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Posts Tagged ‘Statism’

When I wrote last week about “social capital” as a key determinant of long-run prosperity, I didn’t realize I would generate a lot of feedback. Including several requests for more information.

Which creates a small problem since the field is so large that it’s difficult to provide an overview.

If people were asking questions on the flat tax, Laffer Curve, or the economic impact of government spending, I could give succinct and targeted responses. On the topic of social capital, by contrast, I almost don’t know where to start.

The first thing I should say is that scholars have been addressing these issues for centuries, even if in some cases they didn’t use the phrase “social capital” and instead talked about tradition, culture, ethics, morality, or civic attitudes.

Many people know Adam Smith wrote An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, but he also wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments in the 1700s, and that book deals with issues relating to social capital.

Or consider the work of Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote about social capital in Democracy in America in the 1800s. More recently, in the 1970s, Friedrich Hayek discussed ethics and attitudes as part of his three-volume masterpiece on Law, Legislation, and Liberty.

Moving into the 21st Century, the issue of “culture” and economics also was the subject of an in-depth online symposium at the Cato Institute in 2006. Here’s some of what Lawrence Harrison wrote.

Some economists have confronted culture and found it helpful in understanding economic development. Perhaps the broadest statement comes from the pen of David Landes: “Max Weber was right. If we learn anything from the history of economic development, it is that culture makes almost all the difference.” Elaborating on Landes’s theme, Japanese economist Yoshihara Kunio writes, “One reason Japan developed is that it had a culture suitable for it. The Japanese attached importance to (1) material pursuits; (2) hard work; (3) saving for the future; (4) investment in education; and (5) community values.” …More broadly, the analysis of religions suggests that Protestant, Jewish, and Confucian societies do better than Catholic, Islamic, and Orthodox Christian societies because they substantially share the progress-prone Economic Behavior values of the typology whereas the lagging religions tend toward the progress-resistant values. Symbolic of this divide is the persistent ambivalence of the Catholic Church toward market economics… But religion is not the only source of progress-prone economic behavior: the Basques are highly entrepreneurial and highly Catholic; and Chile, boasting the most successful sustained economic performance in Latin America, is also the most Catholic.

And here are portions of Gregory Clark’s contribution.

The standard economist emphasizes that stability, incentives, and laissez-faire are all the magic needed for riches. …attempts to introduce culture into economic discussions so far have been generally either ad hoc, vacuous, blatantly false, or void of testability. …Weber, as is well known, thought that certain types of Protestant ideology were conducive to economic growth. …The Catholics of modern southern Germany, however, would think they have a thing or two to teach their Protestant compatriots of the north about the virtues of hard work and self-reliance. The dour and thrifty Calvinists of my native Scotland look with envy now at the successes of the Catholic Irish, and ask how they can emulate this.Protestants on average may have values associated with economic growth, but that seems to have nothing to do with their specific theology. Lawrence Harrison may seem to escape some of this problem of identifying cultural variation by using a survey of 25 factors that purports to identify systematically the essential elements of cultures that promote high incomes and growth: universal progress cultures. He divides cultures into the “progress-prone” and the “progress-resistant.” In progress-prone societies, for example, people assert “I can influence my destiny.” In progress-resistant societies “fatalism” rules. Progress-prone societies have better economic performance. …The problem with both the Harrison and McClelland approaches is that the responses may reflect just the realities of the institutional framework people live within, rather than their cultural attitudes. A North Korean who reports “fatalism” or “resignation” is plausibly no different culturally from a South Korean who states “I can influence my destiny.”

My grad school classmate and now Professor Pete Boettke adds his two cents.

…we do need to have market prices to allocate resources efficiently. The “getting the prices right” mantra is not wrong, just incomplete. In order to get market prices, we do need to have private property rights and the enforcement of contracts. The “getting the institutions in place” mantra isn’t wrong either. Many of the significant advances in political economy during the 1990s, when the problems of socialist transition were at the forefront of professional and public policy attention, were related to a change of emphasis from “getting the prices right” to “getting the institutions in place.” …In economic terms, culture is a tool for the self-regulation of behavior, and as such it either lowers or raises the costs of enforcing the rules of the game. A free society works best when the need for policemen is least. If the rules of conduct correlated with high levels of economic well-being are viewed by a culture as illegitimate, then those rules will be violated unless there are strong monitors. The costs of monitoring may be so high that the social order cannot in fact be sustained. …Scholars such as Joel Moykr in The Levers of Riches have documented the great technological innovations that fueled growth during the Industrial Revolution, but Mokyr also documents the underlying belief systems and attitudes that had to be present for those innovations to be discovered, implemented, and put into common practice. Without that underlying cultural commitment to scientific discovery, innovation would have been stifled. We can say the same for beliefs and attitudes that undermine private property, mutually beneficial exchange, and commercial development. …Whatever advantages a culture may have, they will not be realized under bad institutions. And whatever disadvantages a culture may have, they will slowly erode, and the culture will improve, when people get to live under institutions of political and economic freedom. Culture can act as a constraint, but it is also a malleable constraint.

James Robinson uses China and Chile as examples that suggest good policies and institutions are key.

If the Chinese do well in Indonesia because they have such a good culture, then why is China one of the world’s poorest countries?  …surely the culture which supposedly is conducive to prosperity in China is an old one and long predates the acceleration of growth which took place in the late 1970s. …culture was held constant and institutions and policies changed while growth accelerated. From this it seems to follow that the reasons countries are poor has nothing to do with culture but rather policies and institutions that do not create the right incentive environment. …What about Chile, the one Latin American success story? Lawrence Harrison argues that Chile has a unique culture, but then why did it manifest itself so recently? It is only since the mid-1980s that the growth path of Chile has distinguished it from other Latin American countries. …culture might matter, but doubters like me will not be convinced by the evidence here.

But this topic gets attention at places other than libertarian think tanks.

Here are some excerpts from a World Bank study looking at the degree to which culture matters for development.

In the abstract there is no doubt a general acceptance that a particular work ethic, a system of personal values and attitudes must have a role in guiding a population along a particular development path; indeed, how could it be otherwise? …Guiso, Sapienza and Zingales (2006) conducted a regression analysis combining survey and macroeconomic data across 53 countries and found that “a 10 percentage point increase in the share of people who think thriftiness is a value that should be taught to children is linked to a 1.3 percentage point increase in the national saving rate”. Tabellini (2010) also showed that European regions with a stronger belief in individual effort tend to have higher GDP per capita and GDP growth. …Lee Kuan Yew speaks of a set of values—“thrift, hard work, filial piety and loyalty to the extended family, and, most of all, the respect for scholarship and learning”—as having provided a powerful cultural backdrop for the development of East Asian countries… Max Weber famously made the case about the role of culture in development in his essay “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” arguing that Protestantism promoted the rise of modern capitalism “by defining and sanctioning an ethic of everyday behavior that conduced to business success” comprising “hard work, honesty, seriousness, the thrifty use of money and time.

Last but not least, let’s consider some practical applications based on a recently published New York Times column by David Brooks.

Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the biggest surprise is how badly most of the post-communist nations have done since. …In the bottom group are basket-case nations that haven’t even recovered the level of real income they had in 1990, as measured by real G.D.P. per capita. These failures include Ukraine, Georgia, Bosnia, Serbia and others — about 20 percent of the post-communist world. “Basically,” Milanovic writes, these “are countries with at least three to four wasted generations. …The next group includes those nations that are merely moderate failures, with per capita economic growth rates under 1.7 percent a year. These are nations like Russia and Hungary that continue to fall steadily behind the West — about 40 percent of the post-communist world by population. The third group includes those with growth rates between 1.7 percent and 1.9 percent. These countries, like the Czech Republic and Slovenia, are holding steady with the capitalist world. Finally there are the successes, the nations that are catching up. …There are only five countries that have emerged as successful capitalist economies: Albania, Poland, Belarus, Armenia and Estonia. To put it another way, only 10 percent of the people living in post-communist nations are living in a place that successfully made the transition to capitalism.

I wouldn’t necessarily have listed Albania and Belarus as success stories, but it’s certainly true that the countries that comprised the former Soviet Bloc have seen a lot of divergence.

Heck, check out this graph comparing Ukraine and Poland if you want a remarkable example.

The question is why did they behave differently?

Why did some countries succeed while others failed? First, leaders in some countries simply made better political decisions. Most of these countries enacted economic reforms, like deregulating prices and privatizing nationalized companies. Some nations like Estonia and Poland enacted reforms radically and quickly… The quick and radical group saw a slightly bigger output drop over the near term but much more prosperity over the long run. …Finally, and most important, there is the level of values. A nation’s economy is nestled in its moral ecology. Economic performance is tied to history, culture and psychology. …[Some] countries lacked this cultural brew. Worse, life was marked by fear, by arbitrary power, by suspicion that people are watching you, by distrust. People raised in this atmosphere of distrust have trouble forming companies and associations. They are more likely to be driven by a grab-what-you-can logic — a culture of corruption and appropriation. …The lesson of the past 25 years is that democratic prosperity is built on layers of small achievements 10,000 fathoms deep. Communism ripped at all that bottom-up society-making and damaged the psyches of its victims. Healing from those wounds is gradual.

So what’s the bottom line?

I’m not really sure, other than to assert that we will never triumph over statism if Americans think it is morally acceptable to live off their neighbors via the coercive power of government.

In many of my fiscal policy speeches, I explain that we face a major crisis because of demographics and poorly designed entitlement programs, but then tell audiences that we can solve the problem with structural program reforms.

To wrap things up, I often close with this Powerpoint slide. As you can see, the first two themes are very familiar to regular readers. Our problem is too much government spending and the solution is my Golden Rule of spending restraint.

But the third bullet point is really about social capital.

In other words, we can share all sorts of evidence about how some nations grow faster with small government and free markets.

We can also highlight how statist policies slow growth.

But none of those arguments will mean much in the long run if people prefer to be wards of the state.

P.S. My concern with personal morality helps to explain why I think libertarians and social conservatives should be natural allies.

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Some of my left-wing friends have groused that Democrats didn’t do well in the mid-term elections because they failed to highlight America’s strong economic performance.

I’m tempted to ask “what strong economic performance?!?” After all, median household income is lower than it was when Obama took office. And labor force participation rates have plummeted.

However, my leftist buddies have a point. America’s economy does look good when compared to Europe.

But why should that be the benchmark for success?

If you look at today’s growth numbers compared to data on historical growth in the United States, you get a much different picture. Here’s some of what Doug Holtz-Eakin, former head of the Congressional Budget Office, wrote as part of a study for the National Chamber Foundation.

Over the entire postwar period from 1947 to 2013, the trend for economic growth in America was 3.3%. Unfortunately, looking at the period as a whole masks a marked deterioration in U.S. growth performance. Since 2007, the rate has downshifted to a mere 1.5%, which translates into a meager 0.7% in growth per capita in the United States. …At the current pace of growth, it will take 99 years for incomes to double. The poor U.S. growth performance is a threat to American families and their futures.

Here’s a chart from the report showing the 10-year rolling average of inflation-adjusted growth in the United States. As you can see, there was plenty of variation, but America usually enjoyed growth average a bit above 3 percent. But then, beginning about 2007/2008, that average dropped below 2 percent.

If you look at projections until 2024, you’ll notice that growth is projected to improve.

But you have to wonder if those projections will materialize.

And, even if they do, growth will only be about 2.5 percent annually, so we’ll still be enduring sub-par economic performance.

Moreover, it appears that those projections may be unrealistic. Here’s another chart from the National Chamber Foundation. It wasn’t in the study, but it’s worth including since it shows how the American economy has been routinely under-performing in recent years.

With this track record of anemic economic performance, it’s hard to have much sympathy for Democrats who thought they should be rewarded on election day. Doing better than France and Italy is not exactly a message that will resonate with voters, particularly when many people have been alive long enough to remember the good growth that America enjoyed during the Reagan and Clinton years, when policy was much more focused on small government and free markets.

But let’s set aside politics and consider the impact of growth on regular Americans rather than politicians. Holtz-Eakin explores some of the ramifications if the economy grows faster over the next decade.

Imagine that growth averages instead 3.3%—just one percentage point higher—for the next 10 years. …A full percentage point would eliminate $3 trillion in debt and slow the growth of the national debt. …Growing at a 3% rate means 1.2 million more jobs, and 1.3 million more if growth escalated to 3.5% for the next 10 years. …Three percent growth would mean another $4,200 in average incomes, while 3.5% growth would boost this an additional $4,500 to nearly $9,000. …faster economic growth would improve the future for the poor, the middle class, and the affluent alike.

By the way, it’s worth noting that faster growth leads to less debt mostly because the government collects a lot more tax revenue when people have higher incomes. And even a knee-jerk anti-taxer like me won’t complain if the IRS gets more money simply because people are more prosperous (though I reserve the right to then argue for lower tax rates).

Now let’s look at the most important question, which is to ask what policies will restore traditional American growth rates.

Doug has several suggestions, starting with entitlement reform.

The policy problem facing the United States is that spending rises above any reasonable metric of taxation for the indefinite future. ….Over the long term, the budget problem is primarily a spending problem, and correcting it requires reductions in the growth of large mandatory spending programs—entitlements like Social Security and federal health programs.

I certainly agree. Assuming, of course, that he wants good entitlement reform rather than gimmicks.

He also suggests tax reform.

The tax code is in need of dramatic improvements, including a modern international tax system, a lower corporation income tax rate, correspondingly lower rates on business income tax via so-called pass-thru entities, and broad elimination of tax preferences to preserve efficient allocation of investment… At the same time, one could improve work incentives by simplifying individual income tax rate brackets (recent proposals have suggested two brackets of 10% and 25%) and exclude a substantial portion of dividends and capital gains from taxation.

Once again, I agree. Though I reserve the right to change my mind and become a vociferous opponent if advocates decide that they wanted to finance these reforms with a value-added tax.

The study also includes suggestions for regulatory reform and other policy changes, but this post is too long already, so let’s now return to the central theme of economic growth.

Or, to be more accurate, the absence of economic growth. Because that’s the legacy of Obamanomics. We’re adopting European-style economic policies, so is it any surprise that our growth rates are declining in the direction of European-style stagnation?

And, to be fair, I’ll be the first to state that this bad trend began under Bush. Big government hinders prosperity, regardless of whether the policies are imposed by Republicans or Democrats.

Just as you get faster growth with good policy, even if those policies are implemented with a Democrat in the White House.

Simply stated, if you want better economic performance, there’s no substitute for free markets and small government.

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When discussing how to boost growth, economists often discuss the importance of human capital and physical capital.

Those are key factors driving economic performance. After all, improvements in human capital mean a more productive workforce. And improvements in physical capital mean greater output per hour worked.

So you can see why I want lower tax rates and less intervention. Simply stated, we’re far more likely to increase – and effectively utilize – human and physical capital when markets allocate resources rather than politicians.

But there’s another form of capital that’s also important. It’s difficult to measure, but I suspect it also plays a huge role in determining a nation’s long-run prosperity.

For lack of a better term, let’s call it social capital, and it refers to the attitudes of a country’s people. I’m not sure how to define social capital, but here are a series of questions that capture what I’m trying to describe: Do the people of a nation believe in the work ethic? Or would they be comfortable as wards of the state, living off others? Are they motivated by the spirit of self-reliance? Would they be ashamed to go on welfare? Do they think the government is obligated to give them things?

The answers to these questions matter a lot because a nation can’t prosper once you reach a tipping point of too many people riding in the wagon and too few people producing.

Here’s what I wrote earlier this year.

…a nation is doomed when a majority of its people decide that it is morally and economically okay to live off the labor of others and want to use the coercive power of government to make it happen. For lack of a better term, we can call this a country’s Dependency Ratio, and it’s a measure of eroding social capital. To what degree, in other words, has the entitlement mentality replaced the work ethic and the spirit of self reliance?

I raise this issue because I want to share two items.

First, here’s some very good news about the United States. According to a new poll from YouGov about attitudes in the United States and United Kingdom, Americans are far more likely to believe they have a moral right to their earnings. Brits, by contrast, overwhelmingly believe that government has a greater moral claim to people’s earnings.

Makes me proud to be American, just as I was back in 2011 when reporting on some Pew research that also showed Americans had a greater spirit of self reliance.

The Brits, by contrast, seem to be moving in the wrong direction. Some of the blame belongs to supposedly right-wing politicians such as David Cameron, George Osborne, and David Gauke, all of whom have argued that people have a moral obligation to pay more to the state than is legally required.

In any event, it’s disturbing to see that people in the United Kingdom have such a warped moral perspective. Which raises the question of whether it’s possible to restore social capital once it’s been eroded?

Or is that a futile task once people have learned a dependency mindset, sort of like trying to put toothpaste back in a tube.

We have some research from Germany that offers guidance on these questions, which is the second item I want to share. Here are excerpts from a story in the Boston Globe.

…If you were a researcher trying to determine how a political system affects people’s values, beliefs, and behavior, you would ideally want to take two identical populations, separate them for a generation or two, and subject them each to two totally different kinds of government. Then you’d want to measure the results… Ethically, such a study would be unthinkable even to propose. But when the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, it created what London School of Economics associate professor Daniel Sturm calls a “perfect experiment.” The two halves of the country were like a pair of identical twins separated at birth and raised by two very different sets of parents.

And what did this experiment produce?

The bad news is that living in a statist regime did erode social capital.

…the researchers didn’t know what to expect. On the one hand, East Germans might be resentful of the system that had constrained their lives; on the other hand, it was also plausible that they had become comfortable with the notion that a government would provide for basic needs at the expense of an open society. Alesina and Fuchs-Schundeln used data from a German survey administered in 1997, and split the respondents into two groups based on where they had lived before reunification. What they found was that, at that point, people from the East still tended to believe in the social-service model. They were also more likely to support a robust government program to help the unemployed…

But the good news is that at least some of the toothpaste of self reliance can be put back in the tube.

It goes the other way too, if slowly: When Alesina and Fuchs-Schundeln looked at survey results from 2002, they found that the two groups of Germans had begun to converge politically. Based on the data, they estimated that it would take between one and two generations—20 to 40 years— for the gap to fully close, and “for an average East German to have the same views on state intervention as an average West German.” …In a separate but related study, it was shown that watching Western TV had actually shaped East Germans’ views about work and chance, making them “more inclined to believe that effort rather than luck determines success in life.”

So what’s the moral of the story?

I guess I’m a tad bit optimistic after learning about this research. I was worried that social capital couldn’t be restored.

So maybe if we force everyone in Greece and Italy to watch my video on free markets and small government, there’s a chance those societies can be salvaged! (But let’s not show it to the French since we’ll always need bad examples.)

P.S. These two cartoons show the dangers of the entitlement mentality.

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I wouldn’t be too upset about Hillary Clinton winning the White House in 2016, but only if I somehow could be assured that we would get the kind of policies we got when her husband was President.

After all, economic freedom increased during the 1990s, largely because of a smaller burden of government spending and less intervention.

Unfortunately, I suspect Hillary isn’t a “Clinton Democrat.”

Indeed, it’s worth noting that she was a doctrinaire statist when she was in the Senate. Here’s what the National Taxpayers Union revealed about her performance in her last year in office.

Sen. Hillary Clinton…received a score of 4 percent and the title of “Big Spender” in 2008 — a slight increase from her 2007 rating of 3 percent.

The good news, if you have the ability to detect very small silver linings, is that her score did increase in her final year.

And it doesn’t appear that she’s learned anything since she left the Senate. Consider some of the bizarre statements she has made in the past few years.

Now she’s added to the list. Here’s what she said the other day about job creation.

Wow. I’m not even sure what to say, other than I wish somebody would ask her where jobs do come from, the Tooth Fairy? Santa Claus?

I’m pretty sure, if pressed, she would use the same argument as her potential 2016 rival, Elizabeth Warren, and claim that government enables all the jobs by providing infrastructure and other public goods.

But there are roads and police in places such as Cuba and North Korea, yet we don’t see jobs there.

Or, to use more reasonable examples, France, Italy, and Greece have lots of roads and cops, yet all of those countries have very weak labor markets.

Maybe, just maybe, you also need some breathing room for private enterprise if you want robust job creation.

An editorial in the Washington Examiner correctly observed that Hillary Clinton’s comments demonstrate ignorance of basic economic principles.

…the private sector accounts for 84 percent of American jobs. But one must remember that the private sector also accounts for 100 percent of the wealth America creates. Meanwhile, government is funded exclusively through various taxes on private production and accumulation of this wealth — and that includes any taxes that fall upon the portion of privately created wealth that government collects and then uses to pay its own employees. This insight should be brought to Clinton’s attention, because Americans cannot afford to have one of their two major political parties reject basic economic principles.

I also like that the editorial explains that even public goods wouldn’t be possible if the private sector wasn’t creating the wealth to finance them.

P.S. Yes, I realize that many of the good policies America enjoyed in the 1990s were driven by Congress. I’m not saying the Bill Clinton deserves credit for those policies. Instead, I am merely pointing out that they were implemented during his presidency.

P.P.S. That being said, it’s worth noting that Bill Clinton seems much more rational than either his wife or the current President.

P.P.P.S. Since I mentioned statist heroine Elizabeth Warren, this is a good opportunity to recycle some humor. Here’s some mockery of her make-believe Indian ancestry, and here’s a clever application of her philosophy to dating choices for attractive women.

P.P.P.P.S. Here are some additional Hillary quotes as part of an amusing quiz.

P.P.P.P.P.S. One final point. I’m not sure who deserves the credit, but somebody in the Clinton household believes in proper (albeit hypocritical) tax planning.

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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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I believe that protecting the environment is both a good thing and a legitimate function of government.

But I’m rational. So while I want limits on pollution, such policies should be determined by cost-benefit analysis.

Banning automobiles doubtlessly would reduce pollution, for instance, but the economic cost would be catastrophic.

On the other hand, it’s good to limit carcinogens from being dumped in the air and water. So long as there’s some unbiased science showing net benefits.

But while I’m pro-environment, I’m anti-environmentalist. Simply stated, too many of these people are nuts.

Then there’s the super-nutty category.

But since I’m an economist, what really worries me is that these people are statists. There’s an old joke that environmentalists are “watermelons” since they’re green on the outside and red on the inside.

But maybe it’s not really a joke. At least not in all cases. Check out this video from Reason, filmed at the so-called climate march in New York City.

Just in case you think the folks at Reason deliberately sought out a few crazy people in an otherwise rational crowd, let’s now look at the views of Naomi Klein, who is ostensibly a big thinker for the left on environmental issues.

Slate published an interview with her and you can judge for yourself whether her views are sensible. Here’s some of what Slate said about her.

According to social activist and perennial agitator Naomi Klein, the really inconvenient truth about climate change is that it’s not about carbon—it’s about capitalism. …she’s turned her argument into a hefty book… This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate is focused on exposing how the relentless pursuit of growth has locked us in to a system that’s incompatible with a stable climate. …

And here’s some of what Ms. Klein said.

The post-carbon economy we can build will have to be better designed. …not only does climate action mean a healthy community—it’s also the best chance at tacking inequality. …The divestment movement is a start at challenging the excesses of capitalism. It’s working to delegitimize fossil fuels, and showing that they’re just as unethical as profits from the tobacco industry. …profits are not legitimate in an era of climate change.

Profits are not legitimate?!? Geesh, sounds like a certain President who also disdains profit.

By the way, I’d bet Naomi Klein has a far bigger “carbon footprint” than the average person.

And I can say with great certainty that other leftists are huge hypocrites on the issue. Check out the vapid actor who did some moral preening at the climate-change march.

Kudos to Ms. Fields. She has a way of exposing phonies on camera.

Though I think it’s safe to say that Mr. DiCaprio doesn’t win the prize for being the biggest environmental hypocrite.

Shifting back to policy issues, even “mainstream” environmental initiatives are often very misguided. Here are a few examples.

The bottom line is that we presumably have some environmental challenges. For instance, it’s quite possible that there is some global warming caused by mankind.

I just don’t trust environmentalists to make policy. When they’re in charge, we get really dumb policies. Or grotesque examples of government thuggery. Or sleazy corruption and cronyism.

But at least we have some decent environmental humor here, here, here, and here.

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It’s difficult to promote good economic policy when some policy makers have a deeply flawed grasp of history.

This is why I’ve tried to educate people, for instance, that government intervention bears the blame for the 2008 financial crisis, not capitalism or deregulation.

Going back in time, I’ve also explained the truth about “sweatshops” and “robber barons.”

But one of the biggest challenges is correcting the mythology that capitalism caused the Great Depression and that government pulled the economy out of its tailspin.

To help correct the record, I’ve shared a superb video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that discusses the failed statist policies of both Hoover and Roosevelt.

Now, to augment that analysis, we have a video from Learn Liberty. Narrated by Professor Stephen Davies, it punctures several of the myths about government policy in the 1930s.

Professors Davies is right on the mark in every case.

And I’m happy to pile on with additional data and evidence.

Myth #1: Herbert Hoover was a laissez-faire President – Hoover was a protectionist. He was an interventionist. He raised tax rates dramatically. And, as I had to explain when correcting Andrew Sullivan, he was a big spender. Heck, FDR’s people privately admitted that their interventionist policies were simply more of the same since Hoover already got the ball rolling in the wrong direction. Indeed, here’s another video on the Great Depression and it specifically explains how Hoover was a big-government interventionist.

Myth #2: The New Deal ended the depression – This is a remarkable bit of mythology since the economy never recovered lost output during the 1930s and unemployment remained at double-digit levels. Simply stated, FDR kept hammering the economy with interventionist policies and more fiscal burdens, thwarting the natural efficiency of markets.

Myth #3: World War II ended the depression – I have a slightly different perspective than Professor Davies. He’s right that wars destroy wealth and that private output suffers as government vacuums up resources for the military. But most people define economic downturns by what happens to overall output and employment. By that standard, it’s reasonable to think that WWII ended the depression. That’s why I think the key lesson is that private growth rebounded after World War II ended and government shrank, when all the Keynesians were predicting doom.

By the way, Reagan understood this important bit of knowledge about post-WWII economic history. And if you want more evidence about how you can rejuvenate an economy by reducing the fiscal burden of government, check out what happened in the early 1920s.

P.S. If you want to see an economically illiterate President in action, watch this video and you’ll understand why I think Obama will never be as bad as FDR.

P.P.S. Since we’re looking at the economic history of the 1930s, I strongly urge you to watch the Hayek v Keynes rap videos, both Part I and Part II. This satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols also is very well done.

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