Shockingly Bad

Cato adjunct scholar Tyler Cowen takes on Naomi Klein’s book Shock Capitalism in the New York Sun:

Rarely are the simplest facts, many of which complicate Ms. Klein’s presentation, given their proper due. First, the reach of government has been growing in virtually every developed nation in the world, including in America, and it hardly seems that a far-reaching free market conspiracy controls much of anything in the wealthy nations. Second, Friedman and most other free market economists have consistently called for limits on state power, including the power to torture. Third, the reach of government has been shrinking in India and China, to the indisputable benefit of billions. Fourth, it is the New Deal — the greatest restriction on capitalism in 20th century America and presumably beloved by Ms. Klein — that was imposed in a time of crisis. Fifth, many of the crises of the 20th century resulted from anti-capitalistic policies, rather than from capitalism: China was falling apart because of the murderous and tyrannical policies of Chairman Mao, which then led to bottom-up demands for capitalistic reforms; New Zealand and Chile abandoned socialistic policies for freer markets because the former weren’t working well and induced economic crises.

My old friend Steve Horwitz asks Klein a couple of pointed questions:

1. You say that crises are opportunities for free market ideologues to force their preferred policies through in violation of democratic processes. However, in the gravest crisis of the 20th century, the Great Depression, it was government that grew enormously, and the free market was restricted, in ways never before seen in the US….How do you reconcile the main thesis of your book with the historical evidence that government has grown and markets have been made less free in almost every crisis of the 20th century? …

2. In the aftermath of the biggest crisis in the US of the 21st century (9/11), government spending has grown enormously, government regulations have expanded, and civil liberties are threatened. Each of these are results that people like Milton Friedman and many other classical liberal free market economists not only oppose, but oppose precisely because they are antithetical to the very free market reforms they would like to make. … What gives? It certainly seems like crises produce a lot more government and a lot less free market reform.

Horwitz is making the same point Justin Logan made recently; as Bruce Porter and Robert Higgs have shown, much of the growth of government throughout American history (and elsewhere) has been a result of crises like wars and depressions. Sometimes, it’s true, an economic crisis may precipitate economic reforms, as in New Zealand in the mid-1980s. But the historical record shows that states usually seek more power, not less, when confronted by a crisis.

Pinochet’s economic reforms in Chile, of course, are a centerpiece of Klein’s argument. Pinochet was a military dictator, the argument goes, and he implemented the policies of Milton Friedman. QED. But there are lots of military dictatorships – Wikipedia counts 34 in Latin America – and Pinochet’s junta seems to have been the only one to pursue free-market policies. It’s an exception, not a rule. Which is hardly surprising: military men tend to be attuned to hierarchy and control, not to the undirected diversity of a market economy.

How Do Americans Really Feel about Trade?

As it turns out, it’s pretty difficult to tell! Much, apparently, depends on how the question is phrased.

Today, the Washington Post reports findings from the latest Pew Global Attitude Project report, which was released yesterday. The Pew study finds that 59% of Americans have a positive view of trade, while 36% have a negative view. The results differ to some extent by demographic characteristics like age, income, and political party affiliation. Pew found that 64% of Republicans believe “the impact of trade on our country is good.”

That figure differs vastly from the result of the WSJ/NBC poll (about which I wrote yesterday), which found that 59% of Republicans believe that foreign trade has been bad. What explains these nearly diametrically opposite conclusions? A very significant factor appears to be the question phraseology.

In the WSJ/NBC poll, the respondent was asked to identify the statement that came closer to his/her point of view.

Statement A: “Foreign trade has been good for the U.S. economy, because demand for U.S. products abroad has resulted in economic growth and jobs for Americans here at home and provided more choices for consumers.” (32% of Republicans agree)

Statement B: “Foreign trade has been bad for the U.S. economy, because imports from abroad have reduced U.S. demand for American-made goods, cost jobs here at home, and produced potentially unsafe products.” (59% of Republicans agree)

In the Pew poll, the respondent was asked the following question:

What do you think about the growing trade and business ties between the
United States and other countries — do you think it is a very good thing, somewhat good, somewhat bad or a very bad thing for our country?

Pew tallied the “very good” and “somewhat good” responses and found they represented 59% of total respondents, and 64% of Republican respondents.

What does this all mean? It means that respondents provide answers to questions as asked, and that it is the data interpreters who give too much meaning to the responses elicited by their questions. Neither the Pew question nor the WSJ/NBC question probes peoples’ comprehensive views about trade (and it is evident to me, as I wrote yesterday, that the phrasing of the WSJ/NBC questions biased the results). Nevertheless, the written summary of the results of each poll would have the reader believe that each poll is dispositive of the issue.

That the question phraseology appears to be a determinant of the answer suggests that a better way to discern Americans’ views about trade would be to ask a multitude of questions — including redundant questions phrased differently.

Two figures that appear to be credible from the Pew report are a bit disconcerting. The same question asked of Americans was also asked of citizens in 46 other countries. Positive views of trade were lowest in the United States. And the 59% holding positive views constitutes a huge drop off from 2002, when the same question from Pew found 78% of Americans holding positive views on trade.

Thus, while it appears that Americans are souring on trade, it is hard to tell how many Americans are how sour.

Romney’s Tax Plan

There are at least three approaches to tax policy a candidate may take in an election campaign:

  1. Use the tax code to offer limited giveaways that do nothing to improve the economy, but offers small benefits to the maximum number of voters. This is the Obama approach.
  2. Pursue major tax reforms combined with downsizing the government. This is the Ron Paul approach. Paul notes on his campaign website: “True tax reform is as simple as cutting or eliminating taxes” and “the real enemy of tax reform is the spending culture in Washington … we will never have tax reform in this country until Congress changes its spending habits.”
  3. Call for tax cuts that will spur economic growth and benefit all taxpayers. This is the Mitt Romney approach, as we will discuss here.

The Romney campaign released a “blueprint” on tax policy yesterday. The blueprint is just seven short bullet points, but they are all excellent points. Here they are in brief with my comments.

  1. Make the Bush tax cuts permanent. Great. Extending the income tax rate cuts and the dividend and capital gains tax cuts is important. But I’d swap the Bush child tax credits for further supply-side tax cuts.
  2. Make additional cuts to individual income tax rates. Great. That would improve economic efficiency and growth. I’d take this further and collapse the current rates into a flat rate or a two-rate structure
  3. Enact a zero tax rate on interest, dividends, and capital gains for those in the middle class. That’s a move in the right direction, but better to eliminate double-taxation on all savings. 
  4. Eliminate the estate tax. A no-brainer. The current estate tax damages growth, probably doesn’t raise any money, and enriches tax lawyers.
  5. Cut the corporate tax rate. Another no-brainer. The average corporate income tax rate in Europe is 24 percent. The average federal plus state rate here is 40 percent.
  6. Oppose Social Security tax increases. Romney’s right: tax increases won’t solve the problems with Social Security, as explained here.
  7. Make individual medical expenses deductible. A move in the right direction to equalize the tax treatment of individual and business health expenses.

All in all, candidate Romney has outlined a very pro-growth tax agenda. His plan contains numerous supply-side provisions that would increase economic efficiency and raise incomes. Kudos for proposing reforms that would benefit all Americans and resisting the impulse to craft useless tax giveaways, which is the approach of candidiate Obama.

Now if we could combine the Romney supply-side approach with the Paul downsizing approach, we would really be getting somewhere.

Correction to Yesterday’s Post, (Lies, Damn Lies,…)

Yesterday on this blog, I posted my criticisms of a WSJ/NBC poll and a WSJ article that was based on that poll. Although I firmly stand by my central criticism that there was a clear bias in the phraseology of Question 10 that was completely unnecessary, I made a factual error in my post that I wish to correct.

In paragraph four, I assert (about the poll) that “no questions were asked about whether the respondents would agree with a Republican candidate who favors tougher regulations to limit foreign imports.” But it was subsequently brought to my attention that such a question was asked at question 7.7 of the poll. I stand corrected.

Had I not overlooked that question, I would not have criticized the author for reporting a “phantom result.” I apologize to John Harwood for the assertions and implications related to that point.

With the exception of the second and third sentences of paragraph four, the entire blog post, with the same tone and same conclusions, remains valid.

A Small Sign of Hope on Capitol Hill?

A bipartisan bill to strengthen inspectors general (the folks who monitor fraud in various agencies and departments) has swept through Congress. It even includes a provision sponsored by Congressman Tom Davis that would require IGs to report on duplicative programs.

This bill doesn’t acutally mandate the elimination of waste, fraud, and abuse, but at least it will result in more information about ways to cut back a bloated federal budget. As the old saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step.

Congressional Quarterly reports (subscription required):

Democrats scored a victory Wednesday in their effort to bolster oversight of the executive branch with House passage of a bill that would give inspectors general more autonomy with the agencies they oversee. Despite a White House veto threat, the bill passed with considerable Republican support, 404-11, more than the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.

Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., speculated that Republicans were “hard-pressed to vote against an effort to prevent waste, fraud and abuse.” …Lawmakers also agreed, 274-144, to a Davis-sponsored motion to recommit the bill and amend it to require annual inspector general reports on program redundancy within federal agencies.

The idea that future administrations would be subjected to the bill’s limits was not lost on Republicans. “This is an even better bill under a Hillary Rodham Clinton presidency,” said Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., referring to the Democratic senator from New York.

Norway’s Banana-Republic Shipping Industry Expropriation

The Wall Street Journal correctly castigates Norway’s socialist government for applying a huge retroactive tax hike on the shipping industry. The only silver lining to this dark cloud is that some shipper will “re-flag” its vessels in jurisdictions where politicians don’t expropriate past earnings:

It’s almost unheard of, though, for a rich, enlightened nation like Norway to deliberately undermine one of its most important industries. That’s exactly what’s expected to happen tomorrow, when Norway’s left-leaning government presents its budget to parliament. Included will be a proposal to retroactively tax shipping companies to the tune of nearly €3 billion, a move that could threaten the status of Scandinavia’s maritime superpower.

Over the past seven years, as the regime took effect, maritime employment in Norway has climbed almost 20% to about 100,000 and the number of ships on order by Norwegian fleets has risen more than threefold — keeping pace with rapid international shipping growth since the turn of the century. That boom has attracted the attention of Norway’s finance minister, Kristin Halvorsen, a member of the country’s Socialist-Left Party. Under her budget plan, all profits reinvested by the industry since 1996 would be subject to a retroactive tax.

Many ship owners are considering reflagging their vessels in nearby countries, such as the U.K. and Denmark. Moving could mitigate their future liabilities, but that will be little consolation to firms that remained in Norway over the past decade and invested in their fleets, only to be betrayed by politicians.

High-Flying Bureaucrats Rip Off Taxpayers

The New York Times reports that the Government Accountability Office found pervasive abuse of premium travel by bureaucrats. Fraud was especially rampant at the Department of Agriculture, which is doubly outrageous since the Department shouldn’t even exist:

Federal employees are routinely abusing rules on business-class travel, taking trips that cost taxpayers an estimated extra $146 million annually, Congressional investigators have found. …An Agriculture Department official, for example, spent $62,000 on 10 business-class flights to Europe to attend trade negotiations. The coach fare would have been less than $9,000. …a business-class ticket costs on average five times that of a coach ticket. The investigators found very few first-class flights, which have even stricter rules. But the study found that 65 percent of the overall premium flights, $146 million worth, broke the rules or were not appropriately authorized. …The foreign affairs agency in the State Department had one of the highest shares of questionable premium-class travel, the investigators said. Cases highlighted included a family of eight that flew business class to Eastern Europe from Washington at a cost of $46,000, as part of permanent change of assignment, a trip that auditors said should have cost $12,000. The Agriculture Department at times sent large employee groups by business class, including eight officials who went to a trade conference in Geneva on flights that cost $50,000.