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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ROW: Links for 31st July, 2019

  1. “There are things government could do if it were bold enough. How about a series of state-specific visas to foreigners, designed to encourage them to settle in Alaska and other underpopulated states? Alaska’s population could well rise to more than a million, and then the benefits of a good state university system would be more obvious, including for cultural assimilation. In fact, how about a plan to boost the population of Alaska to two or three million people? What would it take to get there?”
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    Especially read together with the last paragraph, this article is an excellent example of straight thinking – and one wonders where this might apply in India’s case?
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  2. I’m breaking one of my own rules (but hey, that’s kind of the point of owning this blog), but here’s a short video about a tyre scultpure out of Nigeria.
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  3. “Nonetheless, reading the testaments of people who’d come through a period of great uncertainty in the late 1920s and early 1930s, with the liberal order seemingly spent, it’s hard not to hear faint echoes in our current plight. As they do now, people then craved simple, emotional answers to complex economic and political problems.”
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    Learning more about the lives of ordinary people in the past is something I want to do more of. Germany and Germans when they realized the Russians were coming.
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  4. “The official history of China’s economic reforms is rather more sanitized, but the memoirs of Gu Mu (谷牧), who was vice premier in the 1980s and in charge of foreign trade, do help show how export discipline was applied in the Communist bureaucratic system (see this post for some more interesting tidbits from Gu’s memoir).”
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    If there is one book that I would want a student of modern Asia to read, it would be Joe Studwell’s “How Asia Works”. This article begins by tipping its hat to that book, and speaks about how China instilled a sense of export discipline.
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  5. A very long, mostly depressing article on an intellectual purge in Turkey.

ROW: Links for 10th July, 2019

  1. “The radio station, whose call letters are KHIL, has long been the daily soundtrack for this frontier town (population 3,500) that prides itself on its cowboy culture and quiet pace of life. But six decades after the founding of the station, the property is in foreclosure, with utility disconnect notices coming nearly every month.”
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    Culture and Coase (an updated version) in rural America. For both of these reasons and more, worth your time.
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  2. “When Amnesty International U.S.A. started looking for a new headquarters in New York City, the human rights group settled on office space in a modest skyscraper in Lower Manhattan known as Wall Street Plaza.But just as the organization was about to sign a lease last week, the building’s owner said that its new parent company, a giant shipping conglomerate owned by the Chinese government, decided to veto the offer. The company, Cosco Shipping, did not want the United States chapter of Amnesty International, which has produced scathing reports highlighting human rights abuses in China, as a tenant, according to the group.”
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    Business, culture, nationalism, America and China.
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  3. “When you’re doing everything wrong, the best way to fix the problem isn’t usually to go through the list of things you’re doing wrong and fix them one by one. It’s best to step back and ask why you’re so bad at everything, whether a systemic problem is causing you to make so many separate mistakes. And in the case of the MTA, the root cause of its capital-construction failures is usually diagnosed as unaccountability: Nobody knows who’s in charge, so nobody has to be terrified of taking the blame for obscene costs and endless delays.”
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    Coordinating stuff is hard. The New York version of this story. Also, this is why Singapore deserves all the admiration it gets (and more)
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  4. “During the French referendum on the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, we observed that 60% of the voters with the lowest incomes, personal wealth or qualifications voted against, whereas the 40% of the electorate with higher incomes voted in favour; the gap was big enough for the yes vote to win with a small majority (51%). The same thing happened with the Constitutional Treaty in 2005, except that this time only the top 20% were in favour of the yes vote, whereas the lower 80% preferred to vote no, whence a clear victory for the latter (55%). Likewise for the referendum on Brexit in the UK in 2016: this time it was the top 30% who voted enthusiastically to remain in the EU. But, as the bottom 70% preferred to leave, the leave vote won with 52% of the votes.”
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    An article which helps you think a little bit more about the European Union and what plagues it.
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  5. “China’s overall external surplus is down. That’s not surprising—China’s general government deficit is somewhere between 4 percent of GDP and 12 percent of GDP, depending on what measure you use. The gap between China’s fiscal stance and that of Korea is even bigger than the gulf between Germany’s surplus and the deficit of France—and the gap between the euro area’s (tight) overall fiscal stance and the much looser stance of the United States.But the surplus of China’s neighbors, who have responded, in many cases, to the “rise” of China with policy stances designed to maintain weak currencies and protect their exports, has soared over the past ten years, and now is substantially larger than it was prior to the global crisis.”
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    A useful article about Korea’s macroeconomic choices, and the reasoning behind them.

RoW: Links for 3rd July, 2019

 

Five articles to help you understand China today a little bit better (well, one is on North Korea, axshually)

  1. “There is truth in this linguistic yarn; Chinese does deserve its reputation for heartbreaking difficulty. Those who undertake to study the language for any other reason than the sheer joy of it will always be frustrated by the abysmal ratio of effort to effect. Those who are actually attracted to the language precisely because of its daunting complexity and difficulty will never be disappointed. Whatever the reason they started, every single person who has undertaken to study Chinese sooner or later asks themselves “Why in the world am I doing this?” Those who can still remember their original goals will wisely abandon the attempt then and there, since nothing could be worth all that tedious struggle. Those who merely say “I’ve come this far — I can’t stop now” will have some chance of succeeding, since they have the kind of mindless doggedness and lack of sensible overall perspective that it takes.”
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    A long, but fun read on how and why Chinese (both kinds) is so difficult to learn – and do think about what this might tell us about China.
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  2. “But that is the wrong way to approach the challenge. In the near term (1-4 years), the US certainly could inflict a lot of damage on China through tariffs, bans on technology purchases, and other trade-war policies. But it would also inflict a lot of damage on itself; and in the end, the Chinese would suffer less. Whereas the Chinese government can buy up Chinese-made products that previously would have been sold to the US, thereby preventing mass unemployment and social turmoil, the US government could scarcely do the same for American workers displaced by the loss of the Chinese market.”
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    Brad DeLong argues against the anti-China line that almost everyone in America seems to toe to these days (Biden almost excepted)
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  3. “Total food production figures, however, are not the end of the story. The important question is who gets access to food, rather than just how much is harvested. Theoretically, North Korea could produce 10 million tons of food, but if all of it ends up in Pyongyang, there would still be massive shortages in the countryside. Here is where markets matter. The WFP assessments are based on the assumption that most food consumed in North Korea is still handed out by the government through the public distribution system (PDS); they do not take account of the role of markets in the food distribution system.”
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    38North on how bad the food situation is in North Korea. Markets matter!
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  4. “This is a useful reminder that decentralization is not an immutable feature of the Chinese system, or something that happened automatically just because China is a very large country. Clearly Gu saw that in the 1970s the Chinese system was too centralized to be efficient, and that it needed to be more decentralized. (Jae-Ho Chung’s book Centrifugal Empire: Central-Local Relations in China also argues that the Maoist emphasis on local autonomy in the 1970s was largely rhetorical, with most localities compelled to follow the same political campaigns and economic priorities.)”
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    For a variety of reasons, decentralization really matters – here’s how China learnt this lesson.
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  5. “At the heart of China’s Going Out policy is a media offensive launched in March 2018, an initiative coordinated by the broadcast group Voice of China and carefully monitored by Communist Party censors. In addition, the state-run news agency Xinhua was expanded and now claims to be the largest news wire in the world.”
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    A fascinating read on how China is reshaping the media narrative in Africa.

RoW: Links for 26th June, 2019

Articles from the Far East in today’s edition:

 

  1. “Thus is revealed a deeper lesson still: Freedom is not merely the ability to buy and sell goods at minimum regulation and a low tax rate, variables that are readily picked up by economic freedom indices. Freedom is also about the narratives people live by and the kind of future they imagine for themselves. Both of these are greatly affected by the legitimacy and durability of their political institutions.”
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    There’s lessons to be learned for all nations from what is going on in Hong Kong today, and Tyler Cowen ably lays out a map. In short, political institutions really matter – and that is a truly important lesson for anybody who wishes to learn economics.
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  2. “There were three such commitments: “to establish new U.S.–DPRK relations,” “to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula,” and “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” The North also pledged to unearth the remains of Americans missing in action, which could help put the Korean War to rest—and not just for those most intimately affected.”
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    From about two weeks ago, but worth reading to get a sense of where North Korea and America are today, relative to where they thought they would be.
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  3. “At 12:42 a.m. on the quiet, moonlit night of March 8, 2014, a Boeing 777-200ER operated by Malaysia Airlines took off from Kuala Lumpur and turned toward Beijing, climbing to its assigned cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. The designator for Malaysia Airlines is MH. The flight number was 370. ”
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    This came out about a week ago, and if you are at all on social media, you’ve probably read it already, but on the off chance that you haven’t: a haunting coda to the sorry saga that is MH370.
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  4. “Beijing’s increasing heavy-handedness is more a symptom of fear than strength. It is borne in part from anxiety about the global trend of power diffusing from governments to non-state actors, a development that runs against the Communist Party’s desire to keep a tight grip on society. It also arises out of the Communist Party’s deep-seated concern that its legitimacy will come under scrutiny, particularly as economic growth continues to decelerate. Beijing’s endemic challenges in enforcing discipline within the Communist Party, particularly as it relates to corruption, also arouses anxieties. So, too, does latent admiration within Chinese society for values that America has sought to advance, even as popular views of the United States government come under fresh scrutiny.”
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    An interesting take on how to view Chinese culture, American culture, and how they evolve in response to each other, and each other’s forms of government.
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  5. “I was given time to try and log in again the next day after my penalty had been served.When I did I had to push “agree and unblock” under the stated reason of “spread malicious rumours”.
    So this rumour-monger clicked on “agree”.
    Then came a stage I was not prepared for. “Faceprint is required for security purposes,” it said.
    I was instructed to hold my phone up – to “face front camera straight on” – looking directly at the image of a human head. Then told to “Read numbers aloud in Mandarin Chinese”.”
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    The surveillance state in China, it’s capabilities, and it’s potential threats. All on China’s most popular app.

ROW: Links for 19th June, 2019

This week, here’s a selection of five articles that help you understand issues in America a little bit better.

 

  1. “The old consensus that the US needed to help address the “root causes” of migration, by investing in the Northern Triangle countries and making it more appealing for people to stay, was never supposed to be an immediate solution to anything. Of course, Trump’s view of migration makes it less likely that anyone will be able to start work on long-term solutions that might bear fruit down the road. It is almost certainly, in the meantime, going to get worse before it gets better.”
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    Vox gives us a clearer picture on the migration crisis at the southern US border. Yes it is bad, yes, there is a crisis, and yes, it likely will get much worse before it gets a little better, for a variety of reasons. All of which are explained in this piece.
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  2. “Of course, if it hadn’t been for Roe, there also wouldn’t have been more than 50 million abortions since 1973; whether that’s a good or bad thing will be left as an exercise for the reader. But many abortions would have been performed anyway, because before the court took the issue away from voters, polls showed public opinion steadily trending in favor of legalized abortion, and the procedure was already legal in several states.”
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    Are you familiar with Roe v Wade? If you aren’t, read up about it first. Then read up about what Alabama is up to today. And finally read this article. And also consider following Megan McArdle (the author of this piece)
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  3. “Rather, regardless of what any deal achieves, the two nations appear to have entered a protracted era of competing for technological advantage, in areas ranging from aerospace and telecommunications to artificial intelligence, all with big military as well as commercial implications. Managing tensions over the issue is an increasingly important part of the U.S.-China relationship, for both sides.”
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    The Christian Science Monitor on what the trade war, or the new cold war (or whatever else it is that you want to call it) really is all about.
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  4. “This resonates with my own view. A large, established enterprise can be thought of as a cultural institution, with particular rules, norms, systems, processes, and institutional knowledge ingrained throughout the firm. In a stable environment, this corporate culture is a valuable asset. But as the business environment evolves, a firm’s culture can inhibit its ability to adapt. Cultural assets can depreciate, and one of the most difficult tasks for top management is to know when and how to replace elements of a culture that otherwise had served to keep the enterprise sturdy and reliable.”
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    Arnold Kling reviews a book that has appeared on these pages before, but the reason I put this article up here is because it helps you understand an important point about America today: it’s reviling of the corporate culture is very real – and Tyler Cowen says perhaps misplaced. Useful to think about how one should think about what made America great, and how perhaps it is changing – for the better or otherwise is your opinion entirely.
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  5. “Before I left, I asked the black waiter, Darick Thomas, how he felt about my hat. “I don’t care. At all. Really. At all! I look at a hat and that doesn’t tell me who the person is,” he said. “I’m not against Trump. He says some smart things; he says some dumb things.” Darick didn’t vote. “Voting is the illusion of choice for the masses,” he explained.”
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    What happens if you were a MAGA hat in a famously liberal restaurant in LA? This is, of course, at best an anecdote – but an enjoyable one, nonetheless.

Tech:Links for 18th June, 2019

  1. “”I did my first valuation of Tesla in 2013, and undershot the mark, partly because I saw its potential market as luxury cars (smaller), and partly because I under estimated how much it would be able to extract in production from the Fremont plant. Over time, I have compensated for both mistakes, giving Tesla access to a bigger (albeit, still upscale) market and more growth, while reinvesting less than the typical auto company. In spite of these adjustments, I have consistently come up with valuations well below the price, finding the stock to be valued at about half its price only a year ago. This year marks a turning point, as I find Tesla to be under valued, albeit by only a small fraction. Even in the midst of my most negative posts on Tesla, I confessed that I like the company (though not Elon Musk’s antics as CEO and financial choices) and that I would one day own the stock. That day may be here, as I put in a limit buy order at $180/share, knowing fully well that, if I do end up as a shareholder, this company will test my patience and sanity.”
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    The forever excellent Aswath Damodaran on his latest valuation of Tesla, and now he even has skin in the game. If you want to understand how to value a company, you can’t do better than Prof. Damodaran, and if you want to begin with a particularly challenging, but inevitably interesting company, you can’t do better than Tesla. For both of these reasons, worth reading in some detail.
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  2. “Since it began operations in 2010, Uber has grown to the point where it now collects over $45 billion in gross passenger revenue, and it has seized a major share of the urban car service market. But the widespread belief that it is a highly innovative and successful company has no basis in economic reality.An examination of Uber’s economics suggests that it has no hope of ever earning sustainable urban car service profits in competitive markets. Its costs are simply much higher than the market is willing to pay, as its nine years of massive losses indicate. Uber not only lacks powerful competitive advantages, but it is actually less efficient than the competitors it has been driving out of business.”
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    Speaking of tech and automobile companies, this article is an extremely bearish take on Uber – with fairly convincing reasons to boot. A very long, but ultimately very convincing (and depressing) read. The party ought to end soon.
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  3. “Uber also has a very limited ‘network’ effect, because drivers can and do jump to whatever platform offers them the best terms – indeed most Uber drivers use all available platforms, and they accept rides from the platform offering them the highest rates – and customers can do the same (most customers have multiple ride-hailing apps on the phones, and can easily choose the cheapest). This means that even if Uber survives, it will likely always remain an extremely low margin business.”
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    Another take on the same issue – I don’t necessarily agree with all the economic arguments made in the piece – for example, I think the cost of owning a car as opposed to hiring one for a drive is under-emphasized – but the broader conclusion is all but inevitable.
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  4. “The Tesla position would presumably be that the addition of LIDAR would not have materially avoided the car accident and loss of lives, but this is going to be tough to showcase since in theory any use of LIDAR is going to incrementally improve the safety odds, assuming it is used wisely, and so it’s another part of the uphill climb by Tesla to avoid getting summarily dinged for their lack of LIDAR.They also cannot make the argument that they did not know about LIDAR or were somehow unaware of it, which is quite obviously not the case, including that their self-offered anti-LIDAR rhetoric acting as their own admission that they knew about LIDAR and made a deliberate decision to intentionally exclude it.”
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    Read this article to get a sense of what LIDAR is, and why it is important (or not) in the world of autonomous driving – but also read this article to get a sense of how cost-benefit arguments work in the real world, along with a great way to understand opportunity costs.
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  5. “Americans associate electric cars with the luxury of Tesla, the unrivaled conveyance of choice for the Sand Hill Road set. But these newly assembled vehicles, part of a family of SUVs called the Tang that retails from about 240,000 yuan ($35,700), are aimed squarely at middle-class drivers in the world’s largest electric vehicle market, China. Their manufacturer, BYD Co., is in turn the No. 1 producer of plug-in vehicles globally, attracting a tiny fraction of the attention of Elon Musk’s company while powering, to a significant extent, a transition to electrified mobility that’s moving faster in China than in any other country. Founded in Shenzhen in the mid-1990s as a manufacturer of batteries for brick-size cellphones and digital cameras, BYD now has about a quarter-million employees and sells as many as 30,000 pure EVs or plug-in hybrids in China every month, most of them anything but status symbols. Its cheapest model, the e1, starts at 60,000 yuan ($8,950) after subsidies.”
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    Uber, Tesla, sure. But have you heard of BYD? Or put another way, China had to come up sooner or later.