Wednesday, January 13, 2010

How painful is economic reform?

In my last post I presented evidence that people in countries with relatively high growth rates tend to perceive that their lives are improving. This is one of the reasons why I reject the view that economic growth makes people unhappy and that so called ‘unhappy growth’ can explain the reluctance of some governments to undertake economic reforms.

This raises questions about the effects of economic reforms on perceived changes in the quality of life. Do people in countries undergoing economic reforms tend to perceive that their lives were better prior to the reforms? My initial thought was that this would depend on the success of the reforms in raising economic growth rates.

I have now attempted to test this view empirically. In the analysis the perceived improvement in quality of life over the last five years is calculated as the difference between the rating of life today and life 5 years ago using data from the Gallup World Poll. Regression analysis has been used to explain variation in perceived improvement in life for 104 countries in terms of economic growth rate over the five years to 2007, improvement in governance over the same period (the average change in the 6 World Bank governance indicators), change in regulatory quality (the World Bank governance indicator most closely related to reforms that increase economic freedom) and a variable reflecting the extent to which assessments that people in different countries make of their lives tend to differ from the ratings that would be expected on the basis of income levels.

The regression explains about 40 per cent of the variation in perceived improvement in life among the 104 countries. The results show:
• Economic growth has a positive effect on perceived change in quality of life.
• Improvements in governance have a positive effect
• Improvement in regulatory quality have a negative effect on perceived change in quality of life.
(These results pass the standard statistical test relating to standard errors of estimates. Anyone who wants to see the results is welcome to contact me by email.)

It is important for the negative impact of change in regulatory quality to be seen in context. Economic reforms are generally undertaken in the hope that they will result in improvements in quality of life through higher economic growth. The chart below shows that countries which undertook regulatory reforms generally had relatively high economic growth rates. There was only one country undertaking regulatory reforms which had a negative economic growth rate.

The green diamonds in the chart denote the 10 countries in which people had the greatest perceived improvement in their quality of life. The red diamonds denote the countries with the greatest perceived decline in quality of life. The green diamonds are generally associated with higher economic growth rates than the red diamonds.

The evidence seems to support my intuitions – which are probably similar to the intuitions of most other economists interested in public policy - about the painfulness of economic reforms. Reforms often involve removal of regulatory barriers that protect the incomes of some groups at the expense of the broader community. The people who experience these income losses tend to resist reforms and to perceive that their lives were better before they were undertaken. When reforms are successful in promoting economic growth, however, these perceived losses tend to be outweighed by the benefits to those who gain from the reforms. Ad hoc attempts to promote reform of particular regulations are likely to be less successful than reform programs that are sufficiently broad and persistent to enable a high proportion of the population to perceive that their lives have improved.

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