Tuesday, May 25, 2010

More Hypocrisy from Advocates of Smaller Government

In the May 25, 2010 Florida Times-Union blog entry, "Small-government Rubio said it may be time for federal takeover of cleanup ops", David Hunt highlights the hypocrisy inherent in many advocates of free markets, smaller government and lower taxes. When insufficiently regulated markets create socially undesirable outcomes, such as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, those harmed by the market failure scream that the government should do more. You cannot have it both ways. It is easy to support free markets and smaller government when one fails to consider the negative consequences. Rational economists argue those consequences always should be considered.

According to David Hunt's blog:
During a campaign stop in Jacksonville, former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio said he's been disturbed by the lack of technology to harness the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

Although Rubio presents himself as a small-government candidate for U.S. Senate, he said it may be time for a government takeover of operations.

Here's what he had to say:

There's an increasing loss of patience with British Petroleum and, quite frankly, with the federal government. I think one of the things we've learned, sadly, is that cleanup technologies have not advanced at all over the last 30 years. They're basically making it up as they go along. The fact that they were drilling at such a deep level, and there wasn't the technology to deal with a spill if it happened, is in and of itself frightening. Those questions have to be answered.

Priority number one has got to be focus on preventing this from getting worse. If that means the federal government has to step in and take over than that's what needs to happen.

The second thing, we need to figure out why this happened so that it never happens again. You know how when there's an airline accident, how the FAA treats that very seriously? They investigate it down to the thread as to what caused that accident so that airline travel in America is exceedingly safe. The same needs to happen here.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Fiscal crises threaten Europe's generous benefits

In the May 23, 2010 article "Fiscal crises threaten Europe's generous benefits," Associated Press writer Michael Weissenstein reports:
LONDON (AP) -- Six weeks of vacation a year. Retirement at 60. Thousands of euros for having a baby. A good university education for less than the cost of a laptop.

The system known as the European welfare state was built after World War II as the keystone of a shared prosperity meant to prevent future conflict. Generous lifelong benefits have since become a defining feature of modern Europe.

Now the welfare state -- cherished by many Europeans as an alternative to what they see as dog-eat-dog American capitalism -- is coming under its most serious threat in decades: Europe's sovereign debt crisis.

Deep budget cuts are under way across Europe. Although the first round is focused mostly on government payrolls -- the least politically explosive target -- welfare benefits are looking increasingly vulnerable.

"The current welfare state is unaffordable," said Uri Dadush, director of the Carnegie Endowment's International Economics Program. "The crisis has made the day of reckoning closer by several years in virtually all the industrial countries."

Germany will decide next month just how to cut at least 3 billion euros ($3.75 billion) from the budget. The government is suggesting for the first time that it could make fresh cuts to unemployment benefits that include giving Germans under 50 about 60 percent of their last salary before taxes for up to a year. That benefit itself emerged after cuts to an even more generous package about five years ago.

"We have to adjust our social security systems in a way that they motivate people to accept regular work and do not give counterproductive incentives," German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told news weekly Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung on Saturday.

The uncertainty over the future of the welfare state is undermining the continent's self-image at a time when other key elements of post-war European identity are fraying.

Large-scale immigration from outside Europe is challenging the continent's assumptions about its dedication to tolerance and liberty as countries move to control individual clothing -- the Islamic veil -- in the name of freedom and equality.

Deeply wary of military conflict, many nations now find themselves nonetheless mired in Afghanistan on behalf of what was supposed to be a North Atlantic alliance, shying away from wholesale pullout while doing their utmost to keep troops from actual combat.

Demographers and economists began warning decades ago that social welfare was doomed by the aging of Europe's baby boomers. Some governments had been trimming and reforming, but now almost all are scrambling to close deficits in order to prevent a wider collapse of confidence in the euro.

"We need to change, to adapt ... for the sake of the protection of our social model," European Union Commissioner Joaquin Almunia of Spain told reporters in Stockholm Thursday.

The move is risky: experts warn the cuts could undermine the growth needed to pull budgets back on a sustainable path.

On Monday, Britain unveils 6 billion pounds ($8.6 billion) in cuts -- mostly to government payrolls and expenses. The government has promised to raise the age at which citizens receive a state pension -- up from 60 to 65 for women, and from 65 to 66 for men. It also plans to toughen the welfare regime, requiring the unemployed to try to find jobs in order to collect benefits.

Britain says it will limit child tax credits and scrap a 250-pound ($360) payment to the families of every newborn. Ministers are reviewing the long-term affordability of the country's generous public sector pensions.

Funding for Britain's nationalized health care service will be protected under the new government, however, and should rise each year to 2015.

France's conservative government is focusing on raising the retirement age. Many workers can now retire at 60 with 50 percent of their average salary. Extra funds are available for retired civil servants, those with three or more children, military veterans and others.

A parliamentary debate is planned for September. Unions in France are organizing a national day of protest marches and strikes on Thursday to demand protection of wages and the retirement age.

In Spain, billions in cuts to state salaries go into effect next month, and the Socialist government has frozen increases in pensions meant to compensate for inflation for at least two years.

"They've hit us really hard," said Federico Carbonero, 92, a retired soldier. He said he was unlikely to live long enough to see the worst of the pension freeze, but had no doubts he would have to start relying on savings to maintain his lifestyle.

Spain is cutting assistance payments for disabled people by 300 million euros ($375 million) and did away with a three-year-old bonus of 2,500 euros ($3,124.25) per new baby. It also has proposed hiking the retirement age for men from 65 to 67.

Countries in northern Europe have done a far better of reforming social welfare and have unemployment systems that focus on re-employing people instead of making their unemployment comfortable, said Gayle Allard, a professor of economic environment and country analysis at the Instituto de Empresa in Madrid.

Denmark and other Nordic countries are known for the world's highest taxes and most generous cradle-to-grave benefits. Denmark has implemented a system known broadly as "flexicurity," which combines flexibility for employers to hire and fire workers with financial security and training to prepare for new jobs.

Denmark had a 7.5 percent unemployment rate in the first quarter of this year, well below the EU average of 9.6 percent. Swedish and Finnish unemployment stood at 8.9 percent. Norway, with some of the world's most generous unemployment benefits fully funded by oil for the forseeable future, has Europe's lowest jobless rate, just 3 percent in April.

Southern European countries that have not moved toward reforming welfare in the same ways are paying a steep price.

After sharp cutbacks imposed as the condition of an international bailout this month, Greeks must now contribute to pension funds for 40 instead of 37 years before retiring, and the age of early retirement is set to 60 at the earliest.

Civil servants with monthly salaries of above 3,000 euros ($3,750) will lose two extra months of salary -- one paid at Christmas, the other split between Easter and summer vacation.

In Portugal, seen as another potential candidate for bailout, the government is focusing on hikes in income, corporate and sales taxes and has avoided drastic changes to welfare entitlements. Unemployment benefits will be cut somewhat and the out-of-work will have to accept any job paying more than 10 percent more than what they would receive in unemployment benefits.

The government is also stepping up checks on welfare claims, freezing public sector pay and slicing public investment.

"There's been a lack of willingness to shift away from welfare as purely social protection towards an approach which has been in much of northern Europe in recent years, which is welfare as social investment," said Iain Begg, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science's European Institute.

Otto Fricke, a budget expert for the Free Democrats, the coalition partner of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, told The Associated Press that no decisions on cuts have been made, but everything is on the table except education, pension funds and financial aid to developing countries. At least one high-ranking CDU member has called for the idea of protecting education to be re-examined, however.

German public education, which was virtually free until 2005, when some of Germany's 16 states started charging tuition fees of 1000 euros ($1,250) a year.

Virtually all Germany's students pay that much or less to attend state-funded universities, including elite institutions. Education isn't as cheap elsewhere in Europe but the 3,290 pounds ($4,720) per year paid by British students at Cambridge is still far less than Americans pay at comparable schools like Harvard, where annual tuition comes in just shy of $35,000.

The idea of cutting education is proving hard to swallow in the face of Germany's promise to contribute up to 147.6 billion euros ($184.5 billion) in loan guarantees to protect Greece and other countries that use the euro from bankruptcy.

"I am worried that this crisis will also affect me on a personal level, for example, that universities in Germany will raise the tuition in order to pay the loan they give to Greece," said Karoline Daederich, a 22-year-old university student from Berlin.

Friday, May 21, 2010

David M. Walker assesses the tax tea party movement

David M. Walker served as the comptroller general of the United States and head of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) from 1998 to 2008. In these positions, he was considered to be the chief accountant of the U.S: federal government.

In the May 21, 2010 Jacksonville.com blog post, "Former U.S. Comptroller General (an accountability guy) on the tea party," David Hunt provides David Walker's reply to a question about the tax tea party movement in the United States. According to Walker:
"On one hand, I share a lot of their concerns. On the other, I think we have to realize that the answers to our problems are not in the extremes. They're not in the far left or far right. There's a sensible center. While you want to change direction, you don't want to polarize Washington into further extremes. I understand public discontent, but I want it to be informed and constructive - not destructive - and not cause an increase in ideological divide. ... There is no party of fiscal responsibility. Neither Republicans or Democrats have proven that to us when they were in power. Maybe the mantra is "when in doubt, throw them out," but there needs to be an informed view."

Walker earned a bachelor's degree in accounting from Jacksonville University in 1973. Since March 2008, Walker has been the president of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation where he tries to educate the public on the need for fiscal discipline and possible ways to achieve it. Walker's 2010 book, Comeback America: Turning the Country Around and Restoring Fiscal Responsibility provides elaboration of Walker's ideas.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

You are richer than you think you are.

In the May 11, 2010 MainStreet article "How Rich Are You?," Jeanine Skowronski reports:
You're richer than you think.

At least according to Poke, a London-based creative company that specializes in interactive media. Their Web site, The Global Rich List generates a wealth ranking for its users based on their annual income.

For example, if you make $52,000 a year (the median American household income for 2009), you are the 58,252,719 richest person in the world (or in the top 0.97 percentile of all moneymakers).

Someone who makes half of that ($26,000 a year) is still in the top 10%, ranked 569,942,529 on the Global Rich List.

These calculations are based on figures from the World Bank Development Research Group. To calculate an individual's position on the list, Poke assumes that the world's total population is 6 billion and the average worldwide annual income is $5,000.

The site uses your wealth ranking to invite you to share your wealth with others. It told me, for example, I could buy 25 fruit trees for farmers in Honduras for just $8 (as opposed to 12 organic oranges for the same price) or a $30 first aid kit for a village in Haiti (instead of an ER DVD box set). However silly these suggestions may be (who spends $30 to watch ER?), charitable giving is clearly the point.

According to the site, Poke "wanted to do something which would help people understand, in real terms, where they stand globally. They want us to realize that, in fact, most of us who are able to view this web page are in the privileged minority."

So in case you're missing the subtext here … the site doesn't exist just so you can tell all of your friends just how rich you are.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Employment Situation News Release

The latest Employment Situation news release (http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf) was issued today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Highlights are below.
Nonfarm payroll employment rose by 290,000 in April, the unemployment rate edged up to 9.9 percent, and the labor force increased sharply. Job gains occurred in manufacturing, professional and business services, health care, and leisure and
hospitality. Federal government employment also rose, reflecting continued hiring of temporary workers for Census 2010.
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