Topic: International Economics and Development

Tax Reform: The First Step Is Simple

New leadership is coming to the congressional tax-writing committees. Ron Wyden will be taking the helm of Senate Finance and Paul Ryan will be likely taking the helm of Ways and Means. This is good news, as both gentlemen are serious legislators and very interested in major tax reform.

One thing they should tackle is the personal income tax, which is a complex and high-rate mess. It should be restructured into a simple flat tax.

However, the most urgent needed reform is to slash the corporate income tax rate. Policymakers should put aside changes to deductions, credits, and loopholes for now. Those tax base issues are a diversion and policy quagmire, as the R&D credit illustrates. It is far more important to just cut the statutory corporate rate, which would automatically reduce the effects of tax-base distortions and make it politically easier to reform the tax base later on.

Our current high-rate policy is harming the U.S. economy, reducing job growth, and stifling wages—for no good reason. Abolition is a good long-term goal for corporate income tax reform, but we can start with at least chopping our federal-state rate of 40 percent down to the global average of 24 percent.

The charts show KPMG data for top statutory corporate income tax rates in 2013. KPMG shows UAE with the highest rate in the world at 55 percent. However, that rate just applies to foreign banks and foreign oil companies. So I don’t show UAE since the reported rate is not the general corporate rate.

That leaves the United States with the highest general corporate tax rate in the world, and that makes no sense in today’s competitive global economy.

Costa Rica’s Growth Paradox

Can a country enjoy a relatively high growth rate for a quarter of a century and still be unable to reduce its poverty rate? That’s the case of my homeland, Costa Rica, which happens to have a critical presidential election on February 2.

For over 25 years Costa Rica’s growth rate has averaged 4.7 percent a year – one of the highest in Latin America – and yet the country’s poverty rate has been stuck at around 20 percent since 1994. Even worse, Costa Rica is one out of only three Latin American countries where inequality has risen since 2000.

Today, I’ve published a study looking at some of the causes. Even though Costa Rica has undergone a substantial liberalization process since the mid-eighties, the country’s economic model is still in significant ways based on a mercantilist system that is biased in favor of certain sectors of the economy at the expense of the poor. You can read the paper here.

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, Which Nation Has Increased Welfare Spending the Fastest of All?

There’s an old joke about two guys camping in the woods, when suddenly they see a hungry bear charging over a hill in their direction. One of the guys starts lacing up his sneakers and his friend says, “What are you doing? You can’t outrun a bear.” The other guys says, I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just need to outrun you.”

That’s reasonably amusing, but it also provides some insight into national competitiveness. In the battle for jobs and investments, nations can change policy to impact their attractiveness, but they also can gain ground or lose ground because of what happens in other nations.

The corporate tax rate in the United States hasn’t been changed in decades, for instance, but the United States has fallen further and further behind the rest of the world because other nations have lowered their rates.

Courtesy of a report in the UK-based Telegraph, here’s another example of how relative policy changes can impact growth and competitiveness.

Egypt’s Shambolic Constitutional Process

Don’t let yourself be fooled by the overwhelming approval of the new Egyptian constitution in the referendum held earlier this week. While, according to preliminary results, the vast majority of roughly 37 percent of Egyptians who showed up at the polls backed the proposal, very little about the document itself or about the process through which it has come about is consistent with the idea of liberal democracy and limited government. Yesterday’s Bloomberg View editorial summarizes all one needs to know about the new constitution:

The armed forces would for at least the next eight years be independent of civilian control, including over their budget, as they were under former President Hosni Mubarak, himself an air force commander. Military courts would remain autonomous and would have jurisdiction over civilians in many instances. The hated police would also get greater independence, while the Supreme Court would be able to decide its size and membership for itself.

Neither should there be any illusions about the events leading to the adoption of the document. The referendum followed months of a deliberate crackdown on the opposition and disbanding of the largest political force in the country – not to speak of the arrests of activists of the ‘no’ campaign.

In short, Egypt seems to be coming full circle to where it was before the events of the Arab Spring, particularly if General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi announces his candidature for the country’s highest office. The question is how long the Egyptians are willing to put up with it.

As a side note, the constitutional process in Tunisia looks much more encouraging, although as Emmanuel Martin and I argue here, the new constitution is unlikely to be a an impetus for the badly needed economic reforms.

The Minimum Wage: Immoral and Inefficient

Democratic politicians are desperate to make up for ObamaCare’s disastrous roll-out.  Thirteen states are increasing their minimums this year, and some Democrats believe raising the national minimum wage is a winning campaign issue for November.

There’s no doubt that raising the minimum wage would reduce employment and slow economic growth.  Worse, government wage-setting is immoral.  It is unfair and wrong for politicians to posture as philanthropists while forcing other people to pay higher salaries.

The first question is the minimum’s impact on employment and price levels.  The answer is clear:  the cost of higher wages will be borne in varying degrees by customers, workers, and investors.  As I wrote in the American Spectator:

as Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman observed, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.  Arbitrarily raising the cost of labor—there is no principled basis for choosing any particular government minimum—will increase prices, reduce investor returns, and cut employment levels.

Most vulnerable are workers with the least education, experience, and skills, who tend to be young and minorities.  Forcing up wages will not only reduce overall employment, but shift jobs toward higher-skilled workers who are more productive and thus warrant higher pay.  The minimum wage also encourages mechanization, since it makes economic sense for companies to invest more in machines to spend less on labor. 

In effect, the minimum wage is a tax on labor-intensive companies.  No surprise, then, as explained by Mark Wilson of Applied Economic Strategies in a Cato Institute Policy Analysis:  “The main finding of economic theory and empirical research over the past 70 years is that minimum wage increases tend to reduce employment.” 

The strangest claim may come from the Financial Times, which editorialized:  “a higher wage would stimulate the economy without adding a dime to federal spending.”  However, to the extent raising the minimum increases the total amount of wages, it does so by redistributing the money from other people, who end up with less to spend on consumption. 

No doubt, the employment impact of a small increase, especially if salary levels have been rising, would be modest, which explains recent economic studies demonstrating lesser job loss.  But the less significant the increase, the less meaningful any potential benefit.

In contrast, those who claim that raising today’s minimum would have no impact on employer behavior fail to demonstrate the courage of their convictions.  If government can hike wages without harm, why stop at $10 or $15 an hour?  Why not go to $1000 or $1500?  Then everyone in America could be rich at no cost to anyone!

Yet there is an even more fundamental issue.  The minimum wage is the modern perversion of compassion into coercion:  I believe there is a moral imperative for you to earn more, so I force someone else to pay more.  I feel moral while sticking someone else with the bill. 

However, if “we,” the citizens of America, believe people should earn more, then “we,” the citizens of America, not a few labor intensive businesses, should pay for those above-market wages.  Opposing the minimum wage is simple fairness.

While many advocates no doubt are true believers, for some fairness talk is pure twaddle.   John Cassidy wrote in the New Yorker:  “In the current political environment, there is little chance of pushing through another hike in income-support programs.  Raising the minimum wage pushes the burden onto corporations and consumers.” 

Washington should be systematically reducing, not increasing, the cost of doing business.  Yet the regulatory-happy Obama Administration has been imposing multiple burdens on commerce, starting with ObamaCare. 

The next time someone rises to support arbitrary government wage-setting, they should be asked what they are doing personally to help the economically disadvantaged.  Raiding the wallets of others does not count as compassion

Chinese Liberal Mao Yushi Turns 85

Mao Yushi accepts the 2012 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty

All lovers of liberty and limited government should celebrate Mao Yushi’s 85th birthday on January 14.  He was a signatory to Charter 08 and the recipient of the 2012 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty.  As chairman of the Unirule Institute of Economics in Beijing, Mao Yushi has been instrumental in spreading classical liberal ideas in China.  In 1998, he commissioned the first Chinese translation of F. A. Hayek’s classic text, The Constitution of Liberty.  Unirule (Tianze or “Universal Rule”) conveys the fundamental principle of liberty under the law. 

Mao was educated as a mechanical engineer but later became interested in economics and how China could make the transition from central planning to a market economy.  In 1957, he was purged from the Chinese Communist Party during the Anti-Rightest Campaign, and he lost his job as a railroad engineer.  Later, during the Cultural Revolution, he lost his property when Mao Zedong outlawed private ownership. 

After Deng Xiaoping’s opening to the outside world in 1978, Mao Yushi was invited to rejoin the CCP but refused.  Instead, he became a leading critic of the Party’s monopoly on power and an advocate of free markets and civil society. 

In a recent essay, “Returning Mao Zedong to Human Form,” he argued that Chairman Mao should be subject to open criticism and not be viewed as a god—and called for removing Mao’s picture from Tiananmen Square and from the Chinese currency. As Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo has said, Mao Yushi’s “bravery is worth our respect.”

At Unirule, Mao Yushi has attracted many younger scholars to discuss the institutions necessary for a market economy, particularly private property rights and a legal system that protects basic human rights.  He holds that the state should protect the people who should be free to choose—an idea that goes back to Lao Tzu. 

In addition to drawing from the work of Hayek, Mao Yushi and his colleagues at Unirule have developed the ideas of Nobel Laureate economists Douglass North and Ronald Coase, focusing on the “new institutional economics.”  Peaceful development requires nurturing the right institutions and, in Coase’s words, requires a “market for ideas,” not just for goods and services.

In China’s Future: Constructive Partner or Emerging Threat? (Cato Institute, 2000), Mao Yushi wrote, “”The major obstacle to developing market institutions in China is the special privilege rights that lie beyond, and conflict with, human rights.”  That obstacle is still present, and Mao is still fighting for the people’s rights.  His courage in advancing freedom and civil society in China—through his writings, Unirule, Fuping Development Institute, and, most recently, the Humanism Economics Society—deserves our admiration and respect.

Progressives in Space

According to the Wall Street Journal:

“If all goes according to plan, Hollywood icon Leonardo DiCaprio will blast into space aboard the maiden voyage of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceship sometime this year, opening up a new era of civilian space travel….Mr. DiCaprio is on the board of trustees of the Natural Resources Defense Council and has decried overconsumption. ‘We are the number one leading consumers, the biggest producers of waste around the world,’ the actor said in 2008.”

Leo’s 6 minutes of weightlessness will cost him a cool $250,000 and while it is his money to burn, lecturing the rest of us about overconsumption and waste is, well, hypocrisy of galactic proportions.