defend tobacco, so proposing a global tax on cigarettes sounds noble, even though the real goal is to give the WHO a permanent stream of revenue.

Brian explains, though, why any global tax would be a mistake.

What all of these proposals have in common – in addition to their obvious intended use in promoting statist policies – is that they would erode the influence of national governments, reduce international accountability, promote waste, and undermine individual sovereignty and liberty. …Before long, international organizations will begin proposing – no doubt in the name of efficiency or reducing the burden on nation states – that affected taxpayers withhold and transfer taxes directly to the international body. This would effectively mean the end of the Westphalian system of sovereign nation states, and would result in a slew of new statist policies, and increased waste and corruption, as bureaucrats make use of their greater freedom to act without political constraint.

He concludes by noting that a global tobacco tax would be the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent. Once the statists succeed in imposing the first global tax, it will simply be a matter of time before additional levies are imposed.

National governments should not be fooled. Any sort of taxing power or direct funding for international bureaucracies would undermine national sovereignty. More importantly, it will further weaken the ability of people to influence and control the policies to which they are subjected. Moreover, once the first global tax is imposed, the floodgates will be opened for similar proposals.

The point about fiscal sovereignty is also important. Not because national governments are keen to adopt good policy, but because nations at least have to compete against each other.

Over the years, tax competition among governments has led to lower tax rates on personal and corporate income, as well as reductions in the double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

Politicians don’t like being pressured to lower tax rates, which is why international bureaucracies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, acting on behalf of Europe’s welfare states, are pushing to undermine tax competition. But so long as there’s fiscal sovereignty, governments will have a hard time imposing confiscatory tax burdens.

Any form of global taxation, however, cripples this liberalizing process since taxpayers would have no safe havens.

The Laffer Curve Shows that Tax Increases Are a Very Bad Idea – even if They Generate More Tax Revenue

The Laffer Curve is a graphical representation of the relationship between tax rates, tax revenue, and taxable income. It is frequently cited by people who want to explain the common-sense notion that punitive tax rates may not generate much additional revenue if people respond in ways that result in less taxable income.

Unfortunately, some people misinterpret the insights of the Laffer Curve. Politicians, for instance, tend to either pretend it doesn’t exist, or they embrace it with excessive zeal and assume all tax cuts “pay for themselves.”

Another problem is that people assume that tax rates should be set at the revenue-maximizing level. I explained back in 2010 that this was wrong. Policy makers should strive to set tax rates at the growth-maximizing level. But since a growth-generating tax is about as common as a unicorn, what this really means is that tax rates should be set to produce enough revenue to finance the growth-maximizing level of government - as illustrated by the Rahn Curve.

That’s the theory of the Laffer Curve. What about the evidence? Where are the revenue-maximizing and growth-maximizing points on the Laffer Curve?

Well, ask five economists and you’ll get nine answers. In part, this is because the answers vary depending on the type of tax, the country, and the time frame. In other words, there is more than one Laffer Curve.

With those caveats in mind, we have some very interesting research produced by two economists, one from the Federal Reserve and the other from the University of Chicago. They have authored a new study that attempts to measure the revenue-maximizing point on the Laffer Curve for the United States and several European nations. Here’s an excerpt from their research.

Figure 6 shows the comparison for the US and EU-14. …Interestingly, the capital tax Laffer curve is affected only very little across countries when human capital is introduced. By contrast, the introduction of human capital has important effects for the labor income tax Laffer curve. Several countries are pushed on the slippery slope sides of their labor tax Laffer curves. …human capital turns labor into a stock variable rather than a flow variable as in the baseline model. Higher labor taxes induce households to work less and to acquire less human capital which in turn leads to lower labor income. Consequently, the labor tax base shrinks much more quickly when labor taxes are raised.

There’s a bit of jargon in this passage, so here are the charts from Figure 6. They look complex, but here are the basic facts to make them easy to understand.

The top chart shows the Laffer Curve for labor taxation, and the bottom chart shows the Laffer Curve for capital taxation. And both charts show different curves for the United States and an average of 14 European nations. Last but not least, the charts show how the Laffer Curves change is you add some real-world assumptions about the role of human capital.

Some people will look at these charts and conclude that there should be higher tax rates. After all, neither the U.S. or E.U. nations are at the revenue-maximizing  point (though the paper explains that some European nations actually are on the downward-sloping portion of the curve for capital taxes).

But let’s think about what higher tax rates imply, and we’ll focus on the United States. According to the first chart, labor taxes could be approximately doubled before getting to the downward-sloping portion of the curve. But notice that this means that tax revenues only increase by about 10 percent.

This implies that taxable income would be significantly smaller, presumably because of lower output, but also perhaps due to some combination of tax avoidance and tax evasion.

The key factoid (assuming my late-at-night, back-of-the-envelope calculations are right) is that this study implies that the government would reduce private-sector taxable income by about $20 for every $1 of new tax revenue.

Does that seem like good public policy? Ask yourself what sort of politicians are willing to destroy so much private sector output to get their greedy paws on a bit more revenue.

What about capital taxation? According to the second chart, the government could increase the tax rate from about 40 percent to 70 percent before getting to the revenue-maximizing point.

But that 75 percent increase in the tax rate wouldn’t generate much tax revenue, not even a 10 percent increase. So the question then becomes whether it’s good public policy to destroy a large amount of private output in exchange for a small increase in tax revenue.

Once again, the loss of taxable income to the private sector would dwarf the new revenue for the political class. And the question from above bears repeating. What should we think about politicians willing to make that trade?

And that’s the real lesson of the Laffer Curve. Yes, the politicians usually can collect more revenue, but the concomitant damage to the private sector is very large and people have lower living standards. So that leaves us with one final question. Do we think government spending has a sufficiently high rate-of-return to justify that kind of burden? This Rahn Curve video provides the answer.

How Can Obama Look at these Two Charts and Conclude that America Should Have Higher Double Taxation of Dividends and Capital Gains?

As discussed yesterday, the most important number in Obama’s budget is that the burden of government spending will be at least $2 trillion higher in 10 years if the President’s plan is enacted.

But there are also some very unsightly warts in the revenue portion of the President’s budget. Americans for Tax Reform has a good summary of the various tax hikes, most of which are based on punitive, class-warfare ideology.

In this post, I want to focus on the President’s proposals to increase both the capital gains tax rate and the tax rate on dividends.

Most of the discussion is focusing on the big increase in tax rates for 2013, particularly when you include the 3.8 tax on investment income that was part of Obamacare. If the President is successful, the tax on capital gains will climb from 15 percent this year to 23.8 percent next year, and the tax on dividends will skyrocket from 15 percent to 43.4 percent.

But these numbers understate the true burden because they don’t include the impact of double taxation, which exists when the government cycles some income through the tax code more than one time. As this chart illustrates, this means a much higher tax burden on income that is saved and invested.

The accounting firm of Ernst and Young just produced a report looking at actual tax rates on capital gains and dividends, once other layers of tax are included. The results are very sobering. The United States already has one of the most punitive tax regimes for saving and investment.

Looking at this first chart, it seems quite certain that we would have the worst system for dividends if Obama’s budget is enacted.

The good news, so to speak, is that we probably wouldn’t have the worst capital gains tax system if the President’s plan is enacted. I’m just guessing, but it looks like Italy (gee, what a role model) would still be higher.

Let’s now contemplate the potential impact of the President’s tax plan. I am dumbfounded that anybody could look at these charts and decide that America will be in better shape with higher tax rates on dividends and capital gains.

This isn’t just some abstract issue about competitiveness. As I explain in this video, every single economic theory – even Marxism and socialism – agrees that saving and investment are key for long-run growth and higher living standards.

So why is he doing this? I periodically run into people who are convinced that the President is deliberately trying to ruin the nation. I tell them this is nonsense and that there’s no reason to believe elaborate conspiracies.

President Obama is simply doing the same thing that President Bush did: Making bad decisions because of perceived short-run political advantage.

Data in New World Bank Report Shows that Large Public Sectors Reduce Economic Growth

When Ronald Reagan said that big government undermined the economy, some people dismissed his comments because of his philosophical belief in liberty.

And when I discuss my work on the economic impact of government spending, I often get the same reaction.

This is why it’s important that a growing number of establishment outfits are slowly but surely coming around to the same point of view.

This is remarkable. It’s beginning to look like the entire world has figured out that there’s an inverse relationship between big government and economic performance.

That’s an exaggeration, of course. There are still holdouts pushing for more statism in Pyongyang, Paris, Havana, and parts of Washington, DC.

But maybe they’ll be convinced by new research from the World Bank, which just produced a major report on the outlook for Europe. In chapter 7, the authors explain some of the ways that big government can undermine prosperity.

There are good reasons to suspect that big government is bad for growth. Taxation is perhaps the most obvious (Bergh and Henrekson 2010). Governments have to tax the private sector in order to spend, but taxes distort the allocation of resources in the economy. Producers and consumers change their behavior to reduce their tax payments. Hence certain activities that would have taken place without taxes, do not. Workers may work fewer hours, moderate their career plans, or show less interest in acquiring new skills. Enterprises may scale down production, reduce investments, or turn down opportunities to innovate. …Over time, big governments can also create sclerotic bureaucracies that crowd out private sector employment and lead to a dependency on public transfers and public wages. The larger the group of people reliant on public wages or benefits, the stronger the political demand for public programs and the higher the excess burden of taxes. Slowing the economy, such a trend could increase the share of the population relying on government transfers, leading to a vicious cycle (Alesina and Wacziarg 1998). Large public administrations can also give rise to organized interest groups keener on exploiting their powers for their own benefit rather than facilitating a prosperous private sector (Olson 1982).

In other words, government spending undermines growth, and the damage is magnified by a poorly designed tax policies.

The authors then put forth a theoretical hypothesis.

…economic models argue that the excess burden of tax increases disproportionately with the tax rate—in fact, roughly proportional to its tax rate squared (Auerbach 1985). Likewise, the scope for self-interested bureaucracies becomes larger as the government channels more resources. At the same time, the core functions of government, such as enforcing property rights, rule of law and economic openness, can be accomplished by small governments. All this suggests that as government gets bigger, it becomes more likely that the negative impact of government might dominate its positive impact. Ultimately, this issue has to be settled empirically. So what do the data say?

These are important insights, showing that class-warfare tax increases are especially destructive and that government spending undermines growth unless the public sector is limited to core functions.

Then the authors report their results.

Figure 7.9 groups annual observations in four categories according to the share of government spending in GDP during that year. Both samples show a negative relationship between government size and growth, though the reduction in growth as government becomes bigger is far more pronounced in Europe, particularly when government size exceeds 40 percent of GDP. …we provide new econometric evidence on the impact of government size on growth using a panel of advanced and emerging economies since 1995. As estimates can be biased due to problems of omitted variables, endogeneity, or measurement errors, it is necessary to rely on a broad range of estimators. …They suggest that a 10 percentage point increase in initial government spending as a share of GDP in Europe is associated with a reduction in annual real per capita GDP growth of around 0.6–0.9 percentage points a year (table A7.2). The estimates are roughly in line with those from panel regressions on advanced economies in the EU15 and OECD countries for periods from 1960 or 1970 to 1995 or 2005 (Bergh and Henrekson 2010 and 2011).

These results aren’t good news for Europe, but they also are a warning sign for the United States. The burden of government spending has jumped by about 8-percentage points of GDP since Bill Clinton left office, so this could be the explanation for why growth in America is so sluggish.

Last but not least, they report that social welfare spending does the most damage.

Governments are big in Europe mainly due to high social transfers, and big governments are a drag on growth. The question is whether this is because of high social transfers? The answer seems to be that it is. The regression results for Europe, using the same approach as outlined earlier, show a consistently negative effect of social transfers on growth, even though the coefficients vary in size and significance (table A7.4). The result is confirmed through BACE regressions. High social transfers might well be the negative link from government size to growth in Europe.

The last point in this passage needs to be emphasized. It is redistribution spending that does the greatest damage. In other words, it’s almost as if Obama (and his counterparts in places such as France and Greece) are trying to do the greatest possible damage to the economy.

In reality, of course, these politicians are simply trying to buy votes. But they need to understand that this shallow behavior imposes very high costs in terms of foregone growth.

To elaborate, this video discusses the Rahn Curve, which augments the data in the World Bank study.

As I argue in the video, even though most of the research shows that economic growth is maximized when government spending is about 20 percent of GDP, I think the real answer is that prosperity is maximized when the public sector consumes less than 10 percent of GDP.

But since government in the United States is now consuming more than 40 percent of GDP (about as much as Spain!), the first priority is to figure out some way of moving back in the right direction by restraining government so it grows slower than the private sector.