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Posts Tagged ‘Fiscal Crisis’

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

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

That’s a very grim combination.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we may be reaching that point.

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

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

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

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

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

If the latter, Lachman predicts it will be huge.

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

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

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

Simply stated, we should minimize moral hazard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But all of the PIGS are in trouble.

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

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

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Is Greece the international version of New Jersey or is New Jersey the American version of Greece?

Is New Jersey the national version of Chicago, or is Chicago the the local version of New Jersey?

The answer is yes, regardless of how the question is phrased because – in all cases – we’re talking about examples of how politicians (and short-sighted voters) create “Goldfish Government.”

Let’s examine Chicago to see how this process works.

The Washington Post noted early last year that the new mayor was going to face an enormous fiscal challenge because of the reckless choices made by previous generations of politicians.

The city has been underfunding its pensions for decades, with dire results. Chicago’s pension plans collectively have only about a quarter of the assets they’ll need to pay benefits, one of the worst funding ratios in the nation. To put that hole in dollar terms, Chicago is about $28 billion short of what it needs, even under relatively favorable assumptions about future returns, or about $10,000 for every man, woman and child living in the city. …radical surgery still needed. Within a few years, pension contributions are projected to suck up more than 20 percent of the city’s budget. And Chicago can’t count on much help from the state, which is dealing with its own, equally severe case of pension underfunding. …what’s happening in Illinois is merely the earliest and most extreme manifestation of a quandary that will soon be dominating the public conversation in many states: how to pay for retirement promises to public employees without entering a fiscal death spiral. …shoddy accounting allowed generations of politicians all over the country to curry favor with public-sector workers by offering them ever-fatter pension packages, gaining immediate benefit while deferring the political cost of paying for all those benefits until much later. Later is now arriving. …Chicago has been losing lower- and middle-class residents for years, in part because of its heavily regressive tax burden. And when Chicago and Illinois both start raising the rates on upper earners — as they will have to, and soon — they run the risk that those people ,too, will start trickling away, either to smaller cities without the burdensome pension-legacy costs.

Megan McArdle pointed out that Chicago is a mess because of “public choice” – i.e., politicians make short-sighted and irresponsible decisions in order to maximize votes and power.

Throw in a recession sometime in the next couple of years, and Chicago is going to be in a full-blown crisis. …it’s the fault of generations of politicians before them who promised an ever-richer array of benefits to government workers. Particularly, they liked to raise the retirement benefits. …The whole point of giving workers pension benefits instead of cash was that you didn’t have to pay for them; you could promise the benefits now and gather up the votes that the grateful workers tossed at your feet, all without costing current taxpayers a single dime. …Future taxpayers mostly weren’t voting in 1982 municipal elections. …Chicagoans, welcome to “later.” The municipal pensions only have about 25 percent of the assets they’ll need to cover projected benefits, a shortfall of roughly $28 billion. …If you use a more cautious method, you come up with a shortfall of more than $40 billion. …Moody’s Investors Service rates the city’s general obligation debt as junk bonds. …Chicago is now approaching the point where the growth of its obligations will outpace the growth of any possible revenue stream it might use to cover them. It’s a few steps from there to municipal bankruptcy.

Unsurprisingly, Chicago’s relatively new mayor wants to keep the scam going.

As reported by the Chicago Tribune, she wants to extract more money from taxpayers.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot…said there’s “no question” residents will need to pay more in taxes or fees to plug a looming city budget shortfall… “There’s no question we’re going to have to come to the taxpayers and ask for additional revenue.” …Lightfoot did not specify what sort of revenue she expects to raise — whether it would come in the form of new taxes, a property tax hike or increased fees. …referring to her campaign promise to seek cuts before asking taxpayers for more money, Lightfoot added, “I meant what I said on the course of the campaign: We have a lot of hard choices we’re going to have to make regarding city finances.”

Like previous mayors, she’s buying votes with other people’s money.

The Wall Street Journal opined last year about her surrender to the teacher unions (a Chicago tradition, as illustrated by the adjacent cartoon by Lisa Benson).

Except it wasn’t really a surrender since she was already on their side (as perfectly captured by this Ramirez cartoon).

So the net result is a combination of bad fiscal policy and bad education policy.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago Teachers Union on Thursday struck an agreement to end an 11-day strike, and by the looks of it the union was bargaining with itself. The mayor is touting the new contract as the most generous in Chicago history, and she’s right. …The new contract includes a 16% raise over five years (not including raises based on longevity), a three-year freeze on health insurance premiums, lower copays, …and more than 450 new social workers and nurses. …you can bet it will be expensive. Last week the mayor proposed a slew of tax increases including levies on ride-hailing services and restaurant meals. This week her staff suggested that property taxes may have to increase . . . again. Michelle Obama the other day complained that white people were leaving the city to escape minorities who are moving in. No, they’re fleeing Chicago’s high taxes and lousy schools—and so are minorities.

This story from Reason is a powerful (and nauseating) example of how a money-hungry city is making life miserable for ordinary people.

Chicago police pulled Spencer Byrd over for a broken turn signal. Byrd says his signal wasn’t broken, but that detail would soon be the least of his worries. …Byrd was giving a client, a man he says he had never met before, a ride… Police pulled both of them out of the car and searched them. Byrd was clean, but in his passenger’s pocket was a bag of heroin… Police released Byrd after a short stint in an interrogation room without charging him with a crime. But when Byrd went to retrieve his car, he found out the Chicago Police Department had seized and impounded it. …The program impounds cars when the owner beats a criminal case or isn’t charged with a crime in the first place. It impounds cars even when the owner isn’t even driving, like when a child is borrowing a parent’s car. …Byrd calls his car his “livelihood,” and he has been fighting for close to two years now to recover it. He says he has $3,500-worth of tools locked in the trunk, and he can’t retrieve them. …Like tens of thousands of other Chicagoans, Byrd was a victim of years of the city’s fiscal negligence. …to try and nickel-and-dime…out of these massive budget gaps. …The result is a uniquely punitive impound system, in which Chicago profits off restricting the ability of its residents to drive.

Amazingly, Chicago’s politicians want to dig an even deeper hole.

The Wall Street Journal has a new editorial examining a scheme to borrow even more money in hopes of keeping the gravy train rolling.

Chicago has been seeking to take advantage of historically low interest rates by refinancing debt—even as its credit rating has deteriorated amid swelling budget deficits and pension payments. …In 2017 state and city politicians contrived a shell scheme to lower the city’s borrowing costs. The city essentially sold off sales-tax revenue that it receives from the state to a corporation specially created to pay creditors. …Voila, Chicago’s financial magicians spun junk into gold. …Chicago’s budget woes are mounting, and financial alchemists are diluting the claims of existing creditors. If the city were to renege on its $8 billion in GO debt, those bondholders would surely demand a slice of the sales-tax revenue now pledged to other creditors. This is what happened in Puerto Rico. …Chicago’s population has declined for each of the past four years, and taxpayers are getting tapped out. On top of a $50 million increase in property taxes this year, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has imposed a new “congestion” fee on Uber and taxi rides, doubled the tax on restaurant meals, and raised a special personal property tax on computer cloud software. Yet a recession would probably blow a gigantic hole in its budget and could cause its pension funds to run dry. Does anyone think that city politicians wouldn’t prioritize public workers over bondholders?

So when will this house of cards collapse?

I have no idea. There’s a famous quote from the late economist Rudiger Dornbusch, who observed that, “In economics, things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you thought they could.”

The people buying bonds from Chicago are betting that the collapse won’t happen in the near future.

But that was the same mentality of the people who bought Greek bonds in, say, 2005.

I’ll simply observe that what’s happening in Chicago is confirmation of my “First Theorem of Government.”

And I’ll also make an easy prediction that the people buying Chicago bonds will want a bailout when the you-know-what hits the fan.

Needless to say, the answer should be a resounding no.

P.S. If you want to know all my Theorems of Government, click here.

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I point out in this interview that the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) was the only big victory for taxpayers this century. It imposed spending caps on discretionary spending and led to a sequester in early 2013, which was Barack Obama’s biggest defeat.

The bad news is that the BCA is merely legislation. That means politicians can conspire to bust the spending caps – which is what they did at the end of 2013, as well as in 2015, 2018, and again this year.

This most recent deal may be the worst of the worst. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) shows that it brings discretionary spending almost up to the level we reached during Obama’s pork-filled stimulus.

By the way, the chart also shows that Bush was a big spender and that we actually had a bit of spending restraint after the Tea Party-themed 2010 mid-term elections.

But let’s focus on today.

Here’s one more chart from CRFB. It shows that Trump is doing a good job of impersonating Obama with huge, across-the-board spending increases.

These charts show why I’m so depressed. And let’s not forget that they are only measures of discretionary spending. The outlook for entitlement spending is even worse!

In other words, we’re on the path to fiscal crisis. Is there a solution?

Yes, we could adopt constitutional restraints on the growth of government. I mentioned Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights in the interview, as well as the “debt brake” in Switzerland.

But there’s zero chance that today’s crop of politicians will enact this kind of sensible reform. We’ll probably have to wait until a crisis occurs. At which point it may be too late.

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One of the few theoretical constraints on Washington is that politicians periodically have to raise a “debt ceiling” or “debt limit” in order to finance additional spending with additional red ink.

I have mixed feelings about this requirement. I like that there is some limit on spending, even if it’s only a potential restraint.

On the other hand, fights over the debt limit are mostly just opportunities for Republicans and Democrats to engage in posturing and finger pointing rather than adopt positive reforms.

Moreover, the scholarly research clearly suggests that spending caps are the only effective fiscal rule, so what’s the point of having a debt limit if potential spending restraint never turns into actual spending restraint?

Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post looks at the current fight and opines that we shouldn’t even have a debt limit.

The government is about to run out of money because of an arbitrary cap on how much it can borrow… Lawmakers and the White House are haggling over  the conditions under which they will, once again, temporarily raise that cap, known as the debt ceiling. But the better solution would be to abolish it entirely… Most recently, the government hit the official debt limit on March 1 . Since then, the Treasury Department has engaged in “extraordinary measures” to shift money around and continue paying its bills… Initially Treasury predicted that its extraordinary measures would get us to October, but more recent forecasts suggest we will hit the wall as soon as early September. Which means the drop-dead deadline before we become global deadbeats could happen while Congress is away on summer vacation.

She worries that a failure to raise the debt ceiling could have very negative consequences.

So what happens if we default on our debt obligations? Well, for one, it would violate the Constitution, which says the “validity of the public debt of the United States . . . shall not be questioned.” No small thing. …U.S. debt instruments are currently considered the safest of safe assets because creditors believe they’ll be paid back on time and in full. …Calling our creditworthiness into question could therefore set off a chain reaction of global financial panic.

I agree.

Defaulting on the debt (i.e., not paying bondholders what they’ve been contractually promised) would be very damaging to financial markets.

In reality, however, what we’re really talking about is potentially a delay in making promised payments. Which would be harmful, though presumably not nearly as bad as long-run default.

And even a delay in payments might not happen if the Treasury Department made sure that tax revenue was set aside to make all promised payments to bondholders.

Though Ms. Rampell doesn’t like this idea, which is sometimes called “prioritization.”

Some right-wingers…have in the past suggested  that defaulting is no big deal, perhaps even desirable. They (mistakenly) think that a debt default would allow those in charge to unilaterally decide which bills deserve payment and which don’t, bypassing the democratic budget process.

I’m not sure why she says prioritization is a “mistaken” view.

I testified to Congress about this issue in 2013 and in 2016. If the debt limit isn’t raised, meaning no ability to issue new debt, that would be the same as an overnight balanced budget requirement (i.e., spending could only equal current tax revenue).

If that happened and Treasury made sure to prioritize interest payments (to avoid the potentially bad results Ms. Rampell and others warn about), who would have the power to stop that from happening?

I’m guessing lawsuits would be filed, but I can’t imagine a judge would issue an injunction to require a default.

Let’s dig deeper into this issue. Back in 2017, when a similar fight occurred, Heather Long of the Washington Post identified five reasons to worry.

Unless Trump and Congress pass a law raising the U.S. debt limit — a legal cap on how much the U.S. government is allowed to borrow — the Treasury Department will soon run out of money to pay its bills, triggering a first-in-modern-U.S.-history default that threatens to turn the world economy on its head. …The danger…is that at some point someone will miscalculate and the government will actually hit the debt limit, sparking a default, intentional or otherwise. Here are five reasons that would cause global panic.

How persuasive are these reasons?

First, it would trigger a wild ride for stocks and bonds. Wall Street doesn’t like bad surprises. …There would probably be an immediate, negative reaction in the markets.

If there’s an actual default, that would be horrible news.

If there’s a temporary default, that also would be bad news, though presumably far less catastrophic than a permanent default (though some will fan the flames of hysteria).

Second, America’s cheap funding source would end. …As soon as the United States actually defaults, investors would start suing the country, and they would almost certainly insist on much higher interest rates in the future.

Interest rates surely would climb because of the perception of added risk for investors.

Though I wonder by how much. I think Italy is heading toward a fiscal/financial crisis, yet investors are buying up plenty of that government’s debt at very low interest rates.

Third, real people won’t get paid. …The Trump administration would have to either stop payments to everyone or they would have to pick who gets paid and who does not. That means deciding between bondholders, Social Security recipients, welfare recipients, …etc.

Interesting, Ms. Long accepts that prioritization would happen.

For what it’s worth, I’m guessing bondholders and Social Security recipients would be at the front of the line.

Fourth, America’s global power would decline. …The U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency. People carry dollars and hold U.S. bonds all over the world because they believe America is their best and safest bet. A default would probably cause the value of the dollar to drop and global investors to shift some money out of U.S. assets.

This is an interesting claim.

The U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency.

Does drama over the debt limit, or even a temporary default, lead investors to shift, en masse, to another currency?

Perhaps, though I don’t see an alternative. The euro is compromised because the European Central Bank surrendered its independence by engaging in indirect bailouts of some of Europe’s decrepit welfare states.

The Chinese financial system is too debt ridden and too opaque to give investors confidence in that nation’s currency. And other nations are simply too small.

Fifth, a recession is possible. …hitting the debt limit could cause a sharp drop in markets and sentiment around the world as everyone worries that if the United States defaults, who’s next? Investors might start panicking and ditching bonds of other countries in Europe and Asia, too.

These are all reasonable concerns.

It all depends, of course, whether there’s a temporary default and how long it lasts.

And since we may be in the midst of a debt bubble fueled by easy money, any triggering event could lead to very bad outcomes.

Which is why it would make sense for lawmakers to embrace prioritization. There has been legislation to make that happen.

For what it’s worth, it should be quite feasible to prioritize.

Here’s the latest 10-year forecast from the Congressional Budget Office. As you can see from the parts I’ve circled, the government is projected to collect far more revenue than would be needed to fulfill obligations to bondholders.

To be sure, prioritization means that some recipients of federal largesse would have to wait in line. This would be unseemly and unwelcome, but it already happens in profligate states such as Illinois without causing any economic or fiscal disarray.

Who knows, maybe politicians would even decide that it’s time to jettison some federal programs. But since I understand “public choice,” I won’t be holding my breath awaiting that outcome.

I’ll close with two observations.

The first, which I’ve already discussed, is that a failure to increase the debt limit should not result in default. Unless, of course, the Treasury Department wants that to happen. But that’s inconceivable, which is why I fully expect prioritization if we ever get to that point.

The second is that debt limit fights are messy and counterproductive, but I don’t want it abolished since there’s a chance that one of these battles eventually may force politicians to deal with our fiscal mess – thus saving the country from a future Greek-style economic and fiscal meltdown.

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In the absence of genuine entitlement reform, the United States at some point is going to suffer from a debt crisis.

But red ink is merely a symptom. I used numbers from Greece in this interview to underscore the fact that the real problem is government spending.

The discussion was triggered by comments from the Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said Wednesday that reducing the federal debt needs to return to the forefront of the agenda, warning that the government’s finances are unsustainable. “I do think that deficits matter and do think it’s not really controversial to say our debt can’t grow faster than our economy indefinitely — and that’s what it’s doing right now,” Powell said.

As I noted in my comments, Powell is right, but he’s focusing on the wrong variable.

The real crisis is that spending is growing faster than the private sector (Powell needs to learn the six principles to guide spending policy).

To be more specific, politicians are violating my Golden Rule.

Spending grew too fast under Bush. It grew too fast under Obama (except for a few years when the “Tea Party” was in the ascendancy). And it’s growing too fast under Trump.

Most worrisome, the burden of spending is expected to grow faster than the private sector far into the future according to the long-run forecast from the Congressional Budget Office.

That doesn’t mean we’ll have a crisis this year or next year. We probably won’t even have a crisis in the next 10 years or 20 years.

But I cited Greek data in the interview to point out that excessive spending eventually does create a major problem.

Here’s the data from International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook database. To make matters simple (I should have done this for the interview as well), I adjusted the numbers for inflation.

So how can America avoid a Greek-style fiscal nightmare?

Simple, just impose a spending cap. At the end of the interview, I added a plug for the very successful system in Switzerland, but I’d also be happy if we copied Hong Kong’s spending cap. Or the Taxpayer Bill of Rights from Colorado.

The bottom line is that spending restraint works and a constitutional spending cap is the best way to achieve permanent fiscal discipline.

P.S. By contrast, proponents of “Modern Monetary Theory” argue governments can finance ever-growing government by printing money. For what it’s worth, nations that have used central banks to finance big government (most recently, Venezuela and Zimbabwe) are not exactly good role models.

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The long-run fiscal outlook for most developed nations is very grim thanks to demographic change and poorly designed entitlement programs.

For all intents and purposes, we’re all destined to become Greece according to long-run projections from the International Monetary Fund, Bank for International Settlements, and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Are there any solutions to this “most predictable crisis“?

Politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders would like us to believe the answer involves never-ending tax increases. But such an approach is a recipe for more debt because the economy will weaken and governments will spend more money (look at what’s been happening in Europe, for instance).

A more sensible approach is a spending cap. I’ve pointed out, for instance, how Swiss government debt has plummeted ever since voters imposed annual limits on budgetary growth.

We also can learn lessons from history according to new research from the International Monetary Fund.

The report contains some very interesting economic history and the evolution of government finance, including the Bank of England being created and given a monopoly so the government would have a vehicle for borrowing money (as I observed in my video on central banking).

But it mostly tells the story of how governments and public finance simultaneously evolved.

Although the written record points to instances of public borrowing as long as two thousand years ago, recent scholarship points to 1000-1400 A.D. as when borrowing agreements with states were concluded with regularity and debt contracts entered into by sovereigns were standardized. …The supply of loans from city-states and territorial monarchies was driven by the need to finance military campaigns and secure borders. …From the 16th century, Europe’s political geography coalesced into the nation states recognized at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. In parallel, many European states evolved from absolutist regimes to more limited government. …Fiscal states thus evolved in response to the efforts of rulers to secure borders, expand territory and survive. After 1650, larger, more centralized states increasingly possessed the fiscal machinery to raise revenue in uniform ways and had a veto player, such as a parliament, to monitor and discipline public expenditure.

There’s also lots of information in the report about how some governments, primarily outside of Europe, began to borrow money.

In many cases, this produced bad results, with defaults and economic crisis. As the authors wrote, “Debasement and restructuring also have a long history.”

But the part of the report that caught my eye was the description of how three advanced nations – the United Kingdom, the United States, and France – successfully dealt with large debt burdens before World War I.

…we describe three notable debt consolidation episodes before World War I: Great Britain after the Napoleonic Wars, the United States in the last third of the 19th century, and France in the decades leading up to 1913. While the colorful debt crises and defaults of the first era of globalization have been much discussed, less attention has been paid to these successful consolidation episodes. We focus on these three cases because they involved three of the largest economies of the period, but also because their debt burdens were among the heaviest. British public debt as a share of GDP was higher in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, for example, than Greek public debt in 2018. But in all three cases, high public debts were successfully reduced relative to GDP.

In each case, war-time spending was the cause of the debt buildup.

The Napoleonic Wars, Franco-Prussian War and U.S. Civil War were the three most expensive conflicts of the 19th century. …debt accounted for the single largest share of wartime financing.

Here’s a table showing that these nations dramatically reduced their debt burdens.

To be sure, there were differences in the three nations.

The reduction in the British debt-GDP ratio was by far the largest and longest: the debt ratio fell from 194 percent in 1822 to 28 percent nine decades later. …The French public-debt-GDP ratio fell from 96 percent in 1896 to 51 percent in 1913… This case ranks second in size but first in pace. U.S. (federal or union) government debt was not as high at the end of the Civil War, and the subsequent consolidation was more leisurely; however, the process is notable for having reduced the debt-GDP ratio to virtually zero by World War I.

When the authors investigated how these nations reduced their debt burdens, they found that limited government was a common answer.

This was true in the United Kingdom.

Britain achieved the impressive feat of maintaining an average primary surplus of 1.6 percent of GDP for nearly a century (the only deficit in Figure 2 is at the time of the Boer War). One of the political legacies of Peel and Gladstone was a fiscal theory or philosophy of “sound finance” emphasizing budget surpluses, low taxes and minimal government expenditure. …demands for spending on welfare relief from the disenfranchised masses were kept in check. In exchange, the self-taxing class of income-tax-paying electors relieved the non-electors from the burden of direct taxation… Budget surpluses then made feasible further reductions in tariffs and taxes, which reduced the cost of living for the working class

It was true in the United States.

In the U.S., primary surpluses were consistently achieved… Southern states opposed an expansive role for the federal government, while entitlements limited to Civil War pensions contained pressure for public spending.

And it was true even in France.

In France, debt reduction was entirely accounted for by primary surpluses. Those surpluses exceeded British levels, reaching 2.5 percent of GDP on average, albeit over a shorter period.

Remember, this was a period when total government spending only consumed about 10 percent of economic output.

And this was a period when there was no welfare state. Redistribution was virtually nonexistent. Not even in France.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that debt quickly fell in all three countries.

The common thread was small government.

…in all three of these large-scale debt consolidations, governments and societies went to great lengths to service and repay heavy debts. …it reflected prevailing conceptions of the limited functions of government, and limited popular pressure for public programs, entitlements and transfers.

What’s equally important is to note what didn’t happen.

No default. No inflation. No indirect confiscation.

…there was no restructuring or renegotiation of official or privately-held debts in these cases. Nor was there financial repression, i.e., measures artificially depressing interest rates. …Governments for their part did little to bottle up savings at home or to otherwise use regulation and legislation to artificially depress yields. …None of these three governments undertook involuntary restructurings despite the inheritance of heavy debt.

Now let’s shift from the past to the future

The authors point out how debt is rising today because of the welfare state rather than war.

The end of the last century also saw, for the first time, a secular increase in public-debt-to-GDP ratios in a variety of countries in conjunction not with wars and crises but in response to popular demands on governments for pensions, health care, and other often unfunded social services.

Given the demographic changes I mentioned at the beginning of the column, this does not bode well.

So what are the likely implications? As the authors note, there are two ways of dealing with high debt levels.

Countries have pursued two broad approaches to debt reduction. The orthodox approach relies on growth, primary surpluses, and the privatization of government assets. In turn this encourages long debt duration and non-resident holdings. Heterodox approaches, in contrast, include restructuring debt contracts, generating inflation, taxing wealth and repressing private finance.

At the risk of understatement, I fear Robert Higgs is right and that today’s politicians (and today’s voters!) will choose the latter approach.

Given that those policies will make a bad situation even worse, I’m not overflowing with confidence about the future.

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

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

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

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

The French President, Emmanuel Macron, capitulated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not the only one with concerns.

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

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

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

But let’s not digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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