Posts Tagged ‘Hong Kong’

I have applauded the incredible economic success of Hong Kong, which has long been ranked as the world’s most economically free jurisdiction.

Well, given China’s recent decision to impose more controls on Hong Kong, I want to share this interview I did last October.

At the risk of patting myself on the back, I think everything I said still applies.

Especially when compared to what some others are saying. Writing for Bloomberg last October, Shirley Zhao and Bruce Einhorn seemingly want readers to think that low tax rates somehow are the cause of Hong Kong’s challenges.

Hong Kong has remained the world’s freest economy, thanks partly to low taxes and the rule of law. But widening inequality has also fueled the worst unrest the city has seen since the former British colony returned to China in 1997. …The combined net worth of the territory’s 20 richest people…is pegged at $210 billion… the city’s income inequality, as expressed in Gini coefficient, was the most for any developed economy in 2016… About 1 in 5 residents lives below the poverty line. …Lam is under pressure to soothe tensions and find ways to ease the housing crisis in the least-affordable market without rocking a tax regime that made Hong Kong Asia’s financial hub.

I disagree with much of their analysis.

As I noted in the interview, the problem with housing is caused by government ownership of land.

Moreover, I can’t resist pointing out that the assertion about 20 percent of the population living in poverty has been shown to be utter nonsense. That figure comes from “poverty hucksters” who deliberately conflate inequality with poverty (an example of the “Eighth Theorem of Government“).

And, speaking of inequality, Hong Kong historically has been a great place to be poor for the simple reason that it’s a great place to climb out of poverty.

Or, to be more precise, it’s been a great place to climb out of poverty. Whether that will still be true in the future depends on China.

I have no idea what Beijing will do, but I explained in the interview that it would be good for everyone if China took a hands-off approach to Hong Kong.

Why? This chart, based on the Maddison database, shows that Hong Kong’s rapid growth rate has slowed ever since Hong Kong was transferred from British rule to Chinese rule. Since China has wisely not interfered with Hong Kong’s pro-growth economic policy, the most logical explanation for the slowdown is that entrepreneurs and investors are worried about what may happen in the future.

Needless to say, the best way to rejuvenate rapid growth is for Beijing to somehow display a commitment to economic liberty in Hong Kong (consistent with the one-country-two-systems approach).

P.S. As I warned in the interview, the United States should not goad China into any sort of crackdown, either political or economic.

P.P.S. The best-case scenario is a Singapore-style evolution in China, meaning sweeping economic liberalization and gradual political liberalization.

P.P.P.S. The worst-case scenario is backsliding by China on previous economic liberalization, combined with unfriendly relations with the western world.

Read Full Post »

Yesterday’s column was my annual end-of-year round-up of the best and worst developments of the concluding year.

Today I’ll be forward looking and give you my hopes and fears for the new year, which is a newer tradition that began in 2017 (and continued in 2018 and 2019).

With my glass-half-full outlook, we’ll start with the things I hope will happen.

Supreme Court strikes down civil asset forfeiture – It is nauseating that bureaucrats can steal property from citizens who have never been convicted of a crime. Or even charged with a crime. Fortunately, this disgusting practice already has attracted attention from Clarence Thomas and other sound-thinking Justices on the Supreme Court. Hopefully, this will produce a decision that ends this example of Venezuela-style government thuggery.

Good free-trade agreements for the United Kingdom – This is a two-pronged hope. First, I want a great agreement between the U.S. and the U.K., based on the principle of mutual recognition. Second, I want the best-possible agreement between the U.K. and the E.U., which will be a challenge since the political elite in Brussels has a spiteful desire to “punish” the British people for supporting Brexit.

Maduro’s ouster in Venezuela – I already wished for this development in 2018 and 2019, so this is my “Groundhog Day” addition to the list. But if I keep wishing for it, sooner or later it will happen and I’ll look prescient. But I actually don’t care about whether my predictions are correct, I just want an end to the horrible suffering for the people of Venezuela.

Here are the things I fear will happen in 2020.

A bubble bursts – I hope I’m wrong (and that may be the case since I’ve been fretting about it for a long time), but I fear that financial markets are being goosed by an easy-money policy from the Federal Reserve. Bubbles feel good when they’re expanding, but last decade should have taught us that they can be very painful when they pop.

A loss of economic liberty in Chile and/or Hong Kong – As shown by Economic Freedom of the World, there are not that many success stories in the world. But we can celebrate what’s happened in Hong Kong since WWII and what’s happened in Chile since the late 1970s. Economic liberty has dramatically boosted prosperity. Unfortunately, Hong Kong’s liberty is now being threatened from without and Chile’s liberty is now being threatened from within.

Repeal of the Illinois flat tax – The best approach for a state is to have no income tax, and a state flat tax is the second-best approach. Illinois is in that second category thanks to a long-standing provision of the state’s constitution. Needless to say, this irks the big spenders who control the Illinois government and they are asking voters this upcoming November to vote on whether to bust the flat tax and open the floodgates for an ever-growing fiscal burden. By the way, it’s quite likely that I’ll be including the Massachusetts flat tax on this list next year.

I’ll also add a special category for something that would be both good and bad.

Trump gets reelected – Because Trump is producing better tax policy and better regulatory policy, and because of my hopes for judges who believe in the Constitution’s protections of economic liberty, it would be good if he won a second term.

Trump gets reelected – Because Trump is producing worse spending policy and worse trade policy, and because of my concerns never-ending Keynesian monetary policy from the Federal Reserve, it would be bad if he won a second term.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Read Full Post »

A week ago, I wrote about the turmoil in Hong Kong and pointed out that a crackdown would be bad for China’s already-faltering economy.

I had a chance to again address the issue yesterday.

What made this interview different is that it included a discussion of what Trump should do.

My expertise is economics rather than diplomacy, but I speculated that public warnings and/or threats by Trump might backfire.

The Wall Street Journal opined today on this issue and they want Trump to be aggressive. Here are some excerpts.

The stakes are rising in Hong Kong, as clashes between pro-democracy protesters and the local government backed by China are escalating. The damage could be global if President Xi Jinping orders a bloody crackdown, and President Trump should be warning the Chinese President not to do it. …The protests began in June when the Legislative Council tried to ram through a bill that would allow Beijing to extradite anyone in Hong Kong to the mainland. Amid overwhelming public opposition, Ms. Lam has declared the legislation “dead” but refused to withdraw it. Police have responded to the protests with hundreds of arrests and increasing brutality. Hong Kong’s cause should be the free world’s… An invasion of Hong Kong would violate China’s treaty with Britain and poison U.S.-Chinese relations.

I agree that the Trump Administration should seek to deter intervention, but I think any warnings – at least at this point – should be conveyed behind the scenes.

In my fantasy world, Trump would strike a deal with China, and agree to drop his misguided trade taxes in exchange for China not messing with Hong Kong.

Sadly, my fantasies rarely become reality.

So I’ll close with a practical point. I mentioned in the interview that the people of Hong Kong are much richer than the people of China. Here’s the evidence, based on the Maddison database, as well as the numbers from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

My takeaway from these numbers, as I suggest in the title, is that China should send economists to Hong Kong rather than troops. They could learn important lessons about the benefits of free markets and limited government.

Heck, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to send American economists as well. Indeed, since it gets the top score from Economic Freedom of the World, the entire world can learn from Hong Kong’s spectacular success.

Read Full Post »

Spending caps are the most effective way of fulfilling my Golden Rule for fiscal policy.

And we have good evidence for this approach, as I explain in this FreedomWorks discussion.

I also discuss tax competition in the interview, as well as other topics. You can watch the entire discussion by clicking here.

But I’m sharing the part about spending caps because it fits perfectly with some new research from Veronique de Rugy and Jack Salmon of the Mercatus Center.

They point out that America faces a grim fiscal future, but suggest that fiscal rules may be part of the solution.

…the federal budget process as it exists today has proven inadequate…it is a great way to enable politicians to do what they want to do (cater to interest groups) while avoiding what they don’t want to do (living within their means). …The negative consequence emerging from this chaos and the resulting failure to follow budget rules is an unremitting expansion of the size and scope of government… With countries around the world experiencing growing debt-to-GDP ratios, resultant stagnation in economic growth, and, in extreme cases, default on debts, academics have been paying an increasing amount of attention to the potential of rules toward restraining unsustainable deficit spending. …The good news is that the evidence suggests that these fiscal rules are broadly effective at restraining deficit spending. …The bad news is that not all fiscal rules are effective in restraining government profligacy and curtailing debt growth.

The authors are right. Some fiscal rules don’t work very well.

As I stated in the interview, balanced budget requirements tend to be ineffective.

Spending caps, by contrast, have a decent track record.

The Mercatus study looks at Hong Kong.

Hong Kong…might actually represent the gold standard of good fiscal policy. …Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary, Mr. John Tsang, explained, “Our commitment to small government demands strong fiscal discipline. . . . It is my responsibility to keep expenditure growth commensurate with growth in our GDP.” …in Hong Kong it’s actually a constitutional requirement: Article 107 requires that the government should strive to achieve a fiscal balance, avoid deficit, and more importantly, make sure government spending doesn’t grow faster than the growth of the economy. …Hong Kong’s spending-to-GDP ratio has fluctuated between 14 and 20 percent since the 1990s, its debt as a share of GDP is zero, social welfare spending remains steady at less than 3 percent of GDP.


I’ve also praised Hong Kong’s fiscal policy.

Now let’s look at what the authors wrote about Switzerland.

Swiss politicians are not allowed to increase spending faster than average revenue growth over a multiyear period (as calculated by the Swiss Federal Department of Finance), which confines spending growth to a rate no higher than the rate of inflation plus population growth. The Swiss debt brake rule is significant in that it appeals to economists and policymakers on both sides of the aisle. Advocates for fiscal restraint support this rule because it is effectively a spending cap, while social democrats support the rule as it allows for deficit spending during recessionary periods. …There’s no arguing with the results: Annual spending growth fell from an average of 4.3 percent to 2.5 percent since the rule was implemented. Also, in 10 out of the past 14 years, Switzerland has had budget surpluses, while deficits have remained rare and small… At the same time, the Swiss debt-to-GDP ratio has fallen from almost 60 percent in 2003 to around 42 percent in 2017.

Once again, I say amen.

Switzerland’s spending cap is a big success.

Here’s Figure 1 from the study, which shows a big drop in Swiss government debt. I’ve augmented the chart with OECD data to focus on something even more important – which is that the burden of spending (which started very low by European standards) has declined since the debt brake was implemented.

Last but not least, let’s look at the Danish example.

In 2014 Denmark implemented The Budget Act to ensure more efficient management of public expenditures. The act is aimed at ensuring a balance or surplus on the general government balance sheet, as well as appropriate expenditure management at all levels of government. In practice, the rule sets a limit of 0.5 percent of GDP on the structural budget deficit. Policymakers decided that managing fiscal policy on the basis of a balanced structural budget would lead to an appropriate fiscal position in the long term. They also designed the system to take discretion out of their own hands by making the cuts automatic. In addition to structural deficit rules, the Budget Act introduces four-year rolling expenditure ceilings. These ceilings set legally binding limits for spending at all levels of government and for each program. If one program spends under its cap, any money not spent cannot be reallocated to another program.

I guess this is time for a triple-amen.

Here’s Figure 2 from the study, which I’ve also augmented to highlight the most important success of Denmark’s policy of spending restraint.

The economic case for spending caps is ironclad.

The problem is that it’s an uphill climb from a political perspective.

Politicians prefer legislative spending caps. After all (as we saw in 2013, 2015, 2018, and this year), those can be evaded with a simple majority, so long as there’s a profligate president who approves higher spending levels.

And those caps have never applied to entitlements, which are the part of the budget that eventually will bankrupt the nation.

So why would public choice-motivated lawmakers actually allow a serious and comprehensive spending cap to become part of the Constitution?

Read Full Post »

For libertarians, there aren’t many good role models in the world. There are a few small jurisdictions such as Bermuda, Monaco, and the Cayman Islands that are worth highlighting because of strong rule of law and good fiscal policy. There are also a few medium-sized nations that are – by modern standards – very market-oriented, such as Switzerland, Singapore, and New Zealand.

But Hong Kong generally gets top rankings for economic liberty. Which helps to explain why I’m so worried about a potential crackdown by China.

As I noted in the interview, intervention by Chinese security would not be good news for Hong Kong.

But it also would be bad news for China’s economy. Especially since it already is dealing with the adverse consequences of both internal statism and external protectionism.

Indeed, the only reason I’m not totally pessimistic is that the power elite in China doubtlessly would experience a big loss in personal wealth if there is a crackdown.

That being said, I can’t imagine President Xi will allow China’s implicit control over Hong Kong to diminish. So I’m reluctant to make any prediction.

But I very much hope that Hong Kong will emerge unscathed, in part because I don’t want to lose a very good example of the link between economic liberty and national prosperity.

Marian Tupy, writing for CapX, explains that Hong Kong is a great role model.

In 1950, …compared to the advanced countries of the West, Hong Kong was still a relative backwater. …the average resident of the colony earned 35 per cent and 25 per cent compared to British and American citizens respectively. Today, average income in Hong Kong is 37 per cent and 3 per cent higher than that in the United Kingdom and America. …Unlike some British ex-colonies and the United Kingdom itself, Hong Kong never experimented with socialism. Historically, the government played only a minor role in the economy… The territory kept taxes flat and low… The territory followed a policy of unilateral trade liberalisation, which is to say that the colony allowed other countries to export to Hong Kong tariff-free, regardless of whether other countries reciprocated or not. …In 1755, the great Scottish economist Adam Smith…wrote, “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice…” Hong Kong prospered because it followed Smith’s recommendations.

Here’s his chart showing how Hong Kong has surpassed both the United Kingdom and United States in terms of per-capita economic output.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, Jairaj Devadiga explains a key factor in Hong Kong’s success.

Sir John Cowperthwaite was Hong Kong’s financial secretary from 1961-71 and is widely credited for the prosperity Hong Kong enjoys today. An ardent free-marketeer, Cowperthwaite believed that government should not try to manage the economy. One salient feature of Cowperthwaite’s policies: His administration didn’t collect any economic data during his tenure. Not even gross domestic product was calculated. When the American economist Milton Friedman asked why, Cowperthwaite replied that once the data were made available, officials would invariably use them to make the case for government intervention in the economy. …Without data, busybody bureaucrats had no way of justifying interference in the economy. In Cowperthwaite’s Hong Kong, the government did only the bare minimum necessary, such as maintaining law and order… The rest was left to the private sector. …When asked what poor countries should do to emulate Hong Kong’s success, he replied, “They should abolish the office of national statistics.”


When you give data to politicians and bureaucrats, they generally find something they don’t like and then can’t resist the temptation to intervene.

Now that we’ve looked at some of the factors that enabled Hong Kong’s prosperity, let’s consider what may happen if there’s a crackdown by China.

Professor Tyler Cowen shares a pessimistic assessment in his Bloomberg column.

Hong Kong has been a kind of bellwether for the state of freedom in the wider world. …By 1980, Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose” series was on television, portraying Hong Kong as a free economy experiencing huge gains in living standards. The skyline was impressive, and you could get all the necessary permits to start a business in Hong Kong in just a few days. The territory showed how Friedman’s theories worked in the real world. Hong Kong stood as a symbol of a new age of freer markets and growing globalization. …Hong Kong still ranks near or at the top of several indices of economic freedom. But…[n]ot only is there the specter of Chinese intervention, but there is also a broader understanding that the rules of the game can change at any time… Meanwhile, many Hong Kong residents know their behavior is being monitored and graded, and they know the role of the Chinese government will only grow. …Freedom is not merely the ability to buy and sell goods at minimum regulation and a low tax rate, variables that are readily picked up by economic freedom indices. Freedom is also about the…legitimacy and durability of their political institutions. …Circa 2019, Hong Kong is a study in the creeping power and increasing sophistication of autocracy. While it is possible there could be a Tiananmen-like massacre in the streets of Hong Kong, it is more likely that its mainland overlords will opt for more subtle ways of choking off Hong Kong’s remaining autonomy and freedoms. …right now, I would bet on the Chinese Communist Party over the protesters.

If Cowen is right, one thing that surely will happen is that money will flee.

And that may already be happening. Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg report.

Private bankers are being flooded with inquiries from investors in Hong Kong…wealthy investors are setting up ways to move their money out of the former British colony more quickly, bankers and wealth managers said. A major Asian wealth manager said it has received a large flow of new money in Singapore from Hong Kong over recent weeks, requesting not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue. One Hong Kong private banker said the majority of the new queries he receives aren’t coming from the super-rich, most of whom already have alternative destinations for their money, but from individuals with assets in the $10 million to $20 million range. …The extradition fight reinforced concerns among Hong Kong investors and democracy advocates alike that the Beijing-backed government is eroding the legal wall separating the local judicial system from the mainland’s. …The recent demonstrations are the latest trigger in a long process of Chinese money flowing to Singapore, London, New York and other centers outside Beijing’s reach. …“Hong Kong has shot itself in the foot,” said Chong, a Malaysian who has permanent residency in both Hong Kong and Singapore. “Can you imagine Singapore allowing this?”

And keep in mind that big money is involved. Here’s a chart that accompanied the analysis.

Looking at these numbers, I want to emphasize again that China also will suffer if a crackdown causes money to flee Hong Kong.

Which is President Xi should resist the urge to intervene.

I’ll close with this visual depiction of Hong Kong’s amazing growth.

Let’s hope Beijing doesn’t try to reverse this progress.

P.S. You’ll notice that I didn’t advocate for democracy, either in this column or in the interview. That’s because I’m more concerned with protecting and promoting liberty. Yes, it’s good to have a democratic form of government. If I understand correctly, there’s also an empirical link between political freedom and economic freedom. But sometimes democracy simply means the ability to take other people’s money, using government as the middleman. That’s why the people of not-very-democratic Hong Kong are much better off than the people of democratic Greece.

Read Full Post »

Because they directly measure economic liberty, my favorite global rankings are Economic Freedom of the World and the Index of Economic Freedom.

But I also like the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report and the Institute of Management Development’s World Competitiveness Rankings, both of which basically measure the degree to which a nation is hospitable to business activity (which is correlated with economic liberty).

The United States dominated the IMD rankings until 2010, and America managed to reclaim the top spot for 2017. But according to new numbers from IMD’s World Competitiveness Center, Singapore and Hong Kong are now at the top.

I’m also not surprised to see Switzerland ranked highly.

And it’s worth noting that the Netherlands, Ireland, and Denmark are top-10 nations, similar to their scores in the Human Freedom Index.

Here’s some additional information from the press release.

Singapore has ranked as the world’s most competitive economy for the first time since 2010, according to the IMD World Competitiveness Rankings, as the United States slipped from the top spot… Singapore’s rise to the top was driven by its advanced technological infrastructure, the availability of skilled labor, favorable immigration laws, and efficient ways to set up new businesses. Hong Kong SAR held on to second place, helped by a benign tax and business policy environment and access to business finance. …The IMD World Competitiveness Rankings, established in 1989, incorporate 235 indicators from each of the 63 ranked economies. The ranking takes into account a wide range of “hard” statistics such as unemployment, GDP and government spending on health and education, as well as “soft” data from an Executive Opinion Survey covering topics such as social cohesion, globalization and corruption. This information feeds into four categories – economic performance, infrastructure, government efficiency and business efficiency – to give a final score for each country. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for competitiveness, but the best performing countries tend to score well across all four categories. Switzerland climbed to fourth place from fifth, helped by economic growth, the stability of the Swiss franc and high-quality infrastructure. …The United Arab Emirates – ranked 15th as recently as 2016 – entered the top five for the first time. …Venezuela remains anchored to the bottom of the ranking, hit by inflation, poor access to credit and a weak economy. The South American economy ranks the lowest for three out of four of the main criteria groups – economic performance, government efficiency and infrastructure.

Venezuela in last place? I’m shocked, shocked.

There are two specific items from the report I want to highlight.

First, notwithstanding the bleating from Trump and others about a supposed crisis of inadequate spending, notice that the United States is in first place for that category.

Also, notice that the jurisdictions with high scores for government efficiency are all places with (by modern standards) small government.

This is very similar to the “public sector efficiency” scores from the European Central Bank.

The moral of the story is that small government is the way to get competent government. It’s almost as if there’s a recipe that generates good outcomes.

Read Full Post »

International development experts often write about a “middle-income trap.”

According to this theory, it’s not that challenging for nations to climb out of poverty, but it’s difficult for them to take the next step and become rich countries.

The theory makes sense to many people because it describes much of what we see in the real world.

We even see the trap at higher levels of income. European nations were catching up with the United States after World War II, but then the convergence process stalled.

But I don’t think there’s actually a “middle-income trap.” Instead, nations don’t enjoy full convergence because they are hamstrung by bad policy.

And Hong Kong and Singapore are the best evidence for my hypothesis. These two jurisdictions have routinely ranked #1 and #2 for economic freedom.

And their solid track record of free markets and small government has paid big dividends. Here a chart, for Our World in Data, which shows how they have fully converged with the United States after starting way behind.

The performance of Hong Kong and Singapore is particularly impressive because the United States historically has been a top-10 nation for economic liberty (notwithstanding all my grousing about bad policy in America, we’ve been fairly good compared to the rest of the world).

So it takes extraordinarily good performance to catch up.

But it can happen.

P.S. By the way, one thing I noticed in the above chart is that Singapore has surpassed Hong Kong in the past couple of decades. This could just be a statistical blip, though I wonder if this is a result of the transfer of Hong Kong from British control to Chinese control. Yes, China has wisely chosen not to interfere with Hong Kong’s domestic policy, but perhaps investors and entrepreneurs don’t fully trust that this economic autonomy will continue.

P.P.S. Don’t forget that comparatively rich nations can de-converge if they adopt bad policy.

Read Full Post »

What’s the world’s freest nation?

I’ve suggested that Australia as an option if the United States ever suffers a Greek-style collapse, but my answer wasn’t based solely on that country’s level of freedom.

Another option is to look at Economic Freedom of the World, which is an excellent resource, but it only measures the degree to which a nation allows free markets.

If you want to know the world’s freest nation, the best option is to peruse the Human Freedom IndexFirst released in 2013, it combines economic freedom and personal freedom.

The 2018 version has just been published, and, as you can see, New Zealand is the world’s most-libertarian nation, followed by Switzerland and Hong Kong. The United States is tied with Sweden for #17.

If you scan the top-20 list, you’ll notice that North America, Western Europe, and the Antipodes (Australia and New Zealand) dominate.

And that also is apparent on this map (darker is better). So maybe “western civilization” isn’t so bad after all.

Here is an explanation of the report’s guiding methodology. Simply stated, it’s a ranking of “negative liberty,” which is basically freedom from government coercion.

The Human Freedom Index casts a wide net in an attempt to capture as broad a set of freedoms as could be clearly identified and measured. …Freedom in our usage is a social concept that recognizes the dignity of individuals and is defined by the absence of coercive constraint. …Freedom thus implies that individuals have the right to lead their lives as they wish as long as they respect the equal rights of others. Isaiah Berlin best elucidated this notion of freedom, commonly known as negative liberty. In the simplest terms, negative liberty means noninterference by others. …This index is thus an attempt to measure the extent to which the negative rights of individuals are respected in the countries observed. By negative rights, we mean freedom from interference—predominantly by government—in people’s right to choose to do, say, or think anything they want, provided that it does not infringe on the rights of others to do likewise.

Unsurprisingly, there is a correlation between personal freedom and economic freedom.

Though it’s not a perfect correlation. The Index highlights some of the exceptions.

Some countries ranked consistently high in the human freedom subindexes, including Switzerland and New Zealand, which ranked in the top 10 in both personal and economic freedom. By contrast, some countries that ranked high on personal freedom rank significantly lower in economic freedom. For example, Sweden ranked 3rd in personal freedom but 43rd in economic freedom; Slovenia ranked 23rd in personal freedom but 71st in economic freedom; and Argentina ranked in 42nd place in personal freedom but 160th in economic freedom. Similarly, some countries that ranked high on economic freedom found themselves significantly lower in personal freedom. For example, Singapore ranked in 2nd place in economic freedom while ranking 62nd in personal freedom; the United Arab Emirates ranked 37th in economic freedom but 149th in personal freedom; and Qatar ranked 38th in economic freedom but 134th in personal freedom.

This raises an interesting question. If you had to move, and assuming you couldn’t move to a nation that offered both types of freedom, would you prefer a place like Sweden or a place like Singapore?

As an economist, my bias would be to choose Singapore.

But if you look at the nations in the top-10 for personal freedom, they’re all great place to live (and they tend to be very market-oriented other than their big welfare states). So I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone for instead choosing Sweden.

P.S. There are some very attractive micro-states that were not including in the Human Freedom Index, presumably because of inadequate data. I suspect places such as Bermuda, Liechtenstein, Monaco, and the Cayman Islands would all get very high scores if they were included.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

When President Trump proposed zero trade barriers among major economies, I applauded. Government-imposed barriers to commerce hurt prosperity, whether those restrictions hinder voluntary exchange inside a country or across national borders.

There’s a debate over Trump’s sincerity, and I’m definitely with the skeptics (look at his supposed deal with Mexico, for instance), but let’s set that issue aside and investigate the merits of free trade.

But let’s go one step farther. Instead of looking at whether multiple nations should simultaneously eliminate trade barriers, let’s consider the case for unilateral free trade.

In other words, should the government abolish all tariffs, quotas, and other restrictions so that buying products from Rome, Italy, is as simple as buying products from Rome, Georgia.

The global evidence says yes, regardless of whether other countries do the same thing.

Consider the examples of Singapore, Macau, and Hong Kong. According to the World Trade Organization, trade barriers are virtually nonexistent in these jurisdictions.

Have they suffered?

Hardly. According to the World Bank, all three jurisdictions are among the most prosperous places on the planet. Indeed, if you removed oil sheikdoms and tax havens from the list, they would win the gold, silver, and bronze medals for prosperity.

To be sure, there are many reasons that Singapore, Macau, and Hong Kong are rich. They have low taxes and small government, as well as comparatively little red tape and intervention.

But free trade definitely helps to explain why these jurisdictions have become so rich at such a rapid pace.

Let’s also look at the example of New Zealand. It doesn’t have absolute free trade, but average tariffs are 2.02 percent, which means it is the world’s fifth-most pro-trade nation.

Have the Kiwis suffered from free trade?

Nope. I shared a remarkable video last year that explains the nation’s remarkable turnaround coincided with a period of unilateral trade liberalization.

Today, let’s look at a column on the same topic by Patrick Tyrrell.

New Zealand…is one of the champions of economic freedom around the world. But it wasn’t always so. In the mid-1980s, New Zealand was facing an economic crisis, with its domestic market and international trade both heavily regulated. Unemployment had reached 11 percent… In response, the government of New Zealand began implementing revolutionary economic reforms, most significantly related to trade policy. It announced in 1987 a program that would reduce the tax on imports to under 20 percent by the year 1992. By 1996, that tax was reduced further to under 10 percent, and by the end of 1999, about 95 percent of New Zealand’s tariffs were set at zero.

Was that a successful policy?

Extremely beneficial.

New Zealand’s adoption of less restrictive trade policies has corresponded to its climb up the trade-freedom scale…and with a huge boost in per capita gross domestic product. The United States could take a page out of New Zealand’s trade-policy book and implement the same type of reductions in tariffs… That would enhance innovation and economic freedom—and grow our economy.

Here’s the chart from Patrick’s column.

Once again, the obvious caveat applies. New Zealand has adopted many pro-market policies in recent decades, so trade is just one of the reasons the country has moved in the right direction.

Now let’s go back in history and peruse Professor Peter Cain’s analysis of what happened when the U.K. adopted unilateral free trade in the mid-nineteenth century.

The trend to freer trade began in the late eighteenth century. …it was the 1840s that saw the beginning of a true revolution in policy. Earlier moves towards freer trade had been conditioned by an insistence on reciprocity (i.e. agreements with other states on mutual tariff reductions), but from the 1840s policy was determined unilaterally. The most dramatic instance of this was the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. …It also reflected a growing belief that cheap imports were the key to prosperity because they would benefit the consumer as well as reduce business costs… Free trade certainly became a hugely popular cause in Britain… It was attractive not only because it guaranteed cheap food, but also because it supported the belief, widespread amongst both the business class and their workforce, that the state should be kept out of economic life.

What was the impact of this shift to unilateral free trade?

…free trade, in combination with heavy foreign investment, certainly helped to change the shape of the British economy in the late nineteenth century. …the long run effect of unilateral free trade had been to increase competition for British agriculture and industry, lower profits and stimulate capital exports. …this regime had yielded great benefits. British capital, pouring into foreign railways and other industries overseas, had helped to reduce agricultural commodity prices, shifting the terms of trade in Britain’s favour and raising national income. Dividends and interest payments on foreign investments had also increased greatly and these returns were realised by importing cheap foreign produce freely. Furthermore, …this unilateral free trade-foreign investment system had provided a strong boost to Britain’s commercial and financial sector.

Here’s the Maddison data on per-capita GDP in the United Kingdom between 1800-1914.

Looking at this chart, I’m wondering how anyone can possibly argue that unilateral free trade hurts an economy.

Once again, many caveats apply. Most important, many other policies play a role in determining national prosperity. It’s also worth noting that a handful of tariffs on products like wine and tobacco were maintained. Most troubling, the era of unilateral free trade coincided with the imposition of the income tax (though it didn’t become a money machine for bigger government until the 1900s).

The bottom line is that every example of unilateral free trade (or sweeping unilateral reductions in trade barriers) tells a positive story. Trade liberalization isn’t everything, but it’s definitely a huge plus for growth.

Yes, the best of all worlds is for trade liberalization to happen simultaneously in all countries, and negotiations have produced considerable progress since the end of World War II, so I’m somewhat agnostic about the best strategy.

But there’s no ambiguity about the ultimate goal of ending protectionism.

P.S. Sometimes bad things happen for good reasons. The income tax in the United States also was adopted in part to offset the foregone revenue from lower trade taxes.

Read Full Post »

The internal revenue code is a reprehensible mess that torments taxpayers and undermines American competitiveness.

The good news is that Americans don’t like the tax system.

The bad news is that they don’t dislike it nearly as much as they should. At least in my humble opinion.

There are two reasons for the inadequate level of disdain.

  • First, nearly half of all households are no longer are subject to the income tax. Indeed, the system is actually a revenue generator for some households since the EITC wage subsidy is a redistribution program laundered through the tax code.
  • Second, many people get a warm and fuzzy feeling when they file their taxes because of the expectation that they will get a sizable refund, even though that payment from the IRS is simply a reflection of having paid too much tax during the prior year.

For those of us who want to scrap the tax system, this is a challenge.

And I’m not shy about admitting the problem.

About three-quarters typically get money back, with refunds so far this year averaging almost $3,000. For many, it will be the single biggest payment they receive all year. …the fact that so many people are getting paid by the IRS, and not the other way around, takes some of the edge off a day when they’re trying to stoke public anger at the tax system. “The fact that people are looking forward to tax time rubs me the wrong way,” said Dan Mitchell, a tax expert at the libertarian Cato Institute. “I would like them to be upset.”

I also have a good idea of why the problem exists.

It’s withholding. And it started back during World War II. Here’s some background.

During the war, tax rates went up, and a broader number of people were expected to pay them. Professor Anuj Desai from the University of Wisconsin Law School said there was a saying that income tax went from “a class tax to a mass tax.” …“The thought was that if we withhold a little bit every bit every paycheck, people won’t have to worry about the problem of coming up with a huge chunk of money,” Desai said. But withholding is also a remarkably efficient way for the government to raise money, and policymakers knew that. …“You could never have the taxes that were levied during World War II without withholding. It was absolutely essential for that purpose,” economist Milton Friedman said in an interview… Friedman worked with the Treasury Department at the time withholding was introduced. Withholding stuck around after the war, much to Friedman’s chagrin. “Unfortunately, once you got it installed, it’s almost impossible to get rid of it,”  Friedman said. “It’s too useful to the people in power.”

Jeffrey Tucker of the Foundation for Economic Education elaborates.

The problem is…the withholding tax. Instead of being collected directly from the payer, the government  collects them “at the source,” which is to say that they are collected from the institution that pays wages and salaries — on behalf of the taxpayer. …one of the most amazingly brilliant innovations of the modern state. This tinkering with the system — the creation of the institution called withholding — has created an illusion that paying taxes is really about getting free money! When the check arrives from the government a month or so later, the taxpayer is actually tempted to think: wow, this is really great! A pillaging has been spun to look like a gift. …Withholding dramatically changed the psychology of paying taxes. It almost feels like you aren’t paying any at all. The worker gets used to how much after-tax income she makes and adapts to it quickly. Then when tax time arrives, there is no more to pay. Instead you file and find yourself on the receiving end of what seems like an unexpected gift of a check from government. Yet in reality your refund is nothing more than the belated return of a zero-interest loan you were forced to provide the government.


Every time I talk to somehow who is happy about a refund, I ask them whether they will give me an interest free loan instead. After all, I’d be happy to collect money from them all year long and then return it the following April.

But I’m digressing.

Jeffrey points out how the political dynamics of tax day would change in the absence of withholding.

If we really wanted to make a wonderful change in favor of transparency and decency, one that would mark a shift in people’s perceptions of the costs of government, the withholding tax could just be repealed completely. …every taxpayer would pay the full amount owed to the government every April 15 and otherwise receive full compensation the rest of the year. Such a seemingly small change would have a dramatic effect on public perceptions of taxation and government. Even from the age of 16, every citizen would have a more pungent reminder of the costs of government. We would no longer live the illusion that we can all get something for nothing and that government isn’t really expensive after all.

Ben Domenech of the Federalist agrees.

The overwhelming majority of Americans pay their taxes by having them extracted from their paychecks before they ever see the money. Operating under the fiction that the government is giving you money as opposed to returning what it has already taken is damaging to the psyche of the nation’s taxpayers. …Withholding was originally mandated as a wartime step, but its continuation since then disguises the property rights involved, essentially offers the government an interest free loan, and shields taxpayers from the ramifications of federal spending. The country would be better off if everyone experienced what entrepreneurs and business owners do: writing the most sizable checks every year to the government, and watching that hard-earned money walk out the door.

By the way, this isn’t merely impractical libertarian fantasy.

There’s a real-world example of a tax system where people actually write checks to the government and are much more aware of the cost of the public sector. It’s called Hong Kong, which is – not coincidentally – an economic success story in large part because of a good fiscal system.

And I would argue that good fiscal system exists because taxpayers are directly sensitive to the cost of government (it also helps that there’s a spending cap in Hong Kong).

Let’s close with some government propaganda. This Disney cartoon was produced before withholding. As you can see the government basically had to make the case that people should set aside money out of their paychecks so they would have enough money to make periodic tax payments.

This was a plausible case when seeking to finance a war against National Socialism and Japanese imperialism. It wouldn’t be nearly as persuasive today when the government seems to specialize in financing waste, fraud, and abuse.

P.S. At the bottom of this column, you can watch a much better cartoon from the 1940s.

Read Full Post »

I’ve looked at some of the grim fiscal implications of demographic changes the United States and Europe.

Now let’s look at what’s happening in Asia.

The International Monetary Fund has a recent study that looks at shortfalls in government-run pension schemes and various policies that could address the long-run imbalances in the region. Here are the main points from the abstract.

Asian economies are aging fast, with significant implications for their pension system finances. While some countries already have high dependency ratios (Japan), others are expected to experience a sharp increase in the next couple of decades (China, Korea, Singapore). …This has…implications. …pension system deficits can increase very quickly, limiting room for policy action and hampering fiscal sustainability. …This paper explores how incorporating Automatic Adjustment Mechanisms (AAMs)—rules ensuring that certain characteristics of a pension system respond to demographic, macroeconomic and financial developments, in a predetermined fashion and without the need for additional intervention— can be part of pension reforms in Asia.

More succinctly, AAMs are built-in rules that automatically make changes to government pension systems based on various criteria.

Incidentally, we already have AAMs in the United States. Annual Social Security cost of living adjustments (COLAs) and increases in the wage base cap are examples of automatic changes that occur on a regular basis. And such policies exist in many other nations.

But those are AAMs that generally are designed to give more money to beneficiaries. The IMF study is talking about AAMs that are designed to deal with looming shortfalls caused by demographic changes. In other words, AAMs that result in seniors getting lower-than-promised benefits in the future. Here’s how the IMF study describes this development.

More recently, AAMs have come to the forefront to help address financial sustainability concerns of public pension systems. Social insurance pension systems are dominated by defined benefit schemes, pay-as-you-go financed, with liabilities explicitly underwritten by the government. …these systems, under their previous contribution and benefit rules, are unprepared for population aging and need to implement parametric reform or structural reforms in order to reduce the level or growth rate of their unfunded pension liabilities. …Automatic adjustments can theoretically make the reform process politically less painful and more likely to succeed.

Here’s a chart from the study that underscores the need for some sort of reform. It shows the age-dependency ratio on the left and the projected increase in the burden of pension spending on the right.

I’m surprised that the future burden of pension spending in Japan will only be slightly higher than it is today.

And I’m shocked by the awful long-run outlook in Mongolia (the bad numbers for China are New Zealand are also noteworthy, though not as surprising).

To address these grim numbers, the study considers various AAMs that might make government systems fiscally sustainable.

Especially automatic increases in the retirement age based on life expectancy.

One attractive option is to link statutory retirement ages—which seem relatively low in the region—to longevity or other sustainability indicators. This would at the very least help ameliorate the impact of life expectancy improvements in the finances of public pension systems. … While some countries have already raised the retirement age over time (Japan, Korea), pension systems in Asia do not yet feature automatic links between retirement age and life expectancy. …The case studies for Korea and China (section IV) suggest that automatic indexation of retirement age to life expectancy can indeed help reduce the pension system’s financial imbalances.

Here’s a table showing the AAMs that already exist.

Notice that the United States is on this list with an “ex-post trigger” based on “current deficits.”

This is because when the make-believe Trust Fund runs out of IOUs in the 2030s, there’s an automatic reduction in benefits. For what it’s worth, I fully expect future politicians to simply pass a law stating that promised benefits get paid regardless.

It’s also worth noting that Germany and Canada have “ex-ante triggers” for “contribution rates.” I’m assuming that means automatic tax hikes, which is a horrid idea. Heck, even the study acknowledges a problem with that approach.

…raising contribution rates can have important effects on the labor market and growth, it would be important to prioritize other adjustments.

From my perspective, the main – albeit unintended – lesson from the IMF study is that private retirement accounts are the best approach. These defined contribution (DC) systems avoid all the problems associated with pay-as-you-go, tax-and-transfer regimes, generally known as defined benefit (DB) systems.

The larger role played by defined contribution schemes in Asia reduce the scope for using AAMs for financial sustainability purposes. Many Asian economies (Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia) have defined contribution systems, …under which system sustainability is typically inherent.

Here are the types of pension systems in Asia, with Australia and New Zealand added to the mix..

For what it’s worth, I would put Australia in the “defined contribution” grouping. Yes, there is still a government age pension that serves as a safety net, but there also are safety nets in Singapore and Hong Kong as well.

But I’m nitpicking.

Here’s another table from the study showing that it’s much simpler to deal with “DC” systems compared with “DB” systems. About the only reforms that are ever needed revolve around the question of how much private savings should be required.

By the way, even though the information in the IMF study shows the superiority of DC plans, that’s only an implicit message.

To the extent the bureaucracy has an explicit message, it’s mostly about indexing the retirement age to changes in life expectancy.

That’s probably better than doing nothing, but there’s an unaddressed problem with that approach. It forces people to spend more years working and paying into systems, and then leaves them fewer years to collect benefits in retirement.

That idea periodically gets floated in the United States. Here’s some of what I wrote in 2011.

Think of this as the pay-for-a-steak-and-get-a-hamburger plan. Social Security already is a bad deal for workers, forcing them to pay a lot of money in exchange for relatively meager retirement benefits.

I made a related observation about this approach back in 2012.

…it focuses on the government’s finances and overlooks the implications for households. It is possible, at least on paper, to “save” Social Security by cutting benefits and raising taxes. But such “reforms” force people to pay more and get less – even though Social Security already is a very bad deal, particularly for younger workers.

The bottom line is that the implicit message should be explicit. Other nations should copy jurisdictions such as Chile, Australia, and Hong Kong by shifting to personal retirement accounts

P.S. Speaking of which, here’s the case for U.S. reform, as captured by cartoons. And you can enjoy other Social Security cartoons here, here, and here, along with a Social Security joke if you appreciate grim humor.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

At the risk of oversimplifying, libertarians want to minimize the level of government coercion is society. That’s why we favor both economic liberty and personal liberty. Simply stated, you should have the right to control your own life and make your own decisions so long as you’re not harming others or interfering with their rights.

That’s a philosophical or moral argument.

There’s also the utilitarian argument for liberty, and that largely revolves around the fact societies with more freedom tend to be considerably more prosperous than societies with lots of government.

I’ve repeatedly made this argument by comparing the economic performance of market-oriented jurisdictions and statist ones.

Let’s look at some new evidence. Based in Lausanne, Switzerland, the Institute for Management Development is a highly regarded educational institution that publishes an annual World Competitiveness Yearbook that basically measures whether a nation is a good place to do business.

So it’s not a measure of economic liberty, at least not directly. And the quality of governance matters for the IMD rankings (presumably based on something akin to the European Central Bank’s measure of “public sector efficiency“).

But you’ll notice a clear link between economic liberty and competitiveness.

Here are the top-10 nations. (you can look at the rankings for all nations by clicking here).

As you might suspect, there’s a strong correlation between the nations that are competitive and those that have smaller governments and free markets.

Indeed, three out of the top four jurisdictions (Hong Kong, Singapore, and Switzerland) rank in the top four for economic liberty according to Economic Freedom of the World.

And I’m happy to see that the United States also scores very highly, even if we only rank 17 out of 157 for economic freedom.

Indeed, every country in IMD’s top 10 other than Sweden is ranked in the top quartile of EFW.

You also probably won’t be surprised by the countries getting the worst scores from IMD.

Congratulations to Venezuela for being the world’s least competitive nation. Though that might be an overstatement since IMD only ranks 61 jurisdictions. If all the world’s countries were included, Venezuela presumably would beat out North Korea. And maybe a couple of other squalid outposts of statism, such as Cuba.

It’s also worth noting that Greece gets consistently bad scores. And I’m not surprised that Argentina is near the bottom as well (though it has improved since last year, so hopefully the new government will continue to move in the right direction).

By the way, it’s worth noting that economic freedom is a necessary but not sufficient condition for competitiveness. Jordan, for instance, ranks in the top 10 for economic freedom but gets a low score from IMD, presumably because the advantages of good policy don’t compensate for exogenous factors such as geopolitical risk and access to markets.

The moral of the story, though, is that free markets and small government are the recipe for more prosperity. And those policies are probably even more important for nations that face exogenous challenges.

Read Full Post »

Hong Kong is a truly remarkable jurisdiction.

Can you name, after all, another government in the world that brags about how little it spends on redistribution programs and how few people are dependent on government?

And how many jurisdictions adopt private Social Security systems to help make sure the burden of government spending doesn’t climb above 20 percent of GDP?

No wonder Hong Kong routinely is at the top of the rankings in both Economic Freedom of the World and the Index of Economic Freedom.

Here is some additional evidence of Hong Kong’s sensible approach. Below is a slide from a presentation by Hong Kong government officials, quoting the current Financial Secretary and all his predecessors, covering both the period of Chinese sovereignty and British sovereignty. As you can see, the one constant theme is free markets and small government.

For additional background, let’s enjoy the insight of one of these men.

In a column for Reason, my Cato Institute colleague Marian Tupy reminisces on his meeting with John Cowperthwaite, one of the British-appointed economic advisers.

…a young Scottish civil servant named John Cowperthwaite arrived in the colony to oversee its economic development. Some 50 years later, I met Cowperthwaite in St Andrews, Scotland, where I was a student and he was enjoying his retirement. As he told me, “I came to Hong Kong and found the economy working just fine. So, I left it that way.” …Of all the policies that we discussed, one stands out in my mind. I asked him to name the one reform that he was most proud of. “I abolished the collection of statistics,” he replied. Cowperthwaite believed that statistics are dangerous, because they enable social engineers of all stripes to justify state intervention in the economy. At some point during our first conversation I managed to irk him by suggesting that he was chiefly known “for doing nothing.” In fact, he pointed out, keeping the British political busy-bodies from interfering in Hong Kong’s economic affairs took up a large portion of his time.

I especially like Cowperthwaite’s insight about the downside risk of letting governments collect a lot of data.

Something that’s worth considering in a world where governments want to engage in massive data collection and data sharing for purposes of imposing and enforcing bad global tax policy.

But let’s not get sidetracked. Economic freedom in Hong Kong is today’s topic. With that in mind, here’s a chart from Marian’s column. It shows that Hong Kong used to be much poorer than the United Kingdom. But after decades of faster growth (thanks to good policy), Hong Kong is now more prosperous than its former colonial master.

In other words, Hong Kong didn’t just converge with one of the world’s richest countries, which by itself would be a remarkable and unusual achievement. It actually became richer.

This is tremendous evidence on the benefits of good policy and the importance of strong, long-run growth.

Let’s close by looking at this issue of growth and development. Here’s a video from Marginal Revolution, narrated by Professor Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University. You should watch it from start to finish, but if you’re pressed for time, make sure to at least watch the first 2:10.

There are two things that are worth emphasizing from the video.

The productivity of workers (and therefore the pay of workers) is dependent on the quantity and quality of capital.

Entrepreneurs play a key role in figuring out the best ways of mixing labor and capital and this innovation boosts productivity.

By the way, there are two sins of omission in the video. If you watch the whole thing, you’ll notice it mentions that strong economic performance is linked to the rule of law, property rights, free trade, and sensible regulation.

All that is true. But what about a stable monetary system? And what about a reasonable tax regime and a modest burden of government spending?

But I’m nitpicking. Let’s close with another video from Marginal Revolution. You should once again watch the entire video, but for those in a rush, I adjusted the settings so it starts at the most important part.

The video uses GDP data that is adjusted for both inflation and population, which is a very useful approach. But the key lesson, as Professor Tabarrok explained, is that even small sustained changes in growth have enormous implications for long-run prosperity.

Indeed, that’s why Hong Kong is now richer than the United Kingdom. And it’s also worth noting that Hong Kong (and Singapore) are passing the United States.

Read Full Post »

I’m in Hong Kong for series of meeting and briefings on various economic and policy issues.

As you can imagine, I’m a huge fan of the jurisdiction’s simple 15 percent flat tax. It’s basically about as close to a pure flat tax as anyplace in the world. There is zero double taxation of income that is saved and invested.

That’s not an exaggeration. You don’t get double taxed on the interest you earn on your bank balances and other financial accounts. There’s no capital gains tax. There’s no death tax. And there’s no double taxation of dividends.

There are only a few deviations from a pure flat tax that even merit a mention. First, taxpayers with modest amounts of income don’t have to use the flat tax system. Instead, they can opt for a “progressive” tax system that has a top rate of 17 percent, but also has tax rates of 2 percent and 7 percent, and 12 percent.

Imagine, taxpayers getting to choose the system that works best for them, instead of the government forcing them into the system that requires the highest payment!

The other deviations are that businesses are not always allowed full expensing of business investment, and there also are a handful of deductions.

All things considered, though, Hong Kong gets almost everything right on tax policy, whereas the United States gets a majority of things wrong.

Oh, and I should mention that there are no payroll taxes in Hong Kong. Nor is there a value-added tax.

That’s all very impressive, but let’s actually focus on something that may be even more remarkable about Hong Kong.

It currently has a modest-sized government, with spending consuming less than 20 percent of economic output. That’s not as good as the United States 100 years ago, but it’s far better than where America is today.

That being said, Hong Kong has some major challenges. I’ve explained before that demographic changes will put pressure on fiscal policy in America, but demographic change is far more profound in Hong Kong.

As you can see from this data, it has the seventh-highest level of life expectancy in the world.

That’s good news, of course, but it does mean a lot of fiscal pressure, even for a jurisdiction that is justly famous for its very small welfare state.

But then you have to consider the fact that Hong Kong also has the fourth-lowest birthrate in the entire world.

In other words, Hong Kong faces a perfect storm of demographics. More and more non-working elderly over time, combined with fewer and fewer taxpayers to pull the wagon.

Given these unfriendly numbers, the Hong Kong government put together a working group to look at long-run fiscal issues.

In its recent report, the group presented a fiscal forecast that shows how the burden of government spending will slowly climb to nearly 24 percent of GDP over the next 25 years.

Here’s a chart showing actual data starting in the late 1990s and then projections until 2042.

To those of us from North America and Western Europe, where the overall burden of government spending, on average, consumes more than 40 percent of economic output, it seems like Hong Kong has a trivial problem.

But it’s still a problem and something has to change. Hong Kong could finance a bigger public sector by dipping into its large reserves (currently the jurisdiction has saved enough money to finance about two years of government spending) or by increasing the tax burden.

But hopefully Hong Kong will abide by Article 107 of its Basic Law (its constitution) and limit government spending so that it doesn’t grow faster than the private economy.

And there are some positive signs.

About 15 years ago, Hong Kong set up a system of private retirement accounts in order to create a self-funded source of retirement income.

Based on a recent government report on retirement income, here are some key features of this Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) system.

The MPF System is an employment-based, privately-managed mandatory defined contribution system. …Employers are required under the Mandatory Provident Fund Schemes Ordinance (Cap. 485) to arrange for their employees aged 18 or above but under 65 to join… The MPF System has been implemented for 15 years only. …about 2.55 million employees are enrolled in MPF schemes, representing 100% of the employees required by law to join the schemes. This is a very high rate by international standards. In addition, another 210 000 self-employed persons are also scheme members. …An employer and an employee are each required to contribute 5% of the relevant employee’s income… As at end October 2015, MPF assets had increased to $594.2 billion, of which about $123.1 billion were investment returns.

Here’s a chart from the report, showing the cumulative growth of assets, based on both contributions and investment returns.

Keep in mind, though, that it takes 7.8 Hong Kong dollars to equal 1 U.S. dollar, so $594.2 billion is not nearly as large as it sounds.

In part, this is because the system isn’t yet mature. Workers have only been making contributions from 15 years, while a working lifetime is 40-45 years.

But there also are concerns that the level of mandatory saving is insufficient. Here’s additional language from the report, which cites the private retirement systems in Australia and Denmark.

There are views that the contribution rate or the maximum relevant income level should be raised to strengthen the retirement protection function of the MPF System. Take the privately-managed mandatory occupational contributory pension plans in Denmark and Australia as examples. In Denmark, employers and employees generally contribute a total of 9% to 17%. In Australia, only employers make contributions and the contribution rate will be raised progressively from 9% in 2013 to the present 9.5% and further to 12% in 2025.

I’m personally agnostic on the precise level of mandatory savings. My goal is simply to shrink tax-and-transfer entitlement programs, particularly before demographic changes lead to a larger burden of government spending.

And since I have great fondness for Hong Kong (how can you not get a thrill up your leg about a jurisdiction that routinely gets the highest score in Economic Freedom of the World?), I want it to remain a beacon for advocates of economic liberty.

P.S. Lest anyone think I’m being too fawning, Hong Kong has several policies that are misguided. Public housing is pervasive, there’s government-run healthcare, and one peculiar legacy of British rule is that only one piece of land is privately owned. Fixing these warts would make Hong Kong even more vibrant.

P.P.S. Another quirky feature of Hong Kong policy is that currency is issued by private banks. If you pull a $20 bill from your wallet, you’ll see that it was printed by HSBC, Standard Chartered, or Bank of China. Unfortunately, this isn’t because Hong Kong has a market-driven system of competing currencies. But it does have a currency board, which – by standards of government-controlled monetary systems – is one of the least-worst options. Of course, that means Hong Kong’s money is only as good as the currency to which it’s linked. And since the Hong Kong dollar is pegged to the U.S. dollar, that might be a cause for long-run concern.

Read Full Post »

Two days ago, I contrasted the views of Pope Francis and Walter Williams about capitalism and morality.

I explained that Walter had the upper hand because free markets are a positive-sum game based on voluntary exchange while redistribution (at best) is a zero-sum game based on coercion.

That’s the theoretical argument. Now let’s look at the empirical data, specifically focusing on which approach is best for the less fortunate.

Thomas Sowell, the great economist at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is not impressed by the Pope’s analysis. Here some of what Prof. Sowell wrote for Investor’s Business Daily.

Pope Francis has created political controversy…by blaming capitalism for many of the problems of the poor. …putting aside religious or philosophical questions, we have more than two centuries of historical evidence… Any serious look at the history of human beings over the millennia shows that the species began in poverty. It is not poverty, but prosperity, that needs explaining. …which has a better track record of helping the less fortunate — fighting for a bigger slice of the economic pie, or producing a bigger pie? …the official poverty level in the U.S. is the upper middle class in Mexico. The much criticized market economy of the U.S. has done far more for the poor than the ideology of the left. Pope Francis’ own native Argentina was once among the leading economies of the world, before it was ruined by the kind of ideological notions he is now promoting around the world.

I briefly discussed the failure of the Peronist Argentinian model last month, but let’s take a closer look at Professor Sowell’s assertions about the U.S. and Argentina.

My colleague at the Cato Institute, Marian Tupy, has put together a great fact-filled website called Human Progress, and it allows users to access all sorts of databases to produce their own charts and tables.

And here’s what the data shows about per-capita economic output in Argentina and the United States.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the supposedly more compassionate system in Argentina.

As you can see from this table, Argentina actually was slightly richer than the U.S. back in 1896. But that nation’s shift to statism, particularly after World War II, hindered Argentina’s growth rates.

And seemingly modest differences in growth, compounded over decades, have a huge impact on living standards for ordinary people (i.e., inflation-adjusted GDP per person climbing nearly $27,000 in the U.S. vs an increase of less than $6,700 in Argentina).

By the way, this is not an endorsement of America’s economic policy. We have far too much statism in the United States.

But compared to Argentina, which generally has ranked in the bottom quartile for economic freedom, the United States has a more market-friendly track record.

To help make the bigger point about the importance of economic liberty, let’s now compare the United States with a jurisdiction that consistently has been ranked as the world’s freest economy.

Look at changes in economic output in America and Hong Kong from 1950 to the present. As you can see, Hong Kong started the period as a very poor jurisdiction, with per-capita output only about one-fourth of American levels.

But thanks to better policy, which led to faster growth compounding over several decades, Hong Kong has now caught up to the United States.

What’s most remarkable, if you look at the table, is that per-capita output over the past 65 years has soared by more than 1,275 percent in Hong Kong.

Needless to say, if the U.S. is out-performing Argentina and Hong Kong is out-performing the U.S., then a comparison of Hong Kong and Argentina would yield ever starker results.

I actually did something like that back in 2011 and the results further underscore that there’s a very powerful relationship between economic policy and economic performance.

Which brings us back to the fundamental issue of what system is best for the less fortunate in society?

I suppose that’s a judgement call, but poor people obviously have higher incomes and more opportunity when there’s strong economic growth.

But as Margaret Thatcher famously explained, some people are so consumed by disdain for success that they’re willing to accept more suffering for poor people if they can simultaneously lower the incomes of rich people.

Read Full Post »

At the risk of stereotyping, the Chinese people are remarkably productive when given the chance. Hong Kong and Singapore are dominated by ethnic Chinese, and those jurisdictions routinely rank among the world’s top economies.

Taiwan is another high-performing economy with an ethnic Chinese population.

Ironically, the only place where Chinese people don’t enjoy high average incomes is China. And that’s because there’s too much statism. If you peruse the indispensable Economic Freedom of the World from Canada’s Fraser Institute, you’ll see that China is ranked #115 out of 152 jurisdictions, which is even below nations such as Greece, Haiti, and Vietnam.

As I explain in this interview, China’s politicians are undermining prosperity with a system based on cronyism rather than capitalism.

China’s in the news, of course, because of recent instability in its financial markets. And I’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to give my two cents on this issue (see here and here).

But I was making the same criticisms even when China’s economy was perceived as a big success. I wrote in 2010 that America didn’t need to fear the supposed Chinese economic tiger. I pointed out in 2011 that China was way behind the United States.

And I was at least somewhat prescient when I warned about a bubble in the Chinese economy in this 2011 debate.

Though plenty of folks on the left actually argued that China’s state-controlled economy was something to mimic. Writing for Reason, Ronald Bailey cites some of their silly statements.

As the world watches China’s Communist Party leaders try to order markets around, my mind turned to those pundits who earnestly recommended that the United States emulate the brilliant beneficient Chinese planners in running our economy. The most fulsome China booster was New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. …So enamored of China’s industrial policy was Friedman that in 2010 he likened Chinese economic planning boldness to making “moon-shots.” …And then there is the inevitable Robert Reich. Reich, who is a former Clinton Secretary of Labor, has never been right about anything when it comes to economic policy prescriptions. For example, Reich was convinced in the 1980s the Japan would bury the United States due to the planning acumen of that country’s savvy bureaucrats. …Just shy of 30 years later Reich sang the same stale tune in 2011, only instead of Japanese planners, he was praising the wonders of Chinese industrial planning… As late as 2012, Richard D’Aveni, a Professor of Strategy at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, declared in The Atlantic that “The U.S. Must Learn From China’s State Capitalism to Beat It.”

Actually, Professor D’Aveni is right for the wrong reason. We can learn a lot from statist economies. But we should learn what to avoid, not what to copy.

To conclude, this post shouldn’t be perceived as being anti-China. I want there to be more prosperity in that country, which is why I defended China from an absurd attack by the IMF.

Moreover, I commend China for reforms that move policy in the right direction. And as I pointed out in the interview embedded above, China’s reforms in the 1980s and 1990s may have been limited, but they did help lift hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty.

Since I mentioned the interview, one of the quirky parts of the discussion was whether politicians should be held criminally responsible for economic mismanagement. Here’s what I wrote a few years ago about an example of that happening in Iceland.

P.S. You probably didn’t realize that it was possible to see dark humor in communist oppression.

P.P.S. But at least some communists in China seem to understand that the welfare state is a very bad idea.

P.P.P.S. Some business leaders say China is now more business-friendly than the United States. That’s probably not good news for America, but my goal is to have a market-friendly nation, not a business-friendly nation.

Read Full Post »

I’m a huge fan of the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World.

I always share the annual rankings when they’re released and I routinely cite EFW measures when writing about individual countries.

But even a wonky economist like me realizes that there is more to life than economic liberty. So I was very excited to see that Ian Vásquez of the Cato Institute and Tanja Porčnik of the Visio Institute have put together The Human Freedom Index.

Here’s their description of the Index and some of the key findings.

The Human Freedom Index… presents a broad measure of human freedom, understood as the absence of coercive constraint. It uses 76 distinct indicators of personal and economic freedom… The HFI covers 152 countries for 2012, the most recent year for which sufficient data is available. …The United States is ranked in 20th place. Other countries rank as follows: Germany (12), Chile (18), Japan (28), France (33), Singapore (43), South Africa (70), India (75), Brazil (82), Russia (111), China (132), Nigeria (139), Saudi Arabia (141), Venezuela (144), Zimbabwe (149), and Iran (152).

Hong Kong and Switzerland are the top jurisdictions.

Here’s the Freedom Index‘s top 20, including scores on both personal freedom and economic freedom.

The United States barely cracks the top 20. We rank #12 for economic freedom but only #31 for personal freedom.

It’s worth noting that overall freedom is strongly correlated with prosperity.

Countries in the top quartile of freedom enjoy a significantly higher per capita income ($30,006) than those in other quartiles; the per capita income in the least-free quartile is $2,615. The HFI finds a strong correlation between human freedom and democracy. Hong Kong is an outlier in this regard. The findings in the HFI suggest that freedom plays an important role in human well-being

And here are some notes on methodology.

The authors give equal weighting to both personal freedom and economic freedom.

One of the biggest challenges in constructing any index is the organization and weighting of the variables. Our guiding principle is that the structure should be simple and transparent. …The economic freedom index receives half the weight in the overall index, while safety and security and other personal freedoms that make up our personal freedom index receive the remaining weight.

Speaking of which, here are the top-20 nations based on personal freedom. You can also see how they scored for economic freedom and overall freedom.

To be succinct, Northern European nations dominate these rankings, with some Anglosphere jurisdictions also getting good scores.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that nations with economic freedom also tend to have personal freedom, but there are interesting exceptions.

Consider Singapore, with ranks second for economic freedom. That makes the country economically dynamic, but Singapore only ranks #75 for personal freedom.

Another anomaly is Slovenia, which is in the top 20 for personal freedom, but has a dismal ranking of #105 for economic freedom.

By the way, the only two nations in the top 10 for both economic freedom and personal freedom are Switzerland and Finland.

I’ve already explained why Switzerland is one of the world’s best (and most rational) nations. Given Finland’s high ranking, I may have to augment the nice things I write about that country, even though I’m sure it’s too cold for my reptilian temperature preferences.

Read Full Post »

Back in March, I shared a remarkable study from the International Monetary Fund which explained that spending caps are the only truly effective way to achieve good fiscal policy.

And earlier this month, I discussed another good IMF study that showed how deficit and debt rules in Europe have been a failure.

In hopes of teaching American lawmakers about this international evidence, the Cato Institute put together a forum on Capitol Hill to highlight the specific reforms that have been successful.

I moderated the panel and began by pointing out that there are many examples of nations that have enjoyed good results thanks to multi-year periods of spending restraint.

I even pointed out that we actually had an unintentional – but very successful – spending freeze in Washington between 2009 and 2014.

But the problem, I suggested, is that it is very difficult to convince politicians to sustain good policy on a long-run basis. The gains of good policy (such as what was achieved in the 1990s) can quickly be erased by a spending binge (such as what happened during the Bush years).

Unless, of course, there’s some sort of constraint on the desire to spend money. And the panelists discussed the three most successful examples of reforms that constrain the growth of government.

We started with a presentation by Daniel Freihofer from the Swiss Embassy. He talked about Switzerland’s “Debt Brake,” which actually is a spending cap.

It’s remarkable how well Switzerland has performed while most other European nations have suffered downward spirals of more spending-more taxes-more debt. Here’s a chart I put together on what’s happened to spending in Switzerland ever since 85 percent of voters imposed the Debt Brake early last decade.

By the way, Herr Freihofer said during the Q&A session that support for the Debt Brake is now probably about 95 percent, so Swiss voters obviously understand that the policy has been very successful.

Our second speaker was Clement Leung, Hong Kong’s Commissioner to the United States. He talked about Article 107 and other rules from Hong Kong’s Basic Law (their constitution) that limit the temptation to over-tax and over-spend.

And if you want to see some of the positive results of these rules in Hong Kong, here’s some of what Commissioner Leung presented.

By the way, the burden of government spending in Hong Kong averages about 18 percent of economic output. That’s the most impressive result. And Commissioner Leung explained that there’s a commitment to keep the burden of spending below 20 percent of GDP.

The final panelist was Jonathan Williams from the American Legislative Exchange Council, and he talked about Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, popularly known as TABOR.

Jonathan talked about how the pro-spending lobbies keep attacking TABOR, and he mentioned that they narrowly succeeded in getting a five-year suspension of the law back in 2005. But Colorado voters generally understand they have a good policy.

The most recent attempt to enable more spending came in the form of an increase in the state’s flat tax back in 2013 and voters rejected it by a stunning 66-34 margin (almost as impressive as the recent vote against tax hikes in Michigan) even though Jonathan said advocates outspent opponents by a 289-1 margin.

Here’s a slide from his presentation showing what happened during other attempts to enable more spending.

By the way, Jonathan also mentioned that Colorado’s voters are about to get a TABOR-mandated tax cut because taxes on marijuana are pushing revenues above the limit. Talk about a win-win situation!

To wrap up, one of the big lessons from all the presentations is that governments generally get in trouble because they can’t resist over-spending when the economy is doing well and generating lots of tax revenue.

I fully agree, and I’ve previously explained this is why Alberta got in fiscal trouble, and also why California suffers a boom-bust budgetary cycle.

The way you solve this problem is not with a balanced budget requirement (which often serves as the justification for tax hikes), but some sort of spending limitation rule.

Read Full Post »

There’s a “convergence” theory in economics that suggests, over time, that “poor nations should catch up with rich nations.”

But in the real world, that seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

There’s an interesting and informative article at the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank which explores this question. It asks why most low-income and middle-income nations are not “converging” with countries from the developed world.

…only a few countries have been able to catch up with the high per capita income levels of the developed world and stay there. By American living standards (as representative of the developed world), most developing countries since 1960 have remained or been “trapped” at a constant low-income level relative to the U.S. This “low- or middle-income trap” phenomenon raises concern about the validity of the neoclassical growth theory, which predicts global economic convergence. Specifically, the Solow growth model suggests that income levels in poor economies will grow relatively faster than developed nations and eventually converge or catch up to these economies through capital accumulation… But, with just a few exceptions, that is not happening.

Here’s a chart showing examples of nations that are – and aren’t – converging with the United States.

The authors analyze this data.

The figure above shows the rapid and persistent relative income growth (convergence) seen in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Ireland beginning in the late 1960s all through the early 2000s to catch up or converge to the higher level of per capita income in the U.S. …In sharp contrast, per capita income relative to the U.S. remained constant and stagnant at 10 percent to 30 percent of U.S. income in the group of Latin American countries, which remained stuck in the middle-income trap and showed no sign of convergence to higher income levels… The lack of convergence is even more striking among low-income countries. Countries such as Bangladesh, El Salvador, Mozambique and Niger are stuck in a poverty trap, where their relative per capita income is constant and stagnant at or below 5 percent of the U.S. level.

The article concludes by asking why some nations converge and others don’t.

Why do some countries remain stagnant in relative income levels while some others are able to continue growing faster than the frontier nations to achieve convergence? Is it caused by institutions, geographic locations or smart industrial policies?

I’ll offer my answer to this question, though it doesn’t require any special insight.

Simply stated, Solow’s Growth Theory is correct, but needs to be augmented. Yes, nations should converge, but that won’t happen unless they have similar economic policies.

And if relatively poor nations want to converge in the right direction, that means they should liberalize their economies by shrinking government and reducing intervention.

Take a second look at the above chart above and ask whether there’s a commonality for the jurisdictions that are converging with the United States?

Why have Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and Ireland converged, while nations such as Mexico and Brazil remained flat?

The obvious answer is that the former group of jurisdictions have pursued, at least to some extent, pro-market policies.

Heck, they all rank among the world’s top-18 nations for economic freedom.

Hong Kong and Singapore have been role models for economic liberty for several decades, so it’s no surprise that their living standards have enjoyed the most impressive increase.

But if you dig into the data, you’ll also see that Taiwan’s jump began when it boosted economic freedom beginning in the late 1970s. And Ireland’s golden years began when it increased economic freedom beginning in the late 1980s.

The moral of the story is – or at least should be – very clear. Free markets and small government are the route to convergence.

Here’s a video tutorial.

And if you want some real-world examples of how nations with good policy “de-converge” from nations with bad policy, here’s a partial list.

* Chile vs. Argentina vs. Venezuela

* Hong Kong vs. Cuba

* North Korea vs. South Korea

* Cuba vs. Chile

* Ukraine vs. Poland

* Hong Kong vs. Argentina

* Singapore vs. Jamaica

* United States vs. Hong Kong and Singapore

* Botswana vs. other African nations

Gee, it’s almost enough to make you think there’s a relationship between good long-run growth and economic freedom!

Read Full Post »

Early this year, I shared an amusing but accurate image that showed an important difference between capitalism and socialism.

And in 2012, I posted a comparison of Detroit and Hiroshima to illustrate the damage of big government.

Well, if you combine those concepts, you get this very pointed look at the evolution of Cuban socialism and Hong Kong capitalism.

Some might dismiss these photos as being unrepresentative, and it’s reasonable to be skeptical. After all, I’m sure it would be easy to put together a series of photos that make it seem as if the United States is suffering from decay while France is enjoying a boom.

So let’s go to the data. In previous posts, I’ve shared comparisons of long-run economic performance in market-oriented nations and statist countries. Examples include Chile vs. Argentina vs. VenezuelaNorth Korea vs. South Korea, Cuba vs. Chile, Ukraine vs. Poland, Hong Kong vs. ArgentinaSingapore vs. Jamaica, and the United States vs. Hong Kong and Singapore.

Now let’s add Cuba vs. Hong Kong to the mix.

Wow, this is amazing. Through much of the 1950s, Hong Kong and Cuba were economically similar, and both were very close to the world average.

Then Hong Kong became a poster child for capitalism while Cuba became an outpost of Soviet communism. And, as you might expect, the people of Hong Kong prospered.

What about the Cubans? Well, I suppose a leftist could argue that they’re all equally poor and that universal deprivation somehow makes Cuban society better Hong Kong, where not everybody gets rich at the same rate.

But even that would be a lie since Cuba’s communist elite doubtlessly enjoys a very comfortable lifestyle. So while the rest of the country endures hardships such as a toilet paper shortage, the party bosses presumably drink champagne and eat caviar.

The bottom line is that statists still don’t have an acceptable answer for my two-part challenge.

P.S. If you prefer stories rather than images or data, this updated version of the fable of the ant and the grasshopper makes a key point about incentives and redistribution. And you get a similar message from the PC version of the Little Red Hen.

P.P.S. Cuba’s system is so wretched that even Fidel Castro confessed it is a failure. So maybe there’s hope that Obama will have a similar epiphany about American-style statism!

Read Full Post »

I’ve had ample reason to praise Hong Kong’s economic policy.

Most recently, it was ranked (once again) as the world’s freest economy.

And I’ve shown that this makes a difference by comparing Hong Kong’s economic performance to the comparatively lackluster (or weak) performance of economies in the United States, Argentina, and France.

But perhaps the most encouraging thing about Hong Kong is that the nation’s top officials genuinely seem to understand the importance of small government.

Here are some excerpts from a recent speech delivered by Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary. He brags about small government and low tax rates!

Hong Kong has a simple tax system built on low tax rates. Our maximum salaries tax rate is 15 per cent and the profits tax rate a flat 16.5 per cent. Few companies and individuals would find it worth the risk to evade taxes at this low level. And that helps keep our compliance and enforcement costs low. Keeping our government small is at the heart of our fiscal principles. Leaving most of the community’s income and wealth in the hands of individuals and businesses gives the private sector greater flexibility and efficiency in making investment decisions and optimises the returns for the community. This helps to foster a business environment conducive to growth and competitiveness. It also encourages productivity and labour participation. Our annual recurrent government expenditure has remained steady over the past five years, at 13 per cent of GDP. …we have not responded irresponsibly to…populist calls by introducing social policies that increase government spending disproportionally. …The fact that our total government expenditure on social welfare has remained at less than 3 per cent of our GDP over the past five years speaks volumes about the precision, as well as the effectiveness, of these measures.

And he specifically mentions the importance of controlling the growth of government, which is the core message of Mitchell’s Golden Rule.

Our commitment to small government demands strong fiscal discipline….It is my responsibility to keep expenditure growth commensurate with growth in our GDP.

Is that just empty rhetoric?

Hardly. Here’s Article 107 from the Basic Law, which is “the constitutional document” for Hong Kong

The most important part of Article 107, needless to say, is that part of keeping budgetary growth “commensurate with the growth rate of its gross domestic product.”

The folks in Hong Kong don’t want to wind up like Europe.

Last year, I set up a Working Group on Long-term Fiscal Planning to conduct a fiscal sustainability health check. We did it because we are keenly aware of Hong Kong’s low fertility rate and ageing population, not unlike many advanced economies. And that can pose challenges to public finance in the longer term. A series of expenditure-control measures, including a 2 per cent efficiency enhancement over the next three financial years, has been rolled out.

And, speaking of Europe, he says the statist governments from that continent should clean up their own messes before criticizing Hong Kong for being responsible.

I would hope that some of those governments in Europe, those that have accused Hong Kong of being a tax haven, would look at the way they conduct their own fiscal policies. I believe they could learn a lesson from us about the virtues of small government.

Just in case you think this speech is somehow an anomaly, let’s now look at some slides from a separate presentation by different Hong Kong officials.

Here’s one that warmed my heart. The Hong Kong official is bragging about the low-tax regime, which features a flat tax of 15 percent!

But what’s even more impressive is that Hong Kong has a very small burden of government spending.

And government officials brag about small government.

By the way, you’ll also notice that there’s virtually no red ink in Hong Kong, largely because the government focuses on controlling the disease of excessive spending.

Why is government small?

In large part, as you see from the next slide, because there is almost no redistribution spending.

Indeed, officials actually brag that fewer and fewer people are riding in the wagon of dependency.

Can you imagine American lawmakers with this kind of good sense?

None of this means that Hong Kong doesn’t have any challenges.

There are protests about a lack of democracy. There’s an aging population. And there’s the uncertainty of China.

But at least for now, Hong Kong is a tribute to the success of free markets and small government.

Read Full Post »

I very rarely feel sorry for statists. After all, these are the people who think that their feelings of envy and inadequacy justify bigger and more coercive government.

And I get especially irked when I think about how their authoritarian policies will hurt the most vulnerable in society.

But I nonetheless feel sorry for statists when I see them fumble, stumble, duck, and weave when asked why global evidence contradicts them.

In other words, it’s almost painful to watch when they are asked  why nations with varying degrees of statist policy – such as Venezuela, France, the United States (under Obama), Argentina, and Greece – suffer from economic stagnation and decline.

And it’s equally uncomfortable to watch them struggle and squirm when they’re asked to explain why jurisdictions with more pro-market policies – such as Bermuda, Estonia, Switzerland, the United States (under Reagan), Chile, and Singapore – tend to enjoy growth and rising living standards.

However, I can’t help adding to their discomfort. Let’s look at more evidence.

Here’s some of what Richard Rahn wrote for the Washington Times about Hong Kong’s economic miracle.

Hong Kong is about as close to the ideal free-market capitalist model that you can find on the planet — which came about largely by accident. …The British basically left Hong Kong to fend for itself… here was no foreign aid and no welfare state — but there was a competent government that kept the peace, ran an honest court system with the rule of law, provided some basic infrastructure, and little more. Also, Hong Kong had economic freedom — for the last several decades, Hong Kong has been ranked as the freest economy in the world (according to Economic Freedom of the World Index). Economic freedom allowed the people to create an endless number of productive enterprises, and because they had free trade, they could import necessary goods and services to fuel these enterprises. …average real income has gained parity with the United States, and it will probably be double that of France in a couple of years.

By the way, if you don’t believe the last sentence in that excerpt, check out this remarkable chart.

But the big takeaway is that free markets and small government have made the people of Hong Kong very rich. Gee, it’s almost as if there’s a recipe to follow if you want prosperity.

Let’s look at another example. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, former Senator Phil Gramm and Michael Solon compare economic policy and outcomes in Ukraine and Poland.

They explain that statist policies in Ukraine have stymied growth in a nation that otherwise could be very prosperous.

There is no better modern example of the power of an economic triumph than the experience of Ukraine and Poland in the post-Cold War era. …Ukraine has largely squandered its economic potential with pervasive corruption, statist cronyism and government control. …The per capita income of Ukraine, in U.S. dollar equivalence, has grown to only $3,900 in 2013 from a base of $1,570 in 1990. …Ukraine should be a wealthy country. It has world-class agricultural land, it is rich in hydrocarbons and mineral resources, and it possesses a well-educated labor force. Yet Ukraine remains poor, because while successful Central European nations have replaced their central-planning institutions with market-based reforms, Ukraine has never been able to break the crippling chains of collectivism.

Poland was in the same position as Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet empire, but it followed better policy and is now several times richer.

By employing free-market principles and unleashing the genius of its people, Poland has triggered an economic triumph as per capita GDP, in U.S. dollar equivalence, soared to more than $13,432 by 2013 from $1,683 in 1990. Today Poland is the fastest-growing economy in Europe. …The man largely responsible for Poland’s transformation is Leszek Balcerowicz, the former finance minister who was later governor of Poland’s Central Bank. …The Balcerowicz Plan was built around permitting state firms to go bankrupt, banning deficit financing, and maintaining a sound currency. It ended artificially low interest rate loans for state firms, opened up international trade and instituted currency convertibility. …A miracle transition was under way and the rest is history.

Since I’ve also compared Ukraine and Poland, you can understand why I especially liked this column.

One final point. Today’s post looks at just a couple of nations, but I’m not cherry picking. There are all sorts of comparisons that can be made, and the inevitable conclusion is that markets are better than statism.

Here are some previous iterations of this exercise.

I’ve compared South Korea and North Korea.

The data for Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela is very powerful.

I’ve shown how Singapore has eclipsed Jamaica.

Here’s a comparison of Sweden and Greece.

And we can see that Hong Kong has caught up with the United States.

So hopefully you can understand why I have a tiny (very tiny) degree of sympathy for my left-wing friends. It can’t be easy to hold views that are so inconsistent with global evidence.

P.S. When presented with this kind of evidence, leftists oftentimes will counter by saying that many nations in Europe are rich by global standards, while also having large governments. True, but it’s very important to understand that they became rich nations when they had small governments. Moreover, some of them have wisely compensated for large public sectors by maintaining ultra-free market policy in other areas.

Read Full Post »

I’m currently in Asia, where I just finished a series of speeches about economic policy in China and Hong Kong.

These two jurisdictions offer very powerful lessons about the importance of economic policy.

Hong Kong is supposed to be Nirvana for libertarians. It holds the top spot in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings. It has an optional flat tax. It has a private retirement system. And based on IMF data, government spending “only” consumes 18.4 percent of GDP (compared to 38.6 percent of economic output in the United States and 54.4 percent of GDP in France).

In reality, Hong Kong is far from perfect. It may have a lot more economic freedom than other jurisdictions, but there is widespread government intervention in certain sectors, such as housing. And while a flat tax and spending burden of 18.4 percent of GDP sound good, let’s not forget that the western world became rich in the 1800s when there was no income tax and the public sector consumed less than 10 percent of GDP.

But when you rank countries on the basis of economic freedom, you don’t compare jurisdictions to a nonexistent libertarian utopia. You compare them to other nations. So Hong Kong gets the top spot. And that’s paying dividends. When you look at long-run comparisons with other nations, Hong Kong has grown faster and become more prosperous.

So what about China? This wasn’t my first visit to the country, but it was the first time I went to Shanghai, and it is a very impressive place. It’s obvious that China has enjoyed a lot of growth in the past few decades.

But just as you shouldn’t judge the United States by a visit to Wall Street, it would be a mistake to draw sweeping conclusions about China after a few days in Shanghai.

Indeed, average living standards for all of China are still far below American levels. Moreover, if you look at the Economic Freedom of the World rankings, China still has a lot of room for improvement. It ranks 123rd out of 152 nations, which is not only far below France (#40), but also Greece (#85), Haiti (#98), and Russia (#101).

That being said, China’s score is 6.22 out of 10, which is a vast improvement compared to where it was in 1980, when it had a score of only 4.00.

This has led to some wonderful outcomes. This chart (h/t: Mark Perry) shows the share of the world’s population living on less than $1 per day (blue line) and the share of East Asia’s population with the same level of deprivation (red line). A big reason the red line has fallen so dramatically is that severe poverty in China has largely disappeared.

The real question for China is the degree to which there will be ongoing improvement.

I think it would be good if China became more like Hong Kong and that this led to much higher living standards. Heck, I’d be happy if China became more like Taiwan or South Korea, both of which have become relatively rich nations by moving substantially in the direction of free markets and small government.

But I don’t think this will happen. In one of my speeches, I posed a series of questions, followed by some less-than-optimistic answers.

Is the financial system weak? (because of too much state control over capital flows and investment)

Is there too much cronyism? (with friends and relatives getting favorable access to business)

Will China’s demographics be a problem? (the one-child policy is not just tyrannical, but it also means China’s population is aging)

Is rapid growth sustainable? (in the absence of reforms to boost economic freedom)

Have stimulus plans led to malinvestment? (such as ghost cities and other boondoggles)

Since economists are lousy when they make predictions, it’s quite possible that I’m wrong and my pessimism is unwarranted. For the sake of the Chinese people, let’s hope so.

And what about Hong Kong? I suspect they’ll remain the freest economy in the world. After all, why wreck a good thing?

Then again, the United States was the world’s 3rd-freest economy as recently as 2001. Now, thanks to Bush-Obama statism, we’ve plummeted to 17 in the ranking.

But I doubt Hong Kong policy makers would be equally foolish.

Read Full Post »

Singapore has been in the news because one of the Facebook billionaires has decided to re-domicile to that low-tax jurisdictions.

Some American politicians reacted by blaming the victim and are urging tax policies that are disturbingly similar to those adopted by totalitarian regimes such as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

Maybe they should go on one of their fancy junkets instead and take a visit to Hong Kong and Singapore. Even with first-class airfare and 5-star hotels, taxpayers might wind up benefiting if lawmakers actually paid attention to the policies that enable these jurisdictions to grow so fast.

They would learn (hopefully!) some of what was just reported in the Wall Street Journal.

Facebook  co-founder Eduardo Saverin’s recent decision to give up his U.S. citizenship in favor of long-term residence in Singapore has drawn fresh attention to the appeal of residing and investing in the wealthy city-state and other parts of Asia, where tax burdens are significantly lighter than in many Western countries. …Some 100 Americans opted out of U.S. citizenship in Singapore last year, almost double the 58 that did so in 2009, according to data from the U.S. Embassy in Singapore. …The increase of Americans choosing to renounce their citizenship comes amid heated tax debates in the U.S. Many businesses and high-income individuals are worried…[about]…tax increases in future years.

It’s not just that America is moving in the wrong direction. That’s important, but it’s also noteworthy that some jurisdictions have good policy, and Hong Kong and Singapore are always at the top of those lists.

The Asian financial hubs of Singapore and Hong Kong, on the other hand, have kept personal and corporate taxes among the lowest in the world to attract more foreign investment. Top individual income-tax rates are 20% in Singapore and 17% in Hong Kong, compared with 35% at the federal level in the U.S., according to an Ernst & Young report. The two Asian financial centers have also been praised by experts for having simpler taxation systems than the U.S. and other countries. …The tax codes are also more transparent so that many people don’t require a consultant or adviser.

Keep in mind that Hong Kong and Singapore also avoid double taxation, so there’s nothing remotely close to the punitive tax laws that America has for interest, dividends, capital gains, and inheritances.

One reason they have good tax policy is that the burden of government spending is relatively modest, usually less than 20 percent of economic output (maybe their politicians have heard of the Rahn Curve!).

No wonder some Americans are shifting economic activity to these pro-growth jurisdictions.

“The U.S. used to be a moderate tax jurisdiction compared with other countries and it used to be at the forefront of development,” said Lora Wilkinson, senior tax consultant at U.S. Tax Advisory International, a Singapore-based tax services firm that specializes in U.S. taxation laws. Now “it seems to be lagging behind countries like Singapore in creating policies to attract business.” She said she gets at least one query per week from Americans who are interested in renouncing their citizenship in favor of becoming Singaporeans. …Asian countries offer a business climate and lifestyle that many find attractive: “America is no longer the Holy Grail.”

That last quote really irks me. I have a knee-jerk patriotic strain, so I want America to be special for reasons above and beyond my support for good economic policy.

But the laws of economics do not share my sentimentality. So long as Hong Kong and Singapore have better policy, they will grow faster.

To get an idea of what this means, let’s look at some historical data from 1950-2008 on per-capita GDP from Angus Maddison’s database. As you can see, Hong Kong and Singapore used to be quite poor compared to the United States. But free markets, small government, and low taxes have paid dividends and both jurisdictions erased the gap.

Wow, America used to be 4 times richer, and that huge gap disappeared in just 60 years. But now let’s look at the most recent data from the World Bank, showing Gross National Income for 2010.

It’s not the same data source, so the numbers aren’t directly comparable, but the 2010 data shows that the United States has now fallen behind both Hong Kong and Singapore.

These charts should worry us. Not because it’s bad for Hong Kong and Singapore to become rich. That’s very good news.

Instead, these charts are worrisome because trend lines are important. Here’s one final chart showing how long it takes for a nation to double economic output at varying growth rates.

As you can see, it’s much better to be like Hong Kong and Singapore, which have been growing, on average, by more than 5 percent annually.

Unfortunately, the United States has not been growing as fast as Hong Kong and Singapore. Indeed, last year I shared some data from a Nobel Prize winner, which showed that America may have suffered a permanent loss in economic output because of the statist policies of Bush and Obama.

What makes this so frustrating is that we know the policies that are needed to boost growth. But those reforms would mean less power for the political class, so we face an uphill battle.

Read Full Post »

Welcome Instapundit readers. Thanks, Glenn.

After reading below about Argentina’s decline, several people have emailed to ask how Chile compares. Ask and ye shall receive. This post from last month shows shows Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela. Very powerful, which is why I gave the post such a grandiose title.


There’s been a lot of coverage of the recent decision by Standard & Poor to warn that the United States has a “negative” outlook.

As Joe Biden would say, BFD. I’m stunned that anyone would care, particularly since the rating agencies have zero credibility. These clowns completely missed Enron. They missed the collapse of Europe. They blew it on the financial crisis, especially with regard to the corrupt government-created mess at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The fact that one of the rating agencies belatedly warns that America is heading in the wrong direction should elicit only one response, which is, “Where were you guys when Bush did no-bureaucrat-left-behind, the prescription drug entitlement and TARP? And where were you guys when Obama did the faux stimulus and government-run healthcare?”

One of the problems with the rating agencies in this regard is that they narrowly focus on the ostensible ability of an institution (such as a company or government) to repay debt. That’s an important consideration, especially if you are a bondholder, but (even if the rating agencies did a good job) it doesn’t tell us much about why a government is in good shape or bad shape.

This story – and the failure to recognize what’s truly important – is doubly irritating to me since I’m in Buenos Aires for the Mont Pelerin Society meetings. Many of the speakers have focused on the challenges in Latin America, with a lot of attention focused on what went wrong with Argentina.

If I was forced to compress all the analysis into one brief answer, the problem is crony capitalism. Argentina’s economy, for all intents and purposes, is one giant Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac/Obamacare/General Motors/Goldman Sachs Obamaesque dystopia. Government has enormous influence over every major economic decision. It’s like being in the middle of Atlas Shrugged, as political connections are the way to get rich.

This type of approach is far worse than the Scandinavian welfare state. Yes, the official size of government is bigger in places such as Sweden, but the negative role of government intervention is far more pervasive in Argentina.

What makes this so tragic is that Argentina used to be one of the world’s wealthiest countries. Last night, I had the privilege of listening to one of the nation’s leading free market advocates, Dr. Ricardo H. López Murphy, talk about Argentina’s history. In the 1800s and early 1900s, Argentina looked to the United States for inspiration (back in the days when government was a far smaller burden) and he noted that his country was remarkably successful.

Then, beginning around the 1940s, Argentina began to march in the wrong direction. As you can see from this chart, the consequences have been tragic. The nation’s relative ranking has declined precipitously. A country that used to be one of the world’s richest has now fallen way behind.

I also put Hong Kong on this chart to give further evidence that policy matters. Argentina has pursued an Obama policy of government intervention and has declined. Hong Kong has practiced laissez-faire economics and now is one of the world’s richest jurisdictions.

This is a warning to America. There is nothing magical about the United States. If we copy Argentina (actually, a very bad combination of Argentine-style crony capitalism and Swedish-style high-tax redistribution), we will suffer similar consequences.

Read Full Post »

Johnny Munkhammar is a member of the Swedish Parliament and a committed supporter of economic liberalization. He has a column in the Wall Street Journal Europe that does a great job of explaining how Sweden became rich when it was a small-government, pro-market nation. He then notes that his country veered off track in the 1970s and 1980s, but is now heading back in the right direction. I’ll have more analysis below these excerpts, but it is especially impressive that Sweden is ahead of America on key reforms such as Social Security personal accounts and school choice.

Sweden is not socialist. According to the World Values Survey and other similar studies, Sweden combines one of the highest degrees of individualism in the world, solid trust in well-functioning institutions, and a high degree of social cohesion. Among the 160 countries studied in the Index of Economic Freedom, Sweden ranks 21st, and is one of the few countries that increased its economic freedoms during the financial crisis. …Sweden wasn’t always so free. But Sweden’s socialism lasted only for a couple of decades, roughly during the 1970s and 1980s. And as it happens, these decades mark the only break in the modern Swedish success story. …The Swedish tax burden was lower than the European average throughout these successful 60 years, and lower even than in the U.S. Only in 1950 did Sweden’s tax burden rise to 20% of GDP, though that remained comparatively low. …The 1970s were a decade of radical government intervention in society and in markets, during which Sweden doubled its overall tax burden, socialized a slew of industries, re-regulated its markets, expanded its public systems, and shuttered its borders. In 1970, Sweden had the world’s fourth-highest GDP per capita. By 1990, it had fallen 13 positions. In those 20 years, real wages in Sweden increased by only one percentage point. …By the late 1980s, though, Sweden had started de-regulating its markets once again, decreased its marginal tax rates, and opted for a sound-money, low-inflation policy. In the early 1990s, the pace quickened, and most markets except for labor and housing were liberalized. The state sold its shares in a number of companies, granted independence to its central bank, and introduced school vouchers that improved choice and competition in education. Stockholm slashed public pensions and introduced private retirement schemes, keeping the system demographically sustainable. These decisive economic liberalizations, and not socialism, are what laid the foundations for Sweden’s success over the last 15 years. …Today, the state’s total tax take comes to 45% of GDP, from 56% ten years ago. Meanwhile, unemployment benefits, sick leave and early retirement plans have all been streamlined to encourage work. The number of people receiving such welfare—which soared during the socialist decades—has fallen by 150,000 since 2006, a main reason for Sweden’s remarkably sound public finances.

Sweden still has a public sector that is far too big, but the damage caused by bloated government is at least partially offset by very good policy in other areas. Sweden is actually slightly more free market than the United States on non-fiscal measures in the Economic Freedom of the World index. Here’s a chart comparing Sweden and the United States. But I also included a few other nations for purposes of comparison. You can see Switzerland, the U.S., Sweden, and the United Kingdom all have similar scores for economic freedom if the burden of taxation and government spending is removed from the mix. But things change dramatically when taxes and spending are added to the formula. Switzerland is ranked 4th overall because of a decent fiscal system, ahead of the United States (6th) and United Kingdom (10th). while Sweden falls all the way to 37th place.

Denmark gets very high marks for non-fiscal freedom, so it only drops to 14th in the overall rating because of its bloated welfare state. Hong Kong and Singapore, meanwhile, rank 1st and 2nd in the world because of strong ratings on non-fiscal factors and they also manage to limit the fiscal burden of government.

Last but not least, many of Johnny’s points are included in this Center for Freedom and Prosperity video.

Read Full Post »

I prefer the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World over the Heritage/WSJ Index of Economic Freedom, not because I’m an expert on the methodology of the two publications, but for the simple reason that I assume Economic Freedom of the World must be slightly more accurate because, unlike the Heritage Index,  it showed the U.S. score declining during the Bush years.

That being said, the Index of Economic Freedom is my favorite Heritage Foundation publication. It is a first-rate collection of data and analysis on international economic policy trends. Today, however, the latest version of the Index was released and it brings us bad news about the United States.

America’s score dropped by 0.2. Combined with what happened to other nations, that dropped the United States down to 9th place. Lots of fascinating material in the report. The very solid scores for Chile and Estonia (both just outside the top 10) are especially noteworthy. And a special shout out to North Korea for easily beating Cuba and North Korea for the last prize honor.

Read Full Post »

For the past 15 years, America has been ranked as the world’s most competitive economy according to the Swiss-based IMD World Competitiveness Center. In the 2010 report that was recently released, however, the United States fell to number three, trailing Hong Kong and Singapore. Obama deserves much of the blame, but a nation rarely become less competitive overnight and it is quite likely that the big government policies of the Bush years also are responsible for what I fear will probably be a long-term decline in America’s economic vitality. Here’s a blurb from the Associated Press:

Singapore and Hong Kong are the world’s most competitive economies, an annual survey said Friday, demoting the United States from the top spot for the first time since 1993. The study lists 58 economies according to 328 criteria that measure how the nations create and maintain conditions favorable to businesses – a formula that had favored the U.S. for 16 years. …Switzerland and Australia rounded out the top five. Then came Sweden, Canada, Taiwan, Norway and Malaysia.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: