Tag: economics

A Cartoon that Tells You Everything You Need to Know about International Bureaucracies

Okay, I’ll admit the title of this post is an exaggeration. There are lots of things you should know - most bad, though some good - about international bureaucracies.

That being said, regular readers know that I get very frustrated with the statist policy agendas of both the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

I especially object to the way these international bureaucracies are cheerleaders for bigger government and higher tax burdens. Even though they ostensibly exist to promote greater levels of prosperity!

I’ve written on these issues, ad nauseam, but perhaps dry analysis is only part of what’s needed to get the message across. Maybe some clever image can explain the issue to a broader audience (something I’ve done before with cartoons and images about the rise and fall of the welfare state, the misguided fixation on income distribution, etc).

It took awhile, but I eventually came up with (what I hope is) a clever idea. And when a former Cato intern with artistic skill, Jonathan Babington-Heina, agreed to do me a favor and take the concept in my head and translate it to paper, here are the results.

I think this hits the nail on the head.

Excessive government is the main problem plaguing the global economy. But the international bureaucracies, for all intents and purposes, represent governments. The bureaucrats at the IMF and OECD need to please politicians in order to continue enjoying their lavish budgets and exceedingly generous tax-free salaries.

So when there is some sort of problem in the global economy, they are reluctant to advocate for smaller government and lower tax burdens (even if the economists working for these organizations sometimes produce very good research on fiscal issues).

Instead, when it’s time to make recommendations, they push an agenda that is good for the political elite but bad for the private sector. Which is exactly what I’m trying to demonstrate in the cartoon,

But let’s not merely rely on a cartoon to make this point.

In an article for the American Enterprise Institute, Glenn Hubbard and Kevin Hassett discuss the intersection of economic policy and international bureaucracies. They start by explaining that these organizations would promote jurisdictional competition if they were motivated by a desire to boost growth.

…economic theory has a lot to say about how they should function. …they haven’t achieved all of their promise, primarily because those bodies have yet to fully understand the role they need to play in the interconnected world. The key insight harkens back to a dusty economics seminar room in the early 1950s, when University of Michigan graduate student Charles Tiebout…said that governments could be driven to efficient behavior if people can move. …This observation, which Tiebout developed fully in a landmark paper published in 1956, led to an explosion of work by economists, much of it focusing on…many bits of evidence that confirm the important beneficial effects that can emerge when governments compete. …A flatter world should make the competition between national governments increasingly like the competition between smaller communities. Such competition can provide the world’s citizens with an insurance policy against the out-of-control growth of massive and inefficient bureaucracies.

Using the European Union as an example, Hubbard and Hassett point out the grim results when bureaucracies focus on policies designed to boost the power of governments rather than the vitality of the market.

…as Brexit indicates, the EU has not successfully focused solely on the potentially positive role it could play. Indeed, as often as not, one can view the actions of the EU government as being an attempt to form a cartel to harmonize policies across member states, and standing in the way of, rather than advancing, competition. …an EU that acts as a competition-stifling cartel will grow increasingly unpopular, and more countries will leave it.

They close with a very useful suggestion.

If the EU instead focuses on maximizing mobility and enhancing the competition between states, allowing the countries to compete on regulation, taxation, and in other policy areas, then the union will become a populist’s dream and the best economic friend of its citizens.

Unfortunately, I fully expect this sage advice to fall upon deaf ears. The crowd in Brussels knows that their comfortable existence is dependent on pleasing politicians from national governments.

And the same is true for the bureaucrats at the IMF and OECD.

The only practical solution is to have national governments cut off funding so the bureaucracies disappear.

But, to cite just one example, why would Obama allow that when these bureaucracies go through a lot of effort to promote his statist agenda?

Economics Will Be Our Ruination

That there title is known as “clickbait.”

But there are challenges in using economics in public policy. Economics is a value-free tool that makes it easy to overlook embedded values.

In a recent story entitled “Pokémon Go is Everything that is Wrong with Late Capitalism,”—talk about clickbait—Vox reporter and Cato alum Timothy B. Lee recounts “some real downsides” to the new mobile gaming phenomenon. In brief, Internet businesses like Nintendo, Amazon, and such are causing a cash drain from most parts of the country to a small number of tech-industry centers. The result is a slow-down in the overall economy because entertainments like Pokémon Go don’t support complimentary businesses like the theaters, parking concessions, and restaurants, for example, that crop up around blockbuster movies.

Tech businesses are moving wealth from most places to San Francisco or Seattle, and the rest of the country concommitantly slumps.

But what is it to “slump”? Pokémon Go players aren’t slumping. They’re running all over the place, offending some of the more curmudgeonly among us. They’re making friends.

On average, market transactions make all parties better off. And Pokémon Go players certainly look like they’re having a good time. How is it that millions of market transactions are making us worse off?

The question is one of values. Orthodox economics prioritizes a bottom line measured chiefly in the flow of dollars or dollar-equivalents. To oversimplify, “good” is more dollars moving around. Fewer dollars on the move is “bad.” That’s often right, in my opinion, but sometimes it’s not. I don’t think people exist to keep certain measures of the economy moving upward—much less the numbers for their nation-states.

Happily, there’s some economic research being done out there that more neatly fits my values. Erik Hurst, a macroeconomist at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, is investigating whether tech-based entertainments like Pokémon Go are contracting the labor supply—contra the widespread assumption that there’s a curious lack of demand.

It may be that young men, in particular, with less than a four-year college education, are forgoing work to play video games. Crucially, Hurst says, “happiness surveys actually indicate that they [are] quite content compared to their peers.” Let the economists fret. People are having a good time on the cheap.

Plenty of us in the world of advanced degrees and blog reading—we flâneurs among material that might contain the word “flâneur”—are inclined to believe that preferring video games to educational and career advancement is a road to a horrible life. That may be true, but it’s also a little self-focused. It may be that continuing advances in technologies of many kinds will make it smart in the future to have declined the rat race and enjoyed more leisure across the entire span of life—economic statistics be damned.

Title aside, I think Tim Lee’s piece made a pretty orthodox economic case. His prescriptions included both liberty-friendly and liberty-loathing ideas. And his real point was something about the Euro. Another response to his clickbait, naturally, is: ‘Pokemon Go’ Represents The Best Of Capitalism. My point here is to highlight the values embedded in economic orthodoxy, which I sometimes find dubious, as I prefer individual liberty.

The Six Most Important Takeaways from CBO’s New Long-Run Fiscal Forecast

The Congressional Budget Office has just released the 2016 version of its Long-Term Budget Outlook.

It’s filled with all sorts of interesting data if you’re a budget wonk (and a bit of sloppy analysis if you’re an economist).

If you’re a normal person and don’t want to wade through 118 pages, you’ll be happy to know I’ve taken on that task.

And I’ve grabbed the six most important images from the report.

First, and most important, we have a very important admission from CBO that the long-run issue of ever-rising red ink is completely the result of spending growing too fast. I’ve helpfully underlined that portion of Figure 1-2.

And if you want to know the underlying details, here’s Figure 1-4 from the report.

Once again, I’ve highlighted the most important portions. On the left side of Figure 1-4, you’ll see that the health entitlements are the main problem, growing so fast that they outpace even the rapid growth of income taxation. And on the right side, you’ll see confirmation that our fiscal challenge is the growing burden of federal spending, exacerbated by a rising tax burden.

And if you want more detail on health spending, Figure 3-3 confirms what every sensible person suspected, which is that Obamacare did not flatten the cost curve of health spending.

Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, and other government health entitlements are projected to consume ever-larger chunks of economic output.

Now let’s turn to the revenue side of the budget.

Figure 5-1 is important because it shows that the tax burden will automatically climb, even without any of the class-warfare tax hikes advocated by Hillary Clinton.

And what this also means is that more than 100 percent of our long-run fiscal challenge is caused by excessive government spending (and the Obama White House also has confessed this is true).

Let’s close with two additional charts.

We’ll start with Figure 8-1, which shows that things are getting worse rather than better. This year’s forecast shows a big jump in long-run red ink.

There are several reasons for this deterioration, including sub-par economic performance, failure to comply with spending caps, and adoption of new fiscal burdens.

The bottom line is that we’re becoming more like Greece at a faster pace.

Last but not least, here’s a chart that underscores why our healthcare system is such a mess.

Figure 3-1 shows that consumers directly finance only 11 percent of their health care, which is rather compelling evidence that we have a massive government-created third-party payer problem in that sector of our economy.

Yes, this is primarily a healthcare issue, especially if you look at the economic consequences, but it’s also a fiscal issue since nearly half of all health spending is by the government.

P.S. If these charts aren’t sufficiently depressing, just imagine what they will look like in four years.

The Necessary and Valuable Economic Role of Tax Havens

Economists certainly don’t speak with one voice, but there’s a general consensus on two principles of public finance that will lead to a more competitive and prosperous economy.

To be sure, some economists will say that high tax rates and more double taxation are nonetheless okay because they believe there is an “equity vs. efficiency” tradeoff and they are willing to sacrifice some prosperity in hopes of achieving more equality.

I disagree, mostly because there’s compelling evidence that this approach ultimately leads to less income for the poor, but this is a fair and honest debate. Both sides agree that lower rates and less double taxation will produce more growth (though they’ll disagree on how much growth) and both sides agree that a low-tax/faster-growth economy will produce more inequality (though they’ll disagree on whether the goal is to reduce inequality or reduce poverty).

Since I’m on the low-tax/faster-growth side of the debate, this is one of the reasons why I’m a big fan of tax competition and tax havens.

Economics of the Syrian Refugee Crisis

The Syrian Civil War has produced about 5.8 million Syrians seeking refuge or asylum elsewhere–a scale of population displacement unseen since World War II. Although the flow into Europe dominates the news, most of the registered Syrian refugees remain in the Middle East. Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan are the main recipients of the immigration wave, receiving roughly 1.1 million, 2.7 million, and 640,000 Syrians, respectively. The Gulf States are hosting about 1.2 million Syrians on work visas but they are not legally considered refugees or asylum seekers because those nations are not signatories to the UNHCR commission that created the modern refugee system. Regardless, the humanitarian benefit of Syrians working and residing there is tremendous.

The movement of so many Syrians over such a short period of time should result in significant economic and fiscal effects in their destination countries. Below is a summary of recent economic research on how the Syrians have affected the economies and budgets for Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Europe. 


Syrian refugees are 24 percent of Lebanon’s population–the highest Syrian refugee to population ratio in the world. However, neither the Lebanese government nor the United Nations has established official refugee camps in the country and registration of new Syrian refugees stopped in May 2015. International NGOs provide humanitarian aid that benefits over 126,000 destitute Syrians, but significant funding shortages have left some Syrians living on less than half a dollar per day. To more efficiently provide aid, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has divided the country into four areas: Mount Lebanon and Beirut, North Lebanon, Bekaa Valley, and South Lebanon. Most refugees have settled in the underdeveloped areas of the Bekaa Valley and North Lebanon because the Lebanese in these areas share many family ties with Syrians. Locals in these areas are struggling to accommodate Syrian refugees despite the family ties.

Many Syrians, especially those with more wealth and greater skills, are responding to the poor economic conditions in North Lebanon and Bekaa by moving to South Lebanon and Beirut where there are more job opportunities, higher wages, cheaper rents, and safer communities. Syrian entrepreneurs are also welcomed in these regions of the country.

Economic Lesson from Europe: Higher Tax Rates Are a Recipe for More Red Ink

We can learn a lot of economic lessons from Europe.

Today, we’re going to focus on another lesson, which is that higher taxes lead to more red ink. And let’s hope Hillary Clinton is paying attention.

I’ve already made the argument, using European fiscal data to show that big increases in the tax burden over the past several decades have resulted in much higher levels of government debt.

But let’s now augment that argument by considering what’s happened in recent years.

There’s been a big fiscal crisis in Europe, which has forced governments to engage in austerity.

But the type of austerity matters. A lot.

Here’s some of what I wrote back in 2014.

…austerity is a catch-all phrase that includes bad policy (higher taxes) and good policy (spending restraint). But with a few notable exceptions, European nations have been choosing the wrong kind of austerity (even though Paul Krugman doesn’t seem to know the difference).

And when I claim politicians in Europe have chosen the wrong kind of austerity, that’s not hyperbole.

Ranking States for Income Taxes and Government Efficiency

There’s no agreement on the most important variable for state tax competitiveness.

I’m sympathetic to the final option, in part because of my disdain for the income tax. And if an income tax is imposed, I prefer a simple and fair flat tax.

With that in mind, here’s a fascinating infographic I received via email. I don’t know if Reboot Illinois is left wing, right wing, or apolitical, but they did a very good job. I particularly like the map showing zero-income tax states (gray), flat tax states (red), and states with so-called progressive tax schemes (blue).

For what it’s worth, Illinois taxpayers should fight as hard as possible to preserve the state’s flat tax. If the politicians get the power to discriminate among income classes, it will just be a matter of time before all taxpayers are hit by higher rates.

Now let’s shift to the spending side of the fiscal ledger.

Like any good libertarian, I generally focus on the size of government. I compare France with Hong Kong and that tells me that big is bad and small is good.

But regardless of whether a government is large or small, it’s desirable if it spends money efficiently and generates some benefit. I shared, for instance, a fascinating study on “public sector efficiency” from the European Central Bank and was not surprised to see that nations with smaller public sectors got much more bang for the buck (with Singapore easily winning the prize for the most efficient government).

So I was very interested to see that WalletHub put together a report showing each state’s “return on investment” based on how effectively it uses tax monies to achieve desirable outcomes for education, health, safety, economy, and infrastructure, and pollution.

I’m not completely comfortable with the methodology (is it a state government’s fault if the population is more obese and therefore less healthy, for instance, and what about adjusting for demographic factors such as age and race?), but I nonetheless think the study is both useful and interesting.

Here are the best and worst states.

One thing that should stand out is that the best states are dominated by zero-income tax states and flat tax states.

The worst states, by contrast, tend to have punitive tax systems (Alaska is a bit of an outlier because it collects - and squanders - a lot of revenue from oil).

P.S. WalletHub put together some fascinating data on which cities get a good return on investment (i.e., bang for the back) for spending on police and education.