1. The Old Normal Andrew Bacevich, Harper’s
  2. Iran Doesn’t Want War but has a big appetite for riskWar on the Rocks
  3. Nice try, economists Arnold Kling, askblog
  4. Against “aggregate demand” Chris Dillow, Stumbling and Mumbling

Coronavirus and the BRI

The Corona Virus epidemic has shaken the world in numerous ways. The virus, which first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan (Hubei province), has led to the loss of over 12,000 lives globally. The three countries most impacted so far have been Italy (4,825 lives lost), China (3,287 lives lost), and Iran (1,500 lives lost) as of Saturday, March 21, 2020.

While there are reports that China is limping back to normalcy, the overall outlook for the economy is grim, to say the least, with some forecasts clearly predicting that even with aggressive stimulus measures China may not be able to attain 3% growth this year.

The Chinese slow down could have an impact on the country’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While China has been trying to send out a message that BRI will not be impacted excessively, the ground realities could be different given a number of factors.

One of the important, and more controversial, components of the BRI has been the $62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which has often been cited as a clear indicator of ‘Debt Trap Diplomacy’ (this, some analysts argue, is China’s way of increasing other country’s dependency on it, by providing loans for big ticket infrastructural projects, which ultimately lead to a rise in debts).

The US and multilateral organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have predictably questioned the project, but even in Pakistan many have questioned CPEC, including politicians, with most concerns revolving around its transparency and long-term economic implications. Yet the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-E-Insaaf (PTI) government, and the previous Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) government, have given the project immense importance, arguing that it would be a game changer for the South Asian nation.

On more than one occasion, Beijing has assured Pakistan that CPEC will go ahead as planned with China’s Ambassador to Pakistan, Yao Jing, stating on numerous occasions that the project will not be hit in spite of the Corona Virus. Senior officials in the Imran Khan government, including the Railway Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, in an interview with the Global Times, stated that while in the short run Corona may have an impact on CPEC, in the long run there would be no significant impact.

Analysts in Pakistan however, doubt that there will be no impact, given the fact that a large number of Chinese workers who had left Pakistan are unlikely to return. Since February 2020, a number of reports have been predicting that the CPEC project is likely to be impacted significantly.

Similarly, in the cases of other countries too, there are likely to be significant problems with regard to the resource crunch in China as well as the fact that Chinese workers cannot travel. Not only is Beijing not in a position to send workers, but countries hit by COVID-19 themselves will not be in a position to get the project back on track immediately, as they will first have to deal with the consequences of the outbreak.

Some BRI projects which had begun to slow down even before the outbreak spread globally were in Indonesia and Bangladesh. In Indonesia, a high speed rail project connecting Jakarta with Bandung (estimated at $6 billion) has slowed down since the beginning of the year, and ever since the onset of the Corona Virus, skilled Chinese personnel have been prevented from going back to Indonesia. Bangladesh too has announced delays on the Payra Coal power plant in February 2020. As casualties arising out of the virus increase in Indonesia and other parts of Asia and Africa, the first priority for countries is to prevent the spread of the virus.

While it is true that Beijing would want to send a clear message of keeping its commitments, matching up to its earlier targets is not likely to be a mean task. Even before the outbreak, there were issues due to the terms and conditions of the project and a number of projects had to be renegotiated due to pressure from local populations.

What China has managed to do successfully is provide assistance for dealing with COVID-19. In response to a request for assistance from the Italian government, China has sent a group of 300 doctors and corona virus testing kits and ventilators. The founder of Ali Baba and one of Asia’s richest men, Jack Ma, has also taken the lead in providing assistance to countries in need. After announcing that he will send 500,000 coronavirus testing kits and 1 million masks to the United States, Ma pledged to donate more than 1 million kits to Africa on Monday March 17, 2020, and on March 21, 2020, in a tweet, the Chinese billionaire said that he would be donating emergency supplies to a number of South Asian and South East Asian countries — Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The emergency supplies include 1.8 million masks, 210,000 test kits, 36,000 protective suits and ventilators, and thermometers.

China is bothered not just about it’s own economic gains from the BRI, but is also concerned about the long term interests of countries which have signed up for BRI.

The Corona Virus has shaken the whole world, not just China, and the immediate priority of most countries is to control the spread of the pandemic and minimize the number of casualties. Countries dependent upon China, especially those which have joined the BRI, are likely to be impacted. What remains to be seen is the degree to which BRI is affected, and how developing countries which have put high stakes on BRI related projects respond.


  1. The internationalist disposition and US grand strategy Stephen Pampinella, Disorder of Things
  2. Let’s be blunt: classical liberalism is losing Johnathan Pearce, Samizdata
  3. On top tax rates Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  4. Are recessions about employment? Scott Sumner, Money Illusion

On the Canadian economy: the “real” problem

In Canada, the state of the economy has everyone worried. The fall in oil prices is causing the oil sector in the western provinces and in some of the Atlantic provinces to contract. As a result, everyone has the impression that Canada is sliding towards a recession and governments should act.

I disagree. My disagreement is fueled by two factors. The first is that we should never reason from a price change. The fall in the price of oil is mostly the result of increasing supply of oil. Such a price change is actually a good thing for the Canadian economy. The slowdown in economic activity is merely the result of frictions in the reallocation of resources. The second reason is that the slowdown is caused by “real factors” – policy decision affecting key regions of the Canadian economy. Any government action would worsen a situation caused by too much interference in the first place.

A fall in oil prices can indeed affect the Canadian economy. The oil produced in Canada is generally profitable when prices are relatively high (they require very capital-intensive methods of extraction and refining). An increase in the world oil supply (which is the case right now) would indeed affect the Canadian oil industry. However, Canadians win through lower oil prices – one important input has gotten cheaper. The problem is that once such a slowdown happens, resources are not reallocated without frictions. Business plans are positively affected by the lower oil prices and numerous firms are laying out new plans to expand production. Employment and output will fall in the oil industry before they will pick up in other industries. Eventually, there might even be greater output and employment because of the greater worldwide supply of oil. Right now, Canada is in-between those two situations.

My second reason for dissenting from the majority opinion is that certain regions of the Canadian economy are plagued by poor policy. To make my argument, consider a two-region (West and East) and two-industry economy (oil and manufacturing/services). In the West, the dominant industry is oil. In the East, the dominant industry is manufacturing/services.  The West economy has a more flexible market for inputs (limited regulation, freer labor market and low taxes on capital). The East economy suffers from greater rigidity in its market for inputs – high taxes, burdensome regulation and stringent labor laws.

In a way, this describes the Canadian economy. The provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British-Columbia have been pulling the rest of the Canadian economy for the last twenty years. That’s the West. In the East, the historically poorer province of Quebec has been constantly pulling everyone behind, but less so in recent years as the province of Ontario (the most populous of Canadian provinces) began to slow down. Ontario dramatically expanded the size of its public sector, implemented important regulations and raised taxes – straight in the middle of the recession. In fact, if you exclude Ontario from the rest of Canada, you find (as Philip Cross did) that Canada’s performance is actually quite decent. So in the East, you have Quebec whose policies have not changed and you have Ontario who has adopted increasingly anti-growth policies. The East also has consistently higher taxes. The West has lower taxes. Etc.

Given the accuracy of this stylized description, imagine the effect of a shock on the western economy through a shock on its oil industry. Normally, firms in the East could adapt to lower oil prices by expanding their output in the manufacturing/services sector (thanks to cheaper inputs) while firms in the West contract their output and liberate inputs. However, in the presence of government-imposed frictions, this reallocation of resources is much harder and output has a harder time expanding in the East.

No demand-side policy can solve this problem! You could have easy money and a massive stimulus program, but if firms are discouraged from increasing output, little will happen. In Canada, the current slowdown is explained by “real factors”. Improving provincial policies would be the best channel for improving the state of the Canadian economy.

Unemployment is Completely Unnecessary

In U.S. government statistics, a person is unemployed if he is 16 years of age or more, and that person is able and willing to work at prevailing wages. The labor force includes the employed and the unemployed. If one is not employed for wages because one does not wish to work or to seek work, that person is not in the labor force, and not counted as unemployed.

The unemployment rate in the USA is now about six percent, down from a peak of ten percent in 2009. About one percent of the labor force is in “frictional” unemployment, meaning that the worker is between jobs or recently graduated from school and engaged in job search, or about to be hired. When the economy is depressed, there is “cyclical” unemployment, those not working as firms reduce employment. There is also the “structural” unemployment of workers losing their jobs in declining industries, and the seasonal unemployment of those employed only during a season such as in resorts or during harvests.

An economy is in full employment when the only unemployment is frictional. The economic puzzle is why there is any other unemployment. Cyclical unemployment is no mystery, as firms have fewer sales as demand falls, and falling demands become a downward spiral as falling purchases by some become falling production by others. The recession ends when materials prices and real estate rentals have fallen so low that production becomes profitable again.

Since recessions are caused by monetary and fiscal subsidies, a pure market economy would have neither, so it would have no recessions and no cyclical unemployment. So the puzzle consists of chronic unemployment, those unable to obtain work even during prosperous times. Most of the unemployed have been out of work for months or years. Those long unemployed have even more difficulty finding employment, because employers wonder why that person can’t find any job.

Some economists consider idle labor to have a positive side. You car is not wasted when you don’t use it, because it provides the service of availability. Empty seats in a theater have value because the theater needs that capacity for popular shows. Likewise, in this viewpoint, idle labor provides workers when firms need to hire. Also, the unemployed need time to engage in job search, so they are busy even if unemployed. But one can be employed at least part time while looking for better work, and while idle labor may be good for employers, it is bad for workers who need the income, and for taxpayers who have to support those not working.

In a pure market economy, there would not be any unemployment at all. There would be no seasonal unemployment, because workers could find other jobs in other seasons. There would be no structural unemployment, because workers could shift to other industries, and work in temporary jobs while searching for full-time employment. Even workers in frictional unemployment would be able to work some of the time, since job search is not full-time.

One of the premises of economics is that human desires are unlimited. There is always a demand for something. That demand provides an opportunity for workers to be employed to satisfy that desire. In a pure market economy, one could also be easily self-employed. Any person who is not totally incapacitated would be able to offer some service at some wage. If the wage one can obtain is too low to bother with working, then that person would not wish to work, not be in the labor force, and not be unemployed.

Unemployment exists because there are barriers that prevent labor from having access to land and capital goods. If the cost of hiring a worker is greater than his productivity, he will not be hired. In a pure market, the wage would be set where the quantity of labor supplied by workers equals the quantity demanded by employers.

Government policy raises the cost of labor above the pure market wage. Minimum wage laws prevent employers from hiring the least productive workers. On top of the minimum wage are imposed costs: the employer’s share of payroll taxes, mandated medical insurance, worker accident insurance, and the unemployment compensation tax. The firm also has to withhold taxes from wages and send then to the government. There is also a litigation risk and cost of hiring labor, as labor laws promote excessive litigation to combat malpractice, discrimination and sexual harassment. Also, union labor monopolies, and laws favorable to unions, push up the wages of union workers at the expense of less employment. Finally, laws making it costly to fire workers raise the cost of hiring them, creating more unemployment.

In a full-employment economy, when firms seek to expand, they would pull workers away from other firms, or pulled into the labor force, by offering higher wages and better conditions. There is no need for idle labor.

The best policy for labor is full employment. Labor laws that seek to protect workers end up imposing barriers that prevent employment. Full employment requires hiring flexibility and the removal of government-imposed costs. Full employment requires the elimination of taxes on labor, exchange, production, and consumption. Public revenue from land rent or land value could replace all these labor-hampering taxes, while promoting the productive use of land which would further increase wages.

A shift in taxation from labor to land would both increase employment and increase wages, while letting the worker keep his wage. It is not unemployment that is a puzzle, but rather why workers are not demanding the abolition of their wage-tax burden.

Where the World’s Unsold Cars Go To Die [Zerohedge]

I don’t have time to comment a ton on this (Life has just been absurd lately) but wanted to make sure more people saw this.

The guys over at Zerohedge noticed a surprising sight on google maps in the city of Sheerness, United Kingdom. West coast, below the River Thames and next to River Medway. Left of A249, Brielle Way. A car lot full of unsold, brand new cars. Zerohedge claims these are all new cars that cannot fit on overcapacity dealer lots. If true this would be a prime example of malinvestment spurred on by government bailout and subsidies. Quite literally a textbook case of the Austrian Business Cycle.

Further research is needed since I do not know whether these lots are standard practice or a new feature of our post-2008 crash world. It is possible that these are merely staging grounds for cars before they ship to dealers but at first glance I tend to agree with Zerohedge’s conclusion that “There is proof that the worlds recession is still biting and wont let go. All around the world there are huge stockpiles of unsold cars and they are being added to every day. They have run out of space to park all of these brand new unsold cars and are having to buy acres and acres of land to store them.”  

Something to keep an eye on regardless.