Why Was Trumponomics a Flop?

On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve cut interest rates, even though the unemployment rate is low and overall economic growth remains decent, though not great. According to Jay Powell, the Fed’s chairman, the goal was to take out some insurance against worrying hints of a future slowdown — in particular, weakness in business investment, which fell in the most recent quarter, and manufacturing, which has been declining since the beginning of the year.

Obviously Powell couldn’t say in so many words that Trumponomics has been a big flop, but that was the subtext of his remarks. And Trump’s frantic efforts to bully the Fed into bigger cuts are an implicit admission of the same thing.

But why has Trumponomics failed to deliver much besides trillion-dollar budget deficits? The answer is that both the tax cuts and the trade war were based on false views about how the world works.

Republican faith in the magic of tax cuts — and, correspondingly, belief that tax increases will doom the economy — is the ultimate policy zombie, a view that should have been killed by evidence decades ago but keeps shambling along, eating G.O.P. brains.

The record is actually awesomely consistent. Bill Clinton’s tax hike didn’t cause a depression, George W. Bush’s tax cuts didn’t deliver a boom, Jerry Brown’s California tax increase wasn’t “economic suicide,” Sam Brownback’s Kansas tax-cut “experiment” (his term) was a failure.

What went wrong? Business investment depends on many factors, with tax rates way down the list. While a casual look at the facts might suggest that corporations invest a lot in countries with low taxes, like Ireland, this is mainly an illusion: Companies use accounting tricks to report huge profits and hence big investments in tax havens, but these don’t correspond to anything real.

There was never any reason to believe that cutting corporate taxes here would lead to a surge in capital spending and jobs, and sure enough, it didn’t.

Read the complete article by Paul Krugman on the New York Times here.

How to tax the rich

The Economist Magazine published this article on how to tax the rich. Good reading.

How to tax the rich. The Economist magazine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DURING HIS lesser-known run for president, which began in 1999, Donald Trump proposed levying a wealth tax on Americans with more than $10m. He may soon find himself campaigning on the other side of the issue. That is because Democrats are lining up to find ways to tax the rich. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who wants Mr Trump’s job, has called for an annual levy of 2% on wealth above $50m and of 3% on wealth above $1bn. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a prominent new left-wing congresswoman, has floated a top tax rate of 70% on the highest incomes.

In one way these proposals are a relief. Left-wing Democrats have plenty of ideas for new spending—Medicare for all, free college tuition, the “Green New Deal”—that would need funding. Mainly because America is ageing, but also boosted by Mr Trump’s unfunded tax cuts, the debt-to-GDP ratio is already expected to nearly double over the next 30 years. If a future Democratic administration creates new spending programmes while maintaining existing ones, higher taxes will be necessary.

If revenues are to rise, there are good grounds to look first to the rich. Mr Trump’s tax cuts are just the latest change to have made life at the top more splendorous. Between 1990 and 2015 the real income of the top 1% of households, after taxes and transfers, nearly doubled. Over the same period middle incomes grew by only about a third—and most of that was thanks to government intervention. Globalisation, technological change and ebbing competition have all helped the rich prosper in recent decades. Techno-prophets fear that inequality could soon worsen further, as algorithms replace workers en masse. Whether or not they are right, the disproportionate gains the rich have already enjoyed could justify raising new revenues from them.

Unfortunately, the proposed new schemes are poorly designed. Ms Warren’s takes aim at wealth inequality, which has also risen dramatically. It is legitimate to tax wealth. But Ms Warren’s levy would be crude, distorting and hard to enforce. A business owner making nominal annual returns of around 5% would see much of that wiped out, before accounting for existing taxes on capital. That prospect would squash investment and enterprise. Meanwhile, bureaucrats would repeatedly find themselves having to value billionaires’ art collections and other illiquid assets. Eight rich countries have scrapped their wealth taxes since 1990, often amid concerns about their economic and administrative costs. In 2017 only four levied them.

There are better ways to raise taxes on capital. One is to increase inheritance tax, an inequality-buster that, though also too easily avoided, is relatively gentle on investment and work incentives when levied at modest rates. Another is to target economic rents and windfalls that inflate investment returns. Higher property taxes can efficiently capture some of the astronomical gains that landowners near successful cities have enjoyed. It is also possible to raise taxes on corporations that enjoy abnormally high profits without severely inhibiting growth. The trick is to shield investment spending by letting companies deduct it from their taxable profit immediately, rather than as their assets depreciate. (Mr Trump’s reform accomplished this, but only partially and temporarily.)

What about income tax? Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s boosters point out that a 70% levy is close to the rate that is said to maximise revenue in one notable economic study. In truth the study is notable because it is an outlier—one that ignores the benefits of entrepreneurial innovation or of workers improving their skills. France’s short-lived 75% top tax rate, which was scrapped at the end of 2014, raised less money than was hoped. America’s top rate of federal income tax is 37%; higher is clearly feasible, but it would be wise to keep change incremental.

Although there is scope to raise taxes on the rich, they cannot pay for everything, if only because the rich are relatively scarce. One estimate puts extra annual revenue from Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s idea, which applies only to incomes above $10m, at perhaps $12bn, or 0.3% of the tax take. Ms Warren’s proposal would raise $210bn a year, her backers say—but they assume, implausibly, limited avoidance and no economic damage. Ultimately, the price of ambitious spending programmes will be tax increases that are also far-reaching. The crucial point about a strategy for taxing the rich is to realise that it has limits.

I urge every reader interested in economics and world affairs to subscribe to The Economist magazine to access professional and thorough news reporting.

A Peronist on the Potomac

trumpperon

A PRESIDENT is swept into office after whipping up a wave of grievance and resentment. He claims to represent “the people” against internal exploiters and external threats. He purports to “refound” the nation, and damns those who preceded him. He governs though confrontation and polarisation. His language is aggressive—opponents are branded as enemies or traitors. He uses the media to cement his connection with the masses, while bridling at critical journalism and at rebuffs to executive power. His policies focus on bringing short-term benefits to his political base—hang the long-term cost to the country’s economic stability.

Donald Trump? Yes, but these traits come straight from the manual of Latin American populist nationalism, a tradition that stretches from Argentina’s Juan Perón to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and beyond. Yes, Mr Trump is a billionaire capitalist whereas Chávez was an anti-capitalist army officer. But populism is not synonymous with the left: conservatives such as Peru’s Alberto Fujimori used its techniques, too. “Post-truth” politics and “alternative facts” have long been deployed in Latin America, from Mr Fujimori’s use of tabloid newspapers to smear opponents, to Chávez’s imaginary coups and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s fake inflation statistics in Argentina.

Latin American experience teaches that populists are easily underestimated and can stay in power for a long time. But not forever. Populist regimes are often corrupt and spendthrift, and usually fail to make people better off. Whatever the example from the White House, Latin American history shows that populist nationalism is a recipe for national decline. That is the message liberals need to hammer home.

Read the complete article in The Economist magazine.

U.S. political debate stuck in the past.

Excerpts from an article by Chrystia Freeland in the Globe & Mail.

In choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney swapped his Massachusetts pragmatism for a proudly ideological commitment to limited government. The Democrats, by contrast, believe in the essential role government plays, and are willing to raise taxes, at least on the rich, to pay for it.

Thanks to smart machines and global trade, the well-paying, middle-class jobs that were the backbone of Western democracies are vanishing. The paradoxical driver of this middle-class squeeze is not some villainous force – it is, rather, the success of the world’s best companies, many of them American.

It took more than the spinning jenny or the steam engine to transform local, agrarian, family-based communities into national, urban, individualistic ones. New political and social institutions will be needed to midwife the latest shift into global and virtual communities. Inventing those institutions is difficult, and talking about them can be frightening, but that is the political conversation the Western world should be having.

Read the full article here.

Big Mac Index from The Economist magazine

I love The Economist magazine, and one of the many reasons why is their “Big Mac Index” they assemble each year.

Their sub-title of the article on the Big Mac Index is “What do burger prices tell us about the reliability of official inflation figures?”

Below is a graph I borrowed from The Economist. The full article and readers comments is here.

Big Mac Index from The Economist magazine

Big Mac Index from The Economist magazine