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August 07, 2007

Drinking, Dieting, Industrial Policy

As I recently noted, Ha-Joon Chang is coming out with a book very soon in the US - "Bad Samaritan: Rich Nations, Poor Policies and the threat to the developing world." The book has spawned a sharp debate over at the Financial Times over the desirability of active trade and industrial policies.

After having studied industrial policies myself, I remember being surprised to hear a presenter at the American Enterprise Institute say that "the arguments for industrial policy don't hold up to closer scrutiny." Granted, any argument for or against industrial policy has to be sensitive to local conditions (landlocked Chad is unlikely to build a successful shipbuilding industry, as Martin Wolf notes), so I didn't quite understand what the presenter was referring to... was the statement meant to discredit the boom years of Latin America in the 1960s, Korea in the 1970s, China in the 1990s? It couldn't have been to celebrate the experience of Latin America or Africa for the last quarter century - during which time practically no industrial policies were practiced (except in Chile, as I talk about here.), right?

So I have still been waiting for further clarification from orthodox economists about what is meant by this pooh-poohing of the lessons of history. Here are the arguments, summarized from the FT debate, with the quick and dirty response taken from Ha-Joon:

  • Orthodoxy: Dude, industrial policy is so 19th century. Sanity: Latin America, Asian, and Scandinavian development did not happen in the 19th century, dude.
  • Orthodoxy: Korea didn't use industrial policy (that's why it grew before the late 1970s), except when it did (that's why it didn't grow in the late 1970s, early 1980s). Sanity: That is so 1980s of you. Korea used industrial policy before, during, and after the period in question, and it grew the whole time, except when it didn't, and that was due to a little something called a world recession.
  • Orthodoxy: Free trade is the best! But if you practice free trade and you don't grow, blame it on on some other policy. Sanity: Where are we, Middle Earth?

The whole debate is worth a read, and it is not as idiotic in tone as I have made it seem. But the days when orthodox economists could shove facts under the rug for 20 years is gone, and you can tell it's causing some growing pains. To part, here are some choice Hajoonisms:

  • I feel like a man being accused of promoting a copious consumption of vodka when all I have done is to recommend moderate amount of red wine as a part of balanced diet.
  • It may be possible to dismiss the US as an "exception", but if there are another two dozen countries that have to be dismissed as "exceptions", then the theory has simply too many holes (the exercise reminds me of the pre-Copernican practice of drawing "epi-circles" in order to square evidence with geo-centrism).
  • I think it is wrong to dismiss one’s opponent’s theory by labelling them with negative words (‘nineteenth-century’). How would Alan feel if I described him and his colleagues as "defenders of free-trade theory that was so strongly advocated by American slave-owners and opium-trafficking British imperialists"?
  • I am a man whose book recommending the Mediterranean diet has been reviewed by a well-known anti-fat dietician, who unintentionally misrepresented me as praising beneficial qualities of all fats, when I had only praised olive oil. This was bad enough, but then a few other anti-fat dieticians read the review, go into a Pavlovian reaction on seeing the word, "fat", and accuse me of promoting excessive consumption of all fats, brandishing American obesity figures and Scottish heart-attack statistics. I regretfully have come to conclusion that I was absolutely right to say what I said at the end of chapter three in the book – "Trade is simply too important for economic development to be left to free trade economists".

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