Tag: fiscal crisis

The Growing Threat of a Wealth Tax

Allister Heath, the superb economic writer from London, recently warned that governments are undermining incentives to save.

And not just because of high tax rates and double taxation of savings. Allister says people are worried about outright confiscation resulting from possible wealth taxation.

It is clear that individuals, when at all possible, need to accumulate more financial assets. …Tragically, it won’t happen. A lack of trust in the system is one important explanation. People simply don’t believe the government – and politicians of all parties – when it comes to long-terms savings and pensions. They worry, with good reason, that the rules will keep changing; they are afraid that savers are an easy target and that they will eventually be hit by a wealth tax.

Are savers being paranoid? Is Allister being paranoid?

Well, even paranoid people have enemies, and this already has happened in countries such as Poland and Argentina. Moreover, it appears that plenty of politicians and bureaucrats elsewhere want this type of punitive levy.

Here are some passages from a Reuters report.

Germany’s Bundesbank said on Monday that countries about to go bankrupt should draw on the private wealth of their citizens through a one-off capital levy before asking other states for help.

Since data from the IMF, OECD, and BIS show that almost every industrialized nation will face a fiscal crisis in the next decade or two, people with assets understandably are concerned that their necks will be on the chopping block when politicians are scavenging for more cash to prop up failed welfare states.

Though to be fair, the Bundesbank may simply be sending a signal that German taxpayers don’t want to pick up the tab for fiscal excess in nations such as France and Greece. And it also acknowledged such a tax would harm growth.

“(A capital levy) corresponds to the principle of national responsibility, according to which tax payers are responsible for their government’s obligations before solidarity of other states is required,” the Bundesbank said in its monthly report. …the Bundesbank said it would not support an implementation of a recurrent wealth tax, saying it would harm growth.

Other German economists, however, openly advocate for wealth taxes on German taxpayers.

…governments should consider imposing one-off capital levies on the rich… In Germany, for example, two thirds of the national wealth belongs to the richest 10% of the adult population. …a one-time capital levy of 10% on personal net wealth exceeding 250,000 euros per taxpayer (€500,000 for couples) could raise revenue of just over 9% of GDP. …In the other Eurozone crisis countries, it would presumably be possible to generate considerable amounts of money in the same way.

The pro-tax crowd at the International Monetary Fund has a similarly favorable perspective, relying on absurdly unrealistic conditions to argue that a wealth tax wouldn’t hurt growth. Here’s some of what the IMF asserted in its Fiscal Monitor last October.

The sharp deterioration of the public finances in many countries has revived interest in a “capital levy”— a one-off tax on private wealth—as an exceptional measure to restore debt sustainability. The appeal is that such a tax, if it is implemented before avoidance is possible and there is a belief that it will never be repeated, does not distort behavior (and may be seen by some as fair).

A Rare Sign of Fiscal Sanity in France

We have an amazing man-bites-dog story today.

Let’s begin with some background information. A member of the European Commission recently warned that:

“Tax increases imposed by the Socialist-led government in France have reached a “fatal level”…[and] that a series of tax hikes since the Socialists took power 14 months ago – including €33bn in new taxes this year – threatens to “destroy growth and handicap the creation of jobs”.

Given the pervasive statism of the European Commission, that was a remarkable admission.

But the Commissioner who issued that warning, Olli Rehn, is Finnish, so French politicians presumably don’t listen to his advice any more than they listen to the thoughtful, well-meaning, and generous suggestions I make.

Indeed, based on the actions of the current President and the former President, we can say with great confidence that French politicians compete over who can pursue the most misguided policies.

But maybe, just maybe, there are some people inside France who realize the house of cards is in danger of collapse.

Here are some excerpts from a story I never thought I would read. At least one senior official in France has woken up to the dangers of ever-rising taxes and an always-growing burden of government spending.

France’s state auditor urged the government Tuesday to redouble efforts to limit spending rather than increases taxes… The head of the state auditor, Didier Migaud, said the interruption in deficit reduction stemmed primarily from lower-than-expected tax revenue, due to the weak economy. Yet, he said “the spiraling welfare debt was particularly abnormal and particularly dangerous.” During his first year in power, President François Hollande relied on large tax increases to plug holes in public finances, including social programs such as pensions, unemployment benefits and health care. But economic stagnation in 2012, coupled with a mild recession at the start of 2013, has waylaid the plan, while both companies and households are crying foul over what some have called “a tax overdose.” Mr. Migaud added his voice, saying: “The strategy of fixing the system by collecting new revenue is reaching its limits.”

Before any further analysis, I have to make one correction to the story. Hollande’s plan was not “waylaid” by a recession. Instead, his policies doubtlessly helped cause a recession. You don’t impose huge tax hikes on productive behavior without some sort of negative impact on economic performance.

So the “holes in public finances” are at least partially a result of the Laffer Curve. As I’ve repeatedly warned, higher tax rates rarely - if ever - collect as much money as politicians expect.

Returning to the specific case of France, the fiscal variable that should set off the most alarm bells is that the burden of government spending has soared to 57 percent of GDP. And based on projections from the BIS, OECD, and IMF, that number is going to get even worse in the future.

This is the data that presumably has convinced Monsieur Migaud that France is approaching the point of no return on taxes and spending.

Interestingly, the French people may be ahead of their politicians. Polling data from 2010 and 2013 show that ordinary people very much understand the need to limit the size and scope of government.

Heck, a majority of French people have said they would be interested in escaping to the United States if they had the opportunity. And successful people already have been leaving the country because of punitive tax rates.

But I’m not sure I believe the aforementioned polls. If the French people genuinely have sound views, why do they keep electing bad politicians? Of course, the same thing could be said about the United States, so perhaps I shouldn’t throw stones in my glass house.

P.S. My favorite example of government running amok in France is the law threatening three years in jail if you say your husband is a fat slob or if you accuse your wife of being a nag.

P.P.S. The most vile French official may be the current Prime Minister, who actually had the gall to complain that some of his intended victims weren’t quietly entering the slaughterhouse.

P.P.P.S. Just in case you think I’m exaggerating about France being a fiscal hellhole, more than 8,000 households last year were subjected to a tax burden of more than 100 percent . Obama must be very envious.

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, Which Nation Is in the Deepest Fiscal Doo-Doo of All?

According to the Bank for International Settlements, the United States has a terrible long-run fiscal outlook. Assuming we don’t implement genuine entitlement reform, the only countries in worse shape are the United Kingdom and Japan.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, meanwhile, also has a grim fiscal outlook for America. According to their numbers, the only nations in worse shape are New Zealand and Japan.

But I’ve never been happy with these BIS and OECD numbers because they focus on deficits, debt, and fiscal balance. Those are important indicators, of course, but they’re best viewed as symptoms.

The underlying problem is that the burden of government spending is too high. And what the BIS and OECD numbers are really showing is that the public sector is going to get even bigger in coming decades, largely because of aging populations. Unfortunately, you have to read between the lines to understand what’s really happening.

But now I’ve stumbled across some IMF data that presents the long-run fiscal outlook in a more logical fashion. As you can see from this graph (taken from this publication), they show the expected rise in age-related spending on the vertical axis and the amount of needed fiscal adjustment on the horizontal axis.

In other words, you don’t want your nation to be in the upper-right quadrant, but that’s exactly where you can find the United States.

IMF Future Spending-Adjustment Needs

Yes, Japan needs more fiscal adjustment. Yes, the burden of government spending will expand by a larger amount in Belgium. But America combines the worst of both worlds in a depressingly impressive fashion.

So thanks to FDR, LBJ, Nixon, Bush, Obama and others for helping to create and expand the welfare state. They’ve managed to put the United States in a worse long-run position than Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, and other failing welfare states.

Siding with the Heritage Foundation in the “Austerity” Fight with Paul Krugman and the Washington Post

I’m not reluctant to criticize my friends at the Heritage Foundation. In some cases, it is good-natured ribbing because of the Cato-Heritage softball rivalry, but there are also real policy disagreements.

For instance, even though it is much better than current policy, I don’t like parts of Heritage’s “Saving the American Dream” budget plan. It’s largely designed to prop up the existing Social Security system rather than replace the existing tax-and-transfer entitlement system with personal retirement accounts. And while the plan contains a flat tax, it’s not the pure Hall-Rabushka version. One of the most alarming deviations, to cite just one example, is that it creates a tax preference for higher education that would enable higher tuition costs and more bureaucratic featherbedding.

That being said, I’m also willing to defend Heritage if the organization is being wrongly attacked. The specific issue we’ll review today is “austerity” in Europe and whether Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island is right to accuse Heritage of “meretricious” testimony.

Let’s look at the details.

Earlier this month, Paul Krugman wrote that, “a Heritage Foundation economist has been accused of presenting false, deliberately misleading data and analysis to the Senate Budget Committee.” Krugman was too clever to assert that the Heritage economist “did present” dishonest data, but if you read his short post, he clearly wants readers to believe that an unambiguous falsehood has been exposed.

Krugman, meanwhile, was simply linking to the Washington Post, which was the source of a more detailed critique. The disagreement revolves around  whether Europeans have cut spending or raised taxes, and by how much. The Heritage economist cited one set of OECD data, while critics have cited another set of data.

So who is right?

Conn Carroll of the Washington Examiner explains that the Heritage economist was looking at OECD data for 2007-2012 while critics are relying on an OECD survey of what politicians in various countries say they’ve done since 2009 as well as what they plan to do between now and 2015.

Whitehouse believed he had caught Furth and The Heritage Foundation in a bald face lie. …There is just one problem with Whitehouse’s big gotcha moment: The staffer who spoon-fed Whitehouse his OECD numbers on “the actual balance between spending cuts and tax increases” failed to also show Whitehouse the front page of the OECD report from which those numbers came. That report is titled: “Fiscal consolidation targets, plans and measures in OECD countries.” Turns out, the numbers Whitehouse used to attack Furth for misreporting “what took place in Europe” were actually mostly projections of what governments said they were planning to do in the future (the report was written in December 2011 and looked at data from 2009 and projections through 2015). At no point in Furth’s testimony did he ever claim to be reporting about what governments were going to do in the future. He very plainly said his analysis was of actual spending and taxing data “to date.” Odds are that Whitehouse made an honest mistake. Senators can’t be expected actually to read the title page of every report from which they quote. But, considering he was the one who was very clearly in error, and not Furth, he owes Furth, and The Heritage Foundation an apology. Krugman and Matthews would be well advised to revisit the facts as well.

In other words, critics of Heritage are relying largely on speculative data about what politicians might (or might not) do in the future to imply that the Heritage economist was wrong in his presentation of what’s actually happened over the past six years.

So far, we’ve simply addressed whether Heritage was unfairly attacked. The answer, quite clearly, is yes. If you don’t believe me, peruse the OECD data or peruse the IMF data.

Now let’s briefly touch on the underlying policy debate. Keynesians such as Krugman assert that there have been too many spending cuts in Europe. The “austerity” crowd, by contrast, argues that strong steps are needed to deal with deficits and debt, though they are agnostic about whether to rely on spending reforms or tax increases.

I’ve repeatedly explained that Europe’s real problem is an excessive burden of government spending. I want politicians to cut spending (or at least make sure it grows slower than the productive sector of the economy). And rather than increasing the tax burden, I want them to lower rates and reform punitive tax systems.

The bad news is that Europeans have raised taxes. A lot. The semi-good news is that spending no longer is growing as fast as it was before the fiscal crisis.

In the grand scheme of things, however, I think Europe is still headed down the wrong path. Here’s what I wrote back in January and it’s still true today.

I don’t sense any commitment to smaller government. I fear governments will let the spending genie out of the bottle at the first opportunity. And we’re talking about a scary genie, not Barbara Eden. And to make matters worse, Europe faces a demographic nightmare. These charts, reproduced from a Bank for International Settlements study, show that even the supposedly responsible nations in Europe face a tsunami of spending and debt over the next 25-plus years. So you can understand why I don’t express a lot of optimism about European economic policy.

By the way, I’m not optimistic about the long-term fiscal outlook for the United States either. In the absence of genuine entitlement reform, we’ll sooner or later have our own fiscal crisis.

Europe’s Crisis on PBS

If you’re looking for something scary to do on Halloween, check out Cato senior fellow Johan Norberg’s documentary, “Europe’s Debt: America’s Crisis?” on PBS stations across the country.

It’s been running for awhile, and will be seen in Maryland and Michigan on Sunday night. But it will be seen in many markets, from Tampa to Fairbanks, next Wednesday, October 31.

The Free to Choose Network, which produced the film, describes it this way:

Four investigative reports, shot on location in Greece, Brussels, California and Washington DC, highlight this in depth examination of Europe’s current debt crisis and its connection to the U.S. economy.  Narrated by Swedish author Johan Norberg, and George Mason University professor, Don Boudreaux, the investigative reports ask:  “Where did Europe go wrong” and “is the United States now repeating the same mistakes?”

Participants include Cato friends Jacob Mchangama and Tanja Stumberger, as well as such key players as former comptroller general David Walker, former European Commissioner Frits Bolkestein, and Ann Johnson, mayor of Stockton, California.

For broadcasts in your area, check the listings here.

For Johan Norberg’s books and articles, click here.

France’s Fiscal Suicide

I try to be self aware, so I realize that I have the fiscal version of Tourette’s. Regardless of the question that is asked, I’m tempted to blurt out that the answer is to reduce the burden of government spending.

But sometimes that’s exactly the right prescription, particularly for an economy weighed down by a bloated public sector. And, as you can see from this chart, the French welfare state is enormous.

Only Denmark has a bigger burden of government spending, but at least the Danes are astute enough to compensate with hyper-free market policies in other areas.

So is France also trying to offset the damage of excessive spending with good policy in other areas? Au contraire, President Hollande is compounding the damage with huge class-warfare tax hikes.

Here’s what the Wall Street Journal says about Hollande’s fiscal proposal—including the key revelation that spending will go up rather than  down.

Remember all that euro-babble before the French election about fiscal “austerity” harming growth? Well, meet the new austerity, same as the old austerity, which means higher taxes on the private economy and token discipline for the state. Growth is an afterthought. That’s the lesson of French President François Hollande’s new “fighting” budget, which is supposed to reduce the deficit to 3% of GDP from 4.5% and represent the country’s toughest belt-tightening in three decades. …More telling is that two-thirds of the €30 billion in so-called savings is new tax revenue, and one-third comes from slowing spending growth. Total public expenditure—already the second most lavish in Europe—will increase by €6 billion to 56.3% of GDP.

The spending cuts are fictional, but the tax increases are very, very real.

The real austerity will be imposed on taxpayers, and not only on the rich. Income above €150,000 will now be taxed at 45%, up from the current 41%. Mr. Hollande’s 75% tax rate on income over €1 million comes into effect for two years, reaping expected (and predictably paltry) revenue of €200 million. That’s dwarfed by the €1 billion from reducing the threshold for the “solidarity” tax on wealth to €800,000 from €1.3 million. The French Socialists will also now tax investment income at the same high rates as regular income. The rates have been 19% for capital gains, 21% for dividends and 24% for interest income. If Mr. Hollande’s goal is to send capital out of France, that should help.

Anybody want to take bets, by the way, on whether the “temporary” two-year 75 percent tax rate still exists three years from now?

I say yes, in large part because the tax almost surely will lose revenue because of Laffer Curve effects. But rather than learn the right lesson and repeal the tax, Hollande will argue it needs to be maintained because revenues are “unexpectedly” sluggish.

It’s also remarkable that Hollande wants to dramatically increase tax rates on capital gains, dividends, and interest. These are all examples of double taxation.

And when you factor in the taxes at both the personal and business level, these charts show that France already has the highest tax on dividends in the developed world and the third-highest tax on capital. And Hollande wants to make a terrible system even worse. Amazing.

I’ve already predicted that France will be the next major economy to suffer a fiscal crisis. I was too clever to give a date, but Hollande’s policies are accelerating the day of reckoning.

P.S. The WSJ also takes some well-deserved potshots at the latest fiscal plan in Spain. Since I endorsed Hollande in hopes that he would engage in suicidal fiscal policy, this post is focused on the French fiscal plan. But Spain also is a disaster.

Europe’s Crisis Is Because of Too Much Government, Not the Euro Currency

The mess in Europe has been rather frustrating, largely because almost everybody is on the wrong side.

Some folks say they want “austerity,” but that’s largely a code word for higher taxes. They’re fighting against the people who say they want “growth,” but that’s generally a code word for more Keynesian spending.

So you can understand how this debate between higher taxes and higher spending is like nails on a chalkboard for someone who wants smaller government.

And then, to get me even more irritated, lots of people support bailouts because they supposedly are needed to save the euro currency.

When I ask these people why a default in, say, Greece threatens the euro, they look at me as if it’s the year 1491 and I’ve declared the earth isn’t flat.

So I’m delighted that the Wall Street Journal has published some wise observations by a leading French economist (an intellectual heir to Bastiat!), who shares my disdain for the current discussion. Here are some excerpts from Prof. Salin’s column, starting with his common-sense hypothesis.

…there is no “euro crisis.” The single currency doesn’t have to be “saved” or else explode. The present crisis is not a European monetary problem at all, but rather a debt problem in some countries—Greece, Spain and some others—that happen to be members of the euro zone. Specifically, these are public-debt problems, stemming from bad budget management by their governments. But there is no logical link between these countries’ fiscal situations and the functioning of the euro system.

Salin then looks at how the artificial link was created between the euro currency and the fiscal crisis, and he makes a very good analogy (and I think it’s good because I’ve made the same point) to a potential state-level bankruptcy in America.

The public-debt problem becomes a euro problem only insofar as governments arbitrarily decide that there must be some “European solidarity” inside the euro zone. But how does mutual participation in the same currency logically imply that spendthrift governments should get help from the others? When a state in the U.S. has a debt problem, one never hears that there is a “dollar crisis.” There is simply a problem of budget management in that state.

He then says a euro crisis is being created, but only because the European Central Bank has surrendered its independence and is conducting backdoor bailouts.

Because European politicians have decided to create an artificial link between national budget problems and the functioning of the euro system, they have now effectively created a “euro crisis.” To help out badly managed governments, the European Central Bank is now buying public bonds issued by these governments or supplying liquidity to support their failing banks. In so doing, the ECB is violating its own principles and introducing harmful distortions.

Last but not least, Salin warns that politicians are using the crisis as an excuse for more bad policy - sort of the European version of Mitchell’s Law, with one bad policy (excessive spending) being the precursor of an additional bad policy (centralization).

Politicians now argue that “saving the euro” will require not only propping up Europe’s irresponsible governments, but also centralizing decision-making. This is now the dominant opinion of politicians in Europe, France in particular. There are a few reasons why politicians in Paris might take that view. They might see themselves being in a similar situation as Greece in the near future, so all the schemes to “save the euro” could also be helpful to them shortly. They might also be looking to shift public attention away from France’s internal problems and toward the rest of Europe instead. It’s easier to complain about what one’s neighbors are doing than to tackle problems at home. France needs drastic tax cuts and far-reaching deregulation and labor-market liberalization. Much simpler to get the media worked up about the next “euro crisis” meeting with Angela Merkel.

This is a bit of a dry topic, but it has enormous implications since Europe already is a mess and the fiscal crisis sooner or later will spread to the supposedly prudent nations such as Germany and the Netherlands. And, thanks to entitlement programs, the United States isn’t that far behind.

So may as well enjoy some humor before the world falls apart, including this cartoon about bailouts to Europe from America, the parody video about Germany and downgrades, this cartoon about Greece deciding to stay in the euro, this “how the Greeks see Europe” map, and this cartoon about Obama’s approach to the European model.

P.S. Here’s a video narrated by a former Cato intern about the five lessons America should learn from the European fiscal crisis.

Pages