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Posts Tagged ‘Italy’

The world is a laboratory, with lots of experiments to see if a nation can prosper with big government and pervasive intervention.

The results are not encouraging. I’ve written about France being a basket case, over and over again.

And I am equally pessimistic about Greece because the moochers and looters outnumber productive people in that country.

Heck, much of Europe is a mess because of widespread statism.

But the rest of the world is filled with bad examples as well. Japan has attracted my critical attention, and I have very little reason to think that nation has a bright future.

I’ve also dinged bad policy in Mexico and South Africa, so nobody can accuse me of being parsimonious when it comes to criticizing politicians that promote big government.

But the country that may be in the deepest trouble is Italy.

To understand the depth of the problem, you should read a recent article in the U.K.-based Spectator.

Here are some excerpts, starting with an anecdote about the government-funded opera house in Rome.

Financed and managed by the state, and therefore crippled by debt, the opera house — like so much else in Italy — had been a jobs-for-life trade union fiefdom. Its honorary director, Riccardo Muti, became so fed up after dealing with six years of work-to-rule surrealism that he resigned. It’s hard to blame him. The musicians at the opera house — the ‘professori’ — work a 28-hour week (nearly half taken up with ‘study’) and get paid 16 months’ salary a year, plus absurd perks such as double pay for performing in the open air because it is humid and therefore a health risk. Even so, in the summer, Muti was compelled to conduct a performance of La Bohème with only a pianist because the rest of the orchestra had gone on strike.

The story says all the staff eventually were fired.

Is that a sign that policy makers in Italy are sobering up? Or is it too little, too late?

The author of the column, Nicholas Farrell, is not optimistic.

Italy’s irreversible demise is a foregone conclusion. The country is just too much of a basket case even to think about. …The youth unemployment rate here is 43 per cent — the highest on record. That figure doesn’t factor in the black market, which is so big that the Italian government now wants to include certain parts of it — prostitution, drug dealing and assorted smuggling — into its official GDP figures.  …Just 58 per cent of working-age Italians are employed, compared with an average 65 per cent in the developed world. …Italy’s economy has been stagnant since 2000. Indeed, over the past five years it has shrunk by 9.1 per cent. …Italy’s sovereign debt, meanwhile, continues to grow exponentially. It is now €2.2 trillion, which is the equivalent of 135 per cent of GDP — the third highest in the world after Japan and Greece. …In Italy, as in France, a dirigiste philosophy has predominated since the second world war. The government is run like a protection racket… Even newspapers are publicly subsidised, which is why there are so many of them.

But high debt in Italy isn’t because of low taxes.

Anyone who works in the real private sector — the family businesses that have made Italy’s name around the world — is in a bad place. Italy has the heaviest ‘total tax’ burden on businesses in the world at 68 per cent… To start a business in Italy is to enter a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare, and to keep it going is even worse. It also means handing the state at least 50 cents for every euro paid to staff.

So where do all this tax money go?

Not surprisingly, there’s a parasitic public sector that is very well compensated. Starting with the politicians.

Italian MPs are the highest paid in the civilised world, earning almost twice the salary of a British MP. Barbers in the Italian Parliament get up to €136,120 a year gross. All state employees get a fabulous near-final–salary pension. It is not difficult to appreciate the fury of the average Italian private sector worker, whose gross annual pay is €18,000. The phrase ‘you could not make it up’ fits the gold-plated world of the Italian state employee to a tee — especially in the Mezzo-giorno, Italy’s hopeless south. Sicily, for instance, employs 28,000 forestry police — more than Canada — and has 950 ambulance drivers who have no ambulances to drive.

I gather Sicily is like the Illinois of Italy, so those horrifying numbers don’t surprise me.

And don’t forget that Italy’s representative in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame is from Sicily as well.

So what’s the solution to this mess?

Simple, adopt a policy of small government and free markets.

An Italian government that really meant business would make urgent and drastic cuts not just to the bloated, parasitical and corrupt state sector, but also to taxes, labour costs and red tape.

And the current Prime Minister, to be fair, is proposing baby steps in the right direction. Unfortunately, he’s being far too timid.

To get an idea of the magnitude of the problem, the Wall Street Journal opined on Italian labor markets, explaining that “pro-worker” interventions by government impose very high costs.

Led by the country’s largest union, the Italian General Confederation of Labor, or CGIL, the activists want to preserve Italy’s job guarantees as they are. Call it Italy’s economic suicide movement. …there is the Cassa Integrazione Guadagni. Under this income-assistance scheme, businesses that need to downsize can put some workers on “standby,” and the government will cover a significant share of the normal salary until the company can hire back the worker. The program strains the state’s budget, discourages workers from seeking other jobs, and prevents struggling companies from downsizing to stay competitive. Need to fire a worker for poor job performance? To do so, businesses must persuade a judge that no alternative short of termination was available—a process of administrative hearings and litigation that can take months and drain company resources. The World Economic Forum in its 2014-15 assessment of labor-market efficiency ranked Italy 141 out of 144 countries for hiring and firing practices, just above Zimbabwe.

And the biggest victim of the “pro-worker” interventions are…you guessed it…workers.

Italy has the largest number of small businesses in the European Union not because companies don’t want to grow, but because they fear growth will mean having to negotiate with the militant national unions like CGIL. The unsurprising result of all these barriers to firing and efficiency is that businesses are reluctant to hire. The official unemployment rate stands at 12%, and half of Italy’s young people are unemployed.

If you want more info about Italy’s dysfunctional labor markets, I also shared some good analysis from the WSJ back in 2012.

Let’s now circle back to a question asked above. Can Italy be saved?

Like Mr. Farrell, I’m not optimistic. There’s no pro-market political party in Italy. And the so-called technocrats have demonstrated amazing levels of incompetence, so they’re obviously not the solution.

P.S. There is one tiny bit of semi-good news from Italy. Over the past 8 years, government spending has increased, on average, by just 1.6 percent per year. The bad news, though, is that the private sector has grown at an even slower rate, so the actual burden of government spending has increased.

Between 1996-2000, by contrast, government spending grew by 1.1 percent per year. But since the private sector was growing, the burden of government spending fell as a share of GDP.

In other words, when you satisfy Mitchell’s Golden Rule, good things happen.

P.P.S. Even though Italy is a complete mess (or perhaps because it is a complete mess), you won’t be surprised to learn that a New York Times columnist thinks America should adopt Italian-style government policies.

P.P.P.S. Then again, American statists have been urging European-type statism in the United States for decades. To see where that leads, check out these cartoons from Michael Ramirez, Glenn Foden, Eric Allie and Chip Bok.

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Does big government necessarily and automatically imply incompetent government?

Unfortunately, that seems to be the case. Robert Samuelson, for instance, has written that the federal government is so large that it breeds failure and disappointment.  I added my two cents, writing that:

…government is far more likely to have a “reverse Midas touch” when it is too big to manage.

I also posed a rhetorical question in another post from 2013.

I suppose a more interesting program would be to identify things that the government does intelligently and effectively. Any suggestions?

That wasn’t a throwaway line. There are some legitimate functions of government and I want those to be handled efficiently.

But I worry that effective government is increasingly unlikely because politicians are so busy intervening in areas that should be left to the families, civil society, and the private sector.

The response to the Ebola Virus is a sobering example.

Writing for The Federalist, David Harsanyi explains that the bureaucrats at the Centers for Disease Control are whining about not having enough money to contain and fight Ebola, yet there wouldn’t be any problem if the CDC wasn’t distracted by things that are irrelevant to its core mission.

CDC’s budget and purview have swollen over the past few decades as it has seen an infusion of funding due to temporary health scares and  trendy crusades that often go well beyond any mission it should be pursuing. …the CDC needs to rethink it’s scope. The CDC can’t afford to keep a aerial ‘bio-containment unit’ on retainer, but it does have museum, a massive staff and a lots of waste and fraud. In 2007, Senator Coburn’s office authored a 115-page report detailing things like the CDC budget gimmicks, the agency’s hundreds of millions of dollars of waste on junkets and elaborate digs and its institutional failures to actual ‘control diseases’ – and this includes AIDs prevention. …The CDC, an agency whose primary mission was to prevent malaria and then other dangerous communicable diseases, is now spending a lot of time, energy and money worrying about how much salt you put on your steaks, how often you inhale second-hand smoke and how often you do calisthenics.

To be fair, some of the blame should be shared with the politicians who divert resources away from disease fighting.

Though keep in mind that bureaucrats and politicians generally work hand-in-hand when budgets get approved and government power gets expanded.

With lobbyists and interests groups greasing the way, of course.

But today’s post isn’t about the corrupt machinations of Washington, so let’s get back to our main point.

Professor Glenn Reynolds of the University of Tennessee is similarly worried that mission creep undermines the government’s ability to accomplish important things.

While we’d be better off if the CDC only had one job — you know, controlling disease— the CDC has taken on all sorts of jobs unrelated to that task. …These other tasks may or may not be important, but they’re certainly a distraction from what’s supposed to be the CDC’s “one job” — protecting America from a deadly epidemic. And to the extent that the CDC’s leadership has allowed itself to be distracted, it has paid less attention to the core mission. In an era where new disease threats look to be growing, the CDC needs to drop the side jobs and focus on its real reason for existence. But, alas, the problem isn’t just the CDC. It’s everywhere. It seems that as government has gotten bigger, and accumulated more and more of its own ancillary responsibilities, it has gotten worse at its primary tasks. It can supervise snacks at elementary schools, but not defend the borders; it can tax people to subsidize others’ health-care plans but not build roads or bridges; and it can go after football team names but can’t seem to deal with the Islamic State terror group. Multitasking results in poorer performance for individuals. It also hurts the performance of government agencies, and of government itself. You have one job. Try doing it.

Amen.

For an amusing, yet insightful, look at the connection between government size and government competence, Mark Steyn nails it.

On the other hand, some columnists argue that more power for government is the way to deal with government incompetence.

Amazing.

P.S. I wrote a couple of days ago that Obama was right about the relative weakness of European economies, but then asked why on earth he wants to make America more like Europe with bigger government.

On a related note, here’s a blurb from an article in the Daily Caller.

Don’t allow big government to take over free market system, Italian journalist Matteo Borghi warns in his new e-book, “Italy, Where Dems’ Dreams Die: How Big Government Pauperized A Prosperous Country.” He outlines the “Italian situation” he says has resulted from government growth — soaring debt, high unemployment rates, burdensome tax rates and a corrupt and nearly bankrupt pension system. His goal is to convince Americans not to follow suit. “You are already better off, but if you will go on increasing big government and cracking down on entrepreneurs you could soon become like Italy,” Borghi told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “That’s why, in my book, I say: ‘You shouldn’t give up American Dream to follow Italian nightmare.’”

Or the French nightmare. Or the Greek nightmare. Or the Swedish nightmare. Or the German nightmare.  I could continue, but you get the point.

P.P.S. Though there is one deluded New York Times columnist who thinks we should emulate Italy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a specific example that boggles the mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Are there any fact checkers at the New York Times?

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

But some mistakes are worse than others.

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

Here’s an excerpt that caught my eye.

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

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

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

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

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

NYT Austerity-Stimulus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The article cites three powerful examples, starting with Hungary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This is an easy question and a hard question.

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

After all, voters in Italy have four horrible choices.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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