Tag: fiscal crisis

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, Which Nation Is in the Deepest Fiscal Doo-Doo of All?

According to the Bank for International Settlements, the United States has a terrible long-run fiscal outlook. Assuming we don’t implement genuine entitlement reform, the only countries in worse shape are the United Kingdom and Japan.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, meanwhile, also has a grim fiscal outlook for America. According to their numbers, the only nations in worse shape are New Zealand and Japan.

But I’ve never been happy with these BIS and OECD numbers because they focus on deficits, debt, and fiscal balance. Those are important indicators, of course, but they’re best viewed as symptoms.

The underlying problem is that the burden of government spending is too high. And what the BIS and OECD numbers are really showing is that the public sector is going to get even bigger in coming decades, largely because of aging populations. Unfortunately, you have to read between the lines to understand what’s really happening.

But now I’ve stumbled across some IMF data that presents the long-run fiscal outlook in a more logical fashion. As you can see from this graph (taken from this publication), they show the expected rise in age-related spending on the vertical axis and the amount of needed fiscal adjustment on the horizontal axis.

In other words, you don’t want your nation to be in the upper-right quadrant, but that’s exactly where you can find the United States.

IMF Future Spending-Adjustment Needs

Yes, Japan needs more fiscal adjustment. Yes, the burden of government spending will expand by a larger amount in Belgium. But America combines the worst of both worlds in a depressingly impressive fashion.

So thanks to FDR, LBJ, Nixon, Bush, Obama and others for helping to create and expand the welfare state. They’ve managed to put the United States in a worse long-run position than Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, and other failing welfare states.

Siding with the Heritage Foundation in the “Austerity” Fight with Paul Krugman and the Washington Post

I’m not reluctant to criticize my friends at the Heritage Foundation. In some cases, it is good-natured ribbing because of the Cato-Heritage softball rivalry, but there are also real policy disagreements.

For instance, even though it is much better than current policy, I don’t like parts of Heritage’s “Saving the American Dream” budget plan. It’s largely designed to prop up the existing Social Security system rather than replace the existing tax-and-transfer entitlement system with personal retirement accounts. And while the plan contains a flat tax, it’s not the pure Hall-Rabushka version. One of the most alarming deviations, to cite just one example, is that it creates a tax preference for higher education that would enable higher tuition costs and more bureaucratic featherbedding.

That being said, I’m also willing to defend Heritage if the organization is being wrongly attacked. The specific issue we’ll review today is “austerity” in Europe and whether Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island is right to accuse Heritage of “meretricious” testimony.

Let’s look at the details.

Earlier this month, Paul Krugman wrote that, “a Heritage Foundation economist has been accused of presenting false, deliberately misleading data and analysis to the Senate Budget Committee.” Krugman was too clever to assert that the Heritage economist “did present” dishonest data, but if you read his short post, he clearly wants readers to believe that an unambiguous falsehood has been exposed.

Krugman, meanwhile, was simply linking to the Washington Post, which was the source of a more detailed critique. The disagreement revolves around  whether Europeans have cut spending or raised taxes, and by how much. The Heritage economist cited one set of OECD data, while critics have cited another set of data.

So who is right?

Conn Carroll of the Washington Examiner explains that the Heritage economist was looking at OECD data for 2007-2012 while critics are relying on an OECD survey of what politicians in various countries say they’ve done since 2009 as well as what they plan to do between now and 2015.

Whitehouse believed he had caught Furth and The Heritage Foundation in a bald face lie. …There is just one problem with Whitehouse’s big gotcha moment: The staffer who spoon-fed Whitehouse his OECD numbers on “the actual balance between spending cuts and tax increases” failed to also show Whitehouse the front page of the OECD report from which those numbers came. That report is titled: “Fiscal consolidation targets, plans and measures in OECD countries.” Turns out, the numbers Whitehouse used to attack Furth for misreporting “what took place in Europe” were actually mostly projections of what governments said they were planning to do in the future (the report was written in December 2011 and looked at data from 2009 and projections through 2015). At no point in Furth’s testimony did he ever claim to be reporting about what governments were going to do in the future. He very plainly said his analysis was of actual spending and taxing data “to date.” Odds are that Whitehouse made an honest mistake. Senators can’t be expected actually to read the title page of every report from which they quote. But, considering he was the one who was very clearly in error, and not Furth, he owes Furth, and The Heritage Foundation an apology. Krugman and Matthews would be well advised to revisit the facts as well.

In other words, critics of Heritage are relying largely on speculative data about what politicians might (or might not) do in the future to imply that the Heritage economist was wrong in his presentation of what’s actually happened over the past six years.

So far, we’ve simply addressed whether Heritage was unfairly attacked. The answer, quite clearly, is yes. If you don’t believe me, peruse the OECD data or peruse the IMF data.

Now let’s briefly touch on the underlying policy debate. Keynesians such as Krugman assert that there have been too many spending cuts in Europe. The “austerity” crowd, by contrast, argues that strong steps are needed to deal with deficits and debt, though they are agnostic about whether to rely on spending reforms or tax increases.

I’ve repeatedly explained that Europe’s real problem is an excessive burden of government spending. I want politicians to cut spending (or at least make sure it grows slower than the productive sector of the economy). And rather than increasing the tax burden, I want them to lower rates and reform punitive tax systems.

The bad news is that Europeans have raised taxes. A lot. The semi-good news is that spending no longer is growing as fast as it was before the fiscal crisis.

In the grand scheme of things, however, I think Europe is still headed down the wrong path. Here’s what I wrote back in January and it’s still true today.

I don’t sense any commitment to smaller government. I fear governments will let the spending genie out of the bottle at the first opportunity. And we’re talking about a scary genie, not Barbara Eden. And to make matters worse, Europe faces a demographic nightmare. These charts, reproduced from a Bank for International Settlements study, show that even the supposedly responsible nations in Europe face a tsunami of spending and debt over the next 25-plus years. So you can understand why I don’t express a lot of optimism about European economic policy.

By the way, I’m not optimistic about the long-term fiscal outlook for the United States either. In the absence of genuine entitlement reform, we’ll sooner or later have our own fiscal crisis.

Europe’s Crisis on PBS

If you’re looking for something scary to do on Halloween, check out Cato senior fellow Johan Norberg’s documentary, “Europe’s Debt: America’s Crisis?” on PBS stations across the country.

It’s been running for awhile, and will be seen in Maryland and Michigan on Sunday night. But it will be seen in many markets, from Tampa to Fairbanks, next Wednesday, October 31.

The Free to Choose Network, which produced the film, describes it this way:

Four investigative reports, shot on location in Greece, Brussels, California and Washington DC, highlight this in depth examination of Europe’s current debt crisis and its connection to the U.S. economy.  Narrated by Swedish author Johan Norberg, and George Mason University professor, Don Boudreaux, the investigative reports ask:  “Where did Europe go wrong” and “is the United States now repeating the same mistakes?”

Participants include Cato friends Jacob Mchangama and Tanja Stumberger, as well as such key players as former comptroller general David Walker, former European Commissioner Frits Bolkestein, and Ann Johnson, mayor of Stockton, California.

For broadcasts in your area, check the listings here.

For Johan Norberg’s books and articles, click here.

France’s Fiscal Suicide

I try to be self aware, so I realize that I have the fiscal version of Tourette’s. Regardless of the question that is asked, I’m tempted to blurt out that the answer is to reduce the burden of government spending.

But sometimes that’s exactly the right prescription, particularly for an economy weighed down by a bloated public sector. And, as you can see from this chart, the French welfare state is enormous.

Only Denmark has a bigger burden of government spending, but at least the Danes are astute enough to compensate with hyper-free market policies in other areas.

So is France also trying to offset the damage of excessive spending with good policy in other areas? Au contraire, President Hollande is compounding the damage with huge class-warfare tax hikes.

Here’s what the Wall Street Journal says about Hollande’s fiscal proposal—including the key revelation that spending will go up rather than  down.

Remember all that euro-babble before the French election about fiscal “austerity” harming growth? Well, meet the new austerity, same as the old austerity, which means higher taxes on the private economy and token discipline for the state. Growth is an afterthought. That’s the lesson of French President François Hollande’s new “fighting” budget, which is supposed to reduce the deficit to 3% of GDP from 4.5% and represent the country’s toughest belt-tightening in three decades. …More telling is that two-thirds of the €30 billion in so-called savings is new tax revenue, and one-third comes from slowing spending growth. Total public expenditure—already the second most lavish in Europe—will increase by €6 billion to 56.3% of GDP.

The spending cuts are fictional, but the tax increases are very, very real.

The real austerity will be imposed on taxpayers, and not only on the rich. Income above €150,000 will now be taxed at 45%, up from the current 41%. Mr. Hollande’s 75% tax rate on income over €1 million comes into effect for two years, reaping expected (and predictably paltry) revenue of €200 million. That’s dwarfed by the €1 billion from reducing the threshold for the “solidarity” tax on wealth to €800,000 from €1.3 million. The French Socialists will also now tax investment income at the same high rates as regular income. The rates have been 19% for capital gains, 21% for dividends and 24% for interest income. If Mr. Hollande’s goal is to send capital out of France, that should help.

Anybody want to take bets, by the way, on whether the “temporary” two-year 75 percent tax rate still exists three years from now?

I say yes, in large part because the tax almost surely will lose revenue because of Laffer Curve effects. But rather than learn the right lesson and repeal the tax, Hollande will argue it needs to be maintained because revenues are “unexpectedly” sluggish.

It’s also remarkable that Hollande wants to dramatically increase tax rates on capital gains, dividends, and interest. These are all examples of double taxation.

And when you factor in the taxes at both the personal and business level, these charts show that France already has the highest tax on dividends in the developed world and the third-highest tax on capital. And Hollande wants to make a terrible system even worse. Amazing.

I’ve already predicted that France will be the next major economy to suffer a fiscal crisis. I was too clever to give a date, but Hollande’s policies are accelerating the day of reckoning.

P.S. The WSJ also takes some well-deserved potshots at the latest fiscal plan in Spain. Since I endorsed Hollande in hopes that he would engage in suicidal fiscal policy, this post is focused on the French fiscal plan. But Spain also is a disaster.

Europe’s Crisis Is Because of Too Much Government, Not the Euro Currency

The mess in Europe has been rather frustrating, largely because almost everybody is on the wrong side.

Some folks say they want “austerity,” but that’s largely a code word for higher taxes. They’re fighting against the people who say they want “growth,” but that’s generally a code word for more Keynesian spending.

So you can understand how this debate between higher taxes and higher spending is like nails on a chalkboard for someone who wants smaller government.

And then, to get me even more irritated, lots of people support bailouts because they supposedly are needed to save the euro currency.

When I ask these people why a default in, say, Greece threatens the euro, they look at me as if it’s the year 1491 and I’ve declared the earth isn’t flat.

So I’m delighted that the Wall Street Journal has published some wise observations by a leading French economist (an intellectual heir to Bastiat!), who shares my disdain for the current discussion. Here are some excerpts from Prof. Salin’s column, starting with his common-sense hypothesis.

…there is no “euro crisis.” The single currency doesn’t have to be “saved” or else explode. The present crisis is not a European monetary problem at all, but rather a debt problem in some countries—Greece, Spain and some others—that happen to be members of the euro zone. Specifically, these are public-debt problems, stemming from bad budget management by their governments. But there is no logical link between these countries’ fiscal situations and the functioning of the euro system.

Salin then looks at how the artificial link was created between the euro currency and the fiscal crisis, and he makes a very good analogy (and I think it’s good because I’ve made the same point) to a potential state-level bankruptcy in America.

The public-debt problem becomes a euro problem only insofar as governments arbitrarily decide that there must be some “European solidarity” inside the euro zone. But how does mutual participation in the same currency logically imply that spendthrift governments should get help from the others? When a state in the U.S. has a debt problem, one never hears that there is a “dollar crisis.” There is simply a problem of budget management in that state.

He then says a euro crisis is being created, but only because the European Central Bank has surrendered its independence and is conducting backdoor bailouts.

Because European politicians have decided to create an artificial link between national budget problems and the functioning of the euro system, they have now effectively created a “euro crisis.” To help out badly managed governments, the European Central Bank is now buying public bonds issued by these governments or supplying liquidity to support their failing banks. In so doing, the ECB is violating its own principles and introducing harmful distortions.

Last but not least, Salin warns that politicians are using the crisis as an excuse for more bad policy - sort of the European version of Mitchell’s Law, with one bad policy (excessive spending) being the precursor of an additional bad policy (centralization).

Politicians now argue that “saving the euro” will require not only propping up Europe’s irresponsible governments, but also centralizing decision-making. This is now the dominant opinion of politicians in Europe, France in particular. There are a few reasons why politicians in Paris might take that view. They might see themselves being in a similar situation as Greece in the near future, so all the schemes to “save the euro” could also be helpful to them shortly. They might also be looking to shift public attention away from France’s internal problems and toward the rest of Europe instead. It’s easier to complain about what one’s neighbors are doing than to tackle problems at home. France needs drastic tax cuts and far-reaching deregulation and labor-market liberalization. Much simpler to get the media worked up about the next “euro crisis” meeting with Angela Merkel.

This is a bit of a dry topic, but it has enormous implications since Europe already is a mess and the fiscal crisis sooner or later will spread to the supposedly prudent nations such as Germany and the Netherlands. And, thanks to entitlement programs, the United States isn’t that far behind.

So may as well enjoy some humor before the world falls apart, including this cartoon about bailouts to Europe from America, the parody video about Germany and downgrades, this cartoon about Greece deciding to stay in the euro, this “how the Greeks see Europe” map, and this cartoon about Obama’s approach to the European model.

P.S. Here’s a video narrated by a former Cato intern about the five lessons America should learn from the European fiscal crisis.

The Simple and Predictable Story of Fiscal Bankruptcy in Cyprus

With all the fiscal troubles in Greece, Spain, Ireland, Portugal, and Italy, there’s not much attention being paid to Cyprus.

But the Mediterranean island nation is a good case study illustrating the economic dangers of big government.

For all intents and purposes, Cyprus is now bankrupt, and the only question that remains to be answered is whether it will get handouts from the IMF-ECB-EC troika, handouts from Russia, or both. Here’s some of what has been reported by AP.

Cyprus’ president on Thursday defended his government’s decision to seek financial aid from the island nation’s eurozone partners while at the same time asking for a loan from Russia, insisting that the two are perfectly compatible. …Cyprus, with a population of 862,000 people, last week became the fifth country that uses the euro currency to seek a European bailout… The country is currently in talks with the so-called ‘troika’ — the body made up of officials from the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — on how much bailout money it will need and the conditions that will come attached. Locked out of international markets because of its junk credit rating status, Cyprus is paying its bills thanks to a €2.5 billion ($3.14 billion) Russian loan that it clinched last year. But that money is expected to run out by the end of the year.

So what caused this mess? Is Cyprus merely the helpless and innocent victim of economic turmoil in nearby Greece?

That’s certainly the spin from Cypriot politicians, but the budget data shows that Cyprus is in trouble because of excessive spending. This chart, based on data from the International Monetary Fund, shows that the burden of government spending has jumped by an average of 8.3 percent annually since the mid-1990s.

My Golden Rule of fiscal policy is that government spending should grow slower than economic output. Nations that follow that rule generally enjoy good results, while nations that violate that rule inevitably get in trouble.

Interestingly, if Cypriot politicians had engaged in a very modest amount of spending restraint and limited annual budgetary increases to 3 percent, there would be a giant budget surplus today and the burden of government spending would be down to 21.4 percent of GDP, very close to the levels in the hyper-prosperous jurisdictions of Hong Kong and Singapore.

Actually, that’s not true. If the burden of government spending had grown as 3 percent instead of 8.3 percent, economic growth would have been much stronger, so GDP would have been much larger and the public sector would be an ever smaller share of economic output.

Speaking of GDP, the burden of government spending in Cyprus, measured as a share of GDP, has climbed dramatically since 1995.

A simple way to look at this data is that Cyprus used to have a Swiss-sized government and now it has a Greek-sized government. Government spending is just one of many policies that impact economic performance, but is anyone surprised that this huge increase in the size of the public sector has had a big negative impact on Cyprus?

Interestingly, if government spending had remained at 33.9 percent of GDP in Cyprus, the nation would have a big budget surplus today. Would that have required huge and savage budget cuts? Perhaps in the fantasy world of Paul Krugman, but politicians could have achieved that modest goal if they had simply limited annual spending increases to 6 percent.

But that was too “draconian” for Cypriot politicians, so they increased spending by an average of more than 8 percent each year.

What’s the moral of the story? Simply stated, the fiscal policy variable that matters most is the growth of government. Cyprus got in trouble because the burden of government grew faster than the productive sector of the economy.

That’s the disease, and deficits and debt are the symptoms of that underlying problem.

Europe’s political elite doubtlessly will push for higher taxes, but that approach - at best - simply masks the symptoms in the short run and usually exacerbates the disease in the long run.

Europe’s Self-Inflicted Decline: French Taxing, Italian Regulating, Greek Mooching, and IMF Economic Illiteracy

Every day brings more and more evidence that Obamanomics is failing in Europe.  I wrote some “Observations on the European Farce” last week, but the news this morning is even more surreal.

Let’s start with France, where I endorsed the explicit socialist over the implicit socialist precisely because of a morbid desire to see a nation commit faster economic suicide. Well, Monsieur Hollande isn’t disappointing me. Let’s look at some of his new initiatives, as reported by Tax-News.com.

The French Minister responsible for Parliamentary Relations, Alain Vidalies, has recently conceded that EUR10bn (USD12.7bn) is needed to balance the country’s budget this year, to be achieved notably by means of implementing a number of emergency tax measures. …The government plans to abolish the exemption from social contributions applicable to overtime hours, expected to yield a gain for the state of around EUR3.2bn, and to subject overtime hours to taxation, predicted to realize approximately EUR1.4bn in additional revenues. Other proposed measures include plans to reform the country’s solidarity tax on wealth (ISF), to cap tax breaks at EUR10,000, to impose a 3% tax on dividends and to increase the inheritance tax as well as the tax on donations. …French President Hollande announced plans during his election campaign to reform ISF. Holland intends to restore the wealth tax scale of between 0.55% and 1.8%, in place before the former government’s 2011 reform, to be applied on wealth in excess of EUR1.3m. Currently a 0.25% rate is imposed on net taxable wealth in excess of EUR1.3m and 0.5% on net taxable assets above EUR3m.

France already has the highest tax burden of any non-Scandinavian nation, so why not further squeeze the productive sector? That’s bound to boost jobs and competitiveness, right? And more revenue as well!

In reality, the Laffer Curve will kick in because France’s dwindling productive class isn’t going to passively submit as the political jackals start looking for a new meal.

But while France is driving into a fiscal cul-de-sac, Italian politicians have constructed a very impressive maze of red tape, intervention, and regulation. From the Wall Street Journal, here is just a sampling of the idiotic rules that paralyze job creators and entrepreneurs:

Once you hire employee 11, you must submit an annual self-assessment to the national authorities outlining every possible health and safety hazard to which your employees might be subject. These include work-related stress and stress caused by age, gender and racial differences. …Once you hire your 16th employee, national unions can set up shop, and workers may elect their own separate representatives. As your company grows, so does the number of required employee representatives, each of whom is entitled to eight hours of paid leave monthly to fulfill union or works-council duties. …Hire No. 16 also means that your next recruit must qualify as disabled. By the time your firm hires its 51st worker, 7% of the payroll must be handicapped in some way, or else your company owes fees in kind. …Once you hire your 101st employee, you must submit a report every two years on the gender-dynamics within the company. This must include a tabulation of the men and women employed in each production unit, their functions and level within the company, details of their compensation and benefits, and dates and reasons for recruitments, promotions and transfers, as well as the estimated revenue impact. …All of these protections and assurances, along with the bureaucracies that oversee them, subtract 47.6% from the average Italian wage, according to the OECD. …which may explain the temptation to stay small and keep as much of your business as possible off the books. This gray- and black-market accounts for more than a quarter of the Italian economy. It also helps account for unemployment at a 12-year high of 10%, and GDP forecast to contract 1.3% this year.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the unelected prime minister of Italy, Mr. Monti, isn’t really trying to fix any of this nonsense and instead is agitating for more bailouts from taxpayers in countries that aren’t quite as corrupt and strangled by red tape.

Monti also is a big supporter of eurobonds, whichs make a lot of sense if you’re the type of person who likes co-signing loans for your unemployed alcoholic cousin with a gambling addiction.

But let’s not forget our Greek friends, the ones from the country that subsidizes pedophiles and requires stool samples from entrepreneurs applying to set up online companies.

The recent elections resulted in a victory for the supposedly conservative party, so what did the new government announce? A flat tax to boost growth? Sweeping deregulation to get rid of the absurd rules that strangle entrepreneurship?

Nope. In addition to whining for further handouts from taxpayers in other nations, the Wall Street Journal reports that the new government has announced that it won’t be pruning any bureaucrats from the country’s bloated government workforce:

Greece’s new three-party coalition government on Thursday ruled out massive public-sector layoffs, a move that could help pacify restive trade unions… The new government’s refusal to slash public payrolls and its demands to renegotiate its loan deal comes just as euro-zone finance ministers meet in Luxembourg to discuss Greece’s troubled overhauls—and possibly weigh a two-year extension the new government is seeking in a bid to ease the terms of the austerity program that has accompanied the bailout. …Cutting the size of the public sector has been a top demand by Greece’s creditors—the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund—to reduce costs and help Greece meet its budget-deficit targets needed for the country to get more financing. So far, Greece has laid off just a few hundred workers and failed to implement a so-called labor reserve last year, which foresaw slashing the public sector by 30,000 workers.

Gee, isn’t this just peachy? Best of all, thank to the IMF, the rest of us are helping to subsidize these Greek moochers.

And speaking of the IMF, it just released a report on problems in the eurozone that makes zero mention of excessive government spending or high tax burdens. The tax-free IMF bureaucrats do claim that “Important actions have been taken,” but they’re talking about bailouts and easy money:

The ECB has lowered policy rates and conducted special liquidity interventions to address immediate bank funding pressures and avert an even more rapid escalation of the crisis.

And even though the problems in Europe are solely the result of bad policies by member nations’ governments, the IMF says that “the crisis now calls for a stronger and more collective effort”:

Absent collective mechanisms to break these adverse feedback loops, the crisis has spilled across euro area countries. Contagion from further intensification of the crisis—including acute stress in funding markets and tensions involving systemically-important banks—would be sizeable globally. And spillovers to neighboring EU economies would be particularly large. A more determined and forceful collective response is needed.

Let’s translate this into plain English: The IMF wants more money from American taxpayers (and other victimized producers elsewhere in the world) to subsidize the types of statist policies that I described above in places such as France, Italy, and Greece.

I’ve previously explained why conspiracy theories are silly, but we’ve gotten to the point where I can forgive people for thinking that politicians and bureaucrats are deliberately trying to turn Europe into some sort of statist dystopia.