The Nobel Prize winning economist George Stigler wrote a famous intellectual history of the concept of perfect competition in the late 1950s (see Box 1, below). The article has subsequently attained canonical status among orthodox economists. It does not mention the contemporary notion of competitiveness once, but as Matthew Watson shows in the latest post for the Fools’ Gold history files, it is full of important implications for those who wish to question the intellectual authority of the modern-day competitiveness agenda.
In particular, Stigler is forced to admit that there is no purely economic basis for supporting the idea of a perfectly competitive economy. His argument that there are still good grounds for keeping up this pretence boil down to straightforwardly political beliefs for wanting to keep the government out of economic life. Despite what will be shown to be their important differences, this is one thing that the theory of perfect competition and the modern-day competitiveness agenda have in common. Both are typically dressed in apparently economic clothes, but each in its own way must be understood as a purely political intervention into public affairs.
We’ve sometimes used the term ‘tax wars’ instead of ‘tax competition’ to describe the process by which countries try to tempt mobile capital by offering tax breaks, prompting others to follow suit in a race to the bottom. Countries often do this in the name of ‘tax competitiveness,’ which as we’ve shown is generally a fools’ errand — even from a purely self-interested national point of view.
Now an Indonesian group called Prakarsa has issued a note entitled Anticipating Tax War in the ASEAN Economic Integration Era, which raises many familiar concerns, particularly tax holidays. As they argue:
There are a lot of ‘competitiveness’-related rankings of countries and states out there, from the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings. (We’ll address some of these in due course.) It’s interesting to note, for starters, that the highly taxed, highly regulated Scandinavian economies seem to do just as well as their low-tax, lightly regulated peers. Recently we made up a little graph to illustrate this, looking at the WEF’s ranking:
There’s no obvious trend here, is there? The high-tax countries seem to be just as ‘competitive’ as the low-tax ones, it seems, even on the WEF’s measures, (which are somewhat skewed toward the low-tax, light regulation model.) The non-trend you see in this graph is just as Martin Wolf, Paul Krugman and various others would have predicted.
Across the world corporations are showered with tax breaks and other inducements in the name of ‘competitiveness.’ In most cases these tax breaks don’t affect investment decisions in any way. They are pure giveaways. In many countries it’s been hard to track the scale and extent of these giveaways, although recently we reported on one such effort by Kevin Farnsworth in the UK, which noted that the race to the bottom between nations and states on tax and corporate subsidies doesn’t stop at zero: it just keeps heading on downwards.
In the United States there has been some very good work done by nonprofit groups, notably Good Jobs First, to expose what’s been going on. (Greg Leroy, Director of Good Jobs First, attended the Fools’ Gold inaugural meeting in Warwick, UK, in February this year.
Now they report in a press release on an excellent development – a form of transparency that’s recommended for all countries.
The legendary Chicago economist, Milton Friedman, was not somebody to do anything by halves. Where others before him had shied away from even thinking aloud about the limits of firms’ responsibilities to those around them, Friedman waded into the debate with both feet. Corporations can serve society best, he stated, by cutting their costs to the bone and accordingly by making as much profit as possible.
This argument did not reference competitiveness directly in its original articulation. Yet as Matthew Watson shows in the latest post for the Fools’ Gold history files, it acts as an important forerunner of modern-day competitiveness discourse. Corporations that deny their broader social responsibilities, Friedman argued, set themselves on the road to a truly competitive zero rate of taxation.
Paul Samuelson and the Provision of Collective Consumption Goods: A Rejection of Competitiveness Logic
Paul Samuelson pioneered the mathematical models of maximisation that today form a central part of the economics of competitiveness. It is significant, then, that the pioneer himself deployed his method of difference equations to come to a conclusion that is wholly opposed to modern-day competitiveness mantra. This post by Matthew Watson brings Samuelson’s argument to a wider audience as the latest instalment in our series tracing the intellectual underpinnings of contemporary competitiveness discourse. It reviews his defence of collective provision of the public goods that enhance individual welfare and his view that the funding of public goods should be protected from race-to-the-bottom dynamics.
David Ricardo’s Theory of Comparative Advantage: Exploring the Hidden Historical Underside of Modern-Day Competitiveness Discourse
David Ricardo’s status as the first really famous economist of the nineteenth century rests on two capacities: his ability to think in pure economic abstractions and his ability to harness economic theory to a liberal political worldview. They came together most famously in his theory of comparative advantage, through which countries are encouraged to specialise in producing the goods in which their workers are relatively most efficient. Despite being two hundred years old, Ricardo’s theory is still the mainstay of the orthodox economics justification of free trade and, at one stage removed, of modern-day competitiveness discourse too. This post by Matthew Watson looks behind the façade of the numbers that Ricardo used to illustrate his theory of comparative advantage, to show that they were anything but an innocent account of essential economic relationships. It therefore helps to place modern-day competitiveness discourse in a far from flattering intellectual light.
Update: Farnsworth’s work has been generating huge media coverage in the UK, because of the role it has played in new Labour Party’s preliminary economic platforms – making it subject to attack from many different people. See Farnsworth’s responses here.
Kevin Farnsworth at York University has been exploring the scale of corporate handouts in the UK. Via The Guardian:
“Taxpayers are handing businesses £93bn a year – a transfer of more than £3,500 from each household in the UK. The total emerges from the first comprehensive account of what Britons give away to companies in grants, subsidies and tax breaks, published exclusively in the Guardian.”
One of the core insights driving the Fools’ Gold project is this: national ‘competitiveness’ is a confused and dangerous term to use when talking about an economy. What people (politicians, especially) often seem to think is that if you support one economic sector, that will necessarily make your economy as a whole more competitive. The problem is: that ‘support’ generally has to come from somewhere else in your economy.
So a corporate tax cut, for instance, is paid for by others in the economy, via lower corporate tax revenues, which may mean reduced fewer universities and courts, and so on. A more deregulated (and hence supposedly ‘competitive’) financial sector will see taxpayers taking on risks and eventually being forced to pay for them, while bankers get the cream.
These kinds of internal transfer do not automatically enhance growth, productivity, or anything that one might call ‘competitiveness.’
From The Economist, in November 2013:
“Globalisation sceptics often warn of the pernicious effects on labour standards of international competition for investment. In the race for foreign business, the argument goes, countries cut back on regulation and enforcement of decent working conditions in order to lower labour costs.”