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Posts Tagged ‘Switzerland’

For a land-locked nation without many natural resources, Switzerland is remarkably successful.

One reason for the country’s success is pro-market policy. Switzerland routinely scores in the top 5 according to both Economic Freedom of the World and Index of Economic Freedom.

More specifically, I’m a big fan of the country’s fiscal policy, especially the “Debt Brake,” which was imposed when voters overwhelmingly adopted the provision (84.7 percent approval) early this century.

There’s always been a debate, however, whether Switzerland’s good outcomes are because of the debt brake, or because of some random reason, such as the sensibility of Swiss voters.

Three academic economists, Michele Salvi, Christoph Schaltegger, and Lukas Schmid, investigated this issue in a study for Kyklos, a scholarly journal published by the University of Basel.

A prominent means to prevent excess debt accumulation is the use of fiscal rules. In fact,fiscal rules focus on securing solvency of governments by concentrating on the intertemporal budget constraint. …there is a strong positive association between constrained fiscal discretion and improved fiscal performance. …Our paper presents evidence on the effect of a fiscal rule with a strict enforcement mechanism… We analyze the consequences of the centrally imposed balanced budget rule on public debt in Switzerland. …the Swiss debt containment rule stands out as a clearly defined fiscal rule with a constitutional basis that constrains deviating from a balanced budget in the long-term. …The rule consists of a simple mechanism stating that expenditure may not exceed revenues over the course of an economic cycle. …The debt containment rule brings a“top-down”element into the budgeting process, which has a strong disciplinary appeal and leads to more accurate budgeting. …one key aspect is the fact that the debt containment rule sets a clear expenditure ceiling.

The key parts from the above excerpt are “expenditure may not exceed” and “clear expenditure ceiling.”

Those statements ratify my oft-made point that the debt brake is really a spending cap. And spending caps are far and away the only effective macro-fiscal rule.

The policy certainly has generated good results for Switzerland. Here’s what the authors found when thy crunched numbers to compare the country’s current fiscal trajectory with what would have happened without a spending cap.

To construct the counterfactual outcome of the debt ratio for Switzerland without a debt containment rule, we select a control group…countries expected to be driven by a similar structural process as Switzerland. …Due to the availability of comprehensive debt data, the observation period is restricted to last from 1980 until 2010. …we divide the time period into a pre-treatment period from 1980 to 2002 and a postintervention period from 2003 to 2010. …Figure 2 displays the central government debt ratio for Switzerland and its synthetic counterpart during the study period. …In 2003, the two debt ratio curves start to diverge. …it appears that the introduction of the debt containment rule led to a substantial and persistent decrease in the debt ratio in Switzerland.

And here’s the relevant set of charts from the study.

Here’s one more sentence I want to cite since it echoes the argument I’ve made to my Keynesian friends about how they also should support a Swiss-style spending cap.

The debt containment rule has made a significant contribution to switching from a procyclical to a cyclically appropriate fiscal policy.

Simply stated, the political tradeoff embedded in the debt brake is that politicians get to modestly increase spending during a downturn, even though revenues are falling, but they also can only enact modest spending increases during growth years, even if revenue is growing much faster.

By the way, you will have noticed that the study focused on how the debt brake helped to reduce red ink.

Regular readers know that I’m far more interested in focusing on the real fiscal problem, which is excessive government spending.

So I’ll close by looking at some additional evidence from Switzerland. Here’s a chart, based on IMF data, showing that the growth rate of spending fell sharply after the debt brake was adopted.

I looked at the 2003-2010 period, since it matched the years in the study discussed above.

But I also calculated the spending growth rate for 2003-2019 and confirmed that the debt brake’s success hasn’t just been a temporary phenomenon.

P.S. Click here for a short presentation on the debt brake, as well as similar presentations on Hong Kong’s spending cap and Colorado’s TABOR spending cap.

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Largely because of my support for jurisdictional competition, I’m a big fan of federalism.

Simply stated, our liberties are better protected when there’s decentralization since politicians are less like to over-tax and over-spend when they know potential victims of plunder have the option of moving across a border.

Indeed, I cited some academic research back in 2012 which showed that there as less economy-weakening redistribution in nations with genuine federalism (see, for instance, how Vermont politicians were forced to backtrack when they try to impose government-run healthcare).

Now let’s look at some additional scholarly evidence. A study published by the OECD, authored by Hansjörg Blöchliger, Balázs Égert and Kaja Fredriksen, investigates the impact of federalism on outcomes in developed nations.

Here are the key findings from the abstract.

This paper presents empirical research on the potential effects of fiscal decentralisation on a set of outcomes such as GDP, productivity, public investment and school performance. The results can be summarised as follows: decentralisation, as measured by revenue or spending shares, is positively associated with GDP per capita levels. The impact seems to be stronger for revenue decentralisation than for spending decentralisation. Decentralisation is strongly and positively associated with educational outcomes as measured by international student assessments (PISA). While educational functions can be delegated either to sub-central governments (SCG) or to schools, the results suggest that both strategies appear to be equally beneficial for educational performance. Finally, investment in physical and – especially – human capital as a share of general government spending is significantly higher in more decentralised countries.

Here’s some detail from the body of the paper about the pro-growth impact of decentralization (especially when sub-national governments are responsible for raising their own funds).

Across countries, sub-central fiscal power, as measured by revenue or spending shares, is positively associated with economic activity. Doubling sub-central tax or spending shares (e.g. increasing the ratio of sub-central to general government tax revenue from 6 to 12%) is associated with a GDP per capita increase of around 3%. …Revenue decentralisation appears to be more strongly related with income gains than spending decentralisation. This empirical finding may reflect that “true” fiscal autonomy is better captured by the sub-central revenue share, as a large part of sub-central spending may be mandated or regulated by central government. … the estimated relationship never becomes negative and is not hump-shaped, i.e. “more decentralisation always tends to be better”.

The part of “more decentralisation always tends to be better” is a good result.

But it’s also a sad result since the United States has moved in the wrong direction in recent decades.

Though we’re still less centralized than most nations, as you can see from this chart from the OECD study.

Kudos to Canada and Switzerland for leading the world in federalism.

Here are some additional details from the study. I’m especially interested to see that the authors acknowledge how jurisdictional competition helps to explain why nations with federalism perform better.

Decentralised fiscal frameworks can raise TFP through an increase in the efficiency and productivity of the public sector… Public sector productivity is influenced by competition between SCGs and inter-jurisdictional mobility. Most SCGs aim at attracting and retaining mobile production factors, in order to promote investment and economic activity. They can do so by using fiscal policy, among other instruments. Since firms are choosing their location based on where they expect the highest returns on investment, and since returns depend (partly) on public inputs, SCGs have an incentive to raise the productivity of their public sector. SCGs may also try to improve the relationship between taxation and public service levels, by lowering taxes… The more decentralised a country, the stronger these competitive forces could be. Competition and inter-jurisdictional mobility could be weakened by large intergovernmental transfer systems, in particular fiscal equalisation.

As a aside, it’s rather ironic that that the professional economists at the OECD produce rigorous studies (here’s another one) showing the benefits of jurisdictional competition while the political appointees push for anti-growth policies such as tax harmonization.

Let’s close by looking at the study’s estimates of how nations would enjoy more prosperity by shifting in the direction of decentralization.

…an assessment of what a country might gain in terms of higher GDP if it moved to the benchmark of the most decentralised country. To be more specific, the gains were calculated for each federal country if it moved tax decentralisation to the level of Canada, and for each unitary country if it moved tax decentralisation to the level of Sweden (Figure 6). Further decentralisation could potentially be associated with an average increase of GDP of around 1% to 2% for federal countries and 3% to 4% for unitary countries, with values for more centralised countries being larger.

Here’s the accompanying chart.

Since the U.S. still has some federalism, our gain isn’t very large, but nations such as Austria, Belgium, Slovakia, Ireland, Luxembourg, and the United Kingdom could get big boosts.

P.S. I didn’t focus on the findings about better educational outcomes in decentralized nations. But I can’t resist pointing out that this is an additional reason to abolish the Department of Education.

P.P.S. Here’s a video discussing how Switzerland benefits from federalism.

P.P.P.S. And here’s what scholars from the Austrian school of economics wrote about federalism.

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Last week, I participated in a webinar with IES Europe. The program covered a wide range of issues, including tax competition, Social Security reform, and the recipe for national prosperity.

Here’s what I said on the topic of federalism.

To add some hard data to the discussion, let’s compare the degree of fiscal decentralization in the United States in both 1902 and 2019, based on numbers from the Census Bureau (click on Govt_Finances) and the Office of Management and Budget (click on Table 14.3).

As you can see from the chart, Washington now accounts for a much bigger share of overall government spending.

By the way, these numbers should not be misinterpreted.

There’s been no reduction in the burden of state and local government outlays. Indeed, there’s been a steady increase in such spending, even after adjusting for inflation.

But the federal government has grown far more rapidly.

Indeed, the fiscal history of the United States is a sad story about the loss of almost all constraints and limits that America’s Founders put in the Constitution in hopes of controlling the size and scope of Washington.

The bottom line is we now have much bigger government and it’s more remote because of centralization.

I mentioned Switzerland in the latter part of my answer.

Here’s the data comparing Switzerland and the United States. As you can see, Switzerland has been more successful in retaining genuine federalism.

Indeed, the two countries are mirror images, with nearly 2/3rds of government spending in the U.S. coming from Washington and nearly 2/3rds of government in Switzerland taking place a the level of cantons and municipalities.

P.S. Here’s what scholars from the Austrian School have said about federalism.

P.P.S. Here’s my two cents on federalism in the context of issues such as welfare, natural disasters, transportation, coronavirus, infrastructure, and Medicaid,

P.P.P.S. Because there’s strong evidence that decentralization produces better outcomes, I’m even willing to accept bad examples of federalism.

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Spending caps are the most effective way of fulfilling my Golden Rule for fiscal policy.

And we have good evidence for this approach, as I explain in this FreedomWorks discussion.

I also discuss tax competition in the interview, as well as other topics. You can watch the entire discussion by clicking here.

But I’m sharing the part about spending caps because it fits perfectly with some new research from Veronique de Rugy and Jack Salmon of the Mercatus Center.

They point out that America faces a grim fiscal future, but suggest that fiscal rules may be part of the solution.

…the federal budget process as it exists today has proven inadequate…it is a great way to enable politicians to do what they want to do (cater to interest groups) while avoiding what they don’t want to do (living within their means). …The negative consequence emerging from this chaos and the resulting failure to follow budget rules is an unremitting expansion of the size and scope of government… With countries around the world experiencing growing debt-to-GDP ratios, resultant stagnation in economic growth, and, in extreme cases, default on debts, academics have been paying an increasing amount of attention to the potential of rules toward restraining unsustainable deficit spending. …The good news is that the evidence suggests that these fiscal rules are broadly effective at restraining deficit spending. …The bad news is that not all fiscal rules are effective in restraining government profligacy and curtailing debt growth.

The authors are right. Some fiscal rules don’t work very well.

As I stated in the interview, balanced budget requirements tend to be ineffective.

Spending caps, by contrast, have a decent track record.

The Mercatus study looks at Hong Kong.

Hong Kong…might actually represent the gold standard of good fiscal policy. …Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary, Mr. John Tsang, explained, “Our commitment to small government demands strong fiscal discipline. . . . It is my responsibility to keep expenditure growth commensurate with growth in our GDP.” …in Hong Kong it’s actually a constitutional requirement: Article 107 requires that the government should strive to achieve a fiscal balance, avoid deficit, and more importantly, make sure government spending doesn’t grow faster than the growth of the economy. …Hong Kong’s spending-to-GDP ratio has fluctuated between 14 and 20 percent since the 1990s, its debt as a share of GDP is zero, social welfare spending remains steady at less than 3 percent of GDP.

Amen.

I’ve also praised Hong Kong’s fiscal policy.

Now let’s look at what the authors wrote about Switzerland.

Swiss politicians are not allowed to increase spending faster than average revenue growth over a multiyear period (as calculated by the Swiss Federal Department of Finance), which confines spending growth to a rate no higher than the rate of inflation plus population growth. The Swiss debt brake rule is significant in that it appeals to economists and policymakers on both sides of the aisle. Advocates for fiscal restraint support this rule because it is effectively a spending cap, while social democrats support the rule as it allows for deficit spending during recessionary periods. …There’s no arguing with the results: Annual spending growth fell from an average of 4.3 percent to 2.5 percent since the rule was implemented. Also, in 10 out of the past 14 years, Switzerland has had budget surpluses, while deficits have remained rare and small… At the same time, the Swiss debt-to-GDP ratio has fallen from almost 60 percent in 2003 to around 42 percent in 2017.

Once again, I say amen.

Switzerland’s spending cap is a big success.

Here’s Figure 1 from the study, which shows a big drop in Swiss government debt. I’ve augmented the chart with OECD data to focus on something even more important – which is that the burden of spending (which started very low by European standards) has declined since the debt brake was implemented.

Last but not least, let’s look at the Danish example.

In 2014 Denmark implemented The Budget Act to ensure more efficient management of public expenditures. The act is aimed at ensuring a balance or surplus on the general government balance sheet, as well as appropriate expenditure management at all levels of government. In practice, the rule sets a limit of 0.5 percent of GDP on the structural budget deficit. Policymakers decided that managing fiscal policy on the basis of a balanced structural budget would lead to an appropriate fiscal position in the long term. They also designed the system to take discretion out of their own hands by making the cuts automatic. In addition to structural deficit rules, the Budget Act introduces four-year rolling expenditure ceilings. These ceilings set legally binding limits for spending at all levels of government and for each program. If one program spends under its cap, any money not spent cannot be reallocated to another program.

I guess this is time for a triple-amen.

Here’s Figure 2 from the study, which I’ve also augmented to highlight the most important success of Denmark’s policy of spending restraint.

The economic case for spending caps is ironclad.

The problem is that it’s an uphill climb from a political perspective.

Politicians prefer legislative spending caps. After all (as we saw in 2013, 2015, 2018, and this year), those can be evaded with a simple majority, so long as there’s a profligate president who approves higher spending levels.

And those caps have never applied to entitlements, which are the part of the budget that eventually will bankrupt the nation.

So why would public choice-motivated lawmakers actually allow a serious and comprehensive spending cap to become part of the Constitution?

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I periodically explain that a European-sized welfare state can only be financed by huge taxes on lower-income and middle-class taxpayers.

Simply stated, there aren’t enough rich people to prop up big government. Moreover, at the risk of mixing my animal metaphors, those golden geese also have a tendency to fly away if they’re being treated like fatted calves.

I have some additional evidence to share on this issue, thanks to a new report from the Tax Foundation. The research specifically looks at the tax burden on the average worker in developed nations

The tax burden on labor is referred to as a “tax wedge,” which simply refers to the difference between an employer’s cost of an employee and the employee’s net disposable income. …The OECD calculates the tax burden by adding together the income tax payment, employee-side payroll tax payment, and employer-side payroll tax payment of a worker earning the average wage in a country. …Although payroll taxes are typically split between workers and their employers, economists generally agree that both sides of the payroll tax ultimately fall on workers.

The bad news for workers (and the good news for politicians) is that average workers in the advanced world loses more than one-third of their income to government.

In some cases, such as the unfortunate Spanish household I wrote about back in February, the government steals two-thirds of a worker’s income.

So which country is best for workers and which is worst?

Here’s a look at a map showing the tax burden for selected European nations.

Suffice to say, it’s not good to be dark red.

But that map doesn’t provide a complete answer.

To really determine the best and worst countries, the Tax Foundation made an important correction to the OECD data by including the burden of the value-added tax. Here’s why it matters.

The tax burden on labor is broader than personal income taxes and payroll taxes. In many countries individuals also pay a value-added tax (VAT) on their consumption. Because a VAT diminishes the purchasing power of individual earnings, a more complete picture of the tax burden should include the VAT. Although the United States does not have a VAT, state sales taxes also work to diminish the purchasing power of earnings. Accounting for VAT rates and bases in OECD countries increased the tax burden on labor by 5 percentage-points on average in 2018.

And with that important fix, we can confidently state that the worst country for ordinary workers is Belgium, followed by Germany, Austria, France, and Italy.

The best country, assuming we’re limiting the conversation to rich countries, is Switzerland, followed by New Zealand, South Korea, Israel, and the United States.

By the way, this report just looks at the tax burden on average workers. We would also need estimates of the tax burden on things such as investment, business, and entrepreneurship to judge the overall merit (or lack thereof) of various tax regimes.

Let’s close by looking at the nations that have moved the most in the right direction and wrong direction this century.

Congratulations to Hungary, Israel, and Sweden.

I’m not surprised to see Mexico galloping in the wrong direction, though I’m disappointed that South Korea and Iceland are also deteriorating.

P.S. The bottom line is that global evidence confirms that ordinary people will be the ones paying the tab if Crazy Bernie and AOC succeed in expanding the burden of government spending in America. Though they’re not honest enough to admit it.

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What’s the world’s freest nation?

I’ve suggested that Australia as an option if the United States ever suffers a Greek-style collapse, but my answer wasn’t based solely on that country’s level of freedom.

Another option is to look at Economic Freedom of the World, which is an excellent resource, but it only measures the degree to which a nation allows free markets.

If you want to know the world’s freest nation, the best option is to peruse the Human Freedom IndexFirst released in 2013, it combines economic freedom and personal freedom.

The 2018 version has just been published, and, as you can see, New Zealand is the world’s most-libertarian nation, followed by Switzerland and Hong Kong. The United States is tied with Sweden for #17.

If you scan the top-20 list, you’ll notice that North America, Western Europe, and the Antipodes (Australia and New Zealand) dominate.

And that also is apparent on this map (darker is better). So maybe “western civilization” isn’t so bad after all.

Here is an explanation of the report’s guiding methodology. Simply stated, it’s a ranking of “negative liberty,” which is basically freedom from government coercion.

The Human Freedom Index casts a wide net in an attempt to capture as broad a set of freedoms as could be clearly identified and measured. …Freedom in our usage is a social concept that recognizes the dignity of individuals and is defined by the absence of coercive constraint. …Freedom thus implies that individuals have the right to lead their lives as they wish as long as they respect the equal rights of others. Isaiah Berlin best elucidated this notion of freedom, commonly known as negative liberty. In the simplest terms, negative liberty means noninterference by others. …This index is thus an attempt to measure the extent to which the negative rights of individuals are respected in the countries observed. By negative rights, we mean freedom from interference—predominantly by government—in people’s right to choose to do, say, or think anything they want, provided that it does not infringe on the rights of others to do likewise.

Unsurprisingly, there is a correlation between personal freedom and economic freedom.

Though it’s not a perfect correlation. The Index highlights some of the exceptions.

Some countries ranked consistently high in the human freedom subindexes, including Switzerland and New Zealand, which ranked in the top 10 in both personal and economic freedom. By contrast, some countries that ranked high on personal freedom rank significantly lower in economic freedom. For example, Sweden ranked 3rd in personal freedom but 43rd in economic freedom; Slovenia ranked 23rd in personal freedom but 71st in economic freedom; and Argentina ranked in 42nd place in personal freedom but 160th in economic freedom. Similarly, some countries that ranked high on economic freedom found themselves significantly lower in personal freedom. For example, Singapore ranked in 2nd place in economic freedom while ranking 62nd in personal freedom; the United Arab Emirates ranked 37th in economic freedom but 149th in personal freedom; and Qatar ranked 38th in economic freedom but 134th in personal freedom.

This raises an interesting question. If you had to move, and assuming you couldn’t move to a nation that offered both types of freedom, would you prefer a place like Sweden or a place like Singapore?

As an economist, my bias would be to choose Singapore.

But if you look at the nations in the top-10 for personal freedom, they’re all great place to live (and they tend to be very market-oriented other than their big welfare states). So I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone for instead choosing Sweden.

P.S. There are some very attractive micro-states that were not including in the Human Freedom Index, presumably because of inadequate data. I suspect places such as Bermuda, Liechtenstein, Monaco, and the Cayman Islands would all get very high scores if they were included.

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Since I’ve been writing a column every day since 2010, you can imagine that there are some days where that’s a challenge.

But not today. The Fraser Institute has released a new edition of Economic Freedom of the World, which is like a bible for policy wonks. So just like last year, and the year before, and the year before, and so on (you may sense a pattern), I want to share the findings.

First, here’s what EFW measures.

The cornerstones of economic freedom are personal choice, voluntary exchange, open markets, and clearly defined and enforced property rights. …The EFW measure might be thought of as a measure of the degree to which scarce resources are allocated by personal choices coordinated by markets rather than centralized planning directed by the political process. It might also be thought of as an effort to identify how closely the institutions and policies of a country correspond with the ideal of a limited government, where the government protects property rights and arranges for the provision of a limited set of “public goods” such as national defense and access to money of sound value, but little beyond these core functions.

Now let’s get to the good stuff.

Unsurprisingly, Hong Kong is at the top of the rankings, followed closely by Singapore. Those jurisdictions have been #1 and #2 in the rankings every year this century.

The rest of the top 5 is the same as last year, featuring New Zealand, Switzerland, and Ireland.

The good news for Americans is that we’re back in the top 10, ranking #6.

Here’s what the report says about the United States.

…the United States returned to the top 10 in 2016 after an absence of several years. During the 2009–2016 term of President Obama, the US score initially continued to decline as it had under President Bush. From 2013 to 2016, however, the US rating increased from 7.74 to 8.03. This is still well below the high-water mark of 8.62 in 2000 at the end of the Clinton presidency.

It’s important to understand that the improvement in the U.S. score has nothing to do with Trump. The EFW ranking is based on America’s economic policies as of 2016 (there’s always a lag in getting hard data).

President Trump’s policies may increase America’s score (think taxes and regulation) or they may decrease America’s score (think trade and spending). But we won’t know for sure until we see future editions.

Here’s what’s happened to economic liberty in America between 1970 and 2016.

As you can see from the historical data, the U.S. enjoyed progress through the Reagan and Clinton years, followed by decline during the Bush years and early Obama years. But we’ve trending in the right direction since 2013.

Let’s look at other nations that get decent scores.

Here are the other nations that are in the top quartile.

Canada and Australia were tied for #10, so the rest of the rankings start with the under-appreciated success story of Taiwan at #12.

All the Baltic nations do well, especially Estonia and Lithuania. Chile also remains highly ranked, as is the supposedly socialist nation of Denmark.

Luxembourg, which was ranked #1 as recently as 1985, is now #25.

I also noticed that Rwanda (#40) has eased past Botswana (#44) to become the highest-ranked nation in Sub-Saharan Africa.

By the way, I’m not going to bother showing the bottom nations, but nobody should be surprised to learn that Venezuela is in last place.

Though that may simply be because there’s isn’t adequate data to include North Korea and Cuba.

Let’s close by including a chart that hopefully will show why economic liberty is important.

Simply stated, people enjoy much higher living standards in nations with free markets and small government. Conversely, people living under statist regimes suffer from poverty and deprivation.

The bottom line is that Economic Freedom of the World shows the recipe for growth and prosperity.

Sadly, very few nations follow the instructions because economic liberty is not in the interests of politicians.

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There are many threats to prosperity, both in the short run and long run.

Those are all things we should worry about. But here’s the issue that worries me the most.

  • More government spending resulting from demographic change and entitlements.

Fortunately, there’s a solution. Governments should copy Switzerland and impose a spending cap. I explained this system in a column for the Wall Street Journal back in 2012.

…85% of its voters approved an initiative that effectively requires its central government spending to grow no faster than trendline revenue. The reform, called a “debt brake” in Switzerland, has been very successful. Before the law went into effect in 2003, government spending was expanding by an average of 4.3% per year. Since then it’s increased by only 2.6% annually. …politicians aren’t able to boost spending when the economy is doing well and the Treasury is flush with cash. Equally important, it is very difficult for politicians to increase the spending cap by raising taxes.

By the way, I just updated the calculations using IMF data. Looking at the numbers from 2003-2018, government spending has grown by an average of 2.1 percent per year since the debt brake went into effect.

In other words, the policy is becoming more successful over time.

Some argue, by the way, that spending restraint is bad for an economy. The Keynesians think that more government is “stimulus.” And many of the international bureaucracies (including the IMF) argue that more government is an “investment.”

There’s lots of evidence that smaller government is the right route for prosperity. But for today’s purposes, let’s focus just on the United States and Switzerland.

Both nations are prosperous by world standards, though the United States generally enjoyed a small advantage in terms of per-capita economic output according to the Maddison database. But in the past 15 years, Switzerland has jumped ahead.

Time for a big caveat. There are dozens of policies that help determine a nation’s prosperity, so it would be improper to claim that Switzerland overtook the United States solely because of the spending cap.

Switzerland ranks above the United States in Economic Freedom of the World, so many factors doubtlessly contributed to the nation’s superior performance. Both theory and evidence, however, suggest that fiscal discipline is good for prosperity.

But what about government debt? Did the spending cap in the debt brake succeed in controlling red ink?

The answer is yes, an emphatic yes.

Here are two charts, based on data from the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook database for the years since the debt brake went into effect. We can see that both gross debt and net debt increased in advanced countries and euro countries. In Switzerland, however, debt levels fell.

In other words, while debt levels have jumped in other industrialized nations, the level of red ink in Switzerland has declined. While other European nations have experienced fiscal crisis and ever-increasing amounts of debt, Switzerland has been an island of budgetary tranquility.

By the way, I can’t resist pointing out that Switzerland relies on spending restraint, and red ink fell. Other nations have adopted lots of tax increases, and red ink rose.

Hmmm…, maybe there’s a lesson to be learned?

P.S. Hong Kong also has a spending cap.

P.P.S. You can watch short presentations about their respective spending caps from Swiss and Hong Kong diplomats at an event I organized for staffers on Capitol Hill.

P.P.P.S. That event also included a speech about the very successful spending cap (TABOR) in Colorado.

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As an economist, I admire Switzerland for its sensible approach to issues such as spending restraint and taxation.

As an observer of political systems, I admire Switzerland for its robust federalism.

As a supporter of human rights, I admire Switzerland’s protection of financial privacy (sadly weakened because of external pressure).

As an advocate of freedom, I admire Switzerland because there is a tradition of gun rights.

Indeed, there is a gun store less than a mile from the federal parliament in Bern that sells (gasp!) military-style assault rifles.

Sadly, it wasn’t open when I walked by this past weekend, so I could only snap a photo of the display window.

I couldn’t help but mentally compare the Swiss capital, where guns are sold, with the U.S. capital, where favors are sold.

There’s also a pro-gun culture in Switzerland, as reflected in this article.

“Shooting is becoming increasing popular again among the young, and the federal decision to lower the age of access to lessons is a big part of it,” says a happy Christoph Petermann, deputy chief of communications for the Swiss Target Shooting Federation. In 2016, the government lowered the age at which young people can attend target shooting lessons from 17 to 15. “In addition, we’re particularly pleased with the number of girls and young women who choose shooting…” When it comes to training children how to shoot, …Children are admitted from the age of five – but not to shoot with an assault rifle. This young, they train with pistols, air rifles, crossbows or bows. It gets serious from the age of ten – with small-calibre weapons – and from 12, in general, with assault rifles.

Unfortunately, Swiss gun rights are being attacked.

The problem isn’t the politicians in Bern. It’s the bureaucrats at the European Commission.

The Swiss media is covering the issue.

…the EU gun control plans, due to be completed by 2019, aim to curb online weapons sales and impose tight restrictions on assault weapons. …Swiss army-issue weapons would still be allowed to be kept at home after military service, in keeping with tradition. Hunters are also not affected by the plan. But certain semi-automatic weapons – such as those with magazines holding over 20 rounds of ammunition – and some high-capacity shoulder-supported rifles would be banned. …Gun collectors will be required to catalogue and report their collections to the authorities.

Needless to say, Swiss gun groups are not happy.

Critics…say the government proposal was decided undemocratically and the clampdown will have no influence on public safety or terrorism in Europe. They are concerned about its impact on their right to bear arms and are particularly unhappy with restrictions on certain categories of semi-automatic weapons and magazines, the possible impact on army-issue guns, and additional bureaucracy. …Jean-Robert Consolini, the owner of Lagardere Armoury, said he would fight the proposal. “These terror attacks were carried out by people using guns from the black market, not from a legal trade via an armoury. So, this directive won’t prevent the traffic of weapons…” Today, Switzerland has among the highest gun ownership rates per capita among Western countries. It is thought that around two million are in circulation. High rates of ownership and existing gun laws reflect the country’s deep-rooted belief in the right to bear arms and the needs of its militia army.

Monsieur Consolini is completely correct, by the way, about the EU directive having no effect on terrorists, who invariably can get weapons on the black market.

In any event, American gun groups have sympathy for their Swiss counterparts.

The National Rifle Association has opined about the controversy.

Switzerland…has the most civilian-owned firearms per capita in Europe and ranks third worldwide… The experience of Switzerland, just like many parts of the United States, serves to refute gun control advocates’ contention that more firearm ownership means more violence. Unfortunately, …a tradition of peaceful gun ownership will not dissuade gun prohibitionists. …the latest push for gun control in Switzerland stems from the updates to the European Union Firearms Directive Brussels adopted in April 2017. …The most controversial change to EU gun law…classified handguns equipped with a magazine with a capacity greater than 20 rounds and long guns equipped with a magazine with a capacity greater than 10 rounds as Category A firearms. Category A firearms are generally prohibited for civilian use. Further, the legislation required EU Member States to create firearms registries… Switzerland is not a member of the EU, however, the country is a member of the Schengen Area… As such, Switzerland is obligated to conform to the EU’s firearms restrictions.

Here are more details from the NRA report.

On April 9, Swiss gun rights organization ProTell (named for legendary marksman William Tell…) expressed their opposition to the EU changes to the Swiss legislature. Calling Switzerland’s gun laws “an expression of trust and respect between citizen and state,”… In December, ProTell made clear that it is willing to fight any further restrictions on gun rights through the referendum process. The Swiss People’s Party has also registered its staunch opposition to the new EU restrictions.

So what’s going to happen?

There are two possible positive outcomes.

First, as I noted last year, the Czech Republic is on the right side of this fight. And its government is challenging the European Commission’s interference in what should be a matter decided by national governments.

The Czech Republic filed a lawsuit…against a new European Union directive tightening gun ownership, aimed at limiting access to semi-automatic and other weapons… EU interior ministers gave a final nod to the changes…despite the Czech Republic, Luxembourg and Poland voicing opposition. The Czech Interior Ministry said the directive was too harsh, affecting for example thousands of hunters – a popular activity with a long tradition in the central European country. …“Such a massive punishment of decent arms holders is unacceptable, because banning legally-held weapons has no connection with the fight against terrorism,” Interior Minister Milan Chovanec said in a statement. “This is not only a nonsensical decision once again undermining people’s trust in the EU, but implementing the directive could also have a negative impact on the internal security of the Czech Republic, because a large number of weapons could move to the black market,” he said. …The lower chamber of the Czech parliament approved a bill in June putting gun owners’ rights in the constitution.

In theory, the Czech government’s legal argument should prevail since “subsidiarity” is ostensibly enshrined in European treaties.

But I fear that principle of decentralization will be overlooked because of the pro-harmonization ideology that is so prevalent in EU institutions.

So the second option for a positive outcome is a referendum in Switzerland, which has a long tradition of direct democracy.

And since the Swiss tend to be very sensible when voting on national issues, we can hope that they reject gun control and – for all intents and purposes – tell the European Commission to take a hike.

Let’s hope so. There are very few libertarian-minded jurisdictions in the world. It would be a shame if the Swiss rolled over and let EU bureaucrats dictate their gun laws.

P.S. For more info on global gun control data on information, click here and here.

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The Swiss people are normally very sensible when asked to vote in national referendums. Here are some recent results.

Though my favorite referendum result occurred several years before I started writing on this site.

Given all these results, you won’t be surprised to learn that Switzerland is near the top in rankings of economic freedom, trailing only Hong Kong, Singapore, and New Zealand.

But this does not mean that Switzerland is a libertarian nation. At least not in an ideological sense. And we have two new referendum results that underscore this point.

This past weekend, Swiss voters had an opportunity to get rid of the central government’s value-added tax, personal income tax, and corporate income tax.

Ending those taxes would be a libertarian fantasy, but the initiative to extend the levies was easily approved.

More than 84% of voters have renewed the government’s right to tax its citizens and companies for another 15 years. This is a unique feature of Switzerland’s political system of direct democracy and federalism.  …rejection would have been a nightmare for the government. …said Finance Minister Ueli Maurer in January. “If voters were to say no, the Swiss government wouldn’t have enough funds and there’s no way we could find another source of revenue or introduce spending cuts of the same order.”

Voters were swayed by arguments that a no vote would cause too much fiscal disruption. Slashing the central government’s budget by 60 percent might appeal to ideological libertarians, but it didn’t fly with don’t-rock-the-boat Swiss voters.

The direct federal tax and the sales tax together contributed about two-thirds of the Swiss central government’s budget, bringing in around 43.5 billion Swiss francs ($44.25 billion) in 2016. …Should voters reject the measure, the government would have to slash spending by more than 60 percent practically overnight or find new sources of revenue, Maurer told reporters.

Here’s a pie chart showing the revenue sources for the central government.

I would have voted no, of course, and I wish more Swiss voters had lined up against the initiative.

Not because I would have thought that an immediate 60-percent reduction in the size of the central government was feasible. But a larger share of no votes at least would have sent a signal to politicians in Bern that frugality is a good idea.

There was another referendum over the weekend that also produced an unfortunate result. Swiss voters approved continuing subsidies for state-run media.

The Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, Switzerland’s public broadcaster is largely funded by a broadcasting fee. This fee, known colloquially as Billag, the name of the agency that collects it, is paid by most companies and essentially every household. The No Billag initiative, is a bid to do away with fee. …the No Billag vote was rejected by 71.6% of voters.

The margin of defeat is especially disappointing since libertarians actively campaigned for this initiative.

Switzerland, like many European nations, has certain television and radio channels that are run by the government. …Together with other classical liberals in Switzerland, Frédéric Jollien is fighting against the royalties imposed by the government for media consumption. 450 Swiss Francs, the equivalent of €382 or $456, is the annual fee that consumers are required to pay, regardless if they want state-run TV and radio channels or not. …Journalists (who, by the way, are exempt from paying this fee) are releasing heavy verbal fire on the campaigners. They claim it would cause massive unemployment in the media sector, that it is anti-democratic, and that it would enable big foreign companies to take over the Swiss market.

Alas, the fear campaign succeeded.

But I hasten to add that this doesn’t mean Switzerland is turning towards statism. I suspect the real story is that the Swiss are content with the status quo.

And the status quo (especially by European standards) is a practical form of libertarianism.

Here’s some of what Dan Hannan wrote last year.

I have always loved Switzerland…its devolved decision-making, its entrenched Euroskepticism. …I am a Helvetophile for many of the same reasons as America’s Founders. James Madison was fascinated by the way Switzerland had “no concentered authority, the Diets being only a Congress of Delegates from some or all of the Cantons.” …George Mason was entranced by the militia system: “Every Husbandman will be quickly converted into a Soldier, when he knows & feels that he is to fight for his own. It is this which preserves the Freedom and Independence of the Swiss Cantons, in the midst of the most powerful Nations.” …Switzerland has stubbornly retained its sovereignty, despite being surrounded by the EU. …Swiss democracy is direct, decentralized and devolved. Most fiscal decisions are taken locally. Result? Swiss voters are the happiest in Europe, their economy is the freest, and their state budget the smallest.

And let’s not forget that Switzerland is still a bright spot on gun rights.

In February 2011, Swiss citizens voted in a referendum that called for a national gun registry and for firearms owned by members of the military to be stored in public arsenals. …Hermann Suter, who at the time was vice president of the Swiss gun-rights group Pro Tell, told the BBC then. “The gun at home is the best way to avoid dictatorships—only dictators take arms away from the citizens.” Apparently many of his fellow Swiss agreed. The referendum was easily defeated. Gun ownership in the country has deep historic roots… guns are popular… Children as young as 12 are taught how to shoot…and are encouraged to participate in highly popular target-shooting competitions. The country’s cultural attachment to firearms resembles America’s in some ways…it has the third-highest rate of private gun ownership in the world… The Swiss Defense Ministry estimates that there are 2 million privately owned weapons in the country of 8.3 million people.

Yet there’s almost no gun-related crime.

Switzerland has a low rate of gun crime, and hasn’t seen a mass shooting since 2001.

And let’s not forget that the fiscal burden of government in Switzerland is comparatively modest.

Not by libertarian standards. Not by historical standards.

But compared to other European nations, Switzerland is a fiscal Shangi-La. The tax burden is lower, and spending consumes a smaller share of economic output.

And this translates into lower levels of red ink.

P.S. I find Switzerland to be a very interesting case study, for reasons noted above and also on issues such as decentralization, privacy rights, gun rights, and private retirement savings. But I’m a policy wonk, so I’m drawn to unusual examples. What does surprise me is that other people must be interested in the country as well. My 2011 column comparing Switzerland and the United States is the 7th-most-viewed piece in the history of this site.

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Last September, Economic Freedom of the World was released, which was sort of like Christmas for wonks who follow international economic policy.

I eagerly combed through that report, which (predictably) had Hong Kong and Singapore as the top two jurisdictions. I was glad to see that the United States climbed to #11.

The good news is that America had dropped as low as #18, so we’ve been improving the past few years.

The bad news is that the U.S. used to be a top-5 country in the 1980s and 1990s.

But let’s set aside America’s economic ranking and deal with a different question. I’m frequently asked why European nations with big welfare states still seem like nice places.

My answer is that they are nice places. Yes, they get terrible scores on fiscal policy, but they tend to be very pro-market in areas like trade, monetary policy, regulation, and rule of law. So they almost always rank in the top-third for economic freedom.

To be sure, many European nations face demographic challenges and that may mean Greek-style crisis at some point. But that’s true of many developing nations as well.

Moreover, there’s more to life than economics. Most European nations also are nice places because they are civilized and tolerant. For instance, check out the newly released Human Freedom Index, which measures both economic liberty and personal liberty. As you can see, Switzerland is ranked #1 and Europe is home to 12 of the top 16 nations.

And when you check out nations at the bottom, you won’t find a single European country.

Instead, you find nations like Venezuela and Zimbabwe. Indeed, the lowest-ranked Western European country is Greece, which is ranked #60 and just missed being in the top-third of countries.

Having now engaged in the unusual experience of defending Europe, let’s take a quick look at the score for the United States.

As you can see, America’s #17 ranking is a function of our position for economic freedom (#11) and our position for personal freedom (#24).

For what it’s worth, America’s worst score is for “civil justice,” which basically measures rule of law. It’s embarrassing that we’re weak in that category, but not overly surprising.

Anyhow, here’s how the U.S. score has changed over time.

Let’s close with a few random observations.

Other nations also improved, not just the United States. Among advanced nations, Singapore jumped 16 spots and is now tied for #18. There were also double-digit increases for Suriname (up 14 spots, to #56), Cambodia (up 16 spots, to #58), and Botswana (up 22 spots, to #63). The biggest increase was Swaziland, which jumped 25 spots to #91, though it’s worth pointing out that it’s easier to make big jumps for nations with lower initial rankings.

Now let’s look at nations moving in the wrong direction. Among developed nations, Canada dropped 7 spots to #11. Still a very good score, but a very bad trend. It’s also unfortunate to see Poland drop 10 spots, to #32. Looking at developing nations, Brunei Darussalam plummeted an astounding 52 spots, down to #115, followed by Tajikistan, which fell 46 spots to #118. Brazil is also worth highlighting, since it plunged 23 spots to #120.

P.S. I don’t know if Moldova, Ukraine, and Russia count as European countries or Asian nations, but they all rank in the bottom half. In any event, they’re not Western European nations.

P.P.S. I mentioned last year that Switzerland was the only nation to be in the top 10 for both economic freedom and personal freedom. In the latest rankings, New Zealand also achieves that high honor.

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I haven’t written in any detail about “jury nullification” since late 2010 and it’s time to rectify that sin of omission.

Nullification occurs when a jury votes not guilty because a law is either unjust or wrongly applied, not because a defendant is actually innocent. And I know that’s what I would do if I was on a jury and the government was persecuting someone for engaging is self-defense or getting nabbed by a revenue camera.

The bottom line is that Walter Williams is right when he says that it is immoral to obey bad laws.

Let’s review some expert opinions.

Writing on the editorial page of the New York Times, a former prosecutor urges jury nullification.

Earlier this year, prosecutors charged Julian P. Heicklen, a retired chemistry professor, with jury tampering because he stood outside the federal courthouse in Manhattan providing information about jury nullification to passers-by. …The prosecutors who charged Mr. Heicklen said that “advocacy of jury nullification, directed as it is to jurors, would be both criminal and without constitutional protections no matter where it occurred.” The prosecutors in this case are wrong. The First Amendment exists to protect speech like this — honest information that the government prefers citizens not know. …Jury nullification is not new; its proponents have included John Hancock and John Adams. The doctrine is premised on the idea that ordinary citizens, not government officials, should have the final say as to whether a person should be punished. As Adams put it, it is each juror’s “duty” to vote based on his or her “own best understanding, judgment and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court.” …Nullification has been credited with helping to end alcohol prohibition and laws that criminalized gay sex. Last year, Montana prosecutors were forced to offer a defendant in a marijuana case a favorable plea bargain after so many potential jurors said they would nullify that the judge didn’t think he could find enough jurors to hear the case.

A column in the Washington Post by Professor Glenn Reynolds at the University of Tennessee argues that juries have an obligation to rein in bad prosecutors.

Despite the evidence, those responsible for convicting you may choose to let you go, if they think that sending you to jail would result in an injustice. That can happen through what’s called “prosecutorial discretion,” where a prosecutor decides not to bring or pursue charges against you because doing so would be unfair, even though the evidence is strong. Or it can happen through “jury nullification,” where a jury thinks that the evidence supports conviction but then decides to issue a “not guilty” verdict because it feels that a conviction would be unjust. …Prosecutorial discretion is regularly applied and generally regarded as a standard part of criminal justice. …So-called jury nullification, on the other hand, gets far less respect. Though it is clearly within the power of juries to refuse to convict whenever they choose, judges and prosecutors tend to view this practice with hostility. …there has been a massive shift of power toward prosecutors, the result of politics, over-criminalization, institutional leverage and judges’ failure to provide supervision. It’s time to redress the balance.

By the way, Glenn has proposed ways (see postscript of this column) of addressing this imbalance, which is tied to over-criminalization.

And here’s another column in the Washington Post arguing in favor of jury empowerment.

As I tried cases, I gained enormous respect for the seriousness with which jurors approached their work. …These jurors had no problem convicting anyone of a violent offense, if the government proved its case. For drug crimes, however, it was a different story. …they frequently voted “not guilty” in nonviolent drug cases, no matter how compelling the evidence. …When I started teaching law, I published an article in the Yale Law Journal situating these D.C. jurors in a long line of jurors…who refused to convict American patriots of sedition against the British crown; jurors who acquitted people guilty of violating the Fugitive Slave Act; and jurors who would not punish gay people for “sodomy” for having consensual sex.

Amen. Juries should pursue justice, not act as rubber stamps when prosecutors act as cogs for an unjust regime.

Now let’s look at a real-world example, as reported by the New York Times.

As much as chocolate and watches, Switzerland is known for bank secrecy. …it also made Swiss banks targets for an assault by the United States government… Bank Frey was among the very few to defy the legal onslaught. And Mr. Buck…was the bank’s public face, responsible for landing and then managing American accounts. That put Mr. Buck in the government’s cross hairs. In 2013, a federal grand jury indicted him for conspiring to help Americans avoid taxes. …But things didn’t go as prosecutors had planned… The crux of the defense was that the responsibility to pay taxes and declare income did not rest with Mr. Buck. It was his clients who had decided not to pay taxes. He was under no obligation to tattle… Prosecutors branded him as a crucial cog in an international tax-evasion scheme. …Then it was Mr. Agnifilo’s turn. …“Stefan Buck has nothing whatsoever, nothing whatsoever, to do with the choice that an American taxpayer makes” to not declare offshore assets. …The jury deliberated for a little more than a day. …the verdict: not guilty.

The story doesn’t mention jury nullification, but I’m assuming – from a technical legal perspective – the prosecutors had an open-and-shut case against Mr. Buck. After all, he did “conspire” to help Americans protect their income from the IRS.

But the jury decided that conviction would be absurd because a Swiss person on Swiss soil has no obligation to help enforce bad U.S. tax policy. So they voted not guilty because that was the only moral choice.

And the good news is that this is becoming a pattern.

In October 2014, one of UBS’s top executives, Raoul Weil, went on trial in Florida. Federal prosecutors accused him of helping clients hide billions. Mr. Weil’s lawyers argued he had no knowledge of or responsibility for what had happened. The jury deliberated for barely an hour before acquitting him. The same week, a Los Angeles jury acquitted an Israeli banker who faced similar accusations. The Americans’ pursuit of foreign bankers no longer looked invincible.

The even-better news is that these nullification decisions by juries may now lead to some “prosecutorial discretion.”

The Justice Department had now lost the three cases it had tried against foreign bankers who helped Americans avoid taxes. Dozens more cases are pending. Those who represent accused Swiss bankers say they expect Mr. Buck’s verdict to embolden defendants and to cause prosecutors to think twice before bringing new charges.

In other words, the bad law will still exist but hopefully will have little or no impact because prosecutors are less likely to file charges and juries won’t convict when they do.

That’s a victory for liberty, though it surely would be best – as we discussed just a few days ago – if politicians repealed the bad laws that make unjust prosecutions possible.

P.S. I’ve confessed mixed feelings about potential nullification in cases of vigilante justice.

P.P.S. In my younger days, I assumed that cops and prosecutors were the good guys, helping to maintain an orderly society. I still think that most of them want to do what’s right, but I also now realize that our Founding Fathers were very wise to include strong protections for defendants in our Constitution. Simply stated, some cops and some prosecutors are bad and those bad apples are why I favor strengthening the Fourth Amendment and have become more skeptical of the death penalty.

P.P.P.S. Even if you’re a law-abiding person, you should support civil liberties.

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There’s a lot to admire about Switzerland, particularly compared to its profligate neighbors.

With all these features, you won’t be surprised to learn that Switzerland is highly ranked by Human Freedom Index (#2), Economic Freedom of the World (#4), Index of Economic Freedom (#4), Global Competitiveness Report (#1), Tax Oppression Index (#1), and World Competitiveness Yearbook (#2).

Today let’s augment our list of good Swiss policies for reviewing the near-universal system of private pensions. I’ve been in Switzerland this week for a couple of speeches in Geneva, as well as interviews and meetings in Zurich and Bern.

As part of my travels around the country, I took the time to learn more about the “second pillar” of the country’s pension system.

Here’s a basic description from the Swiss government (with the help of Google translate).

The first pension funds were founded more than a hundred years ago… In 1972 the occupational pensions were included in the constitution. There it represents the second column in the three-column concept… The BVG compulsory scheme applies to all employees who are already insured in the first pillar… Pension provision in the second pillar is based on an individual savings process. This starts at 25 years. However, the condition is an annual income that exceeds the threshold (since 2015: 21’150 francs). The savings process ends with the reaching of the pension age. The accumulated savings in the individual account of the insured [are] used to finance the retirement pension.

If you want something in original English, here’s a brief description from the Swiss-American Chamber of Commerce.

The second pillar is governed by the provisions of the laws on occupational pension provision (BVG)… Employees who are paid by the same employer an annual salary exceeding CHF 21,150 are subject to compulsory insurance. The share of the salary which is subject to compulsory insurance is…between CHF 24,675 (the coordination deduction) and CHF 84,600… An employer who employs persons subject to compulsory insurance must be affiliated to a provident institution entered in the register for occupational benefit plan. The contributions into the pension scheme depend on age and include a minimum saving portion of 7% – 18% of the coordinated salary plus a risk portion. Both are equally shared between employer and employee. The benefits of the insured persons consist in the old age, invalidity and survivors pensions.

One of the interesting quirks of the system is that the mandatory contribution rate changes with age. The older you are, the more you pay.

I’m not sure that makes a lot of sense if the goal is for people to have big nest eggs when they retire, but nobody asked me. In any event, here’s a table showing the age-dependent contribution rates from an OECD description of the Swiss system.

Technically speaking, the contributions are evenly split between employees and employers, though labor economists widely agree that workers bear the real cost.

It’s also worth noting that the Swiss system is based on “defined contribution” like the Chilean and Australian private retirement systems. This means  retirement income generally is a function of how much is saved and how well it is invested.

By contrast, the Dutch private system is based on “defined benefit,” which means that workers get a pre-determined level of retirement income. As evidenced by huge shortfalls in the defined benefit regimes maintained by many public and private employers in the United States, this approach is very risky if there aren’t high levels of integrity and honesty.

Though that doesn’t seem to be a problem in the Netherlands. Speaking of the Dutch system, here’s a chart I shared back in 2014.

It was designed to laud the Netherlands, but you can see that Switzerland also had a large pool of pension assets, equal to more than 110 percent of GDP (according to OECD data, now 123 percent of GDP).

Looking at this data, ask yourself whether Switzerland (or the Netherlands, Iceland, Australia, etc) will be in a stronger position to handle the fiscal challenge of aging populations, particularly when compared to nations with virtually no private pension assets, such as France, Greece, and Japan.

The Swiss regime certainly isn’t perfect, and neither are the systems in other nations with private retirement savings. But at least those nations are in much better shape to deal with future demographic changes. Workers in Switzerland and other countries with similar systems have real assets rather than unsustainable political promises. And it’s also worth pointing out that there are macroeconomic benefits for nations that rely more on private savings rather than tax-and-transfer entitlement schemes.

In other words, the Swiss system is much better than America’s bankrupt Social Security scheme.

P.S. Back in 2011, I compared five good features of the United States to five good features of Switzerland. If retirement systems were part of that discussion, Switzerland would have enjoyed a sixth advantage.

P.P.S. Switzerland does have some warts. It is only ranked #31 in the World Bank’s Doing Business. It also has a self-destructive wealth tax. And  government spending, though modest compared to neighbors, consumes slight more than one-third of economic output.

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Back in 2009, I shared the results of a very helpful study by Pierre Bessard of Switzerland’s Liberal Institute (by the way, “liberal” in Europe means pro-market or “classical liberal“).

Pierre ranked the then-30 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development based on their tax burdens, their quality of governance, and their protection of financial privacy.

Switzerland was the top-ranked nation, followed by Luxembourg, Austria, and Canada.

Italy and Turkey were tied for last place, followed by Poland, Mexico, and Germany.

The United States, I’m ashamed to say, was in the bottom half. Our tax burden was (and still is) generally lower than Europe, but there’s nothing special about our quality of governance compared to other developed nations, and we definitely don’t allow privacy for our citizens (though we’re a good haven for foreigners).

Pierre’s publication was so helpful that I’ve asked him several times to release an updated version.

I don’t know if it’s because of my nagging, but the good news is that he’s in the final stages of putting together a new Tax Oppression Index. He just presented his findings at a conference in Panama.

But before divulging the new rankings, I want to share this slide from Pierre’s presentation. He correctly observes that the OECD’s statist agenda against tax competition is contrary to academic research in general, and also contrary to the Paris-based bureaucracy’s own research!

Yet the political hacks who run the OECD are pushing bad policies because Europe’s uncompetitive governments want to prop up their decrepit welfare states. And what’s especially irksome is that the bureaucrats at the OECD get tax-free salaries while pushing for higher fiscal burdens elsewhere in the world.

But I’m digressing. Let’s look at Pierre’s new rankings.

As you can see, Switzerland is still at the top, though now it’s tied with Canada. Estonia (which wasn’t part of the OECD back in 2009) is in third place, and New Zealand and Sweden also get very high scores.

At the very bottom, with the most oppressive tax systems, are Greece and Mexico (gee, what a surprise), followed by Israel and Turkey.

The good news, relatively speaking, is that the United States is tied with several other nations for 11th place with a score of 3.5.

So instead of being in the bottom half, as was the case with the 2009 Tax Oppression Index, the U.S. is now in the top half.

But that’s not because we’ve improved policy. It’s more because the OECD advocates of statism have been successful in destroying financial privacy in other nations. Even Switzerland’s human rights laws on privacy no longer protect foreign investors.

As such, Pierre’s new index basically removes financial privacy as a variable and augments the quality of governance variable with additional data about property rights and the rule of law.

P.S. When measuring the tax burden, the reason that America ranks above most European nations is not because they impose heavier taxes on rich people and businesses (indeed, the U.S. has a much higher corporate tax rate). Instead, we rank above Europe because they impose very heavy taxes on poor and middle-income taxpayers (mostly because of the value-added tax, which helps to explain why I am so unalterably opposed to that destructive levy).

P.P.S. Also in 2009, Pierre Bessard authored a great defense of tax havens for the New York Times.

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There was some genuinely good news in 2016, which is more than I can say for 2015 (my “best” development for that year was some polling data, followed by some small-ball tinkering).

Though the good news for 2016 was mostly overseas. Here are the four things from around the world that made me happy this year.

And while we didn’t have any major positive developments in the United States, there was a bit of good news. Yes, it’s “small-ball tinkering,” but I’m always glad for any progress.

So those are the noteworthy good things that happened this year. Now let’s look at the other side of the ledger. What was the bad news of 2016?

Well, the good news (so to speak) is that there was not a lot of bad news. At least if we’re focusing on actual policy changes.

But there are three developments that cause me to worry about the future.

Tomorrow I will write about my hopes and fears for 2017.

Let’s close today’s column with a few special categories.

If there was an award for the most disgusting news of 2016, the NAACP would be the clear winner for their decision to sacrifice black children in order to collect blood money from teacher unions.

And if we also had a prize for most moronic leftist in 2016, there would be another easy winner. Trevor Noah inadvertently showed why gun control doesn’t work even though he wanted to make the opposite point.

Last but not least, if there was a category for surprising news in 2016, there’s no question that Paul Krugman would win that prize for writing something sensible about tax policy.

P.S. My most popular post in 2016 (which also set the all-time record) was the very clever image showing that the enemies of liberty are looters, regardless of their economic status.

P.P.S. My most surreal moment in 2016 was getting attacked on the front page of the Washington Post. I must be doing something right.

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Most folks in Washington are still digesting last night’s debate between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. If that’s what you care about, you can see my Twitter commentary, though I was so busy addressing specific issues that I failed to mention the most disturbing part of that event, which was the total absence of any discussion about the importance of liberty, freedom, and the Constitution.

But let’s set aside the distasteful world of politics and contemplate U.S. competitiveness. Specifically, let’s examine America’s position in the latest edition of the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report. This Report is partly a measure of policy (sort of like Economic Freedom of the World) and partly a measure of business efficiency and acumen.

The bad news is that we used to be ranked #1 and now we’re #3.

The good news is that being #3 is still pretty good, and it’s hard to beat Switzerland and Singapore because they have such good free-market policies. And that’s where America falls short.

Indeed, if you look at the top-10 nations and the three major measurements, you’ll notice that the United States ranks extremely high in “efficiency enhancers” and “innovation and sophistication factors,” both of which have a lot to do with the private sector’s competitiveness. But we have a mediocre (at least for developed nations) score for “basic requirements,” the area where government policy plays a big role.

Moreover, if you look at the the biggest obstacles to economic activity in the United States, the top 4 deal with bad government policy.

The tax treatment of companies is easily the main problem, as you might expect since we rank #94 out of 100 nations in a study of business tax policy.

Let’s now look at the indices where the United States scored especially low out of the 138 nations that were ranked.

America’s lowest scores were for exports (#130) and imports (#134), though I take issue with the Report‘s methodology, which is based on trade flows as a share of GDP. The problem with that approach is that the United States has a huge internal market, equal to about 22 percent of the world’s economic output. That’s why our trade flows aren’t very large relative to GDP. Being surrounded by two major oceans also probably has some dampening effect on cross-border trade flows. Yes, America is guilty of some protectionism, but I think our ranking for trade tariffs (#33) is the more appropriate and accurate measure of the degree to which there is a problem.

America also got a very bad score (#128) for government debt, though at least we beat Italy (#135), Greece (#137), and Japan (#138). In case you’re wondering, Hong Kong was #1, as you might expect from a well-run jurisdiction with small government and a flat tax.  Though I must say that it is rather disappointing that the Report doesn’t include rankings for the overall burden of government spending. After all, government debt is basically a symptom of an underlying problem of a bloated public sector.

And there also was a very low score for the business cost of terrorism (#104), which is probably an unavoidable consequence of being the world’s leading superpower (and therefore a target for crazies). That being said, I imagine America’s score could be improved if we weren’t engaging in needless intervention – and thus generating needless animosity – in places such as Syria and Libya.

Here are two indices that deserve special attention. As you can see the United States gets a poor score for wasteful spending and a terrible score for the punitive taxation of profits.

With this information in mind, let’s now remind ourselves about last night’s debate. Did either candidate propose to control spending and reduce pork-barrel programs? Nope.

Did either candidate put forth a realistic plan to lower the corporate tax rate? Hillary’s plan certainly doesn’t qualify since she wants a bunch of class-warfare tax hikes. And while Trump’s plan includes a lower corporate rate, it’s not a serious proposal since he is too timid to put forth a plan to restrain government outlays.

And since neither candidate intends to address America’s looming fiscal crisis, it will probably be just a matter of time before America drops in the rankings.

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While Switzerland is one of the world’s most market-oriented nations, ranked #4 by Economic Freedom of the World, it’s not libertarian Nirvana.

Government spending, for instance, consumes about one-third of economic output. That may be the second-lowest level among all OECD nations (fast-growing South Korea wins the prize for the smallest public sector relative to GDP), but it’s still far too high when compared to Hong Kong and Singapore.*

Moreover, while the Swiss tax code is benign compared to what exists in other European nations, it also is not perfect. One of the warts is a wealth tax, which is a very pernicious levy that drains capital from the private sector.

Let’s look at some excerpts from a report in the Wall Street Journal, starting with a description of the Swiss system.

Switzerland has taxed wealth since the late 18th century. Its 26 cantons in 2014 levied taxes on net wealth with rates varying from 0.13% in the lighter taxing German-speaking parts to 1% in French-speaking Geneva. Swiss wealth taxes are also special because they apply from wealth as low as 25,000 Swiss francs, ensuring large swaths of the middle class incur them. Typical taxpayers pay a rate of just over 0.5%.

Here are the wealth tax rates in the various cantons, based on a recent study of the system.

As noted in the WSJ story, that study contains strong evidence that the tax is hurting Switzerland.

…according to a new paper, …taxing wealth leads declared wealth to disappear. Based on experience in Switzerland, which uses wealth taxes the most, reported wealth falls around 20 times as much in response to an increase in a wealth tax as it does to an equivalent increase in a tax on capital income, such as dividends or capital gains. …Economists at the University of Lausanne and Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that a 0.1 percentage point increase in Swiss wealth taxes caused a 3.5% reduction in reported wealth. That’s equivalent to 100,000 Swiss francs going missing for a person worth 3 million francs. …they conclude in a study investigating changes in wealth tax rates on Swiss taxpayers’ reported wealth from 2001 to 2012.

Why is there such a big response?

For the same reason that class-warfare taxes don’t work very well in the United States. Simply stated, taxpayers have considerable ability to rearrange their financial affairs when governments try to tax capital (or capital income). And that ability is especially pronounced for those with higher levels of income and wealth.

Individuals have greater control over their reported wealth–especially financial wealth such as bank deposits, stock and bonds–than their reported income.

By the way, the story also included this nugget of good news.

Thanks primarily to tax competition, many nations have eliminated wealth taxes over the past 20 years.

…only five members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development still levy annual taxes on individuals’ total financial and non-financial wealth… That is down from 14 nations two decades ago.

And if you want more good news, the Swiss cantons also are lowering their tax rates on wealth.

Here’s another map from the study. It shows that a couple of French-speaking cantons have imposed very small increases in the tax since 2003, while the vast majority of cantons have moved in the other direction, in some cases slashing their wealth tax rates by substantial amounts.

Since I’m a big fan of Switzerland, let’s close with some more good news about the Swiss tax system. Not only are tax rates on wealth dropping, but there’s no capital gains tax. And there are no taxes on interest.

So while there is a wealth tax, which is a very unfortunate and destructive imposition, the Swiss avoid many other forms of double taxation on income that is saved and invested.

*The burden of government spending also is excessive in Hong Kong and Singapore. Based on historical data, economic performance will be maximized if total government spending is less than 10 percent of GDP.

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Programs about the improbable success of Chile and Estonia already have aired on nationwide TV, and those were joined last weekend by a show about the “sensible nation” of Switzerland.

Here’s the 28-minute program.

When I first watched the program, I was slightly irked that there was very little discussion of the role of fiscal policy and the importance of spending restraint and competitive tax rates.

Moreover, there was no direct mention of Switzerland’s very successful spending cap, even though the “debt brake” has generated superb results.

Indeed, Switzerland is the only nation from Europe or North America that gets high scores from Economic Freedom of the World for both fiscal policy and rule of law (a notable achievement since Wagner’s Law tells us that it is very difficult to stop government from expanding once the private sector generates a lot of wealth that can be redistributed).

But I confess I’m biased about the importance of tax and spending issues.

And as I thought about what I had seen, I realized that the program’s focus on federalism and decentralization made sense.

Yes, Switzerland has a modest-sized government. And, yes, the debt brake has been a huge success. But those good outcomes are in part the result of a system where most government still takes place at the local (commune) or state (canton) level.

In other words, Switzerland generally still has the type of system America’s Founding Fathers envisioned, with a small central government.

I’ve already pointed out that the level of redistribution in Switzerland is relatively low because of its decentralized model.

But there’s another feature of federalism that’s worth celebrating. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb (of “Black Swan” fame) has pointed out, decentralized systems are much more stable and successful since there’s far less risk of a mistaken policy being imposed on a one-size-fits-all basis.

And countless scholars, including many Nobel Prize recipients, have explained that small, competing nations were a key reason why Europe became a rich continent in the first place.

Sadly, most Europeans have forgotten this lesson and have created the EU superstate in Brussels (which helps to explain why I’m delighted that the United Kingdom voted to escape that sinking ship).

So the moral of the story, from both the video about Switzerland and from all the other evidence in the world, is that federalism is good policy.

Let’s close with an interesting example of Swiss federalism in action. The canton of Zug is known for being a low-tax haven in a country famous for having a reasonable tax regime. Well, the town of Zug is on the cutting edge of digital money.

…the town council has hopes Zug’s trend as a financial tech hub continues  — having embraced the new identity with this legislative move. …As the pilot program is first implemented it will initially allow payments up to 200 Francs, and possibly introducing the ability to pay larger amounts later in the future. …analysis will ultimately determine whether or not the town council will continue allowing Bitcoin payments for municipal services. …Bitcoiners will be taking notice of this small town, and it already has the added benefit of being located in Switzerland  —  which is known for its business friendly environment and relatively small regulatory burden. …In fact, Switzerland’s business environment and relatively free-market economy even helped to convince the Bitcoin wallet and exchange, Xapo, to relocate to Switzerland last year. …the town of Zug itself also provides its citizens with a relatively hands-off approach to the local economy. The Swiss town of  Zug showcases one of the lowest tax rates in the world. This combination of a hands-off approach by the government and large tax benefits has made the small town into a successful economic hub where global trade flourishes.

Wow, this says a lot about the quality of governance in Switzerland that a nation that doesn’t need Bitcoin (unlike, say, Greece or Argentina) nonetheless welcomes it as a competing currency.

Yet another reason why Switzerland is one of the world’s best nations.

P.S. Today’s column is about Switzerland, but I can’t resist pointing out that Hong Kong and Singapore both score highly for rule of law and small government. And Chile deserves honorable mention as well. For what it’s worth, the Princess of the Levant’s home country of Lebanon apparently has the world’s small fiscal burden, but the low score for rule of law suggests that the real story is that the government is simply too incompetent to collect and redistribute money.

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At the risk of oversimplifying, libertarians want to minimize the level of government coercion is society. That’s why we favor both economic liberty and personal liberty. Simply stated, you should have the right to control your own life and make your own decisions so long as you’re not harming others or interfering with their rights.

That’s a philosophical or moral argument.

There’s also the utilitarian argument for liberty, and that largely revolves around the fact societies with more freedom tend to be considerably more prosperous than societies with lots of government.

I’ve repeatedly made this argument by comparing the economic performance of market-oriented jurisdictions and statist ones.

Let’s look at some new evidence. Based in Lausanne, Switzerland, the Institute for Management Development is a highly regarded educational institution that publishes an annual World Competitiveness Yearbook that basically measures whether a nation is a good place to do business.

So it’s not a measure of economic liberty, at least not directly. And the quality of governance matters for the IMD rankings (presumably based on something akin to the European Central Bank’s measure of “public sector efficiency“).

But you’ll notice a clear link between economic liberty and competitiveness.

Here are the top-10 nations. (you can look at the rankings for all nations by clicking here).

As you might suspect, there’s a strong correlation between the nations that are competitive and those that have smaller governments and free markets.

Indeed, three out of the top four jurisdictions (Hong Kong, Singapore, and Switzerland) rank in the top four for economic liberty according to Economic Freedom of the World.

And I’m happy to see that the United States also scores very highly, even if we only rank 17 out of 157 for economic freedom.

Indeed, every country in IMD’s top 10 other than Sweden is ranked in the top quartile of EFW.

You also probably won’t be surprised by the countries getting the worst scores from IMD.

Congratulations to Venezuela for being the world’s least competitive nation. Though that might be an overstatement since IMD only ranks 61 jurisdictions. If all the world’s countries were included, Venezuela presumably would beat out North Korea. And maybe a couple of other squalid outposts of statism, such as Cuba.

It’s also worth noting that Greece gets consistently bad scores. And I’m not surprised that Argentina is near the bottom as well (though it has improved since last year, so hopefully the new government will continue to move in the right direction).

By the way, it’s worth noting that economic freedom is a necessary but not sufficient condition for competitiveness. Jordan, for instance, ranks in the top 10 for economic freedom but gets a low score from IMD, presumably because the advantages of good policy don’t compensate for exogenous factors such as geopolitical risk and access to markets.

The moral of the story, though, is that free markets and small government are the recipe for more prosperity. And those policies are probably even more important for nations that face exogenous challenges.

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Like America’s Founders, I like constitutional constraints on government and dislike untrammeled majoritarianism.

So my gut instinct is to reject Swiss-style direct democracy as a governing system.

Yet I have to give credit to the Swiss people for being very sensible when asked to vote in national referendums. Here are some recent results.

And don’t forget they voted by a landslide margin in favor of a spending cap back in 2001.

Now they’ve done it again.

Voters were asked today to decide whether every adult should automatically receive more than $2,500 per month as part of a guaranteed basic income.

Sounds like a nice free lunch, right? That offer might be very attractive in a place like France, but Swiss voters apparently understand that government can’t give all that money to people without first taking that amount of money from people. They rejected Bernie-nomics by an overwhelming margin.

In Switzerland, there don’t appear to be left-wing blue states and right-wing red states. Instead, the entire nation favors limited government. Even the French-speaking parts of the country voted against the scheme.

I’d like to take credit for these results. I was in Switzerland early last month to discuss and debate this plan. Here’s what I said (click here to watch the entire panel discussion).

In reality, I’m sure my remarks didn’t have any impact on the outcome. Nonetheless, it’s nice to be on the winning side.

Though you may have noticed that I said some nice things about a guaranteed basic income in my presentation. That’s because, as I wrote back in 2013, these plans also would get rid of the current dysfunctional welfare state.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal a couple of days ago, Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute makes the best possible case for an automatic government-provided income.

The UBI has brought together odd bedfellows. Its advocates on the left see it as a move toward social justice; its libertarian supporters (like Friedman) see it as the least damaging way for the government to transfer wealth from some citizens to others. Either way, the UBI is an idea whose time has finally come… First, my big caveat: A UBI will do the good things I claim only if it replaces all other transfer payments and the bureaucracies that oversee them. If the guaranteed income is an add-on to the existing system, it will be as destructive as its critics fear.

Here are the highlights of Murray’s plan.

…the system has to be designed with certain key features. In my version, every American citizen age 21 and older would get a $13,000 annual grant deposited electronically into a bank account in monthly installments. …The UBI is to be financed by getting rid of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, housing subsidies, welfare for single women and every other kind of welfare and social-services program, as well as agricultural subsidies and corporate welfare. As of 2014, the annual cost of a UBI would have been about $200 billion cheaper than the current system. By 2020, it would be nearly a trillion dollars cheaper. …Under my UBI plan, the entire bureaucratic apparatus of government social workers would disappear.

And while he acknowledges that some people will stop working and live off their handouts, he makes a reasonably persuasive argument that some people will be encouraged to enter the labor force.

Under the current system, taking a job makes you ineligible for many welfare benefits or makes them subject to extremely high marginal tax rates. Under my version of the UBI, taking a job is pure profit with no downside until you reach $30,000—at which point you’re bringing home way too much ($40,000 net) to be deterred from work by the imposition of a surtax. Some people who would otherwise work will surely drop out of the labor force under the UBI, but others who are now on welfare or disability will enter the labor force.

Sounds good, but then consider all the leftists who support a basic income scheme and imagine how such a system would work if they were in charge.

That’s what worries me. If Charles Murray was economic czar and there was never a risk of his plan being modified, I’d be sorely tempted to say yes.

But that’s not a plausible scenario. In the real world, a guaranteed basic income might start small and the current welfare state might be curtailed as part of the original deal, but I would be very worried about subsequent reforms that would expand the size of the handout (much as the EITC has been expanded in America) and reinstate misguided redistribution programs.

Perhaps this is why, in a column for the Financial Times, John Kay is not very sanguine about the numbers.

Bernie Sanders, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, has expressed sympathy for basic income while stopping short of endorsement. Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister of Greece, is a proponent. …Yet simple arithmetic shows why these schemes cannot work. Decide what proportion of average income per head would be appropriate for basic income. Thirty per cent seems mean; perhaps 50 per cent is more reasonable? The figure you write down is the share of national income that would be absorbed by public expenditure on basic income. The Swiss government reckoned spending on social welfare would approximately double. To see the average tax rate implied, add the share of national income taken by other public sector activities — education, health, defence and transport. Either the basic income is impossibly low, or the expenditure on it is impossibly high.

Exactly.

P.S. On a separate topic, the death of Mohamed Ali, the larger-than-life superstar boxer, has generated a lot of reminiscing.

Well, courtesy of Mike Flynn, here’s my favorite Ali historical flashback.

P.P.S. Speaking of athletic superstars (at least in our fantasies), the Beltway Bandits finally prevailed in a 2016 softball tournament. Here’s our team photo after winning the Crabtown Classic.

P.P.S. Returning to the main topic of today’s column, here’s an amusing cartoon strip on the notion of a basic income.

It’s from the same person who put together the “magic boats” cartoon strip about the minimum wage.

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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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I’m a huge fan of Switzerland, largely because its voters approved a spending cap that should be a role model for other nations.

It’s called the “debt brake” and it has helped reduce the burden of government spending in Switzerland at a time when most nations in Europe have been moving in the wrong direction.

But that’s not the only reason I like Switzerland.

I also appreciate the fact that Swiss voters seem to be much more sensible than voters in other nations.

Every so often I see polls, for instance, suggesting that French voters overwhelmingly want less government spending. But then they go out and elect statist presidents such as Sarkozy and Hollande.

In Switzerland, by contrast, voters are sensible where it counts most – in the voting booth.

Earlier this year, 76 percent of voters rejected a minimum wage hike.

Back in 2010, nearly 60 percent of voters shot down a class-warfare proposal for higher taxes on the rich.

And they’ve done it again. In a recent referendum, they defeated a government-run healthcare system by a landslide.

Here are some excerpts from an AFP report.

Swiss voters on Sunday rejected a plan for a seismic shift from the country’s all-private health insurance system to a state-run scheme. Referendum results showed that almost 62 percent of voters had shot down a reform pushed by left-leaning parties. …”The Swiss population does not want a single national scheme,” said the Swiss Insurance Association. “Our health system is among the top performers in the world. Competition between health insurers and freedom of choice for clients play a major role in this,” it added. …The rejection of the plan by nearly two-thirds of voters is a major blow for pro-reform campaigners, given that opinion polls had shown the ‘No’ vote was likely to be around 54 percent. In a 2007 referendum, 71 percent of voters rejected similar reforms. …for Switzerland’s cross-party government and its right- and centre-dominated parliament, the current system has proven its mettle and is debt-free, unlike the health services of France, Italy or Britain.

Though it seems that speaking French is somehow linked to economic illiteracy.

German-speaking regions voted against the plan, while their French-speaking counterparts were in favour.

Back in 2011, I wrote that there were five reasons why Switzerland was better than the United States.

But perhaps I wasn’t being sufficiently enthusiastic. Over at Being Classically Liberal, there’s an article entitled “9 Reasons Libertarians Should Love Switzerland.” Here’s the bottom line.

The Swiss are rich, happy, gun-owning, peace-loving people. The country has one of the freest market economies in the world and a relatively small and very decentralized government which hasn’t waged war since the early 19th century. In this libertarian’s eyes, Switzerland might just be the most awesome country in existence.

I’m agnostic on whether Switzerland is the “most awesome.” Hong Kong and Singapore, for instance, have smaller government.

That being said, Switzerland is much better on both guns and federalism.

And if you believe in grading on a curve, the burden of government spending in Switzerland is far smaller than it is in neighboring nations.

So it is a very admirable place.

Though I haven’t given up on America quite yet. And if I ever do, I’ll still choose Australia over Switzerland.

P.S. While it is encouraging that Swiss voters overwhelmingly rejected a single-payer healthcare scheme, I should acknowledge that their current system is not exactly libertarian Nirvana since it mandates that households purchase a health insurance policy.

P.P.S. But I don’t want to close on a bad point, so I’ll simply call your attention to the fact that Switzerland has one of the lowest levels of welfare spending among industrialized nations.

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I’m beginning to think that people from some nations are smarter and more rational than others.

That may explain, for instance, why voters in Estonia support fiscal restraint while voters in France foolishly think the gravy train can continue forever.

But I’m not making an argument about genetic ability. Instead, what I’m actually starting to wonder is whether some political cultures yield smarter and more rational decisions.

Switzerland is a good example. In a referendum this past weekend, an overwhelming majority of voters rejected a proposal to impose a minimum wage. Here are some excerpts from a BBC report.

Swiss voters have overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to introduce what would have been the highest minimum wage in the world in a referendum. Under the plan, employers would have had to pay workers a minimum 22 Swiss francs (about $25; £15; 18 euros) an hour. …critics argued that it would raise production costs and increase unemployment. The minimum wage proposal was rejected by 76% of voters. Supporters had argued it would “protect equitable pay” but the Swiss Business Federation said it would harm low-paid workers in particular. …unions are angry that Switzerland – one of the richest countries in the world – does not have a minimum pay level while neighbouring France and Germany do.

Every single Swiss Canton voted against the minimum wage.

That means the French-speaking cantons voted no, even though the French-speaking people in France routinely support politicians who favor bad policy.

That means the German-speaking cantons voted no, even though the German-speaking people in Germany routinely support politicians who favor bad policy.

And it means that the Italian-speaking canton voted no, even though the Italian-speaking people in Italy routinely support politicians who favor bad policy.

So why is it that the same people, genetically speaking, make smart decisions in Switzerland and dumb decisions elsewhere?

I don’t have an answer, but here’s some more evidence. As you can see from these passages in a New York Times story, the Swiss have a lot more common sense than their neighbors.

“A fixed salary has never been a good way to fight the problem,” said Johann Schneider-Ammann, the economic minister. “If the initiative had been accepted, it would have led to workplace losses, especially in rural areas where less-qualified people have a harder time finding jobs. The best remedy against poverty is work.” …“Switzerland, especially in popular votes, has never had a tradition of approving state intervention in the labor markets,” said Daniel Kubler, a professor of political science at the University of Zurich. “A majority of Swiss has always thought, and still seems to think, that liberal economic principles are the basis of their model of success.”

Even the non-Swiss in Switzerland are rational. Check out this blurb from a story which appeared before the vote in USA Today.

…some who would be eligible for the higher wage worry that it may do more harm than good. Luisa Almeida is an immigrant from Portugal who works in Switzerland as a housekeeper and nanny. Almeida’s earnings of $3,250 a month are below the proposed minimum wage but still much more than she’d make in Portugal. Since she is not a Swiss citizen, she cannot vote but if she could, “I would vote ‘no’,” she says. “If my employer had to pay me more money, he wouldn’t be able to keep me on and I’d lose the job.”

Heck, I’m wondering if Ms. Almeida would be willing to come to Washington and educate Barack Obama. Minimum Wage BensonShe obviously has enough smarts to figure out the indirect negative impact of government intervention, so her counsel would be very valuable in DC.

But if Ms. Almeida isn’t available, we have another foreigner who already has provided advice on the issue of minimum wages. Here’s Orphe Divougny, originally from Gabon, with a common-sense explanation of why it doesn’t make sense to hurt low-skilled workers.

By the way, this isn’t the first time the Swiss have demonstrated common sense when asked to vote of key economic policy issues.

In 2001, 85 percent of voters approved a plan to cap the growth of government spending.

In 2010, 59 percent of voters rejected an Obama-style class-warfare tax plan.

No wonder there are many reasons why Switzerland ranks above the United States.

P.S. I wrote earlier this month about Pfizer’s potential merger that would allow the company to reduce its onerous tax burden to the IRS by redomiciling in the United Kingdom.

Well, Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe has weighed in on the issue and I can’t resist sharing this excerpt.

…the outrage isn’t the wish of an American corporation to lower its tax bill. It is a US tax code so punitive and counterproductive that it can drive a company like Pfizer, which was launched in Brooklyn in 1849, to turn itself into a foreign corporation. The United States has the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world. That puts American companies at a serious competitive disadvantage, since their rivals elsewhere are able to channel more of their profits into new investment, hiring, and productivity. What’s worse, ours is the only country that enforces a system of “worldwide” taxation, which means that American firms have to pay tax to the IRS not only on income earned in the United States but on their foreign earnings as well. Other nations content themselves with “territorial” taxation — they only tax income earned within their national borders. US corporations like Pfizer that have significant earnings overseas are thus taxed on those earnings twice: first by the government of the country where the money was earned, and then by the IRS.

Amen, amen, and amen.

Our tax system imposes a very punitive corporate tax rate.

It then augments the damage with worldwide taxation.

And the system is riddled with onerous rules that cause America to rank a lowly 94th out of 100 nations for business “tax attractiveness.”

In other words, when greedy politicians complain about Pfizer’s possible inversion, it’s a classic case of blaming the victim.

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What happens when you mix something good with something bad?

To be more specific, what happens when you have a big success story, like the spending cap in Switzerland that has dramatically slowed the growth of government, and then expect intelligent and coherent coverage by a government-run media outfit that presumably wants a bigger public sector?

Well, the answer is that you get a very muddled story.

Here’s some of what Swiss Info, which is part of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, wrote about that nation’s “debt brake.”

The mind-boggling…debt racked up by governments…has turned some heads towards Switzerland’s successful track record… Swiss voters approved a so-called ‘debt brake’ on federal public finances in 2001, which was put into operation in 2003. A decade later, the mountain of government debt – that soared to dangerous levels during the 1990s and early 2000s – has been reduced by CHF20 billion ($23 billion) from its 2005 peak. The ratio of debt to annual economic output (gross domestic product or GDP)…fell from 53% to 37% between 2005 and the end of 2012.

There’s nothing wrong with that passage. Indeed, you could almost say that Swiss Info was engaging in boosterism.

Moreover, the story points out that other nations have been going in the wrong direction while Switzerland was enjoying success.

…as Switzerland was chipping away at its mountain of debt, other countries were building theirs up. …Since the middle of 2007 public sector debt alone has soared 80% to $43 trillion, according to the Bank for International Settlements.

And the story even notes that other nations are beginning to copy Switzerland.

The Swiss debt brake is the perfect model for other countries to embrace… Germany applied its own version of the Swiss debt brake in 2009, followed by Spain and other European countries.  …“Switzerland came up with the blueprint for what I am sure will be the standard fiscal model of the future,” said Müller-Jentsch.

So why, then, do I think the story has a muddled message?

The answer is that there is no explanation of how the debt brake works and therefore no explanation of why it is a success.

A reader will have no idea, for instance, that the debt brake is actually a spending cap. Readers also will have no way of knowing that red ink has been controlled because the law properly focuses on limiting the growth of spending.

By the way, it wouldn’t have required much research for Swiss Info to include that relevant data. If you do a Google search for “Swiss debt brake,” the first item that appears is the column I wrote in 2012 for the Wall Street Journal.

In that piece, I explained that “Switzerland’s debt brake limits spending growth to average revenue increases over a multiyear period” and I added that “Before the law went into effect in 2003, government spending was expanding by an average of 4.3% per year. Since then it’s increased by only 2.6% annually.”

So why didn’t Swiss Info mention any of this very relevant information? Is it because it tilts to the left like other government-owned media outfits, and the journalists didn’t want to acknowledge that spending restraint is a successful fiscal policy?

I have no idea whether that’s the case, but there is a definite pattern. When I appear on PBS, the deck is usually stacked in favor of statism. Moreover, you won’t be surprised to learn that I’ve had similar experiences with government-run TV in France. And it goes without saying that the BBC in the United Kingdom also leans left (though at least they seem to believe in fair fights).

This video from Swiss Info is similarly vague. It’s a favorable portrayal, but people who watch the video won’t know how the debt brake works or why it has been successful.

P.S.  I don’t know the details about the German version of the debt brake, but it’s probably having some positive impact. The burden of government spending has not increased in that nation since 2009, at least when measured as a share of GDP. Though the Germans also weren’t as profligate as other nations (including the United States) in the years before they adopted a debt brake, so I’ll have to do more research to ascertain whether the German approach is as good as the Swiss approach.

P.P.S. In any event, the moral of the story is that good fiscal policy should be based on the Golden Rule of having government grow slower than the productive sector of the economy.

P.P.S. The Princess of the Levant and I continued our tour of the French Riviera. This photo is from Les Jardins Exotiques at Chateau d’Eze.

photo1(5)

As part of my travels, I’ve learned that the unluckiest people in the world are from Menton and Roquebrune in France. That’s because they were part of Monaco until 1860.

So now, instead of enjoying an income tax of zero under Monegasque rule, they are part of France’s wretched fiscal system.

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