August 26, 2020
Belarus ("White Russia") may be better than you think
Belarus and Poland
Some Russian friends of mine who still have relatives throughout the former Soviet Empire and who live well there speak favorably of Belrarus. And I have myself noted some desirable aspects of Belarus in previous postings. That all becomes of particular interest at the moment as the world is noting protests in Belarus against dubious elections maintaining despot Alexander Lukashenko in power
So it is interesting that Economic historian Martin Hutchinson (below) says Belarus is much more capitalistic than either California or China.
Matin makes two points that many would jib at. He likes it that Belarus has no lockdowns against the coronavirus. That however is pretty close to becoming the informed medical opinion now
He likes that Belarus has much higher interest rates than Western countries. That may seem perverse but history is on the side of Belarus. Past great capitalistic flourishings worldwide have been accompanied by similar rates. And present historically low rates in the West have mainly sufficed to create the punishingy high real estate prices we see in the USA and elsewhere.
Something he does not note that many people might like is that the roads are good but traffic jams are few. Belarus has an extremely good and comprehensive public transport system. So people get more exercise by walking and can do so without wading through vehicular pollution. It's a Greenie dream in action. Greenies would also like that over 40% of its 207,600 square kilometres (80,200 sq mi) is forested.
Many conservatives would like that Belarus is also the only country in Europe officially using the death penalty. It is a Christian country.
Climate skeptics would like that most of its electricity is thermal generated and that they have a nuclear power station under construction.
The population of Belarus is almost wholly white so there is no disgruntled black minority to go on city-wrecking sprees, something of interest in the current American context.
I was talking recently to a lady of Belarusian heritage who still speaks Russian and who still has close family in Belarus. She reports that people who know Belarus are often very complimentary about it. It seems well-organized and orderly with very little crime. It is not a rich country (average income of $8,000 pa) by Western standards but most people eat well and products from all over Europe are to be found in the shops. Some people who know the place say that Belarus is the best country in the world to live in.
There are occasional big demonstrations about the government but that is true of the USA as well. Demonstrators will demonstrate.
That is such a different view to what I had expected that I did a little research to see what support I could find for it. Belarus is however not a place of much interest to the rest of the world but I did find a few interesting facts.
* It is heavily industrialized but is also about 40% primeval forest. Greenies should love it. It has about the same population as Sweden -- about 8 million. It lies between Russia and Poland so was the most "Western" part of the old Soviet Union. It is now an independent country.
* The capital city, Minsk, has a population of about 2 million. It was completely destroyed during the Second World War, but, following the example of Warsaw, it was rebuilt in the same place and now is an attractive city
* Minsk is a very green and clean city. In addition to numerous parks, here is the third largest botanical garden in the world.
* Minsk is a very safe city. In the list of 378 most dangerous cities from Numbeo, Minsk was on the 351th place in terms of danger and became the safest city among the former Soviet Union countries. Belarus itself is one of the safest countries in the world according to statistics.
??* Compared to many large cities, there are very few traffic jams in Minsk.
* It is also surprising for big cities that it's relatively quiet at night, relatively few nightclubs and bars.
* Public transport is always on time. Surprisingly, but it's true: the schedule is maintained with a possible deviation of a couple of minutes. The American Green/Left wants to get people out of their cars and onto public transport. Belarus shows it can be done.
So you see what people mean when they find a lot to like about Belarus. What it reminds me of is the old East Germany. After German reunification, some East Germans moved to the West and a lot visited the West. They were mostly not very impressed. They liked the higher salaries, larger apartments and the up-to-date technology in the West but were very scornful of the social life there. The old East Germany had a generally fraternal feel while the West is definitely a dog-eat-dog society. East Germans called it an "elbows" society, where people had little care for one another.
So it should not be a surprise but it is clear that socialism does have an appeal for a lot of people. Living under an authoritarian government that organizes everything can be fairly relaxing as long as it provides a reasonable level of prosperity, which East Germany did and which Belarus does.
The world economy has come a very long way from the small-government, unregulated free-market model so celebrated by Adam Smith and other classical economists. Today, even in countries that claim to be committed to capitalism, taxes, monetary policy, regulations and state spending have produced huge distortions. To illustrate how huge, I thought I would compare the economic models of three jurisdictions: California, the high-tech Mecca supposedly a beacon of freedom, China, the state-controlled behemoth that claims to have a new and better economic model, and the universally despised “Communist” dictatorship of Belarus.
It must be very difficult to be a true capitalist in California. Yes, you have a support system of a myriad of other capitalists around you, and if you start with a remotely plausible business plan venture capitalists will throw money at you, but actually running a business, as distinct from merely financing losses, is extremely difficult. Real estate costs, both corporate and personal are extremely high if you are in the San Francisco Bay area, so you begin with a huge cost disadvantage against those of your competitors who are located somewhere else. The most important cost disadvantage, of course, is that you must pay people far more money than they may be worth so they can live in the Bay area.
High accommodation and staff costs are a natural economic disadvantage, but California also abounds in unnatural ones, entirely contrary to free market principles. For a start, the state has the highest tax rates in the United States, with a top income tax rate of 13% on top of the Federal 37% plus a Medicare tax of a maximum 3.8%, for a total of 53.8% marginal income tax rate. The state is in the process of voting to increasing the state income tax further to 16%, which would give a top marginal tax rate of 56.8%, a level at which it becomes barely worth working at all (I speak from experience of the high British marginal rates in the 1970s and 1980s). With the state keeping more than half its richest citizens’ marginal earnings, California’s claim to be a capitalist economy is already quite weak.
It becomes weaker still, when you realize that the state is also likely to introduce a wealth tax at 0.4% per annum, payable on all wealth above $30 million. Now you may think that $30 million is “riches beyond the dreams of avarice” but you are out of date, at least if you live around San Francisco. $30 million just about buys you an upper-middle-class house in that area, and then you must pay the state property taxes on the damn thing. In any normal jurisdiction, $30 million would be enough to retire on in considerable luxury, but not around San Francisco. Moreover, 0.4% per annum may not sound like much, but I would remind you that today 10-year U.S. Treasuries yield only 0.67%. That leaves you only 0.39% after Federal income tax (oh bliss, no state income tax) so your California wealth tax is robbing you of 105% of your remaining income – even before you account for inflation’s effect on your capital. Yes, you could put your money in riskier, higher-yielding assets, but those Argentine bonds and Neiman Marcus private equity investments did not turn out so well, did they?
Then there is regulation. Depending on your business, you will have already found out that U.S. regulation, when combined with that of an “activist” state like California, is among the most user-unfriendly in the world. German, British or Japanese regulators are well-organized pussycats by comparison. The recent Uber decision means you cannot employ contractors, they have to be full-time employees, with all the costs involved. And heaven forfend you should be in any business with global warming implications – if you’re an offshore oil driller you’re out of luck, and have been since 1969 in terms of getting new leases on state-controlled waters. And it’s not just the environmental regulations imposed on you, but the effect on you of those imposed on others; California regulations on electric utilities are so severe that the main utility has filed for bankruptcy, and many areas have been subject to brownouts in a recent heat-wave, because the heat-wave happened on a calm night, thus putting all the state’s solar and wind electric capacity out of action. Now I grant you, the early industrialists did not have electricity at all, but if you think California will let you set up a good healthy coal-powered steam engine to solve your energy problem, you’re dreaming!
Then there are the social restrictions. In California, you no longer have free speech, at least not if anyone records you; you will lose your job for even the mildest hate speech – and if you’re self-employed, the Twitterati will still find a way to make your life a misery. You may stay out of prison, but will still destroy years of your life and millions of your dollars in court cases.
Like California, China has restrictions on free speech – you cannot criticize the government, if you want to stay out of jail (in California, you can criticize the government, but there are innumerable other things you cannot say, and it is not always clear in advance what they are). China also has fairly high taxes – a top marginal rate of 45% — though not as high as California.
The main difference is that in China, you must include a committee of Party members in your company, who have the right to second-guess all your business decisions. In California, you do not yet have to do this, but the mandatory “diversity officers” and such are getting ever closer to this level of intrusiveness. Still, there are advantages to China – for one thing, you don’t need to worry about environmental regulation – it’s pretty clear most Chinese companies don’t, as they emit vast quantities of CFCs, for example, a pollutant removed from Western supply chains two decades ago.
In Belarus, you don’t have to employ Party members within your company, though you certainly have to clear management decisions with your local Party boss – who may come expensive. As in China or California, you have no rights of free speech, so there is only a modest differential between the three locations in that respect. Of course, Belarus and China are notoriously not democracies (Belarus has rigged elections, China doesn’t bother having them at all) but then if you’re a Republican living round San Francisco you might as well not have democracy either – none of your local legislators will be dedicated to the things you believe in.
On Covid-19, China has almost certainly falsified its statistics, and given it the opportunity to spread to humanity in the first place, while California has imposed all kinds of niggling restrictions on individual freedoms. On the other hand, Belarus’ president Alexander Lukashenko has suffered from the virus, played ice hockey throughout its prevalence, and recommends sauna baths and vodka as a cure. Advantage: Belarus, I fancy.
Tax-wise Belarus (like its neighbor Russia) is a truly capitalist state; the country has a flat income tax rate of 12%, and even offers a discount to 9% for workers in the tech sector. This is much more important than people think. Both Belarus and Russia are dominated by a few very large companies, mostly in natural resources, with heavy state involvement and part ownership by cronies of the long-term President. They are not very attractive as investments, even where you could invest in them.
However, below the radar screen, where the state is uninvolved beyond local payoffs, there are a large number of small entrepreneurial companies that do well because of the low corporate tax rate (18%) and low individual tax rates on the entrepreneurs who created them. Belarus being deeply unfashionable, there are no Western venture capital companies crawling over the country. What’s more, monetary conditions are more favorable for the creation of truly productive small companies than in either California or China; inflation was 5.2% in the last 12 months and the National Bank of Belarus’ refinancing rate is 7.75% — healthy levels and relationships between the two that we have not seen in the U.S. since the early 1990s.
Since Belarus has a highly educated workforce, especially in technical areas, and very low costs indeed – far below those of even China, let alone California – it is potentially a highly attractive place to start a business, if you can tolerate the local political system and its corruption. Oh, and the power grid works, at least better than California’s.
Belarus is a nasty dictatorship. But so is China; on balance, rather nastier (I prefer rigged elections to none at all). Even California these days is hardly the land of the free that it used to be. However, in terms of economic climate for a local business there is really no comparison. None of the three countries is a truly attractive free-market environment, but by far the closest to that ideal is Belarus.
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