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Archive for the ‘Social Security’ Category

I sometimes feel like a broken record about entitlement programs. How many times, after all, can I point out that America is on a path to become a decrepit European-style welfare state because of a combination of demographic changes and poorly designed entitlement programs?

But I can’t help myself. I feel like I’m watching a surreal version of Titanic where the captain and crew know in advance that the ship will hit the iceberg, yet they’re still allowing passengers to board and still planning the same route. And in this dystopian version of the movie, the tickets actually warn the passengers that tragedy will strike, but most of them don’t bother to read the fine print because they are distracted by the promise of fancy buffets and free drinks.

We now have the book version of this grim movie. It’s called The 2017 Long-Term Budget Outlook and it was just released today by the Congressional Budget Office.

If you’re a fiscal policy wonk, it’s an exciting publication. If you’re a normal human being, it’s a turgid collection of depressing data.

But maybe, just maybe, the data is so depressing that both the electorate and politicians will wake up and realize something needs to change.

I’ve selected six charts and images from the new CBO report, all of which highlight America’s grim fiscal future.

The first chart simply shows where we are right now and where we will be in 30 years if policy is left on autopilot. The most important takeaway is that the burden of government spending is going to increase significantly.

Interestingly, even CBO openly acknowledges that rising levels of red ink are caused solely by the fact that spending is projected to increase faster than revenue.

And it’s also worth noting that revenues are going up, even without any additional tax increases.

The bottom part of this chart shows that revenues from the income tax will climb by about 2 percent of GDP. In other words, more than 100 percent of our long-run fiscal mess is due to higher levels of government spending. So it’s absurd to think the solution should involve higher taxes.

This next image digs into the details. We can see that the spending burden is rising because of Social Security and the health entitlements. By the way, the top middle column on “other noninterest spending” shows one thing that is real, which is that defense spending has fallen as a share of GDP since the mid-1960s, and one thing that may not be real, which is that politicians somehow will limit domestic discretionary spending over the next three decades.

This bottom left part of the image also gives the details on built-in growth in revenues from the income tax, further underscoring that we don’t have a problem of inadequate revenue.

Here’s a chart that shows that our main problem is Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare.

Last but not least, here’s a graphic that shows the amount of fiscal policy changes that would be needed to either reduce or stabilize government debt.

I think that’s the wrong goal, and that instead the focus should be on reducing or stabilizing the burden of government spending, but I’m sharing this chart because it shows that spending would have to be lowered by 3.1 percent of GDP to put the nation on a good fiscal path.

Some folks think that might be impossible, but I’ll simply point out that the five-year de facto spending freeze that we achieved from 2009-2014 actually reduced the burden of government spending by a greater amount. In other words, the payoff from genuine spending restraint is enormous.

The bottom line is very simple.

We need to invoke my Golden Rule so that government grows slower than the private sector. In the long run, that will require genuine entitlement reform.

Or we can let America become Greece.

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I’ve looked at some of the grim fiscal implications of demographic changes the United States and Europe.

Now let’s look at what’s happening in Asia.

The International Monetary Fund has a recent study that looks at shortfalls in government-run pension schemes and various policies that could address the long-run imbalances in the region. Here are the main points from the abstract.

Asian economies are aging fast, with significant implications for their pension system finances. While some countries already have high dependency ratios (Japan), others are expected to experience a sharp increase in the next couple of decades (China, Korea, Singapore). …This has…implications. …pension system deficits can increase very quickly, limiting room for policy action and hampering fiscal sustainability. …This paper explores how incorporating Automatic Adjustment Mechanisms (AAMs)—rules ensuring that certain characteristics of a pension system respond to demographic, macroeconomic and financial developments, in a predetermined fashion and without the need for additional intervention— can be part of pension reforms in Asia.

More succinctly, AAMs are built-in rules that automatically make changes to government pension systems based on various criteria.

Incidentally, we already have AAMs in the United States. Annual Social Security cost of living adjustments (COLAs) and increases in the wage base cap are examples of automatic changes that occur on a regular basis. And such policies exist in many other nations.

But those are AAMs that generally are designed to give more money to beneficiaries. The IMF study is talking about AAMs that are designed to deal with looming shortfalls caused by demographic changes. In other words, AAMs that result in seniors getting lower-than-promised benefits in the future. Here’s how the IMF study describes this development.

More recently, AAMs have come to the forefront to help address financial sustainability concerns of public pension systems. Social insurance pension systems are dominated by defined benefit schemes, pay-as-you-go financed, with liabilities explicitly underwritten by the government. …these systems, under their previous contribution and benefit rules, are unprepared for population aging and need to implement parametric reform or structural reforms in order to reduce the level or growth rate of their unfunded pension liabilities. …Automatic adjustments can theoretically make the reform process politically less painful and more likely to succeed.

Here’s a chart from the study that underscores the need for some sort of reform. It shows the age-dependency ratio on the left and the projected increase in the burden of pension spending on the right.

I’m surprised that the future burden of pension spending in Japan will only be slightly higher than it is today.

And I’m shocked by the awful long-run outlook in Mongolia (the bad numbers for China are New Zealand are also noteworthy, though not as surprising).

To address these grim numbers, the study considers various AAMs that might make government systems fiscally sustainable.

Especially automatic increases in the retirement age based on life expectancy.

One attractive option is to link statutory retirement ages—which seem relatively low in the region—to longevity or other sustainability indicators. This would at the very least help ameliorate the impact of life expectancy improvements in the finances of public pension systems. … While some countries have already raised the retirement age over time (Japan, Korea), pension systems in Asia do not yet feature automatic links between retirement age and life expectancy. …The case studies for Korea and China (section IV) suggest that automatic indexation of retirement age to life expectancy can indeed help reduce the pension system’s financial imbalances.

Here’s a table showing the AAMs that already exist.

Notice that the United States is on this list with an “ex-post trigger” based on “current deficits.”

This is because when the make-believe Trust Fund runs out of IOUs in the 2030s, there’s an automatic reduction in benefits. For what it’s worth, I fully expect future politicians to simply pass a law stating that promised benefits get paid regardless.

It’s also worth noting that Germany and Canada have “ex-ante triggers” for “contribution rates.” I’m assuming that means automatic tax hikes, which is a horrid idea. Heck, even the study acknowledges a problem with that approach.

…raising contribution rates can have important effects on the labor market and growth, it would be important to prioritize other adjustments.

From my perspective, the main – albeit unintended – lesson from the IMF study is that private retirement accounts are the best approach. These defined contribution (DC) systems avoid all the problems associated with pay-as-you-go, tax-and-transfer regimes, generally known as defined benefit (DB) systems.

The larger role played by defined contribution schemes in Asia reduce the scope for using AAMs for financial sustainability purposes. Many Asian economies (Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia) have defined contribution systems, …under which system sustainability is typically inherent.

Here are the types of pension systems in Asia, with Australia and New Zealand added to the mix..

For what it’s worth, I would put Australia in the “defined contribution” grouping. Yes, there is still a government age pension that serves as a safety net, but there also are safety nets in Singapore and Hong Kong as well.

But I’m nitpicking.

Here’s another table from the study showing that it’s much simpler to deal with “DC” systems compared with “DB” systems. About the only reforms that are ever needed revolve around the question of how much private savings should be required.

By the way, even though the information in the IMF study shows the superiority of DC plans, that’s only an implicit message.

To the extent the bureaucracy has an explicit message, it’s mostly about indexing the retirement age to changes in life expectancy.

That’s probably better than doing nothing, but there’s an unaddressed problem with that approach. It forces people to spend more years working and paying into systems, and then leaves them fewer years to collect benefits in retirement.

That idea periodically gets floated in the United States. Here’s some of what I wrote in 2011.

Think of this as the pay-for-a-steak-and-get-a-hamburger plan. Social Security already is a bad deal for workers, forcing them to pay a lot of money in exchange for relatively meager retirement benefits.

I made a related observation about this approach back in 2012.

…it focuses on the government’s finances and overlooks the implications for households. It is possible, at least on paper, to “save” Social Security by cutting benefits and raising taxes. But such “reforms” force people to pay more and get less – even though Social Security already is a very bad deal, particularly for younger workers.

The bottom line is that the implicit message should be explicit. Other nations should copy jurisdictions such as Chile, Australia, and Hong Kong by shifting to personal retirement accounts

P.S. Speaking of which, here’s the case for U.S. reform, as captured by cartoons. And you can enjoy other Social Security cartoons here, here, and here, along with a Social Security joke if you appreciate grim humor.

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Based on what she’s been saying during the campaign, Hillary Clinton is a big fan of class warfare. She has put forth a series of “soak-the-rich” tax hikes designed to finance bigger government.

Her official plan includes provisions such as an increase (“surcharge”) in the top tax rate, the imposition of the so-called Buffett Rule, an increase in the tax burden on capital gains (including carried interest), and a more onerous death tax.

The Tax Foundation explains that this plan won’t be good for the economy or the budget.

Hillary Clinton’s tax plan would reduce the economy’s size by 1 percent in the long run. The plan would lead to 0.8 percent lower wages, a 2.8 percent smaller capital stock, and 311,000 fewer full-time equivalent jobs. …If we account for the economic impact of the plan, it would end up raising $191 billion over the next decade.

Here’s a table showing the static revenue impact for the various provisions, followed by the estimated economic impact, which then allows the Tax Foundation to calculate the real-world, dynamic revenue impact.

So what does all this mean?

Well, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that tax revenue over the next 10 years will be $41,658 billion based on current law. Hillary’s plan will add $191 billion to that total, an increase of 0.46 percent.

Which means that she’s willing to lower our incomes by 0.80 percent to increase the government’s take by 0.46 percent. A good deal for her and her cronies, but bad for America.

But it gets worse. Hillary’s official tax plan doesn’t include her biggest proposed tax hike. As I’ve warned before, and as Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise explains in a new article, she has explicitly stated her support for huge tax hikes to bail out Social Security.

…she has endorsed both of the main tax increases included in Sanders’ Social Security plan: imposing the Social Security tax on earnings above the current $118,500 cap and applying Social Security taxes to investment income in addition to wages.

Andrew warns that busting the wage-base cap may boost payroll tax receipts, but such a policy will lead to lower revenues from other sources.

Eliminating the payroll tax ceiling would require workers and employers to each pay an additional 6.2% tax on all earnings above the ceiling, currently $118,500. Both the SSA actuaries and the Congressional Budget Office assume that when employers are hit with an additional payroll tax they will over time reduce employees’ wages to cover the increased cost, consistent with economists’ view that employees ultimately “pay” for employer-provided benefits through lower wages. Those lost wages would then no longer be subject to federal income taxes, Medicare payroll taxes or state government income taxes. If the average marginal tax rate on earnings above the current payroll tax ceiling is 48% – say, the top earned income tax rate of 39.6%, plus the 3.8% top Medicare payroll tax rate, plus a roughly 5% state income tax – then federal and state tax revenues would fall by 26 cents for each additional dollar of Social Security taxes collected.

And this estimate is based solely on the reduction in taxable income that occurs as businesses give their employees less take-home buy because of the higher payroll tax.

To be accurate, you also have to consider how workers will react (and rest assured that upper-income taxpayers have plenty of ability to alter the timing, level, and composition of their income). Andrew looks at the potential impact.

…revenue losses occur even if individual earners themselves make no adjustments to their earnings in response to higher tax rates. They’re purely a function of employers adjusting wages to compensate for their payroll tax bills. But if affected earners react to higher tax rates by reducing their earnings, either though less work or by tax avoidance strategies, then net revenue losses would be even higher. A 2010 literature survey by economists Emmanuel Saez, Joel Slemrod, and Seth Giertz found that high earners reduce their earnings by between 0.12% and 0.40% for each 1% increase in their taxes. These estimates imply that total revenues gained by eliminating the Social Security tax max would fall one-third to one-half below the static assumptions that Social Security reforms rely upon. Other credible academic studies find even higher sensitivities of taxable income to tax rates.

For more information, here’s a video I narrated on the issue for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

Let’s close on a grim note. If Hillary Clinton goes forward with her plan to bust the wage base cap and change Social Security from an actuarially bankrupt social insurance program into a conventional tax-and-spend redistribution program, she won’t collect very much tax revenue because of the way workers and employers will react.

But from Hillary’s perspective, she won’t care. Under the budget rules governing Washington, she’ll still be able to increase spending (i.e., buy votes) based on how much revenue the Joint Committee on Taxation inaccurately predicts will materialize based on primitive “static scoring” estimates.

In other words, the Laffer Curve will prevail, but – other than the ability to say “I told you so” – proponents of good policy won’t have any reason to be happy.

And when, in the real world, the long-run fiscal and economic outlook weakens because of her misguided policies, Mrs. Clinton will just propose additional tax hikes to deal with the “unexpected” shortfalls. Lather, rinse, repeat, until we become Greece.

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I’ve been accused of making supposedly inconsistent arguments against Hillary Clinton. Make up your mind, these critics say. Is she corrupt or is she a doctrinaire leftist?

I always respond with the simple observation that she’s both. Not that this should come as a surprise. Proponents of bigger government have long track records of expanding their bank accounts at the same time they’re expanding the burden of the public sector. This is true for radical leftists in places like Venezuela and it’s true for establishment leftists in places like America.

And it’s definitely true for Hillary Clinton. I shared lots of information about Hillary’s corruption yesterday, so let’s spend some time today detailing her statist policy agenda.

Consider her new entitlement scheme for childcare. As the Wall Street Journal opines, it’s even worse than an ordinary handout.

Hillary Clinton is methodically expanding her plans to supervise or subsidize those remaining spheres of human existence unspoiled by government. Mrs. Clinton rolled out her latest proposal…to make child care more affordable for working parents and also to raise the wages of child-care workers. The Democrat didn’t mention how she’d resolve the contradiction between her cost-increasing ideas and her cost-reducing ideas, though you can bet it will be expensive. …Her solution is for the feds to cap the share of a family’s income that goes toward care at 10%, with the rest of the tab covered by various tax benefits, direct cash payments and scholarships.

Her scheme to cap a family’s exposure so they don’t have to pay more than 10 percent may be appealing to some voters, but it is terrible economics.

Although we don’t have details on how the various handouts will work, the net effect surely will be to exacerbate a third-party payer problem that already is leading to childcare costs rising faster than the overall inflation rate.

After all, families won’t care about the cost once it rises above 10 percent of their income since Hillary says that taxpayers will pick up the tab for anything about that level.

There’s more information about government intervention in the editorial.

The auditors at the Government Accountability Office report that there are currently 45 federal programs dedicated to supporting care “from birth through age five,” spread across multiple agencies. The Agriculture Department runs a nursery division, for some reason. …Mrs. Clinton also feels that caregivers are paid “less than the value of their worth,” and she promises to increase their compensation. How? Why, another program of course. She’ll call it the Respect and Increased Salaries for Early Childhood Educators (Raise) Initiative, which she says is modelled after another one of her proposals, the Care Workers Initiative. …If families think day care and health care are “really expensive” now, wait until they have to pay for Mrs. Clinton’s government.

Just as subsidized childcare will be very expensive if Hillary gets elected, the same will be true for higher education.

But in a different way. The current system of subsidies and handouts gives money (in the form of grants and loans) to students, who then give the money to colleges and universities. This is a great deal for the schools, who have taken advantage of the programs by dramatically increasing tuition and fees, while also expanding bureaucratic empires.

Hillary’s plan will expand the subsidies for colleges and universities, but students apparently no longer will serve as the middlemen. Instead, the money will go directly from Uncle Sam to the schools.

Here’s some analysis from the Pope Center on Hillary’s new scheme.

Clinton has come out with a plan to make public colleges and universities free for families with earnings less than $125,000 annually by 2021. …“free” college…would depend on state governments going along with her scheme whereby the federal government would pay them if they cooperate by charging no tuition… Suppose a state decides to adopt Clinton’s free college plan. What would the consequences be? …That would mean at least a modest increase in enrollment, but it would come mainly from the most academically marginal students. The colleges and universities that gained in those enrollments would also find they need to increase remedial programs. …Another adverse result from making college tuition free would be that many students would devote less effort to their courses. …Federal Reserve Bank of New York economist Aysegul Sahin…studied the effort college students put into their work in a 2004 paper“The Incentive Effects of Higher Education Subsidies on Student Effort.” She concluded, “Low-tuition, high-subsidy policies cause an increase in the ratio of less highly-motivated students among the college graduates and that even highly-motivated ones respond to lower tuition by choosing to study less.”

As with much of Hillary’s agenda, we don’t have full details. I strongly suspect that colleges and universities will have a big incentive to jack up tuition and fees to take advantage of the new handout, though I suppose we have to consider the possibility (fantasy?) that the plan will somehow include safeguards to prevent that from happening.

Oh, and don’t forget all the tax hikes she’s proposing to finance bigger government.

The really sad part about all this is that her husband actually wound up being one of the most market-oriented presidents in the post-World War II era. I’ve written on this topic several times (including speculation on whether the credit actually belongs to the post-1994 GOP Congress).

Is it possible that Hillary decides to “triangulate” and move to the center if she gets to the White House?

Yes, but I’m not brimming with optimism.

The Wall Street Journal has some depressing analysis on Bill Clinton vs Hillary Clinton.

…the Obama-era Democratic Party has repudiated the Democratic Party’s Bill-era centrist agenda. They now call themselves progressives, not New Democrats… The Clinton contradiction is that she claims she’ll produce economic results like her husband did with economic policies like Mr. Obama’s.

The editorial looks at Bill Clinton’s sensible record and compares it to what Hillary is proposing.

His wife wants to nearly double the top tax rate on long-term cap gains to 43.4% from 23.8%, in the name of ending “quarterly capitalism.” That’s higher than the 40% rate under Jimmy Carter, and she’d also impose a minimum tax on millionaires and above, details to come. …Mrs. Clinton has repudiated the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership that she had praised as Secretary of State. …She wants to extend Dodd-Frank regulation to nonbanks, and she promises to entrench Mr. Obama’s anticarbon central planning at the EPA and expand ObamaCare with price controls on new medicines. …Mrs. Clinton is proposing to impose many more such work disincentives. She’ll bestow tax credits on everything from child care to elderly care, from college tuition to businesses that share profits with workers. To the extent her new mandates for family leave, the minimum wage, overtime and “equal pay” increase the cost of labor, she’ll drive more Americans out of the workforce. Oh, and…Mrs. Clinton wants to “enhance” Social Security benefits and make Medicare available to pre-retirees.

I’ve already written about her irresponsible approach to Social Security.

And I also opined on the issue in this interview.

The bottom line is that we’re in a very deep hole and Hillary Clinton, simply for reasons of personal ambition, wants to dig the hole deeper. As I remarked in the interview, she’s akin to a Greek politician agitating for more spending in 2007.

Given all this, is anyone surprised that “French President Francois Hollande endorsed Hillary Clinton”? What’s next, a pro-Hillary campaign commercial featuring Nicolas Maduro? A direct mail piece from the ghost of Che Guevara?

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The Social Security Administration has released the 2016 Trustees Report, which shines a spotlight on the overall fiscal condition of the program.

In previous years (2012, 2013, 2014), I’ve used this opportunity to play Paul Revere. But instead of warning that the British are coming, I sound the alarm about a future fiscal crisis resulting from demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs.

Which is what I did in this interview on Fox Business.

It wasn’t a long interview, but I had the opportunity to touch on four very important issues.

First, I explained that the Social Security Trust Fund is nothing but a pile of IOUs. It’s money the government owes itself, which means that the bonds in the Trust Fund can only be turned into real money by taking more from the private sector.

But if you don’t trust me, perhaps you’ll believe the Clinton Administration, which admitted back in 1999 (see page 337) that the Trust Fund is just a bookkeeping gimmick.

These balances are available to finance future benefit payments and other trust fund expenditures–but only in a bookkeeping sense. …They do not consist of real economic assets that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits. Instead, they are claims on the Treasury, that, when redeemed, will have to be financed by raising taxes, borrowing from the public, or reducing benefits or other expenditures.

In other words, the Trust Fund is like putting IOUs to yourself in a college fund. When it’s time for junior to start his freshman year, you’ll have to find the money to cash those IOUs.

Second, Social Security already is in the red and the rising burden of spending for the program will lead to huge fiscal shortfalls.

Here’s a chart, based directly on the data from Table VI.G9 of the Trustees Report, showing the annual deficit in the program based on today’s dollars.

Third, it’s grossly irresponsible for politicians such as Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton to agitate for higher spending in the program.

Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute weighed in on this issue earlier this year. Here’s some of what he wrote in a column for the Wall Street Journal.

Mrs. Clinton would raise retirement payments for widows as well as provide Social Security credits for individuals who take time out of the workforce to care for a child or an infirm adult.

Andrew points out that Hillary also has expressed support for increases in the payroll tax rate and letting the government impose the tax on a greater share of income.

Mrs. Clinton…has recently spoken in favor of both approaches.

By the way, the latter option is especially dangerous for the economy, as explained in this video.

Fourth, Social Security is in bad shape, but the main long-run entitlement challenge comes from health-related programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare.

In other words, we need comprehensive long-run entitlement reform if we don’t want to become Greece.

P.S. For reasons that I’ve already covered, I didn’t like being called a “deficit hawk” by the host.

P.P.S. While proponents deserve credit for being serious, I think the Simpson-Bowles plan leaves a lot to be desired.

P.P.P.S. Here’s the right way to fix Social Security.

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I shared yesterday a remarkable TV show about Estonia’s entrepreneurial miracle.

Today, let’s look at the Chilean version in the series. It shows how the South American nation, which now is ranked very high for economic freedom, is a shining example of how small government and free markets are a recipe for good results.

I don’t follow Chile as closely as Estonia, so instead of five good and bad policy developments (or lack thereof) in the nation, we’ll focus on three favorable items and one unfortunate feature.

Here are the three most positive policy lessons from Chile

First, Chile is the world champion for personal retirement accounts. It shifted from a failed pay-as-you-go tax-and-transfer to a funded system of personal accounts. Workers were given the opportunity to stay in the old system, but more than 95 percent realized it was better to have private savings rather than empty promised from politicians.

Second, Chile’s shift to free trade and away from protectionism has been enormously beneficial for the economy. Openness has produced big benefits for consumers, and also created big markets for exports.

Third, Chile shows the value of monetary stability. If you look at the big increase in the country’s economic freedom since 1975 and break it down by the major sub-categories, there have been impressive improvements in fiscal policy, regulatory policy, trade policy, and rule of law/property rights. But the biggest jump was for monetary policy. The nation went from hyperinflation and instability to a more sensible monetary regime.

Here’s the one thing that worry me about Chile.

Chile has enjoyed reasonably stable and practical leaders since suffering the chaos and brutality of Marxist and military governments in the 1970s and 1980s. Even left-leaning governments have been reasonable, recognizing that it would be a mistake to undermine the goose that has been laying golden eggs. That’s the good news. The bad news is that some recent politicians have adopted strident anti-market views. And the nation’s economic freedom score and ranking have both marginally declined in recent years.

By the way, you’ll have noticed in the above video that Peru also got some positive attention for its economic reform. It isn’t ranked nearly as high as Chile, but the progress has been enormous. Particularly when you consider how other nations in the region such as Venezuela are total basket cases of statism.

P.S. Chile also has one of the world’s best school choice systems, though it also has come under pressure from recent left-leaning politicians.

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Changing demographics is one of the most powerful arguments for genuine entitlement reform.

When programs such as Social Security and Medicare (and equivalent systems in other nations) were first created, there were lots of young people and comparatively few old people.

And so long as a “population pyramid” was the norm, reasonably sized welfare states were sustainable (though still not desirable because of the impact on labor supply, savings rates, tax policy, etc).

In most parts of the world, however, demographic profiles have changed. Because of longer life expectancy and falling birth rates, population pyramids are turning into population cylinders.

This is one of the reasons why there is a fiscal crisis in Southern European nations such as Greece. And there’s little reason for optimism since the budgetary outlook will get worse in those countries as their versions of baby-boom generations move into full retirement.

But while Southern Europe already has been hit, and while the long-run challenge in Northern European nations such as France has received a lot of attention, there’s been inadequate focus on the problem in Eastern Europe.

The fact that there’s a major problem surprises some people. After all, isn’t the welfare state smaller in these countries? Haven’t many of them adopted pro-growth reforms such as the flat tax? Isn’t Eastern Europe a success story considering that the region was enslaved by communism for many decades?

To some degree, the answer to those questions is yes. But there are two big challenges for the region.

First, while the fiscal burden of government may not be as high in some Eastern European countries as it is elsewhere on the continent (damning with faint praise), those nations tend to rank lower for other factors that determine overall economic freedom, such as regulation and the rule of law.

Looking at the most-recent edition of Economic Freedom of the World, there are nine Western European nations among the top 30 countries: Switzerland (#4), Ireland (#8), United Kingdom (#10), Finland (#19), Denmark (#22), Luxembourg (#27), Norway (#27), Germany (#29), and the Netherlands (#30).

For Eastern Europe, by contrast, the only representatives are Romania (#17), Lithuania (#19), and Estonia (#22).

Second, Eastern Europe has a giant demographic challenge.

Here’s what was recently reported by the Financial Times.

Eastern Europe’s population is shrinking like no other regional population in modern history. …a population drop throughout a whole region and over decades has never been observed in the world since the 1950s with the exception of…Eastern Europe over the last 25 consecutive years.

Here’s the chart that accompanied the article. It shows the population change over five-year periods, starting in 1955. Eastern Europe (circled in the lower right) is suffering a population hemorrhage.

By the way, it’s not like the trend is about to change.

If you look at global fertility data, these nations all rank near the bottom. And they also suffer from brain drain since a very smart person, even from fast-growing, low-tax Estonia, generally can enjoy more after-tax income by moving to an already-rich nation such as Switzerland or the United Kingdom.

So what’s the moral of the story? What lessons can be learned?

There are actually three answers, only two of which are practical.

  • First, Eastern European nations can somehow boost birthrates. But nobody knows how to coerce or bribe people to have more children.
  • Second, Eastern European nations can engage in more reform to improve overall economic liberty and thus boost growth rates.
  • Third, Eastern European nations can copy Hong Kong and Singapore (both very near the bottom for fertility) by setting up private retirement systems.

The second option obviously is good, and presumably would reduce – and perhaps ultimately reverse – the brain drain.

But the third option is the one that’s absolutely required.

The good news is that there’s been some movement in that direction. But the bad news is that reform has taken place only in some nations, and usually only partial privatization, and in some cases (like Poland and Hungary) the reforms have been reversed.

And even if full pension reform is adopted, there’s still the harder-to-solve issue of government-run healthcare.

Eastern Europe has a very grim future.

P.S. I’m a great fan of the reforms that have been adopted in some of the nations in Eastern Europe, but none of them are small-government jurisdictions. Yes, the welfare state in Eastern European countries is generally smaller than in Western European nations, but it’s worth noting that every Eastern European nation in the OECD (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia) has a larger burden of government spending than the United States.

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