Wednesday, October 18, 2006

De Long on NAFTA and Mexico

De Long is not alone in wondering about the so-called Mexican puzzle (neoliberal reforms without large enough growth). Also, Tyler Cowen offers some possibilities here. Both are missing the big omitted variable here: Rule of law. Two more: we are a rather young democracy and interest groups are stronger than we think.

Has Neo-Liberalism Failed Mexico? / J. Bradford DeLong

Six years ago, I was ready to conclude that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was a major success. The key argument in favor of NAFTA had been that it was the most promising road the United States could take to raise the chances for Mexico to become democratic and prosperous, and that the US had both a strong selfish interest and a strong neighborly duty to try to help Mexico develop.

Since NAFTA, Mexican real GDP has grown at 3.6% per year, and exports have boomed, going from 10% of GDP in 1990 and 17% of GDP in 1999 to 28% of GDP today. Next year, Mexico’s real exports will be five times what they were in 1990.

It is here – in the rapid development of export industries and the dramatic rise in export volumes – that NAFTA made the difference. NAFTA guarantees Mexican producers tariff and quota-free access to the US market, the largest consumer market in the world.

Without this guarantee, fewer would have invested in the capacity to satisfy the US market. Increasing trade between the US and Mexico moves both countries toward a greater degree of specialization and a finer division of labor in important industries like autos, where labor-intensive portions are increasingly accomplished in Mexico, and textiles, where high-tech spinning and weaving is increasingly done in the US, while Mexico carries out lower-tech cutting and sewing.

Such efficiency gains from increasing the extent of the market and promoting specialization should have produced rapid growth in Mexican productivity. Likewise, greater efficiency should have been reinforced by a boom in capital formation, which should have accompanied the guarantee that no future wave of protectionism in the US would shut factories in Mexico.

The key word here is “should.” Today’s 100 million Mexicans have real incomes – at purchasing power parity – of roughly $10,000 per year, a quarter of the current US level. They are investing perhaps a fifth of GDP in gross fixed capital formation – a healthy amount – and have greatly expanded their integration into the world (i.e., the North American) economy since NAFTA.

But the 3.6% rate of growth of GDP, coupled with a 2.5% per year rate of population and increase, means that Mexicans’ mean income is barely 15% above that of the pre-NAFTA days, and that the gap between their mean income and that of the US has widened. Because of rising inequality, the overwhelming majority of Mexicans live no better off than they did 15 years ago. (Indeed, the only part of Mexican development that has been a great success has been the rise in incomes and living standards that comes from increased migration to the US, and increased remittances sent back to Mexico.)

Intellectually, this is a great puzzle: we believe in market forces, and in the benefits of trade, specialization, and the international division of labor. We see the enormous increase in Mexican exports to the US over the past decade. We see great strengths in the Mexican economy – a stable macroeconomic environment, fiscal prudence, low inflation, little country risk, a flexible labor force, a strengthened and solvent banking system, successfully reformed poverty-reduction programs, high earnings from oil, and so on.

Yet successful neo-liberal policies have not delivered the rapid increases in productivity and working-class wages that neo-liberals like me would have confidently predicted had we been told back in 1995 that Mexican exports would multiply five-fold in the next twelve years.

To be sure, economic deficiencies still abound in Mexico. According to the OECD, these include a very low average number of years of schooling, with young workers having almost no more formal education than their older counterparts; little on-the-job training; heavy bureaucratic burdens on firms; corrupt judges and police; high crime rates; and a large, low-productivity informal sector that narrows the tax base and raises tax rates on the rest of the economy. But these deficiencies should not be enough to neutralize Mexico’s powerful geographic advantages and the potent benefits of neo-liberal policies, should they?

Apparently they are. The demographic burden of a rapidly growing labor force appears to be greatly increased when that labor force is not very literate, especially when inadequate infrastructure, crime, and official corruption also take their toll.

We neo-liberals point out that NAFTA did not cause poor infrastructure, high crime, and official corruption. We thus implicitly suggest that Mexicans would be far wose off today without NAFTA and its effects weighing in on the positive side of the scale.

That neo-liberal story may be true. But it is an excuse. It may not be true. Having witnessed Mexico’s slow growth over the past 15 years, we can no longer repeat the old mantra that the neo-liberal road of NAFTA and associated reforms is clearly and obviously the right one.

Evidence on Flat Taxes

This is from London's New Economist blog:

IMF: Flat taxes have no Laffer curve effect

Flat taxes are associated with a reduction in personal income tax, and "in no case does there ..appear to have been a Laffer effect". That is the most striking conclusion from a new study by IMF economists Michael Keen, Kevin Kim and Ricardo Varsano in The "Flat Tax(es)": Principles and Evidence (Working Paper No 06/218). The authors summarise the paper thus:

Discussion of these quite radical reforms has been marked, however, more by assertion and rhetoric than by analysis and evidence. This paper reviews experience with the flat tax, seeking to redress the balance. It stresses that the flat taxes that have been adopted differ fundamentally, and that empirical evidence on their effects is very limited.

This precludes simple generalization, but several lessons emerge: there is no sign of Laffer-type behavioral responses generating revenue increases from the tax cut elements of these reforms; their impact on compliance is theoretically ambiguous, but there is evidence for Russia that compliance did improve; the distributional effects of the flat taxes are not unambiguously regressive, and in some cases they may have increased progressivity, including through the impact on compliance; adoption of the flat tax has not resolved common challenges in taxing capital income; and it may have strengthened, not weakened, the automatic stabilizers. Looking forward, the question is not so much whether more countries will adopt a flat tax as whether those that have will move away from it.

The impact of a flat tax on work incentives "is not clear cut in principle, and there is no evidence that it has been strong in practice." Likewise, the distributional effects of movement towards a flat tax "are potentially complex", especially for reforms that involve an increase in the basic tax-free amount.

Keen, Kim and Varsano argue that although "the question has received little attention in the debate, ..movement to a flat tax may plausibly strengthen the automatic stabilizers, not weaken them." They also find the introduction of a flat tax has been a useful signal of reform:

The flat tax has commonly—almost universally—been adopted by new governments anxious to signal a fundamental regime shift, towards more market-oriented policies. In several cases, the signal appears to have been well-received. Where no such reputation needs to be acquired, the appeal of the flat tax is consequently less.

The authors conclude by questioning the political sustainability of the move towards flat taxes:

What remains unclear is the sustainability of the flat tax. Structurally, the flat taxes that have been adopted do not provide a coherent framework for dealing with the difficulties that almost all countries now perceive in taxing internationally mobile capital income.

...Political economy considerations point towards the adoption of rate schedules that tend to benefit middle income earners: exactly the group that tends to lose most from the adoption of a second wave flat tax. Moreover, the very spread of the flat tax in itself undermines its value as a signal: it may prove too easy to mimic. While there will no doubt be new members of the flat tax community, in some respects the more interesting question is whether there will be any defections.

Most flat tax structures benefit lower and/or upper income earners at the expense of those on middle incomes - a point I have made before. Such tax structures are hard to 'sell' to predominanatly middle class swinging voters in marginal electorates. In the end it is likely to be the median voter that stops the flat tax movement advancing.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Welfare states and economic performance

Two recent papers.  One stresses the very commonly misunderstood relationship between welfare states and economic performance.  The other reviews the changing trends in economics research.

Explaining Welfare State Survival: The Role of Economic Freedom and Globalization      

Ratio; Lund University - Department of Economics

Using the economic freedom index and the newly developed KOF-index of globalization, it is shown that the Scandinavian welfare states have experienced faster, bigger and more consistent increases in these areas, compared to the smaller Central-European and the Anglo-Saxon welfare states. The market economy and globalization hence do not pose threats to these welfare states, but are instead neglected factors in explaining their survival and good economic performance. Big government decreases the economic freedom index by definition, but the welfare states compensate in other areas, such as legal structure and secure property rights.

What Has Mattered to Economics Since 1970

E. Han Kim, Adair Morse, Luigi Zingales

---- Abstract -----
We compile the list of articles published in major refereed economics journals during the last 35 years that have received more than 500 citations. We document major shifts in the mode of contribution and in the importance of different sub-fields: Theory loses out to empirical work, and micro and macro give way to growth and development in the 1990s. While we do not witness any decline in the primacy of production in the United States over the period, the concentration of institutions within the U.S. hosting and training authors of the highly-cited articles has declined substantially.