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.

Indonesia’s State-Led Development: Custodian of the National Interest, or Boondoggle? — Developing Economics

Nobel Laureate Esther Duflo once likened the work of economists to that of plumbers – tinkering and adjusting as necessary as they engage with the details of economic policy-making. The implication in this comparison is that economists generally understand economic systems and behaviour – how the pipes come together – and that the main work […]

via Indonesia’s State-Led Development: Custodian of the National Interest, or Boondoggle? — Developing Economics

Structure, agency and the micro-macro divide

Chris Dillow, Marxist economics writer for the Investors Chronicle, blogs regularly on all sorts of topics at Stumbling and Mumbling. A recent post of his discusses structure versus agency and the neglect of systemic analysis in economics.

Structures and structural forces tend to be left to macroeconomic analysis. In modern microeconomics, individual agency, or the ability to act in order to influence some outcome given a particular environmental context, dominates theory. But structure shapes the environment, enabling or constraining agency. Individuals may therefore act in good faith but be unable to achieve the best economic outcome for themselves in the absence of a favourable context.

Given the limits of human agency in a particular structural context, an understanding of that structure, whether it is an institution such as the state, or macroeconomic in nature, such as the force of competition throughout the economy, can enable a response from policy-makers to try to improve social welfare, or not as the case may be! Continue reading

James Crotty on individuals and institutions in society

Crotty-InterviewJames Crotty is an economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, whose work ‘attempts to integrate the complementary analytical strengths of the Marxian and Keynesian traditions.’ This sort of approach to economics, or political economy, as many such heterodox thinkers prefer to call it, is right up my street. A collection of his papers was published last year.

Here is a very brief excerpt from one where he considers the relationship between individuals and social structures in economics and social theory more broadly. While mainstream economics tends to reduce the objects of study to the behaviour of the individual, some alternative theories place equal importance on emergent social structures such as the economy as a whole, the state, the political system etc.

In this line of thinking, such structures are dependent on but not reducible to the individuals. They ’emerge’ from the interactions of individuals. In the jargon, they are non-reductionist. Such an approach is much more fruitful when it comes to macroeconomic analysis.

“Sensible social theory must try to acknowledge and integrate the insights of both individualist and structuralist methodology. To be sure, social structures can be changed by groups of individuals. And Keynesians insist that individuals do have significant freedom of choice; they do not always make choices consistent with the orderly reproduction of society. But institutions also socialize individuals, and hierarchical societies do differentially socialize distinct classes of individuals and assign them to qualitatively different economic and social roles. In addition, institutional structures constrain agent choice and set bounds on expected economic outcomes. Moreover, institutions are economic agents themselves. Institutional decision-making requires a theory of choice of its own, one that incorporates the effects of particular organizational structures, strategies, and conventions. Marx’s famous dictum that “men make history, but they do not make it precisely as they choose” is methodologically on the right track…

…[B]oth microtheory and macrotheory must be institutionally specific and historically contingent.”

James Crotty (2017), Capitalism, Macroeconomics and Reality, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, p.60-61.

Big data and complexity: evidence for the structural approach to economic development

This post summarises some of the ideas in an interesting article from the May issue of the Cambridge Journal of Economics. The piece shows that an analysis of ‘complex networks’ using ‘big data’ lends support to structuralist arguments about growth and development. I briefly discuss the implications for industrial policies intended to promote the ‘catching up’ of poor countries with richer ones.

The Cambridge Journal of Economics (CJE) is an influential heterodox journal published six times a year. It includes as one of its patrons nobel prize-winner Amartya Sen and as associate editors Ha-Joon Chang, Mushtaq Khan and Anwar Shaikh, whose ideas I have sometimes discussed in previous posts.

As CJE articles are usually behind a paywall, I thought it would be helpful to summarise and comment on one or two when they are interesting and relevant to this blog. Continue reading