Will China’s growth continue forever?

July 23, JDN 2457958

It’s easy to make the figures sound alarming, especially if you are a xenophobic American:

Annual GDP growth in the US is currently 2.1%, while annual GDP growth in China is 6.9%. At markte exchange rates, US GDP is currently $18.6 trillion, while China’s GDP is $11.2 trillion. If these growth rates continue, that means that China’s GDP will surpass ours in just 12 years.

Looking instead at per-capita GDP (and now using purchasing-power-parity, which is a much better measure for standard of living), the US is currently at $53,200 per person per year while China is at $14,400 per person per year. Since 2010 US per-capita GDP PPP has been growing at about 1.2%, while China’s has been growing at 7.1%. At that rate, China will surpass the US in standard of living in only 24 years.

And then if you really want to get scared, you start thinking about what happens if this growth continues for 20, or 30, or 50 years. At 50 years of these growth rates, US GDP will just about triple; but China’s GDP would increase by almost a factor of thirty. US per-capita GDP will increase to about $150,000, while China’s per-capita GDP will increase all the way to $444,000.

But while China probably will surpass the US in total nominal GDP within say 15 years, the longer-horizon predictions are totally unfounded. In fact, there is reason to believe that China will never surpass the US in standard of living, at least within the foreseeable future. Sure, some sort of global catastrophe could realign the world’s fortunes (climate change being a plausible candidate) and over very long time horizons all sorts of things can happen; but barring catastrophe and looking within the next few generations, there’s little reason to think that the average person in China will actually be better off than the average person in the United States. Indeed, while that $150,000 figure is actually remarkably plausible, that $444,000 figure is totally nonsensical. I project that in 2065, per-capita GDP in the US will indeed be about $150,000, but per-capita GDP in China will be more like $100,000.

That’s still a dramatic improvement over today for both countries, and something worth celebrating; but the panic that the US must be doing something wrong and China must be doing something right, that China is “eating our lunch” in Trump’s terminology, is simply unfounded.

Why am I so confident of this? Because, for all the proud proclamations of Chinese officials and panicked reports of American pundits, China’s rapid growth rates are not unprecedented. We have seen this before.

Look at South Korea. As I like to say, the discipline of development economics is basically the attempt to determine what happened in South Korea 1950-2000 and how to make it happen everywhere.

In 1960, South Korea’s nominal per-capita GDP was only $944. In 2016, it was $25,500. That takes them from solidly Third World underdeveloped status into very nearly First World highly-developed status in just two generations. This was an average rate of growth of 6.0%. But South Korea didn’t grow steadily at 6.0% for that entire period. Their growth fluctuated wildly (small countries tend to do that; they are effectively undiversified assets), but also overall trended downward.

The highest annual growth rate in South Korea over that time period was an astonishing 20.8%. Over twenty percent per year. Now that is growth you would feel. Imagine going from an income of $10,000 to an income of $12,000, in just one year. Imagine your entire country doing this. In its best years, South Korea was achieving annual growth rates in income comparable to the astronomical investment returns of none other than Warren Buffett (For once, we definitely had r < g). Even if you smooth out over the boom-and-bust volatility South Korea went through during that period, they were still averaging growth rates over 7.5% in the 1970s.

I wasn’t alive then, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Americans back then were panicking about South Korea’s growth too. Maybe not, since South Korea was and remains a close US ally, and their success displayed the superiority of capitalism over Communism (boy did it ever: North Korea’s per capita GDP also started at about $900 in 1960, and is still today… only about $1000!); but you could have made the same pie-in-the-sky forecasts of Korea taking over the world if you’d extrapolated their growth rates forward.

South Korea’s current growth rate, on the other hand? 2.9%. Not so shocking now!

Moreover, this is a process we understand theoretically as well as empirically. The Solow model is now well-established as the mainstream neoclassical model of economic growth, and it directly and explicitly predicts this sort of growth pattern, where a country that starts very poor will initially grow extremely fast as they build a capital base and reverse-engineer technology from more advanced countries, but then over a couple of generations their growth will slow down and eventually level off once they reach a high level of economic development.

Indeed, the basic reason is quite simple: A given proportional growth is easier to do when you start small. (There’s more to it than that, involving capital degradation and diminishing marginal returns, but at its core, that’s the basic idea.)

I think I can best instill this realization in you by making another comparison between the US and China: How much income are we adding in absolute terms?

US per-capita GDP of $53,200 is growing at 1.2% per year; that means we’re adding $640 per person per year. China per-capita GDP of $14,400 is growing at 7.1% per year; that means they’re adding $1,020 per year. So while it sounds like they are growing almost six times faster, they’re actually only adding about 40% more real income per person each year than we are. It’s just a larger proportion to them.

Indeed, China is actually doing relatively well on this scale. Many developing countries that are growing “fast” are actually adding less income per person in absolute terms than many highly-developed countries. India’s per capita GDP is growing at 5.8% per year, but adding only $340 per person per year. Ethiopia’s income per person is growing by 4.9%—which is only $75 per person per year. Compare this to the “slow” growth of the UK, where 1.0% annual growth is still $392 per person per year, or France, where “stagnant” growth of 0.8% is still $293 per person per year.

Back when South Korea was growing at 20%, that was still on the order of $200 per person per year. Their current 2.9%, on the other hand, is actually $740 per person per year. We often forget just how poor many poor countries truly are; what sounds like a spectacular growth rate still may not be all that much in absolute terms.

Here’s a graph (on a log scale) of GDP per capita in the US, Japan, China, and Korea, from World Bank data since 1960. I’d prefer to use GDP PPP, but the World Bank data doesn’t go back far enough.

As you can see, there is a general pattern of growth at a decreasing rate; it’s harder to see in China because they are earlier in the process; but there’s good reason to think that they will follow the same pattern.

If anything, I think the panic about Japan in the 1990s may have been more justifiable (not that it was terribly justified either). As you can see on the graph, in terms of nominal GDP per capita, Japan actually did briefly surpass the United States in the 1990s. Of course, the outcome of that was not a global war or Japan ruling the world or something; it was… the Nintendo Wii and the Toyota Prius.

Of course, that doesn’t stop people from writing news articles and even publishing economic papers about how this time is different, not like all the other times we saw the exact same pattern. Many Chinese officials appear to believe that China is special, that they can continue to grow at extremely high rates indefinitely without the constraints that other countries would face. But for once economic theory and economic data are actually in very good agreement: These high growth rates will not last forever. They will slow down, and that’s not such a bad thing. By the time they do, China will have greatly raised their standard of living to something very close to our own. Hundreds of millions of people have already been lifted out of abject poverty; continued growth could benefit hundreds of millions more.

The far bigger problem would be if the government refuses to accept that growth must slow down, and begins trying to force impossible levels of growth or altering the economic data to make it appear as though growth has occurred that hasn’t. We already know that the People’s Republic of China has a track record of doing this sort of thing: we know they have manipulated some data, though we think only in small ways, and the worst example of an attempt at forcing economic growth in human history was in China, the so-called “Great Leap Forward” that killed 20 million people. The danger is not that China will grow this fast forever, nor that they will slow down soon enough, but that they will slow down and their government will refuse to admit it.

Believing in civilization without believing in colonialism

JDN 2457541

In a post last week I presented some of the overwhelming evidence that society has been getting better over time, particularly since the start of the Industrial Revolution. I focused mainly on infant mortality rates—babies not dying—but there are lots of other measures you could use as well. Despite popular belief, poverty is rapidly declining, and is now the lowest it’s ever been. War is rapidly declining. Crime is rapidly declining in First World countries, and to the best of our knowledge crime rates are stable worldwide. Public health is rapidly improving. Lifespans are getting longer. And so on, and so on. It’s not quite true to say that every indicator of human progress is on an upward trend, but the vast majority of really important indicators are.

Moreover, there is every reason to believe that this great progress is largely the result of what we call “civilization”, even Western civilization: Stable, centralized governments, strong national defense, representative democracy, free markets, openness to global trade, investment in infrastructure, science and technology, secularism, a culture that values innovation, and freedom of speech and the press. We did not get here by Marxism, nor agragrian socialism, nor primitivism, nor anarcho-capitalism. We did not get here by fascism, nor theocracy, nor monarchy. This progress was built by the center-left welfare state, “social democracy”, “modified capitalism”, the system where free, open markets are coupled with a strong democratic government to protect and steer them.

This fact is basically beyond dispute; the evidence is overwhelming. The serious debate in development economics is over which parts of the Western welfare state are most conducive to raising human well-being, and which parts of the package are more optional. And even then, some things are fairly obvious: Stable government is clearly necessary, while speaking English is clearly optional.

Yet many people are resistant to this conclusion, or even offended by it, and I think I know why: They are confusing the results of civilization with the methods by which it was established.

The results of civilization are indisputably positive: Everything I just named above, especially babies not dying.

But the methods by which civilization was established are not; indeed, some of the greatest atrocities in human history are attributable at least in part to attempts to “spread civilization” to “primitive” or “savage” people.
It is therefore vital to distinguish between the result, civilization, and the processes by which it was effected, such as colonialism and imperialism.

First, it’s important not to overstate the link between civilization and colonialism.

We tend to associate colonialism and imperialism with White people from Western European cultures conquering other people in other cultures; but in fact colonialism and imperialism are basically universal to any human culture that attains sufficient size and centralization. India engaged in colonialism, Persia engaged in imperialism, China engaged in imperialism, the Mongols were of course major imperialists, and don’t forget the Ottoman Empire; and did you realize that Tibet and Mali were at one time imperialists as well? And of course there are a whole bunch of empires you’ve probably never heard of, like the Parthians and the Ghaznavids and the Ummayyads. Even many of the people we’re accustoming to thinking of as innocent victims of colonialism were themselves imperialists—the Aztecs certainly were (they even sold people into slavery and used them for human sacrifice!), as were the Pequot, and the Iroquois may not have outright conquered anyone but were definitely at least “soft imperialists” the way that the US is today, spreading their influence around and using economic and sometimes military pressure to absorb other cultures into their own.

Of course, those were all civilizations, at least in the broadest sense of the word; but before that, it’s not that there wasn’t violence, it just wasn’t organized enough to be worthy of being called “imperialism”. The more general concept of intertribal warfare is a human universal, and some hunter-gatherer tribes actually engage in an essentially constant state of warfare we call “endemic warfare”. People have been grouping together to kill other people they perceived as different for at least as long as there have been people to do so.

This is of course not to excuse what European colonial powers did when they set up bases on other continents and exploited, enslaved, or even murdered the indigenous population. And the absolute numbers of people enslaved or killed are typically larger under European colonialism, mainly because European cultures became so powerful and conquered almost the entire world. Even if European societies were not uniquely predisposed to be violent (and I see no evidence to say that they were—humans are pretty much humans), they were more successful in their violent conquering, and so more people suffered and died. It’s also a first-mover effect: If the Ming Dynasty had supported Zheng He more in his colonial ambitions, I’d probably be writing this post in Mandarin and reflecting on why Asian cultures have engaged in so much colonial oppression.

While there is a deeply condescending paternalism (and often post-hoc rationalization of your own self-interested exploitation) involved in saying that you are conquering other people in order to civilize them, humans are also perfectly capable of committing atrocities for far less noble-sounding motives. There are holy wars such as the Crusades and ethnic genocides like in Rwanda, and the Arab slave trade was purely for profit and didn’t even have the pretense of civilizing people (not that the Atlantic slave trade was ever really about that anyway).

Indeed, I think it’s important to distinguish between colonialists who really did make some effort at civilizing the populations they conquered (like Britain, and also the Mongols actually) and those that clearly were just using that as an excuse to rape and pillage (like Spain and Portugal). This is similar to but not quite the same thing as the distinction between settler colonialism, where you send colonists to live there and build up the country, and exploitation colonialism, where you send military forces to take control of the existing population and exploit them to get their resources. Countries that experienced settler colonialism (such as the US and Australia) have fared a lot better in the long run than countries that experienced exploitation colonialism (such as Haiti and Zimbabwe).

The worst consequences of colonialism weren’t even really anyone’s fault, actually. The reason something like 98% of all Native Americans died as a result of European colonization was not that Europeans killed them—they did kill thousands of course, and I hope it goes without saying that that’s terrible, but it was a small fraction of the total deaths. The reason such a huge number died and whole cultures were depopulated was disease, and the inability of medical technology in any culture at that time to handle such a catastrophic plague. The primary cause was therefore accidental, and not really foreseeable given the state of scientific knowledge at the time. (I therefore think it’s wrong to consider it genocide—maybe democide.) Indeed, what really would have saved these people would be if Europe had advanced even faster into industrial capitalism and modern science, or else waited to colonize until they had; and then they could have distributed vaccines and antibiotics when they arrived. (Of course, there is evidence that a few European colonists used the diseases intentionally as biological weapons, which no amount of vaccine technology would prevent—and that is indeed genocide. But again, this was a small fraction of the total deaths.)

However, even with all those caveats, I hope we can all agree that colonialism and imperialism were morally wrong. No nation has the right to invade and conquer other nations; no one has the right to enslave people; no one has the right to kill people based on their culture or ethnicity.

My point is that it is entirely possible to recognize that and still appreciate that Western civilization has dramatically improved the standard of human life over the last few centuries. It simply doesn’t follow from the fact that British government and culture were more advanced and pluralistic that British soldiers can just go around taking over other people’s countries and planting their own flag (follow the link if you need some comic relief from this dark topic). That was the moral failing of colonialism; not that they thought their society was better—for in many ways it was—but that they thought that gave them the right to terrorize, slaughter, enslave, and conquer people.

Indeed, the “justification” of colonialism is a lot like that bizarre pseudo-utilitarianism I mentioned in my post on torture, where the mere presence of some benefit is taken to justify any possible action toward achieving that benefit. No, that’s not how morality works. You can’t justify unlimited evil by any good—it has to be a greater good, as in actually greater.

So let’s suppose that you do find yourself encountering another culture which is clearly more primitive than yours; their inferior technology results in them living in poverty and having very high rates of disease and death, especially among infants and children. What, if anything, are you justified in doing to intervene to improve their condition?

One idea would be to hold to the Prime Directive: No intervention, no sir, not ever. This is clearly what Gene Roddenberry thought of imperialism, hence why he built it into the Federation’s core principles.

But does that really make sense? Even as Star Trek shows progressed, the writers kept coming up with situations where the Prime Directive really seemed like it should have an exception, and sometimes decided that the honorable crew of Enterprise or Voyager really should intervene in this more primitive society to save them from some terrible fate. And I hope I’m not committing a Fictional Evidence Fallacy when I say that if your fictional universe specifically designed not to let that happen makes that happen, well… maybe it’s something we should be considering.

What if people are dying of a terrible disease that you could easily cure? Should you really deny them access to your medicine to avoid intervening in their society?

What if the primitive culture is ruled by a horrible tyrant that you could easily depose with little or no bloodshed? Should you let him continue to rule with an iron fist?

What if the natives are engaged in slavery, or even their own brand of imperialism against other indigenous cultures? Can you fight imperialism with imperialism?

And then we have to ask, does it really matter whether their babies are being murdered by the tyrant or simply dying from malnutrition and infection? The babies are just as dead, aren’t they? Even if we say that being murdered by a tyrant is worse than dying of malnutrition, it can’t be that much worse, can it? Surely 10 babies dying of malnutrition is at least as bad as 1 baby being murdered?

But then it begins to seem like we have a duty to intervene, and moreover a duty that applies in almost every circumstance! If you are on opposite sides of the technology threshold where infant mortality drops from 30% to 1%, how can you justify not intervening?

I think the best answer here is to keep in mind the very large costs of intervention as well as the potentially large benefits. The answer sounds simple, but is actually perhaps the hardest possible answer to apply in practice: You must do a cost-benefit analysis. Furthermore, you must do it well. We can’t demand perfection, but it must actually be a serious good-faith effort to predict the consequences of different intervention policies.

We know that people tend to resist most outside interventions, especially if you have the intention of toppling their leaders (even if they are indeed tyrannical). Even the simple act of offering people vaccines could be met with resistance, as the native people might think you are poisoning them or somehow trying to control them. But in general, opening contact with with gifts and trade is almost certainly going to trigger less hostility and therefore be more effective than going in guns blazing.

If you do use military force, it must be targeted at the particular leaders who are most harmful, and it must be designed to achieve swift, decisive victory with minimal collateral damage. (Basically I’m talking about just war theory.) If you really have such an advanced civilization, show it by exhibiting total technological dominance and minimizing the number of innocent people you kill. The NATO interventions in Kosovo and Libya mostly got this right. The Vietnam War and Iraq War got it totally wrong.

As you change their society, you should be prepared to bear most of the cost of transition; you are, after all, much richer than they are, and also the ones responsible for effecting the transition. You should not expect to see short-term gains for your own civilization, only long-term gains once their culture has advanced to a level near your own. You can’t bear all the costs of course—transition is just painful, no matter what you do—but at least the fungible economic costs should be borne by you, not by the native population. Examples of doing this wrong include basically all the standard examples of exploitation colonialism: Africa, the Caribbean, South America. Examples of doing this right include West Germany and Japan after WW2, and South Korea after the Korean War—which is to say, the greatest economic successes in the history of the human race. This was us winning development, humanity. Do this again everywhere and we will have not only ended world hunger, but achieved global prosperity.

What happens if we apply these principles to real-world colonialism? It does not fare well. Nor should it, as we’ve already established that most if not all real-world colonialism was morally wrong.

15th and 16th century colonialism fail immediately; they offer no benefit to speak of. Europe’s technological superiority was enough to give them gunpowder but not enough to drop their infant mortality rate. Maybe life was better in 16th century Spain than it was in the Aztec Empire, but honestly not by all that much; and life in the Iroquois Confederacy was in many ways better than life in 15th century England. (Though maybe that justifies some Iroquois imperialism, at least their “soft imperialism”?)

If these principles did justify any real-world imperialism—and I am not convinced that it does—it would only be much later imperialism, like the British Empire in the 19th and 20th century. And even then, it’s not clear that the talk of “civilizing” people and “the White Man’s Burden” was much more than rationalization, an attempt to give a humanitarian justification for what were really acts of self-interested economic exploitation. Even though India and South Africa are probably better off now than they were when the British first took them over, it’s not at all clear that this was really the goal of the British government so much as a side effect, and there are a lot of things the British could have done differently that would obviously have made them better off still—you know, like not implementing the precursors to apartheid, or making India a parliamentary democracy immediately instead of starting with the Raj and only conceding to democracy after decades of protest. What actually happened doesn’t exactly look like Britain cared nothing for actually improving the lives of people in India and South Africa (they did build a lot of schools and railroads, and sought to undermine slavery and the caste system), but it also doesn’t look like that was their only goal; it was more like one goal among several which also included the strategic and economic interests of Britain. It isn’t enough that Britain was a better society or even that they made South Africa and India better societies than they were; if the goal wasn’t really about making people’s lives better where you are intervening, it’s clearly not justified intervention.

And that’s the relatively beneficent imperialism; the really horrific imperialists throughout history made only the barest pretense of spreading civilization and were clearly interested in nothing more than maximizing their own wealth and power. This is probably why we get things like the Prime Directive; we saw how bad it can get, and overreacted a little by saying that intervening in other cultures is always, always wrong, no matter what. It was only a slight overreaction—intervening in other cultures is usually wrong, and almost all historical examples of it were wrong—but it is still an overreaction. There are exceptional cases where intervening in another culture can be not only morally right but obligatory.

Indeed, one underappreciated consequence of colonialism and imperialism is that they have triggered a backlash against real good-faith efforts toward economic development. People in Africa, Asia, and Latin America see economists from the US and the UK (and most of the world’s top economists are in fact educated in the US or the UK) come in and tell them that they need to do this and that to restructure their society for greater prosperity, and they understandably ask: “Why should I trust you this time?” The last two or four or seven batches of people coming from the US and Europe to intervene in their countries exploited them or worse, so why is this time any different?

It is different, of course; UNDP is not the East India Company, not by a longshot. Even for all their faults, the IMF isn’t the East India Company either. Indeed, while these people largely come from the same places as the imperialists, and may be descended from them, they are in fact completely different people, and moral responsibility does not inherit across generations. While the suspicion is understandable, it is ultimately unjustified; whatever happened hundreds of years ago, this time most of us really are trying to help—and it’s working.

We do not benefit from economic injustice.

JDN 2457461

Recently I think I figured out why so many middle-class White Americans express so much guilt about global injustice: A lot of people seem to think that we actually benefit from it. Thus, they feel caught between a rock and a hard place; conquering injustice would mean undermining their own already precarious standard of living, while leaving it in place is unconscionable.

The compromise, is apparently to feel really, really guilty about it, constantly tell people to “check their privilege” in this bizarre form of trendy autoflagellation, and then… never really get around to doing anything about the injustice.

(I guess that’s better than the conservative interpretation, which seems to be that since we benefit from this, we should keep doing it, and make sure we elect big, strong leaders who will make that happen.)

So let me tell you in no uncertain words: You do not benefit from this.

If anyone does—and as I’ll get to in a moment, that is not even necessarily true—then it is the billionaires who own the multinational corporations that orchestrate these abuses. Billionaires and billionaires only stand to gain from the exploitation of workers in the US, China, and everywhere else.

How do I know this with such certainty? Allow me to explain.

First of all, it is a common perception that prices of goods would be unattainably high if they were not produced on the backs of sweatshop workers. This perception is mistaken. The primary effect of the exploitation is simply to raise the profits of the corporation; there is a secondary effect of raising the price a moderate amount; and even this would be overwhelmed by the long-run dynamic effect of the increased consumer spending if workers were paid fairly.

Let’s take an iPad, for example. The price of iPads varies around the world in a combination of purchasing power parity and outright price discrimination; but the top model almost never sells for less than $500. The raw material expenditure involved in producing one is about $370—and the labor expenditure? Just $11. Not $110; $11. If it had been $110, the price could still be kept under $500 and turn a profit; it would simply be much smaller. That is, even if prices are really so elastic that Americans would refuse to buy an iPad at any more than $500 that would still mean Apple could still afford to raise the wages they pay (or rather, their subcontractors pay) workers by an order of magnitude. A worker who currently works 50 hours a week for $10 per day could now make $10 per hour. And the price would not have to change; Apple would simply lose profit, which is why they don’t do this. In the absence of pressure to the contrary, corporations will do whatever they can to maximize profits.

Now, in fact, the price probably would go up, because Apple fans are among the most inelastic technology consumers in the world. But suppose it went up to $600, which would mean a 1:1 absorption of these higher labor expenditures into price. Does that really sound like “Americans could never afford this”? A few people right on the edge might decide they couldn’t buy it at that price, but it wouldn’t be very many—indeed, like any well-managed monopoly, Apple knows to stop raising the price at the point where they start losing more revenue than they gain.

Similarly, half the price of an iPhone is pure profit for Apple, and only 2% goes into labor. Once again, wages could be raised by an order of magnitude and the price would not need to change.

Apple is a particularly obvious example, but it’s quite simple to see why exploitative labor cannot be the source of improved economic efficiency. Paying workers less does not make them do better work. Treating people more harshly does not improve their performance. Quite the opposite: People work much harder when they are treated well. In addition, at the levels of income we’re talking about, small improvements in wages would result in substantial improvements in worker health, further improving performance. Finally, substitution effect dominates income effect at low incomes. At very high incomes, income effect can dominate substitution effect, so higher wages might result in less work—but it is precisely when we’re talking about poor people that it makes the least sense to say they would work less if you paid them more and treated them better.

At most, paying higher wages can redistribute existing wealth, if we assume that the total amount of wealth does not increase. So it’s theoretically possible that paying higher wages to sweatshop workers would result in them getting some of the stuff that we currently have (essentially by a price mechanism where the things we want get more expensive, but our own wages don’t go up). But in fact our wages are most likely too low as well—wages in the US have become unlinked from productivity, around the time of Reagan—so there’s reason to think that a more just system would improve our standard of living also. Where would all the extra wealth come from? Well, there’s an awful lot of room at the top.

The top 1% in the US own 35% of net wealth, about as much as the bottom 95%. The 400 billionaires of the Forbes list have more wealth than the entire African-American population combined. (We’re double-counting Oprah—but that’s it, she’s the only African-American billionaire in the US.) So even assuming that the total amount of wealth remains constant (which is too conservative, as I’ll get to in a moment), improving global labor standards wouldn’t need to pull any wealth from the middle class; it could get plenty just from the top 0.01%.

In surveys, most Americans are willing to pay more for goods in order to improve labor standards—and the amounts that people are willing to pay, while they may seem small (on the order of 10% to 20% more), are in fact clearly enough that they could substantially increase the wages of sweatshop workers. The biggest problem is that corporations are so good at covering their tracks that it’s difficult to know whether you are really supporting higher labor standards. The multiple layers of international subcontractors make things even more complicated; the people who directly decide the wages are not the people who ultimately profit from them, because subcontractors are competitive while the multinationals that control them are monopsonists.

But for now I’m not going to deal with the thorny question of how we can actually regulate multinational corporations to stop them from using sweatshops. Right now, I just really want to get everyone on the same page and be absolutely clear about cui bono. If there is a benefit at all, it’s not going to you and me.

Why do I keep saying “if”? As so many people will ask me: “Isn’t it obvious that if one person gets less money, someone else must get more?” If you’ve been following my blog at all, you know that the answer is no.

On a single transaction, with everything else held constant, that is true. But we’re not talking about a single transaction. We’re talking about a system of global markets. Indeed, we’re not really talking about money at all; we’re talking about wealth.

By paying their workers so little that those workers can barely survive, corporations are making it impossible for those workers to go out and buy things of their own. Since the costs of higher wages are concentrated in one corporation while the benefits of higher wages are spread out across society, there is a Tragedy of the Commons where each corporation acting in its own self-interest undermines the consumer base that would have benefited all corporations (not to mention people who don’t own corporations). It does depend on some parameters we haven’t measured very precisely, but under a wide range of plausible values, it works out that literally everyone is worse off under this system than they would have been under a system of fair wages.

This is not simply theoretical. We have empirical data about what happened when companies (in the US at least) stopped using an even more extreme form of labor exploitation: slavery.

Because we were on the classical gold standard, GDP growth in the US in the 19th century was extremely erratic, jumping up and down as high as 10 lp and as low as -5 lp. But if you try to smooth out this roller-coaster business cycle, you can see that our growth rate did not appear tobe slowed by the ending of slavery:



Looking at the level of real per capita GDP (on a log scale) shows a continuous growth trend as if nothing had changed at all:


In fact, if you average the growth rates (in log points, averaging makes sense) from 1800 to 1860 as antebellum and from 1865 to 1900 as postbellum, you find that the antebellum growth rate averaged 1.04 lp, while the postbellum growth rate averaged 1.77 lp. Over a period of 50 years, that’s the difference between growing by a factor of 1.7 and growing by a factor of 2.4. Of course, there were a lot of other factors involved besides the end of slavery—but at the very least it seems clear that ending slavery did not reduce economic growth, which it would have if slavery were actually an efficient economic system.

This is a different question from whether slaveowners were irrational in continuing to own slaves. Purely on the basis of individual profit, it was most likely rational to own slaves. But the broader effects on the economic system as a whole were strongly negative. I think that part of why the debate on whether slavery is economically inefficient has never been settled is a confusion between these two questions. One side says “Slavery damaged overall economic growth.” The other says “But owning slaves produced a rate of return for investors as high as manufacturing!” Yeah, those… aren’t answering the same question. They are in fact probably both true. Something can be highly profitable for individuals while still being tremendously damaging to society.

I don’t mean to imply that sweatshops are as bad as slavery; they are not. (Though there is still slavery in the world, and some sweatshops tread a fine line.) What I’m saying is that showing that sweatshops are profitable (no doubt there) or even that they are better than most of the alternatives for their workers (probably true in most cases) does not show that they are economically efficient. Sweatshops are beneficent exploitationthey make workers better off, but in an obviously unjust way. And they only make workers better off compared to the current alternatives; if they were replaced with industries paying fair wages, workers would obviously be much better off still.

And my point is, so would we. While the prices of goods would increase slightly in the short run, in the long run the increased consumer spending by people in Third World countries—which soon would cease to be Third World countries, as happened in Korea and Japan—would result in additional trade with us that would raise our standard of living, not lower it. The only people it is even plausible to think would be harmed are the billionaires who own our multinational corporations; and yet even they might stand to benefit from the improved efficiency of the global economy.

No, you do not benefit from sweatshops. So stop feeling guilty, stop worrying so much about “checking your privilege”—and let’s get out there and do something about it.

Free trade, fair trade, or what?

JDN 2457271 EDT 11:34.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, almost all economists are opposed to protectionism. In a survey of 264 AEA economists, 87% opposed tariffs to protect US workers against foreign competition.

(By the way, 58% said they usually vote Democrat and only 23% said they usually vote Republican. Given that economists are overwhelmingly middle-age rich White males—only 12% of tenured faculty economists are women and the median income of economists is over $90,000—that’s saying something. Dare I suggest it’s saying that Democrat economic policy is usually better?)

There are a large number of published research papers showing large positive effects of free trade agreements, such as this paper, and this paper, and this paper, and this paper. It’s hard to find any good papers showing any significant negative effects. This is probably why the consensus is so strong; the empirical evidence is overwhelming.

Yet protectionism is very popular among the general public. The majority of both Democrat and Republican voters believe that free trade agreements have harmed the United States. For decades, protectionism has always been the politically popular answer.

To be fair, it’s actually possible to think that free trade harms the US but still support free trade; actually there are some economists who argue that free trade has harmed the US, but has benefited other countries like China and India so much more that it is worth it, making free trade an act of global altruism and good will (for the opposite view, here’s a pretty good article about how “free trade” in principle is often mercantilism in practice, and by no means altruistic). As Krugman talks about, there is some evidence that income inequality in the First World has been exacerbated by globalization—but it’s clearly not the primary reason for rising inequality.

What’s going on here? Are economists ignoring the negative impacts of free trade because it doesn’t fit their elegant mathematical models? Is the general public ignorant of how trade actually works? Does the way free trade works, or its interaction with human psychology, inherently obscure its benefits while emphasizing its harms?

Yes. All of the above.

One of the central mistakes of neoclassical economics is the tendency to over-aggregate. Instead of looking at the impact on individuals, it’s much easier to look at the impact on aggregated abstractions like trade flows and GDP. To some extent this is inevitable—there are simply too many people in the world to keep track of them all. But we need to be aware of what welose when we aggregate, and we need to test the robustness of our theories by applying different models of aggregation (such as comparing “how does this affect Americans” with “how does this affect the First World middle class”).

It is absolutely unambiguous that free trade increases trade flows and GDP, and for small countries these benefits can be mind-bogglingly huge. A key part of the amazing success story of economic development that is Korea is that they dramatically increased their openness to global trade.

The reason for this is absolutely fundamental to economics, and in grasping it in 1776 Adam Smith basically founded the field: Voluntary trade benefits both parties.

As most economists would put it today, comparative advantage leads to Pareto-improving gains from trade. Or as I’d tend to put it, more succinctly yet just as thoroughly based in modern game theory: Trade is nonzero-sum.

When you sell a product to someone, it is because the money they’re offering you is worth more to you than the product—and because the product is worth more to them than the money. You each lose something you value less and gain something you value more—so you are both better off.

This mutual benefit occurs whether you are individuals, corporations, or nations. It’s a fundamental principle of economics that underlies the operation of markets at every scale.

This is what I think most people don’t understand when they say they want to “stop sending jobs overseas”. If by that all you mean is ensuring that there aren’t incentives to offshore and outsource, that’s quite reasonable. Even some degree of incentive to keep businesses in the US might make sense, to avoid a race-to-the-bottom in global wages. But I get the sense that it is more than this, that people have a general notion that jobs are zero-sum and if we hire a million people in China that means a million people must lose their jobs in the US. This is not simply wrong, it is fundamentally wrong; it misses the entire point of economics. If there is one core principle that defines economics, I think it would be that the universe is nonzero-sum; gains for some can also be gains for others. There is not a fixed amount of stuff in the world that we distribute; we can make more stuff. Handled properly, a trade that results in a million people hired in China can mean an extra million people hired in the US.

Once you introduce a competitive market, things get more complicated, because there aren’t just winners—there are also losers. When you have competitors, someone can buy from them instead of you, and the two of them benefit, but you are harmed. By the standard methods of calculating benefits and harms (which admittedly leave much to be desired), we can show quite clearly that in general, on average, the benefits outweigh the harms.

But of course we don’t live “in general, on average”. Despite the overwhelming, unambiguous benefit to the economy as a whole, there is some evidence that free trade can produce a good deal of harm to specific individuals.

Suppose you live in the US and your job is to assemble iPads. You’re good at it, you like it, it pays pretty well. But now Apple says that they want to “reduce labor costs” (they are in fact doing nothing of the sort; to really reduce labor costs in a deep economic sense you’d have to make work easier, more productive, or more fun—the wage and the cost are fundamentally different things), so they outsource production to Foxconn in China, who pay wages 1/30 of what you were being paid.

The net result of this change to the economy as a whole is almost certainly positive—the price of iPads goes down, we all get to have iPads. (There’s a meme going around claiming that the price of an iPad would be almost $15,000 if it were made in the US; no, it would cost about $1000 even if our productivity were no higher and Apple could keep their current profit margin intact, both of which are clearly overestimates. But since it’s currently selling for about $500, that’s still a big difference.) Apple makes more profits, which is why they did it—and we do have to count that in our GDP. Most importantly, workers in China get employed in safe, high-skill jobs instead of working in coal mines, subsistence farming, or turning to drugs and prostitution. More stuff, more profits, better jobs for some of the world’s poorest workers. These are all good things, and overall they outweigh the harm of you losing your job.

Well, from a global perspective, anyway. I doubt they outweigh the harm from your perspective. You still lost a good job; you’re now unemployed, and may have skills so specific that they can’t be transferred to anything else. You’ll need to retrain, which means going back to school or else finding one of those rare far-sighted companies that actually trains their workers. Since the social welfare system in the US is such a quagmire of nonsensical programs, you may be ineligible for support, or eligible in theory and unable to actually get it in practice. (Recently I got a notice from Medicaid that I need to prove again that my income is sufficiently low. Apparently it’s because I got hired at a temporary web development gig, which paid me a whopping $700 over a few weeks—why, that’s almost the per-capita GDP of Ghana, so clearly I am a high-roller who doesn’t need help affording health insurance. I wonder how much they spend sending out these notices.)

If we had a basic income—I know I harp on this a lot, but seriously, it solves almost every economic problem you can think of—losing your job wouldn’t make you feel so desperate, and owning a share in GDP would mean that the rising tide actually would lift all boats. This might make free trade more popular.

But even with ideal policies (which we certainly do not have), the fact remains that human beings are loss-averse. We care more about losses than we do about gains. The pain you feel from losing $100 is about the same as the joy you feel from gaining $200. The pain you feel from losing your job is about twice as intense as the joy you feel from finding a new one.

Because of loss aversion, the constant churn of innovation and change, the “creative destruction” that Schumpeter considered the defining advantage of capitalism—well, it hurts. The constant change and uncertainty is painful, and we want to run away from it.

But the truth is, we can’t. There’s no way to stop the change in the global economy, and most of our attempts to insulate ourselves from it only end up hurting us more. This, I think, is the fundamental reason why protectionism is popular among the general public but not economists: The general public sees protectionism as a way of holding onto the past, while economists recognize that it is simply a way of damaging the future. That constant churning of people gaining and losing jobs isn’t a bug, it’s a feature—it’s the reason that capitalism is so efficient in the first place.

There are a few ways we can reduce the pain of this churning, but we need to focus on that—reducing the pain—rather than trying to stop the churning itself. We should provide social welfare programs that allow people to survive while they are unemployed. We should use active labor market policies to train new workers and match them with good jobs. We may even want to provide some sort of subsidy or incentive to companies that don’t outsource—a small one, to make sure they don’t do so needlessly, but not a large one, so they’ll still do it when it’s actually necessary.

But the one thing we must not do is stop creating jobs overseas. And yes, that is what we are doing, creating jobs. We are not sending jobs that already exist, we are creating new ones. In the short run we also destroy some jobs here, but if we do it right we can replace them—and usually we do okay.

If we stop creating jobs in India and China and around the world, millions of people will starve.

Yes, it is as stark as that. Millions of lives depend upon continued open trade. We in the United States are a manufacturing, technological and agricultural superpower—we could wall ourselves off from the world and only see a few percentage points shaved off of GDP. But a country like Nicaragua or Ghana or Vietnam doesn’t have that option; if they cut off trade, people start dying.

This is actually the main reason why our trade agreements are often so unfair; we are in by far the stronger bargaining position, so we can make them cut their tariffs on textiles even as we maintain our subsidies on agriculture. We are Mr. Bumble dishing out gruel and they are Oliver Twist begging for another bite.

We can’t afford to stop free trade. We can’t even afford to significantly slow it down. A global economy is the best hope we have for global peace and global prosperity.

That is not to say that we should leave trade completely unregulated; trade policy can and should be used to enforce human rights standards. That enormous asymmetry in bargaining power doesn’t have to be used to maximize profits; it can be used to advance human rights.

This is not as simple as saying we should never trade with nations that have bad human rights records, by the way. First of all that would require we cut off Saudi Arabia and China, which is totally unrealistic and would impoverish millions of people; second it doesn’t actually solve the problem. Instead we should use sanctions, tariffs, and trade agreements to provide incentives to improve human rights, rewarding governments that do and punishing governments that don’t. We could have a sliding tariff that decreases every time you show improvement in human rights standards. Think of it like behavioral reinforcement; reward good behavior and you’ll get more of it.

We do need to have sweatshops—but as Krugman has come around to realizing, we can make sweatshops safer. We can put pressure on other countries to treat their workers better, pay them more—and actually make the global economy more efficient, because right now their wages are held down below the efficient level by the power that corporations wield over them. We should not demand that they pay the same they would here in the First World—that’s totally unrealistic, given the difference in productivity—but we should demand that they pay what their workers actually deserve.

Similar incentives should apply to individual corporations, which these days are as powerful as some governments. For example, as part of a zero-tolerance program against forced labor, any company caught using or outsourcing to forced labor should have its profits garnished for damages and the executives who made the decision imprisoned. Sometimes #Scandinaviaisnotbetter; IKEA was involved in such outsourcing during the Cold War, and it is currently being litigated just how much they knew and what they could have done about it. If they knew and did nothing, some IKEA executive should be going to prison. If that seems extreme, let me remind you what they did: They used slaves.

My standard for penalizing human rights violations, whether by corporations or governments, is basically like this: Follow the decision-making up the chain of command, stopping only when the next-higher executive can clearly show to the preponderance of evidence that they were kept out of the loop. If no executive can provide sufficient evidence, the highest-ranking executive at the time the crime was committed will be held responsible. If you don’t want to be held responsible for crimes committed by people who work for you, it’s your responsibility to bring them to justice. Negligence in oversight will not be exonerating because you didn’t know; it will be incriminating because you should have. When your bank is caught laundering money for terrorists and drug lords, it isn’t enough to have your chief of compliance resign; he should be imprisoned—and if his superiors knew about it, so should they.

In fact maybe the focus should be on corporations, because we have the legal authority to do that. When dealing with other countries, there are United Nations rules and simply the de facto power of large trade flows and national standing armies. With Saudi Arabia or China, there’s a very real chance that they’ll simply tell us where we can shove it; but if we get that same kind of response from HSBC or Goldman Sachs (which, actually, we did), we can start taking out handcuffs (that, we did not do—but I think we should have).

We can also use consumer pressure to change the behavior of corporations, such as Fair Trade. There’s some debate about just how effective these things are, but the comparison that is often made between Fair Trade and tariffs is ridiculous; this is a change in consumer behavior, not a change in government policy. There is absolutely no loss of freedom. Choosing not to buy something does not constitute coercion against someone else. Maybe there are more efficient ways to spend money (like donating it directly to the best global development charities), but if you start going down that road you quickly turn into Peter Singer and start saying that wearing nicer shoes means you’re committing murder. By all means, let’s empirically study different methods of fighting poverty and focus on the ones that work best; but there’s a perverse smugness to criticisms of Fair Trade that says to me this isn’t actually about that at all. Instead, I think most people who criticize Fair Trade don’t support the idea of altruism at all—they’re far-right Randian libertarians who honestly believe that selfishness is the highest form of human morality. (It is in fact the second-lowest, according to Kohlberg.) Maybe it will turn out that Fair Trade is actually ineffective at fighting poverty, but it’s clear that an unregulated free market isn’t good at that either. Those aren’t the only options, and the best way to find out which methods work is to give them a try. Consumer pressure clearly can work in some cases, and it’s a low-cost zero-regulation solution. They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions—but would you rather we have bad intentions instead?

By these two methods we could send a clear message to multinational corporations that if they want to do business in the US—and trust me, they do—they have to meet certain standards of human rights. This in turn will make those corporations put pressure on their suppliers, all the way down the supply chain, to uphold the standards lest they lose their contracts. With some companies upholding labor standards in Third World countries, others will be forced to, as workers refuse to work for companies that don’t. This could make life better for many millions of people.

But this whole plan only works on one condition: We need to have trade.

What makes a nation wealthy?

JDN 2457251 EDT 10:17

One of the central questions of economics—perhaps the central question, the primary reason why economics is necessary and worthwhile—is development: How do we raise a nation from poverty to prosperity?

We have done it before: France and Germany rose from the quite literal ashes of World War 2 to some of the most prosperous societies in the world. Their per-capita GDP over the 20th century rose like this (all of these figures are from the World Bank World Development Indicators; France is green, Germany is blue):



The top graph is at market exchange rates, the bottom is correcting for purchasing power parity (PPP). The PPP figures are more meaningful, but unfortunately they only began collecting good data on purchasing power around 1990.

Around the same time, but even more spectacularly, Japan and South Korea rose from poverty-stricken Third World backwaters to high-tech First World powers in only a couple of generations. Check out their per-capita GDP over the 20th century (Japan is green, South Korea is blue):


This is why I am only half-joking when I define development economics as “the ongoing project to figure out what happened in South Korea and make it happen everywhere in the world”.

More recently China has been on a similar upward trajectory, which is particularly important since China comprises such a huge portion of the world’s population—but they are far from finished:


Compare these to societies that have not achieved economic development, such as Zimbabwe (green), India (black), Ghana (red), and Haiti (blue):


They’re so poor that you can barely see them on the same scale, so I’ve rescaled so that the top is $5,000 per person per year instead of $50,000:


Only India actually manages to get above $5,000 per person per year at purchasing power parity, and then not by much, reaching $5,243 per person per year in 2013, the most recent data.

I had wanted to compare North Korea and South Korea, because the two countries were united as recently as the 1945 and were not all that different to begin with, yet have taken completely different development trajectories. Unfortunately, North Korea is so impoverished, corrupt, and authoritarian that the World Bank doesn’t even report data on their per-capita GDP. Perhaps that is contrast enough?

And then of course there are the countries in between, which have made some gains but still have a long way to go, such as Uruguay (green) and Botswana (blue):


But despite the fact that we have observed successful economic development, we still don’t really understand how it works. A number of theories have been proposed, involving a wide range of factors including exports, corruption, disease, institutions of government, liberalized financial markets, and natural resources (counter-intuitively; more natural resources make your development worse).

I’m not going to resolve that whole debate in a single blog post. (I may not be able to resolve that whole debate in a single career, though I am definitely trying.) We may ultimately find that economic development is best conceived as like “health”; what factors determine your health? Well, a lot of things, and if any one thing goes badly enough wrong the whole system can break down. Economists may need to start thinking of ourselves as akin to doctors (or as Keynes famously said, dentists), diagnosing particular disorders in particular patients rather than seeking one unifying theory. On the other hand, doctors depend upon biologists, and it’s not clear that we yet understand development even at that level.

Instead I want to take a step back, and ask a more fundamental question: What do we mean by prosperity?

My hope is that if we can better understand what it is we are trying to achieve, we can also better understand the steps we need to take in order to get there.

Thus far it has sort of been “I know it when I see it”; we take it as more or less given that the United States and the United Kingdom are prosperous while Ghana and Haiti are not. I certainly don’t disagree with that particular conclusion; I’m just asking what we’re basing it on, so that we can hopefully better apply it to more marginal cases.

For example: Is
France more or less prosperous than Saudi Arabia? If we go solely by GDP per capita PPP, clearly Saudi Arabia is more prosperous at $53,100 per person per year than France is at $37,200 per person per year.

But people actually live longer in France, on average, than they do in Saudi Arabia. Overall reported happiness is higher in France than Saudi Arabia. I think France is actually more prosperous.

In fact, I think the United States is not as prosperous as we pretend ourselves to be. We are certainly more prosperous than most other countries; we are definitely still well within First World status. But we are not the most prosperous nation in the world.

Our total GDP is astonishingly high (highest in the world nominally, second only to China PPP). Our GDP per-capita is higher than any other country of comparable size; no nation with higher GDP PPP than the US has a population larger than the Chicago metropolitan area. (You may be surprised to find that in order from largest to smallest population the countries with higher GDP per capita PPP are the United Arab Emirates, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Singapore, and then Norway, followed by Kuwait, Qatar, Luxembourg, Brunei, and finally San Marino—which is smaller than Ann Arbor.) Our per-capita GDP PPP of $51,300 is markedly higher than that of France ($37,200), Germany ($42,900), or Sweden ($43,500).

But at the same time, if you compare the US to other First World countries, we have nearly the highest rate of child poverty and higher infant mortality. We have shorter life expectancy and dramatically higher homicide rates. Our inequality is the highest in the world. In France and Sweden, the top 0.01% receive about 1% of the income (i.e. 100 times as much as the average person), while in the United States they receive almost 4%, making someone in the top 0.01% nearly 400 times as rich as the average person.

By estimating solely on GDP per capita, we are effectively rigging the game in our own favor. Or rather, the rich in the United States are rigging the game in their own favor (what else is new?), by convincing all the world’s economists to rank countries based on a measure that favors them.

Amartya Sen, one of the greats of development economics, developed a scale called the Human Development Index that attempts to take broader factors into account. It’s far from perfect, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

In particular, France’s HDI is higher than that of Saudi Arabia, fitting my intuition about which country is truly more prosperous. However, the US still does extremely well, with only Norway, Australia, Switzerland, and the Netherlands above us. I think we might still be biased toward high average incomes rather than overall happiness.

In practice, we still use GDP an awful lot, probably because it’s much easier to measure. It’s sort of like IQ tests and SAT scores; we know damn well it’s not measuring what we really care about, but because it’s so much easier to work with we keep using it anyway.

This is a problem, because the better you get at optimizing toward the wrong goal, the worse your overall outcomes are going to be. If you are just sort of vaguely pointed at several reasonable goals, you will probably be improving your situation overall. But when you start precisely optimizing to a specific wrong goal, it can drag you wildly off course.

This is what we mean when we talk about “gaming the system”. Consider test scores, for example. If you do things that will probably increase your test scores among other things, you are likely to engage in generally good behaviors like getting enough sleep, going to class, studying the content. But if your single goal is to maximize your test score at all costs, what will you do? Cheat, of course.

This is also related to the Friendly AI Problem: It is vitally important to know precisely what goals we want our artificial intelligences to have, because whatever goals we set, they will probably be very good at achieving them. Already computers can do many things that were previously impossible, and as they improve over time we will reach the point where in a meaningful sense our AIs are even smarter than we are. When that day comes, we will want to make very, very sure that we have designed them to want the same things that we do—because if our desires ever come into conflict, theirs are likely to win. The really scary part is that right now most of our AI research is done by for-profit corporations or the military, and “maximize my profit” and “kill that target” are most definitely not the ultimate goals we want in a superintelligent AI. It’s trivially easy to see what’s wrong with these goals: For the former, hack into the world banking system and transfer trillions of dollars to the company accounts. For the latter, hack into the nuclear launch system and launch a few ICBMs in the general vicinity of the target. Yet these are the goals we’ve been programming into the actual AIs we build!

If we set GDP per capita as our ultimate goal to the exclusion of all other goals, there are all sorts of bad policies we would implement: We’d ignore inequality until it reached staggering heights, ignore work stress even as it began to kill us, constantly try to maximize the pressure for everyone to work constantly, use poverty as a stick to force people to work even if people starve, inundate everyone with ads to get them to spend as much as possible, repeal regulations that protect the environment, workers, and public health… wait. This isn’t actually hypothetical, is it? We are doing those things.

At least we’re not trying to maximize nominal GDP, or we’d have long-since ended up like Zimbabwe. No, our economists are at least smart enough to adjust for purchasing power. But they’re still designing an economic system that works us all to death to maximize the number of gadgets that come off assembly lines. The purchasing-power adjustment doesn’t include the value of our health or free time.

This is why the Human Development Index is a major step in the right direction; it reminds us that society has other goals besides maximizing the total amount of money that changes hands (because that’s actually all that GDP is measuring; if you get something for free, it isn’t counted in GDP). More recent refinements include things like “natural resource services” that include environmental degradation in estimates of investment. Unfortunately there is no accepted way of doing this, and surprisingly little research on how to improve our accounting methods. Many nations seem resistant to doing so precisely because they know it would make their economic policy look bad—this is almost certainly why China canceled its “green GDP” initiative. This is in fact all the more reason to do it; if it shows that our policy is bad, that means our policy is bad and should be fixed. But people have allowed themselves to value image over substance.

We can do better still, and in fact I think something like QALY is probably the way to go. Rather than some weird arbitrary scaling of GDP with lifespan and Gini index (which is what the HDI is), we need to put everything in the same units, and those units must be directly linked to human happiness. At the very least, we should make some sort of adjustment to our GDP calculation that includes the distribution of wealth and its marginal utility; adding $1,000 to the economy and handing it to someone in poverty should count for a great deal, but adding $1,000,000 and handing it to a billionaire should count for basically nothing. (It’s not bad to give a billionaire another million; but it’s hardly good either, as no one’s real standard of living will change.) Calculating that could be as simple as dividing by their current income; if your annual income is $10,000 and you receive $1,000, you’ve added about 0.1 QALY. If your annual income is $1 billion and you receive $1 million, you’ve added only 0.001 QALY. Maybe we should simply separate out all individual (or household, to be simpler?) incomes, take their logarithms, and then use that sum as our “utility-adjusted GDP”. The results would no doubt be quite different.

This would create a strong pressure for policy to be directed at reducing inequality even at the expense of some economic output—which is exactly what we should be willing to do. If it’s really true that a redistribution policy would hurt the overall economy so much that the harms would outweigh the benefits, then we shouldn’t do that policy; but that is what you need to show. Reducing total GDP is not a sufficient reason to reject a redistribution policy, because it’s quite possible—easy, in fact—to improve the overall prosperity of a society while still reducing its GDP. There are in fact redistribution policies so disastrous they make things worse: The Soviet Union had them. But a 90% tax on million-dollar incomes would not be such a policy—because we had that in 1960 with little or no ill effect.

Of course, even this has problems; one way to minimize poverty would be to exclude, relocate, or even murder all your poor people. (The Black Death increased per-capita GDP.) Open immigration generally increases poverty rates in the short term, because most of the immigrants are poor. Somehow we’d need to correct for that, only raising the score if you actually improve people’s lives, and not if you make them excluded from the calculation.

In any case it’s not enough to have the alternative measures; we must actually use them. We must get policymakers to stop talking about “economic growth” and start talking about “human development”; a policy that raises GDP but reduces lifespan should be immediately rejected, as should one that further enriches a few at the expense of many others. We must shift the discussion away from “creating jobs”—jobs are only a means—to “creating prosperity”.

What are the limits to growth?

JDN 2456941 PDT 12:25.

Paul Krugman recently wrote a column about the “limits to growth” community, and as usual, it’s good stuff; his example of how steamships substituted more ships for less fuel is quite compelling. But there’s a much stronger argument to made against “limits to growth”, and I thought I’d make it here.

The basic idea, most famously propounded by Jay Forrester but still with many proponents today (and actually owing quite a bit to Thomas Malthus), is this: There’s only so much stuff in the world. If we keep adding more people and trying to give people higher standards of living, we’re going to exhaust all the stuff, and then we’ll be in big trouble.

This argument seems intuitively reasonable, but turns out to be economically naïve. It can take several specific forms, from the basically reasonable to the utterly ridiculous. On the former end is “peak oil”, the point at which we reach a maximum rate of oil extraction. We’re actually past that point in most places, and it won’t be long before the whole world crosses that line. So yes, we really are running out of oil, and we need to transition to other fuels as quickly as possible. On the latter end is the original Mathusian argument (we now have much more food per person worldwide than they did in Malthus’s time—that’s why ending world hunger is a realistic option now), and, sadly, the argument Mark Buchanan made a few days ago. No, you don’t always need more energy to produce more economic output—as Krugman’s example cleverly demonstrates. You can use other methods to improve your energy efficiency, and that doesn’t necessarily require new technology.

Here’s the part that Krugman missed: Even if we need more energy, there’s plenty of room at the top. The total amount of sunlight that hits the Earth is about 1.3 kW/m^2, and the Earth has a surface area of about 500 million km^2, which is 5e14 m^2. That means that if we could somehow capture all the sunlight that hits the Earth, we’d have 6.5e17 W, which is 5.7e18 kilowatt-hours per year. Total world energy consumption is about 140,000 terawatt-hours per year, which is 1.4e14 kilowatt-hours per year. That means we could increase energy consumption by a factor of one thousand just using Earth-based solar power (Covering the oceans with synthetic algae? A fleet of high-altitude balloons covered in high-efficiency solar panels?). That’s not including fission power, which is already economically efficient, or fusion power, which has passed break-even and may soon become economically feasible as well. Fusion power is only limited by the size of your reactor and your quantity of deuterium, and deuterium is found in ocean water (about 33 milligrams per liter), not to mention permeating all of outer space. If we can figure out how to fuse ordinary hydrogen, well now our fuel is literally the most abundant substance in the universe.

And what if we move beyond the Earth? What if we somehow captured not just the solar energy that hits the Earth, but the totality of solar energy that the Sun itself releases? That figure is about 1e31 joules per day, which is 1e27 kilowatt-hours per day, or seven trillion times as much energy as we currently consume. It is literally enough to annihilate entire planets, which the Sun would certainly do if you put a planet near enough to it. A theoretical construct to capture all this energy is called a Dyson Sphere, and the ability to construct one officially makes you a Type 2 Kardashev Civilization. (We currently stand at about Type 0.7. Building that worldwide solar network would raise us to Type 1.)

Can we actually capture all that energy with our current technology? Of course not. Indeed, we probably won’t have that technology for centuries if not millennia. But if your claim—as Mark Buchanan’s was—is about fundamental physical limits, then you should be talking about Dyson Spheres. If you’re not, then we are really talking about practical economic limits.

Are there practical economic limits to growth? Of course there are; indeed, they are what actually constrains growth in the real world. That’s why the US can’t grow above 2% and China won’t be growing at 7% much longer. (I am rather disturbed by the fact that many of the Chinese nationals I know don’t appreciate this; they seem to believe the propaganda that this rapid growth is something fundamentally better about the Chinese system, rather than the simple economic fact that it’s easier to grow rapidly when you are starting very small. I had a conversation with a man the other day who honestly seemed to think that Macau could sustain its 12% annual GDP growth—driven by gambling, no less! Zero real productivity!—into the indefinite future. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled that China is growing so fast and lifting so many people out of poverty. But no remotely credible economist believes they can sustain this growth forever. The best-case scenario is to follow the pattern of Korea, rising from Third World to First World status in a few generations. Korea grew astonishingly fast from about 1950 to 1990, but now that they’ve made it, their growth rate is only 3%.)

There is also a reasonable argument to be made about the economic tradeoffs involved in fighting climate change and natural resource depletion. While the people of Brazil may like to have more firewood and space for farming, the fact is the rest of need that Amazon in order to breathe. While any given fisherman may be rational in the amount of fish he catches, worldwide we are running out of fish. And while we Americans may love our low gas prices (and become furious when they rise even slightly), the fact is, our oil subsidies are costing hundreds of billions of dollars and endangering millions of lives.

We may in fact have to bear some short-term cost in economic output in order to ensure long-term environmental sustainability (though to return to Krugman, that cost may be a lot less than many people think!). Economic growth does slow down as you reach high standards of living, and it may even continue to slow down as technology begins to reach diminishing returns (though this is much harder to forecast). So yes, in that sense there are limits to growth. But the really fundamental limits aren’t something we have to worry about for at least a thousand years. Right now, it’s just a question of good economic policy.