China got 99 problems…

But resource constraints and Confucianism ain’t one!

[Not to say China is resource-rich, but that this isn’t its biggest drawback]

Okay so there’s a kerfuffle about between Noah Smith and Daniel Altman about China’s economic future. They’re right (partially – China will beat Europe) to be bearish on its development, but their reasons are just wrong.

Here’s Altman:

Confucianism is perhaps the leading influence on Chinese business practices. [His] teachings […] are deeply ingrained in Chinese society [yet] are not necessarily conducive to economic growth. Confucian ethics teach that one should value the collective over the individual…A second and related tenet of Confucianism…encompasses the “respect for elders” that is a hallmark of many East Asian civilizations […]Together, these tenets of Confucianism — and the way they have been interpreted by the Chinese authorities in recent times — have helped to maintain rigid hierarchies in Chinese businesses… […] The message is clear: to be united and realize the dreams of a great Chinese nation, the Chinese people need strong rulers who brook little dissent. The message carries through to the boardrooms of Chinese companies, which tend to concentrate the instruments of power in the hands of a single strongman… All of these factors will combine to lower the target for material living standards in China — or, to put it more technically, they reduce the level of per capita income toward which China is converging. With these factors in place, China simply is not in the same convergence club as the United States…

And Smith:

For the record, I’d go with Sumner. Also, Chinese culture seems a lot like American culture to me, but that’s mainly based on my students, who of course chose to move here. If I had to predict, I’d say China will reach 50% of U.S. GDP, but that equaling us will be hard because of global resource constraints.
Of course we could always admit that, well…we don’t really know what’s going to happen to Chinese growth. But we don’t want to admit that. Because we don’t like to not know things. Not knowing things is scary. There is safety in derp.
Update: Altman responds, noting that Japan’s GDP is markedly less than that of the U.S., Canada, and Austrialia. Of course, I could have pointed out that Singapore, with a GDP (PPP) per capital of $60,410, is considerably richer than any of the countries named. But I thought it more appropriate to compare countries of similar population sizes and resource endowments…

And there was a lot more on Twitter about how land and other supply-side constraints have been a drag on this nation or that. For the record, Smith is a lot less wrong. Resource constraints are more defensible than ancient culture. Just at an institutional level, it’s important to understand why the legalists and centralists of Qin, Ming, and Mao so hated Confucius – in his China, the family served as a powerful counterweight to the state, undermining political authority. Indeed, in quarrels between a man and state, he and not the government had his family’s loyalty and trust. As Francis Fukuyama notes, Chinese history can be written as the interplay between family and state.

But few would say the Chinese state is anything near weak. Even at a microscopic level, there is little regard for important Confucian teachings. Profit from domestic migration breaks local structures and quid pro quo patronage permeates all levels of government. As one of Smith’s commenters notes:

Yes, Chinese hold family to be very important, but deference of the servant to master & employee to the employer? Has he seen the rate of job-hopping in China?
If the Chinese like to concentrate power, how come it seems like every third person in Taiwan owns a business?

It’s informative to understand just how rapidly financial profit undermines regressive practices after it takes afoot, however anchored by culture. Fareed Zakaria shrewdly notes that stark preference for Brahmins (scholars) over Vaishyas (merchants) held India back while scientific enlightenment and industry spread like wildfire across the West. Niall Ferguson is known to make this point (and then take it to the illogical, immoral, and idiotic conclusion that British imperialism was a good thing). But once growth picked up late last century nothing, seemingly, could stop it. The Hindu growth rate suddenly became a compliment.

Indians tend to be proud about strong familial bonds absent in the West. But I can barely sense any such thing in the modern, urban, middle-class culture India is moving towards. (And, unlike my grandparents, I think this is splendid). Or as Deng Xiaoping puts it:

Poverty is not socialism. To be rich is glorious.

Confucian China this is not. But Smith does a pretty bang-up job of making my point, so I’m going to tell you why resource constraints aren’t China’s biggest problem. (Note, he is very wrong in refuting Altman’s point by comparing Japan to Western Europe, which isn’t particularly rich and has a high natural rate of unemployment).

For one, I’m pretty cautious about Malthusian bets. People have been making them for a long time, and they’ve always been wrong. Ehrlich, most famously, didn’t get commodity prices right. Despite a huge increase in population, wealth, and demand since 1980, when the wager was made, the preponderance of fibre optics and advanced plastics mitigated the need for copper. Science and technology have always won the day, so it is only sensible that we have a very strong prior against grim predictions from the days of yore. Indeed, considering the number of times Malthusian priors have been updated, it should be near religion that we will not face a supply-side crisis.

For one, Smith qualifies expected per capita output by “similar population sizes and resource endowments” likening Altman’s comparison of Japan and US to that of US and Singapore. Japan might be starved of land, but it’s hard to imagine that resource constraints have held it back. If that were the case, we’d expect a contraction of aggregate supply resulting in cost push inflation. But we know that the Japanese economy has been severely deflationary. Land is also only a problem if Japan had an increasing population, but fertility fell below replacement rate quite some time ago.

Then it’s worth noting that the only “resources” that benefit Singapore are human capital and agglomeration economies. New York State has a per capita GDP of $58,000. The city itself will be notably richer. Of course, Washington DC blows it all away at almost $175,000. Obviously, Smith’s point was that it doesn’t make sense calculating output across population sizes. But the qualification isn’t continuous, as he believes, but binary: is it a city-state, or not. Or, if you like continuity, urbanization rate. Japan is actually 10 percentage points more urbanized than America, implying it should be richer if not for other constraints.

But let’s take this further. Resource wealth helps a country in one of two ways:

  • Exports increasing GDP (Norway, Australia, and Frackamerica)
  • Low price levels decreasing GDP deflator (America: Land of the Free Cheap)

There’s no doubt that Americans are so rich because of comparative price levels. It’s refreshing to compare nominal per capita income ranking against their real counterpart. But doing so also tells us that $3 per gallon of gasoline doesn’t help us that much. (USA moves from 6 to 10 with a few notably irrelevant countries in between). Further, American prices are low because of smart economic practices emphasizing labor flexibility, relatively low minimum wages, huge numbers of skilled and unskilled immigrants, and a highly robust higher education system. Americans abroad often complain about food prices, but should remember that this is already such a small proportion of income that it doesn’t much matter. As for the first point, our export of ideas (Boeing, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, etc.) is far more valuable than actual resources. Though, all said, Texas is pretty rich!

Smith also likes tweeting about the coming solar and wind revolution. In Oregon and Washington, wind is already cheaper than coal. This will be particularly true in the future, after China eats all our coal and asphyxiates its people in the process, but technologists will by then have given us more than enough to move away from coal. A member of the “global south”, China also has a fair bit more sunshine than the Americans. Oil will be a decidedly more tricky subject. When America invested in its interstate highway system (whose value is intimately connected to gas prices) high-speed rail was oxymoronic. The Habitable part of China is substantially smaller and, with modern locomotive technology at hand, China can probably substitute most oil-based transportation with electricity. Cars by that point will also be much more efficient. No doubt the technology, and dollars too, allowing this sustainable development will be traced back to American universities and entrepreneurs.

As a billion people move from poverty into comfortable living, from ignorance into (relative) intelligence, we will have many more thoughts competing in the Popperian “marketplace of ideas”. China will (try to) advance science, culture, and scholarship in much the same way that America does today.

Alas, Altman and Smith are right that China will never catch up to the United States. But they are wrong that it won’t catch up to the West. Unless Western Europe seriously reconsiders its failed economic practices, China will render it (more) irrelevant (than they already are). The European Union’s per capita GDP (PPP) is only just over 60% of America’s – people tend to forget how much richer the US really is. This gap will widen substantially to the point where Chinese living standards beat Europe’s, which is destined for a long period of relative stagnation.

But it won’t ever reach America. Not because of oil or stones, or whatever, but the lack of inclusive institutions. State capitalism is great so long as China is the “factory of the world”. But if you want your Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Seattle, or Chicago, you’ll need something seriously better. The US did create small things like the Internet with big government investment, but only on the back of an established system of private universities and entrepreneurs.

And to the extent that Internet and technology is the economic future, China’s citizens are woefully excluded. Weibo is no match for Twitter: in code or theory. The repression of its population will strangle the cross-fertilization of ideas that make America so great. But China faces another huge supply-side factor: immigration. Educated people want to get the hell out of China (unless they are connected enough to open a factory and get rich). Educated people want to get the hell into America.

For all of history, we’ve been the “second-best” place for everyone in the world. Many Indians today want to stay with their family, but America is their next choice. Europeans in the 19th and 20th centuries probably liked their culture, but America was a close runner-up. Smith himself called us the “Alt Europe” (and suggests become the “Alt Asia”). Oh and how rich it has made us. So many economic “movers” – from business titans to engineers – are in America because it’s immigrant-friendly and promises riches.

What does China promise? Smoggy streets, censorship, and a language no one (else) speaks. Great.

People are also seriously scared of China. India, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia have a big interest in making sure China doesn’t become too powerful. Some already have trade and military alliances with America. It’s not unlikely that the rest will follow suit. America, owing to its peaceful and democratic nature, is on good terms with most of the world and definitely its neighbors. We got rich by rebuilding Europe and innovating amazing goods for the rest of the world. There’s a fair bit of disdain for the US, perhaps deservedly so, but it’s hard to dismiss the relatively peaceful path to prosperity exemplified by America. As China gets richer and stronger, American soft power will only increase.

But it’s also fair to say Altman is too bearish on China:

China may just manage to catch the United States and become the world’s biggest economy. But it will hold onto the title for only a few years before the United States, growing more quickly in both population and the productivity of its workers, passes China again.

On second thought, if we don’t screw up our immigration policy, he’s probably right in the long run. But if China’s growth continues as expected, they’ll pass us in total GDP and stay there for a while until American population grows enough. But even then, America and China will be very close. Even America stabilizes at 500 million people (high estimate) and China at 1 billion (low estimate), America would have to be twice as rich to be equal. This seems unlikely.

There’s one more problem. No power that be has stayed that way without controlling the global reserve currency. While China has made moves to liberalize its bond market, it will never be a trusted reserve. Only a democracy in which a majority of government debt is (somewhat) equitably distributed among the electorate can have this status. American politicians know that if they default on their obligations, they’ll be thrown out of office. Self-interest prevents this. The debt ceiling is an artificial, not structural, obstacle to this point. We know that default is not a subgame perfect strategy for America. We can’t say the same about China.

So, as the age-old adage goes, institutions are the problem! I have trust that scientists and entrepreneurs will overcome resource constraints, and that economic factors will destroy regressive culture. But it will be a miracle indeed if Chinese universities rivaled Harvard, if Beijing captures the philosophical imagination of Washington in its ideal, if Chinese entrepreneurs catch up to the Pacific Northwest!

Edit: Scott Sumner has some thoughts too.  I’ll add that I don’t think culture is nearly as important as other factors in the end. Indians, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis might come from historically similar cultures, but perform very differently in the US, with Indians earning about $90,000, Pakistanis about $60,000 and Bangladeshis about $45,000.

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5 comments
  1. Aziz said:

    Without wanting to get too deep into the debate over culture (though I tend to agree with Noah) I’d just like to note that Confucianism isn’t quite the authoritarian anti-innovative creed that Altman makes it out to be. It has some deeply libertarian strands too. Confucius:

    The natural Universe maintains order without giving commands, and the ruler should do likewise, remaining motionless like the North Star and letting the people revolve spontaneously around him. If you yourself are correct, even without the issuing of orders, things will get done; if you yourself are not correct, although orders are issued, they will not be obeyed.

    So Altman in characterising what Confucian culture means, seems to be missing an important dimension of it. Garbage in, garbage out.

    • Fair enough – which is why I see it as a check on the State (and hence an example for its seeming lack of importance in daily affairs). Also, as far as culture goes, I think the economically-valuable parts of a culture stay, while the regressive ones are diminished. To the extent that racism and homophobia were “American”, they are not anymore. It’s bad business.

      Many parts of the “protestant ethic” made America, but regressive practices might be more ignored. So I’m sure there are very valuable parts of Confucianism that will remain and guide China on a different (maybe better, in ways) path to the future.

  2. I’m interested to know why you’re so pessimistic on the potential for Chinese institutions to improve. Japan was a crappy one-party state during its rapid growth, but democracy there is improving all the time. Korea is much the same. As Chinese people get richer, they will be less willing to tolerate the restrictions, and better motivated to fight back. I don’t see a compelling reason why China won’t follow the Korean path and gradually become a (semi)-functional democracy.

    I think you’re also underestimating the flaws in American institutions at similar levels of development. American democracy and policymaking used to be a bit of a mess, with corruption, insider dealing, segregation, prohibition, the worst excesses of the New Deal and so on. As America developed, politics got more transparent, democracy improved, and so did policy (to an extent).

    I also think it’s really hard to predict what the US-Western Europe income gap will be in decades’ time.

    • Fair points, all. But when America was very corrupt (political machines, Tammany Hall and all) it basically had no state. The Federal government was weak, had no authority to collect income taxes, and didn’t have a good central bank. States, then more than ever, had a lot of power. Competition between states was the silent regulator of the system. It was very much a Jeffersonian Democracy.

      America almost always had partisan debate. China is basically the opposite on all fronts. Granted, it’s growing faster than America during its development, but it’s also using everyone else’s technology. Britain first (and then mainly America) had to basically innovate and take risk on all technological advancement.

      It is hard to predict the US-Western Europe gap in decades’ time. EU stands at 60% of America right now, Britain at about 70. That’s a huge difference. There seems to be an unending recession, as well. Surely due to cyclical issues and bad policy, but also structural problems. The natural rate of unemployment in France/Britain is about what America’s is right now, during a “bad time”. Labor markets are inflexible, immigration isn’t tolerated (America has become more nativist, but there’s less ideological racism there).

      Don’t get me wrong, USA has huge problems of its own. Like you said, I don’t think China will have a problem achieving Japanese, and hence European, levels of development (by which time hopefully Japan will be ahead, but no matter). Nearing America will be harder. Remember, its trade surplus (unlike Norway/Australia) is dependent on poor, cheap, and relatively dumb labor. That’s going to evaporate as richer people import fancy foreign things and Chinese exports become less competitive.

      Trade surpluses based primarily on poverty will never be sustainable. (Not like Norway or Australia turning their capital into cashflow is particularly “productive”, but still….)

      • Dohsan said:

        Well, if you talk to mainland Chinese, many will say that the provinces now have relatively more power than at any point in their lifetimes. In the short term, that’s a bad thing, though, as the provincial and local governments tend to be more corrupt than the central government.

        I think it comes down to 2 things:
        1. Is education and/or entrepreneurial-spirit/rice-growing-work-ethic and/or East Asian/Confucian culture enough to overcome/reform corrupt institutions? Is it a coincidence that Taiwan, SKorea, and Singapore all managed to break free of their authoritarian past towards prosperity while most of the various other tinpot dictatorships of the ’60’s have not?

        2. Is Communism going to keep mainland China down? The track-record of states that were ruled by home-grown Communist totalitarians is depressingly bad. The Communists/Stalinists are amazingly good at holding on to power; no Communist government supported by a home-grown military I can think of has been overthrown from below. Short of a Chinese Gorbachev (and Russia hasn’t exactly grown free of exploitation by elites; nor have most of the other former Soviet republics), how can the PRC reform?

        If the PRC was simply run by run-of-the-mill leeching authoritarian elite instead of the Communist kind, I’d have much more confidence that China would eventually go down the same path that SKorea and Taiwan did.

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