Topic: International Economics and Development

El-Sisi the Reformer?

Is Egypt’s economy taking a turn for the better? The government is hosting an economic summit in February next year, aiming to attract foreign investment, with the participation of not just private investors but also of the International Monetary Fund.

[Christine] Lagarde said Egyptian authorities’ “recent reform efforts” were “encouraging” and expressed her hope that participants in the upcoming summit will see how these reforms can “help restore durable economic stability and sustainable growth to Egypt.”

On the surface, it appears that Egypt’s government is making tangible progress addressing the country’s fiscal problem. The planned energy subsidies cuts are under way, although these are also accompanied by tax increases, mainly through a planned introduction of a value-added tax, hikes to tobacco and alcohol taxes and a new tax on capital earnings.

Experience from other countries, most notably from Europe in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, shows that fiscal consolidations that rely on revenue increases lead to worse outcomes than consolidations that consist of permanent reductions to government spending.

But, whatever one thinks about this particular question, there are two additional reasons to be skeptical. First, putting aside the fuel price hikes that have already occurred, much of the praise directed at the Egyptian government presupposes that it will deliver on its promise to slash subsidies by one third in the fiscal year 2014/2015. That would be welcome news but it is worth remembering that similar reform targets were set in the past and were systematically missed:

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)

Second, it is deceptive to look at the fiscal question in isolation, as a technocratic problem that can be solved by clever tweaks to existing policies. Egypt’s economic problem is political in nature, and will continue to plague the country as long it is governed by a kleptocratic, unaccountable elite.

The government – more specifically its military forces – own and run a large part of the economy, shielded from competition, and generating rents. The military coup last year led to the strengthening of the opaque network of cronyism that has long characterized military-run enterprises. Some estimates suggest that as much as half of last year’s stimulus, worth around $4bn and funded predominantly by funds from the United Arab Emirates, has been directed at military-controlled enterprises that became involved in road construction and other forms of infrastructure works, displacing the traditional construction companies.

Just as it was a mistake to see Vladimir Putin as a market reformer in the early 2000s, notwithstanding some of the real policy shifts (such as the introduction of a flat tax), it would be a mistake to see President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as somebody aiming to open Egypt’s economy to competition and raise the living standards of Egyptians through increased economic freedom. If economic reforms occur, they will occur with the narrow goal of strengthening his hold on power and satisfying the material needs of the generals backing him.

In Egypt, as in other countries of the region, economic and political oppression go hand in hand and are mutually reinforcing. Nothing is a bigger threat to a military dictatorship than an economically empowered citizenry. For this reason, we should not expect genuine reforms to be very high on Mr. el-Sisi’s list of priorities.

Bulgaria’s October 5th Elections: A Flashback at the Economic Records

Bulgarians will go to the polls on October 5th to elect new members of its parliament and thus a new government. Before casting their votes, voters should reflect on the economic records of Bulgaria’s governments since 1995.

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 for each of Bulgaria’s six governments since 1995 (see the accompanying table).

Washington Should Recognize India as an Emerging Great Power

Before becoming prime minister, India’s Narendra Modi was barred from receiving a visa to visit the United States.  A rising leader in the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), he was tied to deadly sectarian violence. But now he leads one of Asia’s most important powers and the Obama administration is rolling out the red carpet.

India long was ruled by the dynastic India National Congress Party, which enshrined dirigiste economics as the state’s secular religion.  Eventually, however, reality seeped into New Delhi. The Congress Party liberalized the economy. The BJP broke the Congress monopoly on power. 

New Delhi appeared ready to follow the People’s Republic of China to international superstar status. But then enthusiasm for economic reform ebbed, economic growth slowed, and conflict with Pakistan flared. 

However, on May 26, Narendra Modi became prime minister.  He is visiting the United States to speak before the United Nations and meet with President Barack Obama. The trip could yield rich benefits for both countries.

China Celebrates an Anniversary of Its Dictatorship

Today the People’s Republic of China is celebrating the 65th anniversary of its founding on October 1, 1949, which is likely to produce even bigger crowds of protesters in Hong Kong demanding democracy. China’s opposition to democracy in Hong Kong and in China itself is not just the recalcitrance of cranky old men. It’s part of the Chinese Communist state’s founding mission. 

Take the speech of Mao Zedong on July 1, 1949, as his Communist armies neared victory. The speech was titled, “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship.” Instead of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it spoke of “the extinction of classes, state power and parties,” of “a socialist and communist society,” of the nationalization of private enterprise and the socialization of agriculture, of a “great and splendid socialist state” in Russia, and especially of “a powerful state apparatus” in the hands of a “people’s democratic dictatorship.”

Tragically, unbelievably, this vision appealed not only to many Chinese but even to Americans and Europeans, some of them prominent. But from the beginning it went terribly wrong, as really should have been predicted. Communism created desperate poverty in China. The “Great Leap Forward” led to mass starvation. The Cultural Revolution unleashed “an extended paroxysm of revolutionary madness”  in which “tens of millions of innocent victims were persecuted, professionally ruined, mentally deranged, physically maimed and even killed.” Estimates of the number of unnatural deaths during Mao’s tenure range from 15 million to 80 million. This is so monstrous that we can’t really comprehend it. What inspired many American and European leftists was that Mao really seemed to believe in the communist vision. And the attempt to actually implement communism leads to disaster and death.

Venezuela: A Military Regime

Bloomberg has a story today on the many perks that the Venezuelan army enjoys vis-à-vis the downtrodden civilian population. Whereas a regular Venezuelan has to line up for hours to get basic goods (when they are available), officers enjoy privileged access to fully stocked supermarkets, new cars, housing, and many other benefits.

The obvious strategy of the Venezuelan government is to keep the armed forces happy in case it needs them to hold on to power.  But the reality is far worse.  In fact, Venezuela is now a military regime. Even though President Nicolás Maduro is a civilian, he is surrounded by people who have donned a uniform: according to Bloomberg, “A third of Venezuela’s 28 ministers and half the state governors are now active or retired officers.”

The rise in prices is not the only kind of inflation affecting Venezuela. Bloomberg reports that “its military now has between 4,000 and 5,000 generals” for a ratio of one general for every 34 servicemen (in the United States the ratio is one general per 1,490 servicemen). As expected, generals enjoy higher salaries and many other benefits. Moreover, the intelligence community believes that high-ranking army officers control most illegal activities in Venezuela, from smuggling to drug trafficking. In other words, military men are profiteering from the status quo.

All this points to an unlikely scenario where the armed forces would threaten the continuity of chavismo in power. Just the opposite, the army will be a key actor in propping up the regime, even if Venezuelans decide otherwise in the polls.

Education under the New Swedish Order

Just over a week ago, Swedes threw out the relatively pro-market coalition that had goverened the country for the past 8 years, handing power (though not an outright majority) to a new left-of-center coalition. Swedish students’ falling scores on international tests were a key cause of public dissatisfaction, and they have been widely blamed on a nationwide voucher-like school choice program introduced during the early 1990s. But as I point out in an op-ed in yesterday’s Svenska Dagbladet, the facts simply don’t support that narrative. Here’s the English draft of the op-ed:

Sweden’s collapsing performance on international tests was clearly a factor in the recent election, and redressing that slide will be a priority for the new government. A good first step in charting the way forward is to understand what has gone wrong and what has gone right in the past. Unfortunately, the most popular narrative about Swedish education trends is badly mistaken.

Many have blamed Sweden’s falling international test scores on the proliferation of free schools, merely because the decline is thought to have followed their large-scale expansion. This would be a common logical fallacy even if the timing were correct—but it isn’t.

Between 1995 and 2011, Swedish math scores on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) fell by a massive 56 points. But the vast majority of that decline—41 points—had already taken place by 2003. In that year, 96 percent of Swedish students were still enrolled in government schools.

Another international test, the Programme on International Student Assessment (PISA), began in the year 2000 and has the advantage of breaking out the scores for government and private schools. The last PISA test was administered in 2012, by which time government school scores had fallen by 34 points while free school scores had fallen by only 6 points.

Anders Böhlmark and Mikael Lindahl’s long-term nationwide study helps to explain these trends: increased local competition from free schools actually raises the performance of students in both sectors—on both national and international tests. But, since free schools still enroll a small fraction of students nationwide, the benefits of this competition have yet to be felt in many areas.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that there are no bad private schools. There has never been an education system in history capable of producing only good schools. The best that can be hoped for is that unsuccessful schools close while good schools expand. And that is precisely what has been happening in Sweden.                                           

Much has been made of the failure of JB Education, which attracted too few students to remain financially viable, and was forced to shut down. This was regrettable for everyone directly concerned, in the short run. In the long run, it is better than any realistic alternative. In most countries, including the United States, atrocious government-run schools are able to continue operating indefinitely because they face no meaningful competition—the poor parents they most often serve simply cannot afford any alternative. These schools are numerous enough that a term has been coined to describe them: “dropout factories.” Swedish families are lucky that they can far more easily escape such schools.

Not only does the Swedish system pressure failing schools to close, it encourages good ones to expand. International English Schools is one of the highest-performing school networks in the country, even after controlling for the parental level of education and immigrant background of its students. It is also one of the fastest growing, now operating 25 schools serving nearly 18,000 students. IES has plans to continue growing so long as demand for its services remains unmet. But if IES’s emphasis on academics and civil classroom behavior seems too traditional for some families, there are many other options to choose from. Another large and successful network is Kunskapsskolan, which allows students to proceed through the curriculum at their own pace, combining tremendous student autonomy with weekly one-on-one meetings with teachers.

But not all good private schools grow. Specifically, non-profit schools tend not to build large networks, no matter how good they are. As a result, thousands of students who might benefit from their services never get the chance to do so. The only good schools that consistently “scale-up” in response to rising demand are those operated as for-profit enterprises. This is not a coincidence. Building a network is both risky and expensive. The profit-and-loss system provides both the resources and the incentives that allow and encourage successful enterprises to grow.  

Sweden is fortunate to have harnessed that system to spur the growth of its high performing schools. Chile does the same thing, and has become not only the highest-performing nation in Latin America but also one of the fastest-improving countries in the entire world on international tests. If Sweden wishes to become a fast-improving nation educationally, the evidence strongly supports preserving the entrepreneurial freedoms and incentives that promote the growth of successful education networks.

A Tip o’ the Hat to the United Kingdom

As an eighth-generation Scottish-American, I’m disappointed that my ancestral homeland has chosen not to be A Nation Once Again. But at the Daily Caller I do note one remarkable and positive aspect of the referendum:

The leaders of the United Kingdom allowed this referendum to take place, allowed the Scots to peacefully decide their own fate. Just think how remarkable that is. We Americans weren’t allowed to peacefully leave the United Kingdom….

A few secession efforts in the United States also demonstrate the remarkable nature of the Scottish independence referendum. The San Fernando Valley region wanted to secede from the city of Los Angeles in the 1970s, and eventually a vote on secession was held in 2002. But the entire city of Los Angeles got to vote on whether the Valley could leave, and the effort was defeated. Today there are counties in both California and Colorado that have discussed secession, but in both cases the state law says that the legislature would have to approve. Few central governments look kindly on the loss of any portion of their taxpayers.

And that’s why I offer a tip o’ the hat today to the Parliament and the governments of the United Kingdom. They allowed the people of Scotland to decide their own fate. They did not insist that any secession had to get the approval of the government from which the dissident region wanted to secede. They did campaign hard to persuade Scottish voters to stick with the UK. But they let the Scots decide. May the road rise up to meet them, and may the sun shine warm upon their faces. And may other central governments learn from their example.