The Worst Economist of the 20th Century

I got pinged a while ago by an old student of mine, Karan Khilwani. He had a fairly interesting question to ask: who, in my opinion, would qualify as the worst economist of the 20th century?

I have, on reflection, a clear pick, whom I’ll get to in a bit.

But here’s my thinking behind my pick: economics is (to me) useless unless it is applied. I haven’t gone for bad economic theory per se, but bad outcomes as a result of some policy being implemented.

What I am trying to say is, economics as practiced is what I have judged, not economics as theorized.

With that caveat, I have a clear winner: Chairman Mao.

From the Wikipedia article on the Great Leap Forward:

“The Great Leap Forward (Chinese: 大跃进; pinyin: Dà Yuèjìn) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was an economic and social campaign by the Communist Party of China (CPC) from 1958 to 1962. The campaign was led by Chairman Mao Zedong and aimed to rapidly transform the country from an agrarian economy into a socialist society through rapid industrialization and collectivization. These policies led to social and economic disaster, but these failures were hidden by widespread exaggeration and deceitful reports. In short order, large internal resources were diverted to use on expensive new industrial operations, which, in turn, failed to produce much, and deprived the agricultural sector of urgently needed resources. A significant result was a drastic decline in food output, which caused millions of deaths in the Great Chinese Famine.”

As an economic experiment, it is hard to argue with the notion that this was pretty catastrophic for pretty much everybody.

From further on in the same article:

“The exact number of famine deaths is difficult to determine, and estimates range from upwards of 30 million, to 55 million people. Because of the uncertainties involved in estimating famine deaths caused by the Great Leap Forward or any famine, it is difficult to compare the severity of different famines. However, if a mid-estimate of 30 million deaths is accepted, the Great Leap Forward was the deadliest famine in the history of China and in the history of the world.”

As a consequence, for me, it is hard to look beyond Chairman Mao for the title of the worst economist of the 20th century.

Which, of course, begs the question: does that make Deng Xiaoping the best economist of the 20th century?


Update, via Marginal Revolutions: “One of the best books on the beginnings of the reform era, with a special focus on whether the Soviets could have chosen a Chinese path (no, too many embedded interest groups, so does that mean Mao is underrated?).”

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