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Archive for the ‘Bailout’ Category

When you support limited government and individual freedom, you don’t enjoy many victories. Particularly if you’re relying on the U.S. Senate.

But it occasionally happens.

The Senate held firm and stopped Obama from getting a fiscal cliff tax hike at the end of 2010.

The Senate overwhelmingly voted against a VAT.

The Senate unanimously rejected a Greek bailout.

To be sure, some of these votes were merely window dressing, but it’s still better to have symbolic victories rather than symbolic defeats.

Today, however, I want to report on a real victory against statism. The Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, has been forced to give up on his effort to ram through an expansion of IMF bailout authority as part of legislation giving money to Ukraine.

This is the second time that this White House initiative has been blocked.

Here are some blurbs from a report in Politico.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will drop a provision to reform the International Monetary Fund from a bill to help Ukraine… Reid acknowledged that while the Ukraine package would likely have passed the Senate, it was “headed to nowhere” in the GOP-led House. …the administration did not hide its disappointment Tuesday afternoon over the removal of the IMF language. “We are deeply disappointed by the news that Republican opposition has forced the Senate to remove the [IMF] reforms from the Ukraine assistance package,” said Treasury Department spokeswoman Holly Shulman. …Backers of including the IMF reforms in the Ukraine deal note that it will help boost the organization’s lending capacity. …The United States is the lone holdout country that has not ratified the IMF deal, which was struck more than three years ago. But many congressional Republicans have raised concerns about potential taxpayer risk with the IMF agreement.

It goes without saying that the IMF won’t give up, and the Obama Administration is still pushing to expand the international bureaucracy’s bailout authority.

The battle will continue. Lew and ObamaIn preparation for the next skirmish, Desmond Lachmann at AEI debunks the White House’s empty talking points.

Next week, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will make his case before the House Financial Service Committee for linking IMF reform to U.S. bilateral aid for Ukraine. If the past is any guide, he will do so by putting forward a set of disingenuous arguments in favor of his case. …The principal argument that Secretary Lew must be expected to make is that IMF quota reform is essential for large-scale IMF Ukrainian financial support. This argument glosses over the fact that under the IMF’s lending policy under “exceptional circumstances”, which has been resorted to on many occasions since the 1994 Mexican tequila crisis, the amount that the IMF can lend a country bears little relation to the size of that country’s IMF quota.  …Ukraine is reportedly currently seeking around a U.S. $15 billion IMF economic adjustment loan. If Mr. Lew were to be candid, he would inform Congress that such an amount represents only around 800 percent of Ukraine’s present IMF quota or less than half the amount of quota that the IMF recently committed to several countries in the European economic periphery. He would also inform Congress that the IMF presently has more than U.S. $400 billion in uncommitted loanable resources. This would make the IMF’s prospective loan to Ukraine but a drop in the IMF’s large bucket of available resources even without IMF reform.

Lachmann goes on to make additional points, including the fact that IMF bailouts create very real financial risks for American taxpayers.

The U.S. Treasury never tires of assuring Congress that large-scale IMF lending poses no risk to the US taxpayer. It bases its argument on the fact that the IMF enjoys preferred creditor status and that to date no major country has defaulted on its IMF loans. However, the Treasury conveniently glosses over the fact that IMF loan repayment experience with past IMF lending on a small scale might not be a good guide to what might happen on IMF loans of an unprecedentedly large scale. To understand that there now might be a real risk to the US taxpayer from IMF lending, one only need reflect on the IMF’s current Greek lending experience. Greece’s public debt is now mainly officially owned and it amounts to over 175 percent of GDP. It is far from clear that the European Central Bank will go along with the idea that the IMF enjoys senior status over the ECB in terms of Greece’s loan repayments.

His point about risks to taxpayers is right on the mark. In effect, the IMF is like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. For years, defenders of intervention in the housing market argued those government-created entities didn’t cost a penny. Then they suddenly cost a lot.

The same will happen with the IMF.

Lachmann closes by asking the right question, which is whether there’s any reason to expand the IMF’s authority.

I think that’s the real issue. And to answers that question, let’s go to Mark Hendrickson’s column in Forbes.

He starts by noting that the IMF has “re-invented” itself to justify its existence, even though it supposedly was created for a world – which no longer exists – of fixed exchange rates.

Bureaucracies are masters of mission creep. They constantly reinvent themselves, cleverly finding ways to expand in size, scope, power, and budget. The IMF has perfected this art, having evolved from its original purpose of trying to facilitate orderly currency exchange rates as countries recovered from World War II to morphing into a global busybody that makes loans—with significant strings attached—to bankrupt governments.

And what do we get in exchange for being the biggest backer of IMF bailouts?

What has the American taxpayer received in return for billions of dollars siphoned through the IMF to deadbeat governments? Nothing but ill will from abroad. First, the IMF’s policy of lending millions, or billions, to fiscally mismanaged governments is counterproductive: Such bailouts help to prop up inept and/or corrupt governments. Second, bailouts create moral hazard, inducing private corporations and banks to lend funds to poor credit risks, confident that IMF funds will make them whole. Third, typical IMF rescue packages demand…higher taxes in the name of balancing the budget.

It would be far better, Professor Hendrickson explains, if reckless governments had to immediately accept the market’s judgement whenever they overspent.

…it doesn’t take expert economists to figure out when a government is overspending. Markets will discipline spendthrift governments by ceasing to make funds available to them until they institute needed reforms. Without a bailout fairy like the IMF, government leaders will quickly learn that if they wish the government to remain viable, they must spend within available means. By telling governments what they “have” to do when it’s obvious they need to make those reforms anyhow, the IMF gives the recipient government a convenient scapegoat. It blames the pain of austerity on meddlesome foreigners, and since the U.S. is perceived as the real power in the IMF, we get painted as the bad guys. The bottom line: IMF use of our tax dollars buys us a ton of resentment from abroad.

He also points out that the IMF makes a habit of suggesting bad policy – even for the United States.

the IMF has waged war against American taxpayers and workers. Last October, the IMF released a paper suggesting both higher tax rates (mentioning a “revenue-maximizing” top marginal tax rate of around 60 percent) and possibly the confiscation of a sizable percentage of private assets to restore fiscal balance to the federal government. The IMF also has been one of the leading forces discouraging “tax competition” between countries. …It is using American tax dollars to lobby the American government to increase the flow of tax dollars from our Treasury to the IMF. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that the IMF released a report on March 13 warning of the perils of “income inequality,” and suggesting tax increases and wealth redistribution as ways by which Uncle Sam might address the problem.

So what’s the bottom line?

If the IMF really wanted to improve the economic prospects of the world’s people, it would recommend reductions in government spending and taxation. Indeed, the overwhelming evidence is that vigorous economic growth is highly correlated with a country’s government shrinking as a share of GDP. What are the chances that the IMF will ever advocate such policies? Not very, as we realize that the IMF’s very existence depends on government taxes. …In a better world, there wouldn’t be an IMF. For the present, though, the best we can hope for is for enough members of Congress to understand that the IMF’s interests are opposed to those of the American people and to refuse any requests that the IMF makes for increased funding.

The Wall Street Journal is more measured in its rhetoric, but it basically comes to the same conclusion.

Republicans are reluctant to grant more leverage to European countries, which they blame for relaxing rules on Greece’s bailout in order to rescue the continent’s banks. …An internal audit last week also found that the fund’s growth forecasts were “optimistic” for countries like Greece and Ukraine that were granted larger loans under its “exceptional access” framework. Republicans fear the IMF is becoming a discount borrowing window for spendthrift governments trying to postpone reforms. IMF economic advice is often lousy—raise taxes and devalue… Congress ought to debate whether the IMF has outlived its usefulness as it evolves from a tool for Western interests into a global check-writing bureaucracy.

Amen. Which is why the United States should shut the Treasury door to the IMF. If other nations want to subsidize bad policy and promote bigger government, they can do it with their own money.

P.S. Here’s a list of other IMF transgressions against good public policy (all partially backed by American taxpayers).

Endorsing government cartels to boost tax and regulatory burdens.

Trying to undermine flat tax systems in Albania and Latvia.

Encouraging a “collective response” to over-spending in welfare states.

Pushing for higher tax burdens in Greece.

Seeking the same destructive policy in Cyprus.

Advocating for more centralization and bureaucratic rule in Europe.

Urging higher taxes in El Salvador.

Supporting “eurobonds” so that taxpayers from other nations can subsidize the profligacy of welfare states such as Greece, Italy, and Spain.

Pushing an energy tax that would mean $5,500 of added expense for the average American household.

Reflexively endorsing every possible tax increase.

Aiding and abetting Obama’s “inequality” agenda with disingenuous research.

And remember, these pampered bureaucrats get lavishly compensated and don’t have to pay tax on their bloated salaries.

P.P.S. But let’s be fair to the IMF. The bureaucrats have given us – albeit unintentionally – some very good evidence against the value-added tax.

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Welcome Instapundit readers. To augment the depressing and worrisome message in this post, I suggest you read this article showing how we can restore market forces to our government-dictated healthcare system.

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I hate to dredge up bad memories so early in a new year, but we need to remind ourselves of the awful TARP bailout of 2008.

Our financial system had gone out of whack because of bad monetary policy from the Federal Reserve and unsustainable housing subsidies from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Some financial institutions gambled on the government’s misguided policies and got caught with their pants down when the bubble burst.

But rather than let those companies fail and use the sensible and non-corrupt “FDIC resolution” method to recapitalize the banking system, we got a taxpayer-to-Wall-Street bailout.

Or, from the perspective of the big banks, they got a very good return on their campaign contributions (read Kevin Williamson if you want to get upset about this disgusting form of cronyism).

Well, as Yogi Berra might say, it’s deja vu all over again.

Except now the fat cats lining up at the Treasury door are the big health insurance corporate titans. They got in bed with the White House to push Obamacare and now they’re worried about losing money now that it’s becoming more apparent that the American version of government-run healthcare doesn’t work any better than the British version.

Charles Krauthammer warns us about what may happen in his Washington Post column.

…there’s a Plan B. It’s a government bailout. Administration officials can’t say it for political reasons. And they don’t have to say it because it’s already in the Affordable Care Act, buried deep. First, Section 1341, the “reinsurance” fund collected from insurers and self-insuring employers at a nifty $63 a head. (Who do you think the cost is passed on to?) This yields about $20 billion over three years to cover losses. Then there is Section 1342, the “risk corridor” provision that mandates a major taxpayer payout covering up to 80 percent of insurance-company losses.

At this point, you may be wondering why there’s bailout language buried in the Obamacare legislation.

The simple answer is that politicians always love to accumulate power, and the insurance industry probably lobbied very hard to get this back-door access to our money.

But maybe the White House knew that Obamacare would be unstable and they needed a bailout option to keep the system from totally unraveling. Particularly when it seems that the Obama Administration is arbitrarily changing the system every other day.

First, it postponed the employer mandate. Then it exempted from the individual mandate people whose policies were canceled (by Obamacare). And for those who did join the exchanges, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebeliusis “strongly encouraging” insurers — during the “transition” — to cover doctors and drugs not included in their clients’ plans. The insurers were stunned. Told to give free coverage. Deprived of their best customers. Forced to offer stripped-down “catastrophic” plans to people age 30 and over (contrary to the law). These dictates, complained an insurance industry spokesman, could“destabilize” the insurance market.

So what does all this mean? It’s not good news for Big Insurance.

Shrinking revenues and rising costs could bring on the “death spiral” — an unbalanced patient pool forcing huge premium increases (to restore revenue) that would further unbalance the patient pool as the young and healthy drop out. End result? Insolvency — before which the insurance companies will pull out of Obamacare. Solution? A huge government bailout. It’s Obamacare’s escape hatch. And — surprise, surprise — it’s already baked into the law.

This sounds depressing, but Krauthammer suggests that there could be a way of derailing a bailout before it begins.

…the GOP needs to act. Obamacare is a Rube Goldberg machine with hundreds of moving parts. Without viable insurance companies doing the work, it falls apart. No bailout, no Obamacare. Such a bill would be overwhelmingly popular because Americans hate fat-cat bailouts of any kind. Why should their tax dollars be spent not only saving giant insurers but also rescuing this unworkable, unbalanced, unstable, unpopular money-pit of a health-care scheme? …Do you really think vulnerable Democrats up for reelection will vote for a bailout? And who better to slay Obamacare than a Democratic Senate — liberalism repudiating its most important creation of the last 50 years. Want to be even bolder? Attach the anti-bailout bill to the debt ceiling. That and nothing else. Dare the president to stand up and say: “I’m willing to let the country default in order to preserve a massive bailout for insurance companies.” …Who can argue with no bailout? Let the Senate Democrats decide: Support the bailout and lose the Senate. Or oppose the bailout and bury Obamacare.

I hope his political judgement is correct, though I suspect the statists (and their echo chamber in the media) would portray any effort to amend the debt limit as a sore-loser attack on Obamacare.

But if it’s a simple no-bailout message, perhaps that would be sufficiently popular to overcome the political establishment. As Krauthammer points out, the legislation could be very simple: “Sections 1341 and 1342 of the Affordable Care Act are hereby repealed.”

Let’s close today’s post with some good Obamacare cartoons. We’ll start with Eric Allie’s amusing look at how the White House is measuring success.

Obamacare Cartoon Jan 2014 1

Nice gimmick, huh? You pass a law that destroys people’s existing insurance policies, then you claim victory when some of them sign up for more expensive Obamacare insurance.

Next we have Nate Beeler welcoming the new year.

Obamacare Cartoon Jan 2014 2

Chip Bok’s cartoon is somewhat optimistic in that he’s suggesting that Obamacare may unravel.

Obamacare Cartoon Jan 2014 3

And Gary Varvel mocks the moving goalposts of Obamacare.

Obamacare Cartoon Jan 2014 4

Lisa Benson congratulates the President for winning Politifact’s Lie of the Year Award.

Obamacare cartoon Jan 2014 5

Michael Ramirez hints that the President may not be in a position to enjoy his multi-million dollar Hawaiian vacation.

Obamacare Cartoon Jan 2014 6

Last but not least, Scott Stantis warns us that Obamacare violates the Hippocratic Oath about doing no harm.

Obamacare Cartoon Jan 2014 7

P.S. Under no circumstances should you feel sorry for the insurance companies. As I noted the other day, they endorsed Obamacare and actively lobbied for its passage. They deserve every bad thing that might happen to them.

P.P.S. It’s hard to find much humor in this situation, but perhaps this funny “bailout application” could be updated to make it easier for big insurance companies to rape and pillage taxpayers.

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At the beginning of the year, I was asked whether Europe’s fiscal crisis was over. Showing deep thought and characteristic maturity, my response was “HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA, are you ;@($&^#’% kidding me?”

But I then shared specific reasons for pessimism, including the fact that many European nations had the wrong response to the fiscal crisis. With a few exceptions (such as the Baltic nations), European governments used the crisis to impose big tax hikes, including higher income tax rates and harsher VAT rates.

Combined with the fact that Europe’s demographic outlook is rather grim, you can understand why I’m not brimming with hope for the continent. And I’ve shared specific dismal data for nations such as Portugal, France, Greece, Italy, Poland, Spain, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.

But one thing I’ve largely overlooked is the degree to which the European Central Bank may be creating an unsustainable bubble in Europe’s financial markets. I warned about using bad monetary policy to subsidize bad fiscal policy, but only once in 2011 and once in 2012.

Check out this entertaining – but worrisome – video from David McWilliams and you’ll understand why this issue demands more attention.

I’ve openly argued that the euro is not the reason that many European nations got in trouble, but it appears that Europe’s political elite may be using the euro to make a bad situation even worse.

And to add insult to injury, the narrator is probably right that we’ll get the wrong outcome when this house of cards comes tumbling down. Instead of decentralization and smaller government, we’ll get an expanded layer of government at the European level.

Or, as I call it, Germany’s dark vision for Europe.

That’s Mitchell’s Law on steroids.

P.S. Here’s a video on the five lessons America should learn from the European crisis.

P.P.S. On a lighter note, the mess in Europe has generated some amusing videos (here, here, and here), as well as a very funny set of maps.

P.P.P.S. If all this sounds familiar, that may be because the Federal Reserve in the United States could be making the same mistakes as the European Central Bank. I don’t pretend to know when and how the Fed’s easy-money policy will turn out, but I’m not overly optimistic about the final outcome. As Thomas Sowell has sagely observed, “We all make mistakes. But we don’t all have the enormous and growing power of the Federal Reserve System… In the hundred years before there was a Federal Reserve System, inflation was less than half of what it became in the hundred years after the Fed was founded.”

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I got involved in a bit of a controversy last year about presidential profligacy.

Some guy named Rex Nutting put together some data on government spending and claimed that Barack Obama was the most frugal President in recent history.

I pointed out that Mr. Nutting’s data left something to be desired because he didn’t adjust the numbers for inflation.

Moreover, most analysts also would remove interest spending from the calculations since Presidents presumably shouldn’t be held responsible for servicing the debt incurred by their predecessors.

But even when you make these adjustments and measure inflation-adjusted “primary spending,” it turns out that Nutting’s main assertion was correct. Obama is the most frugal President in modern times.

When you look at the adjusted numbers, though, Reagan does a lot better, ranking a close second to Obama.

I also included Carter, Nixon, and LBJ in my calculations, though it’s worth noting that none of them got a good score. Indeed, President Johnson even scored below President George W. Bush.

Some of you may be thinking that I made a mistake. What about the pork-filled stimulus? And all the new spending in Obamacare?

Most of the Obamacare spending doesn’t begin until 2014, so that wasn’t a big factor. And I did include the faux stimulus. Indeed, I even adjusted the FY2009 and FY2010 numbers so that all of stimulus spending that took place in Bush’s last fiscal year was credited to Obama.

So does this mean Obama is a closet conservative, as my misguided buddy Bruce Bartlett has asserted?

Not exactly. Five days after my first post, I did some more calculations and explained that Obama was the undeserved beneficiary of the quirky way that bailouts and related items are measured in the budget.

It turns out that Obama supposed frugality is largely the result of how TARP is measured in the federal budget. To put it simply, TARP pushed spending up in Bush’s final fiscal year (FY2009, which began October 1, 2008) and then repayments from the banks (which count as “negative spending”) artificially reduced spending in subsequent years.

And when I removed TARP and other bailouts from the equation, Obama plummeted in the rankings. Instead of first place, he was second-to-last, beating only LBJ.

But this isn’t the end of the story. My analysis last year only looked at the first three years of Obama’s tenure.

We now have the numbers for his fourth year. And if you crank through the numbers (all methodology available upon request), you find that Obama’s numbers improve substantially.

Pres Spending 2013 - PrimaryAs the table illustrates, inflation-adjusted non-interest spending has grown by only 0.2 percent per year. Those are remarkably good numbers, due in large part to the fact that government spending actually fell in nominal terms last year and is expected to shrink again this year.

We haven’t seen two consecutive years of lower spending since the end of the Korean War!

Republicans can argue, of course, that the Tea Party deserves credit for recent fiscal progress, much as they can claim that Clinton’s relatively good numbers were the result of the GOP sweep in the 1994 elections.

I’ll leave that debate to partisans because I now want to do what I did last year and adjust the numbers for TARP and other bailouts.

In other words, how does Obama rank if you adjust for the transitory distorting impact  of what happened during the financial crisis?

Well, as you can see from this final table, Obama’s 2013 numbers are much better than his 2012 numbers. Pres Spending 2013 - Primary Minus BailoutsInstead of being in second-to-last place, he’s now in the middle of the pack.

I used a slightly different methodology this year to measure the impact of TARP and related items, so all of the numbers have changed a bit, but Reagan is still the champ and everyone else is the same order other than Obama.

So what does all this mean?

As I constantly remind people, good fiscal policy occurs when the burden of government spending is falling as a share of economic output.

And this happens when policy makers follow my Golden Rule and restrain spending so that it grows slower than the private economy.

That’s actually been happening for the past couple of years. Even after you adjust for the quirks of how TARP repayments get measured.

I’m normally a pessimist, but if advocates of small government can maintain the pressure and get some concessions during the upcoming fights over  spending levels for the new fiscal year and/or the debt limit, we may even see progress next year and the year after that.

And if we eventually get a new crop of policymakers who are willing to enact genuine entitlement reform, the United States may avoid the future Greek-style fiscal crisis that is predicted by the BIS, OECD, and IMF.

That would almost be as good as a national championship for the Georgia Bulldogs!

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As illustrated by this chart, economists are lousy forecasters.

To be more specific, economists are no better than fortune tellers when trying to make short-run macroeconomic forecasts. Heck, if we actually knew what was going to happen over the next 12 months, we’d all be billionaires.

But we can (on occasion) make sensible predictions about the long-run impact of various government policies. All other things being equal, for instance, it’s safe to say that countries with bigger governments will grow slower than nations that don’t divert as many resources from the private sector. Even the World Bank and European Central Bank agree with that common-sense proposition.

Another can’t-fail prediction is that bailouts will reward bad behavior and lead to dependency. That’s why I’m not at all surprised by the news that Greece will get another bailout.Greek Bailout 1 Indeed, if there was a least-surprising-headline contest, it would go to the EU Observer for this headline.

A third bailout? You mean the first two didn’t work? I’m shocked! Which is why we need to change to a least-surprising-headlines contest, Greek Bailout 2because we also have this headline from City AM.

And this one from the UK-based Times. Which they may want to save for when it’s time for the fourth bailout. Greek Bailout 3And the fifth bailout. And…well, you get the idea.

Makes you wonder why the Germans (and the Dutch, Finns, Swedes, etc) keep subsidizing bad behavior elsewhere. Greek Bailout 4Yet these people apparently don’t care about moral hazard, so we see this headline from the Telegraph.

Last but not least, here’s what the BBC wrote. Greek Bailout 5

Given all these headlines from today, you can see why I felt safe in predicting a couple of days ago for Canadian TV that Europe was still in bad shape. Simply stated, government is far too big and costs far too much.

Yes, there are a few bright spots, such as Switzerland and the Baltic nations, but the fiscal debate in Europe is mostly between those who want higher taxes and those who want higher spending.

With that kind of contest, there are no winners other than politicians.

P.S. The ostensible purpose of the interview was to discuss Europe’s supposed recovery. I explained a few days ago why nobody should be impressed by the anemic growth on the other side of the Atlantic. But I think any changes in short-run economic performance – for better or worse – are far less important than the long-run projections of expanding government and growing dependency in Europe.

P.P.S. Americans shouldn’t feel cocky or superior. Long-run projections from the BIS, OECD, and IMF all show that the United States will be in deep trouble if we don’t engage in genuine entitlement reform.

P.P.P.S. Since I was talking to a Canadian audience, I mentioned that Europe should copy the spending restraint Canada enjoyed in the 1990s. You can click here to learn more about happened north of the border (and why the United States also should copy the same policy).

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In an interview last week about Detroit’s bankruptcy, I explained that the city got in trouble because of growing dependency and an ever-rising burden of government spending.

I also warned that the federal government faces the same challenge. Washington is in trouble mostly because of poorly designed entitlement programs rather than excessive compensation for a bloated bureaucracy, but the end result is the same. Or, to be more accurate, the end result will be the same in the absence of genuine entitlement reform.

As I said in the interview, fiscal crisis was “the most predictable crisis in the world for Detroit [and] it’s the most predictable crisis for America.”

The Washington Examiner has the same assessment. Here’s how they conclude a recent editorial.

More than anywhere else in America (with the possible exception of Chicago) Detroit has been a one-party union city. Democratic politicians backed by the United Auto Workers and public employees unions have ruled virtually as they pleased. Along the way, many of the politicians ended up in jail on corruption charges and the bureaucrats made out with sweetheart deals on pensions and health benefits. Those sweetheart deals now account for most of the $20 billion in debt that put the city into bankruptcy. There are too many disturbing parallels between Detroit and America. The national debt of $17 trillion gets a lot of attention, but the reality is the government’s actual debt, counting the unfunded liabilities of Social Security, Medicare and federal employee and retiree benefits, exceeds $86 trillion, according to former congressmen Chris Cox and Bill Archer. As they say, things that can’t go on forever, won’t.

I used to warn that America was on a path to becoming Greece, but maybe now I should use Detroit as an example.

Some of America’s best political cartoonists already are using this theme.

Here’s one from Glenn McCoy. Since I’m not overly optimist about either Illinois or California, I also think it’s just a matter of time before this happens.

Detroit Cartoon 1

Keep in mind, however, that there was plenty of wasteful spending in both Illinois and California under Republican governors, so this is a bipartisan problem.

Speaking of California, here’s a good cartoon by Lisa Benson.

Detroit Cartoon 2

Amazingly, some people think California’s no longer in trouble because a retroactive tax hike collected more tax revenue. Yeah, good luck with that.

Next we have a cartoon by Rob Rogers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Detroit Cartoon 3

And last but not least, Eric Allie weighs in with a cartoon comparing Texas and Detroit.

Detroit Cartoon 4

On a serious note, it would be interesting to see how Detroit looks compared to cities in Texas, such as Dallas and Houston.

But let’s end with something that’s really hilarious, albeit by accident rather than on purpose.

A few people want to enable Detroit’s profligacy. Here are some excerpts from a story in The Hill about union bosses wanting a federal-state bailout of Detroit.

Union leaders are calling on Congress and President Obama to provide a federal bailout to the city of Detroit. The executive council of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, called for an “immediate infusion of federal assistance for Detroit” to be matched by Michigan, which they say has not done enough to keep the city from going through bankruptcy. …“It appears that Governor [Rick] Snyder and [Emergency Financial Manager] Kevyn Orr are pushing Detroit into bankruptcy to gut the modest benefits received by Detroit’s retired public service employees,” the AFL-CIO’s statement reads.

I suppose I could make some snarky comments, but I’ll close with two vaguely sympathetic responses.

First, there’s no way a bailout of Detroit goes through the House of Representatives. Heck, I don’t even think it could make it through the Senate. So some folks on the left would be justified if they asked why the high rollers on Wall Street supposedly deserved a bailout a few years ago but they don’t get one today.

The answer, of course, is discrimination by color. But I’m not talking black vs white. The color that matters in politics is green. The financial industry dispenses huge campaign contributions to both sides of the aisle, and the bailout was their payoff. Public employee unions, by contrast, give almost every penny of their money to Democrats, so there’s no incentive for GOPers to do the wrong thing.

Second, I have no idea whether retired bureaucrats in Detroit get “modest benefits.” I’m skeptical for very obvious reasons, but the real problem is that the city screwed up by having too many people riding in the wagon without paying attention to whether there were enough people producing in the private sector to pull the wagon.

Is that the fault of the garbage men, clerks, secretaries, and other municipal employees? That’s a hard question to answer. They obviously weren’t calling the shots, but they were happy to go along for the ride.

At some point, they should have paid attention to the message in this Chuck Asay cartoon.

P.S. For readers in New Jersey (and also New York City), I’ll be speaking this Wednesday, July 31, at the Friedman Day luncheon sponsored by Americans for Prosperity.

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For my birthday last year, the only present I wanted was for the Supreme Court to uphold the Constitution and reject Obamacare.

Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Instead, the Chief Justice put politics above the law and made a mockery of his Oath of Office.

So I’m now a bit superstitious and I’m not going to write about anything I want today or in the future. But I will pretend that something good happened because it’s my birthday, so let’s celebrate the fact that the European Union has basically made the right decision on how to deal with insolvent banks.

Technically, it happened yesterday, the day before my birthday, but it’s being reported today, and that’s close enough for me. Here are some details from the EU Observer.

Bank shareholders and creditors will be first in line to suffer losses if their bank gets into difficulties, according to draft rules agreed by ministers in the early hours of Thursday morning… Under the new regime, banks’ creditors and shareholders would be the first to take losses. But if this proves insufficient to rescue the bank in question, savers holding uninsured deposits worth more than €100,000 would also take a hit.

This is basically the “FDIC-resolution” approach that I’ve mentioned before, and it’s sort of what happened in Cyprus (after the politicians tried every other option).

And it’s the opposite of the corrupt TARP system that the Bush and Obama Administrations imposed on the American people.

The reason this new European approach is good is that it puts the pressure for sound business decisions where it belongs – with the shareholders who own the bank and with the big creditors (such as bondholders) who should be responsible for monitoring the underlying safety and soundness of a bank before lending it money.

And rich people (depositors with more than €100,000) also should be smart enough to apply some due diligence before putting their money someplace.

The last people to bear any costs should be taxpayers. They don’t own the bank. They don’t invest in the bank. And they don’t have big bucks. So why should they bear the cost when the big-money people screw up?!? Especially when TARP-style bailouts promote moral hazard!

I’m sure the new system won’t be properly implemented, that there are some bad details in the fine print, and there will be too many opportunities for back-door bailouts and cronyism, but let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Happy Birthday to me. And such an unexpected present: Something good actually came out of Europe!

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Did Cyprus become an economic basket case because it is a tax haven, as some leftists have implied?

Did it get in trouble because the government overspent, which I have suggested?

The answers to those questions are “no” and “to some degree.”

The real problem, as I explain in this interview for Voice of America, is that Cypriot banks became insolvent because they made very poor investment decisions, particularly their purchases of Greek government bonds.

A few additional points.

1. The mess in Cyprus won’t cause problems in other nations, but it may lead investors in other nation to pay closer attention to whether there are problems with the government and/or banking sector.

2. There is not a “European problem” or “euro problem.” Some nations, such as Switzerland and Estonia, have made sound decisions. Others, such as Sweden, Denmark, and Germany, are in decent shape.

3. The final outcome in Cyprus was bad, but probably less bad than other options. The final result surely was better than the corrupt TARP regime in the United States.

4. It is utterly absurd to blame tax havens for the financial crisis. That disaster was caused by mistaken decisions by politicians in Washington.

So what happens now? I fear that Cyprus is going to be like Ireland, a nation that used to have a few attractive policies but now will have a bleak future.

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Folks, the pendulum is swinging in the right direction.

PendulumIn recent weeks, I’ve shared a bunch of examples to support my hypothesis that libertarians, small-government conservatives, and classical liberals are finally making some progress.

This trend actually started with the fiscal cliff, though that was simply a smaller-than-expected defeat.

Since then, we’ve enjoyed victories on the sequester, the IMF, and dynamic scoring. I’ve also posted some evidence showing that the Tea Party has made a positive difference and specifically shared data showing that the burden of government fiscal policy has been reduced since the 2010 elections.

Well, here’s another feel-good story. A powerful Committee Chairman in the House of Representatives realizes that being pro-market is not the same as being pro-business. Hallelujah!

The Wall Street Journal reports:

During Jeb Hensarling’s first congressional bid, a man at a campaign stop in Athens, Texas, asked the Republican if he was “pro-business.” “No,” the candidate replied, drawing curious stares from local business leaders who had gathered to hear him speak, a former Hensarling aide recalled. “I’m not pro-business. I’m pro-free enterprise.” Now, more than a decade later, that distinction has Wall Street on edge. The new chairman of the House financial services committee wants to limit taxpayers’ exposure to banking, insurance and mortgage lending by unwinding government control of institutions and programs the private sector depends on, from mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to flood insurance. Banks and other large financial institutions are particularly concerned because Mr. Hensarling plans to push legislation that could require them to hold significantly more capital and establish new barriers between their federally insured deposits and other activities, including trading and investment banking. …In interviews, a half-dozen industry representatives expressed some level of anxiety about Mr. Hensarling’s legislative agenda.

So, the cronyists are “on edge” and feeling “anxiety.” Gee, just breaks my heart.

And it’s not just Rep. Hensarling that is singing from the right song sheet.

Earlier this month, all 45 Senate Republicans voted for a symbolic measure aimed at banks with more than $500 billion in assets. The amendment, offered by Sens. David Vitter (R., La.) and Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), sought to eliminate any subsidies or other advantages enjoyed by the biggest financial institutions because investors expect the government to prevent them from collapsing. …Most congressional Republicans believe the changes enacted in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis—principally in the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill—enshrined the notion that the biggest institutions are “too big to fail” because they guaranteed the government would step in to prevent the most sprawling firms from going under.

To be sure, many of these same politicians voted for TARP, so I’m not under any illusions that they’ve become committed supporters of genuine capitalism.

Putting taxpayers before Wall Street

Though Hensarling did vote the right way, so I’m confident that he understands that insolvent banks should be liquidated rather than bailed out.

Too bad folks in the Bush Administration didn’t understand this simple principle of free markets.

Here are some more details from the article about Hensarling’s commitment to economic liberty.

Mr. Hensarling has been a vocal critic of taxpayer backstops for the private sector. He voted against the Wall Street rescue package in the fall of 2008 and supported measures to ease the importation of prescription drugs. He even picked a fight with one of the largest employers in his backyard—American Airlines—by supporting initiatives to allow more long-distance flights out of Dallas’s Love Field, the home base for rival Southwest Airlines. Now, his other potential targets include: the Export-Import Bank of the U.S., which makes loans to American companies that do business overseas, and the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, a temporary backstop created in the aftermath of 9/11 to insure construction projects. The latter measure expires at the end of 2014, unless Mr. Hensarling’s committee acts to extend it. “In every jurisdictional area that I can get my fingers on, I want to move us away from the Washington insider economy,” he said. Mr. Hensarling sharpened his free-market views when he studied economics under former Sen. Phil Gramm at Texas A&M University.

I’m especially happy to see that he wants to end the corrupt system of subsidies from the Export-Import Bank, which is a typical example of big businesses being anti-free market.

So what does all this mean? Perhaps not much in the short run, particularly with Obama in the White House and Tim Johnson of South Dakota chairing the Senate Banking Committee.

In the long run, though, this is a positive sign. Our prosperity and liberty depend on small government and free markets, so we need at least a few lawmakers who understand that there shouldn’t be any special favors for big interest groups.

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I’m not a fan of the International Monetary Fund. It galls me that a bunch of bureaucrats enjoy opulent lifestyles at our expense, and don’t even have to pay on their lavish incomes.

But I might be willing to overlook all that if it wasn’t for the fact that IMF routinely and reflexively pushes for bad policy.

And the icing on the cake is that the IMF was created for the purpose of helping the manage the system of fixed exchange rates that was imposed after World War II. That system no longer exists, yet the IMF is still plaguing us.

I’ll be happy if they simply take their hands out of my pockets

I remember reading someplace that cockroaches were the only animals that would survive a nuclear war. I have no idea if that’s true, but it appears that international bureaucracies have similar survival skills.

But I’m digressing. Notwithstanding all the bad news listed above, we’re celebrating some good news today.

Here’s the situation. The IMF has been so busy subsidizing bad policy around the world with lots of bailouts that the gold-plated bureaucracy wants American approval to permanently misallocate more of the world’s capital.

I’ve explained over and over again why it’s not a good idea to give more matches to a pyromaniac. But I never expected that lawmakers would do the right thing.

Yet they have, so let’s enjoy this fleeting experience. Here are some excerpts from a Reuters report.

…lawmakers…rebuffed a request by the Obama administration to approve a permanent increase in U.S. funding to the International Monetary Fund in a setback for IMF reforms to boost the voting power of emerging economies. The reforms need congressional approval because they involve shifting and making permanent a $65 billion U.S. contribution to an IMF crisis fund. …the U.S. Treasury sought to tuck the provision into pending legislation in Congress that aims to avoid a U.S. government shutdown at the end of March. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives rejected the IMF funding request last week, but the administration hoped the Democratic-led Senate would include it in its version of the funding bill. After days of negotiations, authors of the bill in the Senate Appropriations Committee rejected the request as too politically sensitive in the tense budget environment in Washington, where the sweeping government spending cuts triggered on March 1 are starting to be felt.

Wow. I wrote previously that rejecting additional IMF handouts was a minimum test of GOP seriousness in the battle against statism.

And they actually cleared that hurdle. Miracles do happen!

But there’s no such thing as a permanent victory in the battle against statism.

The Obama administration will have another shot at winning approval for increased IMF voting power when Congress starts work on a new set of spending bills later this spring for the 2014 fiscal year, which starts on October 1. But failure by President Barack Obama to reach a deal with Republicans to shrink the U.S. budget deficit could complicate any new requests for IMF funding, aides cautioned.

Not only is there no such thing as a permanent victory, even this bit of short-run success probably doesn’t mean much. If I understand correctly, the IMF already received the authority to squander the additional $65 billion. All that’s really happening now is a fight over whether to grant the bureaucrats permanent approval to misuse the funds.

But I’ll take any victory. Fighting for freedom in Washington is a rather grim task. Yet in the past month, we got the sequester and now we’ve stiff-armed the IMF.

I’m almost delirious with joy.

P.S. While the IMF almost always pushes bad policy, there are occasional glimmers of sanity from the economists on staff who write reports. Researchers at the international bureaucracy, for instance, have acknowledged the Laffer Curve and warned that it makes no sense to push taxes too high. And some of the bureaucrats have even admitted that it sometimes make sense to reduce the burden of government spending.

And even though it wasn’t their intention, IMF bureaucrats even provided very strong evidence showing why the value-added tax is a destructive money machine for big government.

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It doesn’t create a lot of confidence in Europe that tiny little Cyprus, with a GDP less than Vermont, is now causing immense turmoil.

Though to be more accurate, events in Cyprus aren’t causing turmoil as much as they’re causing people to examine both government finances and bank soundness in other nations. And that’s causing anxiety because folks have taken their heads out of the sand and looked at the reality of poor balance sheets.

Looking closer at the specific mess in Cyprus, an insolvent financial sector is the cause of the current crisis, though the problem is exacerbated by the fact that the government has dramatically increased the burden of government spending in recent years and therefore isn’t in a position to finance a bailout.

But that then raises the question of why Cyprus is bailing out its banks? Why not just let the banks fail?

Well, here’s where things get messy, particularly since we don’t have a lot of details. There are basically three options for dealing with financial sector insolvency.

  1. In a free market, it’s easy to understand what happens when a financial institution becomes insolvent. It goes into bankruptcy, wiping out shareholders. The institution is then liquidated and the recovered money is used to partially pay of depositors, bondholders, and other creditors based on the underlying contracts and laws.
  2. In a system with government-imposed deposit insurance, taxpayers (or bank consumers via insurance premiums) are on the hook to compensate depositors when the liquidation occurs. This is what is called the “FDIC resolution” approach in the United States.
  3. And in a system of cronyism, the government gives taxpayer money directly to the banks, which protects depositors but also bails out the shareholders and bondholders and allows the institutions to continue operating.

As far as I can determine, Cyprus wants to pick the third option, sort of akin to the corrupt TARP regime in the United States. But that approach can only work if the government has the ability to come up with the cash when banks go under.

I’m assuming, based on less-than-thorough news reports, that this is the real issue for Cyprus. It needs taxpayers elsewhere to pick up the tab so it can bail out not only depositors, but also to keep zombie banks operating and thus give some degree of aid to shareholders and bondholders as well.

But other taxpayers don’t want to give Cyprus a blank check, so they’re insisting that depositors have to take a haircut. In other words, the traditional government-imposed deposit insurance regime is being modified in an ad hoc fashion.

And this is why events in tiny Cyprus are echoing all over Europe. Folks in other nations with dodgy banks and unsound finances are realizing that their bank accounts might be vulnerable to haircuts as well.

So what should be done?

I definitely think the insolvent institution should be liquidated. The big-money people should suffer when they mismanage a bank. Shareholders should lose all their money. Then bondholders should lose their money.

Then, if a bailout is necessary, it should go only to depositors (though I’m not against the concept of giving them a “haircut” to save money for taxpayers).

But Cyprus apparently can’t afford even that option. And the same is probably true of other European nations.

In other words, there isn’t a good solution. The only potential silver lining to this dark cloud is that people are sobering up and acknowledging that the problem is widespread.

Whether that recognition leads to good policies to address the long-run imbalances – such as reductions in the burden of government spending and the implementation of pro-market reforms – remains to be seen.

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Here are three common-sense principles.

  1. Higher taxes are misguided. They undermine prosperity and finance bigger government.
  2. Bailouts also are misguided. They facilitate corruption and encourage moral hazard.
  3. And international bureaucracies are misguided. They promote statism and squander money.

So what’s the “perfect storm” of bad policy?

How about when international bureaucracies offers a bailout in exchange for higher taxes?

Here are some very unpleasant details from Reuters about how the International Monetary Fund is working with other international bureaucracies to coerce Cyprus into raising taxes in order to provide a bailout.

International lenders would like Cyprus to raise its corporate tax and introduce a levy on capital gains and a financial transaction tax to ensure it can repay a euro zone bailout it asked for last year, euro zone officials said on Thursday. …One official, briefed on the talks between the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission – known as the Troika – and the new government in Nicosia, said no decisions had yet been taken on any of the taxes.

I’ve already explained that Cyprus got in trouble because government spending rose faster than the ability of the private sector to finance it.

So if the problem is that the burden of government spending is excessive, then how does it make sense to increase the corporate tax burden? To impose a capital gains tax? Or to levy a tax on financial transactions?

The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t make sense.

This is a very perverse example of Mitchell’s Law, with the pinhead bureaucrats at the IMF and elsewhere misallocating global capital on the condition that Cyprus increase an already onerous tax burden.

One bad policy leading to another bad policy. And it’s happening with our money. Something to think about the next time the fiscal pyromaniacs at the International Monetary Fund ask for additional bailout authority.

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If you’re an amoral person with political connections, it’s possible to make a lot of money.

Warren Buffett lined his pockets by making a government-subsidized investment in Goldman Sachs during the financial crisis.

The rest of us suffered and he got richer, but the left seems to be okay with that perverse form of redistribution because he supports class-warfare tax hikes. Sort of like buying an indulgence in the Middle Ages.

Hey, nice work if you can get it.

But Buffett may be an amateur compared to the crony capitalists at Citigroup.

The just-confirmed Treasury Secretary Jack Lew was given a huge bonus for leaving Citigroup several years ago. Did the company give Lew a bonus because they were happy to shed his $1.1 million salary after he presided over gigantic losses at the firm’s alternative investments division?

Don’t be silly. He was showered with money specifically for leaving the company to take a “high level position with the United States government”

Again, nice work if you can get it.

But Lew’s loot is pocket change compared to the $115 million that former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin received for helping to steer the company into financial collapse.

So is this evidence that the private sector is systematically stupid?

I wish that was the explanation.

Instead, this is tragic evidence that it’s possible to “earn” a very high return when you “invest” in cronyism.

Big Bank SubsidyAccording to the Treasury Department’s Special Inspector General, Citigroup got $45 billion of TARP handouts and $301 billion of guarantees.

Not to mention an estimated $13.4 billion subsidy thanks to the government’s too-big-to-fail policy.

Since we’re talking apples and oranges, I have no idea how to compare the value of the payments to Lew and Rubin with the value of all the handouts and subsidies that Citigroup got (and is still getting) from taxpayers.

But I do know that mere mortals like you and me don’t have a prayer of “earning” the incredibly high returns that Citigroup received by “investing” in Robert Rubin and Jack Lew.

And let’s not forget what Goldman Sachs “earned” by “investing” in the previous Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner.

Hey, nice work if you can get it.

And you can even be absolved of your sins by supporting higher taxes! What’s not to love. You get millions of dollars that you could never earn in a genuinely capitalist economy, and all you have to do is agree to give back an extra 5 percent or so if tax rates go up.

But if you’re someone like Tim Geithner, maybe you can avoid the extra burden by cheating on your taxes. Of course, you’ll be taking a risk of having your wrist slapped if you get caught. And that can really sting for 10 seconds.

Remember, rules and laws are for the peasants, not the cronyist 1 percent.

Nice work if you can get it.

And there are lots of opportunities for unjust enrichment, as explained in this video.

The moral of the story is…well, that you should be a libertarian if you want to be a decent person and not reward those who are indecent.

P.S. At least Jack Lew has now shown us that it’s perfectly fine to invest in the Cayman Islands and benefit from tax competition.

But only if you’re an insider, of course. Nice work if you can get it.

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I have a serious question for readers. What’s worse, bailouts for government or bailouts for the private sector?

Yes, both are bad, but is it worse to bail out a bankrupt entitlement program, such as Social Security, or it is worse to bail out an industry, such as the financial sector?

Bailout gravy train cartoonTo bail out the housing sector, or to bail out Medicare? Fannie and Freddie, or GM and Chrysler?

All these examples involve huge amounts of money, and both private-sector and public-sector bailouts have perverse long-run effects, but which is worse?

And don’t forget there are lots of other bailouts in our future, as discussed on this interview for Fox Business News.

The interview took place before Christmas, but the topic is even more relevant today since the budget season is about to begin.

Most of the discussion was about government agencies and programs that may get more handouts, though bailouts for the Federal Housing Administration and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation would be indirect bailouts for big business and housing.

So we’d get the worst of all worlds, more government spending and more cronyism.

Or, as they call it in Washington, a win-win situation.

But I call it legal corruption.

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Sometimes it’s no fun to be an economist. Or, to be more specific, it’s rather frustrating to understand Bastiat’s insight about the “seen” and the “unseen” and to always be asking “at what cost?” and “to what effect?” when politicians make inane statements.

The GM bailout is a good example. Politicians want us to believe that it was a success because the company is still in business. Heck, the Vice President’s favorite campaign statement is that “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive

But if you’re the type of person who recognizes the importance of tradeoffs and incentives, then it’s easy to see how a political success can be an economic failure. Which is the message of this new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity Foundation.

This is music to my ears. I’ve been saying for years that any company can be kept afloat indefinitely with taxpayers subsidies. So if that’s the definition of success, we can party until we hit the fiscal brick wall. But that wall won’t feel good, as we can see from the fiscal chaos in Greece and other European welfare states.

But this issue involves more than just inefficient subsidies. I’m also concerned about the corruption that inevitably exists when cronyism replaces capitalism.

It’s quite likely, after all, that GM is spending lots of money on the Chevy Volt because of pressure from Washington rather than demand from consumers. And when you have a car company executive endorsing higher gas taxes, it’s reasonable to think that he’s currying favor with the political masters in DC rather than looking out for the best interests of drivers.

The GM bailout may be a win-win situation for politicians and lobbyists, but it’s a lose-lose proposition for taxpayers and the economy.

P.S. If you want some auto bailout humor, here’s a spoof on the Chevy Volt, an advertisement for the new GM Obummer, a couple of good political cartoons, and a very funny video on the Pelosi GTxi SS/RT.

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I think it’s a mistake to bail out profligate governments, and I have the same skeptical attitude about bailouts for mismanaged banks and inefficient car companies.

Simply stated, bailouts reward past bad behavior and make future bad behavior more likely (what economists call moral hazard).

But some folks think government was right to put taxpayers on the hook for the sloppy decisions of private companies. Here’s the key passage in USA Today’s editorial on bailouts.

Put simply, the bailouts worked. True, in some cases the government did not do a very good job with the details, and taxpayers are out $142 billion in connection with the non-TARP takeovers of housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But it’s time for the economic purists and the Washington cynics to admit that government can occasionally do something positive, at least when faced with a terrifying crisis.

Well, I guess I’m one of those “economic purists” and “Washington cynics,” so I’m still holding firm to the position that the bailouts were a mistake. In my “opposing view” column, I argue that the auto bailout sets a very bad precedent.

Unfortunately, the bailout craze in the United States is a worrisome sign cronyism is taking root. In the GM/Chrysler bailout, Washington intervened in the bankruptcy process and arbitrarily tilted the playing field to help politically powerful creditors at the expense of others. …This precedent makes it more difficult to feel confident that the rule of law will be respected in the future when companies get in trouble. It also means investors will be less willing to put money into weak firms. That’s not good for workers, and not good for the economy.

If I had more space (the limit was about 350 words), I also would have dismissed the silly assertion that the auto bailout was a success. Yes, GM and Chrysler are still in business, but the worst business in the world can be kept alive with sufficiently large transfusions of taxpayer funds.

And we’re not talking small amounts. The direct cost to taxpayers presently is about $25 billion, though I noted as a postscript in this otherwise humorous post that experts like John Ransom have shown the total cost is far higher.

And here’s what I wrote about the financial sector bailouts.

The pro-bailout crowd argues that lawmakers had no choice. We had to recapitalize the financial system, they argued, to avoid another Great Depression. This is nonsense. The federal government could have used what’s known as “FDIC resolution” to take over insolvent institutions while protecting retail customers. Yes, taxpayer money still would have been involved, but shareholders, bondholders and top executives would have taken bigger losses. These relatively rich groups of people are precisely the ones who should burn their fingers when they touch hot stoves. Capitalism without bankruptcy, after all, is like religion without hell. And that’s what we got with TARP. Private profits and socialized losses are no way to operate a prosperous economy.

The part about “FDIC resolution” is critical. I’ve explained, both in a post criticizing Dick Cheney and in another post praising Paul Volcker, that policymakers didn’t face a choice of TARP vs nothing. They could have chosen the quick and simple option of giving the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation additional authority to put insolvent banks into something akin to receivership.

Indeed, I explained in an online debate for U.S. News & World Report that the FDIC did handle the bankruptcies of both IndyMac and WaMu. And they could have used the same process for every other poorly run financial institution.

But the politicians didn’t want that approach because their rich contributors would have lost money.

I have nothing against rich people, of course, but I want them to earn money honestly.

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While I often complain about government waste and stupidity, I’m not even sure what to say about this grim bit of news from Reuters.

General Motors Co sold a record number of Chevrolet Volt sedans in August — but that probably isn’t a good thing for the automaker’s bottom line. Nearly two years after the introduction of the path-breaking plug-in hybrid, GM is still losing as much as $49,000 on each Volt it builds, according to estimates provided to Reuters by industry analysts and manufacturing experts. Cheap Volt lease offers meant to drive more customers to Chevy showrooms this summer may have pushed that loss even higher. There are some Americans paying just $5,050 to drive around for two years in a vehicle that cost as much as $89,000 to produce. …The weak sales are forcing GM to idle the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant that makes the Chevrolet Volt for four weeks from September 17, according to plant suppliers and union sources. It is the second time GM has had to call a Volt production halt this year. GM acknowledges the Volt continues to lose money, and suggests it might not reach break even until the next-generation model is launched in about three years.

Gee, it’s almost as if everything that critics have said all along is right.

But not to worry, taxpayers are underwriting the costs. So if bigger subsidies are the price of buying support from the UAW and allowing fat-cat incompetent managers to stay on the job, that just means a bigger tab to pay for the rest of us.

How comforting.

P.S. If you’re a taxpayer and need to be cheered up, these cartoons may help.

P.P.S. This spoof video on the Volt may be even funnier.

P.P.P.S. Last but not least, Government Motors plans to build on the success of the Volt with the Obummer. It was due in 2011, but standard government incompetence has pushed back the release date.

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For some reason, I haven’t seen much political satire about the GM/Chrysler bailout.

Indeed, the only bailout humor I found in my archives are this funny cartoon about the Federal Reserve helping to bail out Europe and this very good cartoon about Greece deciding to take more handouts from the rest of Europe.

But these two cartoons hopefully are a start of a new trend.

If you like Payne’s work, you can view more of my favorites here, herehereherehere, and here.

Some of my favorite Bok cartoons can be seen here, hereherehereherehere, and here.

P.S. Here’s one more bailout cartoon, featuring a hapless taxpayer playing a rigged blackjack game with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

P.P.S. How can I forget one of the most popular humor posts in the history of this blog, this image of how the bailout-hungry Greeks view the rest of Europe (with bonus sections showing how Americans view Europe, how the English view Europe, and – be forewarned – how the former Italian Prime Minister viewed Europe).

P.P.P.S. I commented the other day on the cost of the bailout jumping to $25 billion. It’s actually a lot higher when you count other bailout expenses, as John Ransom explains.

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I’ve been against the auto bailout from the very beginning because it was a corrupt payoff to lazy corporate fat-cats and an ossified union.

And when folks on the left say the bailout is a success, I explain that any industry can be propped up with a sufficiently large injection of other people’s money.

Now we have new data on how much “other people’s money” has been diverted. It’s a big number, and it seems to get bigger each time there’s a new estimate. Here’s part of a Reuters report.

The U.S. Treasury Department has said the auto industry bailout will cost taxpayers $3.4 billion more than previously thought. Treasury now estimates the 2009 bailout will eventually cost the government $25.1 billion, according to a report sent to Congress on Friday. That is up from the last quarterly estimate of $21.7 billion.

Sort of reminds me of the old joke about the lousy businessman who says he loses money on every sale, but he makes up for it with high volume.

Well, that incompetent businessman has a kindred spirit in the White House. Here’s some of what Politico reported.

President Obama, while villifying Mitt Romney for opposing the auto industry bailout, bragged about the success of his decision to provide government assistance… he said. “Now I want to do the same thing with manufacturing jobs, not just in the auto industry, but in every industry…”

Well, we can’t say we haven’t been warned. He wants to do the same thing in “every industry.” Well, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, there are 60 industries in America. At $25 billion each, that means $1.5 trillion.

Stimulus in action

By the way, Mickey Kaus explains that the government’s numbers are incomplete and that the actual damage is significantly higher. And this Reason TV video exposes some of the government’s chicanery.

P.S. If you’re in the mood for some satire, here’s a bailout form showing how you can become a deadbeat and mooch off the government.

P.P.S. Just in case you’re new to this blog and don’t know my history, rest assured that I’m also against Wall Street bailouts.

P.P.P.S. Ethical people should boycott GM and Chrysler, particularly since these companies are now handmaidens of big government.

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The mess in Europe has been rather frustrating, largely because almost everybody is on the wrong side.

Some folks say they want “austerity,” but that’s largely a code word for higher taxes. They’re fighting against the people who say they want “growth,” but that’s generally a code word for more Keynesian spending.

So you can understand how this debate between higher taxes and higher spending is like nails on a chalkboard for someone who wants smaller government.

And then, to get me even more irritated, lots of people support bailouts because they supposedly are needed to save the euro currency.

When I ask these people why a default in, say, Greece threatens the euro, they look at me as if it’s the year 1491 and I’ve declared the earth isn’t flat.

So I’m delighted that the Wall Street Journal has published some wise observations by a leading French economist (an intellectual heir to Bastiat!), who shares my disdain for the current discussion. Here are some excerpts from Prof. Salin’s column, starting with his common-sense hypothesis.

…there is no “euro crisis.” The single currency doesn’t have to be “saved” or else explode. The present crisis is not a European monetary problem at all, but rather a debt problem in some countries—Greece, Spain and some others—that happen to be members of the euro zone. Specifically, these are public-debt problems, stemming from bad budget management by their governments. But there is no logical link between these countries’ fiscal situations and the functioning of the euro system.

Salin then looks at how the artificial link was created between the euro currency and the fiscal crisis, and he makes a very good analogy (and I think it’s good because I’ve made the same point) to a potential state-level bankruptcy in America.

The public-debt problem becomes a euro problem only insofar as governments arbitrarily decide that there must be some “European solidarity” inside the euro zone. But how does mutual participation in the same currency logically imply that spendthrift governments should get help from the others? When a state in the U.S. has a debt problem, one never hears that there is a “dollar crisis.” There is simply a problem of budget management in that state.

He then says a euro crisis is being created, but only because the European Central Bank has surrendered its independence and is conducting backdoor bailouts.

Because European politicians have decided to create an artificial link between national budget problems and the functioning of the euro system, they have now effectively created a “euro crisis.” To help out badly managed governments, the European Central Bank is now buying public bonds issued by these governments or supplying liquidity to support their failing banks. In so doing, the ECB is violating its own principles and introducing harmful distortions.

Last but not least, Salin warns that politicians are using the crisis as an excuse for more bad policy – sort of the European version of Mitchell’s Law, with one bad policy (excessive spending) being the precursor of additional bad policy (centralization).

Politicians now argue that “saving the euro” will require not only propping up Europe’s irresponsible governments, but also centralizing decision-making. This is now the dominant opinion of politicians in Europe, France in particular. There are a few reasons why politicians in Paris might take that view. They might see themselves being in a similar situation as Greece in the near future, so all the schemes to “save the euro” could also be helpful to them shortly. They might also be looking to shift public attention away from France’s internal problems and toward the rest of Europe instead. It’s easier to complain about what one’s neighbors are doing than to tackle problems at home. France needs drastic tax cuts and far-reaching deregulation and labor-market liberalization. Much simpler to get the media worked up about the next “euro crisis” meeting with Angela Merkel.

This is a bit of a dry topic, but it has enormous implications since Europe already is a mess and the fiscal crisis sooner or later will spread to the supposedly prudent nations such as Germany and the Netherlands. And, thanks to entitlement programs, the United States isn’t that far behind.

So may as well enjoy some humor before the world falls apart, including this cartoon about bailouts to Europe from America, the parody video about Germany and downgrades, this cartoon about Greece deciding to stay in the euro, this “how the Greeks see Europe” map, and this cartoon about Obama’s approach to the European model.

P.S. Here’s a video narrated by a former Cato intern about the five lessons America should learn from the European fiscal crisis.

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I don’t like the international bureaucrats at the IMF, and I don’t like the corrupt politicians of Greece, so for whom do I cheer if there’s a fight between those two groups?

Ideally, both sides will lose (which is also my view of the European fight between Keynesians and tax increasers).

You’ll understand when you read about the recent remarks by Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund. Here’s what the UK-based Guardian reported.

IMF chief Christine Lagarde’s uncompromising description of Greeks as rampant tax-dodgers has provoked a furious reaction in Athens less than a month before the crisis-hit country heads to the polls. With Greece mired in ever-worsening recession, with cutbacks and tax rises, the IMF managing director was rounded on by almost the entire political establishment. In an interview with the Guardian, Lagarde said she had more sympathy for victims of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa than Greeks hit by the economic crisis. “As far as Athens is concerned, I also think about all those people who are trying to escape tax all the time. All these people in Greece who are trying to escape tax.” Evangelos Venizelos, the Greek socialist leader, who met Lagarde several times as finance minister, accused her of “insulting” Greeks. “Nobody has the right to humiliate the Greek people during the crisis, and I say this today specifically addressing Ms Lagarde … who with her stance insulted the Greek people.”

So what should we think of this fight?

Well, I agree with Lagarde that the people of sub-Saharan Africa are more deserving of sympathy. After all, the Greek people repeatedly voted to steal money from their fellow citizens by using the coercive power of government, so it’s hard to feel much sympathy for people who thought that scam could continue indefinitely.

Though, to be fair, the people in sub-Saharan Africa would probably make the same venal choices if they had democracy.

Top IMF Moocher

On the other hand, I am nauseated by Lagarde’s comments about tax evasion. She is one of the world’s biggest leeches, with annual compensation of more than $550,000 that is diverted from the productive sector of the economy. And, adding insult to injury, her bloated salary is tax free. So we have the grotesque spectacle of a pampered international bureaucrat whining and moaning that ordinary people aren’t paying enough tax.

Keep in mind, by the way, that the tax burden in Greece is more than 40 percent of economic output (see annex table 26), which (at least to normal people) shows that the problems is that the Greek government is spending far too much.

Leading Greek Kleptocrat

Then we have the sniveling comments of Greece’s former socialist finance minister, who says the Greek people have been “insulted.” Well, they should be insulted. And mocked. And berated. After all, these are the people who voted for one kleptocrat government after another.

These are the people who thought it was a good idea to elect governments that made insane decisions such as choosing to subsidize pedophiles and imposing a regulatory requirement to collect stool samples from entrepreneurs setting up online companies.

I think “a pox on both your houses” was a line in one of Shakespeare’s plays. But wherever it comes from, it sums up my view of this spat between the IMF and Greece. The only good decision for the United States would be to back away and not be involved. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration wants American taxpayers on the hook for the reckless overspending of foreign politicians.

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Guido Westerwelle is supposed to be the German version of a libertarian. Currently serving as Foreign Minister, he was the chairman of the supposedly pro-market Free Democratic Party for 10 years and Wikipedia says he was known as a “proponent of an unlimited free market economy.”

Sounds like a good guy, right? Just the type of person who can explain that Europe’s problem is too much government. The kind of policy maker who can argue for cutting back the welfare state, slashing tax rates, and ending bailouts.

That’s the optimistic spin, but now let’s look at the column Westerwelle wrote for the Washington Post yesterday. Entitled “A Growth Pact for Europe,” he called for six reforms. Unfortunately, four of the reforms mean more government and two were meaningless boilerplate. Let’s look at what he proposed.

First, the European Union’s budget should be consistently oriented toward growth… The E.U. must utilize its resources better than before without spending more. Money is available for future-oriented tasks; in recent months, E.U. officials have been negotiating a 1 trillion-euro budget for 2014 to 2020. We should concentrate on using this huge sum consistently to promote growth and employment, innovation and competitiveness.

I’m glad he says they shouldn’t spend even more than is currently in the EU budget, but he apparently believes that government can redistribute 1 trillion euro in a way that boosts the economy. Good luck with that.

Second, unused E.U. funds must be activated. Around 80 billion euros in the regional cohesion fund have not been allocated to any concrete projects. The European Commission and member states must invest these funds quickly and effectively in new growth through better competitiveness.

Wow, he wants us to believe that wasting money faster is a recipe for growth. This is the same nonsense the Obama Administration was peddling.

Third, access to capital must be improved. …companies are not in a position to make sensible investments that would stimulate growth. The European Investment Bank is an instrument we could use to a greater extent and in a more targeted fashion, not least to ensure that small and medium-size businesses have better access to loans.

I guess this is the European version of the bastard child of Fannie Mae and the Export-Import Bank. But if anybody thinks government-subsidized cronyism is a route to prosperity, they’ve been asleep for the past 40 years.

Fourth, infrastructure projects must be promoted. …Our roads, railways, and energy and telecommunication networks are among the European economy’s trump cards. …State-of-the-art infrastructure opens new prospects for growth by making private-sector investment more attractive. We need to mobilize private capital for the cross-border expansion of European infrastructure and look at innovative forms of public-private partnership.

I’ll be the first to admit that infrastructure spending is less damaging that social welfare spending, but it is a bit of a fantasy to assume that there are lots of high-return projects languishing on the shelves.

Fifth, we must complete Europe’s internal market. In the 1980s and ’90s, realizing the “four freedoms” — the free flow of goods, capital, services and people within the E.U. — released tremendous forces for growth. Today, the expansion of the internal market to cover new spheres again offers great opportunities. That applies to the digitized economy, e-commerce and the energy sector, and it will strengthen small and medium-size companies by reducing red tape and ensuring better access to venture capital.

This boilerplate support for more free trade is fine, but I think all the big benefits of ending protectionism inside Europe already have been captured (and this is the one area where the European project has been a success).

Sixth, we want to strengthen free trade. Three-quarters of the world’s trade occurs outside the European Union. More than 80 percent of global growth is produced outside Europe. The E.U. must work toward making the Doha Round a success while also concluding more free-trade agreements with new and long-established centers of power.

Again, this a good sentiment, but I fear it is a throwaway passage. Almost every nation has empty rhetoric about completing the Doha round, but don’t hold your breath expecting it to happen anytime soon.

What’s notable about Westerwelle’s list is that there is nothing about the overall burden of spending, even though Europe is saddled with bloated welfare states. There is nothing about high tax rates, even though most nations have punitive systems that discourage work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship. There is nothing about the overall burden of regulation and red tape, particularly the supposedly pro-labor rules that actually discourage hiring (the Germans did implement successful reforms last decade, so he would have been in a strong position to urge other nations to copy those changes).

Heck, even the World Bank has been willing to point out that big government has failed in Europe. So it’s hardly a positive sign that a supposedly strong free market lawmaker is basically arguing that even more government is the way to boost growth on the continent.

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I’ve written many times about the foolishness of bailing out profligate governments (or, for that matter, mismanaged banks and inefficient car companies).

Bailouts reward bad past behavior, encourage bad future behavior, and make the debt bubble bigger – thus increasing the likelihood of deeper economic problems. At the risk of stating the obvious, there’s a reason for the second word in the “moral hazard” phrase.

But I’m not surprised that politicians continue to advocate more bailouts. The latest version is the “eurobond,” sometimes referred to as “fiscal liability sharing.”

It doesn’t matter what it’s called, though, since we’re talking about the foolish idea of having Germany (with a few other small nations chipping in) guaranteeing the debt of Europe’s collapsing welfare states. Here’s how the New York Times described the issue.

When European leaders meet on Wednesday to discuss the troubles of the euro zone, France’s president will press the issue of euro bonds, his finance minister said in Berlin on Monday. …Pierre Moscovici, France’s newly appointed finance minister, traveled to Berlin for talks with his counterpart, Wolfgang Schäuble. In a news conference after the closed-door meeting, both characterized the exchange as friendly and productive, but Mr. Moscovici acknowledged that the two men, and their governments, had real differences of opinion over pooling obligations to use the credit of the strongest European countries to prop up the weaker ones, an approach achieved through euro bonds.

The good news is that the German government is opposed to this idea.

Steffen Kampeter, was much more forthcoming in reiterating German opposition to any such proposal. Mr. Kampeter called the joint bonds “a prescription at the wrong time with the wrong side effects,” in an interview with German public radio. “The government has repeatedly made clear that collective state borrowing — that is, euro bonds — are no way to overcome the current crisis,” said Georg Streiter, a spokesman for Ms. Merkel on Monday. “It is still the case that the government rejects euro bonds.” …German policy makers say, euro bonds would be comparable to the United States’ agreeing to pay off Mexico’s debts, almost like a blank check for nations that are in trouble for overspending in the first place. “Euro bonds are not where the keys to heaven lie,” said Michael Hüther, director of the Cologne Institute for Economic Research, because it would “mix up risk” and act as a disincentive for less competitive economies to reform.

The bad news is that the Germans support other bad policies instead.

Ms. Merkel has signaled flexibility on some of Mr. Hollande’s ideas, including more financing for the European Investment Bank and redirecting unspent European Union funds to try to fight unemployment.

And even when Merkel opposes bad policies, she indicates she will change her mind if one bad policy is mixed with another bad policy!

…the German government is staunchly opposed to euro bonds until deeper integration and harmonization of budgetary and public spending policies have been achieved.

If Ms. Merkel genuinely believes that political and fiscal union will solve Europe’s problems, she’s probably ingesting illegal substances. Centralization of European government will have the same unfortunate pro-statist impact as centralization of American government in the 1930s and 1960s.

Integration and harmonization simply means voters in the rest of Europe will take German funds using the ballot box.

Not surprisingly, all of the international bureaucracies are on the wrong side of this issue. The NY Times story notes that the European Commission is using the fiscal crisis to push for more centralization.

The European Commission floated the idea of bonds issued jointly by euro zone governments in November, suggesting that such “stability bonds” could be created “in parallel” with moves toward closer fiscal union, rather than at the end of the process, as the German government prefers, to “alleviate tension” in sovereign debt markets. “From an economic point of view this makes sense,” a commission spokesman, Amadeu Altafaj, said Monday. “But at the end of the day this is a political decision that has to be taken by the member states of the euro area.” Mr. Altafaj added that “any form of common debt issuance requires a closer coordination of fiscal policies, moving toward a fiscal union, it is a prerequisite.”

And the Financial Times reports that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is reflexively supportive of bigger government and more intervention, has endorsed eurobonds.

Mr Hollande…won backing from the OECD, which in its twice-yearly economic outlook specifically called for such bonds…“We need to get on the path towards the issuance of euro bonds sooner rather than later,” Pier Carlo Padoan, the OECD chief economist, told the Financial Times.

The fiscal pyromaniacs at the IMF also are pushing to make the debt bubble bigger according to the FT.

Christine Lagarde, the IMF chief, also called for more burden-sharing. Though she stopped short of explicitly backing euro bonds, she said “more needs to be done, particularly by way of fiscal liability sharing” – a thinly veiled reference to such debt instruments.

What makes this particularly frustrating is that American taxpayers provide the largest share of the subsidies that keep the IMF and OECD afloat. In other words, we’re paying for left-wing bureaucrats, who then turn around and push for bad policies that will result in bigger bailouts in the future.

Episodes like this make me understand why so many people believe in conspiracy theories. Folks watch something like this unfold and they can’t help but suspect that people in these governments and international bureaucracies want to deliberately destroy the global economy.

But as I’ve noted before, it’s not smart to believe conspiracies when corruption, incompetence, politics, ideology, greed, and self-interest provide better explanations for bad policy.

If the Europeans want to hit the self-destruct button, I’m happy to explain why it’s a bad idea, and I’m willing to educate them about better alternatives.

But I damn sure don’t want to subsidize their foolishness when they do the wrong thing.

P.S. It’s very appropriate to close this post with a link to this parody of Hitler complaining about debt crisis.

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With both France and Greece deciding to jump out of the left-wing frying pan into the even-more-left-wing fire, European fiscal policy has become quite a controversial topic.

But I find this debate and discussion rather tedious and unrewarding, largely because it pits advocates of Keynesian spending (the so-called “growth” camp) against supporters of higher taxes (the “austerity” camp).

Since I’m a big fan of nations lowering taxes and reducing the burden of government spending, I would like to see the pro-tax hike and the pro-spending sides both lose (wasn’t that Kissinger’s attitude about the Iran-Iraq war?). Indeed, this is why I put together this matrix, to show that there is an alternative approach.

One of my many frustrations with this debate (Veronique de Rugy is similarly irritated) is that many observers make the absurd claim that Europe has implemented “spending cuts” and that this approach hasn’t worked.

Here is what Prof. Krugman just wrote about France.

The French are revolting. …Mr. Hollande’s victory means the end of “Merkozy,” the Franco-German axis that has enforced the austerity regime of the past two years. This would be a “dangerous” development if that strategy were working, or even had a reasonable chance of working. But it isn’t and doesn’t; it’s time to move on. …What’s wrong with the prescription of spending cuts as the remedy for Europe’s ills? One answer is that the confidence fairy doesn’t exist — that is, claims that slashing government spending would somehow encourage consumers and businesses to spend more have been overwhelmingly refuted by the experience of the past two years. So spending cuts in a depressed economy just make the depression deeper.

And he’s made similar assertions about the United Kingdom, complaining that, “the government of Prime Minister David Cameron chose instead to move to immediate, unforced austerity, in the belief that private spending would more than make up for the government’s pullback.”

So let’s take a look at the actual data and see how much “slashing” has been implemented in France and the United Kingdom. Here’s a chart with the latest data from the European Union.

I’m not sure how Krugman defines austerity, but it certainly doesn’t look like there’s been a lot of “slashing” in these two nations.

To be fair, government spending in the United Kingdom has grown a bit slower than inflation in the past couple of years, so one could say that there’s been a very modest bit of trimming.

There’s been no fiscal restraint in France, however, even if one uses that more relaxed definition of a cut. The only accurate claim that can be made about France is that the burden of government spending hasn’t been growing quite as fast since the crisis began as it was growing in the preceding years.

This doesn’t mean there haven’t been any spending cuts in Europe. The Greek and Spanish governments actually cut spending in 2010 and 2011, and Portugal reduced outlays in 2011.

But you can see from this chart, which looks at all the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain), that the spending cuts have been very modest, and only came after years of profligacy. Indeed, Greece is the only nation to actually cut spending over the 3-year period since the crisis began.

Krugman would argue, of course, that the PIIGS are suffering because of the spending cuts. And since there actually have been spending cuts in the last year or two in these nations, does that justify his claims?

Yes and no. I don’t agree with the Keynesian theory, but that doesn’t mean it is easy or painless to shrink the burden of government. As I wrote earlier this year, “…the economy does hit a short-run speed bump when the public sector is pruned. Simply stated, there will be transitional costs when the burden of public spending is reduced. Only in economics textbooks is it possible to seamlessly and immediately reallocate resources.”

What I would argue, though, is that these nations have no choice but to bite the bullet and reduce the burden of government. The only other alternative is to somehow convince taxpayers in other nations to make the debt bubble even bigger with more bailouts and transfers. But that just makes the eventual day of reckoning that much more painful.

Additionally, I think much of the economic pain in these nations is the result of the large tax increases that have been imposed, including higher income tax rates, higher value-added taxes, and various other levies that reduce the incentive to engage in productive behavior.

So what’s the best path going forward? The best approach is to implement deep and meaningful spending cuts, and I think the Baltic nations of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia are positive role models in this regard. Let’s look at what they’ve done in recent years.

As you can see from the chart, the burden of government spending was rising at a reckless rate before the crisis. But once the crisis hit, the Baltic nations hit the brakes and imposed genuine spending cuts.

The Baltic nations went through a rough patch when this happened, particularly since they also had their versions of a real estate bubble. But, as I’ve already argued, I think the “cold turkey” or “take the band-aid off quickly” approach has paid dividends.

The key question is whether nations can maintain spending restraint, particularly when (if?) the economy begins to grow again.

Even a basket case like Greece can put itself on a good path if it follows Mitchell’s Golden Rule and simply makes sure that government spending, in the long run, grows slower than the private economy.

The way to make that happen is to implement something similar to the Swiss Debt Brake, which effectively acts as an annual cap on the growth of government.

In the long run, of course, the goal should be to shrink the overall burden of government to its growth-maximizing level.

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Today’s a big day in European politics. French voters are going to the polls to decide the fate of Nicolas Sarkozy, the socialist incumbent. I’ve endorsed Francois Hollande, the Socialist challenger, so I’m curious to see what will happen.

The more important contest, though, is in Greece. Voters are electing a new Parliament, and it will be interesting to see whether the two establishment parties (both of which are statist, of course) hold on to power.

The looters and moochers that comprise the Greek electorate are in a pissy mood and may opt for various protest parties.

That’s not too surprising, but the press coverage of the election is a bit surreal.

An article in the EU Observer is entitled “Greek elections to usher in anti-bail-out parties,” and the opening paragraph echoes this title, implying that Greek voters don’t like bailouts.

 Greece’s two main parties are set for heavy losses in Sunday’s (6 May) elections, with anti-bail-out groups on the extreme left and right to enter parliament for the first time, raising again the prospect of an exit from the eurozone.

There’s just one tiny problem with the both the title of the first paragraph. Contrary to what’s written, the new political parties are pro-bailout. They are quite happy to mooch off German taxpayers, American taxpayers, and anyone else who is stupid enough to send money (after all, somebody has to finance critical functions of government, such as collecting stool samples from people who want to set up online companies and subsidizing pedophiles).

What gets them upset is the notion that they should do anything in exchange for these handouts. Perish the thought!

If the media had any brains (I don’t think this is a case of ideological bias), they would change the title from “Greek elections to usher in anti-bail-out parties” to “Greek elections to usher in anti-conditionality parties.” Or something like that.

I actually hope these anti-conditionality parties prevail. Because if they get power and say that they won’t do anything to fix Greece’s budget, maybe the fiscal pyromaniacs at the International Monetary Fund and elsewhere will finally stop the bailouts.

Which is what I said was the right approach way back when the crisis began. So maybe after every other option is exhausted, the right thing will finally happen. Hope springs eternal.

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I’m in Slovakia, where I just returned from some meetings at the annual conference of the Freedom and Solidarity Party. Unlike Republicans in the United States, these people practice what they preach about free markets and individual liberty.

Indeed, the SAS Party (which I gather must be Slovak initials for Freedom and Solidarity) is so committed to principles that it refused to join with other coalition members to support the European bailout fund.

The same cannot be said about the other supposedly right-leaning parties that were part of the government. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s party wound up supporting the bailout (even though she initially was opposed). Amazingly, these other parties thought the bailouts were such a good idea that they were willing to lose a “no-confidence” vote – paving the way for the Social Democrats to win the most recent election!

I guess the analogy is Bush and the other GOP statists supporting corrupt policies such as TARP, which helped pave the way for Obama to get elected.

In this analogy, the SAS Party is akin to the tea party, representing honest conservatives and libertarians.

By the way, there are a small handful of genuinely good political parties in the world. If we limit ourselves to ones that have legislative seats, SAS is on the list, of course, but I would also include the Reform Party in Estonia, which leads that nation’s coalition government. It’s worth noting that Estonia responded to the recent economic crisis by imposing genuine spending cuts, which helps explain why that nation’s economy has bounced back while other nations are languishing.

New Zealand’s ACT Party also deserves a mention, though they’re down to just one seat in that nation’s Parliament. Hopefully they’ll bounce back.

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I wrote last year about a backlash from long-suffering Greek taxpayers. These people – the ones pulling the wagon rather than riding in the wagon – are being raped and pillaged by a political class that is trying to protect the greedy interest groups that benefit from Greece’s bloated public sector.

We now have another group of taxpayers who are fighting back against greedy government. My ancestors in Ireland have decided that enough is enough and there is widespread civil disobedience against a new property tax.

Here are the key details from an AP report.

The Serfs Fight Back

Ireland is facing a revolt over its new property tax. The government said less than half of the country’s 1.6 million households paid the charge by Saturday’s deadline to avoid penalties. And about 5,000 marched in protest against the annual conference of Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael party. Emotions ran raw as police backed by officers on horseback stopped demonstrators from entering the Dublin Convention Centre. …One man mistakenly identified as the government minister responsible for collecting the tax had to be rescued by police from an angry scrum. Kenny said his government had no choice, but to impose the new charge as part of the nation’s efforts to emerge from an international bailout. …The charge this year is a flat-fee €100 ($130) per dwelling, but is expected to rise dramatically next year once Ireland starts to vary the charge based on a property’s estimated value. Anti-tax campaigners have urged the public to ignore the tax demand, arguing that the government doesn’t have the power to collect it.

What makes this new tax so outrageous is that Irish taxpayers already have been victimized with higher income tax rates and a more onerous value-added tax. Yet they weren’t the ones to cause the nation’s fiscal crisis. Ireland is in trouble for two reasons, and both deal with the spending side of the fiscal equation.

1. The burden of government spending exploded last decade, more than doubling in less than 10 years. This wiped out all the gains from fiscal restraint in the 1980s and 1990s.

2. Irish politicians decided to give a bailout not only to depositors of the nation’s failed banks, but also to bondholders. This is a grotesque transfer of wealth from ordinary people to those with higher incomes – and therefore a violation of Mitchell’s Guide to an Ethical Bleeding Heart.

It’s worth noting that academic studies find that tax evasion is driven largely by high tax rates. This makes sense since there is more incentive to hide money when the government is being very greedy. But there is also evidence that tax evasion rises when people perceive that government is wasting money and being corrupt.

Heck, no wonder the Irish people are up in arms. They’re being asked to cough up more money to finance a bailout that was both corrupt and wasteful.

Let’s close by looking at American attitudes about tax evasion. Here’s part of a column from Forbes, which expresses surprise that Americans view tax evasion more favorably than behaviors such as shoplifting and littering.

A new survey suggests Americans consider cheating on their taxes more socially acceptable than shoplifting, drunk driving or even throwing trash out the window of a moving car. …only 66% of  the participants said they “completely agree” that “everyone who cheats on their taxes should be held accountable”  and only 72% completely agreed that “it’s every American’s civic duty to pay their fair share of taxes”–suggesting, as the Shelton study does, that perhaps disapproval of tax evasion is not as strong as, say, disapproval of stealing from private businesses.

I’m not sure, though, why anybody would be shocked by these results. We have a government in Washington that is pervasively corrupt, funneling money to corrupt scams like Solyndra.

These same people want higher tax rates, which will further encourage people to protect their income.

If we really want to promote better tax compliance, whether in the U.S., Ireland, or anywhere in the world, there are two simple answers. First, enact a simple and fair flat tax to keep rates low. Second, shrink government to its proper size, which will automatically reduce waste and limit opportunities for corruption.

But none of this is in the interests of the political class, so don’t hold your breath waiting for these reforms.

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Governor Romney’s campaign is catching some flak because a top aide implied that many of the candidate’s positions have been insincere and that Romney will erase those views (like an Etch-a-Sketch) and return to his statist roots as the general election begins.

I’m surprised that anyone’s surprised.  Hasn’t anybody been paying attention to his comments and track record on issues such as the  value-added tax, healthcare, Social Security reform, budget savings, ethanol subsidies, Keynesian economics, and the minimum wage?

In any event, people should be more agitated by his recent defense of the corrupt TARP bailouts.

Here are the key sections of a report from NBC Politics.

Mitt Romney offered an unprompted defense of the 2008 Wall Street bailout on Wednesday, crediting President George W. Bush and the preceding administration for averting an economic depression. …”There was a fear that the whole economic system of America would collapse — that all of our banks, or virtually all, would go out of business,” Romney said. “In that circumstance, President Bush and Hank Paulson said we’ve got to do something to show we’re not going to let the whole system go out of business. I think they were right. I know some people disagree with me. I think they were right to do that.”

I can understand how some politicians got panicked back in 2008 by some of the reckless and inflammatory rhetoric that Bush, Paulson, and others used to build support  for their bailout plan.

But it’s now become more and more obvious that there was a much better alternative (as I explained in this post giving Cheney a kick in the pants), involving a process known as FDIC resolution.

That approach would have recapitalized the banking system without the corruption, favoritism, and moral hazard that characterized the TARP bailout.

"Which one of us is Tweedledee?"

I don’t know whether Romney doesn’t understand this, hasn’t bothered to learn about the issue, or simply thinks it is good politics to be pro-bailout, but it doesn’t matter. There is no good explanation for his actions.

This is going to be a miserable and depressing election season, revolving around whether the nation should replace a statist who calls himself a Democrat with a statist who calls himself a Republican.

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I’ve always admired the English sense of humor, and this post on terrorism alerts is a good example.

In that spirit, here’s something that just arrived in my inbox, originally from this website.

For your reading enjoyment, a financial glossary for modern times, including in many cases an example of how the term should be used.

BANK, n. Bottomless cavity in the ground that sucks in money and the unwary.
I had quite a bit of money but then I put it in the bank.

BOND, n. A profitless contrivance used for catching the gullible or feeble-minded.
That pension fund is 100% in bonds now.

BROKER, adj. A comparative descriptive state for a client of a Wall Street bank.
He didn’t exactly have a lot of money before he started dealing with Goldman Sachs. Now he’s even broker.

BUBBLE, n. Fundamental prerequisite for a functioning Anglo-Saxon economy.
We need a new bubble to replace the ones we had in dotcom and property.

CENTRAL BANK, n. Lobbyist for commercial banks well versed in alchemy.

CURRENCY, n. Largely intangible substance with an inherent property that tends to instantaneous evaporation, the destruction of life and the permanent impairment of wealth.
I had money once but then I exchanged it for currency in a moment of madness.

DEFAULT, n. Semi-mythical celestial occurrence that passes by Earth every 76 years.
I was worried for a second about that Greek default, but I realise there’s nothing to see now and all is well.

FEDERAL RESERVE, n. A wholly owned subsidiary of Goldman Sachs.
The Federal Reserve voted to give a few more billion dollars to Wall Street.

GREECE, n. An undesirable or unfortunate happening that occurs unintentionally but results in harm, injury, damage and colossal loss of wealth. And profits for Goldman Sachs.
Did you see Greece ? Sheesh.

HORLICK, n. Progressive and insufficiently appreciated investment visionary.

HOUSE, n. In most countries, simply a place to live. In Britain, a theoretically infinite source of perpetual tax revenue for deluded Lib Dems.¹
(¹This is tautological. – Ed.)

INVESTOR, n. Plucky protagonist admired for brave deeds and quixotic struggling who is about to get shafted by Wall Street interests.
I was an investor in euro zone sovereign bonds but then everything went Greek.

JAPAN, n. Where hopes of profit go to die.

KEYNES, n. Slang: Vulgar. Disparaging and offensive.
That joker Posen is a complete Keynes.

POLITICIAN, n. Someone better informed than you about how to spend your money.

RATINGS AGENCY, n. A professional entertainer who amuses by relating absurd and fantastical tales.
That ratings agency’s credit assessment was so funny, I had to change my trousers.

RESTRUCTURING, n. Statutory rape.
Those bondholders are undergoing a voluntary restructuring – you might even call it a ‘credit event’.

ROGUE TRADER, n. Unprofitable proprietary trader. (Hat-tip to Killian Connolly.)

SOCIETY, n. The process whereby wealth is diverted from taxpayers to banks.

TAXPAYER, n. Simple-minded dolt too foolish to be working for the government.

US GOVERNMENT, n. Another wholly owned subsidiary of Goldman Sachs.
We seem to be running out of Goldman Sachs alumni here in the Treasury. No, wait, we’ve still got hundreds of ‘em.

VINCE CABLE, n. (No longer in technical use; considered offensive) a person of the lowest order in a former and discarded classification of mental retardation.
Don’t be a Vince Cable – get down off that wardrobe and come and eat your tea!

Here’s one last joke that I assume was concocted by someone in England.

Also from the U.K., here are two youtube videos, one on the “end of the world in 3 minutes” (might be Australian, but close enough) and the other on the “subprime crisis.”

P.S. I have no idea who or what a “Horlick” is, but I can give you this clue and this clue about Vince Cable.

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In a grand Washington tradition, I periodically make imperious demands. In the past year or two, I’ve issued the following ultimatums to the GOP.

o No tax increases, since more money for Washington will encourage a bigger burden of government and undermine prosperity.

o Reform the biased number-crunching methodology at the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation.

o No more money from American taxpayers to subsidize the left-wing bureaucrats at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

I don’t actually expect any politicians to pay attention when I make these demands, of course, but I am highlighting issues that send a signal about whether Republicans actually learned any lessons after getting shellacked in 2006 and 2008.

So far, they’re holding reasonably firm on the tax issue. They don’t have control over the CBO and JCT thanks to Harry Reid, so we’ll give them a pass on that topic. And we’ll see later this year whether they agree to squander another $100 million on the OECD.

Well, here’s another test to see whether the GOP is on the side of taxpayers or the establishment. The Obama Administration has agreed that the fiscal pyromaniacs at the International Monetary Fun should have more money and power to provide more and bigger bailouts.

Here are some relevant parts of a Washington Post story.

…a brewing election year fight with congressional Republicans…could restrict the IMF’s finances at a time when agency officials say they need a substantial boost to protect the world economy. The dispute centers on Republican opposition to increasing the United States’ financial contributions to the agency, reflecting anger over IMF rescue programs in Europe that some GOP lawmakers argue have become too expensive and have put U.S. taxpayers at risk. …opposition is growing to a permanent increase in U.S. government support for the IMF, as well as to a $100 billion credit line the United States provided in 2009 as part of an international move to help the IMF respond to the global financial crisis. The IMF has been dipping into that credit line for emergency loans to Portugal and elsewhere… Planned changes at the IMF, which would shift seats on the fund’s governing board from Europe to the developing world, cannot proceed without congressional approval. For practical purposes, neither can a related doubling, from $370 billion to $740 billion, in the total permanent contribution that IMF members make to support the agency.

As you can see from the excerpt, Republicans in the House of Representatives have the ability to stop this global boondoggle. The interesting question, though, is whether they defend the interests of ordinary people or whether they cater to the whims of the political elite.

By the way, I’m irked by the Post’s biased presentation. They refer to IMF “rescue programs,” yet all the evidence seems to suggest that the international bureaucracy is simply making the debt bubble bigger. We certainly don’t see any evidence that problems are getting solved. Greece is still in trouble, as are the other nations that stuck their hands in Uncle Sam’s pocket.

But that could be excused as a bit of sloppy reporting. Here’s a part of the story that is hopelessly biased.

The potential for a stalemate over the issue in the United States has the IMF and other international officials worried that it could put broader agency reform efforts at risk. IMF officials say that to backstop the global economy they need about $500 billion in addition to the increase in permanent contributions.

Since when is it appropriate to use the term “reform efforts” to describe policies that subsidize moral hazard and reward profligacy? And how is it accurate to say that IMF actions “backstop the global economy” when the bureaucrats don’t seem to achieve anything other than encouraging more debt?

Congresswoman Rodgers, Defending Taxpayers

But this isn’t a post about media bias, even though I sometimes can’t resist pointing out sloppy or dishonest journalism. Let’s get back to the main point. Giving the IMF more resources would be like giving the keys to a liquor store to a bunch of alcoholics.

Republicans have the ability to stop this raid on the Treasury by saying no. What they decide will reveal a lot about whether they’re still part of the problem.

Some GOPers in the House, such as Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, already are fighting against expanded bailout money for the IMF. The real key, though, will be whether the Republican leadership does the right thing.

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