May 1, 2012 2:26PM

Italy Slowly Recognizes that the Substance of ‘Austerity’ Matters

Apologists for big government have regularly warned that Europe's austerity measures would push the European economy into a recession. To some extent they've been correct, but not for the reasons they claim. So far austerity in countries like Greece and Italy have been austerity for the private sector, not the public. They've attempted to close budget gaps by tax increases rather than spending cuts. Witness Mario Monti's implementation of a tax on first home purchases (sure to do wonders for your housing and construction labor markets).

Fortunately there is some small ray of hope that Italy has come to recognize the error of its ways. As reported in today's Financial Times, instead of pushing for an increase in the value-added tax, Italy will focus its next austerity measures on cutting government.  As the Financial Times goes on to explain:

The new government’s €30bn austerity package, passed in December, was heavily oriented towards tax increases rather than spending cuts, an emphasis that is now widely recognised by ministers as having driven Italy deeper into recession.

When even the Financial Times recognizes that tax increases are contractionary, then perhaps there is some hope for Italy (and Europe) after all. Now if we can actually get spending costs of real significance (€30 billion is a rounding error for the Italian government's budget).

February 15, 2011 8:04AM

New Era of Big Government

The George W. Bush administration ushered in a new era of big government. The Obama administration has built on Bush's profligacy, and the president's new fiscal 2012 budget proposal would further cement the trend.

Spending as a percentage of GDP has increased dramatically since the surplus years of the late 1990s. As the chart shows, the president’s budget once again seeks a permanently high level of federal spending as a share of the economy:

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While the numbers drop from their stimulus- and recession-induced highs, it is not because the president has suddenly decided that he desires a less active government. Rather, optimistic economic assumptions largely account for the slight retrenchment.

Tax increases and optimistic economic assumptions explain the projected rise in revenue as a share of the economy. While the president would like us to believe he’s found religion on spending cuts, he’s actually relying on a rosy economic forecast and sucking more money out of the private sector to reduce annual deficits.

Taking more money from the productive private economy to maintain destructively high levels of federal spending is not a recipe for economic growth. Therefore, this budget proposal is as dangerous as it is disingenuous. Fortunately, it’s also dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled House.

December 7, 2010 1:54PM

The Private Sector Lacks What?!?

So there I was, checking e-mail this morning on my JooJoo when I came across this editorial about how the private sector lacks accountability unless the government provides it through regulation! This naturally caused me to expectorate New Coke all over over myself and my Apple III, forcing me to toss my Levi's Type 1 jeans in the wash and hop back in the shower. (You know, that Touch of Yogurt shampoo by Clairol is really... uh... something).

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Twenty minutes later I was still so preoccupied about responding to the editorial that I backed over my neighbor's Segway as I pulled the Edsel out of the garage. Oops. Sorry Dean.

Anyway, once I got into the office I popped a couple of Ben Gay Aspirin to ease my now ferocious headache, but realized as I did so that I'd left my Colgate Kitchen Entree frozen dinner at home. Argh!

You get the idea, yes?

The fact that consumers have demands, and that they can go elsewhere if you fail to meet them, makes producers accountable. We see this in every sector of the economy. Provide a product or service that people don't want, take away one that they do want, or charge more than they are willing to pay, and they will kick you right in the bottom line.

The result is the same in education as in other fields: the least regulated, most market-like education systems consistently outperform highly regulated state-run school systems such as we have in this country---across every measure people care about.

Regulations are an attempt, crude and usually unsuccessful, to imitate the accountability inherent in competitive markets. So as long as you allow market forces to work in education, and you allow people to allocate their own money rather than taxing it and spending it through the state, regulations are not only unnecessary they are generally counterproductive. (Milton and Rose Friedman had a good chapter on this in Free to Choose.)

Note that this is true under both personal use education tax credits (for parents' own education costs) and scholarship donation tax credits (in which taxpayers donate to non-profit organizations that subsidize education for the poor). If a scholarship organization becomes corrupt or inefficient, taxpayers can easily redirect their donations to better-run competing organizations. The accountability is built into the system's design. No other private school choice program has this feature, and certainly public schools do not.

There is no evidence that layering government regulations on top of this market accountability system improves outcomes, and ample evidence that heavily regulated school systems perform badly. Unless those facts change, there is good reason to fight off attempts to regulate private schools under education tax credit programs.

September 8, 2010 5:57PM

“We’re Talking Bridges…”

On Labor Day, President Obama announced his plan for an additional $50 billion in spending, mostly on transportation.  An area Obama specifically mentioned was more spending for bridges, playing on the widely held perception that America's bridging are falling apart.  While clearly there are bridges that are greatly in need of repair and represent a threat to passenger safety, what has been the overall trend in bridge quality?  In one word:  improving.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics only about 1 in ten bridges today can be characterized as "structurally deficient", this is, in need of serious repair.  This may sound high, but it is down from 1 in four back in 1990.  As one can tell from the accompanying chart, the percent of deficient bridges has been on a steady decline over the last two decades.

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It is also worth noting that over 80 percent of the deficient bridges in the U.S. are in rural areas, and  subject to much less passenger traffic.  Many of these bridges likely see little, if any, traffic. 

Perhaps more important from the perspective of "economic stimulus" is that additional bridge construction and repair would take years to have any real impact on employment.  Rather than coming up with policies designed with solely political appeal in mind, the President and Congress should focus on broad policies that allow the private sector to determine what investment needs should be addressed.

May 20, 2010 3:10PM

Beware of Americans Proselytizing the Chinese Economic Model

In a Cato paper released earlier this month, I argued that the glacial pace of America’s economic recovery and its growing public debt juxtaposed against China’s almost uninterrupted double-digit annual economic growth and its role as Congress’s sugar daddy have bred insecurity among U.S. opinion leaders, many of whom now advocate a more strident approach to China, or emulation of its top-down approach.

I cite, among others, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who is enamored of autocracy’s capacity to facilitate China’s singularity of purpose to dominate the industries of the future:

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure that it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that, including boosting gasoline prices, from the top down.

Friedman’s theme—but less googoo eyed and more all-hands-on-deck!—is echoed in an op-ed by China-expert James McGregor, which ran in yesterday’s Washington Post.  McGregor conveys what he describes as an emerging sentiment within the U.S. business community in China.  That is: the Chinese government is hell bent on creating national economic champions; is using its increasing leverage (as global financier and fastest-growing market) to impose its own interpretations of the global rules of economic engagement in support of its comprehensive industrial policy, and, ultimately; the United States must wake up and rise to the challenge by crafting some top-down industrial policy of its own.

I don’t dispute some of McGregor’s premises.  China’s long process of market liberalization has slowed down, halted, and even reversed in some areas.  Policies are proliferating that favor local companies (particularly state-owned enterprises), hamper the operations of foreign-owned firms, and impede market access for imports.  Indeed, many of these policies are likely the product of industrial planning. 

But McGregor’s conclusion is extreme:

The time has come for a White House-led, public-private, comprehensive examination of American competitiveness against a clear-eyed view of China’s very smart and comprehensive industrial development policies and plans…What technology do we protect? What do we share? What are our commercial strategic imperatives as a nation? How do we retool the U.S. government’s inadequate and outdated trade bureaucracy to provide thoughtful strategic focus and interagency coordination? How do we overcome the fundamental disconnect between our system of scattered bureaucratic responsibilities and almost no national economic planning vs. China’s top-down, disciplined and aggressive national economic development planning machine?

Central planning may be more en vogue in Washington than usual nowadays, but to even come close to reaching his conclusion requires disregarding many facts, which is how McGregor gets there sans tongue in cheek.

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April 26, 2010 9:08AM

Furor over Government Employees

Concern about the pay, benefits, and performance of government employees seems to be growing. Chris Edwards's articles on how government pay is outpacing private-sector pay have generated media attention, cartoons, and angry rebuttals from the head of the federal Office of Personnel Management. Steven Greenhut has a new book, Plunder! How Public Employee Unions Are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation, and is writing lots of newspaper articles on the high costs of government unions, also the topic of a recent Cato Policy Analysis. New Jersey unions are not finding much sympathy as they try to hold on to their raises, benefits, pensions, and work rules in the face of Gov. Chris Christie's attempt to cut the budget. Liberal journalist Mickey Kaus is running for the U.S. Senate, trying to warn California's voters and the Democratic Party about the excessive power and destructive influence of public employee unions.

And now Saturday Night Live. The zeitgeist-riding comedy show had a truly harsh sketch this weekend about the "Public Employee of the Year Awards." It touched every element of popular resentment toward government workers: "people with government jobs are just like workers everywhere -- except for the lifetime job security, guaranteed annual raises, early retirement on generous pensions, and full medical coverage with no deductibles, office visit fees, or copayments" -- "retirement on full disability" by an obviously young and healthy worker -- "Surliest and Least Cooperative State Employee" -- "3200 hours [a year] on the job, all of it overtime" -- New York school janitors living in Florida -- employees with two current jobs and full disability -- an entire workday at the DMV without serving a single customer -- no-work contracts --  surprisingly early closings -- and "he's on break."

Time for unions to start worrying?