Why Resource-based Economies Need Tariffs

by John Brian Shannon

Joseph E. Stiglitz, Nobel laureate in economics and Professor at Columbia University has noted the problems inherent to resource-based economies in his recent and excellent article; “From Resource Curse to Blessing” which I urge you to read. Early into his piece, he says;

“On average, resource-rich countries have done even more poorly than countries without resources. They have grown more slowly, and with greater inequality – just the opposite of what one would expect.” — Stiglitz

The usual solution to the inevitable slowing of a resource-based economy is to facilitate ever more extraction — in the hopes that more resource dollars will stimulate growth and compensate for the lack of progress in other sectors.

Time and time again this fails to work and to make matters worse, other sectors of the economy grow weaker in almost direct correlation with mounting resource exports. Manufacturing often takes the greatest hit.

Moreover, resource-rich countries often do not pursue sustainable growth strategies. They fail to recognize that if they do not reinvest their resource wealth into productive investments above ground, they are actually becoming poorer. Political dysfunction exacerbates the problem, as conflict over access to resource rents gives rise to corrupt and undemocratic governments. — Stiglitz

The government line on this is usually; “We should concentrate on what we do best.” Which is fine except that in so doing, the rest of the economy slowly slips toward the day when the government must then announce; ‘The majority of the resources are gone, we now must rebuild our economy from scratch.” This is when economists are finally consulted and listened to — but are then expected to solve the entire problem by the weekend, with nothing more than a magic wand and an algebraic/transcendental incantation.

Resource-based economies should commit to robust and long-term economic development throughout the economy well before such cantrip is required.

Real development requires exploring all possible linkages: training local workers, developing small and medium-size enterprises to provide inputs for mining operations and oil and gas companies, domestic processing, and integrating the natural resources into the country’s economic structure. Of course, today, these countries may not have a comparative advantage in many of these activities, and some will argue that countries should stick to their strengths. From this perspective, these countries’ comparative advantage is having other countries exploit their resources.

That is wrong. What matters is dynamic comparative advantage, or comparative advantage in the long run, which can be shaped. Forty years ago, South Korea had a comparative advantage in growing rice. Had it stuck to that strength, it would not be the industrial giant that it is today. It might be the world’s most efficient rice grower, but it would still be poor. — Stiglitz

The problem of course, is how to fund the necessary investment in the non-resource economy. And what level of funding do non-resource sectors enjoy at the present? Less than you might imagine.

Of all solutions, the simplest usually work best. Which is why a nominal export tax is a necessary ingredient to any resource-based economy to assist the national economy maintain a quantitative balance.

After all, taxing natural resources at high rates will not cause them to disappear, which means that countries whose major source of revenue is natural resources can use them to finance education, health care, development, and redistribution. — Stiglitz

There is little need for domestic resource taxes in nations where the majority of resources are exported. Such ‘recycling’ of citizen’s money adds little ‘new money’ to the economy and irritates voters, while the most efficient economic performance enhancement available comes from export tariffs and FDI.

Both export tariffs and FDI revenue streams represent new money entering the system which means unlike domestic taxation, citizens are not paying for other citizens employment programs — foreign interests will be paying that bill.

When resource-based economies implement a 5% to 8% export tariff on every exported tonne of coal/metals/minerals, or barrel of oil, their economies will fire on all cylinders — and with little complaint from the rapidly growing and resource-hungry nations.

John Brian Shannon

Stimulus or Austerity: Can Either Succeed?

by John Brian Shannon

In the age-old debate between stimulus and austerity, many commentators fail to realize both schools of thought could be correct — and in fact, both are.

For one, look at the uncountable billions of stimulus added to the American economy during President Reagan‘s two terms. Unprecedented billions were directed towards defense, R&D, infrastructure — and even to Chrysler — although, strictly speaking, those were loan guarantees.

Do loan guarantees count as stimulus? Almost. And those guarantees tied up billions of U.S. Government dollars until they were no longer required — and served to establish and add gravitas to a new momentum in the U.S. economy. Courtesy of President Reagan’s leadership, I hasten to add.

When we look at historic stimulus, it works. When the stimulus is added at the first sign of recession it is most effective. Once all those factories are shuttered, trying to add stimulus to improve the economy is an uphill battle, every day.

The Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe at the end of WWII is a classic stimulus success story. Anyone who visited 1945 Europe and then visited again in 1960 can attest to that! About $40 billion dollars were used to stimulate the European economy — a lot of money in those days, even by United States’ standards.

Think of stimulus spending as emergency funding to keep the economy functioning. It really only works when applied immediately and at the first sign of recession.

For two, austerity does work. Although, it must be said, removing obscene debt and irresponsible deficits from a large economy constitute a major structural change. It is no band-aid solution — although as I said above, band-aids do work.

Austerity fixes the underlying structural problem — while stimulus fixes the symptoms, if you will.

There is no doubt about the Baltic austerity success story and there are others. You need only look as far as Canada in the 1990’s. Canada’s credit rating was on the rocks, the economy was in the tank and economic vital signs were heading in the wrong direction.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his astute Finance Minister Paul Martin, decided to adopt aggressive Canadian-style austerity and it worked (short-term pain for long-term gain) better than anyone had imagined. It just took some political leadership, unusually good communications with voters and some serious brainstorming.

A final word on economist’s everywhere. European economists work for Europe’s well-being, Chinese economists work for China, er, directly! While American economists work to arrange things to America’s advantage — you can’t begrudge any side for ‘playing for the home team’.

If the New York Times, Nobel Prize winning economist Professor Paul Krugman believes that it is in America’s best interests to float the economy with stimulus money, then he is right. Of course while agreeing with him, I always point out that stimulus is a merely a temporary fix and that additional deficit-financing (and accumulated debt) should be ‘pared down’ during the boom times.

Just as John Maynard Keynes suggested.

When this is not done, decade after decade, or should I say, recession after recession, it adds to the unbalanced economy and the entire economic structure is thereby weakened.

For now, stimulus — although it is almost too late for band-aids. Then, during the next boom, adroit movement towards zero-deficit financing — then, once that is achieved, regular scheduled debt paydowns after that.

Stimulus will stop the worst of the present economic malaise from taking an even higher toll — and later, austerity will begin to improve the entire structure of the U.S. economy.

John Brian Shannon