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Archive for the ‘Greece’ Category

As much as I condemn American politicians for bad policy, things could be worse.

We could be Greek citizens, which would be very depressing. Indeed, you’ll understand why I put Obamaland in the title after you read today’s column.

Simply stated, Greece is a cesspool of statism. The people seem to be wonderful (at least outside of polling booths), but government intervention is pervasive and atrocious.

Here’s an example. As I was coming in a taxi from the airport to the city yesterday, we passed some sort of protest. There were a couple of hundred people at the rally and probably about 50 riot cops.

I naturally wondered about the situation, expecting that it was radical statists or some of the crazies from Golden Dawn. But the cab driver explained that it was pharmacists.

So why are pharmacists protesting? I found out from some of the locals at the Free Market Road Show that this is a heavily regulated and protected sector of the Greek economy.

The government has rules, for instance, that products such as aspirin and other painkillers can only be purchased at pharmacies. The bureaucracy also rigs all the prices to preclude competition. And there are even government policies that make it very difficult for new pharmacies to compete against the established firms.

When special interests have that much power, no wonder Greece is in trouble.

Thought there are some sectors of the business community, such as online entrepreneurs, that are treated like crap. Literally.

Here’s another example from a Wall Street Journal report, albeit one where a modest bit of progress has been achieved.

For the first time in more than a hundred years, Greece is sacking public servants. In 1911, Greece introduced jobs for life under Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos. Now, a century later, his descendant, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greece’s minister for administrative reform, is faced with the delicate task of slimming down the massive public sector this law helped create. …In exchange for…aid, Greece has promised to cut the government workforce by at least 150,000 by 2015 through attrition, and to lay off an additional 15,000 outright by the end of this year. Another 25,000 would be placed in the temporary labor pool. Of those goals, the first has been reached: Greece had 713,000 government workers at the end of 2012, down 122,000 from the end of 2010. …But the labor pool is still a work in progress. Last July, the first 4,000 employees were put in that pool, while another 8,000 or so followed a few months later. Few of them are expected to be rehired. And with Greece’s unemployment rate already close to 30%, few expect to find jobs in the private sector.

I actually feel a bit sorry for some of these people.

They probably took jobs in the bureaucracy without ever thinking about who was paying their salaries and without giving any thought to the featherbedding and waste that accompany most public sector positions.

But I bet they voted for the politicians that dramatically expanded the number of bureaucrats, so it’s hard to feel too much sympathy.

In any event, they’re understandably worried now that the gravy train is being derailed.

Or maybe the gravy is still there, but in different forms.

It appears that there’s still taxpayer money floating around that can be wasted in interesting ways.

Here are some excerpts from the Guardian about EU-funded “anger management” for some of Greece’s senior tax bureaucrats.

Until Greece’s economic meltdown, anger management was an alien concept at the country’s finance ministry. …Today these are the buzzwords flying around the ground-floor training room at 1 Handris Street. For tax inspectors attending mandatory seminars at the government building, anger management, like patience and politesse, are now seen as essential prerequisites of an increasingly stressful job. “Today, in Greece, everyone is either unhappy or angry when they have to go and pay at the tax office,” Fotis Kourmouris, a senior official at the finance ministry’s public revenues department said. “There is a lot of negative emotion … in the framework of better customer service, classes in psychological and emotional intelligence had become necessary.”

I wouldn’t call it “negative emotion.”

This is a long-overdue revolt of the Greek tax slaves.

…inspectors have found themselves at the sharp end of popular rage. In recent months visiting auditors have been chased out of remote villages, hounded out of towns and booted off islands by an increasingly desperate populace. “We’ve had multiple cases of violence at tax offices by angry members of public, including physical assaults; shots were fired in one case, and one attacker came with an axe,” said Trifonas Alexiadis, vice-chairman of the national association of employees at state financial services.

But when you read how the Greek government is trying to rape and pillage taxpayers, you can understand the anger.

A series of new tax laws has further fuelled public anger. Since the outbreak of the crisis, close to 30 new levies have been introduced by governments desperate to augment empty state coffers. “Too much pressure is being put on people who can’t pay,” said Alexiadis, who suggested that in such circumstances the classes were not only ill-conceived but “juvenile and unnecessary”. …accountant Heracles Galanakopoulos agreed. “They produce a law that nobody understands and then produce another three to explain it. By the time people get here they are really very angry,” he lamented… “I spend at least five or six hours a day reading up on all these new laws and still can’t keep up. Anger management is a nice idea but in a system that is so absurd it’s not going to make a jot of difference.”

Amen. As I’ve argued before, Greece’s problem is high tax rates. Evasion is simply a function of a bad tax code.

Let’s close with some Greek-related humor.

I very much recommend this very funny video from a Greek comedian and this politically incorrect map of how the Greeks view the rest of Europe.

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A couple of years ago, I shared a chart that powerfully demonstrated why Greece was in fiscal crisis.

The chart, which showed the explosive growth of the government bureaucracy, also provided some indication of why reform would be so difficult.

Once a majority of a country’s voting-age population is riding in the wagon of government dependency, it is very difficult to build political support for reform.

Now I have another story that perfectly symbolizes Greece’s dysfunctional situation.

It involves the Greek equivalent of a mooching Big Bird-style state-run media. Let’s start with an excerpt from the UK-based Independent.

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras faces a political revolt after pulling the plug on the country’s state broadcaster in the middle of the night. News presenters were cut off mid-sentence when Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation (ERT), the 75-year-old state television station, was dragged off-air just hours after the decision was announced, in what the government described as a temporary measure to stem the flow of wasted taxpayers’ money into a channel plagued by “excesses”. …In announcing the reasons for the move, Mr Kedikoglou listed a catalogue of ERT’s excesses, which include three orchestras paid as civil servants and 19 provincial radio stations which broadcast only four hours of original programmes each day.

What’s remarkable is that the government isn’t even proposing to get rid of handouts. They just want to reduce the amount of money spent on government media, which is financed by money involuntarily extracted from consumers via their electricity bills.

Here’s what a local English-language news source reported.

Government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou argued that ERT had become bloated and needed to be overhauled but PASOK and Democratic Left said they had not given their consent for it to be shut down. Kedikoglou said the new broadcaster would have an annual budget of 100 million euros, rather than the 300 million ERT currently gets from license fees levied via electricity bills.

 

But maybe there is hope for Greece. Some people (perhaps like the long-suffering tax slaves I wrote about two years ago) are fed up with overpaid government officials.

Here’s an excerpt from the BBC about the private sector’s non-response to a strike called by a “communist-backed labour group”.

City streets have been as full as usual with commuters and car traffic. Supermarkets have been open for business and cafes serving customers as usual. “The lowest ERT employee is making in a day what I’m making in a week, so why should I strike for them?” vegetable-seller Yannis Papailias told Reuters news agency in Athens. “Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs. Who protested for them?” asked waitress Maria Skylakou. Unions representing about 2.5 million workers have repeatedly gone on strike in Greece since Europe’s debt crisis erupted in late 2009, although action has been less frequent and more muted lately than last year when marches frequently turned violent. Corruption and mismanagement are widely known to exist within ERT, a public company symptomatic of Greece’s past mistakes.

Wow, the bureaucrats make in a day what someone in the private sector makes in a week. Even if that number is exaggerated by 50 percent, that’s still a remarkable indication of how government in Greece has become a racket for entrenched bureaucrats and interest groups.

And we thought it was bad that federal bureaucrats in the United States got twice as much compensation as people in the economy’s productive sector!

P.S. Don’t let anyone tell you Greece has made “too many” budget cuts. The government in Athens is infamous for being insanely wasteful, even to the point of subsidizing pedophiles and requiring stool samples from folks applying to set up online companies.

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I’m in Europe as part of a six-nation speaking tour, participating in the Free Market Road Show.

My first speech was yesterday in Greece, which is infamous for a government that is insanely wasteful, even to the point of subsidizing pedophiles and requiring stool samples from folks applying to set up online companies.

But I don’t want to share anything about my remarks, which would be rather familiar to regular readers of this blog.

Instead, I want to share a couple of slides from Professor Aristides Hatzis of the University of Athens.

Let’s start with a look at the number of bureaucrats over time in Greece. You don’t need to read Greek to see that featherbedding exploded over the past 35-plus years.

Greece - Number of Bureaucrats

As you can see, it’s an expanded version of this grim chart.

Now let’s look at another slide from Professor Hatzis.

Greece - Anti Business

When you see these numbers (or read this information), it’s a surprise that Greece didn’t collapse earlier.

One reason that I liked the presentation from Professor Hatzis is that he included a couple of amusing cartoons, one of which he borrowed from the United States. Here’s the Gary Varvel cartoon he shared with the Greek audience.

Greece - Varvel Cartoon

Varvel, by the way, was part of my political cartoonist contest. His cartoon on Social Security and Bernie Madoff was my favorite, but the above cartoon would have been a good addition to the list.

Speaking of cartoons, you can see good cartoons about Obama and Greece here and here.

And here’s a cartoon about Greece and the euro.

I’ll close be recommending this very funny video from a Greek comedian and this non-PC map of how the Greeks view the rest of Europe.

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Are there any fact checkers at the New York Times?

Since they’ve allowed some glaring mistakes by Paul Krugman (see here and here), I guess the answer is no.

But some mistakes are worse than others.

Consider a recent column by David Stuckler of Oxford and Sanjay Basu of Stanford. Entitled “How Austerity Kills,” it argues that budget cuts are causing needless deaths.

Here’s an excerpt that caught my eye.

Countries that slashed health and social protection budgets, like Greece, Italy and Spain, have seen starkly worse health outcomes than nations like Germany, Iceland and Sweden, which maintained their social safety nets and opted for stimulus over austerity.

The reason this grabbed my attention is that it was only 10 days ago that I posted some data from Professor Gurdgiev in Ireland showing that Sweden and Germany were among the tiny group of European nations that actually had reduced the burden of government spending.

Greece, Italy, and Spain, by contrast, are among those that increased the size of the public sector. So the argument presented in the New York Times is completely wrong. Indeed, it’s 100 percent wrong because Iceland (which Professor Gurdgiev didn’t measure since it’s not in the European Union) also has smaller government today than it did in the pre-crisis period.

But that’s just part of the problem with the Stuckler-Basu column. They want us to believe that “slashed” budgets and inadequate spending have caused “worse health outcomes” in nations such as Greece, Italy, and Spain, particularly when compared to Germany, Iceland, and Spain.

But if government spending is the key to good health, how do they explain away this OECD data, which shows that government is actually bigger in the three supposed “austerity” nations than it is in the three so-called “stimulus” countries.

NYT Austerity-Stimulus

Once again, Stuckler and Basu got caught with their pants down, making an argument that is contrary to easily retrievable facts.

But I guess this is business-as-usual at the New York Times. After all, this is the newspaper that’s been caught over and over again engaging in sloppy and/or inaccurate journalism.

Oh, and if you want to know why the Stuckler-Basu column is wrong about whether smaller government causes higher death rates, just click here.

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It’s not easy to find some humor in the European fiscal crisis, though this Hitler parody video surely is a classic.

We now have a new video to enjoy.

There are some naughty words, so be forewarned.

And speaking of Greek-related humor, this cartoon is quite  good, but this this one is my favorite. And the final cartoon in this post also has a Greek theme.

P.S. If you like Greek-related humor, I have two more posts that have been very popular. The first one features a video about…well, I’m not sure, but we’ll call it a European romantic comedy and the second one has some very un-PC maps of how various peoples – including the Greeks – view different European nations.

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As I explained in my election post-mortem, I don’t think Obama has a mandate.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy a good cartoon about his interpretation of the results, and this Bob Gorrell cartoon definitely is amusing.

But it’s amusing – albeit in a disturbing way – because it hinges on something that is true.

America is heading into the fiscal toilet. Indeed, both the BIS and OECD predict that our long-run fiscal situation is more perilous than Europe’s welfare states.

To be fair, we were in a mess even before Obama took office. But Obama wants us to move in the wrong direction at an even faster pace. And he definitely opposes the types of entitlement reforms that could save the country.

That’s why the cartoon has some bite.

And speaking of cartoons about Obama and Greece, here’s another one with the same message. And the final cartoon in this post also has a Greek theme.

P.S. If you like Greek-related humor, I have two more posts that have been very popular. The first one features a video about…well, I’m not sure, but we’ll call it a European romantic comedy and the second one has some very un-PC maps of how various peoples – including the Greeks – view different European nations.

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There are several reasons why I’m glad that there are Europeans.

From a serious perspective, the decentralized and competitive states of Europe gave us great gifts such as the rule of law, the enlightenment, and the industrial revolution.

From a policy perspective, today’s Europe gives us examples of policies to emulate and policies to avoid (and also confusing mish-mashes of good and bad policies).

And from a comedic perspective, it’s generally still okay to make fun of Europeans – even if it (gasp!) involves stereotypes.

Now we can add this video, showing the challenges of a transnational couple, to the list.

I would have preferred if the video had an ideological message, of course, but I guess one of the messages is that the Greek guy is a bum who has no intention of pulling his weight.

If you want a serious video about the fiscal mess in Europe, here’s one narrated by an Italian woman.

And here’s another video about the European crisis. I don’t agree with some of the conclusions, but it’s quite clever.

P.S. If you want some American humor about Europe, I recommend this Dave Barry column and this Michael Ramirez cartoon.

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I wrote yesterday that the United Kingdom is doomed because there isn’t a political party with the vision or courage to restrain the welfare state.

At various points, I’ve also expressed pessimism about the future of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Ireland, and even the United States.

Simply stated, almost all western nations suffer from the same toxic combination of dependency, demographic decline, and poorly structured entitlement programs.

But some nations are heading in the wrong direction more rapidly than others, and Greece is best example (perhaps I should say worst example?) of a country that is careening toward catastrophe.

It’s such a basket case that I’m not sure whether the politicians or the people deserve the lion’s share of the blame.

  •  The politicians deserve blame because they treat public office as a tool for self-enrichment and self-aggrandizement, largely by steering taxpayer money to friends, cronies, contributors, and supporters. Sometimes they do this in a search for votes. Sometimes in a search for cash.
  •  The people deserve blame because they view the state as a magical source of freebies and they see no economic or moral problem with using a coercive government to steal from fellow citizens. They realize the system is corrupt, which is why they seek to evade taxes, but that doesn’t stop them from trying to live at the expense of others.

In a best-case scenario, this type of dysfunctional system reduces prosperity. But when the number of people mooching off the state reaches a critical mass (as illustrated by these two cartoons), then you get societal meltdown.

Which is a good description of what’s happening in Greece.

And even when the government is on the verge of collapse and there’s pressure for reform, the political elite somehow figure out how to screw things up.

The latest example is the possible creation of “special economic zones.” When I first glanced at the story excerpted below, I thought this meant the Greek government was going to create something akin to “enterprise zones” featuring lower tax rates and less red tape.

Because I’m a supporter of the law applying equally to everybody, I’m not a big fan of such policies. I want to reduce the burden of government, of course, but I want that approach for entire countries, not just a handful of areas selected by politicians.

But at least the concept is good, right?

Not when Greek politicians are involved. They have taken the worst features of enterprise zones and combined them with the worst features of redistributionism. Here’s some of the story from Ekathimerini.

The government is paving the way for negotiations with the European Commission regarding the creation of special economic zones (SEZ) in Greece, Development Minister Costis Hatzidakis confirmed on Tuesday in Athens. …“SEZ will give a boost to the basis of the real economy,” said Hatzidakis, reiterating that the existing labor legislation will be fully respected. ..This forms part of the 10-point priority plan Hatzidakis announced yesterday aimed at boosting growth. Changes to the investment incentives law and the fast-track regulations will be completed within the next 15 days. The bill to be prepared will include subsidies of up to 80 percent for smaller companies… Public-private partnerships will be used for bolstering regional growth.

So the zones will keep all the bad labor laws, but provide big subsidies and create “public-private partnerships” (i.e., cronyism).

I hate to sound negative all the time, but that sounds precisely like the kind of nonsense that put Greece in a ditch to begin with.

To be fair, the article does talk about targeted tax relief and accelerated procedures for dealing with red tape. But that’s not exactly good news. Targeted tax cuts are a form of discrimination and they create an environment favorable to lobbying and corruption. And while it seems like good news to approve licenses more quickly, why not just get rid of bureaucratic hurdles? After all, this is the country (this is not a joke) that requires stool samples from entrepreneurs seeking to set up online companies.

It’s very hard to have any optimism after reading this type of story. Greece surely is an example of statism run amok, but let’s return to the point I made above about almost all other western nations heading in the same direction. Greece may be closest to the fiscal cliff, but the rest of us are driving in the same direction.

And if you think this is overheated rhetoric (yes, I’m prone to hyperbole), check out these dismal numbers from the Bank for International Settlements and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

P.S. The BIS and OECD numbers show that the United States is in worse shape – in the long run – than every European welfare state. I assume this is largely based on assumptions of health care spending rising more rapidly in America. The bad news is that this is a reasonable assumption (thanks to our third-party payer problem). The good news is that we can easily solve the problem with a combination of entitlement reform (which deals with a direct cause of third-party payer) and tax reform (which deals with an indirect cause of third-party payer).

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The self-inflicted economic crisis in Europe has generated some good humor, as you can see from these cartoons by Michael Ramirez and Chuck Asay.

But for pure laughter, I don’t think anything will ever match the hilarious “Europe According To…” maps that I posted last year.

That being said, this new cartoon by Robert Ariail ranks high on my list for European humor.

And if you need some more European-oriented laughs, I also recommend this photo-shopped image of “Merkozy” and this Hitler parody about the downgrade.

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Every day brings more and more evidence that Obamanomics is failing in Europe.  I wrote some “Observations on the European Farce” last week, but the news this morning is even more surreal.

Compared to his foolishness on tax policy, Hollande is a genius when it comes to determining what time it is.

Let’s start with France, where I endorsed the explicit socialist over the implicit socialist precisely because of a morbid desire to see a nation commit faster economic suicide. Well, Monsieur Hollande isn’t disappointing me. Let’s look at some of his new initiatives, as reported by Tax-News.com.

The French Minister responsible for Parliamentary Relations Alain Vidalies has recently conceded that EUR10bn (USD12.7bn) is needed to balance the country’s budget this year, to be achieved notably by means of implementing a number of emergency tax measures. …The government plans to abolish the exemption from social contributions applicable to overtime hours, expected to yield a gain for the state of around EUR3.2bn, and to subject overtime hours to taxation, predicted to realize approximately EUR1.4bn in additional revenues. Other proposed measures include plans to reform the country’s solidarity tax on wealth (ISF), to cap tax breaks at EUR10,000, to impose a 3% tax on dividends and to increase inheritance tax as well as the tax on donations. …French President Hollande announced plans during his election campaign to reform ISF. Holland intends to restore the wealth tax scale of between 0.55% and 1.8%, in place before the former government’s 2011 reform, to be applied on wealth in excess of EUR1.3m. Currently a 0.25% rate is imposed on net taxable wealth in excess of EUR1.3m and 0.5% on net taxable assets above EUR3m.

France already has the highest tax burden of any non-Scandinavian nation, so why not further squeeze the productive sector. That’s bound to boost jobs and competitiveness, right? And more revenue as well!

In reality, the Laffer Curve will kick in because France’s dwindling productive class isn’t going to passively submit as the political jackals start looking for a new meal.

But while France is driving into a fiscal cul-de-sac, Italian politicians have constructed a very impressive maze of red tape, intervention, and regulation. From the Wall Street Journal, here is just a sampling of the idiotic rules that paralyze job creators and entrepreneurs.

Once you hire employee 11, you must submit an annual self-assessment to the national authorities outlining every possible health and safety hazard to which your employees might be subject. These include work-related stress and stress caused by age, gender and racial differences. …Once you hire your 16th employee, national unions can set up shop, and workers may elect their own separate representatives. As your company grows, so does the number of required employee representatives, each of whom is entitled to eight hours of paid leave monthly to fulfill union or works-council duties. …Hire No. 16 also means that your next recruit must qualify as disabled. By the time your firm hires its 51st worker, 7% of the payroll must be handicapped in some way, or else your company owes fees in kind. …Once you hire your 101st employee, you must submit a report every two years on the gender-dynamics within the company. This must include a tabulation of the men and women employed in each production unit, their functions and level within the company, details of their compensation and benefits, and dates and reasons for recruitments, promotions and transfers, as well as the estimated revenue impact. …All of these protections and assurances, along with the bureaucracies that oversee them, subtract 47.6% from the average Italian wage, according to the OECD. …which may explain the temptation to stay small and keep as much of your business as possible off the books. This gray- and black-market accounts for more than a quarter of the Italian economy. It also helps account for unemployment at a 12-year high of 10%, and GDP forecast to contract 1.3% this year.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the unelected Prime Minister of Italy, Mr. Monti, isn’t really trying to fix any of this nonsense and instead is agitating for more bailouts from taxpayers in countries that aren’t quite as corrupt and strangled by red tape.

Monti also is a big supporter of eurobonds, which make a lot of sense if you’re the type of person who likes co-signing loans for your unemployed alcoholic cousin with a gambling addiction.

But let’s not forget our Greek friends, the one from the country that subsidizes pedophiles and requires stool samples from entrepreneurs applying to set up online companies.

The recent elections resulted in a victory for the supposedly conservative party, so what did the new government announce? A flat tax to boost growth? Sweeping deregulation to get rid of the absurd rules that strangle entrepreneurship?

You must be smoking crack to even ask such questions. In addition to whining for further handouts from taxpayers in other nations, the Wall Street Journal reports that the new government has announced that it won’t be pruning any bureaucrats from the country’s bloated government workforce.

Greece’s new three-party coalition government on Thursday ruled out massive public-sector layoffs, a move that could help pacify restive trade unions… The new government’s refusal to slash public payrolls and its demands to renegotiate its loan deal comes just as euro-zone finance ministers meet in Luxembourg to discuss Greece’s troubled overhauls—and possibly weigh a two-year extension the new government is seeking in a bid to ease the terms of the austerity program that has accompanied the bailout. …Cutting the size of the public sector has been a top demand by Greece’s creditors—the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund—to reduce costs and help Greece meet its budget-deficit targets needed for the country to get more financing. So far, Greece has laid off just a few hundred workers and failed to implement a so-called labor reserve last year, which foresaw slashing the public sector by 30,000 workers.

Gee, isn’t this just peachy. Best of all, thank to the International Monetary Fund, the rest of us are helping to subsidize these Greek moochers.

And speaking of the IMF, I never realized those overpaid bureaucrats (and they’re also exempt from tax!) are closet comedians. They must be a bunch of jokers, I’ve concluded, because they just released a report on problems in the eurozone without once mentioning excessive government spending or high tax burdens.

The tax-free IMF bureaucrats do claim that “Important actions have been taken,” but they’re talking about bailouts and easy money.

The ECB has lowered policy rates and conducted special liquidity interventions to address immediate bank funding pressures and avert an even more rapid escalation of the crisis.

And even though the problems in Europe are solely the result of bad policies by nations governments, the economic pyromaniacs at the IMF also say that “the crisis now calls for a stronger and more collective effort.”

Absent collective mechanisms to break these adverse feedback loops, the crisis has spilled across euro area countries. Contagion from further intensification of the crisis—including acute stress in funding markets and tensions involving systemically-important banks—would be sizeable globally. And spillovers to neighboring EU economies would be particularly large. A more determined and forceful collective response is needed.

Let’s translate this into plain English: The IMF wants more money from American taxpayers (and other victimized producers elsewhere in the world) to subsidize the types of statist policies that are described above in places such as France, Italy, and Greece.

I’ve previously explained why conspiracy theories are silly, but we’ve gotten to the point where I can forgive people for thinking that politicians and bureaucrats are deliberately trying to turn Europe into some sort of statist Dystopia.

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To answer the question in the title, it means you need to read the fine print.

This is because we have a president who thinks the government shouldn’t confiscate more than 20 percent of a company’s income, but he only gives that advice when he’s in Ghana.

And the same president says it’s time to “let the market work on its own,” but he only says that when talking about China’s economy.

Now we have more evidence that the President understands the dangers of class-warfare taxation and burdensome government spending. At least when he’s not talking about American fiscal policy.

After the Greek elections, which saw the defeat of the pro-big government Syriza coalition and a victory for the supposedly conservative New Democracy Party, here’s some of what Politico reported.

President Barack Obama on Monday called the results of Greece’s election a “positive prospect” with the potential to form a government willing to cooperate with Europe.  “I think the election in Greece yesterday indicates a positive prospect for not only them forming a government, but also them working constructively with their international partners in order that they can continue on the path of reform and do so in a way that also offers the prospects for the Greek people to succeed and prosper,” Obama said after a meeting with the G-20 Summit’s host, Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

In other words, it’s “positive” when other nations reject big government and vote for right-of-center parties, but Heaven forbid that this advice apply to the United States.

Interestingly, it’s not just Obama who is rejecting (when talking about other nations) the welfare-state vision of bigger government and higher taxes.

Check out this remarkable excerpt from a Washington Post column by Larry Summers, the former Chairman of the President’s National Economic Council.

… it is far from clear, especially after the French election, that there is any kind of majority or even plurality support for responsible policies.

Remarkable. Larry Summers is dissing Francois Hollande and the French people by implying they want irresponsible policies, even though the Hollande’s views about Keynesian economics and soak-the-rich taxation are basically identical to the nonsense Summers was peddling while in the White House.

It’s almost enough to make you cynical about America’s political elite. Perish the thought!

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Since I’ve written several times that the United States will face a fiscal crisis if entitlement programs aren’t reformed, you won’t be surprised to see that I repeat those points in this CNBC debate.

But I’m not happy with my performance.

Not because my leftist opponent grabbed more air time (mostly because the host started challenging him, which also happens periodically when I’m on Kudlow’s show), but because he gave me a giant opening to completely destroy his arguments and I failed to seize the opportunity.

He kept arguing that America is more dynamic and innovative than Europe, which generally is true, but then he argued that we should copy Europe’s fiscal policy by increasing the burden of government spending.

I think the points I made to wrap up the debate were fine, but I would be much happier with my performance if I had pointed out this huge hole in his position.

As shown in this amusing and clever poster, you don’t solve the problems created by government with more government.

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I have a confession to make. I’m enjoying the Greece debacle and I like the Greek people.

Sure, there are lots of moochers in Greece. And yes, the government is insanely wasteful, even to the point of subsidizing pedophiles and requiring stool samples from folks applying to set up online companies.

But at least there’s high entertainment value, such as the altercation in this video between one of the national socialists in the Golden Dawn party and a regular socialist from the Syriza party and one of the international socialists from the Communist party.

Of course, I hope that all of these strains of socialism lose at the polls, just as I hope that the Keynesians and tax-increasers fight each other to the death in the rest of Europe.

Until that point, though, I want more entertainment.

I also have a certain fondness for the Greeks because of their disdain for the tax authorities. These people have an amazing expertise when it comes to not paying taxes (their Italian and Irish counterparts also seem less than enthused about giving more money to government).

To be sure, I suspect most of them are motivated by getting something for nothing rather than libertarian principles. But even if they’re dodging taxes for the wrong reasons, these anecdotes from the New York Times are quite amusing.

An essential element of Greece’s recovery plan has been to collect more taxes from a population that has long engaged in tax avoidance. The government is owed 45 billion euros in back taxes, tax officials in Athens said, only a fraction of which will ever be recovered. To understand the difficulty, just talk to Nikos Maitos, a longtime official in Greece’s financial crimes investigation unit. When he and a team of inspectors recently prowled the recession-hit island of Naxos for tax evaders, a local radio station broadcast his license plate number to warn residents. …“After two and a half years of austerity, it’s really a difficult time to bring in revenue,” said Harry Theoharis, a senior official in the Greek Finance Ministry who helps oversee the country’s tax payment system. “You can’t keep flogging a dead horse.” …Income expected from a higher, 23 percent value-added tax required by the bailout agreement has fallen short by around 800 million euros in the first four months of 2012. That is partly because cash-short businesses that were once law-abiding have started hiding money to stay afloat, tax officials said. …the government started enforcing a 1995 law that gives them access to bank accounts of suspected tax evaders. But Nikos Lekkas, a top official at the financial crimes agency where Mr. Maitos works, said Greek banks had obstructed nearly 5,000 requests for account data since 2010. “The banks delay sending the information for 8 to 12 months,” he said. “And when they do, they send huge stacks of documents to make it confusing. By the time we can follow up, much of the money has already fled.” …During a surveillance trip on the resort island of Santorini, Mr. Maitos said he and two colleagues observed a gas station owner insisting on cash-only transactions to avoid declaring taxes. When confronted, the man lashed at them with a bullwhip while cursing the state for taking his money.

Pretty impressive. Not only are taxpayers getting help from radio stations and banks, but they even use bullwhips to defend themselves.

It’s also worth noting that the “flogging a dead horse” comment and the shortfall in VAT receipts are further evidence for the Laffer Curve.

But I don’t want to focus too much on policy in this post. I just want to enjoy the spectacle. In later posts, we’ll look to see whether American statists have learned any lessons about reforming entitlements so we avoid a future Greek-style fiscal crisis in America.

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With both France and Greece deciding to jump out of the left-wing frying pan into the even-more-left-wing fire, European fiscal policy has become quite a controversial topic.

But I find this debate and discussion rather tedious and unrewarding, largely because it pits advocates of Keynesian spending (the so-called “growth” camp) against supporters of higher taxes (the “austerity” camp).

Since I’m a big fan of nations lowering taxes and reducing the burden of government spending, I would like to see the pro-tax hike and the pro-spending sides both lose (wasn’t that Kissinger’s attitude about the Iran-Iraq war?). Indeed, this is why I put together this matrix, to show that there is an alternative approach.

One of my many frustrations with this debate (Veronique de Rugy is similarly irritated) is that many observers make the absurd claim that Europe has implemented “spending cuts” and that this approach hasn’t worked.

Here is what Prof. Krugman just wrote about France.

The French are revolting. …Mr. Hollande’s victory means the end of “Merkozy,” the Franco-German axis that has enforced the austerity regime of the past two years. This would be a “dangerous” development if that strategy were working, or even had a reasonable chance of working. But it isn’t and doesn’t; it’s time to move on. …What’s wrong with the prescription of spending cuts as the remedy for Europe’s ills? One answer is that the confidence fairy doesn’t exist — that is, claims that slashing government spending would somehow encourage consumers and businesses to spend more have been overwhelmingly refuted by the experience of the past two years. So spending cuts in a depressed economy just make the depression deeper.

And he’s made similar assertions about the United Kingdom, complaining that, “the government of Prime Minister David Cameron chose instead to move to immediate, unforced austerity, in the belief that private spending would more than make up for the government’s pullback.”

So let’s take a look at the actual data and see how much “slashing” has been implemented in France and the United Kingdom. Here’s a chart with the latest data from the European Union.

I’m not sure how Krugman defines austerity, but it certainly doesn’t look like there’s been a lot of “slashing” in these two nations.

To be fair, government spending in the United Kingdom has grown a bit slower than inflation in the past couple of years, so one could say that there’s been a very modest bit of trimming.

There’s been no fiscal restraint in France, however, even if one uses that more relaxed definition of a cut. The only accurate claim that can be made about France is that the burden of government spending hasn’t been growing quite as fast since the crisis began as it was growing in the preceding years.

This doesn’t mean there haven’t been any spending cuts in Europe. The Greek and Spanish governments actually cut spending in 2010 and 2011, and Portugal reduced outlays in 2011.

But you can see from this chart, which looks at all the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain), that the spending cuts have been very modest, and only came after years of profligacy. Indeed, Greece is the only nation to actually cut spending over the 3-year period since the crisis began.

Krugman would argue, of course, that the PIIGS are suffering because of the spending cuts. And since there actually have been spending cuts in the last year or two in these nations, does that justify his claims?

Yes and no. I don’t agree with the Keynesian theory, but that doesn’t mean it is easy or painless to shrink the burden of government. As I wrote earlier this year, “…the economy does hit a short-run speed bump when the public sector is pruned. Simply stated, there will be transitional costs when the burden of public spending is reduced. Only in economics textbooks is it possible to seamlessly and immediately reallocate resources.”

What I would argue, though, is that these nations have no choice but to bite the bullet and reduce the burden of government. The only other alternative is to somehow convince taxpayers in other nations to make the debt bubble even bigger with more bailouts and transfers. But that just makes the eventual day of reckoning that much more painful.

Additionally, I think much of the economic pain in these nations is the result of the large tax increases that have been imposed, including higher income tax rates, higher value-added taxes, and various other levies that reduce the incentive to engage in productive behavior.

So what’s the best path going forward? The best approach is to implement deep and meaningful spending cuts, and I think the Baltic nations of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia are positive role models in this regard. Let’s look at what they’ve done in recent years.

As you can see from the chart, the burden of government spending was rising at a reckless rate before the crisis. But once the crisis hit, the Baltic nations hit the brakes and imposed genuine spending cuts.

The Baltic nations went through a rough patch when this happened, particularly since they also had their versions of a real estate bubble. But, as I’ve already argued, I think the “cold turkey” or “take the band-aid off quickly” approach has paid dividends.

The key question is whether nations can maintain spending restraint, particularly when (if?) the economy begins to grow again.

Even a basket case like Greece can put itself on a good path if it follows Mitchell’s Golden Rule and simply makes sure that government spending, in the long run, grows slower than the private economy.

The way to make that happen is to implement something similar to the Swiss Debt Brake, which effectively acts as an annual cap on the growth of government.

In the long run, of course, the goal should be to shrink the overall burden of government to its growth-maximizing level.

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Today’s a big day in European politics. French voters are going to the polls to decide the fate of Nicolas Sarkozy, the socialist incumbent. I’ve endorsed Francois Hollande, the Socialist challenger, so I’m curious to see what will happen.

The more important contest, though, is in Greece. Voters are electing a new Parliament, and it will be interesting to see whether the two establishment parties (both of which are statist, of course) hold on to power.

The looters and moochers that comprise the Greek electorate are in a pissy mood and may opt for various protest parties.

That’s not too surprising, but the press coverage of the election is a bit surreal.

An article in the EU Observer is entitled “Greek elections to usher in anti-bail-out parties,” and the opening paragraph echoes this title, implying that Greek voters don’t like bailouts.

 Greece’s two main parties are set for heavy losses in Sunday’s (6 May) elections, with anti-bail-out groups on the extreme left and right to enter parliament for the first time, raising again the prospect of an exit from the eurozone.

There’s just one tiny problem with the both the title of the first paragraph. Contrary to what’s written, the new political parties are pro-bailout. They are quite happy to mooch off German taxpayers, American taxpayers, and anyone else who is stupid enough to send money (after all, somebody has to finance critical functions of government, such as collecting stool samples from people who want to set up online companies and subsidizing pedophiles).

What gets them upset is the notion that they should do anything in exchange for these handouts. Perish the thought!

If the media had any brains (I don’t think this is a case of ideological bias), they would change the title from “Greek elections to usher in anti-bail-out parties” to “Greek elections to usher in anti-conditionality parties.” Or something like that.

I actually hope these anti-conditionality parties prevail. Because if they get power and say that they won’t do anything to fix Greece’s budget, maybe the fiscal pyromaniacs at the International Monetary Fund and elsewhere will finally stop the bailouts.

Which is what I said was the right approach way back when the crisis began. So maybe after every other option is exhausted, the right thing will finally happen. Hope springs eternal.

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With the exception of a few top-notch thinkers such as Pierre Bessard and Allister Heath, there are very few people in Europe who can intelligently analyze public policy, particularly with regard to fiscal issues.

I don’t know if Fredrik Erixon of the Brussels-based European Centre for International Political Economy is even close to being in the same league with Pierre and Allister, but he has a very good article that correctly explains that government spending and the welfare state are the real fiscal problems in Europe.

Here are some excerpts from his Bloomberg column.

When it comes to overspending on social welfare, …Europe has no angels. Even the “good” Scandinavians, and governments that appeared to be in sound fiscal shape in 2008, …were spending too much and will have to restructure. …Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain…are in many ways different, but they have three important characteristics in common. …government spending in those nations grew at remarkably high rates. In Greece and Spain, nominal spending by the state increased 50 percent to 55 percent in the five years before the crisis started, according to my calculations based on government data. In Portugal, public expenditure rose 35 percent; in Ireland, almost 75 percent. No other country in Western Europe came close to these rates.

This is remarkable. Someone in Europe who is focusing on the growth of government spending. He doesn’t mention that the solution is a spending cap (something akin to Mitchell’s Golden Rule), but that’s an implication of what he says. Moreover, I’m just glad that someone recognizes that the problem is spending, and that debt and deficits are best understood as symptoms of that underlying disease.

In any event, Mr. Erixon also has the right prognosis. The burden of the welfare state needs to shrink. And he seems reasonably certain that will happen.

Europe’s crisis economies will now have to radically reduce their welfare states. State spending in Spain will have to shrink by at least a quarter; Greece should count itself lucky if the cut is less than a half of the pre-crisis expenditure level. The worse news is that this is likely to be only the first round of welfare-state corrections. The next decade will usher Europe into the age of aging, when inevitably the cost of pensions will rise and providing health care for the elderly will be an even bigger cost driver. This demographic shift will be felt everywhere, including in the Nordic group of countries that has been saved from the worst effects of the sovereign-debt crisis. …Europe’s social systems will look very different 20 years from now. They will still be around, but benefit programs will be far less generous, and a greater part of social security will be organised privately. Welfare services, like health care, will be exposed to competition and, to a much greater degree, paid for out of pocket or by private insurance. The big divide in Europe won’t be between North and South or left and right. It will be between countries that diligently manage the transition away from the universal welfare state that has come to define the European social model, and countries that will be forced by events to change the hard way.

I’m not quite so optimistic. While I agree that current trends are unsustainable, I fear that the “optimistic” scenario is for governments to semi-stabilize their finances with both taxes and spending consuming about 50 percent of gross domestic product.

That’s obviously far beyond the growth-maximizing size of government, which means European nations  – on average – would be condemned to permanent economic stagnation. Some of the nations that have very laissez-faire policies in areas other than fiscal policy, such as the Nordic nations, might experience some modest growth, but that would be offset by permanent recession in nations that have both big government and lots of intervention.

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Why is big government bad for an economy? The easy answer is that big government usually means high tax rates, and this penalizes work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship. And perhaps some of the spending is financed by borrowing, and this diverts money from private investment.

That’s a correct answer, but it’s only part of the story. In most cases, there is added damage because politicians spend money in ways that further undermine incentives to produce.

For instance, let’s assume a government spends $1 billion on some sort of redistribution program. Extracting that money from the productive sector of the economy obviously will cause some damage, but it’s also important to estimate how the supposed beneficiaries of the money will react. What if they decide to earn less income in order to be eligible for the handouts, as even the statists at the OECD have recognized?

In other words, it hurts the economy when government collects money, and it often hurts the economy when government spends money. Sort of a perverse 2-for-1 special (though “Rahn Curve” analysis does show that some types of spending – on core public goods – is correlated with better economic performance)

Let’s look at an example from Greece, showing how handouts distort behavior and corrupt people. Here are some remarkable tidbits from a Wall Street Journal story.

The Greek health ministry is investigating on Zakynthos after local officials flagged records showing what they said is an implausibly high number of disability claims for blindness. About 1.8% of the island’s population of 39,000 claimed the benefit last year, according to the health ministry. That is around nine times the prevalence of blindness estimated for many European countries in a 2004 study published in a World Health Organization journal. Among those who put in for the blindness benefit on Zakynthos, a local official said, were a taxi driver and a bird hunter. …But the island is hardly alone, according to health ministry officials, who say fraudulent disability claims are a problem across the nation… Zakynthos Mayor Stelios Bozikis on a Greek television talk show said residents angry about the benefits crackdown and other financial overhauls pelted him with yogurt at a recent event.

Before sneering at the Greeks, keep in mind that “disability” claims also are rising in the United States, which is rather remarkable since jobs have become less arduous over time. Heck, the Social Security Administration decided to give disability payments to a grown man who gets his jollies by wearing diapers.

I’m not sure if that’s better or worse than the Greek government deciding to reward pedophiles with disability payments, but taxpayers are getting screwed in both examples.

Let’s go back to the story and look at a rough estimate of how much fraud exists.

In an attempt to root out fraud, the Greek health ministry recently required disability claimants nationwide to register in a centralized database, appearing in person or sending a representative. The registration resulted in 36,000 fewer disability claims than in 2011, the health ministry said. The ministry alleges these dropped claims were fraudulent, in many cases reflecting multiple claims for the same disability or payments in the name of dead beneficiaries. It also alleges that some doctors accepted money for false diagnoses and some local politicians signed off on the benefits to win support, and said it is giving public prosecutors information about areas where it suspects a high level of fraud. Only 190 of the nearly 700 people it says had been collecting the blindness benefit on Zakynthos participated in the registration, the ministry said.

I have no idea if Zakynthos is representative, but that’s an incredibly high fraud rate. And this is just a glimpse at the workings of one government program. Now multiply that by some large number and you’ll begin to understand the damage caused by government.

And America is not immune. When politicians make it easier to ride in the wagon than to pull the wagon (as this cartoon illustrates), society sooner or later gets in trouble.

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I speculated last year that the political elite finally might be realizing that higher tax rates are not the solution to Greece’s fiscal situation.

Simply stated, you can only squeeze so much blood out of a stone, and pushing tax rates higher cripples growth and drives more people into the underground economy.

Well, it turns out that even the International Monetary Fund agrees with me. Here’s what the IMF said in its latest analysis about the Greek fiscal situation.

…further progress in reducing the deficit is going to be hard without underlying structural fiscal reforms. The fiscal deficit is now expected to be 9 percent this year, against the program target of 7½ percent. “One of the things we have seen in 2011 is that we have reached the limit of what can be achieved through increasing taxes,” Thomsen said. “Any further measures, if needed, should be on the expenditure side.

This is a remarkable admission. The IMF, for all intents and purposes, is acknowledging the Laffer Curve. At some point, tax rates become so punitive that the government collects less revenue.

This is a simple and common-sense observation, as explained in this video.

Unfortunately, even though the IMF now recognizes reality, the same can’t be said about the Obama Administration.

The President has proposed higher tax rates in his recent budget and it seems he can’t make a speech without making a class-warfare argument for penalizing producers, investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners.

Yet if you compare American tax rates and Greek tax rates, it seems that the IMF’s lesson also applies in the United States.

The top tax in Greece is 45 percent, which is higher than the 35 percent top rate in America. But this doesn’t count the impact of state income taxes, which add an average of about five percentage points to the burden. Or the Medicare payroll tax, which boosts the rate by another 2.9 percentage points.

So Obama’s proposed 4.6 percentage point hike in the top tax rate almost certainly would mean a higher tax burden in the United States.

Even more worrisome, the U.S. tax rates on dividends and capital gains already are higher than the equivalent rates in Greece. Yet Obama wants to boost double taxation on these forms of retained earnings and distributed earnings.

But there are important cultural differences between the United States and Greece, so there’s no reason to think that the revenue-maximizing tax rates in both nations are the same (by the way, policy makers should strive for growth-maximizing tax rates, not the rates that generate the most money).

That’s why I wrote about the U.S.-specific evidence from the 1980s, which shows that rich people paid much more to the IRS when tax rates were slashed from 70 percent to 28 percent.

But all this analysis may miss the point. Why is the President willing to raise tax rates even if the economy suffers enough damage that the Treasury doesn’t collect any revenue? And if you’re wondering why I might ask such a crazy question, watch this video – especially beginning about the 4:30 mark.

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I’ve been having fun in recent months by comparing some of the foolish decisions of politicians and bureaucrats in the United States and United Kingdom. Here’s part of what I wrote in early January.

In June of last year, I posted several examples of idiotic government policy from both the United States and United Kingdom and asked which nation had the dumbest bureaucrats and politicians.

Since then, we have found new examples of brain-dead government and jaw-dropping political correctness from England, including an effort to stop children from watching Olympic shooting events and (what must be) the most pointless sign in the history of the world.

But American politicians have been busy as well in recent months, with impressive displays of incompetence and stupidity such as preventing a girl from boarding a plane because her purse had an image of a gun and a local school calling the police because a little girl kissed a little boy in gym class.

These examples are so absurd that one hopes the reporters somehow screwed up and get their stories wrong.

But now, thanks to a story sent by a friend, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no limit to stupid and clueless behavior by government.  Here are some of the mind-bogglingly unbelievable details from an English-language Greek news site.

It took 10 months, a fat bundle of paperwork, countless certificates, long hours of haggling with bureaucrats and overcoming myriad other inconceivable obstacles for one group of young entrepreneurs to open an online store. …opening an online store based in Greece is no job for the fainthearted. …Antonopoulos and his partners spent hours collecting papers from tax offices, the Athens Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the municipal service where the company is based, the health inspector’s office, the fire department and banks. At the health department, they were told that all the shareholders of the company would have to provide chest X-rays, and, in the most surreal demand of all, stool samples.

As you can imagine, I think it’s ridiculous that a business has to take 10 months to get permission to operate. You also can guess that I’m shaking my head with dismay at all the regulatory hurdles. And I am utterly dumbfounded that you need to submit chest X-rays to open an online store.

But I can’t even begin to describe my reaction to the requirement for stool samples. I was tempted to write the previous sentence in ALL CAPS. I also thought about unleashing my inner teenager and writing WTF, OMG, and LMAO.

New Symbol of the Greek Government?

I confess, though, that I’m not quite sure what to write. It’s as if we’ve passed into a parallel dimension where parody and satire have become superfluous.

The only thing that rivals this is the story about the Greek government deciding that pedophiles deserve disability payments.

And to add insult to injury, the politicians from Europe and elsewhere are processing yet another bailout for this wasteful and spendthrift government.

Some people thought I was being a bit over-the-top when I did an interview and said the Greeks shouldn’t be allowed to “loot and mooch their way through life.”

But I think I understated the problem. Brainless policy choices are probably the inevitable result of having so many bureaucrats that they resort to asking for stool samples to justify their pointless and empty lives.

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I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I write about insanely stupid government policies. But I know I get more motivated to fight big government.

How can anyone want to give more money and power to politicians, for instance, after reading these comparisons of dumb government policy in the United States and United Kingdom? Or how can anyone think it’s a good idea to expand the public sector after reading these examples of bureaucratic incompetence?

But now I’ve come across something even more amazing, a story of government stupidity that trumps these other examples. And this is not satire. It is not from The Onion.

Believe it or not, the Greek government has decided that pedophiles are “disabled” and therefore deserve money from the government.

And what really makes this boondoggle remarkable is that you’re helping to pay for it thanks to the IMF bailout of Greece. Here’s the link to the AP story, and here are the relevant passages.

…a government decision to expand a list of state-recognized disability categories to include pedophiles, exhibitionists and kleptomaniacs. …The Labor Ministry said categories added to the expanded list – that also includes pyromaniacs, compulsive gamblers, fetishists and sadomasochists – were included for purposes of medical assessment and used as a gauge for allocating financial assistance. …The new list gives pyromaniacs and pedophiles disability pay up to 35 percent.

Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but my first reaction to this story is that child molesters should be in jail, not getting taxpayer-funded handouts.

I guess that’s being unfair, though, since not all pedophiles become child molesters.

But that’s besides the point. Why on earth did the government decide that pedophiles are disabled? And why does that automatically entitle them to disability payments?

Most important, why did the Obama Administration support the IMF bailout of Greece, which means I’m helping to pay for this nonsense?!?

I don’t know whether this is a sign that I’m not very imaginative or a sign that I have an overly active imagination, but the only semi-rational justification I can think of for this policy is as follows.

1. Greece is in fiscal trouble in part because of too many overpaid bureaucrats.

2. It’s almost impossible in most circumstances to fire bureaucrats.

3. By some miracle, though, pedophiles don’t have normal levels of civil service protection, which means they can be let go.

4. But government unions don’t want their fellow bureaucrats cut loose without some sort of golden parachute.

5. So Greece rules these pedophiles are disabled and gives them a permanent source of income.

6. Greece then saves money by paying them 35 percent of their salaries to stay home and goof off rather than paying them 100 percent of their salaries to come to the office and goof off.

Sounds crazy, and I’m sure this isn’t what’s really happening, but can anyone think of another explanation?

Whatever the reason, this story is the perfect symbol of bloated, stupid, and feckless government. The only example that comes close, though it only applies to one person rather than an entire class of people, is the decision by Social Security bureaucrats in America to give disability payments to some clown that wants to be an “adult baby” and wear diapers.

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Given what is happening is Europe, this Henry Payne cartoon seems very appropriate.

Speaking of Greek cartoons, this one has generated plenty of laughs.

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Politicians in Europe have spent decades creating a fiscal crisis by violating Mitchell’s Golden Rule and letting the government grow faster than the private sector.

As a result, government is far too big today, and nations such as Greece are in the process of fiscal collapse.

But that’s the good news – at least relatively speaking. Over the next few decades, the problems will get much worse because of demographic change and unsustainable promises to spend other people’s money.

(By the way, America will suffer the same fate in the absence of reforms.)

Here’s on stark indicator of why Greece is in the toilet.

Look at the skyrocketing number of people riding in the wagon of government dependency (and look at these cartoons to understand why this is so debilitating).

By the way, Greece’s population only increased by a bit more than 16 percent during this period. Yet the number of bureaucrats jumped by far more than 100 percent.

And don’t forget that this chart just looks at the number of bureaucrats, not their excessive pay and bloated pensions.

With this in mind, do you agree with President Obama and want to squander American tax dollars on a bailout for Greece?

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Given the turmoil in Europe, I suppose I should say something serious about Greece, economics, and public policy.

But I can’t resist borrowing some humor from the Zerohedge website.

Here’s a somewhat non-PC (but hilarious) map of how the Greeks view Europe.

There are several more maps at this site, but the two others I like include how the English see Europe.

And here’s how people in the United States see Europe.

Looks mostly accurate to me.

Last but not least, for those who enjoy r-rated humor, here’s a link to Berlusconi’s map of Europe.

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Here’s an absolutely horrifying video of President Franklin Roosevelt promoting a “Second Bill of Rights” based on coercive redistribution.

At first, I was going to post it and contrast it with this superb Reagan video and compare how one President’s policies kept America mired in a depression while the other implemented policies that triggered an American renaissance.

But there’s a much more important question, one that also applies to modern leftists. Do they actually believe this nonsense?

In other words, are people who push for bad policy misguided or malicious?

In the case of FDR, did he really think that the government could guarantee “rights” to jobs, recreation, housing, good health, and security?

If so, he was horribly misguided and blindly ignorant to the realities of economics.

But if he didn’t believe that government magically could provide all these things, then would it be fair to say he was maliciously lying in order to delude people and get their votes?

I don’t know Roosevelt’s motives, Like most politicians, he probably listened to both the angel (however misguided) on one shoulder and the devil on the other shoulder.

But if he was listening to the angel and trying to do what he thought was best, at least FDR had an excuse. Communism had not yet collapsed. Socialism had not yet collapsed. And Greek-style redistributionism had not yet collapsed.

So it was possible seventy years ago for a well-intentioned person to believe that government was some sort of perpetual motion machine of prosperity.

I’m not sure there is a similarly charitable interpretation for the motives of modern-day statists.

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The Europeans have just agreed to another bailout for Greece. That’s the bad news.

The good news is…well, there is no good news. Sarkozy, Merkel, and the other statists have once again failed to do the right thing and instead have decided to throw good money after bad and dig the debt hole even deeper.

But there is worse news. The IMF is financing part of the bailout and American taxpayers are “shareholders” in the IMF.

In other words, I’m helping to reward bad behavior and misallocate global capital. This doesn’t make me very happy – especially since the White House supports this misguided approach.

But this is business-as-usual for the IMF, and here’s a first-hand example.

I’m in El Salvador where I just finished two days of speeches, meetings, and interviews to discuss how the country should deal with its fiscal imbalance.

Discussing Mitchell's Golden Rule in El Salvador

My message is simple. El Salvador should reject tax hikes and instead put government on a diet by capping annual spending growth so the budget grows by 1 percent or 2 percent annually.

Ever single reporter responded by saying some variant of “but the IMF says we need to raise taxes.”

During the first interview, I simply said the IMF was wrong. During the second interview, I said El Salvador should refuse to let IMF bureaucrats in the country. After I heard the same IMF message the third time, I suggested shooting down any flight carrying IMF bureaucrats and their snake-oil economic advice.

The last comment was a joke, of course, but it does raise a fundamental question. Why are American taxpayers subsidizing an international bureaucracy that runs around the world urging higher taxes and bailouts?!?

To be fair, the IMF usually includes some good advice in their reports. If you read the fine print, the bureaucrats often recommend reductions in subsidies, red tape, government payrolls, and handouts.

But if you give politicians in any country a set of options, and higher taxes and/or bailouts are on the list, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that the good reforms will get ignored while the bad policies will be adopted.

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Almost two years ago, I wrote that bailing out Greece was misguided because it would dig the debt hole deeper.

More recently, I wrote an I-told-you-so post that looked at my four original predictions and patted myself on the back for being accurate (not that it took any special insight to conclude that bailouts would make things worse).

But now it’s time for a turbo-charged I-told-you-so post. The UK-based Telegraph has a remarkable story about the chaos in Europe. This passage is a good summary of the circular firing squad.

Just when the eurozone governments thought it could not get worse for Europe’s single currency, it did.Shell-shocked EU finance ministers meeting in Brussels on Saturday were already reeling from the worst Franco-German rift for over 20 years and a fractious failure to resolve the problems that have brought Greece, and the euro, close to the brink.But then a new bombshell hit as a joint report by the EU and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned that, without a default, the Greek debt crisis alone could swallow the eurozone’s entire €440 billion bailout fund – leaving nothing to spare to help the affected banks of Italy, Spain or France.

And to understand how the situation is so dire, here are some additional details.

Compounding the trauma, Christine Lagarde, the French finance minister turned IMF chief – and one of the few key players who appeared to be enjoying herself in her new headmistress-like role – issued a grim warning to her former European peers. The IMF would no longer be willing to pick up a third of the total bill for rescuing Greece, a contribution worth €73 billion, unless European banks were prepared to write off 50 per cent of Greek debt. “It was grim. The worst mood I have ever seen, a complete mess,” said one eurozone finance minister.

But here’s the key passage of the entire article, where the German Finance Minister correctly complains that the crisis is now three times as costly thanks to previous bailouts.

According to insiders, Wolfgang Schaeuble, Germany’s finance minister, could not resist taking an “I told you so” approach – he had been, after all, the first to call for an “orderly” default for Greece 18 months ago, at a time when the cost of such a move was less than one third of the price today. “Schaeuble is a man who does not mince his words, whose reputation for harshness and arrogance is well earned. He was, frankly, unbearable,” said one diplomat.

This is similar to the point I made in my post about whether the bailouts would work. But as I noted above, there was nothing profound about my predictions. Sort of like predicting water runs downhill.

The amusing part of the story is the infighting among Europe’s politicians.

Interpersonal relations between eurozone leaders have hit an all-time low, reflecting sharp disagreements between Germany and France over using the ECB to bailout the euro and presenting an additional obstacle to finding a “grand solution” to Europe’s debt crisis. Nicolas Sarkozy’s “two faced” personality has been cited as a major factor in his dysfunctional relationship with Angela Merkel. …A row between the pair in Frankfurt on Wednesday overshadowed leaving-do celebrations to mark the end of Jean-Claude Trichet’s nine years as the head of the ECB. “Their shouting could be heard down the corridor in the concert hall where an orchestra was about to play the EU’s anthem, Ode to Joy,” said an incredulous EU official.

And the depressing part of the story is how one of the chief Euro-crats is trying to use the crisis as an excuse for more centralization in Brussels.

Herman Van Rompuy, the EU president who is regarded by many as too close to Berlin, angered many countries when he made confidential proposals for the creation of a European finance ministry. His plan, which has considerable backing from the growing body of EU bureaucrats who see a unified EU treasury as the only solution to the problem of countries spending more than the euro can stand, would mean a centralised body able to override national budgets and enforce cuts on profligate governments.

I doubt this terrible idea will be approved, but the final outcome won’t be pleasant.

The worst-case scenario is that American taxpayers somehow will get suckered into participating in a bailout. The Senate has voted against subsidizing the failure of European socialism, but Obama has said he wants American taxpayers to participate in a bailout and the White House may use the Fed or some back-door mechanism to unilaterally link America to Europe’s sinking ship.

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I would have structured this flowchart differently, for reasons I discuss in this post, but this is pretty good picture of why Europe is in trouble.

They say all roads lead to Rome, and this flowchart shows all roads lead to a banking crisis (see this post to understand why).

But not all banking crises are created equal. A bailout (the left column) would inflate the debt bubble and make the ultimate crisis much more devastating.

Cutting Greece loose (the middle column) is the best approach, in part because it would have a sobering effect on other European nations that would like to mooch off the European Union (German taxpayers) or International Monetary Fund (American taxpayers).

Just imagine, by the way, how much better things would be today if Greece had been unable to access bailout money and instead had been forced to spend the last two years implementing real reform. That’s why I stand by everything I wrote in my first post about the Greek mess.

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The fiscal turmoil in Greece is not about fiscal balance. It’s a fight between looters and moochers such as Olga Stefou, who think taxpayers should endlessly subsidize everything, and the shrinking group of productive people who are pulling the wagon and keeping Greece’s economy from total collapse.

Not surprisingly, the Greek government has tried to prop up its uncompetitive welfare state by pillaging that group of productive people. But it appears that the kleptocrats may have gone too far and triggered a Tea Party-type revolt.

Here are some excerpts from a remarkable story about a Greek tax revolt from Der Spiegel in Germany.

Belitsakos is…the physical and spiritual leader of a movement of businesspeople in Greece that is recruiting new members with growing speed. While Greece’s government is desperately trying to combat its ballooning budget deficit by raising taxes and imposing new fees, people like Belitsakos are putting their faith in passive resistance. The group’s slogan is as simple as it is stoic: “We Won’t Pay.” This business owners’ absolute refusal to pay any taxes resembles an uprising of the ownership class, rather than the working class, a rebellion of the self-employed business owners who have long been the backbone of Greek society. These are not the people who weaseled their way into Greece’s oversized civil service; these are people who put their money in the private sector, working 12-hour days, seven days a week. …”The state will kill us,” he says. “We’re acting in self-defense.”

In other words, these are the good guys. And look what they have to deal with.

Then he starts to do the math. Over the last two years, his sales have massively shrunk as 60 of the tavernas and restaurants he used to make deliveries to have terminated their contracts with him. At the same time, the government has raised the value-added tax (VAT) twice while imposing a never-ending series of new fees. He mentions the €300 ($406) one-time fee for the self-employed, a two-percentage-point boost in the VAT, a €180 solidarity levy for the unemployed and a property tax that is “easily a few hundred euros every year.” …Belitsakos calls them “charatzi,” a word from Ottoman times that can perhaps best be translated as “loot” or “compulsory levy.” The term is meant to indicate taxes levied arbitrarily and without justification, such as the tithe once paid to feudal lords.

This doesn’t mean that anyone who refuses to pay tax is automatically a hero. Some of the moochers and looters that have destroyed Greece think they should rape and pillage others and not pay taxes themselves.

These days, even communists, unionists and leftists are raising a public outcry against the new taxes. This week, Aleka Papariga, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Greece, said that the only way to stop the complete bankrupting of the people was for them to not pay the “charatzi.”

The UK-based Financial Times, in a story on the likelihood of a Greek default, also finds anger among the nation’s productive class.

The frustration is evident even among those who have jobs. George, a 49-year-old real estate agent, said despite a pledge to cut 30,000 public service jobs, the austerity policies of the government still appeared intent on protecting the interests of civil servants and state employees in general at the expense of the private sector. “Everything from water to electricity and telephony charges has gone up because of the increase in VAT [value added tax],” he said. And a new special property tax meant he would be hit yet again. In an increasing sign more and more people are getting upset with the political system and taxes, Andreas P, a 54-year-old clerk at a big Greek supermarket chain, is vowing to refuse to pay the new special property tax in protest at what he sees as an explosion of public service workers. “My father had a [café] in our village near Lamia [central Greece] back in 1980 and knew that just four out of the 400 inhabitants were state employees,” he says. “When I visited my village in August, I tried to count by curiosity how many were employed in some form in the public sector. I found out that more than 200 were working there. Is it ever possible for a country to prosper with so many state employees who do not produce? Can you give me a good reason to pay the extra taxes?”

These two stories underscore the message that I’ve been repeating for years. Greece’s problem is not deficits and debt. Red ink and imminent default are bad, but they are symptoms of the real problem of a bloated public sector and the dependency culture created by too much government.

This video explains why the burden of government spending is the critical fiscal policy variable.

And it goes without saying that America faces the same challenge. The only difference is that we have a few years to solve the problem before we have our own Greek-style fiscal crisis.

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In my speeches, especially when talking about the fiscal crisis in Europe (or the future fiscal crisis in America), I often warn that the welfare state reaches a point-of-no-return when the number of people riding in the wagon begins to outnumber the number of people pulling the wagon.

To be more specific, if more than 50 percent of the population is dependent on government (employed in the bureaucracy, living off welfare, receiving pensions, etc), it becomes rather difficult to form a coalition to fix the mess. This may explain why Greek politicians have resisted significant reforms, even though the nation faces a fiscal death spiral.

But you don’t need me to explain this relationship. One of our Cato interns, Silvia Morandotti, used her artistic skills to create two images (click pictures for better resolution) that show what a welfare state looks like when it first begins and what it eventually becomes.

These images are remarkably accurate. The welfare state starts with small programs targeted at a handful of genuinely needy people. But as  politicians figure out the electoral benefits of expanding programs and people figure out the that they can let others work on their behalf, the ratio of producers to consumers begins to worsen.

Eventually, even though the moochers and looters should realize that it is not in their interest to over-burden the people pulling the wagon, the entire system breaks down.

Then things get really interesting. Small nations such as Greece can rely on permanent bailouts from bigger countries and the IMF, but sooner or later, as larger nations begin to go bankrupt, that approach won’t be feasible.

I often conclude my speeches by joking with the audience that it’s time to stock up on canned goods, bottled water, and ammo. Many people, I’m finding, don’t think that line very funny.

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In a recent post, I explained some of the reasons why Greece should not get another bailout. I cover some of the same points in this Bloomberg interview, but my favorite part is when I state that it’s time for the Greek people to realize “they can’t loot and mooch their way through life.”

I also pontificate about the appointment of another pro-welfare state French politician to head the IMF. Not surprisingly, I’m not sanguine about the prospects.

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