Tag: economics

Are Well-Meaning but Misguided Conservatives Being Seduced by the Value-Added Tax?

Having a vision of a free society doesn’t mean libertarians are incapable of common-sense political calculations.

For example, the long-run goal is to dramatically shrink the size and scope of the federal government, both because that’s how the Founding Fathers wanted our system to operate and because our economy will grow much faster if labor and capital are allocated by economic forces rather than political calculations. But in the short run, I’m advocating for incremental progress in the form of modest spending restraint.

Why? Because that’s the best that we can hope for at the moment.

Another example of common-sense libertarianism is my approach to tax reform. One of the reasons I prefer the flat tax over the national sales tax is that I don’t trust that politicians will get rid of the income tax if they decide to adopt the Fair Tax. And if the politicians suddenly have two big sources of tax revenue, you better believe they’ll want to increase the burden of government spending.

Which is what happened (and is still happening) in Europe when value-added taxes were adopted.

And that’s a good segue to today’s topic, which deals with a common-sense analysis of the value-added tax.

Here’s the issue: I’m getting increasingly antsy because some very sound people are expressing support for the VAT.

I don’t object to their theoretical analysis. They say they don’t want the VAT in order to finance bigger government. Instead, they argue the VAT should be used only to replace the corporate income tax, which is a far more destructive way of generating revenue.

And if that was the final–and permanent–outcome of the legislative process, I would accept that deal in a heartbeat. But notice I added the requirement about a “permanent” outcome. That’s because I have two requirements for such a deal:

1. The corporate income tax could never be reinstated.

2. The VAT could never be increased.

And this shows why theoretical analysis can be dangerous without real-world considerations. Simply stated, there is no way to guarantee those two requirements without amending the Constitution, and that obviously isn’t part of the discussion.

The 95 Percent Rule, Bulgaria, and the New York Times

Recent reportage in the New York Times reminded me of my 95 Percent Rule: “95 percent of what you read about economics and finance is either wrong or irrelevant.” In her piece on the Bulgarian elections, Mariana Ionova wrote:

“[Bulgaria’s] economy is growing at an annual rate of about 1.6 percent, but that is the slowest pace in the union, and about half the European average.”

These alleged facts aren’t even in the ballpark (see the accompanying chart). Bulgaria is neither the slowest growing economy in the European Union, nor is it growing at half the European average. In fact, Bulgaria is growing slightly faster than the European average.

Once again, the 95 Percent Rule rules.

Krugman’s ‘Gotcha’ Moment Leaves Something to Be Desired

I’ve had some fun over the years by pointing out that Paul Krugman has butchered numbers when writing about fiscal policy in nations such as FranceEstoniaGermany, and the United Kingdom.

So I shouldn’t be surprised that he wants to catch me making an error. But I’m not sure his “gotcha” moment is very persuasive. Here’s some of what he wrote for today’s New York Times.

Gov. Jerry Brown was able to push through a modestly liberal agenda of higher taxes, spending increases and a rise in the minimum wage. California also moved enthusiastically to implement Obamacare. …Needless to say, conservatives predicted doom. …Daniel J. Mitchell of the Cato Institute declared that by voting for Proposition 30, which authorized those tax increases, “the looters and moochers of the Golden State” (yes, they really do think they’re living in an Ayn Rand novel) were committing “economic suicide.”

Kudos to Krugman for having read Atlas Shrugged, or for at least knowing that Rand sometimes referred to “looters and moochers.” Though I have to subtract points because he thinks I’m a conservative rather than a libertarian.

But what about his characterization of my position? Well, he’s right, though I’m predicting slow-motion suicide. Voting for a tax hike isn’t akin to jumping off the Golden Gate bridge. Instead, by further penalizing success and expanding the burden of government, California is engaging in the economic equivalent of smoking four packs of cigarettes every day instead of three and one-half packs.

A Grim Update on European Tax Policy

I wrote the other day that Americans, regardless of all the bad policy we get from Washington, should be thankful we’re not stuck in an economic graveyard like Venezuela.

But we also should be happy we’re not Europeans. This is a point I’ve made before, usually accompanied by data showing that Americans have significantly higher living standards than their cousins on the other side of the Atlantic.

It’s now time to re-emphasize that message. The European Commission has issued its annual report on “Taxation Trends” and it is–at least for wonks and others who care about fiscal policy–a fascinating and compelling document.

If you believe in limited government, you’ll read the report in the same way you might look at a deadly traffic accident, filled with morbid curiosity and fear that you may eventually suffer the same fate.

But if you’re a statist, you’ll read the report like a 14-year old boy with his first copy of a girlie magazine, filled with fantasies about eventually getting to experience what your eyes are seeing.

Let’s start by giving the bureaucrats some credit for self-awareness. They openly admit that the tax burden is very onerous in the European Union.

The EU remains a high tax area. In 2012, the overall tax ratio, i.e. the sum of taxes and compulsory actual social contributions in the 28 Member States (EU-28) amounted to 39.4 % in the GDP-weighted average, nearly 15 percentage points of GDP over the level recorded for the USA and around 10 percentage points above the level recorded by Japan. The tax level in the EU is high not only compared to those two countries but also compared to other advanced economies; among the major non-European OECD members for which recent detailed tax data is available, Russia (35.6 % of GDP in 2011) and New Zealand (31.8 % of GDP in 2011) have tax ratios exceeding 30 % of GDP, while tax-to-GDP ratios for Canada, Australia and South Korea (2011 data) remained well below 30 %.

The Miracle of Modern-Day Prosperity…and the Ideas and Policies that Made it Happen

Why are some nations rich and other nations poor? What has enabled some nations to escape poverty while others continue to languish?

And if we want to help poor nations prosper, what’s the right recipe?

Since I’m a public finance economist, I’m tempted to say a flat tax and small government are an elixir for prosperity, but those policies are just one piece of a bigger puzzle.

A country also needs sensible monetary policy, open trade, modest regulation, and rule of law. In other words, you need small government AND free markets.

But even that doesn’t really tell us what causes growth.

In the past, I’ve highlighted the importance of capital formation and shared a remarkable chart showing how workers earn more when the capital stock is larger (which is why we should avoid punitive double taxation of income that is saved and invested).

But that also doesn’t really answer the question. After all, if a larger capital stock was all that mattered, doesn’t that imply that we could get prosperity if government simply mandated more saving and investing?

There’s something else that’s necessary. Something perhaps intangible, but critically important.

Paul Martin: The Bill Clinton of Canada, Only Much Better

Imagine how weird it would be if the Cato Institute and Americans for Tax Reform praised Barack Obama for fiscal responsibility. And think how inconceivable it would be for the Heritage Foundation and the National Taxpayers Union to applaud Tim Geithner for economic stewardship.

The Canadian version of that happened while I was at the conference of the World Taxpayers Association in Vancouver two weeks ago.

The event was organized by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the main speaker was Paul Martin of the Liberal Party, who served as finance minister from 1993 to 2002, and then as prime minister from 2003 to 2006. I should add, for context, that the Liberal Party in Canada is not a classical liberal party with a track record of free markets and small government.

But Paul Martin was honored because he was responsible, while finance minister, for one of the best records of fiscal restraint of any policymaker in recent history (click here for international comparisons).

I’ve pointed out that the burden of spending fell under Bill Clinton, and I’ve even acknowledged that the federal budget hasn’t grown much under Obama, at least once you get past his first couple of years. But Paul Martin was far more frugal. And since Canada has a parliamentary system, there’s no ambiguity about who deserves credit. He restrained spending when his party had control.

What happened to generate the good results? For all intents and purposes, he imposed a spending freeze. And I’m talking a nominal spending freeze, not the kind of fake fiscal discipline you get when politicians make “cuts” off an inflated baseline. Because the budget was successfully restrained, that addressed both the problem of too much spending and the symptom of red ink.

Linear Thinking and the Rahn Curve: Responding to a Critic

There’s an old saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

That may be true if you’re in Hollywood and visibility is a key to long-run earnings.

But in the world of public policy, you don’t want to be a punching bag. And that describes my role in a book excerpt just published by Salon.

Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematics professor at the University of Wisconsin, has decided that I’m a “linear” thinker.

Here are some excerpts from the article, starting with his perception of my view on the appropriate size of government, presumably culled from this blog post.

Daniel J. Mitchell of the libertarian Cato Institute posted a blog entry with the provocative title: “Why Is Obama Trying to Make America More Like Sweden when Swedes Are Trying to Be Less Like Sweden?” Good question! When you put it that way, it does seem pretty perverse.  …Here’s what the world looks like to the Cato Institute… Don’t worry about exactly how we’re quantifying these things. The point is just this: according to the chart, the more Swedish you are, the worse off your country is. The Swedes, no fools, have figured this out and are launching their northwestward climb toward free-market prosperity.

I confess that he presents a clever and amusing caricature of my views.

My ideal world of small government and free markets would be a Libertopia, whereas total statism could be characterized as the Black Pit of Socialism.

But Ellenberg’s goal isn’t to merely describe my philosophical yearnings and policy positions. He wants to discredit my viewpoint.

So he suggests an alternative way of looking at the world.

Let me draw the same picture from the point of view of people whose economic views are closer to President Obama’s… This picture gives very different advice about how Swedish we should be. Where do we find peak prosperity? At a point more Swedish than America, but less Swedish than Sweden. If this picture is right, it makes perfect sense for Obama to beef up our welfare state while the Swedes trim theirs down.

He elaborates, emphasizing the importance of nonlinear thinking.

The difference between the two pictures is the difference between linearity and nonlinearity… The Cato curve is a line; the non-Cato curve, the one with the hump in the middle, is not. …thinking nonlinearly is crucial, because not all curves are lines. A moment of reflection will tell you that the real curves of economics look like the second picture, not the first. They’re nonlinear. Mitchell’s reasoning is an example of false linearity—he’s assuming, without coming right out and saying so, that the course of prosperity is described by the line segment in the first picture, in which case Sweden stripping down its social infrastructure means we should do the same. …you know the linear picture is wrong. Some principle more complicated than “More government bad, less government good” is in effect. …Nonlinear thinking means which way you should go depends on where you already are.

Ellenberg then points out, citing the Laffer Curve, that “the folks at Cato used to understand” the importance of nonlinear analysis.

The irony is that economic conservatives like the folks at Cato used to understand this better than anybody. That second picture I drew up there? …I am not the first person to draw it. It’s called the Laffer curve, and it’s played a central role in Republican economics for almost forty years… if the government vacuums up every cent of the wage you’re paid to show up and teach school, or sell hardware, or middle-manage, why bother doing it? Over on the right edge of the graph, people don’t work at all. Or, if they work, they do so in informal economic niches where the tax collector’s hand can’t reach. The government’s revenue is zero… the curve recording the relationship between tax rate and government revenue cannot be a straight line.

So what’s the bottom line? Am I a linear buffoon, as Ellenberg suggests?

Well, it’s possible I’m a buffoon in some regards, but it’s not correct to pigeonhole me as a simple-minded linear thinker. At least not if the debate is about the proper size of government.

I make this self-serving claim for the simple reason that I’m a big proponents of the Rahn Curve, which is …drum roll please… a nonlinear way of looking at the relationship between the size of government and economic performance. And just in case you think I’m prevaricating, here’s a depiction of the Rahn Curve that was excerpted from my video on that specific topic.

Moreover, if you click on Rahn Curve category of my blog, you’ll find about 20 posts on the topic. And if you type “Rahn Curve” in the search box, you’ll find about twice as many mentions.

So why didn’t Ellenberg notice any of this research?

Beats the heck out of me. Perhaps he made a linear assumption about a supposed lack of nonlinear thinking among libertarians.

In any event, here’s my video on the Rahn Curve so you can judge for yourself.

And if you want information on the topic, here’s a video from Canada and here’s a video from the United Kingdom.

P.S. I would argue that both the United States and Sweden are on the downward-sloping portion of the Rahn Curve, which is sort of what Ellenberg displays on his first graph. Had he been more thorough in his research, though, he would have discovered that I think growth is maximized when the public sector consumes about 10 percent of GDP.

P.P.S. Ellenberg’s second chart puts the U.S. and Sweden at the same level of prosperity. Indeed, it looks like Sweden is a bit higher. That’s certainly not what we see in the international data on living standards. Moreover, Ellenberg may want to apply some nonlinear thinking to the data showing that Swedes in America earn a lot more than Swedes still living in Sweden.

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