The Trouble with Zakaria’s Assessment of the Economy

Fareed Zakaria is a good journalist. But he’s also human. In his Washington Post column yesterday, Zakaria concludes that President Obama has a stronger case to make for his economic prescriptions than does Governor Romney. However, that conclusion—at least as presented in the column—is premised on a misreading of some recently published data.

Zakaria distills President Obama’s message down to the belief that investment in infrastructure, education, training, basic sciences, and technologies of the future are key to economic recovery, while Romney argues that relief from taxes and excessive regulatory burdens is the answer.

While both views have merit in Zakaria’s estimation, Obama has the stronger case. Why? Because Romney is barking about a relatively insignificant problem, concludes Zakaria:

We need a tax and regulatory structure that creates strong incentives for businesses to flourish. The thing is, we already have one.

To support that claim, Zakaria cites a figure from the 2011-12 edition of the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report that ranks the United States 5th (out of 142 countries) and concludes that “whether compared with our own past—of, say, 30 years ago—or with other countries, the United States has become more business-friendly.” The problem is that he’s citing the wrong number and, thus, reaching the wrong conclusion.

The United States is ranked 5th on the overall global competitiveness index, which is a weighted value reflecting scores assigned for 12 broad criteria presumed to affect “competitiveness,” including: (1) institutions, (2) infrastructure, (3) macroeconomic environment, (4) health and primary education, (5) higher education and training, (6) goods market efficiency, (7) labor market efficiency, (8) financial market development, (9) technological readiness, (10) market size, (11) business sophistication, and (12) innovation.  U.S. scores on regulations and taxes contribute to that final ranking, but 5th is not where the United States ranks on those criteria.

To add another layer of complexity, the scores assigned to each of these 12 criteria are derived by weight-averaging the scores from individual survey questions. For example, there are 21 questions related to the first criteria, “institutions”—questions about property rights, public trust of politicians, judicial independence, transparency of government policymaking, etc. There are nine questions that feed into the infrastructure score; six that feed into the macroeconomic environment score, 16 that comprise the goods market efficiency score, and so on.

Zakaria errs by citing the overall, weighted average U.S. rank of 5th to support his assertion that we already have a tax and regulatory structure that creates strong incentives for business to flourish. That relatively high ranking reflects a few obvious U.S. advantages—tax and regulatory structure not being among them. The United States ranks fairly high with respect to some criteria, including “market size,” “university-industry collaboration in R&D” (which feeds into the innovation criterion), “strength of investor protection” (institutions), “availability of airline seats” (infrastructure), “inflation” (macroeconomic environment), “extent of marketing” (business sophistication), and a few others.

But on taxes and regulations, the U.S. ranks poorly. On the “Burden of Government Regulation,” the United States ranked 58th with a score of 3.4 on a scale from 0-to-7, slightly above the global average of 3.3. On the “Extent and Effect of Taxation,” the United States ranked 63rd out of 142 countries. On “Total Tax Rate, % Profits,” the United States came in 96th out of 142. On the issues that President Obama is pushing, the United States performs better than on those Romney advocates, which seriously weakens Zakaria’s argument.

The United States ranks 24th on quality of total infrastructure, better than on taxes and regulations. Likewise for “technological readiness” and “innovation.” “Higher education” (but not “job training”) generates bad scores for the United States, but clearly not for lack of spending. You can dig into the data here, and you’ll find that they tell a very different story than the one you may have read in yesterday’s Post.

Of course, Zakaria might still believe Obama has the stronger argument. But we should all be clear about the fact that regulations and taxes are real and growing problems, and that dismissing them as insignificant, even if inadvertent, doesn’t help policymakers find the solutions. Combine those impediments to investment and hiring with the growing perception that crony capitalism is on the rise (U.S. rank: 50th out of 142), that customs procedures present obstacles to global supply chains (rank: 58th of 142), that U.S. public debt weighs heavily on the economy (rank: 132th of 142), and that government spending is on a ruinous path (rank: 139th of 142 countries), and it becomes more apparent why an increasingly mobile business community often seeks the refuge and relatively warm embrace of foreign shores.