Shifting Gears: The Way Forward

The Trump administration accomplished many good things and many bad things (especially in the trade and foreign policy areas). Trump himself belongs in jail in my opinion. Hopefully, with the new Biden administration we can turn our attention to policy issues and stop calling our policy opponents nasty names. We must state the positive case for why our policy views are more appropriate–why they are better for our country. These are the sorts of public debates that we have been missing for a while and to which we should return.

One of our most fundamental principles is America’s commitment to equal treatment under the law for everyone regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, or preferred hair style. Equal treatment is extended to everyone whether they or their ancestors came from Asia, Europe, Africa or Ireland (yes, even Ireland). We have never fully measured up to this principle, but it remains, and should remain, the objective to which we continually strive. It means that our accomplishments and “place” in society largely reflect our own talents and efforts. We are a nation of individual liberty. We are free (to a large extent) to make our own decisions. Our policy disputes often concern where to draw the line between what we decide for ourselves and what the government decides for us. My blog last week on our response to Covid-19 provides an example:

Equity (equal outcomes) was the fundamental principle of the Soviet Union, though its outcomes fell far short of the principle. Between these extremes of equity (communism/socialism) and equality (equal treatment under the law) is our actual world of governments with more intrusive or less intrusive rules and dictates on our behalf, with broader or narrower social safety nets, etc.  America continues to debate where and how to set these boundary’s, but one of our great strengths, and a source of our broadly shared affluence, is undertaking the debate from the side of (and with the presumption of) self-reliance (with family and friends) and equality under the law.

The distinction between equity and equality is sharply contrasted in the following WSJ oped.


Friday,  March  5,  2021.

Section A, Page 17, Column 1

‘Equity’ Is a Mandate to Discriminate

The new buzzword tries to hide the aim of throwing out the American principle of equality under the law.

By Charles Lipson

On his first day as president, Joe Biden issued an “Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities.” Mr. Biden’s cabinet nominees must now explain whether this commitment to “equity” means they intend to abolish “equal treatment under law.” Their answers are a confused mess.

Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton raised the question explicitly in confirmation hearings. Attorney General-designate Merrick Garland responded: “I think discrimination is morally wrong. Absolutely.” Marcia Fudge, slated to run Housing and Urban Development, gave a much different answer. “Just to be clear,” Mr. Cotton asked, “it sounds like racial equity means treating people differently based on their race. Is that correct?”

Ms. Fudge’s responded: “Not based on race, but it could be based on economics, it could be based on the history of discrimination that has existed for a long time.” Ms. Fudge’s candid response tracks that of Kamala Harris’s tweet and video, posted before the election and viewed 6.4 million times: “There’s a big difference between equality and equity.”

Ms. Harris and Ms. Fudge are right. There is a big difference. It’s the difference between equal treatment and equal outcomes. Equality means equal treatment, unbiased competition and impartially judged outcomes. Equity means equal outcomes, achieved if necessary by unequal treatment, biased competition and preferential judging.

Those who push for equity have hidden these crucial differences for a reason. They aren’t merely unpopular; they challenge America’s bedrock principle that people should be treated equally and judged as individuals, not as members of groups.

The demand for equal outcomes contradicts a millennium of Anglo-Saxon law and political evolution. It undermines the Enlightenment principle of equal treatment for individuals of different social rank and religion. America’s Founders drew on those roots when they declared independence, saying it was “self-evident” that “all men are created equal.”

That heritage, along with the lack of a hereditary aristocracy, is why claims for equal treatment are so deeply rooted in U.S. history. It is why radical claims for unequal treatment must be carefully buried in word salads praising equity and social justice.

Hidden, too, are the extensive measures that would be needed to achieve equal outcomes. Only a powerful central government could impose the intensive—and expensive—programs of social intervention, ideological re-education and economic redistribution. Only an intrusive bureaucracy could specify the rules for every business, public institution and civic organization. Those unhappy implications are why advocates of equity are so determined to hide what the term really means.

Americans have demanded that all levels of government stop giving special treatment to the rich and powerful. That is simply a demand for equality. Likewise, they recognize that equal treatment should begin early, such as with adequate funding for K-12 students.

Since the New Deal, most Americans have supported some form of social safety net for the poor and disadvantaged. But this safety net doesn’t demand that out-of-work coal miners receive the same income as those who are working. The debate has always been about how extensive the safety net should be and how long it should last for each recipient. There is broad agreement that no worker should be laid off because of his race, gender or religion. Again, that is a demand for equal treatment.

What we are seeing now is different. It is the claim that the unfair treatment of previous generations or perhaps a disadvantaged childhood entitles one to special consideration today as an adult or young adult. Most Americans, who are both generous and pragmatic, have been willing to extend some of these benefits, at the margins and for limited periods. They don’t want to turn these concessions into large, permanent entitlement programs, giving substantially different treatment to different groups, even if those groups have suffered historical wrongs.

One measure of how unpopular these unequal programs are is how often their proponents need to rename them. “Quotas” were restyled as “affirmative action.” The goal was still to give special benefits to some groups to achieve desired outcomes. Now “affirmative action” has also become toxic, rejected most recently by voters in deep-blue California. Hence, the new name, “equity.”

Instead of making their case openly and honestly, advocates of equity twist and turn to avoid revealing their radical goal of re-engineering society through coercion. If the results fall short, as they inevitably would, the remedy is obvious: more money, more rules and more indoctrination. Why not tell us who will receive these special benefits and for how long? At whose expense? Who will administer these programs? Who will judge whether the outcomes are fair enough? When will it all end?

Since the ultimate goal is achieving equal outcomes, these evasions raise the hardest question of all. Isn’t equity just a new brand name for the oldest program of achieving equal outcomes? Its name is socialism.

Mr. Lipson is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security.

Saving our free society

The vast majority of every new generation want to make society a better place. They support policies that they believe will contribute to making society fairer and “nicer.” As they age their altruism may tilt toward self-enrichment and self-protection at the expense of fairness (cronyism), but initially their motives are pure. The key issue is what policies they believe will help make society a better place. “The-search-of-purpose-nature-and-nurture-genes-and-culture”

We can be thankful that American voters in throwing out a dishonest, divisive, egomaniac didn’t endorse the socialist wing of the Democratic Party.  We seem to have moved back to the broad center.  “Dan Mitchell–a victory for Biden-a defeat for the left”  It is hard to know where to look for and find the truth today, and our society will suffer because of that.  But as we review and debate the policy proposals of a Biden administration, we must remember that we are all looking for the truth about what will make our society better (fairer, freer, and more virtuous).  We must listen to each other’s concerns and carefully evaluate each other’s proposals. But we have a duty to ourselves and our neighbors to study history for what has worked and what hasn’t and to do our best to understand why limited government and maximum reliance on our own decisions and the decisions of our neighbors is the best framework in which to help make society better.

The growing number of today’s youth who look favorably at socialism (whatever they understand that to be) is worrying because it reflects an incorrect assessment of what socialism has always delivered. To today’s youth: If you really care about making society better, take the time to study the history of socialism and learn why it failed and is bound to fail and why societies that are freer and law abiding are both more virtuous and more prosperous. “Socialism-as-seen-by-millennials”

Saving the American Dream

The American Dream is under attack.

“The American Dream is the belief that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success in a society where upward mobility is possible for everyone. The American Dream is achieved through sacrifice, risk-taking, and hard work….” “The American Dream is to succeed by work, rather than by birth”. The Dream has attracted the world’s best and brightest to our shores making America the world’s leading economic powerhouse and enabling us to live freely as we each determine what we are willing to work for, for ourselves and our families.

Historically, individuals have been limited in what they could achieve by where they were born in society, by their parent’s position in life, and by who they knew. Companies of individuals were limited by the restrictions placed on them by their governments, often by the protections from competition government granted their friends (crony capitalism). Such traditional societies limited the freedom and ambitions of its citizens and limited the productivity of its human and physical resources. In short, traditional societies were keep poorer than they would have been if their citizens had been freer to innovate and compete.

The American Dream is now under attack by Donald Trump’s trade protectionism, crony capitalist government favoritism, immigration walls, and weakening of the international rule of law that has extended the benefits of specialization and trade globally. It is also being attacked by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (LOC’s) vision of state leadership and control of production and a new generation of idealistic, but uninformed, voters who mean well but have missed the lessons of socialism’s failures. If we are to save the conditions in the United States in which the American Dream still lives, we must better understand what has led so many Americans to vote against it.

I am sure that the answers to that question are many and complex, but broadly speaking two stand out in my mind, both of which point to the measures needed to restore support for the dream.

The first is to better educate the public, especially its younger members, about the conditions that allow and encourage a productive, innovative economy. This includes understanding the proper role of government in protecting private property, enforcing contracts, maintaining public safety (the rule of law) and in providing the public infrastructure that facilitates private activities and commerce (the commons of public goods). It includes the lessons of why all socialist economies have failed as a result of the corrupting incentives of state direction of economic activity rather than the competitive search by profit seeking private enterprises for better ways to serve the public.

The second answer concerns the adequacy and efficiency of our social safety net. The American Dream concerns individuals who take responsibility for their own well-being. While on average this has opened the way for most to prosper to the extent of their talents and energy, some will, often through no fault of their own, fail and fall off the tightrope. Society has an interest (even beyond the obvious humanitarian one) in softening the fall. It has an interest in an effective social safety net. 

Some–those who have not understood the lessons of socialism’s failures–have looked to trade and immigration restriction to prevent them from losing their jobs. They object to the economic benefits of free trade when it means that they must look for a new job (however, most manufacturing job losses in the U.S. have resulted from technical progress and the resulting increase in productivity rather than from cross border trade). “Econ-101-trade-in-very-simple-terms”  “Trade-protection-and-corruption” Those with such views have supported Trump’s anti free market policies. They have been attracted by Trump’s “I win you lose, us vs them” rhetoric.

AOC and her friends point to the widening income inequality–the dramatic increase in the incomes of the wealthiest and the stagnation of the incomes of the middle class in recent years–and demand income redistribution. But she fails to understand that it has been the growth of government’s role in the economy and the incentives in big government toward corruption and crony capitalism (protectionism for the wealthy) that have reduced competition and protected the position and markets of the biggest companies with friends in government. Socialism would make those incentives even stronger.

America’s dynamism and success reflects the creative destruction of risk-taking entrepreneurs and their hard-working employees.  However, the workers whose jobs are displaced by new products and new technologies may need help in finding and retraining for new jobs. They may need financial assistance in between (unemployment insurance). If nothing else, this may be the cost of their support for such a dynamic system.  Our social safety net sometimes provides poor incentives and sometimes has holes. It is time to seriously consider replacing it with a less intrusive and more comprehensive Universal Basic Income.  “Our-social-safety-net”  “Replacing-Social-Security-with-a-Universal-Basic-Income”

The American Dream–the foundation of our freedom and affluence–is under attack from the left and the right. We should fight to preserve (or restore) it.

Our Social Safety Net

Virtually every country provides assistance to their poorest citizens–to those who fall for one reason or another from normal employment. Approaches to fulfill this objective differ widely. The Federal safety net spending in in the United States in 2019 was 2,600 billion dollars. Total government (Federal, State, and local) entitlement spending was 2,900 billion dollars. Of this, about one third was for Social Security and one third for Medicare and Medicaid.

“The federal government funds 126 separate programs targeted towards low‐​income people, 72 of which provide either cash or in‐​kind benefits to individuals. (The rest fund community‐​wide programs for low‐​income neighborhoods, with no direct benefits to individuals.) State and local governments operate more welfare programs.”[1] This year, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Federal Government has added about $3 trillion dollars ($3,000,000,000,000) for temporary one-time assistance for the impact of the forced interruption of production, and is likely to add more.

The goal of these programs is, or should be, to adequately support those needing it without creating disincentives to work and with minimal abuse (corruption). The CARES Act and other pandemic assistance programs were quickly created in an emergency. It is thus understandable that mistakes were made. As time goes on charges of corruption (politically motivated expenditures) are multiplying. The administrative challenges of suddenly making millions of individual payments quickly and correctly were and are huge.

There is a dramatically better way to do this. We might characterize our existing approach of government directed assistance (e.g. food stamps) as the Socialist Model. It is top down and dictates how the assistance is to be used. Replacing all of these programs with a Universal Basic Income (UBI) leaves the decisions on how its recipients use it with each individual. This might be characterized as the Individualist Model. It has many advantages over our existing approach.

A UBI would eliminate all government discretion over who receives assistance and how much they receive.  Every adult citizen would receive that same amount monthly (and every legal child would receive the same smaller amount). The government could not favor one group over another on any bases other than age. This removes political considerations from defining and administering the payments. Every birth and death in the country is recorded in a county hall of records and every legal immigration is recorded with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). Thus, the records upon which payments would be based already exist. Using them would remove my need every year to submit a certified document to my pension plan stating that I am still alive. No special measures or supplements would have been needed to address the personal income shocks of covid-19.

One carveout would be required for medical insurance. Every person or family should be required to use part of its monthly UBI to buy a health insurance policy that at a minimum includes catastrophic care coverage. At the launch of UBI and this insurance mandate, insurers would not be allowed to refuse coverage to people with preexisting conditions and the government would cover the actuarial estimate of the extra cost of such conditions.

As the UBI would replace Social Security pensions, another modification would be for the unlikely case that the UBI would be less than ones current Social Security pension (which in 2017 was $13,824 for someone who retired at age 65). So, for such a person who has already retired or is, say, within five years of retirement, their UBI should not be less than their existing Social Security pension. But a UBI of $1,500 per month ($18,000 per annum) for everyone seems reasonable, which would make this case mute.

Those with a welfare state mentality argue that people can’t be trusted to spend such income wisely (from their perspective). I reject such thinking. There are among us, of course, those individuals with addictions and mental illnesses who are indeed not capable of making their own decisions and thus caring for themselves. Our laws and practices already provide for such special cases and would continue to supersede the rights of such individuals to make their own decisions about the uses of their UBIs.

But can we afford it? Today’s American population is about 330 million, of which about 80 million are under the age of 20. To get a rough sense of what is possible, if we replaced today’s safety net expenditures of 2.9 trillion with a UBI to the 33% poorest (110 million people, of whom 25% or 26 million are under 20 years old) in the U.S. in 2019 each person could received about $26,000 per year or about $2,200 per month. If children (those under 20) are paid half what is paid to adults, existing safety net expenditures could finance about $15,000 per child per year and $30,000 per adult if a UBI is given to the lowest third of the population in terms of income. For a family of four this would be an annual income of $90,000, which is above the median household income of about $64,000 in 2019, and is clearly excessive.

But a UBI must be universal. It must be paid to everyone for several simple reasons. Most importantly, it would eliminate the disincentive to work in the existing programs, which end if a person’s income rises above a specified level. With a UBI, every additional dollar of income joins an irreducible UBI. Every additional dollar earned make the recipient that much better off (the UBI amount plus the earned income). This is a very important feature. In addition, it would remove any political question over the level of income at which it should be withdrawn. It would be paid to everyone regardless of their income.

But paying the UBI to everyone, not just the lowest one third, would triple its cost. Can we afford it? Clearly those who pay taxes will have to pay more to cover this additional cost. But as the additional cost is to cover payments to these taxpayers, they would not pay more on net (depending on the nature and structure of our tax systems).  For reasons of equity and tax efficiency I have long advocated a flat tax, meaning the same marginal tax rate for everyone paying taxes. “My-political-platform-for-the-nation-2017” I would go even further and replace income taxation (both corporate and personal) with a flat rate, comprehensive consumption tax.  When a flat rate tax, whether income or consumption, is combined with a UBI, the net result is mildly progressive. Low income people pay no tax on net and in fact receive net income via the UBI (what Milton Friedman called a negative income tax). Middle income families might break even (receive a UBI sufficient to pay for their extra taxes) and for higher income families their extra taxes would be greater than their UBI, hence a progressive average tax rate system even with flat marginal rates.

A UBI with a flat rate consumption tax would enormously simplify our tax and welfare system while improving the financial incentives to work and returning more control over our lives to individuals from the state. Covid-19 dramatically demonstrates that the time has come to replace existing welfare systems with a Universal Basic Income (UBI).

[1] Michael Tanner, “When Welfare Pays Better than Work” CATO Institute, August 19, 2013.

Socialism as seen by Millennials

“Seventy percent of millennials in a new poll say that they are somewhat or extremely likely to vote for a socialist candidate.” “70-percent-of-millennials-say-theyd-vote-for-a-socialist”  That, and the current lead of Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed Socialist, for the Presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, means that those of us who believe that capitalism is the foundation of our freedom and prosperity have a job to do to convince millennials that they are wrong about Socialism.  If Sanders wins the Democratic Party’s nomination, which I doubt, his long history of support for Soviet communism will be marched out by the Republicans. “Bernie Sanders support of communism is a moral failing”  As recently as a few days ago, Sanders was praising Fidel Castro. “Bernie-sanders-didnt-mention-the-dark-side-of-education-in-castros-cuba”  Sanders is not even a registered Democrat. But my concern is that so many millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Gen Z’s (born between 1995 and 2015) are attracted to Socialism. We need to convince them that it will not deliver the better society that they think it will.

We need to start with the recognition that these new generations, like all of their predecessors, want to do the “right thing.” “The-search-of-purpose”  They are searching for how best to address the deficiencies of life in America today. While dire poverty has been reduced from over 90% to less than 10% by capitalism, there is still that 10%.  Adult literacy has been at 99% for a few decades but the quality of public school education has been declining.  Only half of elementary school students in California are proficient in English (i.e., performed at grade level). “California-school-test-scores-2019”  And so on. The question is how to address these problems? What should we do to further improve our lives economically and culturally? Should we increase the role of government in directing resources and making our decisions or reduce it or adjust it? Do we need more Socialism or more Capitalism?

In 1919 the “Old Bolsheviks,” Nikolai Bukharin and Evgeny Preobrazhensky, wrote in the widely read The ABC of Communism, that the communist society is “an organized society,” based on a detailed, precisely calculated plan, which includes the “assignment” of labor to the various branches of production.  As for distribution, according to these eminent Bolshevik economists, all products will be delivered to communal warehouses, and the members of society will draw them out in accordance with their self-defined needs.  I urge my young friends to read the fuller account in Ralph Raico’s  “Marxist-dreams-and-soviet-realities”

The theoretical and historical/empirical cases against Socialism are overwhelming, at least to those of us who lived through the cold war and the decline and fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s and the Israeli kibbutzim more gradually in the 1960s through 1980s.  Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela provide contemporary examples.  Sanders and many millennials reject these examples (sort of) as reflecting the bad luck of state capture by bad guys (I am not aware of any bad girl examples). But the centralization of the power to direct businesses and people that is the essence of Socialism, is a natural and powerful magnet for bad guys.  No socialist regime has escaped the opportunities and temptations to favor its friends and relatives with government contracts or protections from the horrors of competition. “Crony capitalism”  Venezuela is a particularly shocking example of the rapid deterioration of one of South America’s wealthiest countries.

Sanders often points to the Scandinavian countries as examples of the softer democratic Socialism he now says he has in mind.  But he is fifty years out of date. The experiment with “democratic socialism” by, for example, Sweden in the 1960s and 70s was a failure and abandoned in recent decades. “Bernie Sanders’s Scandinavian fantasy”

Socialism has failed historically because it lacks incentives (financial rewards) for hard work and the development of better mouse traps, provides incentives for corruption, and is really hard to “get right.”  National Socialism (Nazism) and other versions of socialism involved top down control over many aspects of society.  But the central allocation of resources and decisions about what we may and may not do–central planning–suffers from serious informational challenges even when made by smart and totally honest people. Friedrich Hayek had much to say about the importance of prices in a market economy for providing critical, decentralized information on people’s preferences and thus on the optimal allocation of resources. “The Road to Serfdom”

But we are not likely win over the younger generations to capitalism just on the bases that it has given us standards of material well-being and individual freedom unimaginable several hundred years ago.  We also need, I think, to defend its moral superiority while offering promising remedies to its remaining deficiencies.

The morality of capitalism rests, in my view, in its capacity to give us, and to protect, our ownership of the fruits of our own labor. This means also the freedom to decide how to live.  It is a system in which we bear the primary responsibility for our own decisions and actions and their consequences.  It is a system that flourishes in a culture of trust and mutual caring and thus encourages such values. It is a system that rewards and thus encourages virtuous behavior. The top down, central planning, central control of socialism tends to have the opposite effect.  A common saying in the Soviet Union (USSR), while it still existed, was that “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.”

America was unique in its time (exceptional) in establishing a constitution and government in which the people gave up limited authority to their government to protect their property and liberty, rather than, as with the Magna Carta, the sovereign giving up some of its authority to the people.  See American Exceptionalism.  In the personal freedom this provided and the accompanying responsibilities it imposed, Americans flourished in every sense of the word more than most. Those who fall behind or floundered were not ignored.  It was a country of free and virtuous people and as Thomas Jefferson said at the end of his presidency in 1809: “the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government.”[1]  Seymour Martin Lipset in the middle of the 1990s used the concept of this exceptionalism to explain “why the United States is the only industrialized country which does not have a significant socialist movement or Labor party.…”  I would hate to see that change.

Countries differ in the balance of personal freedom and security (safety net, police, army) they seek. But in the most successful ones the provision by the government of security is limited and well targeted to minimize its infringements on personal freedom.  Here are my earlier thoughts on improving the government’s role in and contribution to an orderly free market, capitalist system: “My-political-platform-for-the-nation-2017”

Let me end with a quote from Winston Churchill to drive my point home: “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”  Indeed, Capitalism has its flaws, but Socialism has no success stories that we should strive to emulate. The way to move forward is to repair the flaws in a Capitalistic free market society.

[1] Quoted in Tucker and Hendrickson, Empire of Liberty p 7; see John P. Foley, ed. The Jeffersonian cyclopedia (1900).

The search for purpose: Nature and Nurture – Genes and culture

Every healthy boy and girl searches for the meaning and purpose of their lives. We ask why we are here and what we should do with our lives.  Where do we want to go and be in the future? How do we think we can best get there?  What should we strive for or should we strive at all?  The search for meaning can be agonizing but it is part of human nature to ask, “Who am I?”.

But we do not search in a vacuum.  That we search at all can be attributed to our genetic inheritance. Over the millennia our ancestors who pondered this question and chose and worked toward goals of mutual help and cooperation, prospered and multiplied relative to those who didn’t.  While personal and family survival and wellbeing come first, working together with others enhanced the wellbeing of both. In a fascinating presentation at the Cato Institution, Nicholas Christakis, Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science, Yale University, discussed his new book “Blueprint: evolutionary origins of a good society”  He argued that the evolutionary survival of the fittest also favored (selected) those disposed to love, friendship, cooperation, and teaching. Homo sapiens with those qualities formed more successful and durable groups.

This happy genetic predisposition, however, was just the start, the foundation from which the search for the meaning of our lives was launched. The rest of the answer is the product of the values taught to us by, or absorbed from, our parents, family, and community and its religious and other institutions, and filtered by our reason, which is another capacity favored by evolution. The cultural values from which we learn what our peers value and respect in us can contribute to successful and prosperous societies (and their economies) or not. Children growing up in poor neighborhoods dominated by gangs are more likely to see success in terms of the demands of their gang. The esteem of their gang peers will be earned by very different behavior than in neighborhoods in which honesty and respect for the law are valued.  Gang culture does not contribute to safer, more prosperous neighborhoods or societies.

Cultures that reward cooperation, honesty, and trust enjoy more successful economies as well. Financial wealth is only one source of esteem, however, and after being well feed and well clothed, the respect of our communities probably tops the list of aspirations for our lives. The cultural values in which we map out our goals profoundly influence the choices we make.  Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” guiding our actions for our self-enrichment serves us individually and the society we live in best when functioning in a culture of mutual respect, honesty, and cooperation.  In free market, capitalist economies, individual workers and entrepreneurs profit by satisfying the wants of others. Thus, competitive capitalism encourages a culture of serving others and such a culture encourages successful economies.  These are win – win societies.

“The overwhelming weight of evidence supports the conviction that when human beings, created in the image of God as free, rational, social, and moral animals, are allowed to creatively serve each other’s needs and responsibly plan their own lives, they flourish. And when a nation’s citizens flourish, the nation as a whole flourishes as well.”  “Dylan Pahman: Why-economic-nationalism-fails-conservatism”

So where should today’s Generation Z and Millennials look to find meaning and purpose for their lives? Most of us want to “do good” for our community, country and the world as well as for ourselves and our families. Will today’s youth see this marriage of public and personal good in the world of personal freedom and responsibility described by Adam Smith, or in the world of greater central government assistance (control) advocated by Bernie Sanders?

Sanders says he is a socialist, but I doubt that he means government ownership and direction of the means of production, which is the traditional meaning of socialism.  Rather he seems to mean government provision of important goods in our lives (heath care, education, jobs, etc.)  But the provider also determines what and how to provide.  Are the key decisions in our lives to be made by each of us within the legal and cooperative framework of norms and support provided by our culture and government of limited scope, or to be determined centrally for our benefit by a larger more dominant government and its employees? Government employees no doubt feel good when they help others, but capitalism provides a financial reward for doing so as well. Human greed is more likely to be tempered by the requirements of success in free markets than in government bureaucracies.

Though the average family, and especially the poor, have never before had such wealth broadly defined, today’s world suffers many shortcomings. The social safety net of a properly limited government is not always effective or well designed.  Each person in our newest generation in seeking the esteem of its family and community will ask how best to fix these shortcomings and to address and reduce the barriers to their’s and their neighbor’s fulfillment of their potential for a rich and fulfilling life. Will they turn to the “socialism” of Bernie Sanders or the individual/family-based free market model of Adam Smith?

So called “socialism” is enjoying a resurgence of popularity among American youth today. Even before Trump’s election a majority of 18-29 year old’s viewed socialism favorably. “Why-so-many-millennials-are-socialists”  Why is this, given the strong theoretical and empirical case against it?  For one they were not alive to see its greatest failures (though we now have Venezuela and North Korea).  They seem to think of countries like Sweden as socialist. While the free market capitalist country of Sweden has a larger government than the U.S., it ranks only a bit below the U.S. on the Frasier Institute Index of Economic Freedom (8.07 versus 7.83 in 2015).  For example, Sweden adopted a nationwide universal voucher program (school choice) in 1992, well ahead of the U.S.

Like every generation before it, today’s youth wants to “do good.” They want to contribute to making the world better than it already is. Those of us who highly value our personal freedom as the basis of how we live and who have studied the weaknesses of government provided and guided economic resources [e.g.,] must take up the challenge of explaining the superiority of a family based social structure and honest, law abiding, mutual respecting, cooperative culture. While free market capitalism has produced incredible riches for almost everyone, its primary virtue, and potential appeal to Generation Z, is its promotion of caring for and serving our fellow man.

Should we subsidize college educations?

“According to a national report by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (, high school graduates earn an average of almost $30,000 per year. Bachelor’s graduates earn an average of just over $50,000 a year. And those with a higher level degree (master’s, doctorate or professional) average nearly $70,000 per year. This translates to a significant earnings gap over the course of one’s life.” “According to the SSA, the average wage in 2017 was $48,251.57.”  Moreover, college graduates generally have more interesting and secure jobs.

Who should pay for those advantages? The students themselves, or their families, have often borrowed the money to cover their educational expenses. Currently they owe $1.6 trillion  “Here’s-what-trillion-student-loan-debt-is-doing-US-economy”. Democratic party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders proposes to cancel all of it. He would also make all public colleges and community colleges tuition free.

Is that a good idea? Is it fair and does it encourage or enable a better use of our human resources? A proper evaluation requires indicating who would pay for it if not the students themselves. From the above data we see that college graduates make a lot more than everyone else on average—almost double the income of high school graduates.

If the $1.6 trillion in education debt is cancelled, the burden of repaying it (most of it was lent by banks, often guaranteed by the government) will be shifted from the better off (students who will receive higher incomes in the future because of their college educations) to tax payers. Total tax collections by the federal government in 2018 were $3.3 trillion, half of which was income tax, 35% was payroll tax (social security) and only 6% was corporate income tax.

Senator Sanders says he will cancel all student debt within six months. Does he plan to cut spending on other programs by $1.6 trillion, a 36% cut, or to increase taxes by $1.6 trillion (the deficit for FY 2019 is already forecast to be $0.9 trillion), or some mix of these?  According to Charles Lane: “Sanders and other left-leaning Democrats promise to pay for tuition-free college and Medicare-for-all with higher taxes on the top 1 percent of earners. Most Nordic countries, by contrast, have zero estate tax. They fund generous programs with the help of value-added taxes that heavily affect middle-class consumers…. The Nordic countries tried direct wealth taxes such as the one that figures prominently in the plans of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.); all but Norway abandoned them because of widespread implementation problems.”   “Democrats-use-Nordic-nations-as-models-of-socialism”

The Tax Policy Center “estimates that 69 percent of taxes collected for 2019 will come from those in the top quintile, or those earning an income above $157,900 annually. Within this group, the top one percent of income earners — those earning more than $783,300 in income per year — will contribute over a quarter of all federal revenues collected.”  Can we and should we try to squeeze even more out of them?

The effective federal tax rate for the top 1% income earners in 2018 was 29.6%, compared to 12.1% for the middle quartile of income earners and 2.9% for the bottom quartile (almost none of which was income tax). It is not obvious where the burden of this gift to the prospectively better off college grads will fall. But it seems to involve a lot of income transfers, which seem to sound nice to our new “socialists.”