Understanding Taiwan

A student recently got in touch asking about what he should read when it comes to understanding the current dynamics of Sino-Taiwanese relations.

This blog post is, in a sense, an answer to his question, but also a bookmark-worthy resource for me. And hopefully for you as well!

  • I’d recommend one beings by trying to understand Taiwan: it’s history, it’s society, it’s culture. And a good primer to begin with would be this blogpost by Tanner Greer.
    ..
    “The fact is that younger generations of Taiwanese, including the grandchildren of the waishengren have no memory of pre-communist China, have only distant relatives there, and have spent their entire lives living in freedom. This is an environment where the use of Taiwanese Hokkien is encouraged and Taiwanese nationalism has flourished. Thus very few people under 45 consider themselves Chinese.”
    ..
  • For additional reading, I heavily recommend this post by Noah Smith:
    ..
    “Taiwan has one of the most progressive societies, if not the most progressive, in Asia. It was the first Asian country to legalize gay marriage, and sports a vibrant gay culture. Taiwan ranks as one of the most gender-equal societies in the world, equivalent to Norway and higher than France on the commonly used GII scale. The President, Tsai Ing-Wen, is a woman, and women make up 42% of the legislature. The country has actively pushed for gender equality in business, and the gender pay gap, at 14% in 2018, is smaller than in the U.S.”
    ..
  • Taiwan is big on democracy (and if you read Greer’s post linked to above, you will begin to understand why), and Taiwan is a good way to start to learn more about digital democracy. A useful way to begin would be to learn more about Audrey Tang. Listen to these two podcasts as well in this regard: the first one is with Azeem Azhar, and the second with Tyler Cowen.
    ..
  • Now, a post written in 2022 has to be about Sino-Taiwanese relations, right? The Wikipedia article about Cross-Strait relations is a good place to begin, and you may want to read this Wikipedia article too. (And while you’re at it, this one too!)
    ..
  • And it also has to be about semi-conductors, and that one company in particular. Read this briefing from The Economist as well, along with this essay by Pranay Kotasthane. One thing I have realized is that I haven’t read books about the emergence of the semi-conductor industry in general, and about TSMC in particular. If you have any recommendations, please send them my way. Thank you.
    ..
  • And after all that, perhaps one can then delve deeper into the issue that my student really wanted to get at: present-day geopolitics and strategy. Edward Luttwak on Twitter is an excellent source of information, and this essay by him is good reading. Tyler Cowen’s essay in Bloomberg is also good reading in this regard. And in a slightly older essay, Greer thinks through the implications of America not doing so well in a all-but-inevitable conflict with China over Taiwan.
    ..
  • If you are an Indian reading this blogpost, and are curious about how to think about this conflict from an Indian viewpoint, here are articles you might want to start out with. Here’s Nitin Pai on the issue, here is Shyam Saran, and here is an interview with Pranay over on Scroll on related issues.
    ..
  • What else? Well, follow Constantino Xavier on Twitter, and also Hamsini Hariharan, Ananth Krishnan (who also has a Substack on Indo-Chinese relations) and Manoj Kewalramani (ditto). Also Vijay Gokhale! Here is Takshashila Institute’s page on Taiwan, try this search link on for size too.
    ..
  • Finally, try using game theory to think through the implications? Use this as a starting point, but have fun (well, as much fun as is possible given the topic!) coming up with outrageous theories, and thinking through the consequences in game theoretic terms.
    ..
    There must be a million other things I could have linked to but didn’t. I look forward to adding more, so don’t hesitate to send in links to help that student of mine. Thank you in advance!

Three Charts Related to China

Read this post, and spend a good amount of time asking yourself some questions about the three charts. Here are my questions (note that I don’t have the answers):

  • Is China’s decoupling a good thing or a bad thing? For whom?
  • What time horizon should we use to think about the answer to the first question? Why?
  • To what extent is China’s reduction in exports as a percentage of GDP deliberate? Was it deliberate all along, or did they observe a trend, think through the consequences, and then make it a deliberate policy?
  • Is China’s decline the share of global GDP growth a good thing for the world? Why?
  • What about India, is it a good thing for India? If yes, along which dimensions? If no, along which dimensions?
  • Does China count the last chart in this blog post as a victory or a defeat, or is it “too soon to tell”? Whatever the answer, why so?
  • What are other data related stories from China that we have not been paying attention to?

I don’t have, as I said, the answers. And maybe I have missed asking some obvious questions. If you have material that will help me think through these issues, please do share.

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.

MADDER

If you are even an amateur fan of game theory, you must have come across the term “MAD”:

Mutual assured destruction (MAD) is a doctrine of military strategy and national security policy in which a full-scale use of nuclear weapons by two or more opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both the attacker and the defender (see pre-emptive nuclear strike and second strike). It is based on the theory of deterrence, which holds that the threat of using strong weapons against the enemy prevents the enemy’s use of those same weapons. The strategy is a form of Nash equilibrium in which, once armed, neither side has any incentive to initiate a conflict or to disarm.
The term “mutual assured destruction”, commonly abbreviated “MAD”, was coined by Donald Brennan, a strategist working in Herman Kahn’s Hudson Institute in 1962. However, Brennan came up with this acronym ironically, to argue that holding weapons capable of destroying society was irrational.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutual_assured_destruction

As with most theoretical concepts, it has its fair share of exceptions and limitations. Reading the Criticism section of the Wikipedia article is a great way to depress yourself, for example. But today, we depress ourselves a little bit more, by thinking about an article whose cheerful title is “The Math is Bad for MAD“:

Alarmingly, the current modernization of nuclear-missile arsenals by both Russia and China exposes a simple mathematical flaw in the assumptions underlying continued reliance on MAD. Despite our having ~1,400 deployed strategic nuclear warheads, they are postured such that a surprise attack by approximately 70 – 100 Russian or Chinese missiles—a fraction of their total nuclear forces—could soon undermine our “assured” retaliatory capability.

https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2021/11/08/the_math_is_bad_for_mad_802552.html

The rest of the article explains how China and Russia could, quite conceivably, undermine the US’ “assured” retaliatory capability. And when I say “quite conceivably”, I am not exaggerating. The authors, Norman Haller and Peter Pry lay out with implacable logic how China and Russia might think through all of the moves in this most dangerous of games, and reach the conclusion that America’s ability to “assure” retaliatory capability is not, in fact, assured. I will not excerpt anything to defend my argument, please read the entire article.

So what, one might ask, is to be done? The authors lay out seven things that America could conceivably do, and evaluate each of them in turn. Again, read the whole thing, it is in your interest to do so. I will, however, excerpt their concluding paragraph:

Finally, U.S. decision-makers should tune out minimalists who ignore the math and advocate replacing the Triad with either a Diad (bombers and submarines only) or, even worse, a Monad (submarines only). Tuned out as well should be MAD proponents who are inattentive to the math and insist that an undefended America is a positive asset.

https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2021/11/08/the_math_is_bad_for_mad_802552.html

You may agree with that paragraph, you may not. But you should, as a student of game theory, ask yourself if you can frame your agreement (or otherwise) in game theoretic terms. It is a useful (albeit depressing) exercise in your journey as a student of game theory.

And finally, for your reading pleasure, a further selection of cheer inducing books by one of the authors.

As my favorite bloggers like to say at the end of posts that are as optimistic as this one, have a nice day.

“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.

What Year in History? A Fun Way to Understand Development in India

Ajay Shah, Renuka Sane and Ananya Goyal have a very interesting blogpost out, the title of which is “What year in the history of an advanced economy is like India today?”

India has been stepping out from poverty into middle income. It is estimated that the proportion of persons below the PPP$1.90 poverty line has dropped to an estimated 87 million in 2020. In thinking about India’s journey, it is interesting to ask: In the historical journey of advanced economies, What year in the history of the US or UK roughly corresponds to India of 2021? This is a good way to obtain intuition on where India is, in the development journey.

https://blog.theleapjournal.org/2021/08/what-year-in-history-of-advanced.html

It’s a good blogpost, and the section before they get to comparisons about GDP is worth reading in full, because they come up with a good set of warnings about overdoing analysis like this. Read it, but we’ll get down to the fun part right away. As they mention in the blogpost, India today is at about 6800 dollars per person in terms of GDP, adjusted for PPP and inflation. When in its history was the UK at this point? What about the US? Well, the blogpost gives the answers, but I prefer to show you screenshots of my favorite software, Gapminder:

And I won’t show you the United States here, but it’s around the same point – the late 1800’s, in effect. Or put another way, if you want to use a this very simple way of asking how long to go before we reach the same level of per capita GDP as the United States, we have about 140 years to go.


And Gapminder, of course, has the ability to allow you to do this for every single metric that is available on the software. The blogpost written by Ajay Shah, Renuka Sane and Ananya Goyal speaks about asset ownership and women’s labor participation as other things to compare India’s current level of development with America’s past – but you can, of course, take a look at whichever metric you want.

This blogpost reminded me of a chart that The Economist had come up with earlier:

https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2011/10/03/chasing-the-dragon

As with many charts from The Economist, it takes a while to get what is going on, but the chart is worth that effort. Here’s a quick explanation to get you started: life expectancy at birth for China is 73. India is at 65. And China was at 65 36 years ago. Once you get this, the other rows in the chart become easy to interpret. Note that this chart was published by The Economist a decade ago.


These sort of analyses are fun, but of course one shouldn’t take them too seriously. There are other things that are at play beyond the data points that are worth taking into account, but are difficult to quantify. And most notable among these is culture.

That is, sure, China was at 65 in terms of life expectancy 36 years ago, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we will take even approximately the same amount of time to reach 73. Could be lesser, could be more – and that because of changing technology, different culture, different political structures, different – well, a whole host of things.

But this much is true: both the blogpost that I cited and the chart above shows that we have, as the poet put it, miles to go before we sleep.


By the way, a fun exercise if you are a student today is to see if you can recreate The Economist’s chart updated with today’s numbers. Give it a shot, why don’t you?

The Rules of The Game

A fascinating, thought-provoking thread on the recent Chinese crackdown on tech. We covered this earlier this week, but the thread is worth reading and reflecting upon. Also note Lillian Li‘s background, if you are a student of economics. Studying development economics is not “cool”, got “nothing to do with finance”? Think again. Or, at the risk of being a little meta, ask yourselves about the rules of the game.

The Chinese Tech Crackdown, Take 2

On Tuesday, I ended my post with this:

At the moment, and that as a consequence of having written all of this out, this is where I find myself:
China is optimizing for power, and is willing to give up on innovation in the consumer internet space. America is optimizing for innovation in the consumer internet space, and is willing to cede power to big tech in terms of shaping up what society looks like in the near future.
Have I framed this correctly? If yes, what are the potential ramifications in China, the US and the rest of the world? What ought to be the follow-up questions? Why? Who else should I be following and reading to learn more about these issues?

https://econforeverybody.com/2021/07/27/the-three-article-problem/

How might I have been wrong? V Ananta Nageswaran and Nitin Pai wrote posts recently that helped me learn about some answers to at least the first of my questions above.

Let’s find out how I might have been wrong!


Noah Smith had hypothesized that the tech crackdown is because China’s goals are about asserting its power internationally. And not soft power, but the tanks and boots on the ground type power.

China may simply see things differently. It’s possible that the Chinese government has decided that the profits of companies like Alibaba and Tencent come more from rents than from actual value added — that they’re simply squatting on unproductive digital land, by exploiting first-mover advantage to capture strong network effects, or that the IP system is biased to favor these companies, or something like that. There are certainly those in America who believe that Facebook and Google produce little of value relative to the profit they rake in; maybe China’s leaders, for reasons that will remain forever opaque to us, have simply reached the same conclusion.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/why-is-china-smashing-its-tech-industry

Nitin Pai disagrees:

Now, it’s unclear if the opportunity costs of talent are so stark in China that the government must crack down on consumer internet companies in order to incentivise people to get into hardware. But Smith’s explanation is consistent with the popular view that China’s leaders are astute and inscrutable strategists who think really long term.
..
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My answer is simple: it’s about political power. In fact, if we frame the question differently, the answer becomes readily apparent: “Why is the autocratic leader of the Chinese Communist Party attacking media companies that directly reach almost everyone in the country?” Because size, reach and control of consumer data gives them narrative power comparable to what the Party has. Further, the ability to tap foreign capital gives them more freedom, albeit of the kind with Chinese characteristics. The Party doesn’t like that. And Xi likes it even less. That is why he moved aggressively to pre-empt a challenge to the Party’s narrative dominance and preserve its monopoly on power.

https://www.nitinpai.in/2021/07/27/why-china-is-attacking-its-consumer-internet-companies

Another way to think about it: it is about soft power, but the soft power that the CCP would like to project to its own people. There is only one storyteller that shapes the societal narrative in China, and anybody else who wants to play is going to be cut down to size. Ruthlessly.

(Of course, it is not just about soft power being projected to its own people. But nobody in China is crazy enough to want to play the hard power game with the CCP. That’s a well established monopoly. But Nitin is saying that the CCP wants all aspects of power to be within its complete control, soft and hard.)

As he puts it towards the end of his post:

It’s consistent with what it has been doing since Mao Zedong’s time: ruthlessly cutting down challenges to its hold on Chinese minds.
That’s it, folks. Nothing more to see here.

https://www.nitinpai.in/2021/07/27/why-china-is-attacking-its-consumer-internet-companies

Ananta Nageswaran also blogged about this yesterday:

In the meantime, a blog post by Noah Smith, an economics teacher and a (former?) columnist for Bloomberg wrote that China’s crackdown on consumer-internet companies was to ensure that China’s financial and intellectual resources were not diverted for creating low value addition. It did not strike him that such an explanation – if it were true – did not do any credit to China. It reeks of central planning and omniscience. Two, even if it were true and even if it was meant to be a benign explanation, malign explanations cannot be ruled and need not be ruled out.
Mutually exclusive explanations help keep the narrative simple and, two, it helps make the narrator appear smart because he/she has figured out the ultimate explanation. More often that not, reality is grey. Or, it has many shades.

https://thegoldstandardsite.wordpress.com/2021/07/28/fintech-edtech-and-china/

In other words, he’s saying that even if what Noah is saying makes sense, there is more to it than that. It’s not just the opportunity cost of having some of the best minds in China work on consumer tech. What else might it be? Ananta Nageswaran finds himself in agreement with Nitin Pai:

I agree. It is political power and the interpretation (of Xi and correctly so) that information (Nitin calls it mindshare) about people’s behaviour that these companies have give them the ability (and the chance) to set the narrative later, in Xi’s thinking, seizing it from the CCP.

https://thegoldstandardsite.wordpress.com/2021/07/28/fintech-edtech-and-china/

A minor point I would like to make here: I don’t think information and mindshare are the same thing, though they certainly are related. The information that tech firms have allows them to shape (sometimes in entirely unexpected ways!) the narrative, and therefore influence mindshare. Information is the tool and mindshare is the outcome – or at least, that is how I see it.

Please read Sanjay Anandram’s quotes from that blogpost too. I learnt about (and am going to shamelessly borrow) the RFRE principle.


So is it Noah’s story, or Nitin and Ananta Nageswaran’s? Regular readers know what’s coming next: the truth lies somewhere in the middle! Or at least, that’s my take, and it seems to be Ananta Nageswaran’s as well:

Of the three explanations that have been on offer, Noah Smith’s is the least persuasive. In some respects, Nitin and Sanjay are aligned and they diverge in some other aspects.
As always, the real motivation behind some of the recent decisions of the government in China will have elements of all three and more.

https://thegoldstandardsite.wordpress.com/2021/07/28/fintech-edtech-and-china/

To a student reading this: spectrum based thinking is a gift. Reasonable people can and should argue about where the truth lies, but always think intervals, never point estimates.

And having read all of the pieces that I have linked to across these two posts, I find myself in the same space on the spectrum as Ananta Nageswaran. That is, it’s not just the Noah Smith/Dan Wang argument at play (regarding which, Noah has updates. Scroll to the bottom of the post where he links to pieces that bolster his argument). But it is more about the CCP asserting its power.

Ananta Nagewaran ends with a Bruno Maçães quote: “the main players compete not under a common set of rules but in order to define what the rules are”.

It is a weird coincidence, but I just introduced some students to Frederich List yesterday. The more things change…

Taiwan, China and TSMC

Let’s say you knew nothing about Taiwan, China and TSMC. Where to start?

You don’t really hear about Taiwanese pop music, TV, or other pop culture. Taiwanese food exists, but except possibly for bubble tea, most Americans probably wouldn’t recognize it.
This seems like something that ought to change. Most importantly, because Taiwan seems really cool. But also because it’s geopolitically important, because it’s probably the most likely flashpoint for great-power war.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/taiwan-is-a-civilization

Flashpoint for a great power war? Unfortunately, yes:

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s election in January 2016 upended Beijing’s plans for reconciliation with the Nationalists. Tsai, whose Democratic Progressive Party was founded on the promise of independence, refused to accept Ma’s position that both sides belong to “One China.” Beijing responded by cutting off communication, curbing travel and resuming efforts to lure away Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic partners. Beijing has also withdrawn its support for Taipei’s participation in global bodies such as the World Health Assembly and pressured airlines, retailers and other multinationals to revise policies that treat Taiwan as a country. More recently, the People’s Liberation Army has stepped up exercises around the island, including “encirclement patrols” and incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-01-27/why-taiwan-is-the-biggest-risk-for-a-u-s-china-clash-quicktake

Ok, so that would be worrying, but a great power war? Because of chips. Microchips, to be more precise. And manufactured by a firm that you may not have read of: TSMC. Don’t blame yourself if you haven’t heard of it – and even if you have heard of it, this chart will still be informative:

Original Article in The Economist is here.

I don’t know about you, but I was amazed by that chart.

From that same article, here is additional information about the firm:

The most important firm in this critical business is Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC). It controls 84% of the market of chips with the smallest, most efficient circuits on which the world’s biggest technology brands, from Apple in America to Alibaba in China, rely to make their snazzy products and services possible. As demand for the most sophisticated chips surges thanks to the expansion of fast communication networks and cloud computing, TSMC is pouring vast additional sums of money into expanding its dominance of the cutting edge.

https://www.economist.com/business/2021/04/26/how-tsmc-has-mastered-the-geopolitics-of-chipmaking

By the way, the story of the founder is fascinating in its own right:

Read the whole thread, of course, but also note that you should also really read… and stop me if you have heard this from me before… How Asia Works by Joe Studwell.

Now, about China and the TSMC:

First, read this article for some useful background. Second:

Some experts claim that China now has the military capacity to quickly overwhelm Taiwan. Even if this is correct, invasion remains a high-risk endeavor that, even if successful, would still entail major negative ramifications for China. It can be expected only in conditions under which China’s leaders see the immediate political stakes outweighing the military risks, implying a narrow range of scenarios.

https://thediplomat.com/2020/12/would-china-invade-taiwan-for-tsmc/

The rest of the article goes on to explain the supply chain considerations in light of a war. And they’re very real indeed!

On January 13th Honda, a Japanese carmaker, said it had to shut its factory in Swindon, a town in southern England, for a while. Not because of Brexit, or workers sick with covid-19. The reason was a shortage of microchips. Other car firms are suffering, too. Volkswagen, which produces more vehicles than any other firm, has said it will make 100,000 fewer this quarter as a result. Like just about everything else these days—from banks to combine harvesters—cars cannot run without computers.

https://www.economist.com/business/2021/01/23/chipmaking-is-being-redesigned-effects-will-be-far-reaching

Finally, read this for further details. (Long, but very detailed, and therefore very interesting)

If you are a student of economics in 2021, this is one story you want to keep an eye on, apart from the other, obvious ones.