The best books I read in 2019

This is now the eighth year in which I’ve written up my favorite reading (see links below for previous installments), and every year it ends up being one of the things I most enjoy writing. 2019 is no exception: I have lots of good books to share. Since there isn’t a good way to rank books I like, the lists are in alphabetical order by author:

Nonfiction

  • Joseph Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea. Though usually described as a memoir, this book could not be more different from the personal confessions that lately typify the genre. Instead, it is a lovely set of interconnected essays about nautical life, and more fundamentally about the joys of craft and profession. I also enjoyed another classic 19th-century nautical memoir, Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, which has some amazing moments although also many longueurs.
  • Fuschia Dunlop, Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking. I enjoyed Chinese food for years, but it was not until I ate at home with my Chinese family that I really got it. This book captures that delightful hidden culture: not just cooking techniques, but a whole way of eating and structuring meals. I did not know recipes could be beautifully written, but hers are: concise, precise, poetic. And every one has been a hit in my house.
  • Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States. The United States is not quite accurately named. The country is composed of states, but not only states: there are also various territories and possessions, and also, at one point, colonies. Immerwahr’s history of the US from the perspective of its margins is eye-opening, and includes not only lots of little-known information but much fascinating analysis of foreign policy, war, and even technology. A further appreciation is here.
  • Timothy Larsen, The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith. As an undergraduate in anthropology, my intellectual heroes were the British social anthropologists of the mid-twentieth century. They combined deep immersion in empirical research with systematizing intellectual ambition in a way that few social scientists have since matched. Larsen’s lively intellectual history of the period brings their debates and ambitions to life, and his focus on religion is unusual and illuminating. I wrote more about this book in my post “Atheism and the objective understanding of society.”
  • Charles C. Mann, The Wizard and the Prophet. An overstuffed masterpiece from the brilliant science writer. I couldn’t believe how ambitious Mann’s structure was, combining a dual biography with in-depth discussions of technical issues in agriculture, energy and climate change, but somehow he pulls it off.
  • Oliver Sacks, The River of Consciousness and Everything in its Place: First Loves and Last Tales. My favorite parts of these posthumously-published essay collections are Sacks’ pieces on the history of science, which are some of the best I have ever read. Sacks beautifully conveys his deep and affectionate engagement with a tradition of intellectual inquiry stretching back to Freud, Darwin, Davy, and others. I wrote more here.
  • Christina Thompson, Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia. How did humans come to settle all those tiny islands scattered across the Pacific? Just as interesting as the answer to this question is how the answer was arrived at. Thompson’s fascinating book is a great example of how effective it is to approach a question historically.

Fiction

  • Ted Chiang, Exhalation. The second collection of mind-bending and heart-rending vignettes from the master of the science-fiction short story. Perhaps not quite at the exalted level of Stories of Your Life and Others, but still very good.
  • Tom Franklin, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. A pitch-perfect evocation of growing up in the Deep South in the 1970s. That is where and when I grew up, and I can tell you that Franklin gets every detail exactly right. Oh, but technically it’s a murder mystery.
  • W. Somerset Maugham, Ashenden, or the British Agent. One of the very first portrayals of espionage in fiction (from 1929), and still one of the best. I pulled this one from Ethan Iverson’s amazing list of recommended crime, detective and spy fiction; another very good one from his list is Brian Garland’s Hopscotch.
  • Daniel Mason, The Winter Soldier. A startlingly vivid portrayal of a young Polish doctor’s travails in the Great War, emotionally wrenching and free of cliché.
  • Andrew Miller, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free. A dreamlike piece of historical fiction following a traumatized soldier’s search for normalcy after his return from the Napoleonic Wars.
  • Guzel Yakhina, Zuleikha (translated by Lisa Hayden). The best novel I read this year: huge, engrossing, enthralling. Winner of multiple prizes in its Russian original, its appearance in English translation should also be a major literary event.

Previous lists: 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012

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.

The afterlife of Marx’s footnote on Chinese currency

The number of times a Chinese person has cited Marx is by now, with the Chinese Communist Party approaching its centennial, surely uncountable. The number of times Marx cited a Chinese person is countable, and small.

It is an interesting piece of socialist trivia that in his Capital, Marx mentions only one Chinese person by name: Wang Maoyin, who held a position something like chancellor of the exchequer under the Xianfeng emperor of the Qing dynasty. He appears in footnote 36 to Volume 1, Chapter 3, the chapter on money and the gold standard, where Marx mentions Wang being reprimanded for a monetary proposal he had made to the emperor.

This mention has not, of course, escaped notice in China. The English-language Peking Review in 1983 excerpted an article about Wang that explains the background:

The debate took place between 1853-54 during the reign of Emperor Xianfeng of the Qing Dynasty. Wang Maoyin, Vice-President of the Board of Revenue and Population, opposed a proposal to mint copper coins in large denominations. During the debate, Emperor Xianfeng was in favour of coining this devalued currency. He and his ministers mistakenly held that the value of metal currency was determined by the state and that the people could not violate it. At the time, the capitalist commodity economy was not developed in China. Wang Maoyin understood that “the state may determine the value of the currency, but cannot impose restrictions on the prices of commodities.” To counter devaluation which results from issuing unconvertible metal currency, Wang suggested that a limited amount of convertible banknotes be issued. The emperor not only refused to accept his suggestions, but dismissed him from office.

The economic historian David Faure, in his China and Capitalism: A History of Business Enterprise in Modern China, also credits Wang for being one of the early Chinese thinkers to be aware of the “independence of the market”: the reality that the state could not simply dictate economic outcomes, because companies and people would respond to its actions. This idea was an independent development out of China’s own “statecraft” tradition of literature on the practical management of resources, taxation and markets. Faure summarizes Wang’s argument as “although the government had the power and means to devalue the coinage, it did not have same power and means to prevent the people from raising prices.”

At the time of the Peking Review article, the idea that economic activity was a realm subject to laws of its own was making a comeback in China. The people who were trying to move China away from arbitrary, politicized decision-making argued that the government had to respect reality and “seek truth from facts.” The idea that there were economic laws, and that China needed to figure them out and respect them, was an important piece of the intellectual framework of the early reform era. It’s interesting how vehement the author of that 1983 piece is on this point:

This footnote by Marx indicates that there is an economic law governing the relationship between currency and commodities, which is independent of man’s will. Marx affirmed the correct view of Wang and jeered at the self-indulgent rulers who knew nothing about the objective laws of economics.

It’s pretty obvious who the author is using Marx to implicitly criticize here, just a few years after the death of Mao, the end of the Cultural Revolution and the trial of the Gang of Four.

But while the invocation of objective laws of economics was, in the political context of the 1980s, usually a way to argue for the government to step back from interference in the economy, it does not have to serve that function. Xi Jinping is himself clearly a believer in such objective laws, but he sees them as enabling rather than preventing a strong government. Because such objective laws exist, they can be understood and mastered; as I put it in an earlier post, Xi thinks that there are laws of history, and they work in China’s favor.

Statue of Wang Maoyin in his ancestral village in Anhui

A very fine reallocation of resources

The launch of China’s reform era is conventionally dated to 1978, when the Communist Party’s Third Plenum agreed on a major change of economic strategy. But a major sign that China was embarking on a new direction came a year earlier, in 1977, when Deng Xiaoping directed universities to restart entrance examinations. Many universities had by that time reopened, after closing for a few years at the height of the Cultural Revolution. But admission was still reserved for “workers, peasants and soldiers” and admission decisions were largely driven by political recommendations. Deng’s instruction to de-emphasize politics and emphasize competence were a welcome sign that rationality and pragmatism were on the way back.

The general outlines of this story are well known, but I enjoyed the details in this account:

Young people, many of whom had seen their schooling opportunities delayed for more than a decade, hastily dusted off their textbooks and began studying to prepare for the college entrance exams. That year, 5.7 million entered their names for the exams, and 273,000 were enrolled. Because the number of applicants far exceeded the expected figure, for a time the authorities could not procure enough paper to print the exam papers. The problem was not resolved until the central authorities made the urgent decision to ship in all the paper previously allocated for the printing of the fifth volume of the Selected Works of Mao Zedong.

I just love that last bit–it perfectly captures how poor and politicized China was at that time. The quote is from Breaking Through: The Birth of China’s Opening-Up Policy, a book by former vice-premier Li Lanqing (in English translation).

The consequences of that decision to reallocate resources away from propaganda and towards education were far-reaching, and the experiences of that first wave of new students have been subject of numerous books and articles. Many of the people who took those 1977 exams and enrolled in university went on to become rather influential figures (see these recollections by longtime foreign correspondent Jaime FlorCruz, who was one of them).

Indeed, we may now be living at the peak of the influence of the so-called Class of 1977. A September press conference ahead of the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China gathered together three of China’s top economic technocrats: central bank governor Yi Gang, Finance minister Liu Kun, and National Bureau of Statistics director Ning Jizhe. In an unusually personal moment for such an event, they mentioned that all three of them had taken the college entrance exams in 1977.

September 24, 2019: (l-r) Moderator, Ning Jizhe, Liu Kun, Yi Gang

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Don Cherry – Art Deco. After playing a lot of world music, flute and percussion in the 1970s, Don Cherry re-engaged with the jazz tradition in this fine 1988 recording. It’s a reunion of the Ornette Coleman quartet, with James Clay in the sax chair, that ranges from Charlie Haden playing folk tunes on the bass to a respectful take on “Body and Soul.” Clay’s playing is absolutely stellar, as Ethan Iverson emphasizes in his appreciation of this album.
  • Charlie Haden – The Ballad of the Fallen. The second album by Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra project is much less well known than the 1969 original, but I think it’s even better. The fusion of jazz and Latin American folk music is more assured and convincing, and Carla Bley’s arrangements are gorgeous.
  • Lee Konitz – The Lee Konitz Duets. A startlingly original and diverse recording that still sounds completely fresh 50 years later. Konitz plays duets with several musicians on different instruments, before combining everyone into a larger group session. A huge variety of sounds and styles.
  • Myra Melford – Snowy Egret. A quintet featuring the wonderful Ron Miles on cornet plays Melford’s compositions just beautifully–they take many surprising turns while remaining very listenable.
  • Art Blakey – The Freedom Rider. In honor of Blakey’s centennial I spent some time exploring some of the massive pile of Jazz Messengers recordings I had never got around to listening to before. This one really stood out: all killer, no filler, with Wayne Shorter and Lee Morgan in the front line. As a bonus, the cover is one of the best-ever Blue Note photographs.

Who deserves the Nobel for China’s economic development?

The awarding of the Nobel Prize in economics to three academics “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty” has prompted some caustic commentary about how much, or little, global poverty has actually been reduced by the highly targeted, small-scale policy interventions evaluated by such experiments.

It’s well known that most of the reduction in global poverty in recent decades, however it is measured, is accounted for by rapid economic growth in big Asian economies. On the World Bank’s numbers, China alone accounts for about 60% of the decline in the number of people living in extreme poverty worldwide (China’s poor population declined by 742 million people, while the world’s declined by 1.16 billion people).

The contribution of randomized controlled trials to China’s poverty reduction has been, to a first approximation, zero. Yao Yang, the dean of the National School of Development at Peking University, wrote in an English-language op-ed that “Experiments might help policymakers improve existing welfare programs or lay the foundation for new ones, but they cannot tell a poor country how to achieve sustained growth.” In a similar vein, Harvard professor Dani Rodrik tweeted: “Remarkable how little today’s development economics has to say about the most impressive poverty reduction in history ever.”

So if the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences were to award a prize for “contributions to sustained economic growth in China,” who should it go to? This is not a straightforward question. The prize is usually given to academics for contributions to theory and research, not to practitioners for implementing economic policies. As Bruno Frey noted in a 2018 article on China’s absence from the history of winners of the economics Nobel, “It may be argued that the Chinese economy has been successful without the help of high-ranking academic economists.” There are also few Chinese economists that appear in lists of the most-cited scholars–possibly because Chinese economists have historically tended to focus more on advising their own government than publishing in English-language journals.

It’s true that the decisions that led to China’s sustained economic growth were not mostly driven by research published in peer-reviewed journals. But that does not mean that economic ideas did not play a role in those decisions, or that the role of economists was not important. At least, as long as one does not hold to an excessively credential-focused definition of “economist” as meaning only a person holding an economics PhD. Pieter Bottelier’s recent book, Economic Policy Making in China (1949-2016): The Role of Economists, introduces many of these Chinese economic thinkers, few of whom are widely known abroad. One figure particularly stands out: Xue Muqiao. Bottelier writes:

I agree with Wu Jinglian that Xue (who died in 2005, when he was almost 101) was the most important Chinese economist of the 20th century. He was already involved in economic policy and management before the establishment of the PRC in 1949, and after 1949 under Mao. He then became one of the principal architects of market reform under Deng Xiaoping. The evolution of Xue’s thinking on how to develop a “socialist economy” mirrors Deng’s.

While Deng Xiaoping is these days often remembered mainly as an economic reformer, in fact he was not a specialist in the economy, and largely delegated economic management to other leadership figures. Xue seems to have been quite influential in the formation of Deng’s economic thinking.

Xue is particularly famous for is a letter he wrote in 1977, after Mao’s death but before reforms had begun, to Deng and Li Xiannian that laid out many of the problems in the economy. He focused in particular on agriculture, noting that farm output had grown no faster than the population despite collectivization and massive investments in machinery. The letter is translated in the English-language Collected Works of Xue Muqiao:

The CPC Central Committee has pointed out the importance of having agricultural production catch up with industry’s Great Leap Forward. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry has recently proposed twelve significant measures to attain this goal. It recommends an increase of investment into agriculture of RMB 30 billion. These measures are necessary, but I think it is more important to implement agricultural policies that improve farmers’ lives, and that arouse their enthusiasm for agricultural production. … It is hard to motivate farmers if growth in agricultural production cannot bring corresponding growth in income. Any interest in working suffers if extra work is not rewarded. … Boosting farmers’ enthusiasm for agricultural production therefore outweighs improving the conditions for agricultural production.

“Enthusiasm” is the term often used in Chinese during this period for what we would today call “incentives.” And there is no economic insight more fundamental than “incentives matter.” This early insight by Xue laid the intellectual groundwork for the later decision to allow farmers to break out of agricultural collectives and farm their own land–a massive change in incentives for agriculture that resulted in a huge boom in productivity. For Xue to be able to break through the deadening grip of Maoist political correctness and recognize that incentive problems were keeping China’s rural population mired in poverty must surely be counted as an intellectual achievement of the highest order.

Over his long life and career, Xue did much more than write one well-timed and well-placed letter. The economic historian Fan Shitao last year made a catalog of Xue’s achievements in the pages of Caixin magazine, in a letter arguing that “Xue should be credited with making the most comprehensive contributions to China’s early reform and opening-up.” I won’t reproduce the entire thing here, but here are a few highlights:

In a long speech presented to the Central Party School in autumn of 1978, Xue was the first official within the ruling Communist Party elite to criticize the catastrophic consequences and painful economic lessons of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward.” By warning that similar mistakes should not be replicated in the future, Xue’s speech paved the way for subsequent adjustments to China’s economic policies. …

As the most authoritative expert on price in the Communist Party, Xue was the first person to point out that price reforms were key to China’s economic reforms. He also differentiated between overall price stability and flexibility of individual prices. In agreement with German economic expert Armin Gutowski, Chinese American economist Gregory Chow, and experienced economist Edwin Lim, Xue promoted price reforms, which was one of the major decisions of the Third Plenary Session in 1984. …

In 1978 Xue pointed out that instead of administrative regions, economic development should focus on economic zones based on resource flows. The economic zone in Shanghai contributed to its becoming one of China’s most capital-abundant cities. Xue’s proposal also later led to the launch of other regional development plans.

So Xue’s intellectual influence can arguably be detected in agricultural decollectivization, the overhaul of central planning, the transition to market prices, and the coastal export manufacturing boom. That is a pretty staggering list.

Of course, China’s decades-long series of economic reforms had no one author or leader. But China’s system of closed-door debate and collective decision-making has long obscured the important contributions of individuals like Xue, and Du Runsheng, another major figure in rural reform.

Xue Muqiao

Rawski on the costs built in to China’s system

Loren Brandt and Thomas Rawski, two of the best economists and economic historians working on China, have a new edited volume out under the somewhat daunting title of Policy, Regulation and Innovation in China’s Electricity and Telecom Industries. It promises to be essential reading for anyone interested in how industrial policy works in China–a topic that, thanks to the massive scale of various subsidy programs like Made in China 2025 and the US trade war that has been launched in response, is now of far more than specialist interest.

I have not yet read the book, but I did watch a September 26 event at CSIS in which Brandt and Rawski discuss their work, under the catchier title “Can China’s industrial policy work?” Sadly, if not surprisingly, the book does not provide a simple answer to that question. Here is how Rawski put it:

We have no big theory. We cannot predict which policies will produce success and which policies don’t. We see the same policies affecting the semiconductor industry, which has done very poorly, the thermal power equipment industry, which has done well, and ultra-high-voltage power transmission, which is a world leader technologically. What is the key? Perhaps it is the difficulty of the technical obstacles that these firms confront. Perhaps it is quality of management. It’s hard to say. There’s no simple way of saying what works and what doesn’t work in China’s industrial policy.

If they do not have simple answers, they do provide a lot of important insights into how China’s system, with its hybrid of market mechanisms and top-down political direction, actually works. I particularly liked the concept of “system costs” which Rawksi brings up in his very interesting discussion of the electricity industry (these are my notes from the video, lightly edited):

Another feature that we see across the board is that they prioritize technical objectives over economic objectives. I think this partly reflects the Soviet legacy. One of the lessons of this book, for me at least, is that the legacy of Soviet influence in the Chinese economy is much larger than I thought it was when we started out on this project. The objectives of the Made in China 2025 program read like the first Five-Year Plan. There’s no discussion of markets, there’s no discussion of competition–it’s about physical targets.

Another important conclusion is that this is a system that has very high built-in costs. Electricity provides a vehicle for looking at this because it’s simple: there’s one product, five firms produce half the output, two firms distribute 90% of the output. So by looking at a very small number of firms we can see what’s going on in the whole industry. We can quantify some of the system costs people like Ken Lieberthal associate with China’s “highly negotiated” political system.

Negotiation means time and energy, and to us that means system costs. In the American electricity industry, the share of managers is 6.8%; in China it’s 17.8%. You need this extra manpower to work things out. We find that the cost of generating and delivering electricity is 30% higher in China than it is in the US, even though the ingredients are cheaper in China than they are in the US.

Our authors find many areas in which technical upgrades produce no economic benefit. As one engineer at a power plant said to us: we spent a large amount of money improving our equipment to lower our coal consumption, but of course if we had just increased the utilization of the existing plant, we could have gotten the same reduction in coal consumption at zero cost. Many episodes of this sort. We find low utilization in the telecom networks, in the electricity grid. In the US, engineers recommend 15% extra capacity compared to peak load in power systems. In China, the provincial average is 90%. In Inner Mongolia, which is the biggest power generating province, it’s over 200%.

And finally, quality issues. A deputy minister says that Chinese machinery is useful but not too reliable because of small defects. In high technology industries, this is very dangerous.

So what we’re looking at is a tug of war. We see huge resources being poured into innovation, we see the creativity and entrepreneurship of the Chinese people and Chinese firms. This is good. And we see also system costs and inefficiencies which are moving in the other direction.

The Q&A also covers China’s role in the global productivity slowdown, safety in nuclear power, the use of labor in coal mining, and other interesting topics. Worth watching.