Topic: International Economics and Development

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.

Not Just Another Friday in Brussels

While a typical summer Friday in the capital of the European Union might sound like a rather dull affair, today brought two significant events–one of them good, the other one less so.

First, the good news. Today, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia signed their association agreements with the European Union (EU). The treaties consist of, in part, free trade agreements between the EU and the three countries, and also a roadmap toward a prospective EU membership. Given the economic and political shape these countries find themselves in, the latter will likely take a long time and will not be without hurdles. After all, Turkey signed its association agreement back in 1963 and the country is still not a member.

There can be little doubt that free trade agreements with the EU will do good to these impoverished economies (GDP per capita in Moldova is just a little over $2,000) as well as to the EU. Furthermore, the prospect of a timely EU membership will hopefully serve as an impetus for economic and institutional reforms–just as was the case in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe that joined the EU in the past decade.

Of course, the EU is far from perfect and it is quite possible that these countries will soon grapple with the same problems as Slovakia, Czech Republic, or Bulgaria–namely how to manage the inflow of “structural funds” into their economies without encouraging corruption and entrenchment of venal elites. But arguably, that will not be the worst problem to have, considering that the alternative is the continuation of the status quo, muddling along from one crisis to another and being part of Russia’s zone of influence. Further enlargement, extending the common market and free movement of people further east, will likely prove to be beneficial to the EU as well.

Second, the bad news. The EU leaders have appointed Jean-Claude Juncker as the new head of the European Commission. Although initially the governments of Sweden and Netherlands had misgivings about his presidency, in the end it was only the UK’s prime minister, David Cameron, who decided to openly oppose the nomination.

The issue is not just with the personality of the candidate, but also with the process through which Juncker was selected. For the first time, the European Parliament took the lead in picking the head of the Commission, while no treaty empowers it to do so. While the appointment needs to rely on a parliamentary majority, the choice has always been made by the political leaders of EU member states, not by the Parliament. For those who do not wish to see the accountability of the Commission to national politicians wane completely, the Juncker appointment should be a cause for concern.

Let us hope that these two events are not completely unrelated. Hopefully, the prospect of another eastward enlargement will serve as an impetus for European policymakers to look for a model of European governance that provides the benefits of the common market and effective action on issues of mutual interest, without entrenching an obscure and unaccountable center of power in Brussels. 

Are Beef Prices at An All-Time High?

The press is reporting record prices for beef. According to a June 18 story in the New York Post,

“It’s a barbecue-season bummer! Meat, poultry and fish prices have spiked an average of 8 percent since last year — soaring to an all-time high, national data show. The cost of ground beef has gone up 11 percent… ‘Everything is going through the roof,’ said Jim Hopkins, 52, a supervisor at Associated Supermarket in the West Village, who has worked in the grocery business for 30 years. ‘I’ve never seen increases like this — where they jump as much as this.’”

 

 

Yet the World Bank data shows remarkable stability in the inflation-adjusted price of ground beef over the last half century. That is all the more remarkable considering that:

  1. There were 3 billion people in the world in 1960. Today there are 7 billion of us.
  2. In 1960, the average income per person was $3,000 (in inflation adjusted 2000 dollars). Today it is $7,500.
  3. More people earning more money = higher demand for meat, especially beef.
  4. Yet, beef prices are, roughly where they were in 1960.

So, cheer up and don’t let those pessimists spoil your barbecue-season.

How Political Repression Breeds Islamic Radicalism

Following the decision upholding numerous death penalties for Muslim Brotherhood members accused of a 2013 attack on a police station, Egypt has recently seen the conclusion of another sham trial, resulting in harsh sentences for three al-Jazeera journalists, accused of aiding terrorists.

While it is obvious that trials like these move Egypt further away from freedom, could they also be inadvertently helping Islamic radicals? My new development bulletin argues that political repression of the kind we are seeing in Egypt creates incentives for Islamists to use violence in order to attain their goals.

Iraq, where ISIS is making continual progress fighting the government of Nouri al-Maliki, is an extreme example of where things can end when political elites exclude a significant part of the population from democratic politics. Al-Maliki’s premiership has been marked by a strengthening of his own hold to power, progressively alienating the country’s Sunni population.

My paper argues that the electoral successes of Islamists in Arab Spring countries have relatively little to do with religion but rather with the organizational characteristics of Islamic political groups, which were typically active in the provision of local public goods and social services. Instead of seeing the rise of Islamic political organizations as a pathology that needs to be countered – possibly through repressive means – we should note that,

[I]n transitional environments, the electoral success of Islamists is a natural result of the political environment, which can be mitigated only by an increase in the credibility of alternative political groups. The electoral advantage enjoyed by Islamic parties can be expected to dissipate over time as competing political groups establish channels of communication, promise verification for their voters, and build reputation over time.

Furthermore,

There is no denying that religion and politics do not always mix well. However, the appropriate answer to the ugly side of religious politics is not political repression of the kind we are seeing in Egypt but rather open, competitive democratic politics.

Chinese Investment in Virginia

From the Washington Post:

Gov. Terry McAuliffe scored an economic coup and expanded Virginia’s already substantial business ties with China on Wednesday as he unveiled plans for a major manufacturing facility in the Richmond suburbs.

The announcement caps a string of recent economic development deals involving China and Virginia, highlighting the country’s growing importance in the commonwealth’s economy as both a trading partner and an investor.

Under a deal that state officials called the largest ever between a Chinese investor and Virginia, Shandong Tranlin Paper Co. will create 2,000 jobs with a $2 billion plant that makes paper from corn stalks and other agricultural field waste.

My reaction to almost every announcement of new foreign investment goes like this: First, I’m excited to hear about the new investment, and pleased when people do not respond with a fit of economic nationalism. But then, inevitably, I read on and get frustrated:

McAuliffe (D) approved a $5 million grant from the Governor’s Opportunity Fund to help lure the company, reflecting the former entrepreneur’s push to expand and diversify the state’s defense-heavy economy.

Sigh. It’s great that foreign investors are building new factories. We should welcome that. But there is no reason to subsidize it. Let investors of all national origins go where they want, but offering them subsidies is just a big waste. It doesn’t create more investment, it just shifts it around based on non-market factors.

A Grim Update on European Tax Policy

I wrote the other day that Americans, regardless of all the bad policy we get from Washington, should be thankful we’re not stuck in an economic graveyard like Venezuela.

But we also should be happy we’re not Europeans. This is a point I’ve made before, usually accompanied by data showing that Americans have significantly higher living standards than their cousins on the other side of the Atlantic.

It’s now time to re-emphasize that message. The European Commission has issued its annual report on “Taxation Trends” and it is–at least for wonks and others who care about fiscal policy–a fascinating and compelling document.

If you believe in limited government, you’ll read the report in the same way you might look at a deadly traffic accident, filled with morbid curiosity and fear that you may eventually suffer the same fate.

But if you’re a statist, you’ll read the report like a 14-year old boy with his first copy of a girlie magazine, filled with fantasies about eventually getting to experience what your eyes are seeing.

Let’s start by giving the bureaucrats some credit for self-awareness. They openly admit that the tax burden is very onerous in the European Union.

The EU remains a high tax area. In 2012, the overall tax ratio, i.e. the sum of taxes and compulsory actual social contributions in the 28 Member States (EU-28) amounted to 39.4 % in the GDP-weighted average, nearly 15 percentage points of GDP over the level recorded for the USA and around 10 percentage points above the level recorded by Japan. The tax level in the EU is high not only compared to those two countries but also compared to other advanced economies; among the major non-European OECD members for which recent detailed tax data is available, Russia (35.6 % of GDP in 2011) and New Zealand (31.8 % of GDP in 2011) have tax ratios exceeding 30 % of GDP, while tax-to-GDP ratios for Canada, Australia and South Korea (2011 data) remained well below 30 %.

The Miracle of Modern-Day Prosperity…and the Ideas and Policies that Made it Happen

Why are some nations rich and other nations poor? What has enabled some nations to escape poverty while others continue to languish?

And if we want to help poor nations prosper, what’s the right recipe?

Since I’m a public finance economist, I’m tempted to say a flat tax and small government are an elixir for prosperity, but those policies are just one piece of a bigger puzzle.

A country also needs sensible monetary policy, open trade, modest regulation, and rule of law. In other words, you need small government AND free markets.

But even that doesn’t really tell us what causes growth.

In the past, I’ve highlighted the importance of capital formation and shared a remarkable chart showing how workers earn more when the capital stock is larger (which is why we should avoid punitive double taxation of income that is saved and invested).

But that also doesn’t really answer the question. After all, if a larger capital stock was all that mattered, doesn’t that imply that we could get prosperity if government simply mandated more saving and investing?

There’s something else that’s necessary. Something perhaps intangible, but critically important.