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Archive for the ‘Chile’ Category

Last month, I criticized the New York Times for a very inaccurate attack against Chile’s successful pro-market reforms.

The paper’s editorial asserted that only the rich have gained, a view that is utterly nonsensical and inaccurate.

Indeed, I visited Chile about a year ago and finished a three-part series (here, here, and here) showing how the less fortunate have been the biggest winners.

But numbers and facts are no match for ideology at the NYT.

We now have a new story, written by Amanda Taub, asserting that free markets have failed in Chile.

For three weeks, Chile has been in upheaval. …Perhaps the only people not shocked are Chileans. …The promise that political leaders…have made for decades — that free markets would lead to prosperity, and prosperity would take care of other problems — has failed them. …Inequality is still deeply entrenched. Chile’s middle class is struggling… There is broad agreement, among protesters and experts alike, that the country needs structural reforms.

This view is echoed by a Chilean professor in a column for the U.K.’s left-leaning Guardian.

Inequality in Chile is scandalous and most middle-class Chileans live in precarity. …the country has a structural problem with a clear name: inequality. The per capita income of the bottom quintile of Chileans is less than $140 a month. Half the population earns about $550. …This crisis is, at heart, an urgent message to the Chilean elite: profound changes are needed to rebuild the social contract.

But if Chile is a failure, then other nations in Latin America must be in a far worse category.

Look at what’s happened to average incomes over the past three decades.

It’s also worth noting Argentina’s decline and Venezuela’s collapse. Does Ms. Taub prefer those outcomes over Chile’s growing prosperity?

Speaking of which, here’s a powerful video comparing Chile and Venezuela.

So why is there discontent when Chile has been so successful?

In her Wall Street Journal column, Mary Anastasia O’Grady worries that the left controls the narrative in Chile.

…the hard left has spent years planting socialism in the Chilean psyche via secondary schools, universities, the media and politics. Even as the country has grown richer than any of its neighbors by defending private property, competition and the rule of law, Chileans marinate in anticapitalist propaganda. The millennials who poured into the streets to promote class warfare reflect that influence. The Chilean right has largely abandoned its obligation to engage in the battle of ideas in the public square. Mr. Piñera isn’t an economic liberal and makes no attempt to defend the morality of the market. He hasn’t even reversed the antigrowth policies of his predecessor, Socialist Michelle Bachelet. Chileans have one side of the story pounded into their heads. As living standards rise, so do expectations. When reality doesn’t keep up, the ground is already fertile for socialists to plow.

Incidentally, even the center-left Economist doesn’t agree with the argument that Chile is a failure.

In Chile, free-marketeers’ favourite economy in the region, protests against a rise in fares on the Santiago metro descended into rioting and then became a 1.2m-person march against inequality… Despite its flaws, Chile is a success story. Its income per person is the second-highest in Latin America and close to that of Portugal and Greece. Since the end of a brutal dictatorship in 1990 Chile’s poverty rate has dropped from 40% to less than 10%. Inflation is consistently low and public finances are well managed. …This is no argument for complacency in Chile. …Chileans still feel underserved by the state. They save for their own pensions, but many have not contributed long enough to provide for a tolerable retirement. Waiting times in the public health service are long. So people pay extra for care.

Sadly, the article then goes on to endorse bigger government and more redistribution – policies which would erode Chile’s competitiveness and prosperity.

Unfortunately, the President of Chile seems willing to embrace these bad policies.

In another column for the WSJ, Ms. O’Grady warns about the possible consequences.

The pain for Latin America’s most successful economy is only beginning. …Mr. Piñera…has opened the door to rewriting Chile’s Constitution to meet the demands of socialists, communists and others on the left. If Latin American history is any guide, a constitutional rewrite will strip away political and economic rights, concentrate power and leave the nation poorer and more unjust. The biggest losers would be the aspirational poor, who will be denied access to a better life in what has become one of the world’s most socially mobile economies. …Mr. Piñera has agreed to talks with the “citizens” whose interests are presumably represented by the firebombers and looters. …This is a stunning surrender and it is hardly surprising that it seems only to have whet the appetite of the radical left.

She points out that Chile’s market reforms have been hugely successful.

What isn’t debatable is the economic gains, across the board, that the market model has created. Less than 9% of the nation now lives below the poverty level. In a 2018 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report titled “A Broken Social Elevator? How to Promote Social Mobility,” Chile stands out for its social mobility. According to the data, 23% of sons whose fathers were in the bottom quartile of earners make it to the top quartile. By this measure, Chile had the highest social mobility among 16 OECD countries in the study. …inequality in Chile has been falling for 20 years. …That’s something for Mr. Piñera to think about before he helps the left destroy a model that works.

Amen.

It would be a tragedy if politicians wrecked Latin America’s biggest success story.

Let’s close with some analysis in Harvard’s Latin America Policy Journal by Rodrigo Valdés, who was a finance minister under the previous center-left government.

What are the facts? Chile’s per capita GDP increased almost threefold between 1990 and 2015, with short-lived and shallow recessions in 1999 and 2009 only. More precisely, per capita GDP increased a cumulative 280 percent, or 5.3 percent per year (at PPP and constant dollars). At the same time, the distribution of income improved. …Remarkably, all but the top quintile (actually, all but the top decile) improved their share of total income after taxes and transfers. …For the middle 20 percent or “middle class,” growth explained more than 10 times what they gained through better income distribution. For the bottom 20 percent, the redistribution effort was more relevant, though growth was still dominant, explaining six times more than redistribution. Second, what Chile accomplished in the last 25 years is impressive. For the middle class, even a sudden transformation to the Nordics in terms of income distribution (without changes in aggregate GDP) produces less than one-tenth of what the combination of actual growth and better distribution produced for this segment. The bottom 20 percent gained in these two and half decades more than four times what they would achieve with a sudden Nordic distribution.

I suppose I should highlight the fact that a high-level official for a left-leaning government is pointing out that Chile’s reforms have been very successful.

But what really matters is the point he makes about how growth being far more important than redistribution – assuming the goal is to actually help low-income people live better lives.

The third column shows how much income has expanded for each segment of the population. And you can see (highlighted in red) that the bottom 10 percent has enjoyed more than twice the income gains as the top 10 percent.

But pay extra attention to the first and second columns. Economic growth far and away is the most important factor in boosting prosperity for the less fortunate.

Which shouldn’t be a surprise. I’ve shared lots of evidence (over and over and over again) showing that market-driven growth is the best way of helping low-income people.

Indeed, even the World Bank agrees the Chilean model is vastly superior to the Venezuelan approach.

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By every possible measure, Chile is the most successful country in Latin America.

Income has soared and poverty has plummeted thanks to market-based reforms.

It’s not perfect, of course. The nation’s economic freedom score – 7.89 on a 0-10 scale – is good enough for a #13 ranking, but there’s still room for improvement.

But there’s also plenty of room for economic decline, and that might be the unfortunate outcome if politicians respond in a misguided way to recent protests.

Especially if they take advice from the wrong sources. For instance, the New York Times opined yesterday about the supposed shortcomings of the Chilean model.

Chile is often praised as a capitalist oasis, a prospering and stable nation on a continent where both prosperity and stability have been in short supply. But that prosperity has accumulated mostly in the hands of a lucky few. As a result, Chile has one of the highest levels of economic inequality in the developed world. …Chileans live in a society of extraordinary economic disparities. …What makes Chile an outlier among those 36 nations is that the government does less than nearly any other developed nation to reduce economic inequality through taxes and transfers. As a result, Chile has the highest level of post-tax income inequality among O.E.C.D. members. …Even after increases in recent years, the Chilean government still spends a smaller share of total economic output than every other nation in the O.E.C.D. The obvious path for Chile is for the government to spend more money.

As is sometimes the case with the New York Times, parts of the editorial are downright false. Income in Chile has jumped significantly for all quintiles, not just a “lucky few.”

And even the parts that are technically accurate are very misleading.

Notice, for instance, what the NYT is doing with inequality numbers. It is comparing Chile with rich nations, mostly from Europe.

But what happens if Chile is compared to other countries from Latin America.

That tells an entirely different story, as you can see from this poverty map (dark red is bad, light yellow is good) produced by the Center for Distributive, Labor, and Social Studies in Argentina.

All of a sudden, Chile looks very good.

Even if you use U.N. numbers that rely on the left’s misleading definition of poverty (i.e., based on relative income), Chile is a success story compared to other nations in the region.

It’s especially important to understand that Chile is getting good results for the right reason.

Poverty is falling because of the private economy rather than coercive redistribution. Here are some excerpts from a recent U.N. release.

In an analysis of the countries with the greatest reductions in poverty in the 2012-2017 period, in Chile, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, the increase in income from wages in lower-income households was the source that contributed the most to that reduction, while in Costa Rica, Panama and Uruguay, the main factor was pensions and transfers received by lower-income households.

Sadly, some people in Chile don’t have the fortitude to build on the market reforms that have boosted national prosperity.

Indeed, it appears there will be backsliding according to the aforementioned New York Times editorial

Sebastián Piñera, the billionaire elected president in 2017, …proposed a slate of reforms, including an increase in the top income tax rate, an increase in retirement benefits, and a guaranteed minimum monthly income. …Andrónico Luksic Craig, chairman of Quiñenco, a financial and industrial conglomerate, wrote on Saturday on Twitter that he was ready to pay higher taxes.

I’m disappointed but never surprised when politicians unravel progress.

But it’s always discouraging when guilt-ridden rich people embrace statist policies (sounds familiar, huh?).

For the sake of the Chilean people, let’s hope this is empty rhetoric.

P.S. Since we’re on the topic of Chile, here are some excerpts from the abstract of a study in the Journal of Development Economics that estimated the heavy economic cost of the nation’s detour to socialism in the 1970s.

…we look at share prices in the Santiago exchange during the tumultuous political events that characterized Chile in the early 1970s. …deploying previously unused daily data and exploiting two largely unexpected shocks which involved substantial variation in policies and institutions, providing a rare natural experiment. Allende’s election and subsequent socialist experiment decreased share values, while the military coup and dictatorship that replaced him boosted them, in both cases by magnitudes unprecedented in the literature. The most parsimonious interpretation of these share price changes is that they reflected, respectively, the perceived threat to private ownership of the means of production under a socialist government, and its subsequent reversal.

By the way, this in no way should be interpreted as support for the Pinochet dictatorship.

But what it does say is that dictatorships that allow economic freedom produce much better results than dictatorships impose totalitarian economic policies in addition to totalitarian political policies.

Which is basically the point Milton Friedman made when asked about his connection to Chile.

For what it’s worth, Pinochet eventually allowed a transition to democracy, which somewhat atones for his sins.

P.S. To be fair, the NYT editorial was merely misguided, which is better than the wild inaccuracy that has characterized some analyses.

P.P.S. If you want to learn about Chile’s reforms, here are columns about the private social security system and the national school choice system. And this World Bank comparison of Chile and Venezuela is very instructive as well.

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Today is my last day in Chile, so today’s column will build upon what I wrote last week.

I have three charts that illustrate how Chile’s pro-market reforms have been great news – especially for poor people (or, to be more accurate, for Chileans who used to be poor).

We’ll start with this chart from the most recent issue of Economía y Sociedad, which shows that there’s more mobility in Chile than any other OECD nation.

Honest folks on the left should view this as unambiguously positive.

Similarly, this Gini data (measuring the degree of inequality) should be slam-dunk evidence of progress for all left-of-center people.

For what it’s worth, I don’t care about the Gini coefficient. What matters to me is economic growth so that everyone can get richer.

If rich people happen to get richer faster than poor people (like in China), that’s fine.

And if poor people happen to get richer faster than rich people (like in Chile), that’s fine as well.

What irks me is that folks who fixate on inequality often support policies that retard growth. In other words, they’re so worried about rich people getting richer that they advocate for bigger government, which makes it harder for poor people to become richer.

Economic growth, by contrast, truly is the rising tide that lifts all boats.

Which is why this final chart (based on the Maddison database) is so powerful. It shows 1975-2016 income trends for Chile (red) and other major Latin American economies. As you can see, Chile started near the bottom and is now the region’s richest nation.

Wow, Chile didn’t just converge. It surpassed.

It’s also worth noting how nations such as Argentina, Venezuela, and Cuba have enjoyed very little income growth over the past 40 years.

The bottom line is that those nations are evidence of the costly impact of statism, while Chile is an amazing example of how capitalism generates widely shared prosperity.

P.S. I’m not claiming Chile is a perfect role model. It is #15 in Economic Freedom of the World, so there is considerable room for improvement. But I am arguing it is a successful example of how better policy is great news for all segments of society.

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I’m currently in Chile, enjoying the warm sun and doing research on the nation’s impressive economic performance.

I met yesterday with Jose Pinera, the former minister who created Chile’s incredibly successful system of personal retirement accounts (he’s also one of the people Gary Johnson should have mentioned when he was asked to identify an admirable foreign leader).

Back in 2013, I shared some of Jose’s data showing how the economy took off after Chile enacted pro-market reforms.

I was especially impressed by the stunning reduction in the poverty rate, which had dropped from 50 percent to 11 percent (it’s now down to 7.8 percent).

In other words, capitalism has been great news for poor Chileans. Simply stated, when given more freedom and opportunity, most of them escape poverty.

Interestingly, Reuters reports that even the IMF recognizes Chile’s superior performance.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) hailed Chile’s strengthening economy in a report published on Friday while encouraging President Sebastian Pinera to push forward with promised structural reforms. In a statement following its annual consultation with Chile, the IMF praised Pinera’s proposed reform drive… Conservative billionaire Pinera took office in March with a strong mandate to make changes to the country’s pension system and labor laws and simplify the tax code. …The bank praised his early efforts, which it said were aimed at “re-invigorating investment and economic growth.”

Hmmm…, makes me wonder if the IMF (given its dismal track record) actually understands why Chile has become so prosperous.

Though the World Bank has praised the country’s pro-market reforms, so international bureaucracies sometimes stumble on the right answer.

But let’s not get distracted. Today, I want to share further evidence about how pro-market reforms produce big benefits for the less fortunate.

Here’s a chart from an article in the latest edition Economia y Sociedad. The article is in Spanish, but a translation of the relevant passage tells us that, “in Chile, the income of the poorest 20% of the population has risen at a rate (8.2% per year) that is 50% higher than that to which the income of the richest 20% has risen ( 5.3% per year).”

In other words, a rising tide lifts all boats (just as in the U.S.), but the bottom quintile is enjoying the biggest increases.

Sounds like great news. And it is great news. But some people put on blinders.

My left-leaning friends loudly assure me that they are motivated by a desire to help poor people. Yet if that’s true, why aren’t they falling over themselves to praise Chile? Why are they instead susceptible to waxing rhapsodic about the hellhole of Venezuela or bending over backwards to defend Cuba’s miserable regime?

And why do some anti-capitalist economists engage in absurd examples of cherry picking in failed efforts to discredit Chile’s accomplishments?

The bottom line is that Chile became the Latin Tiger thanks to economic liberty. That’s great news for the country, but especially good for the less fortunate.

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I’m in China this week, giving various lectures at Northeastern University in Shenyang. My topic today was “Real-World Examples,” which gave me an opportunity to share many of the charts I’ve developed showing how market-oriented nations enjoy much more long-run success.

One of the charts shows how Chile has enjoyed strong growth since it shifted to free markets, especially compared to Venezuela, which is burdened by a vicious form of statism.

But I noticed that I created that chart back in 2011 and it only shows data for the years between 1980 and 2008. And I thought that might lead students to think I was deliberately omitting recent years because the data somehow contradicts my message about free markets and small government.

So it’s time for me to update my comparison of Chile and Venezuela. And I’m going to have lots of evidence to share because the World Bank published a lengthy report on Puzzles of Economic Growth just a couple of years ago. And chapter 7 specifically compares the two countries we’re examining today.

Chile and República Bolivariana de Venezuela are South American countries of similar size and population. They…share a similar history, cultural heritage and comparable social structures. In 1971, they recorded a similar level of per capita income, that is, $6,603 (chained dollars with a base year of 20001) in Chile and $7,231 in República Bolivariana de Venezuela.

The report explains how neither country enjoyed much success in the 1970s, though oil-rich Venezuela at least benefited from rising energy prices.

What’s most relevant, at least for today’s discussion, is how Chile then jumped over Venezuela thanks to pro-market reforms,

In 2003, this value was nearly twice as high in Chile ($12,140) as in República Bolivariana de Venezuela ($6,253). …Chile became a stellar economic growth example in the region and has been outperforming República Bolivariana de Venezuela ever since. The ratio of GDP per capita in Chile and in República Bolivariana de Venezuela changed from 0.75 in 1983 to 1.94 in 2003.

Here’s a chart from the report, showing how Chile’s economy grew rapidly while Venezuela languished.

The report is filled with lots of data.

One item that caught my attention (in part because of Trump’s short-sighted policies in America) is how Chile dramatically reduced trade barriers while Venezuela was more protectionist.

From 1979, Chile’s economy was characterized by the lowest level of tariff restrictions in all of Latin America (10 percent) and a lack of nontariff barriers… República Bolivariana de Venezuela increased its trade restrictions to force consumers to purchase goods produced by the nationalized industries.

But Chile’s success goes well beyond trade policy.

Here’s a table looking quality of governance and red tape.

And here’s some data looking at obstacles to entrepreneurship. As you can see, it took almost four times longer to open a business in Venezuela in 1999.

I assume the numbers are even worse today. Assuming, of course, than anyone even wanted to open a business in that sad country.

Here are some excerpts from the conclusion of the World Bank report. This is a pretty good summary of how Chile reversed its descent to socialism while Venezuela doubled down on bad policy.

In 1971–2003, both Chile and República Bolivariana de Venezuela experienced periods of growing statism in their economic policy. In Chile, however, it was only a short episode (Allende’s socialist experiment in 1971–73), while in República Bolivariana de Venezuela this policy direction was maintained nearly for the entire period covered by the analysis (with its culmination being Chávez’s populist administration elected in 1998). During these periods, state-owned enterprises grew in both countries; market mechanisms were additionally disturbed by administrative price controls and restrictions imposed on freedom of entry into the market—and constrained business activity in many sectors of the economy… Furthermore, severe restrictions on foreign trade and capital flows were imposed. In Chile, the statist experiment was interrupted after three years—once it had driven the economy into a state of profound imbalance with a giant deficit and unchecked inflation. A radical program of economic stabilization and reforms broadening the scope of economic freedom was initiated. This dramatic change in economic orientation produced positive results. From the second half of the 1980s until the end of the analyzed period (2003), Chile was the fastest-growing country in South America.

Now it’s time for me to share an updated version of my chart (though I’m removing Argentina so we can focus just on Chile and Venezuela). As you can see, the updated numbers from the Maddison database tell the exact same story as my 2011 chart.

And why has Chile grown so much faster? As I told the students here in China, it’s because there’s more liberty to engage in voluntary exchange.

In the latest report from Economic Freedom of the World, Chile is ranked #15 while Venezuela is at the very bottom.

P.S. Some people have tried to portray Chile as a failure, but such assertions are easily debunked.

P.P.S. Kudos to the World Bank for publishing a very substantive report. For what it’s worth, it’s the international bureaucracy most likely to produce sensible publications.

P.P.P.S. The only bad World Bank study I’ve encountered equated high tax burdens with a good report card.

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The United States and other western nations became rich during the 1800s thanks to a combination of rule of law and very small government.

Sadly, very few nations – most notably East Asian tiger economies – have become rich in the modern era. Yes, some other countries have grown, but they are not on a path to converge with rich nations.

Chile, however, may be an exception to that unfortunate pattern. It has enjoyed amazing levels of growth since a shift to free-market policies starting about 40 years ago. It is now the richest country in Latin America and if its “improbable success” continues, it will soon be comfortably part of what used to be called the first world.

The flagship reform in Chile was the creation of a funded retirement system based on personal accounts. Basically universal IRAs.

Writing for the Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes shared what he learned about the nation’s private retirement system.

The rags-to-riches Chile story lives on as a model of what a poor country can achieve if it spurns socialism and adopts free markets and democracy. Peru is now copying Chile. More may follow. …Chile was once a Third World country headed downhill economically after Salvador Allende was elected president in 1970…bent on creating a Marxist state. In 1973, the military led by General Augusto Pinochet staged a coup. …When he took over, Chile had one of the highest rates of poverty in South America. It was a basket case. Now it has the continent’s strongest economy. Without Pinochet’s having heeded the advice of economist Milton Friedman, imposed capitalism, and hired a team of free market economists, many trained at the University of Chicago, the rise to First World status wouldn’t have happened. One of the economists was José Piñera, brother of the new president and Harvard-educated. He created a stable, fully-funded pension program that has become a monument to the success of private markets. …Piñera released a study in January that found “72 percent of the capital accumulated in the personal retirement account of the average Chilean worker, after 36 years in the private pension system, comes from the return on the investments done with their contributions.” That’s a long way of saying the plan is a dazzling success.

Though there are opponents, mostly those inspired by the communist regime in Cuba and a Pope who thinks we should worship the state.

But obstacles remain. …Even with Fidel Castro gone, Cuba exports communism as aggressively as it once did sugar. …socialists have an ally in Pope Francis, who spent three days in Chile in mid-January. …there’s a disconnect between how people here feel about capitalism—as a concept anyway—and the economic success they are experiencing. Pinochet is partly to blame, I suspect. He’s a hard man to credit, given his bloody takeover.

Barnes’ final point is also important.

I’ve had many people tell me that personal accounts are bad because they were implemented during Pinochet’s reign. But that’s a silly argument, sort of like deciding to be against free trade because the dictatorial Chinese government opened up to the global economy.

As far as I’m concerned, tyrannical leaders are awful and should be condemned, but if they happen to grant citizens a slice of economic liberty, that’s a silver lining to an otherwise dark cloud.

Back to our main topic, Monica Showalter, in a column for the American Thinker, explained what makes Chile’s system a role model for the United States.

…the Chilean Model…shows some spectacular new results for ordinary citizens… the Chilean Model is working, big time.  Basically, you skip Social Security taxes for starters, which leaves you a lot more money to play around with.  You then put 10% of your income into a government-certified private pension account (and you have many choices among them)… This is mass-scale wealth creation, and it benefits workers most of all. …Chile has no pension crisis as most of the rest of the developed world does – no worries about a “trust fund” and no Social Security “cuts” to speak of.  This is why.  Thirty nations have adopted the same plan… the left hates this stuff.  It keeps workers out of the clutches of unions and un-dependent on government handouts.  Of course leftists want it gone.  They tried hard in Chile to turn workers against this pension idea.

And here’s a chart from her article showing how investment returns have played a big role in helping ordinary Chileans build nest eggs for their old age.

Let’s look at some additional research.

In a monograph published by the U.K.-based Institute of Economic Affairs, Kristian Niemietz takes an in-depth look at Chiles’s approach.

Taken together, the value of the assets accumulated by Chilean pension funds is equivalent to about two thirds of the country’s GDP (Figure 1). This places Chile in the same league as countries which have had private pensions for over a century, and miles ahead of countries with traditional Bismarckian systems… The poverty rate among the elderly is lower than that of the population as a whole – 3.9 per cent vs. 10.3 per cent, or 8.4 per cent vs. 14.4 per cent, depending on the poverty measure used… Chile’s 1981 pension reform has given rise to a number of positive economic spillover effects: the prefunded system has been an active ingredient in the accelerated economic development that the country has been experiencing since the mid-1980s. …It has increased employment, especially in the formal sector… It has boosted the development and sophistication of Chile’s capital markets, and thus raised Total Factor Productivity… Despite the current backlash against it, Chile’s pension system is a success story. The system has achieved consistently high rates of return. It offers excellent value for money and solid pensions for those who contribute regularly. … The official retirement age is not as important in Chile as it is in countries with state-run systems. By and large, in that system, people retire when they have accumulated enough savings, not when politicians think they should retire.

Here’s the chart Kristian mentioned in the text. By this important metric, Chile is firmly ensconced in the upper tier of developed countries.

Now let’s address some of the critics.

Under the previous leftist government, there were protests against the country’s famous private social security system and attempts to undermine the model. Indeed, I wrote about that battle back in 2014. And I also noted that even some academics agreed that it would be foolish to undermine a successful approach.

Let’s see what’s happened since then. The Economist reported about the complaints about a year ago.

…tens of thousands of Chileans in Santiago…protest against the country’s privatised pension system. Organisers—a mix of unions, pensioners’ associations and consumer-advocacy groups—say that… Pensions are too small…benefits have not measured up to people’s unrealistic expectations. The scheme’s founders told workers that if they contributed continuously throughout their careers they would receive a generous 70% of their final salaries upon retirement. …But most workers contributed far less. Women took time off to raise children (and retire earlier than men). Many Chileans spent time in informal jobs or unemployed. On average, they contribute for only 40% of their prime working years. …The system has generated high returns for pensioners, averaging 8.6% a year between 1981 and 2013. But…high fees have bitten a huge chunk out of those returns, reducing them to 3-5.4%.

Though the article also noted all the benefits of personal accounts.

Rather than saddle the government with an unaffordable pay-as-you-go system, in which today’s taxpayers support today’s pensioners even as the population ages, Chile created one in which workers save for their own retirement by paying 10% of their earnings into individual accounts. These are managed by private administrators (AFPs). …the system worked. Contributions to the AFPs flowed into capital markets, which boosted growth. Annual GDP growth from 1981 to 2001 was 0.5 percentage points higher than it would have been without the investment, according to one study. This helped lift millions of people out of poverty.

The last couple of sentences of the above passage are worth highlighting. As I’ve noted, even small differences in economic growth – if they are sustained for a long period – make a huge difference in terms of national prosperity. And 0.5 percent more growth every year is actually a big boost when looking at the impact of just one policy.

Last but not least, here’s Ian Vasquez’s response to the attacks on the Chilean system.

Critics in Chile assert that the average pension provided by the private pension fund companies is around $340 per month, which is not better than the public pension system. But as the Chile-based Liberty and Development institute (LyD) has shown, that is like comparing apples to oranges. To calculate the private system’s figures, all those affiliated with it are taken into account, even if they have only contributed to their accounts once in their lifetime. The corresponding figure for the public pension system, however, only takes into account the pensions of those who have contributed for a minimum of 10 to 15 years, something that leaves out half of the people affiliated with that system. In addition, pensions under the private system are obtained through contributions that amount to 10 percent of wages, while in the public system the contribution is 20 percent. Correcting for those distortions shows that the value of the pensions the AFPs provide is three times higher than that of the public system. …it’s true that many Chileans do not contribute regularly to their retirement accounts because too many work outside the formal sector and getting work is still too precarious for many, that is a problem that affects any pension system, whether public or private, and can only be solved with labor reforms. …Chile’s private pension system can certainly be improved, but the reality is that it has been extremely successful. …old-age pensions no longer represent a burden on the treasury. Pension savings have reached $168 billion, about 70 percent of GDP, which has stimulated high growth and domestic investment, and has put Chile on the verge of becoming a developed country—a remarkable achievement.

Amen. Chile’s system isn’t perfect, but it’s far better, by several orders of magnitude, than the debt-ridden, pay-as-you-go models that are wreaking havoc with the public finances of other countries.

And Chile is prospering in a way unimaginable in other Latin nations.

It would be very nice to have a similar system of personal retirement accounts in the United States. And here’s the cartoon version of the argument.

P.S. Chile also has nationwide school choice.

P.P.S. Bill Clinton supported good Social Security reform and was prepared to work with congressional Republicans (and some Democrats) on good legislation for personal accounts, but that effort was sidetracked by the partisan impeachment fight. A genuine tragedy.

P.P.P.S. I’ve written before about overseas bathroom adventures and I now have another episode to add to the mix from my recent trip to India. I like modern facilities, including ones that have energy-saving features. But building engineers should realize that motion-activated lights may not make sense in bathrooms. At least not when people may be locked in stalls with no good options when the lights go out. Enough said.

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One of the interesting things I’ve noticed in my world travels is that supporters of free markets and small government generally are known as “liberals” everywhere other than North America.

I think the rest of the world has the right idea. After all, folks like Adam Smith are considered “classical liberals,” so it’s bizarre that “liberal” now is used to describe anti-capitalists in America.

To muddy the waters even further, it’s not uncommon for modern supporters of capitalism to be called “neoliberals.”

Though I wonder if that’s supposed to a be a term of derision. When I’m called a neoliberal in other countries, it’s always by someone who is criticizing my support for economic liberty.

Professor Dani Rodrik of Harvard, in a column for the U.K.-based Guardian, is not a fan of neoliberalism. He acknowledges that the term is ill-defined, but recognizes that it means a less power for government.

…neoliberalism…denotes a preference for markets over government, economic incentives over cultural norms, and private entrepreneurship over collective action. …The term is used as a catchall for anything that smacks of deregulation, liberalisation, privatisation or fiscal austerity. …That neoliberalism is a slippery, shifting concept, with no explicit lobby of defenders, does not mean that it is irrelevant or unreal. Who can deny that the world has experienced a decisive shift toward markets from the 1980s on? Or that centre-left politicians – Democrats in the US, socialists and social democrats in Europe – enthusiastically adopted some of the central creeds of Thatcherism and Reaganism, such as deregulation, privatisation, financial liberalisation and individual enterprise?

Rodrik then proceeds with a lengthy discussion of the weaknesses and limitations of conventional economic analysis.

Much of what he writes is perfectly reasonable. The economy is not a machine and people are not robots, so mechanistic economic concepts – while useful – have limited value. Moreover, culture and institutions make a big difference, and it’s rather difficult to capture those concepts in economic models.

Moreover, he makes some interesting observations on how various nations such as China have liberalized in ways that defy easy analysis.

Which is certainly a fair point.

But then he finishes up his column with two examples that simply don’t make sense.

First, Rodrik cites Mexico as a supposed example of neoliberal reform.

Following a series of macroeconomic crises in the mid-1990s, Mexico embraced macroeconomic orthodoxy, extensively liberalised its economy, freed up the financial system, sharply reduced import restrictions and signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta). These policies did produce macroeconomic stability and a significant rise in foreign trade and internal investment. But where it counts – in overall productivity and economic growth – the experiment failed. Since undertaking the reforms, overall productivity in Mexico has stagnated, and the economy has underperformed even by the undemanding standards of Latin America.

My reaction is “huh?”

I spend a lot of time combing through international data in hopes of finding success stories to publicize and I’ve never come across anything to suggest Mexico is a good example. Instead, I found evidence a few years ago suggesting the country is a bad example.

Here’s the Mexican data from Economic Freedom of the World. You can certainly argue that Mexico did some good reforms in the late 1980s. But where’s the evidence for sweeping liberalization after the mid-1990s?

There was a very slight increase in Mexico’s score after 1995, which is better than nothing. But I’m not surprised that it didn’t yield impressive results since the rest of the world was liberalizing at a much faster rate.

Indeed, Mexico dropped from #49 to #69 between 1995 and 2000 because other nations were the ones with “extensive liberalization,” not Mexico.

Second, he takes a shot at Chile.

Chile’s neoliberal experiment eventually produced the worst economic crisis in all of Latin America.

“Huh?” would be an understatement. I was flabbergasted by this assertion.

But not the first part of that sentence. He’s correct that Chile is a poster child for market-friendly reform.

Here’s a chart from Economic Freedom of the World showing how the nation’s score dramatically improved between 1975 and 1995.

But I was shocked by the second part of the sentence. Chile had “the worst economic crisis in all of Latin America”?

Since I’ve written several times about the Chilean economic boom, I was totally baffled. What was Rodrik talking about?

So I took another look at a couple of sources to see if I had overlooked something.

Here’s the IMF data on per-capita GDP for Chile and the rest of Latin America. The numbers are only available back to 1980, but everything we see underscores my argument that Chile is a great success. It used to have living standards only slightly higher than the average for Latin America and now the people are more than twice as rich as their peers. If that’s a “worst economic crisis,” we should all be lucky enough to have similar problems.

Then I looked at the Angus Maddison dataset, which allows us to go back to 1970.

His numbers are adjusted for inflation, so the lines don’t rise as rapidly, but we see the same long-run pattern. Chile is getting richer at a much faster pace than other countries from Latin America. Once again, if this is a “crisis,” other nations should hope for a similar fate.

So what did Rodrik mean by “worst economic crisis”?

His article doesn’t provide any details, but if you look at the Maddison data for the early 1980s, there was a downturn, with per-capita output dropping in Chile from about $6,000 to about $5,000. And that reduction was noticeably larger than the average reduction for the rest of Latin America.

I’m guessing this is the supposed “crisis” that he mentions in the article.

But if that’s true, he’s guilty of an egregious example of “cherry-picking” data. Sort of like saying the record-setting 1998 Yankees were a failure because of a four-game losing streak in late August that year.

Honest analysis requires a look at the overall record, and all data sources show that Chile’s economic performance is far superior to its peers.

The bottom line is that Rodrik is on solid ground when he points out the limitations of conventional economic analysis. But when he then decides to criticize pro-market reforms, he concocts two examples that are – at best – sloppily inaccurate.

P.S. By the way, I can’t resist commenting on one additional assertion in Rodrik’s column.

The use of the term “neoliberal” exploded in the 1990s, when it became closely associated with…financial deregulation, which would culminate in the 2008 financial crash and in the still-lingering euro debacle.

This is another “huh?” moment.

The “neoliberals” were the people who opposed the policies – artificially low interest rates from the Federal Reserve and the corrupt Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac subsidies – that led to the financial crisis. And people like me were very opposed to the excessive government spending that led to the European fiscal crisis.

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