DannyQuah

Making large things visible to the human eye

Category Archives: Singapore

How we miss the Great Shift East

Many well-known facts are, in actuality, false. One such is how the Great Wall of China is humanity’s only construction visible from outer space.  Another is how Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake.”

The Great Shift East, 1980-2050

The Great Shift East, 1980-2050

Conversely, many facts actually true are obscure and misunderstood. For some of these facts, that fate is perhaps well-deserved, as a number of scientific truths cannot even be stated in everyday language. Certain other facts that nearly everyone considers obvious or well-known have boundaries that are indistinct and, as a result, unhelpfully permit both hyperbole and scepticism. One of the goals of research should be to map out those boundaries, so that both intellectual understanding and policy debate can be based on evidence rather than speculation.

The Rise of The East is one of those well-known but misunderstood facts. Sufficiently many books, newspaper articles, and TV programs have carried this meme to where hardly anyone can now plead ignorance of it. But enough ambiguity remains, so observers are free to project onto the idea both their best hopes and their worst fears. Not helpful in this regard is where characterizations of this Great Shift East — caricature, stylized, divorced from hard empirical evidence, insufficiently accurate — impersonate as fact. These simultaneously fan alarm, invite ridicule, and risk credibility.

A concrete and straightforward illustration of the Great Shift East is, therefore, both helpful and needed. “The Global Economy’s Shifting Centre of Gravity” provided just that in the clearest and most direct way I could write down. I am pleased that others — on a panel of scholars and practitioners both — think I have done a good job with the idea.
GPPN Best Article Prize

Considerable previous research had, of course, already been published on the empirics of economic growth. However, that more traditional research focused on countries’ per capita incomes—because that’s what theoretical models of growth sought to explain—and eschewed location, co-movement, and national identity, in favor of anonymized subscripts in a statistical cross section. By maintaining a discipline of empirical research only when driven by theory, arguably, economics took its eye off what really mattered in the shifting global economy, leaving that big picture instead to political scientists, international relations scholars, and investment bankers.

In some of my earlier work on the cross section of country growth, I was even told to take out economies like China or Singapore, because they were obviously outliers and unrepresentative. But being outliers and unrepresentative, it struck me, was exactly why they were interesting. While “The Global Economy’s Shifting Centre of Gravity” had a simple goal, it also got to bring back in all these other considerations of why the global economy needs to be understood as an entirety, not just as a bunch of economies taken in isolation. Otherwise, it was like trying to understand cloud formation by studying water molecules.

We now know that in a rush, the world went from being centred on the Transatlantic Axis, with BRICs merely a catchphrase, to where the BRICs conceit became a primary organizing principle for high-level international policy making, multi-trillion dollar portfolio investment, and geopolitical analysis. But, caught in that same rush, the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, significant although it already was on its own, provided tabula rasa for revisionist interpretation: The 2008 Financial Crisis morphed to be merely Transatlantic, rather than Global. The 2008 Financial Crisis reflected the Decline of The West, simultaneous with the Rise of The East. The 2008 Financial Crisis was caused by global imbalances resulting from Asian Thrift, i.e., East Asians’ newly endowed with the financial clout but not the political maturity to be responsible in their management of international trade.

As historical reality unfolded, so too grew fear, uncertainty, doubt, and pushback.  The German Marshall Foundation’s 2011 Transatlantic Trends survey found the majority of Americans reckoning Asia more important than Europe to their national interests, with the proportion rising as high as 70% among Americans aged 18-34. But the same survey also found that 63% of Americans viewed China as an economic threat, i.e., double the number who considered China an economic opportunity.

Dinner with Foreigners

Asians themselves remain sharply divided on the Great Shift East. On the one hand, thinkers like Kishore Mahbubani have long argued that the world’s policy-making has unhelpfully lagged a reality where the East is rapidly growing in importance. On the other hand, Eastern decision-makers have continued to look West for all levels of engagement. Powerful Eastern sovereign wealth funds remain enamoured of investment in locations around the Transatlantic Axis even as Western governments look back at them with suspicion. I know smart, articulate Singaporeans who turned down Ivy League universities to go instead to Beida, but a majority of Asians still more highly value education in the West, whether for the liberal arts training or the business and social connections. At a much lower level of financial commitment, the Wall Street Journal just this month described a dating agency that charged Chinese women US$600 to meet Western men who got to sign up for free (the ad actually said “Foreigner”, but few people I spoke to thought that included Indonesian or Filipino men). What Great Shift East when all the exports are just one way?

The political scientist and international relations scholar Joseph Nye speaks of nations having “soft power”, in contrast to the hard power of obvious economic or military strength. “Soft power” is the ability to convince others to want the same thing you want, without buying them off or threatening to shoot them. While economic power has indeed moved, the important tokens of soft power, and thus of geopolitical balance, remain firmly moored and continue to attract. Soon the economic center of the world will be 10 timezones east of where its political center remains. This misalignment is historically never propitious, whether geopolitical in the sense of Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of Great Powers, or within countries where it often manifests in conflict between ethnic or religious groups.

The Great Shift East, therefore, is even more than usual a work in progress. Measuring it — making a large fact visible to the human eye — is just a first item of business.

Martial arts on the mean streets of East Asia

In his book Angry White Pyjamas Robert Twigger, the prize-winning poet and author, and martial artist, describes how in the 1930s Gozo Shioda would prowl the streets of Kabuki-cho Tokyo, looking to fight street gangs and test his martial arts skills.

Decades after, Gozo Shioda went on to establish the Yoshinkan style of aikido.  In the eyes of some, Shioda and his teacher Morihei Ueshiba were at one point Japan’s greatest martial artists.

Ueshiba used to tell his students “On no account go looking for fights.”  Shioda, like many other good martial arts students, completely ignored his teacher on this.  

Instead, out of the situations in which Shioda constantly found himself, he formulated his own rules, like “In a fight against many, always make the first blow count against the strongest man.”

Shioda felt that you only really understand what aikido is when you have to use it in life-or-death situations.  His own aikido-enlightenment moment came when, cornered by four gang members, he used aikido techniques to break the arm of one of his attackers and the leg of another, and incapacitated a third by a single punch to the solar plexus.  According to Shioda’s autobiography he appreciated only then how aikido wasn’t something you just practiced in a safe environment.

I have friends who train in aikido but I myself do taekwon-do, the birthplace of which is Korea.  So, that balmy July evening in Seoul when my taekwon-do training partner James and I came out of his dojang, we reminded one another of what Ueshiba and Shioda would have said, had they been walking Seoul’s crowded streets alongside us.  James, who has started training seriously in hapki-do as well, pointed out to me how in modern Korean language you say taekwon-do players but hapki-do fighters.

Every street corner in Seoul has over a dozen schools of taekwon-do and hapki-do.  Every shaded doorway has darkened stairwells leading up to a brightly-lit dojang.  Martial arts training is everywhere.

The other thing found everywhere in Seoul is free WiFi.  When you land in most airports in the world, service providers try to sell you a pay-as-you-go SIM card so you can use your cellphone without incurring high roaming charges.  At Incheon and Gimpo, they try to get you to rent a Skype handset instead.  Why call over cellular networks when you can just log in to the Internet on a cellphone handset, and transmit via VOIP for zero marginal cost?

I think that is truly cool.  It just makes so much sense.

South Korea’s 15-year-olds score highest in the world at problem-solving skills, way ahead of the US, the UK, France, or Germany, in the OECD’s 2006 Program for International Student Assessment Surveys.  Fifteen-year-olds in Hong Kong and Japan score well up there too, right alongside South Korea, and again far, far above the US, the UK, France, and Germany.  The same pattern emerges again for science skills and mathematics skills.

South Korea is a country brimming with clever people, knowledge, and technology, of the most exciting, intelligent, and useful kind.  The same holds for Hong Kong, Japan, and Singapore.  [Singapore will only start to participate in PISA surveys from 2009, and so its formidable student strength in mathematics, science, and problem-solving—apparent to anyone who teaches undergraduate students at any good international university— will only appear in the next OECD round.]

When economists estimate TFP (total factor productivity) to be low for countries such as these, whatever it is that we’re measuring more and more accurately as TFP, it simply can’t be technology—at least, not the way technology is commonly understood.  So what is it that we have ended up estimating better and better?

Oh, back in Seoul, James and I felt that before anything else happened that hot July evening we needed sustenance.  So, taekwon-do player and hapki-do fighter together, we went and had really good Tak Galbi for dinner.  I described to James how in February 2005, after giving a talk on the global economy to Rusal executives in Moscow, I was jumped by 3 men while I was wandering about Red Square in the early evening.  I had then nowhere near Shioda’s presence of mind.  The month after that, I broke my nose fighting in a tournament. But I didn’t consider I had yet had a Shioda moment, and I was just as glad not.

So, after dinner, as all good martial arts students eventually must, I followed Gozo Shioda’s example and I broke the law.  I bought a Kung Fu Panda DVD off a street vendor.  All the while, however, I was thinking about the relative sizes of deadweight loss and ex ante incentives in this picture of monopoly pricing under intellectual property rights.

When I got to Kuala Lumpur in late July, I discovered that Sri Hartamas too has dozens of martial arts schools.  So, August there, I trained with several seriously dangerous-looking hapki-do practitioners at Grandmaster Lim’s dojang in Mt Kiara.  (Thanks to my taekwon-do teacher at LSE Kian-lun Wong for making introductions.  Kian-lun and our LSE taekwon-do club are affiliated with Grandmaster Lim’s Korean Martial Arts organization in Malaysia.)


In this same time I presented papers in Singapore and Seoul; made speeches to LSE alumni in Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore; gave lectures at Bank Negara Malaysia and Khazanah Nasional in Kuala Lumpur; and discussed economics and government policy in Ministerial offices and with numerous panellists on radio and TV throughout Southeast Asia (including the first ever webcam telecast for RTM on 29 August 2008).  I am grateful to Governor Zeti at Bank Negara Malaysia, Chairman Zarinah at Securities Commission Malaysia, Minister Shahrir Samad, Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid, Tan Sri Azman Mokhtar, Malaysia’s Finance Minister Nor Mohamed Yakcop, Singapore’s Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Takatoshi Ito, Bart Thia, Khuong-minh Vu, Dato’ Azman Yahya, Dato’ Dr R. Thillainathan, Carmen Chua, and many others who gave generously of their time to talk to me about the economics of the region wherever I went.


Papers I’ve written recently relevant to the preceding discussion include:

Post-1990s East Asian Economic Growth (October 2008)

Knowledge:  The driver of economic growth (June 2008)




while lectures and presentations include:


Khazanah Megatrends Forum (October 2008, KL: “Shifting sands:  The real side longer term“)

Bank Negara Malaysia lecture (August 2008, KL: “Global growth and inflation“)

LSE Tokyo alumni lecture (July 2008, Tokyo: “Post-1990s East Asian economic growth“) [Photos]

LSE Malaysian alumni lecture (May 2008, KL: “The rise and fall of subsidies“) [Ng Wei-Li's photos]

LSE Asia Forum in Singapore (April 2008, Singapore: “Knowledge: The driver of economic growth”) [video]


[The aikido photograph is of my friend Attila Emam, who is third-dan blackbelt in aikido (and LSE-trained economist now at Securities Commission Malaysia), executing a throw.  The taekwon-do photograph, from September 2007, shows me sparring my instructor Mr Read, who is fifth-dan blackbelt in taekwon-do:  I am executing a jump spinning back kick while he is preparing to deliver a hook kick at my head.  The photograph is a still that I extracted from a video of us sparring.  The 2008 May photograph is of a meeting with Finance Minister Nor Mohamed Yakcop in his Putrajaya office.  The 2008 July photograph is from the LSE Tokyo alumni event at the Roppongi Hills Club.  The 2008 August photograph was taken after my lecture at Bank Negara Malaysia.  I obviously wear Vivienne Westwood way too often.]

 


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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