Some Big Ideas from Small Countries

     Two decades ago, many thought the lesson of the 1980s had been that Japan’s variant of capitalism was the best model, that other countries around the world should and would follow it.   The Japanese model quickly lost its luster in the 1990s.  

     One decade ago, many thought that the lesson of the 1990s had been that the US variant of capitalism was the best model, that other countries should and would follow.   The American model in turn lost its attractiveness in the decade of the 2000s.   

     Where should countries look for a model, now, in 2010?  Many small countries on the periphery have experimented with policies and institutions that could usefully be adopted by others.  

     A panoply of innovations has helped Chile to outperform its South American neighbors.   Chile’s fiscal institutions – structural budget balance with the parameters estimated by independent expert panels — insure a countercyclical budget.  They are among the mechanisms that are particularly worthy of emulation by other commodity exporting countries, to defeat the Natural Resource Curse.  

     Costa Rica in Central America and Mauritius in Africa each pulled ahead of its peers some time ago.  Among many other decisions that worked out well for them, both countries have foregone a standing army. The result in both cases has been histories with no coups, and financial savings that can be used for education, investment, and other good things.  Singapore achieved rich country status with a unique development strategy.  Among its many innovations were a paternalistic approach to saving and use of the price mechanism to defeat urban traffic congestion (now emulated by London). 

     Some small advanced countries also have lessons to offer.   New Zealand led the way with Inflation Targeting, along with many liberalization reforms in the late 1980s.   (Perhaps its Labor Party should even be given credit for pioneering the principle that left-of-center governments can sometimes achieve economic liberalization better than their right-of-center opponents.)   Ireland showed the importance of Foreign Direct Investment.  Estonia led the way in simplifying its tax system by means of a successful flat tax in 1994, followed by Slovakia and other small countries in Central/Eastern Europe and elsewhere (including Mauritius again).   

     Mexico pioneered the idea of Conditional Cash Transfers (the OPORTUNIDADES program — originally PROGRESA, launched in 1998).  CCT programs have subsequently been emulated by many developing countries.  This was two revolutions in one:  (1) the specific idea of making poverty transfers contingent on child school attendance (which has been emulated even in New York City) and (2) the methodological idea of conducting controlled experiments to find out what policies work or don’t work in developing countries (which has fed into the exciting Randomized Control Trials movement in development economics).  Also in the 1990s, largely thanks to the leadership of President Ernesto Zedillo, Mexico adopted non-partisan federal electoral institutions that were subsequently in 2006 able to resolve successfully a disputed election.   (In contrast, it turned out in November 2000 that the United States had no mechanism to resolve such disputes, other than the preferences of political appointees.)  Mexico undertook health reform in 2004.  More recently, President Felipe Calderon has shut down the entrenched electric utility and pursued much-needed reforms in tax, pension, and other areas.

     In highlighting some very specific institutions that could be usefully applied elsewhere, I don’t mean to suggest that they can be effortlessly translated from one national context to another.   Nor do I mean to suggest that these examples are entirely responsible for the success of the economies identified.  (Indeed a few of these countries have recently been wrestling with severe problems.)  But a country doesn’t have to be large like the United States to serve as a model for others.  Small countries tend to be trade-dependent, and open to new ideas.  They are often more free to experiment than are large countries. The results of the experiments include some useful lessons.

[TV interview on BNN.]