Tag: Research

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.

Obama’s First 100 Days: Mixed Record on Foreign Policy

Cato foreign policy experts weigh in on President Obama’s record in his first 100 days:

Christopher Preble, Director Foreign Policy Studies:

President Obama deserves credit for making a few modest changes in U.S. foreign and defense policy, and he has signaled a desire to make more fundamental shifts in the future. Some of these may prove helpful, while others are likely to encounter problems. In the end, however, so long as the president is unwilling to revisit some of the core assumptions that have guided U.S grand strategy for nearly two decades – chief among these the conceit that the United States is the world’s indispensable nation, and that we must take the lead in resolving all the world’s problems – then he will be unable to effect the broad changes that are truly needed.

Ted Galen Carpenter, Vice President Defense & Foreign Policy Studies; Christopher Preble:

On the plus side, Obama moved quickly to fulfill his most important foreign policy promise: ending the war in Iraq. That said, the policy that his administration will implement is consistent with the agreement that the outgoing Bush administration negotiated with the Iraqis. Given that the war has undermined U.S. security interests, and our continuing presence there is costly and counterproductive, Obama should have proposed to remove U.S. troops on a faster timetable.

Malou Innocent, Foreign Policy Analyst:

The jury is still out on the other major, ongoing military operation, the war in Afghanistan. That mission is directly related to events in neighboring Pakistan, which is serving – and has served – as a safe haven for Taliban supporters for years. President Obama deserves credit for approaching the problem with both countries together, and also in a regional context, which includes Iran, as well as India. Still unknown is the scope and scale of the U.S. commitment. President Obama has approved a nearly 50 percent increase in the number of U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan. Some have suggested that still more troops are needed, and that these additional troop numbers might prevail for 10-15 years. That would be a mistake. The United States should be looking for ways to increase the capacity of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to confront the extremism in their countries, and should not allow either to grow dependent upon U.S. military and financial support.

Christopher Preble and Ted Galen Carpenter:

On Iran, President Obama made the right decision by agreeing to join the P5 + 1 negotiations, but that is only a first step. The two sides are far apart and President Obama has not signaled his intentions if negotiations fail to produce a definitive breakthrough. Sanctions have had a very uneven track record, and are unlikely to succeed in convincing the Iranians to permanently forego uranium enrichment. If the Iranians are intent upon acquiring nuclear weapons, military action would merely delay Iran ’s program, and would serve in the meantime to rally support for an otherwise unpopular clerical regime, and a manifestly incompetent president.

Doug Bandow, Senior Fellow; Christopher Preble:

A related problem is North Korea’s ongoing nuclear program, an area where the president and his team seem to be grasping for answers. President Obama was mistaken if he believed that that the UN Security Council would render a meaningful response to Pyongyang’s provocative missile launch. It was naive, at best, for him to believe that even a strong rebuke from the UNSC would have altered Kim Jong Il’s behavior. The president must directly engage China, the only country with any significant influence over Kim. The North’s reckless and unpredictable behavior does not serve Beijing’s interests.

Benjamin Friedman, Research Fellow; Christopher Preble:

Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are correct to apply greater scrutiny to bloated Pentagon spending, and to terminating unnecessary weapon systems, but the budget will actually grow slightly, at a time when we should be looking for ways to trim spending. If President Obama decided to avoid Iraq-style occupations, we could cut our ground forces in half. If we stopped planning for near-term war with China or Russia, the Air Force and Navy could be much smaller. Unless we commit to a grand strategy of restraint, and encourage other countries to provide for their own defense, it will be impossible to make the large-scale cuts in military spending that are needed.

Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies; Benjamin Friedman; Christopher Preble:

Two other quick points. President Obama has moved away from some of the overheated rhetoric surrounding counterterrorism and homeland security, including dropping the phrase ‘War on Terror”. This was the right approach. The language surrounding the fight against terrorism is as important – if not more important – than the actual fight itself. Equally useful is his pledge to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and his renunciation of the use of torture and other illegal means in the first against al Qaeda. These steps send an important message to audiences outside of the United States who cooperation is essential.

Ian Vasquez, Director, Center for Global Liberty & Prosperity; Juan Carlos Hidalgo, Project Coordinator for Latin America.

President Obama has signaled a slight change on US-Cuba policy by softening some travel and financial restrictions. It is not as far as we would have liked, but it is a step in the right direction – toward greater engagement, as opposed to more isolation, which was the approach adopted by the Bush administration.

For more research, check out Cato’s foreign policy and national security page.

Who’s Blogging about Cato

Here’s a round-up of bloggers who are writing about Cato research and commentary:

  • QandO’s Michael Wade offered his own thoughts on the New York Times blogger who said Cato’s voice against bailouts has not met her “expectations of adequate noise.”
  • The Atlantic’s Clive Crook reviewed the new Cato book, The Beautiful Tree, which explains how private education efforts are empowering children in Third World nations.
  • Blogging on Tax Day, Jacob Grier cited Charlotte Twight’s essay in Cato Journal on the history of income tax withholding in the United States.
Topics:

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.

Week in Review: Successful Voucher Programs, Immigration Debates and a New Path for Africa

Federal Study Supports School Vouchers

arne_duncanLast week, a U.S. Department of Education study revealed that students participating in a Washington D.C. voucher pilot program outperformed peers attending public schools.

According to The Washington Post, the study found that “students who used the vouchers received reading scores that placed them nearly four months ahead of peers who remained in public school.” In a statement, education secretary Arne Duncan said that the Obama administration “does not want to pull participating students out of the program but does not support its continuation.”

Why then did the Obama administration “let Congress slash the jugular of DC’s school voucher program despite almost certainly having an evaluation in hand showing that students in the program did better than those who tried to get vouchers and failed?”

The answer, says Cato scholar Neal McCluskey, lies in special interests and an unwillingness to embrace change after decades of maintaining the status quo:

It is not just the awesome political power of special interests, however, that keeps the monopoly in place. As Terry Moe has found, many Americans have a deep, emotional attachment to public schooling, one likely rooted in a conviction that public schooling is essential to American unity and success. It is an inaccurate conviction — public schooling is all-too-often divisive where homogeneity does not already exist, and Americans successfully educated themselves long before “public schooling” became widespread or mandatory — but the conviction nonetheless is there. Indeed, most people acknowledge that public schooling is broken, but feel they still must love it.

Susan L. Aud and Leon Michos found the program saved the city nearly $8 million in education costs in a 2006 Cato study that examined the fiscal impact of the voucher program.

To learn more about the positive effect of school choice on poor communities around the world, join the Cato Institute on April 15 to discuss James Tooley’s new book, The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves.

Obama Announces New Direction on Immigration

The New York Times reports, “President Obama plans to begin addressing the country’s immigration system this year, including looking for a path for illegal immigrants to become legal, a senior administration official said on Wednesday.”

In the immigration chapter of the Cato Handbook for Policymakers, Cato trade analyst Daniel T. Griswold offered suggestions on immigration policy, which include:

  • Expanding current legal immigration quotas, especially for employment-based visas.
  • Creating a temporary worker program for lower-skilled workers to meet long-term labor demand and reduce incentives for illegal immigration.
  • Refocusing border-control resources to keep criminals and terrorists out of the country.

In a 2002 Cato Policy Analysis, Griswold made the case for allowing Mexican laborers into the United States to work.

For more on the argument for open borders, watch Jason L. Riley of The Wall Street Journal editorial board speak about his book, Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders.

In Case You Couldn’t Join Us
Cato hosted a number of fascinating guests recently to speak about new books, reports and projects.

  • Salon writer Glenn Greenwald discussed a new Cato study that exadead-aidmines the successful drug decriminalization program in Portugal.
  • Patri Friedman of the Seasteading Institute explained his project to build self-sufficient deep-sea platforms that would empower individuals to break free of national governments and start their own societies on the ocean.
  • Dambisa Moyo, author of the book Dead Aid, spoke about her research that shows how government-to-government aid fails. She proposed an “aid-free solution” to development, based on the experience of successful African countries.

Find full-length videos to all Cato events on Cato’s events archive page.

Also, don’t miss Friday’s Cato Daily Podcast with legal policy analyst David Rittgers on Obama’s surge strategy in Afghanistan.

Who’s Blogging about Cato

greenwald-catoOn April 3, Cato hosted a special blogger briefing with Glenn Greenwald, who was here to speak about his new paper on the success of drug decriminalization in Portugal.

Here are a few highlights from bloggers who wrote about it:

  • Jesse Singal, associate editor of Campus Progress, a project of the Center for American Progress

Also, a few links to bloggers who are writing about Cato:

If you are blogging about Cato, let us know by emailing cmoody [at] cato [dot] org or catch us on Twitter @catoinstitute.

New at Cato Unbound

This month’s Cato Unbound continues our tradition of stirring up controversy. The lead essay is by Patri Friedman, who challenges the advocates of liberty as follows:

I deeply yearn to live in an actual free society, not just to imagine a theoretical future utopia or achieve small incremental gains in freedom. For many years, I enthusiastically advocated for liberty under the vague assumption that advocacy would help our cause. However, I recently began trying to create free societies as my full-time job, and this has given me a dramatic perspective shift from my days of armchair philosophizing. My new perspective is that the advocacy approach which many libertarian individuals, groups, and think tanks follow (including me sometimes, sadly) is an utter waste of time.

Argument has refined our principles, and academic research has enlarged our understanding, but they have gotten us no closer to an actual libertarian state. Our debating springs not from calculated strategy, but from an intuitive “folk activism”: an instinct to seek political change through personal interaction, born in our hunter-gatherer days when all politics was personal. In the modern world, however, bad policies are the result of human action, not human design. To change them we must understand how they emerge from human interaction, and then alter the web of incentives that drives behavior. Attempts to directly influence people or ideas without changing incentives, such as the U.S. Libertarian Party, the Ron Paul campaign, and academic research, are thus useless for achieving real-world liberty.

Cato isn’t called out by name, but it easily could have been. Like I said, Cato Unbound tries to be controversial.

What’s needed, Friedman claims, is not more study or advocacy, but a change in the deeper institutional structures that give rise to government policies. Competition among states (and non-state agents!), new technologies, and new intentional communities may just induce old-fashioned governments to behave a whole lot better. By contrast, just recommending somewhat better policies won’t do very much, not if all we do is write about them. (Friedman seems particularly skeptical about blogs. Ahem.)

Is this just a young person’s impatience? Or has Friedman found a serious weakness in libertarian activism? One reply I might make is that Cato scholars have researched quite a few topics that Friedman would probably find worthwhile. It’s important to document these things, and much of this work directly furthers the kind of structural reform that Friedman favors.

Consider the many Cato scholars who have heralded the rise of tax competition – in which states feel increasing pressure to deliver a low-cost product when their taxpayers can move elsewhere. Or consider Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter, a book whose conclusions inform Friedman’s own project. This book began with a series of discussions among public policy scholars (on a blog no less!). Cato actively promoted Caplan’s work, and we would hope that Friedman would find this an effort well-spent. An upcoming event with author James Tooley shows how the world’s poor are founding their own schools to educate themselves, admirably free from any state interference – a new, private social practice bests an incompetent government! These things matter, I’d say, and they matter even if we accept Friedman’s premises. (We’re also giving a platform to Friedman, both here and at an event on April 7.)

In any case, this a big and very important discussion for the libertarian movement, of which the Cato Institute is only a part. Cato Unbound will have a remarkable series of panelists commenting throughout this week and next, including Jason Sorens, founder of the Free State Project; Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and noted philanthropist; and Brian Doherty, who has researched and written about more forms of libertarian activism than most of us can even recall. Whatever side of the debate you end up taking, be sure to stop by to catch this month’s edition of Cato Unbound.