Thursday, February 28, 2008

Brick by Brick

I saw an interesting documentary on the desegregation battle in Yonkers New York tonight. It's easy to get lulled into the sense that the battles for civil rights were something fought and won long ago. Brick by Brick is a fresh reminder that these fights go on to this very day.

This fight started in the 1980s and the city council is dragging its feet on a Supreme Court ordered housing desegregation plan and undermining school integration to this day. But the truly insane thing to watch is how rabidly the anti-integration forces fought. The yelling mobs, a city council willing to bankrupt the city by keeping it in contempt of court over 200 low-income townhomes in a city of 200,000.

Truly a spectacle to behold and a striking reminder that high-minded national policies are very difficult to put into practice without engaged local-level support.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Rise of the Lions

I know I'm not the only one who finds the overwhelming majority of election analysis to be stultifyingly shallow. Beyond the polls, the deepest concept we deal with is "momentum," an amorphous concept that implies that a candidate will keep winning until he/she doesn't in which case the "momentum" has been lost. Basically, momentum can stand in for any number of other explanatory variables but it saves us all from the difficult task of defining them or being wrong when they fail to predict an election.

So, in honor of my first intellectual love (after a fling with psychology and a torrid affair with philosophy) I would like to recount a bit of political theory for my readers.

Vilfredo Pareto (for you economists, yes the efficient one), introduced a theory of political cycles in his 1901 work "An Application of Sociological Theory," which outlines a theory of the circulation of political elites. He sees the political elite as composed of a mix of two types of individuals, "lions" and "foxes."

The "lions" are strong-willed and rule in a forthright manner, relying on tradition and "group persistence." The "foxes" are devious and chip away at the "lions'" power through cunning and deceit. Eventually rule by the lions gives way to rule by the foxes who outmaneuver and undercut the traditions that gird the lions power. Eventually, however, the foxes in all their maneuvering end up in a position so far away from the underlying traditions, that they are exposed and upended by resurgent lions who bring the political culture back to its underpinning traditions in a direct manner.

The qualified application of this theory to this election would be this. The two "fox" candidates who maneuvered through positions, votes, and transactional politics to take their respective party nominations, Romney and Clinton, have fallen (or are falling) by the wayside. This is not because of their intrinsic failings, but rather after 15 years of Clinton I's triangulation followed by Tony Snow style press conferences, forthrightness is favored over political cunning.

The corollary to this, is that the "lions," Obama and McCain, have overcome a politically inevitable opponent and shown that predictions of their political death were "greatly exaggerated." Obama, a far-sighted cub, offers to renew the tradition of "communitarianism," while McCain, wizened member of the pride, offers us a return to pre-Conservative Republicanism.

Ironically, an election focused on change may really be about bringing us back to long-held traditions.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Rethinking Development Through Bashing Thomas Friedman

There has a been a bit of buzz about a talk given by award winning Cambridge economist and CEPR fellow Ha-Joong Chong, at the New America Foundation on his new book Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism.

He begins with an example of a small cheap car introduced by Toyota to the U.S. in 1958, essentially an “ashtray on four wheels.” The car bombed and was pulled from the market as critics chided Toyota for trying to go against Japan’s comparative advantage. Japan had lots of labor and not much capital in 1958 so it should have stuck to producing silk. Toyota could not complain that it hadn't gotten help, it had already had 25 years of protection and government subsidies. But the subsidies and protection continued.

Toyota’s Lexus now has been made an icon of free market development by Thomas Friedman who argues that developing countries should put on neo-liberal (privatization, deregulation, reducing trade barriers) “golden straight-jacket,” in his view, the only model of development available. If they would only don the straightjacket they developing countries could produced similar products. (Mr. Friedman seems to find himself in the position of being a punching bag for many an academic.) Mr. Chang believes that using the Lexus as a model for development by free trade is “like writing book on self made man and having the first chapter on Henry Ford II.”

He goes on to point out that Alexander Hamilton applied the idea of protecting small economies before opening to free trade to the U.S. Hamilton was in direct opposition to Adam Smith who argued against the U.S. developing manufacturing in The Wealth of Nations.

By the 1830s U.S. was most protectionist economy in world, it heavily regulated foreign investment and had virtually no intellectual property protections. But the U.S. wasn’t the first to use this model, in fact, Hamilton got his model from Britain’s economic development during the 1700s. Chang believes this model this model has been pursued by all other developed countries with only Netherlands and Switzerland pursuing development through free trade.

This goes to the most fundamental disagreement between the economists of developing and developed countries. This debate raged over the drivers of East Asian growth and causes of the East Asian financial crises in the late 90s. Did East Asia grow because of its governments’ industrial policies or despite of them? And was the crisis cause by imbalances created by these policies or because of the ‘herd mentality’ of investors?

The truth is, macro-issues such as this are impossible to test in any kind of rigorous scientific manner. But Mr. Chang levels a very powerful charge at the supporters of the Washington Consensus and the structural adjustment (i.e. pro-liberalization) programs from the IMF, the charge of hypocrisy.