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Personal Character Conquers Another Welfare-State Tragedy

On a fateful day he’ll never forget, 18-year-old Lawrence (“Larry”) Cooper, an unmarried black man and high school dropout, found himself on the wrong side of the law. He attempted an armed robbery of a store in downtown Savannah, Georgia. It was April 1987. The cash involved? A mere $80, enough to finance his cocaine habit for less than a day. Larry was caught and sent to a maximum-security prison.

One month after Larry’s arrest, his son was born. The boy wouldn’t see his father outside of a cell until November 2015, when his dad was finally released.

“I wasn’t there to even sign the birth certificate,” Larry told me just a month ago.

These lamentable chapters of the Larry Cooper story are distressingly familiar in America.

Today, incarcerated black American males number about 750,000. That’s more than the entire prison populations of India, Argentina, Canada, Lebanon, Japan, Germany, Finland, Israel, and England combined. In August 2013, a report from the Sentencing Project on Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System revealed that “one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime.”

The leading cause of incarceration of black males is nonviolent drug offenses. This is no accident. As President Richard Nixon’s domestic-policy adviser and Watergate co-conspirator John Ehrlichman revealed in a 1994 interview,

We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

The next leading causes are false accusations, then crimes against persons, followed by crimes against property. Economist Thomas Sowell argues convincingly, as do many others, that the genuinely criminal behavior — the violations of person and property — have much less to do with racism and poverty than they have to do with the debilitating, family-busting policies of the welfare state. (And it doesn’t help that poor, inner-city families are often trapped in lousy government schools.) Sowell observes,

Murder rates among black males were going down — repeat, down — during the much lamented 1950s, while [they] went up after the much celebrated 1960s, reaching levels more than double what they had been before. Most black children were raised in two-parent families prior to the 1960s. But today the great majority of black children are raised in one-parent families. Such trends are not unique to blacks, nor even to the United States. The welfare state has led to remarkably similar trends among the white underclass in England over the same period.… You cannot take any people, of any color, and exempt them from the requirements of civilization — including work, behavioral standards, personal responsibility and all the other basic things that the clever intelligentsia disdain — without ruinous consequences to them and to society at large.

Larry Cooper was one of the statistics, a prime candidate for exhibit A in this national tragedy. But today, he’s well on his way to a life of honor and redemption. Perhaps the jury on him is still out, but I’m betting he’s a hero in the making.

Growing up in Savannah in the 1970s and ‘80s, Larry faced the challenges posed by a broken family.

“My dad had 33 kids with six or seven women,” he informed me in a February 2016 interview over breakfast.

“Mom and Dad separated early, so Dad just wasn’t around. I saw him maybe twice a year.”

As a teenager, Larry started skipping school, stealing, smoking marijuana, and then doing cocaine.

“I dropped out of school when I was 16 and it broke my mama’s heart,” he said. His mother implored him to find employment so he took a landscaping job that lasted only a week before he was in the streets again.

Hanging out with the wrong people, trapped in a vicious circle of using drugs and stealing what he could to afford more — and with only a brokenhearted mother at home to offer any hope at all — Larry was headed for destruction. His poor choices caught up with him two years later with a 10-year sentence for armed robbery. But things would get much worse before they would get better.

Bad behavior, including aggravated assault, earned Larry additional prison time — a grand total of 28 years. He went in at age 18 and emerged at 47. It will be another decade before he can say he’s been a free man for as long as he wasn’t.

“Over the years while behind bars,” Larry says, “I thought more and more about what my mama had told me. She said this would happen if I didn’t straighten up. She prayed hard for me, all the time. She visited me as much as she could. I still remember how bad I felt when she once came to see me but was turned away because I was ‘in the hole’ for bad things I done. But she never gave up on me.”

I asked Larry what the low point of his time in prison was. I expected it might have been a run-in with a guard or another inmate, an ugly incident of short duration.

His answer: “Seven years in solitary confinement.”

Seven years?” I exclaimed.

“Yes, and every day it was the same: one hour out in the yard, 15 minutes in the shower, and then 22 hours and 45 minutes in solitary,” he replied. “At first, I was in despair. But then I started reading and then writing to folks, exercising in my cell and thinking hard about what had happened to me and what was going on in my life. It took those long hours by myself to make me come to my senses and start feeling bad about the people I stole from, all the friends and family I had hurt. Things mama told me finally started to have an effect on me.”

Larry’s mother arranged his baptism when he was a child, but he never made time to read more than a few words of the Bible — or anything else, for that matter. A prison chaplain introduced him to a Bible study course conducted by mail. Larry enrolled and completed it.

“That’s when my life really began to change,” he told me. “Ever since that course, I’ve been a different man. I’ve settled down. I use my brain now. I’m no longer the man I used to be.”

Larry’s personal and spiritual recovery were well underway before I’d ever heard of him. His reading had brought him into contact with ideas of political and economic liberty. He wrote my former place of employment in Michigan, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, asking for more information. My old colleagues there forwarded his letter on to me at FEE, and that began a correspondence that now fills two shoeboxes on a shelf in my home office.

Never before had I contemplated developing a friendship with a man in prison. I wouldn’t know how to begin. If Larry hadn’t taken the initiative to contact me, such an undertaking would never have happened. I now count it as a great blessing in my life.

Larry was much more diligent in writing than I was, I confess with some remorse.

“I had more time on my hands than you did,” he jokes.

But I’m pleased to have helped deepen his understanding of liberty by sending him many books and articles.

“Were there any particular things I sent you that made a big impact?”

Without skipping a beat, he replied, “Yes. One was your book, A Republic — If We Can Keep It and the other was What It Means to Be a Libertarian by Charles Murray.” The reader will excuse me, I hope, if I report this with a smile and considerable pride.

Larry and I corresponded but never spoke by phone until after his release. I was looking forward to the day when I could finally drive down to Savannah to spend time with him. Until we met, I didn’t even know what he looked like, but we embraced as if we were brothers.

We dined at the Bonefish Grill on Abercorn Street, then went to see the fantastic film Race about Olympian Jesse Owens. The next morning, we had breakfast, and I recorded the interview with him that this article is based on before visiting the public library on Bull Street so I could show Larry how to create his first email account.

I learned much from Larry during that breakfast interview. For example, he opposes the drug war from a vantage point I’ve never experienced — from inside prison walls where, he says, “drugs are everywhere.” I asked him where they come from.

“All sorts of ways and places,” he said. “Guys out on work detail get ‘em. People throw ‘em over the prison gate. Guards and officers bring ‘em in.”

Larry’s views on current issues are interesting, but his personal transformation is, to me at least, positively captivating. As the well-known expression puts it, “I love it when a plan comes together.” The sad part of it is that Larry’s mother, one of the few anchors in his life, died just three months before he earned his freedom.

“At first I couldn’t believe it,” he recalled. “She was living for the day I would get out, which was the day after Thanksgiving, 2015. It really hit me at Christmas. At my first Christmas dinner as a free man in 28 years, family and old friends got together. Everybody was there but mama. It took me so many years to realize how important your character is. Thanks to mama and my faith, I’m not going to ever let it slip again.”

The Salvation Army in Savannah is generously providing Larry with a place to live and a church to attend on Sundays as he puts his new life together. He’s working two jobs, one with a prestigious catering service and the other with a local staffing firm that places him in short-term stints at manual labor.

He doesn’t want welfare.

“I try to earn every penny I get,” he asserts proudly. He’s both optimistic and excited about his future. He’d love to start a new family.

“I want to prove to myself that I can be a good independent man and make amends for what I did. I take one day at a time, but my spirits are real good.”

After all Larry’s been through and with freedom so new to him, I suppose there’s a chance of a relapse. Surely there will be occasional bumps on his ongoing road of recovery. I hope I’ve encouraged him and can continue to do so.

There are many lessons here: Strong families and good parenting can make all the difference in the world. Building character for navigating the pitfalls of life is a priceless undertaking you’ll likely never regret. Don’t underestimate the value of a mother who never gives up on a wayward son. Through an inner transformation, in this case facilitated by a spiritual renewal, even the seemingly incorrigible can turn his or her life around. Never miss an opportunity to encourage someone who is clearly trying to do the right thing.

I intend to stay in touch with Larry Cooper. I’ll watch his progress and assist with it if and when I can. He’s already taught me a valuable truth: that heroes aren’t always the ones who make the headlines or the history books. They may just be on the other side of a wall.

For further information, see:

Lawrence W. ReedLawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s. Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook.

Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.

The Myth of Scandinavian Socialism by Corey Iacono

Bernie Sanders has single-handedly brought the term “democratic socialism” into the contemporary American political lexicon and shaken millions of Millennials out of their apathy towards politics. Even if he does not win the Democratic nomination, his impact on American politics will be evident for years to come.

Sanders has convinced a great number of people that things have been going very badly for the great majority of people in the United States, for a very long time. His solution? America must embrace “democratic socialism,” a socioeconomic system that seemingly works very well in the Scandinavian countries, like Sweden, which are, by some measures, better off than the United States.

Democratic socialism purports to combine majority rule with state control of the means of production. However, the Scandinavian countries are not good examples of democratic socialism in action because they aren’t socialist.

In the Scandinavian countries, like all other developed nations, the means of production are primarily owned by private individuals, not the community or the government, and resources are allocated to their respective uses by the market, not government or community planning.

While it is true that the Scandinavian countries provide things like a generous social safety net and universal healthcare, an extensive welfare state is not the same thing as socialism. What Sanders and his supporters confuse as socialism is actually social democracy, a system in which the government aims to promote the public welfare through heavy taxation and spending, within the framework of a capitalist economy. This is what the Scandinavians practice.

In response to Americans frequently referring to his country as socialist, the prime minister of Denmark recently remarked in a lecture at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government,

I know that some people in the US associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism. Therefore I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.

The Scandinavians embrace a brand of free-market capitalism that exists in conjunction with a large welfare state, known as the “Nordic Model,” which includes many policies that democratic socialists would likely abhor.

For example, democratic socialists are generally opponents of global capitalism and free trade, but the Scandinavian countries have fully embraced these things. The Economist magazine describes the Scandinavian countries as “stout free-traders who resist the temptation to intervene even to protect iconic companies.” Perhaps this is why Denmark, Norway, and Sweden rank among the most globalized countries in the entire world. These countries all also rank in the top 10 easiest countries to do business in.

How do supporters of Bernie Sanders feel about the minimum wage? You will find no such government-imposed floors on labor in Sweden, Norway, or Denmark. Instead, minimum wages are decided by collective-bargaining agreements between unions and employers; they typically vary on an occupational or industrial basis. Union-imposed wages lock out the least skilled and do their own damage to an economy, but such a decentralized system is still arguably a much better way of doing things than having the central government set a one-size fits all wage policy that covers every occupation nationwide.

In a move that would be considered radically pro-capitalist by young Americans who #FeelTheBern, Sweden adopted a universal school choice system in the 1990s that is nearly identical to the system proposed by libertarian economist Milton Friedman his 1955 essay, “The Role of Government in Education.”

In practice, the Swedish system involves local governments allowing families to use public funds, in the form of vouchers, to finance their child’s education at a private school, including schools run by the dreaded for-profit corporation.

Far from being a failure, as the socialists thought it would be, Sweden’s reforms were a considerable success. According to a study published by the Institute for the Study of Labor, the expansion of private schooling and competition brought about by the Swedish free-market educational reforms “improved average educational performance both at the end of compulsory school and in the long run in terms of high school grades, university attendance, and years of schooling.”

Overall, it is clear that the Scandinavian countries are not in fact archetypes of successful democratic socialism. Sanders has convinced a great deal of people that socialism is something it is not, and he has used the Scandinavian countries to prove its efficacy, while ignoring the many ways they deviate, sometimes dramatically, from what Sanders himself advocates.

Corey IaconoCorey Iacono

Corey Iacono is a student at the University of Rhode Island majoring in pharmaceutical science and minoring in economics.

Why Bernie Sanders Has to Raise Taxes on the Middle Class by Daniel Bier

Willie Sutton was one of the most infamous bank robbers in American history. Over three decades, the dashing criminal robbed a hundred banks, escaped three prisons, and made off with millions. Today, he is best known for Sutton’s Law: Asked by a reporter why he robbed banks, Sutton allegedly quipped, “Because that’s where the money is.”

Sutton’s Law explains something unusual about Bernie Sander’s tax plan: it calls for massive tax hikes across the board. Why raise taxes on the middle class? Because that’s where the money is.

The problem all politicians face is that voters love to get stuff, but they hate to pay for it. The traditional solution that center-left politicians pitch is the idea that the poor and middle class will get the benefits, and the rich will pay for it.

This is approximately how things work in the United States. The top 1 percent of taxpayers earn 19 percent of total income and pay 38 percent of federal income taxes. The bottom 50 percent earn 12 percent and pay 3 percent. This chart from the Heritage Foundation shows net taxes paid and benefits received, per person, by household income group:

But Sanders’ proposals (free college, free health care, jobs programs, more Social Security, etc.) are way too heavy for the rich alone to carry, and he knows it. To his credit, his campaign has released a plan to pay for each of these myriad handouts. Vox’s Dylan Matthews has totaled up all the tax increases Sanders has proposed so far, and the picture is simply staggering.

Every household earning below $250,000 will face a tax hike of nearly 9 percent. Past that, rates explode, up to a top rate of 77 percent on incomes over $10 million.

Paying for Free

Sanders argues that most people’s average income tax rate won’t change, but this is only true if you exclude the two major taxes meant to pay for his health care program: a 2.2 percent “premium” tax and 6.2 percent payroll tax, imposed on incomes across the board. These taxes account for majority of the new revenue Sanders is counting on.

But it gets worse: his single-payer health care plan will cost 80 percent more than he claims. Analysis by the left-leaning scholar Kenneth Thorpe (who supports single payer) concludes that Sanders’ proposal will cost $1.1 trillion more each year than he claims. The trillion dollar discrepancy results from some questionable assumptions in Sanders’ numbers. For instance:

Sanders assumes $324 billion more per year in prescription drug savings than Thorpe does. Thorpe argues that this is wildly implausible.

“In 2014 private health plans paid a TOTAL of $132 billion on prescription drugs and nationally we spent $305 billion,” he writes in an email. “With their savings drug spending nationally would be negative.”

So unless pharmaceutical companies start paying you to take their drugs, the Sanders administration will need to increase taxes even more.

Analysis by the Tax Foundation finds that his proposed tax hikes already total $13.6 trillion over the next ten years. However, “the plan would [only] end up collecting $9.8 trillion over the next decade when accounting for decreased economic output.”

And the consequences will be truly devastating. Because of the taxes on labor and capital, GDP will be reduced 9.5 percent. Six million jobs will be lost. On average, after-tax incomes will be reduced by more than 18 percent.

Incomes for the bottom 50 percent will be reduced by more than 14 percent, and incomes for the top 1 percent will be reduced nearly 25 percent. Inequality warriors might cheer, but if you want to actually raise revenue, crushing the incomes of the people who pay almost 40 percent of all taxes isn’t the way to go.

These are just the effects of the $1 trillion tax hike he has planned — and he probably needs to double that to pay for single payer. Where will he find it? He’ll go where European welfare states go.

Being Like Scandinavia

Sanders is a great admirer of Scandinavian countries, such as Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, and many of his proposals are modeled on their systems. But to pay for their generous welfare benefits, they tax, and tax, and tax.

Denmark, Norway, and Sweden all capture between 20-26 percent of GDP from income and payroll taxes. By contrast, the United States collects only 15 percent.

Scandinavia’s tax rates themselves are not that much higher than the United States’. Denmark’s top rate is 30 percent higher, Sweden’s is 18 percent higher, and Norway’s is actually 16 percent lower — and yet Norway’s income tax raises 30 percent more revenue than the United States.

The answer lies in how progressive the US tax system is, in the thresholds at which people are hit by the top tax rates. The Tax Foundation explains,

Scandinavian income taxes raise a lot of revenue because they are actually rather flat. In other words, they tax most people at these high rates, not just high-income taxpayers.

The top marginal tax rate of 60 percent in Denmark applies to all income over 1.2 times the average income in Denmark. From the American perspective, this means that all income over $60,000 (1.2 times the average income of about $50,000 in the United States) would be taxed at 60 percent. …

Compare this to the United States. The top marginal tax rate of 46.8 percent (state average and federal combined rates) kicks in at 8.5 times the average U.S. income (around $400,000). Comparatively, few taxpayers in the United States face the top marginal rate.

The reason European states can pay for giant welfare programs is not because they just tax the rich more — it’s because they also scoop up a ton of middle class income. The reason why the United States can’t right now is its long-standing political arrangement to keep taxes high on the rich so they can be low on the poor and middle.

Where the Money Is – And Isn’t

As shown by the Laffer Curve, there is a point at which increasing tax rates actually reduces tax revenue, by discouraging work, hurting the economy, and encouraging tax avoidance.

Bernie’s plan already hammers the rich: households earning over $250,000 (the top 3 percent) would face marginal rates of 62-77 percent — meaning the IRS would take two-thirds to three-quarters of each additional dollar earned. His proposed capital gains taxes are so high that they are likely well past the point of positive returns. The US corporate tax rate of 40 percent is already the highest in the world, and even Sanders hasn’t proposed increasing it.

The only way to solve his revenue problem is to raise rates on the middle and upper-middle classes, or flatten the structure to make the top rates start kicking in much lower. You can see why a “progressive” isn’t keen on making more regressive taxes part of his platform, but the money has to come from somewhere.

The bottom fifty percent don’t pay much income tax now (only $34 billion), but they also don’t earn enough to fill the gap. Making their taxes proportionate to income would only raise $107 billion, without even considering how the higher rates would reduce employment and income.

The top 5 percent are pretty well wrung dry by Sanders’ plan, and their incomes are going to be reduced by 20-25 percent anyway. It’s hard to imagine that there’s much more blood to be had from that stone.

But households between the 50th and the 95th percentile (incomes between $37,000 to $180,000 a year) earn about 54 percent of total income — a share would likely go up, given the larger income reductions expected for top earners. Currently, this group pays only 38 percent of total income taxes, and, despite the 9 percent tax hike, they’re comparatively spared by the original tax plan. Their incomes are now the lowest hanging fruit on the tax tree.

As they go to the polls this year, the middle class should remember Sutton’s Law.

Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier is the editor of Anything Peaceful. He writes on issues relating to science, civil liberties, and economic freedom.

Can We Afford ‘Affordable Care’? by D.W. MacKenzie

Does the Supreme Court decision upholding health insurance subsidies prove that Obamacare is here to stay?

With its legality settled, the longevity of the healthcare program is supposed to be politically inevitable. The millions of voters who receive subsidies from the Affordable Care Act will not tolerate the loss of this money. Insurance companies will no doubt also lobby to prevent any loss of ACA subsidies, as stockholders and employees are major beneficiaries of this program.

Political factors may well preserve the ACA in the short run. But the Court’s ruling came on the heels of a gloomy report from the Congressional Budget Office that may prove to be more decisive for the law than all of Chief Justice Roberts’ legal gymnastics.

The CBO forecasts anemic economic growth and rising public debt for decades to come. Projected revenues and projected spending indicate a growing imbalance in federal finances, driven by long-term unfunded liabilities in old entitlement programs — mainly Social Security and Medicare.

The Affordable Care Act was supposed to control health insurance costs — hence the name. Unfortunately, things are not working out that way, and insurance companies are pressing for significant rate increases.

Consumers might hope that government officials would resist pressure for rate increases, but such actions are unlikely: Stock prices for major health insurers rose sharply after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Obama administration. Clearly, investors expect the ACA to benefit health insurers. And in Oregon, state regulators actually raised premiums higher than insurers requested, just to keep companies in the market. Rising premiums will likely drive more subsidies, worsening the looming debt and entitlement crisis.

Politicians have ignored these issues for decades because they seemed like “long-term” problems, and political pressures from elections and lobbying force them to be shortsighted. The short-term financial situation is being shored up by the willingness of investors to buy federal debt at low rates.

The trouble is that the long term isn’t as far off as it used to be. The CBO indicates that the fiscal situation in the federal government worsened significantly over the past few years, even as the deficit was declining. Further deterioration in federal finances is expected over the next decade. How much longer will private investors continue to finance this soaring debt?

A large part of the problem with rising debt is that financing it requires steady economic growth, but large public debts can crush growth. Federal debt is a millstone on the economy, the burden of which could at some point lead to national bankruptcy. The ACA, with its enormous subsidies and regulatory compliance costs, will simply pile on an already unaffordable mass of federal spending programs.

The bottom line is that Supreme Court maintained the ACA subsidies legally,but the American people will not be able to maintain them financially.

The passage and continued defense of the Affordable Care Act is an example of the rank irrationality of public budgeting. The outcome of our political and legislative processes over the past few decades has been to create a myriad of wasteful and financially unsustainable federal programs. Meanwhile, the analytical office the legislative branch of government has been quietly raising the alarm about to the direction and sustainability of government finances. It would seem that delirium is winning out over reason.

There is, of course, nothing truly inevitable about the growth of federal spending. Federal spending developed into its present irrational state because many people pressed for this growth.

But spending can and will be curtailed. Citizens can push for real spending cuts through the electoral process. Otherwise, investors in financial markets will at some point put a sharp and sudden stop to government excesses.


D.W. MacKenzie

D. W. MacKenzie is an assistant professor of economics at Carroll College in Helena, Montana.

RELATED ARTICLE: Under Obamacare, Uninsured Rate Fell to Lowest Level in 50 Years. Why There’s More to That Number.

Scandinavian Myths: High Taxes and Big Spending Are Popular by Nima Sanandaji

As I have explained in previous columns for CapX, there are a number of myths surrounding the Nordic countries that don’t stand up to scrutiny. These include the notion that long life span in Nordic nations arose as the public sector expanded, the idea that generous public programs alone explain low levels of Nordic poverty and the myth that Nordic countries are bumblebees that defy gravity by not being adversely affected by high taxes.

But surely the Nordic countries do show one leftist theory to be correct: that social democrat policies can be popular with the electorate.

Although the Social Democrats have recently lost much of their previous support, they did manage to dominate Nordic policies for long. Sweden was sometimes referred to as a one-party state, since the Social Democrats ruled it almost consecutively from 1932 till 2006 (interrupted by two short spells of centre-right rule during 1976-1982 and 1991-1994).

It is sometimes puzzling to the outsider why the Nordic public repeatedly have elected tax-raising governments to power. The obvious answer is ideological support for welfare state policies.

However, there is also another reason worth examining in greater detail: the general public has not been fully aware of the price tag, in terms of higher taxes, attached to expanding public sectors. Politicians have created a fiscal illusion which has resulted in higher levels of taxation that the population would otherwise have accepted as feasible had taxes been levied in a transparent way.

Before policies radicalised in the late 1960s, the tax levels in Nordic nations were around 30 percent  of GDP – quite typical of other developed nations. At the time, the tax burdens were quite visible. Most taxation occurred through direct taxes, which showed up on employees’ payslips.

Over time, an increasing share of taxation has been raised through indirect taxes. The latter are less visible to those paying them, since they are either levied before the wage is formally given to the employee or are included in the listed price of goods.

Finland is worth considering as an example. The country’s tax level was 30 percent of GDP in 1965. Indirect taxes in the form of VAT and mandatory social security contributions amounted to a quarter of total taxation. In 2013, the total tax take had increased to 44 percent of GDP, half of which was hidden taxes.

As shown below, Finnish governments have funded the expansion of the public sector by raising the hidden, but not the visible, tax burden. Denmark has followed a route wherein both hidden and visible taxes have been hiked.

Hidden and visible taxes in Finland (percentage of GDP)

Source: OECD tax database and own calculations.

Hidden and visible taxes in Denmark (percentage of GDP)

In Norway and Sweden, visible taxes are today lower than in the 1960s, although the true taxation is considerably higher. As can be seen below, it is clear that governments in both countries have followed a strategy based on replacing visible tax income with hidden tax incomes.

Thus, whilst the average worker has paid progressively more to the government, the payslips of the same worker have misleadingly shown a reduction in taxation.

Hidden and visible taxes in Norway (percentage of GDP)

Hidden and visible taxes in Sweden (percentage of GDP)

In other words, except in Denmark, the rise in taxation has occurred fully through an increase in hidden taxation.

This is in line with the predictions of fiscal illusion made by Italian economist Amilcare Puviani in 1903. Puviani explained that politicians would have incentives to hide the cost of government by levying indirect rather than direct taxes, so that the public would under-estimate the cost of policies.

The illusion can thus be created that an expanding state benefits individuals and families and yet costs less than it actually does. Nobel laureate James Buchanan and other researchers have expanded on the idea that it is easier for politicians to raise hidden, indirect taxes rather than visible ones.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that those who believe in a higher tax rate in other parts of the world have followed a similar strategy as the Nordic nations. The American left-liberal think tank the Roosevelt Institute openly recommends “less-visible taxes that Americans are more likely to support.”

The Obamacare system launched in the US represents a form of indirect taxation – through an overly complex system – that is even more difficult to comprehend for the average taxpayer than in the Nordic systems.

I don’t doubt that less visible taxes in the US, the UK or other parts of the world would prove an easier route to raise the tax burden than visible taxes. This is indeed a lesson that the left can learn from the Nordics.

But the question remains if this is a good route to venture on. Shouldn’t politicians strive for systems where people are aware of how much they are paying for the government?


Nima Sanandaji

Dr. Nima Sanandaji is a research fellow at CPS, and the author of Scandinavian Unexceptionalism available from the Institute of Economic Affairs.

EDITORS NOTE: This article was originally published at CapX.

The Man Who Sowed the Seeds of Puerto Rico’s Collapse by Lawrence W. Reed

Is there anything more tragically monotonous than a failing welfare state? From ancient Rome to modern Greece, the story is one of the most repetitive in history. It goes like this:

People increasingly decide they’d rather vote for a living than work for one. An academic and intellectual class, dependent on subsidies and anxious to command the economy, advises the people that this is a really good thing. Politicians cater to them with high-sounding rhetoric (“We’ll take care of you”) and low-balling promises (“We can afford it. It won’t cost much. We’ll just take it from the rich”).

Responsibility, self-reliance, and enterprise give way to an entitlement mentality. Power concentrates and corruption ensues. Taxes and debt rise. The government debases the money. Crisis leads to more government, which leads to more crisis. What was always bankrupt morally finally goes bankrupt economically. Goodbye economy, liberty, and often even civilization itself. The barbarians take over. What else is new?

Now it’s Puerto Rico’s turn.

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is a US territory in the northeastern Caribbean. Its governor, Alejandro García Padilla, startled the world back in June when he announced that the island cannot pay back its $72 billion public debt.

“The debt is not payable,” García Padilla said. “There is no other option. I would love to have an easier option. This is not politics; this is math.”

He called the situation a “death spiral.” Suddenly, millions of Americans were learning what a basket case the Puerto Rican economy has become. It is indeed a crisis but one that was, to an embarrassing extent, made right here in America.

It was foisted on Puerto Ricans by one lousy New Dealer in particular. His name was Rexford Guy Tugwell.

More on the egghead Tugwell in a moment, but let me bring everybody up to date on just how bad things are down there. Be sure to read to the end because there’s a silver lining in this very dark cloud.

Puerto Rico has been in a funk for a good while. Its stubbornly high, double-digit unemployment rate is more than twice that of the United States. In fact, it hasn’t been below 9.7 percent in 40 years.

The island’s debt is higher on a per capita basis than that of any US state and four times that of Detroit, which went bankrupt two years ago. Businesses are collapsing. People are fleeing (200,000 have left since 2005). Almost half of the island’s 3.7 million residents earn incomes under the US federal poverty line. Nearly 40 percent of all households get food stamps. Until recently, the retirement age for government school teachers was as low as 47, prompting underfunded pension fund crisis so endemic to welfare states. (The retirement age has lately been raised to at least 55 for current teachers, and 62 for new teachers.)

As Tyler Durden explains at ZeroHedge.com, policies imposed from Washington must shoulder a big part of the blame for this mess: the wizards on the Potomac encouraged debt and deficit spending, priced hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans out of entry-level jobs with a punishing minimum wage, taxed and regulated commerce and investment to a crawl, and showered the island with debilitating welfare. The place would be a showcase of government-induced prosperity except for one sticking point: government.

All of this has been decades in the making, which brings me to the character named Tugwell. I’ve long had a distaste for this pompous meddler. The more I learn about his role as Puerto Rico’s appointed governor (1941–1946), the more I’m ashamed that a US president was dumb enough to put him in charge of anything.

I first heard of Tugwell as an undergraduate economics major at Grove City College in the early 1970s. Fascinated by what my econ prof, Dr. Hans Sennholz, had said in class about America’s 22nd and 24th president, Grover Cleveland, I checked out a biography of him. It carried the imaginative title, GroverCleveland, and included a revealing subtitle, A Biography of the President Whose Uncompromising Honesty and Integrity Failed America in a Time of Crisis.

The author was Rexford Guy Tugwell, widely regarded as the most influential ideologue of economic planning during Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Cleveland terms were largely wasted opportunities, according to Tugwell, because Cleveland would not turn the economy into his personal plaything. If only he had trashed his honesty and integrity, Cleveland could have been the scientist and the rest of us the lab rats.

Tugwell was the Jonathan Gruber of his day. (Recall the smug academic who admitted that deception was employed to fool stupid Americans into supporting Obamacare.) He went straight from academia as a student (the Wharton School at U-Penn, then Columbia) to academia as a professor (University of Washington, American University in Paris, and Columbia University). His intellectual mentors were socialists like Upton Sinclair and Edward Bellamy. Woodrow Wilson’s wartime administration gave him his first real glimpse of the glorious fun of central planning, and he loved it even when it flopped.

In 1932, President-elect Franklin Roosevelt invited Professor Tugwell to join the first White House “brain trust.” These were the whiz kids — the social scientists and experimenters of the administration. Blessed with power and attention, they were ready to “transform” America and “plan” our way out of the Great Depression.

H.L. Mencken was less charitable in his description. He called them “an astonishing rabble of impudent nobodies,” “a gang of half-educated pedagogues, starry-eyed uplifters and other such sorry wizards.” Along with FDR, they “planned” the Depression into the longest slump in American history.

Tugwell loved to set up and run what came to be known as “boondoggles.” He was an architect of the Agricultural Adjustment Act and later director of its Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), which taxed agricultural processors and used the revenue to destroy crops and cattle to raise prices. It was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and ridiculously destructive by clear thinkers.

From its inception in 1935, he directed the Resettlement Administration (RA), which relocated the rural unemployed to new, planned communities in suburbs. Urban authority Jane Jacobs, in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, showed that his program simply displaced people and ruined neighborhoods. The RA was also thrown out as unconstitutional. True to the statist stereotype, Tugwell learned nothing from either experience. “Planning” was his religion and he was going to be its high priest, come hell or high water.

In 1936, Tugwell left Washington and two years later showed up as the first director of the New York City Planning Commission. He tried retroactively to enforce nonconforming land uses with almost no legal or public support. He proved too much an ideologue even for the polarizing Robert Moses, who killed Tugwell’s 50-year, pie-in-the-sky master plan for public housing.

Now let’s get back to Puerto Rico.

By 1941, Rexford Guy Tugwell had behind him a 20-year career of pontificating for big government and managing expensive government flops. Somehow that gave Franklin Roosevelt the idea of naming him governor of Puerto Rico. What Tugwell did for the mainland, he could now do for an island. Maybe this central planning stuff works better if you work small, right?

Nope.

So for five years, Professor Tugwell became Governor Tugwell. One of the first things he did was to create, with the legislature’s approval, the Puerto Rico Planning, Urbanization, and Zoning Board in 1942. If only he had done what John Copperthwaite did later in Hong Kong or what Ludwig Erhard did in postwar Germany or what inspired free marketers have done in freeing their cities, Puerto Rico might today be a beacon of liberty and prosperity. But Tugwell wanted to plan, plan, plan.

Pedro Serra is president of a new organization in Puerto Rico, the Alliance for the Protection of Liberties. He is a businessman from San Juan whose interest in free-market economics led him to work with the 2012 Ron Paul campaign. Looking back on the Tugwell period, he observes,

When President Roosevelt appointed Rexford G. Tugwell governor of Puerto Rico, it was in keeping with the same economic attitude that characterized the New Deal — that the government can solve an economy’s woes. Our government has since taken as an axiom that economic stagnation results from too little government, not too much. If this were the case, then today’s Puerto Rico should be paradise on earth. Instead our economy is depressed, our people jobless, and our government bankrupt.

Climate would seem to have blessed Puerto Rico for agricultural pursuits. Tugwell’s infinite wisdom suggested it should opt for industry instead, so he directed public policy against farming and toward manufacturing. He lobbied for all the aid and welfare from the mainland he could get. He set the tone for decades of a top-down welfare state. Joe Milligan, a colleague of Serra’s, is originally from Rochester, Michigan, and now brings his passion for free markets to San Juan, Puerto Rico, as the director of development for the Alliance for the Protection of Liberties. Here is how Milligan sums it up:

Governor Tugwell’s legacy is alive and apparent on the island. His tenure in office was characterized by central planning, government growth, and expansion of the welfare state. He stamped out the thriving sugar cane and coffee industries in favor of manufacturing. The result is that now we have neither. Today in Puerto Rico our government is the island’s largest employer and half of all residents require government financial assistance to subsist. In this sense Governor Tugwell truly left his mark.

Indeed, for many years after Governor Tugwell left Puerto Rico for academia back in the United States (where failure is celebrated as long as you worship the state and have good intentions), other New Dealers sojourned to the island to offer more of the same.

One of them was Hugh Barton, who had directed the US State Department’s Office of Strategic Services until he was fired for his knowledge of the communist affiliations of some of his top staff. Barton set up shop with the Puerto Rico Planning Board and the Office of Economic Research. If you had a college degree and a penchant for planning the economy of other people, you could get a government job in Puerto Rico in the 1950s and ’60s. Except for a brief retrenchment under one-term Governor Luis Fortuño, Puerto Rico has been run for decades as Tugwell first envisioned it, exacerbated by Washington’s poor policies to boot.

As I promised early in this article, there’s some good news in this bleak course of events. Puerto Rico now has a nascent libertarian movement and an organization devoted to spreading ideas of liberty as an antidote to the Tugwell legacy — the Alianza para la Protección de Libertades (Alliance for the Protection of Liberties) that Pedro Serra and Joe Milligan have launched.

The Alliance seeks to improve the lives of Puerto Ricans by building a new consensus around this proposition: a free society — not a centrally planned, politicized one — is a more prosperous and tolerant society. It works to build public support for smaller government and advise policy makers in choosing the proven path toward prosperity. The Alliance’s programs include developing a college campus lecture circuit, starting a YouTube channel specific to Puerto Rico’s issues, and disseminating compelling literature to legislators.

Never let a crisis go to waste, as the saying goes. Puerto Rico represents a unique opportunity to undo a painful, statist history. I hope readers will want to help.

To support the efforts of the Alliance, email Pedro Serra, the director, at pedro@protecciondelibertades.org.

“The curious task of economics,” Austrian economist F.A. Hayek taught us, “is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

Rexford Guy Tugwell never understood that. With the help of the Alliance for the Protection of Liberties, Puerto Ricans may yet embrace Hayek’s wisdom and thereby shake the curse of Tugwell.


Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s.

Could Hillary Really “Restore” the Middle Class? by Donald J. Boudreaux

Eduardo Porter opens his column today by asking “Could President Hillary Clinton restore the American middle class?” (“Sizing Up Hillary Clinton’s Plans to Help the Middle Class”).

Mr. Porter illegitimately presents as an established fact a proposition that is anything but. It’s true that between 1967 and 2009 the percent of American families with annual incomes between $25,000 and $75,000 (in 2009 dollars) fell from 62 to 39 – a fact that, standing alone, might be interpreted as evidence that the middle class is disappearing.

Yet this fact does not stand alone, for it’s also true that the percent of families with annual incomes lower than $25,000 also fell (from 22 to 18) while the percent of families with annual incomes of $75,000 and higher rose significantly – from 16 to 43.*

So given these Census Bureau data – which are strong evidence that America’s middle class, if disappearing, is doing so by moving into the upper classes – to ask if President Hillary Clinton could restore the American middle class is to ask if she will make the bulk of today’s prosperous families poorer rather than richer.

This post first appeared at CafeHayek.

Donald Boudreaux

Donald Boudreaux is a professor of economics at George Mason University, a former FEE president, and the author of Hypocrites and Half-Wits.

Marriage and the (Forgotten) Middle Class Welfare State by Daniel Bier

Jason Kuznicki, in his wonderful post on marriage and the state, included this baffling chart of how the marriage penalty/bonus affects couples jointly filing tax returns:

Kuznicki points out that the penalty/bonus part is just an inevitable artifact of the progressive income tax system. The math just works out that way.

But, my friend Sean J. Rosenthal points out, the chart also shows Director’s Law: “Public expenditures are made for the primary benefit of the middle classes, and financed with taxes which are borne in considerable part by the poor and the rich.”

George Stigler, channeling the work of the great Chicago economist Aaron Director, coined the term in a 1970 article in the Journal of Law and Economics.

The logic of Director’s Law is:

Government has coercive power, which allows it to engage in acts (above all, the taking of resources) which could not be performed by voluntary agreement of the members of a society.

Any portion of the society which can secure control of the state’s machinery will employ the machinery to improve its own position.

Under a set of conditions… this dominant group will be the middle income classes.

Stigler went on to describe the Public Choice calculus for a wealthy modern democracy. In a society like ours, with our electoral institutions, the interests of the middle class will always have the biggest sway on public policy, since most people fall in the middle of the income distribution, rather than at bottom or the top.

Politicians will (and must) try to gratify the middle’s desires and shift the costs somewhere else — i.e., the rich and the poor and future generations, since they have relatively less influence on public policy. (Though this general rule is not to say that there aren’t also policies that primarily benefit the poor or the wealthy.)

This explains a lot of features of public policy that don’t fit with the normal “welfare is all about the poor” or “the rich run everything” paradigms.

For instance, Obamacare’s insurance scheme is basically all a big subsidy for older, relatively wealthier middle class people at the expensive of younger, poorer people. The other half of Obamacare, the Medicaid expansion, increases eligibility for Medicaid up to 400% of the poverty line — that safety net is catching some pretty middling fish at this point.

Medicare and Social Security, the marriage penalty/bonus distribution, college student loans, tax write-offs for mortgage payments and employer-sponsored health insurance, small business favoritism, and a host of other policies are essentially giveaways to the middle class, at the expense of the rich and poor.

Nonetheless, we should expect politicians to continue harping on the plight of the middle class, stroking voters’ fears and concerns about the “shrinking middle,” promising to “rebuild the middle class,” pass “tax cuts for the middle class,” save “Main Street,” and on, and on.

And who could ever be against helping middle class? Nobody. And that’s how we end up being content with a marriage policy that punishes poor (and rich) working couples, even while pundits bemoan the state of marriage.

Update #1: As with many later developments in economics, Frederic Bastiat anticipated Public Choice by more than a hundred years. In his Selected Essays on Political Economy, recently republished by FEE, he wrote,

When, under the pretext of fraternity, the legal code imposes mutual sacrifices on the citizens, human nature is not thereby abrogated. Everyone will then direct his efforts toward contributing little to, and taking much from, the common fund of sacrifices.

Now, is it the most unfortunate who gain in this struggle? Certainly not, but rather the most influential and calculating.

Update #2: I see that Director’s Law was first mentioned in the Freeman, before Stigler published on it in JLE, in John Chamberlain’s coverage of the 1969 Mont Pelerin Society meeting in Venezuela.


Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier is the editor of Anything Peaceful. He writes on issues relating to science, civil liberties, and economic freedom.

Bernie Sanders Thinks the Middle Class Is Deteriorating: He’s Wrong! by Corey Iacono

Sen. Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist running for President of the United States, and his passionate populist message has won him many admirers on the left. His willingness to push for radical progressive policies (such as top income tax rates of 90 percent), which mainstream Democrats are too moderate to embrace, is steadily eroding Hillary Clinton’s dominance of the Democratic primary field.

There are several “facts” upon which Sanders has built his campaign. Probably the most important is the claim that the American middle class has been declining for quite some time. According to Sanders’s website:

The long-term deterioration of the middle class, accelerated by the Wall Street crash of 2008, has not been pretty…

Since 1999, the median middle-class family has seen its income go down by almost $5,000 after adjusting for inflation, now earning less than it did 25 years ago.

The situation is clearly dire, and the right man for the momentous job of saving the middle class is Sen. Sanders. Well, at least that’s [the] message his campaign seeks to convey.

But what if the middle class isn’t becoming worse off over time? What if the American middle class is actually doing as well as ever? Would Sanders’s supporters be as likely to endorse his more radical ideas if they weren’t convinced that the middle was becoming poorer over time — and that only progressive policies could reverse this trend?

It’s worth taking the time to examine Sanders’s claim that the middle class is worse off now than in the past. He doesn’t cite a source for his statistic, but it seems to rely on looking at the median household income over time and adjusting for inflation using the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

This is a problematic methodology because it does not control for the well-known fact that the median household has itself grown smaller over time. Even if median income stayed the same over time, a decline in the number of people in the median household over time would lead to an increase in income per household member.

Additionally, Sanders’s statistic looks at income before taxes and transfers. Transfer payments and tax credits (like the Earned Income Tax Credit) make up a significant portion of income for many lower-income families. Not controlling for these factors understates their true economic well-being.

The figures cited by Sanders also fail to take into account the fact that a larger proportion of worker compensation comes in the form of non-cash benefits (such as health insurance) now than in the past.

According to research published by the National Tax Journal, “Broadening the income definition to post-tax, post-transfer, size-adjusted household cash income, middle class Americans are found to have made substantial gains,” amounting to a 37 percent increase in income over the 1979-2007 period.

Similarly, in 2014, the Congressional Budget Office found that adjusting for changing household size and looking at income after taxes and transfers, households in all income quintiles are much better off than they were a few decades ago.

The incomes of households in the three middle income quintiles grew 40 percent between 1979 and 2011. Somewhat surprisingly, given the histrionics about the state of America’s poor, income in households in the lowest quintile was 48 percent higher in 2011 than it was in 1979.

Research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis comes to even more optimistic conclusions.

The Consumer Price Index is widely understood to overstate inflation — among other reasons, by failing to accurately account for improvements in quality and consumer substitutions for newer or cheaper goods — which is why the Federal Open Market Committee uses an alternative measurement for inflation, the Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) price index, which includes more comprehensive coverage of goods and services than the CPI.

If the CPI does, in fact, overstate the extent to which prices rise over time, then it also consequently understates the growth in real, inflation-adjusted incomes over time.

Indexing median household income (post taxes and transfers) to inflation using the PCE, rather than the CPI, and adjusting for the long-run decline in household size shows that median incomes have “increased by roughly 44 percent to 62 percent from 1976 to 2006.”

Moreover, the focus on statistical categories ignores what is happening at the level of individuals and households, which may move up or down the income ladder, through different income quintiles. And studies have consistently shown that this income mobility has not changed in decades.

While the rate of growth for some income categories in recent years has been sluggish, the claim that middle incomes are declining precipitously is false. Based on these findings, it seems appropriate to conclude that Sanders’ claim that there exists a “long-term deterioration of the middle class” is patently untrue.

Learn more about wage “stagnation” from former FEE president Don Boudreaux:

Corey Iacono

Corey Iacono is a student at the University of Rhode Island majoring in pharmaceutical science and minoring in economics.

Europe Needs Regime Change in Greece: They Won’t Get It by Stephen Davies

It seems the saga of negotiations between the Greek Government and its creditors has arrived at a denouement but almost certainly not a final conclusion, and we may expect this show to return to the stage at some point, probably in the near future. The reason for this is the real nature of the ultimate problem facing both parties, something of which the creditors are still unaware.

The negotiations over the last few months have been marked by a remarkable degree of acrimony. Most of the other eurozone governments have become increasingly (and publicly) exasperated with the Greeks, and the expressions of hostility towards the Greek government from members of national parliaments have grown ever more outspoken.

Some of the reasons for this are well known — above all, the lack of a true European demos: there simply is not the kind of solidarity or shared interest in Europe that one finds in, for example, the United States.

However, there is another reason for the acrimony that has not received much attention. The creditors misunderstand what it is they are asking the Greek government and society to do. This lack of understanding is why any deal made now is likely to prove a disappointment.

The impression given by media reports is that this is all about debt, specifically the debts run up by the Greek state before 2009. Certainly there is a problem, but it is one that is soluble and does not require the kind of fraught negotiations we have seen.

The difficulty is that the fiscal state of Greece before the first bailout in 2010, and the underlying state of the Greek economy, are symptoms of a much more serious underlying problem. This is one not of debt but of competitiveness.

Quite simply the Greek economy is not productive enough to support the levels of income and public spending that it now has, without significant capital inflows from outside Greece. Before 2008 these came in the form of private loans, since then by government bailouts (even if much of this has been recycled back to private creditors).

Greek firms and labour are simply not competitive with their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, above all in Germany. Being in the euro means that they cannot adopt the traditional way of regaining at least some competitiveness by devaluing their currency. Instead, they have to deflate internally, and the attempt to do this has devastated economic life in Greece.

This is all well known. It is the reason why the creditors are demanding that, in return for a third bailout, the Greek government introduce a series of reforms to public spending, the tax system, and the machinery of the Greek state, particularly it’s tax collecting apparatus. Successive Greek government have either refused to do this or promised to do it and then failed. This is why the rest of the eurozone is becoming ever more exasperated. It here however that the misunderstanding comes in to play.

What the creditors think they are asking for is a major shift in public policy. They recognise that the shift they are asking for is radical, and many also realise that what would be involved would be a shift in the general ideological basis of Greek politics, towards a more market liberal direction. However, they are actually, without realising it, asking for something much more fundamental and drastic.

One question that should be asked is why Greece got into a position that was so much worse than that of other “peripheral” economies. Also, why has the performance of the Greek economy been so much worse than that of other countries that have had bailouts and austerity, such as Spain, Portugal, and Ireland? The answer lies in the fundamental nature of the Greek state and the political economy of Greece.

Greek political culture is dominated by practices and institutions that certainly exist elsewhere in Europe but are not as dominant. The state has a narrow tax base, with powerful interests such as the Orthodox Church effectively exempt. The revenue collection apparatus is completely ineffective so that tax evasion is endemic at every level of income.

This means that simply raising or extending VAT for instance is not enough because so many transactions are off the books. At the same time, the Greek state provides generous pensions and other benefits, which it cannot fund.

The political system appears to be a modern democracy but is in fact a much older model. The key institution is clientelism, in which political actors give out rewards to their clients in the shape of handouts and sinecures in the very large public sector. This is done much more directly than with the kind of interest group politics that we find in most democratic countries, and it is central to the whole way that politics works.

The extent of patronage means that the Greek government (whoever they are) does not have a modern, Weberian, bureaucracy to call on. Instead, most of the people in the public service owe their positions to networks of patronage and these command their loyalty.

The economy is highly regulated in ways that entrench settled interests and inhibit innovation. In particular, a very wide range of occupations are subject to rules that make it very difficult for new entrants into those sectors. Because of the inefficiency and the existence of a plethora of rules that are irksome but ultimately unenforceable, corruption is endemic and widespread throughout Greek society.

This system cannot maintain anything like the standard of living to which most Greeks aspire and as such it means that, via membership of the euro, we have seen the development of an economy that depends upon inward transfers — to a much greater degree than is the case in countries such as Spain and Ireland.

Given all this, it becomes clear that what the creditors are asking for is much more than a shift in policy, no matter how sharp and dramatic. Policy shifts of that kind are part of the normal or regular political process that take place infrequently, but still regularly, in most polities. The shift brought about by Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979 is an example.

What is needed in Greece, and what the creditors are asking for without realising it, is something more fundamental, a change in the very nature of the political system and in the entire nature of politics and government, rather than a change of policy within a system. This is a regime change in the original and correct use of that term.

The point of course is that changes of this kind are extremely difficult and only happen extremely rarely. Sometimes it requires a revolution, as in France; on other occasions, it takes place in the context of a fundamental crisis such as defeat in a major war. Very rarely it can happen when there is a near consensus in a society over what to do, as in Japan in the 1870s.

The current Greek government is almost certainly aware of this, but, apart from ideological objections to part of the list of reforms, they are quite simply unable, rather than unwilling, to do what is asked because a change in the political order is simply very, very hard.

So the creditors are likely to be disappointed and will then become even more enraged. Moreover, being in the euro makes any attempt at systemic change in Greece even more difficult than it would be already, because if removes a range of policy options that could alleviate some of the transition costs.

As most economists of all persuasions now think, the best option is a managed Greek exit from the euro. If this does not happen (as seems likely) then this farce is a production that will run for some time.


Stephen Davies

Stephen Davies is a program officer at the Institute for Humane Studies and the education director at the Institute for Economics Affairs in London.

The Ex-Im Bank Is Dead — But Watch Out for Corporate Welfare Zombies by Daniel J. Ikenson

At midnight, the gears of crony capitalism ground to a halt at 811 Vermont Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C.

After 81 years of funneling taxpayer dollars to favored companies, projects, and geopolitical outcomes under the guise of advancing some vague conception of the “U.S. economic interest,” the Export-Import Bank of the United States will end its financing operations at midnight tonight.

No more subsidies to Fortune 100 businesses. No more siphoning revenues from unwitting U.S. firms and industries. No more loan guarantees to wealthy, autocratic foreign governments. No more crowding out of private lending. No more taxpayer exposure to a Fannie Mae-like fiasco. No more bribery and corruption scandals. No more collaboration and lending to China’s Export-Import Bank – you know, the entity whose support for Chinese companies is alleged to threaten U.S. exporters and jobs, and is the most frequently cited imperative for reauthorizing Ex-Im.

No more of any of this… for now.

Champions of small government and market capitalism should savor this rare victory. It was won with solid arguments, including over 20 years of analyses from Cato Institute scholars including Ian Vasquez, Aaron Lukas, Steve Slivinsky, Chris Edwards, Doug Bandow, Sallie James, and – perhaps most comprehensively and tirelessly – Veronique de Rugy.

It was won because of columnist/scholar Tim Carney’s persistence in focusing the public’s attention on the corruption bred of corporate welfare and because of the analytical contributions of Heritage’s Diane Katz, the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Ryan Young, and others who continued to make compelling arguments for shuttering the Bank, despite steep odds against that outcome.

It was won because certain libertarian groups and conservative activists made the issue a priority, recognizing that corporate welfare is as great a threat to liberty as is the Welfare State, and that reining it in should be a priority because success there would lend greater credibility to the effort to rein in the Welfare State.

It was won against great odds, including vast political expenditures and arm-twisting by U.S. business interests on Capitol Hill, a mainstream media that is reflexively unsympathetic to any cause associated with “Tea Party Types,” and a general aversion among establishment organizations to any challenges to the status-quo.

Radical and reckless, excessive and extreme, ideological and idiotic have been the characterizations assigned by media, politicians, and Boeing lobbyists in their attempts to discredit legitimate efforts to purge “crony” and make “market” the new brand of capitalism.

And it was won because House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling and Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, knowing the case against Ex-Im reauthorization was more substantive than the New York Times would allow, made good gatekeepers by putting the onus on Ex-Im proponents to answer the critics – a task at which they failed.

So, at midnight, the Export-Import Bank ceased in its capacity to issue new financing. That is something to cheer. It may also be short-lived.

Proponents of the Bank have been regrouping and strategizing to move legislation to reauthorize the Bank at the soonest possible chance. In fact the White House is hosting a conference call for the purpose of advancing that outcome. Here’s the text of the email:

Dear Friend,

Please join us for a conference call on Tuesday, June 30th, at 2:35 PM with President Barack Obama, Senior Advisor to the President, Valerie Jarrett, and Director of the National Economic Council, Jeff Zients, to discuss the importance of reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank of the United States.

The Export-Import Bank is a critical tool to help U.S. businesses and workers succeed in global markets and grow their exports – it supports high-quality jobs, is a vital tool for small businesses, and doesn’t cost taxpayers a penny. Its reauthorization is vital to U.S. competitiveness and leveling the playing field for American small business owners and workers. …

This call is off the record and is not for press purposes nor amplification on social media.

Thank you,

The White House Business Council

The battle may be over but the war continues. Given the sway that conservatives have had on this issue, it will be interesting to see whether and how Speaker Boehner tries to circumvent Hensarling’s committee to get a reauthorization bill to the floor. Majority Leader McConnell believes there’s enough support in the Senate for reauthorization, but most of the Republican presidential hopefuls have expressed opposition to reauthorization.

It seems to me that if Ex-Im reauthorization resurfaces in the weeks and months ahead, it will be an issue that provides Republicans with yet another opportunity to demonstrate commitment to limited government, free market principles. Maybe this time they’ll see the value in reclaiming that brand.


Daniel Ikenson

Dan Ikenson is director of Cato’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies, where he coordinates and conducts research on all manners of international trade and investment policy.

EDITORS NOTE: A version of this post first appeared at Cato.org.

How Government Turned Baltimore into Pottersville by James Bovard

Baltimore’s recent riots are not surprising in a city that has long been plagued by both police brutality and one of the nation’s highest murder rates. Though numerous government policies and the rampaging looters deserve blame for the carnage, federal housing subsidies have long destabilized Baltimore neighborhoods and helped create a culture of violence with impunity.

Yet just last week, Baltimore officials were in Washington asking for more. Given the history, it defies understanding.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was created in 1965, and Baltimore received massive subsidies to build housing projects in the following years. Baltimore’s projects, like those in many other cities, became cornucopias of crime.

One 202-unit sprawling Baltimore subsidized housing project (recently slated for razing) is known as “Murder Mall.” A 1979 HUD report noted that the robbery rate in one Baltimore public housing project was almost 20 times higher than the national average. The area in and around public housing often becomes “the territory of those who do not have to be afraid — the criminals,” the report said. Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke in 1993 blamed maintenance problems at one public housing projects on drug dealers who refused to let city workers enter the buildings.

In the 1990s, the Baltimore Housing Authority began collecting lavish HUD subsidies to demolish public housing projects. But critics complained that HUD was merely replacing “vertical ghettos with horizontal ones.” Baltimore was among the first cities targeted for using Section 8 vouchers to disperse public housing residents.

HUD and the city housing agency presumed that simply moving people out of the projects was all that was necessary to end the criminal behavior of the residents. Baltimore was one of five cities chosen for a HUD demonstration project — Moving to Opportunity (MTO) — to show how Section 8 could solve the problems of the underclass.

But the relocations had “tripled the rate of arrests for property crimes” among boys who moved to new locales via Section 8. A study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that boys in Section 8 households who moved to new neighborhoods were three times more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder and behavioral problems than boys in the control group.

A 2009 research project on Section 8 published in Homicide Studies noted that in the one city studied, “Crime, specifically homicide, became displaced to where the low-income residents were relocated. Homicide was simply moved to a new location, not eliminated.”

Ed Rutkowski, head of a community development corporation in one marginal Baltimore neighborhood, labeled Section 8 “a catalyst in neighborhood deterioration and ghetto expansion” in 2003.

Regardless of its collateral damage, Section 8 defines Valhalla for many Baltimoreans. Receiving a Section 8 voucher can enable some recipients to live rent-free in perpetuity. Because recipients must pay up to a third of their income for rent under the program, collecting Section 8 sharply decreases work effort, according to numerous economic studies.

Last October, when the local housing agency briefly allowed people to register for the program, it was deluged with 73,509 applications. Most of the applications were from families — which means that a third of Baltimore’s 241,455 households sought housing welfare. (Almost 10% of Baltimoreans are already on the housing dole.) Section 8 is not an entitlement, so the city will select fewer than 10,000“winners” from the list.

HUD’s Federal Housing Administration also has a long history of destabilizing neighborhoods in Baltimore and other big cities. A HUD subsidized mortgage program for low-income borrowers launched in 1968 spurred so many defaults and devastation that Carl Levin, then Detroit City Council president and later a long-term U.S. senator, derided the program in 1976 as “Hurricane HUD.

In the late 1990s, more than 20% of FHA mortgages in some Baltimore neighborhoods were in default — leading one activist to label Baltimore “the foreclosure capital of the world.” HUD Inspector General Susan Gaffney warned in 2000: “Vacant, boarded-up HUD-owned homes have a negative effect on neighborhoods, and the negative effect magnifies the longer the properties remain in HUD’s inventory.”

The feds continued massive negligent mortgage lending in Baltimore after that crisis, creating fresh havoc in recent years. In late 2013, more than 40% of homes in the low-income Carrollton Ridge neighborhood were underwater. Reckless subsidized lending in Baltimore and other low-income areas helped saddle Maryland with the highest foreclosure rate in the nation by the end of last year. One in every 435 housing units in Baltimore was in foreclosure last October, according to RealtyTrac.

President Obama said the Baltimore riots showed the need for new “massive investments in urban communities.” What Baltimore needs is an investment in new thinking. The highest property taxes in the state and oppressive local regulation often make investing in jobs and businesses in Baltimore unprofitable. Only fixing that will produce a stable community. Shoveling more federal money into the city is the triumph of hope over experience.

James Bovard

James Bovard is the author of Public Policy Hooligan. His work has appeared in USA Today, where this article was first published.

Health Insurance Is Illegal by Warren C. Gibson

Health insurance is a crime. No, I’m not using a metaphor. I’m not saying it’s a mess, though it certainly is that. I’m saying it’s illegal to offer real health insurance in America. To see why, we need to understand what real insurance is and differentiate that from what we currently have.

Real insurance

Life is risky. When we pool our risks with others through insurance policies, we reduce the financial impact of unforeseen accidents or illness or premature death in return for a premium we willingly pay. I don’t regret the money I’ve spent on auto insurance during my first 55 years of driving, even though I’ve yet to file a claim.

Insurance originated among affinity groups such as churches or labor unions, but now most insurance is provided by large firms with economies of scale, some organized for profit and some not. Through trial and error, these companies have learned to reduce the problems of adverse selection and moral hazard to manageable levels.

A key word above is unforeseen.

If some circumstance is known, it’s not a risk and therefore cannot be the subject of genuine risk-pooling insurance. That’s why, prior to Obamacare, some insurance companies insisted that applicants share information about their physical condition. Those with preexisting conditions were turned down, invited to high-risk pools, or offered policies with higher premiums and higher deductibles.

Insurers are now forbidden to reject applicants due to preexisting conditions or to charge them higher rates.

They are also forbidden from charging different rates due to different health conditions — and from offering plans that exclude certain coverage items, many of which are not “unforeseen.”

In other words, it’s illegal to offer real health insurance.

Word games

Is all this just semantics? Not at all. What currently passes for health insurance in America is really just prepaid health care — on a kind of all-you-can-consume buffet card. The system is a series of cost-shifting schemes stitched together by various special interests. There is no price transparency. The resulting overconsumption makes premiums skyrocket, and health resources get misallocated relative to genuine wants and needs.

Lessons

Some lessons here are that genuine health insurance would offer enormous cost savings to ordinary people — and genuine benefits to policyholders. These plans would encourage thrift and consumer wisdom in health care planning,  while discouraging the overconsumption that makes prepaid health care unaffordable.

At this point, critics will object that private health insurance is a market failure because the refusal of unregulated private companies to insure preexisting conditions is a serious problem that can only be remedied by government coercion. The trouble with such claims is that no one knows what a real health insurance market would generate, particularly as the pre-Obamacare regime wasn’t anything close to being free.

What might a real, free-market health plan look like?

  • People would be able to buy less expensive plans from anywhere, particularly across state lines.
  • People would be able to buy catastrophic plans (real insurance) and set aside much more in tax-deferred medical savings accounts to use on out-of-pocket care.
  • People would very likely be able to buy noncancelable, portable policies to cover all unforeseen illnesses over the policyholder’s lifetime.
  • People would be able to leave costly coverage items off their policies — such as chiropractic or mental health — so that they could enjoy more affordable premiums.
  • People would not be encouraged by the tax code to get insurance through their employer.

What about babies born with serious conditions? Parents could buy policies to cover such problems prior to conception. What about parents whose genes predispose them to produce disabled offspring? They might have to pay more.

Of course, there will always be those who cannot or do not, for one reason or another, take such precautions. There is still a huge reservoir of charitable impulses and institutions in this country that could offer assistance. And these civil society organizations would be far more robust in a freer health care market.

The enemy of the good

Are these perfect solutions? By no means. Perfection is not possible, but market solutions compare very favorably to government solutions, especially over longer periods. Obamacare will continue to bring us unaccountable bureaucracies, shortages, rationing, discouraged doctors, and more.

Some imagine that prior to Obamacare, we had a free-market health insurance system, but the system was already severely hobbled by restrictions.

To name a few:

  • It was illegal to offer policies across state lines, which suppressed choices and increased prices, essentially cartelizing health insurance by state.
  • Employers were (and still are) given a tax break for providing health insurance (but not auto insurance) to their employees, reducing the incentive for covered employees to economize on health care while driving up prices for individual buyers. People stayed locked in jobs out of fear of losing health policies.
  • State regulators forbade policies that excluded certain coverage items, even if policyholders were amenable to such plans.
  • Many states made it illegal to price discriminate based on health status.
  • The law forbade associated health plans, which would allow organizations like churches or civic groups to pool risk and offer alternatives.
  • Medicaid and Medicare made up half of the health care system.

Of course, Obamacare fixed none of these problems.

Many voices are calling for the repeal of Obamacare, but few of those voices are offering the only solution that will work in the long term: complete separation of state and health care. That means no insurance regulation, no medical licensing, and ultimately, the abolition of Medicare and Medicaid, which threaten to wash future federal budgets in a sea of red ink.

Meanwhile, anything resembling real health insurance is illegal. And if you tried to offer it, they might throw you in jail.

Warren C. Gibson

Warren Gibson teaches engineering at Santa Clara University and economics at San Jose State University.

The Welfare State Needs Abolition, Not “Reform” by DOUG BANDOW

The United States is effectively bankrupt. Economist Laurence Kotlikoff figures the government faces unfunded liabilities in excess of $200 trillion. Making the programs run more efficiently would be helpful. But only transforming or eliminating such programs will save the republic.

The left likes to paint conservatives as radical destroyers of the welfare state. If only.

Instead, some on the right have made peace with expansive government. Particularly notable is the movement of “reform conservatism.” The so-called “reformicons,” notes Reason’s Shikha Dalmia, “have ended up with a mix of old and new liberal ideas that thoroughly scale back the right’s long-running commitment to free markets and limited government.”

The point is not that attempts to improve the functioning of bloated, inefficient programs are bad. But they are inadequate.

Yes, government costs too much. Government also does too much. And that cannot be remedied by lowering administrative costs, eliminating waste, improving delivery, or even reducing perverse incentives.

The worst “reform conservatism” idea is to manipulate the state to support a particular “conservative” vision. Dalmia points out that many reformicons want to use the welfare state to strengthen institutions which they favor.

For instance, “just as George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism proffered a series of special tax incentives to prop up religious institutions, reformicons want targeted tax breaks to strengthen middle-class families. Some want to restrict immigration and trade, just like unions of yore.”

Utah Sen. Mike Lee, for instance, criticizes conservatives who “have abandoned words like ‘together,’ ‘compassion,’ and ‘community’.” Although he warned against overreliance on the state, he still wants to use it for his own ends, proposing greater flexibility in allowing workers to choose between comp time and overtime — by imposing such a provision on private collective bargaining agreements.

Reformicon intellectuals and politicians argue for an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit for singles and increased deductions for dependents and tax credits for parents who stay at home. Some want more taxes on the wealthy, new employee-oriented public transportation, a preference for borrowing over deficit reduction, subsidies for hiring the unemployed, and punishment for colleges whose students welsh on their educational loans.

Senators Lee and Marco Rubio and Lee have introduced the “Economic Growth and Family Fairness Tax Reform Plan.” It offers some corporate and individual tax reductions but raises the rates on most everyone by lowering tax thresholds. The bill also increases the child credit, even for the well-to-do.

Alas, this differs little from liberal social engineering.

As Dalmia puts it:  “Broad-based, neutral tax cuts to stimulate growth are out, markets are optional tools, the welfare state is cool, redistributive social engineering is the way forward, and class warfare is in.”

Reformicons don’t so much disagree as argue that they can do better than liberals. For instance, Yuval Levin of National Affairs contended that his movement relies on “experimentation and evaluation [and] will keep those programs that work and dump those that fail.”

What motivates this approach? After Barack Obama’s victory, Levin explained, he and other conservative thinkers “were trying to figure out what the hell this new world looked like.” They hoped to apply “the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.”

Of course, the Judeo-Christian moral tradition didn’t arise with a focus on public policy. Jesus spoke at length on the relationship of men to God and each other, but largely avoided politics. He never advocated coercively applying his teachings — that the federal government should force men to love God and their neighbors, as long as the enforcement was efficient, for instance.

But politics drives reform conservatism. Bloomberg’s Ramesh Ponnuru contended that it’s a matter of necessity: “Times change and people need to change if they are going to remain relevant.”

Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center made a fulsome pitch for conservatives to embrace social benefits for “their” voters. After all, “Many of those working-class voters are located precisely in the two places a Republican presidential candidate needs to carry to win the White House.”

He concluded:  “American conservativism at its best embraces Reagan’s thought, combining a love of liberty with an overriding love of all people. In the present crisis, antigovernment fundamentalism threatens to place the two at odds with one another, to fatal effect for conservatism and for the country.”

Expressing interest in reformicon ideas are GOP presidential contenders Rubio, Jeb Bush, and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Indiana’s Mike Pence, another possible GOP candidate, recently expanded Medicaid, in a reform-oriented fashion.

Ohio’s Gov. John Kasich (yet another potential contender), grew Medicaid without reform — claiming God’s direction. However, there’s no evidence so far that technocratic “reform conservatism” is more politically attractive than simple conservatism.

Of course, no one should want policies that don’t work. But that doesn’t address the most important question: is the end itself justified? Efficient income redistribution doesn’t make the process morally right, only less wasteful on its way to being wrong.

And such measures can create new problems. For instance, author Amity Shlaes and Matthew Denhart of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation warn that the Rubio-Lee plan would generate resentment by pitting individuals against families.

It also would sacrifice opportunities to spur economic growth by emphasizing group privileges over rate reductions for all. The two worry: “If the self-styled party of enterprise does not emphasize the individual, no one will.”

Big issues are at stake. The current economic system isn’t working for all. Rubio asked the right question: “How can we get to the point where we’re creating more middle-income and higher-income jobs, and how do we help people acquire the skills they need?”

Social engineering, even conservative social engineering, is not the answer.

The starting point for job creation remains what it always has been, making it easier and less costly to create businesses and jobs. Children need alternatives to the public school monopoly. Yes, the family is under pressure, but the best Washington can do is to do no harm.

For most issues the principal answer will come outside of politics, as Lee recognized: “Collective action doesn’t only — or even usually — mean government action.”

Some reformicon ideas might make some conservatives appear more presentable to the public, but this approach will win few converts from committed statists. But reform conservatism fails to provide a coherent answer to the most important problems facing America.

Government is not just inefficient: it is doing the wrong things.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.

Buffaloed by Obamacare’s Hidden Taxes

Obamacare’s costs are starting to show by D.W. MACKENZIE:

Someone at Buffalo Wild Wings decided to make the costs of the so-called Affordable Care Act (ACA) explicit in the restaurant’s register receipts. An estimated ACA cost of 2 percent was charged to each paying customer.

BW3’s customers complained. Apparently, they’d rather keep these costs hidden. But hiding costs won’t make Obamacare’s higher prices go away.

Adding the cost of a specific government program to a receipt is unusual. Normally, the only tax itemized on register tapes is sales tax — but these are a fraction of the true costs of governmental activity. There are, in fact, too many different government programs to list on each register receipt. Because the price of regulation is usually built into the prices of goods and services, we tend to pay for regulatory costs unwittingly.

Obama’s “Affordable” Care Act imposes regulations, taxes, and subsidies as a means of income redistribution. As usual, the goal is to tax and regulate higher-income people to subsidize those with lower incomes — but that’s never the way things work out.

Real people do not simply pay taxes and regulatory costs as required by written laws. Everyone tries to avoid taxes by whatever means are available. Tax avoidance usually stems from bargaining over prices in markets. Sellers push for higher prices, and buyers push for lower prices.

Sellers have costs to cover: labor, capital, and taxes. It is a simple fact of economics that when an entrepreneur’s taxes rise, he or she will pass part of that additional cost on to customers.

Regulations are de-facto taxes. There is no economic difference between taxing money from someone to fund some activity and a regulatory requirement to achieve the same goal. The ACA is a complex set of taxes.

How do entrepreneurs respond to ACA taxes? The same way they respond to all taxes, explicit or regulatory: by raising the price of whatever they sell.

There is an inescapable fact of taxation: tax burdens are always shared. Taxes charged to upper-income earners for redistribution are in some measure always redistributed to those with lower incomes through price increases.

While ACA benefits have been touted as “free” to lower-income recipients, this proposition is false — and impossible. Somebody always pays for insurance, or any other good. Goods that seem to be paid for by government only appear to be free because their costs are hidden or obscured. Costs of government programs, like the ACA, are just added into the total costs of taxation, and the costs of taxation are partly factored into the prices of all goods.

Taxpayers cannot buy the same amount of goods when final tax-adjusted prices go up. Economists call the effect of taxes on consumer purchases the tax wedge, because taxes drive a wedge between what consumers pay and what entrepreneurs receive. Taxes make goods more expensive for consumers and less profitable for entrepreneurs.

The explicit 2 percent ACA surcharge at Buffalo Wild Wings may or may not have been intended as permanent. The restaurant chain’s executives have already cancelled the policy after customers reacted negatively. But there is a lesson to be learned from the surcharge. Government programs have the superficial appearance of being free, but they never are.

Government’s lack of financial transparency often leads to an ironic outcome: things that appear to be government gifts end up costing more. Why? Because the public sector’s hidden costs mean less cost control in the public sector.

Private enterprises make costs clear with prices. Prices don’t itemize each cost, but because costs are more easily perceived in the private sector, people make greater efforts to control costs. Some find the explicit nature of costs in the private sector unpleasant. Conversely, the fantasy of a free lunch from the state does have a certain emotional appeal. But the inability of most people to perceive the costs of government makes it almost certain that these costs will be higher, compared to the efficiency the private sector can achieve.

As Buffalo Wild Wings made clear, the ACA is just another example of a government program that makes a false promise of free benefits. Rational economic analysis tells us that there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, yet politicians continue to use that fantasy for political gain.

Let’s abandon the myth of gifts from government. Every action has an economic cost, public or private.

ABOUT D.W. MACKENZIE

D. W. MacKenzie is an assistant professor of economics at Carroll College in Helena, Montana.