Topic: International Economics and Development

Taking Another Look at the Cecil the Lion Story

There is something fishy about Cecil the lion story. Don’t get me wrong, I find trophy hunting nauseating. Still, why on earth would Walter Palmer pay $50,000 to kill a lion? Per capita GDP in Zimbabwe is $936 per year (2014 dollars). If Palmer wanted to do something illegal, he could have killed a lion for fraction of the price. (I assume that any lion would do. Palmer happened to get “unlucky” and kill the most famous lion in Zimbabwe.)

Goodness knows that magnificent wild animals get slaughtered throughout Zimbabwe – for food, skin and horns – on a daily basis and for free. The culprits include hungry locals, corrupt parks officials, members of the military and government officials. It is very likely that Palmer believed (or wanted to believe) that he was buying a legal kill and outsourced the details (permits, etc.) to the locals. That does not make Palmer innocent. He should have known better than go on a safari to a failed state – with no property rights and the rule of law. That said, the story should be understood in the proper context: it is not individual hunters, but poverty and corrupt government that are destroying Zimbabwe’s wildlife.

For more on this, see my article in the Financial Times here.

India’s Faltering Economic Revolution: Lost Opportunity, Lost Future

Last year Narendra Modi won an unusually strong majority in India’s parliamentary election. Modi subsequently visited the U.S. and was warmly welcomed by both the Obama administration and Indian-Americans.

Although ethnic Indians circled the globe as entrepreneurs and traders, the Delhi government turned dirigiste economics into a state religion. Mind-numbing bureaucracies, rules, and inefficiencies were legion.

Eventually modest reform came, but even half-hearted half-steps generated overwhelming political opposition. Last May the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Modi, handed the venerable Congress Party its greatest defeat ever. He seemed poised to transform his nation economically.

As the anniversary of that visit approaches, the Modi dream is fading. He simply may not believe in a liberal free market.

Moreover, few reforms of significance have been implemented. The failures overshadow the Modi government’s successes and highlight its lost opportunities. Critics cite continuing outsize budget deficits and state direction of bank lending.

Former privatization minister Arun Shourie observed last December: “when all is said and done, more is said than done.” Unfortunately, Modi has missed the “honeymoon” period during which his political capital was at its greatest. Time is slipping away.

There Was No Place Like Canada

Speaking of myths about U.S. banking, another that tops my list is the myth that the Federal Reserve, or some sort of central-bank-type arrangement, was the best conceivable solution to the ills of the pre-1914 U.S. monetary system.

I encountered that myth most recently in reading America’s Bank, Roger Lowenstein’s forthcoming book on the Fed’s origins, which I’m reviewing for Barron’s. Lowenstein’s book is well-researched and entertainingly written. But it also suffers from an all-too-common drawback: Lowenstein takes for granted that those who favored having a U.S. central bank of some kind (whatever they called it and however they chose to disguise it) were well-informed and right-thinking, whereas those who didn’t were either ignorant hicks or pawns of special interests. He has, in other words, little patience with history’s losers, whether they be people or ideas. Like other “Whig” histories, his history of the Fed treats the past as an “inexorable march of progress towards enlightenment.”

Don’t get me wrong: I’m no Tory, and I certainly don’t think that the pre-Fed U.S. monetary system was fine and dandy. I know about the panics of 1884, 1893, and 1907. I know how specie tended to pile-up in New York after every harvest season, and that by the time it got there not one but three banks were likely to reckon it, or make claims to it, as part of their reserves. I also know how, when the harvest season returned, all those banks were likely to try and get their hands on the same gold, and how this made for tight money, if it didn’t spark a full-scale panic. Finally, I know that one way to avoid such panics, on paper at least, was to establish a central bank, or “federal” equivalent, capable of supplying banks with emergency cash when they needed it.

Yet I still think that the Fed was a lousy idea. How come? My reason isn’t simply that the Fed turned out to be quite incapable of preventing financial crises, though that’s certainly true. It’s that there was a much better way of fixing the pre-Fed system. That alternative was perfectly obvious to many who struggled to reform the U.S. system in the years prior to the Fed’s establishment. It could hardly have been otherwise, since it was then almost literally staring them in the face. But it should be equally obvious even today to anyone who delves into the underlying causes of the infirmities of the pre-Fed National Currency system.

Third Greek Bailout Is Not the Charm

Nearly a month ago Greek voters rejected more economic austerity as a condition of another European bailout. Today Athens is implementing an even more severe austerity program.

Few expect Greece to pay back the hundreds of billions of dollars it owes. Which means another economic crisis is inevitable, with possible Greek exit (“Grexit”) from the Eurozone.

Blame for the ongoing crisis is widely shared. Greece has created one of Europe’s most sclerotic economies. The Eurocrats, an elite including politicians, journalists, businessmen, and academics, determined to create a United States of Europe irrespective of the wishes of European peoples.

European leaders welcomed Athens into the Eurozone in 2001 even though everyone knew the Greek authorities were lying about the health of their economy. Economics was secondary.

Unfortunately, equalizing exchange rates cemented Greece’s lack of international competitiveness. Enjoying an inflated credit rating, Greece borrowed wildly and spent equally promiscuously on consumption.

Greece could have simply defaulted on its debts. However, Paris and Berlin, in particular, wanted to rescue their improvident banks which held Athens’ debt.

Thus, in return for tough loan conditions most of the Greek debt was shifted onto European taxpayers through two bail-outs costing roughly $265 billion. Greece’s economy has suffered, and the leftwing coalition party Syriza won Greece’s January election. Impasse resulted at the end of June as the second bailout expired.

How Capitalism Is Undermining the Indian Caste System

Karl Marx was wrong about many things but right about one thing: the revolutionary way capitalism attacks and destroys feudalism. As I explain in a new study,  in India, the rise of capitalism since the economic reforms of 1991 has also attacked and eroded casteism, a social hierarchy that placed four castes on top with a fifth caste—dalits—like dirt beneath the feet of others. Dalits, once called untouchables, were traditionally denied any livelihood save virtual serfdom to landowners and the filthiest, most disease-ridden tasks, such as cleaning toilets and handling dead humans and animals. Remarkably, the opening up of the Indian economy has enabled dalits to break out of their traditional low occupations and start businesses. The Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI) now boasts over 3,000 millionaire members. This revolution is still in its early stages, but is now unstoppable.

A Conversation on Bitcoin

(Last month, the Chilean webzine El Libero interviewed me about Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency topics. Here is the English translation of the conversation with Juan Pablo Couyoumdjian.)

1. Bitcoin is a class of “crypto-currency,” but what, exactly, are these crypto-currencies? How do they emerge? And why?

LHW: Cryptocurrencies — Bitcoin and its competitors — are digital assets, secured by cryptography, that can be circulated from peer to peer like currency.

Like government fiat money, they are not redeemable at a fixed rate for any commodity or other money. Unlike government fiat money, there is no issuer with discretion to increase the quantity at any time. In the case of Bitcoin, the number of Bitcoin units is programmed to increase at slow and known rate. In the case of Ripple, the top competitor, all the Ripple units to be made were made at the start.

Bitcoin originated (and remains) as a public-interest non-profit project by a programmer (who’s identity is not known) who wanted to create a tamper-proof private non-state currency. Some other cryptocurrencies arose similarly, by other groups of programmers who introduced improved designs (faster, more robust, more user privacy). Once Bitcoin rose to prominence and considerable market value at the end of 2013 (the total value of all Bitcoins currently held is about US$3.4 billion), private for-profit competitors like Ripple and BitShares and Nxt came along with advanced designs and full-time development and promotion teams.

“Deprived” My Foot

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of hearing that Greece is being “deprived of fresh Euros” by the ECB, or by the European Commission, or that those bodies are “moving toward cutting off its money supply.” That’s to say nothing of the Greek government’s suggestion that Greece is being “blackmailed” by these authorities.

Such talk seems to suggest that Eurozone members are like so many helpless hatchlings, their outstretched beaks agape in anticipation of the ECB’s regular and solicitous regurgitations of liquid sustenance.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, I’d like to take a stab at putting this misguided metaphor to rest.

Consider for a moment, then, how two other Balkan states — Kosovo and Montenegro — manage to get hold of the euros they need to support their economies. Although the euro is their official currency, neither is part of the Eurozone, and neither has had a formal agreement of any sort with ECB such as could allow it to count on being able to borrow euros from that institution, strings or no strings, in a pinch.

Yet neither territory complains of being “deprived” of euros by European authorities, much less of being “blackmailed” by them. Nor do Panama, Ecuador, and El Salvador — all dollarized Latin American nations — complain that the Fed isn’t sufficiently forthcoming with dollars. (Panama did once have reason to complain of blackmail, when the U.S. blocked paper dollar shipments there as part of its effort to topple Manuel Noriega. But that was a special case.) If the ECB and the Fed won’t deal directly with these countries, on any terms, how do they manage to get their hands on the euros or dollars they need to keep their banking systems and their economies functioning, if not thriving?