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Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

The theory of “economic convergence” is based on the notion that poor nations should grow faster than rich nations and eventually achieve the same level of development.

This theory is quite reasonable, but I’ve pointed out that decent public policy (i.e., free markets and small government) is a necessary condition for convergence to occur.

The link between good policy and convergence explains why Hong Kong and Singapore, for instance, have caught up to the United States.

And the adverse effect of bad policy is a big reason why Europe continues to lag.

Moreover, it also explains why some nations with awful policy are de-converging.

Today, let’s look at convergence between Western Europe and Eastern Europe.

Here are some excerpts from a new study published by the European Central Bank.

This paper analyses real income convergence in central, eastern and south-eastern Europe (CESEE) to the most advanced EU economies between 2000 and 2016. …The paper establishes stylised facts of convergence, analyses the drivers of economic growth and identifies factors that might explain the differences between fast- and slow-converging economies in the region. The results show that the most successful CESEE economies in terms of the pace of convergence share common characteristics such as, inter alia, a strong improvement in institutional quality and human capital, more outward-oriented economic policies, favourable demographic developments and the quick reallocation of labour from agriculture into other sectors. Looking ahead, accelerating and sustaining convergence in the region will require further efforts to enhance institutional quality and innovation, reinvigorate investment, and address the adverse impact of population ageing.

The study is filled with fascinating data (at least if you’re a policy wonk).

This chart, for example, shows how many nations are converging (the dots above the diagonal line) and how many nations are falling behind (the dots below the diagonal line).

The yellow dots are Eastern European nations, so it’s good news that all of them are experiencing some degree of convergence.

But the above graphic doesn’t provide any details.

So let’s look at another chart from the study. The blue bar shows per-capita GDP in selected Eastern European nations as a share of the EU average. The yellow dot shows where the countries were in 2008 and the orange dot shows where they were in 2000.

The good news, at least relatively speaking, is that all nations are catching up to Western Europe.

But the report notes that some are catching up faster than others.

The developments were…heterogeneous within CESEE countries that are EU Member States. Some of them (the Baltic States, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania and Slovakia) experienced particularly fast convergence in the period analysed. At the same time, other CESEE EU Member States found it hard to converge… In fact, GDP per capita in Croatia and Slovenia diverged from the EU average after 2008… Given these heterogeneous developments, it appears that while in some CESEE countries the middle-income trap hypothesis could be dismissed (at least given their experience so far), in others the signs of a slowdown in convergence after reaching a certain level of economic development are visible.

My one gripe with the ECB study is that there’s a missing piece of analysis.

The report does a great job of documenting relative levels of prosperity over time. And it also has a thorough discussion of the characteristics that are found in fast-converging countries.

But there’s not nearly enough attention paid to the policies that promote and enable convergence. Why, for instance, has there been so much convergence in Estonia and so little convergence in Slovenia?

So I’ve tinkered with the above chart by adding each nation’s ranking for Economic Freedom of the World.

Lo and behold, a quick glance shows that higher-ranked nations (blue numbers indicate a nation is in the “most free” category) have enjoyed the greatest degree of convergence.

Here are some specific observations.

  • The Baltic nations are the biggest success stories of the post-communist world. Thanks to pro-market reforms, they have enjoyed the most convergence.
  • Romania and Slovakia also experienced big income gains. Romania is in the “most free” group of nations and Slovakia was in the “most free” group until a few years ago.
  • Poland has enjoyed the most convergence since 2008. Not coincidentally, that’s a period during which Poland’s economic freedom score climbed from 7.00 to 7.27.
  • Bulgaria also merits a positive mention for a big improvement, doubtlessly driven by a huge improvement (from 5.55 to 7.41) in economic freedom since 2000.
  • Sadly, Slovenia and Croatia have not experienced much convergence, which presumably is caused in part by their comparatively low rankings for economic liberty.

To be sure, there’s not an ironclad relationship between a nation’s annual score and yearly growth rates.

But, over time, poor nations that want convergence almost certainly won’t get the necessary levels of sustained strong growth without high scores for economic liberty.

P.S. Here’s some related research on this topic from 2017. And here’s a column on the evolution of economic liberty (or lack thereof) in Europe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least that’s the theory.

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

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

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

That seems well understood, at least outside of Italy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is, sort of.

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

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

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

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

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

So where do we stand?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If you look at the top of your screen on my home page, you’ll notice that I have a collection of special pages such as the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame and examples of what happens when you mix government and sex.

I’m thinking of creating a new page, but I need a pithy way of describing leftists who lie about poverty. And there are plenty of them.

Today, we identify some additional members who are eligible for this disreputable club.

And we’ll start with the European Commission.

Here’s a chart from a recent report that supposedly shows poverty rates in various European nations.

If you compare the “at-risk-of-poverty rate” for various nations, you’ll notice some very odd outcomes.

For instance, the tiny tax haven of Luxembourg is one of the world’s wealthiest nations, yet it supposedly has more poverty than Hungary. And super-rich Switzerland has more poverty than Slovakia. And oil-rich Norway has more poverty than the Czech Republic.

Are all those rich nations in Western Europe really suffering from higher poverty rates than some of the Eastern European countries still recovering from communist rule?

Of course not. The chart is based on a big, fat lie.

And I know it’s a lie because if you look in the glossary at the end of the long report, you’ll see that the bureaucrats openly admit that their so-called poverty chart has nothing to do with poverty and nothing to do with living standards (I’ve underlined the most important parts).

Interestingly, the bureaucrats in Brussels included a chart in the study revealing the level of inaccuracy for each country.

Here’s a look at the dishonest poverty rate (the blue diamond) compared to a measure of “severe material deprivation” that presumably does a better job of showing the real number of poor people (the red diamond).

By the way, I’m not a huge fan of the European Commission’s measure of “severe material deprivation” since it includes variables such as having a car, a color TV, and the money to take a one-week vacation.

But that’s a separate story.

Let’s look at other new members of our club.

An Eduardo Porter column in the New York Times also used the dishonest definition of poverty.

How can it be that the United States spends so much money fighting poverty and still suffers one of the highest child poverty rates among advanced nations? One in five American children is poor by the count of LIS, a data archive tracking well-being and deprivation around the world. …the United States tolerated more child poverty in 2012 than 30 of the 35 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a grouping of advanced industrialized nations. The percentage of children who are poor is more than three times as high in the United States as it is in Norway or the Netherlands. America has a larger proportion of poor children than Russia.

And here’s a chart from the article that definitely makes the United States look bad.

But, unless you read the column carefully, you would have missed this all-important detail.

…international standards that set the poverty line at one-half the income of families on the middle rung of the income ladder.

In other words, everything in the article, and all the numbers in the chart, have nothing to do with actual poverty. Instead, we’re simply looking at an indirect measure of income distribution.

And the United States is made to look bad because our median income is generally much higher than it is in other nations.

How absurd.

You’ll think I’m joking, but you can dramatically reduce “poverty,” based on this dishonest definition, if you randomly kill rich people.

Let’s conclude by looking at the U.K.-based Guardian‘s article about supposed poverty in Hong Kong.

A record number of Hong Kong residents live in poverty, with one fifth of the population falling below the poverty line despite economic growth, according to new government figures. The number of people living below the poverty line rose to 1.35 million in 2016, about 20% of the city’s population. The number is the highest number of poor since the government began publishing statistics in 2009. Despite opulent wealth, Hong Kong is a deeply unequal society. …The number of poor rose despite the government raising the poverty line last year. For single person households it is set at HK$4,000 (£388). It is HK$9,000 (£873) for a two person home and HK$15,000 (£1,455) for a family of three.

There’s a small problem and big problem with this article. The small problem is that it states that the number of poor people increased “despite” an increase in the poverty line.

Huh?!?

If the government raises the threshold, of course it will seem like more people are poor. The article should replace “despite” with “because.”

Tom Worstall, writing for CapX, explains the big problem in the article.

One of the great injustices of our age is, as The Guardian reported…, that 20 per cent of the people in Hong Kong, one of the richest places on the planet, live in poverty. …The Guardian [is] waxing indignant over things it doesn’t understand. …there’s an important underlying point: inequality – not poverty – is being measured here. The international definition of poverty is less than $1.90 a day. There’s no one in Hong Kong on this at all, therefore there’s no poverty. …we’re told that the poverty line in Hong Kong is HK $4,000 per month (roughly £380) for an individual which certainly doesn’t seem like much. Yet when we plug that into a comparison of global incomes we find that, accounting for price differences across geography, it’s firmly in the top fifth of all global incomes. In other words, the poorest 20 per cent in Hong Kong are still find themselves in the richest 20 per cent of all humans.

Given the praise I’ve heaped on Hong Kong, I also can’t resist sharing this excerpt even though it’s a separate topic.

As Hong Kong so vividly demonstrates, the…economy in which the poverty line is defined as being rather rich by global standards must have something going for it. According to the World Bank’s figures, back in 1960 Hong Kong was at around the average level of income for the planet, with GDP per capita at a little over $400 (in 1960 dollars). Today the figure is slightly over $40,000 per head while the global average has only struggled up to $10,000 or so. An over performance by a factor of four isn’t that bad over half a century, is it?

Amen.

If we actually care about reducing genuine poverty, there’s no substitute for the miracle of compounding growth.

Which is why our friends on the left, if they actually cared about poor people (and I think most of them genuinely do care), should focus on growth rather than being fixated on redistribution.

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Because of their aggressive support for bigger government, my least-favorite international bureaucracies are the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But I’m increasingly displeased by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which is another international bureaucracy (like the OECD and IMF) that is backed by American taxpayers.

And what does it do with our money? As I explained earlier this month in this short speech to the European Resource Bank in Prague, the EBRD undermines growth with cronyist policies that distort the allocation of capital.

In some sense, the argument against the EBRD is no different than the standard argument against foreign aid. Simply stated, you don’t generate growth by having the government of a rich nation give money to the government of a poor nation.

Poor nations instead need to adopt good policy – something that’s less likely when profligate and corrupt governments in the developing world are propped up by handouts.

That being said, the downsides of the EBRD go well beyond the normal problems of foreign aid.

I recently authored a study on this bureaucracy for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

Here are some of the main findings.

The EBRD was created with the best of intentions. The collapse of communism was an unprecedented and largely unexpected event, and policymakers wanted to encourage and facilitate a shift to markets and democracy. …But good intentions don’t necessarily mean good results. Especially when the core premise was that growth somehow would be stimulated and enabled by the creation of another multilateral government bureaucracy. …Unfortunately, even though its founding documents pay homage to markets…, there’s nothing in the track record of the EBRD that indicates it has learned from pro-intervention and pro-statism mistakes made by older international aid organizations. Indeed, there’s no positive track record whatsoever.

• There is no evidence that nations receiving subsidies and other forms of assistance grow faster than similar nations that don’t get aid from the EBRD.
• There is no evidence that nations receiving subsidies and other forms of assistance enjoy more job creation than similar nations that don’t get aid from the EBRD,
• There is no evidence that nations receiving subsidies and other forms of assistance have better social outcomes than similar nations that don’t get aid from the EBRD.

I also delved into three specific downsides of the EBRD, starting with its role in misallocating capital.

In a normal economy, savers, investors, intermediaries, entrepreneurs, and others make decisions on what projects get funded and what businesses attract investment. These private-sector participants have “skin in the game” and relentlessly seek to balance risk and reward. Wise decisions are rewarded by profit, which often is a signal for additional investment to help satisfy consumer desires. There’s also an incentive to quickly disengage from failing projects and investments that don’t produce goods and services valued by consumers. Profit and loss are an effective feedback mechanism to ensure that resources are constantly being reshuffled in ways that produce the most prosperity for people. The EBRD interferes with that process. Every euro it allocates necessarily diverts capital from more optimal uses.

I explain why taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing cronyism.

…the EBRD is in the business of “picking winners and losers.” This means that intervention by the bureaucracy necessarily distorts competitive markets. Any firm that gets money from the EBRD is going to have a significant advantage over rival companies. Preferential financing for hand-picked firms from the EBRD also is a way of deterring new companies from getting started since there is not a level playing field or honest competition. … cronyism is a threat to prosperity. It means the playing field is unlevel and that those with political connections have an unfair advantage over those who compete fairly. To make matters worse, nations that receive funds from the ERBD already get dismal scores from Economic Freedom of the World for the two subcategories (“government enterprises and investment” and “business regulations”) that presumably are the best proxies for cronyism.

Here’s a chart from the study showing that recipient nations already get low scores from Economic Freedom of the World for variables that reflect the degree of cronyism in an economy.

Last but not least, I warn that the EBRD enables and facilitates corruption.

When governments have power to arbitrarily disburse large sums of money, that is a recipe for unsavory behavior. For all intents and purposes, the practice of cronyism is a prerequisite for corruption. The EBRD openly brags about the money it steers to private hands, so is it any surprise that people will engage in dodgy behavior in order to turn those public funds into private loot? …Recipient nations get comparatively poor scores for “legal system and property rights” from Economic Freedom of the World. They also do relatively poorly when looking at the World Bank’s “governance indicators.” And they also have disappointing numbers from Transparency International’s “corruption perceptions index.” So, it’s no surprise that monies ostensibly disbursed for the purpose of development assistance wind up lining the pockets of corrupt insiders. For all intents and purposes, the EBRD and other dispensers of aid enable and sustain patterns of corruption.

And here’s the chart showing that recipient nations have poor quality of governance, which means that EBRD funds are especially likely to get misused.

I also cite several EBRD documents that illustrates the bureaucracy’s hostility for free markets and limited government.

Just in case you didn’t want to watch the entire video, here’s the relevant slide from my presentation.

And remember that your tax dollars back this European bureaucracy. Indeed, American taxpayers have a larger exposure than any of the European countries.

P.S. I’m also not a fan of the United Nations, though I take comfort in the fact that the UN is not very effective in pushing statist policy.

P.P.S. I’m most tolerant of the World Bank, though that bureaucracy periodically does foolish things as well.

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I periodically share data comparing the United States and Europe, usually because I want to convince people that America’s medium-sized welfare state is better (less worse) than Europe’s bloated welfare states.

In other words, Bernie Sanders is wrong.

But I sometimes feel guilty when making these unflattering comparisons because Europe – at least by world standards – actually deserves a good bit of praise.

If you look at Economic Freedom of the World, you’ll find that the 28 nations of the European Union (outlined in red) have relatively strong scores. Indeed, 27 of them rank in the top half, with Greece being the embarrassing exception.

And 17 EU nations rank in the top quartile, three of them above the U.S.

If you dig into the data, you’ll find that EU nations generally get crummy scores for fiscal policy, but misguided policies on taxes and spending are more than offset by superior scores for trade, monetary policy, regulatory policy, and quality of governance.

Now let’s look at some recent trends. I mentioned yesterday that I’m at the European Parliament in Brussels for a conference on economic freedom.

My friend Martin Agerup from Denmark gave an overview of economic freedom in EU nations, and I want to highlight some of his slides.

We’ll start with this modified ranking of economic freedom, which looks at where a hypothetical European nation would rank if it cherry-picked the best real-world scores (for the five major indices) of the various EU countries.

This hypothetical country, based on the best practices of various EU nations, would have the third-highest score for economic liberty – trailing only Hong Kong and Singapore.

This underscores my point about considerable economic liberty in Europe.

Martin also looked at trends in the European Union.

Here’s a slide looking at the evolution of economic freedom in Western Europe and Eastern Europe.

Three things are worth noting about this chart.

  • First, there was a dramatic improvement in economic freedom in Western Europe (blue line) from 1975-2000. Many people know about Thatchernomics, but there was a lot of pro-market reform in the rest of Europe.
  • Second, you’ll notice the giant jump in economic freedom in Eastern Europe (red line) from 1995-2005. The collapse of communism has resulted in vast improvements in economic liberty.
  • Third, the overall continent has seen comparatively little progress in recent years.

But averages can be deceiving. This next chart shows that some nations did rise and fall over the past decade. Many Eastern European nations boosted their scores by a modest degree, and Sweden also deserves a special mention.

Greece stands out for the worst performance in the past 10 years.

Which gives me an excuse to share one final chart from Martin’s presentation. Sweden suffered a deep crisis at the start of the 1990s, somewhat akin to what Greece suffered in 2008. But the two countries responded in radically different ways. Sweden shrank government and boosted economic liberty while Greece increased the size and scope of the state (aided and abetted by bailouts!).

This video has more details on the comparison of the two countries.

P.S. Notwithstanding the relatively nice things I just wrote about Europe, the continent faces some major fiscal challenges. And middle-class taxpayers, who already are being suffocated by high taxes, will probably get further pillaged.

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In last year’s French presidential election between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, I joked that voters should choose the socialist over the socialist, but made a serious point that Macron – despite having been part of Hollande’s disastrous government – was preferable since there was at least a hope of market-oriented reform.

…the chance of Macron being good are greater than zero. After all, it was the left-wing parties that started the process of pro-market reforms in Australia and New Zealand. And it was a Social Democrat government in Germany that enacted the labor-market reforms that have been so beneficial for that nation.

And after Macron won the election, I reviewed some of his initiatives to restrain government, including plans to reduce the burden of government spending, lower France’s corporate tax rate, and to shrink the size of the bureaucracy.

His ideas sounded so good that I wrote – only partly in jest – that “I wish the Republicans in Washington were as sensible as these French socialists.”

We’re not quite to the one-year anniversary of his election, but let’s take a look at Macron’s track record. And we’ll start with a very encouraging report from the New York Times.

…if France’s young president, Emmanuel Macron, has made one thing clear, it is that he is not afraid to shake up France and take on its venerable institutions. Now it is the turn of the heavily subsidized and deeply indebted French rail system. Mr. Macron says he wants to erase the railway workers’ special status, which gives them more generous benefits than almost any other workers, including a guarantee of early retirement. In doing so, he has set himself a new and formidable challenge in his expanding campaign to reshape France’s society and economy, which started last year with a law that made it easier for private companies to hire and fire workers, a near revolution for France.

Macron has a difficult task.

…the railway workers are a public-sector work force, one of the most powerful in the country, with a chokehold on as many as five million riders daily. When they go on strike, the whole country feels it. …rail unions have already pledged to join a strike by public-sector employees planned for Thursday… The rail workers then plan weeks of strikes starting in April that will be staged on a rolling basis.

Here’s some of what Macron wants to fix.

French rail workers’ current, ample benefits — including in some cases, the option of retiring at 52 — date to the first half of the 20th century, when many railway jobs involved hard, physical labor… Mr. Macron…to push for a broader overhaul that, for new hires, would end advantages like guaranteed jobs, automatic pay raises and generous social security benefits. …The French rail system is both heavily subsidized and deeply in debt, to the tune of 55 billion euros, or about $68 billion.

And if the French President succeeds, there are other reforms on the horizon.

Mr. Macron has pledged to follow the railway plan with an overhaul of the unemployment system later in the year. Next year he intends to take on the French pension system. …changing the employment terms for railway workers appears to be part of a larger crusade to push French workers into the 21st century.

Good. Similar reforms were very beneficial for German workers and the German economy, so I’m sure Macron’s proposals will produce good results in France.

Writing last October for CapX, Diego Zuluaga expressed optimism about Macron’s agenda.

…it is the French government that is tackling the big barriers to growth and dynamism that have stifled their economy since 1975. …Emmanuel Macron…has vowed to attack this status quo. He aims to deconstruct the onerous French labour market law, the infamous Code du travail. This is a 1,600-page, 10,000-article gargantuan piece of legislation which is blamed for clobbering employment in France over the past 25 years. …Macron may be able to deliver considerable reforms when it comes to the labour market. His cabinet intends to move a larger share of collective bargaining to the firm level, remove the requirement of union representation for small- and medium-sized businesses, limit severance pay – right now it averages €24,000 per dismissal – to give employers greater certainty about the costs of hiring… Spain reformed its dysfunctional hiring and firing regulations in 2012, and robust employment growth followed. Now, it is long-ossified France that is taking up the baton.

If you stopped reading at this point, you might conclude that Macron is a French version of Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher.

But that would be a considerable exaggeration. The French President also is pushing some questionable policies, such as higher taxes on luxury goods. But, in Macron’s defense, those class-warfare taxes are an offset for the abolition of the wealth tax, which was a very good reform.

Emmanuel Macron’s administration will propose a tax on luxury yachts, supercars and precious metals in France’s 2018 budget. Lawmakers will propose amendments after critics attacked the President’s move to scrap the wealth tax in France. Mr Macron abolished the tax, which has been seen as a symbol of social justice for the left but blamed by others for driving thousands of millionaires abroad. …The wealth tax, introduced by the Socialists in the 1980s, was levied on individuals with assets above 1.3 million euros (£1.2 million).

Since I’m not familiar with the details (i.e., do these changes result in a revenue-neutral shift, a net tax cut, or a net tax increase?), there’s no way to determine if swapping the wealth tax for luxury taxes is a net positive or a negative. Though I assume the overall effect is positive because wealth taxes are a very bad idea and luxury taxes, while self-destructive, generally are futile.

But this doesn’t let Macron off the hook. Even if we decide that he’s a pro-market reformer inside his country, he has a very bad habit of promoting statism at the European level.

The Wall Street Journal opined unfavorably last year on his plan for greater centralization.

…the French President issued a call for more, more and more Europe. …His EU would be responsible for many of the functions traditionally performed by a nation-state, such as defense, taxation, migration control and economic regulation. …The problem is…Mr. Macron’s dreams of fiscal and economic union. He wants to create an EU finance ministry, funded by corporate and other taxes, that can spend money across the bloc with minimal interference from national capitals. Mr. Macron also wants to harmonize—eurospeak for raise—corporate taxes across the EU. He’d further establish Franco-German regulatory excess as the benchmark for the rest of the EU… This is a recipe for political failure because Europeans already know these policies are economic duds.

Writing for the New York Times, a German journalist poured cold water on Macron’s plan to give redistribution powers to the European Union.

It would be funny if it weren’t dangerous — the solution offered by the new, pro-Europe president, Emmanuel Macron, is to create a eurozone budget, with its own finance minister. …Mr. Macron’s proposal is a disaster in the making. It will only further alienate Europeans from one another and weaken the bloc economically. …Brussels’s money has often been Europe’s curse. The Greek government, for instance, knew it could take for granted the support of the other euro members for its unsustainable budget after Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany recklessly declared, “If the euro fails, Europe fails.” Athens slowed down on reform, knowing Brussels would bail it out, and northern Europeans grew angry. In the worst case, Mr. Macron’s plan could turn this disincentive into a characteristic feature of the European Union. …Brussels would end up holding the purse but not the purse strings.

So what’s the story with Macron’s schizophrenic approach? Why is he a pro-market Dr. Jekyll for French policy but a statist Mr. Hyde for European policy?

I don’t have the answer, but Diego Zuluaga wrote about this dichotomy for CapX.

The puzzle of Macronism is that it tends to advocate dynamism at home, but stasis abroad. The French President, both during his tenure in Hollande’s cabinet and in his new office, has championed reform of the country’s bewilderingly byzantine employment code, which has promoted social exclusion and led to a high rate of structural unemployment. …But Macron’s liberalism seemingly stops at France’s borders. On the EU level, he has called for increased risk-sharing among euro member states, a eurozone budget and finance minister… Whatever one makes of his climate-change activism, it is nothing if not dirigiste in the extreme, wishing to curb carbon emissions through bureaucratic pacts on a global level. What we are left with is the pro-market equivalent of Stalin’s pre-WWII economic policy of  “socialism in one country”. Liberalism in one country acknowledges the need for economic flexibility and a greater reliance on market forces at home. It champions tax reform and deregulation of industry and hiring. But it shuns those principles on the international level.

By the way, Mr. Zuluaga is using “liberalism” in the classic sense, meaning pro-market policies.

Let’s close with a couple of items that show France still has a long way to go.

First, a leftist columnist wants us to believe that recent riots, caused by a sale on Nutella, are symbolic of a dystopian future.

You may have seen the videos: in French supermarkets Intermarché, customers are rushing towards shelves of Nutella jars. They’re running, shouting, fighting, rummaging to grab a jar of the chocolate flavoured paste… This mess happened simultaneously in various French supermarkets when grocery chain Intermarché advertised a massive sale on 1kg Nutella jars, priced at €1,41 instead of the usual €4,50. …I don’t find this news funny, not even remotely. …it is telling of a France that is more and more divided… The massive response to this sale shines light…on the precarious position in which many French workers, and shoppers, find themselves. …And it’s not going to get any better for them. Macron’s looming labour reform is already eroding French workers’ rights… Macron’s great vision for France increasingly looks like a country where only the rich and “successful” will be able to afford Nutella – and those who “are nothing” will be left to fight for sale prices.

This type of over-wrought analysis makes me want to cheer for Macron.

Why? Because I understand that the best hope for workers is faster growth, not “labor-protection policies” that actually undermine job creation and cause wages to stagnate.

Second, we have a story that highlights the impossible regulatory burden in France.

A French boulanger has been ordered to pay a €3,000 fine for working too hard after he failed to close his shop for one day a week last summer. …Under local employment law, two separate regulations from 1994 and 2000 require bakers’ shops to close once a week… He has been advised the only way to get around the regulations would be to open a second boulangerie with different opening hours. …The federation of Aube boulangeries and patisseries questioned 126 members at the end of last year: the majority were in favour of maintaining the obligatory one-day closure. Eric Scherrer of the retail union CLIC-P, said French employment laws were there to protect workers and employers and had to be respected. …“These people need to have a rest day each week. We can’t just allow them to work non-stop. It’s absolutely necessary that both bosses and employees have a day of rest.”

The bottom line is that Macron should drop his statist European-wide proposals and put all of his focus on fixing France.

If you look at his country’s scores from Economic Freedom of the World, he should be working day and night to reduce the fiscal burden of government.

And lowering the regulatory burden should be the second-most important priority.

P.S. If the numbers in this poll are still accurate, Macron better fix his nation’s bad policies or his productive citizens will escape to America. After all, France is a great place to live if you’re already rich, but not so good if you aspire to become rich.

P.P.S. Here’s a story highlighting the lavish government-financed benefits for the privileged class in France.

P.P.P.S. My favorite French-themed cartoon features Obama and Hollande.

P.P.P.P.S. And let’s not forget Paul Krugman’s conspiracy theory about a “plot against France.”

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If you’re reading this, you are a very lucky person because you were born at the right time. If you were born 500 years ago, 1000 years ago, or 1500 years ago, the odds are overwhelming that you would have endured a very short and difficult life, one that was characterized by unimaginable poverty.

But then, as explained in short videos by Professors Deirdre McCloskey and Don Boudreaux, the world suddenly became much richer starting a few hundred years ago.

And Western Europe led the way. But why?

In 2012, I shared lots of academic research showing how jurisdictional competition enabled rising levels of prosperity in Europe. And I then augmented that research a few years later by highlighting two very important developments in 1356 that helped set the stage for that competition.

Today, let’s expand on that evidence by looking at some recent analysis.

Here are some excerpts from a fascinating Aeon article by Professor Joel Mokyr.

How and why did the modern world and its unprecedented prosperity begin? …One of the oldest and most persuasive explanations is the long political fragmentation of Europe. …The modern European economic miracle was…neither designed nor planned. …How did this work? In brief, Europe’s political fragmentation spurred productive competition. It meant that European rulers found themselves competing for the best and most productive intellectuals and artisans. …the existence of multiple competing states encouraged scientific and technological innovation. …the rivalries between the states, and their examples to one another, also meliorated some of the worst possibilities of political authoritarianism. …interstate competition was a powerful economic mover. More important, perhaps, the ‘states system’ constrained the ability of political and religious authorities to control intellectual innovation.

Mokyr then explains that the benefits of jurisdictional competition were augmented and enabled by a form of labor mobility.

…political fragmentation was not enough. …more was needed. The size of the ‘market’ that intellectual and technological innovators faced was one element of scientific and technological development that has not perhaps received as much attention it should. …political and religious fragmentation did not mean small audiences for intellectual innovators. Political fragmentation existed alongside a remarkable intellectual and cultural unity. Europe offered a more or less integrated market for ideas, a continent-wide network of learned men and women, in which new ideas were distributed and circulated. …In early modern Europe, national boundaries mattered little in the thin but lively and mobile community of intellectuals in Europe. Despite slow and uncomfortable travel, many of Europe’s leading intellectuals moved back and forth between states. …If Europe’s intellectuals moved with unprecedented frequency and ease, their ideas travelled even faster. …Europe’s unique combination of political fragmentation and its pan-European institutions of learning brought dramatic intellectual changes in the way new ideas circulated. …Europe’s intellectual community enjoyed the best of two worlds, both the advantages of an integrated transnational academic community and a com­petitive states system.

By the way, I don’t consider this the “best of two worlds.” Labor mobility is a feature of jurisdictional competition, so I would say it’s simply one of the benefits. But six of one, half dozen of the other.

Let’s now look at another benefit of capitalism. Here are some passages from a CapX column on how the development of a merchant class constrained militarism. Here’s the thesis.

Although a number of things contributed to the huge decline in violence of the late medieval period, …the development of capitalism, and the rise of a merchant class whose wealth was not won with a sword, played a huge part.

And here’s an example.

This order was first shaken in 1302 when France’s cavalry confidently marched north to suppress a revolt by the Flemish. Flanders is not naturally rich in resources –Vlaanderen means flooded – but its people had turned swamps into sheep pastures and towns, building a cloth industry that made it the wealthiest part of Europe, its GDP per capita 20 per cent greater than France and 25 per cent better than England. …The Flemish were traders, not knights, which is why the French were sure of victory. And yet, with enough money to pay for a large, well-drilled infantry they were able for the first time to destroy the cavalry at the Battle of the Golden Spurs. It was the beginning of the end – no longer could the aristocracy simply push around the bourgeoisie, and as the latter grew in strength so it undermined the violence-obsessed culture of the nobility.

And another example.

European capitalism had begun in northern Italy, chiefly Venice, one of nine Italian cities that had surpassed 50,000 people by this point. …Venice was high in trust, a vital component for the growth of sophisticated markets, and so was the first to develop joint-stock companies and banks. …The Venetians, along with their arch-rivals the Genoese and Pisans, had been involved in the crusades, but despite papal prohibition had continued to trade with the infidel. Indeed, nothing would stop their desire to engage in commerce, and Arab geographer and traveller Ibn Jubayr noted that “It is amazing to see that the fires of discord burn” between Christians and Muslims when it comes to politics but, when trading, travellers “come and go without interference”.

And another case study.

London was behind Italy or Flanders but it was catching up. The city had started to grow as a trading hub in the 12th century, and its mayor, William Hardel, was the only commoner to witness Magna Carta in 1215 and helped secure Clause 41, which stated that all foreign “merchants are to be safe and secure in departing from and coming to England” without “evil exactions”. London expanded rapidly in the later middle ages, increasing its share of England’s wealth from two to nine per cent, and Henry IV (1399-1413) was the first king to invite its merchants on to the royal council, among them Sir Richard Whittington…the merchants purposefully avoided conflict, so that when in the 1380s Richard II tried to raise an army in the city to fight his various internal enemies he was met with apathy

What makes this analysis especially important is that military conflict is one of the putative downsides of political fragmentation. Indeed, Mokyr mentions that in his article.

I confess I don’t know enough to judge that issue. For instance, I’d like to know if there were there more wars in Europe, or were European wars between countries as opposed to an equal amount of civil wars elsewhere in the world?

In any event, at least there is some evidence that the prosperity generated by capitalism produced resistance to militarism.  Sort of brings to mind Bastiat’s famous statement about trade and war.

(Something to keep in mind given Trump’s self-destructive protectionist impulses.)

Let’s close by looking at Europe today and exploring whether jurisdictional competition on the continent. The good news is that the principle of “mutual recognition” has produced a form of competitive federalism, as explained in an article by Professor Michael Greve.

…the principle of reciprocity and “mutual recognition”…allows decentralized political institutions to coexist with a common, open, and efficient economic market. …cross-border trade…must be governed either by the rules of the country where a particular good or service ends up or by the rules of its origin country. The former “destination” principle would compel each company to comply with different and often conflicting regulations in all the member states where its products might end up. The result is not a common market but a collection of regulatory fiefdoms. The solution to this dilemma is the opposite, origin-based rule: so long as a company in a member state complies with the laws of its home state, it may freely sell its goods and services in other member states. …the origin principle…is commonly called the principle of “mutual recognition.” …it is the only principle that is consistent with both a common economic market and political decentralization. Mutual recognition integrates member states without central intervention. …Mutual recognition, then, liberates commerce by eliminating the cost of complying with different, conflicting, and often incomprehensible rules. Beyond that, mutual recognition institutionalizes jurisdictional competition. …The ability of individuals and firms to vote with their feet, modems, and pocketbooks will liberate markets and discipline politicians. …Trade unions, environmental interests, and any other interest group whose agenda rests on redistribution consistently oppose mutual recognition: they cannot rob Peter to pay Paul if Peter is allowed to escape to more hospitable climes.

Incidentally, the “origin principle” is at the core of the battle over the so-called Streamlined Sales Tax Proposal, a scheme by certain state governments to impose destination-based tax laws on out-of-state merchants.

And that principle also was a big reason for my fight against the border-adjustment tax, which was a destination-based levy.

For what it’s worth, Europe generally has been better than the United States about using the origin-based approach.

Europeans [are] ahead of the United States in viewing mutual recognition as an efficient means of harmonizing, as it were, the demands of economic integration and political diversity. Here at home, mutual recognition governs corporate chartering—but almost nothing else. Tort law, insurance and financial regulation, state taxation, product labeling, and most other areas of regulation are either subject to a destination rule or else preempted under federal law. No American legislator or corporate executive has ever heard of mutual recognition, let alone pressed it as a serious policy option.

Insurance regulation is a key example. Many states impose costly mandates that drive up the cost of health insurance. But if consumers had the freedom to buy health insurance from companies based in more market-oriented states, they would be able to save money.

Unfortunately, statists in Europe are moving in the wrong direction, seeking to replace mutual recognition with one-size-fits-all harmonization.

The European political class is bent on establishing pan-European, sovereign political institutions. …As political aspirations begin to dominate the process of European integration, mutual recognition will be jettisoned. …Habermas denounces the premises on which mutual recognition rests as the “building blocks of a neoliberal world view,” and he declares them at odds with “the Europeans’ normative self-understanding.” The European Union must therefore construct a European society of citizens, a pan-European “public sphere,” and a shared European political culture…precisely to confine economic competition and choice to a subordinate sphere. …the Europeans will harmonize their way toward a common constitution and citizenship, with dental care for all.

If the centralizers in Europe succeed (and they’ve already moved policy in the wrong direction), that will not bode well.

Europe already faces severe challenges because of excessive government and bad demographics.

Harmonization will exacerbate the problem of too much government because the “stationary bandit” no longer will face competitive pressure.

So “goldfish government” will become one step closer to reality.

P.S. This helps to explain my support for Brexit.

P.P.S. Speaking of Brexit, here’s a UKIP member of the European Parliament expounding on the benefits of mutual recognition over harmonization.

P.P.P.S. Mutual recognition also allows for regulatory diversity, which reduces systemic risk.

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