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Archive for the ‘Competitiveness’ Category

The World Bank has released its annual report on the Ease of Doing Business.

Unsurprisingly, the top spots are dominated by market-oriented jurisdictions, with New Zealand, Singapore, and Hong Kong (at least for now!) winning the gold, silver, and bronze. The United States does reasonably well, finishing in sixth place.

It’s also worth noting that Nordic nations do quite well. Denmark even beats the United States, and Norway and Sweden are both in the top 10.

Georgia gets a very good score, as does Taiwan. And I’m sure Pope Francis will be irked to see that Mauritius ranks highly.

I’m surprised, though, to see Russia at #28 and China at #31. That’s better than France!

And I’m even more surprised that normally laissez-faire Switzerland is down at #36.

What economic lessons can we learn from the report? First, the authors remind us that less red tape means more prosperity.

Research demonstrates a causal relationship between economic freedom and gross domestic product (GDP) growth, where freedom regarding wages and prices, property rights, and licensing requirements leads to economic development. … The ease of doing business score serves as the basis for ranking economies on their business environment: the ranking is obtained by sorting the economies by their scores. The ease of doing business score shows an economy’s absolute position relative to the best regulatory performance, whereas the ease of doing business ranking is an indication of an economy’s position relative to that of other economies.

By the way, here’s a simple depiction of the World Bank’s methodology.

It’s also worth noting that less intervention means less corruption.

There are ample opportunities for corruption in economies where excessive red tape and extensive interactions between private sector actors and regulatory agencies are necessary to get things done. The 20 worst-scoring economies on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index average 8 procedures to start a business and 15 to obtain a building permit. Conversely, the 20 best-performing economies complete the same formalities with 4 and 11 steps, respectively. Moreover, economies that have adopted electronic means of compliance with regulatory requirements—such as obtaining licenses and paying taxes—experience a lower incidence of bribery.

Poor countries, not surprisingly, have more red tape.

An entrepreneur in a low-income economy typically spends around 50 percent of the country’s per-capita income to launch a company, compared with just 4.2 percent for an entrepreneur in a high-income economy. It takes nearly six times as long on average to start a business in the economies ranked in the bottom 50 as in the top 20. There’s ample room for developing economies to catch up with developed countries on most of the Doing Business indicators. Performance in the area of legal rights, for example, remains weakest among low- and middle-income economies.

Africa and Latin America are especially bad.

Sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the weak-performing regions on the ease of doing business with an average score of 51.8, well below the OECD high-income economy average of 78.4 and the global average of 63.0. …Latin America and the Caribbean also lags in terms of reform implementation and impact. …not a single economy in Latin America and the Caribbean ranks among the top 50 on the ease of doing business.

I’m disappointed, by the way, that Chile is only ranked #59.

Now let’s shift to some very important graphs about the relationship between economic freedom and national prosperity.

We’ll start with a look at the relationship between employment regulation and per-capita income. Not surprisingly, countries that make it hard to hire workers and fire workers have lower levels of prosperity.

Here’s a chart showing the relationship between employment regulation and the underground economy.

The moral of the story is that lots of red tape drives employers and employees to the black market.

Perhaps most important, there’s a very clear link between good regulatory policy and overall entrepreneurship.

Here’s a bit of good news.

Developing nations have reduced the burden of red tape in some areas, in part because Ease of Doing Business puts pressure on governments.

We can see the results in this chart.

I’ll close with a look at the regulatory burden in the United States, which also can be considered good news.

Here’s the annual score for the past five years (a higher number is better).

I’m frequently critical of this White House, but I also believe in giving credit when it’s deserved. The bottom line is that Trump’s policies have been a net plus for businesses.

In other words, lower tax rates and less red tape have more than offset the pain of protectionism.

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Following their recent assessment of the best and worst countries, the Tax Foundation has published its annual State Business Tax Climate Index, which is an excellent gauge of which states welcome investment and job creation and which states are unfriendly to growth and prosperity.

Here’s the list of the best and worst states. Unsurprisingly, states with no income tax rank very high, as do states with flat taxes.

It’s also no surprise to see New Jersey in last place. The state has fallen dramatically, especially considering that it was like New Hampshire as recently as the 1960s, with no state income tax and no state sales tax.

And the bad scores for New York, California, and Connecticut also are to be expected. The Nutmeg State is an especially sad story. There was no state income tax 30 years ago. Once politicians got that additional source of revenue, however, Connecticut suffered a big economic decline.

Here’s a description of the methodology, along with the table showing how different factors are weighted.

…the Index is designed to show how well states structure their tax systems and provides a road map for improvement.The absence of a major tax is a common factor among many of the top 10 states. Property taxes and unemployment insurance taxes are levied in every state, but there are several states that do without one or more of the major taxes: the corporate income tax, the individual income tax, or the sales tax. …This does not mean, however, that a state cannot rank in the top 10 while still levying all the major taxes. Indiana and Utah, for example, levy all of the major tax types, but do so with low rates on broad bases.The states in the bottom 10 tend to have a number of afflictions in common: complex, nonneutral taxes with comparatively high rates. New Jersey, for example, is hampered by some of the highest property tax burdens in the country, has the second highest-rate corporate income tax in the country and a particularly aggressive treatment of international income, levies an inheritance tax, and maintains some of the nation’s worst-structured individual income taxes.

For those who want to delve into the details, here are all the states, along with their rankings for the five major variables.

If you want to know which states are making big moves, Georgia enjoyed the biggest one-year jump (from #36 to #32) and Kansas suffered the biggest one-year decline (from #27 to #34). Keep in mind that it’s easier to climb if you’re near the bottom and easier to fall if you’re near the top.

Looking over a longer period of time, the states with the biggest increases since 2014 are North Carolina (+19, from #34 to #15), Wisconsin (+12, from #38 to #26), Kentucky (+9, from #35 to #24), Nebraska (+8, from #36 to #28), Delaware (+7, from #18 to #11), and Rhode Island (+6, from #45 to #39).

The states with the biggest declines are Kansas (-9, from #25 to #34), Hawaii (-8, from #29 to #37), Massachusetts (-8, from #28 to #36), and Idaho (-6, from #15 to #21).

We’ll close with the report’s map, showing the rankings of all the states.

P.S. My one quibble with the Index is that there’s no variable to measure the burden of government spending, which would give a better picture of overall economic liberty. This means that states that finance large public sectors with energy severance taxes (which also aren’t included in the Index) wind up scoring higher than they deserve. As such, I would drop Wyoming and Alaska in the rankings and instead put South Dakota at #1 and Florida at #2.

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The Tax Foundation churns out lots of good information, but I especially look forward to their International Tax Competitiveness Index.

It shows how nations rank based on key tax variables such as corporate taxation, personal income tax, and international tax rules.

The latest edition shows good news and bad news for the United States. The good news, as you see in this chart, is that the 2017 tax reform improved America’s ranking from 28 to 21.

The bad news is that the United States is still in the bottom half of industrialized nations.

We should copy Estonia, which has been in first place for six consecutive years.

For the sixth year in a row, Estonia has the best tax code in the OECD. Its top score is driven by four positive features of its tax code. First, it has a 20 percent tax rate on corporate income that is only applied to distributed profits. Second, it has a flat 20 percent tax on individual income that does not apply to personal dividend income. Third, its property tax applies only to the value of land, rather than to the value of real property or capital. Finally, it has a territorial tax system that exempts 100 percent of foreign profits earned by domestic corporations from domestic taxation, with few restrictions. …For the sixth year in a row, France has the least competitive tax system in the OECD. It has one of the highest corporate income tax rates in the OECD (34.4 percent), high property taxes, a net tax on real estate wealth, a financial transaction tax, and an estate tax. France also has high, progressive, individual income taxes that apply to both dividend and capital gains income.

Here are some other important observations from the report, including mostly positive news on wealth taxation as well as more information on France’s fiscal decay.

…some countries like the United States and Belgium have reduced their corporate income tax rates by several percentage points, others, like Korea and Portugal, have increased them. Corporate tax base improvements have been put in place in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada, while tax bases were made less competitive in Chile and Korea. Several EU countries have recently adopted international tax regulations like Controlled Foreign Corporation rules that can have negative economic impacts. Additionally, while many countries have removed their net wealth taxes in recent decades, Belgium recently adopted a new tax on net wealth. …Over the last few decades, France has introduced several reforms that have significantly increased marginal tax rates on work, saving, and investment.

For those who like data, here are the complete rankings, which also show how countries score in the various component variables.

Notice that the United States (highlighted in red) gets very bad scores for property taxation and international tax rules. But that bad news is somewhat offset by getting a very good score on consumption taxation (let’s hope politicians never achieve their dream of imposing a value-added tax!).

And it’s no big surprise to see countries like New Zealand and Switzerland get high scores.

P.S. My only complaint about the International Tax Competitiveness Index is that I would like it to include even more information. There presumably would be challenges in finding apples-to-apples comparative data, but I’d be curious to find out whether Hong Kong and Singapore would beat out Estonia. And would zero-tax jurisdictions such as Monaco and the Cayman Islands get the highest scores of all? Also, what would happen if a variable on the aggregate tax burden was added to the equation? I’m guessing some nations such as Sweden and the Netherlands might fall, while other countries such as Chile and Poland (and probably the U.S.) would climb.

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According to the most-recent edition of Economic Freedom of the World, Brazil is only ranked #120, which is lower than nations such as Greece, Haiti, and China.

Brazil gets a horrible grade on regulation, and it’s also in the bottom half of all nations when looking at fiscal policy, quality of governance, and trade.

But things may be about to change. Voters elected a president last year, Jair Bolsonaro, who is best known for populist rhetoric, but he also expresses support for market-friendly reforms.

And even though he’s sometimes referred to as the “Brazilian Trump,” President Bolsonaro seems to have a much better understanding of trade than his American counterpart.

At least if this report from the Wall Street Journal is any indication.

President Jair Bolsonaro ’s administration is opening up one of the world’s most closed big economies, slashing import tariffs on more than 2,300 products and exposing local industries long accustomed to protectionism to the challenges of free trade. With little fanfare, the conservative government has since taking office in January eased the entry of ultrasonic scalpels, cancer drugs, heavy machinery and more, in some cases with tariffs reduced to zero from as much as 20%. The tariff cuts…reflect a significant shift in the world’s eighth-largest economy, where duties were twice as high as in Mexico, China and the European Union last year. The new opening is a central feature in Economy Minister Paulo Guedes ’s plans to make the country of 210 million more competitive, part of an effort to rekindle a moribund economy historically shielded from foreign competition and bogged down by bureaucracy. …“Brazil’s model of protectionism has failed,” Deputy Economy Minister for Trade Marcos Troyjo, one of Brazil’s chief trade negotiators, said in an interview. “It’s been 40 years without sustainable economic growth.”

Here are some excerpts about how Brazil has been hurt by trade barriers.

The problems created by protectionism are evident throughout Brazil’s economy. When Mauá University outside São Paulo imported American equipment last year that it couldn’t find in Brazil to upgrade its physics lab, for example, import tariffs doubled the price tag to $70,000, said Francisco Olivieri, a business professor and head of Mauá’s technology department. …Protectionism hurts businesses that need to import supplies or parts and face high tariffs and bureaucracy to do so, which pushes them away from global supply chains. Red tape related to tariffs at Brazilian ports mean imported supplies can take weeks to reach buyers, causing production delays. Fifty-five percent of foreign products require the importing companies to obtain permits from as many as six different government agencies, according to a recent study by the National Confederation of Industry, or CNI, a trade group that represents Brazilian factories. Importers are subject to steep fines if they fail to request a permit, but it is often difficult to determine from which agencies they must seek approval.

In other words, Brazilian companies are hit by a double-whammy of trade barriers and red tape.

This is why liberalization is so important.

Incidentally, the EFW data only captures what happened up through 2017.

And since Brazil (#87) isn’t that far behind the United States (#55) in the trade rankings, I won’t be overly surprised in a few years if Brazil jumps the United States given the combination of Bolsonaro’s good policies and Trump’s bad policies.

P.S. Brazil is also in the process of curtailing pensions and already has adopted a constitutional spending cap.

P.P.S. President Bolsonaro is quite good on gun rights.

P.P.P.S. A few years ago, I fretted Brazil has passed a tipping point of dependency. I’m somewhat hopeful that assessment was too pessimistic.

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My primary job is dealing with misguided public policy in the United States.

I spend much of my time either trying to undo bad policies with good reform (flat tax, spending restraint, regulatory easing, trade liberalization) or fighting off additional bad interventions (Green New Deal, protectionism, Medicare for All, class warfare taxes).

Seems like there is a lot to criticize, right?

Yes, but sometimes the key to success is being “less worse” than your competitors. So while I’m critical of many bad policies in the United States, it’s worth noting that America nonetheless ranks #6 for overall economic liberty according to the Fraser Institute.

As such, it’s not surprising that America has higher living standards than most other developed nations according to the “actual individual consumption” data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

And America’s advantage isn’t trivial. We’re more than 46 percent higher than the average for OECD member nations.

The gap is so large that I’ve wondered how lower-income people in the United States would rank compared to average people in other countries.

Well, the folks at Just Facts have investigated precisely this issue using World Bank data and found some remarkable results.

…after accounting for all income, charity, and non-cash welfare benefits like subsidized housing and Food Stamps—the poorest 20% of Americans consume more goods and services than the national averages for all people in most affluent countries. …In other words, if the U.S. “poor” were a nation, it would be one of the world’s richest. …The World Bank publishes a comprehensive dataset on consumption that isn’t dependent on the accuracy of household surveys and includes all goods and services, but it only provides the average consumption per person in each nation—not the poorest people in each nation. However, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis published a study that provides exactly that for 2010. Combined with World Bank data for the same year, these datasets show that the poorest 20% of U.S. households have higher average consumption per person than the averages for all people in most nations of the OECD and Europe… The high consumption of America’s “poor” doesn’t mean they live better than average people in the nations they outpace, like Spain, Denmark, Japan, Greece, and New Zealand. …Nonetheless, the fact remains that the privilege of living in the U.S. affords poor people with more material resources than the averages for most of the world’s richest nations.

There are some challenges in putting together this type of comparison, so the folks at Just Facts are very clear in showing their methodology.

They’ve certainly come up with results that make sense, particularly when compared their results with the OECD AIC numbers.

Here’s one of the charts from the report.

You can see that the bottom 20 percent of Americans do quite well compared to the average persons in other developed nations.

By the way, the report from Just Facts also criticizes the New York Times for dishonest analysis of poverty. Since I’ve felt compelled to do the same thing, I can definitely sympathize.

The bottom line is that free markets and limited government are the best way to help lower-income people enjoy more prosperity.

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

Now we have another example.

Check out these excerpts from a New York Times column by Steven Greenhouse.

The United States is the only advanced industrial nation that doesn’t have national laws guaranteeing paid maternity leave. It is also the only advanced economy that doesn’t guarantee workers any vacation, paid or unpaid, and the only highly developed country (other than South Korea) that doesn’t guarantee paid sick days. …Among the three dozen industrial countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has the lowest minimum wage as a percentage of the median wage — just 34 percent of the typical wage, compared with 62 percent in France and 54 percent in Britain. It also has the second-highest percentage of low-wage workers among that group… All this means the United States suffers from what I call “anti-worker exceptionalism.” …America’s workers have for decades been losing out: year after year of wage stagnation.

Sounds like the United States is some sort of Dystopian nightmare for workers, right?

Well, if there’s oppression of labor in America, workers in other nations should hope and pray for something similar.

Here’s a chart showing per-capita “actual individual consumption” for various nations that are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. As you can see, people in the United States have much higher living standards.

By the way, I can’t resist pointing out another big flow in Greenhouse’s NYT column.

He wrote that the U.S. has “the second-highest percentage of low-wage workers.” That sounds like there’s lots of poverty in America. Especially since the U.S. is being compared to a group of nations that includes decrepit economies such as Mexico, Turkey, Italy, and Greece.

But this statement is nonsense because it is based on OECD numbers that merely measure the percent of workers in each nation that earn less than two-thirds of the national median level. Yet since median income generally is much higher in the United States, it’s absurd to use this data for international comparisons.

In other words, Greenhouse is relying on data that deliberately confuse absolute living standards and relative living standards. Why? Presumably to try to make the United States look bad and/or to advance a pro-redistribution agenda.

P.S. You can find similarly dishonest ways of measuring poverty from the United Nations, the Equal Welfare Association, Germany’s Institute of Labor Economics, the Obama Administration, and the European Commission.

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I’ve applauded China’s economic progress.

It’s economic liberty score jumped from 3.64 in 1980 to 6.46 in the most recent edition of Economic Freedom of the World.

That shift toward markets (which started in a village) helped to dramatically reduce poverty and turn China into a middle-income nation.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that most of China’s economic liberalization (from 3.64 to 6.15) occurred between 1980 and 2003.

Since that time, China’s score has improved at a glacial pace. Moreover, because other nations have been more aggressive about reducing the burden of government, China’s relative ranking has actually dropped (from #88 to #107) since 2003.

Which is why I’ve warned that China needs another burst of pro-market reform if it wants to become a rich country.

Regarding this issue, the Wall Street Journal has a very interesting report about how China is under-performing.

The country’s state-led growth model is running out of gas. A recession or crisis may not be imminent, but the long-run implications are just as serious. Absent a change in direction, China may never become rich. …First, official statistics probably paint too flattering a picture. Per-capita income may be a quarter lower than reported, based on a study of nighttime light co-authored by Yingyao Hu of Johns Hopkins University. …Second, it doesn’t measure up to the economies China seeks to emulate. Taiwan, South Korea and Japan all opened their economies to global trade and investment, enjoyed superfast growth for several decades… In fact, China seems to be slowing sooner than the others.

Why is China underperforming?

Too much statism. Simply stated, the government has too much control over the allocation of labor and capital.

For 30 years the Communist Party opened ever more of the economy to private enterprise, trade, foreign investment and market forces. Yet it never relinquished its commitment to socialism and Mr. Brandt says that since the mid-2000s the government has tightened control over sectors… An inefficient state sector matters less if the private sector grows fast enough. But in recent years, private firms in China have faced multiple headwinds. State-controlled banks prefer to lend to state-owned enterprises… The domestic private sector’s share of total sales has dropped about 5 percentage points since 2016, according to Goldman, while the state sector’s share has risen roughly as much.

By the way, many observers (from the American Enterprise Institute, Peterson Institute for International Economics, the New York Times, the New York Post, and Investor’s Business Daily) echo the concern about China becoming more statist in recent years.

I’ll make a more restrained point.

I’ll start by sharing this very interesting chart from the WSJ story. It shows how China’s growth, while impressive, has not been as rapid as the growth enjoyed by other Asian economies.

If you look below, you’ll see I’ve now augmented the chart to explain why China has under-performed.

On the right side, I’ve added the historical rankings from Economic Freedom of the World. As you can see (and just as theory and evidence teaches us), the other nations on the chart enjoyed more growth because they had more economic freedom.

These numbers reinforce my argument that China needs more pro-market reform. Though I should add the caveat that EFW has added more nations over time, so this comparison overstates the degree to which China is lagging.

But it is lagging. The bottom line is that China needs to copy Hong Kong and Singapore if it wants to become a rich nation. Or even Taiwan, which is an under-appreciated success story.

P.S. Keep in mind that China also faces demographic decline, which makes good policy even more necessary and important.

P.P.S. Amazingly, both the OECD and IMF are trying to sabotage China’s economy.

P.P.P.S. The WSJ story is an example of good reporting. If you want an example of bad reporting about China, check out this bizarre story from the New York Times.

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