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The efficiency and effectiveness of social spending in the EU-27 and the OECD – a 2011 reanalysis

By Arno Tausch


In this contribution, we look again at the trajectory and the efficiency of the ‘European social model’ (EMS). We re-apply an econometric methodology, which was already used in the study Herrmann, Heshmati et al., 2008, 2009. In that study, the authors said that apart from Finland and the Netherlands, some new EU-27 member countries, especially the Czech Republic and Slovenia, provided some answers to the question about the efficiency of state expenditures in reducing poverty rates, while countries like the Federal Republic of Germany achieved only a mediocre ranking. Considering the fact that social expenditures often amount to ¼ or even 1/3 of the GDP in advanced Western democracies, this question has acquired new and additional importance during the current international debt crisis, affecting several European countries such as Greece. Put in simple terms: aren’t the Germans, French … also throwing a lot of money out of the window, while the world is now fixed on the Greeks? The most influential social science journal article on the subject, mentioning the ESM in the title, was written by Scharpf, 2002 and maintains that efforts to adopt European social policies are politically impeded by the diversity of national welfare states, differing not only in levels of economic development and hence in their ability to pay for social transfers and services but, even more significantly, in their normative aspirations and institutional structures. Hyman, 2005, even says that there is simply no agreement what 'social Europe' means in the first place, let alone how it should be defended against the challenges inherent in the neoliberal approach to economic integration. Jepsen and Pascual, 2005 were equally sceptical about the subject. They even maintain that the very use of the concept under scrutiny here – the EMS - in the academic and political debate is simply a rhetorical resource intended to legitimize the politically constructed and identity-building project of the EU institutions. In our re-analysis of the underlying issues, we first come to the conclusion that the USA not only had lower unemployment and higher economic growth rates than the EU-15. Globalization inflows were smaller than in the EU-15, and – most importantly – the tendency towards sectoral inequality as a proxy for overall inequality was less pronounced than in the EU-15. The average, unweighted performance of the other Western democracies rather resembles the European performance. So the dire fact number one, established in this essay, is that during globalization, the ‘European social model’ is not better avoiding the ills of inequality than the USA or other Western democracies. Following the methodology, developed in Herrmann et al., 2008, 2009, and based on the latest Eurostat data, we then come to the conclusion that currently European social policy only lifts 6.80% of the total European population, i.e. 29.44% of the poor population, out of poverty. A very huge amount of money is required for this. Social transfers amount to ¼ of the European GDP in 2006. To lift just 1% of the population out of poverty, a staggering 3.66% of the GDP is now needed on the level of the EU-27. We also show that Sweden, Luxembourg, Finland, Spain, Denmark, Estonia, the Netherlands, Germany, the UK and France currently spend 5% or more of their GDP to lift just 1% of the population out of poverty. In most EU-27 member countries, only 1/3 or less of the poor population are lifted out of poverty by social transfers. I.e. 2/3 or more of the population are practically not reached by this gigantic machinery EMS, which consumes ¼ of European GDP. In accordance with Herrmann et al. 2008, 2009, we also analyze the OECD figures on how much it costs to lift 1% of the population out of poverty. Our analysis reveals that there are only many different single experiences and models of social policy, and these experiences do not confirm stereotypes, typologies or other generalized approaches. Our conclusions from the data for 2003 suggest that very efficient models, like the Slovak Republic and the Czech Republic, but also Luxembourg, Hungary and Poland, have to be contrasted by the laggards and high-cost models, like Spain and Mexico, but also Finland, Switzerland, New Zealand, and South Korea. The comparison of the aggregate efficiency parameters would even suggest that there was a convergence of efficiency trends from the mid-1980s onwards across the Atlantic. Again applying the politometric methods, developed in the study Hermann et. al. 2008, 2009, we document the fact that the PIIGS – i.e. Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain, which currently are at the centre of the financial storm, affecting Europe (Baglioni and Cherubini, 2010; Andrade and Chhaochharia, 2010; and Zemanek, 2010), do not perform well on our refined social protection expenditure effectiveness indicator. The five leading countries according to our analysis with the latest Eurostat 2008 data are Hungary; Slovakia; Bulgaria; Czech Republic; and Poland, which are all new member states of the Union. The least efficient social sectors are to be found in Latvia, Estonia, the UK and Greece. We also present data from a re-analysis of the UNICEF report (2007) on child poverty in advanced countries. Based on a standard SPSS XVIII principal component analysis of the UNICEF variables, and weighting the five resulting factors according to their contribution in explaining the total variance of the model we arrive at the conclusion that there is no evidence which would suggest that there is a single European social model, to be distinguished from the rest of other Western countries. Not surprisingly, the Scandinavians and North-west Europeans lead the way: Finland; Sweden; Netherlands; Switzerland and Denmark. The most lamentable situation of young people was to be encountered in the Baltic Republics, the USA and Japan. Confronted with the dire fact that neither the European political class, nor the academic community have come up with convincing evidence on the European social model (EMS), we arrive at the final conclusion that the ESM hardly exists.social spending, European Commission, index numbers and aggregation, cross-sectional models, spatial models, economic integration, regional economic activity, international factor movements, international political economy

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