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Posts Tagged ‘Government Spending’

I wrote last month that the debt burden in Greece doesn’t preclude economic recovery. After all, both the United States and (especially) the United Kingdom had enormous debt burdens after World War II, yet those record levels of red ink didn’t prevent growth.

Climbing out of the debt hole didn’t require anything miraculous. Neither the United States nor the United Kingdom had great economic policy during the post-war decades. They didn’t even comply with Mitchell’s Golden Rule on spending.

But both nations managed to at least shrink the relative burden of debt by having the private sector grow faster than red ink. And the recipe for that is very simple.

…all that’s needed is a semi-sincere effort to avoid big deficits, combined with a semi-decent amount of economic growth. Which is an apt description of…policy between WWII and the 1970s.

Greece could achieve that goal, particularly if politicians would allow faster growth. The government could reduce red tape, which would be a good start since the nation ranks a miserable #114 for regulation in Economic Freedom of the World.

But Greece also should try to reverse some of the economy-stifling tax increases that have been imposed in recent years.

That may seem a challenge considering the level of red ink, but good tax policy would be possible if the Greek government was more aggressive about reducing the burden of government spending.

And if that’s the goal, then the Baltic nations are a good role model, as explained by Anders Aslund in the Berlin Policy Journal. With Latvia being the star pupil.

…austerity policies have not been attempted most aggressively in Greece: all three Baltic countries pursued more aggressive fiscal adjustments, especially Latvia. The Latvian government faced the global financial crisis head-on. …The Latvian government carried out a fiscal adjustment of 8.8 percent of GDP in 2009 and 5.9 percent of GDP in 2010, amounting to a fiscal adjustment of 14.7 percent of GDP over the course of two years, totaling 17.5 percent of GDP over four years, according to IMF calculations. Greece did the opposite. According to the IMF, its fiscal adjustment in the initial crisis year of 2010 was a paltry 2.5 percent of GDP, and in 2011 only 4.1 percent, a total of only 6.6 percent of GDP over two years. Greece’s total fiscal adjustment over four years was only 11.1 percent of GDP.

In other words, Latvia (like the other Baltic nations) did more reform and did it faster.

And it’s also worth noting that the reforms were generally the right kind of austerity, meaning that expenditure commitments were reduced.

Whereas Greece has implemented some expenditure reforms, but has relied far more on tax increases.

Better policy, not surprisingly, meant better results.

In 2008-10 Latvia suffered an output decline of 24 percent, as much as Greece did in the six-year span from 2009-14. However, thanks to its front-loaded fiscal adjustment, Latvia was able to restore its public finances after two years. The country has shown solid economic growth, averaging 4.3 percent per year from 2011-14, according to Eurostat. …The consequences of tepid Greek fiscal stabilization have been a devastating six years of declining output, even as the Latvian economy has revived. In 2013 Latvia’s GDP at constant prices was 4 percent lower than in 2008, while Greece’s was 23 percent less than in 2008, according to the IMF. A cumulative difference in GDP development of 19 percentage points over six years cannot be a statistical blip – it is real.

The bottom line is that Latvia and the other Baltics were willing to endure more short-term pain in order to achieve a quicker economic rebound.

That was a wise choice, particularly since the alternative, as we see in Greece, is seemingly permanent stagnation.

Anders Paalzow of the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga also suggests, in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, that Latvia is a good role model.

Professor Paalzow starts by explaining that Latvia is now enjoying good growth after enduring a dramatic boom-bust cycle last decade.

In 2008, Europe’s most overheated economy, which had been fuelled by cheap credit and rapidly raising wages and real estate prices, collapsed. GDP dropped by 20 percent and unemployment rose to more than 20 percent. But here’s where things take an unexpected turn. By late 2010, the first glimmers of recovery became apparent. Today, the economy is among Europe’s fastest growing, and its GDP is back at pre-crisis levels. So how did Latvia, the hero of this story, do it?

The first thing to understand is that Latvia was determined to join the eurozone, so that meant it wasn’t going to devalue its currency in hopes of inflating away its problems. Which meant the only other choice was “internal devaluation.”

…the Latvian government’s only real option was fiscal policy adjustment, the details of which it unveiled in its supplementary budget for 2009 and its budget for 2010. Both of these saw substantial reductions in social benefits accompanied by long overdue cuts in public employment with close to 30 percent of civil servants laid off. Those who remained in the public sector saw their salaries cut by 25 percent, on average, whereas salaries in the private sector fell by on average ten percent. …the reductions made during the crisis years amounted to approximately 11 percent of GDP. Most of the fiscal consolidation was done on the expenditure side of the public budget… The fiscal consolidation program continued into 2011 and the years following, even though the economy started to grow again.

Not only did the economy grow, but the government was rewarded for making tough choices.

…in 2010, the government responsible for austerity was reelected.

But here’s the challenge. Professor Paalzow warns that fiscal reforms won’t mean much unless the chronic dysfunction of the Greek government is somehow addressed.

The importance of the institutional framework cannot be overestimated. …it seems like a fool’s errand to try to sell off the public assets of a country riddled with high corruption… Furthermore, with a legal system incapable of enforcing current legislation and characterized by slow judicial processes, inefficient courts, and weak investor protection, legal reform will be a necessary condition for an economic turnaround.

So he suggests that Latvian-type fiscal reforms should be accompanied by Nordic-style institutional reforms.

Greece should look further north to Finland and Sweden, which overcame their own crises in the early 1990s. …The three to four years following the initial economic disaster saw remarkable institutional reform…substantial changes in both welfare systems. …both countries pursued austerity…, a remedy that both nations had frequently tried in the 1970s and 1980s without any success. What made the difference this time was that the institutional, and hence the fundamental roots, of the problems were addressed.

While I like his prescription, I suspect Paalzow is being too optimistic.

You can’t turn the Greeks into Finns or Swedes, at least not without some sort of massive jolt.

Which is why my preferred policy is to end bailouts, even if it means that Greece repudiates its existing debt. If the Greeks no longer got any handouts, that necessarily would mean an immediate end to deficit spending (assuming the government doesn’t ditch the euro in order to finance spending by printing drachmas).

Welfare State Wagon CartoonsAnd that might be a very sobering experience that would teach the Greek people about the dangers of having too many people trying to ride in the wagon of government dependency.

That might not turn the Greeks into Nordics, but it presumably would help them understand that you can’t (at least in the long run) consume more than you produce.

That’s also a lesson that some American politicians need to learn!

P.S. I wonder if Paul Krugman will attack Latvia’s good reforms. When he went after Estonia for adopting similar policies, he wound up with egg on his face.

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Not all birthdays are a cause for untrammeled joy. Most of us baby boomers, for instance, don’t like being reminded that we’re getting older.

And for folks who follow fiscal policy, the fact that Medicare is now 50 years old is hardly a cause for celebration. That’s because the program, as one of the three big entitlement programs, will turn American into Greece without substantial structural reform.

But it’s not just a budgetary issue.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Sally Pipes of the Pacific Research Institute opines that this isn’t a happy birthday for taxpayers, seniors, or the healthcare system.

The only birthday gift this middle-age government program merits is a reality check. Health insurance for senior citizens was part of LBJ’s expansion of the welfare state, all in the service of establishing a “Great Society.” Yet many beneficiaries today are struggling to secure access to high-quality care. Future beneficiaries, meanwhile, are forking over billions of dollars today to keep a program afloat that may be bankrupt when they retire.

Like many government programs, it is far more expensive than initially promised.

Medicare spending has zoomed far beyond original expectations and is now anything but sustainable. In its first year, 1966, Medicare spent $3 billion. In 1967 the House Ways and Means Committee predicted that the program would cost $12 billion by 1990. It ended up costing $110 billion that year. Last year the program cost $511 billion, and seven years from now it will double to more than $1 trillion, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

And like many government programs, it is riddled with waste, fraud, and abuse.

Medicare has been dogged by fraud and other improper payments—$60 billion overall in fiscal 2014, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.

You can click here if you want some jaw-dropping examples of how the program squanders money.

Moreover, many doctors don’t want to treat Medicare recipients because they lose money after you included the expense of accompanying paperwork and regulations.

…nearly three in 10 seniors on Medicare struggle to find a primary-care doctor who will treat them, according to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission. Another survey conducted by Jackson Healthcare, the health-care staffing company, found that 10% of the more than 2,000 physicians it surveyed don’t see Medicare patients at all.

So what’s the solution?

We’ve tried price controls and that doesn’t work.

Other approaches also won’t be adequate. So the only answer, Sally explains, is to shift to a form of vouchers sometimes called “premium support.”

…tweaking the eligibility age won’t be enough. If Medicare is to survive into old age, the program has to be converted from an open-ended entitlement to a system of means-tested vouchers. Under such a system, the government would give every senior a voucher based on health status, income and age. Seniors in better health and those who are wealthy would receive smaller vouchers. Sicker or needier seniors would receive larger ones. Seniors would then choose from among privately administered health plans the one that best suited their needs and budget. Insurers would have to compete for beneficiaries’ business, and providers would have to compete to get on the most popular plans. Lower prices and better-quality care would be the result.

Grace-Marie Turner of the Galen Institute and Merrill Matthews of the Institute for Policy Innovation have a similarly pessimistic perspective.

In a column for Investor’s Business Daily, they highlight some of the same problems with cost and quality, but they also add important insight about how Medicare has caused rising health care costs.

…health economist Theodore Marmor pointed out: “Hospital price increases presented the most intractable political problem for the Johnson administration. In the first year of Medicare’s operation, the average daily service charge in America’s hospitals increased by an unprecedented 21.9%. Each month the Labor Department’s consumer price survey reported further increases…”

Gee, what a surprise. With Uncle Sam picking up the tab, normal market forces were eroded and providers responded by jacking up prices.

The federal government has responded with price controls, but that’s been predictably ineffective.

Congress imposed a type of price-control mechanism in 1983 called Diagnostic Related Groups, or DRGs. And in the early 1990s, Congress tried to cut spending on physicians by creating the Resource Based Relative Value Scale. Then there was the infamous Medicare “Sustainable Growth Rate,” later dubbed the “doc fix,” which passed in 1996 to contain Medicare spending by cutting doctors’ fees. It was repealed only recently, after Congress had postponed the vote 17 times.

So what’s the bottom line?

Government involvement dramatically increases spending, followed by clampdowns on soaring prices, leading to restrictions on doctors and patients. Perhaps next time, we might try market forces rather than another failed effort at centralized government programs.

Or we can simply leave policy on autopilot and somehow have faith that Obamacare’s death panels will “solve” the problem.

P.S. Here’s the video I narrated which explains the importance of the right kind of Medicare reform.

And if you want (what I think) is a very good description of the program, it’s that Medicare charges seniors for a hamburger and gives them a hamburger, but taxpayers are getting a bill for a steak.

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Remember the big debt limit fight of 2013? The political establishment at the time went overboard with hysterical rhetoric about potential instability in financial markets.

They warned that a failure to increase the federal government’s borrowing authority would mean default to bondholders even though the Treasury Department was collecting about 10 times as much revenue as would be needed to pay interest on the debt.

And these warnings had an effect. Congress eventually acquiesced.

I thought it was a worthwhile fight, but not everyone agrees.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), for instance, recently released a report about that experience and they suggest that there was a negative impact on markets.

During the 2013 debt limit impasse, investors reported taking the unprecedented action of systematically avoiding certain Treasury securities—those that matured around the dates when the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) projected it would exhaust the extraordinary measures that it uses to manage federal debt when it is at the limit. …Investors told GAO that they are now prepared to take similar steps to systematically avoid certain Treasury securities during future debt limit impasses. …industry groups emphasized that even a temporary delay in payment could undermine confidence in the full faith and credit of the United States and therefore cause significant damage to markets for Treasury securities and other assets.

The GAO even produced estimates showing that the debt limit fight resulted in a slight increase in borrowing costs.

GAO’s analysis indicates that the additional borrowing costs that Treasury incurred rose rapidly in the final weeks and days leading up to the October 2013 deadline when Treasury projected it would exhaust its extraordinary measures. GAO estimated the total increased borrowing costs incurred through September 30, 2014, on securities issued by Treasury during the 2013 debt limit impasse. These estimates ranged from roughly $38 million to more than $70 million, depending on the specifications used.

I confess that these results don’t make sense since it is inconceivable to me that Treasury wouldn’t fully compensate bondholders if there was any sort of temporary default.

But GAO included some persuasive evidence that investors didn’t have total trust in the government. Here are a couple of charts looking at interest rates.

Both of them show an uptick in rates as we got closer to the date when the Treasury Department said it would run out of options.

Given this data, the GAO argues that it would be best to eviscerate the debt limit.

The bureaucrats propose three options, all of which would have the effect of enabling automatic or near-automatic increases in the federal government’s borrowing authority.

GAO identified three potential approaches to delegating borrowing authority. …Option 1: Link Action on the Debt Limit to the Budget Resolution …legislation raising the debt limit to the level envisioned in the Congressional Budget Resolution would be…deemed to have passed… Option 2: Provide the Administration with the Authority to Increase the Debt Limit, Subject to a Congressional Motion of Disapproval… Option 3: Delegating Broad Authority to the Administration to Borrow…such sums as necessary to fund implementation of the laws duly enacted by Congress and the President.

So is GAO right? Should we give Washington a credit card with no limits?

I don’t think so, but I’m obviously not very persuasive because I actually had a chance to share my views with GAO as they prepared the report.

Here are the details about GAO’s process for getting feedback from outside sources.

…we hosted a private Web forum where selected experts participated in an interactive discussion on the various policy proposals and commented on the technical feasibility and merits of each option. We selected experts to invite to the forum based on their experience with budget and debt issues in various capacities (government officials, former congressional staff, and policy researchers), as well as on their knowledge of the debt limit, as demonstrated through published articles and congressional testimony since 2011. …we received comments from 17 of the experts invited to the forum. We determined that the 17 participants represented the full range of political perspectives. We analyzed the results of the forum to identify key factors that policymakers should consider when evaluating different policy options.

Given the ground rules of this exercise, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to share details of that interactive discussion.

But I will share some of my 2013 public testimony to the Joint Economic Committee.

Here’s some of what I told lawmakers.

I explained that Greece is now suffering through a very deep recession, with record unemployment and harsh economic conditions. I asked the Committee a rhetorical question: Wouldn’t it have been preferable if there was some sort of mechanism, say, 15 years ago that would have enabled some lawmakers to throw sand in the gears so that the government couldn’t issue any more debt? Yes, there would have been some budgetary turmoil at the time, but it would have been trivial compared to the misery the Greek people currently are enduring. I closed by drawing an analogy to the situation in Washington. We know we’re on an unsustainable path. Do we want to wait until we hit a crisis before we address the over-spending crisis? Or do we want to take prudent and modest steps today – such as genuine entitlement reform and spending caps – to ensure prosperity and long-run growth.

In other words, my argument is simply that it’s good to have debt limit fights because they create a periodic opportunity to force reforms that might avert far greater budgetary turmoil in the future.

Indeed, one of the few recent victories for fiscal responsibility was the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), which only was implemented because of a fight that year over the debt limit. At the time, the establishment was screaming and yelling about risky brinksmanship.

But the net result is that the BCA ultimately resulted in the sequester, which was a huge victory that contributed to much better fiscal numbers between 2009-2014.

By the way, I’m not the only one to make this argument. The case for short-term fighting today to avoid fiscal crisis in the future was advanced in greater detail by a Wall Street expert back in 2011.

P.P.S. You can enjoy some good debt limit cartoons by clicking here and here.

 

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When giving speeches outside the beltway, I sometimes urge people to be patient with Washington. Yes, we need fundamental tax reform and genuine entitlement reform, but there’s no way Congress can make those changes with Obama in the White House.

But there are some areas whether progress is possible, and people should be angry with politicians if they deliberately choose to make bad decisions.

For instance, the corrupt Export-Import Bank has expired and there’s nothing that Obama can do to restore this odious example of corporate welfare. It will only climb from the grave if Republicans on Capitol Hill decide that campaign cash from big corporations is more important than free markets.

Another example of a guaranteed victory – assuming Republicans don’t fumble the ball at the goal line – is that there’s no longer enough gas-tax revenue coming into the Highway Trust Fund to finance big, bloated, and pork-filled transportation spending bills. So if the GOP-controlled Congress simply does nothing, the federal government’s improper and excessive involvement in this sector will shrink.

Unfortunately, Republicans have no desire to achieve victory on this issue. It’s not that there’s a risk of them fumbling the ball on the goal line. By looking for ways to generate more revenue for the Trust Fund, they’re moving the ball in the other direction and trying to help the other team score a touchdown!

The good news is that Republicans backed away from awful proposals to increase the federal gas tax.

But the bad news is that they’re coming up with other ideas to transfer more of our income to Washington. Here’s a look at some of the revenue-generating schemes in the Senate transportation bill.

Since the House and Senate haven’t agreed on how to proceed, it’s unclear which – if any – of these proposals will be implemented.

But one thing that is clear is that the greed for more federal transportation spending is tempting Republicans into giving more power to the IRS.

Republicans and Democrats alike are looking to the IRS as they try to pass a highway bill by the end of the month. Approving stricter tax compliance measure is one of the few areas of agreement between the House and the Senate when it comes to paying for an extension of transportation funding. …the Senate and House are considering policy changes for the IRS ahead of the July 31 transportation deadline. …With little exception, the Senate bill uses the same provisions that were in a five-month, $8 billion extension the House passed earlier this month. The House highway bill, which would fund programs through mid-December, gets about 60 percent of its funding from tax compliance measures. …it’s…something of a shift for Republicans to trust the IRS enough to back the new tax compliance measures. House Republicans opposed similar proposals during a 2014 debate over highway funding, both because they didn’t want to give the IRS extra authority and because they wanted to hold the line on using new revenues to pay for additional spending.

Gee, isn’t it swell that Republicans have “grown in office” since last year.

But this isn’t just an issue of GOPers deciding that the DC cesspool is actually a hot tub. Part of the problem is the way Congress operates.

Simply stated, the congressional committee system generally encourages bad decisions. If you want to understand why there’s no push to scale back the role of the federal government in transportation, just look at the role of the committees in the House and Senate that are involved with the issue.

Both the authorizing committees (the ones that set the policy) and the appropriating committees (the ones that spend the money) are among the biggest advocates of generating more revenue in order to enable continued federal government involvement in transportation.

Why? For the simple reason that allocating transportation dollars is how the members of these committees raise campaign cash and buy votes. As such, it’s safe to assume that politicians don’t get on those committees with the goal of scaling back federal subsidies for the transportation sector.

And this isn’t unique to the committees that deal with transportation.

It’s also a safe bet that politicians that gravitate to the agriculture committees have a strong interest in maintaining the unseemly system of handouts and subsidies that line the pockets of Big Ag. The same is true for politicians that seek out committee slots dealing with NASA. Or foreign aid. Or military bases.

The bottom line is that even politicians who generally have sound views are most likely to make bad decisions on issues that are related to their committee assignments.

So what’s the solution?

Well, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a shift to random and/or rotating committee assignments, so the only real hope is to have some sort of overall cap on spending so that the various committees have to fight with each other over a (hopefully) shrinking pool of funds.

That’s why the Gramm-Rudman law in the 1980s was a step in the right direction. And it’s why the spending caps in today’s Budget Control Act also are a good idea.

Most important, it’s why we should have a limit on all spending, such as what’s imposed by the so-called Debt Brake in Switzerland.

Heck, even the crowd at the IMF has felt compelled to admit spending caps are the only effective fiscal tool.

Maybe, just maybe, a firm and enforceable spending cap will lead politicians in Washington to finally get the federal government out of areas such as transportation (and housing, agriculture, education, etc) where it doesn’t belong.

One can always hope.

In the meantime, since we’re on the topic of transportation decentralization, here’s a map from the Tax Foundation showing how gas taxes vary by states.

This data is useful (for instance, it shows why drivers in New York and Pennsylvania should fill up their tanks in New Jersey), but doesn’t necessarily tell us which states have the best transportation policy.

Are the gas taxes used for roads, or is some of the money siphoned off for boondoggle mass transit projects? Do the states have Project Labor Agreements and other policies that line the pockets of unions and cause needlessly high costs? Is there innovation and flexibility for greater private sector involvement in construction, maintenance, and operation?

But this is what’s good about federalism and why decentralization is so important. The states should be the laboratories of democracy. And when they have genuine responsibility for an issue, it then becomes easier to see which ones are doing a good job.

So yet another reason to shut down the Department of Transportation.

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The conventional wisdom, pushed by the IMF and others, is that Greece’s economy will never recover unless there is substantial debt relief.

Translated into English, that means the Greek government should be allowed to break the contracts it made with the people and institutions that lent money to Greece. That may mean a “haircut,” which would mean lenders (often called creditors) only get back some of what they’ve been promised, or a “default,” which would mean they get none of the money they were promised.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Greece has a full or partial default. And that actually might not be a bad result if it meant an end to bailouts and Greece was immediately forced to balance its budget.

But let’s set that issue aside and look at the specific issue of whether Greece’s debt is unsustainable. Here’s a look at Greek government debt, measured as a share of economic output.

As you can see, when the crisis started in Greece, government debt was about 100 percent of GDP.

Was Greece doomed at that point?

Well, if the situation was hopeless, then someone needs to explain why the United States didn’t collapse after World War II.

As you can see from this chart, debt climbed to more than 100 percent of economic output because of the heavy expense of defeating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Yet the American economy rebounded after the war (notwithstanding dire predictions from Keynesians) and the debt burden shrank.

So maybe the more interesting issue is to look at how America reduced its debt burden after 1945, which may give us some insights into what should happen (or should have happened) in Greece.

Here’s one question to consider: Did the burden of the federal debt drop between the end of World War II and the 1970s because of big budget surpluses?

Nope. If you look at Table 7.1 of OMB’s Historical Tables, you’ll see that there was a steady increase in the amount of government debt in America after 1945. Yes, there were a few years with budget surpluses, but those surpluses were more than offset by years with budget deficits.

The reason that the national debt shrank as a share of economic output was completely the result of the economy growing faster than the debt.

Here’s an analogy. Imagine you graduate from college and you have $20,000 of credit card debt. That might be a very big burden relative to your income.

But in your 50s and (hopefully) earning a lot more money, you might have $40,000 of credit card debt, yet be in a much stronger financial position.

So the real issue for Greece (and Spain, and Japan, and the United States, etc) is not so much whether the amount of debt shrinks. It’s whether debt is constrained compared to private-sector growth.

That doesn’t require any sort of miracle. Yes, it would be nice if Greece and other nations decided to become like Hong Kong and Singapore, high-growth economies thanks to small government and non-interventionism.

But all that’s needed is a semi-sincere effort to avoid big deficits, combined with a semi-decent amount of economic growth. Which is an apt description of U.S. policy between WWII and the 1970s.

Is it unreasonable to ask Greece to follow that model?

Some may say Greece is now in a different situation because debt levels have climbed too high. Debt in the United States peaked a bit above 100 percent of GDP at the end of World War II, whereas government debt in Greece is now closer to 200 percent of GDP.

It’s certainly true that today’s debt burden in Greece is higher than America’s post-WWII debt burden. So let’s look at another example.

Government debt in the United Kingdom jumped to almost 250 percent of economic output by the end of the World War II.

Did that cause the U.K. economy to collapse? Did Britain have to default?

The answer to both questions is no.

The United Kingdom simply did what America did. It combined a semi-sincere effort to avoid big deficits with a semi-decent amount of economic growth.

And the result, as you can see from the above graph, is that debt fell sharply as a share of GDP.

In other words, Greece can fulfill its promises and pay its bills. And the recipe isn’t that difficult. Simply impose a modest bit of spending restraint and enact a modest amount of pro-growth reforms.

Unfortunately, prior bailouts have given Greece an excuse to avoid reforms. Though the IMF, ECB and European Commission (the so-called troika) have learned somewhat from those mistakes and are now making greater demands of the Greek government as a condition of another bailout.

The problem is the troika doesn’t seem to understand what’s really needed in Greece. They’re pushing for lots of tax increases, which will make it hard for Greece’s private sector to generate growth. The only good news (or, to be more accurate, less bad news) is that the troika doesn’t want as many tax hikes as the Greek government would like.

In other words, don’t be too optimistic about the long-run outcome. Which is basically what I said in this interview on Canadian TV.

The bottom line is that a rescue of the Greek economy is possible. But so long as nobody with any power wants to make the right kind of reforms, don’t hold your breath waiting for good results.

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I suggested a couple of months ago that the economic turmoil in Greece and Venezuela is somewhat akin to a real-life version of Atlas Shrugged.

And I’ve also used that analogy when writing about France and Detroit.

But I’m probably not doing justice to Ayn Rand’s famous novel because Atlas Shrugged is not just about an economy that collapses under the weight of too much government regulation, intervention, and control.

I probably won’t give the right description since I’m a policy wonk rather than philosopher, but Atlas Shrugged is also about the perils of self-sacrifice.

And I couldn’t help but think about that aspect of the book when I read the comments of certain Greek politicians during yesterday’s bailout vote in Athens.

If you scroll down to the 14:40 mark of this timeline from the U.K.-based Telegraph, you’ll find some remarkable comments that sound like they came straight from Ayn Rand’s book.

Greece’s ruling Syriza party has accused David Cameron of being mean over his objections to allowing British taxpayer’s money to be used to help Athens meet upcoming debt payments. …Mr Cameron’s attitude was described as cold-hearted by Nikos Xydakis, a deputy culture minister in Syriza. “Mr Cameron must explain to the European people and 11 million Greeks why he wants them to suffer a social crisis,” Mr Xydakis told The Telegraph. “This is not about politics, this is about human souls.”

Wow. I might agree that David Cameron is “mean,” but I think his cruelty is directed against British taxpayers, not Greek politicians.

But let’s stick with our main topic. Notice how the moochers in Greece are trying to use guilt as a weapon. I’m sure some Ayn Rand experts will correct me if I’m wrong, but the aforementioned comments definitely sound like passages from Atlas Shrugged.

That being said, the Germans apparently have more in common with John Galt than Jim Taggart. Here are some excerpts from a column in the New York Times by Jacob Soll, a professor from the University of Southern California. He recently attended a conference in Germany and found very little sympathy for the Greeks.

 …when the German economists spoke…, a completely different tone took over the room. Within the economic theories and numbers came a moral message: The Germans were honest dupes and the Greeks corrupt, unreliable and incompetent. …the Greeks destroyed themselves over the past four years. Now the Greeks deserved what was coming to them. …Debtors who default, they explained, would simply have to suffer…a country like Greece…did not seem to merit empathy. …When the panel split up, German attendees circled me to explain how the Greeks were robbing the Germans. They did not want to be victims anymore.

Wow, who knew the Germans were a bunch of closet Randians!

No wonder the Greek politicians decided to target David Cameron instead.

For what it’s worth, I must have some German blood in my veins because I wasn’t overly sympathetic to Greece in this interview.

I even referred (again) to “looters” and “moochers,” which are terms used in Rand’s book.

I’ll make two comments about the interview.

  1. My prediction about the vote in Greece was correct. Though I wish I had been wrong because the best long-run outcome (both for the Greek people and the world’s taxpayers) is an end to bailouts.
  2. I mentioned that there will be more debt-crisis dominoes at some point in the future. I hope I’m wrong, but it’s hard to be optimistic when you look at long-run fiscal estimates from the IMF, BIS, and OECD.

P.S. Lots of what happens in Washington also is disturbingly similar to scenes from Atlas Shrugged, particularly the corrupt Obamacare waiver process.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So true.

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

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

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

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

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

Second, it prevents the full meltdown of Greek banks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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