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Archive for the ‘China’ Category

Happy New Year!

We listed yesterday the good and bad policy developments of 2017, so now let’s speculate about potential victories and defeats in 2018.

Here are two things I hope will happen this year.

  • Welfare reform – If my friends and contacts on Capitol Hill are feeding my accurate information, we may see a bigger and better version of the 1996 welfare reform in 2018. The core concept would be to abolish the dozens of means-tested programs (i.e., redistribution programs targeted at low-income people) in Washington and replace them with a “block grant.” This could be good news for federal taxpayers if the annual block grant is designed to grow slowly. And it could be good news for poor people since state government would then have the ability and flexibility to design policies that help liberate recipients from government dependency.
  • Collapse of Venezuela – Given the disastrous deterioration of the Venezuelan economy, it’s difficult to envision how the Maduro dictatorship can survive the year. Yes, I know the regime is willing to use the military to suppress any uprising, but I suspect hungry and desperate people are more likely to take chances. My fingers are crossed that the corrupt government is overthrown and Venezuela becomes another Chile (hopefully without a transition period of military rule).

Here are two things I fear may happen in 2018.

  • Pulling out of NAFTA – America dodged a bullet in 2017. Given Trump’s protectionist instincts, I worried he would do something very dangerous on trade. But pain deferred is not the same thing as pain avoided. The President has made some very worrisome noises about NAFTA and it’s possible he may use executive authority to scrap a deal that has been good for the United States.
  • A bad version of Brexit – Given the statist mindset in Brussels and the continent’s awful demographics, voting to leave the European Union was the right decision for our British friends. Simply stated, it makes no sense to stay on a sinking ship, even if it sinking slowly. But the net benefits of Brexit depend on whether the United Kingdom seizes the moment and adopts pro-growth policies such as tax cuts and free-trade pacts. Sadly, those good reforms don’t appear likely and it appears instead that the feckless Tory leadership will choose to become a satellite member of the EU, which means living under the thumb of Brussels and paying for harmonization, bureaucratization, and centralization. The worst possible outcome in the short run, though at least the U.K. is better positioned to fully extricate itself in the future.

I’m adding a new feature to my hopes-and-fears column this year.

These are issues where I think it’s likely that something consequential may occur, but I can’t figure out whether I should be optimistic or pessimistic. I sort of did this last year, listing Obamacare reform and Italian fiscal crisis as both hopes and fears.

It turns out I was right to be afraid about what would happen with Obamacare and I was wrong (or too early) to think something would happen with Italy.

Here are three things that could be consequential in 2018, but I can’t figure out whether to be hopeful or fearful.

  • Infrastructure reform or boondoggle – I put an “infrastructure boondoggle” as one of my fears last year, but the President and Congress postponed dealing with the issue. But it will be addressed this year. I’m still afraid the result may be a traditional pile of pork-barrel spending, but it’s also possible that legislation could be a vehicle for market-based reform.
  • Normalization of monetary policy – I try to stay clear of monetary policy, but I also recognize that it’s a very important issue. Indeed, if I was to pick the greatest risk to the economy, it’s that easy-money policies (such as artificially low interest rates) have created a bubble. And bursting bubbles can be very messy, as we learned (or should have learned) in 2008. The Federal Reserve supposedly is in the process of “normalizing” monetary policy. I very much hope they can move in the right direction without rattling markets and/or bursting bubbles.
  • A China bubble – Speaking of macroeconomic risks, I’m very glad that China has partially liberalized and I’m ecstatic that reform has dramatically reduced severe poverty, but I also worry that the government plays far too large a role in the banking sector and interferes far too much in the allocation of capital. I’m guessing this eventually leads to some sort of hiccup (or worse) for the Chinese economy, and all I can do is cross my fingers and hope that the government responds with additional liberalization rather than the bad policies being advocated by the OECD and IMF.

By the way, I fully expect the Democrats to sweep the 2018 elections. And since the Party is now much farther to the left than it used to be, that could lead to very bad news in 2019 – particularly if Trump unleashes his inner Nixon.

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When Ronald Reagan slashed tax rates in America in the 1980s, the obvious direct effect was more prosperity in America.

But the under-appreciated indirect effect of Reaganomics was that it helped generate more prosperity elsewhere in the world.

Not because Americans had higher income and could buy more products from home and abroad (though that is a nice fringe benefit), but rather because the Reagan tax cuts triggered a virtuous cycle of tax competition. Politicians in other countries had to lower their tax rates because of concerns that jobs and investment were migrating to America (Margaret Thatcher also deserves some credit since she also dramatically reduced tax rates and put even more competitive pressure on other nations to do the same thing).

If you look at the data for developed nations, the average top income tax rate in 1980 was more than 67 percent. It’s now closer to 40 percent.

And because even countries like Germany and France enacted supply-side reforms, the global economy enjoyed a 25-year renaissance of growth and prosperity.

Unfortunately, there’s been some slippage in the wrong direction in recent years, probably caused in part be the erosion of tax competition (politicians are more likely to grab additional money if they think targeted victims don’t have escape options).

But we may be poised for a new virtuous cycle of tax competition, at least with regards to business taxation. A big drop in the U.S. corporate tax rate will pressure other nations to lower their taxes as well. And if new developments from China and Europe are accurate, I’ve been underestimating the potential positive impact.

Let’s start with news from China, where some officials are acting as if dropping the U.S. corporate tax rate to 20 percent is akin to economic warfare.

U.S. tax cuts—the biggest passed since those during the presidency of Ronald Reagan three decades ago—have Beijing in a bind. Prominent in the new tax policy are generous reductions in the corporate tax and a rationalization of the global tax scheme. Both are expected to draw capital and skilled labor back to the United States. …In April, Chinese state-controlled media slammed the tax cuts, accusing the U.S. leadership of risking a “tax war”… On April 27, state-run newspaper People’s Daily quoted a Chinese financial official as saying, “We’ve made our stance clear: We oppose tax competition.” …Beijing has good reason to be afraid. …“Due to the tax cut, the capital—mostly from the manufacturing industry—will flow back to the U.S.,” Chen said.

While Chinese officials are worried about tax competition, they have a very effective response. They can cut tax rates as well.

…the Communist Party had promised to implement financial policy that would be more beneficial for the general public, but has not put this into practice. Instead, Beijing has kept and expanded a regime whereby heavy taxes do not benefit the people…, but are used to prop up inefficient state-owned enterprises… Chinese officials and scholars are considering the necessity of implementing their own tax reforms to keep up with the Trump administration. …Zhu Guangyao, a deputy minister of finance, said in a meeting that it was “indeed impossible” to “ignore the international effects” of the American tax cut, and that “proactive measures” needed to be taken to adjust accordingly. …a Chinese state-run overseas publication called “Xiakedao” came out with a report saying that while Trump’s tax cuts put pressure on China, the pressure “can all the same be transformed into an opportunity for reform.” It remains to be seen whether communist authorities are willing to accept a hit to their tax revenue to balance the economy and let capital flow into the hands of the private sector.

The Wall Street Journal also has a story on how China’s government might react to U.S. tax reform.

…economic mandarins in Beijing are focusing on a potentially… immediate threat from Washington— Donald Trump’s tax overhaul. In the Beijing leadership compound of Zhongnanhai, officials are putting in place a contingency plan to combat consequences for China of U.S. tax changes… What they fear is…sapping money out of China by making the U.S. a more attractive place to invest.

Pardon me for digressing, but isn’t it remarkable that nominally communist officials in China clearly understand that lower tax rates will boost investment while some left-leaning fiscal “experts” in America still want us to believe that lower tax won’t help growth.

But let’s get back to the main point.

An official involved in Beijing’s deliberations called Washington’s tax plan a “gray rhino,” an obvious danger in China’s economy that shouldn’t be ignored. …While the tax overhaul isn’t directly aimed at Beijing, …China will be squeezed. Under the tax plan now going through the U.S. legislative process, America’s corporate levy could drop to about 20% from 35%. Over the next few years, economists say, that could spur manufacturers—whether American or Chinese—to opt to set up plants in the U.S. rather than China.

It’s an open question, though, whether China will respond with bad policy or good policy.

Imposing capital controls to limit the flow of money to the United States would be an unfortunate reaction. Using American reform as an impetus for Chinese reform, by contrast, would be serendipitous.

The sweeping overhaul of the U.S. tax code, estimated to result in $1.4 trillion in U.S. cuts over a decade, is also serving as a wake-up call for Beijing, which for years has dragged its feet on revamping China’s own rigid tax system. Chinese businesses have long complained about high taxes, and the government has pledged to reduce the levies on them. …Chinese companies face a welter of other taxes and fees their U.S. counterparts don’t, including a 17% value-added tax. …Chinese employers pay far-higher payroll taxes. Welfare and social insurance taxes cost between 40% and 100% of a paycheck in China. World Bank figures for 2016 show that total tax burden on Chinese businesses are among the highest of major economies: 68% of profits, compared with 44% in the U.S. and 40.6% on average world-wide. The figures include national and local income taxes, value-added or sales taxes and any mandatory employer contributions for welfare and social security.

I very much hope Chinese officials respond to American tax cuts with their own supply-side reforms. I’ve applauded the Chinese government in the past for partial economic liberalization. Those policies have dramatically reduced poverty and been very beneficial for the country.

Lower tax rates could be the next step to boost living standards in China.

By the way, the Chinese aren’t the only ones paying attention to fiscal developments in the United States. The GOP tax plan also is causing headaches in Europe, as reported by CNN.

Germany, France, Britain, Spain and Italy have written to Treasury Sec. Steven Mnuchin… The letter argues that proposed changes to the U.S. tax code could give American companies an advantage over foreign rivals. …They said the provision could also tax the profits of foreign businesses that do not have a permanent base in the U.S. …The finance ministers said they opposed another measure in the Senate bill that could benefit American companies.

I have two responses. First, I actually agree with some of the complaints in the letter about selected provisions in the tax bill (see, for instance, Veronique de Rugy’s analysis in National Review about the danger of the BAT-like excise tax). We should be welcoming investment from foreign companies, not treating them like potential cash cows for Uncle Sam.

That being said, European officials are throwing stones in a glass house. They are the ones pushing the OECD’s initiative on “base erosion and profit shifting,” which is basically a scheme to extract more money from American multinational firms. And let’s also remember that the European Commission is also going after American companies using the novel argument that low taxes are a form of “state aid.”

Second, I think the Europeans are mostly worried about the lower corporate rate. German officials, for instance, have already been cited for their fear of a “ruinous era of tax competition.” And politicians at the European Parliament have been whining about a “race to the bottom.”

So I’ll give them the same advice I offered to China. Respond to Americans tax cuts by doing the right thing for your citizens. Boost growth and wages with lower tax rates.

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I’ve written (many, many times) about how the best way to help the poor is to focus on economic growth rather than inequality.

After all, in a genuine market economy (as opposed to socialism, cronyism, or some other form of statism), the poor aren’t poor because some people are rich.

Today, let’s look at a real-world example of why it is a mistake to focus on inequality.

A study by five Chinese scholars looked at income inequality over time in their country. Their research, published in 2010, focused mostly on the methodological challenges of obtaining good long-run data and understanding the impact of urban and rural populations. But one clear conclusion is that inequality has increased in China.

This paper investigates the influences of the income overlap part on the nationwide Gini coefficient. Then we present a new approach to estimating the Chinese Gini ratio from 1978 to 2006, which avoids the shortcomings of current data sources. In line with the results, the authors further probe the trend of Chinese income disparity. …income inequality has been rising in China. …the national Gini ratio of 2006 is 1.52 times more than that of 1978.

Here’s a chart based on their data (combined with post-2006 data from Statista). It looks at historical trends for the Gini coefficient (a value of “1” is absolute inequality, with one person accumulating all the income in a society, whereas a value of “0” is absolute equality, with everyone having the same level of income.

As you can see, there’s been a significant increase in inequality.

My leftist friends are conditioned to think this is a terrible outcome, in large part because they incorrectly think the economy is a fixed pie.

And when you have that distorted view, higher absolute incomes for the rich necessarily imply lower absolute incomes for the poor.

My response (beyond pointing out that the economy is not a fixed pie), is to argue that the goal should be economic growth and poverty reduction. I don’t care if Bill Gates is getting richer at a faster rate than a poor person. I just want a society where everyone has the chance to climb the economic ladder.

And I also point out that it’s hard to design pro-growth policies that won’t produce more income for rich people. Yes, there are some reforms (licensing liberalization, cutting agriculture subsidies, reducing protectionism, shutting the Ex-Im Bank, reforming Social Security, ending bailouts) that will probably be disproportionately beneficial for those with low incomes, but those policies also will produce growth that will help upper-income people.*

But I’m digressing. The main goal of today’s column is to look at the inequality data from above and then add the following data on poverty reduction.

Here’s a chart I shared back in March. As you can see, there’s been a very impressive reduction in the number of people suffering severe deprivation in rural China (where incomes historically have been lowest).

Consider, now, both charts together.

The bottom line is that economic liberalization resulted in much faster growth. And because some people got richer at a faster rate than others got richer, that led to both an increase in inequality and a dramatic reduction in poverty.

Therefore, what happened in China creates a type of Rorschach test for folks on the left.

  • A well-meaning leftist will look at all this data and say, “I wish somehow everyone got richer at the same rate, but market-based reforms in China are wonderful because so many people escaped poverty.”
  • A spiteful leftist will look at all this data and say, “Because upper-income people benefited even more than low-income people, market-based reforms in China were a failure and should be reversed.”

Needless to say, the spiteful leftists are the ones who hate the rich more than they love the poor (here are some wise words from Margaret Thatcher on such people).

*To the extend that some upper-income taxpayers obtain unearned income via government intervention, then they may lose out from economic liberalization. Ethical rich people, however, will earn more income if there are pro-growth reforms.

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The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has published a 136-page “Economic Survey” of China.

My first reaction is to wonder why the Paris-based bureaucracy needs any publication, much less such a long document, when Economic Freedom of the World already publishes an annual ranking that precisely and concisely identifies the economic strengths and weaknesses of various nations.

A review of the EFW data would quickly show that China doesn’t do a good job in any area, but that the nation’s biggest problems are a bloated public sector and a suffocating regulatory burden.

Though it’s worth noting that China’s mediocre scores today are actually a big improvement. Back in 1980, before China began to liberalize, it received a dismal score of 3.64 (on a 1-10 scale). Today’s 6.45 score isn’t great, but there’s been a big step in the right direction.

One of the most impressive changes is that the score for the trade category has jumped from 2.72 to 6.78 (i.e., moving from protectionism toward open trade is good for growth).

I cite this EFW data because part of me wonders why the OECD couldn’t be more efficient and simply put out a 5-page document that urges reforms – such as a spending cap and deregulation – that would address China’s biggest weaknesses?

To be fair, though, the number of pages isn’t what matters. It’s the quality of the analysis and advice. So let’s dig into the OECD’s China Survey and see whether it provides a road map for greater Chinese prosperity.

But before looking at recommendations, let’s start with some good news. This chart shows a dramatic reduction in poverty and it is one of the most encouraging displays of data I’ve ever seen.

Keep in mind, by the way, that China’s economic statistics may not be fully trustworthy. And it’s also worth noting that China’s rural poverty measure of CNY2300 is less than $350 per year.

Notwithstanding these caveats, it certainly appears that there’s been a radical reduction in genuine material deprivation in China. That’s a huge triumph for the partial economic liberalization we see in the EFW numbers.

Now let’s see whether the OECD is suggesting policies that will generate more positive charts in future years.

The good news is that the bureaucrats are mostly sensible on regulatory matters and state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Here are a few excerpts from the document’s executive summary.

Business creation has been made easier through the removal and unification of licenses. …Gradually remove guarantees to SOEs and other public entities to reduce contingent liabilities. …Reduce state ownership in commercially oriented…sectors. Let unviable SOEs go bankrupt, notably in sectors suffering from over-capacity.

The bad news is that the OECD wants the government to increase China’s fiscal burden. I’m not joking.

Policy reforms can greatly enhance the redistributive impact of the tax-and-transfer system. …Increase central and provincial government social assistance transfers…increase tax progressivity. Implement a broad-based nationwide recurrent tax on immovable property and consider an inheritance tax.

This is bad advice for any nation at any point, but it’s especially misguided for China because of looming demographic change.

Here’s another chart from the report. It shows a staggering four-fold increase in the share of old people relative to working-age people in the country.

This chart should be setting off alarm bells. The Chinese government should be taking steps to lower the burden of government spending and implement personal retirement accounts so there will be real savings to finance this demographic shift.

But the OECD report actually encourages less savings and more redistribution.

…rebalancing of the economy towards consumption is key. …Social infrastructure needs to be further developed…and the tax and transfer system made more progressive. …tax exemptions on interest from government bonds and savings accounts at Chinese banks could be abolished…introduction of inheritance tax.

What’s especially noteworthy is that the personal income tax in China (as is the case in almost all developing nations) only collects a trivial amount of revenue.

In 2016, PIT revenue amounted to 1.4 percent of GDP.

So why not do something bold and pro-growth, such as abolish that repugnant levy and make China a beacon for entrepreneurship and investment?

Needless to say, that’s not a recommendation you’ll find in a report from the pro-tax OECD.

And given the bureaucracy’s dismal track record, you won’t be surprised that there’s lots of rhetoric about the supposed problem of inequality, all of which is used to justify higher taxes and more redistribution.

The OECD instead should focus on growth and poverty mitigation, goals that naturally lend themselves to pro-market reforms.

Which brings me to the thing that’s always been baffling. Why doesn’t China simply copy the ultra-successful policies of Hong Kong, which has been a “special administrative region” of China for two decades?

Hong Kong has the policies – a spending cap, very little redistribution, open trade, private Social Security, etc – that China needs to become a rich nation.

If the leadership in Beijing has been wise enough to leave Hong Kong’s policies in place, why haven’t they been astute enough to apply them to the entire country?

Every so often, I think China is moving in that direction, only to then come across reasons to be pessimistic.

P.S. The OECD’s China report was predictably disappointing, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the IMF’s report on China, which I characterized half-jokingly as a declaration of economic war.

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I’ve looked at some of the grim fiscal implications of demographic changes the United States and Europe.

Now let’s look at what’s happening in Asia.

The International Monetary Fund has a recent study that looks at shortfalls in government-run pension schemes and various policies that could address the long-run imbalances in the region. Here are the main points from the abstract.

Asian economies are aging fast, with significant implications for their pension system finances. While some countries already have high dependency ratios (Japan), others are expected to experience a sharp increase in the next couple of decades (China, Korea, Singapore). …This has…implications. …pension system deficits can increase very quickly, limiting room for policy action and hampering fiscal sustainability. …This paper explores how incorporating Automatic Adjustment Mechanisms (AAMs)—rules ensuring that certain characteristics of a pension system respond to demographic, macroeconomic and financial developments, in a predetermined fashion and without the need for additional intervention— can be part of pension reforms in Asia.

More succinctly, AAMs are built-in rules that automatically make changes to government pension systems based on various criteria.

Incidentally, we already have AAMs in the United States. Annual Social Security cost of living adjustments (COLAs) and increases in the wage base cap are examples of automatic changes that occur on a regular basis. And such policies exist in many other nations.

But those are AAMs that generally are designed to give more money to beneficiaries. The IMF study is talking about AAMs that are designed to deal with looming shortfalls caused by demographic changes. In other words, AAMs that result in seniors getting lower-than-promised benefits in the future. Here’s how the IMF study describes this development.

More recently, AAMs have come to the forefront to help address financial sustainability concerns of public pension systems. Social insurance pension systems are dominated by defined benefit schemes, pay-as-you-go financed, with liabilities explicitly underwritten by the government. …these systems, under their previous contribution and benefit rules, are unprepared for population aging and need to implement parametric reform or structural reforms in order to reduce the level or growth rate of their unfunded pension liabilities. …Automatic adjustments can theoretically make the reform process politically less painful and more likely to succeed.

Here’s a chart from the study that underscores the need for some sort of reform. It shows the age-dependency ratio on the left and the projected increase in the burden of pension spending on the right.

I’m surprised that the future burden of pension spending in Japan will only be slightly higher than it is today.

And I’m shocked by the awful long-run outlook in Mongolia (the bad numbers for China are New Zealand are also noteworthy, though not as surprising).

To address these grim numbers, the study considers various AAMs that might make government systems fiscally sustainable.

Especially automatic increases in the retirement age based on life expectancy.

One attractive option is to link statutory retirement ages—which seem relatively low in the region—to longevity or other sustainability indicators. This would at the very least help ameliorate the impact of life expectancy improvements in the finances of public pension systems. … While some countries have already raised the retirement age over time (Japan, Korea), pension systems in Asia do not yet feature automatic links between retirement age and life expectancy. …The case studies for Korea and China (section IV) suggest that automatic indexation of retirement age to life expectancy can indeed help reduce the pension system’s financial imbalances.

Here’s a table showing the AAMs that already exist.

Notice that the United States is on this list with an “ex-post trigger” based on “current deficits.”

This is because when the make-believe Trust Fund runs out of IOUs in the 2030s, there’s an automatic reduction in benefits. For what it’s worth, I fully expect future politicians to simply pass a law stating that promised benefits get paid regardless.

It’s also worth noting that Germany and Canada have “ex-ante triggers” for “contribution rates.” I’m assuming that means automatic tax hikes, which is a horrid idea. Heck, even the study acknowledges a problem with that approach.

…raising contribution rates can have important effects on the labor market and growth, it would be important to prioritize other adjustments.

From my perspective, the main – albeit unintended – lesson from the IMF study is that private retirement accounts are the best approach. These defined contribution (DC) systems avoid all the problems associated with pay-as-you-go, tax-and-transfer regimes, generally known as defined benefit (DB) systems.

The larger role played by defined contribution schemes in Asia reduce the scope for using AAMs for financial sustainability purposes. Many Asian economies (Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia) have defined contribution systems, …under which system sustainability is typically inherent.

Here are the types of pension systems in Asia, with Australia and New Zealand added to the mix..

For what it’s worth, I would put Australia in the “defined contribution” grouping. Yes, there is still a government age pension that serves as a safety net, but there also are safety nets in Singapore and Hong Kong as well.

But I’m nitpicking.

Here’s another table from the study showing that it’s much simpler to deal with “DC” systems compared with “DB” systems. About the only reforms that are ever needed revolve around the question of how much private savings should be required.

By the way, even though the information in the IMF study shows the superiority of DC plans, that’s only an implicit message.

To the extent the bureaucracy has an explicit message, it’s mostly about indexing the retirement age to changes in life expectancy.

That’s probably better than doing nothing, but there’s an unaddressed problem with that approach. It forces people to spend more years working and paying into systems, and then leaves them fewer years to collect benefits in retirement.

That idea periodically gets floated in the United States. Here’s some of what I wrote in 2011.

Think of this as the pay-for-a-steak-and-get-a-hamburger plan. Social Security already is a bad deal for workers, forcing them to pay a lot of money in exchange for relatively meager retirement benefits.

I made a related observation about this approach back in 2012.

…it focuses on the government’s finances and overlooks the implications for households. It is possible, at least on paper, to “save” Social Security by cutting benefits and raising taxes. But such “reforms” force people to pay more and get less – even though Social Security already is a very bad deal, particularly for younger workers.

The bottom line is that the implicit message should be explicit. Other nations should copy jurisdictions such as Chile, Australia, and Hong Kong by shifting to personal retirement accounts

P.S. Speaking of which, here’s the case for U.S. reform, as captured by cartoons. And you can enjoy other Social Security cartoons here, here, and here, along with a Social Security joke if you appreciate grim humor.

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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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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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I’m glad that China has taken some steps away from communism. According to Economic Freedom of the World, China was one of 10-worst nations for economic liberty back in 1980 and they’ve since climbed to 92nd place out of 141 nations.

I’ve even offered a small bit of praise for China’s shift to a more business-friendly environment, and I was greatly amused when the head of China’s sovereign wealth fund mocked the Europeans for destructive welfare state policies.

That being said, 92nd place is still a very anemic rank, far below the first- and second-place jurisdictions, Hong Kong and Singapore.

So I was flabbergasted when Andy Stern, a former union boss and long-time Obama ally, wrote a column for today’s Wall Street Journal praising the efficiency and vitality of China’s planned economy.

You probably think I’m pulling your leg and/or deliberately misrepresenting what he wrote, but his article was titled “China’s Superior Economic Model.”

And just in case you think that’s the fault of editors and he couldn’t possible say such a thing, let’s look through the piece.

He starts off praising the goals of China’s latest five-year plan.

The aims: a 7% annual economic growth rate; a $640 billion investment in renewable energy; construction of six million homes; and expanding next-generation IT, clean-energy vehicles, biotechnology, high-end manufacturing and environmental protection—all while promoting social equity and rural development. Some Americans are drawing lessons from this. Last month, the China Daily quoted Orville Schell, who directs the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, as saying: “I think we have come to realize the ability to plan is exactly what is missing in America.”

Gee, that sounds so uplifting and inspirational. But there’s one tiny problem. China is still a very poor country. Here’s a chart showing the 2010 data from the World Bank.

Maybe I’m a crazy free-market ideologue, but I’d rather copy the Singapore or Hong Kong economic model.

But if I can’t choose one of those Asian tigers, I’ll stick with the U.S. system. Americans, after all, are about six times better off than the Chinese. Heck, China is still behind Albania.

Mr. Stern then writes about the supposed failures of “free-market extremism” in the United States.

The conservative-preferred, free-market fundamentalist, shareholder-only model—so successful in the 20th century—is being thrown onto the trash heap of history in the 21st century. In an era when countries need to become economic teams, Team USA’s results—a jobless decade, 30 years of flat median wages, a trade deficit, a shrinking middle class and phenomenal gains in wealth but only for the top 1%—are pathetic. …This should motivate leaders to rethink, rather than double down on an empirically failing free-market extremism. As painful and humbling as it may be, America needs to do what a once-dominant business or sports team would do when the tide turns: study the ingredients of its competitors’ success.

Since this is a pro-family blog, I won’t repeat the inappropriate words that came out of my mouth upon reading these passages.

Instead, I’ll simply call your attention to this post, which shows how America’s score in the Economic Freedom of the World ranking declined during the past decade. Indeed, the United States was among the five nations with the biggest declines over that 10-year period and the United States dropped from 3rd to 10th during those years.

If that was a period of “free-market fundamentalist” policies, then I guess I need to start cheering for socialism.

I’ll conclude by doing one of my favorite things – quoting myself. Here’s a bit of what I wrote last year.

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. And the growth they have experienced certainly has not been enough to overtake other nations based on measures that compare living standards. …This is not to sneer at the positive changes in China. Hundreds of millions of people have experienced big increases in living standards. …But China still has a long way to go if the goal is a vibrant and rich free-market economy.

I’ve probably exhausted everyone’s interest in this topic, but if anyone’s a glutton for punishment, I was part of a debate on English-language Russian TV about Chinese and American economic policy.

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I’ve previously posted about the communist government of Cuba cutting taxes and the CEO of Coca-Cola saying that communist China has a more business-friendly climate than the United States.

Having grown up during the Cold War, I still have a hard time believing my eyes when I read stories like these.

But those examples pale into insignificance compared to this story. A member of China’s political elite, which presumably makes him a member of the Communist Party, has a better understanding of economics than the Presidents of France and the United States.

Sure, that’s not saying much, but read what Jin Liqun, the head of China’s sovereign wealth fund, said about the European welfare state.

If you look at the troubles which happened in European countries, this is purely because of the accumulated troubles of the worn out welfare society. I think the labour laws are outdated. The labour laws induce sloth, indolence, rather than hardworking. The incentive system, is totally out of whack. “Why should, for instance, within [the] eurozone some member’s people have to work to 65, even longer, whereas in some other countries they are happily retiring at 55, languishing on the beach? This is unfair.

Astounding. There’s also a video at the link.

So let’s think about what this means. The communist elite in China recognizes the importance of incentives and understands the corrupting influence of welfare on the human spirit (they would like this cartoon). Heck, even Castro admitted that communism was a failure.

Yet politicians here in America still want to make government bigger and create more dependency.

I guess it’s time for me to unfurl the hammer and sickle.

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Having grown up during the Cold War, I never though I would write a sentence like the title of this blog post, but there have been lots of firsts during the reign of Obama.

When the head of a major multinational company says the American tax system is worse than the policy of a nation that is nominally still communist, that’s a remarkable – and worrisome – development.

Here’s an excerpt from a story in the UK-based Financial Times.

Coca-Cola now sees the US becoming a less friendly business environment than China, its chief executive has revealed, citing political gridlock and an antiquated tax structure as reasons its home market has become less competitive. Muhtar Kent, Coke’s chief executive, said “in many respects” it was easier doing business in China, which he likened to a well-managed company. “You have a one-stop shop in terms of the Chinese foreign investment agency and local governments are fighting for investment with each other,” he told the Financial Times. Mr Kent also pointed to Brazil as an example of an emerging economy that is making itself attractive to investment in ways that the US once did.

As much as I criticize the U.S. tax system and notwithstanding the passage you just read, I wouldn’t want anyone to conclude that China has better economic policy. The United States may have become more statist in the past decade, dropping from 3rd to 10th in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings, but 10th place is still a heck of a lot better than 92nd place, which is where China currently ranks.

And I also think it’s important to draw a distinction between a nation being “business friendly” and “market friendly.” I strongly prefer the latter. I want small government and laissez-faire markets, not policies that cater to big business. And some of China’s development is based on special deals for large companies.

This is not a big knock on China, which has improved. It used to rank as one of the 10th-worst nations, so gradual economic liberalization is boosting its economy and has lifted hundreds of millions out of absolute poverty (as compared to the relatively benign poverty found in the U.S.).

But even with those caveats, it’s not a good thing that America’s corporate tax system is so unfriendly. And it’s not a good thing that investors, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and others have a perception that it’s better to produce outside of America.

For more information, here are two of my videos. This one (my very first effort, so forgive the lack of polish) discusses the overall issue of corporate taxation.

And here’s a video that looks at the critical issue of international corporate taxation. You won’t be surprised to learn that America probably has the most unfriendly regime in the world.

One last thing worth mentioning is that most European governments have territorial tax systems and the average corporate tax rate in “socialist” Europe is down to 23 percent.

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I was part of a debate for an English-language Russian TV program on the international implications of economic policy, particularly with regard to the United States and China. My job was simple because I am not a big fan of either nation’s policy.

Government intervention and favoritism is bad policy – regardless of skin color.

My only comment, other than welcoming feedback, is that Michael Hudson should be in the Obama cabinet since he has no idea what he’s talking about.

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I’m not sure if “killing two birds with one stone” is the right phrase in this situation, but…

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One of my first blog posts (and the first one to get any attention) highlighted the amusing/embarrassing irony of having Chinese students laugh at Treasury Secretary Geithner when he claimed the United States had a strong-dollar policy.

I suspect that even Tim “Turbotax” Geithner would be smart enough to avoid such a claim today, not after the Fed’s announcement (with the full support of the White House and Treasury) that it would flood the economy with $600 billion of hot money.

As I noted in an earlier post, monetary policy is not nearly as cut and dried as other issues, so I’m reluctant to make sweeping and definitive statements. That being said, I’m fairly sure that the Fed is on the wrong path. Here’s what my colleague Alan Reynolds wrote in the Wall Street Journal about Bernanke’s policy.

Mr. Bernanke…believes (contrary to our past experience with stagflation) that inflation is no danger thanks to economic slack (high unemployment). He reasons that if people can nonetheless be persuaded to expect higher inflation, regardless of the slack, that means interest rates will appear even lower in real terms. If that worked as planned, lower real interest rates would supposedly fix our hangover from the last Fed-financed borrowing binge by encouraging more borrowing. This whole scheme raises nagging questions. Why would domestic investors accept a lower yield on bonds if they expect higher inflation? And why would foreign investors accept a lower yield on U.S. bonds if they expect exchange rate losses on dollar-denominated securities? Why wouldn’t intelligent people shift their investments toward commodities or related stocks (such as mining and related machinery) and either shun, or sell short, long-term Treasurys? And if they did that, how could it possibly help the economy?

The rest of the world seems to share these concerns. The Germans are not big fans of America’s binge of borrowing and easy money. Here’s what Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble had to say in a recent interview.

The American growth model, on the other hand, is in a deep crisis. The United States lived on borrowed money for too long, inflating its financial sector unnecessarily and neglecting its small and mid-sized industrial companies. …I seriously doubt that it makes sense to pump unlimited amounts of money into the markets. There is no lack of liquidity in the US economy, which is why I don’t recognize the economic argument behind this measure. …The Fed’s decisions bring more uncertainty to the global economy. …It’s inconsistent for the Americans to accuse the Chinese of manipulating exchange rates and then to artificially depress the dollar exchange rate by printing money.

The comment about borrowed money has a bit of hypocrisy since German government debt is not much lower than it is in the United States, but the Finance Minister surely is correct about monetary policy. And speaking of China, we now have the odd situation of a Chinese rating agency downgrading U.S. government debt.

The United States has lost its double-A credit rating with Dagong Global Credit Rating Co., Ltd., the first domestic rating agency in China, due to its new round of quantitative easing policy. Dagong Global on Tuesday downgraded the local and foreign currency long-term sovereign credit rating of the US by one level to A+ from previous AA with “negative” outlook.

This development shold be taken with a giant grain of salt, as explained by a Wall Street Journal blogger. Nonetheless, the fact that the China-based agency thought this was a smart tactic must say something about how the rest of the world is beginning to perceive America.

Simply stated, Obama is following Jimmy Carter-style economic policy, so nobody shoud be surprised if the result is 1970s-style stagflation.

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The news that China has surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy has generated a lot of attention. It shouldn’t. There are roughly 10 times as many people in China as there are in Japan, so the fact that total gross domestic product in China is now bigger than total gross domestic product in Japan is hardly a sign of Chinese economic supremacy. 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. And the growth they have experienced certainly has not been enough to overtake other nations based on measures that compare living standards. According to the World Bank, per capita GDP (adjusted for purchasing power parity) was $6,710 for China in 2009, compared to $33,280 for Japan (and $46,730 for the U.S.). If I got to choose where to be a middle-class person, China certainly wouldn’t be my first pick.

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. Economic Freedom of the World ranks China 82 out of 141, just one spot above Russia, and the Index of Economic Freedom has an even lower score, 140 out of 179 nations.

Hopefully, China will continue to move in the right direction. As Jonah Goldberg notes in his Townhall column, it is good for America to have China become a more prosperous nation.

Yes, technically, China’s gross domestic product is now slightly ahead of Japan’s. But GDP is a gross statistic. It doesn’t tell you nearly as much as you might think. In a very real way, China is still poorer than Japan. It’s also poorer than Tunisia, Ecuador, Gabon, Kazakhstan and Namibia. …China still has enormous problems, many of which aren’t reflected in its GDP growth rates, and without democracy, a free press and the rule of law, we can’t know what all of the problems are until they explode (and neither can the Chinese). But all of this misses the most important point. Economic “competitiveness” is a con. It assumes that when other countries prosper, America loses. That’s nonsense. If the average Chinese worker were as rich as the average Japanese worker, it would be an economic windfall for the United States. Conversely, if China’s economy imploded tomorrow, we would “gain” competitively but suffer economically. The cult of competitiveness is just a ruse used to justify the ambitions of economic planners and the pundits who worship them.

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