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Posts Tagged ‘Free Markets’

I have a four-part video series on trade-related topics.

  • Part I focused on the irrelevance of trade balances.
  • Part II looked at specialization and comparative advantage.

Here’s Part III, which explains how trade (whether domestic or international) leads to creative destruction, which results in some painful short-run costs but also yields immense long-run benefits.

I recently argued that creative destruction is the best part and worst part of capitalism.

It’s bad if you’re a worker in a company that loses out (or if you’re an investor in that company). but it’s also what enables us to become more prosperous over time.

I’m not alone. Writing for CapX, Oliver Wiseman reviewed Capitalism in America, a new book by Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge. Here are some key observations.

…there was nothing predictable about America’s rise from colonial backwater to world-beating economy. …The fight for independence began a year before the publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations; “the new country was conceived in a revolt against a mercantilist regime that believes a nation’s economic success was measured by the size of its stock of gold.” …The Constitution’s limits on the power of the majority set America apart from the rest of the world and “did far more than anything else to guarantee America’s future prosperity…” On top of this fortuitous start is the country’s “greatest comparative advantage”: its “talent for creative destruction”, the driving force of innovation, growth and prosperity that “disequilibriates every equilibrium and discombobulates every combobulation”. Americans realised that “destruction is more than an unfortunate side effect of creation. It is part and parcel of the same thing”. …The result is a system that has squeezed more productive energy out of its human capital than other countries, and generated unparalleled prosperity.

For those interested in economic history, Joseph Schumpeter gets most of the credit for developing the concept of creative destruction.

This Powerpoint slide is a nice summary of Schumpeter’s contribution (notwithstanding the fact that the person misspelled his name).

And here’s a Tweet showing that Schumpeter was under no illusions about the folly of socialism.

The bottom line is that creative destruction is what gives us churning, and churning is what dethrones rich and powerful incumbents. My friends on the left should be cheering for it.

Instead, they push for regulations and taxes that hinder creative destruction. And that means less long-run prosperity for all of us.

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I periodically ask my left-leaning friends to identify a nation that became rich with statist policies.

They usually point to Sweden or Denmark, but I point out that Sweden and Denmark became rich in the 1800s and early 1900s, when government was very small.

At that point, they don’t really have any other response.

That’s because, as I pointed out in this clip from a recent debate at Pomona College in California, there is no example of a poor nation becoming rich with big-government policies (though we have tragic examples of rich nations becoming poor with statism).

So if statism isn’t the right approach to achieve prosperity, how can poor nations become rich nations.

I’ve offered my recipe for growth and prosperity, but let’s look at the wise words of Professor Deirdre McCloskey in the New York Times.

The Great Enrichment began in 17th-century Holland. By the 18th century, it had moved to England, Scotland and the American colonies, and now it has spread to much of the rest of the world. Economists and historians agree on its startling magnitude: By 2010, the average daily income in a wide range of countries, including Japan, the United States, Botswana and Brazil, had soared 1,000 to 3,000 percent over the levels of 1800. People moved from tents and mud huts to split-levels and city condominiums, from waterborne diseases to 80-year life spans, from ignorance to literacy. …50 years ago, four billion out of five billion people lived in…miserable conditions. In 1800, it was 95 percent of one billion.

Deirdre then explains that classical liberalism produced this economic miracle.

What…caused this Great Enrichment? Not exploitation of the poor, …but a mere idea, which the philosopher and economist Adam Smith called “the liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice.” In a word, it was liberalism, in the free-market European sense. Give masses of ordinary people equality before the law and equality of social dignity, and leave them alone, and it turns out that they become extraordinarily creative and energetic. …we eventually need capital and institutions to embody the ideas, such as a marble building with central heating and cooling to house the Supreme Court. But the intermediate and dependent causes like capital and institutions have not been the root cause. The root cause of enrichment was and is the liberal idea, spawning the university, the railway, the high-rise, the internet and, most important, our liberties.

In other words, the right ideas are the building blocks that enable the accumulation of capital and the development of institutions.

Deirdre’s analysis is critical. She reminds us that investment doesn’t merely depend on good tax policy and rule of law doesn’t magically materialize. You need a form of societal capital as the foundation.

Anyhow, to show how good ideas changed the world, this chart show how classical liberalism is the key that unlocked modern prosperity.

You may have already seen a chart that looks just like this. It was in a video Deirdre narrated. And Don Boudreaux shared a similar chart in one of his videos.

Circling back to the point I made at the start of this column, socialism (or any other form of statism) has never produced this type of economic miracle.

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I periodically explain that labor and capital are the two factors of production and that our prosperity depends on how efficiently they are allocated.

But I probably don’t spend enough time highlighting how they are complementary, meaning that workers and capitalists both benefit when the two factors are combined. Simply stated, workers become more productive and earn more when investors buy machines and improve technology.

In other words, the Marxists and socialists are wrong when they argue that workers and capitalists are enemies. Heck, look around the world and compare the prosperity of workers in market-oriented nations with the deprivation of workers in statist economies.

This becomes painfully clear when you read this Wall Street Journal story on the statist hellhole of Venezuela.

Irish packaging giant Smurfit Kappa recently joined other multinational companies abandoning Venezuela…President Nicolás Maduro’s socialist government. But this case comes with a twist. Hundreds of employees, who counted on the Irish company for transport, education, housing and food, continue to show up at work. They take turns protecting idled heavy machinery from looting that has become rampant as Venezuela plunges into hyperinflation and economic chaos. …“Help, we need a boss here. We’re desperate,” said Ramón Mendoza, a Smurfit forestry division worker for 17 years. “We’re so scared because we now know that all the government does is destroy everything, every business.” Their plight underscores the devastation that rural Venezuelan communities face as private companies pull out of a country that was once Latin America’s richest. The economy has shrunk by half over the past four years.

Wow, Mr. Mendoza hit the nail on the head when he explained that “all the government does in destroy everything.”

Maybe he can replace Obama as Libertarian Man of the year. Except he would get the award on merit rather than satire.

But let’s not digress. Here’s more bad news from the article.

Workers who live in the surrounding area had received interest-free loans from Smurfit for their houses. Residents said they no longer can count on the four ambulances that the company paid for to serve communities of tin-roofed shacks. At the Agricultural Technical School in the nearby town of Acarigua, which was entirely financed by Smurfit, nearly 200 children living in extreme poverty used to receive an education, lodging, as well as hot meals that have become a luxury as public schools collapse. Over two decades, many of its graduates had gone on to work for Smurfit. The academic year was supposed to start on Oct. 1. But with no money to feed and transport students, there’s silence in the halls… “It’s like poof,” Ms. Sequera said, snapping her fingers. “Our whole future was taken away.”

Needless to say, the thuggish government of Venezuela has no idea how to fix the mess it has caused.

In recent days, the cash-strapped Maduro administration said it had come up with a solution for the Smurfit plant: That the workers would run it themselves. The government said it wouldn’t nationalize it but named a temporary board to help restart operations. The Labor Ministry offered no details over how it would replace Smurfit’s distribution network through which the company supplied its own subsidiaries abroad. But the workers say they can’t run the plant on their own and insist they want bosses—just not from the government. “We know how to move the lumber from here to the plants. What do we know about finances and marketing?” said Mr. Mendoza.

My heart goes out to the former Smurfit workers.

They simply want to do honest work in exchange for honest pay. But the wretched policies of the Venezuelan socialists have made that impossible.

By the way, I’m not implying that employers are motivated by love for workers. Nor am I implying that workers are motivated to create profits for companies. The two sides are in a constant tug of war over how to slice the pie.

But the key thing to understand is that the pie grows when markets are allowed to function.

Which is why this old British political cartoon is a powerfully accurate depiction of real-world economics.

Indeed, I’ll have to add it to my collection of images that teach economics.

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My favorite publication every year is Economic Freedom of the World.

It’s filled with data on fiscal policy, regulatory policy, trade policy, monetary policy, and quality of governance for 162 jurisdictions, and it provides an unbiased way of gauging the degree to which they allow economic liberty.

It also allows readers to slice and dice data, which is very helpful for doing analysis.

For instance, as illustrated by this 2×2 matrix, I claimed in 2016 that nations with small fiscal burdens aren’t necessarily pro-free market (meaning they would belong in the top-right quadrant) and countries with large fiscal burdens aren’t necessarily in favor of intervention and planning (so they would belong in the lower-left quadrant).

But that matrix was speculative.

Which is why I downloaded the EFW dataset. I then removed the fiscal policy variable and created new rankings so I could see which nations relied most on unfettered markets.

As you can see, Singapore barely edges out Hong Kong for first place in this “Laissez-Faire Index,” with New Zealand in third place. In other words, the top three nations in the overall EFW rankings stay the same, though Hong Kong and Singapore trade places (in the far-right column, I compare each nation’s rank to its EFW score for overall economic liberty).

The most dramatic results are for some of the welfare states in Northern and Western Europe. Denmark jumps 12 spots to #4 and the Netherlands soars 18 spots to #5. Other nations with big increases include Finland (up 14 spots to #8), Luxembourg (the world’s freest economy as recently as 1985, moves up 14 spots to #11), Sweden (up 30 spots to #13), Norway (up 11 spots to #14), and Belgium (up 32 spots to #20).

Looking at this list, it’s easy to understand why the combination of big government and free markets is sometimes called the “Nordic Model” (defined by Wikipedia as “a comprehensive welfare state…on the economic foundations of free market capitalism”).

And Japan could be considered an honorary member since it jumps 22 spots in the Laissez-Faire Index, up to #19.

I’ve argued that such nations compensate for the damage of high taxes and big welfare states by being very market-oriented in other ways. And the EFW data supports that assertion.

Though it’s worth noting that their large fiscal burdens do have a negative impact.

P.S. Looking at other nations in the Laissez-Faire Index, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Canada all remain in the top 10, though the United States falls six spots to #12. Georgia, Mauritius, Taiwan, and Lithuania all drop by double-digit amounts.

P.P.S. I did a version of the Laissez-Faire Index in 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do some people go crazy with greed? Of course.

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

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

Here’s Pearlstein’s second myth.

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

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

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

Here’s the third supposed myth.

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

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

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

Now for the fourth myth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I won’t be holding my breath.

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

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

First, here’s what EFW measures.

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

Now let’s get to the good stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s an example of the data they utilized.

And here are the results.

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

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

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

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

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

I have two takeaways from this research.

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

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

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

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