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Archive for the ‘China’ Category

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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I’m a firm believer in climate change. Heck, there have been several ice ages and warming periods, so it’s obvious that temperatures shift over time.

And while I’m not particularly qualified to assess such matters, I’m also willing to believe that human activity has an effect on climate.

Moreover, even though I much prefer warm weather, I’m also open to the idea that global warming might be a bad thing that requires some action.

But here’s the catch. I don’t trust radical environmentalists. Simply stated, too many of these people are nuts.

Then there’s the super-nutty category.

But you know what’s even worse than a nutty environmentalist?

What terrifies me far more are the very serious, very connected, and very powerful non-nutty environmentalists who hold positions of real power. These folks are filled with arrogance and hubris and they have immense power to cause damage.

If you think I’m exaggerating, here’s some of what was contained in a release from the United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe.

By the way, remember that these excerpts are not the unhinged speculation of some crazy conservative or libertarian. These are actually the words – and stated intentions – of the U.N. bureaucracy. They want central planning on steroids.

Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of UNFCCC,  warns that the fight against climate change is a process and that the necessary transformation of the world economy will not be decided at one conference or in one agreement. …”This is the first time in the history of mankind that we are setting ourselves the task of intentionally, within a defined period of time to change the economic development model that has been reigning for at least 150 years, since the industrial revolution. That will not happen overnight and it will not happen at a single conference on climate change, be it COP 15, 21, 40 – you choose the number. It just does not occur like that. It is a process, because of the depth of the transformation.”

Wow. These people want to “intentionally…change the economic development model” that has produced unimagined prosperity.

And they want to replace it with central planning by people who have never demonstrated any ability to generate wealth.

I’m not joking. If you look at Ms. Figueres’ Wikipedia page, you’ll see that she has even less experience in the private sector than President Obama.

Yup, just exactly the kind of pampered (and tax-free) global bureaucrat who should have the power to treat the global economy as some sort of Lego set.

Thomas Sowell has made the very important observation that there’s a giant difference between intelligence and wisdom and Ms. Figueres is a perfect example.

To give you an idea of her cloistered and narrow mindset, she was quoted by Bloomberg as expressing admiration for China’s totalitarian regime over America’s democratic system merely because it ostensibly produces the policies she prefers.

China, the top emitter of greenhouse gases, is also the country that’s “doing it right” when it comes to addressing global warming, the United Nations’ chief climate official said. …China is also able to implement policies because its political system avoids some of the legislative hurdles seen in countries including the U.S., Figueres said. …The political divide in the U.S. Congress has slowed efforts to pass climate legislation and is “very detrimental” to the fight against global warming, she said.

And the icing on the cake, needless to say, is that China’s environment is a catastrophe compared to the much cleaner air and water that exist in the United States!

Though you won’t be surprised to learn that Ms. Figueres is a great admirer of President Obama, even if he does represent a backwards democracy.

The climate chief even held up President Obama as a shining example of steps countries can take to tackle global warming.

Reminds me of a saying about birds of a feather, though I’m not sure how a bird with two left wings can get off the ground.

And don’t even get me started on all the exaggeration and hyperbole that is generated by the radical environmentalists. Though this Jim McKee cartoon is too good not to share.

P.S. Environmentalists are also grotesque hypocrites, as you can see here and here.

P.P.S. But to close on an upbeat note, we have some decent environmental humor here, here, here, and here.

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We have some good news to share.

A government has just announced that it is going to end the unfair practice of giving government bureaucrats pension benefits that are far greater than those available for workers in the economy’s productive sector.

Can you guess which jurisdiction took this important step, notwithstanding the greed, political sophistication, and power of government bureaucracies?

Is it the federal government in Washington, which provides bureaucrats with much higher levels of overall compensation than workers in the private sector?

Is it Ireland, which a few years ago actually cut bureaucrat salaries by more than 13 percent?

Is it California, which is infamous for over-compensated bureaucrats?

Is it Denmark, which has the world’s most expensive bureaucracy?

Is it Italy, which has some of the most coddled government bureaucrats in the world?

Is it New Jersey, where it’s possible for a bureaucrat to have six government jobs at the same time?

Is it the Cayman Islands, which actually contemplated the imposition of an income tax to finance its bloated bureaucracy?

Is it Portugal, which overpays bureaucrats more than any other nation?

Those jurisdictions are all be good guesses. Or, to be more accurate, that’s a good list of jurisdictions where reform is desperately needed.

But all those guesses are wrong. The nation that is ending special pension privileges for government bureaucrats is the People’s Republic of China.

Yes, you read correctly. A communist-run nation is implementing this pro-market reform. Here are some of the details from CNTV.

China will reform its public sector pension system to reduce disparity between the public and private sectors, Vice-Premier Ma Kai said Tuesday… Under China’s dual pension system, civil servants and employees in state agencies do not need to pay for their pensions — the government provides full support for them. But employees of private enterprises have to pay 8 percent of their salary to a pension account. After retirement, private urban employees usually get a pension equal to about half of their final salary, but civil servants get much more without making any financial contribution. …now the reform is coming. The aim is to build a system for Party, government and public institution staff that is similar to the one used by the private sector. This move will affect around 37 million people: 7 million civil servants and 30 million public institution staff.

Wow, bureaucrats will have to live under the same rules as folks in the private sector.

What a radical concept! Maybe we could even try it in the United States at some point.

By the way, one additional indirect feature of the story is worth a mention. China actually has the beginnings of a private Social Security system.

Because the system is still developing, I don’t put it on my list of nations with private Social Security (though it is on the Social Security Administration’s list), but the goal is to slowly but surely shift to a funded system.

Assuming that actually happens, China could mitigate the fiscal consequences of a very large demographic crisis caused by that nation’s barbaric one-child policy.

In any event, China’s at least moving in the right direction (see here, here, and here for more information), which is more than can be said for the United States.

P.S. While China has moved in the right direction in recent decades, it still gets a relatively low score from Economic Freedom of the World. Which helps to explain why I think it’s silly for people to fear the supposed Chinese Tiger.

P.P.S. If you want to see far more striking examples of Chinese people being successful, check out Hong Kong and Taiwan.

P.P.P.S. Though at least some Chinese government officials have a very perceptive understanding of the European welfare state.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Which nation is richer, Belarus or Luxembourg?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China v Taiwan

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

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

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

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

Taiwan Spending Freeze

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

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

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

Taiwan Fiscal Restraint Benefits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Free market for thee, not for me"

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

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

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

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