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Archive for the ‘International bureaucracy’ Category

What’s the best way to generate growth and prosperity for the developing world?

Looking at the incredible economic rise of jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore, it’s easy to answer that question. Simply put in place the rule of law, accompanied by free markets and small government.

But that answer, while unquestionably accurate, would mean less power and control for politicians and bureaucrats.

So you probably won’t be surprised to learn that when politicians and bureaucrats recently met to discuss this question, they decided that development could be best achieved with a policy of higher taxes and bigger government.

I’m not joking.

Reuters has a report on a new cartel-like agreement among governments to extract more money from the economy’s productive sector. Here are some key passages from the story.

Rich and poor countries agreed on Thursday to overhaul global finance for development, unlocking money for an ambitious agenda… The United Nations announced the deal on its website… Development experts estimate that it will cost over $3 trillion each year to finance the 17 new development goals… Central to the agreement is a framework for countries to generate more domestic tax revenues in order to finance their development agenda… Under the agreement, the UN Committee of Experts on International Cooperation in Tax Matters will be strengthened, the press release said.

Though there’s not total agreement within this crooks’ cartel. There’s a fight over which international bureaucracy will have the biggest role. Should it be the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is perceived as representing the interests of revenue-hungry politicians from the developed world?

Or should it be the United Nations, which is perceived as representing the interests of revenue-hungry politicians from the developing world?

Think of this battle as being somewhat akin to the fight between various socialist sects (Mensheviks, Trotskyites, Stalinists, etc) as the Soviet Union came to power.

Bloomberg has a story on this squabble.

Responsibility for tax standards should be moved to the UN from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a group of 34 rich countries, according to a position paper endorsed by 142 civil-society groups. …Tove Maria Ryding from the European Network on Debt and Development, [said] “Our global tax decision-making system is anything but democratic, excluding more than half of the world’s nations.”

I’m tempted to laugh about the notion that there’s anything remotely democratic about either the UN or OECD. Both international organizations are filled with unelected (and tax-free) bureaucrats.

But more importantly, it’s bad news for either organization to have any power over the global economy. Both bureaucracies want to replace tax competition with tax harmonization, precisely because of a desire to enable big expansion is the size and power of governments.

This greed for more revenue already has produced some bad policies, including an incredibly risky scheme to collect and share private financial information, as well as a global pact that could be the genesis of a world tax organization.

And there are more troubling developments.

Here are some excerpts from another Bloomberg report.

Step aside, Doctors Without Borders. …A team called Tax Inspectors Without Borders will be…established next week by the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. …Tax Inspectors Without Borders would take on projects or audits either by flying in to hold workshops…or embedding themselves full time in a tax agency for several months… “There is a lot of enthusiasm from developing countries” for this initiative, said John Christensen, the U.K.-based director of the nonprofit Tax Justice Network.

Gee, what a surprise. Politicians and bureaucrats have “a lot of enthusiasm” for policies that will increase their power and money.

But at the risk of repeating myself, the more serious point to make is that bigger government in the developing world is not a recipe for economic development.

The western world became rich when government was very small. As noted above, Hong Kong and Singapore more recently became rich with small government.

But can anyone name a country that became rich with big government?

I’ve posed that question over and over again to my leftist friends and they never have a good answer.

If we want the third world to converge with rich nations, they need to follow the policies that enabled rich nations to become rich in the first place.

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Europe is suffering from economic stagnation caused in part by excessive fiscal burdens.

So what are European policy makers doing to address this problem?

If you think the answer might have something to do with a shift to responsible fiscal policy, you obviously have no familiarity with Europe’s political elite. But if you have paid attention to their behavior, you won’t be surprised to learn that they’re lashing out at jurisdictions with better policy.

Here are a few blurbs from a story in the Economic Times.

The European Union published its first list of international tax havens on Wednesday… “We are today publishing the top 30 non-cooperative jurisdictions consisting of those countries or territories that feature on at least 10 member states’ blacklists,” EU Economic Affairs Commissioner Pierre Moscovici told a news conference. 

This is a misguided exercise for several reasons, but here are the ones that merit some discussion.

1. I can’t resist starting with a philosophical point. Low-tax jurisdictions and so-called tax havens should be emulated rather than persecuted. Their modest fiscal burdens are strongly correlated with high levels of prosperity. It’s high-tax nations that should be blacklisted and shamed for their destructive policies.

2. This new EU blacklist is particularly nonsensical because there’s no rational (even from a leftist perspective) methodology. Jurisdictions get added to the blacklist if 10 or more EU nations don’t like their tax laws. Some nations, as cited in official EU documents, even use “the level of taxation for blacklisting purposes.”

3. As has always been the case with anti-tax competition campaigns, the entire exercise reeks of hypocrisy. Big European nations such as Luxembourg and Switzerland were left off the blacklist, and the United States also was omitted (though the EU figured it was okay to pick on the U.S. Virgin Islands for inexplicable reasons).

By the way, I’m not the only person to notice the hypocrisy. Here are some excerpts from a report in the U.K.-based Guardian.

A blacklist of the world’s 30 worst-offending tax havens, published on Wednesday by the European commission, includes the tiny Polynesian island of Niue, where 1,400 people live in semi-subsistence — but does not include Luxembourg, the EU’s wealthy tax avoidance hub. …the new register does not include countries such as the Netherlands, Ireland.

And Radio New Zealand made a similar point it its report.

Anthony van Fossen, an adjunct research fellow at Australia’s Griffith University, says the list seems to be picking on smaller, easy-to-target tax havens and ignoring major ones like Singapore, Switzerland and Luxembourg. “The list is very strange in that some major havens are ignored, particularly the havens in the European Union itself, and many minor havens, including some in the Pacific Islands are highlighted.”

The more one investigates this new EU project, the more irrational it appears.

Some of the larger and more sensible European nations, including Sweden, Germany, Denmark, and the United Kingdom, didn’t even participate. Or, if they did, they decided that every jurisdiction in the world has “tax good governance.”

But other nations put together incomprehensible lists, featuring some well-known low-tax jurisdictions, but also places that have never before been considered “tax havens.” Is Botswana really a hiding spot for French taxpayers? Do Finnish taxpayers actually protect their money in Tajikistan? Is Bolivia actually a haven for the Portuguese? Do the Belgians put their funds in St. Barthelemy, which is part of France? And do Greeks put their money in Bosnia?!?

As you can see from this map, the Greeks also listed nations such as Saudi Arabia and Paraguay. No wonder the nation is such a mess. It’s governed by brain-dead government officials.

I’ve saved the best evidence for the end. If you really want to grasp the level of irrationality in the EU blacklist, it’s even been criticized by the tax-loving (but not tax-paying) bureaucrats at the OECD. Here are some details from a report out of Cayman.

‘As the OECD and the Global Forum we would like to confirm that the only agreeable assessment of countries as regards their cooperation is made by the Global Forum and that a number of countries identified in the EU exercise are either fully or largely compliant and have committed to AEOI, sometimes even as early adopters’, the email states. …‘We have already expressed our concerns (to the EU Commission) and stand ready to further clarify to the media the position of the affected jurisdictions with regard to their compliance with the Global Forum standards’, Mr Saint-Amans and Ms Bhatia wrote.

Needless to say, being compliant with the OECD is nothing to celebrate. It means a jurisdiction has been bullied into surrendering its fiscal sovereignty and agreeing to serve as a deputy tax collector for high-tax governments.

But having taken that unfortunate step, it makes no sense for these low-tax jurisdictions to now be persecuted by the EU.

P.S. Let’s add to our collection of libertarian humor (see here and here for prior examples).

This image targets the Libertarian Party, but I’ve certainly dealt many times with folks that assert that all libertarians should “grow up” and accept big government.

For what it’s worth, if growing up means acquiescing to disgusting government overreach, I prefer to remain a child.

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What’s the worst international bureaucracy?

But I think the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has them all beat, particularly if we grade on a per-dollar-spent basis.

Just consider the OECD’s work on inequality. The bureaucrats recently published a study that claimed inequality somehow undermined growth.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Matthew Schoenfeld of Dreihaus Capital Management explains why the study is deeply flawed. He starts with a summary of what the OECD would like folks to believe.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently published a report, “In It Together: Why Less Inequality Benefits All,” that claimed rising income inequality from 1990-2010 depressed cumulative growth across its member countries by 4.7%. The OECD’s suggested solution: government-led redistribution, funded via tax increases on “wealthier individuals” and “multinational corporations.”

But Schoenfeld explains the OECD’s research is riddled with misleading use of statistics.

From 2011-13, according to the World Bank, the five most unequal countries grew nearly five times faster (3.9% cumulative annual average) than the others (0.84%). By using a 2010 cutoff, the OECD has skewed its findings. Consider Greece. From 1999-2012, its Gini coefficient “improved” by 6% to .34 from .36—more than any other OECD country. …Greece’s redistributive social transfer spending also grew most quickly among OECD peers from 2000-12. But Greece’s economy has shrunk by more than 20% since 2010.

Here’s another example.

…the income-tax rate is a subpar proxy for redistribution policy. …A more representative proxy for redistribution is government expenditure as a percentage of GDP, which encompasses all government spending on the provision of goods, services, subsidies, and social benefits. From 1995-2012, OECD member countries that increased government expenditures as a percentage of GDP grew 30% slower than member countries that trimmed government expenditure as a percentage of the economy over that span—average annual growth of 1.9% compared with 2.5%.

Gee, who would have guessed that bigger government leads to less growth? I’m shocked, shocked.

And who would have guessed that the OECD produces research with dodgy numbers? Knock me over with a feather!

Though I must say that the sloppiness in this inequality study is trivial compared to the junk-riddled methodology of the OECD’s poverty study, which actually purported to show that there’s more deprivation in America than there is in poor nations such as Greece, Turkey, and Portugal.

Which gives me an opening to highlight what I wrote about this OECD study. I suggested that “the bureaucracy’s ‘research’ now is more akin to talking points from the Obama White House” and highlighted some utterly preposterous conclusions of the study.

We’re supposed to believe that Spain, France, and Ireland have enjoyed better growth. I guess France’s stagnation is just a figment of our collective imaginations. And those bailouts for Spain and Ireland must have been a bad dream or something like that.

Some folks may question whether the OECD is really a leftist bureaucracy. Or at least they may wonder whether I go overboard in my criticisms.

For what it’s worth, I do give the crowd in Paris some praise when good research is produced.

But imagine that the OECD is a student who gets a B on one test and fails every other exam. At some point, isn’t it safe to assume we have a remedial pupil?

And here’s some very strong proof. It turns out that the OECD is even further to the left than the Obama Administration.

I’m not joking. Check out these excerpts from an item in Politico’s Morning Tax.

…the U.S. is definitely not on the same page as its allies. The split was apparent at last week’s OECD conference in Washington to discuss the Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) plan… Robert Stack, deputy assistant secretary for international affairs at Treasury, suggested that the OECD’s Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) project was being driven less by a desire for sound policy than by foreign countries’ domestic politics and a desire for more revenue.

I wrote just last week that the BEPS plan is a naked revenue grab by high-tax nations and I find it remarkable that a senior official at the Obama Treasury Department agrees with me.

P.S. This isn’t the first time the Obama Administration has been to the right of the OECD.

P.P.S. Speaking of remedial students, I wrote back in 2011 that ending the flow of American tax dollars to the OECD (the biggest share of the bureaucracy’s budget comes from the United States) should be a test of whether Republicans are serious about cutting back on wasteful government spending.

At what point do I change the GOP grade from “incomplete” to “F”?

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When writing about the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international bureaucracy based in Paris, my life would be simpler if I created some sort of automatic fill-in-the-blanks system.

Something like this.

The OECD, subsidized by $____ million from American taxpayers, has just produced a new _________ that advocates more power for governments over the _________ sector of the economy.

But this may not be sufficiently descriptive.

So maybe I should create a multiple choice exercise. Sort of like when students take tests and get asked to circle the most appropriate answer.

The bureaucrats at the Paris-based OECD, working in cooperation with union bosses/class-warfare advocates/other tax-free international bureaucrats/politicians, have released a new report/study/paper urging more power/control/authority for governments in order to increase regulation/taxes/spending/redistribution/intervention.

You may think I’m trying to be funny, but this is totally serious.

How else would you describe a bureaucracy that consorts and cooperates with leftist groups like Occupy Wall Street and the AFL-CIO and routinely published propaganda in favor of Obama’s agenda on issues such as global warming, government-run healthcare, so-called stimulus, and class-warfare taxation.

And never forget that American taxpayers finance the biggest chunk of this bureaucracy’s budget.

Adding insult to injury, the bureaucrats at the OECD get tax-free salaries, which makes their relentless support for higher taxes on the rest of us even more obnoxious.

Now we have some new examples of the OECD’s statist mischief.

Here’s some of what the Center for Freedom and Prosperity recently uncovered.

At its sixth annual conference, the George Soros-founded Institute for New Economic Thinking will feature prominent left-wing economists Thomas Piketty, Joseph Stiglitz, and self-described Marxist and Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis. By itself that wouldn’t be remarkable, but the meeting will come with the implicit endorsement of the U.S. taxpayer thanks to the sponsorship of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which gets over 20 percent of its funding from the United States.

So why is the OECD subsidizing a left-wing gabfest and giving publicity to way-out-of-the-mainstream characters like Piketty?

Part of the answer, one suspects, is that the bureaucracy has a bloated budget.

But the bigger reason is presumably that the bureaucrats want to push a statist ideological agenda.

…tax collectors have hijacked the OECD… Over the last decade and a half, they have threatened and cajoled low-tax jurisdictions into counter-productive reforms that make their economies less attractive to those suffering under the excessive taxes required to fund European welfare states. …They have essentially turned the OECD into a global tax cartel, or an OPEC for politicians.

None of this is a surprise because it’s part of a bigger pattern.

The OECD gets its money from governments. Most of those governments are European welfare states. The bureaucrats at the OECD get very generous tax-free salaries.

So of course they’re going to pump out whatever propaganda is needed to please their political (and pay) masters.

Here are some other recent examples, both of which were disseminated by the OECD’s Washington Center, which mostly exists to make sure that Congress and the White House maintain the gravy train of handouts to Paris.

Our first example of economic malpractice is this nonsense about a so-called gender wage gap. Note that the OECD is forced to admit the numbers are “unadjusted.”

That’s because lots of research shows that the wage gap disappears once you adjust for factors such as hours worked, types of professions, and work history.

By the way, just in case you think I’m only citing pro-market sources, it’s very much worth noting that even one of President Obama’s economic advisers confessed that the left’s gender-gap numbers are bogus.

Now let’s look at another chart.

I’ve previously explained that what matters most for the poor is economic growth.

Yet statists prefer to focus on the rich-v-poor gap because they want to mislead folks into thinking the economy is a fixed pie (as depicted here) and the income of the rich is at the expense of the poor.

And that’s the purpose of this OECD chart.

This very much reminds me of the OECD’s laughably dishonest research on poverty, which purports to show that there is more poverty in the United States than there is in economically distressed nations such as Greece, Turkey, Hungary, and Portugal.

As you can see from this video, statism is now the OECD’s chief product.

Which is why Republicans in Congress, if they actually on the side of taxpayers, should defund this destructive bureaucracy.

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The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is a Paris-based international bureaucracy with the self-proclaimed mission to “promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world.”

But if there was a truth-in-advertizing requirement, the OECD would instead say that its mission is to “promote policies that will increase the size, scope and power of government.”

Here are just a few examples of statist policies that are directly contrary to the interests of the American people.

The OECD has allied itself with the nutjobs from the so-called Occupy movement to push for bigger government and higher taxes in the United States.

The bureaucrats are advocating higher business tax burdens, which would aggravate America’s competitive disadvantage.

The OECD is pushing a “Multilateral Convention” that is designed to become something akin to a World Tax Organization, with the power to persecute nations with free-market tax policy.

It supports Obama’s class-warfare agenda, publishing documents endorsing “higher marginal tax rates” so that the so-called rich “contribute their fair share.”

The OECD advocates the value-added tax based on the absurd notion that increasing the burden of government is good for growth and employment.

It even concocts dishonest poverty numbers to advocate more redistribution in the United States.

And, most recently, the OECD published a report suggesting numerous schemes to increase national tax burdens.

And here’s the insult on top of injury. You’re paying for this nonsense. American taxpayers finance the biggest share of the OECD’s budget.

And I’m sure you’ll be happy to know that the OECD is now pushing for a massive energy tax.

Here are some relevant passages from an article in the OECD Observer.

…it’s prime time to introduce a tax on carbon… “Every government will need to explain how their policy settings are consistent with a pathway to eliminate emissions from fossil fuel combustion in the second half of the century,” says OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. This means looking at all policy measures to assess if they are effective in reducing CO2 emissions and in line with governments’ climate change objectives. An OECD report, Climate and Carbon: Aligning Prices and Policies outlines specific actions.

By the way, you can access the Climate and Carbon report by clicking here. But since I assume few if any people will want to read a turgid 57-page paper, let’s stick with excerpts from the short article in the OECD Observer.

All you really need to know is that the OECD (like the IMF) wants governments to boost energy prices, both explicitly and implicitly.

Explicit carbon pricing mechanisms, such as carbon taxes… other policies affect a country’s CO2 emissions and can effectively place an implicit price on carbon. …It’s time for governments to ramp up the development of alternative energies and to nail a price onto every tonne of CO2 emitted.

The article also includes other recommendations that are very worrisome. It suggests other fiscal changes that would boost taxes on the energy sector.

Needless to say, this means higher costs on energy consumers.

…carbon pricing should also include a review of the country’s fiscal policy to ensure that budgetary transfers and tax expenditures do not, directly or indirectly, encourage the production and use of fossil fuels.

By the way, when the OECD talks about “budgetary transfers” and “tax expenditures,” that’s basically bureaucrat-speak for back-door tax hikes such as changes to depreciation rules in order to force companies to overstate their income.

And since we’re deciphering bureaucrat-speak, check out this passage from the article.

…compensatory or other measures to mitigate the regressive impacts of reforms without losing the incentive to reduce emissions.

What the OECD is basically saying is that an energy tax will be very painful for the poor. But rather than conclude that the tax is therefore undesirable, they instead are urging that the new tax be accompanied by new spending.

Maybe this means higher welfare payments to offset increased energy prices. Maybe it means some sort of energy stamp program.

The details aren’t important at this point, particularly since the OECD isn’t making a specific proposal.

But what is important is that the OECD is using our tax dollars to advocate bigger government. So maybe the moral of the story is that we should stop subsidizing the OECD.

P.S. On a related topic, and in the interest of fairness, I have to give the OECD credit for being willing to publish an article on tax competition by my Australian friend, Professor Sinclair Davidson.

Sinclair points out that the OECD’s anti-tax competition campaign is based on the premise that bad things happen if labor and capital have some ability to migrate from high-tax nations to low-tax jurisdictions.

Yet the OECD has never been able to put forth any evidence for this assertion.

High income economies have tended to follow irresponsible fiscal policies over an extended period of time. …governments have been trying to access new sources of revenue. …The OECD has been campaigning on “harmful tax practices” since the late 1990s. …The report itself was a somewhat wordy affair that actually failed to define what ‘harmful tax practices’ constitute.Most damning of all, however, is that the OECD was unable to produce any actual evidence of these dire consequences, arguing instead: “A regime can be harmful even where it is difficult to quantify the adverse economic impact it poses”. The dog had eaten their homework.

What’s really going on, as Sinclair explains, is that politicians want a tax cartel to enable bigger government.

It turns out that governments and politicians, like business, don’t always appreciate having to work at improving themselves and offering a more attractive mix of services and taxation in order to attract business. …It is perfectly understandable why governments would want to establish a tax cartel. …countries, rather than respond to such competition by competing themselves, have chosen instead to engage in fiscal imperialism – bullying and cajoling sovereign nations to change their domestic policies.

Again, kudos to the OECD for allowing a contrary viewpoint.

I guess the bureaucrats are more relaxed now than they were back in 2001, when the OECD threatened to cancel an entire conference simply because I was present, or in 2008, when the OECD threatened to have me thrown in jail for giving advice to low-tax jurisdictions at another conference.

P.P.S. For additional information on why American taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing a left-wing bureaucracy in France, here’s my video on the OECD.

Now you can understand why eliminating handouts for the OECD should be a gimme for congressional Republicans.

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I’m a firm believer in climate change. Heck, there have been several ice ages and warming periods, so it’s obvious that temperatures shift over time.

And while I’m not particularly qualified to assess such matters, I’m also willing to believe that human activity has an effect on climate.

Moreover, even though I much prefer warm weather, I’m also open to the idea that global warming might be a bad thing that requires some action.

But here’s the catch. I don’t trust radical environmentalists. Simply stated, too many of these people are nuts.

Then there’s the super-nutty category.

But you know what’s even worse than a nutty environmentalist?

What terrifies me far more are the very serious, very connected, and very powerful non-nutty environmentalists who hold positions of real power. These folks are filled with arrogance and hubris and they have immense power to cause damage.

If you think I’m exaggerating, here’s some of what was contained in a release from the United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe.

By the way, remember that these excerpts are not the unhinged speculation of some crazy conservative or libertarian. These are actually the words – and stated intentions – of the U.N. bureaucracy. They want central planning on steroids.

Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of UNFCCC,  warns that the fight against climate change is a process and that the necessary transformation of the world economy will not be decided at one conference or in one agreement. …”This is the first time in the history of mankind that we are setting ourselves the task of intentionally, within a defined period of time to change the economic development model that has been reigning for at least 150 years, since the industrial revolution. That will not happen overnight and it will not happen at a single conference on climate change, be it COP 15, 21, 40 – you choose the number. It just does not occur like that. It is a process, because of the depth of the transformation.”

Wow. These people want to “intentionally…change the economic development model” that has produced unimagined prosperity.

And they want to replace it with central planning by people who have never demonstrated any ability to generate wealth.

I’m not joking. If you look at Ms. Figueres’ Wikipedia page, you’ll see that she has even less experience in the private sector than President Obama.

Yup, just exactly the kind of pampered (and tax-free) global bureaucrat who should have the power to treat the global economy as some sort of Lego set.

Thomas Sowell has made the very important observation that there’s a giant difference between intelligence and wisdom and Ms. Figueres is a perfect example.

To give you an idea of her cloistered and narrow mindset, she was quoted by Bloomberg as expressing admiration for China’s totalitarian regime over America’s democratic system merely because it ostensibly produces the policies she prefers.

China, the top emitter of greenhouse gases, is also the country that’s “doing it right” when it comes to addressing global warming, the United Nations’ chief climate official said. …China is also able to implement policies because its political system avoids some of the legislative hurdles seen in countries including the U.S., Figueres said. …The political divide in the U.S. Congress has slowed efforts to pass climate legislation and is “very detrimental” to the fight against global warming, she said.

And the icing on the cake, needless to say, is that China’s environment is a catastrophe compared to the much cleaner air and water that exist in the United States!

Though you won’t be surprised to learn that Ms. Figueres is a great admirer of President Obama, even if he does represent a backwards democracy.

The climate chief even held up President Obama as a shining example of steps countries can take to tackle global warming.

Reminds me of a saying about birds of a feather, though I’m not sure how a bird with two left wings can get off the ground.

And don’t even get me started on all the exaggeration and hyperbole that is generated by the radical environmentalists. Though this Jim McKee cartoon is too good not to share.

P.S. Environmentalists are also grotesque hypocrites, as you can see here and here.

P.P.S. But to close on an upbeat note, we have some decent environmental humor here, here, here, and here.

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The International Monetary Fund isn’t my least-favorite international bureaucracy. That special honor belongs to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, largely because of its efforts to undermine tax competition and protect the interests of the political class (it also tried to have me arrested, but I don’t hold that against them).

But the IMF deserves its share of disdain. It’s the Doctor Kevorkian of global economic policy, regularly advocating higher taxes and easy money even though that’s never been a recipe for national prosperity.

And it turns out that the IMF also is schizophrenic. The international bureaucracy’s latest big idea, garnering an entire chapter in the October World Economic Outlook, is that governments should spend more on infrastructure.

Barack Obama’s former chief economist supports the IMF scheme. Here some of what he wrote for the Washington Post.

…the IMF advocates substantially increased public infrastructure investment, and not just in the United States but in much of the world. It further asserts that under circumstances of high unemployment, like those prevailing in much of the industrialized world, the stimulative impact will be greater if this investment is paid for by borrowing… Why does the IMF reach these conclusions? …the infrastructure investment actually makes it possible to reduce burdens on future generations. …the IMF finds that a dollar of investment increases output by nearly $3. …in a time of economic shortfall and inadequate public investment, there is a free lunch to be had — a way that government can strengthen the economy and its own financial position.

Wow, That’s a rather aggressive claim. Governments spend $1 and the economy grows by $3.

Is Summers being accurate? What does the IMF study actually say?

It makes two big points.

The first point, which is reflected in the Summers oped, is that infrastructure spending can boost growth.

The study finds that increased public infrastructure investment raises output in the short term by boosting demand and in the long term by raising the economy’s productive capacity. In a sample of advanced economies, an increase of 1 percentage point of GDP in investment spending raises the level of output by about 0.4 percent in the same year and by 1.5 percent four years after the increase… In addition, the boost to GDP a country gets from increasing public infrastructure investment offsets the rise in debt, so that the public debt-to-GDP ratio does not rise… In other words, public infrastructure investment could pay for itself if done correctly.

But Summers neglected to give much attention to the caveats in the IMF study.

…the report cautions against just increasing infrastructure investment on any project. …The output effects are also bigger in countries with a high degree of public investment efficiency, where additional public investment spending is not wasted and is allocated to projects with high rates of return. …a key priority in economies with relatively low efficiency of public investment should be to raise the quality of infrastructure investment by improving the public investment process through, among others, better project appraisal, selection, execution, and rigorous cost-benefit analysis.

Perhaps the most important caveat, though, is that the study uses a “novel empirical strategy” to generate its results. That should raise a few alarm bells.

So is this why the IMF is schizophrenic?

Nope. Not even close.

If you want evidence of IMF schizophrenia, compare what you read above with the results from a study released by the IMF in August.

And this study focused on low-income countries, where you might expect to find the best results when looking at the impact of infrastructure spending.

So what did the author find?

On average the evidence shows only a weak positive association between investment spending and growth and only in the same year, as lagged impacts are not significant. Furthermore, there is little evidence of long term positive impacts. …The fact that the positive association is largely instantaneous argues for the importance of either reverse causality, as capital spending tends to be cut in slumps and increased in booms… In fact a slump in growth rather than a boom has followed many public capital drives of the past. Case studies indicate that public investment drives tend eventually to be financed by borrowing and have been plagued by poor analytics at the time investment projects were chosen, incentive problems and interest-group-infested investment choices. These observations suggest that the current public investment drives will be more likely to succeed if governments do not behave as in the past.

Wow. Not only is the short-run effect a mirage based on causality, but the long-run impact is negative.

But the real clincher is the conclusion that “public investment” is productive only “if governments do not behave as in the past.”

In other words, we have to assume that politicians, interest groups, and bureaucrats will suddenly stop acting like politicians, interest groups, and bureaucrats.

Yeah, good luck with that.

But it’s not just a cranky libertarian like me who thinks it is foolish to expect good behavior from government.

Charles Lane, an editorial writer who focuses on economic issues for the left-leaning Washington Post, is similarly skeptical.

Writing about the IMF’s October pro-infrastructure study, he thinks it relies on sketchy assumptions.

The story is told of three professors — a chemist, a physicist and an economist — who find themselves shipwrecked with a large supply of canned food but no way to open the cans. The chemist proposes a solvent made from native plant oils. The physicist suggests climbing a tree to just the right height, then dropping the cans on some rocks below. “Guys, you’re making this too hard,” the economist interjects. “Assume we have a can opener.” Keep that old chestnut in mind as you evaluate the International Monetary Fund’s latest recommendation… A careful reading of the IMF report, however, reveals that this happy scenario hinges on at least two big “ifs.”

The first “if” deals with the Keynesian argument that government spending “stimulates” growth, which I don’t think merits serious consideration.

But feel free to click here, here, here, and here if you want to learn more about that issues.

So let’s instead focus on the second “if.”

The second, and more crucial, “if” is the IMF report’s acknowledgment that stimulative effects of infrastructure investment vary according to the efficiency with which borrowed dollars are spent: “If the efficiency of the public investment process is relatively low — so that project selection and execution are poor and only a fraction of the amount invested is converted into productive public capital stock — increased public investment leads to more limited long-term output gains.” That’s a huge caveat. Long-term costs and benefits of major infrastructure projects are devilishly difficult to measure precisely and always have been. …Today we have “bridges to nowhere,” as well as major projects plagued by cost overruns and delays all over the world — and not necessarily in places you think of as corrupt. Germany’s still unfinished Berlin Brandenburg airport is five years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, to name one example. Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford’s Said Business School studied 258 major projects in 20 nations over 70 years and found average cost overruns of 44.7 percent for rail, 33.8 percent for bridges and tunnels and 20.4 percent for roads.

Amen. Governments are notorious for cost overruns and boondoggle spending.

It happens in the United States and it happens overseas.

It’s an inherent part of government, as Lane acknowledges.

In short, an essential condition for the IMF concept’s success — optimally efficient investment — is both difficult to define and, to the extent it can be defined, highly unrealistic. As Flyvbjerg explains, cost overruns and delays are normal, not exceptional, because of perverse incentives — specifically, project promoters have an interest in overstating benefits and understating risks. The better they can make the project look on paper, the more likely their plans are to get approved; yet, once approved, economic and logistical realities kick in, and costs start to mount. Flyvbjerg calls this tendency “survival of the unfittest.” …Governments that invest in infrastructure on the assumption it will pay for itself may find out that they’ve gone a bridge too far.

Or bridge to nowhere, for those who remember the infamous GOP earmark from last decade that would have spent millions of dollars to connect a sparsely inhabited Alaska island with the mainland – even though it already had a very satisfactory ferry service.

Let’s close with two observations.

First, why did the IMF flip-flop in such a short period of time? It does seem bizarre for a bureaucracy to publish an anti-infrastructure spending study in August and then put out a pro-infrastructure spending study two months later.

I don’t know the inside story on this schizophrenic behavior, but I assume that the August study was the result of a long-standing research project by one of the IMF’s professional economists (the IMF publishes dozens of such studies every year). By contrast, I’m guessing the October study was pushed by the political bosses at the IMF, who in turn were responding to pressure from member governments that wanted some sort of justification for more boondoggle spending.

In other words, the first study was apolitical and the second study wasn’t.

Not that this is unusual. I suspect many of the economists working at international bureaucracies are very competent. So when they’re allowed to do honest research, they produce results that pour cold water on big government. Indeed, that even happens at the OECD.

But when the political appointees get involved, they put their thumbs on the scale in order to generate results that will please the governments that underwrite their budgets.

My second observation is that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with the IMF’s theoretical assertions in the August study. Infrastructure spending can be useful and productive.

It’s an empirical question to decide whether a new road will be a net plus or a net minus. Or a new airport runway. Or subway system. Or port facilities.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that we’re far more likely to get the right answers to these empirical questions if infrastructure spending is handled by state and local governments. Or even the private sector.

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