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The famous French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand supposedly said that a weakness of the Bourbon monarchs was that they learned nothing and forgot nothing.

If so, the genetic descendants of the Bourbons are now in charge of Europe.

But before explaining why, let’s first establish that Europe is in trouble. I’ve made that point (many times) that the continent is in trouble because of statism and demographic change.

What’s far more noteworthy, though, is that even the Europeans are waking up to the fact that the continent faces a very grim future.

For instance, the bureaucrats in Brussels are pessimistic, as reported by the EU Observer.

…the report warns of a longer term risk for the EU economy. “As expectations of low growth ahead affect investment today, there is potential for a vicious circle,” the commission’s director general for economic and financial affairs writes in the report’s foreword. “In short, the projected pace of GDP growth may not be sufficient to prevent the cyclical impact of the crisis from becoming permanent (hysteresis), ” Marco Buti writes.

The people of Europe share that grim assessment.

Pew has some very sobering data on angst across the continent.

Support for European economic integration – the 1957 raison d’etre for creating the European Economic Community, the European Union’s predecessor – is down over last year in five of the eight European Union countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2013. Positive views of the European Union are at or near their low point in most EU nations, even among the young, the hope for the EU’s future. The favorability of the EU has fallen from a median of 60% in 2012 to 45% in 2013.

Here’s the relevant chart.

Establishment-oriented voices in the United States also agree that the outlook is rather dismal.

Writing in the Washington Post, Sebastian Mallaby offers a grim assessment of Europe’s future.

…since 2008…, the 28 countries in the European Union managed combined growth of just 4 percent. And in the subset consisting of the eurozone minus Germany, output actually fell. …most of the Mediterranean periphery has suffered a lost decade. …The unemployment rate in the euro area stands at 9.8 percent, more than double the U.S. rate. Unemployment among Europe’s youth is even more appalling: In Greece, Spain, France, Croatia, Italy, Cyprus and Portugal, more than 1 in 4 workers under 25 are jobless.

The bottom line is that there’s widespread consensus that Europe is a mess and that things will probably get worse unless there are big changes.

But the key question, as always, is whether the changes are positive or negative. And this is why I started with a reference to the Bourbon kings. European leaders today also are infamous for learning nothing and forgetting nothing.

Indeed, the proponents of bad policy want to double down on the mistakes of bigger government and more centralization.

The International Monetary Fund (aka, the “Dr. Kevorkian” or “dumpster fire” of the global economy), led by France’s Christine Lagarde, actually is urging a new form of redistribution in Europe.

The International Monetary Fund called on Thursday for the creation of a fund…in the euro zone… Managing Director Christine Lagarde said… “countries would be pooling budgetary resources in a common pot which could be used for projects and certain operations”

Lagarde says the new fund should have strings attached, so that nations could access the loot if they complied with the EU’s budget rules, and also if they use the money for structural reform.

That sounds prudent, but only until you look at the fine print.

The current budget rules are misguided and are more likely to encourage tax hikes rather than spending restraint. And while many European nations need good structural reform, that’s not what the IMF has in mind.

Lagarde told a news conference the new fund could pay for projects related to migration, refugees, security, energy and climate change.

Instead, it appears that this is just a scheme to transfer money from countries such as Germany and Estonia that have restrained spending in recent years.

Germany, Estonia and Luxembourg are the only EU countries that have posted budget surpluses since 2014. Lagarde said the pooling of budgetary resources could put these surpluses to good use.

Sigh.

But the problem goes way beyond an international bureaucracy led by someone from Europe. This is the mentality that is deeply embedded in most European policymakers.

Simply stated, the people who helped create the European mess by pushing for bigger government and more centralization agree that the time if right for…you guessed it…bigger government and more centralization. Here’s an excerpt from a report by the Delors Institute.

…a true economic and monetary union still needs to be built. It will have to be based on significant risk sharing and sovereignty sharing within a coherent and legitimate framework of supranational economic governance. This third building block includes turning the ESM into a fully-fledged European Monetary Fund.

The bureaucrats in Brussels predictably agree that they should get more power, as noted in a story from the EU Observer.

The EU should raise its own taxes and use Brexit as an opportunity to push for the idea, a report by a group of top officials says. …”The Union must mobilise common resources to find common solutions to common problems,” says the document, seen by EUobserver. …The paper also proposes a EU-level corporate income tax that would be combined with a common consolidated corporate tax base… Other proposals include a bank levy, a financial transaction tax, or a European VAT that would top national VATs. …The new budget EU commissioner Guenther Oettinger said that the report was “of great quality”.

And the senior politicians in Brussels are also beating the drum for added centralization.

…divergence creates fragility… Progress must happen…towards a genuine Economic Union…towards a Fiscal Union…need to shift from a system of rules and guidelines for national economic policy-making to a system of further sovereignty sharing within common institutions…some degree of public risk sharing…including a ‘social protection floor’…a shared sense of purpose among all Member States

Wow. I don’t know if I’ve ever read something so wildly wrong. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb has sagely observed, it is centralization and harmonization that creates systemic risk.

And all this talk about “common resources” and “public risk sharing” is simply the governmental version of co-signing a loan for the deadbeat family alcoholic.

Yet Europe’s ideologues can’t resist their lemming-like march in the wrong direction.

What makes this especially odd is that there is so much evidence that Europe originally became rich for the opposite reason.

It was decentralization and jurisdictional competition that enabled prosperity.

Matt Ridley, writing for the UK-based Times, drives this point home.

…the leading theory among economic historians for why Europe after 1400 became the wealthiest and most innovative continent is political fragmentation. Precisely because it was not unified, Europe became a laboratory for different ways of governing, enabling the discovery of regimes that allowed free markets and invention to flourish, first in northern Italy and some parts of Germany, then the low countries, then Britain. By contrast, China’s unity under one ruler prevented such experimentation. …Baron Montesquieu…remarked, Europe’s “many medium-sized states” had incubated “a genius for liberty, which makes it very difficult to subjugate each part and to put it under a foreign force other than by laws and by what is useful to its commerce”. …David Hume…mused…Europe is the continent “most broken by seas, rivers, and mountains” and so “the divisions into small states are favourable to learning, by stopping the progress of authority as well as that of power”. …the idea has gained almost universal agreement among historians that a disunited Europe, while frequently wracked by war, was also prone to innovation and liberty — thanks to the ability of innovators and skilled craftsmen to cross borders in search of more congenial regimes.

But now Europe has swung completely in the other direction.

The European Commission’s obsession with harmonisation prevents the very pattern of experimentation that encourages innovation. Whereas the states system positively encouraged governments to be moderate in political, religious and fiscal terms or lose their talent, the commission detests jurisdictional competition, in taxes and regulations. The larger the empire, the less brake there is on governmental excess.

Ralph Raico echoes these insights in an article for the Foundation for Economic Education.

In seeking to answer the question why the industrial breakthrough occurred first in western Europe, …what was it that permitted private enterprise to flourish? …Europe’s radical decentralization… In contrast to other cultures — especially China, India, and the Islamic world — Europe comprised a system of divided and, hence, competing powers and jurisdictions. …Instead of experiencing the hegemony of a universal empire, Europe developed into a mosaic of kingdoms, principalities, city-states, ecclesiastical domains, and other political entities. Within this system, it was highly imprudent for any prince to attempt to infringe property rights in the manner customary elsewhere in the world. In constant rivalry with one another, princes found that outright expropriations, confiscatory taxation, and the blocking of trade did not go unpunished. The punishment was to be compelled to witness the relative economic progress of one’s rivals, often through the movement of capital, and capitalists, to neighboring realms. The possibility of “exit,” facilitated by geographical compactness and, especially, by cultural affinity, acted to transform the state into a “constrained predator”.

In other words, the “stationary bandit” couldn’t steal as much and that gave the private sector the breathing room that’s necessary for growth.

But today’s politicians in Europe want to strengthen the ability of governments to seize more money and power.

That strategy may work in the short run, but bailouts, redistribution, easy money, and statism are not a good long-run strategy.

So perhaps it’s appropriate that we conclude with a warning. As reported in a column for the UK-based Telegraph, one of the architects of the euro fears that bailouts are crippling the continent-wide currency.

The European Central Bank is becoming dangerously over-extended and the whole euro project is unworkable in its current form, the founding architect of the monetary union has warned. “One day, the house of cards will collapse,” said Professor Otmar Issing, the ECB’s first chief economist… Prof Issing lambasted the European Commission as a creature of political forces that has given up trying to enforce the rules in any meaningful way. “The moral hazard is overwhelming,” he said. The European Central Bank is on a “slippery slope” and has in his view fatally compromised the system by bailing out bankrupt states in palpable violation of the treaties. “…Market discipline is done away with by ECB interventions. …The no bailout clause is violated every day,” he said… Prof Issing slammed the first Greek rescue in 2010 as little more than a bailout for German and French banks, insisting that it would have been far better to eject Greece from the euro as a salutary lesson for all.

For what it’s worth, I fully agree that Greece should have been cut loose.

But European politicians and bureaucrats, driven by an ideological belief in centralization (and a desire to bail out their big banks), instead decided to undermine the euro by creating a bigger mess in Greece and sending a very bad signal about bailouts to other welfare states.

And keep in mind that the fuse is still burning on the European fiscal crisis.

As the old saying goes, this won’t end well.

P.S. While my prognosis for Europe is relatively bleak, there were some hopeful signs in the aforementioned Pew data.

First, Europeans at some level understand that government is simply too big. Indeed, they recognize that economic growth is far more likely to occur if fiscal burdens are reduced rather than increased.

Second, they also realize that the euro, while weakened and flawed, is a better option than restoring national currencies, which would give their governments the power to finance bigger government by printing money.

P.P.S. I can’t resist sharing one final bit of polling data from Pew. I’m amused that every nation sees itself as the most compassionate (though if you look at real data, all European nations lag the USA in real compassion). Meanwhile, the prize for self-doubt (or perhaps self-awareness?) goes to the Italians, who labeled themselves as least trustworthy. The schizophrenia prize goes to the Poles, who simultaneously view the Germans as the most trustworthy and least trustworthy.

Oh, and there’s probably some lesson to be learned from Germany dominating the data for being most trustworthy and least compassionate.

Maybe this poll should be added to my European humor collection.

P.P.P.S. Given the sorry state of Europe, now perhaps skeptics will understand why Brexit was the only good option for Brits.

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If you want to pinpoint the leading source of bad economic policy proposals, I would understand if someone suggested the Obama Administration.

But looking to Europe might be even more accurate.

For instance, I’d be hard pressed to identify a policy more misguided than continent-wide eurobonds, which I suggested would be akin to “co-signing a loan for your unemployed alcoholic cousin who has a gambling addiction.”

And now there’s another really foolish idea percolating on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

The U.K.-based Financial Times has a story about calls for greater European centralization from Italy.

Italy’s finance minister has called for deeper eurozone integration in the aftermath of the Greek crisis, saying a move “straight towards political union” is the only way to ensure the survival of the common currency. …Italy and France have traditionally been among the most forceful backers of deeper European integration but other countries are sceptical about supporting a greater degree of political convergence. …Italy is calling for a wide set of measures — including the swift completion of banking union, the establishment of a common eurozone budget and the launch of a common unemployment insurance scheme — to reinforce the common currency. He said an elected eurozone parliament alongside the existing European Parliament and a European finance minister should also be considered. “To have a full-fledged economic and monetary union, you need a fiscal union and you need a fiscal policy,” Mr Padoan said.

This is nonsense.

The United States has a monetary union and an economic union, yet our fiscal policy was very decentralized for much of our nation’s history.

And Switzerland has a monetary and economic union, and its fiscal policy is still very decentralized.

Heck, the evidence is very strong that decentralized fiscal systems lead to much better outcomes.

So why is Europe’s political elite so enamored with a fiscal union and so opposed to genuine federalism?

There’s an ideological reason and a practical reason for this bias.

The ideological reason is that statists strongly prefer one-size-fits-all systems because government has more power and there’s no jurisdictional competition (which they view as a “race to the bottom“).

The practical reason is that politicians from the weaker European nations see a fiscal union as a way of getting more transfers and redistribution from nations such as Germany, Finland, and the Netherlands.

In the case of Italy, both reasons probably apply. Government debt already is very high in Italy and growth is virtually nonexistent, so it’s presumably just a matter of time before the Italians will be looking for Greek-style bailouts.

But the Italian political elite also has a statist ideological perspective. And the best evidence for that is the fact that Signore Padoan used to be a senior bureaucrat at the Paris-based OECD.

The Italian finance minister…served as former chief economist of the OECD.

You won’t be surprised to learn that French politicians also have been urging a supranational government for the eurozone. And presumably for the same reasons of ideology and self-interest.

But here’s the man-bites-dog part of the story.

The German government also seems open to the idea, as reported by the U.K.-based Independent.

France and Germany have agreed a new plan for closer eurozone political unionThe new Franco-German agreement would see closer cooperation between the 19 countries.

Wow, don’t the politicians in Berlin know that a fiscal union is just a scheme to extract more money from German taxpayers?!?

As I wrote three years ago, this approach “would involve putting German taxpayers at risk for the reckless fiscal policies in nations such as Greece, Italy, and Spain.

But maybe the Germans aren’t completely insane. Writing for Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky explains that the current German position is to have a supranational authority with the power to reject national budgets.

The German perspective on a political and fiscal union is a little more cautious. Last year, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and a fellow high-ranking member of the CDU party, Karl Lamers, called for a euro zone parliament (not elected, but comprising European Parliament members from euro area countries) and a budget commissioner with the power to reject national budgets if they contravene a certain set of rules agreed by euro members.

And since the German approach is disliked by the Greeks, then it can’t be all bad.

Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, Schaeuble’s most eloquent hater, pointed out in a recent article for Germany’s Die Zeit that, in the Schaeuble-Lamers plan, the budget commissioner is endowed only with “negative” powers, while a true federation — like Germany itself — elects a parliament and a government to formulate positive policies.

But “can’t be all bad” isn’t the same as good.

Simply stated, any sort of eurozone government almost surely will morph over time into a transfer union. And that means more handouts, more subsidies, more harmonization, more bailouts, more centralization, and more bureaucracy.

So you can see why Europe’s political elite may be even more foolish than their American counterparts.

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For understandable reasons, the fiscal mess in Greece has dominated the European economic headlines.

But there are other developments that deserve attention. Amazingly, some politicians think Europe’s stagnant economy can be improved with more harmonization, more bureaucratization, and more centralization.

The EU Observer has a story about a French scheme to transform the eurozone into a supranational government.

French president Francois Hollande has called for a stronger more harmonised eurozone… “What threatens us is not too much Europe, but too little Europe,” he said in a letter published in the Journal du Dimanche. He called for a vanguard of countries that would lead the eurozone, which should have its own government, a “specific budget” and its own parliament. …French prime minister Manuel Valls Sunday said…France would prepare “concrete proposals” in the coming weeks. “We must learn the lessons and go much further,” he added, referring to the Greek crisis.

I’m not sure what lessons Monsieur Valls wants people to learn. Greece got in trouble because of big government and excessive intervention.

So why is anyone supposed to believe that adding a new layer of government is going to make Europe more prosperous?

In all likelihood, the French are pursuing this agenda for two selfish reasons.

  1. A “harmonised eurozone” means that all affected nations would have to abide by the same rules, and that inevitably means taxes and regulations are set at the most onerous levels. The French think that’s a good idea because it’s a way of undermining the competitiveness of other eurozone nations.
  2. A eurozone government with a “specific budget” sets the stage for more intergovernmental transfers in Europe. The French think that’s a good idea since they presumably could prop up their decrepit welfare state with money from taxpayers in nations such as Germany, Finland, and the Netherlands.

By the way,not all French politicians are totally misguided.

At least one of them is expressing more sensible ideas, as reported by the U.K.-based Telegraph.

France is “the sick man of Europe”, François Fillon, the former centre-Right prime minister, has said in an open letter to French president Francois Hollande, calling for urgent economic reforms.“The Greek tragedy shows that the threat of bankruptcy is not abstract,” according to Mr Fillon… French commentators writing about the Greek crisis in recent days have pointed out that France’s own national debt of more than €2 trillion (£1.4 trillion), amounting to 97.5 per cent of GDP, places it in the same league as Spain and other southern European countries.

By the way, the commentators who are fretting about French debt are focused on the wrong variable. The French disease is big government. High levels of debt are simply a symptom of that disease.

Moreover, I’m not sure that Monsieur Fillon is a credible spokesman for smaller government and free markets since he served during the statist tenure of President Sarkozy.

In any event, if there are any serious reformers in France, they face an uphill battle. As I’ve previously noted, many successful people and aspiring entrepreneurs have left France.

Here’s a news report on the phenomenon.

And just in case you think this is merely anecdotal data, here’s a table showing the nations that lost the most millionaires since 2000.

In the case of China and India, rich people leave because they want to establish a domicile in a developed nation.

But successful people escape France in spite of its first-world attributes.

Let’s now cross the Pyrenees and see what’s happening in Spain.

Our Keynesian friends, as well as other big spenders, are always trumpeting the value of infrastructure projects because they ostensibly pump money into an economy.

I’ve made the point that such outlays should be judged using cost-benefit analysis. Well, it appears that Spain listened to the wrong people. It got a €10,000 return on an infrastructure “investment” of €1,100,000,000.

One of Spain’s “ghost airports”—expensive projects that were virtually unused—received just one bid in a bankruptcy auction after costing about €1.1 billion ($1.2 billion) to build. The buyer’s offer: €10,000. Ciudad Real’s Central airport, about 235 kilometers south of Madrid, became a symbol of the country’s wasteful spending.

Wow, and I thought Social Security was a bad deal.

But Spanish politicians should be known for more than just misguided boondoggles.

Some of them also are working hard to make sure citizens don’t work too hard. Here’s a story from an English-language news outlet in Spain (h/t: Commentator).

Between the hours of 2pm and 5pm you will struggle to find anyone in the Valencian town of Ador; the town’s inhabitants will have taken to their beds to catch their mandatory forty winks. The town’s summer siesta tradition is so deep-rooted the mayor has enshrined his citizen’s right to an afternoon snooze in law. …Ador could be the first town in Spain to actually make taking a siesta obligatory by law. …The new rules also stipulate that children should remain indoors:

One imagines the next step will be mandatory bed checks by new bureaucrats hired for just that purpose.

Though maybe they would need special permission to take their mandatory siestas from 11:00-2:00 so they would be free to harass the rest of the population between 2:00-5:00.

In any event, we can add mandatory siestas to our list of bizarre government-granted human rights.

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I’ve shared lots of analysis (both serious and satirical) about the mess in Greece and I feel obliged to comment on the latest agreement for another bailout.

But how many times can I write that the Greek government spends too much money and has a punitive tax system (and a crazy regulatory regime, a bloated bureaucracy, etc)?

So let’s try a different approach and tell a story about the new bailout by using some images.

Here’s an amusing perspective on what actually happened this weekend.

I explained a few days ago that the bailouts have simultaneously enabled the delay of much-needed spending reforms while also burdening Greece with an impossible pile of debt.

But the Greek bailouts, like the TARP bailout in the United States, were beneficial to powerful insiders.

Here’s a look at how banks in various European nations have been able to reduce their exposure to Greek debt.

Sure, the banks almost surely still lost money, but they also transferred a lot of the losses to taxpayers.

To get a sense of the magnitude of handouts, here’s a chart from a Washington Post story.

And now, assuming the deal gets finalized, that pile of foolish and unsustainable debt will be even bigger.

One of the main components of the new agreement is that Greece supposedly will raise revenue by selling $50 billion of state-owned assets.

Don’t believe that number. But not because there aren’t plenty of assets to sell, but rather because the track record on privatization proceeds suggests that there is a giant gap between what Greece promises and what Greece delivers.

To understand why assets aren’t being sold, just keep in mind that most of the assets are under the control of the government in order to provide unearned benefits to different interest groups.

If you’re an overpaid unionized worker at a government-owned port, for instance, the last thing you want is to have that port sold to a private investor who presumably would want to link pay to productivity.

Here’s the best bit of humor I’ve seen about the negotiations this past weekend. It purports to show a list of demands from Germany to Greece.

While this image is funny, it’s also wrong.

Germany isn’t imposing anything on Greece. The Germans are simply stating that Greek politicians need to make some changes if they want more handouts.

Moreover, it’s quite likely that Germany will wind up being a big loser when the dust settles. Here’s some of what Gideon Rachman wrote for the U.K.-based Financial Times.

If anybody has capitulated, it is Germany. The German government has just agreed, in principle, to another multibillion-euro bailout of Greece — the third so far. In return, it has received promises of economic reform from a Greek government that makes it clear that it profoundly disagrees with everything that it has just agreed to. The Syriza government will clearly do all it can to thwart the deal it has just signed. If that is a German victory, I would hate to see a defeat.

So true.

I fear this deal will simply saddle Greece with a bigger pile of debt and set the stage for a more costly default in the future.

The title of this column is about pictures. But let’s close with some good and bad analysis about the Greek mess.

Writing for Real Clear Markets, Louis Woodhill has some of the best insight, starting with the fact that the bailout does two things.

First, this new bailout is largely just a mechanism to prevent default on past bailouts. Sort of like making a new loan to your deadbeat brother-in-law to cover what he owes you on previous loans.

…the €53.5 billion in new loans…would just be recycled to Greece’s creditors (the IMF, the EU, and the ECB) to pay the interest and principal on existing debts.

Second, it prevents the full meltdown of Greek banks.

The key point is that a bailout agreement would restore European Central Bank (ECB) “Emergency Liquidity Assistance” (ELA) to the Greek banking system. This would allow Greeks that still have deposits in Greek banks (€136.5 billion as of the end of May) to get their money out of those banks.

That’s good news if you’re a Greek depositor, but that’s about it.

In other words, those two “achievements” don’t solve the real problem of Greece trying to consume more than it produces.

Indeed, Woodhill correctly identifies a big reason to be very pessimist about the outcome of this latest agreement. Simply stated, Greek politicians (aided and abetted by the Troika) are pursuing the wrong kind of austerity.

…what is killing Greece is a lack of economic growth, and the meat of Tsipras’ bailout proposal consists of growth-killing tax hikes. The media and the economics profession have been framing the alternatives for Greece in terms of a choice between “austerity” and “stimulus.” Unfortunately for Greece, austerity has come to mean tax increases, and stimulus has come to mean using “other people’s money” (mainly that of German taxpayers) to support Greek welfare state outlays. So, if “other people” aren’t willing to fund more Greek government spending, then the only option the “experts” can imagine is to raise taxes on an economy that is already being crushed by excessive taxation.

Let’s close with the most ridiculous bit of analysis about the Greek situation. It’s from Joe Stiglitz,

Joseph Stiglitz accused Germany on Sunday of displaying a “lack of solidarity” with debt-laden Greece that has badly undermined the vision of Europe. …”Asking even more from Greece would be unconscionable. If the ECB allows Greek banks to open up and they renegotiate whatever agreement, then wounds can heal. But if they succeed in using this as a trick to get Greece out, I think the damage is going to be very very deep.”

Needless to say, I’m not sure why it’s “solidarity” for one nation to mooch in perpetuity from another nation. I suspect Stiglitz is mostly motivated by an ideological desire to redistribute from the richer Germans to the poorer Greeks,

But I’m more interested in why he isn’t showing “solidarity” to me. I’m sure both his income and his wealth are greater than mine. So if equality of outcomes is desirable, why doesn’t he put his money where his mouth is by sending me a big check?

Needless to say, I won’t be holding my breath waiting for the money. Like most leftists, Stiglitz likes to atone for his feelings of guilt by redistributing other people’s money.

And I also won’t be holding my breath waiting for a good outcome in Greece. As I wrote five-plus years ago, Greece needs the tough-love approach of no bailouts, which would mean a default but also an immediate requirement for a balanced budget.

Last but not least, I’m going to confess a possible mistake. I always thought that Margaret Thatcher was right when she warned that the problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money. But this latest bailout of Greece shows that maybe politicians from other nations are foolish enough to provide an endless supply of other people’s money.

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The European Commission’s data-gathering bureaucracy, Eurostat, has just published a new report on government finances for the region.

And with Greece’s ongoing fiscal turmoil getting headlines, this Eurostat publication is worthwhile because it debunks the notion, peddled by folks like Paul Krugman, that Europe has been harmed by “savage” and “harsh” spending cuts.

Here’s some of what’s in the report.

In 2014, total general government expenditure amounted to €6 701 bn in the European Union (EU). This represented almost half (48.1%) of EU GDP in 2014… Among EU Member States, general government expenditure varied in 2014 from less than 35% of GDP in Lithuania and Romania to more than 57% in Finland, France and Denmark.

Not only is government spending consuming almost half of economic output, redistribution outlays are the biggest line item in the budgets of European nations.

…the function ‘social protection’ was by far the most important, accounting for 40.2% of total general government expenditure. The next most important areas in terms of general government expenditure were ‘health’ (14.8%)… Its weight varied across EU Member States from 28.6% of total general government expenditure in Cyprus to 44.4% in Luxembourg. Eight EU Member States devoted more than 40% of their expenditure to social protection.

At this point, some readers may be thinking that the report shows European nations have very big governments with very large welfare states, but that doesn’t prove one way or the other whether there’s been austerity.

After all, austerity supposedly measures the degree to which there have been big spending cuts, not whether government consumes a large or small share of economic output.

So let’s now look at some of the underlying annual spending data from Eurostat.

Here’s their chart showing annual levels of government spending, both for the entire European Union (EU-28) and for the nations using the euro currency (EA-19). As you can see, there haven’t been any “harsh” or “savage” cuts.

Heck, there haven’t even been “timid” and “meek” cuts. The burden of government spending keeps climbing.

None of this should come as a surprise.

I’ve shared analysis making this point from experts on European fiscal policy such as Steve Hanke, Brian Wesbury, Constantin Gurdgiev, Fredrik Erixon, and Leonid Bershidsky.

So why is there a mythology about supposed spending cuts in Europe?

There are three answers.

  • First, there are lots of ignorant of mendacious people who don’t understand the numbers or don’t care about the truth. You can take a wild guess about the identity of some of these people.
  • Second, while overall government spending has continuously risen in Europe, a few nations (generally the ones that were most profligate last decade) have been forced to make some non-trivial spending cuts.
  • Third, some people cherry pick data on the burden of government spending relative to economic output and assert that austerity exists if government grows slower than GDP.

The people in the first category should be dismissed as cranks and ideologues.

Regarding the second category, if you look at Eurostat’s annual fiscal data, you’ll find that most EU nations since 2008 have had at least one year in which government spending declined. Indeed, the only exceptions are Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Austria, Poland, Slovakia, Finland, and Sweden.

But we’ve also had a few years of spending reductions in the United States since 2008, yet it would be silly to argue we’ve had “savage” and “harsh” cuts. The real question is whether any governments have been forced to make non-trivial reductions in the burden of spending. And if that’s defined as spending less today than they did in 2008, the only nations on that list are Greece, Latvia, and Ireland. But they’re also high on the list of countries that were most profligate in the years before 2008, so is it “austerity” if you give up drinking for a week or two after spending a week or two in an alcoholic haze? Perhaps the answer is yes, but the real problem was having a spending binge in the first place.

The third category is also worth exploring because the best way to determine if a country has responsible policy is to see whether government spending is falling as a share of economic output (i.e., are they following Mitchell’s Golden Rule). But you can’t cherry pick the data. For instance, look at this chart from Eurostat. If 2009 is used as the base year, it appears that EU nations have been frugal. But 2009 also was the year with the biggest bailouts and faux stimulus packages. So while government spending has receded a bit from the 2009 peak, the overall burden of spending today is significantly higher than it was before the 2008 crisis. Not exactly a very rigorous definition of austerity.

The bottom line is that there hasn’t been serious austerity in Europe, at least if austerity is defined as non-trivial spending cuts.

To be sure, there have been big fiscal changes in Europe. The bad news is that those changes have been big increases in income tax rates and big increases in value-added tax rates.

So if folks are looking for a good explanation of why Europe is suffering from anemic growth, that might be a place to start.

P.S. Unlike other European countries, the Baltic nations focused on genuine spending cuts rather than tax hike and their economies are doing comparatively well.

P.P.S. Even though Switzerland isn’t a member of the EU, Eurostat does include annual spending data for that nation. And it’s worth noting that spending has only grown by 2.07 percent per year since the implementation of the debt brake (which is really a spending cap). So that’s actually the best role model in Europe, as explained here by a representative from the Swiss Embassy.

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There’s a big fiscal battle happening in Europe. The relatively new Greek government is demanding continued handouts from the rest of Europe, but it wants to renege on at least some of the country’s prior commitments to improve economic performance by reducing the preposterous burden of spending, regulation, and intervention.

That seems like a rather strange negotiating position. Sort of like a bank robber holding a gun to his own head and saying he’ll shoot himself if the teller doesn’t hand over money.

At first glance, it seems the Greeks are bluffing. Or being suicidally self-destructive.

And maybe they are posturing and/or being deluded, but there are two reasons why the Greeks are not totally insane.

1. The rest of Europe does not want a Greek default.

There’s a famous saying, attributed to J. Paul Getty, that applies to the Greek fiscal fight. Simply stated, there are lots of people and institutions that own Greek government bonds and they are afraid that their investments will lose value if Greece decides to fully or partially renege on its debts (which is an implicit part of Greece’s negotiating position).

So while Greece would suffer if it defaulted, there would be collateral damage for the rest of Europe. In other words, the hypothetical bank robber has a grenade rather than a gun. And while the robber won’t fare well if he pulls the pin, lots of other people may get injured by shrapnel.

And to make matters more interesting, previous bailouts of Greece have created a rather novel situation in that taxpayers are now the indirect owners of a lot of Greek government debt. As you can see from the pie chart, European taxpayers have the most exposure, but American taxpayers also are on the hook because the IMF has participated in the bailouts.

The situation is Greece is akin to a bankruptcy negotiation. The folks holding Greek government debt are trying to figure out the best strategy for minimizing their losses, much as the creditors of a faltering business will calculate the best way of extracting their funds. If they press too hard, the business may go bust and they get very little (analogous to a Greek default). But if they are too gentle, they miss out on a chance of getting a greater share of the money they’re owed.

2. Centralization is the secular religion of the European elite and they want Greece in the euro.

The bureaucrats at the European Commission and the leaders of many European nations are emotionally and ideologically invested in the notion of “ever closer union” for Europe. Their ultimate goal is for the European Union to be a single nation, like the United States. In this analogy, the euro currency is akin to the American dollar.

There’s a general perception that a default would force the Greek government to pull out of the euro and re-create its own currency. And for the European elite who are committed to “ever closer union,” this would be perceived as a major setback. As such, they are willing to bend over backwards to accommodate Greece’s new government.

Given the somewhat blurry battle lines between Greece and its creditors, what’s the best outcome for advocates of limited government and individual liberty?

That’s a frustrating question to answer, particularly since the right approach would have been to reject any bailouts back when the crisis first started.

Without access to other people’s money, the Greek government would have been forced to rein in the nation’s bloated public sector. To be sure, the Greek government may also have defaulted, but that would have taught investors a valuable lesson about lending money to profligate governments.

And it would have been better if Greece defaulted five years ago, back when its debt was much smaller than it is today.

But there’s no point in crying about spilt milk. We can’t erase the mistakes of the past, so what’s the best approach today?

Actually, the right answer hasn’t changed.

And just as there are two reasons why the Greek government is being at least somewhat clever in playing hardball, there are two reasons why the rest of the world should tell them no more bailouts.

1. Don’t throw good money after bad.

To follow up on the wisdom of J. Paul Getty, let’s now share a statement commonly attributed to either Will Rogers or Warren Buffett. I don’t know which one (if either) deserves credit, but there’s a lot of wisdom in the advice to stop digging if you find yourself in a hole. And Greece, like many other nations, has spent its way into a deep fiscal hole.

There is a solution for the Greek mess. Politicians need to cut spending over a sustained period of time while also liberalizing the economy to create growth. And, to be fair, some of that has been happening over the past five years. But the pace has been too slow, particularly for pro-growth reforms.

But this also explains why bailouts are so misguided. Politicians generally don’t do the right thing until and unless they’ve exhausted all other options. So if the Greek government thinks it has additional access to money from other nations, that will give the politicians an excuse to postpone and/or weaken necessary reforms.

2. Saying “No” to Greece will send a powerful message to other failing European welfare states.

Now let’s get to the real issue. What happens to Greece will have a big impact on the behavior of other European governments that also are drifting toward bankruptcy.

Here’s a chart showing the European nations with debt burdens in excess of 100 percent of economic output based on OECD data. Because of bad demographics and poor decisions by their politicians, every one of these nations is likely to endure a Greek-style fiscal crisis in the near future.

And keep in mind that these figures understate the magnitude of the problem. If you include unfunded liabilities, the debt levels are far higher.

So the obvious concern is how do you convince the politicians and voters in these nations that they better reform to avoid future fiscal chaos? How do you help them understand, as Mark Steyn sagely observed way back in 2010, that “The 20th-century Bismarckian welfare state has run out of people to stick it to.

Well, if you give additional bailouts to Greece, you send precisely the wrong message to the Italians, French, etc. In effect, you’re telling them that there’s a new group of taxpayers from other nations who will pick up the tab.

That means more debt, bigger government, and a deeper crisis when the house of cards collapses.

P.S. Five years ago, I created a somewhat-tongue-in-cheek 10-step prediction for the Greek crisis and stated at the time that we were at Step 5. Well, it appears my satire is slowly becoming reality. We’re now at Step 7.

P.P.S. Four years ago, I put together a bunch of predictions about Greece. You can judge for yourself, but I think I was quite accurate.

P.P.P.S. A big problem in Greece is the erosion of social capital, as personified by Olga the Moocher. At some point, as I bluntly warned in an interview, the Greeks need to learn there’s no Santa Claus.

P.P.P.P.S. The regulatory burden in Greece is a nightmare, but some examples of red tape are almost beyond belief.

P.P.P.P.P.S. The fiscal burden in Greece is a nightmare, but some examples pf wasteful spending are almost beyond belief.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. Since we once again have examined a very depressing topic, let’s continue with our tradition of ending with a bit of humor. Click here and here for some very funny (or sad) cartoons about Obama and Greece. And here’s another cartoon about Greece that’s worth sharing. If you like funny videos, click here and here. Last but not least, here’s some very un-PC humor about Greece and the rest of Europe.

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Four years ago, I put together some New Year’s Day Resolutions for the GOP.

Three years ago, I made some policy predictions for the new year.

But since I obviously don’t control Republicans and since I freely admit that economists are lousy forecasters, let’s do something more practical to start 2015.

Let’s simply look at three very important things that may happen this year and what they might mean.

1. Will the Republican Senate support genuine entitlement reform?

One of the best things to happen in recent years is that House Republicans embraced genuine entitlement reform. For the past four years, they have approved budget resolutions that assumed well-designed structural changes to both Medicare and Medicaid.

There were no real changes in policy, of course, because the Senate was controlled by Harry Reid. And I’m not expecting any meaningful reforms in 2015 or 2016 because Obama has a veto pen.

But if the Republican-controlled Senate later this year approves a budget resolution with the right kind of Medicare and Medicaid reform, that would send a very positive signal.

It would mean that they are willing to explicitly embrace the types of policies that are desperately needed to avert long-run fiscal crisis in America.

I don’t even care if the House and Senate have a conference committee and proceed with actual legislation. As I noted above, Obama would use his veto pen to block anything good from becoming law anyhow.

My bottom line is simple. If GOPers in both the House and Senate officially embrace the right kind of entitlement reform, then all that’s needed is a decent President after the 2016 elections (which, of course, presents an entirely different challenge).

2. Will there be another fiscal crisis in Greece (and perhaps elsewhere in Europe)?

The European fiscal crisis has not gone away. Yes, a few governments have actually been forced to cut spending, but they’ve also raised taxes and hindered the ability of the private sector to generate economic recovery.

And the spending cuts in most cases haven’t been sufficient to balance budgets, so debt continues to grow (in some cases, there have been dramatic increases in general government net liabilities).

Sounds like a recipe for further crisis, right? Yes and no.

Yes, there should be more crisis because debt levels today are higher than they were five years ago. But no, there hasn’t been more crisis because direct bailouts (by the IMF) and indirect bailouts (by the ECB) have propped up the fiscal regimes of various European nations.

At some point, though, won’t this house of cards collapse? Perhaps triggered by election victories for anti-establishment parties (such as Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain)?

While I’m leery of making predictions, at some point I assume there will be an implosion.

What happens after that will be very interesting. Will it trigger bad policies, such as centralized, European-wide fiscal decision-making? Or departures from the euro, which would enable nations to replace misguided debt-financed government spending with misguided monetary policy-financed government spending?

Or might turmoil lead to good policy, which both politicians and voters sobering up and realizing that there must be limits on the overall burden of government spending?

3. If the Supreme Court rules correctly in King v. Burwell, will federal and state lawmakers react correctly?

The Supreme Court has agreed to decide a very important case about whether Obamacare subsidies are available to people who get policies from a federal exchange.

Since the law explicitly states that subsidies are only available through state exchanges (as one of the law’s designers openly admitted), it seems like this should be a slam-dunk decision.

But given what happened back in 2012, when Chief Justice Roberts put politics above the Constitution, it’s anybody’s guess what will happen with King v Burwell.

Just for the sake of argument, however, let’s assume the Supreme Court decides the case correctly. That would mean a quick end to Obamacare subsidies in the dozens of states that refused to set up exchanges.

Sounds like a victory, right?

I surely hope so, but I’m worried that politicians in Washington might then decide to amend the law to officially extend subsidies to policies purchased through a federal exchange. Or politicians in state capitals may decide to set up exchanges so that their citizens can stay attached to the public teat.

In other words, a proper decision by the Supreme Court would only be a good outcome if national and state lawmakers used it as a springboard to push for repeal of the remaining parts of Obamacare.

If, on the other hand, a good decision leads to bad changes, then there will be zero progress. Indeed, it would be a big psychological defeat since it would represent a triumph of handouts over reform.

I guess I’m vaguely optimistic that good things will happen simply because we’ve already seen lots of states turn down “free” federal money to expand Medicaid.

P.S. Let’s close with some unexpected praise for Thomas Piketty. I’m generally not a fan of Monsieur Piketty since his policies would cripple growth (hurting poor people, along with everyone else).

But let’s now look at what France 24 is reporting.

France’s influential economist Thomas Piketty, author of “Capital in the 21st Century”, on Thursday refused to accept the country’s highest award, the Legion d’honneur… “I refuse this nomination because I do not think it is the government’s role to decide who is honourable,” Piketty told AFP.

It’s quite possible, perhaps even likely, that Piketty is merely posturing. But I heartily applaud his statement about the role of government.

Just as I applauded President Hollande when he did something right, even if it was only for political reasons.

But let’s not lose sight of the fact that Piketty is still a crank. His supposedly path-breaking research is based on a theory that is so nonsensical that it has the support of only about 3 percent of economists.

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