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.”

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