The Solow Model and China

If you don’t know what the Solow model is, here is a great place to get started:

There are 11 videos in that series, and if you can spare the time, please watch all of them. Just two a day (they’re not more than 5 minutes each), and you’ll be done come the weekend.

But in effect, here is what the Solow model says:

  1. Output for a nation is a function of three (actually four) things:
    1. Capital (K): Buidings, ports, dams… infrastructure, basically.
    2. Education Augmented Labor (eL): The amount of hours that a person is able to put in to their work, but with the built in assumption that an educated person is likely to be more productive than a person without education.
    3. Ideas: Read the paragraph below to get a sense of what this means in practice.

Think about this blogpost that you are reading. I wrote it using my laptop, which is my capital. I will spend about an hour (that’s my plan, I’ll update you towards the end of this post about how well it worked out) writing it, and that’s the labor that I’ll be putting into this post. The fact that I have been “educated” in economics should mean that this post will be easier to write for me than, say, a gardener. The gardener could have written this post as well, of course, but it’s safe to assume that she would first have had to learn about the Solow model, and that, presumably, would have taken longer.

So that’s K and eL where the output (this blogpost) is concerned. But now think about it this way: what if another person, with a similar level of economics education as mine were to write this blogpost instead of me? Would that person have chosen this video, and these paragraphs to explain the Solow model? Maybe they would have recommended some other video, or some other podcast, or chosen to share details of an online textbook in which the Solow model is explained. That’s one way to think about ideas.

And so when you combine the capital (the laptop), the labor (the time I spend on this blogpost, given my education levels) and the ideas (what I choose to put into this blog post, and how), you get the output you’re reading right now.

What if I double the capital? Will the blogpost be done in half the time? Say I have an external monitor attached to my laptop – will two screens mean finishing the blogpost in half the time? It will save some time, but not by a factor of two, surely. Trust me, I have tried.

What if I double the labor? Hire an assistant to write this blogpost with me? The way I work, trust me, it will probably take longer! What if I go get a post-doc, to augment my education? Will that save me time? The hysterical laughter you hear in the background is the response of any PhD/post-doc student anywhere in the world, and that sound means a loud and resounding no.

In a sense, the Solow model asks these and related questions, and answers them using some graphs and equations. Except, of course, the Solow model does it for not one guy writing one blog, but for an entire nation at a time. There is no sense in me explaining the whole model over here, for it would be a case of me reinventing what is already a very good wheel. Please watch the videos.


But the Solow model is a remarkably useful way to get a handle on the long run growth prospects of a country. Is India likely to grow in the future? Well, is it going to add to its capital stock? Yes. Is it going to augment it’s stock of education augmented labor? Yes. Is it likely to produce more ideas than it is right now? Yes. And so the growth prospects for India look reasonably good.

Of course, there is more to the Solow model. All of this holds true given a strong and stable political system, well established rules of law, and strong and capable institutions. But so long as you believe that these are likely to continue to be so in the Indian case, you should be bullish on India.

What about, say, Japan? It has a capital stock that is more in need of replacement than new construction ( a feature of the Solow model that we have not discussed here, called depreciation), so it is unlikely that it will grow its capital stock too much. Here’s an example of what I mean. What about it’s stock of education augmented labor? Well, the news ain’t very good. Ideas? Trending upwards, but not by much. So if I had to bet on which country would grow more over the next twenty years, I would bet on India, not Japan.

Bear in mind that this is a model, and like all models, it is an imprecise abstraction of reality. So it is possible that at the end of the twenty year period, we find out that I am completely wrong. But if you think the Solow Model is a reasonably good model, you ought to bet the way I did.


So what about China?

Well, now, that’s a whole different story, and one that Noah Smith talks about in a recent blog post. Long story short, he doesn’t think China’s growth prospects are that great.

But the story is a little more complicated than that. The Solow model is a good model, sure, but it’s not as if the Chinese authorities/experts aren’t aware of the problem. And in his blog post, Noah looks at arguments put forth by two people who know a thing or two about China, and analyzes them critically.

The first argument is that sure, China’s demographics are on a downward trend, but what if we raised the retirement age for Chinese workers? Would that not solve the problem? Noah says no, probably not, because firms made of exclusively old folks isn’t necessarily a good idea. I wholeheartedly agree.

What about adding to China’s urbanization, and therefore its infrastructure? After all, China’s urbanization rate is “only” 64%. The inverted quotes around only in the previous sentence is because we, in India, are officially at 31%, but as in the case of China, it very much is a function of how you define urbanization. But similarly, in China, the urbanization rate is actually way more than 64%, and the Lewis turning point has already taken place in China, or will do so any moment.

And about ideas, well, China is an even more complicated story. Noah makes the point that China’s industrial policy is essentially a one-man army that is trying something that has never been tried before, and Noah is betting on it not quite working out. And given the events of the last year and a half or so, it is hard to disagree.

And so the Solow Model would probably tell you that China is unlikely to grow as fast in the near future as it did in the recent past, and even if you take into account potential adjustments, it likely will still be the case that China’s growth rate will start to plateau.


Please, read the entire post by Noah. But if you are a student of economics who has not yet met the Solow Model, begin there, and then get on to Noah’s post – your mileage will increase considerably.

Tech: Links for 8th October, 2019

  1. “What we are doing is creating selfies, documenting moments with family, and snapping photos of food and latte art. We aren’t even trying to build a scrapbook of those images. It is all a stream — less for remembrance than for real-time sharing. In other words, we have changed our relationship with photography and photographs. It used to be that, photos served as a portal to our past. Now, we are moving so fast as we try to keep up in the age of infinitesimal attention spans. A minute, might as well be a month ago.”
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    The excellent Om Malik on cameras, art, servers and obsolescence.
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  2. “Around the world, governments are setting timeframes by which all cars are to be electric. Norway is requiring all cars to be zero emission by 2025—and more than 50 percent of its cars today are electric. However, China is winning the race in terms of units, with more than 1 million EVs sold in 2018. The U.S was the second largest market, with 361,000; Norway had 73,000. China and the U.S. are at 4.44 percent and 2.09 percent market penetration, respectively, so there is lots of room for growth. China is stimulating growth with public policy: It aims to have 2 million in annual EV sales by 2020 and to outlaw the internal combustion engine sometime before 2040. France has also committed to a ban by 2040 and the UK by 2050. Governments are seeking to accelerate uptake through a potpourri of incentives, ranging from tax breaks to free parking to fees on conventional cars in low emission zones.”
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    A useful (to me, at any rate) overview of the EV market in the years (decades) to come.
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  3. “In a new book, Mr. Smith makes the case for a new relationship between the tech sector and government — closer cooperation and challenges for each side.“When your technology changes the world,” he writes, “you bear a responsibility to help address the world that you have helped create.” And governments, he writes, “need to move faster and start to catch up with the pace of technology.””
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    On Microsoft’s middle path. I come from a generation that simply could not have predicted this.
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  4. “A new priest named Mindar is holding forth at Kodaiji, a 400-year-old Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan. Like other clergy members, this priest can deliver sermons and move around to interface with worshippers. But Mindar comes with some … unusual traits. A body made of aluminum and silicone, for starters.Mindar is a robot.”
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    In a sense, unsurprising. But still: religion, rituals and… robots?
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  5. “Christine Figgener, a marine biology grad student aboard the boat, filmed with her phone as a colleague tried to yank some sort of tube from the turtle’s nose. At first, Figgener thought it might be a worm. Then she saw it was a piece of plastic. “Is that a freaking straw?” she exclaimed, outrage blooming in her voice. Indeed, it was. In time, the straw was plucked from the turtle’s nose and the sad, green fellow liberated. But Figgener—who’d been researching turtle behavior in pursuit of her Ph.D. and had seen marine life tormented by plastic junk countless times before—could not stop fuming as the boat returned to shore. It was, if you will, the last straw.”
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    On technology and… straws.

Etc: Links for 20th September, 2019

  1. Nepali chai.
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  2. Who owns the smiley face?
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  3. “The feeling that overwork can induce is much more than tiredness; it induces an anxiety that places the sufferer in a rather hellish place between shutting down and waking up. Full wakefulness isn’t possible because the nervous system and body are so overburdened. But neither is a state of rest because there is a feeling that the sufferer’s always behind herself. Always chasing the next task. Always feeling that they haven’t done enough, which in turn induces the tendency to cynicism and indifference often associated with the condition.”
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    On burnout.
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  4. Inside Samsung’s secretive lab.
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  5. Japanese folks aren’t too excited (yet) about the Olympics.

EC101: Links for 19th September, 2019

  1. Are we all Japan now?
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  2. A review of the Jalan comittee report.
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  3. Eric Maskin writes an appreciation of Kenneth Arrow’s ouevre.
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  4. A New Yorker profile of Stephanie Kelton.
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  5. Bookmarked as want to read.

Etc: Links for 6th September, 2019

  1. Livemint with a rather fascinating list of companies that were operating in India before 1947.
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  2. “I obeyed. I opened one door and then another, and a pure white light emerged from the tiny bathroom. I entered, and looked up. The ceiling was an improbable 25 feet above me with a glass ceiling. Sunlight flooded the room. The sink was black marble. And in the middle of the otherwise whitewashed space was a simple, beige toilet. It was the most ridiculously and gloriously presented toilet I had ever seen. Imperial. It was an imperial toilet.”
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    If reading that doesn’t make you want to click on this, I admire your self-control.
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  3. A useful list.
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  4. Savor this one, at leisure. And keep YouTube handy.
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  5. “As you grow older, observing your surroundings, you realise that real people argue, debate and discuss. There are certain homes where the dining table conversations may be intellectual or mundane or even mockery of an emotional crisis another family member is going through but the point is that everyone does have a sound and cultivated thinking, a mind with opinions which are freely expressed. Their education, the books they’ve read and the places they’ve been to defines them, forms their ideologies, firms their faith and gives them a standpoint on a particular topic. I grew up in one such household. There was a room for disagreement amongst its members, yet each person was valued, irrespective. Relations didn’t break in a jiffy. There was no melodrama.”
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    Juhi Chaturvedi pays tribute to Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Lovely read!

RoW: Links for 14th August, 2019

Five links about gun control from the United States of America:

  1. First, from Chriss Blattman, who knows a thing or two about violence.
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  2. Slatestarcodex, on trying to make sense of the data
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  3. and what the comments section from that blog has to say.
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  4. Gun control, the Japanese way.
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  5. To circle back to the beginning, a contemplative article from Vox.

ROW: Links for 12th June, 2019

  1. “Readers will by now be familiar with the list of industries impacted by the US China trade war. These include soyabeans, cars, steel, and semiconductors.But one commodity is increasingly important to how the tensions play out: students. The Chinese state media is now saying the government will issue a warning on the risk of studying in the US”
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    The FT reports on how Chinese students will now be discouraged from going to American Universities – in a sense, an expected move, but you would be surprised at just how dependent universities in America today are on foreign students. Interesting times.
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  2. “To summarize, based on the above I doubt that actual Chinese growth is more than 1% below the reported figures, at least up through 2018. Of course it’s possible that things have changed in 2019; if so I expect that to show up in upcoming airline travel data for China.”
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    Scott Sumner patiently reminds us that we should look at the data before making a claim, and having looked at the airline data, he rejects the notion that there is a dramatic slowdown in China. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle.
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  3. “Vietnam, like China really doesn’t import very many manufactures from the United States. That’s partially a function of the fact that the value added in Vietnam is often low, and thus Vietnam cannot afford a lot of top of the line U.S. capital goods (yet). But it is also a function of the fact that many of the global value chains that generate large (often offshore) profits for U.S. firms don’t give rise to that much U.S. production these days. There just isn’t much sign that the Asian value chains stretch back to include U.S. factories and workers. Fabless semiconductor firms that design chips likely export their designs to a low tax jurisdiction before they license their designs to an Asian contract manufacturer. The rise in Vietnam’s exports hasn’t been associated with a commensurate rise in exports from the United States to Vietnam.”
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    Brad Setser takes a look at whether Vietnam is the new China, and concludes that it kind of is, and kind of isn’t.
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  4. “It is not surprising that the CPC has worked so hard to extirpate the Tiananmen Square massacre from public memory. History – including the horrors of Mao Zedong’s rule – is too volatile a substance for the Chinese dictatorship. China’s leaders hold up their system of government as a model for other countries. But how can a regime be confident in the sustainability of its values and methods if it is afraid of its own past?”
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    Chris Patten (who knows a thing or two about this issue) reviews the Tiananmen square massacre, and ponders on what it means for China and Hong Kong today.
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  5. “Despite a small increase in young and female lawmakers—like Ms Suematsu, who is in her forties—local politics is still dominated by old men. “In these municipalities, candidates are so old they have a hard time putting up election posters,” says Shigeki Uno of the Nippon Institute for Research Advancement, another think-tank. Indeed, three-quarters of town and village assembly members are over 60. The oldest, aged 91, holds a seat on a city assembly in Shizuoka, in central Japan.Young people are loth to stand because local politics is not a financially rewarding profession. The law bans assembly members from holding other jobs concurrently. Their pay averages around ¥300,000 ($2,740) a month, hardly enough to support young families. “It’s basically a job for the retired,” sniffs Mr Uno. And for little pay, the workload is onerous.”
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    The Economist reports on Japan, and it’s ageing population – and what that means for democracy on the ground, at local elections.

Links for 29th April, 2019

  1. “It may seem silly to lament over music selections in an exercise class, but it’s an issue that fitness companies may increasingly face as they transform from traditional health companies into media publishers. Let’s face it: working out can be boring, and people are willing to pay top dollar to have someone yell at us while sweating to the latest Migos track. Combine that with the flexibility to exercise in your own home on your own time and it’s a revenue strategy that has helped brands like Equinox, Pure Barre, SoulCycle, and Physique 57 tap into a demographic that previously found the studios inaccessible. Even companies like ClassPass and Fitbit have also expanded beyond their initial product of a subscription service and fitness trackers, offering their own guided fitness sessions for $8 to $15 a month.”
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    I don’t know if you have heard of any of these services, but the legal angle of copyrights is worth reading about.
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  2. “Respect among Russians for Josef Stalin has surged to the highest level of President Vladimir Putin’s era, with 70 percent saying his rule had been good for the country, according to a poll tracking attitudes toward the Soviet dictator.”
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    With an excerpt like that, why would you not want to read more?
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  3. “Japan has certainly lost the late 1980s bubble-economy swagger that once terrified Western chief executive officers. Yet neither is the world’s third-biggest economy some sort of Mad Max economic dystopia. Japan remains a rich country, home to some of the best infrastructure and fastest bullet trains, leading auto and robotics industries, and one of the highest life expectancy rates. It’s a financial superpower—the largest creditor nation and provider of investment and savings, with net external assets of almost $3 trillion. Japan’s megabanks are the foremost lenders in Asia outside of China.At the moment, Japan looks like an island of stability among developed nations that are riven by polarized debates about unfettered capital flows, free trade, and open borders. Ordinary Japanese aren’t being torn asunder by American-scale income inequality and culture wars, grappling with a slow-motion train wreck like Brexit, or coping with French-style yellow vest worker protests on the streets of Tokyo.”
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    Is Japan growing? No. But so, this article asks, what? Also a good overview of all of what Japan has tried in the last thirty years or so, in terms of economics and society.
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  4. “Documents seen by the Financial Times and extensive interviews with more than a dozen senior figures in the <word removed by me> world show a co-ordinated global effort by the Russian state, through ambassadors and representatives of its banks and biggest companies, to win votes with promises of money and political pressure. 
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    Without cheating, can you guess what this article is about? Once you have made a guess, click through to find out what the article is about.
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  5. “Exxon’s arrangement in Texas reflects, in miniature, our national state of indecision about the best approach to climate change. Depending on whom you ask, climate change doesn’t exist, or is an engineering problem, or requires global mobilization, or could be solved by simply nudging the free market into action. Absent a coherent strategy, opportunists can step in and benefit in wily ways from the shifting landscape. Tax-supported renewables in Texas take coal plants offline, but they also support oil extraction. Technology advances, but not the system underneath. Faced with this volatile and chaotic situation, the system does what it does best: It searches out profits in the short term.”
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    Economics at play in terms of energy, policy, climate change, short term profits, incentives, horizons and so much more.

Links for 19th February, 2019

  1. “…granted, most supply has moved to Facebook and other social networks; it is no longer possible to build a viable web business with display ads. At the same time, the web is still as open as can be, which means there is room for new business models like subscriptions, a model that has only gotten started and is already producing far better content than the old mass market media model every (sic) did”
    The always excellent Stratechery blog on Spotify moving into the podcasting business. Read this to understand how pricing works in the world of the internet, and how an ad-based business is going to be difficult to sustain.
  2. “Goodhart’s law states that once a social or economic measure is turned into a target for policy, it will lose any information content that had qualified it to play such a role in the first place.”
    A current favorite of mine as an example: students must attend at least 75% of all classes in a semester assumes that a student will auto-magically learn once in class – for that is the reason behind the 75% attendance requirement. Do read, though. I’m sure you can think of a million different applications.
  3. “The constitution ensured that the Senate could protect the people against themselves, and simultaneously ensured that the Framers armored the Senate against the people. Should America be too Democratic, and grant too much power to the House, Madison worried that government would have a propensity “to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to be seduced by factitious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions.””
    As an Indian, I enjoyed reading this as a reminder of the thinking behind the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha. And which is why I’d recommend you read it too!
  4. “What these results suggest is the headline inflation – expected to be in the 3% handle in the near future – will eventually start converging, over a 12-month period, towards core inflation which is currently running above 5%. If this were to come to pass, space for any monetary policy easing cycle – notwithstanding a one-off cute in February or April this year – would virtually evaporate.”
    Expect there to be an intense discussion about the differences between headline (overall) and core (overall minus fuel and food) inflation. This article is a decent analysis of the link between the two in the past, and today.
  5. “Consider Ms. Nishimasa’s daily routine. The preschool her two youngest children attend requires the family to keep daily journals recording their temperatures and what they eat twice a day, along with descriptions of their moods, sleeping hours and playtime. On top of that, her 8-year-old son’s elementary school and after-school tutoring class require that a parent personally signs off on every homework assignment.”
    A fascinating read from the NYT, to help us better understand the culture that is Japan.