The US does not have the highest living standard in the world (Ha-Joon Chang’s Thing 10)

23-things-they-don-t-tell-you-about-capitalismAnother telling extract from Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism (p.102-3, 111):

“The average US citizen does have greater command over goods and services than his counterpart in any other country in the world except Luxembourg. However, given the country’s high inequality, this average is less accurate in representing how people live than the averages for other countries with a more equal income distribution. Higher inequality is also behind the poorer health indicators and worse crime statistics of the US. Moreover, the same dollar buys more things in the US than in most other rich countries mainly because it has cheaper services than in other comparable countries, thanks to higher immigration and poorer employment conditions. Furthermore, Americans work considerably longer than Europeans. Per hour worked, their command over goods and services is smaller than that of several European countries. While we can debate which is a better lifestyle – more material goods with less leisure time (as in the US) or fewer material goods with more leisure time (as in Europe) – this suggests that the US does not have an unambiguously higher living standard than comparable countries.

…There is no simple way to compare living standards across countries…by focusing just on how many goods and services our income can buy, we miss out a lot of other things that constitute elements of the ‘good life’, such as the amount of quality leisure time, job security, freedom from crime, access to healthcare, social welfare provisions, and so on. While different individuals and countries will definitely have different views on how to weigh these indicators against each other and against income figures, non-income dimensions should not be ignored, if we are to build societies where people genuinely ‘live well’.”

Ha-Joon Chang: Financial markets need to become less – not more – efficient

In this video Cambridge University’s Ha-Joon Chang argues that financial markets need to become less efficient in order to serve the real economy and fund productive investment, rather than fueling financial asset-price bubbles and speculation.

He also makes the case that society needs more ‘active economic citizens’, who can press politicians and other elites to fashion better economic policies, and more effectively hold them to account.

Free-market policies rarely make poor countries rich (Ha-Joon Chang’s Thing 7)

23-things-they-don-t-tell-you-about-capitalismThese telling extracts from Ha-Joon Chang‘s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism come from ‘Thing 7’ (p.63-5):

“Contrary to what is commonly believed, the performance of developing countries in the period of state-led development was superior to what they have achieved during the subsequent period of market-oriented reform. There were some spectacular failures of state intervention, but most of these countries grew much faster, with more equitable income distribution and far fewer financial crises, during the ‘bad old days’ than they have done in the period of market-oriented reforms. Moreover, it is also not true that almost all rich countries have become rich through free-market policies. The truth is more or less the opposite. With only a few exceptions, all of today’s rich countries, including Britain and the US – the supposed homes of free trade and free markets – have become rich through the combinations of protectionism, subsidies and other policies that today they advise the developing countries not to adopt. Free-market policies have made few countries rich so far and they will make few rich in the future.”

To illustrate the above, a brief country case study:

“[This] country’s trade policy has literally been the most protectionist in the world for the last few decades, with an average industrial tariff rate at 40-55 per cent. The majority of the population cannot vote, and vote-buying and electoral fraud are widespread. Corruption is rampant, with political parties selling government jobs to their financial backers. The country has never recruited a single civil servant through an open, competitive process. Its public finances are precarious, with records of government loan defaults that worry foreign investors. Especially in the banking sector, foreigners are prohibited from becoming directors while foreign shareholders cannot even exercise their voting rights unless they are resident in the country. It does not have a competition law, permitting cartels and other forms of monopoly to grow unchecked. Its protection of intellectual property rights is patchy, particularly marred by its refusal to protect foreigners’ copyrights…

…[the country described above]…is the USA, around 1880…one of the fastest-growing – and rapidly becoming one of the richest – countries in the world…[following] policy recipes that go almost totally against today’s neo-liberal free-market orthodoxy.”

What is good for General Motors is not necessarily good for the United States (Ha-Joon Chang’s Thing 18)

23-things-they-don-t-tell-you-about-capitalismA thought-provoking quote from Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism (p.190-191), part of my occasional series of brief excerpts from his bestselling book:

“Despite the importance of the corporate sector, allowing firms the maximum degree of freedom may not even be good for the firms themselves, let alone the national economy. In fact, not all regulations are bad for business. Sometimes, it is in the long-run interest of the business sector to restrict the freedom of individual firms so that they do not destroy the common pool of resources that all of them need, such as natural resources or the labour force. Regulations can also help businesses by making them do things that may be costly to them individually in the short run but raise their collective productivity in the long run – such as the provision of worker training. In the end, what matters is not the quantity but the quality of business regulation.”

Despite the fall of communism, we are still living in planned economies (Ha-Joon Chang’s Thing 19)

23-things-they-don-t-tell-you-about-capitalismAnother excerpt from Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. While this one may seem obvious, it provides an important counter to at least one aspect of market fundamentalism.

“Capitalist economies are in large part planned. Governments in capitalist economies practise planning too, albeit on a more limited basis than under communist central planning. All of them finance a significant share of investment in R&D and infrastructure. Most of them plan a significant chunk of the economy through the activities of state-owned enterprises. Many capitalist governments plan the future shape of individual industrial sectors through sectoral industrial policy or even that of the national economy through indicative planning. More importantly, modern capitalist economies are made up of large, hierarchical corporations that plan their activities in great detail, even across national borders. Therefore, the question is not whether you plan or not. It is about planning the right things at the right levels (p.199-200)…

The prejudice against planning, while understandable given the failures of communist central planning, makes us misunderstand the true nature of the modern economy in which government policy, corporate planning and market relationships are all vital and interact in a complex way. Without markets we will end up with the inefficiencies of the Soviet system. However, thinking that we can live by the market alone is like believing that we can live by eating only salt, because salt is vital for our survival (p.209).”

Equality of opportunity may not be fair (Ha-Joon Chang’s Thing 20)

23-things-they-don-t-tell-you-about-capitalism“Equality of opportunity is the starting point for a fair society. But it’s not enough. Of course, individuals should be rewarded for better performance, but the question is whether they are actually competing under the same conditions as their competitors. If a child does not perform well in school because he is hungry and cannot concentrate in class, it cannot be said that the child does not do well because he is inherently less capable. Fair competition can be achieved only when the child is given enough food – at home through family income support and at school through a free school meals programme. Unless there is some equality of outcome (ie., the incomes of all the parents are above a certain minimum threshold, allowing their children not to go hungry), equal opportunities (ie., free schooling) are not truly meaningful.

…We cannot, and should not, explain someone’s performance only by the environment in which he has grown up. Individuals do have responsibilities for what they have made out of their lives.

However, while correct, this argument is only part of the story. Individuals are not born into a vacuum. The socio-economic environment they operate in put serious restrictions on what they can do. Or even on what they want to do. Your environment can make you give up certain things even without trying. For example, many academically talented British working-class children do not even try to go to universities because universities are ‘not for them’.  This attitude is slowly changing, but I still remember seeing a BBC documentary in the late 1980s in which an old miner and his wife were criticizing one of their sons, who had gone to a university and become a teacher, as a ‘class traitor’.

While it is silly to blame everything on the socio-economic environment, it is equally unacceptable to believe that people can achieve anything if they only ‘believe in themselves’ and try hard enough, as Hollywood movies love to tell you. Equality of opportunity is meaningless for those who do not have the capabilities to take advantage of it.”

Ha-Joon Chang (2010), 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, p.210-211, 217.

We are not smart enough to leave things to the market (Ha-Joon Chang’s Thing 16)

This post is one of an occasional series inspired by Ha-Joon Chang’s iconoclastic and very readable book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. The quote below is from ‘Thing 16’.

“People do not necessarily know what they are doing, because our ability to comprehend even matters that concern us directly is limited – or, in the jargon, we have ‘bounded rationality’. The world is very complex and our ability to deal with it is severely limited. Therefore, we need to, and usually do, deliberately restrict our freedom of choice in order to reduce the complexity of problems we have to face. Often, government regulation works, especially in complex areas like the modern financial market, not because the government has superior knowledge but because it restricts choices and thus the complexity of the problems at hand, thereby reducing the possibility that things may go wrong.”

Ha-Joon Chang (2012), 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, p.168

The argument that humans have ‘bounded rationality’ and experience uncertainty (as opposed to calculable risk), in which they simply do not know what is going to happen in the future, illustrates the importance of a range of institutions in modern society. These both constrain and enable human activity. The market is an institution, but one of many, even in what is often called a market economy. Continue reading