Those Lazy Greeks

Or, not.

From the Guardian:


Sadly, it’s not quite as simple as that.

From the BBC:

Greeks are working longer and harder than anyone else in Europe. But they’re still producing less than many other nations who are working a lot less hard. The OECD suggest that this is due to the shape of the Greek labour market:

Pascal Marianna, who is a labour markets statistician at the OECD says: “The Greek labour market is composed of a large number of people who are self-employed, meaning farmers and – on the other hand – shop-keepers who are working long hours.”

Still, I think it’s high time we put the lazy Greek myth to bed, because the evidence just doesn’t support it.

Taxation Nation

Is it true that Americans are paying too little tax?

The short answer is no.

Current levels of overall taxation are close to the historical norm. So what’s changed?

Well, far less of the money is coming from corporations, and far more from payroll taxes. That means that a lot of the burden has been switched from corporations to their workers. That puts the power to invest into increasingly fewer hands. The middle classes, who pay the overwhelming majority of payroll taxes are left with less to invest. That means, broadly, that more money gets invested in big business and large corporations and less in small enterprise, who are the greatest job creators in America:

From the Economist:

Research funded by the Kauffman Foundation shows that between 1980 and 2005 all net new private-sector jobs in America were created by companies less than five years old. “Big firms destroy jobs to become more productive. Small firms need people to find opportunities to scale. That is why they create jobs,” says Carl Schramm, the foundation’s president.

So while I agree that the top 1% should be taxed more, and the bottom 99% less, what the above graph reveals is that America right now has is a spending problem, and not a tax problem.

Here’s spending as a percentage of GDP:

It is spending that is climbing well-above its historical norm. The difference really adds up:

The next American President and Congress will face a stark choice as they seek a balanced budget — do they raise taxes or cut spending?

Well, it’s an open question. Other nations spend far more than America, but they also tax more. 52% of French GDP, 37% of Japanese GDP, 47% of British GDP, 18% of Thai GDP, 32% of Swiss GDP, 78% of Cuban GDP, 27% of Indian GDP and 17% of Singaporean GDP is government spending.

Most interesting by far  is “communist” China. Only 20% of Chinese GDP is government spending. 

That’s quite a wide range. But to spend more you have to tax more, and that will be unpalatable to many Americans.

America is really at a crossroads. Growth would be a panacea. But with the economy in a Japan-style depression, generating sustained growth will be difficult.

The Biggest Bubble in History

Regular readers will be aware that I believe that American government debt (and by extension, cash) is in a once-in-a-century bubble.

A recent article from Bloomberg typified this ongoing (and quite hilarious) insanity:

The biggest bond gains in almost a decade have pushed returns on Treasuries above stocks over the past 30 years, the first time that’s happened since before the Civil War.
Fixed-income investments advanced 6.25 percent this year, almost triple the 2.18 percent rise in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index through last week, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch indexes. Debt markets are on track to return 7.63 percent this year, the most since 2002, the data show. Long-term government bonds have gained 11.5 percent a year on average over the past three decades, beating the 10.8 percent increase in the S&P 500, said Jim Bianco, president of Bianco Research in Chicago.

The combination of a core U.S. inflation rate that has averaged 1.5 percent this year, the Federal Reserve’s decision to keep its target interest rate for overnight loans between banks near zero through 2013, slower economic growth and the highest savings rate since the global credit crisis have made bonds the best assets to own this year. Not only have bonds knocked stocks from their perch as the dominant long-term investment, their returns proved everyone from Bill Gross to Meredith Whitney and Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrong.

"I CAN'T SEE A WOOD?! ALL I SEE ARE TREES!"

When will the bond bubble end? It will end when the people and governments of the world tire of giving their pound of flesh to creditors. Creditors and debtors have fundamentally hostile interests — debtors want to take money without paying it back, and creditors want to take value without getting their hands dirty. A history of the world (the decline of Rome, the decline of Britain, the decline of America) is in some ways a history of hostility between creditors and debtors.

This hostility has been tempered (and conflict delayed) since the Keynesian revolution, by mass money printing. Everyone (except savers) wins — creditors get their pound of flesh (devalued by money printing), and debtors get the value of their debt cut by persistent inflation.

But there is an unwanted side-effect. Debt mounts & mounts:

And eventually, debt repayment means that “kicking the can” becomes “kicking a giant mountain of debt” — a very painful experience that necessitates either painful austerity, or huge money printing — neither of which encourage savings, or investment.

Europe, on the other hand, has decided to skip the can-kicking (“price stability, ja?“) and jump straight to the cataclysm of crushing austerity for debtor nations. Unsurprisingly, Greeks don’t like being told what they can and cannot spend money on. Surprisingly, the Greek establishment have decided to give the Greek people (debtors) a referendum on that pound of flesh Greece’s creditors (the global banking system) are so hungry for. Default — and systemic collapse — seems inevitable.

(UPDATE: Greece, of course, has undergone a Euro-coup and is now firmly under the control of pro-European technocrats — creditors will get their pound of flesh, and Greece will get austerity)

Some would say Europe has forgotten the lessons of Keynes — print money, kick the can, hope for the best. But really, the Europeans have just hastened the inevitable endgame every debtor nation faces. With a mountain of external debt crushing organic growth the fundamental choice is default, or default-by-debasement. That’s it.

And that is why, however elegantly America massages its problems, American government bonds are in a humungous bubble.

Who is Failing the 99%?

With predicaments like this, it’s clear something is going badly wrong.

But what’s worse than wrong?

As Einstein put it:

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Many commentators, including much of the establishment, are advocating the same old solution: take more productive capital out of the economy in the form of taxes for the government to spend. As I pointed out yesterday, total government spending and unemployment are strongly correlated:

This is empirical evidence that increasing government spending does not necessarily decrease unemployment. But there’s something worse going on here.

While Obama might talk a good game on jobs, his record speaks not of job creation, but of massive tax breaks for corporations.

From the Daily Mail:

General Electric paid no tax at all in America last year and even managed to get a $3.2billion ‘rebate’ from the government.

The utilities giant allocated just 7.4 per cent of its $5.1billion U.S. profits in tax – around a third of what others companies its size are paying.

But through a complex series of measures GE, which is America’s largest company, will not even have to hand that over.

So where are all the jobs that these tax breaks were supposed to create?

Corporate profits have recovered from 2008 under Obama:

So in spite of all his pro-jobs rhetoric, all of that stimulus and all of that quantitative easing just hasn’t sparked a recovery for jobs.

Why?

As I wrote a few weeks ago:

The most annoying thing about the establishment’s ongoing obsession with maintaining the status quo, and supporting and bailing out older and larger companies?

Dinosaurs don’t create jobs.

According to the Economist, research funded by the Kauffman Foundation shows that between 1980 and 2005 all net new private-sector jobs in America were created by companies less than five years old. “Big firms destroy jobs to become more productive. Small firms need people to find opportunities to scale. That is why they create jobs,” says Carl Schramm, the foundation’s president.

And small business is being crowded out of the market by big government and its crony capitalist friends.

Small Business: The Real Job Creators

The most annoying thing about the establishment’s ongoing obsession with maintaining the status quo, and supporting and bailing out older and larger companies?

Dinosaurs don’t create jobs.

From the Economist:

Research funded by the Kauffman Foundation shows that between 1980 and 2005 all net new private-sector jobs in America were created by companies less than five years old. “Big firms destroy jobs to become more productive. Small firms need people to find opportunities to scale. That is why they create jobs,” says Carl Schramm, the foundation’s president.

And it doesn’t stop there.

From Wikipedia:

In the US, small business (less than 500 employees) accounts for around half the GDP and more than half the employment. Regarding small business, the top job provider is those with fewer than 10 employees, and those with 10 or more but fewer than 20 employees comes in as the second, and those with 20 or more but fewer than 100 employees comes in as the third.

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Why the Debt Ceiling is a Dead Issue.

The Elephant in the Room?

I spent the last three days writing blog posts on economics without ever mentioning the “hot button” issue of the day: the United States Treasury running out of juice, and having to yet again raise its debt limit. For those with a short memory, or a lack of interest, here’s a figure of the U.S. debt, first in absolute terms:

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