Tag: economics

Does “Wagner’s Law” Mean Libertarians Should Acquiesce to Big Government?

There’s a lot of speculation in Washington about what a Trump Administration will do on government spending. Based on his rhetoric it’s hard to know whether he’ll be a big-spending populist or a budget-cutting businessman.

But what if that fight is pointless?

Back in October, Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center wrote a very interesting—albeit depressing—article about the potential futility of trying to reduce the size of government. He starts with the observation that government tends to get bigger as nations get richer.

“Wagner’s Law” says that as an economy’s per capita output grows larger over time, government spending consumes a larger share of that output. …Wagner’s Law names a real, observed, robust empirical pattern. …It’s mainly the positive relationship between rising demand for welfare services/transfers and rising GDP per capita that drives Wagner’s Law.

I’ve also written about Wagner’s Law, mostly to debunk the silly leftist interpretation that bigger government causes more wealth (in other words, they get the causality backwards), but also to point out that other policies matter and that some big-government nations have wisely mitigated the harmful economic impact of excessive spending and taxation by having very pro-market policies in areas such as trade and regulation.

In any event, Will includes a chart showing that there certainly has been a lot more redistribution spending in the United States over the past 70 years, so it certainly is true that the political process has produced results consistent with Wagner’s Law. As America has become richer, voters and politicians have figured out how to redistribute ever-larger amounts of money.

By the way, this data is completely consistent with my recent column that pointed out how defense spending plays only a minor role in America’s fiscal challenge.

Understanding When China Can (and Can’t) Wield Economic Influence

China Flag SmokestacksAs China grows more economically powerful there is growing concern about how it will convert its economic power into strategic influence. In its 2016 annual report, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission recommends closer scrutiny of Chinese economic practices and advocates creating a panel to prevent China’s state-owned enterprises from gaining “effective control” over U.S. companies. Fear of China’s commercial influence has recently spread to Hollywood as well, with recent purchases of film studios and theater chains by China’s Dalian Wanda leading to a torrent of commentary warning against Beijing’s nefarious long-term intentions.

The idea that China can easily convert its economic clout into influence is attractive and intuitive given the government’s important role in the economy. In Chinese Economic Statecraft: Commercial Actors, Grand Strategy, and State Control, William J. Norris, a professor at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, casts a skeptical eye on this assumption. Norris came to the Cato Institute recently to discuss his theory of economic statecraft and shed light on the complex domestic factors that help or hinder China from using commercial actors to achieve strategic goals. (Full disclosure, as a student at Texas A&M I spent several months as Norris’s research assistant while he worked on the book.) Using a theoretical model rooted in principal-agent theory applied to several case studies, Norris is able to show that China’s political leadership and commercial actors are not always on the same page.  

Economic statecraft is the intentional manipulation of economic interaction to produce or affect some sort of strategic end. Norris finds that effective economic statecraft requires state control over commercial actors and state unity across different sectors of government. While the Chinese government may have nominal control over its state-owned enterprises, it can be very difficult to get local officials in sync with provincial or national-level officials, which impedes the effective execution of economic statecraft. In some of Norris’s case studies Chinese commercial actors made decisions with little direction or oversight from state officials that had unintended strategic effects down the road.

The most important take-away from Norris’s book is, “economic statecraft is not an easy lever of national power for [China] to wield. To be effective, many factors need to align.” China’s economy makes it easier for the government to use its companies in strategic ways, but even in the Chinese system there are numerous factors that make it difficult to use commercial actors to achieve strategic goals. While Beijing has used commercial actors to achieve strategic goals, not every move by a Chinese state-owned enterprise is a strategic master stroke designed to maximize China’s power or undermine the United States. In order to better identify the real cases of Chinese economic statecraft, it would be prudent for analysts to apply the model in Norris’s book. 

The “Progressive” Threat to Baltic Exceptionalism

I’m a big fan of the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

These three countries emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Empire and they have taken advantage of their independence to become successful market-driven economies.

One key to their relative success is tax policy. All three nations have flat taxes. Estonia’s system is so good (particularly its approach to business taxation) that the Tax Foundation ranks it as the best in the OECD.

And the Baltic nations all deserve great praise for cutting the burden of government spending in response to the global financial crisis/great recession (an approach that produced much better results than the Keynesian policies and/or tax hikes that were imposed in many other countries).

But good policy in the past is no guarantee of good policy in the future, so it is with great dismay that I share some very worrisome news from two of the three Baltic countries.

First, we have a grim update from Estonia, which may be my favorite Baltic nation if for no other reason than the humiliation it caused for Paul Krugman. But now Estonia may cause sadness for me. The coalition government in Estonia has broken down and two of the political parties that want to lead a new government are hostile to the flat tax.

Estonia’s government collapsed Wednesday after Prime Minister Taavi Roivas lost a confidence vote in Parliament, following months of Cabinet squabbling mainly over economic policies. …Conflicting views over taxation and improving the state of Estonia’s economy, which the two junior coalition partners claim is stagnant, is the main cause for the breakup. …The core of those policies is a flat 20 percent tax on income. The Social Democrats say the wide income gaps separating Estonia’s different social groups would best be narrowed by introducing Nordic-style progressive taxation. The two parties said Wednesday that they will immediately start talks on forming a coalition with the Center Party, Estonia’s second-largest party, which is favored by the country’s sizable ethnic-Russian majority and supports a progressive income tax.

And Lithuanians just held an election and the outcome does not bode well for that nation’s flat tax.

After the weekend run-off vote, which followed a first round on October 9, the centrist Lithuanian Peasants and Green Union party LGPU) ended up with 54 seats in the 141-member parliament. …The conservative Homeland Union, which had been tipped to win, scored a distant second with 31 seats, while the governing Social Democrats were, as expected, relegated to the opposition, with just 17 seats. …The LPGU wants to change a controversial new labour code that makes it easier to hire and fire employees, impose a state monopoly on alcohol sales, cut bureaucracy, and above all boost economic growth to halt mass emigration. …Promises by Social Democratic Prime Minister Butkevicius of a further hike in the minimum wage and public sector salaries fell flat with voters.

The Social Democrats sound like they had some bad idea, but the new LGPU government has a more extreme agenda. It already has proposed to create a special 4-percentage point surtax on taxpayers earning more than €12,000 annually (the government also wants to expand double taxation, which also is contrary to the tax-income-only-once principle of a pure flat tax).

Reality Will Curb Trump’s Protectionist Fantasies

I said there was no way Trump would last through the early primaries.  I belittled the prospect of Trump even attending the convention, much less accepting the Republican nomination.  And I was cavalier in my certainty that Trump would be making a concession speech early Tuesday night.  In other words, by Washington’s standards, I have established credibility on the subject. 

So you should feel reassured that I am less bearish about the direction of President Trump’s trade policy than I probably should be given candidate Trump’s bellicose campaign rhetoric.

The trade policies Trump outlined in broad strokes on the campaign trail would – to put it mildly – devastate the economy.  For example, Trump has said he would:

  • impose duties on 35 percent on imports from Mexico and 45 percent on imports from China;
  • impose special taxes on U.S. companies that incorporate foreign components or labor into their production or assembly operations;
  • tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement – or at least renegotiate what he calls “the worst trade deal ever negotiated,” and abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which he calls a “rape of our country”; 
  • declare China a currency manipulator and impose countervailing duties to mitigate the export price advantages that practice allegedly bestows;
  • use tax policy, protectionism, and the threat of more protectionism to compel China, Mexico, and all of the other countries with whom the United States runs bilateral trade deficits to buy more from U.S. producers and sell less to U.S. consumers in order to achieve a state of balanced trade;
  • tax manufacturing companies that lay off workers.

The list of angry, knee-jerk, foolish ideas goes on and on. If you take candidate Trump at his word, U.S. trade policy is going to be an unmitigated disaster.

The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of Sweden

I’m in Sweden today, where I just spoke before Timbro (a prominent classical liberal think tank) about the US elections and the implications for public policy.

My main message was pessimism since neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton support genuine entitlement reform.

But I’ve addressed that topic many times before. Today, motivated by my trip, I want to augment my analysis about Sweden from 10 days ago.

In that column, I highlighted some research from Professor Olle Kranz showing that Sweden became a rich nation during a free-market era when government was relatively small. And as you can see from his chart (I added the parts in red), this is also when per-capita economic output in Sweden caught up with - and eventually surpassed - per-capita GDP in other advanced countries.

Then Sweden began to lose ground. Some of this was understandable and inevitable. Sweden didn’t participate in World War II, so its comparative prosperity during the war and immediately afterwards was a one-time blip.

But the main focus of my column from last week was to show that Swedish prosperity began a sustained drop during the 1960s, and I argued that the nation lost ground precisely because statist policies were adopted.

In other words, Sweden enjoyed above-average growth when it relied on policies I like and then suffered below-average growth when it imposed the policies (high tax rates, massive redistribution, etc) that get Bernie Sanders excited.

Notwithstanding a New Rhetorical Strategy from Statists, Higher Taxes and Bigger Government Is Not a Recipe for Growth and Development

I must be perversely masochistic because I have the strange habit of reading reports issued by international bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, United Nations, and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But one tiny silver lining to this dark cloud is that it’s given me an opportunity to notice how these groups have settled on a common strategy of urging higher taxes for the ostensible purpose of promoting growth and development.

Seriously, this is their argument, though they always rely on euphemisms when asserting that politicians should get more money to spend.

  • The OECD, for instance, has written that “Increased domestic resource mobilisation is widely accepted as crucial for countries to successfully meet the challenges of development and achieve higher living standards for their people.”
  • The Paris-based bureaucrats of the OECD also asserted that “now is the time to consider reforms that generate long-term, stable resources for governments to finance development.”
  • The IMF is banging on this drum as well, with news reports quoting the organization’s top bureaucrat stating that “…economies need to strengthen their fiscal frameworks…by boosting…sources of revenues.” while also reporting that “The IMF chief said taxation allows governments to mobilize their revenues.”
  • And the UN, which has “…called for a tax on billionaires to help raise more than $400 billion a year” routinely categorizes such money grabs as “financing for development.”

As you can see, these bureaucracies are singing from the same hymnal, but it’s a new version.

The Unsung Economic Success Story of New Zealand

When writing a few days ago about the newly updated numbers from Economic Freedom of the World, I mentioned in passing that New Zealand deserves praise “for big reforms in the right direction.”

And when I say big reforms, this isn’t exaggeration or puffery.

Back in 1975, New Zealand’s score from EFW was only 5.60. To put that in perspective, Greece’s score today is 6.93 and France is at 7.30. In other words, New Zealand was a statist basket cast 40 years ago, with a degree of economic liberty akin to where Ethiopia is today and below the scores we now see in economically unfree nations such as Ukraine and Pakistan.

But then policy began to move in the right direction; between 1985 and 1995 especially, the country became a Mecca for market-oriented reforms. The net result is that New Zealand’s score dramatically improved and it is now comfortably ensconced in the top-5 for economic freedom, usually trailing only Hong Kong and Singapore.

To appreciate what’s happened in New Zealand, let’s look at excerpts from a 2004 speech by Maurice McTigue, who served in the New Zealand parliament and held several ministerial positions.

He starts with a description of the dire situation that existed prior to the big wave of reform.

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