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Posts Tagged ‘European Commission’

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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Today is Brexit Day. As of 6:00 P.M. EST (Midnight in Brussels), the United Kingdom no longer will be a member of the European Union.

This is definitely good news in the long run since the U.K. will now be somewhat insulated from inevitable economic crises caused by the European’s Union’s dirigiste economic model and grim demographic outlook.

Whether it’s also good news in the short run depends mostly on decisions in London, such as whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Tory government expand economic freedom (which should be the case, but there are worrisome signs that the spending burden will increase).

But Washington and Brussels also will play a role since the U.K. wants to sign free-trade agreements. This could be a problem since the E.U. will be tempted to behave in a spiteful manner and Trump and his trade team are protectionists.

But let’s set that aside for the moment and look at the big picture.

The Wall Street Journal nicely summarized the key takeaways in yesterday’s editorial about Brexit.

The EU was founded on the notion that only an ever-deeper economic union—with an ever-closer political union close on its heels—could secure peace and prosperity… Most continental political leaders, if not their voters, still believe this. …British voters think otherwise. Their 2016 vote to leave the EU, ratified in December’s general election, was not a vote for war and poverty. …voters had the temerity to assert themselves despite resistance from a political and bureaucratic class invested in the status quo. …One feature of this new politics is how immune voters have become to economic scaremongering… Britons instead have heard European anxiety that Brexit will trigger a “race to the bottom” on economic policy. What this really means is that EU politicians are aware that a freer economy more open to commerce at home and trade outside the EU would deliver more prosperity to more people than continental social democracy. British voters may not embrace this open vision in the end, but they’ve given themselves the choice. …All of this frightens so-called good Europeans…because it’s a direct challenge to…their “European project.” Central to this worldview is a distrust of…markets… A Britain with greater political independence and deep trading ties to Europe without all the useless red tape and hopeless centralizing could be a model. …Britain’s voters in 2016, and again in 2019, chose peaceful and prosperous coexistence with their neighbors rather than mindless but relentless integration. It’s the most consequential choice any European electorate has made in at least a generation.

Amen.

Brexit is very good news (December’s election in the U.K., which ensured Brexit, was the best policy-related development of 2019).

It means more jurisdictional competition, which is good news for those of us who want some sort of restraint on government greed.

And it means less power for the E.U. bureaucracy, which has a nasty habit of trying to export bad tax policy and bad regulatory policy.

Brexit also is a victory for Nigel Farage. Here are his final remarks to the European Parliament.

Farage has been called the “most consequential political figure in a generation in Europe, perhaps the whole of the West.”

This actually may be true. Brexit almost surely happened because of Farage’s efforts.

And to achieve that goal in the face of unified establishment opposition is truly remarkable.

Speaking of establishment opposition, let’s close today with an updated version of a PG-13 song about how the British people responded to the practitioners of “Project Fear.”

P.S. You can enjoy other Farage speeches by clicking here, here, and here.

P.P.S. And you can enjoy more Brexit-themed humor by clicking here, here, and here.

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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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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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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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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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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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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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As an economist, I admire Switzerland for its sensible approach to issues such as spending restraint and taxation.

As an observer of political systems, I admire Switzerland for its robust federalism.

As a supporter of human rights, I admire Switzerland’s protection of financial privacy (sadly weakened because of external pressure).

As an advocate of freedom, I admire Switzerland because there is a tradition of gun rights.

Indeed, there is a gun store less than a mile from the federal parliament in Bern that sells (gasp!) military-style assault rifles.

Sadly, it wasn’t open when I walked by this past weekend, so I could only snap a photo of the display window.

I couldn’t help but mentally compare the Swiss capital, where guns are sold, with the U.S. capital, where favors are sold.

There’s also a pro-gun culture in Switzerland, as reflected in this article.

“Shooting is becoming increasing popular again among the young, and the federal decision to lower the age of access to lessons is a big part of it,” says a happy Christoph Petermann, deputy chief of communications for the Swiss Target Shooting Federation. In 2016, the government lowered the age at which young people can attend target shooting lessons from 17 to 15. “In addition, we’re particularly pleased with the number of girls and young women who choose shooting…” When it comes to training children how to shoot, …Children are admitted from the age of five – but not to shoot with an assault rifle. This young, they train with pistols, air rifles, crossbows or bows. It gets serious from the age of ten – with small-calibre weapons – and from 12, in general, with assault rifles.

Unfortunately, Swiss gun rights are being attacked.

The problem isn’t the politicians in Bern. It’s the bureaucrats at the European Commission.

The Swiss media is covering the issue.

…the EU gun control plans, due to be completed by 2019, aim to curb online weapons sales and impose tight restrictions on assault weapons. …Swiss army-issue weapons would still be allowed to be kept at home after military service, in keeping with tradition. Hunters are also not affected by the plan. But certain semi-automatic weapons – such as those with magazines holding over 20 rounds of ammunition – and some high-capacity shoulder-supported rifles would be banned. …Gun collectors will be required to catalogue and report their collections to the authorities.

Needless to say, Swiss gun groups are not happy.

Critics…say the government proposal was decided undemocratically and the clampdown will have no influence on public safety or terrorism in Europe. They are concerned about its impact on their right to bear arms and are particularly unhappy with restrictions on certain categories of semi-automatic weapons and magazines, the possible impact on army-issue guns, and additional bureaucracy. …Jean-Robert Consolini, the owner of Lagardere Armoury, said he would fight the proposal. “These terror attacks were carried out by people using guns from the black market, not from a legal trade via an armoury. So, this directive won’t prevent the traffic of weapons…” Today, Switzerland has among the highest gun ownership rates per capita among Western countries. It is thought that around two million are in circulation. High rates of ownership and existing gun laws reflect the country’s deep-rooted belief in the right to bear arms and the needs of its militia army.

Monsieur Consolini is completely correct, by the way, about the EU directive having no effect on terrorists, who invariably can get weapons on the black market.

In any event, American gun groups have sympathy for their Swiss counterparts.

The National Rifle Association has opined about the controversy.

Switzerland…has the most civilian-owned firearms per capita in Europe and ranks third worldwide… The experience of Switzerland, just like many parts of the United States, serves to refute gun control advocates’ contention that more firearm ownership means more violence. Unfortunately, …a tradition of peaceful gun ownership will not dissuade gun prohibitionists. …the latest push for gun control in Switzerland stems from the updates to the European Union Firearms Directive Brussels adopted in April 2017. …The most controversial change to EU gun law…classified handguns equipped with a magazine with a capacity greater than 20 rounds and long guns equipped with a magazine with a capacity greater than 10 rounds as Category A firearms. Category A firearms are generally prohibited for civilian use. Further, the legislation required EU Member States to create firearms registries… Switzerland is not a member of the EU, however, the country is a member of the Schengen Area… As such, Switzerland is obligated to conform to the EU’s firearms restrictions.

Here are more details from the NRA report.

On April 9, Swiss gun rights organization ProTell (named for legendary marksman William Tell…) expressed their opposition to the EU changes to the Swiss legislature. Calling Switzerland’s gun laws “an expression of trust and respect between citizen and state,”… In December, ProTell made clear that it is willing to fight any further restrictions on gun rights through the referendum process. The Swiss People’s Party has also registered its staunch opposition to the new EU restrictions.

So what’s going to happen?

There are two possible positive outcomes.

First, as I noted last year, the Czech Republic is on the right side of this fight. And its government is challenging the European Commission’s interference in what should be a matter decided by national governments.

The Czech Republic filed a lawsuit…against a new European Union directive tightening gun ownership, aimed at limiting access to semi-automatic and other weapons… EU interior ministers gave a final nod to the changes…despite the Czech Republic, Luxembourg and Poland voicing opposition. The Czech Interior Ministry said the directive was too harsh, affecting for example thousands of hunters – a popular activity with a long tradition in the central European country. …“Such a massive punishment of decent arms holders is unacceptable, because banning legally-held weapons has no connection with the fight against terrorism,” Interior Minister Milan Chovanec said in a statement. “This is not only a nonsensical decision once again undermining people’s trust in the EU, but implementing the directive could also have a negative impact on the internal security of the Czech Republic, because a large number of weapons could move to the black market,” he said. …The lower chamber of the Czech parliament approved a bill in June putting gun owners’ rights in the constitution.

In theory, the Czech government’s legal argument should prevail since “subsidiarity” is ostensibly enshrined in European treaties.

But I fear that principle of decentralization will be overlooked because of the pro-harmonization ideology that is so prevalent in EU institutions.

So the second option for a positive outcome is a referendum in Switzerland, which has a long tradition of direct democracy.

And since the Swiss tend to be very sensible when voting on national issues, we can hope that they reject gun control and – for all intents and purposes – tell the European Commission to take a hike.

Let’s hope so. There are very few libertarian-minded jurisdictions in the world. It would be a shame if the Swiss rolled over and let EU bureaucrats dictate their gun laws.

P.S. For more info on global gun control data on information, click here and here.

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The evil ideology known as communism left a track record of unimaginable horror. Experts estimate that 100 million people were killed by Marxist regimes.

Some were murdered. Other starved to death because of the pervasive economic failure of communism.

Yet there are dupes and apologists who overlook all this death and misery.

One of them is Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission. A few days from now, this über-bureaucrat will help celebrate the 200th birthday of Karl Marx.

The European Commission President will travel to Trier, Germany, where he will give a speech to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth. …The Commission President will give a speech at the opening ceremony of the Karl Marx exhibition in the city. …The chief eurocrat’s trip has received critics, who have suggested the 63-year-old forgetting how Marx’s “warped ideology” led to millions of deaths across the world. Ukip MEP and the party’s former leader Paul Nuttall said: “It is appalling that Jean-Claude Juncker feels it necessary to commemorate a man whose ideology – Marxism/Communism – led to more than 100 million deaths. …Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski…, who as a seven-year-old boy fled to Britain with his family from the Communist regime in Poland, said Mr Juncker should reject any invitations to commemorate the event. He said: “I think it’s in very poor taste we have to remember that Marxism was all about ripping power and individual means away from people and giving to State. “Marxism led to the killing of millions around the world as it allowed a small band of fanatics to suppress the people we must learn the lessons from this and share with our children.”

How disgusting.

And let’s not forget that communism is still claiming victims in places such as Cuba and North Korea.

Here’s the part of the story that caused my jaw to drop.

A commission spokeswoman defending Mr Juncker’s visit… She said: …“I think that nobody can deny that Karl Marx is a figure who shaped history in one way or the other.

In that case, why not celebrate Hitler’s birthday as well?

Writing for the Atlas Society, Alan Charles Kors expresses dismay that communism does not receive the same treatment as its sister ideology of National Socialism.

No cause, ever, in the history of all mankind, has produced more cold-blooded tyrants, more slaughtered innocents, and more orphans than socialism with power. It surpassed, exponentially, all other systems of production in turning out the dead. The bodies are all around us. And here is the problem: No one talks about them. No one honors them. No one does penance for them. No one has committed suicide for having been an apologist for those who did this to them. …The West accepts an epochal, monstrous, unforgivable double standard. We rehearse the crimes of Nazism almost daily, we teach them to our children as ultimate historical and moral lessons, and we bear witness to every victim. We are, with so few exceptions, almost silent on the crimes of Communism. So the bodies lie among us, unnoticed, everywhere. We insisted upon “de-Nazification,” and we excoriate those who tempered it in the name of new or emerging political realities. There never has been and never will be a similar “de-Communization,” although the slaughter of innocents was exponentially greater, and although those who signed the orders and ran the camps remain. In the case of Nazism, we hunt down ninety-year-old men because “the bones cry out” for justice. In the case of Communism, we insisted on “no witch hunts”… The Communist holocaust should have brought forth a flowering of Western art, and witness, and sympathy. It should have called forth an overflowing ocean of tears. Instead, it has called forth a glacier of indifference. Kids who in the 1960s had portraits of Mao and Che on their college walls —the moral equivalent of having hung portraits of Hitler, Goebbels, or Horst Wessel in one’s dorm—now teach our children about the moral superiority of their political generation. Every historical textbook lingers on the crimes of Nazism, seeks their root causes, and announces a lesson that should be learned. Everyone knows the number “six million.” By contrast, it is always “the mistakes” of Communism or of Stalinism (repeated, by mistake, again, and again, and again). Ask college freshmen how many died under Stalin’s regime, and they will answer, even now, “Thousands? Tens of thousands?”

Of course, some of these kids are probably wearing t-shirts celebrating Che Guevara, so it goes without saying that they are ignorant.

Or, if they actually know Che’s track record, the kids are immoral punks.

In any event, Jean-Claude Juncker should know better. Sounds like he wants his name to be added to the biggest-clown-in-Brussels contest.

P.S. I’m embarrassed to admit that some economists were apologists for communism.

P.P.S. There’s a very small silver lining to the dark cloud of communism. You can click here, here, here, and here to enjoy some clever anti-communism humor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The people of Europe share that grim assessment.

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

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

Here’s the relevant chart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sigh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was decentralization and jurisdictional competition that enabled prosperity.

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

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

But now Europe has swung completely in the other direction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I’ve previously written about the bizarre attack that the European Commission has launched against Ireland’s tax policy. The bureaucrats in Brussels have concocted a strange theory that Ireland’s pro-growth tax system provides “state aid” to companies like Apple (in other words, if you tax at a low rate, that’s somehow akin to giving handouts to a company, at least if you start with the assumption that all income belongs to government).

This has produced two types of reactions. On the left, the knee-jerk instinct is that governments should grab more money from corporations, though they sometimes quibble over how to divvy up the spoils.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, for instance, predictably tells readers of the New York Times that Congress should squeeze more money out of the business community.

Now that they are feeling the sting from foreign tax crackdowns, giant corporations and their Washington lobbyists are pressing Congress to cut them a new sweetheart deal here at home. But instead of bailing out the tax dodgers under the guise of tax reform, Congress should seize this moment to…repair our broken corporate tax code. …Congress should increase the share of government revenue generated from taxes on big corporations — permanently. In the 1950s, corporations contributed about $3 out of every $10 in federal revenue. Today they contribute $1 out of every $10.

As part of her goal to triple the tax burden of companies, she also wants to adopt full and immediate worldwide taxation. What she apparently doesn’t understand (and there’s a lot she doesn’t understand) is that Washington may be capable of imposing bad laws on U.S.-domiciled companies, but it has rather limited power to impose bad rules on foreign-domiciled firms.

So the main long-run impact of a more onerous corporate tax system in America will be a big competitive advantage for companies from other nations.

The reaction from Jacob Lew, America’s Treasury Secretary, is similarly disappointing. He criticizes the European Commission, but for the wrong reasons. Here’s some of what he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, starting with some obvious complaints.

…the commission’s novel approach to its investigations seeks to impose unfair retroactive penalties, is contrary to well established legal principles, calls into question the tax rules of individual countries, and threatens to undermine the overall business climate in Europe.

But his solutions would make the system even worse. He starts by embracing the OECD’s BEPS initiative, which is largely designed to seize more money from US multinational firms.

…we have made considerable progress toward combating corporate tax avoidance by working with our international partners through what is known as the Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) project, agreed to by the Group of 20 and the 35 member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

He then regurgitates the President’s plan to replace deferral with worldwide taxation.

…the president’s plan directly addresses the problem of U.S. multinational corporations parking income overseas to avoid U.S. taxes. The plan would make this practice impossible by imposing a minimum tax on foreign income.

In other words, his “solution” to the European Commission’s money grab against Apple is to have the IRS grab the money instead. Needless to say, if you’re a gazelle, you probably don’t care whether you’re in danger because of hyenas or jackals, and that’s how multinational companies presumably perceive this squabble between US tax collectors and European tax collectors.

On the other side of the issue, critics of the European Commission’s tax raid don’t seem overflowing with sympathy for Apple. Instead, they are primarily worried about the long-run implications.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center offers some wise insight on this topic, both with regards to the actions of the European Commission and also with regards to Treasury Secretary Lew’s backward thinking. Here’s what she wrote about the never-ending war against tax competition in Brussels.

At the core of the retroactive penalty is the bizarre belief on the part of the European Commission that low taxes are subsidies. It stems from a leftist notion that the government has a claim on most of our income. It is also the next step in the EU’s fight against tax competition since, as we know, tax competition punishes countries with bad tax systems for the benefit of countries with good ones. The EU hates tax competition and instead wants to rig the system to give good grades to the high-tax nations of Europe and punish low-tax jurisdictions.

And she also points out that Treasury Secretary Lew (a oleaginous cronyist) is no friend of American business because of his embrace of worldwide taxation and BEPS.

…as Lew’s op-ed demonstrates, …they would rather be the ones grabbing that money through the U.S.’s punishing high-rate worldwide-corporate-income-tax system. …In other words, the more the EU grabs, the less is left for Uncle Sam to feed on. …And, as expected, Lew’s alternative solution for avoidance isn’t a large reduction of the corporate rate and a shift to a territorial tax system. His solution is a worldwide tax cartel… The OECD’s BEPS project is designed to increase corporate tax burdens and will clearly disadvantage U.S. companies. The underlying assumption behind BEPS is that governments aren’t seizing enough revenue from multinational companies. The OECD makes the case, as it did with individuals, that it is “illegitimate,” as opposed to illegal, for businesses to legally shift economic activity to jurisdictions that have favorable tax laws.

John O’Sullivan, writing for National Review, echoes Veronique’s point about tax competition and notes that elimination of competition between governments is the real goal of the European Commission.

…there is one form of European competition to which Ms. Vestager, like the entire Commission, is firmly opposed — and that is tax competition. Classifying lower taxes as a form of state aid is the first step in whittling down the rule that excludes taxation policy from the control of Brussels. It won’t be the last. Brussels wants to reduce (and eventually to eliminate) what it calls “harmful tax competition” (i.e., tax competition), which is currently the preserve of national governments. …Ms. Vestager’s move against Apple is thus a first step to extend control of tax policy by Brussels across Europe. Not only is this a threat to European taxpayers much poorer than Apple, but it also promises to decide the future of Europe in a perverse way. Is Europe to be a cartel of governments? Or a market of governments? A cartel is a group of economic actors who get together to agree on a common price for their services — almost always a higher price than the market would set. The price of government is the mix of tax and regulation; both extract resources from taxpayers to finance the purposes of government. Brussels has already established control of regulations Europe-wide via regulatory “harmonization.” It would now like to do the same for taxes. That would make the EU a fully-fledged cartel of governments. Its price would rise without limit.

Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal offers some sound analysis, starting with his look at the real motives of various leftists.

…attacking Apple is a politically handy way of disguising a challenge to the tax policies of an EU member state, namely Ireland. …Sen. Chuck Schumer calls the EU tax ruling a “cheap money grab,” and he’s an expert in such matters. The sight of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew leaping to the defense of an American company when in the grips of a bureaucratic shakedown, you will have no trouble guessing, is explained by the fact that it’s another government doing the shaking down.

And he adds his warning about this fight really being about tax competition versus tax harmonization.

Tax harmonization is a final refuge of those committed to defending Europe’s stagnant social model. Even Ms. Vestager’s antitrust agency is jumping in, though the goal here oddly is to eliminate competition among jurisdictions in tax policy, so governments everywhere can impose inefficient, costly tax regimes without the check and balance that comes from businesses being able to pick up and move to another jurisdiction. In a harmonized world, of course, a check would remain in the form of jobs not created, incomes not generated, investment not made. But Europe has been wiling to live with the harmony of permanent recession.

Even the Economist, which usually reflects establishment thinking, argues that the European Commission has gone overboard.

…in tilting at Apple the commission is creating uncertainty among businesses, undermining the sovereignty of Europe’s member states and breaking ranks with America, home to the tech giant… Curbing tax gymnastics is a laudable aim. But the commission is setting about it in the most counterproductive way possible. It says Apple’s arrangements with Ireland, which resulted in low-single-digit tax rates, amounted to preferential treatment, thereby violating the EU’s state-aid rules. Making this case involved some creative thinking. The commission relied on an expansive interpretation of the “transfer-pricing” principle that governs the price at which a multinational’s units trade with each other. Having shifted the goalposts in this way, the commission then applied its new thinking to deals first struck 25 years ago.

Seeking a silver lining to this dark cloud, the Economist speculates whether the EC tax raid might force American politicians to fix the huge warts in the corporate tax system.

Some see a bright side. …the realisation that European politicians might gain at their expense could, optimists say, at last spur American policymakers to reform their barmy tax code. American companies are driven to tax trickery by the combination of a high statutory tax rate (35%), a worldwide system of taxation, and provisions that allow firms to defer paying tax until profits are repatriated (resulting in more than $2 trillion of corporate cash being stashed abroad). Cutting the rate, taxing only profits made in America and ending deferral would encourage firms to bring money home—and greatly reduce the shenanigans that irk so many in Europe. Alas, it seems unlikely.

America desperately needs a sensible system for taxing corporate income, so I fully agree with this passage, other than the strange call for “ending deferral.” I’m not sure whether this is an editing mistake or a lack of understanding by the reporter, but deferral is no longer an issue if the tax code is reformed to that the IRS is “taxing only profits made in America.”

But the main takeaway, as noted by de Rugy, O’Sullivan, and Jenkins, is that politicians want to upend the rules of global commerce to undermine and restrict tax competition. They realize that the long-run fiscal outlook of their countries is grim, but rather than fix the bad policies they’ve imposed, they want a system that will enable higher ever-higher tax burdens.

In the long run, that leads to disaster, but politicians rarely think past the next election.

P.S. To close on an upbeat point, Senator Rand Paul defends Apple from predatory politicians in the United States.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Working the world of public policy, I’m used to surreal moments.

Such as the assertion that there are trillions of dollars of spending cuts in plans that actually increase spending. How do you have a debate with people who don’t understand math?

Or the oft-repeated myth that the Reagan tax cuts for the rich starved the government of revenue. How can you have a rational discussion with people who don’t believe IRS data?

And let’s not overlook my personal favorite, which is blaming so-called tax havens for the financial crisis, even though places such as the Cayman Islands had nothing to do with the Fed’s easy-money policy or with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac subsidies.

These are all example of why my hair is turning gray.

But I’ll soon have white hair based on having to deal with the new claim from European bureaucrats that countries are guilty of providing subsidies if they have low taxes for companies.

I’m not joking. This is basically what’s behind the big tax fight between Apple, Ireland, and the European Commission.

Here’s what I said about this issue yesterday.

There are three things about this interview are worth highlighting.

  • First, the European Commission is motivated by a desire for more tax revenue. Disappointing, but hardly surprising.
  • Second, Ireland has benefited immensely from low-tax policies and that’s something that should be emulated rather than punished.
  • Third, I hope Ireland will respond with a big corporate tax cut, just as they did when their low-tax policies were first attacked many years ago.

I also chatted with the folks from the BBC.

I’ll add a few comments on this interview as well.

Here’s an interview from the morning, which was conducted by phone since I didn’t want to interrupt my much-needed beauty sleep by getting to the studio at the crack of dawn.

Once again, here are a few follow-up observations.

  • First, I realize I’m being repetitive, but it’s truly bizarre that the European Commission thinks that low taxes are a subsidy. This is the left-wing ideology that the government has first claim on all income.
  • Second, it’s a wonky point, but Europe’s high-tax nations can use transfer pricing rules if they think that Apple (or other companies) are trying to artificially shift income to low-tax countries like Ireland.
  • Third, the U.S. obviously needs to reform its wretched corporate tax system, but that won’t solve this problem since it’s about an effort to impose more tax on Apple’s foreign-source income.

The Wall Street Journal opined wisely on this issue, starting with the European Commission’s galling decision to use anti-trust laws to justify the bizarre assertion that low taxes are akin to a business subsidy.

Even by the usual Brussels standards of economic malpractice, Tuesday’s €13 billion ($14.5 billion) tax assault on Apple is something to behold. …Apple paid all the taxes it owed under existing tax laws around the world, which is why it hasn’t been subject to enforcement proceedings by revenue authorities. …Brussels now wants to use antitrust law to tell Ireland and other low-tax countries how to apply their own tax laws. …Brussels is deploying its antitrust gnomes to claim that taxes that are “too low” are an illegal subsidy under EU state-aid rules.

This is amazing. A subsidy is when government officials use coercion to force taxpayers (or consumers) to pay more in order to line the pockets of a company or industry. The Export-Import Bank would be an example of this odious practice, as would ethanol handouts.

Choosing to tax at a lower rate is not in this category. It’s a reduction in government coercion.

That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re necessarily talking about good policy since there are plenty of preferential tax laws that should be wiped out as part of a shift to a simple and fair flat tax.

I’m simply pointing out that lower taxes are not “state aid.”

The WSJ also points out that it’s not uncommon for major companies to seek clarification rulings from tax authorities.

Brussels points to correspondence between Irish tax officials and Apple executives to claim that Apple enjoyed favors not available to other companies, which would be tantamount to a subsidy. But all Apple received from Dublin, in 1991 and 2007, were letters confirming how the tax authorities would treat various transactions under the Irish laws that applied to everyone. If anyone in Brussels knew more about tax law, they’d realize such “comfort letters” are common practice around the world.

Indeed, the IRS routinely approves “advance pricing agreements” with major American taxpayers.

This doesn’t mean, by the way, that governments (the U.S., Ireland, or others) treat all transactions appropriately. But it does mean that Ireland isn’t doing something strange or radical.

The editorial also makes the much-needed point that the Obama White House and Treasury Department are hardly in a position to grouse, particularly because of the demagoguery and rule-twisting that have been used to discourage corporate inversions.

As for the U.S., the Treasury Department pushed back against these tax cases, which it rightly views as a protectionist threat to the rule of law. But it’s hard to believe that Brussels would have pulled this stunt if Treasury enjoyed the global respect it once did. President Obama and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew have also contributed to the antibusiness political mood by assailing American companies for moving to low-tax countries.

Amen.

It’s also worth noting that the Obama Administration has been supportive of the OECD’s BEPS initiative, which also is designed to increase corporate tax burdens and clearly will disadvantage US companies.

A story from the Associated Press reveals the European Commission’s real motive.

The European Commission says…it should help protect countries from unfair tax competition. When one country’s tax policy hurts a neighbor’s revenues, that country should be able to protect its tax base.

Wow, think about what this implies.

We all recognize, as consumers, the benefits of having lots of restaurants competing for our business. Or several cell phone companies. Or lots of firms that make washing machines. Competition helps us by leading to lower prices, higher quality, and better service. And it also boosts the overall economy because of the pressure to utilize resources more efficiently and productively.

So why, then, should the European Commission be working to protect governments from competition? Why is it bad for a country with low tax rates to attract jobs and investment from nations with high tax rates?

The answer, needless to say, is that tax competition is a good thing. Ever since the Reagan and Thatcher tax cuts got the process started, there have been major global reductions in tax rates, both for households and businesses, as governments have competed with each other (sadly, the US has fallen way behind in the contest for good business taxation).

Politicians understandably don’t like this liberalizing process, but the tax competition-induced drop in tax rates is one of the reason why the stagflation of the 1960s and 1970s was replaced by comparatively strong growth in the 1980s and 1990s.

Let’s close by looking at one final story.

Bloomberg has a report on the Apple-Ireland-EC controversy. Here are some relevant passages.

Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan on Tuesday vowed to fight a European Commission ruling… The country’s corporate tax regime is a cornerstone of its economic policy, attracting Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. to Dublin. …While the Apple ruling doesn’t directly threaten the 12.5 percent rate, the government has promised to stand by executives it says are helping the economy. “To do anything else, it would be like eating the seed potatoes,” Noonan told broadcaster RTE on Tuesday, adding a failure to fight the case would hurt future generations.

Kudos to Noonan for understanding that a short-term grab for more revenue will be bad news if the tradeoff is a more onerous tax system that reduces future growth.

I wish Hillary Clinton was capable of learning the same lesson.

Also, it’s worth noting that Apple is just the tip of the iceberg. If the EC succeeds, many other American companies will be under the gun.

The iPhone-maker is one of more than 700 U.S. companies that have units there, employing a combined 140,000 people, according to the American Chamber of Commerce in Ireland.

And when politicians – either here or overseas – raise taxes on companies, never forget that they’re actually raising taxes on worker, consumers, and shareholders.

P.S. Just in case you think the Obama Administration is sincere about defending Apple and other American companies, don’t forget that these are the folks who included a global corporate minimum tax scheme in the President’s most recent budget.

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I have a love-hate relationship with corporations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This puts a big smile on my face.

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

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

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

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

Here’s another reason I’m smiling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words, the Laffer Curve exists.

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

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

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

They start with the theoretical case.

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

Then they unload a wealth of empirical evidence.

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

So what’s the moral of the story?

It’s very simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What an amazing vote. The people of the United Kingdom defied the supposed experts, rejected a fear-based campaign by advocates of the status quo, and declared their independence from the European Union.

Here are some takeaway thoughts on this startling development.

1. The UK has voted to leave a sinking ship. Because of unfavorable demographics and a dirigiste economic model, the European Union has a very grim future.

2. Brexit is a vote against centralization, bureaucratization, and harmonization. It also is a victory for more growth, though the amount of additional long-run growth will depend on whether the UK government seizes the opportunity for lower taxes, less red tape, and a smaller burden of government.

3. President Obama once again fired blanks. Whether it was his failed attempt early in his presidency to get the Olympic Games in Chicago or his feckless attempt in his final year to get Britons to remain in the EU, Obama has a remarkably dismal track record. Maybe I can get him to endorse the Boston Red Sox, thus ensuring the Yankees make it to the World Series?

4. Speaking of feckless foreign leaders, but I can’t resist the temptation to point out that the Canadian Prime Minister’s reaction to Brexit wins a prize for vapidity. It would be amusing to see Trudeau somehow justify this absurd statement, though I suspect he’ll be too busy expanding government and squandering twenty-five years of bipartisan progress in Canada. Potential mea culpa…I can’t find proof that Trudeau actually made this statement. Even with the excuse that I wrote this column at 3:00 AM, I should have known better than to believe something I saw on Twitter (though I still think he’s vapid).

5. Nigel Farage and UKIP have voted themselves out of a job. A common joke in Washington is that government bureaucracies never solve problems for which they were created because that would eliminate their excuse for existing. After all, what would “poverty pimps” do if there weren’t poor people trapped in government dependency? Well, Brexit almost surely means doom for Farage and UKIP, yet they put country above personal interest. Congratulations to them, though I’ll miss Farage’s acerbic speeches.

6. The IMF and OECD disgracefully took part in “Project Fear” by concocting hysterical predictions of economic damage if the U.K. decided to get off the sinking ship of the European Union. To the extent there is some short-term economic instability over the next few days or weeks, those reckless international bureaucracies deserve much of the blame.

7. As part of his failed effort to influence the referendum, President Obama rejected the notion of quickly inking a free-trade agreement with the UK. Now that Brexit has been approved, hopefully the President will have the maturity and judgement to change his mind. Not only should the UK be first in line, but this should be the opportunity to launch the Global Free Trade Association that my former Heritage Foundation colleagues promoted last decade. Unfettered trade among jurisdictions with relatively high levels of economic freedom, such as the US, UK, Australia, Switzerland, New Zealand, Chile, etc, would be a great way of quickly capturing some of the benefits made possible by Brexit.

8. David Cameron should copy California Governor Jerry Brown. Not for anything recent, but for what he did in 1978 when voters approved an anti-tax referendum known as Proposition 13. Brown naturally opposed the referendum, but he completely reversed himself after the referendum was approved. By embracing the initiative, even if only belatedly, he helped his state and himself. That would be the smart approach for Cameron, though there’s a distinct danger that he could do great harm to himself, his party, and his country by trying to negotiate a deal to somehow keep the UK in the EU.

9. Last but not least, I’m very happy to be wrong about the outcome. I originally expected that “Project Fear” would be successful and that Britons would choose the devil they know over the one they don’t know. Well, I’m delighted that Elizabeth Hurley and I helped convince Britons to vote the right way. We obviously make a good team.

Joking aside, the real credit belongs to all UK freedom fighters, even the disaffected Labour Party voters who voted the right way for wrong reasons.

I’m particularly proud of the good work of my friends Allister Heath of the Telegraph, Eamonn Butler of the Adam Smith Institute, Dan Hannan of the European Parliament, and Matthew Elliott of Vote Leave. I imagine Margaret Thatcher is smiling down on them today.

Now it’s on to the second stage of this campaign and convincing California to declare independence from the United States!

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On June 23, the people of the United Kingdom will have the opportunity to restore sovereignty and protect democracy by voting in a national referendum to leave the European Union.

They should choose “leave” over “remain.”

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.

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.

From an American perspective, George Will has been especially insightful and eloquent. Here are some excerpts from a recent column in the Washington Post.

Lord Nigel Lawson… is impatient with the proposition that it is progress to transfer to supra-national institutions decisionmaking that belongs in Britain’s Parliament. …The Remain camp correctly says that Britain is richer and more rationally governed than when European unification began. The Leave camp, however, correctly responds that this is largely in spite of the E.U. — it is because of decisions made by British governments, particularly Margaret Thatcher’s, in what is becoming a shrinking sphere of national autonomy. In 1988, Thatcher said: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”

Here’s a good visual of what’s happening. What began as a good idea (free trade) has become a bad idea (economic union) and may become an even worse idea (common government).

Here’s what Dan Hannan, a British Member of the European Parliament, wrote on the issue. He’s very pro-Europe, but understands that does not mean European-wide governance is a good idea.

I’m emotionally drawn to Europe. I speak French and Spanish and have lived and worked all over the Continent. I’ve made many friends among…committed Euro-federalists. …they are also decent neighbours, loyal companions and generous hosts. I feel twinges of unease about disappointing them, especially the anglophiles. But, in the end, the head must rule the heart.

Dan identifies six reasons why it is sensible to leave.

Here are relevant portions of his arguments, starting with the fact that the EU is becoming a super-state..

The EU has acquired, one by one, the attributes and trappings of nationhood: a president and a foreign minister, citizenship and a passport, treaty-making powers, a criminal justice system, a written constitution, a flag and a national anthem. It is these things that Leavers object to, not the commerce and co-operation that we would continue to enjoy, as every neighbouring country does.

Second, it is only pro-trade for members, not the wider world.

The EU is not a free-trade area; it is a customs union. The difference may seem technical, but it goes to the heart of the decision we face. Free-trade areas remove barriers between members and, economists agree, tend to make participants wealthier. Customs unions, by contrast, erect a common tariff wall around their members, who surrender the right to strike individual trade deals. …Britain is one of only two of 28 member states that sell more to the rest of the world than to the EU. We have always been especially badly penalised by the EU’s Common External Tariff. Unlike Switzerland, which enjoys free trade with the EU at the same time as striking agreements with China and other growing economies… It’s a costly failure. In 2006, the EU was taking 55 per cent of our exports; last year, it was down to 45 per cent. What will it be in 2030 — or 2050?

Third, the advocates of common government are candid about their ultimate goals.

The Five Presidents’ Report sets out a plan for the amalgamation of fiscal and economic policies… The Belgian commissioner Marianne Thyssen has a plan for what she calls ‘social union’ — i.e. harmonisation of welfare systems. …These are not the musings of outlandish federalist think tanks: they are formal policy statements by the people who run Brussels.

Fourth, Europe is stagnant.

…in 1973, the states that now make up the EU accounted for 36 per cent of the world economy. Last year, it was 17 per cent. Obviously, developing economies grow faster than advanced ones, but the EU has also been comprehensively outperformed by the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. …Why tie ourselves to the world’s slowest-growing continent?

Fifth, there are examples of very successful non-EU nations in Europe.

…we can get a better deal than…Switzerland…and Norway…; on the day we left, we’d become the EU’s single biggest export market. …They trade freely with the EU…they are self-governing democracies.

And last but not least, a decision to remain will be interpreted as a green light for more centralization, bureaucratization, and harmonization.

A Remain vote will be…capitulation. Look at it from the point of view of a Euro-federalist. Britain would have demanded trivial reforms, failed to secure even those, and then voted to stay in on unchanged terms. After decades of growling and snarling, the bulldog would have rolled over and whimpered. …With the possibility of Brexit off the table, there will be a renewed push to integration, on everything from migrant quotas to a higher EU budget.

Dan’s bottom line is very simple.

We have created more jobs in the past five years than the other 27 states put together. How much bigger do we have to be, for heaven’s sake, before we can prosper under our own laws?

Roland Smith, writing for the U.K.’s Adam Smith Institute, produced The Liberal Case for Leave. Needless to say, he’s looking at the issue from the classical liberal perspective, not the statist American version.

Anyhow, here’s some of what he wrote.

…the 1970s turned out to be an odd period where many things that seemed like good ideas at the time turned out not to be. …While there may have been an element of truth about EEC membership in the 1970s that seduced many subsequent sceptics…our timing for joining “the club” could not have been worse. …globalisation was beginning to eat into the logic of a political European Union at the very point it was striding towards statehood with a single euro currency. …the European single market is being rapidly eclipsed. …The EU is therefore increasingly becoming a pointless middleman as a vast new global single market takes over.

Here’s a chart from the article showing the European Union’s rapidly falling share of global economic output.

Mr. Smith does not think it’s smart to link his country’s future to a declining bloc of nations.

We are now less dependent than ever on our closest trading partners in Europe and this trend is marching relentlessly onward. For the first 40 years of our membership, the majority — over 60% — of UK exports went to the EU. But in 2012, for the first time, that figure dropped below 50%. It is now at 45% and continues to sink. …The demographics of the European continent, alongside the dysfunctional euro and its insidious effects across Europe have also played a large part in this change… This situation and these trends are not going to change.

Here’s his conclusion.

This Brexit vision is therefore a global, outward-looking and ambitiously positive one. It eschews the inward-looking outlook of…the Remain lobby… So a parochial inward-looking “little Europe” and a demographically declining one, ranged against an expansive, liberal and global outlook. …The crux of the matter is that we in Britain want trade and cooperation; our EU partners want merger and a leashed hinterland.

These are strong arguments, so why does Prime Minister David Cameron want to remain?

And why is he joined by the hard-left leader of the Labour Party (actually, that’s easy to answer given the shared leftist orientation of both Jeremy Corbyn and EU officials), along with most big companies and major unions?

Most of them, if asked, will argue that a vote to leave the EU will undermine the economy. They’ll cite estimates of lower economic output from the International Monetary Fund, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the British Treasury, and other sources.

To be blunt, these numbers lack credibility. A pro-centralization, pro-EU Prime Minister asked for numbers from a bureaucracy he controls. As critics have pointed out, the goal was to produce scary numbers rather than to produce real analysis.

And the numbers from the international bureaucracies are even more laughable. The IMF is a left-wing organization with a dismal track record of sloppy and disingenuous output. And the OECD also is infamous for a statist perspective and dishonest data manipulation.

Indeed, the palpable mendacity of these numbers has probably boomeranged on supporters of the EU. Polls show that voters don’t believe these hysterical and overwrought numbers.

Instead, they laugh about “Project Fear.”

Yet, as reported by John Fund of National Review, the EU crowd is doubling down in their panic to frighten people.

…the organizers of Project Fear have gone into overdrive. European Council President Donald Tusk said in an interview with the German newspaper Bild that radical anti-European forces will be “drinking champagne” if Brexit passes.  …Tusk said. “As a historian I fear that Brexit could be the beginning of the destruction of not only the EU but also of western political civilization in its entirety.”

End of western civilization? Seriously?

Gee, why not also predict a zombie apocalypse?

These chicken little predictions are hard to take seriously when Britons can look at other nations in Europe that are prospering outside the European Union.

Consider Norway. Advocates of the EU claimed horrible results if the country didn’t join. Needless to say, those horrible results never materialized.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t honest people who sincerely think it would be a mistake to leave the European Union.

Indeed, a survey by the Centre for Macroeconomics found very negative views.

Almost all panel members thought that a vote for Brexit would lead to a significant disruption to financial markets and asset prices for several months, which would put the Bank of England on high alert. On top of the risk of a financial crisis in the near future, an unusually strong majority agree that there would be substantial negative long-term consequences.

Other economists seem to agree.

Four of them produced an article for VoxEU, and here’s some of what they wrote.

The possibility of the UK leaving the EU has generated an unusual degree of consensus among economists. …analysis from the Bank of England, to the OECD, to academia has all shown that Brexit would make us economically worse off. The disagreement is mainly over the degree of impoverishment… The one exception is…Professor Patrick Minford of Cardiff University, who argues that Brexit will raise the UK’s welfare by 4% as a result of increased trade… Minford’s policy recommendation is that following a vote for Brexit, the UK should not bother striking new trade deals but instead unilaterally abolish all its import tariffs… we know of no cases where an industrialised country has ever implemented full unilateral liberalisation – and for good reason. Persuading other countries to reduce their trade barriers is easier if you can also say you’re going to reduce your own as part of the deal. If we’re committed to going naked into the world economy, other countries are unlikely to follow suit voluntarily. …In reality, the UK will still continue to trade extensively with our closest geographical neighbours, it’s just that the higher trade barriers mean that we will do less of it.

Other establishment voices are convinced that the United Kingdom would be crazy to leave the EU.

Robert Samuelson, in his Washington Post column, views it as a form of national suicide because of existing economic ties to continental Europe.

Countries usually don’t knowingly commit economic suicide, but in Britain, millions seem ready to give it a try. …Leaving the E.U. would be an act of national insanity. It would weaken the U.K. economy, one of Europe’s strongest. The E.U. absorbs 44 percent of Britain’s exports; these might suffer because trade barriers, now virtually nonexistent between the U.K. and other E.U. members, would probably rise. Meanwhile, Britain would become less attractive as a production platform for the rest of Europe, so that new foreign direct investment in the U.K. — now $1.5 trillion — would fall. Also threatened would be London’s status as Europe’s major financial center, home (for example) to 78 percent of E.U. foreign exchange trading. With the U.K. out of the E.U., some banking activities might move to Frankfurt or other cities. …Brexit is an absurdity. But it is a potentially destructive absurdity. It creates more uncertainty in a world awash in uncertainty.

Allister Heath of the Daily Telegraph disagrees with these proponents of the status quo.

David Cameron and George Osborne have been claiming, over and again, that those of us who support Brexit have lost the economic argument. …utter nonsense. …The free-market, cosmopolitan, pro-globalisation economic case for leaving is stronger than ever… The hysterical studies claiming that Brexit would ruin us are grotesque caricatures, attempts at portraying a post-Brexit Britain as a nation that suddenly decided to turn its back on free trade and foreigners. …a Brexit would almost certainly mean the UK remaining in the European Economic Area (EEA), like Norway: we would be liberated from much political interference, be allowed to forge our own free-trade deals while retaining the single market’s Four Freedoms. Europe’s shell-shocked corporate interests would demand economic and trade stability of its equally traumatised political classes, and they would get it. …with supply-side reforms at home, the UK would become more, rather than less, attractive to global capital. The Treasury, OECD and IMF’s concocted Armageddon scenarios wouldn’t materialise. Remain has only won the economic argument in the sense that most economists and the large institutions that employ them support their side.

And Allister points out that the supposed consensus view of economists has been wildly wrong in the past.

Time and time again, the majority of economists make spectacularly wrong calls, and it is a small, despised minority that gets it right. In 1999, The Economist wrote to the UK’s leading academic practitioners of the dismal science to find out whether it would be in our national economic interest to join the euro by 2004. Of the 165 who replied, 65 per cent said that it would. Even more depressingly, 73 per cent of those who actually specialised in the economics of the EU and of monetary union thought we should join – the experts among the experts were the most wrong. Britain would have gone bust had we listened… The vast majority of economists did not foresee or predict the financial crisis or the Great Recession or the eurozone crisis. Yet they now have the chutzpah to behave as if they should be treated like philosopher kings… Remember the Twenties? The economics profession overwhelmingly failed to see the great bubble and subsequent crash and depression. The Thirties? It messed up on just about everything. …In the Sixties and subsequently, Paul Samuelson’s best-selling, dominant economics textbook was predicting that the Soviet Union’s GDP per capita would soon catch up with America’s. The Seventies? Most economists didn’t know how stagflation could even be possible. The Eighties? The profession opposed Thatcherism and the policies that saved the UK; infamously, 364 economists attacked Thatcher’s macroeconomic policies in the 1981 Budget and then kept getting it wrong. …The problem this time around is that Remain economists assume that leaving the EU would mean reducing globalisation and halting most immigration. They assume that there are only costs and no benefits from leaving the EU…the EU’s anti-democratic institutions are unsustainable and thus pose a great threat to the liberal international economic order its UK supporters claim to be defending.

The debate among economists is mostly focused on trade.

With that in mind, this television exchange is very enlightening.

In other words, nations all over the world trade very successfully without being in the European Union, so this view that somehow the United Kingdom can’t do likewise is a triumph of theory over reality.

It’s way past time to wrap this up, but there are a few additional items I can’t resist sharing.

A British parliamentarian (akin to a member of Congress in the U.S.) is understandably unhappy that some Americans, most notably President Obama, are interfering in the Brexit election.

Here are parts of Chris Grayling’s column in the Washington Post.

Imagine if you were told that the United States should join an American Union bringing together all the nations of North and South America. It would have its own parliament — maybe in Panama City, a place on the cusp of the two halves of the Americas. That American Parliament would have the power to make the majority of your laws. A Supreme Court of the Americas in Panama would outrank the U.S. Supreme Court and take decisions that would be mandatory in the United States. …That is, more or less, where Britain finds itself today.

Sensible Americans obviously wouldn’t like that state of affairs.

And we would be even more unhappy if that Superstate of the Americas kept grabbing more power, which is exactly what’s happening across the Atlantic.

It decrees that any citizen of any European country can come and live and work in Britain — and that if they do, we must give them free health care and welfare support if they need it. Millions have done so. …it is moving closer and closer to becoming a single government for Europe, and indeed many of its key players — leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s François Hollande — have that as a clear goal. Britain has a small minority of the voting rights, and loses out almost every time.

Allister Heath adds more wisdom to the discussion.

He’s especially mystified by those who think the EU is a force for liberalization.

Bizarrely, given the EU’s appalling record, these folk see Brussels as the last guardian of enlightenment values; the only way to save the project, they believe, is rule by a transnational nomenklatura. …Remainians are petrified that the British public would…vote the wrong way: for protectionism, nationalisation, xenophobia and stupidity. We would…support idiotic, growth-destroying and socially unacceptable policies. Astonishingly, given the Continent’s collectivist history, such folk equate membership of the EU with free trade and Britain’s Leave camp with protectionism. It’s a breathtaking error of judgement… They cannot grasp that there are other, better ways of opening markets than from within the EU, and that in any case it is just about as far from a libertarian project as it is possible to imagine. …pro-EU Left and Right agree that the people are dangerous, that they must be contained and that, slowly but surely, entire areas of public policy should be hived off beyond the reach of the British electorate. The strategy is to impose top-down restraints and to subcontract decision-making to external bodies… European institutions are actually the antithesis of true liberalism.

Let’s end with some passages from another George Will column.

Michael Gove, secretary of justice and leader of the campaign for Brexit — Britain’s withdrawal from the E.U. — anticipates a “galvanizing, liberating, empowering moment of patriotic renewal.” …American conservatives would regard Britain’s withdrawal from the E.U. as the healthy rejection of political grandiosity. …If Britons vote to remain in the E.U., this might be the last important decision made at British ballot boxes because important decisions will increasingly be made in Brussels. The E.U.’s “democracy deficit” is…the point of such a state. …Under Europe’s administrative state, Gove says “interest groups are stronger than ever” and they prefer social stasis to the uncertainties of societies that welcome the creative destruction of those interests that thrive by rent-seeking. …most of binding law in Britain — estimates vary from 55 percent to 65 percent — arises not from the Parliament in Westminster but from the European Commission in Brussels. The E.U. has a flag no one salutes, an anthem no one sings, a president no one can name, a parliament that no one other than its members wants to have more power (which must be subtracted from national legislatures), a capital of coagulated bureaucracies that no one admires or controls, a currency that presupposes what neither does nor should exist (a European central government administering fiscal policy), and rules of fiscal behavior (limits on debt-to-gross domestic product ratios) that few if any members obey and none have been penalized for ignoring. …the 23rd of June can become Britain’s Fourth of July — a Declaration of Independence. If Britain rejects continuing complicity in the E.U. project — constructing a bland leviathan from surrendered national sovereignties — it will have…taken an off-ramp from the road to serfdom.

Well said.

If I lived in the United Kingdom, I would vote to leave the European Union.

Simply stated, the European project is controlled by statists and the one good thing it provides (free trade between members) is easily overwhelmed by the negative things it imposes (protectionism against outsiders, tax harmonization, horrible agriculture subsidies, bad fisheries policy, etc).

Moreover, the continent is demographically dying.

The bottom line is that the European Union is a sinking ship. This cartoon is a bit flamboyant, but it captures my overall sentiments.

If I had lots of money and was confident of the outcome, I would learn the words to this song and fly to London so I could sing in celebration on June 23rd.

Alas, just as I predicted the Scots wouldn’t vote for independence, I fear the scare campaign ultimately will succeed and Britons will vote to remain on the sinking ship of the European Union.

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The most depressing data about America’s economy is not the top tax rate, the regulatory burden, or the level of wasteful of government spending.

Those numbers certainly are grim, but I think they’re not nearly as depressing as America’s demographic outlook.

As you can see from this sobering image, America’s population pyramid is turning into a population cylinder.

There’s nothing a priori wrong with an aging population and a falling birthrate, of course, but those factors create a poisonous outlook when mixed with poorly designed entitlement programs.

The lesson is that a modest-sized welfare state is sustainable (even if not advisable) when a nation has a population pyramid. But even a small welfare state becomes a problem when a nation has a population cylinder. Simply stated, there aren’t enough people to pull the wagon and there are too many people riding in the wagon.

But if America’s numbers are depressing, the data from Europe should lead to mass suicide.

The Wall Street Journal has a new story on the utterly dismal fiscal and demographic data from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

State-funded pensions are at the heart of Europe’s social-welfare model, insulating people from extreme poverty in old age. Most European countries have set aside almost nothing to pay these benefits, simply funding them each year out of tax revenue. Now, European countries face a demographic tsunami, in the form of a growing mismatch between low birthrates and high longevity, for which few are prepared. …Looking at Europeans 65 or older who aren’t working, there are 42 for every 100 workers, and this will rise to 65 per 100 by 2060, the European Union’s data agency says. …Though its situation is unusually dire, Greece isn’t the only European government being forced to acknowledge it has made pension promises it can ill afford. …Across Europe, the birthrate has fallen 40% since the 1960s to around 1.5 children per woman, according to the United Nations. In that time, life expectancies have risen to roughly 80 from 69. …Only a few countries estimate the total debt burden of the pension promises they have made.

The various nations is Europe may not produce the data, but one of the few good aspects of international bureaucracies is that they generate such numbers.

I’ve previously shared projections from the IMF, BIS, and OECD, all of which show the vast majority of developed nations will face serious fiscal crises in the absence of reforms to restrain the burden of government spending.

New we can add some data from the European Commission, which has an Ageing Report that is filled with some horrifying demographic and fiscal information.

First, here are the numbers showing that most parts of the world (and especially Europe) will have many more old people but a lot fewer working-age people.

Looking specifically at the European Union, here’s what will happen to the population pyramid between 2013 and 2060. As you can see, the pyramid no longer exists today and will become an upside-down pyramid in the future.

Now let’s look at data on the ratio between old people and working-age people in various EU nations.

Dark blue shows the recent data, medium blue is the dependency ratio in 2030, and the light blue shows the dependency ration in 2060.

The bottom line is that it won’t be long before any two working-age people in the EU will be expected to support themselves plus one old person. That necessarily implies a very onerous tax burden.

But the numbers actually are even more depressing than what is shown in the above chart.

In the European Commission’s Ageing Report, there’s an estimate of the “economic dependency ratio,” which compares the number of workers with the number of people supported by those workers.

The total economic dependency ratio is a more comprehensive indicator, which is calculated as the ratio between the total inactive population and employment (either 20-64 or 20-74). It gives a measure of the average number of individuals that each employed “supports”.

And here are the jaw-dropping numbers.

These numbers are basically a death knell for an economy. The tax burden necessary for this kind of society would be ruinous to an  economy. A huge share of productive people in these nations would decide not to work or to migrate where they would have a chance to keep a decent share of their earnings.

So now you understand why I wrote a column identifying safe havens that might remain stable while other nations are suffering Greek-style fiscal collapse.

Having shared all this depressing data, allow me to close with some semi-optimistic data.

I recently wrote that Hong Kong’s demographic outlook is far worse than what you find in Europe, but I explained that this won’t cause a crisis because Hong Kong wisely has chosen not to adopt a welfare state. People basically save for their own retirement.

Well, a handful of European nations have taken some steps to restrain spending. Here’s a table from the EC report on countries which have rules designed to adjust outlays as the population gets older.

These reforms are better than nothing, but the far better approach is a shift to a system of private retirement savings.

As you can see from this chart, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands already have a large degree of mandatory private retirement savings, and a handful of other countries have recently adopted private Social Security systems that will help the long-run outlook.

I’ve already written about the sensible “pre-funded” system in The Netherlands, and there are many other nations (ranging from Australia to Chile to the Faroe Islands) that have implemented this type of reform.

Given all the other types of government spending across the Atlantic, Social Security reform surely won’t be a sufficient condition to save Europe, but it surely is a necessary condition.

Here’s my video explaining why such reform is a good idea, both in America and every other place in the world.

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Advocates of limited government favor a small public sector because more resources in the productive sector of the economy translates into faster growth, more job creation, and higher living standards.

Statists, by contrast, favor big government for two main reasons. First, many of them belong to well-connected interest groups that have their snouts in the federal trough. Second, some of them sincerely think government spending “stimulates” an economy and/or “helps” people.

I want to address the latter group of statists, most of whom are well meaning.

I’ve learned over time that such voters generally don’t pay that much attention to economic arguments.

To the extent they sometimes favor small government, it’s because they think Washington wastes money. Indeed, I suspect a majority of voters would agree with P.J. O’Rourke that “giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”

Yet many of those voters (perhaps even including some of the ones that recognize that DC is riddled with waste, fraud, and abuse) can be persuaded to support bigger government. Having engaged in thousands of conversations with such people over several decades, I think they’re motivated by a desire to be part of a society that “cares.” So, regardless of Washington’s track record of exacerbating problems rather than solving them, these folks sometimes think more government is the right approach. Like second weddings, this is a triumph of hope over experience.

Today, at the risk of jumbling my analogies, let’s try to convince such people that you don’t want a second wedding if it means you’re getting hitched to an institution that is unavoidably wasteful and incompetent.

And we have some fresh eye-popping evidence. Here are some excerpts from an exposé published by the Washington Post.

…the government has spent more than $1 billion trying to replace its antiquated approach to managing immigration with a system of digitized records, online applications and a full suite of nearly 100 electronic forms. A decade in, all that officials have to show for the effort is a single form that’s now available for online applications and a single type of fee that immigrants pay electronically. The 94 other forms can be filed only with paper.

Amazing. After 10 years and $1 billion, the net result is a total cluster-you-know-what.

…officials at the Department of Homeland Security, which includes USCIS, were aware that the project was riddled with hundreds of critical software and other defects. …Only three of the agency’s scores of immigration forms have been digitized — and two of these were taken offline after they debuted because nearly all of the software and hardware from the original system had to be junked. ..A report last year from the DHS inspector general’s office said it sometimes took up to 150 clicks for employees to navigate the system’s various complex features and open documents.

So is the incompetent contractor (IBM) getting punished? Are any of the bureaucrats in charge of the project getting fired?

Of course not. This is government! So why you waste some money, that’s merely a prelude to wasting even more money.

This project, run by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, was originally supposed to cost a half-billion dollars and be finished in 2013. Instead, it’s now projected to reach up to $3.1 billion and be done nearly four years from now.

By the way, the incompetence revealed in this story this is not an argument for immigration or against immigration.

My point is simply that governments have long track records of squandering other people’s money, with this story simply being another straw on the camel’s back.

Or maybe it would be better to describe it as another bit of dead weight financed by over-burdened taxpayers.

I don’t know if this will make anyone feel better, but other governments are similarly incompetent and foolish.

Here’s an example of government blundering from overseas. As reported by the UK-based Guardian, the European Commission just admitted that it has successfully process 0.00015 percent of refugees.

EU members states agreed in September to relocate 160,000 people in “clear need of international protection” through a scheme set up to relocate Syrian, Eritrean, and Iraqi refugees from the most affected EU states – such as Italy and Greece – to other EU member states. So far 116 people have been relocated, and only 1,418 places have been made available by 14 member states, according to data released on Tuesday by the European Commission.

Wow. It’s been a while since I was a student, but I remember that you need 70.0 percent for a C and 60.0 percent to avoid failing.

With that in mind, I wonder what sort of grade you get for 0.00015 percent? Is there such as thing as F-, though I guess Z- would be more appropriate.

Here’s a graphic from the article.

By the way, the EU’s incompetence at processing refugees is one issue. Another issue is whether European nations should be granting refugee status to hundreds of thousands (and eventually millions) of people from cultures that don’t assimilate very well.

And I imagine that refugee status in Europe means access to welfare, so the system presumably creates the same perverse incentives we find on the American refugee program.

But for today, I’m simply focused on the fact that government bureaucracies are spectacularly incompetent.

Yet there are still many people who want to give more power and money to politicians.

Let’s close with a serious point.

Unless you’re an anarcho-capitalist, there are some things you want government to do, and you want those things to be done well.

So how, given the natural incompetence of the public sector, can you get good (or at least acceptable) results?

The only feasible answer is to have small government, as Mark Steyn has explained with his usual dose of sarcasm. A bloated public sector guarantees slipshod performance everywhere. But if the federal government concentrates on just a few tasks, oversight and monitoring will be easier and it will be easier to weed out incompetence.

And this isn’t just theory. The European Central Bank has produced a measure of public sector efficiency and their research shows that smaller governments are much more competent at producing desired results.

P.S. Bizarrely, some folks acknowledge government incompetence but think the right solution is more power for government.

P.P.S. Some of this is common sense. What government do you think is more competent and effective, France with its big government or Switzerland with its medium-sized government? Where do you think government is more effective, Singapore with its small government or the United States with its medium-sized government?

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I’ve shared lots of analysis (both serious and satirical) about the mess in Greece and I feel obliged to comment on the latest agreement for another bailout.

But how many times can I write that the Greek government spends too much money and has a punitive tax system (and a crazy regulatory regime, a bloated bureaucracy, etc)?

So let’s try a different approach and tell a story about the new bailout by using some images.

Here’s an amusing perspective on what actually happened this weekend.

I explained a few days ago that the bailouts have simultaneously enabled the delay of much-needed spending reforms while also burdening Greece with an impossible pile of debt.

But the Greek bailouts, like the TARP bailout in the United States, were beneficial to powerful insiders.

Here’s a look at how banks in various European nations have been able to reduce their exposure to Greek debt.

Sure, the banks almost surely still lost money, but they also transferred a lot of the losses to taxpayers.

To get a sense of the magnitude of handouts, here’s a chart from a Washington Post story.

And now, assuming the deal gets finalized, that pile of foolish and unsustainable debt will be even bigger.

One of the main components of the new agreement is that Greece supposedly will raise revenue by selling $50 billion of state-owned assets.

Don’t believe that number. But not because there aren’t plenty of assets to sell, but rather because the track record on privatization proceeds suggests that there is a giant gap between what Greece promises and what Greece delivers.

To understand why assets aren’t being sold, just keep in mind that most of the assets are under the control of the government in order to provide unearned benefits to different interest groups.

If you’re an overpaid unionized worker at a government-owned port, for instance, the last thing you want is to have that port sold to a private investor who presumably would want to link pay to productivity.

Here’s the best bit of humor I’ve seen about the negotiations this past weekend. It purports to show a list of demands from Germany to Greece.

While this image is funny, it’s also wrong.

Germany isn’t imposing anything on Greece. The Germans are simply stating that Greek politicians need to make some changes if they want more handouts.

Moreover, it’s quite likely that Germany will wind up being a big loser when the dust settles. Here’s some of what Gideon Rachman wrote for the U.K.-based Financial Times.

If anybody has capitulated, it is Germany. The German government has just agreed, in principle, to another multibillion-euro bailout of Greece — the third so far. In return, it has received promises of economic reform from a Greek government that makes it clear that it profoundly disagrees with everything that it has just agreed to. The Syriza government will clearly do all it can to thwart the deal it has just signed. If that is a German victory, I would hate to see a defeat.

So true.

I fear this deal will simply saddle Greece with a bigger pile of debt and set the stage for a more costly default in the future.

The title of this column is about pictures. But let’s close with some good and bad analysis about the Greek mess.

Writing for Real Clear Markets, Louis Woodhill has some of the best insight, starting with the fact that the bailout does two things.

First, this new bailout is largely just a mechanism to prevent default on past bailouts. Sort of like making a new loan to your deadbeat brother-in-law to cover what he owes you on previous loans.

…the €53.5 billion in new loans…would just be recycled to Greece’s creditors (the IMF, the EU, and the ECB) to pay the interest and principal on existing debts.

Second, it prevents the full meltdown of Greek banks.

The key point is that a bailout agreement would restore European Central Bank (ECB) “Emergency Liquidity Assistance” (ELA) to the Greek banking system. This would allow Greeks that still have deposits in Greek banks (€136.5 billion as of the end of May) to get their money out of those banks.

That’s good news if you’re a Greek depositor, but that’s about it.

In other words, those two “achievements” don’t solve the real problem of Greece trying to consume more than it produces.

Indeed, Woodhill correctly identifies a big reason to be very pessimist about the outcome of this latest agreement. Simply stated, Greek politicians (aided and abetted by the Troika) are pursuing the wrong kind of austerity.

…what is killing Greece is a lack of economic growth, and the meat of Tsipras’ bailout proposal consists of growth-killing tax hikes. The media and the economics profession have been framing the alternatives for Greece in terms of a choice between “austerity” and “stimulus.” Unfortunately for Greece, austerity has come to mean tax increases, and stimulus has come to mean using “other people’s money” (mainly that of German taxpayers) to support Greek welfare state outlays. So, if “other people” aren’t willing to fund more Greek government spending, then the only option the “experts” can imagine is to raise taxes on an economy that is already being crushed by excessive taxation.

Let’s close with the most ridiculous bit of analysis about the Greek situation. It’s from Joe Stiglitz,

Joseph Stiglitz accused Germany on Sunday of displaying a “lack of solidarity” with debt-laden Greece that has badly undermined the vision of Europe. …”Asking even more from Greece would be unconscionable. If the ECB allows Greek banks to open up and they renegotiate whatever agreement, then wounds can heal. But if they succeed in using this as a trick to get Greece out, I think the damage is going to be very very deep.”

Needless to say, I’m not sure why it’s “solidarity” for one nation to mooch in perpetuity from another nation. I suspect Stiglitz is mostly motivated by an ideological desire to redistribute from the richer Germans to the poorer Greeks,

But I’m more interested in why he isn’t showing “solidarity” to me. I’m sure both his income and his wealth are greater than mine. So if equality of outcomes is desirable, why doesn’t he put his money where his mouth is by sending me a big check?

Needless to say, I won’t be holding my breath waiting for the money. Like most leftists, Stiglitz likes to atone for his feelings of guilt by redistributing other people’s money.

And I also won’t be holding my breath waiting for a good outcome in Greece. As I wrote five-plus years ago, Greece needs the tough-love approach of no bailouts, which would mean a default but also an immediate requirement for a balanced budget.

Last but not least, I’m going to confess a possible mistake. I always thought that Margaret Thatcher was right when she warned that the problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money. But this latest bailout of Greece shows that maybe politicians from other nations are foolish enough to provide an endless supply of other people’s money.

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The European Commission’s data-gathering bureaucracy, Eurostat, has just published a new report on government finances for the region.

And with Greece’s ongoing fiscal turmoil getting headlines, this Eurostat publication is worthwhile because it debunks the notion, peddled by folks like Paul Krugman, that Europe has been harmed by “savage” and “harsh” spending cuts.

Here’s some of what’s in the report.

In 2014, total general government expenditure amounted to €6 701 bn in the European Union (EU). This represented almost half (48.1%) of EU GDP in 2014… Among EU Member States, general government expenditure varied in 2014 from less than 35% of GDP in Lithuania and Romania to more than 57% in Finland, France and Denmark.

Not only is government spending consuming almost half of economic output, redistribution outlays are the biggest line item in the budgets of European nations.

…the function ‘social protection’ was by far the most important, accounting for 40.2% of total general government expenditure. The next most important areas in terms of general government expenditure were ‘health’ (14.8%)… Its weight varied across EU Member States from 28.6% of total general government expenditure in Cyprus to 44.4% in Luxembourg. Eight EU Member States devoted more than 40% of their expenditure to social protection.

At this point, some readers may be thinking that the report shows European nations have very big governments with very large welfare states, but that doesn’t prove one way or the other whether there’s been austerity.

After all, austerity supposedly measures the degree to which there have been big spending cuts, not whether government consumes a large or small share of economic output.

So let’s now look at some of the underlying annual spending data from Eurostat.

Here’s their chart showing annual levels of government spending, both for the entire European Union (EU-28) and for the nations using the euro currency (EA-19). As you can see, there haven’t been any “harsh” or “savage” cuts.

Heck, there haven’t even been “timid” and “meek” cuts. The burden of government spending keeps climbing.

None of this should come as a surprise.

I’ve shared analysis making this point from experts on European fiscal policy such as Steve Hanke, Brian Wesbury, Constantin Gurdgiev, Fredrik Erixon, and Leonid Bershidsky.

So why is there a mythology about supposed spending cuts in Europe?

There are three answers.

  • First, there are lots of ignorant of mendacious people who don’t understand the numbers or don’t care about the truth. You can take a wild guess about the identity of some of these people.
  • Second, while overall government spending has continuously risen in Europe, a few nations (generally the ones that were most profligate last decade) have been forced to make some non-trivial spending cuts.
  • Third, some people cherry pick data on the burden of government spending relative to economic output and assert that austerity exists if government grows slower than GDP.

The people in the first category should be dismissed as cranks and ideologues.

Regarding the second category, if you look at Eurostat’s annual fiscal data, you’ll find that most EU nations since 2008 have had at least one year in which government spending declined. Indeed, the only exceptions are Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Austria, Poland, Slovakia, Finland, and Sweden.

But we’ve also had a few years of spending reductions in the United States since 2008, yet it would be silly to argue we’ve had “savage” and “harsh” cuts. The real question is whether any governments have been forced to make non-trivial reductions in the burden of spending. And if that’s defined as spending less today than they did in 2008, the only nations on that list are Greece, Latvia, and Ireland. But they’re also high on the list of countries that were most profligate in the years before 2008, so is it “austerity” if you give up drinking for a week or two after spending a week or two in an alcoholic haze? Perhaps the answer is yes, but the real problem was having a spending binge in the first place.

The third category is also worth exploring because the best way to determine if a country has responsible policy is to see whether government spending is falling as a share of economic output (i.e., are they following Mitchell’s Golden Rule). But you can’t cherry pick the data. For instance, look at this chart from Eurostat. If 2009 is used as the base year, it appears that EU nations have been frugal. But 2009 also was the year with the biggest bailouts and faux stimulus packages. So while government spending has receded a bit from the 2009 peak, the overall burden of spending today is significantly higher than it was before the 2008 crisis. Not exactly a very rigorous definition of austerity.

The bottom line is that there hasn’t been serious austerity in Europe, at least if austerity is defined as non-trivial spending cuts.

To be sure, there have been big fiscal changes in Europe. The bad news is that those changes have been big increases in income tax rates and big increases in value-added tax rates.

So if folks are looking for a good explanation of why Europe is suffering from anemic growth, that might be a place to start.

P.S. Unlike other European countries, the Baltic nations focused on genuine spending cuts rather than tax hike and their economies are doing comparatively well.

P.P.S. Even though Switzerland isn’t a member of the EU, Eurostat does include annual spending data for that nation. And it’s worth noting that spending has only grown by 2.07 percent per year since the implementation of the debt brake (which is really a spending cap). So that’s actually the best role model in Europe, as explained here by a representative from the Swiss Embassy.

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Europe is suffering from economic stagnation caused in part by excessive fiscal burdens.

So what are European policy makers doing to address this problem?

If you think the answer might have something to do with a shift to responsible fiscal policy, you obviously have no familiarity with Europe’s political elite. But if you have paid attention to their behavior, you won’t be surprised to learn that they’re lashing out at jurisdictions with better policy.

Here are a few blurbs from a story in the Economic Times.

The European Union published its first list of international tax havens on Wednesday… “We are today publishing the top 30 non-cooperative jurisdictions consisting of those countries or territories that feature on at least 10 member states’ blacklists,” EU Economic Affairs Commissioner Pierre Moscovici told a news conference. 

This is a misguided exercise for several reasons, but here are the ones that merit some discussion.

1. I can’t resist starting with a philosophical point. Low-tax jurisdictions and so-called tax havens should be emulated rather than persecuted. Their modest fiscal burdens are strongly correlated with high levels of prosperity. It’s high-tax nations that should be blacklisted and shamed for their destructive policies.

2. This new EU blacklist is particularly nonsensical because there’s no rational (even from a leftist perspective) methodology. Jurisdictions get added to the blacklist if 10 or more EU nations don’t like their tax laws. Some nations, as cited in official EU documents, even use “the level of taxation for blacklisting purposes.”

3. As has always been the case with anti-tax competition campaigns, the entire exercise reeks of hypocrisy. Big European nations such as Luxembourg and Switzerland were left off the blacklist, and the United States also was omitted (though the EU figured it was okay to pick on the U.S. Virgin Islands for inexplicable reasons).

By the way, I’m not the only person to notice the hypocrisy. Here are some excerpts from a report in the U.K.-based Guardian.

A blacklist of the world’s 30 worst-offending tax havens, published on Wednesday by the European commission, includes the tiny Polynesian island of Niue, where 1,400 people live in semi-subsistence — but does not include Luxembourg, the EU’s wealthy tax avoidance hub. …the new register does not include countries such as the Netherlands, Ireland.

And Radio New Zealand made a similar point it its report.

Anthony van Fossen, an adjunct research fellow at Australia’s Griffith University, says the list seems to be picking on smaller, easy-to-target tax havens and ignoring major ones like Singapore, Switzerland and Luxembourg. “The list is very strange in that some major havens are ignored, particularly the havens in the European Union itself, and many minor havens, including some in the Pacific Islands are highlighted.”

The more one investigates this new EU project, the more irrational it appears.

Some of the larger and more sensible European nations, including Sweden, Germany, Denmark, and the United Kingdom, didn’t even participate. Or, if they did, they decided that every jurisdiction in the world has “tax good governance.”

But other nations put together incomprehensible lists, featuring some well-known low-tax jurisdictions, but also places that have never before been considered “tax havens.” Is Botswana really a hiding spot for French taxpayers? Do Finnish taxpayers actually protect their money in Tajikistan? Is Bolivia actually a haven for the Portuguese? Do the Belgians put their funds in St. Barthelemy, which is part of France? And do Greeks put their money in Bosnia?!?

As you can see from this map, the Greeks also listed nations such as Saudi Arabia and Paraguay. No wonder the nation is such a mess. It’s governed by brain-dead government officials.

I’ve saved the best evidence for the end. If you really want to grasp the level of irrationality in the EU blacklist, it’s even been criticized by the tax-loving (but not tax-paying) bureaucrats at the OECD. Here are some details from a report out of Cayman.

‘As the OECD and the Global Forum we would like to confirm that the only agreeable assessment of countries as regards their cooperation is made by the Global Forum and that a number of countries identified in the EU exercise are either fully or largely compliant and have committed to AEOI, sometimes even as early adopters’, the email states. …‘We have already expressed our concerns (to the EU Commission) and stand ready to further clarify to the media the position of the affected jurisdictions with regard to their compliance with the Global Forum standards’, Mr Saint-Amans and Ms Bhatia wrote.

Needless to say, being compliant with the OECD is nothing to celebrate. It means a jurisdiction has been bullied into surrendering its fiscal sovereignty and agreeing to serve as a deputy tax collector for high-tax governments.

But having taken that unfortunate step, it makes no sense for these low-tax jurisdictions to now be persecuted by the EU.

P.S. Let’s add to our collection of libertarian humor (see here and here for prior examples).

This image targets the Libertarian Party, but I’ve certainly dealt many times with folks that assert that all libertarians should “grow up” and accept big government.

For what it’s worth, if growing up means acquiescing to disgusting government overreach, I prefer to remain a child.

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