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Archive for the ‘Euro’ Category

At the beginning of the year, I was asked whether Europe’s fiscal crisis was over. Showing deep thought and characteristic maturity, my response was “HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA, are you ;@($&^#’% kidding me?”

But I then shared specific reasons for pessimism, including the fact that many European nations had the wrong response to the fiscal crisis. With a few exceptions (such as the Baltic nations), European governments used the crisis to impose big tax hikes, including higher income tax rates and harsher VAT rates.

Combined with the fact that Europe’s demographic outlook is rather grim, you can understand why I’m not brimming with hope for the continent. And I’ve shared specific dismal data for nations such as Portugal, France, Greece, Italy, Poland, Spain, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.

But one thing I’ve largely overlooked is the degree to which the European Central Bank may be creating an unsustainable bubble in Europe’s financial markets. I warned about using bad monetary policy to subsidize bad fiscal policy, but only once in 2011 and once in 2012.

Check out this entertaining – but worrisome – video from David McWilliams and you’ll understand why this issue demands more attention.

I’ve openly argued that the euro is not the reason that many European nations got in trouble, but it appears that Europe’s political elite may be using the euro to make a bad situation even worse.

And to add insult to injury, the narrator is probably right that we’ll get the wrong outcome when this house of cards comes tumbling down. Instead of decentralization and smaller government, we’ll get an expanded layer of government at the European level.

Or, as I call it, Germany’s dark vision for Europe.

That’s Mitchell’s Law on steroids.

P.S. Here’s a video on the five lessons America should learn from the European crisis.

P.P.S. On a lighter note, the mess in Europe has generated some amusing videos (here, here, and here), as well as a very funny set of maps.

P.P.P.S. If all this sounds familiar, that may be because the Federal Reserve in the United States could be making the same mistakes as the European Central Bank. I don’t pretend to know when and how the Fed’s easy-money policy will turn out, but I’m not overly optimistic about the final outcome. As Thomas Sowell has sagely observed, “We all make mistakes. But we don’t all have the enormous and growing power of the Federal Reserve System… In the hundred years before there was a Federal Reserve System, inflation was less than half of what it became in the hundred years after the Fed was founded.”

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I’ve been worried for quite some time that the European Central Bank was losing its independence, thus undermining the long-run prospects of the euro.

Well, yesterday’s announcement that the ECB would buy the dodgy debt of nations such as Spain didn’t make me feel any better.

Central banks should not be bullied into creating too much money simply because politicians are too corrupt, venal, and short-sighted to control spending.

Here is some of what Allister Heath of City A.M. wrote earlier today. He begins with a wise warning about moral hazard.

There is nothing markets love more than a good dose of monetary activism, especially when they detect a hidden bailout, so it is no wonder that traders and investors reacted so positively to Mario Draghi’s bond buying plan. …Yet generally speaking these days, the more the markets like a central bank intervention, the more I worry. This is because all too often investors are trying to get central banks – and ultimately, the taxpayer – to monetise debt to protect themselves, or because they believe that there are monetary solutions to real, structural problems. I disagree on both counts: excessive debt needs to be written off, with the cost born by the creditors, not redistributed to the taxpayers of more prudent countries or inflated away. It is right that investors should be able to make a fortune if they make a correct bet – but it is equally right that they should lose their shirt when their investment goes sour. This habit of quietly enjoying the former but loudly refusing the latter is one of the main reasons why the City’s reputation is at such a low ebb.

He then explains that the ECB shouldn’t try to mask reality.

…there is a perfectly good reason why the yields of peripheral Eurozone nations have shot up over the past year. It is because the markets have finally started to price risk properly. Higher yields on Spanish or Greek debt reflect the reality of deeply troubled, structurally uncompetitive nations… The market is sending a clear and precise signal, and warning the world that there is a major problem that needs resolution; buying vast amounts of bonds to try and distort or even entirely eliminate that signal and pretend that nothing is wrong with Europe’s weaker economies would be an absurd act of delusion.

I’m not as optimistic as Allister is in this next section, largely because the supposed conditionality will lead to the kind of fiscal gimmicks and moving goal posts that we see in Greece.

…while there are many problems with Draghi’s plans, he is actually being relatively sensible. He will not help Portugal, Ireland and Greece until they are able to access bond markets; even more importantly, Spain and Italy will need to ask for European bailout fund support, and accept the ensuing conditionality, before ECB bond-buying starts. It will theoretically be unlimited in scale but Draghi only wants to “do whatever it takes” as long as politicians toe the line. Given that they won’t, and that many countries will soon be borrowing even more, the crisis will soon flare up again. The simple reality is that the Eurozone in its current form is doomed. Draghi’s plan will buy some time, and his next one even more, as will the one after that. But eventually the size of the fiscal and competitiveness crisis, combined with voter anger in both Northern and Southern countries, will overwhelm all of his attempts at papering over the cracks. It’s just a matter of time.

But I obviously agree with his conclusion. Unless European politicians decide to reduce the burden of government spending, the continent is in deep trouble.

Last but not least, the problem in Europe is not the euro. It is the welfare state. I’m not a huge fan of the single currency, but it is way down on my list of reasons that nations such as Spain, Italy, and Greece are in trouble.

P.S. America will be in the same boat at some point in the future if we don’t reform entitlements.

P.P.S. Allister is the author of this great article explaining why tax competition and tax havens are so important and valuable in the global economy.

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Like Sweden and Denmark, Germany is a semi-rational welfare state. It generally relies on a market-oriented approach in areas other than fiscal policy, and it avoided the Keynesian excesses that caused additional misery and red ink in America (though it is far from fiscally conservative, notwithstanding the sophomoric analysis of the Washington Post).

Nonetheless, it’s difficult to have much optimism for Europe’s future when the entire political establishment of Germany blindly thinks there should be more centralization, bureaucratization, and harmonization in Europe.

The EU Observer has a story about the agenda of the de facto statists in the Christian Democratic party who currently run Germany.

“Harmonization über alles!”

…what Merkel and her party are piecing together is a radical vision of the EU in a few years time – a deep fiscal and political union. The fiscal side involves tax harmonisation, a tightly policed Stability and Growth Pact with automatic sanctions for countries that breach debt and deficit rules, and the possibility of an EU Commissioner responsible for directly intervention to oversee budgetary policy in a crisis-hit country. …On the institutional side, the CDU backs a directly elected President of the European Commission as well as clearly establishing the European Parliament and Council of Ministers as a bi-cameral legislature with equal rights to initiate EU legislation with the Commission.

Keep in mind that the Christian Democrats are the main right-of-center party in Germany, yet the German political spectrum is so tilted to the left that they want tax harmonization (a spectacularly bad idea) and more centralization.

Heck, even the supposedly libertarian-oriented Free Democratic Party is hopelessly clueless on these issues.

Not surprisingly, the de jure statists of Germany have the same basic agenda. Here’s some of what the article says about the agenda of the Social Democrat and Green parties.

…its commitments to establish joint liability eurobonds and a “common European fiscal policy to ensure fair, efficient and lasting receipts” would also involve a shift of economic powers to Brussels. While both sides have differing ideological positions on the political response to the eurozone crisis – they are talking about more Europe, not less.

The notion of eurobonds is particularly noteworthy since it would involve putting German taxpayers at risk for the reckless fiscal policies in nations such as Greece, Italy, and Spain. That’s only a good idea if you think it’s smart to co-sign a loan for your unemployed and alcoholic cousin with a gambling addiction.

All this makes me feel sorry for German taxpayers.

Then again, if you look at the long-run fiscal outlook of the United States, I feel even more sorry for American taxpayers. Thanks to misguided entitlement programs, we’re in even deeper trouble than Europe’s welfare states.

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Considering the spectacular incompetence of the Italian government, I’m not surprised that the Italian people take extraordinary steps to protect their income from the tax police.

But I have a hard time cheering their actions, since they routinely vote for corrupt politicians and also seek to mooch off the government that they don’t want to pay for.

Sicily is a useful example. Here are key passages from a New York Times report.

…one region in particular has been in the spotlight: Sicily, which some fear has become “the Greece of Italy” and is at risk of defaulting on its high public debts. …an official in the Sicily branch of Italy’s leading industrialists association called for the island to be put into receivership by the central government to clean up its finances. …Sicily highlights the challenges that Mr. Monti is facing in trying to use pressure from European leaders and international markets to push Italy’s politicians to cut costs. Those expenses have ballooned after decades of a patronage system in which the state has been the primary means of employment in Sicily.

We know there’s a mess. And, to give credit where it’s due, the New York Times does discuss the bloated bureaucracy in Sicily.

…critics say Italy — and Sicily in particular — has been driven into dire financial straits not by austerity but by the rampant public spending of the past, the product of an entrenched jobs-for-votes system that helped keep Italian governments in power and Sicilians employed. Today, Sicily’s regional government has 1,800 employees — more than the British Cabinet Office — and the island employs 26,000 auxiliary forest rangers; in the vast forest lands of British Columbia, there are fewer than 1,500. Out of a population of five million people in Sicily, the state directly or indirectly employs more than 100,000 of them and pays pensions to many more. It changed its pension system eight years after the rest of Italy. (One retired politician recently won a case to keep an annual pension of 480,000 euros, about $584,000.)

Not surprisingly, the political class doesn’t want to fire any of the deadwood, which means an enormous burden on taxpayers and lots of suffering for young people.

“Of course that’s too many,” Mr. Lombardo said of the forest rangers. But he said it was difficult to cut back because state workers have job protection. “We have to wait for them to retire.” That system has come at a cost. Last month, Italy’s audit court issued a scathing report saying that Sicily had 7 billion euros, about $8.5 billion, of liabilities at the end of 2011 and showed “signs of unstoppable decline.” Sicily’s unemployment rate is 19.5 percent, twice the national average, and 38.8 percent of young people do not have jobs.

Lombardo must have spent time in Chicago

By the way, the head of the Sicilian government is a very accomplished politician. It’s not uncommon for lawmakers to go to prison after a stint in government, but it takes a special politician to then go back into “public service.”

Mr. Lombardo, who belongs to the Movement for Autonomy — which believes that Sicily should secede from the Italian state, as unlikely as that is to happen — said he would step down as agreed. (He is under investigation for Mafia ties. He denies the accusations and has not been formally charged. He was jailed on corruption charges in the early 1990s, though he was later acquitted.)

At least some residents have figured out how the political system works.

Many Sicilians, for their part, take a world-weary view of the political class. “If I steal a little, I go to jail; if I steal a lot, I advance my career,” Gioacchino De Giorgi, 34, said as he worked in a tobacco shop in downtown Palermo.

Needless to say, this story is yet another example of why bailouts are a bad idea. As I’ve explained before, governments will only make the right reforms as a final option. Bailouts, by contrast, simply give politicians more time to delay, while also making the debt bubble even bigger as reforms are postponed.

This is true, regardless of whether bailouts come from national governments, the European Commission, or international bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund.

And it’s true whether we’re talking about an Italian province, or an American state that also is governed by short-sighted and corrupt politicians. Like California.

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The mess in Europe has been rather frustrating, largely because almost everybody is on the wrong side.

Some folks say they want “austerity,” but that’s largely a code word for higher taxes. They’re fighting against the people who say they want “growth,” but that’s generally a code word for more Keynesian spending.

So you can understand how this debate between higher taxes and higher spending is like nails on a chalkboard for someone who wants smaller government.

And then, to get me even more irritated, lots of people support bailouts because they supposedly are needed to save the euro currency.

When I ask these people why a default in, say, Greece threatens the euro, they look at me as if it’s the year 1491 and I’ve declared the earth isn’t flat.

So I’m delighted that the Wall Street Journal has published some wise observations by a leading French economist (an intellectual heir to Bastiat!), who shares my disdain for the current discussion. Here are some excerpts from Prof. Salin’s column, starting with his common-sense hypothesis.

…there is no “euro crisis.” The single currency doesn’t have to be “saved” or else explode. The present crisis is not a European monetary problem at all, but rather a debt problem in some countries—Greece, Spain and some others—that happen to be members of the euro zone. Specifically, these are public-debt problems, stemming from bad budget management by their governments. But there is no logical link between these countries’ fiscal situations and the functioning of the euro system.

Salin then looks at how the artificial link was created between the euro currency and the fiscal crisis, and he makes a very good analogy (and I think it’s good because I’ve made the same point) to a potential state-level bankruptcy in America.

The public-debt problem becomes a euro problem only insofar as governments arbitrarily decide that there must be some “European solidarity” inside the euro zone. But how does mutual participation in the same currency logically imply that spendthrift governments should get help from the others? When a state in the U.S. has a debt problem, one never hears that there is a “dollar crisis.” There is simply a problem of budget management in that state.

He then says a euro crisis is being created, but only because the European Central Bank has surrendered its independence and is conducting backdoor bailouts.

Because European politicians have decided to create an artificial link between national budget problems and the functioning of the euro system, they have now effectively created a “euro crisis.” To help out badly managed governments, the European Central Bank is now buying public bonds issued by these governments or supplying liquidity to support their failing banks. In so doing, the ECB is violating its own principles and introducing harmful distortions.

Last but not least, Salin warns that politicians are using the crisis as an excuse for more bad policy – sort of the European version of Mitchell’s Law, with one bad policy (excessive spending) being the precursor of additional bad policy (centralization).

Politicians now argue that “saving the euro” will require not only propping up Europe’s irresponsible governments, but also centralizing decision-making. This is now the dominant opinion of politicians in Europe, France in particular. There are a few reasons why politicians in Paris might take that view. They might see themselves being in a similar situation as Greece in the near future, so all the schemes to “save the euro” could also be helpful to them shortly. They might also be looking to shift public attention away from France’s internal problems and toward the rest of Europe instead. It’s easier to complain about what one’s neighbors are doing than to tackle problems at home. France needs drastic tax cuts and far-reaching deregulation and labor-market liberalization. Much simpler to get the media worked up about the next “euro crisis” meeting with Angela Merkel.

This is a bit of a dry topic, but it has enormous implications since Europe already is a mess and the fiscal crisis sooner or later will spread to the supposedly prudent nations such as Germany and the Netherlands. And, thanks to entitlement programs, the United States isn’t that far behind.

So may as well enjoy some humor before the world falls apart, including this cartoon about bailouts to Europe from America, the parody video about Germany and downgrades, this cartoon about Greece deciding to stay in the euro, this “how the Greeks see Europe” map, and this cartoon about Obama’s approach to the European model.

P.S. Here’s a video narrated by a former Cato intern about the five lessons America should learn from the European fiscal crisis.

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For quite some time, I’ve thought of Herman van Rompuy as the poster child of Europe’s incompetent political elite.

Virtually unknown to people in the real world (his sole claim to fame is that a British MEP, in a speech that went viral on YouTube, said he resembled a “low-grade bank clerk”), the President of the European Council manages to blunder from one mistake to another.

But Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, is trying very hard to be an even bigger joke.

Well, Barroso now has done something else that deserves mockery and scorn. He’s whining that some of his opponents are happy about the mess in Europe.

Here’s some of what the EU Observer reported.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso Tuesday (3 July) launched an angry attack on British Conservative’s in the European Parliament, accusing them of “taking delight” in the eurozone debt crisis. …Barroso’s outburst in Strasbourg followed a speech by Tory MEP Martin Callanan, who heads the eurosceptic ECR group.

Since I also experience some Schadenfreude about the mess in Europe, I suspect Barroso is right that the Tories are enjoying the situation. But that doesn’t give Barroso any moral authority to complain since the fiscal crisis largely exists because of policies he supported.

I also can’t resist adding this passage from the story.

President Barroso said he was “puzzled” that British eurosceptics were encouraging countries to leave the euro adding that this was “in stark contrast” to statements made by UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

Barroso is right. There is a gulf between the views of British MEPs and the attitude of the U.K.’s Prime Minister. But that’s because David Cameron is a wobbly statist with no strong beliefs (other than that he should be Prime Minister).

Arguing over who’s the biggest buffoon

Barroso’s comments, in other words, are akin to an American leftist saying that Republicans shouldn’t attack Obama’s statist agenda because Bush supported the same big-government policies when he was President.

In closing, I will acknowledge that I agree with Barroso on one point. He warned that democracy could collapse in Europe if economic conditions continue to unravel, and I think that could happen. But, as I’ve explained before, Europe’s future is somewhat bleak because of the policies supported by Barroso and his fellow travelers like van Rompuy.

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With all the fiscal troubles in Greece, Spain, Ireland, Portugal, and Italy, there’s not much attention being paid to Cyprus.

But the Mediterranean island nation is a good case study illustrating the economic dangers of big government.

For all intents and purposes, Cyprus is now bankrupt, and the only question that remains to be answered is whether it will get handouts from the IMF-ECB-EC troika, handouts from Russia, or both. Here’s some of what has been reported by AP.

Cyprus’ president on Thursday defended his government’s decision to seek financial aid from the island nation’s eurozone partners while at the same time asking for a loan from Russia, insisting that the two are perfectly compatible. …Cyprus, with a population of 862,000 people, last week became the fifth country that uses the euro currency to seek a European bailout… The country is currently in talks with the so-called ‘troika’ — the body made up of officials from the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — on how much bailout money it will need and the conditions that will come attached. Locked out of international markets because of its junk credit rating status, Cyprus is paying its bills thanks to a €2.5 billion ($3.14 billion) Russian loan that it clinched last year. But that money is expected to run out by the end of the year.

So what caused this mess? Is Cyprus merely the helpless and innocent victim of economic turmoil in nearby Greece?

That’s certainly the spin from Cypriot politicians, but the budget data shows that Cyprus is in trouble because of excessive spending. This chart, based on data from the International Monetary Fund, shows that the burden of government spending has jumped by an average of 8.3 percent annually since the mid-1990s.

My Golden Rule of fiscal policy is that government spending should grow slower than economic output. Nations that follow that rule generally enjoy good results, while nations that violate that rule inevitably get in trouble.

Interestingly, if Cypriot politicians had engaged in a very modest amount of spending restraint and limited annual budgetary increases to 3 percent, there would be a giant budget surplus today and the burden of government spending would be down to 21.4 percent of GDP, very close to the levels in the hyper-prosperous jurisdictions of Hong Kong and Singapore.

Actually, that’s not true. If the burden of government spending had grown as 3 percent instead of 8.3 percent, economic growth would have been much stronger, so GDP would have been much larger and the public sector would be an ever smaller share of economic output.

Speaking of GDP, the burden of government spending in Cyprus, measured as a share of GDP, has climbed dramatically since 1995.

A simple way to look at this data is that Cyprus used to have a Swiss-sized government and now it has a Greek-sized government. Government spending is just one of many policies that impact economic performance, but is anyone surprised that this huge increase in the size of the public sector has had a big negative impact on Cyprus?

Interestingly, if government spending had remained at 33.9 percent of GDP in Cyprus, the nation would have a big budget surplus today. Would that have required huge and savage budget cuts? Perhaps in the fantasy world of Paul Krugman, but politicians could have achieved that modest goal if they had simply limited annual spending increases to 6 percent.

But that was too “draconian” for Cypriot politicians, so they increased spending by an average of more than 8 percent each year.

What’s the moral of the story? Simply stated, the fiscal policy variable that matters most is the growth of government. Cyprus got in trouble because the burden of government grew faster than the productive sector of the economy.

That’s the disease, and deficits and debt are the symptoms of that underlying problem.

Europe’s political elite doubtlessly will push for higher taxes, but that approach – at best – simply masks the symptoms in the short run and usually exacerbates the disease in the long run.

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Spain’s received a bailout, Greece is having another election tomorrow, and the European political elite is pushing for more centralization.

In other words, business as usual in the continent where voters think you can get nothing for nothing (this satirical cartoon is now European reality) and politicians think every problem can be solved by more borrowing.

Regarding the Spanish bailout, here’s an amusing video of Nigel Farage, head of the United Kingdom Independence Party, commenting on this latest European “success.”

Farage is an entertaining speaker, as you can see in other videos here and here. Indeed, the Brits serving in Brussels all seem to have a way with words, as you can see from these videos of Dan Hannan and Godfrey Bloom.

While England’s euro-skeptics make good points, what matters most is whether Germany agrees to endless subsidies for its profligate neighbors. There are signs that patience is wearing thin, as seen by these excerpts from a Frankfurt-based Bloomberg columnist.

Germany is feeling more and more like the rich uncle in a poor family. Its spendthrift relatives in the euro area are lining up to shake down their wealthier kin for loans that they may never be able to repay. Actually it’s worse than that: Those poor relatives seem to have forgotten that their uncle has already given them a lot of money. …Hans-Werner Sinn, a government adviser, …noted in a New York Times op-ed that Greece has already received the equivalent of 29 Marshall Plans from Germany… But how can a case be made for even more support when Germany’s biggest neighbor wants to put his feet up at the age of 60 — as French President Francois Hollande is planning by reversing the increase in retirement age – while Germans are expected to keep working until 67 before they get their (steadily declining) state pensions? Let’s not even talk about Greek pensions, which until recently had been paid to many dead people.

But the centralizers in Europe seem oblivious to these concerns. The clowns in the European Parliament think it would be great to have a fiscal union, which is basically a means of having German taxpayers subsidize Italian moochers.

The European Parliament on Wednesday (13 June) approved draft laws that would strongly increase Brussels’ power over eurozone countries’ budgets. …”This is the core of a fiscal union,” said Austrian MEP and socialist leader Hannes Swoboda. …They want a European Debt Redemption Fund that would bring together the debt of eurozone countries that is greater than 60 percent of GDP, allowing it to be repaid in the long term at lower interest rates. The draft would bind the commission to proposing a “roadmap” for establishing eurobonds (the mutualising of eurozone debt) once the legislation comes into place.

Not to be outdone, the buffoons in the European Commission want political union as well, which also is a mechanism for letting Spanish looters pilfer the German taxpayers.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has said member states must agree to a big common budget, a future banking union and – ultimately – political union in order to save the EU. …Barroso’s final step – fiscal and political union – would see EU countries issue joint bonds, co-ordinate tax policy and co-ordinate national spending on everything from healthcare to schools and social welfare. …Belgian liberal Guy Verhofstadt said the summit paper should be a legal proposal for creating a “federal union” and that commission budget plans should call for “own resources” – direct taxation of EU citizens by Brussels.

It’s not terribly surprising that the deadbeats of Europe want access to the money of German taxpayers, but it is rather shocking that German politicians are willing to play this no-win game. Indeed, Frau Merkel actually is an advocate of political union. Sort of like a sheep voluntarily joining two wolves in a debate over what to have for lunch.

And keep in mind that “co-ordinate tax policy” is nothing more than a deceptive way of saying tax harmonization, which would mean an end to tax competition, thus achieving a long-held goal of Europe’s political elite.

In other words, the mess in Europe is a steroid-fueled example of Mitchell’s Law, as each government-caused screw-up is used as an excuse for the next government-caused blunder.

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Last January, I identified five things that worried me for 2011. Here’s what had me concerned, along with some ex post facto analysis about whether I was right to fret:

1. A back-door bailout of the states from the Federal Reserve – Thankfully, I was way off base with this concern. Not only was there no bailout, but Congress even got rid of Obama’s wretched “build America bonds.”

2. A front-door bailout of Europe by the United States – The bad news is that there have been bailouts of Greece, Ireland, and Portugal via the clowns at the IMF. The good news is that the bailouts haven’t been as big or extensive as I originally feared.

3. Republicans getting duped by Obama and supporting a VAT – I was needlessly concerned about a VAT sellout, but I was right to worry about tax increases. GOPers repeatedly expressed willingness to surrender, notwithstanding their anti-tax hike promises.

4. Regulatory imposition of global warming policy – The EPA has been busy imposing lots of costly regulation, but it appears that my fears on this issue were misplaced.

5. U.N. control of the Internet – As far as I can tell, the statists did not make any progress on this issue, so my concerns were unfounded.

This year, I’m not going to put together a list of things that should make us worry. After all, we should always be concerned. As Thomas Jefferson is reported to have warned, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” And Gideon Tucker correctly noted that, “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.”

Instead, I’m going to come up with a list of predictions. But I won’t try to predict the economy. As I already have explained, economists are lousy short-term forecasters. If we actually knew what was going to happen, we’d be rich.

So here are some policy and political predictions for 2012.

1. Obama will win reelection – Unless I’m wildly wrong, Romney will be the nominee, and he is a very uninspiring choice. That gives Obama somewhat of an advantage. More important, I think the unemployment rate will continue to drift downwards (even if only because workers get discouraged and drop out of the labor force) and that will allow Obama to claim – with lots of help from the media – that his policies have started to work.

2. Greece will drop the euro – Politicians have three ways of financing government spending. They can tax, they can borrow, and they can print money. Nations such as Greece already impose stifling tax burdens and further tax increases probably would reduce revenue because of the Laffer Curve. Nations such as Greece already are so indebted that nobody will lend them money, especially since they’ve already defaulted on existing debt payments. This means Greece has to go with the final option and drop the euro so it can print lots of drachmas.  (Greece could solve its problems by cutting spending, of course, but let’s not engage in ridiculous fantasy).

3. At least one major European nation will default – Yes, the Baltic nations have shown it is possible to make real spending cuts and restore fiscal stability, but I don’t expect other European nations to learn from those success stories. So the only question is whether nations such as Spain and Italy default right away, or whether they get additional bailouts that set the stage for even bigger defaults in the future. The answer probably depends on Germany, and I’m guessing Merkel will finally do the right thing (if only for political reasons) and reject additional bailouts.

4. China and Japan have major problems, but will survive 2012 without crisis – I’ve already written that I’m not overly impressed by China and that I think there’s a bubble in the Chinese economy. And I’ve commented on the enormous debt burden in Japan. But even though I think both nations are very vulnerable to economic trouble, I’m going out on a limb and predicting that they’ll make it through this year without a major problem.

5. The Georgia Bulldogs will win college football’s national championship, demonstrating that there is justice in the universe.

P.S. I have been somewhat accurate in my election predictions and I’ve been getting some requests to predict what will happen in Iowa. If I get motivated, I may do that on Tuesday morning.

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There’s always been a simple and desirable solution to Europe’s fiscal crisis, but nobody in Europe wants to do the right thing because it means admitting the failure of big government and it would result in less power for the political elite.

So we get the spectacle of never-ending emergency summits as the political class blindly searches for some magical solution. Not surprisingly, the “solution” concocted by the latest gathering is not getting good reviews.

Here’s what Ambrose Evans-Pritchard wrote in the Daily Telegraph.

What remarkable petulance and stupidity. The leaders of France and Germany have more or less bulldozed Britain out of the European Union for the sake of a treaty that offers absolutely no solution to the crisis at hand, or indeed any future crisis. It is EU institutional chair shuffling at its worst, with venom for good measure. …There is no shared debt issuance, no fiscal transfers, no move to an EU Treasury, no banking licence for the ESM rescue fund, and no change in the mandate of the European Central Bank.

And here’s what Felix Salmon wrote for Reuters.

It all adds up to one of the most disastrous summits imaginable. A continent which has risen to multiple occasions over the past 66 years has, in 2011, decided to implode in a spectacle of pathetic ignominy. …Europe’s leaders have set a course which leads directly to a gruesome global recession, before we’ve even recovered from the last one. Europe can’t afford that; America can’t afford that; the world can’t afford that. But the hopes of arriving anywhere else have never been dimmer.

So why is everybody upset? For the simple reason that the supposed “solution” doesn’t address the immediate problem.

Europe’s short-run crisis is that the fear of default. Simply stated, governments have squandered so much money that they are now deeply in debt. As a result, investors no longer trust that they will get paid back (either on time or in full) if they buy bonds from various governments.

This is why interest rates on government debt are climbing and nations such as Greece, Ireland, and Portugal already have received direct bailouts. Moreover, the European Central Bank has been engaging in indirect bailouts of other welfare states such as Spain and Italy.

But these direct and indirect bailouts have simply made the debt bubble bigger.

Yet the new agreement from Europe’s political elite doesn’t deal with this crisis. Simply stated, there is no short-run bailout strategy, not even one that kicks the can down the road.

There are only four ways of dealing with the mess in Europe, one good and three bad.

1. No bailouts, thus forcing nations to do the right thing (like the Baltics) or letting them default. This imposes the costs on the people who created the mess, addresses the short-run crisis, and promotes good long-run policy.

2. Crank up the proverbial printing presses and have the European Central Bank buy up most of Europe’s dodgy debt. This imposes the costs on all consumers, addresses the short-run crisis, and promotes bad long-run policy.

3. Have the Germans (and some other northern Europeans) guarantee the debt of the less-stable welfare states, either through Euro-bonds or some other mechanism. This imposes the costs on taxpayers in Germany and other nations that have been more prudent, addresses the short-run crisis, and promotes bad long-run policy.

4. Have the Americans and the rest of the world bail out Europe’s welfare states via the International Monetary Fund. This imposes the costs on the entire world (with U.S. taxpayers picking up the biggest part of the tab), addresses the short-run crisis, and promotes bad long-run policy.

In a remarkable display of ignoring the elephant in the middle of the room, none of these options was selected.

Some people claim that the third option was used, but that’s whistling past the graveyard. Yes, there will be a €500 billion bail-out fund called the European Stability Mechanism at some point next year, but that simply replaces the current €440 billion European Financial Stability Facility. And nobody thinks the third option will be successful unless there is a multi-trillion euro bailout fund.

So if Europe’s politicians didn’t agree to deal with the problem, either with good policy or bad policy, what exactly did they do?

The agreement uses the short-run fiscal crisis as an excuse to propose permanent changes that will erode national sovereignty and impose more centralization, more harmonization, and more bureaucratization.

One can argue, though not very persuasively, that these changes will reduce the likelihood of fiscal crises in the future. But that’s not the same thing as coming up with a policy – good or bad – to deal with the immediate problem.

I’m not an expert on investing money, but I definitely won’t be surprised if financial markets (including the investors who want bad policy so they can be bailed out) react negatively to this latest faux agreement.

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As demonstrated by the new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, there are five key lessons to learn from the fiscal crisis in Europe.

Unfortunately, Europe’s despicable political class has not learned from their mistakes. They are not taking the simple and obvious steps that are needed to address the problems of spendthrift governments.

Instead, they want to compound bad fiscal policy with bad monetary policy by having the European Central Bank purchase even more bonds issued by the continent’s most decrepit welfare states.

I warned last year that this was a big mistake and I’m glad to see that the issue is now getting more attention. Here’s some of what the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial this morning.

Only weeks into his new job as president of the European Central Bank, the Italian is being portrayed along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the main—the only—obstacle to saving the euro zone. If only the ECB would print a few trillion euros to buy the debt of spendthrift European countries, all will be well. Hang in there, Mr. Draghi, and you too, Chancellor. Don’t let the French, the British and the Yanks, the euro-pundits and the other blabbering bullies for bailouts get you down. Someone needs to defend the principle of central bank independence and price stability. The ECB has been by far the most effective part of the euro system since its founding. It shouldn’t squander that legacy now by taking on the debts of spendthrift governments that are the real cause of this crisis. It’s true that the ECB has already become a little bit pregnant in buying sovereign bonds, first taking on Greek, Irish and Portuguese debt, and this summer Spanish and Italian bonds. A week ago Friday, the ECB held €187 billion worth of country bonds. …So far, the ECB’s bond purchases have been limited enough that the central bank has been able to “sterilize” them, meaning they are offset by withdrawing money elsewhere in the banking system and haven’t added to the overall supply of money. But a multitrillion euro program would make sterilization impossible and would become a money-printing exercise. …If the Germans and ECB do write a blank check, then the balance of power within the euro zone will shift markedly, and perhaps irreversibly, in favor of the spenders. Even if this prevented short-term panic, it would merely postpone the day of reckoning and leave Europe worse off in the medium and long term. Without a system that can enforce spending restraint, borrowing discipline and economic reform, all the ECB bond-buying in the world won’t save the euro, and the independence of the ECB itself will become another casualty of the crisis.

The mess in Europe is like a slow-motion train wreck. It’s easy to see it won’t work, but that doesn’t stop the politicians from doing the wrong thing.

Indeed, I predicted most of the bad policies. But it doesn’t require much insight to know that statism won’t work, as I acknowledged in my I-told-you-so post.

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I’ve joked on many occasions that bipartisanship occurs in Washington when the evil party and the stupid party come up with an idea that is simultaneously malicious and misguided.

The international version of two-wrongs-don’t-make-a-right occurs whenever the French and the Germans conspire on economic policy. The latest example is a joint proposal for “economic governance” for eurozone nations. Here are some blurbs from the BBC’s report.

The French and German leaders have called for “true economic governance” for the eurozone in response to the euro debt crisis. Speaking at a joint news conference, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged much closer economic and fiscal policy in the eurozone. …They also advocated a tax on financial transactions to raise more revenues.

I don’t pretend to have any predictive ability, but I’ll bet dollars-to-donuts that “true economic governance” will lead to more spending and higher taxes. Why? Because “economic governance” is just a sanitized way of describing a cartel of governments.

When politicians don’t have to worry as much about jobs and capital migrating to jurisdictions with less oppressive tax law, they will behave in a predictable fashion by raising tax rates. In other words, the weakening of tax competition is a recipe for bigger, more expensive government.

Indeed, the tax on financial transactions is a perfect example. Any one nation would be unlikely to impose this perverse levy for fear of losing business to neighbors. But if there’s a one-size-fits-all eurozone government, then bad policy becomes more feasible.

The only good news is that Merkel hasn’t totally lost her mind. Perhaps because her de facto socialist party is not doing well in the polls against the de jure socialist party in Germany, she is temporarily resisting the idea of “eurobonds.”

Ms Merkel again played down the chances of introducing “eurobonds” – jointly guaranteed debts of the 17 eurozone governments – as a solution to the crisis. The idea has been advocated by the Italian finance minister, Giulio Tremonti, as well as billionaire investor George Soros as a way of providing cheap financing to struggling governments while also incentivising them to put their finances in order.

The more profligate European governments like eurobonds for the same reason that California and Illinois would like to jointly issue debt with Texas. It’s a way for the spendthrift to free ride off the frugal.

And speculators like eurobonds because their holdings can dramatically rise in value when downside risk gets transferred to taxpayers (nothing wrong with speculation, by the way, so long as losses aren’t socialized).

Eurobonds might temporarily calm European markets, but only by setting the stage for a bigger collapse in the near future when the Germans are pulled underwater by their reckless neighbors.

For those who want more information, this video is a primer on the importance of jurisdictional competition.

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If Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama are neck-and-neck competitors in the contest to be the public face of incompetent statism in America, then the competition in Europe is between Herman van Rompuy and Olga Stefou.

But since I’ve already crowned Ms. Stefou as the Queen of Greece, then Mr Rompuy (a.k.a., President of the Euorpean Council) is the winner by default.

And “winner by default” is a pretty good description of this statist paper pusher. I’ve previously mocked this über-bureaucrat for:

a)whining about markets downgrading Europe’s welfare states,

b) crying about whether he gets prestigious seating at bureaucratic meetings,

c) seeking to impose one-size-fits-all big government on EU nations with “economic governance,” and

d) publishing an anthology of haiku poems (this last has nothing to do with economic policy, but I can’t resist including it on the list).

Even though he has this impressive list of accomplishments,  Mr. Rompuy is not taking any chances. To cement his place in history, he is overseeing a series of disastrous bailouts and then ineffectually complaining that markets are unimpressed by his willingness to throw good money after bad. Here’s a blurb from an article in the EU Observer.

Van Rompuy, who brokered the eurozone deal on Greece, precipitated by the very same rising costs as for the Italian government, has tried to allay market fears in an op-ed published in several European newspapers. “Astonishingly,” he writes, “since our summit the cost of borrowing has increased again for a number of euro area countries. I say astonishingly, because all macro economic fundamentals point in the opposite direction.” The Greek bailout conditions are “exceptional” and mark no precedent for other countries, he added. Citing the austerity measures adopted in Italy and Spain, as well as Madrid’s low debt, Van Rompuy accused the markets of making risk assessments “totally out of line with the fundamentals.” Ratings agencies which downgraded the two countries also acted in a “ludicrous” way when putting them in the top tier of default risk countries, he claimed.

Let’s recap: The fiscal collapse of Europe is proceeding in a predictable fashion, as excessive spending and high tax rates are strangling growth and pushing red ink to unsustainable levels.

And Mr. Rompuy thinks the answer is more spending, higher taxes, and additional debt. And then this clown has the nerve to complain that markets are giving a thumbs-down. Amazing.

Even more astounding, or perhaps even more discouraging, President Obama wants America to travel down the same path.

But that’s a story for another day. Let’s close this post by looking at a couple of amusing videos, featuring the head of the UK Independence Party raking Mr. Rompuy over the coals.

I think the word “skewer” is somehow appropriate.

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Allister Heath is one of the best economic columnists in Europe and his analysis of Europe’s fiscal situation is rather grim. But Americans can’t be smug. This is where the Bush-Obama policies, combined with demographics, are leading America.

Here’s Allister’s analysis of where things stand in Europe.

Gold hit £1,000 an ounce today for the first time, as equities fell, Club Med government bond yields jumped, spreads increased and the fear and loathing in the credit markets intensified – and all of that in response to the EU’s banking stress tests on Friday night, which were supposed to reassure investors that all was well. What a farce. The tests’ preposterous lack of credibility – they didn’t even envisage the possibility that a government could go bust – have been greeted with the contempt they deserved.

In other words, feckless behavior and grotesque dishonesty from the political class have made a big mess. So what’s going to happen? Allister clearly is a believer in Mitchell’s Law, so he expects the politicians and bureaucrats to use the crisis they created as an excuse to impose additional bad policies.

…the most likely outcome is that the EU will eventually find a way (by bending or rewriting rules) to federalise the debt of failed, bankrupt states: they will issue vast amounts of EU-backed bonds (say €1 trillion, as an order of magnitude) and tell all financial institutions, including insurers and pension funds, that they wish to buy every single government bond from bankrupt countries that they are willing to sell, probably at the discount to face value being priced in at that particular time by the markets. The authorities would give holders an ultimatum: sell now, or bear all future losses. It may be that such an arrangement will not be ready on time for Greece, which could yet be left to go bust and be thrown out of the euro. But regardless of the details, a giant euro-bond would transfer the default risk from private institutions stupid enough to trust Club Med governments (or who were forced, for regulatory reasons, to hold their bonds) to all European taxpayers. This could damage the credit rating of more solvent countries – but even if it doesn’t, it would be tantamount to a massive bailout. In return, the EU would want its pound of flesh: the weaker Eurozone countries would be turned into quasi-protectorates. Such a plan would further discredit capitalism (even though the people who caused the crisis were over-spending politicians) and it would rob the EU of its legitimacy in the eyes of both Southern Europeans (who would lose their independence) and Northern Europeans (who would pay for the south’s greed, stupidity, mismanagement and economic illiteracy).

Allister closes with a very accurate observation about why bureaucrats and politicians enjoy a good crisis.

The EU has always worked on the basis that every crisis is good because it invariably provides an excuse to centralise powers. But the present nightmare could prove to be a bridge too far and herald the beginning of the end for the entire project. Fun and games are about to start.

Yes, they are. And American politicians are playing the same game – more government, less freedom, more government. Lather, rinse, repeat.

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The news is going from bad to worse for Ireland. The Irish Independent is reporting that the Swiss Central Bank no longer will accept Irish government bonds as collateral. The story also notes that one of the world’s largest bond firms, PIMCO, is no longer purchasing debt issued by the Irish government.

And this is happening even though (or perhaps because?) Ireland received a big bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (and the IMF’s involvement means American taxpayers are picking up part of the tab).

I’ve already commented on Ireland’s woes, and opined about similar problems afflicting the rest of Europe, but the continuing deterioration of the Emerald Isle deserves further analysis so that American policy makers hopefully grasp the right lessons. Here are five things we should learn from the mess in Ireland.

1. Bailouts Don’t Work – When Ireland’s government rescued depositors by bailing out the nation’s three big banks, they made a big mistake by also bailing out creditors such as bondholders. This dramatically increased the cost of the bank bailout and exacerbated moral hazard since investors are more willing to make inefficient and risky choices if they think governments will cover their losses. And because it required the government to incur a lot of additional debt, it also had the effect of destabilizing the nation’s finances, which then resulted in a second mistake – the bailout of Ireland by the European Union and IMF (a classic case of Mitchell’s Law, which occurs when one bad government policy leads to another bad government policy).

American policy makers already have implemented one of the two mistakes mentioned above. The TARP bailout went way beyond protecting depositors and instead gave unnecessary handouts to wealthy and sophisticated companies, executives, and investors. But something good may happen if we learn from the second mistake. Greedy politicians from states such as California and Illinois would welcome a bailout from Uncle Sam, but this would be just as misguided as the EU/IMF bailout of Ireland. The Obama Administration already provided an indirect short-run bailout as part of the so-called stimulus legislation, and this encouraged states to dig themselves deeper in a fiscal hole. Uncle Sam shouldn’t be subsidizing bad policy at the state level, and the mess in Europe is a powerful argument that this counterproductive approach should be stopped as soon as possible.

By the way, it’s worth noting that politicians and international bureaucracies behave as if government defaults would have catastrophic consequences, but Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute explains that there have been more than 200 sovereign defaults in the past 200 years and we somehow avoided Armageddon.

2. Excessive Government Spending Is a Path to Fiscal Ruin – The bailout of the banks obviously played a big role in causing Ireland’s fiscal collapse, but the government probably could have weathered that storm if politicians in Dublin hadn’t engaged in a 20-year spending spree.

The red line in the chart shows the explosive growth of government spending. Irish politicians got away with this behavior for a long time. Indeed, government spending as a share of GDP (the blue line) actually fell during the 1990s because the private sector was growing even faster than the public sector. This bit of good news (at least relatively speaking) stopped about 10 years ago. Politicians began to increase government spending at roughly the same rate as the private sector was expanding. While this was misguided, tax revenues were booming (in part because of genuine growth and in part because of the bubble) and it seemed like bigger government was a free lunch.

Eventually, however, the house of cards collapsed. Revenues dried up and the banks failed, but because the politicians had spent so much during the good times, there was no reserve during the bad times.

American politicians are repeating these mistakes. Spending has skyrocketed during the Bush-Obama year. We also had our version of a financial system bailout, though fortunately not as large as Ireland’s when measured as a share of economic output, so our crisis is likely to occur when the baby boom generation has retired and the time comes to make good on the empty promises to fund Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

3. Low Corporate Tax Rates Are Good, but They Don’t Guarantee Economic Success if other Policies Are Bad – Ireland used to be a success story. They went from being the “Sick Man of Europe” in the early 1980s to being the “Celtic Tiger” earlier this century in large part because policy makers dramatically reformed fiscal policy. Government spending was capped in the late 1980 and tax rates were reduced during the 1990s. The reform of the corporate income tax was especially dramatic. Irish lawmakers reduced the tax rate from 50 percent all the way down to 12.5 percent.

This policy was enormously successful in attracting new investment, and Ireland’s government actually wound up collecting more corporate tax revenue at the lower rate. This was remarkable since it is only in very rare cases that the Laffer Curve means a tax cut generates more revenue for government (in the vast majority of cases, the Laffer Curve simply means that changes in taxable income will have revenue effects that offset only a portion of the revenue effects caused by the change in tax rates).

Unfortunately, good corporate tax policy does not guarantee good economic performance if the government is making a lot of mistakes in other areas. This is an apt description of what happened to Ireland. The silver lining to this sad story is that Irish politicians have resisted pressure from France and Germany and are keeping the corporate tax rate at 12.5 percent. The lesson for American policy makers, of course, is that low corporate tax rates are a very good idea, but don’t assume they protect the economy from other policy mistakes.

4. Artificially Low Interest Rates Encourage Bubbles – No discussion of Ireland’s economic problems would be complete without looking at the decision to join the common European currency. Adopting the euro had some advantages, such as not having to worry about changing money when traveling to many other European nations. But being part of Europe’s monetary union also meant that Ireland did not have flexible interest rates.

Normally, an economic boom drives up interest rates because the plethora of profitable opportunities leads investors demand more credit. But Ireland’s interest rates, for all intents and purposes, were governed by what was happening elsewhere in Europe, where growth was generally anemic. The resulting artificially low interest rates in Ireland helped cause a bubble, much as artificially low interest rates in America last decade led to a bubble.

But if America already had a bubble, what lesson can we learn from Ireland? The simple answer is that we should learn to avoid making the same mistake over and over again. Easy money is a recipe for inflation and/or bubbles. Simply stated, excess money has to go someplace and the long-run results are never pleasant. Yet Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve have launched QE2, a policy explicitly designed to lower interest rates in hopes of artificially juicing the economy.

5. Housing Subsidies Reduce Prosperity – Last but not least, Ireland’s bubble was worsened in part because politicians created an extensive system of preferences that tilted the playing field in the direction of real estate. The combination of these subsidies and the artificially low interest rates caused widespread malinvestment and Ireland is paying the price today.

Since we just endured a financial crisis caused in large part by a corrupt system of housing subsidies for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, American policy makers should have learned this lesson already. But as Thomas Sowell sagely observes, politicians are still fixated on somehow re-inflating the housing bubble. The lesson they should have learned is that markets should determine value, not politics.

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I’ve written before about the upcoming breakdown of the European welfare state, and my fingers are crossed that American policy makers will learn the right lessons and restrain the size and scope of government before we suffer from the social chaos and disarray that is sweeping through nations as varied as Greece and the United Kingdom.

Some defenders of big government claim that Europe will be okay, but a column in the New York Times by Desmond Lachman and Dalibor Rohac provides some sobering analysis. Some of their analysis focuses on the inherent instability of the common European currency, which certainly is a contributing factor, but the key takeaway is that many European nations are going to default. In the short run, the resulting economic instability will have a negative impact on the United States, but the long-run impact could be positive if American lawmakers undo the profligacy of the Bush-Obama years and put the U.S. back on a sound fiscal path.

…the European Central Bank president, Jean-Claude Trichet, now keeps asserting that Europe’s sovereign debt crisis does not pose a significant threat to the overall European economy, let alone to the global economy. American policymakers would do well to disregard Mr. Trichet’s sanguine remarks and brace themselves for a European economic tsunami that is all too likely to seriously derail the fragile U.S. economic recovery. …over the past decade countries in Europe’s periphery have consistently not managed their public finances according to the arrangement’s rules. As a result, outsized budget and balance-of-payment deficits do not now simply characterize the Greek, Irish and Portuguese economies. Rather, more ominously, they also characterize Spain, which is aptly being described on Wall Street as being too big to fail yet also too big to save. …European policymakers understand full well that a wave of sovereign debt defaults in Europe’s periphery would more than likely precipitate a full-blown European banking crisis, since European banks are the main holders of the $2 trillion in the periphery’s sovereign debt. This suggests that European policy makers in the north will not lightly turn off the financing spigot that presently keeps the periphery afloat. However, judging by the crushing defeat handed Ms. Merkel in the May 2010 Westphalia state election, electoral considerations will likely make it all but impossible to indefinitely continue such financing.

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Ireland is in deep fiscal trouble and the Germans and the French apparently want the politicians in Dublin to increase the nation’s 12.5 percent corporate tax rate as the price for being bailed out. This is almost certainly the cause of considerable smugness and joy in Europe’s high-tax nations, many of which have been very resentful of Ireland for enjoying so much prosperity in recent decades in part because of a low corporate tax burden.

But is there any reason to think Ireland’s competitive corporate tax regime is responsible for the nation’s economic crisis? The answer, not surprisingly, is no. Here’s a chart from one of Ireland’s top economists, looking at taxes and spending for past 27 years. You can see that revenues grew rapidly, especially beginning in the 1990s as the lower tax rates were implemented. The problem is that politicians spent every penny of this revenue windfall.

When the financial crisis hit a couple of years ago, tax revenues suddenly plummeted. Unfortunately, politicians continued to spend like drunken sailors. It’s only in the last year that they finally stepped on the brakes and began to rein in the burden of government spending. But that may be a case of too little, too late.

The second chart provides additional detail. Interestingly, the burden of government spending actually fell as a share of GDP between 1983 and 2000. This is not because government spending was falling, but rather because the private sector was growing even faster than the public sector.

This bit of good news (at least relatively speaking) stopped about 10 years ago. Politicians began to increase government spending at roughly the same rate as the private sector was expanding. While this was misguided, tax revenues were booming (in part because of genuine growth and in part because of the bubble) and it seemed like bigger government was a free lunch.

But big government is never a free lunch. Government spending diverts resources from the productive sector of the economy. This is now painfully apparent since there no longer is a revenue windfall to mask the damage.

There are lots of lessons to learn from Ireland’s fiscal/economic/financial crisis. There was too much government spending. Ireland also had a major housing bubble. And some people say that adopting the euro (the common currency of many European nations) helped create the current mess.

The one thing we can definitely say, though, is that lower tax rates did not cause Ireland’s problems. It’s also safe to say that higher tax rates will delay Ireland’s recovery. French and German politicians may think that’s a good idea, but hopefully Irish lawmakers have a better perspective.

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Jim Glassman has a thorough article in Commentary explaining that Europe is in deep trouble both because high tax rates discourage work and production and because excessive handouts encourage sloth and dependency. This should be a common-sense observation, but most politicians get votes by convincing voters they can have comfortable lives without producing. The inevitable result is what happened in Greece, though the negative effects of that debacle are being postponed (but also magnified) by the European bailout. Considering what’s happening, it’s hard to have any optimism about the long-term result. Here’s a long excerpt, but the whole article is worth reading since the same thing will happen in America if the Bush-Obama policies are not reversed.

Prosperity, it seems, can bring sloth, which in turn disrupts the virtuous cycle, though not immediately. There is a period, which I believe we are in right now, where the disruption is not apparent, where it can be obscured through government monetary and fiscal manipulation. But eventually, a simple rule will prevail: you can’t live well if you don’t work. It is hardly surprising that work produces well-being, and if work diminishes, then well-being, even in the most advanced economy, will slow down, stop, or shift into reverse gear. “Decadence,” with its connotations of self-indulgence and decline, is not too strong a word for the response we have seen to economic success, especially in much of Europe, over the past few decades. …In 2004, the year he won the Nobel Prize, Edward Prescott, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, published a paper titled “Why Do Americans Work So Much More than Europeans?” The data were stunning. Prescott found that the average output per adult between 1993 and 1996 in the United States was 75 percent greater than in Italy, 49 percent greater than in the United Kingdom, and 35 percent greater than in France and Germany. “Most of the differences in output,” he wrote, were “accounted for by differences in hours worked per person and not by differences in productivity.” …Prescott showed that these differences are of fairly recent origin. During the period from 1970 to 1974, Europeans—including the French, Germans, and British—generally worked more than Americans. At that time, however, Europeans were less productive than Americans, so their overall output per person was about the same as it was in 1993-96: around one-third below the U.S. level. So, as Europeans became more efficient (producing more goods and services per hour of work), they cut back on their hours, choosing leisure over work. And the gap has widened. By the time Prescott won his Nobel Prize, Americans were working 50 percent more than the French. …In his paper, Prescott fingered the culprit: high taxes. “The surprising finding,” he wrote, “is that this marginal tax rate [difference between Europe and the U.S.] accounts for the predominance of differences at points in time and the large change in relative labor supply over time.” Taxation rates on the next euro of income became so high that people were discouraged from working—especially with the enticements of early retirement. But this explanation is incomplete. Why are taxes so high in Europe? Certainly not to maintain a strong defense but rather to pour money into a welfare state that provides lavish support to retirees, perennial students, and others who aren’t working. In other words, Europeans have chosen to have workers support non-workers in their leisure. …A financial crisis can pull the covers away to give us a clear look at what’s underneath, and the current crisis has exposed Europe as a fool’s paradise. “The fundamental cause of the financial crisis,” wrote the George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen on his blog, Marginal Revolution, “is people and institutions thinking they are more wealthy than they are.” …The same with nations. Europe supported its welfare state with borrowed money, a practice that can be perfectly healthy as long as both welfare state and debt are modest and loans can be serviced by diligent workers. Europe, however, is not nearly as wealthy as it thought it was, or as wealthy as its national way of life indicated. Take Greece. …Greece joined the European Union in 1981 and the eurozone—the continent’s monetary union—in 2001. Since the second event, especially, Greece has been behaving as if it were truly rich. The secret was borrowed money. At the end of 2009, the country had a public debt equivalent to 114 percent of its GDP. That’s on top of the 3 percent of GDP that the European Union contributes as direct aid each year. Meanwhile, Greece consistently violated the EU’s rules for minimum deficit and debt levels. The Greeks, however, lived better and better, with an official retirement age of just 58. Only three-fifths of adult Greeks under age 64 were in the work force. …Default can impose needed fiscal discipline on a government. But in an age of financial magic and euro-solidarity, default for a European nation is not a burden that has to be borne—at least not yet. On the brink of not being able to pay its debts earlier this year, Greece was bailed out with $100 billion in loans from the 15 other eurozone countries and about $50 billion from the International Monetary Fund. This year, the Greek government will make interest payments amounting to 15 percent of GDP on its loans (the U.S. pays less than 3 percent). With Portugal and Spain and perhaps Italy heading for similar trouble, Europe announced it would guarantee debts up to $955 billion. There are two problems with such bailouts. First, they do little or nothing to end the leisure-seeking practices, encouraged by high marginal tax rates and labor regulations, that led to the near-defaults in the first place. Greece may promise austerity as a condition for being saved, but don’t count on delivery. Second is the matter of moral hazard—the tendency of insurance against calamity to provide an incentive toward behavior that produces calamity. I warned of the dangers of moral hazard during the current financial crisis in an article in this magazine last year, and, unfortunately, we are seeing those predictions being realized. Much pain was caused by the crisis, but much was mitigated as well by government policies that kept profligate banks and other businesses alive that should have disappeared—and, of course, Washington took the occasion of the crisis to increase the size of its own welfare state. What the eurozone nations have done in bailing out Greece and pre-bailing Portugal and the others is to introduce a heaping helping of moral hazard that may seem nourishing at first but that inevitably will cause severe indigestion, or worse. …While the United States is not Europe, many of our states clearly have aspirations in the same decadent direction. With high marginal tax rates and regulations that discourage work, California this year is running a deficit of $20 billion, and a recent study found that the pension shortfall for government workers is $500 billion. Investors were recently paying about $300,000 to buy credit default swaps—that is, an insurance policy—on each $10 million in California municipal bonds. That’s a rate 50 percent higher than on bonds issued by Kazakhstan. As a monetary union, the United States may face a decision similar to that of the eurozone nations: should the federal government bail out California? If it does, we will have entered a fool’s paradise on this side of the Atlantic as well.

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The Wall Street Journal correctly pulls aside the veil and exposes the dubious gimmick that European politicians used to declare that banks are reasonably health. To put it bluntly, they assumed no government would ever default, which really means that the stress test was a fraud or German taxpayers are now on the chopping block to bail out every other nation.

Two months ago, credit markets in Europe nearly went off the rails over concern about what a sovereign debt default in Greece would do to the Continent’s banks. After last night’s release of the result of a Europe-wide stress test, we’re not much wiser. The EU’s committee of national bank regulators repeatedly says that its stress test includes a “sovereign shock” scenario. But crucially, “a sovereign default was not included in the exercise,” in the dry language of the committee’s summary report. This means the test only looked at government debt held in trading portfolios, while ignoring any government bonds listed as held to maturity. Earlier this month, regulators made it clear that they opposed testing the consequences of a sovereign debt default on European bank balance sheets. The German magazine Der Speigel reported that regulators felt including sovereign default in the tests might imply that the EU’s €750 billion ($960 billion) bailout fund wasn’t guaranteed to work. In other words, bank regulators in Europe think Greece, Spain, Portugal and the rest are too big to fail. Germany and France will always save them in the end, so the consequences of a default don’t even need to be considered.

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Europe’s economy is stagnant, the euro currency is in danger of collapse, and many nations are on the verge of bankruptcy. But one thing you can count on in this time of crisis is for prompt, thoughtful, and intelligent action by the super-bureaucrats of the European Commission. Right? Well, maybe not. You can be confident, however, that they will generate idiotic regulations that increase costs and trample national sovereignty. The latest example is some new red tape that will prohibit grocers from selling items based on numerical quantity. I’m not joking. Here’s a blurb from the UK-based Telegraph:
Under the draft legislation, to come into force as early as next year, the sale of groceries using the simple measurement of numbers will be replaced by an EU-wide system based on weight. It would mean an end to packaging descriptions such as eggs by the dozen, four-packs of apples, six bread rolls or boxes of 12 fish fingers. …The changes would cost the food and retail industries millions of pounds as items would have to be individually weighed to ensure the accuracy of the label. Trade magazine, The Grocer, said food industry sources had described the move as “bonkers” and “absolute madness”. Its editor, Adam Leyland, said the EU had “created a multi-headed monster”. Caroline Spelman said: “This goes against common sense. Shopkeeping is a long standing British tradition and we know what customers want. They want to buy eggs by the dozen and they should be allowed to – a point I shall be making clear to our partners in Europe.” …Andrew Opie, food director of the British Retail Consortium, which represents 90 per cent of UK shops, said: “This is a bad proposal – we need to help consumers, not confuse them.”

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Barack Obama and Angela Merkel are the two main characters in what is being portrayed as a fight between American “stimulus” and European “austerity” at the G-20 summit meeting in Canada. My immediate instinct is to cheer for the Europeans. After all, “austerity” presumably means cutting back on wasteful government spending. Obama’s definition of “stimulus,” by contrast, is borrowing money from China and distributing it to various Democratic-leaning special-interest groups.
 
But appearances can be deceiving. Austerity, in the European context, means budget balance rather than spending reduction. As such, David Cameron’s proposal to boost the U.K.’s value-added tax from 17.5 percent to 20 percent is supposedly a sign of austerity even though his Chancellor of the Exchequer said a higher tax burden would generate “13 billion pounds we don’t have to find from extra spending cuts.”
 
Raising taxes to finance a bloated government, to be sure, is not the same as Obama’s strategy of borrowing money to finance a bloated government. But proponents of limited government and economic freedom understandably are underwhelmed by the choice of two big-government approaches.
 
What matters most, from a fiscal policy perspective, is shrinking the burden of government spending relative to economic output. Europe needs smaller government, not budget balance. According to OECD data, government spending in eurozone nations consumes nearly 51 percent of gross domestic product, almost 10 percentage points higher than the burden of government spending in the United States.
 
Unfortunately, I suspect that the “austerity” plans of Merkel, Cameron, Sarkozy, et al, will leave the overall burden of government relatively unchanged. That may be good news if the alternative is for government budgets to consume even-larger shares of economic output, but it is far from what is needed.
 
Unfortunately, the United States no longer offers a competing vision to the European welfare state. Under the big-government policies of Bush and Obama, the share of GDP consumed by government spending has jumped by nearly 8-percentage points in the past 10 years. And with Obama proposing and/or implementing higher income taxes, higher death taxes, higher capital gains taxes, higher payroll taxes, higher dividend taxes, and higher business taxes, it appears that American-style big-government “stimulus” will soon be matched by European-style big-government “austerity.”
 
Here’s a blurb from the Christian Science Monitor about the Potemkin Village fiscal fight in Canada:

This weekend’s G-20 summit is shaping up as an economic clash of civilizations – or at least a clash of EU and US economic views. EU officials led by German chancellor Angela Merkel are on a national “austerity” budget cutting offensive as the wisest policy for economic health, ahead of the Toronto summit of 20 large-economy nations. Ms. Merkel Thursday said Germany will continue with $100 billion in cuts that will join similar giant ax strokes in the UK, Italy, France, Spain, and Greece. EU officials say budget austerity promotes the stability and market confidence that are prerequisites for their role in overall recovery. Yet EU pro-austerity statements in the past 48 hours are also defensive – a reaction to public statements from US President Barack Obama and G-20 chairman Lee Myung-bak, South Korea’s president, that the overall effect of national austerity in the EU will harm recovery. They are joined by US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, investor George Soros, and Nobel laureate and columnist Paul Krugman, among others, arguing that austerity works against growth, and may lead to a recessionary spiral.

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It’s been amusing, in an I-told-you-so fashion, to follow the fiscal crises in Greece, Spain, and other European welfare states.And I feel like a voyeuristic ghoul as I observe the incredibly misguided bailout policies being adopted by the political elites (who are trying to bail out the business elites who made silly loans to corrupt nations in Southern Europe). But I’m not sure how to describe my emotions (dumbfounded fascination?) about the latest bad idea emanating from Europe – to have a fiscal federation that would give bureaucrats in Brussels power over national budgets. It’s quite possible that this would result in some externally-imposed discipline for a basket case such as Greece, so it would not always lead to terrible results. But most of the decisions would be bad, particularly since the Euro-crats would use new powers to curtail tax competition in order to enhance the ability of governments to impose bad tax policy in order to seize more money. Moreover, fiscal centralization would exacerbate the main problem in Europe by creating a new avenue – cross-border subsidies - for people who want to mooch by getting access to other people’s money. The Wall Street Journal Europe has a good editorial on the issue:
Of all the possible responses to Europe’s sovereign debt woes, the notion of centralizing fiscal authority in Brussels may well be the most destructive. But that was exactly what European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet proposed in testimony before the European Parliament Monday. Mr. Trichet’s idea is that an independent body within the European Commission should have broad power to sanction national governments for fiscal or macroeconomic policies that threatened the stability of the euro. This would amount, in Mr. Trichet’s words, to the “equivalent of a fiscal federation” for the euro zone. Mr. Trichet has spent nearly 40 years as a civil servant in one form or another, which may explain his belief that Europe’s budgetary problems can be solved by technocrats. …Fiscal centralization would also undermine competition between different fiscal and macroeconomic policies within the euro zone. That would delight some countries, and probably some at the European Commission as well. During this crisis, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde has criticized Germany for becoming too competitive for the euro zone’s own good. And a decade ago, France was among the euro-zone countries that attacked Ireland for lowering its corporate income-tax rate to 12.5% to attract investment. …Ireland’s 12.5% corporate tax rate was an experiment that contributed to a lowering of rates around the world in the succeeding years.

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