Daniel J. Mitchell

I shared an astounding chart last month showing that tax increases account for 90 percent of the so-called “austerity” in Europe.

The author the chart, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center, calls this “private sector austerity” and she correctly argues that her home continent is in desperate need of some austerity on the public sector instead.

The good news is that more analysts have joined the fight, explaining that Europe is in trouble because of a failure to address the real problem of excessive government spending.

Here are some excerpts from a column in USA Today by Matthew Melchiorre from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, beginning with a good summary of how Europe has erred by choosing to impose austerity on the private sector.

The folly of “austerity” composed mainly of tax hikes with less in the way of spending reductions has driven the economies of the Old World into the ground. We’re next unless Congress keeps Uncle Sam out of Americans’ wallets and takes a chainsaw to Washington’s budget. …How is this likely to pan out? To get an idea, we can look at Europe, which has followed a similar strategy and has had little success in reviving growth. Spending cuts have been weak. Today, not a single Euro Zone government is spending less as a percentage of GDP than it did in 2007, according to Eurostat data. Tax increases, on the other hand, have been rampant. The average cyclically adjusted total tax burden among Euro Zone countries increased by about 5% from 2007 to 2010, according to European Commission data.

Wow, spending hasn’t been reduced but taxes are higher. Sounds a lot like Obama’s disingenuous “balanced approach.”

But there are some exceptions to the big-government consensus. Melchiorre notes that Estonia and other Baltic nations decided to impose genuine budget cuts.

Several Baltic countries have broken the European straitjacket of growth-strangling tax “austerity,” and have enjoyed success relative to their peers as a result. Take Estonia, for example. The Estonian government implemented an austerity program in 2009…cutting into public employee wages by 40% and slashing total government spending by a whopping 16% by 2011.

This is music to my ears. I’ve been advocating the Baltic approach for a couple of years. And it turns out that nations following my Golden Rule get good results.

Estonia’s economy…bounced right back with 2 percent growth the following year and has since continued to prosper. For the past two years, Estonian industry has expanded more than twice as fast as that of Germany. …Tax increases don’t bring about prosperity. Shrinking government to live within its means does.

Amen to that, but I think the final point needs to be expanded. It’s not just that tax increases don’t work. It’s that they make matters worse.

The problem in most nations is that government is too big. In a best-case scenario, tax increases are a substitute for spending restraint. More often than not, though, tax hikes lead to higher levels of government spending.

This brings us back to the current fiscal fight in the United States. Obama has dug in his heels and demanded an increase in the top tax rates. He claims that this class-warfare approach is necessary for fiscal responsibility.

But ask yourself a question. We know that America’s long-run fiscal problem is entitlement spending. Will politicians be more likely or less likely to reform those programs if they think tax increases are an option?

If you answered “more likely,” you should move to Greece and see how well your system is working.


Daniel J. Mitchell

Daniel J. Mitchell is a top expert on tax reform and supply-side tax policy at the Cato Institute.
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