Sunday, November 25, 2012

Hong Kong

I started reading Restless Empire, China and the World Since 1750 by Odd Arne Westad. Here's what he has to say about Hong Kong:

It was in Hong Kong that the colonial experience in China was formed. It was in the great harbor at the mouth of the Pearl river, that the pattern for hybrid Chinese-European societies would be set. The city facilitated British trade all over southern China, while becoming in population a Chinese city, attracting immigrants from all over the country: refugees, dissidents, entrepreneurs, and fortune hunters. In 1860, Hong Kong had a population of more than 120,000, of whom only 3,000 were non-Chinese.
Like all British colonial cities, Hong Kong was basically well-run, but somewhat shoddy at the edges, where corruption and exploitation thrived. It was a city founded on enormous paradoxes and hypocrisies. The foreign missionaries preached virtue to the Chinese where the foreign merchants kept them addicted to opium. The British preached law and order, though they had taken the territory by brute force. The Chinese came to Hong Kong to take advantage of the opportunities offered them in a city that was not theirs and bore the indignities of being second class residents in a strict racial hierarchy in order to escape a world that was crumbling around them elsewhere in China. Over time, they built their own organizations, as the Chinese diaspora did elsewhere, even though the Hong Kongers had never left their own country.
The great trading houses stood at the center of foreign commercial activity in Hong Kong. Many of these companies - Jardine, Matheson, Butterfield & Swire, Hutchinson - came out of British trade in India after the dissolution of the East India Company in 1834, and established a presence in many treaty ports in China. Still, they were nowhere more influential than in Hong Kong, where they not only ran the economy and in effect also the politics. From the beginning, these trading houses where international organizations, led by English (or in the case of Jardine's, Scots) businessmen but staffed by Chinese, Indians, Europeans, and Americans. By the late nineteenth century, they were the main mediators between Chinese and foreigners, not only in Hong Kong, but all over China, not least because of their increasing control of the Chinese banking system.
It was not just Hong Kong's economic opportunities that drew Chinese from all over but also its educational ones.

- Odd Arne Westad's Restless Empire (slightly edited)

The original charter city

In keeping with a history full of contradictions, Hong Kong serves as the model for charter cities. Proposed by economist Paul Romer, charter cities are semi-autonomous cities in rural sections of developing countries that would have some foreign supervision and, most importantly, would be founded upon a new set of rules.

This unconventional idea was considered and rejected by Madagascar and looks to be having trouble getting off the ground in Honduras. It was always going to be a tough sell - taking the good parts of colonialism. Making an end run around the entrenched interests of local elites is exactly the point, and oddly enough, said elites tend to dislike the idea.

Systems of political/economic order

I'm enjoying tying together the various strands that form the background for modern China's hyperspeed industrial revolution: Confucian order thrown up against the freewheeling and chaotic mixture of cultures and languages of trading cities; complex fluid dynamics of power and money, governments and corporations, and individuals at the margins of empires.

Colonialism is the story of one system for marshaling resources overtaking another, by being more efficient, flexible, scalable, brutal or ruthless. This process seems like a general theme in history:

mercantile > nationalist > feudal > tribal

Maybe, I haven't got the categories quite right. Does capitalism belong there to the left of mercantilism? Judging by Barnett's systems view of the world, you could argue that the age of the mercantile system is not really over, yet.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Persuasion, Initiative, Freedom, Desire

Econ 101 leaves out persuasion. What fraction of business (/politics) is persuasion? ... It's rare for people to initiate their own dreams or be 100% originators of their goals or preferences. ... Which presents a problem for the Edgeworth-box story of lonely individuals trading with each other. ... pleasure and preference themselves are malleable and being moulded by others all the time. ... Even besides "marketing types" ... plenty of people reflexively enforce social norms and expectations.
The story of Don Draper and the Lucky Strikes makes us individuals out not as free-willed inventors of ourselves, util-seekers and comandantes of our own pocketbooks--but as dull voids with no idea what to do with the incomprehensible freedom we enjoy in a society where incomes so far exceed subsistence. ... It puts us as templates onto which meme-smiths paint their work, searching for 1 that will stick and replicate itself.
...the suggestions of what to do with freedom--trips to India, faling madly in love, "On The Road" type life--aren't original ideas, those come from stories which we have no better idea than to live out.
It's somewhere in that spirit, I think, that persuasion in the workplace, in the store, on the TV, can be modelled. And without an effective theory of persuasion I don't see how economic theory can take an honest accounting of choice, preference, or "optimum".

Isomorphismes, see things differently

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Building reliable systems out of unreliable parts

The following rant was inspired by listening Econ Talk Garett Jones on Fisher, Debt, and Deflation while running.

There's a certain type of fundamentalism around the belief that government is necessarily dysfunctional. Reasoning that government is likely to spend and regulate unwisely, adherents advocate spending cuts and limitations on regulatory authority. The failures of defunded and hamstrung agencies then serve as further proof that the public sector can do little right. If further proof is needed, it's easy to find examples of state sponsored screw-ups.

These same individuals are often more credulous about the competence and probity of corporations. This faith seems undiminished by mountains of evidence in the events of recent years that it is misplaced. Businesses leveraged themselves to the hilt, made and traded risky loans with abandon, and felt almost obliged to keep dancing while the music kept playing.

It should be clear to all that an economic crisis of the magnitude of the great recession that began in 2008 couldn't have happened without substantial errors in both public policy and business decision making. Such as:

  • too much leverage
  • complexity and absence of regulation of derivatives
  • lax regulation of the traditional parts of the financial sector
  • perverse short-term incentives, moral hazard and lack of accountability on the part of the financial sector, especially investment banks
  • moral hazard and lack of accountability in government sponsored entities like Fanny Mae.
  • outright corruption (for example in loan origination) and regulatory agency shopping
  • policy encouraging home-ownership for high credit risk buyers.

Economists debate the degree to which stickiness of prices and wages magnify short-term blow-ups. One extra difficulty of a real-estate driven recession is that long-term contracts like mortgages are about as sticky as it gets.

Economic adjustment happens at different rates - from the millisecond response times of high-velocity algorithmic traders to the months it takes to sell a house or mop up after a bankruptcy. These mismatched rates present opportunities for arbitrage, but if they become severe enough, they can break established systems. Examples include collapses in overnight interbank lending during recent crises and the flash-crash of May of 2010.

Corporations are powerful engines of wealth creation. Countries without governments are not nice places. Both are flawed, but we'll have to stick with them, at least until we find better alternatives.

But, organizations built of humans are bound to be flawed, because they're built of flawed parts. History can be viewed as a series of attempts at engineering reliable systems from unreliable parts, with varying levels of success.

The political and economic dimensions of organizations, public or private, are inextricable. The rats are always trying to find a way in.

A political economy

A recent piece in the Economist ( A new anthology of essays reconsiders Thomas Piketty’s “Capital” , May 20, 2107) ends with these words: &q...