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Archive for May, 2015

When I write about the “suicidal” welfare state in Europe, I’m generally making an economic argument that involves demographic change, labor participation rates, and fiscal burdens.

And that’s a non-trivial argument, based on very sobering data from the Bank for International Settlements, the International Monetary Fund, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Today, though, let’s focus on a different version of “suicidal” welfare. This occurs when governments subsidize terrorists who hate and despise modern society.

And while these deadbeats are mostly spreading chaos and misery in the Middle East, one can’t help but wonder what will happen when they return to Europe.

We’ll start by looking at how Danish taxpayers have been underwriting jihad.

More than 30 Danish jihadists have collected unemployment benefits totaling 379,000 Danish krone (€51,000; $55,000) while fighting with the Islamic State in Syria, according to leaked intelligence documents. The fraud, which was reported by Television 2 Danmark on May 18, comes less than six months after the Danish newspaper BT revealed that Denmark had paid unemployment benefits to 28 other jihadists while they were waging war in Syria. The disclosures show that Islamists continue to exploit European social welfare systems to finance their activities both at home and abroad — costing European taxpayers potentially millions of euros each year.

Geesh, makes one think of “Lazy Robert” as a model citizen after reading about terrorists getting welfare. At least he relaxes in the party boat and doesn’t kill people.

By the way, this is not just a problem in Denmark. It’s happening in Austria.

Social welfare fraud of the kind perpetrated in Denmark is being repeated throughout Europe. In Austria, police arrested 13 jihadists in November 2014 who were allegedly collecting welfare payments to finance their trips to Syria. Among those detained was Mirsad Omerovic, 32, an extremist Islamic preacher who police say raised several hundred thousand euros for the war in Syria. A father of six who lives exclusively off the Austrian welfare state, Omerovic has benefited from additional payments for paternity leave.

Hey, maybe the terrorists who blow off their limbs can copy “Footless Hans” and get even more benefits!

And let’s not overlook Belgium.

In Belgium, 29 jihadists from the Flemish cities of Antwerp and Vilvoorde were prevented from receiving social welfare benefits from the state. The move came after an investigation found that the individuals had been accessing their Belgian bank accounts by withdrawing money from banks in Turkey, just across the Syrian border. Per capita, Belgium is the largest European source of jihadist fighters going to the Middle East; up to 400 Belgians have become jihadists in Syria and Iraq.

I’m surprised that Belgium actually cut off the handouts after finding out funds were being withdrawn in the Middle East. Don’t they have a Children’s Defense Fund or American Civil Liberties Union to file suit on behalf of the scroungers?

Here are a few case studies from other nations. We’ll start with the United Kingdom, which has a bad habit of subsidizing jihadists.

…women were increasingly being used to smuggle welfare money out of Britain to fund terrorists abroad, because they supposedly arouse less suspicion. In November 2014, for example, Amal El-Wahabi, a British mother of two, was jailed for 28 months for trying to arrange to smuggle €20,000 to her husband, a jihadist fighting in Syria. She persuaded her friend, Nawal Msaad, to carry the cash in her underwear in return for €1,000. Msaad was stopped at Heathrow Airport. The money she was carrying is thought to have come from social welfare payments.

Here are some more horrifying case studies.

British taxpayers have footed the bill for the Moroccan-born Najat Mostafa, the second wife of the Egyptian-born Islamic hate preacher Abu Hamza, who was extradited to the United States in October 2012. She has lived in a £1 million, five-bedroom house in one of London’s wealthiest neighborhoods for more than 15 years, and has raised the couple’s eight children there. Abu Hamza and his family are believed to have cost British taxpayers more than £338,000 in benefits. He has also received £680,000 in legal assistance for his failed U.S. extradition battle. The cost of keeping him in a British prison since 2004 is estimated at £500,000. Fellow extremist Islamic preacher Abu Qatada, a Palestinian, has cost British taxpayers an estimated £500,000. He has also won £390,000 in legal aid to avoid deportation to Jordan.

And don’t forget Jihadi John, another product of the British welfare state.

The Dutch also are financing enemies of modernity.

In the Netherlands, a Dutch jihadist named Khalid Abdurahman appeared in a YouTube video with five severed heads. Originally from Iraq, Abdurahman was living on social welfare benefits in the Netherlands for more than a decade before he joined the Islamic State in Syria. Dutch social services declared him to be unfit for work and taxpayers paid for the medication to treat him for claustrophobia and schizophrenia.

There are many additional examples and more data in the story.

I wish I could say that this problem is confined to Europe.

But as we saw with the Tsarnaev brothers, the welfare state in America also subsidizes terrorist dirtbags.

Heck, our State Department actually seeks out these people and brings them to the country to sponge off taxpayers!

P.S. Australia and France are guilty of welfare suicide as well.

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When one thinks about all the Obamacare lies, it’s difficult to identify the worst one.

In other words, just about everything we were told was a fib. Even the tiny slivers of good news resulting from Obamacare were based on falsehoods.

So I almost feel like I’m guilty of piling on by writing about another big Obamacare lie.

But Charles Krauthammer has such a strong critique of Obamacare’s mandate for electronic health records that I can’t resist. He starts by pointing out that doctors are unhappy about this costly new mandate.

…there was an undercurrent of deep disappointment, almost demoralization, with what medical practice had become. The complaint was not financial but vocational — an incessant interference with their work, a deep erosion of their autonomy and authority…topped by an electronic health records (EHR) mandate that produces nothing more than “billing and legal documents” — and degraded medicine.

Not just unhappy. Some of them are quitting and most of them are spending less time practicing actual health care.

Virtually every doctor and doctors’ group I speak to cites the same litany, with particular bitterness about the EHR mandate. As another classmate wrote, “The introduction of the electronic medical record into our office has created so much more need for documentation that I can only see about three-quarters of the patients I could before, and has prompted me to seriously consider leaving for the first time.” …think about the extraordinary loss to society — and maybe to you, one day — of driving away 40 years of irreplaceable clinical experience.

Then Krauthammer exposes the deceptions we were fed when Obamacare was being debated.

The newly elected Barack Obama told the nation in 2009 that “it just won’t save billions of dollars” — $77 billion a year, promised the administration — “and thousands of jobs, it will save lives.” He then threw a cool $27 billion at going paperless by 2015. It’s 2015 and what have we achieved? The $27 billion is gone, of course. The $77 billion in savings became a joke. Indeed, reported the Health and Human Services inspector general in 2014, “EHR technology can make it easier to commit fraud,” as in Medicare fraud, the copy-and-paste function allowing the instant filling of vast data fields, facilitating billing inflation.

A boondoggle on the back of taxpayers. Flushing $27 billion is bad enough, but the indirect costs also are large.

That’s just the beginning of the losses. Consider the myriad small practices that, facing ruinous transition costs in equipment, software, training and time, have closed shop, gone bankrupt or been swallowed by some larger entity. …One study in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine found that emergency-room doctors spend 43 percent of their time entering electronic records information, 28 percent with patients. Another study found that family-practice physicians spend on average 48 minutes a day just entering clinical data.

Here’s the bottom line.

EHR is health care’s Solyndra. Many, no doubt, feasted nicely on the $27 billion, but the rest is waste: money squandered, patients neglected, good physicians demoralized.

Not much ambiguity in that sentence. To put it bluntly, “EHR” is the kind of answer you get when you ask a very silly question.

But on a more serious note, now read what Dr. Jeffrey Singer wrote about electronic health records. Simply stated, this is like Solyndra, but much more expensive. Instead of wasting a few hundred million on cronyist handouts to Obama campaign donors, EHR is harming an entire sector of the economy.

The only thing I’ll add is that neither Krauthammer nor Singer contemplated the possible risks of amassing all the information contained in EHRs given the growing problem of hacking and identity theft.

P.S. On another topic, I’ve written several times about the excessive pay and special privileges of bureaucrats in California.

Now, thanks to Reason, we can read with envy about another elitist benefit for that gilded class.

…a little-known California state program designed to protect police and judges from the public disclosure of their home addresses had expanded into a massive database of 1.5 million public employees and their family members… Because of this Confidential Records Program, “Vehicles with protected license plates can run through dozens of intersections controlled by red light cameras and breeze along the 91 toll lanes with impunity,” according to the Orange County Register report. They evade parking citations and even get out of speeding tickets because police officers realize “the drivers are ‘one of their own’ or related to someone who is.”

You may be thinking that the law surely was changed after it was exposed by the media.

And you would be right. But if you thought the law would be changed to cut back on this elitist privilege, you would be wrong.

…the legislature did worse than nothing. It killed a measure to force these plate holders to provide their work addresses for the purpose of citations — and expanded the categories of government workers who qualify for special protections. This session, the legislature has decided to expand that list again, never mind the consequences on local tax revenues, safety and fairness. …Given the overwhelming support from legislators, expect more categories to be added to the Confidential Records Program — and more public employees and their families being free to ignore some laws the rest of us must follow.

This is such a depressing story that I’ll close today with this bit of humor about bureaucracy in the Golden State.

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When I debate class warfare issues, here’s something that happens with depressing regularity.

I’ll cite research from a group like the Tax Foundation on how an overwhelming share of the income tax is borne by upper-income taxpayers.

The statist I’m arguing with will then scoff and say the Tax Foundation is biased, thus implying that I’m sharing bogus data.

I’ll then respond that the group has a very good reputation and that their analysis is directly based on IRS data, but I may as well be talking to a brick wall. It seems leftists immediately close their minds if information doesn’t come directly from a group that they like.

So I was rather happy to see that the Internal Revenue Service, in the Spring 2015 Statistics of Income Bulletin, published a bunch of data on how much of the income tax is paid by different types of taxpayers.

I’ll be very curious to see how they respond when I point out that their favorite government agency admits that the bottom 50 percent of earners only pay 2.8 percent of all income tax. And I’ll be every more curious to see how they react when I point out that more than half of all income taxes are paid by the top 3 percent of taxpayers.

There’s a famous saying, generally attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

With this in mind, I’m hoping that this data from the IRS will finally put to rest the silly leftist talking point that the “rich” don’t pay their “fair share.”

This doesn’t mean, by the way, that the debate about policy will be settled.

Getting statists to accept certain facts is just the first step.

But once that happens, we can at least hope that their minds will be opened to subsequent steps, such as understanding the economic impact of punitive tax rates, recognizing that high tax rates won’t necessarily collect more revenue, or realizing that ordinary workers suffer when harsh tax policies reduce economic vitality.

Though I’m not holding my breath and expecting miracles. After all, some leftists openly state that they don’t care if the economic damage of high tax rates is so significant that government doesn’t collect any tax revenue.

You can see an example of one of these spite-motivated people at the 4:20 mark of the video I narrated on class-warfare taxation.

P.S. Shifting to another tax topic, some of you may have heard about the massive data breach at the IRS. Here’s some of what CNN is reporting.

The Internal Revenue Service believes that a major cyber breach that allowed criminals to steal the tax returns of more than 100,000 people originated in Russia, Rep. Peter Roskam confirmed to CNN on Thursday. …The IRS announced Tuesday that organized crime syndicates used personal data obtained elsewhere to access tax information, which they then used to file $50 million in fraudulent tax refunds.

I suppose I could use this opportunity to take a few potshots at the IRS, but there’s a far more important issue to raise.

I’m guessing the IRS probably has the best computer security of any tax bureaucracy in the world. Yet even all the IRS’s expertise couldn’t stop hackers from obtaining sensitive information.

Now let’s contemplate something truly frightening. The Obama Administration wants the United States to be part of an OECD pact that obligates participating nations to promiscuously share information with dozens of other governments, including untrustworthy, hostile, and/or corrupt regimes such as Russia and China, not to mention make information available to jurisdictions that presumably will have very little technical capacity to guard data from hackers and identity thieves. Here’s the list of participating nations on the OECD website, and it includes Azerbaijan, Cameroon, Greece, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Romania, Saudi Arabia, and Ukraine.

Yet none of this reckless endangerment would be an issue if we had a simple territorial tax system like the flat tax. Under such a simple and fair system, only income inside America’s borders would be taxed (unlike the wretched system of worldwide taxation we have now), so there would be no need to have risky information-swapping deals with dodgy foreign governments.

P.P.S. Senator Rand Paul is one of the few lawmakers fighting to protect Americans from having their information shared with foreign governments.

P.P.P.S. Shifting back to the original topic of class-warfare taxation, here’s a lesson on the Laffer Curve I offered to President Obama.

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Back in March, I shared a remarkable study from the International Monetary Fund which explained that spending caps are the only truly effective way to achieve good fiscal policy.

And earlier this month, I discussed another good IMF study that showed how deficit and debt rules in Europe have been a failure.

In hopes of teaching American lawmakers about this international evidence, the Cato Institute put together a forum on Capitol Hill to highlight the specific reforms that have been successful.

I moderated the panel and began by pointing out that there are many examples of nations that have enjoyed good results thanks to multi-year periods of spending restraint.

I even pointed out that we actually had an unintentional – but very successful – spending freeze in Washington between 2009 and 2014.

But the problem, I suggested, is that it is very difficult to convince politicians to sustain good policy on a long-run basis. The gains of good policy (such as what was achieved in the 1990s) can quickly be erased by a spending binge (such as what happened during the Bush years).

Unless, of course, there’s some sort of constraint on the desire to spend money. And the panelists discussed the three most successful examples of reforms that constrain the growth of government.

We started with a presentation by Daniel Freihofer from the Swiss Embassy. He talked about Switzerland’s “Debt Brake,” which actually is a spending cap.

It’s remarkable how well Switzerland has performed while most other European nations have suffered downward spirals of more spending-more taxes-more debt. Here’s a chart I put together on what’s happened to spending in Switzerland ever since 85 percent of voters imposed the Debt Brake early last decade.

By the way, Herr Freihofer said during the Q&A session that support for the Debt Brake is now probably about 95 percent, so Swiss voters obviously understand that the policy has been very successful.

Our second speaker was Clement Leung, Hong Kong’s Commissioner to the United States. He talked about Article 107 and other rules from Hong Kong’s Basic Law (their constitution) that limit the temptation to over-tax and over-spend.

And if you want to see some of the positive results of these rules in Hong Kong, here’s some of what Commissioner Leung presented.

By the way, the burden of government spending in Hong Kong averages about 18 percent of economic output. That’s the most impressive result. And Commissioner Leung explained that there’s a commitment to keep the burden of spending below 20 percent of GDP.

The final panelist was Jonathan Williams from the American Legislative Exchange Council, and he talked about Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, popularly known as TABOR.

Jonathan talked about how the pro-spending lobbies keep attacking TABOR, and he mentioned that they narrowly succeeded in getting a five-year suspension of the law back in 2005. But Colorado voters generally understand they have a good policy.

The most recent attempt to enable more spending came in the form of an increase in the state’s flat tax back in 2013 and voters rejected it by a stunning 66-34 margin (almost as impressive as the recent vote against tax hikes in Michigan) even though Jonathan said advocates outspent opponents by a 289-1 margin.

Here’s a slide from his presentation showing what happened during other attempts to enable more spending.

By the way, Jonathan also mentioned that Colorado’s voters are about to get a TABOR-mandated tax cut because taxes on marijuana are pushing revenues above the limit. Talk about a win-win situation!

To wrap up, one of the big lessons from all the presentations is that governments generally get in trouble because they can’t resist over-spending when the economy is doing well and generating lots of tax revenue.

I fully agree, and I’ve previously explained this is why Alberta got in fiscal trouble, and also why California suffers a boom-bust budgetary cycle.

The way you solve this problem is not with a balanced budget requirement (which often serves as the justification for tax hikes), but some sort of spending limitation rule.

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Over the years, I’ve had many arguments about economic policy with my statist friends. I put them into three categories.

  • The completely unreasonable statists blindly assert, notwithstanding all the evidence around the world, that bigger government and more intervention are actually good for growth.
  • The somewhat unreasonable statists acknowledge that bigger government and more intervention might have some minor “efficiency” costs, but those costs are acceptable and affordable in the pursuit of more “equity.”
  • The semi-reasonable statists admit that bigger government and more intervention hurt growth, but they argue that “libertarian types” must somehow be wrong because our predictions of economic chaos never materialize.

The folks in the last category have a point. For decades, advocates of limited government and free markets have warned about the economic cost of bad policy, yet where’s the collapse?

Why hasn’t Atlas shrugged, as libertarians have warned? Why have predictions of economic dystopia (examples here and here) been wrong?

I have two responses to these questions.

First, the economic damage caused by an expanding welfare state has been offset by improvements in other types of economic policy.

Second, maybe dour libertarians have been right, but got the timing wrong because it takes a long time and a lot of bad policy to destroy an economy.

And that’s today’s topic, because it certainly looks like both Greece and Venezuela have finally reached the end of the road. Let’s call it the Thatcher Inflection Point.

Here are some excerpts from a very grim New York Times story about the economic misery in Greece

Bulldozers lie abandoned on city streets. Exhausted surgeons operate through the night. And the wealthy bail out broke police departments. A nearly bankrupt Greece is taking desperate measures to preserve cash. …In a society that has lived off the generosity of the government for decades, the cash crisis has already had a shattering impact. Universities, hospitals and municipalities are struggling to provide basic services… Greece is already operating as a bankrupt state. …For a generation of Greek politicians who saw government spending (and borrowing) as a national birthright, the idea of deploying only the money at hand has been jarring.

Egads, imagine the horror of only being able to consume what you’re able to produce. Obviously a violation of human rights!

Though some people apparently are learning the right lesson.

…for other Greeks who are eager to break from the country’s tradition of dispensing political favors to the well-connected, these years of imposed restraint have also provided a valuable lesson. “There are no free rides in this country anymore,” said Kostas Bakoyannis, 37, the governor of the Central Greece administrative region. “…Now we have to live on what we can make and produce.”

By the way, don’t cry too many tears for the Greeks. Yes, they’ve had to make genuine budget cuts since outlays peaked near the end of last decade. But government spending in Greece, after adjusting for inflation, is about the same level it was in 2000.

And that wasn’t an era of “harsh austerity.”

In other words, Greece wouldn’t be in trouble today had politicians simply obeyed my Golden Rule.

Besides, how can you feel sorry for a nation that subsidizes pedophiles and requires…um…stool samples to set up online companies.

When it comes to bizarre government policy, Greece truly is special.

Now let’s look at Venezuela, where economic buffoonery is an art form. My Cato colleague Steve Hanke has a new column about that nation’s grotesquely reckless monetary policy.

I estimate Venezuela’s annual inflation rate at 335%. That’s the highest rate in the world. For those holding bolivars, it amounts to: “no rule of law, bad money.” …Facing this inflationary theft, Venezuelan’s have voted with their wallets. Indeed, they have unofficially begun to dollarize the economy.

Here’s John Hinderaker’s summary of the overall situation.

When a country can neither produce nor buy toilet paper, you know the end is approaching. …Venezuela’s regime is long past eating its seed corn; now it’s selling the furniture. Will Maduro’s government default on the country’s debt, some of which carries 30% interest? …The IMF is helping to keep Venezuela’s economy afloat, and if oil prices rise, the Maduro regime might be able to buy a little more time. But the end game is obvious: economic collapse.

I’ll add one modification (and I’m sure John would agree), which is that economic collapse is obvious if policy stays on the current path.

Venezuela (or Greece, or any other nation) could save itself by shifting to a policy of free markets and small government. But I’m not holding my breath.

By the way, I suppose we could also use the example of the Soviet Union. That was a collapse of turbo-charged big government.

But let’s close instead with a point about richer nations in the western world because some readers understandably are thinking that countries such as Germany, Japan, and the United States will never suffer the fate of nations such as Greece, Venezuela, and the Soviet Union.

That’s probably true, but keep in mind that demographic changes are a wild card. Simply stated, aging populations and poorly designed entitlement programs are a very unpalatable combination.

And if governments wait too long to implement reforms, the political obstacles may be too great. Restoring good policy is a lot harder once the people in the wagon outnumber the folks pulling the wagon (as illustrated by these cartoons).

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When I write about columns in the New York Times, I’m normally pointing out silly examples of bias or exposing absurd mistakes (with Paul Krugman deserving his own special category for sloppiness, as seen here, here, here, here, here, herehere, here, here, here, here, and here).

But every so often, there’s an insightful piece that is worth sharing rather than worth mocking. And that’s the case with a column by Claire Cain Miller on the unintended negative consequences of policies that ostensibly are supposed to help women but actually hurt them.

In Chile, a law requires employers to provide working mothers with child care. One result? Women are paid less. In Spain, a policy to give parents of young children the right to work part-time has led to a decline in full-time, stable jobs available to all women — even those who are not mothers. Elsewhere in Europe, generous maternity leaves have meant that women are much less likely than men to become managers or achieve other high-powered positions at work.

Why all these bad results, which seemingly are contrary to the intentions of lawmakers?

…these policies often have unintended consequences. They can end up discouraging employers from hiring women in the first place, because they fear women will leave for long periods or use expensive benefits.

Amen. You don’t make workers more attractive to employers with laws and regulations that increase the real and/or potential costs of employing those workers.

The column cites some research on the impact of the Family and Medical Leave Act in the United States. As well as the harmful effect of similar laws in other nations.

Women are 5 percent more likely to remain employed but 8 percent less likely to get promotions than they were before it became law, according to an unpublished new study by Mallika Thomas, who will be an assistant professor of economics at Cornell University. …These findings are consistent with previous research by Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn, economists at Cornell. In a study of 22 countries, they found that generous family-friendly policies like long maternity leaves and part-time work protections in Europe made it possible for more women to work — but that they were more likely to be in dead-end jobs and less likely to be managers.

The bottom line is that government intervention is not a recipe for helping people, especially once you factor in the effect of unintended consequences.

Speaking of which, I made the same argument when looking at a government proposal to help those struggling with long-run unemployment.

All of which tells us that you must have asked a very silly question if the answer is more government.

P.S. My favorite articles and columns from the New York Times are the ones that accidentally show the superiority of small government and free markets.

P.P.S. Since I wrote the other day about the wisdom of allowing successful foreigners to emigrate to the United States, here’s a related graphic.

Maybe I’m missing something, but doesn’t this suggest we should welcome more Indians to America?

After all, the economy isn’t a fixed pie and sensible folks understand that the rest of us benefit when there are more rich and successful people.

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When I first came to Washington back in the 1980s, there was near-universal support and enthusiasm for a balanced budget amendment among advocates of limited government.

The support is still there, I’m guessing, but the enthusiasm is not nearly as intense.

There are three reasons for this drop.

  1. Political reality – There is zero chance that a balanced budget amendment would get the necessary two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate. And if that happened, by some miracle, it’s highly unlikely that it would get the necessary support for ratification in three-fourths of state legislatures.
  2. Unfavorable evidence from the statesAccording to the National Conference of State Legislatures, every state other than Vermont has some sort of balanced budget requirement. Yet those rules don’t prevent states like California, Illinois, Connecticut, and New York from adopting bad fiscal policy.
  3. Favorable evidence for the alternative approach of spending restraint – While balanced budget rules don’t seem to work very well, policies that explicitly restrain spending work very well. The data from Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Colorado is particularly persuasive.

Advocates of a balanced budget amendment have some good responses to these points. They explain that it’s right to push good policy, regardless of the political situation. Since I’m a strong advocate for a flat tax even though it isn’t likely to happen, I can’t argue with this logic.

Regarding the last two points, advocates explain that older versions of a balanced budget requirement simply required a supermajority for more debt, but newer versions also include a supermajority requirement to raise taxes. This means – at least indirectly – that the amendment actually is a vehicle for spending restraint.

This doesn’t solve the political challenge, but it’s why advocates of limited government need to be completely unified in favor of tax-limitation language in a balanced budget amendment. And they may want to consider being more explicit that the real goal is to restrain spending so that government grows slower than the productive sector of the economy.

Interestingly, even the International Monetary Fund (which is normally a source of bad analysis) understands that spending limits work better than rules that focus on deficits and debt.

Here are some of the findings from a new IMF study that looks at the dismal performance of the European Union’s Stability and Growth Pact. The SGP supposedly limited deficits to 3 percent of GDP and debt to 60 percent of GDP, but the requirement failed largely because politicians couldn’t resist the temptation to spend more in years when revenue grew rapidly.

An analysis of stability programs during 1999–2007 suggests that actual expenditure growth in euro area countries often exceeded the planned pace, in particular when there were unanticipated revenue increases. Countries were simply unable to save the extra revenues and build up fiscal buffers. …This reveals an important asymmetry: governments were often unable to preserve revenue windfalls and faced difficulties in restraining their expenditure in response to revenue shortfalls when consolidation was needed. …The 3 percent of GDP nominal deficit ceiling did not prevent countries from spending their revenue windfalls in the mid-2000s. … Under the SGP, noncompliance has been the rule rather than the exception. …The drawbacks of the nominal deficit ceiling are particularly apparent when the economy is booming, as it is compatible with very large structural deficits.

The good news is that the SGP has been modified and now (at least theoretically) requires spending restraint.

The initial Pact only included three supranational rules… As of 2014, fiscal aggregates are tied by an intricate set of constraints…government spending (net of new revenue measures) is constrained to grow in line with trend GDP. …the expenditure growth ceiling may seem the most appealing. This indicator is tractable (directly constraining the budget), easy to communicate to the public, and conceptually sound… Based on simulations, Debrun and others (2008) show that an expenditure growth rule with a debt feedback ensures a better convergence towards the debt objective, while allowing greater flexibility in response to shocks. IMF (2012) demonstrates the good performance of the expenditure growth ceiling

This modified system presumably will lead to better (or less worse) policy in the future, though it’s unclear whether various nations will abide by the new EU rules.

One problem is that the overall system of fiscal rules has become rather complicated, as illustrated by this image from the IMF study.

Which brings us back to the third point above. If the goal is to restrain spending (and it should be), then why set up a complicated system that first and foremost is focused on red ink?

That’s why the Swiss Debt Brake is the right model for how to get spending under control. And this video explains why the objective should be spending restraint rather than deficit reduction.

And for those who fixate on red ink, it’s worth noting that if you deal with the underlying disease of too much government, you quickly solve the symptom of deficits.

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