Topic: International Economics and Development

Tax Exiles Flee America: Blame the Greedy Politicians

The U.S. government is driving some of its most productive citizens abroad.  The only beneficiaries are countries such as Singapore and Switzerland, which offer sanctuary to Americans fleeing avaricious Uncle Sam.

Three years ago Eduardo Saverin, one of Facebook’s founders, joined 1780 other Americans in renouncing their citizenship.  Heading overseas allowed him to reduce the federal government’s take when his company went public.

Just 231 people gave up their citizenship in 2008.  Last year the number was 2999.  The first three months of 2014 was 1001, up from 679 for the first quarter of last year. 

Tax flight is not an option for most people.  However, the rich have more choices internationally.  And they increasingly are telling Uncle Sam goodbye.

So are big corporations, such as Pfizer, which is seeking to buy the British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca.  The acquisition would allow Pfizer to move its headquarters to the United Kingdom, which employs a “territorial” tax system, with taxes collected only where the income is earned, in contrast to Washington’s worldwide levy. 

About 50 firms have moved their headquarters over the last three decades, half of them since 2008.  Last month the Obama administration decried the practice and proposed to increase the share of foreign ownership required for inversions.

Traditionally the entrepreneurial and productive wanted to come to America.  Many still do.  But the choice is no longer so clear-cut. 

Obama Understands the Improving State of Humanity

On Wednesday, President Obama stated an irrefutable fact: the state of humanity is better than any time before. He said,

…if you had to choose any moment to be born in human history, not knowing what your position was gonna be, who you were gonna be, you’d choose this time. The world is less violent than it has ever been. It is healthier than it has ever been. It is more tolerant than it has ever been. It is better fed than it has ever been. It is more educated than it has ever been. Terrible things happen around the world every single day but the trend lines of progress are unmistakable.

This is merry news, especially since he is helping to spread the message of Cato’s new website, HumanProgress.org. And who could help to spread it faster than the leader of the free world?

His understanding of the reasons for improvements in human well-being is unclear, though he seems to imply that people, left to their own devices, will try to improve their lot:

(T)he trend lines of progress are unmistakable. And the reason is because each successive generation tries to learn from previous mistakes and push us, the course of history, in a better direction.

The President is correct in recognizing that progress is most commonly realized when people are left free to pursue their enlightened self-interest. Consider the following examples:

Life expectancy and economic freedom were both higher in Venezuela than in Chile in the 1970s. As Venezuela became less economically free and Chile became more economically free, Chile caught up with Venezuela and eventually overtook it. Today, life expectancy in liberal Chile is higher than in socialist Venezuela.

Life expectancy and economic freedom were both higher in Venezuela than in Chile in the 1970s. As Venezuela became less economically free and Chile became more economically free, Chile caught up with Venezuela and eventually overtook it. Today, life expectancy in liberal Chile is higher than in socialist Venezuela.

Consider also China’s reforms: As China embraced free market policies, its poverty rate has plummeted.

Consider also China’s reforms: As China embraced free market policies, its poverty rate has plummeted.

Obama did his young audience a service in teaching them that the world is the best it has ever been. These massive improvements were the result of no one’s intention, other than the intention to better one’s own life through free markets. Look no further than North and South Korea, East and West Germany, and Taiwan and pre-reform China for evidence of the power of free markets to create sustainable development.

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.

Measuring Misery in Latin America: More Dollarization, Please

In my misery index, I calculate a ranking for all countries where suitable data from the Economist Intelligence Unit exist. My misery index — a simple sum of inflation, lending rates, and unemployment rates, minus year-on-year per capita GDP growth — is used to construct a ranking for 89 countries. The table below is a sub-index of all Latin American countries presented in the world misery index.

A higher score in the misery index means that the country, and its constituents, are more miserable. Indeed, this is a table where you do not want to be first.

Venezuela and Argentina, armed with aggressive socialist policies, end up the most miserable in the region. On the other hand, Panama, El Salvador, and Ecuador score the best on the misery index for Latin America. Panama, with roughly one tenth the misery index score of Venezuela, has used the USD as legal tender since 1904. Ecuador and El Salvador are also both dollarized (Ecuador since 2000 and El Salvador since 2001) – they use the greenback, and it is clear that the embrace of the USD trumps all other economic policies.

The lesson to be learned is clear: the tactics which socialist governments like Venezuela and Argentina employ yield miserable results, whereas dollarization is associated with less misery.

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.

How Walmart Improves the Lives of Everybody, Especially the Poor

I recently had the pleasure of visiting northwest Arkansas. If you have the chance, go—not only to experience the beauty of the Ozarks, but to see the world’s only Walmart convenience store. This store offers groceries, a gas station, and a counter for a local business, Bentonville Butcher & Deli. The difference between Walmart convenience stores and other convenience stores: Walmart prices (read: excitingly low). Those low prices mean that the more these stores spread, the more lives will improve.

I realize that there are ongoing arguments about whether Walmart improves or reduces people’s welfare. For instance, some argue that Walmart reduces the number of jobs in locations where they open, while others find that Walmart creates more jobs overall. Some believe that when Walmart enters a town, competitors are forced to lower worker income or close. Others claim that the benefits of lower prices may result in higher real wages, even in the retail sector. Some write that Walmart costs taxpayers huge sums as their employees receive federal support. Others insist that these programs are operating as intended: boosting employment among low income families who would otherwise be jobless.

While those issues are still debated, one thing is clear: When we have access to cheaper goods, our quality of life improves because we can buy more with the same amount of money. This is especially true for the poor who spend a higher percentage of income on household goods and food. For them, daily savings on these items are necessary for survival. Shopping at Walmart leaves them with more money, which they can use to feed their families, pay for additional tutoring for their children, or work less as they can afford more leisure time. In that way, few forces have improved the lives of Americans, particularly poor Americans, as much as Walmart.

Top Catholics Take Aim at Libertarianism

The Washington Post reports that the leaders of the world’s most hierarchical, centralized faith don’t much care for the philosophy most closely aligned with individual liberty. Huh. What gives the Post that idea? Well, the cardinal sometimes referred to as the “vice-pope” just headlined a conference in DC titled “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case against Libertarianism.” In heaping scorn on those who celebrate free minds and free markets, the conference attendees accused libertarianism of being responsible for “selfies” and of being anti-poor.

And can you blame them? Think of all those notorious selfies by prominent libertarians.

Some prominent libertarians

And, really, you have to admit they have a point on that second accusation as well. Consider that when innovation, commerce, and entrepreneurship were unleashed on a mass scale during the Industrial Revolution, poverty went into a sustained decline for the first time in the 200,000 year history of humanity. In just the last fifteen or twenty years, the poverty rate worldwide has been cut in half. And the absolute number of people living in extreme poverty has been falling since 1980. The economics preferred by libertarians–the economics of freedom–has been quite hard on poverty. I mean, if this keeps up, in another few generations, there will hardly be any poor left.