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Archive for the ‘Estonia’ Category

I’m very fond of Estonia, and not just because of the scenery.

Back in the early 1990s, it was the first post-communist nation to adopt a flat tax.

More recently, it showed that genuine spending cuts were the right way to respond to the 2008 crisis (notwithstanding Paul Krugman’s bizarre attempt to imply that the 2008 recession was somehow caused by 2009 spending cuts).

This doesn’t mean Estonia is perfect. It is ranked #22 by Economic Freedom of the World, which is a respectable score, but that puts them not only behind the United States (#12), but also behind Switzerland (#4), Finland (#10), the United Kingdom (#12), Ireland (#14), and Denmark (#19).

And you can see from the chart that Estonia’s overall score has dropped slightly since 2006.

But I don’t believe in making the perfect the enemy of the good. Estonia is still a reasonably good role model for reform, particularly for nations that emerged from decades of communist enslavement.

You can see how good policy makes a difference, for instance, by comparing Estonia with Croatia (#70). At the time of the breakup of the Soviet Empire, living standards in Croatia were low, but they were about twice as high as they were in Estonia. Today, though, per-capita economic output in Estonia is about $4000 higher than in Croatia.

That’s a dramatic turnaround and it shows that markets are much better for people than statism. Sort of like the lesson we learn by comparing Poland (#48) and Ukraine (#122).

Let’s now take a closer look at one of the policies that has helped Estonia prosper. The flat tax was first adopted in 1994 and the rate was 26 percent. Since then, the rate has been gradually reduced and is now 20 percent.

For some people, the most amazing aspect of the Estonian flat tax is its simplicity, as noted by Kyle Pomerleau of the Tax Foundation.

Republican Presidential hopeful Jeb Bush claimed that it only takes 5 minutes to file taxes in Estonia. This claim was confirmed by a number of reporters and tax authorities in Estonia. For those of us that do our taxes by hand, this sounds like a dream. Depending on your situation, filing your taxes can tax a significant amount of time and due to the numerous steps involved (especially if you are claiming credits) may lead some to make errors. According to the IRS, it takes an average taxpayer with no business income 8 hours to fill out their 1040 and otherwise comply with the individual income tax. Triple that for those with business income.

For those keeping score, this means Estonia is kicking America’s derriere.

But Kyle is even more impressed by other features of the Estonian system.

…that it is not the best part of the Estonian tax code. The best part of the Estonian tax code has more to do with its tax base (what it taxes) rather than how fast people can pay their taxes. Specifically, the Estonian tax code has a fully-integrated individual and corporate income tax. This means that corporate income is taxed only once either at the entity level or at the individual level.

And this means Estonia’s flat tax is far better for growth than America’s system, which suffers from pervasive and destructive double taxation.

In total, the tax rate on corporate income is 20 percent in Estonia. Compare this to the integrated tax rate on corporate profits of 56 percent in the United States. Even more, this tax system provides de facto full expensing for capital investments because the corporate tax is only levied on the cash distributed to shareholders, which is also a significant boon to investment and economic growth.

Wow. No double taxation and expensing of business investment.

There is a lot to admire about Estonia’s sensible approach to business taxation.

Particularly when compared to America’s masochistic corporate income tax, which ranks below even the Greek, Italian, and Mexican systems.

Having the world’s highest statutory corporate tax rate is part of the problem. But as Kyle pointed out, the problem is actually far worse when you calculate how the internal revenue code imposes extra layers of tax on business income.

That’s why, at a recent tax reform event at the Heritage Foundation, I tried to emphasize why it’s economically misguided to have a tax bias against saving and investment.

The bottom line is that high taxes on capital ultimately lead to lower wages for workers.

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Even small differences in economic growth make a big difference to living standards over time.

I frequently share this chart, which highlights how long it takes to double economic output based on different growth rates.

I also use real-world examples to show how some nations become much richer than other nations within just a few decades because of better policy and faster growth.

Here’s another way to approach the issue. Let’s use a hypothetical example to reinforce the importance of growth. If we went back to 1870 and assumed our economy’s nominal growth rate was one percentage point slower than it actually was (in other words, averaging 4.76 percent each year rather than 5.76 percent), our living standards today would be only 1/4th of current levels.

That’s a huge difference in national prosperity. We’d be about the level of Kazakhstan today!

In a column for the Wall Street Journal last week, Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy and businessman Louis Woodhill used the same approach to make a similar point about the incredible importance of long-run growth. They go back even further in time and come up with an even more sobering example.

The recovery that began in 2009 is the weakest in postwar history. Millions have dropped out the labor force, frustrated by lack of opportunity. Lower-income workers are underemployed, middle-incomes have not advanced as in the past, and government dependency has increased. …ignored is what really matters: rapid, sustained economic growth. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the U.S. economy will grow by a meager 2.3% over the next decade… At this growth rate, Americans face a future of stagnation, inequality and despair. Here’s why: From 1790 to 2014, U.S. GDP in real dollars grew at an average annual rate of 3.73%. Had America grown at the CBO’s “economic speed limit” of 2.3% for its entire history, GDP would be $780 billion today instead of more than $17 trillion. And GDP per capita would be $2,433, lower than Papua New Guinea’s.

This is why (good) economists are so fixated on economic growth. It’s vital for our long-run living standards.

Which means, of course, that we’re also fixated on the importance of free markets and small government. We understand that an economy will grow much faster if the burden of government is constrained (think Hong Kong or Singapore).

But if the public sector is bloated, with high levels of spending, taxation, regulation, cronyism, and protectionism, then it’s very difficult for the productive sector of the economy to flourish.

Let’s augment our understanding by comparing two nations, Estonia and Croatia, that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

Estonia has been a role model for pro-growth reform. According to Economic Freedom of the World, the small Baltic nation quickly moved to reduce the burden of government (including a flat tax) and Estonia consistently has been in the top 20 of all nations.

Croatia, by contrast, has lagged. While its economic freedom score has improved, the progress has been modest and Croatia has never been ranked higher than #70.

So what are the real-world results of what happened in these two nations?

The simple answer is that good policy yields good results. Here’s a chart, based on IMF data, showing per-capita GDP in both Estonia and Croatia.

The most relevant lesson, which I highlighted, is that Croatia was much richer at the beginning of the post-Soviet period.

But Estonia quickly caught up because of its reforms. And over the past 10 years, Croatia has fallen significantly behind.

The key takeaway is that growth matters. And if you want growth, you need economic freedom.

Which brings us back to the aforementioned Wall Street Journal column. Cassidy and Woodhill are totally correct to worry about the “new normal” of anemic growth.

Fortunately, we know the policies that will rejuvenate the economy. And maybe we’ll get a chance to implement those policies after the 2016 election.

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I don’t know which group is more despicable, Greek politicians or the voters who elected them. In both cases, they think they’re entitled to other people’s money.

But since the “other people” in this case happen to live in nations such as Germany and Finland, and those folks don’t want to write blank checks to a bunch of moochers and looters, Greece faces a difficult choice.

Either the Greeks behave like adults and rein in their bloated public sector. Or they throw a tantrum, which presumably means both a default on payments to bondholders and a return to the unstable drachma currency.

My guess is they’ll eventually go with the latter option.

But maybe there’s hope for Greece. One of the Prime Minister’s chief economic advisers, an out-of-the-closet communist, has announced his resignation. Here are a few of the details from a story in the EU Observer.

Giannis Milios, a member of Syriza’s central committee and long time economic advisor to Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras, resigned Wednesday… A professor of economic policy who defines himself as a Marxist, Milios is considered one of the most loyal members of the left-wing party.

So does this signal a shift to more mature and sensible policy?

Perhaps not. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, the problem in Greece isn’t really the communists. It’s the American leftists like Paul Krugman!

Germany, many other governments and senior policy makers in Brussels believe…that recklessness has been encouraged by misguided political and economic philosophies and bad advice from abroad. It isn’t so much that many in Mr. Tsipras’s Syriza party are Marxists—the eurozone can handle followers of the bearded 19th-century German philosopher. It is more that they are seen to be excessively influenced by a 20th-century British economist—John Maynard Keynes—and his living Anglo-Saxon disciples. At finance ministers’ meetings in Brussels, Mr. Varoufakis has been accompanied by American economists James Galbraith and Jeffrey Sachs. From across the Atlantic, the new government gets strong rhetorical backing from Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and others.

Wow, this is remarkable. Who would have guessed that run-of-the-mill American leftists are more damaging to economic policy than communists!

I guess this is because the Marxists are probably harmless crazies who hang out in coffee houses and gripe about the capitalist class.

The American leftists like Krugman, by contrast, do real damage because they use discredited Keynesian theory to argue that politicians should be spending even more money to “stimulate” an economy that’s in a crisis because of previous bouts of government spending.

Sort of like trying to get out of a hole by digging even deeper.

What’s amazing is that Krugman and other American statists are pushing bad policy when there are successful examples of nations escaping fiscal crisis with genuine spending cuts.

John Dizard wrote an interesting article about Greece for the Financial Times. He began his article by quoting Krugman, who wrote that the plans of the crazy Greek government are “not radical enough.” Dizard also shared another quote from Krugman, which criticized proponents of lower spending because “the best the defenders of orthodoxy can do is point to a couple of small Baltic nations.”

So Dizard decided to compare Greece with those Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

There are…some practical lessons to learn from…the contrasting ways that Greece has dealt with the world after the global financial crisis compared with the relatively poor Baltic states. Greece took a path of gradual fiscal adjustments weighted towards tax increases, accompanied by a partial debt default. The Baltic states adopted rapid and deep cuts in their state expenditure and current account deficits.

And here’s a shocking bit of news, though it won’t be surprise to folks in the real world. The Baltics have done far better.

The big issue in the Baltic states is upward wage pressure from tight labour markets. That is what we call a high-class problem. This understates the Baltic countries’ achievements. …They also did this without much benefit from concessionary multilateral finance or international debt haircuts.

Dizard looks at some of the differences between the Baltic nations and Greece.

There were virtually no dismissals from the Greek civil service over this period. Salaries were cut, but public sector staffing was reduced with lay-offs of temporary contract workers and early retirements. This had the effect of reducing already low service levels and transferring costs from payrolls to pension obligations. Latvia fired one-third of its civil servants. …The tax burden [in Greece] on salaried workers, compliant domestic businesses and property owners was substantially increased. In contrast, the Baltic states have fairly flat and relatively low tax rates.

All this is music to my ears since I’ve already written about the successful spending cuts in the Baltic countries.

And I particularly enjoyed having the opportunity, back in 2012, to correct the record when Krugman tried to blame Estonia’s 2008 recession on spending cuts that occurred in 2009.

P.S. Since today’s column focused on the statist ideas of Paul Krugman and because he’s a leading voice for the notion that more government spending somehow “stimulates” growth, I can’t resist sharing an explanation of Keynesian economics I gave back in 2009 as part of some remarks to Colorado’s Steamboat Institute.

Feel free to watch the whole video, but fast forward to 3:30 if you’re pressed for time. I’m being snarky, of course, but I also think my debunking of so-called stimulus is spot on.

P.P.S. By the way, the above video is from the Q&A portion of my remarks. If you watch my my actual speech, and if you pay attention about the 1:35 mark, you’ll see I was talking about the importance of having government grow slower than the economy’s productive sector back in 2009 even though I didn’t unveil Mitchell’s Golden Rule until two years later.

P.P.P.S. Since we’re picking on Krugman, here’s something that’s making the rounds on Twitter.

Good ol’ Professor Krugman praised the European approach of bigger government back in 2010, and everything that’s happened since that point has made his assessment look foolish.

Sort of reminds me of the time he attacked me for my gloomy assessment of California and claimed that the Golden State’s job market was strong. But it turns out that California had the 5th-highest unemployment rate in the nation.

P.P.P.P.S. Let’s close with the observation that the mess in Greece shouldn’t be blamed on Krugman. Sure, he’s giving bad advice, but Greek politicians deserve the lion’s share of the blame. Moreover, to the extent that outside advisers get blamed, we should remember that economists like Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs also are involved, and in some cases exercising more influence than Krugman.

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I shared an astounding chart last month showing that tax increases account for 90 percent of the so-called “austerity” in Europe.

The author the chart, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center, calls this “private sector austerity” and she correctly argues that her home continent is in desperate need of some austerity on the public sector instead.

The good news is that more analysts have joined the fight, explaining that Europe is in trouble because of a failure to address the real problem of excessive government spending.

Here are some excerpts from a column in USA Today by Matthew Melchiorre from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, beginning with a good summary of how Europe has erred by choosing to impose austerity on the private sector.

The folly of “austerity” composed mainly of tax hikes with less in the way of spending reductions has driven the economies of the Old World into the ground. We’re next unless Congress keeps Uncle Sam out of Americans’ wallets and takes a chainsaw to Washington’s budget. …How is this likely to pan out? To get an idea, we can look at Europe, which has followed a similar strategy and has had little success in reviving growth. Spending cuts have been weak. Today, not a single Euro Zone government is spending less as a percentage of GDP than it did in 2007, according to Eurostat data. Tax increases, on the other hand, have been rampant. The average cyclically adjusted total tax burden among Euro Zone countries increased by about 5% from 2007 to 2010, according to European Commission data.

Wow, spending hasn’t been reduced but taxes are higher. Sounds a lot like Obama’s disingenuous “balanced approach.”

But there are some exceptions to the big-government consensus. Melchiorre notes that Estonia and other Baltic nations decided to impose genuine budget cuts.

Several Baltic countries have broken the European straitjacket of growth-strangling tax “austerity,” and have enjoyed success relative to their peers as a result. Take Estonia, for example. The Estonian government implemented an austerity program in 2009…cutting into public employee wages by 40% and slashing total government spending by a whopping 16% by 2011.

This is music to my ears. I’ve been advocating the Baltic approach for a couple of years. And it turns out that nations following my Golden Rule get good results.

Estonia’s economy…bounced right back with 2 percent growth the following year and has since continued to prosper. For the past two years, Estonian industry has expanded more than twice as fast as that of Germany. …Tax increases don’t bring about prosperity. Shrinking government to live within its means does.

Amen to that, but I think the final point needs to be expanded. It’s not just that tax increases don’t work. It’s that they make matters worse.

The problem in most nations is that government is too big. In a best-case scenario, tax increases are a substitute for spending restraint. More often than not, though, tax hikes lead to higher levels of government spending.

This brings us back to the current fiscal fight in the United States. Obama has dug in his heels and demanded an increase in the top tax rates. He claims that this class-warfare approach is necessary for fiscal responsibility.

But ask yourself a question. We know that America’s long-run fiscal problem is entitlement spending. Will politicians be more likely or less likely to reform those programs if they think tax increases are an option?

If you answered “more likely,” you should move to Greece and see how well your system is working.

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Last month, I exposed some major errors that Paul Krugman committed when he criticized Estonia for restraining the burden of government spending.

My analysis will be helpful since I am now in Estonia for a speech about economic reform, and I wrote a column that was published today by the nation’s main business newspaper.

But just in case you’re one of the few people in the world who isn’t fluent in the local language, the Mises Institute Estonia was kind enough to post an English version.

Here are some of the key points I made. I started by explaining one of Krugman’s main blunders.

Krugman’s biggest mistake is that he claimed that spending cuts caused the downturn, even though the recession began in 2008 when government spending was rapidly expanding. It wasn’t until 2009 that the burden of government spending was reduced, and that was when the economy began to grow again. In other words, Krugman’s Keynesian theory was completely wrong. The economy should have boomed in 2008 and suffered a recession beginning in 2009. Instead, the opposite has happened.

I then pointed out that Estonia’s long-run performance has been admirable.

…the nation’s long-run economic performance is quite exemplary. Economic output has doubled in just 15 years according to the International Monetary Fund. Over that entire period – including the recent downturn, it has enjoyed one of the fastest growth rates in Europe.

But I’m not a mindless cheerleader (though I might become one if any of the local women gave me the time of day), so I took the opportunity to identify areas where public policy needs improvement.

This doesn’t mean Estonia’s policy is perfect. Spending was reduced in 2009 and 2010, but now it is climbing again. This is unfortunate. Government spending consumes about 40 percent of GDP, which is a significant burden on the private sector.

Being a thoughtful guy, I then made suggestions for pro-growth changes.

Estonia should copy the Asian Tiger economies of Singapore and Hong Kong. These jurisdictions have maintained very high growth for decades in part because the burden of the public sector is only about 20 percent of GDP. …Estonia already has a flat tax, which is very important for competitiveness. The key goal should be to impose a spending cap, perhaps similar to Switzerland’s very successful “debt brake.” Under the Swiss system, government spending is not allowed to grow faster than population plus inflation. And since nominal GDP usually expands at a faster rate, this means that the relative burden of government spending shrinks over time. By slowly but surely reducing the amount of GDP diverted to fund government, this would enable policymakers to deal with the one area where Estonia’s tax system is very unfriendly. Social insurance taxes equal about one-fourth of the cost of hiring a worker, thus discouraging job creation and boosting the shadow economy.

And I elaborated on why reform of social insurance is not just a good idea, but should be viewed as an absolute necessity.

Reducing the heavy burden of social insurance taxes should be part of a big reform to modernize programs for healthcare and the elderly. A major long-term challenge for Estonia is that the population is expected to shrink. The World Bank and the United Nations both show that fertility rates are well below the “replacement rate,” meaning that there will be fewer workers in the future. That’s a very compelling reason why it is important to expand personal retirement accounts and allow the “pre-funding” of healthcare. It’s a simple matter of demographic reality.

In other words, Estonia doesn’t have a choice. If they don’t reform their entitlement programs, the burden of government spending will rise dramatically, which would mean a higher tax burden and/or substantial government debt.

We also need entitlement reform in the United States. Our demographics aren’t as bad as Estonia’s, but we all know – as I explained in my post about Cyprus – that bad things happen sooner or later if government spending grows faster than the economy’s productive sector.

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I have great fondness for Estonia, in part because it was the first post-communist nation to adopt the flat tax, but also because of the country’s remarkable scenery.

Most recently, though, I’ve been bragging about Estonia (along with Latvia and Lithuania, the other two Baltic nations) for implementing genuine spending cuts. I’ve argued that Estonia is showing how a government can reignite growth by reducing the burden of government.

Not surprisingly, some people disagree with my analysis. Paul Krugman of the New York Times criticized Estonia yesterday, writing that the Baltic nation suffered a “Depression-level slump” in 2008 and has only managed an “incomplete recovery” over the past few years.

He blames this supposedly weak performance on “austerity.”

I have a positive and negative reaction to Krugman’s post. My positive reaction is that he’s talking about a nation that actually has cut spending, so there’s real public-sector austerity (see Veronique de Rugy’s L.A. Times column to understand the critical difference between public-sector and private-sector austerity).

This is a sign of progress. In the past, he launched a silly attack on the U.K. for a “government pullback” that never happened, so what he wrote about Estonia at least is based on real events.

My negative reaction is that Krugman is very guilty of cherry-picking data. If you look at the chart that accompanies his post, Estonia’s economic performance isn’t very impressive, but that’s because he’s only showing us the data from 2007-present.

The numbers are accurate, but they’re designed to mislead rather than inform (sort of as if I did a chart showing 2009-present).

But before exposing that bit of trickery, there’s another mistake worth noting. Krugman presumably wants us to think that the downturn coincided with spending cuts. But his own chart shows that the economy hit the skids in 2008 – a year in which  government spending in Estonia soared by nearly 18 percent according to EU fiscal data!

It wasn’t until 2009 that Estonian lawmakers began to reduce the burden of spending. So I guess Professor Krugman wants us to believe that the economy tanked in 2008 because of expectations of 2009 austerity. Or something like that.

Returning now to my complaint about cherry picking data, Krugman makes Estonia seem stagnant by looking only at data starting in 2007. But as you can see from this second chart, Estonia’s long-run economic performance is quite exemplary. It has doubled its economic output in just 15 years according to the International Monetary Fund. Over that entire period – including the recent downturn, it has enjoyed one of the fastest growth rates in Europe.

This doesn’t mean Estonia is perfect. It did experience a credit/real estate bubble, and there was a deep recession when the bubble burst. And the politicians let government spending explode during the bubble years, almost doubling the budget between 2004 and 2008.

But Estonia reacted to the overspending and the downturn in a very responsible fashion. Instead of using the weak economy as an excuse to further expand the burden of government spending in hopes that Keynesian economics would magically work (after failing for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s, Japan in the 1990s, Bush in 2008, and Obama in 2009), the Estonians realized that they needed to cut spending.

And now that spending has been curtailed, it’s worth noting that growth has resumed.

What makes Krugman’s rant especially amusing is that he wrote it just as the rest of the world is beginning to notice that Estonia is a role model. Here’s some of what CNBC just posted.

Sixteen months after it joined the struggling currency bloc, Estonia is booming. The economy grew 7.6 percent last year, five times the euro-zone average. Estonia is the only euro-zone country with a budget surplus. National debt is just 6 percent of GDP, compared to 81 percent in virtuous Germany, or 165 percent in Greece. Shoppers throng Nordic design shops and cool new restaurants in Tallinn, the medieval capital, and cutting-edge tech firms complain they can’t find people to fill their job vacancies. It all seems a long way from the gloom elsewhere in Europe. Estonia’s achievement is all the more remarkable when you consider that it was one of the countries hardest hit by the global financial crisis. …How did they bounce back? “I can answer in one word: austerity. Austerity, austerity, austerity,” says Peeter Koppel, investment strategist at the SEB Bank. …that’s not exactly the message that Europeans further south want to hear. …Estonia has also paid close attention to the fundamentals of establishing a favorable business environment: reducing and simplifying taxes, and making it easy and cheap to build companies.

Good policy makes a difference. But it also helps to have rational citizens (unlike France, where people vote for economic illiterates and protest against reality).

While spending cuts have triggered strikes, social unrest and the toppling of governments in countries from Ireland to Greece, Estonians have endured some of the harshest austerity measures with barely a murmur. They even re-elected the politicians that imposed them. “It was very difficult, but we managed it,” explains Economy Minister Juhan Parts. “Everybody had to give a little bit. Salaries paid out of the budget were all cut, but we cut ministers’ salaries by 20 percent and the average civil servants’ by 10 percent,” Parts told GlobalPost. …As well as slashing public sector wages, the government responded to the 2008 crisis by raising the pension age, making it harder to claim health benefits and reducing job protection — all measures that have been met with anger when proposed in Western Europe.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that government is still far too big in Estonia. The public sector consumes about 39 percent of economic output, almost double the burden of government spending in Hong Kong and Singapore.

But, unlike certain American politicians, at least the Estonians understand the problem and are taking steps to move in the right direction. I hope they continue.

P.S. The President of Estonia, a Social Democrat named Toomas Hendrik Ilves, used his twitter account to kick the you-know-what out of Krugman yesterday. For amusement value, check out this HuffingtonPost article.

P.P.S. A few other nations, such as Canada and New Zealand, also imposed genuine spending restraint in recent decades and they also got good results.

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