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During my early years in public policy, back in the late 1980s, I repeatedly crossed swords with people who argued that Washington should have more power over the economy so that the United States could compete with Japan, which supposedly was an economic juggernaut because of “industrial policy” directed by wise and far-sighted bureaucrats at the Ministry of International Trade and Industry.

Given Japan’s subsequent multi-decade slump, it certainly seems like I was right to warn against giving American politicians the power to pick winners and losers.

But not everybody learned from that experience. In the words of Yogi Berra, “It’s deja vu all over again,” only this time we’re supposed to be terrified because the Chinese government wants to subsidize and promote certain industries as part of “Made in China 2025”.

At the risk of understatement, I’m not scared.

Yes, China has enjoyed some impressive growth since it partially liberalized its economy in the late 1900s, but it will remain far behind the United States unless – as I recently explained on CNBC – there is a new wave of free-market reforms.

Needless to say, a government initiative to favor certain industries is hardly a step in that direction.

Some Chinese policy makers even realize that it’s counterproductive to give that kind of power to politicians and bureaucrats.

Here are some excerpts from a report in the South China Morning Post.

“Made in China 2025” has been a waste of taxpayers’ money, China’s former finance minister Lou Jiwei has said…“[Made in China] 2025 has been a lot of talking but very little was done,” Lou, chairman of the National Council for Social Security Fund, said on Wednesday… “those industries are not predictable and the government should not have thought it had the ability to predict what is not foreseeable.” …“The negative effect of [the plan] is to have wasted taxpayers’ money.” He suggested the market should have played a greater role in developing the industries that MIC2025 was designed to push. “The [resources] should have been allocated by the market; the government should give the market a decisive role,” Lou said. “Why has the government pushed so hard on this strategy? [Hi-tech industry prospects] can all change in a few years, it is too unforeseeable.”

Sounds like Mr. Lou learned from Obama’s Solyndra fiasco that cronyism doesn’t work.

But some of his colleagues still need to be educated.

Made in China 2025 (MIC2025) strategy, Beijing’s blueprint for tech supremacy. …Since the plan’s launch in 2015, the government has poured money into MIC2025 to try to turn a number of domestic industries – including artificial intelligence, pharmaceuticals and electric vehicles – into global leaders by 2025. …Lou said: “It [the strategy] should not have been done that way anyway. I was against it from the start, I did not agree very much with it.

I hope senior government officials change their minds about this harmful exercise in central planning.

Not because I’m afraid it will work, but rather because I like China and I want the country to prosper. The partial reforms from last century produced great results for China, including huge reductions in poverty.

Additional reforms could lead to mass prosperity. But that won’t happen if the Chinese government tries to control the allocation of resources.

Let’s close with a big-picture look at central planning and industrial policy, starting with the common-sense observation that there are degrees of intervention.

Here’s my back-of-the-envelope perspective. We have examples of nations, such as the Soviet Union, where the government had near-total control over the allocation of labor and capital. And I suppose Hong Kong would be the closest example of a laissez-faire jurisdiction. And then there’s everything in between.

I’ve already shared two great videos on government planning versus the market. I strongly recommend this Prager University video, narrated by Professor Burton Folsom, on the failure of government-dictated investment. And also this video narrated by Professor Russ Roberts, which shows how a decentralized market efficiently provides a bounty to consumers.

Here’s a third, which celebrates the work of the late Don Lavoie, one of my professors when I studied at George Mason University.

By the way, there is a terrible flaw in the video. The photo that appears at 1:38 shows select faculty and students in 1987. Why is that a flaw? For the simple reason that I was part of the photo but got cropped out in the video.

P.S. Some people worry that China’s industrial policy will have a negative spillover effect on the United States because American companies will lose market share to the subsidized Chinese companies. That’s a legitimate concern and American officials should use the World Trade Organization to counter mercantilist policies.

P.P.S. To my dismay, some people don’t want China to become a rich nation. I assume those people are hoping China follows the advice of the OECD and IMF.

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Since trade promotes prosperity, I want increased market-driven, cross-border commerce between China and the United States.

But you can see in this CNBC interview that I’m worried about achieving that outcome given protectionism from President Trump and mercantilism from President Xi in China.

There’s never much chance to elaborate in short interviews, so here’s some additional analysis on the key points.

1. China’s economy is weak because of insufficient liberalization.

I have written about how China got great results – especially huge reductions in poverty – thanks to partial economic liberalization last century. But those reforms were just a step in the right direction. The country currently ranks only #107 according to Economic Freedom of the World, largely because so much of the economy is hampered by subsidies, regulation, protectionism, and cronyism. Sweeping pro-market reforms are needed if China’s leaders want their country to become rich.

2. Trump’s unthinking protectionism hurts both sides, but China may be more vulnerable.

I mentioned in the interview that Trump’s protectionism meant that he was harming both nations. This is what always happens with protectionism, so I wasn’t saying anything insightful. But it is quite likely that China will suffer more because its economy doesn’t have the flexibility and durability of America’s more market-oriented system.

That is one of the conclusion from a recent news report.

Policymakers in Europe have spared no effort to emphasize that there can be no winners in an escalated trade conflict between the United States and China. But a fresh study shows there are several beneficiaries. …But a study by research network EconPol Europe suggests such an assertion isn’t quite true — in fact, it isn’t true at all. The survey analyzes the impact of tariffs imposed by the US on China and the effect of China’s retaliatory tariffs. …The EconPol Europe study calculates that Chinese exporters are bearing approximately 75 percent of the costs… in Asia, Vietnam has been gaining the most from firms relocating their production away from China. Malaysia, Singapore and India have also been profiting from this development.

3. China’s cronyism presents a challenge for supporters of unilateral free trade.

I’m a supporter of unilateral free trade. America should eliminate all trade barriers, even if other nations want to hurt themselves by maintaining their restrictions. That being said, it’s not genuine free trade if another country has direct or indirect subsidies for its companies. As I noted in the interview, some economists say we shouldn’t worry since the net result is a wealth transfer from China’s taxpayers to America’s consumers. On the other hand, that approach means that some American workers and companies are being harmed. And if supporters of free markets are upset when American workers and companies are hurt by domestic cronyism, we also should be upset when the same thing happens because of foreign cronyism.

The challenge, of course, is whether you can use trade barriers to target only cronyism. I worry that such an effort would get hijacked by protectionists, though Professor Martin Feldstein makes a good argument in the Wall Street Journal that it’s the right approach.

China’s strategy is to give large government subsidies to state-owned companies and supplement their research with technology stolen from American and other Western companies. …That is the real reason why the Trump administration has threatened tariffs of 25% on $200 billion of Chinese exports to the U.S.—nearly half the total—unless Beijing reforms its policies. …The purpose of the tariffs is not to reduce the bilateral trade deficit but to counter Chinese technology theft and forced transfer. …the U.S. could impose heavier tariffs and other economic penalties in order to force China to play by the rules, ending its attempt to dominate global markets through subsidies and technology theft.

4. Trump should have used the World Trade Organization to encourage Chinese liberalization.

I wrote last year that the President would enjoy more success if he used the WTO to apply pressure on China.

It’s not just me making this claim. Here are some excerpts from a story in the Washington Post.

Pressure from Europe and Japan is amplifying the president’s vocal complaints about Chinese trade practices… “it wasn’t a Trump issue; it was a world issue,” said Jorge Guajardo, …a former Mexican ambassador to China. “Everybody’s tired of the way China games the trading system and makes promises that never amount to anything.” …Germany and the United Kingdom joined the United States this year in tightening limits on Chinese investment. …In September, trade ministers from the United States, European Union and Japan issued a joint statement that blasted the use of subsidies in turning “state owned enterprises into national champions and setting them loose in global markets.” The statement…also rejected forced technology transfer… The United States did win E.U. and Japanese support for a complaint to the WTO alleging China has violated U.S. intellectual property rights. But rather than use the global trade body for a broader attack on China, the administration has demanded changes in the way the organization operates. To critics, the administration missed an opportunity to marshal China’s trading partners behind an across-the-board indictment of its state-led economy.

5. The imperfect Trans-Pacific Partnership was an opportunity to pressure China to reduce cronyism.

Because of my concerns about regulatory harmonization, I wasn’t grievously disappointed when the United States chose not to participate in the TPP, but I fully recognized that the pact had very positive features. Including the pressure it would have placed on China to shift toward markets and away from cronyism.

6. Additional Chinese reform is the ideal outcome, both for China and the rest of the world.

Three years ago, I wrote that China needs a Reagan-style revolution of economic liberalization. That’s still true today. The bottom line is that China’s leaders should look at the progress that was achieved last century when the economy was partially liberalized and decide that the time is ripe for the free-market version of a great leap forward. In other words, the goal should be great economic success, not modest economic success.

I’ll conclude by pointing out that I don’t want China to copy the United States, even though that would be a step in the right direction.

According to data from Economic Freedom of the World, there’s a much better role model.

Indeed, I would like the United States to copy Hong Kong as well.

The recipe for prosperity is the same all over the world. The challenge is getting politicians to do what’s best for citizens rather than what’s best for themselves.

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Last November, I shared a one-minute video from Freedom Partners on the economics of trade.

Here’s a full-length (but still only four minutes) treatment of the issue from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

The first part of the video is a quick glimpse at some of the academic evidence for open trade, and I hope it helps make the case against protectionism.

I then cite some country-specific examples, including how Herbert Hoover’s protectionism contributed to the economic misery of the Great Depression.

Argentina is another bad example mentioned in the video. It used to be one of the world’s richest countries, but it plummeted in the rankings in part because of its protectionist policy of “import substitution.”

The video also mentions the examples of China and India. Since I think this point is especially compelling, I want to take this opportunity to briefly elaborate on my comments in the video.

First, let’s establish that both nations did liberalize trade. Here’s a chart from Economic Freedom of the World, and you can see that there was dramatic liberalization starting about 1990.

Both nations are still a long way from total free trade (Singapore and Hong Kong, for instance, respectively get scores of 9.29 and 9.32), but it goes without saying that there was considerable liberalization in China and India.

And how did that work out?

Trade liberalization was a slam-dunk success. Based on data from the World Bank, here’s a look at how China and India started converging with the United States after opening to the world economy.

To be sure, both nations still have a long way to go. And it’s highly unlikely that either nation will ever fully converge to American living standards unless there is a lot more pro-market reform. Not just in trade, but all facets of economic policy.

But as I mentioned in the video, the reforms that already have occurred – particularly trade liberalization – have contributed to huge reductions in poverty in China and India.

Given all this evidence, I’ll close with a version of my two-question challenge. Can anybody identify a nation that has prospered by moving to protectionism (h/t: the USA in the 1800s is not a good answer) or a nation that has suffered because of trade liberalization?

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I periodically mock the New York Times when editors, reporters, and columnists engage in sloppy and biased analysis.

But all these instances of intentional and unintentional bias are trivial compared to our next example.

The New York Times has gone above and beyond conventional media bias with a video entitled, “How Capitalism Ruined China’s Health Care System.”

Here’s the part that caused my jaw to drop.

After the sad opening story about the guy with the sick mother, there’s a section from 1:33-2:27 that makes two observations that basically show the premise of the video is totally wrong.

  • First, it points out (from 1:33-1:42) that there is a universal, government-run health system that ostensibly covers the guy’s mother, so her unfortunate status is yet another example that coverage in a government-run healthcare system is not the same as treatment.
  • Second, it points out (from 2:05-2:27) that life expectancy soared once the communist party relaxed its grip on the economy and allowed some liberalization, which would seem to be powerful evidence that capitalism leads to better health outcomes.

These are astounding mistakes.

But it gets worse. Sarah Lilly, who lives in China, debunked the rest of the video in a column for FEE.

The New York Times…attempts to blame capitalism for the many problems in China’s health care system. …As a resident of China and a recipient of outstanding private health care here, I was confused as to why the Times would show us the horrors of a capitalist system without actually visiting a private health care facility. …All of the horrors depicted in the high-quality video—the long lines, the scalping, and the hospital fights—occurred at government-run health care facilities. …At the very least, failing to feature a single private medical facility while blaming capitalism for the dysfunction of China’s public health system is intellectually dishonest.

She points out that the big-picture analysis in the video is wrong.

In the video, the Times praises Chairman Mao’s introduction of “free” health care and claims that when capitalism was introduced into the country, the state retreated and care was no longer free. Neither statement is true. First, health care was never free; it was paid for by tax revenues. Second, the state never retreated; rather, its regulatory apparatus became vaster and even more invasive. Out of sheer necessity, China allowed for the creation of private hospitals to ease the burden of the country’s heavily bureaucratic and deteriorating health care system.

And she also explains that the details of the video are wrong.

The Times video depicts the ungodly long line most Chinese face to see a physician. …It’s an appalling scene. …There’s just one problem. The Shanghai Cancer Center is a public hospital, not a private one. The long lines, scalpers, bribes, and physical fights with hospital staff—all of these exclusively happen in the public, communist, government-run hospitals. …In an egregious bit of sleight-of-hand, the Grey Lady asserts that capitalism is ruining Chinese health care while presenting us with a hospital where capitalism is not practiced.

To be fair, we get the same type of mistake when journalists look at the flaws in the American health system. They blame capitalism when the problems of ever-higher prices and uneven coverage are the consequences of government intervention.

P.S. My columns about sloppy bias at the New York Times don’t include Paul Krugman’s writings. Debunking those mistakes requires several different collections.

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The good news about China is that economic liberalization has produced impressive growth in recent decades, which has helped bring hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

The bad news is that China started from such a low position that per-capita income is still quite low compared to rich nations.

So what does the economic future hold? Will China continue its upward trajectory?

That’s certainly possible, but it depends on the Chinese government. Will there be additional liberalization, giving the economy more “breathing room” to grow?

Not if the government listens to the bureaucrats at the International Monetary Fund. I wrote three years ago about an IMF study that recommended huge tax increases in China.

And now there’s another IMF report pushing for big tax hikes. Only instead of arguing that higher taxes somehow will produce more growth by financing a bigger burden of government (which – no joke – was the core argument in the 2105 study), this new report claims higher taxes will produce more growth by reducing inequality.

Here’s the basic premise of the paper.

…economic growth has not benefited all segments of the population equally or at the same pace, causing income disparities to grow, resulting in a large increase in income inequality… This is especially of concern as the recent literature has found that elevated levels of inequality are harmful for the pace and sustainability of growth… The paper discusses what additional policies can be deployed to improve equity in opportunities and outcomes, with particular focus on the role for fiscal policy.

But a key part of the premise – the blanket assertion that inequality undermines growth – is junk.

As I noted in 2015 when debunking a different IMF study, “..they never differentiate between bad Greek-style inequality that is caused by cronyism and good Hong Kong-style inequality that is caused by some people getting richer faster than other people getting richer in a free market.”

Let’s dig into the details of this new IMF study.

Here’s the problem, at least according to the bureaucrats.

Income inequality in China today, as measured by the Gini coefficient, is among the highest in the world. …Furthermore, the Gini coefficient has rapidly increased over the last two decades, by a total of about 15 Gini points since 1990.

And here’s the chart that supposedly should cause angst. It shows that inequality began to rise as China shifted toward capitalism.

But why is this inequality a bad thing, assuming rich people earned their money honestly?

When markets are allowed to function, people become rich by providing value to the rest of us. In other words, it’s not a zero-sum game.

Ironically, the IMF study actually makes my point.

…much of China’s population has experienced rising real incomes. …even for the bottom 10 percent incomes rose by as much as 63 percent between 1980 and 2015… This has implied that China reduced the share of people living in poverty immensely. Measured by the headcount ratio, the population in poverty decreased by 86 percentage points from 1980 to 2013 (see figure 6), the most rapid reduction in history.

And here’s the aforementioned Figure 6, which is the data worth celebrating.

Any normal person will look at this chart and conclude that China should do more liberalization.

But not the bureaucrats at the IMF. With their zero-sum mentality, they fixate on the inequality chart.

Which leads them to make horrifyingly bad recommendations.

…several reforms could be envisaged to make fiscal policy more inclusive, both on the tax and expenditure side. …revenues from PIT contribute only around 5 percent of total revenues, a much lower share than the OECD average of 25 percent. Increasing the reliance on PIT, which more easily accommodates a progressive structure, could allow China to improve redistribution through the tax system. …While the PIT in China already embeds a progressive schedule with marginal rates increasing with income from 3 to 45 percent, …redesigning the tax brackets would ensure that middle and high income households with higher ability to pay contribute more to financing the national budget… Property and wealth taxes remain limited in China. Such taxes are broadly viewed as progressive, because high-income households usually tend also to have more property and wealth. …Consideration should therefore be given to adopt a recurrent market-value based property tax.

And why do IMF bureaucrats want all these additional growth-stifling taxes?

To finance a larger burden of government spending.

China still lags other emerging economies and OECD countries in public spending on education, health and social assistance. …social expenditure will need to be boosted.

In other words, the IMF is suggesting that China should copy welfare states such as Italy and France.

Except those nations at least enjoyed a lengthy period before World War II when government was very small. That’s when they became relatively rich.

The IMF wants China to adopt big government today, which is a recipe to short-circuit prosperity.

P.S. I don’t think the IMF is motivated by animus towards China. The bureaucrats are equal-opportunity dispensers of bad advice.

P.P.S. The OECD also is trying to undermine growth in China.

P.P.P.S. There are some senior-level Chinese officials who understand the downsides of a welfare state.

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I’ve been in China this week, giving lectures about economic policy at Northeastern University in Shenyang.

I’ve explained that China has enjoyed reasonably impressive growth in recent decades thanks to pro-market reforms. But I’ve also pointed out that further economic liberalization is needed if China wants to avoid the middle-income trap.

That won’t be easy. Simply stated, I don’t think it’s possible to become a rich nation without free markets and small government.

The good news is that China’s economic freedom score has increased dramatically since reforms began, rising from 3.64 in 1980 to 6.40 in the latest edition of Economic Freedom of the World. And there’s been a dramatic increase in prosperity and a dramatic reduction in poverty.

The bad news is that a score of 6.40 means that China is only ranked #112 in the world. That’s way too low. The country needs a new burst of pro-market reform (especially since it also faces serious demographic challenges in the not-too-distant future).

In other words, China should strive to be more like #1 Hong Kong, which has a score of 8.97, or #4 Switzerland, with a score of 8.44.

Or even the #11 United States, which has a score of 7.94, or also #19 Netherlands, with a score of 7.74.

The bottom line is that China won’t become a rich nation so long as it has a score of 6.40 and a ranking of #112.

Fortunately, there is a pre-existing recipe for growth and prosperity. China needs to change the various policies that undermine competitiveness.

Since I’m a public finance economist, I told the students how China’s fiscal score (“size of government”) could be improved.

I recommended a spending cap, of course, but I also said the tax system needed reform to enable more prosperity.

Part of tax reform is low marginal tax rates on productive behavior.

Chinese academic experts agree. As reported by the South China Morning Post, they’re urging the government to significantly reduce the top rate of the personal income tax.

China needs to slash its highest tax levy on the nation’s top income earners in its upcoming individual tax code review, or risk seeing an unprecedented talent exodus, argued eight academics… They called for authorities to scrap the top two tax brackets of 35 per cent and 45 per cent in the current seven brackets progressive tax system on individuals, granting high income earners more leeway with a five tax brackets system that will be capped at 30 per cent.

The scholars pointed out that high tax rates are especially harmful in a world where high-skilled people have considerable labor mobility.

The academics from esteemed mainland universities called for further revision of the code, as the current draft failed…high income earners, a group that is often highly skilled professionals China wants to attract and retain in the global fight for talent. …For the “highly intelligent groups”, remunerations and royalties were likely to surpass the monthly salary, meaning that the combination can add up to a higher taxable income base and “seriously restrain them from” pursuing innovation, the academics argued. “In a global environment [when tax cuts become mainstream], if China maintains its high individual income tax rates … it will push the high-income, high-intelligent group overseas,” they said.

Needless to say, I’ll be very curious to see what happens. I’ve now been to China several times and I think the country has huge potential.

But achieving that potential requires reforms that will reduce the size and scope of government.

Here’s a chart I shared with the students, which shows that Taiwan has much more economic freedom and is much richer (basically an updated version of some numbers I put together in 2014).

The bottom line is that the country can become a genuine “Chinese Tiger” rather than a “paper tiger” with the right policies.

P.S. Some people actually think China should become more statist. Both the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Monetary Fund have urged staggering tax increases in China.

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President Trump is a protectionist. He doesn’t understand the principle of “comparative advantage.” And he’s wrong about the implications of a “trade deficit.”

But that doesn’t mean everything he says about trade is wrong.

He frequently accuses other nations of “unfair” treatment of American products and China is one of his favorite targets.

Well, there’s some truth behind Trump’s bluster.

Here’s the World Trade Organization’s data on tariff rates imposed by the United States and China. As you can see, the United States has lower taxes on trade, which should be viewed as a net plus for the American economy (though we should be at 0.0, like Hong Kong).

Now let’s look at the trade data from the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World.

As you can see, China moved substantially in the right direction in order to qualify for WTO membership in the early 2000s. And the American score has declined slightly since the 1980s.

Nonetheless, the United States still ranks higher.

So Trump is right, at least on the narrow issue of China being more protectionist.

But bad policy by China doesn’t justify bad policy by the United States. Especially when the main victims of Trump’s tariffs will include American consumers, workers, manufacturers, taxpayers, and exporters.

Instead, I explained in March that the United States should use the World Trade Organization to push China in the right direction.

The Tax Foundation has a similar perspective.

There is wide agreement that these concerns should be addressed, but the administration’s broad application of tariffs is not likely to change Chinese government policy, and will cause significant harm to the U.S. economy. The World Trade Organization’s Dispute Settlement Process is an alternative way to address trade disputes, rather than imposing unilateral actions, like tariffs, that damage economic growth and invite retaliation. …If an offending nation does not conform with the decision, the nation being harmed can request authorization for suspension of concession, meaning approval to increase its own tariffs, but only enough to make up for the damages caused. This avoids unilateral punishments and retaliations… The World Trade Organization’s Dispute Settlement Process should not be overlooked as an effective tool against harmful foreign trade practices. …The U.S. has allies in the IP dispute against China, and even some anti-dumping duties can be defended under WTO rules. But instead, the administration is pursuing a path of broad tariffs that invite retaliation, cause economic uncertainty, and damage economic growth.

Christine McDaniel of the Mercatus Center has a column in the Hill also explaining that the WTO option is far superior to unilateral tariffs.

…tariffs do self-inflicted harm. Imagine being in a gunfight in an old wooden ship, with every shot fired at your enemy putting a hole in your own hull. Eventually, you start to sink. …as for taking our complaints to the WTO, this is a decent bet. We have won most of the cases we have brought, including those against China, which does eventually oblige.

But Ms. McDaniel wants to be even bolder. She’s urging market-oriented nations to create a broad free-trade agreement that goes above and beyond the WTO. China would then feel significant pressure to fix its bad policies to be part of this new club.

…best option is to…Team up with our allies, who are just as frustrated with China as we are. Form a pact in which signatories commit to open trade and investment regimes, sufficiently strong intellectual property rights and enforcement, and legal recourse mechanisms. Most importantly, signatories commit to not engage in trade or investment with state-owned enterprises or those with close ties to state-owned enterprises. This would effectively leave China the odd man out. …China should implement reforms…: a more open trade and investment regime, phasing out state-owned enterprises, stronger patent rights, and legal recourse mechanisms. These policy shifts — a shift in thinking, really — would help put China on a more sustainable path to economic growth.

She’s right that China would benefit. But such a free-trade agreement also would put other participating nations on a better growth trajectory.

The United States is far from perfect on trade, after all, and the same is true of most of our allies.

So if we all formed a free-trade pact to encourage better policy in China, an indirect benefit would be better policy in America and other nations.

That kind of win-win scenario would be great news for the global economy. And it would be much better than a potentially dangerous tit-for-tat trade war, which seems to be where we’re heading now.

P.S. The United States also is more free-trade oriented than the European Union.

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