"When something such as the Panama Papers [disclosures on global tax avoidance] happens, we seem to be surprised. We should not be."
-- Vito Tanzi, former leader of international tax policy at the International Monetary Fund; author of "Taxation in an Integrating World" (1995)
"Taxes are the price we pay for civilization," said the famed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. So what does it say about society when it tolerates a skewed tax system that applauds tax avoidance, accommodates tax evasion, mocks honest taxpayers and drags its feet on tax cooperation?
Those are some of the philosophical (and pointedly political) questions that are being debated today and tomorrow at the World Bank, at a conference that has gathered some of the world's foremost authorities on international tax policy along with international advocates of fair and effective taxation.
If you can't make it in-person to the Bank's Preston Auditorium this week, many of the conference sessions are being livestreamed at live.worldbank.org/winning-the-tax-wars
The livestreamed sessions include a pivotal speech by a determined tax-policy watchdog, former Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan) -- the former chairman of the U.S. Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations -- whose address on "Reducing Secrecy and Improving Tax Transparency" will be one of the highlights of the forum.
Coming just a week after a global conference in London on tax havens, tax shelters and abusive tax-dodging -- a conference that highlighted some wealthy nations' lackadaisical approach to enforcing tax fairness -- this week's Bank conference, "Winning the Tax Wars: Protecting Developing Countries from Global Tax Base Erosion" will propel the fair-taxation momentum generated by the recent Panama Papers disclosures. That leaked data exposed the rampant financial engineering (by high-net-worth individuals and multinational corporations) to avoid or evade taxes.
Public Sector and Governance
"When something such as the Panama Papers [disclosures on global tax avoidance] happens, we seem to be surprised. We should not be."
Women in a grain market in Kota, Rajasthan.
Strengthening competition policy is an under-acknowledged but potentially cost-effective way to boost the incomes of the poor. Greater competition between firms has the potential to boost growth through its impact on productivity, and it is increasingly acknowledged as a driver of welfare in the long term.
Despite that fact, competition reforms are notoriously difficult to implement. One of the reasons is opposition from interested groups that stand to lose out from these reforms in the short term – and a frequent lack of evidence or voice on the side of those who could gain from the direct effects of more competition.
What is the evidence on the direct impact of competition on the poorest in society, and what do we still need to learn?
A recent review of the evidence by the World Bank Group (WBG) seeks to answer these questions. The review follows two basic ideas. First: Competition policy has the greatest impact on the poor when it is applied to sectors in which the poor are most engaged as consumers, producers and employees. Second: Competition policy should have a progressive impact on welfare distribution in sectors where less-well-off households are more engaged relative to richer households.
Several sectors stand out as being particularly important here.
- Food products and non-alcoholic beverages are by far the most important sector for poor consumers in terms of their share of the consumption basket. They also make up a relatively higher proportion of the consumption basket of the least-well-off households. (See Figure 1, below. Source: WBG computations based on household survey data.)
- The retail sector is also important for consumers as the final segment of the food and beverages value chain. It is also a significant employer of the poor.
- Services such as transport and telecommunications play an important dynamic role in combatting poverty and reducing inequality. Better informed and more mobile consumers are more able to switch suppliers, thus moderating suppliers' market power. Services are also an important input for entrepreneurs.
- Other agri-inputs, such as fertilizer and seed, are key for the incomes of small agricultural producers.
The historic agreement reached in Paris at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) last December sets out an ambitious plan for signatory countries to achieve specific targets for reduced greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions. The Paris Agreement includes significant financial commitments and the establishment of structures and mechanisms by which countries will design and implement viable policies to meet agreed-upon goals.
COP21’s major message is one of collaboration: The Paris Agreement unites 177 nations in a single agreement to tackle climate change. Governments set the goal at COP21, but they will need action by the private sector to meet it. One cannot operate without the other.
Industries, which are responsible for 21 percent of direct GHGs worldwide, long resisted the idea of going green, fearing high costs. However, dramatic recent decreases in the cost of climate-friendly technologies, as well as the introduction of carbon pricing, has changed industry perspectives.
More and more businesses are now embracing climate-smart investments, and the driver of such change is, not least, self-interest. A recent study looked at a sample of 1,700 leading international firms and found that money put into reducing GHG emissions saw an internal rate of return of 27 percent – a clear indication that those investments are paying off.
The Science Based Targets initiative is one illustration of industry’s commitment to playing its part in decarbonizing the global economy. The initiative is a partnership between Driving Sustainable Economies, the UN Global Compact, the World Resources Institute and the World Wildlife Fund, helping companies determine how much they must cut emissions to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. So far, 155 companies have signed up for the initiative: Thirteen of them have successfully developed science-based targets which, by themselves, are projected to reduce emissions by 874 million tons of carbon dioxide – the equivalent of the yearly emissions of 250 coal-fired power plants.
Policy persuasion is most effective when it draws on the evidence base of all the social-science disciplines. Every strand of the social sciences – not just the mathematical precision of economics, but also the nuanced interpretations of history and the subtle trajectories of sociology – has a great deal to contribute as policymakers balance competing priorities.
That multidisciplinary approach – emphasized in such recent works as The History Manifesto, in which Harvard and Brown University historians call for policymakers’ greater reliance on the combined reasoning of all the social sciences – was thoroughly borne out in the recent Development Economics Series lecture by economist David Autor of MIT (who is a scholar at the National Bureau of Economic Research). Presenting a research paper on trade policy, and underscoring the importance of public opinion in shaping policymakers’ approach to it, Autor’s presentation used the logic of political science to highlight the electoral mood swings that help shape countries’ position on international trade.
Using the perspectives of political science – in the paper, “Importing Political Polarization? The Electoral Consequences of Rising Trade Exposure” (co-authored with colleagues from the University of Zurich; the University of California, San Diego; and Lund University) – was a valuable way to help remind Autor's economics-focused World Bank Group audience that policymaking does not occur in an academic vacuum. Even though the Bank’s economics-heavy analyses may try to distill policy options into quantifiable formulae, the policymakers whom the Bank advises get their political mandate from their countries’ volatile voters – who do not always follow homo economicus’ coldly rational approach to decision-making.
Amid the topsy-turvy 2016 electoral cycle in many countries – in which voters’ fears about job losses due to international trade have been inflamed amid an upsurge of populism and protectionism – you don’t have to be a public-opinion pollster to affirm Autor's assertion in his analysis of recent U.S. voting patterns: “We detect an ideological realignment that is centered in trade-exposed local labor markets and that commences prior to the divisive 2016 U.S. presidential election. Exploiting the exogenous component of rising trade with China and classifying legislator ideologies by their congressional voting record, we find strong evidence that congressional districts exposed to larger increases in import competition disproportionately removed moderate representatives from office in the 2000s.”
Translation: If you’re a pro-trade lawmaker in a district that has a high degree of imports from overseas, in a region that has endured what Autor calls “economic scarring,” then you’re likely to pay a heavy price at the ballot box – and, if you’re defeated, your successor just might be a strident protectionist. The Autor analysis shrewdly underscores the adjective “political” in the anodyne textbook phrase, “political economy.”
Despite the persistent low-growth environment, the benefits of the digital era are within our grasp to help reignite the growth engine.
Digital trade is the fastest-growing component of trade, and 4.4 billion people globally are yet to come online. In the first quarter of 2015 and in major U.S. cities, an average of 46 percent of all total paid car rides were through Uber. In Kenya, the digital payment system creates additional income for more than 80,000 small business owners. The Chinese e-commerce sector has created 10 million jobs. The Internet of Things, self-driving cars and 3-D printing have now arrived as part of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution.
These benefits will materialize faster if competitive dynamics allow and drive innovation. Disruptive innovation has a great potential to shake up markets, increase productivity and bring benefits to consumers. And yet, if there are government-imposed rules that close markets and unjustifiably protect incumbents from such competing new solutions, these benefits do not materialize. Cities around the world have blocked Uber from offering services. The debate on President Obama’s Executive Order to boost competition has centered around a pending decision by the communications regulator on whether to open the market for TV cable set-top boxes to allow for competition.
Conscious of such challenges, forward-looking competition authorities around the world are advocating several measures that will allow consumers and businesses to benefit from disruptive innovations and new business models. A new World Bank Group publication on competition advocacy tools highlights examples of successful initiatives to promote pro-competitive regulatory reform in markets subject to disruptive innovations.
Many of the World Bank Group’s client countries face a difficult challenge – and the White House recently put this issue at the top of the agenda, too: How can policymakers increase competition to support continued growth of the economy? In a global low-growth environment, developing and advanced economies alike are looking for new ways to boost productivity and innovation. A global panel of Ministers agreed at a recent Spring Meetings event that market competition is pivotal in finding a solution.
When firms collude to fix prices or divide markets, thus harming consumers and reducing competitiveness in their sector and the broader economy, independent competition authorities can fine and therefore deter such illegal conduct. When governments set up rules that reinforce the market power of a dominant firm or that allow such illegal conduct, then competition authorities can rarely demand that those rules be changed – even though the effects on prices, service quality or the availability of products can be just as severe. If champions of competition seek to promote more pro-competition government interventions in markets, they must rely on competition advocacy.
Last Thursday in Singapore, Klaus Tilmes, Director of the Trade and Competitiveness (T&C) Global Practice of the World Bank Group, and Andreas Mundt, Chair of the International Competition Network (ICN), presented awards to the winners of the 2015-2016 Competition Advocacy Contest – a joint WBG and ICN initiative – at the ICN Annual Conference.
A new World Bank Group publication, launched by T&C on April 15, showcases the results of the 2014-2015 Competition Advocacy Contest, sharing the lessons that have been learned about effective advocacy and discussing innovative ways of adapting to new competition challenges. Previous rounds of the contest have shown how the notable impact of competition advocacy can change mindsets.
Our newest publication highlights the tools that competition authorities have developed to overcome the practical challenges, political-economy constraints and emerging trends that affect competition advocacy.
At the Global Parliamentary Conference 2016, the perspectives of parliamentarians from 70 countries energized the debate before the Bank's and the Fund's Spring Meetings. From left to right, on the Preston Auditorium stage: Jeremy Lefroy, a Member of Parliament in the U.K., who served as the conference chairman; IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde; and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim.
Did you happen to miss the Davos conference over the winter? I feel your pain: Somehow, for the umpteenth year in a row, my ticket to the World Economic Forum in Davos must have gotten lost by the Postal Service, too.
Not to worry, however: Twice a year, in April and October, Washington’s motto might as well be “Davos Every Day” – as the great and the good of globalization gather for the formal meetings of the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund.
The Bretton Woods siblings are just-now recovering from their semiannual tsunami of scholarship and diplomacy, with still-dazed staff members sorting through their accumulated post-Meetings mountains of newly published policy monographs, economic analyses and deepthink datapoints. This spring’s sprint focused, as is customary, on the speeches, statements and seminars with the Bank’s and the Fund’s scholars, along with the insights of the institutions’ core constituents: the Finance Ministers and central-bank governors who oversee their countries’ daily economic policymaking.
But there was an additional governance-focused feature at this spring's gathering: Meetings-goers also gained the valuable perspective of the almost 200 lawmakers and observers from 70 countries who convened in Washington, for just the second time, for the annual Global Parliamentary Conference. The gathering was held under the auspices of the Bank- and Fund-sponsored Parliamentary Network, which is now chaired by Jeremy Lefroy, a member of the U.K.’s House of Commons representing Stafford.
Hearing the viewpoints among the lawmakers, just before the executive-branch officials began the Spring Meetings formalities, provided Washingtonians a chance to take the pulse of an additional cohort of opinion leaders whose work is indispensable in delivering effective governance. The conference first brought the parliamentarians to Washington in 2015 – and now the Parliamentary Network is aiming to make Washington the venue for their conference every year.
Linking the lawmakers’ conference with the meetings in Washington will provide a valuable opportunity for the parliamentarians to hear more about the latest research findings of the Bank and the Fund. Moreover, it will help the Bank’s and the Fund’s headquarters staffs in Washington hear, more directly, about the policy priorities and development ideas of the leaders who frame their countries’ laws – some of whom may someday, in their turn, become the Ministers and policymakers who lead their countries’ executive-branch agencies.
Questions like those – focusing on the private sector as the principal driver of growth, with deft public policy as an indispensable catalyst – inspired a dialogue among some of the developing world’s most experienced policymakers at a major forum, “Powering Up Growth: Ideas for Beating the Slowdown,” during the recent Spring Meetings of the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund. All four government Ministers on the panel – from both commodity-exporting and -importing countries – voiced a sense of urgency, describing their efforts to attract private investment to spur job creation, amid a global economy that seems destined for prolonged weakness.
Before the policymakers ascended the Preston Auditorium stage, sobering updates had arrived from the Bank and the Fund: The Bank’s latest forecast for global growth has been lowered from 2.9 percent to 2.5 percent – with the caveat that this latest forecast is subject to further downside risks. That downward revision is in parallel with the Fund’s similar projection, which sees global growth this year in the neighborhood of just 3 percent.
Policymakers worldwide are eager to explore any option to try to lay the foundation for an eventual return to a long-term economic expansion. It was clear that the panelists in the “Powering Up Growth” event – which was convened by Jan Walliser, the Vice President for the Bank Group’s practice group on Equitable Growth, Finance and Institutions (EFI) and organized by the Global Practice for Macroeconomics and Fiscal Management (MFM) – were focused on long-term structural changes that can energize the private sector’s ability to drive growth.
The panelists – from Bolivia, Pakistan, Angola and Ukraine – represented countries from different regions and at various levels of economic development, but they shared a determination to jump-start growth through reforms that will strengthen the private sector’s long-term confidence. The Ministers, at times, seemed to envision opportunities, not just for short-term structural adjustment of their priorities or medium-term structural reform of their policy farmeworks, but for far-reaching structural transformation of their economies and societies.
Now there’s a guy who really puts the full-scale dismal into “the dismal science” of economics – spurring optimists to quickly seek out more hopeful visions of the future.
Those seeking a glimmer of hope about the economic future were well-advised to keep their expectations low as they awaited the gloomy analysis by Prof. Robert J. Gordon, the esteemed economic historian from Northwestern University, who spoke at the World Bank Group’s Macrofiscal Seminar Series on March 31. As anticipated, Gordon’s expertly documented but relentlessly downbeat scenario, based on his latest book, “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” persuasively made the case for a future of chronically sluggish growth in the world’s advanced economies.
Gordon’s chilling projections combine some of the darkest aspects of Lawrence Summers’ worries about “secular stagnation,” Christine Lagarde’s lamentations of a “New Mediocre” and private-sector leaders’ struggle to strategize for the “New Normal.” Gordon’s bleak thesis foresees “little growth” – although, significantly, not zero growth – as the developed world’s weary economies endure perhaps decades of drift.
Policymakers in the world’s largest economies are surely exasperated by the painstaking crawl out of the global financial crisis – yet they don’t have much positive news to look forward to, asserts Gordon. With “declining potential productivity growth” compounding the impact of declining population growth and a declining labor-force participation rate, there’s probably no technological deus ex machina that can soon propel the world’s advanced economies toward restored prosperity.
That viewpoint defies the techno-utopian visions that have been so eagerly peddled to anxious Western voters, who can only dream of a return to brisk late-1990s-style growth. Quipped the Macrofiscal seminar’s discussant, Deepak Mishra: Gordon “has made a career of busting the technology hype.”
Yet Gordon’s logic need not trigger total despair among the Bank’s poverty-fighting professionals and their counterparts at other development institutions. Gordon emphasized that his analysis is about the American economy, and, to some extent, about the mature economies of Western Europe. His book’s foreboding predictions, he said, do not extend to developing economies, which enjoy “great potential for growth.”
For can-do pragmatists who strive for stronger growth and sustained progress in developing economies, there’s a ready antidote to Gordon-style macroeconomic gloom. By happenstance, immediately after Gordon delivered his grim analysis in the Bank’s J Building auditorium, optimists seeking inspiration needed only to cross the street to the Bank’s Main Complex to hear an energetic appeal for greater hands-on activism.
With an update on the movement for Community-Led Development (CLD), a seminar sponsored by the Bank’s Community-Driven Development Global Solutions Group learned of the promise that CLD offers for inspiring inclusive, sustainable solutions that enlist citizens’ engagement and build community-level confidence in strong governance standards.
Moving from macro to micro – dispelling the dread of inexorable global forces and embracing positive citizen-centric action – the CLD leaders leapfrogged Gordon’s macro-level angst to highlight micro-level opportunity.
Call it “secular stagnation,” or the disappointing “New Mediocre,” or the baffling “New Normal” – or even the back-from-the-brink “contained depression.” Whatever label you put on today’s chronic economic doldrums, it’s clear that a slow-growth stall is afflicting many nation’s economies – and, seven years into a lackluster recovery from the global financial crisis, some fragile economies seem to be lapsing into another slump.
As policymakers struggle to find a plausible prescription for jump-starting growth, a tug-of-war is under way between techno-utopians and techno-dystopians. It’s a struggle between optimists who foresee a world of abundance thanks to innovations like robot-driven industries, and pessimists who anticipate a cash-deprived world where displaced ex-workers have few or no means of earning an income.
To add a bracing dose of academic rigor to the tech-focused tug-of-war, along comes a data-focused realist who adds a welcome if sobering historical perspective to the debate. Robert J. Gordon, a macroeconomist and economic historian at Northwestern University, takes a longue durée perspective of technology’s impact on growth, wealth and incomes.
Gordon’s blunt-spoken viewpoint has caused a sensation since his newest book, “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” was launched at this winter’s meetings of the American Economic Association. His analysis injects a new urgency into policymakers’ debates about how (or even whether) today’s growth rate can be strengthened.
When Gordon speaks at the World Bank on Thursday, March 31 – at 11 a.m. in J B1-080, as part of the Macrofiscal Seminar Series – economy-watchers can look forward to hearing some ideas that challenge the orthodoxies of recent macroeconomic thinking. His topic – “Secular Stagnation on the Supply Side: Slow Growth in U. S. Productivity and Potential Output” – seems likely to spark some new thinking among techno-utopians and techo-dystopians alike.
To watch Gordon’s speech live via Webex – at 11 a.m. on Thursday, March 31 – click here. To dial in to listen to the audio, dial (in the United States and Canada) 1-650-479-3207, using the passcode 735 669 472. For those telephoning from outside the United States and Canada, the appropriate numbers can be found on this page.
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