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Posts Tagged ‘Hong Kong’

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Zimbabwe for the last prize honor.

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A paper posted on the Social Science Research Network looks at nations that are prospering compared to those that are stagnating. Not surprisingly, limited government and free enterprise policies are associated with better economic performance. Here’s an excerpt from this new research.

What can we conclude about the effect of various policies on economic growth? What lessons can we learn from the growth miracles of recent years, and how can we avoid the sorry fate of the growth disasters? The countries that have been most successful at increasing their economic growth rates, and therefore at raising the living standards of their population, have all shared a commitment to increasing economic freedom, limiting the role of government, stamping out corruption, and strengthening the rule of law. They relied on free markets, rather than on central planning. They lowered their tax rates, and some even adopted a flat income tax. They made their labor laws more flexible, and allowed their firms to hire new workers more easily. They privatized their inefficient state-owned enterprises. They lowered tariffs, and opened up to trade and international competition. They courted foreign investors, and created a favorable business environment to lure them in. In other words, growth miracles have occurred in countries whose governments have adopted policies that reflect the classical liberal ideals of economic freedom, limited government and rule of law. Our brief survey of economic successes around the world shows that this lesson is universal: Countries as diverse as China, Estonia, Germany, India, Chile, South Korea and Slovakia have benefited from applying a similar set of market-oriented policies.

The paper also makes a key point about economic growth and living standards.

Over time, even modest increases in the economic growth rate can, furthermore, lead to vast improvements in the standard of living. If China sustains the eight percent annual GDP growth rate that it has achieved since its market-oriented reforms began in 1978, its inhabitants will double their living standards every nine years. By contrast, in the United States, which has grown at an average annual rate of about two percent, a doubling of living standards would require thirty-six years.

This is an under-appreciated observation. The author cites a rather dramatic example, but the key observation is that even modest differences in economic growth can have a big impact on relative prosperity with a couple of decades. Here’s a chart I include in many of my Powerpoint presentations. It shows how long it takes to double GDP based on different growth rates.

Let’s look at a real-world example. Hong Kong has been growing by more than 5 percent each year for decades, while France has been growing by less than 2 percent annually. Now let’s ask a couple of big-picture questions. Why have Bush and Obama been trying to make us more like France? Do they fail to understand that this means less future prosperity for the American people? Don’t they realize that this means a loss of relative competitiveness?

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