Saturday, July 07, 2007

The world is flat - or is it? Is Leamer right about Friedman?

Thomas Friedman's book, "The World Is Flat" is a best-seller - Wikipedia summary here. Friedman's related website is here - I think the photograph of the author is interesting, for those who like to read faces.

Last year, Edward Leamer reviewed Friedman somewhat snippily here. Gosh, I wish people could be more succinct. As Byron wrote of Coleridge, "I wish he would explain his explanation". Still, I guess Leamer has to fly the flag for critical scholarship.

The issue is important: does globalization threaten America's standard of living? Free traders say no. But have a look at Figure 6 on page 33 of Leamer, showing global income distribution in 1980, when US per capita GDP was 4 times the world average. That's quite some inequality, and if they were two very different levels of water in the same canal, opening the lock between them would see wealth gush from A to B.

So as barriers to trade are coming down, why hasn't this happened? Leamer says (p.34), "Much of the difference in GDP per capita among countries comes from the greater amounts of physical and human capital in the West, which advantages aren’t going to go away any time soon."

I'm not so sanguine. As regards human capital, I think the East is very keen indeed to increase its investment in education and training, and isn't hampered by notions of equality of outcome for its students. As to industrial capital, we are watching a vast sucking-in of resources, right down to our iron manhole covers, by China and other emerging economies; but also (particularly in China) we see a rapid and determined acquisition of slowly-accrued Western intellectual capital.

I think the catch-up process would be even faster in China if their industries observed patent and copyright more scrupulously, so they weren't almost wiping out each other's profit margins in their domestic market; and financial capital will accumulate far more rapidly when Chinese manufacturers get to keep more of the foreign buyer's price, instead of losing most of the profit to shippers, distributors, marketers and advertisers. If I were Chinese, I'd be looking at those areas for the training of my bright young people; and I bet they are.

Figure 7 on page 35 compares global income distribution in 1980 and 2000. The rich have done fine, the middle earners have made almost no progress, the poor are gradually rising. But when you think about it, maybe the middle is progressing: Western industrial workers are losing their jobs and looking for work in less well-paid service industries, while new industrial jobs are being created abroad. James Kynge ("China Shakes The World") says he sees heavy industry taking over on the Chinese coast, and labour-intensive light industry being forced inland. The move from low-skilled to higher-skilled labour in China is certainly a progression, matched by downward movement in the West. I wonder what the higher end of the graph will look like in another 20 years, when the Chinese have their own armies of industrial tycoons, company VPs, economics professors, investment analysts and marketing experts? I bet they're quite content to watch their coolie-work go to even poorer countries, as long as it doesn't happen too soon in the game.

Leamer admits (p.46): "The real bottom line: we do not know the breadth and intensity of global contestability of US jobs, and until we do, we will not have a real handle on the impact of global competition on the US workforce."

Why is he relaxed? See page 48:

"Finally, I want to comment on what I think is the big issue. It isn’t globalization or a flat world; it’s technology and the post- industrial labor markets.

The US is in the midst of a radical transformation from industrial to post-industrial society. Some of this transition is associated with the movement of mundane manufacturing jobs to low-wage foreign locations, but much of it comes from the dramatic changes in technology in the intellectual services sectors. The policy response to the globalization force is pretty straightforward: we need to make the educational and infrastructure investments that are needed to keep the high-paying non-contestable creative jobs here at home and let the rest of the world knock themselves silly competing for the footloose mundane contestable jobs."

Well, I don't think the rest of the world is quite as silly as that. I don't think Western education systems are geared to excellence, as once they were; so for that reason, as well as IPR enforcement issues, I don't think we can bank on using our intellectual property to sustain our global income differential. I don't think multinational businesses have, or feel they can afford, nationalistic sentiment. And whenever I read statements that start "we need to do x", I get the feeling that x isn't going to happen. Individuals will still make their stellar way, but I can't envision the West as a whole reclining in comfort in a "post-industrial" society.

But maybe I'm wrong.

1 comment:

Tim Norfolk said...

Having burnt the midnight oil to read Prof. Leamer's review, which appears to be
a typical academic paper, I find some of his arguments convincing, including
the fact that manufacturing jobs have largely been reduced because of more
automation, rather than outsourcing.

That being said, his piece is full of wishful and Americentric thinking.

I have some comments on a few choice quotes.

1. He refers to all economic models as "highly metaphorical", which reinforces the belief
I have had for a long time that economists are not much better than carnival
fortune tellers.

2. He considers it a plus that the workforce is down to 15% in manufacturing,
but notes that healthcare is now 44%. Isn't that like trying to get rich by
paying your family for the chores that they already do?

3. He states that "we are smarter than a couple of decades ago", for which I see
no evidence. In fact, the massive access to information has numbed most people.
I actually have a theory that the Industrial Revolution has happened too rapidly
for our simian brains, which evolved to deal with small groups of individuals
and a simple, if hazardous, life.

4. He also makes the claim the the "U.S. is the primary home of the internet", and
assumes that it will stay that way, despite a good deal of evidence to the contrary.