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Archive for the ‘China’ Category

I’m still in China, as part of a week-long teaching assignment about markets, entrepreneurship, economics, and fiscal policy at Northeastern University in Shenyang.

One point that I’ve tried to get across to the students is that China should not copy the United States. Or France, Japan, or Sweden. To be more specific, I warn them that China won’t become rich if it copies the economic policies that those nations have today.

Instead, I tell them that China should copy the economic policies – very small government, trivial or nonexistent income taxes, very modest regulation – that existed in those nations back in the 1800s and early 1900s. That’s when America and other western countries made the transition from agricultural poverty to industrial prosperity.

In other words, pay attention to the polices that actually produced prosperity, not the policies that happen to be in place in 2016. With this in mind, I’m delighted to share a new National Review column about the ostensibly wonderful Nordic Model from Nima Sanandaji. He starts by noting that statists are big fans of nations such as Sweden and Denmark.

Ezra Klein, the editor of the liberal news website Vox, wrote last fall that “Clinton and Sanders both want to make America look a lot more like Denmark — they both want to…strengthen the social safety net.” … Bill Clinton argues that Finland, Sweden, and Norway offer greater opportunities for individuals… Barack Obama recently…explain[ed] that “in a world of growing economic disparities, Nordic countries have some of the least income inequality in the world.”

Sounds nice, but there’s one itsy-bitsy problem with the left’s hypothesis.

Simply stated, everything good about Nordic nations was already in place before the era of big government.

…the social success of Nordic countries pre-dates progressive welfare-state policies. …their economic and social success had already materialized during a period when these countries combined a small public sector with free-market policies. The welfare state was introduced afterward.

Here are some of the key factoids about fiscal policy.

…in 1960, the tax rate in [Denmark] was merely 25 percent of GDP, lower than the 27 percent rate in the U.S. at the time. In Sweden, the rate was 29 percent, only slightly higher than in the U.S. In fact, much of Nordic prosperity evolved between the time that a capitalist model was introduced in this part of the world during the late 19th century and the mid 20th century – during the free-market era.

And here’s the data about equality (though I think it’s far more important to worry about the degree of upward mobility rather than whether everyone has a similar amount of income).

…high levels of income equality evolved during the same period. Swedish economists Jesper Roine and Daniel Waldenström, for example, explain that “most of the decrease [in income inequality in Sweden] takes place before the expansion of the welfare state and by 1950 Swedish top income shares were already lower than in other countries.” A recent paper by economists Anthony Barnes Atkinson and Jakob Egholt Søgaard reaches a similar conclusion for Denmark and Norway.

Our friends on the left think that government-run healthcare deserves the credit for longer lifespans in the Nordic world.

Nima explains that the evidence points in the other direction.

In 1960, well before large welfare states had been created in Nordic countries, Swedes lived 3.2 years longer than Americans, while Norwegians lived 3.8 years longer and Danes 2.4 years longer. Today, after the Nordic countries have introduced universal health care, the difference has shrunk to 2.9 years in Sweden, 2.6 years in Norway, and 1.5 years in Denmark. The differences in life span have actually shrunk as Nordic countries moved from a small public sector to a democratic-socialist model with universal health coverage.

Not to mention that there are some surreal horror stories in those nations about the consequences of putting government in charge of health care.

Here’s the evidence that I find most persuasive (some of which I already shared because of an excellent article Nima wrote for Cayman Financial Review).

Danish Americans today have fully 55 percent higher living standard than Danes. Similarly, Swedish Americans have a 53 percent higher living standard than Swedes. The gap is even greater, 59 percent, between Finnish Americans and Finns. Even though Norwegian Americans lack the oil wealth of Norway, they have a 3 percent higher living standard than their cousins overseas. …Nordic Americans are more socially successful than their cousins in Scandinavia. They have much lower high-school-dropout rates, much lower unemployment rates, and even slightly lower poverty rates.

Nima concludes his article by noting the great irony of Nordic nations trying to reduce their welfare states at the same time American leftists are trying to move in the other direction.

Nordic-style democratic socialism is all the rage among Democrat activists as well as with liberal intellectuals and journalists. But in the Nordic countries themselves, this ideal has gradually lost its appeal. …During the past few decades, the Nordic countries have gradually been reforming their social systems. Taxes have been cut to stimulate work, public benefits have been limited in order to reduce welfare dependency, pension savings have been partially privatized, for-profit forces have been allowed in the welfare sector, and state monopolies have been opened up to the market. In short, the universal-welfare-state model is being liberalized. Even the social-democratic parties themselves realize the need for change.

The net result of these reforms is that the Nordic nations are a strange combination of many policies that are very good (very little regulation, very strong property rights, very open trade, and stable money) and a couple of policies that are very bad (an onerous tax burden and a bloated welfare state).

I’ve previously shared (many times) observations about the good features of the Nordic nations, so let’s take a closer look at the bad fiscal policies.

Sven Larson authored a study about the Swedish tax system for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. The study is about 10 years old, but it remains the best explanation I’ve seen if you want to understand the ins and outs of taxation in Sweden.

Here’s some of what he wrote, starting with the observation that the fiscal burden used to be considerably smaller than it is in America today.

Sweden was not always a high-tax nation. …the aggregate tax burden after World War II was modest.

But then things began to deteriorate.

…over the next four decades, there was a relentless increase in taxation. The tax burden first reached 50 percent of economic output in 1986 and has generally stayed above that level for the past 20 years.

Though Sven points out that Swedish politicians, if nothing else, at least figured out that it’s not a good idea to be on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve (i.e., they figured out the government was getting less revenue because tax rates were confiscatory).

A major tax reform in 1991 significantly lowered the top marginal tax rate to encourage growth. The top rate had peaked at 87 percent in 1979 and then gradually dropped to 65 percent in 1990 before being cut to 51 percent in 1991. Subsequent tax increases have since pushed the rate to about 57 percent.

In the interest of fairness, let’s acknowledge that there are a few decent features of the Swedish tax system, including the absence of a death tax or wealth tax, along with a modest tax burden on corporations.

But the bottom line is that Sweden’s overall tax system (and the same can be said of Denmark and other Nordic nations) is oppressive. And the system is oppressive because governments spend too much. Indeed, the welfare state in Sweden and Denmark is as large as the infamous French public sector.

To be sure, the Swedes and Danes partially offset the damage of their big welfare states by having hyper-free market policies in other areas. That’s why they rank much higher than France in Economic Freedom of the World even though all three nations get horrible scores for fiscal policy.

Let’s close by circling back to the main premise of this column. Nima explained that good things happened in the Nordic nations before the welfare state exploded in size.

So I decided to see if we could ratify his hypothesis by checking the growth numbers from the impressive Angus Maddison database. Here’s a chart showing the average growth of per-capita GDP in Denmark and Sweden in the 45 years before 1965 (the year used as an unofficial date for when the welfare state began to metastasize) compared to the average growth of per-capita GDP during the 45 years since 1965.

Unsurprisingly, we find that the economy grew faster and generated more prosperity when government was smaller.

Gee, it’s almost as if there’s a negative relationship between the size of government and the health of the economy? What a novel concept!

P.S. All of which means that there’s still no acceptable response for my two-question challenge to the left.

P.P.S. Both Sweden and Denmark have been good examples for my Golden Rule, albeit only for limited periods.

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I’m in Shenyang, China, as part of the faculty for Northeastern University’s International Economics and Management program.

My primary role is to talk about the economics of fiscal policy, explaining the impact of both taxes and spending.

But regular readers already know my views on those issues, so let’s look instead at the vaunted Chinese Miracle.

And I don’t use “vaunted” in a sarcastic sense. Ever since China began to liberalize its economy in the late 1970s, economic growth has been very impressive. I don’t necessarily believe the statistics coming from the Chinese government, but it’s unquestionably true that there’s been spectacular progress.

The great mystery, though, is whether China will continue to enjoy rapid growth. In other words, will it actually converge with the United States (right now per-capita economic output in America is more than five times higher than it is in China)? Or will China, like many other developing/transition economies, hit a ceiling and then begin to stagnate.

I don’t pretend to know the future, but I can say with great confidence that the answer depends on the actions of the Chinese government.

The good news is that economic freedom jumped dramatically starting in 1980 according to Economic Freedom of the World. Thanks to good reforms, China’s score rose by more than 50 percent, climbing from 4.0 in 1980 to more than 6.0 in just a bit over two decades.

That’s a huge improvement, and it largely explains why prosperity has expanded and there’s been a record reduction in the grinding poverty and material deprivation that characterized the country.

But the bad news is that there hasn’t been much reform in the past 15 years. China’s economic freedom score has oscillated between 6.0 and 6.4 during that period.

Indeed, there have been financial bailouts and Keynesian-style “stimulus” schemes, so it’s possible that China is now going in the wrong direction.

Before digging into the details, let’s consider the economics of growth. I’ve written before that labor and capital are the two factors of production and that economic growth is a function of more labor, more capital, or learning to use existing labor and/or capital more productively.

One way to visualize this is with a production possibility curve. This is a tool in economics that often is used to illustrate tradeoffs and opportunity costs. If Robinson Crusoe is on a deserted island, what the best way for him to allocate his time to maximize the amount of fish he can catch and the number of coconuts he can collect? Or, for an entire society, what’s the “guns-vs-butter” tradeoff?

Here’s a chart I found online that illustrates the role of capital and labor and producing output. It’s a three-dimensional chart, which is helpful since it not only shows that there’s no output in the absence of capital and labor, but it also shows that an economy with just labor or just capital also won’t have much if any output. You produce a lot, by contrast, with labor and capital are mixed together.

But that’s just the beginning.

The above chart shows the amount of output that theoretically can be produced with given amounts of labor and capital. But what if there’s bad policy in a nation? Consider the difference, for example, between China’s plateaued economic freedom score and decent economic performance compared to Hong Kong’s great economic freedom score and great economic performance.

With that in mind, contemplate this two-dimensional image. With bad policy, either the economy only produces A when it can produce B (i.e., by using existing labor and capital more productively) or it produces B when it can produce C (i.e., by expanding the amount of labor and capital).

I suspect that China’s problem is mostly that bad policy interferes with the efficient allocation of labor and capital. In other words, there’s already a lot of labor and capital being deployed, but a significant amount is misallocated because of cronyism and other forms of intervention.

Now let’s move from theory to empirical details.

Here’s a close look at China’s reforms from Professor Li Yang, Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Over the past 35 years, China has achieved extraordinary economic performance thanks to the market-oriented reforms and opening-up….The GDP per capita also reached to $6075 in 2012, up from $205 in 1980… China’s economy experiences impressive changes in favor of marketization. In fact, as far back as 1996, 81% of the production materials, and 93% of retail sales, had already been traded according to the market pricing mechanism.

And here’s a chart showing the gradual expansion of market forces in China, presumably based on whether prices are determined by markets or by central planning.

We also have two charts showing the decline in genuine socialism (i.e., government ownership of the means of production).

The first chart shows that state-owned companies are becoming an ever-smaller share of the economy.

Even more impressive, there’s been a huge decline in the share of the population employed by state-owned firms.

This is good news, and it helps to explain why China is much richer today than it was 30 years ago.

But the great unknown is whether China will experience similar strong growth for the next 30 years.

Here’s more of Professor Yang’s optimistic analysis.

Another indispensable factor explaining China’s growth miracle is constant opening-up, which is equally guided by the principle of gradualism. Regarding the space structure, the markets successively opened up from the special economic zones, economic and technological development zones, coastal economic development zones, riparian regions, inland regions, and finally the whole China; regarding the industrial structure, from the advantaged manufacturing industry, to the less advantaged agriculture and service industries. In 2001, China’s entry into the WTO can be regarded as a milestone: China’s opening up transformed from selective policy measures to widespread and deep institutional arrangements.

The liberalization of trade is particularly impressive, as shown by the following chart from the study.

Makes me wonder what Donald Trump would adjust his protectionist China-bashing if he saw (and understood) this chart.

Anyhow, here are some passages from Professor Yang’s conclusion.

…market-oriented reforms constitute the most crucial factor to support China’s growth in the future. The key here is to properly deal with the relationship between government and markets. The latter will be expected to play the fundamental role in the allocation of economic resources. …China should make more effort to improve the efficiency of investment. …the government needs to reduce its intervention in the micro-level economic activities, promote deregulation and administrative decentralization, break up monopolies, and improve the efficiency of functioning.

I agree, particularly the part about boosting the efficiency of investment.

And that can only happen if China ends cronyism by letting capital be allocated by market forces rather than political connections.

Let’s close with two items.

First, one of the other faculty with me at the University in Shenyang is Ken Schoolland. In his presentation, he noted that there’s some real federalism in China. Provinces have considerable flexibility to engage in reform.

And it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the rapid growth in China has been concentrated in the areas that have moved the fastest and farthest in the direction of free markets.

Second, some experienced observers are a bit pessimistic about future Chinese economic developments. Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute explains what needs to happen to boost future prosperity.

…the economy is in the process of stagnating. The only solution is a return to market-driven, politically difficult reform. Such reform must be focused primarily on rolling back the state sector. …Expanded individual or household land ownership in rural areas would be…helpful. …More individual land rights shrink the rural state. The critical step in revitalizing the economy is to shrink the urban state, and by a considerable amount. Such changes will of course be phased in over time but the sooner they start, the sooner economic performance improves. Shrinking the urban state sector would (i) finally address excess capacity; (ii) enable capital to be much more efficiently allocated; (iii) thereby slow or halt unproductive debt accumulation; and (iv)encourage innovation by enabling more competition. …In terms of capital allocation, formal interest rate liberalization was said to be a vital step. But it cannot be while the state controls most financial assets – the incentives for collusion among sister state financials are overwhelming.

Here’s Derek’s bottom line.

Want to know when China is going to thrive again – just check if the state sector is actually shrinking.

Amen.

What he’s basically describing are the policies that would dramatically improve China’s score from Economic Freedom of the World. And if China can ever climb as high as Hong Kong, then the sky’s the limit for growth and prosperity.

P.S. There are some signs that China’s leadership recognizes that a Reagan-style agenda is needed.

P.P.S. On the other hand, if China’s government takes the IMF’s advice, then prepare for economic decline and stagnation.

P.P.P.S. The most amusing economic news in recent years was when a senior Chinese official basically explained that the welfare state in Europe makes people lazy.

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The long-term trend in China is positive. Economic reforms beginning in the late 1970s have helped lift hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty.

And thanks to decades of strong growth, living standards for ordinary Chinese citizens are far higher than they used to be. There’s still quite a way to go before China catches up to western nations, but the numbers keep improving.

That being said, China’s economy has hit a speed bump. The stock market’s recent performance has been less than impressive and economic growth has faltered.

Is this the beginning of the end of the Chinese miracle?

If you asked me about six months ago, I would have expressed pessimism. The government was intervening in financial markets to prop up prices, and that was after several years of failed Keynesian-style spending programs that were supposed to “stimulate” growth.

But maybe my gloom was premature.

An article in The Economist examines the new “supply-side” focus of China’s leader (h/t: Powerline).

Mr Xi has seemed to channel the late American president. He has been speaking openly for the first time of a need for “supply-side reforms”—a term echoing one made popular during Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s. It is now China’s hottest economic catchphrase (even featuring in a state-approved rap song, released on December 26th: “Reform the supply side and upgrade the economy,” goes one catchy line). …Mr Xi’s first mentions of the supply side, or gongjice, in two separate speeches in November, were not entirely a surprise. For a couple of years think-tanks affiliated with government ministries had been promoting the concept (helped by a new institute called the China Academy of New Supply-Side Economics).

Sounds encouraging, though it’s important to understand that there’s a big difference between rhetoric and reality.

Talking about “gongjice” is a good start, but are Chinese officials actually willing to reduce government’s economic footprint?

Perhaps.

Their hope is that such reforms will involve deep structural changes aimed at putting the economy on a sounder footing, rather than yet more stimulus. …Mr Xi’s aim may be to reinvigorate reforms that were endorsed by the Communist Party’s 370-member Central Committee in 2013, a year after he took over as China’s leader. They called for a “decisive” role to be given to market forces

Wow, the communists in China want free markets. Maybe there’s hope for some of America’s more statist politicians!

All kidding aside, there’s some evidence that officials in Beijing realize that the Keynesian experiment of recent years didn’t work any better than Obama’s 2009 spending binge.

Here’s more from the article.

Those who first pushed supply-side reform onto China’s political agenda want a clean break with the credit-driven past. Jia Kang, an outspoken researcher in the finance ministry who co-founded the new supply-side academy, defines the term in opposition to the short-term demand management that has often characterised China’s economic policy—the boosting of consumption and investment with the help of cheap money and dollops of government spending.The result of the old approach has been a steep rise in debt (about 250% of GDP and counting) and declining returns on investment. Supply-siders worry that it is creating a growing risk of stagnation, or even a full-blown economic crisis. Mr Jia says the government should focus instead on simplifying regulations to make labour, land and capital more productive. Making it easier for private companies to invest in sectors currently reserved for bloated state-run corporations would be a good place to start, some of his colleagues argue.

This is music to my ears.

Assuming President Xi is willing to adopt the types of reforms advocated by Mr. Jia, China’s economy will have a very bright future.

The key goal for policy makers in Beijing should be to improve China’s economic freedom score over the next 10 years by as much as it improved between 1980 and 2005.

In other words, if China adopts genuine free markets like Hong Kong and Singapore (and, to a lesser extent, Taiwan), then it will simply be a matter of time before living standards reach – and exceed – levels found in western nations.

I’ll close by outlining two challenges for Beijing.

First, entrenched interest groups will be an obstacle to pro-growth reform. In this sense, politics in China is very similar to politics in Greece, America, France, and South Africa. The sad reality is that too many people – all over the world – think it’s morally acceptable to obtain unearned wealth via the coercive power of government. Though there are reasons to be optimistic because a strong majority of Chinese people have expressed support for free markets.

Second, even if China’s leaders overcome the interest groups and adopt good long-run policy, there’s still the challenge of short-term dislocation and instability caused by so-called stimulus programs and easy-money policy from the central bank. Just like you can’t un-ring a bell, you can’t magically undo the malinvestments caused by those policies. So Beijing will need to weather a temporary economic storm at the same time it engage in long-run reform.

P.S. If you want to know a recipe for Chinese stagnation, simply look at the IMF’s recommendations.

P.P.S. Some senior Chinese officials have a very astute understanding of why welfare states don’t work.

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At the risk of stereotyping, the Chinese people are remarkably productive when given the chance. Hong Kong and Singapore are dominated by ethnic Chinese, and those jurisdictions routinely rank among the world’s top economies.

Taiwan is another high-performing economy with an ethnic Chinese population.

Ironically, the only place where Chinese people don’t enjoy high average incomes is China. And that’s because there’s too much statism. If you peruse the indispensable Economic Freedom of the World from Canada’s Fraser Institute, you’ll see that China is ranked #115 out of 152 jurisdictions, which is even below nations such as Greece, Haiti, and Vietnam.

As I explain in this interview, China’s politicians are undermining prosperity with a system based on cronyism rather than capitalism.

China’s in the news, of course, because of recent instability in its financial markets. And I’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to give my two cents on this issue (see here and here).

But I was making the same criticisms even when China’s economy was perceived as a big success. I wrote in 2010 that America didn’t need to fear the supposed Chinese economic tiger. I pointed out in 2011 that China was way behind the United States.

And I was at least somewhat prescient when I warned about a bubble in the Chinese economy in this 2011 debate.

Though plenty of folks on the left actually argued that China’s state-controlled economy was something to mimic. Writing for Reason, Ronald Bailey cites some of their silly statements.

As the world watches China’s Communist Party leaders try to order markets around, my mind turned to those pundits who earnestly recommended that the United States emulate the brilliant beneficient Chinese planners in running our economy. The most fulsome China booster was New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. …So enamored of China’s industrial policy was Friedman that in 2010 he likened Chinese economic planning boldness to making “moon-shots.” …And then there is the inevitable Robert Reich. Reich, who is a former Clinton Secretary of Labor, has never been right about anything when it comes to economic policy prescriptions. For example, Reich was convinced in the 1980s the Japan would bury the United States due to the planning acumen of that country’s savvy bureaucrats. …Just shy of 30 years later Reich sang the same stale tune in 2011, only instead of Japanese planners, he was praising the wonders of Chinese industrial planning… As late as 2012, Richard D’Aveni, a Professor of Strategy at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, declared in The Atlantic that “The U.S. Must Learn From China’s State Capitalism to Beat It.”

Actually, Professor D’Aveni is right for the wrong reason. We can learn a lot from statist economies. But we should learn what to avoid, not what to copy.

To conclude, this post shouldn’t be perceived as being anti-China. I want there to be more prosperity in that country, which is why I defended China from an absurd attack by the IMF.

Moreover, I commend China for reforms that move policy in the right direction. And as I pointed out in the interview embedded above, China’s reforms in the 1980s and 1990s may have been limited, but they did help lift hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty.

Since I mentioned the interview, one of the quirky parts of the discussion was whether politicians should be held criminally responsible for economic mismanagement. Here’s what I wrote a few years ago about an example of that happening in Iceland.

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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Is the third time the charm, at least for bailouts?

First, we had the TARP bailout in the United States, and that turned out to be a corrupt mess.

Second, we had the Greek bailout, which has squandered hundreds of billions of euros to prop up a welfare state.

Now we have a third big bailout, with China seeking to stabilize that nation’s faltering stock market. So anybody want to guess how this will work out?

To put it mildly, the Wall Street Journal does not have a favorable opinion of this financial market intervention.

Beijing…officials pumped public money into the market. It hasn’t worked; the Shanghai Composite Index closed Thursday at 3661, 29% below its June peak. …Peking University economist Christopher Balding has added up the bailout and stimulus measures announced since the market panic started in late June. They total $1.3 trillion, or more than 10% of GDP.

So why is this a bad thing?

For two reasons, as the WSJ explains. First, it’s an unjustified wealth transfer. Second, it creates an economic environment contaminated by moral hazard.

Investors who bought when the market was already frothy are getting a chance to exit with some of their profits intact. But Chinese who don’t own stocks are justified in asking why they must subsidize their fellow citizens’ poor decisions. Mr. Balding’s spreadsheet shows that the market-rescue measures represent a huge transfer of wealth to investors who should have been prepared to shoulder the risks when they bought shares. The failed bailout reinforces the expectation that Beijing will attempt to manage the financial markets in the future. This moral hazard means the volatility will continue, along with the costs of future bailouts.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I share the Wall Street Journal’s skepticism. In a recent interview with Neil Cavuto, I said the Chinese government (like just about all governments) is too focused on short-run pain avoidance.

In other words, by trying to prop up markets in the short run, I think the Chinese government will cause a far greater amount of economic pain in the long run.

Two other points from the interview deserve highlighting.

  1. China’s economy needs more economic liberalization (as opposed to the snake oil being peddled by the IMF) if it hopes to become a first-world nation. While there’s been a lot of progress since the wretched deprivation and poverty of Mao’s era, China is still way behind the United States and other nations with more capitalistic systems. Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan are appropriate role models.
  2. Whenever folks on the left point to a “success story” that ostensibly proves big government and central planning are more successful that capitalism, it’s just a matter of time before they’re proven wrong. Some of them were delusional enough to think the Soviet Union was economically successful (see bottom of this post) and events proved them wrong. As I pointed out in the interview, some of them thought Japan’s model of central planning was the ticket for prosperity and events proved them wrong. More recently, some of them have argued that China’s state-driven economy was a role model and they’re now being shown to be wrong.

P.S. Let’s close with some economic humor.

Fans of old-time comedy are probably familiar with the famous who’s-on-first exchange between Abbott and Costello.

Well, here’s a modern version of that exchange that showed up in my mailbox yesterday, only it deals with joblessness. I won’t strain credibility by asserting it’s as funny as the original sketch, but it does indirectly highlight the fact that we should focus primarily on labor force participation since that measure how many people are producing wealth for the nation.

COSTELLO: I want to talk about the unemployment rate in America.

ABBOTT: Good Subject. Terrible times. It’s 5.6%.

COSTELLO: That many people are out of work?

ABBOTT: No, that’s 23%.

COSTELLO: You just said 5.6%.

ABBOTT: 5.6% unemployed.

COSTELLO: Right, 5.6% out of work.

ABBOTT: No, that’s 23%.

COSTELLO: Okay, so it’s 23% unemployed.

ABBOTT: No, that’s 5.6%.

COSTELLO: Wait a minute! Is it 5.6% or 23%?

ABBOTT: 5.6% are unemployed. 23% are out of work.

COSTELLO: If you are out of work, you are unemployed.

ABBOTT: No, Congress said you can’t count the “out of work” as the unemployed. You have to look for work to be unemployed.

COSTELLO: But they are out of work!

ABBOTT: No, you miss his point.

COSTELLO: What point?

ABBOTT: Someone who doesn’t look for work can’t be counted with those who look for work. It wouldn’t be fair.

COSTELLO: To whom?

ABBOTT: The unemployed.

COSTELLO: But ALL of them are out of work.

ABBOTTNo, the unemployed are actively looking for work. Those who are out of work gave up looking; and if you give up, you are no longer in the ranks of the unemployed.

COSTELLO: So if you’re off the unemployment rolls, that would count as less unemployment?

ABBOTT: Unemployment would go down. Absolutely!

COSTELLOThe unemployment rate just goes down because you don’t look for work?

ABBOTTAbsolutely it goes down. That’s how it gets to 5.6%. Otherwise it would be 23%.

COSTELLO: Wait, I got a question for you. That means there are two ways to bring down the unemployment number?

ABBOTT: Two ways is correct.

COSTELLO: Unemployment can go down if someone gets a job?

ABBOTT: Correct.

COSTELLO: And unemployment can also go down if you stop looking for a job?

ABBOTT: Bingo.

COSTELLO: So there are two ways to bring unemployment down, and the easier of the two is to have people stop looking for work.

ABBOTT: Now you’re thinking like an economist.

COSTELLO: I don’t even know what the hell I just said!

ABBOTT: Now you’re thinking like a politician.

P.P.S. While economists deservedly get mocked, we’re not totally useless. We occasionally show a bit of cleverness.

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When I first got to Washington in the mid-1980s, one of the big issues was the supposedly invincible Japanese economy. Folks on the left claimed that Japan was doing well because the government had considerable power to micro-manage the economy with industrial policy.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s now quite apparent that was the wrong approach.

In more recent years, some on the left have praised China’s economic model. And while it’s true that the country has enjoyed strong growth, it’s far from a role model.

Here’s some of what I wrote back in 2010.

Yes, 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. …This is not to sneer at the positive changes in China. Hundreds of millions of people have experienced big increases in living standards. Better to have $6,710 of per capita GDP than $3,710. But China still has a long way to go if the goal is a vibrant and rich free-market economy. The country’s nominal communist leadership has allowed economic liberalization, but China is still an economically repressed nation.

With my skeptical view of the Chinese economic system, I figured it was just a matter of time before the nation experienced some economic hiccups.

And the recent drop in the Shanghai stock market certainly would be an example. I discussed the topic earlier this week in this Skype interview with Blaze TV.

To elaborate, there’s no precise formula for determining a nation’s prosperity. After all, economies are not machines.

But there is a strong relationship between prosperity and the level of economic freedom.

And as I explained earlier this year, China’s problem is that government is still far too big. As such, its overall ranking from Economic Freedom of the World is still very low.

And this means that the Chinese people – while much better off then they were under a pure communist system – are still not rich.

I mentioned the comparative numbers on per-capita economic output in the interview, which is something I wrote about back in 2011. And you can click here if you want the underlying figures to confirm that Americans are far more prosperous.

By the way, this is an issue where the establishment seems to have a semi-decent understanding of what’s happening, even if they don’t necessarily draw any larger lessons from the episode.

The Associated Press, for instance, has a good report on the issue. Here’s some of the story, which looks at why the the stock market seems untethered from economic fundamentals.

When China’s economy was roaring along at double digit rates in the 2000s, Chinese stocks floundered. But starting in the summer of 2014, as evidence of an economic slowdown gathered, the Shanghai Composite index climbed nearly 150 percent. …Now the Chinese stock bubble has burst and Shanghai shares are in a free fall. They’ve lost about 30 percent since peaking last month. …Prices in the stock market are supposed to reflect business realities: the health of the economy, the quality of the companies listed on stock exchanges, the comparative allure of alternative investments. But in a communist country where the government plays an oversized role in the economy, investors pay more attention to signals coming from policymakers in Beijing than to earnings reports, management shake-ups and new product announcements.

If savvy investors think it’s important to focus on what the government is doing, that’s obviously bad news.

During the booming 2000s, only politically connected firms were allowed to list on stock exchanges for the most part. Many of them were run by insiders of dubious managerial talent. The markets were dominated by inefficient state-owned companies. Investors were especially wary of investing in big government banks believed to be sinking under the weight of bad loans. Stocks went nowhere.

And when the government started to encourage a bubble, that also wasn’t a good idea.

…state media began encouraging Chinese to buy stock, even as the country’s economic outlook dimmed. The economy grew 7.4 percent last year, the slowest pace since 1990. It’s expected to decelerate further this year. But authorities allowed investors to borrow to buy ever-more shares. Unsophisticated investors — more than a third left school at the junior high level — got the message and bought enthusiastically, taking Chinese stocks to dangerous heights. Now it’s all crashing down.

I’m not sure “all crashing down” is the right conclusion.

As I said in the interview, the market doubled and now it’s down about 30 percent, so many investors are still in good shape.

That being said, I have no idea whether the market will recover, stabilize, or continue to drop.

But I do feel comfortable making a larger point about the relationship between economic freedom and long-run prosperity.

So if you want to learn lessons from East Asia, look at the strong performances of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea, all of which provide very impressive examples of sustained growth enabled by small government and free markets.

P.S. I was greatly amused when the head of China’s sovereign wealth fund mocked the Europeans for destructive welfare state policies.

P.P.S. Click here if you want some morbid humor about China’s pseudo-communist regime.

P.P.P.S. Though I give China credit for trimming at least one of the special privileges provided to government bureaucrats.

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For the people of China, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news, as illustrated by the chart, is that economic freedom has increased dramatically since 1980. This liberalization has lifted hundreds of millions from abject poverty.

The bad news is that China still has a long way to go if it wants to become a rich, market-oriented nation. Notwithstanding big gains since 1980, it still ranks in the lower-third of nations for economic freedom.

Yes, there’s been impressive growth, but it started from a very low level. As a result, per-capita economic output is still just a fraction of American levels.

So let’s examine what’s needed to boost Chinese prosperity.

If you look at the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World, there are five major policy categories. As you can see from this table, China’s weakest category is “size of government.” I’ve circled the most relevant data point.

The bottom line is that China could – and should – boost its overall ranking by improving its size-of-government score. And that means reducing the burden of government spending and lowering tax rates.

With this in mind, I was very interested to see that the International Monetary Fund just published a study entitled, “China: How Can Revenue Reforms Contribute to Inclusive and Sustainable Growth.”

Did this mean the IMF was recommending pro-growth tax reform? After reading the following sentence, I was hopeful.

We highlight tax policies that can facilitate economic transition to high income status, promote fiscal sustainability and make growth more inclusive.

After all, surely you make the “transition to high income status” with low tax rates rather than high tax rates, right?

Moreover, the study also acknowledged that China’s tax burden already is fairly substantial.

Tax revenue has accounted for about 22 percent of GDP in 2013…the overall tax burden is similar to the tax-to-GDP ratio for other Asian economies such as Australia, Japan, and Korea.

So what did the IMF recommend? A flat tax? Elimination of certain taxes? Reductions in double taxation? Lowering the overall tax burden?

Hardly.

The bureaucrats actually want China to become more like France and Greece.

I’m not joking. The IMF study actually wants people to believe that making the income tax more punitive will somehow boost prosperity.

Increasing the de facto progressivity of the individual income tax would promote more inclusive growth.

Amazingly, the IMF wants more “progressivity” even though the folks in the top 20 percent are the only ones who pay any income tax under the current system.

…around 80 percent of urban wage earners are not subject to the individual income tax because of the high basic personal allowance.

But a more punitive income tax is just the beginning. The IMF wants further tax hikes.

Broadening the base and unifying rates would increase VAT revenue considerably. …tax based on fossil fuel carbon emission rates can be introduced. …the current levies on local air pollutants such as SO2 and NOX emissions and small particulates could be significantly increased.

What’s especially discouraging is that the IMF explicitly wants a higher tax burden to finance an increase in the burden of government spending.

According to the proposed reform scenario, China could potentially aim to increase public expenditures by around 1 percent of GDP for education, 2‒3 percent of GDP for health care, and another 3–4 percent of GDP to fully finance the basic old-age pension and to gradually meet the legacy costs of current obligations. These would add up to additional social expenditures of around 7‒8 percent of GDP by 2030… The size of additional social spending is large but affordable as part of a package of fiscal reforms.

Indeed, the study explicitly says China should become more like the failed European welfare states that dominate the OECD.

Compared to OECD economies, China has considerable scope to increase the redistributive role of fiscal policy. …These revenue reforms serve as a key part of a package of reforms to boost social spending.

You won’t be surprised to learn, by the way, that the study contains zero evidence (because there isn’t any) to back up the assertion that a more punitive tax system will lead to more growth. Likewise, there’s zero evidence (because there isn’t any) to support the claim that a higher burden of government spending will boost prosperity.

No wonder the IMF is sometimes referred to as the Dr. Kevorkian of the global economy.

P.S. If you want to learn lessons from East Asia, look at the strong performance of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea, all of which provide very impressive examples of sustained growth enabled by small government and free markets.

P.P.S. I was greatly amused when the head of China’s sovereign wealth fund mocked the Europeans for destructive welfare state policies.

P.P.P.S. Click here if you want some morbid humor about China’s pseudo-communist regime.

P.P.P.P.S. Though I give China credit for trimming at least one of the special privileges provided to government bureaucrats.

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