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Archive for the ‘Free Markets’ Category

Over the years, I’ve felt compelled to “debunk” various articles, columns, and speeches that fundamentally misrepresented and/or misunderstood key economic issues.

A partial list includes Keynesian economics, the Laffer Curve, Obama tax propaganda, Elizabeth Warren’s class warfare, sequester hysteria, export subsidies, libertarianism, carried interest, government size, inequality, Scandinavia, and the value-added tax.

It’s time to add to that list. In a column for the Washington Post, Steven Pearlstein claims to have identified “Five myths about capitalism.” He’s not necessarily attacking free enterprise, but he does make several points that rub me the wrong way and/or should be addressed. Here’s his introduction.

Thirty years ago, in the face of a serious economic challenge from Japan and Europe, the United States embraced a form of free-market capitalism that was less regulated, less equal, more prone to booms and busts. Driving that shift was a set of useful myths about motivation, fairness and economic growth that helped restore American competitiveness. …Here are five of the most persistent ones.

Before we get to his myths, I can’t resist questioning his assertion that markets lead to “more booms and busts,” in part because we had very long and strong expansions during the market-oriented Reagan and Clinton years and in part because the big 2008 recession was largely a result of bad government policy.

But let’s set that aside and look at Pearlstein’s myths. Here’s his first assertion.

Adam Smith, the father of economics, first pointed out in his most famous work, “The Wealth of Nations ,” that in vigorously pursuing our own selfish interests in a market system, we are led “as if by an invisible hand” to promote the prosperity of others. …Smith, however, was never the prophet of greed that free-market cheerleaders have made him out to be. In other passages from “The Wealth of Nations,” and in his earlier work, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” Smith makes clear that for capitalism to succeed, selfishness must be tempered by an equally powerful inclination toward cooperation, empathy and trust — traits that are hard-wired into our nature and reinforced by our moral instincts. …An economy organized around the cynical presumption that everyone is greedy is likely to be no more successful than one organized around the utopian assumption that everyone will act out of altruism.

This isn’t really a myth as much as a misrepresentation. What “free-market cheerleaders” extol Smith as a “prophet of greed”?

I self-identify as one of those cheerleaders, and I simply point to Smith’s famous observation about how self-interest is what drives merchants to improve our lives.

Do some people go crazy with greed? Of course.

But that’s true in any system (look at how Chavez’s family members lined their pockets).

What makes capitalism a preferable system is that greedy people have to cater to consumers if they want more money.

Here’s Pearlstein’s second myth.

This is an almost universal belief among corporate executives and directors — that it is their principal mission and legal obligation to deliver the highest possible return to their shareholders. The economist Milton Friedman first declared in the 1970s that the “one social responsibility of business [is] . . . to increase its profits,” but the corporate raiders of the 1980s were the ones who forced that view on executives and directors, threatening to take their companies or fire them if they didn’t go along. …“maximizing shareholder value”…is now widely taught by business schools, ruthlessly demanded by Wall Street’s analysts and “activist” investors, and lavishly reinforced by executive pay packages tied to profits and share prices. In fact, corporations are free to balance the interests of shareholders with those of customers, workers or the public… Legally, corporations can be formed for any purpose. …The only time a corporation is obligated to maximize its share price is when it puts itself up for sale.

I’m not sure what point he’s making. Does he think companies shouldn’t try to make profits? Does he not understand the purpose of profits? Does he want to put corporate governance under the control of politicians, like Elizabeth Warren?

For what it’s worth, he’s correct that corporations can be set up for reasons other than profit, though I’m not sure that’s any sort of stunning revelation.

Here’s the third supposed myth.

The theory of “marginal productivity” holds that a worker’s wage or salary reflects the “amount of output the worker can produce,” according to Harvard’s Greg Mankiw, author of a best-selling economics textbook. This idea is useful in constructing economic models, but Mankiw and others have also relied on it to justify widening income inequality and to oppose proposals to redistribute income… In reality, however, the pay set by markets is also subjective, reflecting the laws and social norms under which markets operate. The incomes earned by workers who planted tobacco — and those who owned tobacco plantations — changed considerably after slavery was abolished, and again after laws protecting sharecroppers were enacted, and again when minimum-wage laws were passed… While it is probably better to rely on markets rather than government to set pay levels, that doesn’t mean that the way the markets set pay is a purely objective assessment of economic contribution or that redistribution is theft.

I’m glad he acknowledges that it is “probably better” for markets to set wages, but this section is largely incoherent.

He writes about slavery, but that has nothing to do with capitalism. After all, slavery was government-sanctioned and government-enforced involuntary labor, whereas a defining feature of capitalism is voluntary exchange.

Now for the fourth myth.

The reason Americans tolerate higher levels of income inequality is because of our faith that we all have a fair chance at achieving the American Dream or becoming the next Bill Gates. “In America we stand for equality,” writes Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, a leading defender of the morality of capitalism. “But for the large majority of us, this means equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome.” …But while the United States has made great strides in removing legal barriers to equal opportunity, at least half the difference in income between any two people is determined by their parents, either through inherited traits like intelligence, good looks, ambition and reliability (nature), or through the quality and circumstances of their upbringing and education (nurture). …Unless we are prepared to engage in extensive genetic reengineering, or require that all children be brought up in state-run boarding schools, we must acknowledge that we can never achieve full equality of opportunity.

This section actually makes some sense. Some people do have better parents and better genes, and that does put them in a better position to succeed.

In any event, I very much hope that Pearlstein doesn’t think that government-imposed “genetic reengineering” and/or “state-run boarding schools” are good ideas.

Here’s the final myth, and also the one that got me most agitated.

Economists have long believed that there is an unavoidable trade-off between equality and growth — having more of one means having less of the other. Arthur Okun’s book about it, “Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff,” remains a classic. The implosion of communism and the decisions of socialist countries like Sweden to reduce taxes and welfare are widely seen as acknowledgments of the failure of overly egalitarian systems to produce adequate economic growth. But evidence suggests that there is also a point at which high levels of inequality begin to deliver less economic growth, not more — and that the United States has passed that point, according to research by the International Monetary Fund. …rising income inequality erodes the trust people have in one another and their willingness to cooperate.

I’m glad he cited Okun, and it’s also good that he cited Sweden’s turn in the right direction.

But it’s very disappointing that he called attention to the IMF’s incredibly shoddy research on inequality.

As I’ve repeatedly explained, inequality that results from voluntary exchange is fine and inequality that results from Cronyism is bad. Studies that fail to distinguish between the two are either deliberately dishonest or breathtakingly shoddy.

I’ll close by asking critics of capitalism to give just one accurate answer to my two-question challenge. Or, if that’s too difficult, create the left-wing version of this chart.

I won’t be holding my breath.

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Since I’ve been writing a column every day since 2010, you can imagine that there are some days where that’s a challenge.

But not today. The Fraser Institute has released a new edition of Economic Freedom of the World, which is like a bible for policy wonks. So just like last year, and the year before, and the year before, and so on (you may sense a pattern), I want to share the findings.

First, here’s what EFW measures.

The cornerstones of economic freedom are personal choice, voluntary exchange, open markets, and clearly defined and enforced property rights. …The EFW measure might be thought of as a measure of the degree to which scarce resources are allocated by personal choices coordinated by markets rather than centralized planning directed by the political process. It might also be thought of as an effort to identify how closely the institutions and policies of a country correspond with the ideal of a limited government, where the government protects property rights and arranges for the provision of a limited set of “public goods” such as national defense and access to money of sound value, but little beyond these core functions.

Now let’s get to the good stuff.

Unsurprisingly, Hong Kong is at the top of the rankings, followed closely by Singapore. Those jurisdictions have been #1 and #2 in the rankings every year this century.

The rest of the top 5 is the same as last year, featuring New Zealand, Switzerland, and Ireland.

The good news for Americans is that we’re back in the top 10, ranking #6.

Here’s what the report says about the United States.

…the United States returned to the top 10 in 2016 after an absence of several years. During the 2009–2016 term of President Obama, the US score initially continued to decline as it had under President Bush. From 2013 to 2016, however, the US rating increased from 7.74 to 8.03. This is still well below the high-water mark of 8.62 in 2000 at the end of the Clinton presidency.

It’s important to understand that the improvement in the U.S. score has nothing to do with Trump. The EFW ranking is based on America’s economic policies as of 2016 (there’s always a lag in getting hard data).

President Trump’s policies may increase America’s score (think taxes and regulation) or they may decrease America’s score (think trade and spending). But we won’t know for sure until we see future editions.

Here’s what’s happened to economic liberty in America between 1970 and 2016.

As you can see from the historical data, the U.S. enjoyed progress through the Reagan and Clinton years, followed by decline during the Bush years and early Obama years. But we’ve trending in the right direction since 2013.

Let’s look at other nations that get decent scores.

Here are the other nations that are in the top quartile.

Canada and Australia were tied for #10, so the rest of the rankings start with the under-appreciated success story of Taiwan at #12.

All the Baltic nations do well, especially Estonia and Lithuania. Chile also remains highly ranked, as is the supposedly socialist nation of Denmark.

Luxembourg, which was ranked #1 as recently as 1985, is now #25.

I also noticed that Rwanda (#40) has eased past Botswana (#44) to become the highest-ranked nation in Sub-Saharan Africa.

By the way, I’m not going to bother showing the bottom nations, but nobody should be surprised to learn that Venezuela is in last place.

Though that may simply be because there’s isn’t adequate data to include North Korea and Cuba.

Let’s close by including a chart that hopefully will show why economic liberty is important.

Simply stated, people enjoy much higher living standards in nations with free markets and small government. Conversely, people living under statist regimes suffer from poverty and deprivation.

The bottom line is that Economic Freedom of the World shows the recipe for growth and prosperity.

Sadly, very few nations follow the instructions because economic liberty is not in the interests of politicians.

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Some economic statistics are very important in the world of politics.

When President Obama’s so-called stimulus was in effect, critics (including me) kept pointing to higher-than-predicted unemployment rates. President Trump, meanwhile, mistakenly thinks America somehow is losing because of the trade deficit. And the GDP numbers are the subject of considerable discussion on all sides.

Another very important piece of data is wage growth, especially since Trump wants to claim his policies are generating big results. I take a jaundiced view on such claims, but the issue is very important, so let’s take a look at two interesting columns.

Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute, writing for Bloomberg, starts by noting that some folks on the left think workers are being screwed.

Are wages determined by market forces, or do businesses get to decide what pay they offer to workers? …Why has wage growth been so sluggish for so many years? …you might answer that employers have made the decision to boost profits at the expense of raising wages. …it is common to hear some prominent analysts and organizations on the left argue that the link between wages and productivity for most workers has effectively been severed.

Not so fast, he writes.

Businesses don’t pay employees less than the value of their productivity — the amount of revenue workers generate for their employer — because doing so would result in their workers taking another job where they would get paid what they’re worth. In this sense, employers don’t “decide” what wages they pay. Instead, wages are set in markets. …worker productivity remains the dominant force in setting wages. …Market forces are powerful. A recent paper by economists Anna M. Stansbury and Lawrence H. Summers of Harvard confirms this. They find that over the last four decades, a one-percentage-point increase in productivity growth is associated with a 0.73 percentage point increase in the growth rate of median compensation. That’s a strong link.

I have two thoughts on this. First, productivity is the key to our prosperity. I’m in full agreement with Paul Krugman’s observation that, “Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything.”

Second, as illustrated by this chart, we get more productivity with greater levels of investment.

The problem is that government often undermines productivity growth.

Governments have thrown a wrench in the market machine through the absurd proliferation of occupational licenses, reducing wages for workers who can’t get a license and restricting the mobility of licensed workers. A recent study finds that the rate of migration across state lines for individuals in occupations with state-specific licensing requirements is over one-third lower than among individuals in occupations that don’t have such rules.

Amen.

And there are plenty of additional policies that have a negative effect as well.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, David Henderson says the data on wage growth tell an incomplete story.

Standard wage data show that between the spring of 2017 and the spring of 2018, real wages in the U.S. increased only 0.1%. But there are three major problems with these data. First, they don’t account for fringe benefits, which are an increasing proportion of employee pay. Second, standard wage data use an index that overstates the inflation rate. Third, each year the composition of the workforce changes, as older, higher-paid workers retire and young, lower-paid workers enter the workforce.

He digs into some of the data that have been shared by the CEA.

…the White House Council of Economic Advisers addresses these three biases and concludes that real wages grew by 1% in 2017-18, not the measly 0.1% reported in the wage data. …including benefits would add 0.2 percentage point to the 2017-18 figure. …An alternate measure of inflation, the personal- consumption-expenditures price index, while also imperfect, is a better measure of inflation. Economists at the Federal Reserve prefer the PCEPI to the CPI. Using the PCEPI adds 0.5 percentage point to the 2017-18 growth of real wages. …The Census Bureau estimates that 3.57 million people turned 65 in 2017, compared with 2.68 million in 2010. Taking account of the decline in older, higher-paid workers and the increase in younger, lower-paid workers, the CEA estimates that this “composition factor” added 0.3 percentage point to real wage growth from 2017-18.

I have two thoughts about this data.

First, I don’t pretend to know the ideal measure to capture inflation, but I definitely know that we’d have lower prices in the absence of government intervention.

Second, the CEA definitely is right about fringe benefits being an ever-larger share of total compensation (mostly driven by government intervention).

And these observations apply, regardless of who’s in the White House.

This is not a partisan point. The same methodology would show that real wages grew more than was reported during much of President Obama’s time in office. …there is, in this context, one relevant difference between the Trump and Obama administrations: the 2017 tax cut. Real after-tax wages increased 1.4% between 2017 and 2018, according to the CEA study.

I obviously like the part about tax cuts being helpful, but I’ll reiterate my concern that this effect will evaporate if GOPers don’t get serious about spending restraint.

And I’ll close with the essential observation that there is no substitute for across-the-board pro-market policies if the goal is improving people’s lives.

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I periodically explain that pro-market policies are the best way of helping poor people.

The reason rich countries are rich is because they had lengthy periods of limited government, free markets, and the rule of law.

And the convergence literature shows that the same thing is true for developing nations.

Today, let’s look at some new research from the World Bank on how good policy plays a role in generating wealth from natural resources. The authors start by explaining the issue they want to investigate.

The literature on economic development often assumes that natural resource endowments are exogenous. …the resource economics literature has emphasized that the resource base is endogenous to investment in exploration and extraction. That literature has, however, overlooked the role that market orientation and institutions play in driving investments in the resource sector. Our aim is to bridge the gap between these two literatures and explore the effect of market orientation on the discovery of proven (known) natural resource wealth.

They cite the United States as an example of a country that benefited from the right policies.

The experience of the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth century provides a historical account of the role of market orientation in driving natural wealth. Although the United States at the time of independence was considered to be a country of “abundance of land but virtually no mining potential” (O’Toole, 1977), by 1913 it was the world’s dominant producer of virtually every major industrial mineral (David and Wright, 1997). Rather than being driven by a comparative advantage in geological endowments, this resource-based development of the United States was driven among other things by an open market orientation and an accommodating legal environment with the government claiming no ultimate title to mineral rents

And they note that there is additional anecdotal evidence that liberalization produces good results.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that increased market orientation was followed by increased discoveries across continents and types of natural resources (see Table 1). The increase in discoveries after countries open up to the global economy appears to be quite stark. In Peru, for example, discoveries more than quadrupled, in Chile they tripled, and in Mexico they doubled. In Ghana, discoveries only started to occur after the opening of the economy.

Here’s a table showing the dramatic increase in discoveries after selected nations shift to a pro-market approach.

The authors want to see if such results are either random or policy-driven.

So they put together a detailed model and gathered lots of data.

…we put forward a simple two-region model of endogenous reserves based on Pindyck (1978) where multinational corporations are faced with an implicit tax which proxies for how closed market orientation is, and seek the lowest cost location. The model explores the interplay between market orientation and other channels such as the increase in the marginal cost of discoveries and (demand driven) natural resource price shocks. …For our empirical analysis we build a unique and hitherto unexploited dataset of the universe of world-wide major natural resource discoveries since 1950, covering 128 countries, 33 types of natural resources and over 60 years.

Here’s an example of the data they utilized.

And here are the results.

I’m not surprised to learn that good policy (i.e., free markets) generate a substantial increase in economic activity.

…our empirical analysis shows that market orientation causes a statistically and economically significant increase in natural resource discoveries. Our point estimates indicate that going from a closed to an open market orientation increases discoveries by 80-140 percent. …In a thought experiment whereby economies in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa remained closed, they would have only achieved one quarter of the actual increase in discoveries they have experienced since the early 1990s.

The benefits are especially significant in developing nations, where market reforms appear to have produced a four-fold increase in the discovery of natural resources.

Here’s a look at the data for the entire study.

As you can see, there’s always an element of randomness and uncertainty in econometric research (“noise”), but the trend is readily apparent and the statistical tests provide a good amount of confidence about the strength of the relationship between more economic freedom and more economic activity.

I have two takeaways from this research.

First, we have the obvious result that property rights, rule of law, and other market-based policies are needed to help the poor.

Second, this is additional confirmation of my gut feeling that the World Bank is the best (least worst?) of the international bureaucracies. Yes, they waste money and are capable of producing bad research, but the organization’s culture seems to be focused on what changes are needed to help poor countries. And that often results in solid research (for other examples, see here, here, here, here, and here).

You can occasionally find good analysis from other international bureaucracies, such as the OECD and IMF, but it’s far more likely that those organizations will promote statist analysis because of a pro-government mindset.

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Whether I’m writing about a rich country or a poor country, my research starts with a visit to Economic Freedom of the World. Published by the Fraser Institute in Canada, EFW uses five major factors (fiscal, regulatory, monetary, trade, and quality of governance) to rank nations based on the overall amount of economic liberty.

The rankings go as far back as 1970, so you can see how a country has changed over time (and the good news is that scores have improved in most nations).

Today, let’s look at a history of the freest nations. We’ll start with the table from 1970.

Unsurprisingly, Hong Kong was at the very top. But who would have guessed that Luxembourg would be second? Canada ranked #3 and the United States was in 4th place, followed by Japan and four European nations.

Perhaps the most shocking bit of news is that Venezuela was ranked #10.

All the more reason that Venezuela’s last-place status in the most-recent edition is so depressing. That must be a record for the biggest-ever decline for a country.

If we look at the data for 1975, 1980, and 1985. Luxembourg continues to get very high scores, along with Hong Kong and the United States.

Panama and Guatemala ranked amazingly high in 1975, while the United Kingdom finally appears in 1985 (thanks to Margaret Thatcher’s reforms).

Here’s the data for 1990, 1995, and 2000. You’ll notice that New Zealand and Australia enter the top 10 while Luxembourg begins to drop (at least relatively speaking) and Singapore begins to climb.

Now let’s look at what has happened this century.

Hong Kong and Singapore have a lock on the top-two slots, with New Zealand and Switzerland controlling the third and fourth positions. Luxembourg, meanwhile, has vanished.

In 2010 and 2015, we see some nations appear from the developing world and the post-communist world. Most notably, Chile, Estonia, and Georgia.

For a policy wonk, these are fascinating numbers. I enjoy looking how relative rankings have changed, as well as what’s happening to absolute scores.

It’s such good source of data that I’ve always wished there were pre-1970 numbers as well.

Well, my wish has been granted. Ryan Murphy and Robert Lawson, two of the scholars who put together Economic Freedom or the World, have cranked out estimates for the entire post-World War II era.

Based on their retroactive assessment, they show that the United States had the world’s freest economy back in 1950.

Switzerland was in second place, followed by a bunch of European and Anglosphere nations.

If you want to understand why Luxembourg, Belgium, Norway, and Sweden are rich today, notice that they have a history of being among the world’s most pro-market nations.

Incidentally, due to inadequate data, Singapore wasn’t included in the retroactive data until 1960 and Hong Kong is complete absent from this historical dataset.

We don’t have top-10 lists for the other years, but the authors shared a table with all their numbers, so I created my own versions for 1955, 1960, and 1965.

As you can see, congratulations to Switzerland and Luxembourg (twice). The United States and Canada get very high marks. And Belgium and the Netherlands get good scores as well.

There are so many implications to this data, but I’ll close with three simple observations.

  • First, these numbers help to explain why Europe is a relatively rich continent. European nations traditionally have dominated the top-10 rankings. It’s not a good continent for fiscal policy, but those countries dominate the scores in other policy areas.
  • Second, you can fall behind by standing still. If you take a close look at data for Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands, you’ll notice their absolute scores haven’t really changed. But all of those nations have dropped out of the top 10 because other countries improved.
  • Third, global economic liberty is increasing. The top scores in the 1950s and 1960s wouldn’t get a country into the top 10 this century.

P.S. A Spanish academic also has produced some very interesting historical estimates for economic freedom, but his numbers are only averages for western nations.

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Stocks just set a new record for the longest “bull market” in history. If you’re an optimist, this is a reason to celebrate the relatively high level of economic freedom in the United States.

If you’re a pessimist, you might appreciate that there’s more economic liberty in America than most other places, but you still worry whether easy-money policies from the Fed have created a bubble in financial markets.

And if you’re fair, you admit that some of Trump’s policies are helping the economy and some are hurting the economy. Which was my message in this recent interview.

Simply stated, I like what Trump is doing on taxes and regulation, but I’m not a fan of what he’s doing on spending and trade.

Because he’s all over the map, it’s not easy to assign an overall grade to Trump’s economic policy (especially since it’s an open question whether Trump is trying to liberalize trade or restrict it).

Regardless, this discussion got me thinking of how best to explain the importance of various economic policies. Regular readers know I’m a huge fan of both the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World and the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom.

At the risk of oversimplifying, both publications measure economic freedom by looking at a combination of fiscal policy, regulatory policy, trade policy, monetary policy, and quality of governance (encompassing factors such as the legal system and property rights).

Generally speaking, the various policies are equally weighted. Which, based on a lot of research, is correct. But I wonder if the various policies are equal in different ways. I sometimes use a simple analogy in speeches, equating economic policy with the soundness of a house.

  • The quality of governance is akin to the foundation, because just as a very nice house won’t last long if built on a shaky foundation, good policies won’t generate much prosperity if the legal system is corrupt and property rights aren’t protected.
  • Monetary policy is akin to the framework of the house because it is also systemically important. Most recessions (and the false booms that precede downturns) are caused by misguided central bank tinkering.
  • Finally, as shown in my amateur drawing, trade policy, regulatory policy, and fiscal policy are the floors of the house. They determine the livability of the house, whereas monetary policy and quality of governance determine the structural soundness of the house.

To elaborate on this analogy, consider what I wrote a few days ago about Denmark. That house has a strong foundation and a solid framework, but the floor for fiscal policy is a total mess. Since I focus mostly on public finance, I get very agitated about that floor of the house. But as an economist, I nonetheless admit it’s still a nice place to live.

Conversely, Lebanon has one the best floors for fiscal policy, but the foundation is quicksand and the regulatory floor is a wreck. So that may not be an ideal place to live (notwithstanding compensating factors).

Anyhow, I’m looking for feedback. When I first proposed my Golden Rule, it was wordy and clunky. I got some great suggestions and eventually produced a much better version. I’d like to do the same for overall economic policy.

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A key insight of international economics is that there should be “convergence” between rich countries and poor countries, which is just another way of saying that low-income nations – all other things being equal – should grow faster than high-income nations and eventually attain the same level of prosperity.

The theory is sound, but it’s very important to focus on the caveat about “all other things being equal.” As I explain in this interview from my last trip to Australia, countries with bad policy will grow slower than nations that follow the right policies.

When I discuss convergence, I often share the data on Hong Kong and Singapore because those jurisdictions have caught up to the United States. But I make sure to explain that the convergence was only possible because of good policy.

I also share the data showing that Europe was catching up to the United States after World War II, just as predicted by the theory, but then convergence ground to a halt once those nations imposed some bad policy – such as costly welfare states.

In other words, convergence is a choice, not destiny.

Countries with small government and laissez-faire markets are the ones that grow and converge. The nations with statist policy languish and suffer. Or even de-converge (with Argentina and Venezuela being depressing examples).

Let’s see what academics have to say about this issue.

We’ll start by looking at some research at VoxEU by Professor Linda Yueh. She wants to understand the characteristics that determine national prosperity.

It’s a long-standing economic question as to why more countries are not prosperous. …The World Bank estimates that of the 101 middle-income economies in 1960, just a dozen or so had become prosperous by 2008… But, hundreds of millions of people have joined the middle classes. …How has this been achieved? Possessing good institutions is what economists have come to focus on and the spread of such institutions seems to have been key…the father of New Institutional Economics…Douglass North…stressed that there was no reason why countries could not learn from more successful economies to better their own institutions. That finally happened in the 1990s.

I’m a fan of Douglass North since he – along with many other winners of the Nobel Prize – has endorsed tax competition.

In his case, the goal was for nations to face pressure to adopt good institutions.

And Professor Yueh explains that this means rule of law and free markets.

China, India, and Eastern Europe changed course. China and India re-oriented their economies outward to integrate with the world economy, while Eastern Europe shed the old communist institutions and adopted market economies. In other words, having tried central planning (in China and the former Soviet Union) and import substitution industrialisation (in India), these economies abandoned their old approaches and adopted as well as adapted the economic policies of more successful economies. For instance, China, which has accounted for the bulk of poverty reduction since 1990, undertook an ‘open door’ policy that sought to integrate into global production chains which increased competition into its economy that had been dominated by state-owned enterprises. India likewise abandoned its previous protectionist policies…in Central and Eastern Europe. Communism gave way to capitalism, with these nations adopting entirely new institutions that re-geared their economies toward the market.

All of this is good news, but not great news. Simply stated, partial liberalization can lift people out of poverty.

But it takes comprehensive liberalization for a nation to become genuinely rich.

As many of these economies, especially China, have become middle-income countries, their economic growth is slowing down. And they may slow down so far that they never become rich. But, their collective growth has lifted a billion people of out of extreme poverty.

Let’s now see what other scholars say about convergence.

Some new research from the St. Louis Federal Reserve examines this topic. Here’s the mystery they want to address.

Over the past half-century, world income disparities have widened. The gap in real gross domestic product (GDP) per capita relative to the United States between advanced and poor countries has increased. For example, the ratio of average real GDP per capita among the top 10 percent of countries to the bottom 10 percent has increased from less than 20 in 1960 to more than 40 in 1990, and to more than 50 since the turn of the new millennium… The main point to be addressed in this article is why the income disparities between fast-growing economies and development laggards have widened.

In other words, they want to understand why some nations converge and some don’t.

We select a set of 10 fast-growing economies. This set includes Asian countries and African economies that are perceived as better performing. In contrast, we select a set of 10 development laggards. Beyond the typical candidates of countries mired in the poverty trap, this set includes countries with similar or even better initial states than some of the fast-growing countries, but with divergent paths of development leading to worse macroeconomic outcomes. That is, among development laggards, we choose two subgroups, one consisting of trapped economies and another of lag-behind countries. …Using cross-country analysis, we find that a key factor for fast-growing countries to grow faster than the United States and for trapped economies to grow slower than the United States is the relative TFP… Overall, we find that institutional barriers have played the most important role, accounting for more than half the economic growth in fast-growing and trapped economies and for more than 100 percent of the economic growth in the lag-behind countries.

Here are their case studies, showing income relative to the United States (a 1.0 means the same degree of prosperity as America).

As you can see, some nations catch up and some fall further behind, while others have periods of convergence and de-convergence.

And what causes these changes?

The degree to which nations have good policy.

…we identify that unnecessary protectionism, government misallocation, corruption, and financial instability have been key institutional barriers causing countries to either fall into the poverty trap or lag behind without a sustainable growth engine. Such barriers have created frictions or distortions to capital markets, trade, and industrialization, subsequently preventing these countries from advancing. …By reviewing the previous country-specific details, one can see that the 10 fast-growing countries have all adopted an open policy… Their governments have undertaken serious reforms, particularly in both labor and financial markets. …Thus, the establishment of correct institutions and individual incentives for better access to capital markets, international trade, and industrialization can be viewed as crucial for a country to advance with sustained economic growth

Here’s a table from the report showing the policies that help and the policies that hurt. Needless to say, it would be good if the White House understood that protectionism is one of the factors that undermine growth.

Interestingly, the study from the St. Louis Federal Reserve includes some country-specific analysis.

Here’s what it said about India, which suffered during an era of statism but has enjoyed decent growth more recently thanks to partial liberalization.

During 1950-90, India’s per capita income grew at an average annual rate of only about 2 percent, a result due to the Indian government’s implementation of restrictive trade, financial, and industrial policies. The Indian state took control of major heavy industries, by including additional licensing requirements, capacity restrictions, and limits on the regulatory framework. …In the late 1970s, the Indian government opened the economy by liberalizing both international trade and the capital market, leading to rapid growth in the early 1990s. As argued by Rodrik and Subramanian (2005), the trigger for India’s economic growth was an attitudinal shift on the part of the national government in 1980 in favor of private businesses. …The final trigger of the major economic reform of Manmohan Singh in the 1990s was due to the well-known 1991 balance-of-payment crisis….This reform ended the protectionist policies followed by previous Indian governments and started the liberalization of the economy toward a free-market system. This event led to an average annual growth rate that exceeded 6 percent in per capita terms during 1990-2005.

For what it’s worth, I am semi-pessimistic about India. Simply stated, there’s hasn’t been enough reform.

We also have some discussion regarding Argentina, which is mostly a sad story of ever-expanding government.

Argentina is the third-largest economy in Latin America and was one of the richest countries in the world in the early twentieth century. However, after the Great Depression, import substitution generated a cost-push effect of high wages on inflation. During 1975-90, growing government spending, large wage increases, and inefficient production created chronic inflation that increased until the 1980s, and real per capita income fell by more than 20 percent. …In 1991, the government attempted to control inflation by pegging the peso to the U.S. dollar. In addition, it began to privatize state-run enterprises on a broader basis and stop the run of government debt. Unfortunately, lacking a full commitment, the economy continued to crumble slowly and eventually collapsed in 2001 when the Argentine government defaulted on its debt. Its GDP declined by nearly 20 percent in four years, unemployment reached 25 percent, and the peso depreciated by 70 percent after being devalued and floated.

But if we go to the other side of the Andes Mountains, we find some good news in Chile.

From the Second World War to 1970, real GDP per capita of Chile increased at an average annual rate of 1.6 percent, and its economic performance was behind those of Latin America’s large and medium-sized countries. Chile pursued an import-substitution strategy, which resulted in an acute overvaluation of its currency that intensified inflation. …Although most Latin American countries have practiced strong government intervention in the markets since the mid-1970s, Chile pursued free market reform. …The outcomes are as follows: Exports grew rapidly, per capita income took off, inflation declined to single digits, wages increased substantially, and the incidence of poverty plummeted (compare with Edwards and Edwards, 1991). Since the democratic administration of Patricio Aylwin in 1990, the economic reform has been accelerated and Chile has become one of the healthiest economies in Latin America.

Not only has Chile become the richest nation in Latin America, it also has enjoyed significant convergence with the United States. About 40 years ago, according to the Maddison database, per-capita GDP in Chile was only about 20 percent of U.S. levels. Now it is 40 percent.

I’ll close with a chart, based on the Maddison numbers, showing how Hong Kong, Singapore, and Switzerland have converged with the United States. These are the only nations that have ranked in the top-10 for economic freedom ever since the rankings began. As you can see, their reward is prosperity.

The bottom line is that there is a recipe for growth and prosperity. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that very few nations follow the recipe since economic liberty means restricting the power of special interests and the political elite.

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