Archive for April 5th, 2013

Statists are in a tough position. For years, they’ve been saying the United States should be more like Europe.

And, as shown in these very funny cartoons by Michael Ramirez and Bob Gorrell, President Obama is a cheerleader for that effort.

But now Europe’s welfare states are collapsing, so the left is scrambling to come up with some way of rationalizing their support for ever-growing levels of taxation and spending

Paul Krugman’s been doing what he can to square this circle, complaining that Europe is in trouble because governments aren’t spending enough. Sounds preposterous, but at least he provides some comfort for the don’t-confuse-us-with-the-facts-we’re-Keynesians crowd.

But for those who prefer to look at real data, one of my Cato Institute colleagues has sorted through the numbers to see whether Krugman’s hypothesis has any validity. Here’s some of what Alan Reynolds wrote for Investor’s Business Daily, reprinted by Real Clear Politics, starting with a quick look at some nations that experienced growth during periods when the burden of government spending was falling.

In Iceland, which didn’t throw taxpayer money at the banks, government spending was slashed from 57.6% of GDP in 2008 to 46.5% in 2012. The deficit fell from 12.9% of GDP to 3.4%. The economy began to recover in 2011. Iceland’s economic boost from fiscal frugality was neither unorthodox nor unique. After all, the U.S. economy boomed in the late 1990s when federal spending was cut from 22.3% of GDP in 1991 to 18.2% in 2000. In Canada, total federal and provincial spending was deeply slashed from 53.2% of GDP in 1992 to 39.2% in 2007 with only salubrious effects.

But what about Krugman’s argument that spending cuts have hurt growth in nations such as Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Great Britain, and Spain?

Well, Alan points out that these nations haven’t reduced spending.

The PIIGGS imposed no austerity at all on the public sector in the past five years. Government spending on bailouts, subsidies, grants, salaries and entitlements commands a much larger share of these economies than it did just a few years ago.

If you break down the data on an annual basis, some of these nations have been forced by the financial crisis to finally reduce their budgets, but the cuts in the past year or two aren’t nearly enough to make up for the huge spending increases in earlier years.

But these governments have shown no reluctance to raises taxes. I’ve already discussed their unfortunate propensity to hike value-added tax rates. Alan explains that they’re doing the same thing for income tax rates.

European austerity has been focused on the private sector — namely, taxpayers with high incomes. That is the second thing the PIIGGS have in common. The highest income tax rate was recently increased in every one of the troubled PIIGGS except Italy (where it was already too high at 43%). The top tax rate was hiked from 40 to 46.5% in Portugal, from 41 to 48% in Ireland, from 40 to 45% in Greece, from 40 to 50% in Great Britain, and from 48 to 52% in Spain.

In other words, Veronique de Rugy is correct. The “austerity” in Europe generally has been in the form of higher taxes, squeezing the productive sector to prop up the public sector.

Though I would point out that there are a few bright spots. Switzerland has been doing quite well, thanks to a “debt brake” that limits how much the budget can grow each year.

And the Baltic nations deserve credit for imposing genuine budget cuts several years ago, a policy that has yielded big dividends since they’re now growing while most other European nations are mired in economic stagnation.

And they kept their flat tax systems, showing some appreciation for the common-sense insight that you don’t get more growth by punishing investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners.

By the way, Alan’s column isn’t completely depressing. He writes that the burden of government spending is reasonable (at least compared to Europe’s bankrupt welfare states) in some of the major emerging economies.

And they’ve focused more on lowering tax rates rather than making them more punitive.

It is enlightening to compare the depressing performance of these tax-and-spend countries to the rapidly-expanding BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and MIST economies (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey). Government spending is frugal in these countries, averaging 32.1% of GDP in the BRICs and 27.4% for the MIST group. Rather than raising top tax rates, all but one of the BRIC and MIST countries slashed their highest individual income tax rates in half; sometimes lower. Brazil cut the top tax rate from 55 to 27.5%. Russia replaced income tax rates up to 60% with a 13% flat tax. India cut the top tax rate to 30% from 60%. Similarly, the top tax rate was cut from 55 to 30% in Mexico, from 50 to 30% in Indonesia, from 89 to 38% in South Korea, and from 75 to 35% in Turkey. In China, statutory income tax rates can still reach 45% on paper, but that is only for high salaries and is widely evaded. Investment income is subject to a flat tax of 20%, the corporate tax is 15-25%, and China’s extremely low payroll tax adds almost nothing to labor costs.

This doesn’t mean the BRIC and MIST nations deserve high praise. Many of them still get poor scores from Economic Freedom of the World, largely because the regulatory burden is excessive and also because more needs to be done to uphold the rule of law and protect property rights.

But at least most of them aren’t compounding those mistakes with Keynesian spending schemes and class-warfare tax policy.

For more information about nations that have benefited from spending restraint, here’s my video looking at Ireland in the 1980s, New Zealand and Canada in the 1990s, and Slovakia last decade.

The moral of the story, needless to say, is that good things happen when governments comply with Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

P.S. Paul Krugman received some much-deserved abuse when he made false attacks on Estonia’s admirable fiscal policy.

P.P.S. For some humor about the European fiscal mess, here are some laughable quotes from European leaders. This Robert Ariail cartoon also gets a laugh, as do these videos on a Greek view of Germans and a romantic conflict between Northern Europe and Southern Europe. My favorite, for what it’s worth, is this map showing how Greeks view the rest of Europe, with this Dave Barry column a close runner-up.

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Are we about to see a new kinder-and-gentler Obama? Has the tax-and-spend President of the past four years been replaced by a fiscal moderate?

That’s certainly the spin we’re getting from the White House about the President’s new budget. Let’s look at this theme, predictably regurgitated in a Washington Post report.

President Obama will release a budget next week that proposes significant cuts to Medicare and Social Security and fewer tax hikes than in the past, a conciliatory approach…the document will incorporate the compromise offer Obama made to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) last December in the discussions over the “fiscal cliff” – which included $1.8 trillion in deficit reduction through spending cuts and tax increases. …unlike the Republican budget that passed the House last month, Obama’s budget does not balance within 10 years.

Since America’s fiscal challenge is the overall burden of government spending, I’m not overly worried about the fact that Obama’s budget doesn’t get to balance.

But I am curious whether Obama truly is proposing a “conciliatory” budget. Are the tax hikes smaller? Are the supposed spending cuts larger?

Actually, there are no genuine spending cuts since the President’s budget is based on dishonest baseline budgeting. At best, we’re simply talking about slowing the growth of government.

But since Mitchell’s Golden Rule is based on the very modest goal of having government grow slower than the private sector, it’s possible that Obama may be proposing something worthwhile.

But possible isn’t the same as probable. Indeed, it appears that the budget is predicated on a giant bait-and-switch since the beneficial spending restraint imposed by sequestration would be repealed!

Obama’s budget proposal, however, would eliminate sequestration.

This appears almost as an afterthought in the Washington Post article, but it should be the lead story. The White House wants to get rid of a policy that genuinely limits the growth of spending.

We won’t have the official numbers until the budget is released next Wednesday, but I’ll be very curious to see whether the supposed spending cuts elsewhere in his budget are greater than or less than the spending increases that will occur if sequestration is canceled. Particularly since the President also is proposing lots of new spending on everything from early child education to brain mapping.

Moreover, it seems as though Obama tax numbers are based on dodgy math as well. The White House is claiming that this is a “conciliatory” budget because he’s no longer proposing $1.6 trillion of tax hikes.

The budget is more conservative than Obama’s earlier proposals, which called for $1.6 trillion in new taxes and fewer cuts to health and domestic spending programs. Obama is seeking to raise $580 billion in tax revenue by limiting deductions for the wealthy and closing loopholes for certain industries like oil and gas. Those changes are in addition to the increased tobacco taxes and more limited retirement accounts for the wealthy that are meant to pay for new spending.

Let’s try to disentangle the preceding passage. The President wants $580 billion of new taxes from “deductions” and “loopholes.” But he also wants an unknown pile of revenue from new tobacco taxes and from restricting IRAs. And keep in mind that he already got $600 billion as part of the fiscal cliff.

Until we get official numbers, we can’t say anything with certainty, but I’ll be checking on Wednesday to see how much revenue the President intends to grab as a result of the tobacco and IRA provisions. Suffice to say that I won’t be surprised if the net impact of all his tax hikes is close to $1.6 trillion. Especially since he’s also proposing to manipulate CPI data, a change that would generate another $100 billion in revenues.

In other words, the revenue side of his budget likely will be a bait-and-switch scam, just like the spending side is a joke once you understand that he wants to get rid of sequestration.

I hope I’m wrong, but I fear that my concerns will be validated next Wednesday and we’ll see another budget that has no real entitlement reform and more class-warfare tax hikes.

P.S. The budget approved by the House of Representatives avoided any tax increases and restrained spending to that it will grow by an average of 3.4 percent annually. Not exactly draconian, but that approach does balance the budget in 10 years.

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