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This post will illustrate how users can customize the freedom index according to their own judgments about how various policies affect freedom. In particular, it will show how the weighting for tax burden can be significantly reduced and explores the consequences of this choice. It will also discuss briefly how abortion policies might be included in a customized index. Readers interested in customizing the freedom index should download the weighting spreadsheet at freedominthe50states.org.

Weighting Taxation

The freedom index “weights” each policy variable by the dollar-terms amount of benefit received by victims of government intervention from a one-standard-deviation, nationwide shift in the variable in a freer direction. So the weight for taxation is simply the number of dollars represented by a one-standard-deviation shift in state and local tax burden as a percentage of personal income. The mean of tax burden is 0.095 (9.5% of personal income). The standard deviation is 0.0124. Therefore, the weight of the variable in the index is 0.0124 times national personal income, which was $12.357 trillion in 2010: $153.1 billion. That ends up being worth 28.6% of the total weights for all variables in the index.

That’s a lot. The numbers don’t lie, but we do note in the text one reason why this number may actually overestimate the true “loss of freedom” caused by taxation:

This index’s weight for tax burden assumes that all taxes take away freedom. But in fact some taxpayers consent to at least some of the taxes that they pay, as long as the taxes are legal and generally paid by others. Therefore, taxation is not wholly a violation of their freedom, as “freedom” is defined above. However, most criminal justice policies do not operate along these lines. For instance, an imprisoned drug possessor is no more likely to consent to being confined if others are as well, and a driver fined for not wearing a seat belt does not usually consent to being fined if others are, and so on.

Rather than trying to figure out how much of the observed taxation truly represents a diminution of freedom, this study uses aggressive estimates of the value of freedom from taxation and other fiscal policy measures, and then boosts the weighting of certain personal freedoms and economic regulations, as explained in the relevant sections below. The point is to make sure that the index is using an equally aggressive method for estimating the values of all the different freedoms it covers.

Now, one might believe that we have not gone far enough to adjust for this problem, and indeed that is the whole point of putting the spreadsheet online and encouraging reader customization. The freedom index as it currently stands is in some ways a libertarian’s index. If you think that all taxation diminishes freedom, you will like the weight it enjoys in the published study.

But what if you are a philosophically sophisticated progressive or “liberaltarian,” who does not have any personal issue with taxation, but who nevertheless thinks that negative liberty is part of justice, and that the costs that others associate with taxation are worth taking into account. What weight should you put on tax burden?

Let’s assume that the current tax burden in each state represents the ideal point of the median voter. Positive theories of democracy would suggest that this is as good a guess about where public opinion lies as any. Then 50% of voters would prefer a higher tax burden (and the services it would finance), and 50% would prefer a lower tax burden. Right away, we can slash the tax burden weight in half, because 50% of voters nationally would not see the taxes they currently pay as any diminution of their freedom at all. Now, this move assumes that the median-dollar taxpayer is the same as the median voter. That is unlikely to be the case. In fact, the median-dollar taxpayer is likely to be somewhat wealthier than the median voter and thus more ideologically conservative and more hostile to taxation. Thus, if anything, slashing tax burden in half on these grounds is somewhat too aggressive.

But we’re not done yet. Of the 50% of voters/taxpayers who would prefer a lower tax burden, most of them would not see all of the taxes they pay as a diminution of their freedom. That is, they would be fully willing to pay a lower tax burden that is greater than zero. To illustrate the logic, assume a normal probability density function over possible tax burdens, as follows:
normal
On the X axis is tax burden, and on the Y axis is the proportion of the population corresponding to a particular view on tax burden. Fifty percent of the curve lies to the left or right of the mean of the tax burden distribution, which is 9.5, the actual national mean of state and local tax burden. (I have drawn the curve under the assumption of a standard deviation of 2.375, a fourth of the mean, but nothing that follows hinges on this assumption. Note that the standard deviation of voters’ views on taxation should be significantly greater than the standard deviation of actual state tax burdens, because each state tax burden roughly represents a median of a distribution.)

Now, what are the losses experienced by those who prefer a lower tax burden than what currently exists in their state? The loss curve will look like a mirror image of the left side of the normal density function. Those who want zero taxation will see all 9.5% of income taxed away as a loss of freedom. Those who want taxation of 2.5% of income will see 7% of income taxed away as a loss of freedom. And so on. Because the loss function is a mirror image of the probability density function, the area under the loss curve is also 0.5. So only 4.75% of personal income, in total, is a loss to those who prefer lower taxation. We can divide tax burden’s weight by two again, or by four in total.

The way to do this in the weighting spreadsheet is as follows. On the 2001-2011 worksheet, you can find all the standard deviations and weights of the variables in column GW. The weight for tax burden (“ainctot3″) is in cell GW10. You can divide the value there by four to create a new weight. All the other weighting cells automatically recalculate, and you now see in cell GV10 that tax burden is now worth just 9.19% of the index. (Why not one-fourth of 28%? Because reducing taxation’s weight also reduces the sum of all weights.) Fiscal policy as a whole is now worth just 17% of overall freedom, while personal freedom is 42%, and regulatory policy is 41%.

Note that all of the measures we took to boost personal freedom in the study remain in place, so this approach really does aggressively reduce the importance of taxation. I’ll call this new, nerfed-taxation index “Sandals,” as contrasted with the published index, which I’ll call “Suits.” How do the rankings of states differ between “Suits” and “Sandals”? See the table below.

“Suits” “Sandals”
1. North Dakota 1. North Dakota
2. South Dakota 2. Indiana
3. Tennessee 3. New Hampshire
4. New Hampshire 4. Tennessee
5. Oklahoma 5. Nevada
6. Idaho 6. South Dakota
7. Missouri 7. Utah
8. Virginia 8. Iowa
9. Georgia 9. Delaware
10. Utah 10. Georgia
11. Arizona 11. Idaho
12. Montana 12. Nebraska
13. Alaska 13. Virginia
14. Texas 14. Missouri
15. South Carolina 15. Kansas
16. Indiana 16. Arizona
17. Delaware 17. Colorado
18. Alabama 18. Oklahoma
19. Colorado 19. North Carolina
20. Nevada 20. Alaska
21. New Mexico 21. Maine
22. Nebraska 22. Texas
23. Florida 23. South Carolina
24. North Carolina 24. Minnesota
25. Iowa 25. Wyoming
26. Kansas 26. Massachusetts
27. Kentucky 27. Oregon
28. Oregon 28. Montana
29. Washington 29. Florida
30. Massachusetts 30. Ohio
31. Pennsylvania 31. Pennsylvania
32. Arkansas 32. Wisconsin
33. Ohio 33. New Mexico
34. Minnesota 34. Kentucky
35. Michigan 35. Vermont
36. Wyoming 36. Washington
37. Louisiana 37. Michigan
38. Wisconsin 38. Connecticut
39. Maine 39. Arkansas
40. Connecticut 40. Alabama
41. Mississippi 41. Rhode Island
42. West Virginia 42. Louisiana
43. Vermont 43. Maryland
44. Maryland 44. West Virginia
45. Illinois 45. Hawaii
46. Rhode Island 46. Illinois
47. Hawaii 47. Mississippi
48. New Jersey 48. New Jersey
49. California 49. California
50. New York 50. New York

The two rankings still look pretty similar! Three of the same states are in the top five in both indices, and the bottom three are identical as well. Indiana moves up from #16 to #2 between “Suits” and “Sandals,” and Nevada moves up from #20 to #5. Meanwhile, Oklahoma falls from #5 to #18, and Alabama falls from #18 to #40. But those are some of the biggest changes in rank; most states stay in a pretty similar location. It turns out that even a left-leaning index of negative liberty puts red and purple states at the top and deep blue states at the bottom.

Including Abortion

Abortion policies have to be imported from another spreadsheet in order to be included in the freedom index. A little more Excel mastery is helpful here. The abortion policy spreadsheet is available at statepolicyindex.com (p_abor_11.xls).

Now, there are a few things to note about state abortion laws. Most state abortion laws that are actually enforced do not do much to limit first- and second-trimester abortions. Because of Roe v. Wade, states do not have the right to prohibit abortions before fetal viability. However, some abortion policies we code, like requiring that only licensed physicians perform abortions, requiring that abortions be performed in a hospital, restricting private insurance coverage of abortions, and imposing waiting periods for abortions, can raise the effective cost of getting even an early abortion. Some pro-choicers, particularly libertarians, might well see certain state restrictions, such as prohibiting Medicaid funding for abortions, restricting partial-birth and late-term abortions, and requiring parental notification for minors’ abortions, as justifiable.

The variable “pabor” gives a summary indicator of state abortion laws based on principal component analysis. It is available only for 2006-2010 because one of the constituent variables is unavailable for 2000. States scoring higher on “pabor” have more abortion restrictions, including limits on public funding. To insert the variable into the freedom index, simply create two new rows in the freedom index spreadsheet and paste the “pabor” values into the first row (values/transpose). Since abortion laws affect personal freedoms on any interpretation, you may wish to include abortion policies with the personal freedoms, for instance on rows 139 and 140. You may wish to carry 2006/7 values back to 2001.

Next, you need to adjust the raw values of “pabor” to put them on a standardized scale with other variables. Every other row of the spreadsheet consists of these adjusted values. The adjusted values lie right below the raw values of each policy variable. If you think fewer abortion restrictions enhance freedom, then you think that higher values on “pabor” are worse. Find another variable like that — “tpubfin” is an example on rows 125-126. You can copy and paste the formula for adjusted “tpubfin” values to adjust the “pabor” values. If you think fewer abortion restrictions threaten freedom, then you think that higher values on “pabor” are better. Find another variable like that — “tgprp” on rows 133-134 is an example. Copy and paste the “adjusted” row.

Next, make sure that the mean and standard deviation of the variable are calculated in columns GV and GW. Below the mean and standard deviation are the weights. For the purposes of this exercise, I’ll give abortion a weight equal to same-sex partnerships, about $10.4 billion. Make sure that the percentage weight is calculated in column GV by copying and pasting one of the bolded percentage weights from another variable (it doesn’t matter which). Also make sure that the summed weights is updated by changing the formula at the bottom of column GW (row 243 after inserting two rows for abortion). Make sure that the dollar weight for abortion laws is included.

Finally, update the personal freedom scores. For instance, go into GU143 and type at the end of the parenthetical expression: “+GU140*$GV140″ (without quotes). That updates Wyoming’s score. Then just drag the formula all the way to the left. Personal freedom scores are all updated, and overall freedom updates automatically.

Now what does the freedom ranking look like? I’ve taken the steps to create a pro-choice ranking that also nerfs taxation. Here it is:

Pro-Choice Sandals
1. New Hampshire
2. North Dakota
3. Indiana
4. Tennessee
5. Nevada
6. Delaware
7. South Dakota
8. Iowa
9. Utah
10. Nebraska
11. Georgia
12. Idaho
13. Virginia
14. Colorado
15. Kansas
16. Arizona
17. Alaska
18. Missouri
19. North Carolina
20. Oklahoma
21. Maine
22. Texas
23. Oregon
24. South Carolina
25. Wyoming
26. Minnesota
27. Montana
28. Massachusetts
29. New Mexico
30. Florida
31. Vermont
32. Ohio
33. Pennsylvania
34. Wisconsin
35. Washington
36. Kentucky
37. Michigan
38. Connecticut
39. Arkansas
40. Alabama
41. Rhode Island
42. West Virginia
43. Maryland
44. Hawaii
45. Louisiana
46. Illinois
47. Mississippi
48. New Jersey
49. California
50. New York

Not all that different. I’ve taken all the assumptions most favorable to a “liberaltarian” conception of negative liberty, and most states do not jump or fall very many places in the ranking. I don’t say this to tweak liberaltarians, but to point out how robust the freedom ranking is to even drastic changes of assumptions. It’s such a big dataset that seemingly big changes have small effects on the end result. New York, California, and New Jersey really are the most regulated states, no matter how you slice it. The Dakotas, Tennessee, and New Hampshire really are among the least regulated states. “Conservatarians” may be distressed by the low placement of states like Mississippi, West Virginia, and Louisiana in the published index. My guess is that the freedom ranking will be equally robust to changes in more right-wing direction, such as by nerfing many of the bonuses we gave to personal freedom variables, including abortion restrictions as a plus for freedom, and so on.

Although the freedom index is reasonably robust to changing assumptions about which freedoms matter how much, we still encourage readers to tinker with customizing the index. For one thing, very radical changes may well have radical effects. If you are interested in marijuana laws and business regulations but not at all in taxation, gun laws, or tobacco laws, your freedom index might look quite different after all. Our freedom index is tailored to the “average American” adversely affected by government intervention, but the “average American” is a statistical construct that probably corresponds to no actual person.

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Which public policies make an economy better for business? One way to answer this question is to ask businesspeople. Two recent surveys ask businesspeople to rank the American states on their friendliness toward business.

Now, libertarians often remind us that friendliness toward business is not the same as friendliness toward markets. Indeed, libertarians believe that many of their favored policies, such as abolishing trade protection, corporate welfare, and regulations that privilege big business, will redound to the benefit of workers and small business owners. What’s so interesting about these two surveys is that they are of different types of business owners: CEOs of large companies and small businesspeople. The first survey was conducted by Chief Executive magazine and the second by thumbtack.com in partnership with the Kauffman Foundation. By relating respondents’ views about the friendliness of their states to those states’ actual policies, we can see where big and small businesses agree and disagree about which policies are most important for their success.

My first step was to draw out of these survey data those numbers that relate specifically to different states’ policy environments, as opposed to other aspects of the economic climate. From the CEO survey, therefore, I took the taxation/regulation score given for each state (higher is better). From the small business survey, I took the “Regulations” component grades. Unfortunately, the small business survey does not include raw scores for each state, so I simply quantified the grades as follows: A+ = 0, A = 1, A- = 2, and so on, up to F = 11. The small business survey only covers 45 states, but for these states, the correlation between CEO and small business scores was -0.76. Since higher is better in the CEO survey and lower is better in the small business survey, that high correlation indicates a surprising degree of agreement between large and small businesses about states’ friendliness toward their businesses.

Nevertheless, there may remain some important differences in which policies large and small businesses prioritize. To get a handle on this question, (more…)

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While the U.S. economy has been officially out of recession for a while and growing at a decent clip (1.8% at a seasonally adjusted annual rate in the first quarter of this year, 3.1% in the last quarter of 2010 – see chart), unemployment remains very unusually high, 9.0% in April 2011 (seasonally adjusted), compared to just 4.5% five years ago. The Economist wonders whether the U.S. has caught the European disease of “structural unemployment.” What can be done to get unemployment down fast?

Click “Continue Reading” to view the Sorens Deficit-Neutral Plan to Slash Unemployment (SDNPSU – catchy acronym, right? Try pronouncing it like “sudden Sue”): (more…)

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The recent recession cut deeply into state treasuries, forcing legislatures to raise taxes or cut spending or both to eliminate budget deficits. It is interesting to note which states opted for big tax hikes over big spending cuts. USNews Money blogger Rick Newman has compiled a list of the 10 states with the largest enacted and “proposed” tax increases per capita over the 2009-2011 years, based on figures from the Association of State Budget Officers.

Almost all the states on the list either had unified Democratic control for most of the period of analysis (New York, Delaware, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Washington, Oregon, Massachusetts, New Hampshire) or are ideologically liberal (Connecticut, California). Arizona is one of two exceptions; they had a particularly large real estate bust. Kansas I can’t explain – but they only show up because of “proposed” increases. I will go out on a limb and predict that most of those increases will never be enacted.

By the way, the two-thirds requirement for raising taxes in California, which effectively gives veto power to moderate Republicans, does not seem to have had the ill consequences attributed to it – California is #2 on the list.

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At The Monkey Cage, Andrew Gelman takes issue with my post on union density and tax collections by state. I argued that states with higher percentages of workers covered by collective-bargaining contracts have higher tax collections as a percentage of personal income, and that the relationship is probably causal. Gelman argues that it is inappropriate to infer causation from a correlation among observational data. My UB colleague Phil Arena offers a qualified defense of my post.

I more or less agree with the points Phil makes, as well as Gelman’s main point. Yes, correlation does not automatically mean causation, and in my original post I moved very quickly between the two without acknowledging the difference – not the sort of thing I would do in a journal article. Nevertheless, the most natural interpretation of my results is indeed causal. It does not seem plausible that higher taxes cause higher union densities (I can think of no reason why this should be the case). On the other hand, it is quite plausible that higher union densities cause higher taxes: in my state the education unions have been lobbying heavily against spending cuts and a proposed property tax cap. What about endogeneity due to omitted variables? Well, the most plausible one would be ideology: liberal states have higher unionization rates and higher taxes. But I controlled for ideology, and indeed even “overfitted” taxation to ideology with a squared term.

Finally, the dynamic analysis showed a correlation between unionization rates in 2000 and change in tax burdens over the next eight years, although it was not quite statistically significant. But because it’s a short time period, we shouldn’t expect taxes to change all that much. Most of the dependent variable is going to be statistical noise. The effect found is also substantively impressive, even if not statistically significant, and as Ziliak and McCloskey remind us, that’s often what we really want to know.

So yes, Gelman is right that correlation doesn’t automatically imply causation, but I nevertheless contend that the most plausible interpretation of the relationship between union densities and tax levels in the states is that the former are affecting the latter.

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One of the purposes of “right to work” legislation, currently being debated in Indiana, New Hampshire, and other states, is to reduce the percentage of the workforce covered by collective bargaining agreements. Leaving aside the ethics of collective bargaining as practiced in the U.S. today, what are the political and economic consequences? Since unions donate almost exclusively to Democratic candidates and lobby heavily for more government regulation and spending, it would be unsurprising if more unionized states ended up with bigger state governments.

To examine the evidence, I ran statistical models of unionization and taxation over the 2000-2008 period. The dependent variable in the first analysis is state and local tax collections as a percentage of state personal income, excluding mineral severance and gas taxes (since large and resource-abundant states will otherwise look like states with large tax burdens), in Fiscal Year 2007-8, the latest year for which data are available. The main independent variable is (more…)

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The New Obamanomics?

Interesting and encouraging suggestions in the news today that President Obama wants to embark on significant tax reforms largely along the lines recommended by the Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. As noted in today’s NYT:

President Obama is considering whether to push early next year for an overhaul of the income tax code to lower rates and raise revenues in what would be his first major effort to begin addressing the long-term growth of the national debt.

The piece continues:

The objective is to rid the code of its complex buildup of deductions, credits and exemptions, thereby broadening the base of taxes collected and allowing for lower rates — much like a bipartisan majority on Mr. Obama’s debt-reduction commission recommended last week in its final blueprint for reducing the debt through 2020.

Doing so would offer not only an opportunity to begin confronting the growth in the national debt but also a way to address warnings by American business that corporate tax rates and the costs of complying with the tax code are cutting into their global competitiveness.

This marks an interesting turn of events, one that will likely cause much disquiet for the Left while bringing a smile to the face of Arthur Laffer. Obviously, it is far too early to make predictions on whether such reforms are likely to be initiated. Undoubtedly, the politics will be quite complicated (recall the events surrounding the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which combined simplification of the tax code with a reduction of rates). For those interested in how this was accomplished a quarter century ago, the best account remains Alan Murray and Jeffrey Birnbaum, Showdown at Gucci Gulch.

 

 

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