Prosperity, it seems, can bring sloth, which in turn disrupts the virtuous cycle, though not immediately. There is a period, which I believe we are in right now, where the disruption is not apparent, where it can be obscured through government monetary and fiscal manipulation. But eventually, a simple rule will prevail: you can’t live well if you don’t work.
It is hardly surprising that work produces well-being, and if work diminishes, then well-being, even in the most advanced economy, will slow down, stop, or shift into reverse gear. “Decadence,” with its connotations of self-indulgence and decline, is not too strong a word for the response we have seen to economic success, especially in much of Europe, over the past few decades.
In 2004, the year he won the Nobel Prize, Edward Prescott, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, published a paper titled “Why Do Americans Work So Much More than Europeans?” The data were stunning. Prescott found that the average output per adult between 1993 and 1996 in the United States was 75 percent greater than in Italy, 49 percent greater than in the United Kingdom, and 35 percent greater than in France and Germany. “Most of the differences in output,” he wrote, were “accounted for by differences in hours worked per person and not by differences in productivity.”
…Prescott showed that these differences are of fairly recent origin. During the period from 1970 to 1974, Europeans—including the French, Germans, and British—generally worked more than Americans. At that time, however, Europeans were less productive than Americans, so their overall output per person was about the same as it was in 1993-96: around one-third below the U.S. level. So, as Europeans became more efficient (producing more goods and services per hour of work), they cut back on their hours, choosing leisure over work. And the gap has widened. By the time Prescott won his Nobel Prize, Americans were working 50 percent more than the French.
…In his paper, Prescott fingered the culprit: high taxes. “The surprising finding,” he wrote, “is that this marginal tax rate [difference between Europe and the U.S.] accounts for the predominance of differences at points in time and the large change in relative labor supply over time.” Taxation rates on the next euro of income became so high that people were discouraged from working—especially with the enticements of early retirement.
But this explanation is incomplete. Why are taxes so high in Europe? Certainly not to maintain a strong defense but rather to pour money into a welfare state that provides lavish support to retirees, perennial students, and others who aren’t working. In other words, Europeans have chosen to have workers support non-workers in their leisure.
…A financial crisis can pull the covers away to give us a clear look at what’s underneath, and the current crisis has exposed Europe as a fool’s paradise. “The fundamental cause of the financial crisis,” wrote the George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen on his blog, Marginal Revolution, “is people and institutions thinking they are more wealthy than they are.”
…The same with nations. Europe supported its welfare state with borrowed money, a practice that can be perfectly healthy as long as both welfare state and debt are modest and loans can be serviced by diligent workers. Europe, however, is not nearly as wealthy as it thought it was, or as wealthy as its national way of life indicated.
Take Greece. …Greece joined the European Union in 1981 and the eurozone—the continent’s monetary union—in 2001. Since the second event, especially, Greece has been behaving as if it were truly rich. The secret was borrowed money. At the end of 2009, the country had a public debt equivalent to 114 percent of its GDP. That’s on top of the 3 percent of GDP that the European Union contributes as direct aid each year. Meanwhile, Greece consistently violated the EU’s rules for minimum deficit and debt levels. The Greeks, however, lived better and better, with an official retirement age of just 58. Only three-fifths of adult Greeks under age 64 were in the work force.
…Default can impose needed fiscal discipline on a government. But in an age of financial magic and euro-solidarity, default for a European nation is not a burden that has to be borne—at least not yet. On the brink of not being able to pay its debts earlier this year, Greece was bailed out with $100 billion in loans from the 15 other eurozone countries and about $50 billion from the International Monetary Fund. This year, the Greek government will make interest payments amounting to 15 percent of GDP on its loans (the U.S. pays less than 3 percent). With Portugal and Spain and perhaps Italy heading for similar trouble, Europe announced it would guarantee debts up to $955 billion.
There are two problems with such bailouts. First, they do little or nothing to end the leisure-seeking practices, encouraged by high marginal tax rates and labor regulations, that led to the near-defaults in the first place. Greece may promise austerity as a condition for being saved, but don’t count on delivery. Second is the matter of moral hazard—the tendency of insurance against calamity to provide an incentive toward behavior that produces calamity.
I warned of the dangers of moral hazard during the current financial crisis in an article in this magazine last year, and, unfortunately, we are seeing those predictions being realized. Much pain was caused by the crisis, but much was mitigated as well by government policies that kept profligate banks and other businesses alive that should have disappeared—and, of course, Washington took the occasion of the crisis to increase the size of its own welfare state. What the eurozone nations have done in bailing out Greece and pre-bailing Portugal and the others is to introduce a heaping helping of moral hazard that may seem nourishing at first but that inevitably will cause severe indigestion, or worse.
…While the United States is not Europe, many of our states clearly have aspirations in the same decadent direction. With high marginal tax rates and regulations that discourage work, California this year is running a deficit of $20 billion, and a recent study found that the pension shortfall for government workers is $500 billion. Investors were recently paying about $300,000 to buy credit default swaps—that is, an insurance policy—on each $10 million in California municipal bonds. That’s a rate 50 percent higher than on bonds issued by Kazakhstan. As a monetary union, the United States may face a decision similar to that of the eurozone nations: should the federal government bail out California? If it does, we will have entered a fool’s paradise on this side of the Atlantic as well.