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Archive for the ‘Ireland’ Category

I wrote last year about the remarkable acknowledgement by Bono that free markets were the best way to lift people out of poverty. The leader of the U2 band and long-time anti-poverty activist specifically stated that, “capitalism has been the most effective ideology we have known in taking people out of extreme poverty.”

As the old saying goes, I couldn’t have said it better myself. Too many politicians and interest groups want us to believe that foreign aid and bigger government are the answer, but nations that have jumped from poverty to prosperity invariably have followed a path of free markets and small government.

But today’s topic isn’t foreign aid.

Instead, I want to come to Bono’s aid. He recently defended his home country’s favorable corporate tax regime. Here are some excerpts from a report earlier this month in the Irish Times.

U2 singer Bono has said Ireland’s tax regime, used to attract multinational companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google to Irish shores, has brought Ireland “the only prosperity we’ve known”. Speaking in an interview in today’s Observer newspaper, Bono said Ireland’s tax policy had given the country “more hospitals and firemen and teachers”. “We are a tiny country, we don’t have scale, and our version of scale is to be innovative and to be clever, and tax competitiveness has brought our country the only prosperity we’re known,” he said. …“As a person who’s spent nearly 30 years fighting to get people out of poverty, it was somewhat humbling to realise that commerce played a bigger job than development,” said Bono. “I’d say that’s my biggest transformation in 10 years: understanding the power of commerce to make or break lives, and that it cannot be given into as the dominating force in our lives.”

So why does Bono need defending?

Because bosses from the leading Irish labor union apparently think he said something very bad. Here are some excerpts from a story published by the U.K-based Guardian.

Unite, which represents 100,000 workers on the island of Ireland, launched a blistering attack on the U2 singer for remarks…defending the 12.5% tax rate on corporations enjoyed by multinational companies such as Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon. …Unite pointed out that one in four Irish people have to endure social deprivation, according the state’s own official Central Statistics Office. Mike Taft, Unite’s researcher and an economist, told the Guardian: “The one in four who suffer deprivation as well as the tens of thousands of others having to put up with six years of austerity will regard Bono’s remarks with total derision, it is the only word anyone could use to describe what he has said. “…for six years we have seen public services smashed apart due to austerity cuts, and here we have Bono talking about low corporation tax bringing us prosperity.”

I have three reactions.

First, I wonder whether the union is comprised mostly of private-sector workers or government bureaucrats. This may be relevant because I hope that private-sector union workers at least have a vague understanding that their jobs are tied to the overall prosperity of the economy. But if Unite is dominated by government bureaucrats, then it’s no surprise that it favors class-warfare policies that would cripple the private sector.

Second, the union bosses are right that Ireland has been suffering in the past six years, but they apparently don’t realize that the nation’s economy stumbled because government was getting bigger and intervening too much.

Third, maybe it’s true that “one in four” in Ireland currently suffer from “deprivation,” but that number has to be far smaller than it was thirty years ago. Here’s a chart, based on IMF data, showing per-capita economic output in Ireland. As you can see, per-capita GDP has jumped from $15,000 to more than $37,500. And these numbers are adjusted for inflation!

I gave some details back in 2011 when I had the opportunity to criticize another Irish leftist who was blithely ignorant of Ireland’s big improvements in living standards once it entered into its pro-market reform phase.

I don’t know how the folks at Unite define progress, but I assume it’s good news that the Irish people now have more car, more phones, more doctors, more central heating, and fewer infant deaths.

Last but not least, none of this should be interpreted as approval of Ireland’s current government or overall Irish policy. There’s too much cronyism in Ireland and the overall fiscal burden (other than the corporate income tax) is onerous.

I’m simply saying that Bono is right. Pro-growth corporate tax policy has made a big – and positive – difference for Ireland. The folks at Unite should learn a lesson from the former President of Brazil, who was a leftist but at least understood that you need people in the private sector producing if you want anything to redistribute.

P.S. Bono isn’t the only rock star who understands economics.  Gene Simmons, the lead singer for Kiss, stated that “Capitalism is the best thing that ever happened to human beings. The welfare state sounds wonderful but it doesn’t work.”

P.P.S. Irish politicians may understand the importance of keeping a low corporate tax rate, but they certainly aren’t philosophically consistent when it comes to other taxes.

P.P.P.S. Some statists have tried to blame Ireland’s recent woes on the low corporate tax rate. More sober analysis shows that imprudent spending hikes and misguided bailouts deserve the blame (Ireland’s spending is particularly unfortunate since the nation’s period of prosperity began with spending restraint in the late 1980s).

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There’s an old joke about two guys camping in the woods, when suddenly they see a hungry bear charging over a hill in their direction. One of the guys starts lacing up his sneakers and his friend says, “What are you doing? You can’t outrun a bear.” The other guys says, I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just need to outrun you.”

That’s reasonably amusing, but it also provides some insight into national competitiveness. In the battle for jobs and investments, nations can change policy to impact their attractiveness, but they also can gain ground or lose ground because of what happens in other nations.

The corporate tax rate in the United States hasn’t been changed in decades, for instance, but the United States has fallen further and further behind the rest of the world because other nations have lowered their rates.

Courtesy of a report in the UK-based Telegraph, here’s another example of how relative policy changes can impact growth and competitiveness.

The paper looks at changes in the burden of welfare spending over the past 14 years. The story understandably focuses on how the United Kingdom is faring compared to other European nations.

Welfare spending in Britain has increased faster than almost any other country in Europe since 2000, new figures show.  The cost of unemployment benefits, housing support and pensions as share of the economy has increased by more than a quarter over the past thirteen years – growing at a faster rate than in most of the developed world. Spending has gone up from 18.6 per cent of GDP to 23.7 per cent of GDP – an increase of 27 per cent, according to figures from the OECD, the club of most developed nations. By contrast, the average increase in welfare spending in the OECD was 16 per cent.

This map from the story shows how welfare spending has changed in various nations, with darker colors indicating a bigger expansion in the welfare state.

Welfare Spending - Europe

American readers, however, may be more interested in this excerpt.

In the developed world, only the United States and the stricken eurozone states of Ireland, Portugal and Spain – which are blighted by high unemployment – have increased spending quicker than Britain.

Yes, you read correctly. The United States expanded the welfare state faster than almost every European nation.

Here’s another map, but I’ve included North America and pulled out the figures for the countries that suffered the biggest increases in welfare spending. As you can see, only Ireland and Portugal were more profligate than the United States.

Welfare Spending - NA + WE

Needless to say, this is not a good sign for the United States.

But the situation is not hopeless. The aforementioned numbers simply tell us the rate of change in welfare spending. But that doesn’t tell us whether countries have big welfare states or small welfare states.

That’s why I also pulled out the numbers showing the current burden of welfare spending – measured as a share of economic output – for countries in North America and Western Europe.

This data is more favorable to the United States. As you can see, America still has one of the lowest overall levels of welfare spending among developed nations.

Welfare Spending - NA + WE -Share GDP

Ireland also is in a decent position, so the real lesson of the data is that the United States and Ireland must have been in relatively strong shape back in 2000, but the trend over the past 14 years has been very bad.

It’s also no surprise that France is the most profligate of all developed countries.

Let’s close by seeing if any nations have been good performers. The Telegraph does note that Germany has done a good job of restraining spending. The story even gives a version of Mitchell’s Golden Rule by noting that good policy happens when spending grows slower than private output.

Over the thirteen years from 2000, Germany has cut welfare spending as a share of GDP by 1.5 per cent… Such reductions are possible by increasing welfare bills at a lower rate than growth in the economy.

But the more important question is whether there are nations that get good scores in both categories. In other words, have they controlled spending since 2000 while also having a comparatively low burden of welfare outlays?

Welfare Spending - The Frugal FiveHere are the five nations with the smallest increases in welfare spending since 2000. You can see that Germany had the best relative performance, but you’ll notice from the previous table that Germany is not on the list of five nations with the smallest overall welfare burdens. Indeed, German welfare spending consumes 26.2 percent of GDP, so Germany still has a long way to go.

The nation that does show up on both lists for frugality is Switzerland. Spending has grown relatively slowly since 2000 and the Swiss also have the third-lowest overall burdens of welfare spending.

Hmmm…makes you wonder if this is another sign that Switzerland’s “debt brake” spending cap is a policy to emulate.

By the way, Canada deserves honorable mention. It has the second-lowest overall burden of welfare spending, and it had the sixth-best performance in controlling spending since 2000. Welfare outlays in our northern neighbor grew by 10 percent since 2000, barely one-fourth as fast as the American increase during the reckless Bush-Obama years.

No wonder Canada is now much higher than the United States in measures of economic freedom.

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Cigarette butt, to be more specific.

All over the world, governments impose draconian taxes on tobacco, and then they wind up surprised that projected revenues don’t materialize. We’ve seen this in Bulgaria and Romania, and we’ve seen this Laffer Curve effect in Washington, DC, and Michigan.

Even the Government Accountability Office has found big Laffer Curve effects from tobacco taxation.

And now we’re seeing the same result in Ireland.

Here are some details from an Irish newspaper.

…new Department of Finance figures showing that tobacco excise tax receipts are falling dramatically short of targets, even though taxes have increased and the number of people smoking has remained constant…the latest upsurge in smuggling…is costing the state hundreds of millions in lost revenue. Criminal gangs are openly selling smuggled cigarettes on the streets of central Dublin and other cities, door to door and at fairs and markets. Counterfeit cigarettes can be brought to the Irish market at a cost of just 20 cents a pack and sold on the black market at €4.50. The average selling price of legitimate cigarettes is €9.20 a pack. …Ireland has the most expensive cigarettes in the European Union, meaning that smugglers can make big profits by offering them at cheaper prices.

I have to laugh at the part of the article that says, “receipts are falling dramatically short of targets, even though taxes have increased.”

This is what’s called the Fox Butterfield effect, when a leftist expresses puzzlement about something that’s actually common sense. Named after a former New York Times reporter, Irish Tax Kisswho was baffled that more people were in prison at the same time that crime rates were falling, it also shows up in tax policy when statists are surprised that tax revenues don’t automatically rise when tax rates become oppressive.

Ireland, by the way, should know better. About the only good policy left in the Emerald Isle is the low corporate tax rate. And as you can see in this video, that policy has yielded very good results.

My favorite example from that video, needless to say, is what happened during the Reagan years, when the rich paid much more to the IRS after their tax rates were slashed.

P.S. You won’t be surprised to learn that a branch of the United Nations is pushing for global taxation of tobacco. To paraphrase Douglas McArthur, “Bad ideas never die, they become global.”

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With the exception of a few top-notch thinkers such as Pierre Bessard and Allister Heath, there are very few people in Europe who can intelligently analyze public policy, particularly with regard to fiscal issues.

I don’t know if Fredrik Erixon of the Brussels-based European Centre for International Political Economy is even close to being in the same league with Pierre and Allister, but he has a very good article that correctly explains that government spending and the welfare state are the real fiscal problems in Europe.

Here are some excerpts from his Bloomberg column.

When it comes to overspending on social welfare, …Europe has no angels. Even the “good” Scandinavians, and governments that appeared to be in sound fiscal shape in 2008, …were spending too much and will have to restructure. …Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain…are in many ways different, but they have three important characteristics in common. …government spending in those nations grew at remarkably high rates. In Greece and Spain, nominal spending by the state increased 50 percent to 55 percent in the five years before the crisis started, according to my calculations based on government data. In Portugal, public expenditure rose 35 percent; in Ireland, almost 75 percent. No other country in Western Europe came close to these rates.

This is remarkable. Someone in Europe who is focusing on the growth of government spending. He doesn’t mention that the solution is a spending cap (something akin to Mitchell’s Golden Rule), but that’s an implication of what he says. Moreover, I’m just glad that someone recognizes that the problem is spending, and that debt and deficits are best understood as symptoms of that underlying disease.

In any event, Mr. Erixon also has the right prognosis. The burden of the welfare state needs to shrink. And he seems reasonably certain that will happen.

Europe’s crisis economies will now have to radically reduce their welfare states. State spending in Spain will have to shrink by at least a quarter; Greece should count itself lucky if the cut is less than a half of the pre-crisis expenditure level. The worse news is that this is likely to be only the first round of welfare-state corrections. The next decade will usher Europe into the age of aging, when inevitably the cost of pensions will rise and providing health care for the elderly will be an even bigger cost driver. This demographic shift will be felt everywhere, including in the Nordic group of countries that has been saved from the worst effects of the sovereign-debt crisis. …Europe’s social systems will look very different 20 years from now. They will still be around, but benefit programs will be far less generous, and a greater part of social security will be organised privately. Welfare services, like health care, will be exposed to competition and, to a much greater degree, paid for out of pocket or by private insurance. The big divide in Europe won’t be between North and South or left and right. It will be between countries that diligently manage the transition away from the universal welfare state that has come to define the European social model, and countries that will be forced by events to change the hard way.

I’m not quite so optimistic. While I agree that current trends are unsustainable, I fear that the “optimistic” scenario is for governments to semi-stabilize their finances with both taxes and spending consuming about 50 percent of gross domestic product.

That’s obviously far beyond the growth-maximizing size of government, which means European nations  – on average – would be condemned to permanent economic stagnation. Some of the nations that have very laissez-faire policies in areas other than fiscal policy, such as the Nordic nations, might experience some modest growth, but that would be offset by permanent recession in nations that have both big government and lots of intervention.

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I wrote last year about a backlash from long-suffering Greek taxpayers. These people – the ones pulling the wagon rather than riding in the wagon – are being raped and pillaged by a political class that is trying to protect the greedy interest groups that benefit from Greece’s bloated public sector.

We now have another group of taxpayers who are fighting back against greedy government. My ancestors in Ireland have decided that enough is enough and there is widespread civil disobedience against a new property tax.

Here are the key details from an AP report.

The Serfs Fight Back

Ireland is facing a revolt over its new property tax. The government said less than half of the country’s 1.6 million households paid the charge by Saturday’s deadline to avoid penalties. And about 5,000 marched in protest against the annual conference of Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael party. Emotions ran raw as police backed by officers on horseback stopped demonstrators from entering the Dublin Convention Centre. …One man mistakenly identified as the government minister responsible for collecting the tax had to be rescued by police from an angry scrum. Kenny said his government had no choice, but to impose the new charge as part of the nation’s efforts to emerge from an international bailout. …The charge this year is a flat-fee €100 ($130) per dwelling, but is expected to rise dramatically next year once Ireland starts to vary the charge based on a property’s estimated value. Anti-tax campaigners have urged the public to ignore the tax demand, arguing that the government doesn’t have the power to collect it.

What makes this new tax so outrageous is that Irish taxpayers already have been victimized with higher income tax rates and a more onerous value-added tax. Yet they weren’t the ones to cause the nation’s fiscal crisis. Ireland is in trouble for two reasons, and both deal with the spending side of the fiscal equation.

1. The burden of government spending exploded last decade, more than doubling in less than 10 years. This wiped out all the gains from fiscal restraint in the 1980s and 1990s.

2. Irish politicians decided to give a bailout not only to depositors of the nation’s failed banks, but also to bondholders. This is a grotesque transfer of wealth from ordinary people to those with higher incomes – and therefore a violation of Mitchell’s Guide to an Ethical Bleeding Heart.

It’s worth noting that academic studies find that tax evasion is driven largely by high tax rates. This makes sense since there is more incentive to hide money when the government is being very greedy. But there is also evidence that tax evasion rises when people perceive that government is wasting money and being corrupt.

Heck, no wonder the Irish people are up in arms. They’re being asked to cough up more money to finance a bailout that was both corrupt and wasteful.

Let’s close by looking at American attitudes about tax evasion. Here’s part of a column from Forbes, which expresses surprise that Americans view tax evasion more favorably than behaviors such as shoplifting and littering.

A new survey suggests Americans consider cheating on their taxes more socially acceptable than shoplifting, drunk driving or even throwing trash out the window of a moving car. …only 66% of  the participants said they “completely agree” that “everyone who cheats on their taxes should be held accountable”  and only 72% completely agreed that “it’s every American’s civic duty to pay their fair share of taxes”–suggesting, as the Shelton study does, that perhaps disapproval of tax evasion is not as strong as, say, disapproval of stealing from private businesses.

I’m not sure, though, why anybody would be shocked by these results. We have a government in Washington that is pervasively corrupt, funneling money to corrupt scams like Solyndra.

These same people want higher tax rates, which will further encourage people to protect their income.

If we really want to promote better tax compliance, whether in the U.S., Ireland, or anywhere in the world, there are two simple answers. First, enact a simple and fair flat tax to keep rates low. Second, shrink government to its proper size, which will automatically reduce waste and limit opportunities for corruption.

But none of this is in the interests of the political class, so don’t hold your breath waiting for these reforms.

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I’ve always been proud of my Irish heritage, but now I’m having to reconsider. As is so often the case when something goes awry, the blame belongs to a politician (this Craig Ferguson joke is right on the mark).

Michael Higgins, the President-Elect of Ireland, has lived a very comfortable life sucking on the government teat. He began his adult life as a sociologist in academia. He then moved into politics, and for decades enjoyed lucrative pay as a member of the political elite (well above $100,000 annually in recent years).

Now he’ll pull in more than $300,000 per year for a largely ceremonial job as Ireland’s President. As the old saying goes, nice work if you can get it. This guy’s definitely part of the top 1 percent.

He’s also an economic illiterate or a cynical hack who apparently thinks noble poverty is a good idea for the other 99 percent.

Here’s some of what the Daily Mail reported about one of his recent speeches.

Michael D Higgins launched a savage attack on the Celtic Tiger in his first speech as President elect. In his acceptance speech, the Labour Party candidate…rejected the years of materialism and selfishness that drove the country to ruin. …Michael D declared: ‘We leave behind a narrow individualism that valued the person for what was assumed to be their accumulated wealth but neglected the connection between the person, the social, the community and the nation. …Mr Higgins called on Irish people to return to ‘co-operative and collective values’.

Isn’t this just wonderful? This pampered and cosseted member of the political elite thinks that Ireland somehow was demeaned by being the Celtic Tiger. Does this mean he wants to go back the mid-1980s, before Ireland began to reform? Back when government was consuming more than 50 percent of the nation’s output? Back when the the corporate tax rate was 50 percent? Back when other tax rates were at extortionary levels?

If that’s true, he wants to dramatically reduce the living standards of the Irish people.

Here’s a chart based on World Bank data for gross domestic product and gross national income.

Prior to the market-based reforms of the Celtic Tiger era, Ireland was a relatively poor nation with per-capita income and output well below $10,000. Today, by contrast, output and income are four or five times higher.

But here are two important caveats. First, the World Bank GDP/GNI numbers are not adjusted for inflation, so the chart overstates the rise in living standards. This World Bank data suggests that the price level in Ireland roughly doubled between 1985 and 2010, so the people of Ireland are perhaps “only” twice as rich as they were in the era before free-market reform.

The second caveat is that some of Ireland’s prosperity in recent years was hollow, the result of a real estate bubble. But even with the big decline since 2007-2008, the Irish people are still much better off than they were a generation ago.

But Mr. Higgins apparently doesn’t approve of this big jump in living standards.

He’s against “materialism,” so let’s look at some real world examples of how the lives of ordinary people have improved.

Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but I’d rather live in a “selfish” world that gives me doctors, cars, and central heating.

But to a member of the political elite like Mr. Higgins, this kind of prosperity probably spoils people and makes them uppity. Better for people to live noble lives of poverty and deprivation.

Last but not least, this post isn’t an endorsement of the “Irish model.” Yes, there are some admirable policies in Ireland, most notably the 12.5 percent corporate tax. And Ireland’s score from the Economic Freedom of the World has jumped from 6.3 in 1985 to 7.4 in 2009.

But that’s considerably below free-market jurisdictions such as Hong Kong (9.0) and Singapore (8.7).

Simply stated, government is too big in Ireland and many policies are grossly inconsistent with sound economics.

But if I get to choose between today’s Irish economy and the pre-Celtic Tiger economy of the early 1980s, it’s not a close call.

Maybe Mr. Higgins should spend a year or two living at 1985 living standards before he makes another jackass speech.

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The Congressional Budget Office has just released the update to its Economic and Budget Outlook.

There are several things from this new report that probably deserve commentary, including a new estimate that unemployment will “remain above 8 percent until 2014.”

This certainly doesn’t reflect well on the Obama White House, which claimed that flushing $800 billion down the Washington rathole would prevent the joblessness rate from ever climbing above 8 percent.

Not that I have any faith in CBO estimates. After all, those bureaucrats still embrace Keynesian economics.

But this post is not about the backwards economics at CBO. Instead, I want to look at the new budget forecast and see what degree of fiscal discipline is necessary to get rid of red ink.

The first thing I did was to look at CBO’s revenue forecast, which can be found in table 1-2. But CBO assumes the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts will expire at the end of 2012, as well as other automatic tax hikes for 2013. So I went to table 1-8 and got the projections for those tax provisions and backed them out of the baseline forecast.

That gave me a no-tax-hike forecast for the next 10 years, which shows that revenues will grow, on average, slightly faster than 6.6 percent annually. Or, for those who like actual numbers, revenues will climb from a bit over $2.3 trillion this year to almost $4.4 trillion in 2021.

Something else we know from CBO’s budget forecast is that spending this year (fiscal year 2011) is projected to be a bit below $3.6 trillion.

So if we know that tax revenues will be $4.4 trillion in 2021 (and that’s without any tax hike), and we know that spending is about $3.6 trillion today, then even those of us who hate math can probably figure out that we can balance the budget by 2021 so long as government spending does not increase by more than $800 billion during the next 10 years.

Yes, you read that correctly. We can increase spending and still balance the budget. This chart shows how quickly the budget can be balanced with varying degrees of fiscal discipline.

The numbers show that a spending freeze balances the budget by 2017. Red ink disappears by 2019 if spending is allowed to grow 1 percent each years. And the deficit disappears by 2021 if spending is limited to 2 percent annual growth.

Not that these numbers are a surprise. I got similar results after last year’s update, and also earlier this year when the Economic and Budget Outlook was published.

Some of you may be thinking this can’t possibly be right. After all, you hear politicians constantly assert that we need tax hikes because that’s the only way to balance the budget without “draconian” and “savage” budget cuts.

But as I’ve explained before, this demagoguery is based on the dishonest Washington practice of assuming that spending should increase every year, and then claiming that a budget cut takes place anytime spending does not rise as fast as previously planned.

In reality, balancing the budget is very simple. Modest spending restraint is all that’s needed. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, particularly in a corrupt town dominated by interest groups, lobbyists, bureaucrats, and politicians.

But if we takes tax hikes off the table and somehow cap the growth of spending, it can be done. This video explains.

And we know other countries have succeeded with fiscal restraint. As is explained in this video.

Or we can acquiesce to the Washington establishment and raise taxes and impose fake spending cuts. But that hasn’t worked so well for Greece and other European welfare states, so I wouldn’t suggest that approach.

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