Tag: welfare state

The G-20 Fiscal Fight: A Pox on Both Their Houses

Barack Obama and Angela Merkel are the two main characters in what is being portrayed as a fight between American “stimulus” and European “austerity” at the G-20 summit meeting in Canada. My immediate instinct is to cheer for the Europeans. After all, “austerity” presumably means cutting back on wasteful government spending. Obama’s definition of “stimulus,” by contrast, is borrowing money from China and distributing it to various Democratic-leaning special-interest groups.
 
But appearances can be deceiving. Austerity, in the European context, means budget balance rather than spending reduction. As such, David Cameron’s proposal to boost the U.K.’s value-added tax from 17.5 percent to 20 percent is supposedly a sign of austerity even though his Chancellor of the Exchequer said a higher tax burden would generate “13 billion pounds we don’t have to find from extra spending cuts.”
 
Raising taxes to finance a bloated government, to be sure, is not the same as Obama’s strategy of borrowing money to finance a bloated government. But proponents of limited government and economic freedom understandably are underwhelmed by the choice of two big-government approaches.
 
What matters most, from a fiscal policy perspective, is shrinking the burden of government spending relative to economic output. Europe needs smaller government, not budget balance. According to OECD data, government spending in eurozone nations consumes nearly 51 percent of gross domestic product, almost 10 percentage points higher than the burden of government spending in the United States.
 
Unfortunately, I suspect that the “austerity” plans of Merkel, Cameron, Sarkozy, et al, will leave the overall burden of government relatively unchanged. That may be good news if the alternative is for government budgets to consume even-larger shares of economic output, but it is far from what is needed.
 
Unfortunately, the United States no longer offers a competing vision to the European welfare state. Under the big-government policies of Bush and Obama, the share of GDP consumed by government spending has jumped by nearly 8-percentage points in the past 10 years. And with Obama proposing and/or implementing higher income taxes, higher death taxes, higher capital gains taxes, higher payroll taxes, higher dividend taxes, and higher business taxes, it appears that American-style big-government “stimulus” will soon be matched by European-style big-government “austerity.”
 
Here’s a blurb from the Christian Science Monitor about the Potemkin Village fiscal fight in Canada:

This weekend’s G-20 summit is shaping up as an economic clash of civilizations – or at least a clash of EU and US economic views. EU officials led by German chancellor Angela Merkel are on a national “austerity” budget cutting offensive as the wisest policy for economic health, ahead of the Toronto summit of 20 large-economy nations. Ms. Merkel Thursday said Germany will continue with $100 billion in cuts that will join similar giant ax strokes in the UK, Italy, France, Spain, and Greece. EU officials say budget austerity promotes the stability and market confidence that are prerequisites for their role in overall recovery. Yet EU pro-austerity statements in the past 48 hours are also defensive – a reaction to public statements from US President Barack Obama and G-20 chairman Lee Myung-bak, South Korea’s president, that the overall effect of national austerity in the EU will harm recovery. They are joined by US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, investor George Soros, and Nobel laureate and columnist Paul Krugman, among others, arguing that austerity works against growth, and may lead to a recessionary spiral.

The Welfare State, Taken to Its Logical Conclusion

The economic tragedy unfolding in Greece is the welfare state taken to its logical conclusion.  When groups of people use the state to live at the expense of others, the feedback loop about the costs of those transfers is attenuated – often by design.  The welfare state therefore makes commitments that it cannot honor.  By the time creditors or taxpayers say, “Enough,” the welfare state has created a clash between expectations and means that leads to unrest and hardship – a clash that never had to occur.

Reuters reports that this tragedy is playing itself out in Canada, where the Medicare system is straining the budgets of taxpayers and provincial governments – even as Canada remains infamous for providing inadequate access to care.  According to Reuters, the provincial government in populous Ontario predicts that “health care could eat up 70 percent of its budget in 12 years, if all these costs are left unchecked.”  Toronto-Dominion Bank senior economist at Derek Burleton remarks:

There’s got to be some change to the status quo…We can’t continually see health spending growing above and beyond the growth rate in the economy because, at some point, it means crowding out of all the other government services.  At some stage we’re going to hit a breaking point.

The provinces are contemplating measures that would further reduce access, such as ratcheting government price controls downward, “health taxes” on medical services, and (gasp!) charging patients. (Speaking of feedback loops, an economist at Scotia Capital reasons that patients “will use the services more wisely if they know how much it’s costing…If it’s absolutely free with no information on the cost and the information of an alternative that would be have been more practical, then how can we expect the public to wisely use the service?”)

The Greek and Canadian dramas are a preview of what the welfare state, aided by its most recent expansion, will provoke here in the United States.  Again, Reuters:

Canada, fretting over budget strains, wants to prune its system, while the United States, worrying about an army of uninsured, aims to create a state-backed safety net.

Burleton captures the problem nicely:

[F]rom an economist’s standpoint, we point to the fact that sometimes Canadians in the short term may not realize the cost.

Indeed, that’s the very essence of the welfare state, and why its logical outcome is crisis.

Charles Murray in Slovakia

Cato co-sponsored a successful conference in Bratislava, Slovakia last week with Trend business magazine, “Slovakia at the Crossroads of Reform.” At a time when the crisis in the eurozone is exposing the unsustainable nature of the European welfare state – and one month before general elections in the country – the event brought together international experts and political and opinion leaders from a broad ideological spectrum, including from the newly formed classical liberal party, Freedom and Solidarity, which is now polling at 10-11 percent. Here’s a video of Charles Murray’s timely keynote address on “Freedom in the 21st Century.”

Immigration II: On the Substance of the Matter

Responding to my immigration post this morning, my colleagues Dan Griswold and Jason Kuznicki have focused on the single short paragraph that touched on the substance of the matter. (The question before me, posed by Politico Arena, concerned mainly the political implications of the new Arizona law, given the latest Pew Research Center poll on the issue.) I quite agree with both that we’ve never had full control of our southern border (or any border, for that matter), but as Dan has noted elsewhere, when we had a guest-worker program in place, illegal immigration dropped by 95 percent – no small drop. And illegal, not legal, immigration is the issue before us. And Dan is right too that we’ve thrown a lot of enforcement at the problem in recent years, to limited avail, so it’s not true that Congress hasn’t done anything. What it has done, however, hasn’t addressed the real problem, the underlying substantive law, as Dan has often written.

I’m struck, though, by Jason’s unqualified comment that he can’t say he shares my views on immigration.” Really? I did say, I believe, that Congress needs to address the problem, including with a guest-worker program. And I also said that “It hardly needs saying that a welfare state, in the age of terrorism, cannot have open borders.” I can’t imagine anyone disagreeing with that.

Concerning both the welfare state and terrorism, Jason points to “remedies” at the far end of the problem. He writes, for example, that our welfare state is going broke anyway, and “compared to the damage being done by native-born U.S. citizens and their cursedly long lifespans, the immigrants’ overall effects are quite small.” (I won’t take that “cursedly long lifespan” point personally.) True, but in places where the welfare state issues are concentrated, like border-state emergency rooms and schools, that long-term national perspective isn’t the issue. Yes, getting the government out of health care and education might ameliorate those localized problems (that question’s for another day), but we can’t always wait for more remote problems to be solved before we address more immediate ones.

And that goes for Jason’s terrorism point, too. He writes: “Without the black market in drugs, we’d have a lot less to fear from terrorists, particularly on our southern border.” I’m all for legalizing recreational drugs. But I was alluding to Islamic terrorists, not narco-terrorists, when I spoke of getting control of our borders. Legalizing drugs (again, a more remote remedy) might have some effect on the coffers of Islamic terrorists, but it would hardly solve the terrorism problem. As long as that problem exists, we need border control. Let’s remember, for example, that it was an alert border agent who thwarted the would-be LAX bomber.

Getting Serious about Immigration

Today Politico Arena asks:

Does the level of support for Arizona’s  immigration law demonstrate that immigration can be a potent campaign issue in the 2010 midterms?

My response:

Few national issues produce more heat and less light than immigration, as the reaction to Arizona’s recent legislation on the subject demonstrates. And with nearly three-quarters of Americans now saying they approve of allowing police to ask for documents, according to the latest Pew Research Center poll, and the Arizona law’s approval-disapproval rating at nearly 2 to 1, it’s hard to imagine that immigration will not be a factor in the coming elections.

The issues surrounding the immigration debate – criminal, economic, social – are often complex, and not always clear. But the underlying issue is clear: We no longer control our southern border, and Congress seems unable or unwilling to do anything about it. It hardly needs saying that a welfare state, in the age of terrorism, cannot have open borders. If the failure to control is partly a function of our substantive law – the absence of a serious guest-worker program, for example – then that needs to be corrected. But it needs to be done in concert with serious enforcement.

Yet what was President Obama’s response to the Arizona law, which at bottom was a call to Washington to do something? It was to ask the Justice Department to look for any legal problems in the law and to respond accordingly. It was to play the presumed political card, that is, rather than to address the underlying issue, which he’d promised to do during his campaign for the presidency. Well if the Pew numbers are any indication, this “master politician” may have once again, as with ObamaCare, misread his mandate and the public mood. For a growing number of Americans, as recent elections have shown, November can’t come soon enough.

What’s a Libertarian?

In a new episode of Stossel,  Cato’s David Boaz and Jeffrey Miron join a panel of experts to discuss where libertarians stand on a host of major issues facing the nation today.  They tackle libertarian views on war, abortion, the welfare state, gay rights and more.

Watch the videos below for a full re-cap.

The first video covers the so-called culture wars, including gay marriage, abortion and immigration:

More videos after the jump.

In the second video they discuss the role of government in providing aid to the poor:

In the third video, the panelists discuss libertarian views of war. Should the United States leave Afghanistan and Iraq? What should we do about Iran? Watch:

If you’re hungry for more, the segment is a great supplement to David Boaz’s timeless book, Libertarianism: A Primer and Jeffrey Miron’s forthcoming book Libertarianism: From A to Z.