Tag: Sweden

Why Is Obama Trying to Make America More Like Sweden when Swedes Are Trying to Be Less Like Sweden?

In this new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, a Swedish economics student makes three important points.

  1. Sweden became a rich nation in the late 1800s and first half of the 1900s by relying a free markets and small government.
  2.  

  3. Growth deteriorated beginning in the 1970s after the imposition of high tax rates and a big increase in the burden of government spending.
  4. For the last 20 years, Swedish lawmakers have been trying to restore prosperity by lowering tax rates and adopting pro-market policies.

So if Swedes have learned from their mistakes and are now trying to reduce the size and scope of government, why are American politicians determined to repeat those mistakes? This is something to keep in mind with a looming vote on a giant expansion of the welfare state.

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.

Why Is For-Profit Education So Difficult in the U.S.?

Matt Yglesias has a post up looking at the PISA scores, and he seems to imply that for-profit schooling has been tried and found wanting in Sweden and the U.S.:

The big difference is that many Swedish charters are run by for-profit firms. We’ve had some experiments with that in the U.S. and it hasn’t worked very well. Nobody’s really found a great way of making consistent profits running K-12 schools in America.

Of course even he notes that Sweden’s schools are highly regulated by the state.

And in the U.S., the difficulty of succeeding in for-profit education just might have something to do with that government monopoly on k-12 education and the $560 billion or so in tax revenues that fund it. Maybe.

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.

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.

Is Obama Making America like Sweden?

If only.

Just as the Obama administration takes over another once-great American company, Sweden is busy privatizing. As the Christian Science Monitor reported recently:

Last week, the country’s center-right government began selling off state-owned pharmacies, one of the country’s few remaining nationalized companies, as part of an ambitious program of liberal economic reforms started in 2006. In the same week, a study by the Swedish Unemployment Insurance Board revealed that almost half of the country’s jobless lacked full unemployment benefits. Many opted out of the state scheme when the cost of membership was raised last year; others were ineligible.

State pensions, schools, healthcare, public transport, and post offices have been fully or partly privatized over the last decade, making Sweden one of the most free market orientated economies in the world, analysts say.

Please, President Obama, send Larry Summers to Sweden to get some new ideas for economic reform.

Washington’s Government-Centric View of the World

Too many people in Washington look out upon the beauty and bounty of America and see a vast wasteland, enlivened only by government programs. If government isn’t doing it, they think, then it isn’t being done. When the Republicans threatened to nick the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton wailed that the proposal “not only threatens irrevocable damage to our cultural institutions but also to our sense of ourselves and what we stand for as a people.” Seriously, she thought that if the then-$167 million of the NEA were eliminated, the $37 billion that Americans spent on the arts that year would somehow disappear in a puff of smoke?

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was even more sweeping when he said  in 1992, “The ballot box is the place where all change begins in America” – conveniently forgetting the market process that has brought us such changes as the train, the skyscraper, the automobile, the personal computer, and charitable or self-help endeavors from settlement houses to Alcoholics Anonymous to Comic Relief.

And today the Washington Post weighs in with the chart below. It’s titled “Percent of GDP spent on social/family expenditures,” and it shows the United States at a shockingly low 0.7 percent, while Obama-esque countries like Sweden and France are above 3 percent. But could it really be true that America spends less than 1 percent of its wealth on families and children? Of course not. The proper title for the chart would be “Percent of GDP spent by government on social/family expenditures.” (Indeed, given the federal nature of the United States, it’s possible that the proper title would be “Percent of GDP spent by the central government on social/family expenditures.”) Every American family spends a large portion of its income on children’s needs, and a larger portion on the needs of children and parents.

The point of the article, as the caption above the chart indicates, is to argue that the Japanese government needs to spend more on programs that would encourage women to join the paid workforce. (If the government hired all the mothers in Japan and paid them to care for their neighbors’ children, would that be a better world? It certainly would raise Japan’s position on the Post’s chart!) If that’s what Post reporters believe, they’re certainly free to advocate that position. But they shouldn’t assume or imply that the government is the entire society. Families in Japan and the United States spend most of their income – or at least most of their after-tax income – on child and family needs. The chart ignores that reality and seeks to make Japanese and Americans embarrassed that government taxes and spends less in their countries than in the European welfare states.