Monday, October 8, 2012

Attractive Swedish model desired

Directed at UK Labour MP Ed Balls (himself an economist), but Mitt Romney might want to incorporate large segments of this advice into his stump speech (or his next debate with Barack Obama, who is looking more and more like the Olaf Palme of the USA);

Sweden was actually quite a liberal market economy until 1968. After a century of superior growth, its GDP per capita was the third highest in the world. 
But in 1968 left-wing madness took over. Our economic success had been too great, making the government take high economic growth as a given, and the left-wing wind that blew through the world in the late 1960s was particularly strong in Sweden. But the decisive reason was the election of the extreme socialist Olof Palme as prime minister in 1969. He dominated Swedish politics until he was murdered on the street in Stockholm in 1986. His murder remains unsolved, but it became a turning point for Swedish politics.Palme ruled with great force. From 1970 until 1989, he raised taxes, including wealth tax, to more than 100 per cent of income for the wealthy, while social security exploded. Palme undermined the rule of law through retroactive legislation and arbitrary state intervention. A major scheme for gradual nationalisation of Swedish corporations through a punitive tax on their profits, using the money to buy their shares, was adopted.  
Fortunately the Swedes were able to act like grown ups;
....Finally, in September 1991, the social democrats lost an election and a real non-socialist government under Carl Bildt came into office from 1991 to 1994. Although it was a four-party minority government, it took many radical decisions and broke the trend. It turned the country around. Sweden had been influenced by the free market ideology of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. In particular Timbro, a free-market think tank financed by the Swedish Employers’ Confederation (SAF), caused a huge shift in political thinking. Right-wing social democrats, who controlled the public finances, systematically deregulated all the most complicated financial markets that left-wingers did not understand. 
Swedish reforms have been many, systematic, and comprehensive. The immediate concern was the budget deficit. In the 1990s, Sweden’s budget deficit was 13 per cent of GDP, with public expenditure cuts of 8 per cent of GDP and tax hikes of 5 per cent of GDP. Sweden’s public debt was gradually reduced from 73 per cent of GDP in 1996 to 38 per cent of GDP in 2011. The government trimmed all kinds of social security payments to reasonable levels. Sickness leave has fallen by half since employees are no longer paid from the first day or in full. Today, Sweden has regular budget surpluses, although tax revenues have been reduced by 9 per cent of GDP from 1994 until 2011. Sweden’s main scourge was tax. In 1990, the social democratic government actually cut sky-high marginal income tax from 90 per cent to 50 per cent. The current government has decreased taxes every year and abolished the wealth tax. Inheritance tax and gift tax are also gone. A corporate profit tax of 26 per cent may seem reasonable, but tax competition is fierce in this part of Europe, as most East European countries have slashed corporate taxes to 15-19 per cent. Business wants to reduce the corporate profit tax to 20 per cent. 
One of the greatest reliefs is the simplification of tax administration. Since the tax reforms of 1990 abolished almost all deductions, while cutting rates, tax declarations have become extremely simple. Ninety per cent of taxpayers simply confirm with a phone message that the declaration automatically prepared by the tax authorities for them is correct. Pensions have been subject to a major reform, giving everybody a pension in accordance with their contributions plus a minimum pension for all. As a consequence, the Swedish pension system is actuarially correct without any pay-as-you-go system or implicit pension debt. It is also transparent so that all can see how large a retirement capital they have saved, and to a considerable extent they can choose when and how to invest it and access it.
The Swedish school system, Palme’s original bailiwick, was badly ravaged by left-wing reforms of the 1960s and 1970s. Today, all pupils are entitled to school vouchers of equal value for each child of a certain age. Their parents can allocate this school voucher to any school the child is qualified to enter. As a result, while in the 1970s Sweden had only four private schools, one-fifth of Swedish secondary schools are now private, some for profit, others cooperatives or non-profit foundations. Yet, in international school comparisons, Sweden lags behind Finland that never carried out any foolish left-wing reforms.
[thanks to Scott Sumner's indispensable The Money Illusion]

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