‘For he that hath, to him shall be given’: the problem of regional inequality

DSC00234Success breeds success, and failure breeds failure. This seems to be the trend in the UK’s regional inequalities, as pointed out last week by Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England. The division in growth rates and income levels between London and the South East, and the North, are particularly stark. Only in the former are income levels now above those before the Great Recession, which began more than eight years ago, while the latter has fallen further behind.

This regional divide is not a new phenomenon. It has been the result of decades of uneven economic development in the regions of the UK. The almost relentless decline in the share of manufacturing output and jobs for the UK as a whole, particularly since the 1980s, hit the North of England and parts of Wales hard. Private sector dynamism has tended to be concentrated in London and the South East, particularly in the service sector, which makes up the majority of GDP and employment.

Successive governments have responded in different ways to regional inequality. Continue reading

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America’s lead on innovation and the role of the public sector

A nice post here by British economist Paul Ormerod which describes how the US is leading the world in the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI). In the last paragraph, he discusses how the development of key technologies that are perceived to be in the national interest there are initially funded and developed by the public sector, with an eye to their subsequent practical application by the private sector.

The idea that the world’s most powerful nation and largest economy owes many of its strengths to public sector-led innovation is an important one. In her eye-opening book, The Entrepreneurial State, Professor Mariana Mazzucato shows as a key example how many of the technologies that make up the smart phone were initially developed by the US government, and only later combined into desirable consumer products by private companies such as Apple and Samsung. From the internet and GPS, to the touchscreen and voice activation, government institutions led the way, mostly to try to maintain the country’s military superiority.

Mazzucato argues that we should acknowledge the key role of the public sector in taking on certain financial risks which the private sector will not bear, and support these kinds of innovation policies. Of course, there will be failures as well as successes, but this should not be a reason for abandoning state intervention. The private sector can fail as much as the public, sometimes on an enormous scale, ‘wasting’ resources in the process. As long as an experimental approach and a willingness to learn are adopted, there is the potential for a greatly positive public-private co-evolution which can help to drive economic progress.

The public-private divide under capitalism should be seen as something of a myth: the two are symbiotic and support each other in successful economies more extensively than is often believed. It is misleading and potentially damaging to call public provision or even public-private partnerships ‘socialist’. The truth is that the development of capitalism from its inception to today’s increasingly complex economy remains dependent on the state as much as the private sector.

Dialectical philosophy and the Chinese language: what I learned today

space-wallpaper-29A connection between dialectics, in which everything is considered to be in the process of becoming (something else), and Chinese language and Daoist philosophy. This is a helpful way of thinking when analysing economic growth and development, drawing on Marx’s method, which in turn drew on Hegelian thinking.

“In Chinese, properties take a processual or verbal form. One cannot say that the grass is green but must say that the grass is greening…there is no absolute or simple distinction between noun and verb in Chinese. Metaphysically…in their thought one thing is always passing into something else.”

Roy Bhaskar (2016), From East to West, Odyssey of a soul, Second Edition

Rents and rent-seeking: they can be good for your (economic) health

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A number of rents, and the rent-seeking which sustained them, played a critical role in the development of capitalism in the East Asian countries. Not only was the creation of rents critical for primitive accumulation and learning, transfer rents were critical for maintaining political stability even though the economic implications of these transfers varied significantly. The role of rents in economic development is worth stressing in the aftermath of the financial crisis of the late 1990s. The depth of this crisis led many economists to link the immediate economic woes of the regions to the systems of rents and rent-seeking popularly described as ‘crony capitalism’. The implicit counterfactual to ‘crony’ capitalism is a ‘genuine and impartial’ capitalism of free markets, zero rents, fair market-determined returns for everyone, and a minimal state which only maintains a level playing field. However appealing such a mythical capitalism may be, our discussion has been concerned to establish that such a model is not relevant for developing economies, and perhaps not for any economy. The relevant distinction is between rent-seeking systems which are developmental and those which are crippling. The relevant policy question is to understand how one may transform into the other…

…The long-run relationship between rent-seeking and growth is of much greater interest. If growth requires the management of growth-enhancing rents rather than the abolition of all rents, high-growth countries will always have rents and will therefore inevitably have to live with rent-seeking. Globalization and liberalization will not change this fundamental economic problem, nor is globalization or liberalization likely to succeed if policy-makers attempt to proceed on the basis of inappropriate no-rent market models. The no-rent model remains compelling not because the evidence supports it, but because its policy implications are much simpler to understand. Our analysis suggests that identifying the conditions which have in the past been conducive for growth is a much more challenging task. The conditions which allow value-enhancing rents to emerge and which limit rent-seeking costs vary from country to country because countries do not have the same political conditions and do not follow the same technology trajectory. This is where a deeper examination of the historical evidence is important to warn us against falling for seductively simple theories. There is no evidence in Asia, possibly no evidence anywhere, of long-run development taking place on a no-rent basis. Instead, the policy challenge is to construct and reconstruct institutions and politics in developing countries to sustain developmental rents and rent-seeking while attacking value-reducing rents and rent-seeking.

Mushtaq H. Khan (2000), Rent-Seeking as Process, in M.H. Khan and Jomo K.S. (eds) Rents, Rent-Seeking and Economic Development

Too much globalization?

Dani Rodrik, a professor at Harvard, discusses globalization and the potential trade-offs involved between globalization, the power of the nation state, and democracy, his ‘trilemma’, in this short video.

Rodrik suggests that we can have too much globalization, and that it can undermine national sovereignty or democracy depending on the choices made by particular countries. This framework helps to explain the political turmoil experienced by many developed nations across the world recently, with shifts towards the populist left and right.

Maybe the term populist is a little unfair, as some of the policies proposed by such parties may benefit the dispossessed. Having said that some of them also propose highly disagreeable policies. But surely economic factors, such as the uneven distribution of the material benefits from globalization, have contributed to a rejection of the mainstream elite. Something had to give.

Government as entrepreneur

A short video talk from TED by Professor Mariana Mazzucato of Sussex University on the state’s vital role in promoting innovation in a capitalist economy. Her book The Entrepreneurial State makes a fascinating read.

I wrote my MSc dissertation, way back when, on Industrial Policy in Malaysia, which admittedly had mixed results. Since then I have always been interested in how state intervention can promote growth and development, both in rich and developing nations.

Mazzucato describes how all the key technologies which make up the smart phone were funded by the US government, which definitely goes against much propaganda and conventional wisdom.

The IMF changes its tune on neoliberalism (a little)

International_Monetary_Fund_logo.svgHere is a link to a recent article by IMF researchers which backtracks on some of the tenets of that institution’s policy during what could be called the neoliberal era. It makes for interesting reading.

In particular, they make the case for capital controls to stabilize financial flows in certain circumstances; for reductions in inequality through ‘predistribution’ or redistribution in order to promote more sustainable economic growth; and they cast doubt on the wisdom of austerity which aims to reduce public debt as a share of GDP through tax rises and spending reductions instead of simply through policies to promote growth.

The piece does not wholeheartedly reject neoliberalism. In fact the authors praise certain aspects of it, such as the role of the expansion of international trade in reducing poverty. But this seems like a small step in the right direction.