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Posts Tagged ‘Europe’

Despite the fact that Social Security is an ever-increasing fiscal burden with a 75-year cash-flow deficit of nearly $45 trillion, many politicians in Washington have been trying to buy votes with proposals to expand the program (Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, etc).

A new working paper from the European Central Bank gives us some insights on what will happen if they succeed.

Authored by Daniel Baksa, Zsuzsa Munkacsi, and Carolin Nerlich, the study look at the long-run impact of related policies in Europe, using Germany and Slovakia as examples.

Here’s their description of the study.

In view of the adverse macroeconomic and fiscal implications of ageing, many European countries have implemented significant pension reforms… More recently, however, the reform progress has stalled, and despite an unchanged demographic outlook, several European countries reversed, or plan to do so, parts of their previously adopted pension reforms. In this paper we offer a framework that allows us to evaluate the macroeconomic and fiscal costs of pension reform reversals. …By using a general equilibrium model with overlapping generations we can account for feedback effects between changes in pension parameters, pension expenditures and macroeconomic variables. …The model is calibrated for Germany and Slovakia.

Before sharing their findings, here’s a look at how demographics are a ticking time bomb for Europe.

The yellow dots are the 2016 numbers for the old-age dependency ratio (the number of people over 65 compared to the 15-64 working-age population) and the red dots show how that ratio will deteriorate by 2070 (the numbers for the United States are similarly grim).

These bad numbers mean that Europe’s economic outlook will worsen over time.

…population ageing has adverse macroeconomic and fiscal implications. …the results show an increase in the public debt-to-GDP ratio by around 100 percentage points until 2070, compared to the initial period, for both Germany and Slovakia. Moreover, real GDP per capita is projected to decline by almost 14% in Germany and 9% in Slovakia, compared to the initial period.

But it’s possible for the numbers to get better or worse, depending on changes to public policy.

…similar to other studies we find evidence that pension reforms help to contain the adverse implications of ageing… In particular, increases in the retirement age appear to help to alleviate ageing pressures most. …we find strong evidence for the presumption that reversals of pension reforms are potentially very costly. In fact, reform reversals would not only result in higher aggregate pension expenditure and public debt-to-GDP ratios, but would in most cases also exacerbate the adverse macroeconomic impact of ageing.

Unfortunately, public policy is now trending in the wrong direction. Here’s what’s been happening in Germany and Slovakia.

Germany recently decided to cap the decline in the benefit ratio and the increase in the contribution rate until 2025 at certain levels, and is considering whether to extend this cap even until 2040. Slovakia decided to break the automatic link between changes in life expectancy and retirement age, by capping the retirement age at 64 years. …in the reversal scenario for Germany we freeze the benefit ratio at its current level of 48% and assume that the contribution rate would not exceed the threshold of 20% until 2040. With this reform reversal scenario we assume that the agreed freeze of the benefits ratio and contribution rate until 2025 will be ex-tended until 2040. In Slovakia, we assume the retirement age to stop increasing from the year 2045 onwards.

And what do they find when countries backtrack on reform?

Here’s what they estimated in Germany.

For Germany, we find that the reform reversal would imply sizeable costs (see Table 6, column “reform reversal”). Specifically, by 2070, the increase in the public debt-to-GDP ratio can be expected to be ceteris paribus almost 60 percentage points higher than under the baseline scenario, as a result of higher pension expenditures, adverse feedback effects and lower contribution rates.

For those interested, here’s Table 6, which I’ve augmented by highlighting in red the most relevant changes. Yes, the debt increases compared to the baseline, but I think it’s equally important (if not more important) to see how young people are hurt and how the burden of government spending goes up.

Now let’s see what the authors found for Slovakia.

…we quantify the fiscal costs of the reform reversal in Slovakia by comparing the debt impact under the reform reversal scenario with that under the baseline scenario. Our results show that such a reform reversal would be very costly. In fact, the increase in the public debt-to-GDP ratio would be more than 50 percentage points higher than the estimated increase of around 100 percentage points of GDP under the baseline scenario (see Table 7).

Here’s Table 7, and again I have highlighted in red the increase in debt as well as the data showing additional harm to young people and a much bigger increase in the burden of government spending.

So what do these findings mean for the United States?

Let’s explain using a homemade infographic. I’ve put four options for Social Security on a spectrum. Here’s what they mean.

  • “Expand Social Security” means more taxes and spending in pay-as-you-go systems that are already costly and out of balance.
  • The “Status Quo” is a typical pay-as-you-go-system (where the United States is now and where Germany and Slovakia were before their reforms).
  • Conventional Reform” means trying to stabilize a pay-as-you-go system by demanding that workers pay more while promising to give them less (what Germany and Slovakia did).
  • The most market-friendly position is “Personal Retirement Accounts,” which transforms creaky pay-as-you-go systems into real individual savings.

Here’s the infographic, including arrows to indicate that some options mean more government and others mean more prosperity.

What Germany and Slovakia did was move from “Status Quo” to “Conventional Reform.” But now they’re backtracking on those reforms and shifting back to the old version of the “Status Quo.”

In other words, a move in the direction of “More Government” and the European Central Bank’s study shows such a step will have negative consequences.

In the United States, by contrast, some folks on the left want America to move from “Status Quo” to “Expand Social Security.”

Like Germany and Slovakia, we’d be moving in the wrong direction. But the damage for the U.S. presumably would be worse because we didn’t first take a step in the right direction.

P.S. If you want to learn more about the best option, Australia, Denmark, Chile, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Netherlands, Faroe Islands, and Sweden are a few of the many jurisdictions that have fully or partially shifted to systems based on real savings.

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I wrote earlier this month about coronavirus becoming an excuse for more bad public policy.

American politicians certainly have been pushing all sorts of proposals for bigger government, showing that they have embraced the notion that you don’t want to let a “crisis go to waste.”

But nothing that’s happening in the United States is as monumentally misguided as the effort to create a new method of centralized redistribution in the European Union.

Kai Weiss of the Vienna-based Austrian Economic Center explains what is happening in a column for CapX.

…‘never let a good crisis go to waste’ seems to have become the mantra of both the European Commission a number of national leaders. The coronavirus has become a justification for…‘more Europe’ (which tends to actually mean more EU, to the detriment of Europe). The clearest sign of this renewed Euro-fervour is the plan cooked up by Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron earlier this week… Seasoned Brussels observers will be shocked to learn that their proposals have very little to do with the pandemic, and everything to do with deepening the centralisation of EU power and top-down policymaking. While Germany has traditionally…opposed the idea of eurobonds or similar debt collectivisation instruments, it is now advocating for precisely those policies. A €500 billion Recovery Fund… the initial plan is for the European Commission to raise the money on the financial markets. It would subsequently be paid back by the member states and through increased “own resources” – i.e., new taxes levied directly by Brussels… The good news is that none of these policy proposals are yet set in stone. There are some big legal questions, particularly on the Recovery Fund, and national parliaments would need to agree to this expansion of Brussels’ writ. Already countries like the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, and Sweden have voiced criticism… But for all these obstacles, the direction of travel looks alarmingly clear. The consensus among the EU’s power brokers, as with pretty much any major world event, is that the answer is ‘more Europe’. ..For Macron  Merkel and their allies, this is far too good a crisis to pass up.

A story in the New York Times has additional details, including a discussion of potential obstacles.

Ms. Merkel this week agreed to break with two longstanding taboos in German policy. Along with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, Ms. Merkel proposed a 500 billion euro fund… It would allow the transfer of funds from richer countries… And it would do so with money borrowed collectively by the European Union as a whole. …Whatever emerges from the European Commission will be followed by tough negotiations… Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of Austria has raised objections to the idea of grants rather than loans, saying that he has been in contact with the leaders of Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark. “Our position remains unchanged,’’ he said. …opposition may also come from member states in Central and Eastern Europe. …Those countries are going to be reluctant…to see so much European aid — for which they will in the end have to help pay — skewed to southern countries that are richer than they are. …in northern countries, moves for collective debt to bail out poorer southern countries may feed far-right, anti-European populists like the Alternative for Germany or the Sweden Democrats. They are angry at the idea of subsidizing southerners who, they believe, work less hard and retire much earlier.

What’s depressing about this report is that it appears the battle will revolve around whether the €500 billion will be distributed as grants or loans.

The real fight should be whether there should be any expansion of intra-E.U. redistribution.

For what it’s worth, Germany used to oppose such ideas, especially if funded by borrowing. But Angela Merkel has decided to throw German taxpayers under the bus.

Let’s close with some analysis from Matthew Lynn of the Spectator.

Die-hard European Union federalists have plotted for it for years. …The Greeks and Italians have pleaded for it. And French presidents have made no end of grand speeches, full of references to solidarity and common visions, proposing it. The Germans have finally relented and agreed, at least in part, to share debt within the EU and the euro-zone, and bail-out the weaker members of the club. …The money will be borrowed, based on income from the EU’s future budgets, but it will in effect be guaranteed by the member states, based on the EU’s ‘capital key’. …the rescue plan is completely unfair on all the EU countries outside the euro-zone. …why should they pay for it? Poland…will still be expected to pay in five per cent (or 25bn euros (£22bn)) to bail-out of far richer Italy (Polish GDP per capital is $15,000 (£12,000) compared with $34,000 (£27,000) for Italy).

Pro-centralization politicians are claiming this fund is needed to deal with the consequences of the coronavirus, but that’s largely a smokescreen. It will take many months for this proposal to get up and running – assuming, of course, that Merkel and Macron succeed in bullying nations such as Austria and the Netherlands into submission.

By that time, even the worst-hit countries already will have absorbed temporary health-related costs.

The bottom line is that this initiative is really about the long-held desire by the left to turn the E.U. into a transfer union.

The immediate losers will be taxpayers in Germany, as well as those in Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland, and a few other nations.

But all of Europe will suffer in the long run because of an increase in the continent’s overall fiscal burden.

And keep in mind that this is just the camel’s nose under the tent. It’s just a matter of time before this supposedly limited step becomes a template for further expansions in the size and scope of government.

Yet another reason why E.U. membership is increasingly an anchor for nations that want more prosperity.

P.S. As suggested by Mr. Lynn’s column, countries in Eastern Europe should fight this scheme. After all, these countries are relatively poor (a legacy of communist enslavement) and presumably don’t want to subsidize their better-off cousins in places like Spain and Italy. But that argument also implies that they should have resisted the Greek bailout about ten years ago, yet they didn’t. Sadly, Eastern European governments acquiesce to bad ideas because their politicians are bribed with “structural adjustment funds” from the European Union.

P.P.S. The luckiest Europeans are the British. They wisely opted for Brexit so they presumably won’t be on the hook for this costly new type of E.U.-wide redistribution (indeed, my main argument for Brexit, which now appears very prescient, was that the E.U. would morph into a transfer union).

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Libertarians and other supporters of limited government historically have mixed feelings about the European Union (and its various governmental manifestations).

On the plus side, there are no trade barriers between nations that belong to the EU, and membership also makes it difficult for countries to impose regulatory burdens that hinder trade. The EU also has helped to improve the rule of law in some nations, particularly for newer members from the former Soviet Bloc.

On the minus side, the EU imposes trade barriers against the rest of the world. There is also continuous pressure for tax harmonization policies and regulatory harmonization policies that increase the burden of government – compounded by efforts to export those bad polices to non-member nations.

Given these good and bad features, it’s understandable that proponents of economic liberty don’t have a consensus position on the European Union.

But views may become more universally hostile since some European politicians now want to use the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to expand redistribution and enable bailouts by changing existing EU rules.

Currently, there is very limited scope for bad European-wide fiscal policy because Article 125 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union ostensibly prohibits cross-country redistribution or bailouts.

For what it’s worth, there is another provision for nations that use the euro currency. Article 136 of the Treaty allows for a “stability mechanism” to “safeguard the stability of the euro,” but also states that “the mechanism will be made subject to strict conditionality.”

Now let’s apply this background knowledge to the current situation.

As I wrote last month, the coronavirus-triggered economic mess is wreaking havoc with the finances of EU nations, especially for “Club Med” nations.

For example, Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute writes for the Hill about the potential consequences for Italy.

The Eurozone’s moment of truth has arrived with the coronavirus pandemic. …a supply side-shock of unprecedented size to Europe in general and to a highly indebted Italy in particular. Indeed, Italy, the Eurozone’s third-largest member country, is now at the epicenter of the pandemic and is being subject to an economic shock of biblical proportions. …That is all too likely to cause the country’s public debt to skyrocket to over 160 percent of GDP by year-end. It is also likely to put enormous strain on the country’s rickety banking system…it would seem to be only a matter of time before markets…became increasingly reluctant to buy Italian government bonds for fear of an eventual default. They would also…chose to move their deposits out of the Italian banks to safer havens abroad. …we should brace ourselves for an Italian exit from the euro that would almost certainly roil the world’s financial markets.

None of this should be a surprise. Italy is a fiscal mess and I’ve been making that point with tiresome regularity.

The coronavirus and the concomitant economic shutdown are merely a final (and very big) straw on the camel’s back.

So is Italy going to default? And maybe crash out of the euro? Or, alternatively, actually impose some long-overdue spending restraint?

Well, why make any tough decision if there’s a potential new source of money – i.e., cash from taxpayers in Germany, Finland, Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, and other EU nations in Northern Europe.

Needless to say, that’s a very controversial concept. British newspapers have been writing about this issue.

Here are some passages from a report in the left-leaning Guardian.

The European Union has weathered the storms of eurozone bailouts, the migration crisis and Brexit, but some fear coronavirus could be even more destructive. …Jacques Delors, the former European commission president who helped build the modern EU, broke his silence last weekend to warn that lack of solidarity posed “a mortal danger to the European Union”. …The pandemic has reopened the wounds of the eurozone crisis, resurrecting stereotypes about “profligate” southern Europeans and “hard-hearted” northerners. …The Dutch finance minister, Wopke Hoekstra,…infuriat[ed] his neighbours by asking why other governments didn’t have fiscal buffers to deal with the financial shock of the coronavirus. His comments were described as “repugnant”, “small-minded” and “a threat to the EU’s future” by Portugal’s prime minister, António Costa.

Here are excerpts from a piece in the right-leaning Telegraph.

Italian politicians took out a full-page advertisement in one of Germany’s most prestigious newspapers…, urging parsimonious northern Europe to do more to help the south… They urged Berlin to drop its opposition to a proposed EU scheme to issue so-called “coronabonds” to raise funds to fight the crisis. And they accused the Netherlands, which has led opposition to the scheme, of operating as a tax haven and diverting revenue from other member states. …Several EU members – led by France, Italy, Spain and Belgium – have called for EU-wide “coronabonds” to help poorer member states borrow as they struggle with the economic impact of the crisis. But a rival faction of northern members, led by the Netherlands, Finland, Austria and Germany, has opposed what it sees as an attempt to saddle the countries with the debts of their more feckless neighbours.

An article in the Express highlighted divisions between Portugal and the Netherlands.

Portugal’s Prime Minister Antonio Costa has stunned fellow EU leaders after raising the idea…that the Netherlands could be kicked out of the European Union… The Netherlands held up the talks after blocking demands from Italy, Spain and France for so-called ‘corona-bonds’ where the EU would issue joint shared debt to help finance a recovery. …The Portuguese leader said: “If under these conditions it’s not possible for Europe to ensure a common response to this challenge, this is a sign of great concern for those who believe in Europe.” Mr Costa went on to question whether “there is anyone who wants to be left out” of the EU or eurozone. He added: “Naturally, I’m referring to the Netherlands. “There is at least one country in the euro zone that resists understanding that sharing a common currency implies sharing a common effort.”

The rest of this column is going to explain why it’s a very bad idea to have intra-EU redistribution and bailouts.

But I first want to debunk the claim from the Portuguese Prime Minister that a common currency requires a common fiscal policy.

Indeed, he’s not the only one to make this mistake. In a column for the U.K.-based Times, Iain Martin also asserts that a common currency somehow necessitates cross-country redistribution.

European finance ministers and leaders have spent the week arguing over desperate pleas from countries such as Italy…who want the European Central Bank and the EU to underpin common debt that will cover the epic bills being faced by national governments. …The fiscally conservative northern nations see no reason why they should take on the “pooled” debt of weaker southern European economies. …The core problem is what it has always been: the elementary design flaw of the euro. Currency blocs that work depend on that notion of common endeavour and “pooling” debt and risk, and ideally must function as one political organisation. …the euro needed an institutional structure that would operate roughly as the United States does. …This escalating economic emergency is a tragedy…a currency and monetary and fiscal construction that is not capable of swiftly transferring resources to the weak.

Both Costa and Martin are wrong.

Panama does very well using the dollar as its currency, yet there’s obviously no common fiscal policy with the United States. Other nations also have “dollarized” without any adverse impact.

Or consider the fiscal history of the United States. For much of American history, the federal government was trivially small. Most spending happened at the state and local level.

Needless to say, having a common currency in this decentralized system wasn’t a hindrance to U.S. economic development.

With this topic out of the way, let’s now deal with whether the coronavirus crisis should be used as an excuse to open the floodgates for intra-EU redistribution and bailouts.

Politicians from nations on the receiving end obviously approve.

But some Americans also like the idea.

Max Bergmann, a former Obama appointee at the State Department, likes the idea. He argues in the Washington Post for more centralization and more redistribution in the EU.

…this is in fact a fight over the future of Europe. The common European bond proposal hits at the core of what Europe’s union is for. It is an act of unity… A common E.U. bond would take the debt that individual European states accrue to fight this crisis and make it a collective European responsibility. …Moving ahead with it would entail a sweeping increase in the power of the federal union. …The move by…nine countries for a common E.U. bond was in fact a revolt against Europe’s status quo. It was at its core therefore a revolt against Merkel and the past decade of austerity in Europe. …Merkel is also the architect of a decade of devastating austerity that has caused economic devastation and deprivation… The crisis revealed that Europe’s new currency (the euro) had a design flaw. While the E.U. had a common monetary policy with its own central bank, it lacked a common fiscal policy. …Merkel could have pushed for that. …Merkel lectured southern European countries about profligacy. She turned what was a manageable crisis into a systemic shock to Europe’s economies. …As the coronavirus crisis hit, …Merkel has stuck to her guns.

The New York Times, unsurprisingly, has editorialized for centralization and redistribution.

…the European Union is…an alliance of sovereign countries, not a central government, and Brussels has control only over external trade and competition. For the rest, its executive branch, the European Commission, can only seek cooperation, not order it. The states that share the euro do not have true fiscal union, under which wealthier parts of the bloc would prop up the poorer. …Europe could do better. Much better. …Italians or Spaniards confronted with death and economic catastrophe…aren’t in a bind due to profligate spending; they’re in the throes of a plague… The question to ask is what’s the point of any union if it cannot find unity when it is needed most…true leadership requires knowing that we’re all in this together and can only conquer it together.

Is this correct? Would it be a good idea to have “a sweeping increase in the power of the federal union”? Would that be “true leadership”?

Gideon Rachman warns in the Financial Times that such policies will cause political fallout.

…northern Europeans will…feel exploited by the south. …The longer-term fears of the northern Europeans are also legitimate. …The northerners are alert to any sign that they are being sucked into permanent, large transfers of cash to heavily indebted EU partners. They are justifiably concerned that the current anguish is being used to push forward ideas that they have already rejected, many times over. …if political leaders renege on longstanding promises…, they should not be particularly surprised if voters then turn to populist, anti-European parties. …Anti-EU parties have already made strong gains across northern Europe in recent years.

That’s very sensible political analysis.

But the bigger problem, at least from my perspective, is that a common fiscal policy would be very bad economics.

It means more redistribution, with all the unfortunate incentives that creates for both those paying and those receiving (as illustrated by this cartoon).

And it means more overall government spending. The “Club Med” countries obviously would spend any money they got (whether from so-called coronabonds, a common-EU budget, or any other mechanism), and there’s no reason to think the nations in Northern Europe would reduce spending as their taxpayers started to underwrite the budgets of other nations.

This is a problem since government already is far too large in every EU country. Here’s the most-recent data from the European Commission. If you focus on the left, you’ll see the average fiscal burden in the EU is about 45 percent of GDP (and slightly higher in the subset of eurozone countries).

The bottom line is that countries such as Italy, Spain, Greece, and Portugal are in trouble because their governments have been spending too much.

Sadly, I fear it is just a matter of time before Article 125 is somehow sidelined and the profligacy of those “Club Med” nations is rewarded.

And if/when that happens, what’s good about the EU (open trade and the remnants of mutual recognition) definitely will be dwarfed by bad policy (bailouts, transfers, and others form of redistribution).

P.S. One of the strongest arguments for Brexit was that the EU inevitably would morph into a transfer union – and thus accelerate the economic decline of Europe. Given what’s now happening, the British were very wise to escape.

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Motivated in part by a sensible desire for free trade, six nations from Western Europe signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957, thus creating the European Economic Community (EEC). Sort of a European version of the North American Free Trade Agreement (now known as USMCA).

Some supporters of the EEC also were motivated by a desire for some form of political unification and their efforts eventually led to the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union – along with increased powers for a Brussels-based bureaucracy (the European Commission).

There are significant reasons to think that this evolution – from a Europe based on free trade and mutual recognition to a Europe based on supranational governance – was an unfortunate development.

Back in 2015, I warned that this system would “morph over time into a transfer union. And that means more handouts, more subsidies, more harmonization, more bailouts, more centralization, and more bureaucracy.”

A few years earlier, when many of Europe’s welfare states were dealing with a fiscal crisis, I specifically explained why it would be a very bad idea to have “eurobonds,” which would mean – for all intents and purposes – that reasonably well governed nations such as Germany and Sweden would be co-signing loans for poorly governed countries such as Italy and Greece.

Well, this bad idea has resurfaced. Politicians from several European nations are using the coronavirus as an excuse (“never let a crisis go to waste“) to push for a so-called common debt instrument.

Here are the relevant parts of the letter.

…we need to work on a common debt instrument issued by a European institution to raise funds on the market on the same basis and to the benefits of all Member States, thus ensuring stable long term financing… The case for such a common instrument is strong, since we are all facing a symmetric external shock, for which no country bears responsibility, but whose negative consequences are endured by all. And we are collectively accountable for an effective and united European response. This common debt instrument should have sufficient size and long maturity to be fully efficient… The funds collected will be targeted to finance in all Member States the necessary investments in the healthcare system and temporary policies to protect our economies and social model.

Lots of aspirational language, of course, but no flowery words change the fact that “collectively accountable” means European-wide debt and “social model” means welfare state.

I wrote last year that globalization is good whereas global governance is bad. Well, this is the European version.

The Wall Street Journal opined against the concept. Here’s some background information.

Bad crises tend to produce worse policy… We speak of proposals for “corona bonds,” an idea floated as a fiscal solution to Europe’s deepening pandemic. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte launched the effort, and French President Emmanuel Macron this week joined Mr. Conte and seven other leaders in backing such a bond issue for health-care expenditures and economic recovery. Some 400 economists have joined the chorus. …The bonds would be backed collectively by member governments. The proceeds could be allocated to members such as Italy that otherwise couldn’t borrow from private markets. …Calls for euro bonds last hit a crescendo during the debt crises of 2010-12, when they were pitched to fund bailouts of Greece and others. But the idea has never gone anywhere because it would transform the eurozone into something voters didn’t approve when the currency was created in the 1990s.

And here’s the editorial’s explanation of why eurobonds would be a very bad idea.

Europeans were promised the euro would not become an excuse or vehicle for large fiscal transfers between member states. …Proponents say corona bonds are a special case due to the unfolding economic emergency. But the Italian government that now can’t finance its own recovery was also one of the worst fiscal offenders before Covid-19… Claims that the corona bond would be temporary aren’t credible because European elites have wanted such a facility for years… Voters can assume that if they get these bonds in a crisis, they’ll be stuck with this facility forever. …euro bonds would create profound governance problems. …With corona bonds, German and Dutch taxpayers for the first time are being asked to write a blank check to Italy and perhaps others.

Amen.

Once the camel’s nose is under the tent, it would simply be a matter of time before eurobonds would become a vehicle for bigger government in general and more country-to-country transfers in particular.

Hopefully this terrible idea will be blocked by nations such as Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands (this satirical video will give you an idea of the tension between the European nations that foot the bills and the ones looking for handouts).

Some advocates for eurobonds say there’s nothing to worry about since the European Commission and related pan-European bureaucracies currently don’t spend much money, at least when measured as a share of overall economic output.

Which is why I sometimes warn my European friends that the United States is an example of why they should be vigilant.

For much of American history, the central government in Washington was very small, as envisioned by the Founders. But beginning with the so-called Progressive Era and then dramatically accelerating under the failed policies of Hoover and Roosevelt, the federal government has expanded dramatically in both size and scope.

The lesson to be learned is that more centralization is a very bad idea, particularly if that centralized form of government gains fiscal power.

That’s especially true for Europe since the burden of government spending at the national level already is excessive. Eurobonds would exacerbate the damage by creating a new European-wide method of spending money.

P.S. While eurobonds are a very bad idea, it would be even worse (akin to the U.S. approving the 16th Amendment) if the European Union somehow got the authority to directly impose taxes.

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I’m not an optimist about Europe’s economic future.

Most nations have excessive welfare states and punitive taxes, which is hardly good news. You then have to consider demographic trends such as aging populations (i.e., more people relying on government) and falling birthrates (i.e., fewer future taxpayers).

That’s a very grim combination.

Indeed, this is a big reason why I favored Brexit. Yes, it was largely about escaping an increasingly dirigiste European bureaucracy in Brussels, but it was also about not being chained to a continent with a dismal long-run outlook.

More than one year ago, before there were any concerns about a coronavirus-instigated economic crisis, Vijay Victor, an economist from Szent Istvan University in Hungary, expressed concern about Europe’s fiscal future in a column for the Foundation for Economic Education.

The debt crisis in the Eurozone is getting no better, even in the wake of the new year. The five countries in the Eurozone with the highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the third quarter of 2018 were Greece, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, and Spain. The total debt of Greece is around 182.2 percent of its GDP and that of Italy is 133 percent… Dawdling economic growth coupled with low-yield investment options are dragging these indebted economies toward insolvency… Unemployment rates, for example, are still very high in most of these highly indebted European economies. Despite the recurrent monetary assistance and policy support, job creation is weak, which might imply that the debt financing is channelized in a nonproductive direction.

By the way, I can’t resist taking this opportunity to remind people that debt is a problem, but it also should be viewed as a symptom of en even-bigger problem, which is an excessive burden of government spending.

A bloated welfare state is a drag on economic performance, whether it’s financed by borrowing or taxes.

Though nations that try to finance big government with red ink eventually spend their way into crisis (as defined by potential default).

And we may be reaching that point.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise has authored a very grim assessment, focusing primarily on Italy, for the National Interest.

Today, with Italy at the epicenter of the world coronavirus epidemic, it would seem to be only a matter of time before the durability of the Euro is again tested by another full-blown Italian sovereign debt crisis. …even before the coronavirus epidemic struck its economy was weak while its public finances and banking system were in a state of poor health. After having experienced virtually no economic growth over the past decade, the Italian economy again entered into a recession by end-2019. At the same time, at 135 percent its public debt to GDP ratio was higher than it was in 2012 while its banks’ balance sheets remained clogged with non-performing loans and Italian government bonds. …the coronavirus epidemic will seriously damage both Italy’s public finances and its banking system…by throwing the country into its deepest economic recession in the post-war period. That in turn is bound to cause Italy’s budget deficit to balloon and its banking system’s non-performing loans to skyrocket as more of its households and companies file for bankruptcy. …all too likely that the Italian economy will shrink by at least 10 percent in 2020.

All this matters because the people and institutions that purchase government debt may decide that Italy’s outlook is so grim that they will be very reluctant to buy the country’s bonds (i.e., they’ll be very hesitant about lending money to the Italian government because of a concern that they won’t get paid back).

This means that the Italian government will have to pay much higher interest rates in order to compensate lenders for the risk of a potential default.

So what are the implications? Will Italy default, or will there be some sort of bailout?

If the latter, Lachman predicts it will be huge.

One way to gauge the amount of public money that might be needed to prop up Italy is to consider that over the past decade it took around US$300 billion in official support to keep Greece in the Euro. Given that the Italian economy is around ten times the size of that of Greece, this would suggest that Italy might very well need around $3 trillion in official support to keep Italy in the Euro. …Meanwhile, Italy’s US$4 trillion banking system could very well need at least US$1 trillion in official support to counter the capital flight and the spike in non-performing loans that are all too likely to occur in the event of a deep Italian recession.

For what it’s worth, Lachman thinks a bailout would be desirable.

I disagree. Default is a better choice because it will discipline the Italian government (it would mean an overnight balanced budget requirement since nobody will lend money to the government) and also discipline foolish lenders who thought Italian politicians were a good bet.

Simply stated, we should minimize moral hazard.

I also think it’s worth noting that Italy isn’t the only government at risk of fiscal crisis. Here’s the OECD data for major nations, including a few non-European examples.

Japan wins the prize for the most red ink, though this doesn’t mean Japan is most vulnerable to a default, at least in the short run.

A fiscal crisis is driven by investor sentiment (i.e., when will people and institutions decide they no longer trust a government to pay back loans). And that depends on a range of factors, including trust.

The bottom line is that investors trust the Japanese government and they don’t trust the Italian government.

That being said, I think all of the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain) are very vulnerable.

And politicians in Ireland, Belgium, and France should be nervous as well.

I’ll close by sharing some calculations, based on the aforementioned OECD data, showing which nations used last decade’s economic recovery to improve their balance sheets.

Congratulations to Germany and Switzerland for fiscal responsibility, and mild applause for the Netherlands and Sweden.

I’ve highlighted (in red) the nations that were most reckless.

Though keep in mind that you want to look at both the trend for debt (far-right column) and the existing level of debt (the next-to-far-right column). So I’m not overly worried about Australia. Debt is still comparatively low, even though it almost doubled last decade.

But all of the PIGS are in trouble.

So if economic conditions deteriorate in Europe, the fallout could be significant.

P.S. The United Kingdom, like Japan, benefits from a high level of trust – presumably in part because the country paid off enormous debts from the Napoleonic wars and World War II. That being said, the numbers for the U.K. are worrisome, which hopefully will lead to a renewed commitment to spending restraint by Boris Johnson’s government.

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I wrote recently how government regulation and bureaucratic inefficiency are hindering an effective response to coronavirus in the United States.

And I also wrote yesterday about one foolish response from Washington to the crisis.

But what about developments in other nations? Are there lessons to be learned?

Henry Olsen, writing in the Washington Post, contemplates how Italy is very vulnerable because of stagnation, dependency, and debt.

Italy…has essentially shuttered its economy to fight its enormous health crisis. …Effectively, millions of Italians are out of work. These actions would shock any economy. But Italy’s economy is already weak, and has been for decades. Its gross domestic product has barely grown over the past 20 years. Its unemployment rate, at 9.8 percent, is one of the highest in Europe. Worse still, Italy is one of the most heavily indebted nations in the world. Government debt stood at 138 percent of GDP before this crisis hit… Italy’s economic crisis will ultimately put serious pressure on the euro. …If Italy’s economic hit weakens its banks sufficiently, the European Central Bank could be forced to step in with a large bailout. …Italians would likely face years of depression and stagnation… Italy’s economic lockdown is sending clear warning signs that a fiscal meltdown is coming.

Henry also speculates in the column that Italy’s current left-populist government will be replaced by a right-populist government. Furthermore, he thinks this could lead to the country abandoning the euro (the currency shared by many European nations) and going back to a national currency.

For what it’s worth, that would be a mistake.

A major problem in Italy is that populist politicians want people to believe the fairy tale that it’s possible to consume more than you produce.

That currently happens in Italy when politicians borrow money and spend it.

If the country gets rid of the euro and goes back to the lira, politicians will also be able to print money and spend it.

In other words, Italy’s populist politicians would have another way of undermining prosperity.

(I’m not a big fan of the European Central Bank’s easy-money policies, but it’s always possible to go from bad to worse.)

Meanwhile, Joseph Sternberg of the Wall Street Journal opines about lessons that can be learned from Europe about government-run healthcare.

Scientists around the world have worked overtime to get a handle on Covid-19, yet one great unknown remains. We still don’t know for sure whether this is only a medical crisis, or also a medical system crisis. …Doctors in Italy know what to do to treat severe cases, such as using ventilators in intensive-care units. But hospitals lack the beds and equipment for the influx of patients and Italy doesn’t have enough doctors even to make the attempt. Ill patients languish in hospital corridors for want of beds, recovering patients are rushed out the door as quickly as possible, and exhausted (and sometimes sick) doctors and nurses can’t even muster the energy to throw up their hands in despair. …U.K. policy makers understand what such analyses portend—because underinvestment in Britain’s creaking health-care system is even worse. …As a result, British authorities…are desperate to hold off on a mass outbreak until the socialized National Health Service has recovered from its chronic winter crisis. …the NHS…already falls to pieces every year with the normal ebb and flow of cold-weather ailments. Each winter crisis becomes a bit more acute, and this year was no exception. As of December, only 80% of emergency-room patients were treated within four hours of arrival, down from 84% in the depths of the previous two winters.

Interestingly, not all European nations are created equal.

…the U.K. and Italy are significantly more dependent on direct government financing of health-care than is France or Germany. Government accounted for 79% of total health-care spending in the U.K. in 2017, according to Eurostat, and 74% in Italy. Germany and France both rely on compulsory insurance schemes with varying degrees of subsidy and government meddling, but outright government expenditure amounts to only 6% of total health spending in Germany and 5% in France. …politicians already have made decisions that may seal a country’s coronavirus fate…the important choices may have already come in the guise of technocratic health spending and investment decisions made largely out of public view over many years. How lucky do Europeans feel?

The moral of the story is that coronavirus vulnerability may be worse in nations where government has the most control over healthcare.

Since the disease is a “black swan” (i.e., an unexpected big event), we should be cautious about drawing too many policy conclusions. After all, any nation with a severe coronavirus outbreak is going to face major problems.

That being said, it may be worth noting that Germany and France have an approach that’s more akin to Obamacare while the system in Italy and the United Kingdom is more akin to Medicare for All.

Either policy is greatly inferior to the free market, but it does raise the question of whether it’s a good idea to jump from a frying pan into a fire.

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There are many boring topics in tax policy, such as the debate between expensing and depreciation for business investment.

International tax rules also put most people to sleep, but they’re nonetheless important.

Indeed, the United States government is currently squabbling with several European governments about the appropriate tax policy for U.S.-based tech companies.

A report from the New York Times last July describes the controversy.

France is seeking a 3 percent tax on the revenues that companies earn from providing digital services to French users. It would apply to digital businesses with annual global revenue of more than 750 million euros, or about $845 million, and sales of €25 million in France. That would cover more than two dozen companies, many of them American, including Facebook, Google and Amazon. …Mr. Lighthizer said the United States was “very concerned that the digital services tax which is expected to pass the French Senate tomorrow unfairly targets American companies.” …France’s digital tax adds to the list of actions that European authorities have taken against the tech industry… And more regulation looms. Amazon and Facebook are facing antitrust inquiries from the European Commission. …Britain provided further details about its own proposal to tax tech companies. Starting in 2020, it plans to impose a 2 percent tax on revenue from companies that provide a social media platform, search engine or online marketplace to British users.

For the latest developments, here are excerpts from an article in yesterday’s New York Times.

A growing movement by foreign governments to tax American tech giants that supply internet search, online shopping and social media to their citizens has quickly emerged as the largest global economic battle of 2020. …At the core of the debate are fundamental questions about where economic activity in the digital age is generated, where it should be taxed and who should collect that revenue. …The discussions, which are expected to last months, could end with an agreement on a global minimum tax that all multinational companies must pay on their profits, regardless of where the profits are booked. The negotiations could also set a worldwide standard for how much tax companies must remit to certain countries based on their digital activity. …Mr. Mnuchin expressed frustration on Thursday in Davos that a digital sales tax had become such a focus of discussion at the World Economic Forum. …American tech firms are eager for a deal that would prevent multiple countries from imposing a wide variety of taxes on their activities.

Daniel Bunn of the Tax Foundation has an informative summary of the current debate.

In March of 2018, the European Commission advanced a proposal to tax the revenues of large digital companies at a rate of 3 percent. …The tax would apply to revenues from digital advertising, online marketplaces, and sales of user data and was expected to generate €5 billion ($5.5 billion) in revenues for EU member countries. The tax is inherently distortive and violates standard principles of tax policy. Effectively, the digital services tax is an excise tax on digital services. Additionally, the thresholds make it function effectively like a tariff since most of the businesses subject to the tax are based outside of the EU. …the European Commission was unable to find the necessary unanimous support for the proposal to be adopted. The proposal was laid aside… the French decided to design their own policy. The tax was adopted in the summer of 2019 but is retroactive to January 1, 2019. Similar to the EU proposal, the tax has a rate of 3 percent and applies to online marketplaces and online advertising services. …The United Kingdom proposed a digital services tax at 2 percent as part of its budget in the fall of 2018. The tax has already been legislated and will go into force in April of 2020. …The tax will fall on revenues of search engines, social media platforms, and online marketplaces. …The OECD has been working for most of the last decade to negotiate changes that will limit tax planning opportunities that businesses use to minimize their tax burdens. …The reforms have two general objectives (Pillars 1 and 2): 1) to require businesses to pay more taxes where they have sales, and 2) to further limit the incentives for businesses to locate profits in low-tax jurisdictions. …This week in Davos, the U.S. and France…agreed to continue work on both Pillar 1 and Pillar 2… The burden of proof is on the OECD to show that the price the U.S. and other countries may have to pay in lost revenue or higher taxes on their companies (paid to other countries) will be worth the challenge of adopting and implementing the new rules.

At the risk of over-simplifying, European politicians want the tech companies to pay tax on their revenues rather than their profits (such a digital excise tax would be sort of akin to the gross receipts taxes imposed by some American states).

And they want to use a global formula (if a country has X percent of the world’s Internet users, they would impose the tax on X percent of a company’s worldwide revenue).

Though all you really need to understand is that European politicians view American tech companies as a potential source of loot (the thresholds are designed so European companies would largely be exempt).

For background, let’s review a 2017 article from Agence France-Presse.

…are US tech giants the new robber barons of the 21st century, banking billions in profit while short-changing the public by paying only a pittance in tax? …French President Emmanuel Macron…has slammed the likes of Google, Facebook and Apple as the “freeloaders of the modern world”. …According to EU law, to operate across Europe, multinationals have almost total liberty to choose a home country of their choosing. Not surprisingly, they choose small, low tax nations such as Ireland, the Netherlands or Luxembourg. …Facebook tracks likes, comments and page views and sells the data to companies who then target consumers. But unlike the economy of old, Facebook sells its data to French companies not from France but from a great, nation-less elsewhere… It is in states like Ireland, whose official tax rate of 12.5 percent is the lowest in Europe, that the giants have parked their EU headquarters and book profits from revenues made across the bloc. …France has proposed an unusual idea that has so far divided Europe: tax the US tech giants on sales generated in each European country, rather than on the profits that are cycled through low-tax countries. …the commission wants to dust off an old project…the Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base or CCCTB — an ambitious bid to consolidate a company’s tax base across the EU. …tax would be distributed in all the countries where the company operates, and not according to the level of booked profit in each of these states, but according to the level of activity.

This below chart from the article must cause nightmares for Europe’s politicians.

As you can see, both Google and Facebook sell the bulk of their services from their Irish subsidiaries.

When I look at this data, it tells me that other European nations should lower their corporate tax rates so they can compete with Ireland.

When European politicians look at this data, it tells them that they should come up with new ways of extracting money from the companies.

P.S. The American tech companies are so worried about digital excise taxes that they’re open to the idea of a global agreement to revamp how their profits are taxed. I suspect that strategy will backfire in the long run (see, for instance, how the OECD has used the BEPS project as an excuse to impose higher tax burdens on multinational companies).

P.P.S. As a general rule, governments should be free to impose very bad tax policy on economic activity inside their borders (just as places such as Monaco and the Cayman Islands should be free to impose very good tax policy on what happens inside their borders). That being said, it’s also true that nations like France are designing their digital taxes American companies are the sole targets. An indirect form of protectionism.

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The Department of Agriculture should be abolished. Yesterday, if possible.

It’s basically a welfare scam for politically connected farmers and it undermines the efficiency of America’s agriculture sector.

Some of the specific handouts – such as those for milk, corn, sugar, and even cranberries – are unbelievably wasteful.

But the European Union’s system of subsidies may be even worse. As reported by the New York Times, it is a toxic brew of waste, fraud, sleaze, and corruption.

…children toil for new overlords, a group of oligarchs and political patrons…a feudal system…financed and emboldened by the European Union. Every year, the 28-country bloc pays out $65 billion in farm subsidies… But across…much of Central and Eastern Europe, the bulk goes to a connected and powerful few. The prime minister of the Czech Republic collected tens of millions of dollars in subsidies just last year. Subsidies have underwritten Mafia-style land grabs in Slovakia and Bulgaria. …a subsidy system that is deliberately opaque, grossly undermines the European Union’s environmental goals and is warped by corruption and self-dealing. …The program is the biggest item in the European Union’s central budget, accounting for 40 percent of expenditures. It’s one of the largest subsidy programs in the world. …The European Union spends three times as much as the United States on farm subsidies each year, but as the system has expanded, accountability has not kept up. …Even as the European Union champions the subsidy program as an essential safety net for hardworking farmers, studies have repeatedly shown that 80 percent of the money goes to the biggest 20 percent of recipients. …It is a type of modern feudalism, where small farmers live in the shadows of huge, politically powerful interests — and European Union subsidies help finance it.

Is anyone surprised that big government leads to big corruption?

By the way, the article focused on the sleaze in Eastern Europe.

The problem, however, is not regional. Here’s a nice visual showing how there’s also plenty of graft lining pockets in Western Europe.

P.S. I imagine British politicians will concoct their own system of foolish subsidies, but the CAP handouts are another reason why voters were smart to vote for Brexit.

P.P.S. The CAP subsidies are one of many reasons why the European Union has been a net negative for national economies.

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My primary job is dealing with misguided public policy in the United States.

I spend much of my time either trying to undo bad policies with good reform (flat tax, spending restraint, regulatory easing, trade liberalization) or fighting off additional bad interventions (Green New Deal, protectionism, Medicare for All, class warfare taxes).

Seems like there is a lot to criticize, right?

Yes, but sometimes the key to success is being “less worse” than your competitors. So while I’m critical of many bad policies in the United States, it’s worth noting that America nonetheless ranks #6 for overall economic liberty according to the Fraser Institute.

As such, it’s not surprising that America has higher living standards than most other developed nations according to the “actual individual consumption” data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

And America’s advantage isn’t trivial. We’re more than 46 percent higher than the average for OECD member nations.

The gap is so large that I’ve wondered how lower-income people in the United States would rank compared to average people in other countries.

Well, the folks at Just Facts have investigated precisely this issue using World Bank data and found some remarkable results.

…after accounting for all income, charity, and non-cash welfare benefits like subsidized housing and Food Stamps—the poorest 20% of Americans consume more goods and services than the national averages for all people in most affluent countries. …In other words, if the U.S. “poor” were a nation, it would be one of the world’s richest. …The World Bank publishes a comprehensive dataset on consumption that isn’t dependent on the accuracy of household surveys and includes all goods and services, but it only provides the average consumption per person in each nation—not the poorest people in each nation. However, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis published a study that provides exactly that for 2010. Combined with World Bank data for the same year, these datasets show that the poorest 20% of U.S. households have higher average consumption per person than the averages for all people in most nations of the OECD and Europe… The high consumption of America’s “poor” doesn’t mean they live better than average people in the nations they outpace, like Spain, Denmark, Japan, Greece, and New Zealand. …Nonetheless, the fact remains that the privilege of living in the U.S. affords poor people with more material resources than the averages for most of the world’s richest nations.

There are some challenges in putting together this type of comparison, so the folks at Just Facts are very clear in showing their methodology.

They’ve certainly come up with results that make sense, particularly when compared their results with the OECD AIC numbers.

Here’s one of the charts from the report.

You can see that the bottom 20 percent of Americans do quite well compared to the average persons in other developed nations.

By the way, the report from Just Facts also criticizes the New York Times for dishonest analysis of poverty. Since I’ve felt compelled to do the same thing, I can definitely sympathize.

The bottom line is that free markets and limited government are the best way to help lower-income people enjoy more prosperity.

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I’ve written over and over again about how European-sized welfare states require big tax burdens on poor and middle-income taxpayers.

Simply stated, there aren’t enough rich people to finance big government. Especially since they generally have the ability to avoid confiscatory tax burdens.

As a general rule, this means ordinary European taxpayers are suffocated with high payroll tax burdens, onerous value-added taxes on consumption, and income taxes that impose high rates on modest incomes.

But let’s also not forget that politicians in Europe also pillage motorists.

The Tax Foundation recently released a survey showing gas taxes in various European nations.

…the European Union requires EU countries to levy a minimum excise duty of €0.36 per liter (US $1.61 per gallon) on gas. …The Netherlands has the highest gas tax in the European Union, at €0.79 per liter ($3.53 per gallon). …All EU countries also levy a value-added tax (VAT) on gas and diesel.

Wow, this is like the perfect storm of bad European policy, with tax harmonization (minimum-tax requirement) and a version of double taxation (motorist pay both VAT and gas tax when they fill up).

No wonder French motorists launched a yellow vest protest after Macron proposed another tax hike.

Here’s the map, which should have shown the prices in dollars. Just keep in mind that the average European pays almost $2.50 in tax on every gallon of gas.

I’ll close by noting that Europeans don’t get better roads for all that money.

For all the sturm and drang about supposed problems with infrastructure in the United States, it’s worth noting that our gas taxes are much lower and we consistently get above-average scores in various infrastructure rankings.

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I’ve argued for many years that a Clean Brexit is the right step for the United Kingdom for the simple reason that the European Union is a slowly sinking ship.

Part of the problem is demographics. Europe’s welfare states are already very expensive and the relative costs will increase dramatically in coming years because of rising longevity and falling birthrates. So I expect more Greek-style fiscal crises.

The other part of the problem is attitudinal. I’m not talking about European-wide attitudes (though that also is something to worry about, given the erosion of societal capital), but rather the views of the European elites.

The notion of “ever closer union” is not just empty rhetoric in European treaties. It’s the ideological preference of senior European leaders, including in many nations and definitely in Brussels (home of the European Commission and the European Parliament).

In practical terms, this means a relentless effort for more centralization.

All policies that will accelerate Europe’s decline.

What’s happening with the taxation of air travel is a good example. Here are some excerpts from a story in U.S. News & World Report.

The Netherlands and France are trying to convince fellow European nations at a conference in The Hague to end tax exemptions on jet fuel and plane tickets… In the first major initiative on air travel tax in years, the conference on Thursday and Friday – which will be attended by about 29 countries – will discuss ticket taxes, kerosene levies and value-added tax (VAT) on air travel. …The conference will be attended by European Union economics commissioner Pierre Moscovici and finance and environment ministers. …The conference organizers hope that higher taxes will lead to changes in consumer behavior, with fewer people flying

The politicians, bureaucrats, and environmental activists are unhappy that European consumers are enjoying lightly taxed travel inside Europe.

Oh, the horror!

A combination of low aviation taxes, a proliferation of budget airlines and the rise of Airbnb have led to a boom in intra-European city-trips. …Research has shown that if the price of air travel goes up by one percent, demand will likely fall by about one percent, according to IMF tax policy division head Ruud De Mooij. He said that in a typical tank of gas for a car, over half the cost is tax…”Airline travel is nearly entirely exempt from all tax… Ending its undertaxation would level the playing field versus other modes of transport,” he said. …Environmental NGOs such as Transport and Environment (T&E) have long criticized the EU for being a “kerosene tax haven”.”Europe is a sorry story. Even the U.S., Australia and Brazil, where climate change deniers are in charge, all tax aviation more than Europe does,” T&E’s Bill Hemmings said. …The EU report shows that just six out of 28 EU member states levy ticket taxes on international flights, with Britain’s rates by far the highest at about 14 euros for short-haul economy flights and up to 499 euros for long-haul business class. …Friends of the Earth says there are no easy answers and that the only way to reduce airline CO2 emissions is by constraining aviation trough taxation, frequent flyer levies and limiting the number of flights at airports.

The only semi-compelling argument in the story is that air travel is taxed at preferential rates compared to other modes of transportation.

Assuming that’s true, it would be morally and economically appropriate to remove that distortion.

But not as part of a money-grab by European politicians who want more money and more centralization.

As you can see from this chart, the tax burden in eurozone nations is almost 50 percent higher than it is in the United States (46.2 percent of GDP compared to 32.7 percent of GDP according to OECD data for 2018).

And it’s lower-income and middle-class taxpayers who are paying the difference.

So here’s a fair trade. European nations (not Brussels) can impose additional taxes on air travel if they are willing to lower other taxes by a greater amount. Maybe €3 of tax cuts for every €1 of additional taxes on air travel?

Needless to say, nobody in Brussels – or in national capitals – is contemplating such a swap. The discussion is entirely focused on extracting more tax revenue.

P.S. There’s some compelling academic evidence that the European Union has undermined the continent’s economic performance. Which is sad since the EU started as a noble idea of a free trade area and instead has become a vehicle for statism.

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I don’t think either Senator Bernie Sanders or Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez actually understand that socialism is an economic system based on government ownership of the means of production, augmented by central planning, and price controls.

For what it’s worth, I think Crazy Bernie and AOC are just knee-jerk statists. They reflexively support more taxes, more spending, more regulation, and more intervention.

But since they both describe themselves as socialists, maybe it would be a good idea if they examined how the system works in the real world.

And I won’t even use a hellhole like Venezuela as an example.

Instead, let’s look at some recent research from the International Monetary Fund.

The bureaucrats looked at the legacy of socialism in Eastern Europe, specifically the extent to which governments still own and run businesses. Here are some of their findings.

…the former socialist countries of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe (CESEE) have made tremendous progress in becoming full-fledged market economies and raising income levels. …Although the state’s role in the economy has diminished dramatically in the region, state ownership still remains significant in many countries and sectors. …there is now growing interest in whether an enhanced role for state-owned enterprises and banks (SOEs and SOBs) could be an important source of growth, or whether they would just impose a further drag on the economy. …in a new study, prepared in collaboration with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the IMF examines the current footprint of state-owned enterprises and state-owned banks in the region, how they are performing… State companies now account for between 2 percent and 15 percent of total employment in the CESEE countries… They are especially prevalent in sectors such as mining, energy, and transport.

Here’s a look at the extent of government ownership in various nations of Eastern Europe.

Darker blue means more legacy socialism.

Kudos to the Baltic nations and Romania for largely getting the government out of the business of running businesses.

But other countries are laggards. And what can we say about the economic impact of their government-run companies?

The results are not good.

Our analysis finds that state-owned enterprises systematically underperform relative to private sector counterparts in nearly all countries. They tend to hoard labor, pay more generously, and generate less revenue per employee than private sector peers. Unsurprisingly, they turn out to be less productive and less profitable. Potentially large output gains would be achieved if productivity of state-owned enterprises could be raised to private sector levels. A similar picture emerges for state-owned banks, which in most countries make less-sound lending decisions than private counterparts and have lower profitability, often associated with higher shares of problem loans. …the analysis finds little evidence that the inefficiencies arising from state ownership can be justified by noneconomic objectives. The study does, however, point to significant shortcomings in governance and oversight of state companies.

Here’s a chart showing that government-run firms earn lower profits.

Because politicians are a de facto part of management, it’s no surprise that there’s also above-market pay at government-run firms.

And here are some specific numbers for the banking sector.

Once again, thanks to a combination of political interference and lack of a profit motive, we see inferior results.

So what does the IMF suggest?

Unlike fiscal policy, where the IMF has a very poor track record, the bureaucracy has the right instincts on private ownership vs government ownership.

…countries should take a fresh look at the rationale for existing state ownership, taking into account the costs, benefits, and risks of state ownership… Privatization (or bankruptcy) will sometimes be appropriate choices… At a time when growth-enhancing policies can be hard to identify, improving the performance of existing state-owned entities, or exiting in favor of the private sector where appropriate, could provide much-needed support for the economy.

I’ll close by elaborating on why government-run companies undermine prosperity.

Simply stated, it means that politicians are misallocating labor and capital in ways that reduce overall economic output.

Yes, a few insiders benefit (such as the workers who get above-market wages and the managers appointed by the government to run the firms), but the vast majority of citizens are net losers.

So why do governments in Eastern Europe maintain such self-destructive policies?

For the same “public choice” reason that we maintain policies – such as agriculture subsidies the Export-Import Bank, and occupational licensing – that reward narrow interest groups in the United States.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that map doesn’t provide a complete answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congratulations to Hungary, Israel, and Sweden.

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

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

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Thanks to the glorious miracle of capitalism, I’m writing this column 36,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.

I’m on my way back from Europe, where I ground through about a dozen presentations as part of a swing through 10 countries.

Most of my speeches were about the future of Europe, which was the theme of the Austrian Economic Center’s 2019 Free Market Road Show.

So it was bad timing that I didn’t have a chance until now to comb through a new study from three scholars about the economic impact of the European Union. As they point out at the start of their research, EU officials clearly want people to believe European-wide governance is a recipe for stronger growth.

The great European postwar statesmen, including the EU founding fathers, clearly…envisaged the establishment of a common political and economic entity as a guarantor of…domestic economic progress. …Article 2 of the foundational Treaty of Rome explicitly talked about “raising the standard of living.” … in practice EU today mainly emphasizes growth, as is evident from its most ambitious recent policy agendas. In 2000, a stated aim of the Lisbon Agenda was to make the European economy the “most competitive and knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion.” And all seven of the Flagship Initiatives adopted as part of the Europe 2020 Strategy were about growth—smart, sustainable, and inclusive.

Here’s a bit of background on their methodology.

…the focus of the present paper will be on prosperity as the key outcome that the EU will be measured up against… Our approach in the present paper is to use different empirical strategies (difference-in-differences type setups and standard growth regressions); slice the length of the panel in various ways (e.g., dropping post crisis observations); look at different samples of countries (e.g., a global sample, the sample of original OECD countries, the sample of formerly planned economies, and the sample of EU member countries); pay attention to spatial dependencies; and, finally, require manipulability of the treatment variable.

And what did they find?

It seems that the European Union has not triggered or enabled better economic performance.

The conclusion that emerges upon looking systematically at the data is that EU membership has no impact on economic growth. …We start by simply looking at the comparative performance of the EU and the United States, which is the comparison that Niall Ferguson makes. The IMF’s World Economic Outlook Database provides real GDP growth rates going back to 1980 for the EU and the US. These are plotted in Figure 1. The EU only managed to outperform the US economy in terms of real GDP growth in ten out of the 35 years between 1980 and 2015. …With these growth rates, the US economy would double its size every 27 years, whereas the corresponding number for the EU is 36 years. This hardly amounts to stellar performance on part of the EU.

What makes this data so remarkable is that convergence theory tells us that poorer nations should grow faster than richer nations.

So EU countries should be catching up to America.

Yet the opposite is happening. Here’s the relevant chart on US vs. EU performance.

The scholars conducted various statistical tests.

Many of those test actually showed that EU membership is associated with weaker performance.

…we basically measure pre- and post-entry growth for the EU countries up against the growth trajectories of all other countries. …EU membership is associated with lower economic growth in all columns. …where we use the maximum length WDI sample (i.e., 1961-2015), EU entry is associated with a statistically significant growth reduction of roughly 1.8 percentage points per year. When we remove the period associated with the sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone (i.e., 2010-15), the reduction remains significant but is lower (1.27 percentage points per year). Finally, when we remove the global financial crisis of 2008-09, the reduction (which is now statistically insignificant) is 0.5 percentage points per year. Using GDP per worker growth from PWT gives roughly similar results… Consequently, in a difference-in-differences type setting EU entry seems to have reduced economic growth.

Moreover, a bigger EU (i.e., more member nations) is associated with slower average growth.

Last but not least, the authors compared former Soviet Bloc nations to see if linking up with the EU led to improvements in economic performance.

…we ask whether growth picked up in the new Eastern European EU countries after accession vis-à-vis growth in 18 formerly planned non-EU countries. …Of the 11 accession countries, not a single one had higher average annual real GDP per capita growth in the period after the EU accession as compared to the period before.

Ouch.

These are not flattering results.

Here’s a look at the relevant chart.

These findings leave me with a feeling of guilt. For almost twenty years, I’ve been telling audiences in Eastern Europe that they probably should join the EU.

Yes, I realized that meant a lot of pointless red tape from Brussels, but I always assumed that those costs would be acceptable because the EU would give them expanded trade and help improve the rule of law.

I’ll have to do some thinking about this issue before my next trip.

P.S. In case you’re wondering why I’ve been telling Eastern European nations to join the EU while telling the United Kingdom to go for a Clean Brexit, my analysis (at least up til now) has been that market-oriented nations are held back by being in EU while poorer and more statist economies are improved by EU membership.

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I’ve been waiting anxiously to write about Brexit, either to celebrate a “Clean Brexit” or to castigate Theresa May and the other politicians for a “Brexit in Name Only.”

Except Members of Parliament can’t make up their collective mind. They’ve been voting against good options and also voting against bad options.

So while we’re waiting for some sort of resolution, I’m going to augment our 2016 collection of Brexit-themed humor with some new items. We’ll start with this nice meme about the Queen deciding it’s time for a royal coup de grâce.

Next we have a new word for everyone’s dictionary.

One of the options being discussed in London is having another vote, which would be very consistent with the European tradition of requiring people to vote over and over again until they give the result desired by the elites.

At which point, as shown below, there are no more votes.

 

And I’ve saved the best for last, A satirist put together a clever song about the message British voters sent to the elite back in 2016 (warning: PG-13).

I especially like the references to the establishment’s hysterical doom-and-gloom predictions about what would happen (“Project Fear”) if voters opted for independence.

P.S. The supposed Conservative government in the United Kingdom is doing a terrible job of delivering Brexit, even though they should be embracing independence so they can reduce the burden of government.

P.P.S. Here’s my 2016 pre-vote column on the economic case for Brexit, and here’s my post-vote column on the hoped-for implications of the upset victory.

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My views on Brexit haven’t changed since I wrote “The Economic Case for Brexit” back in 2016.

It’s a simple issue of what route is most likely to produce prosperity for the people of the United Kingdom. And that means escaping the dirigiste grasp of the European Union.

The European Union’s governmental manifestations (most notably, an über-powerful bureaucracy called the European Commission, a largely powerless but nonetheless expensive European Parliament, and a sovereignty-eroding European Court of Justice) are – on net – a force for statism rather than liberalization. Combined with Europe’s grim demographic outlook, a decision to remain would guarantee a slow, gradual decline….Leaving the EU would be like refinancing a mortgage when interest rates decline. In the first year or two, it might be more expensive because of one-time expenses. In the long run, though, it’s a wise decision.

But if I was rewriting that column today, I would change the title to “The Economic Case for Hard Brexit.”

That’s because Prime Minister Theresa May and other opponents are pushing for a watered-down version of Brexit. Sort of Brexit in Name Only.

Indeed, Dan Hannan, a member of the European Parliament, explains in the Washington Examiner that the deal negotiated by Theresa May is the worst possible outcome.

This is the sort of deal that a country signs when it has lost a war. Under its terms, Britain will remain subject to all the costs and obligations of EU membership, but will give up its vote, its voice and its veto. …EU exporters will enjoy privileged access to the world’s fifth-largest economy. They won’t need to worry about world competition. …In the two-and-a-half years since the referendum, civil servants, politicians, financiers and politically-connected business cartels have worked assiduously to overturn to result. …Some, including George Soros and Tony Blair, sought to overturn the result outright with a new referendum. Others, more craftily, sought instead to ensure that, while something technically called Brexit may happen, nothing actually changes. Sadly, they have achieved something far worse than no change. Their deal — Theresa May’s deal — will leave Britain in a more disadvantageous place than either leaving cleanly or staying put. It keeps the burdens of EU membership but junks the advantages.

Brian Wesbury and Bob Stein, both with First Trust Advisors, point out that Hard Brexit is the best option. Trade would continue, but based on WTO rules instead of the EU’s free trade agreement.

Some analysts and investors are concerned about a “Hard Brexit,” in which the U.K. supposedly plunges into chaos as it crashes out of the EU without an agreement. …Count us skeptical. …Any harm to the U.K.’s economy would be relatively mild… It’s not like there would be no trade between the U.K. and the EU after a Hard Brexit. Trade rules would simply shift to the ones that apply between the EU and other countries under the World Trade Organization, like those that apply to EU-U.S. trade.

While WTO rules are quite good, they’re not as good as complete free trade.

But there would be pressure to move in that direction under a Hard Brexit.

…the EU would be under enormous pressure to lower tariffs and cut a new deal with the U.K. In 2017, the rest of the European Union ran a roughly $90 billion trade surplus with the U.K. So if a Hard Brexit makes it tougher for the rest of the EU to export to the U.K., every national capital in the EU would be flooded with lobbyists asking to cut a deal. Meanwhile, leaving the EU means the U.K. would have the freedom to make free trade deals with the U.S. and Canada, and any other country it wanted, without having to wait for the EU. Yes, a Hard Brexit risks some financial jobs, but the same argument was used when the U.K. decided not to join the Euro currency bloc, after which London kept its role as Europe’s financial center.

For what it’s worth, I’m more interested in whether we can get a really good trade deal between the US and UK following a Hard Brexit.

Regardless, any possible slippage on trade between the UK and EU would be more than offset by the likelihood of better policy in other areas.

…there’s another basic reason why a Hard Brexit would be in the long-term interests of the U.K….any organization powerful enough to overrule the democratic process in the U.K. regarding economic laws and regulations…is also powerful enough to impose anti-free market policies… And, over time, since men are not angels and power corrupts, any international body with such power would gravitate toward policies that aggrandize the international political elite… In fact, the EU has already issued rules that stifle competition, like setting a standard minimum Value-Added Tax rate.

Felix Hathaway from London’s Institute of Economic Affairs, debunks Project Fear in an article just published by Cayman Financial Review.

…the only option ahead with a clear path, and requiring no new legislation in parliament, is some form of ‘Hard Brexit.’ …By Hard Brexit I mean the U.K. leaving the EU on March 29 without a withdrawal agreement. Unlike most other options, this does not require the cooperation of the EU to proceed. In this scenario, the U.K. leaves both Single Market and Customs Union of the European Union at 11 p.m. on March 29, 2019, along with leaving the various political institutions of the EU and the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the EU. …many of the more alarming warnings of no cooperation at all can be dismissed as fanciful. A more believable ‘no deal’ Brexit might look as follows. …the Commission is doing all it can to publicly rule out this sort of “managed no deal,” yet in doing so has stated that it would unilaterally extend agreements in selected sectors, including for financial services, following a WTO exit. …one could reasonably expect further agreements, possibly at the 11th hour in March… These would likely cover citizens’ rights, road haulage, and facilitated customs checks for certain classes of goods, and would be negotiated with the member states with which the U.K. does the most business.

For what it’s worth, I think vindictive EU bureaucrats probably want to inflict some needless harm, even though it will hurt them as much – and maybe more – than it would hurt the UK.

But Felix is right that common sense – sooner or later – will lead to agreements to smooth over any bumps in the transition. Indeed, he just wrote another article demonstrating how this is already happening.

Here’s the most important part of his article, which I like because it echoes my arguments about the pressure for better policy in an independent United Kingdom.

Ultimately, the most significant factor will be domestic policy decisions by the U.K. government, particularly in areas of taxation and housing. This may be fairly unexciting news at the end of an article about Brexit, but if the U.K. is to succeed as a “free trading, buccaneering nation,” such success will depend in large part on the ability of companies to attract investment through low corporate taxes, and the ability of workers to move to where they will be most productive through further housebuilding in key areas. …perhaps as an unexpected consequence of the conversation surrounding Brexit,… A recent ComRes poll found that, although divided on almost every other aspect, a clear two thirds of voters agree that when Brexit is complete, “the U.K. should try to become the lowest tax, business-friendliest country in Europe, focused on building strong international trade links.”

And keep in mind that bureaucrats in Brussels are pushing to make the European Union more statist (which, sadly, is contrary to the continent’s historical tradition), so it’s becoming ever-more important to escape.

This is why what happens with Brexit is among my greatest hopes and fears for 2019.

Let’s close with a bit of humor.

The Cockburn column in the Spectator mocks the New York Times for its anti-Brexit fanaticism.

The Times usually supports democracy in backward and violent states, but it hates Brexit. No news is too fake for the Times to print when it comes to Brexit. This week, the Times hit new heights of fantasy. ‘Roads gridlocked with trucks. Empty supermarket shelves. An economy thrown into paralysis,’ a would-be novelist named Scott Reyburn wrote earlier this week. His story, ‘As Brexit Looms, the Art World Prepares for the Fallout’, was recycled as a front-page item on the Times’s international edition. …Britain is in a ‘crazed Brexit vortex’, adds Roger Cohen, holder of the Tom Friedman Chair in Applied Chin-Stroking. …Yes, the British government are useless. But nobody in London is stockpiling food. Nobody is fighting in the streets, as the French are every weekend. The markets factored in their Brexit uncertainty two years ago. The supermarkets and roads are as jammed as ever. …The economy is doing much better than the Eurozone, which is slipping into recession. Polls show the British, who the Times characterize as sliding down a neofascist vortex, to be more welcoming of immigration than any other European people.

Bad journalism from the New York Times is hardly a surprise.

I’m mostly sharing his column because this satirical paragraph got me laughing.

The scene that met Cockburn’s eyes upon exiting the terminal at Heathrow reminded him of his days as a foreign correspondent during the Lebanese civil war, or a night out in south London. A dog was eating the innards of a corpse, because supplies of Romanian dog food have broken down. A naked fat man had carved off a slice of his own buttock and was roasting it over a burning tyre, because imports of Bulgarian lamb are held up at Calais. A woman offered to prostitute herself for an avocado, and to sell both of her blank-eyed children for a packet of French butter. There were no black taxis either, because London’s notoriously pro-Brexit taxi drivers had all joined one nationalist militia or other. Finally, a black-market cheese dealer with a rocket launcher affixed to the back of his pickup agreed to take Cockburn into the city. They bribed their way through the checkpoints with wedges of brie. Or not.

Speaking of laughs, Hitler parody videos have become a thing.

Here’s a new Brexit-related installment in the series.

Not as clever as the first Hitler parody I shared as part of my collection of Brexit humor, but it has some funny moments.

And if you have time, this Brexit tapestry is quite amusing.

P.S. There are some anti-Brexit people who support free markets, which is rather baffling since I can’t imagine why they would want the U.K. to be part of a bureaucracy that tries to brainwash children in favor of higher taxes. Indeed I was only semi-joking when I wrote that Brussels was “the most statist place on the planet.”

P.P.S. Though there are many reasons to question whether U.K. politicians can be trusted to adopt good policy.

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There’s a very strong economic argument for Brexit which is partly based on an independent United Kingdom having more leeway to adopt pro-market policies.

This case for Brexit is also based – indeed, primarily based – on the fact that the European Union is a slowly sinking ship thanks to horrible demographics and economic weakness. I think the Brits made the right choice (assuming Prime Minister May doesn’t sabotage the process) in voting to get in a lifeboat.

By the way, the chronic stagnation in Europe is largely the fault of member nations.

For instance, I don’t blame the euro (the common currency used in 19 nations) or the European Commission (the easy-to-mock Brussels-based bureaucracy of the EU) for the bad policies adopted in nations such as France, Italy, and Greece.

That being said, the European Commission and its political supporters want the power to make things worse. Actually, they want two powers to make things worse.

  1. The first bad idea, generally supported by the French and Germans, is to give Brussels direct fiscal powers. This almost certainly would mean E.U.-wide taxes imposed by Brussels, presumably accompanied by expanded levels of intra-E.U. redistribution.
  2. The second bad idea, also supported by France and Germany, would be E.U.-wide rules to force national governments to adopt bad policy. This almost certainly would mean greater levels of tax harmonization, presumably accompanied by mandates to expand the welfare state.

I’ve written before about the first bad idea, so let’s focus today on the threat of Brussels-mandated tax harmonization.

The main obstacle to this bad idea is a “unanimity rule” that basically prevents further centralization of tax policy unless every member nation concurs.

This rule is what saved the E.U. from prior attempts to force member nations to adopt anti-growth policy.

…efforts to create a tax cartel have a long history, beginning even before Reagan and Thatcher lowered tax rates and triggered the modern era of tax competition. The European Commission originally wanted to require a minimum corporate tax rate of 45 percent. And as recently as 1992, there was an effort to require a minimum corporate tax rate of 30 percent.

But the bureaucrats in Brussels have not given up.

Politico reports on the latest effort to weaken fiscal sovereignty.

The European Commission…is set to unveil a communication…that will call on the bloc’s leaders to consider moving to qualified majority voting in EU taxation policy. That system would allow a tax initiative to become EU law as long as 16 out of the 28 countries agree on it. Any tax-related decision currently requires unanimity, leaving many tax proposals doomed to fail. The tax veto has undermined the bloc’s policy ambitions…the…veto…has left several tax files gathering dust on Brussels’ shelves, like the financial transactions tax, which the Commission first proposed in 2011. …The communication is set to suggest introducing qualified majority “step-by-step” for tax… The French commissioner discussed the plan over a lunch with EU ambassadors… “Ireland, Malta, Sweden and Cyprus were against it,” one diplomat that received a debrief on the meeting said. “The rest were cautious and few were for it.” France, Spain, Italy and Portugal were among the few that spoke in favor of the plan. …The Commission is determined to make its case. …The tax veto has…deprived national coffers of billions of euros, according to the draft communication… The digital and financial transaction taxes alone would have generated over €60 billion a year in revenue, the document says.

I do give the European Commission credit for honesty.

The bureaucrats are openly stating they want to get rid of the unanimity rule so that politicians in 16 member nations can force all 28 member nations to have high taxes.

You may be wondering, incidentally, why the European Commission, and the pro-tax governments like France want one-size-fits-all rules for the European Union? Why not have a let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom approach so that all 28 nations to make their own choices?

Once again, they are brutally honest. They unabashedly state that they want harmonized rules so they can eliminate tax competition (the left fears a “race to the bottom“).

Speaking of which, the bottom line is that Europe will decay and decline much faster if the European Commission is successful in its latest effort to kill the unanimity requirement. The last thing the E.U. needs is more taxes and higher spending.

P.S. There already are rules for harmonized VAT taxation in Europe, which predictably has enabled ever-higher tax rates.

P.P.S. The European Commission even tries to brainwash children into supporting higher taxes.

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Less than 10 years ago, many European nations suffered fiscal crises because of a combination of excessive spending, punitive taxes, and crippling debt.

The crises have since abated, largely because of direct and indirect bailouts. But the underlying policy mistakes haven’t been fixed.

Indeed, the burden of government spending has increased in Europe and debt levels today are much higher than they were when the previous crisis began.

Unsurprisingly, these large fiscal burdens have resulted in anemic economic performance, which helps to explain why middle-class French taxpayers launched nationwide protests in response to a big increase in fuel taxes.

The French President, Emmanuel Macron, capitulated.

But some have suggested that Macron’s problem is that he wasn’t sufficiently bold.

I’m not joking. Led by Thomas Piketty, a few dozen European leftists have issued a Manifesto for bigger government.

We, European citizens, from different backgrounds and countries, are today launching this appeal for the in-depth transformation of the European institutions and policies. This Manifesto contains concrete proposals, in particular a project for a Democratization Treaty and a Budget Project… Our proposals are based on the creation of a Budget for democratization which would be debated and voted by a sovereign European Assembly. …This Budget, if the European Assembly so desires, will be financed by four major European taxes, the tangible markers of this European solidarity. These will apply to the profits of major firms, the top incomes (over 200,000 Euros per annum), the highest wealth owners (over 1 million Euros) and the carbon emissions (with a minimum price of 30 Euros per tonne).

Here are the taxes they propose as part of their plan to expand the burden of government spending.

I’m surprised they didn’t include a tax on financial transactions.

And here’s a video (in French, but with English subtitles) explaining their scheme.

To put it mildly, this plan is absurd. It would impose another layer of government and another layer of tax on a continent that already is suffocating because the public sector is too large.

I’m not the only one with concerns.

In a column for Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky points out why he is underwhelmed by Piketty’s proposal.

The reforms proposed by Piketty and a group of intellectuals and politicians — notably Pablo Iglesias, leader of Spain’s leftist Podemos party — include the creation of a European Assembly. It would have the power to shape a common budget and impose common taxes… Piketty advocates four measures that would collect a total equivalent to 4 percent of Europe’s GDP… What is being proposed is essentially a return to the fiscal policies of the 1970s, which provoked Astrid Lindgren to write her satirical essay “Pomperipossa in Monismania.” In 1976, the children’s author was confronted with a tax bill of 102 percent of her income. …Hit them with new taxes and watch them flee to the U.S. and Asia. They won’t stay like patriotic Lindgren, whose essay helped to topple the Swedish government in 1976. And no amount of government funding…will repair the damage that envy-based taxation can wreak on economies already finding it hard to innovate.

Let’s not forget, by the way, the many thousands of French households who also have suffered 100 percent-plus tax rates.

But let’s not digress.

Writing for CapX, John Ashmore explains why Piketty’s plan will make Europe’s problems even worse.

…a group of politicians, academics and policy wonks spearheaded by…French economist Thomas Piketty…have put their names to a new Manifesto for the Democratisation of Europe. …For the most part, the manifesto reads like a souped up version of the kind of policies we’ve heard time and again from leftwing politicians. …The details of today’s ‘manifesto’ make Labour’s Marxist Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell look like a moderate centrist. Where Labour advocate putting corporation tax back up to 26 per cent, Piketty and co want it hiked to 37 per cent. And while we Brits spent plenty of the Coalition years discussing whether income tax should be 45p or 50p in the pound, the Manifesto goes all guns blazing for a 65 per cent top rate… these measures are projected to raise 800bn euros, equivalent to four times the current EU budget. …that would be a huge transfer of power, not from the rich from the poor, but from taxpayers to politicians.

A 65-percent top tax rate? At the risk of understatement, that’s a recipe for less entrepreneurship and less innovation.

Moreover, based on America’s experience during the Reagan years, it’s safe to say that actual tax receipts would fall far, far short of the projection.

But the higher spending would be real, as would the inevitable increase in red ink. And it’s worth noting that the Manifesto proposes to subsidize the debt of bankrupt welfare states. Very much akin to the eurobond scheme, which I pointed out would be like cosigning a loan for an unemployed alcoholic with a gambling addiction.

P.S. During my recent trip to London, I repeatedly warned people that a real Brexit was the only sensible choice because the European Union at some point will fully morph into a transfer union (i.e., a European budget financed by European taxes). It was nice of Piketty to issue a Manifesto that confirms my concerns. Simply stated, the United Kingdom will be much better off in the long run if it escapes.

P.P.S. Let’s not forget that Piketty’s core argument for class warfare has been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked. Indeed, only 3 percent of economists agree with his theory.

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I just spent several days in London, where I met with journalists and experts at think tanks to find out what’s happening with Brexit.

By way of background, I think voters in the UK made the right decision for the simple reason that the Brussels-based European Union is a slowly sinking ship based on centralization, harmonization, and bureaucratization.

Membership already involves onerous regulations, and remaining a member of the EU would mean – sooner or later – sending ever-larger amounts of money to Brussels, where it then would be used to prop up Europe’s failing welfare states.

Getting out may involve some short-term pain, but it will avert far greater pain in the future.

At least that was the theory.

The reality is that the Tory-led government in London has made a mess of the negotiations. The newly announced deal isn’t a real Brexit.

Writing for the Telegraph, Dan Hannan, a British member of the European Parliament, sums up why the deal is a joke.

The deal, as one Italian newspaper puts it, represents “a resounding victory for the EU over Her Majesty’s subjects”. Yet there was nothing inevitable about this climbdown. On the contrary, there is something extraordinary, awe-inspiring even, about the slow-witted cowardice that led British negotiators to this point. …there is something extraordinary, awe-inspiring even, about the slow-witted cowardice that led British negotiators to this point. …the disastrous acceptance of the EU’s sequencing, which meant that all British leverage, including the exaggerated financial contributions, would be tossed away before the EU even began to discuss trade. …Can you blame Eurocrats for gloating? They sensed right at the start that they were dealing with a defeated and dispirited British team, whose only objective was to come back with something – anything – that could be described as a technical fulfilment of the referendum mandate. …we have ended up with the sort of deal that a defeated nation signs under duress. Britain will be subject to all the costs and obligations of EU membership with no vote, no voice and no veto.

But it gets worse.

Unbelievably, Britain has given the EU a veto over whether it can leave these arrangements: unlike EU membership itself, we have no right to walk away. Brussels will run our trade policy, our economy, even elements of our taxation for as long as it likes. As the usually Euro-fanatical Bloomberg asked incredulously last week, “Once Britain has acceded to this, what reason is there for the EU to agree to any other kind of deal?” …Leavers never did “own” this process. From the start, it has been controlled by those who wished it wasn’t happening, and who defined success as salvaging as much as they could of the old dispensation.

That final sentence is key. Theresa May was not a Brexit supporter. She failed to play some very strong cards and she basically worked to come up with a fake Brexit.

It remains to be seen, though, whether Parliament will approve this humiliating package. The House of Commons will vote in about two weeks and here’s how the UK-based Times describes the possible outcomes if the plan gets rejected.

Scenario 1: a second Commons vote The prime minister fails to secure Commons support for her withdrawal agreement… Her response is to…then bring…it back for a second vote…, as happened in America after Congress initially rejected its government’s bank rescue plan in 2008. …Scenario 2: change of prime minister May fails to get the deal through and either resigns, or faces a confidence vote among Tory MPs which, if she lost, would also see her step down. …The question for Tory MPs would then be whether to back the deal mainly negotiated under May… Scenario 3: a second referendum A defeat for May could result in a second referendum but only if she or her successor supported it. Tory policy is to oppose a second referendum. …Scenario 4: no-deal Brexit Tory Brexiteers in the cabinet and in the party would respond to a defeat for the May proposals by pushing for a no-deal Brexit, or a “managed” no-deal. …Scenario 5: the Norway option Though there is no parliamentary majority at present for the May deal, or for no deal, there could be for a closer relationship with the EU. This could take the form of…the EEA (European Economic Area), the so-called Norway option.

For what it’s worth, I fear “Scenario 1.” Members of the Conservative Party are like American Republicans. They occasionally spout the right rhetoric, but most of them are go-along-to-get-along hacks who happily will trade their votes for a back-room favor.

So I will be disappointed but not surprised if this deal is enacted. It’s even possible it will be approved on the first vote.

My preference is for “Scenario 4” leading to something akin to “Scenario 5.”

A report from the Adam Smith Institute offers a user-friendly description of this “Norway option.”

We cannot however be subordinate to a supranational institution… Nor should we make do with a semi-detached position inside the EU that also gives us semi-detached influence while still constraining the UK in the wider world. …we have to leave and reform the relationship in a characteristically British, outward-looking and open way. …The UK therefore requires something of a “soft” exit that maintains open trade but removes Britain from political union and from all that Britain has consistently struggled with – the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy, the hollowing out and the outsourcing of democracy, the constraints on global trade deals.

And what does that look like?

…the most optimal way to exit would be to take up a position outside the EU but inside the European Economic Area (‘EEA’), which very likely means re-joining the European Free Trade Association (‘EFTA’). As Britain is already a contracting party to the EEA Agreement there would be no serious legal obstacle and it would mean no regulatory divergence or tariffs but it would mean retaining freedom of movement for EU/EEA nationals. …Such a deal would require agreement from the EU and EFTA but both would have strong reasons for allowing it…with the UK on board, EFTA would instantly become the fourth largest trade grouping in the world. …In short, EEA countries have a market-based relationship with the EU by having full single market access. They are free of the EU’s political union ambitions, and can class themselves as self-governing nation states. …The EEA position also opens up the ability to make trade agreements with third countries (something the UK cannot do now), would provide the UK with the freedom to set its own levels of VAT, and would allow the UK to step away from its joint liability of EU debts. That would be very attractive to Britain seeking a liberal soft exit.

Here’s a table showing the difference between EU membership and EEA membership.

Sounds like the outline of a acceptable deal, right?

Not so fast. The crowd in Brussels doesn’t want a good deal, even though it would be positive for the economic well-being of EU member nations. They have an ideological desire to turn the European Union into a technocratic superstate and they deeply resent the British for choosing self-government and democracy.

As such, the goal is to either maneuver the British government into a humiliating surrender (Theresa May was happy to oblige) or to force a hard Brexit, which would probably cause some short-term economic disruption.

But there was also resistance on the British end to this option since it ostensibly (but perhaps not necessarily) requires free movement of people. In other words, it might mean unchecked migration from EU/EEA nations, which arouses some nativist concerns.

Since I mentioned that a hard Brexit could lead to potential short-term economic disruption, this is a good opportunity to cite a very key section of Mark Littlewood’s recent column in the UK-based Times.

The Treasury has suggested that GDP could fall by as much as 7.7 per cent if Britain exited the EU without a deal. However, is there any reason to treat this projection any more seriously than the Treasury’s view that the Leave vote itself would lead to a recession and a reduction in GDP by between 3 per cent and 6 per cent? Almost all official predictions relating to the economic impact of the Brexit vote have been shown to be enormously over-pessimistic. Why should one assume that present forecasts are not beset by the same flaws?

Amen. The anti-Brexit crowd (the “remainers”) tried to win by arguing that a vote for Brexit would cause an economic collapse. That “Project Fear” was exposed as a joke (and was the target of some clever humor).

And the new version of Project Fear is similarly dishonest.

In a column for CapX, Julian Jessop of the Institute of Economic Affairs has additional details.

The public is being bombarded with warnings of potentially devastating impacts on the economy, their security and their welfare if the UK becomes a “third country” at 11pm on 29th March 2019, without the Withdrawal Agreement and framework for a future relationship anticipated in Article 50. …the daftest headline…is that a “no-deal” Brexit means that the UK would run out of food by August 2019 (the 7th, to be precise). This relies on the bizarre assumption that the UK would no longer be able to import food, not just from the EU but from anywhere in the world, and that we would continue to export food even as our own people starve. …it is often assumed that the EU would ignore its other legal obligations, including WTO rules. …the EU would not be able to treat the UK any less favourably than other WTO members.. Relying on the courts to fix things is also ra.rely a good idea. But it is absolutely right that the EU can’t go out of its way to make life difficult for the UK either.

Run out of food? Good grief, I thought the global-warming Cassandras were the world’s worst when it comes to exaggeration, but they’re amateurs compared to the anti-Brexit crowd.

Anyhow, this column is already too long, but here are links to four other CapX columns for interested parties.

I especially like the last column. One of the behind-the-scenes aspects of the Brexit debate is that the eurocrats in Brussels are scared that the UK will become more market-oriented once it has escaped the EU’s regulatory clutches.

And just as the EU has gone after Ireland and Switzerland for supposedly insufficient taxation, it also now is trying to hamstring the United Kingdom. All the more reason to escape and become the Singapore of Europe.

P.S. Donald Trump could help the United Kingdom by negotiating a quick and clean free-trade agreement. Sadly, that violates his protectionist instincts.

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The theory of “economic convergence” is based on the notion that poor nations should grow faster than rich nations and eventually achieve the same level of development.

This theory is quite reasonable, but I’ve pointed out that decent public policy (i.e., free markets and small government) is a necessary condition for convergence to occur.

The link between good policy and convergence explains why Hong Kong and Singapore, for instance, have caught up to the United States.

And the adverse effect of bad policy is a big reason why Europe continues to lag.

Moreover, it also explains why some nations with awful policy are de-converging.

Today, let’s look at convergence between Western Europe and Eastern Europe.

Here are some excerpts from a new study published by the European Central Bank.

This paper analyses real income convergence in central, eastern and south-eastern Europe (CESEE) to the most advanced EU economies between 2000 and 2016. …The paper establishes stylised facts of convergence, analyses the drivers of economic growth and identifies factors that might explain the differences between fast- and slow-converging economies in the region. The results show that the most successful CESEE economies in terms of the pace of convergence share common characteristics such as, inter alia, a strong improvement in institutional quality and human capital, more outward-oriented economic policies, favourable demographic developments and the quick reallocation of labour from agriculture into other sectors. Looking ahead, accelerating and sustaining convergence in the region will require further efforts to enhance institutional quality and innovation, reinvigorate investment, and address the adverse impact of population ageing.

The study is filled with fascinating data (at least if you’re a policy wonk).

This chart, for example, shows how many nations are converging (the dots above the diagonal line) and how many nations are falling behind (the dots below the diagonal line).

The yellow dots are Eastern European nations, so it’s good news that all of them are experiencing some degree of convergence.

But the above graphic doesn’t provide any details.

So let’s look at another chart from the study. The blue bar shows per-capita GDP in selected Eastern European nations as a share of the EU average. The yellow dot shows where the countries were in 2008 and the orange dot shows where they were in 2000.

The good news, at least relatively speaking, is that all nations are catching up to Western Europe.

But the report notes that some are catching up faster than others.

The developments were…heterogeneous within CESEE countries that are EU Member States. Some of them (the Baltic States, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania and Slovakia) experienced particularly fast convergence in the period analysed. At the same time, other CESEE EU Member States found it hard to converge… In fact, GDP per capita in Croatia and Slovenia diverged from the EU average after 2008… Given these heterogeneous developments, it appears that while in some CESEE countries the middle-income trap hypothesis could be dismissed (at least given their experience so far), in others the signs of a slowdown in convergence after reaching a certain level of economic development are visible.

My one gripe with the ECB study is that there’s a missing piece of analysis.

The report does a great job of documenting relative levels of prosperity over time. And it also has a thorough discussion of the characteristics that are found in fast-converging countries.

But there’s not nearly enough attention paid to the policies that promote and enable convergence. Why, for instance, has there been so much convergence in Estonia and so little convergence in Slovenia?

So I’ve tinkered with the above chart by adding each nation’s ranking for Economic Freedom of the World.

Lo and behold, a quick glance shows that higher-ranked nations (blue numbers indicate a nation is in the “most free” category) have enjoyed the greatest degree of convergence.

Here are some specific observations.

  • The Baltic nations are the biggest success stories of the post-communist world. Thanks to pro-market reforms, they have enjoyed the most convergence.
  • Romania and Slovakia also experienced big income gains. Romania is in the “most free” group of nations and Slovakia was in the “most free” group until a few years ago.
  • Poland has enjoyed the most convergence since 2008. Not coincidentally, that’s a period during which Poland’s economic freedom score climbed from 7.00 to 7.27.
  • Bulgaria also merits a positive mention for a big improvement, doubtlessly driven by a huge improvement (from 5.55 to 7.41) in economic freedom since 2000.
  • Sadly, Slovenia and Croatia have not experienced much convergence, which presumably is caused in part by their comparatively low rankings for economic liberty.

To be sure, there’s not an ironclad relationship between a nation’s annual score and yearly growth rates.

But, over time, poor nations that want convergence almost certainly won’t get the necessary levels of sustained strong growth without high scores for economic liberty.

P.S. Here’s some related research on this topic from 2017. And here’s a column on the evolution of economic liberty (or lack thereof) in Europe.

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I’ve warned many times that Italy is the next Greece.

Simply stated, there’s a perfect storm of bad news. Government is far too big, debt is too high, and the economy is too sclerotic.

I’ve always assumed that the country would suffer a full-blown fiscal crisis when the next recession occurs. At that point, tax receipts will fall because of the weak economy and investors will realize that the nation no longer is able to pay its bills.

But it may happen even sooner thanks to a spat between Italy’s left-populist government and the apparatchiks at the European Commission.

Here’s what you need to know. There are (poorly designed) European budget rules, known as the Maastricht Criteria, that supposedly require that nations limit deficits to 3 percent of GDP and debt to 60 percent of GDP.

With cumulative red ink totaling more than 130 percent of GDP, Italy obviously fails the latter requirement. And this means the bureaucrats at the European Commission can veto a budget that doesn’t strive to lower debt levels.

At least that’s the theory.

In reality, the European Commission doesn’t have much direct enforcement power. So if the Italian government tells the bureaucrats in Brussels to go jump in a lake, you wind up with a standoff. As the New York Times reports, that’s exactly what’s happened.

In what is becoming a dangerous game of chicken for the global economy, Italy’s populist government refused to budge on Tuesday after the European Union for the first time sent back a member state’s proposed budget because it violated the bloc’s fiscal laws and posed unacceptable risks. …the commission rejected the plan, saying that it included irresponsible deficit levels that would “suffocate” Italy, the third-largest economy in the eurozone. Investors fear that the collapse of the Italian economy under its enormous debt could sink the entire eurozone and hasten a global economic crisis unseen since 2008, or worse. But Italy’s populists are not scared. They have repeatedly compared their budget, fat with unemployment welfare, pension increases and other benefits, to the New Deal measures of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Repeating the failures of the New Deal?!? That doesn’t sound like a smart plan.

That seems well understood, at least outside of Italy.

The question for Italy, and all of Europe, is how far Italy’s government is willing to go. Will it be forced into submission by the gravity of economic reality? Or will Italian leaders convince their voters that the country’s financial health is worth risking in order to blow up a political and economic establishment that they say is stripping Italians of their sovereignty? And Brussels must decide how strict it will be. …the major pressure on Italy’s budget has come from outside Italy. Fitch Ratings issued a negative evaluation of the budget, and Moody’s dropped its rating for Italian bonds to one level above “junk” last week.

So now that Brussels has rejected the Italian budget plan, where do things go from here?

According to CNBC, the European Commission will launch an “Excessive Deficit Procedure” against Italy.

…a three-week negotiation period follows in which a potential agreement could be found on how to lower the deficit (essentially, Italy would have to re-submit an amended draft budget). If that’s not reached, punitive action could be taken against Italy. Lorenzo Codogno, founder and chief economist at LC Macro Advisors, told CNBC…“it’s very likely that the Commission will, without making a big fuss, will move towards making an ‘Excessive Deficit Procedure’…to put additional pressure on Italy…” Although it has the power to sanction governments whose budgets don’t comply with the EU’s fiscal rules (and has threatened to do so in the past), it has stopped short of issuing fines to other member states before. …launching one could increase the already significant antipathy between Brussels and a vociferously euroskeptic government in Italy. Against a backdrop of Brexit and rising populism, the Commission could be wary of antagonizing Italy, the third largest euro zone economy. It could also be wary of financial market nerves surrounding Italy from spreading to its neighbors… Financial markets continue to be rattled over Italy’s political plans. …This essentially means that investors grew more cautious over lending money to the Italian government.

For those who read carefully, you probably noticed that the European Commission doesn’t have any real power. As such, there’s no reason to think this standoff will end.

The populists in Rome almost certainly will move forward with their profligate budget. Bureaucrats in Brussels will complain, but to no avail.

Since I’m a nice guy, I’m going to give the bureaucrats in Brussels a much better approach. Here’s the three-sentence announcement they should make.

  1. The European Commission recognizes that it was a mistake to centralize power in Brussels and henceforth will play no role is overseeing fiscal policy in member nations.
  2. The European Commission (and, more importantly, the European Central Bank) henceforth will have a no-bailout policy for national governments, or for those who lend to national governments.
  3. The European Commission henceforth advises investors to be appropriately prudent when deciding whether to lend money to any government, including the Italian government.

From an economic perspective, this is a far superior approach, mostly because it begins to unwind the “moral hazard“that undermines sound financial decision making in Europe.

To elaborate, investors can be tempted to make unwise choices if they think potential losses can be shifted to taxpayers. They see what happened with the various bailouts in Greece and that tells them it’s probably okay to continue lending money to Italy. To be sure, investors aren’t totally blind. They know there’s some risk, so the Italian government has to promise higher interest payments

But it’s highly likely that the Italian government would have to pay even higher rates if investors were convinced there would be no bailouts. Incidentally that would be a very good outcome since it would make it more costly for Italy’s politicians to continue over-spending.

In other words, a win-win situation, with less debt and more prudence (and maybe even a smaller burden of government!).

My advice seems so sensible that you’re probably wondering if there’s a catch.

There is, sort of.

When I talk to policy makers, they generally agree with everything I say, but then say my advice is impractical because Italy’s debt is so massive. They fret that a default would wipe out Italy’s banks (which imprudently have bought lots of government debt), and might even cause massive problems for banks in other nations (which, as was the case with Greece, also have foolishly purchased lots of Italian government debt).

And if banks are collapsing, that could produce major macroeconomic damage and even lead/force some nations to abandon the euro and go back to their old national currencies.

For all intents and purposes, the Greek bailout was a bank bailout. And the same would be true for an Italian bailout.

In any event, Europeans fear that bursting the “debt bubble” would be potentially catastrophic. Better to somehow browbeat the Italian government in hopes that somehow the air can slowly be released from the bubble.

With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why the bureaucrats in Brussels are pursuing their current approach.

So where do we stand?

  • In an ideal world, the problem will be solved because the Italian government decides to abandon its big-spending agenda and instead caps the growth of spending (as I recommended when speaking in Milan way back in 2011).
  • In an imperfect world, the problem is mitigated (or at least postponed) because the European Commission successfully pressures the Italian government to curtail its profligacy.
  • In the real world, though, I have zero faith in the first option and very little hope for the second option. Consider, for instance, the mess in Greece. For all intents and purposes, the European Commission took control of that nation’s fiscal policy almost 10 years ago. The results have not been pretty.

So this brings me back to my three-sentence prescription. Yes, it almost certainly would be messy. But it’s better to let the air out of bubbles sooner rather than later.

P.S. The so-called Basel Rules contribute to the mess in Europe by directing banks to invest in supposedly safe government debt.

P.P.S. If the European Union is going to impose fiscal rules on member nations, the Maastricht criteria should be jettisoned and replaced with a Swiss-style spending cap.

P.P.P.S. Some of the people in Sardinia have the right approach. They want to secede from Italy and become part of Switzerland. The Sicilians, by contrast, have the wrong mentality.

P.P.P.P.S. Italy is very, very, very well represented in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

P.P.P.P.P.S. You’ll think I’m joking, but a columnist for the New York Times actually argued the United States should be more like Italy.

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If you look at the top of your screen on my home page, you’ll notice that I have a collection of special pages such as the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame and examples of what happens when you mix government and sex.

I’m thinking of creating a new page, but I need a pithy way of describing leftists who lie about poverty. And there are plenty of them.

Today, we identify some additional members who are eligible for this disreputable club.

And we’ll start with the European Commission.

Here’s a chart from a recent report that supposedly shows poverty rates in various European nations.

If you compare the “at-risk-of-poverty rate” for various nations, you’ll notice some very odd outcomes.

For instance, the tiny tax haven of Luxembourg is one of the world’s wealthiest nations, yet it supposedly has more poverty than Hungary. And super-rich Switzerland has more poverty than Slovakia. And oil-rich Norway has more poverty than the Czech Republic.

Are all those rich nations in Western Europe really suffering from higher poverty rates than some of the Eastern European countries still recovering from communist rule?

Of course not. The chart is based on a big, fat lie.

And I know it’s a lie because if you look in the glossary at the end of the long report, you’ll see that the bureaucrats openly admit that their so-called poverty chart has nothing to do with poverty and nothing to do with living standards (I’ve underlined the most important parts).

Interestingly, the bureaucrats in Brussels included a chart in the study revealing the level of inaccuracy for each country.

Here’s a look at the dishonest poverty rate (the blue diamond) compared to a measure of “severe material deprivation” that presumably does a better job of showing the real number of poor people (the red diamond).

By the way, I’m not a huge fan of the European Commission’s measure of “severe material deprivation” since it includes variables such as having a car, a color TV, and the money to take a one-week vacation.

But that’s a separate story.

Let’s look at other new members of our club.

An Eduardo Porter column in the New York Times also used the dishonest definition of poverty.

How can it be that the United States spends so much money fighting poverty and still suffers one of the highest child poverty rates among advanced nations? One in five American children is poor by the count of LIS, a data archive tracking well-being and deprivation around the world. …the United States tolerated more child poverty in 2012 than 30 of the 35 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a grouping of advanced industrialized nations. The percentage of children who are poor is more than three times as high in the United States as it is in Norway or the Netherlands. America has a larger proportion of poor children than Russia.

And here’s a chart from the article that definitely makes the United States look bad.

But, unless you read the column carefully, you would have missed this all-important detail.

…international standards that set the poverty line at one-half the income of families on the middle rung of the income ladder.

In other words, everything in the article, and all the numbers in the chart, have nothing to do with actual poverty. Instead, we’re simply looking at an indirect measure of income distribution.

And the United States is made to look bad because our median income is generally much higher than it is in other nations.

How absurd.

You’ll think I’m joking, but you can dramatically reduce “poverty,” based on this dishonest definition, if you randomly kill rich people.

Let’s conclude by looking at the U.K.-based Guardian‘s article about supposed poverty in Hong Kong.

A record number of Hong Kong residents live in poverty, with one fifth of the population falling below the poverty line despite economic growth, according to new government figures. The number of people living below the poverty line rose to 1.35 million in 2016, about 20% of the city’s population. The number is the highest number of poor since the government began publishing statistics in 2009. Despite opulent wealth, Hong Kong is a deeply unequal society. …The number of poor rose despite the government raising the poverty line last year. For single person households it is set at HK$4,000 (£388). It is HK$9,000 (£873) for a two person home and HK$15,000 (£1,455) for a family of three.

There’s a small problem and big problem with this article. The small problem is that it states that the number of poor people increased “despite” an increase in the poverty line.

Huh?!?

If the government raises the threshold, of course it will seem like more people are poor. The article should replace “despite” with “because.”

Tom Worstall, writing for CapX, explains the big problem in the article.

One of the great injustices of our age is, as The Guardian reported…, that 20 per cent of the people in Hong Kong, one of the richest places on the planet, live in poverty. …The Guardian [is] waxing indignant over things it doesn’t understand. …there’s an important underlying point: inequality – not poverty – is being measured here. The international definition of poverty is less than $1.90 a day. There’s no one in Hong Kong on this at all, therefore there’s no poverty. …we’re told that the poverty line in Hong Kong is HK $4,000 per month (roughly £380) for an individual which certainly doesn’t seem like much. Yet when we plug that into a comparison of global incomes we find that, accounting for price differences across geography, it’s firmly in the top fifth of all global incomes. In other words, the poorest 20 per cent in Hong Kong are still find themselves in the richest 20 per cent of all humans.

Given the praise I’ve heaped on Hong Kong, I also can’t resist sharing this excerpt even though it’s a separate topic.

As Hong Kong so vividly demonstrates, the…economy in which the poverty line is defined as being rather rich by global standards must have something going for it. According to the World Bank’s figures, back in 1960 Hong Kong was at around the average level of income for the planet, with GDP per capita at a little over $400 (in 1960 dollars). Today the figure is slightly over $40,000 per head while the global average has only struggled up to $10,000 or so. An over performance by a factor of four isn’t that bad over half a century, is it?

Amen.

If we actually care about reducing genuine poverty, there’s no substitute for the miracle of compounding growth.

Which is why our friends on the left, if they actually cared about poor people (and I think most of them genuinely do care), should focus on growth rather than being fixated on redistribution.

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Because of their aggressive support for bigger government, my least-favorite international bureaucracies are the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But I’m increasingly displeased by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which is another international bureaucracy (like the OECD and IMF) that is backed by American taxpayers.

And what does it do with our money? As I explained earlier this month in this short speech to the European Resource Bank in Prague, the EBRD undermines growth with cronyist policies that distort the allocation of capital.

In some sense, the argument against the EBRD is no different than the standard argument against foreign aid. Simply stated, you don’t generate growth by having the government of a rich nation give money to the government of a poor nation.

Poor nations instead need to adopt good policy – something that’s less likely when profligate and corrupt governments in the developing world are propped up by handouts.

That being said, the downsides of the EBRD go well beyond the normal problems of foreign aid.

I recently authored a study on this bureaucracy for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

Here are some of the main findings.

The EBRD was created with the best of intentions. The collapse of communism was an unprecedented and largely unexpected event, and policymakers wanted to encourage and facilitate a shift to markets and democracy. …But good intentions don’t necessarily mean good results. Especially when the core premise was that growth somehow would be stimulated and enabled by the creation of another multilateral government bureaucracy. …Unfortunately, even though its founding documents pay homage to markets…, there’s nothing in the track record of the EBRD that indicates it has learned from pro-intervention and pro-statism mistakes made by older international aid organizations. Indeed, there’s no positive track record whatsoever.

• There is no evidence that nations receiving subsidies and other forms of assistance grow faster than similar nations that don’t get aid from the EBRD.
• There is no evidence that nations receiving subsidies and other forms of assistance enjoy more job creation than similar nations that don’t get aid from the EBRD,
• There is no evidence that nations receiving subsidies and other forms of assistance have better social outcomes than similar nations that don’t get aid from the EBRD.

I also delved into three specific downsides of the EBRD, starting with its role in misallocating capital.

In a normal economy, savers, investors, intermediaries, entrepreneurs, and others make decisions on what projects get funded and what businesses attract investment. These private-sector participants have “skin in the game” and relentlessly seek to balance risk and reward. Wise decisions are rewarded by profit, which often is a signal for additional investment to help satisfy consumer desires. There’s also an incentive to quickly disengage from failing projects and investments that don’t produce goods and services valued by consumers. Profit and loss are an effective feedback mechanism to ensure that resources are constantly being reshuffled in ways that produce the most prosperity for people. The EBRD interferes with that process. Every euro it allocates necessarily diverts capital from more optimal uses.

I explain why taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing cronyism.

…the EBRD is in the business of “picking winners and losers.” This means that intervention by the bureaucracy necessarily distorts competitive markets. Any firm that gets money from the EBRD is going to have a significant advantage over rival companies. Preferential financing for hand-picked firms from the EBRD also is a way of deterring new companies from getting started since there is not a level playing field or honest competition. … cronyism is a threat to prosperity. It means the playing field is unlevel and that those with political connections have an unfair advantage over those who compete fairly. To make matters worse, nations that receive funds from the ERBD already get dismal scores from Economic Freedom of the World for the two subcategories (“government enterprises and investment” and “business regulations”) that presumably are the best proxies for cronyism.

Here’s a chart from the study showing that recipient nations already get low scores from Economic Freedom of the World for variables that reflect the degree of cronyism in an economy.

Last but not least, I warn that the EBRD enables and facilitates corruption.

When governments have power to arbitrarily disburse large sums of money, that is a recipe for unsavory behavior. For all intents and purposes, the practice of cronyism is a prerequisite for corruption. The EBRD openly brags about the money it steers to private hands, so is it any surprise that people will engage in dodgy behavior in order to turn those public funds into private loot? …Recipient nations get comparatively poor scores for “legal system and property rights” from Economic Freedom of the World. They also do relatively poorly when looking at the World Bank’s “governance indicators.” And they also have disappointing numbers from Transparency International’s “corruption perceptions index.” So, it’s no surprise that monies ostensibly disbursed for the purpose of development assistance wind up lining the pockets of corrupt insiders. For all intents and purposes, the EBRD and other dispensers of aid enable and sustain patterns of corruption.

And here’s the chart showing that recipient nations have poor quality of governance, which means that EBRD funds are especially likely to get misused.

I also cite several EBRD documents that illustrates the bureaucracy’s hostility for free markets and limited government.

Just in case you didn’t want to watch the entire video, here’s the relevant slide from my presentation.

And remember that your tax dollars back this European bureaucracy. Indeed, American taxpayers have a larger exposure than any of the European countries.

P.S. I’m also not a fan of the United Nations, though I take comfort in the fact that the UN is not very effective in pushing statist policy.

P.P.S. I’m most tolerant of the World Bank, though that bureaucracy periodically does foolish things as well.

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I periodically share data comparing the United States and Europe, usually because I want to convince people that America’s medium-sized welfare state is better (less worse) than Europe’s bloated welfare states.

In other words, Bernie Sanders is wrong.

But I sometimes feel guilty when making these unflattering comparisons because Europe – at least by world standards – actually deserves a good bit of praise.

If you look at Economic Freedom of the World, you’ll find that the 28 nations of the European Union (outlined in red) have relatively strong scores. Indeed, 27 of them rank in the top half, with Greece being the embarrassing exception.

And 17 EU nations rank in the top quartile, three of them above the U.S.

If you dig into the data, you’ll find that EU nations generally get crummy scores for fiscal policy, but misguided policies on taxes and spending are more than offset by superior scores for trade, monetary policy, regulatory policy, and quality of governance.

Now let’s look at some recent trends. I mentioned yesterday that I’m at the European Parliament in Brussels for a conference on economic freedom.

My friend Martin Agerup from Denmark gave an overview of economic freedom in EU nations, and I want to highlight some of his slides.

We’ll start with this modified ranking of economic freedom, which looks at where a hypothetical European nation would rank if it cherry-picked the best real-world scores (for the five major indices) of the various EU countries.

This hypothetical country, based on the best practices of various EU nations, would have the third-highest score for economic liberty – trailing only Hong Kong and Singapore.

This underscores my point about considerable economic liberty in Europe.

Martin also looked at trends in the European Union.

Here’s a slide looking at the evolution of economic freedom in Western Europe and Eastern Europe.

Three things are worth noting about this chart.

  • First, there was a dramatic improvement in economic freedom in Western Europe (blue line) from 1975-2000. Many people know about Thatchernomics, but there was a lot of pro-market reform in the rest of Europe.
  • Second, you’ll notice the giant jump in economic freedom in Eastern Europe (red line) from 1995-2005. The collapse of communism has resulted in vast improvements in economic liberty.
  • Third, the overall continent has seen comparatively little progress in recent years.

But averages can be deceiving. This next chart shows that some nations did rise and fall over the past decade. Many Eastern European nations boosted their scores by a modest degree, and Sweden also deserves a special mention.

Greece stands out for the worst performance in the past 10 years.

Which gives me an excuse to share one final chart from Martin’s presentation. Sweden suffered a deep crisis at the start of the 1990s, somewhat akin to what Greece suffered in 2008. But the two countries responded in radically different ways. Sweden shrank government and boosted economic liberty while Greece increased the size and scope of the state (aided and abetted by bailouts!).

This video has more details on the comparison of the two countries.

P.S. Notwithstanding the relatively nice things I just wrote about Europe, the continent faces some major fiscal challenges. And middle-class taxpayers, who already are being suffocated by high taxes, will probably get further pillaged.

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In last year’s French presidential election between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, I joked that voters should choose the socialist over the socialist, but made a serious point that Macron – despite having been part of Hollande’s disastrous government – was preferable since there was at least a hope of market-oriented reform.

…the chance of Macron being good are greater than zero. After all, it was the left-wing parties that started the process of pro-market reforms in Australia and New Zealand. And it was a Social Democrat government in Germany that enacted the labor-market reforms that have been so beneficial for that nation.

And after Macron won the election, I reviewed some of his initiatives to restrain government, including plans to reduce the burden of government spending, lower France’s corporate tax rate, and to shrink the size of the bureaucracy.

His ideas sounded so good that I wrote – only partly in jest – that “I wish the Republicans in Washington were as sensible as these French socialists.”

We’re not quite to the one-year anniversary of his election, but let’s take a look at Macron’s track record. And we’ll start with a very encouraging report from the New York Times.

…if France’s young president, Emmanuel Macron, has made one thing clear, it is that he is not afraid to shake up France and take on its venerable institutions. Now it is the turn of the heavily subsidized and deeply indebted French rail system. Mr. Macron says he wants to erase the railway workers’ special status, which gives them more generous benefits than almost any other workers, including a guarantee of early retirement. In doing so, he has set himself a new and formidable challenge in his expanding campaign to reshape France’s society and economy, which started last year with a law that made it easier for private companies to hire and fire workers, a near revolution for France.

Macron has a difficult task.

…the railway workers are a public-sector work force, one of the most powerful in the country, with a chokehold on as many as five million riders daily. When they go on strike, the whole country feels it. …rail unions have already pledged to join a strike by public-sector employees planned for Thursday… The rail workers then plan weeks of strikes starting in April that will be staged on a rolling basis.

Here’s some of what Macron wants to fix.

French rail workers’ current, ample benefits — including in some cases, the option of retiring at 52 — date to the first half of the 20th century, when many railway jobs involved hard, physical labor… Mr. Macron…to push for a broader overhaul that, for new hires, would end advantages like guaranteed jobs, automatic pay raises and generous social security benefits. …The French rail system is both heavily subsidized and deeply in debt, to the tune of 55 billion euros, or about $68 billion.

And if the French President succeeds, there are other reforms on the horizon.

Mr. Macron has pledged to follow the railway plan with an overhaul of the unemployment system later in the year. Next year he intends to take on the French pension system. …changing the employment terms for railway workers appears to be part of a larger crusade to push French workers into the 21st century.

Good. Similar reforms were very beneficial for German workers and the German economy, so I’m sure Macron’s proposals will produce good results in France.

Writing last October for CapX, Diego Zuluaga expressed optimism about Macron’s agenda.

…it is the French government that is tackling the big barriers to growth and dynamism that have stifled their economy since 1975. …Emmanuel Macron…has vowed to attack this status quo. He aims to deconstruct the onerous French labour market law, the infamous Code du travail. This is a 1,600-page, 10,000-article gargantuan piece of legislation which is blamed for clobbering employment in France over the past 25 years. …Macron may be able to deliver considerable reforms when it comes to the labour market. His cabinet intends to move a larger share of collective bargaining to the firm level, remove the requirement of union representation for small- and medium-sized businesses, limit severance pay – right now it averages €24,000 per dismissal – to give employers greater certainty about the costs of hiring… Spain reformed its dysfunctional hiring and firing regulations in 2012, and robust employment growth followed. Now, it is long-ossified France that is taking up the baton.

If you stopped reading at this point, you might conclude that Macron is a French version of Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher.

But that would be a considerable exaggeration. The French President also is pushing some questionable policies, such as higher taxes on luxury goods. But, in Macron’s defense, those class-warfare taxes are an offset for the abolition of the wealth tax, which was a very good reform.

Emmanuel Macron’s administration will propose a tax on luxury yachts, supercars and precious metals in France’s 2018 budget. Lawmakers will propose amendments after critics attacked the President’s move to scrap the wealth tax in France. Mr Macron abolished the tax, which has been seen as a symbol of social justice for the left but blamed by others for driving thousands of millionaires abroad. …The wealth tax, introduced by the Socialists in the 1980s, was levied on individuals with assets above 1.3 million euros (£1.2 million).

Since I’m not familiar with the details (i.e., do these changes result in a revenue-neutral shift, a net tax cut, or a net tax increase?), there’s no way to determine if swapping the wealth tax for luxury taxes is a net positive or a negative. Though I assume the overall effect is positive because wealth taxes are a very bad idea and luxury taxes, while self-destructive, generally are futile.

But this doesn’t let Macron off the hook. Even if we decide that he’s a pro-market reformer inside his country, he has a very bad habit of promoting statism at the European level.

The Wall Street Journal opined unfavorably last year on his plan for greater centralization.

…the French President issued a call for more, more and more Europe. …His EU would be responsible for many of the functions traditionally performed by a nation-state, such as defense, taxation, migration control and economic regulation. …The problem is…Mr. Macron’s dreams of fiscal and economic union. He wants to create an EU finance ministry, funded by corporate and other taxes, that can spend money across the bloc with minimal interference from national capitals. Mr. Macron also wants to harmonize—eurospeak for raise—corporate taxes across the EU. He’d further establish Franco-German regulatory excess as the benchmark for the rest of the EU… This is a recipe for political failure because Europeans already know these policies are economic duds.

Writing for the New York Times, a German journalist poured cold water on Macron’s plan to give redistribution powers to the European Union.

It would be funny if it weren’t dangerous — the solution offered by the new, pro-Europe president, Emmanuel Macron, is to create a eurozone budget, with its own finance minister. …Mr. Macron’s proposal is a disaster in the making. It will only further alienate Europeans from one another and weaken the bloc economically. …Brussels’s money has often been Europe’s curse. The Greek government, for instance, knew it could take for granted the support of the other euro members for its unsustainable budget after Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany recklessly declared, “If the euro fails, Europe fails.” Athens slowed down on reform, knowing Brussels would bail it out, and northern Europeans grew angry. In the worst case, Mr. Macron’s plan could turn this disincentive into a characteristic feature of the European Union. …Brussels would end up holding the purse but not the purse strings.

So what’s the story with Macron’s schizophrenic approach? Why is he a pro-market Dr. Jekyll for French policy but a statist Mr. Hyde for European policy?

I don’t have the answer, but Diego Zuluaga wrote about this dichotomy for CapX.

The puzzle of Macronism is that it tends to advocate dynamism at home, but stasis abroad. The French President, both during his tenure in Hollande’s cabinet and in his new office, has championed reform of the country’s bewilderingly byzantine employment code, which has promoted social exclusion and led to a high rate of structural unemployment. …But Macron’s liberalism seemingly stops at France’s borders. On the EU level, he has called for increased risk-sharing among euro member states, a eurozone budget and finance minister… Whatever one makes of his climate-change activism, it is nothing if not dirigiste in the extreme, wishing to curb carbon emissions through bureaucratic pacts on a global level. What we are left with is the pro-market equivalent of Stalin’s pre-WWII economic policy of  “socialism in one country”. Liberalism in one country acknowledges the need for economic flexibility and a greater reliance on market forces at home. It champions tax reform and deregulation of industry and hiring. But it shuns those principles on the international level.

By the way, Mr. Zuluaga is using “liberalism” in the classic sense, meaning pro-market policies.

Let’s close with a couple of items that show France still has a long way to go.

First, a leftist columnist wants us to believe that recent riots, caused by a sale on Nutella, are symbolic of a dystopian future.

You may have seen the videos: in French supermarkets Intermarché, customers are rushing towards shelves of Nutella jars. They’re running, shouting, fighting, rummaging to grab a jar of the chocolate flavoured paste… This mess happened simultaneously in various French supermarkets when grocery chain Intermarché advertised a massive sale on 1kg Nutella jars, priced at €1,41 instead of the usual €4,50. …I don’t find this news funny, not even remotely. …it is telling of a France that is more and more divided… The massive response to this sale shines light…on the precarious position in which many French workers, and shoppers, find themselves. …And it’s not going to get any better for them. Macron’s looming labour reform is already eroding French workers’ rights… Macron’s great vision for France increasingly looks like a country where only the rich and “successful” will be able to afford Nutella – and those who “are nothing” will be left to fight for sale prices.

This type of over-wrought analysis makes me want to cheer for Macron.

Why? Because I understand that the best hope for workers is faster growth, not “labor-protection policies” that actually undermine job creation and cause wages to stagnate.

Second, we have a story that highlights the impossible regulatory burden in France.

A French boulanger has been ordered to pay a €3,000 fine for working too hard after he failed to close his shop for one day a week last summer. …Under local employment law, two separate regulations from 1994 and 2000 require bakers’ shops to close once a week… He has been advised the only way to get around the regulations would be to open a second boulangerie with different opening hours. …The federation of Aube boulangeries and patisseries questioned 126 members at the end of last year: the majority were in favour of maintaining the obligatory one-day closure. Eric Scherrer of the retail union CLIC-P, said French employment laws were there to protect workers and employers and had to be respected. …“These people need to have a rest day each week. We can’t just allow them to work non-stop. It’s absolutely necessary that both bosses and employees have a day of rest.”

The bottom line is that Macron should drop his statist European-wide proposals and put all of his focus on fixing France.

If you look at his country’s scores from Economic Freedom of the World, he should be working day and night to reduce the fiscal burden of government.

And lowering the regulatory burden should be the second-most important priority.

P.S. If the numbers in this poll are still accurate, Macron better fix his nation’s bad policies or his productive citizens will escape to America. After all, France is a great place to live if you’re already rich, but not so good if you aspire to become rich.

P.P.S. Here’s a story highlighting the lavish government-financed benefits for the privileged class in France.

P.P.P.S. My favorite French-themed cartoon features Obama and Hollande.

P.P.P.P.S. And let’s not forget Paul Krugman’s conspiracy theory about a “plot against France.”

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If you’re reading this, you are a very lucky person because you were born at the right time. If you were born 500 years ago, 1000 years ago, or 1500 years ago, the odds are overwhelming that you would have endured a very short and difficult life, one that was characterized by unimaginable poverty.

But then, as explained in short videos by Professors Deirdre McCloskey and Don Boudreaux, the world suddenly became much richer starting a few hundred years ago.

And Western Europe led the way. But why?

In 2012, I shared lots of academic research showing how jurisdictional competition enabled rising levels of prosperity in Europe. And I then augmented that research a few years later by highlighting two very important developments in 1356 that helped set the stage for that competition.

Today, let’s expand on that evidence by looking at some recent analysis.

Here are some excerpts from a fascinating Aeon article by Professor Joel Mokyr.

How and why did the modern world and its unprecedented prosperity begin? …One of the oldest and most persuasive explanations is the long political fragmentation of Europe. …The modern European economic miracle was…neither designed nor planned. …How did this work? In brief, Europe’s political fragmentation spurred productive competition. It meant that European rulers found themselves competing for the best and most productive intellectuals and artisans. …the existence of multiple competing states encouraged scientific and technological innovation. …the rivalries between the states, and their examples to one another, also meliorated some of the worst possibilities of political authoritarianism. …interstate competition was a powerful economic mover. More important, perhaps, the ‘states system’ constrained the ability of political and religious authorities to control intellectual innovation.

Mokyr then explains that the benefits of jurisdictional competition were augmented and enabled by a form of labor mobility.

…political fragmentation was not enough. …more was needed. The size of the ‘market’ that intellectual and technological innovators faced was one element of scientific and technological development that has not perhaps received as much attention it should. …political and religious fragmentation did not mean small audiences for intellectual innovators. Political fragmentation existed alongside a remarkable intellectual and cultural unity. Europe offered a more or less integrated market for ideas, a continent-wide network of learned men and women, in which new ideas were distributed and circulated. …In early modern Europe, national boundaries mattered little in the thin but lively and mobile community of intellectuals in Europe. Despite slow and uncomfortable travel, many of Europe’s leading intellectuals moved back and forth between states. …If Europe’s intellectuals moved with unprecedented frequency and ease, their ideas travelled even faster. …Europe’s unique combination of political fragmentation and its pan-European institutions of learning brought dramatic intellectual changes in the way new ideas circulated. …Europe’s intellectual community enjoyed the best of two worlds, both the advantages of an integrated transnational academic community and a com­petitive states system.

By the way, I don’t consider this the “best of two worlds.” Labor mobility is a feature of jurisdictional competition, so I would say it’s simply one of the benefits. But six of one, half dozen of the other.

Let’s now look at another benefit of capitalism. Here are some passages from a CapX column on how the development of a merchant class constrained militarism. Here’s the thesis.

Although a number of things contributed to the huge decline in violence of the late medieval period, …the development of capitalism, and the rise of a merchant class whose wealth was not won with a sword, played a huge part.

And here’s an example.

This order was first shaken in 1302 when France’s cavalry confidently marched north to suppress a revolt by the Flemish. Flanders is not naturally rich in resources –Vlaanderen means flooded – but its people had turned swamps into sheep pastures and towns, building a cloth industry that made it the wealthiest part of Europe, its GDP per capita 20 per cent greater than France and 25 per cent better than England. …The Flemish were traders, not knights, which is why the French were sure of victory. And yet, with enough money to pay for a large, well-drilled infantry they were able for the first time to destroy the cavalry at the Battle of the Golden Spurs. It was the beginning of the end – no longer could the aristocracy simply push around the bourgeoisie, and as the latter grew in strength so it undermined the violence-obsessed culture of the nobility.

And another example.

European capitalism had begun in northern Italy, chiefly Venice, one of nine Italian cities that had surpassed 50,000 people by this point. …Venice was high in trust, a vital component for the growth of sophisticated markets, and so was the first to develop joint-stock companies and banks. …The Venetians, along with their arch-rivals the Genoese and Pisans, had been involved in the crusades, but despite papal prohibition had continued to trade with the infidel. Indeed, nothing would stop their desire to engage in commerce, and Arab geographer and traveller Ibn Jubayr noted that “It is amazing to see that the fires of discord burn” between Christians and Muslims when it comes to politics but, when trading, travellers “come and go without interference”.

And another case study.

London was behind Italy or Flanders but it was catching up. The city had started to grow as a trading hub in the 12th century, and its mayor, William Hardel, was the only commoner to witness Magna Carta in 1215 and helped secure Clause 41, which stated that all foreign “merchants are to be safe and secure in departing from and coming to England” without “evil exactions”. London expanded rapidly in the later middle ages, increasing its share of England’s wealth from two to nine per cent, and Henry IV (1399-1413) was the first king to invite its merchants on to the royal council, among them Sir Richard Whittington…the merchants purposefully avoided conflict, so that when in the 1380s Richard II tried to raise an army in the city to fight his various internal enemies he was met with apathy

What makes this analysis especially important is that military conflict is one of the putative downsides of political fragmentation. Indeed, Mokyr mentions that in his article.

I confess I don’t know enough to judge that issue. For instance, I’d like to know if there were there more wars in Europe, or were European wars between countries as opposed to an equal amount of civil wars elsewhere in the world?

In any event, at least there is some evidence that the prosperity generated by capitalism produced resistance to militarism.  Sort of brings to mind Bastiat’s famous statement about trade and war.

(Something to keep in mind given Trump’s self-destructive protectionist impulses.)

Let’s close by looking at Europe today and exploring whether jurisdictional competition on the continent. The good news is that the principle of “mutual recognition” has produced a form of competitive federalism, as explained in an article by Professor Michael Greve.

…the principle of reciprocity and “mutual recognition”…allows decentralized political institutions to coexist with a common, open, and efficient economic market. …cross-border trade…must be governed either by the rules of the country where a particular good or service ends up or by the rules of its origin country. The former “destination” principle would compel each company to comply with different and often conflicting regulations in all the member states where its products might end up. The result is not a common market but a collection of regulatory fiefdoms. The solution to this dilemma is the opposite, origin-based rule: so long as a company in a member state complies with the laws of its home state, it may freely sell its goods and services in other member states. …the origin principle…is commonly called the principle of “mutual recognition.” …it is the only principle that is consistent with both a common economic market and political decentralization. Mutual recognition integrates member states without central intervention. …Mutual recognition, then, liberates commerce by eliminating the cost of complying with different, conflicting, and often incomprehensible rules. Beyond that, mutual recognition institutionalizes jurisdictional competition. …The ability of individuals and firms to vote with their feet, modems, and pocketbooks will liberate markets and discipline politicians. …Trade unions, environmental interests, and any other interest group whose agenda rests on redistribution consistently oppose mutual recognition: they cannot rob Peter to pay Paul if Peter is allowed to escape to more hospitable climes.

Incidentally, the “origin principle” is at the core of the battle over the so-called Streamlined Sales Tax Proposal, a scheme by certain state governments to impose destination-based tax laws on out-of-state merchants.

And that principle also was a big reason for my fight against the border-adjustment tax, which was a destination-based levy.

For what it’s worth, Europe generally has been better than the United States about using the origin-based approach.

Europeans [are] ahead of the United States in viewing mutual recognition as an efficient means of harmonizing, as it were, the demands of economic integration and political diversity. Here at home, mutual recognition governs corporate chartering—but almost nothing else. Tort law, insurance and financial regulation, state taxation, product labeling, and most other areas of regulation are either subject to a destination rule or else preempted under federal law. No American legislator or corporate executive has ever heard of mutual recognition, let alone pressed it as a serious policy option.

Insurance regulation is a key example. Many states impose costly mandates that drive up the cost of health insurance. But if consumers had the freedom to buy health insurance from companies based in more market-oriented states, they would be able to save money.

Unfortunately, statists in Europe are moving in the wrong direction, seeking to replace mutual recognition with one-size-fits-all harmonization.

The European political class is bent on establishing pan-European, sovereign political institutions. …As political aspirations begin to dominate the process of European integration, mutual recognition will be jettisoned. …Habermas denounces the premises on which mutual recognition rests as the “building blocks of a neoliberal world view,” and he declares them at odds with “the Europeans’ normative self-understanding.” The European Union must therefore construct a European society of citizens, a pan-European “public sphere,” and a shared European political culture…precisely to confine economic competition and choice to a subordinate sphere. …the Europeans will harmonize their way toward a common constitution and citizenship, with dental care for all.

If the centralizers in Europe succeed (and they’ve already moved policy in the wrong direction), that will not bode well.

Europe already faces severe challenges because of excessive government and bad demographics.

Harmonization will exacerbate the problem of too much government because the “stationary bandit” no longer will face competitive pressure.

So “goldfish government” will become one step closer to reality.

P.S. This helps to explain my support for Brexit.

P.P.S. Speaking of Brexit, here’s a UKIP member of the European Parliament expounding on the benefits of mutual recognition over harmonization.

P.P.P.S. Mutual recognition also allows for regulatory diversity, which reduces systemic risk.

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If I was a citizen of the United Kingdom, I would have voted to leave the European Union for the simple reason that even a rickety lifeboat is better than a slowly sinking ship.

More specifically, demographic changes and statist policies are a crippling combination for continental Europe, almost surely guaranteeing a grim future, and British voters wisely decided to escape. Indeed, I listed Brexit as one of the best things that happened in 2016.

This doesn’t mean the U.K. has ideal policies, but Brexit was a good idea precisely because politicians in London will now have more leeway and incentive to liberalize their economy.

Though I wonder whether Prime Minister May and the bumbling Tories will take advantage of the situation.

The Financial Times has a report that captures the real issue driving Brexit discussions. Simply stated, the European Union is scared that an independent U.K. will become more market-friendly and thus put competitive pressure on E.U. welfare states.

The EU is threatening sanctions to stop Britain undercutting the continent’s economy after Brexit…the bloc wants unprecedented safeguards after the UK leaves to preserve a “level playing field” and counter the “clear risks” of Britain slashing taxes or relaxing regulation. Brussels…wants…to enforce restrictions on taxation…and employment rights. …the EU negotiators highlight the risk of Britain ‘undermining Europe as an area of high social protection’…the UK is “likely to use tax to gain competitiveness” and note it is already a low-tax economy with a “large number of offshore entities”. …On employment and environmental standards, the EU negotiators highlight the risk of Britain “undermining Europe as an area of high social protection”.

In case you don’t have a handy statism-to-English dictionary handy, you need to realize that “level playing field” means harmonizing taxes and regulations at very high level.

Moreover, “employment rights” means regulations that discourage hiring by making it very difficult for companies to get rid of workers.

And “high social protection” basically means a pervasive and suffocating welfare state.

To plagiarize from the story’s headline, these are all policies that belong in a bonfire.

And the prospect of that happening explains why the politicians and bureaucrats in continental Europe are very worried.

…senior EU diplomats, however, worry that the political expectations go beyond what it is possible to enforce or agree. “This is our big weakness,” said one. Theresa May, the British prime minister, last year warned the EU against a “punitive” Brexit deal, saying Britain would fight back by setting “the competitive tax rates and the policies that would attract the world’s best companies and biggest investors”.

Sadly, Theresa May doesn’t seem very serious about taking advantage of Brexit. Instead, she’s negotiating like she has the weak hand.

Instead, she has the ultimate trump card of a “hard Brexit.” Here are four reasons why she’s in a very strong position.

First, the U.K. has a more vibrant economy. In the latest estimates from the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World, the United Kingdom is #6.

And how does that compare to the other major economies of Europe?

Well, Germany is #23, Spain is #36, France is #52, and Italy is #54.

So it’s easy to understand why the European Union is extremely agitated about the United Kingdom becoming even more market oriented.

Indeed, the only area where the U.K. is weak is “size of government.” So if Brexit led the Tories to lower tax rates and shrink the burden of government spending, it would put enormous pressure on the uncompetitive welfare states on the other side of the English Channel.

Second, the European Union is horrified about the prospect of losing membership funds from the United Kingdom. That’s why there’s been so much talk (the so-called divorce settlement) of ongoing payments from the U.K. to subsidize the army of bureaucrats in Brussels. A “hard Brexit” worries British multinational companies, but it worries European bureaucrats even more.

Third, the European Union has very few options to punitively respond because existing trade rules (under the World Trade Organization) are the fallback option if there’s no deal. In other words, any protectionist schemes (the “sanctions” discussed in the FT article) from Brussels surely would get rejected.

Fourth, European politicians may hate the idea of an independent, market-oriented United Kingdom, but the business community in the various nations of continental Europe will use its lobbying power to fight against self-destructive protectionist policies and other punitive measures being considered by the spiteful political class.

P.S. Here’s a Brexit version of the Bayeux Tapestry that probably won’t be funny unless one is familiar with the ins and outs of British politics.

P.P.S. Here are some easier-to-understand versions of Brexit humor.

P.P.P.S. And here’s some mockery of senior politicians of the European Commission.

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When Ronald Reagan slashed tax rates in America in the 1980s, the obvious direct effect was more prosperity in America.

But the under-appreciated indirect effect of Reaganomics was that it helped generate more prosperity elsewhere in the world.

Not because Americans had higher income and could buy more products from home and abroad (though that is a nice fringe benefit), but rather because the Reagan tax cuts triggered a virtuous cycle of tax competition. Politicians in other countries had to lower their tax rates because of concerns that jobs and investment were migrating to America (Margaret Thatcher also deserves some credit since she also dramatically reduced tax rates and put even more competitive pressure on other nations to do the same thing).

If you look at the data for developed nations, the average top income tax rate in 1980 was more than 67 percent. It’s now closer to 40 percent.

And because even countries like Germany and France enacted supply-side reforms, the global economy enjoyed a 25-year renaissance of growth and prosperity.

Unfortunately, there’s been some slippage in the wrong direction in recent years, probably caused in part be the erosion of tax competition (politicians are more likely to grab additional money if they think targeted victims don’t have escape options).

But we may be poised for a new virtuous cycle of tax competition, at least with regards to business taxation. A big drop in the U.S. corporate tax rate will pressure other nations to lower their taxes as well. And if new developments from China and Europe are accurate, I’ve been underestimating the potential positive impact.

Let’s start with news from China, where some officials are acting as if dropping the U.S. corporate tax rate to 20 percent is akin to economic warfare.

U.S. tax cuts—the biggest passed since those during the presidency of Ronald Reagan three decades ago—have Beijing in a bind. Prominent in the new tax policy are generous reductions in the corporate tax and a rationalization of the global tax scheme. Both are expected to draw capital and skilled labor back to the United States. …In April, Chinese state-controlled media slammed the tax cuts, accusing the U.S. leadership of risking a “tax war”… On April 27, state-run newspaper People’s Daily quoted a Chinese financial official as saying, “We’ve made our stance clear: We oppose tax competition.” …Beijing has good reason to be afraid. …“Due to the tax cut, the capital—mostly from the manufacturing industry—will flow back to the U.S.,” Chen said.

While Chinese officials are worried about tax competition, they have a very effective response. They can cut tax rates as well.

…the Communist Party had promised to implement financial policy that would be more beneficial for the general public, but has not put this into practice. Instead, Beijing has kept and expanded a regime whereby heavy taxes do not benefit the people…, but are used to prop up inefficient state-owned enterprises… Chinese officials and scholars are considering the necessity of implementing their own tax reforms to keep up with the Trump administration. …Zhu Guangyao, a deputy minister of finance, said in a meeting that it was “indeed impossible” to “ignore the international effects” of the American tax cut, and that “proactive measures” needed to be taken to adjust accordingly. …a Chinese state-run overseas publication called “Xiakedao” came out with a report saying that while Trump’s tax cuts put pressure on China, the pressure “can all the same be transformed into an opportunity for reform.” It remains to be seen whether communist authorities are willing to accept a hit to their tax revenue to balance the economy and let capital flow into the hands of the private sector.

The Wall Street Journal also has a story on how China’s government might react to U.S. tax reform.

…economic mandarins in Beijing are focusing on a potentially… immediate threat from Washington— Donald Trump’s tax overhaul. In the Beijing leadership compound of Zhongnanhai, officials are putting in place a contingency plan to combat consequences for China of U.S. tax changes… What they fear is…sapping money out of China by making the U.S. a more attractive place to invest.

Pardon me for digressing, but isn’t it remarkable that nominally communist officials in China clearly understand that lower tax rates will boost investment while some left-leaning fiscal “experts” in America still want us to believe that lower tax won’t help growth.

But let’s get back to the main point.

An official involved in Beijing’s deliberations called Washington’s tax plan a “gray rhino,” an obvious danger in China’s economy that shouldn’t be ignored. …While the tax overhaul isn’t directly aimed at Beijing, …China will be squeezed. Under the tax plan now going through the U.S. legislative process, America’s corporate levy could drop to about 20% from 35%. Over the next few years, economists say, that could spur manufacturers—whether American or Chinese—to opt to set up plants in the U.S. rather than China.

It’s an open question, though, whether China will respond with bad policy or good policy.

Imposing capital controls to limit the flow of money to the United States would be an unfortunate reaction. Using American reform as an impetus for Chinese reform, by contrast, would be serendipitous.

The sweeping overhaul of the U.S. tax code, estimated to result in $1.4 trillion in U.S. cuts over a decade, is also serving as a wake-up call for Beijing, which for years has dragged its feet on revamping China’s own rigid tax system. Chinese businesses have long complained about high taxes, and the government has pledged to reduce the levies on them. …Chinese companies face a welter of other taxes and fees their U.S. counterparts don’t, including a 17% value-added tax. …Chinese employers pay far-higher payroll taxes. Welfare and social insurance taxes cost between 40% and 100% of a paycheck in China. World Bank figures for 2016 show that total tax burden on Chinese businesses are among the highest of major economies: 68% of profits, compared with 44% in the U.S. and 40.6% on average world-wide. The figures include national and local income taxes, value-added or sales taxes and any mandatory employer contributions for welfare and social security.

I very much hope Chinese officials respond to American tax cuts with their own supply-side reforms. I’ve applauded the Chinese government in the past for partial economic liberalization. Those policies have dramatically reduced poverty and been very beneficial for the country.

Lower tax rates could be the next step to boost living standards in China.

By the way, the Chinese aren’t the only ones paying attention to fiscal developments in the United States. The GOP tax plan also is causing headaches in Europe, as reported by CNN.

Germany, France, Britain, Spain and Italy have written to Treasury Sec. Steven Mnuchin… The letter argues that proposed changes to the U.S. tax code could give American companies an advantage over foreign rivals. …They said the provision could also tax the profits of foreign businesses that do not have a permanent base in the U.S. …The finance ministers said they opposed another measure in the Senate bill that could benefit American companies.

I have two responses. First, I actually agree with some of the complaints in the letter about selected provisions in the tax bill (see, for instance, Veronique de Rugy’s analysis in National Review about the danger of the BAT-like excise tax). We should be welcoming investment from foreign companies, not treating them like potential cash cows for Uncle Sam.

That being said, European officials are throwing stones in a glass house. They are the ones pushing the OECD’s initiative on “base erosion and profit shifting,” which is basically a scheme to extract more money from American multinational firms. And let’s also remember that the European Commission is also going after American companies using the novel argument that low taxes are a form of “state aid.”

Second, I think the Europeans are mostly worried about the lower corporate rate. German officials, for instance, have already been cited for their fear of a “ruinous era of tax competition.” And politicians at the European Parliament have been whining about a “race to the bottom.”

So I’ll give them the same advice I offered to China. Respond to Americans tax cuts by doing the right thing for your citizens. Boost growth and wages with lower tax rates.

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I’m not a fan of what is sometimes called the “European Project.”

Yes, one of the original goals – free trade between European nations – was admirable and has generated significant benefits.

But what started as a positive idea has morphed into a Brussels-based superstate that pushes bureaucratization, centralization, and harmonization.

This is why I was – and still am – a fan of Brexit. And I hope other nations escape as well.

I’m sometimes asked whether it would be a better idea if there was sweeping reform in the European Union. In other words, would I favor the European Project if it basically focused on free trade and competition in a framework of “mutual recognition.”

Of course that would be preferable, but it’s not an option.

Instead, the bureaucrats keep pushing for more bad policy. Policies to penalize on tax competition. Policies to penalize low-tax jurisdictions. Policies to penalize American companies. Policies to penalize European companies.

And don’t forget bailouts, cartelization, subsidies, waste, corruption, and self-aggrandizement.

But if you really want to know why the European Union is a lost cause, just consider that the bureaucrats at the European Commission actually created an online game designed to brainwash students into supporting higher taxes.

I’m not joking. If you play Taxlandia (I selected the 18-25 age group), you’re asked to pick an aggregate tax burden.

So I selected 5 percent of GDP, which seems like the right level to provide core public goods (and also would be close to the tax burden that existed in the 1800s when Europe became rich).

As you can see, the game did not approve of low taxes and small government. I failed.

Needless to say, I automatically became very suspicious that the “correct” answer would be much higher.

So I selected a tax burden of 50 percent of GDP, basically about what you find in France and Greece.

And guess what? I passed!

So what happens if you go even farther and impose a tax burden of 75 percent of GDP?

Keep in mind that no country has ever been in this range (governments own all production in communist nations, so they don’t have conventional systems of taxation).

But if the kids in Europe choose that level of taxation it’s not a problem. They pass!

Heck, an 80 percent tax burden gets a passing grade. As does an 85 percent tax burden.

The good news is that even the EU bureaucrats don’t think a 100 percent tax is workable. As a matter of fact, once players picks a tax burden that exceeds 87.5 percent of economic output, they fail.

It’s good to see confirmation of my hypothesis that even EU bureaucrats are capable of recognizing that taxes can be excessive at some point. That’s not good new for the former French President. Or the ghost of FDR.

It’s difficult to pick the worst part of this taxpayer-funded propaganda exercise, but I was quite irked by the accompanying video that extolled the wonder and joy of paying tax and getting freebies from the government.

Just in case you think I’m exaggerating, this is how the bureaucrats describe the video.

To be fair, the Taxlandia game also allows passing grades for relatively low levels of taxation. Even a tax burden of 10 percent of GDP will allow students to get to the next round of the game.

But don’t be deceived by this seeming evidence of even-handedness. Once you pick a level of taxation that allows you to pass to the next fiscal year, you’re then presented with a bunch of options designed to make it seem like higher taxes are needed to have good dams, airports, railways, Internet, and sports facilities.

At no point is there any option for private provision of those supposed “public goods.”

That’s a rigged game.

Moreover, it’s also a dishonest game.

Given the options that are presented, unknowing students will think that government budgets are basically about physical capital (infrastructure, etc). In reality, though, the vast majority of government spending is for the ever-expanding social welfare state and the accompanying bureaucracy.

And it’s a misleading game since there’s no feedback mechanism showing that higher taxes are associated with slower growth and lower living standards.

As you might suspect, students never learn that high-tax Europe is much less prosperous than medium-tax America or low-tax Hong Kong and Singapore. Or that rich European nations would be poor states if they were part of America.

The bottom line is that European bureaucrats are the ones who deserve to fail for putting together such deceptive propaganda.

P.S. About what you would expect from a group that wants to censor Christmas.

P.P.S. Speaking of games from Brussels, can you pick the bigger clown?

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Since I’m in London for a couple of speeches, I’ve taken advantage of this opportunity to make sure I’m up to speed on Brexit.

Regular readers may recall that I supported the U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union. Simply stated, the European Union is a slowly sinking ship. Getting in a lifeboat doesn’t guarantee a good outcome, I noted, but at least there’s hope.

The European Union’s governmental manifestations…are – on net – a force for statism rather than liberalization. Combined with Europe’s grim demographic outlook, a decision to remain would guarantee a slow, gradual decline. A vote to leave, by contrast, would create uncertainty and anxiety in some quarters, but the United Kingdom would then have the ability to make decisions that will produce a more prosperous future. Leaving the EU would be like refinancing a mortgage when interest rates decline. In the first year or two, it might be more expensive because of one-time expenses. In the long run, though, it’s a wise decision.

Others reached the same conclusion.

“Black Swan” author Nassim Nicholas Taleb…told CNBC’s “Power Lunch” the EU has become a “metastatic and rather incompetent bureaucracy” that is too intrusive. “The way they’ve been building it top down from Brussels is doomed to fail. This is 2016. They are still thinking 1950 economics,” said Taleb, who is also the author of “Antifragile” and is an advisor to Universa Investments. Taleb has warned about an EU breakup for some time, calling it a horrible, stupid project back in 2012.

That being said, there is a lot of angst in the U.K. about what will happen during the divorce process, in part because of the less-than-stellar performance of the Tory leadership.

There are three things, however, that British politicians need to remember.

First, the EU bureaucrats are terrified at the prospect of losing $10 billion of annual payments from the U.K., which is why they are desperately trying to convince politicians in London to cough up a big pile of money as part of a “divorce” settlement.

And “desperately” is probably an understatement.

The UK…contributions to the EU do come to over €10 billion a year. That is a substantial fiscal hole for the European Commission to plug… The Commission would prefer not to reduce expenditure since the structural funds and agricultural subsidies it distributes help to justify the EU’s existence. …it is not surprising that the Brexit divorce bill has become a sticking point in the negotiations. If the amount is big enough, it could tide the EU over for a few years. In Brussels, a problem kicked down the road is treated as a problem solved. This gives the British some leverage because it is most unlikely that the Commission will have lined up any new sources of funding, or agreed what it can cut, before March 29, 2019, when negotiations have to be completed. With no deal, the EU might end up with nothing at all.

Second, European politicians are terrified that the U.K., which already has the world’s 10th-freest economy, will slash tax rates and become even more competitive in a post-Brexit world.

If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe European officials who say the same thing.

European leaders will insist that the UK rules out tax dumping as part of any trade deal struck during Brexit negotiations… Matthias Machnig, the German deputy economy minister, called for a “reasonable framework” in tax and regulation, and warning “a race to the bottom in tax and regulation matters would make trade relations difficult”. Donald Tusk, the European Council president, also warned this morning that a deal must “…encompass safeguards against unfair competitive advantages through, inter alia, fiscal, social and environmental dumping”. The fear is that unless the trade deal which binds the UK into the European standards on tax, competition and state aid the UK will lead a regulatory “race to the bottom”.

Third, failure to reach a deal (also know as a “hard Brexit”) isn’t the end of the world. It’s not even a bad outcome. A hard Brexit simply means that the U.K. trades with Europe under the default rules of the World Trade Organization. That’s not complete, unfettered free trade, but it means only modest trade barriers. And since Britain trades quite successfully with the rest of the world under those rules, there’s no reason to fear a collapse of trade with Europe.

Moreover, don’t forget that many industries in Europe will pressure their politicians to continue free trade because they benefit from sales to U.K. consumers.

Around one in seven German cars is exported to the UK. Around 950,000 newly registered vehicles in the UK last year were made in Germany. As many as 60,000 automotive jobs in Germany are dependent on exports to the UK. Deloitte have explored the potential effect of a “tariff war” on the industry. …German politicians are realising this. The Bavarian Minister for Economic Affairs, Ilse Aigner, has said that “Great Britain is one of the most important trading partners in Bavaria. We must do everything we can to eliminate the uncertainties that have arisen.” …The Minister is correct. …A comprehensive free trade agreement is not only vital, but should be easy to achieve. In other words, spiteful protectionism from the Commission would accomplish nothing but impoverishing all sides.

The bottom line is that the U.K. has plenty of negotiating power to get a good outcome.

So what does this mean? How should British politicians handle negotiations, considering that they would like free trade with Europe?

Part of the answer is diplomatic skill. British officials should quietly inform their counterparts that they understand a hard Brexit isn’t a bad outcome. And they should gently remind EU officials that a hard Brexit almost certainly guarantees a more aggressive agenda of tax cuts and deregulation.

But remember that it’s in the interest of U.K. policymakers to adopt good policy regardless of what deal (if any) is made with the European bureaucrats.

The first thing that should happen is for British politicians to adopt a low-tax model based on Singapore. Some experts in the U.K. are explicitly advocating this approach.

I call this the Singapore effect. When Singapore separated from the Malaysian Federation in 1965, it apparently faced a grim future. But the realisation that no one was going to do it any favours acted as a spur to effective government – with spectacular results. We could do the same. We need a strategy that lays out the path to reductions in corporation tax, lower personal tax.

Marian Tupy of the Cato Institute explains why copying Singapore would be a very good idea.

Why Singapore? Let’s look at a couple of statistics. In 1950, GDP per capita adjusted for inflation and purchasing power parity was $5,689.91 in Singapore. It was $11,920.58 in the U.K. Average income in Singapore, in other words, amounted to 48 percent of that in the U.K. In 2016, income in Singapore was $82,168.33 and $42,287.17 in the U.K. Put differently, Singaporeans earned 94 percent more than the British. During the intervening years, Singaporean incomes rose by 1,344 percent, while British incomes rose by 256 percent. …the “threat” of Singaporean tax rates and regulatory framework ought not to be a mere negotiating strategy for the British government vis-a-vis the EU. It ought to be a goal of the British decision makers—regardless of what the EU decides!

Here’s a chart from Marian’s article.

Or the U.K. could copy Hong Kong, as a Telegraph columnist suggests.

Our political leaders still seem to lack a vision of what Britain can achieve outside the EU… Perhaps they are lacking in inspiration. If so, …Hong Kong…is now one of the richest places in the world, with income per capita 40 per cent higher than Britain’s.

And much of the credit belongs to John Cowperthwaite, who unleashed great prosperity in Hong Kong by limiting the role of government.

Faced with…the approach being taken in much of the West: deficit financing, industrial planning, state ownership of industry, universal welfare and higher taxation. How much of this did the British civil servant think worth transposing to Hong Kong? Virtually nothing. He had a simple alternative: government spending depended on government revenues, and this in turn was determined by the strength of the economy. Therefore, the vital task for government was to facilitate growth. …He believed in the freest possible flow of goods and capital. He kept taxes low in order that savings could be reinvested in businesses to boost growth. …Cowperthwaite’s view was that higher government spending today destroys the growth of tomorrow. Indeed, over the last 70 years Hong Kong has limited the size of the state to below 20 per cent of GDP (in Britain it is over 40 per cent) and growth has been substantially faster than in the UK. He made a moral case for limiting the size of government, too.

In other words, the United Kingdom should seek comprehensive reforms to reduce the burden of government.

That includes obvious choices like lower tax rates and less red tape. And it also means taking advantage of Brexit to implement other pro-market reforms.

One example is that the U.K. will now be able to assert control over territorial waters. That should be immediately followed by the enactment of a property rights-based system for fisheries. It appears that Scottish fishermen already are agitating for this outcome.

The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation says the UK’s exit from the European Union will boost jobs in the sector, reports The Guardian. It’s chief executive Bertie Armstrong said the exit will give them “the ability to recover proper, sustainable, rational stewardship through our own exclusive economic zone for fisheries”.

Let’s close with some Brexit-related humor.

I already shared some examples last year, and we can augment that collection with this video. It’s more about USexit, but there’s some Brexit material as well.

And here’s some more satire, albeit unintentional.

The President of the European Commission is so irked by Trump’s support for Brexit that he is threatening to campaign for secession in the United States.

In an extraordinary speech the EU Commission president said he would push for Ohio and Texas to split from the rest of America if the Republican president does not change his tune and become more supportive of the EU. …A spokesman for the bloc later said that the remarks were not meant to be taken literally, but also tellingly did not try to pass them off as humorous and insisted the EU chief was making a serious comparison.

I have no idea why Juncker picked Ohio and Texas, but I can state with full certainty that zero people in either state will care with a European bureaucrat thinks.

And speaking of accidental satire, this tweet captures the mindset of the critics who wanted to pretend that nativism was the only reason people were supporting Brexit.

Last but not least, we have another example of unintentional humor. The pro-tax bureaucrats at the OECD are trying to convince U.K. lawmakers that tax cuts are a bad idea.

The head of tax at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which advises developed nations on policy, said the UK could use its freedom from EU rules to slash corporate tax but the political price would be high. …”A further step in that direction would really turn the UK into a tax haven type of economy,” he said, adding that there were practical and domestic political barriers to doing this. …The UK is already in the process of cutting its corporate tax rate to 17 percent.

Though maybe I shouldn’t list this as unintentional humor. Maybe some British politicians will be deterred simply because some tax-free bureaucrats in Paris expressed disapproval. If so, the joke will be on British workers who get lower wages as a result of foregone investment.

By the way, here’s a reminder, by Diana Furchtgott-Roth in the Washington Examiner, of why Brexit was the right choice.

As we celebrate Independence Day on July 4, we can send a cheer across the pond to the British, who declared independence from the European Union on June 23. For the British, that means no more tax and regulatory harmonization without representation. Laws passed by Parliament will no longer have to be EU-compatible. It even means they will be able to keep their high-efficiency kettles, toasters, hair dryers and vacuum cleaners. As just one example of the absurdity of EU regulation, vacuum cleaners with over 1600 watts were banned by Brussels in 2014, and those over 900 watts are scheduled to be phased out in 2017. Brussels bureaucrats say that these vacuum cleaners use too much energy. No matter that the additional energy cost of a 2300-watt vacuum cleaner compared with a 1600-watt model is less than $20 a year, that it takes more time to vacuum with a low-energy model, and, most important, people should be able to choose for themselves how they want to spend their time and money. I, for one, prefer less time housecleaning.

Amen. As much as I despise the busybodies in Washington for subjecting me to inferior light bulbs, substandard toiletssecond-rate dishwashersweak-flow showerheads, and inadequate washing machines, I would be far more upset if those nanny-state policies were being imposed by some unaccountable international bureaucracy.

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