Topic: International Economics and Development

Latvia, the Country Prof. Krugman Loves to Hate, Wins 1st Prize

I constructed a misery index and ranked 89 countries from most to least miserable based on the available data from the Economist Intelligence Unit. My methodology is a simple sum of inflation, bank lending and unemployment rates, minus year-on-year per capita GDP growth. The table below is a sub-ranking of all former Soviet Union (FSU) states contained in my misery index.

For these FSU states, the main contributing factors to misery are high levels of unemployment and high interest rates.

The low misery index scores in Estonia and Lithuania don’t surprise me as I helped both countries establish sound money with the installation of currency boards in 1992 and 1994, respectively. Latvia, a country Paul Krugman loves to hate, takes the prize for the least miserable of the former Soviet Union countries in this sub-ranking.

In Memory of Carlos Ball

I’m sad to report that Venezuelan journalist and Cato adjunct scholar Carlos Ball passed away last week. He was 75. Carlos was a champion of liberty and a long-time friend to so many of us in the freedom movement in the Americas. His life was a testimony to the power of ideas, and he lived it true to his classical-liberal convictions.

Carlos was a co-founder of CEDICE, the market-liberal think tank in Caracas that celebrated its 30th anniversary this year and with whom Cato has worked closely for many years (and that has been severely harassed by the Chavista regime). In the 1980s, Carlos was the editor of El Diario de Caracas, an important daily that was critical of government policies. It was when Carlos represented Venezuelan journalists at an Inter-American Press Association conference in 1987 in San Antonio, Texas and denounced then-President Lusinchi’s attacks on freedom of the press, that Lusinchi demanded that Carlos be fired from the newspaper, conditioning the renewal of the license of the popular television station RCTV—part of the same media company—on that outcome. Carlos was let go from the paper, he was criminally charged by the government, and was told by the judge presiding his case that “I have orders from above.” It was at that time that Carlos left Venezuela, moving to Florida where he would live the rest of his life. RCTV received a 20-year license. It was the expiration of that license in 2007—that Hugo Chavez refused to renew, thus shutting down the television station—that triggered the massive student uprising against the government that year. (As a result, Chavez lost a constitutional referendum and temporarily slowed down his accumulation of power.)

The idea that Venezuela was doomed to repeat such experiences and that the country would only lose more freedoms if economic freedom was not also respected was a long-time theme in Carlos’s writings. In that regard, he was among a very small group of Venezuelan intellectuals who decades ago warned against the ideology of socialism predominant in the political system and much of Venezuelan society. Indeed, he very correctly viewed Hugo Chavez’s regime as a logical, though more extreme, extension of what had come before. “Chavez,” he wrote, “has intensified, accelerated and exacerbated corruption, the concentration of power, the violation of property rights” and the power of the bureaucracy in people’s lives. In a 1992 essay, Carlos wrote that the “fatal date” for his country was January 1976, when President Perez nationalized the petroleum industry. That “meant a radical change; for the first time since the death of General Gomez [1935], political and economic power was again concentrated in the same hands: in those of the head of state.”

He would later write: “Without that concentration of wealth in political hands, Chavez would never have been able to Cubanize Venezuela because it was the economic power of oil that allowed the government to crush the individual liberties of the Venezuelans.” How right he was.

Bulgaria Wins Balkan Prize

Every country aims to lower inflation, unemployment, and lending rates, while increasing gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. Through a simple sum of the former three rates, minus year-on-year per capita GDP growth, I constructed a misery index that comprehensively ranks 89 countries based on misery. The table below is a sub-ranking of all Balkan states presented in the full index.

 

All of the Balkan states in my index suffer from high unemployment and relatively high levels of misery.

That said, the least miserable Balkan country is Bulgaria. For all of its problems, including a recent bank run, the country’s currency board system - which I, as President Stoyanov’s adviser, helped design and install in 1997 - provides monetary and fiscal discipline, and produces positive results in a region plagued with problems. 

Matt Ridley Discusses the Improving State of Humanity

If you have a free ten minutes over the weekend, your time will be well spent watching Cato’s spanking-new interview with the best-selling author of The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley. In it, Ridley, who is also a member of the Advisory Board of HumanProgress.org, argues that humanity’s impact on the environment need not be catastrophic. This is partly because there is a strong relationship between economic growth and a greener planet. I am going to reiterate that fact - acknowledged by no lesser authority than the IPCC - because everyone should know it: the richer we become, the lesser our impact on the environment will be. Since economic freedom and growth are correlated (i.e.: more economic freedom means higher growth), economic freedom encourages a higher quality of life and a healthier environment. Gloomy predictions about the future of the planet are based on unrealistic assumptions that are unlikely to happen. The current scare, in other words, may be just like the doomsday scenarios from the past that have never materialized. Watch the video here:

And if you have another few minutes, check out HumanProgress.org, Cato’s newest website. It is a data-heavy site that presents reputable, third-party data and a host of analytical tools. Use it to discover what Matt Ridley spoke about: the state of humanity is improving, and fast!

London Transport Regulator Gives Uber the Green Light

Today London’s transport regulator, Transport for London (TfL), said that Uber can legally operate in the U.K.’s capital. The news comes after drivers of London’s black cabs deliberately congested traffic last month in protest over how Uber, the San Francisco-based transportation technology company, was being regulated.

The Licensed Taxi Drivers Association (LTDA) said that it believed Uber was operating in violation of the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998, as I explained when writing about the protest last month:

The Licensed Taxi Drivers Association (LTDA) believes that Uber, the San Francisco-based transport technology company, is operating illegally in London. Thanks to the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998, it is illegal for a London vehicle with a private hire vehicle license to have a taximeter. Up until yesterday Uber’s website stated that anyone who wanted to be an Uber driver in London must have a private hire vehicle license. Today those requirements remain the same, however in response to the London protest Uber has opened to licensed black cabs.

TfL does not, unlike the LTDA, consider the smartphones used by drivers using Uber to be taximeters:

TfL’s view is that smart phones that transmit location information (based on GPS data) between vehicles and operators, have no operational or physical connection with the vehicles, and receive information about fares which are calculated remotely from the vehicle, are not taximeters within the meaning of the legislation.

TfL said it intended to have the High Court rule on the legality of Uber’s operation in London. However, TfL noted in its statement that the High Court would not consider the issue while separate criminal proceedings involving Uber drivers brought about by LTDA were being dealt with in the Westminster Magistrates’ Court, although it did say that the High Court would probably rule on the issue eventually:

… the LDTA (sic) has issued summonses in the Westminster Magistrates’ Court against a number of Uber drivers under s.11 of the 1998 Act. This now prevents TfL proceeding as we had intended as the High Court will not consider the issue whilst there are ongoing criminal proceedings on the same issues of law.

TfL is therefore now unable to seek early clarification from the High Court. In due course the LTDA summonses will be heard in the Magistrates’ court. The Magistrates’ decision is not binding, will almost certainly be appealed (by someone), which inevitably means the matter will end up, rather later than sooner, in the High Court.

It looks as if the LTDA has scored at least two own goals in its dealings with Uber. Firstly, the protest it supported was great free advertising for Uber, which reportedly enjoyed an 850% increase in sign-ups in the U.K. thanks to the demonstration. Secondly, LTDA’s actions against Uber drivers have prevented the High Court from considering Uber’s legality.

Can Egypt Cure Its Subsidy Addiction?

Egypt’s government spends more on subsidies of consumer products—most prominently energy and food—than on health and education combined. Subsidies distort markets, lead to waste, and are largely ineffective in helping Egypt’s poor. Therefore, it should be heartening to see the government tackling the problem, as part of its effort to bring down the country’s fiscal deficit.

According to Finance Minister Hany Kadri Dimian, in the new fiscal year 2014–2015, “[T]he allocation for fuel subsidies has been cut from around EGP144bn ($20bn) last year to EGP100bn in the new budget.”

On the surface, that appears to be a bold step, slashing spending on fuel subsidies—which are by far the biggest fraction of the total subsidy bill—by almost a third. But there is a catch. According to the budget for the past fiscal year, 2013–2014, the subsidies to oil materials were already supposed to be close to EGP100bn ($14bn). Yet, the actual spending was drastically higher, perhaps by as much as an additional EGP70bn ($10bn)

And, similarly, in the preceding fiscal year, 2012–2013, the budget for fuel subsidies was to be EGP70bn, in what was seen at the time as an attempt to bring spending under control, especially relative to the previous fiscal year. But again, the actual spending on fuel subsidies during the year was drastically higher. Some of the Finance Ministry’s revised estimates were at EGP100bn, while others claimed the real numbers were even more sizeable.

In short, in recent years the government of Egypt systematically—and quite substantially—underestimated the planned spending on fuel subsidies. One can blame that on many factors, most prominently on the political turmoil, but this track record gives little guarantee that this time will be different.

Although the awareness of the problem, as well as the wider use of smart cards to allocate subsidies, are both encouraging, one needs to keep in mind that the most recent announcement is a far cry from a genuine reform plan. Even if actual spending on subsidies were exactly equal to the amount allocated in the budget, in nominal terms that would only bring Egypt back to the spending levels of fiscal 2011–2012, which were already unsustainable. As I argued in an earlier paper, what Egypt needs is a plan to phase out fuel subsidies altogether and replace them with targeted cash transfers. Alas, such a plan is nowhere in sight.

NASA, Global Warming, and Free Enterprise

Yesterday, NASA aborted a third attempt to launch a probe that would measure the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide, where it comes from, and where it is stored. The agency may try again today, as the probe’s findings, we are told, will be “crucial to understanding how much human activity affects the planet’s climate.”

While we eagerly await NASA’s findings, it is well-known that carbon dioxide emissions are on the rise worldwide. We also know that developed countries emit less, or increase emissions at a slower pace, than in the past. Crucially, developed countries also show falling emissions per dollar of output and per person.

According to HumanProgress.org and the World Bank, developed countries’ growth in carbon dioxide emissions has slowed or reversed over time.