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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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