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Archive for the ‘Iceland’ Category

Folks on the left sometimes act as if the Nordic nations somehow prove that big government isn’t an impediment to prosperity.

As I’ve pointed out before, they obviously don’t spend much time looking at the data.

So let’s give them a reminder. Here are the rankings from Economic Freedom of the World. I’ve inserted red arrows to draw attention to the Nordic nations. As you can see, every single one of them is in the top quartile, meaning that they aren’t big-government jurisdictions by world standards.

Moreover, Finland ranks above the United States. Denmark is higher than Estonia, which is often cited a free-market success story. And all of them rank ahead of Slovakia, which also is known for pro-growth reforms.

To be sure, this doesn’t mean the Nordic nations are libertarian paradises. Far from it.

Government is far too big in those countries, just as it is far too big in the United States, Switzerland, New Zealand, Canada, and other nations in the top quartile.

Which is tragic since the burden of government spending in North America and Western Europe used to be just a fraction of current levels – even in nations such as Sweden.

The way I’ve described the Nordic nations is that they have bloated and costly welfare states but compensate for that bad policy by being very free market in other policy areas.

But you don’t need to believe me. Nima Sanandaji has just written an excellent new monograph for the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. Entitled Scandinavian Unexceptionalism: Culture, Markets and the Failure of Third-Way Socialism, Nima’s work explains how the Nordic nations became rich during an era of small government and free markets, how they then veered in the wrong direction, but are now trying to restore more economic freedom.

Here are some key excerpts, starting with some much-needed economic history.

Scandinavia’s success story predated the welfare state. …As late as 1960, tax revenues in the Nordic nations ranged between 25 per cent of GDP in Denmark to 32 per cent in Norway – similar to other developed countries. …Scandinavia’s more equal societies also developed well before the welfare states expanded. Income inequality reduced dramatically during the last three decades of the 19th century and during the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, most of the shift towards greater equality happened before the introduction of a large public sector and high taxes. …The phenomenal national income growth in the Nordic nations occurred before the rise of large welfare states. The rise in living standards was made possible when cultures based on social cohesion, high levels of trust and strong work ethics were combined with free markets and low taxes….the Nordic success story reinforces the idea that business-friendly and small-government-oriented policies can promote growth.

Here’s a chart from the book showing remarkable growth for Sweden and Denmark in the pre-welfare state era.

Nima has extra details about his home country of Sweden.

In the hundred years following the market liberalisation of the late 19th century and the onset of industrialisation, Sweden experienced phenomenal economic growth (Maddison 1982). Famous Swedish companies such as IKEA, Volvo, Tetra Pak, H&M, Ericsson and Alfa Laval were all founded during this period, and were aided by business-friendly economic policies and low taxes.

Unfortunately, Nordic nations veered to the left in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And, not surprisingly, that’s when growth began to deteriorate.

The third-way radical social democratic era in Scandinavia, much admired by the left, only lasted from the early 1970s to the early 1990s. The rate of business formation during the third-way era was dreadful.
Again, he has additional details about Sweden.
Sweden’s wealth creation slowed down following the transition to a high tax burden and a large public sector. …As late as 1975 Sweden was ranked as the 4th richest nation in the world according to OECD measures….the policy shift that occurred dramatically slowed down the growth rate. Sweden dropped to 13th place in the mid 1990s. …It is interesting that the left rarely discusses this calamitous Swedish growth performance from 1970 to 2000.

The good news is that Nordic nations have begun to shift back toward market-oriented policies. Some of them have reduced the burden of government spending. All of them have lowered tax rates, particularly on business and investment income. And there have even been some welfare reforms.

…there has been a tentative return to free markets. In education in Sweden, parental choice has been promoted. There has also been reform to pensions systems, sickness benefits and labour market regulations

But there’s no question that the welfare state and its concomitant tax burden are still the biggest problem in the region. Which  is why it is critical that Nordic nations maintain pro-market policies on regulation, trade, monetary policy, rule of law and property rights.

Scandinavian countries have compensated for a large public sector by increasing economic liberty in other areas. During recent decades, Nordic nations have implemented major market liberalisations to compensate for the growth-inhibiting effects of taxes and labour market policies.

Let’s close with what I consider to be the strongest evidence from Nima’s publication. He shows that Scandinavians who emigrated to America are considerably richer than their counterparts who stayed put.

Median incomes of Scandinavian descendants are 20 per cent higher than average US incomes. It is true that poverty rates in Scandinavian countries are lower than in the US. However, the poverty rate among descendants of Nordic immigrants in the US today is half the average poverty rate of Americans – this has been a consistent finding for decades. In fact, Scandinavian Americans have lower poverty rates than Scandinavian citizens who have not emigrated. …the median household income in the United States is $51,914. This can be compared with a median household income of $61,920 for Danish Americans, $59,379 for Finnish-Americans, $60,935 for Norwegian Americans and $61,549 for Swedish Americans. There is also a group identifying themselves simply as ‘Scandinavian Americans’ in the US Census. The median household income for this group is even higher at $66,219. …Danish Americans have a contribution to GDP per capita 37 per cent higher than Danes still living in Denmark; Swedish Americans contribute 39 percent more to GDP per capita than Swedes living in Sweden; and Finnish Americans contribute 47 per cent more than Finns living in Finland.

In other words, when you do apples to apples comparisons, either of peoples or nations, you find that smaller government and free markets lead to more prosperity.

That’s the real lesson from the Nordic nations.

P.S. Just in case readers think I’m being too favorable to the Nordic nations, rest assured that I’m very critical of the bad policies in these nations.

Just look at what I’ve written, for instance, about Sweden’s healthcare system or Denmark’s dependency problem.

But I will give praise when any nation, from any part of the world, takes steps in the right direction.

And I do distinguish between the big-government/free-market systems you find in Nordic nations and the big-government/crony-intervention systems you find in countries like France and Greece.

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Being a glass-half-full kind of guy, I look for kernels of good news when examining economic policy around the world. I once even managed to find something to praise about French tax policy. And I can assure you that’s not a very easy task.

I particularly try to find something positive to highlight when I’m a visitor. While in the Faroe Islands two days ago, for instance, I wrote about that jurisdiction’s new system of personal retirement accounts.

And now that I’m in Iceland, I want to focus on spending restraint.

As you can see from this chart, lawmakers in this island nation have done a reasonably good job of satisfying Mitchell Golden Rule over the past couple of years. Nominal economic output has been growing by 6.1 percent annually, while government spending has risen by an average of 2.8 percent per year.

Iceland Spending Restraint

If Iceland continues to enjoy this level of growth and can maintain this modest degree of fiscal discipline, the burden of government spending will soon drop below 40 percent of GDP.

As I’ve noted before, fiscal progress can occur very rapidly if spending is curtailed. Consider what’s happened, for example, over the past two years in America. Total federal spending didn’t grow in 2011 or 2012, and that de facto two-year spending freeze has led to a big reduction in the size of the public sector relative to GDP.

And because policymakers addressed the underlying disease of excessive spending, it’s no surprise that the symptom of red ink became much less of a problem with the deficit falling by almost 50 percent in those two years.

And nations such as New Zealand and Canada also have enjoyed quick benefits when limiting the growth of government.

Now let’s take a glass-half-empty look at Icelandic fiscal policy.

First, Iceland isn’t really moving in the right direction. Policy makers are merely undoing the damage that occurred in the latter part of last decade. As recently as 2006, the burden of government spending was less than 42 percent of GDP. So the current period of fiscal discipline is like going on a diet after spending several years at an all-you-can-eat dessert shop.

Second, three years of spending restraint could be a statistical blip rather than a long-run trend, especially since the 2014 numbers from the IMF are an estimate and the 2012 and 2013 numbers aren’t even finalized.

What Iceland needs is some sort of Swiss-style spending cap to impose long-run limits on the growth of government spending. As you can see from this second chart, Switzerland’s “debt brake” has produced more than ten years of spending restraint. Government generally has been growing slower than the private sector, which means that burden of government spending has been falling in Switzerland while other European nations are moving in the wrong direction.

Swiss Debt Brake

By the way, it’s not just Iceland that would benefit from this type of spending cap. I explained last year that America would never have experienced trillion-dollar deficits if we had something similar to the Swiss debt brake.

Though it’s important not to overstate the benefits of this policy. A Swiss-type spending cap presumably wouldn’t have stopped the Fed’s easy-money policy. Nor would it have prevented Fannie-Mae and Freddie Mac from subsidizing a housing bubble. So we presumably still would have suffered a financial crisis.

But that’s not an argument against a spending cap. We lock our doors and latch our windows even though we realize that determined crooks can still break in. But at least we want to make our homes a less inviting target. Likewise, a spending cap doesn’t preclude all bad policies. But at least it makes it harder for politicians to increase spending.

The ultimate challenge, of course, is figuring out how to convince politicians to tie their own hands. The academic research suggests that spending caps need to be well designed if we want to limit the greed of the political class.

Iceland has made some progress, but Switzerland at this point is a better role model because the debt brake has been very durable.

P.S. If we’re going to copy Switzerland, we also should take a close look at their tax laws. Switzerland has the best ranking in the Tax Oppression Index, while the United States languishes in the bottom half of nations measured.

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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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An incredible 93 percent of voters in Iceland voted against financing British and Dutch bank bailouts. The politicians in England and the Netherlands argued that they were bailing out local subsidiaries of an Icelandic bank, so Iceland’s taxpayers should pick up the tab, but those branches was operating under the rules of the European Economic Area. More important, as Hannes Gissurason explains in the Wall Street Journal, endless bailouts encourage reckless behavior. It’s time someone took a stand, so give a cheer  for Iceland’s voters(they don’t deserve three cheers since it is easy to reject bailouts for foreign depositors and this is far from the right way to reduce government guarantees):

Icelanders sent a resounding message to the rest of the world: We are not paying the debts of reckless financiers. While we are few and powerless, we refuse to be bullied by our European neighbors. Some 93% said “No” to a recent deal negotiated by their government with its British and Dutch counterparts; only 7% voted for it. The deal concerned the so-called Icesave accounts that an Icelandic bank, Landsbanki, operated from 2006 in the U.K. and later also in the Netherlands. When the Landsbanki collapsed in October 2008, the British and the Dutch governments rushed in to pay depositors in their respective countries the amount insured under EEA (European Economic Area) regulations. They then demanded reimbursement from the Icelandic government, which reluctantly agreed to pay, against the wish of the great majority of Icelanders. The Icelanders argued that there was no legally binding government guarantee of the deposits. The Icelandic government had fully complied with EEA regulations and set up a Depositors’ and Investors’ Guarantee Fund. If the resources of that fund were not sufficient to meet its obligations (which was almost certainly the case), then the Icelandic government was not legally bound to step in with additional resources. Thus the British and the Dutch governments had no authority to create new obligations on the part of the Icelandic government by paying their nations’ depositors. …The Icelandic government was forced to sign the deal by not-so-veiled threats of financial isolation and by the use of the IMF as a bounty collector, as the Icelanders put it, for the British and the Dutch: The IMF refused, in effect, to render any assistance to the beleaguered Icelanders unless they signed the deal. …There is however a more general point: If you reward recklessness, you will fill the world with reckless people. Why should any government accept the “Too Big to Fail” argument about banks? Why should depositors be able to shift the risk they take over to the public? In the case of Icesave, the British and Dutch governments chose to bail out their fellow countrymen for their own reasons, with an eye toward stemming a panic within their own banking system. This they were free to do, but it wasn’t done to benefit Iceland or its banks, and Icelanders are right to question whether they should have to pay for decisions made in Amsterdam and London. This in turn raises the broader question implicated in all the bailouts around the world during the panic that started in 2008: Should taxpayers have to cover the losses of reckless bankers, and their customers, while not sharing but indirectly in their possible profits? For their part, the Icelanders have answered: No.

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Republicans made many big mistakes when they controlled Washington earlier this decade, so picking the most egregious error would be a challenge. But continued American involvement with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development would be high on the list. Instead of withdrawing from the OECD, Republicans actually increased the subsidy from American taxpayers to the Paris-based bureaucracy. So what do taxpayers get in return for shipping $100 million to the bureaucrats in Paris? Another international organization advocating for big government. The OECD, for example, is infamous for trying to undermine tax competition. It also has recommended higher taxes in America on countless occasions. And now it is suggesting that Iceland impose big tax increases – even though Iceland’s economy is in big trouble and the burden of government spending already is about 50 percent of GDP:

 
Both tax increases and spending cuts will be needed, although the former are easier to introduce immediately. The starting point for the tax increases should be to reverse tax cuts implemented over the boom years, which Iceland can no longer afford. This would involve increases in the personal income tax… Just undoing the past tax cuts is unlikely to yield enough revenue. In choosing other measures, priority should be given to those that are less harmful to economic growth, such as broadening tax bases, or that promote sustainable development, such as introducing a carbon tax.

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