We know that fiscal policy can be harnessed to reduce inequality in low- and middle-income countries, but until now, we knew less about its ability to reduce poverty. Our recent volume looks at the revenue and spending of governments across eight low and middle income countries (Armenia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Indonesia, Jordan, Russia, South Africa and Sri Lanka), and it reveals that fiscal systems, while nearly always reducing inequality, can often worsen poverty.
Some countries are blessed with natural resources, others are cursed. It’s been said that all the blessed ones are alike, they put the resources to good use, improving the people’s welfare in a sustainable manner. And for the cursed? More often than not, they struggle with political violence, especially when ethnic or religious fragmentation and weak institutions are a concern. Not surprisingly, it was Venezuela’s former Development Minister and OPEC Founder Perez Alfonso who christened oil the “Devil’s excrement.”
If natural resources could be the source of such evil, are there ways of “exorcising” them? Perhaps policymakers could try to prevent or resolve resource-related conflicts by sharing natural resource wealth with opposition groups or directly with the people. Would such a counter spell work?
“What you don’t touch, for you lies miles away. (…) What you don’t coin, you’re sure is counterfeit.” These sophisms are voiced by Mephistopheles, under the guise of the Court Fool, in Goethe’s Faust. He aims to convince the Emperor to mint more coins, for money buys everything: parks and palaces; breasts and rosy cheeks. The Commander-in-Chief accompanies the scene and speaks his mind: “The Court Fool is wise, for he promises benefits to all.”
Economic theory, in contrast to the Commander-in-Chief, the Court Fool and other populists, states that all government handouts come at a cost – regardless of whether they are distributed in the form of subsidies or direct transfers. Financing them is only possible by raising taxes and getting into debt (or creating more money… and inflation).