This story is about a canal and a plastic milk crate. It takes place on a mango farm in Haiti. The farmer has 2 mango trees. The trees produce her entire crop and her income of approximately $2 a day. As described by NPR’s This American Life, to double production, this farmer just needs water from a nearby river that a short canal would deliver. For Americans to buy more of her crop, she just needs a crate to minimize bruising. To get the crate, she needs aid from an NGO. For the NGO to provide the crate, she has to participate in a farmers’ cooperative. For the cooperative to get the crate, they need property on which to store crates. To get the property, the farmers have to be willing to give it to the coop.
I think you see where this is going. It is complicated. And, to make matters worse, Haiti is listed by the World Bank as one of the toughest places in Latin America to do business. Ranking close to last (#32) in such categories as “ease of starting a business” and “construction permits,” Haiti’s bureaucracy presents formidable business obstacles.
The Economic Lesson
Countless economic issues relate to Haiti’s canal and crates story. Technology (a canal), tools (crates), and transport (roads) are only several challenges facing a mango farmer who wants to double her production. Add huge transaction costs (“red tape”) to the tale and you wind up, so far, with a sad ending. You also have a production possibilities curve that will not increase.
To hear a surprising solution, you might want to listen to the econtalk podcast on charter cities from Stanford’s Paul Romer.
For centuries, the US Postal Service delivered most of the mail. The job it did was satisfactory but not optimal. Yes, through sleet and snow, etc., we received our letters and packages but employees rarely focused on cutting costs and innovating. Two results? The USPS loses money each year and entrepreneurs create FedEx and UPS.
Concerned about government’s inefficiencies, economic historian, John Steel Gordon, provided some history. The problem, we soon see, is the wrong incentives. Save money? Your budget decreases. Innovate? People might lose jobs. However, the 19th century British Navy had a solution. Seamen who captured enemy vessels shared the loot. A 21st century version could let bureaucrats share contemporary plunder. According to Gordon, any public employee who devised a cost saving initiative would receive some of the money saved or a financial regulator who uncovered massive fraud could receive a reward.
My concern takes me back to incentives. In the former Soviet Union, no one ever figured out how to stimulate efficiency and productivity through government selected incentives. When people knew they would be rewarded for increasing production in a lamp factory, they produced lighter lamps. When the quota was weight, each lamp became heavier. All too frequently, bureaucratic incentives become perverse incentives that have unexpected consequences.
The Economic lesson
Adam Smith, in 1776, suggested that we are such a diverse population that no government individual could possibly know what is best for each of us. For that reason, he preferred the market and individual initiative as the source of a just and fair society. With 21st century government burgeoning, is it possible to create the incentives that would optimize its performance?