China in the 2020s is not France in the 1960s

That sentence seems obvious enough that I would not need to write it. But there does seem to be a strain of thought out there that sees China’s economic system, with its high levels of state ownership and extensive planning, as basically the same thing as the mixed economies that Western Europe had in the immediate postwar decades, which featured more state ownership and planning than after the 1980s. In this view, China today confronts the Western economies not with a completely foreign economic system, but with an image from their own past, a reminder that they have drifted too far in a market fundamentalist direction. The most prominent proponent of this line is probably Thomas Piketty; his recent commentary on China includes this passage:

On the economic and financial level, the Chinese state has considerable assets, much greater than its debts, which gives it the means for an ambitious policy, both domestically and internationally, especially regarding investments in infrastructure and in the energy transition. The public authorities currently hold 30% of everything there is to own in China (10% of real estate, 50% of companies), which corresponds to a mixed economy structure that is in many ways comparable to that found in the West during the period of prosperity 1950-1980 (known in France as the ‘trente glorieuses’). Conversely, it is striking to note the extent to which the main Western states all find themselves in the early 2020s with almost zero or negative patrimonial positions. 

Piketty’s comparison is based on empirical data: the estimates he made, in a joint paper with Li Yang and Gabriel Zucman, of the extent of government ownership of assets in China. He finds that China’s recent level of 30% is similar to the 15-25% that prevailed in Western countries in the 1970s. So if you squint at his chart, the line for China today does get close to the lines for Britain and Germany in 1978.

The good thing about data is that they can challenge your intuitions. Still, the claim that an authoritarian state that spent decades under socialism has basically the same political-economic structure as that of the postwar European democracies is not the world’s most obviously plausible argument. And looking at different data indeed tells a different story.

When I’ve tried to grapple quantitatively with the question of the role of the state in China’s economy, I’ve focused on state-owned enterprises, whose large role is one of the most obviously distinctive features of China’s system. China’s own official data on state-owned enterprises imply that they have generated value-added equivalent to around 25-30% of GDP in recent years. (If you don’t believe my numbers, there is a World Bank paper that comes to basically the same conclusion using different methods). Conceptually, these figures represent the flows of income generated by the stock of assets counted by Piketty.

We can compare these numbers to historical figures for European and other economies thanks to an IMF research project from 1984 published as the the book Public Enterprises In Mixed Economies. According to these estimates, state-owned enterprises accounted for 12-13% of GDP in France in the 1960s, 10% of GDP in Germany in the 1970s, 7% of GDP of Italy in the 1970s, and 10% of GDP in the UK in the 1960s and 1970s. After the privatization wave of the 1980s, state-owned enterprises in the UK accounted for about 2-3% of GDP, according to the 1995 World Bank study Bureaucrats in Business (it did not have more recent estimates for continental Europe). In the US and Japan, state-owned enterprises have historically been about 1% of GDP.

The state-owned enterprise sector in China today, therefore, is actually two to three times larger relative to the economy than it ever was in continental European economies. And China’s state enterprise sector is 10-15 times larger than the now quite minimal state sectors in the Anglo-Saxon economies. Those are big differences! It seems clear that China’s socialist market economy is quantitatively and qualitatively different than the mixed economies of the postwar European social democracies, as indeed we should expect given their quite different political foundations. When these economies engage with China, they are not engaging with a version of their past selves but with a quite different kind of entity. I think these differences make China more interesting and worth understanding than if it were just retreading the past trajectory of Western Europe.

It is true that the European economies had sustained fast growth in the postwar decades, which invites comparison to the sustained fast growth of China in more recent decades. But in both cases I would point to the magic of catch-up growth and trade liberalization as the most obvious drivers (on this, see Brank Milanovic’s interesting comments on the misplaced nostalgia for Europe’s postwar years). Europe in 1945 and China in 1978 both had quite backward capital stocks that could be rapidly expanded and modernized, as well as relatively high levels of human capital that could be productively deployed once war and political turmoil were over. And in both cases increased participation in global trade, through the European Community/European Union or GATT/WTO, could further accelerate specialization and technological progress.

Food security and structural transformation

There is a new working paper out from the Bank of Japan, written by four authors from its international department, considering the prospects for China’s productivity growth over the long term. It’s pretty interesting and not just the usual stuff. One of the novel aspects is its analysis of food security. While that’s not a traditional topic for a productivity analysis, the logic is pretty straightforward.

Part of the growth in China’s labor productivity is coming not just from improving the productivity of specific industries, but from the shift of workers across industries (since China’s workforce stopped growing about a decade ago, labor productivity growth accounts for virtually all of its GDP growth: GDP growth = growth in output per worker + growth in number of workers). The structural transformation of the economy–moving workers from sectors where they produce less value-added, like agriculture, to those where they produce more value-added, like manufacturing–is one of the fundamental motors of economic development.

The authors estimate that out of China’s 10.7% average annual productivity growth from 2006-10, moving workers across sectors accounted for about 2 percentage points, and about 1.5 percentage points of the 7.6% growth from 2011-15 (these numbers are not given in the text, so I estimated them from a chart; apologies for any inaccuracy). But the reallocation of labor across sectors contributed less than 0.5 percentage points of the 6.9% growth over 2016-19, so a slowdown in structural change does seem to a factor in China’s overall growth slowdown.

The authors suggest that if the government’s concerns for food security lead it to try to keep workers in agriculture, that could impede structural transformation and therefore slow growth. They model a future growth trajectory for China that suggests that if its industries continue on the same path of productivity convergence and structural change as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, it can grow by an average of about 4.8% until 2035. But that trajectory of structural transformation would mean a continued sharp decline in the agricultural share of employment, and thus (since labor productivity growth in agriculture is slow) in agricultural output. So a continued rapid pace of structural transformation may not be compatible with food security. Here’s the relevant passage from the paper and the supporting charts:

The first issue concerns the balance between food security on the one hand and the shift of labor from agriculture to other industries on the other. In China, agriculture at present accounts for a larger share of GDP than in the East Asian 4 when they were at a similar per capita GDP level, reflecting the Chinese government’s policy of achieving a rate of food self-sufficiency of 95% or higher. However, in the baseline estimate, the employment share of agriculture and the share of agriculture in GDP will decrease significantly in the future due to a combination of the movement of labor across sectors and the effects of the aging of the population. As a result, real output in agriculture would drop to less than 40% of the current level, which means that China would have to effectively abandon food self-sufficiency.

However, in practice, it is unlikely that the Chinese government will tolerate such a change in industrial structure from the perspective of food security. Therefore, to consider a more realistic path, we assume that the shift of labor from agriculture will be limited to an extent that maintains the current level of real output in agriculture. In this case, GDP in 2035 would be about 10% lower than in the baseline estimate and only 1.87 times the current level.

It is possible to quibble with some of the details in this analysis. The Chinese government does not actually have a target of 95% self-sufficiency in all food supply. In the past, there had been an official target of 95% self-sufficiency of staple crops (liangshi 粮食, which is usually translated as grain but also includes beans and tubers). But this was difficult to enforce, and in practice large imports of soybeans have been tolerated. Xi Jinping proposed adjusting this policy early in his tenure to have a more realistic target (see my previous post from 2015 on the food security policy debate).

The white paper on food security published in 2019 mentions 95% self-sufficiency in cereals (rice, wheat, corn), but as an achievement rather than a strict target. The white paper does articulate an overall goal of self-sufficiency–“China makes sure it relies on itself for food supply”–but this is not given a strict quantitative definition, which allows the government flexibility (see this analysis from the excellent Dim Sums blog on Chinese agriculture). The government’s actual goal is probably to maintain certain levels of output of staple grains rather than to limit all food imports. It’s likely that could be accomplished even as the shares of agricultural employment and value-added continue to decline.

Nonetheless, I think the paper’s point that official food security concerns can act as a brake on structural change is correct. China’s actual agricultural policy has been fairly conservative, in the literal sense of trying to conserve an existing order. The trade war with the US reinforced the risks of relying on imported food, and Xi urged more focus on domestic production. While there may not be hard target on the acceptable level of food imports, there is a general push to maintain a large population of agricultural workers and slow rather than accelerate their shift into other sectors. Xi’s government for instance is encouraging rural residents who migrated to the cities for nonagricultural work to return to rural villages. The government has been clear that it wants to preserve the collective system of rural land ownership, which prevents farmers from being dispossessed of their land but also limits their freedom to leave it (for more on this point, see this Dim Sums post from March).

The paper is entitled “China’s Long-Term Growth Potential: Can Productivity Convergence Be Sustained?” and is worth a read.

Xi Jinping on a September 2018 tour of Heilongjiang province

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Alice Coltrane – Ptah, the El Daoud. A real classic. Joe Henderson and Pharoah Sanders are not an obvious combination of players, but they are surprisingly complementary here, delivering dark and complex lines over Coltrane’s driving piano. Still, the centerpiece of the album for me is the moody, bluesy “Turiya and Ramakrishna,” on which the horns lay out; it’s one of my favorite pieces of jazz piano trio.
  • Susan Alcorn – Pedernal. I’ve been catching up on various best-of-2020 lists, many of which featured this album. It has one of the more distinctive sounds of recent jazz bands: an all-string lineup of pedal steel guitar, guitar, violin, bass, drums. The complex tunes pay homage to the pedal steel’s country heritage while still exploring outer space. A truly unique musician, Alcorn is starting to get more of the recognition she deserves.
  • Webber/Morris Big Band – Both Are True. Another widely praised release of 2020, this is complex and up-to-the-minute contemporary ensemble work. The compositions by Anna Webber and Angela Morris deploy an amazing range of instrumental sounds in carefully chosen combinations, mixing minimalist repetition and improvisational climaxes to excellent effect.
  • Carla Bley – Andando El Tiempo. Bley has had a long and distinguished career (ably documented by Ethan Iverson), but for my money her recent recordings are among her very best. This is the second in a series documenting an intimate trio with bassist/husband Steve Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard. Although Bley is more known for her large ensemble arrangements, the small-group interplay here is wonderful.
  • Alice Coltrane – Journey In Satchidananda. Alice gets two, as there’s been a strong need for spiritual jazz lately in my house. The monster bass lines from Cecil McBee tie the whole thing together, and Pharoah Sanders is mostly restrained and even pretty on soprano sax throughout. The interplay between Rashied Ali’s drums and Vishnu Wood’s oud on the closing “Isis and Osiris” is one of many highlights.

The deep roots of China’s financial conservatism

A growing theme in China’s recent policy rhetoric is the forceful contrast between economic policymaking in China and “the West,” particularly the US. Not just in the old-school “our socialism is better than your capitalism” way, though there is some of that, but more in the vein of: “we do orthodox fiscal and monetary policymaking better than you do.” Central bank governor Yi Gang wrote an impressive article in 2019 in which he laid out China’s determination to avoid zero interest rates, quantitative easing, and all the rest of it. A more recent example of the genre was a speech this month by Guo Shuqing, China’s top financial regulator; here’s a couple of samples from the official English translation:

When fiscal spending has been largely supported by money printing, it is like an airplane getting stuck in a spinning vortex: it would be very hard for the airplane to get out easily on its own. Before 2008, the Fed balance sheet was less than about US$800 billion, but it has now expanded to almost $8 trillion. Meanwhile, the ratio of the US federal debt to its GDP has surged to a record high since the World War II. …

China didn’t flood the market with liquidity while strengthening its macro policy responses. Some countries criticize that China failed to implement adequate policy responses and make sufficient contribution to global economic recovery, which is evidently a bias or misconception. In fact, China has made quite strong policy efforts.

What I’ve only recently started to appreciate is just how deep the historical roots of this kind of thinking are in China. During the civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists, each side issued its own currency in areas they controlled, so there was competition between the different monetary and fiscal regimes. The Nationalists lost that battle: their money printing to finance fiscal obligations led to dramatic hyperinflation in the mid-1940s, with triple-digit increases in the money supply and price indexes (see for instance the 1954 article “Hyperinflation in China“). After the Communist victory in the war, one of the new government’s first great accomplishments was to stabilize the currency and end hyperinflation.

That seems to have been a formative experience for many of China’s economic thinkers. Even a couple of decades later, they were still touting the benefits of a stable currency and low government debt to Western visitors. There’s an interesting anecdote to this effect in John Kenneth Galbraith’s A China Passage, his diary of a 1972 visit to China in the company of Wassily Leontief and James Tobin (I did not know about this book before but recently stumbled across a copy at my favorite bookstore in Philadelphia). Here’s the relevant passage:

The government has no external or internal debt–a loan from the Soviets negotiated at the time of the Korean war was paid off ahead of schedule in 1968. The budget operates with a slight surplus. In our discussions in Peking information on Chinese finances was provided with great precision and competence by a member of the Institute of Economics of the Academy of Sciences. She notes that “The Chinese currency is one of the most stable in the world. In contrast with some capitalist countries, no borrowing, no inflation, no devaluation.” Being, like all our hosts, impeccably polite, she did not specify the capitalist country.

One of the more engaging moments of the visit was when James Tobin, who with Walter Heller was one of the men who made the New Economics legitimate under President Kennedy, undertook to explain in response to a question why it was often good for the United States to have a budget deficit and increase its debt. He might have had it easier with Andrew Mellon.

There seems to be a pretty direct line from Galbraith’s unnamed Chinese interlocutor in 1972 and the defiantly conservative posturing of today’s top economic policymakers. With the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Party’s founding in full swing, there’s even more attention than usual to this history. The Economic Daily newspaper has been running a series of articles on the Party’s pre-1949 economic policies: one focuses on Chen Yun’s success in containing inflation in 1943-44, while another highlights Xue Muqiao’s achievements in stabilizing currency in 1940-41. The message from such historical arcana is pretty straightforward: the Party’s track record of steady economic management goes back a very long way.

Skeptics will be quick to point out that this kind of rhetoric is a bit incongruous coming from the country that, in the decade after the 2008 global financial crisis, engaged in one of the largest and most expansions of debt in economic history. Yet the effects of the old conservative line of thinking were visible even then. Because the Ministry of Finance was obsessed with keeping its own debt and deficit metrics under control, it ended up tolerating excessive borrowing by local governments and SOEs.

A couple of further comments on the Galbraith book: I wish it had had more of the kind of anecdotes I quoted above. On the whole it is not very insightful: he is too obviously and easily swayed by the fact that his Chinese hosts fed him well and put him in nice accommodations. He modestly announces his lack of China expertise at the opening, but does nothing to compensate for how those gaps in his knowledge kept him from understanding the context of what he was seeing (a problem that is blindingly obvious now but was clear even to other contemporary non-specialists; see for instance Martin Bernal’s 1973 review). As a result, me makes some fairly cringeworthy comments.

China census reveals the true scale of the Northeast’s decline

China’s northeastern rust belt, dominated by state industry and comparatively isolated from global trade, has been in relative economic decline for decades. Hardly any younger friends who had grown up in the Northeast still lived there. But a few years ago, after the industrial recession of 2014-15, a lot of anecdotal information suggested that decline had entered a new and more aggressive phase.

Stories about empty neighborhoods and abandoned schools were more widespread. Local journalists documented shrinking cities throughout the Northeast. Some cities indeed reported declining population numbers, but others just stopped publishing population figures altogether. I wrote a blog post entitled “China’s Northeastern Rust Belt is headed for demographic crisis” in 2016. Yet the official population figures from those years did not really show a crisis: the population of the three Northeastern provinces–Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang–declined by only 1.1 million people from 2010 to 2019. That’s still a pretty poor showing for a period when the population of the nation as a whole was still growing, but not a massive change in the trend.

The 2020 population census has revealed, however, that those numbers were completely wrong. According to the results, the three northeastern provinces have actually seen their combined population decline by 11 million people, or roughly 10%, since the 2010 census. The chart below shows the difference between the population numbers that have been published annually for the previous decade, and the trend implied by the 2020 census. The dotted lines are a simple linear extrapolations between the 2010 and 2020 census data points, so they assume the population decline began in 2010. If instead more of the population decline happened after 2014-15, which seems plausible, then the downward slope of the lines would be even steeper. In either case, population trends have clearly changed dramatically over the past decade.

Asked about the Northeast’s population loss at the press conference on the census results, Ning Jizhe, the head of the National Bureau of Statistics, gave the following response:

The population decline in the Northeast is influenced by a variety of factors including the natural environment, geography, population fertility levels, and economic and social development. The Northeast is located at a high latitude with relatively long and cold winters, and some Northeastern people are migrating to the warmer south. This is a trend of population movements in many countries around the world: both Europe and the US have seen this kind of phenomenon. In addition, the natural population growth rate in the Northeast has been lower than the national average for a long time, because of fertility-related values and behavior. It is also important to see that the economy of the Northeast is in a period of structural adjustment. The economically developed coastal provinces and cities offer diverse opportunities and employment prospects, which are very attractive to people in other regions including the Northeast.

Although his carefully neutral language does not quite do justice to the scale of the outmigration, this is a fair summary of the drivers of the population decline. While fertility has declined across China, the decline has been much sharper in the Northeast. Government family planning policies were more effective at changing behavior, as more of the population worked for state-owned enterprises that aggressively enforced restrictions. Fewer births translated into shrinking numbers of young people, and there were many more reasons for young people to leave than to stay. The state enterprises that had been located in the Northeast for strategic or geographic reasons were cutting rather than adding jobs. Corrupt and inefficient local governments did little to promote new industries or the private sector, and few entrepreneurs sought out the Northeast. As a result, more and better jobs were on offer elsewhere. And it is not surprising that, given a choice, fewer people are willing to endure winters where temperatures regularly reach -30° C.

Economic decline and population loss in older industrial regions is a widespread phenomenon in developed countries, and has been particularly challenging for Europe. So what’s unfolding in China’s Northeast is not unique. But it also has some Chinese characteristics. The Northeast has always been the most socialist part of the country–officials still call it “the eldest son of the revolution”–and some of its problems are a payback for the distortions of socialism. The disastrously low birth rate as a result of the authoritarian intervention in families’ childbearing plans is one example.

So is the scale of the out-migration, which is large partly because too much of China’s population was located in the Northeast to begin with. Socialist China located a lot of industry in remote places for strategic and ideological reasons, much as the Soviet Union did with developing Siberia. In the 1950s, the northeast benefited from proximity to the Soviet Union and its assistance in building China’s new industrial base: it was the site of half of the civilian industrial projects supported by the Soviets. In the 1960s, the Daqing oil field in Heilongjiang became the national model for a new style of Maoist industrialization.

The economy of China today, which is much less focused on natural resource extraction, much more focused on global trade, and more open to consumer preferences, is not going to keep as much of its productive capacity in an isolated and inhospitable region. Some adjustment is probably unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean the Northeast can’t be a better place to live than it is now. Slowing or stopping the population decline, as various Chinese scholars have suggested, probably requires making the Northeast more like the rest of China: more hospitable to private investment, with local authorities more engaged in developing new industries than protecting old ones. The population exodus does make that harder, as the younger generation who could lead a transformation increasingly go elsewhere.

Demographics might change everything for China–except the growth model

The working paper on demographics recently published by the People’s Bank of China is a pretty interesting document, and has gotten more than the usual amount of attention. It doesn’t read much like the cautious, dry and technical papers previously released by this august institution. There’s not much quantitative analysis or rigorous logical argument; it’s more like an extended op-ed, arguing vigorously that major demographic changes for China are coming and that the country needs to wake up to that fact and adapt quickly.

This call to arms is well-timed. It seems likely that the much-delayed figures for China’s 2020 population census will confirm what many demographers have been saying for a while: that China’s fertility rate has been overstated, and therefore that its demographic transition and the aging of its population are going to happen even faster than standard forecasts project. The authors (listed as Chen Hao, Xu Ruihui, Tang Tao, and Gao Hong) say that China’s government should lift all remaining policies that restrict births, and switch to strongly encouraging childbirth and reducing the financial burdens (like education) that discourage families from having more children. They even suggest that China could experiment with immigration–previously an almost taboo topic–to help replenish its shrinking and aging population.

But what is perhaps more interesting than all the things the authors think should change is what they think China should not change: an investment-focused growth model. They don’t actually hold out a lot of hope that pro-natalist policies will be able to turn the demographic tide; they acknowledge that the measures tried in the past by developed countries generally have not had dramatic effects (their point is more that China’s government government should at least stop actively discouraging childbirth). They argue that the only really successful adaptation to a shrinking and aging workforce has been to boost investment: substituting capital for increasingly scarce labor. The analysis of Japan is particularly interesting:

In response to declining labor and rising wages, developed countries have gradually replaced labor with capital, and in order to overcome diminishing marginal returns to capital, have conceived of using the abundant labor resources of developing countries to complement their excess capital. To this end, developed countries have used multinational corporations’ overseas expansion, deploying their output and capital exports to capture a higher return on capital. In fact, this strategy of developed countries has been extremely successful. Japan, for example, whose aging is severe, has created another Japan overseas during its supposedly lost two decades; the annual capital gains from overseas repatriation are about 3-4% of its GDP, and this money has become an important source of funding for its retirement.

An aging population poses a challenge to an investment-driven growth model, because it implies that the supply of household savings that can be mobilized for investment will shrink. This is pretty intuitive: as the population ages, a larger share of people become net consumers (retired people living off their savings) while a smaller share of people are net savers (working people at the peak of their earnings power). Therefore the average savings rate across households is lower. China’s data seem to support a strong role for demographics in both the rise of its household savings rate, and its decline since 2010 (see chart). As the population ages further, we should expect the savings rate to decline more.

For many economic observers outside China, the typical reaction to this prospect is something like relief: finally, China’s economy will normalize from its unbalanced, high-investment phase onto a trajectory more typical of other economies. This is decidedly not the reaction of the authors of this paper. They view the prospect of naturally lower savings rate with something like alarm. They do not see the transition to a lower share of investment and higher share of consumption as a normal process that unfolds as China becomes more developed, but something to be vigorously resisted. This section is worth quoting in full:

First of all, we should be highly vigilant and prevent the savings rate from declining too rapidly. We must be clear that our country not only bears the burden of development, but the burden of caring for the elderly. Understand this: without [capital] accumulation, there is no growth. Secondly, we must recognize that consumption is never a source of growth. We must understand that it is easy go from frugality from extravagance, but difficult to go from extravagance to frugality. The high consumption rate of developed economies has historical reasons; once you switch, there’s no going back, so we should not take them as an example to learn from. Thirdly, we should pay attention to investment. We must expand domestic investment in the central and western regions; although China’s marginal return on capital continues to decline, the potential for replacing workers with robots in the these regions is still promising. We must expand outward, and especially invest in Asia, Africa and Latin America, because these regions provide the only remaining large demographic dividend.

It’s remarkable how justifications for regional investment policies and the Belt and Road Initiative have worked their way into a paper on demographics. I don’t know if these prescriptions are wrong or right; certainly I cannot claim to have solved the problem of how to respond economically to an aging society. But I do find this paper a fascinating example of contemporary economic thinking in China, for the way in which it starts from different premises than we might expect, and comes to different conclusions. Many countries are already dealing with reality of an aging population, and as China starts to face up to the same problem, we should not assume that the solutions it reaches for will also be the same.

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Floating Points & Pharaoh Sanders – Promises. This unusual collaboration has been almost universally hailed as a late-career masterpiece for Sanders, the one-time terror of the 60s avant-garde who has mellowed into something like elder-statesman status (see reviews in the New Yorker, Pitchfork, and the New York Times). Richard Williams’ review calls it less challenging than some earlier jazz-meets-ambient work, such as the great John Tchicai With Strings, which is fair enough. But it’s still strikingly lovely.
  • Morwell Unlimited – Dub Me. Somehow this didn’t grab when I first listened to it a decade or so ago–whoops, mistake. Perhaps that’s because it’s quieter and more pared-down than an a lot of dub. In fact it is a masterpiece of minimalism, one of King Tubby’s finest efforts. I picked this up back when the Blood & Fire reggae reissue label was still going strong and its CDs were still in circulation; it’s harder to find now (the link is to Deezer).
  • Sonic Youth – Simon Werner a Disparu. These instrumental jams are the last studio recordings Sonic Youth made before they broke up in 2011. They were my favorite band back when I was a Young Alternative Dude, and the chime of their detuned guitars can still bring a smile to my face. There’s nothing too groundbreaking here, but if you like the spacey bits of other SY albums then this will also be enjoyable.
  • Stan Getz – Captain Marvel. Chick Corea, may he rest in peace, played electric piano on this 1972 date, and his fusion-y Return To Forever band made up with the rest of the sidemen. But the resulting sound bears little resemblance to other offspring of Miles Davis’ electric period: it’s a rare example of electric jazz without rock gestures, just that gorgeous Getz tone throughout.
  • Edgard Varèse – “Density 21.5.” Originally composed in 1936, this solo flute piece has had a strange afterlife as a symbol of the potential for cross-pollination between jazz and classical music. A copy of the score with a signed dedication from the composer was found among Eric Dolphy’s papers in the Library of Congress, and Dolphy reportedly performed it at a 1962 concert. Among the many losses from Dolphy’s tragic early death in 1964 is the fact that we will never hear his take on it. The original 1950 recording of the piece is spooky, but actually does not sound too radical compared to the vocalized sounds Dolphy would develop in his own flute playing.

China’s fiscal policy and the new rhetoric of inequality

The Chinese Communist Party is now ideologically committed to reducing income inequality. That the previous sentence is not in fact a meaningless circular statement says a lot about the peculiar evolution of socialism in China since 1978. But after dodging around that part of its socialist ideological heritage for the last few decades, China’s leadership is now grappling with the issue of inequality more directly, at least in its rhetoric. The 14th Five-Year Plan adopted in March includes a section that calls for “proactively narrowing regional, urban-rural and income gaps.” And Xi Jinping himself has recently been highlighting the goal of “common prosperity,” a term that has deep political resonance in China because of its use by Deng Xiaoping.

This has not been a sudden shift of direction. Various elements of the bureaucracy have been working over the last couple of years to lay the ground for this new policy focus, a process that I described in a previous post. Attention to inequality is a natural sequel to, and development of, Xi’s now-concluded campaign to eliminate absolute poverty. But how this new rhetoric will translate into reality is far from clear. Officials have not yet put forward big ideas on how to actually narrow inequality, and it seems they could not reach agreement on the details in time for them to be included in the plan. The Five-Year Plan document itself includes only a general discussion of goals, and a pledge to draft a separate “action plan” on common prosperity.

In the US, those who want the government to do more to reduce inequality usually focus on major shifts in fiscal policy, like raising taxes on higher-income households and expanding benefits for lower-income ones. But China’s fiscal policy is peculiarly conservative in its spending priorities and its tax structure is actually regressive. It’s notable that, for instance, the government declined to offer any direct income support to households during the Covid-19 pandemic, which it could have done for a very modest fiscal cost. Rightly or wrongly, a bias toward supply-side policy is strongly entrenched among Chinese officials. Xi’s new political rhetoric about reducing inequality and achieving common prosperity thus sits rather awkwardly on top of a set of entrenched government policies that have long tolerated, or even encouraged, greater income inequality.

The signals so far do not suggest that a radical reordering of the government’s taxing and spending priorities is on the way. At a press conference last week, assistant minister of finance Ou Wenhan was asked about how fiscal policy would help advance “common prosperity,” and his response offered a few clues to official thinking. Importantly, he said that “it is necessary to maintain the overall stability of the macro tax burden” over the coming five years. That means there will not be a major increase, or decrease, in tax revenue’s ratio to GDP. In other words, the government is not preparing to raise revenue to finance a major expansion of the welfare state. Indeed, Ou indicated that it still wants to cut taxes at the margin for manufacturers and small businesses.

Any additional spending on redistributive programs will therefore have to come from moving around existing funding sources. While Ou did pledge to improve the social safety net, there were no promises of a generous New Deal for China’s citizens. Indeed he warned that protections must not go too far, or be too expensive. “We must strengthen our ability to evaluate the fiscal affordability of livelihood policies, and avoid the risk of over-promising and over-protecting,” he said.

Another indication of the government’s interest in keeping down the fiscal cost of addressing income inequality is its focus on the so-called “tertiary distribution.” In the jargon, the primary distribution of income is income directly received from labor and capital, while the secondary distribution of income results from the government redistributing that income through taxes and spending. The tertiary distribution of income refers to the additional redistribution achieved through private charities. Ou said the government will “support the role of charity and other forms of tertiary distribution, and give full play the role of charitable organizations” in supporting the poor, elderly and sick. That suggests a desire to keep some of the costs of political promises off the government’s books.

The finance ministry does sound as if it is getting ready to toughen enforcement of China’s rather lax personal income tax system, and bring many of the high-income individuals that now successfully evade taxes into the tax collection net. Ou spoke of establishing “personal income and property information systems,” and of the need to “appropriately regulate excessively high incomes, outlaw illegal income, and curb income obtained through monopoly and unfair competition.” It does sound like the new era of common prosperity will be one of tougher legal and political scrutiny of high-income and high-net-worth individuals.

The most substantive commitments to inequality-reducing policies were in Ou’s pledges to “Increase financial support to less developed regions and gradually achieve equalization of basic public services” and to “further tilt transfer payments to central and western regions and depressed regions.” China’s government has long preferred to treat poverty and inequality as problems of geography: if poor people tend to be in certain places, just give those places more money. Raising fiscal transfers to lower-income provinces could certainly help those areas, and given that it uses existing institutions, would also be a relatively easy policy to execute. But there has already been a lot of regional aid in China in recent decades, and using government-sponsored investment projects as a tool of regional development has at best a mixed track record.

Malthus reconsidered

The name of Malthus will forever be associated with the idea of resource constraints on human population growth– which is unfortunate, because his argument appears to have been completely wrong. But I feel a need to compensate a bit for my little essay on those mistakes after reading John Maynard Keynes’ delightful biographical sketch of Malthus. Keynes offers an alternative intellectual history of Malthus, in which the Essay on the Principle of Population appears as a youthful work that gave him much notoriety, but was far from his most significant intellectual accomplishment.

It is difficult to overstate just how good Keynes’ essay on Malthus is: it is wonderfully detailed yet short, warmly sympathetic yet intellectually sharp. (Among other tidbits, we learn the name of Malthus is derived from “Malthouse,” and should be pronounced similarly.) Tyler Cowen has called Keynes “one of the greatest biographical writers in the entire English language.” And indeed I found Keynes’ Essays in Biography to be very good, though the meat of it is really the biographical essay on Malthus and a more extended one on Alfred Marshall; the sketches of British politicians for me were less interesting and insightful.

Keynes claims Malthus as his intellectual forebear, “the first of the Cambridge economists,” on the strength of Malthus’ early attention to the demand side of the economy, and his invention of the concept of “effective demand,” a precursor to today’s “aggregate demand.” As far back as 1820, in his Principles of Political Economy, Malthus recommended “the employment of the poor in roads and public works” as a remedy to economic downturns. But the first appearance of this idea actually came in 1800, in an anonymous pamphlet called An Investigation of the Cause of the Present High Price of Provisions:

Malthus’s conception of “effective demand” is brilliantly illustrated in this early pamphlet by “an idea which struck him so strongly as he rode on horseback from Hastings to Town” that he stopped two days in his “garret in town,” “sitting up till two o’clock to finish it that it might come out before the meeting of parliament.” He was pondering why the price of provisions should have risen by so much more than could be accounted for by any deficiency in the harvest. He did not, like Ricardo a few years later, invoke the quantity of money. He found the cause in the increase in working-class incomes as a consequence of parish allowances being raised in proportion to the cost of living. …

The words and the ideas are simple. But here is the beginning of systematic economic thinking.

Keynes found that Malthus’ economic thinking was best developed in his long correspondence with David Ricardo, a relationship that managed to combine deep and sincere friendship with equally profound intellectual disagreement:

This friendship will live in history on account of its having given rise to the most important literary correspondence in the whole development of Political Economy. … Here, indeed, are to be found the seeds of economic theory, and also the divergent lines—so divergent at the outset that the destination can scarcely be recognised as the same until it is reached—along which the subject can be developed. …

The contrasts between the intellectual gifts of the two were obvious and delightful. In economic discussions Ricardo was the abstract and a priori theorist, Malthus the inductive and intuitive investigator who hated to stray too far from what he could test by reference to the facts and his own intuitions. …

One cannot rise from a perusal of this correspondence without a feeling that the almost total obliteration of Malthus’s line of approach and the complete domination of Ricardo’s for a period of a hundred years has been a disaster to the progress of economics. Time after time in these letters Malthus is talking plain sense, the force of which Ricardo with his head in the clouds wholly fails to comprehend. Time after time a crushing refutation by Malthus is met by a mind so completely closed that Ricardo does not even see what Malthus is saying.

Malthus’ strengths, on Keynes’ account, are his close attention to the realities of economic life and his detailed investigation into practicalities, which gave him insights that Ricardo’s abstractions could not. It’s interesting, therefore, that he characterizes Malthus’ first writings on population as “a priori and philosophical in method,” the precise terms in which he criticizes Ricardo’s arguments.

While Malthus added huge amounts of empirical material to the second edition of the Essay on the Principle of Population, it is clear that the inspiration for the first edition was not empirical. It was more of an abstract conviction, one that arose during a theological argument with his father. William Otter, a friend of Malthus, relates the story in his Memoir of Robert Malthus:

The mind of Mr. Malthus was certainly set to work upon the subject of population, in consequence of frequent discussions between his father and himself respecting another question, in which they differed entirely from each other. The former, a man of romantic and somewhat sanguine temper, had warmly adopted the opinions of Condorcet and Godwin respecting the perfectibility of man, to which the sound and practical sense of the latter was always opposed; and when the question had been often the subject of animated discussion between them, and the son had rested his cause, principally upon the obstacles which the tendency of population to increase faster than the means of subsistence, would always throw in the way; he was desired to put down in writing, for maturer consideration, the substance of his argument, the consequence of which was, the Essay on Population.  

Keynes does not discuss whether Malthus’ theory of population–that it would always grow exponentially while food production could only grow linearly–was actually correct, seeing it mainly as an early example of the power of his intellect. When the early work on population is considered along with the later work on political economy, the intellectual contrast with Ricardo is perhaps not as sharp as Keynes makes it out to be: Malthus too could be bullheaded in holding to his a priori theories in the face of contrary argument. But who among us has not been guilty of that?

Misunderstanding Malthus’ mistake

Few people are as famous for being wrong as Thomas Robert Malthus, the English cleric and early student of population growth. Malthus thought that while population could grow exponentially, food production could grow only linearly. Therefore population growth would always outpace food production, and famine would always then cause population to decline to a sustainable level. In An Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798, he wrote:

We should be led into an error if we were thence to suppose that population and food ever really increase in the same ratio. The one is still a geometrical and the other an arithmetical ratio, that is, one increases by multiplication, and the other by addition. Where there are few people, and a great quantity of fertile land, the power of the earth to afford a yearly increase of food may be compared to a great reservoir of water, supplied by a moderate stream. The faster population increases, the more help will be got to draw off the water, and consequently an increasing quantity will be taken every year. But the sooner, undoubtedly, will the reservoir be exhausted, and the streams only remain. When acre has been added to acre, till all the fertile land is occupied, the yearly increase of food will depend upon the amelioration of the land already in possession; and even this moderate stream will be gradually diminishing. But population, could it be supplied with food, would go on with unexhausted vigour, and the increase of one period would furnish the power of a greater increase the next, and this without any limit.

The dynamics that Malthus described did hold true for most of human history. Technological improvements allowed the number of people that could be supported off the land to increase, but that increase in population absorbed most of the increase in output and average living standards did not rise much–exactly as Malthus predicted. Before the industrial revolution, there is little evidence of any sustained increase in per-capita income over time. Nonetheless, Malthus stopped being right not too long after the publication of his book. The last two centuries or so of modern economic growth show that the production of food, and other goods and services, can in fact grow exponentially for sustained periods thanks to technological progress. (Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms is a very clear exposition of the Malthusian model for prior human economic history, and how the industrial revolution transformed it.)

Thomas Robert Malthus (by John Liddell, 1834)

One of the most interesting ideas in Charles Kenny’s compact and lively new history of humanity’s struggle with infectious disease, The Plague Cycle, is that this common understanding of how Malthus was wrong is itself wrong. Malthus’ mistake was not simply a failure of imagination, the inability to imagine exponential technological progress. Kenny argues that Malthus’ mistake was even more basic: in fact, food production has never operated as a real constraint on human population growth:

For most of the time civilization has existed, pestilence has wiped out far more lives than famine and violence combined—so much so that Malthus’s proposed final limit of land and resources as the check to human numbers has rarely been approached. Disease has usually kept populations below the levels that could have been supported given agricultural technologies at the time.

Kenny credits Ester Boserup, a Danish economist and consultant to the United Nations, for the insight that food production was always more capable of improvement than Malthus assumed, and that the potential for bringing more land into production, and making land more productive, was hardly ever exhausted. In her 1965 book The Conditions of Agricultural Growth, she argued that population growth actually makes higher agricultural output possible through intensified cultivation (for those who, like me, were not aware of Boserup’s work, there’s a useful review at EH.net.) Malthus’ argument that improvements in food output were only linear rather than exponential was therefore wrong before the industrial revolution, as well as after it.

Something clearly operated to keep human population in check before its explosion over the last couple of centuries. But it was generally not starvation. The real problem is that population growth begets population density, and population density, in the absence of sanitation, antiobiotics, and other checks on infection, begets disease and death:

Earth scientist Jed Kaplan and colleagues suggest that less than one-half of the land currently used for food production was used in 1600 and less than one-third in 100 CE. It is true that making more of the land available takes more work—sometimes brutally hard work, and that risks malnutrition. Again, some land couldn’t be cultivated without innovations, including heavy plows and irrigation. Nonetheless, it seems clear that throughout most of history the number of humans on earth fluctuated far below the maximum possible.

Instead, we should probably thank (or blame) the regulatory mechanism of infection for limiting populations. As the number of people grew, population density drove up disease rates. This thinning mechanism was, in most places, probably the most powerful check on the number of people, particularly during the centuries that humans have been farmers. …And when infectious death declined in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, population, urbanization, intensification, land use, and prosperity all climbed to historically unprecedented levels worldwide.

Although there’s a lot of interesting history in Kenny’s book, I’m not sure he does enough with this insight. To me it seems a fairly important finding that the foundation of modern technological civilization is the ability to control infectious disease. (To be fair to Malthus, he did discuss disease as one of the mechanisms that acted to limit human population growth, but he generally discounted its importance relative to food supply.) Modern economies are all fundamentally dense, urban economies–the US is 82% urban, China 60%–and this population structure cannot be sustained without a set of technologies and practices that manage infectious disease.

When industrialization and urbanization happened without those controls, as they did in early 19th-century Britain, they led to actual declines in living standards and life expectancy. Rampant disease in pre-industrial cities like ancient Rome killed off residents faster than they could reproduce, requiring a continuing inflow of migrants to maintain their population. If our current systems for controlling infectious disease weaken or fail, therefore, we’re in trouble. That may be a remote tail risk, but it seems at least as serious a tail risk as, say, an asteroid crashing into Earth, a possibility that seems to get a lot more popular discussion. Kenny acknowledges the risk, but ever the optimist, quickly brushes it off:

Given how many infections we share with animals, how many animal diseases may be only a few mutations away from infecting humans, and how rapidly viruses and microbes in particular can mutate and then spread in a connected world, new global pandemics will surely continue to hurl themselves at humanity. Ronald Barrett and colleagues from the Department of Anthropology at Emory University in Atlanta have gone as far as to suggest that the emergence and re-emergence of disease threats owing to globalization and antibiotic resistance is a sign that we’re entering a “third epidemiologic transition” comparable to the rise of infection at the dawn of civilization and its fall in the last century and a half. That (hopefully) goes too far, but it certainly suggests the scale of the risk we need to confront.

The Malthusian fear that physical resource constraints could stop economic advance and population growth has been a persistent one in economic thinking over decades (and one to which I must confess making my own contribution). Kenny’s book suggests we should have instead been working to better understand and manage the fundamental biological systems on which our civilization depends.