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I wrote last month that the debt burden in Greece doesn’t preclude economic recovery. After all, both the United States and (especially) the United Kingdom had enormous debt burdens after World War II, yet those record levels of red ink didn’t prevent growth.

Climbing out of the debt hole didn’t require anything miraculous. Neither the United States nor the United Kingdom had great economic policy during the post-war decades. They didn’t even comply with Mitchell’s Golden Rule on spending.

But both nations managed to at least shrink the relative burden of debt by having the private sector grow faster than red ink. And the recipe for that is very simple.

…all that’s needed is a semi-sincere effort to avoid big deficits, combined with a semi-decent amount of economic growth. Which is an apt description of…policy between WWII and the 1970s.

Greece could achieve that goal, particularly if politicians would allow faster growth. The government could reduce red tape, which would be a good start since the nation ranks a miserable #114 for regulation in Economic Freedom of the World.

But Greece also should try to reverse some of the economy-stifling tax increases that have been imposed in recent years.

That may seem a challenge considering the level of red ink, but good tax policy would be possible if the Greek government was more aggressive about reducing the burden of government spending.

And if that’s the goal, then the Baltic nations are a good role model, as explained by Anders Aslund in the Berlin Policy Journal. With Latvia being the star pupil.

…austerity policies have not been attempted most aggressively in Greece: all three Baltic countries pursued more aggressive fiscal adjustments, especially Latvia. The Latvian government faced the global financial crisis head-on. …The Latvian government carried out a fiscal adjustment of 8.8 percent of GDP in 2009 and 5.9 percent of GDP in 2010, amounting to a fiscal adjustment of 14.7 percent of GDP over the course of two years, totaling 17.5 percent of GDP over four years, according to IMF calculations. Greece did the opposite. According to the IMF, its fiscal adjustment in the initial crisis year of 2010 was a paltry 2.5 percent of GDP, and in 2011 only 4.1 percent, a total of only 6.6 percent of GDP over two years. Greece’s total fiscal adjustment over four years was only 11.1 percent of GDP.

In other words, Latvia (like the other Baltic nations) did more reform and did it faster.

And it’s also worth noting that the reforms were generally the right kind of austerity, meaning that expenditure commitments were reduced.

Whereas Greece has implemented some expenditure reforms, but has relied far more on tax increases.

Better policy, not surprisingly, meant better results.

In 2008-10 Latvia suffered an output decline of 24 percent, as much as Greece did in the six-year span from 2009-14. However, thanks to its front-loaded fiscal adjustment, Latvia was able to restore its public finances after two years. The country has shown solid economic growth, averaging 4.3 percent per year from 2011-14, according to Eurostat. …The consequences of tepid Greek fiscal stabilization have been a devastating six years of declining output, even as the Latvian economy has revived. In 2013 Latvia’s GDP at constant prices was 4 percent lower than in 2008, while Greece’s was 23 percent less than in 2008, according to the IMF. A cumulative difference in GDP development of 19 percentage points over six years cannot be a statistical blip – it is real.

The bottom line is that Latvia and the other Baltics were willing to endure more short-term pain in order to achieve a quicker economic rebound.

That was a wise choice, particularly since the alternative, as we see in Greece, is seemingly permanent stagnation.

Anders Paalzow of the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga also suggests, in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, that Latvia is a good role model.

Professor Paalzow starts by explaining that Latvia is now enjoying good growth after enduring a dramatic boom-bust cycle last decade.

In 2008, Europe’s most overheated economy, which had been fuelled by cheap credit and rapidly raising wages and real estate prices, collapsed. GDP dropped by 20 percent and unemployment rose to more than 20 percent. But here’s where things take an unexpected turn. By late 2010, the first glimmers of recovery became apparent. Today, the economy is among Europe’s fastest growing, and its GDP is back at pre-crisis levels. So how did Latvia, the hero of this story, do it?

The first thing to understand is that Latvia was determined to join the eurozone, so that meant it wasn’t going to devalue its currency in hopes of inflating away its problems. Which meant the only other choice was “internal devaluation.”

…the Latvian government’s only real option was fiscal policy adjustment, the details of which it unveiled in its supplementary budget for 2009 and its budget for 2010. Both of these saw substantial reductions in social benefits accompanied by long overdue cuts in public employment with close to 30 percent of civil servants laid off. Those who remained in the public sector saw their salaries cut by 25 percent, on average, whereas salaries in the private sector fell by on average ten percent. …the reductions made during the crisis years amounted to approximately 11 percent of GDP. Most of the fiscal consolidation was done on the expenditure side of the public budget… The fiscal consolidation program continued into 2011 and the years following, even though the economy started to grow again.

Not only did the economy grow, but the government was rewarded for making tough choices.

…in 2010, the government responsible for austerity was reelected.

But here’s the challenge. Professor Paalzow warns that fiscal reforms won’t mean much unless the chronic dysfunction of the Greek government is somehow addressed.

The importance of the institutional framework cannot be overestimated. …it seems like a fool’s errand to try to sell off the public assets of a country riddled with high corruption… Furthermore, with a legal system incapable of enforcing current legislation and characterized by slow judicial processes, inefficient courts, and weak investor protection, legal reform will be a necessary condition for an economic turnaround.

So he suggests that Latvian-type fiscal reforms should be accompanied by Nordic-style institutional reforms.

Greece should look further north to Finland and Sweden, which overcame their own crises in the early 1990s. …The three to four years following the initial economic disaster saw remarkable institutional reform…substantial changes in both welfare systems. …both countries pursued austerity…, a remedy that both nations had frequently tried in the 1970s and 1980s without any success. What made the difference this time was that the institutional, and hence the fundamental roots, of the problems were addressed.

While I like his prescription, I suspect Paalzow is being too optimistic.

You can’t turn the Greeks into Finns or Swedes, at least not without some sort of massive jolt.

Which is why my preferred policy is to end bailouts, even if it means that Greece repudiates its existing debt. If the Greeks no longer got any handouts, that necessarily would mean an immediate end to deficit spending (assuming the government doesn’t ditch the euro in order to finance spending by printing drachmas).

Welfare State Wagon CartoonsAnd that might be a very sobering experience that would teach the Greek people about the dangers of having too many people trying to ride in the wagon of government dependency.

That might not turn the Greeks into Nordics, but it presumably would help them understand that you can’t (at least in the long run) consume more than you produce.

That’s also a lesson that some American politicians need to learn!

P.S. I wonder if Paul Krugman will attack Latvia’s good reforms. When he went after Estonia for adopting similar policies, he wound up with egg on his face.

One of the reasons I repeatedly compare market-oriented countries with statist nations is to show that even minor differences in growth, if sustained over time, can have enormous impact on living standards for ordinary people.

And that’s why we should be very worried that America’s economy is sputtering. During the 138 years between 1870 and 2008,  our economy expanded by an average of about 3 percent per year, but now it seems like 2 percent growth is the “new normal.”

That may not sound like a big difference, but it takes more than 35 years to double economic output if an economy grows 2 percent annually.

With 3 percent yearly growth, by contrast, GDP doubles in less than 25 years.

The Wall Street Journal understands that we should be worried about the recent slowdown. Citing new research from the Joint Economic Committee, the WSJ opines on the high cost of Obamanomics.

…the American economy has become a slow-growth machine. That’s the story underscored by the annual government revisions in historical GDP that accompanied the second-quarter report. The news, which most Americans have long felt in slow-growing wages, is that the worst expansion in 70 years has been even weaker than we thought. …Since the recession ended in June 2009, the economy has grown at an annual rate of about 2.1%. That’s 0.6-percentage points worse than even during the much-maligned George W. Bush expansion.

And it’s far below the economic performance America enjoyed during the more market-friendly policies of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

The WSJ compares Obama’s six-year “expansion” with the growth of the economy after six years of expansion in the 1980s and 1990s.

Real GDP growth averaged 4.6% in the first six years of the Reagan expansion, and more than 3.6% a year in the first six years of the George H.W. Bush-Bill Clinton expansion… Had the current expansion been as robust as the average expansion since 1960, GDP would be some $1.89 trillion larger today, according to Congress’s Joint Economic Committee.

Wow, nearly $1.9 trillion in foregone economic output.

No wonder median household income is lower than when Obama took office.

And no wonder employee compensation has been stagnant.

So why is the economy so moribund?

There’s no great mystery about why growth has been so slow. The natural dynamism of the U.S. economy has been swamped by waves of bad policies. Unprecedented new regulation has hamstrung finance, health care, the coal and power industries, for-profit education, and so much more. …Higher taxes—their anticipation and then the reality in 2013—slowed risk-taking and investment. Profits fell in the first quarter of 2013 thanks to the tax cliff, and growth for 2013 was a mere 1.5% after the latest revisions.

Amen. I’ve made this same point, over and over and over again.

Simply stated, prosperity and big government are not very compatible.

Now let’s close with a bit of optimism. Yes, the aggregate burden of government has increased in the United States in recent years. But we’re nonetheless the 12th-freest economy in the world. based on a comprehensive analysis of fiscal policy, regulatory policy, trade policy, monetary policy, and the rule of law.

Sure, that’s down from being the 7th-freest economy in 2008 and the 3rd-freest economy in 2001, yet we’re still ahead of Japan (#23), Sweden (#32), France (#58), Greece (#84), and China (#115).

And while the overall size and scope of government has increased in the past six years, we’ve actually enjoyed a small bit of progress in terms of reducing government spending relative to the economy’s productive sector.

So while I sometimes sound like a Cassandra about what’s been happening and where we’re heading, the good news is that we still have time to reverse course.

Our most pressing need is genuine entitlement reform, and there’s a non-trivial chance that may happen in 2017. So no need to abandon ship quite yet.

Not all birthdays are a cause for untrammeled joy. Most of us baby boomers, for instance, don’t like being reminded that we’re getting older.

And for folks who follow fiscal policy, the fact that Medicare is now 50 years old is hardly a cause for celebration. That’s because the program, as one of the three big entitlement programs, will turn American into Greece without substantial structural reform.

But it’s not just a budgetary issue.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Sally Pipes of the Pacific Research Institute opines that this isn’t a happy birthday for taxpayers, seniors, or the healthcare system.

The only birthday gift this middle-age government program merits is a reality check. Health insurance for senior citizens was part of LBJ’s expansion of the welfare state, all in the service of establishing a “Great Society.” Yet many beneficiaries today are struggling to secure access to high-quality care. Future beneficiaries, meanwhile, are forking over billions of dollars today to keep a program afloat that may be bankrupt when they retire.

Like many government programs, it is far more expensive than initially promised.

Medicare spending has zoomed far beyond original expectations and is now anything but sustainable. In its first year, 1966, Medicare spent $3 billion. In 1967 the House Ways and Means Committee predicted that the program would cost $12 billion by 1990. It ended up costing $110 billion that year. Last year the program cost $511 billion, and seven years from now it will double to more than $1 trillion, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

And like many government programs, it is riddled with waste, fraud, and abuse.

Medicare has been dogged by fraud and other improper payments—$60 billion overall in fiscal 2014, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.

You can click here if you want some jaw-dropping examples of how the program squanders money.

Moreover, many doctors don’t want to treat Medicare recipients because they lose money after you included the expense of accompanying paperwork and regulations.

…nearly three in 10 seniors on Medicare struggle to find a primary-care doctor who will treat them, according to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission. Another survey conducted by Jackson Healthcare, the health-care staffing company, found that 10% of the more than 2,000 physicians it surveyed don’t see Medicare patients at all.

So what’s the solution?

We’ve tried price controls and that doesn’t work.

Other approaches also won’t be adequate. So the only answer, Sally explains, is to shift to a form of vouchers sometimes called “premium support.”

…tweaking the eligibility age won’t be enough. If Medicare is to survive into old age, the program has to be converted from an open-ended entitlement to a system of means-tested vouchers. Under such a system, the government would give every senior a voucher based on health status, income and age. Seniors in better health and those who are wealthy would receive smaller vouchers. Sicker or needier seniors would receive larger ones. Seniors would then choose from among privately administered health plans the one that best suited their needs and budget. Insurers would have to compete for beneficiaries’ business, and providers would have to compete to get on the most popular plans. Lower prices and better-quality care would be the result.

Grace-Marie Turner of the Galen Institute and Merrill Matthews of the Institute for Policy Innovation have a similarly pessimistic perspective.

In a column for Investor’s Business Daily, they highlight some of the same problems with cost and quality, but they also add important insight about how Medicare has caused rising health care costs.

…health economist Theodore Marmor pointed out: “Hospital price increases presented the most intractable political problem for the Johnson administration. In the first year of Medicare’s operation, the average daily service charge in America’s hospitals increased by an unprecedented 21.9%. Each month the Labor Department’s consumer price survey reported further increases…”

Gee, what a surprise. With Uncle Sam picking up the tab, normal market forces were eroded and providers responded by jacking up prices.

The federal government has responded with price controls, but that’s been predictably ineffective.

Congress imposed a type of price-control mechanism in 1983 called Diagnostic Related Groups, or DRGs. And in the early 1990s, Congress tried to cut spending on physicians by creating the Resource Based Relative Value Scale. Then there was the infamous Medicare “Sustainable Growth Rate,” later dubbed the “doc fix,” which passed in 1996 to contain Medicare spending by cutting doctors’ fees. It was repealed only recently, after Congress had postponed the vote 17 times.

So what’s the bottom line?

Government involvement dramatically increases spending, followed by clampdowns on soaring prices, leading to restrictions on doctors and patients. Perhaps next time, we might try market forces rather than another failed effort at centralized government programs.

Or we can simply leave policy on autopilot and somehow have faith that Obamacare’s death panels will “solve” the problem.

P.S. Here’s the video I narrated which explains the importance of the right kind of Medicare reform.

And if you want (what I think) is a very good description of the program, it’s that Medicare charges seniors for a hamburger and gives them a hamburger, but taxpayers are getting a bill for a steak.

When writing about the burden of regulation, I often share big numbers about aggregate cost, job losses, time wasted, and foregone growth.

But I sometimes wonder if such data is effective in the battle for good policy.

Maybe it’s better, at least in some cases, to focus on regulations that affect quality of life for regular people. Lots of ordinary citizens, for instance, are irked that they’re now forced to use inferior light bulbs, substandard toilets, and inadequate washing machines because of regulatory silliness from Washington.

And it looks like we’ll now be forced to use dishwashers that don’t clean dishes thanks to proposed regulations that will reduce water use (which is in addition to a 2012 regulation that already restricted water use).

The Hill reports on the Nanny State’s latest salvo in the war against modern civilization.

The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers is accusing the Department of Energy (DOE) of a politically motivated drive to increase dishwasher efficiency standards, which are so bad that they would cause consumers to re-wash dishes, erasing any efficiency gains. Rob McAver, the group’s head lobbyist, said regulators are going too far and the new rules will allow only 3.1 gallons to be used to wash each load of dishes. …They then ran standard tests with food stuck to dishes. “They found some stuff that was pretty disgusting,” McAver said. …“The poor performance that would result would totally undercut and go backwards in terms of energy and water use, because of the need for running the dishwasher again, or pre-rinsing or hand-washing, which uses a lot of water,” he said.

Great, another bone-headed step by the government that will make life less enjoyable.

I’m already one of those people who rinse my dishes before putting them in the dishwasher because I hate the idea that they won’t be fully clean afterwards.

So I can only imagine how bad it will be if this absurd example of red tape is imposed and I have to buy a new dishwasher.

I guess I’ll just keep my fingers crossed that my current dishwasher doesn’t break down.

Especially since the rules make new dishwashers more expensive.

Ernest Istook, former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, wrote in a Washington Times piece that complying with the 2012 rule, based on DOE estimates, added roughly $44 to the cost of each machine. “Now their 2015 proposal will add another $99 to the price tag, even by DOE’s own admission,” he wrote.

Julie Borowski has the right assessment. Her column for Freedom Works is from 2012, but it’s very appropriate still today.

Are you disappointed in every shower head that you purchase? Does your toilet have trouble flushing? Have you noticed that your dishes are still dirty after the dishwasher cycle is completed? …Some of us may be quick to blame the manufacturer of these home appliances. But the manufacturers are just abiding by the costly regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy.

What’s really frustrating is that these regulations reduce the quality of life without even reducing water usage.

…it has only led to people hacking their shower heads to remove the intrusion that is blocking water flow in order to have a more relaxing shower that actually gets them clean. There is no proof that the water restrictions have actually saved water because many people just end up taking longer showers than they otherwise would.

Amen. Every so often I wind up at a hotel with restricted-flow showerheads and it’s a hassle because I probably spend twice as long in the shower.

Not to mention problems government has created elsewhere in bathrooms.

…water restrictions are also the reason that our toilets have trouble flushing. Many of us have become accustomed to flushing the toilet multiple times before the toilet bowl is clear. The 1992 Energy Policy Act states that all toilets sold in the United States use no more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush. These water restrictions are the reason why we have to use plungers far more often than we used to.

I won’t torment readers with a TMI moment, but I will say that I now routinely flush at the halfway point when seated on a toilet. And even that doesn’t necessarily preclude a third flush at the end of the process.

The only good news is that this gives me a daily reminder that government has far too much power to micro-manage our lives.

Speaking of excessive government, here’s another example of the regulatory state run amok.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the federal milk police? Well, now we’ll have the federal pizza police, as explained by The Manhattan Institute.

Pizza makers could face fines and prison time under a new Food and Drug Administration rule for failing to provide calorie counts for their billions of combinations of pizza orders. …FDA’s menu labeling rule will go into effect on December 1st, 2016… If a company does not perfectly comply with the mandate, food may be rendered “misbranded” under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, a violation that carries criminal penalties. Failure to comply with the regulation could lead to government seizure of food, a maximum $1,000 fine, and a one-year prison sentence. …Revising systems under strict compliance with the regulation’s guidelines is expected to cost Domino’s $1,600 to $4,700 per restaurant annually. In general, the rule is expected to cost businesses $537 million, losses that necessarily must be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices.

And I doubt anyone will be surprised to learn that all this coercion and red tape will have no positive effect.

Several studies on the effectiveness of calorie displays suggest the mandate will have little to no effect on the public’s choices. In one study on menu-labeling in New York City, Brian Elbel, a professor at New York University, found that only 28 percent of people who saw calorie labels said that the information influenced their choices. There was no statistically significant change in calories purchased. In another study, Lisa Harnack of the University of Minnesota examined whether knowledge about calorie counts of menu items would influence how much a person ate, even if the information did not change ordering habits. A lab study revealed that, overall, consumers did not change how much they ate after receiving information about their food’s caloric content.

Which is why, when writing about this topic last year, I predicted “If this regulation is implemented, it will have zero measurable impact on American waistlines.

P.S. Keep in mind we already have the federal bagpipe police, the federal pond police, and the federal don’t-whistle-at-whales police.

P.P.S. As I repeatedly warn, if the answer is more government, someone’s asked a very silly question.

Remember the big debt limit fight of 2013? The political establishment at the time went overboard with hysterical rhetoric about potential instability in financial markets.

They warned that a failure to increase the federal government’s borrowing authority would mean default to bondholders even though the Treasury Department was collecting about 10 times as much revenue as would be needed to pay interest on the debt.

And these warnings had an effect. Congress eventually acquiesced.

I thought it was a worthwhile fight, but not everyone agrees.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), for instance, recently released a report about that experience and they suggest that there was a negative impact on markets.

During the 2013 debt limit impasse, investors reported taking the unprecedented action of systematically avoiding certain Treasury securities—those that matured around the dates when the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) projected it would exhaust the extraordinary measures that it uses to manage federal debt when it is at the limit. …Investors told GAO that they are now prepared to take similar steps to systematically avoid certain Treasury securities during future debt limit impasses. …industry groups emphasized that even a temporary delay in payment could undermine confidence in the full faith and credit of the United States and therefore cause significant damage to markets for Treasury securities and other assets.

The GAO even produced estimates showing that the debt limit fight resulted in a slight increase in borrowing costs.

GAO’s analysis indicates that the additional borrowing costs that Treasury incurred rose rapidly in the final weeks and days leading up to the October 2013 deadline when Treasury projected it would exhaust its extraordinary measures. GAO estimated the total increased borrowing costs incurred through September 30, 2014, on securities issued by Treasury during the 2013 debt limit impasse. These estimates ranged from roughly $38 million to more than $70 million, depending on the specifications used.

I confess that these results don’t make sense since it is inconceivable to me that Treasury wouldn’t fully compensate bondholders if there was any sort of temporary default.

But GAO included some persuasive evidence that investors didn’t have total trust in the government. Here are a couple of charts looking at interest rates.

Both of them show an uptick in rates as we got closer to the date when the Treasury Department said it would run out of options.

Given this data, the GAO argues that it would be best to eviscerate the debt limit.

The bureaucrats propose three options, all of which would have the effect of enabling automatic or near-automatic increases in the federal government’s borrowing authority.

GAO identified three potential approaches to delegating borrowing authority. …Option 1: Link Action on the Debt Limit to the Budget Resolution …legislation raising the debt limit to the level envisioned in the Congressional Budget Resolution would be…deemed to have passed… Option 2: Provide the Administration with the Authority to Increase the Debt Limit, Subject to a Congressional Motion of Disapproval… Option 3: Delegating Broad Authority to the Administration to Borrow…such sums as necessary to fund implementation of the laws duly enacted by Congress and the President.

So is GAO right? Should we give Washington a credit card with no limits?

I don’t think so, but I’m obviously not very persuasive because I actually had a chance to share my views with GAO as they prepared the report.

Here are the details about GAO’s process for getting feedback from outside sources.

…we hosted a private Web forum where selected experts participated in an interactive discussion on the various policy proposals and commented on the technical feasibility and merits of each option. We selected experts to invite to the forum based on their experience with budget and debt issues in various capacities (government officials, former congressional staff, and policy researchers), as well as on their knowledge of the debt limit, as demonstrated through published articles and congressional testimony since 2011. …we received comments from 17 of the experts invited to the forum. We determined that the 17 participants represented the full range of political perspectives. We analyzed the results of the forum to identify key factors that policymakers should consider when evaluating different policy options.

Given the ground rules of this exercise, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to share details of that interactive discussion.

But I will share some of my 2013 public testimony to the Joint Economic Committee.

Here’s some of what I told lawmakers.

I explained that Greece is now suffering through a very deep recession, with record unemployment and harsh economic conditions. I asked the Committee a rhetorical question: Wouldn’t it have been preferable if there was some sort of mechanism, say, 15 years ago that would have enabled some lawmakers to throw sand in the gears so that the government couldn’t issue any more debt? Yes, there would have been some budgetary turmoil at the time, but it would have been trivial compared to the misery the Greek people currently are enduring. I closed by drawing an analogy to the situation in Washington. We know we’re on an unsustainable path. Do we want to wait until we hit a crisis before we address the over-spending crisis? Or do we want to take prudent and modest steps today – such as genuine entitlement reform and spending caps – to ensure prosperity and long-run growth.

In other words, my argument is simply that it’s good to have debt limit fights because they create a periodic opportunity to force reforms that might avert far greater budgetary turmoil in the future.

Indeed, one of the few recent victories for fiscal responsibility was the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), which only was implemented because of a fight that year over the debt limit. At the time, the establishment was screaming and yelling about risky brinksmanship.

But the net result is that the BCA ultimately resulted in the sequester, which was a huge victory that contributed to much better fiscal numbers between 2009-2014.

By the way, I’m not the only one to make this argument. The case for short-term fighting today to avoid fiscal crisis in the future was advanced in greater detail by a Wall Street expert back in 2011.

P.P.S. You can enjoy some good debt limit cartoons by clicking here and here.

 

If you want to pinpoint the leading source of bad economic policy proposals, I would understand if someone suggested the Obama Administration.

But looking to Europe might be even more accurate.

For instance, I’d be hard pressed to identify a policy more misguided than continent-wide eurobonds, which I suggested would be akin to “co-signing a loan for your unemployed alcoholic cousin who has a gambling addiction.”

And now there’s another really foolish idea percolating on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

The U.K.-based Financial Times has a story about calls for greater European centralization from Italy.

Italy’s finance minister has called for deeper eurozone integration in the aftermath of the Greek crisis, saying a move “straight towards political union” is the only way to ensure the survival of the common currency. …Italy and France have traditionally been among the most forceful backers of deeper European integration but other countries are sceptical about supporting a greater degree of political convergence. …Italy is calling for a wide set of measures — including the swift completion of banking union, the establishment of a common eurozone budget and the launch of a common unemployment insurance scheme — to reinforce the common currency. He said an elected eurozone parliament alongside the existing European Parliament and a European finance minister should also be considered. “To have a full-fledged economic and monetary union, you need a fiscal union and you need a fiscal policy,” Mr Padoan said.

This is nonsense.

The United States has a monetary union and an economic union, yet our fiscal policy was very decentralized for much of our nation’s history.

And Switzerland has a monetary and economic union, and its fiscal policy is still very decentralized.

Heck, the evidence is very strong that decentralized fiscal systems lead to much better outcomes.

So why is Europe’s political elite so enamored with a fiscal union and so opposed to genuine federalism?

There’s an ideological reason and a practical reason for this bias.

The ideological reason is that statists strongly prefer one-size-fits-all systems because government has more power and there’s no jurisdictional competition (which they view as a “race to the bottom“).

The practical reason is that politicians from the weaker European nations see a fiscal union as a way of getting more transfers and redistribution from nations such as Germany, Finland, and the Netherlands.

In the case of Italy, both reasons probably apply. Government debt already is very high in Italy and growth is virtually nonexistent, so it’s presumably just a matter of time before the Italians will be looking for Greek-style bailouts.

But the Italian political elite also has a statist ideological perspective. And the best evidence for that is the fact that Signore Padoan used to be a senior bureaucrat at the Paris-based OECD.

The Italian finance minister…served as former chief economist of the OECD.

You won’t be surprised to learn that French politicians also have been urging a supranational government for the eurozone. And presumably for the same reasons of ideology and self-interest.

But here’s the man-bites-dog part of the story.

The German government also seems open to the idea, as reported by the U.K.-based Independent.

France and Germany have agreed a new plan for closer eurozone political unionThe new Franco-German agreement would see closer cooperation between the 19 countries.

Wow, don’t the politicians in Berlin know that a fiscal union is just a scheme to extract more money from German taxpayers?!?

As I wrote three years ago, this approach “would involve putting German taxpayers at risk for the reckless fiscal policies in nations such as Greece, Italy, and Spain.

But maybe the Germans aren’t completely insane. Writing for Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky explains that the current German position is to have a supranational authority with the power to reject national budgets.

The German perspective on a political and fiscal union is a little more cautious. Last year, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and a fellow high-ranking member of the CDU party, Karl Lamers, called for a euro zone parliament (not elected, but comprising European Parliament members from euro area countries) and a budget commissioner with the power to reject national budgets if they contravene a certain set of rules agreed by euro members.

And since the German approach is disliked by the Greeks, then it can’t be all bad.

Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, Schaeuble’s most eloquent hater, pointed out in a recent article for Germany’s Die Zeit that, in the Schaeuble-Lamers plan, the budget commissioner is endowed only with “negative” powers, while a true federation — like Germany itself — elects a parliament and a government to formulate positive policies.

But “can’t be all bad” isn’t the same as good.

Simply stated, any sort of eurozone government almost surely will morph over time into a transfer union. And that means more handouts, more subsidies, more harmonization, more bailouts, more centralization, and more bureaucracy.

So you can see why Europe’s political elite may be even more foolish than their American counterparts.

When giving speeches outside the beltway, I sometimes urge people to be patient with Washington. Yes, we need fundamental tax reform and genuine entitlement reform, but there’s no way Congress can make those changes with Obama in the White House.

But there are some areas whether progress is possible, and people should be angry with politicians if they deliberately choose to make bad decisions.

For instance, the corrupt Export-Import Bank has expired and there’s nothing that Obama can do to restore this odious example of corporate welfare. It will only climb from the grave if Republicans on Capitol Hill decide that campaign cash from big corporations is more important than free markets.

Another example of a guaranteed victory – assuming Republicans don’t fumble the ball at the goal line – is that there’s no longer enough gas-tax revenue coming into the Highway Trust Fund to finance big, bloated, and pork-filled transportation spending bills. So if the GOP-controlled Congress simply does nothing, the federal government’s improper and excessive involvement in this sector will shrink.

Unfortunately, Republicans have no desire to achieve victory on this issue. It’s not that there’s a risk of them fumbling the ball on the goal line. By looking for ways to generate more revenue for the Trust Fund, they’re moving the ball in the other direction and trying to help the other team score a touchdown!

The good news is that Republicans backed away from awful proposals to increase the federal gas tax.

But the bad news is that they’re coming up with other ideas to transfer more of our income to Washington. Here’s a look at some of the revenue-generating schemes in the Senate transportation bill.

Since the House and Senate haven’t agreed on how to proceed, it’s unclear which – if any – of these proposals will be implemented.

But one thing that is clear is that the greed for more federal transportation spending is tempting Republicans into giving more power to the IRS.

Republicans and Democrats alike are looking to the IRS as they try to pass a highway bill by the end of the month. Approving stricter tax compliance measure is one of the few areas of agreement between the House and the Senate when it comes to paying for an extension of transportation funding. …the Senate and House are considering policy changes for the IRS ahead of the July 31 transportation deadline. …With little exception, the Senate bill uses the same provisions that were in a five-month, $8 billion extension the House passed earlier this month. The House highway bill, which would fund programs through mid-December, gets about 60 percent of its funding from tax compliance measures. …it’s…something of a shift for Republicans to trust the IRS enough to back the new tax compliance measures. House Republicans opposed similar proposals during a 2014 debate over highway funding, both because they didn’t want to give the IRS extra authority and because they wanted to hold the line on using new revenues to pay for additional spending.

Gee, isn’t it swell that Republicans have “grown in office” since last year.

But this isn’t just an issue of GOPers deciding that the DC cesspool is actually a hot tub. Part of the problem is the way Congress operates.

Simply stated, the congressional committee system generally encourages bad decisions. If you want to understand why there’s no push to scale back the role of the federal government in transportation, just look at the role of the committees in the House and Senate that are involved with the issue.

Both the authorizing committees (the ones that set the policy) and the appropriating committees (the ones that spend the money) are among the biggest advocates of generating more revenue in order to enable continued federal government involvement in transportation.

Why? For the simple reason that allocating transportation dollars is how the members of these committees raise campaign cash and buy votes. As such, it’s safe to assume that politicians don’t get on those committees with the goal of scaling back federal subsidies for the transportation sector.

And this isn’t unique to the committees that deal with transportation.

It’s also a safe bet that politicians that gravitate to the agriculture committees have a strong interest in maintaining the unseemly system of handouts and subsidies that line the pockets of Big Ag. The same is true for politicians that seek out committee slots dealing with NASA. Or foreign aid. Or military bases.

The bottom line is that even politicians who generally have sound views are most likely to make bad decisions on issues that are related to their committee assignments.

So what’s the solution?

Well, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a shift to random and/or rotating committee assignments, so the only real hope is to have some sort of overall cap on spending so that the various committees have to fight with each other over a (hopefully) shrinking pool of funds.

That’s why the Gramm-Rudman law in the 1980s was a step in the right direction. And it’s why the spending caps in today’s Budget Control Act also are a good idea.

Most important, it’s why we should have a limit on all spending, such as what’s imposed by the so-called Debt Brake in Switzerland.

Heck, even the crowd at the IMF has felt compelled to admit spending caps are the only effective fiscal tool.

Maybe, just maybe, a firm and enforceable spending cap will lead politicians in Washington to finally get the federal government out of areas such as transportation (and housing, agriculture, education, etc) where it doesn’t belong.

One can always hope.

In the meantime, since we’re on the topic of transportation decentralization, here’s a map from the Tax Foundation showing how gas taxes vary by states.

This data is useful (for instance, it shows why drivers in New York and Pennsylvania should fill up their tanks in New Jersey), but doesn’t necessarily tell us which states have the best transportation policy.

Are the gas taxes used for roads, or is some of the money siphoned off for boondoggle mass transit projects? Do the states have Project Labor Agreements and other policies that line the pockets of unions and cause needlessly high costs? Is there innovation and flexibility for greater private sector involvement in construction, maintenance, and operation?

But this is what’s good about federalism and why decentralization is so important. The states should be the laboratories of democracy. And when they have genuine responsibility for an issue, it then becomes easier to see which ones are doing a good job.

So yet another reason to shut down the Department of Transportation.

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