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Posts Tagged ‘Germany’

Ireland is in deep fiscal trouble and the Germans and the French apparently want the politicians in Dublin to increase the nation’s 12.5 percent corporate tax rate as the price for being bailed out. This is almost certainly the cause of considerable smugness and joy in Europe’s high-tax nations, many of which have been very resentful of Ireland for enjoying so much prosperity in recent decades in part because of a low corporate tax burden.

But is there any reason to think Ireland’s competitive corporate tax regime is responsible for the nation’s economic crisis? The answer, not surprisingly, is no. Here’s a chart from one of Ireland’s top economists, looking at taxes and spending for past 27 years. You can see that revenues grew rapidly, especially beginning in the 1990s as the lower tax rates were implemented. The problem is that politicians spent every penny of this revenue windfall.

When the financial crisis hit a couple of years ago, tax revenues suddenly plummeted. Unfortunately, politicians continued to spend like drunken sailors. It’s only in the last year that they finally stepped on the brakes and began to rein in the burden of government spending. But that may be a case of too little, too late.

The second chart provides additional detail. Interestingly, the burden of government spending actually fell as a share of GDP between 1983 and 2000. This is not because government spending was falling, but rather because the private sector was growing even faster than the public sector.

This bit of good news (at least relatively speaking) stopped about 10 years ago. Politicians began to increase government spending at roughly the same rate as the private sector was expanding. While this was misguided, tax revenues were booming (in part because of genuine growth and in part because of the bubble) and it seemed like bigger government was a free lunch.

But big government is never a free lunch. Government spending diverts resources from the productive sector of the economy. This is now painfully apparent since there no longer is a revenue windfall to mask the damage.

There are lots of lessons to learn from Ireland’s fiscal/economic/financial crisis. There was too much government spending. Ireland also had a major housing bubble. And some people say that adopting the euro (the common currency of many European nations) helped create the current mess.

The one thing we can definitely say, though, is that lower tax rates did not cause Ireland’s problems. It’s also safe to say that higher tax rates will delay Ireland’s recovery. French and German politicians may think that’s a good idea, but hopefully Irish lawmakers have a better perspective.

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One of my first blog posts (and the first one to get any attention) highlighted the amusing/embarrassing irony of having Chinese students laugh at Treasury Secretary Geithner when he claimed the United States had a strong-dollar policy.

I suspect that even Tim “Turbotax” Geithner would be smart enough to avoid such a claim today, not after the Fed’s announcement (with the full support of the White House and Treasury) that it would flood the economy with $600 billion of hot money.

As I noted in an earlier post, monetary policy is not nearly as cut and dried as other issues, so I’m reluctant to make sweeping and definitive statements. That being said, I’m fairly sure that the Fed is on the wrong path. Here’s what my colleague Alan Reynolds wrote in the Wall Street Journal about Bernanke’s policy.

Mr. Bernanke…believes (contrary to our past experience with stagflation) that inflation is no danger thanks to economic slack (high unemployment). He reasons that if people can nonetheless be persuaded to expect higher inflation, regardless of the slack, that means interest rates will appear even lower in real terms. If that worked as planned, lower real interest rates would supposedly fix our hangover from the last Fed-financed borrowing binge by encouraging more borrowing. This whole scheme raises nagging questions. Why would domestic investors accept a lower yield on bonds if they expect higher inflation? And why would foreign investors accept a lower yield on U.S. bonds if they expect exchange rate losses on dollar-denominated securities? Why wouldn’t intelligent people shift their investments toward commodities or related stocks (such as mining and related machinery) and either shun, or sell short, long-term Treasurys? And if they did that, how could it possibly help the economy?

The rest of the world seems to share these concerns. The Germans are not big fans of America’s binge of borrowing and easy money. Here’s what Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble had to say in a recent interview.

The American growth model, on the other hand, is in a deep crisis. The United States lived on borrowed money for too long, inflating its financial sector unnecessarily and neglecting its small and mid-sized industrial companies. …I seriously doubt that it makes sense to pump unlimited amounts of money into the markets. There is no lack of liquidity in the US economy, which is why I don’t recognize the economic argument behind this measure. …The Fed’s decisions bring more uncertainty to the global economy. …It’s inconsistent for the Americans to accuse the Chinese of manipulating exchange rates and then to artificially depress the dollar exchange rate by printing money.

The comment about borrowed money has a bit of hypocrisy since German government debt is not much lower than it is in the United States, but the Finance Minister surely is correct about monetary policy. And speaking of China, we now have the odd situation of a Chinese rating agency downgrading U.S. government debt.

The United States has lost its double-A credit rating with Dagong Global Credit Rating Co., Ltd., the first domestic rating agency in China, due to its new round of quantitative easing policy. Dagong Global on Tuesday downgraded the local and foreign currency long-term sovereign credit rating of the US by one level to A+ from previous AA with “negative” outlook.

This development should be taken with a giant grain of salt, as explained by a Wall Street Journal blogger. Nonetheless, the fact that the China-based agency thought this was a smart tactic must say something about how the rest of the world is beginning to perceive America.

Simply stated, Obama is following Jimmy Carter-style economic policy, so nobody should be surprised if the result is 1970s-style stagflation.

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By choosing not to use the economic downturn as an excuse for more wasteful spending, Germany may have avoided Obama’s big mistake, but that does not mean German conservatives and Angela Merkel are supporters of economic liberty and individual freedom. Not even close. A good (or should I say “bad”) example of Merkel’s statist mindset is her push for a tax on financial transactions. And not just a German tax. She wants a global tax. And not just for the typical political reason of wanting more of other people’s money. Merkel has a megalomaniacal view that “every product, every actor, every financial market participant should be regulated.” Ludwig Erhard must be spinning in his grave.

“We will continue to work for a tax on the financial markets,” Merkel said in a stormy debate in parliament on her government’s 2011 budget. “The finance minister is doing this in several discussions and we are going to try to persuade as many countries as possible. Unfortunately, the world is not always as we would wish … but we are not going to give up,” she added. At a meeting of European Union finance ministers earlier this month, members of the 27-country bloc clashed over the idea of imposing a tax of financial market transactions in Europe. The proposal, driven by France and Germany…, has run into stiff resistance from several countries, notably Sweden and Britain. At the level of the Group of 20 developed and developing nations, there is still more discord, with Canada and emerging market economies leading the battle against it. A G20 summit takes place in South Korea in November. “We are sticking to the principle that every product, every actor, every financial market participant should be regulated so that we have an overview of what is happening on the financial markets,” Merkel said.

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It’s hard to believe that anybody would classify the Germans as a master race after reading this Spiegel article. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have a nutty (but at least non-coercive) plan for rich people to give away a big share of their fortunes. The German billionaires are rejecting this plan. But not because they are sensible and want capital in the hands of those who know how to create wealth. Instead, they think private charity intrudes upon the government’s responsibility.

Germany’s super-rich have rejected an invitation by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to join their ‘Giving Pledge’ to give away most of their fortune. The pledge has been criticized in Germany, with millionaires saying donations shouldn’t replace duties that would be better carried out by the state.

Last week, Microsoft founder Bill Gates attempted to convince billionaires around the world to agree to give away half their money to charity. But in Germany, the “Giving Pledge,” backed by 40 of the world’s wealthiest people, including Gates and Warren Buffet, has met with skepticism, SPIEGEL has learned.

Here’s an actual section of an interview with a rich German. The most astounding comment is when he basically says that private charity is bad because the state should decide how resources are allocated.

SPIEGEL: But doesn’t the money that is donated serve the common good?

Krämer: It is all just a bad transfer of power from the state to billionaires. So it’s not the state that determines what is good for the people, but rather the rich want to decide. That’s a development that I find really bad. What legitimacy do these people have to decide where massive sums of money will flow?

SPIEGEL: It is their money at the end of the day.

Krämer: In this case, 40 superwealthy people want to decide what their money will be used for. That runs counter to the democratically legitimate state. In the end the billionaires are indulging in hobbies that might be in the common good, but are very personal.

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I’ve decided my one legacy to the world is the phrase, “Bad government policy begets more bad government policy.” This term, which I am modestly calling Mitchell’s Law, describes what happens when government intervention (Fannie and Freddie, for example, or Medicare and Medicaid) causes problems in a particular market (a housing bubble or a third-party payer crisis), which leads the politicians to impose more misguided intervention (bailouts or Obamacare). Here’s a good example from Germany. The politicians created government-run healthcare. Overweight people are putting a larger burden on the system, imposing costs on taxpayers. The logical response is to shift to a market-based system where people are in charge of their own healthcare costs. Not surprisingly, that option isn’t being considered. Instead, politicians are using the situation as an excuse to consider even more taxes.

Marco Wanderwitz, a conservative member of parliament for the German state of Saxony, said it is unfair and unsustainable for the taxpayer to carry the entire cost of treating obesity-related illnesses in the public health system.

“I think that it would be sensible if those who deliberately lead unhealthy lives would be held financially accountable for that,” Wanderwitz said, according to Reuters.

Germany, famed for its beer, pork and chocolates, is one of the fattest countries in Europe. Twenty-one percent of German adults were obese in 2007, and the German newspaper Bild estimates that the cost of treating obesity-related illnesses is about 17 billion euro, or $21.7 billion, a year.

…Health economist Jurgen Wasem called for Germany to tackle the problem of fattening snacks in order to raise money and reduce obesity.

“One should, as with tobacco, tax the purchase of unhealthy consumer goods at a higher rate and partly maintain the health system,” Wasem said, according to Germany’s English-language newspaper The Local. “That applies to alcohol, chocolate or risky sporting equipment such as hang-gliders.”

Others are suggesting even more extreme measures. The German teachers association recently called for school kids to be weighed each day, The Daily Telegraph said.

The fat kids could then be reported to social services, who could send them to health clinics.

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I’ve been very dismissive of supposed European “austerity” initiatives, in part because the term seems to describe politicians who want tax-financed government spending rather than Keynesian-style deficit-financed government spending. But what really matters is reducing the burden of government spending, regardless of how those outlays are financed. But if this Financial Times report is true and Germany reduces total government spending next year by 3.8 percent, that would be a significant achievement.

Indeed, the United States has not seen a one-year-to-the-next reduction in the burden of spending since the mid-1960s. I hope this is true and my pessimism is unwarranted, but I’m still a skeptic. I may be wrong, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that the 3.8 percent cut is based on phony US-style budget accounting (a spending increase magically becomes a spending cut if the increase is not as big as politicians want) or some sort of budget shell game (like Obama’s budget freeze, which exempted the vast majority of the budget).

Germany’s cabinet is poised this week to approve a 2011 budget as part of a four-year programme of public spending cuts meant to serve as an example to other European governments without jeopardising the country’s increasingly robust economic recovery.

Briefing papers for Wednesday’s cabinet meeting, released by Berlin on Sunday, argue that by curbing spending – rather than increasing taxes – the €80bn ($100.3bn, £66bn) savings programme would differ “fundamentally” from previous fiscal squeezes and offer “noticeable, better growth possibilities”.

…Germany’s economy is enjoying an industry-led growth spurt, with engineers rehiring workers and returning production almost to pre-crisis levels.

The stronger-than-expected growth and falls in unemployment were making it significantly easier for Germany to reduce its public sector deficit.

…[T]he package “would differ fundamentally from earlier consolidation efforts”, avoiding “growth-hindering tax increases”.

…Overall government spending is seen as falling 3.8 per cent next year, with smaller reductions in subsequent years before federal elections in 2013.

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