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Archive for July 10th, 2014

Libertarians tend to like – or at least have a grudging respect for – the underground economy.

For instance, even if we’re personally very straight-laced, we don’t like government prohibitions against gambling, drugs, and prostitution. This is why we’re not upset when these things happen in spite of the laws enacted by the political class.

But this isn’t just about victimless crimes. We also dislike high taxes, so you won’t find libertarians shedding many tears when we read about tax avoidance and tax evasion in nations (such as France and Greece) with punitive tax systems.

Politicians tend to have a different perspective. They generally get very upset if we’re not following their societal diktats and acquiescing to their fiscal demands.

But now we’re suddenly seeing that some politicians have a new-found appreciation for the underground economy.

The New York Times reports that European nations want to add these activities to their estimates of GDP.

As of September, all European Union countries will be required to take fuller accounting of trade in sex, drugs and other underground businesses as part of an overhaul of economic measurements by Eurostat, the European statistics agency. The point of counting everything, including the wages of sin, is to get a more accurate reading of each country’s gross domestic product.

Sounds reasonable, right? Who objects, after all, to more accurate numbers?

But it’s always good to be suspicious of governments.

And why is suspicion warranted in this case? Well, it appears that this effort to re-measure GDP may give politicians more ability to spend.

With European Union governments obliged to reduce debt as a percentage of their economies, the changes are also expected to make growth rates from Spain to Sweden look better, possibly also making debt ratios seem rosier. …In Italy, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, …G.D.P. could increase by as much as 2 percent, Eurostat estimates, while Germany and France could see expansions of as much as 3 percent. Britain might show a gain of 3 to 4 percent, Eurostat said.

To elaborate, there are “Maastricht rules” in the European Union that (at least in theory) obligate governments to keep deficits from rising about 3 percent of GDP and to keep debt from climbing above 60 percent of GDP.

So if politicians and bureaucrats can figure out ways to make GDP appear bigger, that means they can have more red ink. Which means, of course, that they can spend more money.

So now it should be abundantly clear why governments have an incentive to add the underground economy to their GDP estimates.

But there’s one little problem with this approach. The whole purpose of the Maastricht rules was to keep nations from spending themselves into a fiscal crisis. The rules obviously didn’t work very well (perhaps because they focused on the symptom of red ink rather than the underlying disease of too much government spending), but there presumably would have been even more profligacy if they didn’t exist.

So what’s the point of adding the underground economy to GDP when that simply gives politicians more leeway to spend?

Indeed, the NYT article notes that some of the bean-counting bureaucracies in Europe are concerned that this new approach won’t work because there won’t be any new tax revenue to accompany the new spending.

Statistics agencies, though, say that whatever the improved ratios, debt will not be easier to service, because governments cannot collect taxes from illegal underground activity.

And just in case you don’t trust the New York Times, here’s a blurb from Money News making the same point.

No country is supposed to let their annual deficits exceed 3 percent of GDP or accumulated debt exceed 60 percent of GDP. Countries that don’t comply with the debt limits are to be penalized — 0.2 percent of GDP, plus a “variable component” that can range up to 0.5 percent of GDP annually as long as the breach continues. Boosting GDP helps lower the debt ratio.

The bottom line is that these changes will enable Europe’s politicians to postpone much-needed fiscal discipline.

In other words, they’ll have the ability to spend themselves deeper into a hole.

And as you can see from these sobering IMF, OECD, and BIS estimates, the hole is already enormous.

Not that America is any different. Our economy may be doing better (or less worse) today, but our future fiscal outlook is worse than many other nations thanks to a combination of poorly designed entitlement programs and changing demographics.

And just as is the case for Europe, counting our underground economy would not be a substitute for the reforms needed to save the nation.

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