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Posts Tagged ‘France’

Assuming elected officials care about the consequences of their actions, the obvious answer to a question isn’t always the right answer.

  • Q: Why should a (sensible) politician oppose the minimum wage, especially since some workers will get a pay hike?

A: Because the bottom rungs of the economic ladder will disappear and marginally skilled people will lose a chance to find employment and develop work skills.

  • Q: Why should a (sensible) politician oppose so-called employment-protection legislation, especially since some employees will be protected from dismissal?

A: Because employers will be less likely to hire workers if they don’t have the freedom to fire them if circumstances change.

  • Q: Why should a (sensible) politician oppose class-warfare taxation, especially since they could redistribute money to 90 percent of voters?

A: Because the short-run benefits of buying votes will be offset by long-run damage to investment, competitiveness, and job creation.

Many politicians are not sensible, of course, which is why bad policy is so common.

So it’s worth noting when someone actually makes the right decision, especially if they do it for the right reason.

With that in mind, President Emmanuel Macron deserves praise for gutting his country’s punitive “exit tax.” The U.K.-based Financial Times has the key details.

French president Emmanuel Macron said that he would remove the so-called exit tax as it was damaging for France’s image as a place to do business. The tax requires those entrepreneurs or investors who hold more than €800,000 in financial assets or at least 50 per cent of a company to pay capital gains up to 15 years after leaving France.  …A finance ministry spokesperson on Saturday confirmed “the removal of the exit tax as it existed.” …”The exit tax sends a negative message to entrepreneurs in France, more than to investors. Why? Because it means that beyond a certain threshold, you are penalised if you leave,” Mr Macron had said… “I don’t want any exit tax. It doesn’t make sense. People are free to invest where they want. I mean, if you are able to attract [investment], good for you, but if not, one should be free to divorce,” added the French president.

Kudos to Macron. He not only points out that such a tax discourages investment and entrepreneurship, but he also makes the moral argument that people should be free to leave a jurisdiction that mistreats them.

To be sure, the proposal isn’t perfect.

Mr Macron has now decided to introduce a new “anti-abuse” tax targeted at assets sold within two years of someone leaving the country. …“The new system will henceforth target divestments occurring shortly after leaving France — two years — to avoid letting people make short trips abroad in order to optimise tax efficiencies,” added the spokesperson.

This is why I gave the plan two-plus cheers instead of three cheers.  Though I understand the political calculation. It would create a lot of controversy if a rich person moved for one year to one of the several European nations that have no capital gains tax (Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, etc), sold their assets, and then immediately moved back to France the following year.

The right policy, needless to say, is for there to be no capital gains tax, period.

But let’s not get sidetracked. Here are a few additional details from Reuters.

France imposed the so-called “Exit Tax” in 2011 during the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy. …Its aim was to stop individuals temporarily changing their tax domicile in order to skirt French taxes but pro-business President Emmanuel Macron says it damages France’s attractiveness as an investment destination.

Yes, you read correctly, the class-warfare policy wasn’t imposed by the hard-left Francois Hollande, but by the Nicolas Sarkozy, the supposed conservative but de-facto leftist who preceded him.

What’s particularly bizarre is that Macron was a senior official for Hollande, yet he is the pro-market reformer who is trying to save France.

P.S. I’m embarrassed to admit that the United States has a very punitive exit tax (which Hillary Clinton wanted to make even worse).

P.P.S. Since one of my three examples at the beginning of today’s column dealt with the perverse consequences of “employment-protection laws,” I suppose it’s worth noting that’s another area where Macron is trying to reduce government intervention.

P.P.P.S. While Macron is a pro-market reformer at the national level, he advocates very bad ideas for the European Union.

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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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Since it’s the last day of the year, let’s look back on 2017 and highlight the biggest victories and losses for liberty.

For last year’s column, we had an impressive list of overseas victories in 2016, including the United Kingdom’s Brexit from the European Union, the vote against basic income in Switzerland, the adoption of constitutional spending caps in Brazil, and even the abolition of the income tax in Antigua and Barbuda.

The only good policies I could find in the United States, by contrast, were food stamp reforms in Maine, Wisconsin, and Kansas.

This year has a depressingly small list of victories. Indeed, the only good thing I had on my initial list was the tax bill. So to make 2017 appear better, I’m turning that victory into three victories.

  • A lower corporate tax rate – Dropping the federal corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent will boost investment, wages, and competitiveness, while also pressuring other nations to drop their corporate rates in a virtuous cycle of tax competition. An unambiguous victory.
  • Limits on the deductibility of state and local taxes – It would have been preferable to totally abolish the deduction for state and local taxes, but a $10,000 cap will substantially curtail the federal tax subsidy for higher taxes by state and local government. The provision is only temporary, so it’s not an unambiguous win, but the whining and complaining from class-warfare politicians in New York and California is music to my ears.
  • No border-adjustment tax – Early in 2017, I was worried that tax reform was going to be tax deform. House Republicans may have had good intentions, but their proposed border-adjustment tax would have set the stage for a value-added tax. I like to think I played at least a small role in killing this bad idea.
  • Regulatory Rollback – The other bit of (modest) good news is that the Trump Administration has taken some steps to curtail and limit red tape. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step.

Now let’s look elsewhere in the world for a victory. Once again, there’s not much.

  • Macron’s election in France – As I scoured my archives for some good foreign news, the only thing I could find was that a socialist beat a socialist in the French presidential election. But since I have some vague hope that Emanuel Macron will cut red tape and reduce the fiscal burden in France, I’m going to list this as good news. Yes, I’m grading on a curve.

Now let’s look at the bad news.

Last year, my list included growing GOP support for a VAT, eroding support for open trade, and the leftward shift of the Democratic Party.

Here are five examples of policy defeats in 2017.

  • Illinois tax increase – If there was a contest for bad state fiscal policy, Illinois would be a strong contender. That was true even before 2017. And now that the state legislature rammed through a big tax increase, Illinois is trying even harder to be the nation’s most uncompetitive state.
  • Kansas tax clawback – The big-government wing of the Kansas Republican Party joined forces with Democrats to undo a significant portion of the Brownback tax cuts. Since this was really a fight over whether there would be spending restraint or business-as-usual in Kansas, this was a double defeat.
  • Botched Obamacare repeal – After winning numerous elections by promising to repeal Obamacare, Republicans finally got total control of Washington and then proceeded to produce a bill that repealed only portions. And even that effort flopped. This was a very sad confirmation of my Second Theorem of Government.
  • Failure to control spending – I pointed out early in the year that it would be easy to cut taxes, control spending, and balance the budget. And I did the same thing late in the year. Unfortunately, there is no desire in Washington to restrain the growth of Leviathan. Sooner or later, this is going to generate very bad economic and political developments.
  • Venezuela’s tyrannical regime is still standing – Since I had hoped the awful socialist government would collapse, the fact that nothing has changed in Venezuela counts as bad news. Actually, some things have changed. The economy is getting worse and worse.
  • The Export-Import Bank is still alive – With total GOP control of Washington, one would hope this egregious dispenser of corporate welfare would be gone. Sadly, the swamp is winning this battle.

Tomorrow, I’ll do a new version of my annual hopes-and-fears column.

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I like France, in part because it’s a nice place to visit, but also because I’ve been able to use the country as an example of bad public policy.

It’s hard to pick which policy does the most damage. As a fiscal policy wonk, I’m tempted to blame France’s woes on high taxes and wasteful spending.

However, there’s a strong case that labor law is the worst feature of economic policy. France has all sorts of rules that “protect” employees, but the net effect is that workers suffer because these laws discourage entrepreneurs from creating jobs.

And even though I get a lot of mileage out of making France a bad example, I actually hope that the nation’s new government will move policy in the right direction. Indeed, this is why I wanted France’s current President, Emmanuel Macron, to get elected.

Yes, he used to be part of the previous socialist government that sought to make things worse rather than better. But I figured he was most likely to enact some pro-market reforms. And it appears my hopes may be realized, at least with regard to labor policy.

The BBC reports on why Macron wants reform, what he wants to do, and what likely will happen.

President Emmanuel Macron’s government has begun its drive to overhaul France’s rigid labour laws, vowing to “free up the energy of the workforce”. …France has an unemployment rate of 9.5%, double that of the other big European economies and Mr Macron has vowed to cut it to 7% by 2022.

Here’s what he is proposing.

The reforms aim to make it easier for bosses to hire and fire. …France’s labour code is some 3,000 pages long and is seen by many as a straitjacket for business. Among the biggest reforms, individual firms are to be offered more flexibility in negotiating wages and conditions. …If a business reached a deal with the majority of its workforce on working hours and pay that agreement would trump any agreement in the wider industry. …The government wants to facilitate deals at local level by encouraging companies with fewer than 50 employees to set up workers’ committees that can bypass unions. One of the thorniest problems for the government is how to make it easier for companies to dismiss staff. There is to be a cap on damages that can be awarded to workers for unfair dismissal. However, after months of consultations, ministers have agreed to increase the cap from their original proposal. The cap would be limited to three months’ pay for two years of work and 20 months’ pay for 30 years. Until now the minimum pay-out for two years’ employment was six months of salary.

And he’ll probably get what he wants, both because some of the bigger unions have decided to play ball and also because he’s been granted authority to unilaterally make changes.

Protests against the plan are expected next month, but two of the biggest unions say they will not take part. Jean-Claude Mailly, the leader of Force Ouvrière (FO), said that while the reforms were far from perfect, the government had carried out “real consultation” and FO would play no role in demonstrations on 12 September. The union with the biggest presence in the private sector, CFDT, said its members would not take to the streets either, although it was ultimately disappointed that its position was not reflected in the final text. …Mr Macron has already won parliamentary backing to push these reforms through by decree. An opinion poll on Wednesday showed that nine out of 10 French people agreed that their country’s labour code had to be reformed.

Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute has some analysis of what’s been proposed.

…the National Assembly and Senate…authorized France’s government to amend the country’s byzantine labor code by executive orders… Prime Minister Édouard Philippe unveiled the details of the reform, divided into five decrees, on Thursday. So what exactly are they seeking to achieve? Perhaps most important is the introduction of caps on redundancy pay to those whose employment has been terminated without a just cause…stricter caps are introduced for small companies, for which large redundancy payments can be ruinous. It will also become easier for multinational companies to justify termination of employment on economic grounds. …it will be possible to downsize or close down French operations without having to subsidize them first from profits made overseas. …Companies with fewer than 20 employees will not have to rely on labor union representatives for their collective contracts. Subsidiaries of companies will have more freedom to offer temporary work contracts.

Dalibor is not overly impressed by this collection of changes.

…measured by the standards of what France needs, it is not much… The extent to which the reform elicits a strong reaction reflects purely the overregulated status quo, rather than the revolutionary nature of the proposed measures. …the government is doing something right, however timid.

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial is a bit more optimistic.

French voters this spring gave themselves their best shot in a generation at reviving their moribund economy, and President Emmanuel Macron is now taking advantage of the opportunity. …the labor-market reforms he unveiled Thursday could remake the eurozone’s second-largest economy. …Mr. Macron will limit the severance payouts courts can mandate for fired workers. He will free small companies with nonunion workers from the straitjacket of national collective-bargaining agreements covering working hours, overtime pay, vacation benefits and the like. Companies will have more scope to negotiate labor deals at the firm level rather than being forced to abide by national agreements.

By reducing the potential cost of employing workers, the reforms will lead to more employment.

The severance overhaul will go a long way toward inducing businesses to hire more workers. Small- and medium-size French companies report pervasive fear of expanding their workforce lest they be stuck with problem employees or face ruinous expenses to lay off workers if economic conditions change.

And France desperately needs reform.

French unemployment is still 9.5% even at its five-year low. That’s double the rate in Germany, and French unemployment has become a social crisis, especially for young people frozen out of the job market. The jobless rate for French between age 15 and 24 is 25%—for those who haven’t moved to London or the U.S.

Though the WSJ does recognize that the reforms are merely a modest step in the right direction.

France isn’t becoming a laissez-faire paradise. Even if Mr. Macron’s labor overhaul takes effect, the French workplace will still be considerably more regulated than America’s.

Let’s close with some excerpts from a story in the New York Times.

…the government announced sweeping changes on Thursday with the potential to radically shift the balance of power from workers to employers. …an invigorated France is considered critical to the survival of a European Union that is finally showing signs of revival after a lost decade. …Economists in France and across Europe expressed optimism about the new law… France has stagnated for years under chronically elevated unemployment and slow growth. The country’s strong worker protections and expensive benefits have been blamed by some for being at least partly at the root of the problem.

Wow, it must be bad if even the NYT is acknowledging that government is causing the economy to stutter.

Amazingly, the story even admits that economic liberalization is the right way to get more job creation.

Germany crossed that Rubicon in the 1990s under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. …Roughly 15 years ago, “France and Germany had economies that were more or less comparable, and that ceased to be the case because the Germans wisely did micro-reforms and the French did not,” said Sebastian Mallaby, senior fellow for international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations. So the French ended up with “high unemployment, which fed populism, and getting out of that trap is vital

For what it’s worth, I think the reference to German reforms is key.

Under a left-leaning government, Germany liberalized labor markets. The so-called Hartz reforms were a huge success, slashing the jobless rate by more than 50 percent.

I don’t know whether Macron’s reforms are as bold as what happened in Germany, but any movement in the right direction will create more employment.

P.S. If Macron wants to save France, he better deal with the tax system as well. The problems are nicely captured by two videos, one about how young people are fleeing the nation and another showing a Hollywood celebrity reacting when told about the tax burden.

P.P.S. Whenever I give a speech in France, I ask the audience whether their government (which consumes for the half of economic output) gives them more and better services than the Swiss government (which consumes about one-third of economic output). The answer is always an overwhelmingly no.

P.P.P.S. I (sort of) agreed with Paul Krugman in 2013 that there is a plot against France.

P.P.P.P.S. Last but not least, the French people occasionally do support good policy (and they’re willing to escape to America if things don’t get better).

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Back in April, I looked at the candidates running for the French presidency and half-jokingly wondered which one would win the right to preside over the country’s decline.

But once the field was winnowed to two candidates, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, I wrote that voters should pick the socialist over the socialist. My title was sarcastic, but I was making a serious point that Marine Le Pen had a very statist platform, whereas I cited evidence that Macron had some sensible proposals.

Mr. Macron aims to rebalance the economy by cutting 120,000 public sector jobs, streamlining the pension system and dropping state spending back to 52 percent of G.D.P. Mr. Macron leads an emerging centrist consensus that recognizes that…the main obstacle retarding France’s economy is its attachment to a welfare state culture of…generous benefits. …Mr. Macron…once said that stifling taxes threaten to turn France into “Cuba without the sun”.

Indeed, in addition to the reforms listed in the Macron has proposed to lower France’s corporate tax rate to 25 percent, and he also want to liberalize labor markets.

All of which seems rather surreal. After all, Macron was a minister in the failed socialist government of Francois Hollande, so who would have thought that we would be the one to lead an effort to shrink the burden of government?

Yet consider the fiscal agenda President Macron is pushing.

France’s 2018 budget will focus on cutting taxes to boost economic activity as the government seeks to cement its support among the business community, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said. …Philippe told RTL Radio on Wednesday he wants to lower levies that “hurt the competitiveness of our country.” Government ministries this week received letters setting out their spending limits for 2018. President Emmanuel Macron is seeking cuts of 20 billion euros ($23 billion) and tax reductions of 11 billion euros next year… “We have to get out of the spiral of public spending,” government spokesman Christophe Castaner said in a separate interview on France Inter. “France has been addicted to ever increasing spending, paid for by taxes.”

Wow. I wish the Republicans in Washington were as sensible as these French socialists (actually, since they created a new party, it would be more accurate to say they are former socialists).

But there is precedent for this kind of surprise. 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.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that French voters may have buyer’s regret.

The Wall Street Journal recently opined on this topic.

…the question isn’t whether Emmanuel Macron can save France. The question is whether France can save itself. Voters have the best chance in a generation to revive an economy in decline, yet they seem to quail at the critical moment. …voters are having second thoughts about economic reform. Mr. Macron’s approval started falling in July after he announced plans to cut housing benefits—by €5 a month for each recipient. Feminists are in arms over his plan to reduce the government’s women’s-rights budget to €20 million ($23.6 million) from €30 million. That’s before he gets to the labor reforms that will dominate the autumn.

Shifting from the editorial page, the WSJ has a report on the growing opposition to reform.

As Emmanuel Macron sets out to shake up France’s rigid labor market, the young president is losing the public support he may need to weather protests by the country’s powerful unions. …Mr. Macron will have to tread carefully in rolling out his labor reforms in September. For months, the 39-year-old president has been in talks with powerful labor unions in a bid to contain planned street protests. Now the prospect is growing that the ranks of those demonstrations could swell with students, retirees and other segments of French society… Mr. Macron’s government wants to make it easier for French firms to hire and fire workers. …The hard-left General Confederation of Labor, France’s most militant union, is already calling for strikes and demonstrations.

It’s not surprising, of course, to see opposition from those seeking to protect their privileges.

Though it theoretically shouldn’t matter since Macron’s party has a huge majority in the French Assembly.

That being said, politicians do have a habit of buckling when faced with voter unrest.

And Macron is committing some unforced errors, as reported by the U.K.-based Telegraph.

Emmanuel Macron spent €26,000 (£24,000) on makeup during his first three months as president of France, it has emerged. …Le Point reported that his personal makeup artist – referred to only as Natacha M – put in two bills, one for €10,000 and another for €16,000.The Elysee Palace defended the high fee saying: “We called in a contracter as a matter of urgency”. The same makeup artist also applied foundation to Mr Macron during his presidential campaign. Aides said that spending on makeup would be “significantly reduced”. …Le Point put the overall figure for Mr Hollande’s makeup at €30,000 per quarter. Nicolas Sarkozy, meanwhile, paid a whopping €8,000 per month for his, according to Vanity Fair.

Since it appears that these costs are borne by taxpayers, this is all rather depressing.

Macron, however, at least can claim that he’s not the most frivolous with other people’s money. Monsieur Hollande won the prize for waste when you add his hairdresser to the equation.

…all these sums pale into comparison with the £99,000 Mr Hollande paid his personal barber. The huge amount sparked accusations of “shampoo Socialism”. …The hairdresser, Olivier Benhamou, was hired to work at the Elysée Palace in 2012 for the duration of Mr Hollande’s five-year term.  Mr Benhamou also reportedly enjoyed a housing allowance and family benefits.

As I wrote about this last year and suggested that this narcissistic waste made Hollande eligible to win the “Politician of the Year” contest.

But let’s shift back to the serious issue of economic liberalization.

To be blunt, France’s economy is suffocating from statism. I’m not even sure what’s the biggest problem.

The answer is “all of the above,” with is why France desperately needs pro-market reform.

We’ll learn later this year whether Macron can save his country.

P.S. The story that tells you everything you need to know about France was the poll last decade revealing that more than half the population would flee to America if they had the opportunity.

P.P.S. If it wasn’t for France, we never would have had the opportunity to enjoy this very clever and amusing Scott Stantis cartoon.

P.P.P.S. Or watch this rather revealing Will Smith interview about French taxation.

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Remember John Kerry, the former Secretary of State and Massachusetts Senator, the guy who routinely advocated higher taxes but then made sure to protect his own wealth? Not only did he protect much of his fortune in so-called tax havens, he even went through the trouble of domiciling his yacht outside of his home state to minimize his tax burden.

I didn’t object to Kerry’s tax avoidance, but I was irked by his hypocrisy. If taxes are supposed to be so wonderful, shouldn’t he have led by example?

At the risk of understatement, folks on the left are not very good about practicing what they preach.

But let’s not dwell on John Kerry. Instead, let’s focus on other yacht owners so we can learn an important lesson about tax policy.

And, as is so often the case, France is an example of the policies to avoid.

Where have all the superyachts gone? That is the question that locals and business owners in the south of France are asking this summer. And the answer appears to be: Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Spain. …While the ongoing presence of €10 cups of coffee and €1000 bottles of Champagne might serve to reassure the casual observer that the region is still as attractive to the sun-loving super-rich as it ever was, appearances can be deceptive. Talk to locals involved in the multibillion-euro yachting sector—and in the south of France that’s nearly everyone, in some trickle-down shape or form, as yachting is by some measures the biggest earner in the region after hotels and wine—and you detect a sinking feeling. …More and more yachting money is draining away…washing up in other European countries such as Spain, Italy, Greece, and Turkey.

Having once paid the equivalent of $11 for a diet coke in Monaco, I can confirm that it is a painfully expensive region.

But let’s focus on the more important issue: Why are the big yachts staying away from the French Riviera?

Apparently they’re avoiding France for the same reason that entrepreneurs are avoiding France. The tax burden is excessive.

The core reason for the superyacht exodus is financial; France has tightened…tax regulations for the captains and crew members of yachts who officially reside in France, and often have families on the mainland, but traditionally have evaded all tax by claiming they were earning their salary offshore. The country has also taken a hard line on imposing 20 percent VAT on yacht fuel sales, which often used to be dodged. Given that a typical fill can be around €100,000, it is understandable that many captains are simply sailing around the corner.

I don’t share this story because I feel sorry for wealthy people.

Instead, the real lesson to be learned is that when politicians aim at the rich, it’s the rest of us that get victimized.

Ordinary workers, whether at marinas or on board the yachts, are the ones who are losing out.

Revenue at the iconic marina in Saint-Tropez has…fallen by 30 percent since the beginning of the year, while Toulon, a less glamorous destination, has suffered a 40 percent decline. …They stated that refueling a 42-meter yacht in Italy (instead of France) “gives a saving of nearly €21,000 a week because of the difference in tax.” Sales by the four largest marine fuel vendors has fallen by 50 percent this summer, the letter said, adding that French “yachties”—an inexperienced 19-year-old deckhand makes around €2,000 per month and a good Captain can command €300,000—were being laid off in droves, as, due to the new tax rules, national insurance, health and other compulsory contributions which boat owners pay for crew members have increased from 15 to 55 percent of their wages. The letter stated that “the additional cost of maintaining a seven-person crew in France is €300,000 (£268,000) a year.”

All of this is – or should have been – totally predictable.

French tax authorities should have learned from what happened a few years ago in Italy.

Or from what happened in France a few decades ago.

…the French have been down this avenue before. “It happened in France about 30 years ago, so people moved their boats to Italy… Yachting is huge revenue earner for the region. …we contribute huge sums in social security alone. “But the bigger issue is that people holidaying on yachts here go ashore and spend money—and a lot of it.” Says Heslin: “The possibility of this happening if taxes and fees were increased has actually been talked about for the last two years, and everyone warned what would happen. “But this where the French government so often goes wrong, this attitude of, ‘Well, we are France, people will always come here.’” This time, it appears, they have called it wrong. Edmiston says, “Yachting is very important to local economy, but if people are not made to feel welcome here, there are plenty of other places where they will be.”

Incidentally, we have similar examples of counterproductive class warfare in the United States. Florida politicians shot themselves in the foot a number of years ago with high taxes on yachts.

And the luxury tax on yachts, which was part of President George H.W. Bush’s disastrous tax-hike deal in 1990, hurt middle-class boat builders much more than upper-income boat buyers.

But let’s zoom out and make a broader point about public finance and tax policy.

Harsh taxes on yachts backfire because the people being targeted have considerable ability to escape the tax by simply choosing to buy yachts, staff yachts, and sail yachts where taxes aren’t so onerous.

Let’s now apply this insight to something far more important than yachts.

Investment is a key for long-run growth and higher living standards. All economic theories – even Marxism ans socialism – agree that capital formation is necessary to increase productivity and thus boost wages.

Yet people don’t have to save and invest. They can choose to immediately enjoy their earnings, especially if there are harsh taxes on income that is saved and invested.

Or they can choose to (mis)allocate capital in ways that make sense from a tax perspective, but might not be very beneficial for the economy.

And upper-income taxpayers have a lot of latitude over how much of their money is saved and invested, as well as how it is saved and invested.

So when politicians impose high taxes on income that is saved and invested, they can expect big supply-side responses, just as there are big responses when they impose punitive taxes on yachts.

But here’s the bottom line. When they over-tax yachts, the damage isn’t that great. Yes, some local workers are out of jobs, but that tends to be offset by more job creation in other jurisdictions that now have more business from big boats.

Over-taxing saving and investment, by contrast, can permanently lower a nation’s prosperity by reducing capital formation. And to the extent that this policy is imposed on the entire world (which is basically what the OECD is seeking), then there’s no additional growth in other jurisdictions to offset the suffering caused by bad tax policy in one jurisdiction.

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A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed the four major candidates running in the French presidential election and expressed general pessimism.

This Sunday, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen will face each other in the runoff election.

That’s a rather depressing choice. Macron is a former official in the disastrous big-government Hollande Administration and Le Pen is a big-government nativist who wants to preserve the welfare state (though not for immigrants).

Like choosing between Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

Not encouraging since the country needs a Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher.

A column in the Wall Street Journal explains France’s untenable position.

The deeper question is whether French voters accommodate themselves to reality or cling tighter to their economic illusions. …“The French try to erase historical experience,” Pascal Bruckner tells me. The literary journalist is one of a very few classical liberals among French public intellectuals. He says his compatriots “have forgotten the experience of 1989 and only see the bad aspects of capitalism and liberal democracy.” The tragedy of France, Mr. Bruckner says, is that the country never had a Margaret Thatcher or Gerhard Schröder to implement a dramatic pro-growth program. …it wasn’t shadowy globalists who in 1999 imposed a 35-hour workweek to make overtime labor prohibitively expensive. The law was meant to encourage firms to hire more workers, but like most efforts to subjugate markets to politics, it ended up doing more harm than good. Now it’s the main barrier to hiring in a country where the unemployment rate is stuck north of 10%. Nor was it global markets that levied a corporate tax rate of 33% (plus surcharges for larger firms), a top personal rate of 45%, and a wealth tax and other “social fees” that repelled investors and forced the country’s best and brightest to seek refuge in places like London, New York and Silicon Valley. Nor did globalization build a behemoth French bureaucracy that crowds out the private economy.

Yes, France is in a mess because of statism. Hard to argue with that.

The question is whether Macron or Le Pen will make things better or worse.

With pervasive lack of enthusiasm, I suppose Macron is the preferable choice. There’s at least a chance he’ll be a reformer. Let’s look at how some observers view him.

We’ll start with George Will, who is not overly impressed by Macron.

The French…might confer their presidency on a Gallic Barack Obama. …Emmanuel Macron, 39, is a former Paris investment banker, untainted by electoral experience, and a virtuoso of vagueness. …This self-styled centrist is a former minister for the incumbent president, Socialist François Hollande, who in a recent poll enjoyed 4 percent approval. …In 1977, France’s gross domestic product was about 60 percent larger than Britain’s; today it is smaller than Britain’s. In the interval, Britain had Margaret Thatcher, and France resisted (see above: keeping foreigners’ ideas at bay) “neoliberalism.” It would mean dismantling the heavy-handed state direction of the economy known as “dirigisme,” which is French for sclerosis. France’s unemployment rate is 10 percent, and more than twice that for the young. Public-sector spending is more than 56 percent of France’s GDP, higher than any other European nation’s. Macron promises only to nibble at statism’s ragged edges. He will not receive what he is not seeking — a specific mandate to challenge retirement at age 62 or the 35-hour workweek and the rest of France’s 3,500 pages of labor regulations that make it an ordeal to fire a worker and thus make businesses wary about hiring. Instead, he wants a more muscular European Union , which, with its democracy deficit, embodies regulatory arrogance.

Joseph Sternberg of the Wall Street Journal is a bit more optimistic.

Optimistic pundits hope the impending victory of a fresh-faced reformer signals that France’s economy at last can be fixed. But for at least the past decade, France’s problem hasn’t been a lack of understanding in the political class of what the French economy needs. Mr. Macron is not so much a radical change-agent as a photogenic tribune for a political class that is increasingly, albeit belatedly, uniting behind the need for economic overhauls. Formerly of the center left, he won Sunday’s first round on a revitalization platform different more in degree than in kind from that of the main center-right candidate, François Fillon, on matters such as government spending cuts and labor-law reform. The global case of the vapors over Ms. Le Pen obscures how remarkable this pro-reform convergence is. …Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan…remade British and American politics for a generation not through the workings of their legislative programs but through their capacity to shape public opinion. They created a coalition of the optimistic…. If the Macron program is to stick, he’ll have to do the same. He isn’t off to an auspicious start. …His message to those workers—“Take the hit for the good of the country”—lacks a certain Reaganesque resonance.

A columnist for the New York Times offers the most positive spin, portraying Macron as a Reaganite reformer.

Emmanuel Macron…attributes the nation’s woes not to outsiders — European officials and immigrants — but on France’s own “sclerotic” and unsustainable welfare state. …Mr. Macron would work to slim down one of the world’s fattest welfare states, rather than build it up as Ms. Le Pen would do. Of course France has attempted welfare state reform before, without success. The latest effort came last year, when Mr. Macron was a minister in the Socialist government, and wrote the Macron laws, opening regulated industries to competition. Those plans set off mass protests, and were watered down, but Mr. Macron says there is a big difference now: Earlier governments were not elected with a mandate to downsize the welfare state, while his could be. …the case for change has grown more urgent. …Georges Clemenceau, who served twice as prime minister between 1906 and 1920, cracked that his country was very fertile: “You plant bureaucrats and taxes grow.” Over the last decade state spending has grown even more… It’s tough to say how much state spending is too much, but France has clearly fallen out of balance, and Mr. Macron is right that the trend is “no longer sustainable.” The public payroll is similarly bloated, and Mr. Macron aims to rebalance the economy by cutting 120,000 public sector jobs, streamlining the pension system and dropping state spending back to 52 percent of G.D.P. Mr. Macron leads an emerging centrist consensus that recognizes that — more than immigrants or the euro — the main obstacle retarding France’s economy is its attachment to a welfare state culture of short workweeks and generous benefits. …In recent years France’s high income taxes have been chasing artists, executives and entrepreneurs out of the country. Last year, 12,000 millionaires emigrated — the largest millionaire exodus from any country by far. Mr. Macron — who once said that stifling taxes threaten to turn France into “Cuba without the sun” — has strong support among young, professional urban voters who would prefer opportunity at home to an expat life in London.

I hope this last column is accurate.

And 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.

Heck, policy even moved in the right direction when Bill Clinton was in the White House in the 1990s.

So I guess we can keep our fingers cross that Macron plays a similar role in France.

By the way, I can’t resist citing Paul Krugman’s assessment. He actually thinks France is in fairly good shape.

…what’s going on. …how did things get to this point? …France gets an amazing amount of bad press — much of it coming from ideologues who insist that generous welfare states must have disastrous effects — it’s actually a fairly successful economy. …It’s true that the French over all produce about a quarter less per person then we do — but that’s mainly because they take more vacations and retire younger… France offers a social safety net beyond the wildest dreams of U.S. progressives: guaranteed high-quality health care for all, generous paid leave for new parents, universal pre-K, and much more.

That’s an interesting spin, but maybe French people would like to earn more, but don’t have the opportunity because of bad policy?

And if things are so good in France, why are so many French people escaping to other nations?

Moreover, to the extent there are problems, Krugman says the blame belongs to the supposed pro-austerity crowd in Brussels and Berlin.

Even though Brussels and Berlin were wrong again and again about the economics — even though the austerity they imposed was every bit as economically disastrous as critics warned — they continued to act as if they knew all the answers

Yet the nations that actually cut spending – such as the Baltics – have recovered strongly. It’s the big spenders in Europe who are dragging down the continent.

And since Macron’s supposed reform agenda would only reduce the burden of government spending to 52 percent of economic output (from about 57 percent today), that’s not exactly an example of vigorous budget cutting anyway.

But it would be nice to add France to my list of nations that have – for a last a couple of years – restrained the growth of the public sector.

P.S. I have a good track record in France. The candidate I “endorsed” in 2012 won the race.

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