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Posts Tagged ‘Free Markets’

The recipe for growth and prosperity isn’t very complicated.

Adam Smith provided a very simple formula back in the 1700s.

For folks who prefer a more quantitative approach, the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World uses dozens of variables to rank nations based on key indices such as rule of law, size of government, regulatory burden, trade openness, and stable money.

One of the heartening lessons from this research is that countries don’t need perfect policy. So long as there is simply “breathing room” for the private sector, growth is possible. Just look at China, for instance, where hundreds of millions of people have been lifted from destitution thanks to a modest bit of economic liberalization.

Indeed, it’s remarkable how good policy (if sustained over several decades) can generate very positive results.

That’s a main message in this new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

The first part of the video, narrated by Abir Doumit, reviews success stories from around the world, including Hong Kong, Singapore, Chile, Estonia, Taiwan, Ireland, South Korea, and Botswana.

Pay particular attention to the charts showing how per-capita economic output has grown over time in these jurisdictions compared to other nations. That’s the real test of what works.

The second part of the video exposes the scandalous actions of international bureaucracies, which are urging higher fiscal burdens in developing nations even though no poor nation has ever become a rich nation with bigger government. Never.

Yet bureaucracies such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are explicitly pushing for higher taxes in poor nations based on the anti-empirical notion that bigger government is a strategy for growth.

I’m not joking.

As Ms. Doumit remarks in the video, these bureaucracies never offer a shred of evidence for this bizarre hypothesis.

And what’s especially frustrating is that the big nations of the western world (i.e., the ones that control the international bureaucracies) all became rich when government was very small.

And while the bureaucracies never provide any data or evidence, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity’s video is chock full of substantive information. Consider, for instance, this chart showing that there was almost no redistribution spending in the western world as late as 1930.

Unfortunately, the burden of government spending in western nations has metastasized starting in the 1930s. Total outlays now consume enormous amounts of economic output and counterproductive redistribution spending is now the biggest part of national budgets.

But at least western nations became rich first and then made the mistake of adopting bad fiscal policy (fortunately offset by improvements in other areas such as trade liberalization).

The international bureaucracies are trying to convince poor nations, which already suffer from bad policy, that they can succeed by imposing additional bad fiscal policy and then magically hope that growth will materialize.

And having just spent last week observing two conferences on tax and development at the United Nations in New York City, I can assure you that this is what they really think.

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It appears that Venezuela is on the brink of collapse as it enters the fourth circle of statist hell.

And the death of Cuba’s long-time dictator gives hope that the people of that island nation may soon escape communist tyranny.

Moreover, one certainly hopes that the lunatic leadership of North Korea’s brutal regime won’t last forever.

Let’s cross our fingers that these evil governments will soon lose power. But that’s only the first step. We also need to think about the policies that would enable these nations to undo the damage of pervasive socialism.

We can learn some lessons by looking at the experience of post-communist nations in Eastern Europe, which is a topic I addressed in the latest edition of The Conservative, which is the quarterly magazine published by the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformers in Europe.

I started the article with some broad observations about grim political and economic impact of communism.

Communism was an awful system for people trapped behind the Iron Curtain. The political cost was enormous. Personal rights and individual liberties were sacrificed to protect the power of the state. Human rights were abused, dissidents were imprisoned, and some were even killed. Communism also imposed huge economic costs. Collectivized agriculture, central planning, price controls, and government-run industries were among the policies that resulted in a debilitating misallocation of resources. And because labor and capital were poorly utilized, living standards lagged far behind western nations.

That was the bad news.

The good news is that the Soviet Empire collapsed, the Berlin Wall was dismantled, and democratic forms of government are now the norm in Eastern Europe.

But good news isn’t perfect news. Nations that emerged from the Soviet Bloc are still economic laggards. And if you dig into the latest version of Economic Freedom of the World, a big problem is that post-communist nations have not been very successful in defending property rights and implementing the rule of law.

Establishing genuine capitalism, though, has been a bigger challenge. Part of the problem is policy. And to be more specific, data from the Fraser’s Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World shows that the major difference today between Western Europe and Eastern Europe (nations that were part of the Soviet Bloc) is that the former get much better scores for “Legal System and Property Rights.” Indeed, the average ranking of Western European nations is 20.6 (with 1 being the best) while the average ranking of Eastern European countries is 67.1 (Economic Freedom of the World ranks 159 jurisdictions).

Here’s a graph comparing Western European nations with Eastern European nations.

As you can see, this is an area where Western Europe leads the world. Nordic nations tend to be at the very top of the rankings (thus helping to offset bad fiscal policy in those countries), and other countries in the region also are highly ranked (though a few countries in the region, such as Italy and Greece, don’t get good scores).

Eastern European countries, by contrast, don’t do well. There’s a significant gap when looking at average scores. Indeed, only Estonia ranks in the top 25.

And bad scores in this category are akin to putting a house on a foundation of sand. Other policies may create a house that looks very nice, but it probably won’t last very long on the unstable foundation.

And speaking of other policies, post-communist nations have better fiscal policy than the countries from Western Europe. Or, to be more accurate, they have less-worse fiscal policy.

If you examine the overall ratings for “Size of Government,” Eastern European nations actually are ranked significantly better, with an average ranking of 89.2 compared to 129.2 for Western European countries. This is because tax rates tend to be lower (many former Soviet Bloc nations have flat tax regimes, for instance) and welfare states aren’t as burdensome.

As I already hinted, doing “significantly better” on fiscal policy than Western Europe does not mean Eastern Europe has good fiscal policy.

Indeed, an average ranking of 89 means that most Eastern European nations are in the bottom half of the world.

So while it’s good that some Eastern European nations have flat taxes, that’s not an economic elixir if there are very high payroll taxes, stifling value-added taxes, and onerous energy taxes.

And since the burden of government spending is extremely onerous in Western Europe, it’s hardly an impressive achievement that Eastern Europe ranks slightly higher.

Though there’s one aspect of fiscal policy where the post-communist countries are lagging their neighbors to the west.

…if you dig into the details and examine the various components that determine “Size of Government,” there’s one area where Eastern Europe lags. The numbers for “Government Enterprises and Investment” are better in Western Europe. …In other words, politicians play too large a role in the allocation of capital in former communist nations.

To put that message in blunter terms, there’s too much cronyism in Eastern Europe.

So long as politicians can directly (state-owned enterprises) or indirectly (handouts, subsidies, and bailouts) provide favors and tilt the playing field, the enriching forces of private markets will be stunted.

Which is why I shared this conclusion in my article.

The bottom line is that post-communist nations need to choose genuine capitalism if they want a brighter future for their citizens.

If you want to close with some good news, I did point out in the article that there are some bright spots in the region, especially Estonia, though Poland also has made big progress.

P.S. Courtesy of Reddit‘s libertarian page, here’s an amusing cartoon strip.

It doesn’t quite meet the requirement for getting added to my “Government in Cartoons” page, but it definitely could be part of this collection of anti-politician jokes.

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The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has published a 136-page “Economic Survey” of China.

My first reaction is to wonder why the Paris-based bureaucracy needs any publication, much less such a long document, when Economic Freedom of the World already publishes an annual ranking that precisely and concisely identifies the economic strengths and weaknesses of various nations.

A review of the EFW data would quickly show that China doesn’t do a good job in any area, but that the nation’s biggest problems are a bloated public sector and a suffocating regulatory burden.

Though it’s worth noting that China’s mediocre scores today are actually a big improvement. Back in 1980, before China began to liberalize, it received a dismal score of 3.64 (on a 1-10 scale). Today’s 6.45 score isn’t great, but there’s been a big step in the right direction.

One of the most impressive changes is that the score for the trade category has jumped from 2.72 to 6.78 (i.e., moving from protectionism toward open trade is good for growth).

I cite this EFW data because part of me wonders why the OECD couldn’t be more efficient and simply put out a 5-page document that urges reforms – such as a spending cap and deregulation – that would address China’s biggest weaknesses?

To be fair, though, the number of pages isn’t what matters. It’s the quality of the analysis and advice. So let’s dig into the OECD’s China Survey and see whether it provides a road map for greater Chinese prosperity.

But before looking at recommendations, let’s start with some good news. This chart shows a dramatic reduction in poverty and it is one of the most encouraging displays of data I’ve ever seen.

Keep in mind, by the way, that China’s economic statistics may not be fully trustworthy. And it’s also worth noting that China’s rural poverty measure of CNY2300 is less than $350 per year.

Notwithstanding these caveats, it certainly appears that there’s been a radical reduction in genuine material deprivation in China. That’s a huge triumph for the partial economic liberalization we see in the EFW numbers.

Now let’s see whether the OECD is suggesting policies that will generate more positive charts in future years.

The good news is that the bureaucrats are mostly sensible on regulatory matters and state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Here are a few excerpts from the document’s executive summary.

Business creation has been made easier through the removal and unification of licenses. …Gradually remove guarantees to SOEs and other public entities to reduce contingent liabilities. …Reduce state ownership in commercially oriented…sectors. Let unviable SOEs go bankrupt, notably in sectors suffering from over-capacity.

The bad news is that the OECD wants the government to increase China’s fiscal burden. I’m not joking.

Policy reforms can greatly enhance the redistributive impact of the tax-and-transfer system. …Increase central and provincial government social assistance transfers…increase tax progressivity. Implement a broad-based nationwide recurrent tax on immovable property and consider an inheritance tax.

This is bad advice for any nation at any point, but it’s especially misguided for China because of looming demographic change.

Here’s another chart from the report. It shows a staggering four-fold increase in the share of old people relative to working-age people in the country.

This chart should be setting off alarm bells. The Chinese government should be taking steps to lower the burden of government spending and implement personal retirement accounts so there will be real savings to finance this demographic shift.

But the OECD report actually encourages less savings and more redistribution.

…rebalancing of the economy towards consumption is key. …Social infrastructure needs to be further developed…and the tax and transfer system made more progressive. …tax exemptions on interest from government bonds and savings accounts at Chinese banks could be abolished…introduction of inheritance tax.

What’s especially noteworthy is that the personal income tax in China (as is the case in almost all developing nations) only collects a trivial amount of revenue.

In 2016, PIT revenue amounted to 1.4 percent of GDP.

So why not do something bold and pro-growth, such as abolish that repugnant levy and make China a beacon for entrepreneurship and investment?

Needless to say, that’s not a recommendation you’ll find in a report from the pro-tax OECD.

And given the bureaucracy’s dismal track record, you won’t be surprised that there’s lots of rhetoric about the supposed problem of inequality, all of which is used to justify higher taxes and more redistribution.

The OECD instead should focus on growth and poverty mitigation, goals that naturally lend themselves to pro-market reforms.

Which brings me to the thing that’s always been baffling. Why doesn’t China simply copy the ultra-successful policies of Hong Kong, which has been a “special administrative region” of China for two decades?

Hong Kong has the policies – a spending cap, very little redistribution, open trade, private Social Security, etc – that China needs to become a rich nation.

If the leadership in Beijing has been wise enough to leave Hong Kong’s policies in place, why haven’t they been astute enough to apply them to the entire country?

Every so often, I think China is moving in that direction, only to then come across reasons to be pessimistic.

P.S. The OECD’s China report was predictably disappointing, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the IMF’s report on China, which I characterized half-jokingly as a declaration of economic war.

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An essential part of a free market economy is the price system. The competitive pricing of goods and services transmits information to producers and consumers and creates incentives for the efficient allocation of resources. Just as the circulatory system or nervous system enables our bodies to function.

And when you weaken or cripple markets with various forms government intervention (price controls, taxes, third-party payer, etc), that leads to distortions that reduce prosperity.

This is why “paycheck fairness” proposals to address the supposed “gender pay gap” are so risky for prosperity. It’s no exaggeration to say that these “comparable worth” schemes are designed to empower bureaucrats and politicians to override market forces.

What makes all this especially frustrating is there is no systemic discrimination against females in the workplace.

One of the leading scholars in this field is Christina Hoff Summers of the American Enterprise Institute. She has dissected the data and demonstrated that there is no pay gap once factors such as occupational choice and work hours are added to the equation. And now she has a must-watch video on the subject from Prager University.

All of her data is very compelling, but the most persuasive part of the video is at the beginning when she asks why profit-seeking businesses don’t fire men and hire women if there really is a wage gap.

Statists might respond that businesses are part of some evil patriarchy and that there’s some sort of oligopolistic conspiracy to forego income in order to oppress females. But if that’s what they really think, why don’t these leftists start their own businesses and take advantage of the supposed pay gap? Not only would they earn large profits, but they would also bankrupt existing firms that ostensibly are engaging in discrimination.

Sounds like a win-win, right?

And if they respond by saying that they don’t happen to have business skills because they chose to study more enlightened topics while in school, then ask them why progressive companies from France or Sweden aren’t entering the American market and earning lots of business?

Or are they part of the patriarchal conspiracy as well? Like almost all theories based on conspiracies, this is nonsense.

Let’s close with some wisdom on this issue from one of my colleagues at the Cato Institute. Vanessa Brown Calder cites a considerable amount of data on occupational choice, but also focuses on quality-of-life and family issues.

…women are considerably more likely to absorb more care-taker responsibilities within their families, and these roles demand associated career trade-offs. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In describes 43% of highly-qualified women with children as leaving their careers or off-ramping for a period of time. And a recent Harvard Business Review report describes women as being more likely than men to make decisions “to accommodate family responsibilities, such as limiting (work-related) travel, choosing a more flexible job, slowing down the pace of one’s career, making a lateral move, leaving a job, or declining to work toward a promotion.” It’s fair to assume that such interruptions impact long-term wages substantially. In fact, when researchers try to control for these differences, the wage gap virtually disappears. …It’s likely that other, more nuanced but documented differences, like spending fewer hours on paid work per week would explain some of the remaining five percent pay differential.

The philoso-raptor agrees.

P.S. Given its track record of shoddy and biased output, is anyone surprised that the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is pushing dishonest gender pay data?

P.P.S. Even the Obama-era Council of Economic Advisers had enough integrity to disavow the feminist pay-gap numbers.

P.P.P.S. On an amusing note, here are some news reports about my interaction with the feminist left during my college years.

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The Index of Economic Freedom is my favorite annual publication from the Heritage Foundation. It’s a rich source of information, using dozens of data sources, about economic liberty around the world.

I first wrote about the Index back in 2010 and shared the bad news that the U.S. score dropped dramatically in Obama’s first year.

Well, the new Index lets us see the net effect of Obama’s entire tenure. The worse news is that the U.S. score has dropped to 75.1 on a 0-100 scale. And the worst news is that this represents America’s lowest score in the twenty-plus years that the Index has been published.

The United States is ranked #17 in the latest Index. We’re only in the “Mostly Free” category, behind Luxembourg and the Netherlands and tied with Denmark.

The top-ranked jurisdiction, once again, is Hong Kong. And what’s really amazing is that Hong Kong actually increased it score. Indeed, all five nations in the “Free” category managed to increase overall economic freedom.

So congratulations also to Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland, and Australia.

Here’s a map showing the entire world. The worst nations are in red, with North Korea at the very bottom, followed by Venezuela and Cuba.

By the way, Cuba jumped 4.1 points last year, so maybe Fidel’s death is the beginning of some much-needed liberalization.

For more information on the United States, here’s the breakdown of America’s score. As you can see, our worst category is “government size.” In other words, we tax too much and spend too much.

America’s best score is for “regulatory efficiency,” which helps to explain why the U.S. gets a top-10 score from the World Bank’s Doing Business.

Let’s close by comparing the United States with Hong Kong. This charts shows how our scores have changes over time, and also shows the average score for the entire world.

The biggest takeaway is that the U.S. basically is halfway between Hong Kong and the world average.

The great unknown, of course, is whether America’s score will go up or down under Trump.

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When trying to educate people about the superiority of free enterprise over statism, I generally show them long-run data comparing market-oriented jurisdictions with those that have state-driven economies. Here are some of my favorite examples.

It’s my hope that when readers look at these comparisons, they will recognize the value of economic freedom because it is very obvious that ordinary people become far more prosperous when government is small.

But there’s also another way of determining which approach is superior. Just look and see what happens when people are allowed to vote with their feet. Or, just as important, look at places where people are not allowed to vote with their feet.

The Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, for instance, existed to prevent people from escaping the horror of Soviet communism. Likewise, people in North Korea and Cuba don’t have the freedom to emigrate.

Totalitarian governments realize that their citizens would escape en masse if they had the chance.

In free countries, by contrast, there’s no need to imprison people.

And that’s why this Imgur image is not only funny, but also a good summary of population shifts around the world.

I’ll definitely have to add this to my collection of libertarian humor.

To be sure, not everybody who moves from a statist hellhole to a prosperous capitalist society is motivated by an appreciation for liberty. They may simply want a better life and have no idea that national prosperity is a function of economic liberty.

And they may not even want to earn a better life. They may simply want to get on the gravy train of government handouts (which is why I’m not a fan of America’s dependency-inducing refugee program).

But I’m digressing. The simple moral of today’s story is that decent societies don’t have to imprison their citizens. That only happens in place where government is not only big, but also evil.

P.S. Unlike some libertarians, I like borders.

P.P.S. People also vote with their feet inside nations, and the lesson to be learned is that smaller governments attract more people.

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All things considered, I like small businesses more than big businesses.

Not because I’m against large companies, per se, but rather because big businesses often use their political influence to seek unearned and undeserved wealth. If you don’t believe me, just look at the big corporations lobbying for bad policies such as the Export-Import Bank, Dodd-Frank, Obamacare, bailouts, and the green-energy scam.

It’s almost as if cronyism is a business model.

By contrast, the only bad policy associated with modest-sized firms is the Small Business Administration. And I suspect the majority of little firms wouldn’t even notice or care if that silly bit of intervention was shut down.

Rather than seeking handouts, small businesses generally are more focused on fighting back against excessive government.

That’s because taxes and red tape can be a death sentence for a mom-and-pop firm. Literally, not just figuratively.

The Daily News reports on the sad closing of popular restaurant in New York City.

For 25 years, China Fun was renowned…the restaurant’s sudden Jan. 3 closing, blamed by management on suffocating government demands. …“The state and municipal governments, with their punishing rules and regulations, seems to believe that we should be their cash machine to pay for all that ails us in society.” …Albert Wu, whose parents Dorothea and Felix owned the eatery, said the endless paperwork and constant regulation that forced the shutdown accumulated over the years. …Wu cited one regulation where the restaurant was required to provide an on-site break room for workers despite its limited space. And he blamed the amount of paperwork now required — an increasingly difficult task for a non-chain businesses. “In a one-restaurant operation like ours, you’re spending more time on paperwork than you are trying to run your business,” he griped. Increases in the minimum wage, health insurance and insurance added to a list of 10 issues provided by Wu. “And I haven’t even gone into the Health Department rules and regulations,” he added. …“For smaller businesses like China Fun, each little thing that occurs makes it harder,” said Malpass. “Each regulation, each tax — you put it all together and it’s just a hostile business environment.”

This is rather unfortunate, but perhaps it is a “teachable moment.”

There are two things that came to mind as I read this story.

  • First, at some point a camel’s back is broken by too much straw. Politicians often claim that a particular tax or regulation imposes a very small burden. Perhaps that is true, but when you have dozens of taxes and hundreds of regulations, those various and sundry small burdens become very onerous. I’ve made the point before that you don’t need perfect policy for the economy to function. You just need “breathing room.” Well, China Fun ran out of breathing room. A casualty of big government, though it remains to be seen if anyone learns from this experience.
  • Second, complicated taxes and regulations are a much bigger burden for small companies compared to big corporations. Every large firm has teams of lawyers and accountants to deal with tax and regulatory compliance. That’s expensive and inefficient, of course, but such costs nonetheless consume only a very small fraction of total revenue. For small businesses, by contrast, those costs consume an enormous percentage of time, energy, and resources for owners. For all intents and purposes, bad government policy creates a competitive advantage for big firms over small firms.

The moral of the story is that we should have smaller government. Not just lower taxes (and simpler taxes), but also less regulation and red tape.

Not just because such policies are good for overall economic performance, but also because small businesses shouldn’t be disadvantaged.

P.S. Since we’re on the topic of how government tilts the playing field in favor of big companies (at least the corrupt big companies), let’s enjoy some humor on that topic.

Starting with Uncle Sam’s universal bailout application form. And we also have the fancy new vehicle from Government Motors.

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