Tag: belgium

Is Secession a Good Idea?

I’m not talking about secession in the United States, where the issue is linked to the ugliness of slavery (though at least Walter Williams can write about the issue without the risk of being accused of closet racism).

But what about Europe? I have a hard time understanding why nations on the other side of the Atlantic should not be allowed to split up if there are fundamental differences between regions. Who can be against the concept of self-determination?

Heck, tiny Liechtenstein explicitly gives villages the right to secede if two-thirds of voters agree. Shouldn’t people in other nations have the same freedom?

This is not just a hypothetical issue. Secession has become hot in several countries, with Catalonia threatening to leave Spain and Scotland threatening to leave the United Kingdom.

But because of recent election results, Belgium may be the country where an internal divorce is most likely. Here are some excerpts from a report in the UK-based Financial Times.

Flemish nationalists made sweeping gains across northern Belgium in local elections on Sunday, a success that will bolster separatists’ hopes for a break-up of the country. Bart De Wever, leader of the New Flemish Alliance (NVA), is set to become mayor of the northern city of Antwerp, Belgium’s economic heartland, after his party emerged as the largest one, ending about 90 years of socialist rule. …The strong result recorded by the Flemish nationalist is likely to have an impact across Europe, where the sovereign debt crisis, which has seen rich countries bail out poor ones, has revived separatist sentiment throughout the continent. Flanders, which is the most economically prosperous region of Belgium, has long resented financing the ailing economy of French-speaking Wallonia, and Sunday’s victory will strengthen its demand for self-rule. Lieven De Winter, a political scientist at Université Catholique de Louvain, said that Mr De Wever’s victory was a clear step forward for separatists who had long been campaigning for secession from the southern part of the country.

Purely as a matter of political drama, this is an interesting development. We saw the peaceful split of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia about 20 years ago. But we also saw a very painful breakup of Yugoslavia shortly thereafter.

Belgium’s divorce, if it happened, would be tranquil. But it would still be remarkable, particularly since it might encourage peaceful separatist movements in other regions of other nations.

I think this would be a welcome development for reasons I wrote about last month. Simply stated, the cause of liberty is best advanced by having a a large number of competing jurisdictions.

I’ve opined about this issue many times, usually from a fiscal policy perspective, explaining that governments are less likely to be oppressive when they know that people (or their money) can cross national borders.

Belgium definitely could use a big dose of economic liberalization. The burden of government spending is enormous, consuming 53.5 percent of economic output - worse than all other European nations besides Denmark, France, and Finland. The top tax rate on personal income is a crippling 53.7 percent, second only the Sweden. And with a 34 percent rate, the corporate tax rate is very uncompetitive, behind only France.

Sadly, there’s little chance of reform under the status quo since the people in Wallonia view high tax rates as a tool for extracting money from their neighbors in Flanders. But if Belgium split up, it’s quite likely that both new nations would adopt better policy as a signal to international investors and entrepreneurs. Or maybe the new nations would implement better policy as part of a friendly rivalry with each other.

So three cheers for peaceful secession and divorce in Belgium. At least we know things can’t get worse.

P.S. Brussels is the capital of Belgium, but it is also the capital of the European Union. Don’t be surprised if it becomes some sort of independent federal city if Flanders and Wallonia become independent. Sort of like Washington, but worse. Why worse? Because even though Washington is akin to a city of parasites feasting off the productive energy of the rest of America, Brussels and the European Union are an even more odious cesspool of harmonization, bureaucratization, and centralization, richly deserving of attacks from right, left, and center.

Which Nation Will Be the Next European Debt Domino…or Will It Be the United States?

Thanks to decades of reckless spending by European welfare states, the newspapers are filled with headlines about debt, default, contagion, and bankruptcy.

We know that Greece and Ireland already have received direct bailouts, and other European welfare states are getting indirect bailouts from the European Central Bank, which is vying with the Federal Reserve in a contest to see which central bank can win the “Most Likely to Appease the Political Class” Award.

But which nation will be the next domino to fall? Who will get the next direct bailout?

Some people think total government debt is the key variable, and there’s been a lot of talk that debt levels of 90 percent of GDP represent some sort of fiscal Maginot Line. Once nations get above that level, there’s a risk of some sort of crisis.

But that’s not necessarily a good rule of thumb. This chart, based on 2010 data from the Economist Intelligence Unit (which can be viewed with a very user-friendly map), shows that Japan’s debt is nearly 200 percent of GDP, yet Japanese debt is considered very safe, based on the market for credit default swaps, which measures the cost of insuring debt. Indeed, only U.S. debt is seen as a better bet.

Interest payments on debt may be a better gauge of a nation’s fiscal health. The next chart shows the same countries (2011 data), and the two nations with the highest interest costs, Greece and Ireland, already have been bailed out. Interestingly, Japan is in the best shape, even though it has the biggest debt. This shows why interest rates are very important. If investors think a nation is safe, they don’t require high interest rates to compensate them for the risk of default (fears of future inflation also can play a role, since investors don’t like getting repaid with devalued currency).

Based on this second chart, it appears that Italy, Portugal, and Belgium are the next dominos to topple. Portugal may be the best bet (no pun intended) based on credit default swap rates, and that certainly is consistent with the current speculation about an official bailout.

Spain is the wild card in this analysis. It has the second-lowest level of both debt and interest payments as shares of GDP, but the CDS market shows that Spanish government debt is a greater risk than bonds from either Italy or Belgium.

By the way, the CDS market shows that lending money to Illinois and California is also riskier than lending to either Italy or Belgium.

The moral of the story is that there is no magic point where deficit spending leads to a fiscal crisis, but we do know that it is a bad idea for governments to engage in reckless spending over a long period of time. That’s a recipe for stifling taxes and large deficits. And when investors see the resulting combination of sluggish growth and rising debt, eventually they will run out of patience.

The Bush-Obama policy of big government has moved America in the wrong direction. But if the data above is any indication, America probably has some breathing room. What happens on the budget this year may be an indication of whether we use that time wisely.

Half for the Government

The Democrat’s latest plan to raise money for federal health care expansion is to impose surtaxes ranging from 1 percent to 3 percent on higher-income earners.

Currently, the United States is in the middle of the pack of industrial nations when it comes to imposing punitive tax rates on higher earners. The chart shows the top statutory personal income tax rates for the 30 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The current top U.S. rate is 42 percent (including state taxes), which is the same as the 30-nation average. The data is from the OECD.

With the top federal rate scheduled to jump 5 percentage points in 2011, plus the new 3-percent surtax, the top U.S. rate would hit 50 percent. Fifty percent! Half of all additional income earned by the nation’s most productive workers and entrepreneurs would be confiscated by the government. America’s 50 percent tax rate would be tied with three other nations and would be topped only by the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, and Denmark.