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Archive for the ‘Hong Kong’ 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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In the famous “Bridge of Death” scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, some of the knights are asked to name their favorite color. One of them  mistakenly says blue instead of yellow and is hurled into the Gorge of Eternal Peril.

I can sympathize with the unfortunate chap. If asked my least favorite part of the tax code, I sometimes get confused because there are so many possible answers.

Do I most despise the high tax rates that undermine economic growth?

Am I more upset about the pervasive double taxation of income that is saved and invested?

Or do I get most agitated by a corrupt and punitive IRS?

How about the distorting loopholes for politically connected interest groups?

And the anxiety of taxpayers who can’t figure out how to comply with an ever-changing tax code?

Depending on my mood and time of day, any of these options might be at the top of my list.

But I also might say that I’m most upset about the way that the tax code facilitates a perverse form of legalized corruption in Washington. In this FBN interview, I explain how even small tax bills often are vehicles for lining the pockets of lobbyists and politicians.

To elaborate, some taxpayers may pay more when there’s new tax legislation and some may pay less. But this “winners” and “losers” game only applies outside the beltway.

The inside-the-beltway crowd always wins. Whether they’re lobbying for or against a provision, they get very big checks. Whether they’re voting yes or no on legislation, they’re getting showered with campaign contributions.

This chart, showing the growing number of pages in the tax code (by the way, we’re now up to 76,000 pages of tax law), also could be seen as a proxy for how the Washington establishment has gamed the system so that they always profit.

Or, to be more specific, it’s an example of how government has become a racket for the benefit of insiders. All of us pay more and endure less growth, but Washington’s gilded class lives fat and happy because there is always lots of money changing hands.

So how do we solve this problem?

The answer, at least for a period of time, in the flat tax. This video explains how this simple and fair system would operate.

But even though I’m a big advocate of tax reform, the flat tax is only a partial solution.

Simply stated, there’s no way to reduce Washington corruption until and unless you shrink the size and scope of the federal government.

That means somehow figuring out how to restore the Constitution’s limits on Washington. For much of our nation’s history, federal spending consumed only about 3 percent of our economic output.

And when the public sector was small and government generally focused only on core competencies, there wasn’t nearly as much opportunity for the graft and sleaze that characterize modern Washington.

P.S. The bad news is that all the projections show that the federal government will get far bigger in the future. So before we shrink the burden of government, we first need to come up with ways to keep it from growing.

P.P.S. The national sales tax is another intermediate option for reducing DC corruption, though that option requires repeal of the 16th Amendment so politicians don’t pull a bait-and-switch game and stick up with both an income tax and consumption tax.

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Singapore has been in the news because one of the Facebook billionaires has decided to re-domicile to that low-tax jurisdictions.

Some American politicians reacted by blaming the victim and are urging tax policies that are disturbingly similar to those adopted by totalitarian regimes such as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

Maybe they should go on one of their fancy junkets instead and take a visit to Hong Kong and Singapore. Even with first-class airfare and 5-star hotels, taxpayers might wind up benefiting if lawmakers actually paid attention to the policies that enable these jurisdictions to grow so fast.

They would learn (hopefully!) some of what was just reported in the Wall Street Journal.

Facebook  co-founder Eduardo Saverin’s recent decision to give up his U.S. citizenship in favor of long-term residence in Singapore has drawn fresh attention to the appeal of residing and investing in the wealthy city-state and other parts of Asia, where tax burdens are significantly lighter than in many Western countries. …Some 100 Americans opted out of U.S. citizenship in Singapore last year, almost double the 58 that did so in 2009, according to data from the U.S. Embassy in Singapore. …The increase of Americans choosing to renounce their citizenship comes amid heated tax debates in the U.S. Many businesses and high-income individuals are worried…[about]…tax increases in future years.

It’s not just that America is moving in the wrong direction. That’s important, but it’s also noteworthy that some jurisdictions have good policy, and Hong Kong and Singapore are always at the top of those lists.

The Asian financial hubs of Singapore and Hong Kong, on the other hand, have kept personal and corporate taxes among the lowest in the world to attract more foreign investment. Top individual income-tax rates are 20% in Singapore and 17% in Hong Kong, compared with 35% at the federal level in the U.S., according to an Ernst & Young report. The two Asian financial centers have also been praised by experts for having simpler taxation systems than the U.S. and other countries. …The tax codes are also more transparent so that many people don’t require a consultant or adviser.

Keep in mind that Hong Kong and Singapore also avoid double taxation, so there’s nothing remotely close to the punitive tax laws that America has for interest, dividends, capital gains, and inheritances.

One reason they have good tax policy is that the burden of government spending is relatively modest, usually less than 20 percent of economic output (maybe their politicians have heard of the Rahn Curve!).

No wonder some Americans are shifting economic activity to these pro-growth jurisdictions.

“The U.S. used to be a moderate tax jurisdiction compared with other countries and it used to be at the forefront of development,” said Lora Wilkinson, senior tax consultant at U.S. Tax Advisory International, a Singapore-based tax services firm that specializes in U.S. taxation laws. Now “it seems to be lagging behind countries like Singapore in creating policies to attract business.” She said she gets at least one query per week from Americans who are interested in renouncing their citizenship in favor of becoming Singaporeans. …Asian countries offer a business climate and lifestyle that many find attractive: “America is no longer the Holy Grail.”

That last quote really irks me. I have a knee-jerk patriotic strain, so I want America to be special for reasons above and beyond my support for good economic policy.

But the laws of economics do not share my sentimentality. So long as Hong Kong and Singapore have better policy, they will grow faster.

To get an idea of what this means, let’s look at some historical data from 1950-2008 on per-capita GDP from Angus Maddison’s database. As you can see, Hong Kong and Singapore used to be quite poor compared to the United States. But free markets, small government, and low taxes have paid dividends and both jurisdictions erased the gap.

Wow, America used to be 4 times richer, and that huge gap disappeared in just 60 years. But now let’s look at the most recent data from the World Bank, showing Gross National Income for 2010.

It’s not the same data source, so the numbers aren’t directly comparable, but the 2010 data shows that the United States has now fallen behind both Hong Kong and Singapore.

These charts should worry us. Not because it’s bad for Hong Kong and Singapore to become rich. That’s very good news.

Instead, these charts are worrisome because trend lines are important. Here’s one final chart showing how long it takes for a nation to double economic output at varying growth rates.

As you can see, it’s much better to be like Hong Kong and Singapore, which have been growing, on average, by more than 5 percent annually.

Unfortunately, the United States has not been growing as fast as Hong Kong and Singapore. Indeed, last year I shared some data from a Nobel Prize winner, which showed that America may have suffered a permanent loss in economic output because of the statist policies of Bush and Obama.

What makes this so frustrating is that we know the policies that are needed to boost growth. But those reforms would mean less power for the political class, so we face an uphill battle.

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