Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Sand in the gears

Today's Wall Street Journal has a beautifully informative editorial, "Employment, Italian Style." Snippets:
Once you hire employee 11, you must submit an annual self-assessment to the national authorities outlining every possible health and safety hazard to which your employees might be subject. These include stress that is work-related or caused by age, gender and racial differences. You must also note all precautionary and individual measures to prevent risks, procedures to carry them out, the names of employees in charge of safety, as well as the physician whose presence is required for the assessment.

Once you hire your 16th employee, national unions can set up shop. As your company grows, so does the number of required employee representatives, each of whom is entitled to eight hours of paid leave monthly to fulfill union or works-council duties. Management must consult these worker reps on everything from gender equality to the introduction of new technology

Hire No. 16 also means that your next recruit must qualify as disabled. By the time your firm hires its 51st worker, 7% of the payroll must be handicapped in some way,...

Once you hire your 101st employee, you must submit a report every two years on the gender dynamics within the company. This must include a tabulation of the men and women employed in each production unit, their functions and level within the company, details of compensation and benefits, and dates and reasons for recruitments, promotions and transfers, as well as the estimated revenue impact....
This kind of thing is hard to track down. You can't easily find a prepackaged "list of regulatory sand in the gears lowering productivity and employment in Italy," the way we can find (statutory) tax rates, spending numbers, interest rates, and so on.  So like the drunk in the old joke, looking for his car keys under the light even though he knows he dropped them a block a way, much economic discussion focuses on those headline issues ("Stimulus!" "Austerity!" "Bailout!" "Leave the Euro!" "Raise/lower taxes!") and ignores all the sand in the gears.

The journal writes, 
All of these protections and assurances, along with the bureaucracies that oversee them, subtract 47.6% from the average Italian wage, according to the OECD.
I wish the WSJ had footnotes or links, even in its online edition, to make it easier to track down  numbers of this sort. A quick tour through the OECD website provides some horrifying numbers on
 Labor tax wedges of 40-50%, to which we must add “non-tax compulsory payments (NTCPs)” which "represent a strong increase over and above the overall tax burden. E.g., in 2011, the compulsory payment wedge for the average single worker was 50.4% compared with the corresponding tax wedge of 47.6%" And remember, once they give you a euro, you still pay another 21% VAT before you can eat that plate of delicious pasta.  But the WSJ paragraph suggests 47.6% is the effective wedge of regulation on top of explicit taxation. (If readers know where it came from, add a comment.)

Also left out is the effect of this kind of hyper-regulation on corruption. You can imagine when the inspector comes in to see if all the paperwork is up to date how the conversation evolves. (Ask Luigi Zingales)

Cleaning up this mess is what we mean by "structural reform." How to achieve it politically seems like a nightmare to me.  Fighting each of ten thousand regulations one by one seems hopeless. Each one sounds good, each one taken alone seems minor, each one has an entrenched interest backing it and an army of bureaucrats whose jobs depend on its enforcement. And the economy dies the death of a thousand cuts. Can you really abolish it all in one fell swoop or grand bargain?

Certainly not if you don't try. 

The WSJ headline was
Prime Minister Mario Monti has issued a new "growth decree" to revive Italy's moribund economy. Among other initiatives, the 185-page plan proposes discount loans for corporate R&D, tax credits for businesses that hire employees with advanced degrees,.. 
Not to belabor the obvious, but this is incredibly depressing. More special programs are not what Italy needs. I hope there are better ideas in the rest of the 185 pages.