The Countries That Give (And Receive) the Most Government Aid

In a world with vast disparities between rich and poor, tens of billions of dollars worth of aid is exchanged between nations. Citing 2014 data from the OECD, an international organization comprised mostly of wealthy countries, The Economist provides an interactive map showing which governments are donating to the most countries and how much they give to each recipient.

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Among the 41 donor countries that provided data in 2014 to the OECD, Japan leads as the broadest provider of support, sending development aid to 141 countries and territories. The U.S. is second, with 132 beneficiaries, though it donated the most overall (given that it is the richest country by a wide margin). Continue reading

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Americans Have Less Free Time Than Medieval Peasants

It probably goes without saying that we Americans have a lot more going for us nowadays than our ancestors did several centuries ago: public health and sanitation, plentiful food and water (for the most part), democracy and free press (of a sort). But this article from Business Insider points out one big area in which we resoundingly (and perhaps surprisingly) lose out: vacation time. Continue reading

The Impact of Vaccines

Most of developed world take vaccines for granted. Indeed, there is a growing number  of people in wealthy countries, often the most privileged, who outright fear and dislike vaccines. Yet the data are overwhelming: vaccines have not only been pivotal to virtually extinguishing all sorts of previously common diseases (measles, polio, pertussis, etc.), but they have continued to reap dividends for the millions of human who live in the developing world, where public health otherwise remains weak.

As reported in IFLS:

Vaccines are well regarded as one of the most cost-effective health care actions that a country can pursue, and since 2001 the United Nations has been running a program in 73 low and middle-income countries to prevent 10 diseases. It is now expected that when the project is completed in 2020, it will have resulted in averting around 20 million deaths, while at the same time saving a staggering $820 billion.

“Our examination of the broader economic and social value of vaccines illustrates the substantial gains associated with vaccination,” explained Sachiko Ozawa, who led the research, in a statement. “Unlike previous estimates that only examine the averted costs of treatment, our estimates of the broader economic and social value of vaccines reflect the intrinsic value that people place on living longer and healthier lives.”

And these economic benefits, it turns out, are huge. The researchers have calculated that when the vaccination program comes to an end in 2020, it will have saved around $350 billion when it comes to health, but overall this balloons to an astonishing $820 billion across the 73 low and middle-income countries in which Gavi is operating.

This is not only through reduced health care costs as diseases are prevented before they become an issue, but also due to those who are vaccinated being healthier and so working for longer and thus increasing productivity in these nations over their entire lifetimes.

Social and economic benefits aside, the most important results are the human ones: the prevention of over 500 million illnesses, 20 million child deaths, and 9 million cases of long-term disabilities. So much pain and suffering and loss will be unknown — and unfortunately unappreciated — because of such a cheap and relatively easy intervention.

The Clout of Countries

The term “soft power” was first coined by American political scientist Joseph Nye to describe a country’s ability to exercise influence abroad without the “hard power” of military force, sanctions, and the like. It is an idea I had encountered often during my undergrad studies of political science and international relations, but its inherent fuzziness made it difficult to assess and measure; you can count tanks, troops, missiles, etc., but how do you determine something as categorically intangible as “soft power”?

To address the paucity of data on the subject, in 2015 London-based PR firm Portland teamed up with the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy to create an index of soft power: The Soft Power 30, the most recent update of which was released last month. Countries are ranked based on a combination of two sets of data: polls measuring how the countries are perceived abroad, and quantifiable variables such as the number of diplomatic missions abroad, the size of foreign-aid budgets, the number of intergovernmental organizations they are members of, and so on. Continue reading

Finland’s Basic Income Trial Ends — But New Ideas Emerge

I previously discussed the Finland’s basic income experiment, which was one of several being conducted across the world. After a little over a year, the Finnish trial — which involved 2,000 unemployed citizens receiving a flat monthly payment of $685 — has come to an abrupt close following the government’s lack of interest. As the BBC reported:

 

Finland’s two-year pilot scheme started in January 2017, making it the first European country to test an unconditional basic income. The 2,000 participants – all unemployed – were chosen randomly.

But it will not be extended after this year, as the government is now examining other schemes for reforming the Finnish social security system.

“I’m a little disappointed that the government decided not to expand it,” said Prof Kangas, a researcher at the Social Insurance Institution (Kela), a Finnish government agency.

Speaking to the BBC from Turku, he said the government had turned down Kela’s request for €40-70m extra to fund basic income for a group of employed Finns, instead of limiting the experiment to 2,000 unemployed people.

It is unfortunate that a government otherwise open to bold new solutions to social problems has opted out of taking this trial to the next level. Continue reading

Nearly Half of All Americans Avoid Health Care Due to Costs

Courtesy of Forbes comes a depressing yet not entirely surprising report:

Cost continues to be a barrier to treatment with 40% of Americans who say they “skipped a recommended medical test or treatment in the last 12 months due to cost.”Another 32% were “unable to fill a prescription or took less of a medication because of the cost,” the West Health/NORC poll of more than 1,300 adults said.

“The high cost of healthcare has become a public health crisis that cuts across all ages as more Americans are delaying or going without recommended medical tests and treatments,” West Health Institute chief medical officer Dr. Zia Agha said in a statement accompanying the poll results. The survey is being released at this week’s American Society on Aging 2018 Aging in America Conference in San Francisco.

The West Health-NORC poll is the latest national survey showing Americans continued frustration with high healthcare costs even as the U.S. spends more than $3.3 trillion annually on healthcare.

Note that those who skipped doctor’s visits and medication did so despite being sick or injured — such is the state of both the U.S. healthcare system and the national economy.

Also consider the following comparative analysis of maternal healthcare from The Economist:

In 2015, the Lindo Wing [where the third royal baby was born] charged £5,670 ($8,900) for 24 hours in a deluxe room and a non-Caesarean delivery. A survey in the same year by the International Federation of Health Plans found that the average fee for such a delivery in the United States was $10,808. That rises to roughly $30,000 after accounting for care given before and after a pregnancy, according to Truven Health Analytics. Insurers cover most of the cost, but parents are still left with an average bill of about $3,000. In many European countries, free maternity care is available.

A visual of this disparity really drives the point home:

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With all the wealth and economic potential of our $18 trillion-plus economy, one would think we could figure out a way to make having a baby, or getting routine treatment at a clinic, more accessible and affordable.

Our Globally Centered Economy

Believe it or not, there is a lot to celebrate about the economy as of late, both here and elsewhere.

The U.S. stock market is going strong, with the S&P 500 at an all-time record. But the German and Japanese markets are up by more, and markets in the U.K., Canada, South Korea, Taiwan, and elsewhere are also seeing record growth.

While the U.S. unemployment rate is the lowest in almost two decades, Japan’s is also the lowest since then, with the U.K. and Germany seeing the lowest rate since the 1970s.

Although America’s GDP growth is above expectations this year, so is Japan‘s and the eurozone’s (the 19 European Union countries that use the euro). In fact, the eurozone grew faster than the U.S. economy, contrary to popular belief about its imminent collapse.

The point of this isn’t to make light of our well needed economic gains, but to point out that our success is part of a broader global trend, and that we depend on numerous other countries and trading blocs to stay afloat.

Without having global partners to serve as our suppliers, consumers, and labor force, we would not be doing so well, and our economy would not be as large and diversified in the first place.

Nowadays, all our biggest and most innovative companies are multinational in character, relying on talented people from across the world to design or create their products (if not run the companies entirely). In such a globalized era, diplomacy is paramount.

Source: Vox.com

How Other Countries Handle Taxes

As I join my fellow Americans in dreading tax day, it is worth reflecting on whether it needs to be this way. Fortunately, the rest of the world provides us with plenty of alternatives and counterexamples.

In an interview with PBS NewsHourT.D. Reid, a former Washington Post columnist, shared insights from his travels across the world in search of a better tax system. (About which he has published a book, A Fine Mess: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer, and More Efficient Tax System.

He starts with New Zealand’s “BBLR” policy: broaden the base, lower the rates. Basically, the government makes everything taxable — from the free parking covered by your employer, to the mortgage you take out for a house, it all counts as income to you and thus you get no tax breaks.

As it turns out, making just about everything potentially taxable end up being a win-win for everyone: because it isn’t losing revenue through various tax breaks and loopholes, the New Zealand government can afford a lower than rate (half that of the U.S.) while bringing more money per capita. Hence it can fund education, universal healthcare, and other public goods without burdening businesses and individuals.

Reid also observed that most New Zealanders subsequently had an easier and quicker time doing taxes: it wasn’t something they had to dread every year.

The blase attitude towards taxes was seen elsewhere as well:

I was in the Netherlands on March 31, the day before their taxes are due.

I was with an executive who makes $200,000 a year, two mortgages, a lot of investments. He’d have to fill out 12 forms in America. I said, Michael, how do you pay your taxes? He pops a beer. He goes online. The government’s filled in every line. If the numbers look right, he clicks OK. It takes five minutes.

And, in Japan, you get a postcard from the IRS that says, we think you made this much. We withheld this much. We owe you a refund of that much. We will put it in your bank on April 1. It takes one minute, if you think the numbers are right.

And I said to my friend Togo, you know, in America, people spend hours, days filling out these forms. And he said to me, why would anybody want to do that?

Reid also points out that the U.S. government could easily do our taxes for us, a proposition that seems unthinkable even though it makes sense upon further reflection. After all, IRS does have the same financial information we do. Dylan Matthews over at Vox.com expands on this argument further:

Here’s the thing about [tax] forms: The IRS gets them too. When Vox Media sent me a W-2 telling me how much it paid me in 2017, it also sent an identical one to the IRS. When my bank sent me a 1099 telling me how much interest I earned on my savings account in 2017, it also sent one to the IRS. If I’m not itemizing deductions (like 70 percent of taxpayers), the IRS has all the information it needs to calculate my taxes, send me a filled-out return, and let me either send it in or do my taxes by hand if I prefer.

This isn’t a purely hypothetical proposal. Countries like Denmark, Sweden, Estonia, Chile, and Spain already offer “pre-populated returns” to their citizens. The United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan have exact enough tax withholding procedures that most people don’t have to file income tax returns at all, whether pre-populated or not. California has a voluntary return-free filing program called ReadyReturn for its income taxes.

It is interesting how countries most Americans regard as socialist and bloatedly statist actually impose fewer tax burdens on businesses and individuals. It goes to show that you can have it both ways: promote prosocial state policies without sacrificing entrepreneurial freedom — provided you do not have powerful special interests who benefit from the status quo:

So why hasn’t return-free filing happened yet? The short answer is lobbying, and in particular lobbying by companies like Intuit. In 2013, ProPublica’s Liz Day wrote an incredible exposé on just how hard Intuit has lobbied to stop return-free filing from becoming a reality:

[In 2007] a bill to limit return-free filing was introduced by a pair of unlikely allies: Reps. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the conservative House majority leader, and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., a liberal stalwart whose district includes Silicon Valley.

Intuit’s political committee and employees have contributed to both. Cantor and his leadership PAC have received $26,100 in the past five years from the company’s PAC and employees. In the last two years, the Intuit PAC and employees donated $26,000to Lofgren.

…In 2005, California launched a pilot program called ReadyReturn. As it fought against the program over the next five years, Intuit spent more than $3 million on overall lobbying and political campaigns in the state, according to Dennis J. Ventry Jr., a professor at UC Davis School of Law who specializes in tax policy and legal ethics.

They haven’t stopped; in 2014, Day reported that Intuit was involved with an astroturfing effort meant to manufacture the appearance of grassroots opposition to automatic filing. Intuit spent $13 million lobbying Congress from 2011 to 2015, with 41 lobbying reports relating to taxes in 2015 alone. Most of the reports reference lobbying to “enhance voluntary compliance” — a euphemism for opposing automatic filing.

In this, Intuit and other tax prep companies had a powerful ally: Grover Norquist. The anti-tax crusader vehemently opposes automatic filing on the grounds that it makes tax season insufficiently nightmarish, which might reduce people’s aversion to taxes and make it easier for politicians to pass tax increases. So even though Ronald Reagan himself supported automatic filing, Norquist has helped make the idea dirt in the eyes of conservative legislators.

All this despite both conservatives and liberals alike supporting return-free tax filing. We can only hope that Americans will soon reach a breaking point after a few more stressful tax days. Then again, maybe our famously anti-tax political culture is, ironically, too used to hating taxes to actually consider streamlining them.

The Best Countries for Talented People

According to the 2018 Global Talent Competitiveness Index published by INSEAD, a leading French business school, Switzerland ranks as the best place in the world for attracting and cultivating talent.

Singapore ranked second — the highest in Asia for the fifth straight year — followed by the United States, Norway, and Sweden. Eight of the top ten were European.

The index assesses a country’s ability to not only draw the world’s skilled and educated workers, but to develop and retain them at home. Hence the highest ranking countries tended to have good education systems, healthy and open business environments (in terms of regulations, rule of law, etc.) and reliable infrastructure and telecommunications, to name but a few factors. They were also cosmopolitan, with greater openness to immigration and multiculturalism (which makes sense if you want to attract as many talented people as possible regardless of background).

For a more detailed and interactive breakdown of the data, click here.

H/T: Bloomberg

 

When Helping People Isn’t “Sustainable”

Count on America’s venal financial class to engage unironic self parody.  According to a recent CNBC report, Goldman Sachs, one of the largest financial institutions in the world, asked whether the use of cutting-edge genetic therapy to cure patients is a “sustainable business model”: Continue reading