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Thomas Sowell on the Economics of Redistribution: Quicksand at One End and Beatings at the other End

Over the years, I’ve shared some clever images, jokes, and cartoons to expose the flawed mindset of those who hope to achieve coerced equality of outcomes with redistribution and high tax rates.

The size of a pizza vs the share of a slice.

The modern version of the Little Red Hen.

Washington’s Byzantine welfare state.

Chuck Asay’s overburdened tractor.

A left-wing nursery rhyme.

The Wizard-of-Id parody.

Two pictures showing how the welfare state begins and ends.

A socialist classroom experiment (including a video version).

The economics of redistribution in one image.

As you can see, this is a common-sense issue. When you give people money on the condition that they don’t earn much money, you create a perverse incentive for them to be unproductive.

Especially since, when people work more and earn more, they get hit by a combination of fewer handouts and more taxes. The net result is very high implicit marginal tax rates, in some cases rising above 100 percent.

Needless to say, it’s very foolish to have a welfare state that puts people in this untenable situation where the welfare state becomes a form of economic quicksand.

And it’s also foolish to punish the people who are pulling the wagon with high tax rates and pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

Russell Jaffe, one of our Cato interns, helpfully cranked out a clever little image showing how redistribution is bad for both those who receive and those who pay.

No wonder the welfare state and War on Poverty have been bad news for both taxpayers and poor people.

And the problem is getting worse, not better.

Let’s begin to wrap up. I shared a Thomas Sowell quote at the beginning to today’s column.

Now let’s read some of his analysis.

He aptly and succinctly summarized why redistribution is a no-win proposition (h/t: Mark Perry).

The history of the 20th century is full of examples of countries that set out to redistribute wealth and ended up redistributing poverty. …It is not complicated. You can only confiscate the wealth that exists at a given moment. You cannot confiscate future wealth — and that future wealth is less likely to be produced when people see that it is going to be confiscated. …Those who are targeted for confiscation can see the handwriting on the wall, and act accordingly. …We have all heard the old saying that giving a man a fish feeds him only for a day, while teaching him to fish feeds him for a lifetime. Redistributionists give him a fish and leave him dependent on the government for more fish in the future.

So what’s the bottom line?

The simple (and correct) answer is to dismantle the welfare state. State and local governments should be in charge of “means-tested” programs, ideally with much less overall redistribution (a goal even some Scandinavian nations are trying to achieve).

In effect, the goal should be to replicate the success of the Clinton-era welfare reform, but extending the principle to all redistribution programs (Medicaid, food stamps, EITC, etc).

P.S. Some honest leftists admit that the welfare state cripples independence and self reliance.

P.P.S. For those who like comparisons, you can peruse which states provide the biggest handouts and also which nations have the most dependency.

P.P.P.S. To end on a sour note, our tax dollars are being used by the Paris-based OECD to produce junk research that argues more tax-financed redistribution somehow is good for growth.

Reposted from International Liberty

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More Great Moments in Spectacular Government Incompetence

Advocates of limited government favor a small public sector because more resources in the productive sector of the economy translates into faster growth, more job creation, and higher living standards.

Statists, by contrast, favor big government for two main reasons. First, many of them belong to well-connected interest groups that have their snouts in the federal trough. Second, some of them sincerely think government spending “stimulates” an economy and/or “helps” people.

I want to address the latter group of statists, most of whom are well meaning.

I’ve learned over time that such voters generally don’t pay that much attention to economic arguments.

To the extent they sometimes favor small government, it’s because they think Washington wastes money. Indeed, I suspect a majority of voters would agree with P.J. O’Rourke that “giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”

Yet many of those voters (perhaps even including some of the ones that recognize that DC is riddled with waste, fraud, and abuse) can be persuaded to support bigger government. Having engaged in thousands of conversations with such people over several decades, I think they’re motivated by a desire to be part of a society that “cares.” So, regardless of Washington’s track record of exacerbating problems rather than solving them, these folks sometimes think more government is the right approach. Like second weddings, this is a triumph of hope over experience.

Today, at the risk of jumbling my analogies, let’s try to convince such people that you don’t want a second wedding if it means you’re getting hitched to an institution that is unavoidably wasteful and incompetent.

And we have some fresh eye-popping evidence. Here are some excerpts from an exposé published by the Washington Post.

…the government has spent more than $1 billion trying to replace its antiquated approach to managing immigration with a system of digitized records, online applications and a full suite of nearly 100 electronic forms. A decade in, all that officials have to show for the effort is a single form that’s now available for online applications and a single type of fee that immigrants pay electronically. The 94 other forms can be filed only with paper.

Amazing. After 10 years and $1 billion, the net result is a total cluster-you-know-what.

…officials at the Department of Homeland Security, which includes USCIS, were aware that the project was riddled with hundreds of critical software and other defects. …Only three of the agency’s scores of immigration forms have been digitized — and two of these were taken offline after they debuted because nearly all of the software and hardware from the original system had to be junked. ..A report last year from the DHS inspector general’s office said it sometimes took up to 150 clicks for employees to navigate the system’s various complex features and open documents.

So is the incompetent contractor (IBM) getting punished? Are any of the bureaucrats in charge of the project getting fired?

Of course not. This is government! So why you waste some money, that’s merely a prelude to wasting even more money.

This project, run by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, was originally supposed to cost a half-billion dollars and be finished in 2013. Instead, it’s now projected to reach up to $3.1 billion and be done nearly four years from now.

By the way, the incompetence revealed in this story this is not an argument for immigration or against immigration.

My point is simply that governments have long track records of squandering other people’s money, with this story simply being another straw on the camel’s back.

Or maybe it would be better to describe it as another bit of dead weight financed by over-burdened taxpayers.

I don’t know if this will make anyone feel better, but other governments are similarly incompetent and foolish.

Here’s an example of government blundering from overseas. As reported by the UK-based Guardian, the European Commission just admitted that it has successfully process 0.00015 percent of refugees.

EU members states agreed in September to relocate 160,000 people in “clear need of international protection” through a scheme set up to relocate Syrian, Eritrean, and Iraqi refugees from the most affected EU states – such as Italy and Greece – to other EU member states. So far 116 people have been relocated, and only 1,418 places have been made available by 14 member states, according to data released on Tuesday by the European Commission.

Wow. It’s been a while since I was a student, but I remember that you need 70.0 percent for a C and 60.0 percent to avoid failing.

With that in mind, I wonder what sort of grade you get for 0.00015 percent? Is there such as thing as F-, though I guess Z- would be more appropriate.

Here’s a graphic from the article.

By the way, the EU’s incompetence at processing refugees is one issue. Another issue is whether European nations should be granting refugee status to hundreds of thousands (and eventually millions) of people from cultures that don’t assimilate very well.

And I imagine that refugee status in Europe means access to welfare, so the system presumably creates the same perverse incentives we find on the American refugee program.

But for today, I’m simply focused on the fact that government bureaucracies are spectacularly incompetent.

Yet there are still many people who want to give more power and money to politicians.

Let’s close with a serious point.

Unless you’re an anarcho-capitalist, there are some things you want government to do, and you want those things to be done well.

So how, given the natural incompetence of the public sector, can you get good (or at least acceptable) results?

The only feasible answer is to have small government, as Mark Steyn has explained with his usual dose of sarcasm. A bloated public sector guarantees slipshod performance everywhere. But if the federal government concentrates on just a few tasks, oversight and monitoring will be easier and it will be easier to weed out incompetence.

And this isn’t just theory. The European Central Bank has produced a measure of public sector efficiency and their research shows that smaller governments are much more competent at producing desired results.

P.S. Bizarrely, some folks acknowledge government incompetence but think the right solution is more power for government.

P.P.S. Some of this is common sense. What government do you think is more competent and effective, France with its big government or Switzerland with its medium-sized government? Where do you think government is more effective, Singapore with its small government or the United States with its medium-sized government?

Reposted from International Liberty

The Left’s Dream Is a Value-Added Tax on the Middle Class, so Why Are Advocates of Small Government Helping to Advance that Awful Levy?

Some honest statists understand and acknowledge that you can’t have bigger government unless you target middle-income taxpayers.

And why do all these statists want higher taxes on ordinary people?

The answer is that they understand you can’t finance a giant welfare state unless there’s a huge increase in the tax burden on lower-income and middle-income taxpayers.

Which is exactly what’s happened in Europe.

Of course, you don’t need to favor that outcome to predict (of fear) that it will happen. My opposition to tax hikes, for instance, is precisely because I don’t want America to have a Greek-style fiscal future.

It’s a simple matter of math. The income tax simply isn’t capable of generating enough revenue to fulfill the fantasies of folks like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Robert Samuelson, writing in the Washington Post, explains that the middle class will need to be targeted if politicians actually want to finance an ever-expanding welfare state.

Democrats retort that raising taxes on the rich will provide needed revenues to expand progressive government. …They obviate the need for middle-class tax increases to pay for government. …of Democrats’ faith in soaking the rich. …The trouble is that the math doesn’t match the rhetoric, as a new Brookings Institution study shows. In it, economists William Gale, Melissa Kearney and Peter Orszag asked this question: What would happen if the top income tax rate were increased from 39.6 percent to 50 percent? The answer — less than you think. …it would raise about $100 billion in tax revenues…, but it’s actually slightly less than a quarter of the $439 billion budget deficit for fiscal 2015. …Even if the $100 billion were directly distributed to the poorest fifth of Americans (an average $2,650 per household), the effect on overall inequality would be “exceedingly modest,” the authors say. …tax policies don’t come close to covering the real costs of government.

In other words, there aren’t enough rich people to finance big government, even if you somehow assume that huge tax hikes don’t have negative effects on taxable income (and the evidence from the 1980s shows that upper-income taxpayers have very strong responses to changes in tax rates).

So, given all this evidence, what’s Samuelson’s bottom line?

If middle-class Americans need or want bigger government, they will have to pay for it. Sooner or later, a tax increase is coming their way.

And he’s right.

Which makes it all the more puzzling that some good lawmakers want to give the other side a value-added tax.

One of my colleagues at the Cato Institute, Chris Edwards, wrote a column on this topic for National Review. Here are some key excerpts.

Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are strong advocates of limited government. …That is why their embrace of the value-added tax (VAT) in their presidential campaigns is so baffling. VATs are the revenue engine of big-government welfare states, not a proper funding source for the small federal government that both senators favor for America. …the candidates hide behind innocuous names — “business flat tax” for Cruz and “business transfer tax” for Paul.

But calling something a “business tax” doesn’t mean the burden is borne by businesses.

The tab for taxes collected from businesses is ultimately passed through to individuals in the form of lower wages, reduced dividends, or higher prices. …VATs have huge bases. That’s because — unlike income taxes — they do not allow businesses to deduct employee compensation when calculating the taxable amount. …The result would be that tax revenues from businesses under the Cruz and Paul VATs would be enormous.

In other words, the VAT is – among other things – a withholding tax on labor income. And that’s why this levy generates a huge amount of revenue.

To make matters worse, this giant tax is hidden from voters.

Because Cruz and Paul shift much of the collection to businesses, more of the tax burden gets hidden from citizens and voters. …If the government is going to take our money, it should mug us on the street in broad daylight, rather than sneak into our homes at night and burglarize us unnoticed. The VAT would encourage more burglary.

And this hidden tax also will give statists an easy method of financing an ever-expanding burden of government spending

Cruz and Paul want smaller government, but down the road, other politicians looking to shore up entitlement programs will say, “They could be financed with just a small tax increase on businesses.” But each “small” increase in the VAT rate would transfer huge amounts of additional cash from the private economy to the government.

Amen.

When I wrote about Sen. Cruz’s plan and Sen. Paul’s plan, I specifically pointed out that the VATs needed to be jettisoned.

But Chris makes an even stronger case. And he’s correct. Adopting a VAT would be a cataclysmic error for advocates of limited government.

It would be a truly perverse tragedy if the other side eventually gets a VAT because well-meaning (but misguided) conservatives paved the way.

P.S. The left also is salivating for a broad-based energy tax.

Reposted from International Liberty