Tag: United Kingdom

School Funding System Not Broken… It Just Doesn’t Work

We do not claim that the school funding system… is fundamentally flawed, only that there is no correlation at all between the level of per pupil funding and educational outcomes. —Deloitte

Hahahahaha! Ha! Haha! Haaaaaah. Okay. Now a little context.

Last November, the British government “published” a study of its state school system that it had commissioned from the accounting firm Deloitte. Maybe “published” is too strong a word, since there was apparently no press release, no news conference, no effort of any kind to make the public or the media aware of its existence. Perhaps that’s because the study found no correlation between spending and achievement in Britain’s state schools, and the current government’s policy is to increase spending on state schools in an effort to be seen to be doing something.

The sad thing is, the same fundamentally flawed funding systems and dysfunctional political incentives exist in the United States, too… and with much the same effect:

Chart of trends in U.S. public schooling

Hat tip: Joanne Jacobs.

Osborne Risks a Triple-Dip for the UK

U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has resumed his saber-rattling over raising capital requirements for British banks. Most recently, Osborne has fixated on alleged problems with banks’ risk-weighting metrics that, according to him, have left banks undercapitalized. Regardless of Osborne’s rationale, this is just the latest wave in a five-year assault on the U.K. banking system – one which has had disastrous effects on the country’s money supply. The initial rounds of capital hikes took their toll on the British economy – in the form of a double-dip recession. Now, Osborne appears poised to light the fuse on a triple-dip recession.

Even before the Conservative, Osborne, took the reins of Her Majesty’s Treasury, hiking capital requirements on banks was in vogue among British regulators. Indeed, it was under Gordon Brown’s Labour government, in late 2007, that this wrong-headed idea took off.

In the aftermath of his government’s bungling of the Northern Rock crisis, Gordon Brown – along with his fellow members of the political chattering classes in the U.K. – turned his crosshairs on the banks, touting “recapitalization” as the only way to make banks “safer” and prevent future bailouts.

It turns out that Mr. Brown attracted many like-minded souls, including the central bankers who endorsed Basel III, which mandates higher capital-asset ratios for banks. In response to Basel III, banks have shrunk their loan books and dramatically increased their cash and government securities positions, which are viewed under Basel as “risk-free,” requiring no capital backing. By contrast, loans, mortgages, etc. are “risk-weighted” – meaning banks are required by law to back them with capital. This makes risk-weighted assets more “expensive” for a bank to hold on its balance sheet, giving banks an incentive to lend less as capital requirements are increased. 

Five years later, Osborne is attempting to ratchet up the weights on these assets. Indeed, he is taking another whack at banks’ balance sheets – and the result will be the same as when the U.K. Financial Services Authority first took aim at the banking system (under Gordon Brown). As the accompanying chart shows, the first round of capital requirement hikes (in 2008) dealt a devastating blow to the U.K. money supply. Indeed, it tightened the noose on the supply of bank money – the portion of the total money supply produced by the banking system, through deposit creation.

Not surprisingly, this sent the British economy spiraling into its first recessionary dip. The second hit to the money supply came shortly after the Bank for International Settlements announced the imposition of capital hikes under the Basel III accords, in October 2010. Despite numerous infusions of state money (reserve money) via the Bank of England’s quantitative easing schemes, these first two squeezes on bank money have put the squeeze on the U.K.’s total money supply.

This is the case because state money makes up only 16.3% of the U.K.’s total money supply. The remaining 83.7% of the money supply is made up of bank money. In consequence, the Bank of England would have to undertake a massive expansion of state money, via quantitative easing, to offset the U.K.’s bank money squeeze.

It is doubtful, however, that the British pound sterling would be able to withstand such a move. Indeed, there are more storm clouds brewing over Threadneedle Street. The sterling recently touched a 15-month low against the euro, and it has fallen 8% against the euro since late July. For the time being, at least, the pound’s tenuous position will likely put a constraint on any further significant expansion of state money, through quantitative easing. It appears markets simply wouldn’t tolerate it.

Accordingly, the only viable option to jumpstart the faltering U.K. economy is to release the banking system from the grips of the government-imposed bank-money squeeze. Alas, Osborne’s most recent initiative on bank recapitalization goes in exactly the wrong direction.

America’s European Diplomacy: A Bull in a China Shop

The U.S. government appears to be pathologically unable not to interfere in matters foreign as well as domestic. According to the Sun, the Obama Administration has warned the British government not to hold a referendum on remaining a part of the European Union. The U.S. assistant secretary for Europe Philip Gordon said that, “We have a growing relationship with the EU, which has an increasing voice in the world, and we want to see a strong British voice in it. That is in America’s interests.” He added that, “Referendums have often turned countries inward.”

Predictably, the British are annoyed. Bernard Jenkin, a Conservative Party member of Parliament said:

“The Americans don’t understand Europe. They have a default position that sometimes the United States of Europe is going to be the same as the United States of America. They haven’t got a clue.”

Another parliamentarian, Peter Bone, said that Gordon should “butt out” and that the British membership of the EU had “nothing to do with the Americans.” “It’s quite ridiculous,” he added, “and it’s not what you’d expect from a member of the senior executive in the USA.”

Quite so! After all, how would Americans feel if the British government opined about U.S. membership in NAFTA? Would they not be a bit “miffed?” Not too long ago, the then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice urged the Europeans to accept Turkey as an EU member state. Again, how would Americans feel if the Europeans urged the U.S. government to make Mexico America’s 51st state?

Moreover, is it really a good idea for the U.S. government to be dissuading foreign governments from consulting their people on matters of national interest? Not quite democratic, is it?

Finally, consider the astonishing brazenness of America’s government officials. Note that Gordon did not say that British membership of the EU was in the British interest. Instead, he simply stated that the British membership of the EU was in America’s interest. That, presumably, settles the matter for everyone. Gordon’s behavior is worthy of a Roman proconsul throwing his weight around some impoverished province on the edge of the world. It is not what people expect from a White House administration that supposedly wishes to correct the foreign policy mistakes of the previous one.

Higher Taxes on the Rich Are a Precursor to Higher Taxes on the Rest of Us

President Obama repeatedly assures us that he only wants higher taxes on the rich as part of his class-warfare agenda.

But I don’t trust him. In part because he’s a politician, but also because there aren’t enough rich people to finance big government (not to mention that the rich easily can alter their financial affairs to avoid higher tax rates).

Honest leftists are beginning to admit that their real target is the middle class. Here are a few examples.

In other words, politicians often say they want to tax the rich, but the real target is the middle class. Indeed, this is the history of tax policy. In a post earlier this year, warning the folks in the Cayman Islands not to impose an income tax, I noted how the U.S. income tax began small and then swallowed up more and more people.

[T]he U.S. income tax began in 1913 with a top rate of only 7 percent and it affected less than 1 percent of the population. But that supposedly benign tax has since become a monstrous internal revenue code that plagues the nation today.

The same thing is true elsewhere in the world.

Allister Heath explains for London’s City A.M. newspaper.

The introduction of income taxes around the world have tended to follow a very similar pattern over the past couple of centuries. First, we get generally low income tax rates, with most people exempt and with the highest rate only affecting a few people relatively lightly. Eventually, tax rates shoot up for everybody – including to crippling levels for top earners – and millions more are caught by income tax. The next stage is that the ultra-high tax rates for top earners are reduced to manageable levels – but ever more people are brought into the tax system, with the higher brackets also catching vastly more folk.

By the way, you can see that Allister makes a reference to tax rates being reduced for top earners. That’s largely because many politicians learned an important lesson about the Laffer Curve. Sometimes, the best way to “soak the rich” is by lowering their tax rates. Unfortunately, President Obama still needs some remedial education on this topic.

Allister then looks at some specific United Kingdom data revealing how more and more middle class people are now subject to higher tax rates.

The biggest change in the UK has been the number of people paying what is now the 40p tax rate: up six-fold in thirty years, from 674,000 in 1979-80, 2.5m in 1999-2000 to 4.048m in 2011-12. This number will jump again to around 5m in 2014, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. When Margaret Thatcher came to power, just 2.6 per cent of taxpayers paid the top rate; by the time of the next election, 16.7 per cent will.

If Obama and other statists get their way, we’ll see similar statistic in the United States. Higher income tax rates for the rich will mean higher income tax rates for the rest of us. Though I’m even more worried about a value-added tax, which would be a huge burden on ordinary people and a revenue machine for greedy politicians.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that the American tax code actually is more “progressive” than the tax codes of Europe’s welfare states. This is largely because we don’t pillage poor and middle-class taxpayers with a VAT.

P.S.: Since I mentioned the Laffer Curve above, I should emphasize that the goal of good tax policy should be to maximize growth, not to maximize tax revenue.

P.P.S.: And don’t forget that poor and middle-income taxpayers also will be hurt because slower growth is an inevitable consequence when tax rates climb and the burden of government spending increases.

The Laffer Curve Wreaks Havoc in the United Kingdom

Back in 2010, I excoriated the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, noting that David Cameron was increasing tax rates and expanding the burden of government spending (including an increase in the capital gains tax!).

I also criticized Cameron for leaving in place the 50 percent income tax rate imposed by his feckless predecessor, and was not surprised when experts began to warn that this class-warfare tax hike might actually result in less revenue because the reduction in taxable income could be more significant than the increase in the tax rate.

In other words, bad policy might lead to a turbo-charged version of the Laffer Curve.

Allow me to elaborate. In most cases, punitive tax hikes do raise revenue, but not as much as politicians predict. As explained in this three-part video series, this is because it takes a very significant reduction in taxable income to offset the revenue-generating impact of the higher tax rate.

But if a tax increase imposes a lot of damage and taxpayers have enough flexibility in their financial affairs, then it’s possible that a tax hike can lose revenue (or, as we saw with Reagan’s “tax cuts for the rich,” a well-designed reduction in tax rates can actually generate higher revenue).

With that background knowledge, let’s now take a closer look at David Cameron’s tax increases. They’ve been in place for a while, so we can look at some real-world data. Allister Heath of City AM has the details.

Something very worrying is happening to the UK’s public finances. Income tax and capital gains tax receipts fell by 7.3 per cent in May compared with a year ago, according to official figures. Over the first two months of the fiscal year, they are down by 0.5 per cent. This is merely the confirmation of a hugely important but largely overlooked trend: income and capital gains tax (CGT) receipts were stagnant in 2011-12, edging up by just £414m to £151.7bn, from £151.3bn, a rise of under 0.3 per cent. By contrast, overall tax receipts rose 3.9 per cent.

Is this because the United Kingdom is cutting tax rates? Nope. As we mentioned in the introduction, Cameron is doing just the opposite.

…overall taxes on labour and capital have been hiked: the 50p tax was introduced from April 2010 (and will fall to a still high 45p in April 2013), those earning above £150,000 have lost their personal allowance, CGT has risen to 28 per cent, many workers have been dragged into higher tax thresholds, and so on. In theory, if one were to believe the traditional static model of tax, beloved of establishment economists, this should have meant higher receipts, not lower revenues.

So what’s the problem? Well, it seems that there’s thing called the Laffer Curve.

…there is a revenue-maximising rate of tax – and that if you set rates too high, you raise less because people work less, find ways of avoiding tax or quit the country. The world isn’t static, it is dynamic; people respond to tax rates, just as they respond to other prices. Laffer told a gathering at the Institute of Economic Affairs that this is definitely true in the UK today – and the struggling tax take revealed in the official numbers suggest that he is right. Tax rates and levels are so high as to be counterproductive: slashing capital gains tax would undoubtedly increase its yield, for example. Many self-employed workers are delaying incomes as much as possible until the new, lower top rate of tax kicks in.

Allister’s column also makes the critical point that not all taxes are created equal.

…higher VAT is also damaging growth, though it is still yielding more. Some taxes can still raise more – but try doing that with income tax, CGT or corporation tax and the result is now clearly counter-productive. These taxes are maxed out; they have been pushed beyond their ability to raise revenues.

Last but not least, he makes an essential point about the role of bad spending policy.

The problem is that spending is too high – central government current expenditure is up by 3.7 per cent year on year in April-May – not that taxes are too low. The result is that the April-May budget deficit reached £30.7bn, some £6.2bn higher than a year ago.

By the way, you won’t be surprised to learn that Paul Krugman has been whining about “spending cuts” in the United Kingdom, even though the burden of the public sector has been climbing. But given his outlandish errors about Estonia, we shouldn’t be surprised.

But that’s not the point of this post. The relevant question is why do politicians pursue bad policy and why do some economists aid and abet bad policy?

For politicians, I think the answer is easy. They simply care about getting elected and holding power. So if they think class-warfare tax policy is the way of achieving those narcissistic goals, they’ll push higher tax rates. Even if it means lower revenue, notwithstanding their usual desire to have more money so they can buy more votes.

I’m more mystified by the behavior of economists. Let’s look at a couple of examples. Justin Wolfers and Mark Thoma recently cited some survey data to claim that the Laffer Curve was universally rejected by the profession.

But as James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute explained, the survey actually showed just the opposite, with economists by a margin of nearly 5-1 agreeing that lower tax rates could boost GDP (and therefore taxable income).

Those economists did say that a reduction in tax rates, based on current levels, would not cause taxable income to jump by a large enough amount to fully offset the revenue-losing impact of the lower tax rate. But the Laffer Curve says that only happens in extreme circumstances, so there’s zero contradiction.

So why did Wolfers and Thoma create a straw man in an attempt to discredit the Laffer Curve?

I have no idea, but Republican politicians probably deserve some of the blame. Too many of them make silly claims that “all tax cuts pay for themselves,” even when talking about new credits and deductions that have no positive impact on economic performance.

To the extent that Wolfers, Thoma, and others think that’s what the Laffer Curve is all about, then their skepticism is warranted.

But if that’s the case, they should read what Art Laffer actually wrote so they can be more accurate in the future. Or they can watch these three videos.

Part I describes the theory.

Part II describes the evidence.

And Part III explains the sloppy and inaccurate revenue-estimating methodology of the Joint Committee on Taxation.

But if they think I’m too biased or that Art is similarly misguided, then they should look at some of the evidence produced by other economists.

The sooner they get up to speed on these issues, the sooner they can help give politicians good advice so that the Laffer Curve doesn’t cause more unpleasant surprises.

Notwithstanding David Cameron’s Statolatry, Tax Avoidance Is Both Legal and Moral

I’m not a fan of David Cameron, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister.

Even though he belongs to the Conservative Party that produced the great Margaret Thatcher, Cameron seems to be a bit of guilt-ridden statist with his finger always in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. The policy results are not pretty.

Now I have another reason to dislike Cameron. He just condemned a comedian for legally seeking to minimize the amount of his income that is seized - and then wasted - by the U.K. government. Here are some of the details from The Telegraph.

Prime Minister David Cameron today branded the tax arrangement of comedian Jimmy Carr “morally wrong” after it emerged he was using a scheme which allows the wealthy to pay as little as one per cent of their income. …Speaking at the G20 summit the Prime Minister told ITV News: “I think some of these schemes - and I think particularly of the Jimmy Carr scheme - I have had time to read about and I just think this is completely wrong. “People work hard, they pay their taxes, they save up to go to one of his shows. They buy the tickets. He is taking the money from those tickets and he, as far as I can see, is putting all of that into some very dodgy tax avoiding schemes. …some of these schemes we have seen are quite frankly morally wrong.” …Lawyers for the comedian have…categorically denied any wrongdoing, saying the scheme had been disclosed to the relevant authorities in line with the law. …Chancellor George Osborne has claimed he was left “shocked” after finding the extent to which multi-millionaires were exploiting tax loopholes and vowed to take “action”.

 I have no idea whether the specific “tax avoiding scheme” used by Carr is good tax policy (protecting against double taxation, for instance) or bad policy (such as a loophole that creates favoritism for a specific behavior), but that’s not the point of this post.

Instead, this is a moral question about whether people have some sort of obligation to pay extra tax, merely to get some sort of pat on the head from politicians. The same politicians, by the way, that squander the money on varying vote-buying schemes that undermine prosperity and create dependency.

I’d be willing to condemn Carr if I found out he’s some sort of statist who wants higher taxes for everybody else, but then (like John Kerry) takes steps to minimize his personal tax bill.

But I’d be condemning Carr for hypocrisy, not criticizing the idea of tax avoidance.

The United Kingdom has become a bloated welfare state (with horribly depressing implications, as you can read here and here). If people want to be moral, they should strive to pay the least amount possible to this corrupt and wasteful enterprise. The United States is not quite as bad (yet), but the same principle applies.

Politicians, needless to say, will violently disagree with this ethical viewpoint. So we can all expect more taxes, higher taxes, and additional draconian enforcement measures.

The only good news is that the Laffer Curve will prevent these greedy thugs from collecting nearly as much money as they think.

P.S. To get an idea of how the Conservative Party has declined, compare Cameron’s statist rhetoric to Margaret Thatcher’s comments that “there is no such thing as public money.”

Paul Krugman and the European Austerity Myth

With both France and Greece deciding to jump out of the left-wing frying pan into the even-more-left-wing fire, European fiscal policy has become quite a controversial topic.

But I find this debate and discussion rather tedious and unrewarding, largely because it pits advocates of Keynesian spending (the so-called “growth” camp) against supporters of higher taxes (the “austerity” camp).

Since I’m a big fan of nations lowering taxes and reducing the burden of government spending, I would like to see the pro-tax hike and the pro-spending sides both lose (wasn’t that Kissinger’s attitude about the Iran-Iraq war?). Indeed, this is why I put together this matrix, to show that there is an alternative approach.

One of my many frustrations with this debate (Veronique de Rugy is similarly irritated) is that many observers make the absurd claim that Europe has implemented “spending cuts” and that this approach hasn’t worked.

Here is what Prof. Krugman just wrote about France.

The French are revolting. …Mr. Hollande’s victory means the end of “Merkozy,” the Franco-German axis that has enforced the austerity regime of the past two years. This would be a “dangerous” development if that strategy were working, or even had a reasonable chance of working. But it isn’t and doesn’t; it’s time to move on. …What’s wrong with the prescription of spending cuts as the remedy for Europe’s ills? One answer is that the confidence fairy doesn’t exist — that is, claims that slashing government spending would somehow encourage consumers and businesses to spend more have been overwhelmingly refuted by the experience of the past two years. So spending cuts in a depressed economy just make the depression deeper.

And he’s made similar assertions about the United Kingdom, complaining that, “the government of Prime Minister David Cameron chose instead to move to immediate, unforced austerity, in the belief that private spending would more than make up for the government’s pullback.”

So let’s take a look at the actual data and see how much “slashing” has been implemented in France and the United Kingdom. Here’s a chart with the latest data from the European Union.

I’m not sure how Krugman defines austerity, but it certainly doesn’t look like there’s been a lot of “slashing” in these two nations.

To be fair, government spending in the United Kingdom has grown a bit slower than inflation in the past couple of years, so one could say that there’s been a very modest bit of trimming.

There’s been no fiscal restraint in France, however, even if one uses that more relaxed definition of a cut. The only accurate claim that can be made about France is that the burden of government spending hasn’t been growing quite as fast since the crisis began as it was growing in the preceding years.

This doesn’t mean there haven’t been any spending cuts in Europe. The Greek and Spanish governments actually cut spending in 2010 and 2011, and Portugal reduced outlays in 2011.

But you can see from this chart, which looks at all the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain), that the spending cuts have been very modest, and only came after years of profligacy. Indeed, Greece is the only nation to actually cut spending over the 3-year period since the crisis began.

Krugman would argue, of course, that the PIIGS are suffering because of the spending cuts. And since there actually have been spending cuts in the last year or two in these nations, does that justify his claims?

Yes and no. I don’t agree with the Keynesian theory, but that doesn’t mean it is easy or painless to shrink the burden of government. As I wrote earlier this year, “…the economy does hit a short-run speed bump when the public sector is pruned. Simply stated, there will be transitional costs when the burden of public spending is reduced. Only in economics textbooks is it possible to seamlessly and immediately reallocate resources.”

What I would argue, though, is that these nations have no choice but to bite the bullet and reduce the burden of government. The only other alternative is to somehow convince taxpayers in other nations to make the debt bubble even bigger with more bailouts and transfers. But that just makes the eventual day of reckoning that much more painful.

Additionally, I think much of the economic pain in these nations is the result of the large tax increases that have been imposed, including higher income tax rates, higher value-added taxes, and various other levies that reduce the incentive to engage in productive behavior.

So what’s the best path going forward? The best approach is to implement deep and meaningful spending cuts, and I think the Baltic nations of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia are positive role models in this regard. Let’s look at what they’ve done in recent years.

As you can see from the chart, the burden of government spending was rising at a reckless rate before the crisis. But once the crisis hit, the Baltic nations hit the brakes and imposed genuine spending cuts.

The Baltic nations went through a rough patch when this happened, particularly since they also had their versions of a real estate bubble. But, as I’ve already argued, I think the “cold turkey” or “take the band-aid off quickly” approach has paid dividends.

The key question is whether nations can maintain spending restraint, particularly when (if?) the economy begins to grow again.

Even a basket case like Greece can put itself on a good path if it follows Mitchell’s Golden Rule and simply makes sure that government spending, in the long run, grows slower than the private economy.

The way to make that happen is to implement something similar to the Swiss Debt Brake, which effectively acts as an annual cap on the growth of government.

In the long run, of course, the goal should be to shrink the overall burden of government to its growth-maximizing level.

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