When the economy tanked a few years ago Sweden’s Finance Minister Anders Borg did the opposite of what everyone else in the world was doing. Rather than following the Keynesians, he cut taxes. Not only did he cut taxes, he cut taxes on rich people. Now Sweden is enjoying strong economic growth and the tax cuts have paid for themselves.
When Europe’s finance ministers meet for a group photo, it’s easy to spot the rebel — Anders Borg has a ponytail and earring. What actually marks him out, though, is how he responded to the crash. While most countries in Europe borrowed massively, Borg did not. Since becoming Sweden’s finance minister, his mission has been to pare back government. His ‘stimulus’ was a permanent tax cut. To critics, this was fiscal lunacy — the so-called ‘punk tax cutting’ agenda. Borg, on the other hand, thought lunacy meant repeating the economics of the 1970s and expecting a different result.
Three years on, it’s pretty clear who was right. ‘Look at Spain, Portugal or the UK, whose governments were arguing for large temporary stimulus,’ he says. ‘Well, we can see that very little of the stimulus went to the economy. But they are stuck with the debt.’ Tax-cutting Sweden, by contrast, had the fastest growth in Europe last year, when it also celebrated the abolition of its deficit. The recovery started just in time for the 2010 Swedish election, in which the Conservatives were re-elected for the first time in history.
All this has taken Borg from curiosity to celebrity. The Financial Times recently declared him the most effective finance minister in Europe. When we meet in his Stockholm office on a Friday afternoon (he and his aide seem to be the only two left in the building) he says he is just carrying on 20 years of reform. ‘Sweden was a textbook case of European economic sclerosis. Very high taxes and huge regulatory burden.’ An economic crisis in the early 1990s forced Sweden on the road to balanced budgets, and Borg was determined the 2007 crash would not stop him cutting the size of government.
‘Everybody was told “stimulus, stimulus, stimulus”,’ he says — referring to the EU, IMF and the alphabet soup of agencies urging a global, debt-fuelled spending splurge. Borg, an economist, couldn’t work out how this would help. ‘It was surprising that Europe, given what we experienced in the 1970s and 80s with structural unemployment, believed that short-term Keynesianism could solve the problem.’ Non-economists, he says, ‘might have a tendency to fall for those kinds of messages’.
He continued to cut taxes and cut welfare-spending to pay for it; he even cut property taxes for the rich to lure entrepreneurs back to Sweden. The last bit was the most unpopular, but for Borg, economic recovery starts with entrepreneurs. If cutting taxes for the rich encouraged risk-taking, then it had to be done. ‘In most cases, the company would not have been created without the owner,’ he says. ‘There would be no Ikea without [Ingvar] Kamprad. We would not have Tetra-Pak without [Ruben] Rausing. They are probably the foremost entrepreneurs we have had in the last few decades, and both moved out of Sweden.’
Read the whole thing, it gets even better. This stuff isn’t rocket science.