Europe is in the midst of a fiscal crisis caused by too much government spending, yet many of the continent’s politicians want the European Central Bank to purchase the dodgy debt of reckless welfare states such as Spain, Italy, Greece, and Portugal in order to prop up these big government policies.
So it’s especially noteworthy that economists at the European Central Bank have just produced a study showing that government spending is unambiguously harmful to economic performance. Here is a brief description of the key findings.
…we analyse a wide set of 108 countries composed of both developed and emerging and developing countries, using a long time span running from 1970 – 2008, and employing different proxies for government size… Our results show a significant negative effect of the size of government on growth. …Interestingly, government consumption is consistently detrimental to output growth irrespective of the country sample considered (OECD, emerging and developing countries).
There are two very interesting takeaways from this new research. First, the evidence shows that the problem is government spending, and that problem exists regardless of whether the budget is financed by taxes or borrowing. Unfortunately, too many supposedly conservative policy makers fail to grasp this key distinction and mistakenly focus on the symptom (deficits) rather than the underlying disease (big government).
The second key takeaway is that Europe’s corrupt political elite is engaging in a classic case of Mitchell’s Law, which is when one bad government policy is used to justify another bad government policy. In this case, they undermined prosperity by recklessly increasing the burden of government spending, and they’re now using the resulting fiscal crisis as an excuse to promote inflationary monetary policy by the European Central Bank.
The ECB study, by contrast, shows that the only good answer is to reduce the burden of the public sector. Moreover, the research also has a discussion of the growth‐maximizing size of government.
… economic progress is limited when government is zero percent of the economy (absence of rule of law, property rights, etc.), but also when it is closer to 100 percent (the law of diminishing returns operates in addition to, e.g., increased taxation required to finance the government’s growing burden – which has adverse effects on human economic behaviour, namely on consumption decisions).
The key lesson in the video is that government is far too big in the United States and other industrialized nations, which is precisely what the scholars found in the European Central Bank study.
Another interesting finding in the study is that the quality and structure of government matters.
Growth in government size has negative effects on economic growth, but the negative effects are three times as great in non‐democratic systems as in democratic systems. …the negative effect of government size on GDP per capita is stronger at lower levels of institutional quality, and ii) the positive effect of institutional quality on GDP per capita is stronger at smaller levels of government size.
The simple way of thinking about these results is that government spending doesn’t do as much damage in a nation such as Sweden as it does in a failed state such as Mexico.
Last but not least, the ECB study analyzes various budget process reforms. There’s a bit of jargon in this excerpt, but it basically shows that spending limits (presumably policies similar to Senator Corker’s CAP Act or Congressman Brady’s MAP Act) are far better than balanced budget rules.
…we use three indices constructed by the European Commission (overall rule index, expenditure rule index, and budget balance and debt rule index). …The former incorporates each index individually whereas the latter includes interacted terms between fiscal rules and government size proxies. Particularly under the total government expenditure and government spending specifications…we find statistically significant positive coefficients on the overall rule index and the expenditure rule index, meaning that having these fiscal numerical rules improves GDP growth for these set of EU countries.
This research is important because it shows that rules focusing on deficits and debt (such as requirements to balance the budget) are not as effective because politicians can use them as an excuse to raise taxes.
At the risk of citing myself again, the number one message from this new ECB research is that lawmakers — at the very least — need to follow Mitchell’s Golden Rule and make sure government spending grows slower than the private sector. Fortunately, that can happen, as shown in this video.
But my Golden Rule is just a minimum requirement. If politicians really want to do the right thing, they should copy the Baltic nations and implement genuine spending cuts rather than just reductions in the rate of growth in the burden of government.
I’ve written about the fiscal implosion in Europe and warned that America faces the same fate if we don’t reform poorly designed entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.
But this new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, narrated by an Italian student and former Cato Institute intern, may be the best explanation of what went wrong in Europe and what should happen in the United States to avoid a similar meltdown.
I particularly like the five lessons she identifies.
1. Higher taxes lead to higher spending, not lower deficits. Miss Morandotti looks at the evidence from Europe and shows that politicians almost always claim that higher taxes will be used to reduce red ink, but the inevitable result is bigger government. This is a lesson that gullible Republicans need to learn — especially since some of them want to acquiesce to a tax hike as part of the “Supercommitee” negotiations.
2. A value‐added tax would be a disaster. This was music to my ears since I have repeatedly warned that the statists won’t be able to impose a European‐style welfare state in the United States without first imposing this European‐style money machine for big government.
3. A welfare state cripples the human spirit. This was the point eloquently made by Hadley Heath of the Independent Women’s Forum in a recent video.
4. Nations reach a point of no return when the number of people mooching off government exceeds the number of people producing. Indeed, Miss Morandotti drew these two cartoons showing how the welfare state inevitably leads to fiscal collapse.
5. Bailouts don’t work. This also was a powerful lesson. Imagine how much better things would be in Europe if Greece never received an initial bailout. Much less money would have been flushed down the toilet and this tough‐love approach would have sent a very positive message to nations such as Portugal, Italy, and Spain about the danger of continued excessive spending.
If I was doing this video, I would have added one more message. If nations want a return to fiscal sanity, they need to follow “Mitchell’s Golden Rule,” which simply states that the private sector should grow faster than the government.
This rule is not overly demanding (spending actually should be substantially cut, including elimination of departments such as HUD, Transportation, Education, Agriculture, etc), but if maintained over a lengthy period will eliminate all red ink. More importantly, it will reduce the burden of government spending relative to the productive sector of the economy.
Unfortunately, the politicians have done precisely the wrong thing during the Bush‐Obama spending binge. Government has grown faster than the private sector. This is why this new video is so timely. Europe is collapsing before our eyes, yet the political elite in Washington think it’s okay to maintain business‐as‐usual policies.
Please share widely…before it’s too late.
Even though the unwashed masses decided that I didn’t win my stimulus debate in New York City, I continue my fight for the hearts and minds of the American people.
I’m now taking part in a debate for U.S. News & World Report on “Who Is Handling Its Debt Crisis Better: United States or Europe?”
This was a tough question. I asked the organizer whether I could vote none of the above, but I was told I had to pick an option.
As you can see, I said the United States was doing a better job — but only by default.
Our long‐run outlook is grim, but at least we still have time to reform the entitlement programs and save America… The only major difference is that European nations are farther down the path to fiscal collapse. The welfare state was adopted earlier in Europe and government spending among euro nations now consumes a staggering 49 percent of economic output. This heavy fiscal burden, especially when combined with onerous tax systems, helps explain why growth is anemic. …the United States still can turn things around. Greece, Italy, and other welfare states have probably passed the point of no return, but it’s still possible for American lawmakers to fix the entitlement crisis by turning Medicaid over to the states , modernizing Medicare into a premium‐support system, and transitioning to a system of personal retirement accounts for younger workers. If those reforms don’t take place, the consequences won’t be pleasant. To be blunt, there won’t be an IMF to bail out the United States.
For all intents and purposes, I contend that America can be saved if something like the Ryan budget is approved.
You can vote on this page on whether you like or dislike what I said, as well as what the other participants said.
Politicians in Europe have spent decades creating a fiscal crisis by violating Mitchell's Golden Rule and letting government grow faster than the private sector.
As a result, government is far too big today, and nations such as Greece are in the process of fiscal collapse.
But that's the good news -- at least relatively speaking. Over the next few decades, the problems will get much worse because of demographic change and unsustainable promises to spend other people's money.
(By the way, America will suffer the same fate in the absence of reforms.)
Here's one stark indicator of why Greece is in the toilet.
Look at the skyrocketing number of people riding in the wagon of government dependency (and look at these cartoons to understand why this is so debilitating).
By the way, Greece's population only increased by a bit more than 16 percent during this period. Yet the number of bureaucrats jumped by far more than 100 percent.
And don't forget that this chart just looks at the number of bureaucrats, not their excessive pay and bloated pensions.
With this in mind, do you agree with President Obama and want to squander American tax dollars on a bailout for Greece?
On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issued a warning to NATO allies that reducing military spending on both sides of the Atlantic will risk “hollowing out” the alliance’s capabilities. Panetta implied that Europeans cannot continue to rely on the United States for their security. Following former defense secretary Robert Gates’s comments in June, Panetta joins the long list of U.S. presidents, secretaries of defense and state, and innumerable lower‐level officials who have pleaded with Europe to pick up the slack on military spending, provide for their own security, and close the gap in capabilities.
But Secretary Panetta’s speech also praised NATO for the mission in Libya and he extolled Europe’s leadership in the campaign: “The alliance achieved more burden‐sharing between the U.S. and Europe than we have in the past…on a mission that was in the vital interest of our European allies.”
Relative to past NATO operations, it may be true that Europe contributed more in this instance. But this ignores the fact that the mission would not have been possible without the unique capabilities of the U.S. military. As Justin Logan pointed out, the Europeans quickly ran out of munitions and relied on the United States to conduct air strikes. “Thus, Washington essentially borrowed money from China to buy ordnance to give to Europe to drop on Libya.”
Panetta’s finger‐wagging will do little to alter the incentive structure European states confront when determining what they should spend on defense. As I explain in an article recently published at Big Peace, until the United States takes concrete steps to force Europeans to spend more for their security, they will continue to free‐ride on the U.S. taxpayers’ dime.
Cutting the Pentagon’s budget without imposing additional burdens on our troops requires getting our allies to do more. That is unlikely to happen unless U.S. officials, beginning with Secretary Panetta, force the issue. Unfortunately, he is merely one of many in Washington who seem to forget how incentives work:
Those who simply assume that others would not do more to defend themselves and their interests often ignore the extent to which U.S. actions have discouraged them from doing so. Just as some welfare recipients are often disinclined to look for work, foreign countries on the generous American security dole do not see a need to obtain military power. Our great power, and our willingness to use it, even when our own interests are not at stake, has allowed others to ignore possible threats, always confident that the United States will be there to rescue them.
The Obama administration’s rhetoric merely reinforces this message. The National Security Strategy, published in May 2010, declares “There should be no doubt: the United States of America will continue to underwrite global security.” Taking their cue, U.S. allies have proved understandably disinterested in military spending.
Despite Panetta’s pleas, U.S. strategy — and NATO’s very existence — allows this free‐riding to continue. The Libya operation appears to have reinforced these destructive tendencies. If Washington really wants our allies to spend more to defend themselves and their vital interests, U.S. officials must jettison their reflexive attachment to the NATO alliance, an organization that has been irrelevant to U.S. vital security interests for at least two decades.
Secretary Panetta understands the United States is dealing with its own fiscal problems, but he has missed a perfect opportunity to offload a share of our burdens on to our rich allies.
One almost feels sorry for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.
He's a punchline in his own country because he oversees the IRS even though he conveniently forgot to declare $80,000 of income (and managed to get away with punishment that wouldn't even qualify as a slap on the wrist).
Now he's becoming a a bit of a joke in Europe. Earlier this month, a wide range of European policy makers basically told the Treasury Secretary to take a long walk off a short pier when he tried to offer advice on Europe's fiscal crisis.
And the latest development is that the German Finance Minister basically said Geithner was "stupid" for a new bailout scheme. Here's an excerpt from the UK-based Daily Telegraph.
Germany and America were on a collision course on Tuesday night over the handling of Europe's debt crisis after Berlin savaged plans to boost the EU rescue fund as a "stupid idea" and told the White House to sort out its own mess before giving gratuitous advice to others.German finance minister Wolfgang Schauble said it would be a folly to boost the EU's bail-out machinery (EFSF) beyond its €440bn lending limit by deploying leverage to up to €2 trillion, perhaps by raising funds from the European Central Bank."I don't understand how anyone in the European Commission can have such a stupid idea. The result would be to endanger the AAA sovereign debt ratings of other member states. It makes no sense," he said.
All that's missing in the story is Geithner channeling his inner Forrest Gump and responding that "Stupid is as stupid does."
This little spat reminds me of the old saying that there is no honor among thieves. Geithner wants to do the wrong thing. The German government wants to do the wrong thing. And every other European government wants to do the wrong thing. They're merely squabbling over the best way of picking German pockets to subsidize the collapsing welfare states of Southern Europe.
But that's actually not accurate. German politicians don't really want to give money to the Greeks and Portuguese.
The real story of the bailouts is that politicians from rich nations are trying to indirectly protect their banks, which - as shown in this chart - are in financial trouble because they foolishly thought lending money to reckless welfare states was a risk-free exercise.
Europe's political class claims that bailouts are necessary to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis, but this is nonsense - much as American politicians were lying (or bamboozled) when they supported TARP.
It is a relatively simple matter for a government to put a bank in receivership, hold all depositors harmless, and then sell off the assets. Or to subsidize the takeover of an insolvent institution. This is what America did during the savings & loan bailouts 20 years ago. Heck, it's also what happened with IndyMac and WaMu during the recent financial crisis. And it's what the Swedish government basically did in the early 1990s when that nation had a financial crisis.
But politicians don't like this "FDIC-resolution" approach because it means wiping out shareholders, bondholders, and senior management of institutions that made bad economic choices. And that would mean reducing moral hazard rather than increasing it. And it would mean stiff-arming campaign contributors and protecting the interests of taxpayers.
Heaven forbid those things happen. After all, as Bastiat told us, "Government is the great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.”
On August 29th, I penned “Lagarde Confused, Again.” In it, I argued that Christine Lagarde, the new managing director of the International Monetary Fund, misdiagnosed Europe’s banking crisis.
Ms. Lagarde’s assertion that Europe’s banks “need urgent recapitalization” is based on faulty economics. While the higher capital‐asset ratios that Ms. Lagarde extols are intended to strengthen banks (and economies), higher ratios destroy money and are “deflationary.” This is not what a struggling Europe needs. Indeed, higher capital‐asset ratios imposed on Europe’s banks at this juncture would virtually ensure that Euroland would take another dive. In consequence, some of the banks that were made “safer” by Ms. Lagarde’s medicine would go to the wall.
Today, the Wall Street Journal’s lead editorial “A TARP for Europe?” adds to the confusion by enthusiastically endorsing Ms. Lagarde’s prescription.