Posts Tagged ‘Estonia’

A reader from New York has a follow-up question for me.

Referencing a “Question of the Week” from last month, in which I expressed guarded optimism that America could be saved, she wants to know what I would do if things go the wrong way.

In other words, what if things go really wrong and America suffers a Greek-style fiscal collapse? And imagine how bad that might be since there wouldn’t be an IMF or European Central Bank capable of providing bailouts to the United States.

Perhaps because of an irrational form of patriotism, I’m fairly certain that I will always live in the United States and I will be fighting to preserve (or restore) liberty until my last breath.

But I probably would want my children someplace safe and stable, so I’ll answer the question from that perspective.

The obvious first choice is a zero-income tax jurisdiction like the Cayman Islands that is prosperous and reasonably well governed.

But I’m not sure about the long-run outlook for the Cayman Islands, in part because the politicians there have flirted with an income tax and in part because the jurisdiction inevitably would suffer if the United States was falling apart.

So what’s a place that is stable and not overly tied to the American economy.

Then the obvious choice is Switzerland. That nation’s long-run fiscal outlook is relatively favorable because of  modest-sized government and a very good spending control mechanism.

But while Switzerland is not dependent on the U.S. economy, it is surrounded by European welfare states. And I’m fairly certain that nations such as France, Italy, and (perhaps) Germany will collapse before America.

And even though most Swiss households have machine guns and the nation presumably can defend itself from barbarian hordes in search of a new welfare check, Switzerland’s probably not the ideal location.

Estonia is one of my favorite countries, and they’ve implemented some good reforms such as the flat tax. But I worry about demographic decline. Plus, I’m a weather wimp and it’s too chilly most of the year.

Another option is a stable nation in Latin America, perhaps Chile, Panama, or Costa Rica. I haven’t been to Chile, but I’m very impressed by the nation’s incredible progress in recent decades. I have been to Panama many times and it is one of my favorite nations. I’ve only been to Costa Rica two times, but it also seems like a nice country.

The bad news is that I don’t speak Spanish (and my kids don’t speak the language, either). The good news is that Hispanics appear to be the world’s happiest people, so that should count for something.

“G’day mate, we’ve privatized our social security system!”

This brings me to Australia, the country that probably would be at the top of my list. The burden of government spending in Australia is less than it is in the United States.

But the gap isn’t that large. The reason I like Australia is that the nation has a privatized Social Security system (called Superannuation) and the long-run fiscal outlook is much, much better than the United States.

Plus the Aussies are genuinely friendly and they speak an entertaining form of English.

So if America goes under, I recommend going Down Under.

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I shared an astounding chart last month showing that tax increases account for 90 percent of the so-called “austerity” in Europe.

The author the chart, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center, calls this “private sector austerity” and she correctly argues that her home continent is in desperate need of some austerity on the public sector instead.

The good news is that more analysts have joined the fight, explaining that Europe is in trouble because of a failure to address the real problem of excessive government spending.

Here are some excerpts from a column in USA Today by Matthew Melchiorre from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, beginning with a good summary of how Europe has erred by choosing to impose austerity on the private sector.

The folly of “austerity” composed mainly of tax hikes with less in the way of spending reductions has driven the economies of the Old World into the ground. We’re next unless Congress keeps Uncle Sam out of Americans’ wallets and takes a chainsaw to Washington’s budget. …How is this likely to pan out? To get an idea, we can look at Europe, which has followed a similar strategy and has had little success in reviving growth. Spending cuts have been weak. Today, not a single Euro Zone government is spending less as a percentage of GDP than it did in 2007, according to Eurostat data. Tax increases, on the other hand, have been rampant. The average cyclically adjusted total tax burden among Euro Zone countries increased by about 5% from 2007 to 2010, according to European Commission data.

Wow, spending hasn’t been reduced but taxes are higher. Sounds a lot like Obama’s disingenuous “balanced approach.”

But there are some exceptions to the big-government consensus. Melchiorre notes that Estonia and other Baltic nations decided to impose genuine budget cuts.

Several Baltic countries have broken the European straitjacket of growth-strangling tax “austerity,” and have enjoyed success relative to their peers as a result. Take Estonia, for example. The Estonian government implemented an austerity program in 2009…cutting into public employee wages by 40% and slashing total government spending by a whopping 16% by 2011.

This is music to my ears. I’ve been advocating the Baltic approach for a couple of years. And it turns out that nations following my Golden Rule get good results.

Estonia’s economy…bounced right back with 2 percent growth the following year and has since continued to prosper. For the past two years, Estonian industry has expanded more than twice as fast as that of Germany. …Tax increases don’t bring about prosperity. Shrinking government to live within its means does.

Amen to that, but I think the final point needs to be expanded. It’s not just that tax increases don’t work. It’s that they make matters worse.

The problem in most nations is that government is too big. In a best-case scenario, tax increases are a substitute for spending restraint. More often than not, though, tax hikes lead to higher levels of government spending.

This brings us back to the current fiscal fight in the United States. Obama has dug in his heels and demanded an increase in the top tax rates. He claims that this class-warfare approach is necessary for fiscal responsibility.

But ask yourself a question. We know that America’s long-run fiscal problem is entitlement spending. Will politicians be more likely or less likely to reform those programs if they think tax increases are an option?

If you answered “more likely,” you should move to Greece and see how well your system is working.

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Last month, I exposed some major errors that Paul Krugman committed when he criticized Estonia for restraining the burden of government spending.

My analysis will be helpful since I am now in Estonia for a speech about economic reform, and I wrote a column that was published today by the nation’s main business newspaper.

But just in case you’re one of the few people in the world who isn’t fluent in the local language, the Mises Institute Estonia was kind enough to post an English version.

Here are some of the key points I made. I started by explaining one of Krugman’s main blunders.

Krugman’s biggest mistake is that he claimed that spending cuts caused the downturn, even though the recession began in 2008 when government spending was rapidly expanding. It wasn’t until 2009 that the burden of government spending was reduced, and that was when the economy began to grow again. In other words, Krugman’s Keynesian theory was completely wrong. The economy should have boomed in 2008 and suffered a recession beginning in 2009. Instead, the opposite has happened.

I then pointed out that Estonia’s long-run performance has been admirable.

…the nation’s long-run economic performance is quite exemplary. Economic output has doubled in just 15 years according to the International Monetary Fund. Over that entire period – including the recent downturn, it has enjoyed one of the fastest growth rates in Europe.

But I’m not a mindless cheerleader (though I might become one if any of the local women gave me the time of day), so I took the opportunity to identify areas where public policy needs improvement.

This doesn’t mean Estonia’s policy is perfect. Spending was reduced in 2009 and 2010, but now it is climbing again. This is unfortunate. Government spending consumes about 40 percent of GDP, which is a significant burden on the private sector.

Being a thoughtful guy, I then made suggestions for pro-growth changes.

Estonia should copy the Asian Tiger economies of Singapore and Hong Kong. These jurisdictions have maintained very high growth for decades in part because the burden of the public sector is only about 20 percent of GDP. …Estonia already has a flat tax, which is very important for competitiveness. The key goal should be to impose a spending cap, perhaps similar to Switzerland’s very successful “debt brake.” Under the Swiss system, government spending is not allowed to grow faster than population plus inflation. And since nominal GDP usually expands at a faster rate, this means that the relative burden of government spending shrinks over time. By slowly but surely reducing the amount of GDP diverted to fund government, this would enable policymakers to deal with the one area where Estonia’s tax system is very unfriendly. Social insurance taxes equal about one-fourth of the cost of hiring a worker, thus discouraging job creation and boosting the shadow economy.

And I elaborated on why reform of social insurance is not just a good idea, but should be viewed as an absolute necessity.

Reducing the heavy burden of social insurance taxes should be part of a big reform to modernize programs for healthcare and the elderly. A major long-term challenge for Estonia is that the population is expected to shrink. The World Bank and the United Nations both show that fertility rates are well below the “replacement rate,” meaning that there will be fewer workers in the future. That’s a very compelling reason why it is important to expand personal retirement accounts and allow the “pre-funding” of healthcare. It’s a simple matter of demographic reality.

In other words, Estonia doesn’t have a choice. If they don’t reform their entitlement programs, the burden of government spending will rise dramatically, which would mean a higher tax burden and/or substantial government debt.

We also need entitlement reform in the United States. Our demographics aren’t as bad as Estonia’s, but we all know – as I explained in my post about Cyprus – that bad things happen sooner or later if government spending grows faster than the economy’s productive sector.

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I have great fondness for Estonia, in part because it was the first post-communist nation to adopt the flat tax, but also because of the country’s remarkable scenery.

Most recently, though, I’ve been bragging about Estonia (along with Latvia and Lithuania, the other two Baltic nations) for implementing genuine spending cuts. I’ve argued that Estonia is showing how a government can reignite growth by reducing the burden of government.

Not surprisingly, some people disagree with my analysis. Paul Krugman of the New York Times criticized Estonia yesterday, writing that the Baltic nation suffered a “Depression-level slump” in 2008 and has only managed an “incomplete recovery” over the past few years.

He blames this supposedly weak performance on “austerity.”

I have a positive and negative reaction to Krugman’s post. My positive reaction is that he’s talking about a nation that actually has cut spending, so there’s real public-sector austerity (see Veronique de Rugy’s L.A. Times column to understand the critical difference between public-sector and private-sector austerity).

This is a sign of progress. In the past, he launched a silly attack on the U.K. for a “government pullback” that never happened, so what he wrote about Estonia at least is based on real events.

My negative reaction is that Krugman is very guilty of cherry-picking data. If you look at the chart that accompanies his post, Estonia’s economic performance isn’t very impressive, but that’s because he’s only showing us the data from 2007-present.

The numbers are accurate, but they’re designed to mislead rather than inform (sort of as if I did a chart showing 2009-present).

But before exposing that bit of trickery, there’s another mistake worth noting. Krugman presumably wants us to think that the downturn coincided with spending cuts. But his own chart shows that the economy hit the skids in 2008 – a year in which  government spending in Estonia soared by nearly 18 percent according to EU fiscal data!

It wasn’t until 2009 that Estonian lawmakers began to reduce the burden of spending. So I guess Professor Krugman wants us to believe that the economy tanked in 2008 because of expectations of 2009 austerity. Or something like that.

Returning now to my complaint about cherry picking data, Krugman makes Estonia seem stagnant by looking only at data starting in 2007. But as you can see from this second chart, Estonia’s long-run economic performance is quite exemplary. It has doubled its economic output in just 15 years according to the International Monetary Fund. Over that entire period – including the recent downturn, it has enjoyed one of the fastest growth rates in Europe.

This doesn’t mean Estonia is perfect. It did experience a credit/real estate bubble, and there was a deep recession when the bubble burst. And the politicians let government spending explode during the bubble years, almost doubling the budget between 2004 and 2008.

But Estonia reacted to the overspending and the downturn in a very responsible fashion. Instead of using the weak economy as an excuse to further expand the burden of government spending in hopes that Keynesian economics would magically work (after failing for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s, Japan in the 1990s, Bush in 2008, and Obama in 2009), the Estonians realized that they needed to cut spending.

And now that spending has been curtailed, it’s worth noting that growth has resumed.

What makes Krugman’s rant especially amusing is that he wrote it just as the rest of the world is beginning to notice that Estonia is a role model. Here’s some of what CNBC just posted.

Sixteen months after it joined the struggling currency bloc, Estonia is booming. The economy grew 7.6 percent last year, five times the euro-zone average. Estonia is the only euro-zone country with a budget surplus. National debt is just 6 percent of GDP, compared to 81 percent in virtuous Germany, or 165 percent in Greece. Shoppers throng Nordic design shops and cool new restaurants in Tallinn, the medieval capital, and cutting-edge tech firms complain they can’t find people to fill their job vacancies. It all seems a long way from the gloom elsewhere in Europe. Estonia’s achievement is all the more remarkable when you consider that it was one of the countries hardest hit by the global financial crisis. …How did they bounce back? “I can answer in one word: austerity. Austerity, austerity, austerity,” says Peeter Koppel, investment strategist at the SEB Bank. …that’s not exactly the message that Europeans further south want to hear. …Estonia has also paid close attention to the fundamentals of establishing a favorable business environment: reducing and simplifying taxes, and making it easy and cheap to build companies.

Good policy makes a difference. But it also helps to have rational citizens (unlike France, where people vote for economic illiterates and protest against reality).

While spending cuts have triggered strikes, social unrest and the toppling of governments in countries from Ireland to Greece, Estonians have endured some of the harshest austerity measures with barely a murmur. They even re-elected the politicians that imposed them. “It was very difficult, but we managed it,” explains Economy Minister Juhan Parts. “Everybody had to give a little bit. Salaries paid out of the budget were all cut, but we cut ministers’ salaries by 20 percent and the average civil servants’ by 10 percent,” Parts told GlobalPost. …As well as slashing public sector wages, the government responded to the 2008 crisis by raising the pension age, making it harder to claim health benefits and reducing job protection — all measures that have been met with anger when proposed in Western Europe.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that government is still far too big in Estonia. The public sector consumes about 39 percent of economic output, almost double the burden of government spending in Hong Kong and Singapore.

But, unlike certain American politicians, at least the Estonians understand the problem and are taking steps to move in the right direction. I hope they continue.

P.S. The President of Estonia, a Social Democrat named Toomas Hendrik Ilves, used his twitter account to kick the you-know-what out of Krugman yesterday. For amusement value, check out this HuffingtonPost article.

P.P.S. A few other nations, such as Canada and New Zealand, also imposed genuine spending restraint in recent decades and they also got good results.

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I got a few cranky emails after my post suggesting the United States should copy the Baltic nations and implement genuine spending cuts. These less-than-friendly pen pals were upset that I favorably commented on the fiscal discipline of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia while failing to reveal that these nations were suffering from high unemployment.

From the tone of this correspondence, my new friends obviously think this is a “gotcha” moment. The gist of their messages is that the economic downturn that hit the Baltic nations is proof that the free-market model has failed, and that I somehow was guilty of a cover-up.

That’s certainly a strange interpretation, especially since I specifically noted that the three nations had suffered from an economic downturn. There’s no questioning the fact that unemployment spiked upwards because of the global financial crisis, which was especially damaging to the Baltics since they all had real estate bubbles.

But let’s deal with the bigger issue, which is whether this downturn is proof that the free market failed (and, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that all three Baltic nations are free market even though only Estonia gets high scores in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings).

If you look at the IMF’s World Economic Outlook Database, it does show that the Baltic nations had serious economic downturns. Indeed, if we look at the data from 2008 to the present, the recession was far deeper in those nations than in Western Europe and North America.

So at first glance, it seems my critics have a point.

But what happens if you look at a longer period of data? The IMF has data for all three Baltic nations going back to 1999. And if we look at the entire 12-year period, it turns out that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have enjoyed comparatively strong growth. Indeed, as seen in the chart, they even surpass Hong Kong.

In other words, the Baltic nations may have suffered larger-than-average economic downturns, but they also enjoyed stronger-than-average booms. And the net effect is that they are now in much better shape than the nations that had smaller recessions but also less-robust growth.

A sophisticated critic may look at this data and say it’s meaningless because convergence theory suggests that middle-income countries almost always will grow faster than rich nations. That’s a fair point, so let’s now compare the three Baltic nations to three other nations that were at the same level of development at the turn of the century.

As you can see, the Baltic nations are doing substantially better than other middle-income nations. By the way, skeptics should feel free to peruse the IMF data to confirm that I didn’t cherry-pick nations to make my point (indeed, I deliberately picked Thailand since it was emerging from the Asian financial crisis and is an example of a nation that enjoyed very good growth in the 2000-2011 period).

The point of this post is not that the Baltic nations are perfect. Estonia is ranked 12th in the Economic Freedom rankings, which is impressive, but Lithuania is 33rd and Latvia is 55th. Those aren’t bad scores considering that these nations are recovering from communist tyranny, to be sure, but Hong Kong isn’t in any danger of being dethroned.

Instead, my argument is that the Baltic nations are making slow but steady progress, and I’m quite confident that the recent decisions by these nations to reduce the burden of government spending will help put them back on an above-average growth path.

That is something America should emulate.

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