Tag: economic development

Another Fairly Insane Cross-National Health Care Comparison

Yesterday, countless newspapers published a really disappointing story by Noam Levey that the Los Angeles Times ran under this title:

Global push to guarantee health coverage leaves U.S. behind; China, Mexico and other countries far less affluent are working to provide medical insurance for all citizens. It’s viewed as an economic investment.

The article is little more than a puff piece for the hotly contested idea of universal coverage. It gives zero space to the competing strain of thought that the less the government does for the poor, the sick, and the vulnerable, the better off they will be.

It quotes “Dr. Julio Frenk, a former health minister in Mexico and dean of the Harvard School of Public Health” as saying, “As countries advance, they are realizing that creating universal healthcare systems is a necessity for long-term economic development.” A necessity? Gosh. It’s a wonder the United States ever became the world’s largest economy.

It speaks of such government guarantees as being popular, when what it really means to say is that people are dependent on the government for their health care and frightened to death that someone might take it away.

It laments the fact that the United States is an “outlier” because it fails to guarantee access to health care for all citizens, which “stands in stark contrast to America’s historic leadership in education…Long before most European countries, the United States ensured access to public schooling.” Yet it makes no mention of how U.S. students fare poorly in comparison to those in other advanced countries.

It devotes no time to the costs of such guarantees, other than to say that they are sometimes “more than twice what was expected.” But don’t worry, those costs are borne by the government. It does not say where governments get all that money. I guess we’ll never know.

Speaking of taxes, it makes no mention of how taxes suppress economic development. Evidently, unlike other taxes, those that support government-run health care systems do not incur the deadweight loss of taxation.

But the article was at its most ridiculous when it suggested that the health care sectors in poor countries like Rwanda and Ghana might possibly be ahead of the United States in any way whatsoever. As I have written about Rwanda:

The United States generates many of the HIV treatments currently fighting Rwanda’s AIDS epidemic, as well as other medical innovations saving lives there and around the world.  More than any other nation, we create the wealth that purchases those and other treatments for Rwandans and other impoverished peoples.  The United States is probably closer to providing universal access to medical care for its citizens — and, indeed, the whole world — than Rwanda.  Rwanda’s “universal” system leaves 8 percent of its population uninsured. Though official estimates put the U.S. uninsured rate at 15.4 percent, the actual percentage is lower; and again, uninsured Americans typically have better access to care than insured Rwandans.  The real paradox is here that Rwandan elites think the United States is doing something wrong.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the Rwandan elites. For my thoughts on how sensible people can make such insensible comparisons between the United States and other nations, read the rest of my post on Rwanda.

U.S. Offers to Defend Afghanistan Indefinitely, Afghanistan Accepts

The U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership framework agreed to on Sunday extends America’s presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 in a desperate attempt to stave off disaster. The pact allows policymakers to perpetuate our military involvement despite assurances that we are withdrawing. Social and economic development programs will also continue with limited gains. The United States intends to nation-build on the cheap, ensuring Afghanistan remains reliant on the Untied States for basic funding and security long into the future.

The pact itself—which was not released—appears to eschew the difficult issues surrounding the exact number of U.S. troops, U.S. bases, and U.S. military aid to Afghan security forces. The estimated cost of training between 230,000-350,000 Afghan soldiers and police could be between $4-6 billion a year, not including the cost of keeping upwards of 20,000 U.S. trainers in the field, which could cost upwards of $15-20 billion (approx. $1 million per soldier). The Afghan government only collects about $2 billion a year in revenue. This does not put Afghanistan on a path to sustainable self-sufficiency, but makes it increasingly dependent on foreign patronage, as it has been for much of its turbulent history. Moreover, while Afghan forces are supposed to take over responsibility of the country, in some insular areas they are despised at least as much as the Taliban.

As the coalition draws down, we can expect more attacks on international compounds and overextended coalition supply lines. Militants get a vote. And for the foreseeable future, Afghanistan will remain a geopolitical battleground, with power split between an internationally backed Western regime and a Pakistan- and Gulf-backed hydra-headed insurgency.

Although Lashkar-e-Taiba and other al Qaeda-linked groups operate in the region, when it comes to capturing and killing terrorists—not indigenous militants—targeted counter-terrorism measures are more effective than expansive counterinsurgency campaigns. With this pact, policymakers are pushing for an open-ended nation-building mission by another name.

Paul Krugman’s Distorted Views on Inequality in Latin America

When it comes to discussing Latin America, Paul Krugman has a tortuous relationship with facts. Let’s take a look at a post he wrote last week on inequality in the region. Krugman claims that Latin America’s decline in inequality in the last decade is due to the region “partially turning its back on the Washington Consensus” (a term that has misleadingly become short hand for free market policies). Is that the case?

First, note how the graph in Krugman’s post actually shows inequality going up in Latin America during the 1980s, before the implementation of policies related to the Washington Consensus (which for most countries begins in the early 1990s), and then sharply declining before the arrival of what he calls the “new policy approach” of left-of-center governments. The rise of inequality in Latin America in the 1980s coincides with the periods of hyperinflation that crippled the economies of Argentina, Brazil, Nicaragua, Peru, and Bolivia. Central banks in Latin America were all too busy in those years financing the acute fiscal imbalances of their central governments through the emission of money. And Latin American countries were deep in the red precisely because their bloated public sectors became unsustainable, leading to the serious debt crisis of 1982. Thus, it was an inflationary spree, caused by the crisis of big government, that exacerbated inequality in the region. Of course, Krugman fails to mention this.

Can we assign the recent decline in inequality in Latin America to any specific ideology? A recent study by Kenneth Roberts of Cornell University on the politics of inequality in Latin America looked at inequality trends from 2000 to 2010 and found that “countries that experienced net declines in inequality were governed by diverse administrations of the left, centre, and right, including non-leftist governments in Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Paraguay, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Panama.” According to Roberts, “there was no strict correspondence between declining inequality and either the ideological profile of national governments or any specific set of redistributive initiatives.”

Second, it’s quite a stretch to state that Latin America as a region moved away from the Washington Consensus. I’m not going to dwell here on the virtues of all the policy recommendations identified by John Williamson back in 1989 or discuss the extent to which they were actually implemented by the various Latin American governments. However, even though some countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina have turned their backs on responsible macroeconomic policies in the last few years, most governments in the region, including those called “left of center,” still implement macroeconomic policies related to the Washington Consensus such as freer trade, fiscal and monetary discipline, and attraction of foreign direct investment.

It is telling that despite the serious deterioration in economic freedom in countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, and Argentina economic liberty has actually increased—slightly—in Latin America as a region in the last decade. According to the Economic Freedom of the World , Latin America went from a regional average grade of 6.56 (out of 10) in 2000 to 6.62 in 2009. Implying that Latin America has somehow turned its back on market-friendly policies is misleading.

Third, Krugman looks at the economic performance of Latin American governments based on their ideological affiliation, suggesting that social democratic regimes have a better record than non-left-of-center governments. However, the study on which he bases his post relies too heavily on analyzing governments by their ideological labels, rather than looking at their actual economic policies. This can be very misleading. For example, during the period covered by the study (2000s), Chile is ranked as left of center, even though during that decade the country increased its level of economic freedom, moving up in the ranking of the Economic Freedom of the World index from 28th place in 2000 to 5th in 2009.

Finally, Krugman finished his post questioning Chile’s free market model and private pension system (even though the study he was referencing categorizes Chile as “left of center” and thus credited that ideological camp for Chile’s healthy economic indicators). Krugman doesn’t provide evidence to substantiate his criticism other than making a presumable reference to the recent student protests in Chile. If he looked at the facts, he would see a different picture. He would find that Chile is the country with the most impressive record in poverty reduction in Latin America (the poverty rate fell from 45 percent in the mid-1980s to just 15 percent in 2011), that it has tripled its income per capita since 1990 to $16,000 (the highest in Latin America), and that it is set to become the first developed nation in Latin America within a decade. What is it about this record that Krugman finds so annoying?

Mexicans Deserve Substance Over Style in Presidential Race

Josefina Vázquez Mota won the nomination of the incumbent National Action Party (PAN) for Mexico’s upcoming presidential election. Most of the coverage in the international media today focuses on how she is the first woman to have a real shot at Los Pinos (the official residence of the president of Mexico). However, the real story should be what new ideas (if any) Vázquez Mota brings to the table. Unfortunately, there’s isn’t much to report.

The same can be said of the other two presidential contenders, Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Democratic Revolutionary Party.

Perhaps William Booth of the Washington Post sums it up best when he writes about the three choices Mexican voters face in July:

“The popular former mayor of Mexico City with a messianic self-regard [López Obrador]; a telegenic leading man who wrote a book but has been vague about which books he has read [Peña Nieto]; and a perky, gal-next-door type who does a lot of smiling but has been blank on specifics [Vázquez Mota].”

Mexico will face serious challenges in the next six years, not least of which is a crippling war on drugs that kills thousands of Mexicans every year, but also a sluggish economy due largely to the sclerotic effects of public and private monopolies in key industries. This presidential election should be more about substance and less about style.

Strong Cities, Strong Communities: Bad Idea

When government officials come up with what they claim to be a wonderful new idea, I often think of an old Saturday Night Live skit from 1990 poking fun at commercials for blue jeans. The skit’s scene is a group of middle-aged buddies getting ready to play basketball in their new “Bad Idea Jeans.” Each guy optimistically announces a plan to do something that is actually a “bad idea.” For example, a character says “I don’t know the guy but I’ve got two kidneys and he needs one, so I figured…” and “BAD IDEA” flashes across the screen. (The skit can be watched here.)

The White House’s new “Strong Cities, Strong Communities” initiative had that BAD IDEA screen shot flashing repeatedly in my mind as I read the press release:

Today, the Obama Administration launched Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2), a new and customized pilot initiative to strengthen local capacity and spark economic growth in local communities while ensuring taxpayer dollars are used wisely and efficiently. To accomplish this, federal agencies will provide experienced staff to work directly with six cities: Chester, PA; Cleveland, OH; Detroit, MI; Fresno, CA; Memphis, TN; and New Orleans, LA. These teams will work with local governments, the private sector, and other institutions to leverage federal dollars and support the work being done at the local level to encourage economic growth and community development.

Additionally, communities nationwide will be eligible to compete for comprehensive economic planning assistance through a grant competition designed to spark local innovation. By integrating government investments and partnering with local communities, SC2 channels the resources of the federal government to help empower cities as they develop and implement their vision for economic growth.

The Wall Street Journal reports that federal officials from HUD, Labor, Commerce, Transportation, and the Small Business Administration will be “deployed” to the cities. In other words, the Obama administration wants to send bureaucrats from federal agencies that are notorious for wasting other people’s money to help local bureaucrats do a more “efficient” job of spending other people’s money. That’s like asking Anthony Weiner to fix your Twitter account.

A couple of the cities chosen by the administration are ironic. Seriously, hasn’t the federal government done enough to New Orleans already? Detroit is an example of why decades of federal subsidies to urban centers in decline have been a failure. As I note in a Cato essay on HUD community development subsidies, of which Detroit has been the fifth largest recipient since 2000, federal handouts create a disincentive for local officials to pursue sound policy reforms:

Despite all the abuses, perhaps policymakers believe that Community Development Block Grants are nonetheless effective at stimulating growth. After 30 years and more than $100 billion it should be easy to demonstrate the program’s success, but it’s hard to find any examples of city rejuvenation created by the program. Instead, numerous cities, such as Detroit, which have been major CDBG recipients, have fallen further into decline. The reality is that no amount of federal money can overcome the local hurdles to growth in cities such as Detroit—including political corruption and destructive tax and regulatory policies. Indeed, just like international development aid, federal aid to the cities likely increases corruption and stalls much-needed local reforms.

Some people will view this initiative as a crass effort to shore up urban support for the president’s reelection campaign. There’s probably a good bit of truth to that criticism. But both parties have been using subsidies to state and local government to curry political support for decades. Therefore, Republicans who raise a stink over the administration’s initiative should be prepared to work for the involved programs to be abolished. Otherwise, the complaints will amount to little more than political hot air.

See this Cato essay for more on federal subsidies to state and local government.

Senate Report Slams Nation-Building Efforts in Afghanistan

As confirmed by yet another U.S. government report, this one prepared by the Democratic majority staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, America’s nation-building mission in Afghanistan has had little success in creating an economically viable and politically independent Afghan state.

The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung writes:

The report also warns that the Afghan economy could slide into a depression with the inevitable decline of the foreign military and development spending that now provides 97 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. [Emphasis added]

U.S. leaders could look at that statistic and justify prolonging the mission. In fact, the report suggests, “Afghanistan could suffer a severe economic depression when foreign troops leave in 2014 unless the proper planning begins now.” Ironically, “proper planning” is the problem. The belief that outside planning can promote stability and growth has the potential to leave behind exactly the opposite.

While no one would deny that Afghanistan looks a lot better than it did in 2001, there’s a reason why American leaders might be sorely disappointed with the outcome when the coalition begins handing off responsibility to Afghans. As the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan warned last week in a separate report, “the United States faces new waves of waste in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Without adequate planning to pay for ongoing operations and maintenance, U.S.-funded reconstruction projects in both countries will likely fall into disrepair.

The core problem is that top-down development strategies often deepen, rather than strengthen, a foreign country’s dependence on the international donor community. My colleague, development expert Ian Vasquez, once wrote, “Providing development assistance to such countries may improve the apparent performance of foreign aid, but it may also help to create dependence and delay further reform, problems that have long plagued official development assistance.” [Emphasis added]

Indeed, complaints about America’s presence in Afghanistan typically focus on troop levels; rarely discussed is the way in which foreign-led development schemes can deprive locals of the experience of planning projects, managing funds, and procuring goods: what they call in the industry, “building local capacity.” As my friend Joe Storm and I wrote a while back, “US-government contractors are mired in mismanagement and failure, perpetuating dependence at best. Even the Senate Foreign Relations Committee admits, “Donor practices of hiring Afghans at inflated salaries have drawn otherwise qualified civil servants away from the Afghan Government and created a culture of aid dependency.”

Dependence, of course, is only one of many problems. According to the report:

Foreign aid, when misspent, can fuel corruption, distort labor and goods markets, undermine the host government’s ability to exert control over resources, and contribute to insecurity.

Because development is plagued with inadequate oversight, many development contracts are dispersed independently of the quality of services provided. During a trip to Afghanistan some time ago, I heard story after story about development projects being abandoned before completion, American-built schools without teachers to staff them, and billions of dollars charged to American taxpayers for unfinished work that leave Afghans disillusioned. Naturally, turning our mission in Afghanistan into one of limitless scope and open-ended duration perpetuates this massive fraud and waste.

So, who’s at fault? Ourselves. Recall the December 5, 2001 Bonn Agreement, which proclaimed the international community’s determination to “end the tragic conflict in Afghanistan and promote national reconciliation, lasting peace, stability and respect for human rights in the country.” We’ve set the bar so incredibly high for a country that lacks the fundamental criteria intrinsic to the Westphalia model: (a) a legitimate host nation government (b) that possesses secure and internationally recognized borders, and (c) wields a monopoly on the use of force. None of these criteria exist. So far, we are 0-3: 0 wins, 3 losses.

With this latest report from members of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, we are reminded yet again not only of the importance of scaling down lofty expectations, but also recognizing the unintended consequences produced by the noblest of aims. Sadly, given the corruption and dependency we’ll leave in our wake, without an introspective self-critique of our policies, America could turn Afghanistan into Central Asia’s Haiti.

Eminent Domain Shenanigans

Five years ago, in the landmark property rights case of Kelo v. New London, the Supreme Court upheld the forced transfer of land from various homeowners by finding that “economic development” qualifies as a public purpose for purposes of satisfying the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause.  In doing so, however, the Court reaffirmed that the government may not “take property under the mere pretext of a public purpose, when its actual purpose was to bestow a private benefit.”

State and federal courts have since applied that pretext standard in widely differing ways while identifying four factors as indicators of pretext: evidence of pretextual intent, benefits that flow predominantly to a private party, haphazard planning, and a readily identifiable beneficiary.  Moreover, since Kelo, 43 states have passed eminent domain reform laws that constrain or forbid “economic development” condemnations.

While many of these laws are strong enough to curtail abuse, in at least 19 states the restrictions are undercut by nearly unlimited definitions of “blight.”  The state of New York has seen perhaps the most egregious examples of eminent-domain abuse in the post-Kelo era, and now provides the example of Columbia University’s collusion with several government agencies to have large swaths of Manhattan declared blighted and literally pave the way for the university’s expansion project.  In this brazen example of eminent-domain abuse, the New York Court of Appeals (the highest state court) reversed a decision of the New York Appellate Division that relied extensively on Kelo’s pretext analysis and thus favored the small business owners challenging the Columbia-driven condemnations.  The Court of Appeals failed even to cite Kelo and ignored all four pretext considerations, instead defining pretext so narrowly that even the most abusive forms of favoritism will escape judicial scrutiny.

Cato joined the Institute for Justice and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in a brief supporting the condemnees’ request that the Supreme Court review the case and address the widespread confusion about Kelo’s meaning in the context of pretextual takings.  Our brief highlights the need for the Court to establish and enforce safeguards to protect citizens from takings effected for private purposes.  We argue that this case is an excellent vehicle for the Court to define what qualifies a taking as “pretextual” and consider the weight to be accorded to each of the four criteria developed by the lower and state courts.

The Supreme Court will decide whether to hear the case later this fall. The name of the case is Tuck-It-Away, Inc. v. New York State Urban Development Corp and you can read the full brief here (pdf).  You can read more from Cato on property rights here.