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Posts Tagged ‘Big Government’

Early last month, in a column on my hopes and fears for 2017, I fretted about fiscal chaos in Italy leading to default and bailouts.

Simply stated, I fear that Italy, along with certain other “Club Med” nations, has passed the point of no return in terms of big government, demographic decline, and societal dependency.

And this means that, sooner or later, the proverbial wheels are going to fall off the bus.

And it might be sooner. I don’t always agree with his policy recommendations, but I regularly read Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute because he is one of the best-informed people in Washington on the fiscal and economic mess in Europe.

And Italy, to be blunt, is in a mess.

Here’s what Desmond just wrote about the country’s economy.

…while the euro could very well survive a Greek exit, it certainly could not survive in anything like its present form were Italy to have a full-blown economic and financial crisis that forced it to default on its public debt mountain. …Among the reasons that there should be greater concern about an Italian, rather than a Greek, economic crisis is that Italy has a very much larger economy than Greece. Being the third-largest economy in the eurozone, Italy’s economy is around 10 times the size of that of Greece. Equally troubling is the fact that Italy has the world’s third-largest sovereign bond market with public debt of more than $2.5 trillion. Much of this debt is held by Europe’s shaky banking system, which heightens the risk that an Italian sovereign debt default could shake the global financial system to its core. …the country’s economic performance since 2008 has been abysmal. Indeed, Italian living standards today are around 10 percent below where they were 10 years ago. Meanwhile, Italy’s banking system has become highly troubled and its public sector debt as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) is now the second highest in the eurozone.

And here’s some of what he wrote late last year.

…today there would seem to be as many reasons for worrying about the Italian economy as there were for worrying about the Greek economy back in 2009. Like Greece then, Italy today checks all too many of the boxes for the making of a full-blown economic and financial crisis within the next year or two. …the Italian economy today is barely above its level in 1999 when the country adopted the Euro as its currency. Worse still, since the Great Global Economic Recession in 2008-2009, the Italian economy has experienced a triple-dip recession that has left its economy today some 7 percent below its pre-2008 crisis peak level and its unemployment rate stuck at over 11 percent. …deficiencies of its ossified labor market that contributes so importantly to the country’s very poor productivity performance. As a result, since adopting the Euro in 1999, Italy’s unit labor costs have increased by around 15 percentage points more than have those in Germany. …Italian banks now have around EUR 360 billion in non-performing loans, which amounts to a staggering 18 percent of their loan portfolio. If that were not bad enough, the Italian banks also hold unhealthily large amounts of Italian government debt, which now total more than 10 percent of their overall assets. …the country’s public debt level has risen from 100 percent of GDP in 2008 to 133 percent of GDP at present.

The numbers shared by Lachman are downright miserable.

And he’s not the only one pointing out that Italy’s economy is in the toilet.

I shared numbers last year showing the pervasive stagnation in the country.

So what’s the Italian government doing to solve these problems? Is it slashing tax rates? Reducing the burden of government? Cutting back on red tape?

Of course not. The politicians are either making things worse or engaging in pointless distractions.

Speaking of which, I’m tempted to laugh at the Italian government’s campaign to boost birthrates. Here’s some of what’s been reported by the New York Times.

…a government effort to promote “Fertility Day” on Sept. 22, a campaign intended to encourage Italians to have more babies. …Italy has one of the lowest birthrates in the world… Italian families have been shrinking for decades. In 2015, 488,000 babies were born in Italy, the fewest since the country first unified in 1861. It has one of the lowest birthrates in Europe, with 1.37 children per woman, compared with a European average of 1.6, according to Eurostat figures.

By the way, I actually commend the government for recognizing that falling birthrates are a problem.

Not because women should feel obliged to have kids if that’s not what they want. But rather because Italy has a massive tax-and-transfer welfare state that is predicated on an ever-expending population of workers (i.e., taxpayers) to finance benefits to retirees.

But old people are living longer and low birthrates mean that there won’t be enough taxpayers to prop up the Ponzi Scheme of big government.

But while the government deserves kudos for acknowledging a problem, it deserves mockery for thinking empty slogans will make a difference.

Moreover, there’s also a problem in that Italian voters have been so conditioned to expect handouts that they think the answer to the problem is even more government!

The problem is not a lack of desire to have children, critics of the campaign say, but rather the lack of meaningful support provided by the government and many employers. …”I still feel very offended,” said Vittoria Iacovella, 37, a journalist and mother of two girls, ages 10 and 8. “The government encourages us to have babies, and then the main welfare system in Italy is still the grandparents.” …Italy’s government has tried to help families with a so-called baby bonus of 80 to 160 euros, or about $90 to $180, for low- and middle-income households, and it has approved labor laws giving more flexibility on parental leave.

Ms. Iacovella is crazy for thinking that more taxes, more spending, more regulation, and more mandates will make things better.

Heck, even leftists are now admitting such laws undermine employment and specifically hurt women by making them less attractive to employers.

Meanwhile, the Italian government is taking lots of other dumb steps. Including, as reported by the Telegraph, creating a new entitlement for teenagers.

Italian school leavers may face the dismal prospect of 40 per cent youth unemployment, but at least they have one thing to look forward to – a €500 “culture bonus”, courtesy of the government. From next month, every 18-year-old will be entitled to claim the money and spend it on culturally enriching pursuits such as going to theatres, concerts and museums, visiting archaeological sites, and buying books. The scheme, which starts on Sept 15, will benefit 575,000 teenagers, at a cost to the government of €290 million (£250 million).

By the way, is anyone shocked to learn that Italian teenagers look forward to these handouts?

…it has been welcomed by 18-year-olds, who face a difficult economic landscape when they leave school – high unemployment, a lack of secure, long-term contracts and an economy that has performed dismally for a decade. “Of course we’re happy…,” said Angelica Magazzino, a teenager from the southern region of Puglia who turns 18 in November.

If you read the entire story, you’ll learn that the government justifies this new entitlement by saying it will fight terrorism. I don’t know if that’s more crazy or less crazy than the American leftists who blame terrorism on climate change or inequality.

Last but not least, CNN is reporting that the government is also enabling other forms of Italian “culture.”

Italy’s highest court has ruled that masturbation in public is not a crime, as long as it is not conducted in the presence of minors.

No, this is not a joke.

The decision came down from the Italian Supreme Court…in the case of a 69-year-old man…The man was convicted in May 2015 after he performed the act in front of students on the University of Catania campus, according to documents filed with Supreme Court. The man was sentenced to three months in prison and ordered to pay a fine of €3,200 (around $3,600). However, the defendant’s lawyer appealed the case to the country’s highest court, which ruled on the side of the accused in June but only just made its decision public. Judges ruled that public masturbation out of the presence of minors is no longer deemed criminal conduct due to a change in the law last year, which decriminalized the act.

Great. I’m looking forward to my next trip to Italy. Though I guess it’s nice to see Italian seniors are staying active in their communities.

More seriously, this is why I’m sympathetic to Italians that are either privately dodging or publicly revolting when you have a government this profligate and senseless.

P.S. Amazingly, some leftists think the United States should have a bigger government and be more like Italy.

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All forms of statism are despicable because they’re morally and practically evil.

They’re morally evil since they’re based on coercion. And they’re practically evil since they deliver such awful results for ordinary people.

The good news is that some forms of statism are widely discredited. Outside of universities, you don’t find many people who defend and advocate communism. And other than a few lonely cranks, you don’t find many people who defend and advocate national socialism and other forms of fascism.

But for some inexplicable reason, you still find some folks who harbor positive feelings about socialism.

To be sure, that opens up a bunch of questions, such as whether they even understand that socialism – at least in theory – involves government ownership and operation of the means of production. Such as the United Kingdom in the post-WWII era.

For what it’s worth, the fans of Bernie Sanders probably don’t understand anything about economics (goes without saying, right?) and they probably think that socialism is simply a system with lots of redistribution. Such as modern Denmark (even though that nation is just as market-oriented as the United States).

I’m not sure how we educate these people, and I doubt these three photos will have much impact on them, but I chuckled when this showed up in my inbox.

I guess the top photo might be Detroit. The second photo could be Cuba. And the last photo might be where Al Gore lives.

If that’s the case, the first is actually an image showing the destructive impact of the welfare state and the third is actually an image the benefits of insider cronyism, but let’s not get hung up on details. The real point is that corrupt insiders are the only real beneficiaries of big government.

P.S. Two of the most popular columns I’ve produced involve semi-amusing stories that highlight the failure of socialism, redistributionism, and collectivism. “The Tax System Explained in Beer” and “Does Socialism Work? A Classroom Experiment” succinctly capture why it’s very shortsighted and misguided to have an economic system that punishes success and rewards sloth.

P.P.S. Yes, socialism breeds misery, but it also generates some clever humor. See here, here, here, here, here, and here.

P.P.P.S. And even though self-proclaimed socialists pontificate about sharing and compassion, their ideology actually promotes a bad kind of selfishness.

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I’ve written many times that Washington is both a corrupt city and a corrupting city. My point is that decent people go into government and all too often wind up losing their ethical values as they learn to “play the game.”

I often joke that these are people who start out thinking Washington is a cesspool but eventually decide it’s a hot tub.

During the presidential campaign, Trump said he wanted to “drain the swamp,” which is similar to my cesspool example. My concern is that El Presidente may not understand (or perhaps not even care) that shrinking the size and scope of government is the only effective way to reduce Washington corruption.

In any event, we’re soon going to get a very strong sign about whether Trump was serious. With Republicans on Capitol Hill divided on how to deal with this cronyist institution, Trump basically has the tie-breaking vote on the issue.

In other words, he has the power to shut down this geyser of corporate welfare. But will he?

According the Susan Ferrechio of the Washington Examiner, Trump may choose to wallow in the swamp rather than drain it.

President Trump now may be in favor of the Export-Import Bank, according to Republican lawmakers who met with him privately Thursday, even though Trump once condemned the bank as corporate welfare.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center is one on the Ex-Im Bank’s most tenacious opponents, and she’s very worried.

…if the reports are true that Trump has decided to support the restoration of the crony Export-Import Bank’s full lending authority, it would be akin to the president deciding to instead happily bathe in the swamp and gargle the muck. …If true, the news is only “great” for Boeing, GE, and the other major recipients of Ex-Im’s corporate welfare. It is also at odds with his campaign promises since much of the way the program works is that it gives cheap loans — backed by Americans all over the country — to foreign companies in China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Restoring Ex-Im’s full lending-authority powers is renewing the policy to give cheap loans backed by workers in the Rust Belt to companies like Ryanair ($4 billion in guarantee loans over ten years) and Emirates Airlines ($3.9 billion over ten years) so they can have a large competitive advantage over U.S. domestic airlines like Delta and United. It continued to subsidize the large and prosperous state-owned Mexican oil company PEMEX ($9.7 billion over ten years). Seriously? That’s president Trump’s vision of draining the swamp?

Ugh. It will be very disappointing if Trump chooses corporate welfare over taxpayers.

What presumably matters most, though, is whether a bad decision on the Ex-Im Bank is a deviation or a harbinger of four years of cronyism.

In other words, when the dust settles, will the net effect of Trump’s policies be a bigger swamp or smaller swamp?

The New York Times opined that Trump is basically replacing one set of insiders with another set of insiders, which implies a bigger swamp.

Mr. Trump may be out to challenge one establishment — the liberal elite — but he is installing one of his own, filled with tycoons, Wall Street heavyweights, cronies and a new rank of shadowy wealthy “advisers” unaccountable to anyone but him. …Take first the Goldman Sachs crowd. The Trump campaign lambasted global financiers, led by Goldman, as having “robbed our working class,” but here come two of the alleged miscreants: Gary Cohn, Goldman’s president, named to lead the National Economic Council, and Steven Mnuchin, named as Treasury secretary. …Standing in the rain during Mr. Trump’s inaugural speech, farmers and factory workers, truckers, nurses and housekeepers greeted his anti-establishment words by cheering “Drain the Swamp!” even as the new president was standing knee-deep in a swamp of his own.

I’m skeptical of Trump, and I’m waiting to see whether Gary Cohn and Steven Mnuchin will be friends for taxpayers, so I’m far from a cheerleader for the current administration.

But I also think the New York Times is jumping the gun.

Maybe Trump will be a swamp-wallowing cronyist, but we don’t yet have enough evidence (though a bad decision on Ex-Im certainly would be a very bad omen).

Here’s another potential indicator of what may happen to the swamp under Trump’s reign.

Bloomberg reports that two former Trump campaign officials, Corey Lewandowski and Barry Bennett have cashed in by setting up a lobbying firm to take advantage of their connections.

The arrival of a new president typically means a gold rush for Washington lobbyists as companies, foreign governments, and interest groups scramble for access and influence in the administration. Trump’s arrival promises to be different—at least according to Trump. Throughout the campaign, he lambasted the capital as a den of insider corruption and repeatedly vowed to “drain the swamp,” a phrase second only in the Trump lexicon to “make America great again.” …Trump’s well-advertised disdain for lobbying might seem to augur poorly for a firm seeking to peddle influence. …“Business,” Lewandowski says, “has been very, very good.”

This rubs me the wrong way. I don’t want lobbyists to get rich.

But, to be fair, not all lobbying is bad. Many industries hire “representation” because they want to protect themselves from taxes and regulation. And they have a constitutional right to “petition” the government and contribute money, so I definitely don’t want to criminalize lobbying.

But as I’ve said over and over again, I’d like a much smaller government so that interest groups don’t have an incentive to do either the right kind of lobbying (self-protection) or the wrong kind of lobbying (seeking to obtain unearned wealth via the coercive power of government).

Here’s one final story about the oleaginous nature of Washington.

Wells Fargo is giving a big payout to Elaine Chao, the new Secretary of Transportation.

Chao, who joined Wells Fargo as a board member in 2011, has collected deferred stock options —  a compensation perk generally designed as a long-term retention strategy — that she would not be able to cash out if she left the firm to work for a competitor. Her financial disclosure notes that she will receive a “cash payout for my deferred stock compensation” upon confirmation as Secretary of Transportation. The document discloses that the payments will continue throughout her time in government, if she is confirmed. The payouts will begin in July 2017 and continue yearly through 2021. But Wells Fargo, like several banks and defense contractors, provides a special clause in its standard executive employment contract that offers flexibility for awarding compensation if executives leave the bank to enter “government service.” Such clauses, critics say, are structured to incentivize the so-called “reverse revolving door” of private sector officials burrowing into government. …Golden parachutes for executives leaving firms to enter government dogged several Obama administration officials. Jack Lew, upon leaving Citigroup to join the Obama administration in 2009, was given a cash payout as part of his incentive and retention awards that wouldn’t have been paid if he had left the firm to join a competitor or under ordinary circumstances. But Lew’s Citigroup contract stipulated that there was an exception for leaving to work in a “full time high level position with the U.S. government or regulatory body.” Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Northrop Grumman are among the other firms that have offered special financial rewards to executives who leave to enter government.

This rubs me the wrong way, just as it rubbed me the wrong way when one of Obama’s cabinet appointees got a similar payout.

But the more I think about it, the real question isn’t whether government officials get to keep stock options and other forms of deferred compensation when they jump to government.

What bothers me much more is why companies feel that it’s in their interest to hire people closely connected to government. What value did Jacob Lew bring to Citigroup? What value did Chao bring to Wells Fargo?

I suspect that the answer has a lot to do with financial institutions wanting people who can can pick up the phone and extract favors and information from senior officials in government.

For what it’s worth, I’m not a fan of Lew because he pushed for statism while at Treasury. By contrast, I am a fan of Chao because she was one of the few bright spots during the generally statist Bush years.

But I don’t want a system where private companies feel like they should hire either one of them simply because they have connections in Washington.

I hope that Trump will change this perverse set of incentives by “draining the swamp.” But unless he reduces the size and scope of government, the problem will get worse rather than better.

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I’m not a big fan of Donald Trump, mostly because I fear his populist instincts will deter him from policies that we need (such as entitlement reform) while luring him to support policies that are misguided (more federal transportation spending).

But I admit it’s too early to tell. Maybe my policy predictions on Trump will be as bad as my political predictions about Trump.

And, for what it’s worth, I’ll freely acknowledge that Trump’s election is having a very good effect on my leftist friends. Because they fear the new occupant of the White House, they’re now much more sympathetic to the notion that there should be limits on the power of the federal government and they’re acknowledging that maybe federalism isn’t such a bad idea after all.

Indeed, some of them are so supportive of limiting the impact of Washington that they’re considering secession! The L.A. Daily News reports on a growing campaign in the Golden State.

“Yes California,” a pro-secession group, filed paperwork with the state attorney general in November for a proposed 2018 ballot measure to strike language in the state constitution binding California to the United States. …If its ballot measure succeeds, Yes California would pursue a 2019 vote to declare the state’s independence. …Talk of California secession is nothing new. But it gained momentum after Donald Trump’s election. Hillary Clinton got 62 percent of California’s vote in defeating Trump… According to Yes California, a path to secession exists through the U.S.-ratified United Nations charter.

By the way, I thought cozying up to Moscow was a bad thing now. But since the Yes California crowd is even trying to establish relations with Putin-land, I guess coziness is in the eye of the beholder.

…the group announced the opening of a “cultural center” in Moscow.

Anyhow, the folks at Salon are somewhat supportive of “CalExit.”

…it’s time for the media to stop dismissing the idea as a zany left coast response to the newly elected Republican federal government. …secession could be a reality in our lifetime. …Californians could expect to initiate advanced-level progress in racial justice…free of restriction an independent California could actually demonstrate the success of progressive values in action… It’s difficult to say whether California’s rich Democrats in coastal enclaves would be down with paying reparations if the independent nation were scrapping its ties to the U.S. and its colonial past.

But a column in the L.A. Times by Conor Friedersdorf says statist values would suffer if California became independent.

Blue America would lose its biggest source of electoral votes in all future elections. The Senate would have two fewer Democrats. The House of Representatives would lose 38 Democrats and just 14 Republicans. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, among the most liberal in the nation, would be changed irrevocably. And the U.S. as a whole would suddenly be a lot less ethnically diverse than it is today. For those reasons, Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Republicans with White House ambitions, opponents of legalizing marijuana, advocates of criminalizing abortion and various white nationalist groups might all conclude –– for different reasons –– that they would benefit politically from a separation, even as liberals and progressives across America would correctly see it as a catastrophe.

Which may explain why many folks on the right are cheering for secession. Here are some excerpts from another column in the L.A. Times.

…judging by the letters we’ve received from across the country on the burgeoning secessionist movement known as “Calexit,” some readers would be happy see us go — or at least take pleasure in watching our deep-blue state suffer… I have some advice to the sane citizens of California: Members of the middle class should start planning their own exit. When California loses all those billions from the federal government, the politicians are going to need to find money elsewhere, and you know Hollywood’s millionaires aren’t going to provide it. They’ll move to their mountain homes in Wyoming or elsewhere. You think all those new billionaires in Silicon Valley will eagerly part with their money? Think again. They’ll hide their wealth in tax shelters. The refugees and illegal immigrants on the receiving end of California’s generous benefits aren’t going to provide needed tax revenues, so the politicians will target the middle class.

Of course they’ll target the middle class. That’s what they want in Washington. That’s why they want a value-added tax.

Simply stated, you can’t have a cradle-to-grave welfare state unless the middle class is so over-taxed that they have to rely on government for healthcare, education, retirement, and just about everything else.

But that’s an issue for another day.

Let’s keep our focus on California secession, which I support both as a matter of self-determination and as a matter of public policy.

With regards to policy, I think it will be very interesting to see how a state with huge natural advantages (coast, weather, mineral resources, agricultural land, etc) can endure bad policy.

And there’s already plenty of bad policy in the state.

A big part of the problem is that the public sector in California is wildly overcompensated. Kevin Williamson explains.

State and local government spending adds up to nearly 20 percent of California’s economic output, while thriftier states such as Texas and New Hampshire spend less than 15 percent. …California’s government, like the federal government and most other state and local governments, spends its money on salaries, benefits, pensions, and other forms of employee compensation. The numbers are contentious — for obvious political reasons — but it is estimated that something between half and 80 percent of California’s state and local spending ultimately goes to employee compensation. …The first and smaller problem is that many government workers are paid too much. …The second and larger problem with public-sector workers is that there are a whole lot of them. …When politicians talk about “investments,” we think they mean bridges and research laboratories and canals to bring water to central California. But what they are investing in is dependency. In California, that means creating a lot of full-time jobs for Democrats.

But it’s not just that there are too many bureaucrats and that they are overpaid. They also become a big burden when they retire.

Here’s some additional evidence of the mess in California.

California is already paying $5.38 billion to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System this year, and in fiscal year 2018 the state will need to add at least $200 million more. By fiscal year 2024 the annual tab will increase at least $2 billion from current levels. This all comes on top of increases already scheduled under the system, according to Governor Jerry Brown’s finance department. …California’s revenue is volatile because it draws a large share of taxes from wealthy residents whose incomes are tied closely to the stock market. The top 1 percent of earners — who tend to own shares — accounted for nearly half of the state’s personal income-tax collections in 2014.

And the big tax hikes that will be imposed on the middle class will add to the misery they already suffer. Here’s more evidence of how the middle class is being eviscerated.

…the gap between what Californians pay versus the rest of the country has nearly doubled to about 50%. This translates into a staggering bill. Although California uses 2.6% less electricity annually from the power grid now than in 2008, residential and business customers together pay $6.8 billion more for power than they did then. …“California has this tradition of astonishingly bad decisions,” said McCullough, the energy consultant. “They build and charge the ratepayers. There’s nothing dishonest about it. There’s nothing complicated. It’s just bad planning.”

Victor David Hanson bemoans the outlook for his state.

The state is currently experiencing another perfect storm of increased crime, decreased incarceration, still ongoing illegal immigration, and record poverty. All that is energized by a strapped middle class that is still fleeing the overregulated and overtaxed state, while the arriving poor take their places in hopes of generous entitlements, jobs servicing the elite, and government employment. …Go to a U-Haul trailer franchise in the state. The rental-trailer-return rates of going into California are a fraction of those going out. Surely never in civilization’s history have so many been so willing to leave a natural paradise. …What makes the law-abiding leave California is not just the sanctimoniousness, the high taxes, or the criminality. It is always the insult added to injury. We suffer not only from the highest basket of income, sales, and gas taxes in the nation, but also from nearly the worst schools and infrastructure. We have the costliest entitlements and the most entitled.

Little wonder, as Hans Bader explains, businesses continue to flee the state.

Nestlé USA, “the maker of Häagen-Dazs, Baby Ruth, Lean Cuisine, and dozens of other mass brands,” is moving its U.S. headquarters from California to Virginia. It is among many businesses that have left California in recent years. In 2010, Northrop Grumman Corp. moved its headquarters out of California, leaving the state that gave birth to the aerospace industry without a single major military contractor based there. Last Spring, the parent company of Carl’s Jr., founded in Anaheim, California, 60 years ago, relocated its headquarters to Nashville, Tennessee, where there is no state income tax. …reported the San Jose Mercury News in June 2016. “During the 12 months ending June 30, the number of people leaving California for another state exceeded by 61,100 the number who moved here from elsewhere in the U.S., according to state Finance Department statistics. ‘They are tired of the expense of living here. They are tired of the state of California and the endless taxes here,’ said Scott McElfresh, a certified moving consultant. ‘People are getting soaked every time they turn around.’” …For businesses, the worst is yet to come. California is increasing its minimum wage over the next several years to $15 per hour.  …the increase will ultimately cost California 700,000 jobs. An economist at Moody’s calculated that 31,000 to 160,000 California manufacturing jobs will be lost. California taxes may rise further, to deal with a rising state budget deficit over the next decade. The deficit is rising in part due to California’s unusually high state welfare spending which grew about twice as fast in California in 2016 as in the U.S. as a whole. California also spends its transportation dollars very poorly, and it is wasting billions on a high-speed rail boondoggle that few people will ride.

Indeed, Bader’s column illustrates the real reason why CalExit almost certainly will lead to disaster. People and businesses will vote with their feet.

So unless the politicians in Sacramento decide to erect a barbed wire fence around the border (maybe we shouldn’t joke), the state’s feudalistic economic system will be unsustainable.

Though there is an alternative scenario. Perhaps independence will have a sobering effect on the state’s kleptocrats and they’ll recognize the importance of quasi-sensible policy once California is an independent nation.

This is a big reason why I’m sympathetic to independence movements in place such as Sardinia, Scotland, and Belgium.

When there are lots of competing jurisdictions, there’s pressure on all politicians to be rational stationary bandits rather than predatory roving bandits.

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Since I’m always reading and writing about government policies, both in America and around the world, I’m frequently reminded of H.L. Mencken’s famous observation about the shortcomings of “tolerable” government.

If you take a close look at the world’s freest economies, you quickly learn that they are highly ranked mostly because of the even-worse governments elsewhere.

Even places such as Switzerland have some misguided policies.

But there’s a silver lining to this dark cloud. The incompetence, mendacity, and cronyism that exists all over the world means that I’ll never run out of things to write about.

So let’s enjoy a new edition of Great Moments in Foreign Government.

We’ll start with the utterly predictable failure of an entitlement program in the United Kingdom.

The government must stop ‘nannying’ British parents and do away with universal free childcare, a new report has urged. Families most in need of help are not getting it because Government subsidies are poorly targeted, the Institute of Economic Affairs publication said. Many families on average earnings are spending more than a third of their net income on childcare, the report claimed, saying too much regulation in the sector has hiked prices. …One study has estimated that keeping parents in work costs £65,000 per job, the report claimed, describing current policy as ‘costly and inefficient’. …home-based childminders are priced out of the sector, it said. Co-author of the report Len Shackleton, an editorial research fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said: ‘Government interventions in the childcare sector have resulted in both British families and taxpayers bearing a heavy burden of expensive provision.

Gee, a sector of the economy gets more expensive and inefficient once government gets involved.

I’m totally shocked, just like Inspector Renault in Casablanca.

Sentient human beings, of course, are not surprised. After all, just look at what government intervention has done for healthcare and higher education.

I’m still waiting for an example of a government “solution” that makes a problem better rather than worse.

Let’s now turn to Germany. I’ve previously referenced the country’s intelligence community because the BND managed to lose the blueprints for its costly new headquarters building.

But apparently the incompetence goes well beyond architecture. Another German intelligence division, the BfV, had an Islamic terrorist on staff. Here are some excerpts from a report in the Washington Post.

German intelligence agents noticed an unusual user in a chat room known as a digital hideout for Islamic militants. The man claimed to be one of them — and said he was a German spy. He was offering to help Islamists infiltrate his agency’s defenses to stage a strike. Agents lured him into a private chat, and he gave away so many details about the spy agency — and his own directives within it to thwart Islamists — that they quickly identified him, arresting the 51-year-old the next day. Only then would the extent of his double life become clear. The German citizen of Spanish descent confessed to secretly converting to Islam in 2014. From there, his story took a stranger turn. Officials ran a check on the online alias he assumed in radical chat rooms.

And they found out that the terrorist had a rather colorful past.

The married father of four had used it before — as recently as 2011 — as his stage name for acting in gay pornographic films. …which could cast a fresh light on the judgment and vetting of the German intelligence agency at a critical time.

These revelations have generated some concern, as one might expect.

News of the case sparked a storm of outrage in Germany, even as critics said it raised serious questions about the country’s bureaucratically named domestic spy agency, known as the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV). …“It’s not only a rather bizarre, but also a quite scary, story that an agency, whose central role it is to engage in counterespionage, hired an Islamist who potentially had access to classified information, who might have even tried to spread Islamist propaganda and to recruit others to let themselves be hired by and possibly launch an attack” against the domestic intelligence agency, said Hans-Christian Ströbele, a member of the Parliamentary Control Committee that oversees the work of the German intelligence services.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the German government is not alone. The U.K. government also has hired terrorists to work in anti-terrorism divisions.

In the United States, by contrast, we import them and give them welfare. I’m not sure which approach is more insane.

The only saving grace is that terrorists sometimes display similar levels of incompetence, as illustrated in the postscripts of this column.

Let’s close with a trip to Canada. Our friends to the north generally are a sensible bunch, but you can find plenty of senseless policies, particularly in the French-speaking areas.

And I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry about this example of bureaucratic extortion.

A Camrose man is ticked about his ticket — a $465 traffic violation issued by Edmonton police — for having a cracked driver’s licence. Dave Balay admits he’s guilty of having a small crack in his licence. But he doesn’t think the penalty fits the crime. He was returning home from visiting a friend Wednesday evening when he was pulled over on Anthony Henday Drive. …He gave the officer his driver’s licence, registration and insurance card. …”He came back, and the younger policeman said he was going to give me a ticket for my driver’s licence being mutilated,” said Balay. “I said, ‘Mutilated? I didn’t even know there was such a thing.’ Then he gave me a ticket for $465.” The mutilation referred to was a crack in the top left corner of Balay’s licence. “Maybe not even quite an inch long,” said Balay, adding the crack doesn’t obstruct any pertinent information. …”I think I outright laughed, and said, ‘Seriously? Four-hundred-and-sixty-five bucks for this crack?’ [The officer] said, ‘It’s a mutilated licence.’ …”Had I scratched out my eyes or drawn a mustache on my face, or scratched out the licence number or something, then, yeah, give me a ticket for that. That should be an offence.”

But the local government says Mr. Balay should be grateful that he was treated with such kindness.

Edmonton police released a statement Friday suggesting the officer actually gave Balay a break. According to the statement, the officer had grounds to lay a careless driving charge, which carries a fine of $543 and six demerit points. But because Balay was co-operative, the officer issued a lesser fine for a cracked driver’s licence.

Though Mr. Balay doesn’t think he’s been given a break.

Balay said he won’t pay the fine, even if that means serving jail time or community service. “I don’t have $465,” he said. “…I do some part-time substitute teaching, supply teacher. It’s a week’s wage.”

Good for Mr. Balay. Hopefully the publicity that he’s getting will force the revenue-hungry bureaucrats in Edmonton to back down.

Meanwhile, this story adds to my ambivalence about Canada. On the minus side of the ledger, there are absurd policies granting special rights to alcoholics, inane harassment of kids selling worms or lemonade, fines on parents who don’t give their kids carbs at lunchtime, and punishment for kids who protect classmates from knife-wielding bullies.

Then again, Canada is now one of the world’s most economically free nations thanks to relatively sensible policies involving spending restraint, corporate tax reform, bank bailouts, regulatory budgeting, the tax treatment of saving, and privatization of air traffic control. Heck, Canada even has one of the lowest levels of welfare spending among developed nations.

Though things are now heading in the wrong direction, which is unfortunate for our northern neighbors.

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What best symbolizes France’s statist political culture?

Those are good examples, to be sure, but I’ve actually already shared an everything-you-need-to-know story dealing with lavish perks for France’s protected bureaucrat class.

But there’s no rule that says I can’t have multiple everything-you-need-to-know anecdotes.

Here’s a story that reveals why France is in trouble. The Wall Street Journal reports that a French presidential candidate is arguing people shouldn’t get upset that he used taxpayer money to give his wife a no-show job because a big chunk of the money then went back to the government because of punitive taxes.

François Fillon…apologiz[ed] to the country for having employed his wife and children as parliamentary aides while rejecting accusations the jobs were phony. …Mr. Fillon characterized it as unfair for media reports to state his wife received nearly a million euros over a 15-year period, saying after taxes her monthly average income came to only €3,677 ($3,964). …The privileges traditionally available to France’s ruling class were exposed with rare candor.

So I guess Fillon wants people to think it’s okay to divert funds to family members if they “only” pocket about $48,000 per year after paying taxes.

This is disgusting. At least Fillon should have wasted taxpayer money more elegantly, like France’s current president, who doesn’t have much hair but still gave his stylist big bucks.

What makes Fillon’s story especially amusing is that he is the candidate trying to appeal to French voters who want to reduce the role of the state.

Considering that two of his major opponents are Marine Le Pen, a big-government populist, and Benoît Hamon, a socialist who favors a taxpayer-provided basic income for everyone, maybe Fillon actually is the only choice for French voters with libertarian impulses, but that’s a rather sad commentary on the state of French politics. So I don’t even know if I’ll endorse a candidate, like I did back in 2012.

What makes the situation particularly tragic is that the fiscal mess in France has become so bad that even parts of the government are concluding that some market-based reforms are necessary.

Corporation tax in France is too far above the European average, according to a report by the French Court of Auditors. The experts said a cut from 33.3% to 25% would allow companies to compete with their European counterparts. EurActiv France reports. The amount of tax paid by businesses in France has been steadily climbing for the last two decades. Today, they pay the highest rates in Europe. But this growth has not been good for the country, according to a report published by the Court… France has not always been a high tax jurisdiction, compared to other EU countries. In 1995 it was more or less at the European average. But it has steadily increased over the last 20 years. At the same time, other EU member states have been moving in the opposite direction. According to the report, most member states have lowered tax on business revenues, or have imminent plans to do so. The UK, for example plans to cut corporation tax to 17% by 2020. The average tax rate paid by EU companies fell from 33% in 1999 to 25% in 2015.

France’s suicidal fiscal regime is why – with my tongue planted firmly in cheek – I agreed with Paul Krugman back in 2013 that there is a plot against France. But I pointed out the conspirators against France were the nation’s politicians.

P.S. Actually, perhaps the story that tells you everything you need to know about France was the poll last decade revealing that more than half the population would flee to America if they had the opportunity.

P.P.S. If it wasn’t for France, we never would have had the opportunity to enjoy this very clever and amusing Scott Stantis cartoon.

P.P.P.S. Or watch this rather revealing Will Smith interview about French taxation.

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I’ve put forth lots of arguments against tax increases, mostly focusing on why higher tax rates will depress growth and encourage more government spending.

Today, let’s look at a practical, real-world example.

I wrote a column for The Hill looking at why Greece is a fiscal and economic train wreck. I have lots of interesting background and history in the article, including the fact that Greece got into the mess by overspending and also explaining that politicians like Merkel only got involved because they wanted to bail out their domestic banks that foolishly lent lots of money to the Greek government.

But the most newsworthy part of my column was to expose the fact that “austerity” hasn’t worked in Greece because the private sector has been suffocated by giant tax hikes.

…the troika…imposed the wrong kind of fiscal reforms. …what mostly happened is that Greek politicians dramatically increased the nation’s already punitive tax burden. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s fiscal database tells a very ugly story. …on the eve of the crisis, the tax burden in Greece totaled 38.9 percent of GDP. This year, taxes are projected to reach 52.0 percent of economic output. Every major tax in Greece has been dramatically increased, including personal income taxes, corporate income taxes, value-added taxes, and property taxes. It’s been a taxpalooza… What’s happened on the spending side of the fiscal ledger? Have there been “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts? …there have been some cuts, but the burden of government spending is still a heavy weight on the Greek economy. Outlays totaled 54.1 percent of GDP in 2009 and now government is consuming 52.2 percent of economic output.

For what it’s worth, the spending numbers would look better if the economy was stronger. In other words, Greece’s performance wouldn’t be so dismal if GDP was growing rather than shrinking.

And that’s why tax increases are so misguided. They give politicians an excuse to avoid much-needed spending cuts while also hindering growth, investment and job creation.

Let’s close by reviewing Greece’s performance according to Economic Freedom of the World. The overall score for Greece has dropped slightly since 2009, but the real story is that the nation’s fiscal score has dramatically worsened, falling from 5.61 to 4.66 on a 0-10 scale. In other words, during a period of time in which Greece was supposed to sober up and become more fiscally responsible, the politicians engaged in an orgy of tax hikes and Greece went from a failing grade for fiscal policy to a miserably failing grade.

Here’s a the relevant graph from the EFW website. As you can see, the score has been dropping for a decade, not just since 2009.

This is remarkable result. Greek politicians should have been pushing the nation’s fiscal score to at least 7 out of 10, if not 8 out of 10. Instead, the score has gone in the wrong direction because of tax increases.

Though I don’t expect Hillary and Bernie to learn the right lesson.

P.S. For more information, here’s my five-picture explanation of the Greek mess.

P.P.S. And if you want to know why I’m so dour about Greece’s future, how can you expect good policy from a nation that subsidizes pedophiles and requires stool samples to set up online companies?

P.P.P.S. Let’s close by recycling my collection of Greek-related humor.

This cartoon is quite  good, 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.

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