Category Archives: Economics

More on the Corporate Tax

Andrew Stuttaford, who edits National Review‘s policy-focused Capital Matters section, has a writeup in his daily newsletter on the consequences of a corporate tax increase, in which he quotes from my recent piece that ran on his site. Andrew’s analysis is excellent, and detailed.

The Washington Examiner‘s Sarah Westwood quotes me in an article about the proposed increase.

The Dispatch, an outlet founded by Jonah Goldberg to offer a less tribal voice for the right than the Trump-centered outlets, was also nice enough to draw from my National Review piece in their daily newsletter (scroll down to the “worth your time” section”.

I also discussed corporate taxes on the Rod Arquette show in Salt Lake City. I’ll post a link to the audio if I find one.

Who Pays Corporate Taxes?

Congress is considering increasing the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent to help pay for the big infrastructure bill it is currently assembling. Over at National Review, I point out that corporations don’t actually pay corporate tax. You and I do:

That is because companies pass on their costs. Some of the tax is paid by consumers, who pay higher prices. Company employees pay some of the tax through lower wages. And investors’ retirement accounts pay some of the tax through lower returns.

There is also an often overlooked rent-seeking story behind Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s proposal for a global minimum corporate tax rate:

It is not difficult to imagine a U.S. company lobbying heavily to raise its rivals’ taxes in lower-tax countries. This would make the U.S. company more competitive, but in strictly relative terms. Such a lobbying win could aid a company without it having to do the hard work of improving its products or offering consumers better deals.

At the same time, though, foreign companies could lobby to raise U.S. corporate-tax rates for similar reasons. Why bother improving your own company when you can just hurt your rivals instead? That is the real race to the bottom.

A global minimum corporate tax rate turns out to be a form of hidden trade protectionism.

Read the whole thing here.

U.S. Trade Representative Tai Should Rethink Keeping China Tariffs in Place

Over the weekend, The Wall Street Journal interviewed Katherine Tai, the new United States Trade Representative. She has a lot of work ahead of her to undo the damage from the Trump administration’s protectionist turn. But she made two disappointing remarks about the approach she plans to take on the tariffs Trump placed on Chinese goods worth $377 billion per year. These can be undone at any time by either Congress or the stroke of President Biden’s pen.

First, as she told the Journal:

“I have heard people say, ‘Please just take these tariffs off,’” Ms. Tai said. But “yanking off tariffs,” she warned, could harm the economy unless the change is “communicated in a way so that the actors in the economy can make adjustments.”

The top trade policy priority right now should be to prevent normalizing President Trump’s trade policies. He doubled U.S. tariffs in one term, in unpredictable fashion. That was the radical change that made planning difficult. Restoring tariffs to where they already were for a long time would be far better for giving businesses something to plan around.

Tai has this argument backwards, and with poor timing. Businesses are struggling to recover from the COVID slowdown. Lowering tariffs would provide an economic stimulus that requires no new spending. Economics aside, the politics of undoing Trump’s China tariff are also positive. It sends a message of moving on, and a responsiveness to consumers, businesses, and economic realities.

Her second disappointing remark is about leverage:

The negotiator also cited tactical reasons for her reluctance.

“No negotiator walks away from leverage, right?” she said.

Tariffs do not give the U.S. any leverage, so there is none to walk away from by repealing them. Their purpose was to get China to reform its unfair trade policies, which is the right goal, but tariffs never had a chance of achieving it. The first round sparked no reforms, only retaliation. Trump enacted a second round and got the same result. On it went, and now three quarters of China’s exports to America are tariffed, there are retaliatory tariffs on the same proportion of American exports to China, and Beijing has not made a single notable reform.

True, withdrawing tariffs would also fail to convince China to reform, but that does not justify keeping them or trying to use them as leverage. Tariffs simply do not work with Beijing as a negotiating tactic. They are like trying to use a hammer as scissors. They are the wrong tool for the job. When a strategy fails, the right thing to do is admit it and try something else.

There is a lot the U.S. can do to help along Chinese reform. We now know tariffs are not part of the list. There is also no silver bullet. Pundits and voters hate hearing this, but it’s true. Pretending that there is a silver bullet in order to appeal to them will do no good. Change in China must ultimately come from within, but there is still a lot the U.S. can do to help. It takes a multifaceted strategy that is more subtle than tariffs, and gets less media coverage than summits or negotiations.

Continued economic, intellectual, and cultural engagement with China will let ordinary Chinese people see how much richer and freer liberal policies are. Walls don’t work, but bridges, windows, and conversations do. This is a slow, bottom-up process that is difficult to measure with statistics.

But just as blue jeans, underground rock music, and American movies helped to win the Cold War, today’s equivalents can help ordinary Chinese people see the connection between liberalism, markets, and prosperity—and work toward moving their own country in that direction.

That is a long-term process, but there is important work right now that Tai, President Biden, and Congress can do to help get it started. First on the agenda should be getting rid of the Trump tariffs. Neither Tai’s “companies will have problems adjusting” argument nor her leverage argument hold water. The right thing to do is to rip off the Trump-era band-aid and move on to policies that at least have a chance of working. Congress or President Biden could do this tomorrow.

Repealing these bad policies is not enough, though. The larger system that makes tariff abuse possible needs reform. As we recommend in the new CEI Agenda for Congress, this would mean repealing Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 and Sections 201 and 301 of the Trade Act of 1974.

These provisions allow the president to enact tariffs without congressional approval. The China tariffs were enacted under Section 301. The steel and aluminum tariffs—against allies we’ll need as counterweights to China—were enacted under Section 232, allegedly for national security reasons. It’s time for them to go, and Tai can play a role in making that happen.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is an important diplomatic counterweight to China; the U.S. should rejoin it. Tai and President Biden should work to rebuild the World Trade Organization’s dispute resolution process, where the U.S. wins more than 85 percent of the cases it brings. Renewing Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) would speed up negotiations for a trade agreement with China, if the president chooses that route. At the very least, TPA would help with upcoming agreements with the United Kingdom and the European Union, whose help we’ll need to counter Chinese influence. Tai can play an important role working with Congress to renew TPA before it expires in July.

This is a somewhat slow period in China-U.S. relations. The tariff back-and-forth is likely over with Trump out of office. The Phase One agreement, which was unrealistic to begin with, was made completely unworkable by COVID, and is essentially dead.

But over the medium to long term, working to liberalize China will be a top economic, diplomatic, and humanitarian priority for the United States. Tai stumbled out of the gates in her first interview, but it’s a long race. With the right policies, she can help make historic positive changes that will benefit both the American and Chinese people.

For more on those policies, see the trade chapter in CEI’s new Agenda for Congress, my paper on COVID-related trade reforms, and Iain Murray’s and my paper “Traders of the Lost Ark.”

Putting a Price on Conspiracy Theories, Revisited

Conspiracy theories are back in the news, so it’s a good time to revisit my recent Fortune article about putting prices on conspiracy theories. My argument is that irrationality is the same as any consumer good, such as cars or televisions. When the price of something is low, people consume a lot of it. If the price goes up, they consume less. If you want fewer conspiracy theories, then put a price on them in line with the harm they cause. So far, this theory is holding up well.

Two recent news items show why. First is a development regarding “Release the Kraken” lawyer Sidney Powell. She claimed that the 2020 election was stolen, and that Dominion voting machines used in the 2020 election had design input from former Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013. Her claims were dismissed from several election-related court cases for lack of evidence.

In December, Dominion Voting Systems put a price on Powell’s irrationality when it filed a $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit against her. Powell’s behavior immediately changed. This week, her attorneys said in a court filing in the case that “No reasonable person would conclude that the statements were truly statements of fact.”

That is remarkable, and likely means the end of Powell’s legal career, even if the case is dismissed.

Second, Fox News is now seeing a price increase for its conspiracy-spreading. This week, Dominion sued Fox News for $1.6 billion for defamation. Smartmatic, another voting machine maker, in February sued Fox News, three of its anchors, Powell, and Rudy Giuliani for $2.7 billion. Lou Dobbs, one of the Fox anchors named in that suit, had his show canceled in February, and is no longer making false election claims on air.

These are all normal responses to an increase in price. While media coverage will likely always remain sensationalistic and threat-based for reasons I’ll explore another time, this is one case where a little bit of ECON 101-style price theory can make the news more trustworthy. Or more to the point, make it less harmful.

My original Fortune article is here.

CEI Commends Sen. Lankford for Introducing Pandemic Preparedness, Response, and Recovery Act

This press release was originally posted on cei.org.

On Thursday, Senator James Lankford (R-OK) introduced the Pandemic Preparedness, Response, and Recovery Act. The bill would establish an independent commission to identify regulations harming the COVID-19 response, and compile a package for Congress to vote on.

CEI Senior Fellow Ryan Young said:

“The American economy is a lot different than it was a year ago. We are still adapting to the challenges of COVID recovery, and making the country resilient against whatever the next threat might be. Part of that effort needs to include trimming the 185,000-page Code of Federal Regulations. Much of that code is out of date, was hampering the virus response, and will slow the economic recovery going forward.

“An independent commission like the one in the PPRRA is an effective way to go through all those rules and figure out which ones are worth keeping, and which ones the country is better off without. This is not a red-team/blue-team issue. It is a common sense issue, with a bipartisan heritage going back to the successful BRAC commissions of the 1990s that saved billions of dollars in military spending. Congress and President Biden should jointly pursue this bill or something like it.”

CEI Vice President for Policy Wayne Crews said:

“At a time when the administration is passing trillions of dollars of spending in an attempt to jumpstart the economy, powerful deregulatory stimulus, that is, easing or removing unnecessary rules and regulations can make our economy more resilient.

“It is up to Congress has to reassert its primary legislative role and act to reduce regulation, as this juncture ideally can do that via a bipartisan ‘regulatory improvement commission,’ an idea is rooted in bipartisan discussions stretching back over several Congresses.

“The Pandemic Preparedness, Response, and Recovery Act is a logical, sensible, fair and humane approach to dealing with crisis. Under the Act, a bipartisan commission would prepare recommendations for regulatory streamlining, and those would be improved upon by public notice and comment. The resultant report would be issued to Congress, which would have the ability to say yes or no to this new vehicle uniquely expressing an aspect of the will of the people that too often gets neglected. While the regulatory code grows with little relief, the Pandemic Preparedness, Response, and Recovery Act provides a way of disciplining it for the public good, and health.”

Read more:

CEI Book Forum with Johan Norberg and Patrick Moore

Earlier today, CEI hosted a double book forum featuring Johan Norberg, author of Open: The Story of Human Progress, and Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore.

Video of the event is on YouTube here.

I also received a pleasant surprise around the 31:00 mark when Norberg, whose work I’ve long admired, quoted favorably from my recent review of Open.

Monopoly Is Not the Same as Big

Ball State University economist Steve Horwitz posted to YouTube an excellent clarification/gentle rant about the difference between having a monopoly and being big. Though aimed at one his undergraduate classes in which many students were making repeated slips, it is a good reminder for just about everyone. This is what good teaching looks like.

The seven-minute video is here. It is even shorter than that if, as I often do, you play the video at 1.5x speed or so.

Restoring Separation of Powers and Improving Resilience with the USA Act

Separation of powers is a core principle of American government. But things haven’t gone quite as planned. Congress, the first branch, has increasingly taken a back seat to the second branch, headed by the president. This is not a partisan problem, but a systemic one.

The Framers designed a system of checks and balances in the belief that the different branches of government would compete against each other. They were mistaken. It turned out that it is parties, not branches, that compete against each other. This institution-level problem requires an institution-level fix.

To that end, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) recently reintroduced the Unauthorized Spending Accountability (USA) Act, which seeks to rebalance a tilted scale by reasserting Congress’ power of the purse. It would reengage Congress in policy making, regardless of who runs which branch at any given time.

Only Congress has the power of the purse, yet a long list of unauthorized executive branch programs continue to operate—971 in all as of 2019, at a cost of more than $306 billion. That is roughly a quarter of discretionary federal spending.

The USA Act would automatically cut an unauthorized program’s budget to 90 percent of its previously authorized level in its first unauthorized year, and to 85 percent in the second unauthorized year. Programs would sunset altogether after a third unauthorized year.

The Trump administration displayed less respect for the limits on its power than any previous administration, including the “pen-and-phone” Obama administration. President Biden is unlikely to suddenly show a restraint that no one in his office has in decades. That bodes poorly for the COVID-19 recovery effort, which cannot be planned from Washington, let alone from one individual’s office. Congress needs to reassert itself as a check and a balance on the executive.

The USA Act would require Congress to own up to its budgeting responsibilities, while simultaneously making the executive branch more accountable. The reform is much needed.

As it stands now, there are programs currently operating that Congress has not authorized since the 95th Congress, which was in session from 1977 to 1979. In fact, when Rep. McMorris Rodgers introduced the first version of the USA Act in 2016, entire cabinet-level departments, such as the State Department, had not been congressionally authorized since 2003. The Justice Department was last authorized by Congress in 2009. Other agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management, have operated for roughly 25 years without congressional authorization.

There is more. The USA Act’s automatic budget cuts and sunsets apply only to programs classified as discretionary spending. Roughly three quarters of federal spending is classified as mandatory, including major programs such as Social Security and Medicare. While Congress has the power to change these programs at any time, they do not require congressional reauthorization, and can continue indefinitely on autopilot.

To address mandatory spending, the USA Act would create a Spending Accountability Commission to examine mandatory spending programs and make them more accountable to Congress. It is especially crucial to make those programs more efficient and fairer, given the coming entitlement crunch. The Commission would also assist Congress in creating a schedule for sunsetting unauthorized programs.

Restoring a proper separation of powers is a tall order. The USA Act is no panacea, but it would mark an important step in crucial area of reform. With a difficult recovery from both COVID-19 and a recession ahead, the time to act is now.

Book Review: Open: The Story of Human Progress by Johan Norberg

On March 25, 2021 at noon ET, CEI is hosting a double book forum featuring Johan Norberg, the 2019 winner of CEI’s Julian L. Simon Memorial Award, and Patrick Moore, a Greenpeace cofounder and author of Fake Invisible Catastrophes and Threats of Doom. Register here, where video of the event will also be viewable afterwards.

Liberalism—in the correct sense of the word—needs fresh voices. The ideological conversation is different than it was a decade ago, and many market-liberal thinkers have not kept pace. Today’s debate is over whether society should be open or closed, not which side of the Iron Curtain was better.

This is where the Swedish economist Johan Norberg performs a valuable service. He is fighting the current battle, not the last one. His newest book, Open: The Story of Human Progress, is a superb defense of the pro-freedom side of the debate. And he defends it against the nationalists and populists who are attacking it right now.

People over a certain age on the political right tend to still use the word “socialism,” but often as a catch-all term for things they dislike. This is different from the word’s commonly understood meaning of state ownership of the means of production, belief in dialectical materialism, teleological stages of history, or any of the other things socialists actually believe in.

People under a certain age on the political left often say they favor socialism. But they, too, have given the word a new and different meaning. They typically define socialism as a more-or-less market economy with a large welfare state, as in the Nordic countries. They are also often careful to add the qualifier “democratic” as an implicit nod to what socialism’s original meaning entails.

When people give the same word different meanings, confusion reigns. When people today lob the s-bomb, they are often talking  at each other, not to each other. The real debate is elsewhere.

This tactic is great for getting people riled up, though. The heat-without-light approach has advanced the careers of people like Fox News host Tucker Carlson and former President Trump on the right, and Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the left. But it makes substantive debate difficult.

Openness and liberal institutions have generated more wealth for more people than any other socioeconomic system in history. But they are also unpopular. Norberg has some ideas on why, drawing on a mix of history, economics, and psychology. He sums up his thesis on page 6:

As I will argue, the reason that the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution started in Western Europe was that this region of the world happened to be the most open, partly just out of luck. It has been repeated in every place that has gone through similar institutional changes. It is not the triumph of the West, it is the triumph of openness.

First, the history. The last two centuries have seen a mass enrichment unlike anything in human history. As economic historian Deirdre McCloskey has pointed out, people today are 30 times wealthier than our ancestors were in about 1800. Not 30 percent more, but 30-fold. As President Biden once said about a different issue, this is a big deal. Since the Great Enrichment began, life expectancies have doubled. Infant mortality is down by more than 90 percent. Famines today have political causes, not natural ones. Violence, both intentional and accidental, are sharply down across the board. A few years ago, the percentage of world population living in absolute poverty—$1.90 per day or less—fell below 10 percent for the first time ever. Almost every long-run trend is showing improvement.

This historical process is as important as the taming of fire or the invention of the wheel. This is what Norberg defends. And it needs defending, because the openness and liberal values that made it all possible are unpopular. Psychology helps to explain why.

People respond to threats more sharply than to good news. In lab experiments, people feel the sting of loss about twice as sharply as a gain of similar amount. Psychologists call this loss aversion. We evolved this trait because mother nature is a superb economist. People have only so much attention to give to things, so we have evolved ways to economize on it. When things are going well, we can leave them alone, and save our scarce attention for dealing with threats. We are hardwired to pay more attention to threats, because long ago there was a survival advantage in doing so.

This tendency is not unique to humans, and long predates us. In a way, the modern life we all enjoy runs counter to hundreds of millions of years of natural selection processes. No wonder liberals have an uphill battle!

In the last two centuries or so since the Great Enrichment began, threats have become progressively less menacing. People don’t have to worry nearly as much about famine, disease, or violence. But that same impulse still exists. Now it gets channeled differently. Socialists—actual ones—viewed capitalists as threats. Populists, from William Jennings Bryan to Josh Hawley, frame various elites as threats. Nationalists view immigrants and foreigners as threats.

Who and what people consider to be threats changes with the times. But that core psychological mechanism remains constant. Some kind of outside Other always poses a threat to the in-group, which must always be defended. This in-group can be a family, tribe, race, nation, political party, or just about anything else. People can also have multiple in-groups at the same time, and can shift seamlessly between them. A Republican and a Democrat who would be enemies in one setting might become fast friends at a baseball game if they like the same team, then go back to being enemies when the game is over.

The key point is that the in-group/out-group dynamic is in everybody’s DNA, and is where the urge to close society comes from. Norberg here draws on the political psychologist Karen Stenner’s 2005 book The Authoritarian Dynamic, which argues that about a third of people have an underlying authoritarian impulse in them—but it doesn’t express itself unless people feel threatened. During normal times, they are just as open and amiable as anyone else. But when they feel threatened, “they react explosively,” Norberg writes on p. 343. “They become intolerant of diversity and dissent and willing to restore unity by government control, even if it wrecks rule of law and free speech.”

Liberal institutions are powerful enough to double lifespans and increase prosperity 30-fold in a handful of generations. At the same time, they are vulnerable to attacks like this.

Prior liberal flowerings got started in societies as diverse as Ancient Greece and Song dynasty China. But none of them lasted. The general intellectual climate wasn’t open enough to openness. Plato was executed essentially for nonconformity. After Mongol invaders ended the Song dynasty, the succeeding Ming dynasty responded to the threat by destroying the world’s most advanced fleet of oceangoing ships and banning nearly all foreign contact.

That vulnerability is why the open society will always need defending, especially as its attackers change tactics every generation or two. Norberg’s defense is perfectly suited for this generation’s emerging threats. Populist and nationalist governments have come to power in recent years in countries such as Brazil, Mexico, Hungary, and elsewhere. President Trump’s trade war, immigration restrictions, race-baiting were slowing the longest economic expansion in U.S. history and causing cultural divisions even before COVID-19 hit.

Even after he cost his party the House, the Senate, and the presidency, the Republican party is continuing along a national populist trajectory. The progressive wing of the Democratic party is pushing similar policies in different packaging, on issues from international trade to technology policy. The United Kingdom’s Brexit debate, which should have been about escaping the European Union’s burdensome regulatory, agricultural, and tax policies, was instead hijacked by ugly nationalist impulses, and became divisive for all the wrong reasons. Strongman governments and nationalist political parties are springing up in places that should know better, such as Eastern Europe, which bore the brunt of both fascism and communism in the 20th century.

Norberg writes clearly and persuasively, with passion, and without anger. It is an impressive performance, and a joy to read. He has only one notable slip in 384 pages, and that is his support for a carbon tax on pages 330-331. Ironically, this comes in a section about the knowledge problem in economics. A centralized body such as Congress is unlikely to have the on-the-ground knowledge it needs to put an accurate price on carbon emissions.

Perhaps more significantly, the carbon tax suffers from public choice problems—which basically means that politicians tend to behave like politicians. A cardinal rule of politics is that policies are made and enforced by the government we have, not the government we want. Even if Congress did overcome the knowledge problem, it is unlikely that people like Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell, or whoever succeeds them down the road, would craft a carbon tax on the merits. For Norberg, a carbon tax is “supposed to be an incentive, not a source of revenue.” This is surely not how a carbon tax would work under a real-world government.

That quibble aside, Open is one of the best books of its kind to come out in years. It is the right defense of the right values at the right time.

Norberg is not the only voice in favor of openness. Recent works by economists Virgil Storr and Ginni Choi, psychologist Joseph Henrich, and experimental economist Bart Wilson are other recent contributions. Matt RidleySteven Pinker, and Deirdre McCloskey have all been flying the flag for openness, tolerance, and dynamism for years. But just as Julian Simon was in his day, these voices of reason are too often drowned out by a chorus of doomsayers.

Markets are inherently dynamic and ever changing. No one is in charge of them, and no one directs the process. Markets work best when people are open, tolerant, and cooperative. People need to get along with people who look different, speak differently, and may live far away. It takes trusting strangers. That not natural to the human brain, which evolved to fit a hunter-gatherer world. But open markets have gotten us this far. If we let them, they can take us much farther. Whether we do or not will be this generation’s defining debate.

Hayek Was No Diplomat, but He Had a Point

Peter Boettke summarizes’ F.A. Hayek’s famous 1974 Nobel Prize lecture on p. 83 of his new book The Struggle for a Better World:

At the start of Hayek’s lecture, he implores his audience to fess up to the fact that those in the economics profession had nothing to be very proud of, as they had made a mess of things.

This is not how one wins hearts and minds. No wonder Hayek was unpopular in his own profession! But he makes an important point that better diplomats still need to make today, again and again:

Hayek goes on to argue that the cause of the mess was the misconstruing of what economics can, cannot achieve as a science. Economics is a science of complex phenomena, yet the modern administrative state demanded an economics of simple phenomena to accomplish the policy tasks conceived.

Economists and the policy makers they work with need to be more humble. But humility does not come easily to people in public policy. In fact, there is a selection bias against it. People tend not to enter the field unless they believe they can come with a plan that’s better than what everyone else has come up with. This audacity is desirable to some extent–things would rarely improve if nobody thought improvement was possible. Market entrepreneurs must have the same audacity to succeed in their world. But many policy makers do not check their ambitions with enough humility. And unlike private entrepreneurs, there is no profit-and-loss system to let them know when they’re wrong.