Archive for May 4th, 2010

Total government debt is about 115 percent of GDP in Greece, which clearly is one of the factors that spooked investors and led to the bailout. But Japan – at least on paper – is in much worse shape with government debt approaching 200 percent of GDP (see page 80). And with a grim demographic outlook (lots of aging people and comparatively few young people to enter the workforce), the nation’s fiscal position seems dismal. Yet the Japanese government is widely perceived as more trustworthy, particularly by domestic savers who finance much of the government’s debt. At some point, however, one would imagine that the proverbial chickens will come home to roost and Japan will face a fiscal crisis. Here’s some interesting background from a New York Times story:

Seeking to bring its spiraling debt under control, Japan has undertaken an unlikely exercise: lawmakers are forcing bureaucrats to defend their budgets at public hearings and are slashing wanton spending. The hearings, streamed live on the Internet, are part of an effort by the eight-month-old government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama to tackle the country’s public debt, which has mushroomed to twice the size of Japan’s $5 trillion economy after years of profligate spending. Greece’s debt crisis, which has panicked investors and forced the rest of Europe to put together a multibillion-dollar bailout, has fed fears in Tokyo that if spending is unchecked, Japan could become the center of the next global financial crisis. …The target of the most recent hearings, which began Friday, is Japan’s web of quasi-government agencies and public corporations – nonprofits that draw some 3.4 trillion yen ($36 billion) in annual public funds, but operate with little public scrutiny. Critics have long argued that these organizations, many of which offer cushy executive jobs to retired public officials, epitomize the wasteful spending that has driven Japan’s public debt to dangerous levels. The daily testimony by cowering bureaucrats, covered extensively in local media, has given the Japanese their first-ever detailed look at state spending. So far, viewers have looked on in disbelief over the apparent absurdity of some of the government spending. In one example scrutinized on Tuesday, the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization, which is government financed, spent 130 million yen ($1.4 million) last year on a 3-D movie theater used to show footage of scenery from the countryside. The movie dome, which also plays recordings of chirping insects and babbling streams, is closed to the public and is used to study how the human brain reacts to different types of scenery, said Takami Komae, head of the organization’s rural engineering department. The findings will be used to help rural areas think of ways to attract more tourists, he testified. Politicians ridiculed the project. “The dome is located in the countryside anyway, isn’t it?” said Manabu Terada, a Democratic Party lawmaker, at a public hearing in Tokyo. “Can’t we just step outside and see the real thing?” …Under particular scrutiny at the hearings have been the retired ministry officials who take comfortable positions at the government-linked organizations in a practice known as “amakudari,” or “descent from heaven.” The network of these agencies is complex, including 104 large organizations supervised directly by the government and 6,625 smaller public corporations. Critics say that many of the former bureaucrats use their connections in government to win public money for dubious construction and research projects, then delegate the work while their organizations pocket much of the budget as administrative fees. Aki Wakabayashi, an author and former worker at a government-supported labor think tank, has been one of the most fervent critics of government spending on these organizations. In 2001, she blew the whistle on her institute, describing lavish foreign “research” trips for the former bureaucrats leading the institute – complete with first-class air travel and stays in five-star hotels – and clerks who drew researcher salaries while spending their days chatting and reading magazines.

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I’ve explained on several occasions that Obama has a legitimate point when he says he inherited a mess. After all, Bush spent the economy into a ditch and the Fannie/Freddie/Federal Reserve-caused financial crisis put the economy into recession before Obama took office. That being said, economies normally rebound from a deep recession with a big recovery and this has not happened (at least so far) this time. The Wall Street Journal editorializes about how weak the current recover is compared to the Reagan expansion:

One way to judge the strength of a recovery is to compare it to the growth after downturns of similar severity. The best recent comparison to the recession of 2008-2009 would be that of 1981-1982. …both periods had steep declines in output and jobless rates that hit 10%. The 1982 recession officially ended in November, and the recovery came roaring out of that year, gaining momentum throughout 1983 and carrying 8% growth into 1984 with an expansion that lasted six more years. …By comparison to that boom, the current recovery has been about half as strong. …The full incentive-enhancing impact of the 25% Reagan reduction in marginal tax rates finally kicked in on January 1, 1983…. At the same time, an era of deregulation was lowering costs across most industries. The groundwork for a durable expansion had been laid in lower taxes, lower inflation and lower business costs. In the current recovery, the policy headwinds are very different. Taxes are set to rise significantly on January 1, 2011, and the political class is signaling the need for still more taxes to pay for the costs of stimulus and the expanding entitlement state.

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It is now fully apparent that General Motors did not pay back any money to taxpayers, and certainly did not pay back the full amount, as stated in the reprehensibly dishonest ads produced by the company. The Obama Administration took part in the lie, which exposes an additional reason why it was a terrible idea to give the company a bailout. For all intents and purposes, taxpayers paid for the GM ad, and the purpose of the ad – at least in part – was to help the Obama Administration. Welcome to corporatism (the nice way of saying it) and national socialism (the not-so-nice way of saying it). Here’s a great video from Reason.tv explaining GM’s gross prevarication:

The good news is that others are now aware of the Obama/GM scam. Here’s an excerpt from the New York Times:

G.M. trumpeted its escape from the program as evidence that it had turned the corner in its operations. “G.M. is able to repay the taxpayers in full, with interest, ahead of schedule, because more customers are buying vehicles like the Chevrolet Malibu and Buick LaCrosse,” boasted Edward E. Whitacre Jr., its chief executive. …Taxpayers are naturally eager for news about bailout repayments. But what neither G.M. nor the Treasury disclosed was that the company simply used other funds held by the Treasury to pay off its original loan. …It’s certainly understandable that G.M. would want to spin its repayment as proof of improving operations. But Mr. Grassley said he was troubled that the Treasury went along with the public relations campaign and didn’t spell out how the loan was retired. “The public would know nothing about the TARP escrow money being the source of the supposed repayment from simply watching G.M.’s TV commercials or reading Treasury’s press release,” Mr. Grassley said in a speech on the Senate floor last Wednesday, saying that “many billions” of federal dollars remained invested in G.M.

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