Tag Archives: Joshua Hall

Economic Freedom, Growth, and What Might Have Been

Economists are obsessed with growth. And for good reason. Greater wealth doesn’t just buy us nicer vacations and fancier gadgets. It also buys longer life spans, better nutrition, and lower infant mortality. It buys more time with family, and less time at work. It buys greater self-reported happiness. And as Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman has argued, wealth even seems to make us better people:

Economic growth—meaning a rising standard of living for the clear majority of citizens—more often than not fosters greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness, and dedication to democracy.

For much of my lifetime, brisk economic growth was the norm in the United States. From 1983 to 2000, annual growth in real (that is, inflation-adjusted) GDP averaged 3.67 percent. During this period, the U.S. experienced only one (short and mild) recession in the early ‘90s. The era was known among macroeconomists as the “great moderation.”

But starting around the turn of the millennium, things changed. Instead of averaging 3.67 percent growth, the U.S. economy grew at less than half that rate, 1.78 percent on average. To see the effect of this deceleration, consider the chart below (data are from the BEA). The blue line shows actual GDP growth (as measured in billions of chained 2009 dollars).

The red line shows what might have happened if we’d continued to grow at the 3.67 percent rate which prevailed for the two previous decades. At this rate, the economy would have been 30 percent larger in 2015 than it actually was.

This assumes that the Great Recession never happened. So to see what would have happened to GDP if the Great Recession had still occurred but if growth had resumed (as it has in every other post-WWII recession), I calculated a second hypothetical growth path. The green line shows the hypothetical path of GDP had the economy still gone through the Great Recession but then resumed its normal 3.67 percent rate of growth from 2010 onward. Under this scenario, the economy would have been fully 8 percent larger in 2015 than it actually was.

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So what happened to growth? One answer is economic freedom—or a lack thereof. Just yesterday, the Fraser Institute released its annual Economic Freedom of the World report. Authored by Professors James Gwartney of Florida State University, Robert Lawson of Southern Methodist University, and Joshua Hall of West Virginia University, the report assesses the degree to which people are free to exchange goods and services with one another without interference. As Adam Smith might have put it, it measures the degree to which we live under “a system of natural liberty.”

As the chart below shows, economic freedom was on the steady rise before 2000. This coincided with modest deregulation of a few industries under Carter and Reagan, tax cuts under Reagan and Clinton, free trade deals, and restrained growth in the size of government. But from 2000 onward, U.S. economic freedom has been in precipitous decline. This coincides with major new financial regulations under both Bush II and Obama, significant growth in government spending, and a steady erosion in measures of the rule of law.

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As I’ve noted before, the research on economic freedom is quite extensive (nearly 200 peer-reviewed academic studies use economic freedom as an explanatory variable). Moreover, meta-studies of that literature find “there is a solid finding of a direct positive association between economic freedom and economic growth.”

Perhaps the two charts have something to do with one another?

 

 

New Research on Freedom and Entrepreneurship

Here are a few findings from my recent paper with Joshua Hall and John Pulito titled “Freedom and Entrepreneurship: New Evidence from the 50 States”

  • Humans are entrepreneurial by nature. We desire to improve our material well-being, which drives us to innovate, often through new business creation. Despite the ever-present tendency toward entrepreneurship, public policy can have a significant impact on the incentives for entrepreneurial activity. Economists often call these incentives the “rules of the game.”
  • When making the decision to take on a new business, entrepreneurs must weigh the risks against the potential payout. Policy makers have the power to raise the cost of starting a new business by raising taxes or increasing regulatory costs, and they have the power to lower the cost by pursuing stable and consistent public policy initiatives consistent with economic freedom, such as low, broad-based taxes and prudent regulation.
  • Previous research has demonstrated that “rules of the game” favoring lower taxes and limited regulation—as measured by economic freedom indices—encourage entrepreneurship. Studies have found similar results both in comparisons across the states and in comparisons across countries. “Freedom and Entrepreneurship: New Evidence from the 50 States” uses an index of freedom, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University’s Freedom in the 50 States by Will Ruger and Jason Sorens. The study confirms earlier results: economic freedom permits higher levels of entrepreneurship, as measured by the creation of new businesses.
  • Freedom in the 50 States includes measures of both economic and personal freedom. Personal freedom had not previously been studied as a factor in the entrepreneurship level, and this study found that it did not in fact have a significant impact on business creation. Only economic freedom appears to have a positive impact on entrepreneurship, although personal freedom is of course important for other reasons.
  • This additional evidence that economic freedom is correlated with entrepreneurship should encourage policy makers to pursue changes that increase their states’ economic freedom. The evidence suggests that by increasing economic freedom, policy makers have significant power to improve their states’ climate for new business creation. For example, if policy makers in Ohio— which currently ranks 32nd in the Freedom in the 50 States’ Economic Freedom index—increased the state’s ranking to the level of Nevada, which ranks 23rd, Ohio residents could expect to see a 33 percent increase in new business creation. Lower tax rates, lower regulatory burdens, and lower barriers to trade can all encourage citizens to pursue their drive toward entrepreneurship.

Click here to read the paper in its entirety.

New Research on Immigration Policy

Immigration reform is something that has already surfaced in the recent GOP debates and will certainly receive more attention in the coming months as we make our way further into another presidential election year. The Cato Institute recently released a special edition of the Cato Journal titled “Is Immigration Good for America” in order to influence this debate and help individuals better understand the possibilities for reform.

Each of the 13 articles in this edition of the journal provides a unique insight into a wide variety of issues concerning current immigration policy. Here are a few summaries of some of the arguments I found particularly interesting.

In his article titled “Why Should We Restrict Immigration?” Bryan Caplan explores many of the prominent objectives to the liberalization of immigration policy through a moral lens. He concludes his argument with the following:

there are cheaper and more humane solutions for each and every complaint [against liberalization]. If immigrants hurt American workers, we can charge immigrants higher taxes or admission fees, and use the revenue to compensate the losers. If immigrants burden American taxpayers, we can make immigrants ineligible for benefits. If immigrants hurt American culture, we can impose tests of English fluency and cultural literacy. If immigrants hurt American liberty, we can refuse to give them the right to vote. Whatever your complaint happens to be, immigration restrictions are a needlessly draconian remedy.

In his article titled “Immigration and the Welfare State” Daniel T. Griswold, the editor of this edition of the journal, provides an interesting argument concerning the assertion that immigrants impose extreme long term fiscal burdens on U.S. taxpayers. He concludes with the following:

For those concerned about the fiscal impact of immigration, the goal should be to wall off the welfare state, not our country. As far as constitutionally possible, Congress and the states should deny welfare payments to non-citizen immigrants. This would be good for the immigrants because they could more easily avoid the disincentives to work and family formation caused by welfare payments. It would be good for U.S. taxpayers because it would reduce demand for welfare spending. And it would be good for the U.S. economy because it would remove one of the more potent political arguments against expanded legal immigration.

In our article titled “U.S. Immigration Policy in the 21st Century: A Market-Based Approach,” Joshua Hall, Richard Vedder, and I argue that visas should not be allocated based on arbitrary political criteria but instead through the price system. Our proposal has several components but consists largely of creating an NASDAQ-style international market for visas. From our paper:

The United States is the light of the world, a beacon of freedom and opportunity. Immigration is both a cause and a consequence of this reality. It is obvious that high volumes of immigration can lead to cultural clashes and can challenge our infrastructure. Thus realistically the body politic will insist that limits be placed on it. Let’s allocate access to our great country on the basis of supply and demand, reflecting the intensity of preferences of immigrants themselves and potential employers, rather than on a political process that is simply not as good as the market in allocating resources.

I think these articles, along with the other articles in this edition of the Cato Journal, are definitely worth a read and hopefully we will see these ideas influence the coming debates.

Are Indices of “Business Climate” Useful?

In a recent paper titled “How Friendly To Entrepreneurs Are “Business Friendly” Policies? Some Preliminary Results,” Joshua Hall and I closely examine six national indices that are often used as indicators of how “business friendly” a state is relative to its neighbors. We find that many of these indices are not useful in explaining the variation in entrepreneurial activity among the 50 US states.

In fact, of the three indices that were statistically significant in our regression analysis, only one index had the empirical relationship that we had predicted. This means that not only were many of the indices not useful but some of them suggest that states that are more business friendly have lower levels of entrepreneurial activity.

The overall results of our research are, therefore, a bit puzzling. Why would a “good” business climate be associated with less entrepreneurial activity?  One possible explanation is that because of the way the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity is measured it picks up a lot of necessity entrepreneurship (i.e. people who self employ because of a lack of other opportunities). It may also be the case that some measures of how conducive a state’s policies are to businesses many not actually be good measures of whether they are conducive to entrepreneurship.

Our paper is not, however, meant to show that the indices we examined are necessarily bad indices. In fact, after researching each of them it is clear that they do contain very useful economic data. Moreover, it is clear that many of these business climate indices are popular tools in the policy arena and thus it would be useful for future research to further examine the relationship between these indices and entrepreneurship.

 

 

Economic Freedom In Decline

Today, the Fraser Institute released the 2011 version of the Economic Freedom of the World report. Authored by James Gwartney of Florida State University, Robert Lawson of Southern Methodist University, and Joshua Hall of Beloit College, the index is an annual measure of economic freedom. Drawing on 42 data points gathered from each of 141 countries, it assigns each nation an economic freedom score. The score reflects the degree to which citizens in the nation enjoy economic freedom as characterized by “personal choice, voluntary exchange coordinated by markets, freedom to enter and compete in markets, and protection of persons and their property from aggression by others.”

Chapter 3 of the new report features an essay by Jean-Pierre Chauffour, lead economist of the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa Region. In Figure 3.1, reproduced below, Chauffour shows the relationship between economic freedom and the log of per capita income (adjusting for purchasing power parity).

But economic freedom seems to be about more than just per capita income. Readers of Neighborhood Effects know that scores of peer-reviewed studies have examined the relationship between economic freedom and all sorts of measures of well being. The overwhelming evidence is that economic freedom is positively related to things humans like (per capita income of the poor, life expectancy, access to clean water, etc.) and negative related to things humans don’t like (poverty, child labor, etc.). Some of the most sophisticated studies have even tried to disentangle cause and effect.

So where do we stand? The data are lagged, so this year’s report now calculates economic freedom through 2009. There are some bright spots. For example:

The chain-linked summary ratings of Uganda, Zambia, Nicaragua, Albania, and Peru have improved by three or more points since 1990.

There is also some bad news:

 ….In contrast, the summary ratings of Venezuela, Zimbabwe, United States, and Malaysia fell by eight tenths of a point or more between 1990 and 2009, causing their rankings to slip.

In fact, those countries that slipped the most since 2000 were: Argentina, Iceland, Ireland, the United States, and Venezuela.

To see just how far the U.S. has fallen, consider the graph below. The first phase shows the U.S. (chain-linked) economic freedom score from 1970 through 2000. It is slow and steady progress the whole way. The second phase shows the U.S. score from 2000 onward. It is a dramatic and precipitous drop. Notice, by the way, that the ascendant periods lasts through three presidents of two different parties. The descent also seems to have persisted irrespective of the party in office. It seems that the policies that impact economic freedom are not strongly related to partisanship.

Mercatus has its own state-level measure of economic freedom, developed by Jason Sorens of the University of Buffalo (SUNY) and William Ruger of Texas State University.

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Addendum: Here is Arnold Kling on the report. Here is David Henderson. Here is Mark Steyn. Here is Robert Lawson.

In Less Than One Month the USPS will Face Financial Insolvency

According to a report that the GAO released yesterday, “By the end of this fiscal year—in less than one month—the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) projects that it will incur a $9 billion loss; reach its $15 billion borrowing limit; not make its $5.5 billion retiree health benefits payment; and thus, become insolvent.”

The GAO report examines a series of structural policy recommendations, focusing largely on making changes to pension benefits for new employees, employee health benefits, collective bargaining agreements, and retail services.

However, other ideas for reform that have become more popular in the media, such as getting rid of Saturday delivery, are often marginal in nature and fail to address the underlying structural issues that the USPS faces. It is unlikely that a few minor tweaks to the largest federal civilian employer will significantly improve its current financial crisis.

One key factor contributing to the inefficient performance of the USPS is simply that it is an outdated organization. As Maurice McTigue argues, the USPS is “trying to run a 1920s business in a 21st Century economy….The current system is poorly configured with archaic facilities in the wrong places.”

Joshua Hall and I further argue that the main concern with the USPS is that it is a quasi-monopoly. The Federal government has implemented barriers to postal delivery that directly prevent people from reaping the benefits of competition. Removing these barriers and letting markets work would allow competitive forces to eliminate inefficiencies and determine better ways of operating.

Therefore, with the USPS nearing financial insolvency, it seems that there are three possible paths for its future: 1) making minor tweaks that will result in little (if any) improvement, 2) making structural reforms to the current system, or 3) letting the market process work via privatization of postal delivery.

What is Economic Freedom and What Can it Say About Prosperity?

My post in the NYT’s Room for Debate blog elicited a good number of comments and questions. So today I thought I might elaborate on the most-important of these questions: What exactly is economic freedom and what do we know about the way it affects prosperity?

First, its impact. The economists Chris Doucouliagos and Mehmet Ali Ulubqasoglu recently reviewed 45 studies examining the freedom-growth relationship. They concluded:

[R]egardless of the sample of countries, the measure of economic freedom and the level of aggregation, there is a solid finding of a direct positive association between economic freedom and economic growth.

Studies also find that economic freedom tends to be associated with a whole host of other factors that humans tend to value such as:

  • Higher income levels: Faria and Montesinos (2009) Dawson (1998), De Haan and Siermann (1998), De Haan and Sturm (2000), Cole (2003), Gwartney et al. (2004) and Weede (2006);
  • Lower poverty levels: Norton (2003);
  • Less volatility in the business cycle: Dawson (2010);
  • Better environmental outcomes: Norton (1998), ch. 2);

even:

  • Fewer homicides: Stringham and Levendis (2010); and 
  • Greater levels of reported happiness: Ovaska and Takashima (2006)

But what is economic freedom?

The concept is quite old, dating back to well-before Adam Smith. For his part, he called it “a system of natural liberty” and gave us a view of what he meant by it when he wrote:

Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice: all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.

This, however, is still pretty vague.

So in the last quarter-century, a number of economists have focused on defining and—importantly—measuring economic freedom. There are now a number indices of economic freedom at both the national and sub-national levels. Among academics, the most-widely cited of these is the Economic Freedom of the World index, the latest of which is authored by Professors James Gwartney, Joshua Hall, and Robert Lawson. This index grew out of a series of conferences initiated by (Nobel Laureate) Milton Friedman and the Fraser Institute’s Michael Walker in the mid-1980s to early 1990s. Other attendees included economic luminaries such as “Lord Peter Bauer, Gary Becker, Douglass North, Armen Alchian, Arnold Harberger, Alvin Rabushka, Walter Block, Gordon Tullock, and Sir Alan Walters” (a number of whom have either won Nobel prizes in own their right or are likely to in the years that come). Out of these conferences, a consensus began to emerge that the four cornerstones of economic freedom were:

  • Personal choice,
  • Voluntary exchange coordinated by markets,
  • Freedom to enter and compete in markets, and
  • Protection of persons and their property from aggression by others.

From these conceptual cornerstones, the authors of the index began to gather data with an eye toward objectively measuring the degree to which the laws of different nations permit (or don’t) the exercise of economic freedom. Their index includes factors such as government consumption spending as a share of total consumption, top marginal income tax rates, the degree of judicial independence, growth in the money supply, taxes on international trade, and regulation of private sector credit (among 17 other components). The index now covers more than 140 countries, with data on many going back to 1970. And now there are literally hundreds of peer-reviewed articles that are based on this index or one of many others like it.

Since the publication of this index, a number of others have gotten in on the game. There are now indices that measure freedom at the sub-national level, the most-recent of which is Sorens and Ruger’s Freedom in the 50 States, published by Mercatus (the next addition of which is coming out soon). 

As I have recently noted, these state level indices suggest that economic freedom is a powerful predictor of prosperity.

So that, in a nutshell, is economic freedom.