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Archive for the ‘Belgium’ Category

It would be impossible to pick the most hare-brained government policy. We have all sorts of bizarre examples from the United States. And we have equally “impressive” examples from other nations.

And today, we’re going to augment our collection of bone-headed policies from elsewhere in the world.

We’ll start with the United Kingdom, which already is a very strong competitor in the government-stupidity contest.

Though they may deserve to win that contest since the government is actually giving welfare benefits to polygamous immigrants.

Immigrants in polygamous marriages drain British taxpayers of millions of dollars each year by taking advantage of loopholes in the welfare system, and future legislation will make it even more profitable. …Married couples in Great Britain can receive need-based income support of up to $162 per week. As of 2013 — when a number of reforms to marriage support came into effect — a man can claim an additional $57 for every subsequent wife. In total, a polygamous household can claim more than $17,000 in welfare over the course of a year.

There apparently is some effort to clamp down on handouts based on future multiple marriages, but there’s a giant loophole.

An even more profitable way for polygamous marriages to bring in welfare money is by getting married in a so-called “Nikah” ceremony, which is recognized by Islam, but not British law. The wives will hence appear as “single” in the system, and can take out additional benefits if they have children. …New legislation expected to go into effect by 2021, will no longer recognize multiple marriages for the same person. But “Nikah” marriages will still receive a huge boost from the new law, since women can receive more money under “single” status than she did as an additional wife. The allowance for the extra “wives” will more than double to $454 each per month.

This may be the “triple crown” of stupidity. The first mistake is providing handouts. The second mistake is giving handouts to immigrants (which creates unseemly yet understandable backlash). And the third mistake is supposedly cutting back on handouts, but doing it in such a foolish fashion that more money will be wasted. Impressive.

Speaking of going above and beyond the call of duty in the battle to squander money, the U.K.-based Telegraph reports that the British government has been flushing away huge amounts of money for a facility to house unsuccessful asylum seekers.

An accommodation centre for failed asylum seekers is more costing than the world’s most exclusive hotels, taking just 14 families last year at a cost of more than £450,000 each. Cedars, a secure centre run by the Home Office, was occupied for approximately 40 nights in the first nine months of 2014/15 – but landed the taxpayer with a bill for millions of pounds. Total running costs for 2014/15 were estimated at £6,398,869 – or more than £457,000 for each family which passed through its doors. If each family stayed at the centre for the full year, the cost would equate to £1,252 a night, or £38,088 per family per month. However, the true cost is far higher – as much as £152,354 a night – because most families spend only 72 hours at Cedars… London’s Savoy hotel charges from £1,150 for a suite with a view of the River Thames, making it cheaper than the minimum nightly cost of Cedars House.

Wow. I’ve never stayed anyplace that nice on my trips to England. Maybe I should ask for asylum on my next trip?

Here’s another story that almost defies belief. Apparently the geniuses in the British bureaucracy thought wars only get fought in cold weather.

The Royal Navy’s fleet of six £1bn destroyers is breaking down because the ships’ engines cannot cope with the warm waters of the Gulf, defence chiefs have admitted. They also told the Commons defence committee on Tuesday that the Type 45 destroyers’ Rolls-Royce WR-21 gas turbines are unable to operate in extreme temperatures and will be fitted with diesel generators. Rolls-Royce executives said engines installed in the Type 45 destroyers had been built as specified – but that the conditions in the Middle East were not “in line with these specs”. Earlier a Whitehall source told Scotland’s Daily Record: “We can’t have warships that cannot operate if the water is warmer than it is in Portsmouth harbour.”

But it’s not just British bureaucrats who make bizarre mistakes.

Consider how the incompetence of Belgian officials paved the way for a terrorist attack.

…ministers and prosecutors…admitted failures that led to the release, last year, of two of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s terror attacks in Brussels. Interior minister Jan Jambon and justice minister Koen Geens said that information about one of the three suicide bombers transmitted by Turkey was not properly handled. …a Belgian prosecutor said that a second terrorist had been arrested and released by the Belgian justice system.

Here are the jaw-dropping details on one of the terrorists.

El Bakraoui had been sentenced in 2010 to 10 years in prison for robbery and for shooting at police with a Kalashnikov rifle. He was released in October 2014 but on condition he didn’t leave Belgium for more than 30 days at a time. He was arrested on the border between Turkey and Syria in June. Turkish authorities notified Belgium about it at the end of June, Geens told journalists. …”It was then very dificult to arrest him”, Geens said, as El Bakraoui had landed as “a normal Belgian citizen”, even though he had missed appointments with justice officials as part of his conditional release.

Wow, we have another contestant for the triple crown of government incompetence. First, the dirtbag only served four years in prison after trying to murder some cops. Second, it didn’t set off any red flags when he violated the conditions of his way-too-early release and went to Syria as a jihadist. Third, the Belgian government failed to act when given advance notice and warning by officials in Turkey that he was returning from his jihadist vacation. In this case, the net result wasn’t just wasted money, it was death for innocent civilians.

Let’s not forget, by the way, that a government bureaucrat excused all this incompetence on the theory that the “small size of the Belgian government” precluded an effective approach against terrorism. Yet if you look up the data, government in Belgium is so bloated that it consumes 54 percent of economic output, which is worse than even Italy and Sweden.

And let’s also not forget that American taxpayers subsidize jihadists, so we can’t really laugh too much about the Belgians.

Now let’s move from deadly incompetence to protectionist cruelty. The government in the Bahamas, acting to protect the local dentist cartel, shut down a clinic providing free dentistry for poor people.

Lenny Kravitz learned the hard way about government over-regulation on Monday when police raided a free dental clinic he sponsored in the Bahamas. “The dentists literally had to run out the back door to escape being arrested,” one source told me exclusively. …Kravitz flew several American dentists there for the four-day clinic, but evidently didn’t get all the permits required. On Monday, the last day of the program, as local residents were being fitted for dentures and having root canals, police and immigration officials burst in “and gave the team working 15 minutes to pack up all the equipment and leave,” the Eleutheran newspaper reported.

Heaven forbid that a government permit was missing! No good deed goes unpunished, even if it means poor people lose access to dental care.

Let’s close with a truly inane bit of government from Canada, where bureaucrats stopped a couple of kids from operating an unlicensed – gasp! – lemonade stand (the same thing happens in California, Georgia, and Oregon).

But in a surprising display of humanity, the local paper pushers decided the lemonade stand was okay and they even agreed to waive the $1520 daily fee.

But only with the following conditions.

The NCC has issued a special permit to allow two young girls to sell lemonade…which came with several conditions they must abide by while they operate their lemonade stand…carry a copy of the permit at all times while on NCC property…comply with all federal, provincial and municipal bylaws and regulations…create signs for the lemonade stand in both official languages…only sell lemonade…ensure that customers park their bikes on the grass.

Geesh, I knew the language police were active in Quebec, but I assumed Ontario wasn’t so crazy.

Reading all these stories, the only possible conclusion is that P.J. O’Rourke should apologize to teenage boys.

P.S. For what it’s worth, here are a few of my favorite examples of great moments in foreign government.

Though American readers shouldn’t laugh too hard. After all, we pay for bagpipe police and milk police.

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I realize it’s presumptuous, but I periodically make grandiose claims that a single column will tell readers “everything” they need to know about a topic. I’ve used that tactic when writing about tax loopholes, entitlements, fiscal policy, bureaucracy (twice), tax evasion, France, Greece, corporate inversions, and economic policy.

Sometimes I even claim a single image, chart, or cartoon provides a reader with “everything” needed to understand an issue. Examples include the minimum wage, economic policy, the welfare state, supply-side economics, the tax code, Europe’s fiscal crisis, Social Security reform, demographics, overpaid bureaucrats, healthcare economics, inequality, fiscal policy, and the Ryan budget (twice).

Needless to say, I don’t actually think these columns give readers “everything” on a topic. But I do hope the information makes a compelling and informative point about an issue.

So it’s time to expand this tactic and present one sentence that tells readers “everything” they need to know about the failure of big government. And it’s not even the full sentence, just the bolded portion in this excerpt from a BuzzFeed story about how Belgium is trying to deal with terrorism.

One Belgian counterterrorism official told BuzzFeed News last week that due to the small size of the Belgian government and the huge numbers of open investigations…virtually every police detective and military intelligence officer in the country was focused on international jihadi investigations. …the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said. “It’s literally an impossible situation.”

When I read that sentence, my jaw dropped to the floor. Belgium has one of the biggest and most bloated governments in the world.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Go to the OECD’s collection of data and click on Table 25 and you’ll see that the public sector in Belgium consumes almost 54 percent of the nation’s economy. That’s bigger even than the size of government in Sweden and Italy.

So the notion that fighting terrorism is hampered by the “small size of the Belgian government” is utterly absurd.

The real problem is that politicians and bureaucrats have become so focused on redistributing money to various interest groups that there’s not enough attention given to fulfilling the few legitimate functions of government. Not just in Belgium, but all over the world. Here’s what I wrote on this issue back in 2012.

…today’s bloated welfare state interferes with and undermines the government’s ability to competently fulfill its legitimate responsibilities. Imagine, for instance, if we had the kind of limited federal government envisioned by the Founding Fathers and the “best and brightest” people in government – instead of being dispersed across a vast bureaucracy – were concentrated on protecting the national security of the American people. In that hypothetical world, I’m guessing something like the 9-11 attacks would be far less likely.

What I said about America back then is even more true about Belgium today. Big governments are clumsy and ineffective, and bigger governments are even more incompetent. There’s even scholarly research confirming that larger public sectors are associated with higher levels of inefficiency.

And the same point has been made by folks such as Mark Steyn and Robert Samuelson (though David Brooks inexplicably reaches the opposite conclusion).

The good news is that the American people have an instinctive understanding of the problem. When asked to describe the federal government, you’ll notice that “effective” and “efficient” are not the words people choose.

P.S. On a related note, I argued in a column from 2014 that the federal government should be much smaller so it could more effectively focus on genuine threats such as the Ebola virus.

P.S. It’s worth pointing out that Israel, which faces far greater security challenges than Belgium, manages to do a better job with a government that is not nearly as large.

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It’s time for a lesson in tax economics.

Though hopefully today’s topic won’t be as dry and boring as my missives on more technical issues like depreciation and worldwide taxation.

That’s because we’re going to talk about the taxation of workers, which is something closer to home for most of us.

And our lesson comes from Belgium, where the government wants a “new social contract” based on lower “direct” taxes on workers in exchange for higher “indirect” taxes on consumers.

Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg column by Jean-Michel Paul.

Belgium’s one-year-old government announced measures, radical by that country’s standards, to move the burden of taxation to consumption from labor.  The measures are being hailed as the start of a new social contract in the heart of Europe.

But before discussing this new contract, let’s look at how Belgium’s system evolved. Monsieur Paul explains that his nation has a bloated welfare state, which has resulted in heavy taxes on workers (vigorous tax competition precludes onerous taxes on capital).

…In order to sustain large government expenses of more than 50 percent GDP on top of servicing its debt, Belgium became the OECD’s second most-taxed economy. …Belgium made a choice: It decided to heavily tax labor, which it figured, wrongly, was stuck. At the same time, it decided to provide attractive tax treatment to highly mobile capital. The gambit meant that Belgium attracted a large number of wealthy families from higher tax countries, particularly France and the Netherlands, eager to take advantage of the low rates of tax on capital. However, Belgian workers got hammered. In 2014 Belgian workers were the most taxed labor in the developed world, taking home only 46 percent of employers’ labor costs.

Here’s a chart from the article, showing that Belgian workers are the most mistreated in the developed world.

Keep in mind, by the way, that average rates only measure the overall burden of taxation.

Marginal tax rates, which are what matters most for incentives, are even higher.

According to Wikipedia, the personal income tax has a top rate of 50 percent, and that punitive rate hits a lot of ordinary workers (it’s imposed on income “in excess of €37750”). But there’s also a 13 percent payroll tax on workers and a concomitant payroll tax of more than 30 percent on employers (which, needless to say, is borne by workers).

So an ambitious Belgian worker who wants to earn more money will be confronted by the ugly reality that the government will get the lion’s share of any additional income. Geesh, no wonder Belgium gets a high score (which is not a good outcome) in the World Bank’s “tax effort report card.”

Not surprisingly, high tax rates on labor have led to some predictably bad consequences.

The entrepreneurial class is voting with its feet and regular workers are being taxed into the unemployment line.

This unusual policy mix has increasingly created problems. …Educated professionals and entrepreneurs, those most in demand in other countries, have voted with their feet in borderless Europe. As a result, productivity growth has been limited and Belgium’s economy remained low-growth. Its business start-up rate is the second lowest of the EU. …Whole segments of the country’s industrial tissue, such as the automobile sector, have gradually closed down… This has led to what the European Commission described as “a chronic underutilisation of labour” (read: unemployment) especially among the least qualified and the young. Youth unemployment stands at over 22 percent. …In its 2015 country report the Commission noted that this “reflects Belgium’s high social security charges on labour, which add to the large tax wedge”

Given these horrid numbers, it’s understandable that some policy makers in Belgium want to make changes.

But as Americans have learned (very painfully), “change” doesn’t necessarily mean better policy.

So let’s see what Belgian policy makers have in mind.

The new policy…is to reduce taxes on labor and increase indirect taxes to compensate. Social Security taxes on companies are being reduced to 25 percent from 33 percent over the next two years, bringing an increase in the net after-tax income of 100 euros ($113) per month for low and middle-wage earners. This is mainly financed by an increase in value added tax on electricity consumption. …Belgium is the first to implement what some call a “social VAT” (a tax on consumption to finance social security). …it rewards work and may well change the entitlement mind-set that has hampered innovation and job growth for decades. …a significant step in the right direction, correcting some of the worst distortions of Belgium’s social model.

In other words, politicians in Belgium want to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Workers will be allowed to earn more of their income when they earn it, but the government will grab more of their income when they spend it.

Now for the economics lesson.

People work because they want to earn money. And they want to earn money so they can spend it. In other words, as Adam Smith observed way back in 1776, “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production.”

Now ask yourself whether the change in Belgian tax policy will boost employment when there’s no change in the tax wedge between pre-tax income (the income you generate) and post-tax consumption (the income you get to spend)?

The answer presumably is no.

This doesn’t mean that the proposed reform is completely useless. It appears that the VAT increase is achieved by ending a preferential tax rate on electricity consumption. And since I don’t like distorting tax preferences, I’m guessing the net effect of the overall package is slightly positive.

In other words, the lower payroll tax rate is unambiguously good and the increase in the VAT burden is only partially bad (I would be more critical if the proposal included an increase in the VAT rate rather than the elimination of a preference).

That being said, now let’s address Belgium’s real problem. Simply stated, it’s impossible to have a good tax system when government spending consumes more than 50 percent of economic output.

In no uncertain terms, an excessive burden of government spending is the problem that needs to be solved.

P.S. Interestingly, Belgium’s tax shift is somewhat similar to Rand Paul’s tax plan. In addition to all the other changes envisioned by the Kentucky Senator, he would get rid of the payroll tax and replace it with a value-added tax.

P.P.S. In addition to much smaller government, I suspect Belgium also needs to split into two different countries.

P.P.P.S. To get an idea of Belgium’s challenge, the politicians in Brussels actually criticize Germany for being too capitalistic.

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