More Lowy Institute

Below is a critique of How Asia Works with specific reference to Indonesia. Indeed there is a second part of the critique that you can track down via the Lowy site. I am just posting the first part and, underneath it, rejoinders to the main points it makes.

Indonesia’s development formula

by Stephen Grenville – 25 July 2013 11:10AM

I share Sam Roggeveen’s enthusiasm for the iconoclastic approach of Joe Studwell’s How Asia Works (his previous book on Asian Godfathers was a great read too). I also share Studwell’s scepticism about the ‘magic of the market’, his views on the IMF, and his admiration for the achievements of the South Koreans.

But I’m unconvinced by Studwell’s three-step development prescription, not because it is intrinsically wrong but because it is too hard to implement successfully.

The Koreans might have done so, but the strategy requires a level of sustained administrative competence, single-minded toughness and luck which are rare. Just as important, there are alternative development strategies, less demanding of skilled policy-making and administrative competence. The growth outcome won’t match Korea’s, but will be more feasible for countries like Indonesia (which Studwell sees as a development failure).

Let’s go through the three elements of the Studwell strategy. The first stage requires land reform and a boost to agricultural productivity.

It’s an old and sensible idea that agriculture has to provide the investable surplus which will propel the rest of the economy along the path of development. Fifty years ago, Clifford Geertz (Agricultural Involution) despaired about Indonesia’s failure to follow the example of Japan, which shifted surplus agricultural labour into factory work to create a modern urban/manufacturing sector. This failure would lead the excess population to atrophy, farming progressively more Lilliputian plots.

But things turned out better. With the average size of farms on Java around half a hectare, the opportunity for land reform couldn’t play the key role that Studwell advocates. But Soeharto, with his roots in agriculture, gave rice production high priority (extension services, high-yield seeds, fertilizer, pesticides and attractive terms-of-trade between agriculture and urban consumers via an active price stabilisation authority). Not very free-market, but big yield increases and self-sufficiency were speedily achieved.

What about a vigorous industry policy, the second Studwell requirement? Despite inheriting the usual disaster story of failed prestige projects from Sukarno, Soeharto was ready to have a go at ‘picking winners’.

Cement, fertilizer, textiles, paper production, food processing and petroleum refining all fitted Indonesia’s comparative advantage and made sense. Others were less defensible: Krakatau Steel,Tommy Soeharto’s national car and Ibnu Sutowo’s tankers. Habibie‘s IPTN aeroplane fits the Studwell strategy and might have succeeded if it hadn’t been stopped by the Asian crisis: ex-aeronautical engineer Habibie was well-qualified to lead this project, plane construction is quite labour-intensive (all those rivets) and the Indonesian archipelago needs lots of them (one airline recently ordered several hundred in one hit).

Whether IPTN would have succeeded is not the issue here: the point is that Indonesia, for better or worse, did try the sort of hot-house industrialisation Studwell advocates, and the IMF wasn’t able to stop this, at least until the 1997 crisis. Planning retained a central role, just as Studwell wants, and state-owned enterprises did the government’s bidding. Where Indonesia had comparative advantage, this often worked out well, and where the industry didn’t suit Indonesia’s attributes, generally it was a failure.

Indonesia’s development experience doesn’t fit the Studwell formula. Java’s rice production has done well without relying on his key element of land reform, and industry policy based on domestic entrepreneurship has been tried without much success.

Governments attempting to steer the process of development need effective administrative capacity; in a follow-up post, I’ll expand on the idea that market failure is common enough, but so too is government failure.

Joe Studwell’s response:

1. I doubt, contra Mr Grenville, that there is some arbitrary minimum land holding that makes land reform unworkable. If this were the case, then the micro-plots of a few tens of square metres championed by groups like Landesa would make no sense, when historical evidence around the world shows that privately-held micro-plots produce very high yields.

I am presently up my hill in Italy, and using a very slow Internet connection, and so cannot readily check the average Javan landholding. I assume Mr Grenville means that the average Javan landholding is half a hectare now, and would therefore be less after land reform. (The average land holding in most parts of China, Japan, ROK, and Taiwan after land reform was roughly half a hectare.) If my understanding is correct, my response is that Java has some of the best soil and climate conditions in the whole of east Asia, and so even smaller plots should be more than viable — if indeed size matters at all in a downward direction, a question which I think deserves real scrutiny.

Mr Grenville is correct that yields on Java are high by south-east Asian standards. The rice yield is over five tonnes per hectare. However this is still less than the average in north-east Asia. Given its soil and climate, it would not surprise me if north-east Asian style household farming could produce as much as 9 tonnes per hectare on Java — about as high as has been managed anywhere, because the growing conditions are so favourable.

Mr Grenville is correct that Suharto invested heavily (if patchily) in agricultural extension services and (eventually) used minimum price guarantees to promote higher yields. However he is wrong to say that self-sufficiency was achieved ‘quickly’. Rice self-sufficiency was not achieved until the mid-1980s, 40 years after independence, and wheat self-sufficiency never was. So I maintain my position that Indonesia is a real relative failure in agriculture.

2. On industry, much of my criticism of policy in south-east Asia focuses on politicians’ efforts to ‘pick winners’ rather than run industrial policy that periodically culls losers. I also talk at length about the need for ‘export discipline’ to anchor industrial policy. And I avoid traditional discussions of what is or is not a society’s comparative advantage because, to my mind, development is about changing (within reason) your comparative advantage. Economic development is about investing in a learning process in order to reap higher future returns.

Mr Grenville’s points about industry in Indonesia therefore seem to me to be based on a misreading, or mere scanning, of How Asia Works. He highlights industrial projects that were picked as ‘winners’, were not subjected to sufficient competition or pressure to export, and which consequently produced a poor return on industrial policy investment. His observations are essentially supportive of the policy requisites I highlight.

The one thing I think is truly misplaced in Mr Grenville’s comments is the argument in the third paragraph that, essentially, Indonesians are politically and administratively ‘not up to’ the task of accelerated economic development, particularly compared to people like the Koreans. Is this true? In 1945, South Korea was the rural backwater of a brutally colonised state in which Koreans had been allowed to play perhaps the most restricted administrative and economic role in any east Asian colony. I cannot see that the Koreans had much political, administrative or educational capital. Elite Indonesians, by contrast, held senior civil service positions under the Dutch, could win scholarships to study in Europe, and had much greater (formal) political, administrative and educational resources. The difference was not the endowments, but the change politicians wrought over 60 years of independent government.

 

 

The Economist

Boom and bust in Asia

Going for growth

Explaining Asia’s economic success is as easy as one, two, three

How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region. By Joe Studwell. Grove; 366 pages; $27. Profile; £14.99. Buy fromAmazon.comAmazon.co.uk

IN 1989 John Williamson, a British economist in Washington, DC, listed ten economic policies that enjoyed the backing of the IMF, the World Bank and many of their clients in Latin America. Whatever the merits of these policies, the “Washington consensus”, as he called it, proved badly named. Its prescriptions—stabilise, privatise and liberalise—have caused no end of controversy. Almost 25 years later, they get another drubbing in Joe Studwell’s provocative new book, “How Asia Works”.

Mr Studwell has no such inhibitions. Asia’s post-war miracle economies emerged, he argues, by following a recipe with just three ingredients: land reform; export-led, state-backed manufacturing; and financial repression.

The process began with the ousting of the landlords. Feudal estates were broken up and divided among small farmers, who also received cheap credit and valuable advice. Smallholder farming requires “grotesque” amounts of labour, Mr Studwell concedes. But that is a good thing, because countries as poor as Taiwan or South Korea were in the 1950s have labour—and only labour—in abundance.

Tightly planted, closely tended farms coax the best yields out of each parcel of land. This rural bounty then creates room for the next step: export-led manufacturing. The state, Mr Studwell argues, must nurse manufacturers through their infancy, helping them to learn how to stand on their own feet. This nurture should, however, be combined with discipline: the state must oblige firms to export. Foreign sales provide an external test of their progress, allowing the state to “cull losers”, even if it cannot pick winners.

The final secret of Asian success, Mr Studwell argues, was a cowed financial system. Captive savers, penned in by capital controls, were ripped off by the banks, which paid low interest rates. This allowed the banks to subsidise industrial firms through their years of education.

Mr Studwell’s recipe is not original: the formula dates back at least 140 years, he shows, to Japan under the Meiji emperor. Only the first step, smallholder farming, would be backed by this newspaper. But “How Asia Works” is a striking and enlightening book, which reflects the author’s unusual career. Having worked as an analyst (for the Economist Intelligence Unit, our sister company) and a consultant, he wrote books on China’s seduction of foreign businessmen and Asia’s crony capitalists. Then he went back to school, embarking on a doctorate at Cambridge, home to a number of unorthodox economists.

The result is a lively mix of scholarship, reporting and polemic. Its heart is a historical account of how smallholder farming, export-led manufacturing and financial repression took root in Asia’s miracle economies, such as Japan and Taiwan, but failed to bed down in the Philippines and Indonesia. This is punctuated by travelogues, describing Asia’s landscape of economic triumph and tribulation, from the kitsch houses of rice farmers in Japan’s Niigata prefecture, who have great agricultural know-how but little architectural taste, to the unfinished towers of Jakarta’s Bank Alley, their growth stunted by the Asian financial crisis.

The most impressive part of the book is the 68 pages of footnotes in which Mr Studwell dips into his trove of reading and reporting. He includes observations on Javanese chickens, the sex life of a Korean chaebol-founder, the constitutional rules that Meiji-era Japan copied from Prussia and his exchanges with Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s former strongman.

In these notes, Mr Studwell wanders into the weeds of development (quite literally: Japanese rice is weeded nine times a year, he writes). But he never gets lost. The three-step doctrine he advocates is even shorter than the ten-step Washington consensus he opposes. But it will no doubt prove similarly controversial.

Asian Review of Books

An Interview with Joe Studwell, author of How Asia Works

by Caitlin Dwyer

How Asia Works; Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region

Joe Studwell

Profile Books Ltd, March 2013

 

3 July 2013 — Joe Studwell has written about Asia and economics for a variety of publications. Founding editor of China Economic Quarterly, he is also the author of three books: The China Dream, Asian Godfathers, and his most recent, How Asia Works.

How Asia Works seeks to debunk the classical rationale for why some Asian countries have flourished economically and others not. Three factors—agriculture, manufacturing, and finance—need supportive government policy to encourage development, Studwell posits. Using examples from Malaysia, Korea, Japan, China, and the Philippines, Studwell shows that the economics of developing nations are necessarily different from developed, free-market countries. Studwell calls his model “the economics of learning”, noting that until nations have achieved a certain technological self-sufficiency, they cannot possibly succeed with a neo-classical economic model. An extract from the book is available here.

Asian Review of Books spoke with Studwell about the economics of learning and how Asia offers a new model for development.

 

ARB: How much research was involved in writing this? You’ve got very extensive footnotes—can you talk about where these ideas came from and how you developed them?

JS: I lived for ten years in China, and in that time I spent some time working in Southeast Asia as well. I arrived in China not speaking any Chinese. Most of the people who spend a long time in China become China people, but gradually I evolved into a person who was more interested in the comparative development of the major economies in East Asia. I focused on the major economies because it allows you to take the basket-case countries out of the equation and focus down.

In 2007-8, I did a Masters in Economics [Development Economics] and I started reading more into the economic literature, which is pretty strong on Japan, Korea, and Taiwan in particular. In the era of the Cold War, the U.S. put a lot of resources behind stabilizing and supporting those economies. They were written about in the way that China’s being written about now. There’s actually a much stronger literature on Japan, Korea, and Taiwan in terms of what happened than there is on any other country in the region, including China. There hasn’t really been a developmental classic about China yet. But if you take your knowledge of Southeast Asia and your access there, put that together with what has already been done about China, and bring the whole thing together, maybe that’s a useful project.

I also gave some thought to what the shortcomings are of the neo-classical view of economics that has dominated the world in an overwhelming way since the 1970s and 1980s.

ARB: It was clear in the book that you consider your theory is a deviation from the standard economic model. What can economists and development experts learn from this book? What is the standard economic view not seeing when it looks at Asia?

JS: The main message is about there being two kinds of economics. That really is a response to a question that was posed by Charles Kindleberger, who’s a very good economist, very historically literate. He posed the question: is it really possible that there is only one kind of economics?

The answer that I give in this book is that there are at least two. It has to do with objectives. Developmental objectives are about learning. It’s a learning process. Alexander Hamilton, the American treasury secretary back in the late 18th century, came up with the term “infant industry”. This theme of learning and likening it to the experience of going to school is one that people have often reached for as a way to explain what happens. Poor countries have the people, but they lack know-how and technology. When you start to think of learning as the objective, of course, that’s very different to when you’re thinking about short-term profit as the objective, or even efficiency.

What do we really mean by these terms? Well, efficiency could be short-term profitability. That isn’t necessarily the efficiency you’re looking for during a development period. The efficiency you’re looking for is how can we learn, or, in another respect, how can you go around the deficiencies of your human capital? Because people take such a long time to change. The economics of learning and development is largely about finding ways to go around human capital constraints.

You do that in agriculture if you use householdfarming, and turn it into gardening—because you’re just throwing the labor at the problem without a major restructuring. More than that, you’re employing all your human resources and getting something out of all your people. You do that in manufacturing by helping low-skilled people to build their knowledge base.

ARB: India is noticeably missing from this book, except for a mention that they have delved into IT and service-based industry rather than following the agriculture/manufacturing/finance model. Can you talk about why you didn’t include India here and how it differs?

JS: The media suggests sometimes that India has a different model and it’s based around services. I’m not sure that’s fair. I think it’s just that they don’t have a proper strategy. This is just the place they’ve ended up.

They have a very elitist education system left to them by the British. They have the Indian Institutes of Technology, and they graduate very sophisticated engineers, who work in IT and speak English. They work in software businesses, but in software, the capacity to absorb your human capital isn’t great. You can’t even write a single line of code until you’ve learned software code, whereas if you’re absorbing people into a manufacturing economy, you can put people in a factory and they can start to add a tiny bit of value from day one, because they’re working with and through machines.

This helps to explain why every developed country, with the exception of anomalous offshore financial centers (like Hong Kong and Singapore), everybody’s gone through this manufacturing experience. You can look at agricultural super-specialists like Australia and New Zealand, but even they have some manufacturing related to the agricultural sector.

ARB: Myanmar is kind of a blank slate at the moment. What’s going to happen there? Can they follow the model you’ve laid out?

JS: I don’t know what will happen in Myanmar, other than to say that the countries that develop are the ones that take control of their own destiny. If the government there says to the World Bank and the IMF, What’s on your shopping list?, they are going to end up with micro-finance and all kinds of at best superfluous and at worst damaging policy distractions. But if they do what successful states have done, which is to look at the world and see what other people have done, figure it out for themselves, and adjust it to their national condition, they’ll be fine.

The DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] is easier to talk about. They have collectivized agriculture, so in the last decade or so they use a points system to differentiate people who work harder. They’ve brought the points-reward down to a very low level, a sub-group level, so they’re pretty close to rewarding the family as a unit. They could move very swiftly to household agriculture. If they were able to put the agronomic support in place around that, to make sure that farmers get the upside of growing more, then I could see, bizarrely, North Korea becoming the last fast-growing success story. It sounds extraordinary, but I can see that it’s possible they could turn on a dime.

ARB: In the book Japan emerges as a major success story developmentally, but one that failed to make an adjustment at some point and has stagnated as a result. Can you talk about that pivot point, where economies need to make a shift?

JS: This is most poorly understood part of the debate, including by me. Things are so misrepresented that one struggles just to communicate the idea of the economics of learning or development as distinct from the economics of efficiency that come later. Between these two things there is a relationship. The nature of that relationship is to do with the transition and the building of institutions, and it’s a very difficult thing to understand.

Take a legal system as an example. There’s a whole stream of literature that says property rights and a legal system are critical to economic development. Well, look at China. Does China have a functioning legal system? No. Has China developed? Yes, it has. But can China continue indefinitely to develop without a functioning legal system? I think not. Look at Italy!

The counter-example is South Korea. They got caught up in the Asian financial crisis largely through bond market interaction. Then the IMF went in, changed company law, changed the financial system, a bunch of stuff. Today, Korea appears to have the upside of developmental economics. It has its Samsung and Hyundai, very successful companies. Household indebtedness is still quite high, but maybe Korea gives us a window onto the relationship between these two kinds of economics and how one transitions from one to the other.

ARB: Also in China, manufacturing is big business, but industry expansion is causing serious environmental issues with economic and also social costs. At some point are these costs going to outweigh the benefits? How does the environment play into your model?

JS: In Japan and South Korea, they created one hell of a lot of pollution and then they cleaned it up. Why did they clean it up? Public pressure. By the late 60s in Japan people were getting very upset, and in Korea by the 80s. So government moved to clean that up.

In China we can see the beginnings of that as well. Such a high proportion of incidents of civil unrest are attributable in one way or another to poisonous rivers and air. In any situation you have to find the positive. China’s in a position to do that, because the world has been working on cleaner energy technologies and the size of the Chinese market means that they can push forward the development of those technologies—essentially, using the scale of the domestic market. They are incentivised to do it because they don’t have a lot of mineral resources—they have a lot of coal, but they can see down the road… [Environmental protection] won’t happen as fast as many people would like, but I suspect we are at the apex of dirtiness at this point.

 

Caitin Dwyer is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in print and online throughout Asia and North America. Caitlin spent three years working and studying in China and has her Master of Journalism degree from the University of Hong Kong. She now lives in Oregon.

East coast US

Here are a first few links to lots of media stuff I did last week in the United States. I believe the book is officially available in north America from today. Certainly you can buy it on Amazon.com now, which many people were emailing to say was not possible in recent weeks.

Bloomberg TV. About 10 mins.

Bloomberg Radio. About 16 mins.

Florida Radio. A little bit more on US historical involvement in east Asia. About 21 minutes. Not sure this link is permanent — you have to click through to ’06/28/13 Joe Studwell’ — but it is working today.

Michigan Radio. 10 mins. This guy’s studied ignorance early on gets me just about irritated enough to focus down on some important points, in less than 10 mins.

China Daily

Here’s the China Daily. One or two of the biographical details are wrong, and they made me a year younger than I am.

………………………………….

China the last big growth story

Updated: 2013-05-17 07:52

By Andrew Moody (China Daily)

Joe Studwell believes China might be the last emerging-nation economic success story the world sees for some time.

The leading Asian affairs author says it is wrong to assume that global development has somehow accelerated and that very soon everyone will soon enjoy Western standards of living.

“Everybody thinks the world is speeding up and after China it will be India and then it will be Africa. I don’t see this happening at all,” he says.

“China could be the last fast-growth story we see in the world.”

Studwell, former editor-in-chief of China Economic Quarterly, has set out his views in his latest book, How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region, which is already regarded as one of the major economic titles this year.

In it, he looks at why some Asian countries, such as South Korea and Japan as well as China, have had spectacular economic success and why others, such as the Philippines and Thailand, have not.

One of his central arguments is that it is not by applying free market principles that economies get rich. Instead, the basis for success has been agricultural development. China’s growth story, he argues, began when farmers became market gardeners in the late 1970s.

This gave it a platform for the country to become the manufacturing workshop of the world with the careful guidance of state planning, another Studwell ingredient for success.

“It (agricultural reform) is almost always overlooked. What have you got when you start? You have no capital. You have no technology. What you have got is that – as in any poor country – three-quarters of the population are farmers, and that is what you have got to work with.

China the last big growth story“If you ignore that part of the economy – as most developing economies do because they are run by people who live in cities – you have already shot yourself in the foot.”

Studwell says leaders of developing countries often ignore basic fundamentals when they address development issues.

He dismisses those in Africa who currently espouse the view the continent can ignore land reform and manufacturing and develop through retail or financial services.

“It is just rubbish but unfortunately there are people out there saying this. It is being endorsed to some extent by the multilateral agencies and the World Bank support for micro finance,” he says.

“Everybody (in Africa) buys a stall and starts selling each other sweeties or washing powder. If these sweeties and washing powder have been made by Unilever, where is this getting you?”

He argues that people are wrong also to see India’s development in the same light as China’s since it has not been based on land reform but on an IT revolution that has tended to benefit a middle class elite and not the majority farmer population.

“It is the liberation of the posh Indian. It is a facetious thing to say but it is not far from the truth. If you have been to one of the Indian institutes of technology everything is fine and dandy. If you are a landless peasant in Bihar, you are still a landless peasant.”

Studwell, who speaks Chinese as well as Spanish and Italian, almost stumbled into a China connection.

After getting a first in modern history at Bristol University, he spent most of the 1980s as a freelance journalist for the Observer and the Evening Standard. His wife, who had studied Chinese at Cambridge, suddenly said she wanted to go and live in China.

The move led to him eventually becoming founder and editor of China Economic Quarterly, which is published by Dragonomics, the macroeconomics research firm of which he was also co-founder.

His big breakthrough came in 2007 with the publication of his second book, Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, which was listed by both BusinessWeek and Wall Street Journal Asia as one of the top 10 business books of the year.

How Asia Works has had a similarly good reception, having been described by the Financial Times as an “important book” that should make people “rethink the glib equation of free-market policies with economic success”.

Studwell argues in the book that agricultural reform has been central to all the Asian economic success stories, starting with Japan in the 19th century.

“Japan led the way in the late 19th century with probably the most radical land reform that had been done anywhere in the world at that point,” he says.

He argues that the problem with countries like the Philippines is that they only pay lip service to the idea.

“The Philippines still has a comprehensive agriculture reform law in force. They just prolong the thing indefinitely. It has been running for 25 years. It is something you need to do in six months and get on with it,” he says.

Studwell insists another essential ingredient of economic success in Asia has been protecting nascent industries and not exposing them to international competition.

He insists both South Korea and China have been particularly successful at doing this.

“The analogy that works best is like the education process of a child and it should not be taken in a patronizing way,” he says.

“When you don’t understand technology, you don’t know about it, you have to learn. What Deng (Xiaoping) said when he came to power was that China had to accept it was a backward country. It took enormous political courage to say something like that.”

As for China, Studwell believes there is too much of a tendency to see the country’s progress over the past 30 years as the easy period of its development process with the next 30 years seen as more challenging.

“I wouldn’t say it was easy at all. It has been a huge achievement.”

Although he argues that China needs to make further serious reforms including the opening-up of its capital markets, he also says that the country is not at some urgent crossroads yet.

“My expectation is that growth of 7 to 8 percent can continue for another decade and with this sort of momentum, the middle class would be happy with rising incomes, although they will become increasingly frustrated by some of the institutional failures,” he says.

“China is not going to collapse if it doesn’t do much over the next 10 years, but if they don’t do much, the country’s potential will be greatly reduced.”

 

Future of Business

Here is a review of both How Asia Works and Acemoglu/Robinson’s Why Nations Fail (which for me has some good stuff in it but fails to recognise that there are distinct ‘stages’ to economic development) from the UK’s Future of Business blog.

………………….

Why emerging economies are starting to fail and what might prevent it.

chinese builders on bamboo scaffoldingThere’s increasing anxiety that many of the emerging economies, even in places like Asia, are failing to perform as consistently as we once thought they might. Even some of the BRICS countries – until recently seen as the stars of the emerging world – have recently been reprimanded for their shortcomings, while Argentina – no stranger to economic catastrophe, of course – has attracted the attention of the IMF over its statistics and expectations about Africa, which only a few months ago often seemed quite bullish, have cooled in certain places.

So what explains the variations in economic attainment between different parts of the region? Two new books shed insight on this issue.

The first, “How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region” (Profile Books) is a hefty tome – as befits a work by somebody who has researched the subject as deeply as author Joe Studwell. But his explanation about what underpins Asia’s success is really quite simple – as basic as one, two, three.  In effect, there are three fundamental interventions by governments that make a real difference in these regions.

  1. The most overlooked, says Studwell, is to maximize output from agriculture, which employs the vast majority of people in developing countries. Essentially larger-scale farming, this makes use of all available labour and creates the produce surpluses that in turn lead to demand for goods and services. As such, it proves more effective at getting countries on the development road than the drive towards mechanisation and other efficiencies associated with developed economies.
  2. Direct investment and entrepreneurs towards manufacturing on the grounds that this work is most suited to workers first moving away from agriculture. Allied to this is a government focus on export through subsidies designed to promote technological upgrading.
  3. There are financial interventions focusing capital on these two sectors. The idea is to keep money targeted as a development strategy aimed at producing the fastest possible technological learning and hence the promise of high future profits, says Studwell.

He accepts that such policies do not tend to find favour with either many businesses or consumers, both of which tend to think in a more short-term way. Perhaps more significantly, such an analysis pits Studwell – as he freely admits – against the received wisdom of the World Bank, the IMF and many western governments, which have for years argued that “laissez-faire” policies have been central to economic growth. Such institutions point to the success of Hong Kong and Singapore on the one hand and the speedy growth of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand on the other as evidence.

Are emerging economies failing?

But Studwell counters that the first two are more offshore centres than conventional countries, while the other three have not seen their development sustained. By contrast, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China have more or less followed the model set out above and so outperformed many neighboring countries. And confounded the so-called experts into the bargain.

This issue of how countries can continue to struggle in spite of huge amounts of attention from economists and other specialists and in the face of the much-vaunted “flattening” of the world through globalization is the subject of another recent book from Profile – “Why Nations Fail” by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson.

Why-Nations-FailAs the authors acknowledge, there is much discussion of the roles played by climate and geography in poverty and prosperity. Certainly, it is true that there are a lot of poor countries in sub-Sahara Africa, for example. But then, as they point out, the climate and geography of North Korea are not that different from those in South Korea, while there is a great difference between the prosperity of Arizona and northern Mexico but not much difference in weather or terrain.

Another often-offered explanation for the discrepancy is ignorance – in the sense that certain countries do not know which policies to adopt. Quite apart from the sensitivities of such a suggestion, this is not grounded in experience, say Acemoglu and Robinson. In fact, they assert that there is no shortage of advice and the leaders of many countries “get it wrong not by mistake or ignorance but on purpose.” They go on to say that understanding this requires studying how decisions “actually get made, who gets to make them, and why those people decide to do what they do”. This, they add, is the study of politics and political processes – something that economics has traditionally ignored.

In his book Studwell describes how countries such as South Korea have subverted the current enthusiasm for free markets by talking the language while quietly getting on with the industrial strategies so opposed by Western governments. Never mind that these same governments have not always been adverse to a bit of intervention themselves. Indeed, there is a strong case to be made that Britain and the United States and other developed economies owe a lot of their strength to extensive use in the past of that most obvious of state interventions, protectionism.

Rich nations, poor policies

The Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang has pointed out that insisting that developing countries adopt large-scale trade liberalization as advocated by free-trade economists is akin to him forcing his young son into the labour market at an early age rather than educating him and otherwise nurturing him. As he writes in an article for the Independent newspaper (23 July 2007), based on his book “Bad Samaritans – Rich Nations, Poor Policies, and the Threat to the Developing World” (Random House), “industries in developing countries should be sheltered from superior foreign producers before they ‘grow up’. They need to be given protection, subsidies and other help while they master advanced technologies and build effective organizations”.

The phrase “effective organizations” is perhaps key to what is known as the infant industry argument. A central theme pursued by Acemoglu and Robinson is that nations fail because they are run by extractive political institutions. All over the world – from Africa to Asia and many places in between (the pre-Civil Rights southern United States is a classic case) – narrow elites have run things for their own benefit to the exclusion of the vast majority.

As recent events in the Middle East have shown, even holding elections – another activity much favoured by western developed countries – cannot necessarily break the cycle. Acemoglu and Robinson point out that a free media and developments in communications technology can help at the margins. But what really needs to happen is that a broad section of society mobilizes to create real political change. This means swapping extractive institutions for more inclusive ones, rather than – as often happens in revolutions – a simple change of control in the extractive institutions. In other words, creating prosperity can be as much about politics as economics.

A sense of history – something else said to be somewhat lacking in the modern study of economics – might also help. Just as some are calling for a relaxing of the austerity programmes in developed countries, partly on the grounds of questions over the intellectual underpinning for them, so it might be worth looking at whether there might be benefits for all in shifting away from the conviction that developing countries need to rush to adopt the free-trade policies so beloved of western policymakers. Certain economic issues are just too important to be left to economists.