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Posts Tagged ‘Switzerland’

I recently wrote about gun control, noting how there’s less murder in demographically similar U.S. states than there is in matching Canadian provinces.

This is one of the reasons why I’m optimistic about protecting the Second Amendment. The empirical evidence is so strong that law-abiding people are safer in well-armed societies.

But let’s see how the rest of the world is faring on this issue.

Let’s start with a story from Switzerland, a nation that has a very strong tradition of gun rights.

Switzerland is becoming safer. Police recently flagged up that crime rates fell by 7% in 2015, reaching a seven-year low. In 2014, homicide was actually at its lowest level in 30 years. …A survey by swissinfo.ch shows gun permit applications were up almost everywhere in Switzerland in 2015.

Hmmm…, more guns and less crime. The person who slapped the headline on the story seems to think it’s a mystery why that relationship exists.

But anybody capable of passing my IQ test for criminals and liberals understands that the title should be changed to “Lower crime because Swiss have more guns” or something like that.

The article also includes a section on Switzerland’s gun culture.

Switzerland has one of the highest gun ownership rates in the world because of its militia army. The defence ministry estimates that some two million guns are in private hands in a population of 8.3 million. An estimated 750,000 of those guns have been recorded in a local register. Under the militia system soldiers keep their army-issue weapons at home. Voters in recent years have rejected tighter gun controls. In 2011, voters rejected a proposal to restrict access to guns by banning the purchase of automatic weapons and introducing a licensing system for the use of firearms.

Ah, those sensible Swiss voters. Not only are they against tax hikes and regulatory intervention, but they also reject licensing and support the right to purchase automatic weapons.

Now let’s travel Down Under and see what happens when a government takes the wrong approach to guns.

Hillary Clinton says “Australia is a good example”… The man Clinton wants to succeed, Barack Obama, noted, “Australia … imposed very severe, tough gun laws.  And they haven’t had a mass shooting since.” …Maybe it’s time to tell the president and his likely successor that the policies they so admire have been largely flouted… Clinton and Obama tout a 1996 “gun buyback” that was actually a compensated confiscation of self-loading rifles, self-loading shotguns, and pump-action shotguns in response to the Port Arthur mass shooting. The seizure took around 650,000 firearms out of civilian hands and tightened the rules on legal acquisition and ownership of weapons going forward. …What the law couldn’t do—what prohibitions can never accomplish—was eliminate demand for what was forbidden. …The Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia estimates compliance with the “buyback” at 19 percent. Other researchers agree. In a white paper on the results of gun control efforts around the world, Franz Csaszar, a professor of criminology at the University of Vienna, Austria, gives examples of large-scale non-compliance with the ban. He points out, “In Australia it is estimated that only about 20% of all banned self-loading rifles have been given up to the authorities.”

There is one group benefiting from the attempted gun ban. Criminal gangs are big winners.

“Australians may be more at risk from gun crime than ever before with the country’s underground market for firearms ballooning in the past decade,” the report added. “[T]he national ban on semi-automatic weapons following the Port Arthur massacre had spawned criminal demand for handguns.” …Once you enable organized crime, there are no boundaries. Australia’s criminal gangs supply not just pistols, but weapons up to and including rocket launchers—some of which may have ended up in terrorist hands. …like American bootleggers who supplemented smuggled booze with bathtub gin, Australia’s organized criminal outfits have learned the joy of DIY production. …Australia will have to live with the rise in organized crime for years to come.

Such a disappointment that Australia, which is a role model on some issues, is so anti-civil rights when it comes to guns.

Now let’s travel to France, where there are at least one person doesn’t think it’s a good idea to let terrorists be the only ones with guns.

The leader of the rock band playing the Bataclan in Paris the night ISIS terrorists killed 90 in the concert hall three months ago ripped French gun control laws and urged “everybody” to get a gun. “I can’t let the bad guys win,” said Jesse Hughes of Eagles of Death Metal. …Speaking in a sometimes tearful interview to iTele, Hughes added, “Did your French gun control stop a single fu—– person from dying at the Bataclan? And if anyone can answer yes, I’d like to hear it, because I don’t think so.”

Amen. It’s downright bizarre that European politicians think it’s a good idea for citizens to be disarmed while crazies get to stock up on weapons.

Now let’s turn to America, where New Jersey (again) is a national embarrassment.

A New Jersey actor faces 10 years in prison for firing a prop pellet gun while filming an independent film. Carlo Goias, who uses the stage name Carlo Bellario, was charged with firing the fake gun without a state gun permit as part of the Garden State’s insanely strict gun laws. In New Jersey, all guns require a state permit, even non-lethal airsoft guns like the one Goias was using. …just seeing Goias pretending to fire from a car window prompted neighborhood residents to call the police. “I pretended to shoot out the window; they were going to dub in the sound later,” Goias told the Associated Press. “We get back, and within a couple of minutes we’re surrounded by cop cars.” …being sent away for 10 years over a fake gun is a reminder of just how absurd New Jersey’s gun laws still are.

Speaking of gun control, here’s radio shock jock Howard Stern making mostly sensible comments on the right to keep and bear arms.

It’s a bit disappointing that he supports a national gun registry, but I assume that’s because he doesn’t realize that the left supports registration primarily as a predicate for gun confiscation.

But he atones for that error by mocking leftists who have personal (and well-armed) security guards. Gee, I wonder if we might have an example of such a person.

And it’s also good that Howard mentions that most cops support gun rights, something that we see in the polling data.

P.S. Click here and here for some good gun control humor.

P.P.S. And click here for some entertaining videos mocking gun control.

P.P.P.S. Even some leftists have seen the light on gun rights, as you can see here, here, and here.

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I’m not a big fan of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

That international bureaucracy is controlled by high-tax nations that want to export bad policy to the rest of the world. As such, the OECD frequently advocates policies that are contrary to sound economic principles.

Here are just a few examples of statist policies that are directly contrary to the interests of the American people.

With a list like that, you can understand why I’m so upset that American taxpayers subsidize this pernicious bureaucracy. Heck, I’m so opposed to the OECD that I was almost thrown in a Mexican jail for fighting against their anti-tax competition project.

But the point of today’s column isn’t to bash the OECD. The above list is simply to make clear that nobody could accuse the Paris-based bureaucracy of being in favor of small government and free markets.

So if the OECD actually admits that the spending cap in the Swiss Debt Brake is a very effective fiscal rule, that’s a remarkable development. Sort of like criminals admitting that a certain alarm system is effective.

And that’s exactly the message in a report on The State of Public Finances 2015, which was just released by the OECD. Here are some key findings from the preface.

It is understandable that citizens ask why public financial management processes did not guard, in a more effective way, against the vagaries of the economic cycle…the OECD’s recent Recommendation on Budgetary Governance…spells out a number of simple, clear yet ambitious principles for how countries should manage their budgets and fiscal policy processes. …the most salient lesson…is not to seek to avoid altogether the fiscal shocks and cyclical downturns, to which our economies are subject from time to time. The real challenge is to build resilience into our national framework…to mitigate these fiscal shocks. …As to fiscal resilience, this report underpins the wisdom of…fiscal rules.

But what fiscal rules actually work?

This is where the OECD bureaucrats deserve credit for acknowledging an approach with a proven track record, even though the organization often advocates for bigger government. Here are some excerpts from the report’s executive summary.

The European Union’s Stability and Growth Pact…proved largely ineffective in protecting countries from the effects of the fiscal crisis. …Simple and clear fiscal anchors – e.g., the Swiss and German debt brake rules – appear to have been more effective in influencing effective fiscal management.

And here is some additional analysis from the body of the report.

Switzerland’s “debt brake” constitutional rule has proven a model for some OECD countries, notably Germany. …Germany adopted a debt brake rule in 2009… In addition, the United Kingdom recently announced (June 2015) its plan… Furthermore,…it is preferable to combine a budget balance rule with an expenditure rule.

And here are some of the findings from a separate OECD study published earlier this year. Switzerland’s debt brake isn’t explicitly mentioned, but the key feature of the Swiss approach – a spending cap – is warmly embraced.

A combination of a budget balance rule and an expenditure rule seems to suit most countries well. …well-designed expenditure rules appear decisive to ensure the effectiveness of a budget balance rule and can foster long-term growth. …Spending rules entail no trade-off between minimising recession risks and minimising debt uncertainties. They can boost potential growth and hence reduce the recession risk without any adverse effect on debt. Indeed, estimations show that public spending restraint is associated with higher potential growth.

Let me now add my two cents. The research from the OECD on spending caps is good, but incomplete. The main omission is that both the report and the study don’t explain that spending caps primarily are effective because they prevent excessive spending increases when the economy is strong.

As I’ve explained before, citing examples such as Greece, Alberta, Puerto Rico, California, and Alaska, politicians have a compulsive tendency to create new spending commitments during periods when a robust economy is generating lots of tax revenue. But when the economy stumbles and revenues go flat, these spending commitments become unsustainable.

And, all too often, politicians respond with higher taxes.

Speaking of which, the more recent OECD report also has some interesting data on how countries have dealt with fiscal policy in recent years.

Here are two charts showing fiscal changes from 2012-2014 and projected fiscal changes from 2015-2017.

I’m not sure why the United States isn’t on the list. After all, we actually had some very good changes in 2012-2014 period (though we’ve recently regressed).

But let’s look at some of the other nations (keeping in mind “expenditure reductions” are mostly just reductions in planned increases, just like in the U.S.).

Kudos to New Zealand (NZL), Switzerland (CHE), and the United Kingdom (GBR), all of which took steps to constrain spending over the past three years and all of which intend to be similarly prudent over the next three years.

Cautious applause to France (FRA), Spain (ESP), Denmark (DNK), and Sweden (SWE), all of which at least claim they’ll be prudent in the future.

And jeers to Mexico (MEX) for bad policy in the past and Turkey (TUR) for bad policy in the future, while both the Czech Republic (CZE) and Finland (FIN) deserve scorn for pursuing lots of tax increases in both periods.

Let’s take a moment to elaborate on the nations that have made responsible choices. I’ve already written about fiscal restraint in Switzerland, and I’ve also noted that the United Kingdom has moved in the right direction (even though the current government made some tax mistakes that led me to be very pessimistic when it first took control).

So let’s focus on New Zealand, which is yet another case study showing the value of Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

During the 2012-2014 period, government spending grew by less than 1 percent annually according to IMF data. The government doesn’t intend to be as prudent for the 2015-2017 period, which spending projected to grow by 3 percent annually. But in both cases, nominal spending is growing slower than nominal GDP, and that’s the key to fiscal progress.

Indeed, if you check the OECD data on the overall burden of government spending, the public sector in New Zealand today is consuming 40.5 percent of economic output, which is far too high, but still lower than 44.7 percent of GDP, which was the amount of GDP consumed by government in 2011.

And don’t forget that New Zealand has the world’s freest economy for non-fiscal factors, ranking even above Hong Kong and Singapore.

Let’s conclude by circling back to the issue of spending caps.

It is a noteworthy development that even the OECD has embraced expenditure limits. Especially since the IMF also has endorsed spending caps.

And since spending caps also have widespread support among fiscal experts from think thanks, maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance for real reform.

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What’s the best country in the world?

My emotional response is that the United States belongs in the top spot.

But a more dispassionate analysis suggests that Switzerland is more deserving of the honor.

It has the 4th-freest economy according to the most recent rankings from Economic Freedom of the World, eight spots above the United States.

And it is ranked #2 in the Human Freedom Index, 18 spots higher than America.

There are several specific reasons why Switzerland is a good role model.

Perhaps most important, the Swiss people are eminently sensible, as seen by their votes in favor of a spending cap and against class-warfare taxation, minimum-wage mandates, single-payer healthcare, and the death tax.

I’m not sure I would trust my fellow Americans to show similarly sound judgement.

So it’s surely true that there are lots of reasons to admire Switzerland.

Indeed, it’s such an attractive country that many people in Sardinia want to secede from Italy and have their island become a Swiss canton.

Here are some passages from a report in the Wall Street Journal.

“In Sardinia, people want to be Swiss.” Welcome to “Canton Marittimo,” or “Canton of the Sea,” a bid by Mr. Caruso, a 51-year-old dentist from Sardinia, and his comrade Enrico Napoleone, a car dealer there, to liberate Sardinia from Italy and tether it to Switzerland. …With a population of 1.5 million, the island, which lies between Italy and Spain, is today home to more than 10 parties calling for secession from Rome, emphasizing a culture, dialect, and history distinct from Italy’s mainland. …Mr. Caruso says…“Switzerland is the ideal nation to help us secure our culture and traditions.” … “Most of the local population would go for it, starting tomorrow,” said Matteo Colaone, a spokesman for Domà Nunch, a separatist group in the Italian regions surrounding Milan.

And what do the Swiss think about this idea?

At least one lawmaker likes the idea of adding cantons, though the government’s official position is not very welcoming.

In 2010, a member of Swiss parliament named Dominique Baettig proposed amending the constitution to aid regions in neighboring countries that want to become new cantons. Switzerland’s executive branch swiftly condemned it as “an unfriendly political act.” …There is little evidence the Swiss would want to adopt a rocky island that has many more sheep than people and per-capita economic output just one fourth that of Switzerland’s.

Here’s a video report on the topic from the WSJ.

In any event, it’s easy to understand why Sardinians are anxious to leave Italy and become part of Switzerland.

Here are some excerpts from a story in the U.K.-based Guardian.

“We think of Switzerland as a good teacher who could lead us on a path of excellence.” As the 27th canton, Sardinia, so goes the argument, would bring the Swiss its miles of stunning coastline and untapped economic potential. Sardinia could retain considerable autonomy, while also reaping the benefits of direct democracy, administrative efficiency and economic wealth.

Whereas staying in Italy means endless statism.

…their frustrations with inefficient public spending, complex layers of decision-making and intimidating bureaucracy can be heard throughout the country. …being a small businessman in Italy was “a continuous battle”. “It is fighting every day with a problem that the administration, the bureaucracy, creates instead of solves,” he said.

And while the Swiss government doesn’t seem overly excited about adopting Sardinia, ordinary Swiss citizens seem to like the idea.

An online poll of 4,000 people asking, in German, “should we accept Sardinia?” produced a 93% yes vote.

I suspect that an actual referendum in Switzerland wouldn’t be that lopsided, and the final result would probably depend on whether Swiss voters thought Sardinians were simply seeking good policy or whether they were looking for big handouts (Switzerland does have some redistribution from rich cantons to those with more modest incomes).

The bottom line is that there’s scholarly evidence suggesting that supporters of decentralization, self-determination, and limited government should favor the ability of regions to either declare independence or choose to join neighboring countries (assuming there’s a mutual desire for union).

That why I think secession or radical decentralization is/was the right approach in Ukraine, Belgium, and Scotland.

And as Walter Williams points out, secession can be peaceful, such as when Norway left Sweden early last century.

So I hope Sardinia moves forward.

Yes, it would be best for them to become part of Switzerland (and there already is an Italian-speaking canton). But even if the Swiss ultimately aren’t interested, the Sardinians at least would have a chance to escape Italy’s dysfunctional economic policies if they became independent.

P.S. The seven villages of Liechtenstein have the right to secede.

P.P.S. On a lighter note, here’s what would happen if the American right and left decided to secede from each other.

P.P.S. In our final postscript, let’s look at some fresh data about Switzerland.

Check out this chart (h/t: Constantin Gurdgiev) looking at how growth rates have changed in various European nations. As you can see, the 2002-2014 period has been grim for all nations compared to the years between 1980-2001. But Switzerland has had the smallest decline.

By the way, the left is always arguing that high tax burdens are necessary to help the poor. But as you can see from this chart (h/t: Fabian Wallen), every single income group is better off in low-tax Switzerland than high-tax Sweden.

In other words, big government is bad news for everyone (other than insiders), but it’s especially bad for poor people. Bono realizes that capitalism is the right model for upward mobility. Now let’s hope Pope Francis learns the same lesson.

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I’m a huge fan of the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World.

I always share the annual rankings when they’re released and I routinely cite EFW measures when writing about individual countries.

But even a wonky economist like me realizes that there is more to life than economic liberty. So I was very excited to see that Ian Vásquez of the Cato Institute and Tanja Porčnik of the Visio Institute have put together The Human Freedom Index.

Here’s their description of the Index and some of the key findings.

The Human Freedom Index… presents a broad measure of human freedom, understood as the absence of coercive constraint. It uses 76 distinct indicators of personal and economic freedom… The HFI covers 152 countries for 2012, the most recent year for which sufficient data is available. …The United States is ranked in 20th place. Other countries rank as follows: Germany (12), Chile (18), Japan (28), France (33), Singapore (43), South Africa (70), India (75), Brazil (82), Russia (111), China (132), Nigeria (139), Saudi Arabia (141), Venezuela (144), Zimbabwe (149), and Iran (152).

Hong Kong and Switzerland are the top jurisdictions.

Here’s the Freedom Index‘s top 20, including scores on both personal freedom and economic freedom.

The United States barely cracks the top 20. We rank #12 for economic freedom but only #31 for personal freedom.

It’s worth noting that overall freedom is strongly correlated with prosperity.

Countries in the top quartile of freedom enjoy a significantly higher per capita income ($30,006) than those in other quartiles; the per capita income in the least-free quartile is $2,615. The HFI finds a strong correlation between human freedom and democracy. Hong Kong is an outlier in this regard. The findings in the HFI suggest that freedom plays an important role in human well-being

And here are some notes on methodology.

The authors give equal weighting to both personal freedom and economic freedom.

One of the biggest challenges in constructing any index is the organization and weighting of the variables. Our guiding principle is that the structure should be simple and transparent. …The economic freedom index receives half the weight in the overall index, while safety and security and other personal freedoms that make up our personal freedom index receive the remaining weight.

Speaking of which, here are the top-20 nations based on personal freedom. You can also see how they scored for economic freedom and overall freedom.

To be succinct, Northern European nations dominate these rankings, with some Anglosphere jurisdictions also getting good scores.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that nations with economic freedom also tend to have personal freedom, but there are interesting exceptions.

Consider Singapore, with ranks second for economic freedom. That makes the country economically dynamic, but Singapore only ranks #75 for personal freedom.

Another anomaly is Slovenia, which is in the top 20 for personal freedom, but has a dismal ranking of #105 for economic freedom.

By the way, the only two nations in the top 10 for both economic freedom and personal freedom are Switzerland and Finland.

I’ve already explained why Switzerland is one of the world’s best (and most rational) nations. Given Finland’s high ranking, I may have to augment the nice things I write about that country, even though I’m sure it’s too cold for my reptilian temperature preferences.

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I’m in Geneva, Switzerland, where I just gave a speech about how international bureaucracies such as the OECD are seeking to undermine tax competition in hopes that the welfare state can be propped up for a few more years with ever-higher taxes.

But regular readers already know my views on these issues, so instead I want to focus today on a referendum that just took place a couple of days ago in this Alpine nation.

That referendum has convinced me that I was wrong when I wrote a few years ago that there were five reasons (government-constraining federalism, pro-gun culture, etc) to put Switzerland above the United States.

I’m not convinced there’s a 6th reason. Simply stated, the Swiss have to be the most sensible people in the world.

Here are some excerpts from an English-language report published by Swiss Info.

An attempt to federalise Switzerland’s inheritance tax system and redistribute wealth by taxing legacies worth more than CHF2 million ($2.15 million) has been rejected by Swiss voters… On Sunday, 71% of voters and all 26 Swiss cantons rejected the proposal. …Two-thirds of the revenue from this new tax, projected at CHF3 billion a year, would have been credited to the nation’s old age pension fund.

Yes, you read correctly. The Swiss left thought they could lure voters into supporting a tax hike based on a discriminatory tax on a tiny segment of the population.

But an overwhelming share of Swiss voters rejected this class-warfare scheme. Here’s a map of the results. But instead of liberal blue states and conservative red states that are found in the United States, Switzerland has nothing but conservative brown cantons.

The German-speaking cantons voted no. The French-speaking cantons voted no. And the Italian-speaking canton voted no.

It’s almost enough to make one feel sorry for Swiss statists.

…the political left has continued its losing streak at the ballot box. In the past two years voters have rejected pay caps within companies, the introduction of a nationwide minimum wage and a plan to scrap lump sum taxation for rich foreigners. …Supporters of the plan countered that the overall tax burden in Switzerland is still one of the lowest in Europe.

Though I have to wonder if Swiss leftists are extraordinarily stupid.

Did they really think that complaining about low taxes was the way to win an election?!?

I can just imagine what went through the minds of ordinary Swiss voters: “hmm…we’re richer than our high-tax neighbors and we’re growing faster than our high-tax neighbors…should we copy them or maintain the policies that have worked?”

Opponents had a more compelling argument.

Several politicians and media described the tax as a “KMU Killer”, referring to the German abbreviation for small and medium-sized businesses, which employ more than three-quarters of the Swiss workforce. Businesses said it would have been an effective double tax on income since firms already pay tax on earnings. …Switzerland’s cabinet, both houses of parliament and all 26 cantons had recommended voters reject the proposal, as did the main business lobbies.

Needless to say, I appreciate the argument about double taxation. That’s the obvious economic argument against the death tax.

But what makes Switzerland remarkable is the last part of the excerpt. It appears that the entire Swiss political establishment, as well as the entire business community, understand that it would be crazy to kill the low-tax goose that lays the golden economic eggs.

But ultimately, you have to give credit to the Swiss people. As mentioned in the article, they keep rejected statist proposals.

Here are a few I’ve written about.

Needless to say, my favorite Swiss referendum took place back in 2001, when 85 percent of voters imposed a spending cap on the central government. As explained in this video, this system has been remarkably effective at limiting the growth of government.

P.S. Oregon voters and California voters, by contrast, are far less discerning than their Swiss counterparts.

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Back in March, I shared a remarkable study from the International Monetary Fund which explained that spending caps are the only truly effective way to achieve good fiscal policy.

And earlier this month, I discussed another good IMF study that showed how deficit and debt rules in Europe have been a failure.

In hopes of teaching American lawmakers about this international evidence, the Cato Institute put together a forum on Capitol Hill to highlight the specific reforms that have been successful.

I moderated the panel and began by pointing out that there are many examples of nations that have enjoyed good results thanks to multi-year periods of spending restraint.

I even pointed out that we actually had an unintentional – but very successful – spending freeze in Washington between 2009 and 2014.

But the problem, I suggested, is that it is very difficult to convince politicians to sustain good policy on a long-run basis. The gains of good policy (such as what was achieved in the 1990s) can quickly be erased by a spending binge (such as what happened during the Bush years).

Unless, of course, there’s some sort of constraint on the desire to spend money. And the panelists discussed the three most successful examples of reforms that constrain the growth of government.

We started with a presentation by Daniel Freihofer from the Swiss Embassy. He talked about Switzerland’s “Debt Brake,” which actually is a spending cap.

It’s remarkable how well Switzerland has performed while most other European nations have suffered downward spirals of more spending-more taxes-more debt. Here’s a chart I put together on what’s happened to spending in Switzerland ever since 85 percent of voters imposed the Debt Brake early last decade.

By the way, Herr Freihofer said during the Q&A session that support for the Debt Brake is now probably about 95 percent, so Swiss voters obviously understand that the policy has been very successful.

Our second speaker was Clement Leung, Hong Kong’s Commissioner to the United States. He talked about Article 107 and other rules from Hong Kong’s Basic Law (their constitution) that limit the temptation to over-tax and over-spend.

And if you want to see some of the positive results of these rules in Hong Kong, here’s some of what Commissioner Leung presented.

By the way, the burden of government spending in Hong Kong averages about 18 percent of economic output. That’s the most impressive result. And Commissioner Leung explained that there’s a commitment to keep the burden of spending below 20 percent of GDP.

The final panelist was Jonathan Williams from the American Legislative Exchange Council, and he talked about Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, popularly known as TABOR.

Jonathan talked about how the pro-spending lobbies keep attacking TABOR, and he mentioned that they narrowly succeeded in getting a five-year suspension of the law back in 2005. But Colorado voters generally understand they have a good policy.

The most recent attempt to enable more spending came in the form of an increase in the state’s flat tax back in 2013 and voters rejected it by a stunning 66-34 margin (almost as impressive as the recent vote against tax hikes in Michigan) even though Jonathan said advocates outspent opponents by a 289-1 margin.

Here’s a slide from his presentation showing what happened during other attempts to enable more spending.

By the way, Jonathan also mentioned that Colorado’s voters are about to get a TABOR-mandated tax cut because taxes on marijuana are pushing revenues above the limit. Talk about a win-win situation!

To wrap up, one of the big lessons from all the presentations is that governments generally get in trouble because they can’t resist over-spending when the economy is doing well and generating lots of tax revenue.

I fully agree, and I’ve previously explained this is why Alberta got in fiscal trouble, and also why California suffers a boom-bust budgetary cycle.

The way you solve this problem is not with a balanced budget requirement (which often serves as the justification for tax hikes), but some sort of spending limitation rule.

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It’s not very often that I applaud research from the International Monetary Fund.

That international bureaucracy has a bad track record of pushing for tax hikes and other policies to augment the size and power of government (which shouldn’t surprise us since the IMF’s lavishly compensated bureaucrats owe their sinecures to government and it wouldn’t make sense for them to bite the hands that feed them).

But every so often a blind squirrel finds an acorn. And that’s a good analogy to keep in mind as we review a new IMF report on the efficacy of “expenditure rules.”

The study is very neutral in its language. It describes expenditure rules and then looks at their impact. But the conclusions, at least for those of us who want to constrain government, show that these policies are very valuable.

In effect, this study confirms the desirability of my Golden Rule! Which is not why I expect from IMF research, to put it mildly.

Here are some excerpts from the IMF’s new Working Paper on expenditure rules.

In practice, expenditure rules typically take the form of a cap on nominal or real spending growth over the medium term (Figure 1). Expenditure rules are currently in place in 23 countries (11 in advanced and 12 in emerging economies).

Such rules vary, of course, is their scope and effectiveness.

Many of them apply only to parts of the budget. In some cases, governments don’t follow through on their commitments. And in other cases, the rules only apply for a few years.

Out of the 31 expenditure rules that have been introduced since 1985, 10 have already been abandoned either because the country has never complied with the rule or because fiscal consolidation was so successful that the government did not want to be restricted by the rule in good economic times. … In six of the 10 cases, the country did not comply with the rule in the year before giving it up. …In some countries, there was the perception that expenditure rules fulfilled their purpose. Following successful consolidations in Belgium, Canada, and the United States in the 1990s, these countries did not see the need to follow their national expenditure rules anymore.

But even though expenditure limits are less than perfect, they’re still effective – in part because they correctly put the focus on the disease of government spending rather than symptom of red ink.

Countries have complied with expenditure rules for more than two-third of the time. …expenditure rules have a better compliance record than budget balance and debt rules. …The higher compliance rate with expenditure rules is consistent with the fact that these rules are easy to monitor and that they immediately map into an enforceable mechanism—the annual budget itself. Besides, expenditure rules are most directly connected to instruments that the policymakers effectively control. By contrast, the budget balance, and even more so public debt, is more exposed to shocks, both positive and negative, out of the government’s control.

One of the main advantages of a spending cap is that politicians can’t go on a spending binge when the economy is growing and generating a lot of tax revenue.

One of the desirable features of expenditure rules compared to other rules is that they are not only binding in bad but also in good economic times. The compliance rate in good economic times, defined as years with a negative change in the output gap, is at 72 percent almost the same as in bad economic times at 68 percent. In contrast to other fiscal rules, countries also have incentives to break an expenditure rule in periods of high economic growth with increasing spending pressures. … two design features are in particular associated with higher compliance rates. …compliance is higher if the government directly controls the expenditure target. …Specific ceilings have the best performance record.

And the most important result is that expenditure limits are associated with a lower burden of government spending.

The results illustrate that countries with expenditure rules, in addition to other rules, exhibit on average higher primary balances (Table 2). Similarly, countries with expenditure rules also exhibit lower primary spending. …The data provide some evidence of possible implications for government size and efficiency. Event studies illustrate that the introduction of expenditure rules is indeed followed by smaller governments both in advanced and emerging countries (Figure 11a).

Here’s the relevant chart from the study.

And it’s also worth noting that expenditure rules lead to greater efficiency in spending.

…the public investment efficiency index of DablaNorris and others (2012) is higher in countries that do have expenditure rules in place compared to those that do not (Figure 11b). This could be due to investment projects being prioritized more carefully relative to the case where there is no binding constraint on spending

Needless to say, these results confirm the research from the European Central Bank showing that nations with smaller public sectors are more efficient and competent, with Singapore being a very powerful example.

One rather puzzling aspect of the IMF report is that there was virtually no mention of Switzerland’s spending cap, which is a role model of success.

Perhaps the researchers got confused because the policy is called a “debt brake,” but the practical effect of the Swiss rule is that there are annual expenditures limits.

So to augment the IMF analysis, here are some excerpts from a report prepared by the Swiss Federal Finance Administration.

The Swiss “debt brake” or “debt containment rule”…combines the stabilizing properties of an expenditure rule (because of the cyclical adjustment) with the effective debt-controlling properties of a balanced budget rule. …The amount of annual federal government expenditures has a cap, which is calculated as a function of revenues and the position of the economy in the business cycle. It is thus aimed at keeping total federal government expenditures relatively independent of cyclical variations.

Here’s a chart from the report.

And here are some of the real-world results.

The debt-to-GDP ratio of the Swiss federal Government has decreased since the implementation of the debt brake in 2003. …In the past, economic booms tended to contribute to an increase in spending. …This has not been the case since the implementation of the fiscal rule, and budget surpluses have become commonplace. … The introduction of the debt brake has changed the budget process in such a way that the target for expenditures is defined at the beginning of the process, which must not exceed the ceiling provided by the fiscal rule. It has thus become a top-down process.

The most important part of this excerpt is that the debt brake prevented big spending increases during the “boom” years when the economy was generating lots of revenue.

In effect, the grey-colored area of the graph isn’t just an “ideal representation.” It actually happened in the real world.

Though the most important and beneficial real-world consequence, which I shared back in 2013, is that the burden of government spending has declined relative to the economy’s productive sector.

This is a big reason why Switzerland is in such strong shape compared to most of its European neighbors.

And such a policy in the United States would have prevented the trillion-dollar deficits of Obama’s first term.

By the way, if you want to know why deficit numbers have been lower in recent years, it’s because we actually have been following my Golden Rule for a few years.

So maybe it’s time to add the United States to this list of nations that have made progress with spending restraint.

But the real issue, as noted in the IMF research, is sustainability. Yes, it’s good to have a few years of spending discipline, but the real key is some sort of permanent spending cap.

Which is why advocates of fiscal responsibility should focus on expenditure limits rather than balanced budget requirements.

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