All posts by Erwin

Foreign Affairs: The New Crisis of Democracy

Can America Be Fixed?

The New Crisis of Democracy

By Fareed Zakaria

We built that: President Barack Obama visiting the Hoover Dam, October 2, 2012. (Kevin Lamarque / Courtesy Reuters)

In November, the American electorate, deeply unhappy with Washington and its political gridlock, voted to maintain precisely the same distribution of power — returning President Barack Obama for a second term and restoring a Democratic Senate and a Republican House of Representatives. With at least the electoral uncertainty out of the way, attention quickly turned to how the country’s lawmakers would address the immediate crisis known as the fiscal cliff — the impending end-of-year tax increases and government spending cuts mandated by earlier legislation.

As the United States continues its slow but steady recovery from the depths of the financial crisis, nobody actually wants a massive austerity package to shock the economy back into recession, and so the odds have always been high that the game of budgetary chicken will stop short of disaster. Looming past the cliff, however, is a deep chasm that poses a much greater challenge — the retooling of the country’s economy, society, and government necessary for the United States to perform effectively in the twenty-first century. The focus in Washington now is on taxing and cutting; it should be on reforming and investing. The United States needs serious change in its fiscal, entitlement, infrastructure, immigration, and education policies, among others. And yet a polarized and often paralyzed Washington has pushed dealing with these problems off into the future, which will only make them more difficult and expensive to solve.

Studies show that the political divisions in Washington are at their worst since the years following the Civil War. Twice in the last three years, the world’s leading power — with the largest economy, the global reserve currency, and a dominant leadership role in all international institutions — has come close to committing economic suicide. The American economy remains extremely dynamic. But one has to wonder whether the U.S. political system is capable of making the changes that will ensure continued success in a world of greater global competition and technological change. Is the current predicament, in other words, really a crisis of democracy?

That phrase might sound familiar. By the mid-1970s, growth was stagnating and inflation skyrocketing across the West. Vietnam and Watergate had undermined faith in political institutions and leaders, and newly empowered social activists were challenging establishments across the board. In a 1975 report from the Trilateral Commission entitled The Crisis of Democracy, distinguished scholars from the United States, Europe, and Japan argued that the democratic governments of the industrial world had simply lost their ability to function, overwhelmed by the problems they confronted. The section on the United States, written by the political scientist Samuel Huntington, was particularly gloomy.

In 1980, the United States’ gross government debt was 42 percent of its total GDP; it is now 107 percent.

We know how that worked out: within several years, inflation was tamed, the American economy boomed, and confidence was restored. A decade later, it was communism and the Soviet Union that collapsed, not capitalism and the West. So much for the pessimists.

And yet just over two decades further on, the advanced industrial democracies are once again filled with gloom. In Europe, economic growth has stalled, the common currency is in danger, and there is talk that the union itself might split up. Japan has had seven prime ministers in ten years, as the political system splinters, the economy stagnates, and the country slips further into decline. But the United States, given its global role, presents perhaps the most worrying case.

Is there a new crisis of democracy? Certainly, the American public seems to think so. Anger with politicians and institutions of government is much greater than it was in 1975. According to American National Election Studies polls, in 1964, 76 percent of Americans agreed with the statement “You can trust the government in Washington to do what is right just about always or most of the time.” By the late 1970s, that number had dropped to the high 40s. In 2008, it was 30 percent. In January 2010, it had fallen to 19 percent.

Commentators are prone to seeing the challenges of the moment in unnecessarily apocalyptic terms. It is possible that these problems, too, will pass, that the West will muddle through somehow until it faces yet another set of challenges a generation down the road, which will again be described in an overly dramatic fashion. But it is also possible that the public is onto something. The crisis of democracy, from this perspective, never really went away; it was just papered over with temporary solutions and obscured by a series of lucky breaks. Today, the problems have mounted, and yet American democracy is more dysfunctional and commands less authority than ever — and it has fewer levers to pull in a globalized economy. This time, the pessimists might be right.


The mid-1970s predictions of doom for Western democracy were undone by three broad economic trends: the decline of inflation, the information revolution, and globalization. In the 1970s, the world was racked by inflation, with rates stretching from low double digits in countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom to 200 percent in countries such as Brazil and Turkey. In 1979, Paul Volcker became chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, and within a few years, his policies had broken the back of American inflation. Central banks across the world began following the Fed’s example, and soon, inflation was declining everywhere.

Technological advancement has been around for centuries, but beginning in the 1980s, the widespread use of computers and then the Internet began to transform every aspect of the economy. The information revolution led to increased productivity and growth in the United States and around the world, and the revolution looks to be a permanent one.

Late in that decade, partly because the information revolution put closed economies and societies at an even greater disadvantage, the Soviet empire collapsed, and soon the Soviet Union itself followed. This allowed the Western system of interconnected free markets and societies to spread across most of the world — a process that became known as globalization. Countries with command or heavily planned economies and societies opened up and began participating in a single global market, adding vigor to both themselves and the system at large. In 1979, 75 countries were growing by at least four percent a year; in 2007, just before the financial crisis hit, the number had risen to 127.

These trends not only destroyed the East but also benefited the West. Low inflation and the information revolution enabled Western economies to grow more quickly, and globalization opened up vast new markets filled with cheap labor for Western companies to draw on and sell to. The result was a rebirth of American confidence and an expansion of the global economy with an unchallenged United States at the center. A generation on, however, the Soviet collapse is a distant memory, low inflation has become the norm, and further advances in globalization and information technology are now producing as many challenges for the West as opportunities.

The jobs and wages of American workers, for example, have come under increasing pressure. A 2011 study by the McKinsey Global Institute found that from the late 1940s until 1990, every recession and recovery in the United States followed a simple pattern. First, GDP recovered to its pre-recession level, and then, six months later (on average), the employment rate followed. But then, that pattern was broken. After the recession of the early 1990s, the employment rate returned to its pre-recession level 15 months after GDP did. In the early part of the next decade, it took 39 months. And in the current recovery, it appears that the employment rate will return to its pre-recession level a full 60 months — five years — after GDP did. The same trends that helped spur growth in the past are now driving a new normal, with jobless growth and declining wages.

With only a few exceptions, the advanced industrial democracies have spent the last few decades managing or ignoring their problems rather than tackling them head-on.


The broad-based growth of the post-World War II era slowed during the mid-1970s and has never fully returned. The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland recently noted that in the United States, real GDP growth peaked in the early 1960s at more than four percent, dropped to below three percent in the late 1970s, and recovered somewhat in the 1980s only to drop further in recent years down to its current two percent. Median incomes, meanwhile, have barely risen over the last 40 years. Rather than tackle the underlying problems or accept lower standards of living, the United States responded by taking on debt. From the 1980s on, Americans have consumed more than they have produced, and they have made up the difference by borrowing.

President Ronald Reagan came to power in 1981 as a monetarist and acolyte of Milton Friedman, arguing for small government and balanced budgets. But he governed as a Keynesian, pushing through large tax cuts and a huge run-up in defense spending. (Tax cuts are just as Keynesian as government spending; both pump money into the economy and increase aggregate demand.) Reagan ended his years in office with inflation-adjusted federal spending 20 percent higher than when he started and with a skyrocketing federal deficit. For the 20 years before Reagan, the deficit was under two percent of GDP. In Reagan’s two terms, it averaged over four percent of GDP. Apart from a brief period in the late 1990s, when the Clinton administration actually ran a surplus, the federal deficit has stayed above the three percent mark ever since; it is currently seven percent.

John Maynard Keynes’ advice was for governments to spend during busts but save during booms. In recent decades, elected governments have found it hard to save at any time. They have run deficits during busts and during booms, as well. The U.S. Federal Reserve has kept rates low in bad times but also in good ones. It’s easy to blame politicians for such one-handed Keynesianism, but the public is as much at fault. In poll after poll, Americans have voiced their preferences: they want low taxes and lots of government services. Magic is required to satisfy both demands simultaneously, and it turned out magic was available, in the form of cheap credit. The federal government borrowed heavily, and so did all other governments — state, local, and municipal — and the American people themselves. Household debt rose from $665 billion in 1974 to $13 trillion today. Over that period, consumption, fueled by cheap credit, went up and stayed up.

Other rich democracies have followed the same course. In 1980, the United States’ gross government debt was 42 percent of its total GDP; it is now 107 percent. During the same period, the comparable figure for the United Kingdom moved from 46 percent to 88 percent. Most European governments (including notoriously frugal Germany) now have debt-to-GDP levels that hover around 80 percent, and some, such as Greece and Italy, have ones that are much higher. In 1980, Japan’s gross government debt was 50 percent of GDP; today, it is 236 percent.

The world has turned upside down. It used to be thought that developing countries would have high debt loads, because they would borrow heavily to finance their rapid growth from low income levels. Rich countries, growing more slowly from high income levels, would have low debt loads and much greater stability. But look at the G-20 today, a group that includes the largest countries from both the developed and the developing worlds. The average debt-to-GDP ratio for the developing countries is 35 percent; for the rich countries, it is over three times as high.


When Western governments and international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund offer advice to developing countries on how to spur growth, they almost always advocate structural reforms that will open up sectors of their economies to competition, allow labor to move freely between jobs, eliminate wasteful and economically distorting government subsidies, and focus government spending on pro-growth investment. When facing their own problems, however, those same Western countries have been loath to follow their own advice.

Current discussions about how to restore growth in Europe tend to focus on austerity, with economists debating the pros and cons of cutting deficits. Austerity is clearly not working, but it is just as clear that with debt burdens already at close to 90 percent of GDP, European countries cannot simply spend their way out of their current crisis. What they really need are major structural reforms designed to make themselves more competitive, coupled with some investments for future growth.

Not least because it boasts the world’s reserve currency, the United States has more room to maneuver than Europe. But it, too, needs to change. It has a gargantuan tax code that, when all its rules and regulations are included, totals 73,000 pages; a burdensome litigation system; and a crazy patchwork of federal, state, and local regulations. U.S. financial institutions, for example, are often overseen by five or six different federal agencies and 50 sets of state agencies, all with overlapping authority.

The danger for Western democracies is not death but sclerosis.

If the case for reform is important, the case for investment is more urgent. In its annual study of competitiveness, the World Economic Forum consistently gives the United States poor marks for its tax and regulatory policies, ranking it 76th in 2012, for example, on the “burden of government regulations.” But for all its complications, the American economy remains one of the world’s most competitive, ranking seventh overall — only a modest slippage from five years ago. In contrast, the United States has dropped dramatically in its investments in human and physical capital. The WEF ranked American infrastructure fifth in the world a decade ago but now ranks it 25th and falling. The country used to lead the world in percentage of college graduates; it is now ranked 14th. U.S. federal funding for research and development as a percentage of GDP has fallen to half the level it was in 1960 — while it is rising in countries such as China, Singapore, and South Korea. The public university system in the United States — once the crown jewel of American public education — is being gutted by budget cuts.

The modern history of the United States suggests a correlation between investment and growth. In the 1950s and 1960s, the federal government spent over five percent of GDP annually on investment, and the economy boomed. Over the last 30 years, the government has been cutting back; federal spending on investment is now around three percent of GDP annually, and growth has been tepid. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Michael Spence has noted, the United States escaped from the Great Depression not only by spending massively on World War II but also by slashing consumption and ramping up investment. Americans reduced their spending, increased their savings, and purchased war bonds. That boost in public and private investment led to a generation of postwar growth. Another generation of growth will require comparable investments.

The problems of reform and investment come together in the case of infrastructure. In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s infrastructure a grade of D and calculated that repairing and renovating it would cost $2 trillion. The specific number might be an exaggeration (engineers have a vested interest in the subject), but every study shows what any traveler can plainly see: the United States is falling badly behind. This is partly a matter of crumbling bridges and highways, but it goes well beyond that. The U.S. air traffic control system is outdated and in need of a $25 billion upgrade. The U.S. energy grid is antique, and it malfunctions often enough that many households are acquiring that classic symbol of status in the developing world: a private electrical generator. The country’s drinking water is carried through a network of old and leaky pipes, and its cellular and broadband systems are slow compared with those of many other advanced countries. All this translates into slower growth. And if it takes longer to fix, it will cost more, as deferred maintenance usually does.

Spending on infrastructure is hardly a panacea, however, because without careful planning and oversight, it can be inefficient and ineffective. Congress allocates money to infrastructure projects based on politics, not need or bang for the buck. The elegant solution to the problem would be to have a national infrastructure bank that is funded by a combination of government money and private capital. Such a bank would minimize waste and redundancy by having projects chosen by technocrats on merit rather than by politicians for pork. Naturally, this very idea is languishing in Congress, despite some support from prominent figures on both sides of the aisle.

The same is the case with financial reforms: the problem is not a lack of good ideas or technical feasibility but politics. The politicians who sit on the committees overseeing the current alphabet soup of ineffective agencies are happy primarily because they can raise money for their campaigns from the financial industry. The current system works better as a mechanism for campaign fundraising than it does as an instrument for financial oversight.

In 1979, the social scientist Ezra Vogel published a book titled Japan as Number One, predicting a rosy future for the then-rising Asian power. When The Washington Post asked him recently why his prediction had been so far off the mark, he pointed out that the Japanese economy was highly sophisticated and advanced, but, he confessed, he had never anticipated that its political system would seize up the way it did and allow the country to spiral downward.

Vogel was right to note that the problem was politics rather than economics. All the advanced industrial economies have weaknesses, but they also all have considerable strengths, particularly the United States. They have reached a stage of development, however, at which outmoded policies, structures, and practices have to be changed or abandoned. The problem, as the economist Mancur Olson pointed out, is that the existing policies benefit interest groups that zealously protect the status quo. Reform requires governments to assert the national interest over such parochial interests, something that is increasingly difficult to do in a democracy.


With only a few exceptions, the advanced industrial democracies have spent the last few decades managing or ignoring their problems rather than tackling them head-on. Soon, this option won’t be available, because the crisis of democracy will be combined with a crisis of demography.

The industrial world is aging at a pace never before seen in human history. Japan is at the leading edge of this trend, predicted to go from a population of 127 million today to just 47 million by the end of the century. Europe is not far behind, with Italy and Germany approaching trajectories like Japan’s. The United States is actually the outlier on this front, the only advanced industrial country not in demographic decline. In fact, because of immigration and somewhat higher fertility rates, its population is predicted to grow to 423 million by 2050, whereas, say, Germany’s is predicted to shrink to 72 million. Favorable U.S. demographics, however, are offset by more expensive U.S. entitlement programs for retirees, particularly in the area of health care.

To understand this, start with a ratio of working-age citizens to those over 65. That helps determine how much revenue the government can get from workers to distribute to retirees. In the United States today, the ratio is 4.6 working people for every retiree. In 25 years, it will drop to 2.7. That shift will make a huge difference to an already worrisome situation. Current annual expenditures for the two main entitlement programs for older Americans, Social Security and Medicare, top $1 trillion. The growth of these expenditures has far outstripped inflation in the past and will likely do so for decades to come, even with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Throw in all other entitlement programs, the demographer Nicholas Eberstadt has calculated, and the total is $2.2 trillion — up from $24 billion a half century ago, nearly a hundredfold increase.

However worthwhile such programs may be, they are unaffordable on their current trajectories, consuming the majority of all federal spending. The economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff argued in their detailed study of financial crises, This Time Is Different, that countries with debt-to-GDP burdens of 90 percent or more almost invariably have trouble sustaining growth and stability. Unless its current entitlement obligations are somehow reformed, with health-care costs lowered in particular, it is difficult to see how the United States can end up with a ratio much lower than that. What this means is that while the American right has to recognize that tax revenues will have to rise significantly in coming decades, the American left has to recognize that without significant reforms, entitlements may be the only thing even those increased tax revenues will cover. A recent report by Third Way, a Washington-based think tank lobbying for entitlement reform, calculates that by 2029, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the debt combined will amount to 18 percent of GDP. It just so happens that 18 percent of GDP is precisely what the government has averaged in tax collections over the last 40 years.

The continued growth in entitlements is set to crowd out all other government spending, including on defense and the investments needed to help spur the next wave of economic growth. In 1960, entitlement programs amounted to well under one-third of the federal budget, with all the other functions of government taking up the remaining two-thirds. By 2010, things had flipped, with entitlement programs accounting for two-thirds of the budget and everything else crammed into one-third. On its current path, the U.S. federal government is turning into, in the journalist Ezra Klein’s memorable image, an insurance company with an army. And even the army will have to shrink soon.

Rebalancing the budget to gain space for investment in the country’s future is today’s great American challenge. And despite what one may have gathered during the recent campaign, it is a challenge for both parties. Eberstadt points out that entitlement spending has actually grown faster under Republican presidents than under Democrats, and a New York Times investigation in 2012 found that two-thirds of the 100 U.S. counties most dependent on entitlement programs were heavily Republican.

Reform and investment would be difficult in the best of times, but the continuation of current global trends will make these tasks ever tougher and more urgent. Technology and globalization have made it possible to do simple manufacturing anywhere, and Americans will not be able to compete for jobs against workers in China and India who are being paid a tenth of the wages that they are. That means that the United States has no choice but to move up the value chain, relying on a highly skilled work force, superb infrastructure, massive job-training programs, and cutting-edge science and technology — all of which will not materialize without substantial investment.

The U.S. government currently spends $4 on citizens over 65 for every $1 it spends on those under 18. At some level, that is a brutal reflection of democratic power politics: seniors vote; minors do not. But it is also a statement that the country values the present more than the future.


Huntington, the author of the section on the United States in the Trilateral Commission’s 1975 report, used to say that it was important for a country to worry about decline, because only then would it make the changes necessary to belie the gloomy predictions. If not for fear of Sputnik, the United States would never have galvanized its scientific establishment, funded NASA, and raced to the moon. Perhaps that sort of response to today’s challenges is just around the corner — perhaps Washington will be able to summon the will to pass major, far-reaching policy initiatives over the next few years, putting the United States back on a clear path to a vibrant, solvent future. But hope is not a plan, and it has to be said that at this point, such an outcome seems unlikely.

The absence of such moves will hardly spell the country’s doom. Liberal democratic capitalism is clearly the only system that has the flexibility and legitimacy to endure in the modern world. If any regimes collapse in the decades ahead, they will be command systems, such as the one in China (although this is unlikely). But it is hard to see how the derailing of China’s rise, were it to happen, would solve any of the problems the United States faces — and in fact, it might make them worse, if it meant that the global economy would grow at a slower pace than anticipated.

The danger for Western democracies is not death but sclerosis. The daunting challenges they face — budgetary pressures, political paralysis, demographic stress — point to slow growth rather than collapse. Muddling through the crisis will mean that these countries stay rich but slowly and steadily drift to the margins of the world. Quarrels over how to divide a smaller pie may spark some political conflict and turmoil but will produce mostly resignation to a less energetic, interesting, and productive future.

There once was an advanced industrial democracy that could not reform. It went from dominating the world economy to growing for two decades at the anemic average rate of just 0.8 percent. Many members of its aging, well-educated population continued to live pleasant lives, but they left an increasingly barren legacy for future generations. Its debt burden is now staggering, and its per capita income has dropped to 24th in the world and is falling. If the Americans and the Europeans fail to get their acts together, their future will be easy to see. All they have to do is look at Japan.

Capital Misallocation: Captain Philips

Of you haven’t seen Captain Phillips yet, get the bluray now. Tom Hanks does a fantastic job. Keeps you on the edge of your seat, rooting for the good guys.

The idea of a ship flying an American flag getting into trouble, then the US Navy and the SEAL special forces snipers come to the rescue seems like a success on the surface, especially compared to the Chinese Govt negotiating a $4 million ransom.

USS Bainbridge 270 soldiers USS Halyburton 226 soldiers vs 4 Somali pirates

Obviously the US government thinks this episode is quite a success. Enough that the Navy was supportive of making a film about this event, and enough that the lifeboat involved is on display at the Navy SEAL Museum.

Then I started thinking about this in more details. How much money does the US spend per year on military related applications? Officially the US spends more than $680 BILLION per year on our military, and some estimates put the number above w Continue reading Capital Misallocation: Captain Philips

The Myth of Asia’s Miracle (Foreign Affairs 1994)

1994 Foreign Affairs article written by 2008 nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman holding the line on why the western economies have it right and why East Asia is appears important but will not continue to be. Written 20 years ago, this makes for an interesting reflection. Western political economists continue to predict the intrinsic strengths of the west will overcome any challengers, meanwhile East Asia continues to accumulate investment, technology, jobs, and foreign currency reserves. Fascinating to see that the shift of power to Asia was already predicted in the early 1990’s, and the understanding of the Asian System was already wide spread. The Asian System itself is unquestionably characterized by high savings and high investment. Students of Asian policy such as James Fallows and Chalmers Johnson also point to targeted industrial policy, protectionism, and subsidizing production rather than consumption.


Once upon a time, Western opinion leaders found themselves both impressed and frightened by the extraordinary growth rates achieved by a set of Eastern economies. Although those economies were still substantially poorer and smaller than those of the West, the speed with which they had transformed themselves from peasant societies into industrial powerhouses, their continuing ability to achieve growth rates several times higher than the advanced nations, and their increasing ability to challenge or even surpass American and European technology in certain areas seemed to call into question the dominance not only of Western power but of Western ideology. The leaders of those nations did not share our faith in free markets or unlimited civil liberties. They asserted with increasing self-confidence that their system was superior: societies that accepted strong, even authoritarian governments and were willing to limit individual liberties in the interest of the common good, take charge of their economies, and sacrifice short-run consumer interests for the sake of long-run growth would eventually outperform the increasingly chaotic societies of the West. And a growing minority of Western intellectuals agreed.

The gap between Western and Eastern economic performance eventually became a political issue. The Democrats recaptured the White House under the leadership of a young, energetic new president who pledged to “get the country moving again” – a pledge that, to him and his closest advisers, meant accelerating America’s economic growth to meet the Eastern challenge.

The time, of course, was the early 1960s. The dynamic young president was John F. Kennedy. The technological feats that so alarmed the West were the launch of Sputnik and the early Soviet lead in space. And the rapidly growing Eastern economies were those of the Soviet Union and its satellite nations.

While the growth of communist economies was the subject of innumerable alarmist books and polemical articles in the 1950s, some economists who looked seriously at the roots of that growth were putting together a picture that differed substantially from most popular assumptions. Communist growth rates were certainly impressive, but not magical. The rapid growth in output could be fully explained by rapid growth in inputs: expansion of employment, increases in education levels, and, above all, massive investment in physical capital. Once those inputs were taken into account, the growth in output was unsurprising – or, to put it differently, the big surprise about Soviet growth was that when closely examined it posed no mystery.

This economic analysis had two crucial implications. First, most of the speculation about the superiority of the communist system – including the popular view that Western economies could painlessly accelerate their own growth by borrowing some aspects of that system – was off base. Rapid Soviet economic growth was based entirely on one attribute: the willingness to save, to sacrifice current consumption for the sake of future production. The communist example offered no hint of a free lunch.

Second, the economic analysis of communist countries’ growth implied some future limits to their industrial expansion – in other words, implied that a naive projection of their past growth rates into the future was likely to greatly overstate their real prospects. Economic growth that is based on expansion of inputs, rather than on growth in output per unit of input, is inevitably subject to diminishing returns. It was simply not possible for the Soviet economies to sustain the rates of growth of labor force participation, average education levels, and above all the physical capital stock that had prevailed in previous years. Communist growth would predictably slow down, perhaps drastically.

Can there really be any parallel between the growth of Warsaw Pact nations in the 1950s and the spectacular Asian growth that now preoccupies policy intellectuals? At some levels, of course, the parallel is far-fetched: Singapore in the 1990s does not look much like the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew bears little resemblance to the U.S.S.R.’s Nikita Khrushchev and less to Joseph Stalin. Yet the results of recent economic research into the sources of Pacific Rim growth give the few people who recall the great debate over Soviet growth a strong sense of deja vu. Now, as then, the contrast between popular hype and realistic prospects, between conventional wisdom and hard numbers, remains so great that sensible economic analysis is not only widely ignored, but when it does get aired, it is usually dismissed as grossly implausible.

Popular enthusiasm about Asia’s boom deserves to have some cold water thrown on it. Rapid Asian growth is less of a model for the West than many writers claim, and the future prospects for that growth are more limited than almost anyone now imagines. Any such assault on almost universally held beliefs must, of course, overcome a barrier of incredulity. This article began with a disguised account of the Soviet growth debate of 30 years ago to try to gain a hearing for the proposition that we may be revisiting an old error. We have been here before. The problem with this literary device, however, is that so few people now remember how impressive and terrifying the Soviet empire’s economic performance once seemed. Before turning to Asian growth, then, it may be useful to review an important but largely forgotten piece of economic history.


Living in a world strewn with the wreckage of the Soviet empire, it is hard for most people to realize that there was a time when the Soviet economy, far from being a byword for the failure of socialism, was one of the wonders of the world – that when Khrushchev pounded his shoe on the U.N. podium and declared, “We will bury you,” it was an economic rather than a military boast. It is therefore a shock to browse through, say, issues of Foreign Affairs from the mid-1950s through the early 1960s and discover that at least one article a year dealt with the implications of growing Soviet industrial might.

Illustrative of the tone of discussion was a 1957 article by Calvin B. Hoover.1 Like many Western economists, Hoover criticized official Soviet statistics, arguing that they exaggerated the true growth rate. Nonetheless, he concluded that Soviet claims of astonishing achievement were fully justified: their economy was achieving a rate of growth “twice as high as that attained by any important capitalistic country over any considerable number of years [and] three times as high as the average annual rate of increase in the United States.” He concluded that it was probable that “a collectivist, authoritarian state” was inherently better at achieving economic growth than free-market democracies and projected that the Soviet economy might outstrip that of the United States by the early 1970s.

These views were not considered outlandish at the time. On the contrary, the general image of Soviet central planning was that it might be brutal, and might not do a very good job of providing consumer goods, but that it was very effective at promoting industrial growth. In 1960 Wassily Leontief described the Soviet economy as being “directed with determined ruthless skill” – and did so without supporting argument, confident he was expressing a view shared by his readers.

Yet many economists studying Soviet growth were gradually coming to a very different conclusion. Although they did not dispute the fact of past Soviet growth, they offered a new interpretation of the nature of that growth, one that implied a reconsideration of future Soviet prospects. To understand this reinterpretation, it is necessary to make a brief detour into economic theory to discuss a seemingly abstruse, but in fact intensely practical, concept: growth accounting.


It is a tautology that economic expansion represents the sum of two sources of growth. On one side are increases in “inputs”: growth in employment, in the education level of workers, and in the stock of physical capital (machines, buildings, roads, and so on). On the other side are increases in the output per unit of input; such increases may result from better management or better economic policy, but in the long run are primarily due to increases in knowledge.

The basic idea of growth accounting is to give life to this formula by calculating explicit measures of both. The accounting can then tell us how much of growth is due to each input – say, capital as opposed to labor – and how much is due to increased efficiency.

We all do a primitive form of growth accounting every time we talk about labor productivity; in so doing we are implicitly distinguishing between the part of overall national growth due to the growth in the supply of labor and the part due to an increase in the value of goods produced by the average worker. Increases in labor productivity, however, are not always caused by the increased efficiency of workers. Labor is only one of a number of inputs; workers may produce more, not because they are better managed or have more technological knowledge, but simply because they have better machinery. A man with a bulldozer can dig a ditch faster than one with only a shovel, but he is not more efficient; he just has more capital to work with. The aim of growth accounting is to produce an index that combines all measurable inputs and to measure the rate of growth of national income relative to that index – to estimate what is known as “total factor productivity.”2

So far this may seem like a purely academic exercise. As soon as one starts to think in terms of growth accounting, however, one arrives at a crucial insight about the process of economic growth: sustained growth in a nation’s per capita income can only occur if there is a rise in output per unit of input.3

Mere increases in inputs, without an increase in the efficiency with which those inputs are used – investing in more machinery and infrastructure – must run into diminishing returns; input-driven growth is inevitably limited.

How, then, have today’s advanced nations been able to achieve sustained growth in per capita income over the past 150 years? The answer is that technological advances have led to a continual increase in total factor productivity – a continual rise in national income for each unit of input. In a famous estimate, MIT Professor Robert Solow concluded that technological progress has accounted for 80 percent of the long-term rise in U.S. per capita income, with increased investment in capital explaining only the remaining 20 percent.

When economists began to study the growth of the Soviet economy, they did so using the tools of growth accounting. Of course, Soviet data posed some problems. Not only was it hard to piece together usable estimates of output and input (Raymond Powell, a Yale professor, wrote that the job “in many ways resembled an archaeological dig”), but there were philosophical difficulties as well. In a socialist economy one could hardly measure capital input using market returns, so researchers were forced to impute returns based on those in market economies at similar levels of development. Still, when the efforts began, researchers were pretty sure about what they would find. Just as capitalist growth had been based on growth in both inputs and efficiency, with efficiency the main source of rising per capita income, they expected to find that rapid Soviet growth reflected both rapid input growth and rapid growth in efficiency.

But what they actually found was that Soviet growth was based on rapid growth in inputs – end of story. The rate of efficiency growth was not only unspectacular, it was well below the rates achieved in Western economies. Indeed, by some estimates, it was virtually nonexistent.4

The immense Soviet efforts to mobilize economic resources were hardly news. Stalinist planners had moved millions of workers from farms to cities, pushed millions of women into the labor force and millions of men into longer hours, pursued massive programs of education, and above all plowed an ever-growing proportion of the country’s industrial output back into the construction of new factories. Still, the big surprise was that once one had taken the effects of these more or less measurable inputs into account, there was nothing left to explain. The most shocking thing about Soviet growth was its comprehensibility.

This comprehensibility implied two crucial conclusions. First, claims about the superiority of planned over market economies turned out to be based on a misapprehension. If the Soviet economy had a special strength, it was its ability to mobilize resources, not its ability to use them efficiently. It was obvious to everyone that the Soviet Union in 1960 was much less efficient than the United States. The surprise was that it showed no signs of closing the gap.

Second, because input-driven growth is an inherently limited process, Soviet growth was virtually certain to slow down. Long before the slowing of Soviet growth became obvious, it was predicted on the basis of growth accounting. (Economists did not predict the implosion of the Soviet economy a generation later, but that is a whole different problem.)

It’s an interesting story and a useful cautionary tale about the dangers of naive extrapolation of past trends. But is it relevant to the modern world?


At first, it is hard to see anything in common between the Asian success stories of recent years and the Soviet Union of three decades ago. Indeed, it is safe to say that the typical business traveler to, say, Singapore, ensconced in one of that city’s gleaming hotels, never even thinks of any parallel to its roach-infested counterparts in Moscow. How can the slick exuberance of the Asian boom be compared with the Soviet Union’s grim drive to industrialize?

And yet there are surprising similarities. The newly industrializing countries of Asia, like the Soviet Union of the 1950s, have achieved rapid growth in large part through an astonishing mobilization of resources. Once one accounts for the role of rapidly growing inputs in these countries’ growth, one finds little left to explain. Asian growth, like that of the Soviet Union in its high-growth era, seems to be driven by extraordinary growth in inputs like labor and capital rather than by gains in efficiency.5

Consider, in particular, the case of Singapore. Between 1966 and 1990, the Singaporean economy grew a remarkable 8.5 percent per annum, three times as fast as the United States; per capita income grew at a 6.6 percent rate, roughly doubling every decade. This achievement seems to be a kind of economic miracle. But the miracle turns out to have been based on perspiration rather than inspiration: Singapore grew through a mobilization of resources that would have done Stalin proud. The employed share of the population surged from 27 to 51 percent. The educational standards of that work force were dramatically upgraded: while in 1966 more than half the workers had no formal education at all, by 1990 two-thirds had completed secondary education. Above all, the country had made an awesome investment in physical capital: investment as a share of output rose from 11 to more than 40 percent.6

Even without going through the formal exercise of growth accounting, these numbers should make it obvious that Singapore’s growth has been based largely on one-time changes in behavior that cannot be repeated. Over the past generation the percentage of people employed has almost doubled; it cannot double again. A half-educated work force has been replaced by one in which the bulk of workers has high school diplomas; it is unlikely that a generation from now most Singaporeans will have Ph.D.s. And an investment share of 40 percent is amazingly high by any standard; a share of 70 percent would be ridiculous. So one can immediately conclude that Singapore is unlikely to achieve future growth rates comparable to those of the past.

But it is only when one actually does the quantitative accounting that the astonishing result emerges: all of Singapore’s growth can be explained by increases in measured inputs. There is no sign at all of increased efficiency. In this sense, the growth of Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore is an economic twin of the growth of Stalin’s Soviet Union – growth achieved purely through mobilization of resources. Of course, Singapore today is far more prosperous than the U.S.S.R. ever was – even at its peak in the Brezhnev years – because Singapore is closer to, though still below, the efficiency of Western economies. The point, however, is that Singapore’s economy has always been relatively efficient; it just used to be starved of capital and educated workers.

Singapore’s case is admittedly the most extreme. Other rapidly growing East Asian economies have not increased their labor force participation as much, made such dramatic improvements in educational levels, or raised investment rates quite as far. Nonetheless, the basic conclusion is the same: there is startlingly little evidence of improvements in efficiency. Kim and Lau conclude of the four Asian “tigers” that “the hypothesis that there has been no technical progress during the postwar period cannot be rejected for the four East Asian newly industrialized countries.” Young, more poetically, notes that once one allows for their rapid growth of inputs, the productivity performance of the “tigers” falls “from the heights of Olympus to the plains of Thessaly.”

This conclusion runs so counter to conventional wisdom that it is extremely difficult for the economists who have reached it to get a hearing. As early as 1982 a Harvard graduate student, Yuan Tsao, found little evidence of efficiency growth in her dissertation on Singapore, but her work was, as Young puts it, “ignored or dismissed as unbelievable.” When Kim and Lau presented their work at a 1992 conference in Taipei, it received a more respectful hearing, but had little immediate impact. But when Young tried to make the case for input-driven Asian growth at the 1993 meetings of the European Economic Association, he was met with a stone wall of disbelief.

In Young’s most recent paper there is an evident tone of exasperation with this insistence on clinging to the conventional wisdom in the teeth of the evidence. He titles the paper “The Tyranny of Numbers” – by which he means that you may not want to believe this, buster, but there’s just no way around the data. He begins with an ironic introduction, written in a deadpan, Sergeant Friday, “Just the facts, ma’am” style: “This is a fairly boring and tedious paper, and is intentionally so. This paper provides no new interpretations of the East Asian experience to interest the historian, derives no new theoretical implications of the forces behind the East Asian growth process to motivate the theorist, and draws no new policy implications from the subtleties of East Asian government intervention to excite the policy activist. Instead, this paper concentrates its energies on providing a careful analysis of the historical patterns of output growth, factor accumulation, and productivity growth in the newly industrializing countries of East Asia.”

Of course, he is being disingenuous. His conclusion undermines most of the conventional wisdom about the future role of Asian nations in the world economy and, as a consequence, in international politics. But readers will have noticed that the statistical analysis that puts such a different interpretation on Asian growth focuses on the “tigers,” the relatively small countries to whom the name “newly industrializing countries” was first applied. But what about the large countries? What about Japan and China?


Many people who are committed to the view that the destiny of the world economy lies with the Pacific Rim are likely to counter skepticism about East Asian growth prospects with the example of Japan. Here, after all, is a country that started out poor and has now become the second-largest industrial power. Why doubt that other Asian nations can do the same?

There are two answers to that question. First, while many authors have written of an “Asian system” – a common denominator that underlies all of the Asian success stories – the statistical evidence tells a different story. Japan’s growth in the 1950s and 1960s does not resemble Singapore’s growth in the 1970s and 1980s. Japan, unlike the East Asian “tigers,” seems to have grown both through high rates of input growth and through high rates of efficiency growth. Today’s fast-growth economies are nowhere near converging on U.S. efficiency levels, but Japan is staging an unmistakable technological catch-up.

Second, while Japan’s historical performance has indeed been remarkable, the era of miraculous Japanese growth now lies well in the past. Most years Japan still manages to grow faster than the other advanced nations, but that gap in growth rates is now far smaller than it used to be, and is shrinking.

The story of the great Japanese growth slowdown has been oddly absent from the vast polemical literature on Japan and its role in the world economy. Much of that literature seems stuck in a time warp, with authors writing as if Japan were still the miracle growth economy of the 1960s and early 1970s. Granted, the severe recession that has gripped Japan since 1991 will end soon if it has not done so already, and the Japanese economy will probably stage a vigorous short-term recovery. The point, however, is that even a full recovery will only reach a level that is far below what many sensible observers predicted 20 years ago.

It may be useful to compare Japan’s growth prospects as they appeared 20 years ago and as they appear now. In 1973 Japan was still a substantially smaller and poorer economy than the United States. Its per capita GDP was only 55 percent of America’s, while its overall GDP was only 27 percent as large. But the rapid growth of the Japanese economy clearly portended a dramatic change. Over the previous decade Japan’s real GDP had grown at a torrid 8.9 percent annually, with per capita output growing at a 7.7 percent rate. Although American growth had been high by its own historical standards, at 3.9 percent (2.7 percent per capita) it was not in the same league. Clearly, the Japanese were rapidly gaining on us.

In fact, a straightforward projection of these trends implied that a major reversal of positions lay not far in the future. At the growth rate of 1963-73, Japan would overtake the United States in real per capita income by 1985, and total Japanese output would exceed that of the United States by 1998! At the time, people took such trend projections very seriously indeed. One need only look at the titles of such influential books as Herman Kahn’s The Emerging Japanese Superstate or Ezra Vogel’s Japan as Number One to remember that Japan appeared, to many observers, to be well on its way to global economic dominance.

Well, it has not happened, at least not so far. Japan has indeed continued to rise in the economic rankings, but at a far more modest pace than those projections suggested. In 1992 Japan’s per capita income was still only 83 percent of the United States’, and its overall output was only 42 percent of the American level. The reason was that growth from 1973 to 1992 was far slower than in the high-growth years: GDP grew only 3.7 percent annually, and GDP per capita grew only 3 percent per year. The United States also experienced a growth slowdown after 1973, but it was not nearly as drastic.

If one projects those post-1973 growth rates into the future, one still sees a relative Japanese rise, but a far less dramatic one. Following 1973-92 trends, Japan’s per capita income will outstrip that of the United States in 2002; its overall output does not exceed America’s until the year 2047. Even this probably overestimates Japanese prospects. Japanese economists generally believe that their country’s rate of growth of potential output, the rate that it will be able to sustain once it has taken up the slack left by the recession, is now no more than three percent. And that rate is achieved only through a very high rate of investment, nearly twice as high a share of GDP as in the United States. When one takes into account the growing evidence for at least a modest acceleration of U.S. productivity growth in the last few years, one ends up with the probable conclusion that Japanese efficiency is gaining on that of the United States at a snail’s pace, if at all, and there is the distinct possibility that per capita income in Japan may never overtake that in America. In other words, Japan is not quite as overwhelming an example of economic prowess as is sometimes thought, and in any case Japan’s experience has much less in common with that of other Asian nations than is generally imagined.


For the skeptic, the case of China poses much greater difficulties about Asian destiny than that of Japan. Although China is still a very poor country, its population is so huge that it will become a major economic power if it achieves even a fraction of Western productivity levels. And China, unlike Japan, has in recent years posted truly impressive rates of economic growth. What about its future prospects?

Accounting for China’s boom is difficult for both practical and philosophical reasons. The practical problem is that while we know that China is growing very rapidly, the quality of the numbers is extremely poor. It was recently revealed that official Chinese statistics on foreign investment have been overstated by as much as a factor of six. The reason was that the government offers tax and regulatory incentives to foreign investors, providing an incentive for domestic entrepreneurs to invent fictitious foreign partners or to work through foreign fronts. This episode hardly inspires confidence in any other statistic that emanates from that dynamic but awesomely corrupt society.

The philosophical problem is that it is unclear what year to use as a baseline. If one measures Chinese growth from the point at which it made a decisive turn toward the market, say 1978, there is little question that there has been dramatic improvement in efficiency as well as rapid growth in inputs. But it is hardly surprising that a major recovery in economic efficiency occurred as the country emerged from the chaos of Mao Zedong’s later years. If one instead measures growth from before the Cultural Revolution, say 1964, the picture looks more like the East Asian “tigers”: only modest growth in efficiency, with most growth driven by inputs. This calculation, however, also seems unfair: one is weighing down the buoyant performance of Chinese capitalism with the leaden performance of Chinese socialism. Perhaps we should simply split the difference: guess that some, but not all, of the efficiency gains since the turn toward the market represent a one-time recovery, while the rest represent a sustainable trend.

Even a modest slowing in China’s growth will change the geopolitical outlook substantially. The World Bank estimates that the Chinese economy is currently about 40 percent as large as that of the United States. Suppose that the U.S. economy continues to grow at 2.5 percent each year. If China can continue to grow at 10 percent annually, by the year 2010 its economy will be a third larger than ours. But if Chinese growth is only a more realistic 7 percent, its GDP will be only 82 percent of that of the United States. There will still be a substantial shift of the world’s economic center of gravity, but it will be far less drastic than many people now imagine.


The extraordinary record of economic growth in the newly industrializing countries of East Asia has powerfully influenced the conventional wisdom about both economic policy and geopolitics. Many, perhaps most, writers on the global economy now take it for granted that the success of these economies demonstrates three propositions.

  1. First, there is a major diffusion of world technology in progress, and Western nations are losing their traditional advantage.
  2. Second, the world’s economic center of gravity will inevitably shift to the Asian nations of the western Pacific.
  3. Third, in what is perhaps a minority view, Asian successes demonstrate the superiority of economies with fewer civil liberties and more planning than we in the West have been willing to accept.

All three conclusions are called into question by the simple observation that the remarkable record of East Asian growth has been matched by input growth so rapid that Asian economic growth, incredibly, ceases to be a mystery.

Consider first the assertion that the advanced countries are losing their technological advantage. A heavy majority of recent tracts on the world economy have taken it as self-evident that technology now increasingly flows across borders, and that newly industrializing nations are increasingly able to match the productivity of more established economies. Many writers warn that this diffusion of technology will place huge strains on Western society as capital flows to the Third World and imports from those nations undermine the West’s industrial base.

There are severe conceptual problems with this scenario even if its initial premise is right. But in any case, while technology may have diffused within particular industries, the available evidence provides absolutely no justification for the view that overall world technological gaps are vanishing. On the contrary, Kim and Lau find “no apparent convergence between the technologies” of the newly industrialized nations and the established industrial powers; Young finds that the rates in the growth of efficiency in the East Asian “tigers” are no higher than those in many advanced nations.

The absence of any dramatic convergence in technology helps explain what would otherwise be a puzzle: in spite of a great deal of rhetoric about North-South capital movement, actual capital flows to developing countries in the 1990s have so far been very small – and they have primarily gone to Latin America, not East Asia. Indeed, several of the East Asian “tigers” have recently become significant exporters of capital. This behavior would be extremely odd if these economies, which still pay wages well below advanced-country levels, were rapidly achieving advanced-country productivity. It is, however, perfectly reasonable if growth in East Asia has been primarily input-driven, and if the capital piling up there is beginning to yield diminishing returns.

If growth in East Asia is indeed running into diminishing returns, however, the conventional wisdom about an Asian-centered world economy needs some rethinking. It would be a mistake to overstate this case: barring a catastrophic political upheaval, it is likely that growth in East Asia will continue to outpace growth in the West for the next decade and beyond. But it will not do so at the pace of recent years. From the perspective of the year 2010, current projections of Asian supremacy extrapolated from recent trends may well look almost as silly as 1960s-vintage forecasts of Soviet industrial supremacy did from the perspective of the Brezhnev years.

Finally, the realities of East Asian growth suggest that we may have to unlearn some popular lessons. It has become common to assert that East Asian economic success demonstrates the fallacy of our traditional laissez-faire approach to economic policy and that the growth of these economies shows the effectiveness of sophisticated industrial policies and selective protectionism. Authors such as James Fallows have asserted that the nations of that region have evolved a common “Asian system,” whose lessons we ignore at our peril. The extremely diverse institutions and policies of the various newly industrialized Asian countries, let alone Japan, cannot really be called a common system. But in any case, if Asian success reflects the benefits of strategic trade and industrial policies, those benefits should surely be manifested in an unusual and impressive rate of growth in the efficiency of the economy. And there is no sign of such exceptional efficiency growth.

The newly industrializing countries of the Pacific Rim have received a reward for their extraordinary mobilization of resources that is no more than what the most boringly conventional economic theory would lead us to expect. If there is a secret to Asian growth, it is simply deferred gratification, the willingness to sacrifice current satisfaction for future gain.

That’s a hard answer to accept, especially for those American policy intellectuals who recoil from the dreary task of reducing deficits and raising the national savings rate. But economics is not a dismal science because the economists like it that way; it is because in the end we must submit to the tyranny not just of the numbers, but of the logic they express.


1 Hoover’s tone – critical of Soviet data but nonetheless accepting the fact of extraordinary achievement – was typical of much of the commentary of the time (see, for example, a series of articles in The Atlantic Monthly by Edward Crankshaw, beginning with “Soviet Industry” in the November 1955 issue). Anxiety about the political implications of Soviet growth reached its high-water mark in 1959, the year Khrushchev visited America. Newsweek took Khrushchev’s boasts seriously enough to warn that the Soviet Union might well be “on the high road to economic domination of the world.” And in hearings held by the Joint Economic Committee late that year, CIA Director Allen Dulles warned, “If the Soviet industrial growth rate persists at eight or nine percent per annum over the next decade, as is forecast, the gap between our two economies . . . will be dangerously narrowed.”

2 At first, creating an index of all inputs may seem like comparing apples and oranges, that is, trying to add together noncomparable items like the hours a worker puts in and the cost of the new machine he uses. How does one determine the weights for the different components? The economists’ answer is to use market returns. If the average worker earns $15 an hour, give each person-hour in the index a weight of $15; if a machine that costs $100,000 on average earns $10,000 in profits each year (a 10 percent rate of return), then give each such machine a weight of $10,000; and so on.

3 To see why, let’s consider a hypothetical example. To keep matters simple, let’s assume that the country has a stationary population and labor force, so that all increases in the investment in machinery, etc., raise the amount of capital per worker in the country. Let us finally make up some arbitrary numbers. Specifically, let us assume that initially each worker is equipped with $10,000 worth of equipment; that each worker produces goods and services worth $10,000; and that capital initially earns a 40 percent rate of return, that is, each $10,000 of machinery earns annual profits of $4,000. (Cont’d.)

(Cont’d.) Suppose, now, that this country consistently invests 20 percent of its output, that is, uses 20 percent of its income to add to its capital stock. How rapidly will the economy grow?

Initially, very fast indeed. In the first year, the capital stock per worker will rise by 20 percent of $10,000, that is, by $2,000. At a 40 percent rate of return, that will increase output by $800: an 8 percent rate of growth.

But this high rate of growth will not be sustainable. Consider the situation of the economy by the time that capital per worker has doubled to $20,000. First, output per worker will not have increased in the same proportion, because capital stock is only one input. Even with the additions to capital stock up to that point achieving a 40 percent rate of return, output per worker will have increased only to $14,000. And the rate of return is also certain to decline – say to 30 or even 25 percent. (One bulldozer added to a construction project can make a huge difference to productivity. By the time a dozen are on-site, one more may not make that much difference.)The combination of those factors means that if the investment share of output is the same, the growth rate will sharply decline. Taking 20 percent of $14,000 gives us $2,800; at a 30 percent rate of return, this will raise output by only $840, that is, generate a growth rate of only 6 percent; at a 25 percent rate of return it will generate a growth rate of only 5 percent. As capital continues to accumulate, the rate of return and hence the rate of growth will continue to decline.

4 This work was summarized by Raymond Powell, “Economic Growth in the U.S.S.R.,” Scientific American, December 1968.

5 There have been a number of recent efforts to quantify the sources of rapid growth in the Pacific Rim. Key readings include two papers by Professor Lawrence Lau of Stanford University and his associate Jong-Il Kim, “The Sources of Growth of the East Asian Newly Industrialized Countries,” Journal of the Japanese and International Economies, 1994, and “The Role of Human Capital in the Economic Growth of the East Asian Newly Industrialized Countries,” mimeo, Stanford University, 1993; and three papers by Professor Alwyn Young, a rising star in growth economics, “A Tale of Two Cities:Factor Accumulation and Technical Change in Hong Kong and Singapore,” NBER Macroeconomics Annual 1992, MIT Press; “Lessons from the East Asian NICs: A Contrarian View,” European Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, May 1994; and “The Tyranny of Numbers: Confronting the Statistical Realities of the East Asian Growth Experience,”NBER Working Paper No. 4680, March 1994.

5 These figures are taken from Young, ibid. Although foreign corporations have played an important role in Singapore’s economy, the great bulk of investment in Singapore, as in all of the newly industrialized East Asian economies, has been financed out of domestic savings.

6 See Paul Krugman, “Does Third World Growth Hurt First World Prosperity?” Harvard Business Review, July 1994.

Inflation: Compounding the Lie

“He lied like a finance minister on the eve of a devaluation” -Warren Buffett

What if all inflation numbers were a lie? What if the inflation number reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics pushed inflation down by 3% per year? At that rate, it would take less than 25 years to cut the value of your savings and income in half even after it was supposedly inflation adjusted.

  • Government Intervention in the basket of goods associated with consumer price index (milk pricing is handled by the USDA)
  • Clinton era Hedonic Adjustments to the consumer price index (deflator variables in use by bureau of labor statistics)
  • So called Core Inflation that excludes Energy and Food prices (how do you live without food and energy)
  • Outsourcing production overseas (short term appears to control inflation, long term creates massive transfer of wealth out of country)
  • Asset Inflation (if house prices skyrocket, home owners think they made money, but what can that money buy? but rents not prices are used for the CPI)
  • Tax Collection (income tax rates are variable based on income brackets, unreported inflation means everyones tax rate goes up!)
  • Cancelled reporting of M3 (total quantity of money) as of March 23rd 2006 (just another way to make oversight more difficult for the citizen)

Politicians want to get re-elected, and they want to pay off their debts to the companies that finance their elections. Nobody ever won re-election for slowing the financial bleeding. Perhaps most importantly, nobody likes to pay higher taxes, and there are entire sections of the underground illicit economy that go untaxed. If you want to fund infinite government expenses, you’ve got to be creative.

Of course every union leader and every financier knows how inflation works, so they make sure long term contracts are inflation adjusted. If inflation is 10%, then the following year Social Security benefits, Government Wages and inflation adjusted government contracts will all be raised accordingly next year.

The politicians goal is to spend big but report a low inflation number, so that it’s easier to continue to spend big!

Torture the Numbers Enough, They Will Confess to Anything -Saying at GE

There are financial instruments like TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protected Securities) that supposedly are protecting you from inflation, but these are just another example of finance ministers massaging the numbers. Your not going to get paid in actual inflation terms, you’ll be paid in terms of reported inflation.

If the only thing restraining the elites from taking your money is self restraint, then you might read: The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One.

You can read through the details of the CPI report, there’s no place that you’ll find the actual price paid. You’ll find the category such “Milk: Fresh Whole Milk” but you won’t see the price. More interesting, the entire price of Milk is itself a US Department of Agriculture orchestrated mess…

You should read the BLSs rebuttal to concerns that inflation is understated. They point out that the switch from measuring house prices to rental equivalencies was designed to isolate the “investment” nature of housing from it’s function. Pre-1981 numbers were based on prices. BLS also points out that EuroStat and many OECD countries (probably the UK) calculate their inflation numbers just like the US does.

John Williams at ShadowStats also wrote a response to the BLS rebuttal that I mostly agree with, though I propose a more direct challenge.

If the BLS numbers were not overstating inflation, instead of writing a report explaining that they are experts and you are not, they would simply release the RAW on each of the 8000 basic indexes in the 38 areas they measure. It’s a trivial amount of data by todays standards. Any modern computer can crunch this data easily. Of course, the BLS isn’t going to do that because the inflation numbers are significantly higher than reported. We’re talking an Excel table with:

  • 8000 items in “basket” measured for inflation.
    • Even if each “item” is the sum of other items, 80,000 or even 800,000 rows is still easily manageable
  • 38 regions measured by month
  • For each year, 1950 – present
  • Changes in weight assigned to that item

In addition to the ever more ridiculous understatements of inflation, this detail would also show how inflation numbers have been politically adjusted to help (or potentially hurt) certain candidates. Just remember how we got here…

“He lied like a finance minister on the eve of a devaluation” -Warren Buffett

The Inevitable Police State

Since 2000, I’ve been closely following news releases from the ACLU, EFF, and updates regularly posted by Bruce Schneier. The civil liberties situation in the United States is tragic, and as the economy of the US continues to decline, more innocent citizens will certainly become victims of the state’s ever expanding police powers.

But I’ve decided the situation is simply too depressing to continue thinking about. It’s like trying to hold back the tides in the ocean.

A fundamental rule in technology says that whatever can be done will be done.
- Andrew Grove

If technology can be made, it will be made. Horrible devices will be made (nuclear weapons, biological weapons) but amazing things will be made too (the internet, growing replacement organs in labs, treatment of DNA based diseases)

The police state will evolve, and countermeasures will evolve. it’s a tug of war.

Even though i despise the american “terrorism” obsession, i do think it is a very real threat over the long term (but not quite yet)… it’s about math really.

Technology makes us all more powerful. it’s a force multiplier. If you assume that 1% of society is always going to be downtrodden, but smart and organized – the guys that create a new gov’t during the times of revolution…. well, those guys are present all the time, whether it’s their moment to shine or not. Yet our system only permits one president at a time. So what if it’s not “time” for a revolution? These guys will still agitate, they organize, and in order to get their way, a certain percentage will even be willing to destroy.

  • Think about how far little drone airplanes have come for cinematography. but instead of loading them with cameras, they could be loaded with weapons. then fly them into crowded subway stations.
  • Or think about a team of 20 people driving pickup trucks each releasing a cargo of long nails onto the busiest freeway interchanges at exactly, at exactly the busiest moment.
  • Or think about packing 100 shipping container full of explosives, and choosing delivery routes for those containers so that they are on the bottom row, sinking each ship… choose the right 100 ships, synchronize the deployment time, and you could do massive economic damage.

We live in a new world.

  • People drive faster, walk faster, commute farther than days past.
  • Supply chains are longer, connecting the entire world through fewer centralized points (airports, subway stops, container terminals, petrol pipelines, highways).
  • Remote data transmission, remote cameras (targeting), night vision, miniaturization, GPS and mobile data networks, drone vehicles (from RC cars and aircraft to to googles new car).

These hypothetical attacks would have been major operations that only nationally sponsored (CIA, KGB) agitators could have pulled off 50 years ago, but an angry, well funded frat house could pull them off today, and within our lifetime one individual acting alone could do it.

Our system supporting the life of seven billion humans is fragile, and even a little SNAFU that say took out 1% of us, that’s SEVENTY MILLION INNOCENT PEOPLE. Remember that WWII killed 2.5% of the world population, only 60 million at that time. One man acting alone would be hard pressed to kill hundreds a half century ago, and one man acting alone could easily kill 10,000 in the not distant future.

Yes, i hate the bureaucrats. Yes, it’s horrible that the US is investing scarce economic assists into repressive technology while we’ve allowed many good middle class jobs to be relocated to Asia and have nothing to replace them with. It’s tragic that since the average americans economic condition will worsen, they’ll be more likely to agitate, and therefore more likely to become an enemy of the state.

Technology can destroy us, and technology can save us, and set us free.

How The World Works: List vs Smith

James Fallows, President Jimmy Carter’s chief speechwriter for two years was the youngest person ever to hold that job. Fallows has been a visiting professor at a number of universities in the U.S. and China. Fallows has been a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly for many years. Fallows has lived periodically in Asia for much of the last thirty years, and wrote this article for the Atlantic in 1993. The full article is still archived on The Atlantic website, but it’s a long article and I’ve highlighted the most economic portions below. Fallows also maintains an excellent blog updated daily.

Americans persist in thinking that Adam Smith’s rules for free trade are the only legitimate ones. But today’s fastest-growing economies are using a very different set of rules. Once, we knew them—knew them so well that we played by them, and won. Now we seem to have forgotten.

IN Japan in the springtime of 1992 a trip to Hitotsubashi University, famous for its economics and business faculties, brought me unexpected good luck. Like several other Japanese universities, Hitotsubashi is almost heartbreaking in its cuteness. The road from the station to the main campus is lined with cherry trees, and my feet stirred up little puffs of white petals. Students glided along on their bicycles, looking as if they were enjoying the one stress-free moment of their lives.

They probably were. In surveys huge majorities of students say that they study “never” or “hardly at all” during their university careers. They had enough of that in high school.

I had gone to Hitotsubashi to interview a professor who was making waves. Since the end of the Second World War, Japanese diplomats and businessmen have acted as if the American economy should be the model for Japan’s own industrial growth. Not only should Japanese industries try to catch up with America’s lead in technology and production but also the nation should evolve toward a standard of economic maturity set by the United States. Where Japan’s economy differed from the American model—for instance, in close alliances between corporations which U.S. antitrust laws would forbid—the difference should be considered temporary, until Japan caught up.

Through the 1980s a number of foreign observers challenged this assumption, saying that Japan’s economy might not necessarily become more like America’s with the passing years. Starting in 1990 a number of Japanese businessmen and scholars began publicly saying the same thing, suggesting that Japan’s business system might be based on premises different from those that prevailed in the West. Professor Iwao Nakatani, the man I went to Hitotsubashi to meet, was one of the most respected members of this group, and I spent the afternoon listening to his argument while, through the window I watched petals drifting down.

On the way back to the station I saw a bookstore sign advertising Western-language books for sale. I walked to the back of the narrow store and for the thousandth time felt both intrigued and embarrassed by the consequences of the worldwide spread of the English language. In row upon row sat a jumble of books that had nothing in common except that they were published in English. Self-help manuals by Zig Ziglar. Bodice-rippers from the Harlequin series. A Betty Crocker cookbook. The complete works of Sigmund Freud. One book by, and another about, Friedrich List.

Friedrich List! For at least five years I’d been scanning used-book stores in Japan and America looking for just these books, having had no luck in English-language libraries. I’d scoured stores in Taiwan that specialized in pirated reprints of English-language books for about a tenth their original cost. I’d called the legendary Strand bookstore, in Manhattan, from my home in Kuala Lumpur, begging them to send me a note about the success of their search (it failed) rather than make me wait on hold. In all that time these were the first books by or about List I’d actually laid eyes on.

One was a biography, by a professor in the north of England. The other was a translation, by the same professor, of a short book List had written in German. Both were slim volumes, which, judging by the dust on their covers, had been on the shelf for years. I gasped when I opened the first book’s cover and saw how high the price was—9,500 yen, about $75. For the set? I asked hopefully. No, apiece, the young woman running the store told me. Books are always expensive in Japan, but even so this seemed steep. No doubt the books had been priced in the era when one dollar was worth twice as many yen as it was by the time I walked into the store. I opened my wallet, pulled out a 10,000-yen note, took my change and the biography, and left the store. A few feet down the sidewalk I turned around, walked back to the store, and used the rest of my money to buy the other book. I would always have regretted passing it up.

WHY Friedrich List? The more I had heard about List in the preceding five years, from economists in Seoul and Osaka and Tokyo, the more I had wondered why I had virtually never heard of him while studying economics in England and the United States. By the time I saw his books in the shop beneath the cherry trees, I had come to think of him as the dog that didn’t bark. He illustrated the strange self-selectivity of Anglo-American thinking about economics.

I emphasize “Anglo-American” because in this area the United Kingdom and the United States are like each other and different from most of the rest of the world. The two countries have dominated world politics for more than a century, and the dominance of the English language lets them ignore what is being said and thought overseas—and just how isolated they have become. The difference shows up this way: The Anglo-American system of politics and economics, like any system, rests on certain principles and beliefs. But rather than acting as if these are the best principles, or the ones their societies prefer, Britons and Americans often act as if these were the only possible principles and no one, except in error, could choose any others. Political economics becomes an essentially religious question, subject to the standard drawback of any religion—the failure to understand why people outside the faith might act as they do.

To make this more specific: Today’s Anglo-American world view rests on the shoulders of three men. One is Isaac Newton, the father of modern science. One is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the father of liberal political theory. (If we want to keep this purely Anglo-American, John Locke can serve in his place.) And one is Adam Smith, the father of laissez-faire economics. From these founding titans come the principles by which advanced society, in the Anglo-American view, is supposed to work. A society is supposed to understand the laws of nature as Newton outlined them. It is supposed to recognize the paramount dignity of the individual, thanks to Rousseau, Locke, and their followers. And it is supposed to recognize that the most prosperous future for the greatest number of people comes from the free workings of the market. So Adam Smith taught, with axioms that were enriched by David Ricardo, Alfred Marshall, and the other giants of neoclassical economics.

The most important thing about this summary is the moral equivalence of the various principles. Isaac Newton worked in the realm of fundamental science. Without saying so explicitly, today’s British and American economists act as if the economic principles they follow had a similar hard, provable, undebatable basis. If you don’t believe in the laws of physics—actions create reactions, the universe tends toward greater entropy—you are by definition irrational. And so with economics. If you don’t accept the views derived from Adam Smith—that free competition is ultimately best for all participants, that protection and interference are inherently wrong—then you are a flat-earther.

Outside the United States and Britain the matter looks quite different. About science there is no dispute. “Western” physics is the physics of the world. About politics there is more debate: with the rise of Asian economies some Asian political leaders, notably Lee Kuan Yew, of Singapore, and several cautious figures in Japan, have in effect been saying that Rousseau’s political philosophy is not necessarily the world’s philosophy. Societies may work best, Lee and others have said, if they pay less attention to the individual and more to the welfare of the group.

But the difference is largest when it comes to economics. In the non-Anglophone world Adam Smith is merely one of several theorists who had important ideas about organizing economies. In most of East Asia and continental Europe the study of economics is less theoretical than in England and America (which is why English-speakers monopolize Nobel Prizes) and more geared toward solving business problems.

In Japan economics has in effect been considered a branch of geopolitics—that is, as the key to the nation’s strength or vulnerability in dealing with other powers. From this practical-minded perspective English-language theorists seem less useful than their challengers, such as Friedrich List.

Two Clashing World Views

BRITONS and Americans tend to see the past two centuries of economics us one long progression toward rationality and good sense. In 1776 Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations made the case against old-style mercantilism, just as the Declaration of Independence made the case against old-style feudal and royal domination. Since then more and more of the world has come to the correct view—or so it seems in the Anglo-American countries. Along the way the world has met such impediments as neo-mercantilism, radical unionism, sweeping protectionism, socialism, and, of course, communism. One by one the worst threats have given way. Except for a few lamentable areas of backsliding, the world has seen the wisdom of Adam Smith’s ways.

Yet during this whole time there has been an alternative school of thought. The Enlightenment philosophers were not the only ones to think about how the world should be organized. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Germans were also active—to say nothing of the theorists at work in Tokugawa Japan, late imperial China, czarist Russia, and elsewhere.

The Germans deserve emphasis—more than the Japanese, the Chinese, the Russians, and so on because many of their philosophies endure. These did not take root in England or America, but they were carefully studied, adapted, and applied in parts of Europe and Asia, notably Japan. In place of Rousseau and Locke the Germans offered Hegel. In place of Adam Smith they had Friedrich List.

The German economic vision differs from the Anglo-American in many ways, but the crucial differences are these:

“Automatic” growth versus deliberate development

The Anglo-American approach emphasizes the unpredictability and unplannability of economics. Technologies change. Tastes change. Political and human circumstances change. And because life is so fluid, attempts at central planning are virtually doomed to fail. The best way to “plan,” therefore is to leave the adaptation to the people who have their own money at stake. These are the millions of entrepreneurs who make up any country’s economy. No planning agency could have better information than they about the direction things are moving, and no one could have a stronger incentive than those who hope to make a profit and avoid a loss. By the logic of the Anglo-American system, if each individual does what is best for him or her, the result will be what is best for the nation as a whole.

Although List and others did not use exactly this term, the German school was more concerned with “market failures.” In the language of modern economics these are the cases in which normal market forces produce a clearly undesirable result. The standard illustration involves pollution. If the law allows factories to dump pollutants into the air or water, then every factory will do so. Otherwise, their competitors will have lower costs and will squeeze them out. This “rational” behavior will leave everyone worse off. The answer to such a market failure is for the society—that is, the government—to set standards that all factories must obey.

Friedrich List and his best-known American counterpart, Alexander Hamilton, argued that industrial development entailed a more sweeping sort of market failure. Societies did not automatically move from farming to small crafts to major industries just because millions of small merchants were making decisions for themselves. If every person put his money where the return was greatest, the money might not automatically go where it would do the nation the most good. For it to do so required a plan, a push, an exercise of central power. List drew heavily on the history of his times—in which the British government deliberately encouraged British manufacturing and the fledgling American government deliberately discouraged foreign competitors.

This is the gist of List’s argument, from The Natural System of Political Economy, which he wrote in five weeks in 1837:

The cosmopolitan theorists [List’s term for Smith and his ilk] do not question the importance of industrial expansion. They assume, however, that this can be achieved by adopting the policy of free trade and by leaving individuals to pursue their own private interests. They believe that in such circumstances a country will automatically secure the development of those branches of manufacture which are best suited to its own particular situation. They consider that government action to stimulate the establishment of industries does more harm than good…. The lessons of history justify our opposition to the assertion that states reach economic maturity most rapidly if left to their own devices. A study of the origin of various branches of manufacture reveals that industrial growth may often have been due to chance. It may be chance that leads certain individuals to a particular place to foster the expansion of an industry that was once small and insignificant—just as seeds blown by chance by the wind may sometimes grow into big trees. But the growth of industries is a process that may take hundreds of years to complete and one should not ascribe to sheer chance what a nation has achieved through its laws and institutions. In England Edward III created the manufacture of woolen cloth and Elizabeth founded the mercantile marine and foreign trade. In France Colbert was responsible for all that a great power needs to develop its economy. Following these examples every responsible government should strive to remove those obstacles that hinder the progress of civilisation and should stimulate the growth of those economic forces that a nation carries in its bosom.

Consumers versus producers

The Anglo-American approach assumes that the ultimate measure of a society is its level of consumption. Competition is good, because it kills off producers whose prices are too high. Killing them off is good, because more-efficient suppliers will give the consumer a better deal. Foreign trade is very good, because it means that the most efficient suppliers in the whole world will be able to compete. It doesn’t even matter why competitors are willing to sell for less. They may really be more efficient; they may be determined to dump their goods for reasons of their own. In either case the consumer is better off. He has the ton of steel, the cask of wine, or—in today’s terms—the car or computer that he might have bought from a domestic manufacturer, plus the money he saved by buying foreign goods.

In the Friedrich List view, this logic leads to false conclusions. In the long run, List argued, a society’s well-being and its overall wealth are determined not by what the society can buy but by what it can make. This is the corollary of the familiar argument about foreign aid: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for his life.

List was not concerned here with the morality of consumption. Instead he was interested in both strategic and material well-being. In strategic terms nations ended up being dependent or independent according to their ability to make things for themselves. Why were Latin Americans, Africans, and Asians subservient to England and France in the nineteenth century? Because they could not make the machines and weapons Europeans could.

In material terms a society’s wealth over the long run is greater if that society also controls advanced activities. That is, if you buy the ton of steel or cask of wine at bargain rates this year, you are better off, as a consumer, right away. But over ten years, or fifty, you and your children may be stronger as both consumers and producers if you learn how to make the steel and wine yourself. If you can make steel rather than just being able to buy it, you’ll be better able to make machine tools. If you’re able to make machine tools, you’ll be better able to make engines, robots, airplanes. If you’re able to make engines and robots and airplanes, your children and grandchildren will be more likely to make advanced products and earn high incomes in the decades ahead.

The German school argued that emphasizing consumption would eventually be self-defeating. It would bias the system away from wealth creation—and ultimately make it impossible to consume as much. To use a homely analogy: One effect of getting regular exercise is being able to eat more food, just as an effect of steadily rising production is being able to consume more. But if people believe that the reason to get exercise is to permit themselves to eat more, rather than for longer term benefits they will behave in a different way. List’s argument was that developing productive power was in itself a reward. “The forces of production are the tree on which wealth grows,” List wrote in another book, called The National System of Political Economy.

The tree which bears the fruit is of greater value than the fruit itself…. The prosperity of a nation is not … greater in the proportion in which it has amassed more wealth (ie, values of exchange), but in the proportion in which it has more developed its powers of production.

Process versus result

In economics and politics alike the Anglo-American theory emphasizes how the game is played, not who wins or loses. If the rules are fair, then the best candidate will win. If you want better politics or a stronger economy, you should concentrate on reforming the rules by which political and economic struggles are waged. Make sure everyone can vote; make sure everyone can bring new products to market. Whatever people choose under those fair rules will by definition be the best result. Abraham Lincoln or Warren Harding, Shakespeare or Penthouse—in a fair system whatever people choose will be right.

The government’s role, according to this outlook, is not to tell people how they should pursue happiness or grow rich. Rather, its role is that of referee—making sure no one cheats or bends the rules of “fair play,” whether by voter fraud in the political realm or monopoly in the economic.

In the late twentieth century the clearest practical illustration of this policy has been the U.S. financial market. The government is actively involved—but only to guard the process, not to steer the results. It runs elaborate sting operations to try to prevent corporate officials from trading on inside information. It requires corporations to publish detailed financial reports every quarter, so that all investors will have the same information to work from. It takes companies to court—IBM, AT&T—whenever they seem to be growing too strong and stunting future competitors. It exposes pension-fund managers to punishment if they do not invest their assets where the dividends are greatest.

These are all ways of ensuring that the market will “get prices right,” as economists say, so that investments will flow to the best possible uses. Beyond that it is up to the market to decide where the money goes. Short-term loans to cover the budget deficits in Mexico or the United States? Fine. Long-term investments in cold-fusion experimentation? Fine. The market will automatically assign each prospect the right price. If fusion engines really would revolutionize the world, then investors will voluntarily risk their money there.

The German view is more paternalistic. People might not automatically choose the best society or the best use of their money. The state, therefore, must be concerned with both the process and the result. Expressing an Asian variant of the German view, the sociologist Ronald Dore has written that the Japanese—”like all good Confucianists”—believe that “you cannot get a decent, moral society, not even an efficient society, simply out of the mechanisms of the market powered by the motivational fuel of self-interest.” So, in different words, said Friedrich List.

Individuals versus the nation

The Anglo-American view focuses on how individuals fare as consumers and on how the whole world fares as a trading system. But it does not really care about the intermediate levels between one specific human being and all five billion—that is, about communities and nations.

This criticism may seem strange, considering that Adam Smith called his mighty work The Wealth of Nations. It is true that Smith was more of a national-defense enthusiast than most people who now invoke his name. For example, he said that the art of war was the “noblest” of the arts, and he approved various tariffs that would keep defense-related industries strong—which in those days meant sailcloth making. He also said that since defense “is of much more importance than opulence, the act of navigation is, perhaps, the wisest of all the commercial regulations of England.” This “act of navigation” was, of course, the blatantly protectionist legislation designed to restrict the shipment of goods going to and from England mostly to English ships.

Still, the assumption behind the Anglo-American model is that if you take care of the individuals, the communities and nations will take care of themselves. Some communities will suffer, as dying industries and inefficient producers go down, but other communities will rise. And as for nations as a whole, outside the narrow field of national defense they are not presumed to have economic interests. There is no general “American” or “British” economic interest beyond the welfare of the individual consumers who happen to live in America or Britain.

The German view is more concerned with the welfare, indeed sovereignty, of people in groups—in communities, in nations. This is its most obvious link with the Asian economic strategies of today. Friedrich List fulminated against the “cosmopolitan theorists,” like Adam Smith, who ignored the fact that people lived in nations and that their welfare depended to some degree on how their neighbors fared. In the real world happiness depends on more than how much money you take home. If the people around you are also comfortable (though, ideally, not as comfortable as you), you are happier and safer than if they are desperate. This, in brief, is the case that today’s Japanese make against the American economy: American managers and professionals live more opulently than their counterparts in Japan, but they have to guard themselves, physically and morally, against the down-and-out people with whom they share the country.

In the German view, the answer to this predicament is to pay explicit attention to the welfare of the nation. If a consumer has to pay 10 percent more for a product made by his neighbors than for one from overseas, it will be worse for him in the short run. But in the long run, and in the broadest definitions of well-being, he might be better off. As List wrote in The National System of Political Economy

Between each individual and entire humanity, however, stands the NATION, with its special language and literature, with its peculiar origin and history, with its special manners and customs, laws and institutions, with the claims of all these for existence, independence, perfection, and continuance for the future, and with its separate territory; a society which, united by a thousand ties of mind and of interests, combines itself into one independent whole.

Economic policies, in the German view, will be good or bad depending on whether they take into account this national economic interest. Which leads to

Business as peace versus business as war

By far the most uplifting part of the Anglo-American view is the idea that everyone can prosper at once. Before Adam Smith, the Spanish and Portuguese mercantilists viewed world trade as a kind of battle. What I won, you lost. Adam Smith and David Ricardo demonstrated that you and I could win at the same time. If I bought your wine and you bought my wool, we would both have more of what we wanted, for the same amount of work. The result would be the economist’s classic “positive sum” interaction. Your well-being and my well-being added together would be greater than they were before our trade.

The Germans had a more tragic, or “zero sum”-like, conception of how nations dealt with each other. Some won; others lost. Economic power often led to political power, which in turn let one nation tell others what to do. Since the Second World War, American politicians have often said that their trading goal is a “level playing field” for competition around the world. This very image implies a horizontal relationship among nations, in which they all good-naturedly joust as more or less equal rivals. “These horizontal metaphors are fundamentally misleading,” the American writer John Audis has written in the magazine In These Times.

Instead of being grouped horizontally on a flat field, nations have always been organized vertically in a hierarchical division of labor. The structure of the world economy more accurately resembles a pyramid or a cone rather than a plane. In the 17th century, the Dutch briefly stood atop the pyramid. Then, after a hundred year transition during which the British and French vied for supremacy, the British emerged in 1815 as the world’s leading industrial and financial power, maintaining their place through the end of the century. Then, after about a forty-year transition, the U.S. came out of World War II on top of the pyramid. Now we are in a similar period of transition from which it is likely, after another two decades, that Japan will emerge as the leading industrial power.

The same spirit and logic run through List’s arguments. Trade is not just a game. Over the long sweep of history some nations lose independence and control of their destiny if they fall behind in trade. Therefore nations must think about it strategically, not just as a matter of where they can buy the cheapest shirt this week.

In The Natural System of Political Economy, List included a chapter on this theme, “The Dominant Nation.” Like many other things written about Britain in the nineteenth century, it makes bittersweet reading for twentieth-century Americans. “England’s manufactures are based upon highly efficient political and social institutions, upon powerful machines, upon great capital resources, upon an output larger than that of all other countries, and upon a complete network of internal transport facilities,” List said of the England of the 1830s, as many have said of the United States of the 1950s and 1960s.

A nation which makes goods more cheaply than anyone else and possesses immeasurably more capital than anyone else is able to grant its customers more substantial and longer credits than anyone else….By accepting or by excluding the import of their raw materials and other products, England—all powerful as a manufacturing and commercial country—can confer great benefits or inflict great injuries upon nations with relatively backward economies.

This is what England lost when it lost “dominance,” and what Japan is gaining now.

Morality versus power

By now the Anglo-American view has taken on a moral tone that was embryonic when Adam Smith wrote his book. If a country disagrees with the Anglo-American axioms, it doesn’t just disagree: it is a “cheater.” Japan “cheats” the world trading system by protecting its rice farmers. America “cheats” with its price supports for sugar-beet growers and its various other restrictions on trade. Malaysia “cheated” by requiring foreign investors to take on local partners. And on and on. If the rules of the trading system aren’t protected from such cheating, the whole system might collapse and bring back the Great Depression.

In the German view, economics is not a matter of right or wrong, or cheating or playing fair. It is merely a matter of strong or weak. The gods of trade will help those who help themselves. No code of honor will defend the weak, as today’s Latin Americans and Africans can attest. If a nation decides to help itself—by protecting its own industries, by discriminating against foreign products—then that is a decision, not a sin.

Wishing Away Reality

WHY bring the Germans into it? Because they had a lasting effect—outside the Anglo-American bloc. With the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry and his American warships in 1853, the Japanese realized that the Western world had far outstripped them in both commercial and military technology. Throughout the rest of Asia were examples of what happened to countries that were weaker than the Europeans or the Americans: they turned into colonies. Through the rest of the nineteenth century Japan’s leaders devoted themselves to modernizing the country, so that it would no longer be vulnerable. During the decades of sustained creativity known as the Meiji era, from 1868 to 1912, Japanese scholars, industrialists, and administrators carefully studied Western theories about how economies grew. In the writings of List and other continental theorists they found a set of prescriptions more persuasive than the laissez-faire teachings of Adam Smith.

The most important part of the German-Asian argument is its near invisibility in the English-speaking world, especially the United States. The problem is not that Americans don’t accept the German analysis: in many ways it is flawed. The problem is that they don’t know that it exists. For instance, a popular dictionary of economics, edited by American and British economists and published in 1991, has a long explanation of the Laffer curve but no mention of List.

Some “real” economists are not quite so closed-minded. Since at least the early 1980s economists at several American universities have, in essence, rediscovered Friedrich List. (But not at all universities. In 1992 Robert Wade, the author of the influential book Governing the Market, went looking in the MIT library for List’s work. Wade previously had been teaching in Korea, and there he had found plenty of copies of List’s works in every campus bookstore. But in the catalogue of MIT’s vast library system Wade found an entry for just a single volume by List, The National System of Political Economy, in an edition published in 1885. When Wade finally obtained the book, he found that it had last been checked out in 1966.) They have examined more and more failures in the Anglo-American model. They have found more and more evidence that “cheating,” in the form of protectionism, can increase a nation’s wealth. But very little of this news has trickled down to the realms where economics is usually discussed—newspaper editorials, TV talk shows, and the other forms of punditry that define reasonable and unreasonable ideas. When Americans talk about wealth, poverty, and their nation’s place in the world, they often act as if Adam Smith’s theories were the only theories still in play.

After the World Bank’s meeting in Bangkok in 1991 an editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal proclaimed that “with a few sickly exceptions, such as the decaying Communist holdouts of China and Vietnam, it seems that the ideas of Adam Smith, of Alfred Marshall, of Milton Friedman, have triumphed. We are all capitalists now.”

This is true only if we accept the most vulgar and imprecise statement of what being a capitalist means. The economies that have grown most impressively over the past generation—from Germany to Thailand to Korea to Japan all certainly believe in competition. Toyota and Nissan grow strong fighting each other. Daewoo and Hyundai compete on products from cars to computers to washing machines. But it would be very hard to find a businessman or an official in these countries who would say, with a straight face, that these industries grew “automatically” or in a “natural” way.

Two years ago another Wall Street Journal item, this one a review of a book on trade, said,

[The author] puts it well: ‘The benefits of unilaterally adopting free trade now are greater than the benefits of multilateral adoption of free trade ten or fifteen years from now.’ Ask Hong Kong, which has totally shunned retaliation and not coincidentally has had the highest growth rate in the world over the past three decades.

Yes, indeed—ask Hong Kong. Since the end of the Second World War its policy has generally been laissez-faire. Compared with the rest of Asia, Hong Kong interferes less, plans less, and leaves market forces more on their own. What has been the result? During the 1980s the real earnings of Hong Kong’s people rose more slowly than those of the people of Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and Taiwan. It is a busy, bustling entrepot of merchants, especially those handling commerce in and out of China. But as an industrial center it is falling behind its neighbors.

In the mid-1980s David Aikman, a journalist for Time, wrote a book about the “miracle” economies of Asia. The successes of Taiwan and Hong Kong, he wrote, “demonstrate just how faithful, consciously or not, the rulers of these two countries have been to American conceptions of free enterprise.”

Despite Hong Kong’s lack of regulations, though, and despite the small businesses that abound in Taiwan, to say that either of these places behaves in an “American” way is to drain the term of all meaning. For example, as late as 1987 most imports of steel into Taiwan had to be approved by the nation’s big steel maker, China Steel. The United States, too, protects its steel industry, but this is presumably not what the author meant in saying that Taiwan had been “faithful” to American concepts of free enterprise.

“There is a great deal of misinformation abroad about the trade regimes of [Taiwan and Korea], misinformation which is cultivated by the governments to conceal how much real protection there has been,” the economist Robert Wade wrote in an exhaustive study that concentrated on Taiwan and rebutted virtually everything in Aikman’s book.

East Asian trade regimes are inconsistent in important ways with even a modified version of the standard economist’s account of what a good trade regime looks like…. It is amazing and even scandalous that the distinguished academic theorists of trade policy…. have not tried to reconcile these facts about East Asian trade regimes with their core prescriptions [emphasis added]….

Anyone who reads American or British newspapers or listens to political speeches in English could provide other examples. But they’re not necessary. The Anglo-American theories have obviously won the battle of ideas—when that battle is carried out in English. The concepts of consumer welfare, comparative advantage, and freest possible trade now seem not like concepts but like natural laws. But these concepts are detached from historical experience.

When We Acted the Way They Do

IN 1991 the economic historian William Lazonick published an intriguing book,Business Organization and the Myth of the Market Economy. It examined the way industrial economies had behaved during the years when they became strongest—England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and Japan from the late nineteenth century on.

These countries varied in countless ways, of course. The United Kingdom had a huge empire; the United States had a huge frontier; Japan had the advantage of applying technology the others had invented. Yet these success stories had one common theme, Lazonick showed. None of the countries conformed to today’s model of “getting-prices right” and putting the consumer’s welfare first. All had to “cheat” somehow to succeed.

Friedrich List had railed on about exactly this point in the 1840s, when England was the only industrial success story to observe. The British were just beginning to preach free-trade theory in earnest. They abolished the famous Corn Laws in 1846, exposing their inefficient domestic farmers to competition from overseas. Yet over the previous 150 years England had strong-armed its way to prosperity by violating every rule of free trade. It would be as if Japan, in the 1990s, finally opened its rice market to competition, in the name of free trade—and then persuaded itself that it had been taking a hands-off approach to industry for the previous 150 years. When England was building its technological lead over the rest of the world, Lazonick said, its leaders did not care just about the process of competition. They were determined to control the result, so that they would have the strongest manufacturers on earth.

British economists began talking about getting prices right only after they succeeded in promoting their own industries by getting prices wrong. Prices were wrong in that cheap competition from the colonies was forbidden. They were wrong in that the Crown subsidized and encouraged investment in factories and a fleet. They were right in that they made British industry strong.

By the time Adam Smith came on the scene, Lazonick said, the British could start lecturing other countries about the folly of tariffs and protection. Why should France (America, Prussia, China…) punish its consumers by denying them access to cheap, well-made English cloth? Yet the British theorists did not ask themselves why their products were so advanced, why “the world market…in the late eighteenth century was so uniquely under British control.” The answer would involve nothing like laissez-faire.

The full answer would instead include the might of the British navy, which by driving out the French and Spanish had made it easier for British ships to dominate trade routes. It would involve political measures that prevented the Portuguese and Irish from developing textile industries that could compete with England’s. It would include the Navigation Acts, which ensured a British monopoly in a number of the industries the country wanted most to develop. The answer involved land enclosure and a host of other measures that allowed British manufacturers to concentrate more capital than they could otherwise have obtained.

Lazonick summed up this process in a passage that exactly describes the predicament of the United States at the end of the twentieth century.

The nineteenth-century British advocated laissez-faire because, given the advanced economic development that their industries had already achieved, they thought that their firms could withstand open competition from foreigners. [They wanted] to convince other nations that they would be better off if they opened up their markets to British goods….[They] accepted as a natural fact of life Britain’s dominant position as the “workshop of the world” [emphasis added]. They did not bother to ask how Britain had attained that position…. But the ultimate critique of nineteenth-century laissez-faire ideology is not that it ignored the role of national power in Britain’s past and present. Rather, the ultimate critique is that laissez-faire failed to comprehend Britain’s economic future—a future in which, confronted by far more powerful systems of national capitalism, the British economy would enter into a long-run relative decline from which it has yet to recover.

America’s economic history follows the same pattern. While American industry was developing, the country had no time for laissez-faire. After it had grown strong, the United States began preaching laissez-faire to the rest of the world—and began to kid itself about its own history, believing its slogans about laissez-faire as the secret of its success.

The “traditional” American support for worldwide free trade is quite a recent phenomenon. It started only at the end of the Second World War. This period dominates the memory of most Americans now alive but does not cover the years of America’s most rapid industrial expansion. As the business historian Thomas McCraw, of the Harvard Business School, has pointed out, the United States, which was born in the same year as The Wealth of Nations, never practiced an out-and-out mercantilist policy, as did Spain in the colonial days. But “it did exhibit for 150 years after the Revolution a pronounced tendency toward protectionism, mostly through the device of the tariff.”

American schoolchildren now learn that their country had its own version of the Smith-List debate, when Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton squared off on what kind of economy the new nation should have. During George Washington’s first term Hamilton produced his famous “Report on Manufactures,” arguing that the country should deliberately encourage industries with tariffs and subsidies in order to compete with the mighty British. Jefferson and others set out a more pastoral, individualistic, yeoman-farmer vision of the country’s future. As everyone learns in class, Hamilton lost. He was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr, he is not honored on Mount Rushmore or in the capital, as Jefferson is; he survives mainly through his portrait on the $10 bill. Yet it was a strange sort of defeat, in that for more than a century after Hamilton submitted his report, the United States essentially followed his advice.

In 1810 Albert Gallatin, a successor of Hamilton’s as Secretary of the Treasury, said that British manufacturers enjoyed advantages that could keep Americans from ever catching up. A “powerful obstacle” to American industry, he said, was “the vastly superior capital of Great Britain which enables her merchants to give very long term credits, to sell on small profits, and to make occasional sacrifices.”

This, of course, is exactly what American manufacturers now say about Japan. Very little has changed in debates about free trade and protectionism in the past 200 years. If the antique language and references to out-of-date industries were removed from Hamilton’s report of 1791, it could have been republished in 1991 and would have fit right into the industrial-policy debate. “There is no purpose to which public money can be more beneficially applied, than to the acquisition of a new and useful branch of industry” was the heart of Hamilton’s argument—and, similarly, of many modern-day Democratic Party economic plans.

In the years before the American Revolution most leaders in the Colonies supported the concept of British protectionist measures. They were irritated by new taxes and levies in the 1760s and l770s—but they had seen how effective Britain’s approach was in developing industries. Through the nineteenth century the proper level of a national tariff was on a par with slavery as a chronically divisive issue. Northerners generally wanted a higher tariff, to protect their industries; farmers and southerners wanted a lower tariff, so that they could buy cheaper imported supplies. Many politicians were unashamed protectionists. “I don’t know much about the tariff,” Abraham Lincoln said, in what must have been an aw-shucks way. “But I know this much. When we buy manufactured goods abroad we get the goods and the foreigner gets the money. When we buy the manufactured goods at home, we get both the goods and the money.” The United States had, just before Lincoln’s term, forced the Japanese to accept treaties to “open” the Japanese market. These provided that Japan could impose a tariff of no more than five percent on most imported goods. America’s average tariff on all imports was almost 30 percent at the time.

In the 1880s the University of Pennsylvania required that economics lecturers not subscribe to the theory of free trade. A decade later William McKinley was saying that the tariff had been the crux of the nation’s wealth: “We lead all nations in agriculture; we lead all nations in mining; we lead all nations in manufacturing. These are the trophies which we bring after twenty-nine years of a protective tariff.” The national tariff level on dutiable goods had varied, but it stayed above 30 percent through most of the nineteenth century. When the United States began to preach or practice free trade, after the Second World War, the average duty paid on imports fell from about nine percent in 1945 to about four percent in the late 1970s.

In addition to the tariff, nineteenth-century America went in heavily for industrial planning—occasionally under that name but more often in the name of national defense. The military was the excuse for what we would now call rebuilding infrastructure, picking winners, promoting research, and coordinating industrial growth. As Geoffrey Perret has pointed out in A Country Made by War, many evolutions about which people now say “That was good for the country” occurred only because someone could say at the time “This will be good for the military”—giving the government an excuse to step in.

In the mid-nineteenth century settlers moving west followed maps drawn by Army cartographers, along roads built by Army engineers and guarded by Army forts. At the end of the century the U.S. Navy searched for ways to build bigger, stronger warships and along the way helped foster the world’s most advanced steel industry.

Just before Thomas Jefferson took office as President, the U.S. government began an ambitious project to pick winners. England surpassed America in virtually every category of manufacturing, and so, to a lesser degree, did France. Wheels turned and gears spun throughout Europe, but they barely did so in the new United States. In 1798 Congress authorized an extraordinary purchase of muskets from the inventor Eli Whitney, who was at the time struggling and in debt. Congress offered him an unprecedented contract to provide 10,000 muskets within twenty-eight months. This was at a time when the average production rate was one musket per worker per week. Getting the muskets was only part of what Congress accomplished: this was a way to induce, and to finance, a mass-production industry for the United States. Whitney worked round the clock, developed America’s first mass-production equipment, and put on a show for the congressmen. He brought a set of disassembled musket locks to Washington and invited congressmen to fit the pieces together themselves—showing that the age of standardized parts had arrived.

“The nascent American arms industry led where the rest of manufacturing followed,” Perret concluded. “Far from being left behind by the Industrial Revolution the United States, in a single decade and thanks largely to one man, had suddenly burst into the front rank.” America took this step not by waiting for it to occur but by deliberately promoting the desired result.

For most of the next century and a half the U.S. government was less interested in improving the process of competition than in achieving a specific result. It cared less about getting prices right and more about getting ahead. This theme runs through the Agriculture Extension Service, which got information to farmers more rapidly than free-market forces might have; the shipbuilding programs of the late nineteenth century, which stimulated the machine-tool and metal-working industries; aircraft-building contracts; and medical research.

What America actually did while industrializing is not what we tell ourselves about industrialization today. Consumer welfare took second place; promoting production came first. A preference for domestic industries did cost consumers money. A heavy tariff on imported British rails made the expansion of the American railroads in the 1880s costlier than it would otherwise have been. But this protectionist policy coincided with, and arguably contributed to, the emergence of a productive, efficient American steel industry. The United States trying to catch up with Britain behaved more or less like the leaders of Meiji (and postwar) Japan trying to catch up with the United States. Alexander Hamilton, dead and unmourned, won.

Thomas McCraw says that the American pattern was not some strange exception but in fact the norm. The great industrial successes of the past two centuries—America after its Revolution, Germany under Bismarck, Japan after the Second World War—all violated the rules of laissez-faire. Despite the obvious differences among these countries, he says, the underlying economic strategy was very much the same.

Neat Theory, Messy Reality


NEAR the end of his long career the great economist Joseph Schumpeter speculated on what he would do if he were young again. Suppose he woke up as a bright-eyed graduate student in economics rather than a wizened professor. What would he choose to do with his new allotment of years?


Modern economics research followed three main branches: economic theory, statistics, and economic history. By the time Schumpeter wrote, economic theory was clearly the most glamorous of the callings, and statistics seemed the most practical. But, Schumpeter said, he would surely devote his life to studying economic history.


This may seem a boring choice, and if it does, it goes to the heart of how we think about economic life. Since the end of the Second World War, and perhaps since the time of Adam Smith, the glamorous work in economics has been deeply unhistorical. In part this is just a matter of cosmetics. With each passing year since 1945 American economics textbooks have been jammed fuller and fuller of formulas, graphs, mathematical variables, and regression analyses. At the same time, they have lightened the dosage of real examples from the real world. In the mid-1980s researchers surveyed 212 students at the most prestigious American graduate schools of economics, asking them what factors were more or less essential for success as a professional economist. Sixty-five percent of the graduate students said it was very important to be “smart in the sense of being good at problem-solving” in order to succeed as an economist. Only three percent said it was very important to have “a thorough knowledge of the economy.”


Modern economics has become exceedingly precise about one kind of problem but less and less interested in another. Anglo-American economists devote much of their effort to “equilibrium studies” and “constrained optimization”—in essence, laboratory experiments involving economics. In a laboratory you can control many variables—the temperature, the amount of lighting or contamination—so as to focus on the single factor you want to understand. In mathematical economics you can “control” many variables by taking them for granted, and then focus on what you want to understand. You assume, as a given, that some people are owners and others are laborers, that Korea has a semiconductor industry and Mali does not, that women earn less than men. Then you calculate, within these constraints, the best possible outcome—what trade policy Mali should pursue, what rate of inheritance tax will make an economy grow fastest.


Within this set of laboratory conditions the tools of economic analysis are very powerful. By getting prices right Mali will make the best use of the resources it has at hand. But the most interesting and important economic questions concern the assumptions and constraints themselves. Why are some countries chronically so poor? Why have others done so much to pull ahead?


Economic analysis can tell you where you can get the best return on an investment this week. It can tell you how a change in tax rates might affect the unemployment rate this year. It can even tell you how a new tariff level is likely to affect the volume of world trade over the course of this decade. But it has a very hard time accounting for the larger rises and falls in world affairs: why it was England and not France that dominated the nineteenth-century world economy; why it was Germany and not Poland that industrialized so rapidly at the end of that century; why Japan caught up in the early twentieth century and again now. Economics is a wonderful tool for analyzing trends and changes once nations have assumed their ranks. But getting prices right is not so good for understanding how they got to those ranks, and why the ranks change.


This would not be a serious failing except that most people believe that getting prices right tells us about the long run as well as the short. Indeed, the long-run evidence suggests that getting prices wrong—that is, violating the rules of Anglo-American economics may be indispensable for nations that are trying to get ahead.


In the late 1980s the economist Alice Amsden wrote a book about the Korean economy called Asia’s Next Giant. In that book and subsequent writings she said that Korea’s post-Second World War rise had much in common with Japan’s industrial miracles and with Germany’s industrialization in the nineteenth century. In none of these cases, she said, did the country get prices right, letting investors and consumers freely decide where they would put their money. The real secret, she said, was that unless a country deliberately rigged the markets so as to get prices wrong, it had no hope of catching up in the industrial race.


THE key to capitalistic development, in this view, is finally capital. If you want to build factories, leapfrog your competitors in efficiency, train your people so that they can outproduce others, you need money. If you are a poor nation, you don’t have enough money sitting around to begin with; and if you are a rich nation, you are likely to have committed your extra money to pension and benefit programs, as the United States has now. Still, you need the money—for new factories, for research, for distribution networks. How do you get it?


Historically, Amsden concluded, successful nations have gotten extra money by rigging their markets. The goal is to get people to save more of their paychecks, and banks to lend more money for long-term industrial expansion, than normal market forces would allow. To make its people save, a country needs to jack up interest rates; to allow businesses to invest, it needs to keep the rates low. Under Anglo-American theory the country would just let these two forces fight it out until they reached the natural equilibrium. But that is not how successful development has actually occurred, Amsden said.


Industrial expansion depends on savings and investment, but in ‘backward’ countries especially savings and investment are in conflict over the ideal interest rate, high in one case, low in the other. In Korea and other late-industrializing countries, this conflict has been mediated by the subsidy…. Thus, the government established multiple prices for loans, only one of which could possibly have been “right” according to the law of supply and demand. Moreover, the most critical price—that for long-term credit—was wildly ‘wrong’ in a capital-scarce country, its real price, due to inflation, being negative.


That is, in order for Korea to get enough money into the hands of its industries, it needed to bend the rules. The crucial thing about this undertaking, Amsden emphasized, is that it was not some Korean quirk. Every country that has caught up with others has had to do so by rigging its rules: extracting extra money from its people and steering the money into industrialists’ hands.


Today’s Americans and Britons may not like this new system, which makes their economic life more challenging and confusing than it would otherwise be. They are not obliged to try to imitate its structure, which in many ways fits the social circumstances of East Asia better than those of the modern United States or Britain. But the English-speaking world should stop ignoring the existence of this system—and stop pretending that it doesn’t work. 


Why Kent Hovind dismisses evolution as “STUPID”

If you’re [un]fortunate enough to keep in touch with a lot of people, one of those acquaintances may ask what you think of Kent Hovind.

Hovind has a speech that he was doing called Evolution is Stupid, you can see it on Youtube.

Einstein wrote that:

Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler

Hovind wants to poke fun at the theory of evolution. That’s fine. Remember, it’s a Theory. The fact is that there are many many things that we don’t know. Humanity has learned much about the world in only a few thousands years of written history. The most advanced societies on earth today will most likely be primitive and barbaric as viewed from another 10,000 years in the future. We’ll appear little different from the cave man.

Each of Hovind’s soundbite analogies is flawed, to pick one of the most glaring, he uses the Newtonian physics example of children spinning on a ride to explain the spinning of galaxies and universes, but these two ideas are simply not related. If you read Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and the General Theory (written for general audiences not conversant in the math of theoretical physics) Einstein’s observations are completely unexpected, but many have been proven true in the lab. Very large quantities and very small quantities (such as micro-processors) work counter to newtonian physics that are more readily observed at human scale.

The term “evolution” was invented when Darwin wrote on the origin of species, which I haven’t yet read, and therefore can’t really comment on. When the scientific community says “evolution” they are not talking about “cosmic evolution”, “chemical evolution”, “stelar and planetary evolution” (same as Hovind’s cosmic evolution, no?), organic evolution and macro-evolution. They are talking about application of the scientific method to the origin question (origin of the universe, origin of the earth, origin of the species). We could very well all be part of some system bigger than the universe, just as a few hundred years ago any system larger than the solar system was beyond our comprehension, and in only the last two centuries have we come to understand how the milky way galaxy exists as only a small part of a large collection of galaxies.

If somebody believes with religious fervor in the theory of evolution, then they don’t understand the point of the theory. Our goal is simply to use the scientific method (research, hypothesis, experimentation, analysis) to better understand origin. We will probably not arrive at certainty because the real world, just like real life, are not so simple. To quote Sagan, it’s better to light a candle then to curse the darkness.

Sagan also observed:

“I find many adults are put off when young children pose scientific questions. Why is the Moon round? the children ask. Why is grass green? What is a dream? How deep can you dig a hole? When is the world’s birthday? Why do we have toes? Too many teachers and parents answer with irritation or ridicule, or quickly move on to something else: ‘What did you expect the Moon to be, square?’ Children soon recognize that somehow this kind of question annoys the grown-ups. A few more experiences like it, and another child has been lost to science. Why adults should pretend to omniscience before 6-year-olds, I can’t for the life of me understand. What’s wrong with admitting that we don’t know something? Is our self-esteem so fragile?”

The bottom line is that we don’t fully understand. There is so much that we don’t know yet. Some things that we may never know. But the fact that we don’t know yet doesn’t mean that we should trust any story to be true, for any reason. Be it the Quran, the Book of Mormon, the Torah (translated as hebrew bible or old testament) or some translation of the Christian New Testament, Buddhist texts, Hindu texts, or the smaller religious groups ostracized as cults yet are not better or worse, simply not as successful in conversion, yet. Bottom line, Associate with the people that you like. Sing the songs that make you happy. Believe in the system that gives you peace and success. But be careful of any claim to knowledge or truth that refuses to be scrutinized. Buddha himself wrote:

Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.

Or as Steve Jobs said:

Stay hungry, Stay Curious

Tim Krieder, in We Learn Nothing wrote:

We tend to make up these stories in the same circumstances in which people come up with conspiracy theories: ignorance and powerlessness. And they share the same flawed premise as most conspiracy theories: that the world is way more well planned and organized than it really is. They ascribe a malevolent intentionality to what is more likely simple ineptitude or neglect.

You have real opportunities in front of you. Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari and one time boss of Steve Jobs said:

The critical ingredient is getting off your butt and doing something. It’s as simple as that. A lot of people have ideas, but there are few who decide to do something about them now. Not tomorrow. Not next week. But today. The true entrepreneur is a doer, not a dreamer.


Japan and the Economics of the American Empire

Excerpt from Chalmers Johnson‘s excellent Blowback, written 18 months before september 11th, and stated that some middle easter blowback (CIA euphemism for anti-US results of US foreign policy and covert operations) was a near certainty. Blowback also predicted much of the 2008 economic collapse, though post 2008 adjustments have simply prolonged the problem rather than confronting the cause.

During the Cold War the Soviet Union lost any number of friends and potential allies by forever hectoring them about Marxism and the stages of economic growth they would have to go through in order ever to hope to live like Russians. Such Marxist rigidity clearly benefited the American side in the superpower face-off of that era. Ideological arrogance turned many countries, like Tanzania and Egypt, against their Soviet economic advisers, and overbearing Soviet behavior contributed heavily to the Sino-Soviet dispute. Unfortunately, in the post–Cold War era it is the United States that is exhibiting a capitalist version of such heavy-handedness and arrogance.


Ideology—that is, the doctrines, opinions, or way of thinking of an individual, a class, a nation, or an empire—is as tricky a substance to use in international conflicts as poison gas. It, too, has a tendency to blow back onto the party releasing it. During the late 1950s, in the depths of the Cold War, many Americans began to suspect that the Soviet Union was actually a third-rate economy; but it still had the world’s most alluring ideology, a body of thought capable of attracting more people in the Third World than the “possessive individualism” (to use the philosopher C. B. Macpherson’s term) espoused by the United States. Soviet intellectual appeals were built around the ideas of Karl Marx—indubitably a man of the West and properly buried in Highgate Cemetery, London—which attracted even the most chauvinistic people on earth, the Chinese. Marxism-Leninism, as espoused by the Soviet Union, provided explanations for the inequities of colonialism, a model of economic development based on the achievements of Russia under Stalin, and the promise of world peace when all nations had passed beyond imperialism, which was the “final stage of capitalism.”


Part of what gave Soviet ideology such power to convince whole peoples in the Third World was the way it assimilated and invoked the single most uncontested ideology of our century, that of science. It claimed to rest not on the hopes of idealistic reformers but on the logic of “scientific socialism.” The Soviets insisted that they were acting in accordance with laws of human development discovered by their patron saints, Marx and Lenin. By contrast, the ideology of the “free world” looked at best like a rationalization of the privileges enjoyed by Americans because of their exceptional geography and history.


Not surprisingly, American leaders came to feel that somehow they had to match the ideological claims of communism in what they saw as a great global battle for the souls of earth’s contested majority. Nowhere did this need seem more acutely necessary than in East Asia, where Communist regimes had come to power in China, North Korea, and Vietnam despite the fact that Marx’s analysis of class conflict in industrializing societies bore only the faintest relation to the actual conditions in any of these countries. At the time, communism was also an active competitor in every other country of the region. Asians were attracted to it precisely because it claimed to be based on science—the ingredient that seemed to undergird the industrial and military might of their European, American, and Japanese colonizers—and because the example of the Soviet Union held out the hope of a solution that might someday be within their own revolutionary grasp.


The American response, never expressly articulated but based on the total mobilization of the American people for the Cold War by President John F. Kennedy and other leaders, was twofold. First, we would do everything in our considerable power to turn Japan into a capitalist alternative to mainland China, a model and a showcase of what Asians might expect if they threw in their lot with the Americans instead of the Communists. Second, academic economics as taught in most American universities was subtly transformed into a fighting ideology of the “West.” From each of these transformations would come fateful consequences for the American empire after its competition with the Soviet Union ended. Because most Americans never understood either policy to be a strategy for pursuing the Cold War, they took both Japan’s achievements and the wealth of the West to be evidence of an ineluctable destiny that made the United States a singularly appropriate model for the rest of the world. Any doubts raised about these propositions were seen as undermining the pretensions of the American empire. Thus, what began as tactical responses to temporary, often illusory or misleadingly interpreted Soviet “advantages” ended up as ideological articles of faith for the “sole superpower” of the post–Cold War world.


From approximately 1950 to 1975, the United States treated Japan as a beloved ward, indulging its every economic need and proudly patronizing it as a star capitalist pupil. The United States sponsored Japan’s entry into many international institutions, like the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, well before a post–World War II global consensus in favor of Japan had developed. It also transferred crucial technologies to the Japanese on virtually concessionary terms and opened its markets to Japanese products while tolerating Japan’s protection of its own domestic market. It even supported the Japanese side in all claims by individual American firms that they had been damaged by Japanese competitors. In addition, the United States allowed Japan to retain an artificially undervalued currency in order to give its exports a price advantage for well over a decade longer than it did any of the rebuilt European economies.


We proclaimed Japan a democracy and a model of what free markets could achieve while simultaneously helping to rig both its economic and political systems. We used the CIA to finance the ruling party and engaged in all manner of dirty tricks to divide and discredit domestic socialists.1 In this process there was much self-deception. For far too long America’s leading officials insisted that Japan could never be an economic competitor of the United States’. President Eisenhower’s secretary of state John Foster Dulles was, for example, convinced that while the Japanese might be able to sell shirts, pajamas, “and perhaps cocktail napkins” to the American market, little else was possible for them.2 Americans did not wake up to Japan’s competitive challenge until their steel, consumer electronics, robotics, automotive, camera, and semiconductor industries were virtually extinct or fighting for their lives.


After the “security treaty riots” of 1960, when a Japanese mass movement tried to prevent the signing of a treaty that would perpetuate the basing of American troops in Japan and Okinawa, the United States moved its campaign to portray Japan as a model democracy into high gear. It appointed as ambassador the well-known Harvard historian of Japan Edwin O. Reischauer, who was married to a Japanese woman from a distinguished political family. His job was to repair the damage to the image of Japanese-American amity caused by the 1960 riots, which to many Asians appeared to be a Japanese equivalent to the Budapest uprising of 1956. Reischauer was to “reopen a dialogue” with the alienated Japanese left while shoring up the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, its aging rightists from prewar and wartime governments now screened from public view while it emphasized economic growth over democracy.


Perhaps Reischauer’s most influential step was to endorse in his own extensive writings and speeches of the time a movement among American academic specialists to rewrite the history of modern Japan as a case study of successful “modernization.” So-called modernization theory flourished in the United States during the 1960s just as the Japanese economy “took off” (to use that famous term of the modernization theorists), achieving double-digit growth rates. This new approach to Japan traced the country’s course of development from the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which was Japan’s debut as a unified nation rather than a collection of feudal states. It contrasted Japan’s achievement of great-power status with the dependency and susceptibility to colonialism of the rest of Asia, particularly China. It stressed how the initial authoritarianism of the Meiji oligarchs evolved into a toleration of political parties during the 1920s, producing at least the possibility of parliamentary democracy. The theory drew attention to how the “liberal” 1920s, although ultimately destroyed by reaction and militarism after 1931, provided precedents for reform that many Japanese leaders seized upon when genuine democratization got under way during the American occupation.


Japan emerged from this stirring tale of political and economic development as an exemplary nation, the only country in Asia that avoided being colonized. The fact that it did so by joining the Western colonialists in victimizing the other countries of Asia was underemphasized in such accounts. Japan’s kuroi tanima, or “dark valley,” from 1931 to 1945, in which it warred with China and the United States, was explained away as due to a unique concatenation of international factors—the Great Depression, the closing of European and American colonies to Japanese exports, Japan’s fear of bolshevism, and American isolationism. What actually went on in the “dark valley,” from the rape of Nanking to the Bataan Death March, was incidental to the tale of economic growth and political consolidation and best forgotten, since Japan’s aggression was now understood to be but a temporary sidestep on a long march toward modernization. The emperor of Japan, who had reigned since 1926 and presided over much military aggression and brutality, emerged as a simple marine biologist and pacifist who had opposed the war from the beginning and had actually brought it to an end in 1945 through his own decisive action. It was said that he was a man of few words in view of the fact that from the end of the war to his death in 1989 he was never again allowed to utter many in public.


The American public, like its policy elites never very well informed about Japan to begin with, bought this rosy picture of that country as the chief bulwark against communism in Asia. John Dower and a few American academic specialists argued that modernization theory was incomplete and that Japan’s militarism had domestic roots every bit as deep as its commitment to modernity, but they were easily ignored.3 Japan was now entrenched in American consciousness as a full-fledged democratic ally with a system rooted in free-market capitalism and certain eventually to “converge” with the United States as a liberal, consumer-based state.


To be sure, there were occasional “misunderstandings” as one nation’s capitalists sought competitive advantage over the other. In dealing with such “unfortunate” developments, the task of diplomacy and the mission of the American embassy in Tokyo became not to champion American interests but to ameliorate the conflict itself, usually to Japan’s advantage. Nothing seriously wrong could come of such policies, it was argued, because, as modernization theory taught, the two societies were on the same developmental path toward common economic ends.


The second aspect of the ideological challenge to the Soviet Union was the development and propagation of an American economic ideology that might counter the promise of Marxism—what today we call “neoclassical economics,” which has gained an intellectual status in American economic activities and governmental affairs similar to that of Marxism-Leninism in the former USSR. Needless to say, Soviet citizens never understood Marxism-Leninism as an ideology until after it had collapsed, just as Americans like to think (or pretend) that their economics is a branch of science, not a fighting doctrine to defend and advance their interests against those of others. They may consider most economists to be untrustworthy witch doctors, but they regard the tenets of a laissez-faire economy—with its cutthroat competition, casino stock exchange, massive inequalities of wealth, and a minor, regulatory role for government—as self-evident truths.


Until the late 1950s, academic economics remained one of the social sciences, like anthropology, sociology, and political science—a non-experimental, often speculative investigation into the ways individuals, families, firms, markets, industries, and national economies behaved under different conditions and influences. It was concerned with full employment, price stability, growth, public finance, labor relations, and similar socioeconomic subjects. After it became the chief ideological counterweight to Marxism-Leninism during the Cold War, its practitioners tried to extract it from the social sciences and re-create it as a hard science.


Its propositions were now expressed less in words than in simultaneous equations, the old ideas of Adam Smith reappearing as fully mathematized axioms, increasingly divorced from empirical research. Its data were said to be “stylized facts,” and economists set out to demonstrate through deductive reasoning expressed in mathematical formulas that resources could be allocated efficiently only through an unfettered market. By now all these terms (“resources,” “efficiency,” “markets”) had been transformed into abstractions, not unlike the abstract formulations (“the proletariat,” “the bourgeoisie,” “class conflict”) of its Soviet opponents. English-speaking economics became such a “hard science” that in 1969 the central bank of Sweden started giving Nobel Prizes to its adepts, virtually all of them American academicians. This ensured that virtually all aspiring economists would in the future try to do so-called theoretical economics—that is, the algebraic modeling of markets—rather than old-fashioned empirical and inductive research into real-world economies.


Economics split from the social sciences and took up a new position somewhere close to mathematics. Economists were now endlessly called upon by governmental bodies to testify that the American economy was unmatchable, even if it sometimes behaved badly because of overspending liberals, pork-barrel politics, or greedy monopolists. Alternatives to it were understood to be either converging with it or destined to fail. Economics no longer studied the economy; it spoke ex cathedra about what was orthodox and what was heresy. Meanwhile, empirical research on economic phenomena migrated to business schools, commercial think tanks, and the other social sciences.


Unquestionably, after the first two decades of the Cold War, in a purely dichotomous choice between an economy based on Marxism-Leninism and one based on free-market capitalism—as exemplified by the economies of the Soviet Union and the United States—most people around the world would have chosen the free market. But in East Asia, at the height of the Sino-Soviet dispute and the American war in Vietnam, neither ideology was working out according to either superpower’s script. The Chinese were discrediting forever whatever attractiveness might have remained in the forced-draft economic achievements of the Soviet model. Through bungling, megalomania, and deep ideological confusion about what Marxism and the Soviet experience taught, the Chinese Communist Party managed to kill thirty million of its own citizens and then, in a paroxysm of mutual blame, came close to destroying its unmatchable cultural legacy in the so-called Cultural Revolution. Today this period is recognized—even in China—as a monumental disaster, but at the time many Americans, from idealistic leftist students to presidents and other political leaders, failing to understand what was happening, retained a sentimental attraction to Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, the mismanagers of the Chinese revolution.


The truly surprising development in East Asia, however, was that America’s “non-Communist” satellites, protectorates, and dependencies were starting to get rich and to compete with their superpower benefactor. All of this was camouflaged by the Cold War itself, so that the enrichment of East Asia occurred almost surreptitiously. The year-in, year-out record-breaking growth rates of such previously poor places as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan were not precisely what American elites had expected, but they were explained away as nothing more than confirmations—even overconfirmations—of officially espoused free-market ideology and so were greeted with parental pride.


If the capitalist economies of East Asia were starting to perform better than the United States itself, this anomaly was usually attributed to mysterious Japanese or Asian cultural or even spiritual factors or to complacency on the part of American managers and workers. By the time the Western world awoke to what had actually happened, economic growth in East Asia was self-sustaining and unstoppable by external actions (although many Asians thought this was exactly what the United States was attempting when its policies toward the area led to the meltdown of 1997). The enrichment of East Asia under the cover of the Cold War was surely the most important, least analyzed development in world politics during the second half of the twentieth century. It remains to this day intellectually indigestible in the United States.


The fundamental problem is not simply that in the Cold War era Japan attained a $5 trillion economy—although that alone was an unexpected competitive challenge to American economic preeminence—but how it did so. It had found a third way between the socialist displacement of the market advocated by Soviet theorists and an uncritical reliance on the market advocated by American theorists. The Japanese had invented a different kind of capitalism—something no defender of the American empire could accept. It was therefore assumed either that the Japanese were cheating (and all that we needed to compete successfully against them was a “level playing field”) or that they must be headed for a collapse similar to the one that had overtaken the USSR.


In turning neo-classical economic theory into a fighting ideology, American ideologues encountered one element of capitalist thought that they could not express in abstract, seemingly “scientific” mathematical terms. This was the set of institutions through which competitive market relationships actually produce their benefits. Institutions are the concrete, more-or-less enduring relationships through which people work, save, invest, and earn a living—such things as stock exchanges, banks, labor unions, corporations, safety nets, families, inheritance rules, and tax systems. This is the realm of the legal, political, and social order, where many considerations that govern the economy other than efficiency contend for primacy. For economic theorists institutions are “black boxes,” entities that receive and transmit economic stimuli but are themselves unaffected by economic theory.


In attempting to forge a fully numerical, scientific-looking model of the capitalist economy for purposes of the Cold War, Western ideologues simply assumed that the institutions of modern capitalism must be those that existed in the United States in the late Eisenhower era. This meant that savings were typically moved from the saver to industry through a capital market (such as the New York Stock Exchange) rather than, for example, through the banking system. They assumed that industrial-labor conflicts were settled by interminable strikes, and not by, for example, offering some workers career job security; and they assumed that the whole purpose of an economy was to serve the short-term interests of consumers, instead of some overarching goal such as the wealth and power of the nation as a whole.


These American assumptions were almost identical to the Soviet assumption that the institutions of “socialism” must be those that existed in the USSR during, say, the Khrushchev era. Neither side ever produced an ideological model to sell to others that could be divorced from their own country. Because of this inability to express the institutions of either socialism or capitalism in some culturally neutral—or at least more varied—way, it is understandable that many observers simply reduced the claims of Marxist-Leninist ideology to the USSR and those of free-market capitalism to the United States.


In finding a third way, Japan’s postwar economic “miracle” reinvented not economic theory but the institutions of modern capitalism so that they would produce utterly different outcomes from those imagined in the American model. Given Japan’s history of catch-up industrialization, its overarching need to avoid the victimization and colonialism to which every other area of East Asia had succumbed, its virtual dearth of raw materials, its dependence on manufacturing and international trade to sustain its large population, and its overwhelming defeat in World War II, it could not ever have become a clone of the United States. Its postwar planners and technocrats instead organized a capitalist economy intended to serve the interests of producers over consumers. They forced Japan’s citizens to save by providing little in the way of a safety net; they encouraged labor harmony regardless of what it did to individual rights; and they built industries based on the highest possible human input rather than simply on some naturally given comparative advantage, such as cheap labor or proximity to a large market like China’s. Their goal was to enrich Japan, if not necessarily the Japanese themselves. They viewed all economic transactions as strategic: theirs was to be an economy organized for war but now directed toward ostensibly peaceful competition with other countries.


Since the 1950s, the United States had seen the entire world in Cold War terms. This meant that Japan was far more important as an anti-Communist ally than as a potential economic competitor. In order to keep U.S. troops and bases in Japan, the Americans provided open access to their market and the government pressured private American firms to relinquish ownership rights to technologies being transferred to Japan. As Japanese trade and industrial bureaucrats took advantage of this deal, trade disputes became inevitable. From the “dollar blouses” that flooded into the United States during the Eisenhower era to the textile disputes of the Kennedy and Nixon administrations, complaints about the costs of “alliance” with Japan became a permanent feature of Washington politics. They also produced a lucrative new field for former government officials turned lobbyists, whom the Japanese hired in increasing numbers to ameliorate or paper over the disputes. Even though Washington remained more or less ignorant of how the government in Tokyo actually worked, the government in Tokyo took a life-or-death interest in Washington’s role in regulating the American economy. Japanese officials also did everything in their power to maintain the artificial separation between trade and defense that the U.S. government had invented and to see that the Pentagon was happy with its facilities.


This artificial separation between trade and defense has been a peculiar characteristic of the half-century-long American hegemony over Japan. Official guardians of the Japanese-American Security Treaty and their academic supporters have maintained an impenetrable firewall between what they call, using the Japanese euphemism, “trade friction” and the basing of one hundred thousand American troops in Japan and South Korea. There was no reason why these two aspects of the Japanese-American relationship should been dealt with as if they were separate matters except that, had they not been, the actual nature of the relationship would have been far easier to grasp.


Until the 1980s, the United States officially ignored all evidence that this compartmentalization of its massive military establishment and its growing trade deficits with Japan was going to be very costly. From about 1968 on, trade deficits began to rise just as the hollowing out of certain industries that the Japanese government had targeted became more visible. U.S. officials then consulted with their Japanese counterparts about these problems and accepted fig-leaf agreements that offered the pretense of remedies to distressed American businesses and communities. With the exception of President Nixon’s 1971 decision to force an ending to Japan’s artificially undervalued exchange, nothing else of significance was done.


During the 1980s, however, pressures for action of some sort markedly increased. The Japanese economy, now a major competitor, was starting to erode the industrial foundations of the United States. Moreover, the Cold War was settling into its final Reaganesque rituals. Despite inflated CIA estimates of Soviet strength, it became increasingly clear to many, even before the rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev, that the two sides were starting to accommodate each other and that the threat of a superpower war was declining. In this context, a new way of thinking developed about Japan itself and about the nature of America’s relationships with newly rich Asia. Business Week dubbed it “revisionism” and wrote:


No less than a fundamental rethinking of Japan is now under way at the highest levels of the U.S. government, business, and academia. The standard rules of the free market, according to the new school, simply won’t work in Japan. . . . Some people call the new thinking “revisionism,” departing as it does from the orthodox view that Japan will eventually become a U.S.-style consumer-driven society.4


The Japanese, who had been very proud of their “developmental state” and its guided economy and who readily wrote about it for domestic consumption, suddenly became concerned when American revisionists, myself included, began saying that “leveling the playing field” was not the issue, since the two economies were different in such fundamental ways. It was one thing for Japan and its lobbyists to parry complaints about their country’s closed markets and the numerous barriers it raised against foreign products ranging from automobiles and semiconductors to grapefruit and rice. It was quite another for Americans to claim that they were playing by entirely different rules. Accusations that the “revisionists” were Japan bashers or racists rose quickly to the surface.


Meanwhile, a number of Japanese politicians and industrialists added insult to injury by claiming that the trade deficit resulted from the laziness of American workers or resorted to racism by pointing to the racially mixed nature of the workforce while characterizing American minorities as indisciplined and ineducable. In 1989, a prominent Japanese politician, Shintaro Ishihara, and the president of Sony, Akio Morita, cowrote a book, The Japan That Can Say “No,” in which they suggested that their country should not share Japanese-developed technologies that the Americans regarded as of national security significance unless the Americans reined in their critiques. In 1998, Ishihara, angry about an economy that seemed to be heading into decline, wrote a sequel, The Japan That Can Say “No” Again, suggesting a halt in investment in U.S. government securities to teach a lesson to Americans who had pushed Japan to open its economy. These views made him sufficiently popular that in 1999 he was elected mayor of Tokyo.


Nonetheless, the American government continued its typical Cold War style of doing business into the early 1990s. In 1988, for example, State Department and Pentagon leaders proposed transferring to Japan the technology of the F-16 fighter aircraft in order to allow the Japanese to build their own fighter, the FS-X. A huge controversy erupted over why the Japanese did not simply buy the F-16 fighters they needed from the manufacturer, thereby helping to balance the trade deficit and keep manufacturing in the United States. One State Department official, Kevin Kearns, who was in Tokyo at the time the FSX deal was negotiated, agreed with the critics and wrote in the Foreign Service Journal, “As long as the Chrysanthemum Club [of pro-Japanese American officials] continues to skew the policy process in our government and paid Japanese lobbyists and academics-for-hire continue to influence disproportionately the treatment of Japan in the public realm, the United States will continue its approach to Japan in the same tired, self-defeating way.”5 Following these remarks, Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger publicly denounced Kearns and in February 1990 forced his resignation from the State Department. The Bush administration then transferred the F-16 technology to Japan.


In an equally telling incident in 1990, the Matsushita Electric Company of Japan bought MCA Inc., the giant Hollywood-based entertainment conglomerate, for $7.5 billion, one of the biggest purchases ever of an American company by a foreign firm. This was less than a year after Sony had acquired Columbia Pictures for $3.4 billion and Newsweek had run a cover showing Columbia’s torch-bearing female icon wearing a kimono.6 In addition to by-then-widespread worries about Japanese capital invading the United States, there was the further complication that MCA owned a lucrative concession that serviced visitors to Yosemite National Park. In order to avoid the public relations embarrassment of having a Japanese company own part of a national park, the Department of the Interior suggested that Matsushita donate the concession to the park service. The Japanese, however, did not want to let it go and instead hired an elite corps of Washington lobbyists, lawyers, and public relations specialists to escort their purchase past congressional and government critics.


Leading the Matsushita team was former U.S. trade representative Robert Strauss. According to the Washington Post, he was paid $8 million for successfully brokering the deal and seeing to its public relations aspects, including getting the Department of the Interior to back off. When asked by reporters why he was being paid such an enormous fee for a minimal amount of work, Strauss nonchalantly replied, “I don’t work by the hour anymore. I don’t do windows.”7 This remark greatly puzzled the Japanese, although they were pleased enough with what their largesse had bought them. They concluded that Washington was as corrupt as Jakarta or Seoul and that anything could be had if the price was right. Rather than devoting attention to the potential pitfalls of their own brand of capitalism, the Japanese in this instance followed a distinctly American path and convinced themselves that they were invincible, while the United States was in a terminal decline. They therefore marched steadily toward their own decade-long economic downfall.


These alarms and diversions were also effective in turning American attention away from the most distinctive trait of Japan’s type of capitalism—namely, the major role given to governmental industrial policy and its role in a capitalist economy. Industrial policy refers to the attempt by the government to nurture particular strategic industries that are thought to be needed by an economy for reasons of national security, export competitiveness, or growth potential.8 As a result, most Americans failed to grasp how crucially Japan’s industrial policy depended on its political and military relationship with the United States and on access to its vast market. Nor did they understand that the Japanese were investing the huge trade profits in American Treasury securities that were, in turn, helping to finance America’s huge debts and making the American financial system critically dependent on Japanese savings. This growing dependency made American officials reluctant to criticize the Japanese in any way. Even when they did so, the Japanese rationalized such criticism as meant only for U.S. domestic consumption.


What Americans, including the revisionists, failed to see was that the Japanese economy, still devoted to exporting a vast array of ever more sophisticated and technologically advanced manufactured goods primarily to the American market, was generating an industrial overcapacity that would eventually threaten the health of the world economy. Moreover, as much of Asia began to emulate the Japanese form of capitalism or become offshore manufacturing platforms for Japanese corporations, this overcapacity threatened to reach crisis proportions. The crisis came to a head in 1997 and has been a continuing feature of the international economy ever since.


Political developments helped precipitate the crisis. In 1992, the Americans elected Bill Clinton on a slogan of “It’s the economy, stupid,” and in 1993, the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan, no longer needed as a bulwark against communism, simply collapsed of its own corruption and redundancy.


The Clinton administration did experiment briefly with policies advocated by the revisionists, including managed trade. The new administration even toyed with convincing the Japanese to join in helping manage Japanese-American trade, but its heart was never in it. The actual work was left to the usual array of Washington lawyers and economists, who had no East Asian knowledge or experience whatsoever, with the easily predictable outcome that the Japanese, much more experienced and better informed than their American adversaries, simply ran circles around them.


Using their huge leverage over American debt financing and Clinton’s need for the appearance of domestic economic prosperity in order to be reelected in 1996, the Japanese got the Americans to back down on most trade issues. The administration covered its tracks by claiming that it could not allow economic disputes to interfere with security and military matters. The difficulty was that except for the bellicose statements and deployments of the United States itself, peace was breaking out in East Asia. In 1992, for example, China recognized South Korea; that same year the government of the Philippines asked the U.S. Navy to leave the major base it had long occupied at Subic Bay. Still, the U.S. government claimed to see threats from North Korea and China, and the Japanese went along, doing whatever they could to satisfy the Pentagon.


In 1993, the Liberal Democratic Party lost its majority in the Japanese Diet for the first time in thirty-eight years. Increasingly irrelevant to Japan’s need to reinvigorate its economy and assume control over its foreign policy, it was not voted out of office but simply disintegrated. At first, a popular coalition government formed among the many new parties in the Diet. It seemed that a long overdue political realignment might be at hand. As it turned out, the Socialist Party, long feared by the United States because of its advocacy of “neutralism,” was so beguiled to be in office that it ultimately abandoned everything it had ever claimed to stand for and forged a cynical coalition with the LDP to control parliament. In the end, all the LDP’s loss of power revealed was that the party system itself had largely been postwar window dressing. In 1997, the LDP returned to power and resumed its stewardship over Japan’s old Cold War relationship with the United States.


At least, though, the rise to power in the 1993-97 interregnum of nonmainstream LDP and opposition party leaders opened up an important debate over how and why the country had become so rich and yet had such an ineffective elected government. Bureaucratic insiders as well as intellectuals and academics began publicly to acknowledge and elaborate on the very points the American revisionists had made. New York Times correspondent James Sterngold reported from Tokyo, “Five years ago, some Western critics were derided by the Japanese establishment as wrong—and probably racist—for declaring that Japanese policy was set by bureaucrats, not politicians, and that Japanese politics was often corrupt. . . . Suddenly, expressions and criticism previously regarded as blasphemous when uttered by ‘revisionists’ and ‘Japan bashers’ are spoken with a surprising matter-of-factness.”9 In the process they opened up whole new perspectives for viewing the interlocking Japanese governmental, social, and economic systems. They affirmed that a corps of unelected elite bureaucrats actually governed the country under a façade of democracy. They laid out the ways in which, working within a Cold War framework and guided by their government, the major corporations had invested in productive capacity many times greater than domestic demand could possibly absorb, thereby becoming totally dependent on continued sales to the American and Asian markets. They detailed the methods of the cartels, of restrictive licensing practices, of the underdeveloped system of judicial review, and of myriad other “nontariff barriers” to trade that kept American and European corporate penetration of the domestic market to a minimum.


One impetus for such new, self-critical attitudes could be found in the changed economic atmosphere. Following a binge of big-ticket investments at the end of the 1980s and a bubble of real estate speculation that accompanied newfound wealth, the economy began to falter. After eight years of stagnation, in 1998 it finally plunged into real recession. In an ironic twist, American ideologists used these developments to argue as always that American free-market capitalism was the globe’s one and only path to success. However, they now incorporated revisionist analyses without acknowledgment into their critiques of the Japanese economy. For example, the Wall Street Journal’s Paul Gigot had long maintained that Japan’s economy operated just like the U.S. model. “Japan’s miracle, like Britain’s and America’s before it,” he wrote in 1986, “was largely the product of creativity and enterprise by individuals and their businesses.”10 A decade later, in a column entitled “The Great Japan Debate Is Over: Guess Who Won?,” he could be found deriding Japan’s “model of bureaucratic-led economic growth,” as distinguished from “American-style capitalism.” His new point: the revisionists may have been right about how Japan worked but they were wrong to think it was a success. To the extent that the Japanese economy might ever stage a comeback, Gigot argued in a fashion typical of his colleagues, it would have to do business “in a framework that more resembles the American model.”11 Put another way, these economic ideologues found convincing proof in Japan’s economic fate that a hegemonic America would continue to dictate the rules of international commerce into the distant future, even if that hegemony were disguised with catchphrases like “globalization.”


As the Cold War receded into history, the United States, rather than dissolving its Cold War arrangements, insisted on strengthening them as part of a renewed commitment to global hegemony. Japan was supposed to remain a satellite of the United States, whether anyone dared use that term or not. Meanwhile, annual American trade deficits with Japan soared. American manufacturing continued to be hollowed out, while a vast manufacturing overcapacity was generated in Japan and its Southeast Asian subsidiaries. Capital transfers from Japan to the United States generated huge gains for financiers and produced an illusion of prosperity in the United States, but in 1997, it all started to unravel. The most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression hit the East Asian economies and began to spread around the world.

Each year approximately ten thousand American troops descend on Thailand for a joint military exercise called Cobra Gold. The military part of these visits is largely make-work for the American and Thai staffs, but the troops love Cobra Gold because of the sex. According to the newspaper Pacific Stars and Stripes, some three thousand prostitutes wait for the sailors and marines at the South Pattaya waterfront, close to Utapao air base. An equal number of young Thai girls from the country-side, many of whom have been raped and then impressed into the “sex industry,” are available downtown in Bangkok’s Patpang district. They are virtually all infected with AIDS, but the condom-equipped American forces seem not to worry. At the time of the 1997 war games, just before the economic crisis broke, sex with a Thai prostitute cost around fifteen hundred Thai baht, or sixty dollars at its then pegged rate of twenty-five baht to one U.S. dollar. By the time of the next year’s Cobra Gold the price had been more than halved.1 This is just one of many market benefits Americans gained through their rollback operation against the “Asian model” of capitalism.

The global economic crisis that began in Thailand in July 1997 had two causes. First, the built-in contradictions of the American satellite system in East Asia had heightened to such a degree that the system itself unexpectedly began to splinter and threatened to blow apart. Second, the United States, relieved of the prudence imposed on it by the Cold War, when any American misstep was chalked up as a Soviet gain, launched a campaign to force the rest of the world to adopt its form of capitalism. This effort went under the rubric of “globalization.” As these two complex undertakings—perpetuating Cold War structures after they had lost their purpose and trying to “globalize” countries that thought they had invented a different kind of capitalism—played themselves out around the world, they threatened a worldwide collapse of demand and a new depression. Whatever happens, the crisis probably signaled the beginning of the end of the American empire and a shift to a tripolar world in which the United States, Europe, and East Asia simultaneously share power and compete for it.

During the Cold War, the Communists routinely charged that the United States used the Marshall Plan for rebuilding wartorn Europe and subsequent economic aid programs to advance the interests of American companies and to keep the Third World dependent on the First. According to the Communist theory of economic colonialism, capitalist states enforce an inherently discriminatory division of labor on less developed countries by selling them manufactured goods and buying from them only raw materials, an extremely profitable arrangement for capitalists in advanced countries and one that certainly keeps underdeveloped countries underdeveloped. This is why revolutionary movements in underdeveloped countries want either to overthrow the capitalist order or to industrialize their economies as fast as possible.

Such economic colonialism has long existed in many aspects of America’s relations with Latin America. During the Cold War, the United States wrapped this system of dependency in the rhetoric of anticommunism, labeling elected leaders Communists if they seemed to endanger American corporate interests, as in Guatemala in 1954, and ordering the CIA to overthrow them. Campaigns against the influence of Fidel Castro, for instance, often proved of great usefulness to American companies south of the border. But this pattern of relationships did not cause the global economic crisis of the late 1990s.

The fundamental structural cause was the way the United States for more than forty years won and retained the loyalty of its East Asian satellites. These non-Communist countries accepted the American deal as offered and worked hard at “export-led growth,” primarily to the American market. If the Japanese led this movement, behind them were three ranks of followers: first, the “newly industrialized countries” of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore; then, the late developers of Southeast Asia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines; and finally, China, at present the world’s fastest-growing economy. The Japanese found this so-called flying-geese pattern appealing. They were flattered to be the lead goose and the inspiration for those that followed. The leaders of each of these countries assumed that their economic destination—Los Angeles (and from there the rest of the American market)—was a permanent feature of the international environment; and so long as the Cold War existed, it was as permanent as anything ever is in interstate relations.

Over time, however, this pattern produced gross overinvestment and excess capacity in East Asia, the world’s largest trade deficits in the United States, and a lack of even an approximation of supply-and-demand equilibrium across the Pacific. Contrary to Communist analyses of how neocolonialism should work, these terms proved surprisingly costly to the imperial power. They cost American jobs, destroyed manufacturing industries, and blunted the hopes of minorities and women trying to escape from poverty.

Judith Stein, a professor of history at the City College of New York, has detailed how the de facto U.S. industrial policy of sacrificing American workers to pay for its empire devastated African-American households in Birmingham, Alabama, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This is, of course, but another form of blowback. She writes, “At the outset of the Cold War, reconstructing or creating steel industries abroad was a keystone of U.S. strategic policy, and encouraging steel imports became a tool for maintaining vital alliances. The nation’s leaders by and large ignored the resulting conflict between Cold War and domestic goals. Reminiscing about elite thinking in that era, former Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul A. Volcker recalled that ‘the strength and prosperity of the American economy was too evident to engender concern about the costs.’ ”2 Moreover, American economic ideologues always dominated what debate there was, couching the problem in terms of protectionism versus internationalism, never in terms of prosperity for whites versus poverty for blacks. The true costs to the United States should be measured in terms of crime statistics, ruined inner cities, and drug addiction, as well as trade deficits.

U.S. officials did finally start to negotiate more or less seriously with the Japanese and the other “miracle economies” to open their markets to American goods. But the attempt always collided with the security relationship. In order to level the economic playing field, the United States would have had to level the security playing field as well, and this it remains unwilling to do.

In East Asia, to create industries that could export to the American market, design the right products, and achieve competitive prices and levels of quality, governmental industrial policies became the norm. Japan was the regional pioneer in creating model collaborative relationships between government and industry. In part, it drew on its history as one of the world’s most successful late industrializers and on its wartime production system, in which the government and the huge zaibatsu, or corporate combines, had worked together to produce the weapons that Japan needed. After the onset of the Cold War, the Americans did very little to prevent the Japanese from re-creating the combines (now called keiretsu) and the legal structure that supported them, largely because occupation officials either failed to recognize what was happening or were blind to its implications.

To base a capitalist economy mainly on export sales rather than domestic demand, however, ultimately subverts the function of the unfettered world market to reconcile and bring into balance supply and demand. Instead of producing what the people of a particular economy can actually use, East Asian export regimes thrived on foreign demand artificially engineered by an imperialist power. In East Asia during the Cold War, the strategy worked so long as the American economy remained overwhelmingly larger than the economies of its dependencies and so long as only Japan and perhaps one or two smaller countries pursued this strategy. But by the 1980s the Japanese economy had become twice the size of both Germanies. Anything it did affected not just the American but the global economy. Moreover, virtually everyone else in East Asia (and potentially every underdeveloped country on earth) had some knowledge of how to create such a miracle economy and many were trying to duplicate Japanese-style high-speed growth. An overcapacity for products oriented to the American market (or products needed to further expand export-oriented economies) became overwhelming. There were too many factories turning out athletic shoes, automobiles, television sets, semiconductors, petrochemicals, steel, and ships for too few buyers. The current global demand for automobiles, for example, seems to have peaked at around 50 million vehicles at a moment when capacity has already grown to 70 million. To make matters worse, as a result of the global economic crisis, auto sales in Southeast Asia fell from 1.3 million in 1997 to 450,000 in 1998.

This is not to say that all the barefoot peoples of the world who might like to wear athletic shoes or all the relatively poor people who might someday be able to afford a television set or an automobile are satisfied. But for now they are too poor to be customers. The current overcapacity in East Asia has created intense competition among American and European multinational corporations. Their answer has been to lower costs by moving as much of their manufacturing as possible to places where skilled workers are paid very little. These poorly paid workers in places like Vietnam, Indonesia, and China cannot consume what they produce, while middle- and lower-class consumers back in the United States and Europe cannot buy much more either because their markets are saturated or their incomes are stagnant or falling. The underlying danger is a structural collapse of demand leading to recession and ultimately to something like the Great Depression. As the economic journalist William Greider has put it in his book One World, Ready or Not, “Shipping high-wage jobs to low-wage economies has obvious, immediate economic benefits. But, roughly speaking, it also replaces high-wage consumers with low-wage ones. That exchange is debilitating for the entire system.”3 The only answer is to create new demand by paying poor people more for their work. But the political authorities capable of enacting and enforcing rules to enlarge demand could not do so even if they wanted to because “globalization” has placed the matter beyond their control.

A crisis of oversupply was inevitable given the passage of time and the unwillingness of imperial America to reform its system of satellites. Even in the late 1990s, the American economy continued to serve as the consumer of last resort for the enormous manufacturing capacity of all of East Asia, although doing so produced trade deficits that cumulatively transferred trillions of dollars from the United States to Asia. This caused an actual decline in the household incomes of the bottom tenth of American families, whose real incomes fell by 13 percent between 1973 and 1995. It was only in 1997 that a weak link snapped—not, ironically, in trade, but finance—and threatened to bring the system down.

The financial systems of all the high-growth East Asian economies were based on encouraging exceptionally high domestic household savings as the main source of capital for industrial growth. Such savings were achieved by discouraging consumption through the high domestic pricing of consumer goods (which, of course, also led to charges of “dumping” of normally priced goods when they were sent abroad). To save in such a context was a patriotic act, but it was also a matter of survival in societies that provided little in the way of a social safety net for times of emergencies, and in which housing often had to be bought outright or in which interest payments on mortgages was not treated favorably as a tax deduction.

East Asian governments collected these savings in banks affiliated with industrial combines or in government savings institutions such as post offices. In organizing their economies, they had chosen not to rely primarily on stock exchanges to raise the capital their export industries needed. Instead they found it much more effective to guide the investment of the savings in these banks to the industries the governments wanted to develop. In East Asia, ostensibly private banks thus became partners in business enterprises and industrial groups, not independent creditors concerned first and foremost with the profitability of a company or the success of a loan. These banks in effect followed government orders and felt secure so long as they did so.

Superficially, corporations in most East Asian countries looked like their American or European equivalents, but in this case appearances were indeed deceptive. As the American corporate raider T. Boone Pickens discovered when he tried to buy a small Japanese company that made auto headlights, a significant block of shares was held by the Toyota Motor Company. The firm he wanted to acquire was part of the automaker’s keiretsu, or conglomerate of cooperating firms and banks. Although Pickens acquired what in the United States would have been a controlling interest in the company, Toyota blocked his takeover and prevented him from naming his own directors and corporate officers. The fact that Pickens was able to buy the shares at all was a fluke in Japanese corporate governance, the result of a single disgruntled stockholder. Until very recently Japanese corporations were “owned” entirely by one another in elaborate cross-share-holding deals designed to keep people like Pickens out and to keep the enterprise working for the country rather than for the profits of shareholders. The sale of shares was not a way to raise capital, and the people who held them were uninterested in the risks or profits that the company’s operations entailed.

This was actually a brilliant system. Oxfam, the British development and relief agency, maintains that the Cold War East Asian economies achieved “the fastest reduction in poverty for the greatest number of people in history.”4 But the stability of any East Asian economy depended on its keeping its financial system closed—that is, under national control and supervision. Once opened up to the rest of the world, the financial structures of the East Asian developmental states were extremely vulnerable to attack by foreign capital and international financial speculators. The industrial policy system produced corporations in which the burden of debt was five times greater than the value of the shareholders’ investments, whereas these so-called debt-to-equity ratios for U.S. firms are less than one to one. East Asian corporations operating with such large burdens of debt were normally indifferent to the price of their equity shares. Instead, they serviced these debts at their banks with income from foreign sales. When they were unable to repay their loans, the banks themselves very quickly veered toward bankruptcy. The whole system depended on continuous growth of revenue from export sales.

East Asian bankers are no stupider or more corrupt than those elsewhere. It is just that the industrial policies of the systems within which they operate put the profitability of a loan very near the bottom of the criteria they use for making an investment decision. Instead, these bankers focus on enlarging productive capacity, achieving larger market shares, accumulating assets, and having large balance sheets. It is true that from a purely Western perspective, they should not have offered many of the loans they made. To us it seems insane to ignore commercial criteria such as profitability. But for a Korean banker, it was more important to support an affiliated company that was building cars for the U.S. market than to question whether the company was making prudent investment decisions. That was part of the logic of being a banker in a satellite country within America’s hegemonic order in East Asia.

Then, without warning, that order changed. Perhaps the first important blow to the East Asian model of capitalism came in 1971, when President Nixon abolished the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates, created by the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference in the summer of 1944 at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. The treaties that resulted from Bretton Woods were the most important efforts of the victorious Allies of World War II to create a better global financial system than the one that existed in the 1930s. The Allies intended to prevent a recurrence of the protectionism and competitive devaluations of national currencies that had deepened the Great Depression and fueled the rise of Nazism. To do these things, the Bretton Woods conference established a system of fixed exchange rates among the world’s currencies. It also created the International Monetary Fund, to help countries whose economic conditions forced them to alter the value of their currencies, and the World Bank, to help finance postwar rebuilding. The value of every currency was tied to the value of the U.S. dollar, which was in turn backed by the U.S. government’s guarantee that it would convert dollars into gold on demand.

Nixon decided to end the Bretton Woods system because the Vietnam War had imposed such excessive expenditures on the United States that it was hemorrhaging money. He concluded that the government could no longer afford to exchange its currency for a fixed value of gold. A more effective answer would have been to end the Vietnam War and balance the federal budget. Instead, what actually occurred was that the dollar and other currencies were allowed to “float”—that is, to be converted into other currencies at whatever rate the market determined.

The historian, business executive, and novelist John Ralston Saul described Nixon’s action as “perhaps the single most destructive act of the postwar world. The West was returned to the monetary barbarism and instability of the 19th century.”5 Floating exchange rates introduced a major element of instability into the international trading system. They stimulated the growth of so-called finance capitalism—which refers to making money from trading stocks, bonds, currencies, and other forms of securities as well as lending money to companies, governments, and consumers rather than manufacturing products and selling them at prices determined by unfettered markets. Finance capitalism, as its name implies, means making money by manipulating money, not trying to achieve a balance between the producers and consumers of goods. On the contrary, finance capitalism aggravates the problems of equilibrium within and among capitalist economies in order to profit from the discrepancies. During the nineteenth century the appearance, and then dominance, of finance capitalism was widely recognized as a defect of improperly regulated capitalist systems. Theorists from Adam Smith to John Hobson observed that capitalists do not really like being capitalists. They would much rather be monopolists, rentiers, inside traders, or usurers or in some other way achieve an unfair advantage that might allow them to profit more easily from the mental and physical work of others. Smith and Hobson both believed that finance capitalism produced the pathologies of the global economy they called mercantilism and imperialism: that is, true economic exploitation of others rather than mutually beneficial exchanges among economic actors.

Opponents of capitalism, such as Marxists, viewed such problems as inescapable and the ultimate reason capitalist systems must sooner or later implode. Supporters of capitalism, such as Smith and Hobson, thought that its problems could be solved by imposing social controls on the monetary system, as did the Bretton Woods agreement. As they saw it, lack of such controls led to the maldistribution of purchasing power. Too few rich people and too many poor people resulted in an insufficient demand for goods and services. The “excess capital” thus generated had to find some place to go. In the maturing capitalist countries of the nineteenth century, financiers pressured their governments to create colonies in which they could invest and obtain profits of a sort no longer available to them at home. The nineteenth-century theorists believed this was the root cause of imperialism and that its specific antidote was the use of state power to raise the ability of the domestic public to consume. After the United States ended the Bretton Woods system, these kinds of problems once again returned to haunt the world.

In the 1980s, when Japanese trade with the United States began seriously to damage the American economy, the leaders of both countries chose to deal with the problem by manipulating exchange rates. This could be done by having the central banks of each country work in concert buying and selling dollars and yen. In a meeting of finance ministers at the Plaza Hotel in New York City in 1985, the United States and Japan agreed in the Plaza Accord to force down the value of the dollar and force up the value of the yen, thereby making American products cheaper on international markets and Japanese goods more expensive. The low (that is, inexpensive) dollar lasted for a decade.

The Plaza Accord was intended to ameliorate the United States’ huge trade deficits with Japan, but altering exchange rates affects only prices, and price competitiveness and price advantages were not the cause of the deficits. The accord was based on good classroom economic theory, but it ignored the realities of how the Japanese economy was actually organized and its dependence on sales to the American market. The accord was, as a result, the root cause of the major catastrophes that befell East Asia’s economies over the succeeding fifteen years.

Once the high yen–low dollar regime was in place, the U.S. government assumed that the trade imbalance would correct itself. The United States did nothing to end Japan’s barriers against imports and still permitted Japan to export into its market anything and everything it could sell there. Japan reacted to the high yen by putting its industrial policy system into high gear in order to lower costs so it could continue its export-led growth, even at a disadvantageously high exchange rate. The Japanese Ministry of Finance also lowered domestic interest rates to make capital virtually free and encouraged industrial groups to invest more vigorously than they had ever done before. The result was fantastic industrial overcapacity and a “bubble economy,” in which the prices of such things as real estate lost any relationship to underlying values. Business leaders proudly announced on American television that a square meter of the Ginza was worth more than all of Seattle. Ultimately, huge debts accumulated and the Japanese banks were stuck with at least $600 billion in “nonperforming” loans that threatened to bankrupt the entire banking system.

By 1995, the contradictions were starting to come to a head. Japan still had a huge surplus of savings, which it exported to the United States by investing in U.S. Treasury bonds, thereby helping fund America’s debts and keep its domestic interest rates low. And yet Japan itself was simultaneously facing the possibility of the collapse of several of its bankrupt banks. Financial leaders said to the Americans that they needed relief from the high yen in order to increase Japan’s exports. They hoped to solve their problems in the traditional way, via more export-led growth. Eisuke Sakakibara, then Japan’s vice minister for international affairs in the Ministry of Finance, readily acknowledges that he intervened with Washington to lower the value of the yen and admits to his “inadvertent role in precipitating one of the 20th century’s greatest economic crises.”6 The United States went along with this; facing reelection in 1996, Bill Clinton certainly did not want Japanese capital called home to prop up Japanese banks at that moment. As a result, between 1995 and 1997 the U.S. Treasury and the Bank of Japan engineered a “reverse Plaza Accord”—which led to a 60 percent fall of the yen against the dollar.

However, in the wake of the Plaza Accord, many newly developing Southeast Asian economies had by then “pegged” their currencies to the low dollar, establishing official rates at which businesses and countries around the world could exchange Southeast Asian currencies for dollars. So long as the dollar remained cheap, this gave them a price advantage over competitors, including Japan, and made the region very attractive to foreign investors because of its rapidly expanding exports. It also encouraged reckless lending by domestic banks, since pegged exchange rates seemed to protect them from the unpredictability of currency fluctuations. During the early 1990s, all of the East Asian countries other than Japan grew at explosive rates. Then the “reverse Plaza Accord” brought disaster. Suddenly, their exports became far more expensive than Japan’s. Export growth in second-tier countries like South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines went from 30 percent a year in early 1995 to zero by mid-1996.7

Certain developments in the advanced industrial democracies only compounded these problems. Some of their capitalists had spent the post–Plaza Accord decade developing “financial instruments” that enabled them to bet on whether global currencies would rise or fall. They had also accumulated huge pools of capital, partly because aging populations led to the exceptional growth of pension funds, which had to be invested somewhere. Mutual funds within the United States alone grew from about $1 trillion in the early 1980s to $4.5 trillion by the mid-1990s. These massive pools of capital could have catastrophic effects on the value of a foreign currency if transferred in and then suddenly out of a target country. Fast-developing computer and telecommunications technologies radically lowered transaction costs while increasing the speed and precision with which finance capitalists could transfer money and manipulate currencies on a global scale. The managers who controlled these funds began to encourage investment anywhere on earth under the rubric of “globalization,” an esoteric term for what in the nineteenth century was simply called imperialism. They argued that excess capital should be allowed to flow freely in and out of any and all countries. Some economists argued that the free flow of capital was the same thing as the free flow of goods, despite mountainous evidence to the contrary.

Capital flows to developing nations in Asia and Latin America jumped from about $50 billion a year before the end of the Cold War to $300 billion a year by the mid-1990s. From 1992 to 1996, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines experienced money and credit growth rates of 25 percent to 30 percent a year. During this same period South Korea, Thailand, and Indonesia invested nearly 40 percent of their gross domestic product in new productive capacity as well as in hotels and office buildings; the comparable figure for European nations was only 20 percent and even less for the United States. In 1996, Asia was the destination for half of all global foreign investment, European and Japanese as well as American. On the American side, by 1997 Citibank held about $22 billion in local currency loans in East Asia, about $20 billion in securities, and $8 billion in dollar loans; Morgan Bank had $19 billion in Asian securities and $6 billion in dollar loans; and Chase had $4 billion in local currency loans, $15 billion in Asian securities, and $6 billion in dollar loans.8

Although they did not speak out at the time, a number of famous financiers and economists have since pointed out the dangers of what is called “hot money” or “gypsy capital.” George Soros, one of the world’s richest financiers and head of a large “hedge fund” located in the Netherlands Antilles, asserted that “financial markets, far from tending toward equilibrium, are inherently unstable,” and he warned against the folly of continuing down the path of deregulating the financial services industry.9 Jagdish Bhagwati, one of free trade’s most passionate supporters and a former adviser to the director-general of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, argued that the idea of free trade had been “hijacked by the proponents of capital mobility.” He claimed that there was a new “Wall Street–Treasury complex,” comparable to the military-industrial complex, which contributes little to the global economy but profits enormously from pretending that it does. The East Asian economies did not really need hot money from abroad, since in most cases they saved enough themselves to finance their own growth. Bhagwati has also pointed out that an unregulated financial system can with relative ease become divorced from the productive system it is supposed to serve and so be unnaturally predisposed to “panics and manias.”10

There was as well a less financial ingredient in the disaster-in-the-making. Without particularly thinking about it or sponsoring any public debate on the subject, the U.S. government built its future global policies on the main military elements of its Cold War policies. It expanded NATO to include the former Soviet satellites of the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland; it reinforced its East Asian alliances; and it committed itself to ensuring access to Persian Gulf oil for itself and its allies. The Gulf War of 1991 was the first demonstration of this commitment. Eschewing a “peace dividend,” which it might have directed toward its own industrial and social infrastructure, the United States also kept its Cold War–sized defense budgets in the $270 billion range while seeking to reorient its military focus from the possibility of war with a more or less equivalent enemy to imperial policing chores everywhere on earth.

With hegemony established on military terms and the American public more or less unaware of what its government was doing, government officials, economic theorists, and members of the Wall Street–Treasury complex launched an astonishingly ambitious, even megalomaniacal attempt to make the rest of the world adopt American economic institutions and norms. One could argue that the project reflected the last great expression of eighteenth-century Enlightenment rationalism, as idealistic and utopian as the paradise of pure communism that Marx envisioned; or one could conclude that having defeated the Fascists and the Communists, the United States now sought to defeat its last remaining rivals for global dominance: the nations of East Asia that had used the conditions of the Cold War to enrich themselves. In the latter view, U.S. interests lay not in globalization but in bringing increasingly self-confident competitors to their knees.

In any event, buoyed by what the apologist for America Francis Fukuyama has called the “end of history”—the belief that with the end of the Cold War all alternatives to the American economic system had been discredited—American leaders became hubristic. Although there is no evidence that Washington hatched a conspiracy to extend the scope of its global hegemony, a sense of moral superiority on the part of some and of opportunism on the part of others more than sufficed to create a similar effect.

Their efforts came in two strategic phases. From about 1992 to 1997, the United States led an ideological campaign to open up the economies of the world to free trade and the free flow of capital across national borders. Concretely this meant attempting to curb governmental influence, particularly any supervisory role over commerce in all “free-market democracies.” Where this effort was successful (notably in South Korea), it had the effect of softening up the former developmental states, leaving them significantly more defenseless in the international marketplace.

Beginning in July 1997, the United States then brought the massive weight of unconstrained global capital to bear on them. Whether the U.S. government did this by inadvertence or design is at present impossible to say. But at least no one can claim that America’s leadership did not know about the size and strength of the hedge funds located in offshore tax havens and about the incredible profits they were making from speculative attacks on vulnerable currencies. In 1994, for example, David W. Mullins, former Harvard Business School professor and vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, went from being a deputy of Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan to a position as a director of Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM), a huge hedge fund with its headquarters in Greenwich, Connecticut, but its money safely stashed in the Cayman Islands, beyond the reach of tax authorities. In 1998, after the conditions it helped bring about had almost bankrupted the fund, the New York Federal Reserve Bank arranged a $3.65 billion cash bailout to save the company—as good an example of pure “crony capitalism” as any ever attributed to the high-growth economies of East Asia. In fact, when the bailout came to light, a number of Asian publications cynically recalled how the New York Times had editorialized only months earlier that in Asia “collusive practices were not only tolerated, they were encouraged” and that “the United States needs to reiterate the importance of full transparency by companies and financial institutions.”11 After the LTCM bailout, Martin Mayer, one of the most respected writers on the American financial system, observed that “the Fed [Federal Reserve Board] for all its talk of ‘transparency’ has made the fastest growing area of banking totally opaque, even to the supervisors themselves.”12

In order to make it intellectually respectable for the smaller Asian economies to swallow all the money the United States, Japan, and other advanced countries were offering them, the U.S. government threw its weight behind the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC), an organization the Australians had launched at a meeting of trade ministers in Canberra in November 1989. The forum did not, however, take off until November 1993, when President Clinton decided to attend an APEC meeting in Seattle and turned it into an Asia-Pacific summit of leaders from all the major East Asian nations. The Seattle meeting also produced APEC’s first “Economic Vision Statement”: “The progressive development of a community of Asia-Pacific economies with free and open trade and investment [italics added].” Under American leadership, APEC became the leading organization promoting globalization in East Asia. At annual meetings in different Pacific Rim countries, it insistently propagandized that the Asian “tiger economies” open up to global market forces, in accordance with the most advanced (American) theorizing about capitalist economies and in order to not be left behind as mere developmental states.

The November 1994 APEC meeting in Bogor, Indonesia, committed the participants to free trade and investment in the Pacific by 2010 for developed countries and by 2020 for developing countries, such as China and Indonesia. In 1995, at Osaka, APEC members agreed to unilaterally open their economies rather than attempt to negotiate a treaty like the North American Free Trade Agreement, which would have generated too much resistance in many of the member nations. Nothing much happened at Manila in 1996—except for a visit by the leaders to the old U.S. naval base at Subic Bay, now cleaned up of its prostitutes and turned into a free-trade and development zone. At Vancouver in November 1997, with the Asian financial crisis already under way, the United States pushed for the rapid removal of tariffs and nontariff barriers to trade in fifteen different sectors of economic activity. At Kuala Lumpur in November 1998, APEC finally came unglued. The prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, had only a few months earlier reimposed capital controls over his economy to insulate it from gypsy capital, for which Vice President Al Gore openly denounced him, encouraging the people of Malaysia to overthrow him. The meeting ended in rancor, with Japan taking the lead in scuttling any further market-opening schemes for the time being. Its Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that the United States was possessed by an “evil spirit” and accused it of endangering the region’s fragile economic condition by pushing market-opening measures down the throats of countries too weak to open their borders further.13 Malaysia and the United States did not even bother to attend the 1999 APEC meeting of trade ministers in Auckland, New Zealand.

The shock that brought this edifice crashing to the ground started in the summer of 1997, when some foreign financiers discovered that they had lent huge sums to companies in East Asia with unimaginably large debts and, by Western standards, very low levels of shareholder investment. They feared that other lenders, particularly the hedge funds, would make or had already made the same discovery. They knew that if all of them started to reduce their risks, the aggregate effect would be to force local governments to de-peg their currencies from the dollar and devalue them. Since this would raise the loan burdens of even the most expertly managed companies, they too would have to rush to buy dollars before the price went out of sight, thereby helping to drive the value of any domestic currency even lower.

The countries that had followed recent American economic advice most closely were most seriously devastated. They had opened up their economies to unrestricted capital flows without understanding the need to regulate the exposure of their own banks and firms. They did not ensure that borrowers in their countries invested the money they acquired from abroad in projects that would pay adequate returns or that actually constituted collateral for the loans. The foreign economists who advised them did not stress the institutional and legal structures needed to operate in the world of American-style laissez faire. No one warned them that if they raised their interest rates in order to slow inflation, foreign money would pour into their countries, attracted by high returns, whereas if they lowered interest rates in order to prevent a recession, it would provoke an immediate flight of foreign capital. They did not know that unrestricted capital flows had put them in an impossible position. What took place in East Asia was a clash between two forms of capitalism: the American system, disciplined by the need to produce profits, and the Asian form, disciplined by the need to produce growth through export sales.

The International Monetary Fund entered this picture and turned a financial panic into a crisis of the underlying economic systems. As already mentioned, the Bretton Woods conference of 1944 had created the IMF to service the system of fixed exchange rates that lasted until the “Nixon shocks” of 1971. It survived its loss of mission in 1971 to become, in the economist Robert Kuttner’s words, “the premier instrument of deflation, as well as the most powerful unaccountable institution in the world.”14 The IMF is essentially a covert arm of the U.S. Treasury, yet beyond congressional oversight because it is formally an international organization. Its voting rules ensure that it is dominated by the United States and its allies. India and China have fewer votes in the IMF, for example, than the Netherlands. As the prominent Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs puts its, “Not unlike the days when the British Empire placed senior officials directly into the Egyptian and Ottoman [and also the Chinese] financial ministries, the IMF is insinuated into the inner sanctums of nearly 75 developing country governments around the world—countries with a combined population of some 1.4 billion.”15

In 1997, the IMF roared into a panic-stricken Asia, promising to supply $17 billion to Bangkok, $40 billion to Jakarta, and $57 billion to Seoul. In return, however, it demanded the imposition of austerity budgets and high interest rates, as well as fire sales of debt-ridden local businesses to foreign bargain hunters. It claimed that these measures would restore economic health to the “Asian tigers” and also turn them into “open” Anglo-American-type capitalist economies. At an earlier meeting at Manila in November 1997 called to deal with the crisis, Japan and Taiwan had offered to put up $100 billion to help their fellow Asians, but the U.S. Treasury’s assistant secretary, Lawrence Summers, denounced the idea as a threat to the monopoly of the IMF over international financial crises, and it was killed. He did not want Japan taking the lead, because Japan would not have imposed the IMF’s conditions on the Asian recipients and that was as important to the U.S. government as restoring them to economic health.16

In Indonesia, when the government ended its dollar peg and let the currency float, the rupiah fell from about 2,300 to 3,000 to the dollar but then stabilized. At that point, with almost no empirical knowledge of Indonesia itself, the IMF ordered the closure of several banks in a system that has no deposit insurance. This elicited runs on deposits at all other banks. The wealthy Chinese community began to move its money out of Indonesia to Singapore and beyond, and the country was politically destabilized, leading ultimately to the overthrow of President Suharto. All Indonesian companies with dollar liabilities rushed to sell rupiahs and buy dollars. Equities instantly lost 55 percent of their value and the currency, 60 percent. The rupiah ended up trading at 15,000 to one U.S. dollar. David Hale, chief economist of the Zurich Insurance Group, wrote at the time, “It is difficult, if not impossible, to find examples of real exchange rate depreciations comparable to the one which has overtaken the rupiah since mid-1997.” He suggested that a proper comparison might be with the hyperinflation that hit the German mark in 1923.17

By the time the IMF was finished with Indonesia, over a thousand shopkeepers were dead (most of them Chinese), 20 percent of the population was unemployed, and a hundred million people—half the population—were living on less than one dollar a day. William Pfaff characterized the IMF’s actions as “an episode in a reckless attempt to remake the world economy, with destructive cultural and social consequences that could prove as momentous as those of 19th-century colonialism.”18 Only Japan, China, and Taiwan escaped the IMF juggernaut in East Asia. Japan kept aloof even when the Americans publicly rebuked it for failing to absorb more exports from the stricken countries, for the Japanese knew that the Americans would not actually do anything as long as the marines were still comfortably housed in Okinawa. China remained largely untouched because its currency is not freely convertible and it had paid no attention to APEC calls for deregulation of capital flows. And Taiwan survived because it had been slow in removing its financial barriers. It also maintains a relatively low ratio of investment to gross domestic product, is shifting further toward a service economy whose capital needs are less, and has maintained export diversity—unlike, for example, Korea’s overconcentration in products such as semiconductors destined for the American market. Foreign holdings of Taiwanese currency are negligible because its peculiar political status makes it unattractive to the hedge funds. Thus, it has been able to offer some of its own huge foreign currency holdings to help bail out countries in Southeast Asia.

After the big investors had pulled their money out of East Asia and left the area in deep recession, they turned to Russia. They calculated that there was little or no risk in buying Russian state bonds paying 12 percent interest because the Western world would not let a former superpower armed with nuclear weapons default. But the situation was further gone in Russia than these investors imagined, and so, in August 1998, the Russians defaulted on the interest payments (they still owe foreign investors perhaps $200 billion). If Russia does not repay these loans, it will be the largest default in history. These developments so scared the finance capitalists that they started pulling their money in from all over the world, threatening even well-run economies that had implemented all the economists’ nostrums on how to get rich like the North Americans. The Brazilian economy was so destabilized that in mid-November 1998 the IMF had to put together a $42 billion “precautionary package” to shore it up. Needless to say, the IMF has also helped plunge millions of poor Brazilians deeper into poverty. In order to meet the IMF’s austerity requirements, the Brazilian government even had to cancel a $250 million pilot project to save the Amazon rain forest. The result was that other countries withdrew their matching funds for the Amazon, and the degradation of an area that contributes 20 percent of the globe’s fresh-water supply resumed.19

In speeches in Russia and East Asia during the second half of 1998, President Clinton warned the peoples of these areas not to “backslide” and urged them to open their nations even further to American-style laissez-faire capitalism. But he had lost his audience. By now his listeners understood that the cause of their misery could not also be its cure. Many remembered that the Great Depression started as a financial panic then made worse by deflationary policies similar to those prescribed by the IMF in 1997 and 1998 for East Asia, Russia, and Brazil. The result in the early 1930s was a general collapse of purchasing power. That has not happened so far this time, largely because the United States went on a consumption binge and provided virtually all growth in demand for the excess output of the world. Can American “shop till we drop” be sustained indefinitely? No one knows.

The economic crisis at the end of the century had its origins in an American project to open up and make over the economies of its satellites and dependencies in East Asia. Its purpose was both to diminish them as competitors and to assert the primacy of the United States as the globe’s hegemonic power. Superficially it can be said to have succeeded. The globalization campaign significantly reduced the economic power and capitalist independence of at least some of the United States’ “tiger” competitors—even if, as with Russia and Brazil, the crisis could not be kept within the bounds of East Asia. This was, from a rather narrow point of view, a major American imperial success.

Despite such immediate results, however, the campaign against Asian-style capitalism (and the possibility that America’s satellite states in the area might gain independent political clout as well) was ill-founded and included serious blowback consequences. The United States failed to acknowledge that East Asian success had depended to a considerable extent on preferential, Cold War–based exports to the American market. By cloaking its campaign in the rhetoric of market opening and deregulation instead of the need to reform outdated Cold War arrangements, the United States both destroyed the credibility of its economic ideology and betrayed its Cold War supporters. The impoverishment and humiliation of huge populations from Indonesia to South Korea was itself blowback enough, even if the blowback for the time being spared ordinary Americans. But if and when the stricken economies recover, they will almost certainly start to seek leadership elsewhere than from the United States. At a bare minimum, they will try to protect themselves from ever again being smothered by the American embrace. In short, by refusing to reform its Cold War structures and instead insisting that other peoples emulate the American way, the United States gave itself an unnecessary, possibly terminal case of imperial overstretch. Instead of forestalling global instability, it helped make such instability inevitable.

The triumphalist rhetoric of American leaders basking in their economy’s “stellar performance” has also alarmed foreigners. When Alan Greenspan asserted to Congress that the crisis meant the world was moving toward “the Western form of free market capitalism,” almost no one thought that was either true, possible, or desirable. Economics has not displaced culture and history, regardless of the self-evaluation of the economics profession. Many leaders in East Asia know that globalization and the crisis that followed actually produced only pain for their people, with almost no discernible gains.20 Globalization seems to boil down to the spread of poverty to every country except the United States.

Clearly on the defensive, Richard N. Haass and Robert E. Litan, directors respectively of foreign policy and of economic studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, lamented, “In some quarters [globalization] is seen as having caused the rapid flows of investment that moved in and out of countries as investor sentiment changed and were behind the Mexican [1995] and Asian financial crises.” But to them this would be a wrong conclusion. To accept it would be to “abandon America’s commitment to the spread of markets and democracy around the world at precisely the moment these ideas are ascendant.”21 But whether such ideas are actually ascendant is, thanks to the crisis, now in doubt, and such doubts are generating more blowback. The duties of “lone superpower” produced military overstretch; globalization led to economic overstretch; and both are contributing to an endemic crisis of blowback.


Finally an Apple Alternative

Like everything else about Apple, Apple Mail is well past it’s high point. It may work OK if you’ve got a small Inbox, but if you’ve got many GB of messages, the app responds very slow, crashes often, and most importantly, looses messages. Yes – that’s right – LOOSES YOUR EMAIL.

Sparrow was a nice alternative for a few months. It sprouted up to number one on the App store, indicating that I’m not alone in looking for something better than Unfortunately, is like the dollar of Mac land. The tallest midget. It’s horrible, but everything else is even more flawed.

I give Thunderbird a try every year or so, but it’s always weird, consistent with Mozilla but not with Mac OS X, and it’s even slower than

MailMate looks like a good possible solution. It’s keyboard oriented. It’s made for handling LARGE indexes. It has a very useful “Correspondence” Window and even a handy “Distortion Mode” for screenshots.

I’ll keep using it for a few weeks and hopefully have a solution for my Mac OS X woes…

Book Recommendations

Everyone Should Read

  • The Red Queen (Ridley)
  • The Blank Slate (Pinker)
  • Influence: Phychology of Persuasion
  • 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
  • The E-Myth
  • Demon Haunted World

Everyone in Business Should Read

  • Grinding It Out
  • Made In America
  • Alchemy of Finance
  • The Art of Profitability
  • Adventure Capitalist
  • Investment Biker

China Travel Tips, Part 1. Internet & Telephone

Local SIM or Int’l GSM Roaming

That is good question. If you’re going to be in China for 4 days or less, there’s not much point in hasseling with the local SIM card – since the process will probably take 3+ hours inluding: travel time, locating fairly priced SIM card dealer, installing card, verifying adaquate funds in prepaid account, subscribing for international dialing, and testing the process.

If you’re not going to use a local SIM card, you must make sure that International Roaming is active on your phone BEFORE you depart from your home country. Once you land in China, it’s too late. You’re phone won’t work, and it will be a fiasco to get in touch with your phone company.

Note that all GSM compatible phones contain interchangable GSM SIM cards. If your phone doesn’t have a SIM, then it’s not going to work when you’re roaming.

Unlocked Phones and Local SIMs

China is the biggest mobile phone market in the world, and the vast majority of thoese phones are unlocked, paid for directly by the end user, not subsidized by the carrier.

If you want to use a Chinese SIM card in your phone, you must make sure your

Mobile phone coverage is excellent in China, and prices are very reasonable. Even calling internationally via a Chinese SIM card to the USA is only 6¢/minute when you use a 5 digit IP dialing prefix.


Don’t do it. Seven years ago, when I first got to China, Skype worked great. It was hard to call overseas, but anyone could dial inbound via Skype-In, which I would forward to my China Mobile phone.

Then along came the Great Firewall. Every year, the Chinese Great Firewall gets more and more annoying, blocking more and more of the sites that you would like to access.

Now days, Skype is not reliable. Sometimes it works fine, usually for about 15-minutes, but then it drops and won’t reconnect properly for a half hour or more.

If you need to Video Conference while in China, you probably shouldn’t come – because your video conference probably won’t work.

If you just need to make some international calls while you’re here, then you are far better off using 12593 (China Mobile) or 10193 (China Unicom) “IP Call Extension” directly from your mobile phone. The connection will be clear and stable. It works nation wide. It doesn’t drop often, and if it does, you can reconnect quickly.

Ideal China Traveler Configuration

For people who need to stay connected to the world while traveling through China, the best solution is:

  1. Smartphone with Global Roaming from homeland carrier to receive incoming Int’l calls and text messages
  2. Unlocked phone (Smartphone or Feature Phone) with local SIM card from China Mobile or China Unicom
  3. 3G Access Point from China Unicom for Email access and Mobile Browsing via your Smartphone, Tablet and Laptop.
  4. Airport Express or other Ethernet based Hotspot for wireless access while you’re at the hotel or office.

Note that a 3G Card from China Mobile, valid for 3 months will provide 1.5GB of data nation wide. That’s enough for a few weeks of mobile email and mobile (smartphone and tablet) browsing. If you’re going to be trying to use IP telephony, watch any video, or download anything – you’ll blow through this 1.5GB in 2-3 days. Best off getting back to the hotel before downloading a lot.

Most battery powered 3G Access points use a single 1800 mAh battery, meaning you start using it at breakfast, and it’s dead just after lunch.

You combine #3 and #4 (3G hotspot, Ethernet hotspot with AC) with a long lasting 3600 mAh battery (2.5 x size of iPhone 4 battery) in the Sapido 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot available on Amazon for $70.

The Great Firewall

While you’re in China, accessing Twitter, Youtube, Facebook and Google will be cumbersome. If you’re not planning to travel to China frequently, it’s not worth wasting time setting up VPN access so that you can buypass the Great Firewall.

If you absolutely must access the unfiltered world while in China, you’ll need to purchase a VPN account that you can proxy your internet traffic through. These accounts can be installed on Smartphones and Laptop computers, but they are blocked frequently and very slow.

Just Google for “China VPNBEFORE you arrive in China to purchase a VPN account. They are usually around $20/month. Of course these sites are blocked from within China, so you’ll need to have the VPN configured before you arrive.

If you’re curious about the Great Firewall, James Fallows at The Atlantic wrote an excellent article called “Your Connection Has Been Reset“.

US Steps up in Asia

The Obama administration has been talking about a “pivot back into Asia” for several months now, yet we have seen little evidence that the United States is prepared to challenge China in East Asia. That may finally be changing. According to Japanese media, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on Aug. 5 discussed the potential for U.S. RQ-4 Global Hawk patrols over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

The Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) used by the United States Air Force and Navy as a surveillance aircraft. High altitute survelliance and intelligence, similar to the Lockheed U-2 1950s spy plane. Global Hawk provides high resolution Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) that can penetrate cloud-cover and sandstorms and Electro-Optical/Infrared (EO/IR) long range imagry. Can survey 40,000 square miles of terrain/day.

When former US Ambassador to China, Roy, now of the Kissinger Institute was in Shanghai a few months ago, he pointed out that legalistically, the US relationship with the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands is different from the relationships in the South China Sea. The US is obligated to protect Japanese interests in the Diaoyu islands as part of the US/Japan defence treaty.

Stratfor has an interesting take, that:

By suggesting that the United States will take a more proactive role in assuring Japan’s continued control of the Senkakus, Washington is attempting to assuage concerns among other potential partners and allies in the Asia-Pacific region. Washington aims to demonstrate its willingness to consistently and reliably counter any perceived Chinese overreach, allowing regional partners to feel confident about strengthening ties with the United States in spite of Chinese assertiveness.

M.I.A. – But I’m Back

Life has been very busy lately, so I haven’t had much time to write. The more I see, the less that I feel like writing about it. It seems that anything we write could always be used against at some point in the future, but if we simply stay silent – there is no downside.

There are so many things that I wish I could talk more about here. About the distribution business. About other business ideas. About personal life. Unfortunately, the three biggest things that I would like to talk about seem to be off limits at the moment.

At least there’s hope that I can talk more about one of these on a daily bais in another year or two.

We’ll see.

At this time, I can continue to share my thoughts about:

  • What’s happening in China now and what may happen next.
  • US/China relations.
  • Chinese language learning and accent perfection.
  • Business/Economics/Politics.

That said, I’ve been writing for a while, and I haven’t added a significant amount to the discussion in these areas – so perhaps the direction of the blog should be reconsidered.

subject chart

Some things that do come to mind that are worth knowing about for many people are:

  • Travel tips for people coming to China
  • Intersting places to visit in China
  • Chinese Language Learning Tips
  • The inns and outs of navigating China by train, plane and automobile

Last, I also need to improve the formatting of the Quotes on the top of the website, and provide a way to easily view all of the great quotes that I’ve collected!

China CPI – Follow the Wet Market

HKTDC(香港易发局)sourced an Hong Kong Economic Journal EJ Insight(信报)article about measuring predicting Chinese inflation. See Article.

There are eight major categories in the CPI basket. They are food, clothes, tobacco and liquor, health and personal care goods, home appliances and maintenance, housing costs (mostly rentals), transport and communication, and expenses on entertainment, education and culture.

Influence in the CPI is dwarfed by food, which accounts for one third of the CPI.

If we follow the trend of food prices, we can feel the pulse of the CPI movement.

  • Prices of pork are on a downward trend in the past few months. This is because pork prices have been on a high level in the past two years, prompting many individual raisers to keep more pigs. And these pigs hit the market since the Spring Festival, greatly boosting supply and which will continue to cause a retail price drop.

  • Prices of vegetables also declined. Take cole for example. During the Spring Festival, a kilogram of cole, a widely-consumed vegetable in China, cost 12 yuan. It now costs 3 yuan per kilogram in Beijing. If you are a smart shopper, you can easily get a bargain of 2 yuan a kilogram.

  • The reason for the price decline is pretty much the same as in the case of pork. Warm weather has lifted northern China from the months-long chill and locally-grown vegetables have begun flooding the market, thereby pulling down prices. Apart from that, the government’s effort to subsidize farmers in their seed and fertilizer purchases has helped slash farming costs, benefiting end consumers as well.

  • The downtrend of pork and vegetable prices will persist for sometime, pulling down the CPI.

  • But the prices of some food items are going up and this is likely to offset the drop in the prices of pork and vegetables. Cooking oil saw the biggest prices increase as major edible oil producers raised their prices in March, citing costs of labor and raw materials.

Brookings: US-China Strategic Distrust

Very accurate review of Sino-US relations by the Brookings Institute. Brief (six minute) video.

Kenneth G. Lieberthal, April 02, 2010

Although both Beijing and Washington consider the U.S.-China relationship to be the most important in the world, distrust of each other’s long term intentions (“strategic distrust”) has grown to a dangerous degree.

The coauthors of this path-breaking study—one of America’s leading China specialists and one of China’s leading America specialists—lay out both the underlying concerns each leadership harbors about the other side and the reasons for those concerns. Each coauthor has written the narrative of his government’s views without any changes made by the other coauthor. Their purpose is to enable both leaderships to better fathom how the other thinks. The coauthors have together written the follow-on analysis and recommendations designed to improve the potential for a long-term normal major power U.S.-China relationship, rather than the adversarial relationship that might otherwise develop.

Watch the video