How America Lost Its Way
Not everyone is an entrepreneur. Still, everyone should try─if only once─to start a business. After all, it is small and medium enterprises that are the key to job creation. There is also something uniquely educational about sitting at the desk where the buck stops, in a dreary office you've just rented, working day and night with a handful of employees just to break even.
As an academic, I'm just an amateur capitalist. Still, over the past 15 years I've started small ventures in both the U.S. and the U.K. In the process I've learned something surprising: It's much easier to do in the U.K. There seemed to be much more regulation in the U.S., not least the headache of sorting out health insurance for my few employees. And there were certainly more billable hours from lawyers.
This set me thinking. We are assured by vociferous economists that economic growth would be higher in the U.S. and unemployment lower if only the government would run even bigger deficits and/or the Fed would print even more money. But what if the difficulty lies elsewhere, in problems that no amount of fiscal or monetary stimulus can overcome?
Nearly all development economists agree that good institutions─legislatures, courts, administrative agencies─are crucial. When poor countries improve their institutions, economic growth soon accelerates. But what about rich countries? If poor countries can get rich by improving their institutions, is it not possible that rich countries can get poor by allowing their institutions to degenerate? I want to suggest that it is.
Consider the evidence from the annual 'Doing Business' reports from the World Bank and International Finance Corporation. Since 2006 the report has published data for most of the world's countries on the total number of days it takes to start a business, get a construction permit, register a property, pay taxes, get an export or import license and enforce a contract. If one simply adds together the total number of days it would take to carry out all seven of these procedures sequentially, it is possible to construct a simple measure of how slowly─or fast─a country's bureaucracy moves.
让我们看看世界银行(World Bank)和国际金融公司(International Finance Corporation)发布的年度《全球营商环境报告》(Doing Business)显示出的证据吧。从2006年起，《全球营商环境报告》便开始发布在全球大多数国家开办企业、获得建筑许可、注册资产、缴纳税款、获得进口和出口许可证以及执行合同分别所需花费的天数数据。如果我们把完成上述七项程序分别所需的天数简单相加，那么我们就能够构建出一种简单的、衡量一国行政速度快慢的工具。
Seven years of data suggest that most of the world's countries are successfully making it easier to do business: The total number of days it takes to carry out the seven procedures has come down, in some cases very substantially. In only around 20 countries has the total duration of dealing with 'red tape' gone up. The sixth-worst case is none other than the U.S., where the total number of days has increased by 18% to 433. Other members of the bottom 10, using this metric, are Zimbabwe, Burundi and Yemen (though their absolute numbers are of course much higher).
Why is it getting harder to do business in America? Part of the answer is excessively complex legislation. A prime example is the 848-page Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of July 2010 (otherwise known as the Dodd-Frank Act), which, among other things, required that regulators create 243 rules, conduct 67 studies and issue 22 periodic reports. Comparable in its complexity is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (906 pages), which is also in the process of spawning thousands of pages of regulation. You don't have to be opposed to tighter financial regulation or universal health care to recognize that something is wrong with laws so elaborate that almost no one affected has the time or the will to read them.
为什么在美国经商越来越难了呢？有一部分责任要归咎于过分复杂的法律体系。最好的例证当属于2010年7月生效的长达848页的《华尔街改革和消费者保护法案》(Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, 也被称为多德•弗兰克法案(Dodd-Frank Act))。这项法案要求的内容包括，监管机构需要制定243条法规制度，开展67项研究，并发布22种周期性报告。复杂程度能与多德•弗兰克法案媲美的是长达906页《患者保护与平价医疗法案》(Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act)。目前，这两项法案都处于制定与之配套的数千页的监管规则的阶段。即便不反对加强金融监管或全民医疗保健制度的人士也会认同，如此繁琐的法律规定存在一定的问题，以至于当事人完全不具备通读相关法案的时间和意愿。
Who benefits from the growth of complex and cumbersome regulation? The answer is: lawyers, not forgetting lobbyists and compliance departments. For complexity is not the friend of the little man. It is the friend of the deep pocket. It is the friend of cronyism.
We used to have the rule of law. Now it is tempting to say we have the rule of lawyers, which is something different. For the lawyers can also make money even in the absence of complex legislation.
It has long been recognized that the U.S. tort system is exceptionally expensive. Indeed, tort reform is something few people will openly argue against. Yet the plague of class-action lawsuits continues unabated. Regular customers of Southwest Airlines LUV +2.81% recently received this email: 'Did you receive a Southwest Airlines drink coupon through the purchase of a Business Select ticket prior to August 1, 2010, and never redeem it? If yes, a legal Settlement provides a Replacement Drink Voucher, entitling you to a free drink aboard a Southwest flight, for every such drink coupon you did not redeem.'
This is not the product of the imagination of some modern-day Charles Dickens. It is a document arising from the class-action case, In re Southwest Airlines Voucher Litigation, No. 11-cv-8176, which came before Judge Matthew F. Kennelly of the District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. As the circular explains: 'This Action arose out of Southwest's decision, effective August 1, 2010, to only accept drink coupons received by Business Select customers with the purchase of a Business Select ticket on the date of the ticketed travel. The Plaintiffs in this case allege Southwest, in making that decision, breached its contract with Class Members who previously received drink coupons, ' etc.
这可不是那种当代查尔斯•狄更斯(Charles Dickens)幻想出来的情景。这份电子邮件是对一起集体诉讼案做出的回应。这起名为“西南航空公司优惠券诉讼”的案件是由伊利诺伊州北部行政区地方法院法官马修•肯内利(Matthew F. Kennelly)审理的，诉讼编号为No. 11-cv-8176。法院通告称：“这起诉讼是由于西南航空公司做出的一项决定引发的，即从2010年8月1日起，该公司只接受商务精选机票客户因购买行程当日机票所获得的饮品券。该案件的原告诉称，西南航空公司的这一决定违反了其与该决定生效前就获得了饮品券的会员的合同……”
As often happens in such cases, Southwest decided to settle out of court. Recipients of the email will have been nonplused to learn that the settlement 'will provide Replacement Drink Vouchers to Class Members who submit timely and valid Claim Forms.' One wonders how many have bothered.
Cui bono? The answer is, of course, the lawyers representing the plaintiffs. Having initially pitched for 'up to $7 million in fees, costs and expenses, ' these ingenious jurists settled for fees of $3 million 'plus costs not to exceed $30, 000' from Southwest.
Canada's Fraser Institute has been compiling an 'Economic Freedom' index since 1980, one component of which is a measure of the quality of a country's legal system and property rights. In the light of a case like the one described above, there is nothing surprising about the recent decline in U.S. performance. In 2000 U.S. law scored 9.23 out of 10. The most recent score (for 2010) was 7.12.
从1980年起，加拿大菲莎研究所(Fraser Institute)开始编纂一个名为“经济自由度”(Economic Freedom)的指数。这个指数是衡量一国法律体系和所有权状况的一个要素。鉴于与上文描述的案件类似的状况，美国经济自由度指数近期的下滑就不足为奇了。2000年，美国法律体系按照10分制的得分为9.23分。而美国最近的得分（2010年）仅为7.12分。
Such indexes must be used with caution, but the Fraser index is not the only piece of evidence suggesting that the rule of law in the U.S. is not what it was. The World Justice Project uses a completely separate methodology to assess countries' legal systems. The latest WJP report ranks the U.S. 17th out of 97 countries for the extent to which the law limits the power of government, 18th for the absence of corruption, 19th for regulatory enforcement, 22nd for access to civil justice and the maintenance of order and security, 25th for fundamental rights, and 26th for the effectiveness of criminal justice. Of all the former British colonies in the report, the U.S. ranks behind New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Canada, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom─though it does beat Botswana.
使用这样的指数必须小心谨慎，但是菲莎研究所的这一指数并不是揭示美国“法治”今非昔比的唯一证据。世界正义工程(World Justice Project)使用了一套完全不同的方法衡量了不同国家的法律体系。世界正义工程发表的最新报告显示，在97个国家中，美国在法律限制政府权力的程度方面排名第17位，在远离腐败方面排名第18位，在有效执法方面排名第19位，在有效民事司法方面和维护社会安全有序方面均排名第22位，在基本权利方面排名第25位，在有效刑事司法方面排名第26位。在报告涉及的所有前英属殖民地中，美国的排名位列新西兰、澳大利亚、新加坡、加拿大、中国香港以及英国本国之后──不过，美国的排名位于博茨瓦纳之前。
The decline of American institutions is no secret. Yet it is one of those strange 'unknown knowns' that is well documented but largely ignored. Each year, the World Economic Forum publishes its Global Competitiveness Index. Since it introduced its current methodology in 2004, the U.S. score has declined by 6%. (In the same period China's score has improved by 12%.) An important component of the index is provided by 22 different measures of institutional quality, based on the WEF's Executive Opinion Survey. Typical questions are 'How would you characterize corporate governance by investors and boards of directors in your country?' and 'In your country, how common is diversion of public funds to companies, individuals, or groups due to corruption?' The startling thing about this exercise is how poorly the U.S. fares.
美国国家机构的退化已经不是秘密。然而，这却属于那些我们明确了解、却在很大程度上忽视的内容之一。每一年，世界经济论坛(World Economic Forum)都会发布一份全球竞争力指数(Global Competitiveness Index)。自从2004年该机构采用了现行的指数编制方法以来，美国的竞争力指数已经下降了6%。（同期，中国的竞争力指数却上升了12%。）全球竞争力指数的一项重要指标是针对各国国家机构进行22个方面的评估，世界经济论坛进行的专家意见调查(Executive Opinion Survey)构成了这一评估的基础。其中，代表性的问题有“你如何评价贵国投资者和董事会进行公司治理的情况？”和“在贵国，由腐败引发的公共资金流向公司、个人或某些团体的现象的频繁程度如何？”令人惊讶的是，调查结果显示美国的表现非常差。
In only one category out of 22 is the U.S. ranked in the global top 20 (the strength of investor protection). In seven categories it does not even make the top 50. For example, the WEF ranks the U.S. 87th in terms of the costs imposed on business by 'organized crime (mafia-oriented racketeering, extortion).' In every single category, Hong Kong does better.
At the same time, the U.S. has seen a marked deterioration in its World Governance Indicators. In terms of 'voice and accountability, ' 'government effectiveness, ' 'regulatory quality' and especially 'control of corruption, ' the U.S. scores have all gone down since the WGI project began in the mid-1990s. It would be tempting to say that America is turning Latin, were it not for the fact that a number of Latin American countries have been improving their governance scores over the same period.
与此同时，美国的全球治理指标(World Governance Indicators)也已经显著恶化。自从上世纪90年代中期全球治理指标项目启动之后，在“言论自由与政府责任”、“政府效能”、“法规执行品质”，特别是“反腐”方面，美国的分数都有所下降。如果不是出于很多拉丁美洲国家在治理方面的得分逐渐提高的事实，我们倒可以说美国越来越像拉美国家了。
What is the process at work here? Perhaps this is a victory from beyond the grave for classical Western political theory. Republics, after all, were regarded by most ancient political philosophers as condemned to decadence, or to imperial corruption. This was the lesson of Rome. Democracy was always likely to give way to oligarchy or tyranny. This was the lesson of the French Revolution. The late Mancur Olson had a modern version of such cyclical models, arguing that all political systems were bound to become the captives, over time, of special interests. The advantage enjoyed by West Germany and Japan after World War II, he suggested, was that all the rent-seeking elites of the pre-1945 period had been swept away by defeat. This was why Britain won the war but lost the peace.
Whatever the root causes of the deterioration of American institutions, smart people are starting to notice it. Last year Michael Porter of Harvard Business School published a report based on a large-scale survey of HBS alumni. Among the questions he asked was where the U.S. was 'falling behind' relative to other countries. The top three lagging indicators named were: the effectiveness of the political system, the K-12 education system and the complexity of the tax code. Regulation came sixth, efficiency of the legal framework eighth.
不管美国国家机构退化的深层次原因是什么，杰出人士已经开始注意到了这个问题。去年，哈佛商学院(Harvard Business School)的迈克尔•波特(Michael Porter)在对本校校友进行了大规模的问卷调查后发布了一份报告。波特向校友们提出的问题包括下面这道：你认为美国在哪一方面落到了其他国家身后？调查结果显示，美国滞后的前三大领域分别是：政治体系的效能、基础教育体系以及复杂的会计准则。此外，规章制度排名第六位，法律体系的效能排名第八位。
Asked to name 'the most problematic factors for doing business' in the U.S., respondents to the WEF's most recent Executive Opinion Survey put 'inefficient government bureaucracy' at the top, followed by tax rates and tax regulations.
All this should not be interpreted as yet another prophecy of the imminent decline and fall of the U.S., however. There is some light in the gloom. According to the most recent United Nations projections, the share of the U.S. population that is over 65 will reach 25% only at the very end of this century. Japan has already passed that milestone; Germany will be next. By midcentury, both countries will have around a third of their population age 65 or older.
More imminently, a revolution in the extraction of shale gas and tight oil, via hydraulic fracking, is transforming the U.S. from energy dependence to independence. Not only could the U.S., at least for a time, re-emerge as the world's biggest oil producer; the lower electricity costs resulting from the fossil-fuel boom are already triggering a revival of U.S. manufacturing in the Southeast and elsewhere.
In a functioning federal system, the pace of institutional degeneration is not uniform. America's four 'growth corridors'─the Great Plains, the Gulf Coast, the Intermountain West and the Southeast─are growing not just because they have natural resources but also because state governments in those regions are significantly more friendly to business. There are already heartening signs of a great regeneration in states like Texas and North Dakota.
'In America you have a right to be stupid─if you want to be.' Secretary of State John Kerry made that remark off the cuff in February, speaking to a group of students in Berlin. It is not a right the founding fathers felt they needed explicitly to enshrine. But it has always been there, and America's leaders have frequently been willing to exercise it.
Yes, we Americans have the right to be stupid if we want to be. We can carry on pretending that our economic problems can be solved with the help of yet more fiscal stimulus or quantitative easing. Or we can face up to the institutional impediments to growth I have described here.
Not many economists talk about them, it's true. But that's because not many economists run businesses.
Adapted from Mr. Ferguson's new book, 'The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, ' to be published by Penguin Press on Thursday.
（本文选自Niall Ferguson的新书《西方文明的四个黑盒子》(The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die)。该书已由企鹅出版社(Penguin Press)出版。 【已有很多网友发表了看法，点击参与讨论】【对英语不懂，点击提问】【英语论坛】【返回首页】