Archive for the ‘Economic Growth’ Category

Okay, the title’s an exaggeration, but this chart is rather revealing. It shows how per-capita GDP has changed between 1980 and 2008 in Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela.

As you can see, Chile used to be the poorest of the three countries and now it is comparatively rich. Argentina has enjoyed a bit of growth. Venezuela, by contrast, used to be the richest of the three nations but has stagnated and now is in last place.

So what accounts for these remarkable changes in relative prosperity? The answer, at least in part, is the difference between free markets and statism. Simply stated, Chile has reduced the burden of government a lot in the past three decades, Argentina has reduced the burden of government a little, and Venezuela has gone in the wrong direction and increased the burden of government.

The following numbers come from the Economic Freedom of the World, which looks at all facets of economic policy, including regulation, trade policy, monetary policy, fiscal policy, rule of law, and property rights.

* Chile’s score jumped from 5.6 in 1980 to 8.0 in 2008, and the country now ranks as the world’s 4th-freest economy (ahead of the United States!).

* Argentina’s ranking has improved a bit, rising from 4.4 to 6.0 between 1980 and 2008, but that still only puts them in 94th-place in the world rankings.

* Venezuela, by contrast, is embarrassingly bad. The nation’s score has dropped from 6.3 to 4.4, and its ranking has plunged from 22nd-place in 1980 to 121st-place in 2006.

The simple lesson is that nations have the ability to create prosperity, but they have to follow a simple recipe. Adam Smith is reported to have written several hundred years ago that, “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.”

Since Adam Smith probably never imagined a world filled with things such as OSHA, the Department of Energy, the IRS, agriculture subsidies, and fiat money, his recipe might be a bit dated, but the general idea still holds.

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Although not necessarily the intent of this video, the impressive data visualization makes it hard not to see just how profoundly the spread of freedom and capitalism has dramatically improved the lives of billions throughout the world in such an historically short period of time as 200 years:

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Nancy Pelosi was rightly mocked for her nonsensical assertion that subsidizing unemployment is the best way to stimulate the economy.  Unfortunately, as we pointed out at the time, such claims reflect nothing more than standard Keynesian economics as understood by so many politicians.  Now Sherrod Brown’s saying the same thing:

“Congressman Cantor (R-VA) either failed English class or failed logic class or failed history class because these tax cuts for the rich that Bush did twice, in ’01 and ’03, resulted in very little economic growth. We saw only one million jobs created in the Bush years, 22 million created in the Clinton years when we reached a balanced budget with a fairer tax system,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said on MSNBC.

“There is no real history illustrating that these tax cuts for the rich result in jobs. It’s extending unemployment benefits that creates economic activity that creates jobs, not giving a millionaire an extra ten or twenty or $30,000 in tax cuts that they likely won’t spend,” Brown said.

It’s easy to scoff once again at the silly notion that subsidizing unemployment “creates economic activity that creates jobs.” There are reasonable humanitarian arguments for some form of safety-net, sure, but there’s no pro-growth argument for extended unemployment benefits. But there’s a lot still to untangle here.

First, the  Bush era tax cuts were an amalgamation of a number of different approaches, including both a lot of gimmick handouts and a few good supply-side cuts. We know the gimmicky rebates in 2001 didn’t do anything, just as they didn’t when both Bush and Obama tried them again in 2008 and 2009, but that’s also the type of policy Sherrod implies he would support when he articulates, by scoffing at the “tax cuts that they likely won’t spend,” the common misconception that the benefit of low tax rates comes in the form of increased consumer spending (our latest video can explain more fully the fallacy of this Keynesian approach).

The 2003 cuts, on the other hand, contained some better policies, such as lower marginal tax rates on income and reductions in the capitals gains tax. The benefits from these lower rates comes not from increased consumer spending, but because they reduce barriers on saving and investing.

Due to the nature of their earnings, taxes on the so-called rich are more often than not taxes on capital, which slows economic growth because capital is the lifeblood of a capitalist economy. The rich, moreover, can more easily determine the manner and timing of their income, which makes them more responsive to marginal tax rates than other brackets. High tax rates on anyone is bad, but there are few faster ways to drown an economy than trying to “soak the rich.” This is why it is imperative that we not raise those rates now, or ever.

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A paper posted on the Social Science Research Network looks at nations that are prospering compared to those that are stagnating. Not surprisingly, limited government and free enterprise policies are associated with better economic performance. Here’s an excerpt from this new research.

What can we conclude about the effect of various policies on economic growth? What lessons can we learn from the growth miracles of recent years, and how can we avoid the sorry fate of the growth disasters? The countries that have been most successful at increasing their economic growth rates, and therefore at raising the living standards of their population, have all shared a commitment to increasing economic freedom, limiting the role of government, stamping out corruption, and strengthening the rule of law. They relied on free markets, rather than on central planning. They lowered their tax rates, and some even adopted a flat income tax. They made their labor laws more flexible, and allowed their firms to hire new workers more easily. They privatized their inefficient state-owned enterprises. They lowered tariffs, and opened up to trade and international competition. They courted foreign investors, and created a favorable business environment to lure them in. In other words, growth miracles have occurred in countries whose governments have adopted policies that reflect the classical liberal ideals of economic freedom, limited government and rule of law. Our brief survey of economic successes around the world shows that this lesson is universal: Countries as diverse as China, Estonia, Germany, India, Chile, South Korea and Slovakia have benefited from applying a similar set of market-oriented policies.

The paper also makes a key point about economic growth and living standards.

Over time, even modest increases in the economic growth rate can, furthermore, lead to vast improvements in the standard of living. If China sustains the eight percent annual GDP growth rate that it has achieved since its market-oriented reforms began in 1978, its inhabitants will double their living standards every nine years. By contrast, in the United States, which has grown at an average annual rate of about two percent, a doubling of living standards would require thirty-six years.

This is an under-appreciated observation. The author cites a rather dramatic example, but the key observation is that even modest differences in economic growth can have a big impact on relative prosperity with a couple of decades. Here’s a chart I include in many of my Powerpoint presentations. It shows how long it takes to double GDP based on different growth rates.

Let’s look at a real-world example. Hong Kong has been growing by more than 5 percent each year for decades, while France has been growing by less than 2 percent annually. Now let’s ask a couple of big-picture questions. Why have Bush and Obama been trying to make us more like France? Do they fail to understand that this means less future prosperity for the American people? Don’t they realize that this means a loss of relative competitiveness?

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Alberto Alesina of Harvard’s economics department summarizes some of his research in a column for today’s Wall Street Journal. He and a colleague looked at fiscal policy changes in developed nations and found very strong evidence that spending reductions boost growth. This, of course, contrasts with the lack of evidence for the Keynesian notion that growth is stimulated by a bigger burden of government spending.

Politicians argue for increased stimulus spending, as opposed to spending cuts, on the grounds that it would speed up economic recovery. This argument might have it exactly backward. Indeed, history shows that cutting spending in order to reduce deficits may be the key to promoting economic recovery.

…[R]ecent stimulus packages have proven that the “multiplier”—the effect on GDP per one dollar of increased government spending—is small. Stimulus spending also means that tax increases are coming in the future; such increases will further threaten economic growth.

Economic history shows that even large adjustments in fiscal policy, if based on well-targeted spending cuts, have often led to expansions, not recessions. Fiscal adjustments based on higher taxes, on the other hand, have generally been recessionary.

My colleague Silvia Ardagna and I recently co-authored a paper examining this pattern, as have many studies over the past 20 years. Our paper looks at the 107 large fiscal adjustments—defined as a cyclically adjusted deficit reduction of at least 1.5% in one year—that took place in 21 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries between 1970 and 2007.

…Our results were striking: Over nearly 40 years, expansionary adjustments were based mostly on spending cuts, while recessionary adjustments were based mostly on tax increases.

…In the same paper we also examined years of large fiscal expansions, defined as increases in the cyclically adjusted deficit by at least 1.5% of GDP. Over 91 such cases, we found that tax cuts were much more expansionary than spending increases.

How can spending cuts be expansionary? First, they signal that tax increases will not occur in the future, or that if they do they will be smaller. A credible plan to reduce government outlays significantly changes expectations of future tax liabilities. This, in turn, shifts people’s behavior. Consumers and especially investors are more willing to spend if they expect that spending and taxes will remain limited over a sustained period of time.

On the other hand, fiscal adjustments based on tax increases reduce consumers’ disposable income and reduce incentives for productivity.

…Europe seems to have learned the lessons of the past decades: In fact, all the countries currently adjusting their fiscal policy are focusing on spending cuts, not tax hikes. Yet fiscal policy in the U.S. will sooner or later imply higher taxes if spending is not soon reduced.

The evidence from the last 40 years suggests that spending increases meant to stimulate the economy and tax increases meant to reduce deficits are unlikely to achieve their goals. The opposite combination might.

Alesina’s research echoes the findings in dozens of other studies, a few of which are cited in this Center for Freedom and Prosperity video I narrated.

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Here’s a story for the better-late-than-never file. Former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro confessed that communism doesn’t work and that his nation’s economic system should not be emulated.

Fidel Castro told a visiting American journalist that Cuba’s communist economic model doesn’t work, a rare comment on domestic affairs from a man who has conspicuously steered clear of local issues since stepping down four years ago.

The fact that things are not working efficiently on this cash-strapped Caribbean island is hardly news. Fidel’s brother Raul, the country’s president, has said the same thing repeatedly. But the blunt assessment by the father of Cuba’s 1959 revolution is sure to raise eyebrows.

Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, asked if Cuba’s economic system was still worth exporting to other countries, and Castro replied: “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore” Goldberg wrote Wednesday in a post on his Atlantic blog.

Too bad Castro didn’t have this epiphany 50 years ago. The Cuban people languish in abject poverty as a result of Castro’s oppressive policies. Food is harshly rationed and other basic amenities are largely unavailable (except, of course, to the party elite). This chart, comparing inflation-adjusted per-capita GDP in Chile and Cuba, is a good illustration of the human cost of excessive government. Living standards in Cuba have languished. In Chile, by contrast, the embrace of market-friendly policies has resulted in a huge increase in prosperity. Chileans were twice as rich as Cubans when Castro seized control of the island. After 50 years of communism in Cuba and 30 years of liberalization in Chile, the gap is now much larger.

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One of the main factors determining incumbent election success is economic performance. When disposable income is rising and people feel good about the future, it is difficult for an incumbent to lose. So why, then, is Obama pursuing policies that are undermining growth? Sure, it is in the interests of the left in the long run to create more dependency on government. That’s one of the reasons why there is nothing resembling a free market party in most European nations. But America isn’t at that stage yet (thankfully). And as John Stossel writes, Obama’s bad government policy is causing joblessness and uncertainty. This is going to hurt Democrats this November and may linger until 2012, when Obama would suffer the consequences (in the unlikely event that Republicans put forth a semi-decent candidate).

Why isn’t the economy recovering? After previous recessions, unemployment didn’t get stuck at close to 10 percent. If left alone, the economy can and does heal itself, as the mistakes of the previous inflationary boom are corrected.

The problem today is that the economy is not being left alone. Instead, it is haunted by uncertainty on a hundred fronts. When rules are unintelligible and unpredictable, when new workers are potential threats because of Labor Department regulations, businesses have little confidence to hire. President Obama’s vaunted legislative record not only left entrepreneurs with the burden of bigger government, it also makes it impossible for them to accurately estimate the new burden.

In at least three big areas — health insurance, financial regulation and taxes — no one can know what will happen.

…Nothing more effectively freezes business in place than what economist and historian Robert Higgs calls “regime uncertainty.”

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The fight for financial freedom and limited government is global. The Center for Freedom and Prosperity recognizes Eduardo Morgan Jr., an individual whose work for his native Panama echoes much of our own efforts to defend fiscal sovereignty from the onslaught of anti-growth taxation and regulation.

As Panama’s Ambassador to Washington from 1996 to 1998, Eduardo Morgan Jr. saw his country attacked by US political and economic leaders. Ever since, he has dedicated himself to exposing the hypocrisy of the OECD and its members for attacking other countries that want to compete for investment and capital.

Since the beginning of the year, Eduardo has also contributed factual analysis to the online discussion with his blog, which I highly recommend to our readers. His work on behalf of Panama should serve as an inspiration to all individuals and nations that seek freedom and prosperity.

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I’m still dealing with the statist echo chamber, having been hit with two additional attacks for the supposed sin of endorsing Reaganomics over Obamanomics (my responses to the other attacks can be found here and here). Some guy at the Atlantic Monthly named Steve Benen issued an critique focusing on the timing of the recession and recovery in Reagan’s first term. He reproduces a Krugman chart (see below) and also adds his own commentary.

Reagan’s first big tax cut was signed in August 1981. Over the next year or so, unemployment went from just over 7% to just under 11%. In September 1982, Reagan raised taxes, and unemployment fell soon after. We’re all aware, of course, of the correlation/causation dynamic, but as Krugman noted in January, “[U]nemployment, which had been stable until Reagan cut taxes, soared during the 15 months that followed the tax cut; it didn’t start falling until Reagan backtracked and raised taxes.”

This argument is absurd since the recession in the early 1980s was largely the inevitable result of the Federal Reserve’s misguided monetary policy. And I would be stunned if this view wasn’t shared by 90 percent-plus of economists. So it is rather silly to say the recession was caused by tax cuts and the recovery was triggered by tax increases.

But even if we magically assume monetary policy was perfect, Benen’s argument is wrong. I don’t want to repeat myself, so I’ll just call attention to my previous blog post which explained that it is critically important to look at when tax cuts (and increases) are implemented, not when they are enacted. The data is hardly exact, because I haven’t seen good research on the annual impact of bracket creep, but there was not much net tax relief during Reagan’s first couple of years because the tax cuts were phased in over several years and other taxes were going up. So the recession actually began when taxes were flat (or perhaps even rising) and the recovery began when the economy was receiving a net tax cut. That being said, I’m not arguing that the Reagan tax cuts ended the recession. They probably helped, to be sure, but we should do good tax policy to improve long-run growth, not because of some misguided effort to fine-tune short-run growth.

The second attack comes from some blog called Econospeak, where my newest fan wrote:

I’m scratching my head here as I thought the standard pseudo-supply-side line was that the deficit exploded in the 1980’s because government spending exploded. OK, the truth is that the ratio of Federal spending to GDP neither increased nor decreased during this period. Real tax revenues per capita fell which is why the deficit rose but this notion that the burden of government fell is not factually based.

Those are some interesting points, and I might respond to them if I wanted to open a new conversation, but they’re not germane to what I said. In my original post (the one he was attacking), I commented on the “burden of government” rather than the “burden of government spending.” I’m a fiscal policy economist, so I’m tempted to claim that the sun rises and sets based on what’s happening to taxes and spending, but such factors are just two of the many policies that influence economic performance. And with regard to my assertion that Reagan reduced the “burden of government,” I’ll defer to the rankings put together for the Economic Freedom of the World Index. The score for the United States improved from 8.03 to 8.38 between 1980 and 1990 (my guess is that it peaked in 1988, but they only have data for every five years). The folks on the left may be unhappy about it, but it is completely accurate to say Reagan reduced the burden of government. And while we don’t yet have data for the Obama years, there’s a 99 percent likelihood that America’s score will decline.

This is not a partisan argument, by the way. The Economic Freedom of the World chart shows that America’s score improved during the Clinton years, particularly his second term. And the data also shows that the U.S. score dropped during the Bush years. This is why I wrote a column back in 2007 advocating Clintonomics over Bushonomics. Partisan affiliation is not what matters. If we want more prosperity, the key is shrinking the burden of government.

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With the public unconvinced of the wisdom of soaking the rich, the latest hot idea floating around in statist circles is not to soak the rich, but rather the really, super-duper, ultra rich.

In a class-warfare filled screed, James Surowiecki wrote in the New Yorker on the need to “Soak the Very, Very Rich.”

A better tax system would have more brackets, so that the super-rich pay higher rates. (The most obvious bracket to add would be a higher rate at a million dollars a year, but there’s no reason to stop there.) This would make the system fairer, since it would reflect the real stratification among high-income earners…

Ezra Klein then blogged at the Washington Post that he is “very sympathetic to the idea that there should be more tax brackets,” reasoning that  “It would be a lot easier to fight the super-rich than to fight the super-rich, the really rich, the pretty rich, and well-off.” If there was a bracket just for the super-duper-really rich, you see, it could be more easily raised to unconscionable and economy killing levels without public objection.

Adding more tax brackets would complicated an already inexcusably incomprehensible tax code,  resulting in increased economic waste and compliance costs, more expenditures on lobbying and even greater uncertainty than is currently holding down economic growth.

Furthermore, tax policy should not be decided based on which group is easiest to demagogue and demonize.  Nor is it the purpose of the tax code to enshrine into law a particular view of economic fairness, which in the case of Surowiecki and Klein, means redistribution.

There is one legitimate reason and one legitimate  reason only for taxes, and that’s to raise the funds necessary for the limited functions of constitutional government and rule of law.  There is no honest assessment of those functions as enshrined in the US Constitution which can find that the present revenues received by the state are insufficient to provide for those functions.

I’m sure it’s too much to ask, but rather than ruminate on which of its citizens the government and its statist boosters should declare war on next, the Ezra Klein’s of the world should think about how government spending can be reduced, and our federal government brought back into the bounds of legitimate, constitutional governance.

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