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Posts Tagged ‘Austerity’

I wrote yesterday about a very depressing development in the United Kingdom. Politicians in that country – including some supposed fiscal conservatives – are contemplating a big expansion in the burden of government spending in order to give pay hikes to the bureaucracy.

What makes this so unfortunate is that the country has been making fiscal progress. Ever since 2010, government spending has grown by an average of 1.6 percent annually. And since the private economy has expanded at a faster pace, this period of restraint has satisfied my golden rule. In other words, the public sector – though still very large – is now a smaller burden on the private sector.

This progress could be quickly reversed, though, with a new spending binge. And it would be especially foolish to throw in the towel just to give more money to government employees. Just like in the U.S., bureaucrats already are overcompensated compared to their counterparts in the productive sector of the economy.

Let’s take a closer look at whether U.K. policymakers should end “austerity” and expand the relative burden of government spending.

The Centre for Policy Studies in London has examined the issue, and this new research from CPS debunks the notion that there should be large increases in bureaucrat compensation.

But since we covered that topic yesterday, let’s focus instead on what CPS discovered when reviewing the impact of spending restraint on various economic aggregates.

…when examining OECD countries that were left with a large budget deficit in 2010 (those countries with a deficit of over 5% of GDP in 2010), it appears that there is a strong correlation between those countries that cut spending by a higher degree, on average, and countries which achieved a larger reduction in deficit, higher average growth rates, a larger fall in proportionate unemployment and marginally better wage growth (see Figures 5, 6, 7 and 8). Of course, correlation does not necessarily mean causation. However, this provides strong evidence that there is no link between austerity and lower growth, higher unemployment and weaker wage growth.

Let’s look at the charts referenced in the excerpt.

We’ll start with Figure 5, which looks at relationship between spending restraint and deficit reduction. Nobody should be surprised to see that the symptom of red ink shrinks when there’s a reduction in the underlying disease of too much government spending.

I think the most important data is contained in Figure 6, which maps the relationship between economic growth and spending restraint. As you can see, a lower burden of government spending is associated with better economic performance.

There’s also a connection between smaller government and lower joblessness, as shown in Figure 7.

Last but not least, Figure 8 shows the positive relationship between lower spending and higher wages.

As explained in the CPS report, correlation is not causation. But since these results are in sync with research from academic scholars (and even research from left-leaning bureaucracies such as the IMF, World Bank, and OECD), the only prudent conclusion is that the U.K. should not give up on fiscal responsibility.

And perhaps the real lesson is that a constitutional spending cap should be enacted whenever a consensus for good policy materializes. That way, there’s a much lower risk of backsliding when politicians get weak-kneed.

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In the world of fiscal policy, there are actually two big debates.

  1. One debate revolves around the appropriate size of government in the long run. Folks on the left argue that government spending generates a lot of value and that bigger government is a recipe for more prosperity. Libertarians and their allies, by contrast, point out that most forms of government spending are counterproductive and that large public sectors (and the accompanying taxes) undermine economic performance.
  2. The other debate is focused on short-run economic effects, and revolves around the “Keynesian” argument that more government spending is a “stimulus” to a weak economy and that budget-cutting “austerity” hurts growth. Libertarians and other critics are generally skeptical that government spending boosts short-run growth and instead argue that the right kind of austerity (i.e., a lower burden of government spending) is the appropriate approach.

Back in 2009 and 2010, I wrote a lot about the Keynesian stimulus fight. In more recent years, however, I have focused more on the debate over the growth-maximizing size of government.

But it’s time to revisit the stimulus/austerity debate. The National Bureau of Economic Research last month released a new study by five economists (two from Harvard, one from NYU, and two from Italian universities) reviewing the real-world evidence on fiscal consolidation (i.e., reducing red ink) over the past several decades.

This paper studies whether what matters most is the “when” (whether an adjustment is carried out during an expansion, or a recession) or the “how” (i.e. the composition of the adjustment, whether it is mostly based on tax increases, or on spending cuts). …We estimate a model which allows for both sources of non-linearity: “when” and “how”.

Here’s a bit more about the methodology.

The fiscal consolidations we study are those implemented by 16 OECD countries (Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom, United States) between 1981 and 2014. …We also decompose each adjustment in its two components: changes in taxes and in spending. …we use a specification in which the economy, following the shift in fiscal policy, can move from one state to another. We also allow multipliers to vary depending on the type of consolidation, tax-based vs expenditure-based. …Our government expenditure variable is total government spending net of interest payments on the debt: that is we do not distinguish between government consumption, government investment, transfers (social security benefits etc) and other government outlays. …In total we have 170 plans and 216 episodes, of which about two-thirds are EB and one-third are TB.

By the way, “EB” refers to “expenditure based” fiscal consolidations and “TB” refers to “tax based” consolidations.

And you can see from Table 5 that some countries focused more on tax increases and others were more focused on trying to restrain spending.

Congratulations to Canada and Sweden for mostly or totally eschewing tax hikes.

Though I wonder how many of the 113 “EB” plans involved genuine spending reforms (probably very few based on this data) and how many were based on the fake-spending-cuts approach that is common in the United States.

But I’m digressing.

Let’s now look at some findings from the NBER study, starting with the fact that most consolidations took place during downturns, which certainly wouldn’t please Keynesians, but shouldn’t be too surprising since red ink tend to rise during such periods.

…there is a relation between the timing and the type of fiscal adjustment and the state of the economy. Overall, adjustment plans are much more likely to be introduced during a recession. There was a consolidation in 62 out of 99 years of recession…, while we record a consolidation in only 13 over 94 years of expansion. …it is somewhat surprising that a majority of the shifts in fiscal policy devoted to reducing deficits are implemented during recessions.

And here are the results that really matter. The economists crunched the numbers and found that tax increases impose considerable damage, whereas spending cuts cause very little harm to short-run performance.

We find that the composition of fiscal adjustments is more important than the state of the cycle in determining their effect on output. Fiscal adjustments based upon spending cuts are much less costly in terms of short run output losses – such losses are in fact on average close to zero – than those based upon tax increases which are associated with large and prolonged recessions regardless of whether the adjustment starts in a recession or not. …what matters for the short run output cost of fiscal consolidations is the composition of the adjustment. Tax-based adjustments are costly in terms of output losses. Expenditure-based ones have on average very low costs.

These findings are remarkable. Even I’m willing to accept that spending cuts may be painful in the short run (not because of Keynesian reasons, but simply because resources don’t instantaneously get reallocated to more productive uses).

So if the economists who wrote this comprehensive study find that there is very little short-run dislocation associated with spending cuts, that’s powerful evidence.

And when you then consider all the data and research showing the positive long-run effects of smaller government, this certainly suggests that the top fiscal priority should be shrinking the size and scope of government.

P.S. I mentioned above that Keynesians doubtlessly get agitated that governments engage in fiscal consolidation during downturns. This is why I’m trying to get them to support spending caps. The good news, from their perspective, is that the government’s budget would be allowed to grow when there’s a recession, albeit not very rapidly. The tradeoff that they must accept, however, is that spending would be limited to that modest growth rate even during years when there’s strong growth and the private sector is generating lots of tax revenue.

Honest Keynesians presumably should yes to this deal since Keynes wanted restraint during growth years to offset “stimulus” during recession years. And economists at left-leaning international bureaucracies seem sympathetic to this tradeoff. I don’t think there are many honest Keynesians in the political world, however, so I’m not expecting to get a lot of support from my leftist friends in Washington.

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We can learn a lot of economic lessons from Europe.

Today, we’re going to focus on another lesson, which is that higher taxes lead to more red ink. And let’s hope Hillary Clinton is paying attention.

I’ve already made the argument, using European fiscal data to show that big increases in the tax burden over the past several decades have resulted in much higher levels of government debt.

But let’s now augment that argument by considering what’s happened in recent years.

There’s been a big fiscal crisis in Europe, which has forced governments to engage in austerity.

But the type of austerity matters. A lot.

Here’s some of what I wrote back in 2014.

…austerity is a catch-all phrase that includes bad policy (higher taxes) and good policy (spending restraint). But with a few notable exceptions, European nations have been choosing the wrong kind of austerity (even though Paul Krugman doesn’t seem to know the difference).

And when I claim politicians in Europe have chosen the wrong kind of austerity, that’s not hyperbole.

As of 2012, there were €9 of tax hikes for every €1 of supposed spending cuts according to one estimate. That’s even worse than some of the terrible budget deals we’ve seen in Washington.

At this point, a clever statist will accuse me of sour grapes and state that I’m simply unhappy that politicians opted for policies I don’t like.

I’ll admit to being unhappy, but my real complaint is that higher tax burdens don’t work.

And you don’t have to believe me. We have some new evidence from an international bureaucracy based in Europe.

In a working paper for the European Central Bank, Maria Grazia Attinasi and Luca Metelli crunch the numbers to determine if and when “austerity” works in Europe.

…many Euro area countries have adopted fiscal consolidation measures in an attempt to reduce fiscal imbalances…in most cases, fiscal consolidation did not result, at least in the short run, in a reduction in the debt-to-GDP ratio…calls for a more temperate approach to fiscal consolidation have increased on the ground that the drag of fiscal restraint on economic growth could lead to an increase rather than a decrease in the debt-to-GDP ratio, as such fiscal consolidation may turn out to be self-defeating. …The aim of this paper is to investigate the effects of fiscal consolidation on the general government debt-to-GDP ratio in order to assess whether and under which conditions self defeating effects are likely to materialise and whether they tend to be short-lived or more persistent over time.

Now let’s look at the results of their research.

It turns out that austerity does work, but only if it’s the right kind. The authors find that spending cuts are successful and higher tax burdens backfire.

The main finding of our analysis is that…In the case of revenue-based consolidations the increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio tends to be larger and to last longer than in the case of spending-based consolidations. The composition also matters for the long term effects of fiscal consolidations. Spending-based consolidations tend to generate a durable reduction of the debt-to-GDP ratio compared to the pre-shock level, whereas revenue-based consolidations do not produce any lasting improvement in the sustainability prospects as the debt-to-GDP ratio tends to revert to the pre-shock level. …strategy is more likely to succeed when the consolidation strategy relies on a durable reduction of spending, whereas revenue-based consolidations do not appear to bring about a durable improvement in debt sustainability.

Unfortunately, European politicians generally have chosen the wrong approach.

This is an important policy lesson also in view of the fact that revenue-based consolidations tend to be the preferred form of austerity, at least in the short run, given also the political costs that a durable reduction in government spending entail.

Here are a few important observations from the study’s conclusion.

…the findings of our analysis are in line with those of the literature on successful consolidation, namely that the composition of fiscal consolidation matters and that a durable reduction in the debt-to-GDP ratio is more likely to be achieved if consolidation is implemented on the expenditure side, rather than on the revenue side. In particular, when fiscal consolidation is implemented via an increase in taxation, the debt-to-GDP ratio reverts back to its pre-shock level only in the long run, thus failing to generate an improvement in the debt ratio, and producing what we call a self-defeating fiscal consolidation. …fiscally stressed countries benefit from an immediate reduction in the level of debt when reducing spending.

In other words, restraining the growth of spending is the best way to reduce red ink. Heck, it’s the only way.

When debating my leftists friends, I frequently share this table showing nations that have obtained very good results with multi-year periods of spending restraint.

My examples are from all over the world and cover all sorts of economic conditions. And the results repetitively show that when you deal with the underlying problem of too much government, you automatically improve the symptom of red ink.

I then ask my statist pals to show me a similar table of data for countries that have achieved good results with higher taxes.

I’m still waiting for an answer.

Which is why the only good austerity is spending restraint.

P.S. Paul Krugman is remarkably sloppy and inaccurate when writing about austerity. Check out his errors when commenting on the United Kingdom, Germany, and Estonia.

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I wrote last month that the debt burden in Greece doesn’t preclude economic recovery. After all, both the United States and (especially) the United Kingdom had enormous debt burdens after World War II, yet those record levels of red ink didn’t prevent growth.

Climbing out of the debt hole didn’t require anything miraculous. Neither the United States nor the United Kingdom had great economic policy during the post-war decades. They didn’t even comply with Mitchell’s Golden Rule on spending.

But both nations managed to at least shrink the relative burden of debt by having the private sector grow faster than red ink. And the recipe for that is very simple.

…all that’s needed is a semi-sincere effort to avoid big deficits, combined with a semi-decent amount of economic growth. Which is an apt description of…policy between WWII and the 1970s.

Greece could achieve that goal, particularly if politicians would allow faster growth. The government could reduce red tape, which would be a good start since the nation ranks a miserable #114 for regulation in Economic Freedom of the World.

But Greece also should try to reverse some of the economy-stifling tax increases that have been imposed in recent years.

That may seem a challenge considering the level of red ink, but good tax policy would be possible if the Greek government was more aggressive about reducing the burden of government spending.

And if that’s the goal, then the Baltic nations are a good role model, as explained by Anders Aslund in the Berlin Policy Journal. With Latvia being the star pupil.

…austerity policies have not been attempted most aggressively in Greece: all three Baltic countries pursued more aggressive fiscal adjustments, especially Latvia. The Latvian government faced the global financial crisis head-on. …The Latvian government carried out a fiscal adjustment of 8.8 percent of GDP in 2009 and 5.9 percent of GDP in 2010, amounting to a fiscal adjustment of 14.7 percent of GDP over the course of two years, totaling 17.5 percent of GDP over four years, according to IMF calculations. Greece did the opposite. According to the IMF, its fiscal adjustment in the initial crisis year of 2010 was a paltry 2.5 percent of GDP, and in 2011 only 4.1 percent, a total of only 6.6 percent of GDP over two years. Greece’s total fiscal adjustment over four years was only 11.1 percent of GDP.

In other words, Latvia (like the other Baltic nations) did more reform and did it faster.

And it’s also worth noting that the reforms were generally the right kind of austerity, meaning that expenditure commitments were reduced.

Whereas Greece has implemented some expenditure reforms, but has relied far more on tax increases.

Better policy, not surprisingly, meant better results.

In 2008-10 Latvia suffered an output decline of 24 percent, as much as Greece did in the six-year span from 2009-14. However, thanks to its front-loaded fiscal adjustment, Latvia was able to restore its public finances after two years. The country has shown solid economic growth, averaging 4.3 percent per year from 2011-14, according to Eurostat. …The consequences of tepid Greek fiscal stabilization have been a devastating six years of declining output, even as the Latvian economy has revived. In 2013 Latvia’s GDP at constant prices was 4 percent lower than in 2008, while Greece’s was 23 percent less than in 2008, according to the IMF. A cumulative difference in GDP development of 19 percentage points over six years cannot be a statistical blip – it is real.

The bottom line is that Latvia and the other Baltics were willing to endure more short-term pain in order to achieve a quicker economic rebound.

That was a wise choice, particularly since the alternative, as we see in Greece, is seemingly permanent stagnation.

Anders Paalzow of the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga also suggests, in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, that Latvia is a good role model.

Professor Paalzow starts by explaining that Latvia is now enjoying good growth after enduring a dramatic boom-bust cycle last decade.

In 2008, Europe’s most overheated economy, which had been fuelled by cheap credit and rapidly raising wages and real estate prices, collapsed. GDP dropped by 20 percent and unemployment rose to more than 20 percent. But here’s where things take an unexpected turn. By late 2010, the first glimmers of recovery became apparent. Today, the economy is among Europe’s fastest growing, and its GDP is back at pre-crisis levels. So how did Latvia, the hero of this story, do it?

The first thing to understand is that Latvia was determined to join the eurozone, so that meant it wasn’t going to devalue its currency in hopes of inflating away its problems. Which meant the only other choice was “internal devaluation.”

…the Latvian government’s only real option was fiscal policy adjustment, the details of which it unveiled in its supplementary budget for 2009 and its budget for 2010. Both of these saw substantial reductions in social benefits accompanied by long overdue cuts in public employment with close to 30 percent of civil servants laid off. Those who remained in the public sector saw their salaries cut by 25 percent, on average, whereas salaries in the private sector fell by on average ten percent. …the reductions made during the crisis years amounted to approximately 11 percent of GDP. Most of the fiscal consolidation was done on the expenditure side of the public budget… The fiscal consolidation program continued into 2011 and the years following, even though the economy started to grow again.

Not only did the economy grow, but the government was rewarded for making tough choices.

…in 2010, the government responsible for austerity was reelected.

But here’s the challenge. Professor Paalzow warns that fiscal reforms won’t mean much unless the chronic dysfunction of the Greek government is somehow addressed.

The importance of the institutional framework cannot be overestimated. …it seems like a fool’s errand to try to sell off the public assets of a country riddled with high corruption… Furthermore, with a legal system incapable of enforcing current legislation and characterized by slow judicial processes, inefficient courts, and weak investor protection, legal reform will be a necessary condition for an economic turnaround.

So he suggests that Latvian-type fiscal reforms should be accompanied by Nordic-style institutional reforms.

Greece should look further north to Finland and Sweden, which overcame their own crises in the early 1990s. …The three to four years following the initial economic disaster saw remarkable institutional reform…substantial changes in both welfare systems. …both countries pursued austerity…, a remedy that both nations had frequently tried in the 1970s and 1980s without any success. What made the difference this time was that the institutional, and hence the fundamental roots, of the problems were addressed.

While I like his prescription, I suspect Paalzow is being too optimistic.

You can’t turn the Greeks into Finns or Swedes, at least not without some sort of massive jolt.

Which is why my preferred policy is to end bailouts, even if it means that Greece repudiates its existing debt. If the Greeks no longer got any handouts, that necessarily would mean an immediate end to deficit spending (assuming the government doesn’t ditch the euro in order to finance spending by printing drachmas).

Welfare State Wagon CartoonsAnd that might be a very sobering experience that would teach the Greek people about the dangers of having too many people trying to ride in the wagon of government dependency.

That might not turn the Greeks into Nordics, but it presumably would help them understand that you can’t (at least in the long run) consume more than you produce.

That’s also a lesson that some American politicians need to learn!

P.S. I wonder if Paul Krugman will attack Latvia’s good reforms. When he went after Estonia for adopting similar policies, he wound up with egg on his face.

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The conventional wisdom, pushed by the IMF and others, is that Greece’s economy will never recover unless there is substantial debt relief.

Translated into English, that means the Greek government should be allowed to break the contracts it made with the people and institutions that lent money to Greece. That may mean a “haircut,” which would mean lenders (often called creditors) only get back some of what they’ve been promised, or a “default,” which would mean they get none of the money they were promised.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Greece has a full or partial default. And that actually might not be a bad result if it meant an end to bailouts and Greece was immediately forced to balance its budget.

But let’s set that issue aside and look at the specific issue of whether Greece’s debt is unsustainable. Here’s a look at Greek government debt, measured as a share of economic output.

As you can see, when the crisis started in Greece, government debt was about 100 percent of GDP.

Was Greece doomed at that point?

Well, if the situation was hopeless, then someone needs to explain why the United States didn’t collapse after World War II.

As you can see from this chart, debt climbed to more than 100 percent of economic output because of the heavy expense of defeating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Yet the American economy rebounded after the war (notwithstanding dire predictions from Keynesians) and the debt burden shrank.

So maybe the more interesting issue is to look at how America reduced its debt burden after 1945, which may give us some insights into what should happen (or should have happened) in Greece.

Here’s one question to consider: Did the burden of the federal debt drop between the end of World War II and the 1970s because of big budget surpluses?

Nope. If you look at Table 7.1 of OMB’s Historical Tables, you’ll see that there was a steady increase in the amount of government debt in America after 1945. Yes, there were a few years with budget surpluses, but those surpluses were more than offset by years with budget deficits.

The reason that the national debt shrank as a share of economic output was completely the result of the economy growing faster than the debt.

Here’s an analogy. Imagine you graduate from college and you have $20,000 of credit card debt. That might be a very big burden relative to your income.

But in your 50s and (hopefully) earning a lot more money, you might have $40,000 of credit card debt, yet be in a much stronger financial position.

So the real issue for Greece (and Spain, and Japan, and the United States, etc) is not so much whether the amount of debt shrinks. It’s whether debt is constrained compared to private-sector growth.

That doesn’t require any sort of miracle. Yes, it would be nice if Greece and other nations decided to become like Hong Kong and Singapore, high-growth economies thanks to small government and non-interventionism.

But all that’s needed is a semi-sincere effort to avoid big deficits, combined with a semi-decent amount of economic growth. Which is an apt description of U.S. policy between WWII and the 1970s.

Is it unreasonable to ask Greece to follow that model?

Some may say Greece is now in a different situation because debt levels have climbed too high. Debt in the United States peaked a bit above 100 percent of GDP at the end of World War II, whereas government debt in Greece is now closer to 200 percent of GDP.

It’s certainly true that today’s debt burden in Greece is higher than America’s post-WWII debt burden. So let’s look at another example.

Government debt in the United Kingdom jumped to almost 250 percent of economic output by the end of the World War II.

Did that cause the U.K. economy to collapse? Did Britain have to default?

The answer to both questions is no.

The United Kingdom simply did what America did. It combined a semi-sincere effort to avoid big deficits with a semi-decent amount of economic growth.

And the result, as you can see from the above graph, is that debt fell sharply as a share of GDP.

In other words, Greece can fulfill its promises and pay its bills. And the recipe isn’t that difficult. Simply impose a modest bit of spending restraint and enact a modest amount of pro-growth reforms.

Unfortunately, prior bailouts have given Greece an excuse to avoid reforms. Though the IMF, ECB and European Commission (the so-called troika) have learned somewhat from those mistakes and are now making greater demands of the Greek government as a condition of another bailout.

The problem is the troika doesn’t seem to understand what’s really needed in Greece. They’re pushing for lots of tax increases, which will make it hard for Greece’s private sector to generate growth. The only good news (or, to be more accurate, less bad news) is that the troika doesn’t want as many tax hikes as the Greek government would like.

In other words, don’t be too optimistic about the long-run outcome. Which is basically what I said in this interview on Canadian TV.

The bottom line is that a rescue of the Greek economy is possible. But so long as nobody with any power wants to make the right kind of reforms, don’t hold your breath waiting for good results.

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It’s remarkable to read that European politicians are agitating to spend more money, supposedly to make up for “spending cuts” and austerity.

To put it mildly, their Keynesian-based arguments reflect a reality-optional understanding of recent fiscal policy on the other side of the Atlantic.

Here’s some of what Leonid Bershidsky wrote for Bloomberg.

Just as France’s and Italy’s poor economic results prompt the leaders of the euro area’s second and third biggest economies to step up their fight against fiscal austerity, it might be appropriate to ask whether they even know what that is.

An excellent question. As I’ve already explained, austerity is a catch-all phrase that includes bad policy (higher taxes) and good policy (spending restraint).

But with a few notable exceptions, European nations have been choosing the wrong kind of austerity (even though Paul Krugman doesn’t seem to know the difference).

As a result, the real problem of bloated government keeps getting worse.

Government spending in the European Union, and in the euro zone in particular, is now significantly higher than before the 2008 financial crisis. …Among the 28 EU members, public spending reached 49 percent of gross domestic product in 2013, 3.5 percentage points more than in 2007.

Here’s a chart showing how the burden of government spending has become more onerous since 2007.

As you can see, all the big nations of Western Europe have moved in the wrong direction.

Only a small handful of countries in Eastern Europe that have trimmed the size of the public sector.

Bershidsky does explain that the numbers today are slightly better than they were at the peak of the economic downturn, though not because of genuine fiscal restraint.

The spending-to-GDP-ratio first ballooned by 2009, exceeding 50 percent for the EU as a whole, and then shrank a little… That, however, was not the result of government’s austerity efforts: Rather, the spending didn’t go down as much as the economies collapsed, and then didn’t grow in line with the modest rebound.

Here are some examples he shared.

I suppose France deserves a special shout out for managing to expand the size of government between 2009 and 2013. That’s what you call real commitment to statism!

The article also cites an example that is both amusing and tragic, at least in the sense that there’s no genuine seriousness about reforming hte public sector.

Even when spending cuts are made…, the whole public spending system’s glaring inadequacy is not affected. …The ushers at the Italian Parliament, whose job is to carry messages in their imposing gold-braided uniforms, made $181,590 a year by the time they retired, but will only make as much as $140,000 after Renzi’s courageous cut. If you wonder what on earth could be wrong with getting rid of them altogether and just using e-mail, you just don’t get European public expenditure.

I particularly embrace Bershidsky’s conclusion.

There is no rational justification for European governments to insist on higher spending levels than in 2007. The post-crisis years have shown that in Italy, and in the EU was a whole, increased reliance on government spending drives up sovereign debt but doesn’t result in commensurate growth. The idea of a fiscal multiplier of more than one — every euro spent by the government coming back as a euro plus change in growth — obviously has not worked. In fact, increased government interference in the economy, in the form of higher borrowing and spending as well as increased regulation, have led to the shrinking of private credit.  …Unreformed government spending is a hindrance, not a catalyst for growth.

Amen.

Politicians will never want to hear this message, but government spending undermines economic performance by diverting resources from the the economy’s productive sector.

Here’s my video on the theoretical evidence against government spending.

And here’s the video looking at the empirical evidence against excessive spending.

P.S. Other Europeans who have correctly analyzed Europe’s spending problem include Constantin Gurdgiev and Fredrik Erixon.

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Regular readers know that good fiscal policy takes place when government spending grows slower than the private economy.

Nations that maintain this Golden Rule for extended periods of time shrink the relative burden of government spending, thus enabling more growth by freeing up resources for the productive sector of the economy and creating leeway for lower tax rates.

And when countries deal with the underlying disease of too much spending, they automatically solve the symptom of red ink, so it’s a win-win situation whether you’re a spending hawk or a so-called deficit hawk.

With this in mind, let’s look at some interesting new research from the Heritage Foundation. They’ve produced a report entitled Europe’s Fiscal Crisis Revealed: An In-Depth Analysis of Spending, Austerity, and Growth.

It focuses on fiscal policy over the past few years and is an important contribution in two big ways. First, it shows that the Keynesian free-lunch approach is counterproductive. Second, it shows that the right kind of fiscal consolidation (i.e., spending restraint) generates superior results.

Here are some excerpts from the chapter by Professor Alberto Alesina of Harvard of Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center. They look at some of the academic evidence.

The debate over the merits of austerity (the implementation of debt-reduction packages) is frustrating. Most people focus only on deficit reduction, but that can be achieved in many different ways. Some ways, such as raising taxes, deeply hurt growth… The data show that austerity has been implemented in Europe. However, with some rare exceptions, the forms of austerity were heavy on tax increases and far from involving savage spending cuts. …spending-based adjustments are more likely to reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio, regardless of whether fiscal adjustments are defined in terms of improvements in the cyclically adjusted primary budget deficit or in terms of premeditated policy changes designed to improve a country’s fiscal outlook. …Other research has found that fiscal adjustments based mostly on the spending side are less likely to be reversed and, as a result, have led to more long-lasting reductions in debt-to-GDP ratios. …successful fiscal adjustments are often rooted in reform of social programs and reductions in the size and pay of the government workforce rather than in other types of spending cuts. …tax increases failed to reduce the debt and were associated with large recessions. …growing evidence suggests that private investment tends to react more positively to spending-based adjustments. For instance, data from Alesina and Ardagna and from Alesina, Favero, and Giavazzi show that private-sector capital accumulation increases after governments cut spending.

The basic message of the Alesina-de Rugy chapter is that bad outcomes are largely unavoidable when nations spend themselves into fiscal trouble, but the damage can be minimized if policy makers impose spending restraint.

The Heritage Foundation’s Salim Furth is the editor of the report, and here’s some of what he wrote in Chapter 3, which looks at what’s happened in recent years as countries dealt with fiscal crisis.

Tax austerity is very harmful to growth, while spending cuts are partially replaced by private-sector activity, making them less harmful. …Estimating growth effects on private GDP, the difference between tax and spending multipliers grows predictably. A two-dollar decline in private GDP is associated with every dollar of tax increases, but spending cuts are associated with no change in private GDP.  …fiscal consolidation that relied 60 percentage points more on spending cuts was associated with 3.1 percentage points more GDP growth from 2009 to 2012, when average growth was just 3.3 percent over the entire period. In other words, a country that had a fiscal consolidation composed of 80 percent of spending cuts and 20 percent of tax increases would grow much more rapidly than a country in which only 20 percent of the consolidation was spending cuts and 80 percent was tax increases. The association is slightly stronger for private GDP.

Salim then cites a couple of powerful examples.

…the difference between Germany’s 8 percent growth from 2009 to 2012 and the 1 percent growth in the Netherlands is largely accounted for by Germany’s cut-spending, cut-taxes approach and the Netherlands’ raise-spending, raise-taxes approach. The U.K. and Italy enacted similarly-sized austerity packages, but Italy’s was half tax increases while the U.K. favored spending cuts. Neither country excelled, but over half of the gap between the U.K.’s 3 percent growth and Italy’s negative growth is explained by Italy’s tax increases.

By the way, it’s not as if Germany and the United Kingdom are stellar examples of fiscal restraint. It’s just that they’re doing better than nations that traveled down the path of even bigger government.

Regarding supposed Keynesian stimulus, Salim makes a very important point that more government spending seems positive in the short run, sort of like the fiscal version of a sugar high.

But that sugar high produces a bad hangover. Nations that try Keynesianism quickly fall behind countries with more prudent policy.

Government spending boosts GDP instantly and then crowds out private spending slowly. The incentive effects of taxation may take effect over several years, but they are permanent and especially pronounced in investment. If anything, this recent crisis shows how brief the short run is: Countries whose spending-focused stimulus put them one step ahead in 2010 were already two steps behind in 2012.

There’s a lot more in the report, so I encourage readers to give it a look.

I particularly like that it emphasizes the importance of properly defining “austerity” and “fiscal consolidation.” These are issues that I highlighted in my discussion with John Stossel.

Another great thing about the report is that it has all sorts of useful data.

Though much of it is depressing. Here’s Chart 2-9 from the report and it shows all the countries that have increased top marginal tax rates between 2007 and 2013.

Portugal wins the booby prize for the biggest tax hike, though many nations went down this class-warfare path. Including the United States thanks to Obama’s fiscal cliff tax increase.

The United Kingdom is an interesting case. It raised its top rate by 10 percentage points, but then cut the rate by 5 percentage points after it became apparent that the higher rate wasn’t collecting any additional revenue.

We should give credit to the handful of nations that have lowered tax rates, several of which replaced discriminatory systems with simple and fair flat taxes.

Though it’s also important to keep in mind where each nation started. Switzerland lowered it’s top rate by only 0.4 percentage points, which seems small compared to Denmark, which dropped its top rate by 6.7 percentage points.

But Switzerland started with a much lower rate, whereas Denmark has one of the world’s most punitive tax regimes (though, paradoxically, it is very laissez-faire in areas other than fiscal policy).

Let’s look at the same data, but from a different perspective. Chart 2-10 shows how many nations (from a list of 37) raised top rates or lowered top rates each year.

The good news is that tax cutters out-numbered tax-hikers in 2008 and 2009.

The bad news is that tax increases have dominated ever since 2010.

Many of these post-2009 tax hikes were enabled by a weakening of tax competition, which underscores why it is so important to preserve the right of jurisdictions to maintain competitive tax systems.

And don’t forget that tax policy will probably get even worse in the future because of aging populations and poorly designed entitlement programs.

Let’s close with some more numbers.

Here’s Table 2-5 from the report. It shows changes in the value-added tax (VAT) beginning in December 2008.

The key thing to notice is that there’s no column for decreases in the VAT. That’s because no nation lowered that levy. Practically speaking, this hidden form of a national sales tax is a money machine for bigger government.

But you don’t have to believe me. The International Monetary Fund unintentionally provided the data showing that VATs are the most effective tax for financing bigger government.

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