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Archive for the ‘Centralization’ Category

Donald Trump is an incoherent mix of good policies and bad policies.

Some of his potential 2020 opponents, by contrast, are coherent but crazy.

And economic craziness exists in other nations as well.

In a column for the New York Times, Jochen Bittner writes about how a rising star of Germany’s Social Democrat Party wants the type of socialism that made the former East Germany an economic failure.

Socialism, the idea that workers’ needs are best met by the collectivization of the means of production… A system in which factories, banks and even housing were nationalized required a planned economy, as a substitute for capitalist competition. Central planning, however, proved unable to meet people’s individual demands… Eventually, the entire system collapsed; as it did everywhere else, socialism in Germany failed. Which is why it is strange, in 2019, to see socialism coming back into German mainstream politics.

But this real-world evidence doesn’t matter for some Germans.

Kevin Kühnert, the leader of the Social Democrats’ youth organization and one of his party’s most promising young talents, has made it his calling card. Forget the wannabe socialism of American Democrats like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The 29-year-old Mr. Kühnert is aiming for the real thing. Socialism, he says, means democratic control over the economy. He wants to replace capitalism… German neo-socialism is profoundly different from capitalism. …Mr. Kühnert took specific aim at the American dream as a model for individual achievement. …“Without collectivization of one form or another it is unthinkable to overcome capitalism,” he told us.

In other words, he wants real socialism (i.e., government ownership). And that presumably means he also supports central planning and price controls.

What makes Kühnert’s view so absurd is that he obviously knows nothing about his nation’s history.

Just in case he reads this, let’s look at the evidence.

Jaap Sleifer’s book, Planning Ahead and Falling Behind, points out that the eastern part of Germany was actually richer than the western part prior to World War II.

The entire country’s economy was then destroyed by the war.

What happened afterwards, though, shows the difference between socialism and free enterprise.

Before…the Third Reich the East German economy had…per capita national income…103 percent of West Germany, compared to a mere 31 percent in 1991. …Here is the case of an economy that was relatively wealthy, but lost out in a relatively short time… Based on the official statistics on national product the East German growth rates were very impressive. However, …the actual performance was not that impressive at all.

Sleifer has two tables that are worth sharing.

First, nobody should be surprised to discover that communist authorities released garbage numbers that ostensibly showed faster growth.

What’s really depressing is that there were more than a few gullible Americans – including some economists – who blindly believe this nonsensical data.

Second, I like this table because it confirms that Nazism and communism are very similar from an economic perspective.

Though I guess we should give Germans credit for doing a decent job on product quality under both strains of socialism.

For those who want to read further about East German economic performance, you can find other scholarly articles here, here, and here.

I want to call special attention, though, to a column by an economist from India. Written back in 1960, even before there was a Berlin Wall, he compared the two halves of the city.

Here’s the situation in the capitalist part.

The contrast between the two Berlins cannot miss the attention of a school child. West Berlin, though an island within East Germany, is an integral part of West German economy and shares the latter’s prosperity. Destruction through bombing was impartial to the two parts of the city. Rebuilding is virtually complete in West Berlin. …The main thoroughfares of West Berlin are near jammed with prosperous looking automobile traffic, the German make of cars, big and small, being much in evidence. …The departmental stores in West Berlin are cramming with wearing apparel, other personal effects and a multiplicity of household equipment, temptingly displayed.

Here’s what he saw in the communist part.

…In East Berlin a good part of the destruction still remains; twisted iron, broken walls and heaped up rubble are common enough sights. The new structures, especially the pre-fabricated workers’ tenements, look drab. …automobiles, generally old and small cars, are in much smaller numbers than in West Berlin. …shops in East Berlin exhibit cheap articles in indifferent wrappers or containers and the prices for comparable items, despite the poor quality, are noticeably higher than in West Berlin. …Visiting East Berlin gives the impression of visiting a prison camp.

The lessons, he explained, should be quite obvious.

…the contrast of the two Berlins…the main explanation lies in the divergent political systems. The people being the same, there is no difference in talent, technological skill and aspirations of the residents of the two parts of the city. In West Berlin efforts are spontaneous and self-directed by free men, under the urge to go ahead. In East Berlin effort is centrally directed by Communist planners… The contrast in prosperity is convincing proof of the superiority of the forces of freedom over centralised planning.

Back in 2011, I shared a video highlighting the role of Ludwig Erhard in freeing the West German economy. Given today’s topic here’s an encore presentation.

Samuel Gregg, writing for FEE, elaborates about the market-driven causes of the post-war German economic miracle.

It wasn’t just Ludwig Erhard.

Seventy years ago this month, a small group of economists and legal scholars helped bring about what’s now widely known as the Wirtschaftswunder, the “German economic miracle.” Even among many Germans, names like Walter Eucken, Wilhelm Röpke, and Franz Böhm are unfamiliar today. But it’s largely thanks to their relentless advocacy of market liberalization in 1948 that what was then West Germany escaped an economic abyss… It was a rare instance of free-market intellectuals’ playing a decisive role in liberating an economy from decades of interventionist and collectivist policies.

As was mentioned in the video, the American occupiers were not on the right side.

Indeed, they exacerbated West Germany’s economic problems.

…reform was going to be easy: in 1945, few Germans were amenable to the free market. The Social Democratic Party emerged from the catacombs wanting more top-down economic planning, not less. …Further complicating matters was the fact that the military authorities in the Western-occupied zones in Germany, with many Keynesians in their contingent, admired the economic policies of Clement Atlee’s Labour government in Britain. Indeed, between 1945 and 1947, the Allied administrators left largely in place the partly collectivized, state-oriented economy put in place by the defeated Nazis. This included price-controls, widespread rationing… The result was widespread food shortages and soaring malnutrition levels.

But at least there was a happy ending.

Erhard’s June 1948 reforms…abolition of price-controls and the replacement of the Nazi-era Reichsmark with much smaller quantities of a new currency: the Deutsche Mark. These measures effectively killed off…inflation… Within six months, industrial production had increased by an incredible 50 percent. Real incomes started growing.

And Germany never looked back. Even today, it’s a reasonably market-oriented nation.

I’ll close with my modest contribution to the debate. Based on data from the OECD, here’s a look at comparative economic output in East Germany and West Germany.

You’ll notice that I added some dotted lines to illustrate that both nations presumably started at the same very low level after WWII ended.

I’ll also assert that the blue line probably exaggerates East German economic output. If you doubt that claim, check out this 1990 story from the New York Times.

The bottom line is that the economic conditions in West Germany and East Germany diverged dramatically because one had good policy (West Germany routinely scored in the top 10 for economic liberty between 1950 and 1975) and one suffered from socialism.

These numbers should be very compelling since traditional economic theory holds that incomes in countries should converge. In the real world, however, that only happens if governments don’t create too many obstacles to prosperity.

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What’s socialism?

Is it the centrally planned economies of Cuba and North Korea? Or the kleptocracies of Zimbabwe and Venezuela?

How about the interventionist welfare states of Greece, Italy, and France? Or the redistribution-oriented Nordic nations?

Since socialism means different things to different people, the answers will be all over the map.

But there’s one constant. However it’s defined, it doesn’t work.

Joshua Muravchik, writing for the Wall Street Journal, shares the many and inevitable failures of socialism.

It’s hard to think of another idea that has been tried and failed as many times in as many ways or at a steeper price in human suffering. …Marx (1818-83)…called his vision “scientific socialism.” Inspired by the dream of proletarian revolution overthrowing capitalist immiseration, socialist parties sprouted across Europe. Yet instead of growing poorer, workers in industrialized countries saw improvement in their living standards; and instead of disappearing, middle classes expanded—all disproving Marx. …Lenin pioneered modern communism, which in the 20th century was imposed on 18 countries and one-third of mankind. Repression was justified by socialism’s purported economic benefits, but the actual trade-off entailed economic misery and the snuffing out of as many as 100 million lives. …“Social democrats” and “democratic socialists” rejected Lenin’s methods. But their goals remained transformational. …British Labour Party leader Clement Attlee…sought to bring “main factors in the economic system”—including banks, mining and energy—under “public ownership and control.” Nationalization worked so badly, however, that Attlee soon beat a retreat and was voted out in 1951.

Though there was plenty of socialism until Margaret Thatcher was elected.

And if you consider the creaky National Health Service, some sectors of the economy remain socialized.

Anyhow, self-described American socialists claim they simply want to be like Scandinavian countries.

But as Muravchik notes, those nations aren’t technically socialist (i.e., they don’t have government ownershipcentral planningprice controls).

Yes, they have expensive welfare states (which have hampered growth), but markets determine how resources are allocated.

American socialists like Mr. Sanders, while often defending the likes of Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega, Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, prefer to point to Scandinavia as a model. But Scandinavian social democrats learned to settle for dense social safety nets underwritten by remarkably free, capitalist economies. On the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business scale, Denmark ranks third of 190 countries, Norway seventh and Sweden 12th.

The bottom line is that socialism has failed every place it’s been tried.

Socialism has failed everywhere it’s been tried… Surely today’s young people can create their own ideas and make their own mistakes rather than repeat those that darkened the times of their parents, grandparents and the generations before.

Now let’s look at a column by Richard Geddes of the American Enterprise Institute.

He notes that there’s a grim relationship not only between socialism and economic failure, but also that the ideology has a long list of victims.

Socialism has an abysmal record in the twentieth and twenty-first century, its effects include economic destruction, failure, and misery — Venezuela being the latest in a long line of wretched examples. Yet today, Democratic Party leaders such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez are still proud to adopt the label of “democratic socialist.” …the more rigorously socialist principles are applied, the greater the human suffering, regardless of race, creed, or geographic location. …the grim statistics of those who died in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in the name of socialist experimentation (such as those who suffered forced starvation during the collectivization of agriculture) are pegged at about 100 million.

Geddes looks at the argument over how to define socialism and notes that regulation can be a back door form of socialism.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines socialism as: “A political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.” New socialists argue that the distinction between government ownership and regulation is critical, and that they want extensive regulation but not nationalization. Yet, if regulation is sufficiently intrusive and onerous, private property rights are neutered, and control is effectively transferred to the socialist state.

That’s also a good definition of fascism, for what it’s worth. In other words, nominal private ownership, but the heavy hand of government actually determines how resources are allocated.

Geddes notes that American socialists don’t favor dictatorship, but that doesn’t change the fact that their policies will have a very adverse impact on the economy.

New socialists argue that, unlike their 20th century counterparts, they oppose the use of force to achieve their policy goals, instead preferring peaceful democratic processes. …however, whether socialist ends are achieved through forceful or democratic processes matters little when it comes to the nefarious effects of policies such as “free” healthcare, “free” college tuition, and so on. The destructive effects on both the supply and demand side of those markets would be much the same in the end.

Like Muravchik, Geddes also explains that Nordic nations don’t qualify as socialist.

Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) — beloved by some as examples of successful socialism. …those countries are in many ways more market-oriented that the United States… Indeed, those countries are decades ahead of the United States in adopting market reforms in two of my areas of policy expertise: postal services and infrastructure delivery.

My two cents is that the Scandinavian nations are not socialist based on the technical definition.

And here’s my amateur depiction of how that works, with degree of intervention measured from top to bottom. Notice that Sweden is well above the line and isn’t socialist (indeed, it is farther from socialism than the United States.

But if everyone now thinks socialism simply means a lot of redistribution, then we get a different picture.

Under this Crazy Bernie/AOC approach, Sweden is to the right of the line and is socialist but (perversely) Venezuela doesn’t qualify.

But maybe the way to accommodate both the traditional definition and the modern usage is to draw a diagonal line.

Here’s my depiction, and I deliberately put Sweden on the socialist side to make some of my lefty friends happy (though if you’re looking at overall levels of economic freedom, they shouldn’t be socialist unless the United States also is socialist).

The obvious takeaway is that it’s best to be near the top left, near Hong Kong. And it’s also good to avoid the bottom right (Venezuela being closest to that corner, which makes sense since it is in last place according to Economic Freedom of the World).

P.S. Since I bent over backwards to define socialism in ways to make the left happy, I will atone by calling attention to my collection of socialism/communism humor.

P.P.S. The Soviet Union, as far as I understand, didn’t have any sort of welfare state other than meager pensions for the elderly. So it’s in the lower left.

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Thanks to the glorious miracle of capitalism, I’m writing this column 36,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.

I’m on my way back from Europe, where I ground through about a dozen presentations as part of a swing through 10 countries.

Most of my speeches were about the future of Europe, which was the theme of the Austrian Economic Center’s 2019 Free Market Road Show.

So it was bad timing that I didn’t have a chance until now to comb through a new study from three scholars about the economic impact of the European Union. As they point out at the start of their research, EU officials clearly want people to believe European-wide governance is a recipe for stronger growth.

The great European postwar statesmen, including the EU founding fathers, clearly…envisaged the establishment of a common political and economic entity as a guarantor of…domestic economic progress. …Article 2 of the foundational Treaty of Rome explicitly talked about “raising the standard of living.” … in practice EU today mainly emphasizes growth, as is evident from its most ambitious recent policy agendas. In 2000, a stated aim of the Lisbon Agenda was to make the European economy the “most competitive and knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion.” And all seven of the Flagship Initiatives adopted as part of the Europe 2020 Strategy were about growth—smart, sustainable, and inclusive.

Here’s a bit of background on their methodology.

…the focus of the present paper will be on prosperity as the key outcome that the EU will be measured up against… Our approach in the present paper is to use different empirical strategies (difference-in-differences type setups and standard growth regressions); slice the length of the panel in various ways (e.g., dropping post crisis observations); look at different samples of countries (e.g., a global sample, the sample of original OECD countries, the sample of formerly planned economies, and the sample of EU member countries); pay attention to spatial dependencies; and, finally, require manipulability of the treatment variable.

And what did they find?

It seems that the European Union has not triggered or enabled better economic performance.

The conclusion that emerges upon looking systematically at the data is that EU membership has no impact on economic growth. …We start by simply looking at the comparative performance of the EU and the United States, which is the comparison that Niall Ferguson makes. The IMF’s World Economic Outlook Database provides real GDP growth rates going back to 1980 for the EU and the US. These are plotted in Figure 1. The EU only managed to outperform the US economy in terms of real GDP growth in ten out of the 35 years between 1980 and 2015. …With these growth rates, the US economy would double its size every 27 years, whereas the corresponding number for the EU is 36 years. This hardly amounts to stellar performance on part of the EU.

What makes this data so remarkable is that convergence theory tells us that poorer nations should grow faster than richer nations.

So EU countries should be catching up to America.

Yet the opposite is happening. Here’s the relevant chart on US vs. EU performance.

The scholars conducted various statistical tests.

Many of those test actually showed that EU membership is associated with weaker performance.

…we basically measure pre- and post-entry growth for the EU countries up against the growth trajectories of all other countries. …EU membership is associated with lower economic growth in all columns. …where we use the maximum length WDI sample (i.e., 1961-2015), EU entry is associated with a statistically significant growth reduction of roughly 1.8 percentage points per year. When we remove the period associated with the sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone (i.e., 2010-15), the reduction remains significant but is lower (1.27 percentage points per year). Finally, when we remove the global financial crisis of 2008-09, the reduction (which is now statistically insignificant) is 0.5 percentage points per year. Using GDP per worker growth from PWT gives roughly similar results… Consequently, in a difference-in-differences type setting EU entry seems to have reduced economic growth.

Moreover, a bigger EU (i.e., more member nations) is associated with slower average growth.

Last but not least, the authors compared former Soviet Bloc nations to see if linking up with the EU led to improvements in economic performance.

…we ask whether growth picked up in the new Eastern European EU countries after accession vis-à-vis growth in 18 formerly planned non-EU countries. …Of the 11 accession countries, not a single one had higher average annual real GDP per capita growth in the period after the EU accession as compared to the period before.

Ouch.

These are not flattering results.

Here’s a look at the relevant chart.

These findings leave me with a feeling of guilt. For almost twenty years, I’ve been telling audiences in Eastern Europe that they probably should join the EU.

Yes, I realized that meant a lot of pointless red tape from Brussels, but I always assumed that those costs would be acceptable because the EU would give them expanded trade and help improve the rule of law.

I’ll have to do some thinking about this issue before my next trip.

P.S. In case you’re wondering why I’ve been telling Eastern European nations to join the EU while telling the United Kingdom to go for a Clean Brexit, my analysis (at least up til now) has been that market-oriented nations are held back by being in EU while poorer and more statist economies are improved by EU membership.

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There’s a very strong economic argument for Brexit which is partly based on an independent United Kingdom having more leeway to adopt pro-market policies.

This case for Brexit is also based – indeed, primarily based – on the fact that the European Union is a slowly sinking ship thanks to horrible demographics and economic weakness. I think the Brits made the right choice (assuming Prime Minister May doesn’t sabotage the process) in voting to get in a lifeboat.

By the way, the chronic stagnation in Europe is largely the fault of member nations.

For instance, I don’t blame the euro (the common currency used in 19 nations) or the European Commission (the easy-to-mock Brussels-based bureaucracy of the EU) for the bad policies adopted in nations such as France, Italy, and Greece.

That being said, the European Commission and its political supporters want the power to make things worse. Actually, they want two powers to make things worse.

  1. The first bad idea, generally supported by the French and Germans, is to give Brussels direct fiscal powers. This almost certainly would mean E.U.-wide taxes imposed by Brussels, presumably accompanied by expanded levels of intra-E.U. redistribution.
  2. The second bad idea, also supported by France and Germany, would be E.U.-wide rules to force national governments to adopt bad policy. This almost certainly would mean greater levels of tax harmonization, presumably accompanied by mandates to expand the welfare state.

I’ve written before about the first bad idea, so let’s focus today on the threat of Brussels-mandated tax harmonization.

The main obstacle to this bad idea is a “unanimity rule” that basically prevents further centralization of tax policy unless every member nation concurs.

This rule is what saved the E.U. from prior attempts to force member nations to adopt anti-growth policy.

…efforts to create a tax cartel have a long history, beginning even before Reagan and Thatcher lowered tax rates and triggered the modern era of tax competition. The European Commission originally wanted to require a minimum corporate tax rate of 45 percent. And as recently as 1992, there was an effort to require a minimum corporate tax rate of 30 percent.

But the bureaucrats in Brussels have not given up.

Politico reports on the latest effort to weaken fiscal sovereignty.

The European Commission…is set to unveil a communication…that will call on the bloc’s leaders to consider moving to qualified majority voting in EU taxation policy. That system would allow a tax initiative to become EU law as long as 16 out of the 28 countries agree on it. Any tax-related decision currently requires unanimity, leaving many tax proposals doomed to fail. The tax veto has undermined the bloc’s policy ambitions…the…veto…has left several tax files gathering dust on Brussels’ shelves, like the financial transactions tax, which the Commission first proposed in 2011. …The communication is set to suggest introducing qualified majority “step-by-step” for tax… The French commissioner discussed the plan over a lunch with EU ambassadors… “Ireland, Malta, Sweden and Cyprus were against it,” one diplomat that received a debrief on the meeting said. “The rest were cautious and few were for it.” France, Spain, Italy and Portugal were among the few that spoke in favor of the plan. …The Commission is determined to make its case. …The tax veto has…deprived national coffers of billions of euros, according to the draft communication… The digital and financial transaction taxes alone would have generated over €60 billion a year in revenue, the document says.

I do give the European Commission credit for honesty.

The bureaucrats are openly stating they want to get rid of the unanimity rule so that politicians in 16 member nations can force all 28 member nations to have high taxes.

You may be wondering, incidentally, why the European Commission, and the pro-tax governments like France want one-size-fits-all rules for the European Union? Why not have a let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom approach so that all 28 nations to make their own choices?

Once again, they are brutally honest. They unabashedly state that they want harmonized rules so they can eliminate tax competition (the left fears a “race to the bottom“).

Speaking of which, the bottom line is that Europe will decay and decline much faster if the European Commission is successful in its latest effort to kill the unanimity requirement. The last thing the E.U. needs is more taxes and higher spending.

P.S. There already are rules for harmonized VAT taxation in Europe, which predictably has enabled ever-higher tax rates.

P.P.S. The European Commission even tries to brainwash children into supporting higher taxes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least that’s the theory.

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

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

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

That seems well understood, at least outside of Italy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is, sort of.

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

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

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

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

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

So where do we stand?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When I argue against tax increases, I generally rely on two compelling points.

  1. Higher taxes will undermine prosperity by penalizing productive behavior.
  2. More money for politicians will trigger more spending, so red ink will increase.

When I argue against centralization and urge Swiss-style federalism, I also rely on two very strong points.

  1. Local governments will be more responsible if they raise and spend their own funds.
  2. Competition among local jurisdictions will encourage better public policy.

Now let’s mix these issues together by looking at some academic research on what happens when politicians get a windfall of revenue from a  centralized source.

Well, according to new research from Italy’s central bank, bigger government means more corruption.

…large financial transfers from a central unit of government to lower levels of government…come with the risk of exacerbating the agency problem due to the fact that the funds are collected at a higher level and then managed locally with typically little transparency on the actual amount of resources received by each local area. This moral hazard problem may increase incentives for local administrators to extract rents from the funds received. …growing evidence suggests that illegal practices and rent seeking are still often associated with the receipt of transfers from a central government. …we investigate the relationship between financial transfers from a central level of government to local administrations and the coincident occurrence of white collar crimes at the same local level drawing from the case of EU funding to Southern Italy. …The South of Italy has been one of the largest recipients of EU funds: in the most recent programming period it received 25 billion euro out of the 35 billion total allocated to Italy and managed at the local level. The empirical analysis exploits a unique administrative dataset of criminal episodes in Italy and matches them to the records of all the transfers from the EU to each single municipality over the period 2007-2014. We find evidence of a significant positive relationship between EU funds and the occurrence of corruption and fraudulent behaviors in the recipient municipality in the same year. …the robustness analysis we performed provided evidence that the correlation between transfers and corruption that we estimate is likely not just spurious or due to confounding effects

As far as I’m concerned, these results belong in the “least surprising” category. Of course you get more corruption when government gets bigger.

Now let’s look at another study. A few years ago, academic scholars produced even more compelling research from Brazil.

The paper studies the effect of additional government revenues on political corruption and on the quality of politicians, both with theory and data. The theory is based on a version of the career concerns model of political agency with endogenous entry of political candidates. The evidence refers to municipalities in Brazil, where federal transfers to municipal governments change exogenously according to given population thresholds. We exploit a regression discontinuity design to test the implications of the theory and identify the causal effect of larger federal transfers on political corruption and the observed features of political candidates at the municipal level. In accordance with the predictions of the theory, we find that larger transfers increase political corruption and reduce the quality of candidates for mayor. …The empirical findings accord well with the implications of the theory. Specifically, an (exogenous) increase in federal transfers by 10% raises the incidence of a broad measure of corruption by 12 percentage points (about 17% with respect to the average incidence), and the incidence of a more restrictive measure—including only severe violation episodes—by 10.1 percentage points (about 24%).

By the way, this persuasive research isn’t just an argument for smaller government and fewer transfers.

It’s also why foreign aid generally has harmful effects on recipient countries. Handouts line the pockets of the political elite and enable a bigger burden of government.

It’s also one of the reasons why I’ve referred to the International Monetary Fund as a “dumpster fire.” That bureaucracy leverages its money (the U.S. is the biggest backer) to encourage higher tax burdens and more redistribution in countries that already are suffering from too much bad policy.

The two studies we’ve reviewed today are simply an exclamation point.

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The real world is like a cold shower for our friends on the left. Everywhere they look, there is evidence that jurisdictions with free markets and small government outperform places with big welfare states and lots of intervention.

That’s true when comparing nations. And it’s also true when comparing states. That must be a source of endless frustration an disappointment for statists.

Speaking of disappointed statists, the real world has led to more bad news. The left-wing Mayor of Baltimore campaigned in favor of a $15 minimum wage, but then decided to veto legislation to impose that mandate. The Wall Street Journal opines on this development.

Mayor Catherine Pugh, a Democrat, has rejected a bill that would raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022. She did so even though she had campaigned in favor of raising the minimum wage, which shows that economic reality can be a powerful educator. She explained her change of heart by noting that raising the rate above the $8.75 an hour minimum that prevails in the rest of Maryland would send jobs and tax revenue out of Baltimore to surrounding counties. The increase would also have raised the city’s payroll costs by $116 million over the next four years when she’s already coping with a deficit of $130 million in the education budget.

The key thing to notice is that the Mayor recognized that the real-world impact of bad legislation is that economic activity would shrink in the city and expand outside the city.

Writing for Reason, Eric Boehm also points out that the Mayor was constrained by the fact neighboring jurisdictions weren’t making the same mistake.

Pugh said the bill would not be in the best interest of Baltimore’s 76,000 unemployed workers and would drive businesses out of the city to the surrounding counties. …Indeed. Raising the minimum wage would not solve Baltimore’s economic troubles, and would likely only add to them. While support for a $15 minimum wage has become something of a litmus test for progressive politicians, the true test of any politician should be whether he or she is willing to set aside campaign trail rhetoric that flies in the face of economic reality. Signing the bill would have made progressive pols and activists happy—one Baltimore city councilman called Pugh’s decision “beyond disappointing” and a minimum wage activist group said it would remind voters of Pugh’s “broken promise”—but there’s no honor in following through on a promise to do more damage to an already struggling city’s economy. Pugh’s decision to veto a $15 minimum wage bill isn’t disappointing in the least. More politicians should learn from her example of valuing economic reality over populist rhetoric.

The Mayor’s veto is good news, though it remains to be seen whether city legislators will muster enough votes for an override.

Regardless of what happens, notice that the Mayor didn’t do the right thing because she believed in economic liberty and freedom of contract. She also didn’t do the right thing because she recognized that higher minimum wage mandates would lead to more joblessness.

Instead, she felt compelled to do the right thing because of jurisdictional competition. She was forced to acknowledge that bad policy in her city would explicitly backfire since economic activity is mobile. She had to admit that there are no magic boats.

And this underscores why federalism and decentralization are vital features of a good system. Governments are more likely to do bad things when the costs can be imposed on an entire nation (or, even better from their perspective, the entire world). But when bad policy is localized, it becomes very hard to disguise the costs of bad policy.

And, as today’s column illustrates, decentralization stopped the Mayor of Baltimore from a bad policy that would hurt poorly skilled workers. Just as federalism stopped Vermont politicians from imposing a destructive single-payer health system.

Let’s close by circling back to the minimum wage.

Writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, Andy Puzder makes a very timely point about automation.

Entry-level jobs matter—and you don’t have to take my word for it. In a speech last week on workforce development in low-income communities, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said that “it is crucial for younger workers to establish a solid connection to employment early in their work lives.” Unfortunately, government policies are destroying entry-level jobs by giving businesses an incentive to automate at an accelerated pace. In a survey released last month, the publication Nation’s Restaurant News asked 319 restaurant operators to name their biggest challenge for 2017. Nearly a quarter of them, 24%, said rising minimum wages. …The trend toward automation is particularly pronounced in areas where the local minimum wage is high.

Need more evidence?

By the way, even the normally left-leaning World Bank has research on the damaging impact of minimum wage mandates.

This paper uses a search-and-matching model to examine the effects of labor regulations that influence the cost of formal labor (notably minimum wages and payroll taxes) on labor market outcomes… The results indicate that these regulations, especially minimum wage policy, contribute to higher unemployment rates and constraint formalization…, especially for youth and women.

The research was about the labor market in Morocco, but the laws of supply and demand are universal.

As I’ve repeatedly stated, when you mandate that workers get paid more than what they’re worth, that’s a recipe for unemployment. And as the World Bank points out, it’s the more vulnerable members of society who pay the highest price.

In an ideal world, there should be no minimum wage mandates. But since that’s not an immediately practical goal, the best way of protecting low-skilled workers is to make sure Washington does not impose a nationwide increase. That won’t stop every state and local government from imposing destructive policies that cause unemployment, but the pressure of jurisdictional competition will

And when those bad policies do occur, that will simply give us more evidence against intervention. Which brings us back to where we started. The real world is a laboratory that shows statism is a bad idea.

P.S. In honor of Equal Pay Day, I can’t resist sharing this tidbit from the Washington Free Beacon.

Oh, you also won’t be surprised to learn that there was also a big pay gap in Hillary Clinton’s Senate office, as well as Obama’s White House. In reality, of course, the market punishes genuine discrimination and the pay gap is basically nonexistent when comparing workers with similar education, experience, and work patterns.

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