DannyQuah

Making large things visible to the human eye

Monthly Archives: December 2011

A small proposal to rebalance the global economy: Just let China grow

Many take as fact that the current pattern of global imbalances — large and persistent trade deficits and surpluses across different parts of the world, eventually unsustainable — is due to China and the rest of East Asia consuming too little and saving too much. Since the global economy is a closed trading system, trade deficits and surpluses across all national economies must sum exactly to zero always. Therefore, that one part of the world saves too much and thereby runs trade surpluses means other parts of the world — notably the US — must be running trade deficits.

However, just because deficits and surpluses are tightly inter-connected does not mean that trade surpluses in China, say, have been responsible for US trade deficits: absent further information, causality could well have flowed in the opposite direction. Moreover, China’s high savings might be dynamically welfare-optimizing for its citizens — for instance, private enterprise in China might find self-accumulation the only way to generate investment funds — and, at the same time, only minimally if at all welfare-reducing for already-rich US citizens. Finally, it might be that global imbalances should best be viewed not as a bilateral (US-China) problem but instead a multi-lateral one.

Be all that as it may, many US policy-makers focusing on US trade deficits and China’s trade surpluses urge policy actions against China to rebalance the global economy. Those policy actions include punitive tariffs against Chinese imports and tagging China a currency-manipulator — and thus moving it yet further from official free-market status. Some observers remark that without such external pressure, China will find it domestically too difficult to shift away from its reliance on export promotion, infrastructure investment, and restrained consumption towards a more balanced growth path (e.g., Michael Pettis, Nouriel Roubini, Martin Wolf).

The problem: To raise China’s domestic aggregate demand, especially consumption. The difficulty: China’s consumption cannot increase quickly enough to compensate for the shortfall in aggregate demand should both investment and exports decline. The danger: a hard landing for China and the global economy.

I want to suggest that such a re-direction need not be that difficult. My proposal: Let China grow rich as quickly as possible. Why might this do the trick?

Regional incomes in China

First, consumption within China is already rising faster than both income and investment, provided that we look at those parts of China where incomes per head exceed US$8,800 (Figures 1 and 2). Of course, China’s current per capita income overall now is only US$2200, less than 6% that of the US. What this suggests, however, is as China’s income grows, its overall savings rate will naturally fall. The right policy is to encourage growth, not adopt punitive actions that might retard that growth.

China's regional consumption

Figure 2a China’s regional consumption

(I took Figures 1-3 from a term paper that Daisy Wang wrote for my course Ec204 The Global Economy at the LSE-PKU Summer School, August 2011. The underlying data are from China’s National Bureau of Statistics.)

Second, as John Ross reminds us, investment too is aggregate demand. But, third, continuing to increase China’s investment in, among other things, infrastructure and transportation can help further as it allows those western, poorer regions in China (again Figure 2) better to integrate both nationally and globally, and thus become richer through raising demand and productivity.

China’s regional investment

Figure 2b China’s regional investment

While many observers make much of China’s high investment to income ratio, it is useful to note that that ratio is high not just because its numerator is being driven up, but also because the denominator remains so low. The right state variable for dynamic analysis in a neoclassical growth model is capital per head, not capital per unit of income. And here (Figure 3):

China's  per capita investment

Figure 3 China’s per capita investment

we see how China still has a long way to go on the upside.

Finally, Figure 4:

“The Chinese led the way in the rush to the Boxing Day sales, flocking to department stores to grab designer goods”, The Times of London, 27 December 2011

Figure 4: “The Chinese led the way in the rush to the Boxing Day sales, flocking to department stores to grab designer goods”, The Times of London, 27 December 2011

However much anyone might doubt those China statistics I used above, auxiliary evidence shows that rich Chinese consumers have no difficulty increasing consumption.

The evidence I’ve described doesn’t of course say that global imbalances can be easily erased through just more economic growth in China. However, the algebraic signs of the required relations seem to me to point at least in the right direction. Careful work to quantify these effects might end up showing that their magnitudes aren’t large enough. But, as far as I know, that calibration has not been done, which makes me wonder why some observers can be so certain that China’s current growth trajectory can only exacerbate global imbalances.

When China becomes rich, that will also dramatically lower inequality in the world — globally, the difference in incomes per head across nations overwhelms that across individuals within a single country. No one I know arguing for a more egalitarian society also says that that push for equality should stop at their nation’s borders and be kept from applying seamlessly across humanity’s 7 billion.


Also:

  1. “A small proposal to rebalance the global economy:  Just let China grow” EconoMonitor, 30 December 2011
  2.  “China’s growth could address imbalance”, China.org.cn, 02 January 2012
  3.  “Just let China grow”, The Edge Malaysia, 09 January 2012, p. 64
  4. 恢复全球经济平衡的一个小建议:让中国尽快变得富有, Blog.Sina, 13 January 2012
  5. Reprinted “A small proposal to rebalance the global economy:  Just let China grow”, Global Policy Journal, 11 October 2012

Prof M. E. Cox on “A new world economic order? Views from the LSE”

At the turn of the millennium in a building overlooking London’s Fleet Street, Jim O’Neill and colleagues at Goldman Sachs sat chewing on BRICs. Was BRIC just a clever catchphrase to explain where global investment prospects looked promising? Did it make good marketing sense to take a stance explicitly on Brazil, Russia, India, and China — with the risk that one’s views might then get obviously challenged by events? Why not simply dust off a variant of some broad generalization, say, “emerging markets”, and be done with it?

However the discussion went, in the event, the decision was to go ahead and proclaim BRICs the new global growth frontier.

In the decade since, the BRIC conceit has gone from strength to strength. It has figured not only in multi-billion dollar financial investments, but also—and perhaps even more importantly—in geopolitical analysis and international policy debate. The BRIC idea is now familiar to school-children worldwide, from Australia to Argentina — young people who were not yet born when the terminology was first hatched. In the reality (rather than just the idea) driven in part by charismatic leadership in different parts of the BRICs and in part by China’s staggering success in economic growth, poverty reduction, and export prowess, BRICs have robbed the US of its 21st-century unipolar moment, rewritten the rules of East-West global engagement, and reshaped the world’s patterns of trade, the world’s distribution of economic activity, and the world’s landscape of poverty.

The Economist newspaper: Asia's Economic Weight, 25 May 2010

The Economist newspaper: Asia's Economic Weight, 25 May 2010

Scholars of International Relations, International History, Global Governance, Management, and World Politics likely saw the coming shape of these new challenges far sooner than did other disciplines. Those scholars had grown up intellectually already familiar with Paul Kennedy and the rise and fall of great powers, with the Cold War struggle between East and West, with the promise of the US’s unipolar moment in global history. Such events and ideas had primed those scholars to grasp quickly the significance of BRICs.

In the guest post that follows, my good friend Professor Michael Cox of LSE’s International Relations Department describes a convergence between international relations, history, management, international development, and economics to help us understand the post-BRIC economic and political state of the world. He shows how putting together rigorous ideas from cross-disciplinary social science — something the LSE seeks to do more than perhaps any other academic institution in the world — we get better insight on the global economy. For me, his essay is more than just a description of what the LSE does; his essay establishes why to understand the new world economic order, it is essential to traverse many different social science disciplines.


“A new world economic order?  Views from the LSE” by Prof. M. E. Cox, December 2011

Memory can often play  tricks on even the most intelligent of  human beings, especially in an age of rapid unexpected change when all the  normal signposts have been removed or simply washed away by the tides of history. Certainly, for those who have grown up over the last ten,  turbulent years, the world today  is a very different looking place to what it was  back at the turn of the century. Indeed, inconceivable though it may seem now, most of us in the developed West were then in the best of moods – riding high on the back of three great revolutions in international affairs.

The first and most important of these  revolutions was of course the  final triumph of the  market in the wake of the global collapse of the centrally planned  alternative at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the nineties. Initially Poland and Central Europe, then Russia,  and finally even  ‘communist’  China,  discovered that they had no alternative but to   join the only economic club in town – the one run by the West, organized on western principles, and according to critics,  largely designed to further the interests of the West. Nobody liked to say it too loudly at the time for fear of sounding “triumphalist”.  But for many during the heady days of the 1990s it really did seem as if the West was  “best” and would, for this very obvious reason,  remain the axis around which the world would rotate for the foreseeable future.

The second great core assumption – born of a much longer revolution in world affairs – related to the United States, that most ‘indispensable’  of nations which instead of doing what all other great powers had done in the past (that is decline) did quite the opposite. In fact, the core belief  after the end  of the USSR was that we were now living in what Charles Krauthammer called a  “unipolar   moment”,   one which he felt  would endure for a great deal of time:  in part  because the US  could lay claim to  the most efficient economy in the world;  in part because it had constructed   the  greatest military ever known to man;  and in part because none of the other powers in the world   – China included – had any chance of ever catching up with the United States. A new Rome was sitting on the Potomac and hardly anybody, save the oddball and the eccentric,   doubted its capacity to remain the shining city on the hill for many decades to come.

The third important revolution was the one that had changed the face of Europe in 1989 when communism ignominiously collapsed leaving hardly anything behind it  except a lot of pollution, many unwanted tanks, and plenty of useless factories producing things that nobody wanted  to buy. The end of the Cold War was undoubtedly Europe’s great chance,  and its leaders back then – Jacques Delors in particular –  enthusiastically grabbed  at the  historic opportunity. What they created was impressive to say  the least. Indeed, by the beginning of the new century, Europe was becoming a serious point of global  reference  equipped with its own  currency, the largest market in the world, a lot  of  new members (not all of them perfect to be sure),  and the outlines  of a ‘Common Foreign and Security  Policy’ that would soon make it a major  player on the international stage. Even some Americans bought into this new vision, including, significantly,  Charles Kupchan former Director for European Affairs in the Clinton administration. America would not be the dominant  actor in the 21st century he opined. Nor China or the Islamic world. Rather the future belonged to an integrating, dynamic and increasingly prosperous   Europe. The next century was  its  for the taking.

How and why this optimism verging on the hubristic  turned into its opposite in the years between  2000 and 2010 has already been the subject of much feverish analysis and speculation. But at least  three  broad explanations have been advanced to help us think seriously about what Time magazine not long ago  characterized  as the  ‘decade from hell’.

One  explanation,  favoured by most by historians and social theorists,  relates the fall from grace to the much earlier triumph of the West and the extraordinary lack of caution this then seemed to induce amongst  most western policy-makers. Indeed,   having  won so much over such a long period of time stretching right back to the deregulating 1970s through  to  the  hyper-globalizing 1990s,  nothing now looked to be impossible. And  even the impossible now seemed achievable. The liberation of Iraq? No  problem said the all-powerful Americans with their invincible military machine.  Constant economic growth?  Easily achieved on the back  of cheap money  and ever more complex  financial instruments. Everybody a home owner?  Why not,  even if it meant a pile up of  unsustainable debt?  Economic crises? A thing of the past.  And the future?  Not perfect of course. But at least as perfect as it was  ever going to be in an imperfect world. Happy days were here again and nobody was prepared  to listen to naysayers like Dr Doom (aka Nouriel Roubini)   or his foreign  policy counterparts who warned that America’s unnecessary “war of choice” in Iraq would end up costing the US its international standing, a lot of blood,  and  a vast amount of  treasure ($3 trillion so far).

A second large explanation  connects more directly to  changes in the shape of the world  economy. Here,  Goldman Sachs does appear to have got it right back in 2001 when it predicted (against the then prevailing  orthodoxy) that the future belonged to the emerging  BRIC economies – Brazil, Russia, India, and of course,  China.  But what  Goldman  did not predict  however was  the sheer speed with which this shift was to take place and the  main  reasons why it did so. Goldman recall worked on a twenty five,  even a fifty  year time line: it also assumed steady growth for all countries in the international economy. What it did not anticipate  was firstly  the pace of China’s rise and the   impact this then had on the rest of the world economy; and  secondly  what happened  to the international financial system in  2008 when the established western economies suffered  a series of  smashing body blows. It was this ‘Black Swan’ event more than anything else that was to be the real turning-point. Before then the EU  and the US could legitimately claim  that they continued to represent the future. After 2008,  such a claim sounded frankly spurious.

The final reason for the great shift  had  less to do with economic shifts  and  more  with politics and  a  marked change in the capacity of governments to manage the world around them. Whether this happened  because of a decline in quality of the  political class, or because the world was becoming almost impossible to manage anyway,  remains a  moot question.  The fact remains that as the new century wore on it was becoming increasingly clear that  the West in particular was   facing a set of challenges to which it  simply did not have any easy answers. And nowhere was this becoming more apparent than  in that once “steady as she goes”, rather unexciting place,  known as the   European Union. The crisis began slowly but then accelerated most rapidly after 2008 leaving a trail of failed governments  in its wake (at least eight fell between 2008 and 2010). Nor was this all. As governments fell and the crisis deepened,  not only did belief in the European project  begin to ebb,  but  many began to wonder about normal politics itself. The situation was not much better in the United States either. Indeed, having elected a rather impressive man to the White House  in 2008,  three years on ordinary Americans were beginning to lose faith in the political process and  a belief in that very American idea that the future would always be better than the past.

We  live  in other words   not just in ‘interesting times‘,  but  in quite extraordinary times where few in the West  now  appear  to  have much confidence any longer in the notion of the West;  where policy leaders on both sides of the Atlantic realize how limited their options are;  where a once imperial America now talks in  humbling  terms of ‘leading from behind’ and adjusting to a new multi-polar world order;  and where few have any idea at all about what the seismic economic changes now taking place in the world economy  will mean for either global prosperity or international stability.

Time therefore to take time out to reflect on how these multiple and most unexpected changes  will impact on  the global political economy and the  business world. At least five questions need to be answered –  and will be,  we hope, in three innovative  courses to be delivered at the world famous LSE Executive Summer School in June 2012:

  1. Professor Saul Estrin and Professor Danny Quah,  A Shifting World Economy:  Business Strategies to Thrive
  2. Dr Andrew Walter and Dr Jeff Chwieroth,  Global Finance in Crisis: Causes, Consequences, Futures
  3. Dr. Gianluca Benigno and Dr. Keyu Jin (and guest lecturer Nobel Laureate 2010, Prof. Chris Pissarides), Macroeconomic Challenges of Global Imbalances

The first  question  – very much in the LSE tradition of drilling down into core issues – has to do with  the basic cause or causes  of our current crisis. Here one can pick from a variety of explanations –  some broader  ones as  suggested above;  other of a more specific economic character rooted in an out-of-control system  of  deregulated financial markets, global imbalances, cheap money, extensive home ownership, and  growing income inequalities; a world  moreover where  governments  before the crisis either did not seem  to understood what was happening, or  even if they did, did not have the power or the instruments at their disposal  to do much to change  the course of history.

The second question relates to the past, present and the future of the world economy. Here the biggest question of all is to what degree is this particular crisis different to those that have happened at regular intervals since World War II?  And if it is different, then why should this be so? Furthermore, why has it since proven so difficult to reform a system that has caused so much economic dislocation? Why moreover has it has proven so  difficult for  the West to get out of the crisis? Certainly, there seem to be  very few optimists around in the West just now. Indeed, one of the most striking  things about the present crisis is that whereas people can’t stop talking about it in the West, in countries like China and India they wonder what all the fuss is about – at least for the time being.

The third  question concerns governance at both national and international levels.   There are, as all three courses reveal,  many fascinating issues raised by the present economic conjuncture. But one of the most critical  has to do with the way in which world manages – or tries to manage – an increasingly integrated globalized economy where states still matter a lot,  but where  decisions taken  by  ‘markets’  seem to matter a whole lot more. This in turn raises  many more  questions,  not the least important of which is whether or not governments have very much power at all; and in turn whether they are willing  to give up what power they have  to construct some  new financial architecture which is far more in tune with the modern age?

The fourth question relates  to that very simple but all-important issue: who wins and who loses in the new world economic order? The  “rest”  we are told look set to be winners;  and amongst the “rest”,  Asia and China in particular  seem to be especially well placed to take advantage of the new world in the making. Yet there is still a  very long way to go before we can talk of a permanent power shift.  Even rising China it is suggested in these courses has to take care. After all, its prosperity upon which many countries in the international economy now depend,   also depends on the international economy remaining buoyant and economically dynamic too.

Finally, all three courses question the idea that there are  simple explanations of ‘why we are  where we are’  today.  They are also united in insisting that there is no easy way forward. Nor to continue are they  at all   certain that the world will become either a more stable or  a more equal place in the future.  All they can   promise  is  to get those who are trying to make sense of a  rapidly shifting global economy to at least base their thinking and  their decisions – and those of their companies – on rigorous analysis; one which takes as its point of departure the inescapable  fact that while  businesses today are  confronted with very real opportunities, these are  presenting themselves in a  world where the  economic challenges are as real and as serious as anything we have seen since the 1930s.

Professor Michael Cox teaches in the  Department of International Relations at the LSE. He is also  Co-Director of LSE IDEAS and Academic Director of Executive Summer School. His main work more recently has focused on the changes in US foreign policy in an age of globalization and the impact of the financial and economic crisis on the balance of power. His most recent books include Soft Power and US Foreign Policy and  The Global 1989: Continuity and Change in World  Politics, both published in 2010. His next book will be a second edition of  his  co-edited and highly successful Oxford University Press textbook, US Foreign Policy.  This will appear in  2012.

 

Also:

  1. “BRICs have robbed the US of its 21st-century unipolar moment, rewritten the rules of East-West global engagement, and reshaped the world’s patterns of trade, the world’s distribution of economic activity, and the world’s landscape of poverty”, D. Quah, LSE Comment and Opinion, January 2012
  2. “We live in quite extraordinary times where few in the West  now  appear  to  have much confidence any longer in the notion of the West”, M. E. Cox, LSE Comment and Opinion, January 2012

Clash at ERC: The UK and the Eurozone in the Shifting Global Economy

The UK’s Economic Research Council invited me to represent LSE in a panel discussion on near-term prospects for the UK economy. Lord Norman Lamont, 1990-1993 Chancellor of the Exchequer, chaired. The other panelists were Prof John Muellbauer from Oxford and Prof Hashem Pesaran from Cambridge. The venue? The Royal Institution of Great Britain’s Faraday Lecture Theatre, where in 1825 the first of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures were delivered.

I argued the following.

First, the economic difficulties in the UK or the Eurozone cannot be usefully analysed without looking at these economies’ positions in the world. Second, the UK and the Eurozone have an immediate problem with debt and an ongoing problem with productivity. It is unlikely that Keynesian aggregate demand management alone will lead to long-run sustained growth.

What are the facts on the UK and the Eurozone in the global economy? Time was, the night-time sky was lit up pretty much just by the Transatlantic Axis.

The Transatlantic axis in the night time sky (via NASA)

The Transatlantic axis in the night time sky (via NASA)

But that was 30 years ago, and the global economy has moved on. By 2010 the world’s economic centre had shifted 5,000 km — three-quarters of the Earth’s radius — from the rise of the east, notably India and China.

World's Economic Centre of Gravity, 1980-2050

The Great Shift East

As a consequence, hundreds of millions of Asians have been lifted out of grinding poverty; soon these people will be the world’s middle income class.

That figure of the Great Shift East takes in grubby calculations with thousands of datapoints. But its point can be appreciated in many different ways, some more vivid than others (e.g., view from the US).

To be clear, not all Europe needs help in the same way. By the summer of 2011, a distinguished US economist had related to me how he and colleagues were surprised by German economic growth out of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis since, while keeping its traditional high-savings habits, Germany had its export markets — the US, the rest of the EU — mired in ongoing recession. Here, however, might be part of how Germany did it:

Evolution of Germany’s export markets

Evolution of Germany’s export markets

The great bulk of German trade remains, naturally, with the rest of the European Union. But the EU is now deep in recession and likely to remain so for some time. Outside the EU? Germany today exports more to Developing Asia than it does to the US. And that gap continues to rise. Exports to China alone already appear as large as those to the US. Part of this obviously stems from US imports sharply falling right after 2008 — but that is exactly my point. China and Developing Asia continued to grow, continued to import from Germany (and elsewhere), and thus continued to keep parts of the global economy afloat throughout both the global financial and European sovereign debt crises.

The Euro-sterling exchange rate

The Euro-sterling exchange rate

This is not just because Germany enjoyed a cheap currency. Despite the weakness of pound sterling against the Euro, the UK has not re-oriented its exports anywhere as successfully as has Germany:

Evolution of UK’s export markets

Evolution of UK’s export markets

What the UK exports to the US remains double UK exports to Developing Asia, and four times UK exports to China. The UK has simply ended up with most of its exports to economies showing no significant demand growth.

Unpack the numbers further by breaking out the UK’s 50 largest trading partners in 2009: the UK had 56% of its exports go to the 10 slowest-growing economies in that group (growth measured 2000-2008). Across these 50, the correlation between exports and growth was -0.32: the UK systematically exported more to those trading partners growing slower.

The problems faced by the UK, or more broadly, by member states across the entire EU, while different in concentration, are no different in character from those in the 2008 Global Financial Crisis: Large entities owe large amounts of debt and are likely unable to pay it all back. Previously, the entities were financial institutions; now they are sovereign states. Quick fixes that seek to get around repaying this debt will undermine institutions of trust and responsibility, those same institutions the West tells emerging economies they must build if they too want to become developed economies.

When the first round of Quantitative Easing (QE1) happened in the US, output there rose — and to a smaller extent elsewhere in the world as well. With QE2, IMF estimates show the impact multipliers everywhere had diminished sharply.

Now? There are those who hope a rescue will come when the ECB unleashes its own QE on Eurozone sovereign debt. Or some optimistically-ingenious scheme involving different-coloured centrally issued Eurobonds, or where the discrimination occurs across member states using some other indicator might work. With luck perhaps. Longer term, some observers look to a fuller-fledged fiscal union, with Germany transferring likely more than 5% of its GDP to the Eurozone’s lesser-performing periphery member states (link: Gavyn Davies, FT, 06 November 2011 ).

But the connection between this re-organization and member states’ fiscal positions cannot be ignored. While all attention now focuses on deficit/debt figures compared to those originally given in the Maastricht Treaty, pretty much totally neglected is the nearly-contemporaneous Copenhagen criteria for EU accession. That list includes — after requiring member states be democracies that obey the rule of law, respect human rights, and protect minorities — the statement that candidate member states need to be market economies able to deal with “competitive pressure and market forces within the Union”.

I’m sorry but I don’t think receiving a perpetual 5% German GDP transfer strong evidence for that capability. (And this is just for EU accession, not even for Eurozone membership.)

Monetary or other financial rescues are short-term; we need them the same way we need to kickstart an engine. But if that engine is worn out or is leaking fuel or in need of a complete overhaul, I don’t see how we are going to get very far with that machine. We can’t mistake a short-term boom fueled by exigent government actions for sustained long-term growth. Again, isn’t this what the West tells emerging economies?

How would I propose to change matters? My suggestions at the event were general and therefore impractical. But here they are again:

  1. Reboot the UK economy: Take the pain and turn around to engage fully with the emerging economies; do business with them as economic partner — no more, no less. The emerging economies are now the world’s engine of growth: Deal with it.
  2. Unleash our universities and other thoughtful, creative industries. This is NOT to raise government spending, but just to free up extant restrictions on their operations. UK higher education is hugely in demand by the emerging economies. If there’s anything that’s going to help re-balance the global economy, this is it.
  3. Throw out long-standing aesthetics and principles – they’re also called prejudices. Become enamoured of what works — whether it’s guided capitalism under a bit of state control or anything else we previously thought completely nuts (i.e., outside the Washington Consensus). Celebrate the virtues of working hard, raising productivity, saving for the future — not revile them as many do today for Germany or used to do most obviously recently only for China (and yet might come back to doing so again soon).

Also:

  1. “Our exports now go mostly to the slow-growing economies”, British Politics and Policy, 13 December 2011
  2. “The UK and the Eurozone in the shifting global economy”, China.org.cn, 19 December 2011
  3. “The UK and the Eurozone in the shifting global economy”, The Edge Malaysia, 19 December 2011
  4. “The UK and the Eurozone in the shifting global economy”, EconoMonitor, 21 December 2011
  5. “The UK and the Eurozone in the shifting global economy”, The Guardian Newspaper, 13 January 2012
  6. 英国与欧元区:其在变动的世界经济中的位置”, 15 January 2012

The LSE Big Questions Lecture 2011: Organized Common Sense

In June 2011, I was lucky enough to deliver the inaugural LSE Big Questions Lecture. I chose to lecture on whether the East was taking over the world. I felt these changes in the world matter to everyone, and they are developments with important economic ideas surrounding them. The LSE Big Questions Lecture is targeted at 14 year-old school children in a number of London’s schools — hundreds showed up on the day. The lecture itself was televised for subsequent broadcast. The runup to this lecture involved months working with a production team at LSE: these were months of planning and rehearsing, writing and rewriting, arguing and disagreeing — on analytical content and ideas, on what 14 year-olds might find useful and understandable and memorable, on the best ways to communicate different ideas in economics and facts about the world.

Why did we do this?

As an academic economist, I study growth and distribution. I write about the shifting global economy and the rise of the East. I try to make large things visible to the human eye. I want to be considered a valuable REF contributor to my department and to the LSE.

But I also believe that these are times where economic literacy matters hugely, not least in societies that continue to hold to the ideals of liberal democracies. And there are intriguing large-scale parallels between important events now and those some time ago in history.

In 1825 Michael Faraday — perhaps the world’s greatest ever experimental scientist — initiated (but did not himself give) the first of the Royal Institution of Great Britain’s Christmas Lectures. Faraday went on to deliver 19 series altogether of these annual Lectures, his last in 1860, presenting and explaining to the British public ongoing discoveries in chemistry and electricity and magnetism.

1855 Michael Faraday - Royal Institution Christmas Lecture

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures have continued to the present, interrupted only by World War 2. They are delivered to a general audience, notably including young people, with the aim to inform and entertain. From their beginning, these lectures proved highly popular despite the limited nature to early 19th century organised education. Since 1966 the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures have been televised. For many British households, the Christmas Lectures constitute a highlight of annual holiday family viewing. The energy and the ingenuity that go into the lectures are impressive, not least when, say, someone like Marcus du Sautoy, in his 2006 lectures, explains abstract number theory to a teenage audience.

These Royal Institution Christmas lectures provide the strongest counter-example I know to the conceit that research ideas are too difficult to explain to and too abstruse to excite the general public. Most of us just don’t work hard enough at it. So getting to deliver something the LSE Big Questions Lecture would be a challenge. But there was more.

In 1825, London had just become the world’s leading city by overtaking Beijing — vividly demonstrating the steady ongoing shift then of the world’s economic centre east to west. That year, the first modern economic crisis in history occurred — modern in the sense of not having been caused by a war. The stock market crash of 1825 took out in England alone six London banks and sixty country banks, with the badly-overextended Bank of England having to be rescued by an injection of gold from France. For students of central banking, this event became enshrined afterwards in Walter Bagehot’s Lombard Street principles for the lender-of-last-resort role in central banking.

In 1825, Faraday’s scientific discoveries were not centre-stage for the Industrial Revolution swirling about him at the time. That first Industrial Revolution — perhaps the most important event in the history of humanity — was driven by iron-making, mechanisation, and steam power, more than by electrification and chemical processing. But chemistry and electricity and magnetism — where Faraday’s contributions were manifold and central — pointed to the then-future. These would go on to provide the more enduring engine of growth for modern economic progress, not least down to what today still powers all digital technologies, significant among them cellphones and the Internet.

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures matter in British science for providing the public knowledge into the most important exciting intellectual developments of the time. They gave the British public insight into what was new. Historians who study why a 14th-century Chinese Industrial Revolution did not occur, despite China’s more advanced science centuries prior to that in 1780 Britain, point to how science in England had always immediately connected to commercial application and public interest. This is exactly the same kind of connection that the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures make. By contrast, in China, science and technology were tightly controlled by a scholarly elite, who saw no reason to disseminate their discoveries. During the 18th-century Industrial Revolution, James Watt and Matthew Boulton had announced the English public “steam-mad”, whereas in Sung Dynasty China, time itself was considered the sole property of the Emperor.

Inaugural LSE Big Questions Lecture

The Inaugural LSE Big Questions Lecture begins

I am under no mad illusion that what I do as an academic is even remotely comparable to the achievements by these giants of scientific and technical progress from 1825. But I don’t think I’m half-bad as a lecturer. I don’t shuffle my lecture notes and lose my place in them [I don't use lecture notes]. I don’t mumble into my beard so that the audience has no idea what I just said [I'm ethnic Chinese and we don't grow beards easily]. I don’t put up Powerpoint slides crammed full with text and then just read them out word-for-word [almost all my slides are just colourful pictures].

I believe, as first told to me by my PhD advisor, economics is just “organized common sense”. I’m passionate about explaining ideas in economic policy to any audience that might remotely be able to influence our national and global conversations on improving the state of the world.

So, when asked, I gave the LSE Big Questions Lecture a go.

The Great Shift East: The World According to Americans

Bizarrely, some of the most vituperative reactions I have gotten on this map of the world’s economic centre heading east

Shifting World Economic Centre of Gravity

Shifting world economic centre

(Quah, 2011) have been entirely technical.  You might have thought some would instead be to defend US hegemony and unipolarity.  But no.

(Well, actually, yes, there were some.  But this is a post about visualizing facts.)

“Since the centre of gravity is deep within the planet, why didn’t you use instead an azimuthal projection from the North Pole?”  “Surely the eastwards movement is just drawn from your personal political bias.  If instead, I were to stand high above the middle of the Pacific Ocean and track what you call the Great Shift East, I would instead see the Great Shift West.”  “If I were looking at this from the Philippines, wouldn’t this so-called Great Shift East be barely perceptible?”  “This analysis is a disgrace to the LSE – the author wastes pages and pages discussing technical refinements, and then throws the argument all away by choosing just one arbitrary projection.”

Both during and right after doing my PhD, sitting at the feet of Tom Sargent, Chris Sims, and Lars Peter Hansen, I had cut my teeth on Hilbert Space analysis of L2 stochastic processes (e.g., 1989, 1992).  I take my projections seriously.  The bottom line on creating the world’s economic centre map  was that no single fixed projection was used, but instead a sequence of mappings – continuously tracking the shifting world economic centre of gravity – each point based on a cylindrical projection.

Here, however is another way to think about the Great Shift East.  We went from

(image from Barry Ritholtz – but the URL is misspelt and so I’m not linking directly to it) …

… to

Front page The Times of London, 28 October 2011

People say the darndest things.

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