The visible hand in economics

Archive for the ‘Development economics’ Category

Many writers have noted that colonisation contribute to the sad state of many African economies today. Now Nathan Nunn claims that the slave trade may also have had a long-term impact on economies. The author

…find[s] a robust negative relationship between the number of slaves exported from a country and current economic performance. To better understand if the relationship is causal, I examine the historical evidence on selection into the slave trades, and use instrumental variables.

This analysis indicates that “…it was actually the most developed areas of Africa that tended to select into the slave trades”, which points to a causal relationship running from slavery to poor economiic performance. The author suggests that the reason might be that “…procurement of slaves through internal warfare, raiding, and kidnapping resulted in subsequent state collapse and ethnic fractionalization.”

Yet another reason why the West is morally required to help African nations out of their current strife?

A commenter on the ‘Democracy and Growth’ post below said that he didn’t think “…growth was ever a putative justification for the invasion of Iraq”. While that may be the case, it didn’t stop the US from using post-war Iraq as a playground for a few ideologically driven economists. Using a regime that reminds one of the IMF’s widely criticised Structural Adjustment Programs (just Google it if you think I’m being selective in my link choice here), the US has drastically reformed Iraq’s economic policy.

Dismantling the public service, privatising much of the public sector and removing any bias towards Iraqi companies in the granting of contracts has resulted in massive unemployment and poverty in the formerly wealthy nation. Dani Rodrik links a couple of other interesting article in this post.

Admittedly, there is debate over how well the Iraqi economy is doing these days. However, whatever the goals of the invasion, they could have done better in the aftermath than pursue policies that even the IMF is now moving on from. Development economics has come a long way since the inception of SAPs and the reconstruction of Iraq was a great opportunity to show what can be done.

One of my favourite development economists, Daron Acemoglu, has a new paper out. Acemoglu is generally of the view that a country’s level of wealth can be traced back to the country’s institutional development. In a fascinating earlier paper he argued that the institutions set up by European colonists are a major predictor of the current wealth of colonised nations. His new paper proposes that the wealth of a nation is not correlated with the level of democracy in that country, nor is it correlated with regime change towards democracy in the country.

It seems that a trend among Western democracies is to promote democracy as the way forward for developing nations. This has particularly been the case with the US’s recent foreign policy under the Bush/Cheney regime. Does this paper suggest that efforts to ‘nation build’ and push countries towards democracy does little for their economic well-being? Hopefully, it will force nation-builders to be more rigorous about the way that they justify intervention in favour of democracy in developing countries. Suggesting that it’s the one, true path to economic growth will no longer be enough.

Tim Harford’s latest Undercover Economist column covers some interesting research on industrial development. The paper examines the type of products that countries produce, and the way that a country’s ‘manufacturing portfolio’ changes over time. The key finding is that countries tend to develop by producing similar products to those that they already produce.

This makes intuitive sense: if a country already has infrastructure suited to the manufacture of a particular product then it will be less costly to develop similar products than to develop radically different ones. The problem arises when a poor country with limited production diversity approaches the limits of its current manufacturing processes. It is very difficult and costly to make the transition to producing a new, unrelated product type. The paper’s data confirms that this rarely happens. Notably, the authors find that:

Rich countries have larger, more diversified economies, and so produce lots of products [...]. East Asian economies look very different, with a big cluster around textiles and another around electronics manufacturing [...]. African countries tend to produce a few products with no great similarity to any others.

If poor countries are to make the step to producing new products then some intervention in the development process may be required. This points to a role for some government industrial policy at a national level, or structural intervention at an international level. It could mean a new justification for infant industry protection in developing countries. It also, perhaps, points to a different way of making effective use of the limited aid money available to organisations such as the IMF and World Bank.

Free exchange and Dani Rodrik have both made intelligent posts on the issue of import substitution. Free exchange sticks to the common line that import substitution is bad, Dani says that there is evidence that it is good.

I know very little about any of this, but I’m going to say something anyway. As far as I can tell, trade policy should work off the idea of comparative advantage, implying that each country should make what the good they are ‘relatively’ better at making (specializing in goods with the lowest opportunity cost). As a result, government policy should react in ways that take advantage of this concept.

This might imply to some people that government should not intervene in trade, and just let the free market choose the most efficient industries, which will in turn trade with the rest of the world. However, I’m not sure I fully agree.

It is possible that an industry that would have a comparative advantage in trade terms may not have been founded given high fixed costs and the requirement of skilled and experienced labour which will only be created when the industry exists (infant industry type argument). If the government can recognise these industries, it can subsidise their creation until they become fully efficient, by which times they will be net exporters.

Now this form of intervention isn’t the same as import substitution (although it is often placed as a subset of it). Import substitution involves creating the goods you import at home, now if this is a good where another country has a comparative advantage then all you are doing is hurting yourself and the other country. Import substitution is a bad idea (unless there are security of supply or political issues), but government policy to develop domestic industries does have some potential.

A column in the Sunday Star Times actually discussed an interesting issue this weekend; how the biofuel revolution will lead to higher food prices. They are exactly right, you increase the demand for corn, and the price of corn will increase. Now corn is a substitute for other foods, so the demand for other foods rises, increasing their price. Furthermore, corn is an input in the production process of milk, beef, chicken etc – so you shift the supply curve left, and the price goes up. Anyway you think about it, biofuels will push up the price of food.

Furthermore, when the government enforces regulation, what happens? The government makes petrol stations sell biofuels. As they aren’t already, they must be uneconomical, implying that they will be more expensive than normal fuel. As the government is saying that petrol companies have to sell a minimum amount of biofuel, they will have to cross-subsidise the price of biofuels with petrol, leading to an increase in petrol. Now, biofuels should reduce world demand for fuel, so the world price of petrol must fall, however I’m not sure which factor will be dominant when the price of fuel is determined.

It might be annoying that the price of food (and maybe fuel) will rise. We know that the most heavily affected will be the poor. Third world countries will face highly escalating prices for agricultural products, now even though some third world countries are food exporters, many of the poor in these countries have to pay the world price for food (in the same way we pay the world price of milk). As a result, rising food prices will make life even more difficult for the very poor in the age of biofuels.

Given this, it is difficult to know what would be optimal for the global community. The US is subsidising biofuels in order to provide a substitute for/reduce dependence on foriegn fuel. As oil is a non-renewable resource, we should be interested in finding substitutes. However, food is a necessity. Rising prices for food will affect outcomes, especially for the very poor.

The reason the price of food is rising, is that their is a limited supply, and governments are trying to use it as both food and fuel. Now you may argue that the supply of food will rise, and the price will again. This is a fair argument, however it is important to realise that the price of agricultural goods will be set such that the MC=MB for the least efficient plot of land. If the marginal cost of production on new land is significantly higher than on currently used land, we can expect prices to be a lot higher.

Ultimately, we have to realise that there is some tradeoff between these, and accept the consequences of the choice we make.

I have just been flicking through the NZX submission on monetary policy, thanks to a link kindly provided by Lucy.

While I disagree with most of the submission (for the reasons I gave yesterday about higher interest rates being structural), I was happy to see that they discussed immigration.

Now immigration is an interesting issue, ignoring any social issues (i’m an economists after all), I’m going to focus on the link between immigration and inflation.

Some people say immigration causes inflation, as it increases the demand for goods and services, driving up the price. Other people say that immigration drives down inflation by increasing labour supply, and thereby driving down real wage demands, preventing wage inflation.

Now the way I see it is that immigration increases demand and supply. After all labour is an input to production, but once labour has been paid they turn into consumers, who purchase the goods. As a result, whether inflation rises or falls with immigration depends on the productivity of the immigrants. If we bring in a whole lot of untrained, unproductive workers it will cause inflation. If we bring in workers that have the highest marginal product (so in the places where firms are begging for labour) then it should decrease inflationary pressures.

It seems incredibly simple, the difficult issue is actually identifying and bringing in skilled, hard working labour. However, i’m not sure that cutting immigrant numbers when we have shortages of unskilled and skilled labour is a good idea. I’m sorry RBNZ, but I think the NZX is right on this one.


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