Archive for the ‘Free Markets’ Category

I shared yesterday a remarkable TV show about Estonia’s entrepreneurial miracle.

Today, let’s look at the Chilean version in the series. It shows how the South American nation, which now is ranked very high for economic freedom, is a shining example of how small government and free markets are a recipe for good results.

I don’t follow Chile as closely as Estonia, so instead of five good and bad policy developments (or lack thereof) in the nation, we’ll focus on three favorable items and one unfortunate feature.

Here are the three most positive policy lessons from Chile

First, Chile is the world champion for personal retirement accounts. It shifted from a failed pay-as-you-go tax-and-transfer to a funded system of personal accounts. Workers were given the opportunity to stay in the old system, but more than 95 percent realized it was better to have private savings rather than empty promised from politicians.

Second, Chile’s shift to free trade and away from protectionism has been enormously beneficial for the economy. Openness has produced big benefits for consumers, and also created big markets for exports.

Third, Chile shows the value of monetary stability. If you look at the big increase in the country’s economic freedom since 1975 and break it down by the major sub-categories, there have been impressive improvements in fiscal policy, regulatory policy, trade policy, and rule of law/property rights. But the biggest jump was for monetary policy. The nation went from hyperinflation and instability to a more sensible monetary regime.

Here’s the one thing that worry me about Chile.

Chile has enjoyed reasonably stable and practical leaders since suffering the chaos and brutality of Marxist and military governments in the 1970s and 1980s. Even left-leaning governments have been reasonable, recognizing that it would be a mistake to undermine the goose that has been laying golden eggs. That’s the good news. The bad news is that some recent politicians have adopted strident anti-market views. And the nation’s economic freedom score and ranking have both marginally declined in recent years.

By the way, you’ll have noticed in the above video that Peru also got some positive attention for its economic reform. It isn’t ranked nearly as high as Chile, but the progress has been enormous. Particularly when you consider how other nations in the region such as Venezuela are total basket cases of statism.

P.S. Chile also has one of the world’s best school choice systems, though it also has come under pressure from recent left-leaning politicians.

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Communism is an evil system. Freedom is squashed and people are merely cogs in a system where government exercises total control over the economy and destroys the lives of ordinary people.

It also erodes the social capital of a people, telling them that individual initiative and success are somehow exploitative and evil.

So when such a system ultimately collapses after being in place for decades, one would not expect a fast rebound. After all, it’s presumably difficult to restore the characteristics of a free society such as a work ethic, personal responsibility, and a spirit of entrepreneurship.

This is why Estonia is such an improbable success. It was under the heel of Soviet communism from World War II until the early 1990s.

Yet as illustrated by this television program about Estonia, which recently aired across the country, there’s been a remarkable recovery and renaissance in this small Baltic republic.

The program mostly focuses on the entrepreneurial success of Estonia, so I want to augment the policy discussion.

There are five big reasons why Estonia is a role model for post-communist societies.

First, Estonia is a leader in the global flat tax revolution. It has a simple and fair system with a relatively reasonable rate of 20 percent.

Second, the flat tax rate has been continuously lowered from the original 26 percent rate when the system was adopted in the early 1990s.

Third, the business tax system is remarkably benign with a rate of 20 percent that is imposed only on dividends.

Fourth, the combination of these factors helps give Estonia the most attractive tax system of all OECD nations according to the Tax Foundation.

Estonia currently has the most competitive tax code in the OECD. Its top score is driven by…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.

Fifth, there are other pro-market policies. Estonia is ranked #22 in Economic Freedom of the World, putting it in the “most free” category. That’s only six spots behind the United States.

But good policy is not the same as perfect policy.

So while there’s much to admire about Estonia, here are five things about the country that could be improved.

First, the burden of government spending is excessive in Estonia. According to the most recent OECD figures (see annex table 25), 38.5 percent of economic output is diverted to the state, leading to substantial misallocation of labor and capital.

Second, like other nations in the former Soviet Bloc, there’s a demographic challenge. The welfare state may be modest by European standards, but in the long run it is very unaffordable in part because of a fertility rate of 1.59, which ranks 183 out of 224 jurisdictions.

Third, there was a very impressive burst of liberalization after escaping Soviet tyranny, but the commitment to economic reform has since stagnated. Estonia’s EFW score peaked at 7.90 in 2005, 9th-highest in the world, and is now down to 7.61, which puts Estonia in 22nd place.

Though it’s worth noting some of the erosion in economic liberty is the result of European Union rules that require trade barriers on non-EU products (which is the same reason why the UK may enjoy higher trade over time if it votes to leave the EU).

Fourth, the social insurance tax rate is a stifling 33 percent, driving a significant wedge between what an employer must pay and what an employee actually receives. The only mitigating factor is that a small portion of that money goes to a funded pension system (i.e., a partially privatized Social Security system).

Fifth, it is too cold and dark for much of the year. To be sure, that’s not a complaint about policy. But it’s one of the reasons why I recommend Australia for people seeking a haven from bad U.S. policy.

All things considered, Estonia deserves a lot of praise. The problems that remain are modest compared to the nation’s major achievements.

P.S. Lest I forget, one of the admirable things about Estonia was the way the government cut spending in response to the economic crisis at the end of last decade. And I’m talking genuine reductions in spending, not the make-believe we-didn’t-increase-spending-as-fast-as-we-planned “cuts” that often take place in Washington.

P.P.S. In a shocking display of either sloppiness or malice, Paul Krugman blamed Estonia’s 2008 recession on the spending cuts that took place in 2009.

In reality, Estonia’s relative spending discipline has paid dividends. The economy quickly recovered and is out-performing other European nations that chose either tax increases or Keynesian spending binges.

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At the risk of oversimplifying, libertarians want to minimize the level of government coercion is society. That’s why we favor both economic liberty and personal liberty. Simply stated, you should have the right to control your own life and make your own decisions so long as you’re not harming others or interfering with their rights.

That’s a philosophical or moral argument.

There’s also the utilitarian argument for liberty, and that largely revolves around the fact societies with more freedom tend to be considerably more prosperous than societies with lots of government.

I’ve repeatedly made this argument by comparing the economic performance of market-oriented jurisdictions and statist ones.

Let’s look at some new evidence. Based in Lausanne, Switzerland, the Institute for Management Development is a highly regarded educational institution that publishes an annual World Competitiveness Yearbook that basically measures whether a nation is a good place to do business.

So it’s not a measure of economic liberty, at least not directly. And the quality of governance matters for the IMD rankings (presumably based on something akin to the European Central Bank’s measure of “public sector efficiency“).

But you’ll notice a clear link between economic liberty and competitiveness.

Here are the top-10 nations. (you can look at the rankings for all nations by clicking here).

As you might suspect, there’s a strong correlation between the nations that are competitive and those that have smaller governments and free markets.

Indeed, three out of the top four jurisdictions (Hong Kong, Singapore, and Switzerland) rank in the top four for economic liberty according to Economic Freedom of the World.

And I’m happy to see that the United States also scores very highly, even if we only rank 17 out of 157 for economic freedom.

Indeed, every country in IMD’s top 10 other than Sweden is ranked in the top quartile of EFW.

You also probably won’t be surprised by the countries getting the worst scores from IMD.

Congratulations to Venezuela for being the world’s least competitive nation. Though that might be an overstatement since IMD only ranks 61 jurisdictions. If all the world’s countries were included, Venezuela presumably would beat out North Korea. And maybe a couple of other squalid outposts of statism, such as Cuba.

It’s also worth noting that Greece gets consistently bad scores. And I’m not surprised that Argentina is near the bottom as well (though it has improved since last year, so hopefully the new government will continue to move in the right direction).

By the way, it’s worth noting that economic freedom is a necessary but not sufficient condition for competitiveness. Jordan, for instance, ranks in the top 10 for economic freedom but gets a low score from IMD, presumably because the advantages of good policy don’t compensate for exogenous factors such as geopolitical risk and access to markets.

The moral of the story, though, is that free markets and small government are the recipe for more prosperity. And those policies are probably even more important for nations that face exogenous challenges.

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I’m in Marrakech where I just spoke about the importance of economic freedom and entrepreneurship.

To close out my presentation, I zipped through several slides showing how nations with pro-market policies enjoy faster long-run growth than countries burdened by statism. The obvious conclusion is that even modest improvements in economic growth, if sustained for a long period, can make a tremendous difference in living standards.

In future talks, I may start to include this fascinating map, produced by Jakub Marian, which provides an apples-to-apples comparison of local purchasing power in Europe based on the cost of living and the average level of income.

Green nations therefore have the highest living standards, followed by blue nations, all the way to the red countries, which are the poorest.

This is a very interesting data, in part because it certainly seemed at first glance to show that there is a relationship between rich nations and economic freedom.

So I went to Economic Freedom of the World (EFW) and looked at the scores for the richest 10 nations on the map (actually, richest 11 since Austria and the U.K. are tied at 149).

Of those countries, all but one of them are considered economically free and are in the top 31 out of 157 nations in the ranking.

Only Sweden isn’t in this top category, and even that nation is ranked 42 and is mostly free.

There are three takeaways from these numbers.

First, it’s worth noting that the top two nations, Switzerland and Luxembourg, are tax havens. So maybe other nations should emulate such policies. And I’m guessing Liechtenstein and Monaco would be at the very top if they were part of either the map or the EFW rankings.

Second, libertarian perfection would be nice, but the free market is capable of generating good results even if policy is merely decent. Almost all European nations have excessive taxes and spending, for instance, but they compensate with very pro-market policies in other areas.

Third, there are several European nations from the former Soviet Empire that have earned good EFW scores. If their reasonably good policies are maintained for several decades, they will catch up to – and in many cases exceed – the living standards in Western Europe.

Last but not least, here’s a map of Europe based on the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, which is quite similar to EFW.

Notice that the green nations on this map largely match the green and blue nations in the Jakub Marian map. The Baltic nations are the most notable exceptions, and I’ve already predicted they will catch up to Western Europe if their pro-liberty policies are sustained.

Of course, the real role models should be Hong Kong and Singapore since those jurisdictions have more economic liberty than even Switzerland.

Actually, I’m even willing to say that France is an ideal role model. But only if nations emulate the France of 1870 rather than the France of 2016.

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Venezuela is falling apart. Decades of bad policy have produced economic stagnation and misery.

On the other side of South America, Chile has enjoyed comparatively strong growth since reforms began in the 1980s.

Can we learn lessons by comparing these two nations?

Yes. More than five years ago, I compared three decades of data to show that pro-market Chile grew somewhat faster than mixed-economy Argentina and much faster than statist Venezuela.

Now we have some new data.

My colleague at the Cato Institute, Marian Tupy, has an article in Reason that compares Chile and Venezuela.

He starts by noting that the two nations have moved in dramatically different directions when measuring economic freedom.

Chile’s success starts in the mid-1970s, when Chile’s military government abandoned socialism and started to implement economic reforms. In 2013, Chile was the world’s 10th freest economy. Venezuela, in the meantime, declined from being the world’s 10th freest economy in 1975 to being the world’s least free economy in 2013.

Here’s a sobering chart on the changes.

Some may believe that economic freedom as merely an abstraction.

What’s more important, they argue, is results. Is a nation enjoying good economic performance, or is it stagnating?

Well, it turns out that the abstraction of economic freedom is very important if you want good performance. Here’s another chart from Marian’s article. You can see that Venezuela has stagnated while Chile has boomed.

Chile is not a perfect role model, to be sure, because of an unsavory period of military rule.

But the good news, Marian points out, is that economic liberty has led to political liberty. Whereas the opposite has happened in Venezuela.

…as the people of Chile grew richer, they started demanding more say in the running of their country. Starting in the late 1980s, the military gradually and peacefully handed power over to democratically-elected representatives. In Venezuela, the opposite has happened. As failure of socialism became more apparent, the government had to resort to ever more repressive measures in order to keep itself in power.

Here’s a chart showing the remarkable progress in Chile..as well as the deterioration of rights in Venezuela (please note that “1” means strong political rights and “7” means low or nonexistent political rights).

All this data seemingly is slam-dunk evidence for the Chilean model over the Venezuelan model.

Yet there have been a number of leftists who actually praised the statist policies of Venezuela’s authoritarian rulers. Here are some excerpts from an exposê in the Daily Caller.

Socialist Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez was praised throughout his life by many figures in academia, journalism and Hollywood despite his brutal regime. This praise included Salon writer David Sirota’s piece after the leader’s death, titled “Hugo Chavez’s economic miracle.” In British publication The New Statesman, a headline as Chavez was nearing death in January 2013 was “Hugo Chavez: Man against the world,” and its sub-headline read “As illness ends Hugo Chavez’s rule in Venezuela, what will his legacy be? Richard Gott argues he brought hope to a continent.” This praise of Chavez by so many who enjoyed the benefits of living in a capitalist society while looking at the economic record of the late leader, as well as what his successor President Nicolas Maduro, has come undone.

And Joe Stiglitz gushed about Venezuela’s economic performance back in 2007.

Nobel Prize winning economist and former vice-president of the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz, praised Venezuela’s economic growth and “positive policies in health and education” during a visit to Caracas on Wednesday. “Venezuela’s economic growth has been very impressive in the last few years,” Stiglitz said during his speech at a forum on Strategies for Emerging Markets sponsored by the Bank of Venezuela. …Venezuela has taken advantage of the boom in world oil prices to implement policies that benefit its citizens and promote economic development. “Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez appears to have had success in bringing health and education to the people in the poor neighborhoods of Caracas, to those who previously saw few benefits of the countries oil wealth,” he said. In his latest book “Making Globalization Work,” Stiglitz argues that left governments such as in Venezuela, “have frequently been castigated and called ‘populist’ because they promote the distribution of benefits of education and health to the poor.” “It is not only important to have sustainable growth,” Stiglitz continued during his speech, “but to ensure the best distribution of economic growth, for the benefit of all citizens.”

Wow, this is a remarkable case of ideological blindness. Stiglitz presumably allowed his statist views to drive his analysis.

But let’s focus on one part of that excerpt. Yes, it’s very desirable for all citizens to benefit from economic growth.

But if you look at the chart from Marian’s article comparing GDP per capita in Chile and Venezuela, it’s abundantly clear which nation is producing better outcomes from average citizens.

This is a fundamental flaw of statists. By fixating on redistribution and equality, this leads them to policies that re-slice a shrinking economic pie.

The evidence from all over the world is that this is not a recipe for convergence with rich nations.

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From a leftist perspective, making lots of money is not necessarily a bad thing. Rich Hollywood celebrities almost always get a free pass, especially if they embrace statist beliefs.

The crowd in Silicon Valley also is generally forgiven for being rich, perhaps because they donate to politicians like Bernie Sanders.

Folks on Wall Street, by contrast, apparently are the epitome of evil. Even when they support new regulations such as Dodd-Frank, that doesn’t put them in the good graces of today’s leftists. And if they run private equity funds that earn “carried interest,” that puts them in the arch-villain category.

But there are exceptions to all these rules. If you’re a gazillionaire from the entertainment industry, even if you’re a minority, you can get yourself in trouble for the ostensible crime of committing capitalism.

And that’s what is happening to Beyoncé. She is getting lots of bad press because she has a line of clothing and some of those clothes are being produced in Sri Lankan “sweatshops.”

To be sure, working 10 hours of day in a third-world clothing factory would be a horrible life for those of us lucky enough to live in advanced economies.

So we’re tempted to argue that “sweatshops” should be banned, but only because we don’t think about tradeoffs. Most important, what would happen to the Sri Lankan workers if they didn’t have this choice?

Writing for The Federalist, David Harsanyi points out that the attacks on Beyoncé are misguided.

Beyoncé is doing more to improve the lives of Sri Lankan workers than all fair-traders and finger-wagging journalists combined. …The Sun’s exposé claiming that workers at the singer’s new apparel company are nothing but “slaves” who earn 64 cents per hour so that Beyoncé’s can buy another yacht. …It’s a shame that people are still forced to live on such a pittance.

Yes, it’s a shame.

But you know what’s even worse than being a Sri Lankan worker in one of Beyoncé’s factories?

Being a Sri Lankan worker who doesn’t have one of those jobs.

A gross monthly average income of a Sri Lankan is around 8839 rupees. …For thousands of…fellow laborers, a Beyoncé job offers a higher salary.

In other words, as David explains, job creation and economic growth are the best way to boost living standards for the people of Sri Lanka, and that’s exactly what’s happening.

Beyoncé, who is running a business not a charity, is an inadvertent force of good. …salaries will rise and so will the quality of life. This competition will impel employers to increase productivity and, if Sri Lanka doesn’t revert to its old ways, the economy will grow.

By the way, that remark about not reverting to “its old ways” is not a throwaway line.

Sri Lanka does not have a free-market economy, but it’s also not nearly as statist as it used to be. So if the country wants continued growth, at the very least it needs to avoid backsliding. And what it really should do is further shrink government and liberalize the economy.

In the meantime, here’s a great video from Ben Powell about how “sweatshops” are good for workers.

By the way, Ben also has written about the history of so-called sweatshops in the United States. And the story is pretty much identical to Sri Lanka, with these factories being a route to upward advancement as America’s economy began to prosper.

As such, it would be a shame if we denied Sri Landkan workers the same route for economic growth.

P.S. Shifting to another topic, we have come bad news followed by good news from Down Under.

The Australian government, which ostensibly is right of center, proposed a new tax on migrant labor. But now that tax is being deferred, hopefully on a permanent basis.

Here are some of the details from a Reuters story.

The ruling conservative government, which is counting on the support of rural voters in the July 2 poll, will defer the tax increase and hold a review of labor force issues in rural and regional communities, Assistant Treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer said. Under the proposal, foreign travelers on working holiday visas would have paid tax of 32.5 percent on every dollar earned from July 1, when previously they paid no tax on income up to A$18,000 ($13,100), the same as locals. …Australia has encouraged backpackers to work on farms with special visas allowing them to stay for a second year if they do three months work in rural Australia.

Sigh, Seems like the Australian Liberal Party (which is a classical liberal party) should adopt the no-tax-hike pledge to avoid making this kind of unforced error.

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According to Economic Freedom of the World, there are five major factors that determine a nation’s economic performance.

Here’s the recipe for growth and prosperity.

  • Rule of law and property rights.
  • Small government.
  • Stable monetary policy.
  • Reasonable regulatory policy.
  • Free trade.

This great publication is the first thing I check when I want to see whether a country leans in the direction of markets or whether it is burdened by a lot of statism. And it allows for meaningful comparisons between nations since it relies on global data sources.

But not all economic variables have good data sources that allow apples-to-apples comparisons. It’s very difficult to measure the degree to which various governments interfere with the price system by imposing controls (either minimum or maximum price limits).

Identifying the degree of cronyism in an economy also is a challenge since there are not reliable numbers for the degree to which politicians in various nations provide favors for particular firms or sectors.

So I was very interested when I saw that the Economist has put together a ranking that shows the degree to which a nation’s billionaires either earn their wealth via markets or cheat their way to wealth via cronyism.

It obviously doesn’t cover nearly as many nations as Economic Freedom of the World, but perhaps the folks at the Economist have come up with a methodology that eventually will allow a specific measure of cronyism in the future.

The article explains how the rankings were derived.

…for the past 20 years, from Malaysia to Mexico, crony capitalists—individuals who earn their riches thanks to their chumminess with government—have had a golden era. Worldwide, the worth of billionaires in crony industries soared by 385% between 2004 and 2014, to $2 trillion. The Economist’s crony-capitalism index tries to measure the extent of this graft for a number of important countries. Industries that have a lot of interaction with the state are vulnerable to crony capitalism (a full list of industries is provided in the table below). These activities are often legal but always unfair (Donald Trump, a casino and property tycoon, earns the 104th spot in our individual crony ranking). …Germany is cleanest, where just a sliver of the country’s billionaires derives their wealth from crony sectors. Russia fares worst in our index: wealth from the country’s crony sectors amounts to 18% of its GDP.

I’m glad to have these new numbers, but I’m not completely sold on the methodology used by the Economist.

Is all banking and finance really cronyism? That seems a bit of a stretch. While there are some indications that Warren Buffett is now a cronyist, I’m not aware of any evidence suggesting he used government connections to become rich in the first place.

And what about energy and chemicals? That description may apply to some rich people in the U.S. and elsewhere, but there are plenty of examples (the Koch brothers) of billionaires in this sector that have earned their wealth.

And speaking of wealth, why did the article compare wealth (which is a stock) and GDP (which is a flow)? I realize the Economist needed some sort of benchmark, but they chose an approach that has dubious methodological value.

All that being said, I suspect that the countries near the top of that list have a genuine problem with cronyism and the ones near the bottom do a better job of letting market forces operate.

So congratulations to Germany and South Korea and boos for Russia and Malaysia.

And a bit of applause for the United States. We have some egregious forms of cronyism that benefit the undeserving rich, but most American billionaires apparently earn their money.

Now let’s zoom out and look at the historical case against cronyism with this superb video from Prager University.

The bottom line is that scams like Solyndra are the modern version of what many railroads did in the 1800s.

I didn’t realize, though, that Uncle Sam also squandered money trying to invent the airplane.

P.S. You can enjoy other great videos from Prager University by clicking here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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