Economic Lesson from Europe: Higher Tax Rates Are a Recipe for More Red Ink

We can learn a lot of economic lessons from Europe.

Today, we’re going to focus on another lesson, which is that higher taxes lead to more red ink. And let’s hope Hillary Clinton is paying attention.

I’ve already made the argument, using European fiscal data to show that big increases in the tax burden over the past several decades have resulted in much higher levels of government debt.

But let’s now augment that argument by considering what’s happened in recent years.

There’s been a big fiscal crisis in Europe, which has forced governments to engage in austerity.

But the type of austerity matters. A lot.

Here’s some of what I wrote back in 2014.

…austerity is a catch-all phrase that includes bad policy (higher taxes) and good policy (spending restraint). But with a few notable exceptions, European nations have been choosing the wrong kind of austerity (even though Paul Krugman doesn’t seem to know the difference).

And when I claim politicians in Europe have chosen the wrong kind of austerity, that’s not hyperbole.

What Greek “Austerity”?

It’s hard to find anything written or spoken about Greece that doesn’t contain a great deal of hand wringing about the alleged austerity – brutal fiscal austerity – that the Greek government has been forced to endure at the hands of the so-called troika. This is Alice in Wonderland economics. It supports my 95% rule: 95% of what you read about economics and finance is either wrong or irrelevant.

Austerity, A New Weaselword

The financial press has become inundated with the word “austerity.” Since Greece’s left-wing Syriza proclaimed an “anti-austerity revolution,” strong adjectives, like “incredibly savage,” precede that overused word.

What was once a good word has become a weaselword. That, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is “a word that destroys the force of a statement, as a weasel ruins an egg by sucking out its contents.” How could that be?

The EU’s Anti-Austerity Hypocrites

The European Union (EU) is still in the midst of an economic slump. Many members of the political class in Brussels claim that fiscal austerity is to blame. But, this diagnosis is wrong. The EU’s problem is one of monetary, not fiscal, austerity. Money matters. Just look at the accompanying chart. Private credit in the Eurozone has been shrinking since March 2012.

The Missing Data in Krugman’s German Austerity Narrative

There’s an ongoing debate about Keynesian economics, stimulus spending, and various versions of fiscal austerity, and regular readers know I do everything possible to explain that you can promote added prosperity by reducing the burden of government spending.

Simply stated, we get more jobs, output, and growth when resources are allocated by competitive markets. But when resources are allocated by political forces, cronyism and pork cause inefficiency and waste.

That’s why statist nations languish and market-oriented countries flourish.

Paul Krugman has a different perspective on these issues, which is hardly a revelation. But I am surprised that he often times doesn’t get the numbers quite right when he delves into specific case studies.

He claimed that spending cuts caused an Estonian economic downturn in 2008, but the government’s budget actually skyrocketed by 18 percent that year.

He complained about a “government pullback” in the United Kingdom even though the data show that government spending was climbing faster than inflation.

He even claimed that Hollande’s election in France was a revolt against austerity, notwithstanding the fact that the burden of government spending rose during the Sarkozy years.

My colleague Alan Reynolds pointed out that Krugman mischaracterized the supposed austerity in the PIIGS nations such as Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain.

We have another example to add to the list.

He now wants us to believe that Germany has been a good Keynesian nation.

Larry Summers Redefines Balanced Budgets as Stimulus and Big Deficits as Austerity

Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, in June 4 testimony before the Senate Budget Committee, offers a scatter diagram which allegedly shows “that countries that pursued harsher austerity policies in recent years also had lower real GDP growth.”  He acknowledges, but does not adequately explain, that the causality may well be backwards: Bond markets would not allow countries in severe economic distress (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain) to continue financing deficits at the peak levels of 2010.

Summers defines “austerity” as the three-year change (regardless of the level) from 2010 to 2013 in cyclically-adjusted “primary” deficits (excluding interest expense) as a percent of potential GDP.  His scatter diagram then compares those changes to average real GDP growth from 2010 to 2013, using unexplained estimates for 2013.

Measuring fiscal stimulus by the change in budget deficits means several countries with little or no budget deficit in both 2010 and 2013 appear as employing the most “fiscal stimulus” in Summers’ graph. Sweden’s deficit is estimated at 0.1 percent of GDP for 2013, according to The Economist, and was literally zero in 2010.  Keeping the budget balanced puts Sweden on the admirable left side of Summers’ diagram – the side ostensibly choosing growth rather than austerity.  Germany is another country Summers counts as avoiding austerity, even though Germany’s brief cyclically-adjusted deficit of 3.5 percent of GDP in 2010 was cut to zero in 2012-2013.

When it comes to real GDP Growth, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Slovak Republic and South Korea appear near the top of Summers’ graph.  It is revealing that Hong Kong is also far to the left on the pro-growth side of the austerity axis.  This may appear paradoxical since Hong Kong ran budget surpluses in 7 of the past 8 years, and will do so again in 2013. No amount of cyclical adjusting could turn chronic surpluses into deficits.  Simply because Hong Kong has not switched from a big deficit to a smaller one, that alone suffices to place it among the least “austere” economies on list.  Similarly, South Korea’s budget surplus is estimated at 1.3-1.4 percent of GDP in both 2010 and 2013, according to the OECD, but keeping the budget in surplus between those years counts as stimulative policy in Summers’ reckoning.

Where Are the European Spending Cuts?

Paul Krugman recently tried to declare victory for Keynesian economics over so-called austerity, but all he really accomplished was to show that tax-financed government spending is bad for prosperity.

More specifically, he presented a decent case against the European-IMF version of “austerity,” which has produced big tax increases.

But what happens if nations adopt the libertarian approach, which means “austerity” is imposed on the government, rather than on taxpayers?

In the past, Krugman has also tried to argue that European nations have erred by cutting spending, but this has led to some embarrassing mistakes.

Now we have some additional evidence about the absence of spending austerity in Europe. A leading public finance economist from Ireland, Constantin Gurdgiev, reviewed the IMF data and had a hard time finding any spending cuts:

…in celebration of that great [May 1] socialist holiday, “In Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy and France tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demand jobs and an end to years of belt-tightening”. Except, no one really asked them what did the mean by ‘belt-tightening’. …let’s check out expenditure side of Europe’s ‘savage austerity’ story… The picture hardly shows much of any ‘savage cuts’ anywhere in sight.

As seen in his chart, Constantin compared government spending burdens in 2012 to the average for the pre-recession period, thus allowing an accurate assessment of what’s happened to the size of the public sector over a multi-year period.

Austerity in Europe

Here are some of his conclusions from reviewing the data:

Of the three countries that experienced reductions in Government spending as % of GDP compared to the pre-crisis period, Germany posted a decline of 1.26 percentage points (from 46.261% of GDP average for 2003-2007 period to 45.005% for 2012), Malta posted a reduction of just 0.349 ppt and Sweden posted a reduction of 1.37 ppt.

No peripheral country - where protests are the loudest - or France et al have posted a reduction. In France, Government spending rose 3.44 ppt on pre-crisis level as % of GDP, in Greece by 4.76 ppt, in Ireland by 7.74 ppt, in Italy by 2.773 ppt, in Portugal by 0.562 ppt, and in Spain by 8.0 ppt.

Average Government spending in the sample in the pre-crisis period run at 44.36% of GDP and in 2012 this number was 48.05% of GDP. In other words: it went up, not down.

…All in, there is no ‘savage austerity’ in spending levels or as % of GDP.

I’ll add a few additional observations.

Margaret Thatcher and the Battle of the 364 Keynesians

With the death of Margaret Thatcher, and the ensuing profusion of commentary on her legacy, it is worth looking back at an overlooked chapter in the Thatcher story. I am referring to her 1981 showdown with the Keynesian establishment—a showdown that the Iron Lady won handily. Before getting caught up with the phony “austerity vs. fiscal stimulus” debate, the chattering classes should take note of how Mrs. Thatcher debunked the Keynesian “fiscal factoid.”

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