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Posts Tagged ‘Free Markets’

I’ve made very serious (and hopefully substantive) arguments about why small government and free markets are the recipe for prosperity.

Simply stated, profit and loss is a powerful feedback mechanism, and entrepreneurs and business owners who want to make money face constant pressure to attract consumers by offering better products at affordable prices.

These forces are so powerful that the private sector even does a good job in some areas that most people assume are reserved for government, such as criminal justice, roads, and airport security.

But let’s examine this issue today from a whimsical perspective. I found a couple of clever images on Reddit‘s libertarian page.

Here’s the first example, which will make instantaneous sense for anyone who’s ever walked into a McDonald’s and a DMV on the same day.

The second example is more elaborate, but makes a similar point. Those of us with gray hair have seen the amazing developments produced by the private sector in this collage.

But can anyone think of something that has improved in the public sector?

For what it’s worth, the two cars in the column for the private sector don’t look that different. But, once again, those with gray hair will probably remember how often they used to break down in the past. The computerized engines have greatly improved operations and maintenance. Not to mention map programs, built-in TVs for the kids in the back seat, and other positive changes.

Let’s close with a serious point. Yes, business owners are greedy. They’re looking out for their own self interest. They would love to charge us high prices.

But a system of free enterprise means that they can only earn money if they cater to our needs and wants. And so long as politicians aren’t showering them with bailouts, subsidies, protection, or handouts, that means they compete to provide us ever-better goods and services at ever-more-affordable prices.

In other words, Adam Smith was right.

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Right after Obamacare was enacted in 2010, I wrote a column suggesting four principles that should guide and motivate supporters of free markets and limited government.

As part of that article, I pointed out that Obamacare wasn’t a dramatic change. Instead, it was just another layer of government imposed on a health system that already was burdened by a huge amount of intervention.

The way to think of Obamacare is that we are shifting from a healthcare system 68 percent controlled/directed by government to one that…is 79 percent controlled/directed by government. Those numbers are just vague estimates, to be sure, but they underscore why Obamacare is just a continuation of a terrible trend, not a profound paradigm shift.

Later that year, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity released a video that elaborated, pointing out that Obamacare simply made a system dominated by government into a system even more controlled by government.

With predictable bad results.

That video included two charts based on my back-of-the envelope calculation, and I shared them in a 2013 column that further discussed the incremental damage of Obamacare.

Our healthcare system as a mess before Obamacare. Normal market forces were crippled by government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid and also undermined by government intervention in the tax code that resulted in pervasive over-insurance that exacerbated the third-party payer problem. These various forms of intervention led to all sorts of problems, such as rising prices and indecipherable complexity…Obamacare was enacted in 2010, and it was perceived to be a paradigm-shifting change in the healthcare system, even though it was just another layer of bad policy on top of lots of other bad policy. …Not surprisingly, all of the same problems still exist, but now they’re exacerbated by the mistakes in Obamacare.

In other words, we’re not going to fix the healthcare system by merely repealing Obamacare.

Yes, that’s a necessary step, but much more needs to happen.

Which is why I’m very happy that Prager University has a new video pointing out that health insurance doesn’t work nearly as well as car insurance and homeowners insurance. Why? Because it’s become an inefficient form of pre-paid health care rather than protection against large and unexpected expenses.

Amen. I’ve made a similar case on several occasions.

Though I wish the video went even further by explaining how the healthcare exclusion in the tax code encourages over-insurance.

And here’s a video from the Foundation for Economic Education that also explains how government intervention is distorting the health market.

Here’s the most important factoid from the video, which comes from the accompanying FEE article.

According to the Consumer Price Index and Medical-care price index from 1935 to 2009, the health care spending crisis didn’t start until the mid 1960s, around the same time when Medicare and Medicaid were signed into law, and at the same time that we began requiring doctors to go through all sorts of expensive licensing procedures beyond medical school. Since then, health care spending has doubled, even adjusted for inflation.

But let’s keep everything in perspective. Our system is needlessly expensive and inefficient because of government, but it still manages to deliver some decent outcomes.

Here is some very interesting analysis from the Adam Smith Institute in London.

US healthcare is famous for…poor outcomes. …their overall outcome on the most important variable—overall life expectancy—is fairly poor.

I get this factoid thrown in my face repeatedly when speaking overseas, so I was delighted to find out that it has nothing to do with the quality of our healthcare.

…consider the main two ingredients that go into health outcomes. One is health, and the other is treatment. If latent health is the same across the Western world, we can presume that any differences come from differences in treatment. But this is simply not the case. Obesity is far higher in the USA than in any other major developed country. Obviously it is a public health problem, but it’s unrealistic to blame it on the US system of paying for doctors, administrators, hospitals, equipment and drugs. In fact in the US case it’s not even obesity, or indeed their greater pre-existing disease burden, that is doing most of the work in dragging their life expectancy down; it’s accidental and violent deaths. It is tragic that the US is so dangerous, but it’s not the fault of the healthcare system; indeed, it’s an extra burden that US healthcare spending must bear.

Indeed, it turns out that the American system produces very good results on life expectancy once you adjust for these behavioral factors.

…simply normalising for violent and accidental death puts the USA right to the top of the life expectancy rankings.

And here’s the relevant chart from the article.

By the way, health spending in the United States would probably be high compared to other nations even if we removed all government intervention and changed our risky behaviors.

But only because richer nations can afford – even demand – new technology, cutting-edge research, and new treatments. In his Bloomberg column, Professor Tyler Cowen discusses some of these factors

…viewed through the lens of consumption behavior, American health-care spending is typical of this nation’s habits and mores. Relative to GDP, Americans consume a lot more than Europeans, and our health-care spending is another example of that tendency. …Consumption in the U.S., per capita, measures about 50 percent higher than in the European Union. American individuals command more resources than people in countries such as Norway or Luxembourg, which have higher per capita GDP. The same American consumption advantage is evident if you look at dwelling space per person or the number of appliances in a typical home. …To put it most simply, we Americans spend a lot on health care because we spend a lot period.

Tyler includes a graph mapping healthcare expenditures with overall consumption. The basic takeaway is that what makes America an outlier is our ability to consume, with healthcare being an example.

So what’s all this mean for policy?

Peter Suderman offers some very sage advice in a column for the New York Times.

…when it comes to health care, Republicans don’t know what they want, much less how to get it. …Democrats, on the other hand, share a distinct vision of robust universal coverage guaranteed by the government and paid for by a combination of delivery-system efficiencies and higher taxes. What Republicans need, then, is a set of guiding principles — a health care vision that should work from the ground up, that imagines a more affordable and more effective system.

Peter then suggests some principles.

…it would mean giving up on comprehensive universal coverage. Otherwise, Republicans will just end up bargaining on the terms set by Democrats, as they are now. …a second principle: unification, not fragmentation. …employer-provided coverage…is subsidized implicitly through the tax code, which does not tax health benefits provided by employers as income. This tax break is the original sin of the United States health care system. Worth more than $250 billion annually, it has enormously distorted the market, creating an incentive for employers to provide ever-more-generous insurance while insulating individuals from the true cost of care. …the third principle comes in: Health coverage is not the same as health care. Instead, it is a financial product, a backstop against financial ruin. Health care policy should treat it as one. …For noncatastrophic, nonemergency medical expenses, Republicans ought to promote affordability rather than subsidies. …encourage supply-side innovations in addition to demand-side reforms. The tangle of regulations governing health care can make it difficult for providers to respond to market signals and innovate. Doctor-owned hospitals are restricted by law, for example, and certificate-of-need requirements force medical providers to obtain licenses in a process that effectively requires them to ask permission from competitors to expand.

In other words, we wind up this column where we started.

Americans get good health care, but it’s needlessly expensive and inefficient as I explained in Part I and Part II of a recent series. If we can somehow unravel, or even bypass, all the bad government policy that currently exists, we could have a much better system.

How much better? Well, check out this Reason video on a free-market health center in Oklahoma, which recently was featured in a story in Time. Based on my personal experiences, that’s a big step in the right direction.

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In prior years, I’ve shared some videos with powerful messages with a common message. Grinding poverty used to be the normal human condition, but then rule of law and limited government enabled a dramatic increase in prosperity.

All these videos are worth watching. They show that misery used to be pervasive but then we became rich starting a couple of hundred years ago.

But there’s one shortcoming in these videos. They basically tell a story of how the western world became rich. In other words, they describe how North American and Western Europe went from agricultural poverty to middle class prosperity.

What about the rest of the world?

Well, there’s a good story to tell there as well, albeit it’s happened more recently. Back in 2014, I shared some data from Economic Freedom of the world showing how there was a substantial increase in global economic liberty starting about 1980.

Yes, there were improvements in western nations during that period (thanks to Reagan, Thatcher, etc), but there were also improvements in economic freedom elsewhere (collapse of the Soviet Empire, reforms in what used to be known as the Third World, etc).

In this video from Prager University, Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute explains that this shift to free enterprise is what produced greater prosperity all across the world.

By the way, folks on the left (see this Salon article) don’t like the fact that the world shifted in the direction of economic liberty.

They grouse that the developing world was subjected to a “Washington consensus” that imposed a “neoliberal” agenda (with neoliberal meaning “classical liberal“).

But here’s a visual showing how a shift to capitalism was great news for the less fortunate. The number of people in extreme poverty has dropped dramatically since the early 1990s.

I wish the data went back to 1980, but even these partial numbers are a tremendous confirmation of the hypothesis that free markets are the best way of helping the poor.

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Since my job is to proselytize on behalf of economic liberty, I’m always trying to figure out what motivates people. To be blunt, I’ll hopefully be more effective if I understand how they decide what policies to support. That’s a challenge when dealing with my friends on the left since some of them seem to be motivated by envy.

Unsurprisingly, there are people on the other side who also contemplate how to convert their opponents.

Harvard Professor Maximilian Kasy wrote a column for the Washington Post that advises folks on the left how they can be more effective when arguing with folks on the right. He starts with an assertion that conservatives are basically impervious to facts.

Worries about…our “post-factual era” impeding political debate in our society have become commonplace. Liberals…are often astonished at the seeming indifference of their opponents toward facts and toward the likely consequences of political decisions. …A common, though apparently ineffective, response to this frustration is to double down by discussing more facts.

This is a remarkable assertion. I’m a libertarian rather than a conservative, so I don’t feel personally insulted. That being said, conservatives generally are my allies on economic issues and I’ve never found them to be oblivious or indifferent to facts (I’m speaking about policy wonks, not politicians, who often are untethered from reality regardless of their ideology).

So let’s see how Mr. Kasy justifies his claim about conservatives. Here’s more of what he wrote.

…maybe the issue is not conservatives’ ignorance of facts, but rather a fundamental difference of values. Taking this point of view seems essential for effective communication across the political divide.

I basically agree that differences in values play a big role, so I’m sort of okay with that part of his analysis (I’ll return to this issue in the conclusion).

But my alarm bells started ringing at this next passage.

Much normative (or value-based) reasoning by liberals (and mainstream economists) is about the consequences of political actions for the welfare of individuals. Statements about the desirability of policies are based on trading off the consequences for different individuals. If good outcomes result from a policy without many negative consequences, then the policy is a good one.

Huh? Since when are liberals (and he’s talking about today’s statists, not the classical liberals of yesteryear) and mainstream economists on the same side?

Though I admit it’s hard to argue about the rule he proposes for policy. He’s basically saying that a change is desirable if “good outcomes” are more prevalent than “negative consequences.”

That’s probably too utilitarian for me, but I suspect most people might agree with that approach.

But he makes a giant and unsubstantiated leap by then claiming it would be wrong to repeal a supposedly good policy like Obamacare.

When Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) remarked on the Affordable Care Act this spring, for example, she said, “…we’re talking about something that would deny those in need with the relief and the help that they need, that they want and deserve…” In other words, if a policy will harm the welfare of individuals in need, it’s a bad policy.

Huh? What happened to his utilitarian formula about “good outcomes” vs “negative consequences”? Sure, some additional people have health insurance coverage, but is he blind to rising premiums, job losses, higher taxes, loss of plans and loss of doctors, dumping people into Medicaid, and other downsides of Obamacare?

If facts are important, shouldn’t he be weighing the costs and benefits?

In other words, Kasy must be in some sort of cocoon if he thinks the Obamacare fight is between Republicans motivated only by values and Democrats motivated by helping individuals.

His analysis of the death tax is similarly off base.

…consider the example of bequest taxes, labeled “estate taxes” by liberals and “death taxes” by conservatives. A liberal might invoke various empirical facts…our empiricist liberal might conclude that bequest taxes are an effective policy instrument, providing public revenue and promoting equality of opportunity. The conservative addressee of these facts might now just shrug her shoulders and say “no thanks.” Our conservative likely believes that everyone has the right to keep the fruits of her labor, and free contracts of exchange between any two parties are nobody else’s business. …Taxing bequests thus means punishing moral behavior, the exact opposite of what the government should do.

Once again, Kasy is deluding himself. Conservatives do think the death tax is morally wrong, so he’s right about that, but they also have very compelling arguments about the levy’s negative economic impact. Simply stated, the death tax exacerbates the tax code’s bias against capital formation and results in all sorts of economically inefficient tax avoidance behavior (with Bill and Hillary Clinton being classic examples).

His column concludes with some suggestions of how folks on the left can be more persuasive. He basically says they should appeal to conservatives with values-based arguments such as these.

We should evaluate the policy based on its effect on individuals, and assign a higher weight to the majority of less wealthy people. …nobody can be said to consume only the products of their own labor. We rely on social institutions including markets and governments to provide us with all the goods we consume, and absent a theory of just prices (which present day conservatives don’t have) there is no sense in which we are entitled to specific terms of exchange.

I’m not the ideal person to speak for conservatives, but I don’t think those arguments will win many converts.

Regarding his first suggestion, Kasy’s problem is that he apparently assumes that people on the right don’t care about the poor. Maybe I’m reading between the lines, but he seems to  think conservatives will automatically favor lots of redistribution if he can convince that it’s good to help the poor.

I think it’s much more accurate to assume that plenty of conservatives have thought about how to help the poor, but they’ve concluded that the welfare state is injurious and that it is more effective to focus on policies such as school choice, economic growth, and occupational licensing.

Indeed, I hope most conservatives would agree with my Bleeding Heart Rule.

And his second idea is even stranger because economic conservatives have a theory of just prices. It’s whatever emerges from competitive markets.

Let’s close with a column by Alberto Mingardi of the Bruno Leoni Institute in Italy. Published by the Foundation for Economic Education, the piece is relevant to today’s topic since it looks at why an unfortunate number of intellectuals are opposed to economic liberty.

…some have replied that the main reason is resentment (intellectuals expect more recognition from the market society than they actually get); some have pointed out that self-interest drives the phenomenon (intellectuals preach government controls and regulation because they’ll be the controllers and regulators); some have taken the charitable view that intellectuals do not understand what the market really is about (as they cherish “projects” and the market is instead an unplanned order).

Alberto then shares Milton Friedman’s answer.

I think a major reason why intellectuals tend to move towards collectivism is that the collectivist answer is a simple one. If there’s something wrong pass a law and do something about it. If there’s something wrong it’s because of some no-good bum, some devil, evil and wicked – that’s a very simple story to tell. You don’t have to be very smart to write it and you don’t have to be very smart to accept it.

My two cents, based on plenty of conversations with well-meaning folks on the left, is that there’s actually a lot of agreement of some big-picture values. We all want less poverty and more prosperity. In other words, I think most people have similar good intentions (I’m obviously excluding communists, Nazis, and others who believe in totalitarianism).

But similar good intentions doesn’t translate into agreement on policy because of secondary values. Especially differences in whether we view “equality of outcomes” as an appropriate goal for government. Some on the left openly are willing to sacrifice growth to achieve more equality (Margaret Thatcher even claimed that they would be willing to hurt the poor if the rich suffered even more). Folks on the right, by contrast, are much more focused on helping the poor with growth rather than redistribution.

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Here’s a simple and fundamental question: What is economic growth?

And here’s a simple answer: It’s when there’s more national income.

That’s seems like a trivial tautology, but let’s explore some implications. When you dig into the numbers, it turns out that increases in national income (usually measured by gross domestic product, though I prefer gross domestic income) are driven by two factors.

  • More people.
  • More output per hour, also known as increased productivity.

This is why people sometimes say that GDP growth is a function of population growth plus productivity growth.

And what really matters, at least if we want higher living standards, is to have more output per hour. As a result, we should be very concerned that productivity growth seems to be lagging in the United States.

Here’s a chart that was created by the Wall Street Journal, showing data from the Labor Department on productivity all the way back to the 1950s.

And here’s what I wrote about these numbers in a column for the Hill, starting with the observation that productivity growth is very important for long-run prosperity.

…one thing that presumably unites economists is that we all recognize higher productivity is a good thing. It’s what enables higher wages for workers, higher earnings for companies and higher living standards for the nation.

I then point out that we have a problem.

…when we see weak productivity numbers, that’s not good news. …there is a very worrisome trend this century. Productivity is increasing, but at ever-lower rates, which helps to explain why the overall rate of economic growth this century has lagged compared to the post-World War II average.

But I also share suggestions for policy reforms that would lead to higher productivity.

…tax reform could be…beneficial. …a lower corporate tax rate…a key reason…is that investors will have a bigger incentive to finance new projects that will boost productivity and thus boost wages. …to replace “depreciation” with “expensing” would be particularly helpful since the current approach imposes an unwarranted tax on new investments.

The column explains why it’s foolish to impose tax penalties on income that is saved and invested. Policies such as the capital gains tax and death tax punish capital formation and thus reduce productivity growth.

Politicians impose these levies to go after “the rich,” but it’s the rest of us who suffer because of slower growth.

But my column doesn’t just focus on investments in “physical capital.” I also argue that our current education system does a very poor job of boosting “human capital.”

The United States spends more on education — on a per-pupil basis — than other nations. Yet, international test scores show that we get very mediocre results. We see a similar pattern inside the country, with high levels of spending associated with more bureaucracy rather than better outcomes. …it’s time to unleash the power of markets by allowing greater school choice. There’s certainly plenty of evidence that this approach will be more effective.

I closed the column by noting that productivity growth increased under both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton when the United States was moving in the direction of free markets Conversely, I also noted that productivity growth has declined under the government-centric policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Seems like the lesson should be obvious.

P.S. I looked at this same issue back in 2012 when writing about the recipe for increased prosperity. I pointed out that capital and labor are the two factors of production and explained that a bigger economy is a function of more labor, more capital, and/or the more efficient use of labor and capital. Well, another way of saying “more efficient use” is to say “higher productivity.”

After all, it’s much better to have a bigger economy because we’re more productive rather than because we all take a second job on the weekends.

P.P.S. For those who want to get deeper in the economic weeds, this column on China includes a discussion of potential production and this column on Hong Kong includes two great videos on growth from Marginal Revolution University.

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I wrote last September that New Zealand is the unsung success story of the world.

No, it doesn’t rank above Hong Kong and Singapore, which routinely rank as the two jurisdictions with the most economic liberty.

But it deserves praise for rising so far and fast considering how the country was mired in statist misery just three decades ago. That’s the story of this great video, narrated by Johan Norberg, from Free to Choose Media. It’s runs 56 minutes, but it’s very much worth your time.

But just in case you don’t have a spare hour to watch the full video, I can tell you that it explains how New Zealand made a radical shift to free markets in key areas such as agriculture, trade, fisheries, and industry.

I wrote about New Zealand’s shift to a property rights-based fisheries system, which is a remarkable success. But I’m even more impressed that the country, which has a very significant agricultural sector, decided to eliminate all subsidies. I fantasize about similar reforms in the United States.

To give you an idea of New Zealand’s overall deregulatory success, it is now ranked first in the World Bank’s Doing Business.

As a fiscal policy wonk, my one complaint is that the video doesn’t give much attention to tax and budget policy.

Which is an unfortunate oversight because there’s a very positive story to tell. In the early 1990s, the government basically imposed a nominal spending freeze. And during that five-year period, the burden of government spending fell by more than 10-percentage points of GDP.

And because policy makers dealt with the underlying disease of too much spending, that also meant eliminating the symptom of red ink. In other words, a big deficit became a big surplus.

The same thing also has been happening this decade. Outlays have been increasing by an average of less than 2 percent annually. And because this complies with my Golden Rule, that means a shrinking burden of spending.

And there’s also a good story to tell about tax policy. The top income tax rate has been slashed from 66 percent to 33 percent, and the capital gains tax has been abolished.

Let’s close by highlighting what should be the main lesson of the video, namely that any country can rescue itself from economic decline.

As I watched, the first thing that occurred to me is that New Zealand’s reforms are – or at least should be – a road map for Greece to follow.

The Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World shows the history of economic liberty in the two nations, and you can see that they used to be very similar – in a bad way – back in the 1970s. They began to diverge between 1975 and 1985, mostly because policy got even worse in Greece. Then both adopted better policy started in 1985, but New Zealand went much farther in the right direction.

Policy has been generally stable in both nations this century. That’s acceptable for New Zealand, but it’s basically a recipe for continued misery in Greece.

But the good news is that Greece can simply copy New Zealand to get the same good results.

P.S. Remember when Gary Johnson caught grief for being unable to list any admirable foreign leaders. I defended him by pointing out that there are not any obvious choices in office today, but I did mention that Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson – both prominently featured in the above video – would be on list if it included former politicians.

P.P.S. New Zealand ranks #3 for total human freedom, trailing only Hong Kong and Switzerland.

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I’m a fan of the Baltic nations in part because they were among the first to adopt flat tax systems after the collapse of the Soviet empire. But tax reform was just the beginning. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have liberalized across the board as part of their efforts to become prosperous.

Economic Freedom of the World is always the first place to check when you want to understand whether countries have good policy. And the dataset for the Baltic nations does show that all three nations are in the top quartile, with Lithuania and Estonia cracking the top 20.

So are these market-oriented policies paying dividends? Has the shift in the direction of free markets and limited government resulted in more prosperity?

The short answer is yes. The European Central Bank has released some very interesting analysis on the economic performance of these countries.

The Baltic States have been able to maintain an impressive rate of convergence towards the average EU per capita income over the past 20 years. …these three countries have each pursued a strongly free-market and pro-business economic agenda… The three countries are different in many ways, but share a number of key features: very high levels of trade and financial openness and very high labour mobility; high economic flexibility with wage bargaining mainly at firm level; relatively good institutional framework conditions; and low levels of public debt.

And this has translated into strong growth, which has resulted in higher incomes.

The Baltic States are among the few euro area countries (along with Slovakia) in which real GDP per capita in purchasing power standard (PPS) terms has shown substantial convergence towards the EU average over the last 20 years. While in 1995 their average per capita income (in PPS) stood at only around 28% of the EU15 average, in 2015 it reached 66.5% (see Chart A).

Here’s the chart showing how quickly the Baltic countries are catching up to Western Europe.

The ECB report also measured how fast the Baltic nations have grown compared to theory.

The long-term convergence performance of the Baltic States has exceeded what would have been expected based on their initial income level.

And here’s the chart showing how they have over-performed.

The ECB study says that the Baltic countries have been especially good about replacing cronyism with the rule of law.

One of the possible reasons for the fairly strong convergence performance of the Baltic States is the strong improvement in institutional quality in these countries… The Worldwide Governance Indicators of the World Bank, which is a composite indicator of institutional quality, suggests that institutional quality has improved markedly in the Baltic States – especially in Estonia – over the recent decades.

I agree. Indeed, I’ve written that Estonia is a good role model, having reduced corruption by limiting the power of politicians and bureaucrats.

The report also credits the three countries with rapid rebounds from the financial crisis, which is a point I made back in 2011.

While the crisis hit the Baltic States hard, the adjustment of imbalances was very fast. The rapid adjustment in fiscal balances and private sector balance sheets implied that the Baltic States could avoid the accumulation of a large debt overhang. In addition, the fast reduction in unemployment helped to decrease the risk of hysteresis, thus avoiding lasting consequences for potential growth. …The external adjustment of the Baltic States was facilitated by painful but effective internal devaluation. …This relatively fast adjustment in the Baltic States was facilitated in part by a strong initial rebound in employment growth, supported by an adjustment in labour costs.

I also think genuine spending cuts helped produce the quick economic rebound.

Though the report does warn that there are not guarantees that the Baltic countries will fully converge with Western Europe.

International experience suggests that countries that reach a middle income level, like the Baltic States, tend to find it difficult to converge further and achieve a high income level. A World Bank study suggests that out of 101 middle-income economies in 1960, only 13 had become high-income economies by 2008.

This is a good point. As I explained two years ago, full convergence is very difficult. North America and Western Europe became rich in part because of very small public sectors in the 1800s and early 1900s. Indeed, there was virtually no welfare state until the 1930s and the level of redistribution was comparatively small until the 1960s.

Unfortunately, this is one area where the Baltic nations are weak. Yes, the burden of government spending may be modest compared to other EU countries, but the public sector nonetheless consumes more than 35 percent of GDP. And even though these nations have flat taxes, they also have stifling payroll taxes and government-fueling value-added taxes.

Another problem (not just in the Baltic region, but all through Eastern Europe) is that the demographic outlook is unfriendly, which means that the welfare state automatically will become a bigger burden over time.

If the Baltic countries want genuine convergence (or if they want to surpass Western Europe), that will require additional reform, particularly efforts to reduce the burden of government spending to the levels found in Hong Kong and Singapore.

Unfortunately, it’s more likely that policy will move in the other direction. There are constant efforts to repeal the flat tax systems in the Baltic countries. And efforts by the European Commission to harmonize business taxation ultimately may undermine the pro-growth approach to business taxation in the region as well.

P.S. For those who want an in-depth look at a Baltic nation, I recommend this video about Estonia. And if you want some amusement, check out how Paul Krugman wanted people to believe that Estonia’s 2008 recession was caused by 2009 spending cuts.

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