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Posts Tagged ‘Belgium’

I periodically explain that a European-sized welfare state can only be financed by huge taxes on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers.

Simply stated, there aren’t enough rich people to prop up big government. Moreover, at the risk of mixing my animal metaphors, those golden geese also have a tendency to fly away if they’re being treated like fatted calves.

I have some additional evidence to share on this issue, thanks to a new report from the Tax Foundation. The research specifically looks at the tax burden on the average worker in developed nations

The tax burden on labor is referred to as a “tax wedge,” which simply refers to the difference between an employer’s cost of an employee and the employee’s net disposable income. …The OECD calculates the tax burden by adding together the income tax payment, employee-side payroll tax payment, and employer-side payroll tax payment of a worker earning the average wage in a country. …Although payroll taxes are typically split between workers and their employers, economists generally agree that both sides of the payroll tax ultimately fall on workers.

The bad news for workers (and the good news for politicians) is that average workers in the advanced world loses more than one-third of their income to government.

In some cases, such as the unfortunate Spanish household I wrote about back in February, the government steals two-thirds of a worker’s income.

So which country is best for workers and which is worst?

Here’s a look at a map showing the tax burden for selected European nations.

Suffice to say, it’s not good to be dark red.

But that map doesn’t provide a complete answer.

To really determine the best and worst countries, the Tax Foundation made an important correction to the OECD data by including the burden of the value-added tax. Here’s why it matters.

The tax burden on labor is broader than personal income taxes and payroll taxes. In many countries individuals also pay a value-added tax (VAT) on their consumption. Because a VAT diminishes the purchasing power of individual earnings, a more complete picture of the tax burden should include the VAT. Although the United States does not have a VAT, state sales taxes also work to diminish the purchasing power of earnings. Accounting for VAT rates and bases in OECD countries increased the tax burden on labor by 5 percentage-points on average in 2018.

And with that important fix, we can confidently state that the worst country for ordinary workers is Belgium, followed by Germany, Austria, France, and Italy.

The best country, assuming we’re limiting the conversation to rich countries, is Switzerland, followed by New Zealand, South Korea, Israel, and the United States.

By the way, this report just looks at the tax burden on average workers. We would also need estimates of the tax burden on things such as investment, business, and entrepreneurship to judge the overall merit (or lack thereof) of various tax regimes.

Let’s close by looking at the nations that have moved the most in the right direction and wrong direction this century.

Congratulations to Hungary, Israel, and Sweden.

I’m not surprised to see Mexico galloping in the wrong direction, though I’m disappointed that South Korea and Iceland are also deteriorating.

P.S. The bottom line is that global evidence confirms that ordinary people will be the ones paying the tab if Crazy Bernie and AOC succeed in expanding the burden of government spending in America. Though they’re not honest enough to admit it.

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Given the routine corruption and reckless spending in Washington, I frequently get asked how I keep my sanity.

It’s possible, as some of my friends argue, that I’m not actually sane. That would explain why I try to put my finger in the dyke of big government as more and more new leaks keep developing. Only a crazy person would fight against big government when politicians and bureaucrats have a “public choice” incentive to do the wrong thing.

Moreover, if “victory” is restoring the kind of limited government envisioned by the Founding Fathers, then there’s a 99.99 percent chance all my efforts will be wasted.

But allow me to offer a reason for optimism. What if we decide that “victory” is simply hindering the growth of government so that the private sector has enough “breathing room” to continue making our lives richer and better?

That’s the basic message of Human Progress, Marian Tupy’s website showing how the world is constantly improving. And we see good long-run developments from Economic Freedom of the World.

In other words, we don’t need to achieve Libertarian Nirvana. We just need to throw sand in the gears of government.

And that’s why I don’t think my life is pointless. To be sure, I haven’t given up on my dream of replacing the odious internal revenue code with a flat tax, but if the only thing I achieve is to protect America from a value-added tax, I’ll nonetheless go to my grave feeling like I did something very valuable for my country.

But there’s something else that keeps me sane. I also enjoy laughing at government. I regularly write about “great moments” in government and point out that incompetence and stupidity is a regular feature of the federal government, of state governments, and of local governments.

And I also enjoy mocking the spectacular screw-ups and bizarre blunders that are a feature of foreign governments as well.

And that’s our topic for today. So let’s start with this story from India about a very unusual example of vote buying.

A south Indian state has become possibly the first in the world to offer publicly-funded breast implants, its health minister arguing, “Why should beauty treatment not be available to the poor?” The Tamil Nadu state health department on Wednesday launched the free service at a clinic in the capital Chennai. …The clinic had already been providing breast reconstruction surgery for cancer patients, but was now extending the service for people who wished to alter the size of their breasts for other health or cosmetic reasons. The head of plastic surgery at the clinic, Dr V Ramadevi, said some of her patients…sought to augment or shrink their breasts for a boost in confidence. “There is a psychological benefit. Many girls who have larger breasts don’t like to go out. There is no reason this surgery should be restricted from the poor.” The procedure would also be available to men, she said. …Tamil Nadu’s government is known for its largesse, particularly under former chief minister Jayalalithaa, who pioneered free food canteens and doled out wedding jewellery and venues to the poor.

I’ve previously reported on crazy examples of government policy in India, so I suppose this story shouldn’t surprise me.

And since taxpayer-financed cosmetic surgery exists in the United Kingdom and the United States, Indian taxpayers can take solace that they’re not alone.

Now let’s go to Belgium, where there’s apparently a problem with rogue royalty.

Prince Laurent of Belgium has had his monthly allowance docked for a year, after a vote by the country’s federal parliament. The sanction was imposed after the prince attended a Chinese embassy reception last year without government permission, in full naval uniform. Lawmakers voted for a 15% cut to his €307,000 (£270,000; $378,000) annual allowance. …Prince Laurent, who is the younger brother of King Philippe, wrote a lengthy emotional letter to parliament before the vote on his endowment, arguing that, as a royal, he is unable to work for a living. He described the vote as “the trial of my life” and said it would “likely cause me serious prejudice” if MPs went against him. …The prince, 54, said the royal family had obstructed his attempts to be financially independent. …Lawmakers ultimately rejected his claim that no citizen of their country had been so exploited, voting to cut his stipend by 93 to 23 votes. …He had previously been criticised for attending meetings in Libya when the late Muammar Gaddafi was still in power, and making an unsanctioned 2011 trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a former Belgian colony.

I suppose this is a feel-good story in that politicians actually voted to cut spending.

Though we should never forget that this is the country where the public sector consumes half of economic output but officials actually complained that it’s hard to fight terrorism because of “the small size of the Belgian government.”

Now it’s time for ar stop in Malaysia, where corrupt politicians spent the country into debt and now they want taxpayers to voluntarily cough up extra money.

When Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad unexpectedly won his bid for office in May, he pledged to…get the country’s $250 billion worth of debt under control. And this week, he announced the government had found a way to at least get started: crowdfunding. Within 24 hours, the “Malaysia Hope Fund” raised almost $2 million, the BBC reported. “The rakyat (people) voluntarily want to share their earnings with the government to help ease the burden,” the finance ministry said in a statement, announcing that it would be accepting donations to a special fund set up to help relieve the country’s debt. …The crowdfunding idea started with a 27-year-old named Nik Shazarina Bakti, who recently launched a private crowdfunding initiative to help relieve Malaysia’s debt.  She raised around $3,500 before the government stepped in. In a sense, the effort is a version of what she said Malaysians did during their struggle for independence from Britain, when they donated jewelry, money and valuables. It’s also similar to what South Korea did as it attempted to pull itself out of economic crisis in the late 1990s, and regular citizens lined up to donate their most prized possessions to the government, including wedding rings and trophies.

Hmmm…, $2 million raised to pay off $250 billion of debt. Methinks they won’t meet their goal.

Though this story reminds me that politicians like Elizabeth Warren want the rest of us to pay more tax, yet she conveniently doesn’t participate in her state’s version of voluntary crowdfunding.

Here’s an amazing story from Romania.

He’s a dead man walking and the court ruling is final. A Romanian court has rejected a man’s claim that he is still very much alive, after he was officially registered as deceased, the Associated Press reports. Constantin Reliu, 63, lost his case in Vasului because he appealed too late on the ruling, a court spokeswoman said Friday. The story goes that Reliu had traveled to Turkey in 1992 for work and lost contact with his family. Since his wife had not heard from her husband in years, she acquired a death certificate for him in 2016, the AP reports. However, since Reliu was discovered by Turkish authorities this year with expired papers, he was deported back to Romania. That’s when he discovered he had been declared dead.

Wow. I thought American courts generated some outlandish decisions, but this belies belief.

Last but not least, here’s a report from Spain that should leave you skeptical about the efficacy of additional NATO spending.

An attempt to deploy a new submarine for Spain’s navy has run aground again, after it emerged it cannot fit in its dock, Spanish media report. The S-80 boat was redesigned at great expense after an earlier mistake meant it had problems floating, and it was lengthened to correct the issue. Spanish newspaper El País now reports that after the changes, the docks at Cartagena can no longer fit the vessel. The cost for each has almost doubled, the newspaper said. …The original problem with the submarine dates back to 2013, when it was discovered that it was about 100 tons heavier than it needed to be. That caused a problem for its buoyancy – so it could submerge, but might not come back up again. A former Spanish official told the Associated Press at the time that someone had put a decimal point in the wrong place, and “nobody paid attention to review the calculations”. …the base at Cartagena will have to be dredged and reshaped to accommodate the now-floating longer vessel, the El País report said. Spain’s Defence Minister Margarita Robles, speaking on Spanish radio, admitted that “there have been deficiencies in the project”.

Call me crazy, but “deficiencies” doesn’t really describe what happened. Almost makes the Pentagon look frugal. Almost makes the German intelligence service look competent.

For previous examples of great moments in foreign government, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

P.S. In other words, my “government in cartoons” collection applies equally no matter where you travel.

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Congratulations to Belgium. According to the new edition of Taxing Wages, average Belgian workers have the dubious honor of surrendering the biggest chunk of their income to government. No wonder part of the country is interested in secession.

We can also give (sincere, this time, rather than sarcastic) congratulations to New Zealand and Switzerland, which impose the lowest overall tax burden on the labor income of average workers (with honorable mention to Chile and Mexico for low tax burdens in developing countries).

Here’s the key data, which shows how much of an average worker’s wages are lost because of income and payroll taxes.

The United States, I’m happy to report, is in the bottom half, which means the government confiscates a below-average amount of money from workers.

Other nations with onerous burdens include Germany, Italy, and France

Regarding the Belgian tax burden, the government understands this is bad news for Belgium’s economy, so there are periodic discussions about reducing the tax burden on labor income. Unfortunately, the potential “reforms” tend to be senseless tax swaps which would involve higher taxes on consumption or higher taxes on capital.

In the former case, the government would take more money as income is spent, so workers wouldn’t benefit. And in the latter case, there would be less investment, so workers wouldn’t benefit since their pre-tax wages would suffer.

The bottom line is that it’s impossible to have a good tax system with a bloated government.

By the way, the previous chart looked at the tax burden on the average worker with no children. Some countries have preferential tax policies for households with kids.

Here’s that data. Belgium still wins the Booby Prize for highest tax burden. But there are some noteworthy difference. Households with kids enjoy significantly lower tax burdens in Germany, France, Luxembourg, Ireland, Portugal, Slovenia, and the United States.

But you probably don’t want to have kids in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Let’s close with a couple of caveats.

First, we’re only looking at one slice of tax policy.

More specifically, this OECD data measures the tax burden on labor income, and it looks at that data only for middle-income workers.

It’s also important to consider tax rates upper-income taxpayers since they tend to be the entrepreneurs and job creators. From this perspective, Belgium had the second-worst tax system for these households, slightly behind Sweden.

Nothing to brag about.

It’s also important to consider the overall tax burden on saving and investment. And there are several ways of looking at that data.

As you can see, Belgium doesn’t get high marks in these indices, but the United States invariably scores poorly.

Last but not least, there are many other policies – such as trade, regulation, and the rule of law – that also help determine a country’s competitiveness.

And while Belgium and other European nations have bad fiscal systems, they tend to score highly in other areas. Same for the United States.

The real key, of course, is to get good scores in all areas, like Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Those are the best jurisdictions for workers, with good wages and low tax burdens.

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If nothing else, Belgian politicians deserve credit for perseverance. One year ago, the nation was considering a “tax shift” that would reduce taxes on labor and increase taxes on consumption.

I pointed out that this didn’t make much sense since it wouldn’t alter the wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption. In other words, the government might not take as much when you earned your income, but it would compensate by taking more when you consumed your income, so there would be no improvement in your living standards and therefore no incentive to be more productive and earn more money.

Now the government in Belgium is considering a different “tax shift.” Here are some excerpts from a report in the Financial Times.

The Belgian government is rolling out a “tax shift” policy that Charles Michel, the country’s 40 year-old prime minister, says is aimed…to support people on low to medium incomes by reducing the taxes and social security charges on labour — some of the highest in Europe — and to make up the shortfall by boosting taxes on capital.

I’m underwhelmed by this approach.

Though let’s start with what’s good. The government should be lowering taxes on work. As the article notes, employees in Belgium are treated worse than medieval serfs, who only had to surrender one-third of their output to the Lord of the Manor.

…according to 2015 OECD data, is that an unmarried Belgian worker without children faced the highest “tax wedge” as a proportion of income of any citizen in the 35-country club. It stood at 55.3 per cent, compared with an average of 35.9 per cent. The burden results from a combination of high social security charges and a 50 per cent tax rate kicking in at a relatively low level — around €38,000.

Here’s one of the charts from the article. As you can see, greedy politicians get the lion’s share of the money when a Belgian worker chooses to earn income.

At the risk of understatement, the overall tax burden in Belgium is stifling.

Here’s another chart, this one showing how long European workers must toil before satisfying the tax demands of their governments.

I don’t know if the methodology is similar to the Tax Freedom Day calculations for the United States, and it’s unclear whether this is just a measure of the tax burden on labor income, or whether it also captures other taxes that workers pay (corporate income tax, value-added tax, excise taxes, etc). But it’s clear than Belgian workers have a terrible system.

Now for the bad news. Belgian politicians want to cut taxes on workers, but they say they want to compensate by imposing higher taxes on saving and investment.

That’s not a good idea since the productivity – and therefore compensation – of workers is very much linked to the amount of machinery, tools, and technology that’s available. So when politicians increase the tax burden on saving and investment, that reduces an economy’s stock of capital, and workers wind up with less pre-tax income than they would have earned otherwise.

Let’s see what Belgium’s government is trying to achieve. Here’s another blurb from the article.

Some changes, including a new financial speculation tax, were driven through last year and there are more to come. One of Mr Michel’s coalition partners, the Flemish Christian Democrats, is even pushing for a French-style wealth tax. …The speculation tax is estimated to bring in only about €20m this year, considerably less than the €34m initially predicted by the government. Also, there is little support for a more comprehensive inheritance tax. To Michel Maus, a tax law professor at Brussels Free University, the government’s efforts so far to increase taxation of capital amount to “window dressing” and “a bit political propaganda”.

I suppose the relative dearth of specific tax hikes on saving and investment is the good news inside the bad news.

Indeed, while the government did impose a tax on “speculation” (and discovered a Laffer Curve-effect when revenues came in below projections), there actually are some proposals to reduce the tax burden on saving and investment. For instance, the government has announced a move to lower the nation’s 33.99 percent corporate tax rate.

Under Minister Van Overtveldt’s current plan, the corporate tax rate would be reduced to 28% in 2017, 24% in 2018 and 20% in 2020, and would ultimately apply to companies of all sizes. At 20%, Belgium’s corporate tax rate would fall just below the EU average and would place the country in a more competitive – but not a leading – position within its peer group. …In addition, the Finance Minister is considering abolishing the Fairness Tax as well as the minimum tax on capital gains on shares, as advocated by the Chamber. The plan also includes a full tax deduction on qualifying dividends received from subsidiaries, as is the case in the Netherlands and Luxembourg, in lieu of the current deduction of 95%.

There are some offsetting tax hikes in this new plan, so this proposal presumably isn’t as good as it sounds, but it’s hard to argue with an initiative that drops the corporate rate by almost 14 percentage points.

So while I don’t like the theoretical concept of a tax shift from labor to capital, the net effect of all the tax changes in Belgium may be positive for the simple reason that the anti-growth part of the shift isn’t happening.

But regardless of what eventually happens, it is unlikely that Belgium will make much long-run progress because the country is burdened by one of the largest public sectors in the world.

Here some data from the OECD on the burden of government spending in Western Europe (and the United States). As you can see, Belgium isn’t as bad as France, but it’s worse than Greece, Sweden, and Italy.

The bottom line is that you can’t have a non-punitive tax system when government is consuming half of what the private sector produces.

So I think I’m semi-happy with what Belgian politicians are doing in the short run (reserving the right to change my mind as more details are unveiled), but I don’t have much long-term hope in the absence of effective reforms to shrink the burden of government spending.

But hope springs eternal. Maybe the government will adopt a Swiss-style spending cap.

P.S. Here’s a story that tells you everything you need to know about Belgium’s bloated public sector.

P.P.S. And if you look at America’s long-run fiscal projections, the problems in Belgium today will be problems in the United States in the not-too-distant future.

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It would be impossible to pick the most hare-brained government policy. We have all sorts of bizarre examples from the United States. And we have equally “impressive” examples from other nations.

And today, we’re going to augment our collection of bone-headed policies from elsewhere in the world.

We’ll start with the United Kingdom, which already is a very strong competitor in the government-stupidity contest.

Though they may deserve to win that contest since the government is actually giving welfare benefits to polygamous immigrants.

Immigrants in polygamous marriages drain British taxpayers of millions of dollars each year by taking advantage of loopholes in the welfare system, and future legislation will make it even more profitable. …Married couples in Great Britain can receive need-based income support of up to $162 per week. As of 2013 — when a number of reforms to marriage support came into effect — a man can claim an additional $57 for every subsequent wife. In total, a polygamous household can claim more than $17,000 in welfare over the course of a year.

There apparently is some effort to clamp down on handouts based on future multiple marriages, but there’s a giant loophole.

An even more profitable way for polygamous marriages to bring in welfare money is by getting married in a so-called “Nikah” ceremony, which is recognized by Islam, but not British law. The wives will hence appear as “single” in the system, and can take out additional benefits if they have children. …New legislation expected to go into effect by 2021, will no longer recognize multiple marriages for the same person. But “Nikah” marriages will still receive a huge boost from the new law, since women can receive more money under “single” status than she did as an additional wife. The allowance for the extra “wives” will more than double to $454 each per month.

This may be the “triple crown” of stupidity. The first mistake is providing handouts. The second mistake is giving handouts to immigrants (which creates unseemly yet understandable backlash). And the third mistake is supposedly cutting back on handouts, but doing it in such a foolish fashion that more money will be wasted. Impressive.

Speaking of going above and beyond the call of duty in the battle to squander money, the U.K.-based Telegraph reports that the British government has been flushing away huge amounts of money for a facility to house unsuccessful asylum seekers.

An accommodation centre for failed asylum seekers is more costing than the world’s most exclusive hotels, taking just 14 families last year at a cost of more than £450,000 each. Cedars, a secure centre run by the Home Office, was occupied for approximately 40 nights in the first nine months of 2014/15 – but landed the taxpayer with a bill for millions of pounds. Total running costs for 2014/15 were estimated at £6,398,869 – or more than £457,000 for each family which passed through its doors. If each family stayed at the centre for the full year, the cost would equate to £1,252 a night, or £38,088 per family per month. However, the true cost is far higher – as much as £152,354 a night – because most families spend only 72 hours at Cedars… London’s Savoy hotel charges from £1,150 for a suite with a view of the River Thames, making it cheaper than the minimum nightly cost of Cedars House.

Wow. I’ve never stayed anyplace that nice on my trips to England. Maybe I should ask for asylum on my next trip?

Here’s another story that almost defies belief. Apparently the geniuses in the British bureaucracy thought wars only get fought in cold weather.

The Royal Navy’s fleet of six £1bn destroyers is breaking down because the ships’ engines cannot cope with the warm waters of the Gulf, defence chiefs have admitted. They also told the Commons defence committee on Tuesday that the Type 45 destroyers’ Rolls-Royce WR-21 gas turbines are unable to operate in extreme temperatures and will be fitted with diesel generators. Rolls-Royce executives said engines installed in the Type 45 destroyers had been built as specified – but that the conditions in the Middle East were not “in line with these specs”. Earlier a Whitehall source told Scotland’s Daily Record: “We can’t have warships that cannot operate if the water is warmer than it is in Portsmouth harbour.”

But it’s not just British bureaucrats who make bizarre mistakes.

Consider how the incompetence of Belgian officials paved the way for a terrorist attack.

…ministers and prosecutors…admitted failures that led to the release, last year, of two of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s terror attacks in Brussels. Interior minister Jan Jambon and justice minister Koen Geens said that information about one of the three suicide bombers transmitted by Turkey was not properly handled. …a Belgian prosecutor said that a second terrorist had been arrested and released by the Belgian justice system.

Here are the jaw-dropping details on one of the terrorists.

El Bakraoui had been sentenced in 2010 to 10 years in prison for robbery and for shooting at police with a Kalashnikov rifle. He was released in October 2014 but on condition he didn’t leave Belgium for more than 30 days at a time. He was arrested on the border between Turkey and Syria in June. Turkish authorities notified Belgium about it at the end of June, Geens told journalists. …”It was then very dificult to arrest him”, Geens said, as El Bakraoui had landed as “a normal Belgian citizen”, even though he had missed appointments with justice officials as part of his conditional release.

Wow, we have another contestant for the triple crown of government incompetence. First, the dirtbag only served four years in prison after trying to murder some cops. Second, it didn’t set off any red flags when he violated the conditions of his way-too-early release and went to Syria as a jihadist. Third, the Belgian government failed to act when given advance notice and warning by officials in Turkey that he was returning from his jihadist vacation. In this case, the net result wasn’t just wasted money, it was death for innocent civilians.

Let’s not forget, by the way, that a government bureaucrat excused all this incompetence on the theory that the “small size of the Belgian government” precluded an effective approach against terrorism. Yet if you look up the data, government in Belgium is so bloated that it consumes 54 percent of economic output, which is worse than even Italy and Sweden.

And let’s also not forget that American taxpayers subsidize jihadists, so we can’t really laugh too much about the Belgians.

Now let’s move from deadly incompetence to protectionist cruelty. The government in the Bahamas, acting to protect the local dentist cartel, shut down a clinic providing free dentistry for poor people.

Lenny Kravitz learned the hard way about government over-regulation on Monday when police raided a free dental clinic he sponsored in the Bahamas. “The dentists literally had to run out the back door to escape being arrested,” one source told me exclusively. …Kravitz flew several American dentists there for the four-day clinic, but evidently didn’t get all the permits required. On Monday, the last day of the program, as local residents were being fitted for dentures and having root canals, police and immigration officials burst in “and gave the team working 15 minutes to pack up all the equipment and leave,” the Eleutheran newspaper reported.

Heaven forbid that a government permit was missing! No good deed goes unpunished, even if it means poor people lose access to dental care.

Let’s close with a truly inane bit of government from Canada, where bureaucrats stopped a couple of kids from operating an unlicensed – gasp! – lemonade stand (the same thing happens in California, Georgia, and Oregon).

But in a surprising display of humanity, the local paper pushers decided the lemonade stand was okay and they even agreed to waive the $1520 daily fee.

But only with the following conditions.

The NCC has issued a special permit to allow two young girls to sell lemonade…which came with several conditions they must abide by while they operate their lemonade stand…carry a copy of the permit at all times while on NCC property…comply with all federal, provincial and municipal bylaws and regulations…create signs for the lemonade stand in both official languages…only sell lemonade…ensure that customers park their bikes on the grass.

Geesh, I knew the language police were active in Quebec, but I assumed Ontario wasn’t so crazy.

Reading all these stories, the only possible conclusion is that P.J. O’Rourke should apologize to teenage boys.

P.S. For what it’s worth, here are a few of my favorite examples of great moments in foreign government.

Though American readers shouldn’t laugh too hard. After all, we pay for bagpipe police and milk police.

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I realize it’s presumptuous, but I periodically make grandiose claims that a single column will tell readers “everything” they need to know about a topic. I’ve used that tactic when writing about tax loopholes, entitlements, fiscal policy, bureaucracy (twice), tax evasion, France, Greece, corporate inversions, and economic policy.

Sometimes I even claim a single image, chart, or cartoon provides a reader with “everything” needed to understand an issue. Examples include the minimum wage, economic policy, the welfare state, supply-side economics, the tax code, Europe’s fiscal crisis, Social Security reform, demographics, overpaid bureaucrats, healthcare economics, inequality, fiscal policy, and the Ryan budget (twice).

Needless to say, I don’t actually think these columns give readers “everything” on a topic. But I do hope the information makes a compelling and informative point about an issue.

So it’s time to expand this tactic and present one sentence that tells readers “everything” they need to know about the failure of big government. And it’s not even the full sentence, just the bolded portion in this excerpt from a BuzzFeed story about how Belgium is trying to deal with terrorism.

One Belgian counterterrorism official told BuzzFeed News last week that due to the small size of the Belgian government and the huge numbers of open investigations…virtually every police detective and military intelligence officer in the country was focused on international jihadi investigations. …the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said. “It’s literally an impossible situation.”

When I read that sentence, my jaw dropped to the floor. Belgium has one of the biggest and most bloated governments in the world.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Go to the OECD’s collection of data and click on Table 25 and you’ll see that the public sector in Belgium consumes almost 54 percent of the nation’s economy. That’s bigger even than the size of government in Sweden and Italy.

So the notion that fighting terrorism is hampered by the “small size of the Belgian government” is utterly absurd.

The real problem is that politicians and bureaucrats have become so focused on redistributing money to various interest groups that there’s not enough attention given to fulfilling the few legitimate functions of government. Not just in Belgium, but all over the world. Here’s what I wrote on this issue back in 2012.

…today’s bloated welfare state interferes with and undermines the government’s ability to competently fulfill its legitimate responsibilities. Imagine, for instance, if we had the kind of limited federal government envisioned by the Founding Fathers and the “best and brightest” people in government – instead of being dispersed across a vast bureaucracy – were concentrated on protecting the national security of the American people. In that hypothetical world, I’m guessing something like the 9-11 attacks would be far less likely.

What I said about America back then is even more true about Belgium today. Big governments are clumsy and ineffective, and bigger governments are even more incompetent. There’s even scholarly research confirming that larger public sectors are associated with higher levels of inefficiency.

And the same point has been made by folks such as Mark Steyn and Robert Samuelson (though David Brooks inexplicably reaches the opposite conclusion).

The good news is that the American people have an instinctive understanding of the problem. When asked to describe the federal government, you’ll notice that “effective” and “efficient” are not the words people choose.

P.S. On a related note, I argued in a column from 2014 that the federal government should be much smaller so it could more effectively focus on genuine threats such as the Ebola virus.

P.S. It’s worth pointing out that Israel, which faces far greater security challenges than Belgium, manages to do a better job with a government that is not nearly as large.

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It’s time for a lesson in tax economics.

Though hopefully today’s topic won’t be as dry and boring as my missives on more technical issues like depreciation and worldwide taxation.

That’s because we’re going to talk about the taxation of workers, which is something closer to home for most of us.

And our lesson comes from Belgium, where the government wants a “new social contract” based on lower “direct” taxes on workers in exchange for higher “indirect” taxes on consumers.

Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg column by Jean-Michel Paul.

Belgium’s one-year-old government announced measures, radical by that country’s standards, to move the burden of taxation to consumption from labor.  The measures are being hailed as the start of a new social contract in the heart of Europe.

But before discussing this new contract, let’s look at how Belgium’s system evolved. Monsieur Paul explains that his nation has a bloated welfare state, which has resulted in heavy taxes on workers (vigorous tax competition precludes onerous taxes on capital).

…In order to sustain large government expenses of more than 50 percent GDP on top of servicing its debt, Belgium became the OECD’s second most-taxed economy. …Belgium made a choice: It decided to heavily tax labor, which it figured, wrongly, was stuck. At the same time, it decided to provide attractive tax treatment to highly mobile capital. The gambit meant that Belgium attracted a large number of wealthy families from higher tax countries, particularly France and the Netherlands, eager to take advantage of the low rates of tax on capital. However, Belgian workers got hammered. In 2014 Belgian workers were the most taxed labor in the developed world, taking home only 46 percent of employers’ labor costs.

Here’s a chart from the article, showing that Belgian workers are the most mistreated in the developed world.

Keep in mind, by the way, that average rates only measure the overall burden of taxation.

Marginal tax rates, which are what matters most for incentives, are even higher.

According to Wikipedia, the personal income tax has a top rate of 50 percent, and that punitive rate hits a lot of ordinary workers (it’s imposed on income “in excess of €37750”). But there’s also a 13 percent payroll tax on workers and a concomitant payroll tax of more than 30 percent on employers (which, needless to say, is borne by workers).

So an ambitious Belgian worker who wants to earn more money will be confronted by the ugly reality that the government will get the lion’s share of any additional income. Geesh, no wonder Belgium gets a high score (which is not a good outcome) in the World Bank’s “tax effort report card.”

Not surprisingly, high tax rates on labor have led to some predictably bad consequences.

The entrepreneurial class is voting with its feet and regular workers are being taxed into the unemployment line.

This unusual policy mix has increasingly created problems. …Educated professionals and entrepreneurs, those most in demand in other countries, have voted with their feet in borderless Europe. As a result, productivity growth has been limited and Belgium’s economy remained low-growth. Its business start-up rate is the second lowest of the EU. …Whole segments of the country’s industrial tissue, such as the automobile sector, have gradually closed down… This has led to what the European Commission described as “a chronic underutilisation of labour” (read: unemployment) especially among the least qualified and the young. Youth unemployment stands at over 22 percent. …In its 2015 country report the Commission noted that this “reflects Belgium’s high social security charges on labour, which add to the large tax wedge”

Given these horrid numbers, it’s understandable that some policy makers in Belgium want to make changes.

But as Americans have learned (very painfully), “change” doesn’t necessarily mean better policy.

So let’s see what Belgian policy makers have in mind.

The new policy…is to reduce taxes on labor and increase indirect taxes to compensate. Social Security taxes on companies are being reduced to 25 percent from 33 percent over the next two years, bringing an increase in the net after-tax income of 100 euros ($113) per month for low and middle-wage earners. This is mainly financed by an increase in value added tax on electricity consumption. …Belgium is the first to implement what some call a “social VAT” (a tax on consumption to finance social security). …it rewards work and may well change the entitlement mind-set that has hampered innovation and job growth for decades. …a significant step in the right direction, correcting some of the worst distortions of Belgium’s social model.

In other words, politicians in Belgium want to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Workers will be allowed to earn more of their income when they earn it, but the government will grab more of their income when they spend it.

Now for the economics lesson.

People work because they want to earn money. And they want to earn money so they can spend it. In other words, as Adam Smith observed way back in 1776, “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production.”

Now ask yourself whether the change in Belgian tax policy will boost employment when there’s no change in the tax wedge between pre-tax income (the income you generate) and post-tax consumption (the income you get to spend)?

The answer presumably is no.

This doesn’t mean that the proposed reform is completely useless. It appears that the VAT increase is achieved by ending a preferential tax rate on electricity consumption. And since I don’t like distorting tax preferences, I’m guessing the net effect of the overall package is slightly positive.

In other words, the lower payroll tax rate is unambiguously good and the increase in the VAT burden is only partially bad (I would be more critical if the proposal included an increase in the VAT rate rather than the elimination of a preference).

That being said, now let’s address Belgium’s real problem. Simply stated, it’s impossible to have a good tax system when government spending consumes more than 50 percent of economic output.

In no uncertain terms, an excessive burden of government spending is the problem that needs to be solved.

P.S. Interestingly, Belgium’s tax shift is somewhat similar to Rand Paul’s tax plan. In addition to all the other changes envisioned by the Kentucky Senator, he would get rid of the payroll tax and replace it with a value-added tax.

P.P.S. In addition to much smaller government, I suspect Belgium also needs to split into two different countries.

P.P.P.S. To get an idea of Belgium’s challenge, the politicians in Brussels actually criticize Germany for being too capitalistic.

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