On Decentralization

Andrew Batson has a nice post out about an essay in the Palladium magazine. The theme of both the essay and the blog post is decentralization in China.

Dylan Levi King has a nice essay out in Palladium on the history of decentralization in China, opening with the assertion that “the most significant reform carried out in China after 1978 was one of systematic decentralization.” It is difficult to disagree with this. As the best China scholarship of the last few decades has made clear, local initiative played a central role in the country’s growth miracle–see for instance Jean Oi’s book on local state corporatism, or Xu Chenggang’s classic article on “regionally decentralized authoritarianism”.

https://andrewbatson.com/2021/11/29/the-consensus-on-centralization/

The essay is a reflection on how decentralization has evolved (and retreated) under the various leaders who have been in charge of the central Chinese government, beginning with Mao, and ending with Xi Jinping. As always, please read the whole thing.


The essay makes the rather unsurprising point that under Xi’s leadership, China is becoming ever more centralized. But the interesting (if not entirely surprising) nugget is that the attempt to increase the degree of centralization began about thirty years ago – Xi is the first leader since then who’s been very successful at it.

Well, so far, at any rate. See this thread, for example:

But the essay helps us think about a question which should be of interest to a student of economics: what is the appropriate level of decentralization? I mean this to be a one-size-fits-all question: for any organization, institution or level of governance, how should we think about the appropriate level of decentralization?

Think about the answer to this question in regard to your own college/school, for example. Who do you need to approach for permission in order to hold an event in your college? Does any prof have the ability to give permission, or are they likely to pass your question up to the head of the department? What about the head of the department? Are they likely to take the decision, or will they pass the question up to the principal or the director? In other words, how much decision-making authority is vested in the lower levels of hierarchy? And how much decision-making authority should be vested in the lower levels of hierarchy?


It is a question with far reaching implications: a centrally driven decision making system retains all the power at the centre, and everybody knows who to go to for getting approval. On the other hand, this is likely to make the system rather inflexible, with very little decision-making authority at lower levels.

Here’s a very simple example: let’s say you’re fifteen minutes late while checking out of a hotel. Should you be charged a fine or not? Should this be up to the clerk who is helping you check out, or should the clerk just blindly follow the “rule” with zero decision-making authority? If you (the guest) then kick up a ruckus, should the clerk call their superior? Should the superior call their superior? And on and on…

Management consultants agonize about this, as do politicians and bureaucrats. But so do government officials, professors in universities and even parents! What is the appropriate level of decentralization is an important question in literally any organization!


So how do we go about building a model in our heads to think about this issue?

Here’s one way to think about it:

Let’s assume that we’re seeking to optimize for the long term growth and stability of the organization in question. That is, to me, an entirely reasonable assumption. Concretely, the management consultant in charge of instituting check-out processes in the hotel is charged with creating a process that will optimize for the long term growth and stability of the hotel chain.

Should the management consultant vest, then, the clerk with the power to waive off the late fee? Under what circumstances? To what extent? With what amount of leeway given for mitigating circumstances? Maybe the clerk can waive off the late fees only for a certain number of times per month? Can HR track which clerks waive off fees the least across the year, and decide bonuses accordingly? Or should clerks be rewarded for building out customer loyalty by waiving off late fees by default for a period of up to an hour beyond the checkout time?

What about re-evaluation requests for semester-end examinations? What about disciplinary committees for deciding upon the punishment for low attendance? The decision to sell land in order to meet revenue requirements by local governments? As you can see, once you start to think of hierarchies and organizations, this can get very complicated very quickly.


And within the field of economics (at least for a specific context), the Oates Theorem is a good starting point to think about this analytically:

Many years ago in Fiscal Federalism (1972), I formalized this idea in a proposition I referred to as “The Decentralization Theorem.” The basic point is that if there are no cost advantages (economies of scale) associated with centralized provision, then a decentralized pattern of public outputs reflecting differences in tastes across jurisdictions will be welfare enhancing as compared to a centralized outcome characterized by a uniform level of output across all jurisdiction

Oates, Wallace E. “On the evolution of fiscal federalism: Theory and institutions.” National tax journal 61.2 (2008): 313-334.

In English, what this means is that so long as centralized provisioning doesn’t have any “bulk” benefits, lower levels of hierarchy will always know more about “local” tastes and preferences, and therefore decision making ought to be as decentralized as possible.

Put another way, a one-size fits all rule won’t be as optimal for the hotel chain as letting the clerk in question decide on a case-by-case basis.


So as a thumb rule, the more one decentralizes, the better. Alas, decentralizing decision-making also has the knock-on effect of decentralizing power, and that tends to not go well with those who, well, have power.

And so while effective decentralization has economic benefits, it also has political consequences. Which is why it makes sense to ask what one is optimizing for. And occasionally, it behooves all of us to ask what one should be optimizing for.

The answers are often wildly different, and more’s the pity.

Were The Farm Laws a “1991 Moment”?

As with everything that happens in the world today, so also with the farm laws: a lot of heat, and hardly any light. Reams have been written about how the farm laws were good (or bad), about their introduction being a much needed thing (or not), and their withdrawal being a disaster for take-your-pick-from-Modi-BJP-India (or not).

I have neither the desire nor the energy to get into any of these debates. Here’s my simple take as a student of economics: markets almost always work. Where they don’t work, identify the reasons why they don’t work, and either correct those causal factors, or have the government step in until (and only until) those factors are corrected.

Things get tricky when you begin to ask pesky questions along these lines:

  • How do you define markets not working? Bench-marked against what standard? Who decides?
  • How do you correct these causal factors? How do you judge that they have been corrected? Are you sure they won’t return? On what basis?
  • To what extent should government step in? How are you sure this will make things better in all markets at all points of time? Using what framework?

But that is precisely what makes the study of India’s political economy so very interesting! And this is true of agriculture as well, not just in India, but in other places too.


For the moment, let’s take as a given the fact that government had to be present in agricultural markets in India these past decades. That may or may not be true, but for the purposes of this blog post, let us assume that there was a confluence of factors in India’s agricultural markets that necessitated the active presence of the government as a participant, not just as a regulator.

Now, if markets almost always work, and if government was present in agriculture, then we have to figure out a way for government to eventually not be present in agriculture. (Note, again, that your opinion may be different from mine. But play along with me for the moment, please.)


Yamini Aiyar and Mekhala Krishnamurthy argue in an HT article that in the case of the three farm laws, what the government missed out on was the word “eventually”. They argue that it was the suddenness of the move that was problematic, not the move itself.

There’s a political angle to the sudden withdrawal, and the authors refer to it in their piece. There’s a regulatory angle to the sudden withdrawal, and that is also covered by the authors. But there also is an institutional (and therefore economic) angle to it, and that is what I would like to focus on:

Consider this. The protesting farmers from Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh are locked into a system where State intervention, driven by the logic of Minimum Support Prices (MSP) and the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) mandis, dominates. The State is not a benign actor. It has created and sustained local elites with vested interests – traders, middlemen and moneylenders, each of whom extracts to control market power. This undermines competition and compromises farmer interests in different ways. But farmers have learnt to negotiate these relationships of extraction. And the state through MSP and mandis has served as insurance that gives them bargaining power. Any attempt to break this system will inevitably, as the protests amply demonstrate, unleash anxieties.
In this context, the move towards genuine competition will not be viable without the State demonstrating its willingness to protect farmers interests and gain their trust.

https://twitter.com/AiyarYamini/status/1464452741325996032/photo/1

What is the point? The point is that the current system isn’t perfect, and it isn’t sustainable. As the authors point out, the farming sector isn’t competitive.

In theory, that should mean, to a student of economics, that they are not efficient. That, in turn, means that we should expect that producers aren’t producing as much as they could have, and whatever they produce is being produced at a higher cost than would otherwise have been the case. We should expect that procurement, storage and distribution are also potentially riddled with inefficiencies. We should expect divergent quality of produce, and we should expect consumers to be paying higher prices, potentially for a lower variety of goods.

We should also anticipate a whole host of things due to the fact that the farming sector isn’t competitive: prices aren’t transparently determined, there isn’t free entry and exit, certain sellers are likely to get a better deal, transaction and search costs are high, and on and on and on. This is microeconomics 101 in practice.

(A quick note to students of economics: ask yourself if you’re able to relate what you’re learning in your microeconomics courses to the two paragraphs above. If you disagree with my assessment, ask yourself what is it that is causing you to disagree. Can you frame your disagreement in the context of microeconomic theory? Secondly, irrespective of whether you agree or not, can you think of what data points you might need to empirically verify or disprove my arguments? Where might these data points be available? What models (economic and econometric) can we use to settle this debate? Finally, why stop at agricultural markets – which other markets can you analyze this way?)

And for all of these reasons and more, reform is needed. It cannot possibly be anybody’s argument that the status quo in India’s agriculture must persist forever.


Which then, in turn, gives rise to two separate questions:

  1. If reforms are to be introduced, how?
  2. However they are to be introduced, how fast should we proceed with their implementation?

Again, the question isn’t one of the desirability of reforms, or their appropriateness. Rather, the question is about whether the reforms should be a top-down, one-size-fits-all initiative, or a more locally driven approach. And second, should reforms be introduced all at once, or slowly and gradually, one step at a time.

And I would like to argue that at least in this one regard, we should be looking at China. Not for the specifics of their reform and a CTRL-C CTRL-V hit job. But for their approach, beginning in the late 1970’s.


When I first proposed the household responsibility system (HRS), I was criticized as follows: Chairman Mao had been dead only a few years. Supporting the HRS, a system he opposed, meant forsaking his principles. This was the severe environment that reform faced at first. Our support of the HRS, of institutional innovation, and of transformation of the agents of the rural microeconomy would inevitably involve adjusting a number of interests. To avoid risk, it was necessary to carry out trials first. Also, the HRS could not move ahead on its own. It had do so in connection with other institutions and be realized in the course of reforming the institutional environment as a whole. But this institutional reform is not something that could be accomplished in one fell swoop. To carry out reform, a strategy of gradual advance was unavoidable.

http://ebrary.ifpri.org/utils/getfile/collection/p15738coll2/id/125214/filename/125215.pdf (Emphasis added)

That’s Du Runsheng, the author of a short publication called The Course of China’s Rural Reform. He did, um, some other things besides.

In the publication that I have excerpted from above, there are some points that I am going to summarize that I think help me make my point better:

  1. Resistance to the introduction of market based reforms was anticipated in China back then, and was in some sense inevitable. Three measures were conceived of to reduce this resistance:
    1. “First, the reform would not initially call for abandoning the people’s communes, but rather would implement a production responsibility system within them. This approach enabled many who would have opposed the change to accept it.”
    2. “Second, the responsibility system could take a number of forms, among which the populace could choose. One did not impose one’s own subjective preference on the populace but respected its choice.”
    3. “Third, the reform began in a limited region, where it received popular support, and then widened step by step.” (Emphasis added)
  2. “In 1980, after the central leadership was reorganized on a collective basis, the top central leaders, including Deng Xiaoping and Hu Yaobang, consistently supported allowing different areas to adopt different forms of the agricultural production responsibility system. It was then proposed to divide them into three types of areas: impoverished areas would carry out the HRS; advanced ones would adopt specialized contracts with wages linked to output; and intermediate regions could freely choose.”
  3. Or, as Ajay Shah and Vijay Kelkar put it in their book:
    “The heterogeneity of economic and social development, across the regions of India, generates heterogeneity in the public policy pathways desired by different groups of people. A policy position that is well liked in Uttar Pradesh may not be liked in Kerala, and vice versa. This creates conflict in a centralized public policy process.”
    Kelkar, Vijay; Shah, Ajay. In Service of the Republic . Penguin Random House India Private Limited. Kindle Edition.
  4. Finally, there’s a lot to pick at and think about here when we get down to the specifics. I’m not suggesting that China in the late 1970’s had the exact same problems that India does today. Nor am I suggesting that India do today exactly what China did back then. I am making three points:
    1. I agree with Yamini Aiyar and Mekhala Krishnamurthy when they say that one of the problems was the suddenness of the proposed reforms, both in terms of their scope, and in terms of their geographical spread. I also agree with them when they say that the introduction of the reforms ignored the ground realities of the both the sociology of agricultural markets, and their institutional complexity (note that I am paraphrasing here, these are not their words).
    2. But having read their article, one must ask: if not the pathway that we have now left behind us, what else? That is, for better or for worse, the three farm laws now stand withdrawn. Is the status quo desirable? Should we seek to perpetuate it, or change it for “the better”? (Inverted quotes because better means different things to different people.) My opinion is that we should seek to change it for the better, and maybe yours is the same.
    3. But that gives rise to the next question: how? And that is where Du Runsheng and his write-up is of limited help. Learning how other nations did it is a good place to start if you are a student of economics, India or public policy, and post-Mao China holds some valuable lessons for us.

India and China’s GDP Components Over Time

This should go without saying, but ask yourself if you are able to recreate these charts given the data sources mentioned in the tweet. You needn’t use DataWrapper necessarily (although if you’re considering journalism or a related field, learning it will help) – but do see if you can create the chart!

“What Are You Optimizing For?”, The International Macro Edition

It is one of my favorite questions to ask whenever students come to me with doubts about “what to do next” in terms of either further education or a job.

(Side note: asking me what to do next probably isn’t a good idea, because my career has been gloriously unplanned. But that’s a whole separate story)

But one should be clear about what one is optimizing for: is it income, or free time, or job satisfaction, or rapid career growth – or something else altogether? And whatever it may be, optimizing for one will quite probably mean having to give up on some or all of the others.

And this applies to many more things than just the What To Do Next question, of course. In fact, relentlessly asking this question in many different contexts can take you a very long way in terms of understanding what seem like really difficult and complex topics.

Such as, for example, what China has been up to in terms of international trade, and what went so gloriously wrong.


The simple story of international trade (or trade in general for that matter) isn’t difficult to grasp. Bear in mind that reality is a little more complex, but it really boils down to comparative advantage.

As Michael Pettis points out at the start of this excellent Twitter thread, the so-called “China shock” *is* a shock, but it is not an indictment of the basic concept of international trade. China, as we’re about to find out, was playing a zero-sum game.

One of the most glorious things about economics is the fact that trade is a non-zero sum game. Both parties that have voluntarily entered into a trade with one another benefit for the trade having gone through, and so nobody loses. This is as true at your local chai tapri (you give ten bucks for a cup of chai, and both you and the chaiwala are happy with the trade) as it is in the context of international trade between the United States of America and China.


But beware overly simplistic stories, for they can trip up many a happy ending:

Isabella Kaminska, in an old but excellent article on FT Alphaville made a very similar point. I’ll get to that point in a bit, but may I also use this opportunity to urge the good folks at FT to make FT Alphaville free again?

Here’s the point from that old article:

What those who accused China of using its exchange rate to gain advantage probably misunderstood was that it wasn’t the currency which was being undervalued, it was the people. Stephen Roach, then chief economist of Morgan Stanley, explained this point in the Financial Times in 2003 (our emphasis):
“The Chinese phenomenon hardly amounts to grabbing market share from the rest of the world. It is more a by-product of the struggle for competitive survival by high-cost producers in the industrial world. Last year, a record $53bn of foreign direct investment flowed into China, making the country the largest recipient of such funds in the world.
These investments did not occur under coercion. A high-cost industrial world has made a decision that it needs China-based outsourcing to ensure competitive survival. Dismantling China’s currency peg would destabilise the very supply chain that has become so integral to new globalised production models in Japan, the US and Europe.
There are several other reasons why China should leave its currency unchanged. Contrary to widespread perception, China does not compete on the basis of an undervalued currency. It competes mainly in terms of labour costs, technology, quality control, infrastructure and an unwavering commitment to reform.

https://www.ft.com/content/d11a4c5e-d5fb-32f4-a606-e64d1483cea1 (Emphasis added)

This article was written in 2015, but it holds up very well. In fact, it is instructive to see how, in addition to labour costs and infrastructure, China has now centralized under government authority technology as well. It is also instructive to think about how (and in what direction) the “unwavering commitment to reform” has evolved, but that is a separate story.

To come back to the common thread between the old FT Alphaville article and the Twitter thread by Michael Pettis:

Stephen Roach, in 2003, spoke about how China was undervaluing its people. Isabella Kaminska in 2015 spoke about China competes (at least in part) on labor. And Michael Pettis in 2021 is talking about China competing by suppressing its wages (relative to productivity levels). But they’re all making the same point, and it is a point that merits greater emphasis:

The China shock needn’t have been a shock, in the sense that it is not as if economic theory stopped working once China started trading more with the rest of the world.

China, as it turns out, wasn’t optimizing for international trade. China was – and is – optimizing for an increase in her exports, and that over time.


That problem manifests itself in many different ways: The USA’s persistent trade deficit with China is just one glaring example. The Belt and Road Initiative is another (what the hell do you do with all those forex reserves, dammit?). And there’s many, many more.

But as Michael Pettis reminds us in this thread, the “China Shock” phenomenon becomes way more comprehensible when you ask a deceptively simple question: what is China optimizing for?


What is India optimizing for when it comes to international trade? What should India be optimizing for? In both cases, whatever your answer, why?


Critique this blogpost, and write your responses to the questions above. It is a great way to test yourself if you think you’re good to go in open macroeconomics or international trade.

V Ananta Nageswaran on the IMF’s Medium-Term Forecasts for India and China

If you are an undergrad or post-grad student in India studying economics, you’ve no doubt been taught how to think about GDP (ways to measure it, ways to define it, its limitations, its advantages). But if you ask me, what we fail to do enough of is explain to students how one is supposed to use these concepts.

I often tell my students that GDP for a nation is like grades/marks obtained by a student. In much the same way that grades are not an accurate reflection of all of what a student has done in an academic year (even in purely an academic sense), GDP isn’t an accurate reflection of what a country has earned in a given time period. But also in much the same way that we have not been able to come up with a better way to assess students, we have not been able to come up with a better way to measure the economic output of a nation.

So while keeping in mind the fact that the measure isn’t perfect, but also that there isn’t a better measure in place just yet, let’s go ahead and read V Ananta Nageswaran’s excellent column in the Livemint about India and China’s medium term forecasts by the IMF.

What I am going to do below is highlight some sentences from this column and pose questions on the basis of these excerpts. Try and answer these questions, especially if you have been taught macro in your college/university. To my mind, this will go a very long way towards helping you understand if you have, well, understood key macroeconomic concepts:

  1. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) publishes its World Economic Outlook (WEO) twice a year after its Spring and Autumn meetings.

    Have you read the latest edition? If nothing else, take a look at the executive summary.
  2. “However, since then, many private-sector economists have upgraded their forecast for India’s economic growth this financial year to more than 10%, based on more recent and real-time indicators including mobility data.”

    What might a list of such indicators look like? Here’s a place to get started.
  3. “In October, India’s nominal GDP for 2026-27 was projected at ₹392.84 trillion and $4.393 trillion. In the April WEO edition, the corresponding forecasts were ₹389.01 trillion and $4.534 trillion. So, secondary-school arithmetic will tell us that the Fund has become relatively more pessimistic on the Indian rupee versus US dollar (USD) in October than in April. From 70.9 in 2020-21, the Fund sees the rupee depreciating to 89.4 against the US dollar by 2026-27. In April, the implied exchange rate forecast for 2026-27 was 85.8. So, the US dollar is stronger by 4.2% at the end of 2026-27 as per the October 2021 forecast versus April’s. The effect is that India’s nominal GDP in USD terms in 2026-27 is $140 billion lower than the April forecast.”

    Can you go back to the report and find out how the author reached these numbers? Do you agree with his calculations? Can you explain these calculations to somebody else? Do you find yourself able to write paragraphs like these? If not, what do you think you need to learn?
  4. “When it comes to forecasting exchange rates, the literature informs us that economic fundamentals do a poor job for any horizon under three years.”

    What might this mean in terms of statistical concepts? What does this tell you about how to think about long term investing (in financial assets, people and entire nations)?
  5. “Of all the economic fundamentals that influence exchange rates, the one enduring factor is the inflation differential.”

    Which are the other economic fundamentals that influence exchange rates? What is the inflation differential? Why does the author say that this particular factor is an enduring one?
  6. This is a truly remarkable graph, and worthy of thinking about deeply. Why does it look the way it does? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? For whom, exactly, and over what time horizon?
  7. “So, for any USD-INR forecast, higher inflation rates in India over the US that have been the default factor for the past few decades cannot form the basis. The Fund may have to revisit its implicit forecasts for USD-INR in April 2022.”

    Do you agree with the author’s assessment that inflation in India may not necessarily be higher than in the United States? Why or why not? With what implications beyond GDP calculations?

I’d recommend that you try and figure out the answers to these questions yourself, or even better, with a group of like-minded people. Run them past your prof(s), and see what they have to say. Wwrite up/record your answers and put ’em up for public consumption.

And best of all, try to come up with more such questions yourselves!

Say It Ain’t So, Fed, Say It Ain’t So

The Federal Reserve broke my heart recently.

Now you might think that today’s post is about something to do with monetary policy, or the taper, or something high falutin’ like that.

Nope. It’s about a game. The Fed Chairman game, to be specific. And I’m heartbroken because the Federal Reserve took it down:

Thank you for your interest in the monetary policy game, Chair the Fed. The game has been a useful and fun tool to learn more about monetary policy. However, the Fed has updated its approach to monetary policy, and the changes are not readily accommodated within the existing structure of the game. As of June 1, 2021, the game is no longer available.
You can learn more about the Fed’s policy updates here. Be sure to also check out FOMC Rewind, a texting video series that summarizes the FOMC’s meeting statements.
In the meantime, we encourage you to connect with us on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

https://www.sffed-education.org/chairthefed/default

So what was the game all about? Well, you got the chance to “be” the Fed Chairperson for sixteen quarters, or four years. You had to “react” to events that took place in the economy by raising or lowering interest rates, in order to meet two objectives. First, you had to make sure that inflation was as close to possible to 2% over the duration of your term, and second, you had to make sure that unemployment was as close as possible to 5% over the duration of your term.

The game was designed with some sort of a payoff between inflation and unemployment, and the reason I use the phrase “some sort of” is because I do not know quite what the functional form was. If you played the game long enough, you figured out pretty quickly that there would be a “crisis” at the end of your fourth quarter in charge. And the remaining 12 quarters were essentially an exercise in firefighting.

Inflation in the game had a way of getting out of hand pretty quickly, and unless you were quick enough to react and adjust real interest rates quickly enough, each successive quarter would have the economy spiraling quickly out of control. Of course, if you knew your monetary theory well enough you could figure out how to “win”.

Here’s a screenshot of the game layout:

Source: The Hill

And here’s an example of how quickly things could get out of hand:

Sourcehttps://i.ytimg.com/vi/5PAJtUjikis/maxresdefault.jpg

The last sentence from the previous version bears repetition: Of course, if you knew your monetary theory well enough you could figure out how to “win”.

That’s the point!

And that’s why I wish the Fed would reinstate the game. Because playing the game was a great way to get students to learn what monetary policy looks like in action. Sure, you can have students read Mishkin, or any other monetary text. And sure you can have them go through as many PDF’s released by both the Federal Reserve and the RBI. But nothing beats having the class split up into two teams, and playing three rounds each of this game.

After that, explaining the monetary transmission mechanism, or the Philips curve, or inflation expectations, or what “dovish/hawkish” means was child’s play. Because you see, they’d seen the effects for themselves.

So, dear whoever-is-in-charge-of-this-at-the-Federal-Reserve, I completely agree with you when you say that “the Fed has updated its approach to monetary policy, and the changes are not readily accommodated within the existing structure of the game”. No game could (or should) have envisioned the last eighteen months, and its ramifications on monetary policy.

But the game still served as such a magnificent jumping-off point for discussions about what transpired in the last eighteen months. “So now you’ve understood how monetary policy works under usual circumstances and most crises”, you could say at the end of the session. “But what about what the world went through in the last eighteen months? Would these tools be enough? Why or why not? What other tools does the Fed have in its arsenal? Which are most appropriate to use under these circumstances? Why?”

My point is that it was, and it still remains, a great way to introduce the subject to anybody, and especially those of us who’re learning about monetary policy for the first time. And there’s, in my case, about twelve years of students who I subjected to this game – and I’m pretty sure they would all agree with the request I’m about to make.

Please, dear ol’ Federal Reserve. Pretty please, with a cherry on top. Please bring the game back. It’s a great teaching tool, and classrooms are more boring without it.

Industrial Policy, South Korea and Learning by Doing

Amol Agarwal points us to an excellent paper, the title of which is “The Long Term Effects of Industrial Policy“. Here is the abstract:

This paper provides causal evidence of the impact of industrial policy on firms’ long-term performance and quantifies industrial policy’s long-term welfare effects. Using a natural experiment and unique historical data during the Heavy and Chemical Industry (HCI) Drive in South Korea, we find large and persistent effects of firm-level subsidies on firm size. Subsidized firms are larger than those never subsidized even 30 years after subsidies ended. Motivated by this empirical finding, we build a quantitative heterogeneous firm model that rationalizes these persistent effects through a combination of learning-by-doing (LBD) and financial frictions that hinder firms from internalizing LBD. The model is calibrated to firm-level micro data, and its key parameters are disciplined with the econometric estimates. Counterfactual analysis implies that the industrial policy generated larger benefits than costs. If the industrial policy had not been implemented, South Korea’s welfare would have been 22-31% lower, depending on how long lived are the productivity benefits of LBD. Between one-half and two-thirds of the total welfare difference comes from the long-term effects of the policy.

https://www.nber.org/papers/w29263

Why should you read this paper if you are a student of the Indian economy?

Because industrial policy has been, i,s and will be critical for long run growth in India, and South Korea is an excellent example of getting industrial policy “right”. The reason I put “right” in inverted quotes is because there is still debate about whether South Korea really got it right or not.

If you are interested in reading more about this, part of footnote 4 from the paper is worth reading in greater detail (And the papers that are cited there, naturally):

However, many economists have been skeptical of the effectiveness of industrial policy (e.g. Baldwin, 1969; Lederman and Maloney, 2012). Lee (1996) did not find a positive correlation between sectoral TFP growth and tariff rates in South Korea during the 1970s and interpreted the correlation as the ineffectiveness of industrial policy.

https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w29263/w29263.pdf, footnote 4, page 5

Me, I’m very Studwellian in my outlook, and am therefore a sucker for papers such as these. And even if the paper were to show that industrial policy had not worked, that in itself is also a lesson worth learning, no? But if you ask me, something worked in South Korea at that point of time, and while causality is tricky, Industrial Policy (IP) certainly seems to have been at least partially at play:

Between 1973 and 1979, the average annual real GDP growth rate of South Korea was 10.3%, and the average export growth rate was around 28%. The HCI sectors increased their share of manufacturing output from 40% to 56% and their share of total exports from 12.9% to 37%.

https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w29263/w29263.pdf pp 6

The paper does three things, in my opinion:

  1. Establishes that Industrial Policy did too have a role to play in South Korea’s development
  2. That role has had effects that have persisted well beyond the years in which that specific industrial policy was “in play”
  3. Makes the case for how South Korea’s welfare would have been lower had this policy not been implemented

Your mileage may vary with regards to point 3, no matter how careful the econometric modeling (and it’s pretty careful, if you ask me). But this paper is worth reading because it reinforces my opinion that industrial policy, when done well, can have meaningful impacts upon the development of a nation.


There is a citation in this paper that is worth reading in its entirety (if you go in for that sort of thing). The citation is that of a chapter in The Handbook of Development Economics, Vol. 5. The title of the chapter is “Trade, Foreign Investment, and Industrial Policy for Developing Countries

I really do mean the “if you go in for that sort of thing”, because this is assuredly not light reading. Why, the section titled “Concluding Comments” takes up a solid four and a half pages! But I’ll speak here about three things that I found especially relevant from that section alone. Note that this is my paraphrasing, not a direct quote.

  1. The infant industry argument is, on the whole, overrated.
  2. In general industrial policy that promotes more exposure to international trade is likelier to be more successful
  3. The authors say that more work is urgently needed to understand, as they put it, “the human cost of adjustment to trade and FDI reforms”. Maskin and Kremer’s work is worth reading in this regard.

Finally, “Learning By Doing“. What does it mean, exactly? The classic paper to read is by Lucas, titled “On the Mechanics of Economic Development“, and the classic-er (est?) paper is, of course, “The Economic Implications of Learning by Doing“. But simply put, it is this:

Learning-by-doing is a concept in economic theory by which productivity is achieved through practice, self-perfection and minor innovations. An example is a factory that increases output by learning how to use equipment better without adding workers or investing significant amounts of capital.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learning-by-doing_(economics)

It remains underrated at all levels of economic organization, if you ask me.

The State of America, Circa 2021

Kevin Drum has an excellent article out on where the United States of America finds itself in the year 2021, in terms of both medium and long term trends along a variety of dimensions. Here are just the first three from “The Good” section:

  1. Income is up for everyone: men, women, Black, white, Hispanic, rich, poor, and middle class. Data from the CBO is here. UPDATE: Confused by this chart? Explanation here.
  2. Poverty is down by five percentage points since the ’70s.
  3. Federal income taxes are lower for practically everyone.

I found it instructive that he chose to go with 28 Things that he found to be Good, but only 5 that were Bad. That, in a meta-sense is worthy of being included as a 29th Good Thing!

Here are the five Bad Things:

  1. The worst trend of the past couple of decades has been a steady deterioration in average health outside of the upper middle class. Life expectancy has stopped increasing; obesity is up; opioid addiction is up; and deaths of despair are up.
  2. The labor force participation rate has been steadily dropping.
  3. The Black-white education gap has been stubbornly resistant to improvement.
  4. Climate change continues unabated.
  5. Political polarization has gotten worse, thanks mostly to Fox News and, more recently, the rise of Trumpism.

(I haven’t formatted both excerpts as quotes because the WordPress editor, best as I can tell, allows you to either format a piece of text as a numbered list, or as a quote, but not both at the same time. They call this the improved editor, and that makes me weep.)


What might India’s list look like? What do you choose to include and exclude in the good, the bad and the ugly, and what does that tell us about both the country we live in, and the biases that we reveal?

If any student reading this is looking to start a YouTube channel around a fun theme, I have, um, a suggestion for you 🙂

Housing in Singapore

“Solved” is, at the least, ambitious phrasing. But the video is well worth watching. Via Sahil Shaikh, a SYBSc student at GIPE

A Review of Macroeconomics: An Introduction, by Alex M Thomas

I’m not a fan of recommending a particular textbook to my students in any course that I teach. I’m not a fan of textbooks in general, but that’s a story for another day.

The reason I am against the idea that you should read “a” textbook for a course is because I find the idea that you can learn a subject by reading just one book to be a deeply repugnant one. I’m happy to recommend ten, or more. And students should learn by dipping into all of them!


But if you were to put a gun to my head and tell me that I must absolutely recommend just one macro text for Indian students who are learning macro for the first time, A Review of Macroeconomics: An Introduction, by Alex M Thomas would be it.

Why? For the following reasons:

Rare is the textbook that begins with a disclaimer to the effect that the author did not want to write a textbook. Rarer still is the preface that goes on to say that other textbooks (and more besides!) should also be read. If you are an econ prof, you must have read multiple prefaces by now that dispense advice about how chapters such-to-such, followed by chapters these-to-those ought to be included in an introductory course, but on the other hand chapters extra-but-still-necessary only need be included in an intermediate course.

The preface to this book does no such thing. Read the whole book, it says, and read more besides.

But the second most important part of the preface, and the part that got me hooked to the whole book is that includes a reference to a novel. That in itself is, well, novel. Second, it is an Indian novel. Third, it is a novel that has nothing to do with macroeconomic theory. This is a book that teaches you that macroeconomic theory – that after all, is the job of a textbook – but it is also a book that teaches you what to do with that theory. It teaches you to apply that theory to get a handle on the society that you need to study, and it helps you understand that this society is so much more than the abstractions of economic theory. Use this book to appreciate life better, it seems to say. Or, in the language of us economists, Alex Thomas has written the book as a complement to everything else that you will read and learn about Indian society. Not as a substitute. That is a rare old achievement, and one well worth celebrating.

The most important part?

Finally, this book adopts a problem-setting approach rather than a problem-solving one, as is the case with most economics textbooks. To put it more clearly, this text helps you to identify, conceptualize and discipline a macroeconomic problem. Therefore, this book does not contain exercises in problem solving, but it contains discussions and questions that make you think about the nature of assumptions, the logic of the theory, the limits of the theory, the interface between theory and policy, a little about the gaps between theory and data, and occasionally, the nature of past and present economic thought.

Preface, pp xvi, Macroeconomics An Introduction

There are nine chapters in the book, and I hope Alex Thomas won’t mind me listing them out over here:

  1. What is economics?
  2. Conceptualising the macroeconomy
  3. Money and interest rates
  4. Output and employment levels
  5. Economic growth
  6. Why economic theory matters
  7. The policy objectives of full employment
  8. The policy objective of low inflation
  9. Towards good economics

Say you want to teach a course in macroeconomics to students who have not studied the subject before. Conceptually speaking, here are the questions I would want to answer as an instructor:

What are we studying here, exactly? What are we abstracting from all of reality and of those abstractions, which features matter more than the others? Why are we studying whatever it is that we’re studying? If we (students and the prof) agree on the answers to the first few questions, how do we go about defining and measuring “success”? Why put the word success in inverted quotes?

Chapter 1 | Chapters 2,3,4 | Chapters 5 and 6 | Chapters 7 and 8 | Chapter 9 is how I interpret the layout of the book, in line with the questions above. Personally, I would have wanted to put chapters 5 and 6 right after chapter 1, but after having read the book, I can understand why the book was structured the way it has been. In particular, the four sections of the sixth chapter can only become truly comprehensible after you’ve gone through chapters 2,3,4. If I were to be teaching a course on macro, I would still be tempted to jump from 1 to at least the spirit of chapters 5 and 6, but that’s just my personal preference at play. Growth matters, and helping students appreciate why growth matters can be hugely motivating.


This book deserves a separate section of the review dedicated exclusively to the richness of the text. I challenge you to find me another textbook, from anywhere in the world that can go from talking about Tony Aspromourgo’s chapter on Piero Sraffa on pp 100, to talking about a Telugu novella on pp 102 (Kesava Reddy’s Moogavani Pillanagrovi: Ballad of Ontillu, 2013) to talking about Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari on pp 103! To be clear, the challenge isn’t finding another textbook that talks of these three sources specifically (I can guarantee you that there isn’t another one!), but one that manages to traverse such breadth. Breathtaking stuff, and I never imagined I would use that phrase while reviewing a macro text.

But it’s not just that one series of excerpts. Every chapter is liberally sprinkled with a list of reading recommendations that stand out for their sheer breadth. All of them have been listed out between pages 200-208 in the text, and just these eight pages alone are worth the price of admission. Well, these eight pages and the two that precede it. In those two pages, Alex Thomas lists out all the data sources that have been used in the case of each table from each chapter.

In particular, this book deserves to be praised for raising repeatedly issues of caste, gender and ecology at various points through the text. Growth, but at what cost? Land as a factor of production, sure, but rooted in which society, and with therefore what consequences?

Consider this excerpt from pp 128, for example:

A village economy cannot be understood as a simple departure from the competitive macroeconomy we have discussed thus far. It requires us to understand how village space is divided and demarcated (typically on the basis of caste). The spatial inequality present in a village economy is captured very well by Kota Neelima in her depiction of a poor and indebted farmer’s house in Death of a Moneylender (2016).

The very next paragraph touches upon aspects of religion and its linkages to labor mobility. As always reasonable people can and should argue about how much of an impact these aspects (and other aspects of Indian society) have on the cold austere ivory tower approach that most macroeconomic textbooks adopt. I think it is a very significant impact, and you may not – and that is, of course, absolutely fine. But we are debating the quantum of significance and relevance, not questioning its very existence – and that is very, very welcome indeed.

Indeed, this is a book that ends with an exhortation: if you take one thing away from this book, Alex Thomas seems to be saying, take away an appreciation for the pluralistic approach (pp 196):

If you are a student of economics, you will soon study “statistics for economists’ and ‘mathematics for economists’. In both these methods of economics, there exist multiple concepts, theories and approaches, just like in macroeconomics and microeconomics; pay attention to the fact that these ‘methods of economics themselves both originated and are used within a social context. Moreover, a pluralistic approach to economics by itself is not sufficient when employing economics in the service of public policy; it is important to keep in mind the collective wishes of people as Xaxa’s poem in Section 1.4 pointed out.
I end this book with the hope that you take pluralism as a friend, sometimes a difficult one, in your journey of learning.


The pluralistic approach isn’t just restricted to moving across (and beyond) the social sciences. Even within the domain of macroeconomic theory, Alex Thomas takes the time and trouble to make sure that all views about the macroeconomy are fairly represented. The fifth chapter in particular is notable for this, but that should be taken to be especial praise for that chapter, not a faint damning of the others!

What could have been done better? If this book is intended for people learning about macroeconomics for the first time, I think this books errs on the side of doing a little bit too much. Some sections might be a little bit too involved for a reader who still has to cultivate a taste for macroeconomic theory (and god knows it is very much an acquired taste). And some first time readers might also not appreciate some of the macroeconomic controversies and the role they have played in pushing the field further.

This should beg the obvious question: well, what, exactly, should be cut? Well, not cut exactly, but some of the more involved explanations can be turned into, say, accompanying YouTube explainers (about which more below).

There are also some notable names missing from an introductory text of macroeconomics, but I’m all but certain that this is a case of conscious choice rather than inadvertent omission.

A tip to the students reading this review: help Alex out by coming up with videos that will act as accompaniments to the text. That is, if you are doing the hard work of reading through the text and understanding it, help others by creating content that will act as a complement to the reading of the text. Many students should do this, and in many languages! As Alex says, embrace plurality, both in terms of approach and understanding, but also linguistically speaking.


My biggest problem with the book is a bit of a meta-problem, and I hope I turn out to be wrong in what I am about to say. The biggest requirement, I think, of this book is a teacher who will do it justice. I honestly do not think that this book can be read by a first-time student of macroeconomics without some sort of mentoring and guidance. To be clear, this is not about the book being difficult or inaccessible – I am of the opinion that macroeconomics just is that hard.

But if what I’m saying is correct, then the success of the book is as dependent on the guide/mentor/professor as it is upon both the book and the reader. And that brings me to my answer to whether or not I would recommend that you read this book. It is not, I think, for everybody. But that’s not a criticism of the book, or its contents or the author. It is an acknowledgment of just how hard macroeconomics really is. In fact, Alex Thomas himself says that a year of undergrad studies in economics is recommended before you tackle this book.

But hey, hopefully I turn out to be wrong! Hopefully you can and will read this book and understand it.

And if you are already a serious student of economics (whether formally enrolled in a university or otherwise), then I absolutely and unreservedly recommend this book to you. As a student of Indian macroeconomics, you simply couldn’t do better. Period.


P.S. Alex Thomas will be speaking about his book to the students from the Gokhale Institute on the 17th of September. I don’t think livestreaming is possible, alas, but we will be putting up the recording on our YouTube channel for sure. If you have questions you’d like to ask Alex Thomas, pass them along here in the comments. We’ll try to work them in!