Argue More!

Argue More!

The point of arguing with an author is not to “win” the argument. 

Quite the opposite. The point of arguing with the author is to work with the author.

Mihir Mahajan, regular reader of EFE, raised some questions about my post the other day on middle income traps.

It might help to take a look at the chart from the earlier post before you go through his questions.

Here are his questions:

  1. “The 1960 vs. 2022 nature of graph and the 1-6 ratings of income are quite confusing”
  2. “The “middle income trap” is too dense and you pointing to Nicaragua shows that the journeys of different countries could be going in different directions within that group”
  3. “The range of 1.75-3.75 on both axes is deceptive though. While the higher scales 4+ is rich in general, the relative gap between India/Nigeria and China is very high — not sufficient distinction there.”
  4. “Putting China in “middle income trap” is odd because it has gone from below 2 in 1960 to above 3 in 2022 (based on the axes).”

Before I get around to answering his questions, I have a question for you. 

Do you have any questions of your own, for having read his questions? Go read my post again, stare at the chart, go over Mihir’s questions, and then think about whether you have any questions of your own.

I’ll answer each of Mihir’s questions below, but the point of this post is really what follows after, so please do stick around until the end!

  1. “The 1960 vs. 2022 nature of graph and the 1-6 ratings of income are quite confusing”

    Yup, absolutely. It takes a while to figure out what is going on in an Economist chart, and while that is a problem, I’d argue that the rewards are usually worth it. By the way, if you are an Economist subscriber, you absolutely should read their newsletter on visualization and charts.

    A useful principle to keep in mind is that when you look at a chart, train yourself to not look at the data first. First be clear about what is on the axes (all of them). Then be clear about the title of the chart. It helps to take a look at the source of the data. Then start taking a look at the chart itself.

    Homework: what does “income per person, relative to the United States, log of %” mean? Can you explain this phrase to somebody else? If you can’t, you haven’t understood it well enough!
  2. “The “middle income trap” is too dense and you pointing to Nicaragua shows that the journeys of different countries could be going in different directions within that group”

    The central square in the chart is too dense, but that’s just fine by me. Why? Because the outliers are then even more worthy of analysis. If you cannot “make it” into the central square, then you’re even more special relative to that crowded space.
    Botswana is special because it was poor in 1960, and is not just middle-income today, but on the verge of breaking into the high-income space. That’s a special story!

    Argentina, on the other hand, is special for the wrong reason. It was a high-income country back in 1960, but has since slid down into a middle-income country grouping.
    Both of these countries, within the context of this chart, also help you understand Mihir’s second comment here. Because this is a static image, and because we’re comparing two different points in time, we don’t get a sense of the trajectory of a country. Botswana is on the way up, and Argentina has slid down – but you need to know this separately. This isn’t clear from looking at the chart.

    To be clear, this isn’t a criticism of the chart, but rather a way of recognizing that your work as a student doesn’t stop for having studied the chart. Au contraire, this chart should spur you to read more about whichever country seems interesting to you.

    “Tell me more about Botswana’s growth story over the last sixty years or so. Assume I know very little about Africa in general, and Botswana in particular. Your answer should include Botswana’s internal politics, key leaders, relationship with her neighbors and with the superpowers during the cold war, her natural resources and some background on major ethnic and religious groups in Botswana”

  3. “The range of 1.75-3.75 on both axes is deceptive though. While the higher scales 4+ is rich in general, the relative gap between India/Nigeria and China is very high — not sufficient distinction there.”

    Log scales can be tricky, and the best way to understand this is by thinking about how earthquakes are measured. And yes, Mihir is spot on about how you need to keep this in mind. The lower ends of the middle income square (left to right and bottom to top) actually cover very large ground, and countries in the left-bottom corner are very different from countries in the right-top corner of the middle square. Dividing the middle square into a 3×3 grid would be a great idea. (Hi, The Economist. Hint, hint)
  4. “Putting China in “middle income trap” is odd because it has gone from below 2 in 1960 to above 3 in 2022 (based on the axes).”

    It’s their chart to make, and ours to interpret as we see fit, so while I get where Mihir is coming from, I’m fine with both the boundaries of the middle square, and with the framing that The Economist has used. China’s growth trajectory over these past sixty years or so has been fantastic, but the question is about whether it can keep that break-neck growth rate up going ahead. A very wise economist won a Nobel Prize for coming up with a simple model that says “Nah, probably not”. So while I understand Mihir’s point, I can see the logic used by The Economist as well. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but macro is hard.

But now that I’ve replied to his comments, let me come to the main point of today’s post.

What stops us from asking questions as we read? Why, that is, do we read unquestioningly?

Maybe that’s too specific a question, so let me step back and frame it more generally. 

Why don’t you argue more often with whatever you’re reading?

Make sure you understand where they’re coming from, and that you understand their line of reasoning, to the extent possible. And also that you understand how and why they reached the conclusions they did. You don’t have to agree with either the line of reasoning or the conclusion, to be clear.

But asking smart, probing questions about both the premises and the conclusions can help you become a much  more engaged reader. This, in turn, can help you to both understand what you’re reading, and to decide whether you agree with the author.

It’s a rare old skill, and I’d encourage you to apply it, always, while you’re reading.

So please, disagree more with what you read on my blog, and let me know of your disagreements.

Help me learn better!

The Economist on The Middle Income Trap

But first things first: what is a middle income trap?

Here’s my assistant’s answer:

The middle-income trap is a concept that describes a situation where a country’s economy gets stuck in a middle-income range, and it struggles to advance to higher levels of development.
To understand this, we need to first know about development economics and growth theory. Development economics is the study of how countries become richer and more developed over time. Growth theory is a part of development economics that studies how economies grow and what factors help or hinder growth.
Now, let’s go back to the middle-income trap. When a country starts to develop, it usually grows quickly and becomes a middle-income country. However, some countries find it hard to keep growing and end up getting stuck in this middle-income range.
The problem is that these countries face new challenges when they reach this stage. For example, they may have to compete with cheaper goods from other countries, or they may need more advanced technology to keep growing. These challenges can be difficult to overcome, and the country’s growth slows down or even stops.
This can be a problem because being stuck in the middle-income trap can mean that a country’s people do not get richer over time, and the country may not be able to provide the same opportunities as wealthier countries.
To avoid the middle-income trap, countries need to keep innovating and adapting to new challenges. This can involve investing in education and training, creating new technologies, and finding new ways to do things. By doing this, a country can keep growing and move towards becoming a high-income country.

So which countries find themselves in the middle income trap? The Economist has a lovely chart within an article that helps us find out the answer to this question

As a country, you want to be in the top row, since that implies you are doing well today. You do not want to be in the bottom row, since that implies that you are not doing well today. Things get interesting in the row in the middle.

The first column (read left to right) in the middle row is a great story. You were “low” in 1960, and are “middle” today, so you’ve covered impressive ground, and are hopefully on your way up from here on in. The third column (read left to right) in the middle row, is a problematic story (to put it mildly). You were “high” in 1960, but have reached “middle” today.

The square bang in the middle? That’s the middle income trap.

These are countries that were doing relatively well back then, in 1960, and are doing relatively well today – but in the sense that there hasn’t been a relative improvement, they find themselves in a middle income trap.

What does “relatively well” mean, and what does “relative improvement” mean? Take China as an example – China was a middle income country in 1960 (it falls in the middle, read left to right), and it is a middle income country today (it falls in the middle, read bottom to top). That’s not to say that there has been no improvement for the Chinese since 1960, of course! There has been remarkable improvement.

But relative to the USA, China was in the middle of the pack in 1960, and finds itself to be middle of the pack in 2022. Therefore the middle income trap.

Even within that square itself, by the way, there are stories to be discovered. If you are in the right top of that square (Mexico, for example), you were on the verge of becoming a high-income nation in 1960, and you are on the verge of becoming a high income nation today, but you haven’t actually achieved that status as of yet.

If you are in the top left of that square in the middle, you were barely better than low income in 1960, and are about to break through the metaphorical ceiling today (China, for example). India hasn’t moved much within that middle square, and that is therefore a frustrating story for us in India.

Homework: how would you describe Nicaragua’s position in this graph? Is it better off or worse off over these past sixty years or so?

Finally, you might also want to think about whether the middle income trap is such a bad thing in the first place!

Poland and Malaysia may now be running into this [he’s referring to the middle income trap here – Ashish] problem. McKinsey cites Poland’s need to develop or acquire strong brands in order to catch up with West Europe. The failure of Malaysia’s attempt to build domestic champions is worrying.
And yet I see two responses to this. The first is: Do we really care? Poland and Malaysia may not be as rich as Germany or Korea, but they’ve definitely escaped poverty. Countries like Bangladesh or Vietnam or Ghana or even Mexico would kill to have a per capita GDP of $30,000. That’s about the GDP of the U.S. in the early 1980s. Is it really fair to call that level of development a “middle income trap”? If you’re a poor country, and you have a reliable, dependable way of getting as rich as the U.S. was in the early 1980s, dammit, you take it. You don’t worry about whether that strategy will eventually make it harder to get as rich as the U.S. of 2023.

Let me be clear – I am not saying (and I don’t think Noah is either) that more growth is a bad thing. But a targeting of rapid growth at all costs, and above all else, isn’t necessarily a great idea.

Why not? Because opportunity costs matter! At what costs (to the climate, to the distribution of income, to the development of social capital, to give you just three examples) do we achieve this growth? Remember, the answer to the third question depends on how you define the word “better”.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: macro is hard.

Links for 4th March, 2019

  1. “Under Uma, the NRCB has built Asia’s largest gene bank of 360 banana varieties. The popularity of Grand Nain—the long, pale yellow bananas that one encounters in most supermarket shelves (promoted by the giant Swiss horticultural conglomerate, Chiquita)—is such that it has been pulping production of more nutritious native bananas. Monoculture, or large-scale cropping of one strain without diversity, makes the crop susceptible to deadly disease attacks that could wipe out its production. There’s also the added risk of permanently losing indigenous varieties. This is one of the many threats Trichy’s famed banana growers face. The perennial scarcity of water has also meant that Tamil Nadu’s Theni district toppled Trichy from its top banana status. ”
    Only one excerpt from a very long article about the Cauvery  -and this long article is only part deux of a two part series. There was much to learn from reading it, about a whole variety of issues. Recommended.
  2. “Economic historian Barry Eichengreen has shown how countries that have experienced rapid economic growth during their escape from the clutches of mass poverty tend to falter in their subsequent move to mass prosperity. His research suggests that the most common point when inertia sets in, is when average incomes are either around $11,000 or $15,000 a year. This is the famous middle income trap. Fewer countries emerge from it than enter it.”
    Recommended for a variety of reasons – a good way to learn about the middle income trap, about China’s slowdown, about India’s opportunities, and about the implied risks for both China and India. Niranjan Rajadhakshya on China’s slowdown.
  3. “Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s policy adviser, Dan Riffle, contends that “every billionaire is a policy failure” (that’s the tagline on his Twitter handle) because “the acquisition of that much wealth has bad consequences” and “a moral society needs guardrails against it.” He’d like to see the 2020 Democratic primary contenders answer a question: Can it be morally appropriate for anyone to be a billionaire? ”
    Or, put another way, is the world a zero sum game or  a non-zero sum game? This blog is unapologetically in the latter camp. Economics, in fact, is defined by being a non-zero sum game.
  4. ““I’ve been very cautious about saying that until we got these results, but now I’m not so sure,” he said. “I think that a striped T-shirt might work very nicely.””
    The most fun way you will ever learn about evolution. Well, maybe not the most fun way, but you’ll enjoy reading this for sure.
  5. “As the process of Brexit unfolds, we are discovering how many pleasant aspects of modern life in Britain are closely linked to EU membership. A good relationship between Britain and Ireland should be added to that list.”
    Gideon Rachman on how Brexit might (make that will) affect relationships between Britain and Ireland.