The Great Debate

No, a nation’s geography is not its destiny

This essay is adapted from Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, published this week. For more from these authors, see their blog.

If you start in the city center of Nogales, Santa Cruz [Arizona] and walk south for a while, at some point you see houses become much more run down, streets turn decrepit. You have crossed the Mexican border into Nogales, Sonora. Though the two cities are made of the same cloth and were once united, now there are sharp differences between the two. Those in the north are about three times as rich, have access to much better health care, stay in school much longer and of course take part in a much more democratic political process than their cousins in the south. The differences between the two halves of Nogales are a micro, tiny version of huge differences in prosperity and living standards we see around the world. Take Mexico as a whole, for example: it has less than one quarter of the GDP per capita of the United States. Take Peru; it has about one seventh of the GDP per capita of the United States. Or take Ethiopia, Haiti, Somalia or the Congo, each of [which] has less than one thirtieth of the GDP per capita of the United States. Our thesis is that these differences are the outcome of different economic and political institutions which lead to very different incentives.

Though history bears out the defining role of institutions in shaping prosperity and poverty, most social scientists and experts have emphasized different factors. One of the most widely accepted alternative theories of world inequality is the geography hypothesis, which claims that the great divide between rich and poor countries is created by geographical differences. Many poor countries, such as those of Africa, Central America, and South Asia, are between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Rich nations, in contrast, tend to be in temperate latitudes. This geographic concentration of poverty and prosperity gives a superficial appeal to the geography hypothesis, which is the starting point of the theories and views of many social scientists and pundits alike. But this doesn’t make it any less wrong.

As early as the late eighteenth century, the great French political philosopher Montesquieu noted the geographic concentration of prosperity and poverty, and proposed an explanation for it. He argued that people in tropical climates tended to be lazy and to lack inquisitiveness. As a consequence, they didn’t work hard and were not innovative, and this was the reason why they were poor. Montesquieu also speculated that lazy people tended to be ruled by despots, suggesting that a tropical location could explain not just poverty but also some of the political phenomena associated with economic failure, such as dictatorship.

The theory that hot countries are intrinsically poor, though contradicted by the recent rapid economic advance of countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, and Botswana, is still forcefully advocated by some, such as the economist Jeffrey Sachs. The modern version of this view emphasizes not the direct effects of climate on work effort or thought processes, but two additional arguments: first, that tropical diseases, particularly malaria, have very adverse consequences for health and therefore labor productivity; and second, that tropical soils do not allow for productive agriculture. The conclusion, though, is the same: temperate climates have a relative advantage over tropical and semitropical areas.

Subsidizing people instead of corporations

Reaganomics is so well established that state officials, both Republican and Democratic, don’t call it that anymore. They simply call it smart policy.

Even so, the idea of boosting supply to raise demand, instead of the other way around, is hardly uncontroversial. States spend billions annually on economic development subsidies to try and create jobs. But recent evidence suggests tax breaks, “forgivable loans,” and the like don’t work as well as hoped.

Up to now the thinking went like this: Devoting public funds to pull companies into the state will eventually yield returns, which is to say, yield jobs. Those jobs stimulate spending, which raises demand for the very products and services of the corporation that brought the jobs in the first place. And thus the virtuous cycle is sent into overdrive. That, at least, has been the theory.

The limits of the scientific method in economics and the world

By Roger Martin
The opinions expressed are his own.

This is part one of this essay. Read part two here.

As the economy teeters and the capital markets gyrate, I can’t get out of my mind the evening of May 19, 2009.  We were near the stock market nadir and fears were cresting that we were heading straight into the next Great Depression. I was invited to a dinner along with half a dozen tables of guests to hear a very prominent macroeconomist opine on the state of the economy and the path to recovery.

The economist held forth with a detailed, analytical account of what had caused the economic meltdown in the second half of 2008 and the path that he predicted recovery would take. I was struck by how scientific he was, spewing myriad statistics, employing technical terms by the boatload, and praising his econometric model. It was ‘very sophisticated’.  Given the nods and encouraged looks in the room, it seemed as though he had provided great comfort to the guests; they could go to bed confident that thanks to his science, they could trust that this man knew where we were headed.

I wasn’t quite so confident. Being the curious sort, before coming to dinner I had checked his forecast from a year earlier, mere months before the crash.  His spring 2008 forecast for the second half of 2008 was for modest positive economic growth for America.  This was not unusual; no credible economist predicted anything less rosy for the back half of 2008, although many now claim that they did.  I don’t blame or ridicule him for being cautiously optimistic mere months before the worst economic downturn in 80 years.  Economic forecasting is fraught with peril.

from Ian Bremmer:

The secret to China’s boom: state capitalism

By Ian Bremmer
The views expressed are his own.

One of the biggest changes we’ve seen in the world since the 2008 financial crisis can be summed up in one sentence: Security is no longer the primary driver of geopolitical developments; economics is. Think about this in terms of the United States and its shifting place as the superpower of the world. Since World War II, the U.S.’s highly developed Department of Defense has ensured the security of the country and indeed, much of the free world. The private sector was, well, the private sector. In a free market economy, companies manage their own affairs, perhaps with government regulation, but not with government direction. More than sixty years on, perhaps that’s why our military is the most technologically advanced in the world while our domestic economy fails to create enough jobs and opportunities for the U.S. population.

Contrast the U.S. and its free market economy with China’s system.  For years now, that country has experienced double digit growth. Many observers would say that China’s embrace of capitalism since 1978, and especially since joining the World Trade Organization in 2001, has been responsible for its boom. They would be mostly wrong. In fact, a new study prepared for the U.S. government says it’s not capitalism that’s powering China, but state capitalism -- China’s massive, centrally directed industrial policy, where the government positions huge amounts of capital and labor in economic sectors it intends to nurture. The study, prepared by consultants Capital Trade for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, reads in part:

In a world in which central planning has been so utterly discredited, it would be natural to conclude that the Chinese government and, by extension, the Chinese Communist Party have been abandoning the institutions associated with the communist economic system, such as reliance on state‐owned enterprises (SOEs), as fast as possible. Such conclusion would be wrong.

Mindless tax slogans dominate our debate

By Robert Frank
The opinions expressed are his own.

What do the following slogans have in common?

“All taxation is theft.”

“It’s your money and you know how to spend it better than any bureaucrat in Washington.”

“It’s unjust to tax some people more heavily than others.”

“Taxing the rich kills the geese that lay the golden eggs.”

Although each has been repeated so often by conservatives during recent decades as to have acquired an air of settled truth, each is also either clearly false or conveys no useful information. A more troubling shared feature of these slogans is that they are causing serious harm. Their enthusiastic embrace by Tea Party members and large
factions of the Republican Party now threatens to transform the United States economy, once the envy of the world, into an economic backwater.

Let’s consider them in turn.

“All taxation is theft” is easily the most mindless of the batch. Functionally, it’s equivalent to the “It’s your money…” entry, since the ostensible point of each is that meddlesome government officials shouldn’t be allowed to confiscate the hard-won fruits of our own talent and effort. But there isn’t much economic value to confiscate in countries that lack well-defined and enforced systems of property rights and the public infrastructure required for highly developed and specialized markets. None of that could exist unless government could levy mandatory taxes. No informed person would seriously consider living in a society whose government lacked that power—think Somalia, or the Sudan—even apart from the concern that it would quickly be conquered by an army supported by a neighboring country’s mandatory taxation.

The jobs proposal ignores economics

By David Callahan
The opinions expressed are his own.

It’s a cruel fact for millions of unemployed Americans that the jobs plan President Obama unveiled last night will never be fully enacted by Congress. What’s even crueler, though, is that the least effective elements of the plan have the best chance of passage. New direct federal spending, the most powerful form of stimulus, is widely considered DOA on Capitol Hill – while weaker tax cut options will get a real hearing.

That’s not how things would go if mainstream economists were calling the shots. Economics is not an exact science, but economists do have pretty good models to predict what “fiscal policy multipliers” will be most effective at stimulating growth and new hiring. Just last month, for example, the chief economist for Moody’s Analytics Mark Zandi released an analysis of stimulus measures work. Zandi advised John McCain in 2008 and is anything but a committed liberal. But his study, supported by the full weight of Moody’s modeling expertise, clearly shows that spending is the best form of stimulus.

The single most effective form of stimulus, the study found, are increased outlays for food stamps — which create $1.71 in economic activity for each dollar in federal spending. The other top two boosters are spending on unemployment benefits and infrastructure. Earlier studies, including by the Congressional Budget Office, have found largely the same thing.

The sad flaw of measuring hurricanes by GDP

By David Callahan
The opinions expressed are his own. 

Hurricane Irene may not have lived up to all the media hype, but it still did billions of dollars in damage. Some analysts say cleaning up the mess will boost Gross Domestic Product for the second half of 2011. These estimates are surely correct – and remind us why GDP is such a perverse way to measure economic progress.

No number is more closely watched than GDP. Americans walk with more bounce in their step when GDP is rising at a nice clip and turn gloomy when this indicator sinks. While GDP first came into use after World War II as a technical way to measure all economic activity, it has somehow morphed into the nation’s thermometer – the leading gauge of how well we are doing.

Such is the dominance of GDP that we tend to forget just how crude this indicator really is – so crude that it can’t even distinguish between growth caused by a terrible event, like a hurricane, and growth tied to higher productivity or technological breakthroughs.

A great divide holds back the relevance of economists

By Mark Thoma
The opinions expressed are his own.

Reuters invited leading economists to reply to Mark Thoma’s Op-Ed on the “great divide” in economics and will be publishing the responses. Here are responses from Ashwin ParameswaranJames HamiltonDean Baker, Lawrence Summers, and a recap of Paul Krugman’s.

How much confidence would you have in the medical profession if the teaching faculty in medical schools had very little experience actually treating patients, and very little connection to – even a lack of respect for – the practitioners in the field? Would your confidence be improved if medical research had little to do with the questions that are important to the doctors trying to serve patients?

Unfortunately, that’s a pretty good description of how economics has been practiced. The questions academic economists are trying to answer have little connection to the problems faced by business economists trying to help their firms make good, profitable decisions (and vice-versa). And though academics pay some attention to government policy, particularly Federal Reserve policy, addressing the problems faced by government economists trying to help policymakers make the best possible choices is not the main focus of this research.

The fight of the century: behind the scenes

Keynes and Hayek are back. As rappers. For those who don’t know about these two economists, or can’t keep their philosophies straight, there’s a great rap video just out that clearly explains the warring ideologies of those two men, titled “Fight of the Century: Keynes vs Hayek Round Two.” And it is the fight of the century, or at least, right now. If Hamlet were giving a soliloquy about the economy, it would start, “to spend or not to spend. That is the question.” For John Maynard Keynes, the answer is to spend. For Friedrich August Hayek, the answer is to not.

What is interesting, and less known, about this economic rap video is that the idea for it didn’t come from an economist. Or anyone remotely close to being one. Instead, it came from a video producer named John Papola, who went to Penn State for film. And despite having worked at MTV after graduating from college, it’s also his first dive into rapping.

Papola become interested in economics partly because of the Ron Paul campaign in 2007. He was struck by what Paul was saying and how the economy played out in 2008. “Nobody else was saying what [Ron Paul] was saying,” Papola says.

from MacroScope:

What emerging animal are you?

Ever since Goldman Sach's Jim O'Neill came up with the idea of BRICs as an investment universe, competitors have been indulging in a global game of acronyms. Why not add Korea to Brazil, Russia, India and China and get a proper BRICK? Or include South Africa, as it wants, to properly upper case the "s" - BRICS or BRICKS?

Completely new lists have also been compiled -- HSBC chief Michael Geoghegan has championed CIVETS to describe Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa (ignoring the fact, as Reuters' Sebastian Tong points out here, that a civet is a skunk-like animal blamed for the spread of the deadly SARS outbreak in Asia).

Fun though some of this is -- and no one can argue that BRICs has not had an impact -- there is a danger that the acronym could become more relevant  than the actual countries involved. For example, imagine Mexico, Uruguay, Panama, Philippines, Egypt, Turkey and Sierre Leone being lumped together because they spell MUPPETS.