How History Matters in Post-Socialist Economies

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Though it has been suggested that The Beatles Rocked the Kremlin’ it was “Wind of Change” by Scorpions in the early 1991 that captured the minds of the new generation of Eastern Europe (EE) and the Former Soviet Union (FSU).

The promise of more open societies following Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika announcement set in motion powerful dynamics completely transforming the world. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and by the end of 1991 the Soviet Union disintegrated bringing down the entire socialist institutional edifice. Newly independent nation-states emerged across Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. This new “wind” was that of hope, progressive stability and economic prosperity, or so it seemed at the time. And yet, “[f]or whom the wall fell?” as Branko Milanovic has recently inquired, is not as straightforward as might have been expected.

Despite the independence premium in national policy and in parallel with evidence suggesting recent strong economic growth the post-socialist economies are yet to achieve the ideals announced at the outset of market reforms. Ironically, the most unfortunate economic plan was the 1990s script of transition from planned economy to free market in the EE and FSU.

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Increasing and Diminishing Returns – Africa’s Opportunity to Develop

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‘This tendency to Diminishing Returns was the cause of Abraham’s parting from Lot, and of most of the migrations of which history tells’ wrote the founder of neo-classical economics, Alfred Marshall, in the first edition of his textbook Principles of Economics (1890). In a footnote he refers to the Bible’s Genesis xiii : 6: ‘And the land was not able to bear them that they might dwell together; for their substance was great so they could not dwell together’. (Marshall 1890: 201)

Marshall’s observation also applies to today’s migration patterns: from countries where most activities are subject to constant or diminishing returns to countries whose key economic activities are subject to increasing returns to scale. Diminishing returns occur when one factor of production is limited by nature, which means that it occurs in agriculture, mining, and fisheries. Normally the best land, the best ore, and the richest fishing grounds are exploited first, and – after a point – the more a country specialises in these activities, the poorer it gets. OECD (2018) shows how this occurs in Chilean copper mining: every ton of copper is produced with a higher cost than the previous ton.

In Alfred Marshall’s theory, the ‘Law of Diminishing Returns’ is juxtaposed with ‘The Law of Increasing Returns’, also called economies of scale. Here we find the opposite phenomenon; the larger the volume of production, the cheaper the next unit of production becomes. Traditionally economies of scale were mainly found in manufacturing industry, and increasing returns combined with technological change has for centuries been the main driving force of economic growth. Increasing returns creates imperfect competition, market power and large barriers to entry for challengers – companies or nations – making it difficult for them to enter these industries. In contrast to the rents produced under conditions of increasing returns, raw materials – commodities – on the other hand, are subject to perfect markets, and productivity improvements spread as lowered prices. This is the essence of the theory which explains why former World Bank Chief Economist Justin Yifu Lin was correct hen he asserted that ‘Except for a few oil-exporting countries, no countries have ever gotten rich without industrialization first’ (Lin 2012 : 350).Read More »

What is missing in the ‘33 Theses for an Economics Reformation’

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Andrew Simms (New Weather Institute), Sally Svenlen (RE student), Larry Elliott (Guardian), Steve Keen (Debunking Economics) and Kate Raworth (Doughnut Economics) symbolically nail the “33 Theses” to the door of the London School of Economics in December 2017. rethinkeconomics.org.

By Erik Reinert (Talinn University of Technology) and Andrea Saltelli (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya)

On the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Reformation, 33 Theses for an Economics Reformation were formulated by Rethinking Economics and the New Weather Institute. The document was symbolically nailed to the door of the London School of Economics In December 2017 and endorsed in The Guardian, and was supported by an impressive list of over 60 leading academics and policy experts. The initiative offers a rare and most welcome refreshing message from the House of Economics.

Several elements in the theses are long overdue – for example, the existence of planetary limits, the superiority of political deliberation over economic logic, the appreciation of the role of uncertainty in economic predictions, the non-independence of facts and values when economic thoughts are formulated, the warning against over-reliance on modelling, econometrics and formal methods. Also important is the indication that both growth and innovation need to be conceived with a desirable end in sight, one which can be associated with material and spiritual progress – rather than with misery, inequity and inequality. It is finally all important that in the teaching of economics itself the history and philosophy of economics should be taught, together with all economic theories: not just the family tree of mainstream economics.Read More »

Pitfalls of the Developmental State: The Fate of the Sudanese Economic Model

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I have lately been grappling with the question of how African states came into being, not just as political, but especially economic territorial units. Connected to this are questions of how experts, especially economists came to influence and account for what became national economies. At the center of the state, economy and society are critical question of development and welfare. How did independent African countries make sense of their inheritance and what mechanisms did they deploy to transform themselves into coherent nations of multiple but entangled identities with disparate circumstance but common material goals united by the logic of a national economy? As I grappled with these issues, a great new monograph informed by an impressive historiography has arrived. The author grounds his work in an archivally based history of the transformation of the Sudan into an economic unit between the 1940s and the 1960s. Alden Young’s new book: Transforming the Sudan: Decolonization, Economic Development, and State Formation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017) is centred on addressing these question using the history of a territory that transformed from being an Anglo-Egyptian Sudan condominium into the independent state of Sudan.Read More »

Not just r > g but r + q >> g: Piketty meets Ricardo in the long run of Indian history

Wealth-income ratios are rising everywhere – they are not cyclical but rather unambiguously upward trending for the past three decades. Put simply, the accumulation of wealth is outpacing economic growth. This is true in America, Europe and Japan (Piketty and Zucman 2014), as well as China and Russia (Novokmet, Zucman & Yang 2018). In recent research (Kumar 2018), I found this same trend to persist in the world’s largest democracy – Indian wealth-income ratios have been rising since the 1970s. Why are these trends so similar in countries with such deep structural differences and distinct economic trajectories? By themselves, high wealth-income ratios are not necessarily a social dilemma – they may imply more wealth for everyone. But in general, there is a tendency for wealth to be more concentrated than income. As a result, a rise in wealth over income tends to increase wealth inequality. This is certainly the situation in most economies today. Thus, these trends and the mechanisms behind them need to be understood with careful attention.

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Thinking politically about capital controls: a class perspective

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The recent global financial crisis sparked renewed debates, both within academia and policy-making circles, about regulating highly mobile cross-border money-capital flows. A particular type of policy tool has received considerable attention: capital controls (CC). Within mainstream economics and policy-oriented circles (including policy-makers in central banks, finance ministries, and international organisations such as the IMF and the G20) there has been a growing recognition that unregulated cross-border money-capital flows can considerably disrupt capital accumulation, and debates have accordingly focused on the potential role and effectiveness of temporary CC in limiting the destabilising potential of those flows, while maintaining a long-term commitment to an open capital-account and free capital mobility.[1] By contrast, the Left (including organised labour, progressive economists, and civil society organisations) has been largely critical of capital-account liberalisation, and has denounced its detrimental effects in terms of constraining policy options for development and long-term industrial development.[2]Read More »

The long run evolution of the rich in India 1937-2012

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Inequality in India may be returning to levels last seen during British Rule. To understand this, it is necessary to put India’s elite at the center of macro-history.

One of the central questions in political economy is how wealth evolves, particularly at the top. In Europe and the USA, we now accept that progression of wealth inequality followed a “U” shape or what has been called the “Inverted Kuznets Curve.” Briefly put, on the eve of World War I, the richest few percentiles dominated Western society with their massive wealth holdings. Fast forward to a decade after World War II and we see that their wealth declined substantially, but then started rising again in the late 1970s. Much has been written on this since (and due to) the publication of Piketty’s (2014) Capital in the 21st Century. My new and revised paper (Kumar, 2017b) puts the rich at the center of India’s economic history over the last eight decades. The main question I want to ask is the following: Is the state of contemporary wealth concentration in India a continuation or a break from its history?Read More »

How Racist Rhodesia Did It And ‘Independent’ Zimbabwe Is Getting It Wrong: Comparing Currency and Finance Under Sanctions

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Although Zimbabwe was the victorious outcome of a nationalist struggle against Rhodesia, there were significant continuities in the country’s economic structures in the first two decades of independence. The government exhibited limited commitment to land reform and economic indigenisation. Even though the ZANU PF government needed to be tactful not to upset historical structures of Zimbabwe’s economic inheritance, it needed to strike a delicate balance and undertake some form of transformation to maximise the country’s future prospects. However, limited progress was achieved in terms of economic transformation in the first twenty years of independence, resulting in political disaffection in the 1990s.

To retain political support at the turn of the twenty first century, the state undertook sudden and radical measures aimed at transforming the racial structure of the economy, resulting in the Fast Track Land Reform Programme. However, the racial undertone and process of this overdue exercise was problematic. Moreover, land reform did more than destabilise race relations. Although a steady decline had started in the early 1990s under the weight of the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP), land reform prompted rapid economic collapse. The most visible symptom of this was inflation. With its Special Drawing Rights (SDR) suspended at the World Bank and with its government officials facing European Union and American sanctions, these challenges ushered in a deepening political and economic crisis. By comparison, Rhodesian history had also been characterised by political conflict and international sanctions between 1966 and 1979.Read More »