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Posts Tagged ‘Europe’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This cartoon is quite  good, but this this one is my favorite. And the final cartoon in this post also has a Greek theme.

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

Last but not least, here are some very un-PC maps of how various peoples – including the Greeks – view different European nations.

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The famous French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand supposedly said that a weakness of the Bourbon monarchs was that they learned nothing and forgot nothing.

If so, the genetic descendants of the Bourbons are now in charge of Europe.

But before explaining why, let’s first establish that Europe is in trouble. I’ve made that point (many times) that the continent is in trouble because of statism and demographic change.

What’s far more noteworthy, though, is that even the Europeans are waking up to the fact that the continent faces a very grim future.

For instance, the bureaucrats in Brussels are pessimistic, as reported by the EU Observer.

…the report warns of a longer term risk for the EU economy. “As expectations of low growth ahead affect investment today, there is potential for a vicious circle,” the commission’s director general for economic and financial affairs writes in the report’s foreword. “In short, the projected pace of GDP growth may not be sufficient to prevent the cyclical impact of the crisis from becoming permanent (hysteresis), ” Marco Buti writes.

The people of Europe share that grim assessment.

Pew has some very sobering data on angst across the continent.

Support for European economic integration – the 1957 raison d’etre for creating the European Economic Community, the European Union’s predecessor – is down over last year in five of the eight European Union countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2013. Positive views of the European Union are at or near their low point in most EU nations, even among the young, the hope for the EU’s future. The favorability of the EU has fallen from a median of 60% in 2012 to 45% in 2013.

Here’s the relevant chart.

Establishment-oriented voices in the United States also agree that the outlook is rather dismal.

Writing in the Washington Post, Sebastian Mallaby offers a grim assessment of Europe’s future.

…since 2008…, the 28 countries in the European Union managed combined growth of just 4 percent. And in the subset consisting of the eurozone minus Germany, output actually fell. …most of the Mediterranean periphery has suffered a lost decade. …The unemployment rate in the euro area stands at 9.8 percent, more than double the U.S. rate. Unemployment among Europe’s youth is even more appalling: In Greece, Spain, France, Croatia, Italy, Cyprus and Portugal, more than 1 in 4 workers under 25 are jobless.

The bottom line is that there’s widespread consensus that Europe is a mess and that things will probably get worse unless there are big changes.

But the key question, as always, is whether the changes are positive or negative. And this is why I started with a reference to the Bourbon kings. European leaders today also are infamous for learning nothing and forgetting nothing.

Indeed, the proponents of bad policy want to double down on the mistakes of bigger government and more centralization.

The International Monetary Fund (aka, the “Dr. Kevorkian” or “dumpster fire” of the global economy), led by France’s Christine Lagarde, actually is urging a new form of redistribution in Europe.

The International Monetary Fund called on Thursday for the creation of a fund…in the euro zone… Managing Director Christine Lagarde said… “countries would be pooling budgetary resources in a common pot which could be used for projects and certain operations”

Lagarde says the new fund should have strings attached, so that nations could access the loot if they complied with the EU’s budget rules, and also if they use the money for structural reform.

That sounds prudent, but only until you look at the fine print.

The current budget rules are misguided and are more likely to encourage tax hikes rather than spending restraint. And while many European nations need good structural reform, that’s not what the IMF has in mind.

Lagarde told a news conference the new fund could pay for projects related to migration, refugees, security, energy and climate change.

Instead, it appears that this is just a scheme to transfer money from countries such as Germany and Estonia that have restrained spending in recent years.

Germany, Estonia and Luxembourg are the only EU countries that have posted budget surpluses since 2014. Lagarde said the pooling of budgetary resources could put these surpluses to good use.

Sigh.

But the problem goes way beyond an international bureaucracy led by someone from Europe. This is the mentality that is deeply embedded in most European policymakers.

Simply stated, the people who helped create the European mess by pushing for bigger government and more centralization agree that the time if right for…you guessed it…bigger government and more centralization. Here’s an excerpt from a report by the Delors Institute.

…a true economic and monetary union still needs to be built. It will have to be based on significant risk sharing and sovereignty sharing within a coherent and legitimate framework of supranational economic governance. This third building block includes turning the ESM into a fully-fledged European Monetary Fund.

The bureaucrats in Brussels predictably agree that they should get more power, as noted in a story from the EU Observer.

The EU should raise its own taxes and use Brexit as an opportunity to push for the idea, a report by a group of top officials says. …”The Union must mobilise common resources to find common solutions to common problems,” says the document, seen by EUobserver. …The paper also proposes a EU-level corporate income tax that would be combined with a common consolidated corporate tax base… Other proposals include a bank levy, a financial transaction tax, or a European VAT that would top national VATs. …The new budget EU commissioner Guenther Oettinger said that the report was “of great quality”.

And the senior politicians in Brussels are also beating the drum for added centralization.

…divergence creates fragility… Progress must happen…towards a genuine Economic Union…towards a Fiscal Union…need to shift from a system of rules and guidelines for national economic policy-making to a system of further sovereignty sharing within common institutions…some degree of public risk sharing…including a ‘social protection floor’…a shared sense of purpose among all Member States

Wow. I don’t know if I’ve ever read something so wildly wrong. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb has sagely observed, it is centralization and harmonization that creates systemic risk.

And all this talk about “common resources” and “public risk sharing” is simply the governmental version of co-signing a loan for the deadbeat family alcoholic.

Yet Europe’s ideologues can’t resist their lemming-like march in the wrong direction.

What makes this especially odd is that there is so much evidence that Europe originally became rich for the opposite reason.

It was decentralization and jurisdictional competition that enabled prosperity.

Matt Ridley, writing for the UK-based Times, drives this point home.

…the leading theory among economic historians for why Europe after 1400 became the wealthiest and most innovative continent is political fragmentation. Precisely because it was not unified, Europe became a laboratory for different ways of governing, enabling the discovery of regimes that allowed free markets and invention to flourish, first in northern Italy and some parts of Germany, then the low countries, then Britain. By contrast, China’s unity under one ruler prevented such experimentation. …Baron Montesquieu…remarked, Europe’s “many medium-sized states” had incubated “a genius for liberty, which makes it very difficult to subjugate each part and to put it under a foreign force other than by laws and by what is useful to its commerce”. …David Hume…mused…Europe is the continent “most broken by seas, rivers, and mountains” and so “the divisions into small states are favourable to learning, by stopping the progress of authority as well as that of power”. …the idea has gained almost universal agreement among historians that a disunited Europe, while frequently wracked by war, was also prone to innovation and liberty — thanks to the ability of innovators and skilled craftsmen to cross borders in search of more congenial regimes.

But now Europe has swung completely in the other direction.

The European Commission’s obsession with harmonisation prevents the very pattern of experimentation that encourages innovation. Whereas the states system positively encouraged governments to be moderate in political, religious and fiscal terms or lose their talent, the commission detests jurisdictional competition, in taxes and regulations. The larger the empire, the less brake there is on governmental excess.

Ralph Raico echoes these insights in an article for the Foundation for Economic Education.

In seeking to answer the question why the industrial breakthrough occurred first in western Europe, …what was it that permitted private enterprise to flourish? …Europe’s radical decentralization… In contrast to other cultures — especially China, India, and the Islamic world — Europe comprised a system of divided and, hence, competing powers and jurisdictions. …Instead of experiencing the hegemony of a universal empire, Europe developed into a mosaic of kingdoms, principalities, city-states, ecclesiastical domains, and other political entities. Within this system, it was highly imprudent for any prince to attempt to infringe property rights in the manner customary elsewhere in the world. In constant rivalry with one another, princes found that outright expropriations, confiscatory taxation, and the blocking of trade did not go unpunished. The punishment was to be compelled to witness the relative economic progress of one’s rivals, often through the movement of capital, and capitalists, to neighboring realms. The possibility of “exit,” facilitated by geographical compactness and, especially, by cultural affinity, acted to transform the state into a “constrained predator”.

In other words, the “stationary bandit” couldn’t steal as much and that gave the private sector the breathing room that’s necessary for growth.

But today’s politicians in Europe want to strengthen the ability of governments to seize more money and power.

That strategy may work in the short run, but bailouts, redistribution, easy money, and statism are not a good long-run strategy.

So perhaps it’s appropriate that we conclude with a warning. As reported in a column for the UK-based Telegraph, one of the architects of the euro fears that bailouts are crippling the continent-wide currency.

The European Central Bank is becoming dangerously over-extended and the whole euro project is unworkable in its current form, the founding architect of the monetary union has warned. “One day, the house of cards will collapse,” said Professor Otmar Issing, the ECB’s first chief economist… Prof Issing lambasted the European Commission as a creature of political forces that has given up trying to enforce the rules in any meaningful way. “The moral hazard is overwhelming,” he said. The European Central Bank is on a “slippery slope” and has in his view fatally compromised the system by bailing out bankrupt states in palpable violation of the treaties. “…Market discipline is done away with by ECB interventions. …The no bailout clause is violated every day,” he said… Prof Issing slammed the first Greek rescue in 2010 as little more than a bailout for German and French banks, insisting that it would have been far better to eject Greece from the euro as a salutary lesson for all.

For what it’s worth, I fully agree that Greece should have been cut loose.

But European politicians and bureaucrats, driven by an ideological belief in centralization (and a desire to bail out their big banks), instead decided to undermine the euro by creating a bigger mess in Greece and sending a very bad signal about bailouts to other welfare states.

And keep in mind that the fuse is still burning on the European fiscal crisis.

As the old saying goes, this won’t end well.

P.S. While my prognosis for Europe is relatively bleak, there were some hopeful signs in the aforementioned Pew data.

First, Europeans at some level understand that government is simply too big. Indeed, they recognize that economic growth is far more likely to occur if fiscal burdens are reduced rather than increased.

Second, they also realize that the euro, while weakened and flawed, is a better option than restoring national currencies, which would give their governments the power to finance bigger government by printing money.

P.P.S. I can’t resist sharing one final bit of polling data from Pew. I’m amused that every nation sees itself as the most compassionate (though if you look at real data, all European nations lag the USA in real compassion). Meanwhile, the prize for self-doubt (or perhaps self-awareness?) goes to the Italians, who labeled themselves as least trustworthy. The schizophrenia prize goes to the Poles, who simultaneously view the Germans as the most trustworthy and least trustworthy.

Oh, and there’s probably some lesson to be learned from Germany dominating the data for being most trustworthy and least compassionate.

Maybe this poll should be added to my European humor collection.

P.P.P.S. Given the sorry state of Europe, now perhaps skeptics will understand why Brexit was the only good option for Brits.

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A couple of days ago, I wrote about Clemens Schneider’s hypothesis, presented at the European Students for Liberty regional conference in Maastricht, that 1356 was a very important year in European history because of two events that promoted decentralization and federalism.

I also participated in the event and was asked to speak about “Ensuring Sustainable Prosperity in Europe.”

But I spent 90 percent of my speech saying there was very little hope of that happening. I highlighted three points.

  1. Europe is suffering from anemic growth and is falling further behind the United States.
  2. Demographic changes in Europe will likely cause even further economic stagnation.
  3. An ever-rising burden of government spending will further cripple economic performance.

To tie all these points together, I pointed out that worsening fiscal policy doesn’t necessarily mean economic decline. If nations make sufficient improvements in other policy areas (regulation, monetary policy, trade, rule of law and property right), then it is still possible to have more overall freedom and a stronger economy. Indeed, that’s basically what happened in developed nations after World War II.

But that hasn’t been happening in the 21st Century. Here’s a chart I prepared for the students showing changes in overall economic freedom in the major nations of Western Europe from 2000-present.

As you can see, other than Austria’s tiny increase and Greece’s unchanged (but still lowest on the list) score, economic freedom in Europe has been eroding. Indeed, the average decline is about .2 on a 0-10 scale, which isn’t trivial.

I also included the United States, which unfortunately has experienced the biggest decrease of all nations (thanks Bush and Obama!). And I’m disappointed that Switzerland (one of my favorite nations) also has moved in the wrong direction.

To conclude, there was a reprehensible American journalist named Lincoln Steffens who made a trip to the Soviet Union in 1919 and then told American audiences that, “I have seen the future, and it works.” Some might argue we shouldn’t judge him too harshly since it took time for the barbarity of communism to become apparent, but any ideology that puts the state over the individual is a priori evil in my humble opinion.

But I’m digressing. I cite Steffens’ infamous quote because I, too, have seen the future. It’s Europe. And it doesn’t work.

P.S. I did point out that the outlook for European is not theoretically hopeless. Even Greece could climb out of its statist malaise with sustained spending restraint and other market reforms.

P.P.S. My indictment of Europe, I explained, should not be interpreted as an endorsement of the United States. I explained that our long-run outlook was similarly grim (and will probably accelerate in the wrong direction because of the election).

P.P.P.S. Which is why I told the students in my conclusion that they should apply for Australian visas.

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Back in 2012, I wrote a detailed article explaining that Europe became rich in part because Europe didn’t exist.

The geographic landmass of Europe existed, of course, but the continent was characterized by massive political fragmentation. And this absence of centralized authority, many scholars concluded, meant lots of inter-government rivalry, a process that gave the private economy room to prosper.

Europe benefited from decentralization and jurisdictional competition. More specifically, governments were forced to adopt better policies because labor and capital had significant ability to cross borders in search of less oppression. …the intellectual history of this issue is enormous, and the common theme is that big, centralized states hinder development. …sovereignty should be celebrated. Not because national governments are good, but because competition between governments is the best protector of liberty and civilization. …promotion of better tax policy is just the tip of the iceberg.

I mention this because I’m currently in Maastricht, a city in the Netherlands that is (in)famous for hosting the meeting that led to the creation of the European Union.

But today, it is the European Students for Liberty meeting in Maastricht, in this case for a regional conference on “The Future of Europe.”

I’m here to give a speech on “Ensuring Sustainable Prosperity in Europe,” but that’s a topic for another day. Instead, I want to highlight Clemens Schneider’s speech on “Patchwork Continent – A History of Federalism in Europe.”

Clemens is with the Prometheus Institute, a German think tank, and he discussed how federalism was critical to Europe’s development.

What made his presentation especially fascinating is that he suggested that 1356 was a very important year in the history of Europe.

Clemens based his claim on two historical events that advanced the principles of decentralization and federalism.

First, he cited the “Golden Bull” of 1356. What’s that, you ask? Wikipedia gives us the details about this remarkable development in the history of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Golden Bull of 1356 was a decree issued by the Imperial Diet at Nuremberg and Metz (Diet of Metz (1356/57)) headed by the Emperor Charles IV which fixed, for a period of more than four hundred years, important aspects of the constitutional structure of the Holy Roman Empire. It was named the Golden Bull for the golden seal it carried. …the Bull cemented a number of privileges for the Electors, confirming their elevated role in the Empire. It is therefore also a milestone in the establishment of largely independent states in the Empire, a process to be concluded only centuries later, notably with the Peace of Westphalia of 1648.

In other words, what was important about the Golden Bull is that signified that the Holy Roman Empire no longer was an Empire. Instead, independent (and competing) principalities became the defining feature of European polity.

Second, he cited the creation of the Hanseatic League in the same year. Once again, Wikipedia has a good description.

The Hanseatic League…was a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and their market towns. It dominated Baltic maritime trade (c. 1400–1800) along the coast of Northern Europe. …The Hanseatic cities had their own legal system and furnished their own armies for mutual protection and aid. Despite this, the organization was not a state… Much of the drive for this co-operation came from the fragmented nature of existing territorial government, which failed to provide security for trade. Over the next 50 years the Hansa itself emerged with formal agreements for confederation and co-operation covering the west and east trade routes. The principal city and linchpin remained Lübeck; with the first general Diet of the Hansa held there in 1356, the Hanseatic League acquired an official structure.

I’m not sure whether it would be accurate to say this is an example of private governance, but the Hanseatic League definitely was an example of voluntary cooperation among sovereign cities wanting peaceful trade.

Schneider basically argued in favor of this “confederalist” approach and cited Switzerland and the United States as positive examples (at least during their early years).

All of which is quite consistent with my view that centralization is the enemy of liberty. We need to make governments compete with each other. And when that happens, we’re more likely to get good policy.

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When I tell journalists and politicians that the European fiscal situation is worse today than it was immediately prior to the crisis, they don’t believe me. What about all the spending cuts, they ask? What about the draconian austerity? And the Troika-imposed fiscal restraint?

I tell them it’s mostly been a mirage. It turns out that “austerity” in Europe is simply another way of saying massive tax increases. National governments have boosted tax burdens substantially, but there hasn’t been much spending restraint.

This is a topic I spoke about earlier today at a conference in Prague, which was hosted by the European Conservatives and Reformers bloc of the European Parliament.

My panel’s topic was “Current Challenges to the Transatlantic Partnership” and I focused on economic stagnation and fiscal crisis.

Regarding economic stagnation, I pointed out that there’s very little growth in Europe and substandard growth in the United States.

By itself, that’s a problem but not a crisis.

The crisis (or at least what I argue is a looming crisis) is that Europe’s fiscal situation is worse today than it was when last decade’s fiscal chaos began.

To put this in concrete terms, I crunched the data for both the “eurozone” nations (those using the common currency) and for the overall European Union.

And here are the numbers showing how the burden of government spending has increased in Europe between 2007 and 2015.

At the risk of stating the obvious, there hasn’t been any overall spending restraint on the other side of the Atlantic. This is the chart I will now share with politicians and journalists (as well as anyone else) who is under the illusion that there have been big spending cuts in Europe.

But just as slow growth is a problem rather than a crisis, the same can be said about bigger government. Yes, a larger fiscal burden saps an economy’s vitality and weakens national competitiveness, but it presumably doesn’t by itself produce a crisis.

The crisis, at least if last decade is any indication, materializes when investors decide they don’t want to buy a nation’s government debt because they fear they won’t get repaid (i.e., a default). And that happens when a nation’s debt level is perceived to have reached an unsustainable level when compared to the ability of that country’s economy to generate enough output to support that debt.

And I suspect it’s just a matter of time before Europe experiences another such crisis. Here are the numbers, both for euro-using nations as well as the entire European Union, showing that government debt is substantially higher today than it was at the dawn of last decade’s meltdown.

I should point out that there’s no reason why a crisis need occur. If European governments copied Switzerland and put in place some sort of spending cap (a good one that ensures that the burden of government expanded slower than the private sector), then red ink quickly would fall and investors would be much less fearful of a default.

Unfortunately, all the pressure is in the other direction. Indeed, to the limited degree there was any spending restraint after the last crisis, it has largely evaporated.

A story in the New York Times from two years ago illustrates why the mess in Europe is so intractable.

The reporters who authored the story were correct that there was disagreement between Germany and other nations.

…many of the largest European countries are now rebelling against the German gospel of belt-tightening and demanding more radical steps to reverse their slumping fortunes.

But they naively reported that there were genuine cutbacks and they also believed the silly Keynesian argument that smaller government somehow reduces growth.

…eurozone nations buckled under to German demands to slash budget deficits and roll back public services, and then watched in dismay as unemployment rates shot into the double digits and growth collapsed.

In any event, Europe’s self-styled elite decided on a return to the types of bad policy that led to last decade’s fiscal crisis.

Now, France, Italy and the European Central Bank have coalesced into a bloc against Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and they are insisting that Berlin change course. …France, which has in modern times been Germany’s indispensable partner in European crisis management, is now in near revolt, and President François Hollande has joined forces with Mr. Renzi, who has presented an expansionary 2015 budget that will cut taxes despite pressure from Brussels to meet deficit targets. Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, has pressed Germany to temper its insistence on budgetary discipline and to spend more on public works to stimulate the eurozone economy. The French have cheered him on

For what it’s worth, I would have been on Merkel’s side if she was actually pushing for meaningful spending restraint.

But that was not the case. She myopically focused on fiscal balance rather than the size of government, which is bad enough since higher taxes are always the first (and second, and third, …) resort of politicians. But to make matters worse, her motives have always been suspect because of fears that she’s mostly concerned about protecting German banks that foolishly lent a lot of money to profligate governments.

Though that presumably shouldn’t be a major concern today since the European Central Bank is now buying lots of government bonds as part of 1) a foolish experiment in monetary Keynesianism, and 2) an indirect bailout of dodgy governments. Any banks with competent management will have used this opportunity to sell their holdings so the risk of sovereign defaults is borne by the general public.

But let’s set aside speculation on Merkel’s motives. All that really matters is that government in Europe is now bigger and more expensive, with lots of additional red ink. And the European Central Bank is helping to build the house of cards even higher.

This won’t end well, though I very much hope my fears are misplaced.

P.S. Anybody who wants to argue that Europe’s fiscal problems can be solved with higher taxes first needs to explain this set of charts.

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Why did a for-profit college pay former President Bill Clinton the staggering sum of $16.5 million to serve as an “honorary chancellor for Laureate International Universities”? Was it because he had some special insight or expertise on how to improve education?

Why did Goldman Sachs pay former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hundreds of thousands of dollars for a couple of speeches? Was it because she had valuable observations about the economy and investments?

The answer to all those questions is that companies sometimes are willing to transfer large sums of money to influential politicians because they want something in exchange.

In some cases, they want help from powerful insiders so they can use the coercive power of government to take other people’s money, which is reprehensible and disgusting. In other cases, they are seeking to guard against being victimized with high taxes and punitive regulations and so they pay “protection money” to powerful insiders in hopes of being left alone, which is unfortunate but understandable.

In either case (one moral and the other immoral), the companies are making rational decisions. Politicians have immense ability to tax, spend, and regulate, so it makes sense to get on their good side, either by giving them money directly or contributing to their campaigns.

This is a problem in the United States, of course, but it’s also a problem in Europe.

Consider the curious case of José Manuel Barroso, the recently retired President of the European Commission who was recently hired by Goldman Sachs to be “non-executive chairman of Goldman Sachs International.” According the press release from the company, he will…well, it’s not clear what his role will be or what value he will provide. All we get is fluff about his political career and a murky statement that, “He will also be an advisor to Goldman Sachs.”

So let’s look at his Wikipedia bio. Maybe we’ll find some evidence that he has great expertise on investment matters. But all we find there is that he’s been a career politician, first in Portugal and then in Brussels (where he was a bit of a laughingstock).

There’s no indication that he ever held a job in the private sector. But we do get this tidbit.

In his university days, he was one of the leaders of the underground Maoist MRPP (Reorganising Movement of the Proletariat Party, later PCTP/MRPP, Communist Party of the Portuguese Workers/Revolutionary Movement of the Portuguese Proletariat).

That doesn’t sound like the pedigree of someone who just landed a lavishly compensated position in the supposed temple of global capitalism.

But the real story is that Barroso isn’t a communist (at least not now) and Goldman Sachs isn’t a bastion of free markets. Instead, both of them are expert practitioners of cronyism.

Indeed, the cronyism angle is so obvious in this case that the European Commission has launched an ethics probe.

Which is very upsetting to Senor Barroso. The Financial Times reported on the controversy.

José Manuel Barroso has accused the European Commission — a body he led for 10 years — of being “discriminatory” and “inconsistent” after the EU’s executive arm set up an ethics probe to examine his new role at Goldman Sachs. …Mr Barroso vigorously defended his decision to take a job as adviser with the US investment bank, which triggered a backlash across the EU. …French president François Hollande described the appointment as being “legally possible, but morally unacceptable”. …The committee will examine Mr Barroso’s contract to ascertain whether it complies with Mr Barroso’s obligation under EU law “to behave with integrity and discretion” when taking appointments or benefits after leaving office. Campaigners have argued that Mr Barroso could be stripped of his pension — worth €15,000 per month — if he is found to have violated these rules. …Other former members of the commission have gone on to take high-profile roles with big businesses, leading some to claim that Goldman Sachs has been singled out because of its role in the financial crisis.

Though it’s worth noting that Barroso is simply the latest example of a revolving door between senior euro-crats and Goldman Sachs.

The bottom line is that Barroso hasn’t behaved with integrity. But that’s true of his entire career. Taking a position with Goldman Sachs is simply a way of monetizing decades of cronyism.

P.S. Shifting back to the US version of cronyism, Kevin Williamson has a must-read analysis of the corrupt nexus of Wall Street and Washington.

P.P.S. The solution to this mess (other than Glenn Reynold’s revolving-door surtax) is to dramatically shrink the size and scope of government. When there’s less to steal, there will be fewer thieves.

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I have a love-hate relationship with corporations.

On the plus side, I admire corporations that efficiently and effectively compete by producing valuable goods and services for consumers, and I aggressively defend those firms from politicians who want to impose harmful and destructive forms of taxes, regulation, and intervention.

On the minus side, I am disgusted by corporations that get in bed with politicians to push policies that undermine competition and free markets, and I strongly oppose all forms of cronyism and coercion that give big firms unearned and undeserved wealth.

With this in mind, let’s look at two controversies from the field of corporate taxation, both involving the European Commission (the EC is the Brussels-based bureaucracy that is akin to an executive branch for the European Union).

First, there’s a big fight going on between the U.S. Treasury Department and the EC. As reported by Bloomberg, it’s a battle over whether European governments should be able to impose higher tax burdens on American-domiciled multinationals.

The U.S. is stepping up its effort to convince the European Commission to refrain from hitting Apple Inc. and other companies with demands for possibly billions of euros… In a white paper released Wednesday, the Treasury Department in Washington said the Brussels-based commission is taking on the role of a “supra-national tax authority” that has the scope to threaten global tax reform deals. …The commission has initiated investigations into tax rulings that Apple, Starbucks Corp., Amazon.com Inc. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. received in separate EU nations. U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew has written previously that the investigations appear “to be targeting U.S. companies disproportionately.” The commission’s spokesman said Wednesday that EU law “applies to all companies operating in Europe — there is no bias against U.S. companies.”

As you can imagine, I have a number of thoughts about this spat.

  • First, don’t give the Obama Administration too much credit for being on the right side of the issue. The Treasury Department is motivated in large part by a concern that higher taxes imposed by European governments would mean less ability to collect tax by the U.S. government.
  • Second, complaints by the US about a “supra-national tax authority” are extremely hypocritical since the Obama White House has signed the Protocol to the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters, which effectively would create a nascent World Tax Organization (the pact is thankfully being blocked by Senator Rand Paul).
  • Third, hypocrisy by the US doesn’t change the fact that the European Commission bureaucrats are in the wrong because their argument is based on the upside-down notion that low tax burdens are a form of “state aid.”
  • Fourth, Europeans are in the wrong because the various national governments should simply adjust their “transfer pricing” rules if they think multinational companies are playing games to under-state profits in high-tax nations and over-state profits in low-tax nations.
  • Fifth, the Europeans are in the wrong because low corporate tax rates are the best way to curtail unproductive forms of tax avoidance.
  • Sixth, some European nations are in the wrong if they don’t allow domestic companies to enjoy the low tax rates imposed on multinational firms.

Since we’re on the topic of corporate tax rates and the European Commission, let’s shift from Brussels to Geneva and see an example of good tax policy in action. Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg report about how a Swiss canton is responding in the right way to an attack by the EC.

When the European Union pressured Switzerland to scrap tax breaks for foreign companies, Geneva had most to lose. Now, the canton that’s home to almost 1,000 multinationals is set to use tax to burnish its appeal. Geneva will on Aug. 30 propose cutting its corporate tax rate to 13.49 percent from 24.2 percent…the new regime will improve the Swiss city’s competitive position, according to Credit Suisse Group AG. “I could see Geneva going up very high in the ranks,” said Thierry Boitelle, a lawyer at Bonnard Lawson in the city. …A rate of about 13 percent would see Geneva jump 13 places to become the third-most attractive of Switzerland’s 26 cantons.

This puts a big smile on my face.

Geneva is basically doing the same thing Ireland did many years ago when it also was attacked by Brussels for having a very low tax rate on multinational firms while taxing domestic firms at a higher rate.

The Irish responded to the assault by implementing a very low rate for all businesses, regardless of whether they were local firms or global firms. And the Irish economy benefited immensely.

Now it’s happening again, which must be very irritating for the bureaucrats in Brussels since the attack on Geneva (just like the attack on Ireland) was designed to force tax rates higher rather than lower.

As a consequence, in one fell swoop, Geneva will now be one of the most competitive cantons in Switzerland.

Here’s another reason I’m smiling.

The Geneva reform will put even more pressure on the tax-loving French.

France, which borders the canton to the south, east and west, has a tax rate of 33.33 percent… Within Europe, Geneva’s rate would only exceed a number of smaller economies such as Ireland’s 12.5 percent and Montenegro, which has the region’s lowest rate of 9 percent. That will mean Geneva competes with Ireland, the Netherlands and the U.K. as a low-tax jurisdiction.

Though the lower tax rate in Geneva is not a sure thing.

We’ll have to see if local politicians follow through on this announcement. And there also may be a challenge from left-wing voters, something made possible by Switzerland’s model of direct democracy.

Opposition to the new rate from left-leaning political parties will probably trigger a referendum as it would only require 500 signatures.

Though I suspect the “sensible Swiss” of Geneva will vote the right way, at least if the results from an adjoining canton are any indication.

In a March plebiscite in the neighboring canton of Vaud, 87.1 percent of voters backed cutting the corporate tax rate to 13.79 percent from 21.65 percent.

So I fully expect voters in Geneva will make a similarly wise choice, especially since they are smart enough to realize that high tax rates won’t collect much money if the geese with the golden eggs fly away.

Failure to agree on a competitive tax rate in Geneva could result in an exodus of multinationals, cutting cantonal revenues by an even greater margin, said Denis Berdoz, a partner at Baker & McKenzie in Geneva, who specializes in tax and corporate law. “They don’t really have a choice,” said Berdoz. “If the companies leave, the loss could be much higher.”

In other words, the Laffer Curve exists.

Now let’s understand why the development in Geneva is a good thing (and why the EC effort to impose higher taxes on US-based multinational is a bad thing).

Simply stated, high corporate tax burdens are bad for workers and the overall economy.

In a recent column for the Wall Street Journal, Kevin Hassett and Aparna Mathur of the American Enterprise Institute consider the benefits of a less punitive corporate tax system.

They start with the theoretical case.

If the next president has a plan to increase wages that is based on well-documented and widely accepted empirical evidence, he should have little trouble finding bipartisan support. …Fortunately, such a plan exists. …both parties should unite and demand a cut in corporate tax rates. The economic theory behind this proposition is uncontroversial. More productive workers earn higher wages. Workers become more productive when they acquire better skills or have better tools. Lower corporate rates create the right incentives for firms to give workers better tools.

Then they unload a wealth of empirical evidence.

What proof is there that lower corporate rates equal higher wages? Quite a lot. In 2006 we co-wrote the first empirical study on the direct link between corporate taxes and manufacturing wages. …Our empirical analysis, which used data we gathered on international tax rates and manufacturing wages in 72 countries over 22 years, confirmed that the corporate tax is for the most part paid by workers. …There has since been a profusion of research that confirms that workers suffer when corporate tax rates are higher. In a 2007 paper Federal Reserve economist Alison Felix used data from the Luxembourg Income Study, which tracks individual incomes across 30 countries, to show that a 10% increase in corporate tax rates reduces wages by about 7%. In a 2009 paper Ms. Felix found similar patterns across the U.S., where states with higher corporate tax rates have significantly lower wages. …Harvard University economists Mihir Desai, Fritz Foley and Michigan’s James R. Hines have studied data from American multinational firms, finding that their foreign affiliates tend to pay significantly higher wages in countries with lower corporate tax rates. A study by Nadja Dwenger, Pia Rattenhuber and Viktor Steiner found similar patterns across German regions… Canadian economists Kenneth McKenzie and Ergete Ferede. They found that wages in Canadian provinces drop by more than a dollar when corporate tax revenue is increased by a dollar.

So what’s the moral of the story?

It’s very simple.

…higher wages are relatively easy to stimulate for a nation. One need only cut corporate tax rates. Left and right leaning countries have done this over the past two decades, including Japan, Canada and Germany. Yet in the U.S. we continue to undermine wage growth with the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world.

The Tax Foundation echoes this analysis, noting that even the Paris-based OECD has acknowledged that corporate taxes are especially destructive on a per-dollar-raised basis.

In a landmark 2008 study Tax and Economic Growth, economists at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) determined that the corporate income tax is the most harmful tax for economic growth. …The study also found that statutory corporate tax rates have a negative effect on firms that are in the “process of catching up with the productivity performance of the best practice firms.” This suggests that “lowering statutory corporate tax rates can lead to particularly large productivity gains in firms that are dynamic and profitable, i.e. those that can make the largest contribution to GDP growth.”

Sadly, there’s often a gap between the analysis of the professional economists at the OECD and the work of the left-leaning policy-making divisions of that international bureaucracy.

The OECD has been a long-time advocate of schemes to curtail tax competition and in recent years even has concocted a “base erosion and profit shifting” initiative designed to boost the tax burden on businesses.

In a study for the Institute for Research in Economic and Fiscal Issues (also based, coincidentally, in Paris), Pierre Bessard and Fabio Cappelletti analyze the harmful impact of corporate taxation and the unhelpful role of the OECD.

…the latest years have been marked by an abundance of proposals to reform national tax codes to patch these alleged “loopholes”. Among them, the Base Erosion and Profit Shifting package (BEPS) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is the most alarming one because of its global ambition. …The OECD thereby assumes, without any substantiation, that the corporate income tax is both just and an efficient way for governments to collect revenue.

Pierre and Fabio point out that the OECD’s campaign to impose heavier taxes on business is actually just a back-door way of imposing a higher burden on individuals.

…the whole value created by corporations is sooner or later transferred to various individuals, may it be as dividends (for owners and shareholders), interest payments (for lenders), wages (for employees) and payments for the provided goods and services (for suppliers). Second, corporations as such do not pay taxes. …at the end of the day the burden of any tax levied on them has to be carried by an individual.

This doesn’t necessarily mean there shouldn’t be a corporate tax (in nations that decide to tax income). After all, it is administratively simpler to tax a company than to track down potentially thousands – or even hundreds of thousands – of shareholders.

But it’s rather important to consider the structure of the corporate tax system. Is it a simple system that taxes economic activity only one time based on cash flow? Or does it have various warts, such as double taxation and deprecation, that effectively result in much higher tax rates on productive behavior?

Most nations unfortunately go with the latter approach (with place such as Estonia and Hong Kong being admirable exceptions). And that’s why, as Pierre and Fabio explain, the corporate income tax is especially harmful.

…the general consensus is that the cost per dollar of raising revenue through the corporate income tax is much higher than the cost per dollar of raising revenue through the personal income tax… This is due to the corporate income tax generating additional distortions. … Calls by the OECD and other bodies to standardize corporate tax rules and increase tax revenue in high-tax countries in effect would equate to calls for higher prices for consumers, lower wages for workers and lower returns for pension funds. Corporate taxes also depress available capital for investment and therefore productivity and wage growth, holding back purchasing power. In addition, the deadweight losses arising from corporate income taxation are particularly high. They include lobbying for preferential rates and treatments, diverting attention and resources from production and wealth creation, and distorting decisions in corporate financing and the choice of organizational form.

From my perspective, the key takeaway is that income taxes are always bad for prosperity, but the real question is whether they somewhat harmful or very harmful. So let’s close with some very depressing news about how America’s system ranks in that regard.

The Tax Foundation has just produced a very helpful map showing corporate tax rates around the world. All you need to know about the American system is that dark green is very bad (i.e., a corporate tax rate that is way above the average) and dark blue is very good.

And to make matters worse, the high tax rate is just part of the problem. A German think tank produced a study that looked at other major features of business taxation and concluded that the United States ranked #94 out of 100 nations.

It would be bad to have a high rate with a Hong Kong-designed corporate tax structure. But we have something far worse, a high rate with what could be considered a French-designed corporate tax structure.

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