Tag: fiscal crisis

Estonia and Austerity: Another Exploding Cigar for Paul Krugman

I have great fondness for Estonia, in part because it was the first post-communist nation to adopt the flat tax, but also because of the country’s remarkable scenery.

Most recently, though, I’ve been bragging about Estonia (along with Latvia and Lithuania, the other two Baltic nations) for implementing genuine spending cuts. I’ve argued that Estonia is showing how a government can reignite growth by reducing the burden of government.

Not surprisingly, some people disagree with my analysis. Paul Krugman of the New York Times criticized Estonia yesterday, writing that the Baltic nation suffered a “Depression-level slump” in 2008 and has only managed an “incomplete recovery” over the past few years.

He blames this supposedly weak performance on “austerity.”

I have a positive and negative reaction to Krugman’s post. My positive reaction is that he’s talking about a nation that actually has cut spending, so there’s real public-sector austerity (see Veronique de Rugy’s L.A. Times column to understand the critical difference between public-sector and private-sector austerity).

This is a sign of progress. In the past, he launched a silly attack on the U.K. for a “government pullback” that never happened, so what he wrote about Estonia at least is based on real events.

My negative reaction is that Krugman is very guilty of cherry-picking data. If you look at the chart that accompanies his post, Estonia’s economic performance isn’t very impressive, but that’s because he’s only showing us the data from 2007-present.

The numbers are accurate, but they’re designed to mislead rather than inform (sort of as if I did a chart showing 2009-present).

But before exposing that bit of trickery, there’s another mistake worth noting. Krugman presumably wants us to think that the downturn coincided with spending cuts. But his own chart shows that the economy hit the skids in 2008 - a year in which  government spending in Estonia soared by nearly 18 percent according to EU fiscal data!

It wasn’t until 2009 that Estonian lawmakers began to reduce the burden of spending. So I guess Professor Krugman wants us to believe that the economy tanked in 2008 because of expectations of 2009 austerity. Or something like that.

Returning now to my complaint about cherry picking data, Krugman makes Estonia seem stagnant by looking only at data starting in 2007. But as you can see from this second chart, Estonia’s long-run economic performance is quite exemplary. It has doubled its economic output in just 15 years according to the International Monetary Fund. Over that entire period - including the recent downturn, it has enjoyed one of the fastest growth rates in Europe.

This doesn’t mean Estonia is perfect. It did experience a credit/real estate bubble, and there was a deep recession when the bubble burst. And the politicians let government spending explode during the bubble years, almost doubling the budget between 2004 and 2008.

But Estonia reacted to the overspending and the downturn in a very responsible fashion. Instead of using the weak economy as an excuse to further expand the burden of government spending in hopes that Keynesian economics would magically work (after failing for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s, Japan in the 1990s, Bush in 2008, and Obama in 2009), the Estonians realized that they needed to cut spending.

And now that spending has been curtailed, it’s worth noting that growth has resumed.

What makes Krugman’s rant especially amusing is that he wrote it just as the rest of the world is beginning to notice that Estonia is a role model. Here’s some of what CNBC just posted.

Sixteen months after it joined the struggling currency bloc, Estonia is booming. The economy grew 7.6 percent last year, five times the euro-zone average. Estonia is the only euro-zone country with a budget surplus. National debt is just 6 percent of GDP, compared to 81 percent in virtuous Germany, or 165 percent in Greece. Shoppers throng Nordic design shops and cool new restaurants in Tallinn, the medieval capital, and cutting-edge tech firms complain they can’t find people to fill their job vacancies. It all seems a long way from the gloom elsewhere in Europe. Estonia’s achievement is all the more remarkable when you consider that it was one of the countries hardest hit by the global financial crisis. …How did they bounce back? “I can answer in one word: austerity. Austerity, austerity, austerity,” says Peeter Koppel, investment strategist at the SEB Bank. …that’s not exactly the message that Europeans further south want to hear. …Estonia has also paid close attention to the fundamentals of establishing a favorable business environment: reducing and simplifying taxes, and making it easy and cheap to build companies.

Good policy makes a difference. But it also helps to have rational citizens (unlike France, where people vote for economic illiterates and protest against reality).

While spending cuts have triggered strikes, social unrest and the toppling of governments in countries from Ireland to Greece, Estonians have endured some of the harshest austerity measures with barely a murmur. They even re-elected the politicians that imposed them. “It was very difficult, but we managed it,” explains Economy Minister Juhan Parts. “Everybody had to give a little bit. Salaries paid out of the budget were all cut, but we cut ministers’ salaries by 20 percent and the average civil servants’ by 10 percent,” Parts told GlobalPost. …As well as slashing public sector wages, the government responded to the 2008 crisis by raising the pension age, making it harder to claim health benefits and reducing job protection — all measures that have been met with anger when proposed in Western Europe.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that government is still far too big in Estonia. The public sector consumes about 39 percent of economic output, almost double the burden of government spending in Hong Kong and Singapore.

But, unlike certain American politicians, at least the Estonians understand the problem and are taking steps to move in the right direction. I hope they continue.

P.S. The President of Estonia, a Social Democrat named Toomas Hendrik Ilves, used his twitter account to kick the you-know-what out of Krugman yesterday. For amusement value, check out this HuffingtonPost article.

P.P.S. A few other nations, such as Canada and New Zealand, also imposed genuine spending restraint in recent decades and they also got good results.

Daniel in the Looter’s Den: My Adventures at the UN

I was at the United Nations yesterday for something called “The High Level Thematic Debate on the State of the World Economy.”

Most speakers, including the secretary general of the United Nations, the president of the European Commission, Paul Volcker, and Joseph Stiglitz, to varying degrees blamed private markets for the fiscal and financial problems of the world. Not surprisingly, there also was a consensus for more government—usually wrapped up in buzzwords such as “sustainable development” and “equitable growth” and ”coolective action”

I spoke in the afternoon as part of a roundtable on the economic crisis (see full schedule here). There were five speakers on my panel, including yours truly. Here are my thoughts on what the others said.

Dr. Supachai Panitchpakdi, secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, must have been part of the buzz-word contest I mentioned yesterday. Lots of rhetoric that theoretically was inoffensive, but I had the feeling that it translated into a call for more government. But maybe I’m paranoid, so who knows.

Professor Dato’ Dr. Zaleha Kamaruddin, rector of the International Islamic University of Malaysia, was an interesting mix. At some points, she sounded like Ron Paul, saying nice things about the gold standard and low tax rates. But she also called for debt forgiveness and other forms of intervention. She explicitly said she was providing Islamic insights, so perhaps the strange mix makes sense from that perspective.

Former U.S. senator Alan K. Simpson also was a mixed bag. Simpson was co-chair of President Obama’s fiscal commission, which I thought was a disappointment because it endorsed higher taxes and urged subpar entitlement changes rather than much-needed structural reforms. He also went after Grover Norquist because of the no-tax pledge, which I think is a valuable tool to keep Republicans from selling out for bigger government. All that being said, Senator Simpson is a promoter of smaller government and he wants lower tax rates. So while I disagree with some of his tactical decisions, he was an ally on the panel and would probably do a pretty good job if he was economic czar.

Last but not least, Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University was a statist, as one would expect based on what I wrote about him last year. We clashed the most, arguing about everything from tax havens to the size of government. Interestingly, we both said nice things about Sweden, but I was focusing on policies such as school choice and pension reform, while he admired the large public sector. But I will admit he was a nice guy. We sat next to each other and did find a bit of common ground in that we both were sympathetic to the way Sweden dealt with its financial crisis about 20 years ago (a version of the FDIC-resolution approach rather than the corrupt TARP bailout approach).

My message, by the way, was very simple: Higher taxes won’t work. The “growth” vs. “austerity” debate in Europe is really a no-win fight between those who want higher spending vs. those who want higher taxes. The only good answer is to restrain spending with—you guessed it—Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

The good news is that I wasn’t tarred and feathered. Indeed, I even got a modest amount of positive feedback. The bad news is that I doubt I moved the needle.

But at least the United Nations was willing to have contrary voices, unlike the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which once threatened to cancel a Global Tax Forum because of my short-lived participation.

Paul Krugman and the European Austerity Myth

With both France and Greece deciding to jump out of the left-wing frying pan into the even-more-left-wing fire, European fiscal policy has become quite a controversial topic.

But I find this debate and discussion rather tedious and unrewarding, largely because it pits advocates of Keynesian spending (the so-called “growth” camp) against supporters of higher taxes (the “austerity” camp).

Since I’m a big fan of nations lowering taxes and reducing the burden of government spending, I would like to see the pro-tax hike and the pro-spending sides both lose (wasn’t that Kissinger’s attitude about the Iran-Iraq war?). Indeed, this is why I put together this matrix, to show that there is an alternative approach.

One of my many frustrations with this debate (Veronique de Rugy is similarly irritated) is that many observers make the absurd claim that Europe has implemented “spending cuts” and that this approach hasn’t worked.

Here is what Prof. Krugman just wrote about France.

The French are revolting. …Mr. Hollande’s victory means the end of “Merkozy,” the Franco-German axis that has enforced the austerity regime of the past two years. This would be a “dangerous” development if that strategy were working, or even had a reasonable chance of working. But it isn’t and doesn’t; it’s time to move on. …What’s wrong with the prescription of spending cuts as the remedy for Europe’s ills? One answer is that the confidence fairy doesn’t exist — that is, claims that slashing government spending would somehow encourage consumers and businesses to spend more have been overwhelmingly refuted by the experience of the past two years. So spending cuts in a depressed economy just make the depression deeper.

And he’s made similar assertions about the United Kingdom, complaining that, “the government of Prime Minister David Cameron chose instead to move to immediate, unforced austerity, in the belief that private spending would more than make up for the government’s pullback.”

So let’s take a look at the actual data and see how much “slashing” has been implemented in France and the United Kingdom. Here’s a chart with the latest data from the European Union.

I’m not sure how Krugman defines austerity, but it certainly doesn’t look like there’s been a lot of “slashing” in these two nations.

To be fair, government spending in the United Kingdom has grown a bit slower than inflation in the past couple of years, so one could say that there’s been a very modest bit of trimming.

There’s been no fiscal restraint in France, however, even if one uses that more relaxed definition of a cut. The only accurate claim that can be made about France is that the burden of government spending hasn’t been growing quite as fast since the crisis began as it was growing in the preceding years.

This doesn’t mean there haven’t been any spending cuts in Europe. The Greek and Spanish governments actually cut spending in 2010 and 2011, and Portugal reduced outlays in 2011.

But you can see from this chart, which looks at all the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain), that the spending cuts have been very modest, and only came after years of profligacy. Indeed, Greece is the only nation to actually cut spending over the 3-year period since the crisis began.

Krugman would argue, of course, that the PIIGS are suffering because of the spending cuts. And since there actually have been spending cuts in the last year or two in these nations, does that justify his claims?

Yes and no. I don’t agree with the Keynesian theory, but that doesn’t mean it is easy or painless to shrink the burden of government. As I wrote earlier this year, “…the economy does hit a short-run speed bump when the public sector is pruned. Simply stated, there will be transitional costs when the burden of public spending is reduced. Only in economics textbooks is it possible to seamlessly and immediately reallocate resources.”

What I would argue, though, is that these nations have no choice but to bite the bullet and reduce the burden of government. The only other alternative is to somehow convince taxpayers in other nations to make the debt bubble even bigger with more bailouts and transfers. But that just makes the eventual day of reckoning that much more painful.

Additionally, I think much of the economic pain in these nations is the result of the large tax increases that have been imposed, including higher income tax rates, higher value-added taxes, and various other levies that reduce the incentive to engage in productive behavior.

So what’s the best path going forward? The best approach is to implement deep and meaningful spending cuts, and I think the Baltic nations of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia are positive role models in this regard. Let’s look at what they’ve done in recent years.

As you can see from the chart, the burden of government spending was rising at a reckless rate before the crisis. But once the crisis hit, the Baltic nations hit the brakes and imposed genuine spending cuts.

The Baltic nations went through a rough patch when this happened, particularly since they also had their versions of a real estate bubble. But, as I’ve already argued, I think the “cold turkey” or “take the band-aid off quickly” approach has paid dividends.

The key question is whether nations can maintain spending restraint, particularly when (if?) the economy begins to grow again.

Even a basket case like Greece can put itself on a good path if it follows Mitchell’s Golden Rule and simply makes sure that government spending, in the long run, grows slower than the private economy.

The way to make that happen is to implement something similar to the Swiss Debt Brake, which effectively acts as an annual cap on the growth of government.

In the long run, of course, the goal should be to shrink the overall burden of government to its growth-maximizing level.

Portuguese Finance Minister Admits Keynesian Stimulus Was a Flop

President Obama imposed a big-spending faux stimulus program on the economy back in 2009, claiming that the government needed to squander about $800 billion to keep the unemployment rate from rising above 8 percent.

How did that work out? One possible description is that the so-called stimulus became a festering pile of manure. About three years have passed, and the joblessness rate hasn’t dropped below 8 percent. But the White House has been sprinkling perfume on that pile of you-know-what and claiming that the Keynesian spending binge was good policy.

But not every politician is blindly ideological like Obama. Vitor Gaspar, Portugal’s Finance Minister, is willing to admit error. Here are some relevant excerpts from a New York Times report.

Mr. Gaspar, speaking to The New York Times last week, has a message for observers who say Europe needs to substantially relax its austerity approach: We tried stimulus and it backfired. Like some other European countries, Portugal tried what Mr. Gaspar called “a Keynesian style expansion” in 2008, referring to a theory by economist John Maynard Keynes. But it didn’t turn things around, and may have made things worse.

Why does the Portuguese Finance Minister have this view? Well, for the simple reason that the economy got worse and more spending put his country in a deeper fiscal ditch.

The yield on Portuguese government bonds – more than 11 percent on longer-term bonds — is substantially higher than the yields on debt issued by Ireland, Spain or Italy. …The main fear among investors is that Portugal is going to have to ask for a second bailout from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, which committed $103 billion of financial aid in 2011.

Maybe the big spenders in Portugal should import some of the statist bureaucrats at Congressional Budget Office. The CBO folks could then regurgitate the moving-goalposts argument that they’ve used in the United States and claim that the economy would be even weaker if the government hadn’t wasted more money.

But perhaps the Portuguese left doesn’t think that will pass the laugh test.

In any event, some of us can say we were right from the beginning about this issue.

Not that being right required any keen insight. Keynesian policies failed for Hoover and Roosevelt in the 1930s. So-called stimulus policies also failed for Japan in 1990s. And Keynesian proposals failed for Bush in 2001 and 2008.

Just in case any politicians are reading this post, I’ll make a point that normally goes without saying: Borrowing money from one group of people and giving it to another group of people does not increase prosperity.

But since politicians probably aren’t capable of dealing with a substantive argument, let’s keep it simple and offer three very insightful cartoons: here, here, and here.

Data in New World Bank Report Shows that Large Public Sectors Reduce Economic Growth

When Ronald Reagan said that big government undermined the economy, some people dismissed his comments because of his philosophical belief in liberty.

And when I discuss my work on the economic impact of government spending, I often get the same reaction.

This is why it’s important that a growing number of establishment outfits are slowly but surely coming around to the same point of view.

This is remarkable. It’s beginning to look like the entire world has figured out that there’s an inverse relationship between big government and economic performance.

That’s an exaggeration, of course. There are still holdouts pushing for more statism in Pyongyang, Paris, Havana, and parts of Washington, DC.

But maybe they’ll be convinced by new research from the World Bank, which just produced a major report on the outlook for Europe. In chapter 7, the authors explain some of the ways that big government can undermine prosperity.

There are good reasons to suspect that big government is bad for growth. Taxation is perhaps the most obvious (Bergh and Henrekson 2010). Governments have to tax the private sector in order to spend, but taxes distort the allocation of resources in the economy. Producers and consumers change their behavior to reduce their tax payments. Hence certain activities that would have taken place without taxes, do not. Workers may work fewer hours, moderate their career plans, or show less interest in acquiring new skills. Enterprises may scale down production, reduce investments, or turn down opportunities to innovate. …Over time, big governments can also create sclerotic bureaucracies that crowd out private sector employment and lead to a dependency on public transfers and public wages. The larger the group of people reliant on public wages or benefits, the stronger the political demand for public programs and the higher the excess burden of taxes. Slowing the economy, such a trend could increase the share of the population relying on government transfers, leading to a vicious cycle (Alesina and Wacziarg 1998). Large public administrations can also give rise to organized interest groups keener on exploiting their powers for their own benefit rather than facilitating a prosperous private sector (Olson 1982).

In other words, government spending undermines growth, and the damage is magnified by a poorly designed tax policies.

The authors then put forth a theoretical hypothesis.

…economic models argue that the excess burden of tax increases disproportionately with the tax rate—in fact, roughly proportional to its tax rate squared (Auerbach 1985). Likewise, the scope for self-interested bureaucracies becomes larger as the government channels more resources. At the same time, the core functions of government, such as enforcing property rights, rule of law and economic openness, can be accomplished by small governments. All this suggests that as government gets bigger, it becomes more likely that the negative impact of government might dominate its positive impact. Ultimately, this issue has to be settled empirically. So what do the data say?

These are important insights, showing that class-warfare tax increases are especially destructive and that government spending undermines growth unless the public sector is limited to core functions.

Then the authors report their results.

Figure 7.9 groups annual observations in four categories according to the share of government spending in GDP during that year. Both samples show a negative relationship between government size and growth, though the reduction in growth as government becomes bigger is far more pronounced in Europe, particularly when government size exceeds 40 percent of GDP. …we provide new econometric evidence on the impact of government size on growth using a panel of advanced and emerging economies since 1995. As estimates can be biased due to problems of omitted variables, endogeneity, or measurement errors, it is necessary to rely on a broad range of estimators. …They suggest that a 10 percentage point increase in initial government spending as a share of GDP in Europe is associated with a reduction in annual real per capita GDP growth of around 0.6–0.9 percentage points a year (table A7.2). The estimates are roughly in line with those from panel regressions on advanced economies in the EU15 and OECD countries for periods from 1960 or 1970 to 1995 or 2005 (Bergh and Henrekson 2010 and 2011).

These results aren’t good news for Europe, but they also are a warning sign for the United States. The burden of government spending has jumped by about 8-percentage points of GDP since Bill Clinton left office, so this could be the explanation for why growth in America is so sluggish.

Last but not least, they report that social welfare spending does the most damage.

Governments are big in Europe mainly due to high social transfers, and big governments are a drag on growth. The question is whether this is because of high social transfers? The answer seems to be that it is. The regression results for Europe, using the same approach as outlined earlier, show a consistently negative effect of social transfers on growth, even though the coefficients vary in size and significance (table A7.4). The result is confirmed through BACE regressions. High social transfers might well be the negative link from government size to growth in Europe.

The last point in this passage needs to be emphasized. It is redistribution spending that does the greatest damage. In other words, it’s almost as if Obama (and his counterparts in places such as France and Greece) are trying to do the greatest possible damage to the economy.

In reality, of course, these politicians are simply trying to buy votes. But they need to understand that this shallow behavior imposes very high costs in terms of foregone growth.

To elaborate, this video discusses the Rahn Curve, which augments the data in the World Bank study.

As I argue in the video, even though most of the research shows that economic growth is maximized when government spending is about 20 percent of GDP, I think the real answer is that prosperity is maximized when the public sector consumes less than 10 percent of GDP.

But since government in the United States is now consuming more than 40 percent of GDP (about as much as Spain!), the first priority is to figure out some way of moving back in the right direction by restraining government so it grows slower than the private sector.

European Central Bank Research Shows that Government Spending Undermines Economic Performance

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).

This may sound familiar, because it’s a description of the Rahn Curve, which is sort of the spending version of the Laffer Curve. This video explains.

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.

Will You Be Able to Protect Your Family if Politicians Destabilize Society?

About a week ago, I wrote that people in western nations need the freedom to own guns just in case there are riots, chaos, and social disarray when welfare states collapse.

Much to my surprise and pleasure, this resulted in an invitation to appear on the National Rifle Association’s webcast to discuss the issue.

As I noted in the interview, I’m just a fiscal policy wonk, but the right to keep and bear arms should be a priority for anyone who believes in freedom and responsibility. And even though I only have a couple of guns, you can see that I’m raising my kids to have a proper appreciation for the Second Amendment.

I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where we suffer societal breakdown, but I won’t be too surprised if it happens in some European countries. We’ve already seen the challenges faced by disarmed Brits during recent riots in the United Kingdom.

In the NRA interview, I pointed out that law enforcement is one of the few legitimate functions of government, so it is utterly despicable when politicians fail to fulfill that responsibility and also deprive households from having the ability to protect themselves.

Last but not least, watch this video if you want to be inspired about protecting the Second Amendment. Pay close attention around the five-minute mark.