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Posts Tagged ‘Big Government’

In the absence of genuine entitlement reform, the United States at some point is going to suffer from a debt crisis.

But red ink is merely a symptom. I used numbers from Greece in this interview to underscore the fact that the real problem is government spending.

The discussion was triggered by comments from the Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said Wednesday that reducing the federal debt needs to return to the forefront of the agenda, warning that the government’s finances are unsustainable. “I do think that deficits matter and do think it’s not really controversial to say our debt can’t grow faster than our economy indefinitely — and that’s what it’s doing right now,” Powell said.

As I noted in my comments, Powell is right, but he’s focusing on the wrong variable.

The real crisis is that spending is growing faster than the private sector (Powell needs to learn the six principles to guide spending policy).

To be more specific, politicians are violating my Golden Rule.

Spending grew too fast under Bush. It grew too fast under Obama (except for a few years when the “Tea Party” was in the ascendancy). And it’s growing too fast under Trump.

Most worrisome, the burden of spending is expected to grow faster than the private sector far into the future according to the long-run forecast from the Congressional Budget Office.

That doesn’t mean we’ll have a crisis this year or next year. We probably won’t even have a crisis in the next 10 years or 20 years.

But I cited Greek data in the interview to point out that excessive spending eventually does create a major problem.

Here’s the data from International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook database. To make matters simple (I should have done this for the interview as well), I adjusted the numbers for inflation.

So how can America avoid a Greek-style fiscal nightmare?

Simple, just impose a spending cap. At the end of the interview, I added a plug for the very successful system in Switzerland, but I’d also be happy if we copied Hong Kong’s spending cap. Or the Taxpayer Bill of Rights from Colorado.

The bottom line is that spending restraint works and a constitutional spending cap is the best way to achieve permanent fiscal discipline.

P.S. By contrast, proponents of “Modern Monetary Theory” argue governments can finance ever-growing government by printing money. For what it’s worth, nations that have used central banks to finance big government (most recently, Venezuela and Zimbabwe) are not exactly good role models.

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I relentlessly mock socialism, in part because it’s such a target-rich environment. But I’m also hoping that humor is a way of debunking this wretched ideology. I’m worried, after all, that socialism may triumph thanks to a combination of “public choice” and diminishing societal capital.

Today, let review the case against socialism. We’ll start with this short clip from a recent interview, where I recycled my argument that greater levels of socialism produce greater levels of economic misery.

I now have some new evidence on my side, thanks to the just-released Economic Report of the President.

Here are some excerpts from the socialism chapter (begins on page 381), including some analysis about how to define the term.

…economists generally agree about how to define socialism, and they have devoted enormous time and resources to studying its costs and benefits. …we review the evidence from the highly socialist countries showing that they experienced sharp declines in output, especially in the industries that were taken over by the state. We review the experiences of economies with less extreme socialism and show that they also generate less output, although the shortfall is not as drastic as with the highly socialist countries. …Whether a country or industry is socialist is a question of the degree to which (1) the means of production, distribution, and exchange are owned or regulated by the state; and (2) the state uses its control to distribute the country’s economic output without regard for final consumers’ willingness to pay or exchange (i.e., giving resources away “for free”). …we find that socialist public policies, though ostensibly well-intentioned, have clear opportunity costs that are directly related to the degree to which they tax and regulate.

The chapter looks at totalitarian forms of socialism.

…looking closely at the most extreme socialist cases, which are Maoist China, the USSR under Lenin and Stalin, Castro’s Cuba… Food production plummeted, and tens of mil-lions of people died from starvation in the USSR, China, and other agricultural economies where the state took command. Planning the nonagricultural parts of those economies also proved impossible. …Venezuela is a modern industrialized country that elected Hugo Chávez as its leader to implement socialist policies, and the result was less output in oil and other industries that were nationalized. In other words, the lessons from socialized agriculture carry over to government takeovers of oil, health insurance, and other modern industries: They produce less rather than more. …A broad body of academic literature…finds a strong association between greater economic freedom and better economic performance, suggesting that replacing U.S. policies with highly socialist policies, such as Venezuela’s, would reduce real GDP more than 40 percent in the long run, or about $24,000 a year for the average person.

For what it’s worth, the International Monetary Fund published some terrible research that said dramatically reduced living standards would be good if Americans were equally poor.

So I guess it makes sense that Crazy Bernie endorsed Venezuelan economic policy.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to the contents of the chapter, including this table that shows the collapse of agricultural output in Cuba following nationalization.

The chapter also looks at what is sometimes referred to as “democratic socialism” in the Nordic nations.

These countries don’t actually practice socialism since there is no government ownership of the means of production, no central planning, and no government-dictated prices.

But they do have bigger government, and the report echoes what I said in the interview about this leading to adverse consequences.

…the Nordic countries’ policies now differ significantly from policies that economists view as characteristic of socialism. …Nordic taxation overall is greater… Living standards in the Nordic countries, as measured by per capita GDP and consumption, are at least 15 percent lower than those in the United States. …a monopoly government health insurer to provide healthcare for “free” (i.e., without cost sharing) and to centrally set all prices paid to suppliers, such as doctors and hospitals. We find that if this policy were financed through higher taxes, GDP would fall by 9 percent, or about $7,000 per person in 2022.

The report notes that Nordic nations have cost sharing, so the economic losses in that excerpt would apply more to the British system, or to the “Medicare for All” scheme being pushed by some Democrats.

But Nordic-style fiscal policy is still very expensive.

It means higher taxes and lower living standards

I’ve previously shared AIC data, so regular readers already know this data.

And regular readers also won’t be surprised at this next chart since I wrote about Nima Sanandaji’s work back in 2015.

Here’s the bottom line from the report.

Highly socialist countries experienced sharp declines in output, especially in the industries that were taken over by the state. Economies with less extreme forms of socialism also generate less output, although the shortfall is not as drastic as with the highly socialist countries.

In other words, lots of socialism is really bad while some socialism is somewhat bad.

Let’s close by citing some other recent publications, starting with this editorial from the Wall Street Journal.

Democrats are embracing policies that include government control of ever-larger chunks of the private American economy. Merriam-Webster defines socialism as “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.” …consider the Democratic agenda that is emerging from Congress and the party’s presidential contenders. …Bernie Sanders’ plan, which has been endorsed by 16 other Senators, would replace all private health insurance in the U.S. with a federally administered single-payer health-care program. Government would decide what care to deliver, which drugs to pay for, and how much to pay doctors and hospitals. Private insurance would be banned. …The Green New Deal…, endorsed by 40 House Democrats and several Democratic presidential candidates, would require that the U.S. be carbon neutral within 10 years. …this would mean a complete remake of American electric power, transportation and manufacturing. …as imagined by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, all of this would be planned by a Select Committee For a Green New Deal. Soviet five-year plans were more modest.

The column also mentions government-guaranteed jobs, Washington imposing controls on businesses, and confiscatory tax rates, all of which are terrible policies.

Whether this is technically socialist can be debated.

What can’t be debated is that this agenda would make the U.S. – at best – akin to Greece in terms of economic liberty.

Here’s a look at some excerpts from a column in the Weekly Standard.

…more and more people, particularly young people, tell pollsters they’re open to the idea of voting for a socialist. In a poll this summer, Democrats by a 10-point margin said they prefer socialism to capitalism. …The tide has certainly shifted against free enterprise, an economic system that has lifted countless masses out of abject poverty, and toward socialism, whose track record is far worse, to put it charitably. …The younger generation also seems curiously unwilling to credit capitalism with the creation of modern conveniences they hold so dear. There’s a reason text messaging and Netflix didn’t emerge from Cuba or North Korea. Socialism is traditionally defined as the government owning the means of production, and it just as traditionally leads to authoritarianism. …With a body count in the millions, you’d think “socialism” would be hard to rebrand. But thanks to Bernie, being a socialist is in vogue. …The Sandernistas say that “democratic socialism” is a more benign variant, akin to what is practiced in Scandinavia. Yes, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark are clean, prosperous, and beautiful countries…and not particularly socialist. Their tax rates may be high, but they have thriving private sectors and no minimum wage laws. Their economies rank as “mostly free,” the same category as the United States

Most interesting, we also have a column by Cass Sunstein, a former Obama appointee.

President Donald Trump was entirely right to reject “new calls to adopt socialism in our country.” He was right to add that “America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion,” and to “renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.” …socialism calls for government ownership or control of the means of production. By contrast, capitalism calls for private ownership and control — for a robust system of property rights. In capitalist systems, companies and firms, both large and small, are generally in private hands. In socialist systems, the state controls them. …Socialist systems give public officials a great deal of authority over prices, levels of production and wages. …Whether we are speaking of laptops or sneakers, coffee or candy bars, umbrellas or blankets, markets establish prices, levels of production and wages on the basis of the desires, the beliefs and the values of countless people. No planner can possibly do that. …Those who now favor large-scale change should avoid a term, and a set of practices, that have so often endangered both liberty and prosperity.

Last but not least, here’s a video about socialism.

Narrated by Gloria Alvarez, it looks at the grim evidence from Cuba and Venezuela.

And she also points out that Nordic nations are not socialist.

Indeed, most of them would be closer to the United States than to France on this statism spectrum.

In other words, the real lesson is not that socialism is bad (that should be obvious), but rather that there’s a strong relationship between national prosperity and economic liberty.

Simply stated, the goal of policy makers should be to reject all forms of collectivism (including communism and fascism) and instead strive to minimize the footprint of government.

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I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how New York is committing slow-motion fiscal suicide.

The politicians in Illinois must have noticed because they now want (another “hold my beer” moment?) to accelerate the already-happening collapse of their state.

The new governor, J.B. Pritzker, wants to undo the state’s 4.95 percent flat tax, which is the only decent feature of the Illinois tax system.

And he has a plan to impose a so-called progressive tax with a top rate of 7.95.

Here are some excerpts from the Chicago Tribune‘s report., starting with the actual plan.

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker embarked on a new and potentially bruising political campaign Thursday by seeking to win public approval of a graduated-rate income tax that he contended would raise $3.4 billion by increasing taxes for the wealthy…for his long-discussed plan to replace the state’s constitutionally mandated flat-rate income tax. Currently, all Illinois residents are taxed at 4.95 percent… Pritzker’s proposal is largely reliant on raising taxes significantly on residents making more than $250,000 a year, with those earning $1 million and up taxed at 7.95 percent of their total income. …The corporate tax rate would increase from the current 7 percent to 7.95 percent, matching the top personal rate. …The governor’s proposal would give Illinois the second-highest top marginal tax rate among its neighboring states.

And here’s what would need to happen for the change to occur.

Before Pritzker’s plan can be implemented, three-fifths majorities in each chamber of the legislature must approve a constitutional amendment doing away with the flat tax requirement. The measure would then require voter approval, which couldn’t happen until at least November 2020. …Democrats hold enough seats in both chambers of the legislature to approve the constitutional amendment without any GOP votes. Whether they’ll be willing to do so remains in question. Democratic leaders welcomed Pritzker’s proposal… voters in 2014 endorsed the idea by a wide margin in an advisory referendum.

The sensible people on the Chicago Tribune‘s editorial board are not very impressed, to put it mildly.

…how much will taxes increase under a rate structure Pritzker proposed? You might want to cover your eyes. About $3.4 billion annually… That extraction of dollars from taxpayers’ pockets would be in addition to roughly $5 billion raised annually in new revenue under the 2017 income tax hike. …How did Springfield’s collection of all that new money work out for state government and taxpayers? Here’s how: Illinois remains deeply in debt, continues to borrow to pay bills, faces an insurmountable unfunded pension liability and is losing taxpayers who are fed up with paying more. The flight of Illinoisans to other states is intensifying with 2018’s loss of 45,116 net residents, the worst of five years of consistent, dropping population. …Illinois needs to be adding more taxpayers and businesses, not subtracting them. When politicians raise taxes, they aren’t adding. A switch to a graduated tax would eliminate one of Illinois’ only fishing lures to attract taxpayers and jobs: its constitutionally protected flat income tax. …Pritzker’s proposal, like each tax hike before it, was introduced with no meaningful reform on the spending side of the ledger. This is all about collecting more money. …In fact, the tax hike would come amid promises of spending new billions.

And here’s a quirk that is sure to backfire.

For filers who report income of more than $1 million annually, the 7.95 percent rate would not be marginalized; meaning, it would be applied to every dollar, not just income of more than $1 million. Line up the Allied moving vans for business owners and other high-income families who’ve had a bellyful of one of America’s highest state and local tax burdens.

The Tax Foundation analyzed this part of Pritzker’s plan.

This creates a significant tax cliff, where a person making $1,000,000 pays $70,935 in taxes, while someone earning one dollar more pays $79,500, a difference of $8,565 on a single dollar of income.

That’s quite a marginal tax rate. I suspect even French politicians (as well as Cam Newton) might agree that’s too high.

Though I’m sure that tax lawyers and accountants will applaud since they’ll doubtlessly get a lot of new business from taxpayers who want to avoid that cliff (assuming, of course, that some entrepreneurs, investors, and business owners actually decide to remain in Illinois).

While the tax cliff is awful policy, it’s actually relatively minor compared to the importance of this table in the Tax Foundation report. It shows how the state’s already-low competitiveness ranking will dramatically decline if Pritzker’s class-warfare plan is adopted.

The Illinois Policy Institute has also analyzed the plan.

Unsurprisingly, there will be fewer jobs in the state, with the losses projected to reach catastrophic levels if the new tax scheme is adjusted to finance all of the Pritzker’s new spending.

And when tax rates go up – and they will if states like Connecticut, New Jersey, and California are any indication – that will mean very bad news for middle class taxpayers.

The governor is claiming they will be protected. But once the politicians get the power to tax one person at a higher rate, it’s just a matter of time before they tax everyone at higher rates.

Here’s IPI’s look at projected tax rates based on three different scenarios.

The bottom line is that the middle class will suffer most, thanks to fewer jobs and higher taxes.

Rich taxpayer will be hurt as well, but they have the most escape options, whether they move out of the state or rely on tax avoidance strategies.

Let’s close with a few observations about the state’s core problem of too much spending.

Steve Cortes, writing for Real Clear Politics, outlines the problems in his home state.

…one class of people has found a way to prosper: public employees. …over 94,000 total public employees and retirees in Illinois command $100,000+ salaries from taxpayers…former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who earned a $140,000 pension for his eight years of service in the Illinois legislature. …Such public-sector extravagance has fiscally transformed Illinois into America’s Greece – only without all the sunshine, ouzo, and amazing ruins.

So nobody should be surprised to learn that the burden of state spending has been growing at an unsustainable rate.

Indeed, over the past 20 years, state spending has ballooned from $34 billion to $86 billion according to the Census Bureau. At the risk of understatement, the politicians in Springfield have not been obeying my Golden Rule.

And today’s miserable fiscal situation will get even worse in the near future since Illinois is ranked near the bottom when it comes to setting aside money for lavish bureaucrat pensions and other retirement goodies.

Indeed, paying off the state’s energized bureaucrat lobby almost certainly is the main motive for Pritzker’s tax hike. As as happened in the past, this tax hike is designed to finance bigger government.

Yet that tax hike won’t work.

Massive out-migration already is wreaking havoc with the state’s finances. And if Pritzker gets his tax hike, the exodus will become even more dramatic.

P.S. Keep in mind, incidentally, that all this bad news for Illinois will almost certainly become worse news thanks to the recent tax reform. Restricting the state and local tax deduction means a much smaller implicit federal subsidy for high-tax states.

P.P.S. I created a poll last year and asked people which state will be the first to suffer a fiscal collapse. Illinois already has a big lead, and I won’t be surprised if that lead expands if Pritzker is able to kill the flat tax.

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Socialism is a joke. It doesn’t work. And it is so often a gateway to totalitarianism.

But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. In this interview, I express my concern that the United States has passed a tipping point.

In the discussion, I included my usual caveat about the meaning of socialism.

I prefer the technical definition, which involves government ownership of the means of production, central planning, and government-dictated prices. But most people assume it simply means big government, in which case it’s hard to find nations that don’t qualify.

Regardless of the best definition, the reason for my pessimism is simple. It’s a combination of changing demographics and poorly designed entitlement programs.

For all intents and purposes, we’re on a trajectory (the “most predictable crisis in history“) to become another Greece.

The good news is that we probably have a couple of decades before the crisis occurs. The bad news is that our political class seems to have no interest in the reforms that would be necessary to avert the crisis.

Though maybe the crisis will occur sooner than we think. I wrote back in 2015 that the debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders was merely a discussion over how fast we should drive in the wrong direction.

Well, Crazy Bernie didn’t get the nomination, but he seems to have won the war for the soul of the party. As I point out in this second clip, the radicals are now in the ascendancy on the left.

By the way, here’s the interview with Thomas Sowell that was used as a lead-in to my interview. He may be even more pessimistic than I am.

Though you’ll notice that Professor Sowell included a caveat, speculating that maybe there will be some unforeseeable development that saves the western world (or perhaps just the United States) from gradual decay.

Let’s close this column with some optimism on that point.

I’m old enough to remember the malaise of the 1970s, which wasn’t just based on the economic mess caused by Nixon-style and Carter-style statism. Many people also thought capitalism was no better than communism and that we needed to find some sort of middle ground (and some economists were horribly guilty of this sin).

Thankfully, Reagan had a different approach (including mockery rather than moral equivalence) and the western world won the Cold War.

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Back in January, I wrote about the $42 trillion price tag of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal.

To pay for this massive expansion in the burden of government spending, some advocates have embraced “Modern Monetary Theory,” which basically assumes the Federal Reserve can finance new boondoggles by printing money.

I debated this issue yesterday on CNBC. Here’s a clip from that interview.

Wow, this Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) reminds me of the old joke about “I can’t be out of money. I still have checks in my checkbook.”

I don’t know how far Ms. Kelton would go with this approach. I know from previous encounters that she’s a genuine Keynesian and thus willing to borrow lots of money to finance a larger public sector. But her answer at 2:45 of the interview also suggests she’s okay with using the Federal Reserve to finance bigger government.

In either case, our debate is really about the size of government.

And anybody who wants a bigger burden of government is at least semi-obliged to say how it would be financed. The MMT crowd stands out because they basically say the Federal Reserve can print money.

To help understand the various options, I’ve created a helpful flowchart.

It’s possible, of course, for my statist friends to say “all of the above,” so these are not mutually exclusive categories.

Though the MMT people who select “Print money!” are probably the craziest.

And I hope that they are not successful. After all, nations that have used the printing press to finance big government (most recently, Venezuela and Zimbabwe) are not exactly good role models.

I noted in the interview that MMT is so radical that it is opposed by conventional economists on the right and left.

For instance, Michael Strain of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute opines that the theory is preposterous and nonsensical.

…modern monetary theory…freshman Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke favorably about it earlier this month. …MMT is…sometimes a theory of money. MMT is also being discussed in the context of a political program to justify huge increases in social spending. Finally, there is its role as a prescription for macroeconomic policy. …The bedrock observation of MMT is correct: Any government that issues its own currency can always pay its bills. …this is about all that can be said favorably regarding modern monetary theory. …it is in its ideas about macroeconomic policy that MMT fully earns its place on the fringe. …what does MMT have to say about inflation when it does materialize? …it falls to the institution with authority over tax and budget policy — the U.S. Congress — to make sure prices are stable by raising taxes… MMT seems to call for tax increases in order to restrain inflation. …Modern monetary theory…if enacted it could cause great harm to the U.S. economy.

From the left side of the spectrum, here’s some of what Joseph Minarik wrote on the topic.

MMT rests on simplistic observations that have just enough truth to take in those who need to believe. Believers in MMT see crying societal needs… By common reckoning, government lacks the resources to address all of those needs immediately. MMT solves that problem with a simple and (literally) true observation: The federal government can just print the money. …And that is what willing policymakers choose to hear: Anything. Without limit. It is so convenient —  “too good to check.” …to MMT adherents, the Federal Reserve and all other inflation “Chicken Littles” are and forever have been totally wrong. There has not been rapid inflation for 20 years or so. Therefore, there never will be inflation again. …Yes, inflation is low. But it always is before it rises. And once inflation begins, slowing it is hard and painful. MMT is the perfect theory for the video game generation, which never saw the 1960s economic miscalculations so much like what MMT advocates today, and apparently believes that such mistakes can be reversed painlessly by just hitting the reset button. …the consequences could be catastrophic.

Catastrophic indeed.

Letting the inflation genie out of the bottle is not a good idea. And the policies of the MMT crowd presumably would lead to something far worse than what America experienced in the 1970s.

Rescuing the economy from that inflation was painful, so it’s not pleasant to imagine what would be needed to salvage the country if the MMT people ever got their hands on the levers of power.

Let’s wrap this up. Earlier this week, I presented a guide to fiscal policy based on six core principles.

If Modern Monetary Theory gains more traction, I may have to add a postscript.

P.S. If ever imposed, I suspect MMT would be very good news for people with a lot of gold and/or a lot of Bitcoin.

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I’m not an optimist about the future of Europe, mostly because welfare states are unaffordable in nations suffering from demographic decline.

Given the grim trends on the continent, I expect many other nations (probably led by Italy) will experience the fiscal and economic mess that we’ve seen in Greece.

Let’s dig into this issue by reviewing a story in the New York Times about economic stagnation in Europe, focused mostly on Spain.

After decades of living comfortably in Spain’s upper middle class, the middle-aged couple are struggling with their decline. Spain’s economy, like the rest of Europe’s, is growing faster than before the 2008 financial crisis and creating jobs. But the work they could find pays a fraction of the combined 80,000-euro annual income they once earned. …Since the recession of the late 2000s, the middle class has shrunk in over two-thirds of the European Union…they face unprecedented levels of vulnerability.

So why are middle-class workers in such bad shape?

As you read the article, you find references to factors such as the “financial crisis” and “weakened social protections,” but no coherent explanation for why the private sector is languishing.

Unless you read all the way down to the 22nd paragraph, where you finally get an interesting detail that probably explains much of Spain’s economic malaise. Taxes are so absurdly high that a guy with a modest income only gets to keep one-third of the money he earns! This is such a jaw-dropping factoid that I’ve made it an image rather than an indented excerpt.

Wow, the confiscatory tax rates that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders want to impose on “rich” people in the United States already are already being imposed on low-income taxpayers in Spain.

No wonder Spaniards are so inventive about avoiding taxes.

And this story is a perfect example of why I constantly warn that European-type redistribution policies in the United States would result in much higher taxes for lower-income and middle-class taxpayers.

By the way, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the current Spanish government (just like a previous Spanish government) wants to make a bad situation even worse.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez… The Socialist leader grabbed power last summer with the fragile backing of Podemos, the left-wing anti-austerity party. Warning of middle-class frustrations, his embattled government ordered a 22 percent rise in the minimum wage in January, and has vowed to reverse some labor laws, increase social spending and raise taxes on companies and the rich.

There’s an election in April, so we’ll see whether Sánchez’s plan to impoverish his country actually gets adopted.

My only prediction, based on what’s happened in the past, is that tax increases will not be successful.

P.S. The story has two additional excerpts that help to explain Spain’s anemic performance. We have very strong evidence in the United States that unemployment benefits subsidize joblessness. Spain appears to be learning the same lesson, though the government still pays people to be unemployed for 1-1/2 years.

Unemployment benefits…that state money, with budget cuts, now lasts 18 months, down from 24.

I’ve also written about how so-called labor-protection laws discourage hiring. Well, seems like Spain is a very grim example of how this type of intervention backfires on intended beneficiaries.

…temporary and part-time contracts…can lead to steady work and better incomes. But companies and Europe’s public sector have mostly used them to dodge protections for permanent employees. In Spain alone, 90 percent of new jobs in 2017 were temporary.

P.P.S. Spain has a member of the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame, though the guy who “put a decimal point in the wrong place” probably also deserves induction.

P.P.P.S. Here’s a sobering look at pre- and post-1990 growth in Spain and Poland.

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In Part I of this series, we examined the horrific tragedy of Venezuelan statism, and in Part II of this series, we looked at the Scandinavian “free-market welfare state.”

Today, Part III will look at the ongoing deterioration of Greece.

I’ve written many times about how the mess in Greece was caused by an ever-rising fiscal burden.

Let’s look at two charts, drawing from the government spending section of Our World in Data, that confirm my argument.

This first chart shows the overall burden of government spending starting in 1880. As you can see, spending generally consumed a bit more than 20 percent of the nation’s economy (other than during wars) all the way from 1880 to the mid-1960s.

And then the spending burden exploded.

What drove that unfortunate increase in the spending burden?

We get that answer in our next chart, which shows that redistribution outlays have skyrocketed in recent years.

In other words, the welfare state is 100-percent responsible for the Greek fiscal crisis, whether you look at short-run data or these long-run numbers.

Has all this additional spending generated any good results?

Hardly.

As government has become larger and crowded out the private sector, that has dampened hopes for the Greek people. As reported by the Washington Post, they are responding with fewer children and more emigration.

During the country’s deep and prolonged crash, which began in late 2009 and worsened in 2011 and beyond, an already low birthrate ticked down further, as happened throughout the troubled economies of southern Europe. Greece was also hit by a second factor, with half a million people fleeing the country, many of them young potential parents. …Greece’s fertility rate, of about 1.35 births per woman, is among the lowest in Europe, and well below the rate of 2.1 needed for a stable population… In 2009, just before the fiercest parts of the crisis, there were 117,933 births in Greece. The number has since fallen steadily, becoming well eclipsed by the number of deaths. The birth total in 2017, 88,553, was the lowest on record.

This chart from the story is amazing, though in a very grim way.

This demographic implosion might not be a big problem if Greece was like Hong Kong and had a privatized system for Social Security.

But that’s obviously not the case. Instead, Greece is a morass of expensive entitlements.

Notwithstanding all the bad news, special interests in Greece continue to lobby for more spending and favors.

And they have allies in Europe, as indicated by this report in the EU Observer.

Dunja Mijatovic, the CoE’s commissioner for human rights, told EUobserver that Greeks are still suffering from the aftermath of international bailouts and imposed economic structural reforms. …Her comments follow the publication of her 30-page report on the impact of austerity measures in Greece, which says the fallout has violated people’s right to health, enshrined in the European Social Charter, and eroded the quality of schools. …Mijatovic, who toured Greece over the summer, says she was struck at the large cuts in areas like maternal and child health services.

Though I want to be fair.

There is occasional progress in the country, as indicated by another story from the EU Observer.

Greece has taken one step closer to the separation of church and state by removing 10,000 church employees off the public payroll. A deal agreed between prime minister Alexis Tsipras and archbishop Ieronymos II also includes a settlement of a decade-old property dispute between the Greek state and the Orthodox Church – which is one of the country’s largest real estate owners.

I consider this a small step in the right direction.

The Israeli government may even want to learn something from this reform.

And there are other hopeful signs, as illustrated by this story from Der Spiegel.

Olga Gerovasili, …administrative reform minister…is overseeing an administrative overhaul that could transform the country like nothing else has since Greece joined the EU. She wants to abolish Greek clientelism. …For centuries, the Greek administration was little more than an excuse for legal nepotism. …Relationships were more important than skills for filling official positions. …Job appointments are no longer to be in the hands of powerful local politicians… The aim of the system is also to use it to remove incompetent officials. …Another revolution. The Greek administration was legendarily labyrinthian. Files could travel for years through dozens of official offices. When bureaucrats aren’t hired for their skills, they need to justify their existence by signing as many things as possible. …Much like the nepotism, this is also to become a thing of the past.

I hope these reforms are real and permanent.

After all, a bloated and inefficient bureaucracy is one of the primary causes of excessive spending in Greece. But time will tell.

After all, it’s not easy taking away goodies from an entitled population.

“Greece finally needs to open its markets — that’s the most important thing,” says Aristides Hatzis, 51, a law professor at the University of Athens. Hatzis has written one of Greece’s most surprising bestsellers of the past few years: an introduction to laissez-faire thinking. It’s surprising because economic liberalism doesn’t have any deep roots in Greece. …”In the past decades, the governments have so overwhelmingly failed that Greeks blame everything that goes wrong on the state,” says Hatzis. …”It’s difficult to take away the privileges of influential lobby groups.” As long as that doesn’t happen, he says, the country won’t recover.

Having looked at the evolution of Greece’s economy, let’s now look at how the nation’s politicians have been responding to the crisis.

Are they liberalizing, or are they digger the hole deeper? In other words, are the good reforms larger than the backsliding, or vice-versa?

Naomi Klein will be happy with the answer. Here are two more charts, based on numbers from Economic Freedom of the World, both of which show that Greece is moving in the wrong direction.

First, we see that Greece’s score has dropped over the past 10 years.

And why has economic freedom declined?

The main cause is that fiscal policy has become much worse, thanks in large part to the IMF and various bailouts (which actually were designed to bail out irresponsible banks in nations such as France and Germany).

In any event, the nation’s politicians gladly accepted bad advice and used bailout money as an excuse to impose higher taxes, followed by higher taxes, and then decided to push taxes even higher.

The bottom line is that it is difficult to be optimistic about Greece.

Yes, there are some signs of hope. More and more people realize that big government has been bad for Greece.

But it’s not easy to get good reforms in a nation where most voting-age adults are directly or indirectly mooching off taxpayers.

P.S. Democratic socialism is better than totalitarian socialism, but it doesn’t produce good results.

P.P.S. Folks on the left argue that Greece is not a good example of socialism. They say it’s a cronyist economy rather than a socialist economy. Given the various definitions of socialism, they’re both right and wrong. I’ll simply note that there are many state-owned enterprises in Greece and the government has been dragging its feet about auctioning them to the private sector. So Greece is definitely closer to socialism than Sweden.

P.P.P.S. Here’s some Greek-related humor. This cartoon is amusing, but this this one is my favorite. And the final cartoon in this post also has a Greek theme.

We also have a couple of videos. The first one features a video about…well, I’m not sure, but we’ll call it a European romantic comedy and the second one features a Greek comic pontificating about Germany.

Last but not least, here are some very un-PC maps of how various peoples – including the Greeks – view different European nations. Speaking of stereotypes, the Greeks are in a tight race with the Italians and Germans for being considered untrustworthy.

P.P.P.P.S. If you want some unintentional humor, did you know that Greece subsidizes pedophiles and requires stool samples to set up online companies?

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