Capacity to transform

That is the title of a chapter in Charles Kindleberger’s 1962 book Foreign Trade and the National Economy. I immediately loved the phrase, and found that it helped me crystallize some thoughts.

The capacity to transform, in Kindleberger’s formulation, is essentially an economy’s ability to re-allocate resources in response to market signals. He discusses it in the context of exports, but it is clearly broader than that:

Capacity to transform is capacity to react to change, originating at home or abroad, by adapting the structure of foreign trade to the new situation in an economic fashion. … A higher price leads to more labor, land, and capital being attracted to a given product, and more output. A lower price results in reduced production.

The capacity to transform varies. Kindleberger thought that traditional societies with pre-modern economies had a lower capacity to transform, as social strictures prevented people from changing occupations or established business practices. The process of economic development is thus in some sense the process of increasing the capacity to transform:

These reactions require responses to profit and to income differences on the part of entrepreneurs and owners of factors which disregard traditional usage. Entrepreneurs are ready to shift to new occupations, labor to take on unaccustomed tasks. There must be occupational, spatial, and probably social mobility to accommodate the shifts of factors required by evolving economic opportunities. Upward social mobility must be possible through economic success, and not only through the army, church, and politics. A minimum of education and literacy are required–more is better–to permit the retraining of labor and its instruction in new tasks.

But he saw clearly that capacity to transform does not simply rise in a straight line, and varies from place to place and time and time. The mobility of labor, workers moving changing locations and jobs to better their pay, is one of the most obvious indicators of capacity of transform. Yet there are numerous examples of workers who did not respond in that way to price signals:

Underdeveloped economies are not alone in their incapacity to adapt. … Distressed areas, pockets of unemployment, and low-income industries and regions are found in countries of all levels of average income.

The reasons for incapacity to adjust are social in developed countries as well as underdeveloped. In Lowell, Massachusetts, the young do not move away when the cotton mills cut back output; they share the work on short time, or take turns in working full time in the mills and drawing unemployment relief. The green valleys of Wales similarly clung to their youth when coal was depressed in the 1930s. Brittany and the Southwest in France and the South of Italy contained disguised unemployment in agriculture, along with industrial workers at less than average national wage rates who refuse to migrate to increase their earnings.

Similar failures of mobility have gotten increased attention in economics in recent years, as research has shown that in countries as different as India and the US, workers often did not move away from regions with declining industries. Here is a recent op-ed on this point by fresh Nobel laureates Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee: 

When jobs vanish and the local economy collapses, we cannot count on people’s desire to seek out a better life to smooth things out. The United States population is surprisingly immobile now. Seven percent of the population used to move to another county every year in the 1950s. Fewer than four percent did so in 2018. The decline started in 1990 and accelerated in the mid-2000s, precisely at the time when the industries in some regions were hit by competition from Chinese imports. When jobs disappeared in the counties that were producing toys, clothing or furniture, few people looked for jobs elsewhere. Nor did they demand help to move or to retrain — they stayed put and hoped things would improve. As a result, one million jobs were lost and wages and purchasing power fell in those communities, setting off a downward spiral of blight and hopelessness. Marriage rates and fertility fell, and more children were born into poverty.

From that, they conclude that in general, “Financial incentives are nowhere near as powerful as they are usually assumed to be.” And they are surely right that “status, dignity and social connections” are the main motivators for human beings, who are fundamentally social creatures.

But it still seems that it would be more productive to treat capacity to transform as a variable, and try to understand how it changes over time and how it varies among different places. The decline in the mobility of labor over recent decades in the US is well-documented, and surely calls out for some kind of theory.

Kindleberger seemed to think that a weakening capacity to transform in advanced economies–like a loss of labor mobility, or the phenomena Tyler Cowen has grouped under the labels of “stagnation” or “complacency”–was part of the natural course of history. He did not quite offer a theory of this, but he sketched the outlines of a model:

Capacity to transform probably follows a pattern. In traditional societies it is minimal. With exposure to the modern world it increases. At some stage in the growth process it reaches a peak, and then there seems to be some diminution in it.

Kindleberger cites the adage “three generations from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves” (which has an exact counterpart in the Chinese saying 富不过三代 “wealth does not survive three generations”) to illustrate our intuitive understanding that success can weaken the drive to change. So one could posit a “Kindleberger curve” in which capacity to transform first increases as the economy develops, and then decreases.

Such a curve would be close to the mirror image of what James Galbraith proposed, in his 2012 book Inequality and Instability, as the “augmented Kuznets curve,” which shows how inequality evolves as an economy’s level of income rises. Simon Kuznets had originally argued that in the early stages of the transition from traditional agriculture to industry, inequality would first rise as incomes rose, but as that transition advanced further, inequality would decline substantially even as incomes kept increasing. Galbraith recognized that in the decades after Kuznets wrote, inequality in industrialized countries had stopped declining and started to rise again. He argued that another structural transition, involving a rising economic role for finance and high technology, was responsible. Galbraith therefore augmented Kuznets’ original curve by adding an upward swing at the end:

Based on the experience of the US, it seems like the downward slope of the augmented Kuznets curve should roughly coincide with the upward slope of the Kindleberger curve, as should the subsequent rise in inequality and decline in capacity to transform. Since inequality could itself constrain the capacity to transform, and reduced capacity to transform could entrench inequality, these two changes could be related.

But while a declining capacity to transform can be problematic, this does not mean that capacity to transform must always be maximized. Kindleberger also wrote that “Worse than not being able to respond to an economic stimulus may be, under certain circumstances, responding too much.” The examples he gives of “capacity to transform with a vengeance” are less about the re-allocation of labor and more about investment flows: how lags in production of agricultural goods or housing can encourage too much investment in response to higher prices, resulting in a crash later on.

This made me think of China, and its policy-driven booms and busts. Typically, money floods into a sector when it receives government favor and subsidies, leading to a surge in production, and later overcapacity, falling prices, and a shakeout as the government reconsiders subsidies (see: solar panels, wind power, electric vehicles). In terms of labor, the willingness of Chinese migrant workers to uproot themselves and their families also shows no shortage of capacity to transform, but perhaps at too high of a social cost. So while capacity to transform in the US may now be too low, China’s might be too high.

Re-reading the chapter again, it’s still impressive to me how Kindleberger, in this short and quite casual treatment, managed to identify some of the major issues that are still puzzling economists some 60 years on. His concept of “capacity to transform” feels overdue for revival.

Also, here is my previous post on another interesting part of this Kindleberger book.

One Comment

  1. The augmented Kuznets curve leaves me deeply unimpressed. it wouldn’t have been difficult to plot all countries instead of a selected few. But then the result might have been different.

    Otherwise, interesting ideas throughout.

    Reply

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