Not-So-Random Thoughts (X)

Links to the other posts in this occasional series may be found at “Favorite Posts,” just below the list of topics.

How Much Are Teachers Worth?

David Harsanyi writes:

“The bottom line,” says the Center for American Progress, “is that mid- and late-career teachers are not earning what they deserve, nor are they able to gain the salaries that support a middle-class existence.”

Alas, neither liberal think tanks nor explainer sites have the capacity to determine the worth of human capital. And contrasting the pay of a person who has a predetermined government salary with the pay earned by someone in a competitive marketplace tells us little. Public-school teachers’ compensation is determined by contracts negotiated long before many of them even decided to teach. These contracts hurt the earning potential of good teachers and undermine the education system. And it has nothing to do with what anyone “deserves.”

So if teachers believe they aren’t making what they’re worth — and they may well be right about that — let’s free them from union constraints and let them find out what the job market has to offer. Until then, we can’t really know. Because a bachelor’s degree isn’t a dispensation from the vagaries of economic reality. And teaching isn’t the first step toward sainthood. Regardless of what you’ve heard. (“Are Teachers Underpaid? Let’s Find Out,”, July 25, 2014)

Harsanyi is right, but too kind. Here’s my take, from “The Public-School Swindle“:

[P]ublic “education” — at all levels — is not just a rip-off of taxpayers, it is also an employment scheme for incompetents (especially at the K-12 level) and a paternalistic redirection of resources to second- and third-best uses.

And, to top it off, public education has led to the creation of an army of left-wing zealots who, for many decades, have inculcated America’s children and young adults in the advantages of collective, non-market, anti-libertarian institutions, where paternalistic “empathy” supplants personal responsibility.

Utilitarianism, Once More

EconLog bloggers Bryan Caplan and Scott Sumner are enjoying an esoteric exchange about utilitarianism (samples here and here), which is a kind of cost-benefit calculus in which the calculator presumes to weigh the costs and benefits that accrue to other persons.  My take is that utilitarianism borders on psychopathy. In “Utilitarianism and Psychopathy,” I quote myself to this effect:

Here’s the problem with cost-benefit analysis — the problem it shares with utilitarianism: One person’s benefit can’t be compared with another person’s cost. Suppose, for example, the City of Los Angeles were to conduct a cost-benefit analysis that “proved” the wisdom of constructing yet another freeway through the city in order to reduce the commuting time of workers who drive into the city from the suburbs.

Before constructing the freeway, the city would have to take residential and commercial property. The occupants of those homes and owners of those businesses (who, in many cases would be lessees and not landowners) would have to start anew elsewhere. The customers of the affected businesses would have to find alternative sources of goods and services. Compensation under eminent domain can never be adequate to the owners of taken property because the property is taken by force and not sold voluntarily at a true market price. Moreover, others who are also harmed by a taking (lessees and customers in this example) are never compensated for their losses. Now, how can all of this uncompensated cost and inconvenience be “justified” by, say, the greater productivity that might (emphasize might) accrue to those commuters who would benefit from the construction of yet another freeway.

Yet, that is how cost-benefit analysis works. It assumes that group A’s cost can be offset by group B’s benefit: “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.”

America’s Financial Crisis

Timothy Taylor tackles the looming debt crisis:

First, the current high level of government debt, and the projections for the next 25 years, mean that the U.S. government lacks fiscal flexibility….

Second, the current spending patterns of the U.S. government are starting to crowd out everything except health care, Social Security, and interest payments….

Third, large government borrowing means less funding is available for private investment….

…CBO calculates an “alternative fiscal scenario,” in which it sets aside some of these spending and tax changes that are scheduled to take effect in five years or ten years or never…. [T]he extended baseline scenario projected that the debt/GDP ratio would be 106% by 2039. In the alternative fiscal scenario, the debt-GDP ratio is projected to reach 183% of GDP by 2039. As the report notes: “CBO’s extended alternative fiscal scenario is based on the assumptions that certain policies that are now in place but are scheduled to change under current law will be continued and that some provisions of law that might be difficult to sustain for a long period will be modified. The scenario, therefore, captures what some analysts might consider to be current policies, as opposed to current laws.”…

My own judgement is that the path of future budget deficits in the next decade or so is likely to lean toward the alternative fiscal scenario. But long before we reach a debt/GDP ratio of 183%, something is going to give. I don’t know what will change. But as an old-school economist named Herb Stein used to say, “If something can’t go on, it won’t.” (Long Term Budget Deficits,Conversable Economist, July 24, 2014)

Professional economists are terribly low-key, aren’t they? Here’s the way I see it, in “America’s Financial Crisis Is Now“:

It will not do simply to put an end to the U.S. government’s spending spree; too many State and local governments stand ready to fill the void, and they will do so by raising taxes where they can. As a result, some jurisdictions will fall into California- and Michigan-like death-spirals while jobs and growth migrate to other jurisdictions…. Even if Congress resists the urge to give aid and comfort to profligate States and municipalities at the expense of the taxpayers of fiscally prudent jurisdictions, the high taxes and anti-business regimes of California- and Michigan-like jurisdictions impose deadweight losses on the whole economy….

So, the resistance to economically destructive policies cannot end with efforts to reverse the policies of the federal government. But given the vast destructiveness of those policies — “entitlements” in particular — the resistance must begin there. Every conservative and libertarian voice in the land must be raised in reasoned opposition to the perpetuation of the unsustainable “promises” currently embedded in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — and their expansion through Obamacare. To those voices must be added the voices of “moderates” and “liberals” who see through the proclaimed good intentions of “entitlements” to the economic and libertarian disaster that looms if those “entitlements” are not pared down to their original purpose: providing a safety net for the truly needy.

The alternative to successful resistance is stark: more borrowing, higher interest payments, unsustainable debt, higher taxes, and economic stagnation (at best).

For the gory details about government spending and economic stagnation, see “Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Spending Inhibits Economic Growth” and “The True Multiplier.”

Climate Change: More Evidence against the Myth of AGW

There are voices of reason, that is, real scientists doing real science:

Over the 55-years from 1958 to 2012, climate models not only significantly over-predict observed warming in the tropical troposphere, but they represent it in a fundamentally different way than is observed. (Ross McKittrick and Timothy Vogelsang, “Climate models not only significantly over-predict observed warming in the tropical troposphere, but they represent it in a fundamentally different way than is observed,” excerpted at Watt’s Up With That, July 24, 2014)

Since the 1980s anthropogenic aerosols have been considerably reduced in Europe and the Mediterranean area. This decrease is often considered as the likely cause of the brightening effect observed over the same period. This phenomenon is however hardly reproduced by global and regional climate models. Here we use an original approach based on reanalysis-driven coupled regional climate system modelling, to show that aerosol changes explain 81 ± 16 per cent of the brightening and 23 ± 5 per cent of the surface warming simulated for the period 1980–2012 over Europe. The direct aerosol effect is found to dominate in the magnitude of the simulated brightening. The comparison between regional simulations and homogenized ground-based observations reveals that observed surface solar radiation, as well as land and sea surface temperature spatio-temporal variations over the Euro-Mediterranean region are only reproduced when simulations include the realistic aerosol variations. (“New paper finds 23% of warming in Europe since 1980 due to clean air laws reducing sulfur dioxide,” The Hockey Schtick, July 23, 2014)

My (somewhat out-of-date but still useful) roundup of related posts and articles is at “AGW: The Death Knell.”

Crime Explained…

…but not by this simplistic item:

Of all of the notions that have motivated the decades-long rise of incarceration in the United States, this is probably the most basic: When we put people behind bars, they can’t commit crime.

The implied corollary: If we let them out, they will….

Crime trends in a few states that have significantly reduced their prison populations, though, contradict this fear. (Emily Badger, “There’s little evidence that fewer prisoners means more crime,” Wonkblog, The Washington Post, July 21, 2014)

Staring at charts doesn’t yield answers to complex, multivariate questions, such as the causes of crime. Ms. Badger should have extended my work of seven years ago (“Crime, Explained“). Had she, I’m confident that she would have obtained the same result, namely:

VPC (violent+property crimes per 100,000 persons) =


+346837BLK (number of blacks as a decimal fraction of the population)

-3040.46GRO (previous year’s change in real GDP per capita, as a decimal fraction of the base)

-1474741PRS (the number of inmates in federal and State prisons in December of the previous year, as a decimal fraction of the previous year’s population)

The t-statistics on the intercept and coefficients are 19.017, 21.564, 1.210, and 17.253, respectively; the adjusted R-squared is 0.923; the standard error of the estimate/mean value of VPC = 0.076.

The coefficient and t-statistic for PRS mean that incarceration has a strong, statistically significant, negative effect on the violent-property crime rate. In other words, more prisoners = less crime against persons and their property.

The Heritability of Intelligence

Strip away the trappings of culture and what do you find? This:

If a chimpanzee appears unusually intelligent, it probably had bright parents. That’s the message from the first study to check if chimp brain power is heritable.

The discovery could help to tease apart the genes that affect chimp intelligence and to see whether those genes in humans also influence intelligence. It might also help to identify additional genetic factors that give humans the intellectual edge over their non-human-primate cousins.

The researchers estimate that, similar to humans, genetic differences account for about 54 per cent of the range seen in “general intelligence” – dubbed “g” – which is measured via a series of cognitive tests. “Our results in chimps are quite consistent with data from humans, and the human heritability in g,” says William Hopkins of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia, who heads the team reporting its findings in Current Biology.

“The historical view is that non-genetic factors dominate animal intelligence, and our findings challenge that view,” says Hopkins. (Andy Coghlan, “Chimpanzee brain power is strongly heritable,New Scientist, July 10, 2014)

Such findings are consistent with Nicholas Wade’s politically incorrect A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. For related readings, see “‘Wading’ into Race, Culture, and IQ’.” For a summary of scholarly evidence about the heritability of intelligence — and its dire implications — see “Race and Reason — The Achievement Gap: Causes and Implications.” John Derbyshire offers an even darker view: “America in 2034” (American Renaissance, June 9, 2014).

The correlation of race and intelligence is, for me, an objective matter, not an emotional one. For evidence of my racial impartiality, see the final item in “My Moral Profile.”

America’s Financial Crisis Is Now


*     *     *


Three Economic Charts That Will BLOW YOUR MIND,” at RightWing News, offers some tantalizing statistics about the relationship between federal tax receipts and GDP. The bottom line:

The key thing to take away from this is that the amount of revenue the government can bring in via the income tax is, for whatever reason, more inelastic than most people think. That’s yet another reason to put more emphasis on balancing the budget via spending cuts as opposed to trying to fix the problem with tax increases.

Now, if Hauser’s law is as spot-on as it has been in the past … it’s going to be difficult to raise the government’s revenue level much beyond the 20% mark….

I have no quibble with the proposition that the U.S. government has made unaffordable, unilateral “promises” about Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits. But I must take issue with the focus on the income tax and Hauser’s law, which is

the proposition that, in the United States, federal tax revenues since World War II have always been approximately equal to 19.5% of GDP, regardless of wide fluctuations in the marginal tax rate.

It is necessary to step back from a myopic focus on the federal government and look at all government receipts and expenditures in the United States. The need to do so arises from two facts: (1) State and local spending is substantial, and (2) federal, State, and local finances have become tightly bound together since the advent of revenue sharing and block grants, and with the explosion of federal statutory and regulatory commands to the States.

I begin by looking at the historical record of government income and outgo. That leads me to the future, in which “entitlements” loom unaffordably large . There are three broad paths along which to proceed: cut “entitlements,” borrow considerably more, or tax considerably more. I explain why the second and third options are untenable and economically destructive. The only viable alternative is to cut “entitlements,” and to begin cutting now.


Here is how State and local spending stacks up against federal spending:

Federal vs state and local spending pct GDP
Sources: Derived from U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA) Tables: Table 3.2 Federal Government Current Receipts and Expenditures (lines 26 and 40-45) and Table 3.3 State and Local Government Current Receipts and Expenditures (line 33).

State and local spending is not insubstantial, and has risen in recent decades, with a lot of help from the federal government. Federal grants to State and local governments have risen steadily from almost zero in 1929 to upwards of 4 percent of GDP in recent years. (I have excluded those grants from federal spending to avoid double-counting.)

Here is an aggregate picture of federal, State, and local spending and receipts.

Combined government spending and receipts
Source: Derived from NIPA Table 3.1 Government Current Receipts and Expenditures (lines 7, 19, 30, and 33-39).

Despite Hauser’s “law,” government receipts, as a percentage of GDP, rose steadily from 1929 until 2000, peaking at 32 percent. The post-2000 decline can be attributed to slow economic growth (capped by the recession of 2008-2010) and the so-called Bush tax cuts (which Congress approved initially and again in 2010). I have nothing against the tax cuts, except for the fact that they were not matched by spending cuts. The real burden of government is measured by spending, which diverts resources from productive uses to ones that are less-productive (e.g., public education), counter-productive (e.g., regulation), and downright destructive (i.e., growth-retarding and inflationary). The fact that lenders have increasingly borne the monetary cost of the burden of government has not offset its egregious economic effects. And, as I discuss below, without drastic spending cuts (relative to GDP) there will come a day when lenders will shrug off the burden or demand a much higher price for bearing it.

In any event, regardless of generally diminishing receipts in the first decade of the 21st century, government spending rose as a percentage of GDP, for several reasons. First, there was (and is) slower economic growth, due in no small part to the preceding decades of governmental interference in economic affairs. On top of that, there was Obama’s “stimulus package,” which was meant to end the recession of 2008-2010 but did not (because it could not); the recession ended in the normal way, through the recovery of “animal spirits” and consumer confidence. Then there was (and is) a growing population of persons eligible for Social Security, Medicare (supplemented by “free” or “cheap” prescription drugs), and Medicaid — a population made all the more eager to claim its “entitlements,” given the state of the economy. Finally, and almost incidentally, two foreign wars were fought simultaneously (though with varying degrees of intensity) throughout the decade.

To focus only on federal spending, as I say, is myopic because State and local governments have a habit of raising State and local taxes when so-called federal grants are cut back. (I say “so-called” because the money for those grants is provided largely by taxpayers who are, of course, denizens of the States and their political subdivisions.) In addition to the possibility of higher State and local spending in reaction to cuts in federal largesse, taxpayers — not public-sector unions — should be up in arms about the above-market compensation of government employees. A significant portion of that above-market compensation comes in the form of cushy pension plans, which allow “public servants” to receive high fractions of their salary (sometimes as much as 100 percent) for life, and to begin receiving those payments when they are in their 40s and 50s, after having held a government job for 20 years or so. As a result of these obligations and other undisciplined spending habits, State and local governments have liabilities of more than $7 trillion.

Which brings me to the 500-pound gorilla: the federal government.


Perhaps the most interesting lines in the second graph (above) are the three at the bottom. The gap between the cost of social programs (green line) and “contributions” to those programs (gold line) has risen markedly since the late 1990s. By 2010, the size of that gap — 8.5 percent of GDP — accounted for most deficit spending (red line) — 10.6 percent of GDP. And that is but a hint of things to come. The internet abounds with graphs and tables that depict future federal spending and revenues under various assumptions. They all point to the same conclusion: Spending “commitments” must be cut — and cut drastically — in order to avoid (a) economically disabling tax increases and (b) a day of reckoning in credit markets.

The online offerings include these from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO): “Impact of the President’s Proposals on the Budget Outlook” (blog summary), and “Long Term Analysis of a Budget Proposal by Chairman Ryan” (blog summary). The CBO analyses are somewhat dense and must be read in juxtaposition. They are neatly conjoined by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget’s “Analyzing the President’s New Budget Framework.” Here is an informative graphic from that analysis:

Debt projections under various fiscal reform plans

Obama’s “framework,” as the report emphasizes, is short on details. It is obviously a slap-dash response to Paul Ryan’s detailed plan (labelled “House Republicans” in the graphic), which is a serious proposal for long-term deficit reduction. To understand the bankruptcy of Obama’s actual budget and current law, which are about the same, one must look beyond 2021.

Drawing on CBO’s work, Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner take the long view in “Bankrupt: Entitlements and the Federal Budget.” Tanner leads off with this:

The U.S. government is about to exceed its statutory debt limit of $14.3 trillion. But that actually underestimates the size of the fiscal time bomb that this country is facing. If one considers the unfunded liabilities of programs such as Medicare and Social Security, the true national debt could run as high as $119.5 trillion.

Moreover, to focus solely on debt is to treat a symptom rather than the underlying disease. We face a debt crisis not because taxes are too low but because government is too big. If there is no change to current policies, by 2050 federal government spending will exceed 42 percent of GDP. Adding in state and local spending, government at all levels will consume nearly 60 percent of everything produced in this country. Whether financed through debt or taxes, government that large would be a crushing burden to our economy and our liberties. (p. 1)

Government spending now consumes almost 40 percent of everything produced in this country. Imagine the lives of your children and their children if and when government spending consumes almost 60 percent of everything produced in this country. But wait — it can get worse. Here, Tanner projects federal spending under current law, through 2080:

Long-term spending projections (Tanner)

Add State and local spending and, by 2080, you have an economy whose entire output is claimed by government entities. Some of that output would be directed to individuals for their sustenance, of course. But the form of that sustenance — along with everything else — would be dictated and allocated by politicians and bureaucrats. They — and their favored intellectuals, artists, and athletes — would live reasonably well (though not nearly as well as they could in a free-market system), while the proles would lead lives of hard work, hard drink, and hard deaths. It would be the USSR all over again. And, as with the USSR, the misdirection of economic activity by politicians and bureaucrats would ensure economic stagnation.

It may not come to that, if there are enough voters who understand the consequences of unbridled government spending, and who put liberty and true prosperity above the illusory promises of security offered by the big-government crowd. But as time goes by and more voters become accustomed to handouts, they will become “European” in their embrace of the welfare state. Slippery slopes and death-spirals lead to the same slough of despond (second definition).

That said, is there a way to have “our” cake and eat it, too? Can the U.S. government raise enough money through borrowing or taxation to fend off the day of reckoning and attain the left’s dream of attaining “Europeanism”?


In fact, financial markets may help to reign in government spending by sending signals that cannot be ignored — if the U.S. government borrows money from willing lenders instead of just printing it. (Economist Karl Smith explains why printing money — deliberate inflation — is an unlikely course of action. He refers to “structured default,” which is explained here.) As government spending rises, and as voters and politicians (in the main) reject significant tax increases, government debt will rise to unprecedented heights. Here, from The Heritage Foundation’s 2011 Budget Chart Book, is a retrospective and prospective look at the size of the federal government’s debt in relation to GDP:

National debt set to skyrocket

Financial markets will reject U.S. government debt — or charge a lot for carrying it — long before it reaches the levels shown above. The events of year ago, when Greece’s financial bind came to a head, gave a hint of the likely reaction of markets to continued fiscal profligacy. Then, earlier this month, there was a sharp, brief stock-market sell off in response to an announcement by Standard & Poor’s about U.S. government debt (“‘AAA/A-1+’ Rating On United States of America Affirmed; Outlook Revised To Negative“):

  • We have affirmed our ‘AAA/A-1+’ sovereign credit ratings on the United States of America.
  • The economy of the U.S. is flexible and highly diversified, the country’s effective monetary policies have supported output growth while containing inflationary pressures, and a consistent global preference for the U.S. dollar over all other currencies gives the country unique external liquidity.
  • Because the U.S. has, relative to its ‘AAA’ peers, what we consider to be very large budget deficits and rising government indebtedness and the path to addressing these is not clear to us, we have revised our outlook on the long-term rating to negative from stable.
  • We believe there is a material risk that U.S. policymakers might not reach an agreement on how to address medium- and long-term budgetary challenges by 2013; if an agreement is not reached and meaningful implementation is not begun by then, this would in our view render the U.S. fiscal profile meaningfully weaker than that of peer ‘AAA’ sovereigns.

If there is no serious effort to control the growth of the U.S. government’s debt by scaling back “entitlements,” two things will happen: Interest rates will rise, thus compounding the problem, and lenders will back away. Megan McArdle outlines a plausible scenario:

Right now, when Treasury goes to sell new bonds, it enters a fairly robust market, with not just the Fed but a bunch of fairly price-inelastic Asian central banks who are willing to take on our bonds at whatever the market offers. If China exits the market, we will either need to borrow less, or attract new lenders by offering higher interest rates. Even a noticeable decrease in volume would force us to pay more for our deficits….

… A lot of people tend to assume that there will be warning signs telling us that we need to get our fiscal house in order: China will slow down its bond purchases, interest rates will gradually rise. But in fact, the lesson of fiscal crises is that the “warning signs” we’re watching for often are the crisis. Unless interest rates increase (or debt buying decrease–which is really the same thing) in a very gradual, orderly fashion, then by the time your interest rates rise, it is already too late to do anything easy; your debt service burden forces you into dramatic fiscal measures, or default.

According to economist Carmen Reinhart, who has made an intensive study of crises, there’s no reason to expect the change to be orderly and gradual. She says the lesson of history is pretty unequivocal: interest rates are not a good predictor of who is about to tip into a crisis. People are willing to lend at decent rates, until suddenly they’re barely willing to lend at all.

When you look at how much of our debt comes due by the end of 2012, it’s easy to see how fast higher interest rates could turn into a real problem for us. To be sure, we’re no Japan–but that’s not necessarily a happy thought, because Japan finances something like 95% of its debt from its pool of thrifty (and nationalistic) savers. Their stock of lenders probably isn’t going anywhere. Ours might.

Lawrence Kotlikoff agrees:

…CBO’s baseline budget updates suggest the date for reaching what Carmen Reinhart, Kenneth Rogoff and other prominent economists believe is a critical insolvency threshold — a 90 percent ratio of federal debt held by the public to gross domestic product — has moved four years closer, in just nine months!…

And if foreigners balk at buying U.S. debt, why would Americans fill the breach? Is there a patriotic duty to finance socialism?

In summary, it seems unlikely that the U.S. can erect a full-blown welfare state on the backs of lenders. Can it be done on backs of taxpayers?


The short answer to the preceding question is “no.” In evidence, I return to Michael Tanner’s “Bankrupt: Entitlements and the Federal Budget“:

Many observers suggest that we can simply tax the rich. For example, the Center for American Progress has recommended, among other things, imposing a 5–7 percent surtax on households with incomes above $500,000 per year, eliminating the cap on Social Security payroll taxes, increasing the estate tax, and raising the top marginal tax rate on capital gains and dividends.60 That would potentially raise the total marginal tax burden on some people to well above 50 percent.

Setting aside the simple immorality of government taking such an enormous portion of anyone’s income, there are many reasons to be skeptical of such an approach, starting with the fact that it may not actually generate any additional revenue….

…[I]ncentives matter. At some point taxes become high enough to discourage economic activity and therefore produce less revenue than would be predicted under a more static analysis….

But even if one assumes that taxes can be raised without having any impact on economic growth, taxing the rich still wouldn’t get us out of our budget hole—because the hole is quite simply bigger than the amount of revenue we could raise from taxing the rich even if there were no disincentives. To put it in admittedly oversimplified perspective: our current obligations, including both implicit and explicit debt, total more than 900 percent of GDP. The combined wealth of everyone in the United States who earns at least $1 million per year equals roughly 100 percent of GDP…. Therefore, you could confiscate the entire wealth of every millionaire in the United States and still barely make a dent in the amount we will owe.

Clearly, therefore, any tax increases would have to extend well beyond “the rich.” In fact, the Congressional Budget Office said in 2008 that in order to pay for all currently scheduled federal spending both the corporate tax rate and top income tax rate would have to be raised from their current 35 percent to 88 percent, the current 25 percent tax rate for middle-income workers to 63 percent, and the 10 percent tax bracket for low-income workers to 25 percent. It is likely, given increased spending since then, that the required tax levels would be even higher today.

Regardless of how one feels about taxing the rich, taxes at those levels would be devastating to future economic growth.

Harvard economist Martin Feldstein points out that the actual loss from tax increases to the private sector is a combination of the confiscated revenue as well as a hidden cost of the actual increase, known as deadweight loss. This hidden cost can be very expensive. Feldstein calculates that “the total cost per incremental dollar of government spending, including the revenue and the deadweight loss, is . . . a very high $2.65. Equivalently, it implies that the marginal excess burden per dollar of revenue is $1.65.” This means that for every 1 percent of GDP needed to be raised in revenue, the equivalent of 2.65 percent of GDP needs to be extracted from the private sector first.

Clearly, tax increases required to finance an increase in spending of more than 40 percent of GDP would place an impossible burden on the private economy. (pp. 13-4, source notation omitted)

One more thing (from Table 1 of the Tax Foundation’s “Fiscal Facts“): For 2008, federal income tax returns with adjusted gross incomes in the top 1 percent accounted for 38 percent of income taxes; the top 5 percent, 59 percent; the top 10 percent, 70 percent; the top 25 percent, 86 percent; and the top 50 percent, 97 percent. Not only that, but the top 10 percent of American taxpayers is taxed more heavily than the top 10 percent in other developed countries, including those “advanced” European countries that American leftists would like to emulate. (See “No Country Leans on Upper-Income Households as Much as U.S.” at the Tax Foundation’s Tax Policy Blog.) And the left has the gall to claim that America’s “rich” aren’t paying enough taxes!


It will not do simply to put an end to the U.S. government’s spending spree; too many State and local governments stand ready to fill the void, and they will do so by raising taxes where they can. As a result, some jurisdictions will fall into California- and Michigan-like death-spirals while jobs and growth migrate to other jurisdictions. Contemporary mercantilists to the contrary, the “winners” are “losers,” too. Even if Congress resists the urge to give aid and comfort to profligate States and municipalities at the expense of the taxpayers of fiscally prudent jurisdictions, the high taxes and anti-business regimes of California- and Michigan-like jurisdictions impose deadweight losses on the whole economy. If you believe otherwise, you believe in the broken-window fallacy, wherein an economically destructive force (natural or governmental) is credited with creating jobs and wealth because it leads to the visible expenditure of effort and resources.

So, the resistance to economically destructive policies cannot end with efforts to reverse the policies of the federal government. But given the vast destructiveness of those policies — “entitlements” in particular — the resistance must begin there. Every conservative and libertarian voice in the land must be raised in reasoned opposition to the perpetuation of the unsustainable “promises” currently embedded in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — and their expansion through Obamacare. To those voices must be added the voices of “moderates” and “liberals” who see through the proclaimed good intentions of “entitlements” to the economic and libertarian disaster that looms if those “entitlements” are not pared down to their original purpose: providing a safety net for the truly needy.

The alternative to successful resistance is stark: more borrowing, higher interest payments, unsustainable debt, higher taxes, and economic stagnation (at best).

The “Forthcoming Financial Collapse”

I have written before about my membership in a Google Group

whose active members are retired scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and economists — some in their upper 80s — who worked on defense issues from the 1940s to the 2000s….

Most members of the group were government employees and/or employees of government contractors. Their attraction to government service — and its steady and rather handsome paychecks — derives, in good part, from their belief in the power of government to “solve problems,” and in the need for government to do just that. It is only natural, then, that many members of the group hold an unrealistically exalted view of the power of quantitative methods to “solve problems,” while holding naive views about the machinations of government, human nature, and history. (The pioneers of military operations research in the United States, by contrast, were realistic about the relative impotence of quantitative analysis of complex, dynamic processes.)

Here, for example, is a recent communication from one of the group’s older members:

A political scientist and former Foreign Service Officer friend proposes the following which, if valid, may complicate the U.S.’s capability to handle the forthcoming financial collapse of our country.

His formulation is as follows: (1) The World Trade Center attacks grievously damaged our self-confidence but did little but material damage. (2) On the other hand, the collapse of Lehman Brothers had impacts across the financial world and among the Central Banks of many countries. In effect, the U.S. was the instrument inflicting damage and loss on both trading partners and creditors.

Do we agree that the second is the more serious. What may be the dimensions of the impact?

If I were to reply, this is what I would say:

Your message is provocative in more than one respect. I won’t get into the material effect of the 9/11 attacks, except to say that the assessment that they caused “little material damage” seems to ignore the economic after-shock and the value of 3,000 lives lost. But I am more concerned with the policy implications of your friend’s formulation, and with what you call “the forthcoming financial collapse of our country.”

I have trouble with your friend’s formulation because it involves an irrelevant comparison. On the one hand, there was a deliberate attack on the U.S. by a foreign enemy. On the other hand, a major investment bank failed, in large part because of investments in bad securities that were issued pursuant to policies of the U.S. government (sub-prime mortgage loans and low interest rates). These are not mutually exclusive events, and should be considered separately in devising appropriate government policies (including a hands-off policy). I am sure that your friend would prefer fewer bank failures, but not at the cost of more terrorist attacks.

I turn now to government’s role (or lack thereof) in securing our economic future. Let’s begin with the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Lehman was allowed to fail because government officials didn’t want to send a “signal” that a bailout would be an automatic reward for failure. But those same officials, in their panic, reversed course with respect to other financial institutions and bailed them out. The bailouts didn’t really help credit markets (as they were supposed to) because — quite reasonably in the aftermath of a government-caused financial panic and recession — the bailed-out institutions (and others) have been slow to lend, while individuals and businesses have been slow to borrow. What the bailouts mainly did was to reinforce the view that government (i.e., taxpayers) will bear the costs of foolish endeavors — which only encourages banks (and other businesses) to undertake more foolish endeavors. The price for those endeavors will come due at the bursting of the next bubble, whatever it is and whenever it occurs.

If there is any lesson to be taken from the comparison offered by your friend, it is an old one that most Americans seem not to have learned: The real job of government is to protect citizens from foreign and domestic predators. Government does that badly enough (though I would rather have it done by government than by private parties, namely, warlords). Government is even worse at other things, like intervening in economic affairs, the unseen cost of which — in forgone economic output — dwarfs the amount spent by governments (at all levels) on defense and law-enforcement. This comparison is apt because we could better afford to pay for the protective services of government, were it to butt out of our economic affairs.

This brings me to “the forthcoming financial collapse of our country.” I assume that you refer to the huge obligations incurred by the federal government in the form of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid — and the promised expansion of these by what has become known as Obamacare. These obligations, which now consume about 10 percent of GDP, will consume 25 percent of GDP before the end of this century. Add to them the cost of other governmental functions and the regulatory obstacles that government throws into the path of economic growth, and you do have something like an economic disaster in the making — but it may occur in slow motion (as it has for the past century), rather than in the form of a dramatic collapse.

One result of the slow-motion disaster could be a “sovereign debt crisis,” namely, the inability of the U.S. government to sell its debt except, perhaps, at very high rates of interest. In the alternative, the government, acting through the Fed, would simply “print money” in an effort to inflate its way out of the problem. But that would only make government debt less marketable while further stifling economic growth by creating great uncertainty in capital markets. The bottom line is that the “forthcoming financial collapse” — or its slow-motion equivalent — is of the government’s making, and can be averted only by getting government out of the business of running the inter-generational Ponzi schemes that we know as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

The real strength of the “country” is its people and their voluntary social and business arrangements. It is not government, which — contrary to the views of “progressives” — stands in the way of progress and prosperity.

Related posts:
The Commandeered Economy
The Price of Government
The Mega-Depression
Does the CPI Understate Inflation?
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
The Rahn Curve at Work
How the Great Depression Ended
A Moral Dilemma
Our Miss Brooks
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Society and the State
The Price of Government: More Evidence
Experts and the Economy
I Want My Country Back

The Real Burden of Government

Drawing on estimates of GDP and its components, it is easy to quantify the share of economic output that is absorbed by government spending. (See, for example, “The Commandeered Economy.”) With a bit of interpretive license, it is even possible to assess the cumulative effects of government spending and regulation on economic output. (See, for example,  “The Price of Government.”)

But the real economy does not consist of a homogeneous output (GDP). The real burden of government therefore depends on the specific resources that government extracts from the private sector in the execution of particular government programs, and on the particular products and services that are affected by government regulations.

Each new or expanded government program raises the demand for and price of certain kinds of goods and services, and channels rewards (claims on goods and services) in the direction of the businesses and persons involved in providing goods and services to government; for example:

  • Social Security rewards individuals for not working. The service, in this case, is the “good feeling” that comes to politicians, etc., for having done something “compassionate.”  The effect is to raise the prices of the goods and services that prematurely retired individuals would otherwise produce, therefore reducing the well-being of the working public.
  • Medicare — another of many feel-good programs — rewards retirees by subsidizing their medical care and prescription drugs. The upshot of this feel-good program is to reduce the well-being of the working public, which must pay more for its medical services and prescription drugs (directly, through higher insurance premiums, or because of lower wages to offset the cost of employer-provided health insurance).
  • R&D conducted in government laboratories and under government grants absorbs the services of scientists and engineers, thus raising the compensation of many scientists and engineers who couldn’t do as well in the private sector (the reward) and reducing the numbers of scientists and engineers engaged in private-sector R&D (the cost). Remember the private-sector inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs who brought you the telephone, automobiles, radio, television, any number of “wonder drugs,” computers, online shopping, etc., etc., etc.?
  • A goodly fraction of the teachers and professors at tax-funded schools and universities are rewarded with incomes that they could not earn if they worked in the private sector. (Tax-funded education also provides feel-good rewards to the usual suspects, who worship at the altar of statist inculcation.) Given that the “educators” and administrations of tax-funded educational institutions are essentially unaccountable to their “customers,” it should go without saying that tax-funded education delivers far less than the alternative: combination of private schools (including trade schools), apprenticeships, and penal institutions. Moreover, tax-funded education deprives private-sector companies of the services of (some) teachers and professors who have the skills and ability to help those companies to offer better products and services to consumers.

That’s as far as I care to take that list. You can add to it easily, just by selecting any federal, State, or local government program at random.

All of those programs, onerous as they are, have nothing on the insidious regulatory regime that has engulfed us in the past century. Regulation often are the means by which “bootleggers and Baptists” conspire to protect their interests, on the one hand (“bootleggers”), while slaking their thirst for do-goodism, on the other hand (“Baptists”). The classic case, of course, is Prohibition, which enriched bootleggers while making Baptists (and other temperance-types) feel good about saving our souls. You know how well that worked.

Obamacare is a leading example of “bootleggers and Baptists” at work. Insurance companies and the American Medical Association, anxious to protect themselves, lent their support to a program that promises to increase the demand for prescription drugs and doctors’ services. It’s a pact with the devil, of course, because (unless, by some miracle, it is repealed or declared unconstitutional) insurance companies and doctors will find that they are nothing more than government employees, in deed if not in name. And guess who will end up paying the bill? The working public, of course.

Obamacare is not a purely regulatory regime, however, because it revolves around a feel-good giveaway program. For examples of purely regulatory regimes, I turn to the myriad mundane regulations that are imposed upon us for “our own good” and at our own expense, from make-work schemes for electricians and plumbers building codes to death-inducing delays in drug approval the Pure Food and Drug Act.

More notorious (though perhaps not more damaging to the economy) are the federal government’s misadventures in “managing” the economy. A good place to begin is with the Federal Reserve’s actions from the late 1920s to the early 1930s, which helped to bring on the stock-market bubble that led to the stock-market crash that led to a recession that (with the Fed’s help) turned into the Great Depression. A good place to end is with the recent financial crisis and deep recession — a creature of Congress, the Fed, other federal suspects too numerous to mention, plus Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae — their pseudo-private-bur-really-government co-conspirators.

Have you had enough? I certainly have.

The growth of government and its incursions into our personal and business lives during the past century has done far more than rob us of wealth and income. It has ruined our character and our society, and deprived us of liberty. What has happened to self-reliance, social networks, private charity, and civil society in general? What has happened to plain old liberty, which is a value unto itself? That they are not gone with the wind is due only to the tenacity with which (some of us) hold onto them.

Government grows in power and reach because every government program and regulation — even the most benighted of them — creates a vested interest on the part of its political sponsors (in and out of government), bureaucratic managers, and dependent constituencies. New suckers are born every minute who believe that they can join the gravy train without paying the piper (to mangle a few metaphors). And when the problems created by government become too obvious to ignore, the conditioned response on the part of politicians, bureaucrats, their dependent constituencies, and most of the public is to find governmental solutions to those problems. It is the ultimate vicious circle.

Government is the problem. And it will be the problem for as long as it does more than merely protect its citizens from domestic and foreign predators, so that they can enjoy liberty and its fruits.

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Related posts: Too numerous to mention. Begin with this list of posts at Liberty Corner, then start at the beginning of Politics & Prosperity, work your way to the present, and stay tuned.