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The United Nations has proposed a set of “sustainable development goals.” Most of them seem unobjectionable. After all, presumably everyone wants things such as less poverty, a cleaner environment, better education, and more growth, right?

That being said, I’m instinctively skeptical about the goal of “climate action” because of the U.N.’s past support for statist policies in that area.

And I also wonder why the bureaucrats picked “reduced inequalities” when “upward mobility for the poor” is a much better goal.

While I am tempted to nit-pick about some of the other goals as well, I’m actually more worried about how the U.N. thinks the goals should be achieved.

I participated in a U.N. conference in early April and almost every bureaucrat and government representative asserted that higher tax burdens were necessary to achieve the goals. It truly was a triumph of ideology over evidence.

And some of the cheerleaders for this initiative have a very extreme view on these issues. Consider a new report, issued by Germany’s Bertelsmann Stiftung and the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network, that ranks nations based on how successful they are at achieving the sustainable development goals. Jeffrey Sachs was the lead author, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised to discover that there are some very odd results.

Bernie Sanders will be naively happy since the Nordic nations dominate the top of the rankings. The United States is #42, by contrast, sandwiched between Argentina and Armenia. Moreover, the United States is behind countries such as Hungary, Belarus, Portugal, Moldova, Greece, and Ukraine, which seems strange because Americans enjoy significantly higher levels of consumption – even when compared to other rich jurisdictions.

But the most absurd feature – at least for anyone with the slightest familiarity with international economic data – is that Cuba (circled in green) is ranked considerably above the United States (circled in red).

This is a jaw-droppingly stupid assertion. Cuba is a staggeringly impoverished nation thanks to an oppressive communist dictatorship.

So how can Sachs and his colleagues produce a report putting that country well above a rich nation like the United States?

Let’s look at some of the data. Here’s the summary of Cuba from the report. Pay particular attention to the circle on the right. If the blue bars extend to the outer edge, that means the country supposedly is doing a very good job achieving a goal, whereas a small blue bar indicates poor performance.

And here is the same information for the United States.

It appears that Cuba does much better for poverty (#1), responsible consumption (#12), climate action (#13), life on land (#15), and partnership (#17), while the United States while the United State does much better for industry, innovation, and infrastructure (#9).

But here’s an easier and more precise way of comparing the two nations. All you need to know is that green is the best, yellow is second best, followed by burnt orange, and red is the worst.

Cuba wins in nine categories and the United States is ranked higher in three categories.

Now here’s why most of these rankings are total nonsense. If you go to page 51 of the report, you’ll see the actual variables that are used to produce the scores for the 17 U.N. goals.

And what do you find? Well, here are some things that caught my eye.

  • For the first goal of “no poverty,” the report includes a measure of income distribution rather than poverty. This is same dodgy approach that’s been used by the Obama Administration and the OECD, and because almost everyone is Cuba is equally poor, that means it scores much higher than the United States, where everyone is richer, but with varying degrees of wealth. I’m not joking.
  • For the second goal of “zero hunger,” I can’t figure out how they concocted a higher score for Cuba. After all, there’s pervasive food rationing in that hellhole of an island. My best guess is that the United States gets downgraded because the category includes an obesity variable. Having a lot of overweight people may not be a good feature of America, but is it rude for me to point out that a large number of heavy people is the opposite of hunger?
  • Jumping ahead to the fifth goal of “gender equality,” I assume the United States gets a bad score because of the variable for the gender wage gap, even though women in America earn far higher incomes than their unfortunate and impoverished counterparts in Cuba.
  • Regarding the eighth goal of “decent work and economic growth,” it’s not clear how Sachs and his colleagues gave Cuba the best possible score. But I know the final result is preposterous given that the Cuban people are suffering from crippling material deprivation.
  • For the twelfth (“responsible consumption and production”) and thirteenth (“climate action”) goals, it appears that the United States gets a lower score because rich nations consume more energy than poor nations. If this is why Cuba beats the USA (just as they “scored higher” in the so-called Happy Planet Index), then I’m glad America loses that contest.
  • Last but not least, I can’t resist commenting on Cuba getting the best score and the U.S. getting worst score for “partnerships,” which is the seventeenth goal. If you read the fine print, it turns out that nations get better grades if their tax burdens are higher. And countries like the United States get downgraded because they are tax havens and/or they respect financial privacy.

The main takeaway is that Sachs and his colleagues produced a shoddy report based on statist ideology and – in many cases – on dodgy methodology.

Anyone who ranks Cuba above the United States when trying to measure quality of life should be treated like a laughingstock.

The report also ranks the ultra-rich and very successful nation of Singapore at #61, below poor countries such as Uzbekistan and Mexico. Are these people smoking crack? That’s even more absurd than the OECD’s report on Asian taxes, which basically pretended Singapore didn’t exist.

Heck the report also has dysfunctional Venezuela ahead of Panama, even though tens of thousands of Venezuelans have fled to Panama to escape their poorly governed nation. But I guess real-world evidence doesn’t matter to people trying to promote statism.

P.S. I got to tangle with Jeffrey Sachs at a United Nations conference on the state of the world economy back in 2012. Nothing has changed.

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Back in 2013, I put together a visual showing the good and bad policies that were enacted during the Clinton years. The big takeaway was that the overall burden of government was substantially reduced during his years in office.

Two days ago, I did the same thing for Richard Nixon, but noted that his record was universally awful. I couldn’t think of a single pro-growth policy when he was in the Oval Office.

Now let’s look at the Ronald Reagan. I analyzed his record last year, but mostly looking at the aggregate results.

So let’s look at the details, putting specific pro-growth policies in one column and specific anti-growth policies in another column. As you can see, there was a substantial net improvement during the Reagan years.

I gave extra credit for his tax cuts, the spending restraint, and the taming of inflation.

On the negative side of the ledger, Reagan did approve some post-1981 tax hikes, imposed some protectionism, and also supported Medicare expansion, so he certainly wasn’t perfect.

I also was tempted to give Reagan some credit for NAFTA and the WTO since those initiative got their start during his presidency, but that would break my rule of only counting policies that were implemented while a president was in office.

The bottom line is that Reagan was a net plus for economic liberty. And if you count the collapse of the Soviet Empire, he was a net plus for global liberty.

Let’s close by discussing Henry Olsen’s new book on Ronald Reagan. Henry tried to make the case that Reagan was sort of a New Deal Democrat rather than a libertarian-ish ideologue. Writing for the Claremont Review of Books, Steven Hayward obviously is a fan of the book but is not entirely sympathetic to Henry’s hypothesis.

You should read Steven’s entire review, and also get Henry’s book and read it as well. I’ll simply cite two passages from the review for the simple reason that they match my beliefs (shocking, huh?). First, Reagan (quite correctly) was not a big fan of the New Deal.

Reagan’s long-time economic adviser Martin Anderson once told me that despite Reagan’s general kind words for FDR and the New Deal, he could not recall Reagan ever endorsing a specific New Deal policy… But if anyone wants to see Reagan as the heir of the New Deal, he has to get past one of Reagan’s most famous critiques of it—his 1976 remark that “Fascism was really the basis for the New Deal.” …Reagan, to his campaign managers’ consternation, stoutly defended his comments. In August 1980 Reagan told dumbfounded reporters: “Anyone who wants to look at the writings of the Brain Trust of the New Deal will find that President Roosevelt’s advisers admired the fascist system. . .  They thought that private ownership with government management and control a la the Italian system was the way to go, and that has been evident in all their writings.”

And he also opposed Washington-based income redistribution (another sensible view).

When Reagan opposed Nixon’s guaranteed annual income proposal, the Family Assistance Plan, in 1969 and 1970—the only governor in the country to do so—he said in a TV debate that “I believe that the government is supposed to promote the general welfare; I don’t think it is supposed to provide it.” If welfare was centralized in Washington, Reagan knew, reform would be all but impossible and there would be a bias toward increased spending in the future. …“If there is one area of social policy,” Reagan began to say in his standard stump speech, “that should be at the most local level of government possible, it is welfare. It should not be nationalized—it should be localized.” …In another 1982 speech to the NAACP (amidst a fierce recession), Reagan argued that the Great Society had done more harm than good for black Americans. Liberals howled with indignation about both of these heresies.

Amen.

I’m not a Reagan historian like Olson or Hayward, so I’ll wrap up this conversation with one small observation. Reagan was not as libertarian as I would like. I came to DC near the beginning of his second term and I remember feeling disappointed at the time that more progress could be made. I’ve now learned much more about the very weak records of other senior Republican and I now realize his accomplishment were large and meaningful.

It wasn’t just what he achieved. He also changed the “Overton Window,” meaning that he substantially expanded the acceptability of ideas about free markets and limited government. Prior to the Gipper’s tenure, Republicans rarely challenged the welfare state. They basically accepted the New Deal and Great Society. Reagan didn’t have much success unraveling welfare state programs, but he showed that such programs could be criticized and big-picture ideas about reform were not politically toxic.

P.S. Let’s also not forget that Reagan opposed the value-added tax. The rejection of a bad policy doesn’t belong on the above list, but it’s a notable piece of evidence about Reagan’s economic wisdom.

P.P.S. Reagan also showed that good policy can be good politics.

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A few days ago, using several methodologies, I calculated how fast government spending increased during the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

One of my big takeaways was that Republican presidents – with the exception of Reagan – allowed the burden of government spending to increase far too rapidly. Oftentimes faster than budgets grew under Democratic presidents.

That column generated a lot of feedback. And whether the responses were positive or negative, a common theme was that presidents shouldn’t be judged solely based on the growth of federal spending – both because Congress plays a big role and because there are many other policies that also matter when assessing economic policy.

I fully agree, and I explicitly noted that the relatively good spending numbers during the Obama years were because of policies – sequestration, shutdowns, etc – he opposed.

And I also concur that other policies matter. That’s one of the reasons I’m always highlighting Economic Freedom of the World. Yes, fiscal policy is one of the variables, but monetary policy, trade policy, regulatory policy, and the rule of law are equally important.

Indeed, I did an overall assessment of Bill Clinton a few years ago, comparing the pro-growth polices that were adopted during his tenure with the anti-growth policies that were implemented.

The bottom line is that economic liberty increased during his presidency. Significantly. Others can debate about whether he deserves full credit, partial credit, or no credit, but what matters to me is that the overall burden of government shrank. And that was good for America.

It’s time to do an overall assessment of economic policy for other presidents. And we’ll start with one of America’s worst presidents, Richard Nixon.

He’s mostly infamous for Watergate, which led to his resignation, but he also should be scorned because every single major economic policy of his presidency expanded the size, scope, and power of the federal government. Here’s the list, with a couple of the items getting larger bars because the policies were so misguided.

Is it true that there were no good economic policies under Richard Nixon? I asked Art Laffer, who worked at the Office of Management and Budget at the time, whether there were any pro-market reforms during the Nixon years.

He mentioned that the top tax rate on labor and small business income was reduced from 70 percent to 50 percent as part of the Tax Reform Act of 1969. I would have included that law in the pro-growth column, except that was the legislation that also created the alternative minimum tax (for both households and corporations). And there was an increases in the tax burden on capital gains, as well as a more onerous tax regime for new investment. My assessment is that these bad provisions basically offset the lower tax rate.

For what it’s worth, Nixon also proposed a value-added tax, which is yet another piece of evidence that he was a terrible statist. But I only include policies that were enacted rather than merely proposed (if I did include proposed policies, Bill Clinton would take a hit for Hillarycare).

P.S. I’m open to revising this list. I probably missed some policies, perhaps even a good one. And maybe I’m overstating the negative impact of spending increases and price controls, or understating the bad consequences of other policies. Feel free to add your two cents in the comments section.

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A new annual edition of Economic Freedom of the World has been released.

The first thing that everyone wants to know is how various nations are ranked.

Let’s start at the bottom. I can’t imagine that anybody will be surprised to learn that Venezuela is in last place, though we don’t know for sure the worse place in the world since the socialist hellholes of Cuba and North Korea weren’t included because of a lack of acceptable data.

At the other end, Hong Kong is in first place, where it’s been ranked for decades, followed by Singapore, which also have been highly ranked for a long time. Interestingly, the gap between those two jurisdictions is shrinking, so it will be interesting to see if Singapore grabs the top spot next year.

New Zealand and Switzerland are #3 and #4, respectively, retaining their lofty rankings from last year.

The biggest news is that Canada plunged. It was #5 last year, but now is tied for #11. And I can’t help but worry what will happen in the future given the leftist orientation of the nation’s current Prime Minister.

Another notable development is that the United Kingdom jumped four spots, from #10 to #6. If that type of movement continues, the U.K. definitely will prosper in a post-Brexit world.

And if we venture outside the top 10, I can’t help but feel happy that the United States rose from #16 to #11. And America’s ranking didn’t jump merely because other nation’s adopted bad policy. The U.S. score increased from 7.75 in last year’s report to 7.94 in this year’s release.

A few other things that grabbed my attention are the relatively high scores for all the Baltic nations, the top-20 rankings for Denmark and Finland, and Chile‘s good (but declining) score.

Let’s take a look at four fascinating charts from the report.

We’ll start with a closer look at the United States. As you can see from this chart, the United States enjoyed a gradual increase in economic freedom during the 1980s and 1990s, followed by a gradual decline during most of the Bush-Obama years. But in the past couple of years (hopefully the beginning of a trend), the U.S. score has improved.

Now let’s shift to the post-communist world.

What’s remarkable about nations from the post-Soviet Bloc is that you have some big success stories and some big failures.

I already mentioned that the Baltic nations get good scores, but Georgia and Romania deserve attention as well.

But other nations – most notably Ukraine and Russia – remain economically oppressed.

Our next chart shows long-run developments in the scores of developed and developing nations.

Both sets of countries benefited from economic liberalization in the 19890s and 1990s. But the 21st century has – on average – been a period of policy stagnation.

Last but not least, let’s look at the nations that have enjoyed the biggest increases and suffered the biggest drops since 2000.

A bunch of post-communist nations are in the group that enjoyed the biggest increases in economic liberty. It’s also good to see that Rwanda’s score has jumped so much.

I’m unhappy, by contrast, so see the United States on the list of nations that experienced the largest reductions in economic liberty since the turn of the century.

Greece’s big fall, however, is not surprising. And neither are the astounding declines for Argentina and Venezuela (Argentina improved quite a bit in this year’s edition, so hopefully that’s a sign that the country is beginning to recover from the horrid statism of the Kirchner era).

Let’s close with a reminder that Economic Freedom of the World uses dozens of variables to create scores in five major categories (fiscal, regulatory, trade, monetary, and rule of law). These five scores are then combined to produce a score for each country, just as grades in five classes might get combined to produce a student’s grade point average.

This has important implications because getting a really good score in one category won’t produce strong economic results if there are bad scores in the other four categories. Likewise, a bad score in one category isn’t a death knell if a nation does really well in the other four categories.

As a fiscal policy wonk, I always try to remind myself not to have tunnel vision. There are nations that may get good scores on fiscal policy, but get a bad overall score because of poor performance in non-fiscal variables (Lebanon, for instance). Similarly, there are nations that get rotten scores on fiscal policy, yet are ranked highly because they are very market-oriented in the other four variables (Denmark and Finland, for example).

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I don’t know if Dr. Seuss would appreciate my title, which borrows from his children’s classic.

But given how I enjoy comparative rankings, I couldn’t help myself after perusing a new study from WalletHub that ranks states on their independence (or lack thereof).

Being a policy wonk, what really caught my attention was the section on government dependency, which is based on four criteria.

As you can see, the four factors are not weighted equally. The “federally dependent states” variable is considered four times as important as any of the other variables.

That’s important, to be sure, but is it really more important (or that much more important) than the other categories?

Moreover, I’m not sure the “tax freedom day” variable is a measure of dependency. What’s really captured by this variable, given the way the tax code doesn’t tax low-income people and over-taxes high-income people, is the degree to which state have lots of rich people or poor people. But that’s not a measure of dependence (particularly if the rich people stole money instead of earning it).

But I’m quibbling. I might put together a different formula with some different variables, but WalletHub has done something very interesting.

And if we look at their 25 least-dependent states, you see a very interesting pattern. Of the 10-most independent states, only three of them are Trump-voting red states (Kansas, Nebraska, and Utah).

The other seven are blue states. And some of them – such as Illinois, New Jersey, and California – are dark blue states.

And the #11 and #12 states also were Hillary states as well.

Which raises an interesting question. Why are voters in those states in favor of big government when they don’t disproportionately benefit from handouts?

Are they culturally left-wing, putting social issues above economic issues?

Or are they motivated by some issue involving foreign policy and/or defense?

Or maybe masochistic?

Beats me.

By the way, the WalletHub email announcing the report included a very interesting factoid that may explain why Hillary lost Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania has the lowest percentage of government workers (local, state and federal), at 10.8 percent. Alaska has the nation’s highest percentage, at 25.1 percent.

Though I can’t see those details in the actual report, which is disappointing. I’d like to see a ranking of the states based solely on the number-of-bureaucrats criteria (we have data comparing countries, for those interested).

Now let’s shift to the states that have the highest levels of dependency.

If you look at the bottom of the final image, you’ll notice that it’s a reverse of the top-10. Seven of the most-dependent states are red states that voted for Trump.

Only New Mexico, Oregon, and Maine supported Hillary (and Trump actually won one-fourth of Maine’s electoral votes).

So this raises a separate question. Are red state people voting against their interests? Should they be voting for politicians who will further expand the size and scope of government so they can get even more goodies from Uncle Sam?

For what it’s worth, a leftist actually wrote a book entitled What’s the Matter with Kansas, which examined why the people of the Sunflower State weren’t voting for statism.

Well, part of the answer may be that Kansas is one of the most independent states, so perhaps the author should have picked another example.

But even if he had selected Mississippi (#49), I suspected the answer is that low-income people don’t necessarily think that it’s morally right to steal money from other states, even if the loot is laundered through Washington.

In other words, people is those states still have social capital or cultural capital.

It’s also possible, of course, that voters in red states with lots of dependency (at least as measured by WalletHub) are instead motivated by cultural issues or foreign policy issues.

There’s even a very interesting study from Professor Alesina at Harvard, which finds that ethnically diverse jurisdictions can be more hostile to redistribution (and homogeneous societies like the Nordic nations are more supportive of a large welfare state).

And since many of the red states at the bottom of the rankings also happen to be states with large minority populations, perhaps that’s a partial explanation.

Though California has a very large minority population as well, yet it routinely votes for more redistribution.

The bottom line is that we probably can’t draw any sweeping conclusions from this data.

Though it leaves me even more convinced that the best approach is to eliminate all DC-based redistribution and let states decide how much to tax and how much to spend. In other words, federalism.

P.S. I put together my own ranking of state dependency, based on a formula involving welfare usage and poverty. Vermont was the worst state and Nevada was the best state.

P.P.S. I also shared calculations based solely on the share of eligible people who signed up for food stamps. Interestingly, Californians rank as the most self-reliant. Maybe my predictions of long-run doom for that state are a bit exaggerated.

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Earlier today, I gave a speech about populism and capitalism at the Free Market Road Show in Thessaloniki, Greece.

But I’m not writing about my speech (read this and this if you want to get an idea of what I said about American policy under Trump). Instead, I want to share some remarkable data from a presentation by Ewa Balcerowicz of Poland’s Center for Social and Economic Research.

She talked about “The Post Socialist Transition in Poland in a Comparative Perspective” and showed that Poland and Spain has similar living standards after World War II. But over the next 40 years, thanks to the brutal communist system imposed by the Soviet Union, Poland fell far behind.

But look what has happened over the past 25 years.

Per-capita GDP has skyrocketed in Poland and the gap between the two nations has dramatically narrowed.

So why is Poland now rising relative to Spain?

For the simple reason that public policy has moved in the right direction. Here’s the data from Economic Freedom of the World, comparing Poland’s score in 1990 and today. Poland has jumped from 3.54 to 7.42, and the nation has jumped from a dismal ranking of #104 to a respectable ranking of #40.

By the way, Spain’s score also has increased, but by a much smaller amount. And because the world has become more free, Spain’s ranking has dropped. Indeed, Spain now ranks below Poland

Which means that we shouldn’t be surprised if per-capita GDP in Poland soon jumps about Spanish levels.

Just as Poland has out-paced Ukraine because it has better policy.

Here are additional examples showing the long-run benefits of pro-market policy.

And here’s a must-watch video on the relationship between good policy and better economics performance.

All of which helps to explain why I’m so disappointed in both Bush and Obama. Their statist policies have caused a drop in America’s score and relative ranking.

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I wrote yesterday about the most recent OECD numbers on “Average Individual Consumption” in member nations.

There was a very clear lesson in that data about the dangers of excessive government. The United States was at the top in this measure of household living standards, not because American policies are great, but rather because huge welfare states in Europe have undermined economic vitality on the other side of the Atlantic.

Indeed, the only countries even remotely close to the United States were oil-rich Norway and the two tax havens of Switzerland and Luxembourg.

Those AIC numbers gave us an interesting snapshot of relative living standards in 2014.

But what would we discover if we looked at how that data has changed over time?

It appears that the OECD began assembling that data back in 2002. Here’s a table showing how nations rose or fell, relative to other OECD nations, since then. Based on convergence theory, one would expect to see that poorer nations enjoyed the biggest relative gains, while richer nations fell in the rankings. And that is what generally happened, but with some notable exceptions.

Here are the countries that did not conform, for either good reasons or bad reasons, to convergence theory.

We’ll start with the nations that have bragging rights.

  • Chile started at the very bottom compared to the rich nations of the western world, so anything other than a large increase would have been a disappointment. But the magnitude of Chile’s increase is nonetheless quite impressive and presumably a testament to pro-market reforms.
  • Finland was almost 7 points below the OECD average in 2002 and now is more than 2 points above the average, which is a significant jump for a nation near the middle of the pack. Maybe having sensible leaders is a good idea.
  • Oil-rich Norway was above average at the start of the period and even farther above average at the end of the period.
  • The United States was very high in 2002 and remained very high in 2014. Since that outcome violates convergence theory, that’s a non-trivial accomplishment and another piece of evidence that big governments in Europe are imposing a harsh economic cost.
  • Switzerland also started high and remained high. That’s presumably a reflection of good policies such as federalism and spending restraint.

Now for the nations that did not fare well.

  • Luxembourg suffered a large drop, some of which is understandable since the tiny tax haven was in first place back in 2002. But the magnitude of the decline – particularly compared to the United States and Switzerland – is not an encouraging sign. This may be a sign that anti-tax competition efforts by the OECD have hit the nation hard.
  • Greece, Spain, Ireland, and Italy all tumbled in the rankings even though – at best – they started in the middle of the pack. It will be interesting to see how these nations perform as they recover (or don’t recover, as I expect in the cases of Italy and Greece) from the European fiscal crisis.
  • Slovenia also went from bad to worse, which perhaps is not a big surprise since it is one of the least reform-oriented countries to emerge from the Soviet Bloc.
  • The United Kingdom suffered a rather large decline, almost all of which happened under the profligate Blair and Brown Labour governments. This will be another nation that will be interesting to watch in coming years, particularly because of Brexit.
  • France and the Netherlands also suffered, starting well above average in 2002 but falling to the mean in 2014.

If you like this kind of data on whether nations are trending in the right direction or wrong direction, I’ve also tinkered with the data from Economic Freedom of the World.

Last year, I highlighted countries that have made significant moves in the EFW rankings, including oft-overlooked success stories such as Israel and New Zealand.

I also looked specifically at changes in Europe this century and did not find any reason for optimism.

The bottom line is that there’s no substitute for free markets and limited government. If nations want faster growth and more prosperity, they need to mimic jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore.

Unfortunately, there’s very little reason to be optimistic about that happening in Europe.

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