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Posts Tagged ‘Europe’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EU Report Total Tax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EU Report Personal Income Tax

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

But not in all regards.

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

EU Report Corporate Income Tax

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

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

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

EU Report VAT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dismal European Economy

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

But compared to Europe, we’re Hong Kong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some passages from a BBC report.

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

Yes, you read correctly.

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

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

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

Simply stated, a free society should have free association.

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

And let’s add one more to the list.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, time again for some libertarian commentary.

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

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

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

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

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While I mostly focus on bad government policy in the United States, I also think we can learn lessons from what’s happening in other nations.

In some cases, I share positive stories, such as the success of privatized Social Security in Australia, nationwide school choice in Sweden, and genuine spending cuts in the Baltic nations.

In most cases, though, I’m pointing out bad policy.

Some topics deserve special treatment, such as the ongoing horror story of government-run healthcare in the United Kingdom.

In other cases, though, I share one-off stories about government incompetence and stupidity.

*Such as taxpayer-financed friends for mass murderers in Norway.

*Financing a giant “Burger Boy” in the United Kingdom.

*Promoting welfare tourism in the European Union.

*Spending $30 to collect $1 of tax in Germany.

*Regulation of coffee enemas in Japan.

Today, we’re going to share more stories of feckless behavior by foreign politicians and bureaucrats.

From Canada, we learn that the government of Manitoba is micro-managing daycare lunches in such bizarre ways that a family was fined because “grains” weren’t included in their kids’ meals.

Kristin Barkiw of Rossburn, Manitoba, Canada brought two of her children home from Little Cub’s Den daycare when she saw that her kids were sent home with a note. …the message told the mom she had failed to provide a nutritionally balanced lunch for her children, 5-year-old Logan and 3-year-old Natalie.  Not only that, Kristin was fined $10, $5 per child, for missing grains in their lunch of leftover roast beef, carrots, potatoes, an orange and milk. Further, the note said that the daycare staff gave Logan and Natalie Ritz crackers to fulfill the nutritional requirement of grains, which some see as a less than nutritious option. The nutritional regulation for daycare lunches is actually law in the province. The Manitoba government’s Early Learning and Child Care lunch regulations state that daycare programs must ensure children are given a lunch with a meat, a grain, a milk product and two servings of fruit and vegetables and any missing food groups must be supplemented by the care provider.

Heaven forbid that parents actually be in charge of what their kids eat!

You won’t be surprised to learn that France is on the list. It appears the government’s rail system is staffed by numbskulls.

France’s SNCF rail company has ordered 2,000 trains for an expanded regional network that are too wide for many station platforms, entailing costly repairs, the national rail operator said on Tuesday. A spokesman for the RFF national rail operator confirmed the error, first reported by satirical weekly Canard Enchaine in its Wednesday edition. …Construction work has already begun to displace equipment and widen hundreds of train platforms to accommodate the new trains, but hundreds more remain to be fixed, he added. …The RFF only gave the dimensions of platforms built less than 30 years ago, but most of France’s 1,200 platforms were built more than 50 years ago. Repair work has already cost 80 million euros ($110 million).

I guess I’m not surprised by that story since the French once built an aircraft carrier with a flight deck that was too small.

In Sweden, a novelty tourist hotel made of ice will have to install fire alarms.

The Ice Hotel, which is rebuilt every year in northern Sweden out of enormous chunks of ice from the Torne River in Jukkasjärvi, Kiruna, will this year come equipped with fire alarms – and the irony isn’t lost on the staff. “We were a little surprised when we found out,” hotel spokeswoman Beatrice Karlsson told The Local. …While it might sound crazy that a building made of water needs to be equipped with fire alarms, the fact that the hotel is built from scratch every year means it needs to abide by the rules that apply to every new building, rules set by the National Housing Board (Boverket).

If I had to pick a prize from today’s list, this might win the prize. It’s a stunning display of government in action. Though probably not as bad as the time it took a local government in the U.S. two days to notice a dead body in a community swimming pool.

And from Germany, we have a story about massive cost overruns incurred by a pan-European bureaucracy that supposedly helps encourage fiscal discipline.

“Do as we say, not as we do”

It was meant to cost £420m of European taxpayers’ money but the bill for the new headquarters of the European Central Bank (ECB) has more than doubled to £960m and could rise even further. The bank is the key enforcer of austerity measures in the troubled eurozone nations, but appears to be having trouble keeping its own finances in order. The 45-storey glass and steel building, made up of two joined towers, will be more than 600ft tall when it is finished. But it has already been under construction for a decade and is three years behind schedule.

Of course, it goes without saying that cost overruns and delays are par for the course with government.

Just in case anyone thinks I’m picking on foreigners, here’s a story that makes me ashamed to be American. Or, to be more precise, it makes me ashamed that we have some of the world’s most pathetic bureaucrats.

Honors Night at Cole Middle School is no more. Parents got an email from Principal Alexis Meyer over the weekend saying some members of the school community “have long expressed concerns related to the exclusive nature of Honors Night.” The email goes on to say students will be recognized in other ways. …Parents and students are not happy with the change. “How else are they suppose to learn coping skills, not just based on success, but relative failure, it might not be failure, but understand what it takes to achieve high levels,” said parent Joe Kosloski. …“That made me wanna work harder and a lot of other people work harder, so just the fact you can’t work towards it anymore then there is no goal,” said 8th grade student Kaitlyn Kosloski. Changes are also being made to the middle school’s sports awards.

You read correctly. They also won’t recognize athletic success.

I guess everyone gets a participation medal.

Except, of course, we still single out kids who commit horrible crimes in school. Such as having toy army men, eating a pop tart the wrong way, building a motion detector for a school science experiment, or countless other “offenses” that trigger anti-gun lunacy by brainless bureaucrats.

The moral of these stories, both from America and around the world, it that government is not the answer. Unless, of course, you’ve asked a really strange question.

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While theory is important, I suspect most people are more likely to be convinced by real-world evidence.

This is why I frequently compare nations when arguing that free markets and small government are the best way of generating prosperity.

Simply stated, I want people to understand that economic liberty produces faster growth, and that faster growth can make a huge difference, particularly when looking at several decades of data.

Most recently, I showed how Poland is out-pacing Ukraine.

I’ve compared South Korea and North Korea.

The data for Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela is very powerful.

I’ve shown how Singapore has eclipsed Jamaica.

Hong Kong has caught up with the United States.

After looking at these examples, you’ll understand why I’m very happy to share this new video from one of Sweden’s free-market think tanks. It looks at how nations with more economic freedom get better results.

And I particularly like the comparisons of nations that are moving in the right direction versus those that are degenerating toward more statism.

Another good part of the video is that it shows how the European Union could have a very free economy if all nations simply copied the European nation with the best policy in the five major categories of economic liberty (rule of law, fiscal policy, trade, regulation, and monetary policy).

And it turns out that Denmark is the best in three of the categories (rule of law, trade, and regulation), which is why that nation manages to remain very competitive even though it does very poorly in fiscal policy.

The moral of the story is that trendlines matter. Better policy leads to faster growth, and sustained faster growth is immensely important to long-run living standards.

This appreciation for trendlines is also why I’m so fixated on controlling the long-run growth of government spending.

Indeed, my Golden Rule is a combination of two trend lines. If government spending grows at a slow rate and the private economy grows at a rapid rate, that’s a wonderful combination that could cure the fiscal nightmare of any nation. Even France and Greece.

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I periodically (some would say over and over and over again, though occasionally made more palatable by using humor and cartoons) warn that the United States should not become a European-style welfare state.

But I wonder whether I spend enough time explaining why this would be a bad idea.

After all, some people may think that you get more security and benefits with the European approach, so why not head in that direction. And these folks aren’t just pointing with approval to the Nordic nations. A writer for the New York Times actually thinks we should copy Italy.

So it is fortuitous that I’m currently in Poland as part of the Free Market Road Show and got to hear a speech by Prof. Leszek Balcerowicz of the Warsaw School of Economics (and former Deputy Prime Minister and head of Poland’s central bank).

Prof. Balcerowicz specifically compared economic performance in Western Europe and the United States, and the results are not very favorable to the welfare state.

Standard economic theory suggests that poor nations should catch up with rich nations. This “convergence theory” actually worked for the first few decades after World War II.

But as you can see from Prof. Balcerowicz’s chart, the convergence process slowed down after the welfare state began to expand in the 1960s. And after the pro-growth reforms of the Reagan years and Clinton years, the United States actually has opened up a bigger lead.

Convergence Balcerowicz

But maybe this chart doesn’t make things sufficiently clear. So I went to the OECD website and found the most recently available data on “average individual consumption,” which is a measure of actual living standards.

OECD AIC

The United States is way ahead of Europe. The only three nations close to us include Norway, which has the good fortune of major oil fields, and Luxembourg and Switzerland, which have the advantage of being tax havens.

By the way, I also shared that data series last year, and you can also see some older AIC data in this 2010 post. But it doesn’t matter how you slice the numbers or when you look at the numbers, the United States has a big lead.

And that lead is now getting larger over time. Heck, the Europeans apparently think any growth – even anemic growth of less than 1 percent – is worth celebrating. Talk about low expectations!

This is why we don’t want to copy Europe. If higher living standards are a good idea (and they are!), then we should copy Hong Kong and Singapore, not France and Italy.

P.S. I’ve always thought that this comparison of the per-capita income of Swedes in Sweden and the per-capita income of folks of Swedish ancestry in the United States is very persuasive.

P.P.S. Leszek Balcerowicz has the honor of being named this year’s winner of the Cato Institute’s Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty. He’ll receive his award at a very nice black-tie dinner in New York City on May 21.

P.P.P.S. Speaking of swanky black-tie events, the PotL and I got dressed up last Thursday for the annual CIFA dinner in Monaco.

CIFA0941

She’s a lucky girl, huh?

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There’s an ongoing debate about Keynesian economics, stimulus spending, and various versions of fiscal austerity, and regular readers know I do everything possible to explain that you can promote added prosperity by reducing the burden of government spending.

Simply stated, we get more jobs, output, and growth when resources are allocated by competitive markets. But when resources are allocated by political forces, cronyism and pork cause inefficiency and waste.

That’s why statist nations languish and market-oriented countries flourish.

Paul Krugman has a different perspective on these issues, which is hardly a revelation. But I am surprised that he oftentimes doesn’t get the numbers quite right when he delves into specific case studies.

He claimed that spending cuts caused an Estonian economic downturn in 2008, but the government’s budget actually skyrocketed by 18 percent that year.

He complained about a “government pullback” in the United Kingdom even though the data show that government spending was climbing faster than inflation.

He even claimed that Hollande’s election in France was a revolt against austerity, notwithstanding the fact that the burden of government spending rose during the Sarkozy years.

My colleague Alan Reynolds pointed out that Krugman mischaracterized the supposed austerity in the PIIGS nations such as Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain.

We have another example to add to the list.

He now wants us to believe that Germany has been a good Keynesian nation.

Here’s some of what Professor Krugman wrote for the New York Times.

I hear people trying to dismiss the overwhelming evidence for large economic damage from fiscal austerity by pointing to Germany: “You say that austerity hurts growth, but the Germans have done a lot of austerity and they’re booming.” Public service announcement: Never, ever make claims about a country’s economic policies (or actually anything about economics) on the basis of what you think you’ve heard people say. Yes, you often hear people talking about austerity, and the Germans are big on praising and demanding austerity. But have they actually imposed a lot of it on themselves? Not so much.

In some sense, I agree with Krugman. I don’t think the Germans have imposed much austerity.

But here’s the problem with his article. We know from the examples above that he’s complained about supposed austerity in places such as the United Kingdom and France, so one would think that the German government must have been more profligate with the public purse.

After all, Krugman wrote they haven’t “imposed a lot of [austerity] on themselves.”

So I followed the advice in Krugman’s “public service announcement.” I didn’t just repeat what people have said. I dug into the data to see what happened to government spending in various nations.

And I know you’ll be shocked to see that Krugman was wrong. The Germans have been more frugal (at least in the sense of increasing spending at the slowest rate) than nations that supposedly are guilty of “spending cuts.”

German Austerity Krugman

To ensure that I’m not guilty of cherry-picking the data, I look at three different base years. But it doesn’t matter whether we start before, during, or after the recession. Germany increased spending at the slowest rate.

Moreover, if you look at the IMF data, you’ll see that the Germans also were more frugal than the Swedes, the Belgium, the Dutch, and the Austrians.

So I’m not sure what Krugman is trying to tell us with his chart.

By the way, spending in Switzerland grew at roughly the same rate as it did in Germany. So if Professor Krugman is highlighting Germany as a role model, maybe we can take that as an indirect endorsement of Switzerland’s very good spending cap?

But I won’t hold my breath waiting for that endorsement to become official. After all, Switzerland has reduced the burden of government spending thanks to the spending cap.

Not exactly in line with Krugman’s ideological agenda.

P.S. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to deal with folks who mischaracterize German fiscal policy. When Professor Epstein and I debated a couple of Keynesians in NYC as part of the Intelligence Squared debate, one of our opponents asserted that Germany was a case study for Keynesian stimulus. But when I looked at the data, it turned out that he was prevaricating.

P.P.S. This post, I hasten to add, is not an endorsement of German fiscal policy. As I explained while correcting a mistake in the Washington Post, the burden of government is far too large in Germany. The only good thing I can say is that it hasn’t grown that rapidly in recent years.

P.P.P.S. Let’s close with a look at another example of Krugman’s misleading work. He recently implied that an economist from the Heritage Foundation was being dishonest in some austerity testimony, but I dug into the numbers and discovered that, “critics of Heritage are relying largely on speculative data about what politicians might (or might not) do in the future to imply that the Heritage economist was wrong in his presentation of what’s actually happened over the past six years”

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When I give speeches around the country, I often get asked whether it’s time to give up.

More specifically, has America reached a tipping point, with too many people riding in the wagon of government dependency and too few people creating wealth and pulling the wagon in the right direction?

These questions don’t surprise me, particularly since my speeches frequently include very grim BIS, OECD, and IMF data showing that the long-run fiscal problem in the United States is larger than it is in some nations that already are facing fiscal crisis.

But that doesn’t mean I have a good answer. I think there is a tipping point, to be sure, but I’m not sure whether there’s a single variable that tells us when we’ve reached the point of no return.

Is it when government spending consumes 50 percent of economic output? That would be a very bad development if the burden of government spending reached that level, but it’s not necessarily fatal. Back in the early 1990s, the public sector was that big in Canada, yet policy makers in that country were able to restrain budgetary growth and put the country on a positive path. Sweden is another nation that has turned the corner. Government spending peaked at 67 percent of GDP in the early 1990s, but is now down to 47 percent of GDP after years of free-market reforms.

Is it when a majority of households are getting government handouts? That’s also a worrisome development, especially if those folks see the state as a means of living off their fellow citizens. But taking a check from Uncle Sam doesn’t automatically mean a statist mindset. As one of my favorite people opined, “some government beneficiaries – such as Social Security recipients – spent their lives in the private sector and are taking benefits simply because they had no choice but to participate in the system.”

Is it when a majority of people no longer pay income taxes, leaving a shrinking minority to bear all the burden of financing government? It’s not healthy for society when most people think government is “free,” particularly if they perceive an incentive to impose even higher burdens on those who do pay. And there’s no question that the overwhelming majority of the tax burden is borne by the top 10 percent. There’s little evidence, though, that the rest of the population thinks there’s no cost to government – perhaps because many of them pay heavy payroll taxes.

I explore these issues in this interview with Charles Payne.

The main takeaway from the interview is that the tipping point is not a number, but a state of mind. It’s the health of the nation’s “social capital.”

So for what it’s worth, the country will be in deep trouble if and when the spirit of self-reliance becomes a minority viewpoint. And the bad news is that we’re heading in that direction.

The good news is that we’re not close to the point of no return. There is some polling data, for instance, showing that Americans still have a much stronger belief in liberty than their European counterparts.

And we’ve even made a small bit of progress against big government in the past few years.

I speculated in the interview that we probably have a couple of decades to save the country, but it will become increasingly difficult to make the necessary changes – such as entitlement reform and welfare decentralization – as we get closer to 2020 and 2030.

Welfare State Wagon CartoonsAnd if those changes don’t occur…?

That’s a very grim subject. I fully understand why some Americans are thinking about the steps they should take to protect their families if reforms don’t occur and a crisis occurs.

Indeed, this to me is one of the most compelling arguments against gun control. If America begins to suffer the chaos and disarray that we’ve seen in nations such as Greece, it’s better to be well-armed.

Though maybe there will be some nations that remain stable as the world’s welfare states collapse. And if emigration is your preferred option, I’d bet on Australia.

But wouldn’t it be better to fix what’s wrong and stay in America?

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What’s the defining characteristic of our political masters?

Going all the way back to when they ran for student council in 6th grade, is it a craven desire to say or do anything to get elected?

Is it the corrupt compulsion to trade earmarks, loopholes, and favors in exchange for campaign cash?

Or is it the knee-jerk desire to buy votes by spending other people’s money?

The answer is yes, yes, and yes, but I want to add something else to the list.

One of the most odious features of politicians is that they think they’re entitled to all of our money. But it goes beyond that. They also think they’re doing us a favor and being magnanimous if they let us keep some of what we earn.

Think I’m joking or exaggerating?

Consider the fact that the crowd in Washington says that provisions in the internal revenue code such as IRAs are “tax expenditures” and should be considered akin to government spending.

So if you save for retirement and aren’t subject to double taxation, you’re not making a prudent decision with your own money. Instead, you’re the beneficiary of kindness and mercy by politicians that graciously have decided to give you something.

And the statists at the Washington Post will agree, writing that folks with IRAs are getting “a helping hand” from the government.

Or if you have a business and the government doesn’t impose a tax on your investment expenditures, don’t think that you’re being left alone with neutral tax policy. Instead, you should get on your knees and give thanks to politicians that have given you a less-punitive depreciation schedule.

And the Congressional Budget Office, the Joint Committee on Taxation, and the Government Accountability Office will all agree, saying that you’re benefiting from a “tax expenditure.”

The same attitude exists in Europe. But instead of calling it a “tax expenditure” when taxpayers gets to keep the money they earn, the Euro-crats say it is a “subsidy” or a form of “state aid.”

Speaking at the European Competition Forum in Brussels, EU commissioner Joaquin Almunia said he would investigate whether moves by national governments to tailor their tax laws to allow companies to avoid paying tax had the same effect as a subsidy. Subsidising certain businesses could be deemed as anti-competitive, breaching the bloc’s rules on state aid. …The remarks by the Spanish commissioner’s, who described the practice of “aggressive tax planning” as going against the principles of the EU’s single market, are the latest in a series of salvos by EU officials aimed at clamping down on corporate tax avoidance. …He added that the practice “undermines the fairness and integrity of tax systems” and was “socially untenable.”

Needless to say, Senor Almunia’s definition of “fairness” is that a never-ending supply of money should be transferred from taxpayers to the political elite.

The head of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development wants to take this mentality to the next level. He says companies no longer should try to legally minimize their tax burdens.

International technology companies should stop considering it their “duty” to employ tax-dodging strategies, said Angel Gurria, head of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. …The OECD, an international economic organization supported by 34 member countries including the U.S., U.K., Germany and Japan, will publish the results of its research on the issue for governments to consider within the next two years, Gurria said.

And you won’t be surprised to learn that the OECD’s “research on the issue” is designed to create a one-size-fits-all scheme that will lead to companies paying a lot more tax.

But let’s think about the broader implications of his attitude about taxation. For those of us with kids, should we choose not to utilize the personal exemptions when filling out our tax returns? Should we keep our savings in a regular bank account, where it can be double taxed, instead of an IRA or 401(k)?

Should we not take itemized deductions, or even the standard deduction? Is is somehow immoral to move from a high-tax state to a low-tax state? In other words, should we try to maximize the amount of our income going to politicians?

According to Mr. Gurria, the answer must be yes. If it’s bad for companies to legally reduce their tax liabilities, then it also must be bad for households.

By the way, it’s worth pointing out that bureaucrats at the OECD – including Gurria – are completely exempt from paying any income tax. So if there was an award for hypocrisy, he would win the trophy.

P.S. Switching topics to the NSA spying controversy, here’s a very amusing t-shirt I saw on Twitter.

The shirt isn’t as funny as the Obama-can-hear-you-now images, but it makes a stronger philosophical point.

P.P.S. Let’s close with an update on people going Galt.

I wrote with surprise several years ago about the number of people who were giving up American citizenship to escape America’s onerous tax system.

But that was just the beginning of a larger trend. The numbers began to skyrocket last year, probably in part the result of the awful FATCA legislation.

Well, we now have final numbers for 2013.

Expats_1998_2013

What makes these numbers really remarkable is that expatriates are forced to pay punitive exit taxes before escaping the IRS.

Which is why there are probably at least 10 Americans who simply go “off the grid” and move overseas for every citizen who uses the IRS process to officially expatriate.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Obamanomics.

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People are getting increasingly agitated about being spied on by government.

The snoops at the National Security Agency have gotten the most attention, and those bureaucrats are in the challenging position of trying to justify massive invasions of our privacy when they can’t show any evidence that this voyeurism has stopped a single terrorist attack.

And let’s not forget that some politicians and bureaucrats want to track our driving habits with GPS devices. Their immediate goal is taxing us (gee, what a surprise), but does anyone doubt that the next step would be a database of our movements?

But the worst example of government spying may be the web of laws and regulations that require banks to monitor our bank accounts and to share millions of reports about our financial transactions with the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.

Money laundering laws were adopted beginning about 30 years ago based on the theory that we could lower crime rates by making it more difficult for crooks to utilize the financial system.

There’s nothing wrong with that approach, at least in theory. But these laws have become very expensive and intrusive, yet they’ve had no measurable impact on crime rates.

As you might expect, politicians and bureaucrats have decided to double down on failure and they’re making anti-money laundering laws more onerous, imposing ever-higher costs in hopes of having some sort of positive impact. This is bad for banks, bad for the poor, and bad for the economy.

And it’s encouraging banks to treat customers like crap. Check out this ridiculous example included in a BBC report.

Stephen Cotton went to his local HSBC branch this month to withdraw £7,000 from his instant access savings account to pay back a loan from his mother. A year before, he had withdrawn a larger sum in cash from HSBC without a problem. But this time it was different, as he told Money Box: “When we presented them with the withdrawal slip, they declined to give us the money because we could not provide them with a satisfactory explanation for what the money was for. They wanted a letter from the person involved.” Mr Cotton says the staff refused to tell him how much he could have: “So I wrote out a few slips. I said, ‘Can I have £5,000?’ They said no. I said, ‘Can I have £4,000?’ They said no. And then I wrote one out for £3,000 and they said, ‘OK, we’ll give you that.’ ” He asked if he could return later that day to withdraw another £3,000, but he was told he could not do the same thing twice in one day.

Here’s another absurd story.

Peter from Wiltshire, who wanted his surname withheld, had a similar experience. He wanted to take out £10 000 cash from HSBC, some to pay to his sons and some to fund his long-haul travel plans. Peter phoned up the day before to give HSBC notice and everything seemed to be fine. The next day he got a call from his local branch asking him to pay his sons via a bank payment and to provide booking receipts for his holidays. Peter did not have any booking receipts to show.

And another.

Belinda Bell is another customer who was initially denied her cash, in her case to pay her builder. She told Money Box she had to provide the builder’s quote.

Why is the bank treating customers like dirt? Well, because they’re pressured to act that way thanks to anti-money laundering laws, which basically require them to act as if unusual transactions are criminal. In other words, customers are guilty until they prove themselves innocent.

HSBC has said…”We ask our customers about the purpose of large cash withdrawals when they are unusual and out of keeping with the normal running of their account. Since last November, in some instances we may have also asked these customers to show us evidence of what the cash is required for.” “The reason being we have an obligation to protect our customers, and to minimise the opportunity for financial crime…” Money Box asked other banks what their policy is on large cash withdrawals. They all said they reserved the right to ask questions about large cash withdrawals.

They’ve “reserved the right”?!? I think Mr. Cotton was spot on when he groused, “You shouldn’t have to explain to your bank why you want that money. It’s not theirs, it’s yours.”

A few politicians also are unhappy about pointless government-mandated spying.

Douglas Carswell, the Conservative MP for Clacton, is alarmed… “All these regulations which have been imposed on banks…infantilises the customer. In a sense your money becomes pocket money and the bank becomes your parent.”

Not let’s look at an example of how anti-money laundering laws lead to foolish intervention in the United States.

We’ll start with a feel-good story from Wired about an entrepreneur coming up with a service that’s desired by consumers.

Mike Caldwell spent years turning digital currency into physical coins. That may sound like a paradox. But it’s true. He takes bitcoins — the world’s most popular digital currency — and then he mints them here in the physical world. …by moving the digital currency into the physical realm, he also prevents hackers from stealing the stuff via an online attack. …You send him bitcoins via the internet, and he sends you back metal coins via the U.S. Postal Service. To spend bitcoins, you need a secret digital key — a string of numbers and letters — and when Caldwell makes the coins, he hides this key behind a tamper-resistant strip. …Caldwell takes a fee of about $50 on each coin he mints.

But our silver cloud has a dark lining.

…he received a letter from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FINCEN, the arm of the Treasury Department that dictates how the nation’s anti-money-laundering and financial crime regulations are interpreted. According to FINCEN, Caldwell needs to rethink his business. “They considered my activity to be money transmitting,” Caldwell says. And if you want to transmit money, you must first jump through a lot of state and federal regulatory hoops Caldwell hasn’t jumped through.

And since the hoops are very expensive, we have yet another example of foolish red tape killing a business.

Running afoul of FINCEN is a risky proposition. In the spring, the Department of Homeland Security seized two bank accounts belonging to Mt. Gox. The reasoning behind the $5 million seizure: Mt. Gox, like Caldwell, hadn’t registered itself as a money transmission business. …Because he runs a bitcoin-only business, Caldwell says there’s no Casascius bank account for authorities to seize. But he adds that he has no desire to anger the feds, whether he agrees with them or not. So he’s cranking out his last few orders.

I’m not saying, by the way, that bitcoins are necessarily a good way to hold wealth.

But I do believe that it’s good to see the evolution of private forms of money as a hedge against bad government policy. As I wrote back in 2011, “I have no way of knowing how well this system will work and how insulated it will be from government interference, but I very much hope it will be successful. Governments will never behave if they think people have no escape options.”

Unfortunately, politicians and bureaucrats are in the process of trying to shut down that escape option.

P.S. Switching to a different topic, I don’t know if there are any big policy implications, but I was fascinated to find this map in my twitter feed. It shows the first word that pops up when you ask why a country is so ____?

Europe Google Results

Here are my observations, for what it’s worth. Luxembourg and Switzerland are tax havens, so it’s no surprise that they are rich. Other nations should mimic their successful policies.

Norway, meanwhile, is rich because of oil.

I had no idea the Italians were supposed to be racist, though obviously this map merely shows what Google users are searching for, not what’s actually true.

I’m mystified that Macedonia is “important,” though I suspect Greece was similarly labeled because it is the first domino of the European debt crisis. Hardly something to be proud of.

I’m also surprised that Lithuanians are perceived as suicidal. Isn’t that a Swedish stereotype?

Croatia is beautiful, I’ll agree, at least along the coast.

The neglected people from Montenegro don’t even get a word! Heck, even the Kosovars and Moldovans have Google words.

I won’t comment on the stereotype about France, other than to say that the nation did get in the top-10 on a poll for attractiveness.

P.P.S. Since we’re discussing European stereotypes, here’s some politically incorrect terrorism humor from a British friend.

P.P.P.S. Speaking of stereotypes, here’s some polling data on how the Europeans see each other. I’m not sure how to interpret these results, other than to say that trustworthy people apparently are arrogant and lack compassion.

P.P.P.P.S. It goes without saying that I can’t resist the temptation to share these satirical maps on how the Greeks and Brits view their European neighbors.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Since the main topic of this post is money laundering, let’s end with a joke about how President Obama dealt with these foolish laws.

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At the beginning of the year, I was asked whether Europe’s fiscal crisis was over. Showing deep thought and characteristic maturity, my response was “HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA, are you ;@($&^#’% kidding me?”

But I then shared specific reasons for pessimism, including the fact that many European nations had the wrong response to the fiscal crisis. With a few exceptions (such as the Baltic nations), European governments used the crisis to impose big tax hikes, including higher income tax rates and harsher VAT rates.

Combined with the fact that Europe’s demographic outlook is rather grim, you can understand why I’m not brimming with hope for the continent. And I’ve shared specific dismal data for nations such as Portugal, France, Greece, Italy, Poland, Spain, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.

But one thing I’ve largely overlooked is the degree to which the European Central Bank may be creating an unsustainable bubble in Europe’s financial markets. I warned about using bad monetary policy to subsidize bad fiscal policy, but only once in 2011 and once in 2012.

Check out this entertaining – but worrisome – video from David McWilliams and you’ll understand why this issue demands more attention.

I’ve openly argued that the euro is not the reason that many European nations got in trouble, but it appears that Europe’s political elite may be using the euro to make a bad situation even worse.

And to add insult to injury, the narrator is probably right that we’ll get the wrong outcome when this house of cards comes tumbling down. Instead of decentralization and smaller government, we’ll get an expanded layer of government at the European level.

Or, as I call it, Germany’s dark vision for Europe.

That’s Mitchell’s Law on steroids.

P.S. Here’s a video on the five lessons America should learn from the European crisis.

P.P.S. On a lighter note, the mess in Europe has generated some amusing videos (here, here, and here), as well as a very funny set of maps.

P.P.P.S. If all this sounds familiar, that may be because the Federal Reserve in the United States could be making the same mistakes as the European Central Bank. I don’t pretend to know when and how the Fed’s easy-money policy will turn out, but I’m not overly optimistic about the final outcome. As Thomas Sowell has sagely observed, “We all make mistakes. But we don’t all have the enormous and growing power of the Federal Reserve System… In the hundred years before there was a Federal Reserve System, inflation was less than half of what it became in the hundred years after the Fed was founded.”

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We’re making a tiny bit of progress in the battle against the welfare state. No, policy hasn’t changed yet, but at least there’s growing recognition that maybe, just maybe, it’s not a good idea to pay people not to work. Particularly when you trap them in lives of dependency and despair and undermine progress in the fight against poverty.

This chart shows that various handouts discourage low-income people from earning more money, and a recent blockbuster study from a couple of my colleagues at the Cato Institute revealed that welfare pays more than entry-level employment in dozens of states.

And a growing number of people are now aware that there’s been an explosion of food stamp dependency, so one hopes that all this knowledge eventually will translate into a new round of welfare reform.

Why am I optimistic? Well, because awareness already is leading to change in some very unexpected places. Even Scandinavian nations are realizing that there has to be a limit to incentive-killing and taxpayer-sapping redistribution.

Here are some excerpts from a remarkable Bloomberg report about developments in Denmark.

“We live in a world of global competition for jobs,” the 40-year-old minister said in an interview in Copenhagen. “For any finance minister wanting to be taken seriously, it’s something to deal with. That requires a modernization of the welfare state.” The AAA rated nation, whose economy contracted 0.2 percent in the first half, needs to contain welfare spending or risk losing the respect of investors, Corydon said. Danes, who like Swedes and Norwegians, are used to generous jobless pay as well as state-financed education and health care, need to learn that those privileges come at a cost, he said. …Denmark’s challenge now is to ensure its welfare habits don’t leave it unable to compete with populations that work harder at a lower cost, he said.

That’s a noteworthy passage, both because the Danish Finance Minister recognizes jurisdictional competition as a check on the welfare state (something confirmed by a study from German economists) and because Denmark is ruled by Social Democrats.

Yet even these leftists are grasping that it makes no sense to have a system that generates perverse incentives.

…out-of-work Danes in some cases earn even more than those in low-skilled jobs. An Aug. 27 report by the Economy Ministry showed that about 250,000 Danes have no economic incentive to give up their unemployment benefits and take a job. That compares with 2.64 million people in full- and part-time jobs, according to Statistics Danmark. …The Social Democrat-led coalition of Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, in office since 2011, has pushed through cuts including limiting unemployment benefits to two years from four years.

It’s hardly radical libertarianism to reduce unemployment benefits from four years to two years, but it is rather significant when even politicians realize that it’s not good – as illustrated by these powerful cartoons – to lure people into the wagon when nations need more people pulling the wagon.

The article even mentions “Lazy Robert,” a famous deadbeat who became the first Danish member of the Moocher Hall of Fame last April. No wonder Danes may be saying that enough is enough.

There’s even a bit of good news on the tax side of the fiscal ledger.

The government has responded to the economic slump by cutting the corporate tax rate, as well as some other taxes.

Sounds like Danish policy makers could give some lessons to their self-destructive American counterparts.

But you won’t be surprised to learn that  there’s still plenty of bad policy in Denmark. The politicians can’t resist, for instance, the siren song of Keynesian economics.

It plans to spend 44 billion kroner ($7.8 billion) next year on building railroads, highways and hospitals. …Corydon,…said he wants to keep public investments close to a 30-year high to create jobs.

By the way, it’s a bit depressing that Denmark actually ranks higher than the United States in the most recent Economic Freedom of the World rankings.

Yes, their welfare state is too big, their tax system is a nightmare, and they are saddled with one of the world’s most expensive bureaucracies, but Denmark has ultra-free market policies in other areas.

But even those laissez-faire policies no longer are apparently enough to compensate for bad fiscal policy.

P.S. Denmark may have Lazy Robert, but the United Kingdom has Natailija, Tracey, Anjem, and Gina and Danny, so if there was a welfare Olympics, the U.K. would have a lot more medals.

P.P.S. Speaking of poverty, you may be surprised that bureaucrats at the OECD assert that America has more poverty than some very poor nations. But that’s only because the Paris-based bureaucracy is trying to advance Obama’s redistribution agenda by redefining poverty to mean differences in income rather than lack of income. Sort of makes you wonder why we’re subsidizing their statist agenda with our tax dollars.

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I’m not a big fan of the European Commission. For those not familiar with this entity, it’s sort of the European version of the executive-branch bureaucracy we have in Washington. And like their counterparts in Washington, the Brussels-based bureaucracy enjoys a very lavish lifestyle while pushing for more government and engaging in bizarre forms of political correctness.

But just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, it appears that the European Commission is right once every century. Or perhaps once every millennium would be more accurate. Regardless, here are parts of a story I never thought would appear in my lifetime.

Olli Rehn: “Taxes shouldn’t be any higher than this”

According to the UK-based Independent, the European Commission – or at least one European Commissioner – now realizes that there’s such a thing as too much tax.

Tax increases imposed by the Socialist-led government in France have reached a “fatal level”, the European Union’s commissioner for economic affairs said today. Olli Rehn warned that a series of tax hikes since the Socialists took power 14 months ago – including €33bn in new taxes this year – threatens to “destroy growth and handicap the creation of jobs”.

Wow, that sounds like something I might have said.

But even though I endorsed him, Hollande has ignored my advice.

President Hollande has kept his electoral promise to attack French deficits and accumulated debt. He has done so, however, almost entirely by tax increases rather than by cuts in a state apparatus which swallows 56.6 per cent of the country’s GDP.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that tax hikes haven’t worked. Deficits today are still far higher than they were before the financial crisis. Yet the crazy French are not slowing down.

it has emerged that final budget plans for 2014 will include at least €6bn in tax rises. This figure does not include the impact of a programmed rise in the basic rate of VAT from 19.6 per cent to 20 per cent from January next year. …Mr Hollande’s 75 per cent “temporary” tax on incomes over €1m – also blocked by constitutional objections – may also finally take effect in 2014.

Geesh, no wonder even European bureaucrats are saying enough is enough.

Just like the IMF said that Greece had reached the tipping point where taxes were too high.

Just like the United Nations acknowledged the Laffer-Curve insight that taxes can be too high.

Just like the OECD admitted that better tax policy leads to more taxable income.

Just like the European Central Bank found big Laffer-Curve responses to changes in tax policy.

Hmmm…, makes you begin to think there’s a pattern and that people finally understand the Laffer Curve. Though let’s not get too optimistic since this common-sense observation about tax rates, taxable income, and tax revenue has not had any impact on the pro-tax bureaucrats at the Joint Committee on Taxation in Washington. But that’s a separate story.

I feel guilty about writing something favorable about the European Commission, so I want to close with some information showing that this bureaucracy is on the wrong side more than 99 percent of the time. Which should surprise anyone since it is headed by a former Maoist (who is eminently forgettable – other than the fact that he is unintentionally engaged in a contest to see who can be the most laughable European bureaucrat).

Let’s look at some highlights from the past few years.

European Commission bureaucrats lash out at credit rating companies for warning that governments may not be able to pay their bills.

European Commission bureaucrats squander millions of dollars on empty political correctness as they publish calendars that omit Christmas.

European Commission bureaucrats pissed away millions of dollars to create a green-skinned “Mr. Fruitness” superhero.

European Commission bureaucrats wasted money on comic books portraying themselves as super heroes.

But let’s set aside their perks and boondoggles and instead look at the bad policies generated by this army of paper pushers.

The European Commission pushes for tax harmonization because it is “unfair” for some nations to have lower taxes.

The European Commission advocates gender quotas at private businesses.

The European Commission is hostile to entrepreneurship and supports ever-higher levels of regulation and red tape.

The European Commission supports higher taxes as a “solution” to overspending by national governments.

The European Commission has decided that taxpayer-funded vacations are a human right.

The European Commission finances killing ducks at the absurd price of $750 each.

In other words, the crowd in Brussels is just as wasteful as the folks in Washington. And just as profligate as the people in Paris. And just as reckless as the group in London. And…well, you get the idea.

P.S. While the purpose of this post is to congratulate the European Commission on a rare bit of sanity, it’s worth noting that there’s another bureaucracy in Brussels called the European Parliament. I don’t think they’ve ever displayed any evidence of sanity. But since it doesn’t have much power, it also has little opportunity to do really stupid things. That being said, they enjoy a level of pampering that must make American lawmakers green with envy.

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As illustrated by this chart, economists are lousy forecasters.

To be more specific, economists are no better than fortune tellers when trying to make short-run macroeconomic forecasts. Heck, if we actually knew what was going to happen over the next 12 months, we’d all be billionaires.

But we can (on occasion) make sensible predictions about the long-run impact of various government policies. All other things being equal, for instance, it’s safe to say that countries with bigger governments will grow slower than nations that don’t divert as many resources from the private sector. Even the World Bank and European Central Bank agree with that common-sense proposition.

Another can’t-fail prediction is that bailouts will reward bad behavior and lead to dependency. That’s why I’m not at all surprised by the news that Greece will get another bailout.Greek Bailout 1 Indeed, if there was a least-surprising-headline contest, it would go to the EU Observer for this headline.

A third bailout? You mean the first two didn’t work? I’m shocked! Which is why we need to change to a least-surprising-headlines contest, Greek Bailout 2because we also have this headline from City AM.

And this one from the UK-based Times. Which they may want to save for when it’s time for the fourth bailout. Greek Bailout 3And the fifth bailout. And…well, you get the idea.

Makes you wonder why the Germans (and the Dutch, Finns, Swedes, etc) keep subsidizing bad behavior elsewhere. Greek Bailout 4Yet these people apparently don’t care about moral hazard, so we see this headline from the Telegraph.

Last but not least, here’s what the BBC wrote. Greek Bailout 5

Given all these headlines from today, you can see why I felt safe in predicting a couple of days ago for Canadian TV that Europe was still in bad shape. Simply stated, government is far too big and costs far too much.

Yes, there are a few bright spots, such as Switzerland and the Baltic nations, but the fiscal debate in Europe is mostly between those who want higher taxes and those who want higher spending.

With that kind of contest, there are no winners other than politicians.

P.S. The ostensible purpose of the interview was to discuss Europe’s supposed recovery. I explained a few days ago why nobody should be impressed by the anemic growth on the other side of the Atlantic. But I think any changes in short-run economic performance – for better or worse – are far less important than the long-run projections of expanding government and growing dependency in Europe.

P.P.S. Americans shouldn’t feel cocky or superior. Long-run projections from the BIS, OECD, and IMF all show that the United States will be in deep trouble if we don’t engage in genuine entitlement reform.

P.P.P.S. Since I was talking to a Canadian audience, I mentioned that Europe should copy the spending restraint Canada enjoyed in the 1990s. You can click here to learn more about happened north of the border (and why the United States also should copy the same policy).

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The United States is suffering through the weakest economic expansion since the Great Depression, which is a damning indictment of Obamanomics.

But that doesn’t mean the United States has the world’s worst-performing economy. Japan’s statist economy has been mired in stagnation for more than 20 years, which is about what you might expect in a nation where the government is so omnipresent that it even regulates coffee enemas.

But if you really want to feel good about America’s economy (at least in relative terms), then a comparison to Europe is probably akin to snorting cocaine.

The welfare states on the other side of the Atlantic are in such poor shape that they celebrate even the tiniest glimmer of good news. Here are some blurbs from a story in the EU Observer.

The eurozone economy has moved out of recession, according to unexpectedly strong data published on Wednesday (14 August) by Eurostat, the EU’s statistical agency.

So what is this “strong data” mentioned in the story? Did eurozone economies grow at a 4 percent annual pace? 5 percent?

Well….not exactly.

Economic output rose by 0.3 percent across both the euro area and the EU28 during the second quarter of 2013, compared with the previous quarter. Surprisingly, it was Portugal which, despite recent social unrest and political turmoil over its bailout programme, saw the biggest jump in growth, with its economy growing by 1.1 percent. Finland and Germany recorded growth of 0.7 percent, while, France recorded a 0.5 percent growth rate, which will dampen concerns that the country’s economy will remain stagnant in 2013. The statistics indicate that the European economy is recovering faster than expected and could post an overall growth rate for 2013.

Huh, 0.3 percent is something to celebrate?!? These are quarterly numbers, so you should multiply by four to get annual rates, but even that doesn’t translate into “strong data.”

Moreover, if you look at the actual report from eurostat, you’ll see that the year-over-year numbers still show recession. So it’s far from clear that one quarter of anemic growth should be considered the start of a recovery.

Yet the expectations are so low in these over-taxed and over-regulated welfare states that the mandarins at the European Commission are breaking out the champagne.

In a statement, EU eurozone commissioner Olli Rehn described the news as “encouraging” and said that “the European economy is gradually gaining momentum.”

I guess the European economy is gaining momentum if you use a glacier as your benchmark.

I’m not trying to mock Europeans just for the heck of it. The serious point in this post is that the United States has been gradually moving in the direction of becoming a French-style welfare state during the statist Bush-Obama years.

And even though I like to think of America as being special, the consequences of more spending, more taxes, and more regulation are just as bad on this side of the ocean as they are on the other side of the ocean.

As you can see from the chart, America has enjoyed a big advantage over Europeans if you look at living standards. And maybe we always will maintain an advantage if they move even farther in the wrong direction at the same time that the United States is adopting counterproductive policies.

But why would we want to copy the misguided policies of nations that are collapsing?

Particularly when we have examples of jurisdictions that are now more prosperous than the United States and they lead the world in maintaining the tried-and-true recipe of free markets and small government.

P.S. If you look at the EU data, you’ll see that the Baltic nations are doing better than average, which is at least somewhat due to the fact that they have pursued better policy than their European neighbors.

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When I’m in Europe giving speeches and participating in conferences, it’s quite common that folks on the left will attempt to discredit my views by asserting that Americans are selfish and greedy.

Since I’m generally sympathetic to Ayn Rand’s writings, I don’t see anything wrong with people striving to make themselves better off. Moreover, Adam Smith noted back in 1776 that the desire to earn more money leads other people to make our lives better. One of his most famous observations is that, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

But, for the sake of argument, let’s accept the premise of my statist friends in Europe and simply look at whether their assertion is correct. Are Americans more selfish and greedy that their counterparts across the ocean?

The most obvious way of testing this proposition is to compare rates and levels of voluntary charity. Selfish and greedy people presumably will cling to their money while compassionate and socially conscious people will share their blessings with others.

So how does the United State compare to other nations? Well, I’m not a big fan of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, but the bureaucrats in Paris are quite good at collecting statistics from member nations and producing apples-to-apples comparisons.

And if you look at rates of “voluntary private social expenditure” among nations, it turns out that Americans are easily the most generous people in the developed world.

Voluntary Social Expenditure in OECD Nations

Wow, people in the United States are so generous that their voluntary giving amounts to 10.2 percent of gross domestic product. The only other nations that even crack 5 percent of GDP are the Netherlands, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

Most of the supposedly compassionate welfare states have dismal levels of charitable giving. Voluntary social expenditure in major European nations such as France, Germany, Italy, and Spain averages less than 2 percent of GDP.

It’s also worth noting that these numbers actually understate the charity gap between Americans and folks from other nations. Economic output in the United States is about 30 percent higher than it is in the rest of the developed world, so charitable giving by Americans actually represents a much bigger slice of a much bigger pie.

Statists might respond by asserting that Europeans express their generosity through the public sector. I reject that comparison since – as I explained when criticizing a Michael Gerson column – it’s wrong to equate government coercion with private charity.

But even if you have the European mindset that government should be a vehicle for redistribution, the OECD numbers show that there’s not much difference between the United States and other developed nations. According to the OECD data, government redistributes 20 percent of GDP in America compared to an average of 21.9 percent of GDP for all OECD nations. And since there’s strong evidence that government redistribution undermines progress in the fight against poverty, I actually wish there was a big gap between America and other nations!

And don’t forget, by the way, that 20 percent of U.S. GDP is a lot more money than 21.9 percent of GDP in other nations, so government in the United States spends more on redistribution, on average, than other OECD governments. Indeed, I’ve already shared healthcare numbers making that same point.

P.S. It’s also worth sharing the data showing that proponents of small government in the United States are far more generous than those who favor a big welfare state.

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The late, great Margaret Thatcher famously said that “Socialist governments…always run out of other people’s money” and “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” is an iconic line from Apocalypse Now.

Thinking about the fiscal mess in Europe, I’m going to combine these two sentiments and state that, “I love it when statists run out of victims and start cannibalizing each other.”

And that’s about to happen in France.

The burden of government spending is enormous, with the public sector consuming 57 percent of economic output.

That’s more than either Greece or Sweden!

If something isn’t done, France will suffer a Greek-style crisis as investors lose trust in the government’s ability to pay its bills.

The situation is so bad that even the country’s Socialist President claims that he plans to cut spending, but he faces a revolt in his own party from those who refuse to recognize reality. Here are some excerpts from a column in the UK-based Telegraph.

President Francois Hollande has already angered much of his own Socialist base with plans to cut spending next year in absolute terms for the first time since 1958, but this may be just start of the battle. The Cour des Comptes said France is not even “halfway” through its fiscal squeeze. …”France is drifting away. Like a receeding wave, it is retreating little by little from the global economy, imperceptibly in the past, but visibly so today,” said Jean-Pierre Letartre, Ernst & Young’s chief in France. …The government has pencilled in economic contraction of 0.3pc this year, with a weak recovery starting in the second half, but a chorus of private economists fear far worse if there is any outside shock. “It could be as much as minus 1.5pc,” said Jean-Michel Six from Standard & Poor’s. …Mr Hollande has so far gone along with EU austerity demands, backing away from his pledge for a New Deal growth strategy in the elections last year. But his poll ratings have crashed at the fastest rate ever for a new president, and much of his own party is near revolt.

I’ll be surprised if France actually follows through with genuine spending cuts, but you can see from this chart that the time for fiscal restraint is long overdue.

French Spending, 2003-2012

To be somewhat optimistic, it’s worth noting that governments will do the right thing when there’s no other alternative.

Greece, for instance, has cut spending three years in a row, bringing the budget down from 124 billion euro in 2009 to 106 billion euro last year. Unfortunately, there have also been big tax hikes, and the overall level of spending is still about where it was in 2007, so Greece is far from a role model. But at least the era of ever-rising outlays has ended.

And I’ve already pointed out that the Baltic nations are a role model since they made genuine spending cuts the moment the crisis began and they’re now enjoying an economic rebound.

I realize this will be the understatement of the year, but France is not going to be the new Estonia.

Unlike the Canadian Liberal Party or Australian Labor Party, it does not appear that the Socialist Party in France is willing to recognize reality and do the right thing.

But the good news is that they don’t have any room to raise taxes. Successful people already are leaving the country because of punitive tax rates, and I suspect even President Hollande privately understands that France is on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve.

So I expect there will be a fight. On one side, we’ll have the rational statists who recognize that spending cuts are needed to avoided a fiscal crisis. On the other side, we’ll have the irrational statists who blindly think more money can be squeezed from the rich with more class-warfare tax policy.

Let’s hope for heavy casualties on both sides.

P.S. There’s a lot to like about France, and I reported a few years ago that it was ranked as the top nation for good living. But that’s only if you already are rich. Now that the French national sport is taxation, productive people who want to become rich have a big incentive to go someplace else.

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For my birthday last year, the only present I wanted was for the Supreme Court to uphold the Constitution and reject Obamacare.

Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Instead, the Chief Justice put politics above the law and made a mockery of his Oath of Office.

So I’m now a bit superstitious and I’m not going to write about anything I want today or in the future. But I will pretend that something good happened because it’s my birthday, so let’s celebrate the fact that the European Union has basically made the right decision on how to deal with insolvent banks.

Technically, it happened yesterday, the day before my birthday, but it’s being reported today, and that’s close enough for me. Here are some details from the EU Observer.

Bank shareholders and creditors will be first in line to suffer losses if their bank gets into difficulties, according to draft rules agreed by ministers in the early hours of Thursday morning… Under the new regime, banks’ creditors and shareholders would be the first to take losses. But if this proves insufficient to rescue the bank in question, savers holding uninsured deposits worth more than €100,000 would also take a hit.

This is basically the “FDIC-resolution” approach that I’ve mentioned before, and it’s sort of what happened in Cyprus (after the politicians tried every other option).

And it’s the opposite of the corrupt TARP system that the Bush and Obama Administrations imposed on the American people.

The reason this new European approach is good is that it puts the pressure for sound business decisions where it belongs – with the shareholders who own the bank and with the big creditors (such as bondholders) who should be responsible for monitoring the underlying safety and soundness of a bank before lending it money.

And rich people (depositors with more than €100,000) also should be smart enough to apply some due diligence before putting their money someplace.

The last people to bear any costs should be taxpayers. They don’t own the bank. They don’t invest in the bank. And they don’t have big bucks. So why should they bear the cost when the big-money people screw up?!? Especially when TARP-style bailouts promote moral hazard!

I’m sure the new system won’t be properly implemented, that there are some bad details in the fine print, and there will be too many opportunities for back-door bailouts and cronyism, but let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Happy Birthday to me. And such an unexpected present: Something good actually came out of Europe!

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If young people in Europe were a company, I would be telling you to sell the stock.

Why? Well, because politicians want to help them. And, as perfectly illustrated by this Eric Allie cartoon (as well as the cartoon he has at the bottom of this post), government at best unintentionally harms those it tries to help.

To see what I’m talking about, here’s some of what the EU Observer is reporting today.

EU leaders gathering in Brussels on Thursday (27 June) for a two-day summit will again turn to measures aimed at helping young people to get jobs, as unemployment figures soar in southern countries. The summit kicks off at 4.30pm local time with a meeting between leaders, trade unions and employers’ associations, to hear what actions they are taking to boost youth employment. …The European Commission has already drafted a paper on how the EIB could boost its lending powers. Its loans are used mostly by small and medium enterprises, which could hire more young people if they get the money to fund expansion. Under the most ambitious scenario, EIB lending could exceed €100 billion.

How stereotypical. Big business, big labor, and big government are getting together and considering a €100 billion slush fund that will line their pockets.

They want us to believe this will lead to more jobs for young people, but they overlook (and hope we’re unaware of) Bastiat’s warning about the seen and the unseen.

Expanding the EIB will simply divert resources from more productive uses.

So what’s the answer? Here’s what I recommended as part of some speeches earlier this month in Europe.

I began with what should be a common-sense observation that businesses won’t create jobs unless they think new workers will add to the bottom line.

Youth Unemployment 1

I then outlined some of the ways big government undermines incentives to create jobs by making workers more expensive.

Youth Unemployment 2

I also explained that Keynesian spending schemes won’t create jobs.

Youth Unemployment 3

Last but not least, I warned that workers will be less likely to seek jobs if government handouts alter the tradeoff between work and leisure.

Youth Unemployment 4

Regarding this final slide, I shared in my speeches this amazing chart about the anti-work incentives created by the safety net in the United States, as well as some similar startling data from the United Kingdom.

Sadly, none of my audiences included senior European officials. And even if they were in the audience, I doubt they would have learned anything.

After all, why support an agenda of free markets and small government when that would reduce their power and influence?

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In my never-ending crusade to push for the right kind of austerity, I appeared on RT to pontificate on the merits of limited government.

We got to cover a lot of material, so here’s some augmenting material.

1. The right kind of “austerity” is less government spending, which is why I’m very frustrated that the fight in Europe is largely between Keynesians who support more spending and IMF types who advocate higher taxes.

2. I explain why Keynesian economics is misguided, in part because government can’t spend money without taking resources from the productive sector of the economy and in part because politicians never follow through on Keynesian prescriptions for fiscal restraint when the economy is strong..

3. In an example of how to damn with faint praise, I give the International Monetary Fund credit for understanding that 2+2=4, though I also criticize the IMF for shifting from one bad approach (higher taxes) to another bad approach (Keynesian spending).

4. We discuss how many European nations got in trouble and then looked at how various governments responded to the crisis. Not surprisingly, I praise Switzerland for never getting in trouble and I commend the Baltic nations for rectifying their mistakes with genuine spending cuts.

5. I even give the “PIIGS” credit for slowing the growth of spending, albeit only after they had exhausted every possible bad policy option.

6. Not all government spending is created equal and I explain that Europe’s problem is that far too much money is spent on the welfare state.

7. I close with some analysis of the data fight between Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and the Heritage Foundation. As I’ve already explained, the Senator was the one relying on speculative data.

Showing that I have a tiny bit of non-economic knowledge, I even quoted Saint Augustine, though I’m sure he would be horribly offended that I indirectly equated him with politicians.

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At the European Resource Bank conference earlier this month, Pierre Bessard from Switzerland’s Institut Liberal spoke on a panel investigating “The Link between the Weight of the State and Economic prosperity.”

His presentation included two slides that definitely are worth sharing.

The first slide, which is based on research from the Boston Consulting Group, looks at which jurisdictions have the most households with more than $1 million of wealth.

Switzerland is the easy winner, and you probably won’t be surprised to see Hong Kong and Singapore also do very well.

Switzerland Liberal Institute 2

Gee, I wonder if the fact that Switzerland (#4), Hong Kong (#1), and Singapore (#2) score highly on the Economic Freedom of the World index has any connection with their comparative prosperity?

That’s a rhetorical question, of course.

Most sensible people already understand that countries with free markets and small government out-perform nations with big welfare states and lots of intervention.

Speaking of which, let’s look at Pierre’s slide that compares Swiss public finances with the dismal numbers from Eurozone nations.

Switzerland Liberal Institute 1

The most impressive part of this data is the way Switzerland has maintained a much smaller burden of government spending.

One reason for this superior outcome is the Swiss “Debt Brake,” a voter-imposed spending cap that basically prevents politicians from increasing spending faster than inflation plus population.

Now let’s compare Switzerland and France, which is what I did last Saturday at the Free Market Road Show conference in Paris.

As part of my remarks, I asked the audience whether they thought that their government, which consumes 57 percent of GDP, gives them better services than Germany’s government, which consumes 45 percent of GDP.

They said no.

I then asked if they got better government than citizens of Canada, where government consumes 41 percent of GDP.

They said no.

And I concluded by asking them whether they got better government than the people of Switzerland, where government is only 34 percent of economic output (I used OECD data for my comparisons, which is why my numbers are not identical to Pierre’s numbers).

Once again, they said no.

The fundamental question, then, is why French politicians impose such a heavy burden of government spending – with a very high cost to the economy – when citizens don’t get better services?

Or maybe the real question is why French voters elect politicians that pursue such senseless policies?

But to be fair, we should ask why American voters elected Bush and Obama, both of whom have made America more like France?

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I’m not reluctant to criticize my friends at the Heritage Foundation. In some cases, it is good-natured ribbing because of the Cato-Heritage softball rivalry, but there are also real policy disagreements.

For instance, even though it is much better than current policy, I don’t like parts of Heritage’s “Saving the American Dream” budget plan. It’s largely designed to prop up the existing Social Security system rather than replace the existing tax-and-transfer entitlement system with personal retirement accounts. And while the plan contains a flat tax, it’s not the pure Hall-Rabushka version. One of the most alarming deviations, to cite just one example, is that it creates a tax preference for higher education that would enable higher tuition costs and more bureaucratic featherbedding.

That being said, I’m also willing to defend Heritage if the organization is being wrongly attacked. The specific issue we’ll review today is “austerity” in Europe and whether Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island is right to accuse Heritage of “meretricious” testimony.

Let’s look at the details.

Earlier this month, Paul Krugman wrote that, “a Heritage Foundation economist has been accused of presenting false, deliberately misleading data and analysis to the Senate Budget Committee.” Krugman was too clever to assert that the Heritage economist “did present” dishonest data, but if you read his short post, he clearly wants readers to believe that an unambiguous falsehood has been exposed.

Krugman, meanwhile, was simply linking to the Washington Post, which was the source of a more detailed critique. The disagreement revolves around  whether Europeans have cut spending or raised taxes, and by how much. The Heritage economist cited one set of OECD data, while critics have cited another set of data.

So who is right?

Conn Carroll of the Washington Examiner explains that the Heritage economist was looking at OECD data for 2007-2012 while critics are relying on an OECD survey of what politicians in various countries say they’ve done since 2009 as well as what they plan to do between now and 2015.

Whitehouse believed he had caught Furth and The Heritage Foundation in a bald face lie. …There is just one problem with Whitehouse’s big gotcha moment: The staffer who spoon-fed Whitehouse his OECD numbers on “the actual balance between spending cuts and tax increases” failed to also show Whitehouse the front page of the OECD report from which those numbers came. That report is titled: “Fiscal consolidation targets, plans and measures in OECD countries.” Turns out, the numbers Whitehouse used to attack Furth for misreporting “what took place in Europe” were actually mostly projections of what governments said they were planning to do in the future (the report was written in December 2011 and looked at data from 2009 and projections through 2015). At no point in Furth’s testimony did he ever claim to be reporting about what governments were going to do in the future. He very plainly said his analysis was of actual spending and taxing data “to date.” Odds are that Whitehouse made an honest mistake. Senators can’t be expected actually to read the title page of every report from which they quote. But, considering he was the one who was very clearly in error, and not Furth, he owes Furth, and The Heritage Foundation an apology. Krugman and Matthews would be well advised to revisit the facts as well.

In other words, critics of Heritage are relying largely on speculative data about what politicians might (or might not) do in the future to imply that the Heritage economist was wrong in his presentation of what’s actually happened over the past six years.

So far, we’ve simply addressed whether Heritage was unfairly attacked. The answer, quite clearly, is yes. If you don’t believe me, peruse the OECD data or peruse the IMF data.

Now let’s briefly touch on the underlying policy debate. Keynesians such as Krugman assert that there have been too many spending cuts in Europe.  The “austerity” crowd, by contrast, argues that strong steps are needed to deal with deficits and debt, though they are agnostic about whether to rely on spending reforms or tax increases.

I’ve repeatedly explained that Europe’s real problem is an excessive burden of government spending.  I want politicians to cut spending (or at least make sure it grows slower than the productive sector of the economy). And rather than increasing the tax burden, I want them to lower rates and reform punitive tax systems.

The bad news is that Europeans have raised taxes. A lot. The semi-good news is that spending no longer is growing as fast as it was before the fiscal crisis.

In the grand scheme of things, however, I think Europe is still headed down the wrong path. Here’s what I wrote back in January and it’s still true today.

I don’t sense any commitment to smaller government. I fear governments will let the spending genie out of the bottle at the first opportunity. And we’re talking about a scary genie, not Barbara Eden. And to make matters worse, Europe faces a demographic nightmare. These charts, reproduced from a Bank for International Settlements study, show that even the supposedly responsible nations in Europe face a tsunami of spending and debt over the next 25-plus years. So you can understand why I don’t express a lot of optimism about European economic policy.

By the way, I’m not optimistic about the long-term fiscal outlook for the United States either. In the absence of genuine entitlement reform, we’ll sooner or later have our own fiscal crisis.

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Although he implemented a flat tax in Russia, I don’t think of Vladimir Putin as a supporter of free markets.

Heck, he was head of the a senior officer of the KGB during the communist era, and he presides over a country that is more known for cronyism rather than competitive markets.

So if he criticizes European nations for having excessive welfare states, it’s like being called ugly by a frog.

Here are some of the amusing details from Euractiv.com.

He’s no Milton Friedman, but he’s right about the welfare state

Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking ahead of the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland on 17-18 June, said his country would not follow the mistakes of Europe that led to the eurozone crisis. In a wide-ranging interview he blamed the EU’s “mentality” for endangering the economy and the “moral basics of society”. …Asked if Europe’s welfare state model can be competitive today, Putin said Europe is living beyond its means, losing control of the economic situation and that Europe’s structural distortions were “unacceptable” to Russia. “Many European countries are witnessing a rise of [the] dependency mentality when not working is often much more beneficial than working. This type of mentality endangers not only the economy but also the moral basics of the society. It is not a secret that many citizens of less developed countries come to Europe intentionally to live on social welfare,” Putin said.

It’s hard to disagree with anything Putin says in that passage.

Seems like he understands that Europe made a big mistake by having too many people in the wagon and too few people pulling the wagon.

Addendum: Oops, I gave Putin an undeserved promotion. He was a high-ranking KGB official – Lieutenant Colonel – but did not head that warm and cuddly organization.

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It goes without saying that I’m always ready to defend tax havens when statists are seeking to undermine tax competition, financial privacy, and fiscal sovereignty.

So when the BBC asked if I would debate the topic, I said yes even though I’m in Paris (where supporting liberty is probably a capital crime).

I think the debate went well. Or, to be more precise, I was happy that I got to make my points.

I’ve been in debates on tax havens when I’m outnumbered 3-1, so a fair fight almost seems like a treat.

P.S. If you have a burning desire to watch me debate tax havens, you can see me cross swords with a bunch of different statists by clicking here.

P.P.S. Or if you like watching when I’m outnumbered, here’s my debate against three leftists on state-run TV.

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It is reported that Henry Kissinger, commenting on the Iran-Iraq war, said something to the effect that, “Too bad both sides can’t lose.” I imagine lots of people felt the same way when two of the world’s worst murderers, Hitler and Stalin, went to war in 1941.

I have the same attitude about the fiscal fight in Europe. On one side, you have “austerity” proponents of higher taxes. On the other side, you have Keynesians who think a higher burden of government spending will produce growth.

Since I want lower spending and lower taxes, I have a hard time cheering for either group. As I say in this John Stossel interview, “there’s nobody in Europe who’s actually advancing that position that…the transfer of resources from the private sector to the government…is what hurts your economy.”*

But at least the fight is entertaining, especially since former allies at the International Monetary Fund and European Commission are now in a public spat.

Here are some blurbs from a New York Times report.

…tensions…have now burst into the open with an unusual bout of finger-pointing over policies that have pushed parts of Europe into an economic slump more severe than the Great Depression and left the Continent as a whole far short of even Japan’s anemic recovery. The blame game [was] initiated by a highly critical internal I.M.F. report released this week in Washington… Speaking Friday at an economic conference in his home country of Finland, Mr. Rehn, the usually phlegmatic commissioner of economic and monetary affairs, sounded like a put-upon spouse in a messy breakup. “I don’t think it’s fair and just for the I.M.F. to wash its hands and throw dirty water on the Europeans,” he said. He was responding to assertions by the I.M.F. that the European Commission, the union’s executive arm, had blocked proposals back in 2010 to make investors share more of the pain by writing down Greece’s debt and, more generally, had neglected the importance of structural reforms to lift Europe’s sluggish economy. Simon O’Connor, Mr. Rehn’s spokesman, said the report had made some valid points, but he derided as “plainly wrong and unfounded” a claim that the commission had not done enough to promote growth through reform.

The most accurate assessment is that neither the IMF nor the European Commission have done much to promote growth. But that’s not changing now that the IMF is migrating more toward the Keynesian camp (jumping out of the higher-tax frying pan into the higher-spending fire).

A “hands-off” approach would have been the right way for the IMF and European Commission to deal with the fiscal crisis in Greece and other nations. Without access to bailout funds and having lost access to credit markets, profligate governments would have been forced to immediately balance their budgets.

This wouldn’t necessarily have produced good policy since many of the governments would have raised taxes (which they did anyhow!), but a few nations in Southern Europe may have done the right thing by copying the Baltic nations and implementing genuine spending cuts.

Let’s finish up this post by speculating on what will happen next. I’m actually vaguely hopeful in the short run, largely because governments have exhausted all the bad policy options. It’s hard to imagine additional tax hikes at this stage. Heck, even the IMF has admitted that nations such as Greece are at the point on the Laffer Curve where revenues go down.

Moreover, many of these governments have slowed the growth of spending in the past couple of years, and if they can maintain even a modest bit of fiscal discipline over the next few years, that should boost growth by shrinking government spending as a share of economic output.

But continued spending restraint is vital. The burden of government spending is still far too high in the PIIGS nations, even when merely compared to pre-crisis spending levels.

P.S. Paul Krugman has been the main cheerleader for the spend-more Keynesian crowd, but he has an unfortunate habit of screwing up numbers, as you can see from his work on Estonia, the United KingdomFrance, and the PIIGS.

P.P.S. I’m not a fan of the euro, but Europe’s common currency shouldn’t be blamed for the mess in Europe.

P.P.P.S. You can read my thoughts here on the Rogoff-Reinhart kerfuffle, which deals with many of the same issues as this post.

*To be fair, there are a few policy experts who understand that Europe’s problem is excessive government spending. Even European voters seem to recognize that spending needs to be cut. The challenge is getting a corrupt political class to make good choices.

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I want a smaller burden of government spending, so you can only imagine how frustrating it is for me to observe the fight in Europe.

On one side of the debate you have pro-spenders, who call themselves “growth” advocates, but are really just Keynesians. On the other side of the debate, you have pro-taxers, who claim to favor “austerity,” but actually just want big government financed by taxes rather than borrowing.

I had a chance to condemn these statist policy prescriptions in an appearance on the John Stossel show.

Here are 10 takeaways from the discussion, along with links to further information.

  1. The main point of the interview was to explain that government spending hasn’t been cut in Europe, with the United Kingdom being a poster child for bad policy (you won’t be surprised that Paul Krugman hasn’t bothered to look at the actual numbers).
  2. Austerity in Europe generally is just a code word for higher taxes. Governments only restrain spending as a last resort.
  3. Excessive spending is the problem, but many people mistakenly fixate on government borrowing.
  4. Keynesian spending doesn’t work, regardless of when it’s been tried.
  5. The Baltic nations are a rare good example of how to respond to a crisis (and another example of Krugman misreading the data), though I should have mentioned that Switzerland never got in trouble in the first place because of its admirable fiscal policy.
  6. We also discussed some historical examples of good policy, such as fiscal restraint in Canada and New Zealand, as well as a shrinking burden of government spending during the Clinton years.
  7. At the end of the interview segment, I say the goal should be to reduce the size of government relative to the productive sector of the economy. I wasn’t narcissistic enough to say “Mitchell’s Golden Rule” on air, but I did say that good fiscal policy occurs when government grows slower than the private sector.
  8. In the Q&A section at the end, I talked about the economic impact of different forms of government spending. Politicians and other defenders of statism like to highlight capital spending, which can have positive effects, but they overlook the fact that the vast majority of government outlays are for things that hinder growth.
  9. Most important, I made the key point about poor people are much better off in pro-market, small-government jurisdictions such as Singapore and Hong Kong, where at least they have opportunity, rather than France or Italy, where the best they can hope for is permanent dependency.
  10. Last but not least, I express some optimism about the possibility of genuine entitlement reform, though I should have acknowledged that nothing good will happen while Obama is in office.

It’s always great to do a show with Stossel since he genuinely care about freedom and wants to explore the details. In previous appearances on his show, I’ve discussed dishonest fiscal policy in Washington, the differences between Texas and California, and the reverse Midas touch of government.

P.S. There is at least one person in Europe who understands the real problem is too much spending.

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Political insiders remember Tim Geithner for his role in promoting the bailout culture and crony capitalism in Washington.

Comedians remember him for the laughable hypocrisy of urging higher taxes for others while cheating on his own tax return.

Gump-GeithnerBut I mostly think of him as being the Forrest Gump of international economics.

This was the guy, after all, who unintentionally caused Chinese students to burst out laughing in 2009 when he claimed the Obama Administration supported a strong dollar.

And Europeans told him to get lost when he tried to lecture them on fiscal policy in 2011. But don’t think they were being rude. They already had to endure his bad advice earlier that year and back in 2010 as well.

Well, Geithner’s successor apparently is equally oblivious. He’s badgering the Germans to adopt Keynesian policies to “stimulate” growth, even though the Germans are doing better than most other European nations – in part because they are one of the few nations that have reduced the burden of government spending in recent years!

Here are some blurbs from the EU Observer on Treasury Secretary Lew’s attempt to export bad ideas.

US treasury secretary Jack Lew will repeat calls for Germany to stimulate demand in order to drag the eurozone out of recession, according to US government sources. …The US stance is likely to meet resistance from the German government, which is reluctant to increase wages and stimulate domestic spending, preferring instead to keep wages low to encourage manufacturing and exports. But Berlin is under pressure to reduce its 7 percent export surplus. In April, Lew used his first trip to Berlin as Treasury Secretary to urge counterpart Wolfgang Schaueble to put in place measures to stimulate consumer spending. For his part, Schaueble commented that neither the US or Germany should try to give “lessons” or “grades” to each other.

I’m actually in favor of giving “lessons” and “grades” to governments, but not if it’s a case of the blind leading the blind.

This is not to say that Germany has good fiscal policy. Indeed, the best that can be said about the Merkel government is that it hasn’t moved Germany much further in the wrong direction in recent years.

The Obama Administration, by contrast, is moving the United States in the wrong direction at faster pace, so the last thing the Germans need is advice from Treasury Secretary Lew or anyone else associated with the White House.

P.S. If you want some unintentional humor, the Washington Post referred to Germany as being “fiscally conservative.”

P.P.S. As you can see here and here, there’s little reason to be optimistic about the intellectual climate in Germany.

P.P.P.S. But at least we have some amusing videos involving Germany, as you can see here, here, and here.

P.P.P.P.S. Geithner also should be remembered for pushing through an IRS regulation that forces American banks to put foreign tax law above U.S. tax law.

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The most important, powerful, and relevant argument against the value-added tax in the short run is that we can balance the budget in just five years by capping spending so it grows at the rate of inflation, a very modest level of fiscal restraint.

The most important, powerful, and relevant argument against the value-added tax in the long run is that more than 100 percent of America’s long-term fiscal problem is too much spending.

So why even consider giving politicians a new source of revenue such as the VAT, particularly since this hidden form of national sales tax helped cause the European fiscal crisis by facilitating a bigger welfare state?*

And now Europeans are doubling down on that failed approach, thus confirming that politicians will rarely make necessary spending reforms if they think more revenue can be squeezed from taxpayers.

Here’s a chart taken from the recent European Commission report on taxation trends in the EU. As you can see, the average VAT rate in Europe has jumped by nearly 2 percentage points in just five years.

VAT EU Increase

As I explained last week, European politicians also have been increasing income tax rates, so taxpayers are getting punished when they earn their income and they’re getting punished when they spend their income.

Which helps to explain why much of Europe is suffering from economic stagnation. Given the perverse incentives created by redistributionist fiscal policy, it makes more sense to climb in the wagon of government dependency.

For more information, here’s my video that describes the VAT and explains why it’s a bad idea.

*The same thing is now happening in Japan.

P.S. I don’t know if you’ll want to laugh or cry, but the tax-free bureaucrats at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development actually argue that the VAT is good for jobs and growth.

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Paul Krugman recently tried to declare victory for Keynesian economics over so-called austerity, but all he really accomplished was to show that tax-financed government spending is bad for prosperity.

More specifically, he presented a decent case against the European-IMF version of “austerity,” which has produced big tax increases.

But what happens if nations adopt the libertarian approach, which means “austerity” is imposed on the government, rather than on taxpayers?

In the past, Krugman’s also has tried to argue that European nations have erred by cutting spending, but this has led to some embarrassing mistakes.

Now we have some additional evidence about the absence of spending austerity in Europe. A leading public finance economist from Ireland, Constantin Gurdgiev, reviewed the IMF data and had a hard time finding any spending cuts.

…in celebration of that great [May 1] socialist holiday, “In Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy and France tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demand jobs and an end to years of belt-tightening”. Except, no one really asked them what did the mean by ‘belt-tightening’. …let’s check out expenditure side of Europe’s ‘savage austerity’ story… The picture hardly shows much of any ‘savage cuts’ anywhere in sight.

As seen in his chart, Constantin compared government spending burdens in 2012 to the average for the pre-recession period, thus allowing an accurate assessment of what’s happened to the size of the public sector over a multi-year period.

Austerity in Europe

Here are some of his conclusions from reviewing the data.

Of the three countries that experienced reductions in Government spending as % of GDP compared to the pre-crisis period, Germany posted a decline of 1.26 percentage points (from 46.261% of GDP average for 2003-2007 period to 45.005% for 2012), Malta posted a reduction of just 0.349 ppt and Sweden posted a reduction of 1.37 ppt.

No peripheral country – where protests are the loudest – or France et al have posted a reduction. In France, Government spending rose 3.44 ppt on pre-crisis level as % of GDP, in Greece by 4.76 ppt, in Ireland by 7.74 ppt, in Italy by 2.773 ppt, in Portugal by 0.562 ppt, and in Spain by 8.0 ppt.

Average Government spending in the sample in the pre-crisis period run at 44.36% of GDP and in 2012 this number was 48.05% of GDP. In other words: it went up, not down.

…All in, there is no ‘savage austerity’ in spending levels or as % of GDP.

I’ll add a few additional observations.

Sweden and Germany are among the three nations that have reduced the burden of government spending as a share of GDP, and both of those nations are doing better than their European neighbors.

Switzerland isn’t an EU nation, so it’s not included in Constantin’s chart, but government spending as a share of economic output also has been reduced in that nation over the same period, and the Swiss economy also is doing comparatively well.

The moral of the story is that reducing the burden of government spending is the right recipe for sustainable and strong growth. Growth also is far more likely if lawmakers refrain from class-warfare tax policy and instead seek to collect revenue in ways that minimize the damage to prosperity.

Unfortunately, that’s not happening in Europe…and it’s not happening in the United States.

A few countries are moving in the right direction, such as Canada, but with still a long way to travel.

The best role models are still Hong Kong and Singapore, and it’s no coincidence that those two jurisdictions regularly dominate the top two spots in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings.

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Statists are in a tough position. For years, they’ve been saying the United States should be more like Europe.

And, as shown in these very funny cartoons by Michael Ramirez and Bob Gorrell, President Obama is a cheerleader for that effort.

But now Europe’s welfare states are collapsing, so the left is scrambling to come up with some way of rationalizing their support for ever-growing levels of taxation and spending

Paul Krugman’s been doing what he can to square this circle, complaining that Europe is in trouble because governments aren’t spending enough. Sounds preposterous, but at least he provides some comfort for the don’t-confuse-us-with-the-facts-we’re-Keynesians crowd.

But for those who prefer to look at real data, one of my Cato Institute colleagues has sorted through the numbers to see whether Krugman’s hypothesis has any validity. Here’s some of what Alan Reynolds wrote for Investor’s Business Daily, reprinted by Real Clear Politics, starting with a quick look at some nations that experienced growth during periods when the burden of government spending was falling.

In Iceland, which didn’t throw taxpayer money at the banks, government spending was slashed from 57.6% of GDP in 2008 to 46.5% in 2012. The deficit fell from 12.9% of GDP to 3.4%. The economy began to recover in 2011. Iceland’s economic boost from fiscal frugality was neither unorthodox nor unique. After all, the U.S. economy boomed in the late 1990s when federal spending was cut from 22.3% of GDP in 1991 to 18.2% in 2000. In Canada, total federal and provincial spending was deeply slashed from 53.2% of GDP in 1992 to 39.2% in 2007 with only salubrious effects.

But what about Krugman’s argument that spending cuts have hurt growth in nations such as Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Great Britain, and Spain?

Well, Alan points out that these nations haven’t reduced spending.

The PIIGGS imposed no austerity at all on the public sector in the past five years. Government spending on bailouts, subsidies, grants, salaries and entitlements commands a much larger share of these economies than it did just a few years ago.

If you break down the data on an annual basis, some of these nations have been forced by the financial crisis to finally reduce their budgets, but the cuts in the past year or two aren’t nearly enough to make up for the huge spending increases in earlier years.

But these governments have shown no reluctance to raises taxes. I’ve already discussed their unfortunate propensity to hike value-added tax rates. Alan explains that they’re doing the same thing for income tax rates.

European austerity has been focused on the private sector — namely, taxpayers with high incomes. That is the second thing the PIIGGS have in common. The highest income tax rate was recently increased in every one of the troubled PIIGGS except Italy (where it was already too high at 43%). The top tax rate was hiked from 40 to 46.5% in Portugal, from 41 to 48% in Ireland, from 40 to 45% in Greece, from 40 to 50% in Great Britain, and from 48 to 52% in Spain.

In other words, Veronique de Rugy is correct. The “austerity” in Europe generally has been in the form of higher taxes, squeezing the productive sector to prop up the public sector.

Though I would point out that there are a few bright spots. Switzerland has been doing quite well, thanks to a “debt brake” that limits how much the budget can grow each year.

And the Baltic nations deserve credit for imposing genuine budget cuts several years ago, a policy that has yielded big dividends since they’re now growing while most other European nations are mired in economic stagnation.

And they kept their flat tax systems, showing some appreciation for the common-sense insight that you don’t get more growth by punishing investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners.

By the way, Alan’s column isn’t completely depressing. He writes that the burden of government spending is reasonable (at least compared to Europe’s bankrupt welfare states) in some of the major emerging economies.

And they’ve focused more on lowering tax rates rather than making them more punitive.

It is enlightening to compare the depressing performance of these tax-and-spend countries to the rapidly-expanding BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and MIST economies (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey). Government spending is frugal in these countries, averaging 32.1% of GDP in the BRICs and 27.4% for the MIST group. Rather than raising top tax rates, all but one of the BRIC and MIST countries slashed their highest individual income tax rates in half; sometimes lower. Brazil cut the top tax rate from 55 to 27.5%. Russia replaced income tax rates up to 60% with a 13% flat tax. India cut the top tax rate to 30% from 60%. Similarly, the top tax rate was cut from 55 to 30% in Mexico, from 50 to 30% in Indonesia, from 89 to 38% in South Korea, and from 75 to 35% in Turkey. In China, statutory income tax rates can still reach 45% on paper, but that is only for high salaries and is widely evaded. Investment income is subject to a flat tax of 20%, the corporate tax is 15-25%, and China’s extremely low payroll tax adds almost nothing to labor costs.

This doesn’t mean the BRIC and MIST nations deserve high praise. Many of them still get poor scores from Economic Freedom of the World, largely because the regulatory burden is excessive and also because more needs to be done to uphold the rule of law and protect property rights.

But at least most of them aren’t compounding those mistakes with Keynesian spending schemes and class-warfare tax policy.

For more information about nations that have benefited from spending restraint, here’s my video looking at Ireland in the 1980s, New Zealand and Canada in the 1990s, and Slovakia last decade.

The moral of the story, needless to say, is that good things happen when governments comply with Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

P.S. Paul Krugman received some much-deserved abuse when he made false attacks on Estonia’s admirable fiscal policy.

P.P.S. For some humor about the European fiscal mess, here are some laughable quotes from European leaders. This Robert Ariail cartoon also gets a laugh, as do these videos on a Greek view of Germans and a romantic conflict between Northern Europe and Southern Europe. My favorite, for what it’s worth, is this map showing how Greeks view the rest of Europe, with this Dave Barry column a close runner-up.

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