Topic: International Economics and Development

If It’s Not a National ID, Then What is It?

Former IRS Commissioners Doris Meissner and James Zigler editorialize in today’s New York Times about their support for “secure, biometric Social Security cards” as an essential part of immigration law reform.

The give-away line?: “To insist on secure documents with biometric identifiers is not a call for a national ID.” They provide no logical support for this naked assertion. Because it’s false.

Strengthened “internal enforcement” of immigration law means federal surveillance and tracking of all workers. All of them. Including you.

Russian Parliament Rejects Proposal for So-Called Progressive Taxation

Russia’s flat tax has been remarkably successful. Growth is reasonably strong and tax compliance has improved. Indeed, inflation-adjusted personal income tax revenues have been growing at double-digit rates. Despite this record of success, some politicians wanted to re-impose discriminatory tax rates on more productive taxpayers. Fortunately, as Tax-news.com reports, this misguided scheme was rejected:

The Russian State Duma, the lower house of parliament, has voted to reject two amendments to the Russian tax code that would replace Russia’s flat rate of tax on personal income with a progressive system whereby those who earn more pay more tax. The amendments concerned article 224 of the tax code, which stipulates that Russian tax residents pay income tax at a rate of 13% regardless of their income, and were introduced by the nationalist Rodina party, who argue that the current tax system disproportionately hits the poorest taxpayers. One of the amendments proposed no tax on individual incomes up to 60,000 rubles per year, a 10% tax on incomes from 60,000 to 120,000 rubles, a 13% tax on incomes from 120,000 to 1.2 million rubles, a 20% tax on income from 1.2 million to 3.6 million rubles and a 30% tax on income over 3.6 million rubles. The bill was opposed by both Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov and the speaker of the State Duma, Boris Gryzlov.

More Negative Consequences of Government Intervention

Many writers, including Cato experts, have noted the negative economic consequences of ethanol subsidies. While the direct effects are bad, government intervention also has negative indirect effects. As the UK-based Times notes, the subsidies are driving up the price of corn, hurting not only poor Mexicans but also American meat buyers:

Typically, meat production in the United States rises by about 2 per cent a year, but the pressure from American ethanol producers manufacturing road fuel from corn has sent the price of maize soaring to $4 a bushel. The USDA is predicting that the 2006 corn crop will sell for an average of $3.10 a bushel at the farm gate, the highest for a decade. Faced with extortionate feed costs, cattle and poultry farmers are rearing fewer animals and slaughtering them early. That means a sudden reversal in the annual meat production gain, representing a fall of 1.7lb per person. “There is a new demand component,” Shayle Shagam, a livestock analyst at USDA, said. “Livestock producers have to bid against the ethanol industry to get supplies of corn.” The biofuel revolution’s unpleasant negative consequence was first felt south of Rio Grande, when the escalating price of corn affected a food staple. Mexico’s tortilla inflation crisis is spreading north to the heartland of rib-eye steak and chicken wings. The USDA predicts that food prices will rise by up to 3.5 per cent this year as farmers rein in output in response to feedstock costs.

Can We Blame the Record Trade Deficit for Global Warming, Too?

An Associated Press story today on the latest trade deficit numbers noted as an aside, “The trade gap has set new records for five consecutive years, a period when the country lost more than 3 million manufacturing jobs.” 

Thoughtful people can disagree about the long-term implications of the trade deficit, but there is no evidence that the trade deficit itself is responsible for the recent drop in manufacturing employment.  

Manufacturing employment has been on a downward trend, not because of imports, but because of soaring productivity in the sector. In fact, overall manufacturing output in the United States continues to increase. American factories can produce more with fewer workers because the remaining workers are so much more productive.  

During the 1990s, the trade gap set new records for seven years in a row (1994–2000). That was also a period of robust domestic growth in which the country added almost a quarter of a million manufacturing jobs.  

As for the most recent string of record trade deficits (2002-2006), one could also describe that period as one when: 

… the real output of American factories grew by 14 percent.    

… the country added a net 6 million new jobs.   

… the unemployment rate fell from 5.8 percent to 4.5 percent.   

… annual real GDP grew by $1.5 trillion, or 15 percent.  

… the net household wealth of Americans grew from $38.8 trillion to $55.6 trillion.  

As I’ve written recently in a Cato Free Trade Bulletin, the reality behind the trade deficit numbers is more multi-faceted than the public discussion in Washington would lead us to believe. 

IMF Wants to Confiscate Portion of Gold Holdings

International bureaucracies are infamous for bloated budgets, and the International Monetary Fund certainly is a good example. Its headquarters are plush, its staff enormous, its pay extravagant, and salaries are tax free. Nice work if you can get it, as the old saying goes.

Unfortunately for the IMF, nations today generally are avoiding the organization, meaning the bureaucracy isn’t collecting as much “income” from its loan portfolio. So the IMF created a committee to review its financial future. Not surprisingly, this IMF-approved committee did not decide to shrink the IMF staff. Instead, it came up with a novel scheme to seize a portion of the national gold reserves held by the IMF. If a private bank decided to seize depositors’ funds to maintain the country club memberships of management, there would be appropriate outrage.

Hopefully, this proposal to loot the gold reserves will be met with similar scorn. A column in the Wall Street Journal reviews the issue:

And the IMF seeks a new wellspring of funding to support the expansive lifestyle to which it has become accustomed. A Committee of Eminent Persons was assembled to find the money.  …The Committee emerged with a proposal to use 13 million ounces, or an eighth of the gold stockpile [stored at the IMF], to establish an IMF endowment, an independent income stream for the Fund in perpetuity.

But this isn’t really the IMF’s gold. The bullion belongs to the U.S., Germany, Brazil, Ghana and other nations. More than one-quarter of it belongs to developing countries. If the IMF is allowed to open the door to this vault, fears of new missions and unrestrained spending will be confirmed. The gold and the gain it can bring should be returned to national treasuries.

India’s poor could do more with the $1.5 billion that is rightfully theirs than the IMF. …A staff of 500 instead of 3,000 and a budget of $400 million instead of $1 billion would be easily sustained by the investment income on the Fund’s $10 billion of existing reserves.

Behind China’s Headline Export Numbers

China overtook the United States in the second half of 2006 to become the world’s second leading exporter of goods. That fact, contained in a new report from the World Trade Organization and trumpeted in headlines around the country this morning, is bound to further rile up skeptics of America’s growing trade with China.

Although the United States exported more goods ($1,037 billion worth) in all of 2006 than China (which exported $969 billion), figures for the second half of the year show that China has now claimed the no. 2 spot behind Germany.

For those of a mercantilist mindset, to whom trade is all about exporting more than you import and more than the other guy, this news is guaranteed to be alarming. But the real news is nothing of the sort.

First, China is bound to move up in the world rankings of trade. It represents 20 percent of the world’s population, it is surrounded by thriving, trade-oriented economies, and its increasingly open and free economy has been growing at double-digit rates for more than a decade. We should welcome the news that China is more integrated than ever in the global economy.

Second, the United States continues to be a trade and export powerhouse. U.S. exports of goods grew 14 percent between 2005 and 2006, and surpassed $1 trillion for the first time ever. When combined with the $387 billion in services Americans sold abroad last year, we remain the world’s no. 1 exporter.

Third, most of the goods that China exports are in fact designed and in large part made in other countries, including the United States. “Assembled in China” would be a more accurate label than “Made in China” for most of its exports. More than half of China’s exports are made in foreign-owned factories. The most sophisticated components in the computers and other consumer electronics exported from China are in fact made in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the United States, and other, more advanced economies. China has become the final link in a deepening global supply chain. (For more detail, see my 2006 study on U.S. trade with China.)

Finally, trade is about more than exports. It’s about, well, trade. We export for the purpose of getting back things of even greater value. Americans benefit at least as much from imports as we do from exports. The $2.2 trillion in goods and services we imported last year make our lives better every day.

As author P.J. O’Rourke summarized in his terrific new book, On the Wealth of Nations, “To give [Adam] Smith’s case against mercantalism in extreme concision: imports are Christmas morning; exports are January’s MasterCard bill.” 

Over-taxed

From the Agoraphilia blog, Glen Whitman ridicules those who ridicule Americans who feel over-taxed:

Sub-headline from an article about a survey on taxes: “An MSN-Zogby poll says that many Americans think they’re paying too much in taxes even though research shows the average tax burden is light compared with other developed countries.”

Interesting. I’ve also heard that for some reason, paraplegics would like to get the use of their limbs back, even though other people are totally paralyzed from the neck down. Oh, and people who have lost an eye would like to get their 3D vision back, despite the existence of blind people. What is wrong with these people?