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Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

In April of 2013, I introduced a Moocher Hall of Fame to “celebrate” some very odious examples of welfare dependency.

Since that time, I keep thinking that it’s time to do something similar for government bureaucrats. This compilation from last December would be a good place to start, though I’d have to figure out whether to have group memberships so that we could include the bureaucrats at the Patent and Trademark Office who get paid to watch TV, as well as the paper pushers at the Department of Veterans Affairs who got big bonuses after creating secret waiting lists that led to the death of former soldiers.

But if we’re creating a Bureaucrat Hall of Fame, I won’t want to discriminate against foreigners.

The U.K.-based Telegraph reports, for instance, that an unnamed doctor from Italy is a very worthy candidate for this award.

The notorious inefficiencies of Italy’s state sector were laid bare on Thursday as news emerged of a Sicilian doctor who has done just 15 days’ work in the past nine years.

How has he “achieved” this degree of non-work?

…the doctor disappeared off on a university training course, reportedly paid for by taxpayers’ money, when he started work in 2005. Returning to work on October 31, 2008, the doctor immediately asked for, and obtained, paid family leave until May the following year. Then he worked 15 days at the hospital before calling off sick until July 2009. Recovered from illness, the doctor obtained a place on another university training course, once again reportedly swapping his wage for payment from the state university, which lasted until June this year, said wire agency ANSA. The doctor is now allegedly planning more time off to obtain a doctorate which will finish in December 2016.

By the way, our lazy doctor has lots of company. Indeed, Sicily sounds like the California of Italy.

The problem is pronounced in Sicily, where an army of around 144,000 regional staff – both permanent and temporary – includes 26,000 forestry workers, more than in British Columbia in Canada. Around 7,000 Sicilians have been given government jobs teaching work skills to Sicilians without jobs.

With that amount of waste and featherbedding, no wonder Italian taxpayers are beginning to revolt.

Here’s a specific example that boggles the mind.

Red tape on the island has also created surreal working weeks for those employed by the local government. In March, a vet in Trapani complained that the work he was contracted to carry out for the local authority had been spread over a such a long period he was required to do just one minute’s work every week. “Once a week I go to the office and stamp my pass,” said Manuel Bongiorno. “I walk in, wait for a minute to go by, then stamp the pass again. It’s been going on for months,” he added.

I don’t know if “vet” means he’s an animal doctor or a former soldier, but he doesn’t qualify for membership in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame because he apparently wants to do some work.

That’s preposterous, but what would you expect in a nation where government is so incompetent that the wrong people are appointed to high-level jobs that shouldn’t even exist.

So you can see why I don’t really care which party rules Italy. The names may change at the top, but government always comes out ahead.

Though a New York Times columnist actually wrote that America should become more like Italy. And he wasn’t being satirical. At least not on purpose.

P.S. The U.K. government has raised its terror threat level from “substantial” to “severe.” I realize this is a serious issue, but I couldn’t help but think about the humorous version of European threat levels.

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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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