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Archive for the ‘Demographics’ Category

There are many reasons to be depressed about Italy.

Bad policy is part of the problem, of course, but this chart shows that the country also is facing a demographic crisis. The blue lines show that there are now more deaths than births.

The chart comes from a Bloomberg column by Flavia Rotondi and Giovanni Salzano, and they explain some of the adverse consequences of this demographic change.

Italy isn’t just in an economic slump, its population is also sagging, pushing the country into its biggest demographic crisis in more than a century. The number of people in the country fell for a fifth year in 2019, and deaths exceeded births by almost 212,000, the biggest gap since 1918. …Italy already has huge long-term economic challenges, and the population trends, if they continue, are going to make surmounting them even harder. Italy won’t have enough young workers, and funding a rapidly aging population will strain an already stretched fiscal situation. Pension costs now amount to almost 17% off the economy. …“With an aging population and a consistent decrease of workers who pay taxes, our retirement system may go haywire” said Pietro Reichlin, a professor of economics.

Politicians naturally will want to compensate for these changes by raising the tax burden.

But Italy already is at a breaking point because of punitive taxation. Writing for the Foundation for Economic Education, Daniel Di Martino discusses that nation’s dirigiste system.

Italy’s problem, similar to many of its southern European neighbors, is an oppressively high tax burden, irresponsible welfare programs that encourage high measured unemployment and increase the debt, and high levels of regulation. …the share of average wages collected by the Italian government via income and social security taxes is 48 percent, among the highest in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In addition, Italy imposes a value-added tax of 22 percent on most goods and services, one of the highest in Europe. Plus, Italy’s corporate, capital gains, gift, and myriad other taxes are passed on to individuals and borne directly by workers. …At the same time, Italy’s complex regulations are a barrier to starting or continuing productive activities. A study by economist Raffaela Giordano of the Bank of Italy concluded that the main reason behind Italy’s underperformance was burdensome regulations and corrupt and inefficient government structure.

Adam O’Neal makes similar points about bad policy in a column for the Wall Street Journal.

Even before the pandemic, Italy hadn’t recovered fully from the 2008-09 financial crisis. Unemployment hovered around 10% in 2019. Adjusting for inflation, the average Italian worker earned the same as he did 20 years ago. Italian banks were Europe’s weakest. …What ails Italy? …Italy’s greatest challenge is a gargantuan government that destroys wealth as efficiently as the private economy creates it. …In 2018 government revenue was 42% of GDP, nearly 8 points above the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average. Yet profligate outlays—Rome spent 16.2% of GDP on public pensions in 2015—brought debt to about 135% of GDP last year.

The net effect of all this misguided policy is that Italy’s economy is moribund.

In his column for Bloomberg, Professor Tyler Cowen summarizes the problem.

One striking fact about Italy is that, over the last 20 years, growth in per capita income has been close to zero. …a zero-growth environment cannot be stable forever. …If the pie doesn’t grow, eventually it becomes harder to sustain productive activity… Aging is another reason economic growth is necessary. …many countries (including Italy) have expensive pension systems. Someone has to pay the bill, and without innovation and economic growth, taxes will have to rise. That in turn discourages work, pushing people into untaxed black-market activity, necessitating higher tax rates, and the vicious cycle starts again.

And when you combine bad demographics and bad policy, that not only means stagnation in the short run, it also could mean fiscal crisis in the long run.

Except “long run” may be just around the corner.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute warns that an Italian fiscal crisis will make the mess in Greece seem trivial by comparison.

…markets are displaying remarkable complacency toward a rapidly deteriorating Italian political and economic situation. They are doing so in a manner that is painfully reminiscent of how complacent they were in 2009 on the eve of the Greek sovereign debt crisis. This could have major consequences for global financial markets considering that the Italian economy…has around 10 times as much public debt as Greece had at the time of its crisis. …One has to hope that while markets might be turning a blind eye to Italy’s deteriorating economic and political fundamentals, global economic policymakers are not. As experience with the Greek sovereign debt crisis reaffirmed, crises often take a lot longer than one would have thought to occur, but when they do occur they do so at a very much faster rate than one would have expected.

Some people argue that a fiscal crisis can be avoided if the European Central Bank buys up Italy’s government debt.

That certainly can avert a panic, at least for a while, but this approach can cause a different set of problems.

Joseph Sternberg opines for the Wall Street Journal that the European Central Bank’s easy-money policy has backfired by giving politicians in Rome the leeway to postpone desperately needed reforms.

If the ECB had not stepped in as a buyer of government debt, Rome long since would have faced fiscal catastrophe. Only a miracle—or €365 billion in ECB purchases of Italian sovereign debt since 2015—can explain how in recent years a country whose debt has ballooned to 130% of gross domestic product paid nearly the same interest rate as Germany… Even after selling so many sovereign bonds to the central bank, Italy’s banks continue to be large holders of their government’s debt. Such bonds constitute around 10% of Italian bank assets, nearly three times the eurozone average. …Mr. Draghi hoped his interventions would give wayward governments such as in Rome breathing room to overhaul the supply side of their economies—deregulating markets, privatizing state assets, trimming welfare programs and the like. But Rome has mainly slid backward.

While intervention by the European Central Bank isn’t the solution to Italy’s problems (and may actually make problems worse), this is also a good opportunity to make the related point that the euro currency also shouldn’t be blamed for the nation’s stagnation.

I’m not a big fan of the European Union and the crowd in Brussels, but Italy’s challenges overwhelmingly are the fault of policies adopted by Italian politicians.

Indeed, if you look at the data from the most-recent edition of the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World, you can see monetary policy isn’t a problem. Instead, the nation’s big impediment to prosperity (highlighted in red) is terrible fiscal policy.

To put this data in perspective, Italy has the next-to-lowest-ranked economy in Western Europe, with only Greece having less economic liberty.

The numbers from the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom tell a very similar story.

If you peruse the data from the most-recent edition of that publication, you’ll see that Italy gets weak scores for its approach to labor issues, the judiciary, and taxes.

But it gets an utterly dismal score (highlighted in red) for government spending.

Sadly, there’s no political party in Italy that wants to solve the problem of excessive spending – even though I explained how it could be done while in Milan many years ago. And without spending restraint, that means it’s almost impossible to adopt pro-growth tax reform.

P.S. No wonder some people in Sardinia want to secede from Italy and instead become part of Switzerland.

P.P.S. Amazingly, a New York Times’ columnist actually argued that the United States should be more like Italy.

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Before our depressing discussion today about the fiscal impact of entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, EITC, Food Stamps, welfare, and Obamacare, etc), here’s a video of how it all began.

I think this is a great introduction to the issue, particularly since you learn how “public choice” (i.e., politicians engaging in self-serving behavior) played a key role in the development of today’s welfare state.

But if you don’t have the time to watch a long video, here are four key things to understand.

  1. Entitlements (budget geeks sometimes use the term “mandatory spending”) are programs that automatically give people money if they meet certain requirements (such as reaching a certain age or having income below a certain level).
  2. Since these programs automatically give people money, they are not part of the annual appropriations process (the “discretionary spending” parts of the budget that are determined on a yearly basis).
  3. Some entitlement programs are “means tested” and designed to funnel money to low-income individuals. This type of spending is sometimes referred to as “unearned benefits.”
  4. Some entitlement programs are “social insurance” since people pay specific tax in exchange for specific benefits. This type of spending is sometimes referred to as “earned benefits” (though in many cases recipient receive much more than they paid).

By the way, there’s one additional thing to understand.

Indeed, it may be the most important thing to understand if you care about America’s fiscal and economic future.

5.  Entitlement programs are a slow-motion fiscal train wreck.

Let’s look at a new study authored by James Capretta of the America Enterprise Institute. He also has some sobering observations on the history of entitlement programs.

The growing expense of entitlement programs has occurred steadily for more than a half century and is reflected in the shifting distribution of federal spending activity. …by the early 1960s, two-thirds of all spending continued to require approval by the House and Senate appropriations committees each year, and less than a third was spent on entitlement programs. … By 2019, nearly two-thirds of all spending in the budget was for entitlement programs, and less than a third went to annually appropriated accounts.

If you prefer this information visually, here are a couple of pie charts from the study.

While there are dozens of entitlement programs, the big three are Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

The largest entitlement programs are Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Together, they now make up nearly half of all federal spending. Their combined growth over the past half century is the primary source of intensifying fiscal pressure. …In 2019, combined federal spending on them was 9.8 percent of GDP, up from 3.7 percent in 1970. CBO expects them to cost 17.2 percent of GDP in 2050, which is almost equal to the average annual revenue collected by the federal government from 1970 to 2019.

And here’s how they’ve been consuming ever-larger shares of America’s economic output.

What’s driving this ever-increasing fiscal burden?

In part, it’s because we have more and more old people and they are living longer.

So what does all this mean?

Capretta points out that uncontrolled entitlement spending may lead to a debt crisis.

I don’t disagree, but I think that’s a secondary concern. The real problem is that government spending will become an ever-larger economic burden. And that will hinder growth whether it’s financed by borrowing or taxes.

Speaking of taxes, here’s the chart from the study that deserves our close attention. It shows the relationship between demographics, benefit generosity, and tax burdens.

Here’s how Capretta describes the relationship.

…for each of the stipulated replacement rates (25, 50, and 75 percent), the tax rate necessary to keep the program solvent rises with increases in the aged dependency ratio. This explains why social insurance taxes in many aging societies have been increased to high levels in recent decades.

I’ve taken the liberty of augmenting the chart to show how these factors interact (though the order of #1 and #2 doesn’t matter).

The bottom line is that the United States is on track to become a high-tax, European-style welfare state if fiscal policy is left on autopilot.

In other words, unless there’s genuine entitlement reform, future Americans will be condemned to lower living standards.

P.S. Here’s some more history. In a column for the American Institute for Economic Research, Richard Ebeling looked at British history to explain how the private sector played a role in social insurance before being displaced by government.

Throughout the 19th century, a primary means for the provision of what today we call the “social safety nets” was by the private sector outside of government. The British Friendly Societies were mutual assistance associations that emerged to provide death benefits for the wives and children of the breadwinner who had passed away. But they soon offered a wide array of other mutual insurance services, including health care coverage, retirement pension programs, unemployment insurance, savings clubs to purchase a family house, and a variety of others. …by the end of the 19th century around two-thirds to three-quarters of the entire British population was covered by one or more of their programs and insurances. The research also discovered that a large majority of the subscribers were in the lower income brackets of the time… What stands out is that these were all private and voluntary associations and exchanges, in which the government paid little or no role.

On a related note, here’s an excellent short video on the English “poor laws” from the 1800s.

P.P.S. In addition to the fiscal burden of entitlement programs, there’s also a major problem in the way these programs discourage work.

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Despite the fact that Social Security is an ever-increasing fiscal burden with a 75-year cash-flow deficit of nearly $45 trillion, many politicians in Washington have been trying to buy votes with proposals to expand the program (Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, etc).

A new working paper from the European Central Bank gives us some insights on what will happen if they succeed.

Authored by Daniel Baksa, Zsuzsa Munkacsi, and Carolin Nerlich, the study look at the long-run impact of related policies in Europe, using Germany and Slovakia as examples.

Here’s their description of the study.

In view of the adverse macroeconomic and fiscal implications of ageing, many European countries have implemented significant pension reforms… More recently, however, the reform progress has stalled, and despite an unchanged demographic outlook, several European countries reversed, or plan to do so, parts of their previously adopted pension reforms. In this paper we offer a framework that allows us to evaluate the macroeconomic and fiscal costs of pension reform reversals. …By using a general equilibrium model with overlapping generations we can account for feedback effects between changes in pension parameters, pension expenditures and macroeconomic variables. …The model is calibrated for Germany and Slovakia.

Before sharing their findings, here’s a look at how demographics are a ticking time bomb for Europe.

The yellow dots are the 2016 numbers for the old-age dependency ratio (the number of people over 65 compared to the 15-64 working-age population) and the red dots show how that ratio will deteriorate by 2070 (the numbers for the United States are similarly grim).

These bad numbers mean that Europe’s economic outlook will worsen over time.

…population ageing has adverse macroeconomic and fiscal implications. …the results show an increase in the public debt-to-GDP ratio by around 100 percentage points until 2070, compared to the initial period, for both Germany and Slovakia. Moreover, real GDP per capita is projected to decline by almost 14% in Germany and 9% in Slovakia, compared to the initial period.

But it’s possible for the numbers to get better or worse, depending on changes to public policy.

…similar to other studies we find evidence that pension reforms help to contain the adverse implications of ageing… In particular, increases in the retirement age appear to help to alleviate ageing pressures most. …we find strong evidence for the presumption that reversals of pension reforms are potentially very costly. In fact, reform reversals would not only result in higher aggregate pension expenditure and public debt-to-GDP ratios, but would in most cases also exacerbate the adverse macroeconomic impact of ageing.

Unfortunately, public policy is now trending in the wrong direction. Here’s what’s been happening in Germany and Slovakia.

Germany recently decided to cap the decline in the benefit ratio and the increase in the contribution rate until 2025 at certain levels, and is considering whether to extend this cap even until 2040. Slovakia decided to break the automatic link between changes in life expectancy and retirement age, by capping the retirement age at 64 years. …in the reversal scenario for Germany we freeze the benefit ratio at its current level of 48% and assume that the contribution rate would not exceed the threshold of 20% until 2040. With this reform reversal scenario we assume that the agreed freeze of the benefits ratio and contribution rate until 2025 will be ex-tended until 2040. In Slovakia, we assume the retirement age to stop increasing from the year 2045 onwards.

And what do they find when countries backtrack on reform?

Here’s what they estimated in Germany.

For Germany, we find that the reform reversal would imply sizeable costs (see Table 6, column “reform reversal”). Specifically, by 2070, the increase in the public debt-to-GDP ratio can be expected to be ceteris paribus almost 60 percentage points higher than under the baseline scenario, as a result of higher pension expenditures, adverse feedback effects and lower contribution rates.

For those interested, here’s Table 6, which I’ve augmented by highlighting in red the most relevant changes. Yes, the debt increases compared to the baseline, but I think it’s equally important (if not more important) to see how young people are hurt and how the burden of government spending goes up.

Now let’s see what the authors found for Slovakia.

…we quantify the fiscal costs of the reform reversal in Slovakia by comparing the debt impact under the reform reversal scenario with that under the baseline scenario. Our results show that such a reform reversal would be very costly. In fact, the increase in the public debt-to-GDP ratio would be more than 50 percentage points higher than the estimated increase of around 100 percentage points of GDP under the baseline scenario (see Table 7).

Here’s Table 7, and again I have highlighted in red the increase in debt as well as the data showing additional harm to young people and a much bigger increase in the burden of government spending.

So what do these findings mean for the United States?

Let’s explain using a homemade infographic. I’ve put four options for Social Security on a spectrum. Here’s what they mean.

  • “Expand Social Security” means more taxes and spending in pay-as-you-go systems that are already costly and out of balance.
  • The “Status Quo” is a typical pay-as-you-go-system (where the United States is now and where Germany and Slovakia were before their reforms).
  • Conventional Reform” means trying to stabilize a pay-as-you-go system by demanding that workers pay more while promising to give them less (what Germany and Slovakia did).
  • The most market-friendly position is “Personal Retirement Accounts,” which transforms creaky pay-as-you-go systems into real individual savings.

Here’s the infographic, including arrows to indicate that some options mean more government and others mean more prosperity.

What Germany and Slovakia did was move from “Status Quo” to “Conventional Reform.” But now they’re backtracking on those reforms and shifting back to the old version of the “Status Quo.”

In other words, a move in the direction of “More Government” and the European Central Bank’s study shows such a step will have negative consequences.

In the United States, by contrast, some folks on the left want America to move from “Status Quo” to “Expand Social Security.”

Like Germany and Slovakia, we’d be moving in the wrong direction. But the damage for the U.S. presumably would be worse because we didn’t first take a step in the right direction.

P.S. If you want to learn more about the best option, Australia, Denmark, Chile, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Netherlands, Faroe Islands, and Sweden are a few of the many jurisdictions that have fully or partially shifted to systems based on real savings.

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Every so often, I share very weird stories about government regulations, from both America and around the world. And when I say weird, I’m not exaggerating.

But we also have some strange examples of tax loopholes.

I’m not talking about corporate jets, which should be characterized as a business expense.

Instead, I’m referring to bizarre examples of income that is arbitrarily exempt from tax.

The weirdest example in the United States is from Nevada (probably because politicians have a conflict of interest).

Today I want to write about a new tax loophole in Poland.

Polish lawmakers have approved a measure that would exonerate most workers under the age of 26 from income taxes… The bill would exonerate workers under the age of 26 from Poland’s 18 percent personal income tax for those whose gross earnings don’t surpass 85,500 zlotys (20,000 euros, $22,500) per year. That level is higher than Poland’s average income… Some two million people could benefit from the measure.

So what’s motivating this example of age-based tax discrimination?

Poland has long been haemorrhaging skilled workers to other EU states where they can find better paying jobs, posing both a long-term demographic risk and short-term problem finding enough labourers to continue the country’s streak of economic growth since the fall of communism in 1989.

I certainly agree that Poland faces a demographic challenge (along with other nations in Eastern Europe), both because of emigration and low birth rates.

And I also agree that Poland’s economy has been relatively successful since escaping the evil of communism.

But I’m not very confident that this policy is the right recipe for continued prosperity.

  • First, I don’t like discrimination in the tax code, whether based on the source of income, the use of income, the level of income, or – in this case – the age at which income is earned.
  • Second, this policy doesn’t affect social insurance taxes and value-added taxes, which are actually the biggest burden for ordinary workers in many Eastern European nations.
  • Third, unless Poland’s government imposes some spending discipline, a tax preference for young people may lead to higher taxes on other groups, thus offsetting any economic benefit.

To be sure, I’m glad Poland is addressing the issue by lowering taxes rather than by creating new programs and subsidies, as we’ve seen in some other European nations.

I’m simply not expecting big results.

P.S. You can click here to peruse other oddball examples of international tax policy.

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It’s not easy picking the most pessimistic chart about Japan.

The country suffered several decades of economic stagnation following the collapse of a bubble about three decades ago.

That means it’s a bit of a challenge to identify the worst economic numbers.

  • Is it the data on ever-rising levels of government debt?
  • Is it the data on an ever-rising burden of taxation?
  • Or is it the data on an aging population and falling birthrate?

For what it’s worth, I thought the tax data was the most depressing.

But now there’s a new challenger for the grimmest chart.

I’m currently in Japan, where it’s almost bedtime. I just heard a speech from the governor of the Tokyo Prefecture.

As part of her remarks, she shared a slide showing how Japan has plummeted in the IMD competitiveness rankings.

I don’t have her chart, but I found another version with the same data.

And Japan has dropped to #30 in the recently released 2018 version.

By the way, you won’t be surprised to learn that Economic Freedom of the World shows a similar decline.

Japan was ranked in the top-10 back in 1990, but now it’s dropped to #41.

This is not quite as pronounced as Argentina’s drop in the rankings for per-capita GDP, but it’s definitely a sign that something’s gone wrong in the Land of the Rising Sun.

P.S. Japan has a very strong entry in the contest for the world’s most inane regulation.

P.P.S. And if there was a contest for the most ineffective form of government waste, Japan would have a very strong entry for that prize as well.

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I’m a big fan of many of the economic reforms that have been implemented in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

All three of the Baltic nations rank highly according to Economic Freedom of the World. Estonia and Lithuania are tied for #13, and Latvia isn’t far behind at #23.

Rather impressive for nations that suffered decades of communist enslavement.

But this doesn’t mean I’m optimistic for the future of these countries.

Simply stated, they need a lot more reform to prepare themselves for demographic decline.

And demographic decline is a huge issue, in large part because young people are moving away. Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg report.

According to the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, nine of the world’s countries most at risk of losing citizens over the next few decades are former East bloc nations. Porous borders and greater opportunity in the west have lured people away. …The trend is hitting especially hard in the Baltics. Latvia, with a current population of 1.96 million, has lost about 25 percent of its residents since throwing off Soviet control in 1991. The U.N. predicts that by 2050, it will have lost an additional 22 percent of its current population…and by 2100, 41 percent. In Estonia, with a population of 1.32 million, the U.N. foresees a 13 percent decline by 2050 and a 32 percent drop by 2100. And in Lithuania, the current population of 2.87 million is expected to drop by 17 percent by 2050. By 2100, it will have lost 34 percent. …Latvian demographer Mihails Hazans said that, as of 2014, one in three ethnic Latvians age 25 to 34 — and a quarter of all Latvians with higher education — lived abroad.

Part of the issue is also fertility.

Here’s a chart from the World Bank showing that all three Baltic nations are way below the replacement rate.

The combination of these two factors helps to explain this map.

As you can see, the Baltics don’t quite face the same challenges as Moldova.

But that’s the only silver lining in these grim numbers.

By the way, people should be free to emigrate.

And women should be free to choose how many children to have.

But when a country also has a welfare state and – over time – there are more and more old people and fewer and fewer young taxpayers, that’s a recipe for some sort of Greek-style fiscal crisis.

Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem.

The Baltic nations need to copy Hong Kong. Fertility rates are even lower there, but the jurisdiction doesn’t face a big long-run fiscal challenge since people mostly rely on private savings rather than tax-and-transfer welfare states.

P.S. One of the reasons I like the Baltic nations is that they cut spending (actual spending cuts, not fake DC-style reductions in planned increases) when they were hit by the global financial crisis last decade.

P.P.S. Even better, Paul Krugman wound up beclowning himself by trying to blame Estonia’s 2008 recession on spending cuts that occurred in 2009.

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When I give speeches on the importance of public policy, I frequently share data showing that pro-market nations are relatively prosperous when compared to countries with statist policies.

One of the most dramatic examples is South Korean prosperity versus North Korean deprivation.

It’s not that South Korea is perfect. After all, it only ranks #35 according to Economic Freedom of the World.

But that’s enough economic liberty to be in the “most free” category. And this helps to explain why South Korean living standards have climbed dramatically compared to the economic hellhole of North Korea (and you see something similar if you compare Venezuela and South Korea).

I’m definitely not the only person to notice the difference between the two Koreas. Here are some excerpts from one of Richard Rahn’s columns in 2017.

In 1960, South Korea and North Korea were similar in their poverty. Now, 50-plus years later, South Korea has a per-capita income more than 20 times that of North Korea, at approximately $38,000 per year, which is higher than that of Spain or Italy. South Koreans have gone from a per-capita income in 1970 that was about 10 percent of the average American to almost 70 percent today. …Koreans in both the North and South come from the same genetic stock, speak the same language, and occupy adjoining pieces of land with much of the same topography and limited natural resources. North Korea is the ultimate consequence of socialism, which always contains the seeds of its own destruction. Socialism goes against human nature, requiring its government to become increasingly authoritarian — North Korea being Exhibit A.

But Richard also warned that South Korea can’t rest on its laurels.

While economic growth per year averaged more than 9 percent from 1963 to 1990, it has now slowed down and last year was only 2.8 percent…a sharp drop from earlier decades. There is too much unneeded and counterproductive regulation, including the lack of ease of creating new businesses, barriers to imports and inward foreign investment. By any measure, South Korea has been a great success, but probably not as much as it could have been or can be if it followed more of a classic free trade and more limited-government model as practiced by Hong Kong and others. The country is increasingly exhibiting the disease of most other rich, developed democracies by allowing itself to be slowly seduced into the promise of more government services and attendant regulation, rather than the tougher and more competitive policies that created the wealth. Will South Korea avoid the stagnation of Japan and much of Europe? The jury is still out.

The jury may still be out, but there is growing evidence that South Korea is heading in the wrong direction because the nation’s relatively new President in increasing the burden of government.

Here are some passages from a report in the Japan Times.

Moon Jae-in began his second full year as South Korea’s president with a reminder of what didn’t work in the first — namely his economic policies. …The self-styled “jobs president” has seen his once sky-high poll numbers tumble… Moon, a progressive, was swept into office in 2017 promising a reversal from the conglomerate-focused economic agenda of ousted President Park Geun-hye. But his plan to raise the minimum wage 11 percent disappointed… More than three-quarters of the 30 experts surveyed by Bloomberg News last month predicted that employment growth would slow this year, in part because of the wage hike. …In a speech at his news conference Thursday, Moon…pledged to improve the safety net…and fix what he described as “the worst forms of polarized wealth and economic inequality in the world.” …More than half of South Koreans surveyed in another Gallup poll last month said that the administration needed “to focus on economic growth, rather than income distribution.”

By the way, the article doesn’t even mention that South Korea faces a major demographic challenge.

It has a catastrophically low fertility rate, which means that the tax-and-transfer welfare state will become increasingly unaffordable as the ratio of workers to recipients shifts in the wrong direction.

Entitlement reform is the sensible answer to this problem (see Hong Kong, for example).

But that’s obviously not happening under President Moon. Indeed, he wants to make matters worse by expanding the welfare state.

Some people in South Korea realize that demographics are a problem for their nation.

The U.K.-based Express looks at their attempted solution.

Seoul’s Dongguk and Kyung Hee universities say the courses on dating, sex, love and relationships target a generation which is shunning traditional family lives. …as part of the course, students have to date three classmates for a month each. …The course has expanded to Kyong Hee university, which offers “Love and Marriage” classes and Inha university in Incheon, a specialist engineering college, where students can now sign up to lessons on prioritising success and love. In 2016 the number of marriages hit its lowest since 1977, according to data from the government agency Statistics Korea. …The crude marriage rate – the annual number of marriages per 1,000 people – was 5.5 last year, compared with 295.1 when statistics began in 1970. Seoul has spent about £50 billion trying to boost the birth rate.

I’m skeptical of this approach, regardless of how much money the government spends.

Policy makers should focus instead on things they can control, such as fiscal policy and regulatory policy.

And this is why South Korea’s lurch to the left is so disappointing. Politicians are making things worse rather than better.

Even the New York Times is reporting that Moon’s statist agenda isn’t working.

Under President Moon Jae-in, South Korea has raised taxes and the minimum wage in the name of economic growth. So far, it hasn’t worked out as planned. Growth has slowed, unemployment has risen and small-business owners…are complaining. …With his progressive policies, President Moon is trying to tackle some of the same economic problems that plague the United States and much of the developed world. They include a widening wealth gap, slower growth and stagnant wages. …South Korea’s troubles suggest the limits of the state in solving economic problems, especially without addressing the underlying structural issues. …After his election in May 2017, Mr. Moon undertook a sharp shift in economic policy. He supported higher wages, tighter restrictions on working hours and greater welfare spending, funded by tax increases on companies and high-income earners. …Mr. Moon has paid a steep political price for his agenda. His approval rating has plummeted from 84 percent in mid-2017 to 45 percent in the most recent Gallup poll. …The 2019 budget represents the sharpest increase in spending in a decade… The minimum wage has also gone up again for 2019, by 11 percent.

More taxes, more spending, more regulation, and more intervention. Who does Moon think he is, Barack Obama or Richard Nixon?

On a serious note, it surely says something that even the New York Times is forced to acknowledge that statist policies backfire.

Let’s close by looking at how South Korea’s economic freedom score has evolved over time. As you can see, there was a lot of economic liberalization between 1975-2005. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that economic liberty has declined since the mid-2000s.

The drop is modest, at least in absolute terms. But it’s also important (as I explained when looking at Italy) to look at relative competitiveness.

South Korea’s current score of 7.53 isn’t that much lower than its 7.67 score in 2006. But that slight drop, along with pro-reforms steps that other nations have taken, means that South Korea is now ranked #35 instead of #20.

And the current scores are based on policy in 2016, before Moon moved South Korea in the direction of more statism. This doesn’t bode well.

P.S. I’m not expecting South Korea to become another Hong Kong or Singapore, but it should at least seek incremental progress rather than incremental deterioration. Taiwan is a good example of that approach.

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The world is in the middle of a dramatic demographic transition caused by increasing lifespans and falling birthrates.

One consequence of this change is that traditional tax-and-transfer, pay-as-you-go retirement schemes (such as Social Security in the United States) are basically bankrupt.

The problem is so acute that even the normally statist bureaucrats at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are expressing considerable sympathy for reforms that would allow much greater reliance on private savings (shifting to what is known as “funded” systems).

Countries should introduce funded arrangements gradually… Policymakers should carefully assess the transition as it may put an additional, short-term, strain on public finances… Tax rules should be straightforward, stable and consistent across all retirement savings plans. …Countries with an “EET” tax regime should maintain the deferred taxation structure… Funded, private pensions may be expected to support broader economic growth and accelerate the development of local capital markets by creating a pool of pension savings that must be invested. The role of funded, private pensions in economic development is likely to become more important still as countries place a higher priority on the objective of labour force participation. Funded pensions increase the incentive to work and save and by encouraging older workers to stay in the labour market they can help to address concerns about the sustainability and adequacy of public PAYG pensions in the face of demographic changes.

Here’s a chart from the OECD report. It shows that many developed nations already have fully or partly privatized systems.

By the way, I corrected a glaring mistake. The OECD chart shows Australia as blue. I changed it to white since they have a fully private Social Security system Down Under.

The report highlights some of the secondary economic benefits of private systems.

Funded pensions offer a number of advantages compared to PAYG pensions. They provide stronger incentives to participate in the labor market and to save for retirement. They create a pool of savings that can be put to productive use in the broader economy. Increasing national savings or reallocating savings to longer-term investment supports the development of financial markets. …More domestic savings reduces dependency on foreign savings to finance necessary investment. Higher investment may lead to higher productive capacity, increasing GDP, wages and employment, higher tax revenues and lower deficits.

Here’s the chart showing that countries with private retirement systems are among the world leaders in pension assets.

The report highlights some of the specific nations and how they benefited.

Over the long term, transition costs may be at least partially offset by additional positive economic effects associated with introducing private pensions rather than relying solely on public provision. …poverty rates have declined in Australia, the Netherlands and Switzerland since mandatory funded pensions were introduced. The initial transformation of Poland’s public PAYG system into a multi-pillar DC approach helped to encourage Warsaw’s development as a financial centre. …the introduction of funded DC pensions in Chile encouraged the growth of financial markets and provided a source of domestic financing.

For those seeking additional information on national reforms, I’ve written about the following jurisdictions.

At some point, I also need to write about the Singaporean system, which is one of the reasons that nation is so successful.

P.S. Needless to say, it would be nice if the United States was added to this list at some point. Though I won’t be holding my breath for any progress while Trump is in the White House.

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I wrote last month about a new book from the Fraser Institute about demographics and entrepreneurship.

My contribution was a chapter about the impact of taxation, especially the capital gains tax.

At a panel in Washington, I had a chance to discuss my findings.

If you don’t want to watch an 11-minute video, my presentation can be boiled down to four main points.

1. Demographics is destiny – Other authors actually had the responsibility of explaining in the book about the importance of demographic change. But it never hurts to remind people that this is a profound and baked-in-the-cake ticking time bomb.

So I shared this chart with the audience and emphasized that a modest-sized welfare state may have been feasible in the past, but will be far more burdensome in the future for the simple reason that the ratio of taxpayers to tax-consumers is dramatically changing.

And it goes without saying that big-sized welfare states are doomed to collapse. Think Greece and extend it to Italy, France, Japan, and other developed nations (including, I fear, the United States).

2. Entrepreneurship drives growth – Capital and labor are the two factors of production, but entrepreneurs are akin to the chefs who figure out news ways of mixing those ingredients.

For all intents and purposes, entrepreneurs produce the creative destruction that is a prerequisite for growth.

3. The tax code discourages entrepreneurship – The bulk of my presentation was dedicated to explaining that double taxation is both pervasive and harmful.

I shared my flowchart showing how the American tax code is biased against income that is saved and invest, which discourages entrepreneurial activity.

And then showed the capital gains tax burden in developed countries.

The U.S. is probably even worse than shown in the above chart since our capital gains tax is imposed on inflationary gains.

4. The United States need to be more competitive – Last but not least, I pointed out that America’s class-warfare tax policies are the fiscal equivalent of an “own goal” (soccer reference for World Cup fans).

And this chart from my chapter shows how the United States, as of mid-2016, had the highest combined tax rate on capital gains when including the effect of the capital gains tax.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the Trump tax cuts did produce a lower corporate rate. So in the version below, I’ve added my back-of-the-envelope calculation of where the U.S. now ranks.

But the bottom line is still uncompetitive when looking at the tax burden on investment.

And never forget that this ultimately backfires against workers since it translates into lower pay.

P.S. The Wall Street Journal produced an excellent description of why capital gains taxation is very destructive.

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I’ve written over and over again that changing demographics are a very under-appreciated economic development. I’ve also written about why entrepreneurship is a critical determinant of growth.

But I never thought of combining those topics. Fortunately, the folks at the Fraser Institute had the foresight to do just that, having just published a book entitled Demographics and Entrepreneurship: Mitigating the Effects of an Aging Population.

There are chapters on theory and evidence. There are chapters on specific issues, such as taxes, regulation, migration, financial markets, and education.

It’s basically the literary equivalent of one-stop-shopping. You’ll learn why you should be concerned about demographic change. More important, since there’s not much policy makers can do to impact birthrates, you’ll learn everything you need to know about the potential policy changes that could help nations adapt to aging populations.

This short video is an introduction to the topic.

Let’s look at just a few of the highlights of the book.

In the opening chapter, Robert Murphy offers a primer on the importance of entrepreneurship.

…there is a crucial connection between entrepreneurship and economic prosperity. …There is a growing recognition that a society’s economic prosperity depends…specifically on entrepreneurship. …Two of the top names associated with the theory of entrepreneurship are Joseph Schumpeter and Israel Kirzner… Schumpeter famously invoked the term “creative destruction” to describe the volatile development occurring in a capitalist system… Kirzner has written extensively on entrepreneurship…and how…the alert entrepreneurial class who perceive these misallocations before their more complacent peers, and in the process earn pure profits… Schumpeter’s entrepreneur is a disruptor who creates new products first in his mind and then makes them a reality, whereas Kirzner’s entrepreneur is a coordinator who simply observes the profit opportunities waiting to be grasped. …If the goal is maximum economic efficiency in the long run, to provide the highest possible standard of living to citizens within the unavoidable constraints imposed by nature, then we need bold, innovative entrepreneurs who disrupt existing modes of production by introducing entirely new goods and services, but we also need vigilant, alert entrepreneurs who spot arbitrage opportunities in the existing price structure and quickly move to whittle them away.

Murphy describes in the chapter how there was a period of time when the economics profession didn’t properly appreciate the vital role of entrepreneurs.

But that fortunately has changed and academics are now paying closer attention. He cites some of the recent research.

An extensive literature documents the connection between entrepreneurship and economic growth. The studies vary in terms of the specific measure of entrepreneurship (e.g., small firms, self-employment rate, young firms, etc.) and the size of the economic unit being studied. …Carree et al. (2002) look at 23 OECD countries from 1976 to 1996. …They “find confirmation for the hypothesized economic growth penalty on deviations from the equilibrium rate of business ownership… An important policy implication of our exercises is that low barriers to entry and exit of businesses are necessary conditions for the equilibrium seeking mechanisms that are vital for a sound economic development” …Holtz-Eakin and Kao (2003) look at the birth and death rates of firms across US states, and find that this proxy for entrepreneurship contributes to growth. Similarly, Callejón and Segarra (1999) look at manufacturing firm birth and death rates in Spain from 1980 to 1992, and conclude that this measure of “turbulence” contributes to total factor productivity growth. …Wennekers and Thurik (1999) use business ownership rates as a proxy for “entrepreneurship.” Looking at a sample of 23 OECD countries from 1984 to 1994, they, too, find that entrepreneurship was associated with higher rates of employment growth at the national level.

In a chapter on taxation, Seth Giertz highlights the negative impact of taxes on entrepreneurship, particularly what happens with tax regimes have a bias against saving and investment.

High tax rates discourage both consumption and savings. But, for a given average tax rate, taxes on an income base penalize savings more heavily than taxes on consumption. …a consumption tax base is neutral between the decision to save versus consume. By contrast, an income tax base results in the double taxation of savings. …three major features of tax policy that are important for entrepreneurship. First, capital accumulation and access to capital is essential for innovation to have a big impact. Despite this, tax systems generally tax savings more heavily than consumption….Second, the tax treatment of risk affects incentives for entrepreneurship, since entrepreneurship tends to entail high risk. …progressivity can sometimes discourage entrepreneurship. This is because tax systems do not afford full offsets for losses, making progressivity effectively a tax increase. …Third, tax policy can lead entrepreneurial activity to shift from productive toward unproductive or destructive aims. Productive entrepreneurship tends to flourish when the route to great wealth is achieved primarily through private markets… High taxes reduce the rewards from productive entrepreneurship. All too often, smart, talented, and innovative people are drawn out of socially productive endeavours and into unproductive ones because the private returns from devising an innovative tax scheme—or lobbying government for special tax preferences—are greater than those for building the proverbial better mousetrap.

In a chapter I co-authored with Brian Garst, Charles Lammam, and Taylor Jackson, we look specifically at the negative impact of capital gains taxation on entrepreneurship.

We spend a bit of time reminding readers of what drives growth.

One of the more uncontroversial propositions in economics is that output is a function of labor (the workforce) and capital (machines, technology, land, etc.). Indeed, it is almost a tautology to say that growth exists when people provide more labor or more capital to the economy, or when—thanks to vital role of entrepreneurs—labor and capital are allocated more productively. In other words, labor and capital are the two “factors of production,” and the key for policymakers is to figure out the policy recipe that will increase the quantity and quality of those two resources. …In the absence of taxation, people provide labor to the economy so long as they value the income they earn more than they value the foregone leisure. And they provide capital to the economy (i.e., they save and invest) so long as they value future consumption (presumably augmented by earnings on capital) more than they value current consumption.

And we highlight how entrepreneurs generate the best type of growth.

this discussion also helps illustrate why entrepreneurship is so important. The preceding analysis basically focused on achieving growth by increasing the quantity of capital and labor. Such growth is real, but it has significant “opportunity costs” in that people must forego leisure and/or current consumption in order to have more disposable income. Entrepreneurs, by contrast, figure out how to increase the quality of capital and labor. More specifically, entrepreneurs earn profits by satisfying consumer desires with new and previously unknown or underused combinations of labor and capital. In their pursuit of profit, they come up with ways of generating more or better output from the same amount of labor and capital. This explains why we have much higher living standards today even though we work far fewer hours than our ancestors.

And here’s what we say about the counterproductive impact of capital gains taxation, particularly when combined with other forms of double taxation.

…the effective marginal tax rate on saving and investment is considerably higher than the effective marginal tax rate on consumption. This double taxation is understandably controversial since all economic theories—even Marxism and socialism—agree that capital is critical for long-run growth and higher living standards. …capital gains taxes harm economies in ways unique to the levy. …entrepreneurs play a vital role in the economy since they figure out more efficient ways to allocate labor and capital. …The potential for a capital gain is a big reason for the risk they incur and the effort they expend. Thus, the existence of capital gains taxes discourages some entrepreneurial activity from ever happening. …the capital gains tax is more easily avoidable than other forms of taxation. Entrepreneurs who generate wealth with good ideas can avoid the levy by simply choosing not to sell. This “lock-in effect” is not good for the overall economy… Most governments do not allow taxpayers to adjust the value of property for inflation when calculating capital gains. Even in a low-inflation environment, this can produce perverse results. …taxpayers can sometimes pay tax even when assets have lost value in real terms. …Capital gains taxes contribute to the problem of “debt bias,” which occurs when there is a tax advantage for corporate investments to be financed by debt instead of equity. …Excessive debt increases the probability of bankruptcy for the firm and contributes to systemic risk.

We then cite a lot of academic studies. I strongly encourage folks to peruse that section, but to keep this column manageable, let’s close by looking at two charts that reveal how some nation – including the United States – have uncompetitive tax systems.

Here are long-run capital gains tax rates in developed nations.

By the way, even though the data comes from a 2018 OECD report, it shows tax rates as of July 1, 2016. So not all the numbers will be current. For instance, I assume Macron’s reforms have mitigated France’s horrible score.

Speaking of horrible scores, here are the numbers showing the combined burden of the corporate income tax and capital gains tax. Sadly, the United States was at the top of this list as of July 1, 2016.

The good news is that the recent tax reform means that the United States no longer has the world’s most punitive tax system for new investment.

Though keep in mind that the United States doesn’t allow investors to index capital gains for inflation, so the effective tax rate on capital gains will always be higher than the statutory tax rate.

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Given Social Security’s enormous long-run financial problems, the program eventually will need reform.

But what should be done? Some folks on the left, such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, support huge tax increases to prop up the program. Such an approach would have a very negative impact on the economy and, because of built-in demographic changes, would merely delay the program’s bankruptcy.

Others want a combination of tax increases and benefit cuts. This pay-more-get-less approach is somewhat more rational, but it means that today’s workers would get a really bad deal from Social Security.

This is why I frequently point out that personal retirement accounts (i.e., a “funded” system based on real savings) are the best long-run solution. And to help the crowd in Washington understand why this is the best approach, I explain that dozens of nations already have adopted this type of reform. And I’ve written about the good results in some of these jurisdictions.

Now it’s time to add Sweden to the list.

I actually first wrote about the Swedish reform almost 20 years ago, in a study for the Heritage Foundation co-authored with an expert from Sweden. Here’s some of what we said about the nation’s partial privatization.

Swedish policymakers decided that both individual workers and the overall economy would benefit if the old-age system were partially privatized. …Workers can invest 2.5 percentage points of the 18.5 percent of their income that they must set aside for retirement. …the larger part-16 percent of payroll-goes to the government portion of the program. …What makes the government pay-as-you-go portion of the pension program unique, however, is the formula used for calculating an individual’s future retirement benefits. Each worker’s 16 percent payroll tax is credited to an individual account, although the accounts are notional. …the government uses the money in these notional accounts to calculate an annuity (annual retirement benefit) for the worker. …the longer a worker stays in the workforce, the larger the annuity received. This reform is expected to discourage workers from retiring early… There are many benefits to Sweden’s new system, including greater incentives to work, increased national savings, a flexible retirement age, lower taxes and less government spending.

While that study holds up very well, let’s look at more recent research so we can see how the Swedish system has performed.

I’m a big fan of the fully privatized portion of the Swedish system (the “premium pension”) funded by the 2.5 percent of payroll that goes to personal accounts.

But let’s first highlight the very good reform of the government’s portion of the retirement system. It’s still a tax-and-transfer scheme, but there are “notional” accounts, which means that benefits for retirees are now tied to how much they work and how much they pay into the system.

A new study for the American Enterprise Institute, authored by James Capretta, explains the benefits of this approach.

Sweden enacted a reform of its public pension system that combines a defined-contribution approach with a traditional pay-as-you-go financing structure. The new system includes better work incentives and is more transparent to participants. It is also permanently solvent due to provisions that automatically adjust payouts based on shifting demographic and economic factors. …A primary objective…in Sweden was to build a new system that would be solvent permanently within a fixed overall contribution rate. …pension benefits are calculated based on notional accounts, which are credited with 16.0 percent of workers’ creditable wages. …The pensions workers get in retirement are tied directly to the amount of contributions they make to the system. …This design improved incentives for work… To keep the system in balance, this rate of return is subject to adjustment, to correct for shifts in demographic and economic factors that affect what rate of return can be paid within the fixed budget constraint of a 16.0 percent contribution rate.

The final part of the above excerpts is key. The system automatically adjusts, thus presumably averting the danger of future tax hikes.

Now let’s look at some background on the privatized portion of the new system. Here’s a good explanation in a working paper from the Center for Fiscal Studies at Sweden’s Uppsala University.

The Premium Pension was created mainly for three purposes. Firstly, funded individual accounts were believed to increase overall savings in Sweden. …Secondly, the policy makers wanted to allow participants to take account of the higher return in the capital markets as well as to tailor part of their pension to their risk preferences. Finally, an FDC scheme is inherently immune against financial instability, as an individual’s pension benefit is directly financed by her past accumulated contributions. The first investment selections in the Premium Pension plan took place in the fall of 2000, which is known as the “Big Bang” in Sweden’s financial sector. …any fund company licensed to do business in Sweden is allowed to participate in the system, but must first sign a contract with the Swedish Pensions Agency that specifies reporting requirements and the fee structure. Benefits in the Premium Pension Plan are paid out annually and can be withdrawn from age 61.

And here’s a chart from the Swedish Pension Agency’s annual report showing that pension assets are growing rapidly (right axis), in part because “premium pension has provided a 6.7 percent average value increase in people’s pensions per year since its launch.” Moreover, administrative costs (left axis) are continuously falling. Both trends are very good news for workers.

Let’s close by citing another passage from Capretta’s AEI study.

He looks at Sweden’s long-run fiscal outlook to other major European economies.

According to European Union projections, Sweden’s total public pension obligations will equal 7.5 percent of GDP in 2060, which is a substantial reduction from the…8.9 percent of GDP it spent in 2013. …In 2060, EU countries are expected to spend 11.2 percent of GDP on pensions. Germany’s public pension spending is projected to increase…to 12.7 percent of GDP in 2060. …The EU forecast shows France’s pension obligations will be 12.1 percent of GDP in 2060 and Italy’s will be 13.8 percent of GDP.

I think 8.9 percent of GDP is still far too high, but it’s better than diverting 11 percent, 12 percent, or 13 percent of economic output to pensions.

And the fiscal burden of Sweden’s system could fall even more if lawmakers allowed workers to shift a greater share of their payroll taxes to personal accounts.

But any journey begins with a first step. Sweden moved in the right direction. The United States could learn from that successful experience.

P.S. Pension reform is just the tip of the iceberg. As I wrote two years ago, Sweden has implemented a wide range of pro-market reforms over the past few decades, including some very impressive spending restraint in the 1990s. If you’re interested in more information about these changes, check out Lotta Moberg’s video and Johan Norberg’s video.

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I wrote yesterday about “the world’s demographic problem,” citing a new study about the fiscal implications of aging populations. The report was produced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is not my favorite international bureaucracy when they make policy recommendations, but I’ll be the first to admit that the bureaucrats produce some useful statistics and interesting reports.

To be succinct, the basic message of the study is that developed nations (the U.S., Europe, Asia, etc) face a demographic nightmare of increased longevity and falling birthrates.

It’s good that people are living longer, of course, and there’s nothing wrong with people choosing to have fewer kids. But since most governments maintain tax-and-transfer entitlement programs, the OECD report basically warns that those demographic changes have some very grim fiscal implications. In other words, the world’s demographic shift is actually a policy problem.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that there’s a policy solution.

The aforementioned OECD study (which can be accessed here) is a survey of how retirement income is provided in key nations. So in addition to grim information about fiscally unstable government-run retirement systems we looked at yesterday, the report also has data about the nations that rely – at least to some degree – on private savings.

Let’s start with this helpful flowchart in the report. It illustrates that there are three approaches for the provision of retirement income. The first tier is government-run programs such as the U.S. Social Security system and the third tier is voluntary savings such as IRAs and 401(k)s in America.

For today’s discussion, let’s focus on the second tier. These are the systems that are “funded” with mandatory savings.

And I highlighted (in green) the two private options. In a “defined contribution” system, retirement income is determined by how much is saved and how well it is invested. Workers accumulate a big nest egg and then choose how to spend the money when retired. In a “defined benefit” system, workers are promised a pre-determined level of retirement income and the managers of their pension funds are expected to ensure that enough money will be available.

Yes, public options based on real savings do exist. And they presumably are better than the pay-as-you-go, tax-and-transfer schemes found in the first tier. But it’s also the case that these systems (such as pension funds for state and local bureaucrats) generally don’t work very well.

So now let’s look at another table from the OECD report. It shows nations that have some degree of mandatory private retirement savings, either defined contribution (highlighted in red) or defined benefit (highlighted in yellow). As you can see, there actually are a lot of “privatized” systems.

I’ve actually written about many of these systems, especially the ones in Australia and Chile.

And I have very recent columns on the Dutch and Swiss systems.

A common theme in these columns is that government-run systems are very risky because workers are at the mercy of politicians, who are great at making extravagant promises. But huge unfunded liabilities show that they’re not very good at delivering on those promises.

Nations with funded systems, by contrast, accumulate private savings. That’s not only good for workers, but it’s very beneficial for national economies.

This table from the OECD report shows that Americans and Canadians have managed to save a lot of money, but all of the other nations with pension assets of more than 100 percent of GDP have mandatory funded systems.

When I talk about how the United States would benefit by moving to a private retirement system, people sometimes say it sounds too good to be true.

That’s obviously not the case since other nations have very successful private systems. But there is a catch, as I acknowledged in 2015.

…a big challenge for real Social Security reform is the “transition cost” of financing promised benefits to current retirees and older workers when younger workers are allowed to shift their payroll taxes to personal accounts. Dealing with this challenge presumably means more borrowing over the next few decades.

The appropriate analogy is that shifting to private retirement accounts for younger workers (while protecting current retirees and older workers) would be like refinancing a mortgage. The short-run costs might be higher, but that temporary burden is overwhelmed by the long-run savings. That’s a good deal, at least if the goal is fiscal stability and secure retirement.

Or we can stay with the current approach and become another Greece.

P.S. Social Security reform is especially beneficial for blacks and other minorities.

P.P.S. There is some risk with personal retirement accounts. But I’m not talking about the implications of a falling stock market crash (even a horrible crash would be offset by decades of compounding earnings). Instead, I’m referring to the possibility that future politicians might simply confiscate the money.

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I gave a speech last night at the University of Texas Arlington on the topic of “Is America turning into Greece? How the growth of government and debt risk creating a dismal future for young Americans.”

Not a very succinct title, I realize, but I wanted to warn students that they are the ones who will suffer if today’s politicians fail to enact genuine entitlement reform. And since I told them I wasn’t expecting reform with Trump in the White House, my message was rather gloomy.

My only good news is that I told students that nations such as Italy, Japan, and France likely would suffer fiscal crises before the you-know-what hit the fan in America.

Though it would have been better if my speech was today. I could have cited this Robert Samuelson column from the Washington Post.

No one can say we weren’t warned. For years, scholars of all shapes and sizes — demographers, economists, political scientists — have cautioned that the populations of most advanced countries are gradually getting older, with dramatic consequences for economics and politics. But we haven’t taken heed by preparing for an unavoidable future. The “we” refers not just to the United States but to virtually all advanced societies. In fact, America’s aging, though substantial, is relatively modest compared with that of many European countries and Japan. …The problem is simple. Low birth rates and increasing life expectancies result in aging populations. Since 1970, average life expectancy at age 60 in OECD countries has risen from 18 years to 23.4 years; by 2050, it’s forecast to increase to 27.9 years — that is, to nearly 90. The costs of Social Security and pensions will explode. …The implication: Unless retirement ages are raised sharply or benefits are cut deeply, more and more of the income of the working-age population will be siphoned off through higher taxes or cuts in other government spending to support retirees.

Here’s a table from the article that shows the radical erosion in the age-dependency ratio for selected nations. To give you an idea what the numbers mean, a ratio of 33 (Greece today) means that each worker is supporting one-third of a retiree while a ratio of 73 (Greece in 2050) means that each worker is supporting three-fourths of a retiree.

The Greek numbers are grim, of course, and Italy and Japan are also in very bad shape.

And it’s worth noting that the ratio in China will rapidly deteriorate.

An article in New Scientist makes a similar observation about dramatic demographic change.

Could the population bomb be about to go off in the most unexpected way? Rather than a Malthusian meltdown, could we instead be on the verge of a demographic implosion? To find out how and why, go to Japan, where a recent survey found that people are giving up on sex. Despite a life expectancy of 85 and rising, the number of Japanese is falling thanks to a fertility rate of just 1.4 children per woman… Half the world’s nations have fertility rates below the replacement level of just over two children per woman. Countries across Europe and the Far East are teetering on a demographic cliff, with rates below 1.5. On recent trends, Germany and Italy could see their populations halve within the next 60 years.

The most sobering information is contained in a new report from my “friends” at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. I’m definitely not a fan of the OECD’s policy work, but it does a good job of collecting apples-to-apples data.

Let’s start with the OECD’s calculations of how the old-age dependency ratio will change in various nations.

It’s not good to have a very tall black line in Figure 1.1, so we can confirm the bad news about Italy, Greece, and Japan. But note that Spain, Portugal, and South Korea also face a grim future. Simply stated, tomorrow’s workers will face an enormous burden.

There are two reasons for these grim numbers.

First, we’re living longer. That’s good news for us, but it’s bad news for the sustainability of tax-and-transfer entitlement programs (i.e., this partially explains why Social Security in the U.S. has a $44 trillion shortfall).

This chart shows that increasing longevity is a big reason why both men and women are spending more years in retirement (though there’s a glimmer of good news since the data shows that we’re no longer retiring at ever-younger ages).

In addition to living longer, we’re also having fewer kids.

This is a big deal because more babies today mean more future taxpayers.

But you can see from this table that birthrates have declined in America, as well as in other developed nations (keep in mind that a fertility rate of 2.1 is needed to keep the native-born population from shrinking).

Even more shocking, check out the demographic data for Japan and South Korea. Birth rates in Japan already had fallen by 1960 and they’re even lower today. But the numbers for South Korea are staggering.

Wow.

I guess it’s now easy to understand this story from South Korea.

Students at two South Korean universities are being offering courses that make it mandatory for them to date their classmates as the country battles to reverse one of the lowest birth rates in the world. Seoul’s Dongguk and Kyung Hee universities say the courses on dating, sex, love and relationships target a generation which is shunning traditional family lives. …She said: ”Korea’s fall in population has made dating and marriage important but young Koreans are too busy these days and clumsy in making new acquaintances.” And as part of the course, students have to date three classmates for a month… Seoul has spent about £50 billion trying to boost the birth rate.

I don’t know what’s the strangest part of the article, the part about having to date your classmates as part of homework (do you get extra credit if the girl gets pregnant?!?) or the part about the government squandering an astounding 50 billion pounds (about 67 billion dollars) on trying to encourage kids (I guess politicians never learn).

Or this story from Japan that brings back painful memories of high school.

Talk about a shrinking population. A survey of Japanese people aged 18 to 34 found that almost 70 percent of unmarried men and 60 percent of unmarried women are not in a relationship. Moreover, many of them have never got close and cuddly. Around 42 percent of the men and 44.2 percent of the women admitted they were virgins. The government won’t be pleased that sexlessness is becoming as Japanese as sumo and sake. The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has talked up boosting the birthrate through support for child care, but until the nation bones up on bedroom gymnastics there’ll be no medals to hand out. …Boosting the birthrate is one of the coveted goals of the Abe administration, which has declared it will raise the fertility rate from the current 1.4 to 1.8 by 2025 or so.

The bottom line, as Samuelson suggested in his column, is that western nations are facing a baked-in-the-cake demographic-fiscal crisis.

What’s sad is that we know the crisis will happen, but politicians in most nations have no intention of solving the problems.

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Imagine that we’re in a parallel universe and that you’re the lookout on the Titanic. But in this make-believe world, you have all sorts of fancy radar that allows you to detect icebergs with lots of advance notice. Furthermore, imagine that you detect danger and give lots of warning to the Captain and other officers.

How would you feel if they then decided to ignore your warnings and continued on their course to disaster? You’d probably tear your hair out in frustration.

And that’s a pretty good description of how I feel about the easy-to-predict, visible-to-the-naked-eye, baked-in-the-cake, bound-to-happen fiscal crisis that will occur because of the combination of demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs.

It’s happening in the United States. It’s happening in Europe. It’s happening in Asia. Heck, this is a worldwide problem.

Simply stated, welfare states were created back when everyone assumed that there would always be a “population pyramid,” which means relatively few old people (who collect a lot of money from entitlement programs) at the top, plenty of workers (also known as taxpayers) in the middle, and lots of children (i.e., future taxpayers) at the bottom.

In that world, a modest-sized welfare state isn’t a good idea, but at least it is mathematically sustainable.

Today, by contrast, such a welfare state is a problem because we’re living longer and having fewer children.

And in the future, that kind of welfare state is a recipe for a Greek-style fiscal crisis because demographic trends will be even less favorable. To be blunt, there won’t be enough people pulling the wagon compared to the mass of people riding in the wagon.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, here’s some additional data on this global problem. We’ll start with this look at how the population pyramid is becoming a population cylinder. The key thing to notice is the growth of the over-65 cohort.

And here’s a different way of looking at the same data, but stretching out to 2100.

I didn’t add a red line at age 65, but it’s easy to see that the number of older people will dramatically increase without a concomitant increase in the number of working-age people who are expected to pay the taxes to finance pensions and health care.

So what’s all this mean? Here’s a sobering thought from Prospect.

The ageing populations of the advanced economies and the larger emerging ones combines with past falls in the birth rate to mean that the share of total world population who are of prime working age has been falling since 2012. After a four-decade rise, the trend has reversed with that fall projected to last throughout the 2020s, 2030s and 2040s. A slower-growing global workforce will be a big challenge for the global economy.

A “big challenge” may win the prize for understatement.

Bloomberg has a column on the implications of this massive demographic shift. Notice the data on the number of workers per retiree in various nations.

Rising dependency ratios — or the number of retirees per employed worker — provide one useful metric. In 1970, in the U.S., there were 5.3 workers for every retired person. By 2010 this had fallen to 4.5, and it’s expected to decline to 2.6 by 2050. In Germany, the number of workers per retiree will decrease to 1.6 in 2050, down from 4.1 in 1970. In Japan, the oldest society to have ever existed, the ratio will decrease to 1.2 in 2050, from 8.5 in 1970. Even as spending commitments grow, in other words, there will be fewer and fewer productive adults around to fund them.

The bottom line is that there are enormous unfunded liabilities.

Arnaud Mares of Morgan Stanley analyzed national solvency, or the difference between actual and potential government revenue, on one hand, and existing debt levels and future commitments on the other. The study found that by this measure the net worth of the U.S. was negative 800 percent of its GDP; that is, its future tax revenue was less than committed obligations by an amount equivalent to eight times the value of all goods and services America produces in a year. The net worth of European countries ranged from about negative 250 percent (Italy) to negative 1,800 percent (Greece). For Germany, France and the U.K., the approximate figures were negative 500 percent, negative 600 percent and negative 1,000 percent of GDP.

Wow, it’s depressing that the long-run outlook for the United States is worse than it is for some of Europe’s most infamous welfare states. Though I guess we shouldn’t be totally surprised since I’ve already shared similarly grim estimates from the IMF, BIS, and OECD.

I’ll close with some (sort of) good news.

Notwithstanding some of the estimates I’ve shared, America actually is in better shape than these other nations. If we enact genuine entitlement reform, ideally sooner rather than later, the long-run numbers dramatically improve because spending and debt no longer would be projected to rise so dramatically (whereas government already is an enormous burden in Europe).

This isn’t idle theory. Policymakers don’t have much control over demographics, but they can reduce the fiscal impact of demographic change by adopting better policy.

To cite the most prominent examples, jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore have very long lifespans and very low birthrates, yet their public finances don’t face nearly as much long-run pressure because they never made the mistake of setting up western-style welfare states.

The solution, therefore, is for America and other nations to copy these successful jurisdictions by replacing tax-and-transfer entitlements with systems based on private savings.

P.S. For what it’s worth, I’m not overflowing with optimism that we’ll get the reforms that are needed with Trump in the White House.

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The world’s best welfare state arguably is Finland.

Yes, the burden of government spending is enormous and the tax system is stifling, but the nation gets extremely high scores for rule of law and human liberty. Moreover, it is one of the world’s most laissez-faire economies when looking at areas other than fiscal policy.

Indeed, depending on who is doing the measuring, Finland ranks either slightly above or slightly below the United States when grading overall policy.

Yet even the best welfare state faces a grim future because of demographic change. Simply stated, redistribution programs only work if there is a sufficiently large supply of new taxpayers to finance promised handouts.

And that supply is running dry in Finland. Bloomberg reports that policymakers in that nation are waking up to the fact that there won’t be enough future taxpayers to finance the country’s extravagant welfare state.

Demographics are a concern across the developed world, of course. But they are particularly problematic for countries with a generous welfare state, since they endanger its long-term survival. …the Aktia Bank chief economist said in a telephone interview in Helsinki. “We have a large public sector and the system needs taxpayers in the future.” …According to the OECD, Finland already has the lowest ratio of youths to the working-age population in the Nordics. …And it also has the highest rate of old-age dependency in the region. …The situation is only likely to get worse, according to OECD projections.

Here are a couple of charts showing dramatic demographic changes in Nordic nations. The first chart shows the ratio of children to working-age adults.

And the second charts shows the population of old people (i.e., those most likely to receive money from the government) compared to the number of working-age adults.

As you can see, the numbers are grim now (green bar) but will get far worse by the middle of the century (the red and black bars) because the small number of children today translates into a small number of working-age adults in the future.

To be blunt, these numbers suggest that it’s just a matter of time before the fiscal crisis in Southern Europe spreads to Scandinavia.

Heck, it’s going to spread everywhere: Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia, the developing world, Japan and the United States.

Though it’s important to understand that demographic changes don’t necessarily trigger fiscal and economic problems. Hong Kong and Singapore have extremely low fertility rates, yet they don’t face big problems since they are not burdened by western-style welfare states.

By the way, the article also reveals that Finland’s government isn’t very effective at boosting birthrates, something that we already knew based on the failure of pro-natalist government schemes in nations such as Italy, Spain, Denmark, and Japan.

Though I’m amused that the reporter apparently thinks government handouts are a pro-parent policy and believes that more of the same will somehow have a positive effect.

Finland, a first-rate place in which to be a mother, has registered the lowest number of newborns in nearly 150 years. …the fertility rate should equal two per woman, Schauman says. It was projected at 1.57 in 2016, according to Statistics Finland. That’s a surprisingly low level, given the efforts made by the state to support parenthood. …Finland’s famous baby-boxes. Introduced in 1937, containers full of baby clothes and care products are delivered to expectant mothers, with the cardboard boxes doubling up as a makeshift cot. …Offering generous parental leave…doesn’t seem to be working either. …The government has been working with employers and trade unions to boost gender equality by making parental leave more flexible and the benefits system simpler.

Sigh, a bit of research would have shown that welfare states actually have a negative impact on fertility.

The bottom line is that entitlement reform is the only plausible way for Finland to solve this major economic threat.

P.S. Since the nation’s central bank has published research on the negative impact of excessive government spending, there are some Finns who understand what should be done.

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I’m rather pessimistic about Italy.

Simply stated, it’s economy is moribund. If you peruse the OECD’s economic database, you’ll see that both inflation-adjusted GDP and inflation-adjusted private consumption expenditure (in some ways a more accurate measure of actual quality of life) have grown by an average of just slightly over one percent annually this century.

And even though Italy’s population growth has been anemic, there are more people. And when you add a larger population to the equation, you get per-capita changes in output and living standards that are even less impressive.

But not everyone shares my dour outlook. I recently exchanged views with someone who said that Italy hasn’t increased the burden of government in recent years.

And that person is right. Sort of.

Here’s a chart showing Italy’s score from Economic Freedom of the World since the start of the 21st century. As you can see, it’s been remarkably stable.

But I have two reasons why I think policy stability is a recipe for economic decline.

First, you don’t win a race by standing still if others are moving forward. If you look closely at the above chart, you will see that Italy used to be ranked #36 in the world for economic freedom but it now ranks #69. In other words, Italy’s absolute level of economic freedom barely changed over the period, but its relative position declined significantly because other nations engaged in reforms and leapfrogged Italy in the rankings.

Second, Italy is in the middle of dramatic demographic changes that will have a huge impact on fiscal policy. People are living longer and having fewer children, but Italy’s welfare state was set up on the assumption that there would be lots of working-age taxpayers to finance old-age beneficiaries. In other words, policy stability will lead to fiscal crisis thanks to changes in the composition of the population. Think Greece, but on a bigger scale.

And when I refer to Greece on a bigger scale, I’m thinking another fiscal crisis.

Demond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute is pessimistic about Italy and warns that high levels of red ink could cause a big mess.

We’ve got an Italian economy that is categorized by extremely high public debt. Their public debt level is now something like 132% of GDP, they’ve got a banking system that is bust, that banks have something like 18% of their loans non-performing, that is a huge amount, the economy is completely sclerotic, that the level of Italian GDP today is pretty much the same as it was some fifteen years ago. There’s been practically no growth, declining living standards… What also makes Italy very important from a global point of view is that we’re now not talking about a small country like Greece which doesn’t have that much systemic significance. We’re talking about the third largest country in the Eurozone. We’re talking about a country that has the world’s third largest sovereign bond market with something like two and a half trillion dollars of debt.

And don’t forget that these grim fiscal numbers probably mean even higher taxes on Italy’s young workers.

But those taxpayers aren’t captives. Cristina Odone, in a column for CapX, points out that young people are getting the short end of the stick.

Gerontocracy, stifling regulations and huge unemployment have hindered Italy’s prosperity for decades now. The country hailed for its economic miracle and famed for its creative and industrious entrepreneurs (at the helm, usually, of family-run businesses such as Gucci, Prada, and Ferrero) today comes second only to Greece (among EU countries) for the size of its national debt. …Italy’s unemployed youngsters, who constitute 40 per cent of under-24-year-olds, gnash their teeth at the unfairness of national life, where fossils control the levers of power while flouting their sinecures. A quarter of under-30-year-olds classify as NEETS, young people who are not in education, work or training. Contrast this with the UK, where only one in 10 under the age of 30 is in the same position. …Labour laws continue to blight young people’s prospects. …This sclerosis risks turning Italy into the sick man of Europe.

No wonder many young Italians are migrating to nations with more economic opportunity. AFP has a story on the dour outlook in Italy.

With the country struggling to kick an economic slump, some 40,000 Italians between 18 and 34 years old set out to seek greener pastures elsewhere in 2015, according to the Migrantes Foundation. “Just talking with people (in Italy) it’s clear going away might be the only solution,” said D’Elia, 26, who has spent the last five years in London, where he currently works as a barman, and intends to stay for now despite high living costs. …most of Italy’s youths are unwilling to return — and the country is seen as offering little to attract foreign graduates. …GDP is forecast to inch up just 1.3 percent this year. The jobless rate hovers at over 11 percent, well above the euro area average of 9.3 percent. Among 15 to 24-year olds it leaps to 37 percent, compared with a European average of 18.7 percent. …Sergio Mello, who set up a start-up in Hong Kong before moving to San Francisco, said Italy “does not offer a fertile environment to develop a competitive business”. …Mello says there are other problems: “The bureaucracy wastes a lot of time”, the red tape “drives you crazy”.

Unfortunately, rather than ease up on government burdens so that young people will have some hope for the future, some Italian politicians want new mandates, new spending, new taxes, and new restrictions.

I’ve previously written about new destructive tax policies that shrink the tax base. And I’ve written about wasteful new spending schemes, like a €500 “culture bonus.”

And now there’s something equally silly on the regulatory front being proposed by politicians. Here are excerpts from a report by Heat Street on the initiative.

Italy could soon become the first Western country to offer paid “menstrual leave” to female workers. …If passed, it would mandate that companies enforce a “menstrual leave” policy and offer three paid days off each month to working women who experience painful periods. …The Italian version of Marie Claire described it as “a standard-bearer of progress and social sustainability.” But the bill also has critics, including women who fear this sort of measure could backfire and end up stigmatizing them. Writing in Donna Moderna, another women’s magazine, Lorenza Pleuteri argued that if women were granted extra paid leave, employers would be even more reluctant to hire women, in a country where women already struggle to integrate the workforce. …Miriam Goi, a feminist writer, …fears that rather than breaking taboos about women’s menstrual cycle, the measure could end up perpetuating the idea that women are more emotional than men and require special treatment.

It’s unclear if this policy was actually enacted, but it’s a bad sign that it was even considered. Simply stated, making workers more expensive is not a good way to encourage more job creation. Even a columnist for the New York Times acknowledged that feminist-driven economic policies backfire against women.

The bottom line is that Italy needs sweeping reductions in the burden of the public sector. Yet the nation’s politicians are more interested in expanding the size and scope of government. Perhaps now it’s easy to understand why I fear the country may have passed the tipping point. You can be in a downward spiral even if policy doesn’t change.

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I will occasionally pontificate about a demographic crisis in the developed world, but I usually feel guilty afterwards. After all, how can it be a bad thing that we’re living longer? And what gives me the right to grouse about the number of children other families decide to have?

What I should be saying instead is that demographic changes are forcing us to recognize that we have a crisis of bad public policy. To be more specific, the entitlement state has become too large.

That’s the message I tried to get across in an interview earlier this week.

At the risk of oversimplification, I basically stated that there are two crises in the world.

The first crisis, based in the industrialized world, is that tax-and-transfer welfare states were created back when there were lots of workers and relatively few old people, and most people assumed that demographic profile would always exist.

But now that the “population pyramid” is becoming a “population cylinder” (I was talking faster than I was thinking in the interview and reversed the two concepts at one point), there aren’t going to be enough workers to finance all the redistribution programs, particularly the ones that funnel money to the elderly.

This is a big reason why nations such as Greece and Italy already are in deep trouble and why it’s just a matter of time before the fiscal crisis spreads to France and Japan (and the United States if we don’t enact genuine entitlement reform).

Here’s a table, based on World Bank data, showing the 20 jurisdictions with the lowest fertility rates. Which means, of course, the places with the fewest future taxpayers to finance redistribution.

The second crisis, based in the developing world, is that pervasive statism suffocates growth.

And while I largely agree with the late Julian Simon about people being a resource rather than liability, if a nation has a bloated and intrusive public sector that stifles the private sector, then a growing population can be a bad thing.

But it’s not the growing population that’s bad, it’s the statist policies. Here’s a list of the 20 counties with the highest fertility rates. The majority of them are ranked in the “least free” quartile according to Economic Freedom of the World. And none of them are in the “most free” quartile.

But the most important part of the interview, at least when thinking about problems in the industrialized world, is when I pointed out that nations such as Singapore don’t face a big problem.

Yes, Singapore has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, but it also doesn’t have a pervasive tax-and-transfer welfare state. People are responsible for saving for their own retirement and healthcare. So the absence of future taxpayers isn’t a major challenge because the system doesn’t need to be propped up with tax revenue.

And the same thing is true in Hong Kong, another jurisdiction that is in good long-run shape even though the fertility rate is extremely low.

P.S. Given the demographic changes that are now occurring, many governments with big welfare states now recognize that they have a problem. Unfortunately, many of them think the solution is to artificially encourage more babies rather than entitlement reform.

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I’ve looked at some of the grim fiscal implications of demographic changes the United States and Europe.

Now let’s look at what’s happening in Asia.

The International Monetary Fund has a recent study that looks at shortfalls in government-run pension schemes and various policies that could address the long-run imbalances in the region. Here are the main points from the abstract.

Asian economies are aging fast, with significant implications for their pension system finances. While some countries already have high dependency ratios (Japan), others are expected to experience a sharp increase in the next couple of decades (China, Korea, Singapore). …This has…implications. …pension system deficits can increase very quickly, limiting room for policy action and hampering fiscal sustainability. …This paper explores how incorporating Automatic Adjustment Mechanisms (AAMs)—rules ensuring that certain characteristics of a pension system respond to demographic, macroeconomic and financial developments, in a predetermined fashion and without the need for additional intervention— can be part of pension reforms in Asia.

More succinctly, AAMs are built-in rules that automatically make changes to government pension systems based on various criteria.

Incidentally, we already have AAMs in the United States. Annual Social Security cost of living adjustments (COLAs) and increases in the wage base cap are examples of automatic changes that occur on a regular basis. And such policies exist in many other nations.

But those are AAMs that generally are designed to give more money to beneficiaries. The IMF study is talking about AAMs that are designed to deal with looming shortfalls caused by demographic changes. In other words, AAMs that result in seniors getting lower-than-promised benefits in the future. Here’s how the IMF study describes this development.

More recently, AAMs have come to the forefront to help address financial sustainability concerns of public pension systems. Social insurance pension systems are dominated by defined benefit schemes, pay-as-you-go financed, with liabilities explicitly underwritten by the government. …these systems, under their previous contribution and benefit rules, are unprepared for population aging and need to implement parametric reform or structural reforms in order to reduce the level or growth rate of their unfunded pension liabilities. …Automatic adjustments can theoretically make the reform process politically less painful and more likely to succeed.

Here’s a chart from the study that underscores the need for some sort of reform. It shows the age-dependency ratio on the left and the projected increase in the burden of pension spending on the right.

I’m surprised that the future burden of pension spending in Japan will only be slightly higher than it is today.

And I’m shocked by the awful long-run outlook in Mongolia (the bad numbers for China are New Zealand are also noteworthy, though not as surprising).

To address these grim numbers, the study considers various AAMs that might make government systems fiscally sustainable.

Especially automatic increases in the retirement age based on life expectancy.

One attractive option is to link statutory retirement ages—which seem relatively low in the region—to longevity or other sustainability indicators. This would at the very least help ameliorate the impact of life expectancy improvements in the finances of public pension systems. … While some countries have already raised the retirement age over time (Japan, Korea), pension systems in Asia do not yet feature automatic links between retirement age and life expectancy. …The case studies for Korea and China (section IV) suggest that automatic indexation of retirement age to life expectancy can indeed help reduce the pension system’s financial imbalances.

Here’s a table showing the AAMs that already exist.

Notice that the United States is on this list with an “ex-post trigger” based on “current deficits.”

This is because when the make-believe Trust Fund runs out of IOUs in the 2030s, there’s an automatic reduction in benefits. For what it’s worth, I fully expect future politicians to simply pass a law stating that promised benefits get paid regardless.

It’s also worth noting that Germany and Canada have “ex-ante triggers” for “contribution rates.” I’m assuming that means automatic tax hikes, which is a horrid idea. Heck, even the study acknowledges a problem with that approach.

…raising contribution rates can have important effects on the labor market and growth, it would be important to prioritize other adjustments.

From my perspective, the main – albeit unintended – lesson from the IMF study is that private retirement accounts are the best approach. These defined contribution (DC) systems avoid all the problems associated with pay-as-you-go, tax-and-transfer regimes, generally known as defined benefit (DB) systems.

The larger role played by defined contribution schemes in Asia reduce the scope for using AAMs for financial sustainability purposes. Many Asian economies (Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia) have defined contribution systems, …under which system sustainability is typically inherent.

Here are the types of pension systems in Asia, with Australia and New Zealand added to the mix..

For what it’s worth, I would put Australia in the “defined contribution” grouping. Yes, there is still a government age pension that serves as a safety net, but there also are safety nets in Singapore and Hong Kong as well.

But I’m nitpicking.

Here’s another table from the study showing that it’s much simpler to deal with “DC” systems compared with “DB” systems. About the only reforms that are ever needed revolve around the question of how much private savings should be required.

By the way, even though the information in the IMF study shows the superiority of DC plans, that’s only an implicit message.

To the extent the bureaucracy has an explicit message, it’s mostly about indexing the retirement age to changes in life expectancy.

That’s probably better than doing nothing, but there’s an unaddressed problem with that approach. It forces people to spend more years working and paying into systems, and then leaves them fewer years to collect benefits in retirement.

That idea periodically gets floated in the United States. Here’s some of what I wrote in 2011.

Think of this as the pay-for-a-steak-and-get-a-hamburger plan. Social Security already is a bad deal for workers, forcing them to pay a lot of money in exchange for relatively meager retirement benefits.

I made a related observation about this approach back in 2012.

…it focuses on the government’s finances and overlooks the implications for households. It is possible, at least on paper, to “save” Social Security by cutting benefits and raising taxes. But such “reforms” force people to pay more and get less – even though Social Security already is a very bad deal, particularly for younger workers.

The bottom line is that the implicit message should be explicit. Other nations should copy jurisdictions such as Chile, Australia, and Hong Kong by shifting to personal retirement accounts

P.S. Speaking of which, here’s the case for U.S. reform, as captured by cartoons. And you can enjoy other Social Security cartoons here, here, and here, along with a Social Security joke if you appreciate grim humor.

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The tax-and-transfer welfare state is in deep trouble. I explained last year that the United States faces a very serious long-run challenge.

Many of our entitlement programs were created based on the assumption that we would always have an expanding population, as represented by a population pyramid. …however, we’ve seen major changes in demographic trends, including longer lifespans and falling birthrates. The combination of these two factors means that our population pyramid is slowly, but surely, turning into a population cylinder. …this looming shift in America’s population profile means massive amounts of red ink as the baby boom generation moves into full retirement.

In other words, in the absence of genuine entitlement reform, America will have a Greek-style fiscal mess at some point in the future. Or, as I wrote yesterday, maybe we should call it a Japan-style mess.

Demographic 2030Simply stated, we’re going to have too many people collecting benefits and too few people generating income.

The outlook is even worse in Europe. Indeed, the fiscal crisis has already started in many nations in Southern Europe. And the crisis will spread to many countries in Northern Europe. And it will hit Eastern Europe as well, notwithstanding some good economic reforms in that region.

Unfortunately, most politicians are reluctant to undertake the entitlement reforms that would avert this crisis.

So what’s their alternative solution? In many cases, they don’t have one. In other cases, they act as if higher tax burdens can solve the problem, even though that probably means even more people will be discouraged from productive lives and instead decide to ride in the wagon of government dependency (higher taxes also would enable even more spending, but that’s a separate story).

Another potential answer is sex. To be more specific, governments around the world are urging people to procreate more so that there will be additional future taxpayers to finance the welfare state.

I’m not kidding.

Let’s start with the new effort in Spain.

Europeans across the continent are having so many fewer babies that national populations from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean are skewing towards the older end of the spectrum, with not enough young, productive people to keep economies thriving and to look after the rest of the aging population. Spanish women have 1.3 children on average. In 2015, Spain’s death rate outstripped the birth rate… Edelmira Barreira Diz was appointed as “commissioner for the demographic challenge” last month.

I think “sex commissioner” would have been a better title. Heck, that probably would have enticed a certain former American president to apply for the position.

Here’s a chart from the story showing declining fertility rates.

There’s a similar effort for government-encouraged babies in Italy.

Italy is facing a dramatic demographic change, with increasingly fewer children being born. So the Health Ministry recently launched an ad campaign to remind people of Sept. 22 being “fertility day.” …another ad claiming that fertility was “a common good” — a comparison that reminded some of fascist propaganda from the 1920s which urged women to have more babies to support the nation. …As a social welfare state, Italy’s pensions system and economy relies on a certain number of younger people joining the workforce every year.

The Danish government also wants women to think they have an obligation to produce future taxpayers.

In Denmark, for instance, schoolchildren are now taught in class that they should have more babies. “…we just thought, maybe we should actually also tell them about how to get pregnant,” Marianne Lomholt, national director of Sex and Society, told the New York Times. …Denmark’s Education Ministry now has teachers talk not only about the dangers of sex and pregnancies, but also about their benefits.

Also in Denmark, private companies are jumping on this bandwagon (sexwagon?) of more sex as a solution to demographic-entitlement crisis.

Denmark has a sex problem. …not exactly a sex problem, per se. It’s more like a baby problem. …Denmark’s perennially low birth rate…has left people worried… “We are concerned. The fewer Danes means fewer people to support the aging population…” …can vacation sex save the Kingdom of Denmark? Spies thinks it can, so the company has sweetened the deal. According to its promotion, the company will give prizes to couples who get pregnant while on vacations purchased through them.

Given the grim demographic outlook in Japan, nobody should be surprised that the government there is agitating for more future taxpayers.

A comprehensive plan to reverse Japan’s crashing population numbers was unveiled on Thursday by a government task force… Shigeru Ishiba, minister in charge of overcoming population decline and reviving local economies, was more blunt. “Japan will die off” without proper countermeasures, he warned. …The strategy outlined in the government plan is to encourage young people to relocate to areas outside the major metropolitan regions by fostering jobs and economic growth in small local communities that are now in danger of simply disappearing for lack of inhabitants.

Huh?!? Japan’s repeated forays into Keynesian economics haven’t generated good results nationally, so I’m not holding my breath that this new campaign will be “fostering jobs and economic growth” in targeted communities.

For a final example, let’s shift to China, where a government that formerly forced women to have abortions is suddenly looking at ways to subsidize an extra child.

China is considering introducing birth rewards and subsidies to encourage people to have a second child… the country issued new guidelines in late 2015 allowing all parents to have two children amid growing concerns over the costs of supporting an aging population. …China began implementing its controversial “one-child policy” in the 1970s in order to limit population growth, but authorities are now concerned that the country’s dwindling workforce will not be able to support an increasingly aging population.

Since coerced redistribution isn’t nearly as odious as coerced abortion, I guess this is another sign of progress in China.

But I’m not sure that will be enough to produce enough future taxpayers for China. Or any other nation.

The only sustainable welfare state, given modern demographics, is no welfare state.

Or, to be more accurate, the right approach is to start with the default assumption that people are responsible for saving and investing to support themselves in retirement. There are lots of nations that now have systems of personal retirement accounts, and this puts them in much stronger position than nations that rely solely on tax-and-transfer entitlement schemes. Hong Kong is a good example, as are Chile and Australia.

By the way, countries with private social security systems have safety-net programs for destitute seniors, but that’s far more affordable than automatic payments to everyone in retirement.

P.S. On a related note, there’s a big debate in academic circles about whether the welfare state (specifically young-to-old redistribution) actually sows the seed of its own destruction by inducing lower fertility rates. Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review summarized some of the evidence for this hypothesis back in 2012.

A 2005 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research by economists Michele Boldrin, Mariacristina De Nardi, and Larry E. Jones points out that “the size and timing of the growth in government pension systems” matches up nicely with fertility trends in the U.S. and Europe. They expanded on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and fertility fell on both sides, after World War II; and they expanded more in Europe, where fertility fell further. In their model, entitlements account for roughly half of the decline in fertility, and 60 percent of the difference between European and American fertility. When a pension system expands by 10 percent of GDP, the average number of children per woman drops by 0.7 to 1.6. “These findings are highly statistically significant and fairly robust to the inclusion of other possible explanatory variables.” A 2007 paper by Isaac Ehrlich and Jinyoung Kim, also for the NBER, reached similar conclusions, finding that pension programs explained a little under half of the decline in fertility rates, and a little more than half of the decline in marriage rates, in developed countries between 1965 and 1989. One implication of this finding is that pension programs have contributed to their own financial woes by suppressing fertility.

Some researchers have concluded that other types of redistribution spending can boost fertility, though other scholars are more skeptical.

I haven’t studied this literature on subsidized babies enough to have a strong opinion.

For what it’s worth, I suspect the government can provide enough handouts to induce motherhood (heck, one of the motives for the welfare reform that was adopted during Bill Clinton’s presidency was a concern that the old system was encouraging women to have children out of wedlock).

But I’m very doubtful that such policies would fix the demographic/entitlement crisis that threatens most nations. In part, because I’m skeptical about the ability of governments to cause large shifts in fertility, but also because recreating a population pyramid only works if the additional children wind up being productive workers in the private sector.

In other words, the goal isn’t really a population pyramid as much as it’s a shift in the ratio of producers versus dependents in a nation.

As such, if many of the babies induced by handouts come from mothers that rely on welfare, and if those children are less likely to grow up to be net payers of tax rather than net consumers of tax, then baby subsidies are not going to solve the problem.

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When I warn about the fiscal and economic consequences of America’s poorly designed entitlement programs (as well as the impact of demographic changes), I regularly suggest that the United States is on a path to become Greece.

Because of Greece’s horrible economy, this link has obvious rhetorical appeal.

But there’s another nation that may be a more accurate “role model” of America’s future. This other country, like the United States, is big, relatively rich, and has its own currency.

For these and other reasons, in an article for The Hill, I suggest that Japan is the nation that may offer the most relevant warning signs. I explain first that Japan shows the failure of Keynesian economics.

…ever since a property bubble burst in the late 1980s, Japan’s economy has been in the doldrums, and its politicians deserve much of the blame. They’ve engaged in repeated binges of so-called Keynesian stimulus. But running up the national credit card hasn’t worked any better in Japan than it did for President Barack Obama. Instead of economic rejuvenation, Japan is now saddled with record levels of debt.

In other words, Japan already is a basket case and may be the next Greece. And all this foolish policy has been cheered on by the IMF.

I then highlight how Japan shows why a value-added tax is a huge mistake.

Japan’s politicians also decided to impose a value-added tax (VAT) on the nation. As so often happens when a VAT gets adopted, it turns into a money machine, as legislators start ratcheting the rate higher and higher. That happened in Europe back in the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s happening in Japan today.

And regular readers know my paranoid fear of the VAT taking hold in the United States.

But here’s the main lesson in the column.

The combination of demographic changes and redistribution programs is a recipe for fiscal crisis.

…the biggest economic threat to the country is the way Japan’s welfare state interacts with demographic changes. It’s not that the welfare state is enormous, particularly compared with European nations, but the system is becoming an ever-increasing burden because the Japanese people are living longer and having fewer children. …America faces some of the same problems. …if we don’t reform our entitlement programs, it’s just a matter of time before we also have a fiscal crisis.

To be sure, as I note in the article, Japan’s demographic outlook is worse. And that nation’s hostility to any immigration (even from high-skilled people) means that Japan can’t compensate (as America has to some degree) for low birth rates by expanding its population.

Indeed, the demographic situation in Japan is so grim that social scientists have actually estimated the date on which the Japanese people become extinct.

Mark August 16, 3766 on your calendar. According to…researchers at Tohoku University, that’s the date Japan’s population will dwindle to one. For 25 years, the country has had falling fertility rates, coinciding with widespread aging. The worrisome trend has now reached a critical mass known as a “demographic time bomb.” When that happens, a vicious cycle of low spending and low fertility can cause entire generations to shrink — or disappear completely.

Though I guess none of us will know whether this prediction is true unless we live another 1750 years. But it doesn’t matter if the estimate is perfect. Japan’s demographic outlook is very grim.

By the way, the problem of aging populations and misguided entitlements exists in almost every developed nation.

But I mentioned in the article for The Hill that there are two exceptions. Hong Kong and Singapore have extremely low birthrates and aging populations. But neither jurisdiction faces a fiscal crisis for the simple reason that people largely are responsible for saving for their own retirement.

And that, of course, is the main lesson. The United States desperately needs genuine entitlement reform. While I’m not overflowing with optimism about Trump’s view on these issues, hope springs eternal.

P.S. In yesterday’s column about Germany, I listed bizarre policies in Germany in the postscripts. My favorite example from Japan is the regulation of coffee enemas. And the Japanese government has even proven incompetent at giving away money.

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At the risk of sounding like a broken record (or like Donald Sutherland in Animal House), I’m going to repeat myself for the umpteenth time and state that the United States has a big long-run problem.

To be specific, the burden of government spending will inexorably climb in the absence of big reforms. This isn’t just my speculation. It’s a built-in mathematical result of poorly designed entitlement programs combined with demographic changes.

I wrote about these issues in a column for The Hill.

…there is a big reason to worry about the slowdown in population growth in the U.S. Many of our entitlement programs were created based on the assumption that we would always have an expanding population, as represented by a population pyramid. …however, we’ve seen major changes in demographic trends, including longer lifespans and falling birthrates. The combination of these two factors means that our population pyramid is slowly, but surely, turning into a population cylinder. …this looming shift in America’s population profile means massive amounts of red ink as the baby boom generation moves into full retirement.

To back up my claim, I then cited grim numbers from the Congressional Budget Office, and also linked to very sobering data about America’s long-run fiscal position from the Bank for International Settlements, the International Monetary Fund, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Simply stated, the United States will become a failed welfare state if we don’t make changes in the near future.

But I point out that we can save ourselves from that fate. And it’s not complicated. Just make sure government spending grows slower than the private economy, which will only be possible in the long run if lawmakers reform entitlements, particularly Medicare and Medicaid.

…it’s also possible that Washington will get serious about genuine entitlement reform. …if Congress adopted the structural reforms that have been in House budgets in recent years, much of our long-run spending problem would disappear. …the real goal is to make sure that government spending grows slower than the private sector.

That’s the good news.

But here’s the bad news. Based on his campaign rhetoric, Donald Trump isn’t a fan of entitlement reform.

And if he says no, it isn’t going to happen. Writing for National Review, Michael Barone explains that Trump’s opposition is a death knell.

The election of Donald Trump has put the kibosh on…the entitlement reform sought by conservative elites… Trump…has made plain that he’s opposed to significant changes in entitlements… It’s hard to see how Republicans in Congress will go to the trouble of addressing entitlements if their efforts can’t succeed.

As a matter of political prognostication, I agree. Republicans on Capitol Hill are not going to push reform without a receptive White House.

It doesn’t matter that they’re right.

Conservative elites’ concern about entitlements is based on solider numbers… There’s a strong case for making adjustments now… The longer we wait, the more expensive and painful adjustments will be. …Conservative…elites may have superior long-range vision. But they’re not going to get the policies they want for the next four years.

But this doesn’t mean reform is a lost cause.

I explained last month that there are three reasons why Trump might push for good policy (even though he said “I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid”).

  • First, politicians oftentimes say things they don’t mean (remember Obama’s pledge that people could keep their doctors and their health plans if Obamacare was enacted?).
  • Second, the plans to fix Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid don’t involve any cuts. Instead, reformers are proposing changes that will slow the growth of outlays.
  • Third, if Trump is even slightly serious about pushing through his big tax cut, he’ll need to have some plan to restrain overall spending to make his agenda politically viable.

And maybe Trump has reached the same conclusion. At least to some degree.

Here’s what is being reported by The Hill.

Medicaid has grown in size in recent years, with ObamaCare extending coverage to millions of low-income people who hadn’t qualified before. But Republicans warn of the program’s growing costs and have pushed to provide that money to states in the form of block grants — an idea President-elect Donald Trump endorsed during the campaign. Vice President-elect Mike Pence signaled in an interview with ABC this month that the incoming administration planned to keep Medicare as it is, while looking at ways to change Medicaid. …Block grants would mean limiting federal Medicaid funds to a set amount given to the states, rather than the current federal commitment, which is more open-ended. …Gail Wilensky, who was head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services…argued that…If federal money for the program were fixed, “states would have much greater incentives to use it as efficiently as possible,” she said.

The policy argument for Medicaid reform is very strong.

The real question is whether Trump ultimately decides to expend political capital on a much-needed reform. Because he would need to do some heavy lifting. If GOPers push for block grants, well-heeled medical providers such as hospitals will lobby fiercely to maintain the status quo (after all what’s is waste and fraud to us is money in the bank for them). Trump would have to be willing to push back and make a populist argument for federalism and fiscal responsibility rather than a populist argument for dependency.

I guess we’ll see what happens.

P.S. For what it’s worth, if Trump is going to fix just one entitlement program, Medicaid is a good choice.

P.P.S. In an ideal world, Medicare and Social Security also should be fixed.

P.P.P.S. That being said, if the major fiscal change of a Trump Administration is Medicaid reform, I’ll be relatively happy. I’ve been operating on the assumption (based in part of what he said during the campaign) that Trump is a big-government Republican. Sort of like Bush. I will be very happy if it turns out I was wrong.

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A couple of days ago, I wrote about Clemens Schneider’s hypothesis, presented at the European Students for Liberty regional conference in Maastricht, that 1356 was a very important year in European history because of two events that promoted decentralization and federalism.

I also participated in the event and was asked to speak about “Ensuring Sustainable Prosperity in Europe.”

But I spent 90 percent of my speech saying there was very little hope of that happening. I highlighted three points.

  1. Europe is suffering from anemic growth and is falling further behind the United States.
  2. Demographic changes in Europe will likely cause even further economic stagnation.
  3. An ever-rising burden of government spending will further cripple economic performance.

To tie all these points together, I pointed out that worsening fiscal policy doesn’t necessarily mean economic decline. If nations make sufficient improvements in other policy areas (regulation, monetary policy, trade, rule of law and property right), then it is still possible to have more overall freedom and a stronger economy. Indeed, that’s basically what happened in developed nations after World War II.

But that hasn’t been happening in the 21st Century. Here’s a chart I prepared for the students showing changes in overall economic freedom in the major nations of Western Europe from 2000-present.

As you can see, other than Austria’s tiny increase and Greece’s unchanged (but still lowest on the list) score, economic freedom in Europe has been eroding. Indeed, the average decline is about .2 on a 0-10 scale, which isn’t trivial.

I also included the United States, which unfortunately has experienced the biggest decrease of all nations (thanks Bush and Obama!). And I’m disappointed that Switzerland (one of my favorite nations) also has moved in the wrong direction.

To conclude, there was a reprehensible American journalist named Lincoln Steffens who made a trip to the Soviet Union in 1919 and then told American audiences that, “I have seen the future, and it works.” Some might argue we shouldn’t judge him too harshly since it took time for the barbarity of communism to become apparent, but any ideology that puts the state over the individual is a priori evil in my humble opinion.

But I’m digressing. I cite Steffens’ infamous quote because I, too, have seen the future. It’s Europe. And it doesn’t work.

P.S. I did point out that the outlook for European is not theoretically hopeless. Even Greece could climb out of its statist malaise with sustained spending restraint and other market reforms.

P.P.S. My indictment of Europe, I explained, should not be interpreted as an endorsement of the United States. I explained that our long-run outlook was similarly grim (and will probably accelerate in the wrong direction because of the election).

P.P.P.S. Which is why I told the students in my conclusion that they should apply for Australian visas.

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European economic analysts are paying too much attention to the United Kingdom and too little attention to Italy.

Yes, the Brexit decision is important, and the United Kingdom is the world’s 5th-largest economy so it merits attention to see if there are any speed bumps as it escapes from the slowly sinking ship otherwise known as the European Union.

But one of the other passengers on that doomed ship is Italy, the world’s 8th-largest economy. And if the UK merits attention because of uncertainty on its way to a brighter future, then Italy should be getting five-alarm focus for its festering economic crisis as it descends into chaos.

Part of that crisis is quasi-permanent stagnation, as illustrated by this map showing changes in per-capita economic output since 1995.

To state that Italy is the slow student in the class is an understatement. There’s been a two-decade period with almost no improvement in economic output.

Even Greece has done better!

To make matters worse, Italy’s long-run stagnation is matched by an immediate banking crisis. Here are some excerpts from a MarketWatch report.

Banks in Italy are weighed by about €360 billion in nonperforming loans, or unpaid debts, according to Italy’s central bank. That represents 18.1% of total loans to consumers. Roughly €210 billion of those loans have been taken out by borrowers now considered to be insolvent. “Meanwhile, average return on equity has been less than 2% per year during the last five years, neither enough to clear out the NPLs at a decent pace, nor to attract more capital.

And, as illustrated by this chart from the Economist, this puts the nation in a very undesirable position.

There’s also a demographic disaster in Italy. The fertility rate is 1.43, which puts Italy in 208th place out of 224 nations.

To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with choosing to have fewer children. The “disaster” is that Italy has a huge, pay-as-you-go entitlement state that is premised on having an ever-growing number of new taxpayers to pay for the promises made to older taxpayers. And since Italy’s population pyramid is turning into a population cylinder, that’s obviously not happening.

Indeed, the EU Observer reports that parts of Italy are becoming ghost towns.

Around a third of villages in Italy are at risk of turning into “ghost” villages in the next 25 years because young people are leaving, and those who are left behind are dying of old age. …2,430 villages are at risk.

The “good news” is that there is some awareness that the nation faces a double-disaster of statism and unfriendly demographics.

Unfortunately, that awareness doesn’t extend to Italy’s ruling class. Almost nothing is being done to address the problems of a bloated (and notoriously incompetent) public sector and excessive government intervention. Fully one-half of the nation’s economic output is consumed by a bloated public sector. And a stifling tax burden helps to explain why economic output is stagnant.

And I’m not expecting good results from a new scheme to change the nation’s demographic outlook.

Italy’s health minister is proposing doubling a ‘baby bonus’ incentive for couples to have more children to combat what she calls a catastrophic decline in the country’s birth rate. …Lorenzin told the paper she wanted to double the standard baby bonus, currently 80 euros ($90) a month…and introduce higher payments for second and subsequent children to encourage bigger families.

Part of my concern is that I don’t think the government should pay people to have children, both because I don’t like redistribution and because I’m skeptical that you can successfully bribe people to have more children with $90 per month.

But when you dig into the details, the proposal is even more troubling. The government basically wants to encourage more children from the portion of the population that is most likely to rely on state handouts.

Higher-income families, those with taxable earnings of more than 25,000 euros per year, are not eligible for the scheme, excluding about a third of parents. The allowances are paid at higher rates for the poorest — those declaring less than 7,000 euros a year to the taxman. Under the new proposals, the payment for second and subsequent children would be 240 euros/month for average families and 400 euros/month for the poorest.

Call me crazy, but the last thing Italy needs is more people riding in the wagon of government dependency.

Oh, by the way, this scheme will add to the burden of government spending.

Lorenzin’s proposals would add 2.2 billion euros to public spending over six years, her department estimates.

More spending, bigger government, higher taxes, and additional red ink. Maybe that’s a recipe for prosperity on some planet in the universe, but it definitely won’t work on Earth.

P.S. No wonder there’s discussion in Sardinia on leaving Italy and joining Switzerland. After all, the luckiest Italian people in the world are the ones in Ticino, the southernmost canton of über-prosperous Switzerland (just as the unluckiest French people live in Menton and Roquebrune, which used to be part of Monaco).

P.P.S. Though you have to give the Italians credit for ingenuity. This doctor and this cop both went to extraordinary lengths to earn membership in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

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Changing demographics is one of the most powerful arguments for genuine entitlement reform.

When programs such as Social Security and Medicare (and equivalent systems in other nations) were first created, there were lots of young people and comparatively few old people.

And so long as a “population pyramid” was the norm, reasonably sized welfare states were sustainable (though still not desirable because of the impact on labor supply, savings rates, tax policy, etc).

In most parts of the world, however, demographic profiles have changed. Because of longer life expectancy and falling birth rates, population pyramids are turning into population cylinders.

This is one of the reasons why there is a fiscal crisis in Southern European nations such as Greece. And there’s little reason for optimism since the budgetary outlook will get worse in those countries as their versions of baby-boom generations move into full retirement.

But while Southern Europe already has been hit, and while the long-run challenge in Northern European nations such as France has received a lot of attention, there’s been inadequate focus on the problem in Eastern Europe.

The fact that there’s a major problem surprises some people. After all, isn’t the welfare state smaller in these countries? Haven’t many of them adopted pro-growth reforms such as the flat tax? Isn’t Eastern Europe a success story considering that the region was enslaved by communism for many decades?

To some degree, the answer to those questions is yes. But there are two big challenges for the region.

First, while the fiscal burden of government may not be as high in some Eastern European countries as it is elsewhere on the continent (damning with faint praise), those nations tend to rank lower for other factors that determine overall economic freedom, such as regulation and the rule of law.

Looking at the most-recent edition of Economic Freedom of the World, there are nine Western European nations among the top 30 countries: Switzerland (#4), Ireland (#8), United Kingdom (#10), Finland (#19), Denmark (#22), Luxembourg (#27), Norway (#27), Germany (#29), and the Netherlands (#30).

For Eastern Europe, by contrast, the only representatives are Romania (#17), Lithuania (#19), and Estonia (#22).

Second, Eastern Europe has a giant demographic challenge.

Here’s what was recently reported by the Financial Times.

Eastern Europe’s population is shrinking like no other regional population in modern history. …a population drop throughout a whole region and over decades has never been observed in the world since the 1950s with the exception of…Eastern Europe over the last 25 consecutive years.

Here’s the chart that accompanied the article. It shows the population change over five-year periods, starting in 1955. Eastern Europe (circled in the lower right) is suffering a population hemorrhage.

By the way, it’s not like the trend is about to change.

If you look at global fertility data, these nations all rank near the bottom. And they also suffer from brain drain since a very smart person, even from fast-growing, low-tax Estonia, generally can enjoy more after-tax income by moving to an already-rich nation such as Switzerland or the United Kingdom.

So what’s the moral of the story? What lessons can be learned?

There are actually three answers, only two of which are practical.

  • First, Eastern European nations can somehow boost birthrates. But nobody knows how to coerce or bribe people to have more children.
  • Second, Eastern European nations can engage in more reform to improve overall economic liberty and thus boost growth rates.
  • Third, Eastern European nations can copy Hong Kong and Singapore (both very near the bottom for fertility) by setting up private retirement systems.

The second option obviously is good, and presumably would reduce – and perhaps ultimately reverse – the brain drain.

But the third option is the one that’s absolutely required.

The good news is that there’s been some movement in that direction. But the bad news is that reform has taken place only in some nations, and usually only partial privatization, and in some cases (like Poland and Hungary) the reforms have been reversed.

And even if full pension reform is adopted, there’s still the harder-to-solve issue of government-run healthcare.

Eastern Europe has a very grim future.

P.S. I’m a great fan of the reforms that have been adopted in some of the nations in Eastern Europe, but none of them are small-government jurisdictions. Yes, the welfare state in Eastern European countries is generally smaller than in Western European nations, but it’s worth noting that every Eastern European nation in the OECD (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia) has a larger burden of government spending than the United States.

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Maybe future events will require a reassessment, but right now the biggest danger to the western world isn’t terrorism. Nor is it climate change. Or Zika. Or even Donald Trump.

The real threat is demographic change.

America’s population profile already has changed, but the future shift will be even more dramatic.

But demographics changes are neither good nor bad. The real problem, as I pointed out last month, is when you combine an aging population with poorly designed entitlement programs.

…even a small welfare state becomes a problem when a nation has a population cylinder. Simply stated, there aren’t enough people to pull the wagon and there are too many people riding in the wagon.

That’s a recipe for a crisis.

Here are some sobering details from a story in Business Insider.

The world is about to see a mind-blowing demographic situation that will be a first in human history: There are about to be more elderly people than young children. …And these two age groups will continue to grow in opposite directions: The proportion of the population ages 65 and up will continue to increase, while the proportion of the population ages 5 and under will continue decreasing. In fact, according to the Census Bureau, by 2050 those ages 65 and up will make up an estimated 15.6% of the global population — more than double that of children ages 5 and under, who will make up an estimated 7.2%. “This unique demographic phenomenon of the ‘crossing’ is unprecedented,” the report’s authors said.

Here’s the chart that accompanied the story.

And as you look at the numbers, keep in mind that entitlement programs mean that a growing population of old people means more spending, while a shrinking number of children means fewer future taxpayers to finance that spending.

Let’s now look at a nation that is the “canary in the coal mine” for why changing demographics is a recipe for fiscal crisis.

A story from The Week highlights the grim demographic outlook for Japan.

Japan is us, and we’re Japan. …Japan has a…serious problem on its hands: The country is literally dying. According to current projections, by 2060 the country will have shrunk by a third, and people over 65 years old will account for 40 percent of the population. Already, the country is selling more adult diapers than infant diapers. To say this is unsustainable is a euphemism. The country is quite simply dying. …Demography is not destiny, exactly, but it is close to it. …the impending collapse can no longer be denied, as is the case in Japan and Germany. …The extinction of a people and culture is always a global tragedy. It’s time for Japan — and the West — to wake up.

A wake-up call is needed. It’s not just Japan. The entire developed world faces a demographic problem.

The good news is that there is an understanding that something needs to change.

The not-so-good news is that many of the responses are misguided. Cheered on by the OECD, Japan has been boosting the value-added tax in hopes of financing an ever-expanding burden of government spending.

That won’t end well.

And I’m not overly enthralled by some of the other proposals.

Why not just pay people to have children? …If you lower the price of something, you will get more of it. Over the past two decades, Japan has spent trillions of dollars on mostly wasteful pork-barrel spending projects. It seems to me that the country would be better off today if that money had been spent on bonuses for second and third children instead.

For what it’s worth, I agree that giving money to parents would have been better than the various Keynesian spending binges (some of which are downright nuts) that have taken place in Japan.

But I’m not confident that child subsidies are an effective or desirable long-run solution to the nation’s demographic situation.

The one option that would work is to reform entitlement programs. Hong Kong’s demographic outlook is even more challenging than Japan’s, yet it is in much better long-run shape because it has a more sensible approach to entitlements, including a private Social Security system.

P.S. Every so often, a celebrity from the entertainment world has an epiphany about greedy and corrupt government. It definitely happened for Jon Lovitz, Will Smith, and Rob Schneider. And it might be happening for George Lopez.

Newsbusters has the details.

In a recent radio interview for BigBoyTV, comedian George Lopez let us all know that he’s endorsing Senator Bernie Sanders, while paradoxically, making it known he doesn’t want to pay any more taxes.

Here’s what he specifically said.

I endorsed Bernie Sanders. But really just to… I mean it’s cool. I can’t pay any more taxes, it’s ridiculous. But, so, we’ll figure it out.

Huh?!? He’s getting pillaged by the tax code yet he’s supporting a candidate who wants giant tax hikes. I guess his epiphany needs more clarity.

P.P.S. I admit these examples are all sarcastic, but Obama could have a Hollywood career after leaving office.

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The most depressing data about America’s economy is not the top tax rate, the regulatory burden, or the level of wasteful of government spending.

Those numbers certainly are grim, but I think they’re not nearly as depressing as America’s demographic outlook.

As you can see from this sobering image, America’s population pyramid is turning into a population cylinder.

There’s nothing a priori wrong with an aging population and a falling birthrate, of course, but those factors create a poisonous outlook when mixed with poorly designed entitlement programs.

The lesson is that a modest-sized welfare state is sustainable (even if not advisable) when a nation has a population pyramid. But even a small welfare state becomes a problem when a nation has a population cylinder. Simply stated, there aren’t enough people to pull the wagon and there are too many people riding in the wagon.

But if America’s numbers are depressing, the data from Europe should lead to mass suicide.

The Wall Street Journal has a new story on the utterly dismal fiscal and demographic data from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

State-funded pensions are at the heart of Europe’s social-welfare model, insulating people from extreme poverty in old age. Most European countries have set aside almost nothing to pay these benefits, simply funding them each year out of tax revenue. Now, European countries face a demographic tsunami, in the form of a growing mismatch between low birthrates and high longevity, for which few are prepared. …Looking at Europeans 65 or older who aren’t working, there are 42 for every 100 workers, and this will rise to 65 per 100 by 2060, the European Union’s data agency says. …Though its situation is unusually dire, Greece isn’t the only European government being forced to acknowledge it has made pension promises it can ill afford. …Across Europe, the birthrate has fallen 40% since the 1960s to around 1.5 children per woman, according to the United Nations. In that time, life expectancies have risen to roughly 80 from 69. …Only a few countries estimate the total debt burden of the pension promises they have made.

The various nations is Europe may not produce the data, but one of the few good aspects of international bureaucracies is that they generate such numbers.

I’ve previously shared projections from the IMF, BIS, and OECD, all of which show the vast majority of developed nations will face serious fiscal crises in the absence of reforms to restrain the burden of government spending.

New we can add some data from the European Commission, which has an Ageing Report that is filled with some horrifying demographic and fiscal information.

First, here are the numbers showing that most parts of the world (and especially Europe) will have many more old people but a lot fewer working-age people.

Looking specifically at the European Union, here’s what will happen to the population pyramid between 2013 and 2060. As you can see, the pyramid no longer exists today and will become an upside-down pyramid in the future.

Now let’s look at data on the ratio between old people and working-age people in various EU nations.

Dark blue shows the recent data, medium blue is the dependency ratio in 2030, and the light blue shows the dependency ration in 2060.

The bottom line is that it won’t be long before any two working-age people in the EU will be expected to support themselves plus one old person. That necessarily implies a very onerous tax burden.

But the numbers actually are even more depressing than what is shown in the above chart.

In the European Commission’s Ageing Report, there’s an estimate of the “economic dependency ratio,” which compares the number of workers with the number of people supported by those workers.

The total economic dependency ratio is a more comprehensive indicator, which is calculated as the ratio between the total inactive population and employment (either 20-64 or 20-74). It gives a measure of the average number of individuals that each employed “supports”.

And here are the jaw-dropping numbers.

These numbers are basically a death knell for an economy. The tax burden necessary for this kind of society would be ruinous to an  economy. A huge share of productive people in these nations would decide not to work or to migrate where they would have a chance to keep a decent share of their earnings.

So now you understand why I wrote a column identifying safe havens that might remain stable while other nations are suffering Greek-style fiscal collapse.

Having shared all this depressing data, allow me to close with some semi-optimistic data.

I recently wrote that Hong Kong’s demographic outlook is far worse than what you find in Europe, but I explained that this won’t cause a crisis because Hong Kong wisely has chosen not to adopt a welfare state. People basically save for their own retirement.

Well, a handful of European nations have taken some steps to restrain spending. Here’s a table from the EC report on countries which have rules designed to adjust outlays as the population gets older.

These reforms are better than nothing, but the far better approach is a shift to a system of private retirement savings.

As you can see from this chart, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands already have a large degree of mandatory private retirement savings, and a handful of other countries have recently adopted private Social Security systems that will help the long-run outlook.

I’ve already written about the sensible “pre-funded” system in The Netherlands, and there are many other nations (ranging from Australia to Chile to the Faroe Islands) that have implemented this type of reform.

Given all the other types of government spending across the Atlantic, Social Security reform surely won’t be a sufficient condition to save Europe, but it surely is a necessary condition.

Here’s my video explaining why such reform is a good idea, both in America and every other place in the world.

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In my speeches, I routinely argue that an aging population is one of the reasons why we need genuine entitlement reform.

A modest-sized welfare state may be feasible if a country has a “population pyramid,” I explain, Welfare State Wagon Cartoonsbut it’s a recipe for fiscal chaos when changing demographics result in fewer and fewer people pulling the wagon and more and more people riding in the wagon.

And if you somehow doubt that’s what is happening in America, check out this very sobering image showing that America’s population pyramid is turning into a population cylinder.

The bottom line is that demographics and entitlements will mean a Greek fiscal future for America and other nations.

To bolster my case (particularly for folks who might be skeptical of a libertarian message), I frequently cite pessimistic long-run fiscal data from international bureaucracies such as the IMF, BIS, and OECD.

I’m not a big fan of these organizations because they routinely endorse statist policies, but I figure skeptics will be more likely to listen to me if I point out that even left-leaning international bureaucracies agree the public sector is getting too large.

And now I have more evidence to cite. A new report from the International Monetary Fund explores “The Fiscal Consequences of Shrinking Populations.” Here’s what you need to know.

Declining fertility and increasing longevity will lead to a slower-growing, older world population. …For the world, the share of the population older than age 65 could increase from 12 percent today to 38 percent by 2100. …These developments would place public finances of countries under pressure, through two channels. First, spending on age-related programs (pensions and health) would rise. Without further reforms, these outlays would increase by 9 percentage points of GDP and 11 percentage points of GDP in more and less developed countries, respectively, between now and 2100. The fiscal consequences are potentially dire…large tax increases that could stymie economic growth.

Let’s now look at a couple of charts from the study.

The one of the left shows that one-third of developed nations already have negative population growth, and that number will jump to about 60 percent by 2050. And because that means fewer workers to support more old people, the chart on the right shows how the dependency ratio will worsen over time.

So what do these demographic changes mean for fiscal policy?

Well, if you live in a sensible jurisdiction such as Hong Kong or Singapore, there’s not much impact, even though birthrates are very low, because government is small and people basically are responsible for setting aside income for their retirement years.

And if live in a semi-sensible jurisdiction such as Australia or Chile, the impact is modest because personal retirement accounts preclude Social Security-type fiscal challenges.

But if you live just about anywhere else, in places where government somehow is supposed to provide pensions and health care, the situation is very grim.

Here’s another chart from the new IMF report. If you look at developed nations, you can see a big increase in the projected burden of government spending, mostly because of rising expenditures for health care.

At this stage, I can’t resist pointing out that this is one reason why the enactment of Obamacare was a spectacularly irresponsible decision.

But let’s not get sidetracked.

Returning to the IMF report, the authors contemplate possible policy responses.

They look at increased migration, but at best that’s a beggar-thy-neighbor approach. They look at increased labor force participation, which would be a very good development, but it’s hard to see that happening when nations have redistribution policies that discourage people from being in the workforce.

And the report is very skeptical about the prospects of government-induced increases in birthrates.

Boosting birth rates could slow down population aging and gradually reduce fiscal pressures. …However, a “birth rate” solution to aging is unlikely to work for most countries. The pronatalist policies seem to have only modest effects on the number of births, although they might affect the timing of births.

So that means the problem will need to be addressed through fiscal policy.

The IMF’s proposed solutions include some misguided policies, but I was surprisingly pleased by the recognition that steps were needed to limit the growth of government.

Regarding pensions, the IMF suggested higher retirement ages, which is a second-best option, while also suggesting private retirement savings, which is the ideal solution.

Reforming public pension systems can help offset the effects of aging. Raising retirement ages is an especially attractive option… For example, raising retirement ages over 2015–2100 by an additional five years (about 7 months per decade) beyond what is already legislated would reduce pension spending by about 2 percentage points of GDP by 2100 (relative to the baseline) in both the more and less developed countries. …increasing the role of private retirement saving schemes could be helpful in offsetting the potential decline in lifetime retirement income.

But if you recall from above, the biggest problem is rising health care costs.

And kudos to the IMF for supporting market-driven competition. Even more important, though, the international bureaucracy recognizes that the key is to limit the government’s health care spending to the growth of the private economy (sort of a a healthcare version of Mitchell’s Golden Rule).

…health care reform can be effective in containing the growth of public health spending. …There is past success in improving health outcomes without raising costs through promoting some degree of competition among insurers and service providers. …Containing the growing costs of health care would help reduce long-term fiscal risks. On average, health care costs are projected to increase faster than economic growth. …Assuming policies are able to keep the growth of health care costs per capita in line with GDP per capita, health care spending will increase at a slower rate, reflecting only demographics. Under this scenario, public health care spending pressures would be greatly subdued: by 2100, health spending would be reduced by 4½ percentage points of GDP in the more developed countries.

Interestingly, of all the options examined by the IMF, capping the growth of health care spending had the biggest positive impact on long-run government spending.

So what lessons can we learn?

Most important, the IMF study underscores the importance of the Medicaid reform and Medicare reform proposals that have been included in recent budgets on Capitol Hill.

In addition to making necessary structural changes, both of these reforms cap the annual growth of health care spending, which is precisely what the IMF report says will generate the largest savings.

So we’re actually in a very unusual situation. Some lawmakers want to do the right thing for the right reason at the right time.

But not all of them. Some politicians, either because of malice or ignorance, think we should do nothing, even though that will mean a very unpleasant future.

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