Monday, September 15, 2008

Review of Kicking Away the Ladder by Ha-Joon Chang

I was pleasantly surprised by this book, which was first assigned to me in a class. I must not have read it then, and now I'm finally working through the books I've piled up over the years. It destroyed the misconceptions which I'd finally come to accept after years of brainwashing (with no evidence).

The first claim is that mainstream economists have ignored history. The "eminent" Nobel (the fake economics one) laureate economic historian, Douglass North, wrote "the standard history of the United States" economy which mentioned tariffs once "in order to dismiss them as an insignificant factor in explaining US industrial development" (2002:24-25). This can only be regarded as intellectually dishonest. Alexander Hamilton first proposed the infant industry argument for US industry, in opposition to Adam Smith's advice that the US focus on agriculture. The US maintained average weighted tariffs of around 40-50% on manufactured goods until 1950. The illustrative table, from Paul Bairoch's book Economics and World History, is available online.[1]

The second chapter focuses on policies which countries used to get an edge in industry. Espionage, tariffs, subsidies for imported raw materials, government-subsidized plants and researchers, and other methods were used to bolster industry.

The next chapter focuses on institutions. It's much looser and weaker, but makes the tentative case that we might be pushing important institutions such as democracy, central banking, various regulations, limited liability corporations, bankruptcy law, property (including intellectual) rights, the judiciary, child labor, social welfare provisions, and information disclosure too fast on developing nations. I'm not sure I'm convinced, but it is interesting. Some of these are important, others are less so, certainly. The most important, in my mind, are stable law, transparency, information disclosure, and property rights for the masses rather than the few. The succinct and scholarly discussion of economic institutions in historical and developmental context alone makes the book worth it.

After reading the book, I'm inclined to agree that activist policies are often necessary. Friedrich List, the major theorist of the infant industry argument, argued that free trade was really only beneficial among equally industrialized countries, and I'm inclined to agree. A country needs to build up its basic industrial institutions. However, tariffs are probably not the way to go today. Export-oriented policies used by the Asian Tigers are preferable. The issue is complex, however, as all the countries are chasing after a limited supply. Economists seem skeptical of the race to the bottom in international trade (in things like environmental standards), but I don't really understand why.

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