Archive for the ‘Mitchell’s Golden Rule’ Category

It’s not very often that I applaud research from the International Monetary Fund.

That international bureaucracy has a bad track record of pushing for tax hikes and other policies to augment the size and power of government (which shouldn’t surprise us since the IMF’s lavishly compensated bureaucrats owe their sinecures to government and it wouldn’t make sense for them to bite the hands that feed them).

But every so often a blind squirrel finds an acorn. And that’s a good analogy to keep in mind as we review a new IMF report on the efficacy of “expenditure rules.”

The study is very neutral in its language. It describes expenditure rules and then looks at their impact. But the conclusions, at least for those of us who want to constrain government, show that these policies are very valuable.

In effect, this study confirms the desirability of my Golden Rule! Which is not why I expect from IMF research, to put it mildly.

Here are some excerpts from the IMF’s new Working Paper on expenditure rules.

In practice, expenditure rules typically take the form of a cap on nominal or real spending growth over the medium term (Figure 1). Expenditure rules are currently in place in 23 countries (11 in advanced and 12 in emerging economies).

Such rules vary, of course, is their scope and effectiveness.

Many of them apply only to parts of the budget. In some cases, governments don’t follow through on their commitments. And in other cases, the rules only apply for a few years.

Out of the 31 expenditure rules that have been introduced since 1985, 10 have already been abandoned either because the country has never complied with the rule or because fiscal consolidation was so successful that the government did not want to be restricted by the rule in good economic times. … In six of the 10 cases, the country did not comply with the rule in the year before giving it up. …In some countries, there was the perception that expenditure rules fulfilled their purpose. Following successful consolidations in Belgium, Canada, and the United States in the 1990s, these countries did not see the need to follow their national expenditure rules anymore.

But even though expenditure limits are less than perfect, they’re still effective – in part because they correctly put the focus on the disease of government spending rather than symptom of red ink.

Countries have complied with expenditure rules for more than two-third of the time. …expenditure rules have a better compliance record than budget balance and debt rules. …The higher compliance rate with expenditure rules is consistent with the fact that these rules are easy to monitor and that they immediately map into an enforceable mechanism—the annual budget itself. Besides, expenditure rules are most directly connected to instruments that the policymakers effectively control. By contrast, the budget balance, and even more so public debt, is more exposed to shocks, both positive and negative, out of the government’s control.

One of the main advantages of a spending cap is that politicians can’t go on a spending binge when the economy is growing and generating a lot of tax revenue.

One of the desirable features of expenditure rules compared to other rules is that they are not only binding in bad but also in good economic times. The compliance rate in good economic times, defined as years with a negative change in the output gap, is at 72 percent almost the same as in bad economic times at 68 percent. In contrast to other fiscal rules, countries also have incentives to break an expenditure rule in periods of high economic growth with increasing spending pressures. … two design features are in particular associated with higher compliance rates. …compliance is higher if the government directly controls the expenditure target. …Specific ceilings have the best performance record.

And the most important result is that expenditure limits are associated with a lower burden of government spending.

The results illustrate that countries with expenditure rules, in addition to other rules, exhibit on average higher primary balances (Table 2). Similarly, countries with expenditure rules also exhibit lower primary spending. …The data provide some evidence of possible implications for government size and efficiency. Event studies illustrate that the introduction of expenditure rules is indeed followed by smaller governments both in advanced and emerging countries (Figure 11a).

Here’s the relevant chart from the study.

And it’s also worth noting that expenditure rules lead to greater efficiency in spending.

…the public investment efficiency index of DablaNorris and others (2012) is higher in countries that do have expenditure rules in place compared to those that do not (Figure 11b). This could be due to investment projects being prioritized more carefully relative to the case where there is no binding constraint on spending

Needless to say, these results confirm the research from the European Central Bank showing that nations with smaller public sectors are more efficient and competent, with Singapore being a very powerful example.

One rather puzzling aspect of the IMF report is that there was virtually no mention of Switzerland’s spending cap, which is a role model of success.

Perhaps the researchers got confused because the policy is called a “debt brake,” but the practical effect of the Swiss rule is that there are annual expenditures limits.

So to augment the IMF analysis, here are some excerpts from a report prepared by the Swiss Federal Finance Administration.

The Swiss “debt brake” or “debt containment rule”…combines the stabilizing properties of an expenditure rule (because of the cyclical adjustment) with the effective debt-controlling properties of a balanced budget rule. …The amount of annual federal government expenditures has a cap, which is calculated as a function of revenues and the position of the economy in the business cycle. It is thus aimed at keeping total federal government expenditures relatively independent of cyclical variations.

Here’s a chart from the report.

And here are some of the real-world results.

The debt-to-GDP ratio of the Swiss federal Government has decreased since the implementation of the debt brake in 2003. …In the past, economic booms tended to contribute to an increase in spending. …This has not been the case since the implementation of the fiscal rule, and budget surpluses have become commonplace. … The introduction of the debt brake has changed the budget process in such a way that the target for expenditures is defined at the beginning of the process, which must not exceed the ceiling provided by the fiscal rule. It has thus become a top-down process.

The most important part of this excerpt is that the debt brake prevented big spending increases during the “boom” years when the economy was generating lots of revenue.

In effect, the grey-colored area of the graph isn’t just an “ideal representation.” It actually happened in the real world.

Though the most important and beneficial real-world consequence, which I shared back in 2013, is that the burden of government spending has declined relative to the economy’s productive sector.

This is a big reason why Switzerland is in such strong shape compared to most of its European neighbors.

And such a policy in the United States would have prevented the trillion-dollar deficits of Obama’s first term.

By the way, if you want to know why deficit numbers have been lower in recent years, it’s because we actually have been following my Golden Rule for a few years.

So maybe it’s time to add the United States to this list of nations that have made progress with spending restraint.

But the real issue, as noted in the IMF research, is sustainability. Yes, it’s good to have a few years of spending discipline, but the real key is some sort of permanent spending cap.

Which is why advocates of fiscal responsibility should focus on expenditure limits rather than balanced budget requirements.

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Back in 2012, I shared some superb analysis from Investor’s Business Daily showing that the United States never would have suffered $1 trillion-plus deficits during Obama’s first term if lawmakers had simply exercised a modest bit of spending restraint beginning back in 1998.

And the IBD research didn’t assume anything onerous. Indeed, the author specifically showed what would have happened if spending grew by an average of 3.3 percent, equal to the combined growth of inflation plus population.

Remarkably, we would now have a budget surplus of about $300 billion if that level of spending restraint continued to the current fiscal year.

This is a great argument for some sort of spending cap, such as the Swiss Debt Brake or Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights.

But let’s look beyond the headlines to understand precisely why a spending cap is so valuable.

If you look at the IBD chart, you’ll notice that revenues are not very stable. This is because they are very dependent on the economy’s performance. During years of good growth, revenues tend to rise very rapidly. But when there’s a downturn, such as we had at the beginning and end of last decade, revenues tend to fall.

But you don’t have to believe me or IBD. Just look at federal tax revenues over the past 30 years. There have been seven years during which nominal tax revenues have increased by more than 10 percent. But there also have been five years during which nominal tax revenue declined.

This instability means that it doesn’t make much sense to focus on a balanced budget rule. All that means is that politicians can splurge during the growth years. But when there’s a downturn, they’re in a position where they have to cut spending or (as we see far too often) raise taxes.

But if there’s a spending cap, then there is a constraint on the behavior of politicians. And assuming the spending cap is set at a proper level, it means that – over time – there will be shrinking levels of red ink because the burden of government spending will grow by less than the average growth rate of the private economy.

In other words, compliance with my Golden Rule!

Let’s look at other examples.

Why did Greece get in fiscal trouble? The long answer has to do with ever-growing government and ever-increasing dependency. But the short answer, at least in part, is that a growing economy last decade generated plenty of tax revenue, but rather than cut taxes and/or pay down debt, Greek politicians went on a spending binge, which then proved to be unsustainable when there was an economic slowdown.*

This is also why California periodically gets in fiscal trouble. During years when the economy is growing and generating tax revenue, the politicians can’t resist the temptation to spend the money, oftentimes creating long-run spending obligations based on the assumption of perpetually rapid revenue growth. These spending commitments then prove to be unaffordable when there’s a downturn and revenues stop growing.

And as you can see from the accompanying graph, this creates a very unstable fiscal situation for the Golden State. Revenue spikes lead to spending spikes. During a downturn, by contrast, revenues are flat or declining, and this puts politicians in a position of either enacting serious spending restraint or (as you might predict with California) imposing anti-growth tax hikes.

And, in the long run, the burden of spending rises faster than the private sector.

We have another example to add to our list, thanks to some superb research from Canada’s Fraser Institute.

They recently released a study examining fiscal policy in the energy-rich province of Alberta. In particular, the authors (Mark Milke and Milagros Palacios) look at the rapid growth of spending between the fiscal years 2004/05 and 2013/14.

By the mid-2000s, even though the province was again spending at a level that contributed to deficits in the early 1990s, after 2004/05 the province allowed program spending to escalate even further and beyond inflation and population growth. The result was that by 2013/14, the province spent $10,967 per person on government programs. That was $2,002 higher per person than in 2004/05.

Why did the burden of spending climb so quickly? The simple answer is that bigger government was enabled by tax revenue generated by a prospering energy industry.

Over a nine-year period, politicians spent money based on an assumption that high energy prices were permanent and that tax revenues would always be surging.

But now that energy prices have fallen, politicians are suddenly facing a fiscal shortfall. Simply stated, there’s no longer enough revenue for their spending promises.

This fiscal mess easily could have been avoided if the fecklessness of Alberta politicians had been constrained by some sort of spending cap.

The experts at the Fraser Institute explain how such a limit would have precluded today’s dismal situation.

Had the province increased program spending after 2004/05 but within population growth plus inflation, by 2013/14 the province would have spent $35.9 billion on programs. Instead, the province spent $43.9 billion, an $8 billion difference in that year alone. That $8 billion difference is significant. In recent interviews, Alberta Premier Jim Prentice has warned that the drop in oil prices has drained $7 billion from expected provincial government revenues. Thus, past decisions to ramp up program spending mean that additional provincial spending (beyond inflation and population growth) is at least as responsible for current budget gap as the decline in revenues.

And here’s a chart from the study showing how much money would have been saved with modest fiscal restraint.

Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. So now today’s politicians have to deal with a mess that is a consequence of profligate politicians during prior years.**

…the decision by the province to spend (on programs) above the combined effect of population growth and inflation between 2005/06 and 2013/14 inclusive built in higher annual spending obligations, that, once revenues declined, would open up a fiscal gap in the province’s budget. As of 2013/14, the result of spending more on programs than inflation plus population growth combined would warrant meant program expenses were $8 billion higher in that year alone. The province’s past fiscal choices have now severely constricted present choices on everything from balanced budgets to tax relief to additional capital spending. If the province wishes to have a better menu of choices in the future, it must, obviously, control expenditures more carefully.

Since I’ve shared all sorts of bad examples of how nations get in trouble by letting spending grow too fast over time, let’s look at a real-world example of a spending cap in action.

As you can see from the chart, Switzerland has enjoyed great success ever since voters imposed the debt brake.

Indeed, while many other European nations are in fiscal crisis because of big increases in the burden of government spending, the Swiss have experienced economic tranquility in part because the size of the public sector has gradually declined.

The key lesson isn’t that spending restraint is good, though that obviously is important. The most important takeaway is that spending restraint appears to be sustainable only if there is some sort of permanent external constraint on politicians. Like the debt brake. Or like Article 107 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law.

Remember, there are many nations that have enjoyed good results because of multi-year periods of spending restraint. But many of those countries saw their gains evaporate because policies then moved in the wrong direction.

*Greek politicians also took advantage of low interest rates last decade (a result of joining the euro currency) to engage in plenty of debt-financed government spending, which meant the economy was even more vulnerable to a crisis when revenues stopped growing.

**Some of today’s politicians in Alberta are probably long-term incumbents who helped create the mess by over-spending between 2004/05 and today, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they opted for destructive tax hikes instead of long-overdue spending restraint.

P.S. On a totally separate topic, it appears some towns in New York are listening to the sage advice of Walter Williams on the topic of secession.

Here are some excerpts from an editorial published by the Wall Street Journal.

Some 15 towns have announced they want to secede from New York and become part of neighboring Pennsylvania. …The towns occupy four counties in New York State’s “Southern Tier,” just across the Pennsylvania state line. Pennsylvania allows fracking for natural gas… That part of Pennsylvania is booming. Upstate New York, as anyone who drives through it can attest, is an economic bummer. …Governor Cuomo has created an American version of the Cold War’s East Berlin—with economic life booming on one side of the divide, while an anti-economic ideology stifles it on the other.

Unfortunately, New York’s East Berliners will have to pick up and move if they want to benefit from better policy in the Keystone State.

There is no chance the secessionists will succeed, needing approval from the legislatures of New York, Pennsylvania and the U.S.

Another option, of course, is to decentralize decision making so that local communities can decide policy rather than faraway politicians in a state capitol.

That’s the approach that perhaps would have averted the catastrophe we now see in Ukraine, so why not try it in places where the stakes are simply jobs rather than life and death?

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Many people fantasize about supermodels, but not me. I’m a bit of an oddball.

In my fantasy world, I want to shrink the federal government back to the size envisioned by the Founding Fathers. I can’t stop myself from wistfully dreaming about the expanded freedom and increased growth we would enjoy if the federal government only consumed about 5 percent of economic output.

But I’m not expecting my fantasies to become reality anytime soon.

So in the real world, I have much more modest goals and expectations. I simply want to move policy in the right direction rather than the wrong direction. That’s why I developed my Golden Rule, which is designed to show that progress is possible so long as we simply make sure the private sector grows faster than the government.

And, as I explained a few weeks ago, that’s been happening. There’s been zero growth in nominal levels of federal government spending since 2009. And because there’s been some growth, that translates into a smaller fiscal burden when measured as a share of economic output.

To be sure, this doesn’t mean we should break out the champagne. The long-run fiscal outlook is still very grim. And the post-2009 progress was possible in part because reckless policies such as the faux stimulus and TARP pushed spending to unprecedented levels in the first place.

That being said, I’m still glad that we at least stopped government from getting even bigger after 2009. That’s a genuine victory.

Let’s look at some more evidence.

Here’s a chart put together by Veronique de Rugy at Mercatus. It shows what’s been happening to total spending, but adjusts the numbers for inflation plus population. As you can see, the burden of government spending has declined over the past five years.

The lesson from this chart is simple. If you have no growth in nominal government spending and there’s some inflation and population growth, then the actual burden of spending is going to decline.

Which is exactly what we see after 2009.

Now let’s look at federal spending compared to economic output. Here’s a chart that’s been circulating on Twitter which shows that the burden of government spending (measured on a quarterly basis) has been falling rapidly over the past few years.


This is very good news.

Though it’s not great news because the burden of federal spending is still significantly higher than it was when Bill Clinton left office.

All we’ve achieved is that some of the damage of the big-spending Bush-Obama years has been reversed.

That being said, it’s obviously better to reverse some damage if the alternative is even more damage.

And that’s why this next chart (also making the rounds on Twitter) is important. It shows what the Congressional Budget Office predicted would happen to spending (blue bars) when they released their forecast in early 2011 compared to what actually happened (red bars).

The lesson from this chart is that all the battles of the past few years have generated big dividends. Federal spending is about $500 billion lesson that CBO projected.

So be happy about the shutdowns, debt-limit battles, earmark fights, and sequestration.

And it’s also worth noting that the economy has been performing better as the burden of federal spending has been falling, which is further evidence that Keynesian economics doesn’t make sense.

Heck, even leftists have acknowledged this point, albeit accidentally.

Let’s close by making a very important observation. We’ve made progress over the past five years by restraining government spending, but the key question is whether that success will continue over the next five years.

This will be a key test for Republicans. Starting in a few days, they will have total control of the House and Senate. And if they can enforce even a modest bit of spending discipline, it’s amazing to see how quickly progress can be achieved.

And without any tax increases.

P.S. There’s also some fiscal progress on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Here are some excerpts from a report by CNBC.

President Francois Hollande unveiled a “super-tax” on the rich in 2012…the damage to France’s appeal as a home for top earners has been great, and the pickings from the levy paltry. …Hollande first floated the 75-percent super-tax on earnings over 1 million euros ($1.2 million) a year in his 2012 campaign to oust his conservative rival Nicolas Sarkozy. It fired up left-wing voters and helped him unseat the incumbent. Yet ever since, it has been a thorn in his side.

Or, to be more accurate, a thorn in the side of the French economy.

So, in a remarkable development, Monsieur Hollande is letting the tax expire.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls — alongside Macron the main reformer in Hollande’s cabinet — chose a visit to London in October to confirm that the super tax would not be renewed.

This has to be a kick in the gut to the class-warfare crowd. Even a total statist like Hollande is unfurling the white flag and admitting that it makes no sense to impose policies that are so punitive that some entrepreneurs even left the country.

P.P.S. Spending is falling the U.S. and tax rates are dropping in France, so leftists must be feeling very glum. Heck, they’re probably almost as sad as they were when the Berlin Wall fell. So if you have any statist friends, try to cheer them up. Remind them that Venezuela is still a role model.

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Which nation is richer, Belarus or Luxembourg?

If you look at total economic output, you might be tempted to say Belarus. The GDP of Belarus, after all, is almost $72 billion while Luxembourg’s GDP is less than $60 billion.

But that would be a preposterous answer since there are about 9.5 million people in Belarus compared to only about 540,000 folks in Luxembourg.

It should be obvious that what matters is per-capita GDP, and the residents of Luxembourg unambiguously enjoy far higher living standards than their cousins in Belarus.

This seems like an elementary point, but it has to be made because there have been a bunch of misleading stories about China “overtaking” the United States in economic output. Look, for instance, at these excerpts from a Bloomberg report.

China is poised to overtake the U.S. as the world’s biggest economy earlier than expected, possibly as soon as this year… The latest tally adds to the debate on how the world’s top two economic powers are progressing. Projecting growth rates from 2011 onwards suggests China’s size when measured in PPP may surpass the U.S. in 2014.

There are methodological issues with PPP data, some of which are acknowledged in the data, and there’s also the challenge of whether Chinese numbers can be trusted.

But let’s assume these are the right numbers. My response is “so what?”

I’ve previously written that the Chinese tiger is more akin to a paper tiger. But Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute put together a chart that is far more compelling than what I wrote. He looks at the per-capita numbers and shows that China is still way behind the United States.

To be blunt, Americans shouldn’t worry about the myth of Chinese economic supremacy.

But that’s not the main point of today’s column.

Instead, I want to call attention to Taiwan. That jurisdiction doesn’t get as much attention as Hong Kong and Singapore, but it’s one of the world’s success stories.

And if you compare Taiwan to China, as I’ve done in this chart, there’s no question which jurisdiction deserves praise.

China v Taiwan

Yes, China has made big strides in recent decades thanks to reforms to ease the burden of government. But Taiwan is far above the world average while China has only recently reached that level (and only if you believe official Chinese numbers).

So why is there a big difference between China and Taiwan? Well, if you look at Economic Freedom of the World, you’ll see that Taiwan ranks among the top-20 nations while China ranks only 123 out of 152 countries.

By the way, Taiwan has a relatively modest burden of government spending. The public sector only consumes about 21.5 percent of economic output. That’s very good compared to other advanced nations.

Moreover, Taiwan is one of the nations that enjoyed considerable progress by adhering to Mitchell’s Golden Rule. Between 2001 and 2006, total government spending didn’t grow at all.

Taiwan Spending Freeze

During this period of fiscal restraint, you won’t be surprised to learn that the burden of government spending fell as a share of GDP.

And it should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that because politicians addressed the underlying disease of government spending, that also enabled big progress is dealing with the symptom of government borrowing.

Look at what happened to spending and deficits between 2001 and 2006.

Taiwan Fiscal Restraint Benefits

P.S. You probably didn’t realize that it was possible to see dark humor in communist oppression.

P.P.S. But at least some communists in China seem to understand that the welfare state is a very bad idea.

P.P.P.S. Some business leaders say China is now more business-friendly than the United States. That’s probably not good news for America, but my goal is to have a market-friendly nation, not a business-friendly nation.

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My tireless (and probably annoying) campaign to promote my Golden Rule of spending restraint is bearing fruit.

The good folks at the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal allowed me to explain the fiscal and economic benefits that accrue when nations limit the growth of government.

Here are some excerpts from my column, starting with a proper definition of the problem.

What matters, as Milton Friedman taught us, is the size of government. That’s the measure of how much national income is being redistributed and reallocated by Washington. Spending often is wasteful and counterproductive whether it’s financed by taxes or borrowing.

So how do we deal with this problem?

I’m sure you’ll be totally shocked to discover that I think the answer is spending restraint.

More specifically, governments should be bound by my Golden Rule.

Ensure that government spending, over time, grows more slowly than the private economy. …Even if the federal budget grew 2% each year, about the rate of projected inflation, that would reduce the relative size of government and enable better economic performance by allowing more resources to be allocated by markets rather than government officials.

I list several reasons why Mitchell’s Golden Rule is the only sensible approach to fiscal policy.

A golden rule has several advantages over fiscal proposals based on balanced budgets, deficits or debt control. First, it correctly focuses on the underlying problem of excessive government rather than the symptom of red ink. Second, lawmakers have the power to control the growth of government spending. Deficit targets and balanced-budget requirements put lawmakers at the mercy of economic fluctuations that can cause large and unpredictable swings in tax revenue. Third, spending can still grow by 2% even during a downturn, making the proposal more politically sustainable.

The last point, by the way, is important because it may appeal to reasonable Keynesians. And, in any event, it means the Rule is more politically sustainable.

I then provide lots of examples of nations that enjoyed great success by restraining spending. But rather than regurgitate several paragraphs from the column, here’s a table I prepared that wasn’t included in the column because of space constraints.

It shows the countries that restrained spending and the years that they followed the Golden Rule. Then I include three columns of data. First, I show how fast spending grew during the period, followed by numbers showing what happened to the overall burden of government spending and the change to annual government borrowing.

Golden Rule Examples

Last but not least, I deal with the one weakness of Mitchell’s Golden Rule. How do you convince politicians to maintain fiscal discipline over time?

I suggest that Switzerland’s “debt brake” may be a good model.

Can any government maintain the spending restraint required by a fiscal golden rule? Perhaps the best model is Switzerland, where spending has climbed by less than 2% per year ever since a voter-imposed spending cap went into effect early last decade. And because economic output has increased at a faster pace, the Swiss have satisfied the golden rule and enjoyed reductions in the burden of government and consistent budget surpluses.

In other words, don’t bother with balanced budget requirements that might backfire by giving politicians an excuse to raise taxes.

If the problem is properly defined as being too much government, then the only logical answer is to shrink the burden of government spending.

Last but not least, I point out that Congressman Kevin Brady of Texas has legislation, the MAP Act, that is somewhat similar to the Swiss Debt Brake.

We know what works and we know how to get there. The real challenge is convincing politicians to bind their own hands.

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When I first started working on fiscal policy in the 1980s, I never thought I would consider Sweden any sort of role model.

It was the quintessential cradle-to-grave welfare state, much loved on the left as an example for America to follow.

But Sweden suffered a severe economic shock in the early 1990s and policy makers were forced to rethink big government.

They’ve since implemented some positive reforms in the area of fiscal policy, along with other changes to liberalize the economy.

I even, much to my surprise, wrote a column in 2012 stating that it’s “Time to Follow Sweden’s Lead on Fiscal Policy.”

More specifically, I’m impressed that Swedish leaders have imposed some genuine fiscal restraint.

Here’s a chart, based on IMF data, showing that the country enjoyed a nine-year period where the burden of government spending grew by an average of 1.9 percent per year.

Swedish Fiscal Restraint

From a libertarian perspective, that’s obviously not very impressive, particularly since the public sector was consuming about two-thirds of economic output at the start of the period.

But by the standards of European politicians, 1.9 percent annual growth was relatively frugal.

And since Mitchell’s Golden Rule merely requires that government grow slower than the private sector, Sweden did make progress.

Real progress.

It turns out that a little bit of spending discipline can pay big dividends if it can be sustained for a few years.

This second chart shows that the overall burden of the public sector (left axis) fell dramatically, dropping from more than 67 percent of GDP to 52 percent of economic output.

Swedish Spending+Deficit as % of GDP

By the way, the biggest amount of progress occurred between 1994 and 1998, when spending grew by just 0.27 percent per year. That’s almost as good as what Germany achieved over a four-year period last decade.

It’s also worth noting that Sweden hasn’t fallen off the wagon. Spending has been growing a bit faster in recent years, but not as fast as overall economic output. So the burden of spending is now down to about 48 percent of GDP.

And for those who mistakenly focus on the symptom of red ink rather than the underlying disease of too much spending, you’ll be happy to know that spending discipline in the 1990s turned a big budget deficit (right axis) into a budget surplus.

Now let’s get the other side of the story. While Sweden has moved in the right direction, it’s still far from a libertarian paradise. The government still consumes nearly half of the country’s economic output and tax rates on entrepreneurs and investors max out at more than 50 percent.

And like the United Kingdom, which is the source of many horror stories, there are some really creepy examples of failed government-run health care in Sweden.

Though I suppose if the third man grew new legs, maybe we would all reassess our views of the Swedish system. And if the first guy managed to grow a new…oh, never mind.

But here are the two most compelling pieces of evidence about unresolved flaws in the Swedish system.

First, the system is so geared toward “equality” that a cook at one Swedish school was told to reduce the quality of the food she prepared because other schools had less capable cooks.

Second, if you’re still undecided about whether Sweden’s large-size welfare state is preferable to America’s medium-size welfare state, just keep in mind that Americans of Swedish descent earn 53 percent more than native Swedes.

In other words, Sweden might be a role model on the direction of change, but not on the level of government.

P.S. On a separate topic, regular readers know that I’m a fan of lower taxes and a supporter of the Second Amendment. So you would think I’d be delighted if politicians wanted to lower the tax burden on firearms.

This is not a hypothetical issue. Here’s a passage from a local news report in Alabama about a state lawmaker who wants a special sales tax holiday for guns and ammo.

Rep. Becky Nordgren of Gadsden said today that she has filed legislation to create an annual state sales tax holiday for gun and ammunition purchases. The firearms tax holiday would occur every weekend prior to the Fourth of July. Alabama currently has tax holidays for back-to-school shopping and severe weather preparedness. Nordgren says the gun and ammunition tax holiday would be a fitting way to celebrate the anniversary of the nation’s birth and Alabama’s status as a gun friendly state.

I definitely admire the intent, but I’m enough of a tax policy wonk that the proposal makes me uncomfortable.

Simply stated, I don’t want the government to play favorites.

For instance, I want to replace the IRS in Washington with a simple and fair flat tax in part because I don’t want the government to discriminate based on the source of income, the use of income, or the level of income.

And I want states to have the lowest-possible rate for the sales tax, but with all goods and services treated equally. Alabama definitely fails on the first criteria, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it also granted a lot of loopholes.

So put me in the “sympathetic skepticism” category on this proposal.

Though I imagine this Alabama lass could convince me to change my mind.

P.P.S. A few days ago, the PotL noticed that I shared some American-European humor at the end of a blog post. She suggests this would be a good addition to that collection.

Europe Heaven Hell

I can’t comment on some of the categories, but I will say that McDonald’s in London is just as good as McDonald’s in Paris, Milan, Geneva, and Berlin.

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Germany isn’t exactly a fiscal role model.

Tax rates are too onerous and government spending consumes about 44 percent of economic output.

That’s even higher than it is in the United States, where politicians at the federal, state, and local levels divert about 39 percent of GDP into the public sector.

Germany also has too much red tape and government intervention, which helps to explain why it lags other European nations such as Denmark and Estonia in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings.

But I have (sort of) defended Germany a couple of times, at least on fiscal policy, explaining that the Germans didn’t squander much money on Keynesian spending schemes during the downturn and also explaining that Paul Krugman was wrong in his column on Germany and austerity.

Today, though, I’m going to give Germany some unambiguous praise.

If you look at last decade’s fiscal data, you’ll see that our Teutonic friends actually followed my Golden Rule on fiscal policy for a four-year period.

Here’s a chart, based on IMF numbers, showing total government spending in Germany from 2003-2007. As you can see, German policy makers basically froze spending.

German Fiscal Restraint

I realize that I’m a libertarian and that I shouldn’t be happy unless the burden of spending is being dramatically reduced, but we’re talking about the performance of European politicians, so I’m grading on a curve.

By that standard, limiting spending so it grows by an average of 0.18 percent is rather impressive. Interestingly, this period of fiscal discipline began when the Social Democrats were in power.

And because the economy’s productive sector was growing at a faster rate during this time, a bit more than 2 percent annually, the relative burden of government spending did fall.

The red line in this next chart shows that the public sector, measured as a share of economic output, fell from almost 49 percent of GDP to less than 44 percent of GDP.

German Spending+Deficit as % of GDP

It’s also worth noting that this four-year period of spending restraint also led to a balanced budget, as shown by the blue line.

In other words, by addressing the underlying problem of too much government, the German government automatically dealt with the symptom of red ink.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the German government wasn’t willing to sustain this modest degree of fiscal discipline. The Christian Democrats, who took office in mid-2005, allowed faster spending growth beginning in 2008. As I noted above, the budget increases haven’t been huge, but there’s been enough additional spending that Germany no longer is complying with the Golden Rule and the burden of the public sector is stuck at about 44 percent of GDP.

The moral of the story is that Germany shows that good things happen when spending is restrained, but long-run good performance requires long-run spending discipline.

That’s why I’m a fan of Switzerland’s spending cap. It’s called the “debt brake,” but it basically requires politicians to limit spending so that the budget doesn’t grow much faster than inflation plus population.

And that’s why Switzerland has enjoyed more than a decade of good policy.

To see other examples of nations that have enjoyed fiscal success with period of spending restrain, watch this video.

The Canadian example is particularly impressive.

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