Topic: International Economics and Development

Why We Need Guns

There are plenty of reasons to support the Second Amendment’s guarantee of our right to bear arms, but an expectation of being the victim of society-collapsing chemical warfare shouldn’t be one of them. Wayne LaPierre, CEO and executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, recently said at the organization’s annual meeting:

“We know, in the world that surrounds us, there are terrorists, home invaders, drug cartels, carjackers, “knock-out game”-ers, rapers [sic], haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse the society that sustains us all.”

People tend to overestimate their vulnerability because politicians, reporters, and interested individuals like LaPierre stand to gain from such misperceptions. My colleague John Mueller reported that as recently as late 2011, 75 percent of Americans polled believe that another terrorist attack causing large numbers of American lives to be lost in the near future is somewhat or very likely. The reality is much tamer: outside of war zones, Islamist terrorism claims about 200 to 400 lives each year worldwide. And the United States is less violent now than it has been in years. In the short 35 years between 1973 and 2008, murder dropped by over 40 percent. Rape dropped by 80 percent over the same period.

The mismatch between perceived vulnerability to violence and reality is one of several public misconceptions that the website HumanProgress.org hopes to amend. This is not to say that the right to self defense is superfluous—quite to the contrary, it is fundamental and firearm ownership is an important component of securing that right. That alone is justification for the right to defensive weapons. But there is no need to exaggerate dangers such as probable and imminent threats from terrorists and psychopaths.

Taiwan Is the Success Story, not China

Which nation is richer, Belarus or Luxembourg?

If you look at total economic output, you might be tempted to say Belarus. The GDP of Belarus, after all, is almost $72 billion while Luxembourg’s GDP is less than $60 billion.

But that would be a preposterous answer since there are about 9.5 million people in Belarus compared to only about 540,000 folks in Luxembourg.

It should be obvious that what matters is per-capita GDP, and the residents of Luxembourg unambiguously enjoy far higher living standards than their cousins in Belarus.

This seems like an elementary point, but it has to be made because there have been a bunch of misleading stories about China “overtaking” the United States in economic output. Look, for instance, at these excerpts from a Bloomberg report.

China is poised to overtake the U.S. as the world’s biggest economy earlier than expected, possibly as soon as this year… The latest tally adds to the debate on how the world’s top two economic powers are progressing. Projecting growth rates from 2011 onwards suggests China’s size when measured in PPP may surpass the U.S. in 2014.

There are methodological issues with PPP data, some of which are acknowledged in the story, and there’s also the challenge of whether Chinese numbers can be trusted.

But let’s assume these are the right numbers. My response is “so what?”

I’ve previously written that the Chinese tiger is more akin to a paper tiger. But Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute put together a chart that is far more compelling than what I wrote. He looks at the per-capita numbers and shows that China is still way behind the United States.

To be blunt, Americans shouldn’t worry about the myth of Chinese economic supremacy.

But that’s not the main point of today’s column.

Instead, I want to call attention to Taiwan. That jurisdiction doesn’t get as much attention as Hong Kong and Singapore, but it’s one of the world’s success stories.

And if you compare Taiwan to China, as I’ve done in this chart, there’s no question which jurisdiction deserves praise.

Chinese Company 3-D Prints a House for $4,800

To paraphrase Lord Peter Bauer, the first recipient of the Milton Friedman prize, each child comes to this world not only with an empty belly, but also with a brain. Put differently, people are not parasites living off finite resources (though exception needs to be made in the case of most politicians and bureaucrats). They are discoverers and innovators, who look for ways to achieve more with less. They are the creators of wealth and drivers of human progress.

As a reminder of human ingenuity, consider that a Chinese company was able use a massive 3-D printer to print 10 houses in 24 hours at the cost of $4,800 per house.

Let’s put that in perspective. There are 30 million people in Afghanistan, or 7.5 million families of four. At a cost of $4,800 per house (expect the cost to drop significantly over the next few years), it would cost $36 billion to build all Afghani families a new house. The current foreign aid to Afghanistan is $6.7 billion, which means that – using foreign aid money alone – it would take 5.4 years to have each Afghani family housed in a brand new Chinese-made home.

Will it happen? Probably not, since most of the foreign aid money to Afghanistan is devoured by parasitic government officials.  

Should Companies Do What’s Best for Government, or Should They Do What’s Best for Workers, Consumers, and Shareholders?

I’m in favor of free markets. That means I’m sometimes on the same side as big business, but it also means that I’m often very critical of big business. That’s because large companies are largely amoral. Depending on the issue, they may be on the side of the angels, such as when they resist bad government policies such as higher tax rates and increased red tape. But many of those same companies will then turn around and try to manipulate the system for subsidies, protectionism, and corrupt tax loopholes.

Today, I’m going to defend big business. That’s because we have a controversy about whether a company has the legal and moral right to protect itself from bad tax policy. We’re dealing specifically with a drugstore chain that has merged with a similar company based in Switzerland, which raises the question of whether the expanded company should be domiciled in the United States or overseas.

Here’s some of what I wrote on this issue for yesterday’s Chicago Tribune.

Should Walgreen move? …Many shareholders want a “corporate inversion” with the company based in Europe, possibly Switzerland. …if the combined company were based in Switzerland and got out from under America’s misguided tax system, the firm’s tax burden would drop, and UBS analysts predict that earnings per share would jump by 75 percent. That’s a plus for shareholders, of course, but also good for employees and consumers.

Folks on the left, though, are upset about this potential move, implying that this would be an example of corporate tax cheating. But they either don’t know what they’re talking about or they’re prevaricating.

Some think this would allow Walgreen to avoid paying tax on American profits to Uncle Sam. This is not true. All companies, whether domiciled in America or elsewhere, pay tax to the IRS on income earned in the U.S. 

The benefit of “inverting” basically revolves around the taxation of income earned in other nations.

Hunger on College Campuses? Not Really

There are many problems with The Washington Post’s recent article, “More College Students Battle Hunger as Education and Living Costs Rise.” Instead of discussing each problem—such as the claim that a college education is necessary for a good career—I’ll stick to research on quality of life.

When it comes to the claim that college students are going hungry, the article appears to be misleading sensationalism. The article argues that American college students are increasingly “food insecure” (i.e., they go hungry or lack access to nutritional food). This is supposedly a problem in part because students increasingly focus on obtaining food rather than studying.

In reality, Americans have never been more food secure. Over time, agricultural productivity has risen as food prices have dropped. (See Figure 1, below.) As incomes have increase, Americans use less of their total budget to purchase food (Figure 2). Today, calorie consumption in the United States is well above the recommended amount, even as we eat healthier foods more frequently (Figure 3).

Figure 1

 Figure 1

Figure 2

 Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 3 

Why Did Western Nations Continue to Prosper in the 20th Century even though Fiscal Burdens Increased?

In the pre-World War I era, the fiscal burden of government was very modest in North America and Western Europe. Total government spending consumed only about 10 percent of economic output, most nations were free from the plague of the income tax, and the value-added tax hadn’t even been invented.

Today, by contrast, every major nation has an onerous income tax and the VAT is ubiquitous. Those punitive tax systems exist largely because—on average—the burden of government spending now consumes more than 40 percent of GDP.

historical-size-of-govt

To be blunt, fiscal policy has moved dramatically in the wrong direction over the past 100-plus years. And thanks to demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs, things are going to get much worse, according to Bank of International Settlements, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and International Monetary Fund projections.

While those numbers, both past and future, are a bit depressing, they also present a challenge to advocates of small government. If taxes and spending are bad for growth, why did the United States (and other nations in the Western world) enjoy considerable prosperity all through the 20th century? I sometimes get asked that question after speeches or panel discussions on fiscal policy. In some cases, the person making the inquiry is genuinely curious. In other cases, it’s a leftist asking a “gotcha” question.

Long-Run GDP

I’ve generally had two responses.

France’s Valls Is No Bill Clinton

President Francois Hollande has put in place a new French government led by Prime Minister Manuel Valls. This maneuver has all the hallmarks of shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. Yes, one has the chilling feeling that accidents are waiting to happen.

President Hollande’s new lineup is loaded with contradictions. That’s not a good sign.

Just take Prime Minister Valls’ assertion that, when it comes to economics, he is a clone of Bill Clinton. For anyone familiar with the facts, this claim is bizarre, if not delusional.

When it comes to France’s fiscal stance, the Valls’ government is fighting austerity tooth and nail. Indeed, the Socialist government is seeking greater leeway from the European Commission (read: Germany) over targets for reducing France’s stubborn budget deficit. With French government expenditures accounting for a whopping 56.6 percent of GDP, it’s truly astounding that the government is reluctant to engage in a bit of belt tightening.