Tag: economics

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.

Acting as the Typhoid Mary of the Global Economy, the OECD Urges Higher Taxes in Latin America

Is it April Fool’s Day? Has somebody in Paris hacked the website at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development? Have we been transported to a parallel dimension where up is down and black is white?

Please forgive all these questions. I’m trying to figure out why any organization—even a leftist bureaucracy such as the OECD—would send out a press release entitled, “Rising tax revenues: a key to economic development in Latin American countries.”

Not even Keynesians, after all, think higher taxes are a recipe for growth.

Ah, never mind. I just remembered that the OECD is a hotbed of statism, so the press release makes perfect sense. After all, the U.S.-taxpayer-funded organization has become infamous for reflexively advocating big government.

With this dismal track record, it’s hardly a surprise that the Paris-based bureaucracy is now pushing to undermine prosperity in Latin America. Here’s some of what the OECD said in its release.

Additional tax revenues enable governments to simultaneously improve their competitiveness and promote social cohesion through increased spending on education, infrastructure and innovation. Latin American countries have made great strides over the past two decades in raising tax revenues.

You won’t be surprised when I tell you that the Paris-based bureaucrats do not bother to provide even the tiniest shred of proof to support the silly claim that higher taxes improve competitiveness. But that shouldn’t be surprising since even Keynesians don’t believe something that absurd.

And the claim about social cohesion also is a bit of a stretch given the riots, chaos, and social disarray in many European nations.

The only accurate part of the passage is that Latin American nations have increased tax burdens over the past 20 years. To the tax-free bureaucrats at the OECD, that is making “great strides.”

Let’s see what else the OECD had to say.

Despite these improvements, significant gaps between Latin America and OECD countries remain. The average tax to GDP ratio in OECD countries is much higher than in Latin American countries (33.8% compared to 19.2% in 2009, respectively). As the countries in the region still find themselves in relatively strong economic conditions, now is the time to consider reforms that generate long-term, stable resources for governments to finance development.

Wow. The OECD is implying that Latin American nations should mimic OECD nations. In other words, the bureaucrats in Paris apparently think it makes sense to tell nations to copy the failed high-tax, welfare-state model of countries such as Greece, Italy, and Spain.

Is that really the lesson they think people should learn from recent fiscal history? Are they really so oblivious and/or blinded by ideology that they issued the release as these European nations are in the middle of a fiscal crisis?

To further demonstrate their bias, the folks at the OECD even acknowledged that the Latin American nations, with their less oppressive tax regimes, are enjoying “relatively strong economic conditions.” Normal people would therefore conclude that the failed high-tax European nation should copy Latin America on fiscal policy, not the other way around. But not the geniuses at the OECD.

Now that we’ve addressed the awful policy advice of the OECD, let’s take a moment to look at the real policy challenges facing Latin America.

The Fraser Institute, in cooperation with dozens of other research organizations around the world, produces every year a comprehensive survey measuring Economic Freedom of the World.

The report ranks 141 nations based on dozens of variables that are used to construct scores for five key measures of economic freedom. Of those five categories, the Latin nations have the highest average ranking on…you guessed it…fiscal policy.

Yet the OECD wants policies that will undermine the competitiveness of the Latin nations, hurting them in the area where they are doing a halfway decent job.

If the bureaucrats actually wanted to boost economic performance in Latin America, they would be pressuring those nations to make reforms in the two areas where the burden of government is most severe—legal structure/property rights and regulation.

But that would make sense, which is contrary to the OECD’s mission of promoting statism.

The only semi-positive thing to say about the OECD is that it is consistent. As this video explains, the Paris-based bureaucrats are advocating bigger government in the United States. And to add insult to injury, they’re using American tax dollars to push that agenda.

What a scam. Politicians from various nations send taxpayer money to Paris. The bureaucrats at the OECD then issue reports and studies saying the politicians in those countries should raise taxes and increase the burden of government. Everybody wins…except for taxpayers and the global economy.

Per dollar spent, OECD subsidies may be the most destructively wasteful part of the federal budget. And that says a lot.

One Year Later, Another Look at Obamanomics vs. Reaganomics

On this day last year, I posted two charts that I developed using the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank’s interactive website.

Those two charts showed that the current recovery was very weak compared to the boom of the early 1980s.

But perhaps that was an unfair comparison. Maybe the Reagan recovery started strong and then hit a wall. Or maybe the Obama recovery was the economic equivalent of a late bloomer.

So let’s look at the same charts, but add an extra year of data. Does it make a difference?

Meh… not so much.

Let’s start with the GDP data. The comparison is striking. Under Reagan’s policies, the economy skyrocketed.  Heck, the chart prepared by the Minneapolis Fed doesn’t even go high enough to show how well the economy performed during the 1980s.

Under Obama’s policies, by contrast, we’ve just barely gotten back to where we were when the recession began. Unlike past recessions, we haven’t enjoyed a strong bounce. And this means we haven’t recovered the output that was lost during the downturn.

This is a damning indictment of Obamanomics

Indeed, I made this point several months ago when analyzing some work by Nobel laureate Robert Lucas. And it’s been highlighted more recently by James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute and the news pages of the Wall Street Journal.

Unfortunately, the jobs chart is probably even more discouraging. As you can see, employment is still far below where it started.

This is in stark contrast to the jobs boom during the Reagan years.

So what does this mean? How do we measure the human cost of the foregone growth and jobs that haven’t been created?

Writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, former Senator Phil Gramm and budgetary expert Mike Solon compare the current recovery to the post-war average as well as to what happened under Reagan.

If in this “recovery” our economy had grown and generated jobs at the average rate achieved following the 10 previous postwar recessions, GDP per person would be $4,528 higher and 13.7 million more Americans would be working today. …President Ronald Reagan’s policies ignited a recovery so powerful that if it were being repeated today, real per capita GDP would be $5,694 higher than it is now—an extra $22,776 for a family of four. Some 16.9 million more Americans would have jobs.

By the way, the Gramm-Solon column also addresses the argument that this recovery is anemic because the downturn was caused by a financial crisis. That’s certainly a reasonable argument, but they point out that Reagan had to deal with the damage caused by high inflation, which certainly wreaked havoc with parts of the financial system. They also compare today’s weak recovery to the boom that followed the financial crisis of 1907.

But I want to make a different point. As I’ve written before, Obama is not responsible for the current downturn. Yes, he was a Senator and he was part of the bipartisan consensus for easy money, Fannie/Freddie subsidies, bailout-fueled moral hazard, and a playing field tilted in favor of debt, but his share of the blame wouldn’t even merit an asterisk.

My problem with Obama is that he hasn’t fixed any of the problems. Instead, he has kept in place all of the bad policies - and in some cases made them worse. Indeed, I challenge anyone to identify a meaningful difference between the economic policy of Obama and the economic policy of Bush.

  • Bush increased government spending. Obama has been increasing government spending.
  • Bush adopted Keynesian “stimulus” policies. Obama adopted Keynesian “stimulus” policies.
  • Bush bailed out politically connected companies. Obama has been bailing out politically connected companies.
  • Bush supported the Fed’s easy-money policy. Obama has been supporting the Fed’s easy-money policy.
  • Bush created a new health care entitlement. Obama created a new health care entitlement.
  • Bush imposed costly new regulations on the financial sector. Obama imposed costly new regulations on the financial sector.

I could continue, but you probably get the  point. On economic issues, the only real difference is that Bush cut taxes and Obama is in favor of higher taxes. Though even that difference is somewhat overblown since Obama’s tax policies - up to this point - haven’t had a big impact on the overall tax burden (though that could change if his plans for higher tax rates ever go into effect).

This is why I always tell people not to pay attention to party labels. Bigger government doesn’t work, regardless of whether a politician is a Republican or Democrat. The problem isn’t Obamanomics, it’s Bushobamanomics. But since that’s a bit awkward, let’s just call it statism.

The Laffer Curve Works, Even in France

One year ago, I wrote about how the French government was getting unexpected additional revenues following the implementation of lower tax rates.

This is the Laffer Curve in action, and it’s happening again in France, only this time because the government reduced the wealth tax.

Here’s part of the story at Tax-news.com.

France’s solidarity tax on wealth (l’impôt de solidarité sur la fortune – ISF), which was radically reformed by the government in June last year, has served to yield much greater fiscal revenues for the state than initially predicted.

…[T]he government agreed that the solidarity tax on wealth would in future comprise of only two tax brackets: a 0.25% tax rate imposed on individuals with net taxable wealth in excess of EUR1.3m (USD1.7m), and a 0.5% tax rate levied on individuals with net taxable assets above EUR3m. Previously, the entry threshold at which wealth tax was applied was EUR800,000, with the rates varying between 0.55% and 1.8%. To alleviate any threshold effects, a discount mechanism was also instated applicable to wealth of between EUR1.3m and EUR1.4m, as well as to wealth of between EUR3m and EUR3.2m. Although the new provisions provide for lower tax rates and for the abolition of the first tax bracket, effectively exempting around 300,000 taxpayers from the tax, according to latest government figures, the tax yielded around EUR4.3bn in 2011, almost EUR60m more than originally forecast in the collective budget.

This is not to say that France is an example to follow. There shouldn’t be any wealth tax, and income tax rates are still far too high.

And it’s also worth remembering that tax policy is just one of many factors that determine economic performance.

That being said, nations that shift from terrible tax policy to bad tax policy will enjoy better economic performance, just as nations that go from good policy to great policy also will reap benefits.

In other words, incremental changes make a difference. That’s even the case when the politicians impose a “Snooki tax” on indoor tanning services.

The most dramatic Laffer Curve effects, though, occur when there are big changes in policy. The video after the jump looks at some of the evidence.

This video is part of a three-part series, by the way. Click here if you want to see the entire set.

Soak-the-Rich Taxes Create Happier Nations According to Junk Science Study

In the past 20-plus years, I’ve seen all sorts of arguments for class-warfare taxation.These include:

I suppose leftists deserve credit for being adaptable. Just about anything is an excuse for soak-the-rich tax hikes. The sun is shining, raise taxes! The sky is cloudy, increase tax rates!

But if there was an award for the strangest argument in favor of higher taxes, it would probably belong to a group of academics who have concluded that “progressive” tax systems make people happier.

I’m not kidding. There’s a new study making that assertion. Here are some passages from an announcement by the Association for Psychological Science.

…a new study comparing 54 nations found that flattening the tax risks flattening social wellbeing as well. “The more progressive the tax policy is, the happier the citizens are,” says University of Virginia psychologist Shigehiro Oishi, summarizing the findings, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. …Well-being was expressed in people’s assessments of their overall life quality, from “worst” to “best possible life,” on a scale of 1 to 10; and in whether they enjoyed positive daily experiences (such as smiling, being treated with respect, and eating good food) or suffered negative ones, including sadness, worry, and shame. …The degree of progressivity was measured by the difference between the highest and lowest tax rates, corrected for such confounding factors as family size, social security taxes paid, and tax benefits received by individuals. The results: On average, residents of the nations with the most progressive taxation evaluated their own lives as closer to “the best possible.”

The actual study isn’t available yet, but the release from APS screams junk science - especially since a study of American states found that high taxes lead to unhappiness.

But we should be skeptical of all this research. There are myriad pitfalls, including cultural differences.

But the most obvious problem is causality. Even if we assume it’s possible to make accurate cross-border comparisons of happiness, is there any reason to think that progressive tax rates are a causal factor, one way or the other? Heck, we may as well assume that crowing roosters cause the sun to appear.

Here’s one very obvious guess about what may cause the APS results. I’m guessing that people in Sweden and Denmark say they are happy. That’s not too surprising. They live in rich countries. But those countries became rich before the welfare state began and before high tax rates became the norm. So does it make sense to say they are happy because of high tax rates?

People in Mongolia and Bulgaria, by contrast, probably aren’t as happy as people in the Scandinavian nations. They live in relatively poor nations that suffered from decades of communist enslavement. In recent years, though, both nations implemented flat taxes in hopes of spurring growth and catching up to the rest of the world. But progress doesn’t happen overnight. So does it make sense to say that they are unhappy because the tax system isn’t “progressive”?

Ironically, the APS release does include the following results.

Higher government spending per se did not yield greater happiness, in spite of the well-being that was associated with satisfaction with state-funded services. In fact, there was a slight negative correlation between government spending and average happiness.

Since we do have good evidence that economic growth suffers as government expands, this conclusion makes a lot more sense.

But I’m still skeptical about happiness studies. Seems like they might suffer from the credibility issues associated with global warming research.

Actually, I retract that statement. Happiness research may be imprecise and susceptible to bias, but I doubt people in that field would ever make a claim as absurd as global warming causes AIDS. And I doubt they would try to do something as stupid as rationing toilet paper or create something as silly as a hand-cranked vibrator.

Will the Last Job Creator to Leave California Please Turn Off the Lights?

I’ve written before about whether California is the Greece of America, in part because of crazy policies such as overpaid bureaucrats and expensive forms of political correctness,

And we all know that California has one of the nation’s greediest governments, imposing confiscatory tax rates on a shrinking pool of productive citizens.

So it is hardly surprising that the Golden State is falling behind, losing jobs and investment to more sensible states such as Texas.

But not everybody is learning the right lessons from California’s fiscal and economic mess.

There’s a group of crazies who want to increase the top tax rate by five percentage points, an increase of about 50 percent. And they have made Kim Kardashian the poster child for their proposed ballot initiative.

I’m relatively clueless about popular culture, but even I’m aware that there is a group of people know as the Kardashian sisters. I don’t know who they are or what they do, but I gather they are famous in sort of the same way Paris Hilton was briefly famous.

And they have cashed in on their popularity, which may not reflect well on the tastes of the American people, but it’s not my job to tell other people how to spend their money.

But not everybody share this live-and-let-live attitude, which is why the pro-tax crowd in California produced this video.

I suppose I could criticize the petty dishonesty of the proponents, since they deliberately blurred of the difference between “tax rates” and “taxes paid.”

Or I could expose their economic illiteracy by pointing out that higher tax rates would accelerate the emigration of investors, entrepreneurs, small business owners, and other rich taxpayers to zero-tax states such as Nevada.

But I won’t do those things. Instead, like the Nevada Realtors Association and Arizona Business Relocation Department, I’m going to support this ballot initiative.

Not because I overdid the rum and eggnog at Christmas, but because it’s good to have negative role models, whether they are countries like Greece, cities such as Detroit, or states like California.

So here’s my challenge to the looters and moochers of the Golden State. Don’t just boost the top tax rate by five-percentage points. That’s not nearly enough. Go for a 20 percent top tax rate. Or 25 percent. After all, think of all the special interests that could use the money more than Ms. Kardashian.

And if somebody tells you that she will move to South Beach or Las Vegas, or that the other rich people will move to Texas, Wyoming, or Tennessee, just ignore them. Remember, it’s good intentions that count.

In closing, I apologize to the dwindling crowd of productive people in California. It’s rather unfortunate that you’re part of this statist experiment. But you know what they say about eggs and omelets.

By the way, here’s some humor about the Golden State, including a joke about the bloated bureaucracy and a comparison with Texas.

New Video Punctures Myths about Great Depression, Exposes Damaging Impact of Statist Policies by Hoover and FDR

I’ve commented many times about the misguided big-government policies of both Hoover and FDR, so I can say with considerable admiration that this new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity packs an amazing amount of solid info into about five minutes.

Perhaps the most surprising revelation in the video, at least to everyone other than economic historians, is that America suffered a harsh depression after World War I, with GDP falling by a staggering 24 percent.

But we don’t read much about that downturn in the history books, in large part because it ended so quickly.

The key question, though, is why did that depression end quickly while the Great Depression dragged on for a decade?

One big reason for the different results is that markets were largely left unmolested in the 1920s. This meant resources could be quickly redeployed, minimizing the downturn.

But this doesn’t mean the crowd in Washington was completely passive. They did do something to help the economy recover. As Ms. Fields explains in the video, President Harding, unlike Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt, slashed government spending.