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Sunday, October 24, 2004

I Love This Guy

Are Europeans Lazy? No, just overtaxed. (EDWARD C. PRESCOTT, October 24, 2004, Wall Street Journal):
Why do Americans work so much more than Europeans? The answer is important because it suggests policy proposals that will improve European standards of living (which should give a boost to its gross national happiness, by the way). However, an incorrect answer to that question will result in policies that will only exacerbate Europe's problems and could have implications for other countries that are looking for best practices.

Here's a startling fact: Based on labor market statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Americans aged 15-64, on a per-person basis, work 50% more than the French. Comparisons between Americans and Germans or Italians are similar. What's going on here? What can possibly account for these large differences in labor supply? It turns out that the answer is not related to cultural differences or institutional factors like unemployment benefits, but that marginal tax rates explain virtually all of this difference. I admit that when I first conducted this analysis I was surprised by this finding, because I fully expected that institutional constraints are playing a bigger role. But this is not the case. (Citations and more complete data can be found in my paper, at

Let's take another look at the data. According to the OECD, from 1970-74 France's labor supply exceeded that of the U.S. Also, a review of other industrialized countries shows that their labor supplies either exceeded or were comparable to the U.S. during this period. Jump ahead two decades and you will find that France's labor supply dropped significantly (as did others), and that some countries improved and stayed in line with the U.S. Controlling for other factors, what stands out in these cross-country comparisons is that when European countries and U.S. tax rates are comparable, labor supplies are comparable.

And this insight doesn't just apply to Western industrialized economies. A review of Japanese and Chilean data reveals the same result. This is an important point because some critics of this analysis have suggested that cultural differences explain the difference between European and American labor supplies. The French, for example, prefer leisure more than do Americans or, on the other side of the coin, that Americans like to work more. This is silliness.

Again, I would point you to the data which show that when the French and others were taxed at rates similar to Americans, they supplied roughly the same amount of labor. Other research has shown that at the aggregate level, where idiosyncratic preference differences are averaged out, people are remarkably similar across countries. Further, a recent study has shown that Germans and Americans spend the same amount of time working, but the proportion of taxable market time vs. nontaxable home work time is different. In other words, Germans work just as much, but more of their work is not captured in the taxable market.

I would add another data set for certain countries, especially Italy, and that is nontaxable market time or the underground economy. Many Italians, for example, aren't necessarily working any less than Americans--they are simply not being taxed for some of their labor. Indeed, the Italian government increases its measured output by nearly 25% to capture the output of the underground sector. Change the tax laws and you will notice a change in behavior: These people won't start working more, they will simply engage in more taxable market labor, and will produce more per hour worked.

This analysis has important implications for policy--and not just for Europeans, but for the U.S. as well. For example, much has been made during this election season about whether the current administration's tax cuts were good or bad for the economy, but that is more a political question than a policy consideration and it misses the point. The real issue is about whether it is better to tweak the economy with short-lived stimulus plans or to establish an efficient tax system with low tax rates that do not change with the political climate.

What does this mean for U.S. tax policy? It means that we should stop focusing our attention on the recent tax cuts and, instead, start thinking about tax rates. And that means that we should roll back the 1993 tax rate increases and re-establish those from the 1986 Tax Reform Act. Just as they did in the late 1980s, and just as they would in Europe, these lower rates would increase the labor supply, output would grow and tax revenues would increase.

I've been saying this for years. It's always nice to have a Nobel Laureate have the same opinion after having done extensive research.

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