Topic: International Economics and Development

Update on the Internet Gambling Dispute

Good news and not-so-good news on the long-running saga over internet gambling (background here): Antigua has been awarded $21 million annual “damages” as a result of the United States’ restrictions on offshore provision of internet gambling and betting services.

That is far less than the $3.4 billion Antigua had asserted it is owed, but more than the United States had suggested was warranted ($500,000). On the other hand, the arbitrator gave Antigua permission to collect the damages by suspending their obligations to protect U.S. intellectual property. The $21 million worth of pirated software, movies, and music would go on annually unless and until the United States changes its laws, so we can expect some lobbying from Hollywood to have the restrictions on internet gambling lifted.

The report just came out, so I have yet to absorb it fully myself, but here it is.

Expect to Pay More for Chocolate Coins this Christmas

An article today in the Wall Street Journal reports on Department of Justice investigations into alleged price-fixing by U.S. chocolate companies, following similar investigations by Canadian regulators into the Canadian divisions of the same companies.

The companies insist that higher commodity prices are behind any recent price increases in their products, with Cadbury’s CEO expecting ingredients to cost between 5 and 6 percent more next year as a result of tight supplies (primarily because of drought in Australia, pushing up dairy prices) and increased demand, as the middle class — and consequently appetite for dairy, sugar and meat — grows in Asia and Latin America. The U.S. government’s misguided promotion of biofuels, which diverts corn to ethanol production and puts upward pressure on all commodities prices as farmers divert land to growing corn, definitely doesn’t help.

While prices for most commodities are at historic global highs, confectionary companies in the United States have often had to pay significantly higher prices because of government intervention in agricultural markets. Cato’s Center for Trade Policy Studies has looked into dairy and sugar policies before, and finds that the costs to consumers and taxpayers of supporting sugar and dairy farmers through isolating the U.S. market is truly outrageous.

Of course, Congress has so far chosen to ignore the problems with dairy and sugar, proposing instead to maintain these programs (even increasing the support in the case of dairy) rather than bring relief to consumers (including candy manufacturers). You know something is wrong with U.S. agricultural policy when the European Union looks reformed in comparison: the EU announced that it is suspending its tariffs on some cereals crops [$].

The Man with the Plan

The Russian government’s monthly propaganda insert in the Washington Post includes this headline today:

The Man with the Plan/President Putin Has Got the Nation’s Future Mapped Out

It reminded me of an article I wrote a few years ago with the same title, “The Man with the Plan.” (In Liberty, July 1996, or you can read it in my forthcoming book The Politics of Freedom.) I was writing about Clinton adviser Ira Magaziner, whose various planning schemes, while scary, are certainly not as bad as the ones that have been tried in Russia over the past century. Though this idea, expressed by presidential candidate Bill Clinton on the campaign trail in 1992, might come close:

We ought to begin by doing something simple. We ought to say right now, we ought to have a national inventory of the capacity of … every manufacturing plant in the United States: every airplane plant, every small business subcontractor, everybody working in defense.

We ought to know what the inventory is, what the skills of the work force are and match it against the kind of things we have to produce in the next twenty years and then we have to decide how to get from there to there. From what we have to what we need to do.

Five-year plans not having planned out so well, Clinton and Magaziner decided the problem was their short-term focus. Whether Bill or Hillary, Putin or Magaziner, when I hear the phrase “the man (or woman) with the plan,” I think of Adam Smith:

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit, and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests or the strong prejudices which may oppose it: he seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board; he does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

The Democrats’ Distorted Take on trade and the 1990s

The debate among the Democratic presidential candidates has become stuck in the past. When they are not debating the alleged shortcomings of the 15-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement, they have been sparring over the economic record of the 1990s.

Not surprisingly, front-runner Hillary Clinton touts the economic success of the previous decade, when her husband Bill Clinton was president and she was exercising influence down the hall in the West Wing.

“Sometimes an opponent of mine [read Barack Obama] says we talk about the 1990s too much,” Clinton said recently on the campaign trail, according to this morning’s Financial Times. “That is because in the 1990s we had the greatest economic performance in decades. I like to talk about what works because I want to get back to doing what works.”

Yet candidate Clinton and her fellow Democratic candidates also routinely trash NAFTA, which the former President Clinton shepherded through a Democratic Congress in 1993. They blame the trade agreement with Canada and Mexico for costing the U.S. economy million of manufacturing jobs.

So what was the real record of the 1990s? Was it a time of unprecedented growth and prosperity presided over by a generally pro-trade, Democratic president? Or was it a time of stagnation and job losses caused by a trade agreement that now, according to Hillary Clinton, must be reopened and revised?

The right answer is that the 1990s were a good time for the U.S. economy, and expanding trade and globalization—including NAFTA— were among of the reasons.

As I noted in a recent study for Cato, titled “Trading Up,” the economic record of the U.S. economy during the past decade, including the late 1990s, offers yet another reason to support further trade liberalization:

Rising real wages and compensation during the past decade pose a serious challenge to the “trade is making us worse off” thesis. If we are to believe that expanding trade and competition with low-wage countries have eliminated high-laying manufacturing jobs and depressed the earnings of U.S. workers, how do the critics of trade explain the remarkable labor-market gains of the past decade? Since 1997, during a period of rapidly increased trade and globalization, the number of workers employed in the U.S. economy jumped by more than 16 million, while the unemployment rate is now slightly below what it was a decade ago at a similar stage in the business cycle. And those employed workers, as we’ve seen, are earning significantly higher real hourly compensation than workers a decade ago when the U.S. economy was less globalized. That record is not an indictment of more liberal trade but a vindication.

What works is a more open, efficient and competitive U.S. market.

Swiss Canton Voters Overwhelmingly Adopt 1.8 Percent Flat Tax

More than 90 percent of voters in the Swiss Canton of Obwalden have voted for a flat tax of just 1.8 percent. This is positive news for tax competition within Switzerland, and it doubtlessly will put even more pressure on Europe’s welfare states to reform oppressive tax regimes. Presumably voters in other Cantons will now petition for a chance to vote for low-rate flat tax systems, and maybe it is just a matter of time ‘til one of them decides to completely eliminate the income tax. Swissinfo reports:

Obwalden has become the first Swiss canton to adopt a flat income tax rate, with more than 90 per cent of the electorate voting in favour of the move. The decision, announced by the authorities after a vote on Sunday, comes after a court ruled the canton’s previous degressive tax model unfair. From next January Obwalden will impose a rate of 1.8 per cent on all categories. The new model also exempts the first SFr10,000 ($8,700) of income from taxation, a measure designed to benefit those on lower incomes the most. …In Switzerland there is high competition among the cantons to set the lowest tax rates to attract wealthy individuals and companies. …European neighbours have frequently expressed outrage that their rich citizens are opting to empty their pockets into Swiss coffers rather than their own. But Switzerland has defended its position as providing healthy competition.

Bulgaria Now an Official Member of the Flat Tax Club

The Sofia News Agency reports that a 10 percent flat tax has cleared a final hurdle in the Bulgarian Parliament. The article notes that the new tax system requires a signature from the President, but this is expected to be a formality. So it’s time to play the unofficial theme song of the global flat tax revolution and welcome the 23rd jurisdiction to the club:

Bulgaria’s parliament passed on second reading on Monday the amendments introducing a flat tax rate in the country. …The amendments are final and only a veto from president Georgi Parvanov can stop them from becoming law, although he has given no indication he plans to do so. …The leaders of the three parties in Bulgaria’s ruling coalition have agreed in summer on the tax reform, with a flat rate of 10%, the lowest in Europe, replacing the progressive taxation system with three brackets. Since Estonia introduced a flat tax system in 1994, enjoying stable GDP growth, eastern European countries have been attracted to the flat tax that promises to attract foreign investments and increase transparency.

“Good News” on the Trade Deficit?

Against a backdrop of a lot of negative economic news, the Commerce Department this morning reported the “good news” that the U.S. current account deficit shrank in the third quarter to $178.5 billion. The current account is the broadest measure of U.S. trade with the rest of the world, including not only goods and services but income from investments and unilateral transfers such as foreign aid.

I use scare quotes around “good news” because it isn’t really obvious why we should all be cheering a smaller current account deficit. Many of the same stories that hail an “improving” trade account also report that one of the main reasons behind it is the slowing U.S. economy compared to the rest of the world. Slower economic growth at home means less demand for imports, while faster growth abroad boosts the export of U.S. goods. I’m all for increased exports, but since when is slower domestic growth good news?

An interesting figure from the current account report is the flow of investment income. In the third quarter Americans earned $20 billion more in interest, dividends and profits on our investments abroad than foreigners earned on their investments in the United States. This despite the fact that foreigners own about $2.5 trillion more in U.S. assets than Americans own in assets abroad. The reason for the seeming discrepancy is that the assets we own abroad have a much higher return, while foreigners have (so far) remained content to earn a lower return on their more liquid and secure investments in the United States.

Opponents of trade liberalization constantly point to the trade deficit as evidence that U.S. trade policies are failing. We’ve debunked that claim at the Center for Trade Policy Studies, but perhaps one bit of genuine good news in today’s report is that critics of trade will have a slightly smaller target to aim at.