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Archive for the ‘China’ Category

I’m currently in Asia, where I just finished a series of speeches about economic policy in China and Hong Kong.

These two jurisdictions offer very powerful lessons about the importance of economic policy.

Hong Kong is supposed to be Nirvana for libertarians. It holds the top spot in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings. It has an optional flat tax. It has a private retirement system. And based on IMF data, government spending “only” consumes 18.4 percent of GDP (compared to 38.6 percent of economic output in the United States and 54.4 percent of GDP in France).

In reality, Hong Kong is far from perfect. It may have a lot more economic freedom than other jurisdictions, but there is widespread government intervention in certain sectors, such as housing. And while a flat tax and spending burden of 18.4 percent of GDP sound good, let’s not forget that the western world became rich in the 1800s when there was no income tax and the public sector consumed less than 10 percent of GDP.

But when you rank countries on the basis of economic freedom, you don’t compare jurisdictions to a nonexistent libertarian utopia. You compare them to other nations. So Hong Kong gets the top spot. And that’s paying dividends. When you look at long-run comparisons with other nations, Hong Kong has grown faster and become more prosperous.

So what about China? This wasn’t my first visit to the country, but it was the first time I went to Shanghai, and it is a very impressive place. It’s obvious that China has enjoyed a lot of growth in the past few decades.

But just as you shouldn’t judge the United States by a visit to Wall Street, it would be a mistake to draw sweeping conclusions about China after a few days in Shanghai.

Indeed, average living standards for all of China are still far below American levels. Moreover, if you look at the Economic Freedom of the World rankings, China still has a lot of room for improvement. It ranks 123rd out of 152 nations, which is not only far below France (#40), but also Greece (#85), Haiti (#98), and Russia (#101).

That being said, China’s score is 6.22 out of 10, which is a vast improvement compared to where it was in 1980, when it had a score of only 4.00.

This has led to some wonderful outcomes. This chart (h/t: Mark Perry) shows the share of the world’s population living on less than $1 per day (blue line) and the share of East Asia’s population with the same level of deprivation (red line). A big reason the red line has fallen so dramatically is that severe poverty in China has largely disappeared.

The real question for China is the degree to which there will be ongoing improvement.

I think it would be good if China became more like Hong Kong and that this led to much higher living standards. Heck, I’d be happy if China became more like Taiwan or South Korea, both of which have become relatively rich nations by moving substantially in the direction of free markets and small government.

But I don’t think this will happen. In one of my speeches, I posed a series of questions, followed by some less-than-optimistic answers.

Is the financial system weak? (because of too much state control over capital flows and investment)

Is there too much cronyism? (with friends and relatives getting favorable access to business)

Will China’s demographics be a problem? (the one-child policy is not just tyrannical, but it also means China’s population is aging)

Is rapid growth sustainable? (in the absence of reforms to boost economic freedom)

Have stimulus plans led to malinvestment? (such as ghost cities and other boondoggles)

Since economists are lousy when they make predictions, it’s quite possible that I’m wrong and my pessimism is unwarranted. For the sake of the Chinese people, let’s hope so.

And what about Hong Kong? I suspect they’ll remain the freest economy in the world. After all, why wreck a good thing?

Then again, the United States was the world’s 3rd-freest economy as recently as 2001. Now, thanks to Bush-Obama statism, we’ve plummeted to 17 in the ranking.

But I doubt Hong Kong policy makers would be equally foolish.

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Which nation is richer, Belarus or Luxembourg?

If you look at total economic output, you might be tempted to say Belarus. The GDP of Belarus, after all, is almost $72 billion while Luxembourg’s GDP is less than $60 billion.

But that would be a preposterous answer since there are about 9.5 million people in Belarus compared to only about 540,000 folks in Luxembourg.

It should be obvious that what matters is per-capita GDP, and the residents of Luxembourg unambiguously enjoy far higher living standards than their cousins in Belarus.

This seems like an elementary point, but it has to be made because there have been a bunch of misleading stories about China “overtaking” the United States in economic output. Look, for instance, at these excerpts from a Bloomberg report.

China is poised to overtake the U.S. as the world’s biggest economy earlier than expected, possibly as soon as this year… The latest tally adds to the debate on how the world’s top two economic powers are progressing. Projecting growth rates from 2011 onwards suggests China’s size when measured in PPP may surpass the U.S. in 2014.

There are methodological issues with PPP data, some of which are acknowledged in the data, and there’s also the challenge of whether Chinese numbers can be trusted.

But let’s assume these are the right numbers. My response is “so what?”

I’ve previously written that the Chinese tiger is more akin to a paper tiger. But Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute put together a chart that is far more compelling than what I wrote. He looks at the per-capita numbers and shows that China is still way behind the United States.

To be blunt, Americans shouldn’t worry about the myth of Chinese economic supremacy.

But that’s not the main point of today’s column.

Instead, I want to call attention to Taiwan. That jurisdiction doesn’t get as much attention as Hong Kong and Singapore, but it’s one of the world’s success stories.

And if you compare Taiwan to China, as I’ve done in this chart, there’s no question which jurisdiction deserves praise.

China v Taiwan

Yes, China has made big strides in recent decades thanks to reforms to ease the burden of government. But Taiwan is far above the world average while China has only recently reached that level (and only if you believe official Chinese numbers).

So why is there a big difference between China and Taiwan? Well, if you look at Economic Freedom of the World, you’ll see that Taiwan ranks among the top-20 nations while China ranks only 123 out of 152 countries.

By the way, Taiwan has a relatively modest burden of government spending. The public sector only consumes about 21.5 percent of economic output. That’s very good compared to other advanced nations.

Moreover, Taiwan is one of the nations that enjoyed considerable progress by adhering to Mitchell’s Golden Rule. Between 2001 and 2006, total government spending didn’t grow at all.

Taiwan Spending Freeze

During this period of fiscal restraint, you won’t be surprised to learn that the burden of government spending fell as a share of GDP.

And it should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that because politicians addressed the underlying disease of government spending, that also enabled big progress is dealing with the symptom of government borrowing.

Look at what happened to spending and deficits between 2001 and 2006.

Taiwan Fiscal Restraint Benefits

P.S. You probably didn’t realize that it was possible to see dark humor in communist oppression.

P.P.S. But at least some communists in China seem to understand that the welfare state is a very bad idea.

P.P.P.S. Some business leaders say China is now more business-friendly than the United States. That’s probably not good news for America, but my goal is to have a market-friendly nation, not a business-friendly nation.

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While I’m not oblivious to geopolitical concerns, I don’t worry about China becoming a more prosperous nation. Yes, more wealth could enable the nation’s dictators to finance some unwelcome aggression, but I mostly think higher living standards will create pressure for political liberalization.

In any event, the United States is in no danger of being overtaken by China in our lifetimes (or probably ever).

With that bit of background, you can understand why I have a somewhat relaxed reaction to the news that Chinese regulators nailed a McDonald’s franchise for allegedly breaking the rule about serving chicken wings within 30 minutes of preparation.

Here’s my discussion of the topic on Fox News.

I’ve written about the burden of regulation, and I’ve highlighted examples of absurd regulation, but the most important part of this interview is the explanation that wealthier societies can afford higher standards.

Communism and other statist ideologies are evil, but it’s also worth noting that most of the worst examples of environmental degradation occur in societies with heavy government control, not wealthy capitalist nations.

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Back in 2009, I got very excited when President Obama stated, “No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top.”

Did that mean he wanted to reduce America’s punitive and anti-competitive corporate tax burden? Or maybe even fix the entire tax code and install a simple and fair flat tax?

Unfortunately, it turns out the President was speaking to the Parliament of Ghana and apparently his recommendation for good policy didn’t apply inside the United States.

With this in mind, I’m not sure whether I should get too excited about his remarks yesterday that it is better to “let the market work on its own.”

Here are a few reasons why I am less than enthusiastic about this remarkable statement.

The President was not talking about solving the problem of government-caused third-party payer in health care.

Nor was he urging the elimination of the culture of bailouts and cronyism in the financial services sector.

And he obviously wasn’t saying it was time to end the government’s failed school monopoly.

"Free market for thee, not for me"

Instead, when he said that we should “let the market work on its own,” he was referring to the very narrow issue of China’s production and distribution of certain minerals.

In other words, if presidential statements came with asterisks, the fine print at the bottom of the page would read “offer good in China only.”

However, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step. So if he thinks it’s a good idea to reduce government intervention in China, maybe someday he will apply the same wisdom to the American economy.

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I’m glad that China has taken some steps away from communism. According to Economic Freedom of the World, China was one of 10-worst nations for economic liberty back in 1980 and they’ve since climbed to 92nd place out of 141 nations.

I’ve even offered a small bit of praise for China’s shift to a more business-friendly environment, and I was greatly amused when the head of China’s sovereign wealth fund mocked the Europeans for destructive welfare state policies.

That being said, 92nd place is still a very anemic rank, far below the first- and second-place jurisdictions, Hong Kong and Singapore.

So I was flabbergasted when Andy Stern, a former union boss and long-time Obama ally, wrote a column for today’s Wall Street Journal praising the efficiency and vitality of China’s planned economy.

You probably think I’m pulling your leg and/or deliberately misrepresenting what he wrote, but his article was titled “China’s Superior Economic Model.”

And just in case you think that’s the fault of editors and he couldn’t possible say such a thing, let’s look through the piece.

He starts off praising the goals of China’s latest five-year plan.

The aims: a 7% annual economic growth rate; a $640 billion investment in renewable energy; construction of six million homes; and expanding next-generation IT, clean-energy vehicles, biotechnology, high-end manufacturing and environmental protection—all while promoting social equity and rural development. Some Americans are drawing lessons from this. Last month, the China Daily quoted Orville Schell, who directs the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, as saying: “I think we have come to realize the ability to plan is exactly what is missing in America.”

Gee, that sounds so uplifting and inspirational. But there’s one tiny problem. China is still a very poor country. Here’s a chart showing the 2010 data from the World Bank.

Maybe I’m a crazy free-market ideologue, but I’d rather copy the Singapore or Hong Kong economic model.

But if I can’t choose one of those Asian tigers, I’ll stick with the U.S. system. Americans, after all, are about six times better off than the Chinese. Heck, China is still behind Albania.

Mr. Stern then writes about the supposed failures of “free-market extremism” in the United States.

The conservative-preferred, free-market fundamentalist, shareholder-only model—so successful in the 20th century—is being thrown onto the trash heap of history in the 21st century. In an era when countries need to become economic teams, Team USA’s results—a jobless decade, 30 years of flat median wages, a trade deficit, a shrinking middle class and phenomenal gains in wealth but only for the top 1%—are pathetic. …This should motivate leaders to rethink, rather than double down on an empirically failing free-market extremism. As painful and humbling as it may be, America needs to do what a once-dominant business or sports team would do when the tide turns: study the ingredients of its competitors’ success.

Since this is a pro-family blog, I won’t repeat the inappropriate words that came out of my mouth upon reading these passages.

Instead, I’ll simply call your attention to this post, which shows how America’s score in the Economic Freedom of the World ranking declined during the past decade. Indeed, the United States was among the five nations with the biggest declines over that 10-year period and the United States dropped from 3rd to 10th during those years.

If that was a period of “free-market fundamentalist” policies, then I guess I need to start cheering for socialism.

I’ll conclude by doing one of my favorite things – quoting myself. Here’s a bit of what I wrote last year.

China has been growing in recent decades, but it’s almost impossible not to grow when you start at the bottom – which is where China was in the late 1970s thanks to decades of communist oppression and mismanagement. And the growth they have experienced certainly has not been enough to overtake other nations based on measures that compare living standards. …This is not to sneer at the positive changes in China. Hundreds of millions of people have experienced big increases in living standards. …But China still has a long way to go if the goal is a vibrant and rich free-market economy.

I’ve probably exhausted everyone’s interest in this topic, but if anyone’s a glutton for punishment, I was part of a debate on English-language Russian TV about Chinese and American economic policy.

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I’ve previously posted about the communist government of Cuba cutting taxes and the CEO of Coca-Cola saying that communist China has a more business-friendly climate than the United States.

Having grown up during the Cold War, I still have a hard time believing my eyes when I read stories like these.

But those examples pale into insignificance compared to this story. A member of China’s political elite, which presumably makes him a member of the Communist Party, has a better understanding of economics than the Presidents of France and the United States.

Sure, that’s not saying much, but read what Jin Liqun, the head of China’s sovereign wealth fund, said about the European welfare state.

If you look at the troubles which happened in European countries, this is purely because of the accumulated troubles of the worn out welfare society. I think the labour laws are outdated. The labour laws induce sloth, indolence, rather than hardworking. The incentive system, is totally out of whack. “Why should, for instance, within [the] eurozone some member’s people have to work to 65, even longer, whereas in some other countries they are happily retiring at 55, languishing on the beach? This is unfair.

Astounding. There’s also a video at the link.

So let’s think about what this means. The communist elite in China recognizes the importance of incentives and understands the corrupting influence of welfare on the human spirit (they would like this cartoon). Heck, even Castro admitted that communism was a failure.

Yet politicians here in America still want to make government bigger and create more dependency.

I guess it’s time for me to unfurl the hammer and sickle.

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Having grown up during the Cold War, I never though I would write a sentence like the title of this blog post, but there have been lots of firsts during the reign of Obama.

When the head of a major multinational company says the American tax system is worse than the policy of a nation that is nominally still communist, that’s a remarkable – and worrisome – development.

Here’s an excerpt from a story in the UK-based Financial Times.

Coca-Cola now sees the US becoming a less friendly business environment than China, its chief executive has revealed, citing political gridlock and an antiquated tax structure as reasons its home market has become less competitive. Muhtar Kent, Coke’s chief executive, said “in many respects” it was easier doing business in China, which he likened to a well-managed company. “You have a one-stop shop in terms of the Chinese foreign investment agency and local governments are fighting for investment with each other,” he told the Financial Times. Mr Kent also pointed to Brazil as an example of an emerging economy that is making itself attractive to investment in ways that the US once did.

As much as I criticize the U.S. tax system and notwithstanding the passage you just read, I wouldn’t want anyone to conclude that China has better economic policy. The United States may have become more statist in the past decade, dropping from 3rd to 10th in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings, but 10th place is still a heck of a lot better than 92nd place, which is where China currently ranks.

And I also think it’s important to draw a distinction between a nation being “business friendly” and “market friendly.” I strongly prefer the latter. I want small government and laissez-faire markets, not policies that cater to big business. And some of China’s development is based on special deals for large companies.

This is not a big knock on China, which has improved. It used to rank as one of the 10th-worst nations, so gradual economic liberalization is boosting its economy and has lifted hundreds of millions out of absolute poverty (as compared to the relatively benign poverty found in the U.S.).

But even with those caveats, it’s not a good thing that America’s corporate tax system is so unfriendly. And it’s not a good thing that investors, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and others have a perception that it’s better to produce outside of America.

For more information, here are two of my videos. This one (my very first effort, so forgive the lack of polish) discusses the overall issue of corporate taxation.

And here’s a video that looks at the critical issue of international corporate taxation. You won’t be surprised to learn that America probably has the most unfriendly regime in the world.

One last thing worth mentioning is that most European governments have territorial tax systems and the average corporate tax rate in “socialist” Europe is down to 23 percent.

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