Tag: welfare state

In One Chart, Everything You Need to Know about Big Government, the Welfare State, and Sweden’s Economy

Sweden punches way above its weight in debates about economic policy. Leftists all over the world (most recently, Bernie Sanders) say the Nordic nation is an example that proves a big welfare state can exist in a rich nation. And since various data sources (such as the IMF’s huge database) show that Sweden is relatively prosperous and also that there’s an onerous fiscal burden of government, this argument is somewhat plausible.

A few folks on the left sometimes even imply that Sweden is a relatively prosperous nation because it has a large public sector. Though the people who make this assertion never bother to provide any data or evidence.

I have five responses when confronted with the why-can’t-we-be-more-like-Sweden argument.

  1. Sweden became rich when government was small. Indeed, until about 1960, the burden of the public sector in Sweden was smaller than it was in the United States. And as late as 1970, Sweden still had less redistribution spending that America had in 1980.
  2. Sweden compensates for bad fiscal policy by having a very pro-market approach to other areas, such as trade policy, regulatory policy, monetary policy, and rule of law and property rights. Indeed, it has more economic freedom than the United States when looking an non-fiscal policies. The same is true for Denmark.
  3. Sweden has suffered from slower growth ever since the welfare state led to large increases in the burden of government spending. This has resulted in Sweden losing ground relative to other nations and dropping in the rankings of per-capita GDP.
  4. Sweden is trying to undo the damage of big government with pro-market reforms. Starting in the 1990s, there have been tax-rate reductions, periods of spending restraint, adoption of personal retirement accounts, and implementation of nationwide school choice.
  5. Sweden doesn’t look quite so good when you learn that Americans of Swedish descent produce 39 percent more economic output, on a per-capita basis, than the Swedes that stayed in Sweden. There’s even a lower poverty rate for Americans of Swedish ancestry compared to the rate for native Swedes.

I think the above information is very powerful. But I’ll also admit that these five points sometimes aren’t very effective in changing minds and educating people because there’s simply too much information to digest.

As such, I’ve always thought it would be helpful to have one compelling visual that clearly shows why Sweden’s experience is actually an argument against big government.

And, thanks to the Professor Deepak Lal of UCLA, who wrote a chapter for a superb book on fiscal policy published by a British think tank, my wish may have been granted. In his chapter, he noted that Sweden’s economic performance stuttered once big government was imposed on the economy.

Though the Swedish model is offered to prove that high levels of social security can be paid for from the cradle to the grave without damaging economic performance, the claim is false (see Figure 1). The Swedish economy, between 1870 and 1950, grew faster on average than any other industrialised economy, and the country became technologically one of the most advanced and richest in the world. From the 1950s Swedish economic growth slowed relative to other industrialised countries. This was due to the expansion of the welfare state and the growth of public – at the expense of private – employment.57 After the Second World War the working population increased by about 1 million: public employment accounted for c. 770,000, private accounted for only 155,000. The crowding out by an inefficient public sector of the efficient private sector has characterised Sweden for nearly half a century.58 From being the fourth richest county in the OECD in 1970 it has fallen to 14th place. Only in France and New Zealand has there been a larger fall in relative wealth.

And here is Figure 1, which should make clear that what’s good in Sweden (rising relative prosperity) was made possible by the era of free markets and small government, and that what’s bad in Sweden (falling relative prosperity) is associated with the adoption and expansion of the welfare state.

But just to make things obvious for any government officials who may be reading this column, I augment the graph by pointing out (in red) the “free-market era” and the “welfare-state era.”

As you can see, credit for the chart actually belongs to Professor Olle Krantz. The version I found in Professor Lal’s chapter is a reproduction, so unfortunately the two axes are not very clear. But all you need to know is that Sweden’s relative economic position fell significantly between the time the welfare state was adopted and the mid 1990s (which presumably reflects the comparative cross-country data that was available when Krantz did his calculations).

You can also see, for what it’s worth, that Sweden’s economy spiked during World War II. There’s no policy lesson in this observation, other than to perhaps note that it’s never a good idea to have your factories bombed.

But the main lesson, which hopefully is abundantly clear, is that big government is a recipe for comparative decline.

Which perhaps explains why Swedish policymakers have spent the past 25 years or so trying to undo some of those mistakes.

Sweden Isn’t a Good Role Model for Bernie Sanders

Senator Bernie Sanders wants to dramatically increase the burden of government and he claims that his policies won’t lead to economic misery because nations such as Sweden show that you can be a prosperous country with a big welfare state.

Perhaps, but there are degrees of prosperity. And a large public sector imposes a non-trivial burden on Nordic nations, resulting in living standards that lag U.S. levels according to OECD data.

Moreover, according to research by a Swedish economist, people of Scandinavian descent in America produce and earn much more than their counterparts at home.

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of the Nordic Model.

But there actually are some things we can learn from places such as Sweden. And not just things to avoid.

As Johan Norberg explains in this short video, there are some very good policies in his home country. Indeed, in some ways, his nation is more free market than America.

I especially like Johan’s explanation about how Sweden became a rich country before the welfare state was adopted.

And he’s right that Sweden had a smaller government and a lower tax burden than the United States for a long period.

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, Which Nation Has Increased Welfare Spending the Fastest of All?

There’s an old joke about two guys camping in the woods, when suddenly they see a hungry bear charging over a hill in their direction. One of the guys starts lacing up his sneakers and his friend says, “What are you doing? You can’t outrun a bear.” The other guys says, I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just need to outrun you.”

That’s reasonably amusing, but it also provides some insight into national competitiveness. In the battle for jobs and investments, nations can change policy to impact their attractiveness, but they also can gain ground or lose ground because of what happens in other nations.

The corporate tax rate in the United States hasn’t been changed in decades, for instance, but the United States has fallen further and further behind the rest of the world because other nations have lowered their rates.

Courtesy of a report in the UK-based Telegraph, here’s another example of how relative policy changes can impact growth and competitiveness.

Subsidies and Votes — in India and the United States

When Americans suggest that government transfer programs might affect the way people vote, the mainstream media react with the indignation that greeted Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comment. Of course, in other contexts the media certainly know that programs like Social Security, Medicare, and farm subsidies impact voting, but Republicans seem to get pounded for making that point.

But when it comes to other democracies, such as India, journalists don’t seem to have any trouble seeing the electoral advantages of government spending. Jim Yardley reports from India for the New York Times:

Frustrated by delays in Parliament, and eager to gain favor with rural voters ahead of national elections, India’s cabinet has approved a sweeping executive order that establishes a legal right to food and will create what is likely to be the world’s largest food subsidy system for the poor….

For the governing Congress Party, the new ordinance fulfills a campaign pledge made by Mrs. Gandhi and provides her party with something tangible to offer voters as the country prepares for national elections next year. The coalition government has been battered by corruption scandals and a sinking economy. With polls suggesting a loss of public support for the Congress Party, the food ordinance is good politics, some analysts say, if uncertain economics.

I noted a few months ago that the Washington Post had made a similar point:

Trying to rekindle the fire of India’s economy, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram promised Thursday to rein in a runaway deficit even as he raised spending on welfare schemes that the government hopes will woo voters in elections scheduled for next year….

“The finance minister faced two counter-veiling pressures: to present a populist, voter-friendly budget and also control the huge fiscal deficit,” said Vir Sanghvi, a political analyst. “What he presented was a ‘this-is-the-best-we-can-manage-under-the-circumstances’ kind of a budget. . . . He is hoping that the economy will improve and prices will come down by the time of the election. That is a big political gamble.”

Chidambaram promised to increase spending on rural welfare schemes, rural roads and jobs, food guarantees for the poor, women’s safety programs, tax breaks on loans for first-time home buyers and a women’s bank.

Is it really so hard to imagine that American politicians might also see transfer programs as measures that would benefit them on election day? Of course, the more fundamental impact of transfer programs may be to make both parties afraid to cut spending. What politician in either party wants to propose cuts in Social Security, Medicare, student loans, or farm subsidies? It’s not that transfer recipients all vote for the same party; it’s just that both parties fear the loss of votes if they interfered with the flow of subsidies. And not just in India.

Heritage Immigration Study and Government Spending

Conservative and libertarian scholars are clashing over the findings and political implications of the new Heritage Foundation immigration study. The study spans 92 pages and is jam-packed full of statistics and detailed calculations.

I’ll leave the immigration policy to my colleagues who are experts in that area. To me, the study provides a very useful exploration into how massive the American welfare state has become. Here are some highlights:

  • “There are over 80 of these [means-tested] programs which, at a cost of nearly $900 billion per year, provide cash, food, housing, medical, and other services to roughly 100 million low-income Americans.”
  • “The governmental system is highly redistributive … For example, in 2010, in the whole U.S. population, households with college-educated heads, on average, received $24,839 in government benefits while paying $54,089 in taxes … [and] households headed by persons without a high school degree, on average, received $46,582 in government benefits while paying only $11,469 in taxes.”
  • “Few lawmakers really understand the current size of government and the scope of redistribution. The fact that the average household gets $31,600 in government benefits each year is a shock.”

Total federal, state, and local government spending in 2010 was $5.4 trillion, or $44,932 per U.S. household. The figure of $31,600 in “benefits” is total spending less spending on public goods, interest, and government pensions.

A useful feature of the Heritage study is a breakdown of the $5.4 trillion in spending into six categories constructed by the authors. “Direct benefits” includes mainly Social Security and Medicare. “Pure public goods” includes programs such as defense and scientific research. “Population-based services” includes programs aimed at whole communities, such as police and highways. (Some of these also seem to be public goods). “Means-tested benefits” includes programs such as food stamps. Education includes both K-12 and college subsidies. “Interest and pensions” is the current costs of past spending, which includes servicing the debt and paying for government pensions. The chart shows spending in 2010.  

This spending breakdown is useful for thinking about the proper size of government. From a libertarian standpoint, governments ought to be spending only on public goods and population-based services, as a first cut. That would be $1.94 trillion, or just 36 percent of the current total of $5.4 trillion. As a percent of GDP in 2010, that would be spending of 14 percent, rather than current spending of 38 percent.

But some of the population-based services mentioned by the authors could be privatized, and spending on some of the public goods could be cut. So a good libertarian target might be less than 36 percent of current spending, or less than 14 percent of GDP.

The Heritage study is sparking a debate about what type of immigration reform the nation should have. But hopefully, it will also spur more discussion about the massive size of the American welfare state. Immigration is partly, or mainly, such a contentious issue because we have such a huge welfare state.

The study includes projections about how many trillions of dollars of government benefits will flow to immigrants and their children in the decades ahead. But conservatives and libertarians agree that we ought to cut trillions of dollars in benefits to immigrants and nonimmigrants alike.

So is there some common ground here? Can we work toward an immigration reform that cuts government dependency in general and downsizes the welfare state?

Buying Votes with Taxpayers’ Money — in India

When it comes to India, Washington Post reporter Rama Lakshmi seems to have no trouble recognizing that government benefits just might attract votes:

Trying to rekindle the fire of India’s economy, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram promised Thursday to rein in a runaway deficit even as he raised spending on welfare schemes that the government hopes will woo voters in elections scheduled for next year….

“The finance minister faced two counter-veiling pressures: to present a populist, voter-friendly budget and also control the huge fiscal deficit,” said Vir Sanghvi, a political analyst. “What he presented was a ‘this-is-the-best-we-can-manage-under-the-circumstances’ kind of a budget. . . . He is hoping that the economy will improve and prices will come down by the time of the election. That is a big political gamble.”

Chidambaram promised to increase spending on rural welfare schemes, rural roads and jobs, food guarantees for the poor, women’s safety programs, tax breaks on loans for first-time home buyers and a women’s bank.

Is it really impossible to suspect that similar programs might have similar effects in the United States?

Federal Spending Has Always Been Wasteful

A new article by Ivan Eland describes how wars have stimulated growth in the American welfare state. I was interested in his discussion regarding the overexpansion of pensions following the Civil War:

In 1879, the Arrears Act caused many veterans, who hadn’t realized they were disabled until the government offered $1,000 or more for finding aches and injuries, to flood the Bureau of Pensions with claims.  Although, according to its commissioner, the bureau was the largest executive bureau in the world, it had few means to detect fraudulent claims, which were rampant. During election years between 1878 and 1899, Republicans used the bureau to dole out pensions rapidly and heavily in key electoral states.

In 1890, a quarter century after the Civil War ended, pension eligibility expanded to include any soldier who had served 90 days or more during the war and was unable to do manual labor—whether or not he was injured during the conflict, or even whether he had seen combat. Similarly, widows of soldiers serving in the war for 90 days or more got pensions, regardless of whether their husbands had died in the conflict.”

Republicans supported lavish pensions to groups in their political constituency (Union veterans) to justify continued high tariff walls to protect Northern industries, which were among the most influential supporters in their political coalition. The interests of such industrialists coincided with those of pensioner lobbies and the bureaucratic empire of the Bureau of Pensions to widen the program over time.

Politically driven overspending and waste is nothing new in Washington. In the 19th Century, there was tons of waste in federal agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was also a very troubled agency:

Fraud, corruption, and bribes were common in the BIA during some periods in the 19th century. One reason was because local BIA officials had substantial discretionary control over cash, goods, trading licenses, and other items handed out by the agency. In the years following the Civil War, “Indian rings” of government agents and contractors colluded to steal funds and supplies from taxpayers and the tribes. The New York Times railed against the “dishonesty which pervades the whole Bureau.” And the newspaper argued that “the condition of the Indian service is simply shameful. It has long been notorious that rascally agents and contractors have connived to cheat the Indians. … It now appears that a ring has long existed in the Indian Bureau at Washington for the express purpose of covering up these frauds and facilitating others.