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Archive for the ‘Germany’ Category

Back in 2011, I shared eight short videos that captured the greatness of Ronald Reagan.

One of the videos was this excerpt of his famous tear-down-this-wall speech at Brandenburg Gate.

In a column for the Washington Examiner, Quin Hillyer explains why this was a momentous event.

The greatest climactic event of the 20th century occurred 30 years ago Saturday, as thousands of Germans pushed through, climbed over, and began tearing down the Berlin Wall. Human freedom overcame human evil. Human potential was unleashed. Exuberantly but peaceably, the good guys won. The story needs to be told again and again, because those too young to have lived through the Cold War have trouble feeling viscerally the stakes, the danger, and the drama. …the late William F. Buckley said in his last-ever public speech that The Lives of Others, about life in East Germany under communist domination, should be required viewing in every American high school. The film reminds us that not just in gulags where perceived “troublemakers” were sent but in everyday life: The repression was severe; the fear was palpable; the attempted destruction of the human psyche was pervasive. And there stood the Berlin Wall. Both the real presence of brutality and the era’s most chilling symbol of mass enslavement, the wall was the physical, concrete portion of the figurative Iron Curtain. Also featuring extended barriers of metal-mesh fences, trenches, and 259 vicious-dog runs, and guarded by 186 observation towers manned by machine-gun-toting soldiers, the wall was a monstrosity. The joy that greeted the wall’s fall, not just on-site but around the world, remains almost indescribable.

By the way, I echo Quin’s endorsement of The Lives of Others. It really does capture the day-to-day horror of statism, and has a really nice twist at the end.

Returning to the issue of the Wall and communism, Reagan deserves considerable credit for this victory over evil.

Part of Reagan’s genius is that he attacked the moral foundations of communism. Or the lack of any moral foundation, to be more precise.

Here are some observations about his speech at Moscow State University in 1988.

Ronald Reagan, in the last year of his presidency, delivered one of his most magnificent speeches. …It was the last day of his fourth and final summit with Mikhail Gorbachev. …Reagan never regarded his meetings with Mr. Gorbachev as pertaining solely to arms control. Arms control was merely the pretext for a more fundamental challenge. …If the theme is diplomacy, the underlying purpose is liberty. …He did…understand that victory would belong in the end not to one nation over another, but to one political-moral idea over another. Freedom must triumph over totalitarianism. Reagan had always abominated communism. …Reagan’s ultimate aim was to plant the seed of freedom in the newly receptive furrows of a cracking totalitarianism. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” he cried at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987. “Isn’t it strange,” he mused to reporters, “that there’s only one part of the world and one philosophy where they have to build walls to keep their people in.” …Reagan delivered his Moscow speech standing before a gigantic scowling bust of Lenin and a mural of the Russian Revolution. He incorporated them as props in his address. “Standing here before a mural of your revolution,” he said, “I want to talk about a very different revolution,”… “The key,” Reagan said, “is freedom—freedom of thought, freedom of information, freedom of communication.”

Yes, Reagan’s rejuvenation of the American economy helped lead to the collapse of communism (notwithstanding the fact that some western economists were dupes for Soviet central planning).

And, yes, Reagan’s military buildup helped weaken the Soviet Union’s resolve.

I’m convinced, though, that Reagan’s attack on the core evil of communism made a key difference. Aided and abetted by his relentless mockery of communism’s many failures.

Let’s not forget that history also is the result of random events.

David Frum last year wrote about a bureaucratic snafu that helped hasten the downfall of East Germany’s evil regime.

At an evening news conference on November 9, 1989, a spokesman for the East German Communist government made a history-altering mistake. The spokesman had been authorized to say that travel restrictions on East German citizens would be lifted the next day, November 10. Instead, he said that the restrictions were lifted effective immediately. Within minutes, hundreds of thousands of East Berliners rushed to the checkpoints of the Berlin Wall. Since the erection of the wall in 1961, border guards had killed more than 750 people seeking to escape East Germany. That night, the border guards had heard the same news as everyone else. Their license to kill had been withdrawn. They stood aside. The long-imprisoned citizens of East Berlin rushed out into West Berlin that night, in what became the greatest and best street party in the history of the world. Soon, Berliners east and west began to attack the hated wall, smash it, rip it apart.

Here’s a video that describes the same event.

By the way, we can’t write about the Berlin Wall without taking the opportunity to reflect on the failure of socialism.

Writing for the U.K.-based Spectator, Kristian Niemietz points out that big government failed in East Germany, just like it fails everywhere.

Thirty years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall, socialism is back in fashion. The anniversary is a good occasion to reflect on some of the lessons that we have collectively un-learned, or perhaps never learned properly in the first place from the fall of Communism. The division of Germany into a broadly capitalist West, and a broadly socialist East, represented a natural experiment, and did so in two ways. It was, first of all, a gigantic economic experiment about the viability of socialism, and it produced conclusive results. Around the time of Reunification, West Germany’s GDP per capita was about three times that of East Germany’s. There was also around a three-year-gap in average life expectancy.

Amen.

I invite people to compare the numbers on East German vs. West German economic performance.

Last but not least, let’s close by adding an item to our collection of socialism/communism humor.

To be sure, this is dark humor. Hundreds of people were killed trying to escape into West Berlin. That may seem like an asterisk compared to communism’s horrendous death toll, but every needless death is a tragedy.

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Every so often, I share quirky examples of libertarian policy in places that generally are not associated with a laissez-faire approach to governance.

Today, we’re going to add Germany to our list.

According to a report by Car and Driver, the German Parliament voted – by an overwhelming margin – against a proposal by the Green Party to impose speed limits on the autobahn.

Auto enthusiasts in Germany scored a major victory yesterday as the country’s federal parliament, the Bundestag, overwhelmingly voted to to defy a motion by the Green Party that would have asked the government to install a speed limit on the famous autobahn. The 80-mph limit suggested by the Greens would have effectively closed down one of the last roads where drivers can freely select their preferred speed. The autobahn is a defining factor in the perception of Germany abroad, but the topic is highly contested and politically charged at home. …The vote was 126 for a speed limit, 498 against, with seven abstentions.

The vote basically reflected a right-left split, though the Social Democrats tried to have their cake and eat it too.

…Green Party big shot Cem Özdemir claimed that roads would be safer with a speed limit, and he asked for German’s “special way” to be ended. …The post-communist Left Party volunteered that “electric mobility” should mean more “trains and trams,” while the Social Democrats, who are in a ruling coalition with the Christian Democrats, argued that they would support a speed limit were it not for their obligations to the coalition. The centrist CDU, the center-liberal FDP, and the conservative AfD all argued against a speed limit.

For what it’s worth, the autobahn is actually quite safe.

The autobahn road system, situated in one of the most traveled places on earth, is extremely safe. Accident rates have fallen dramatically over the past few decades, and many of the remaining deaths can be attributed to factors other than speed. Today, the fatality rate is one of the lowest in the world. Those opposed to a speed limit argue that this could be due to the fact that due to the differences in velocity, drivers are alert, generally stay to the right when not passing, and tend to stay aware of their surroundings.

Having driven many times in Europe, I can state with confidence that they are better (and more polite) drivers.

Slow cars don’t loiter in the left lane on highways, and that’s true in France and Italy as well as Germany.

I’ll close with some good news.

…speed limits have gradually eased all over the globe. Austria’s limit has been provisionally raised to 87 mph on select stretches; Abu Dhabi allows 100 mph on sections of the road system, and many U.S. states are raising limits as well.

I’m old enough to remember the horror of a nationwide 55-mph speed limit (one of the many awful policies adopted during the Nixon years).

The limit was increased in 1987 and then – in a rare moment of federalism – the nationwide speed limit was repealed in the mid-1990s (among the many good policies of the Reagan and Clinton years).

Let’s hope Germany holds firm so they don’t ever have to worry about repealing bad policy.

P.S. The article also noted that, “It has been reported that in the summer of 1995, Germany chancellor Angela Merkel, then minister for environmental affairs, broke out in tears over Helmut Kohl’s refusal to mandate a speed limit on the autobahn.” Given Merkel’s statism, I’m not surprised.

P.P.S. Enviro-zealots want onerous speed limits because of their quasi-religious opposition to energy consumption. Politicians, by contrast, view speed limits as a tool for generating tax revenue (which is why I’ve applauded civil disobedience in Washington, DC, and Arizona).

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I get quite agitated when the folks in Washington make dumb choices that waste money and hinder prosperity.

That being said, I take comfort in the fact that governments in other nations also do stupid things.

I guess this is the policy version of “misery loves company.” And it’s also a source of horror and/or amusement.

So let’s update our collection of “great moments in foreign government.”

We’ll start in China, where a local government proved that incentives mattered.

In March, a man in Zhejiang, China…divorced his wife. He then married his sister-in-law. Shortly after, he divorced her too, in order to marry another sister-in-law. Several other members of the Pan family started to do the same with other relatives and eventually, 11 members of the brood married and divorced each other 23 times over a two-week period. Their motivation? To cash in on a compensation scheme… As part of an urban village renovation project, those living in the area are given a minimum compensation of one 40-square meter apartment, even though they didn’t own property. This was provided to any family whose hukou (household registration) was filed by April 10. But the Pan family learned that they could game the process by getting married, registering as residents of the village, and divorcing to do it again… By doing so, each family member would get their own household registration, which means more compensation. …The 11 family members involved have been arrested… Upon interrogation, one suspect said they didn’t think there was anything illegal with what they were doing.

I wonder if the Chinese government will learn anything about incentives from this episode.

Maybe, just maybe, it will then apply those lessons to tax policy (at the very least, by ignoring poisonous advice from the IMF and OECD).

In Spain, we re-confirm that governments are just as capable of wasting money on defense spending as they do on domestic programs.

A new, Spanish-designed submarine has a weighty problem: The vessel is more than 70 tons too heavy, and officials fear if it goes out to sea, it will not be able to surface. And a former Spanish official says the problem can be traced to a miscalculation — someone apparently put a decimal point in the wrong place. “It was a fatal mistake,” said Rafael Bardaji, who until recently was director of the Office of Strategic Assessment at Spain’s Defence Ministry. The Isaac Peral, the first in a new class of diesel-electric submarines, was nearly completed when engineers discovered the problem. …The Isaac Peral, named for a 19th century Spanish submarine designer, is one of four vessels in the class that are in various stages of construction. The country has invested about $2.7 billion in the program. The first was scheduled to be delivered in 2015 but the Spanish state-owned shipbuilder, Navantia, has said the weight problems could cause delays of up to two years.

Last but not least, we travel to Germany, where the government is trying to outdo New York City for the prize of most over-budget infrastructure boondoggle.

As a structure, it looks impressive enough. Until you pause, look around you, and absorb the silence. This is Berlin Brandenburg…, the new, state-of-the-art international airport… It is a bold new structure, costing billions, and was supposed to be completed in 2012. But it has never opened. BER has become for Germany not a new source of pride but a symbol of engineering catastrophe. …a “national trauma” and an ideal way “to learn how not to do things”. No passengers have ever emerged from the railway station, which is currently running only one “ghost train” a day, to keep the air moving. No-one has stayed at the smart airport hotel, which has a skeleton staff forlornly dusting rooms and turning on taps to keep the water supply moving. …Huge luggage carousels are being given their daily rotation to stop them from seizing up. …The company running the airport promises it will finally open next year, which would make it at least eight years late as well as billions over budget. …So what on Earth has happened…? politicians…set up a company to build an ambitious new airport. “The supervisory board was full of politicians who had no idea how to supervise the project,” says Prof Genia Kostka, of the Free University of Berlin. “They were in charge of key decisions.” …the politicians supervising the airport…insisted new departure gates were added to accommodate giant Airbus A380 aircraft, whose production has ended before the airport can open. …the overall cost of the project will be 6bn euros (£5.3bn) – if it opens as planned next year – up from an original projection of about 2bn euros. The final sum will be paid mostly by German taxpayers.

Of course taxpayers will get stuck with the tab. That’s the ongoing scam we call government.

But there is another question to ponder: How can a nation that is so aggressive (not to mention dogmatic and inventive) about collecting taxes be so incompetent at spending money?

The bottom line is that waste seems to be an inevitable part of government, regardless of the nation or the continent.

The moral of these stories, both from America and around the world, it that government is not the answer.

Unless, of course, you’ve asked a really strange question.

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Donald Trump is an incoherent mix of good policies and bad policies.

Some of his potential 2020 opponents, by contrast, are coherent but crazy.

And economic craziness exists in other nations as well.

In a column for the New York Times, Jochen Bittner writes about how a rising star of Germany’s Social Democrat Party wants the type of socialism that made the former East Germany an economic failure.

Socialism, the idea that workers’ needs are best met by the collectivization of the means of production… A system in which factories, banks and even housing were nationalized required a planned economy, as a substitute for capitalist competition. Central planning, however, proved unable to meet people’s individual demands… Eventually, the entire system collapsed; as it did everywhere else, socialism in Germany failed. Which is why it is strange, in 2019, to see socialism coming back into German mainstream politics.

But this real-world evidence doesn’t matter for some Germans.

Kevin Kühnert, the leader of the Social Democrats’ youth organization and one of his party’s most promising young talents, has made it his calling card. Forget the wannabe socialism of American Democrats like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The 29-year-old Mr. Kühnert is aiming for the real thing. Socialism, he says, means democratic control over the economy. He wants to replace capitalism… German neo-socialism is profoundly different from capitalism. …Mr. Kühnert took specific aim at the American dream as a model for individual achievement. …“Without collectivization of one form or another it is unthinkable to overcome capitalism,” he told us.

In other words, he wants real socialism (i.e., government ownership). And that presumably means he also supports central planning and price controls.

What makes Kühnert’s view so absurd is that he obviously knows nothing about his nation’s history.

Just in case he reads this, let’s look at the evidence.

Jaap Sleifer’s book, Planning Ahead and Falling Behind, points out that the eastern part of Germany was actually richer than the western part prior to World War II.

The entire country’s economy was then destroyed by the war.

What happened afterwards, though, shows the difference between socialism and free enterprise.

Before…the Third Reich the East German economy had…per capita national income…103 percent of West Germany, compared to a mere 31 percent in 1991. …Here is the case of an economy that was relatively wealthy, but lost out in a relatively short time… Based on the official statistics on national product the East German growth rates were very impressive. However, …the actual performance was not that impressive at all.

Sleifer has two tables that are worth sharing.

First, nobody should be surprised to discover that communist authorities released garbage numbers that ostensibly showed faster growth.

What’s really depressing is that there were more than a few gullible Americans – including some economists – who blindly believe this nonsensical data.

Second, I like this table because it confirms that Nazism and communism are very similar from an economic perspective.

Though I guess we should give Germans credit for doing a decent job on product quality under both strains of socialism.

For those who want to read further about East German economic performance, you can find other scholarly articles here, here, and here.

I want to call special attention, though, to a column by an economist from India. Written back in 1960, even before there was a Berlin Wall, he compared the two halves of the city.

Here’s the situation in the capitalist part.

The contrast between the two Berlins cannot miss the attention of a school child. West Berlin, though an island within East Germany, is an integral part of West German economy and shares the latter’s prosperity. Destruction through bombing was impartial to the two parts of the city. Rebuilding is virtually complete in West Berlin. …The main thoroughfares of West Berlin are near jammed with prosperous looking automobile traffic, the German make of cars, big and small, being much in evidence. …The departmental stores in West Berlin are cramming with wearing apparel, other personal effects and a multiplicity of household equipment, temptingly displayed.

Here’s what he saw in the communist part.

…In East Berlin a good part of the destruction still remains; twisted iron, broken walls and heaped up rubble are common enough sights. The new structures, especially the pre-fabricated workers’ tenements, look drab. …automobiles, generally old and small cars, are in much smaller numbers than in West Berlin. …shops in East Berlin exhibit cheap articles in indifferent wrappers or containers and the prices for comparable items, despite the poor quality, are noticeably higher than in West Berlin. …Visiting East Berlin gives the impression of visiting a prison camp.

The lessons, he explained, should be quite obvious.

…the contrast of the two Berlins…the main explanation lies in the divergent political systems. The people being the same, there is no difference in talent, technological skill and aspirations of the residents of the two parts of the city. In West Berlin efforts are spontaneous and self-directed by free men, under the urge to go ahead. In East Berlin effort is centrally directed by Communist planners… The contrast in prosperity is convincing proof of the superiority of the forces of freedom over centralised planning.

Back in 2011, I shared a video highlighting the role of Ludwig Erhard in freeing the West German economy. Given today’s topic here’s an encore presentation.

Samuel Gregg, writing for FEE, elaborates about the market-driven causes of the post-war German economic miracle.

It wasn’t just Ludwig Erhard.

Seventy years ago this month, a small group of economists and legal scholars helped bring about what’s now widely known as the Wirtschaftswunder, the “German economic miracle.” Even among many Germans, names like Walter Eucken, Wilhelm Röpke, and Franz Böhm are unfamiliar today. But it’s largely thanks to their relentless advocacy of market liberalization in 1948 that what was then West Germany escaped an economic abyss… It was a rare instance of free-market intellectuals’ playing a decisive role in liberating an economy from decades of interventionist and collectivist policies.

As was mentioned in the video, the American occupiers were not on the right side.

Indeed, they exacerbated West Germany’s economic problems.

…reform was going to be easy: in 1945, few Germans were amenable to the free market. The Social Democratic Party emerged from the catacombs wanting more top-down economic planning, not less. …Further complicating matters was the fact that the military authorities in the Western-occupied zones in Germany, with many Keynesians in their contingent, admired the economic policies of Clement Atlee’s Labour government in Britain. Indeed, between 1945 and 1947, the Allied administrators left largely in place the partly collectivized, state-oriented economy put in place by the defeated Nazis. This included price-controls, widespread rationing… The result was widespread food shortages and soaring malnutrition levels.

But at least there was a happy ending.

Erhard’s June 1948 reforms…abolition of price-controls and the replacement of the Nazi-era Reichsmark with much smaller quantities of a new currency: the Deutsche Mark. These measures effectively killed off…inflation… Within six months, industrial production had increased by an incredible 50 percent. Real incomes started growing.

And Germany never looked back. Even today, it’s a reasonably market-oriented nation.

I’ll close with my modest contribution to the debate. Based on data from the OECD and Wikipedia, here’s a look at comparative economic output in East Germany and West Germany.

You’ll notice that I added some dotted lines to illustrate that both nations presumably started at the same very low level after WWII ended.

I’ll also assert that the blue line probably exaggerates East German economic output. If you doubt that claim, check out this 1990 story from the New York Times.

The bottom line is that the economic conditions in West Germany and East Germany diverged dramatically because one had good policy (West Germany routinely scored in the top 10 for economic liberty between 1950 and 1975) and one suffered from socialism.

These numbers should be very compelling since traditional economic theory holds that incomes in countries should converge. In the real world, however, that only happens if governments don’t create too many obstacles to prosperity.

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Germany is like the Nordic nations.

It gets a decent ranking (#20) for overall economic freedom, but mostly because a bad score for fiscal policy is offset by reasonably good scores in other policy areas.

Taking a closer look at fiscal policy, there’s a heavy burden of government spending (not as bad as France, for what it’s worth) and taxes consume a big chunk of household income.

And the Germans are big believers in enforcing onerous tax laws. Sometimes in remarkable ways.

  • Using parking meters to levy taxes on the services of prostitutes.
  • Losing 30€ for every 1€ collected by taxing online sales of coffee.
  • Imposing a new development tax for an 80-year old street
  • Levying a fine on a one-armed man for having a one-handled bicycle.

To be fair, the last example is a penalty rather than a tax, but it’s included because it captures Germany’s über-zealous approach to enforcement.

Today, we’re going to add to this list by looking at what happens to taxpayers when they can’t afford their country’s onerous tax burden.

One of the consequences, as reported by the BBC, is that you can lose the family pooch.

A town in Germany has made headlines for seizing a family’s dog over unpaid taxes – and then selling it on eBay. German media report that officials in Ahlen initially wanted to seize the wheelchair of a disabled resident as the most valuable item on the premises. Instead, they settled on a pedigree pug bitch named Edda. One of the officials then listed the dog on eBay at an apparent bargain price of €750 – half of what its new owner expected to pay. …Edda’s new owner was Michaela Jordan, a police officer, who told the newspaper she was initially suspicious of the low price. Upon calling the number listed in the advert, she spoke to an employee of Ahlen’s administration, who explained that the dog had been seized because the owner owed the city money – including for unpaid dog tax. …the former owner said…her three children miss the dog.

I feel sorry for the kids.

Though, to look on the bright side, they learned a lesson about big government. I’m guessing they are now immune to the European Commission’s attempt to brainwash children in favor of higher taxes.

And I guess we should all be happy that the tax police didn’t seize the wheelchair (maybe they were inspired by Francois the Merciful?).

In any event, I also noticed that the dog’s new owner is a bureaucrat – i.e., a net tax consumer rather than a net tax payer. There’s probably a lesson there as well.

Though even bureaucrats should be careful when dealing with government.

Edda had medical problems that were not disclosed. Since changing owners in December, she has needed four operations due to eye problems, including an emergency operation over Christmas. …totalling about €1,800.

The bottom line is that Germans are over-taxed and they have tax collectors that go above and beyond the call of duty.

Ideally, the nation’s taxpayers will get angry, have their version of the Tea Party, and elect some better politicians. Until that happens, I recommend they copy the clever tax-avoidance tactics of their French, Spanish, Irish, and Austrian neighbors.

P.S. You won’t be surprised to learn that Germany’s surtax to finance reunification is still being imposed even though East Germany was aborbed almost three decades ago (though it took more than 100 years for Washington to repeal the “temporary” telephone tax to finance the Spanish-American War).

P.P.S. Germany needs another Ludwig Erhard.

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I’ve been in Prague the past few days for a meeting of the European Resource Bank. I spoke today about a relatively unknown international bureaucracy called the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and I warned that it is going through a process of OECD-ization, which is simply my way of saying it is pursuing bad policy.

I’ll write about that issue in the near future, but today’s topic is based on a presentation from Michael Jäger of the Barvarian Taxpayers Association. He shared some depressing data on how the German government imposed a surtax for the ostensibly limited purpose of helping the finance the reunification of West Germany and East Germany.

But limited apparently means forever.

You’ll notice two things in the chart he shared..

  • First, the German government has been the big winner from this new levy, collecting €214 billion euros over the past 15 years and spending less than €157 billion euros. In other words, the politicians now have a lot of extra loot to spend elsewhere.
  • Second, revenues continue to rise even though the ostensible purpose of the tax is disappearing. Herr Jäger is pressuring the German government to eliminate the tax, but Frau Merkel apparently has little interest in reducing the nation’s tax burden.

To save non-German speakers from having to translate, the dark blue bars are “federal allocations to new states” and the light blue bars are “revenues from the solidarity surcharge.”

The big lesson to learn from this data is that temporary taxes are like temporary programs. They will last forever unless politicians somehow can br pressured to reduce their grip on the economy.

And that’s not easy, though I told some participants in the conference that it could be done. The United States government actually repealed a temporary telephone tax that was imposed to help finance the Spanish-American War.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the tax wasn’t repealed until last decade, more than 100 years after that war ended. I’m not joking.

Another painful lesson is that taxes on the rich often wind up penalizing other people. The Spanish-American War telephone tax was supposed to hit rich people since they were the ones who first utilized telephone technology.

But then the rest of us eventually got telephones as well, and we also had to pay the tax.

Just as the income tax was first imposed on just a tiny handful of very wealthy people, but it eventually morphed into a malignant tax code that now bedevils tens of millions of households with modest incomes.

Something to keep in mind when the crowd in Washington says we should have a value-added tax. Based on what’s happened in Europe, I guarantee it would just be a matter of time before that tax became more onerous to finance an ever-expanding burden of government spending.

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According to leftists like Bernie Sanders, European nations have wonderfully generous welfare states financed by high tax rates on the rich.

They’re partly right. There are very large welfare states in Europe (though I wouldn’t use “wonderfully” and “generous” to describe systems that have caused economic stagnation and high levels of unemployment).

But they’re wrong about how those welfare states are financed. Yes, tax rates on the rich are onerous, but not that much higher than in the United States. Instead, the big difference between America and Europe is that ordinary people pay much higher taxes on the other side of the Atlantic.

Indeed, I’ve previously cited Tax Foundation data showing that the United States arguably has the most “progressive” tax system in the developed world. Not because we tax the rich more, but simply because we impose comparatively modest burdens on everyone else.

And now we have some new evidence making the same point. Joseph Sternberg of the Wall Street Journal has some very sobering data on how the German tax system imposes a heavy weight on poor and middle-income taxpayers.

Europeans believe their tax codes are highly progressive, giving lower earners a break while levying significant proportions of the income of higher earners and corporations to fund generous social benefits. But that progressivity holds true only for direct taxes on personal and corporate income. Indirect taxes, such as the value-added tax on consumption and social-security taxes (disguised as “contributions”), are a different matter. The VAT disproportionately affects lower earners, who spend a higher proportion of their incomes. And social taxes tend to kick in at lower income levels than income taxes, and extract a higher and more uniform proportion of income. …if you look at the proportion of gross household income paid in all forms of tax, the rate varies by only 25 points. The lowest-earning 5% of households pay roughly 27% of their income in various taxes—mainly VAT—while a household in the 85th income percentile pays total taxes of around 52%, mostly in social-security taxes that amount to nearly double the income-tax bill.

Here’s a chart the WSJ included with the editorial.

As you can see, high payroll taxes and the value-added tax are a very costly combination.

And the rest of Europe is similar to Germany.

…Germany is not unique. The way German total revenues are split among income taxes, social taxes and the consumption tax is in line with the rest of Western Europe, as are its tax rates, according to OECD data. If other countries are more progressive than Germany, it’s only because Germany applies its second-highest marginal income-tax rate of 42% at a lower level of income than most.

Speaking of the OECD, here’s the bureaucracy’s data on the burden of government spending.

Germany is in the middle of the pack, with the public sector consuming 44 percent of economic output (Finland edges out France and Greece for the dubious honor of having the most expensive government).

The overall burden of the public sector is far too high in the United States, but we’re actually on the “low” side by OECD standards.

According to the data, total government spending “only” consumes 37.7 percent of America’s GDP. Only Ireland, Switzerland, and Latvia have better numbers (though my friend Constantin Gurdgiev explains we should be cautious about Irish economic data).

But I’m digressing. The point I want to emphasize is that punitive taxes on poor and middle-income taxpayers are unavoidable once politicians decide to impose a large welfare state.

Which is why I’m so inflexibly hostile to any tax increase, especially a value-added tax (or anything close to a VAT, such as the BAT) that would vacuum up huge amounts of money from the general population. Simply stated, politicians in Washington will have a hard time financing a bigger burden of government if they can only target the rich.

Sternberg makes the same point in his column.

Tax cuts have emerged as an issue ahead of Germany’s national election next month, with both major parties promising various timid tinkers… Not gonna happen. The VAT and social taxes are too important to the modern welfare state. The great lie is that there are a) enough “rich people,” b) who are rich enough, that c) taxing their incomes heavily enough can pay for generous health benefits and an old-age pension at 65. None of those propositions are true, and the third is especially wrong in an era of globally mobile capital and labor. That leaves the lower and middle classes, and taxes concealed in price tags or dolled up as “insurance contributions” to obscure exactly how much voters are paying for the privilege of their welfare states. …reform of the indirect taxes that impose such a drag on European economies awaits a more serious discussion about the proper role of the state overall.

Exactly.

There’s no feasible way to ease the burden on ordinary German taxpayers (or regular people in other European nations) unless there are sweeping reforms to reduce the welfare state.

And the moral of the story for Americans is that we better enact genuine entitlement reform if we don’t want to suffer the same fate.

P.S. If you don’t like German data, for whatever reason, I wrote last year about Belgium and made the same point about how a big welfare state necessarily means a bad tax system.

P.P.S. By the way, even the OECD admitted that European nations would grow faster if the burden of government was reduced.

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