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Category Archives: taekwon-do

Economics is a martial art

A scream for help from the alleyway; what do you do? Move in cautiously but quickly? Or hold back because you worry that the whole thing might get messy?

Do you fret that you haven’t yet published the perfect model of these kinds of social dynamics and that until you do, you might do more harm than good? Or that you won’t have the credibility? Credibility for what, for standing up to street hoodlums?

Do you let someone else look into this? Who, people not as well-trained and not as physically fit as you? People without your punching and kicking abilities and your instincts honed from years of practice in a safe training environment?

Do you stand on the sidelines and criticize those trying to help for not dispatching the hoodlums faster?

What if you realize the scream is your mom or your kids or anyone else who looks to you to protect them? What do you do?

They’re not asking for perfect certainty and total rigor. They just want to be safe again. You can’t tell them this isn’t really what you were trained for, that you are much more a kicker whereas these hoodlums will likely be better dealt with by grappling or boxing. You are there, you are physically fit, you have a reaction time faster than those of others around you. That’s all they expect of you. That’s all that should matter.

So too in economics.

You don’t have to be the world’s top martial artist street fighter. Or the world’s deepest thinker on economic policy. You don’t have to expect to come out of every street situation or every economic policy encounter unscathed, whether physically or in reputation.

You just have to do a bit of good in the world. And the more of you there are, the more the bad guys lose.

(Photo credit: Cung LE is a Vietnamese-American kickboxer and mixed martial artist. Following the fall of Vietnam, he came to the US where bullying forced him to learn to fight. In March 2008 he became Strikeforce Middleweight champion by TKO when a sequence of powerful kicks ended up breaking his opponent’s right arm.)

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.]


Who moved my BlackBerry… and those hundreds of millions of people?

China and India are, for now, the only billion-people economies. In one popular telling, China shifted hundreds of millions of workers from farms to urban areas. In that story that switch rate, paired with reasonable assumptions on relative productivities in relatively backwards agriculture and forward-looking manufacturing just about matches China’s overall growth rate, after factoring in other measureable progress.

A related not uncommon view further has it that India codes workman-like software, designs lower-end pharmaceuticals, answers queries about insurance claims over the telephone, and scans X-rays that Western doctors are too busy to do. These jobs might pay far less than done in the West but, in their part of the global marketplace, they almost surely pay better than stitching together textiles in Shanghai () or assembling refrigerators in Shandong Peninsula (山东半岛).

So, which economy has had its growth driven more by changes in labour input? Where have more people moved out of poverty?

The Figures (using data kindly provided me by Dale Jorgensen and Khuong-minh Vu that they had used in their paper “Information Technology and the World Economy”, 2006) show decompositions of Chinese and Indian growth into contributions due to physical capital, labour, and productivity (TFP). Earlier on, between 1989 and 1995, China certainly drew more on labour than did India to power economic growth and, true to stereotype, drew more on labour hours (“mere sweat and effort”) than on labour quality, i.e., on skills and human capital. But even then the difference was small.

By 2000-2005 the most recent period for which we have data, China had come to rely more on physical capital, i.e., on machines. Its reliance on labour had fallen to 13%, almost exactly half that of India’s. That shift occurred, moreover, with little loss in productivity’s contribution. Through both periods and in both countries, productivity never contributed less than 40% of growth overall.

By 2000-2005, in fact, China’s profile of growth contribution from capital, labour, and productivity almost exactly matched that of the US. The difference, of course, is that China has been growing at 3 times the rate of the US.

The next Figure (per capita income on the horizontal axis; hundreds of millions in $1/day-poverty) shows how China’s much, much more impressive aggregate growth has lifted half a billion people out of extreme poverty in the last quarter-century; India, on the other hand, has only recently and, by comparison, imperceptibly started along the same path. But with a long way to go still. The data are for 1984-2004; I had used them in a previous blog posting.

My own small contribution on global inequality the last couple months was extremely practical. I did what I could in charitable fundraising. The video shows my friend Maria Gratsova holding the board for an airbreak. I performed a jump spinning hook kick. This particular event was the LSE Development Society auction on 05 February 2008, and I was up on the auction block. Fortunately, someone did buy me – for much more than I’m worth. But the money went to a good cause and the deal was that we had a paid-for dinner together afterwards.

(Yes, yes, I know, boards don’t hit back but an airbreak means the board swings loose, and so is harder to break. And of course that they don’t hit back doesn’t mean they break everytime. In this next video [from September 2007] I attempted two boards on one jump and only broke one.)

Thanks to the kindness of friends, Maria and I held a repeat performance at LSE’s Malaysia-Singapore Students Night, 23 February 2008, in the Old Theatre. Money changed hands there too, and for just as worthy a cause. (This still is from LiEe Ng’s camera; thanks LiEe!)

Yes, but where does this go on a CV?

Thursday (31 May 2007) evening at taekwon-do class the blackbelts at one of the clubs where I train were asked to put on an impromptu demo, and we ended up working wooden boards (yes yes, I know, “boards… don’t hit back”).

Long story short, here I am, on (WMV | QuickTime) video, breaking board with a jump spinning back kick.

Personally, I think there’s nothing more impressive than a long line of blackbelts standing around, looking stern.

But then maybe that’s just me. I also like all the bowing, and saying “Sir” and “Ma’am” a lot.

The Department held the first of its Economics Debates 10 May. I would have made this opening statement. But Caselli started with a clever gambit that derailed that. In any case, I hope everyone had a good time.

Not teaching

This fall is the first in the last 9 that I will not be teaching Introductory Economics to first-year undergraduates at the London School of Economics.

Because of my other duties at the School I will not, early this October, be standing up in a large, darkened theatre in London’s West End in front of 850 undergraduates sitting in their first university lecture. I will not be worrying if their first lecture will set the appropriate tone for the rest of their university career. I will not be worrying if economics will come alive for them, over their first year, in a way that fires their imagination for the rest of their lives. I will not be worrying if the ideas these students encounter lead them later in life to assess affairs of the world thoughtfully and reasonably.

Well, I will worry – it’s just that I no longer face the hazard of doing anything about it, for good or bad.

Less than 30 percent of the students sitting in that large lecture theatre for Introductory Economics will go on to study economics as a specialization at LSE. An even smaller fraction will contemplate doing economics professionally. For the overwhelming majority, those Introductory Economics lectures provide the one opportunity we (academic economists and social scientists) have to tell them why we think the way we do.

Will the economics we teach seem obtuse, technical, obscure, specialized, counter-intuitive, uncool, and …, well, just plain the opposite of fun? Will this economics appear in a hurry to get on to yet something else (a more advanced course?), and not spend enough time revealing itself, right then and there, as a pretty remarkable way of understanding and improving the world around us?

LSE has the most cosmopolitan and international a student body of any top university in the world. About 1000 undergraduates matriculate at the LSE each year; of 8000 students here overall, 49 percent come from more than 120 countries outside the European Union. The native languages and states of origin among the students milling about the tiny expanse of Houghton Street dot every single part of the globe.

No other location on Earth matches per square meter the intellectual and experiential diversity worn so lightly by the LSE.


CM were in Paris this month with their mom for a French language course; then they all visited the Arc de Triomphe.

Two things I am currently working on frenziedly (beyond the long-term projects listed elsewhere on this page): First, a paper on the Digital Divide for the Copenhagen Consensus—what should the global community do if we had an additional $50 billion to spend over the next four years? Second, in taekwon-do a 540-degree jump spinning hook kick (here’s what it’s supposed to look like:

I’m just trying to get close for now.) If I don’t get both these done soon after this item gets posted, I will become even more embarrassed and have to remove all of it from this blog.

Recent photos

2006 April. CM play chess, in the cool of my sister’s house in KL. Western kids, they prefer that to the tropical heat. Just before this trip they’d been discussing with their mom news in the Financial Times on lengthening human lifespans. So on our way to Genting they asked me if I thought it’d be good when humans can live forever. C volunteered that he thought it wouldn’t. In his view what makes life life is that when the time comes, there’s no life thereafter. There is an end. Were humans to live forever, that’s not life. It’s just … existence. (The dramatic pause is C’s.)

2006 April. CM found a bit much the heat and humidity of the Malaysian tropical rain forests. After showering, though, and then lunch in an air-conditioned expensive restaurant, it’s easier to look back with nuance and goodwill. Being tired and sleepy helps too.

2006 January. Being Southeast Asian means you seek the real thing, not just a brand. So, here, two of my sisters-in-law are at Jimmy Choo Couture, London W2.

2005 November. When you do this kind of thing you always get asked two questions: 1. “Are you a blackbelt?” 2. “Do you compete?” I train at taekwon-do because it’s challenging and exhilarating, physically and mentally, and because the friends I’ve made there are truly nice people. But anyway… here’s a photo, silver medal for sparring at the British TAGB Taekwon-do Championships in Coventry. Strangely enough the photos from the English Championships March 2006 look exactly the same as what’s here: there, I won gold at patterns and silver again at sparring. (Thanks for the photos, Pauline!)

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