Topic: International Economics and Development

Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom

The most fascinating story in the world is China today, as the world’s most populous country struggles toward modernity.

The Chinese rulers seem to be trying to emulate Singapore’s success in creating a dynamic modern economy while maintaining authoritarian rule. But can a nation of a billion people be managed as successfully as a city-state? Since 1979 China has liberated its economy, creating de facto and even de jure property rights, allowing the creation of businesses, and freeing up labor markets. The result has been rapid economic growth. China has brought more people out of back-breaking poverty faster than any country in history.

And, as scholars such as F. A. Hayek have predicted, the development of property rights, civil society, and middle-class people has created a demand for political rights as well. Every week there are reports of actual elections for local posts, lawyers suing the government, dissidents standing up and often being jailed, labor agitation, and political demonstrations. It’s reminiscent of the long English struggle for liberty and constitutional government.

And it would be great if it turns out that modern technology can make that struggle shorter than it was in England. A hopeful example was reported this week. According to the Washington Post, hundreds of thousands of “text messages ricocheted around cellphones in Xiamen,” rallying people to oppose the construction of a giant chemical factory. The messages led to “an explosion of public anger,” large demonstrations, and a halt in construction.

Leave aside the question of whether the activists were right to oppose the factory. The more significant element of the story is that, as the Post reported, “The delay marked a rare instance of public opinion in China rising from the streets and compelling a change of policy by Communist Party bureaucrats.”

Cellphones and bloggers fighting against the Communist Party and its Propaganda Department and Public Security Bureau — and the “army of Davids” won. Reporters and editors afraid to cover the story followed it on blogs, even as the censors tried to block one site after another. This isn’t your father’s Red China.

Citizen blogger and eyewitness Wen Yunchao

said he and his friends have since concluded that if protesters had been armed with cellphones and computers in 1989, there would have been a different outcome to the notorious Tiananmen Square protest, which ended with intervention by the People’s Liberation Army and the killings of hundreds, perhaps thousands, in the streets of Beijing.

The cause of freedom is not looking so good in Russia these days. But in China a hundred flowers are blooming, a hundred schools of thought contending.

Zimbabwean Economics Spreads to Capitol Hill

In Zimbabwe, the government is ordering businesses to cut prices and threatening to jail executives who don’t comply, in an attempt to deal with inflation that is now variously estimated at somewhere between 4,000 and 20,000 percent a year.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill both houses of Congress have passed legislation establishing stiff penalties for those found guilty of gasoline price gouging. The bill directs the Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department to go after oil companies, traders, or retail operators if they take “unfair advantage” or charge “unconscionably excessive” prices for gasoline and other fuels in an “energy emergency.” (The complex energy legislation is still working its way through both houses, though both have endorsed the price-gouging provisions.)

How’d’ja like to be the bureaucrat charged with enforcing such vague and emotional language, or the businessperson trying not to incur a 10-year jail sentence for doing something “unfair” or “unconscionably excessive”? It’d be sort of like living in, you know, Zimbabwe.

Did Congress offer bureaucrats and businesses any more specific guidance? You bet they did. H.R. 6 and S. 1263 define an ”unconscionably excessive price” as a price that

(A)(i) represents a gross disparity between the price at which it was offered for sale in the usual course of the supplier’s business immediately prior to the President’s declaration of an energy emergency;

(ii) grossly exceeds the price at which the same or similar crude oil, gasoline, or petroleum distillate was readily obtainable by other purchasers in the affected area; or

(iii) represents an exercise of unfair leverage or unconscionable means on the part of the supplier, during a period of declared energy emergency; and

(B) is not attributable to increased wholesale or operational costs outside the control of the supplier, incurred in connection with the sale of crude oil, gasoline, or petroleum distillates.

So that seems reasonable clear: it’s a price that is “gross” or “unfair” or (redundantly enough) “unconscionable.” And it can only happen during a “Federal energy emergency”:

(a) IN GENERAL- If the President finds that the health, safety, welfare, or economic well-being of the citizens of the United States is at risk because of a shortage or imminent shortage of adequate supplies of crude oil, gasoline, or petroleum distillates due to a disruption in the national distribution system for crude oil, gasoline, or petroleum distillates (including such a shortage related to a major disaster (as defined in section 102(2) of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act 42 U.S.C. 5122(2))), or significant pricing anomalies in national energy markets for crude oil, gasoline, or petroleum distillates, the President may declare that a Federal energy emergency exists.

In the United States, unlike Zimbabwe, we have the rule of law. That means vague, emotional, and nonsensical laws can only be passed upon a vote of both houses of Congress and the approval of the president.

Mauritius Accelerates Move to Flat Tax

With the world’s list of flat tax nations growing every year, the pressure to adopt good tax policy is becoming more powerful. The latest example comes from the Indian Ocean. Mauritius already had adopted a flat tax, with the new system scheduled to go into effect in 2009. But tax competition is leading the government to implement the pro-growth system even sooner. Tax-news.com reports:

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance and Economic Development Rama Sithanen has announced the introduction of a flat corporate income tax, as the government strives to create conditions for “robust, sustained and inclusive growth” whilst opening the economy, facilitating business, and accelerating the transition to global competitiveness. …Central to attaining this goal is the reduction of corporate tax to a flat rate of 15%, a measure which has been brought forward by two years to July 1, 2007. This flat rate will also apply for personal income tax. Initially, the government had planned to reduce corporate tax in stages, starting with a cut in the top rate to 22.5% last year, to 20% this year and to 15% by 2009. …the Finance Minister stated….”We…have a system that is now geared towards rewarding effort and entrepreneurship.”

Americans Are Far More Generous than Europeans

USA Today reports on a new study showing that charitable contributions are at an all-time high in America. Most interesting, the report also revealed that Americans are far more generous than supposedly compassionate Europeans. Indeed, no nation gives even half as much (as a share of income) as the United States. The French are among the worst misers, giving less than one-twelfth of what Americans donate, though it is unclear whether this is because they are taxed so much that there is no money left in their wallets or whether they assume that it is now the role of government to solve every social problem:

Americans gave nearly $300 billion to charitable causes last year, setting a record and besting the 2005 total that had been boosted by a surge in aid to victims of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma and the Asian tsunami. …Individuals gave a combined 75.6% of the total. With bequests, that rises to 83.4%. …the willingness of Americans to give cuts across income levels, and their investments go to developing ideas, inventions and people to the benefit of the overall economy. Gaudiani said Americans give twice as much as the next most charitable country, according to a November 2006 comparison done by the Charities Aid Foundation. In philanthropic giving as a percentage of gross domestic product, the U.S. ranked first at 1.7%. No. 2 Britain gave 0.73%, while France, with a 0.14% rate, trailed such countries as South Africa, Singapore, Turkey and Germany.

At Least Somebody’s Listening (If Only It Were U.S. Policymakers)

Today’s Wall Street Journal reports (sub. req.) that the European Union is considering implementing a change that I have long advocated the United States implement: graduating China to market economy status for purposes of antidumping proceedings.  Among the reasons given in the article for the prospective change is that doing so might make it easier for Europe to “extract a range of concessions” from the Chinese on other issues deemed crucial to the trade relationship.

Though they have been stubbornly resistant, U.S. policymakers should be doing the same thing for the same reasons.  When we hear about the issues that define the U.S.-China trade relationship, those issues read like a litany of U.S. gripes.  The Chinese should: stop subsidizing industry; stop manipulating the currency; stop engaging in unfair labor practices; stop dumping; stop stealing intellectual property; stop imposing behind-the-border barriers; start opening services markets; start allowing uninhibited foreign ownership, start being a responsible stakeholder, and on and on.  (The presumption being that fulfillment of American objectives is the chief aim of Chinese policy.)

Can you name a single Chinese demand of the United States?  Well, there are several, but none of them are really “demands.”  They are requests, pursued diplomatically through ongoing dialogue and without a lot of political grandstanding. The single most important wish of the Chinese on the trade front is that they be given market economy status.  More than anything else, I believe, China’s interest in achieving that status is driven by a desire to be treated respectfully by the international community.  The non-market economy label carries a Cold War stigma and, in any event, is misapplied in the case of China, where the economy is increasingly market-oriented, if not market-based, by most metrics.

Under current European and American antidumping practices, China’s NME status means its rates of duty are not based on a comparison of prices.  Instead, they are based on a comparison of the Chinese company’s export prices to a fictitious guestimate of what the price would be in China if prices were in fact determined by market forces.  Got it?  Right!  NME rates tend to be higher than ME rates, but in any event are totally divorced from commercial reality.

Graduating China to ME status does not mean that Chinese exporters would be immune from antidumping allegations and actions by U.S. industries.  No, they would still be subject to a law that routinely produces high, and sometime prohibitive, tariffs.  But graduating China to that more respectable status would engender much good will and would likely inspire greater willingness among the Chinese to work with U.S. negotiators to resolve outstanding differences.

Ironically, the U.S. interests that are opposed to changing China’s status are the same interests that endorse the litany of gripes against China.  Eventually, they may smarten up like their European brethren and do the right thing.

Labor Union Members Protest against Pro-Growth Reforms in Czech Republic

Even though neighboring flat tax nations such as Slovakia are growing faster and creating more jobs, the labor movement in Prague is protesting reforms that would improve the Czech Republic’s competitiveness. The International Herald Tribune reports on this self-destructive impulse:

Around 15,000 labor union members protested in downtown Prague Saturday against the government’s proposed tax reforms and cuts in welfare spending. …If approved, a 15-percent flat tax on personal income would be introduced in 2008. Currently, the personal tax rate ranges from 12 percent to 32 percent, depending on income. The corporate tax rate would be cut from 24 percent to 19 percent by 2010. The draft also includes cuts in social benefits, unemployment benefits, maternity leave payments and health care spending. The labor unions claimed that only the wealthy would benefit from the proposed changes.

Europeans Leading on Postal Privatization

While many European governments deserve criticism for their high tax rates and destructive welfare states, sometimes America is the nation that is lagging when it comes to free market reform.

Corporate tax rates are one example, since every European nation has a lower rate than America. Social Security reform is another area, since many European nations have funded systems based on personal accounts.

And, as the Wall Street Journal explains, the Europeans are also beating America when it comes to postal reform. Several nations already have eliminated government monopoly systems and others are heading in that direction, though backwards nations such as France are trying to block continent-wide liberalization:

Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Sweden and the U.K. have opened their postal markets completely; Germany and the Netherlands have said they plan to do so soon. Brussels began liberalization efforts back in 1997 and a 2002 law envisioned an open postal market by January 1, 2009.

Yet five years after that tentative deadline was set, and with 18 months still to go, the likes of France’s La Poste complain that they need more time to prepare. It’s unclear what exactly they will be able to accomplish in those extra two years that they couldn’t manage in the first dozen.

One safe bet is they’ll continue piling up easy profits to use in new businesses they’ve started. To take one example, La Poste, Deutsche Post and others have used the proceeds from their letters monopolies — a €90 billion business in Europe — to open banks.

In the meantime, consumers increasingly have to break the bank just to send a letter. In the 10 members of the EU-15 that haven’t completed or planned postal liberalization, the average stamp price rose by 7 European cents, or about 18%, between December 2001 and February 2007, according to data from the Free and Fair Post Initiative. In the five countries that have liberalized, the average price fell by 2 cents, or about 4%. Studies show that full market opening, including cross-border competition, could drive prices down by as much as 20% to 25%.