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Posts Tagged ‘Fiscal Crisis’

Remember when Paul Krugman warned that there was a plot against France? He asserted that critics wanted to undermine the great success of France’s social model.

I agreed with Krugman, at least in the limited sense that there is a plot against France. But I explained that the conspiracy to hurt the nation was being led by French politicians.

Simply stated, my view has been that the French political elite have been taxing the nation into stagnation and decline and there is every reason to think that the nation is heading toward a severe self-inflicted fiscal crisis.

But it turns out I may have been too optimistic. Let’s look at some updates from Krugmantopia.

We’ll start with a report from the Financial Times, which captures the nation’s sense of despair.

…if the country’s embattled socialist president was hoping for some respite from what has been a testing year, he can probably think again. … the French economy barely expanded during the second quarter of this year after stagnating in the first. …the result will make it all but impossible to achieve the government’s growth forecast for 2014 of 1 per cent… Bruno Cavalier, chief economist at Oddo & Cie, the Paris-based bank, says one reason is the huge constraint on disposable income posed by France’s tax burden, which has risen from 41 per cent of GDP in 2009 to 45.7 per cent last year – one of the highest in the eurozone.

The government has responded by rearranging the deck chairs on the political Titanic.

French President Francois Hollande dissolved the government on Monday after open feuding among his Cabinet over the country’s stagnant economy. …France has had effectively no economic growth this year, unemployment is hovering around 10 percent and Hollande’s approval ratings are sunk in the teens. …Hollande’s promises to cut taxes and make it easier for businesses to open and operate have stalled, in large part because of the divisions among his Socialist party.

For what it’s worth, Hollande’s commitment to tax cuts and deregulation is about as sincere and genuine as my support for the Florida Gators.

After all, he’s the guy who imposed a new top tax rate of 75 percent (which he said was “patriotic”)

And that’s just the personal income tax. When you add other taxes to the mix, you get a system that is so onerous that more than 8,000 households paid more than 100 percent of their income to the French government!

No wonder successful people are escaping to other nations.

By the way, if you’re wondering why Hollande is appointing new people to his government, it’s because some of his ministers were complaining that so-called austerity was inhibiting Keynesian spending policies that would make government even bigger!

Austerity measures being pursued by France and elsewhere in the euro zone are quashing growth, FrenchEconomy Minister Arnaud Montebourg was quoted saying on Saturday… The outspoken minister, a fierce critic of budget austerity, is known for frequent attacks on big business and the European Commission, which he accuses of strangling economic recovery with its prioritization of deficit reduction. …While not as strident as the comments by Montebourg, French Finance Minister Michel Sapin similarly argued for moderated deficit reduction in an interview published in Italian newspaper La Repubblica. “The euro zone is at risk of getting stuck in a spiral of weak or negative growth. We absolutely must slow down the rate of deficit reduction,” Sapin was quoted as saying.

In other words, the French policy debate is between the far left and the crazy left.

Which is why this dour assessment from across the English Channel probably understates the depth of the problem.

Since Francois Hollande was elected President in 2012, French GDP per capita has fallen. Its economy is expected to grow by just 0.7 per cent this year. …the country now looks set for stagnation – with its unemployment rate entrenched above 10 per cent (and youth unemployment double that). …the problems are obvious. The French government accounts for a massive 57.1 per cent of the economy in state spending and transfers. The tax burden is so high at 57 per cent for French employees (the sum of income, payroll taxes, VAT, and social security contributions as a proportion of the gross employment cost)… The World Economic Forum says that France is near the worst performer on a host of measures: positioned 130 out of 148 countries for its regulatory burden, 134 for the tax rates on profits, 135 on cooperation in labour-employer relations, and 144 on hiring and firing practices. …No wonder investors have voted with their wallets. FDI into France is estimated to have fallen by 95 per cent in the last decade.

Wow. No wonder the French people are so glum about the economy, as reported by the EU Observer.

…in France, the eurozone’s second biggest economy, eight percent felt the country’s economy was good. …Only 34 percent feel the jobs crisis has peaked compared with 60 percent who are bracing themselves for a darker economic future.

Which raises a good question. If the French people are so pessimistic about the future, why do they keep electing socialists?!?

Particularly when they tell pollsters they support smaller government!

Last but not least, we have a story from the New York Times about the mind-boggling regulation and protectionism that , mostly because it illustrates the pervasive statism that is strangling France.

Alexandre Chartier and Benjamin Gaignault work off Apple computers and have no intention of ever using the DVD player tucked in the corner of their airy office. But French regulations demand that all driving schools have one, so they got one. Mr. Chartier, 28, and his partner, Mr. Gaignault, 25, are trying to break into the driving school business here… But they are not having an easy time. The other driving schools have sued them, saying their innovations break the rules. …their struggle highlights how the myriad rules governing driving schools — and 36 other highly regulated professions — stifle competition and inflate prices in France.

And what are these rules and regulations, other than the bizarre requirement to own a DVD player?

“The system is absurd,” said Mr. Koenig, who was a speechwriter for Christine Lagarde when she was the French finance minister. …he has been campaigning for changes, including calling for an overhaul of the written test, which he says goes far beyond making sure that a person knows the rules of the road. Instead, he said, it seems intended to trip students up with ridiculous questions, such as: If you run headlong into a wall, would you be safer if you were in a tank or in a car? (The answer: a car, because it has air bags.) …Some studies have concluded that the French are probably paying 20 percent more than they should for the services they get from regulated professions, which include notaries, lawyers, bailiffs, ambulance drivers, court clerks, driving instructors and more. …Francis Kramarz, an economist who has studied the French licensing system, says that barriers to getting a license are so high that about one million French people, who should have licenses, have never been able to get them. …Mr. Kramarz said that it often costs 3,000 euros, or about $3,900, to get a license. But others said the average was closer to 1,500 to 2,000 euros.

Gee, isn’t big government wonderful!

The statists say it helps the less fortunate, but it seems the poor are the ones most hurt by regulations that push the cost of getting a license to $2,000 or above.

P.S. In an uncharacteristic expression of mercy, President Hollande has announced that he wants to limit the fiscal burden so that no taxpayer has to surrender more than 80 percent  of their income to the government.

P.P.S. No wonder Obama will never make America as bad as France, regardless of how hard he tries.

P.P.P.S. Here’s the best-ever cartoon about French economic policy, though this cartoon deserves honorable mention.

P.P.P.P.S. Even the establishment, as indicated by stories in Newsweek and the New York Times (as well as The Economist and the BBC), is noticing that the French economy is dismal.

P.P.P.P.P.S. No matter how much I mock France, there are places in Europe with even worse economic policy.

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It’s remarkable to read that European politicians are agitating to spend more money, supposedly to make up for “spending cuts” and austerity.

To put it mildly, their Keynesian-based arguments reflect a reality-optional understanding of recent fiscal policy on the other side of the Atlantic.

Here’s some of what Leonid Bershidsky wrote for Bloomberg.

Just as France’s and Italy’s poor economic results prompt the leaders of the euro area’s second and third biggest economies to step up their fight against fiscal austerity, it might be appropriate to ask whether they even know what that is.

An excellent question. As I’ve already explained, austerity is a catch-all phrase that includes bad policy (higher taxes) and good policy (spending restraint).

But with a few notable exceptions, European nations have been choosing the wrong kind of austerity (even though Paul Krugman doesn’t seem to know the difference).

As a result, the real problem of bloated government keeps getting worse.

Government spending in the European Union, and in the euro zone in particular, is now significantly higher than before the 2008 financial crisis. …Among the 28 EU members, public spending reached 49 percent of gross domestic product in 2013, 3.5 percentage points more than in 2007.

Here’s a chart showing how the burden of government spending has become more onerous since 2007.

As you can see, all the big nations of Western Europe have moved in the wrong direction.

Only a small handful of countries in Eastern Europe that have trimmed the size of the public sector.

Bershidsky does explain that the numbers today are slightly better than they were at the peak of the economic downturn, though not because of genuine fiscal restraint.

The spending-to-GDP-ratio first ballooned by 2009, exceeding 50 percent for the EU as a whole, and then shrank a little… That, however, was not the result of government’s austerity efforts: Rather, the spending didn’t go down as much as the economies collapsed, and then didn’t grow in line with the modest rebound.

Here are some examples he shared.

I suppose France deserves a special shout out for managing to expand the size of government between 2009 and 2013. That’s what you call real commitment to statism!

The article also cites an example that is both amusing and tragic, at least in the sense that there’s no genuine seriousness about reforming hte public sector.

Even when spending cuts are made…, the whole public spending system’s glaring inadequacy is not affected. …The ushers at the Italian Parliament, whose job is to carry messages in their imposing gold-braided uniforms, made $181,590 a year by the time they retired, but will only make as much as $140,000 after Renzi’s courageous cut. If you wonder what on earth could be wrong with getting rid of them altogether and just using e-mail, you just don’t get European public expenditure.

I particularly embrace Bershidsky’s conclusion.

There is no rational justification for European governments to insist on higher spending levels than in 2007. The post-crisis years have shown that in Italy, and in the EU was a whole, increased reliance on government spending drives up sovereign debt but doesn’t result in commensurate growth. The idea of a fiscal multiplier of more than one — every euro spent by the government coming back as a euro plus change in growth — obviously has not worked. In fact, increased government interference in the economy, in the form of higher borrowing and spending as well as increased regulation, have led to the shrinking of private credit.  …Unreformed government spending is a hindrance, not a catalyst for growth.

Amen.

Politicians will never want to hear this message, but government spending undermines economic performance by diverting resources from the the economy’s productive sector.

Here’s my video on the theoretical evidence against government spending.

And here’s the video looking at the empirical evidence against excessive spending.

P.S. Other Europeans who have correctly analyzed Europe’s spending problem include Constantin Gurdgiev and Fredrik Erixon.

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With all the controversy over the failed and costly Obamacare program, it’s understandable that other entitlements aren’t getting much attention.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t serious problems with Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security.

Indeed, the annual Social Security Trustees Report was released a few days ago and the updated numbers for the government-run retirement program are rather sobering.

Thanks in part to sloppy journalism, many people only vaguely realize that Social Security is actuarially unsound.

In reality, the level of projected red ink is shocking. If you look at the report’s annual projections and then adjust them for inflation (so we get an idea of the size of the problem based on the value of today’s dollars), we can put together a very depressing chart.

How depressing is this chart? Well, cumulative deficits over the next 75 years will total an astounding $40 trillion. And keep in mind these are inflation-adjusted numbers. In nominal dollars, total red ink will be far more than $150 trillion.

That’s a lot of money even by Washington standards.

Just as worrisome, the trend is in the wrong direction. Last year, the cumulative inflation-adjusted shortfall was $36 trillion. The year before, the total amount of red ink was $30 trillion. And so on.

But regular readers know I’m not fixated on deficits and debt. I’m much more worried about the underlying problem of too much spending. So let’s look at the annual data showing how much payroll tax will be generated by Social Security and how much money will be paid out to beneficiaries.

As you can see, the problem is not inadequate tax revenue. Indeed, revenues will climb to record levels. The problem is that spending is projected to increase at an even faster rate.

Once again, don’t forget that these are inflation-adjusted numbers. In nominal dollars, the numbers are far bigger!

Why is the program becoming an ever-larger fiscal burden? The answer boils down to demographics. Simply stated, we will have more and more old people and fewer and fewer younger workers.

So if we do nothing, we’ll be Greece in 20 or 30 years.

That’s not a happy thought, so let’s close on a humorous note. Here’s a joke about how Social Security works, and you can enjoy some Social Security-themed cartoons here, here, and here.

P.S. I’m confident that few people will be surprised to learn that Obama’s supposed solution to this mess involves a huge tax increase.

P.P.S. The real solution is personal retirement accounts. I think Australia is the best role model, but Chile also is a big success.

P.P.S. The good news is that the American people are quite sympathetic to personal retirement accounts.

P.P.P.S. Statists try to scare people by claiming private investments are too risky, but one of my Cato colleagues showed that workers would be better off even if they retired after a stock market crash.

P.P.P.P.S. By the way, Social Security is a really bad deal for blacks and other minorities with lower-than-average life expectancies.

P.P.P.P.P.S. In the interests of fairness, I’ll admit the biggest weakness in the argument for personal accounts is that we might not be able to stop politicians from confiscating the money at some point in the future.

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I had a very bad lunch today.

But not because of what I ate. My lunch was unpleasant because I moderated a noontime panel on Capitol Hill featuring Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and my Cato colleague Chris Edwards.

And I should hasten to add that they were splendid company. The unpleasant part of the lunch was the information they shared.

The Senator, in particular, looked at budgetary projections over the next 30 years and basically confirmed for the audience that an ever-expanding burden of federal spending is going to lead to a fiscal crisis.

To be blunt, he showed numbers that basically matched up with this Henry Payne cartoon.

Here’s a chart from his presentation. It shows the average burden of spending in past years, compared to various projections of how much bigger government will be – on average – over the next three decades.

The Senator warned that the most unfavorable projection (i.e., “CBO ALT FISC”) was also the most realistic one. In other words, federal spending will consume a much larger share of economic output over the next three decades than it has over the past two decades.

But our fiscal outlook is actually even worse than what you see in his slide.

The Senator’s numbers are based on average spending levels over the 2015-2044 period. That’s very useful – and sobering – data, but if you look at the annual numbers, you’ll see that the trendline gives us additional reasons to worry.

More specifically, spending for the major entitlement programs (Social Security and Medicare, as well as Medicaid) is closely tied to the aging population. So as more and more baby boomers retire over the next couple of decades, spending on these programs will become more burdensome.

In other words, our fiscal problem will be much larger in 2040 than it will be in 2020.

Here are the long-run numbers from the Congressional Budget Office. The blue line is federal spending on various programs and the pink line is total spending (i.e., programmatic spending plus interest payments). And keep in mind that these numbers don’t include state and local government spending, which presumably will chew up another 15 percent of our economic output!

In other words, America will become Greece.

And don’t delude yourself into thinking that CBO must be wrong. I’m not a big fan of the Congressional Budget Office (particularly CBO’s economic analysis), but these numbers are driven by demographics.

Moreover, CBO’s grim outlook is matched by similarly dismal numbers from the IMF, BIS, and OECD.

By the way, CBO doesn’t do projections once federal government debt exceeds 250 percent of GDP, so the gray-colored trendline beginning about 2048 is not an official projections. It’s merely an estimate of the total spending burden assuming that the federal budget is left on autopilot.

Of course, we’ll never reach that level. We will suffer a fiscal crisis before that point. But when it happens to us, the IMF won’t be there to bail us out for the simple reason that the IMF’s credibility is based on the backing of American taxpayers.

And we’ll already have been bled dry!

So unless we find some very rich Martians (who are also stupid enough to bail out profligate governments), it won’t be a pretty situation. I’m not sure we’ll have riots, such as the ones that have taken place in Europe, but there will be plenty of suffering.

Fortunately, there is a solution. All we need is a modest bit of fiscal restraint so that government grows slower than the private sector. That would completely reverse Senator Johnson’s dismal long-run numbers.

And some countries have shown that multi-year periods of fiscal restraint are possible.

The real question, though, is whether politicians in America would be willing to adopt the entitlement reforms that are needed to control the long-run growth of spending.

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Allister Heath, the superb economic writer from London, recently warned that governments are undermining incentives to save.

And not just because of high tax rates and double taxation of savings. Allister says people are worried about outright confiscation resulting from possible wealth taxation.

It is clear that individuals, when at all possible, need to accumulate more financial assets. …Tragically, it won’t happen. A lack of trust in the system is one important explanation. People simply don’t believe the government – and politicians of all parties – when it comes to long-terms savings and pensions. They worry, with good reason, that the rules will keep changing; they are afraid that savers are an easy target and that they will eventually be hit by a wealth tax.

Are savers being paranoid? Is Allister being paranoid?

Well, even paranoid people have enemies, and this already has happened in countries such as Poland and Argentina. Moreover, it appears that plenty of politicians and bureaucrats elsewhere want this type of punitive levy.

Here are some passages from a Reuters report.

Germany’s Bundesbank said on Monday that countries about to go bankrupt should draw on the private wealth of their citizens through a one-off capital levy before asking other states for help.

Since data from the IMF, OECD, and BIS show that almost every industrialized nation will face a fiscal crisis in the next decade or two, people with assets understandably are concerned that their necks will be on the chopping block when politicians are scavenging for more cash to prop up failed welfare states.

Though to be fair, the Bundesbank may simply be sending a signal that German taxpayers don’t want to pick up the tab for fiscal excess in nations such as France and Greece. And it also acknowledged such a tax would harm growth.

“(A capital levy) corresponds to the principle of national responsibility, according to which tax payers are responsible for their government’s obligations before solidarity of other states is required,” the Bundesbank said in its monthly report. …the Bundesbank said it would not support an implementation of a recurrent wealth tax, saying it would harm growth.

Other German economists, however, openly advocate for wealth taxes on German taxpayers.

…governments should consider imposing one-off capital levies on the rich… In Germany, for example, two thirds of the national wealth belongs to the richest 10% of the adult population. …a one-time capital levy of 10% on personal net wealth exceeding 250,000 euros per taxpayer (€500,000 for couples) could raise revenue of just over 9% of GDP. …In the other Eurozone crisis countries, it would presumably be possible to generate considerable amounts of money in the same way.

The pro-tax crowd at the International Monetary Fund has a similarly favorable perspective, relying on absurdly unrealistic conditions to argue that a wealth tax wouldn’t hurt growth. Here’s some of what the IMF asserted in its Fiscal Monitor last October.

The sharp deterioration of the public finances in many countries has revived interest in a “capital levy”— a one-off tax on private wealth—as an exceptional measure to restore debt sustainability. The appeal is that such a tax, if it is implemented before avoidance is possible and there is a belief that it will never be repeated, does not distort behavior (and may be seen by some as fair).

The IMF even floats a trial balloon that governments could confiscate 10 percent of household assets.

The tax rates needed to bring down public debt to precrisis levels…are sizable: reducing debt ratios to end-2007 levels would require (for a sample of 15 euro area countries) a tax rate of about 10 percent on households with positive net wealth.

Many people condemned the IMF for seeming to endorse theft by government.

The IMF’s Deputy Director of Fiscal Affairs then backpedaled a bit the following month. He did regurgitate the implausible notion that a wealth tax won’t hurt the economy so long as it only happens once and it is a surprise.

To an economist, …it’s close to an ideal form of taxation, since there is nothing you can now do to reduce, avoid, or evade it—the holy grail of what economists call a non-distorting tax. …Such a levy would entail a one-off charge on capital assets, the precise base being a matter for choice, but generally larger than cash left on kitchen tables. Added to the efficiency advantage of such a tax, many see an equity appeal in that such a charge would naturally fall most heavily on those with the most assets.

But he then felt obliged to point out some real-world concerns.

…governments have rarely implemented capital levies, and they have almost never succeeded. And there are very good reasons for that. …to be non-distorting the tax must be both unanticipated and believed certain not to be repeated. These are both very hard things to achieve. Introducing and implementing any new tax takes time, and governments can rarely do it in entire secrecy (even leaving aside transparency issues). And that gives time for assets to be moved abroad, run down, or concealed. The risk of future levies can be even more damaging; they discourage the saving and investment that generate future capital assets.

Though these practical flaws and problems don’t cause much hesitation on the left.

Here’s what Joann Weiner recently wrote in the Washington Post about the work of Thomas Piketty, a French economist who apparently believes society will be better if higher taxes result in everyone being equally poor.

A much higher tax on upper income — say 80 percent — coupled with a significant tax on wealth — say 10 percent — would go a long way toward making America’s income distribution more equitable than it is now. …capital is the chief culprit… Piketty has another pretty radical, at least for the United States, way to shrink the share of wealth at the top — introduce a global tax on all capital. This means taxes on not just stocks and bonds, but also land, homes, machines, patents — you name it; if it’s wealth or if it generates what tax authorities call “unearned income,” then it should be taxed. One other thing. All countries have to adopt the tax to keep capital from fleeing to tax havens.

Writing in the New York Times back in January, Thomas Edsall also applauds proposals for a new wealth tax.

…worsening inequality is an inevitable outcome of free market capitalism. …The only way to halt this process…is to impose a global progressive tax on wealth – global in order to prevent (among other things) the transfer of assets to countries without such levies. A global tax, in this scheme, would restrict the concentration of wealth and limit the income flowing to capital.

Not surprisingly, there’s support in academia for confiscating other people’s money. One professors thinks the “impossible dream” of theft by government could become reality.

…this article proposes a yearly graduated tax on the net wealth of all individuals in excess of $100 million. The rate would be 5% on the excess up to $500 million and then 10% thereafter. …Such taxes are attacked as “class warfare” that runs counter to America’s libertarian and capitalist traditions. However…the time may once again be ripe for adopting a new tax to combat the growing wealth inequality in the nation. …wealth inequality harms the very social fabric of society. …The purpose of the proposed Equality Tax would not be to raise general revenue, although revenue would be raised. Instead it would be focused on establishing a societal value that for the health of society, no individual should accrue wealth beyond a certain point. Essentially, once an individual has $100 million of assets, …further wealth accumulation harms society while providing little economic benefit or incentive to the individual. …At a minimum such a tax would raise
at least $140 billion a year.

Let’s close by looking at the real economic consequences of wealth taxation. Jan Schnellenbach of the Walter Eucken Intitut in Germany analyzed this question.

Are there sound economic reasons for the net wealth tax, as an instrument to tax stocks of physical and financial capital, to be levied in addition to taxes on capital incomes?

Before even addressing that issue, the author points out that policy actually has been moving in the right direction, presumably because of tax competition.

There has been a wave of OECD countries abolishing their personal net wealth taxes recently. Examples are Spain (abolished in 2008), Sweden (2007) as well as Finland, Iceland and Luxembourg (all 2006). Nevertheless, the net wealth tax repeatedly surfaces again in the public debate.

So what about the economics of a wealth tax? Schnellenbach makes the critical point that even a small levy on assets translates into a very punitive rate on actual returns.

…every tax on domestic wealth needs to be paid out of the returns on wealth, every net wealth tax with a given rate is trivially equivalent to a capital income tax with a substantially higher rate. …even an – on aggregate – non-confi scatory wealth tax may at least temporarily actually have confi scatory eff ects on individuals in periods where they realize sufficiently low returns on their capital stock.

He then looks at the impact on incentives.

…a net wealth tax will have similar distortionary e ffects as a capital income tax. …Introducing a comprehensive net wealth tax would then, through the creation of new incentives for tax avoidance and evasion, also diminish the base of the income tax. Scenarios with even a negative overall revenue eff ect would be conceivable. There is thus good reason to cast doubt on the popular belief that a net wealth tax combines little distortions and large amounts of revenue. …A wealth tax aggravates the distortions and the incentives to evade that already exist due to a pre-existing capital income tax.

And he closes by emphasizing that this form of double taxation undermines property rights.

The intrusion into private property rights may be far more severe for a wealth tax compared to an income tax. …It takes hold of a stock of wealth that consists of saved incomes which have already been subject to an income tax in the past… Our discussion has shown that economically, the wealth tax walks on thin ice.

In other words, a wealth tax is a very bad idea. And that’s true whether it’s a permanent levy or a one-time cash grab by politicians.

Some may wonder whether a wealth tax is a real threat. The answer depends on the time frame. Could such a levy happen in the next year or two in the United States?

The answer is no.

But the wealth tax will probably be a real threat in the not-too-distant future. America’s long-run fiscal outlook is very grim because of a rising burden of government spending.

This necessarily means there will be a big fiscal policy battle. On one side, libertarians and small-government advocates will push for genuine entitlement reform. Advocates of big government, by contrast, will want new revenues to enable and facilitate the expansion of the public sector.

The statists will urge higher income tax rates, but sober-minded folks on the left privately admit that the Laffer Curve is real and that they can’t collect much more money with class-warfare tax policy.

That’s why there is considerable interest in new revenue sources, such as energy taxes, financial transaction taxes, and the value-added tax.

And, of course, a wealth tax.

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As much as I condemn American politicians for bad policy, things could be worse.

We could be Greek citizens, which would be very depressing. Indeed, you’ll understand why I put Obamaland in the title after you read today’s column.

Simply stated, Greece is a cesspool of statism. The people seem to be wonderful (at least outside of polling booths), but government intervention is pervasive and atrocious.

Here’s an example. As I was coming in a taxi from the airport to the city yesterday, we passed some sort of protest. There were a couple of hundred people at the rally and probably about 50 riot cops.

I naturally wondered about the situation, expecting that it was radical statists or some of the crazies from Golden Dawn. But the cab driver explained that it was pharmacists.

So why are pharmacists protesting? I found out from some of the locals at the Free Market Road Show that this is a heavily regulated and protected sector of the Greek economy.

The government has rules, for instance, that products such as aspirin and other painkillers can only be purchased at pharmacies. The bureaucracy also rigs all the prices to preclude competition. And there are even government policies that make it very difficult for new pharmacies to compete against the established firms.

When special interests have that much power, no wonder Greece is in trouble.

Thought there are some sectors of the business community, such as online entrepreneurs, that are treated like crap. Literally.

Here’s another example from a Wall Street Journal report, albeit one where a modest bit of progress has been achieved.

For the first time in more than a hundred years, Greece is sacking public servants. In 1911, Greece introduced jobs for life under Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos. Now, a century later, his descendant, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greece’s minister for administrative reform, is faced with the delicate task of slimming down the massive public sector this law helped create. …In exchange for…aid, Greece has promised to cut the government workforce by at least 150,000 by 2015 through attrition, and to lay off an additional 15,000 outright by the end of this year. Another 25,000 would be placed in the temporary labor pool. Of those goals, the first has been reached: Greece had 713,000 government workers at the end of 2012, down 122,000 from the end of 2010. …But the labor pool is still a work in progress. Last July, the first 4,000 employees were put in that pool, while another 8,000 or so followed a few months later. Few of them are expected to be rehired. And with Greece’s unemployment rate already close to 30%, few expect to find jobs in the private sector.

I actually feel a bit sorry for some of these people.

They probably took jobs in the bureaucracy without ever thinking about who was paying their salaries and without giving any thought to the featherbedding and waste that accompany most public sector positions.

But I bet they voted for the politicians that dramatically expanded the number of bureaucrats, so it’s hard to feel too much sympathy.

In any event, they’re understandably worried now that the gravy train is being derailed.

Or maybe the gravy is still there, but in different forms.

It appears that there’s still taxpayer money floating around that can be wasted in interesting ways.

Here are some excerpts from the Guardian about EU-funded “anger management” for some of Greece’s senior tax bureaucrats.

Until Greece’s economic meltdown, anger management was an alien concept at the country’s finance ministry. …Today these are the buzzwords flying around the ground-floor training room at 1 Handris Street. For tax inspectors attending mandatory seminars at the government building, anger management, like patience and politesse, are now seen as essential prerequisites of an increasingly stressful job. “Today, in Greece, everyone is either unhappy or angry when they have to go and pay at the tax office,” Fotis Kourmouris, a senior official at the finance ministry’s public revenues department said. “There is a lot of negative emotion … in the framework of better customer service, classes in psychological and emotional intelligence had become necessary.”

I wouldn’t call it “negative emotion.”

This is a long-overdue revolt of the Greek tax slaves.

…inspectors have found themselves at the sharp end of popular rage. In recent months visiting auditors have been chased out of remote villages, hounded out of towns and booted off islands by an increasingly desperate populace. “We’ve had multiple cases of violence at tax offices by angry members of public, including physical assaults; shots were fired in one case, and one attacker came with an axe,” said Trifonas Alexiadis, vice-chairman of the national association of employees at state financial services.

But when you read how the Greek government is trying to rape and pillage taxpayers, you can understand the anger.

A series of new tax laws has further fuelled public anger. Since the outbreak of the crisis, close to 30 new levies have been introduced by governments desperate to augment empty state coffers. “Too much pressure is being put on people who can’t pay,” said Alexiadis, who suggested that in such circumstances the classes were not only ill-conceived but “juvenile and unnecessary”. …accountant Heracles Galanakopoulos agreed. “They produce a law that nobody understands and then produce another three to explain it. By the time people get here they are really very angry,” he lamented… “I spend at least five or six hours a day reading up on all these new laws and still can’t keep up. Anger management is a nice idea but in a system that is so absurd it’s not going to make a jot of difference.”

Amen. As I’ve argued before, Greece’s problem is high tax rates. Evasion is simply a function of a bad tax code.

Let’s close with some Greek-related humor.

I very much recommend this very funny video from a Greek comedian and this politically incorrect map of how the Greeks view the rest of Europe.

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Back in 2010, I shared a video that predicted a catastrophic end to the welfare state.

I said it was an example of “Libertarian Porn” because:

…it is designed for the dark enjoyment of people who think the government is destroying the nation. If you don’t like bloated government and statist intervention and you think that the policies being imposed by Washington are going to lead to hyperinflation and societal collapse, then you will get a certain level of grim satisfaction by watching the video.

While I also stated in that post that I thought the video was far too dour and pessimistic, I don’t automatically reject the hypothesis that the welfare state will lead to societal chaos.

UK RiotsIndeed, I’ve specifically warned that America might experience European-type disarray because of big government and I even wrote about which nations that might be good escape options if the welfare state causes our country to unravel.

Moreover, I’ve speculated about the possible loss of democracy in Europe and specifically said that people should have the right to be well armed just in case society goes you-know-where in a handbasket.

So I’m definitely not a Pollyanna.

I’ve given this background because here’s another video for those of you who revel in the glass being nine-tenths empty. It’s about the United Kingdom, but these numbers from the BIS, OECD, and IMF show that the long-term spending problem is equally severe in the United States.

Be warned, though, that it’s depressing as well as long. And I gather it’s also designed to sell a magazine, so you can ignore that (particularly if you’re not British).

Now that I’ve shared the video, I’ll add a couple of my own observations.

First and foremost, no country is past the point of no return, at least based on the numbers. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the United Kingdom, the United States, Greece, or France. Politicians always have the option of reforming entitlements and restraining the burden of government spending. So long as they follow Mitchell’s Golden Rule over an extended period of time, they can dig out of the mess.

That’s why I’m a big fan of Switzerland’s spending cap, That policy, technically known as the debt brake, imposes a rolling cap on budgetary growth and has been very effective. Colorado also has a spending cap that has been somewhat effective in restraining the cost of the public sector.

My second observation, however, is that some nations may be past the psychological point of return. This is not easy to measure, but it basically means that there’s good reason to be pessimistic when the majority of citizens in a country think it’s morally acceptable to have their snouts in the public trough and to live off the labor of others. When you have too many people riding in the wagon (or riding in the party ship), then it’s difficult to envision how good policy is implemented.

Indeed, the video includes some discussion of how a growing number of people in the United Kingdom now live off the state. And if you add together the votes of people like NatailijaTraceyAnjem, Gina, and Danny, perhaps the United Kingdom has reached a grim tipping point. Especially since welfare spending has dramatically increased in recent years!

A third and final point about the video. I think it focuses too much on deficits and debt. Red ink is a serious issue, to be sure, but it’s very important to understand that too much borrowing is merely a symptom of too much spending.

P.S. On a totally separate matter, everyone should read the USA Today column by Glenn Reynolds. He explains how government is perverting our criminal justice system.

Here are some of the most important passages, but you should read the whole thing.

Here’s how things all-too-often work today: Law enforcement decides that a person is suspicious (or, possibly, just a political enemy). Upon investigation into every aspect of his/her life, they find possible violations of the law, often involving obscure, technical statutes that no one really knows. They then file a “kitchen-sink” indictment involving dozens, or even hundreds of charges, which the grand jury rubber stamps. The accused then must choose between a plea bargain, or the risk of a trial in which a jury might convict on one or two felony counts simply on a “where there’s smoke there must be fire” theory even if the evidence seems less than compelling.

This is why, Glenn explains, there are very few trials. Almost everything gets settled as part of plea bargains.

But that’s not a good thing, particularly when there are no checks and balances to restrain bad behavior by the state.

…although there’s lots of due process at trial — right to cross-examine, right to counsel, rules of evidence, and, of course, the jury itself, which the Framers of our Constitution thought the most important protection in criminal cases — there’s basically no due process at the stage when prosecutors decide to bring charges. Prosecutors who are out to “get” people have a free hand; prosecutors who want to give favored groups or individuals a pass have a free hand, too.When juries decide not to convict because doing so would be unjust, it’s called “jury nullification,” and although everyone admits that it’s a power juries have, many disapprove of it. But when prosecutors decide not to bring charges, it’s called “prosecutorial discretion,” and it’s subject to far less criticism, if it’s even noticed.

Here’s the bottom line.

…with today’s broad and vague criminal statutes at both the state and federal level, everyone is guilty of some sort of crime, a point that Harvey Silverglate underscores with the title of his recent book, Three Felonies A Day: How The Feds Target The Innocent, that being the number of felonies that the average American, usually unknowingly, commits. …The combination of vague and pervasive criminal laws — the federal government literally doesn’t know how many federal criminal laws there are — and prosecutorial discretion, plus easy overcharging and coercive plea-bargaining, means that where criminal law is concerned we don’t really have a judicial system as most people imagine it. Instead, we have a criminal justice bureaucracy that assesses guilt and imposes penalties with only modest supervision from the judiciary, and with very little actual accountability.

Glenn offers some possible answers.

…prosecutors should have “skin in the game” — if someone’s charged with 100 crimes but convicted of only one, the state should have to pay 99% of his legal fees. This would discourage overcharging. (So would judicial oversight, but we’ve seen little enough of that.) Second, plea-bargain offers should be disclosed at trial, so that judges and juries can understand just how serious the state really thinks the offense is. …And finally, I think that prosecutors should be stripped of their absolute immunity to suit — an immunity created by judicial activism, not by statute — and should be subject to civil damages for misconduct such as withholding evidence. If our criminal justice system is to be a true justice system, then due process must attach at all stages. Right now, prosecutors run riot. That needs to change.

Amen to all that. And you can read more on this topic by clicking here.

The Obama years have taught us that dishonest people can twist and abuse the law for ideological purposes.

Obamacare rule of law cartoonWhether we’re talking about the corruption of the IRS, the deliberate disregard of the law for Obamacare, or the NSA spying scandal, the White House has shown that it’s naive to assume that folks in government have ethical standards.

And that’s also true for the law enforcement bureaucracy, as Glenn explained. Simply stated, people in government abuse power. And jury nullification, while a helpful check on misbehavior, only works when there is a trial.

Indeed, I’m now much more skeptical about the death penalty for many of the reasons Glenn discusses in his column. To be blunt, I don’t trust that politically ambitious prosecutors will behave honorably.

That’s why, regardless of the issue, you rarely will go wrong if you’re advocating fewer laws and less government power.

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