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Archive for the ‘Free Markets’ Category

I’m a proud advocate and defender of capitalism for the simple reason that it is a system that is consistent with human freedom while also producing mass prosperity that was unimaginable for much of human history.

Jurisdictions that embrace capitalism enjoy great progress while nations that veer in the other direction suffer economic decline, as vividly demonstrated by comparisons such as the relative performance of Hong Kong and Argentina.

And, for what it’s worth, the Princess of the Levant even says capitalism is “a sexy word.”

But not everybody agrees.

A column by Greg Sargent in the Washington Post has some very depressing poll numbers.

…the Harvard Institute of Politics has released a new poll of young voters… One key finding in the poll, which surveyed over 3,000 people from ages 18-29, is that these young people see a robust role for government in guaranteeing a right to a basic standard of living, and majorities of them see a large or moderate federal role in regulating the economy and access to health care and higher education. …A narrow majority of respondents in Harvard’s poll said they did not support capitalism.

Writing for Mic, Marie Solis looks at these recent poll numbers and wonders if the real issue is whether “capitalism” is simply an unpalatable word.

A new Harvard University survey found 51% of the participants between the ages 18 and 29 said they do not support capitalism. …The university’s results echo recent findings from Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who surveyed 1,000 Americans between the ages of 18 and 26 and found that 58% of respondents believed socialism to be the “more compassionate” political system when compared to capitalism. …the results may be more indicative of a shifting connotation for the word “capitalism” itself. “The word ‘capitalism’ doesn’t mean what it used to,” he said. “You don’t hear people on the right defending their economic policies using that word anymore.”

Not so fast. I still use “that word.”

But should I? James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute is sympathetic to the notion that there’s a perception problem. He speculates that the real problem is that capitalism now has a negative connotation.

America’s millennials are hardly some fifth column of communist sympathizers. Nor are they idiots. But they are at least a bit skeptical of “capitalism.” …Yet, oddly, many of those same capitalism skeptics also hold views similar to those of any Ayn Rand-loving free marketeer. For example: Less than a third believe government should play a large role in regulating the economy, reducing income inequality, or stimulating economic growth. Likewise, just a third said they supported socialism.

I fear Pethokoukis is being too optimistic in his reading of the polling data. When you review the questions in the poll and add together those who want a “large” role for government with those who favor a “moderate” role for government, they overwhelm the advocates of laissez-faire who say government should play “little to no role.”

Though maybe I’m just being a pessimist since the folks who want a “moderate” role may think the government today already is playing a “large” role and therefore would want to reduce the size and scope of Washington (though the fact that many people actually blame deregulation for the financial crisis, notwithstanding all the evidence to the contrary, makes me think that would be a Pollyannish interpretation of the polling data).

In any event, let’s return to the issue of whether capitalism is akin to a toxic brand.

Maybe one problem here is the word “capitalism” and what it evokes in the aftermath of the Great Recession and Wall Street bailout. Maybe “capitalism” really isn’t the right word for the free enterprise system, the deep magic that has made America the richest, most powerful nation on Earth. Indeed, wherever and whenever there’s been a bit of economic freedom, amazing things have happened — from Europe in the 1800s to China and India in the late 20th century. …Maybe millennials aren’t capitalists as much as they are “innovists” or “innovationists.” They believe the same dynamic economic system that created those amazing panes of internet-connected glass in their pockets will also create a better world.

It galls me that young people blame capitalism for the financial crisis. Have they ever heard of the Federal Reserve? Or Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac?

Blaming capitalism for the recent mess is like blaming the Red Cross for tornadoes. Sounds like millennials don’t know the difference between capitalism and cronyism.

But I’m digressing again. Time to get back to the central topic. Elizabeth Nolan Brown weighs in with a column for Reason.

…this new poll finds young people torn between “capitalism” and “socialism,” with perhaps little—or, to be more charitable, an ahistorical—understanding of what either means.

I definitely agree with her than millennials are confused about what these terms mean.

But grousing about their lack of knowledge doesn’t solve the problem. But maybe we can make progress if we learn why young people think the way they do.

…words—especially big, emotionally-laden words describing controversial or complicated concepts—connote different things to different people. When pollsters probe young people further about socialism and capitalism, they tend to find that respondents don’t have clear concepts of these economic philosophies. To many millennials, “socialism” doesn’t mean a government-managed economy but something like what we have now, only with more subsidized health care, student-loan forgiveness, and mandatory paid parental leave. …”Capitalism,” meanwhile, doesn’t simply mean private, for-profit enterprise. …Capitalism is Big Banks, Wall Street, “income inequality,” greed. It’s wealthy sociopaths screwing over the little guy, Bernie Madoff, and horrifying sweatshops in China. …However incomplete or caricatured, these are the narratives of capitalism that millennials have grown up with.

She basically comes to the same conclusion as Pethokoukis.

We certainly need to consider whether and how the word can be reclaimed, or if we’re better served talking about the “market economy,” “private enterprise,” “free trade,” or “entrepreneurship.” Millennials love the word entrepreneur… Unlike anti-capitalists of yore, young people today don’t seem to see a tension between turning a profit and living righteously. …As John Della Volpe, polling director at Harvard, puts it, millennials aren’t “rejecting the concept” of capitalism. “The way in which capitalism is practiced, in the minds of young people—that’s what they’re rejecting.”

Indeed, she shares some 2014 polling data that shows there is 2-1 support for free markets, which is significantly better than the level of support for capitalism.

This analysis is persuasive. If we can convince more people to support good policy by talking about “free markets” rather than “capitalism,” then I have no objection to using a more effective phrase or word.

For what it’s worth, opponents of economic liberty such as Karl Marx were among the first to use the term “capitalist” and they obviously meant it as a slur. Which is another reasons why advocates of economic liberty shouldn’t feel obliged to use that word.

That being said, I’m not sure whether using a different word or phrase will make a big difference. I remember when Social Security reform was a big issue between 1995-2005. Proponents were repeatedly told that “private” and “privatization” were words to avoid, so we all dutifully said we were for “personal retirement accounts.”

Which was fine, but it didn’t stop leftists from using “privatization.” Moreover, polling data showed considerable support for the idea, notwithstanding demagoguery from advocates of the status quo.

Now that we’ve discussed whether “capitalism” is a bad word, let’s shift gears and look at whether “liberal” should be a good word.

Professor Daniel Klein says the word has been hijacked by statists.

Here I make a plea, addressed to conservatives and libertarians, regarding the word liberal: please do not describe leftists, progressives, social democrats, or Democrats as “liberal.” …Words have deep-seated cognates and connotations; they have character and history. …The term liberal has always had an abundance of positive connotations: generous, open-minded, tolerant, big-hearted. …to oppose “liberals” almost seems tantamount to opposing modern, open civilization.

And “liberal” originally was linked to economic liberty and free markets.

The inception of liberal as a political term should be credited to the Scottish historian William Robertson, who published a book in 1769 that uses the term repeatedly to mean principles of liberty and commercial freedom. Adam Smith…used the term repeatedly in a signal way to refer to the sort of policy he advocated, a system that gives a strong presumption to individual liberty, and hence commercial and market freedom. …The principles of Adam Smith spread throughout Europe, as did the name he used for them, “liberal.” …so “liberal” political movements were born.

But then the statists began to call themselves liberals.

At the end of the nineteenth century, and thereafter, there came a dramatic shift. Collectivism or statism was on the rise. …Especially during the period 1880 to 1940, there came great changes in the meanings of words, changes in semantics. …people started using words in new ways, and often even announced and emphasized the newness of their usage and meaning. …the statists arrogated the term liberal to themselves… The literature of the so-called New Liberals declaimed openly against individual liberty and in favor of state collectivism and socialistic reform.

Interestingly, the bastardization of “liberal” has primarily occurred in the United States and Canada.

…when we step outside North America, we see that, by and large, liberal still means liberal…read and listen to European Parliament member Daniel Hannan, who often uses liberal proudly in its original sense, and who never calls leftists “liberal,” or to read the journal of the Institute of Economic Affairs (London)—Economic Affairs: A Journal of Liberal Political Economy. …In Prague, for example, the leading freedom-oriented organization is called the Liberal Institute. Where liberal still means liberal, such as in Europe and Latin America, leftists have no reluctance in calling their imaginary bogeyman “neoliberalism.”

I can vouch for that. I’m often accused of being a “liberal” or “neo-liberal” when speaking overseas. It took a while to get used to it, but now I smile and say “yup, that’s me.”

And I’ll sometimes use “classical liberal” and “libertarian” interchangeably when speaking in the United States. But given the way the meaning of the word has changed over time, I don’t think it would make sense to the average person if I referred to myself as “liberal.”

That being said, I fully agree with Professor Klein that we shouldn’t let leftists get away with using that term to describe themselves. I prefer to describe them as “statists.”

P.S. Tom Sowell has a more controversial, but technically accurate, term to describe modern leftists.

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Since Pope Francis is very critical of capitalism, I suppose it’s fitting that he had a special meeting with America’s crazy-Uncle-in-the-attic, Bernie Sanders.

With my sixth-grade sense of humor, I confess that my initial instinct (perhaps motivated by the famous line from Animal House about “a wimp and a blimp“) was to write about “the Pope and the dope,” but I’m going to be somewhat mature and instead share some excerpts from a very good column by Charles Lane, an editorial writer for the Washington Post.

Here’s some of what he wrote before Senator Sanders’ departure.

Democratic socialist presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will depart soon for the Vatican… In keeping with Pope Francis’s call for a “moral economy,” Sanders has said he’ll discuss “how we address the massive levels of wealth and income inequality that exist around the world, how we deal with unemployment, how we deal with poverty and how we create an economy that works for all people rather than the few.”

While inequality should be a non-issue (assuming income is earned honestly), it is very desirable to reduce poverty and boost wealth for the less fortunate. As such, Lane suggests that the Vermont Senator read some of the research from World Bank economist Branko Milanovic.

…real income went up between 70 percent and 80 percent for those around the world who were already earning at or near the global median, including some 200 million Chinese, 90 million Indians and 30 million people each in Indonesia, Egypt and Brazil. Those in the bottom third of the global income distribution registered real income gains between 40 percent and 70 percent, Milanovic reports. The share of the world’s population living on $1.25 or less per day — what the World Bank defines as “absolute poverty” — fell from 44 percent to 23 percent.

And here are the most important passages.

Was all this progress because of big government? Nope, people were lifted out of poverty because the power of government was reduced.

Did this historic progress, with its overwhelmingly beneficial consequences for millions of the world’s humblest inhabitants, occur because everyone finally adopted “democratic socialism”? …To the contrary: The big story after 1988 is the collapse of communism and the spread of market institutions, albeit imperfect ones, to India, China and Latin America. This was a process mightily abetted by freer flows of international trade and private capital… The extension of capitalism fueled economic growth, which Milanovic correctly calls “the most powerful tool for reducing global poverty and inequality.” And he’s no supply-sider, but instead a left-leaning critic of modern economic orthodoxy — as his new book, “Global Inequality,” makes clear.

The final sentence is worth highlighting. Mr. Milanovic is not a libertarian firebrand. And since Charles Lane is an editorial writer at the Washington Post, it’s safe to assume that he isn’t an advocate of small government either.

For what it’s worth, they’re probably both supporters of something akin to the Nordic Model, which allows for a large welfare state and high tax rates, but otherwise is very sympathetic to free markets (i.e., open trade, light regulation, stable money, strong property rights, etc).

In other words, if we created a scale or a spectrum, there would be a big difference between the crazy left and the rational left. And the socialists and totalitarians would be in their own category.

The flags of the Nordic nations represent the rational left. I’ve put the Greek flag next to Bernie Sanders to represent the crazy left.

I actually had a hard time coming up with an example of a genuine socialist (i.e., government ownership of the means of production) who wasn’t also a totalitarian, but eventually settled on Clement Attlee, the United Kingdom’s misguided post-WWII Prime Minister who nationalized industries.

And Hitler and Stalin obviously are representatives of the totalitarian left.

I’ve placed Obama and Clinton on the spectrum based on what I think they actually believe, not what they say. So even though Hillary and Bernie are singing from the same nutty song sheet, I suspect she’s exaggerating her leftism and he’s downplaying his.

P.S. Returning to our original focus about which policies actually help the poor, Bono also understands that there’s no substitute for free markets.

P.P.S. My goal, of course, is to help rational leftists understand that free markets are just one ingredient in the recipe for prosperity. We also should have small government.

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I don’t care whether it’s called socialism, fascism, or communism, statism is evil and destructive. And going partway down that path with “democratic socialism” may avoid brutality, but the end result is still economic misery.

In hopes of getting this point across, I utilize everything from humor to theoretical analysis.

But my favorite approach, based on decades of experience with one-on-one meetings, public speeches, and private briefings, is to share cross-country comparisons. Such real-world evidence seems to be most persuasive.

So it’s time to add to that collection.

Let’s go back to 2011, when Catherine Rampell was with the New York Times and she wrote a column about a book by World Bank economist Branko Milanovic. She focuses on a powerful visual.

My favorite part of the book was this graph…on the vertical axis, you can see where any given ventile from any country falls when compared to the entire population of the world. …take a look at America. Notice how the entire line for the United States resides in the top portion of the graph? That’s because the entire country is relatively rich. In fact, America’s bottom ventile is still richer than most of the world: That is, the typical person in the bottom 5 percent of the American income distribution is still richer than 68 percent of the world’s inhabitants. …America’s poorest are, as a group, about as rich as India’s richest.

Here’s the graph that grabbed her attention.

I agree with everything Ms. Rampell wrote about that graph, but let me expand the focus by explaining why this is yet another piece of evidence for the proposition that policy makers should focus on growth rather than (in)equality.

From a leftist perspective, the ideal line for such a graph is horizontal because that represents complete income equality. And they naturally think that statist policies are more likely to produce an outcome closer to that redistributionist ideal (hence, their support for politicians such as Obama, Clinton, and Sanders).

But the graph shows why they are so wrong to support ever-larger government.

For instance, ponder the question of which nation produces better outcomes for poor people? Obviously, per-capita output for all income levels is higher in the United States, but the gap is especially huge for those with low incomes.

There doubtlessly are many reasons for the output gap in the chart, but one logical explanation is that the overall burden of government is much lower in the United States (#16 in the economic freedom rankings) than in China (#111), India (#114), and Brazil (#118).

By the way, some people may say it’s unfair to compare the United States with nations from the developing world. But the entire point of this comparison is that these other countries aren’t part of the “first world” in part because their economic policies are characterized by statism rather than capitalism.

But for those who want comparisons among developed nations, I’ve reviewed evidence from the United States and Europe on many occasions and the results always show that the relatively more market-friendly policies in the United States produce higher levels of prosperity than the more statist policies of Europe.

And if you want a more apples-to-apples comparison involving one of the most successful European nations, consider this chart showing the relative prosperity of different income levels in the United States and Sweden.

The bottom line is that it’s very difficult to find any evidence to suggest that any group of people enjoys more prosperity in a nation with a larger burden of government.

Which is why I’m still waiting for a leftist to successfully respond to my two-question challenge (and they actually only need to give an answer to one of the questions).

Another good way of determining whether markets work better than statism is to see how fast nations grow over time.

James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute shares a chart from Max Roser showing long-run changes in per-capita economic output for South Korea and Venezuela.

The amazing takeaway is that Venezuela was about three times richer than South Korea about fifty years ago, but now that ratio is almost reversed.

This is an amazing ratification of the all-important principle that sustained differences in growth have an enormous impact on a nation’s long-run prosperity.

And it shows that nations from the developing world can experience “convergence” and join the first world if they adopt good policies.

They don’t even need great policies. The key is simply to keep the burden of government at modest levels so the private sector has room to grow.

P.S. For those wondering about my juvenile title, I probably watched Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey over 100 times when my kids were young and I’m borrowing a very appropriate line from that film.

P.P.S. For those who want more information about South Korean growth, check out this comparison of that country with its northern neighbor.

P.P.P.S. And for those who want to learn more about Venezuela’s lack of growth, see how that country compares to Chile and Argentina.

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John Cowperthwaite deserves a lot of credit for Hong Kong’s prosperity. As a British appointee, he took a hands-off policy and allowed the colony’s economy to thrive. He didn’t even want the government to collect statistics since that would give interventionists data that might be used to argue for interventionism.

I have mixed feelings about that approach. I constantly use statistics because they so often show that free markets and small government produce the best outcomes. I even use data to show that Hong Kong’s economy should be emulated.

On the other hand, there are some statistics that cause a lot of mischief.

I’ve argued, for instance, that we should focus on how national prosperity is generated (gross domestic income) rather than how it is allocated (gross domestic product). If we changed the focus to GDI, the debate would more naturally focus on pro-growth policies to boost wages, small business income, and corporate profits rather than the misguided policies (such as Keynesian economics) that are enabled by a focus on GDP.

That being said, there’s a good argument that the worst government statistic is the “trade deficit.”

This is a very destructive piece of data because people instinctively assume a “deficit” is bad. Yet I have a trade deficit every year with my local grocery store. I’m always buying things from them and they never buy anything from me. Does that mean I’m a “loser”? Of course not. Voluntary exchange, by definition, means that both parties gain from any transaction. And this principle applies when voluntary exchange occurs across national borders.

Moreover, people oftentimes don’t realize that the necessary and automatic flip side of a “trade deficit” is a “capital surplus.” In other words, when foreign companies acquire dollars by selling to American consumers, they frequently decide that investing in the American economy is the best use of that money. And the huge amount of investment from overseas is a sign of comparative prosperity and vitality, not a sign of weakness.

And for any readers who nonetheless think protectionism might be a good idea, I challenge them to answer these eight questions.

I’m confident that both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders wouldn’t be able to successfully answer any of them. Yet it appears they’ve gained some traction with voters by calling for protectionism.

That’s quite unfortunate. If the pro-trade policy consensus in America breaks down, that would create dangerous opportunities for politicians and bureaucrats to rig the game in favor of special interests while also imposing higher costs of taxpayers and consumers.

Let’s dig into the issue.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Mort Kondracke and Matthew Slaughter combine to produce a strong defense of trade.

…the four leading presidential candidates…oppose the U.S. ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership. All four demonize trade the same way. …Where is the leader with the courage to tell the truth? To say that trade made this nation great, and that trade barriers will destroy far more jobs than they can ever “save.” …America’s exporters and importers are among the country’s most dynamic companies, paying their workers about 15%-20% more than workers earn elsewhere in the economy. The overall gains are large. Trade and related activities—spurred by accords such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta, have boosted annual U.S. income today by about 10 percentage points of GDP relative to what it would have been otherwise. This translates into an aggregate gain of about $1.8 trillion in 2015—thousands of dollars per U.S. household every year. …creative destruction—the movement of people and capital from weaker businesses to stronger ones and new opportunities—is how many of the gains from trade arise. …For generations, American presidents of both parties have spoken about the benefits of trade. “Economic isolation and political leadership are wholly incompatible,” warned John Kennedy. “A creative, competitive America is the answer to a changing world,” said Ronald Reagan. “We should always remember: protectionism is destructionism.”

By the way, I think Kondracke and Slaughter paint with too broad a brush. Both Cruz and Clinton are far less protectionist than Trump and Sanders. Though the authors are correct in noting that they’ve been reluctant (especially in the case of Clinton) to vigorously defend free trade.

The great legal scholar Richard Epstein (also my former debating partner) writes about the dangers of protectionism.

There are of course major difference between the insidious Trump and buffoonish Sanders. …Still, the real selling point of each boils down to one issue: In the indecorous language of the pollster, Pat Caddell, Americans feel “they have been screwed” by free trade. …free trade is in retreat as protectionism becomes the common thread across the both political parties. It is as though the economic unwisdom of the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act is back.

Richard makes a very important point that politicians often support protectionism in an attempt to hide the damage they do with other misguided policies.

Free trade offers an uncompromising indictment of, and a powerful corrective for, America’s unsound economic policies. …the reason that local businesses outsource from the United States is the same reason why foreign businesses are reluctant to expand operations here. Our regulatory and labor environment is hostile to economic growth and there are no signs of that abating anytime soon. …the steady decline in freedom and productivity inside the United States has continued apace. Ironically, the strong likelihood that the next American president will expand protectionist practices will only make matters worse: firms, both foreign and domestic, are more reluctant to invest in the United States…free trade gives the federal government and the individual states strong incentives to clean up their act so that they can once again be attractive to foreign investment.

My buddy Ross Kaminsky explains in the American Spectator that free trade is good because it is part of the competitive process that boosts living standards, particularly for the poor.

…in trade, as in any economic endeavor, there are losers in the short run. Capitalism is, after all, fundamentally a system of creative destruction. But if there is any area of agreement among economists of all political stripes…it is that free trade provides large net benefits to the societies that engage in it, even if other nations do not lower trade barriers to the same degree. Furthermore, the benefits of trade accrue in large measure to the lower economic echelons of society in an extension of Schumpeter’s profound observation that “the capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort.”

And Ross echoes Richard Epstein’s point about the real problem being anti-growth policies that make America less competitive.

Trade is complex and like all complex things politicians will dumb it down in a way that benefits them, generally by lying to the public and creating a frothy anger against those “damn furiners” instead of pointing fingers at the true culprits: unions, regulators, and politicians of all stripes.

Ross and Richard are right. If politicians really want more jobs in America, they should be adopting policies to boost U.S. competitiveness.

And we don’t need giant steps. Yes, a flat tax would be great, but even incremental reforms such as a lower corporate tax rate or the right tax treatment of business investment would yield big dividends.

Let’s add a few more voices to the discussion.

In an editorial, the Wall Street Journal debunks Donald Trump’s protectionist tirade against China.

The real-estate developer recently added Japan to his most-wanted list of job killers… “They’re killing us. You know what we sell to Japan? Practically nothing.” Is $116 billion worth of annual goods and services exports to Japan practically nothing? Japan is the fourth largest U.S. export market in goods after Canada, Mexico and China. …The best way to boost American exports is to remove trade barriers with new trade agreements. U.S. farm producers would particularly benefit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Japan and 10 other countries. Japanese tariffs on beef would fall to 9% in the 16th year of the deal from 38.5% while the 20% tariff on ground pork would be eliminated in six years. Japan’s 21.3% levy on poultry and eggs would be abolished in six to 13 years.

Writing for the Washington Post, David Ignatius defends trade in general and trade agreements in particular.

…the revolt against free trade that has captured both parties could do the most long-term damage. …there’s strong evidence that trade has benefited the U.S. economy and created whole new industries in which the United States is dominant. That’s the essence of the “creative destruction” that makes a market economy so potent: It relentlessly pushes innovation and change. …The bipartisan protectionism of Trump and Sanders has focused its attacks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership… Robert Z. Lawrence and Tyler Moran estimate that between 2017 and 2026, when TPP would have its major impact, the costs to displaced workers would be 6 percent of the benefits to the economy — or an 18-to-1 benefit-to-cost ratio. …David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson…noted that the pact would promote trade in knowledge industries where the United States has a big advantage and that “killing the TPP would do little to bring factory work back to America.”

Ignatius also makes a very important observation that protectionists want us to be scared of nations that have much bigger problems than the United States.

Trump, the businessman, seems weirdly out of touch with real economic trends. He speaks of Japan as though it were an economic powerhouse, when it has actually suffered a two-decades-long slump; he describes a surging China, when the numbers show its growth is sagging.

Amen. Japan has huge problems and China still has quite a way to go before it becomes a developed nation.

Let’s close with some good news. Politicians may be engaging in anti-trade demagoguery, and there may be some voters that are motivated by hostility to voluntary exchange, but that doesn’t mean the protectionists have won.

Indeed, pro-trade sentiment has never been higher by some measures. Here’s some amazingly positive polling data from Gallup.

P.S. One final point. The growing burden of government spending and taxation since World War II have been very unfortunate, but the good news is that we have strong evidence that the economic damage of worsening fiscal policy has been offset by the economic gains from trade liberalization. It would be tragic to see that reversed.

P.P.S. Fans of Richard Epstein may enjoy this video of him reminiscing about Barack Obama’s undistinguished tenure at the University of Chicago Law School, as well as this video of him dismantling George Soros in a debate that took place at Cato.

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Hong Kong is a truly remarkable jurisdiction.

Can you name, after all, another government in the world that brags about how little it spends on redistribution programs and how few people are dependent on government?

And how many jurisdictions adopt private Social Security systems to help make sure the burden of government spending doesn’t climb above 20 percent of GDP?

No wonder Hong Kong routinely is at the top of the rankings in both Economic Freedom of the World and the Index of Economic Freedom.

Here is some additional evidence of Hong Kong’s sensible approach. Below is a slide from a presentation by Hong Kong government officials, quoting the current Financial Secretary and all his predecessors, covering both the period of Chinese sovereignty and British sovereignty. As you can see, the one constant theme is free markets and small government.

For additional background, let’s enjoy the insight of one of these men.

In a column for Reason, my Cato Institute colleague Marian Tupy reminisces on his meeting with John Cowperthwaite, one of the British-appointed economic advisers.

…a young Scottish civil servant named John Cowperthwaite arrived in the colony to oversee its economic development. Some 50 years later, I met Cowperthwaite in St Andrews, Scotland, where I was a student and he was enjoying his retirement. As he told me, “I came to Hong Kong and found the economy working just fine. So, I left it that way.” …Of all the policies that we discussed, one stands out in my mind. I asked him to name the one reform that he was most proud of. “I abolished the collection of statistics,” he replied. Cowperthwaite believed that statistics are dangerous, because they enable social engineers of all stripes to justify state intervention in the economy. At some point during our first conversation I managed to irk him by suggesting that he was chiefly known “for doing nothing.” In fact, he pointed out, keeping the British political busy-bodies from interfering in Hong Kong’s economic affairs took up a large portion of his time.

I especially like Cowperthwaite’s insight about the downside risk of letting governments collect a lot of data.

Something that’s worth considering in a world where governments want to engage in massive data collection and data sharing for purposes of imposing and enforcing bad global tax policy.

But let’s not get sidetracked. Economic freedom in Hong Kong is today’s topic. With that in mind, here’s a chart from Marian’s column. It shows that Hong Kong used to be much poorer than the United Kingdom. But after decades of faster growth (thanks to good policy), Hong Kong is now more prosperous than its former colonial master.

In other words, Hong Kong didn’t just converge with one of the world’s richest countries, which by itself would be a remarkable and unusual achievement. It actually became richer.

This is tremendous evidence on the benefits of good policy and the importance of strong, long-run growth.

Let’s close by looking at this issue of growth and development. Here’s a video from Marginal Revolution, narrated by Professor Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University. You should watch it from start to finish, but if you’re pressed for time, make sure to at least watch the first 2:10.

There are two things that are worth emphasizing from the video.

The productivity of workers (and therefore the pay of workers) is dependent on the quantity and quality of capital.

Entrepreneurs play a key role in figuring out the best ways of mixing labor and capital and this innovation boosts productivity.

By the way, there are two sins of omission in the video. If you watch the whole thing, you’ll notice it mentions that strong economic performance is linked to the rule of law, property rights, free trade, and sensible regulation.

All that is true. But what about a stable monetary system? And what about a reasonable tax regime and a modest burden of government spending?

But I’m nitpicking. Let’s close with another video from Marginal Revolution. You should once again watch the entire video, but for those in a rush, I adjusted the settings so it starts at the most important part.

The video uses GDP data that is adjusted for both inflation and population, which is a very useful approach. But the key lesson, as Professor Tabarrok explained, is that even small sustained changes in growth have enormous implications for long-run prosperity.

Indeed, that’s why Hong Kong is now richer than the United Kingdom. And it’s also worth noting that Hong Kong (and Singapore) are passing the United States.

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The Index of Economic Freedom, my favorite Heritage Foundation publication, was released today.

As one might predict, Hong Kong once again ranks as the jurisdiction with the most liberty to engage in mutually beneficial exchange, followed by Singapore. Other highly ranked nations include New Zealand, Switzerland, and Australia.

Chile deserves special attention since it is the highest-ranked nation from its region and also the highest-ranked nation from what is considered to be the developing world. Estonia also deserves plaudits for being the highest-ranked nation to emerge from the former Soviet Empire.

The United States, sadly, isn’t in the top 10.

Now let’s look at some of the details from the report, starting with the important observation that good policy produces good results.

…lasting prosperity is a result of a persistent commitment to limited government, strong private property rights, openness to global trade and financial flows, and sensible regulation. Together, these interrelated factors have been proven to empower the individual and induce dynamic entrepreneurial activity. …nations that have focused on improving their competitiveness and opening their societies to new ideas, products, and innovations have done a much better job of achieving the high levels of social progress.

Looking at specific data, the good news from a global perspective is that there’s never been more economic freedom.

…economic freedom has advanced for the fourth year in a row. The world average economic freedom score for 178 economies…recorded an overall average improvement of 0.3 point from the previous year. The global average economic freedom score of 60.7 is the highest recorded in the 22-year history of the Index.

To be sure, a global average of less than 61 percent means a barely passing grade. But that’s better than a failing grade.

Moreover, there’s been some noteworthy improvement in selected countries.

Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland, and Australia…earned the designation of “free” with scores above 80. …Ninety-seven countries, the majority of which are less developed, gained greater economic freedom over the past year; 32 countries, among them Burma, Germany, India, Israel, Lithuania, the Philippines, Poland, and Vietnam, achieved their highest economic freedom scores ever in the 2016 Index. …Score improvements in eight countries were significant enough to merit upgrades in the countries’ economic freedom status in the Index. Notably, Latvia became a “mostly free” economy for the first time.

But we also have some bad news.

Declining economic freedom was reported in 74 countries, including 19 advanced economies such as the United States, Japan, and Sweden. …Within the top five freest economies, Switzerland is the only economy whose overall score did not decline in the 2016 Index.

Indeed, I’m worried that Hong Kong’s score fell by a full point and Singapore tied for the 5th-biggest decline with a drop of 1.6 points. Those two jurisdictions are supposed to be role models!

And if you’re an American reader, you probably won’t be happy to learn that the United States has never had a lower score.

The United States continues to be mired in the ranks of the “mostly free,” the second-tier economic freedom category into which the U.S. dropped in 2010. Worse, with scores in labor freedom, business freedom, and fiscal freedom notably declining, the economic freedom of the United States plunged 0.8 point to 75.4, matching its lowest score ever.

You can see from this chart how policy has been moving in the wrong direction.

I don’t want to be overly glum. Only 10 nations rank above the United States and more than 160 jurisdictions get lower scores. And being “mostly free” is better than being “moderately free” or “mostly unfree.” Or, Heaven forbid, being a “repressed” nation such as Argentina, Venezuela, Cuba, or North Korea.

That being said, the trend is not in the right direction. Heck, America is only 1/10th of a point ahead of Denmark (though, to be fair, Bernie Sanders would be horrified to learn that the Danes have very pro-market policies once you get past their awful fiscal system).

One final comment. The much-vaunted BRICS have hit a speed bump.

Progress among the so-called BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) has stalled, except in India, which improved by 1.6 points. Russia plunged 10 places in the rankings to 153rd, with its score deteriorating by 1.5 points. The rankings of the other BRICS countries—South Africa, Brazil, and China—declined to 80th, 122nd, and 144th, respectively.

By the way, India’s improvement is welcome news, but don’t break out the champagne. It still only ranks #123 in the world, which is not a recipe to become an Asian Tiger.

Indeed, the big lesson from the BRICS (as I’ve explained in my analyses of Brazil, South Africa, and China) is that a little bit of economic liberalization is a good thing and  can help save a huge number of people from destitution. But you don’t become a rich nation with “mostly unfree” policy.

P.S. While I’m a big fan of the Index of Economic Freedom, I’m an even bigger fan of Economic Freedom of the World. But both tell a very similar story about the relationship between good policy and good outcomes.

For more information, here’s the video I narrated on the recipe for growth and prosperity.

P.P.S. Even though my 2012 predictions for the Iowa Caucus were less than stellar, some folks have emailed to ask what I think will happen this evening.

For what it’s worth, here’s my best guess.

For the GOP:

Cruz                  28
Trump               27
Rubio                19
Carson               8
Paul                    7
Bush                   4
Christie               2
Santorum           2
Fiorina                1
Kasich                 1
Huckabee           1

For the Dems:

Hillary               55
Bernie               45

But don’t place any bets on this basis. After my near-perfect 2010 prediction (at least for the House), my predictions for the 2012 and 2014 elections were decent at best.

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The long-term trend in China is positive. Economic reforms beginning in the late 1970s have helped lift hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty.

And thanks to decades of strong growth, living standards for ordinary Chinese citizens are far higher than they used to be. There’s still quite a way to go before China catches up to western nations, but the numbers keep improving.

That being said, China’s economy has hit a speed bump. The stock market’s recent performance has been less than impressive and economic growth has faltered.

Is this the beginning of the end of the Chinese miracle?

If you asked me about six months ago, I would have expressed pessimism. The government was intervening in financial markets to prop up prices, and that was after several years of failed Keynesian-style spending programs that were supposed to “stimulate” growth.

But maybe my gloom was premature.

An article in The Economist examines the new “supply-side” focus of China’s leader (h/t: Powerline).

Mr Xi has seemed to channel the late American president. He has been speaking openly for the first time of a need for “supply-side reforms”—a term echoing one made popular during Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s. It is now China’s hottest economic catchphrase (even featuring in a state-approved rap song, released on December 26th: “Reform the supply side and upgrade the economy,” goes one catchy line). …Mr Xi’s first mentions of the supply side, or gongjice, in two separate speeches in November, were not entirely a surprise. For a couple of years think-tanks affiliated with government ministries had been promoting the concept (helped by a new institute called the China Academy of New Supply-Side Economics).

Sounds encouraging, though it’s important to understand that there’s a big difference between rhetoric and reality.

Talking about “gongjice” is a good start, but are Chinese officials actually willing to reduce government’s economic footprint?

Perhaps.

Their hope is that such reforms will involve deep structural changes aimed at putting the economy on a sounder footing, rather than yet more stimulus. …Mr Xi’s aim may be to reinvigorate reforms that were endorsed by the Communist Party’s 370-member Central Committee in 2013, a year after he took over as China’s leader. They called for a “decisive” role to be given to market forces

Wow, the communists in China want free markets. Maybe there’s hope for some of America’s more statist politicians!

All kidding aside, there’s some evidence that officials in Beijing realize that the Keynesian experiment of recent years didn’t work any better than Obama’s 2009 spending binge.

Here’s more from the article.

Those who first pushed supply-side reform onto China’s political agenda want a clean break with the credit-driven past. Jia Kang, an outspoken researcher in the finance ministry who co-founded the new supply-side academy, defines the term in opposition to the short-term demand management that has often characterised China’s economic policy—the boosting of consumption and investment with the help of cheap money and dollops of government spending.The result of the old approach has been a steep rise in debt (about 250% of GDP and counting) and declining returns on investment. Supply-siders worry that it is creating a growing risk of stagnation, or even a full-blown economic crisis. Mr Jia says the government should focus instead on simplifying regulations to make labour, land and capital more productive. Making it easier for private companies to invest in sectors currently reserved for bloated state-run corporations would be a good place to start, some of his colleagues argue.

This is music to my ears.

Assuming President Xi is willing to adopt the types of reforms advocated by Mr. Jia, China’s economy will have a very bright future.

The key goal for policy makers in Beijing should be to improve China’s economic freedom score over the next 10 years by as much as it improved between 1980 and 2005.

In other words, if China adopts genuine free markets like Hong Kong and Singapore (and, to a lesser extent, Taiwan), then it will simply be a matter of time before living standards reach – and exceed – levels found in western nations.

I’ll close by outlining two challenges for Beijing.

First, entrenched interest groups will be an obstacle to pro-growth reform. In this sense, politics in China is very similar to politics in Greece, America, France, and South Africa. The sad reality is that too many people – all over the world – think it’s morally acceptable to obtain unearned wealth via the coercive power of government. Though there are reasons to be optimistic because a strong majority of Chinese people have expressed support for free markets.

Second, even if China’s leaders overcome the interest groups and adopt good long-run policy, there’s still the challenge of short-term dislocation and instability caused by so-called stimulus programs and easy-money policy from the central bank. Just like you can’t un-ring a bell, you can’t magically undo the malinvestments caused by those policies. So Beijing will need to weather a temporary economic storm at the same time it engage in long-run reform.

P.S. If you want to know a recipe for Chinese stagnation, simply look at the IMF’s recommendations.

P.P.S. Some senior Chinese officials have a very astute understanding of why welfare states don’t work.

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