China’s ‘unbalanced economy’ needs greater state control for growth

In this very brief interview, Michael Pettis argues that in order to sustain growth in the wake of the global pandemic, the Chinese government will need to ramp up public spending. The response to Covid-19, both in and out of China, has hit private consumption, investment and exports hard. Increased government spending is the only element of aggregate demand remaining.

He also repeats what he has said for some years, that the ‘underlying’ growth rate of the economy is much lower than the headline rate and the government’s targets due to massive investment in unproductive sectors and projects. This means that eventually even the headline growth rate will have to fall towards the underlying rate, possibly leading to a ‘lost decade’ for China.


Brazilian development: a case of regressive specialisation


Many development economists in the heterodox or non-mainstream tradition argue that the particular kinds of goods and services produced by an economy and the way this structure of production evolves is a key determinant of developmental success. Leaving this evolution to the ‘free market’ is unlikely to lead to rapid and sustainable growth and transformation. It should therefore be a target of industrial policy, although the form this takes will necessarily vary between different country contexts.

The May issue of the Cambridge Journal of Economics carries an interesting article on the economic development of Brazil in recent decades (1990-2016) as a case of what the authors call ‘regressive specialisation’. That is, “both production and export structures are strongly oriented to goods of low technological sophistication and low income elasticity of demand”.

This has led to a “falling-behind trajectory” so that GDP growth is slow relative to the richest countries and the economy fails to catch-up over a sustained period in terms of GDP per capita. This carries negative implications for efforts to reduce poverty and inequality and raise living standards for the majority of the population. Continue reading

Ben Fine on the classic development economics

CentralKigaliBen Fine is a professor at SOAS and a prominent Marxist economist. He has written on everything from the evolution of economic thought to consumption, industrial policy and development. His writing often takes the form of a critique of mainstream thinking, and appeals to develop an alternative, drawing on a political economy which comes to grips with modern capitalism, warts and all.

Here he summarises the classic development economics, which was influential in the post-war period before being superseded by what was becoming mainstream economics, increasingly dominated by microeconomics as opposed to a more systemic, contextual and interdisciplinary analysis concerned with economic and social transformation. The study of development which builds on the latter seems to me to offer a much richer understanding of this vital field. Continue reading

The causes of poverty: individual or structural failure?

Chang EconomicsUsersGuide“Starting from the Disney animations that we watch as young children telling us that if we believe in ourselves, we can achieve anything, we are bombarded with the message that individuals, and they alone, are responsible for what they get in their lives. We are persuaded to accept what I call the L’Oréal principle – if some people are paid tens of millions of pounds per year, it must be because they are ‘worth it’. The implication is that, if people are poor, it must be because they are either not good enough or not trying hard enough.

Individuals are in the end responsible for what they make out of their lives. Even if they are from broadly the same backgrounds, different people end up in different positions because they have different talents in different things and make different levels and types of efforts. It will be silly to blame everything on the ‘environment’  or luck. Attempts to suppress the effects of individual talents and efforts too much, as in the former socialist countries, can create societies that are ostensibly equal but fundamentally unfair…There are, however, causes of poverty that are ‘structural’ in the sense that they are beyond the control of the individual concerned.

Inadequate childhood nutrition, lack of learning stimulus and sub-par schools (frequently found in poor neighbourhoods) restrict the development of poor children, diminishing their future prospects. Parents may have some control over how much nutrition and learning stimulus their children get – and some poor parents, to their credit, make great efforts and provide more of those things than do other parents in similar situations – but there is a limit to what they can do. They are by definition under great financial stress. Many of them are totally exhausted from juggling two or three insecure jobs. And most of them had a poor childhood and poor education themselves.

All of this means that poor children start the race of life already weighed down by sandbags on their legs. Unless there are social measures to at least partially compensate for these disadvantages (eg., income support for poor parents, subsidized childcare, greater investments in schools in poor areas), those children won’t be able to fully realize their innate potentials.

Even when they overcome childhood deprivation and aspire to climb the social ladder, people from poorer backgrounds are likely to meet more obstacles. Lack of personal connections and a cultural gap with the elite often mean that people from underprivileged backgrounds are unfairly discriminated against in hiring and in promotion. If those people also happen to have other ‘wrong’ characteristics – in terms of gender, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation and what not – they will have an even harder time to get a fair chance to demonstrate their abilities.”

Ha-Joon Chang (2014), Economics: The User’s Guide, Penguin books, p.336-8.

Structuralism versus the mainstream on growth and development

DSC00236aThe insightful quote below distinguishes the structural approach to economic growth from the mainstream one. Although both allow for a transformation in the structure of the economy as part of the growth process, the former leads to a stronger argument for evolving patterns of state intervention to sustain this process.

This distinction in term of policy implications probably goes some way to explaining the biases on either side of the debate, as well as some of the hypocrisy of rich country policymakers, who have often used mainstream arguments to justify non-intervention in poor countries while continuing to employ a range of industrial and technology policies at home. For me the historical record of development, in particular the limited number of countries which have successfully “caught up” with the richest, favours the structuralist approach.

“There are two views regarding the role and implication of production structure for growth. The conventional narrative is that structural change in the patterns of production, expressed numerically in terms of variations in sectoral contributions to output, employment, investment, and patterns of specialization, is just a side effect of growth. As the economy expands and markets enlarge, new demands require new production processes that come into being by attracting inputs such as labor and capital. The structural configuration adjusts to incorporate novel activities or to enlarge existing ones. Growing economies almost always move from primary to secondary and further towards tertiary sectors.

The alternative view is that these patterns of structural change are not just a byproduct of growth but rather are among the prime movers. This has inherent policy implications. Because production structure must change if growth and development are to proceed, conscious choice of policies that will drive the transformation of the system toward certain sectors is essential for long-term economic expansion.

This insight is ignored by most contemporary economic theory. But it arises from observation and analysis of economic performance of developing countries around the world in the past and present. Economists who have been trained within the structuralist tradition share this perspective, holding that development requires transformation or the “ability of an economy to constantly generate new dynamic activities”, particularly those characterized by higher productivity and increasing returns to scale of production as reflected in decreasing costs per unit of output. This logic underlies Kaldor’s growth model…

One key aspect of growth in the poorest countries is that agriculture dominates the economy. Therefore, agricultural productivity growth is crucial, as in sub-Saharan Africa now. But productivity increases in the sector are significantly constrained by lack of access to modern technology, natural factors such as low fertility land, and mostly by its intrinsic inability to offer increasing returns. Hence, per capita output growth at 2 percent requires even higher growth rates of labor productivity in leading sectors (assuming that the ratio of employed labor to the population is fairly stable).

At higher income levels, the leading sector(s) must offer increasing returns and opportunities for robust output growth in response to demand. As demonstrated in…a raft of historical studies, a clear pattern of structural change emerges from the data for economies (today mostly in East and South Asia) which sustain rapid growth. Historically, manufacturing has almost always served as the engine for productivity growth but not for job creation (India with its information processing boom is an intriguing recent exception). For a sector or the entire economy to generate employment, its per capita growth rate of demand has to exceed its productivity growth. Net job creation usually takes place in services.

…[P]atterns of international trade also shift as economies grow richer. Their exports become more technically sophisticated and shift from raw materials toward manufactured products, especially in recent decades with the explosion of assembly manufacturing around the world. Import composition also shifts in response to overall changes in the basic structure of the economy. Indeed, those changes in the pattern of specialization in international trade are an essential part of the transformation of production structures, a fact that has been highlighted by the role that the terms “import substitution” and “export diversification” have played in development debates. Concerning these changes, one key question is whether an economy can pass through the raw material and assembly export stages to sell products abroad that have a high value-added content at home.”

José Antonio Ocampo, Codrina Rada, and Lance Taylor (2009), Growth and Policy in Developing Countries: A Structuralist Approach, New York: Columbia University Press, p.8-10.

Too much finance – misallocation, corruption and ideology

800px-A1_Houston_Office_Oil_Traders_on_Monday“[T]he financial sector has become much more profitable than the non-financial sector, which has not always been the case. This has enabled it to offer salaries and bonuses that are much higher than those offered by other sectors, attracting the brightest people, regardless of the subjects they studied in universities. Unfortunately, this leads to a misallocation of talents, as people who would be a lot more productive in other professions – engineering, chemistry and what not – are busy trading derivatives or building mathematical models for their pricing. It also means that a lot of higher-educational spending has been wasted, as many people are not using the skills they were originally trained for.

The disproportionate amount of wealth concentrated in the financial sector also enables it to most effectively lobby against regulations, even when they are socially beneficial. The growing two-way flow of staff between the financial industry and the regulatory agencies means that lobbying is often not even necessary. A lot of regulators, who are former employees of the financial sector, are instinctively sympathetic to the industry that they are trying to regulate – this is known as the problem of the ‘revolving door’.

More problematically, the revolving door has also encouraged an insidious form of corruption. Regulators may bend the rules – sometimes to the breaking point – to help their potential future employers. Some top regulators are even cleverer. When they leave their jobs, they don’t bother to look for a new one. They just set up their own private equity funds or hedge funds, into which the beneficiaries of their past rule-bending will deposit money, even though the former regulators may have little experience in managing an investment fund.

Even more difficult to deal with is the dominance of pro-finance ideology, which results from the sector being so powerful and rewarding to people who work in – or for – it. It is not simply because of the sector’s lobbying power that most politicians and regulators have been reluctant to radically reform the financial regulatory system after the 2008 crisis, despite the incompetence, recklessness and cynicism in the industry which it has revealed. It is also because of their ideological conviction that maximum freedom for the financial industry is in the national interest.”

Ha-Joon Chang (2014), Economics: The User’s Guide, Penguin Books, p.306-7.

The selfish and the social

Brain-598x342Until recently, much of economic theory has neglected the roles that evolution, psychology and biology play in shaping the economy and its human constituents. This has been detrimental to mainstream economics’ narrow vision of economic man, who is supposed to behave in a selfish, rational fashion as he optimises social outcomes, primarily in the realm of markets.

A notable recent contribution which attempts to counter this conception is Rojhat Avsar’s The Evolutionary Origins of Markets. The book argues that the human brain and human behaviour have evolved in ways which make the creating and sustaining of socioeconomic institutions, not least the market and exchange, outcomes of social motives as much as selfish ones.

Avsar’s short book contains a wealth of ideas and applications of studies of human nature to the economy. I will not attempt to cover more than a few of them, or review the book, in this post. Instead I want to discuss one model of the human brain taken from the book and note its implications for our understanding of man in the economy. I will also introduce some ideas from a similar effort by institutional and evolutionary economist Geoffrey Hodgson, which also employs concepts from biology in its attempt to construct an alternative to homo economicus. Continue reading

Can the history of economics inspire a pluralistic approach to economics? — Developing Economics

Pluralistic Economics and Its History, edited by Ajit Sinha of Thapar School of Liberal Arts & Sciences, Patiala (India) and Alex M. Thomas of Azim Premji University, Bengaluru (India), contains seventeen essays. This review seeks to engage with some of the principal themes that animate the essays in this volume.

via Can the history of economics inspire a pluralistic approach to economics? — Developing Economics

Ha-Joon Chang: why we need to pay more attention to production

Chang EconomicsUsersGuideMore from Ha-Joon Chang’s Economics: The User’s Guide, this time on production and its relative neglect by neoclassical economics. Despite the rise of the so-called knowledge economy, manufacturing and industry more generally remain vital to the development and evolution of our society, and a key driver of the economy.

Chang has written extensively on industrial policies, making the case for their role in promoting economic progress, both in the poorest and the richest countries. Here he is on p.273-275:

“Production has been seriously neglected in the mainstream of economics, which is dominated by the Neoclassical school. For most economists, economics ends at the factory gate (or increasingly the entrance of an office block), so to speak. The production process is treated as a predictable process, pre-determined by a ‘production function’, clearly specifying the amounts of capital and labour that need to be combined in order to produce a particular product.

Insofar as there is interest in production, it is at the most aggregate level – that of the growth of the size of the economy. The most famous refrain along this line, coming from the debate on US competitiveness in the 1980s, is that it does not matter whether a country produces potato chips or micro-chips. There is little recognition that different types of economic activity may bring different outcomes –  not just in terms of how much they produce but more importantly in how they effect the development of the country’s ability to produce, or productive capabilities. And in terms of the latter effect, the importance of the manufacturing sector cannot be over-emphasized, as it has been the main source of new technological and organizational capabilities over the last two centuries.

Unfortunately, with the rise of the discourse of post-industrial society in the realm of ideas and the increasing dominance of the financial sector in the real world, indifference to manufacturing has positively turned into contempt. Manufacturing, it is often argued, is, in the new ‘knowledge economy’, a low-grade activity that only low-wage developing countries do.

But factories are where the modern world has been made, so to speak, and will keep being remade. Moreover, even in our supposed post-industrial world, services, the supposed new economic engine, cannot thrive without a vibrant manufacturing sector. The fact that Switzerland and Singapore, which many people consider to be the ultimate examples of successful service-led prosperity, are actually two of the three most industrialized countries in the world (together with Japan) is a testimony to this.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, development of productive capabilities, especially in the manufacturing sector, is crucial if we are to deal with the greatest challenge of our time – climate change. In addition to changing their consumption patterns, the rich countries need to further develop their productive capabilities in the area of green technologies. Even just to cope with the adverse consequences of climate change, developing countries need to further develop technological and organizational capabilities, many of which can only be acquired through industrialization.”