About 12% of ships around the world fly the Liberian flag

This is from The Economist:

Over 4,400 vessels (about 12% of global shipping) fly its flag. And the number is growing.

How did this happen?

The secret of this maritime success is an old practice known as the flag of convenience. In the 1920s shipowners began to register their vessels abroad for a small fee. This allowed them to avoid taxes and labour laws back home. Liberia had few regulations and made it easy to sign up. By the 1960s it had the largest merchant navy in the world.

Read the whole thing here.

Apparently, the government of Liberia makes over $20m a year from its shipping registry.

Two of the “unique advantages” cited on the registry’s website include:

Vessel Construction – The Liberian Registry does not require vessels to be constructed by a particular nation. The supplies for construction and outfitting are also free from similar restrictions. Without this type of protectionism, shipowners are allowed to search and solicit shipbuilders solely on commercial considerations, such as competence, experience, and price.

Vessel Manning – Manning requirements specified by the Liberian Registry are based exclusively on competence, international recognition and safe operation. Many national registries require manning by citizens of the country of registry. This promotes higher wages, inflated labour costs and overheads, excessive bureaucracy, and the potential for interference from organized labour.

The Liberian Registry is headquartered in Dulles, Virginia in the United States.

Since its inception, the Liberian Registry has been operated from the United States. In fact, the U.S. structure and principles governing the Administration of the Liberian Registry are embedded into Liberian law. Pursuant to these statutes, the Registry must be principally operated from the U.S. and managed by international maritime professionals for the benefit of the people of Liberia. The strong U.S. – Liberia alliance provides the Registry with the ability to participate in the international arena with key industry institutions.

This graph doesn’t tell us what you think it does (Because stateness matters)

You probably saw this graph in your undergraduate development class — almost invariably as a demonstration of South Korea’s massive growth relative to countries that were allegedly at similar levels of “development” in the early 1960s.

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 3.39.29 AM

But were these countries really at the same level of development as South Korea?

The simple answer is no.

And to know why you need to read States and Markets: The Advantage of an Early Start:

A longer history of statehood might prove favorable to economic development under the circumstances of recent decades for several reasons. There may be learning by doing in the ways of public administration, in which case long-standing states, with larger pools of experienced personnel, may do what they do better than newly formed states. The operation of a state may support the development of attitudes consistent with bureaucratic discipline and hierarchical control, making for greater state (and perhaps more broadly, organizational) effectiveness. An experienced state like China seems to have been capable of fostering basic industrialization and the upgrading of its human capital stock even under institutions of government planning and state property in the 1960s and 1970s, whereas an inexperienced state like Mozambique sowed economic disaster when attempting to pursue similar policies a few years later. Such differences may carry over to a market setting — contrast, for instance, the late 20th century economic development of Japan and South Korea, modern countries with ancient national histories, with that of the Philippines, a nation that lacked a state before its 16th century colonization by Spain.

Development is not just about income. It also involves a lot of intangible socio-political variables. Going back to the graph, a key difference in 1960 between Ghana, India, and South Korea was the degree of coherent stateness. On this measure South Korea was way ahead of its developing country peers.

For more on this Dani Rodrik has a delightfully concise take on how South Korea and Taiwan grew rich.

Even within Africa, historical stateness makes a difference in development outcomes. A neat recent example can be found in Ethiopia’s ability to build a light rail in Addis in record time as Nigeria floundered.