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Archive for the ‘Swedem’ Category

Having already written several dozen columns on public policy and the coronavirus, it’s time to add my two cents to the debate over Sweden’s (comparatively) laissez-faire approach to the pandemic.

If nothing else, it’s remarkable that the nation Bernie Sanders praised for socialism (albeit incorrectly) is now the poster child for (some) libertarians.

What makes Sweden special, as depicted in this graphic from CNN, is a more lenient attitude about letting ordinary life continue.

Did Sweden make the right choice?

Let’s review several analyses, starting with Hilary Brueck’s article for Business Insider.

In Sweden, bars and restaurants are open to the public, you can go get a haircut, and primary school is in session. …life goes on. …If anyone can have success with such a low-enforcement disease-fighting strategy, it may be Sweden. …The Swedish prerogative asks citizens to act like adults, and then trusts that, left to their own devices, people will. …The Swedes are also seriously weighing concerns that have been taken as inevitable, if unfortunate, collateral damage in other countries, such as the mental health risks of being stuck inside, rising rates of abuse, and substance use disorders. …Other countries, including the UK and the Netherlands, originally toyed with the idea… Both were accused of heartlessness: sacrificing the old and vulnerable… But Sweden has persevered. …The economy has…taken a hit. …8% of the country is now unemployed, a figure that’s projected to continue to rise, possibly hitting 10% by this summer.

Writing for Reason, Johan Norberg explains his nation’s strategy.

The Swedish government has declared no state of emergency and no orders to shelter in place. …Those who want to show how great Sweden is doing have produced charts comparing us to countries like Britain, Belgium, France, Spain, and Italy. Those who want to prove the opposite replace those countries with Norway, Denmark, and Finland, all of which have fewer deaths. …Sweden has had more COVID-19 deaths per capita than our Nordic neighbors. But that is an obvious result of those countries’ decisions to postpone cases and deaths by locking down whole societies for a period of time. The thing to watch is what happens when they begin to open up again and will face a new wave of COVID-19. …A Harvard model projects that a 60 percent suppression of the disease will result in a higher peak later on and a higher number of total deaths than a mitigation strategy like the one Sweden used, where the spread is reduced by no more than 20 or 40 percent, so that the disease can pass through the population to create herd immunity during a period when the vulnerable are protected. Other models come to other conclusions, of course… We just don’t know yet, and only time will tell. Herd immunity might yet beat herd mentality. …our economy still hurts… But losing two-thirds of your revenue rather than 100 percent might mean the difference between life and death for many entrepreneurs. …Perhaps Sweden will do worse long term… Or perhaps Sweden is the one place that is succeeding in limiting long-term damage, caring for the sick, and protecting the vulnerable, all while working toward herd immunity. …What we do know is that Sweden has not cracked down on basic liberties like others have, and has not wrecked society and the economy to the same extent.

In a column for the New York Times, Ian Bremmer, Cliff Kupchan, and Scott Rosenstein cast doubt on Sweden’s approach.

In Sweden, business is not actually proceeding as usual. …But restrictions from government are considerably less severe than many other countries. …The results have been mixed. Sweden has the highest fatalities and case count per capita in Scandinavia, but is lower than some of its neighbors to the south. Economic disruption has been significant but not as debilitating as other countries. …the nation’s top infectious disease official recently estimated that approximately 25 percent of the population has developed antibodies. …But if immunity is short-lived and only present in some individuals, that already uncertain 25 percent becomes even less compelling. We also still don’t know what total population percentage would be necessary to reach the herd immunity goal. …there are huge risks with copying the strategy in a country like the United States. The American people are far less healthy than Swedes.

The Wall Street Journal opined this morning about Sweden’s strategy.

While its neighbors and the rest of Europe imposed strict lockdowns, Stockholm has taken a relatively permissive approach. It has focused on testing and building up health-care capacity while relying on voluntary social distancing, which Swedes have embraced. The country isn’t a free-for-all. Restaurants and bars remain open, though only for table service. Younger students are still attending school, but universities have moved to remote learning. …the country’s strategy…is to contain the virus enough to not overwhelm its health system. …Sweden has been clear it is aiming for a “sustainable” strategy that it can practice until there is a vaccine or cure while also being economically tolerable. The lockdown countries have held the virus in relative check for now, though probably with less broad immunity in the population. They appear to be delaying some deaths but at the risk of a larger outbreak once they open up if there is no cure. …No one knows which mitigation strategy will save the most lives while doing the least economic harm. But the rush to condemn Sweden isn’t helpful.

In a column for National Review, John Fund and Joel Hay argue for the Swedish approach.

With a death rate significantly lower than that of France, Spain, the U.K., Belgium, Italy, and other European Union countries, Swedes can enjoy the spring without panic or fears of reigniting a new epidemic as they go about their day in a largely normal fashion. …Dr. Anders Tegnell, the chief epidemiologist of Sweden, …heroically bucked the conventional wisdom of every other nation and carefully examined the insubstantial evidence that social-isolation controls would help reduce COVID-19 deaths over the full course of the virus. …Tegnell has looked at other nations that are loosening their lockdowns. “To me it looks like a lot of the exit strategies that are being discussed look very much like what Sweden is already doing,” he told Canada’s Globe & Mail. …Jan Albert, a professor in the Department of Microbiology, Tumor, and Cell Biology at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, told CNN that strict lockdowns “only serve to flatten the curve, and flattening the curve doesn’t mean that cases disappear — they are just moved in time.” …Initially, the main justification for the global lockdowns was that they were necessary to prevent a crush of patients from overwhelming hospital intensive-care units. …Despite no lockdowns and few social-isolation controls other than proper spacing in restaurants and a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people, the Swedish hospital system never experienced anything remotely like the crush of ICU patients in Italy, Spain, and New York City. …Of course, Sweden paid a price during the pandemic. …they will tell you it was worth it. And it is easy to figure out that price. They never cratered their economy… Now many countries and U.S. states are beginning to follow Sweden’s lead.

So who is right, the optimists or the pessimists?

The honest answer is that we don’t know, though it probably depends on how quickly (if ever) someone develops either a vaccine or a cure.

Here’s my back-of-the-envelope comparison of Sweden’s laissez-faire approach and the lock-down approach in the United States.

In the short run, Sweden has more cases and less economic damage.

But what really matters is how things evolve in the long run. If no vaccine or treatment materializes, then other nations will eventually be forced to copy Sweden’s approach. That presumably will mean a similar number of cases over time, so all the additional short-run economic damage will have been pointless.

But if a vaccine or treatment appears relatively soon, then people presumably will conclude that Sweden made the wrong choice (though even that will be a matter for debate depending on the degree to which people understand the long-run relationship between health outcomes and national prosperity).

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The Nordic nations punch above their weight in global discussions of economic policy.

Advocates of bigger government in the United States, such as Bernie Sanders, claim that those countries are proof that socialism can work.

But there’s a big problem with that claim. The Nordic nations don’t have any of the policies – government ownership, central planning, or price controls – that are characteristics of a socialist economy.

But they do have high taxes and big welfare states. And since some politicians seem to think America should copy those policies, let’s see what we can learn by examining the Nordic nations.

NIma Sanandaji, writing for Foreign Policy, highlights what is good – and not so good – about government policy in the region. He starts by looking specifically at Norway.

Erlend Kvitrud, a member of the Norwegian Green Party, links democratic socialist economic policies and Nordic countries’ prosperity. …the left has for decades showcased the Nordic nations as proof that socialism can work not only in theory but also in practice. …Inconveniently for fans of the Nordic welfare model, though, Norway’s actual economic success rests on its wealth of natural resources. …Norway’s oil fund is the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, worth around $200,000 per citizen. It wasn’t Norway’s social democratic economic policies that created the country’s wealth. It was nature. …The other Nordic countries, which lack Norway’s oil and natural gas riches, have lower living standards than the United States.

He’s certainly correct in highlighting the role of oil wealth in Norway.

And he also points out that Norway became a successful and prosperous nation before the welfare state was imposed.

What’s more, the Nordic countries’ social successes predate their high-tax, high-social spending policies. …economists Anthony Barnes Atkinson and Jakob Egholt Sogaard shows that most of the progress toward income inequality in Norway and Sweden happened before 1970, at a time when the two countries had low tax regimes and less redistributive policies. Similarly, the Nordic countries’ social successes were more pronounced in those years. Relative to the rest of the world, for example, they had a greater advantage in life span and child mortality in 1970 than they do today. In other words, the Nordic model arose after those countries were already prosperous and egalitarian.

These are all good points, but I think Nima actually overlooks one very powerful argument.

Yes, per-capita GDP in Norway is very similar to the United States, but gross domestic product is an imperfect measure of living standards. The data in relatively small economies can be misleading if there is a particular sector that distorts national statistics – such as financial services in Luxembourg or corporations in Ireland.

That’s why, if you want to measure the prosperity of households, it’s best to review the OECD’s data on “actual individual consumption.”

I’ve shared that data for all developed nations in the past, and the Council of Economic Advisers recently did a specific comparison of the United States and Nordic nations.

Norway is still impressive, ranked higher than its neighbors, but not in the same league as the United States.

By the way, in another article, this time for National Review, Nima explains that America actually has more women in management than any of the Nordic nations.

Science Daily once bluntly stated that “the Nordic countries are the most gender equal nations in the world.” There is some truth to this. …A common assumption is that the gender-equality progress of the Nordics is due to their social-democratic welfare policies. …The truth is that Nordic countries have a long history of gender equality, stretching back to the time of the Vikings. …One might expect this to translate into many women reaching the top of the business world. But this clearly is not the case. …the share of women among managers, as recorded by the International Labour Organization, is 43 percent in the United States, compared with 36 percent in Sweden and 28 percent in Denmark. …a pattern emerges: Those with more extensive welfare-state policies have fewer women on top. Iceland, which has a moderately sized welfare state, has the most women managers. Second is Sweden, which has opened up welfare services such as education, health care, and elder care for private-sector competition. Denmark, which has the highest taxes and the biggest welfare state in the modern world, has the lowest share of women in managerial positions. …The true lesson, that a large welfare state actually can impede women’s progress.

Let’s return to the big-picture economic comparisons.

Professor Hannes Gissurason of the University of Iceland authored a report on the Nordic model for the Foundation for European Reform.

It’s a very detailed study covering lots of issues.

The five Nordic countries, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Iceland, are rightly regarded as successful societies. They are affluent, but without a wide gap between rich and poor. They provide social security, but without a significant erosion, it seems, of their freedoms. They are small, but they all enjoy a good reputation around the world as peaceful, civilised democracies. The Nordic nations are healthy and well-educated and the crime rate is low. But what is it that other nations can learn from the Nordic success story?

For today, let’s focus on the third chapter, which look at three distinct eras of Swedish economic history.

…a distinction can be made between three Swedish models. The liberal model was developed in the mid-19th century, when liberal principles of free trade and unfettered competition were generally accepted and implemented in Sweden. The years between 1970 and 1990 were the heyday of the social democratic welfare model, although it had of course started its development much earlier and was to last for a few more years. The third model emerged in the 1990s after the experience of the social democratic model: this was the liberal welfare model.

The first era, which was based on classical liberal principles of free markets and limited government, is when Sweden became rich.

It was the liberal model which made Sweden wealthy, as Swedish economist Nima Sanandaji has well documented. Between 1870 and 1936, Sweden enjoyed the highest growth rate in the industrialised world… What produced the astonishing growth after 1870 was the introduction of economic freedom into a relatively poor society, but with strong traditions of self-reliance, hard work, thriftiness, and respect for the law and a high level of education. Money was sound, with the Swedish krona being on the gold standard… The environment was friendly to business and taxes were relatively low, even after the Social Democrats took over. In 1955, for example, tax revenues in Sweden, as a proportion of GDP, were the same as in the US, 24%.

The second era is when Sweden shifted to what some people call democratic socialism, but more accurately should be called the era of big government.

There were high taxes and lots of redistribution programs. And, not surprisingly, this led to economic stagnation.

…In 1975, tax revenues, as a proportion of GDP, had risen to 39% in Sweden, but was still only 25% in the US… In 2004, 38 of the largest companies in Sweden were entrepreneurial which means that they had been started as privately owned enterprises within the country. …Only two had been formed after 1970. While the public sector grew, the private sector stagnated. Between 1950 and 2000, the Swedish population grew from seven to almost nine million. Incredibly, the net job creation in the private sector during this period was close to zero. All the new jobs were in the public sector. …Many entrepreneurs left the country, including the founders of IKEA, Tetra Pak, and H&M.

Big government undermines initiative and weakens economic performance.

The study includes this data on how Swedes get richer in America than they do back home.

All this bad news created the conditions for the third era, which featured market-based reforms – regardless of which party or parties were in control of government.

Reluctantly, the Social Democrats started some reforms, deregulating credit and foreign exchange markets and changing the tax system, lowering marginal income tax from 73% to 51% and the capital gains tax to 30%. In 1991 a non-socialist government was voted in again. Now it was also anti-socialist, and it immediately abolished the wage earner funds… energy, postal, telephone, railway, and airline markets were all deregulated. …The government introduced school vouchers, sold stateowned companies, and carried out reforms in the labour market, especially designed for small businesses and private job agencies. The government also allowed for some choice in health care and assistance to the elderly. …when the Social Democrats returned to power in 1994…welfare benefits were cut; a new pension system was established, partly with self-funded pensions; collective bargaining was reformed; the inheritance tax was abolished. The centre-right government which was in power 2006–2014 continued liberalising the Swedish economy: the wealth tax was abolished, …property rights were strengthened, and the corporate tax was cut to 22%.

In other words, for the past twenty or so years, Sweden has been a leader in pro-market reforms.

Yes, there’s still a big government. But not as big as it used to be.

Yes, there are still high taxes. But not as high as they used to be.

And what’s the lesson we can learn?

This chart is very persuasive. It shows how Swedish prosperity, measured relative to the United States, declined during the era of big government.

But there’s been some convergence ever since policy makers started liberalizing the Swedish economy.

And we see a similar pattern if we compare Sweden to all other industrialized nations.

P.S. A very interesting study suggests that widespread migration to America made Sweden more statist.

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In Part I of our series on Socialism in the Modern World, we looked at the tragic story of Venezuela.

Today, we’re going to look at what we can learn from the Nordic nations. And the first thing to understand, as I explain in this interview, is that these nations are only socialist if the definition is watered down.

As I noted in the interview, real socialism is based on government ownership and control of the “means of production.” But Nordic countries don’t have government-owned factories, government-controlled allocation of resources, or government regulation of prices.

In other words, those nations are not socialist (government ownership), they’re not fascist (government control), and they’re not even corporatist (cronyism).

So what are they?

In a column for the Washington Post, Max Boot accurately describes them as free-market welfare states.

…rigging elections and locking up or killing political opponents. This is one model of socialism — the same approach that has been applied in Cuba and the Soviet Union. But there are many other varieties that are far more benign. …the Scandinavian model. …Denmark, Norway and Sweden…show that a “free-market welfare state” isn’t an oxymoron. …By some measures, moreover, they are freer, economically…than the United States.

That last sentence isn’t a typo. The United States has more overall economic freedom than the Nordic nations, but both Denmark and Finland actually rank above America when looking at factors other than fiscal policy.

And Sweden and Norway only trail the United States by 0.03 and 0.06 points, respectively.

That being said, a big lesson to learn is that fiscal policy is a mess in the Scandinavian countries.

…there is nothing sinister about wanting to emulate the Scandinavian example. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s practical. The Scandinavians have lower corporate tax rates than the United States but much higher individual taxes. …The Scandinavian countries also charge hefty value-added taxes of 25 percent on consumption. The United States doesn’t have a national sales tax, and the average rate for state sales taxes is only 7 percent. In all, Scandinavians pay $25,488 a head in taxes compared with $14,793 a head in the United States — 72 percent more. This is what it takes to finance a Scandinavian-style social welfare state. It can’t be done simply by raising marginal tax rates on the wealthiest taxpayers to 70 percent, as Ocasio-Cortez suggests, because few taxpayers pay the top rate. It requires a massive tax hike on the middle class.

Amen. This is a point I have frequently made, most recently when writing about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s statist agenda. Ordinary taxpayers will pick up most of the tab if the left’s agenda is adopted.

But I’m digressing. Let’s return to today’s main issue, which is the Nordic nations and socialism.

Technically, there’s no connection. As I said in the interview, those countries have never been socialist. Heck, if those nations are socialist, then so is the United States.

There is a lesson to be learned, however, and that lesson is relevant whether one uses the technical or common definition of socialism.

Simply stated, the relative success of those nations is due to free markets and a history of small government, but the imposition of big welfare states starting in the 1960s has weakened the region’s economic vitality.

This chart tells you everything you need to know.

P.S.  Actually, there is more your should know. Nima Sanandaji’s data on how Americans of Nordic descent are richer than residents of Nordic nations is very illuminating.

P.P.S. And we have specific data from Sweden showing how that nation lost ground after it adopted the big welfare state (and has subsequently gained ground thanks to pro-market reforms such as nationwide school choice and partial pension privatization).

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In my writings about “Great Moments in Foreign Government,” I’ve come across amazing examples of bone-headed and incompetent behavior by politicians and bureaucrats in other nations.

Let’s add to this collection with three new stories about failures by foreign governments.

Our first example is from the United Kingdom, where the Times reports that spending on “sex education” actually increased teen pregnancy rates.

Teenage pregnancy rates have been reduced because of government cuts to spending on sex education and birth control for young women, according to a study that challenges conventional wisdom. The state’s efforts to teach adolescents about sex and make access to contraceptives easier may have encouraged risky behaviour rather than curbed it, the research suggests. In 1999, faced with some of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe, ministers paid councils tens of millions of pounds a year to tackle the problem. Some local authorities made the morning-after pill freely available through pharmacies, while most hired teenage pregnancy “co-ordinators”, opened sexual health clinics in schools, and funded sex and relationship education (SRE) classes. The number of pregnancies, however, has fallen at a significantly faster rate since the grants were scrapped in 2010, in spite of critics’ dire prophecies to the contrary. David Paton, of the Nottingham University Business School, and Liam Wright, of the University of Sheffield, found that the decline was steepest in areas where councils slashed their teenage pregnancy budgets most aggressively. …Analysis of 149 local authorities from 2009 to 2014 adds to a body of evidence that suggests that when the government involves itself in teenagers’ sex lives it often winds up achieving the opposite of what was intended.

A government policy backfiring? Perish the thought!

Reminds me of the story about students who took driver education classes from the government in Indiana being more likely to have accidents than the students who didn’t take classes.

Our second example is from Sweden, where a local governments wants to create an entitlement for on-the-clock sex breaks.

Workers in Sweden could soon be allowed to take paid “sex breaks” during the day… A councillor in the northern town of Overtornea presented a motion asking that the area’s workers be given an hour during the day to go home and be intimate with their partners. …Muskos admitted there was no way to check whether workers would actually use the hour for its intended purpose. “You can’t guarantee that a worker doesn’t go out for a walk instead,” he said, adding that employers needed to trust their employees. …”This means that childbirth should be encouraged,” his motion states, as reported by Swedish newspaper Kuriren. …He said single people should also be allowed to take the hour to spend time improving their own well-being.

I wonder if the government will hire additional bureaucrats to monitor current bureaucrats to ensure that they are having sex on their breaks.

But what about those without spouses or significant others? Will the government pay to get them a partner? Don’t laugh, that’s something the British government already has done.

Speaking of which, we return to the United Kingdom for our third and final example. It seems lemonade cops don’t just exist in California, Georgia, and Oregon, they also patrol the mean streets of London.

A five-year-old girl selling lemonade to revellers heading to a festival in east London had her stand shut down by council officers who slapped her and her father with a £150 fine. Andre Spicer said his daughter burst into tears and told him “I’ve done a bad thing” after enforcement officers read out a lengthy legal letter before issuing him the notice. The five-year-old and Mr Spicer, a professor at City University, were given the fine for “trading without a permit” after they set up the make-shift stall near their home in Mile End. …Mr Spicer branded the enforcements officers’ decision an “over-zealous way of applying the rules,” after the pair set out to refresh festival goers heading to Lovebox in Victoria Park on Saturday. He said: “It’s not like she was trying to make a massive profit, this is just a five-year-old kid trying to sell lemonade. …Mr Spicer said he tried to tell his distraught daughter they would set up another stand to sell their homemade pop once they had a permit, but she replied: “No. It’s too scary.”

At least Canada tries to be unique. They bust kids who sell worms instead of lemonade.

But perhaps harassing kids is the best we can expect from the British government. After all, this is the place that is sometimes too incompetent to give away money. Though our cousins across the Atlantic are remarkably effective at producing pointless signs and road markings.

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Back in 2014, I shared some data from the Tax Foundation that measured the degree to which various developed nations punished high-income earners.

This measure of relative “progressivity” focused on personal income taxes. And that’s important because that levy often is the most onerous for highly productive residents of a nation.

But there are other taxes that also create a gap between what such taxpayers earn and produce and what they ultimately are able to consume and enjoy. What about the effects of payroll taxes? Of consumption taxes and other levies?

To answer that question, we have a very useful study from the European Policy Information Center on this topic. Authored by Alexander Fritz Englund and Jacob Lundberg, it looks at the total marginal tax rate on each nation’s most productive taxpayers.

They start with some sensible observations about why marginal tax rates matter, basically echoing what I wrote after last year’s Super Bowl.

Here’s what Englund and Lundberg wrote.

The marginal tax rate is the proportion of tax paid on the last euro earned. It is the relevant tax rate when deciding whether to work a few extra hours or accept a promotion, for example. As most income tax systems are progressive, the marginal tax rate on top incomes is usually also the highest marginal tax rate. It is an indicator of how progressive and distortionary the income tax is.

They then explain why they include payroll taxes in their calculations.

The income tax alone does not provide a complete picture of how the tax system affects incentives to work and earn income. Many countries require employers and/or employees to pay social contributions. It is not uncommon for the associated benefits to be capped while the contribution itself is uncapped, meaning it is a de facto tax for high-income earners. Even those social contributions that are legally paid by the employer will in the end be paid by the employee as the employer should be expected to shift the burden of the tax through lower gross wages.

Englund and Lunberg are correct. A payroll tax (sometimes called a “social insurance” levy) will be just as destructive as a regular income tax if workers aren’t “earning” some sort of additional benefit. And they’re also right when they point out that payroll taxes “paid” by employers actually are borne by workers.

They then explain why they include a measure of consumption taxation.

One must also take value-added taxes and other consumption taxes into account. Consumption taxes reduce the purchasing power of wage-earners and thus affect the return to working. In principle, it does not matter whether taxation takes place when income is earned or when it is consumed, as the ultimate purpose of work is consumption.

Once again, the authors are spot on. Taxes undermine incentives to be productive by driving a wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption, so you have to look at levies that grab your income as it is earned as well as levies that grab your income as it is spent.

And when you begin to add everything together, you get the most accurate measure of government greed.

Taking all these taxes into account, one can compute the effective marginal tax rate. This shows how many cents the government receives for every euro of additional employee compensation paid by the firm. …If the top effective tax rate is 75 percent, as in Sweden, a person who contributes 100 additional euros to the economy will only be allowed to keep 25 euros while 75 euros are appropriated by the government. The tax system thus drives a wedge between the social and private return to work. …High marginal tax rates disconnect the private and social returns to economic activity and thereby the invisible hand ceases to function. For this reason, taxation causes distortions and is costly to society. High marginal tax rates make it less worthwhile to supply labour on the formal labour market and more worthwhile to spend time on household work, black market activities and tax avoidance.

Here’s their data for various developed nation.

Keep in mind that these are the taxes that impact each nation’s most productive taxpayers. So that includes top income tax rates, both for the central governments and sub-national governments, as well as surtaxes. It includes various social insurance levies, to the extent such taxes apply to all income. And it includes a measure of estimated consumption taxation.

And here’s the ranking of all the nations. Shed a tear for entrepreneurs in Sweden, Belgium, and Portugal.

Slovakia wins the prize for the least-punitive tax regime, though it’s worth noting that Hong Kong easily would have the best system if it was included in the ranking.

For what it’s worth, the United States does fairly well compared to other nations. This is not because our personal income tax is reasonable (see dark blue bars), but rather because Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were unsuccessful in their efforts to bust the “wage base cap” and apply the Social Security payroll tax on all income. We also thankfully don’t have a value-added tax. These factors explain why our medium-blue and light-blue bars are the smallest.

By the way, this doesn’t mean we have a friendly system for upper-income taxpayers in America. They lose almost half of every dollar they generate for the economy. And whether one is looking at Tax Foundation numbers, Congressional Budget Office calculations, information from the New York Times, or data from the IRS, rich people in the United States are paying a hugely disproportionate share of the tax burden.

Though none of this satisfies the statists. They actually would like us to think that letting well-to-do taxpayers keep any of their money is akin to a handout.

Now would be an appropriate time to remind everyone that imposing high tax rates doesn’t necessarily mean collecting high tax revenues.

In the 1980s, for instance, upper-income taxpayers paid far more revenue to the government when Reagan lowered the top income tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent.

Also keep in mind that these calculations don’t measure the tax bias against saving and investment, so the tax burden on some upper-income taxpayers may be higher or lower depending on the degree to which countries penalize capital formation.

P.S. If one includes the perverse incentive effects of various redistribution programs, the very highest marginal tax rates (at least when measuring implicit rates) sometimes apply to a nation’s poor people.

P.P.S. Our statist friends sometimes justify punitive taxes as a way of using coercion to produce more equality, but the net effect of such policies is weaker growth and that means it is more difficult for lower-income and middle-income people to climb the economic ladder. In other words, unfettered markets are the best way to get social mobility.

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Statists occasionally get very angry about some of my views.

My support for “tax havens” periodically seems to touch a raw nerve, for instance, though I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised since some people are so crazy that they have even urged military action against these low-tax jurisdictions.

I also get some angry responses when I praise Ronald Reagan’s achievements. I’ve even had a few leftists get all agitated simply because I occasionally share a hypothetical poll from 2013 showing that Reagan would beat Obama in a landslide.

But what really gets these folks angry is when I argue that recipients of welfare and redistribution should feel shame and embarrassment. As far as they’re concerned, I’m being a heartless jerk who wants to inflict emotional pain on vulnerable people.

Though, to be fair, their anger usually dissipates when I explain that my real goal is to protect people from long-term dependency on government. And it’s also hard for them to stay agitated when I point out that I’m basically making the same argument as Franklin Roosevelt, who famously warned about welfare being “a narcotic” and “a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”

In other words, I don’t like the welfare state because I care about both the best interests of taxpayers and also about the best interests of poor people. And this is why I repeatedly share data showing how American was making impressive progress against poverty before there was a welfare state. But once the federal government declared a “War on Poverty,” the poverty rate stopped falling.

But that’s only part of my argument. I also think there are very worrisome implications for overall society when people start thinking that they have a “right” to welfare and redistribution. At the risk of sounding like a cranky libertarian, I fear that any nation will face a very grim future once too many people lose the ethic of self-reliance and think it’s morally and ethically acceptable to be moochers.

Indeed, my theory of “Goldfish Government” is based in part on what happens when a sufficient number of voters think it’s okay to steal from their neighbors, using government as a middleman. Short-sighted politicians play a big role in this self-destructive process, of course, along with unfavorable demographic changes.

And when people want examples, I just point to nations such as Greece, Italy, and France. Or states such as California and Illinois.

At this stage, a clever leftist will usually interject and argue I’m being unfair. They’ll say that Nordic nations such as Denmark and Sweden are proof that a big welfare state is compatible with a prosperous and stable society.

Au contraire, as our French friends might say. Yes, the Nordic nations may be relatively successful big-government countries, but there are three very important things to understand.

  1. The Nordic nations became comparatively rich in the 1800s and early 1900s when economic policy was dominated by free markets and small government.
  2. The adoption of high taxes and big welfare states (particularly an explosion in the burden of government spending starting in the 1960s) weakened economic performance.
  3. In recent years, Nordic nations have sought to undo the damage of big government with pro-market reforms and limits on the fiscal burden of government.

But let’s specifically focus today on whether the Nordic nations are somehow an exception to the rule that welfare and redistribution have a pernicious impact on a society. In other words, does welfare in nations such as Denmark and Sweden undermine “social capital”? Is there a negative impact on the work ethic and spirit of self-reliance?

Fortunately, we have some very good data from a new, must-read book by Nima Sanandaji, who grew up in Sweden. Entitled Debunking Utopia: Exposing the Myth of Nordic Socialism, Nima’s book is a comprehensive analysis of public policy in that part of the world, both what’s good and what needs improvement.

One of his 11 chapters is about “The Generous Welfare Trap” and it’s filled with very valuable information about the human and societal cost of the welfare state.

Though I can’t resist pointing out that he starts his analysis by citing President Roosevelt.

Franklin D. Roosevelt…was concerned that the institution he was fostering…might destroy the spirit of self-reliance. Two years into his presidency, he held a speech to Congress…the president warned that…”continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.” …In today’s political climate, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s view on public benefits would seem quite harsh.

Nima then looks at whether the Nordic nations somehow might be proof that FDR was wrong.

Yet there has been a persistent conviction among the modern proponents of welfare states that it is indeed-somehow-possible to create stable systems with generous benefits and high taxes. The main line of reasoning is based on the Nordics. The welfare states in this part of the world seem to, at least at first glance, succeed in providing extensive services and generous cash benefits without eroding personal responsibility. If generous welfare works in Sweden and Denmark, why not also in the rest of the world?

The problem, as Nima points out, is that these policies don’t work in his part of the world.

And not just because of the fiscal burden. His main point is that the welfare state is weakening people’s integrity.

…the World Values Survey shows that erosion of norms is very much a thing in the Nordics. In the beginning of the 1980s, 82 percent of Swedes and 80 percent of Norwegians agreed with the statement “Claiming government benefits to which you are not entitled is never justifiable.” …However, as the population adjusted their behavior to new economic policies, benefit morale dropped steadily. In the survey conducted between 2005 and 2008, only 56 percent of Norwegians and 61 percent of Swedes believed  that it was never right to claim benefits to which they were not entitled. The survey conducted between 2010 and 2015 only included Sweden out of the Nordic countries. It found that benefit morale had continued to fall, as merely 55 percent of Swedes answered that it was never right to overuse benefits. …Over time even the Nordic people have changed their attitudes as social democratic policies have made it less rewarding to work hard and more rewarding to live off the government.

By the way, at the risk of nit-picking, I would have advised Nima to use the term “benefit morality” rather than “benefit morale.” Though I assume almost all readers will understand the point he’s making.

Returning to our topic, Nima also cites some scholarly research that basically echoes my “Theorem of Societal Collapse.”

Martin Halla, Mario Lackner, and Friedrich G. Schneider performed an empirical analysis of the dynamics of the welfare state. They explained that…”the disincentive effects may materialize only with considerable time lags.” ..However, after some time the expansion of welfare programs leads to a deterioration of benefit morale. The three researchers concluded that “the welfare state destroys its own (economic) foundation and we have to approve the hypothesis of the self-destructive welfare state.”

The bottom line, he explains, is that the Nordic nations have been the best possible example of how a welfare state can operate.

But even in these nations, the narcotic of government dependency has slowly but surely done its damage.

Although Nordic welfare states seemed initially able to avoid this moral hazard, today we know beyond doubt that this was not the case. Even the northern European welfare states-founded in societies with exceptionally strong working ethics and emphasis on individual responsibility-have with time caught up to Roosevelt’s harsh predictions.

The good news is that Nordic nations are trying to undo the damage of the welfare state. Many governments in the region are scaling back the generosity of handouts and trying to restore the work ethic.

I don’t want to give away too much information. You need to buy his book to learn more. And the other 10 chapters are just as enlightening.

I’ll close by simply observing that Calvin Coolidge (as quoted by Ronald Reagan) understood today’s topic way back in the 1920s.

P.S. I’ve also cited Nima’s great work on how people of Nordic descent in America are much more productive than their cousins who remained in Scandinavia, as well as his work showing that Nordic nations originally became rich because of Hong Kong-style economic policy. And I’ve also shared some of his fascinating research on the policies that generate super-entrepreneurs.

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I’m still in China, as part of a week-long teaching assignment about markets, entrepreneurship, economics, and fiscal policy at Northeastern University in Shenyang.

One point that I’ve tried to get across to the students is that China should not copy the United States. Or France, Japan, or Sweden. To be more specific, I warn them that China won’t become rich if it copies the economic policies that those nations have today.

Instead, I tell them that China should copy the economic policies – very small government, trivial or nonexistent income taxes, very modest regulation – that existed in those nations back in the 1800s and early 1900s. That’s when America and other western countries made the transition from agricultural poverty to industrial prosperity.

In other words, pay attention to the polices that actually produced prosperity, not the policies that happen to be in place in 2016. With this in mind, I’m delighted to share a new National Review column about the ostensibly wonderful Nordic Model from Nima Sanandaji. He starts by noting that statists are big fans of nations such as Sweden and Denmark.

Ezra Klein, the editor of the liberal news website Vox, wrote last fall that “Clinton and Sanders both want to make America look a lot more like Denmark — they both want to…strengthen the social safety net.” … Bill Clinton argues that Finland, Sweden, and Norway offer greater opportunities for individuals… Barack Obama recently…explain[ed] that “in a world of growing economic disparities, Nordic countries have some of the least income inequality in the world.”

Sounds nice, but there’s one itsy-bitsy problem with the left’s hypothesis.

Simply stated, everything good about Nordic nations was already in place before the era of big government.

…the social success of Nordic countries pre-dates progressive welfare-state policies. …their economic and social success had already materialized during a period when these countries combined a small public sector with free-market policies. The welfare state was introduced afterward.

Here are some of the key factoids about fiscal policy.

…in 1960, the tax rate in [Denmark] was merely 25 percent of GDP, lower than the 27 percent rate in the U.S. at the time. In Sweden, the rate was 29 percent, only slightly higher than in the U.S. In fact, much of Nordic prosperity evolved between the time that a capitalist model was introduced in this part of the world during the late 19th century and the mid 20th century – during the free-market era.

And here’s the data about equality (though I think it’s far more important to worry about the degree of upward mobility rather than whether everyone has a similar amount of income).

…high levels of income equality evolved during the same period. Swedish economists Jesper Roine and Daniel Waldenström, for example, explain that “most of the decrease [in income inequality in Sweden] takes place before the expansion of the welfare state and by 1950 Swedish top income shares were already lower than in other countries.” A recent paper by economists Anthony Barnes Atkinson and Jakob Egholt Søgaard reaches a similar conclusion for Denmark and Norway.

Our friends on the left think that government-run healthcare deserves the credit for longer lifespans in the Nordic world.

Nima explains that the evidence points in the other direction.

In 1960, well before large welfare states had been created in Nordic countries, Swedes lived 3.2 years longer than Americans, while Norwegians lived 3.8 years longer and Danes 2.4 years longer. Today, after the Nordic countries have introduced universal health care, the difference has shrunk to 2.9 years in Sweden, 2.6 years in Norway, and 1.5 years in Denmark. The differences in life span have actually shrunk as Nordic countries moved from a small public sector to a democratic-socialist model with universal health coverage.

Not to mention that there are some surreal horror stories in those nations about the consequences of putting government in charge of health care.

Here’s the evidence that I find most persuasive (some of which I already shared because of an excellent article Nima wrote for Cayman Financial Review).

Danish Americans today have fully 55 percent higher living standard than Danes. Similarly, Swedish Americans have a 53 percent higher living standard than Swedes. The gap is even greater, 59 percent, between Finnish Americans and Finns. Even though Norwegian Americans lack the oil wealth of Norway, they have a 3 percent higher living standard than their cousins overseas. …Nordic Americans are more socially successful than their cousins in Scandinavia. They have much lower high-school-dropout rates, much lower unemployment rates, and even slightly lower poverty rates.

Nima concludes his article by noting the great irony of Nordic nations trying to reduce their welfare states at the same time American leftists are trying to move in the other direction.

Nordic-style democratic socialism is all the rage among Democrat activists as well as with liberal intellectuals and journalists. But in the Nordic countries themselves, this ideal has gradually lost its appeal. …During the past few decades, the Nordic countries have gradually been reforming their social systems. Taxes have been cut to stimulate work, public benefits have been limited in order to reduce welfare dependency, pension savings have been partially privatized, for-profit forces have been allowed in the welfare sector, and state monopolies have been opened up to the market. In short, the universal-welfare-state model is being liberalized. Even the social-democratic parties themselves realize the need for change.

The net result of these reforms is that the Nordic nations are a strange combination of many policies that are very good (very little regulation, very strong property rights, very open trade, and stable money) and a couple of policies that are very bad (an onerous tax burden and a bloated welfare state).

I’ve previously shared (many times) observations about the good features of the Nordic nations, so let’s take a closer look at the bad fiscal policies.

Sven Larson authored a study about the Swedish tax system for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. The study is about 10 years old, but it remains the best explanation I’ve seen if you want to understand the ins and outs of taxation in Sweden.

Here’s some of what he wrote, starting with the observation that the fiscal burden used to be considerably smaller than it is in America today.

Sweden was not always a high-tax nation. …the aggregate tax burden after World War II was modest.

But then things began to deteriorate.

…over the next four decades, there was a relentless increase in taxation. The tax burden first reached 50 percent of economic output in 1986 and has generally stayed above that level for the past 20 years.

Though Sven points out that Swedish politicians, if nothing else, at least figured out that it’s not a good idea to be on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve (i.e., they figured out the government was getting less revenue because tax rates were confiscatory).

A major tax reform in 1991 significantly lowered the top marginal tax rate to encourage growth. The top rate had peaked at 87 percent in 1979 and then gradually dropped to 65 percent in 1990 before being cut to 51 percent in 1991. Subsequent tax increases have since pushed the rate to about 57 percent.

In the interest of fairness, let’s acknowledge that there are a few decent features of the Swedish tax system, including the absence of a death tax or wealth tax, along with a modest tax burden on corporations.

But the bottom line is that Sweden’s overall tax system (and the same can be said of Denmark and other Nordic nations) is oppressive. And the system is oppressive because governments spend too much. Indeed, the welfare state in Sweden and Denmark is as large as the infamous French public sector.

To be sure, the Swedes and Danes partially offset the damage of their big welfare states by having hyper-free market policies in other areas. That’s why they rank much higher than France in Economic Freedom of the World even though all three nations get horrible scores for fiscal policy.

Let’s close by circling back to the main premise of this column. Nima explained that good things happened in the Nordic nations before the welfare state exploded in size.

So I decided to see if we could ratify his hypothesis by checking the growth numbers from the impressive Angus Maddison database. Here’s a chart showing the average growth of per-capita GDP in Denmark and Sweden in the 45 years before 1965 (the year used as an unofficial date for when the welfare state began to metastasize) compared to the average growth of per-capita GDP during the 45 years since 1965.

Unsurprisingly, we find that the economy grew faster and generated more prosperity when government was smaller.

Gee, it’s almost as if there’s a negative relationship between the size of government and the health of the economy? What a novel concept!

P.S. All of which means that there’s still no acceptable response for my two-question challenge to the left.

P.P.S. Both Sweden and Denmark have been good examples for my Golden Rule, albeit only for limited periods.

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Senator Bernie Sanders wants to dramatically increase the burden of government and he claims that his policies won’t lead to economic misery because nations such as Sweden show that you can be a prosperous country with a big welfare state.

Perhaps, but there are degrees of prosperity. And a large public sector imposes a non-trivial burden on Nordic nations, resulting in living standards that lag U.S. levels according to OECD data.

Moreover, according to research by a Swedish economist, people of Scandinavian descent in America produce and earn much more than their counterparts at home.

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of the Nordic Model.

But there actually are some things we can learn from places such as Sweden. And not just things to avoid.

As Johan Norberg explains in this short video (you may have to double-click and watch it on the YouTube site), there are some very good policies in his home country. Indeed, in some ways, his nation is more free market than America.

I especially like Johan’s explanation about how Sweden became a rich country before the welfare state was adopted.

And he’s right that Sweden had a smaller government and a lower tax burden than the United States for a long period.

Indeed, there was very little income redistribution until the 1960s.

But once the welfare state was adopted, the Swedes went crazy and dramatically increased tax rates and the burden of government spending. And, as Johan explained, that’s when Sweden’s relative prosperity began to drop.

And big government eventually led to an economic crisis in the early 1990s, which has sobered up Swedish officials and policy in recent decades has been moving in the right direction.

Including significant reductions in the budget and lower tax rates (though the fiscal burden is still far too high).

I particularly like Johan’s advice to copy what works. We should partially privatize our Social Security system (actually, we should be like Australia and have full privatization, but we should at least get the ball rolling). And we should have extensive school choice like Sweden. Moreover, let’s copy the Swedes and get rid of the death tax.

Sweden is actually a very pro-market country, albeit one that is weighed down by a large welfare state and excessive taxation. Interestingly, if you look at the non-fiscal policy variables from Economic Freedom of the World, Sweden actually ranks much higher than the United States (along with many other Nordic nations).

The bottom line is that Sweden actually is somewhat like the United States. There are some very bad policies and some fairly decent policies. America ranks above Sweden in a couple of areas, but lags in other areas. The net result is that we’re both more market-oriented than the average western nation (compare Sweden and Greece, for instance), but both well behind the pace setters for economic liberty, Hong Kong and Singapore.

For more information on this topic, here’s a video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity that features another Swede explaining what works and doesn’t work in her country.

P.S. Denmark is a lot like Sweden. A crushing tax burden and extravagant welfare state, but also hyper-free market policies in other areas (and maybe some fiscal progress if Denmark continues to follow the Golden Rule).

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While there are many things I admire about Scandinavian nations, I’ve never understood why leftists such as Bernie Sanders think they are great role models.

Not only are income levels and living standards higher in the United States, but the data show that Americans of Swedish origin in America have much higher incomes than the Swedes who still live in Sweden. And the same is true for other Nordic nations.

The Nordics-to-Nordics comparisons seem especially persuasive because they’re based on apples-to-apples data. What other explanation can there be, after all, if the same people earn more and produce more when government is smaller?

The same point seems appropriate when examining how people of Chinese origin earn very high incomes in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and the United States (all places with reasonably high levels of economic liberty), but are relatively poor in China (where there is still far too much government control over economic affairs).

Again, what possible explanation is there other than the degree of economic freedom?

Let’s now look at two other examples of how leftist arguments fall apart when using apples-to-apples comparisons.

A few years ago, there was a major political fight in Wisconsin over the power of unionized government bureaucracies. State policy makers eventually succeeded in curtailing union privileges.

Some commentators groused that this would make Wisconsin more like non-union Texas. And the Lone Star States was not a good role model for educating children, according to Paul Krugman.

This led David Burge (a.k.a., Iowahawk) to take a close look at the numbers to see which state actually did a better job of educating students. And when you compare apples to apples, it turns out that Longhorns rule and Badgers drool.

…white students in Texas perform better than white students in Wisconsin, black students in Texas perform better than black students in Wisconsin, Hispanic students in Texas perform better than Hispanic students in Wisconsin. In 18 separate ethnicity-controlled comparisons, the only one where Wisconsin students performed better than their peers in Texas was 4th grade science for Hispanic students (statistically insignificant), and this was reversed by 8th grade. Further, Texas students exceeded the national average for their ethnic cohort in all 18 comparisons; Wisconsinites were below the national average in 8… Not only did white Texas students outperform white Wisconsin students, the gap between white students and minority students in Texas was much less than the gap between white and minority students in Wisconsin. In other words, students are better off in Texas schools than in Wisconsin schools – especially minority students.

This is what I call a devastating debunking.

Though Krugman routinely invites mockery, and I’ve enjoyed exposing his disingenuous, sloppy, and dishonest use of data on issues such as Obamanomics, California jobs, American fiscal policy, Greek economics, U.S. and U.K. austerity, German fiscal policy, Estonian economics, British fiscal policy, inflation, European austerity, the financial crisis, and the Heritage Foundation.

Gee, with all these examples, I wonder if there’s a pattern?

Our second example showing the value of apples-to-apples comparisons deals with gun control.

Writing for PJ Media, Clayton Cramer compares murder rates in adjoining American states and Canadian provinces. he starts by acknowledging that a generic US-v.-Canada comparison might lead people to think gun rights are somehow a factor in more deaths.

…for Canada as a whole, murder rates are still considerably lower than for the United States as a whole. For 2011, Canada had 1.73 homicides per 100,000 people; the United States had 4.8 murders and non-negligent homicides per 100,000 people.

But he then makes comparisons that suggest guns are not a relevant factor.

…look at murder rates for Canadian provinces and compare them to their immediate American state neighbors. When you do that, you discover some very curious differences that show gun availability must be either a very minor factor in determining murder rates, or if it is a major factor, it is overwhelmed by factors that are vastly more important.

Gun ownership is easy and widespread in Idaho, for instance, but murder rates are lower than in many otherwise similar Canadian provinces.

I live in Idaho.  In 2011, our murder rate was 2.3 per 100,000 people.  We have almost no gun-control laws here. You need a permit to carry concealed in cities, but nearly anyone who may legally own a firearm and is over 21 can get that permit.  We are subject to the federal background check on firearms, but otherwise there are no restrictions. Do you want a machine gun? And yes, I mean a real machine gun, not a semiautomatic AR-15. There is the federal paperwork required, but the state imposes no licensing of its own.  I have friends with completely legal full-automatic Thompson submachine guns. Surely with such lax gun-control laws, our murder rate must be much higher than our Canadian counterparts’ rate. But this is not the case: I was surprised to find that not only Nunavut (21.01) and the Northwest Territories (6.87) in Canada had much higher murder rates than Idaho, but even Nova Scotia (2.33), Manitoba (4.24), Saskatchewan (3.59), and Alberta (2.88) had higher murder rates.

The same is true for other states (all with laws that favor gun ownership) that border Canada.

What about Minnesota? It had 1.4 murders per 100,000 in 2011, lower than not only all those prairie provinces, but even lower than Canada as a whole.  Montana had 2.8 murders per 100,000, still better than four Canadian provinces and one Canadian territory.  When you get to North Dakota, another one of these American states with far less gun control than Canada, the murder rate is 3.5 per 100,000, still lower than Manitoba, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut.  And let me emphasize that Minnesota, Montana, and North Dakota, like Idaho, are all shall-issue concealed-weapon permit states: nearly any adult without a felony conviction or a domestic violence misdemeanor conviction can obtain a concealed weapon permit with little or no effort.

The takeaway from this evidence (as well as other evidence I have shared) is that availability of guns doesn’t cause murders.

Other factors dominate.

P.S. Regarding the gun control data shared above, some leftists might be tempted to somehow argue that American states with cold weather somehow are less prone to violence. That doesn’t make sense since the Canadian provinces presumably are even colder. Moreover, that argument conflicts with this bit of satire comparing murder rates in chilly Chicago and steamy Houston.

P.P.S. In his role as Iowahawk, David Burge has produced some great political satire, including extortion by Obama’s teleprompter, the bible according to Obama, mockery of the Obama campaign’s life-of-Julia moocher, and (my favorite) the video about a government-designed car.

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I’ve already commented several times on the good and bad features of the Nordic Model, largely to correct the false narrative being advanced by Bernie Sanders (though I was writing on this issue well before the Vermont Senator decided to run for Chief Commissar President of the United States).

In any event, Sanders is a self-proclaimed socialist and he says he wants to adopt Scandinavian policies in the United States because he thinks this will boost the poor.

Yet he may want to check his premise. Warren Meyer of Coyote Blog looked at the numbers and concluded that poor people are not better off in Nordic countries.

When folks like Bernie Sanders say that we have more income inequality than Sweden or Denmark, this is certainly true. …Sanders implies that this greater income equality means the poor are better off in these countries, he is very probably wrong.  Because the data tends to show that while the middle class in the US is richer than the middle class in Denmark, and the rich in the US are richer than the rich in Denmark, the poor in the US are not poorer than those in Denmark. And isn’t this what we really care about?  The absolute well-being of the poor?

Regarding his rhetorical question, the answer may not be yes. As Margaret Thatcher famously observed, some statists resent the rich more than they care about the less fortunate.

But the motives of the left is not our focus today. Instead, we want to know whether the poor are worse off in the U.S. than in Nordic nations.

Meyer’s article seeks to measure living standards for different income classes in the United States and then compare them to living standards for different income classes in Denmark and Sweden.

Meyer found some data on this issue from the Economic Policy Institute, the same source that I cited in my 2007 study on the Nordic Model (see Figure 9 on page 11).

But he wanted to update and expand on that data. So he started digging.

I used data from the LIS Cross-National Data Center.  …the same data set used by several folks on the Left (John Cassidy and Kevin Drum) to highlight inequality issues…  I then compared the US to several other countries, looking at the absolute well-being of folks at different income percentile levels.  I have used both exchange rates and purchasing price parity (PPP) for the comparison.

And what did Meyer discover?

…all the way down to at least the 10th percentile poorest people, the poor in the US are as well or better off than the poor in Denmark and Sweden.  And everyone else, including those at the 20th and 25th percentile we would still likely call “poor”, are way better off in the US.

Here’s the data for Denmark.

As you can see, the poor in both nations have similar levels of income, but all other income classes in the United States are better off than their Danish counterparts.

And here’s the comparison of the United States and Sweden.

Once again, it’s very clear that America’s smaller overall burden of government generates  more prosperity.

So here’s the bottom line. If you’re a poor person in America, your income is as high as the incomes of your counterparts in Scandinavia.

But you have a much better chance of out-earning your foreign counterparts if you begin the climb the economic ladder. Yes, that means more “inequality,” but that’s why the term is meaningless. By the standards of any normal and rational person, the US system is producing better outcomes.

Now that we’ve ascertained that the United States is more prosperous than Nordic nations, let’s now say something nice about those countries by defending them against the scurrilous accusation that they follow socialist policies.

I’ve already shared my two cents on this issue, pointing out that neither Bernie Sanders nor Scandinavian nations properly can be considered socialist.

But if you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe the Prime Minister of Denmark, as reported by Vox.

Bernie Sanders…consistently references the social models of the Nordic states — and especially Denmark — as his idea of what democratic socialism is all about. But…Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen said…he doesn’t think the socialist shoe fits. “I know that some people in the US associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism,” he said, “therefore I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.”

The key statement from the Prime Minister is that Denmark is not a “planned economy,” because that is what you automatically get when the government is in charge of allocating resources and controlling the means of production.

But since that doesn’t happen in Denmark, Mr. Rasmussen is exactly right that his country isn’t socialist.

It’s high tax, and that’s not good. There’s a huge amount of dependency on government because of redistribution programs, and that’s also not good.

But a high-tax welfare state is not the same as socialism. Indeed, nations such as Denmark and Sweden would be somewhere in between France and the United States on my statism spectrum.

By the way, don’t let anyone get away with claiming that Scandinavian nations somehow prove that big government isn’t an obstacle to a country becoming rich.

Yes, Nordic countries are rich by world standards, but the key thing to understand is that they became prosperous in the late 1800s and early 1900s, back when government was very small.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that nations such as Denmark and Sweden adopted big welfare states. And, not coincidentally, that’s when economic growth slowed in those countries.

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Whenever there’s a discussion of the Nordic nations, I feel conflicted.

I don’t like the punitively high tax rates and socially destructive levels of redistribution in nations such as Denmark, but I also admire the very laissez-faire policies those countries have when it comes to regulation, trade, and property rights.

Indeed, on those latter issues, it’s worth noting that Nordic nations are more free market-oriented than the United States according to the experts at the Fraser Institute who put together Economic Freedom of the World.

Take the example of Sweden. That country has robust school choice and a partially privatized social security system.

Moreover, Nordic nations in general have lower business tax burdens and investment tax burdens than the United States. And Denmark and Sweden have both taken some modest steps to restrain government spending, so even in the realm of fiscal policy you can find some admirable developments.

But these countries need more than “modest steps” since the burden of government spending is still enormous. And excessive social-welfare expenditures are a major problem since such outlays depress labor force participation and encourage dependency.

I mention all these good and bad features of Nordic nations because Senator Bernie Sanders has suggested, as part of his presidential campaign, that the United States should become more like Sweden and Denmark.

If I got to pick and choose which policies we copied, I would agree.

But since Senator Sanders almost surely wants us to copy their fiscal policies (and presumably has no idea that those countries are pro-free market in other areas), I feel compelled to explain that he’s wrong.

And the good news is that other people are producing the evidence, which makes my job easy. Nima Sanandaji is a Swedish economist who just wrote a very illuminating article on this topic for the Cayman Financial Review.

He starts by noting how statists embrace the Nordic Model.

Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden have high-tax social democratic systems that for long have been admired by the left. …The high regard comes as no surprise. Nordic societies are uniquely successful. Not only are they characterised by high living standards, but also by other attractive features such as low crime rates, long life expectations, high degrees of social cohesion and relatively even income distributions. …This is often seen as proof that a ”third way” policy between socialism and capitalism works well, and that other societies can reach the same favourable social outcomes simply by expanding the size of government.

But Nima explains that Nordic nations became rich when they had free markets and small government.

The best that can be said about the Nordic welfare state is that the damage is somewhat contained because of cultural norms.

If one studies Nordic history and society in depth, however, it quickly becomes evident that the simplistic analysis is flawed. …High levels of trust, strong work ethic, civic participation, social cohesion, individual responsibility and family values are long-standing features of Nordic society that pre-date the welfare state. These deeper social institutions explain why Sweden, Denmark and Norway could so quickly grow from impoverished nations to wealthy ones as industrialisation and the market economy were introduced in the late 19th century. …The same norms explain why large welfare systems could be implemented in the mid-20th century. Strong work ethics and high levels of trust made it possible to levy high taxes and offer generous benefits with limited risk of abuse and undesirable incentive effects. It is important to stress that the direction of causality seems to be from cultures with strong social capital towards welfare states that have not had serious adverse consequences, and not the other way around.

Dr. Sanandaji then hypothesizes that we can learn a lot by comparing Americans of Nordic descent with those that didn’t emigrate.

…the Nordic success culture is maintained when people from this region move abroad. …The American descendants of Nordic migrants live in a very different policy environment compared with the residents of the Nordic countries. The former live in an environment with less welfare, lower taxes and (in general) freer markets. Interestingly, the social and economic success of Nordic-Americans is on a par with or even better than their cousins in the Nordic countries. …Close to 12 million Americans have Nordic (Scandinavian) origins.

And he produces some dramatic data.

Simply said, people of Nordic descent do very well in America, where the fiscal burden is lower than it is back in Scandinavia.

According to the 2010 US Census, 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 Finish-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.

But here’s the most remarkable information from his article. Nordic-Americans are far more productive than their cousins back home.

Danish Americans have a contribution to GDP per capita 37 per cent higher than Danes still living in Denmark; Swedish Americans contribute 39 per cent more to GDP per capita than Swedes living in Sweden; and Finnish Americans contribute 47 per cent more than Finns living in Finland. …there is prima facie evidence that the decedents of Nordic people who move to the U.S. are significantly better off than those who stay at home.

Here’s the infographic Nima sent with his article.

Wow, this is game, set, match, as far as I’m concerned.

Nima produced similar data a few years ago looking just as Swedes.

But this new data makes it clear that we’re not just looking at a one-nation phenomenon. The lesson is clear. Nordic people manage to be somewhat productive in high-tax, big-government nations.

But if they reside in a medium-tax country with a medium-sized government, they are highly productive (so just imagine what they could achieve in Hong Kong or Singapore!).

And Nima also points out that there is less poverty among Scandinavians in America than there is among Scandinavians in Scandinavia.

Nordic descendants in the U.S. today have half the poverty rate of the average of Americans – a consistent finding for decades. In other words, Nordic Americans have lower poverty rates than Nordic citizens.

So here’s the lesson that will be a nightmare for Bernie Sanders. It turns out that his role models actually teach us that big government makes people less prosperous.

…in the long run, the large welfare states have eroded incentives, and ultimately the social norms that bounded Nordic societies together. The U.S. system, with greater emphasis on personal responsibility, is more in line with the traditional Nordic system that allowed for the culture of success to develop in the first place. Thus, we should not be surprised that Nordic Americans have both higher living standard and lower poverty than their cousins in the Nordic welfare states.

To summarize, the recipe for prosperity is free markets (which you find in Scandinavia) and small government (which is absent in those countries).

But Senator Sanders wants to copy the bad parts of Nordic nations while ignoring the good parts. For those who care about real-world evidence, Dr. Sanandaji’s data suggests we should take the opposite approach.

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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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Sweden is an odd country, at least from the perspective of public policy.

On the positive side, it has private Social Security accounts. It has an admirable school choice system. And it was a good role model of spending restraint back in the 1990s.

But on the negative side, Sweden has one of the world’s biggest welfare states. Even after the spending restraint of the 1990s, the public sector consumes about 50 percent of economic output. And that necessitates a punitive tax code.

There’s also a truly perverse fixation on equality. And you won’t be surprised to learn that the government-run healthcare system produces some unpleasant outcomes.

Today, let’s build on our understanding of Sweden by looking at how the country’s welfare state interacts with the immigration system.

Writing for CapX, Nima Sanandaji discusses these issues in his adopted country of Sweden.

Sweden has had an unusually open policy towards refugee and family immigrants. The Swedish Migration Agency estimates that around 105,000 individuals will apply for asylum only this year, corresponding to over one percent of Sweden’s entire population.

This openness is admirable, but is it successful? Are immigrants assimilating and contributing to Sweden’s economy?

Unfortunately, the answer in many cases is no.

…the open attitude towards granting immigrants asylum is not matched by good opportunities on the labor market. An in-depth study by the daily paper Dagens Nyheter shows that many migrants struggle to find decent work even ten years after entering the country. …The median income for the refugees in the group was found to be as low as £880 a month. The family immigrants of refugees earned even less. Ten years after arriving in the country, their median income was merely £360 a month. These very low figures suggest that a large segment of the group is still relying on welfare payments. Dagens Nyheter can show that at least four out of ten refugees ten years after arrival are supported by welfare. The paper acknowledges that this is likely an underestimation.

So what’s the problem? Why are immigrants failing to prosper?

Nima suggests that government policies are the problem, creating perverse incentives for long-term dependency.

To be more specific, the country’s extravagant welfare state acts as flypaper, preventing people from climbing in the ladder of opportunity.

The combination of generous benefits, high taxes and rigid labour regulations reduce the incentives and possibilities to find work. Entrapment in welfare dependency is therefore extensive, in particular amongst immigrants. Studies have previously shown that even highly educated groups of foreign descent struggle to become self-dependent in countries such as Norway and Sweden. …The high-spending model is simply not fit to cope with the challenges of integration.

The part about “highly educated groups” is particularly important since it shows that the welfare trap doesn’t just affect low-skilled immigrants (particularly when high tax rates make productive activity relatively unattractive).

So what’s the moral of the story? Well, the one obvious lesson is that a welfare state is harmful to human progress. It hurts taxpayers, of course, but it also has a harmful impact on recipients.

And when the recipients are immigrants, redistribution is especially perverse since it makes it far less likely that newcomers will be net contributors to a nation.

And that then causes native populations to be less sympathetic to immigration, which in unfortunate since new blood – in the absence of bad government policy – can help boost national prosperity.

Though let’s at least give Sweden credit. I’m not aware that its welfare programs are subsidizing terrorism, which can’t be said for the United Kingdom, Australia, France, or the United States.

P.S. Here’s my favorite factoid about Sweden.

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In my younger years, I oftentimes would have arguments with statists who wanted me to believe that countries in Northern Europe like Sweden “proved” that generous welfare states were compatible with economic prosperity.

That doesn’t happen as often today because the Nordic nations in recent decades have not enjoyed rapid growth. Moreover, some of the nations – such as Sweden in the early 1990s and Iceland last decade – suffered from serious financial downturns.

So I stand by my position that free markets and small government are the recipe for prosperity.

That being said, there are still some interesting lessons to be learned from these countries.

As I’ve previously argued, the Nordic countries demonstrate that a big welfare state is “affordable” so long as countries are willing to accept less growth and so long as they are willing to compensate for high taxes and high spending with very pro-market policies in other areas.

And that’s definitely the case. If you examine the Economic Freedom of the World data, you see that Nordic nations get fairly decent scores because they have very laissez-faire policies for regulation, trade, monetary policy, and property rights.

Yes, the fiscal burden of the welfare state slows growth and drags down their rankings, but they still do far better than other European countries that have big governments and a lot of intervention. Just think of France (#58), Italy (#79), and Spain (#51).

With this bit of background, let’s now look at two new and interesting articles about the extent to which the Nordic nations should be role models.

Our first story is from the Washington Post, and it’s authored by a British journalist who lives in Denmark. He starts by noting the inordinate amount of praise these countries receive.

The United States is in the midst of an episode of chronic Scandimania, brought on in part by the habitually high placing of Sweden and its similarly prosperous, egalitarian, collectivist neighbors — Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Finland — in global rankings of everything from happiness to lack of corruption.

But he then points out that these is trouble in the Nordic paradise.

The Washington Post is not immune to Scandinavia’s charms, recently marveling at how Danish branches of McDonald’s manage to pay their employees 2.5 times U.S. McDonald’s workers’ wages (clue: When about 75 percent of earnings disappear as income and consumption taxes, higher wages are more necessity than choice). …and last month the Times assured us that “A Big Safety Net and Strong Job Market Can Coexist. Just Ask Scandinavia.” (*Cough* unemployment is 5.6 percent in the United States, vs. 8.1 percent in Sweden, 8.9 percent in Finland and 6.4 percent in Denmark.) …And global and domestic events are conspiring to make life a little more uncertain for these former high achievers. …the Scandinavian model’s structural fissures are coming under increasing stress. …the Norwegians seem to have lost their parsimonious, workaholic, Lutheran mojo. Norwegians treat Friday as a “free day” and take more sick leave than anyone else in Europe, if not the world — a law enshrines their right to claim sick days even while on holiday.

The author continues, pointing out some serious warts.

Sweden’s political establishment was subverting the democratic process. This has distracted from the slowing economy, increasing state and household debt levels, and one of the highest youth unemployment rates in Europe. …Denmark took a bigger hit than its neighbors following the 2008 global economic crisis, which increased pressure on its massive welfare state, funded by the highest taxes in the world. Household debt is the highest in Europe (any connection there, I wonder?). …along with the Norwegians they work among the fewest hours a year of any Europeans. …In Iceland, …ultra-Nordic social cohesion…led to the near-bankruptcy of the entire country.

And here are some more details that also don’t sound so encouraging.

These countries that do so well in life-satisfaction surveys also record the highest consumption of antidepressants in the world, and despite their reputation for gender equality, they have the highest rates of violence against women in Europe. …few Americans would truly embrace a Scandinavian-style society. The tax rates alone would likely be a sufficient deterrent. Though I’m a freelance journalist, I essentially work until Thursday lunchtime for the state. And it’s not as if the money that is left in my pocket goes all that far: These are fearfully expensive countries in which to live.

Here’s the bottom line from a balanced story.

Scandinavia is not the utopia that American liberals or the 11 million Americans of Nordic descent often make it out to be, just as it is not the quasi-commie, statist gulag that those on the right would often have us believe. …I’m not saying the Nordic miracle is over, but it was never a miracle. And it’s over.

Now let’s look at our second story, which was published by the New York Post.

The tone is more negative, but it basically has the same message.

In the American liberal compass, the needle is always pointing to places like Denmark. Everything they most fervently hope for here has already happened there.

But there’s bad news in the land of the Northern Lights.

Here’s what he writes about Denmark.

Visitors say Danes are joyless to be around. Denmark suffers from high rates of alcoholism. In its use of antidepressants it ranks fourth in the world. (Its fellow Nordics the Icelanders are in front by a wide margin.) Some 5 percent of Danish men have had sex with an animal. Denmark’s productivity is in decline, its workers put in only 28 hours a week, and everybody you meet seems to have a government job. …Danes operate on caveman principles — if you find it, share it, or be shunned. Once your date with Daisy the Sheep is over, you’d better make sure your friends get a turn.

Though Daisy is lucky that she’s not on the tax rolls. The tax system in that nation is so oppressive that I’ve joked birthers should accuse Obama of having been born in Denmark.

In addition to paying enormous taxes — the total bill is 58 percent to 72 percent of income — Danes have to pay more for just about everything. Books are a luxury item. Their equivalent of the George Washington Bridge costs $45 to cross. …Health care is free — which means you pay in time instead of money. Services are distributed only after endless stays in waiting rooms. (The author brought his son to an E.R. complaining of a foreign substance that had temporarily blinded him in one eye and was turned away, told he had to make an appointment.) Pharmacies are a state-run monopoly, which means getting an aspirin is like a trip to the DMV.

But the author doesn’t just pick on Denmark.

Iceland’s famous economic boom turned out to be one of history’s most notorious real estate bubbles. …The success of the Norwegians — the Beverly Hillbillies of Europe — can’t be imitated. Previously a peasant nation, the country now has more wealth than it can spend: Colossal offshore oil deposits spawned a sovereign wealth fund that pays for everything. Finland, which tops the charts in many surveys (they’re the least corrupt people on Earth, its per-capita income is the highest in Western Europe and Helsinki often tops polls of the best cities), is also a leader in categories like alcoholism, murder (highest rate in Western Europe), suicide and antidepressant usage. …Booze-related disease is the leading cause of death for Finnish men, and second for women. …“Dark” doesn’t just describe winter in the Arctic suburbs, it applies to the Finnish character.

Sweden gets a lot of attention.

Immigration is associated in the Swedish mind with welfare (housing projects full of people on the dole) and with high crime rates (these newcomers being more than four times as likely to commit murder). Islamist gangs control some of the housing projects. Friction between “ethnic Swedes” and the immigrants is growing. Welfare states work best among a homogeneous people, and the kind of diversity and mistrust we have between groups in America means we could never reach a broad consensus on Nordic levels of social spending. Anyway, Sweden thought better of liberal economics too: When its welfare state became unsustainable (something savvy Danes are just starting to say), it went on a privatization spree and cut government spending from 67 percent of GDP to less than half.

And then there’s this excerpt about the Swedes, which makes me think it might be better to cohabit with a sheep in Copenhagen.

…a poll in which Swedes were asked to describe themselves, the adjectives that led the pack were “envious, stiff, industrious, nature-loving, quiet, honest, dishonest and xenophobic.” In last place were these words: “masculine,” “sexy” and “artistic.”

And here’s his conclusion.

Scandinavia, as a wag in The Economist once put it, is a great place to be born — but only if you are average.  …That’s Scandinavia for you, folks: Bland, wholesome, individual-erasing mush. But, hey, at least we’re all united in being slowly digested by the system.

Indeed, the Nordic focus on equality is so pervasive that it leads to unbelievably stupid policies.

P.S. There are some really creepy examples of failed government-run health care in Sweden.

P.P.S. Though Sweden has wised up in many regards. After the crisis of the early 1990s, the country was a role model of spending restraint. Here’s a video on some of Sweden’s pro-market reforms in recent decades.

P.P.P.S. The single-most compelling piece of evidence about the superiority of the American system is that Swedes in America earn far more than Swedes in Sweden.

P.P.P.P.S. The second-most compelling piece of evidence about the limits of Nordic statism is that these nations became prosperous before big welfare state were imposed. I call this the paradox of Wagner’s Law.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Even Denmark is trying to cut back on the welfare state. Though that will be bad news for Lazy Robert.

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There’s an old saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

That may be true if you’re in Hollywood and visibility is a key to long-run earnings.

But in the world of public policy, you don’t want to be a punching bag. And that describes my role in a book excerpt just published by Salon.

Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematics professor at the University of Wisconsin, has decided that I’m a “linear” thinker.

Here are some excerpts from the article, starting with his perception of my view on the appropriate size of government, presumably culled from this blog post.

Daniel J. Mitchell of the libertarian Cato Institute posted a blog entry with the provocative title: “Why Is Obama Trying to Make America More Like Sweden when Swedes Are Trying to Be Less Like Sweden?” Good question! When you put it that way, it does seem pretty perverse.  …Here’s what the world looks like to the Cato Institute… Don’t worry about exactly how we’re quantifying these things. The point is just this: according to the chart, the more Swedish you are, the worse off your country is. The Swedes, no fools, have figured this out and are launching their northwestward climb toward free-market prosperity.

I confess that he presents a clever and amusing caricature of my views.

My ideal world of small government and free markets would be a Libertopia, whereas total statism could be characterized as the Black Pit of Socialism.

But Ellenberg’s goal isn’t to merely describe my philosophical yearnings and policy positions. He wants to discredit my viewpoint.

So he suggests an alternative way of looking at the world.

Let me draw the same picture from the point of view of people whose economic views are closer to President Obama’s… This picture gives very different advice about how Swedish we should be. Where do we find peak prosperity? At a point more Swedish than America, but less Swedish than Sweden. If this picture is right, it makes perfect sense for Obama to beef up our welfare state while the Swedes trim theirs down.

He elaborates, emphasizing the importance of nonlinear thinking.

The difference between the two pictures is the difference between linearity and nonlinearity… The Cato curve is a line; the non-Cato curve, the one with the hump in the middle, is not. …thinking nonlinearly is crucial, because not all curves are lines. A moment of reflection will tell you that the real curves of economics look like the second picture, not the first. They’re nonlinear. Mitchell’s reasoning is an example of false linearity—he’s assuming, without coming right out and saying so, that the course of prosperity is described by the line segment in the first picture, in which case Sweden stripping down its social infrastructure means we should do the same. …you know the linear picture is wrong. Some principle more complicated than “More government bad, less government good” is in effect. …Nonlinear thinking means which way you should go depends on where you already are.

Ellenberg then points out, citing the Laffer Curve, that “the folks at Cato used to understand” the importance of nonlinear analysis.

The irony is that economic conservatives like the folks at Cato used to understand this better than anybody. That second picture I drew up there? …I am not the first person to draw it. It’s called the Laffer curve, and it’s played a central role in Republican economics for almost forty years… if the government vacuums up every cent of the wage you’re paid to show up and teach school, or sell hardware, or middle-manage, why bother doing it? Over on the right edge of the graph, people don’t work at all. Or, if they work, they do so in informal economic niches where the tax collector’s hand can’t reach. The government’s revenue is zero… the curve recording the relationship between tax rate and government revenue cannot be a straight line.

So what’s the bottom line? Am I a linear buffoon, as Ellenberg suggests?

Well, it’s possible I’m a buffoon in some regards, but it’s not correct to pigeonhole me as a simple-minded linear thinker. At least not if the debate is about the proper size of government.

I make this self-serving claim for the simple reason that I’m a big proponents of the Rahn Curve, which is …drum roll please… a nonlinear way of looking at the relationship between the size of government and economic performance. And just in case you think I’m prevaricating, here’s a depiction of the Rahn Curve that was excerpted from my video on that specific topic.

Moreover, if you click on Rahn Curve category of my blog, you’ll find about 20 posts on the topic. And if you type “Rahn Curve” in the search box, you’ll find about twice as many mentions.

So why didn’t Ellenberg notice any of this research?

Beats the heck out of me. Perhaps he made a linear assumption about a supposed lack of nonlinear thinking among libertarians.

In any event, here’s my video on the Rahn Curve so you can judge for yourself.

And if you want information on the topic, here’s a video from Canada and here’s a video from the United Kingdom.

P.S. I would argue that both the United States and Sweden are on the downward-sloping portion of the Rahn Curve, which is sort of what Ellenberg displays on his first graph. Had he been more thorough in his research, though, he would have discovered that I think growth is maximized when the public sector consumes about 10 percent of GDP.

P.P.S. Ellenberg’s second chart puts the U.S. and Sweden at the same level of prosperity. Indeed, it looks like Sweden is a bit higher. That’s certainly not what we see in the international data on living standards. Moreover, Ellenberg may want to apply some nonlinear thinking to the data showing that Swedes in America earn a lot more than Swedes still living in Sweden.

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While I mostly focus on bad government policy in the United States, I also think we can learn lessons from what’s happening in other nations.

In some cases, I share positive stories, such as the success of privatized Social Security in Australia, nationwide school choice in Sweden, and genuine spending cuts in the Baltic nations.

In most cases, though, I’m pointing out bad policy.

Some topics deserve special treatment, such as the ongoing horror story of government-run healthcare in the United Kingdom.

In other cases, though, I share one-off stories about government incompetence and stupidity.

*Such as taxpayer-financed friends for mass murderers in Norway.

*Financing a giant “Burger Boy” in the United Kingdom.

*Promoting welfare tourism in the European Union.

*Spending $30 to collect $1 of tax in Germany.

*Regulation of coffee enemas in Japan.

Today, we’re going to share more stories of feckless behavior by foreign politicians and bureaucrats.

From Canada, we learn that the government of Manitoba is micro-managing daycare lunches in such bizarre ways that a family was fined because “grains” weren’t included in their kids’ meals.

Kristin Barkiw of Rossburn, Manitoba, Canada brought two of her children home from Little Cub’s Den daycare when she saw that her kids were sent home with a note. …the message told the mom she had failed to provide a nutritionally balanced lunch for her children, 5-year-old Logan and 3-year-old Natalie.  Not only that, Kristin was fined $10, $5 per child, for missing grains in their lunch of leftover roast beef, carrots, potatoes, an orange and milk. Further, the note said that the daycare staff gave Logan and Natalie Ritz crackers to fulfill the nutritional requirement of grains, which some see as a less than nutritious option. The nutritional regulation for daycare lunches is actually law in the province. The Manitoba government’s Early Learning and Child Care lunch regulations state that daycare programs must ensure children are given a lunch with a meat, a grain, a milk product and two servings of fruit and vegetables and any missing food groups must be supplemented by the care provider.

Heaven forbid that parents actually be in charge of what their kids eat!

You won’t be surprised to learn that France is on the list. It appears the government’s rail system is staffed by numbskulls.

France’s SNCF rail company has ordered 2,000 trains for an expanded regional network that are too wide for many station platforms, entailing costly repairs, the national rail operator said on Tuesday. A spokesman for the RFF national rail operator confirmed the error, first reported by satirical weekly Canard Enchaine in its Wednesday edition. …Construction work has already begun to displace equipment and widen hundreds of train platforms to accommodate the new trains, but hundreds more remain to be fixed, he added. …The RFF only gave the dimensions of platforms built less than 30 years ago, but most of France’s 1,200 platforms were built more than 50 years ago. Repair work has already cost 80 million euros ($110 million).

I guess I’m not surprised by that story since the French once built an aircraft carrier with a flight deck that was too small.

In Sweden, a novelty tourist hotel made of ice will have to install fire alarms.

The Ice Hotel, which is rebuilt every year in northern Sweden out of enormous chunks of ice from the Torne River in Jukkasjärvi, Kiruna, will this year come equipped with fire alarms – and the irony isn’t lost on the staff. “We were a little surprised when we found out,” hotel spokeswoman Beatrice Karlsson told The Local. …While it might sound crazy that a building made of water needs to be equipped with fire alarms, the fact that the hotel is built from scratch every year means it needs to abide by the rules that apply to every new building, rules set by the National Housing Board (Boverket).

If I had to pick a prize from today’s list, this might win the prize. It’s a stunning display of government in action. Though probably not as bad as the time it took a local government in the U.S. two days to notice a dead body in a community swimming pool.

And from Germany, we have a story about massive cost overruns incurred by a pan-European bureaucracy that supposedly helps encourage fiscal discipline.

“Do as we say, not as we do”

It was meant to cost £420m of European taxpayers’ money but the bill for the new headquarters of the European Central Bank (ECB) has more than doubled to £960m and could rise even further. The bank is the key enforcer of austerity measures in the troubled eurozone nations, but appears to be having trouble keeping its own finances in order. The 45-storey glass and steel building, made up of two joined towers, will be more than 600ft tall when it is finished. But it has already been under construction for a decade and is three years behind schedule.

Of course, it goes without saying that cost overruns and delays are par for the course with government.

Just in case anyone thinks I’m picking on foreigners, here’s a story that makes me ashamed to be American. Or, to be more precise, it makes me ashamed that we have some of the world’s most pathetic bureaucrats.

Honors Night at Cole Middle School is no more. Parents got an email from Principal Alexis Meyer over the weekend saying some members of the school community “have long expressed concerns related to the exclusive nature of Honors Night.” The email goes on to say students will be recognized in other ways. …Parents and students are not happy with the change. “How else are they suppose to learn coping skills, not just based on success, but relative failure, it might not be failure, but understand what it takes to achieve high levels,” said parent Joe Kosloski. …“That made me wanna work harder and a lot of other people work harder, so just the fact you can’t work towards it anymore then there is no goal,” said 8th grade student Kaitlyn Kosloski. Changes are also being made to the middle school’s sports awards.

You read correctly. They also won’t recognize athletic success.

I guess everyone gets a participation medal.

Except, of course, we still single out kids who commit horrible crimes in school. Such as having toy army men, eating a pop tart the wrong way, building a motion detector for a school science experiment, or countless other “offenses” that trigger anti-gun lunacy by brainless bureaucrats.

The moral of these stories, both from America and around the world, it that government is not the answer. Unless, of course, you’ve asked a really strange question.

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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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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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Since part of my job is to persuade skeptics to support a free society, I’m always trying to figure out how best to convince people to favor liberty over statism.

I start with the premise that most statists are misguided rather than evil and I try to understand how they see the world. If I know what makes them tick, after all, then perhaps I can explain to them how freedom is preferable to big government.

In my efforts to win people’s hearts and minds, I run into the same obstacles over and over again.

  • Many people equate Republicans with limited government, so you have to explain that there’s a giant difference between the views of the Cato Institute and the decisions of statists like Richard Nixon or George W. Bush.
  • Some folks think capitalism and cronyism are the same thing. I try to show them that there is no role for corrupt favoritism in a genuine free market, which is why it is doubly counterproductive when Republicans support policies and programs such as TARP, the Export-Import Bank, agriculture subsidies, and Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac handouts.
  • Lots of people mistakenly believe the economy is a fixed pie, so they think if someone such as  Steve Jobs becomes wealthy, then other people necessarily have less money.

I have ways of dealing with all these myths. I don’t pretend to be successful in all or even most cases, but I think I’ve helped lead some people out of the darkness.

One of the other challenges I face is that some people believe in equality of outcomes. It’s hard to reason with these folks. I try to explain to them that this system requires massive redistribution, which cripples incentives for productive behavior by both rich and poor.

I cite the famous Churchill quote about “equal sharing of the misery.” And I ask them to show me evidence of one nation – anywhere in the world or at any point in history – that has ever succeeded with this approach.

But the folks with this ideological outlook seem impervious to logical argument or moral reasoning. Indeed, they sometimes go to absurd lengths. Here are some Orwellian details from a Swedish news service.

Annika Eriksson, a lunch lady at a school in Falun, was told that her cooking is just too good. Pupils at the school have become accustomed to feasting on newly baked bread and an assortment of 15 vegetables at lunchtime, but now the good times are over. The municipality has ordered Eriksson to bring it down a notch since other schools do not receive the same calibre of food – and that is “unfair”. …”A menu has been developed… It is about making a collective effort on quality, to improve school meals overall and to try and ensure everyone does the same,” Katarina Lindberg, head of the unit responsible for the school diet scheme, told the local Falukuriren newspaper. …From now on, the school’s vegetable buffet will be halved in size and Eriksson’s handmade loafs will be replaced with store-bought bread. Her traditional Easter and Christmas smörgåsbords may also be under threat.

I’m almost at a loss for words. What sort of sickness is required to deny something to one group of kids just because the same benefit is not universally available?

Equality of outcomes is catnip to the left, but it doesn’t apply to the ruling class

I’ve written some nice things about Sweden in recent years, noting that the government has sought to minimize the damage of the welfare state with free market reforms in other areas.

Sweden has a good school choice program, for instance, and the country has reformed its pension system so that it has personal retirement accounts and is more fiscally stable.

But this story shows that Sweden still has a long way to go.

P.S. Using Elizabeth “High Cheekbones” Warren as a philosophical punching bag, here’s another example of redistribution and equality of outcomes run amok. But at least this is satire and not reality.

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In my travels through Europe, I often wind up debating whether policy is better in the United States or Europe. I generally try to explain that this is the wrong comparison, both because Europe is not a monolithic bloc and also because most individual nations have both good policies and bad policies.

But sometimes you have to use blunt comparisons, which is why this data on living standards is powerful evidence that Europe is paying a high price for excessive government.

When I cite such data, proponents of statism often respond by arguing that I’m being unfair by lumping together more efficient welfare states in Northern Europe with poorly run welfare states in Southern Europe.

That’s a very good point, and I’ve acknowledged that nations such as Sweden and Denmark are examples of how to do the wrong thing in the best possible fashion. They have large welfare states, but they compensate with very pro-market policies in other areas.

Indeed, Sweden is a good example of a nation that has implemented some good reforms in recent years, such as school choice and partial Social Security privatization.

But I argue that these good reforms don’t fully offset the damage caused by excessive government spending. And now I have a new – and very pointy – arrow in my argumentative quiver. A study from the London-based Institute for Economic Affairs has found that Swedes in America earn significantly more money than Swedes in Sweden.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the IEA study.

The 4.4 million or so Americans with Swedish origins are considerably richer than average Americans, as are other immigrant groups from Scandinavia. If Americans with Swedish ancestry were to form their own country, their per capita GDP would be $56,900, more than $10,000 above the income of the average American. This is also far above Swedish GDP per capita, at $36,600. Swedes living in the USA are thus approximately 53 per cent more wealthy than Swedes (excluding immigrants) in their native country (OECD, 2009; US Census database). It should be noted that those Swedes who migrated to the USA, predominately in the nineteenth century, were anything but the elite. Rather, it was often those escaping poverty and famine. …A Scandinavian economist once said to Milton Friedman, ‘In Scandinavia, we have no poverty’. Milton Friedman replied, ‘That’s interesting, because in America, among Scandinavians, we have no poverty, either’. Indeed, the poverty rate for Americans with Swedish ancestry is only 6.7 per cent: half the US average (US Census).

This is remarkable information, and it reminds me that Thomas Sowell had similar stats for other groups in his great book, Ethnic America.

I’m not familiar with the methodological issues involved in this type of research, but is certainly seems like this is a good way of getting apples-to-apples comparisons of different economic systems.

Like many other people, I’ve argued that the success of the overseas Chinese community (compared to their counterparts stuck in Communist China) is a damning indictment of statism.

Now we see that Swedes do reasonably well when living in a country with a big welfare state, but they do even better when living in a nation with  a medium-sized welfare state.

So you can imagine how prosperous they would be if a bunch of them lived in places such as Hong Kong and Singapore!

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Sweden must be a schizophrenic country. Something strange is happening, after all, if a statist like Jeffrey Sachs and a rabid libertarian like yours truly both cited it as a role model in our remarks last month at the United Nations.

So who’s right? Well, it depends what you care about.

In a column for Bloomberg, Anders Aslund elaborates on Sweden’s efforts to reduce the size of the state.

Not so long ago, Sweden could claim world leadership in unmitigated Keynesian economics, with a 90 percent marginal tax rate and a welfare state second to none. …but in the last two decades the country has been reformed. Public spending has fallen by no less than one-fifth of gross domestic product, taxes have dropped and markets have opened up. …no turnabout has been as dramatic as Sweden’s. From 1970 until 1989, taxes rose exorbitantly, killing private initiative, while entitlements became excessive. Laws were often altered and became unpredictable. As a consequence, Sweden endured two decades of low growth. In 1991-93, the country suffered a severe crash in real estate and banking that reduced GDP by 6 percent. Public spending had surged to 71.7 percent of GDP in 1993, and the budget deficit reached 11 percent of GDP. …Sweden’s traditional scourge is taxes, which used to be the highest in the world. The current government has cut them every year and abolished wealth taxes. Inheritance and gift taxes are also gone. Until 1990, the maximum marginal income tax rate was 90 percent. Today, it is 56.5 percent. That is still one of the world’s highest, after Belgium’s 59.4 and there is strong public support for a cut to 50 percent. The 26 percent tax on corporate profits may seem reasonable from an American perspective, but Swedish business leaders want to reduce it to 20 percent.

Interestingly, the Swedish people and the Swedish elite (just like the Estonians, as I discussed in my takedown of Paul Krugman) seem to understand that there’s no going back to the statist era of the 1970s and 1980s.

Where are the left-wing intellectuals to challenge this new order? They have disappeared. The old socialist research organizations have closed down. The Center for Labor Market Studies was a state institution that generated propaganda, not research, and the government closed it. The Trade Union Confederation had a sophisticated research institute, which it eliminated for not being sufficiently political. The union economists, who dominated Swedish economic debate in the 1970s and ’80s, have been replaced by bank economists. The free-market right has influential research centers in Stockholm. After many years of absence from the debate, I attended a conference on the Swedish economy in the southern city of Malmo last month. …the 180 speakers represented the full range of Swedish views. I was amazed to hear how far the consensus had moved to the free- market right, even among Social Democrats and trade-union leaders. …The Social Democrats haven’t only joined the free-market consensus, but seem to attack the current government from the right, pushing for a better business environment. Gone are demands for the restoration of social benefits. Opinion polls have rewarded the Social Democrats for their right turn with sharply improved ratings.

In other words, Sweden is a lot like Canada – a nation that took a misguided turn to the left but since then has moved significantly in the right direction.

I’m not willing to trade places with either nation, but that may change at some point. The Bush-Obama policies of bigger government and more intervention have made America less attractive, while other nations have learned from their mistakes.

If Sweden adopts a flat tax and figures out how to cancel winter, I may have to move there.

P.S. Sweden’s government-run healthcare system can be quite emasculating.

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Sweden has a very large and expensive welfare state, but it’s actually becoming a bit of a role model for economic reform. I’ve already commented on the country’s impressive school choice system and noted that the Swedes have partially privatized their Social Security system.

I even wrote a Cato study looking at the good and bad features of economic policy in the Nordic nations, and cited a Swedish parliamentarian who explained that his nation became rich because of small government and free markets and how he is hopeful his country is returning to its libertarian roots.

Notwithstanding the many admirable features of Sweden, I never thought they would be moving in the right direction on fiscal policy while the United States was heading in the opposite direction.

Yet that’s the case. We all know that America has had made many mistakes during the Bush-Obama years, particularly with failed stimulus schemes in 2008 and 2009.

Sweden, by contrast, has put in place pro-growth reforms. Here’s what Fraser Nelson wrote for the UK-based Spectator.

Can we trade Geithner for Borg?

When Europe’s finance ministers meet for a group photo, it’s easy to spot the rebel — Anders Borg has a ponytail and earring. What actually marks him out, though, is how he responded to the crash. While most countries in Europe borrowed massively, Borg did not. Since becoming Sweden’s finance minister, his mission has been to pare back government. His ‘stimulus’ was a permanent tax cut. …Three years on, it’s pretty clear who was right. ‘Look at Spain, Portugal or the UK, whose governments were arguing for large temporary stimulus,’ he says. ‘Well, we can see that very little of the stimulus went to the economy. But they are stuck with the debt.’ Tax-cutting Sweden, by contrast, had the fastest growth in Europe last year, when it also celebrated the abolition of its deficit. …‘Everybody was told “stimulus, stimulus, stimulus”,’ he says — referring to the EU, IMF and the alphabet soup of agencies urging a global, debt-fuelled spending splurge. Borg, an economist, couldn’t work out how this would help. ‘It was surprising that Europe, given what we experienced in the 1970s and 80s with structural unemployment, believed that short-term Keynesianism could solve the problem.’ …He continued to cut taxes and cut welfare-spending to pay for it; he even cut property taxes for the rich to lure entrepreneurs back to Sweden. The last bit was the most unpopular, but for Borg, economic recovery starts with entrepreneurs. If cutting taxes for the rich encouraged risk-taking, then it had to be done.

The article notes that government is still far too large in Sweden, but it’s also clear that moving in the right direction generates immediate benefits.

I posted a video back in 2010, narrated by a Swedish economics student, and asked a rhetorical question of why Obama wants to make America more like Sweden when the Swedes are moving in the other direction.

Unfortunately, there was no good answer then and there’s no good answer now.

Let’s close with some irony. Last year, I cited a study showing how large public sectors undermine economic performance. The study was written by two Swedish economists. In addition to trading Geithner for Borg, perhaps we can ship Krugman to Stockholm and bring those economists to America.

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Even though Paul Krugman has told us that horror stories about government-run healthcare in Britain “are false,” we keep getting reports about substandard care and needless deaths (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

Well, let’s add another chilling report to the list. Here’s some of what the UK-based Telegraph just reported.

Tens of thousands of patients with terminal illnesses are being placed on a “death pathway”, almost double the number just two years ago, a study published today shows.Health service guidance states that doctors should discuss with relations whether or not their loved one is placed on the scheme which allows medical staff to withdraw fluid and drugs in a patient’s final days. In many cases this is not happening, an audit has found. As many as 2,500 families were not told that their loved ones had been put on the so-called Liverpool Care Pathway, the study disclosed.In one hospital trust, doctors had conversations with fewer than half of families about the care of their loved one. In a quarter of hospital trusts, discussions were not held with one in three families.

Remind me not to get sick on my next trip to London.

But horror stories about government-run healthcare are not limited to the United Kingdom. Here’s part of a remarkable story from an English-language Swedish news agency.

A man from Nyköping in eastern Sweden has been denied a power wheelchair despite having had both of his legs amputated as the local health authority remained “uncertain if the impairment was permanent”. The man had his legs amputated after a long struggle with diabetes, but despite being unable get about, his application for a power wheelchair has been denied.

I realize I’m a typical guy, but the first thing that came to my mind after reading this story were a couple of funny bits from Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail – the “I got better” scene and the “just a flesh wound” scene.

In the real world, however, there’s nothing humorous about whether amputated legs are a “permanent” impairment.

Both of these stories show the downside of letting bureaucrats have power over health care.

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Johnny Munkhammar is a member of the Swedish Parliament and a committed supporter of economic liberalization. He has a column in the Wall Street Journal Europe that does a great job of explaining how Sweden became rich when it was a small-government, pro-market nation. He then notes that his country veered off track in the 1970s and 1980s, but is now heading back in the right direction. I’ll have more analysis below these excerpts, but it is especially impressive that Sweden is ahead of America on key reforms such as Social Security personal accounts and school choice.

Sweden is not socialist. According to the World Values Survey and other similar studies, Sweden combines one of the highest degrees of individualism in the world, solid trust in well-functioning institutions, and a high degree of social cohesion. Among the 160 countries studied in the Index of Economic Freedom, Sweden ranks 21st, and is one of the few countries that increased its economic freedoms during the financial crisis. …Sweden wasn’t always so free. But Sweden’s socialism lasted only for a couple of decades, roughly during the 1970s and 1980s. And as it happens, these decades mark the only break in the modern Swedish success story. …The Swedish tax burden was lower than the European average throughout these successful 60 years, and lower even than in the U.S. Only in 1950 did Sweden’s tax burden rise to 20% of GDP, though that remained comparatively low. …The 1970s were a decade of radical government intervention in society and in markets, during which Sweden doubled its overall tax burden, socialized a slew of industries, re-regulated its markets, expanded its public systems, and shuttered its borders. In 1970, Sweden had the world’s fourth-highest GDP per capita. By 1990, it had fallen 13 positions. In those 20 years, real wages in Sweden increased by only one percentage point. …By the late 1980s, though, Sweden had started de-regulating its markets once again, decreased its marginal tax rates, and opted for a sound-money, low-inflation policy. In the early 1990s, the pace quickened, and most markets except for labor and housing were liberalized. The state sold its shares in a number of companies, granted independence to its central bank, and introduced school vouchers that improved choice and competition in education. Stockholm slashed public pensions and introduced private retirement schemes, keeping the system demographically sustainable. These decisive economic liberalizations, and not socialism, are what laid the foundations for Sweden’s success over the last 15 years. …Today, the state’s total tax take comes to 45% of GDP, from 56% ten years ago. Meanwhile, unemployment benefits, sick leave and early retirement plans have all been streamlined to encourage work. The number of people receiving such welfare—which soared during the socialist decades—has fallen by 150,000 since 2006, a main reason for Sweden’s remarkably sound public finances.

Sweden still has a public sector that is far too big, but the damage caused by bloated government is at least partially offset by very good policy in other areas. Sweden is actually slightly more free market than the United States on non-fiscal measures in the Economic Freedom of the World index. Here’s a chart comparing Sweden and the United States. But I also included a few other nations for purposes of comparison. You can see Switzerland, the U.S., Sweden, and the United Kingdom all have similar scores for economic freedom if the burden of taxation and government spending is removed from the mix. But things change dramatically when taxes and spending are added to the formula. Switzerland is ranked 4th overall because of a decent fiscal system, ahead of the United States (6th) and United Kingdom (10th). while Sweden falls all the way to 37th place.

Denmark gets very high marks for non-fiscal freedom, so it only drops to 14th in the overall rating because of its bloated welfare state. Hong Kong and Singapore, meanwhile, rank 1st and 2nd in the world because of strong ratings on non-fiscal factors and they also manage to limit the fiscal burden of government.

Last but not least, many of Johnny’s points are included in this Center for Freedom and Prosperity video.

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Courtesy of Powerline Blog, we have a story about how Sweden’s bureaucratic health system made a mistake and…well, I’m not sure how to delicately phrase this…so let’s just give you the headline of the story: “Man’s penis amputated following misdiagnosis.”

Here are some of the details from a news report about the incident.

The man, who is in his sixties, first visited a local clinic in Blekinge in southern Sweden in September 2009 for treatment of a urinary tract infection, the local Blekinge Läns Tidning (BLT) reported. When he returned in March 2010 complaining of foreskin irritation, the doctor on duty at the time diagnosed the problem as a simple case of inflammation. After three weeks passed without the prescribed treatment alleviating the man’s condition, he was instructed to seek further treatment at Blekinge Hospital. But it took five months before he was able to schedule an appointment at the hospital. When he finally met with doctors at the hospital, the man was informed he had cancer and his penis would have to be removed.

The fact that doctors amputated the man’s penis is not the point of this post. Bad things happen in any country, including medical mistakes by well-meaning people. But a five-month wait for an appointment is an indictment of Sweden’s government-run system. We don’t know if the man’s equipment could have been saved if he got a timely appointment, but a less-drastic approach surely would have been more likely.

But I doubt Sweden’s political elite are too concerned about this story, just like America’s beltway insiders probably don’t worry about the consequences of Obamacare. Waiting lines, after all, are for mere taxpayers. Folks such as Harry Reid, Joe Biden, and Nancy Pelosi will always rig things so they get to jump to the front of the line.

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I touched a raw nerve with my post about Fidel Castro admitting that the Cuban model is a failure. Matthew Yglesias and Brad DeLong both attacked me. DeLong’s post was nothing more than a link to the Yglesias post with a snarky comment about “why can’t we have better think tanks?” Yglesias, to his credit, tried to explain his objections.

This leads Daniel Mitchell to post the following chart which he deems “a good illustration of the human cost of excessive government.”…this mostly illustrates the difficulty of having a rational conversation with Cato Institute employees about economic policy in the developed world. Cuba is poor, but it’s much richer than Somalia. Is Somalia’s poor performance an illustration of the human costs of inadequate taxation? Or maybe we can act like reasonable people and note that these illustrations of the cost of Communist dictatorship and anarchy have little bearing on the optimal location on the Korea-Sweden axis of mixed economies?

I’m actually not sure what argument Yglesias is making, but I think he assumed I was focusing only on fiscal policy when I commented about Cuba’s failure being “a good illustration of the human cost of excessive government.” At least I think this is what he means, because he then tries to use Somalia as an example of limited government, solely because the government there is so dysfunctional that it is unable to maintain a working tax system.

Regardless of what he’s really trying to say, my post was about the consequences of excessive government, not just the consequences of excessive government spending. I’m not a fan of high taxes and wasteful spending, to be sure, but fiscal policy is only one of many policies that influence economic performance. Indeed, according to both Economic Freedom of the World and Index of Economic Freedom, taxes and spending are only 20 percent of a nation’s grade. So nations such as Sweden and Denmark are ranked very high because the adverse impact of their fiscal policies is more than offset by their very laissez-faire policies in just about all other areas. Likewise, many nations in the developing world have modest fiscal burdens, but their overall scores are low because they get poor grades on variables such as monetary policy, regulation, trade, rule of law, and property rights.

So, yes, Cuba is an example of “the human cost of excessive government.” And so is Somalia.

Sweden and Denmark, meanwhile, are both good and bad examples. Optimists can cite them as great examples of the benefits of laissez-faire markets. Pessimists can cite them as unfortunate examples of bloated public sectors.

P.S. Castro has since tried to recant, claiming he was misquoted. He’s finding out, though, that it’s not easy putting toothpaste back in the tube.

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After being in 1st place in 2007 and 2008, America dropped behind Switzerland in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report in 2009. The 2010 ranking was just released, and the United States has tumbled two more spots to 4th place, behind Switzerland, Sweden, and Singapore. I’m not a complete fan of the World Economic Forum’s methodology (the Economic Freedom of the World rankings are the best measure of sound economic policy), but it’s almost surely a bad sign when a country moves down in the rankings.  The timing of the fall will lead some to blame Barack Obama, and I certainly agree that his policies are making America less competitive, but Bush also deserves blame for increasing the burden of government and compromising America’s economic vitality. Here’s a blurb from the Associated Press.
The U.S. has slipped down the ranks of competitive economies, falling behind Sweden and Singapore due to huge deficits and pessimism about government, a global economic group said Thursday. Switzerland retained the top spot for the second year in the annual ranking by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum. It combines economic data and a survey of more than 13,500 business executives. Sweden moved up to second place while Singapore stayed at No. 3. The United States was in second place last year after falling from No. 1 in 2008.

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Somebody sent me this story from the Drudge Report and can’t resist the temptation to share. What really astounds me is not that a Swedish man sewed up his own leg after waiting for a long time in a hospital. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if things like that happened in all nations. The really disturbing part of the story is that the hospital then reported the man to the police. A classic case of “blaming the victim.” The bureaucrats in Sweden’s government-run healthcare system obviously were not pleased that he called attention to their failure.
A 32-year-old took the needle into his hands when he tired of the wait at Sundsvall hospital in northern Sweden and sewed up the cut in his leg himself. The man was later reported to the police for his impromptu handiwork. “It took such a long time,” the man told the local Sundsvall Tidning daily. The man incurred the deep cut when he sliced his leg on the sharp edge of a kitchen stove while he was renovating at home. “I first went to the health clinic, but it was closed. So I rang the medical help line and they told me that it shouldn’t be closed, so I went to emergency and sat there,” the man named only as Jonas told the newspaper. After an hour-long wait in a treatment room, he lost patience and proceeded to sew up his own wound. “They had set out a needle and thread and so I decided to take the matter into my hands,” he said. But hospital staff were not as impressed by his initiative and have reported the man on suspicion of arbitrary conduct for having used hospital equipment without authorization.

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Tyler Cowen’s recent New York Times column explains how nations as diverse as Ireland, Sweden, and Canada have successfully solved fiscal problems by limiting the growth of government spending:

America’s long-run fiscal outlook is bleak, mostly because of an aging population and rising health care costs. To close the gap between expenditures and revenue, …we’ll need to focus especially on reducing spending, largely because that taxes on the wealthy can be raised only so high. …Higher income tax rates would discourage hard work and encourage tax avoidance, thereby defeating the purpose of the tax increases. …Higher levels of government spending and taxation would also soak up resources that might otherwise foster innovation and new businesses. And sentiment would most likely turn ever stronger against those immigrants who consume public services and make the deficit higher in the short run. …The macroeconomic evidence also suggests the wisdom of emphasizing spending cuts. In a recent paper, Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna, economics professors at Harvard, found that in developed countries, spending cuts were the key to successful fiscal adjustments — and were generally better for the economy than tax increases. …The received wisdom in the United States is that deep spending cuts are politically impossible. But a number of economically advanced countries, including Sweden, Finland, Canada and, most recently, Ireland, have cut their government budgets when needed. Most relevant, perhaps, is Canada, which cut federal government spending by about 20 percent from 1992 to 1997.

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