Red Hot China 20 July 2019.

Something I wrote in early 2011, but never posted.

The good news.  China has made extraordinary progress.  Between 1980 and 2010 the Chinese economy grew at an average rate of ten percent per year.  The massive expansion of wealth and comparatively well-paid employment has lifted half a billion people out of poverty in a nation of 1.3 billion people.  China has conquered world markets in all sorts of things.  To take an extreme example, sixty percent of the clothes manufactured in the world are manufactured in China.  Ten years ago a million people graduated from university.  This year six million people graduated.

The bad news.  Progress has come at a cost.  First, China’s economic growth has been driven by exports rather than by an expansion of domestic demand.  On the one hand, this makes China’s economy highly sensitive to down-turns in the world market.  The 2008-2011 recession pushed down Chinese exports by ten percent and forced the closing of 100,000 factories (which involved laying off 30 million people).  Sustained economic growth will depend on a global economic revival.  On the other hand, wages and living standards for most Chinese remain extremely low.

Second, China’s environment has been devastated by rapid industrialization.  China has lots of coal, so it burns it for energy.  Half the rivers are severely polluted.  Drinkable water is running short.  China is home to 16 of the world’s 20 cities with the worst air quality.

Third, contemporary China resembles to 19th Century Europe: there are great and obvious disparities of wealth; poverty-stricken peasants flood into raw new cities which are unready to receive them; and an educated class is being created faster than are jobs for them to fill.

What does the future hold?  That is hard to say.  The government responded to the global recession with a stimulus plan substantially larger than the one approved by the United States (“We are all Keynesians now,” as Richard Nixon said, but apparently some are more Keynesian than others).  The government is allowing wages to rise in order to create more domestic demand and to improve living standards.  The government has announced a commitment to spending over $400 billion to develop green technologies by 2020.  At the same time, there is much discontent.[1]

The average Chinese faces a lot of insecurity.  There’s virtually no old-age pensions; the one-child policy has ended up forcing one child to care for two parents and even for four grandparents, but the kids don’t have the means or the time; private schools are much better than the public schools; public health care is lousy; there’s no unemployment insurance; there is no system of farm price supports, so price or harvest fluctuations can devastate the income of peasants.  For all these reasons, the Chinese save—rather than consume–about a third of their after-tax income.  In most countries, about 70 percent of GDP goes to consumption; in China only 36 percent is consumed.

A further problem arises from the enormous profits of the State Owned Enterprises.  These are re-invested, rather than distributed as dividends, as would be the case in most places.  The result is the creation of excess productive capacity while consumer incomes are held down.  This is a prescription for disaster at some point.  One solution would be to either privatize the SOEs or to heavily tax their profits and shift them to consumers through payment or social security systems that reduced their own need to save.[2]

[1] “The cracks in China’s engine,” The Week, 8 October 2010, p. 15.

[2] Nouriel Roubini, “The Confucian Consumer,” Newsweek, 24 January 2011, p. 31.

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ChiMerica 1 10 July 2019.

There are real grounds for alarm over China.[1]  Many economists believe that the continuing growth of the Chinese economy will lead it to supplant that of the United States as the world’s largest by 2030 or 2035.  Moreover, China is a dictatorship with apparent ambitions to push the United States out of its dominating position in the Far East and perhaps to exert Chinese influence more broadly.  China has been imprisoning he numbers of Uighurs (Muslims) in Xinjiang province.  Some people suspect that, under Xi Jinping, China has chosen a new course.   Abandoning a “liberalizing” path, the Chinese want to spread modern authoritarianism to other countries in the same way that the United States has been trying to spread democratic capitalism.

The Obama Administration saw the challenge in China.  However, it became mired in peripheral issues (the Middle East, Ukraine).  It never managed to mount an effective response to the central problem of China.  The “Trans-Pacific [Trade] Partnership” treaty fell victim to the populism of the right and the left.  It would not have been implemented even if Hillary Clinton had won the election.

Since 2017, the Trump Administration has pursued a different course.  In December 2017, the White House issued a “National Security Strategy” paper that claimed that China and Russia “want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests.”  In June 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that “China wants to be the dominant economic and military power of the world, spreading its authoritarian vision for society and its corrupt practices worldwide.”  The head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff[2] said “This is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology, and the United States hasn’t had that before.  The Soviet Union and that competition, in a way, it was a fight within the Western family.”

So far, the struggle has been waged purely on the trade front.  For many years, China has been running a huge trade surplus in trade with the United States.  That is, it sells far more to the United States than it buys from the United States.  However, much of that production is done by American companies who have off-shored factories to cut costs.  If they have to charge higher prices to their American consumers because of the tariffs, then why make the stuff in China?  There’s Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia.  In 2018, President Trump began slamming tariffs (taxes on imports) on Chinese exports to the United States.  Then, Trump tightened the screws with sanctions on the Chinese tech giant Huawei.  It has urged other countries to boycott Huawei and to refuse to participate in China’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure project.  Supply chains are going to start to move.

Because of the huge trade imbalance, China can’t exert much direct pressure on the United States by imposing tariffs of its own.  It can look for substitute suppliers for American exports, like soy.  It has started running lots of old Korean War movies (in black and white) in which China battles American aggression.

At the same time, neither side has pulled out all the stops.  For example, the U.S. has not made much of a deal about China imprisoning many Uighirs

However, we are in the early days of a huge struggle.  It is difficult to see yet how it will shake out.  Weak ending, I know, but true.

[1] Edward Wong, “U.S. vs. China: Why This Power Struggle Is Different,” NYT, 27 June 2019.

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kiron_Skinner

Semi Automated Weapons.

Machines want your job!  Well, they would if they could feel desire.[1]  I guess I really mean that your employer wants your job.  Not for him/her self, or even for some idiot nephew/niece.  S/he wants it for a machine.  Liable to get it too.  Only about 13 percent (1/8-1/7) of job losses are the result of foreign competition.  The rest are the result of automation cutting the need for workers.[2]

Thus, in 1962, about 530,000 people worked in the American steel industry.  In 2005, about 130,000 people worked in the American steel industry.  That’s a 75 percent drop in employment.  However, steel production did not fall.  New technology of steel production just cut the need for workers.  More recently, computer and electronics manufacturing shed jobs thanks to automation.

However, in spite of the headlines in the New York Times, foreign competition really has taken away a lot of jobs from Americans.  China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) led to the loss of 2-2.4 million American jobs since 2000.  Apparel and textiles—the most basic products of any early-industrializing country—have suffered heavy inroads from foreign competition.

It isn’t likely to stop with manufacturing jobs, nor is it isolated to the United States.  In January 2016, one of those “we’re here to help” groups, the World Economic Forum, predicted that 5 million jobs in the top 15 economies world-wide will be lost to computer systems and robots by the end of 2020.  Two-thirds of the lost jobs will be in “office and administrative jobs.”  Already existing technologies could allow machines to do 45 percent of current work activities.  [NB: I don’t think that means 45 percent of jobs, just 45 percent of the work that many people do.  It wouldn’t be difficult to sell this as an improvement for anyone whose work includes a lot of drudgery that prevents them from doing higher-order work.]  “Work that requires creativity, management of people, and caregiving is least at risk.”

What are some of the implications of these changes?  They are both social and political.

Workers cast aside as a result of Chinese competition have had a difficult time adjusting.  As a group, they have a higher unemployment rate and reduced real income for the rest of their lives.  Also, apparently, they feel an impulse to vote for Donald Trump so as to send a wake-up call to the two mainstream political parties.  Trump and others have pandered to this by blaming immigration, and out-sourcing, and foreign competition for huge job losses.

In the past, workers flowed from declining sectors to growing sectors.  This didn’t go seamlessly: new workers who saw their parents displaced chose other lines of work, but the displaced parents had a hard time getting jobs in the “new” economy of that era.  In the past, economic change created new forms of manual labor for those without a lot of education.  This time, however, new jobs for men without college degrees have not arrived to help those displaced by change.

Perhaps more importantly, it isn’t clear that displaced workers want to adapt to new conditions and there is a policy interest in some quarters that wants to facilitate not adapting.  Thus, a story in the NYT says of one displaced worker that      “Many of the new jobs at factories require technical skills, but he doesn’t own a computer and doesn’t want to.”  [NB: That is, he doesn’t want to adapt.]  The policy proposals of many labor economists would accommodate this resistance to adaptation: strengthen unions (so that they can obstruct employer efforts to modernize production until foreign competition does what automation was not allowed to do); create more public-sector jobs (regardless of need); raise the minimum-wage (although this seems to contribute to the search for more automation); and increase the earned-income tax credit (essentially a form of welfare for the unadaptive).  Basically pay people to be unadaptive.  That is, create a market for people who resist change.  “If you build it, they will come.”

[1] “The bottom line,” The Week, 29 January 2016, p. 32.

[2] Claire Cain Miller, “What’s Really Killing Jobs?  It’s Automation, Not China,” NYT, 22 December 2016.

Climate of Fear X November 2014.

For twenty years China has been driving hard for industrialization. About 70 percent of all Chinese energy comes from coal. Chinese industry burns coal for fuel and Chinese apartment buildings are heated by coal-burning generators. China burns about as much coal as every other country in the world combined. The newly-affluent Chine middle-class buys cars. There are already 120 million cars and as many other motor vehicles spewing out exhaust.

Of the twenty most-polluted cities in the world, sixteen are in China. All sorts of ludicrous examples of the “How bad is…?” variety can be cited. During one recent bout of smog in Beijing, for example, a factory caught on fire and burned for three hours before anyone noticed the flames. This is at least as bad as that time the river that runs through Cleveland caught fire.

The health effects are awful. Over the last thirty years, Chinese lung cancer rates have risen by 465 percent. Thousands of people stream into hospitals complaining of breathing problems whenever air pollution becomes particularly bad.

The Chinese government turned a blind eye to this problem for a long time. Recently, they have found it much harder to pretend that killer smogs are just “heavy fog.” For one thing, foreigners don’t want to visit China if it just means that they’re going to feel like they’ve been working through two packs of Camels a day for twenty years. Tourism has fallen off and foreign businessmen don’t want to base themselves in China. For another thing, ordinary Chinese people are starting to complain. Since Tiananmen Square back in 1989 most Chinese have been cautious about demonstrating for democratic government. However, the environmental problems are pushing people into the streets for reasons other than a stroll in the park. One count estimates that there are 30,000 to 50,000 protests a year over clean air, clean water, and clean food.

The pollution problems have become so severe, and have generated a measure of public unrest, that the government began preparing for a shift to nuclear power and renewable energy sources. Looking down-range fifteen to twenty years, they seem to have concluded that they would have to continue expanding the generation of electricity through carbon-burning while preparing for a transition to other forms of energy. Hence Chinas commitment in November 2014 to reach peak carbon burning and to draw 20 percent of their energy from non-carbon sources by 2030, formalized its existing policy.

Still, this commitment leaves a bunch of stuff—aside from ash particles—up in the air.     How much energy will China require in 2030? Are they close to meeting their projected needs already? If so, then reaching peak could be a simple matter. What if they’re only at their half-way mark? Is there any quantitative value assigned as the Chinese peak? Or do the Chinese just get to expand carbon burning as fast as they can until 2030, while also expanding non-carbon energy sources to 20 percent of whatever is the total peak? Will China be building nuclear power plants and solar collectors at a rapid pace for decades to come? If the Chinese government is responding now to public unhappiness with pollution, how will it respond in the future to public unhappiness with either slowing economic growth or trying to transition away from a major industry?

 

“The face-mask nation,” The Week, 15 November 2013, p. 9.

Henry Fountain and John Schwartz, “Climate Pact by U.S. and China Relies on Policies Now Largely in Place,” NYT, 13 November 2014.

Oil for the Lamps of China.

Half of the world’s easily available oil is in Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. That oil powered the great Western economic surge since the Second World War. In 1973 and 1979 “oil shocks”—sudden rises in the price of oil and restrictions in supply—badly damaged the world’s economy in multiple ways. In 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, on the border with Iran when it was caught up in the turmoil of the Iranian Revolution. Visions of Red Army tanks reaching the northern shores of the Persian Gulf danced through the heads of many people. In 1980 President Jimmy Carter announced that “Any attempt by an outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States.”

Actually, the American concern went beyond combatting an “outside force [seeking] to gain control.” The American concern encompassed any Middle Eastern state seeking to dominate so much of the region’s oil production that it could move the world market price for oil. What the Americans wanted was a stable world market in oil. President George H. W. Bush showed just how seriously the United States took both Carter’s declaration and the larger interest in price stability when he gathered a broad international coalition to cream Iraq in 1990-1991 after it occupied Kuwait.[1]

The spread of the Industrial Revolution into Asia has created a vastly more complicated situation. The collapse of the Communist experiment in the Soviet Union led the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) and then other one-time believers in a planned economy to turn toward a market economy. A head-long rush to industrialization in the non-Western world followed. Oil became in ever-greater demand. Thus, no sooner had Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait been defeated than the PRC entered international oil markets. By 2003 China had passed Japan as the world’s second largest economy and the second largest oil consumer.

The Chinese strategy began with two components. First, China re-cycles part of the profits from exporting low-cost manufactured goods to the West into buying up oil and gas drilling rights in developing countries. These export earnings leave China with deep pockets, so the Chinese often just out-bid their Western competitors. More than thirty countries have received Chinese investments in oil production. They include Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Nigeria, Iran, and Indonesia. All Persian Gulf countries sell oil to China.

Second, China went where Western countries would not go. In particular, China began to court Sudan and Iran. By 2005, China had invested $15 billion in Sudan’s oil drilling and production. China chose to ignore the outcry in the West over the government of Sudan’s brutal war against its own people in the western and southern parts of the country. In Iran, China began trading modern weapons for oil to a state under a Western arms embargo. Cash investments soon followed. People in rich countries often forget that a delicate conscience is a luxury.

The Chinese demand for oil destabilizes the world oil market. Fighting China won’t be like fighting Iraq. So, perhaps people will strike a deal?

On all aspects of energy: http://www.eia.gov/countries/index.cfm?view=consumption

Matthew Yeoman, The World in Numbers: Crude Politics,” Atlantic, April 2005, pp. 48-49.

[1] The Great Depression of the 1930s had brought Hitler to power in Germany and had paralyzed the Western democracies. Reasoning backward from their own youthful experiences, many people in the West thought that if you hadn’t liked the Second World War and the Holocaust, then you should try to avoid a new world economic crisis. So, regardless of what Western liberals and Middle Eastern conspiracy theorists believe, “war for oil” isn’t the same thing as “war for oil companies.” It’s the same thing as “war for peace and prosperity.”