Published on 15 Mar 2017
This week, James & Antony discuss the case of Connecticut’s budget shortfall. The state hopes to solve their financial problems by raiding the retirement accounts of previous Connecticut government employees who have moved out of the state, and take 30% of those savings. This plan would hurt retirees, break promises, and trap many people in the state based on a policy that may be illegal.
March 16, 2017
March 14, 2017
Megan McArdle says that the best plan the Republicans could come up with to deal with Obamacare is to do nothing, at least in the short-term:
For a policy columnist, “Don’t do that” is the easiest column to write. Most policy ideas are bad. If you simply blindly oppose everything that anyone ever puts forward, you’ll end up being right most of the time.
However, that’s not very useful for politicians. If they just sit around Congress playing tiddlywinks all day, voters will get cranky. Congress is supposed to do things. So, having spent a few days saying unkind things about the Republican health-care plan, it probably behooves me to state what I think they should do.
Well, boy, that’s a hard question. Here’s the thing: For all the unkind words I’ve said, I get the forces that have brought Republicans to this point. As I wrote Thursday, Democrats built a shoddy and unworkable structure out of the political equivalent of concrete: nearly impossible to repair or renovate, and darned expensive to demolish. The task is made even harder by the fact that Democrats currently control just enough votes in the Senate to keep Republicans from passing any sort of clean, comprehensive bill.
What would I do in this situation? Well, the first thing I’d do is accept, deep in my heart, that there are no great outcomes possible at this point. The second thing I’d do is remember that nothing is always a policy option: If you can’t do something better than the status quo, don’t do anything. It’s what I said to Democrats in 2009, and it’s what I’m saying to Republicans now.
So what would I do to minimize the damage, within the constraints of political reality? Well, I foresee two potential futures for the current status quo. One, the exchanges where individuals buy policies could fail, leaving people unable to buy insurance. Or two, the exchanges don’t fail, and we’re left with an unsatisfactory but still operational system.
In either case, the Republicans’ best option is to wait. Why? Because what they can do now — hastily, without touching the underlying regulations that have destabilized the individual market — is worse than either of those outcomes. The partial-reform structure they think they’ll be able to get through the Senate is likely to make the problems in the individual market worse, not better. And the fact that they’ve tinkered with the program means that Republicans will take 100 percent of the blame.
She also re-iterates her own ideal solution (which she admits wouldn’t fly with the American public):
Longtime readers of my column know that my pet proposal is a radical overhaul of the whole system in which we zero out all the existing subsidies and just have the government pick up 100 percent of the tab for medical expenses that exceed 15 or 20 percent of a family’s adjusted gross income: basically, a single-payer catastrophic-care system for expenses that no one can realistically save for. Let people buy insurance for expenses below that, or, if it’s not too expensive taxwise, let people set aside more money tax-free in Health Savings Accounts. And make some more generous provisions for people closer to the poverty line, such as prefunding Health Savings Accounts for them. That’s the whole program. It fits on a postcard, though the finer details — like which cancer treatments we’re actually willing to pay for — obviously aren’t.
However, this is completely politically infeasible, because voters don’t want genuine insurance, by which I mean a pool that provides financial assistance for genuinely unforeseeable and unmanageable expenses. Voters want comprehensive coverage that kicks in at close to the first dollar of spending, no restrictions on treatments or their ability to see a doctor, nice American-style facilities, and so forth. They are also fond of their health-care professionals and do not wish to see provider incomes slashed and hospitals closed, nor do they want their taxes to go up, or to pay 10 percent of their annual income in premiums. This conflicting set of deeply held views is one major reason that Obamacare — and American health-care policy more generally — has the problems it does.
March 5, 2017
Warren Meyer used to be quite positive about the introduction of Pigouvian taxes, but recently his opinion has changed:
Here is the Wikipedia definition of a Pigovian tax:
A Pigovian tax (also spelled Pigouvian tax) is a tax levied on any market activity that generates negative externalities (costs not internalized in the market price). The tax is intended to correct an inefficient market outcome, and does so by being set equal to the social cost of the negative externalities. In the presence of negative externalities, the social cost of a market activity is not covered by the private cost of the activity. In such a case, the market outcome is not efficient and may lead to over-consumption of the product. An often-cited example of such an externality is environmental pollution.
The Left often tries to justify new taxes based on their being Pigovian taxes. The classic example is a carbon tax — it is claimed there is a social cost to carbon-based fuel combustion (e.g. CO2 production and resulting global warming) that is not taken into account by market prices. By adding the tax, these other costs can be taken into account, likely raising the price of these fuels and thus both reducing their use and providing a higher price umbrella for alternatives.
For years, I accepted these arguments at face value. I might argue with them (for example, I think that the Left has tended to spot 10 of the last 2 true negative externalities), but I accepted that they really believed in the logic of the Pigovian tax. I am now becoming convinced that I was wrong, that the Left’s support of Pigovian taxes is frequently a front, a way of putting a more palatable face on what is really a naked grab for more taxpayer money by public officials.
Soon after discovering the concept of Pigouvian taxes, I suspected that — even if the economics were sound — no human government was going to implement such a tax in the pure form: there would always be “good reasons” to make the new tax non-revenue-neutral, because once a revenue stream has been established, it’s unlikely the government will actually shut it down afterwards. I have yet to be disappointed in this expectation.
February 16, 2017
Published on 15 Feb 2017
We’re really excited to present the first episode of what will be an on-going video podcast featuring Dr. Antony Davies, Professor of Economics of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and Dr. James R. Harrigan, Senior Research Fellow at Strata, in Logan, Utah.
Each Wednesday we’ll be sharing a new short video featuring Antony and James talking about the economics and political science of current events. We hope you enjoy the show and look forward to your input on what topics Antony and James should cover in the future.
Today’s episode is about everybody’s favorite subject: Taxes!
February 3, 2017
Last week, Kevin Williamson outlined a couple of tax reforms that really would make a difference, being both more fair to all taxpayers and appealing (in theory) to both left and right:
Congressional Republicans and the Trump administration will disagree about many things, but it is rare to find a Republican of almost any description who will turn his nose up at a tax cut of almost any description. As Robert Novak put it: “God put the Republican Party on earth to cut taxes. If they don’t do that, they have no useful function.” And tax cuts are coming. But there are two proposals in circulation that would constitute significant tax increases — tax increases that would fall most heavily on upper-income Americans in high-tax progressive states such as California and New York. The first is a proposal to reduce or eliminate the mortgage-interest deduction, a tax subsidy that makes having a big mortgage on an expensive house relatively attractive to affluent households; the second is to reduce or eliminate the deduction for state income taxes, a provision that takes some of the sting out of living in a high-tax jurisdiction such as New York City (which has both state and local income taxes) or California, home to the nation’s highest state-tax burden.
Do not hold your breath waiting for the inequality warriors to congratulate Republicans for proposing these significant tax increases on the rich. Expect lamentations and the rending of garments, instead.
Slate economics editor Jordan Weissmann, who is not exactly Grover Norquist on the question of taxes, describes the mortgage-interest deduction as “an objectively horrible piece of public policy that should be reformed,” and it is difficult to disagree with him. It distorts the housing market in favor of higher prices, which is great if you are old and rich and own a house or three like Bernie Sanders but stinks if you are young and strapped and looking to buy a house. It encourages buyers to take on more debt at higher interest rates than they probably would without the deduction, and almost all of the benefits go to well-off households in the top income quintile. It is the classic example of upper-class welfare. And it has a nasty side, too: Those sky-high housing prices in California’s most desirable communities serve roughly the same function as the walls of a gated community or the tuition at Choate: keeping the riff-raff out. Pacific Heights is famous for its diversity: They have all kinds of multimillionaires there.
December 20, 2016
At the Adam Smith Institute blog, Tim Worstall looks at the ginned-up outrage over “fake news” in the media:
The comment page of The Guardian is a useful place to watch the latest alarum and mass delusion to which we humans are distressingly subject take form. The one so taking form at present being the outcries over the false news which so obviously won the election for Trump (or Brexit, The Italian referendum, Beppe to be, Le Pen and, well, select from whatever will annoy those who write the Guardian‘s comment pages).
The truly astonishing thing about it all being the alarming lack of self knowledge on display. Because of course fake news is nothing new at all, indeed it’s been a standard tactic of various on the left for some time now.
And closer to home here think of the UK Uncut saga. The story about Vodafone and the £6 billion tax bill. There never was such a bill, there was no deal to cut it and yet that isn’t what our media has been telling us, is it? Richard Brooks, the originator of the story in Private Eye, has actually explained to us how the figure was reached. If tax law was different then more money would have been owed. We’re sure that’s true but there’s a certain promulgation of not quite an entire and whole truth to move from that to an insistence that £6 billion was owed, no? Or the campaign about Boot’s tax avoidance, something they achieved while obeying every jot and tittle of the law about what people should not do to avoid tax.
At least one of the perpetrators of that little, umm, piece of truthiness, has openly agreed that it was all about creating the narrative, exact details were not the point.
Or even the continued wails that inequality is rising to unprecedented levels. Global inequality is falling and within country inequality is nothing at all like the levels of the historical past – we’ve welfare systems explicitly designed to make sure that it isn’t. The spread of food banks – is this evidence, as claimed, of massive need? Or evidence of an always extant need now finally being met?
We’re going on a length here because this is an important issue. Yes, indeed, there is fake news out there. But what is going to be uncomfortable for a lot of those complaining about it is that a close examination of “truth” is going to leave an awful lot of supposedly established facts about our modern world looking terribly exposed.
December 15, 2016
It’s not that I don’t want smaller government. I’m a libertarian; my ideal government is about the size of one of those miniature dogs that have to wear coats all the time because they don’t generate enough body heat to keep themselves warm. The problem is, the voters don’t want smaller government. They’d like to pay lower taxes, of course, but they go wild if anyone suggests cutting any sizeable portion of the services that those taxes pay for. By and large, politicians have refused to cut spending anyway. And without doing so, you can’t have a tax cut in any real sense, because to spend is to tax (eventually).
Megan McArdle, “Trump Tax Cuts: A Bad Idea With a Bright Future”, Bloomberg View, 2016-12-01.
December 14, 2016
When writing about the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international bureaucracy based in Paris, my life would be simpler if I created some sort of automatic fill-in-the-blanks system.
Something like this.
The OECD, subsidized by $____ million from American taxpayers, has just produced a new _________ that advocates more power for governments over the _________ sector of the economy.
But this may not be sufficiently descriptive.
So maybe I should create a multiple choice exercise. Sort of like when students take tests and get asked to circle the most appropriate answer.
The bureaucrats at the Paris-based OECD, working in cooperation with union bosses/class-warfare advocates/other tax-free international bureaucrats/politicians, have released a new report/study/paper urging more power/control/authority for governments in order to increase regulation/taxes/spending/redistribution/intervention.
You may think I’m trying to be funny, but this is totally serious.
How else would you describe a bureaucracy that consorts and cooperates with leftist groups like Occupy Wall Street and the AFL-CIO and routinely published propaganda in favor of Obama’s agenda on issues such as global warming, government-run healthcare, so-called stimulus, and class-warfare taxation.
And never forget that American taxpayers finance the biggest chunk of this bureaucracy’s budget.
Adding insult to injury, the bureaucrats at the OECD get tax-free salaries, which makes their relentless support for higher taxes on the rest of us even more obnoxious.
Dan Mitchell, “More Statist Propaganda from the Taxpayer-Funded OECD”, International Liberty, 2015-04-12.
December 2, 2016
Shikha Dalmia explains why Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi suddenly decided to kneecap his country’s money supply and cause massive economic disruption:
Modi was elected in a landslide on the slogan of “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance.” He promised to end babu raj — the rule of corrupt, petty bureaucrats who torment ordinary citizens for bribes — and radically transform India’s economy. But rather than tackling government corruption, he has declared war on private citizens holding black money in the name of making all Indians pay their fair share.
Tax scofflaw behavior is indeed a problem in India. But it is almost always a result of tax rates that are way higher than what people think their government is worth. The enlightened response would be to lower these rates and improve governance. Instead, Modi is taking his country down what Nobel-winning political economist F.A. Hayek called the road to serfdom, where every failed round of coercive government intervention simply becomes an excuse for even more draconian rounds — exactly what was happening in pre-liberalized India.
About 600 million poor and uneducated Indians don’t have bank accounts. Roughly 300 million don’t have official identification. It’s not easy to swap their soon-to-be worthless cash, which is a catastrophe given that they live hand to mouth. It is heartbreaking to see these people lined up in long queues outside post offices and banks, missing days and days of work, pleading for funds from the very bureaucrats from whose clutches Modi had promised to release them.
Modi hatched his scheme in complete secrecy, without consulting his own economic advisers or the Parliament, lest rich hoarders catch wind and ditch their cash holdings for gold and other assets. Hence, he could not order enough new money printed in advance. This is a massive problem given that about 90 percent of India’s economic transactions are in cash. People need to be able to get money from their banks to meet basic needs. But the government has imposed strict limits on how much of their own money people can withdraw from their own accounts.
This is not boldness, but sheer conceit based on the misguided notion that people have to be accountable to the government, rather than vice versa. Over time, it will undermine the already low confidence of Indians in their institutions. If Modi could unilaterally and so suddenly re-engineer the currency used by 1.1 billion people, what will he do next? This is a recipe for capital flight and economic retrenchment.
The fear and uncertainty that Modi’s move will breed will turn India’s economic clock back to the dark times of pre-liberalized India — not usher in the good times (aache din) that Modi had promised.
October 17, 2016
Fortunately, as Tim Worstall explains, politicians can rarely be believed — especially when it comes to economics:
Hillary Clinton Vows To Slam The Economy Into Recession Immediately Upon Election
This probably isn’t quite what Hillary Clinton intended to say but it is what she did say at a fundraiser on Friday night. That immediately upon election she would slam the US economy into a recession. For what she has said is that she’s not going to add a penny to the national debt. Which, in an economy running a $500 billion and change budget deficit means tax rises and or spending cuts of $500 billion and change immediately she takes the oath. And that’s a large enough and fierce enough change, before she does anything else, to bring back a recession.
Now, what she meant is something more like this. That she has some spending plans, which she does. And she is also proposing some tax rises. And that her tax rises will balance her spending plans and thus the mixture of plans will not increase the national debt. Which is possibly even true although I don’t believe a word of it myself. For her taxation plans are based upon static analyses when we really must use dynamic ones to measure tax changes. This is normally thought of as something that the right prefers. For if we measure the effects of tax cuts using the dynamic method then there will be some (please note, some, not enough for the cuts to pay for themselves) Laffer Effects meaning that the revenue loss is smaller than that under a static analysis. But this is also true about tax rises. Behaviour really does change when incentives change. Thus tax rises gain less revenue in real life than what a straight line or static analysis predicts.
That is, as I say, probably what she means. But that’s not actually what she said. She said she’ll not add a penny to the national debt. Which means that immediately on taking office she’s got to either raise taxes by $500 billion and change or reduce spending by that amount. Because the budget deficit is that $500 Big Ones and change at present and the deficit is the amount being added to the national debt each year. The problem with this being that that’s also some 3.5% or so of GDP and an immediate fiscal tightening of that amount would put the US economy back into recession.
October 5, 2016
August 29, 2016
James O’Brien selects a few imaginative historical myths for debunking:
Here are a few facts about U.S. life 60 years ago, in 1956:
- The top tax rate was largely irrelevant. The average household income in 1956 was about $4,800. Only 8 percent of families earned more than $10,000 per year. The 91 percent top tax rate (and that really was the top tax rate – a holdover from World War II) kicked in at $400,000 for married couples, or the equivalent of about $3.2 million today). While few individuals made that much money in 1956, people who did earn large sums of money could deduct everything from interest on auto loans to sales taxes, and could – and did – structure things so that their income was funneled through tax shelters at much lower rates.
- There was a lot less money overall. Adjusted for inflation, that $4,800 average household income would be about $42,000 today. That is roughly 20 percent less than current average household income of about $53,000. Even in 1956, when a Harvard education cost $1000 per year, $400 per month hardly afforded a riotous existence for a family of four. One of the most striking things about 1956 was how little people at the top of their professions earned. Yogi Berra – the highest paid player in Major League Baseball that year – received $58,000. That would be a little over $500,000 today, essentially minimum wage by MLB standards.
- Tax revenues as a percentage of GDP were about the same as they are today. Since 1945, tax revenues as a percentage of GDP have fluctuated within a fairly narrow range of 15 to 20 percent. The state of the economy, not tax rates, has determined how much the government takes in. Despite the high marginal rates of the 1950s, the tax intake as a percentage of GDP was just 16.5 percent in 1956. It was 18 percent in 2015, so we are actually taking in more, rather than less money, although we are spending it in many new and different areas.
- Government spent less on everything but defense. The U.S. Federal budget for 1956 might best be described as “Spartan”, not in the sense of being frugal (although it was that) but in the sense of being primarily devoted to preparations for war. In the Cold War climate, defense spending soaked up 60 percent ($47 billion) of the total $76 billion Federal budget – about three times the current percentage — and spending on “social programs” was essentially nonexistent. There was no Department of Education, and total Federal spending on education was just $1.5 billion. Healthcare expenditures were just $1.0 billion; there was no Medicare, (which now represents 15 percent of the total Federal budget), no Medicaid, and certainly no Obamacare. The Interstate Highway Program – so beloved by liberals – was conceived as a defense spending measure and was designed to be self-funding through diesel and gasoline taxes.
- Opportunities were anything but equal. Racial discrimination was rampant and gender bias was everywhere. Many fields were essentially closed to women and to people of color, while quota systems deterred talented Jewish students from pursuing careers in fields such as engineering and law. We can argue all we want about white privilege in 2016 but in 1956 it was endemic, and bred not just economic but social and cultural inequality.
When we look at the United States in 1956 we see a country with high (but largely irrelevant) marginal tax rates, no social programs to speak of, and a massive defense budget. With Europe still recovering from World War II, the economy is strong, and companies are willing to spend and hire. The country’s focus, however, is not on the welfare of its people, but on its survival in a grim ideological and geopolitical struggle with a ruthless and determined opponent. Those who portray the 1950s as some sort of golden age of progressivism are writing historical fiction, not history.
The 1950s for the United States (and for Canada) were, to borrow a notion from John Scalzi, run in “easy mode” — in game terms, the lowest difficulty setting. There was no peer-level competition in manufacturing or even in services and this provided profit levels that allowed both corporations and workers to enjoy unrealistic long-term conditions that finally came to an end in the gas shocks of the 1970s, after the devastated economies of the defeated Axis powers finally were able to compete again. Twenty-five years of minimal competition left the major corporations totally unable to cope with even minimal competitive pressures from overseas … but willing to use whatever political levers were available to try to quash those foreign upstarts.
But as the courtiers of King Canute were finally obliged to accept, even the King can’t order the tide to recede when it’s convenient.
August 17, 2016
For decades I have observed an abuse of charities that I am not sure has a name. I call it the “lifestyle” charity or non-profit. These are charities more known for the glittering fundraisers than their actual charitable works, and are often typified by having only a tiny percentage of their total budget flowing to projects that actually help anyone except their administrators. These charities seem to be run primarily for the financial maintenance and public image enhancement of their leaders and administrators. Most of their funds flow to the salaries, first-class travel, and lifestyle maintenance of their principals.
I know people first hand who live quite nicely as leaders of such charities — having gone to two different Ivy League schools, it is almost impossible not to encounter such folks among our alumni. They live quite well, and appear from time to time in media puff pieces that help polish their egos and reinforce their self-righteous virtue-signaling. I have frequently attended my university alumni events where these folks are held out as exemplars for folks working on a higher plane than grubby business people like myself. They drive me crazy. They are an insult to the millions of Americans who do volunteer work every day, and wealthy donors who work hard to make sure their money is really making a difference.
Warren Meyer, “The Lifestyle Charity Fraud”, Coyote Blog, 2016-08-04.
August 12, 2016
The bad news? It’s more expensive to consume than ever before, thanks to the way the Ontario government has manipulated the market:
You may be surprised to learn that electricity is now cheaper to generate in Ontario than it has been for decades. The wholesale price, called the Hourly Ontario Electricity Price or HOEP, used to bounce around between five and eight cents per kilowatt hour (kWh), but over the last decade, thanks in large part to the shale gas revolution, it has trended down to below three cents, and on a typical day is now as low as two cents per kWh. Good news, right?
It would be, except that this is Ontario. A hidden tax on Ontario’s electricity has pushed the actual purchase price in the opposite direction, to the highest it’s ever been. The tax, called the Global Adjustment (GA), is levied on electricity purchases to cover a massive provincial slush fund for green energy, conservation programs, nuclear plant repairs and other central planning boondoggles. As these spending commitments soar, so does the GA.
In the latter part of the last decade when the HOEP was around five cents per kWh and the government had not yet begun tinkering, the GA was negligible, so it hardly affected the price. In 2009, when the Green Energy Act kicked in with massive revenue guarantees for wind and solar generators, the GA jumped to about 3.5 cents per kWh, and has been trending up since — now it is regularly above 9.5 cents. In April it even topped 11 cents, triple the average HOEP.
The only people doing well out of this are the lucky cronies of the government who signed up for provincial subsidies on alternative energy (primarily wind and solar), who reap rents of well over 100% thanks to guaranteed minimum prices for electricity from non-traditional sources.
August 2, 2016
All taxes have something called a “deadweight cost”. This is simply economic activity that doesn’t happen because of the simple fact that we’re levying a tax. If we tax the purchase of apples then fewer apples will be purchased. This is entirely divorced, by the way, from any good that might be achieved by how we spend that revenue collected. We also know that different taxes have different deadweight costs. We even have a ranking of them. At the top, with the highest costs for the revenue collected, we’ve transactions taxes like the financial transactions tax under consideration. This is so expensive that it’s a really, really, bad idea to tax in this manner. Then come capital and corporate taxes, then with lower again deadweights incomes taxes, then consumption and then finally repeated taxes on real property, or land value taxation. If we were interested only in efficiency (we’re not, equity is important too) then we would collect as much as we could from a land value tax, then from Pigou and sin taxes (carbon emissions, cigarettes, booze) then general consumption taxes and so on. Perhaps leaving corporates and capital entirely untaxed. And there’s a whole field of study, optimal taxation theory, that suggests that we really should do that and the general prescription is the progressive consumption tax. There’s general agreement that on purely those efficiency grounds this is about the best we can do with a tax system.
Tim Worstall, “Surprisingly Perhaps, State Republicans Are Actually Correct On The Economics Of This”, Forbes, 2015-02-14.