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Posts Tagged ‘Mexico’

I’m sometimes accused of being too radical, though I take that as a compliment (including the time a British journalist wrote that I was “a high priest of light tax, small state libertarianism”).

In reality, I’m actually a moderate. I don’t want to eliminate all government, just the 90 percent that is ineffective or counterproductive. As a result, some of my friends accuse me of being a squish, which is probably a fair characterization since I only scored a 94 out of 160 on Professor Bryan Caplan’s Libertarian Purity Quiz.

In my defense, I say let’s get rid of all the programs and departments that clearly shouldn’t exist (such as TransportationHousing and Urban DevelopmentEducationEnergy, and Agriculture), and then we can have a fun discussion of whether the private sector can take over things like roads, policing, and the military.

And it does seem that many so-called public goods actually can be handled by the market. I’ve written about private roads and private money, for instance, but the example that really caught my attention was the private, church-run city in Nigeria.

And the New York Times has a fascinating story about similar developments in Mexico.

Fifteen-foot stone turrets are staffed by men whose green uniforms belong to no official force. Beyond them, a statue of an avocado bears the inscription “avocado capital of the world.” And beyond the statue is Tancítaro, an island of safety and stability amid the most violent period in Mexico’s history. Local orchard owners, who export over $1 million in avocados per day, mostly to the United States, underwrite what has effectively become an independent city-state. Self-policing and self-governing, it is a sanctuary from drug cartels as well as from the Mexican state. …Tancítaro represents a quiet but telling trend in Mexico, where a handful of towns and cities are effectively seceding, partly or in whole. These are acts of desperation, revealing the degree to which Mexico’s police and politicians are seen as part of the threat.

I can’t resist commenting that the reporters should have written that police and politicians “are the threat” rather than “are seen as part of the threat.”

The Mexican government is a grim example of the “stationary bandit” in action.

Anyhow, back to our story about de facto secession and privatization.

…such enclaves…you will find a pattern. Each is a haven of relative safety amid violence, suggesting that their diagnosis of the problem was correct. …The central government has declined to reimpose control, the researchers believe, for fear of drawing attention to the town’s lesson that secession brings safety.

Tancítaro is not the only example of a quasi-private town.

Rather than ejecting institutions, Monterrey’s business elite quietly took them over… C.E.O.s would now oversee one of the most central functions of government. …they circumvented the bureaucracy and corruption that had bogged down other police reform efforts. Crime dropped citywide. Community leaders in poorer areas reported safer streets and renewed public trust… Monterrey’s experience offered still more evidence that in Mexico, violence is only a symptom; the real disease is in government. The corporate takeover worked as a sort of quarantine.

Wow, who would have imagined the New York Times would ever have a story stating that “the real disease is in government.”

Sadly, the story goes on to say traditional politicians are now regaining control in Monterrey, so the period of good governance is coming to an end.

In an ideal world, the central government would allow towns to formally secede, and those towns could then contract to have private management. But that’ll never happen since politicians wouldn’t want real-world examples showing the superiority of markets over government.

For now, we’ll have to settle for ad hoc and unofficial secession and privatization.

P.S. We can also hope that Liberland succeeds.

P.P.S. While today’s topic is de facto secession of local governments, my support for decentralization makes me sympathetic to regional secession. See, for example, Scotland, Liechtenstein, California, Italy, Belgium, and Ukraine.

P.P.P.S. I did once write about the “libertarian paradise of Argentina,” but that was mostly in jest.

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One of the interesting things I’ve noticed in my world travels is that supporters of free markets and small government generally are known as “liberals” everywhere other than North America.

I think the rest of the world has the right idea. After all, folks like Adam Smith are considered “classical liberals,” so it’s bizarre that “liberal” now is used to describe anti-capitalists in America.

To muddy the waters even further, it’s not uncommon for modern supporters of capitalism to be called “neoliberals.”

Though I wonder if that’s supposed to a be a term of derision. When I’m called a neoliberal in other countries, it’s always by someone who is criticizing my support for economic liberty.

Professor Dani Rodrik of Harvard, in a column for the U.K.-based Guardian, is not a fan of neoliberalism. He acknowledges that the term is ill-defined, but recognizes that it means a less power for government.

…neoliberalism…denotes a preference for markets over government, economic incentives over cultural norms, and private entrepreneurship over collective action. …The term is used as a catchall for anything that smacks of deregulation, liberalisation, privatisation or fiscal austerity. …That neoliberalism is a slippery, shifting concept, with no explicit lobby of defenders, does not mean that it is irrelevant or unreal. Who can deny that the world has experienced a decisive shift toward markets from the 1980s on? Or that centre-left politicians – Democrats in the US, socialists and social democrats in Europe – enthusiastically adopted some of the central creeds of Thatcherism and Reaganism, such as deregulation, privatisation, financial liberalisation and individual enterprise?

Rodrik then proceeds with a lengthy discussion of the weaknesses and limitations of conventional economic analysis.

Much of what he writes is perfectly reasonable. The economy is not a machine and people are not robots, so mechanistic economic concepts – while useful – have limited value. Moreover, culture and institutions make a big difference, and it’s rather difficult to capture those concepts in economic models.

Moreover, he makes some interesting observations on how various nations such as China have liberalized in ways that defy easy analysis.

Which is certainly a fair point.

But then he finishes up his column with two examples that simply don’t make sense.

First, Rodrik cites Mexico as a supposed example of neoliberal reform.

Following a series of macroeconomic crises in the mid-1990s, Mexico embraced macroeconomic orthodoxy, extensively liberalised its economy, freed up the financial system, sharply reduced import restrictions and signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta). These policies did produce macroeconomic stability and a significant rise in foreign trade and internal investment. But where it counts – in overall productivity and economic growth – the experiment failed. Since undertaking the reforms, overall productivity in Mexico has stagnated, and the economy has underperformed even by the undemanding standards of Latin America.

My reaction is “huh?”

I spend a lot of time combing through international data in hopes of finding success stories to publicize and I’ve never come across anything to suggest Mexico is a good example. Instead, I found evidence a few years ago suggesting the country is a bad example.

Here’s the Mexican data from Economic Freedom of the World. You can certainly argue that Mexico did some good reforms in the late 1980s. But where’s the evidence for sweeping liberalization after the mid-1990s?

There was a very slight increase in Mexico’s score after 1995, which is better than nothing. But I’m not surprised that it didn’t yield impressive results since the rest of the world was liberalizing at a much faster rate.

Indeed, Mexico dropped from #49 to #69 between 1995 and 2000 because other nations were the ones with “extensive liberalization,” not Mexico.

Second, he takes a shot at Chile.

Chile’s neoliberal experiment eventually produced the worst economic crisis in all of Latin America.

“Huh?” would be an understatement. I was flabbergasted by this assertion.

But not the first part of that sentence. He’s correct that Chile is a poster child for market-friendly reform.

Here’s a chart from Economic Freedom of the World showing how the nation’s score dramatically improved between 1975 and 1995.

But I was shocked by the second part of the sentence. Chile had “the worst economic crisis in all of Latin America”?

Since I’ve written several times about the Chilean economic boom, I was totally baffled. What was Rodrik talking about?

So I took another look at a couple of sources to see if I had overlooked something.

Here’s the IMF data on per-capita GDP for Chile and the rest of Latin America. The numbers are only available back to 1980, but everything we see underscores my argument that Chile is a great success. It used to have living standards only slightly higher than the average for Latin America and now the people are more than twice as rich as their peers. If that’s a “worst economic crisis,” we should all be lucky enough to have similar problems.

Then I looked at the Angus Maddison dataset, which allows us to go back to 1970.

His numbers are adjusted for inflation, so the lines don’t rise as rapidly, but we see the same long-run pattern. Chile is getting richer at a much faster pace than other countries from Latin America. Once again, if this is a “crisis,” other nations should hope for a similar fate.

So what did Rodrik mean by “worst economic crisis”?

His article doesn’t provide any details, but if you look at the Maddison data for the early 1980s, there was a downturn, with per-capita output dropping in Chile from about $6,000 to about $5,000. And that reduction was noticeably larger than the average reduction for the rest of Latin America.

I’m guessing this is the supposed “crisis” that he mentions in the article.

But if that’s true, he’s guilty of an egregious example of “cherry-picking” data. Sort of like saying the record-setting 1998 Yankees were a failure because of a four-game losing streak in late August that year.

Honest analysis requires a look at the overall record, and all data sources show that Chile’s economic performance is far superior to its peers.

The bottom line is that Rodrik is on solid ground when he points out the limitations of conventional economic analysis. But when he then decides to criticize pro-market reforms, he concocts two examples that are – at best – sloppily inaccurate.

P.S. By the way, I can’t resist commenting on one additional assertion in Rodrik’s column.

The use of the term “neoliberal” exploded in the 1990s, when it became closely associated with…financial deregulation, which would culminate in the 2008 financial crash and in the still-lingering euro debacle.

This is another “huh?” moment.

The “neoliberals” were the people who opposed the policies – artificially low interest rates from the Federal Reserve and the corrupt Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac subsidies – that led to the financial crisis. And people like me were very opposed to the excessive government spending that led to the European fiscal crisis.

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Based on the dismal data from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve (as well as our own experiences), we know Obamanomics doesn’t work in the United States.

But we also know bigger government doesn’t work in France. And we know it doesn’t work in Japan. We know it doesn’t work in Spain. We know it doesn’t work in Argentina. We know it doesn’t work in Greece.

I could continue, but I think you get the point.

But some people never learn. The President of Mexico has unveiled a new scheme to increase taxes to finance bigger government. Here are some details from the New York Times.

President Enrique Peña Nieto proposed on Sunday a sweeping overhaul of his country’s tax system, intended to collect billions of dollars to finance new social programs. …Mr. Peña Nieto described the broad outlines of his plan, which would eliminate many loopholes and exemptions that favor the richest Mexicans. He proposed new taxes on capital gains, carbon emissions and soft drinks, and increased income taxes for those making over about $39,000 a year.

But give Senor Nieto credit. Unlike most politicians, who claim that higher taxes are for deficit reduction, he freely admits that he wants to expand the welfare state and create more dependency.

…the revenue it would generate would pay for a new universal pension for all Mexicans over 65, a new unemployment insurance scheme and more spending for schools and infrastructure.

Amazingly, there are some who think a bigger burden of government spending will improve Mexico’s anemic economy.

…he is trying to swiftly inject some dynamism into an economy that has failed to grow any faster than 2 percent a year, on average, since 2001.

Yeah, good luck with that. I’m still waiting for someone to show me an example of a nation that became prosperous by making government bigger (and if any leftist readers say the Nordic nations, I’ll simply point out that they became wealthy when government was small and that their economies have grown much slower since the welfare state was adopted).

But Nieto is probably right about his policies transforming Mexico.

“In the next months, we will be deciding what history we are going to write for the next decades,” Mr. Peña Nieto said last week in the annual presidential address on the state of the nation. “We have 120 days for 2013 to be remembered as a year of great transformations.”

Just like 1917 was a year of transformation for Russia.

While it appears that the government has the votes to push through its bad plan, there are a few rational voices in Mexico.

…analysts warn that collecting more taxes will not solve Mexico’s problems unless the government changes the way it spends them. “Before a new wave of taxes,” Mr. Pardinas of the Institute for Competitiveness said, “there should be a re-engineering of public spending. We know there are obscenities in public spending.”

Heck, maybe we can get Mr. Pardinas to come to Washington. We have plenty of obscenities in our budget.

But let’s maintain our focus on Mexico. The first thing I do when I analyze any nation is to look at the data from Economic Freedom of the World. As you can see from the chart, Mexico is suffering from statism. It ranks only 91 out of 144 nations and it’s score has dropped significantly since 2005.

Mexico EFW Ranking

That being said, if you scroll down to page 114 and look at the details, you’ll also see that Mexico’s best grade (or, to be more accurate, the country’s least-worst grade) is for fiscal policy.

Mexico’s bigger problems are in the areas of trade policy, rule of law, monetary policy, and regulation. So it’s theoretically possible that President Nieto could make Mexico more prosperous if he raised taxes while simultaneously adopting significant free-market reforms for other sectors of the economy.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen. Politicians who support bad policy in one area generally tend to support bad policy in other areas.

As explained in this video, the recipe for prosperity is free markets and small government. Well, Mexico doesn’t have free markets and its President now wants to compound the damage by increasing the size of government.

Anybody want to guess how this turns out?

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I’ve never focused much on immigration issues, but this EU Observer story caught my eye. Libya’s dictator is asking the European Union to give his country €5 billion (more than $6 billion) each year as a price for stopping illegal migration across the Mediterranean. 
Mr Gaddafi suggested Monday during his speech to business representatives in Italy the EU should pay his country “at least €5 billion a year” to stop African migrants crossing the Mediterranean and avoid Europe becoming “black.” “Gaddafi is thinking what all north African leaders are thinking: they can’t and don’t want to be the keepers of Europe,” Mr Frattini said, adding that: “Europe needs to finally get a migration policy, giving plenty of funds to the migrants’ countries of origin and helping transitory countries face a huge burden.” While a European Commission spokesman declined on Tuesday to react to the Libyan leader’s comments, France said the immigration issue would be included in a broader accord with Libya, on the negotiating table since November 2008.
This floors me. I’m not surprised a kleptocrat like Gaddafi made the request, but I’m stunned that European politicians seem to be taking it seriously. It’s possible, I suppose, that I’m misinterpreting the article and the Europeans are merely being diplomatic, but why be polite? Won’t that encourage other North African nations to make similar demands? And if European nations actually agree to such payments, are they really dumb enough to think that North African governments have the ability (or desire) to block individuals from seeking a better life in Europe?
Since bad ideas have a nasty habit of migrating across the Atlantic, my next thought is to wonder whether politicians from Mexico and other Latin American nations will decide to make similar demands of the U.S. government. Given the rampant corruption and political greed in places such as Mexico, I’m sure the ruling classes would love an additional excuse to shake down American taxpayers. The unanswered question, of course, is whether U.S. politicians would make the same mistake as their European counterparts and respond with genuine interest rather than derisive laughter.

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In an amusing coincidence, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and I were both in Latin America this week offering fiscal policy advice. But it won’t surprise you to know that Mrs. Clinton’s suggestions are radically different than the advice I provided. She spoke in Ecuador and, according to an AFP report, said it was time for “the wealthy across the Americas to pay their ‘fair share’ of taxes in order to eliminate poverty and promote economic opportunity for all.” She also claimed that “her appeal to overhaul tax systems did not amount to ‘class warfare’ and was instead a recognition that the ‘winner-take-all-approach’ was a drag on progress.” The AFP story concludes with Mrs. Clinton asserting, “We can’t mince words about this. Levels of tax evasion are unacceptably high,”

By contrast, in my remarks to the Fundacion Libertad in Panama and in my speech to the Chamber of Commerce in El Salvador, I explained that academic research shows that better tax compliance is best achieved by lowering tax rates and eliminating inefficient and corrupt spending programs so that taxpayers have more confidence that their money is not being wasted. But let’s touch on something even more important than economics. I also made a moral argument about the danger of giving national tax authorities too much power and information – especially in a region where governments oftentimes are the source of oppression, expropriation, and tyranny. Simply stated, there are some things that are more important than obeying tax laws. This Center for Freedom and Prosperity video explains that so-called tax havens are an extremely important refuge for people who are subject to persecution and other forms of government malfeasance.

Let’s consider some Latin American examples. Imagine a political dissident in Venezuela. Hugo Chavez has turned that country into a thugocracy and opponents of his sinister regime are vulnerable to having their assets expropriated (and worse). Thankfully, many Venezuelans are able to protect themselves from socialist tyranny by putting their money in Cayman, Panama, or Miami (the U.S. is a tax haven for non-U.S. people). But if Mrs. Clinton got to make the rules, tax havens would no longer exist and Chavez would be empowered.

Or what about families in Mexico, who rightfully are afraid that if they keep their money in the country and report it on their tax returns, corrupt bureaucrats in the national tax office will sell their names to criminal gangs and suddenly their children will be kidnapped and they will have to deal with the horror of getting a ransom note accompanied by a child’s finger. Fortunately, many Mexicans can guard against this horrific possibility by placing their assets in Cayman, Panama, or Miami. But in Mrs. Clinton’s ideal world, those options would not exist and many more people would experience the nightmare of vicious crime.

And consider the plight of Argentinians. A few years ago, the nation’s venal government stole the private pension assets of the people. This is in addition to radical currency devaluations that have wiped out a big chunk of people’s savings. Prudent Argentinians have avoided these forms of back-door thievery by moving funds to Cayman, Panama, and Miami. In the Orwellian world envisioned by Mrs. Clinton, however, tax havens wouldn’t exist and governments would have carte blanche to engage in bad policy.

This is not the first indication of Mrs. Clinton’s government-über-alles mindset as Secretary of State. Let’s remember that she urged class-warfare tax policy for Pakistan and more recently said Brazil was a role model for soak-the-rich tax policy (a strange assertion since the top tax rate there is only 27.5 percent). If nothing else, at least we can give her credit for being consistent.

But if I have to choose between Mrs. Clinton’s consistent statism and protecting the liberty and freedom of oppressed and persecuted people, it’s no contest. Politicians and senior government appointees all over the world act as if folks in the private sector are nothing more than serfs and peasants who have an obligation to pay ever-higher tax burdens, so we should be happy that so-called tax havens offer a refuge – even if we don’t live in failed states such as Venezuela, Mexico, and Argentina. Actually, since Obama is trying to turn us into Greece, maybe this issue will be important for Americans even sooner than we think.

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