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Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

Europe is in deep trouble.

That’s an oversimplification, of course, since there are a handful of nations that seem to be moving in the right direction (or at least not moving rapidly in the wrong direction).

But notwithstanding those exceptions, Europe in general is suffering from economic stagnation caused by a bloated public sector. Barring dramatic change, another fiscal crisis is a virtual certainty.

A key problem is that Europe’s politicians suffer from fiscal incontinency. They can’t resist spending other people’s money, regardless of all the evidence that excessive government spending is suffocating the productive sector of the economy.

Yet some of them cling to the discredited Keynesian notion that government spending “stimulates” economic performance. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Brian Wesbury explains why European politicians are wrong.

We need less government, not more, and yet governments are engaged in deficit spending like they did in the 1970s. It didn’t work then to boost growth, and it isn’t working now. Euro area government spending was 49.8% of GDP in 2013 versus 46.7% in 2006. In other words, euro area governments have co-opted an additional 3.1% of GDP (roughly €300 billion) compared with before the crisis—about the size of the Austrian economy. France spent 57.1% of GDP in 2013 versus 56.7% in 2009, at the peak of the crisis. This is the opposite of austerity—but the French economy hasn’t grown in more than six months. It is no wonder S&P downgraded its debt rating. Italy, at 50.6% of GDP, is spending more than the euro area average but is contracting faster.

Brian isn’t the first person to make this observation.

Constantin Gurdgiev, Fredrik Erixon, and Leonid Bershidsky also have pointed out the ever-increasing burden of government in Europe.

And I can’t count how many times I’ve also explained that Europe’s problem is too much government.

The problem with all this government spending, as Brian points out, is that politicians don’t allocate resources very intelligently. So the net result is that labor and capital are misallocated and we get less economic output.

Every economy can be divided into two parts: private and public sectors. The larger the slice taken by the government, the smaller the slice left over for the private sector, which means fewer jobs and a lower standard of living. If government were more productive than private business this wouldn’t be true, but government is not.

Let’s be thankful, by the way, that the United States isn’t as far down the wrong road as Europe.

And this is why America’s economy is doing better.

The U.S. is growing faster than Europe not because…our government is relatively smaller. Federal, state and local expenditures in the U.S. were 36.5% of GDP in 2013. This is too high, but because it is less than Europe, the U.S. has a larger and more vibrant private sector.

Ironically, even President Obama agrees that the U.S. economy is superior, though he (predictably) is incapable of putting 2 and 2 together and reaching the right conclusion.

My Cato colleague Steve Hanke (using the correct definition of austerity) also has weighed in on the topic of European fiscal policy.

Here’s some of what he wrote for the Huffington Post.

The leading political lights in Europe — Messrs. Hollande, Valls and Macron in France and Mr. Renzi in Italy – are raising a big stink about fiscal austerity. They don’t like it. And now Greece has jumped on the anti-austerity bandwagon. …But, with Greece’s public expenditures at 58.5 percent of GDP, and Italy’s and France’s at 50.6 percent and 57.1 percent of GDP, respectively — one can only wonder where all the austerity is (see the accompanying table). Government expenditures cut to the bone? You must be kidding.

Here’s Professor Hanke’s table. As you can see, the burden of government spending is far above growth-maximizing levels.

That’s a very depressing table, particularly when you realize that government used to be very small in Europe. Indeed, the welfare state basically didn’t exist prior to World War II.

P.S. Shifting to another issue, it’s not exactly a secret that I have little respect for politicians.

But some of our “leaders” are worse than others. Maryland’s outgoing governor is largely known for making his state inhospitable for investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners.

Notwithstanding his miserable record, he thinks of himself as a potential presidential candidate. And one of his ideas is that wireless access to the Internet is a human right.

I’m not joking. Here’s what Charles Cooke wrote for National Review.

Maryland’s governor Martin O’Malley — a man so lacking in redeeming qualities that a majority in his own state hopes he doesn’t run for president – is attempting to carve out a new constituency: young people with no understanding of political philosophy. …“WiFi is a human right”? Hey, why not? Sure, Anglo-American societies have traditionally regarded “rights” as checks on the power of the state. But if we’re going to invert the most successful philosophy in American history to appease a few terminally stupid millennials in Starbucks, let’s think big

This definitely belongs in my great-moments-in-human-rights collection.

Here are previous winners of that booby prize.

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I’m not a big fan of Obamanomics.

I don’t like the President’s class-warfare mentality on taxes. I don’t like his support for Keynesian spending policy. And I don’t like his costly expansions of government such as Obamacare.

Indeed, I even like mocking his reflexive statism.

That being said, I fully agree (albeit with some important caveats) with his observation that the United States generally is doing better than other nations.

Here are some blurbs from a Bloomberg report about the President’s remarks on that issue.

A month before congressional elections, President Barack Obama is making an appeal to American pride in promoting his economic policies, arguing that the U.S. is outpacing the recovery in other nations. …“The United States has put more people back to work than Europe, Japan, and every other advanced economy combined.” Obama said. …economies in Europe and Japan are sluggish. The recovery for the euro area – including France and Italy – stalled, with gross domestic product unchanged, from the first quarter to the second, according to Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics office in Luxembourg. Japan contracted by the most in more than five years, with GDP shrinking an annualized 7.1 percent, data from the government Cabinet Office in Tokyo show. …Jason Furman, the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers…called Obama’s emphasis on the relative strength of the U.S. economy “useful context to compare to other countries that are facing similar challenges.”

I don’t know if the White House is correct on every specific claim, but it’s definitely true that the United States is out-pacing Europe.

Here are a couple of charts I found with a quick search. We’ll start with one comparing GDP performance. It’s not as up-to-date as the one I shared back in June, but it does a good job of showing how our cousins across the ocean are falling behind.

And here’s another chart I found showing how Europe also is lagging on employment.

And I can also say from personal experience, based on my trips to various conferences, that Europeans look at the American economy with envy. Heck, they even think 1 percent growth is a reason for celebration!

Which should give you an idea of how bad the outlook is in Europe.

After all, the United States is experiencing the weakest economic expansion since the Great Depression. Yet compared to European nations like France and Italy, we’re a powerhouse.

And this isn’t even a new development. After World War II, the European economies were converging with the United States. In other words, they were growing faster, which is what conventional economic theory predicts should happen over time.

But then, thanks the Europe’s shift to more statism in the 1960s and America’s shift to more freedom in the 1980s, the convergence stopped and America began to enjoy better performance. The data from recent years is just the latest bit of evidence.

Let’s now return to the central thesis of today’s post. As I said above, Obama is right that America is doing much better than most other nations.

But here’s the catch….and it’s a big one.

The President wants America to copy the policies that have caused economic stagnation in Europe!

Does he want higher tax rates? Yup.

Does he want more spending? You bet.

Does he want additional regulation? Yes.

Does he want increased intervention? Of course.

Does he want expanded welfare programs? Naturally.

In other words, when I read the article in Bloomberg, it was a very surreal experience. Is the President clueless? Or does he think we’re clueless? How could he brag about America out-performing Europe without realizing that he was attacking Obamanomics?

It was like getting a lecture on the merits of exercise from a guy who wants you to buy a big-screen TV and a lifetime supply of fast food. Or, better yet, check out these cartoons from Michael Ramirez, Glenn Foden, Eric Allie and Chip Bok.

By the way, I feel guilty about saying so many bad things about Europe, so let’s close with some reasonably clever anti-American humor from our European friends.

Here’s an image regarding culture.

And here’s one regarding…um…style.

P.S. Okay, maybe the Europeans have more culture and style, but Americans are more genuinely compassionate.

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I’m a big believer that real-world examples can teach us about the benefits of good fiscal policy (think Hong Kong, Estonia, Canada, and the U.S. under Reagan and Clinton) and the costs of bad fiscal policy (France, Cyprus, Greece, and the U.S. under Bush and Obama).

Today, let’s look at another example of bad fiscal policy. And we’re going to pick on Slovenia since I’m on my way back from the annual Liberty Seminar at Lake Bohinj.

I’m motivated because one of the other lecturers at the Seminar was that country’s former Finance Minister, Janez Šušteršič.

His basic argument is that Slovenia is at risk of falling behind because of a failure to reduce the size and scope of government.

Here are some of his slides, starting with a look at how Slovenia started out richer than many other post-Soviet Bloc jurisdictions, but you can see that other nations (with better track records on reform) are catching up.

I especially like that he shows the rapid growth of the Baltic nations (hmmm….I guess Paul Krugman was wrong after all).

The message from these two slides is one that I often make, which is that faster economic growth makes a big difference over time.

You can click here to get links to a bunch of similar examples of how countries with pro-market policies out-pace other countries that chose statism.

The one disappointment in Dr. Šušteršič‘s presentation is that he looked at deficits and debt when he discussed fiscal policy.

Here’s his slide showing a big increase in red ink.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I think he should have focused on the underlying disease of too much spending rather than the symptom of red ink.

So I went to the IMF data and put together this chart.

As you can see, the reason that Slovenia has more red ink is that the burden of government spending increased so rapidly in recent years.

In the past few years, you can see that spending no longer is growing so rapidly.

I’d like to think this is a sign of new-found fiscal rectitude, but I suspect it’s simply a sign that Slovenian politicians realize they may be at the precipice of a fiscal crisis.

What Slovenia needs (what just about every nation needs) is some sort of spending cap to enforce long-run and sustainable spending restraint.

The Swiss “debt brake” is a good model to emulate.

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It’s remarkable to read that European politicians are agitating to spend more money, supposedly to make up for “spending cuts” and austerity.

To put it mildly, their Keynesian-based arguments reflect a reality-optional understanding of recent fiscal policy on the other side of the Atlantic.

Here’s some of what Leonid Bershidsky wrote for Bloomberg.

Just as France’s and Italy’s poor economic results prompt the leaders of the euro area’s second and third biggest economies to step up their fight against fiscal austerity, it might be appropriate to ask whether they even know what that is.

An excellent question. As I’ve already explained, austerity is a catch-all phrase that includes bad policy (higher taxes) and good policy (spending restraint).

But with a few notable exceptions, European nations have been choosing the wrong kind of austerity (even though Paul Krugman doesn’t seem to know the difference).

As a result, the real problem of bloated government keeps getting worse.

Government spending in the European Union, and in the euro zone in particular, is now significantly higher than before the 2008 financial crisis. …Among the 28 EU members, public spending reached 49 percent of gross domestic product in 2013, 3.5 percentage points more than in 2007.

Here’s a chart showing how the burden of government spending has become more onerous since 2007.

As you can see, all the big nations of Western Europe have moved in the wrong direction.

Only a small handful of countries in Eastern Europe that have trimmed the size of the public sector.

Bershidsky does explain that the numbers today are slightly better than they were at the peak of the economic downturn, though not because of genuine fiscal restraint.

The spending-to-GDP-ratio first ballooned by 2009, exceeding 50 percent for the EU as a whole, and then shrank a little… That, however, was not the result of government’s austerity efforts: Rather, the spending didn’t go down as much as the economies collapsed, and then didn’t grow in line with the modest rebound.

Here are some examples he shared.

I suppose France deserves a special shout out for managing to expand the size of government between 2009 and 2013. That’s what you call real commitment to statism!

The article also cites an example that is both amusing and tragic, at least in the sense that there’s no genuine seriousness about reforming hte public sector.

Even when spending cuts are made…, the whole public spending system’s glaring inadequacy is not affected. …The ushers at the Italian Parliament, whose job is to carry messages in their imposing gold-braided uniforms, made $181,590 a year by the time they retired, but will only make as much as $140,000 after Renzi’s courageous cut. If you wonder what on earth could be wrong with getting rid of them altogether and just using e-mail, you just don’t get European public expenditure.

I particularly embrace Bershidsky’s conclusion.

There is no rational justification for European governments to insist on higher spending levels than in 2007. The post-crisis years have shown that in Italy, and in the EU was a whole, increased reliance on government spending drives up sovereign debt but doesn’t result in commensurate growth. The idea of a fiscal multiplier of more than one — every euro spent by the government coming back as a euro plus change in growth — obviously has not worked. In fact, increased government interference in the economy, in the form of higher borrowing and spending as well as increased regulation, have led to the shrinking of private credit.  …Unreformed government spending is a hindrance, not a catalyst for growth.

Amen.

Politicians will never want to hear this message, but government spending undermines economic performance by diverting resources from the the economy’s productive sector.

Here’s my video on the theoretical evidence against government spending.

And here’s the video looking at the empirical evidence against excessive spending.

P.S. Other Europeans who have correctly analyzed Europe’s spending problem include Constantin Gurdgiev and Fredrik Erixon.

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Libertarians tend to like – or at least have a grudging respect for – the underground economy.

For instance, even if we’re personally very straight-laced, we don’t like government prohibitions against gambling, drugs, and prostitution. This is why we’re not upset when these things happen in spite of the laws enacted by the political class.

But this isn’t just about victimless crimes. We also dislike high taxes, so you won’t find libertarians shedding many tears when we read about tax avoidance and tax evasion in nations (such as France and Greece) with punitive tax systems.

Politicians tend to have a different perspective. They generally get very upset if we’re not following their societal diktats and acquiescing to their fiscal demands.

But now we’re suddenly seeing that some politicians have a new-found appreciation for the underground economy.

The New York Times reports that European nations want to add these activities to their estimates of GDP.

As of September, all European Union countries will be required to take fuller accounting of trade in sex, drugs and other underground businesses as part of an overhaul of economic measurements by Eurostat, the European statistics agency. The point of counting everything, including the wages of sin, is to get a more accurate reading of each country’s gross domestic product.

Sounds reasonable, right? Who objects, after all, to more accurate numbers?

But it’s always good to be suspicious of governments.

And why is suspicion warranted in this case? Well, it appears that this effort to re-measure GDP may give politicians more ability to spend.

With European Union governments obliged to reduce debt as a percentage of their economies, the changes are also expected to make growth rates from Spain to Sweden look better, possibly also making debt ratios seem rosier. …In Italy, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, …G.D.P. could increase by as much as 2 percent, Eurostat estimates, while Germany and France could see expansions of as much as 3 percent. Britain might show a gain of 3 to 4 percent, Eurostat said.

To elaborate, there are “Maastricht rules” in the European Union that (at least in theory) obligate governments to keep deficits from rising about 3 percent of GDP and to keep debt from climbing above 60 percent of GDP.

So if politicians and bureaucrats can figure out ways to make GDP appear bigger, that means they can have more red ink. Which means, of course, that they can spend more money.

So now it should be abundantly clear why governments have an incentive to add the underground economy to their GDP estimates.

But there’s one little problem with this approach. The whole purpose of the Maastricht rules was to keep nations from spending themselves into a fiscal crisis. The rules obviously didn’t work very well (perhaps because they focused on the symptom of red ink rather than the underlying disease of too much government spending), but there presumably would have been even more profligacy if they didn’t exist.

So what’s the point of adding the underground economy to GDP when that simply gives politicians more leeway to spend?

Indeed, the NYT article notes that some of the bean-counting bureaucracies in Europe are concerned that this new approach won’t work because there won’t be any new tax revenue to accompany the new spending.

Statistics agencies, though, say that whatever the improved ratios, debt will not be easier to service, because governments cannot collect taxes from illegal underground activity.

And just in case you don’t trust the New York Times, here’s a blurb from Money News making the same point.

No country is supposed to let their annual deficits exceed 3 percent of GDP or accumulated debt exceed 60 percent of GDP. Countries that don’t comply with the debt limits are to be penalized — 0.2 percent of GDP, plus a “variable component” that can range up to 0.5 percent of GDP annually as long as the breach continues. Boosting GDP helps lower the debt ratio.

The bottom line is that these changes will enable Europe’s politicians to postpone much-needed fiscal discipline.

In other words, they’ll have the ability to spend themselves deeper into a hole.

And as you can see from these sobering IMF, OECD, and BIS estimates, the hole is already enormous.

Not that America is any different. Our economy may be doing better (or less worse) today, but our future fiscal outlook is worse than many other nations thanks to a combination of poorly designed entitlement programs and changing demographics.

And just as is the case for Europe, counting our underground economy would not be a substitute for the reforms needed to save the nation.

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I wrote the other day that Americans, regardless of all the bad policy we get from Washington, should be thankful we’re not stuck in a hellhole like Venezuela.

But we also should be happy we’re not Europeans. This is a point I’ve made before, usually accompanied by data showing that Americans have significantly higher living standards than their cousins on the other side of the Atlantic.

It’s now time to re-emphasize that message. The European Commission has issued its annual report on “Taxation Trends” and it is – at least for wonks and others who care about fiscal policy – a fascinating and compelling document.

If you believe in limited government, you’ll read the report in the same way you might look at a deadly traffic accident, filled with morbid curiosity and fear that you may eventually suffer the same fate.

But if you’re a statist, you’ll read the report like a 14-year old boy with his first copy of a girlie magazine, filled with fantasies about eventually getting to experience what your eyes are seeing.

Let’s start by giving the bureaucrats some credit for self-awareness. They openly admit that the tax burden is very onerous in the European Union.

The EU remains a high tax area. In 2012, the overall tax ratio, i.e. the sum of taxes and compulsory actual social contributions in the 28 Member States (EU-28) amounted to 39.4 % in the GDP-weighted average, nearly 15 percentage points of GDP over the level recorded for the USA and around 10 percentage points above the level recorded by Japan. The tax level in the EU is high not only compared to those two countries but also compared to other advanced economies; among the major non-European OECD members for which recent detailed tax data is available, Russia (35.6 % of GDP in 2011) and New Zealand (31.8 % of GDP in 2011) have tax ratios exceeding 30 % of GDP, while tax-to-GDP ratios for Canada, Australia and South Korea (2011 data) remained well below 30 %.

Here’s a chart from the report showing that taxes consume about 40 percent of economic output in EU nations. And while Americans correctly view the internal revenue code as very burdensome, taxes “only” consume about 25 percent of GDP in the United States.

EU Report Total Tax

Other nations with comparatively modest tax burdens include Canada (CA), Australia (AU), South Korea (KR), and Switzerland (CH).

But it’s important to understand that not all nations in the European Union are identical.

Just as there are high-tax states and low-tax states in America, there are high-tax countries and low-tax countries in Europe. Surprisingly, France was not the worst nation.

…the ratio of 2012 tax revenue to GDP was highest in Denmark, Belgium and France (48.1 %, 45.4 % and 45.0 % respectively); the lowest shares were recorded in Lithuania (27.2 % of GDP), Bulgaria (27.9 % of GDP) and Latvia (27.9 % of GDP).

I’m surprised, by the way, that Sweden isn’t among the highest-taxed nations. I guess they’ve made even more progress than I thought.

Now let’s drill down into the report and look at some of the specific data.

But you may want to stop reading now if you get easily depressed.

That’s because it’s time to look at a chart showing what’s happened to income tax rates. Specifically, this chart shows the average top tax rate on personal income, both for Eurozone (nations using the euro currency) and European Union nations.

As you can see, the average top tax rate has jumped by almost four percentage points for euro nations and by about two percentage points for all EU nations.

EU Report Personal Income Tax

This is very unfortunate. Tax rates were heading in the right direction when there was vigorous tax competition inside Europe. But now that high-tax nations have been somewhat successful in forcing low-tax jurisdictions to become deputy tax enforcers, that positive trend has halted and policy is moving in the wrong direction.

But not in all regards.

Tax competition also has been compelling governments to lower corporate tax rates. And while that trend has abated, you can see in this chart that politicians haven’t felt they have leeway to push rates higher.

EU Report Corporate Income Tax

Though I am very concerned about the OECD’s campaign to undermine corporate tax competition.

If they’re successful, there’s no doubt we’ll see higher corporate tax rates.

Let’s now look at some more depressing data. This chart shows that a continuation in the trend toward higher rates for value-added taxes (VATs).

EU Report VAT

I’ve warned repeatedly that the VAT is a money machine for big government and the EU data certainly supports my position.

But if you want evidence from other parts of the world, there’s some IMF data that clearly shows how politicians use the VAT to expand the burden of government.

Last but not least, let’s now draw some conclusions from all this information.

At the beginning of the column, I mentioned that Americans should not copy Europe because bigger government translates into lower living standards.

Simply stated, there’s a negative relationship between the size of government and economic performance.

So let’s look at another piece of data to emphasize that point. The bureaucrats at the OECD just did a report on the U.S. economy and they produced a chart showing that the current recovery is very anemic. We haven’t recaptured lost economic output, which normally happens after a downturn. Indeed, we haven’t even returned to normal growth levels.

But that’s not news to regular readers. I’ve shared powerful data from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve showing the failure of Obamanomics.

What is noteworthy, though, is comparing Europe to the United States. As you can see from these two charts, euro nations have flat lined. And if you look at the vertical scale, you can see that they were growing a lot slower than the United States to begin with.

Dismal European Economy

In other words, we’re not doing very well in the United States.

But compared to Europe, we’re Hong Kong.

Two final caveats: First, I always like to stress that economic performance is impacted by a wide range of policies. So while I think that rising tax burdens and higher tax rates are hurting growth in Europe, there are other factors that also matter.

Second, any analysis of fiscal policy should also include data on the burden of government spending. After all, a nation with a low tax burden will still suffer economic problems if there’s a large public sector financed by red ink.

And one big warning: Obama wants to make America more like Europe. If he succeeds, we can expect European-style stagnation.

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As part of my “great moments” in government series, I periodically share stories about really foolish regulations and really wasteful spending.

And sometimes I’ll even have a story that combines dumb regulation and boondoggle spending. For instance, you won’t believe the government’s inane approach to different-sized condoms.

I also have a satirical series about “great moments in human rights” and it’s time to augment that collection.

Europe’s political elite may decide that being overweight is a protected disability.

Here are some passages from a BBC report.

The EU’s top court is considering a test case which could oblige employers to treat obesity as a disability. Denmark has asked the European Court of Justice to rule on the case of a male childminder who says he was sacked for being too fat. …The court’s final ruling will be binding across the EU. It is seen as especially significant because of rising obesity levels in Europe and elsewhere, including the US. …Audrey Williams, an employment discrimination expert at Eversheds law firm, said the judges would have to decide “whether obesity itself should trigger preferential rights…”. If the judges decide it is a disability then employers could face new obligations, she told the BBC. Employers might in future have a duty to create reserved car parking spaces for obese staff, or adjust the office furniture for them, she said.

Yes, you read correctly.

If the European Court of Justice rules the wrong way, you can eat all you want, knowing that you’re part of a protected class and that your employer has to incur all sorts of costs for your benefit.

Now it’s time for a bit of libertarian dogma. I think people have the right to over-eat, and I don’t think the government should be trying to impose lifestyle choices, either through coercion or by tilting our behavior with penalties or subsidies.

But I also think we should bear the costs (or reap the benefits) of our behavioral choices. In other words, we don’t have – 0r shouldn’t have – the right to compel others to like us, to hire us, to promote us, or to incur costs on our behalf.

Simply stated, a free society should have free association.

If you want to read more “great moments in human rights,” here’s an ever-growing list.

And let’s add one more to the list.

The federal government has now decided that taxpayers should be liable for the cost of sex-change surgeries.

Here are some excerpts from a story last month in The Hill.

Medicare beneficiaries who are transgender may now receive coverage for sex reassignment surgeries, a federal health board ruled Friday. The decision lifts a decades-old ban on coverage for sex-change operations with Medicare and hands a major victory to transgender rights advocates who argued the rule was discriminatory.

I suppose you could categorize this story as an example of wasteful spending, but I doubt there are that many people over age 65 who will be signing up for this surgery. So while Medicare is bankrupt, this change presumably doesn’t ever merit a fiscal asterisk.

And I suppose you could use this story to make a point about why, in a sensible health care system, voluntary medical procedures should be paid directly by the consumer rather than via insurance (though if private insurance companies want to offer that coverage, it’s not my business to object).

In my opinion, though, this story belongs in the “human rights” category because the policy apparently was made on that basis.

Now, time again for some libertarian commentary.

As far as I’m concerned, people should have the right to choose this type of surgery. Indeed, I personally know a great economist who has undergone this procedure.

All I’m saying is that other people shouldn’t be coerced to pay for it.

Which also describes my views on aspirin purchases, dermatologist appointments, and other health costs as well.

See, isn’t it great to be a libertarian! You don’t coerce other people and they don’t coerce you. Instead, you have a peaceful society based on voluntary cooperation and exchange.

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