(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘economics

“Americans consider the United States an exceptional nation; so do the Chinese people think of their Middle Kingdom”*…

Each of the last five years, Dan Wang, a Canadian-raised, U.S.- (college) educated technology analyst living in Shanghai, has written a year-end letter. This year’s missive recounts a long bicycle trip through China, explains why Cosi Fan Tutte is (he argues) Mozart’s best opera, and shares the best books he read in 2021 (including one of your correspondent’s all-time faves, Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep). But mostly, he ruminates on China and on its relationship with the U.S…

Internet platforms aren’t the only industries under suspicion. Beijing is also falling out of love with finance. It looks unwilling to let the vagaries of the financial markets dictate the pace of technological investment, which in the US has favored the internet over chips. Beijing has regularly denounced the “disorderly expansion of capital,” and sometimes its “barbaric growth.” The attitude of business-school types is to arbitrage everything that can be arbitraged no matter whether it serves social goals. That was directly Chen Yun’s fear that opportunists care only about money. High profits therefore are not the right metric to assess online education, because the industry is preying on anxious parents while immiserating their children.

Beijing’s attitude marks a difference with capitalism as it’s practiced in the US. Over the last two decades, the major American growth stories have been Silicon Valley (consumer internet and software) on one coast and Wall Street (financialization) on the other. For good measure, I’ll throw in a rejection of capitalism as it is practiced in the UK as well. My line last year triggered so many Brits that I’ll use it again: “With its emphasis on manufacturing, (China) cannot be like the UK, which is so successful in the sounding-clever industries—television, journalism, finance, and universities—while seeing a falling share of R&D intensity and a global loss of standing among its largest firms.”

The Chinese leadership looks more longingly at Germany, with its high level of manufacturing backed by industry-leading Mittelstand firms. Thus Beijing prefers that the best talent in the country work in manufacturing sectors rather than consumer internet and finance. Personally, I think it has been a tragedy for the US that so many physics PhDs have gone to work in hedge funds and Silicon Valley. The problem is not that these opportunities pay so well, rather it is because manufacturing has offered dismal career prospects. I see the Chinese leadership as being relatively unconcerned with talent flow into consumer internet and finance; instead it is trying to fashion an economy in which the physics PhD can do physics, the marine biology student can do marine biology, and so on.

An important factor in China’s reform program includes not only a willingness to reshape the strategic landscape—like promoting manufacturing over the internet—but also a discernment of which foreign trends to resist. These include excessive globalization and financialization. Beijing diagnosed the problems with financialization earlier than the US, where the problem is now endemic. The leadership is targeting a high level of manufacturing output, rejecting the notion of comparative advantage. That static model constructed by economists with the aim of seducing undergrads has leaked out of the lecture hall and morphed into a political justification for only watching as American communities of engineering practice dissolved. And Beijing today looks prescient for having kept out the US social media companies that continuously infuriate their home government.

A willingness to assess foreign imports as well as a commitment to the physical world combine to make me suspect that Beijing will not be friendly towards the Metaverse. Already state media has expressed suspicion of the concept. If the Metaverse will exist in China, I expect it will be an extremely lame creation heavily policed by the Propaganda Department. Xi’s speech on common prosperity in October noted that: “The rich and the poor in certain countries have become polarized with the collapse of the middle class. That has led to social disintegration, political polarization, and rampant populism.” The Metaverse, which represents yet another escape of American elites from the physical world, can only exacerbate social differences. It is too much of a fun game—like cryptocurrencies—played by a small segment of the population, while the middle class dwells on more material concerns like paying for energy bills. It might make sense for San Franciscans to retreat even further into a digital phantasm, given how grim it is to go outside there. But Xi will want Chinese to live in the physical world to make babies, make steel, and make semiconductors.

The Chinese state has long placed greater value on resilience over efficiency, which has dragged down its performance on metrics that economists care about, like return on equity. In my view, that is as often an indictment of the economic profession. The US focus on efficiency has revealed the brittleness of its economy, which has neither the manufacturing capability to scale up domestic production of goods nor the logistics capacity to handle greater imports. Decades of American deindustrialization as well as an aversion against idle capacity has eroded domestic manufacturing….

Since the US government is incapable of structural reform, companies now employ algorithm geniuses to help people navigate the healthcare system. This sort of seventh-best solution is typical of a vetocracy. I don’t see that the US government is trying hard to reform institutions; its response is usually to make things more complex (like its healthcare legislation) or throw money at the problem. The proposed bill to increase domestic competitiveness against China, for example, doesn’t substantially fix the science funding agencies that are more concerned with style guides than science; and the infrastructure bill doesn’t seem to address root causes that make American infrastructure the most costly in the world. Congress is sending more money through bad channels. That’s better than nothing, but the government should attempt to make some bureaucratic tune-ups.

The US is ahead of China on the sort of mathematical economics that win Nobel Prizes. But China is ahead of the US on the actual practice of political economy. One study I enjoyed this year noted that the Chinese government sends more jobs through state-owned enterprises to counties with greater labor unrest. I wonder how different the US would look today if the government did more to help workers. The US critique that “China stole the jobs” looks instead like a critique of its own economic system. China’s main activity was to invest in domestic competitiveness, thus becoming attractive to American firms, which relocated operations there. Meanwhile, the federal government did little to help disaffected workers at home. If there was a problem with this arrangement, fault should be on the US government for failing to restrain its firms or retrain its workers…

There’s so much more– including an acute look at (at least some of) the risks that China faces and the weaknesses (many self-inflicted) with which they have to cope: “2021 Letter,” from @danwwang. Eminently worth reading in full.

Patrick Mendis

###

As we take stock, we might recall that it was on this date in 1941, in the midst of the China resistance to the Japanese invasion during World War II, that Chiang Kai-shek ordered Mao Tse Tung’s Communist Party New Fourth Army disbanded on January 17, and sent it’s commander Ye Ting to a military tribunal. It was the end of any real cooperation between the Nationalists and Communists.

Mao quickly reorganized the force under a new commander and continued to fight the Japanese– though as guerillas, independent of Chiang Kai-shek’s command. When Japanese surrendered and withdrew, the Nationalists and Communists turned on each other.

A Communist soldier waving the Nationalists’ flag of the Republic of China after a victorious battle against the Japanese, just before the the 1941 break

source

“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child”*…

There’s history… and then there’s deep history. C. Patrick Doncaster, a professor of ecology at Southampton University has created “Timeline of the human Condition- Milestones in Evolution and History.” Starting with the Big Bang (13.8 billion years ago) it marks significant events in Earth’s development, the evolution of life, and the development of human culture (science/technology, economics, politics, and art) all the way up to 2021.

It concludes with a trio of handy analogies…

Following the big bang 13.8 billion years ago, time passed two-thirds of the way to the present before the formation of the Sun 4.57 billion years ago. Rescaled to a calendar year, starting with the big bang at 00:00:00 on 1 January, the Sun forms on 1 September, the Earth on 2 September, earliest signs of life appear on 13 September, earliest true mammals on 26 December, and humans just 2 hours before year’s end. For a year that starts with the earliest true mammals, the dinosaurs go extinct on 17 August, earliest primates appear on 9 September, and humans at dawn of 25 December. For a year that starts with the earliest humans, our own species appears on 19 November, the first built constructions on 8 December, and agricultural farming begins at midday on 29 December.

Timeline of the Human Condition- Milestones in Evolution and History.” (via @Recomendo6)

See also: “How We Make Sense of Time.”

* Marcus Tullius Cicero

###

As we prize perspective, we might spare a thought for James Hiram Bedford; he died on this date in 1967. A psychologist who wrote several books on occupational counseling, he is best remembered as the first person whose body was cryopreserved after legal death. He remains preserved at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona.

source

“Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination”*…

A remarkable true tale from the always-illuminating folks at Planet Money

This is a story about how an economist and his buddies tricked the people of Brazil into saving the country from rampant inflation. They had a crazy, unlikely plan, and it worked.

Twenty years ago, Brazil’s inflation rate hit 80 percent per month. At that rate, if eggs cost $1 one day, they’ll cost $2 a month later. If it keeps up for a year, they’ll cost $1,000…

How Fake Money Saved Brazil,” from @planetmoney and @NPR.

For an even more complete telling, listen to the podcast: “How Four Drinking Buddies Saved Brazil.”

* Oscar Wilde

###

As we follow the money, we might recall that it was on this date in 1941, in his State of the Union Address, the president Franklin D. Roosevelt outlined the Four Freedoms— the fundamental values of democracy: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. These precepts were furthered by Eleanor Roosevelt, who incorporated them into the Preamble to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 800px-fdr_memorial_wall.jpg
Engraving of the Four Freedoms at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C.

source

“The whole of the global economy is based on supplying the cravings of two percent of the world’s population”*…

Perhaps that’s an oversimplification; but as a new McKinsey Global Institute study suggests, perhaps not by much…

We have borrowed a page from the corporate world—namely, the balance sheet—to take stock of the underlying health and resilience of the global economy as it begins to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic. This view from the balance sheet complements more typical approaches based on GDP, capital investment levels, and other measures of economic flows that reflect changes in economic value… [and] provides an in-depth look at the global economy after two decades of financial turbulence and more than ten years of heavy central bank intervention, punctuated by the pandemic.

Across ten countries that account for about 60 percent of global GDP—Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States—the historic link between the growth of net worth and the growth of GDP no longer holds. While economic growth has been tepid over the past two decades in advanced economies, balance sheets and net worth that have long tracked it have tripled in size. This divergence emerged as asset prices rose—but not as a result of 21st-century trends like the growing digitization of the economy.

Rather, in an economy increasingly propelled by intangible assets like software and other intellectual property, a glut of savings has struggled to find investments offering sufficient economic returns and lasting value to investors. These savings have found their way instead into real estate, which in 2020 accounted for two-thirds of net worth. Other fixed assets that can drive economic growth made up only about 20 percent the total. Moreover, asset values are now nearly 50 percent higher than the long-run average relative to income. And for every $1 in net new investment over the past 20 years, overall liabilities have grown by almost $4, of which about $2 is debt…

The rise and rise of the global balance sheet: How productively are we using our wealth?,” from @McKinsey_MGI

(Image above: source)

* Bill Bryson

###

As we recalculate: we might spare a thought for composer, musician, director, and producer Frank “anything played wrong twice in a row is the beginning of an arrangement” Zappa; he died (of pancreatic cancer) on this date in 1993 at age 52.

“Politics is the entertainment branch of industry”

“The bottom line is always money”

source

“The use of alternative energy is inevitable”*…

Mining for coltan–essential to the modern electronics that make alternative energy possible– in North Kivu, Congo, September 2013

Contemplating the unintended– or at least not-yet-widely-anticipated– consequences of a move to green energy…

It is not hard to understand why people dream of a future defined by clean energy. As greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow and as extreme weather events become more frequent and harmful, the current efforts to move beyond fossil fuels appear woefully inadequate. Adding to the frustration, the geopolitics of oil and gas are alive and well—and as fraught as ever. Europe is in the throes of a full-fledged energy crisis, with staggering electricity prices forcing businesses across the continent to shutter and energy firms to declare bankruptcy, positioning Russian President Vladimir Putin to take advantage of his neighbors’ struggles by leveraging his country’s natural gas reserves. In September, blackouts reportedly led Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng to instruct his country’s state-owned energy companies to secure supplies for winter at any cost. And as oil prices surge above $80 per barrel, the United States and other energy-hungry countries are pleading with major producers, including Saudi Arabia, to ramp up their output, giving Riyadh more clout in a newly tense relationship and suggesting the limits of Washington’s energy “independence.”

Proponents of clean energy hope (and sometimes promise) that in addition to mitigating climate change, the energy transition will help make tensions over energy resources a thing of the past. It is true that clean energy will transform geopolitics—just not necessarily in the ways many of its champions expect. The transition will reconfigure many elements of international politics that have shaped the global system since at least World War II, significantly affecting the sources of national power, the process of globalization, relations among the great powers, and the ongoing economic convergence of developed countries and developing ones. The process will be messy at best. And far from fostering comity and cooperation, it will likely produce new forms of competition and confrontation long before a new, more copacetic geopolitics takes shape…

The new geopolitics of energy: “Green Upheaval,” by Jason Bodoff (@JasonBordoff) and Meghan L. O’Sullivan (@OSullivanMeghan) in @ForeignAffairs.

See also: “The Geopolitics of Energy in the 21st Century.”

Gawdat Bahgat

###

As we think systemically, we might recall that it was on this date in 1925 that Arthur Heineman opened the Milestone Mo-Tel in San Luis Obispo (on the road from San Francisco to Los Angeles)… the first “motel.” Heineman had abbreviated motor hotel to mo-tel after he could not fit the words “Milestone Motor Hotel” on his rooftop.

source

%d bloggers like this: