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.

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Various from Asia

Just did three weeks in mainland China, Macau and Hong Kong. Here are some interviews:

FT’s Pilling on Indian IT after a chat.

Marginal Revolution likes the book. And is probably right that neither beach reader nor academic reader will be happy. There is a pretty informed discussion of the book by readers of the MR blog. Odd complaints are about insufficient elaboration on my part. Perhaps it should have been a 500 page book. But I decided not.

SCMP’s Tom Holland on the book.

Jake Van der Kamp responds to Tom Holland in the SCMP, except without reading the book. This is staggeringly lazy. File under Howard Davies. And I have often quite liked Van der Kamp’s stuff. But this thin, indolent drivel is a pretty good guide to why so many millions remain poor. How can anyone serious pass judgement on something they have not read? It is a book about stages, that takes in your view, Mr Van der Kamp, and the other one. Separately, and somewhat pedantically, ‘fulsome’ does not mean ‘full of’. It means ‘insincere’.

And now Holland responds. His main point is valid. I said at the beginning (and end) of How Asia Works that this is a book about economic development. Real development is also about social and political development. But I was not willing or capable to try to put the other parts of the equation in the same book. It would be too complex. And people would not absorb the basic message about economics. The next book will deal with the institutional stuff.

Hong Kong’s RTHK on the book. I had to download a plug-in to run this, but assume the average reader is more tech savvy than I. Trick is to do all this and then hit the play button to start the show. But first go to ‘Select segr’ and choose the 11.05 slot. With Phil Whelan. That is where the interview is. Very clunky stuff. But listenable if you get there.

Podcast interview by the Economist Intelligence Unit in Hong Kong.

Amcham in Beijing. The podcast should be here.

More to come when I remember what it was.

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.

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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.

FT review

Reap what you sow

David PillingReview by David Pilling

How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region, by Joe Studwell, Profile, RRP£14.99, 288 pages
A woman plants rice seedlings in a flooded paddy field, Taiwan

 

Why are the northeast Asian states of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan rich, while the southeast Asian ones of Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia are relatively poor? Is the failure of the latter because of their geography or climate, or is it because their leaders chose wrong-headed policies?

One of the many virtues of the pithy, well-written and intellectually vigorous How Asia Works is that Joe Studwell does not equivocate. South-east Asian nations have ended up on what he calls the “rubbish heap of industrialisation” because they failed to learn the lessons of history. Instead of taking what he presents as relatively simple steps to technological advancement, leaders were captured by their ruling elites or took bad advice from international institutions such as the World Bank. The latter pushed neo-liberal policies – including no protection for fledgling industries – that Studwell considers wholly inappropriate for countries trying to get on the first rung of the developmental ladder. His recommendation to poor nations is to emulate Park Chung-hee, the South Korean strongman who oversaw what became known as the miracle on the Han river: “make public pronouncements about the importance of free markets, and then go quietly about your dirigiste business.”

The measures taken by Japan, then South Korea, Taiwan and, after 30 years of Maoist missteps, communist China were, argues Studwell, threefold. They involved land redistribution, the development of an export-oriented manufacturing policy, and the formation of a closely controlled finance system. The three important development insights, he argues, are that “a country’s agricultural potential is most quickly released when its farming is transformed into large-scale gardening supported by agricultural extension services; that the technological upgrading of manufacturing is the natural vehicle for swift economic transformation … and that finance must be harnessed to both these ends”. Only the small city-states of Hong Kong and Singapore have successfully taken a different path.

The most original part of the book deals with farming. Studwell, whose Asian Godfathers (2007) dissected the failures of crony capitalism, argues convincingly that successful Asian nations were built on radical land reform. Japan began parcelling out land after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, a policy continued after the war when the US occupation oversaw a seemingly un-American exercise in land confiscation and redistribution. South Korea and Taiwan followed suit. Large farms are often considered more efficient because they can be highly mechanised to produce higher yields per farmer or per unit of investment. In other words, they are more profitable. But in poor, labour-abundant countries, Studwell contends, that is not the point. The goal should be to use available labour to maximise yield per hectare, something achieved on smaller, intensively farmed plots.

Maximising yields serves several broader development goals: farmers earn money to spend on local manufactures; higher food production means the state doesn’t have to waste precious foreign exchange on imports; and farmers’ savings can be recycled through the banking system into industry. Both the indulgent leaders of the Philippines, who left vast haciendas in the hands of absentee landlords, and Maoist ideologues, who collectivised land into unproductive large-scale co-operatives, ignored the basic insight on what he calls “the triumph of gardening”.

The sections on industrial policy and finance are more familiar, though the ideas remain controversial among free-market economists who argue that governments can’t “pick winners”. Such economists, says Studwell, misunderstand what Japan, and later South Korea, actually did. The key was to force manufacturers, whether of steel or cars, to export and thus compete on international markets. Those that couldn’t hack it were killed off. Korea, for example, had three putative car champions in 1973 at a time when local auto sales were only 30,000 cars a year. In the early years, the market leader was the now-forgotten Shinjin. Only later did Hyundai emerge as the last car company standing. “The economics of development requires nurture, protection and competition,” he writes. The alternative to such hard-headed, nationally driven policies, he says contemptuously of the Philippines, is “an authentic, technology-less Third World state with poverty rates to match”.

Studwell’s thesis is bold, his arguments persuasive, and his style pugnacious. It adds up to a highly readable and important book that should make people rethink the glib equation of free-market policies with economic success. He also writes with disdain for those who would peddle the “fairy tale” that poor countries can become rich by skipping industrialisation. Of India’s attempt to build wealth through IT services, which employ only a few million people, he says: “Punditry that likens India’s economic development to that of the more northerly countries is fatuous.”

The implication of Studwell’s analysis is that talk of globally converging living standards is overdone. Those countries that do not begin with comprehensive land reform or bully their entrepreneurs into nation-building – as opposed to rent-seeking – are bound to fail. Even the relatively successful ones won’t get further than Malaysia, he says, a country whose botched efforts at industrialisation he likens to attending school but not paying much attention.

That leaves China, which in many ways has emulated the successful northeastern model, through post-1978 land reform and the creation of state champions financed through policy banks. China’s biggest companies, he argues, are closing in on international standards in heavy industry. But consumer businesses are not. As demographics worsen and as vested interests worry more about personal gain than national development goals, he wonders whether China will get stuck.

Studwell’s book is a warning to those who believe that developing countries in Asia, Latin America and now Africa have cracked the secret of growth and will inevitably catch up with rich ones. Only those nations with good policies will make it, he argues. And good policies are out of fashion.

David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor

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