Topic: International Economics and Development

Honest, Abe Wants School Vouchers

The Guardian reports today that Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe is in favor of school vouchers – and Japan has more experience with market education than most countries, due to its multi-billion-dollar for-profit tutoring industry.

A number of Japanese scholars have observed that their nation’s success on international tests would be unthinkable if it weren’t for the huge popularity of these “juku” tutoring schools. So it begs the question: if the market has worked so well in the tutoring sector, providing education that is so much more flexible, child-centered, and effective than the monopoly school sector, why not liberalize the entire education industry by eliminating the preferential tax funding status of the government schools?

Some will argue that Japan’s private juku schools are too narrowly focused on test preparation, but this is merely a symptom of the niche that juku currently fill in the marketplace. Japan also has numerous traditional private high-schools. Get rid of the financial discrimination currently practiced in favor of government-run k-12 schools, and a wealth of new educational options would arise.

And while the Japanese already trounce much of the world in math and science with only their tutoring schools organized along free market lines, just imagine how they would do with a fully liberalized education market from kindergarten through high-school!

A Great End to the Conference on ‘Freedom, Commerce, and Peace’

I’m really happy with the conference on “Freedom, Commerce, and Peace: A Regional Agenda.” We had Georgians and Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians, Armenians and Azeris, Iranians and Iraqis, Romanians and Moldovans, and on and on…28 nations in all.

The first discussion of the last day of the conference was of a high order, with Robert Lawson speaking on the Economic Freedom of the World Report and Cato’s new Senior Fellow Andrei Illarionov offering a high-level critique of methodology and suggestions for improvements. The discussion was very scientific and really focused attention on the issues of explaining the relationship between liberty and well being. Ricardo Martinez Rico, former Deputy Minister for the Budget of Spain, gave a fascinating and practical guide to how Spain managed to get its state budget under control, along with concrete proposals for the assembled reformers from Eurasia.

The three workshops (organizing a think-tank, involving free media in public information campaigns, and using the economic freedom of the world data to promote reform) went well, as did Johan Norberg’s presentation on the environmental case for property rights, which moved participants to avoid environmental disasters by promoting transferrable rights in fisheries, forests, and other natural resources. Some other highlights were former Croatian Justice Minister Vesna Skare-Ozbolt’s presentation on “Improving the Rule of Law” and the presentation and discussion of Warren Coats’s paper on “Creating Monetary Stability and Financial Sector Freedom.” (Ok, the others were good, too, notably the energetic presentation by my friend from Belarus, Jaroslav Romanchuk, on how to convince the public of the benefits of liberty.) 

The papers will be collected and edited over the coming months; my plan is to publish them in English and in Russian editions.

Finally, the concluding banquet address by former Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar was outstanding — the perfect rousing and inspiring conclusion to the conference.

I’m confident that this conference will go a long way toward creating and strengthening a network of classical liberal reformers throughout Eurasia, all armed with practical information and advice on how to promote the rule of law, individual liberty, and peace. And I’m so, so, so happy about it — especially now that the work’s over.

I took the day off on Sunday and took a long trip with other foreign participants to Kakheti to visit ancient Georgian churches, see the countryside, and taste the local wines. The churches were remarkable, the countryside showed how important economic growth is and how much (it’s currently running about 11%) will be necessary to overcome the legacy of Soviet poverty (as shown by the ruined churches we visited). But the process is clearly underway, as evidenced by the rationalization of and improvements to the wine industry. In addition to the natural beauty and the remarkably hospitable people, the wine and food in Kakheti were excellent. (I’m a big fan of Georgian wines. They’re excellent. If you have a chance to try them, ask for the dry wines of Mukuzani or Sapaveri.)

Be Careful What You Wish For…

A couple of people over recent days have asked my opinion on the prospects for reform of agriculture policy should Democrats take over the House and/or the Senate. My usual reply is to lament the depressingly bipartisan nature of support for farm subsidies and trade barriers, and to also point out that the recent farm bill (implemented by a Republican congress) has been one of the most expensive in history: $23 billion last year. In a nutshell, I had thought that the prospects for reform could not be any worse under the Democrats than under Republicans.

It turns out that I may be wrong (yes, it happens occasionally). In a recent press release from Texas A&M University, the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee (and probable chairman of that committee should the Democrats regain the majority in the House), Colin Peterson (D-MN) seems to support extension of the current farm bill, egregious though it is, but with yet more pork added.

Rep. Peterson would implement permanent crop disaster relief (I have blogged on this idea previously), and was indirectly quoted as calling renewable energy derived from crops ”the most exciting development in agriculture in his lifetime.”

Rep. Peterson does seem to have a point about the scope for the addition of expensive and agriculture-irrelevant rider amendments to ad-hoc disaster relief bills, but describing a permanent disaster relief program as a way to “save taxpayer dollars” is disingenuous, to say the least.

Rep. Peterson seems to have no truck with the idea that agriculture should contribute to deficit reduction, either: “I reject the idea that because we have a $9 trillion deficit, we have to get rid of farm programs. We didn’t cause that problem. In fact, agriculture was the only government initiative that actually spent less than was projected, $13 billion less so far. Besides, if you got rid of all agriculture programs, it wouldn’t make a dent in the deficit. So we need to do what’s right for agriculture, and that’s where I’m coming from.”

On ethanol, which my colleague Jerry Taylor has blogged about here, Rep. Peterson wheeled out the old “foreign oil dependency” issue and put his full support behind investing significant resources (that’s your resources) into more research into bio-fuels, describing the profits that investors are making currently from ethanol as “obscene.”

You said it, sir.

Mbeki Banned in South Africa

Not President Thabo Mbeki, of course. But his brother, the outspoken political commentator Moeletsi Mbeki, turns out to be one of nine people banned from the airwaves by the South African Broadcasting Corporation, which is, in the words of the Washington Post, increasingly “reverting to its apartheid-era roots as a tool for government propaganda.”

The new top news executive at SABC, Snuki Zikalala, is a former spokesman for the African National Congress-dominated government who “received his journalistic training in Communist Eastern Europe.” A new report says that he is responsible for the ban on nine government critics.

In the last days of apartheid, some libertarians pointed out to South Africa’s rulers that if they left a government broadcasting operation in place, they would one day regret the way a different government would use it. Looks like that day has come.

Meanwhile, you can’t hear Moeletsi Mbeki on South African radio and TV. But you can read his thoughts in this Cato Foreign Policy Briefing.

The End of Fidel Castro?

NPR has a report this morning that it’s looking more and more like Fidel Castro is terminally ill and will not return to power. NPR and Reuters both suggest that younger brother Raul Castro may open up the economy and even the political system to some extent.

Meanwhile, after 47 years of tyranny, some leftists still revere the Cuban dictator. A “colossal portrait” depicting Castro as “a champion of civil rights” will be unveiled in Central Park on November 8.

Vegemitegate: the Saga Continues

An update from my post yesterday on the supposed ban on Vegemite: its not true. According to this article, it is all just a misunderstanding between friends:

Under US regulations, folate can be added only to breads and cereals. One of the Vitamin B components (in Vegemite) is folate,’ [FDA spokesman] Herndon explained. ‘In and of itself, it’s not a violation. If they’re adding folate to it, boosting it up, technically it would be a violation. But the FDA has not targeted it and I don’t think we intend to target Vegemite simply because of that.’

OK, Mr. FDA. I’ll call off the hounds. But I will be testing your system in January when I return from Australia with a year’s worth of Vegemite in my suitcase.

Carrying Liberalization Further

I’m in Tbilisi for our conference on “Freedom, Commerce, and Peace: A Regional Agenda.”  It starts tomorrow evening, but many of the participants are arriving tonight (Tbilisi is a great place, but not the easiest to reach, especially after the Russian government banned all travel between the Russian Federation and Georgia).  What was originally planned for 100 participants has grown to at least 180 (and maybe more).  It’s great to talk to libertarians from so many countries (28 in all) and to feel the excitement for the advancement of freedom.

The keynote speaker tomorrow night will be Nobel Laureate Vernon Smith, who will speak on a topic that has gained greater significance since the Russian blockade on trade and travel with Georgia: “Globalization and Liberty.”  The speakers were chosen for their ability to inspire, as well as for their practical knowledge.  The other banquet speakers will be Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli and former Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar (winner of the Cato Institute’s 2006 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty).  I’ll be posting occasionally from the conference.