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Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

Are there any fact checkers at the New York Times?

Since they’ve allowed some glaring mistakes by Paul Krugman (see here and here), I guess the answer is no.

But some mistakes are worse than others.

Consider a recent column by David Stuckler of Oxford and Sanjay Basu of Stanford. Entitled “How Austerity Kills,” it argues that budget cuts are causing needless deaths.

Here’s an excerpt that caught my eye.

Countries that slashed health and social protection budgets, like Greece, Italy and Spain, have seen starkly worse health outcomes than nations like Germany, Iceland and Sweden, which maintained their social safety nets and opted for stimulus over austerity.

The reason this grabbed my attention is that it was only 10 days ago that I posted some data from Professor Gurdgiev in Ireland showing that Sweden and Germany were among the tiny group of European nations that actually had reduced the burden of government spending.

Greece, Italy, and Spain, by contrast, are among those that increased the size of the public sector. So the argument presented in the New York Times is completely wrong. Indeed, it’s 100 percent wrong because Iceland (which Professor Gurdgiev didn’t measure since it’s not in the European Union) also has smaller government today than it did in the pre-crisis period.

But that’s just part of the problem with the Stuckler-Basu column. They want us to believe that “slashed” budgets and inadequate spending have caused “worse health outcomes” in nations such as Greece, Italy, and Spain, particularly when compared to Germany, Iceland, and Spain.

But if government spending is the key to good health, how do they explain away this OECD data, which shows that government is actually bigger in the three supposed “austerity” nations than it is in the three so-called “stimulus” countries.

NYT Austerity-Stimulus

Once again, Stuckler and Basu got caught with their pants down, making an argument that is contrary to easily retrievable facts.

But I guess this is business-as-usual at the New York Times. After all, this is the newspaper that’s been caught over and over again engaging in sloppy and/or inaccurate journalism.

Oh, and if you want to know why the Stuckler-Basu column is wrong about whether smaller government causes higher death rates, just click here.

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If I live to be 100 years old, I suspect I’ll still be futilely trying to educate politicians that there’s not a simplistic linear relationship between tax rates and tax revenue.

You can’t double tax rates, for instance, and expect to double tax revenue. Simply stated, there’s another variable – called taxable income – that needs to be added to the equation. This simple insight is what gives us the Laffer Curve.

This is common sense in the business community. No restaurant owner would ever be foolish enough to think that revenues will double if all prices increase by 100 percent. People in the real world know that this would mean lower sales.

At best, revenues will rise by much less than 100 percent in that scenario. And if sales drop by enough, revenues may actually fall.

Perhaps because so few of them have business experience, it seems that politicians have a hard time grasping this simple concept.

The latest examples come from Europe, where the never-ending greed for more revenue has resulted in the imposition of financial transaction taxes.

So how’s that working out? Are politicians collecting the revenue they expected?

Hardly. Here are some of the details from a City A.M. column.

…taxes on financial transactions across Europe have devastated market activity and failed to raise as much as politicians hoped, according to new figures out yesterday.

The article cites three powerful examples, starting with Hungary.

Hungary implemented a 0.1 per cent tax at the start of the year. But it raised less than half the revenue the state had hoped for, bringing in 13bn Hungarian Forints (£36m) in January.

Wow, less than 50 percent of the revenue that politicians were expecting. But the politicians probably don’t care about the collateral damage they’re imposing on the economy because they’ll get to buy votes with another 13 billion Forints (about $55 million).

Popeye Laffer CurveNow let’s see how the French are doing.

France forged ahead on its own, introducing a 0.2 per cent tax on sales of shares of major firms. But that only raised €200m (£169.4m) from August to November, well below to €530m expected.

Gee, what a shame, the politicians in Paris are only getting about one-third as much money as they were expecting. That’s even worse than Hungary.

But they’ll surely squander that bit of cash as fast as possible.

Our last example comes from Italy. There are no revenue numbers yet, but the decline in financial activity suggests this tax also will be a flop.

And Italy launched its FTT this month. Figures from TMF Group suggest it has cut trading volumes by 38 per cent already

Though politicians may decide it’s a success since they may get more than 50 percent of what they were originally estimating.

That kind of forecasting error would get somebody fired at any private business, but being a politician means never having to say you’re sorry.

And it certainly never means learning from mistakes. The evidence on the Laffer Curve is ubiquitous, with powerful examples in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Italy, France, Spain, as well as Bulgaria and Romania. Or states such as IllinoisOregonFlorida, Maryland, Washington, DC, and New York.

P.S. Even President Obama has sort of acknowledged the supply-side principles that are the basis of the Laffer Curve.

P.P.S. Remember that the goal of good tax policy is NOT to maximize revenue.

P.P.P.S. I warned the European Union’s Taxation Commissioner about the dangers of a tax on financial transactions last year. Needless to say, my sage counsel appears to have been ignored.

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This is an easy question and a hard question.

It’s an easy question because the obvious answer is to say “none-of-the-above.”

After all, voters in Italy have four horrible choices.

  1. Silvio Berlusconi, who is an Italian version of George W. Bush. He’ll occasionally dish out some good rhetoric and promise tax relief, but he’s shown zero desire to reduce the burden of government spending and intervention.
  2. Mario Monti, an apparatchik who is first and foremost a creature of the calcified bureaucracy in Brussels. He would be a sober hand on the helm, but seems content that the ship is heading in the wrong direction. He’s sort of the Mitt Romney of Italy.
  3. Beppe Grillo, a comedian/entertainer/blogger who has a populist (albeit incoherent) agenda. He’s a strange cross of Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ross Perot, and Bernie Sanders, so don’t even think about that petri dish.
  4. Pier Luigi Bersani, a run-of-the-mill social democrat who started his political life in the Communist Party but now is best described as a career politician who wants to preserve the status quo of statism. Sort of the Harry Reid of Italy.

So far as I’m aware, there is no good political party in Italy. Classical liberals, conservatives, and libertarians seem to be endangered species. That’s why I answered none-of-the-above.

But what if my kids were being held hostage and I had to choose from this unpalatable quartet?

Go ahead and shoot them…no, just kidding. Let’s see, what should I do…?

Italian Election PollPart of me wants to cheer for a Bersani-Monti coalition government for the same reason that I wanted Hollande to win in France. When there’s no good alternative, let the above-board statists prevail so there’s hope of a backlash when things fall apart.

And if the polling data is accurate, that’s probably going to happen.

But part of me wants Grillo to do well just for the entertainment value. And maybe he would blow up the current system, which unquestionably has failed, though one wonders whether any system will work now that a majority of Italians are riding in the wagon of government dependency.

Indeed, it’s a bit of serendipity that a former Cato intern who came from Italy drew this famous set of cartoons about the rise and fall of the welfare state.

While I’m largely uncertain about what should happen in this election, let me close with a few thoughts on public policy in Italy. In particular, I want to disagree with some of my right-leaning friends who argue that the euro should be blamed for Italy’s woes.

I’m not a fan of the single currency, largely because it is part of the overall euro-federalist campaign to create a Brussels-based superstate.

That being said, the euro has been a good thing for Italy and other Club Med nations. As I explained last July, it means that countries such as Italy, Spain, and Greece can’t augment the damage of bad fiscal and regulatory policy with inflationary monetary policy.

In other words, it is good news that Italy can’t use inflation as a temporary narcotic to offset the pain caused by too much red tape and an excessive burden of government spending.

This doesn’t mean that politicians will ever choose the right approach of free markets and small government, but at least there’s a 2 percent chance of that happening if they stay with the euro. If Italy goes back to the lira, the odds of good reform drop to .00003 percent.

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Every so often, you read something so ridiculously stupid and absurd that you assume that you’re being pranked. So you look to the date of the article to see if it says April 1. Or you look at the Internet address to see if it’s a parody of a real website.

So when I read a column suggesting that the United States should become more like Italy, I thought this must be some sort of practical joke. After all, Italy is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, kept afloat by bailouts and subsidies. Its economy is in the toilet, with pervasively high unemployment, almost no growth for a decade, and living standards that are only about two-thirds of U.S. levels.

The Italian government is also famously incompetent (naming the wrong people to high-level posts), with stifling levels of regulation, a dysfunctional fiscal system, and a corrupt legal system (and when it’s not crooked, it’s inane).

Notwithstanding all these crippling flaws, Italy has something akin to catnip for the left. It has a punitive tax burden, and that means it must be a nation worth emulating.

Here’s some of what Eduardo Porter wrote for the New York Times.

Italy may be in a funk, with a shrinking economy and a high unemployment rate, but the United States can learn a lot from it, and not just about the benefits of public health care. Italians live longer. Their poverty rate is much lower than ours. If they lose their jobs or suffer some other misfortune, they can turn to a more generous social safety net. …The reason is not difficult to figure out: rich though we are, we can’t afford the policies needed to improve our record. …But though the nation’s fiscal challenge has taken center stage in the presidential election campaign, raising more taxes from American families remains stubbornly off the table.

I’m willing to believe Italians live longer, but every other assertion in that passage is upside down. Yes, they have more subsidies for joblessness, but that’s one of the reasons they have higher unemployment (as even Paul Krugman and Larry Summers have acknowledged).

And the claim about less poverty is laughable. I’m guessing the author naively relied upon the slipshod analysis from the statists at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Those bureaucrats put together a moving-goalposts measure of income distribution and falsely categorized it as a tool for measuring poverty.

Setting aside these mistakes, the column is designed to convince people that we should give more money to Washington.

Citizens of most industrial countries have demanded more public services as they have become richer. And they have been by and large willing to pay more taxes to finance them. Since 1965, tax revenue raised by governments in the developed world have risen to 34 percent of their gross domestic product from 25 percent, on average. The big exception has been the United States. …the United States raises less tax revenue, as a share of the economy, than every other industrial country. No wonder we can’t afford to keep more children alive. In 2007, the most recent year for which figures are available, the United States government spent about 16 percent of its output on social programs — things like public health, food and housing for the poor. In Italy, that figure was 25 percent. …Every other industrial country has a national consumption tax, which can be used to raise a lot of money.

I will give the author credit. If you read the entire column, it’s clear he wants all Americans to pay higher taxes, not just the so-called rich. So at least he’s being honest, unlike a lot of statists (click here for a list of honest leftists who admit you can’t finance big government without screwing the middle class).

But honesty about goals doesn’t mean desirability of policy. If America becomes more like Italy, it will mean Italian-style stagnation and joblessness.

And it’s particularly worrisome to see that the author wants a value-added tax, which is a sure-fire way of giving politicians a big pile of money that will be used to expand the burden of government spending.

I have nothing against copying other nations, either when they get one policy right (such as Estonia’s flat tax or Australia’s system of personal retirement accounts), or when they get a bunch of policies right and routinely rank at the top for economic freedom and prosperity (such as Hong Kong and Singapore).

But I’m mystified by those who look at failure and conclude America should do likewise.

P.S. The Italians have a bad tax system, but they don’t meekly comply. Whether they’re firebombing tax offices or sailing yachts to other countries, they are a powerful example of the Laffer Curve insight that higher tax rates don’t necessarily translate into higher tax revenues.

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Considering the spectacular incompetence of the Italian government, I’m not surprised that the Italian people take extraordinary steps to protect their income from the tax police.

But I have a hard time cheering their actions, since they routinely vote for corrupt politicians and also seek to mooch off the government that they don’t want to pay for.

Sicily is a useful example. Here are key passages from a New York Times report.

…one region in particular has been in the spotlight: Sicily, which some fear has become “the Greece of Italy” and is at risk of defaulting on its high public debts. …an official in the Sicily branch of Italy’s leading industrialists association called for the island to be put into receivership by the central government to clean up its finances. …Sicily highlights the challenges that Mr. Monti is facing in trying to use pressure from European leaders and international markets to push Italy’s politicians to cut costs. Those expenses have ballooned after decades of a patronage system in which the state has been the primary means of employment in Sicily.

We know there’s a mess. And, to give credit where it’s due, the New York Times does discuss the bloated bureaucracy in Sicily.

…critics say Italy — and Sicily in particular — has been driven into dire financial straits not by austerity but by the rampant public spending of the past, the product of an entrenched jobs-for-votes system that helped keep Italian governments in power and Sicilians employed. Today, Sicily’s regional government has 1,800 employees — more than the British Cabinet Office — and the island employs 26,000 auxiliary forest rangers; in the vast forest lands of British Columbia, there are fewer than 1,500. Out of a population of five million people in Sicily, the state directly or indirectly employs more than 100,000 of them and pays pensions to many more. It changed its pension system eight years after the rest of Italy. (One retired politician recently won a case to keep an annual pension of 480,000 euros, about $584,000.)

Not surprisingly, the political class doesn’t want to fire any of the deadwood, which means an enormous burden on taxpayers and lots of suffering for young people.

“Of course that’s too many,” Mr. Lombardo said of the forest rangers. But he said it was difficult to cut back because state workers have job protection. “We have to wait for them to retire.” That system has come at a cost. Last month, Italy’s audit court issued a scathing report saying that Sicily had 7 billion euros, about $8.5 billion, of liabilities at the end of 2011 and showed “signs of unstoppable decline.” Sicily’s unemployment rate is 19.5 percent, twice the national average, and 38.8 percent of young people do not have jobs.

Lombardo must have spent time in Chicago

By the way, the head of the Sicilian government is a very accomplished politician. It’s not uncommon for lawmakers to go to prison after a stint in government, but it takes a special politician to then go back into “public service.”

Mr. Lombardo, who belongs to the Movement for Autonomy — which believes that Sicily should secede from the Italian state, as unlikely as that is to happen — said he would step down as agreed. (He is under investigation for Mafia ties. He denies the accusations and has not been formally charged. He was jailed on corruption charges in the early 1990s, though he was later acquitted.)

At least some residents have figured out how the political system works.

Many Sicilians, for their part, take a world-weary view of the political class. “If I steal a little, I go to jail; if I steal a lot, I advance my career,” Gioacchino De Giorgi, 34, said as he worked in a tobacco shop in downtown Palermo.

Needless to say, this story is yet another example of why bailouts are a bad idea. As I’ve explained before, governments will only make the right reforms as a final option. Bailouts, by contrast, simply give politicians more time to delay, while also making the debt bubble even bigger as reforms are postponed.

This is true, regardless of whether bailouts come from national governments, the European Commission, or international bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund.

And it’s true whether we’re talking about an Italian province, or an American state that also is governed by short-sighted and corrupt politicians. Like California.

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Thanks largely to the Laffer Curve, there are some impressive examples of failed tax increases in countries such as the United States, France, and the United Kingdom. But if there was a prize for the people who most vociferously resist turning over more of their income to government, the Italians would be the odds-on favorite to win.

When they’re not firebombing tax offices to show their displeasure, they’re taking to the high seas to escape.

Here are some excerpts from a report in the UK-based Telegraph about runaway yachts.

Thousands are weighing anchor and fleeing with their gin palaces to quiet corners of the Mediterranean to escape a tax evasion crackdown – part of efforts by the government of Mario Monti, the prime minister, to tackle Italy’s €1.9 trillion public debt. …in the ports and marinas they are going after the owners of luxury yachts. Uniformed officers of the Guardia di Finanza, or tax police, are performing on-the-spot checks, boarding boats and checking owners’ details against their tax records. …The unwelcome attention has led many yacht owners to flee Italy’s marinas for friendlier foreign ports, from Corsica and the Cote d’Azur in the west to Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro and Greece in the east. Others are heading southwards, to Malta and Tunisia – where they can access their boats on low-cost budget flights from Italy for a fraction of the tax bill they might otherwise face.

Not surprisingly, a lot of middle-class people are suffering because of lost business.

Arriverderci, Polizia Fiscale!

Around 30,000 yachts have fled Italy this year, costing €200 million in lost revenue from mooring fees, port services and fuel sales, according to Assomarinas, the Italian Association of Marinas. “We’ve lost 10 to 15 per cent of our regular customers,” said Roberto Perocchio, the president of Assomarinas. “This is the worst crisis in Italian boating history. The authorities are using scare tactics and creating a climate of fear.” …Plans for a further 30,000 new berths have been put on hold. Business is down by more than a third in many marinas, with some half empty compared to last summer. “We’ve lost 40 boats in the last few months, all between 20 and 25 metres long,” said Giovanni Sorci, director of a marina at Rimini, on the Adriatic coast. “Most went to Slovenia – in fact it is so popular that there’s now barely a berth to be had there. …At Porto Rotondo in Sardinia, Giacomo Pileri, the general manager of a 700-berth marina, said at least 150 boats had fled to nearby Corsica. …A steep new tax of up to €700 per day on the largest yachts mooring in Italian ports, introduced by the Monti government in December, was watered down in March to exclude foreign-owned boats. But it has further fuelled the exodus of Italian boats abroad.

And it’s not just yachts that are being targeted by a revenue-hungry government. Here’s a remarkable report from Reuters on what’s happened to the luxury car market (h/t: suyts space).

Italians spooked by rising car taxes and highly publicized tax fraud spot checks cut back their purchases of Fiat’s high-end sports car brands Ferrari and Maserati in the first quarter of 2012, an industry body said on Tuesday. Ferrari sales slumped 51.5 percent, in Italy, and Maserati sales plummeted by 70 percent, said Italian car dealers group Federauto in a statement. Prime Minister Mario Monti’s government has stepped up its fight on tax evasion with spot checks on supercar drivers, as well as higher taxes on large cars. “These figures show how the choices made by the government are literally terrorizing potential clients,” said Federauto chairman Filippo Pavan Bernacchi.

I assume those awful sales numbers are partly because the economy is weak, but well-to-do Italians obviously don’t want to attract attention from the tax police.

The moral of the story is that Italy’s government should try a new strategy. The politicians need to understand that taxpayers don’t meekly acquiesce, like lambs in a slaughterhouse.

Heck, even the folks at the International Monetary Fund (a crowd not known for rabid free-market sympathies) have acknowledged that excessive taxation is the leading cause of the shadow economy.

So rather than trying to squeeze more blood from an unwilling stone, maybe the Italian government should junk the current tax code and adopt a simple and fair flat tax.

To conclude, here’s Part II of the three-part video series on the Laffer Curve, which focuses on historical evidence (including what happened to the yacht market in the U.S. when politicians went after the “rich”).

Sort of makes you wonder why politicians never seem to learn from their mistakes – especially when thoughtful people like me give them free lessons about the relationship between tax rates, tax revenue, and taxable income.

P.S. While I’m very happy to defend tax evasion in cases where government is excessive, venal, and/or corrupt, I suspect that Italians would evade even if they lived under a Hong Kong-style fiscal regime. If that ever happened (don’t hold your breath), even I wouldn’t get upset about crackdowns on yacht owners and Maserati drivers who aren’t declaring any income.

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Every day brings more and more evidence that Obamanomics is failing in Europe.  I wrote some “Observations on the European Farce” last week, but the news this morning is even more surreal.

Compared to his foolishness on tax policy, Hollande is a genius when it comes to determining what time it is.

Let’s start with France, where I endorsed the explicit socialist over the implicit socialist precisely because of a morbid desire to see a nation commit faster economic suicide. Well, Monsieur Hollande isn’t disappointing me. Let’s look at some of his new initiatives, as reported by Tax-News.com.

The French Minister responsible for Parliamentary Relations Alain Vidalies has recently conceded that EUR10bn (USD12.7bn) is needed to balance the country’s budget this year, to be achieved notably by means of implementing a number of emergency tax measures. …The government plans to abolish the exemption from social contributions applicable to overtime hours, expected to yield a gain for the state of around EUR3.2bn, and to subject overtime hours to taxation, predicted to realize approximately EUR1.4bn in additional revenues. Other proposed measures include plans to reform the country’s solidarity tax on wealth (ISF), to cap tax breaks at EUR10,000, to impose a 3% tax on dividends and to increase inheritance tax as well as the tax on donations. …French President Hollande announced plans during his election campaign to reform ISF. Holland intends to restore the wealth tax scale of between 0.55% and 1.8%, in place before the former government’s 2011 reform, to be applied on wealth in excess of EUR1.3m. Currently a 0.25% rate is imposed on net taxable wealth in excess of EUR1.3m and 0.5% on net taxable assets above EUR3m.

France already has the highest tax burden of any non-Scandinavian nation, so why not further squeeze the productive sector. That’s bound to boost jobs and competitiveness, right? And more revenue as well!

In reality, the Laffer Curve will kick in because France’s dwindling productive class isn’t going to passively submit as the political jackals start looking for a new meal.

But while France is driving into a fiscal cul-de-sac, Italian politicians have constructed a very impressive maze of red tape, intervention, and regulation. From the Wall Street Journal, here is just a sampling of the idiotic rules that paralyze job creators and entrepreneurs.

Once you hire employee 11, you must submit an annual self-assessment to the national authorities outlining every possible health and safety hazard to which your employees might be subject. These include work-related stress and stress caused by age, gender and racial differences. …Once you hire your 16th employee, national unions can set up shop, and workers may elect their own separate representatives. As your company grows, so does the number of required employee representatives, each of whom is entitled to eight hours of paid leave monthly to fulfill union or works-council duties. …Hire No. 16 also means that your next recruit must qualify as disabled. By the time your firm hires its 51st worker, 7% of the payroll must be handicapped in some way, or else your company owes fees in kind. …Once you hire your 101st employee, you must submit a report every two years on the gender-dynamics within the company. This must include a tabulation of the men and women employed in each production unit, their functions and level within the company, details of their compensation and benefits, and dates and reasons for recruitments, promotions and transfers, as well as the estimated revenue impact. …All of these protections and assurances, along with the bureaucracies that oversee them, subtract 47.6% from the average Italian wage, according to the OECD. …which may explain the temptation to stay small and keep as much of your business as possible off the books. This gray- and black-market accounts for more than a quarter of the Italian economy. It also helps account for unemployment at a 12-year high of 10%, and GDP forecast to contract 1.3% this year.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the unelected Prime Minister of Italy, Mr. Monti, isn’t really trying to fix any of this nonsense and instead is agitating for more bailouts from taxpayers in countries that aren’t quite as corrupt and strangled by red tape.

Monti also is a big supporter of eurobonds, which make a lot of sense if you’re the type of person who likes co-signing loans for your unemployed alcoholic cousin with a gambling addiction.

But let’s not forget our Greek friends, the one from the country that subsidizes pedophiles and requires stool samples from entrepreneurs applying to set up online companies.

The recent elections resulted in a victory for the supposedly conservative party, so what did the new government announce? A flat tax to boost growth? Sweeping deregulation to get rid of the absurd rules that strangle entrepreneurship?

You must be smoking crack to even ask such questions. In addition to whining for further handouts from taxpayers in other nations, the Wall Street Journal reports that the new government has announced that it won’t be pruning any bureaucrats from the country’s bloated government workforce.

Greece’s new three-party coalition government on Thursday ruled out massive public-sector layoffs, a move that could help pacify restive trade unions… The new government’s refusal to slash public payrolls and its demands to renegotiate its loan deal comes just as euro-zone finance ministers meet in Luxembourg to discuss Greece’s troubled overhauls—and possibly weigh a two-year extension the new government is seeking in a bid to ease the terms of the austerity program that has accompanied the bailout. …Cutting the size of the public sector has been a top demand by Greece’s creditors—the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund—to reduce costs and help Greece meet its budget-deficit targets needed for the country to get more financing. So far, Greece has laid off just a few hundred workers and failed to implement a so-called labor reserve last year, which foresaw slashing the public sector by 30,000 workers.

Gee, isn’t this just peachy. Best of all, thank to the International Monetary Fund, the rest of us are helping to subsidize these Greek moochers.

And speaking of the IMF, I never realized those overpaid bureaucrats (and they’re also exempt from tax!) are closet comedians. They must be a bunch of jokers, I’ve concluded, because they just released a report on problems in the eurozone without once mentioning excessive government spending or high tax burdens.

The tax-free IMF bureaucrats do claim that “Important actions have been taken,” but they’re talking about bailouts and easy money.

The ECB has lowered policy rates and conducted special liquidity interventions to address immediate bank funding pressures and avert an even more rapid escalation of the crisis.

And even though the problems in Europe are solely the result of bad policies by nations governments, the economic pyromaniacs at the IMF also say that “the crisis now calls for a stronger and more collective effort.”

Absent collective mechanisms to break these adverse feedback loops, the crisis has spilled across euro area countries. Contagion from further intensification of the crisis—including acute stress in funding markets and tensions involving systemically-important banks—would be sizeable globally. And spillovers to neighboring EU economies would be particularly large. A more determined and forceful collective response is needed.

Let’s translate this into plain English: The IMF wants more money from American taxpayers (and other victimized producers elsewhere in the world) to subsidize the types of statist policies that are described above in places such as France, Italy, and Greece.

I’ve previously explained why conspiracy theories are silly, but we’ve gotten to the point where I can forgive people for thinking that politicians and bureaucrats are deliberately trying to turn Europe into some sort of statist Dystopia.

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I wrote last year about a tax protest in Ireland, and I wrote earlier this year about a tax revolt in Greece.

But Irish and Greek taxpayers are wimps compared to their Italian compatriots. When Italians decide to have a tax revolt, they don’t kid around. Here are some remarkable details from the UK-based Telegraph.

In the last six months there has been a wave of countrywide attacks on offices of Equitalia, the agency which handles tax collection, with the most recent on Saturday night when a branch was hit with two petrol bombs.Staff have also expressed fears over their personal safety with increasing numbers calling in sick and with one unidentified employee telling Italian TV: “I have told my son not to say where I work or tell anyone what I do for a living.”

As much as I despise high taxes, I don’t think petrol bombs are the answer. But I am glad that at least some of the bureaucrats feels shame about their jobs.

Not surprisingly, the political elite wants people to be deferential to predatory government.

Annamaria Cancellieri, the interior minister, said she was considering calling in the army in a bid to quell the rising social tensions.“There have been several attacks on the offices of Equitalia in recent weeks. I want to remind people that attacking Equitalia is the equivalent of attacking the State,” she said in an interview with La Repubblica newspaper.

Here’s some advice for Ms. Cancellieri: Maybe people will be less likely to attack “the State” if “the State” stops attacking the people.

But don’t expect that to happen. The Prime Minister also demands obedience to “the State” and there’s rhetoric about “paying taxes is a duty” from other high-level government officials.

Saturday night’s attack took place on the Equitalia office in Livorno and the front of the building was left severely damaged by fire after the bombs exploded. The phrases “Thieves” and “Death to Equitalia” were sprayed onto outside walls. It came just 24 hours after more than 200 people had been involved in running battles with police outside a branch in Naples which left a dozen protesters and officers hurt. …There has also been a striking increase in suicides with people leaving notes directly blaming Equitalia and tax demands. Paola Severino, the Justice minister, said: “The economic situation has produced unease but paying taxes is a duty. On one side there is anger and the problem of paying when the resources are scare but on the other side is the fact that they must be paid.” …Mr Monti has vowed to press on even harder this year to recover the lost money. He is due to have a meeting with Equitalia chief Attilio Befera to discuss the situation and he has already said: “We are not going to take a step back, there will be no giving in to those who have declared was against the revenue and therefore the State. We will not be intimidated.”

Keep in mind, by the way, that this is the government that supposedly is being run by brilliant technocrats, yet they are so incompetent that they appoint the wrong people to posts. But the real problem is that government is far too big, consuming one-half of Italy’s economic output.

If Italy’s political class wants to improve tax compliance, they should listen to the IMF and academic economists, both of whom point out that lower tax rates reduce incentives for evasion and avoidance.

It also would help to shrink the burden of the public sector. Unfortunately, as is the case with most other European nations, “austerity” in Italy mostly means higher taxes, not less spending.

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Last January, I identified five things that worried me for 2011. Here’s what had me concerned, along with some ex post facto analysis about whether I was right to fret:

1. A back-door bailout of the states from the Federal Reserve – Thankfully, I was way off base with this concern. Not only was there no bailout, but Congress even got rid of Obama’s wretched “build America bonds.”

2. A front-door bailout of Europe by the United States – The bad news is that there have been bailouts of Greece, Ireland, and Portugal via the clowns at the IMF. The good news is that the bailouts haven’t been as big or extensive as I originally feared.

3. Republicans getting duped by Obama and supporting a VAT – I was needlessly concerned about a VAT sellout, but I was right to worry about tax increases. GOPers repeatedly expressed willingness to surrender, notwithstanding their anti-tax hike promises.

4. Regulatory imposition of global warming policy – The EPA has been busy imposing lots of costly regulation, but it appears that my fears on this issue were misplaced.

5. U.N. control of the Internet – As far as I can tell, the statists did not make any progress on this issue, so my concerns were unfounded.

This year, I’m not going to put together a list of things that should make us worry. After all, we should always be concerned. As Thomas Jefferson is reported to have warned, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” And Gideon Tucker correctly noted that, “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.”

Instead, I’m going to come up with a list of predictions. But I won’t try to predict the economy. As I already have explained, economists are lousy short-term forecasters. If we actually knew what was going to happen, we’d be rich.

So here are some policy and political predictions for 2012.

1. Obama will win reelection – Unless I’m wildly wrong, Romney will be the nominee, and he is a very uninspiring choice. That gives Obama somewhat of an advantage. More important, I think the unemployment rate will continue to drift downwards (even if only because workers get discouraged and drop out of the labor force) and that will allow Obama to claim – with lots of help from the media – that his policies have started to work.

2. Greece will drop the euro – Politicians have three ways of financing government spending. They can tax, they can borrow, and they can print money. Nations such as Greece already impose stifling tax burdens and further tax increases probably would reduce revenue because of the Laffer Curve. Nations such as Greece already are so indebted that nobody will lend them money, especially since they’ve already defaulted on existing debt payments. This means Greece has to go with the final option and drop the euro so it can print lots of drachmas.  (Greece could solve its problems by cutting spending, of course, but let’s not engage in ridiculous fantasy).

3. At least one major European nation will default – Yes, the Baltic nations have shown it is possible to make real spending cuts and restore fiscal stability, but I don’t expect other European nations to learn from those success stories. So the only question is whether nations such as Spain and Italy default right away, or whether they get additional bailouts that set the stage for even bigger defaults in the future. The answer probably depends on Germany, and I’m guessing Merkel will finally do the right thing (if only for political reasons) and reject additional bailouts.

4. China and Japan have major problems, but will survive 2012 without crisis – I’ve already written that I’m not overly impressed by China and that I think there’s a bubble in the Chinese economy. And I’ve commented on the enormous debt burden in Japan. But even though I think both nations are very vulnerable to economic trouble, I’m going out on a limb and predicting that they’ll make it through this year without a major problem.

5. The Georgia Bulldogs will win college football’s national championship, demonstrating that there is justice in the universe.

P.S. I have been somewhat accurate in my election predictions and I’ve been getting some requests to predict what will happen in Iowa. If I get motivated, I may do that on Tuesday morning.

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I periodically write posts about “Great Moments” in government. These usually feature some absurd example of stupidity and incompetence that only is possible when the world’s least competent people have power to coerce.

Examples include:

EU rules banning the selling of items by quantity (can’t have people buying a dozen eggs, for instance);

EEOC rules hindering trucking companies from weeding out drunk drivers (after all, alcoholism is a disability);

European courts ruling that the ability to watch free soccer broadcasts is a human right (if it’s already the job of government to provide you with housing, healthcare, and employment, why not?);

A local politician in Maryland wanting a licensing process to be a bum (I’m at a loss for words), and;

Virginia bureaucrats making it a crime to rescue injured wildlife (better to let Bambi suffer at the side of the road).

If you like high blood pressure, there are more examples here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

But here’s an example from Italy that may be even more astounding.

First, some background. The political elite in Europe is celebrating because the former Italian Prime Minister has been forced from office and replaced with Mario Monti, a former member of the European Commission who supposedly is one of the “best and brightest” and thus can bring technocratic efficiency to Italy.

So what do we see from this new government of allegedly competent technocrats? Well, you won’t believe me, so read this excerpt from the UK-based Guardian.

Italy’s new, “technocratic” government of highly qualified bankers, admirals and professors was missing a minister today after he vanished into a fog of misunderstanding. Earlier this week, agriculture expert Francesco Braga, a professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, was surprised, if flattered, to be told from Rome that he had been named junior agriculture minister in the new Italian administration. He had, after all, spent the last 28 years living outside his native land. Whatever doubts the professor may have had were swept away in what he called an “avalanche of congratulations”. Among the first to express delight was the Parmesan cheese manufacturers’ association. Back in Rome, the agriculture minister, Mario Catania, declared in irreproachably technocratic fashion that his new deputy would “bring value added”. He admitted that he had not actually spoken to the distinguished Italo-Canadian professor, but added: “I know him by reputation.” All of which must have been pretty confusing for Altero Matteoli, the infrastructure minister in Italy’s last government, who had warmly recommended for a post in the new government one Franco Braga, also a professor, but of construction engineering at Rome’s Sapienza University. “To tell the truth,” Matteoli was quoted as saying in the daily Corriere della Sera: “I recommended him for infrastructure, but they put him in agriculture.” Only they – whoever they were – found a professor with a similar name who would have known something about farming. Which perhaps explains why Franco Braga, an expert on anti-seismic building techniques, was refusing either to answer his telephone, or be sworn in to a job for which he is wholly unqualified.

There are several levels of jaw-dropping incompetence in this story, including the fact that the job at the Agriculture Ministry was offered to the wrong person and the supposed right person was recommended for a different job at the Infrastructure Ministry .

But the real moral to the story isn’t that the technocratic geniuses screwed up an appointment. It’s that Italy is suffering from too much government and a genuinely competent group of technocrats would abolish useless government bureaucracies.

But that’s not happening, so don’t expect a turnaround. Heck, Italy should sack the new government and give the job of Prime Minister to the former porn star who used to be in the Parliament. At least that would provide entertainment value.

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I’m in Milan, at the office of the Institute Bruno Leoni, which overlooks the famous Castle Sforza and is almost within shouting distance of the remarkable cathedral.

This evening, I’ll be talking about how Italy should balance its budget by limiting the size of government, and my message will be identical to the one I give American policymakers. Restraining spending is the only pro-growth way of lowering red ink.

Italy actually has a smaller budget deficit than the United States according to OECD data, so that should make their job easier. On the other hand, the economy seems permanently stagnant, so revenues are projected to climb by an average of only 3.5 percent annually (compared to 7 percent in the United States).

Here are the specific numbers. The Italian budget this year is about €822 billion, while revenues are estimated to be about €752 billion. If the budget is frozen at current levels, the deficit disappears within three years. If spending grows by 1 percent each year, the budget is balanced in 2015. And if spending is allowed to grow only 2 percent annually, there is a surplus in 2017. If lawmakers can maintain fiscal discipline in subsequent years, they can begin to reduce the public debt.

This last point is important because Italian politicians are actually considering proposals to either levy a temporary property tax or a temporary tax on all assets, supposedly for the purpose of reducing the nation’s debt.

Some economists might argue that one-off taxes on assets are an efficient way of collecting revenue. After all, taxes on assets punish income that already was earned and do not punish earning income today or in the future. That is true, but such a tax would represent a blatant confiscation of private capital.

If the government is successful, this policy will undermine economic confidence and give Italian taxpayers an additional reason to move their money overseas. And since the politicians can achieve their alleged goal of debt reduction by restraining spending, there is no legitimate reason to steal wealth from the Italian people.

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