Tag: australia

Government Officials Praising Unilateral Trade Liberalization

It doesn’t happen often, so I like to highlight it when it does.  Here is Australian trade minister Andrew Robb:

We’ve seen over the last thirty years in Australia that tariffs are down on average 2.7 per cent across the economy.  A lot of that was done unilaterally – we didn’t wait for the rest of the world and it’s one of the reasons that we’ve had uninterrupted growth for 23 years, because we are a very open economy. We’ve got to drive it further, we’ve got to be more competitive but so does the rest of the world.

Unexpected Praise for Australia’s Private Social Security System

As part of my “Question of the Week” series, I said that Australia probably would be the best option if the United States suffered some sort of Greek-style fiscal meltdown that led to a societal collapse.*

One reason I’m so bullish on Australia is that the nation has a privatized Social Security system called “Superannuation,” with workers setting aside 9 percent of their income in personal retirement accounts (rising to 12 percent by 2020).

Established almost 30 years ago, and made virtually universal about 20 years ago, this system is far superior to the actuarially bankrupt Social Security system in the United States.

Probably the most sobering comparison is to look at a chart of how much private wealth has been created in Superannuation accounts and then look at a chart of the debt that we face for Social Security.

To be blunt, the Aussies are kicking our butts. Their system gets stronger every day and our system generates more red ink every day.

And their system is earning praise from unexpected places. The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, led by a former Clinton Administration official, is not a bastion of laissez-faire thinking. So it’s noteworthy when it publishes a study praising Superannuation.

Australia’s retirement income system is regarded by some as among the best in the world. It has achieved high individual saving rates and broad coverage at reasonably low cost to the government.

Since I wrote my dissertation on Australia’s system, I can say with confidence that the author is not exaggerating. It’s a very good role model, for reasons I’ve previously discussed.

Here’s more from the Boston College study.

The program requires employers to contribute 9 percent of earnings, rising to 12 percent by 2020, to a tax-advantaged retirement plan for each employee age 18 to 70 who earns more than a specified minimum amount. …Over 90 percent of employed Australians have savings in a Superannuation account, and the total assets in these accounts now exceed Australia’s Gross Domestic Product. …Australia has been extremely effective in achieving key goals of any retirement income system. …Its Superannuation Guarantee program has generated high and rising levels of saving by essentially the entire active workforce.

The study does include some criticisms, some of which are warranted. The system can be gamed by those who want to take advantage of the safety net retirement system maintained by the government.

Australia’s means-tested Age Pension creates incentives to reduce one’s “means” in order to collect a higher means-tested benefit. This can be done by spending down one’s savings and/or investing these savings in assets excluded from the Age Pension means test. What makes this situation especially problematic is that workers can currently access their Superannuation savings at age 55, ten years before becoming eligible for Age Pension benefits at 65. This ability creates an incentive to retire early, live on these savings until eligible for an Age Pension, and collect a higher benefit, sometimes referred to as “double dipping.”

Though I admit dealing with this issue may require a bit of paternalism. Should individuals be forced to turn their retirement accounts into an income stream (called annuitization) once they reach retirement age?

Creating a Human Freedom Index

Until now, no global index measuring human freedom consistent with a classical liberal approach has existed. Today, as part of the Human Freedom project sponsored by Cato, the Fraser Institute, and the Liberales Institut, we are releasing the first such attempt (.pdf) devised by my colleague Tanja Stumberger and by me. The index is a chapter in Towards a Worldwide Index of Human Freedom (.pdf) (published by Fraser and Liberales).

Using indicators consistent with the concept of negative liberty—the absence of coercive constraint—we have tried to capture the degree to which people are free to enjoy classic liberties in each country: freedom of speech, religion, individual economic choice, and association and assembly. The freedom index is composed of 76 distinct variables including measures of safety and security, freedom of movement, and relationship freedoms such as assembly or legal discrimination against gays.

In this preliminary index New Zealand ranks as the most free country in the world, followed by the Netherlands and then Hong Kong. Australia, Canada, and Ireland follow, with the United States ranking in 7th place.

As we mention in our essay, “The purpose for engaging in this exercise is to more carefully explore what we mean by freedom, and to better understand its relationship to any number of social and economic phenomena. Just as important, this research could improve our appreciation of the way in which various freedoms relate to one another.”

The index thus allows us to look at which freedoms are most under threat in which parts of the world, the relationship between economic freedom and personal freedom at different stages of development, and the relationship between human freedom and democracy, to name a few examples.

We have benefited from the input of numerous scholars around the world who have participated in several seminars as part of this project, many of whom have also contributed chapters to the book published today. Fred McMahon provides a nice survey (.pdf) of the literature on defining freedom that serves as a good introduction to the topic. Our index is being updated and revised along the lines of recommendations we have received since this version was drafted. We also thank Bob Lawson and Josh Hall for providing critiques (published in the book) on the index, the bulk of which we agree with. Further recommendations and criticisms are also most welcome as we continue to refine this work in progress.

Liability Is ‘Wrong’ Solution for Rating Agencies

Last week, while America was occupied with elections, an Australian court found Standard & Poor’s liable for “misleading” local council governments by awarding AAA rating to derivatives that later lost value (more detail on the case here). Not surprisingly, after the financial crisis, dozens of suits were filed in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere claiming investors were “misled” by the rating agencies. Most of these suits were quickly dismissed or withdrawn. The Australian case is one of the few to find liability.

First, as I documented in a recent Cato Policy Analysis, the regulatory structure for the rating agency is fatally flawed and was without a doubt a contributor to the financial crisis. That said, subjecting rating agencies to legal liability would make the situation worse, not better. From that analysis:

[A] risk from subjecting rating agencies to liability for either their statements or processes is that, in order to protect themselves, the agencies would adopt a “reasonable man” approach. For instance, if the agencies used government forecasts of house prices in their mortgage default models, then it is likely that any court would deem such assumptions “reasonable”; after all, these are the assumptions that regulators rely upon. If such assumptions are, however, grossly in error, as were the housing price forecasts used by various federal agencies, then the value of information created by the rating agencies would also be reduced, if not compromised. A reasonable-man approach would also encourage rating agencies to utilize “consensus forecasts” of key economic variables. Yet the consensus could be dangerously off. The economic forecasting profession does not exactly have a great record at predicting turning points, and it also missed the decline in house prices. A system of liability would likely destroy whatever additional information the rating agencies bring to the market, as the agencies would face tremendous pressure to simply mimic widely held beliefs, which themselves would already be priced into the market.

Another problem would be that rating agencies would most likely face litigation risk from those being downgraded, especially by governments. Witness the abuse Standard & Poor’s received from the SEC right after it downgraded the U.S. federal government. Do we truly believe that we would have more accurate ratings if a Greek court were able to decide if a downgrade of Greek government debt was accurate? I would also go as far to argue that ratings of sovereign debt should be considered politically protected speech (but then I’m also for protecting most, if not all, speech).

Newsflash: Politicians Pander to Agriculture!

The American Soybean Association (ASA) recently asked each of the presidential candidates to respond to a series of questions about agricultural policy issues. The questions covered farm bill and crop insurance, estate tax, biodiesel, biotechnology, trade, research, regulations, and transportation and infrastructure. The candidates’ responses (full text here) were not exactly models of courageous and principled policymaking.

I won’t parse the entire thing, as it is just too depressing and some of the issues (e.g., the estate tax) fall outside my area of research. But I will comment on a couple of the topics.

On subsidies and crop insurance, both candidates pledged to support passage of the farm bill, and the crop insurance and disaster provisions it contains. Mr Romney—no Senator John McCain in this area, at least—went on to make a broader statement about his philosophy on farm supports:

On the broader question of farm programs, we must be cognizant that our agricultural producers are competing with other nations around the world. Other nations subsidize their farmers, so we must be careful not to unilaterally change our policies in a way that would disadvantage agriculture here in our country. In addition, we want to make sure that we don’t ever find ourselves in a circumstance where we depend on foreign nations for our food the way we do with energy. Ultimately, it is in everyone’s interest is achieve [sic] a level playing field on which American farmers can compete.

Ugh. That is a monumentally awful statement. First, not all nations subsidize their farmers. New Zealand and (not to brag) Australia, for example, subsidize their farmers very little, and in very minimally distorting ways, and yet their agricultural  exports generally are thriving. They compete with other agricultural exporters because they try to be the best they can be given their natural resource endowments, research, experience, and human capital.  Second, the caution against unilaterally changing policies is, of course, ubiquitous in many trade policy statements (see, e.g., Ex-Im Bank, manufacturing, reducing tariffs generally). It is also economically insane to enact bad policies because other countries do so. Especially when it is becoming clear that other large agricultural subsidizers (e.g., Japan and the EU) are not exactly thriving, many and varied though their problems may be.

Third, as for the importance of farm supports in maintaining food independence, that’s also nonsense. As I’ve argued ad nauseum, (e.g., here), subsidies aren’t keeping us well-fed: if food abundance depended on government support, we’d see nothing but so-called program crops (soybeans, wheat, corn, cotton, and rice) on supermarket shelves. Judging by the size of my fellow Australians on my last visit home, no-one is starving there despite very little government support for agriculture. By the way, if you want to read some comments from a president who actually knows what he is talking about, read Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s comments in this article, where he calls for lower trade barriers around the world, particularly for food security reasons.

Mr. Romney’s support for the Senate-passed farm bill also is at odds with his statement to the ASA about the importance of open trade. Even putting aside Mr Romney’s typical mercantilist obsession with exports, I wonder if he realizes that the changes proposed in the Senate farm bill would increase the amount of subsidies deemed trade-distorting by the World Trade Organization, putting trade liberalization at risk? U.S. government spending on trade-distorting support, the “worst” kind, is at record lows right now, mainly thanks to higher commodity prices. But even a senior United States Department of Agriculture official admits (paywall) that the proposed changes to farm policy—including a move towards revenue insurance—would likely see that progress eroded:

But Joseph Glauber, chief economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), said in an interview with Inside U.S. Trade that if either the Senate-passed farm bill or the version approved by the House Agriculture Committee were enacted, that would likely increase the level of U.S. trade-distorting payments.

While stressing that his assessment is preliminary in light of the fact that no legislation has been finalized, Glauber said it is fairly apparent that cutting direct payments and replacing them with either a revenue guarantee program or a price-loss program, as the two legislative proposals envision, would lead to an increase in amber box payments.

In fact, Glauber argued that changing U.S. farm policy along the lines of either of the farm bill proposals could make it more likely that the U.S. exceeds the $7.6 billion cap to which the U.S. informally agreed in the Doha round, especially in those years where commodity prices dip down and subsidy payouts increase.

Pass the farm bill, in other words, and multilateral liberalization efforts get more difficult.

Finally, I note that Mr. Romney also couldn’t resist adding his standard, wrongheaded, and increasingly prominent talking point about “vigorously enforcing” U.S. trade law, and catching cheaters (plenty of blog posts by my colleagues on this topic can be viewed on this blog). I wonder if he realizes that the United States itself has been caught breaking the rules of agricultural trade, and how hypocritical his statements about farm subsidies and trade are in that context? Plenty of damage, and retaliation, has been unleashed because of various ways the U.S. government conducts its affairs in agriculture.

So, in short, there is not much to like in either candidate’s statements, with Mr. Romney deserving special opprobrium because of his professed free-market, limited government principles. But we knew that.

Should We Blame Obama, Rangel, and Baucus if People Die to Escape the Death Tax?

The death tax is a punitive levy that discourages saving and investment and causes substantial economic inefficiency. But it’s also an immoral tax that seizes assets from grieving families solely because someone dies. The good news is that this odious tax no longer exists. It disappeared on January 1, 2010, thanks to the 2001 tax cut legislation. The bad news is that the death tax comes back with a vengeance on January 1, 2011, ready to confiscate as much as 55 percent of the assets of unfortunate families.

I’ve criticized the death tax on many occasions, including one column in USA Today explaining the economic damage caused by this perverse form of double taxation, and I highlighted a few of the nations around the world that have eliminated this odious tax in another column for the same paper.

Politicians don’t seem persuaded by these arguments, in part because they feel class warfare is a winning political formula. President Obama, House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus have been successful in thwarting efforts to permanently kill the death tax. But I wonder what they’ll say if their obstinate approach results in death?

Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming is getting a bit of attention (including a link on the Drudge Report) for her recent comments that some people may choose to die in the next two months in order to protect family assets from the death tax. For successful entrepreneurs, investors, and small business owners who might already be old (especially if they have a serious illness), there is a perverse incentive to die quickly. 

U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis says some of her Wyoming constituents are so worried about the reinstatement of federal estate taxes that they plan to discontinue dialysis and other life-extending medical treatments so they can die before Dec. 31. Lummis…said many ranchers and farmers in the state would rather pass along their businesses – “their life’s work” – to their children and grandchildren than see the federal government take a large chunk. “If you have spent your whole life building a ranch, and you wanted to pass your estate on to your children, and you were 88 years old and on dialysis, and the only thing that was keeping you alive was that dialysis, you might make that same decision,” Lummis told reporters.

The class-warfare crowd doubtlessly will dismiss these concerns, but they should set aside their ideology and do some research. Four years ago, two Australian scholars published an article on this issue in Topics in Economic Analysis & Policy, which is published by the Berkeley Electronic Press. Entitled “Did the Death of Australian Inheritance Taxes Affect Deaths?”, their paper looked at the roles of tax, incentives, and death rates. The abstract has an excellent summary.

In 1979, Australia abolished federal inheritance taxes. Using daily deaths data, we show that approximately 50 deaths were shifted from the week before the abolition to the week after. This amounts to over half of those who would have been eligible to pay the tax. …our results imply that over the very short run, the death rate may be highly elastic with respect to the inheritance tax rate.

And here’s a graph from the article, which shows how many affected taxpayers managed to delay death until the tax went away.

Obama and other class-warfare politicians now want to run this experiment in reverse. I already noted in another blog post that there are Americans who are acutely aware of the hugely beneficial tax implications if they die in 2010. In other words, Congresswoman Lummis almost certainly is right.

I don’t actually think that Obama, Rangel, Baucus and the rest of the big-government crowd should be blamed for any premature deaths that occur. But I definitely think that they should be asked if they feel any sense of guilt, remorse, and/or indirect responsibility.

Free Trade Consensus Remains Intact in Australia

As many of you may know, Australia had a federal election on August 21 that yielded an at-time-of-blogging inconclusive result. As a consequence, the Liberal-National coalition (currently in opposition) and the Australian Labor Party are both wooing the Green and Independent members in the hope of securing their support. A Canberra-based friend sent me a link to an article in today’s (or, strictly speaking given the time difference, yesterday’s) Australian about the trade-related aspects of the current negotiations to form a minority government.

I’ll admit, the story had me worried. I’ve bragged before about Australia’s bipartisan political consensus on free trade, and it looked as though that was under threat. According to the article, Labor – the party responsible for much of the unilateral trade liberalization undertaken in the 1980s – was considering “re-erecting tariff walls”:

Yes, modern Labor has degenerated to the point where the Treasurer allows the prospect of protectionist horse-trading to be part of the equation for forming Australia’s next government. And so Australia’s political deadlock threatens to encourage the rise of a new industry protectionism driven by the anti-capitalist Greens in cahoots with left-wing trade unions and rural populism…

A few hours later, a new, happier story was filed on the Australian’s website:

…Ms Gillard used her press club speech to offer continuity and certainty, but made clear she would not seek [Independent] Mr Katter’s vote by pandering to his passionate rejection of free trade, which he believes has ravaged sectors such as the sugar industry in his north Queensland seat of Kennedy.

“You’re talking to the leader of the political party that literally went to hell and back to modernise the Australian economy, including reducing tariff barriers,” Ms Gillard said.

“That is our heritage, that is our belief, that is in us.

“We would not have the modern resilient Australian economy we have now if Labor had not built it.

I’ll ignore that last preposterous statement about a political party building an economy, and instead focus on the main thrust of Ms. Gillard’s comments, which should come as a relief to free-traders everywhere, especially in Australia.