Miracles Do Happen: Someone in Brussels Accurately Analyzes Europe’s Fiscal Crisis!

With the exception of a few top-notch thinkers such as Pierre Bessard and Allister Heath, there are very few people in Europe who can intelligently analyze public policy, particularly with regard to fiscal issues.

I don’t know if Fredrik Erixon of the Brussels-based European Centre for International Political Economy is even close to being in the same league with Pierre and Allister, but he has a very good article that correctly explains that government spending and the welfare state are the real fiscal problems in Europe.

Here are some excerpts from his Bloomberg column.

When it comes to overspending on social welfare, …Europe has no angels. Even the “good” Scandinavians, and governments that appeared to be in sound fiscal shape in 2008, …were spending too much and will have to restructure. …Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain…are in many ways different, but they have three important characteristics in common. …government spending in those nations grew at remarkably high rates. In Greece and Spain, nominal spending by the state increased 50 percent to 55 percent in the five years before the crisis started, according to my calculations based on government data. In Portugal, public expenditure rose 35 percent; in Ireland, almost 75 percent. No other country in Western Europe came close to these rates.

This is remarkable. Someone in Europe who is focusing on the growth of government spending. He doesn’t mention that the solution is a spending cap (something akin to Mitchell’s Golden Rule), but that’s an implication of what he says. Moreover, I’m just glad that someone recognizes that the problem is spending, and that debt and deficits are best understood as symptoms of that underlying disease.

In any event, Mr. Erixon also has the right prognosis. The burden of the welfare state needs to shrink. And he seems reasonably certain that will happen.

Europe’s crisis economies will now have to radically reduce their welfare states. State spending in Spain will have to shrink by at least a quarter; Greece should count itself lucky if the cut is less than a half of the pre-crisis expenditure level. The worse news is that this is likely to be only the first round of welfare-state corrections. The next decade will usher Europe into the age of aging, when inevitably the cost of pensions will rise and providing health care for the elderly will be an even bigger cost driver. This demographic shift will be felt everywhere, including in the Nordic group of countries that has been saved from the worst effects of the sovereign-debt crisis. …Europe’s social systems will look very different 20 years from now. They will still be around, but benefit programs will be far less generous, and a greater part of social security will be organised privately. Welfare services, like health care, will be exposed to competition and, to a much greater degree, paid for out of pocket or by private insurance. The big divide in Europe won’t be between North and South or left and right. It will be between countries that diligently manage the transition away from the universal welfare state that has come to define the European social model, and countries that will be forced by events to change the hard way.

I’m not quite so optimistic. While I agree that current trends are unsustainable, I fear that the “optimistic” scenario is for governments to semi-stabilize their finances with both taxes and spending consuming about 50 percent of gross domestic product.

That’s obviously far beyond the growth-maximizing size of government, which means European nations  – on average – would be condemned to permanent economic stagnation. Some of the nations that have very laissez-faire policies in areas other than fiscal policy, such as the Nordic nations, might experience some modest growth, but that would be offset by permanent recession in nations that have both big government and lots of intervention.

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