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Posts Tagged ‘Central planning’

Every Thanksgiving, I share the story of how the Pilgrims nearly starved to death because of their experiment with collectivized agriculture.

Once the settlers shifted to a system based on private ownership, however, their problems disappeared.

The obvious moral of the story is that incentives matter. Socialist systems encourage slackers (see this cartoon strip) and market systems encourage productivity.

A column by X in the Wall Street Journal tells a similar story about China.

It’s actually the story of an important anniversary.

The People’s Republic of China turns 70 in October and will celebrate with flag-waving and fireworks. …2019 also marks the anniversary of the result of a smaller, quieter but just as defiant protest—one that will receive little attention in or out of China, even though it launched the economic reforms that kick-started the country’s rise.

Here’s the background.

After taking power in 1949, China’s Communist Party had effectively abolished private land ownership, grouping farms into “people’s communes” subservient to the state. By 1978 villages were crippled by quotas that seized most of what they grew for redistribution. …there was no food. Xiaogang’s farmers dug up roots, boiled poplar leaves with salt, and ground roasted tree bark into flour. Families left their thatched-roof homes and took to the road to beg.

By the way, the Chinese system of collective farms was an example of hardcore socialism – i.e., government ownership and control.

So it’s hardly a surprise that it produced awful results. Including mass starvation.

But desperate times were the motivation for desperate measures.

…a farmer named Yan Hongchang summoned the heads of the village’s desperate families to a clandestine meeting. On paper torn from a child’s school workbook, the farmers wrote a 79-word pledge to divide the commune’s land into family plots, submit the required quota of corn to the state, and keep the rest for themselves.

And what happened?

Incentives and property rights worked. Spectacularly.

…farmers…reported a grain yield of 66 metric tons. This single harvest equaled the village’s total output between 1955 and 1970—but for once the figure was not exaggerated. In fact, villagers underreported their actual yield by a third, fearing officials would not believe their record haul.

And the really good news is that the successful experiment in Xiaogang led to market-based reform for the entire nation.

The grass-roots experiment did spread. In Beijing, three years after Mao Zedong’s death, Deng Xiaoping urged the Chinese to ignore political dogma and instead “seek truth from facts.” Now came news that dissenting farmers were actually growing food. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Deng’s decision to scrap collective farming. In its place came one of the country’s most popular reforms, the Household Contract Responsibility System, or chengbao, which allows families to farm their own allocation of land and sell most of the harvest at unregulated prices.

Indeed, China now celebrates Xiaogang’s rebellious shift to markets.

Xiaogang village is a “red tourism” attraction, albeit the only one whose “patriotic education base” (museum) celebrates local defiance of government policy. Its exhibition hall displays a copy of the farmers’ pledge—the original was lost years ago—and floor-to-ceiling photographs of its signatories. The men are lauded as heroes, and Xiaogang celebrated with a slogan: “The origin of our nation’s economic rise!”

Maybe future historians will look upon the events in Xiaogang the same way some people look at 1356 in Europe?

In any event, what began forty years ago already has yielded great results for the people of China. Grinding poverty has virtually disappeared.

To be sure, China still needs a lot of reform. It’s only ranked #107 according the latest edition of Economic Freedom of the World.

But if some good reform yielded some good results, just imagine how much prosperity China could enjoy with a lot of good reform?

P.S. Just as the village of X helped to rescue China from hardcore socialism, there’s a grocery store in Texas that played a role in rescuing Russia’s economy.

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I was in Bratislava earlier today as part of the Free Market Road Show, where I spoke about how European nations are in trouble because of excessive spending and aging populations.

But I’m not going to write about my presentation because Peter Gonda of the Konservatívny Inštitút M.R. Stefánika shared some data on the post-World War II economic performance of Czechoslovakia that is far more interesting.

As you can see from his chart (the English title would be “The Economic Reality of Socialism”), Czechoslovakia, West Germany, Austria, and Finland all had very similar levels of income in 1948. But over the next 40 years, the socialist Czechoslovakian economy (CZ) fell further and further behind the market-oriented economies of those other countries.

Indeed, after just four decades, the market-oriented nations averaged twice as much per-capita economic output at the beleaguered Czechoslovakian economy.

By the way, things have improved since the collapse of communism.

Czechoslovakia in the early 1990s peacefully split into two nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. And both of them have since adopted a decent amount of pro-market reforms and have begun to converge with Western Europe.

So our story has a semi-happy ending (though I wrote last year that I’m worried about Slovakia backsliding a bit).

P.S. If you want other compelling examples that show – over multiple decades – the superior performance of market-oriented nations, click here and here.

P.P.S. Under Soviet rule, Czechoslovakia was genuine socialism (i.e., government ownershipcentral planningprice controls), which obviously is more damaging than what many people think of today as socialism (i.e., punitive taxes and a big welfare state).

P.P.P.S. Ludwig Erhard deserves much credit for West Germany’s post-war recovery.

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During my early years in public policy, back in the late 1980s, I repeatedly crossed swords with people who argued that Washington should have more power over the economy so that the United States could compete with Japan, which supposedly was an economic juggernaut because of “industrial policy” directed by wise and far-sighted bureaucrats at the Ministry of International Trade and Industry.

Given Japan’s subsequent multi-decade slump, it certainly seems like I was right to warn against giving American politicians the power to pick winners and losers.

But not everybody learned from that experience. In the words of Yogi Berra, “It’s deja vu all over again,” only this time we’re supposed to be terrified because the Chinese government wants to subsidize and promote certain industries as part of “Made in China 2025”.

At the risk of understatement, I’m not scared.

Yes, China has enjoyed some impressive growth since it partially liberalized its economy in the late 1900s, but it will remain far behind the United States unless – as I recently explained on CNBC – there is a new wave of free-market reforms.

Needless to say, a government initiative to favor certain industries is hardly a step in that direction.

Some Chinese policy makers even realize that it’s counterproductive to give that kind of power to politicians and bureaucrats.

Here are some excerpts from a report in the South China Morning Post.

“Made in China 2025” has been a waste of taxpayers’ money, China’s former finance minister Lou Jiwei has said…“[Made in China] 2025 has been a lot of talking but very little was done,” Lou, chairman of the National Council for Social Security Fund, said on Wednesday… “those industries are not predictable and the government should not have thought it had the ability to predict what is not foreseeable.” …“The negative effect of [the plan] is to have wasted taxpayers’ money.” He suggested the market should have played a greater role in developing the industries that MIC2025 was designed to push. “The [resources] should have been allocated by the market; the government should give the market a decisive role,” Lou said. “Why has the government pushed so hard on this strategy? [Hi-tech industry prospects] can all change in a few years, it is too unforeseeable.”

Sounds like Mr. Lou learned from Obama’s Solyndra fiasco that cronyism doesn’t work.

But some of his colleagues still need to be educated.

Made in China 2025 (MIC2025) strategy, Beijing’s blueprint for tech supremacy. …Since the plan’s launch in 2015, the government has poured money into MIC2025 to try to turn a number of domestic industries – including artificial intelligence, pharmaceuticals and electric vehicles – into global leaders by 2025. …Lou said: “It [the strategy] should not have been done that way anyway. I was against it from the start, I did not agree very much with it.

I hope senior government officials change their minds about this harmful exercise in central planning.

Not because I’m afraid it will work, but rather because I like China and I want the country to prosper. The partial reforms from last century produced great results for China, including huge reductions in poverty.

Additional reforms could lead to mass prosperity. But that won’t happen if the Chinese government tries to control the allocation of resources.

Let’s close with a big-picture look at central planning and industrial policy, starting with the common-sense observation that there are degrees of intervention.

Here’s my back-of-the-envelope perspective. We have examples of nations, such as the Soviet Union, where the government had near-total control over the allocation of labor and capital. And I suppose Hong Kong would be the closest example of a laissez-faire jurisdiction. And then there’s everything in between.

I’ve already shared two great videos on government planning versus the market. I strongly recommend this Prager University video, narrated by Professor Burton Folsom, on the failure of government-dictated investment. And also this video narrated by Professor Russ Roberts, which shows how a decentralized market efficiently provides a bounty to consumers.

Here’s a third, which celebrates the work of the late Don Lavoie, one of my professors when I studied at George Mason University.

By the way, there is a terrible flaw in the video. The photo that appears at 1:38 shows select faculty and students in 1987. Why is that a flaw? For the simple reason that I was part of the photo but got cropped out in the video.

P.S. Some people worry that China’s industrial policy will have a negative spillover effect on the United States because American companies will lose market share to the subsidized Chinese companies. That’s a legitimate concern and American officials should use the World Trade Organization to counter mercantilist policies.

P.P.S. To my dismay, some people don’t want China to become a rich nation. I assume those people are hoping China follows the advice of the OECD and IMF.

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In 2016, I toured the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia, which memorializes the victims of communist butchery in that nation.

Earlier today, I was lucky enough to get a tour through the House of Terror, a museum in Budapest that commemorates the horrors that Hungary endured during both Nazi occupation and Soviet occupation

Some of the exhibits are uplifting, such as the photo from the 1956 uprising that shows a toppled statue of Stalin.

Other parts are downright depressing.

Or, in the case of these torture instruments, certain exhibits are utterly horrifying (you can use your imagination to figure out what the communists did with the glass tubes).

If you go to Hungary, the House of Terror should be on your list of things to do.

I was particularly gratified to learn that it’s the most-visited museum in Budapest. Not simply because it’s filled with interesting material, but because it helps people understand that all forms of statism are wrong.

The House of Terror has exhibits on the brutality of Nazi rule and the brutality of Marxist rule.

Which is a good excuse for me to share excerpts from a couple of columns on the common thread between fascism and socialism.

In a column last November for the Foundation for Economic Education, Brittany Hunter shared some of Friedrich Hayek’s analysis of the philosophical link between national socialism and international socialism.

F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, …in chapter twelve, …Hayek highlights the very important connection between the socialist and Nazi intellectuals by profiling a handful of prominent German Marxist supporters… Hayek points out that contrary to what many think, Nazism did not simply appear out of thin air and infect the minds of docile German people. There were academic roots that, while grown in the soil of socialist thought, grew into a philosophy that praised German superiority, ultimate war, and the degradation of the individual. …Beginning his list of influential thinkers prior to WWII, Hayek begins with the dedicated Marxist who later embraced nationalism and dictatorship, Werner Sombart (1863-1941). …He seethed with criticism for the English people, who, in his mind, had lost their warlike instincts. …His other main criticism of English culture was the emphasis placed on the individual. For Sombart, individual happiness was hampering societies from being truly great. …Professor Johann Plenge (1874-1963) was another leading intellectual authority on Marxist thought during this time. He also saw war with England as a necessary struggle between two opposite principles: emphasis on the individual and organization and socialism. …Interestingly enough, many…socialist philosophers eventually abandoned Marxism in favor of National Socialism… while Prussian militarism was seen to be the enemy of socialism, Spengler helped bridge that gap. Both schools of thought require an abandonment of the individual identity. …This hatred and fear of the individual is the worldview espoused by these thinkers and it continues on with those who claim to be socialists today. Unless the concept of individualism is completely eradicated, the glorified state cannot come into existence.

Earlier this year, Byron Chiado echoed this analysis of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom in another FEE column, pointing out that all forms of socialism reject classical liberalism.

The bulk of the book makes the argument that central planning and interventionism inevitably lead to authoritarianism… Towards the end of the book, he deals with the undeniable authoritarians of his time and casts the national-socialist movement as one built on disgust with liberalism. …Sombart, like many Germans in the early 20th century, was compelled by a case for war between the British and Germany on the grounds that the British…pursuit of individual happiness, which he saw as a disease contracted from a society built on commercialism. Laissez-faire was an unnatural anarchic order giving rise to parasites and dishonest merchants… another Marxist, Sociologist Johann Plenge…moved into the shamelessly totalitarian realm that attracted so many Marxist leaders… Hayek gives…a warning to England; that the “conservative socialism” en vogue at the time was a German export, which for reasons he details throughout the book, will inevitably become totalitarian. …This was not a sensationalist attempt to prove his point. Hayek was rather calmly pointing out an example of the type of government one could expect in a society that has discarded liberalism for planning.

Amen. Big government is coercive government, regardless of what label is applied.

Which is why libertarianism (what Hayek would have called liberalism, meaning classical liberalism) is the proper philosophy of government. Assuming, of course, one values individual rights and civil society.

P.S. I also visited the Solidarity Museum in Poland a few years ago. Maybe I could put together a guide-book on the horrors of totalitarianism.

 

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I’ve always viewed Ayn Rand’s most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged, as a warning about the dangers of over-regulation, over-taxation, and excessive redistribution.

I won’t spoil the plot for those who haven’t yet read the book, but it’s basically a storyWelfare State Wagon Cartoons about what happens to a society when the people pulling the wagon decide that’s no longer how they want to spend their lives.

And as these highly productive people begin to opt out, politicians come up with ever-crazier ideas of keeping the economy going.

The most absurd example, something that could only happen in a dystopian work of fiction rather than real life, was “Directive 10-289,” an edict from the government to prevent continued contraction by requiring everybody in the economy to do exactly the same thing next year that they did this year. This meant no changing jobs. No starting new companies. No closing down existing companies. No changes in pay. Or employment. No changes in anything. Freeze the economy at current levels.

In other words, take Nixon-style wage and price controls and apply them to every bit of economic activity.

Unfortunately, some politicians think Atlas Shrugged is a direction manual rather than a warning. In Montreal, they’ve come up with a crazy idea to apply a version of Directive 10-289 to the restaurant industry. I’m not joking. In a column for Reason, Baylen Linnekin explains this surreal new policy.

…lawmakers in Montreal have moved to crack down on new restaurants, in an odious attempt to protect existing ones. “Montreal has one of the highest restaurant per-capita ratios in North America and the amount of places to eat is worrying local politicians,” reads a Canadian Press piece from earlier this week. …Data shows Montreal trails only New York City in terms of restaurants per capita in North America. As in New York City, that competition is great for Montreal’s consumers. But it puts pressure on incumbent restaurateurs. So lawmakers have decided to side with the latter.

The new law isn’t quite as bad as Directive 10-289, but it’s guided by the same attitude: Everything that exists now should be preserved and what’s new is bad.

…a ban on new restaurants from opening within 25 meters of an existing one along the city’s Rue Notre Dame… Notably, the action comes as “a number of commercial and retail properties remain empty” in this same part of Montreal. The law “risk[s] turning the city’s restaurant scene into a heavily bureaucratized nightmare like the province’s construction industry,” says the head of Quebec’s restaurant association

So who could possibly support such an initiative?

Unsurprisingly, the greatest enemies of genuine capitalism aren’t just politicians, but also incumbent firms that don’t want competition.

…some protectionist restaurateurs support the measure. “In Montreal you can apply for a restaurant permit and get it immediately—that’s a problem for me” says David McMillan, a supporter of the restrictions, whose high-end restaurant, Joe Beef, is an intended beneficiary of the ban. He’s not alone. “I don’t believe in the free market anymore,” says restaurateur Carlos Ferreira. “We have to protect the good restaurants.”

Gee, I thought consumers were the ones who were supposed to determine which restaurants are good. But Mr. Ferreira wants politicians and bureaucrats to now have the power.

Though we shouldn’t mock the Canadians too much. After all, Barack Obama imposed a version of Directive 10-289 in the United States.

Heck, he must be a big fan of Atlas Shrugged because he also mimicked another part of the book.

Of course, there are some cities, and even entire nations, that apparently want to replicate everything in Ayn Rand’s classic novel.

And the results in these real-world experiments are similar to what happens in the book. Except the book actually has a happy ending, whereas there’s little reason to be optimistic for a rebirth of freedom in places such as Greece and Venezuela.

P.S. John Stossel and Charles Murray have interesting things to say about Atlas Shrugged.

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The communist economic system was a total disaster, but it wasn’t because of excessive taxation. Communist countries generally didn’t even have tax systems.

The real problem was that communism was based on central planning, which is the notion that supposedly wise bureaucrats and politicians could scientifically determine the allocation of resources.

But it turns out that even well-meaning commissars did a terrible job. There was massive inefficiency and widespread shortages. Simply stated, notwithstanding the delusions of some left-wing economists (see postscript of this column), the system was an economic catastrophe.

Why? Because there were no market-based prices.

And, as explained in this video from Learn Liberty, market-based prices are like an economy’s central nervous system, sending signals that enable the efficient and productive allocation of resources in ways that benefit consumers and maximize prosperity.

And just in case it’s not obvious from the video, a price system can’t be centrally planned. Or, to be more precise, you won’t get good results if central planners are in charge.

Now let’s look at a bunch of economic policy questions that seem unrelated.

What’s the underlying reason why minimum wages are bad? We know they lead to bad effects such as higher unemployment, particularly for vulnerable populations, but how do these bad effects occur?

Why is it bad to have export subsidies such as the Export-Import Bank? It’s easy to understand the negative effects, such as corrupt cronyism, but what’s the underlying economic concern?

Or what’s the real reason why third-party payer is misguided? And why should people be concerned about high marginal tax rates or double taxation? Or Obamacare subsidies? Or unemployment insurance?

These questions involve lots of different issues, so at first glance there’s no common theme.

But that’s not true. In every single case, bad effects occur because politicians are distorting the workings of the price system with preferences and penalties.

And that’s today’s message. We generally don’t have politicians urging the kind of comprehensive central planning found is genuinely socialist regimes. Not even Bernie Sanders. But we do have politicians who advocate policies that undermine the price system on an ad-hoc basis.

Every tax, every regulation, every subsidy, and every handout is going to distort incentives for some people. And the cumulative effect of all these interventions is like a cancer that eats away at prosperity.

The good news is that we don’t have nearly as many of these bad policies as places such as France and Mexico.

But the bad news is that we have more of these policies than Hong Kong and Singapore.

The bottom line is that America could be much richer with less intervention. But that would require less ad-hoc interventionism.

P.S. There’s a bit of economic wisdom in these jokes that use two cows to explain economic systems.

P.P.S. Here are two other videos on the price system, both of which help explain why only a decentralized market system can allocate resources in ways that benefit consumers.

P.P.P.S. A real-world example of the price system helped bring about the collapse of communism.

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When speaking about the difference between the private sector and the government, I sometimes emphasize that mistakes and errors are inevitable, and that the propensity to screw up may be just as prevalent in the private sector as it is in the public sector.

I actually think the government is more likely to screw up, for reasons outlined here, here, and here, but let’s bend over backwards to be fair and assume similar levels of mistakes.

The key difference between capitalism and government, though, is the feedback mechanism.

Private firms that make errors are quickly penalized. They lose customers, which means they lose profits. Or perhaps they even fail and go out of business (remember, capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without hell).

This tends to concentrate the mind. Executives work harder, shareholders and bondholders focus more on promoting good corporate governance. All of which benefits the rest of us in our roles as workers and consumers.

But mistakes in the public sector rarely lead to negative feedback. Indeed, agencies and departments that make mistakes sometimes get rewarded with even bigger budgets. This means the rest of us are doubly victimized because we are taxpayers and we have to rely on certain government services.

Citing the Federal Reserve as an example, Thomas Sowell explains how this process works. He starts with a look at the Fed’s recent failures and asks some basic questions about why we should reward the central bank with more power.

The recent release of the Federal Reserve Board’s transcripts of its deliberations back in 2007 shows that their economic prophecies were way off. How much faith should we put in their prophecies today — or the policies based on those prophecies?

Here’s another example.

Ben Bernanke said in 2007, “The impact on the broader economy and financial markets of the problems in the subprime market seems likely to be contained.” It turned out that financial disasters in the housing market were not “contained,” but spread out to affect the whole American economy and economies overseas.

And here’s the icing on the cake.

Bernanke said: “It is an interesting question why what looks like $100 billion or so of credit losses in the subprime market has been reflected in multiple trillions of dollars of losses in paper wealth.” What is an even more interesting question is why we should put such faith and such power in the hands of a man and an institution that have been so wrong before.

Sowell acknowledges that we all make errors, but then makes the key point about the risks of giving more and more power to a central bank that has such a dismal track record.

We all make mistakes. But we don’t all have the enormous and growing power of the Federal Reserve System — or the seemingly boundless confidence that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke still shows as he intervenes in the economy on a massive scale.

Sowell then highlights some of the reasons why we should worry about concentrating more power into the hands of a few central bankers.

Being wrong is nothing new for the Federal Reserve System. Since this year is the one hundredth anniversary of the Fed’s founding, it may be worth looking back at its history. …In the hundred years before there was a Federal Reserve System, inflation was less than half of what it became in the hundred years after the Fed was founded. The biggest deflation in the history of the country came after the Fed was founded, and that deflation contributed to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

If you want a more detailed examination of the Fed’s performance, this George Selgin video is withering indictment.

In other words, instead of giving the Fed more power, we should be looking at ways of clipping its wings.

I realize my fantasy of competitive currencies isn’t going to be realized anytime soon, and I’ve already explained why we should be very leery of trusting the government to operate a gold standard.

So I’m not sure whether I have any firm recommendations – other than perhaps hoping to convince policy makers that easy money is the not the right way of boosting an economy that is listless because of bad fiscal and regulatory policy.

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