There aren’t many fiscal policy role models in Europe.
Switzerland surely is at the top of the list. The burden of government spending is modest by European standards, in part because of a very good spending cap that prevents politicians from overspending when revenues are buoyant. Tax rates also are reasonable. The central government’s tax system is “progressive,” but the top rate is only 11.5 percent. And tax competition among the cantons ensures that sub-national tax rates don’t get too high. Because of these good policies, Switzerland completely avoided the fiscal crisis plaguing the rest of the continent.
The Baltic nations of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia also deserve some credit. They allowed spending to rise far too rapidly in the middle of last decade – an average of nearly 17 percent per year between 2002 and 2008! But they have since moved in the right direction, with genuine spending cuts (unlikely the fake cuts that characterize fiscal policy in nations like the United States and United Kingdom). Yes, the Baltic countries did raise some taxes, which undermined the positive effects of spending reductions, but at least they focused primarily on spending and preserved their attractive flat tax systems. No wonder growth has rebounded in these nations.
The situation in the rest of Europe is more bleak, particularly for the so-called PIIGS. To varying degrees, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain have lost the ability to borrow, received bailouts, and been mired in recession.
The silver lining is that the fiscal crisis has forced them to finally cut spending. All of those nations implemented real spending cuts in 2011 according to European Commission data, bringing spending below 2010 levels. Final figures for 2012 aren’t available, of course, but the International Monetary Fund estimates that spending will drop in every nation other than Italy (where it will climb by less than 1 percent).
That’s the good news. The public sector finally is being subjected to some long-overdue fiscal discipline.
The bad news is that politicians also imposed very significant tax increases on the private sector. Income tax rates have been increased. Value-added taxes have been hiked, and other taxes have climbed as well. These penalties on productive activity undermine potential growth.