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Posts Tagged ‘Denmark’

When writing yesterday’s column about new competitiveness rankings from the IMD business school in Switzerland, I noticed that I have not yet written about this year’s edition of the Index of Economic Freedom.

Time to rectify that oversight.

We’ll start with a look at the nations with the most economic freedom. Interestingly, Singapore has now displaced Hong Kong as the world’s most market-friendly jurisdiction (because Hong Kong’s score declined, not because Singapore’s score increased), with New Zealand, Australia, and Switzerland rounding out the top 5.

The United States, meanwhile, isn’t even in the top 10. Instead, America dropped from #12 last year to #17 this year.

The decline is partly due to a lower score (with Trump’s protectionist policies deserving the biggest share of the blame), but mostly caused by better scores from nations such as Chile, Georgia, Estonia, and Lithuania.

What may shock people, though, is that even supposedly socialist Denmark (score of 78.3) ranks above the United States (score of 76.6). Here’s a look at U.S. and Danish scores from 1995-present.

Regular readers already know that Denmark is not a socialist nation. Indeed, it’s never been socialist. By world standards, there’s basically no history of government ownershipcentral planning, or price controls.

The most accurate way of describing Denmark is that it combines laissez-faire economics with tax-and-spend redistributionism.

Since this is a common approach among nations in that part of the world, some people even refer to this set of economic policies as the Nordic model.

So how does this approach compare to policy in the United States? The short answer, as illustrated by this table, is that America generally does better on fiscal policy, but gets lower scores when looking at almost every other type of policy.

The great irony of all this is that Bernie Sanders wants the U.S. to be more like Denmark, but he only says that because he doesn’t realize it would mean reducing the negative impact of government.

P.S. While Denmark has some awful fiscal policies (the tax burden is terrible), there are some bright spots. It has done a good job in recent years of restraining the growth of government, and it also has a partially private retirement system.

P.P.S. Not that any of these will be a surprise, but the three lowest-ranked nations in the Index of Economic Freedom are Cuba (26.9), Venezuela (25.2), and North Korea (4.2).

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When non-libertarian audiences ask my opinion about immigration, I generally point out that it is a very good sign that so many people want to come to the United States.

Almost everyone agrees with that statement, but that doesn’t put them in the pro-immigration camp. Instead, I find that many people have a “what’s in it for us” attitude.

  1. They like the underlying concept of programs such as the EB-5 visa that attract immigrants with money, and they are broadly sympathetic to immigrants with skills and education. At the risk of over-simplifying, they want immigrants who won’t rely on handouts and they like immigrants who presumably will increase the nation’s per-capita GDP (and there certainly is strong evidence that this happens).
  2. They’re skeptical of mass immigration by people with low incomes. This is mostly because they fear such migrants will impose higher costs on taxpayers, though Republican types also seem motivated by concerns about future voting patterns. The notable exception to this pattern is that business audiences are somewhat sympathetic to mass migration because they believe labor costs will fall.

When I deal with people in category #2, I sometimes ask them about Tyler Cowen’s idea of allowing limitless migration from nations with bigger welfare states. After all, I doubt people such as “Lazy Robert” will move from Denmark to the United States.

But what about poor people from poor nations? Would they like to migrate to rich nations to get handouts, rather than for economic opportunity?

Taxpayers in many nations are worried about that possibility and are not very welcoming to immigrants who will collect benefits.

Indeed, that’s motivated the Trump Administration to consider tightening rules for who gets in the country.

The Trump administration announced long-awaited “public charge” immigration regulations this week, and the furor immediately kicked up to derangement level. …But immigration regulation of this sort has been a part of our laws for more than a century…the 1882 act declared that “any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge…shall not be permitted to land.” …The 1952 revisions to immigration law maintained the idea that the government may exclude “paupers, professional beggars, or vagrants” and those who are “are likely at any time to become public charges.” …In 1996, Congress strengthened the public charge provisions…why would anyone call the Trump administration’s interpretation “un-American?” …the regulations—which do not apply to refugees, asylum-seekers, and various other groups—propose guidance to determine if an immigrant would be likely to use the welfare system for more than 12 months during a three-year period.

But it’s not just a controversy in the United States.

Taxpayers in the Netherlands, for instance, are becoming less tolerant of immigrants who want handouts rather than work.

Non-Western immigrants and their descendants also depend on welfare to a much greater extent than the native Dutch. They are half of all welfare recipients but only 11% of the total population. Among recent Somali refugees granted asylum, 80% are on welfare. Holland is truly a welfare state, and the Dutch are proud of it. …This type of open and yet highly regulated society can function only if it is carried by a disciplined and well-educated citizenry… That is what the fuss is about. To put it in abstract terms: Can a welfare state become an immigration state? You know the answer: A welfare state with open borders will one day run out of money.

I can’t imagine that stories like this make German taxpayers happy.

As early as 2016, German newspapers have been reporting on migrants with recognized refugee status having holidays in countries that they “fled,” such as Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Syria. Because Hartz IV, the welfare system that certain migrants granted refugee status receive, permits 21 days per year of “local absence,” those who have recognized refugee status and have no income or assets simply leave Germany for vacation and continue to receive money from German taxpayers.

There are also concerns that welfare spending hinders economic integration and independence in Sweden.

…only 20 percent of the Somali immigrants in Sweden have jobs, according to a report released on Monday by the government’s Commission… In an opinion article published in the Expressen newspaper, the author of the report, Benny Carlsson of Lund University, explained that Sweden would be well served to let community-based organizations do more…rather than relying on public agencies… Carlsson explained that…Sweden’s rigid labour market and labour protection laws also create “higher risks” for employees which amount to “higher thresholds” for Somali jobseekers. …Carlsson also cited Sweden’s social safety net which “lets people live at a decent level even if they don’t work, while the same can’t be said of the United States”.

Speaking of Sweden, stories of welfare dependency help to explain this report in the New York Times.

…four years after the influx, growing numbers of native-born Swedes have come to see the refugees as a drain on public finances. …Antipathy for immigrants now threatens to erode support for Sweden’s social welfare state. “People don’t want to pay taxes to support people who don’t work,” says Urban Pettersson, 62, a member of the local council here in Filipstad, a town set in lake country west of Stockholm. “Ninety percent of the refugees don’t contribute to society. These people are going to have a lifelong dependence on social welfare. This is a huge problem.” …Under the Nordic model, governments typically furnish health care, education and pensions to everyone. The state delivers subsidized housing and child care. When people lose jobs, they gain unemployment benefits… But the endurance of the Nordic model has long depended on two crucial elements — the public’s willingness to pay some of the highest taxes on earth, and the understanding that everyone is supposed to work. …Sweden’s sharp influx of immigrants — the largest of any European nation, as a share of the overall population — directly tests this proposition. …The unemployment rate was only 3.8 percent among the Swedish-born populace last year, but 15 percent among foreign-born… Roughly half of all jobless people in Sweden were foreign-born. …these sorts of numbers are cited as evidence that refugees have flocked here to enjoy lives of state-financed sloth. …The average refugee in Sweden receives about 74,000 Swedish kronor (about $7,800) more in government services than they pay into the system, Joakim Ruist, an economist at the University of Gothenburg, concluded in a report released last year and commissioned by the Ministry of Finance. Over all, the cost of social programs for refugees runs about 1 percent of Sweden’s annual national economic output

But is it true that migrants are looking for handouts? Are the afore-cited stories just random anecdotes, or do they suggest some countries are “welfare magnets”?

I’ve already shared some evidence that welfare recipients inside the United States gravitate to places that provide bigger benefits.

And this seems to be the case for migrants that cross national borders. Here are some findings from some new academic research showing that the generosity of Denmark’s welfare state has a significant impact on migration choices.

We study the effects of welfare generosity on international migration using a series of large changes in welfare benefits for immigrants in Denmark. The first change, implemented in 2002,lowered benefits for immigrants from outside the EU by about 50%, with no changes for natives or immigrants from inside the EU. The policy was later repealed and re-introduced. The differential treatment of immigrants from inside and outside the EU, and of different types of non-EU immigrants, allows for a quasi-experimental research design. We find sizeable effects:the benefit reduction reduced the net flow of immigrants by about 5,000 people per year, or 3.7percent of the stock of treated immigrants, and the subsequent repeal of the policy reversed the effect almost exactly. Our study provides some of the first causal evidence on the widely debated “welfare magnet” hypothesis. …our evidence implies that, conditional on moving, the generosity of the welfare system is important for destination choices.

Here’s the relevant graph from the study, based on two different ways of slicing the data.

As you can see from the red lines, migration fell when benefits were reduced, then immediately jumped when benefits were increased, and then immediately fell again when they were again lowered.

For what it’s worth, scholars believe that support for the welfare state in Europe is declining for these reasons. Taxpayers are tolerant of subsidizing their long-time neighbors, but are much less sympathetic when giving away money to newcomers.

From my perspective, the solution is obvious. I generally like immigration and generally don’t like redistribution.

So why not reduce benefits, ideally for everyone, but just to migrants if that’s the only possible outcome. That way nations are more likely to attract people (especially from low-income societies) who are seeking economic opportunity.

P.S. If you want to enjoy some immigration-related humor, we have a video about Americans migrating to Peru and a story about American leftists escaping to Canada.

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Spending caps are the most effective way of fulfilling my Golden Rule for fiscal policy.

And we have good evidence for this approach, as I explain in this FreedomWorks discussion.

I also discuss tax competition in the interview, as well as other topics. You can watch the entire discussion by clicking here.

But I’m sharing the part about spending caps because it fits perfectly with some new research from Veronique de Rugy and Jack Salmon of the Mercatus Center.

They point out that America faces a grim fiscal future, but suggest that fiscal rules may be part of the solution.

…the federal budget process as it exists today has proven inadequate…it is a great way to enable politicians to do what they want to do (cater to interest groups) while avoiding what they don’t want to do (living within their means). …The negative consequence emerging from this chaos and the resulting failure to follow budget rules is an unremitting expansion of the size and scope of government… With countries around the world experiencing growing debt-to-GDP ratios, resultant stagnation in economic growth, and, in extreme cases, default on debts, academics have been paying an increasing amount of attention to the potential of rules toward restraining unsustainable deficit spending. …The good news is that the evidence suggests that these fiscal rules are broadly effective at restraining deficit spending. …The bad news is that not all fiscal rules are effective in restraining government profligacy and curtailing debt growth.

The authors are right. Some fiscal rules don’t work very well.

As I stated in the interview, balanced budget requirements tend to be ineffective.

Spending caps, by contrast, have a decent track record.

The Mercatus study looks at Hong Kong.

Hong Kong…might actually represent the gold standard of good fiscal policy. …Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary, Mr. John Tsang, explained, “Our commitment to small government demands strong fiscal discipline. . . . It is my responsibility to keep expenditure growth commensurate with growth in our GDP.” …in Hong Kong it’s actually a constitutional requirement: Article 107 requires that the government should strive to achieve a fiscal balance, avoid deficit, and more importantly, make sure government spending doesn’t grow faster than the growth of the economy. …Hong Kong’s spending-to-GDP ratio has fluctuated between 14 and 20 percent since the 1990s, its debt as a share of GDP is zero, social welfare spending remains steady at less than 3 percent of GDP.

Amen.

I’ve also praised Hong Kong’s fiscal policy.

Now let’s look at what the authors wrote about Switzerland.

Swiss politicians are not allowed to increase spending faster than average revenue growth over a multiyear period (as calculated by the Swiss Federal Department of Finance), which confines spending growth to a rate no higher than the rate of inflation plus population growth. The Swiss debt brake rule is significant in that it appeals to economists and policymakers on both sides of the aisle. Advocates for fiscal restraint support this rule because it is effectively a spending cap, while social democrats support the rule as it allows for deficit spending during recessionary periods. …There’s no arguing with the results: Annual spending growth fell from an average of 4.3 percent to 2.5 percent since the rule was implemented. Also, in 10 out of the past 14 years, Switzerland has had budget surpluses, while deficits have remained rare and small… At the same time, the Swiss debt-to-GDP ratio has fallen from almost 60 percent in 2003 to around 42 percent in 2017.

Once again, I say amen.

Switzerland’s spending cap is a big success.

Here’s Figure 1 from the study, which shows a big drop in Swiss government debt. I’ve augmented the chart with OECD data to focus on something even more important – which is that the burden of spending (which started very low by European standards) has declined since the debt brake was implemented.

Last but not least, let’s look at the Danish example.

In 2014 Denmark implemented The Budget Act to ensure more efficient management of public expenditures. The act is aimed at ensuring a balance or surplus on the general government balance sheet, as well as appropriate expenditure management at all levels of government. In practice, the rule sets a limit of 0.5 percent of GDP on the structural budget deficit. Policymakers decided that managing fiscal policy on the basis of a balanced structural budget would lead to an appropriate fiscal position in the long term. They also designed the system to take discretion out of their own hands by making the cuts automatic. In addition to structural deficit rules, the Budget Act introduces four-year rolling expenditure ceilings. These ceilings set legally binding limits for spending at all levels of government and for each program. If one program spends under its cap, any money not spent cannot be reallocated to another program.

I guess this is time for a triple-amen.

Here’s Figure 2 from the study, which I’ve also augmented to highlight the most important success of Denmark’s policy of spending restraint.

The economic case for spending caps is ironclad.

The problem is that it’s an uphill climb from a political perspective.

Politicians prefer legislative spending caps. After all (as we saw in 2013, 2015, 2018, and this year), those can be evaded with a simple majority, so long as there’s a profligate president who approves higher spending levels.

And those caps have never applied to entitlements, which are the part of the budget that eventually will bankrupt the nation.

So why would public choice-motivated lawmakers actually allow a serious and comprehensive spending cap to become part of the Constitution?

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I explained yesterday that Denmark is not a good role model for American leftists.

Simply stated, Otto Brøns-Petersen’s video shows that the admirable outcomes in that country are the result of laissez-faire markets and the bad outcomes are the result of the welfare state imposed beginning in the 1960s.

In any event, Denmark is not a socialist country. As I wrote, “There’s plenty of bad policy, but no government ownership, no central planning, and no price controls.”

But to make matters clear, here’s a comparison of Denmark and the United States from Economic Freedom of the World.

The bottom line is that if folks on the left want to claim Denmark is socialist, then America also is socialist. Alternatively, if Denmark is an example of Democratic Socialism, then so is the United States.

And if that’s the case, we’ve already reached Collectivist Nirvana and my leftist friends can shelve some of their crazy ideas such as 70 percent tax rates and the Green New Deal.

Needless to say, I won’t hold my breath.

Today, I want to focus on another aspect of Danish public policy that warms my heart. Back in 2015, I applauded the government for imposing some spending restraint and I expressed hope that plans for future fiscal discipline would be fulfilled.

Well, based on IMF and OECD data, policy makers in Denmark deserve a gold star. They followed my Golden Rule and limited the growth of government spending. As a result, there’s been a meaningful decline in the burden of spending (measured as a share of economic output).

Too bad American politicians weren’t similarly prudent. If federal spending in the U.S. grew at the same rate since 2012, the burden of spending today would be more than $700 billion lower.

And since spending is the problem and red ink is the symptom, it naturally follows that the United States would have a deficit this year of about $370 billion instead of nearly $1.1 trillion.

It’s a shame we can’t go back in time and trade profligate Obama and profligate Trump for Denmark’s leaders.

P.S. Here’s a list of other nations with successful periods of spending restraint, and here’s a video highlighting four of those episodes.

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I’ve repeatedly dealt with the argument over Denmark’s supposed socialism.

My core argument is that Denmark is very bad on fiscal policy, but very laissez-faire on other issues such as regulation. The net effect is that Danes have about the same amount of economic liberty as Americans.

The bottom line is that Denmark isn’t socialist. At least not if we use the technical definition. There’s plenty of bad policy, but no government ownership, no central planning, and no price controls.

Which is basically the message in this Prager University video by Otto Brøns-Petersen from the CEPOS think tank in Denmark.

This is a great video.

Basically everything you need to know about Danish economic policy.

To augment Otto’s video, let’s review a report from some of his CEPOS colleagues.

The entire report is worth reading, but I want to focus on one excerpt and some key visuals.

First, notice that Denmark and the United States have similar levels of economic freedom.

Since I’m a public finance economist, I was very interested in some observations in the report about fiscal policy.

This excerpt notes that Denmark has a much more onerous tax burden, and it points out that the value-added tax is the main reason for the gap.

…the tax burden (taxes to GDP) is the second-highest in the OECD and 70 percent higher than in the US (46 vs. 27 per cent of GDP). …The biggest difference between the Danish and the American tax systems is that consumption taxes are much higher in Denmark. VAT is 25 per cent in Denmark while the average sales tax is 6 per cent in the US. …Including the effect of consumption taxes, the top marginal tax rate on labor income is 67 per cent in Denmark. For low and middle-income workers, it is 55 per cent. This is significantly higher than in the USA. It’s important to include consumption taxes when you calculate the effective marginal tax rate. High consumption taxes means that you can buy fewer goods for one extra working hour.

My first takeaway is that this explains why blocking the VAT is absolutely necessary for advocates of limited government in the United States.

And the second takeaway is that big government means big burdens on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers, which is what we seen in this next chart.

Last but not least, here are two charts comparing taxes and labor supply in the United States and Denmark.

In the tax chart, you can see that the two countries were very similar from the 1930s to the 1960s. But then the tax burden in Denmark got much worse (coinciding with the imposition of the VAT).

Now take a look at hours worked in both nations.

We were very similar back in 1970. But as the Danish tax burden grew, people responded by working less and less.

In other words, more evidence to support the core insight of supply-side economics. The more you tax of something, the less you get of it.

The Philoso-raptor surely would agree.

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In Part I of our series on Socialism in the Modern World, we looked at the tragic story of Venezuela.

Today, we’re going to look at what we can learn from the Nordic nations. And the first thing to understand, as I explain in this interview, is that these nations are only socialist if the definition is watered down.

As I noted in the interview, real socialism is based on government ownership and control of the “means of production.” But Nordic countries don’t have government-owned factories, government-controlled allocation of resources, or government regulation of prices.

In other words, those nations are not socialist (government ownership), they’re not fascist (government control), and they’re not even corporatist (cronyism).

So what are they?

In a column for the Washington Post, Max Boot accurately describes them as free-market welfare states.

…rigging elections and locking up or killing political opponents. This is one model of socialism — the same approach that has been applied in Cuba and the Soviet Union. But there are many other varieties that are far more benign. …the Scandinavian model. …Denmark, Norway and Sweden…show that a “free-market welfare state” isn’t an oxymoron. …By some measures, moreover, they are freer, economically…than the United States.

That last sentence isn’t a typo. The United States has more overall economic freedom than the Nordic nations, but both Denmark and Finland actually rank above America when looking at factors other than fiscal policy.

And Sweden and Norway only trail the United States by 0.03 and 0.06 points, respectively.

That being said, a big lesson to learn is that fiscal policy is a mess in the Scandinavian countries.

…there is nothing sinister about wanting to emulate the Scandinavian example. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s practical. The Scandinavians have lower corporate tax rates than the United States but much higher individual taxes. …The Scandinavian countries also charge hefty value-added taxes of 25 percent on consumption. The United States doesn’t have a national sales tax, and the average rate for state sales taxes is only 7 percent. In all, Scandinavians pay $25,488 a head in taxes compared with $14,793 a head in the United States — 72 percent more. This is what it takes to finance a Scandinavian-style social welfare state. It can’t be done simply by raising marginal tax rates on the wealthiest taxpayers to 70 percent, as Ocasio-Cortez suggests, because few taxpayers pay the top rate. It requires a massive tax hike on the middle class.

Amen. This is a point I have frequently made, most recently when writing about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s statist agenda. Ordinary taxpayers will pick up most of the tab if the left’s agenda is adopted.

But I’m digressing. Let’s return to today’s main issue, which is the Nordic nations and socialism.

Technically, there’s no connection. As I said in the interview, those countries have never been socialist. Heck, if those nations are socialist, then so is the United States.

There is a lesson to be learned, however, and that lesson is relevant whether one uses the technical or common definition of socialism.

Simply stated, the relative success of those nations is due to free markets and a history of small government, but the imposition of big welfare states starting in the 1960s has weakened the region’s economic vitality.

This chart tells you everything you need to know.

P.S.  Actually, there is more your should know. Nima Sanandaji’s data on how Americans of Nordic descent are richer than residents of Nordic nations is very illuminating.

P.P.S. And we have specific data from Sweden showing how that nation lost ground after it adopted the big welfare state (and has subsequently gained ground thanks to pro-market reforms such as nationwide school choice and partial pension privatization).

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The most persuasive data, when comparing the United States and Scandinavia, are the numbers showing that Americans of Swedish, Danish, Finnish, and Norwegian descent produce much more prosperity than those who remained in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Norway.

This certainly suggests that America’s medium-sized welfare state does less damage than the large-sized welfare state in Scandinavian nations.

But maybe the United States also was fortunate in that it attracted the right kind of migrant from Scandinavia.

Let’s look at some fascinating research from Professor Anne Sofie Beck Knudsen of Lund University in Sweden.

If you’re in a rush and simply want the headline results, here are some excerpts from the abstract.

This paper examines the joint evolution of emigration and individualism in Scandinavia during the Age of Mass Migration (1850-1920). A long-standing hypothesis holds that people of a stronger individualistic mindset are more likely to migrate as they suffer lower costs of abandoning existing social networks. …I propose a theory of cultural change where migrant self-selection generates a relative push away from individualism, and towards collectivism, in migrant-sending locations through a combination of initial distributional effects and channels of intergenerational cultural transmission. …the empirical results suggest that individualists were more likely to migrate than collectivists, and that the Scandinavian countries would have been considerably more individualistic and culturally diverse, had emigration not taken place.

If you’re interested in more detail, here are passages from the study.

We’ll start with the author’s description of why she studied the topic and what she wanted to determine.

People of Western societies are unique in their strong view of themselves… This culture of individualism has roots in the distant past and is believed to have played an important role in the economic and political development of the region… differences in individualism and its counterpart, collectivism, impact processes of innovation, entrepreneurship, cooperation, and public goods provision. Yet, little is known about what has influenced the evolution of individualism over time and across space within the Western world. …I explore the relationship between individualism and a common example of human behavior: migration. I propose a theory, where migration flows generate cultural change towards collectivism and convergence across migrant-sending locations.

Keep in mind, by the way, that societies with a greater preference for individualism generate much more prosperity.

Anyhow, Professor Knudsen had a huge dataset for her research since there was an immense amount of out-migration from Scandinavia.

During the period, millions of people left Europe to settle in New World countries such as the United States. Sweden, Norway, and Denmark experienced some of the highest emigration rates in Europe during this period, involving the departure of approximately 25% of their populations. …Total emigration amounted to around 38% and 26% in Norway and Sweden respectively.

Here are some of her findings.

I find that Scandinavians who grew up in individualistic households were more likely to emigrate… people of individualistic mindsets suffer lower costs of leaving existing social networks behind… the cultural change that took place during the Age of Mass Migration was sufficiently profound to leave a long-run impact on contemporary Scandinavian culture. …If people migrate based, in part, on individualistic cultural values, migration will have implications on the overall evolution of cultures. Emigration must be associated with an immediate reduction in the prevalence of individualists in the migrant-sending population.

Here is her data on the individualism of emigrants compared to those who stayed in Scandinavia.

As an aside, I find it very interesting that Scandinavian emigrants were attracted by the “American dream.”

…historians agree that migrants were motivated by more than hopes of escaping poverty. Stories on the ‘American Dream‘ and the view of the United States as the ‘Land of Opportunities‘ were core to the migration discourse. Private letters, diaries, and newspaper articles of the time reveal that ideas of personal freedom and social equality embodied in the American society were of great value to the migrants. In the United States, people were free to pursue own goals.

And this is why I am quite sympathetic to continued migration to America, with the big caveat that I want severe restrictions on access to government handouts.

Simply stated, I want more people who want that “American dream.”

But I’m digressing. Let’s now look at the key result from Professor Knudsen’s paper.

When the more individualistic Scandinavians with “get up and go” left their home countries, that meant the average level of collectivism increased among those remained behind.

Several observations are worth mentioning in light of the revealed actual and counterfactual patterns of individualism. First, one observes a general trend of rising individualism over the period, which is consistent with accounts for other countries… Second, the level of individualism would have been considerably higher by the end of the Age of Mass Migration in 1920, had emigration not taken place. Taking the numbers at face value, individualism would have been between 19.0% and 20.3% higher on average in Sweden, 17.8% and 27.9% in Norway, and 7.6% and 12.5% in Denmark, depending on the measure considered.

These charts capture the difference.

To wrap this up, here’s a restatement of the key findings from the study’s conclusion.

I find that people of an individualistic mindset were more prone to migrate than their collectivistic neighbors. …Due to self-selection on individualistic traits, mass emigration caused a direct compositional change in the home population. Over the period this amounted to a loss of individualists of approximate 3.7%-points in Denmark, 9.4%-points in Sweden, and 13.6%-points in Norway. …The cultural change that took place during the Age of Mass Migration was sufficiently profound to impact cross-district cultural differences in present day Scandinavia. Contemporary levels of individualism would thus have been significantly higher had emigration not occurred. …The potential societal implications of the emigration-driven cultural change are of great importance. The period of the Age of Mass Migration was characterized by industrialization, urbanization, and democratization in Scandinavia. Individualism was generally on the rise, in part due to these developments, but it seems conceivable that the collectivistic turn caused by emigration played a role in subsequent institutional developments. While economic freedom is high in contemporary Scandinavia, the region is known for its priority of social cohesion and collective insurance. This is particularly clear when contrasting the Scandinavian welfare model with American liberal capitalism.

This is first-rate research.

Professor Knudsen even understands that Scandinavian nations still have lots of economic freedom by world standards.

Imagine, though, how much economic freedom those countries might enjoy if the more individualism-minded people hadn’t left for America? Maybe those nations wouldn’t have dramatically expanded their welfare states starting in the 1960s, thus dampening economic growth.

The obvious takeaway is that migration from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway to the United States was a net plus for America and a net minus for Scandinavia.

P.S. When she referred in her conclusion to “American liberal capitalism,” she was obviously referring to classical liberalism.

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Paul Krugman has butchered numbers when writing about fiscal policy in nations such as France, Estonia, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Today, we’re going to peruse his writings on Denmark.

Here’s some of what he wrote earlier this month.

Denmark can teach us…about the possibilities of creating a decent society. …Denmark, where tax receipts are 46 percent of GDP compared with 26 percent in the U.S., is arguably the most social-democratic country in the world. According to conservative doctrine, the combination of high taxes and aid to “takers” must really destroy incentives both to create jobs and to take them in any case. …what Denmark shows is that you can run a welfare state far more generous than we do – beyond the wildest dreams of U.S. progressives – and still have a highly successful economy. Indeed, while GDP per capita in Denmark is lower than in the U.S. – basically because of shorter work hours.

And here’s what he wrote a couple of days ago.

American politics has been dominated by a crusade against big government; Denmark has embraced an expansive government role, with public spending more than half of G.D.P. American politicians fear talk about redistribution of income from the rich to the less well-off; Denmark engages in such redistribution on a scale unimaginable here. …Conservative ideology says that Denmark’s policy choices should be disastrous, that grass should be growing in the streets of Copenhagen. …But if Denmark is a hellhole, it’s doing a very good job of hiding that fact: I was just there, and it looks awfully prosperous. …The simple fact is that life is better for most Danes than it is for their U.S. counterparts.

Interestingly, Krugman acknowledges that Denmark isn’t really socialist. Instead, it simply has a big welfare state.

But is Denmark socialist? …Denmark doesn’t at all fit the classic definition of socialism, which involves government ownership of the means of production. It is, instead, social-democratic: a market economy where the downsides of capitalism are mitigated by government action, including a very strong social safety net. …The simple fact is that there is far more misery in America than there needs to be. Every other advanced country has universal health care and a much stronger social safety net than we do.

He thinks that is a good thing, of course, and was making the same argument (using the same headline) in 2015.

…the Danes get a lot of things right, and in so doing refute just about everything U.S. conservatives say about economics. …Denmark maintains a welfare state — a set of government programs designed to provide economic security — that is beyond the wildest dreams of American liberals. …working-age families receive more than three times as much aid, as a share of G.D.P., as their U.S. counterparts. To pay for these programs, Denmark collects a lot of taxes. …Overall, Denmark’s tax take is almost half of national income, compared with 25 percent in the United States. …It’s hard to imagine a better refutation of anti-tax, anti-government economic doctrine, which insists that a system like Denmark’s would be completely unworkable.

As far as I can tell, all his numbers about Denmark are accurate, but his analysis is wrong.

He wants readers to believe that the lesson from Denmark is that there are no adverse economic consequences when nations impose a big welfare state and high taxes.

But that’s not what Danish economic history tells us. As with other Nordic nations, Denmark became a rich nation when government was relatively small and taxes were modest.

And we know from historical data that economic performance significantly weakened after the fiscal burden of government was increased.

Moreover, lawmakers are now trying to restrain government spending.

The first thing to realize is that Denmark, as are the other Nordic countries, quite free markets, apart from their welfare state transfers and high government consumption. They tend to get rather high rankings on measures of the most free economies in the World. …Protection of property rights and the integrity of the legal system are very high by international standards, as is the soundness of the monetary system… Denmark has a long tradition for free trade… Credit markets are among the less regulated internationally. During the recent financial crisis, tax payers did not have to subsidize banks, and some banks were allowed to fail. The Danish labor market is very flexible: There is no legislated minimum wage, and there are few restrictions on hiring and firing.

Here’s the part that is a must-read.

Denmark did not become a rich country recently. …Danish per capita GDP relative to other countries reached a maximum 40-60 years ago… Denmark caught up to and overtook “old Europe” in the fifties, while it narrowed its gap to the US and other Western offsprings until the early 1970s, when the process of catching up came to a hold. …At the time Denmark became rich relative to the rest of the World, it was not a welfare state. In fact, Denmark has historically been a low tax country by international standards. Until the 1960s, the Danish tax revenue to GDP ratio was at the same level as the US, and lower than the British.

Unfortunately, policy veered in the wrong direction in the late 1960s, with very adverse consequences.

The sharp divergence in the Danish tax level really occurred in the second half of the 1960s, when first a left wing coalition government and then a right wing one increased the tax to GDP ratio by some ten percentage points. …government spending was to a large extent driven by increases in tax revenue stemming from the introduction of VAT and withholding taxes on wage income. …the welfare state attracted new clients and new programs were added, the economic crisis lead to increasing unemployment… By the early 1980s the economy was in very bad shape, with high unemployment, an inflationary deflation spiral, a huge and widening government deficit.

I can’t help but call your attention to Otto’s observation about how the VAT enabled a far larger burden of government.

But let’s not get sidetracked.

This chart shows how the tax burden in Denmark diverged from the United States.

So what’s the bottom line?

Denmark first became rich, and then introduced the programs, which make up the welfare state. The huge increase in government spending has been accompanied by deep structural problems, which has made it necessary to reform the Danish economy and welfare state ever since. It can hardly be claimed that introducing the welfare state made Denmark rich; rather it was the other way around. Denmark first became rich, and then authorities began to redistribute some of the wealth.

Amen. I made the same point back in 2011.

Writing for PJ Media, Tyler O’Neil reviews the good and bad in Denmark and also echoes Otto’s analysis.

A deeper look at the history and current affairs of Denmark and the surrounding countries tells a different story, however. These countries’ benefits arguably spring from their free-market pasts, not their brief dalliance with big government. …During the early 1900s and following the Great Depression, Scandinavia’s small government and free markets fostered a culture of hard work that paid huge dividends in terms of prosperity.

Unfortunately, starting about 50 years ago, Denmark (like many other nations in the region) adopted an expensive welfare state. With bad results.

…the 1960s – 1990s expansion of welfare states actually held the Nordic countries back. After their experiment with socialistic welfare states, “Nordic citizens now have unusually high levels of sickness absence (despite being healthy societies), high youth unemployment and a poor record for integrating migrants into the labour force,” Sanandaji explains. Big government has weakened the strong culture which enabled welfare states in the first place… In 2013, roughly 240,000 people — nine percent of the potential work force — were receiving disability checks, and about 33,500 of them were under 40.

I fully agree. Denmark’s welfare state has created a problem. Simply stated, there are too many people who depend on government compared to the number of taxpayers who finance government.

I sometimes use the example of how many people are pulling the wagon compared to the number of people riding in the wagon. The Danish version uses Viking ships.

Fortunately, now there’s an effort to move back in the right direction.

Denmark now outranks even the United States as a good place to do business. …In 2013, it reduced early-retirement plans, and cut the term for unemployment benefits from four years to two. …In recent years, all the Nordic countries have decreased their corporate tax rates — each one is lower than in the United States. They also support free trade, unlike American Socialists.

Let’s look at some specific examples of how Denmark is trying to undo the damage of excessive government.

Bloomberg reported last year about the ongoing effort to reduce the nation’s fiscal burden.

When a European government raises the pension age and makes cuts to welfare programs, it’s usually because of dire finances. In Denmark’s case, it’s because of ideology. …Driving the new government’s push is a desire to finance a major round of income tax cuts. “We want to promote a society in which it is easier to support yourself and your family before you hand over a large share of your income to fund the costs of society,” the government of Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen wrote in its manifesto. It’s all part of a Danish drift toward the political right… Reforms introduced by successive governments over the years have already ensured that Denmark’s expensive welfare state is sustainable for years to come, says Torben M. Andersen, a professor of economics at the University of Aarhus and a former government adviser. These include raising the retirement age to 67 years from 65 years by 2025.

Denmark is also cutting back on college subsidies.

As one of a handful of countries that offers free tuition to college students, Denmark grants students enormous freedom… But some Danes, especially older citizens already in the labor force, say the extra freedom can eliminate a crucial sense of urgency for 20-somethings to become adults. The country now deals with “eternity students” — people who stick around at college for six years or more without any plans of graduating, solely because they don’t have any financial incentive to leave. …The country has made some headway to counter eternity students. In 2015, the Danish government proposed and passed an amendment to the Study Progress Reform… Jakobsen said the amendment has definitely reduced the trend of eternity students.

Now let’s get to my contribution to this discussion.

A few years ago, I created a “statism spectrum” to show how countries differ when looking at total economic freedom (fiscal policy, trade policy, regulatory policy, monetary policy, and quality of governance).

And I pointed out that nations with onerous fiscal burdens can still rank relatively high if they have a very pro-market approach in other areas.

But I have to confess that my spectrum was a back-of-the-envelope exercise. I simply drew a line and then added six countries.

Time for some rigor. I downloaded the latest scores from the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World and created this chart showing the relative ranking of all the countries (divided by category). As you can see, the United States and Denmark are both in the top category and they both have very similar levels of overall economic liberty.

And to put those numbers in context, here’s the same chart, but also showing France, Greece, and Venezuela.

In other words, there’s a lot to admire about Denmark. Yes, taxes are onerous and the burden of spending is still too high, but it’s nonetheless one of the most market-oriented countries in the world because of laissez-faire policies in other areas.

My bottom line is that Paul Krugman is right to praise Denmark.

My only gripe is that he likes the one thing that they’re doing wrong and overlooks all the things that make the country a relative success.

Moreover, he ignores all the recent efforts to reduce the fiscal burden of government, probably because that would require him to acknowledge that large public sectors are bad for growth.

P.S. Denmark is way ahead of the United States in its market-friendly, savings-based approach to retirement.

P.P.S. Denmark also ranks above America in protecting the right of private property.

P.P.P.S. But the United States does rank above Denmark when all policies are part of the equation, which presumably helps to explain why Americans are richer. And that also is probably why Danes in America earn a lot more than Danes in Denmark.

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The United States has a bankrupt Social Security system.

According to the most recent Trustees Report, the cash-flow deficit is approaching $44 trillion. And that’s after adjusting for inflation.

Even by DC standards of profligacy, that’s a big number.

Yet all that spending (and future red ink) doesn’t even provide a lavish retirement. Workers would enjoy a much more comfortable future if they had the freedom to shift payroll taxes to personal retirement accounts.

This is why I periodically point out that other nations are surpassing America by creating retirement systems based on private savings. Here are some examples of countries with “funded” systems (as compared to the “pay-as-you-go” regime in the United States).

Now it’s time to add Denmark to this list.

Here’s how the OECD describes the Danish system.

There is…a mandatory occupation pension scheme based on lump-sum contributions (ATP). In addition, compulsory occupational pension schemes negotiated as part of collective agreements or similar cover about 90% of the employed work force. …Pension rights with ATP and with occupational pension schemes are accrued on a what-you-pay-iswhat-you-get basis. The longer the working career, the higher the employment rate, the longer contribution record and the higher the contribution level, the greater the pension benefits. …ATP covers all wage earners and almost all recipients of social security benefits. ATP membership is voluntary for the self-employed. ATP covers almost the entire population and comes close to absolute universality. …The occupational pension schemes are fully funded defined-contribution schemes… Some 90% of the employed work force is covered… The coverage ratio has increased from some 35% in the mid-1980s to the current level… Contribution rates range between 12% and 18%.

A Danish academic described the system in a recent report.

As labour market pensions mature, they will challenge the people’s pension as the backbone The fully funded pensions provide the state with large income tax revenues from future pension payments which will also relieve the state quite a bit from future increases in pension expenditures. Alongside positive demographic prospects this makes the Danish system economically sustainable. … a main driver was the state’s interest in higher savings… Initially, savings was also the government motive for announcing in 1984 that it would welcome an extension of occupational pensions to the entire labour market. … Initially, contributions were low, but the social partners set a target of 9 per cent, later 12 per cent, which was reached by 2009. …it is formally a private system. Pensions are fully funded, and savings are secured in pensions funds. …It is also worth noting that the capital accumulated is huge. Adding together pensions in private insurance companies, banks, and labour market pension funds (some of which are organized as private pension insurance companies), the total amount by the end of 2015 was 4.083 bill.DKK, that is, 201 per cent of GDP.

Denmark’s government also is cutting back on the taxpayer-financed system.

… the state has also sought to reduce costs of ageing by raising the pension age. In the 2006 “Welfare Reform”, it was decided to index retirement age with life expectancy… Moreover, the voluntary early retirement scheme was reduced from 5 to 3 years and made so economically unattractive that it is de facto phased out. Pension age is gradually raised from 65 to 67 years in 2019-22, to 68 years in 2030, to 69 in 2035 and to 70 in 2040… These reforms are extremely radical: The earliest possible time of retirement increases from 60 years for those born in 1953 to 70 years for those born in 1970. But the challenge of ageing is basically solved.

Those “socialist” Danes obviously are more to the right than many American politicians.

The Social Security Administration has noticed that Denmark is responding to demographic change.

The Danish government recently implemented two policy changes that will delay the transition from work to retirement for many of its residents. On December 29, 2015, the statutory retirement age increased from age 67 to 68 for younger Danish residents. Three days later, on January 1, 2016, a reform went into effect that prohibits the long-standing practice of including mandatory retirement ages in employment contracts.

And here’s some additional analysis from the OECD.

…pension reforms are expected to compensate the impact of ageing on the labour force… To maintain its sustainability…, major reforms have been legislated, including the indexation of retirement age to life expectancy gains from 2030 onwards. …a person entering the labour market at 20 in 2014 will reach the legal retirement age at 73.5. This would make the Danish pension age the highest among OECD countries. …As private pension schemes introduced in the 1990s mature, public spending on pension is projected to decline from around 10% of GDP in 2013 to 7% towards 2060.

Wow. Government spending on pensions will decline even though the population is getting older. Too bad that’s not what’s happening in America.

Last but not least, here are some excerpts from some Danish research.

Denmark has also developed a funded, private pension system, which is based on mandatory, occupational pension (OP) schemes… The projected development of the occupational schemes will have a substantial effect on the Danish economy’s ability to cope with the demographic changes. …the risks of generational conflicts seem smaller in Denmark than in many other countries. …Overall, the Danish OP schemes are thus widely regarded as highly successful: they have contributed substantially to restoring fiscal sustainability, helped averting chronic imbalances on the current account and reduced poverty among the elderly.

This table is remarkable, showing the very high levels of pension assets in Denmark.

To be sure, the Danish system is not a libertarian fantasy. Government still provides a substantial chunk of retirement income, and that will still be true when the private portion of the system is fully mature. And even if the private system provided 99 percent of retirement income, it’s based on compulsion, so “libertarian” is probably not the right description.

But it is safe to say that Denmark’s system is far more market-oriented (and sustainable) than America’s tax-and-transfer Social Security system.

So the next time I hear Bernie Sanders say that the United States should be more like Denmark. I’ll be (selectively) cheering.

P.S. The good news isn’t limited to pension reform. Having reached (and probably surpassed) the revenue-maximizing point on the Laffer Curve, Denmark is taking some modest steps to restrain the burden of government spending. Combined with very laissez-faire policies on other policies such as trade and regulation, this helps to explain why Denmark is actually one of the 20-most capitalist nations in the world.

August 8 addendum: Here’s a chart from a report by the European Commission showing that private pension income is growing while government-provided retirement benefits are falling (both measured as a share of GDP).

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In yesterday’s column, I shared a humorous video mocking the everywhere-its-ever-been-tried global failure of socialism.

And I tried to preempt the typical response of my left-wing friends by pointing out that Scandinavian nations are not role models for statism.

In global ranking of economic liberty, Nordic nations score relatively high, with Denmark and Finland in the top 20. Scandinavian nations have large welfare states, but otherwise have very laissez-faire economic policies. Nordic nations got rich when government was small, but growth has slowed since welfare states were imposed.

Based on some of the emails I received, some critics have a hard time understanding this argument.

All of which is very frustrating since I’ve repeatedly tried to make this point. So I pondered the issue for hours, trying to figure out whether there was some way of helping people grasp the issue.

Maybe this chart from Economic Freedom of the World will help. It shows, based on the five major categories of economic liberty, that the once-significant gap between the United States and Scandinavia has almost completely disappeared.

In other words, anyone who claims that Scandinavian nations are socialist must also think that the United States also is socialist.

To be sure, there are differences. If you look at specific categories of economic liberty, America gets a noticeably better score than Nordic nations on fiscal policy.

But we get a significantly worse score for governance issues such as property rights, corruption, and the rule of law.

We also do a bit worse on trade and slightly better on regulation.

The bottom line is that both the United States and Scandinavian nations are market-oriented, but also saddled with plenty of bad government policies. If that makes us socialist, then what’s the right term for nations where government has a much bigger footprint, such as France, Italy, or Greece?

How about Venezuela and Zimbabwe?

Or North Korea and Cuba?

What I’m saying is that there’s a spectrum and we should be cognizant that there are different degrees of statism. And nations closer to one end are much different from countries closer to the other end.

Plenty of other people make similar arguments about the Nordic countries.

Tim Worstall, writing about Finland for CapX, emphasizes the laissez-faire nature of Scandinavian nations, while also pointing out that there’s a degree of decentralization that makes big government somewhat less inefficient.

…high tax rates do indeed reduce economic growth rates by undercutting incentives. So do interfering bureaucracy and state planning. And so if you’re going to go overboard on one of those two then you’ve got to be minimalist on the other point. In other words, you’ve got to kill off bureaucracy in order to leave room for the tax rates and still have a growing economy. …That is more or less how Finland and other Scandinavians do things. …The other important point is quite how decentralised they all are. …A much larger piece of the pay packet goes to the local government… That money raised locally is then spent locally too. …There’s thus an efficiency to the system, something that gets lost when…people send their cash off to the national government to be distributed without that local accountability. …if you want that Scandi life then you’ve got to do it as they do. Very local government and taxation plus a distinctly less economically interventionist government.

Amen. Local government oftentimes is bad, but it’s rarely as bad as a centralized system.

I also found a must-read 2016 article for FEE by Corey Iacono.

Democratic socialism purports to combine majority rule with state control of the means of production. However, the Scandinavian countries are not good examples of democratic socialism in action because they aren’t socialist. In the Scandinavian countries, like all other developed nations, the means of production are primarily owned by private individuals, not the community or the government, and resources are allocated to their respective uses by the market, not government or community planning. …it is true that the Scandinavian countries provide…a generous social safety net and universal healthcare, an extensive welfare state is not the same thing as socialism. …The Scandinavians embrace a brand of free-market capitalism… The Economist magazine describes the Scandinavian countries as “stout free-traders who resist the temptation to intervene even to protect iconic companies.” …These countries all also rank in the top 10 easiest countries to do business.

If you don’t believe Worstall and Iacono, check out this table of data I prepared back in 2015.

I took the Economic Freedom of the World rankings and I removed the variables for fiscal policy.

And what you find is that Denmark, Sweden, and Finland were all in the top 10 for economic liberty. And Norway was #14.

That’s compared to #24 for the United States.

Heck, there were plenty of other European nations that ranked as being more free market than the United States.

So we should be grateful that we only have a medium-sized welfare state. Because our better score on fiscal policy helps to offset our comparatively anemic scores on the other four variables.

Having pointed out that the United States now has only a rather small advantage over Scandinavian nations when looking at all five measures of economic liberty, that’s still better than nothing.

It probably explains, for instance, why Americans of Scandinavian descent earn so much more than their cousins who remained back home.

And why Americans of all backgrounds generally enjoy higher living standards than folks in Europe, even the ones in Nordic nations.

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Statists occasionally get very angry about some of my views.

My support for “tax havens” periodically seems to touch a raw nerve, for instance, though I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised since some people are so crazy that they have even urged military action against these low-tax jurisdictions.

I also get some angry responses when I praise Ronald Reagan’s achievements. I’ve even had a few leftists get all agitated simply because I occasionally share a hypothetical poll from 2013 showing that Reagan would beat Obama in a landslide.

But what really gets these folks angry is when I argue that recipients of welfare and redistribution should feel shame and embarrassment. As far as they’re concerned, I’m being a heartless jerk who wants to inflict emotional pain on vulnerable people.

Though, to be fair, their anger usually dissipates when I explain that my real goal is to protect people from long-term dependency on government. And it’s also hard for them to stay agitated when I point out that I’m basically making the same argument as Franklin Roosevelt, who famously warned about welfare being “a narcotic” and “a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”

In other words, I don’t like the welfare state because I care about both the best interests of taxpayers and also about the best interests of poor people. And this is why I repeatedly share data showing how American was making impressive progress against poverty before there was a welfare state. But once the federal government declared a “War on Poverty,” the poverty rate stopped falling.

But that’s only part of my argument. I also think there are very worrisome implications for overall society when people start thinking that they have a “right” to welfare and redistribution. At the risk of sounding like a cranky libertarian, I fear that any nation will face a very grim future once too many people lose the ethic of self-reliance and think it’s morally and ethically acceptable to be moochers.

Indeed, my theory of “Goldfish Government” is based in part on what happens when a sufficient number of voters think it’s okay to steal from their neighbors, using government as a middleman. Short-sighted politicians play a big role in this self-destructive process, of course, along with unfavorable demographic changes.

And when people want examples, I just point to nations such as Greece, Italy, and France. Or states such as California and Illinois.

At this stage, a clever leftist will usually interject and argue I’m being unfair. They’ll say that Nordic nations such as Denmark and Sweden are proof that a big welfare state is compatible with a prosperous and stable society.

Au contraire, as our French friends might say. Yes, the Nordic nations may be relatively successful big-government countries, but there are three very important things to understand.

  1. The Nordic nations became comparatively rich in the 1800s and early 1900s when economic policy was dominated by free markets and small government.
  2. The adoption of high taxes and big welfare states (particularly an explosion in the burden of government spending starting in the 1960s) weakened economic performance.
  3. In recent years, Nordic nations have sought to undo the damage of big government with pro-market reforms and limits on the fiscal burden of government.

But let’s specifically focus today on whether the Nordic nations are somehow an exception to the rule that welfare and redistribution have a pernicious impact on a society. In other words, does welfare in nations such as Denmark and Sweden undermine “social capital”? Is there a negative impact on the work ethic and spirit of self-reliance?

Fortunately, we have some very good data from a new, must-read book by Nima Sanandaji, who grew up in Sweden. Entitled Debunking Utopia: Exposing the Myth of Nordic Socialism, Nima’s book is a comprehensive analysis of public policy in that part of the world, both what’s good and what needs improvement.

One of his 11 chapters is about “The Generous Welfare Trap” and it’s filled with very valuable information about the human and societal cost of the welfare state.

Though I can’t resist pointing out that he starts his analysis by citing President Roosevelt.

Franklin D. Roosevelt…was concerned that the institution he was fostering…might destroy the spirit of self-reliance. Two years into his presidency, he held a speech to Congress…the president warned that…”continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.” …In today’s political climate, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s view on public benefits would seem quite harsh.

Nima then looks at whether the Nordic nations somehow might be proof that FDR was wrong.

Yet there has been a persistent conviction among the modern proponents of welfare states that it is indeed-somehow-possible to create stable systems with generous benefits and high taxes. The main line of reasoning is based on the Nordics. The welfare states in this part of the world seem to, at least at first glance, succeed in providing extensive services and generous cash benefits without eroding personal responsibility. If generous welfare works in Sweden and Denmark, why not also in the rest of the world?

The problem, as Nima points out, is that these policies don’t work in his part of the world.

And not just because of the fiscal burden. His main point is that the welfare state is weakening people’s integrity.

…the World Values Survey shows that erosion of norms is very much a thing in the Nordics. In the beginning of the 1980s, 82 percent of Swedes and 80 percent of Norwegians agreed with the statement “Claiming government benefits to which you are not entitled is never justifiable.” …However, as the population adjusted their behavior to new economic policies, benefit morale dropped steadily. In the survey conducted between 2005 and 2008, only 56 percent of Norwegians and 61 percent of Swedes believed  that it was never right to claim benefits to which they were not entitled. The survey conducted between 2010 and 2015 only included Sweden out of the Nordic countries. It found that benefit morale had continued to fall, as merely 55 percent of Swedes answered that it was never right to overuse benefits. …Over time even the Nordic people have changed their attitudes as social democratic policies have made it less rewarding to work hard and more rewarding to live off the government.

By the way, at the risk of nit-picking, I would have advised Nima to use the term “benefit morality” rather than “benefit morale.” Though I assume almost all readers will understand the point he’s making.

Returning to our topic, Nima also cites some scholarly research that basically echoes my “Theorem of Societal Collapse.”

Martin Halla, Mario Lackner, and Friedrich G. Schneider performed an empirical analysis of the dynamics of the welfare state. They explained that…”the disincentive effects may materialize only with considerable time lags.” ..However, after some time the expansion of welfare programs leads to a deterioration of benefit morale. The three researchers concluded that “the welfare state destroys its own (economic) foundation and we have to approve the hypothesis of the self-destructive welfare state.”

The bottom line, he explains, is that the Nordic nations have been the best possible example of how a welfare state can operate.

But even in these nations, the narcotic of government dependency has slowly but surely done its damage.

Although Nordic welfare states seemed initially able to avoid this moral hazard, today we know beyond doubt that this was not the case. Even the northern European welfare states-founded in societies with exceptionally strong working ethics and emphasis on individual responsibility-have with time caught up to Roosevelt’s harsh predictions.

The good news is that Nordic nations are trying to undo the damage of the welfare state. Many governments in the region are scaling back the generosity of handouts and trying to restore the work ethic.

I don’t want to give away too much information. You need to buy his book to learn more. And the other 10 chapters are just as enlightening.

I’ll close by simply observing that Calvin Coolidge (as quoted by Ronald Reagan) understood today’s topic way back in the 1920s.

P.S. I’ve also cited Nima’s great work on how people of Nordic descent in America are much more productive than their cousins who remained in Scandinavia, as well as his work showing that Nordic nations originally became rich because of Hong Kong-style economic policy. And I’ve also shared some of his fascinating research on the policies that generate super-entrepreneurs.

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As a general rule, I like immigration and I don’t like redistribution.

As such, I share the late Milton Friedman’s concern about the risks of having a welfare state combined with open borders. And based on many conversations all over the country, I think that’s a big reason why many people oppose amnesty (augmented by Republican partisans who fear, probably with some validity, that changing the political landscape of America is the real reason Senator Schumer is a big advocate of amnesty).

So how can we reap the benefits of immigration without the risk of a bigger welfare state?

In part, we should have programs designed to attract people with skills and education.

I’m a big advocate and defender, for instance, of the EB-5 program that gives a preference for foreigners who invest in America’s economy and create jobs.

And if you peruse Mark Perry’s chart, we must be doing something right. Look at all these immigrant groups that are boosting per-capita income for the United States (including people from Lebanon, home of the Princess of the Levant).

I’ve always thought far more Americans would be sympathetic to immigration if they could be convinced that people were coming to America for the right reasons – i.e., to earn money rather than mooch off taxpayers.

With that in mind, Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University has a Bloomberg column about Denmark that cites the great work of Nima Sanandaji about how Americans of Nordic descent have much higher incomes than the people remaining in Nordic nations. Tyler’s entire article is worth reading, but I want to focus on a quasi-open-borders proposal that he puts forth in his conclusion.

For all the anti-immigrant sentiment that is circulating at the moment, would it hurt the U.S. to have fully open borders with Denmark? It would boost American gross domestic product and probably also improve American education. History teaches that serious assimilation problems would be unlikely, especially since many Danes already speak English. Open borders wouldn’t attract Danes who want to live off welfare because the benefits are so generous at home. How’s this for a simple rule: Open borders for the residents of any democratic country with more generous transfer payments than Uncle Sam’s.

I can’t think of any reasonable objection to this idea. Everything Tyler says makes sense. People like “Lazy Robert” won’t be lining up to get plane tickets to America. Instead, we’ll get the young and aspirational Danes.

For what it’s worth, I even think he understates the case since the type of people who would migrate to America wouldn’t just boost GDP. They almost surely would do something arguably more important, which is to boost per-capita GDP.

Just think of all the productive entrepreneurs who would take the opportunity to escape over-taxed Denmark and come to the United States. Along with ambitious and skilled people from nations such as Italy, France, and Sweden (though our welfare state is very expensive, so I admit I’m just guessing at nations which would be eligible based on Tyler’s rule about “more generous transfer payments”).

By the way, Denmark apparently has learned a lesson about the risks of being a welfare magnet.

A story from Spiegel Online has the details.

Denmark’s strict immigration laws have saved the country billions in benefits, a government report has claimed. …The extremely strict laws have dramatically reduced the flow of people into Denmark in recent years, and many government figures are delighted with the outcome. “Now that we can see that it does matter who comes into the country, I have no scruples in further restricting those who one can suspect will be a burden on Denmark,” the center-right liberal integration minister, Søren Pind, told the Jyllands Postennewspaper. Pind was talking after the ministry’s report — initiated by the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party (DPP) — came to the conclusion that by tightening immigration laws, Denmark has saved €6.7 billion ($10 billion) over the last 10 years, money which otherwise would supposedly have been spent on social benefits or housing. According to the figures, migrants from non-Western countries who did manage to come to Denmark have cost the state €2.3 billion, while those from the West have actually contributed €295 million to government coffers.

Sounds like Danish lawmakers don’t want to add even more passengers to the nation’s already-overburdened “party boat.”

And who can blame them. The nation already has a crippling problem of too many people depending on government.

P.S. If you want to enjoy some immigration-related humor, we have a video about Americans migrating to Peru and a story about American leftists escaping to Canada.

P.P.S. For those interested in the issue of birthright citizenship (a.k.a. anchor babies), I’ve shared some interesting analysis from Will Wilkinson and George Will.

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I’m still in China, as part of a week-long teaching assignment about markets, entrepreneurship, economics, and fiscal policy at Northeastern University in Shenyang.

One point that I’ve tried to get across to the students is that China should not copy the United States. Or France, Japan, or Sweden. To be more specific, I warn them that China won’t become rich if it copies the economic policies that those nations have today.

Instead, I tell them that China should copy the economic policies – very small government, trivial or nonexistent income taxes, very modest regulation – that existed in those nations back in the 1800s and early 1900s. That’s when America and other western countries made the transition from agricultural poverty to industrial prosperity.

In other words, pay attention to the polices that actually produced prosperity, not the policies that happen to be in place in 2016. With this in mind, I’m delighted to share a new National Review column about the ostensibly wonderful Nordic Model from Nima Sanandaji. He starts by noting that statists are big fans of nations such as Sweden and Denmark.

Ezra Klein, the editor of the liberal news website Vox, wrote last fall that “Clinton and Sanders both want to make America look a lot more like Denmark — they both want to…strengthen the social safety net.” … Bill Clinton argues that Finland, Sweden, and Norway offer greater opportunities for individuals… Barack Obama recently…explain[ed] that “in a world of growing economic disparities, Nordic countries have some of the least income inequality in the world.”

Sounds nice, but there’s one itsy-bitsy problem with the left’s hypothesis.

Simply stated, everything good about Nordic nations was already in place before the era of big government.

…the social success of Nordic countries pre-dates progressive welfare-state policies. …their economic and social success had already materialized during a period when these countries combined a small public sector with free-market policies. The welfare state was introduced afterward.

Here are some of the key factoids about fiscal policy.

…in 1960, the tax rate in [Denmark] was merely 25 percent of GDP, lower than the 27 percent rate in the U.S. at the time. In Sweden, the rate was 29 percent, only slightly higher than in the U.S. In fact, much of Nordic prosperity evolved between the time that a capitalist model was introduced in this part of the world during the late 19th century and the mid 20th century – during the free-market era.

And here’s the data about equality (though I think it’s far more important to worry about the degree of upward mobility rather than whether everyone has a similar amount of income).

…high levels of income equality evolved during the same period. Swedish economists Jesper Roine and Daniel Waldenström, for example, explain that “most of the decrease [in income inequality in Sweden] takes place before the expansion of the welfare state and by 1950 Swedish top income shares were already lower than in other countries.” A recent paper by economists Anthony Barnes Atkinson and Jakob Egholt Søgaard reaches a similar conclusion for Denmark and Norway.

Our friends on the left think that government-run healthcare deserves the credit for longer lifespans in the Nordic world.

Nima explains that the evidence points in the other direction.

In 1960, well before large welfare states had been created in Nordic countries, Swedes lived 3.2 years longer than Americans, while Norwegians lived 3.8 years longer and Danes 2.4 years longer. Today, after the Nordic countries have introduced universal health care, the difference has shrunk to 2.9 years in Sweden, 2.6 years in Norway, and 1.5 years in Denmark. The differences in life span have actually shrunk as Nordic countries moved from a small public sector to a democratic-socialist model with universal health coverage.

Not to mention that there are some surreal horror stories in those nations about the consequences of putting government in charge of health care.

Here’s the evidence that I find most persuasive (some of which I already shared because of an excellent article Nima wrote for Cayman Financial Review).

Danish Americans today have fully 55 percent higher living standard than Danes. Similarly, Swedish Americans have a 53 percent higher living standard than Swedes. The gap is even greater, 59 percent, between Finnish Americans and Finns. Even though Norwegian Americans lack the oil wealth of Norway, they have a 3 percent higher living standard than their cousins overseas. …Nordic Americans are more socially successful than their cousins in Scandinavia. They have much lower high-school-dropout rates, much lower unemployment rates, and even slightly lower poverty rates.

Nima concludes his article by noting the great irony of Nordic nations trying to reduce their welfare states at the same time American leftists are trying to move in the other direction.

Nordic-style democratic socialism is all the rage among Democrat activists as well as with liberal intellectuals and journalists. But in the Nordic countries themselves, this ideal has gradually lost its appeal. …During the past few decades, the Nordic countries have gradually been reforming their social systems. Taxes have been cut to stimulate work, public benefits have been limited in order to reduce welfare dependency, pension savings have been partially privatized, for-profit forces have been allowed in the welfare sector, and state monopolies have been opened up to the market. In short, the universal-welfare-state model is being liberalized. Even the social-democratic parties themselves realize the need for change.

The net result of these reforms is that the Nordic nations are a strange combination of many policies that are very good (very little regulation, very strong property rights, very open trade, and stable money) and a couple of policies that are very bad (an onerous tax burden and a bloated welfare state).

I’ve previously shared (many times) observations about the good features of the Nordic nations, so let’s take a closer look at the bad fiscal policies.

Sven Larson authored a study about the Swedish tax system for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. The study is about 10 years old, but it remains the best explanation I’ve seen if you want to understand the ins and outs of taxation in Sweden.

Here’s some of what he wrote, starting with the observation that the fiscal burden used to be considerably smaller than it is in America today.

Sweden was not always a high-tax nation. …the aggregate tax burden after World War II was modest.

But then things began to deteriorate.

…over the next four decades, there was a relentless increase in taxation. The tax burden first reached 50 percent of economic output in 1986 and has generally stayed above that level for the past 20 years.

Though Sven points out that Swedish politicians, if nothing else, at least figured out that it’s not a good idea to be on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve (i.e., they figured out the government was getting less revenue because tax rates were confiscatory).

A major tax reform in 1991 significantly lowered the top marginal tax rate to encourage growth. The top rate had peaked at 87 percent in 1979 and then gradually dropped to 65 percent in 1990 before being cut to 51 percent in 1991. Subsequent tax increases have since pushed the rate to about 57 percent.

In the interest of fairness, let’s acknowledge that there are a few decent features of the Swedish tax system, including the absence of a death tax or wealth tax, along with a modest tax burden on corporations.

But the bottom line is that Sweden’s overall tax system (and the same can be said of Denmark and other Nordic nations) is oppressive. And the system is oppressive because governments spend too much. Indeed, the welfare state in Sweden and Denmark is as large as the infamous French public sector.

To be sure, the Swedes and Danes partially offset the damage of their big welfare states by having hyper-free market policies in other areas. That’s why they rank much higher than France in Economic Freedom of the World even though all three nations get horrible scores for fiscal policy.

Let’s close by circling back to the main premise of this column. Nima explained that good things happened in the Nordic nations before the welfare state exploded in size.

So I decided to see if we could ratify his hypothesis by checking the growth numbers from the impressive Angus Maddison database. Here’s a chart showing the average growth of per-capita GDP in Denmark and Sweden in the 45 years before 1965 (the year used as an unofficial date for when the welfare state began to metastasize) compared to the average growth of per-capita GDP during the 45 years since 1965.

Unsurprisingly, we find that the economy grew faster and generated more prosperity when government was smaller.

Gee, it’s almost as if there’s a negative relationship between the size of government and the health of the economy? What a novel concept!

P.S. All of which means that there’s still no acceptable response for my two-question challenge to the left.

P.P.S. Both Sweden and Denmark have been good examples for my Golden Rule, albeit only for limited periods.

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I wrote last year about the moral vacuum that exists in Europe because gun control laws in nations like France make it very difficult for Jews to protect themselves from barbaric attacks.

But the principle applies more broadly. All law-abiding people should have the human right to protect themselves.

Politicians in Denmark don’t seem to understand this principle. Or maybe the do understand the principle, but they are so morally bankrupt that don’t care. Not only do they have gun control, they even have laws against pepper spray. And they are so fanatical in their desire to turn people into sheep that the government apparently will prosecute a girl who used pepper spray to save herself from rape.

Here are some excerpts from a report in the U.K.-based Daily Mail.

A Danish teenager who was sexually assaulted near a migrant asylum centre has been told she will be prosecuted after using pepper spray to fend off her attacker. …she managed to prevent the man from attacking her further by spraying the substance at him. …However, as it is illegal to use pepper spray, the teenage girl is set to face charges.

How disgusting.

And what makes the situation especially frustrating is that the criminals and terrorists in Europe obviously don’t have any problem obtaining firearms.

So the only practical effect of gun control (or bans on pepper spray) is to make life easier for the scum of society.

And the real insult to injury is that a teenage girl who should be hailed as a hero now faces the threat of punishment. Just like the unfortunate British woman who was persecuted for using a knife to deter some thugs.

And here’s some of what the BBC reported about

Italian hospitality for the visiting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has stretched to covering up nude statues. Italy also chose not to serve wine at official meals

Pathetic. Particularly since the Italians bent over backwards for a truly heinous regime.

Kudos to President Hollande in France, by contrast. The Daily Mail notes that he held firm.

A lunch between the French and Iranian presidents in Paris was scrapped today because France refused to remove wine from the menu.

By the way, there clearly is a role for common courtesy and diplomatic protocol. It obviously would be gratuitously rude for a nation to serve pork at a dinner for officials from Israel or any Muslim nation, just as it would inappropriate and insensitive to serve beef for an event for officials from India.

Moreover, officials from one nation should not make over-the-top demands when visiting other countries. Just as it would be wrong for French officials to demand wine at state dinners in Iran, it’s also wrong for Iranian officials to demand the absence of wine at meals in France. After all, it’s not as if they would be expected to partake.

In the grand scheme of things, though, the kerfuffle about wine and statues doesn’t matter compared to the potentially life-and-death issue of whether Europeans should be allowed to defend themselves.

That’s why Europe isn’t merely in trouble because of fiscal bankruptcy, but also because of moral bankruptcy.

P.S. While having the ability to protect your life or to guard against rape isn’t a human right in most European nations, take a look at some of the things that are “rights.”

All this is amusing…in a very sad way.

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I’ve already commented several times on the good and bad features of the Nordic Model, largely to correct the false narrative being advanced by Bernie Sanders (though I was writing on this issue well before the Vermont Senator decided to run for Chief Commissar President of the United States).

In any event, Sanders is a self-proclaimed socialist and he says he wants to adopt Scandinavian policies in the United States because he thinks this will boost the poor.

Yet he may want to check his premise. Warren Meyer of Coyote Blog looked at the numbers and concluded that poor people are not better off in Nordic countries.

When folks like Bernie Sanders say that we have more income inequality than Sweden or Denmark, this is certainly true. …Sanders implies that this greater income equality means the poor are better off in these countries, he is very probably wrong.  Because the data tends to show that while the middle class in the US is richer than the middle class in Denmark, and the rich in the US are richer than the rich in Denmark, the poor in the US are not poorer than those in Denmark. And isn’t this what we really care about?  The absolute well-being of the poor?

Regarding his rhetorical question, the answer may not be yes. As Margaret Thatcher famously observed, some statists resent the rich more than they care about the less fortunate.

But the motives of the left is not our focus today. Instead, we want to know whether the poor are worse off in the U.S. than in Nordic nations.

Meyer’s article seeks to measure living standards for different income classes in the United States and then compare them to living standards for different income classes in Denmark and Sweden.

Meyer found some data on this issue from the Economic Policy Institute, the same source that I cited in my 2007 study on the Nordic Model (see Figure 9 on page 11).

But he wanted to update and expand on that data. So he started digging.

I used data from the LIS Cross-National Data Center.  …the same data set used by several folks on the Left (John Cassidy and Kevin Drum) to highlight inequality issues…  I then compared the US to several other countries, looking at the absolute well-being of folks at different income percentile levels.  I have used both exchange rates and purchasing price parity (PPP) for the comparison.

And what did Meyer discover?

…all the way down to at least the 10th percentile poorest people, the poor in the US are as well or better off than the poor in Denmark and Sweden.  And everyone else, including those at the 20th and 25th percentile we would still likely call “poor”, are way better off in the US.

Here’s the data for Denmark.

As you can see, the poor in both nations have similar levels of income, but all other income classes in the United States are better off than their Danish counterparts.

And here’s the comparison of the United States and Sweden.

Once again, it’s very clear that America’s smaller overall burden of government generates  more prosperity.

So here’s the bottom line. If you’re a poor person in America, your income is as high as the incomes of your counterparts in Scandinavia.

But you have a much better chance of out-earning your foreign counterparts if you begin the climb the economic ladder. Yes, that means more “inequality,” but that’s why the term is meaningless. By the standards of any normal and rational person, the US system is producing better outcomes.

Now that we’ve ascertained that the United States is more prosperous than Nordic nations, let’s now say something nice about those countries by defending them against the scurrilous accusation that they follow socialist policies.

I’ve already shared my two cents on this issue, pointing out that neither Bernie Sanders nor Scandinavian nations properly can be considered socialist.

But if you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe the Prime Minister of Denmark, as reported by Vox.

Bernie Sanders…consistently references the social models of the Nordic states — and especially Denmark — as his idea of what democratic socialism is all about. But…Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen said…he doesn’t think the socialist shoe fits. “I know that some people in the US associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism,” he said, “therefore I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.”

The key statement from the Prime Minister is that Denmark is not a “planned economy,” because that is what you automatically get when the government is in charge of allocating resources and controlling the means of production.

But since that doesn’t happen in Denmark, Mr. Rasmussen is exactly right that his country isn’t socialist.

It’s high tax, and that’s not good. There’s a huge amount of dependency on government because of redistribution programs, and that’s also not good.

But a high-tax welfare state is not the same as socialism. Indeed, nations such as Denmark and Sweden would be somewhere in between France and the United States on my statism spectrum.

By the way, don’t let anyone get away with claiming that Scandinavian nations somehow prove that big government isn’t an obstacle to a country becoming rich.

Yes, Nordic countries are rich by world standards, but the key thing to understand is that they became prosperous in the late 1800s and early 1900s, back when government was very small.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that nations such as Denmark and Sweden adopted big welfare states. And, not coincidentally, that’s when economic growth slowed in those countries.

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Whenever there’s a discussion of the Nordic nations, I feel conflicted.

I don’t like the punitively high tax rates and socially destructive levels of redistribution in nations such as Denmark, but I also admire the very laissez-faire policies those countries have when it comes to regulation, trade, and property rights.

Indeed, on those latter issues, it’s worth noting that Nordic nations are more free market-oriented than the United States according to the experts at the Fraser Institute who put together Economic Freedom of the World.

Take the example of Sweden. That country has robust school choice and a partially privatized social security system.

Moreover, Nordic nations in general have lower business tax burdens and investment tax burdens than the United States. And Denmark and Sweden have both taken some modest steps to restrain government spending, so even in the realm of fiscal policy you can find some admirable developments.

But these countries need more than “modest steps” since the burden of government spending is still enormous. And excessive social-welfare expenditures are a major problem since such outlays depress labor force participation and encourage dependency.

I mention all these good and bad features of Nordic nations because Senator Bernie Sanders has suggested, as part of his presidential campaign, that the United States should become more like Sweden and Denmark.

If I got to pick and choose which policies we copied, I would agree.

But since Senator Sanders almost surely wants us to copy their fiscal policies (and presumably has no idea that those countries are pro-free market in other areas), I feel compelled to explain that he’s wrong.

And the good news is that other people are producing the evidence, which makes my job easy. Nima Sanandaji is a Swedish economist who just wrote a very illuminating article on this topic for the Cayman Financial Review.

He starts by noting how statists embrace the Nordic Model.

Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden have high-tax social democratic systems that for long have been admired by the left. …The high regard comes as no surprise. Nordic societies are uniquely successful. Not only are they characterised by high living standards, but also by other attractive features such as low crime rates, long life expectations, high degrees of social cohesion and relatively even income distributions. …This is often seen as proof that a ”third way” policy between socialism and capitalism works well, and that other societies can reach the same favourable social outcomes simply by expanding the size of government.

But Nima explains that Nordic nations became rich when they had free markets and small government.

The best that can be said about the Nordic welfare state is that the damage is somewhat contained because of cultural norms.

If one studies Nordic history and society in depth, however, it quickly becomes evident that the simplistic analysis is flawed. …High levels of trust, strong work ethic, civic participation, social cohesion, individual responsibility and family values are long-standing features of Nordic society that pre-date the welfare state. These deeper social institutions explain why Sweden, Denmark and Norway could so quickly grow from impoverished nations to wealthy ones as industrialisation and the market economy were introduced in the late 19th century. …The same norms explain why large welfare systems could be implemented in the mid-20th century. Strong work ethics and high levels of trust made it possible to levy high taxes and offer generous benefits with limited risk of abuse and undesirable incentive effects. It is important to stress that the direction of causality seems to be from cultures with strong social capital towards welfare states that have not had serious adverse consequences, and not the other way around.

Dr. Sanandaji then hypothesizes that we can learn a lot by comparing Americans of Nordic descent with those that didn’t emigrate.

…the Nordic success culture is maintained when people from this region move abroad. …The American descendants of Nordic migrants live in a very different policy environment compared with the residents of the Nordic countries. The former live in an environment with less welfare, lower taxes and (in general) freer markets. Interestingly, the social and economic success of Nordic-Americans is on a par with or even better than their cousins in the Nordic countries. …Close to 12 million Americans have Nordic (Scandinavian) origins.

And he produces some dramatic data.

Simply said, people of Nordic descent do very well in America, where the fiscal burden is lower than it is back in Scandinavia.

According to the 2010 US Census, the median household income in the United States is $51,914. This can be compared with a median household income of $61,920 for Danish Americans, $59,379 for Finish-Americans, $60,935 for Norwegian Americans and $61,549 for Swedish Americans. There is also a group identifying themselves simply as “Scandinavian Americans” in the US Census. The median household income for this group is even higher at $66,219.

But here’s the most remarkable information from his article. Nordic-Americans are far more productive than their cousins back home.

Danish Americans have a contribution to GDP per capita 37 per cent higher than Danes still living in Denmark; Swedish Americans contribute 39 per cent more to GDP per capita than Swedes living in Sweden; and Finnish Americans contribute 47 per cent more than Finns living in Finland. …there is prima facie evidence that the decedents of Nordic people who move to the U.S. are significantly better off than those who stay at home.

Here’s the infographic Nima sent with his article.

Wow, this is game, set, match, as far as I’m concerned.

Nima produced similar data a few years ago looking just as Swedes.

But this new data makes it clear that we’re not just looking at a one-nation phenomenon. The lesson is clear. Nordic people manage to be somewhat productive in high-tax, big-government nations.

But if they reside in a medium-tax country with a medium-sized government, they are highly productive (so just imagine what they could achieve in Hong Kong or Singapore!).

And Nima also points out that there is less poverty among Scandinavians in America than there is among Scandinavians in Scandinavia.

Nordic descendants in the U.S. today have half the poverty rate of the average of Americans – a consistent finding for decades. In other words, Nordic Americans have lower poverty rates than Nordic citizens.

So here’s the lesson that will be a nightmare for Bernie Sanders. It turns out that his role models actually teach us that big government makes people less prosperous.

…in the long run, the large welfare states have eroded incentives, and ultimately the social norms that bounded Nordic societies together. The U.S. system, with greater emphasis on personal responsibility, is more in line with the traditional Nordic system that allowed for the culture of success to develop in the first place. Thus, we should not be surprised that Nordic Americans have both higher living standard and lower poverty than their cousins in the Nordic welfare states.

To summarize, the recipe for prosperity is free markets (which you find in Scandinavia) and small government (which is absent in those countries).

But Senator Sanders wants to copy the bad parts of Nordic nations while ignoring the good parts. For those who care about real-world evidence, Dr. Sanandaji’s data suggests we should take the opposite approach.

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Folks on the left sometimes act as if the Nordic nations somehow prove that big government isn’t an impediment to prosperity.

As I’ve pointed out before, they obviously don’t spend much time looking at the data.

So let’s give them a reminder. Here are the rankings from Economic Freedom of the World. I’ve inserted red arrows to draw attention to the Nordic nations. As you can see, every single one of them is in the top quartile, meaning that they aren’t big-government jurisdictions by world standards.

Moreover, Finland ranks above the United States. Denmark is higher than Estonia, which is often cited a free-market success story. And all of them rank ahead of Slovakia, which also is known for pro-growth reforms.

To be sure, this doesn’t mean the Nordic nations are libertarian paradises. Far from it.

Government is far too big in those countries, just as it is far too big in the United States, Switzerland, New Zealand, Canada, and other nations in the top quartile.

Which is tragic since the burden of government spending in North America and Western Europe used to be just a fraction of current levels – even in nations such as Sweden.

The way I’ve described the Nordic nations is that they have bloated and costly welfare states but compensate for that bad policy by being very free market in other policy areas.

But you don’t need to believe me. Nima Sanandaji has just written an excellent new monograph for the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. Entitled Scandinavian Unexceptionalism: Culture, Markets and the Failure of Third-Way Socialism, Nima’s work explains how the Nordic nations became rich during an era of small government and free markets, how they then veered in the wrong direction, but are now trying to restore more economic freedom.

Here are some key excerpts, starting with some much-needed economic history.

Scandinavia’s success story predated the welfare state. …As late as 1960, tax revenues in the Nordic nations ranged between 25 per cent of GDP in Denmark to 32 per cent in Norway – similar to other developed countries. …Scandinavia’s more equal societies also developed well before the welfare states expanded. Income inequality reduced dramatically during the last three decades of the 19th century and during the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, most of the shift towards greater equality happened before the introduction of a large public sector and high taxes. …The phenomenal national income growth in the Nordic nations occurred before the rise of large welfare states. The rise in living standards was made possible when cultures based on social cohesion, high levels of trust and strong work ethics were combined with free markets and low taxes….the Nordic success story reinforces the idea that business-friendly and small-government-oriented policies can promote growth.

Here’s a chart from the book showing remarkable growth for Sweden and Denmark in the pre-welfare state era.

Nima has extra details about his home country of Sweden.

In the hundred years following the market liberalisation of the late 19th century and the onset of industrialisation, Sweden experienced phenomenal economic growth (Maddison 1982). Famous Swedish companies such as IKEA, Volvo, Tetra Pak, H&M, Ericsson and Alfa Laval were all founded during this period, and were aided by business-friendly economic policies and low taxes.

Unfortunately, Nordic nations veered to the left in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And, not surprisingly, that’s when growth began to deteriorate.

The third-way radical social democratic era in Scandinavia, much admired by the left, only lasted from the early 1970s to the early 1990s. The rate of business formation during the third-way era was dreadful.
Again, he has additional details about Sweden.
Sweden’s wealth creation slowed down following the transition to a high tax burden and a large public sector. …As late as 1975 Sweden was ranked as the 4th richest nation in the world according to OECD measures….the policy shift that occurred dramatically slowed down the growth rate. Sweden dropped to 13th place in the mid 1990s. …It is interesting that the left rarely discusses this calamitous Swedish growth performance from 1970 to 2000.

The good news is that Nordic nations have begun to shift back toward market-oriented policies. Some of them have reduced the burden of government spending. All of them have lowered tax rates, particularly on business and investment income. And there have even been some welfare reforms.

…there has been a tentative return to free markets. In education in Sweden, parental choice has been promoted. There has also been reform to pensions systems, sickness benefits and labour market regulations

But there’s no question that the welfare state and its concomitant tax burden are still the biggest problem in the region. Which  is why it is critical that Nordic nations maintain pro-market policies on regulation, trade, monetary policy, rule of law and property rights.

Scandinavian countries have compensated for a large public sector by increasing economic liberty in other areas. During recent decades, Nordic nations have implemented major market liberalisations to compensate for the growth-inhibiting effects of taxes and labour market policies.

Let’s close with what I consider to be the strongest evidence from Nima’s publication. He shows that Scandinavians who emigrated to America are considerably richer than their counterparts who stayed put.

Median incomes of Scandinavian descendants are 20 per cent higher than average US incomes. It is true that poverty rates in Scandinavian countries are lower than in the US. However, the poverty rate among descendants of Nordic immigrants in the US today is half the average poverty rate of Americans – this has been a consistent finding for decades. In fact, Scandinavian Americans have lower poverty rates than Scandinavian citizens who have not emigrated. …the median household income in the United States is $51,914. This can be compared with a median household income of $61,920 for Danish Americans, $59,379 for Finnish-Americans, $60,935 for Norwegian Americans and $61,549 for Swedish Americans. There is also a group identifying themselves simply as ‘Scandinavian Americans’ in the US Census. The median household income for this group is even higher at $66,219. …Danish Americans have a contribution to GDP per capita 37 per cent higher than Danes still living in Denmark; Swedish Americans contribute 39 percent more to GDP per capita than Swedes living in Sweden; and Finnish Americans contribute 47 per cent more than Finns living in Finland.

In other words, when you do apples to apples comparisons, either of peoples or nations, you find that smaller government and free markets lead to more prosperity.

That’s the real lesson from the Nordic nations.

P.S. Just in case readers think I’m being too favorable to the Nordic nations, rest assured that I’m very critical of the bad policies in these nations.

Just look at what I’ve written, for instance, about Sweden’s healthcare system or Denmark’s dependency problem.

But I will give praise when any nation, from any part of the world, takes steps in the right direction.

And I do distinguish between the big-government/free-market systems you find in Nordic nations and the big-government/crony-intervention systems you find in countries like France and Greece.

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I suggested earlier this year that Denmark’s ratio of private sector workers compared with government dependents produced the world’s most depressing Powerpoint slide.

It’s hard to be optimistic, after all, if a nation has an ever-growing number of people riding in the wagon (or the “party boat“) and a stagnant population of productive people.

But I don’t want to be overly pessimistic. Denmark may have a big welfare state and a punitive tax system (I’ve joked that birthers should accuse Obama of being born there rather than Kenya), but it is very pro-market in other policy areas.

Indeed, it beats the United States in 3 out of the 5 major categories in the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World Index.

And while the United States has a higher overall score – ranked #12 compared to #19, Denmark had more overall economic freedom than the United States as recently as 2010 and 2011.

With this introduction, you’re probably guessing that I plan on saying something nice about the Danes. And you’d be right. It turns out that our Nordic friends are slowly but surely adopting my Golden Rule of spending restraint.

Look at this data on government spending from the IMF’s database. As you can see, the burden of spending has been climbing at a much slower rate in recent years, and the forecast shows even more frugality in the near future.

Perhaps most important, the modest fiscal discipline that began in 2009 is paying big dividends.

Government spending that year consumed nearly 58 percent of Denmark’s economic output. Now, the burden of spending is “only” 53 percent of GDP.

Still astronomically high, to be sure, but heading in the right direction. And if Denmark maintains the spending restraint projected by the IMF, the burden of spending will drop to less than 51 percent of GDP in 2017.

And that may actually happen. Just a few days ago, Denmark’s left-wing government was voted out of office and the new center-right government is promising tighter control of the purse strings.

I would like to think I played a very tiny role in this development. My friend Mads Lundby Hansen from Denmark’s free-market think tank (CEPOS) took part in a debate before the election and promoted the Golden Rule.

Here’s a picture from his Facebook page.

Unfortunately, even though I would like to think I played a role, Mads burst my bubble by informing me that the Golden Rule “wasn’t an issue in the election.”

But I don’t care if politicians are overtly cognizant of the Golden Rule. And I certainly don’t care if they know my name. I just want good policy.

So the moment the burden of government spending drops below 50 percent of GDP in Denmark, I’m going to declare victory in the battle.

Though I won’t declare victory in the war until we shrink government to its growth-maximizing level.

P.S. Denmark’s most famous welfare recipient is “Lazy Robert,” who was honored for his lack of contribution to society by being selected to the Moocher Hall of Fame.

P.P.S. One important lesson from Denmark is that a nation can somewhat successfully endure bad fiscal policy by being hyper-free market in other policy fields.

P.P.P.S. Another Nordic nation, Sweden, already enjoyed a big improvement in fiscal policy thanks to a multi-year period of spending restraint.

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Okay, I’ll admit right away that the title of this column is an exaggeration.

But if you’re a public policy wonk and you worry about the rising level of government dependency and the erosion of self reliance, then you’ll understand why the chart below, which was presented earlier today at the Copenhagen conference of the Free Market Road Show, is so disturbing.

It was part of a presentation by Anders Krab-Johansen, the CEO and Editor-in-Chief of Børsen, which is the leading business newspaper in Denmark. It shows his nation’s dependency ratio, and it reveals that the number of people getting money from the government has more than doubled while the number of people in the economy’s productive sector is stagnant.

It’s very hard to be optimistic about Denmark given the trend line (and, please, no complaints about Mr. Krab-Johansen writing “of” instead of “off” since his English proficiency is 99 percent, which is far above my 0.0 percent Danish proficiency).

No wonder my Danish friend, Mads Lundby Hansen of the Center for Politiske Studier (CEPOS), put together the “party boat” to show that far too many of his countrymen are living off the labor of an ever-shrinking number of producers in the private sector.

It seems that “Lazy Robert” has lots of company.

You won’t be surprised to learn that a massive level of dependency necessarily means an onerous burden of government spending.

In his presentation, Mr. Krab-Johansen shared this chart looking at consumption spending by governments in the developed world.

For further elaboration, there are different types of government spending,

Spending on core public goods, such as provision of the rule of law, is associated with good economic performance.

Other types of government spending, such as outlays for physical capital and human capital, have a mixed record. Some of the spending on things like roads and education is productive, but some of it is wasteful and counterproductive.

The bulk of government spending, however, is for transfers and consumption, and those outlays are associated with weaker economic performance.

The bottom line is that it’s a very bad sign for Denmark to have the developed world’s second-highest burden of public consumption outlays.

And if there’s an excessive burden of government spending, you won’t be surprised to learn that the tax burden is onerous.

I’ve previously joked that the tax system is so onerous that birthers should accuse Obama of being born in Denmark.

So it’s no surprise that business entrepreneurs identified tax-related issues as being two of their three biggest challenges.

 

It’s also worth noting that bureaucracy and regulation also are listed as problems.

P.S. This set of cartoons is the American version of Denmark’s party boat.

P.P.S. If anyone cares, my speech at the Copenhagen conference focused on the importance of policies that enable labor, capital, and entrepreneurship to generate economic growth.

P.P.P.S. I don’t want to leave readers with a totally grim perspective on Denmark. Yes, the fiscal burden is terrible, but the country actually is very free market in other areas. And the government is even taking some modest steps to reduce dependency, so policy makers realize there’s a problem.

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I’ve already shared a bunch of data and evidence on the importance of low tax rates.

A review of the academic evidence by the Tax Foundation found overwhelming support for the notion that lower tax rates are good for growth.

An economist from Cornell found lower tax rates boost GDP.

Other economists found lower tax rates boost job creation, savings, and output.

Even economists at the Paris-based OECD have determined that high tax rates undermine economic performance.

And it’s become apparent, with even the New York Times taking notice, that high tax rates drive away high-achieving people.

We’re going to augment this list with some additional evidence.

In a study published by a German think tank, three economists from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark look at the impact of high marginal tax rates on Danish economic performance.

Here’s what they set out to measure.

…taxation distorts the functioning of the market economy by creating a wedge between the private return and the social return to a reallocation of resources, leaving socially desirable opportunities unexploited as a result. …This paper studies the impact of taxation on the mobility and allocation of labor, and quantifies the efficiency loss from misallocation of labor caused by taxation. …labor mobility responses are fundamentally different from the hours-of-work responses of the basic labor supply model… Our analysis builds on a standard search theoretic framework… We incorporate non-linear taxation into this setting and estimate the structural parameters of the model using employer-employee register based data for the full Danish population of workers and workplaces for the years 2004-2006. The estimated model is then used to examine the impact of different changes in the tax system, thereby characterizing the distortionary effects of taxation on the allocation of labor.

They produced several sets of results, including a look at the additional growth and output generated by moving to a system of lump-sum taxation (which presumably eliminates all disincentive effects).

But even when they looked at more modest reforms, such as a flat tax with a relatively high rate, they found the Danish economy would reap significant benefits.

…it is possible to reap a very large part of the potential efficiency gain by going “half the way”and replace the current taxation with a ‡at tax rate of 30 percent on all income. This shift from a Scandinavian tax system with high marginal tax rates to a level of taxation in line with low-tax OECD countries such as the United States increases total income by 20 percent and yields an efficiency gain measured in proportion to initial income of 10 percent. …a transition from a Scandinavian system with high marginal taxes to a system along the lines of low-tax OECD countries such as the United States. This reduces the rate of non-employment by around 10 percentage points, increases aggregate income by almost 20 percent (relative to the Scandinavian income level), and gives an efficiency gain measured in proportion to income of 9.9 percent. Thus, almost 80 percent of the efficiency loss from marginal taxation (9.7% divided by 12.4%) would be eliminated by shifting from a Scandinavian tax system to the system of a low-tax OECD country according to these estimates.

The authors also confirmed that lower tax rates would generate revenue feedback. In other words, the Laffer Curve exists.

We may also use the reform experiment to compute the marginal excess burden of taxation as described above. When measured in proportion to the mechanical loss of tax revenue, we obtain an estimate of 87 percent. …this estimate also corresponds to the degree of self-financing of the tax cut. Thus, the increase in tax revenue from the behavioral response is 87 percent of the mechanical loss in tax revenue.

Too bad we can’t get the Joint Committee on Taxation in Washington to join the 21st Century. Those bureaucrats still base their work on the preposterous assumption that taxes have no impact on overall economic performance.

Since we just looked at a study of the growth generated by reducing very high tax rates, let’s now consider the opposite scenario. What happens if you take medium-level tax rates and raise them dramatically?

The Tax Foundation looks at precisely this issue. The group estimated the likely results if lawmakers adopted the class-warfare policies proposed by Thomas Piketty.

Piketty suggests higher taxes on the wealthiest among us. He calls for a global wealth tax, and he recommends establishing a top income tax rate of 80 percent, with a next-to-top income tax rate of 50 or 60 percent for the upper-middle class. …This study…provides quantitative estimates of what his proposed tax rates would mean for capital formation, jobs, the level of income, and government revenue. This study also estimates how Piketty’s proposed income tax rates would affect the distribution of income in the United States.

Piketty, of course, thinks that even confiscatory levels of taxation have no negative impact on economic performance.

Piketty claims people (or at least the upper-income people he would tax so heavily) are totally insensitive to marginal tax rates. In his world view, upper-income taxpayers will work and invest just as much as before even if dramatically higher taxes reduce their after-tax rewards to a fraction of what they were previously. …Piketty’s vision of the world strains credulity.

When the Tax Foundation crunched the numbers, though, its experts found that Piketty’s proposal would be devastating.

Under Piketty’s 55 and 80 percent tax brackets, people in the new, ultra-high tax brackets will work and invest less because they will be able to keep so little of the reward from the last hour of work and the last dollar of investment. …As the supplies of labor and capital in the production process decline, the economy’s output will also contract. Although it is only people with upper incomes who will directly pay the 55 and 80 percent tax rates, people throughout the economy will indirectly bear some of the tax burden. For example, the average person’s wages will be lower than otherwise because middle-income workers will have less equipment and software to enhance their productivity, and wages depend on productivity. Similarly, people throughout the economy will have fewer employment opportunities and will lose desirable goods and services, because businesses will grow more slowly and be less innovative.

The magnitude of the damage would depend on whether the higher tax rates also applied to dividends and capital gains. Here’s what the Tax Foundation estimated would happen to the economy if dividends and capital gains were not hit with Piketty-style tax rates.

These are some very dismal numbers.

But now look at the results if tax rates also are increased on dividends and capital gains. The dramatic increase in double taxation (dwarfing what Obama wanted) would have catastrophic consequences for overall investment (the “capital stock”). This would lead to a big loss in jobs and a dramatic reduction in overall economic output.

The Tax Foundation then measures the impact of these policies on the well-being of people in various income classes.

Needless to say, upper-income taxpayers suffer substantial losses. But the rest of us also suffer as well.

…the poor and middle class would also lose. They would suffer a large, but indirect, tax burden as a result of the smaller economy. Their after-tax incomes would fall over 3 percent if capital gains and dividends retain their current-law tax treatment and almost 17 percent if capital gains and dividends are taxed like ordinary income.

And since I’m sure Piketty and his crowd would want to subject capital gains and dividends to confiscatory tax rates, the 17 percent drop is a more realistic assessment of their economic agenda.

Though, to be fair, Piketty-style policies would make society more “equal.” But, as the Tax Foundation notes, some methods of achieving equality are very bad for lower-income people.

…a reasonable question to ask is whether a middle-income family is made better off if their income drops 3.2 percent while the income of a family in the top 1 percent drops 21.0 percent, or their income plummets 16.8 percent while the income of a family in the top 1 percent plummets 43.3 percent.

Of course, if Margaret Thatcher is correct, the left has no problem with this outcome.

But for those of us who care about better lives for ordinary people, this is confirmation that envy isn’t – or at least shouldn’t be – a basis for tax policy.

Sadly, that’s not the case. We’ve already seen the horrible impact of Hollande’s Piketty-style policies in France. And Obama said he would be perfectly content to impose higher tax rates even if the resulting economic damage is so severe that no additional revenue is collected.

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My all-time most-viewed blog post wasn’t the parable about beer and the tax system.

Nor was it the joke about California, Texas, and the Coyote.

Those won the silver and bronze trophies. Welfare State Wagon CartoonsThe gold medal belongs to the two pictures that explain how the welfare state begins and how it ends.

Those images make a very serious point that the social capital of a nation gets eroded and the economy gets overburdened when there are too many people riding in the wagon and not enough people pulling the wagon.

And I’ve been especially fond of the wagon cartoons because they were my idea.

Unfortunately, I can no longer claim to be the first one to explain this relationship using humor.

I’m currently in Copenhagen, where I just gave a speech on the collapse of the welfare state at the Center for Politiske Studier (CEPOS). While at the CEPOS offices, I noticed a big print hanging on the wall and it was eerily familiar.

One of Denmark’s main newspapers put together this cartoon, based on CEPOS research, about the growing share of the population living off the state. It shows a boat of galley slaves (i.e., taxpayers) towing a party boat filled with people (like the infamous Lazy Robert) who live off the state.

Denmark Party Boat

Since Denmark has a very large burden of government spending, you won’t be surprised to learn that the dependency class is a huge chunk of the population.

Here’s a table from the CEPOS study.

You don’t to be fluent in Danish to get the message. The first line is the number of government bureaucrats (and they’re really expensive in Denmark). The second line is the number of people getting transfers.

Those categories are then added together on line 3 and compared to the adult population on line 4.

The key takeaway is that two-thirds of the population is riding in the wagon!

Denmark 67 percent Dependency

No wonder the burden of government spending is enormous and tax rates are so high.

It’s so bad that I even joked that birthers should accuse Obama of being born in Denmark.

But at least the Danes have a sense of humor. Here’s Mads Lundby Hansen, one my friends at CEPOS, holding the “trophy” they received from the Swedish Taxpayers Association.

Denmark Tax Prize

Not exactly the prize a nation should want to win.

Though it’s worth noting that Denmark actually does better than the United States in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings.

Their welfare state is bigger than ours, so they get a bad score on fiscal policy. But they are more pro-capitalism in other areas and their overall grade is higher.

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We’re making a tiny bit of progress in the battle against the welfare state. No, policy hasn’t changed yet, but at least there’s growing recognition that maybe, just maybe, it’s not a good idea to pay people not to work. Particularly when you trap them in lives of dependency and despair and undermine progress in the fight against poverty.

This chart shows that various handouts discourage low-income people from earning more money, and a recent blockbuster study from a couple of my colleagues at the Cato Institute revealed that welfare pays more than entry-level employment in dozens of states.

And a growing number of people are now aware that there’s been an explosion of food stamp dependency, so one hopes that all this knowledge eventually will translate into a new round of welfare reform.

Why am I optimistic? Well, because awareness already is leading to change in some very unexpected places. Even Scandinavian nations are realizing that there has to be a limit to incentive-killing and taxpayer-sapping redistribution.

Here are some excerpts from a remarkable Bloomberg report about developments in Denmark.

“We live in a world of global competition for jobs,” the 40-year-old minister said in an interview in Copenhagen. “For any finance minister wanting to be taken seriously, it’s something to deal with. That requires a modernization of the welfare state.” The AAA rated nation, whose economy contracted 0.2 percent in the first half, needs to contain welfare spending or risk losing the respect of investors, Corydon said. Danes, who like Swedes and Norwegians, are used to generous jobless pay as well as state-financed education and health care, need to learn that those privileges come at a cost, he said. …Denmark’s challenge now is to ensure its welfare habits don’t leave it unable to compete with populations that work harder at a lower cost, he said.

That’s a noteworthy passage, both because the Danish Finance Minister recognizes jurisdictional competition as a check on the welfare state (something confirmed by a study from German economists) and because Denmark is ruled by Social Democrats.

Yet even these leftists are grasping that it makes no sense to have a system that generates perverse incentives.

…out-of-work Danes in some cases earn even more than those in low-skilled jobs. An Aug. 27 report by the Economy Ministry showed that about 250,000 Danes have no economic incentive to give up their unemployment benefits and take a job. That compares with 2.64 million people in full- and part-time jobs, according to Statistics Danmark. …The Social Democrat-led coalition of Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, in office since 2011, has pushed through cuts including limiting unemployment benefits to two years from four years.

It’s hardly radical libertarianism to reduce unemployment benefits from four years to two years, but it is rather significant when even politicians realize that it’s not good – as illustrated by these powerful cartoons – to lure people into the wagon when nations need more people pulling the wagon.

The article even mentions “Lazy Robert,” a famous deadbeat who became the first Danish member of the Moocher Hall of Fame last April. No wonder Danes may be saying that enough is enough.

There’s even a bit of good news on the tax side of the fiscal ledger.

The government has responded to the economic slump by cutting the corporate tax rate, as well as some other taxes.

Sounds like Danish policy makers could give some lessons to their self-destructive American counterparts.

But you won’t be surprised to learn that  there’s still plenty of bad policy in Denmark. The politicians can’t resist, for instance, the siren song of Keynesian economics.

It plans to spend 44 billion kroner ($7.8 billion) next year on building railroads, highways and hospitals. …Corydon,…said he wants to keep public investments close to a 30-year high to create jobs.

By the way, it’s a bit depressing that Denmark actually ranks higher than the United States in the most recent Economic Freedom of the World rankings.

Yes, their welfare state is too big, their tax system is a nightmare, and they are saddled with one of the world’s most expensive bureaucracies, but Denmark has ultra-free market policies in other areas.

But even those laissez-faire policies no longer are apparently enough to compensate for bad fiscal policy.

P.S. Denmark may have Lazy Robert, but the United Kingdom has Natailija, Tracey, Anjem, and Gina and Danny, so if there was a welfare Olympics, the U.K. would have a lot more medals.

P.P.S. Speaking of poverty, you may be surprised that bureaucrats at the OECD assert that America has more poverty than some very poor nations. But that’s only because the Paris-based bureaucracy is trying to advance Obama’s redistribution agenda by redefining poverty to mean differences in income rather than lack of income. Sort of makes you wonder why we’re subsidizing their statist agenda with our tax dollars.

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Back in 2010, I posted a “Moocher Index” showing the states with the most dependency. But that was based on numbers and lacked any human-interest angle.

So let’s create a Moocher Hall of Fame for the individuals who best exemplify the culture of loafing, laziness, and dependency that is being subsidized by our vote-buying political class.

But you don’t receive this honor simply by accepting other people’s money. Membership in the Moocher Hall of Fame is reserved for deadbeats who demonstrate some special characteristic that warrants their induction.

* Let’s start with Olga, a Greek woman who earned membership in the Hall of Fame because she protested against the notion that she should be responsible for her own life since she might have to – gasp! – work more than one job and live at home.

* Another proud member of the Hall of Fame is Stanley, who was a shoo-in for the honor after it was learned that this 30-year old man has been scamming disability checks from the government so he can fulfill his fetish of wearing diapers and being an “adult baby.”

* Leroy entered the Hall of Fame after it was reported that he won $2 million from the lottery, but somehow is still collecting food stamps.

* A welfare mother with 11 kids in the United Kingdom was invited into the Hall of Fame after one of her sons was arrested for looting and she said “the riots are because the government does “f*** all” for children.”

* If the Hall of Fame had an award for going above and beyond the call of loafing, then Hans from Austria would be an obvious choice. He cut off his own foot to ensure continued handouts.

* We also have a husband-wife team in the Hall of Fame. Alicia and Matthew were unanimous inductees after it was revealed that they tried to impregnate a 12-year old girl to increase their welfare payments.

* Speaking of husband-wife duos, let’s not forget Danny and Gina, who bragged that it didn’t make sense for them to work when the government was providing them with enough loot to enjoy an apartment, a big flat-screen TV, and 40 daily cigarettes.

* Abdul from Australia is an esteemed member of the Hall of Fame’s terror wing, having received 19 years of welfare while plotting to kill the people who were paying for his life of leisure.

* Keeping with that theme, let’s also recognize Anjem, who got elected to the Hall of Fame for collecting about $40,000-per year in handouts while spewing hate and recruiting other “fanatics to copy him by going on benefits.”

* Last but not least, we have Natalijia, a Lithuanian woman who in now enjoying foreign holidays and designer clothes thanks to the generosity of British taxpayers, but nonetheless complained that she wasn’t getting a taxpayer-financed nanny.

Quite a collection of scroungers.

But I don’t think they’re very bright. They wanted to invite Julia to be the speaker at this year’s induction ceremony, apparently not realizing that she was a make-believe cartoon character created by the Obama campaign to celebrate dependency.

Perhaps they should ask Obama to speak. After all, more people have latched on to the disability system during his presidency than have gotten jobs. Quite an achievement…of sorts.

But I’m digressing. The purpose of this post is to announce the newest member of the Moocher Hall of Fame.

Our proud new bum comes from Denmark. Lazy RobertKnown as “Lazy Robert,” he’s been mooching off the taxpayers for 12 years and he’s very proud of his lifestyle. Here are some inspirational details from a New York Times report.

Robert Nielsen, 45, made headlines last September when he was interviewed on television, admitting that he had basically been on welfare since 2001. Mr. Nielsen said he was able-bodied but had no intention of taking a demeaning job, like working at a fast-food restaurant. He made do quite well on welfare, he said. He even owns his own co-op apartment. …Mr. Nielsen, called “Lazy Robert” by the news media, seems to be enjoying the attention. He says that he is greeted warmly on the street all the time. “Luckily, I am born and live in Denmark, where the government is willing to support my life,” he said.

The story also mentions another Danish moocher. Her story is worth sharing because it shows how the folks riding in the wagon enjoy higher living standards than many of those pulling the wagon.

Visit a single mother of two on welfare, a liberal member of Parliament goaded a skeptical political opponent, see for yourself how hard it is. It turned out, however, that life on welfare was not so hard. The 36-year-old single mother, given the pseudonym “Carina” in the news media, had more money to spend than many of the country’s full-time workers. All told, she was getting about $2,700 a month, and she had been on welfare since she was 16.

This probably doesn’t bode well for Denmark’s future. As illustrated by this famous set of cartoons, this kind of system creates very perverse incentives.

By the way, I decided that Carina didn’t deserve membership in the Hall of Fame because at least she has the decency to be ashamed. Or at least that’s one I’m assuming since the story says she “will no longer give interviews.”

But there are some people who genuinely deserve something, and those folks are the taxpayers of Denmark. They deserve our sympathy. They have one of the world’s most oppressive tax systems, thanks in part to a welfare system that provides a comfortable hammock for Robert and Carina.

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I’m not a big fan of government conspiracy theories, largely because the people in Washington are too bloody incompetent to do anything effectively. Heck, sometimes they can’t even waste money properly even though they have lots of practice.

But it recently crossed my mind that maybe President Obama was born in Denmark. Not in a serious way, of course, but you’ll understand my thought process when you read this passage from a report by the government-appointed Danish Economic Council. It doesn’t mention the Laffer Curve, but the report openly states that an increase in the top tax rate would lose revenue because of changes in taxpayer behavior.

…increased taxation on high income earners in Denmark at best is revenue neutral, and may even reduce total tax revenue. This result applies whether one considers the top 10, the top 5 or the top 1 per cent income group. …Using the base estimate of the elasticity of taxable labour income of 0.2, the conclusion is thus that the existing Danish tax system implies an effective tax rate on high income earners that is above – though close to – the tax rate that generates the highest tax revenue. …As an example, the revenue effect of an increase in the marginal tax rate by 6 percentage points for high-income earners is calculated. Using the base estimate of the behavioural response to taxation, this leads to a revenue loss of about ½ billion DKK. …Overall, the scope for acquiring extra tax revenue from high income earners in Denmark is very limited.

Yet there are some politicians in Denmark who want to raise tax rates, even though the damage to the economy will be so significant that the government loses revenue!

If you’re thinking this sounds familiar, you probably remember President Obama’s infamous statement during the 2008 campaign that he wanted to raise the capital gains tax rate for reasons of “fairness” regardless of whether tax revenues decreased (if you think I’m somehow exaggerating or distorting his words, just go to the 4:20 mark of this video).

By the way, the Danish study probably understates how much revenue the government would lose. Their base estimate about the elasticity of taxable labor income (economist jargon for how sensitive labor income is to changes in tax rates) is much lower than Alan Reynolds reported in his recent Wall Street Journal column.

Rich people, unlike the rest of us, have tremendous ability to change the timing, composition, and level of their income, which is a big reason why upper-income taxpayers paid much more to the IRS in the 1980s after President Reagan slashed the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent.

I’m constantly amazed – in a bad way – that politicians and bureaucrats have been so successful in resisting the insights of the Laffer Curve. The U.S. Treasury Department, for instance, is to the left of the Danish Economic Council and basically assumes that tax policy has no impact on economic performance. The same can be said about the Joint Committee on Taxation on Capitol Hill.

This has to be a case of leftist ideology trumping reality, because the evidence for the Laffer Curve is quite powerful – some of it even being produced by international bureaucracies.

None of this is to suggest that “all tax cuts pay for themselves.” That only happens in unusual cases where a group of taxpayers – such as wealthy entrepreneurs and investors – have considerable flexibility in their economic affairs.

In most cases, the government will collect more revenue when tax rates increase. This is because the impact of the change in the tax rate is larger than the impact of the change in taxable income.

But the real question is whether it is ever a good idea to reduce private economic output in order to give politicians more money to spend. To sensible people, that’s the most important insight of the Laffer Curve.

P.S. While this discussion has focused on the foolishness of setting tax rates so high that the government loses revenue, this does not mean politicians should seek the revenue-maximizing tax rate. The ideal point on the Laffer Curve is the growth-maximizing tax rate.

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What nation is a role model for economic reformers?

I’ve certainly cited Hong Kong as an example, but I’ve also explained that we can learn lessons – at least on certain issues – from nations such as Sweden, Australia, Canada, and the Baltics.

Today, let’s talk about the curious case of Denmark, which is a rather schizophrenic nation (at least when it comes to public policy).

According to Economic Freedom of the World, it has the 15th-freest economy in the world, out of 141 nations that get graded. This is a relatively good score, but what makes Denmark rather interesting is that it is the combination of two things that normally don’t go together.

The first item is a free market, laissez-faire economy.

*  Denmark is the 5th best nation in the world for protecting property rights and maintaining a sound legal structure.

*  Denmark is the 11th best nation in the world for avoiding over-regulation of credit, labor, and business.

*  Denmark is the 24th best nation in the world for sound money.

*  Denmark is the 25th best nation in the world for freedom to trade across borders.

*  Because very few nations have consistently good scores in all these categories, Denmark ranks 4th among all nations when you combine these important measures of a free market economy, surpassed only by Hong Kong, Singapore, and New Zealand.

In other words, Denmark is about as laissez-faire as a nation can be, and it definitely ranks above the United States.

The second item is bad fiscal policy, featuring high tax rates and a bloated welfare state.

*  Denmark ranks 113th for fiscal policy in the Economic Freedom of the World report.

*  With a tax burden that amounts to more than 54 percent of GDP, it is second only to Norway as the highest-taxed developed nation in the world.

*  The burden of government spending is more than 58 percent of GDP, the highest of all industrialized nations.

*  Denmark impose the highest income tax rate in the developed work, a punitive rate of more than 59 percent.

*  Astoundingly, that top tax rate takes effect when income reaches about $45,000.

These factoids, which come from the OECD fiscal database and the OECD tax database, show that Denmark is about as statist as a nation can be.

So what can we learn from Denmark, especially given this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde approach to public policy? Probably a lot, but I want to focus on two lessons.

1. A nation with a big welfare state needs to compensate with ultra-free market policies in other areas if it wants economic growth. Denmark may not be enjoying strong economic performance, but it does reasonably well, particularly compared to some other European nations. The lesson to learn is that a nation that is screwing up on one policy – such as Denmark with fiscal policy – needs to be very careful not to allow mistakes in other areas.

2. An even more important lesson to understand is that Denmark waited until it became a rich nation before it adopted the welfare state. Indeed, this is the story of just about every North American and Western European nation. The burden of government spending didn’t explode until the 1960s. This is important because there is a relationship in the academic literature, known as Wagner’s Law, which revolves around the tendency for rich nations to have big governments. Some people naively conclude that this means big governments lead to more prosperity. But this puts the cart before the horse. Denmark and other western nations became rich first, and then government expanded.

This chart from two European economists shows that even as late as 1960, government spending in six major western nations averaged only about 25 percent of GDP. That’s far lower than the United States today (getting close to 40 percent) and much lower than the burden of the public sector in many European nations (in some cases more than 50 percent of GDP).

Most importantly, government spending consumed only about 10-12 percent of GDP prior to World War I, and this was the period when the western world was transforming from agricultural poverty to middle-class prosperity.

Unfortunately, the big expansion of the welfare state in the 1960s (which was made possible by the money machine known as the value-added tax) has slowed growth in western nations. The only silver lining to that dark cloud is that at least these nations became relatively rich before the burden of the public sector became too large.

This is why, whenever I’m speaking in a developing nation or a transition economy, I explain that they should copy nations such as Denmark and the United States. But they should copy our policies from 100 years ago, when we became rich countries. Copying our policies today, on the other hand, is a recipe for tepid growth in the short run and Greek-style fiscal chaos in the long run.

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Johnny Munkhammar is a member of the Swedish Parliament and a committed supporter of economic liberalization. He has a column in the Wall Street Journal Europe that does a great job of explaining how Sweden became rich when it was a small-government, pro-market nation. He then notes that his country veered off track in the 1970s and 1980s, but is now heading back in the right direction. I’ll have more analysis below these excerpts, but it is especially impressive that Sweden is ahead of America on key reforms such as Social Security personal accounts and school choice.

Sweden is not socialist. According to the World Values Survey and other similar studies, Sweden combines one of the highest degrees of individualism in the world, solid trust in well-functioning institutions, and a high degree of social cohesion. Among the 160 countries studied in the Index of Economic Freedom, Sweden ranks 21st, and is one of the few countries that increased its economic freedoms during the financial crisis. …Sweden wasn’t always so free. But Sweden’s socialism lasted only for a couple of decades, roughly during the 1970s and 1980s. And as it happens, these decades mark the only break in the modern Swedish success story. …The Swedish tax burden was lower than the European average throughout these successful 60 years, and lower even than in the U.S. Only in 1950 did Sweden’s tax burden rise to 20% of GDP, though that remained comparatively low. …The 1970s were a decade of radical government intervention in society and in markets, during which Sweden doubled its overall tax burden, socialized a slew of industries, re-regulated its markets, expanded its public systems, and shuttered its borders. In 1970, Sweden had the world’s fourth-highest GDP per capita. By 1990, it had fallen 13 positions. In those 20 years, real wages in Sweden increased by only one percentage point. …By the late 1980s, though, Sweden had started de-regulating its markets once again, decreased its marginal tax rates, and opted for a sound-money, low-inflation policy. In the early 1990s, the pace quickened, and most markets except for labor and housing were liberalized. The state sold its shares in a number of companies, granted independence to its central bank, and introduced school vouchers that improved choice and competition in education. Stockholm slashed public pensions and introduced private retirement schemes, keeping the system demographically sustainable. These decisive economic liberalizations, and not socialism, are what laid the foundations for Sweden’s success over the last 15 years. …Today, the state’s total tax take comes to 45% of GDP, from 56% ten years ago. Meanwhile, unemployment benefits, sick leave and early retirement plans have all been streamlined to encourage work. The number of people receiving such welfare—which soared during the socialist decades—has fallen by 150,000 since 2006, a main reason for Sweden’s remarkably sound public finances.

Sweden still has a public sector that is far too big, but the damage caused by bloated government is at least partially offset by very good policy in other areas. Sweden is actually slightly more free market than the United States on non-fiscal measures in the Economic Freedom of the World index. Here’s a chart comparing Sweden and the United States. But I also included a few other nations for purposes of comparison. You can see Switzerland, the U.S., Sweden, and the United Kingdom all have similar scores for economic freedom if the burden of taxation and government spending is removed from the mix. But things change dramatically when taxes and spending are added to the formula. Switzerland is ranked 4th overall because of a decent fiscal system, ahead of the United States (6th) and United Kingdom (10th). while Sweden falls all the way to 37th place.

Denmark gets very high marks for non-fiscal freedom, so it only drops to 14th in the overall rating because of its bloated welfare state. Hong Kong and Singapore, meanwhile, rank 1st and 2nd in the world because of strong ratings on non-fiscal factors and they also manage to limit the fiscal burden of government.

Last but not least, many of Johnny’s points are included in this Center for Freedom and Prosperity video.

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I touched a raw nerve with my post about Fidel Castro admitting that the Cuban model is a failure. Matthew Yglesias and Brad DeLong both attacked me. DeLong’s post was nothing more than a link to the Yglesias post with a snarky comment about “why can’t we have better think tanks?” Yglesias, to his credit, tried to explain his objections.

This leads Daniel Mitchell to post the following chart which he deems “a good illustration of the human cost of excessive government.”…this mostly illustrates the difficulty of having a rational conversation with Cato Institute employees about economic policy in the developed world. Cuba is poor, but it’s much richer than Somalia. Is Somalia’s poor performance an illustration of the human costs of inadequate taxation? Or maybe we can act like reasonable people and note that these illustrations of the cost of Communist dictatorship and anarchy have little bearing on the optimal location on the Korea-Sweden axis of mixed economies?

I’m actually not sure what argument Yglesias is making, but I think he assumed I was focusing only on fiscal policy when I commented about Cuba’s failure being “a good illustration of the human cost of excessive government.” At least I think this is what he means, because he then tries to use Somalia as an example of limited government, solely because the government there is so dysfunctional that it is unable to maintain a working tax system.

Regardless of what he’s really trying to say, my post was about the consequences of excessive government, not just the consequences of excessive government spending. I’m not a fan of high taxes and wasteful spending, to be sure, but fiscal policy is only one of many policies that influence economic performance. Indeed, according to both Economic Freedom of the World and Index of Economic Freedom, taxes and spending are only 20 percent of a nation’s grade. So nations such as Sweden and Denmark are ranked very high because the adverse impact of their fiscal policies is more than offset by their very laissez-faire policies in just about all other areas. Likewise, many nations in the developing world have modest fiscal burdens, but their overall scores are low because they get poor grades on variables such as monetary policy, regulation, trade, rule of law, and property rights.

So, yes, Cuba is an example of “the human cost of excessive government.” And so is Somalia.

Sweden and Denmark, meanwhile, are both good and bad examples. Optimists can cite them as great examples of the benefits of laissez-faire markets. Pessimists can cite them as unfortunate examples of bloated public sectors.

P.S. Castro has since tried to recant, claiming he was misquoted. He’s finding out, though, that it’s not easy putting toothpaste back in the tube.

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