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Archive for May 10th, 2010

Actually, that’s too broad of a brush, but I do despise people of any nationality who think that they are entitled to mooch off the labor and capital of others. I also fear for my country because of such people. Benjamin Franklin is rumored to have said that, “When the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.” I don’t know if that is a real quote, but it accurately captures the problem with modern democracy (which is why our Founders gave us a constitutional republic, where our rights to life, liberty, and (especially) property were not subject to the tyranny of the majority). Writing for the City Journal, Theodore Dalrymple makes the essential point that what is happening in Greece is democratic corruption. In other words, the Greek people no longer have the social capital needed for a functioning democracy:

When the crowd tried to storm the Greek parliament, shouting, “Thieves! Thieves!,” its anger was misdirected. It was a classic case of what Freudians call projection: the attribution to others of one’s own faults. It is true that the Greek politicians are much to blame for the current situation, and no doubt many of them are thieves; but their real crime was not stealing, but offering a substantial proportion of the Greek population a standard of living that was economically unjustified, maintained for a time by borrowing, and in the long run unsustainable, in return for votes. The crime of that substantial proportion of the Greek population was to accept the bribe that the politicians offered; they were only too prepared to live well at someone else’s expense. The thieves were not principally the politicians, but the demonstrators. Such popular dishonesty is by no means confined to Greece. In varying degrees, most countries in the West have displayed it, Britain above all. It is perhaps an inherent problem wherever the universal franchise is unaccompanied by widespread virtues such as honesty, self-control, providence, prudence, and self-respect. Greece is therefore a cradle not only of democracy, but of democratic corruption. The Greek demonstrators did not understand, or did not want to understand, that if there were justice in the world, many people, including themselves, would be worse rather than better off, and that a reduction in their salaries and perquisites was not only economically necessary but just. They had never really earned their wages in the first place; politicians borrowed the money and then dispensed largesse, like monarchs throwing coins to the multitudes.

Meanwhile, Mona Charen is rightfully amused at the absurdity of the press writing about “anti-government” riots when the rioters are overpaid government workers and the target of their wrrath is a socialist government. She also makes an excellent point that the bureaucracy is so pervasive in Greeece that government unions just elect the people who promise to give them absurdly unaffordable pay and benefits:

That “anti-government mob,” it must be understood, consisted of civil servants, tens of thousands of whom took to the streets to protest austerity measures. …One in three Greeks works for the government. Government employees enjoy higher wages, more munificent benefits, and earlier retirements than private-sector employees. Civil servants can retire after 35 years of service at 80 percent of their highest salary and enjoy lavish health plans, vacations, and other perks. Because they are so numerous, and because Greece is highly centralized, public-sector unions hardly have to negotiate. They simply vote in their preferred bosses. Some civil servants receive bonuses for using computers, others for arriving at work on time. Forestry workers get a bonus for outdoor work. All civil servants receive 14 yearly checks for twelve months’ work. And it’s almost impossible to fire them — even for the grossest incompetence.

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I’m semi-impressed with the Europeans for choosing the hog-wild approach to bailouts. Not because it is good policy, but rather because it will be a useful demonstration of the old rule that bad policy begets more bad policy (which begets God knows what, but it won’t be pretty). The background is that many European nations have been over-spending, over-taxing, and over-regulating. This has created a poisonous combination of weak economies, pervasive dependency, and political corruption, with Greece being the nation farthest down the path to Krugman-topia. Europe’s political elite at first thought they could paper over the problems with a $140 billion Greek bailout. The ostensible motives were to stop contagion and to demonstrate “solidarity,” but behind-the-scenes lobbying by big European banks (which foolishly own a lot of government debt from profligate nations such as Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Italy) may have been the most important factor. Regardless of the real motive, the original bailout was a flop, so the political class has decided to go with the in-for-a-dime-in-for-a-dollar approach and commit nearly $1 trillion of other people’s money to prop up the continent’s welfare states. The Wall Street Journal reports on the issue, noting that American taxpayers will be involuntary participants thanks to the financial world’s keystone cops at the International Monetary Fund:

The European Union agreed on an audacious €750 billion ($955 billion) bailout plan in an effort to stanch a burgeoning sovereign debt crisis that began in Greece but now threatens the stability of financial markets world-wide. The money would be available to rescue euro-zone economies that get into financial troubles. The plan would consist of €440 billion of loans from euro-zone governments, €60 billion from an EU emergency fund and €250 billion from the International Monetary Fund. Immediately after the announcement, the European Central Bank said it is ready to buy euro-zone government and private bonds “to ensure depth and liquidity” in markets, and the U.S. Federal Reserve announced it would reopen swap lines with other central banks to make sure they had ample access to dollars.

Back when Greece first began to collapse, I argued that bankruptcy was the best option. And I noted more recently that my colleague Jeff Miron reached the same conclusion. Everything that has since happened reinforces this viewpoint. Here are a few additional observations on this latest chapter in the collapse of the welfare state.

1. A bailout does not solve the problem. It just means that taxpayers bear the cost rather than the banks that foolishly lent money to corrupt and incompetent governments.

2. A bailout rewards profligate politicians and creates a moral hazard problem by letting other politicians think that it is possible to dodge consequences for reckless choices.

3. A bailout undermines growth by misallocating capital, both directly via bailouts and indirectly by signalling to financial markets and investors that governments are a “safe” investment.

4. A bailout will cause a short-term rise in the market by directly or indirectly replenishing the balance sheets of financial institutions, but this will be completely offset by the long-run damage caused by moral hazard and capital misallocation.

The last point deserves a bit of elaboration. Assuming markets continue to rise, the politicians will interpret this to mean their policies are effective. But that is akin to me robbing my neighbor and then boasting about how my net wealth has increased. In the long run (which is probably not too long from now), though, this system will not work. At best, Europe’s political elite have postponed the day of reckoning and almost certainly created the conditions for an even more severe set of consequences. No wonder, when I was in Europe a couple of weeks ago, I kept running in to people who were planning on how to protect their families and their money when the welfare state scam unravels. Their biggest challenge, though, is finding someplace to go. People use to think the United States was a safe option, but the Bush-Obama policies of bigger government have pushed America much closer to European levels of fiscal instability.

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This blog frequently explains that government spending is the problem, not budget deficits. Regardless of whether it is financed by taxing or borrowing, every penny of spending diverts resources from the productive sector of the economy. I narrated a video explaining why excessive spending is bad from a theoretical perspective. I did another looking at the empirical evidence for smaller government. And I had another video discussing why deficits are a symptom and the real problem is bloated budgets.

Nonetheless, some people seem convinced that deficits and debt are the real problem. While I think that focus is a bit misguided, I certainly agree that there is something utterly immoral about spending today and imposing a fiscal burden on future taxpayers (especially since so much government spending is for current consumption and transfers).

But here’s some really depressing news for the anti-debt crowd. Today’s deficits and debt actually are just the tip of the iceberg. Here’s a new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that reveals the enormous unfunded liabilities resulting from entitlement programs. As the video explains, unfunded liabilities are promises by politicians that impose enormous long-term obligations for more spending and debt.

The narrator of the video is Kelly McDonough, a student at American University and a former Cato Institute intern. If this video is anywhere near as successful as the other video narrated by a former Cato intern, perhaps this will become a new tradition.

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