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Archive for October, 2018

In the world of public policy, it’s very easy to make fun of politicians (especially Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren).

And there are plenty of jokes about certain issues in the public arena, particularly the IRS, but also gun control and Brexit. And I have entire pages dedicated to libertarian humor and communism/socialism humor.

But some topics are so grim that’s it’s not easy to laugh about them. There’s nothing funny about the horror of Venezuela, for instance, though there are examples of dark humor from that unfortunate nation.

Another topic that doesn’t lend itself to laughs is the horrid practice of civil asset forfeiture. I’ve shared many nauseating stories about how governments literally steal property from people who have not been convicted of crimes (or, in many cases, have not even been accused of any crime).

Here’s the latest absurd example, this time from Michigan.

Nearly 400 people in Wayne County who were never charged with a crime still lost property to law enforcement agencies last year through a legal procedure called civil asset forfeiture… Altogether, there were 736 asset forfeiture proceedings in Michigan in 2017 during which someone lost property to the government despite never being charged with any crime; this happened 380 times in Wayne County. …Jarrett Skorup of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, who co-authored a recent report on civil forfeiture, said…it’s likely that these forfeitures disproportionately affected low-income individuals, who are less able to afford an attorney or navigate the legal system to reclaim their property. Revenue obtained from forfeited property typically goes to the agency that seized the property.

Yes, you read correctly. The agency that steals the property gets to keep the money, which is why the disgusting practice of civil asset forfeiture is sometimes known as “policing for profit.”

If this sounds like the kind of behavior you’d find in a third-world banana republic, you’re right.

Anyhow, is there any way we can find mirth and amusement in this reprehensible practice?

Actually, courtesy of libertarian Reddit, there is.

Kudos to the clever person who left this comment. Maybe the bureaucrats finally understand what it feels like to have property arbitrarily seized.

I’m not quite ready to applaud the actual thief, however, since a speed trailer only notifies people how fast they’re traveling.

If that person wants my praise, go after speed-trap cameras like this hero.

P.S. There is an example of money-laundering humor, and it features a former President.

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I wrote in 2010 that Keynesian economics is like the Freddy Krueger movies. It refuses to die despite powerful evidence that you don’t help an economy by increasing the burden of government. In 2014, I wrote the theory was based on “fairy dust.” And in 2015, I said Keynesianism was akin to a perpetual motion machine.

What’s my proof? Well, during the period when Obama’s “stimulus” was in effect, unemployment got worse. And the best growth period under Obama was after the sequester, which Obama and others said was going to hurt the economy.

When I discuss these issues with Keynesians, they reflexively claim that Obama would have gotten good results if only he had increased spending even faster (which is also their knee-jerk response when you point out that Keynesianism didn’t work for Hoover, didn’t work for FDR, didn’t work for Japan, etc).

This is the Wizard-of-Oz part of Keynesianism. No matter how bad it works in the real world, they always claim that it theoretically could have worked if governments simply spent more.

But how do they explain away the fact that nations that adopt the right kind of austerity get better results?

Professor Edmund Phelps of Columbia University won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2006. Here’s some of what he wrote today for the Wall Street Journal, starting with a description of the debate.

Generations of Keynesian economists have claimed that when a loss of “demand” causes output to fall and unemployment to rise, the economy does not revive by itself. Instead a “stimulus” to demand is necessary and sufficient to pull the economy back to an equilibrium level of activity. …it is widely thought that fiscal stimulus—increased public spending as well as tax cuts—helped pull employment from its depths in 2010 or so back to normal in 2017. …But is there evidence that stimulus was behind America’s recovery—or, for that matter, the recoveries in Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Britain and Ireland? And is there evidence that the absence of stimulus—a tight rein on public spending known as “fiscal austerity”—is to blame for the lack of a full recovery in Portugal, Italy, France and Spain?

So he looked at the real-world evidence and discovered that Keynesian policy is correlated with worse outcomes.

The stimulus story suggests that, in the years after they hit bottom, the countries that adopted relatively large fiscal deficits—measured by the average increase in public debt from 2011-17 as a percentage of gross domestic product—would have a relatively speedy recovery to show for it. Did they? As the accompanying chart shows, the evidence does not support the stimulus story. Big deficits did not speed up recoveries. In fact, the relationship is negative, suggesting fiscal profligacy led to contraction and fiscal responsibility would have been better. …what about monetary stimulus—increasing the supply of money or reducing the cost of money in relation to the return on capital? We can perform a similar test: Did countries where monetary stimulus in the years after they hit bottom was relatively strong—measured by the average quantity of monetary assets purchased by the central bank from 2011-17—have relatively speedy recoveries? This is a complicated question, but preliminary explorations do not give strong support to that thesis either. …the Keynesian tool kit of fiscal and monetary stimulus is more or less ineffective.

Here’s the chart showing how so-called fiscal stimulus is not associated with economic recovery.

He also reminds us that Keynesian predictions of post-World War II disaster were completely wrong.

Don’t history and theory overwhelmingly support stimulus? Well, no. First, the history: Soldiers returning from World War II expanded the civilian labor force from 53.9 million in 1945 to 60.2 million in 1947, leading many economists to fear an unemployment crisis. Keynesians—Leon Keyserling for one—said running a peacetime fiscal deficit was needed to keep unemployment from rising. Yet as the government under President Harry S. Truman ran fiscal surpluses, the unemployment rate went down (from 3.9% in 1946 to 3.1% in 1952) and the labor-force participation rate went up (from 57.2% to 58.9%).

It’s also worth remembering that something similar happened after World War I.

The economy boomed after the burden of government was reduced.

Let’s close by adding to our collection of Keynesian humor.

This is amusing, but somewhat unfair to Bernanke.

Yes, he was a Keynesian. But he wasn’t nearly as crazy as Krugman.

P.S. Here’s my video on Keynesian economics.

P.P.S. Here’s the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally entertaining sequel, which features a boxing match between Keynes and Hayek. And even though it’s not the right time of year, here’s the satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols.

P.P.P.S. I also like what Professor Phelps said about the benefits of tax competition and jurisdictional rivalry.

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Like any sensible person, I want victimless crimes to be legalized. In part because I believe in freedom, but also for utilitarian reasons.

  • I don’t approve of drugs and I’ve never used drugs, but I think the social harm of prohibition is greater than the social harm of legalization.
  • I don’t particularly like alcohol and I am almost a teetotaler, but I’m glad there’s now a consensus that the social harm of prohibition was greater than the social harm of legalization.
  • I don’t approve of prostitution and I’ve never consorted with a prostitute (other than the political ones in DC), but I think the social harm of prohibition is greater than the social harm of legalization.

So it won’t surprise you to learn that I want gambling to be legal because the social harm of prohibition is greater than the social harm of legalization.

But that definitely doesn’t mean I want government to be in charge, which is why I’m not a fan of state-sponsored lotteries.

Joe Setyon, in a column for Reason, points out that politicians are the only group that actually benefits from these schemes.

At some point in the near future, the record-high Mega Millions jackpot is going to make someone very, very rich. But as is usually the case when it comes to the lottery, the biggest winner will be the government. …there are a few things us suckers need to keep in mind about the lotto. First, the majority of lottery revenue goes back to the government. In 2015, The Atlantic estimated that 40 percent of all lottery ticket sales are allocated to state governments. …Meanwhile, some states that allow lotteries crush their competition with strict gambling regulations. In Texas, for instance, most forms of gambling are illegal. This means the government has a near-monopoly. The double standard for public and private gambling operations is obvious. Ultimately, the lottery system is a kind of regressive tax on low-income earners. “If the promised return is by far illusory—and it is—it would be hard to argue that those purchases do not constitute a tax on those who believe the state’s hype,” Fiscal Policy Institute research associate Brent Kramer wrote in 2010.

And here’s an article from CNBC that reveals the unpalatable tax consequences for the “lucky” people who happen to win a big prize.

…there’s at least one guaranteed recipient of a chunk of the loot — the IRS. …If you happen to beat the astronomical odds and hit all winning numbers in either game, be aware that the taxation of your prize starts before even reaching you. Whether you take your haul as a lump sum or as an annuity spread out over three decades, your win is reduced by a 24 percent federal tax withholding… The immediate cash option for Mega Millions is $904 million. The federal withholding would reduce that by $217 million. For the $354.3 million Powerball lump sum, it would mean $85 million getting shaved off the top. …However, that’s just the start of what you’d owe. The top income tax rate for individuals is 37 percent… That rate applies to adjusted gross income of $500,000 or more. In other words, hitting either jackpot would mean facing that top rate. …On top of the federal withholding, you’ll owe state taxes on the money unless you live where lottery wins are untaxed. …Translation: You might pay north of 45 percent altogether in taxes, depending on where you purchased the ticket and where you live.

In other words, the government pillages people when they buy tickets.

And then the government pillages the tiny fraction of people who actually win something.

As I wrote above, the only real winners are politicians.

The biggest losers, by the way, are poor people.

Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute summed up this sad state of affairs in a column for the Wall Street Journal.

Powerball—the lottery shared by 44 states, the District of Columbia and two territories—is just one of the sweepstakes run by 47 jurisdictions in the U.S. These games produce nearly $70 billion a year in government revenue and enjoy profits of about 33%—much higher than margins in the private gambling industry. Who are these lotteries’ most loyal customers? Poor people. …the poorest third of Americans buy more than half of all lotto tickets… Scholars have dug up evidence that states intentionally direct such ads at vulnerable citizens. A marketing plan for Ohio’s lottery some years back recommended scheduling campaigns to coincide with the distribution of “government benefits, payroll and Social Security payments.” …the average return from $1 spent on lottery tickets is 52 cents… After a state introduces the lotto, the bottom third of households shift about 3% of their food expenditures and 7% of their mortgage payments, rent and other bills. Effectively, the lottery works like a regressive tax. …Is there any set of policies more contradictory than pushing lotto tickets on poor people, and then signing them up for welfare programs that make them financially dependent on the government?

Here’s some additional analysis from the Wall Street Journal, this time from Holman Jenkins.

Gambling is what economists call an “inferior good”—demand is higher among those at the lower end of the income scale. As economist Sam Papenfuss argued in a 1998 paper, state-sponsored gambling became popular as a way for high-income taxpayers to recoup some of the money spent on programs for the poor. State-sponsored gambling in the form of lotteries (now in 44 states) arrived on the same antitax wave that gave us property-tax caps and other antitax measures in the 1970s and ’80s. It should not surprise anyone that Democrats, as big supporters of the welfare state, have been the biggest supporters (though by no means exclusively so) of gambling as a way to finance it.

Last but not least, here are excerpts from a column I wrote for the Washington Times more than 20 years ago.

…government-run lotteries represent bad public policy. The No. 1 objection is that they lead to more government spending. …Perhaps even more disturbing, government lotteries victimize the poor. More than any other group, lower-income residents are the ones who play the lottery, often shelling out hundreds of dollars each year in the hope of striking it rich. Yet these are precisely the people who should avoid lotteries. As an investment, lotteries are lousy, paying out only about half of what they take in. …why should state governments be running lotteries? If nothing else, lotteries show how much better consumers are treated by the free market system. Private gambling operations pay out about 90 cents for every dollar wagered (even higher for games such as blackjack), a far better deal than the miserly return provided by government-run lotteries. …This analysis applies to illegal gambling as well. Bookies traditionally allow customers to bet against the point spread for sporting events, and they make their money by applying a 10 percent charge on the money wagered by those who make losing bets.

Two decades later and I wouldn’t change a single thing I wrote.

I don’t like when politicians mistreat rich people, but I get far more upset when they do things that impose disproportionate costs on poor people. This is one of the reasons I don’t like government flood insurance, Social Security, the Export-Import Bank, the mortgage interest deduction, or the National Endowment for the Arts.

And lotteries definitely belong on that list as well.

I’m not a paternalist. I support legal gambling and I don’t want to prohibit poor people from making (what I think) are misguided decisions.

But at least leave the gambling to the private sector so poor people will get back, on average, 90 cents of every dollar they bet.

P.S. I just had a horrifying thought. What if politicians decided to legalize prostitution because they wanted more revenue. But instead of legalizing and taxing (like they do – often to excess – with marijuana), what if they followed the lottery approach and we wound up with government-run brothels?!?

P.P.S. To be fair, the government will continue to give you food stamps if you become a lottery millionaire.

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My left-leaning friends periodically tell me that there’s a big difference between their benign policies of democratic socialism and the wretched track records of Marxist socialism, national socialism, and other forms of totalitarianism.

I agree. Living in a European welfare state, after all, is much better than living in a hellhole like Cuba, North Korea, Zimbabwe, or Venezuela.

Not only do you enjoy the rule of law (no Khmer Rouge-style concentration camps!), but you also enjoy considerable prosperity compared to the rest of the world.

But there are two things to understand about that prosperity.

Let’s consider the case of Greece. I’ve written many times about the debilitating impact of high tax rates and wasteful spending in that nation. It has the least economic freedom of all nations in Western Europe, so it’s no surprise that it is falling further behind.

But sometimes a compelling example is the best way of helping people understand the harmful impact of big government.

We were on Filis Street — a warren of alleyways and dingy two-story houses — which has been home to Athenian brothels for most of the past century. The trade is more desperate now because of Greece’s lost decade since the 2008 financial crisis, which has left no profession unscathed. The collapsed economy and the arrival of tens of thousands of migrants have pushed even more women into prostitution — even as prices have fallen through the floor. …“I had a flower shop for 18 years — and now I’m here out of necessity, not out of joy,” said Dimitra, a middle-aged woman who lost her shop in the crisis and now works as a madam…the number of prostitutes in the city had increased by 7 percent since 2012, yet prices have dropped drastically, both for women working on the streets and in brothels. “In 2012, it would require an average of 39 euros” for a client to hire a prostitute in a brothel, Mr. Lazos said, “while in 2017 just €17 — a 56 percent decrease.”

The saddest part of the story is the commentary of the prostitutes.

“I hate sex,” Elena said. “I like the money, not the job.” Anastasia…has worked as a prostitute since she was 14. She’s now 33, and says the work is harder than ever. “People don’t have money anymore,” she said… Monica, a 30-year-old Albanian prostitute…spends six to eight hours a day trying to entice clients, but most do not stay. “They don’t have money,” she said. “They haven’t had money for the past seven years.” …Many Greek men are simply too poor to pay anymore.

I support legal prostitution, in part because the alternative of pushing these unfortunate women even further into the underground economy would be worse.

But that doesn’t change the fact that these women don’t have good lives. And the misery of democratic socialism in Greece is making their lives even sadder.

The bottom line is that I now have three awful anecdotes from Greece to help illustrate the wretched impact of big government. In addition to the price-cutting prostitutes we discussed today, let’s not forget that Greece subsidizes pedophiles and requires stool samples to set up online companies.

Needless to say, I hope we never go that far in the wrong direction.

The moral of the story is that socialism (however defined) has never worked in any form at any time in history.

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I’ve written about how taxes have a big impact on soccer (a quaint game with little or no scoring that Europeans play with their feet).

Taxes affect both the decisions of players and the success of teams.

Grasping and greedy governments also have an impact on football. Especially if teams play in Europe.

…the Los Angeles Chargers and Tennessee Titans traveled across the Atlantic to play a game in London’s Wembley Stadium. …Players spoke of the burdens of traveling so far to play a game, especially the team from California that had to cross eight time zones. Players also spoke out about the tax nightmare they faced when they got to the UK. …players talked ahead of time to their CPAs to determine the tax hit they’d take for the privilege of such a long road trip… Great Britain…levies high taxes on athletes who visit for an athletic match. Teams from California — the Raiders, Chargers, and Rams — already face the highest state income tax in the nation with a top rate of 13.3 percent. Of course, players also have to pay federal income tax. …To top it all off, those players who receive one of their 16 paychecks in London pay a 45 percent tax on a prorated amount based on the number of days they spend in the country. Bottom line: Players on California teams could end up paying 60 percent or more in income taxes for that game check. …For non-resident foreign athletes, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) reserves the right to tax not only the income they earn from competing in the match but a portion of any endorsement money they earn worldwide.

No wonder some of the world’s top athletes don’t want to compete in the United Kingdom.

And what about the NFL players, who got hit with a 60 percent tax rate for one game?

Those players are lucky they’re not Cam Newton, who paid a 198.8 percent tax for playing in the 2016 Super Bowl.

Last year’s tax bill also impacts professional football in a negative way. The IRS has decided that sports teams don’t count as “pass-through” businesses, as noted by Accounting Today.

Two major sports franchises might soon be on the auction block following Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen’s death last week. But a recent Internal Revenue Service rule could cut the teams’ sales prices. Allen died with no heirs and a $26 billion estate, including the National Football League’s Seattle Seahawks… The teams together are worth more than $3 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. …the IRS said in August that team owners would be barred from the write-off — one of the biggest benefits in the law — that allows owners of pass-through entities such as partnerships and limited liability companies to deduct as much as 20 percent of their taxable income. …Arthur Hazlitt, a tax partner at O’Melveny & Myers LLP in New York who provided the tax structure and planning advice for hedge fund manager David Tepper’s acquisition of the Carolina Panthers, estimates the IRS rules could spur potential bidders to offer at least tens of millions of dollars less.

Gee, what a surprise. Higher tax burdens lower the value of income-producing assets.

Something to keep in mind next them there’s a debate on whether we should be double-taxing dividends and capital gains.

Or the death tax.

Let’s close with a report from Bloomberg about some new research about the impact of taxes on team performance.

The 2017 law could put teams in states with high personal income tax rates at a disadvantage when negotiating with free agents thanks to new limits on deductions, including for state and local taxes, according to tax economist Matthias Petutschnig of the Vienna University of Economics and Business. Petutschnig’s research into team performance over more than two decades shows that National Football League franchises based in high-tax states lost more games on average during the regular season compared to teams in low or no-tax states. That’s because of the NFL’s salary cap for teams, according to Petutschnig; if they have to give certain players more money to compensate for higher taxes, it reduces how much they pay other players and lowers the team’s overall talent level. “The new tax law exacerbates my findings and makes it harder for high-tax teams to put together a high-quality roster,” Petutschnig said.

Here’s a chart from the article.

And here are more details.

A player for the Miami Dolphins or Houston Texans, where no state income taxes are levied, “was always going to come out a whole lot better than somebody playing in New York,” said Jerome Glickman, a director at accounting firm Friedman LLP who works with professional athletes. “Now, it’s worse.” …a free agent considering a California team compared to a team in Texas or Florida would need to make 10 percent to 12 percent more to compensate for his state tax bill, said NFL agent Joe Linta… the Raiders — who will eventually move to Las Vegas in no-tax Nevada — have often made the case that unequal tax rates create an uneven playing field. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s five-year $137.5 million contract with the San Francisco 49ers will mean an additional $3 million tax bill under the new tax law… Garoppolo would have saved $2 million in taxes under the new code had he instead signed with the Denver Broncos in lower-tax Colorado.

By the way, other scholars have reached similar conclusions, so Professor Petutschnig’s research should be viewed as yet another addition to the powerful body of evidence about the harmful effect of punitive tax policy.

P.S. I think nations have the right to tax income earned inside their borders, so I’m not theoretically opposed to the U.K. taxing athletes who earn income on British soil. But I don’t favor punitive rates. And I don’t think the IRS should add injury to injury by then taxing the same income. That lesson even applies to royalty.

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I’m in Victoria, British Columbia today to talk about trade with some young Canadians.

In doing some research about how to present the best case for free trade and against protectionism, I found some excellent commentary on why trade deficits don’t matter.

Here are some excerpts from a column by Don Boudreaux, a professor at George Mason University.

…the president’s trade policies are dreadful; they’ll reduce U.S. economic growth and diminish Americans’ spending power. …No myth about trade is more widespread than is the belief that imports reduce domestic employment. …trade is a two-way street. Non-Americans sell stuff to Americans only to acquire the dollars needed buy American exports and to invest in the U.S. — and each of these activities creates other particular jobs in America to offset those that are destroyed. …The reason trade deficits don’t reduce overall employment is that, in fact, trade deficits are not really deficits at all. Every cent that does not return to the U.S. as demand for American exports returns instead as investment in America. In economists’ lingo: the trade deficit (or, to be precise, the current-account deficit) is matched by a capital-account surplus of equal size. …Why should we be upset if foreigners continue to think highly enough of our economy to want to invest here?

And here’s some of what Greg Mankiw of Harvard wrote for the New York Times.

…the president’s overall approach to international trade is so confused. …When Mr. Trump discusses our trade relations with another nation, he often points to the bilateral trade balance — the difference between the value of our exports to that nation and the value of our imports from it. If imports exceed exports, we are running a bilateral trade deficit, which Mr. Trump interprets as a sign that we are the relationship’s losers. …consider some of the many bilateral trade deficits that I run. Whenever my family goes out to dinner, the restaurateur gets some money, and we get a meal. In economics parlance, the Mankiw family runs a trade deficit with that restaurant. But that doesn’t make us losers. …I can run persistent trade deficits with restaurants because I run trade surpluses elsewhere. Take The New York Times, for instance. It pays me more for my columns than I pay it for my subscription. That’s a bilateral trade surplus for me and a bilateral trade deficit for The Times. But nonetheless, we both gain.

I tried to incorporate these insights into my presentation, which has more than 30 slides.

Here are the ones that deal with the trade deficit, starting with some elementary observations.

I then pointed out that all of us have trade deficits in our daily lives.

Yet we understand this doesn’t hurt us.

Using trade with China as an example, I explain that money we send overseas only has value because foreigners can use it to purchase things in America.

Including investments.

And I recycled this chart from a column back in March.

For what it’s worth, understanding that a trade deficit is merely the flip side of a financial surplus is the key to recognizing that trade deficits (generally) don’t matter.

I’ll close with an important caveat.

I’m a big fan of foreign investment in the U.S. economy. Indeed, it’s one of the reasons why I’m happy America is a tax haven for citizens of other countries.

That being said, not all inbound investment is created equal. I’m delighted when foreigners buy stock and bond. I’m very happy when they make direct investments (one of the reasons I like the EB-5 visa program).

It’s not good news for our economy, though, when foreigners buy government bonds. But that’s the fault of our ever-expanding welfare state, not trade.

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I’ve warned many times that Italy is the next Greece.

Simply stated, there’s a perfect storm of bad news. Government is far too big, debt is too high, and the economy is too sclerotic.

I’ve always assumed that the country would suffer a full-blown fiscal crisis when the next recession occurs. At that point, tax receipts will fall because of the weak economy and investors will realize that the nation no longer is able to pay its bills.

But it may happen even sooner thanks to a spat between Italy’s left-populist government and the apparatchiks at the European Commission.

Here’s what you need to know. There are (poorly designed) European budget rules, known as the Maastricht Criteria, that supposedly require that nations limit deficits to 3 percent of GDP and debt to 60 percent of GDP.

With cumulative red ink totaling more than 130 percent of GDP, Italy obviously fails the latter requirement. And this means the bureaucrats at the European Commission can veto a budget that doesn’t strive to lower debt levels.

At least that’s the theory.

In reality, the European Commission doesn’t have much direct enforcement power. So if the Italian government tells the bureaucrats in Brussels to go jump in a lake, you wind up with a standoff. As the New York Times reports, that’s exactly what’s happened.

In what is becoming a dangerous game of chicken for the global economy, Italy’s populist government refused to budge on Tuesday after the European Union for the first time sent back a member state’s proposed budget because it violated the bloc’s fiscal laws and posed unacceptable risks. …the commission rejected the plan, saying that it included irresponsible deficit levels that would “suffocate” Italy, the third-largest economy in the eurozone. Investors fear that the collapse of the Italian economy under its enormous debt could sink the entire eurozone and hasten a global economic crisis unseen since 2008, or worse. But Italy’s populists are not scared. They have repeatedly compared their budget, fat with unemployment welfare, pension increases and other benefits, to the New Deal measures of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Repeating the failures of the New Deal?!? That doesn’t sound like a smart plan.

That seems well understood, at least outside of Italy.

The question for Italy, and all of Europe, is how far Italy’s government is willing to go. Will it be forced into submission by the gravity of economic reality? Or will Italian leaders convince their voters that the country’s financial health is worth risking in order to blow up a political and economic establishment that they say is stripping Italians of their sovereignty? And Brussels must decide how strict it will be. …the major pressure on Italy’s budget has come from outside Italy. Fitch Ratings issued a negative evaluation of the budget, and Moody’s dropped its rating for Italian bonds to one level above “junk” last week.

So now that Brussels has rejected the Italian budget plan, where do things go from here?

According to CNBC, the European Commission will launch an “Excessive Deficit Procedure” against Italy.

…a three-week negotiation period follows in which a potential agreement could be found on how to lower the deficit (essentially, Italy would have to re-submit an amended draft budget). If that’s not reached, punitive action could be taken against Italy. Lorenzo Codogno, founder and chief economist at LC Macro Advisors, told CNBC…“it’s very likely that the Commission will, without making a big fuss, will move towards making an ‘Excessive Deficit Procedure’…to put additional pressure on Italy…” Although it has the power to sanction governments whose budgets don’t comply with the EU’s fiscal rules (and has threatened to do so in the past), it has stopped short of issuing fines to other member states before. …launching one could increase the already significant antipathy between Brussels and a vociferously euroskeptic government in Italy. Against a backdrop of Brexit and rising populism, the Commission could be wary of antagonizing Italy, the third largest euro zone economy. It could also be wary of financial market nerves surrounding Italy from spreading to its neighbors… Financial markets continue to be rattled over Italy’s political plans. …This essentially means that investors grew more cautious over lending money to the Italian government.

For those who read carefully, you probably noticed that the European Commission doesn’t have any real power. As such, there’s no reason to think this standoff will end.

The populists in Rome almost certainly will move forward with their profligate budget. Bureaucrats in Brussels will complain, but to no avail.

Since I’m a nice guy, I’m going to give the bureaucrats in Brussels a much better approach. Here’s the three-sentence announcement they should make.

  1. The European Commission recognizes that it was a mistake to centralize power in Brussels and henceforth will play no role is overseeing fiscal policy in member nations.
  2. The European Commission (and, more importantly, the European Central Bank) henceforth will have a no-bailout policy for national governments, or for those who lend to national governments.
  3. The European Commission henceforth advises investors to be appropriately prudent when deciding whether to lend money to any government, including the Italian government.

From an economic perspective, this is a far superior approach, mostly because it begins to unwind the “moral hazard“that undermines sound financial decision making in Europe.

To elaborate, investors can be tempted to make unwise choices if they think potential losses can be shifted to taxpayers. They see what happened with the various bailouts in Greece and that tells them it’s probably okay to continue lending money to Italy. To be sure, investors aren’t totally blind. They know there’s some risk, so the Italian government has to promise higher interest payments

But it’s highly likely that the Italian government would have to pay even higher rates if investors were convinced there would be no bailouts. Incidentally that would be a very good outcome since it would make it more costly for Italy’s politicians to continue over-spending.

In other words, a win-win situation, with less debt and more prudence (and maybe even a smaller burden of government!).

My advice seems so sensible that you’re probably wondering if there’s a catch.

There is, sort of.

When I talk to policy makers, they generally agree with everything I say, but then say my advice is impractical because Italy’s debt is so massive. They fret that a default would wipe out Italy’s banks (which imprudently have bought lots of government debt), and might even cause massive problems for banks in other nations (which, as was the case with Greece, also have foolishly purchased lots of Italian government debt).

And if banks are collapsing, that could produce major macroeconomic damage and even lead/force some nations to abandon the euro and go back to their old national currencies.

For all intents and purposes, the Greek bailout was a bank bailout. And the same would be true for an Italian bailout.

In any event, Europeans fear that bursting the “debt bubble” would be potentially catastrophic. Better to somehow browbeat the Italian government in hopes that somehow the air can slowly be released from the bubble.

With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why the bureaucrats in Brussels are pursuing their current approach.

So where do we stand?

  • In an ideal world, the problem will be solved because the Italian government decides to abandon its big-spending agenda and instead caps the growth of spending (as I recommended when speaking in Milan way back in 2011).
  • In an imperfect world, the problem is mitigated (or at least postponed) because the European Commission successfully pressures the Italian government to curtail its profligacy.
  • In the real world, though, I have zero faith in the first option and very little hope for the second option. Consider, for instance, the mess in Greece. For all intents and purposes, the European Commission took control of that nation’s fiscal policy almost 10 years ago. The results have not been pretty.

So this brings me back to my three-sentence prescription. Yes, it almost certainly would be messy. But it’s better to let the air out of bubbles sooner rather than later.

P.S. The so-called Basel Rules contribute to the mess in Europe by directing banks to invest in supposedly safe government debt.

P.P.S. If the European Union is going to impose fiscal rules on member nations, the Maastricht criteria should be jettisoned and replaced with a Swiss-style spending cap.

P.P.P.S. Some of the people in Sardinia have the right approach. They want to secede from Italy and become part of Switzerland. The Sicilians, by contrast, have the wrong mentality.

P.P.P.P.S. Italy is very, very, very well represented in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

P.P.P.P.P.S. You’ll think I’m joking, but a columnist for the New York Times actually argued the United States should be more like Italy.

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