Making large things visible to the human eye

Category Archives: inequality

Global hegemony. In one picture.

Global hegemony could, first of all, be about leadership in the world economy: doing the right thing at home, coordinating the actions of your friends, restoring growth to the Transatlantic economies.

Or, alternatively, it could be about representing the world’s peoples, one person one vote as in any electoral democracy — to elevate the sum total of good for humanity:

Sometimes these two do not coincide.

Draw a circle 4,000km in radius around Hainan Island in the South China Sea. The land area carved out is only 25 mn sq km, or one-sixth of the world’s total land area.  More people, however, live within that circle than outside.  The world’s median voter?  Here’s where she lives.

(Graphic is derived from Kenneth Myers. The Valeriepieris Circle. May 2013.)

“Journals Serving as Tombstones” 学术期刊只是墓碑

In the New York Times recently Paul Krugman described how academic economists grow up, and how blogging might change that:

“你通过关系网获得这个圈子的临时会员资格 (…); 这整个过程都是非正式的 —— 并且非常不民主,圈外人几乎没有参与讨论的机会。

没有哪个名校的人通过阅读学术期刊来获取新知;他们只读工作论文, 学术期刊只是墓碑而已。

所以我们现在有以博客和在线工作论文为形式的快速学术交流 —— 我认为这非常好。”

All right, I paraphrase, but not by much.

Readers behind the Great Firewall might not be able to access easily outlets like the New York Times, or indeed many other forums taken for granted in the West. So I write this, in part, to give those readers access to an NYT article by Paul Krugman. (If any English-speaking reader finds infuriating that parts of this entry are in Chinese script, well, that’s part of the meta-subtext.)

But I have another objective additionally.

Scholars worldwide are told there is only one model of publishing and disseminating ideas — that model developed in forums primarily in the West. That model, these scholars are told, is the one they must adopt if they are to progress in their career. The problem is, for a range of reasons, those scholars don’t get to see lively discussion of that way of doing research. Paul Krugman recently presented his views on this (if you are not behind the GFW, you can read it online at the New York Times; if you are, however, you might try to access the PDF file I’ve made not to undermine the publisher’s rights but for your convenience).

To pull out parts of that article, here’s Krugman on how to advance your career:

“You got provisional entree to such a group through connections — basically, being a student of someone who mattered, and being tagged as having potential. You got permanent membership by doing enough clever stuff; the informal rule was three good papers, one to get noticed, one to show that the first wasn’t a fluke, one to show that you had staying power.

And journal publication? Well, tenure committees needed that, but it was so slow relative to the pace of ongoing work that it no longer acted as an information conduit. I presented my paper on target zones at a 1988 conference; by the time it was formally published, in 1991, I had to add a section on the subsequent literature, because there were around 150 derivative papers already out there.

The whole thing was informal — and also deeply undemocratic, offering very little way for outsiders to enter the debate.

Nobody at a top school learned stuff by reading the journals; it was all working papers, with the journals serving as tombstones.

So now we have rapid-fire exchange via blogs and online working papers — and I think it’s all good.”

Buffy with Holden Ward - "Conversations with Dead People" S07E07

Buffy with Holden Ward - "Conversations with Dead People" S07E07

The working papers Krugman refers to are of course the famous NBER ones, with their prominent and distinctive yellow-jacketed covers.

One reaction to Krugman’s description might, perversely, be that the aspiring academic now realizes ever greater returns to getting into such a “top school” [heck, from here on out, it’s no-holds-barred getting that recommendation letter!] Since the inner circle must, by definition, be small and exclusive relative to the crowd, this classic “economics of superstars” scenario produces a highly unequal outcome. Many writers already disavow a societal organization that produces a top ultra-rich 1% of the income distribution. How much longer will they tolerate it for their own community of scholars? The economics of idea-production might say that skewness is an equilibrium outcome; it does not say that that outcome is optimal.

The other reaction, perhaps the reasonable one, is to be aware that the more level playing field that is now possible, with the new tools for blogging and social networking, gives wider scope and opportunity for idea-dissemination and personal advancement, so that an academic can now focus just on developing great ideas, not any more try to game the system or network needlessly.

But how does the new generation get validation when the old people, apart from those like Krugman, don’t “get” the new tools? That inner group with the yellow jackets isn’t going to just roll over without a fight, even if doing so might ultimately be good for the profession.

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.


  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

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.

No one likes inequality. Just try not to be poor absolutely as well. And don’t grow so fast either.

No one likes inequality:

US inequality and median income

I just like mine a lot less when it comes together with grinding poverty.  Just saying.

Chinese poverty and inequality - the 100 yuan cigarette lighter

Chinese poverty and inequality - the 100 yuan cigarette lighter

“Oh, also, this thing you’re doing – unbalancing the global economy, eclipsing the current global hegemon, frightening the horses – please, could you stop thinking about just yourself for a minute, and not grow your economy so quickly?  Thank you.”

(Actually, at market exchange rates, the average person in China remains poorer than his counterpart in nine countries across Africa, poorer than the average person in Belarus, El Salvador, or Jamaica.)

Pop music

People ought to enjoy the arts for, err, well personal reasons. To the great disapproval of my friends who live in Hampstead and Islington (and parts of New York City. And Beijing. And Shanghai. Singapore. Mumbai. Helsinki. Rome. Brussels. Oh heck, just about everywhere) I enjoy pop music. For them pop music has no staying power and therefore no redeeming features. For me it is precisely that pop music is transient that gives it value. Because it does not endure, pop music provides an indelible marker in time.

In the same way, valueless data serve useful functions. By providing nonsense values that sweep appropriately through the underlying probability space, such data become indexes that provide balanced access into individual records in a database. These valueless data become keys whose precise values no user will ever want to know. However, simply from being invisibly present, they keep a database from becoming unbalanced, unwieldy, and slow to retrieve.

This blog entry similarly says nothing but I hope it provides balance and a marker in time. Most recently I have already talked too much:

14 November 2007 Confucius Institute for Business London Public Lecture: Knowledge economies in China [Podcast] [Presentation (PDF, 696Kb). The dynamic animation won't show in the PDF file but is available here]

28 November 2007 Queen Mary CGR Public Lecture: Global imbalance, global inequality [Podcast] [Presentation (PDF, 861Kb). The dynamic animations won't show in the PDF file but are available at $1-poverty and $2-poverty]

30 November 2007 BBC2 Money Programme: Superstar, Super-Rich (iPlayer broadcast soon)

04 December 2007 Inequality debate with Richard Wilkinson, at St Mary-le-Bow Church [Opening speech (PDF, 79Kb)]

Global balance and equality

In August 2007 I was part of the opening keynote panel discussion at the Singapore Economic Review Conference (and got to have lunch with LSE alumni and friends in Singapore).

I wanted to show the large forces that drive global inequality and poverty, those changes that affect, in one fell swoop, the quality of life for many of the 6.3 billion people on earth.

I have two candidates for massive worldwide change: First, economic growth; second, China. The graphic illustrates both.

(a larger dynamic animation can be invoked if the inline version above isn’t clear enough in your browser; or just click anywhere in the figure).

The vertical axis measures millions of people living on less than 1 US dollar a day (actually, the threshold is 1 International Dollar a day, but close enough). The horizontal axis is per capita income in the country or bloc of countries: Economic growth means movement rightwards horizontally. The size of a bubble measures the total population. EAP indicates East Asia and the Pacific Region; LAC, Latin America and the Caribbean; MENA, Middle East and North Africa; SAS, South Asia; and SSA, Sub-Saharan Africa. Additionally, China and India are given separately in the graphic.

The animation follows these continental groupings over time, from 1990 through 2004, and shows how as growth occurs, poverty falls.

In principle, if inequality within a continent or within China or India increased sufficiently with economic growth, then the corresponding bubble in the picture might well rise vertically. All that means then is that, in that case, even though average income increases with growth, inequality increases so overwhelmingly that the joint growth-inequality process grinds ever more people into ever greater bone-crunching poverty.

(To be clear, inequality does not have to increase with economic growth. But many people and quite a few economists think it might—hence the so-called tradeoff between equality and efficiency. The data do not speak very strongly on this, in either direction. But I think such a putative regularity is of little consequence for the point here.)

Almost uniformly, the graphic shows inequality is unable to rise enough to overcome the benefits of economic growth. As a matter of logic alone, of course, it might: an actual, large instance in the animation is China between 1996 and 1999: In that 3-year period the China bubble moved rightwards and upwards. So there’s nothing in the arithmetic that rules out the possibility. But it is unusual. As time proceeds, almost uniformly, the bubbles move southeasterly, shifting rightwards and dropping towards the floor. This is a very good thing. Economic growth reduces poverty.

In the animation, right at the start of the sample Eastern Europe and Central Asia (ECA) implodes leftwards, just as post-Communist transition began. But then after that pretty much only the rightwards movement is visible. Compared to China, that other 1-billion people economy India, up through 2004, still hadn’t done very much. Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) all this time basically did nothing but percolate upwards: It didn’t grow and it saw vast numbers of its people fall ever further into grinding poverty.

In 1981 1.47 billion people on earth lived on less than 1 dollar a day. By 2004 that number had fallen to 0.97 billion, a reduction of half a billion. (If you don’t like these numbers, you come up with better ones. In economic research it takes a model to beat a model, so simply complaining that a model isn’t a good model or is unrealistic doesn’t get you very far. So too whining that an estimate isn’t a good estimate.) The animation shows that pretty much all of that worldwide poverty reduction is due to just … China.

Since this animation, like all digital goods, is infinitely expansible, I also presented it at a British-Malaysia Chamber of Commerce lunch and as part of a lecture at the British Council in Malaysia, both also in August, as part of Malaysia’s 50th anniversary celebration of its independence from Britain. (The animation is also on youtube and you can put a version on your cellphone if you like.)

The underlying data are from Chen and Ravallion (2007) “Absolute Poverty Measures for the Developing World” and from World Development Indicators (2006) online. Further analysis is in Quah (2007) “Life in Unequal Growing Economies”. Related discussion appears in Quah (2003) “One Third of the World’s Growth and Inequality”.

I generated the animation by

latex 2007.08-SERC-lug-dq.tex
dvips -pp 5-10 -o - 2007.08-SERC-lug-dq.dvi | ps2pdf - - | convert -delay 80 - 1-2007.08-SERC-lug-dq.gif

i.e., using standard tools latex, dvips, ps2pdf, and convert.


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