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Archive for May 25th, 2010

Americans should not get too smug about the troubles in Europe because the Bush-Obama policies of wasteful spending are bringing us down the same path. The latest evidence comes from a well-researched article about personal income in USA Today showing that the share from private paychecks fell to a record low and the share from government handouts reached a record high. As Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center points out in her quote, this is the pattern that led to fiscal disaster in Greece:

Paychecks from private business shrank to their smallest share of personal income in U.S. history during the first quarter of this year, a USA TODAY analysis of government data finds. At the same time, government-provided benefits — from Social Security, unemployment insurance, food stamps and other programs — rose to a record high during the first three months of 2010. …The result is a major shift in the source of personal income from private wages to government programs. The trend is not sustainable, says University of Michigan economist Donald Grimes. Reason: The federal government depends on private wages to generate income taxes to pay for its ever-more-expensive programs. Government-generated income is taxed at lower rates or not at all, he says. “This is really important,” Grimes says. …Economist Veronique de Rugy of the free-market Mercatus Center at George Mason University says the riots in Greece over cutting benefits to close a huge budget deficit are a warning about unsustainable income programs. Economist David Henderson of the conservative Hoover Institution says a shift from private wages to government benefits saps the economy of dynamism. “People are paid for being rather than for producing,” he says.

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When even the New York Times is writing articles about the collapse of the European welfare state, you know that the political establishment is finally recognizing the writing on the wall. Recognizing a problem and solving a problem, however, are two different things. They need to use an axe on their budgets, but the examples below indicate a scalpel is being wielded instead. The key thing to look for is whether government spending in the future is consuming a larger or smaller share of economic output (GDP), and I sadly expect the burden of government spending in Europe to grow:

The deficit crisis that threatens the euro has also undermined the sustainability of the European standard of social welfare, built by left-leaning governments since the end of World War II. Europeans have boasted about their social model, with its generous vacations and early retirements, its national health care systems and extensive welfare benefits, contrasting it with the comparative harshness of American capitalism. Europeans have benefited from low military spending, protected by NATO and the American nuclear umbrella. …But all over Europe governments with big budgets, falling tax revenues and aging populations are experiencing rising deficits, with more bad news ahead. With low growth, low birthrates and longer life expectancies, Europe can no longer afford its comfortable lifestyle…. The countries are trying to reassure investors by cutting salaries, raising legal retirement ages, increasing work hours and reducing health benefits and pensions…. The reaction so far to government efforts to cut spending has been pessimism and anger, with an understanding that the current system is unsustainable. In Athens, Aris Iordanidis, 25, an economics graduate working in a bookstore, resents paying high taxes to finance Greece’s bloated state sector and its employees. “They sit there for years drinking coffee and chatting on the telephone and then retire at 50 with nice fat pensions,” he said. “As for us, the way things are going we’ll have to work until we’re 70.” …the region lacks competitiveness in world markets. According to the European Commission, by 2050 the percentage of Europeans older than 65 will nearly double. In the 1950s there were seven workers for every retiree in advanced economies. By 2050, the ratio in the European Union will drop to 1.3 to 1. …Figures show the severity of the problem. Gross public social expenditures in the European Union increased from 16 percent of gross domestic product in 1980 to 21 percent in 2005, compared with 15.9 percent in the United States. In France, the figure now is 31 percent, the highest in Europe… The challenge is particularly daunting in France, which has done less to reduce the state’s obligations than some of its neighbors. …The legal retirement age in France is 60, while Germany recently raised it to 67 for those born after 1963. With the retirement of the baby boomers, the number of pensioners will rise 47 percent in France between now and 2050, while the number under 60 will remain stagnant. …President Nicolas Sarkozy has vowed to pass major pension reform this year. …the government, afraid to lower pensions, wants to increase taxes on high salaries and increase the years of work. …while most French see a pension overhaul as necessary, up to 60 percent say working past 60 is not the answer….”This will have to be harmonized, Europeanized, or it won’t work – you can’t have a pension at 67 here and 55 in Greece,” Mr. Fischer said.The problems are even more acute in the “new democracies” of the euro zone – Greece, Portugal and Spain – that embraced European democratic ideals and that Europe embraced for political reasons in the postwar era, perhaps before their economies were ready. They have built lavish state systems on the back of the euro, but now must change. Under threat of default, Greece has frozen pensions for three years and drafted a bill to raise the legal retirement age to 65. Greece froze public-sector pay and trimmed benefits for state employees, including a bonus two months of salary. Portugal has cut 5 percent from the salaries of senior public employees and politicians and increased taxes, while canceling big projects; Spain is cutting civil service salaries by 5 percent and freezing pay in 2011 while also chopping public projects. …In Athens, Mr. Iordanidis, the graduate who makes 800 euros a month in a bookstore, said he saw one possible upside. “It could be a chance to overhaul the whole rancid system,” he said, “and create a state that actually works.”

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Different city, different country, but the same speech on the Free Market Road Show. So let’s instead focus on what’s nice about Montenegro. The scenery is pleasant, if you know what I mean, but this nation also has some attractive policies. It has the world’s lowest flat tax, with a rate of just 9 percent (I suggested they go to zero since they’re so close anyhow). Government spending is a problem, consuming more than 40 percent of GDP, but they are in better shape than most other European nations.

One of the best things about Montenegro is the sense that the future might be better than the past. The government is at least aware that spending should be reduced. Moreover, there is even a free market private university in the country that is doing a great job educating students about the importance of limited government and individual freedom. The Cato Institute’s Richard Rahn, who also spoke at today’s conference, has a column in today’s Washington Times, discussing this remarkable school:

Professor Vukotic has created a new private university in Montenegro, University of Donja Gorica (UDG), that already has 1,500 students and a large, new building. He has been able to attract world-class scholars from a number of countries, including the United States, to teach or lecture. UDG also already has established cooperative agreements with universities in Europe and North America. …Montenegro has made much progress toward a free and prosperous society, in part because of the extraordinary work of Mr. Vukotic. It has adopted the euro as its currency even though it is not yet a member of the European Union. It has just put in a 9 percent flat tax and moved toward free trade. Yet Montenegro still has much to do, particularly in protecting private property and eliminating corruption. Its future success will depend much on how well those bright young students can translate what they have learned from Mr. Vukotic and his colleagues by keeping the pressure on the government and the private sector to accelerate and maintain the reforms for an increasingly civil, prosperous and free society.

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