Topic: International Economics and Development

Overshoot Day Underestimates Human Ingenuity

Media outlets ranging from Newsweek and Time, to National Geographic and even the Weather Channel, all recently ran articles on the so-called “Overshoot Day,” which is defined by its official website as the day of the year

when humanity’s annual demand for the goods and services that our land and seas can provide—fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, wood, cotton for clothing, andcarbon dioxide absorption—exceeds what Earth’s ecosystems can renew in a year.

This year, the world allegedly reached the Overshoot Day on August 13th. Overshoot Day’s proponents claim that, having used up our ecological “budget” for the year and entered into “deficit spending,” all consumption after August 13th is unsustainable. Let’s look at the data concerning resources that, according to Overshoot Day’s definition, we are consuming unsustainably. (We’ll leave aside carbon dioxide absorption—as that issue is more complex—and focus on all the other resources).

New Human Freedom Index, U.S. Ranks 20th

Today we’ve released The Human Freedom Index, a new report that presents a broad measure of personal, civil, and economic freedom around the world. It is co-published by the Cato Institute, the Fraser Institute (Canada) and the Liberales Institut (Germany), and is the most comprehensive index on freedom yet created for a globally meaningful set of countries.

My co-author Tanja Porcnik and I look at 76 indicators in 152 countries to capture the degree to which people are free to engage in voluntary exchange and enjoy major liberties such as freedom of speech, religion, and association. We also include measures on freedom of movement, women’s freedoms, safety and security, and rule of law. We use data from 2008 to 2012, the most recent year for which sufficient data is available.

Hong Kong and Switzerland top the rankings, followed in order by Finland, Denmark, New Zealand, and Canada. The United States ranks in 20th place, below the United Kingdom (9) and Chile (18). Other countries rank as follows: Singapore (43), India (75), Russia (111), China (132), Venezuela (144), and Zimbabwe (149).

The United States fell from 17th place in 2008 to 20th place in 2012. The decline reflects a long-term drop in every category of economic freedom and in its rule of law indicators. The U.S. performance is worrisome and shows that the United States can no longer claim to be the leading bastion of liberty in the world. In addition to the expansion of the regulatory state and drop in economic freedom, the war on terror, the war on drugs, and the erosion of property rights due to greater use of eminent domain all likely have contributed to the U.S. decline.

We do not measure democracy in the index, though we consider it important. Indeed, we find a strong relationship between human freedom and democracy, a link that merits further study. As such, Hong Kong is an outlier in our index. Its high ranking is due to its traditionally strong rule of law, and high levels of both personal and economic freedom, something that all advocates of freedom, including democracy advocates, should seek to protect. The danger there is that China’s efforts to limit democracy will lead to increasing interference in the territory’s institutions—including on the independence of its legal system and the freedom of its press—which will reduce its overall freedom.

We believe that freedom is inherently valuable and plays a central role in human progress. As the graph above shows, belonging to the freest countries in the world greatly improves the average person’s income. Read the study here to see our other findings, the data, and other goals of the research.

Why China Is in Trouble

The course of an economy is determined by the course of that economy’s money supply (broadly determined). The relationship between money growth and nominal GDP growth is presented in the accompanying chart. It is persuasive. Indeed, money, not fiscal policy, dominates.

As I listen to all the ad hoc conjectures about the state of China’s economy and its near-term prospects, I am astounded to never hear anything said about the most important determinant of nominal economic growth: the money supply. The second chart tells the tale. The picture is not a pretty one. China’s money supply growth rate has been slowing down since early 2012. It now is growing at an annual rate of about 10%, which is well below the trend rate of money growth: 17.06%. China is in trouble. Slower money supply growth means that slower nominal GDP growth is already baked in the cake.

Video: An Introduction to HumanProgress.org

If you’re familiar with Cato’s project HumanProgress.org, then you probably know that according to the available data, people today are wealthier, healthier, better educated, and less exposed to violence than in the past. HumanProgress.org provides you with the tools to explore how the state of humanity has changed over time. But even if you have visited the website before, you may not be aware of every feature it offers. Did you know that HumanProgress.org allows you to compare datasets of human wellbeing against one another, allowing you to see if the datasets correlate? Or that you can download a customized chart or map with the click of a mouse? Our new introduction video offers a rundown of all our current features. Check it out:

Ecuador’s Ambassador Misses the Point: Dollarization

Ecuador’s ambassador to the U.S., Francisco Borja Cevallos, wrote a letter, “Ecuador’s Progress,” which was published in the New York Times on August 8th. Ambassador Borja reviews a number of Ecuador’s recent economic accomplishments. Fine. After all, by Latin American standards, Ecuador has performed well. Indeed, my Misery Index rankings for the region in 2014 show that only Panama, Mexico, and El Salvador performed better than Ecuador did.

What Ambassador Borja failed to mention is the true source of Ecuador’s relative success: dollarization. Yes, Ecuador is dollarized. Ecuador represented a prime example of a country that was incapable of imposing the rule of law and safeguarding the value of its currency, the sucre. The Ecuadorian sucre traded at 6,825 per dollar at the end of 1998, and by the end of 1999 the sucre-dollar rate was 20,243. During the first week of January 2000, the sucre rate soared to 28,000 per dollar.

With the sucre in shambles, President Jamil Mahuad announced, on January 9, 2000, that Ecuador would abandon the sucre and officially dollarize the economy. Telephone calls from both President Bill Clinton and U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers encouraged Mahuad to dollarize. The positive confidence shock was immediate. On January 11th — even before a dollarization law had been enacted—the central bank lowered the rediscount rate from 200 percent a year to 20 percent. On February 29th, the Ecuadorian Congress passed the so-called Ley Trolebus, which contained dollarization provisions. It became law on March 13th, and after a transition period in which the dollar replaced the sucre, Ecuador became the world’s most populous dollarized country. And dollarization remains, to this day, highly popular; most Ecuadorians — 85 percent — still give dollarization a thumbs up. What Ecuadorians fear is that President Rafael Correa, who has opposed dollarization in the past, might just abandon the greenback, which is Ecuador’s anchor of stability.

Damn the Accountants! Full Speed Ahead on the Suez Canal Expansion

A Washington Post story on Egypt’s addition to the Suez Canal reminds me of stories about stadiums, arenas, and convention centers. First, there’s a leader with an edifice complex:

There was no public feasibility study, just an order from the new president. He wanted Egypt to dig a new Suez Canal. Oh, and he wanted it completed in a year.

That was last August. And on Thursday, with much pomp and circumstance, President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi inaugurated the new waterway — an expansion of the original, really.

And then, as noted above, there was no real study. In the United States elected officials usually commission bogus studies that economists laugh at.

There’s the hoopla in place of sound economics:

For the past few weeks, the country has been bombarded with messages, slogans and propaganda — all extolling the virtues of what the government is calling Egypt’s “gift to the world.” The canal will double shipping traffic and change the world, officials say. In a countdown to the opening, the flagship state newspaper said: “48 hours… and the Egyptian dream is completed.”

Just this week the mayor of St. Louis, saved by a judge from having to endure a public vote on taxpayer funding for a new NFL stadium, exulted:

“Having an NFL team in a city is really, I think, a huge amenity,” he said. “It’s one of the things that make living in a big city fun.”

Like the stadiums, the new canal path wasn’t needed:

But less important amid the hyper-nationalist fervor, it seemed, is the fact that the $8 billion expansion of one of the world’s most important waterways probably wasn’t necessary….It will probably shave only a few hours off the time that vessels wait to traverse the canal. Global shipping, economists say, has been sluggish since the 2008-2009 world financial crisis.

As with stadiums and other grand municipal projects, economists scoff at the purported benefits:

“This is politics. [The government] wants to give the impression we are entering a new phase of the Egyptian economy,” said Ahmed Kamaly, an economics professor at the American University in Cairo. Egypt’s economy tanked with the turmoil of the Arab Spring, with foreign reserves plummeting and the tourism industry suffering.

“It’s all propaganda,” Kamaly said of government’s grand promises of a revived national economy. “The benefit is overestimated.”

Egypt wants to be known as a modern country. Well, spending taxpayers’ money on white elephants is certainly a characteristic of rich, advanced countries. But $8 billion is a lot even in the white elephant league.

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.