Rethinking anti-corruption for COVID-19 – From Poverty to Power blog

Here is an interesting recent post from the Oxfam blog From Poverty to Power, written by Mushtaq Khan and Pallavi Roy of the SOAS Anti-Corruption Evidence Consortium (SOAS-ACE).

This brief article draws on the research of the authors and the ACE to outline some general principles for developing countries to use in their response to the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly in scaling up the overall response via a coordinated effort from a variety of agencies.

The authors write:

“the reality is that in many countries, corruption and governance constraints will limit the rapid scaling up of responses to COVID-19. As we explain in a SOAS-ACE policy brief, this will not only undermine treatment responses, but result in cycles of unsustainable lockdowns and massive economic deprivation.”

“…The enormity of the crisis justifies thinking in terms of a wartime response and asking how the different parts of this strategy could be provided by mobilizing different delivery agencies to achieve the most cost-effective and rapid scaling up.”

They conclude:

“[D]eveloping countries could temporarily mitigate corruption and low capacity by involving public, private and third sector actors to enable scaling up on the basis of revealed competence. This does not get rid of corruption but reduces its level to maximize scaling up. This is very different from the optimization strategy of standard economics.

…[In addition] we were deliberately suggesting building in redundancy. In a storm, even if you are building a small hut, you would do well to build some redundancy into each wall. A leaner approach may look more cost effective, till the storm blows it away. It is only if developing countries have an effective strategy of strengthening their health responses in the storm can lockdowns be relaxed in a sustainable way.”

Joan Robinson on economics and the study of society

Joan Robinson (1973)

Apart from her voluminous academic writings, the Cambridge Keynesian economist Joan Robinson wrote several popular books. Freedom and Necessity – An Introduction to the Study of Society was published in 1970. Although some of it dates somewhat, there is plenty of interest and contemporary relevance that remains. Here are a few such extracts:

(From the preface) “It seems to me that an economic interpretation of history is an indispensable element in the study of society, but it is only one element. In layers below it lie geography, biology and psychology, and in layers above it the investigation of social and political relationships and the history of culture, law and religion.”

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Ha-Joon Chang: facts, even numbers, are in the end not objective

Chang EconomicsUsersGuideThis is the last in the recent series of excerpts taken from Ha-Joon Chang’s Economics: The User’s Guide. Chang is an economist at Cambridge University (his personal non-academic website can be found here) and specialises in development economics. He has also written a number of popular books, some of which aim to debunk many of the myths of mainstream economic discourse.

The User’s Guide is one such, aimed at the lay reader rather than academics, and engages in a pluralist introductory approach to economics. I have therefore chosen a number of quotes over the past few months which stood out for me and which I felt were worth sharing. Here is Chang on p.453-5:

“Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German writer (Faust) and scientist (Theory of Colours), once said that ‘everything factual is already a theory’. This is something to bear in mind when looking at economic ‘facts’.

Many would assume that numbers are straightforward and objective, but each of them is constructed on the basis of a theory. I might not go as far as Benjamin Disraeli, the former British Prime Minister, who quipped that ‘there are lies, damned lies, and statistics’, but numbers in economics are invariably the results of attempts to measure concepts whose definitions are often extremely contentious or at least debatable.

This is not just an academic quibble. The way we construct economic indicators has huge consequences for how we organize our economy, what kind of policies we implement and ultimately how we live our lives.

This applies to even the most basic figures that we take for granted, like GDP or the rate of unemployment. The exclusion of household work and unpaid care work from GDP has inevitably led to the undervaluation of those types of work. GDP’s inability to take into account positional goods has directed consumption in the wrong direction and made it an unreliable measure of living standards for rich countries, where those goods are more important. The standard definition of unemployment underestimates the true extent of it by excluding discouraged workers in the rich countries and the under-employed in the developing countries. Naturally, these types of joblessness have been rather neglected by policymakers.

All of this is not to say that numbers in economics are all useless or even necessarily misleading. We need numbers to be able to get the sense of the magnitude of our economic world and monitor how it changes; we just shouldn’t accept them unthinkingly.”

The Chinese economy: development, finance and reform

800px-Chinese_draakEven before the Covid-19 outbreak, the Chinese economy was slowing, after more than three decades of rapid economic expansion. Thirty years of recorded growth at around ten per cent per annum is unprecedented in human history. This has enabled hundreds of millions of people to be lifted out of poverty, and the material transformation of a poor country to one that is classified by the World Bank as upper-middle-income.

Despite all this, there is a broad consensus, including among Chinese government officials, that the country’s development model needs to change if it is to continue its transformation and become a rich country. Many economists argue that this will involve a rebalancing of the economy, in order to continue to grow and develop in a way that is more sustainable both for China itself, and for the rest of the world, given that as the world’s second largest economy behind the US, internal changes now have a major impact globally. Continue reading

Paul Ormerod: History shows us that slavery is an economic catastrophe as well as a moral one

An interesting and topical article by Paul Ormerod, which argues that slavery has historically been as much an economic problem as a moral one. Slave-based societies have no incentive to invest in labour-saving technologies, given the low cost of the workforce. The widespread adoption of improved technologies is necessary for sustained rises in productivity and living standards.

I would also add that there is a potential problem of insufficient demand due to the absence of wages. Of course, low wages and poor working conditions can also be a problem for a capitalist society, if growth is constrained by inadequate demand in the form of consumption out of wages. Decent pay and working conditions also help to promote well-being. But despite their flaws, only capitalist economies have enabled sustained rises in living standards for the masses. Ormerod concludes:

“Slavery is of course morally repugnant, a stain on the histories of civilised societies. But it is also economically detrimental to the societies it ostensibly appears to benefit. The fact is that no society based on slavery has ever come anywhere near to delivering decent living standards for the average person.

The only system which has is capitalism. Britain and other areas of north west Europe started to become rich through a system based on the rule of law, the ability of individuals to profit from innovation and not be expropriated, and the freedom of labour to negotiate contracts.

Morality undoubtedly played a part in Britain’s leading role in abolishing slavery. But by the early nineteenth century, it had become an anachronism. Resources employed in slavery could be put to much more productive use under capitalism.”

Michael Hudson on the End of History and Fukuyama’s about-face

hudson-200x300Another extract in this occasional series from Michael Hudson’s J is for Junk Economics (p.88-9), a book which aims “to revive a more reality-based analysis and policy-making…[by reconstructing] economics as a discipline, starting with its vocabulary and basic concepts.” This time he considers the phrase famously coined by political scientist Francis Fukuyama in the early 1990s, and how events superseded Fukuyama’s ideas, forcing a change of heart.

End of History: A term reflecting neoliberal hopes that the West’s political evolution will stop once economies are privatized and public regulation of banking and production are dismantled. Writing in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992) coined the term “liberal democracy” to describe a globalized world run by the private sector, implicitly under American hegemony after its victory in today’s clash of civilizations.

It is as if the consolidation of feudal lordship is to be restored as “the end of history,” rolling back the Enlightenment’s centuries of reform. As Margaret Thatcher said in 1985: “There is no alternative” [TINA]. To her and her neoliberal colleagues, one essayist has written “everything else is utopianism, unreason and regression. The virtue of debate and conflicting perspectives are discredited because history is ruled by necessity.”

Fukuyama’s view that history will stop at this point is the opposite of the growing role of democratic government that most 20th century economists had expected to see. Evidently he himself had second thoughts when what he had celebrated as “liberal democracy” turned out to be a financial oligarchy appropriating power for themselves. In 1995, Russia’s economic planning passed into the hands of the “Seven Bankers,” with US advisors overseeing the privatization of post-Soviet land and real estate, natural resources and infrastructure. Russian “liberalism” simply meant an insider kleptocracy spree.

Seeing a similar dynamic in the United States, Fukuyama acknowledged (in a February 1, 2012 interview with Der Spiegel) that his paean to neoliberalism was premature: “Obama had a big opportunity right at the middle of the crisis. That was around the time Newsweek carried the title: ‘We Are All Socialists Now.” Obama’s team could have nationalized the banks and then sold them off piecemeal. But their whole view of what is possible and desirable is still very much shaped by the needs of these big banks.” That mode of “liberal democracy” seems unlikely to be the end of history, unless we are speaking of a permanent Dark Age in which forward momentum simply stops.”

Ha-Joon Chang: why free trade may not be best

ha-joon-chang“When they hear someone criticizing free trade, free-trade economists tend to accuse the critic of being ‘anti-trade’. But criticizing free trade is not to oppose trade.

Apart from the benefits of specialization that the theory of comparative advantage extols, international trade can bring many benefits. By providing a bigger market, it allows producers to produce more cheaply, as producing a larger quantity usually lowers your costs (this is known as economies of scale). This aspect is especially important for smaller economies, as they will have to produce everything expensively, if they cannot trade and have a bigger market. By increasing competition, international trade can force producers to become more efficient – insofar as they are not developing country firms that would get wiped out by vastly superior foreign firms. It might also produce innovation by exposing producers to new ideas (eg., new technologies, new designs, new managerial practices).

International trade is particularly important for developing countries. In order to increase their productive capabilities and thus develop their economies, they need to acquire better technologies. They can in theory invent such technologies themselves, but how many new technologies can relatively backward economies really invent on their own?…For these countries, therefore, it would be madness not to take advantage of all those technologies out there that they can import, whether in the form of machines or technology licensing (buying up the permit to use someone else’s patented technology) or technical consultancy. But if a developing country wants to import technologies, it needs to export and earn ‘hard currencies’ (universally accepted currencies, such as the US dollar or the Euro), as no one will accept its money for payments. International trade is therefore essential for economic development.

The case for international trade is indisputable. However, this does not mean that free trade is the best form of trade, especially (but not exclusively) for developing countries. When they engage in free trade, developing countries have their chances of developing productive capabilities hampered…The argument that international trade is essential should never be conflated with the argument that free trade is the best way to trade internationally.”

Ha-Joon Chang (2014), Economics: The User’s Guide, Pelican Books, p.412-4.

Social justice and economic performance: beyond the trade-offs?

workersThe subtitle of this blog refers to two of its key concerns when it comes to the application of our ‘dismal science’: economic progress and social justice. The third is individual liberty. It was John Maynard Keynes who in 1926 coined these three as part of the “political problem of mankind” (although he referred to efficiency rather than progress), and noted how difficult they are to reconcile.

A fourth, modern, concern might be sustainability, though this can be incorporated into them in the sense that without them, the economy and society cannot be sustained in the long run. This would include environmental concerns. Theories of sustainable development look at the interaction between the economy, society and environment and try to forge a path in which, being dependent on each other, they are balanced and, literally, sustainable and sustained!

A broad conception of economic progress would necessarily see it as sustainable. If, for example, a particular pattern of economic growth destroys the nature on which it depends, then it will be undermined. At the same time, modern economic growth, which is still part of what most economists consider to be ‘progress’, is a process of transformation, not least of nature, and of society. The task is to ensure that progress can be sustained and this may require that we adopt richer measures of development. For me this needs to include social justice and well-being.

This post explores some themes relevant to the achievement of social justice and economic progress in both developed and developing economies. Some economists consider there to be a trade-off between the two, but plenty of progressive thinkers reject this pessimistic outlook. Indeed they are, together, probably two of the essential ingredients of political stability and a sustainable democracy. Continue reading

Joan Robinson on the nature of economics and the uniqueness of humanity

Joan Robinson (1973)

Joan Robinson was Professor of Economics at Cambridge. She was a leading figure in what became the post-Keynesian school, having been one of the group of academics surrounding Keynes as he developed the ideas which led to his General Theory in the 1930s.

She was highly productive and covered a broad range of subjects during her life, from the economics of imperfect competition to the theory of economic growth, as well as popular books on economic philosophy and the nature of society. She was well-known for being fierce in debate and for her tireless efforts at critiquing neoclassical theory.

The following is a brief extract from an interview with Diego Pizano conducted in 1977 and included in his Conversations with Great Economists (p.90):

“Keynes was certainly aware that an economic approach to history was only one, yet dispensable, element in the study of society. Economics is a discipline constructed on the basis of elements of many sciences – geography, biology and psychology – and it interacts with a whole range of subjects from the history of culture to politics, law and religion. Keynes had a very good background in most of these disciplines but it is probably true that he was not sufficiently aware of the connections that certainly exist between the economic and the biological process.

…I would like to say that it is crucial to understand the biological basis of human behavior to shed light on the problem of the origin of society. Man was once defined as a tool-making animal, but now it has been discovered that chimpanzees construct tools designed for particular uses. Neither tools, nor manners characterize man: language does. The invention of a procedure that enabled man to convey information about things not present and to speculate about things not known was the great step. Language made social life much richer and complex and this obviously implies that the economic life of man is much more complicated than that of any other species.”

The saving glut of the rich

800px-A1_Houston_Office_Oil_Traders_on_MondayRobert Armstrong, US finance editor at the Financial Times, penned a helpful opinion piece in Tuesday’s paper, in which he tries to account for the disconnect between financial markets and the real economy in recent years, the Covid-19 correction notwithstanding. As he says:

“Until last Friday, it looked as if stock markets had lost all track of reality. In the world, we saw spiralling unemployment and political disarray. In the markets, especially the huge American market, exuberance.”

And:

“The market, however, is already acting like it is the fourth of July. The S&P 500 has risen to within 5 per cent of its all-time high.”

This is despite the fact that

“Covid-19 has put working- and middle-class people under immense strain, while the asset-owning classes have felt relatively little pain.”

which is a potential source of political unrest and, in the end, political and economic change.

He accounts for this by positing a self-reinforcing cycle between rising inequality and rising financial markets, in the US in particular, drawing on a recent working paper by Atif Mian, Ludwig Straub and Amir Sufi. It is quite a long and technical paper, so rather than go through it, I will quote from Armstrong’s article, in which he summarises the key points: Continue reading