Tag: fiscal policy

Are Living Standards Higher in Denmark or the United States?

The left loves Scandinavia, but for the wrong reason. Nations such as Denmark and Sweden have much to admire, particularly their open markets, low levels of regulation, sound money, and honest governments. Indeed, if fiscal policy is removed from the equation, both Denmark and Sweden are more laissez-faire than the United States according to Economic Freedom of the World (as I noted in this recent video).

But fiscal policy is where the Scandinavians have serious problems. Taxes are confiscatory, punishing people who work, save, and invest. High levels of government spending, meanwhile, reduce economic growth by diverting resources from the productive sector of the economy and funneling them into the stifling welfare state.

Not surprisingly, this is the reason why statists admire Scandinavian nations. Matthew Yglesias, for instance, recently expressed his great admiration for Denmark. And I suppose I would agree with him if asked to pick the world’s best welfare state. I’ve been to the country several times and there is no question that laissez-faire policies in areas other than fiscal policy have helped the nation remain relatively prosperous.

But Yglesias is a bit lovestruck about the Danes (an understandable impulse for non-economic reasons), and it leads him to make some rather strange assertion — presumably because he wants us to believe that Denmark’s good points are because of (rather than in spite of) an onerous fiscal burden. What jumped out at me was his claim that Danes enjoy a “higher average material standard of living” than Americans. I’m not sure where he gets that, since the World Bank, CIA, United Nations, and IMF all show that the United States has more per-capita economic output.

To be fair, measures of per-capita gross domestic product are not a  perfect measure, even if they are adjusted for purchasing power parity. So let’s take a look at other statistics that try to compare living standards. The two that I found (perhaps Yglesias found others, in which case I look forward to his identifying the source) are from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and, coincidentally, the Danish Finance Ministry.

The OECD, many of you already know, is not my favorite organization. The bureaucracy’s anti-tax competition campaign is a reprehensible attempt to hinder the flow of jobs and capital from high-tax nations to low-tax jurisdictions. So surely nobody will claim that the OECD is a collection of market fundamentalists trying to manipulate statistics to make high-tax nations look bad. So let’s now look at this chart, which is based on the OECD’s calculations of average individual consumption per capita, pegged against an average for member nations of 100. It certainly appears that living standards in the United States are much higher.

Table1

Now let’s look at numbers from the Danish Finance Ministry. The bureaucrats there, in response to a parliamentary request, put together figures on per-capita individual consumption and per-capita private consumption.

Table1

I suspect the Finance Ministry is not trying to make Denmark look bad compared to the United States, yet the data certainly suggest that Americans enjoy higher living standards than their Danish counterparts.

Do You Like Swedish Models?

No, not these kind. Instead, I’m in Stockholm for a meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, and this gathering of classical liberals (i.e., the Adam Smith types that believe in freedom, not the modern liberals that favor collectivism) has featured some discussion of the Scandinavian social welfare state - often referred to as the Swedish Model.

What is particularly interesting is that Sweden is not the left-wing paradise that some imagine. Yes, government is far too big, consuming about 50 percent of economic output. But Sweden also has an extensive system of school choice. Equally remarkable, Sweden has a system of personal retirement accounts. Indeed, if one removed fiscal policy variables from the ratings, Sweden would be more free market than the United States in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings.

But even in the area of fiscal policy, Sweden is making progress. In recent years, policy makers have abolished both the death tax and the wealth tax. And the corporate tax rate has been reduced significantly below the U.S. level.

Sweden often is cited as an example of a nation that proves a big welfare state is not an obstacle to being a rich society. But as I wrote in my study comparing the United States and the Nordic nations:

Many prosperous nations in Western Europe have large welfare states. This leads unsophisticated observers to sometimes assume that high tax rates and high levels of government spending do not hinder growth. Indeed, they sometimes even conclude that bigger government somehow facilitates growth. …This analysis puts the cart before the horse. It is possible for a nation to become rich and then adopt a welfare state. …A poor nation that adopts the welfare state, however, is unlikely to ever become rich. Before the 1960s, Nordic nations had modest levels of taxation and spending. They also enjoyed—and still enjoy—laissez-faire policies and open markets in other areas. These are the policies that enabled Nordic nations to prosper for much of the 20th century. Once their countries became rich, politicians in Nordic nations focused on how to redistribute the wealth that was generated by private-sector activity. This sequence is important. Nordic nations became rich, and then government expanded. This expansion of government has slowed growth, but slow growth for a rich nation is much less of a burden than slow growth in a poor nation.

Administration’s Fiscal Muddle

Recent comments by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and National Economic Council Director Larry Summers illustrate the incoherence of the administration’s fiscal policy. Previously, they were against raising taxes in the short-run because that would damage the economic recovery. Now they are hinting or suggesting that recovery depends on raising taxes to reduce the deficit.

Previously, they supported rising levels of spending and deficits to supposedly grow the economy, but now they are saying that deficits need to be cut for the economy to grow. Geithner and Summers seem to be repeatedly changing their message depending on the political requirements of the news cycle, rather than providing a consistent program based on economic theory.

The reality is that rising taxes and spending suck resources out of the private sector economy, which damages growth whether we are in an expansion or a contraction. That’s because governments in America already consume more than one-third of everything produced in the nation, and so further resources added to the government sector produce very little or negative returns.

Geithner and Summers ought to stop trying to manipulate the short-term macroeconomy, and instead focus on economic reforms to remove obstacles to private sector growth over the long-term.

What Fed Independence?

More than 250 economists have signed an “Open Letter to Congress and the Executive Branch” calling upon them to “defend the independence of the Federal Reserve System as a foundation of U.S. economic stability.”

Allan Meltzer is not a signatory to the petition and he has explained why not.  The Fed has frequently not shown independence in the past, and there is no reason to expect it to do so reliably in the future.  Professor Meltzer has just completed a multi-volume history of the Fed and knows all-too-well of the Fed’s willingness to accommodate the policies of administrations from FDRs to Lyndon Johnson’s. 

I would add that the Fed’s behavior under Chairman Bernanke breaks new ground in aligning the central bank’s policy with Treasury’s.  Much of what the Fed has done, first under Bush/Paulson, and now under Obama/Geithner, involves credit allocation.  Since that ultimately involves the provision of public money for private purpose, it is pre-eminently fiscal policy.  Central bank independence is a fuzzy concept.  If it means anything, however, it is that monetary policy is conducted independently of Treasury’s fiscal policy.

In short, it is not the critics of the Fed who threaten its independence, but the Fed’s own actions.  Its intervention in the economy is unprecedented in size and scope. It is inevitable that those actions would lead to calls for further Congressional oversight and control.  The Fed is a creature of Congress and ultimately answerable to that body. 

The petition raises legitimate concerns about whether the Fed will be able to tighten monetary policy when the time comes, and exit from its interventions in credit markets.  But it is precisely the Fed’s own recent actions that raise those problems.  Critics of recent Fed policy actions have for some time complained that the Fed has no exit strategy.  Apparently the critics are now going to be blamed for the Fed’s inability to extricate itself from its interventions.

Cross-posted at ThinkMarkets

Tarred by TARP

Government-backed equity was offered to adequately capitalized banks in order to remove the “stigma” from banks receiving TARP funds, and the management of these institutions took the bait and accepted the money.

Surprise, surprise: now they discover that the money came with strings.

Some banks want to pay back the TARP money to extricate themselves from government restrictions on compensation and pressure to make loans the banks view as unprofitable. Treasury Secretary Geithner has made it clear that the decision to pay back the funds early won’t be left to the banks, but to the Treasury: “My basic obligation is to make sure the system as a whole … has the ability to provide the credit that recovery requires.”

The banking system has thus become a tool for the government to further its policies. And the bankers themselves put their institutions in that position. While taxpayers may understandably feel the bankers got their comeuppance, there are at least two major problems with the Bush/Obama policy.

First, Mr. Geithner has misdiagnosed the problem.

We are in recovery from the effects of the bursting of a massive housing and finance bubble funded by debt. That boom in turn financed a consumption binge of monumental proportions.

The only resolution of a spending binge is restraint in the form of saving. Recovery requires not more credit and another boom, but a dose of economic sobriety.

Individuals and firms know that and are de-leveraging – unwinding what they now realize is excessive debt. That will take the rest of this year and the better part of 2010. Overall, credit is down because demand is down.

Second, and even more disturbing: it appears that the Obama Administration wants to control the financial sector in order to gain control over what Lenin called the “Commanding Heights” of the U.S. economy: the major industries and sources of employment. The auto industry is a prime example, and one in which the administration has involved itself directly. It is also pressuring major recipients of TARP funds to ease the terms of the loans they have made to firms such as Chrysler. Treasury is attempting to use the banks to conduct fiscal policy through credit allocation.

The bankers taking TARP funds got their firms into a mess and deserve no sympathy. Anyone believing in free markets, however, must oppose this power grab by the Obama Administration.

Let the banks pay the funds back and let it be a lesson for CEOs and their stockholders: If you take government funds, you have taken on an unreliable business partner.

Obama Tax Policies and Beyond

I was a panelist for a Tax Notes forum on April 3 regarding Obama’s tax policies. The other panelists were Len Burman of the Urban Institute and Gene Steuerle of the Peterson Foundation. It was an expert and ideologically diverse panel, but nobody was fond of Obama’s fiscal policy direction. (In the photo, that’s former CBO director Rudy Penner to my left. Photo credit to Derek Squires)

Tax Notes summarized the discussion: “A diverse panel of economists and tax specialists largely agreed … that President Obama’s tax and budget plans at best would fail to forestall long-term fiscal ruin and could even hasten its arrival.” One point of agreement was that the tax code is too complex and it doesn’t need the complicated new tax credits that Obama has proposed.

Where we differed was on the need for added federal revenue, and herein lies the big tax policy battle ahead. Len thought that some form of new value-added tax (VAT) was inevitable in order that the government could  raise more money. I am increasingly hearing that argument from top fiscal scholars, and I fear that the drumbeat for a VAT will get louder.

Dan Mitchell and I are dead-set against a VAT because it will be a tool to fund even larger government, as we discuss in Global Tax Revolution. But supporters of limited government need to start watching this issue and making preparations to ward off a Euro-style money machine.