Topic: International Economics and Development

Poverty’s Decline and Its Causes

It is always refreshing to see journalists draw attention to the incredible decline in world poverty. An article that did just that appeared yesterday in the Christian Science Monitor. The piece shines a spotlight on three heartening facts in particular. 

First, poverty is decreasing. Not only have poverty rates fallen, but the total number of people in poverty has decreased. This is incredible when one considers population growth—there are more people alive today who aren’t in poverty than ever before. The Brookings Institution projects poverty will be practically eliminated by 2030. 

Second, average incomes are rising. World per capita GDP, adjusted for inflation and differences in the cost of living, has never been higher. And average income growth is not limited to developing countries: the average American has more disposable income left after basic expenses

Finally, humanity is healthier. Globally, average life expectancy is at an all-time high, largely due to plummeting infant mortality rates. More people have enough to eat and enjoy access to clean drinking water and improved sanitation facilities. The developed world has also seen health gains, with cancer death rates falling for both men and women in the OECD countries. 

The article attributes improvements in well-being to three main factors: the fall of communism, the rise of trade and globalization, and the courage of those who stood up against tyranny. 

While the CSM article gives some credit to international aid programs, it is important to recognize that aid is not a good driver of economic development. Even vocal aid-proponent Bono acknowledges that international aid and charity pale in comparison to the prosperity-creating power of people engaging in market exchange. 

When given the freedom to do so, it is truly remarkable what ordinary people can achieve. Consider the utter transformation of Singapore from poverty to riches – that is the power of economic freedom!

Venezuela: Ricardo Hausmann versus Nicolas Maduro

Prof. Ricardo Hausmann, a native of Venezuela and professor at Harvard, concluded in a Financial Times op-ed last week that Venezuela will go down the tubes. Indeed, Hausmann wrote that “It is probably too late to avoid a Venezuelan catastrophe altogether. But to reduce its length and intensity, the country needs to adopt a sound economic plan that can garner ample international financial support. This is unlikely to happen while Mr. Maduro remains in power.”

The nub of Hausmann’s diagnosis of the infirmed patient is clear:

As bad as these numbers are, 2016 looks dramatically worse. Imports, which had already been compressed by 20 percent in 2015 to $37bn, would have to fall by over 40 percent, even if the country stopped servicing its debt. Why? If oil prices remain at January’s average levels, exports in 2016 will be less than $18bn, while servicing the debt will cost over $10bn. This leaves less than $8bn of current income to pay for imports, a fraction of the $37bn imported in 2015. Net reserves are less than $10bn and the country, trading as the riskiest in the world, has no access to financial markets.

There’s no doubt that Hausmann’s arithmetic is correct. Add to that the fact that Venezuela’s implied monthly inflation rate is 21%, according to my estimates, and its implied annual inflation rate is 442%. Not a pretty picture.

And that’s not all. As I observe the socialist destruction of Venezuela that has ensued under the reign of Hugo Chavez and now Nicolas Maduro, it is clear that Maduro has no economic strategy. Indeed, I doubt if Maduro knows what the word “strategy” means.

Venezuela is going down the tubes.

Iowa Moonshine: The Sordid History of Ethanol Mandates

In recent years, politicians set impossibly high mandates for the amounts of ethanol motorists must buy in 2022 while also setting impossibly high standards for the fuel economy of cars sold in 2025.  To accomplish these conflicting goals, motorists are now given tax credits to drive heavily-subsidized electric cars, even as they will supposedly be required to buy more and more ethanol-laced fuel each year.  

Why have such blatantly contradictory laws received so little criticism, if not outrage? Probably because ethanol mandates and electric car subsidies are lucrative sources of federal grants, loans, subsidies and tax credits for “alternative fuels” and electric cars.  Those on the receiving end lobby hard to keep the gravy train rolling while those paying the bills lack the same motivation to become informed, or to organize and lobby. 

With farmers, ethanol producers and oil companies all sharing the bounty, using subsidies and mandates to pour ever-increasing amounts of ethanol into motorists’ gas tanks has been a win-win deal for politicians and the interest groups that support them and a lose-lose deal for consumers and taxpayers.

Venezuela’s Lying Statistics

Surprise! Venezuela, the world’s most miserable country (according to my misery index) has just released an annualized inflation estimate for the quarter that ended September 2015. This is late on two counts. First, it has been nine months since the last estimate was released. Second, September 2015 is not January 2016. So, the newly released inflation estimate of 141.5% is out of date.

I estimate that the current implied annual inflation rate in Venezuela is 392%. That’s almost three times higher than the latest official estimate.

Venezuela’s notoriously incompetent central bank is producing lying statistics – just like the Soviets used to fabricate. In the Soviet days, we approximated reality by developing lie coefficients. We would apply these coefficients to the official data in an attempt to reach reality. The formula is: (official data) X (lie coefficient) = reality estimate. At present, the lie coefficient for the Central Bank of Venezuela’s official inflation estimate is 3.0.

Enlightenment Values and the Anglicans

Leaders of the worldwide Anglican church are meeting at Canterbury Cathedral this week, with some observers predicting an open schism over homosexuality. There is fear that archbishops from six African countries – Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, South Sudan, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – may walk out if the archbishop of Canterbury, the symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, won’t sanction the U.S. Episcopal Church for consecrating gay bishops. Since about 60 percent of the world’s Anglicans are in Africa, that would be a major break.

The Enduring Wisdom of Julian Simon

Last week, the World Bank updated its commodity database, which tracks the price of commodities going back to 1960. Over the last 55 years, the world’s population has increased by 143 percent. Over the same time period, real average annual per capita income in the world rose by 163 percent. What happened to the price of commodities?

Out of the 15 indexes measured by the World Bank, 10 fell below their 1960 levels. The indexes that experienced absolute decline included the entire non-energy commodity group (-20 percent), agricultural index (-26 percent), beverages (-32 percent), food (-22 percent), oils and minerals (-32 percent), grains or cereals (-32 percent), raw materials (-32 percent), “other” raw materials (-56 percent), metals and minerals (-4 percent) and base metals (-3 percent).

Five indexes rose in price between 1960 and 2015.  However, only two indexes, energy and precious metals, increased more than income, appreciating 451 percent and 402 percent respectively. Three indexes increased less than income. They included “other” food (7 percent), timber (7 percent) and fertilizers (38 percent).

Some Blessings of Cheap Oil and Low Inflation

1. Cheaper oil lowers the cost of transporting people and products (including exports), and also the cost of producing energy-intensive goods and services.  

2. Every upward spike in oil prices has been followed by recession, while sustained periods of low oil prices have been associated with relatively brisk growth of the U.S. economy (real GDP).

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3. Far from being a grave danger (as news reports have frequently speculated), lower inflation since 2013 has significantly increased real wages and real consumer spending.

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4. Cheaper energy helps explain why the domestic U.S. economy (less trade & inventories) has lately been growing faster than 3% despite the unsettling Obama tax shock of 2013.

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