Medical metaphors are often used to describe an economy. We commonly hear reports of "healthy" and "strong" economies, or "sickly" and "weak" ones. In the case of Europe, with its multi-symptomatic condition, we even hear of a particular economic illness -- the European Disease. This disease is marked by high tax rates, inflexible labor markets, over-regulation and resurgent protectionism, among other maladies. Prognosis? Not so good, we are told.WOW. Well said. This one paragraph summarizes some of the most significant wisdom found through the study of economics. "You make it (economic policy) for people." "People respond to incentives."
However, I am optimistic about Europe. Why? To paraphrase Herbert Stein's famous maxim: The current situation is unsustainable, and what is unsustainable must end. But what, exactly, is unsustainable, and why am I optimistic that Europe's current problems will give way to a new era of growth?
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Spain offers a good case for European optimism. Like many of its continental neighbors, Spain was afflicted with declining labor force participation through the mid-1990s. Let's pause here to look at some facts. From 1993-96, the average hours worked (per working age person, per week) in Spain was 16.5. This compares with 17.5 hours in France and 19.3 in Germany. Clearly, Spain wasn't working.
Then, in 1998, Spain flattened its tax rate in a manner similar to the U.S. tax reforms of 1986. Coupled with labor market reforms of the previous year, Spain's labor force participation increased about 21% in the period 2000-2003, to 20 hours per week, exceeding that of Germany (18.3) and France (17.8). Correspondingly, this increase in labor participation led to increased tax revenues. (Incidentally, Spain, France and Germany all had slightly higher labor force participation rates than the U.S. in the early 1970s, when European tax rates were more in line with those in the U.S.)
I've made this point about tax rates before on these pages but it bears repeating because it reflects a fundamental economic insight that gets to the heart of policy making: People respond to incentives. You don't make economic policy for nations, you make it for people. And it's the responses of those people, when aggregated, that give us those data that we all love to analyze.
So, why did the European labor supply decrease by a third from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s? Because the marginal effective tax rate was increased to 60% from 40%. People chose to work less than before. Consequently, tax revenues fell. You can't raise revenues by taxing people beyond their willingness to pay. And you can't expect an economy to grow when people don't have the incentive to work, or when entrepreneurs lack the incentive to take a chance.
European countries, in other words, were approaching a point of unsustainability. Spain had reached such a point, and even though there is still progress to be made, its subsequent policy correction has worked wonders. Of course, Spain is not alone in its transformation: Britain paved the way with its earlier reforms and has since reaped the rewards from gains in labor supply, the Netherlands has also instituted important labor market reforms that have paid dividends, and some Eastern European countries are benefiting from tax reforms. It's time that the rest of Europe pay close attention to the examples of their perimeter neighbors.
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