What do Simeon Marcelo of the Philippines, Santosh Hegde of India, KPK of Indonesia. ACC of Bhutan and ACRC of South Korea have in common? All of them are anti-corruption super heroes (click on the hyperlinks to read their stories) and beacons of hope for all people against corruption. Corrupt officials are terrified of them and they all have served independent ombudsman/anti-corruption agency functions in their country. Over the years I have admired the courageous, professional and dedicated work of these individuals and organizations and had first hand experience of visiting and working with some of them. Based on this I can confidently say that Ombudsman can and do fight corruption successfully when they have the enabling environment and leadership (later I comment on what the success factors are in my view).
Public Sector and Governance
The challenge of promoting shared prosperity was one of the unifying themes throughout last week’s Spring Meetings at the World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund – the whirlwind of diplomacy and scholarship that sweeps through Washington every April and October. A remarkable new factor, however, energized this spring's event: In a vivid evolution of the policy debate, the seminars, forums and news-media coverage seemed focused, to a greater degree than ever, not just on the economic question of the creation of overall economic growth but on what has traditionally been seen as a social question: the distribution of wealth.
And in the wake of the Spring Meetings, Washington this week got a bracing reminder of how difficult it may be to build truly shared prosperity – not because our economic institutions lack the ability to achieve it, but because our political institutions may fail to summon the willpower to demand it.
A scholar whose work has taken the economics profession by storm, Thomas Piketty, captivated policy-watchers this week with the Washington launch of his landmark new work, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” Hailed as “the most important economics book of the year, and maybe of the decade” by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman of the New York Times – and praised by Martin Wolf of the Financial Times as “an extraordinarily important” work “of vast historical scope, grounded in exhaustive fact-based research”– “Capital” offers vital new insights into how wealth and power are distributed in modern economies. “Piketty has transformed our economic discourse,” asserts Krugman. “We’ll never talk about wealth and inequality the same way we used to.”
Piketty’s account of “inexorably rising inequality,” according to New York Times columnist Eduardo Porter, challenges many of the economics profession’s “core beliefs about the organization of market economies” – including “the belief that inequality will eventually stabilize and subside on its own, a long-held tenet of free-market capitalism.” Instead, “the economic forces concentrating more and more wealth into the hands of the fortunate few are almost sure to prevail for a very long time.”
It is close to six months since the largest open government jamboree to date – the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Annual Summit in London last autumn. Since then the membership of the OGP continues to grow – up to 63 countries. And now a new set of regional meetings are scheduled for May through August. Open government junkies can boost their air miles accounts with a hectic world tour from Indonesia to Ireland to Costa Rica. Such gatherings should offer useful space for reflection. So what is happening on the ground?
A view from Central Europe and the Baltics
Saving for old age is important in countries where longevity is increasing. Countries in Central Europe and the Baltics emerged from the economic transition of the 1990s recognizing that they needed to encourage their workforce to retire later and save more in order to be comfortable in old age. To this end, they modified their pay as you go pension systems which collects taxes from workers to pay retirees (the "first pillar") to create an additional or "second pillar" of individual pension accounts funded by taxes. As these second pillar pension accounts were the private property of individual workers, they were expected to encourage saving. Over time as these savings grew, it would be possible to reduce the pensions paid by the government from the first pillar without reducing the standard of living for pensioners who would be able to rely on complementary pensions from their private saving in the second pillar. Typically, a share of payroll tax receipts was redirected to finance individual pension saving accounts. This resulted in revenue shortfalls in pay as you go you pension schemes, and most governments raised additional debt to meet their obligations which was in turn held by the companies who were managing the pension savings on behalf of employees. However, since the economies were growing rapidly, fiscal deficits were generally kept manageable, easing concerns about additional debt.
Empirical literature confirms the significant contribution that services trade can play in developing economies. High-quality and low-cost services can enhance competitiveness, connect countries to the global economy, and help diversify their exports.
The question is how to foster the development of the services trade in these countries. Research shows that the liberalization of services barriers can increase the performance of manufacturing and agricultural exports, for example, and help boost quality and cut costs, as well as increase service exports.
But liberalization alone is insufficient for successful reform. Services liberalization requires that a country design a careful liberalization process that takes into account its specific conditions. Many countries which have acceded to the WTO and have adopted significant liberalization commitments have not fully reaped the benefits of those reforms. One of the explanations is probably that their process was incomplete. In general, liberalization needs to be complemented by strong and solid regulatory frameworks. Without these conditions in place--- contestable markets, strong regulatory governance, and enforcement capacity--- liberalization will not provide the expected benefits.
Why is it so difficult to create the necessary conditions for successful services trade reforms?
Some Observations from Nepal
I've been in Nepal since January helping out with the implementation of a household survey. Throughout February and March, we asked people in two districts – Jhapa, in the south-east of the country on the Indian border, and Tibetan-bordering Sindhupalchok to the north – about their livelihoods, the various taxes they pay, and their relationships with state governance. As part of this research, we've also been carrying out a number of more in-depth qualitative interviews.
When asked about the kinds of taxes that most affect their livelihoods on a day-to-day basis, one of the things that struck me about people's responses was the frequency with which electricity bills were mentioned. At first, I couldn't quite understand why this was coming up so much: that's not a tax, I thought, it's simply a payment made in exchange for a service. In my mind, I began to discount these responses, passing them off as information that missed the points we were trying to get at.
My assumptions were misplaced.
As a wave of newly resource-rich countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, looks to the best means of managing resource wealth, one compelling recommendation has come to the fore: to distribute at least some portion of resource revenues to the public through direct dividend payments (DDPs). The case is laid out in papers published at the Center for Global Development by Todd Moss and the World Bank’s Shanta Devarajan and Marcelo Giugale. The DDP proposal has several foundations. Payment technology has increased the feasibility of large-scale transfers, as Alan Gelb and Caroline Decker explain. There are already cases of developing countries scaling up identity card systems associated with cash transfers quite quickly. As for rationale, given the poor track record of public expenditure efficiency, especially in resource-rich countries, it seems clear that general welfare could be targeted more effectively through DDPs, and without any of the distortionary effects or distributional flaws of price subsidies. Finally, from a political economy perspective, DDPs coupled with taxation could restore the accountability of a government to its citizens, which is otherwise weakened by its ability to draw on revenues directly from the source.
I was recently at a conference in Lahore, Pakistan sponsored by the International Growth Centre where the keynote address was given by Shahbaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of the province of Punjab, Pakistan (100+ million people). While fun to see old friends and colleagues, the conference was a little depressing in the way it reflected the state of the development economics profession.
The Chief Minister posed serious questions that have traditionally been the bread and butter of the economics profession. Unfortunately, we are not even trying to answer them any more. The specific question was “Should I put more money into transport? Infrastructure (power, roads, water)? Law and order? Social services? Or what? And where am I going to get the money?” What questions could be more solidly part of the core of economics than these? Unfortunately none of these were even remotely the focus of the “evidence-based” policy making discussed.
Tax revenue growth in Bangladesh this year has been one of the lowest in recent years. There is now demand for a cut in corporate income tax rate with the forthcoming FY15 budget. Is this a good idea from a fiscal point of view?
Whether or not a tax-cut will increase or lower tax revenues depend on the tax rates and the tax system in place. If tax rates are in the prohibitive range, a tax cut will result in increased tax revenues. Arthur Laffer distinguished between the arithmetic effect and the economic effect of tax cuts. The arithmetic effect means that a lowering of the tax rate will result in lower tax revenues by the amount of the decrease in the rate. The economic effect identifies a positive impact of lower tax rates on work, output and employment which expand the tax base. If tax rates that are currently in the prohibitive range are lowered, the economic effect of a tax cut will outweigh the arithmetic effect and revenue collection will increase with tax cut.
I was intrigued by Kerala's Akshaya program. Kerala is uniquely, a most decentralized state, the only one of 17 in India to enact the Right to Public Services and, to open citizen service centers called Akshaya, run under the oversight of panchayats, 3-tier local self-governments, in 14 districts set within a 2 km radius of households. Akshaya was designed in its first phase in 2003 by the Kerala IT Mission to improve e-literacy in underserved areas and, in its second phase to provide a platform for government to citizen services through a public-private partnership. Over 60% of Kerala's 33 million citizens have been served by 2070+ Akshaya centers run by private entrepreneurs who collectively earn 30 million INR a month, creating employment for over 20,000 individuals. (For more details, see Akshaya Overview and UNDP Report on Akshaya).