Topic: International Economics and Development

A Tip o’ the Hat to the United Kingdom

As an eighth-generation Scottish-American, I’m disappointed that my ancestral homeland has chosen not to be A Nation Once Again. But at the Daily Caller I do note one remarkable and positive aspect of the referendum:

The leaders of the United Kingdom allowed this referendum to take place, allowed the Scots to peacefully decide their own fate. Just think how remarkable that is. We Americans weren’t allowed to peacefully leave the United Kingdom….

A few secession efforts in the United States also demonstrate the remarkable nature of the Scottish independence referendum. The San Fernando Valley region wanted to secede from the city of Los Angeles in the 1970s, and eventually a vote on secession was held in 2002. But the entire city of Los Angeles got to vote on whether the Valley could leave, and the effort was defeated. Today there are counties in both California and Colorado that have discussed secession, but in both cases the state law says that the legislature would have to approve. Few central governments look kindly on the loss of any portion of their taxpayers.

And that’s why I offer a tip o’ the hat today to the Parliament and the governments of the United Kingdom. They allowed the people of Scotland to decide their own fate. They did not insist that any secession had to get the approval of the government from which the dissident region wanted to secede. They did campaign hard to persuade Scottish voters to stick with the UK. But they let the Scots decide. May the road rise up to meet them, and may the sun shine warm upon their faces. And may other central governments learn from their example.

#WhyLiberty: Venezuela

Thousands of Venezuelans regularly protest Nicolás Maduro’s government. Juan Carlos Hidalgo, a Policy Analyst on Latin America at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity at the Cato Institute, recalls witnessing the struggle for freedom in Caracas.

“Why Liberty” is a short series of personal stories emphasizing the value of liberty. Feel free to make your own video telling your story using #WhyLiberty. And, of course, subscribe to us on YouTube.

Sweden’s Electoral Warning for David Cameron

Cato senior fellow Johan Norberg writes in The Spectator that David Cameron ought to ponder the electoral loss of his friend and fellow “modernizing conservative” Fredrik Reinfeldt in the Swedish election:

It was not that Swedish voters were not impressed with the economy. According to a recent European Commission survey, 97 per cent of Swedes were satisfied with their living standards, a number that would please Kim Jong-un. In the big exit poll, voters said that the Moderates handled the nation’s finances better than any other party. But this success, it seems, was self-defeating. The old law, ‘He who has slaked his thirst turns his back on the well’, seems to have applied. The Swedish Conservatives kindly tidied up the fiscal mess — but why keep the cleaners on after the job is done?

Any country that struggles with financial collapse (and lacklustre recovery) would love to recruit an Anders Borg. But Swedes think they are now out of the woods. They want to talk about other things: the climate, immigration, girl power (the feminist party’s share of the vote rose seven-fold) and the quality of public services.

Reinfelt’s big mistake was to look as if he had finished the job. His coalition seemed out of ideas, with no vision for the future. They had, of course, accomplished most of what they set out to achieve in the first, radical four years — and had also lost their majority in parliament. But the general impression was that they had run out of puff….

Once, it was Reinfeldt who won elections by capturing the imagination and daring to be different. Now, he has played it safe — and lost. Last time, Reinfeldt gave Cameron a masterclass in how to win an election. Now he has given a masterclass in how to lose one.

There’s more, on Sweden’s economic recovery, its remaining problems, the pathetically weak victory of the Social Democrats, and the rise of the populist Sweden Democrats.

Scottish Independence Will Kill Socialism on Both Sides of the Border

Much has been said about the impact of Scottish independence on British politics. With the predominantly socialist parliamentarians from Scotland gone, the Conservative Party would likely come to dominate British politics for the foreseeable future. The much needed economic reforms and, perhaps, withdrawal from the European Union would become very likely. 

What about the impact of independence on Scotland? The breakup of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic some 21 years ago provides an interesting example.

The 1992 elections produced dramatically different results in the two parts of the former Czechoslovak federation. In the Czech Republic, the election was won by the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) led by Vaclav Klaus. Klaus was a highly regarded former federal Finance Minister, who later became Prime Minister and President of the independent Czech Republic. The ODS was dominated by economic reformers whose main goal was a speedy transition of the Czech Republic from a centrally planned economy to capitalism.

In Slovakia, the election was won by the left-leaning Movement for Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) led by Vladimir Meciar. Meciar, a former communist who instinctively opposed dramatic economic reforms favored by Klaus, won by promising the increasingly nationalistic Slovaks some type of a confederal arrangement with the Czechs, but not outright independence. Since the HZDS, with support of smaller Slovak National Party, had enough votes to block all legislation in the Federal Parliament, the future of the federation would depend on an agreement between the ODS and the HZDS.

While demanding an increased autonomy for Slovakia, the Slovak leadership did not bother to find out how far the Czechs were prepared to go. The Slovak leadership seemed to believe that the Czechs, who were more emotionally attached to the continuation of the Czechoslovak federation than the Slovaks, would simply accede to whatever demands the Slovaks chose to make. That turned out to be a colossal miscalculation.

Argentina: One More Step toward Venezuela

This week the Argentine Congress is likely to pass legislation that would bring that country one step closer to suffering the economic disaster that currently besets Venezuela.

First, let’s keep in mind that when it comes to the economy, Argentina is already the country that comes closest to following Venezuela’s flawed policies (expansionary monetary policy, arbitrary expropriations and nationalizations, price controls, etc.).

High inflation remains the country’s number one problem. According to private consulting firms, year-to-year inflation in August was 40.4%. The black market exchange rate is 70% higher than the official rate, which has led to a growing shortage of dollars. We have seen this movie before in Venezuela.

President Cristina Fernández now wants to tackle inflation by having Congress pass an amendment to the “Supply Act” of 1974 that would allow her government to go after businesses that are deemed to be raising prices “unjustifiably or artificially,” or that enjoy “abusive profits.” In those cases, the bill authorizes the Secretary of Commerce to regulate and establish profit margins in each stage of production and commercialization, set price controls, and force companies to continue producing even though they are incurring losses. The bill also empowers the Secretary of Commerce to raid, fine and temporarily close businesses, and also to confiscate merchandise. (In fairness, the bill also aims to eliminate the prison sentences, massive confiscations and permanent closing of businesses that are stipulated in the original law —although they have been rarely implemented.)

The Argentine bill is very similar to Venezuela’s “Just Prices and Costs Act” passed in July, 2011. That law has greatly contributed to the country’s further decimation of the private sector and to widespread shortages of basic goods. The last time the Venezuelan Central Bank published its scarcity index in March, it reached 29.4%, meaning that over one out of four basic products is out of stock at any given time.

Since the Fernández administration enjoys a comfortable majority in the House of Deputies (the Senate already passed the bill), it’s very likely that the legislation will be approved this week. If that happens, Argentina will be one step closer to becoming the next Latin American basket case.

Prof. Krugman Snared By 364 Trap

In his New York Times column of September 15, 2014, How to Get It Wrong,Paul Krugman pleas for open-mindedness and reason. From whence did Prof. Krugman convert from his embrace of dogmatism?

Well, it’s clear that he has not converted. Indeed, the evidence resides about three quarters of the way through his column:

“The great majority of policy-oriented economists believe that increasing government spending in a depressed economy creates jobs, and that slashing it destroys jobs — but European leaders and U.S. Republicans decided to believe the handful of economists asserting the opposite. Neither theory nor history justifies panic over current levels of government debt, but politicians decided to panic anyway, citing unvetted (and, it turned out, flawed) research as justification.”

This passage brings back vivid memories of the 364. In 1981, Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and my friend and collaborator, the late Sir Alan Walters, was her economic guru. Britain’s fiscal deficit was relatively large, 5.6% of its gross domestic product, and the economy was in the middle of a nasty slump. To restart the economy, Thatcher instituted a fierce fiscal squeeze, coupled with an expansionary monetary policy. This was immediately condemned by 364 dyed-in-the-wool Keynesian economists - virtually all of the British establishment. In a letter to the Times, they wrote, “Present policies will deepen the depression, erode the industrial base of our economy and threaten its social and political stability.”

Thatcher and Walters were vindicated quickly. No sooner had the 364 affixed their signatures than the economy turned around and boomed for the next five years. That result provoked disbelief among the Keynesians. After all, according to their dogma, the relationship between the direction of a fiscal impulse and economic activity is supposed to be positive, not negative.

The 364’s dogma was proven wrong. Thatcher and Walters were right.

Middle East and North Africa: A Fatal Attraction

Last week, President Obama addressed the nation to proclaim that the U.S. and an unspecified coalition were going to once again ramp up our military operations in Middle East and North Africa (MENA). This time, the target is the Islamic State, the group terrorizing Iraqi and Syrian citizens.

Just what is the economic condition of that troubled MENA region? This is a question that must be addressed by anyone who is looking over the horizon. After all, the state of an economy today will have a great influence on post-war prospects tomorrow.

My Misery Index allows us to obtain a clear picture of the current economic situation. The Index is the simple sum of the inflation rate, unemployment rate and bank lending rate, minus per capita GDP growth. I calculated a misery index for the countries in MENA where sufficient data were available.

As the chart shows, many of the countries in MENA are, well, miserable. Indeed, a score of over twenty indicates that serious structural economic problems exist. To correct these problems, thereby reducing misery, major economic reforms (read: free-market reforms) must be implemented. But, even if the respective governments approve such changes, it is unclear whether they can be implemented. To put a bit of color on that conjecture, consider that only 13 of the 21 countries in MENA reported the four pieces of economic data that are required to calculate my Misery Index. The regional governments’ inability to produce reliable economic data is a canary in a coal mine. When it comes to MENA, most of the countries have been singing for a long time. The region is, by and large, miserable.

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