The fiscal disintegration of Europe is bad news, though I confess to a bit of malicious glee every time I read about welfare states such as Greece and Portugal getting to the point where they no longer have the ability to borrow enough money to finance their bloated public sectors (I have mixed feelings about Ireland since that nation at least has been a good example of low tax corporate tax rates, but I still think they should get punished for over‐spending and bailouts). This I‑told‐you‐so attitude is not very mature on my part, but one hopes that American politicians will learn the right lessons and something good will come from this mess.
I have not written much about the topic in recent months, in part because I don’t have much to add to my original post about this issue back in February. All the arguments I made then are still true, particularly about the moral hazard of bailouts and the economic damage of rewarding excessive government. So why bother repeating myself, particularly since this is an issue for Europeans to solve (or, as is their habit, to make worse)?
Unfortunately, it appears that all of us need to pay closer attention to this issue. The Obama Administration apparently thinks American taxpayers should subsidize European profligacy. Here’s a passage from a Reuters report about a potential bailout for Europe via the IMF.
The United States would be ready to support the extension of the European Financial Stability Facility via an extra commitment of money from the International Monetary Fund, a U.S. official told Reuters on Wednesday. “There are a lot of people talking about that. I think the European Commission has talked about that,” said the U.S. official, commenting on enlarging the 750 billion euro ($980 billion) EU/IMF European stability fund. “It is up to the Europeans. We will certainly support using the IMF in these circumstances.” “There are obviously some severe market problems,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “In May, it was Greece. This is Ireland and Portugal. If there is contagion that’s a huge problem for the global economy.”
This issue will be an interesting test for the GOP. I think it’s safe to say that the Tea Party movement didn’t elect Republicans so they could expand the culture of bailouts — especially if that means handouts for profligate European governments. Some people will argue that American taxpayers aren’t at risk because this would be a bailout from the IMF instead of the Treasury. But that’s an absurd and dishonest assertion. The United States is the largest “shareholder” in that international bureaucracy, and there’s no way the IMF can get more involved without American support.
In some sense, this is a corporatism vs. free markets battle for Republicans. Big banks and Wall Street often support bailouts since they like the idea of somebody else saving them from their bad investment decisions (though American financial institutions fortunately are not as exposed as their European counterparts). Economists despise bailouts, by contrast, since they subsidize risky choices and lead to the misallocation of capital.
Which side is John Boehner on? Or Mitch McConnell? And what about Mitt Romney, or Mike Huckabee?
I like poking fun at French politicians for being hopeless statists, and I always assumed that French voters shared their collectivist sympathies. But according to new polling data reported by the Financial Times, there may be a Tea Party revolt brewing in France. Among major European nations, the French are most in favor of smaller government. Sacre Bleu!
European governments have solid public support, at least for now, for the spending cuts they are making in an effort to boost economic recovery, according to the latest Financial Times/Harris opinion poll. …The poll’s results point to a fiscal conservatism among the European public that contrasts with the eagerness with which most governments ran up high deficits to protect jobs and living standards as the crisis unfolded. …Asked if public spending cuts were necessary to help long‐term economic recovery, 84 per cent of French people, 71 per cent of Spaniards, 69 per cent of Britons, 67 per cent of Germans and 61 per cent of Italians answered Yes. …Asked if they preferred public spending cuts or tax rises as a way to reduce budget deficits and national debts, strong majorities in the five EU countries as well as the US were in favour of spending cuts. Similarly conservative views on public expenditure emerged when people were asked if EU governments were right to engage in large‐scale deficit‐spending after the 2008 crisis. In all five EU countries, a majority – ranging from 68 per cent in France and Italy to 54 per cent in the UK – said the governments were wrong to have done so.
Many people assume that Europe is the land of high‐tax welfare states and America is an outpost of laissez‐faire capitalism. We should be so lucky. The burden of government in America is still lower than it is in the average European nation, but the United States is a lot closer to France than it is to Hong Kong — and the trend is not comforting.
We recently endured the embarrassing spectacle of President Obama arguing with Europeans that they should increase the burden of government spending. Now we have a new report from the European Commission indicating that the average corporate tax rate in member nations of the European Union has plummeted to just 23.5 percent while the corporate tax rate in the U.S. has stagnated at 35 percent. In the past dozen years alone, as the chart illustrates, the average corporate tax rate in the European Union has dropped by nearly 12 percentage points. To make matters worse, the corporate tax rate in America actually is closer to 40 percent if state tax burdens are added to the mix.
This is not to say that European politicians are reading Hayek and Friedman (or watching Dan Mitchell videos on corporate taxation). Almost all of the positive reforms are because of tax competition. Thanks to globalization, it is increasingly easy for labor and (especially) capital to cross national borders to escape bad policy. As such, nations now have to compete for jobs and investment, and this liberalizing process is particularly powerful among nations that are neighbors.
Not surprisingly, European politicians despise tax competition and instead would prefer to impose a one‐size‐fits‐all policy of tax harmonization. These efforts to create a tax cartel have a long history, beginning even before Reagan and Thatcher lowered tax rates and triggered the modern era of tax competition. The European Commission originally wanted to require a minimum corporate tax rate of 45 percent. And as recently as 1992, there were an effort to require a minimum corporate tax rate of 30 percent.
Fortunately, the politicians did not succeed in any of these efforts. As such, tax competition remains alive and corporate tax rates continue to fall. What remains to be seen, however, is whether America will join the race to lower corporate tax rates — and more jobs and investment.
Josef Joffe famously referred to the U.S. presence in Western Europe as "Europe's pacifier." The idea was that you stick the American pacifier in there and the *cough* recurring problem emanating from Europe goes away.
After the Cold War ended, and the official reason for the NATO alliance blew away as if in the wind, we never considered letting the alliance go with it. That tells you something. Instead of coming home, we pushed NATO "out of area" rather than allowing it to go "out of business." Christopher Layne argues that this was all by design. U.S. policymakers never intended to allow Europe to establish its autonomy and worked diligently to ensure that efforts at autonomous European defense would fail. They succeeded.
In February, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was whining about the "demilitarization of Europe" and how the Europeans have grown "averse to military force." I responded by pointing out that this was dumb. Mancur Olson's logic and the history of American policy on the European continent that Layne documents show that we were as much to blame for this state of affairs as the Euros themselves.
And now here's the Wall Street Journal pointing out that the Euros are slashing their defense budgets further still.
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.
What does the Greco‐Euro currency/debt crisis mean for the U.S. economy?
Nearly everyone except the uniquely wise economist John Cochrane assumes very bad “contagion” effects –on U.S. banks, exports and particularly U.S. manufacturing.
This echoes identical anxieties while the world went through a far more dramatic Asian currency crisis after July 1997, and a Russian debt crisis the following May.
The most widely ignored effect of that crisis, however, was to depress foreign demand for oil, and thus slash oil prices to U.S. buyers from $25 a barrel in early 1997 to $11 by the end of 1998.
Oil is a major input into the manufacturing process (e.g., chemicals and plastics), and a major cost of distribution (trucks, trains and airplanes). It is also a major determinant of the cost of all energy sources used in making other goods such as aluminum and paper. When marginal costs go down, it becomes profitable to expand production.
At the height of the Asian/Russian crises, the table below shows that U.S. manufacturing output rose by more than 10 percent. It’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow somebody some good.
Looking at the same phenomenon from the other side, every recession but one (1960) was preceded by a big increase in the price of oil. For oil importers like the U.S., cheaper oil is definitely better.
During the last big foreign currency/debt crisis, the real growth of U.S. Gross Domestic Purchases (the home‐grown portion of GDP) jumped by 4.7% in 1997 and 5.5% in 1998. Yet the Fed cut interest rates three times in October and November of 1998 because of what was happening in other countries.
The table show what happened to the price of oil and to U.S. manufacturing from June 1997 to December 1998. The middle column is the price of a barrel of West Texas crude, and the column to the right is the U.S. industrial production index for the manufacturing sector.
1997-06 19.17 87.80
1997-07 19.63 88.12
1997-08 19.93 89.69
1997-09 19.79 90.45
1997-10 21.26 90.98
1997-11 20.17 92.05
1997-12 18.32 92.52
1998-01 16.71 93.36
1998-02 16.06 93.31
1998-03 15.02 93.13
1998-04 15.44 93.68
1998-05 14.86 94.25
1998-06 13.66 93.53
1998-07 14.08 92.96
1998-08 13.36 95.40
1998-09 14.95 95.11
1998-10 14.39 95.96
1998-11 12.85 96.08
1998-12 11.28 96.63
In recent weeks, as the debt and currency problems in Euroland hit the front page, the price of crude oil fell by about 20 percent.
Once again, as in 1997 – 98, everyone may be watching the wrong ball in the wrong court.
I'm semi-impressed with the Europeans for choosing the hog-wild approach to bailouts. Not because it is good policy, but rather because it will be a useful demonstration of the old rule that bad policy begets more bad policy (which begets God knows what, but it won't be pretty). The background is that many European nations have been over-spending, over-taxing, and over-regulating. This has created a poisonous combination of weak economies, pervasive dependency, and political corruption, with Greece being the nation farthest down the path to Krugman-topia. Europe's political elite at first thought they could paper over the problems with a $140 billion Greek bailout. The ostensible motives were to stop contagion and to demonstrate "solidarity," but behind-the-scenes lobbying by big European banks (which foolishly own a lot of government debt from profligate nations such as Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Italy) may have been the most important factor. Regardless of the real motive, the original bailout was a flop, so the political class has decided to go with the in-for-a-dime-in-for-a-dollar approach and commit nearly $1 trillion of other people's money to prop up the continent's welfare states. The Wall Street Journal reports on the issue, noting that American taxpayers will be involuntary participants thanks to the financial world's keystone cops at the International Monetary Fund:
The European Union agreed on an audacious €750 billion ($955 billion) bailout plan in an effort to stanch a burgeoning sovereign debt crisis that began in Greece but now threatens the stability of financial markets world-wide. The money would be available to rescue euro-zone economies that get into financial troubles. The plan would consist of €440 billion of loans from euro-zone governments, €60 billion from an EU emergency fund and €250 billion from the International Monetary Fund. Immediately after the announcement, the European Central Bank said it is ready to buy euro-zone government and private bonds "to ensure depth and liquidity" in markets, and the U.S. Federal Reserve announced it would reopen swap lines with other central banks to make sure they had ample access to dollars.
Back when Greece first began to collapse, I argued that bankruptcy was the best option. And I noted more recently that my colleague Jeff Miron reached the same conclusion. Everything that has since happened reinforces this viewpoint. Here are a few additional observations on this latest chapter in the collapse of the welfare state.