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I’ve been writing too much about the Ryan budget, the government shutdown, and other fiscal policy issues. Time for some wholesome politician bashing.

But I’m not going to pick on the U.S. Congress, which is one of my favorite targets. Instead, we’re going to cross the ocean and mock the political elite of the European Parliament (a.k.a., the Potemkin-Village legislature). These lawmakers don’t really have any real responsibility. They largely exist to give faux democratic legitimacy to the decisions of the European Commission.

But they have figured out how to butter their own bread. They are provided lavish pay and benefits in exchange for very little work. And they get all sorts of perks that might cause even American politicians to blush with embarrassment.

For example, they automatically get to travel in business class, courtesy of the long-suffering taxpayers of Europe. And when somebody has the gall to suggest that this is a waste of money, the politicians link arms and defend their privileged status.

Here are some excerpts from a report in the EU Observer.

MEPs have said parliament’s budget should be increased by 2.3 percent next year, at the same time rejecting a proposal for euro-deputies to take more economy class flights in future. …In adopting the report on Wednesday, MEPs also rejected an amendment to save money by ensuring flights under four hours were carried out on economy class, citing procedural reasons. At present, MEP travel is reimbursed to the level of a business class flight or a first class rail ticket. The rejected amendment would have saved between €15 to €20 million a year… A parliamentary source defended the decision. “Most MEPs agree that economy-flex tickets are okay, but they think the budget procedure is not the way to do this,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

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Sooner or later, there will be a giant battle in Washington over the value-added tax. The people who want bigger government (and the people who are willing to surrender to big government) understand that a new source of tax revenue is needed to turn the United States into a European-style social welfare state. But that’s exactly why the VAT is a terrible idea.

I explain why in a column for Reuters. The entire thing is worth reading, but here’s an excerpt of some key points.

Many Washington insiders are claiming that America needs a value-added tax (VAT) to get rid of red ink. …And President Obama says that a VAT is “something that has worked for other countries.”

Every single one of these assertions is demonstrably false.

…One of the many problems with a VAT is that it is a hidden levy. …VATs are imposed at each stage of the production process and thus get embedded in the price of goods. And because the VAT is hidden from consumers, politicians find they are an easy source of new revenue – which is one reason why the average VAT rate in Europe is now more than 20 percent!

…Western European nations first began imposing VATs about 40 years ago, and the result has been bigger government, permanent deficits and more debt. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, public debt is equal to 74 percent of GDP in Western Europe, compared to 64 percent of GDP in the United States (and the gap was much bigger before the Bush-Obama spending spree doubled America’s debt burden).

The most important comparison is not debt, but rather the burden of government spending. …you don’t cure an alcoholic by giving him keys to a liquor store, you don’t promote fiscal responsibility by giving government a new source of revenue.

…To be sure, we would have a better tax system if proponents got rid of the income tax and replaced it with a VAT. But that’s not what’s being discussed. At best, some proponents claim we could reduce other taxes in exchange for a VAT. Once again, though, the evidence from Europe shows this is a naive hope. The tax burden on personal and corporate income is much higher today than it was in the pre-VAT era.

…When President Obama said the VAT is “something that has worked for other countries,” he should have specified that the tax is good for the politicians of those nations, but not for the people. The political elite got more money that they use to buy votes, and they got a new tax code, enabling them to auction off loopholes to special interest groups.

You can see some amusing – but also painfully accurate – cartoons about the VAT by clicking here, here, and here.

For further information on why the VAT is a horrible proposal, including lots of specific numbers and comparisons between the United States and Western Europe, here’s a video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

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Forget the Magna Carta and the Constitution. Don’t pay attention to the end of slavery. Ignore the defeat of the Nazis or the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

If you want a real victory for humanity, European courts have ruled that people have the right to free soccer games on TV. Apparently, people are now “entitled” to anything that is “of major importance” to society.

Isn’t that just peachy? Europe is slowly collapsing under the weight of the welfare state. Nations such as Greece and Portugal already have reached the point of fiscal collapse. But rather than address these problems, the political elites at the European institutions have decided on a modern-day version of bread and circuses for the masses.

Here’s a blurb from the Financial Times.

European countries are entitled to ban the exclusive airing of World Cup and European football championship games on pay-TV in order to allow wider public viewing on free channels, one of Europe’s top courts has ruled. The ruling is a blow for Fifa, which organises the World Cup finals, and Uefa, which handles the European Football Championship finals. Both organisations depend heavily on the sale of broadcasting rights for much of their income and had challenged the extent to which games had to be shown more widely. But on Thursday the General Court in Luxembourg slapped down their arguments and ruled in favour of Belgium and the UK, which had included games organised by Fifa or Uefa on their lists of events they considered to be “of major importance” to society and so entitled to wider audiences.

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I’ve already poked fun at Herman Van Rompuy, the nondescript über-bureaucrat who has risen to the non-elected post of European Council President. I’ve mocked Rompuy’s attempts to compete with other European politicians, and I encourage everyone to have a good laugh at this video of Van Rompuy getting eviscerated by a British MEP.

We now have a new reason to roll our eyes about Van Rompuy. He is whining about those mean, nasty bond traders who have decided that it is a somewhat risky proposition to lend money to Europe’s welfare states. Even though Van Rompuy has no experience with money (other than spending the fruits of other people’s labor), he imperiously thinks it is “absurd” to put Greece and Portugal in the same category as Ukraine and Argentina.

I guess he would prefer if everyone just pretended these countries were in good shape and able to pay their bills, sort of like a fiscal version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Here’s the relevant passage from an article in the EU Observer.

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy has lashed out at ‘bond vigilantes’ over the treatment of peripheral eurozone economies in recent months. Speaking in London after a meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday (13 January), Mr Van Rompuy described recent events as “absurd” and said the likes of Greece and Portugal should not be treated the same as poor countries: “Recent market developments are sometimes rather strange. The spreads now show default risks for some eurozone countries bigger than for emerging countries like Ukraine or Argentina: that is absurd.”

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Thanks to decades of reckless spending by European welfare states, the newspapers are filled with headlines about debt, default, contagion, and bankruptcy.

We know that Greece and Ireland already have received direct bailouts, and other European welfare states are getting indirect bailouts from the European Central Bank, which is vying with the Federal Reserve in a contest to see which central bank can win the “Most Likely to Appease the Political Class” Award.

But which nation will be the next domino to fall? Who will get the next direct bailout?

Some people think total government debt is the key variable, and there’s been a lot of talk that debt levels of 90 percent of GDP represent some sort of fiscal Maginot Line. Once nations get above that level, there’s a risk of some sort of crisis.

But that’s not necessarily a good rule of thumb. This chart, based on 2010 data from the Economist Intelligence Unit (which can be viewed with a very user-friendly map), shows that Japan’s debt is nearly 200 percent of GDP, yet Japanese debt is considered very safe, based on the market for credit default swaps, which measures the cost of insuring debt. Indeed, only U.S. debt is seen as a better bet.

Interest payments on debt may be a better gauge of a nation’s fiscal health. The next chart (2011 data) shows the same countries, and the two nations with the highest interest costs, Greece and Ireland, already have been bailed out. Interestingly, Japan is in the best shape, even though it has the biggest debt. This shows why interest rates are very important. If investors think a nation is safe, they don’t require high interest rates to compensate them for the risk of default (fears of future inflation also can play a role, since investors don’t like getting repaid with devalued currency).

Based on this second chart, it appears that Italy, Portugal, and Belgium are the next dominos to topple. Portugal may be the best bet (no pun intended) based on credit default swap rates, and that certainly is consistent with the current speculation about an official bailout.

Spain is the wild card in this analysis. It has the second-lowest level of both debt and interest payments as shares of GDP, but the CDS market shows that Spanish government debt is a greater risk than bonds from either Italy or Belgium.

By the way, the CDS market shows that lending money to Illinois and California is also riskier than lending to either Italy or Belgium.

The moral of the story is that there is no magic point where deficit spending leads to a fiscal crisis, but we do know that it is a bad idea for governments to engage in reckless spending over a long period of time. That’s a recipe for stifling taxes and large deficits. And when investors see the resulting combination of sluggish growth and rising debt, eventually they will run out of patience.

The Bush-Obama policy of big government has moved America in the wrong direction. But if the data above is any indication, America probably has some breathing room. What happens on the budget this year may be an indication of whether we use that time wisely.

 

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Why hasn’t Europe fought World War III? Could it be because the Soviet Union eventually collapsed? Could it be that the NATO, the western military alliance, was effective? Could it be the mutually assured destruction kept the peace? Could it be that America’s commitment to defend Europe was a deterrent?

But all those reasons focus on the role of the Soviet Union. Let’s cast the net wider and ask why World War III, or even smaller wars, didn’t begin with fights among Western European nations. How did long-time rivals France and England avoid war? Why did the Germans not launch another war on the continent? Did these things not happen because civilization finally triumphed? Because the peoples of Europe finally got sick of fighting? Because Western European nations were focused on the danger from the Soviet Union? Because the large U.S. military presence as part of NATO helped keep the peace?

I’m not a foreign policy expert, so I’m sure this is not even close to being a comprehensive list of potential explanations. But it turns out that all of my guesses are wrong. Or they’re wrong if we choose to believe French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, who says the creation of a pan-European bureaucracy in Brussels has been the key to peace. Moreover, we are supposed to believe that the only way to keep the peace is to impose more harmonization, more centralization, and more bureaucratization on the unwilling peoples of Europe.

You may think I’m being satirical, but this is not a joke. Ms. Lagarde was being interviewed on BBC. She was asked about plans to further erode national sovereignty and transfer more power to Brussels, and whether the people of Europe (rather than just the political elite) should get to choose whether this happens. Here’s a summary of her  mind-blowing statement from Open Europe.

…when asked whether people had ever voted for this convergence she replied, “The European project has been around for over fifty years and it was built on the back of a situation where people were at war…The European project is something we all believe in because we want peace to be maintained.”

To be fair, I don’t actually think Ms. Lagarde is stupid. There’s no way she thinks the so-called European Project, or any of its bureaucratic creations (European Commission, European Parliament, European Court of Justice, etc), deserves credit for keeping the peace. But she obviously thinks the people of Europe are a bunch of stupid peasants and serfs. Or she thinks they are so powerless, thanks to the anti-democratic structure of the European Union and the housebroken European media, that she can say something utterly absurd and be confident that there will be no adverse consequences.

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The mid-term elections were a rejection of President Obama’s big-government agenda, but those results don’t necessarily mean better policy. We should not forget, after all, that Democrats rammed through Obamacare even after losing the special election to replace Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts (much to my dismay, my prediction from last January was correct).

Similarly, GOP control of the House of Representatives does not automatically mean less government and more freedom. Heck, it doesn’t even guarantee that things won’t continue to move in the wrong direction. Here are five possible bad policies for 2011, most of which the Obama White House can implement by using executive power.

1. A back-door bailout of the states from the Federal Reserve – The new GOP Congress presumably wouldn’t be foolish enough to bail out profligate states such as California and Illinois, but that does not mean the battle is won. Ben Bernanke already has demonstrated that he is willing to curry favor with the White House by debasing the value of the dollar, so what’s to stop him from engineering a back-door bailout by having the Federal Reserve buy state bonds? The European Central Bank already is using this tactic to bail out Europe’s welfare states, so a precedent already exists for this type of misguided policy. To make matters worse, there’s nothing Congress can do – barring legislation that Obama presumably would veto – to stop the Fed from this awful policy.

2. A front-door bailout of Europe by the United States – Welfare states in Europe are teetering on the edge of insolvency. Decades of big government have crippled economic growth and generated mountains of debt. Ireland and Greece already have been bailed out, and Portugal and Spain are probably next on the list, to be followed by countries such as Italy and Belgium. So why should American taxpayers worry about European bailouts? The unfortunate answer is that American taxpayers will pick up a big chunk of the tab if the International Monetary Fund is involved. Indeed, this horse already has escaped the barn. The United States provides the largest amount of  subsidies to the International Monetary Fund, and the IMF took part in the bailouts of Greece and Ireland. The Senate did vote against having American taxpayers take part in the bailout of Greece, but that turned out to be a symbolic exercise. Sadly, that’s probably what we can expect if and when there are bailouts of the bigger European welfare states.

3. Republicans getting duped by Obama and supporting a VAT – The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the Obama Administration is contemplating a reduction in the corporate income tax. This sounds like a great idea, particularly since America’s punitive corporate tax rate is undermining competitiveness and hindering job creation. But what happens if Obama demands that Congress approve a value-added tax to “pay for” the lower corporate tax rate? This would be a terrible deal, sort of like a football team trading a great young quarterback for a 35-year old lineman. The VAT would give statists a money machine that they need to turn the United States into a French-style welfare state. This type of national sales tax would only be acceptable if the personal and corporate income taxes were abolished – and the Constitution was amended to make sure the federal government never again could tax what we earn and produce. But that’s not the deal Obama would offer. My fingers are crossed that Obama doesn’t offer to swap a lower corporate income tax for a VAT, particularly since we already know that some Republicans are susceptible to the VAT.

4. Regulatory imposition of global warming policy – This actually is an issue we needed to start worrying about before this year. The Obama Administration already is in the process of trying to use regulatory edicts to impose Kyoto-style restrictions on energy use, and 2011 may be a pivotal year for this issue. This issue is troubling because of the potential impact on economic growth, but it also represents an assault on the rule of law since the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency are engaging in regulatory overreach because they did not have enough support to get so-called climate change legislation through Congress. The new GOP majority presumably will try to use the “power of the purse” to limit the EPA’s power grab, and the outcome of that fight could have dramatic implications for job creation and competitiveness.

5. U.N. control of the Internet – The Federal Communications Commission just engaged in an unprecedented power grab as part of its “Net Neutrality” initiative, so we already have bad news for both Internet consumers and America’s telecommunications industry. But it may get worse. The bureaucrats at the United Nations, conspiring with autocratic governments, have created an Internet Governance Forum in hopes of grabbing power over the online world. This has caused considerable angst, leading Vint Cerf, one of inventors of the Internet (sorry, Al Gore) to warn: “We don’t believe governments should be allowed to grant themselves a monopoly on Internet governance. The current bottoms-up, open approach works — protecting users from vested interests and enabling rapid innovation. Let’s fight to keep it that way.” International bureaucracies are very skilled at incrementally increasing their authority, so this won’t be a one-year fight. Stopping this power grab will require persistent oversight and a willingness to reject compromises that inevitably give bureaucracies more power and simply set the stage for further demands.

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Sometimes it’s not a good idea to be at the top of a list. And now that Japan has announced a five-percentage point reduction in its corporate tax rate, the United States will have the dubious honor of imposing the developed world’s highest corporate tax rate. Here’s an excerpt from the report in the New York Times.

Japan will cut its corporate income tax rate by 5 percentage points in a bid to shore up its sluggish economy, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said here Monday evening.Companies have urged the government to lower the country’s effective corporate tax rate — which now stands at 40 percent, around the same rate as that in the United States — to stimulate investment in Japan and to encourage businesses to create more jobs. Lowering the corporate tax burden by 5 percentage points could increase Japan’s gross domestic product by 2.6 percentage points, or 14.4 trillion yen ($172 billion), over the next three years, according to estimates by Japan’s Trade Ministry. …In a survey of nearly 23,000 companies published this month by the credit research firm Teikoku Data Bank, more than 44 percent of respondents cited lower corporate taxes as a prerequisite to stronger economic growth in Japan. …A 5 percentage-point tax rate cut is unlikely to do much to solve Japan’s woes, however. An effective corporate tax rate of 35 percent would still be higher than South Korea’s 24 percent or Germany’s 29 percent, for example. …Meanwhile, the government is trying to offset lost tax revenue with tax increases elsewhere, which could blunt the effect of reduced corporate tax burdens.

I suspect the Japanese government’s estimate of $172 billion of additional output is overly generous. After all, the corporate tax rate in Japan will still be very high (the government originally was considering a bigger cut). And foolish Japanese politicians will probably raise taxes elsewhere. But there will be some additional growth since the corporate tax rate is an especially damaging way to collect revenue.

But I’m not losing sleep about Japan’s economic future. I hope they do well, of course, but my bigger concern is the American economy. The U.S. corporate tax rate of nearly 40 percent (including state corporate burdens) already is far too high, particularly since America adds to the competitive disadvantage of U.S.-domiciled firms by being one of the few nations to impose an extra layer of tax on foreign-source income. Japan’s proposed rate reduction, however,  means the high tax rate in America will be an even bigger hindrance to job creation.

It’s also worth noting that the average corporate tax rate in Europe has now dropped to less than 24 percent, so even welfare states have figured out that a high tax burden on business doesn’t make sense in a competitive global economy.

Sometimes you can fall farther behind if you stand still and everyone else moves forward. That’s a good description of what’s happening in the battle for a pro-growth corporate tax system. By doing nothing, America’s self-destructive corporate tax system is becoming, well, even more destructive.

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Regular readers know that I am a tireless advocate for tax competition, which exists when governments are encouraged to adopt better tax policy in order to attract/retain jobs and investment. In other words, I want governments to compete with each other because that leads to better policy, just as we get better results as consumers when banks, pet stores, hairdressers, and grocery stores compete with each other.

There is powerful evidence that tax competition has generated very good results in the past 30 years. Top personal income tax rates averaged more than 67 percent back in 1980, but thanks in large part to tax competition, the average top tax rate on individuals has fallen to about 41 percent. Corporate tax rates also have dropped dramatically, from an average of around 48 percent (this data is not as easy to pin down) in 1980 to 25 percent today. And we now have more than 30 flat tax nations today, compared to just 3 in 1980.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that greedy politicians don’t like being constrained by tax competition. Politicians didn’t lower tax rates because they wanted to. They only made their tax systems better because they were afraid that jobs and investment would escape to lower-tax jurisdictions. They resent the fact that tax competition makes it hard to engage in class-warfare tax policy.

That’s why many of these politicians are seeking to replace tax competition with some sort of tax cartel. They want to impose rules on the entire world that will make it hard for taxpayers to benefit from better tax policy in another jurisdiction. In effect, they want some form of tax harmonization, which would create an “OPEC for politicians.” And just as the real OPEC extracts more money from energy consumers, a tax cartel would grab more money from taxpayers.

One aspect of this battle is the way proponents of higher taxes try to demonize so-called tax havens. Many of these jurisdictions are very small, but the smart ones nonetheless defend themselves against the attacks coming from the world’s major welfare states. Here’s a good example. Tony Travers of Cayman Finance, the association representing the financial services industry in the Cayman Islands, recently spoke about the left’s campaign against low-tax jurisdictions.

Travers said he believed the widespread negativity was part of well organised and powerful public relations campaigns driven by onshore Treasury, and supranational and domestic regulatory bodies. British politicians such as Emma Reynolds and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and even US President Barack Obama were, he said, examples of politicians that were “blame deflecting … and anxious to obfuscate the failures of their domestic regulatory systems … by suggesting that in some way it is the tax or regulatory system of the offshore financial centre that is at fault.” He claimed the problems they were trying to conceal by their demonisation of offshore centres had their source onshore. He described various socialist activist movements, such as the trade unions, major charities such as Oxfam, and Travers arch nemesis, Richard Murphy of the Tax Justice Network as the “Tax Taliban” .

This fight is occurring at all levels. A new scholarly study from the Instituto Bruno Leoni in Italy digs into the academic debate about tax competition. Written by Dalibor Rohác of London’s Legatum Institute, the report debunks the argument that tax competition somehow is economically inefficient.

The first common argument is that tax competition distorts the allocation of mobile factors of production across countries. The second argument recurrent in the literature says that tax competition can reduce tax revenue and endanger the stability of public finances. The troublesome feature of both of these arguments is that they start from the assumption of government benevolence and omniscience. For instance, the first argument presupposes that the initial allocation of capital between the two countries was optimal and that tax competition is driving it away from the optimum. Likewise, the second argument implicitly assumes that the initial amount raised in taxes corresponded to some well-defined social optimum and therefore that tax competition drives revenue below that optimal level. Hence neither of these arguments holds in the light of basic public choice theory which convincingly demonstrates that governments do have a tendency to overspend and overtax.

Rohác cleverly exposes the other side’s statist agenda. He explains that their main argument is based on the idea that different tax rates in different nations will lead to an inefficient allocation of investment. He then points out that there is a pro-growth way and an anti-growth way of dealing with this supposed problem.

…if the problem of capital misallocation is caused by differences in tax rates among countries, than introducing a maximal rate is a solution that would be equally appropriate. …tax competition might well offer a solution to the alleged problem of misallocation of capital caused by tax differentials. If tax competition was a “race to the bottom,” then the final outcome would actually be a tax rate harmonized across countries and harmonized at a rate of zero per cent, thus eliminating capital tax distortions altogether.

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The fiscal disintegration of Europe is bad news, though I confess to a bit of malicious glee every time I read about welfare states such as Greece, Ireland, and Portugal getting to the point where they no longer have the ability to borrow enough money to finance their bloated public sectors. This I-told-you-so attitude is not very mature on my part, but at least one hopes that American politicians will learn the right lessons.

Even though this is a big issue, I have not written much about the topic, in part because I don’t have much to add to my original post about this issue back in February. All the arguments I made then are still true, particularly about the moral hazard of bailouts and the economic damage of rewarding excessive government. So why bother repeating myself, particularly since this is an issue for Europeans to solve (or, as is their habit, to make worse)?

Unfortunately, it appears that all of us need to pay closer attention to this issue. The Obama Administration apparently thinks American taxpayers should subsidize European profligacy. Here’s a passage from a Reuters report about a potential bailout for Europe via the IMF.

The United States would be ready to support the extension of the European Financial Stability Facility via an extra commitment of money from the International Monetary Fund, a U.S. official told Reuters on Wednesday. “There are a lot of people talking about that. I think the European Commission has talked about that,” said the U.S. official, commenting on enlarging the 750 billion euro ($980 billion) EU/IMF European stability fund. “It is up to the Europeans. We will certainly support using the IMF in these circumstances.” “There are obviously some severe market problems,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “In May, it was Greece. This is Ireland and Portugal. If there is contagion that’s a huge problem for the global economy.”

This issue will be an interesting test for the GOP. I think it’s safe to say that the Tea Party movement didn’t elect Republicans so they could expand the culture of bailouts – especially if that means handouts for profligate European governments. Some people will argue that American taxpayers aren’t at risk because this would be a bailout from the IMF instead of the Treasury. But that’s an absurd and dishonest assertion. The United States is the largest “shareholder” in that international bureaucracy, and there’s no way the IMF can get more involved without American support.

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