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Posts Tagged ‘Fiscal Policy’

The most disturbing outcome of the recent mid-term election isn’t that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will be a Member of Congress. I actually look forward to that because of the humor value.

Instead, with the Democrats now controlling the House of Representatives, I’m more worried about Donald Trump getting tricked into a “budget summit” that inevitably would produce a deal with higher taxes and more spending. Just in case you think I’m being paranoid, here are some excerpts from a recent Politico report.

The dust has barely settled on the midterm elections, yet tax talk is already in the air thanks to President Donald Trump signaling openness to higher taxes, at least for some. …Trump said he’d be open to making an “adjustment” to recent corporate and upper-income tax cuts… Those off-the-cuff comments are sure to spark concerns among Republican leaders… Trump also suggested he could find common ground with Democrats on health care and infrastructure.

To be fair, Trump was only talking about higher taxes as an offset to a new middle-class tax package, but Democrats realize that getting Trump to acquiesce to a net tax hike would be of great political value.

And I fear they will be successful in any fiscal negotiations. Just look at how Trump got rolled on spending earlier this year (and that orgy of new spending took place when Democrats were in the minority).

I fear a deal in part because I object to higher taxes. But also because it’s quite likely that we’ll get the worst kind of tax hikes – i.e., class-warfare increases in tax rates or work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.

The political dynamic of budget deals is rather straightforward. So long as the debate is whether to raise taxes or not, the anti-tax crowd has the advantage since most Americans don’t want to give more of their money to politicians.

But if both parties agree with the notion that taxes should increase, then most Americans will – for reasons of self defense – want higher taxes on the rich (with “rich” defined as “making more money than me”). And those are the tax increases that do the most damage.

Interestingly, even economists from the International Monetary Fund agree with me about the negative consequences of higher tax rates. Here’s the abstract of a recent study.

This paper examines the macroeconomic effects of tax changes during fiscal consolidations. We build a new narrative dataset of tax changes during fiscal consolidation years, containing detailed information on the expected revenue impact, motivation, and announcement and implementation dates of nearly 2,500 tax measures across 10 OECD countries. We analyze the macroeconomic impact of tax changes, distinguishing between tax rate and tax base changes, and further separating between changes in personal income, corporate income, and value added tax. Our results suggest that base broadening during fiscal consolidations leads to smaller output and employment declines compared to rate hikes, even when distinguishing between tax types.

Here’s a bit of the theory from the report.

Tax-based fiscal consolidations are generally associated with large output declines, but their composition can matter. In particular, policy advice often assumes that measures to broaden the tax base by reducing exemptions and deductions are less harmful to economic activity during austerity. …base broadening often tends to make taxation across sectors, firms, or activities more homogeneous, contrary to rate increases. This helps re-allocate resources to those projects with the highest pre-tax return, thereby improving economic efficiency.

By the way, “base broadening” is the term for when politicians collect more revenue by repealing or limiting deductions, exemptions, exclusions, credits, and other tax preferences (“tax reform” is the term for when politicians repeal or limit preferences and use the money to finance lower tax rates).

Anyhow, here are some of the findings from the IMF study on the overall impact of tax increases.

The chart on the right shows that higher taxes lead to less economic output, which certainly is consistent with academic research.

And the chart on the left shows the revenue impact declining over time, presumably because of the Laffer Curve (further confirming that tax hikes are bad even if they generate some revenue).

But the main purpose of the study is to review the impact of different types of tax increases. Here’s what the authors found.

Our key finding is that tax base changes during consolidations appear to have a smaller impact on output and employment than tax rate changes of a similar size. We find a statistically significant one-year cumulative tax rate multiplier of about 1.2, rising to about 1.6 after two years. By contrast, the cumulative tax base multiplier is only 0.3 after one year, and 0.4 after two years, and these estimates are not statistically significant.

And here’s the chart comparing the very harmful impact of higher rates (on the left) with the relatively benign effect of base changes (on the right).

For what it’s worth, the economic people in the Trump Administration almost certainly understand that there shouldn’t be any tax increases. Moreover, they almost certainly agree with the findings from the IMF report that class-warfare-style tax increases do the most damage.

Sadly, politicians generally ignore advice from economists. So I fear that Trump’s spending splurge has set the stage for tax hikes. And I fear that he will acquiesce to very damaging tax hikes.

All of which will lead to predictably bad results.

P.S. A columnist for the New York Times accidentally admitted that the only budget summit that actually led to a balanced budget was the 1997 that lowered taxes.

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There are three reasons why the right kind of tax reform can help the economy grow faster.

  1. Lower tax rates give people more incentive to earn income.
  2. Less double taxation boosts incentives to save and invest.
  3. Fewer loopholes improves incentives for economic efficiency.

Let’s focus on the third item. I don’t like special preferences in the tax code because it’s bad for growth when the tax code lures people into misallocating their labor and capital. Ethanol, for instance, shows how irrational decisions are subsidized by the IRS.

Moreover, I’d rather have smart and capable people in the private sector focusing how to create wealth instead of spending their time figuring out how to manipulate the internal revenue code.

That’s why, in my semi-dream world, I’d like to see a flat tax.* Not only would there be a low rate and no double taxation, but there also would be no distortions.

But in the real world, I’m happy to make partial progress.

That’s why I was happy that last year’s tax bill produced a $10,000 cap for the state and local tax deduction and reduced the value of other write-offs by increasing the standard deduction. Yes, I’d like to wipe out the deductions for home mortgage interest, charitable giving, and state and local taxes, but a limit is better than nothing.

And I’m also happy that lower tax rates are an indirect way of reducing the value of loopholes and other preferences.

To understand the indirect benefits of low tax rates, consider this new report from the Washington Post. Unsurprisingly, we’re discovering that a less onerous death tax means less demand for clever tax lawyers.

A single aging rich person would often hire more than a dozen people — accountants, estate administrators, insurance agents, bank attorneys, financial planners, stockbrokers — to make sure they paid as little as possible in taxes when they died. But David W. Klasing, an estate tax attorney in Orange County, Calif., said he’s seen a sharp drop in these kinds of cases. The steady erosion of the federal estate tax, shrunk again by the Republican tax law last fall, has dramatically reduced the number of Americans who have to worry about the estate tax — as well as work for those who get paid to worry about it for them, Klasing said. In 2002, about 100,000 Americans filed estate tax returns to the Internal Revenue Service, according to the IRS. In 2018, only 5,000 taxpayers are expected to file these returns… “You had almost every single tax professional trying to grab as much of that pot as they could,” Klasing said. “Now almost everybody has had to find other work.”

Needless to say, I’m delighted that these people are having to “find other work.”

By the way, I’m not against these people. They were working to protect families from an odious form of double taxation, which was a noble endeavor.

I’m simply stating that I’m glad there’s less need for their services.

Charles “Skip” Fox, president of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, said he frequently hears of lawyers shifting their focus away from navigating the estate tax, and adds that there has been a downturn in the number of young attorneys going into the estate tax field. Jennifer Bird-Pollan, who teaches the estate tax to law students at the University of Kentucky, said that nearly a decade ago her classes were packed with dozens of students. Now, only a handful of students every so often may be interested in the subject or pursuing it as a career. “There’s about as much interest in [the class] law and literature,” Pollan said. “The very, very wealthy are still hiring estate tax lawyers, but basically people are no longer paying $1,000 an hour for advice about this stuff. They don’t need it.”

Though I am glad one lawyer is losing business.

Stacey Schlitz, a tax attorney in Nashville, said when she got out of law school about a decade ago roughly 80 percent of her clients were seeking help with their estate taxes. Now, less than 1 percent are, she said, adding that Tennessee’s state inheritance tax was eliminated by 2016. “It is disappointing that this area of my business dried up so that such a small segment of society could get even richer,” Schlitz said in an email.

I hope every rich person in Nashville sees this story and steers clear of Ms. Schlitz, who apparently wants her clients to be victimized by government.

Now let’s shift to the business side of the tax code and consider another example showing why lower tax rates produce more sensible behavior.

Now that the corporate tax rate has been reduced, American companies no longer have as much desire to invest in Ireland.

US investment in Ireland declined by €45bn ($51bn) in 2017, in another sign that sweeping tax reforms introduced by US president Donald Trump have impacted the decisions of American multinational companies. …Economists have been warning that…Trump’s overhaul of the US tax code, which aimed to reduce the use of foreign low-tax jurisdictions by US companies, would dent inward investment in Ireland. …In November 2017, Trump went so far as to single out Ireland, saying it was one of several countries that corporations used to offshore profits. “For too long our tax code has incentivised companies to leave our country in search of lower tax rates. It happens—many, many companies. They’re going to Ireland. They’re going all over,” he said.

Incidentally, I’m a qualified fan of Ireland’s low corporate rate. Indeed, I hope Irish lawmakers lower the rate in response to the change in American law.

And I’d like to see the US rate fall even further since it’s still too high compared to other nations.

Heck, it would be wonderful to see tax competition produce a virtuous cycle of rate reductions all over the world.

But that’s a topic I’ve addressed before.

Today’s lesson is simply that lower tax rates reduce incentives to engage in tax planning. I’ll close with simple thought experiment showing the difference between a punitive tax system and reasonable tax system.

  • 60 percent tax rate – If you do nothing, you only get to keep 40 cents of every additional dollar you earn. But if you find some sort of deduction, exemption, or exclusion, you increase your take-home pay by an additional 60 cents. That’s a good deal even if the tax preference loses 30 cents of economic value.
  • 20 percent tax rate – If you do nothing, you get to keep 80 cents of every dollar you earn. With that reasonable rate, you may not even care about seeking out deductions, exemptions, and exclusions. And if you do look for a tax preference, you certainly won’t pick one where you lose anything close to 20 cents of economic value.

The bottom line is that lower tax rates are a “two-fer.” They directly help economic growth by increasing incentives to earn income and they indirectly help economic growth by reducing incentives to engage in inefficient tax planning.

*My semi-dream world is a flat tax. My dream world is when the federal government is so small (as America’s Founders envisioned) that there’s no need for any broad-based tax.

P.S. It’s not the focus of today’s column, but since I talked about loopholes, it’s worth pointing out that they should be properly defined. Sadly, that simple task is too challenging for the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Government Accountability Office, and the Congressional Budget Office (or even the Republican party).

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President Trump thinks he can boost Republicans next Tuesday by promising a new round of tax relief for the middle class.

I’m skeptical of his sincerity, as noted in this segment from a recent interview, but I also warn that his proposed tax cut is impractical because Republicans have done a lousy job on spending. And I also point out that it is ironic that Trump is urging lower taxes for the middle class when his protectionist tariffs (trade taxes) are hurting the same people.

At first, I wasn’t going to bother writing about this topic for the simple reason that Trump isn’t serious (if he was, he wouldn’t have meekly allowed the big spenders to bust the spending caps).

But then I saw that Tom Giovanetti of the Institute for Policy Innovation wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal explaining how reforming Social Security would be great news for lower- and middle-income taxpayers.

…44% of Americans no longer pay any federal income tax at all, and many more pay very little. …On the other hand, low- and middle-income workers do send the government a large share of their earnings in the form of payroll taxes. That same family of four pays $12,240 at the 15.3% combined rate for Social Security and Medicare. If you want to cut taxes for middle-class and low-income workers, that’s where you have to do it. …instead of…a payroll-tax cut of 4% of income, why not redirect that same 4% into personal retirement accounts for every worker? …With no decline in disposable income, American workers would suddenly be investing for retirement at market rates in accounts they own and control, instead of relying on Congress to keep Social Security solvent.

Not only would personal retirement accounts be good for workers, they also would help deal with the looming entitlement crisis.

America’s entitlements are on a path to collapse, and few politicians—including Mr. Trump—have an appetite to do anything about it. When the crisis comes, no tax increase will be big enough to solve the problem. Knowing the U.S. government is eventually going to fudge its commitment to retirees, policy makers should at least give workers a fair chance to amass the savings they will need to support themselves. The back-door solution to the entitlement crisis is to make workers wealthy. Will you worry about Social Security’s solvency or a Medicare collapse if you have more than enough money in a real retirement account to buy a generous annuity and cover your health insurance?

At the risk of stating the obvious, this is the right approach. Both for workers and the country.

To be sure, I don’t think it’s likely since Trump opposes sensible entitlement reform. But Tom’s column at least provides a teaching moment.

I’m not sure when we’ll have a chance to address this simmering crisis. But if you’re wondering whether changes are necessary, check out this chart I put together earlier this year showing Social Security’s annual shortfall (adjusted for inflation, so we’re comparing apples-to-apples).

P.S. This video has more details on the benefits of personal retirement accounts.

P.P.S. And this video shows why the left’s plan to “fix” Social Security would be so destructive.

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I wrote in 2010 that Keynesian economics is like the Freddy Krueger movies. It refuses to die despite powerful evidence that you don’t help an economy by increasing the burden of government. In 2014, I wrote the theory was based on “fairy dust.” And in 2015, I said Keynesianism was akin to a perpetual motion machine.

What’s my proof? Well, during the period when Obama’s “stimulus” was in effect, unemployment got worse. And the best growth period under Obama was after the sequester, which Obama and others said was going to hurt the economy.

When I discuss these issues with Keynesians, they reflexively claim that Obama would have gotten good results if only he had increased spending even faster (which is also their knee-jerk response when you point out that Keynesianism didn’t work for Hoover, didn’t work for FDR, didn’t work for Japan, etc).

This is the Wizard-of-Oz part of Keynesianism. No matter how bad it works in the real world, they always claim that it theoretically could have worked if governments simply spent more.

But how do they explain away the fact that nations that adopt the right kind of austerity get better results?

Professor Edmund Phelps of Columbia University won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2006. Here’s some of what he wrote today for the Wall Street Journal, starting with a description of the debate.

Generations of Keynesian economists have claimed that when a loss of “demand” causes output to fall and unemployment to rise, the economy does not revive by itself. Instead a “stimulus” to demand is necessary and sufficient to pull the economy back to an equilibrium level of activity. …it is widely thought that fiscal stimulus—increased public spending as well as tax cuts—helped pull employment from its depths in 2010 or so back to normal in 2017. …But is there evidence that stimulus was behind America’s recovery—or, for that matter, the recoveries in Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Britain and Ireland? And is there evidence that the absence of stimulus—a tight rein on public spending known as “fiscal austerity”—is to blame for the lack of a full recovery in Portugal, Italy, France and Spain?

So he looked at the real-world evidence and discovered that Keynesian policy is correlated with worse outcomes.

The stimulus story suggests that, in the years after they hit bottom, the countries that adopted relatively large fiscal deficits—measured by the average increase in public debt from 2011-17 as a percentage of gross domestic product—would have a relatively speedy recovery to show for it. Did they? As the accompanying chart shows, the evidence does not support the stimulus story. Big deficits did not speed up recoveries. In fact, the relationship is negative, suggesting fiscal profligacy led to contraction and fiscal responsibility would have been better. …what about monetary stimulus—increasing the supply of money or reducing the cost of money in relation to the return on capital? We can perform a similar test: Did countries where monetary stimulus in the years after they hit bottom was relatively strong—measured by the average quantity of monetary assets purchased by the central bank from 2011-17—have relatively speedy recoveries? This is a complicated question, but preliminary explorations do not give strong support to that thesis either. …the Keynesian tool kit of fiscal and monetary stimulus is more or less ineffective.

Here’s the chart showing how so-called fiscal stimulus is not associated with economic recovery.

He also reminds us that Keynesian predictions of post-World War II disaster were completely wrong.

Don’t history and theory overwhelmingly support stimulus? Well, no. First, the history: Soldiers returning from World War II expanded the civilian labor force from 53.9 million in 1945 to 60.2 million in 1947, leading many economists to fear an unemployment crisis. Keynesians—Leon Keyserling for one—said running a peacetime fiscal deficit was needed to keep unemployment from rising. Yet as the government under President Harry S. Truman ran fiscal surpluses, the unemployment rate went down (from 3.9% in 1946 to 3.1% in 1952) and the labor-force participation rate went up (from 57.2% to 58.9%).

It’s also worth remembering that something similar happened after World War I.

The economy boomed after the burden of government was reduced.

Let’s close by adding to our collection of Keynesian humor.

This is amusing, but somewhat unfair to Bernanke.

Yes, he was a Keynesian. But he wasn’t nearly as crazy as Krugman.

P.S. Here’s my video on Keynesian economics.

P.P.S. Here’s the famous video showing the Keynes v. Hayek rap contest, followed by the equally entertaining sequel, which features a boxing match between Keynes and Hayek. And even though it’s not the right time of year, here’s the satirical commercial for Keynesian Christmas carols.

P.P.P.S. I also like what Professor Phelps said about the benefits of tax competition and jurisdictional rivalry.

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I’ve written about how taxes have a big impact on soccer (a quaint game with little or no scoring that Europeans play with their feet).

Taxes affect both the decisions of players and the success of teams.

Grasping and greedy governments also have an impact on football. Especially if teams play in Europe.

…the Los Angeles Chargers and Tennessee Titans traveled across the Atlantic to play a game in London’s Wembley Stadium. …Players spoke of the burdens of traveling so far to play a game, especially the team from California that had to cross eight time zones. Players also spoke out about the tax nightmare they faced when they got to the UK. …players talked ahead of time to their CPAs to determine the tax hit they’d take for the privilege of such a long road trip… Great Britain…levies high taxes on athletes who visit for an athletic match. Teams from California — the Raiders, Chargers, and Rams — already face the highest state income tax in the nation with a top rate of 13.3 percent. Of course, players also have to pay federal income tax. …To top it all off, those players who receive one of their 16 paychecks in London pay a 45 percent tax on a prorated amount based on the number of days they spend in the country. Bottom line: Players on California teams could end up paying 60 percent or more in income taxes for that game check. …For non-resident foreign athletes, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) reserves the right to tax not only the income they earn from competing in the match but a portion of any endorsement money they earn worldwide.

No wonder some of the world’s top athletes don’t want to compete in the United Kingdom.

And what about the NFL players, who got hit with a 60 percent tax rate for one game?

Those players are lucky they’re not Cam Newton, who paid a 198.8 percent tax for playing in the 2016 Super Bowl.

Last year’s tax bill also impacts professional football in a negative way. The IRS has decided that sports teams don’t count as “pass-through” businesses, as noted by Accounting Today.

Two major sports franchises might soon be on the auction block following Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen’s death last week. But a recent Internal Revenue Service rule could cut the teams’ sales prices. Allen died with no heirs and a $26 billion estate, including the National Football League’s Seattle Seahawks… The teams together are worth more than $3 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. …the IRS said in August that team owners would be barred from the write-off — one of the biggest benefits in the law — that allows owners of pass-through entities such as partnerships and limited liability companies to deduct as much as 20 percent of their taxable income. …Arthur Hazlitt, a tax partner at O’Melveny & Myers LLP in New York who provided the tax structure and planning advice for hedge fund manager David Tepper’s acquisition of the Carolina Panthers, estimates the IRS rules could spur potential bidders to offer at least tens of millions of dollars less.

Gee, what a surprise. Higher tax burdens lower the value of income-producing assets.

Something to keep in mind next them there’s a debate on whether we should be double-taxing dividends and capital gains.

Or the death tax.

Let’s close with a report from Bloomberg about some new research about the impact of taxes on team performance.

The 2017 law could put teams in states with high personal income tax rates at a disadvantage when negotiating with free agents thanks to new limits on deductions, including for state and local taxes, according to tax economist Matthias Petutschnig of the Vienna University of Economics and Business. Petutschnig’s research into team performance over more than two decades shows that National Football League franchises based in high-tax states lost more games on average during the regular season compared to teams in low or no-tax states. That’s because of the NFL’s salary cap for teams, according to Petutschnig; if they have to give certain players more money to compensate for higher taxes, it reduces how much they pay other players and lowers the team’s overall talent level. “The new tax law exacerbates my findings and makes it harder for high-tax teams to put together a high-quality roster,” Petutschnig said.

Here’s a chart from the article.

And here are more details.

A player for the Miami Dolphins or Houston Texans, where no state income taxes are levied, “was always going to come out a whole lot better than somebody playing in New York,” said Jerome Glickman, a director at accounting firm Friedman LLP who works with professional athletes. “Now, it’s worse.” …a free agent considering a California team compared to a team in Texas or Florida would need to make 10 percent to 12 percent more to compensate for his state tax bill, said NFL agent Joe Linta… the Raiders — who will eventually move to Las Vegas in no-tax Nevada — have often made the case that unequal tax rates create an uneven playing field. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s five-year $137.5 million contract with the San Francisco 49ers will mean an additional $3 million tax bill under the new tax law… Garoppolo would have saved $2 million in taxes under the new code had he instead signed with the Denver Broncos in lower-tax Colorado.

By the way, other scholars have reached similar conclusions, so Professor Petutschnig’s research should be viewed as yet another addition to the powerful body of evidence about the harmful effect of punitive tax policy.

P.S. I think nations have the right to tax income earned inside their borders, so I’m not theoretically opposed to the U.K. taxing athletes who earn income on British soil. But I don’t favor punitive rates. And I don’t think the IRS should add injury to injury by then taxing the same income. That lesson even applies to royalty.

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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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California is like France. Both are wonderful places to visit.

They’re also great places to live if you’re part of the elite.

But neither is the ideal option for ordinary people who want upward mobility.

Back in 2016, I shared Census Bureau data showing that income was growing much faster for people in Texas, especially if you focus on median income (and this data doesn’t even adjust for the cost of living).

So why is Texas growing faster?

Unsurprisingly, I think part of the answer is that the burden of government is significantly greater in California.

Take a look at this table from the most recent edition of Freedom in the 50 States.

Texas is not the freest state, but its #10 ranking is much better than California’s lowly #48 position.

If you’re wondering why Illinois isn’t at or near the bottom, keep in mind that this is a measure of overall economic freedom, not just fiscal policy.

In other words, California doesn’t just have onerous taxes and an excessive burden of government, it also has lots of red tape and intervention.

These numbers presumably help explain why Babylon Bee came up with this clever satire.

The Texas legislature has approved construction of a border wall surrounding the state in order to keep out unwanted refugees fleeing the rapidly crumbling dystopia of California. …The wall will run around the entirety of Texas, with extra security measures on the west side of the state to ensure undesirable Californian immigrants can’t make it across. …the west side will feature a 10-foot-thick concrete wall with laser turrets, barbed wire, and a moat filled with sharks to stop residents of the coastal state from slipping in undocumented and undetected. …“Far too many immigrants from California come here, take advantage of our pro-business, pro-liberty laws, and refuse to adjust to our way of life,” one Texas state rep said in an address to the assembly. “It is time for us to build a wall and make Governor Jerry Brown pay for it.”

This is the flip side of Walter Williams’ joke about California building a wall to keep taxpayers imprisoned.

But let’s return to serious analysis.

Writing for Forbes, Chuck DeVore highlights some differences between his home state and his new state.

Over the past decade, the top states by GDP growth are: North Dakota, Texas, Nebraska, Washington, and Oregon. …When using Supplemental Poverty Measure, the states with the highest poverty as averaged from 2014 to 2016, are: California (20.4%); Florida (18.8%); Louisiana (18.4%), Arizona (17.8%) and Mississippi (16.9%). The national average Supplemental Poverty rate over the last three years reported was 14.7%. Texas’ poverty rate was at the national average. …Combining two key factors, economic growth from 2007 to 2017 and the Supplemental Poverty Measure from 2014 to 2016, provides a better look at a state’s economic wellbeing.

Here’s a table from his column, which looks at growth and poverty in the nation’s five-largest states.

Texas wins for prosperity and California “wins” for poverty.

If you want more data comparing Texas and California, click here, here, and here.

P.S. Texas gets a bad score and California gets a middle-of-the-road score when looking at personal freedom, so the Lone Star State is not a libertarian paradise. If you do the same thing for international comparisons, Denmark is the world’s most libertarian nation.

P.P.S. Here’s my favorite California vs Texas joke.

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