The good news about China is that economic liberalization has produced impressive growth in recent decades, which has helped bring hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.
The bad news is that China started from such a low position that per-capita income is still quite low compared to rich nations.
So, what does the economic future hold? Will China continue its upward trajectory?
That’s certainly possible, but it depends on the Chinese government. Will there be additional liberalization, giving the economy more “breathing room” to grow?
Not if the government listens to the bureaucrats at the International Monetary Fund. I wrote three years ago about an IMF study that recommended huge tax increases in China.
And now there’s another IMF report pushing for big tax hikes. Only instead of arguing that higher taxes somehow will produce more growth by financing a bigger burden of government (which – no joke – was the core argument in the 2105 study), this new report claims higher taxes will produce more growth by reducing inequality.
Here’s the basic premise of the paper.
…economic growth has not benefited all segments of the population equally or at the same pace, causing income disparities to grow, resulting in a large increase in income inequality… This is especially of concern as the recent literature has found that elevated levels of inequality are harmful for the pace and sustainability of growth… The paper discusses what additional policies can be deployed to improve equity in opportunities and outcomes, with particular focus on the role for fiscal policy.
But a key part of the premise – the blanket assertion that inequality undermines growth – is junk.
As I noted in 2015 when debunking a different IMF study, “..they never differentiate between bad Greek-style inequality that is caused by cronyism and good Hong Kong-style inequality that is caused by some people getting richer faster than other people getting richer in a free market.”
Let’s dig into the details of this new IMF study.
Here’s the problem, at least according to the bureaucrats.
Income inequality in China today, as measured by the Gini coefficient, is among the highest in the world. …Furthermore, the Gini coefficient has rapidly increased over the last two decades, by a total of about 15 Gini points since 1990.
And here’s the chart that supposedly should cause angst. It shows that inequality began to rise as China shifted toward capitalism.
But why is this inequality a bad thing, assuming rich people earned their money honestly?
When markets are allowed to function, people become rich by providing value to the rest of us. In other words, it’s not a zero-sum game.
Ironically, the IMF study actually makes my point.
…much of China’s population has experienced rising real incomes. …even for the bottom 10 percent incomes rose by as much as 63 percent between 1980 and 2015… This has implied that China reduced the share of people living in poverty immensely. Measured by the headcount ratio, the population in poverty decreased by 86 percentage points from 1980 to 2013 (see figure 6), the most rapid reduction in history.
And here’s the aforementioned Figure 6, which is the data worth celebrating.
Any normal person will look at this chart and conclude that China should do more liberalization.
But not the bureaucrats at the IMF. With their zero-sum mentality, they fixate on the inequality chart.
Which leads them to make horrifyingly bad recommendations.
…several reforms could be envisaged to make fiscal policy more inclusive, both on the tax and expenditure side. …revenues from PIT contribute only around 5 percent of total revenues, a much lower share than the OECD average of 25 percent. Increasing the reliance on PIT, which more easily accommodates a progressive structure, could allow China to improve redistribution through the tax system. …While the PIT in China already embeds a progressive schedule with marginal rates increasing with income from 3 to 45 percent, …redesigning the tax brackets would ensure that middle and high income households with higher ability to pay contribute more to financing the national budget… Property and wealth taxes remain limited in China. Such taxes are broadly viewed as progressive, because high-income households usually tend also to have more property and wealth. …Consideration should therefore be given to adopt a recurrent market-value based property tax.
And why do IMF bureaucrats want all these additional growth-stifling taxes?
To finance a larger burden of government spending.
China still lags other emerging economies and OECD countries in public spending on education, health and social assistance. …social expenditure will need to be boosted.
In other words, the IMF is suggesting that China should copy welfare states such as Italy and France.
Except those nations at least enjoyed a lengthy period before World War II when government was very small. That’s when they became relatively rich.
The IMF wants China to adopt big government today, which is a recipe to short-circuit prosperity.
P.S. I don’t think the IMF is motivated by animus towards China. The bureaucrats are equal-opportunity dispensers of bad advice.
P.P.S. The OECD also is trying to undermine growth in China.