China’s developmental resettlements

 

The human costs of China’s Three Gorges dam project are reasonably well known. Since construction began in 1994 between 1.3 million and two million people have been involuntarily resettled to higher ground and to other provinces. The project has created massive environmental hazards for China (link), and has also created a gigantic human cost among the families and communities who were forcibly relocated.

Less well known are earlier waves of “hydraulic refugees” along the Yellow River beginning with construction of the Sanmenxia Dam in 1954 (completed in 1960). And subsequent water control projects through the next several decades have created yet other large-scale displacements along the Yellow River across north-central China. The movements of peoples created by these major projects of post-Revolution-era civil and social engineering have continued to reverberate until the present.

 

 
image: Yellow River topography
In the Sanmenxia Dam case the total number of forced migrants is probably lower than the Three Gorges Dam project, though reliable statistics are not readily available. Some estimates of displaced persons created by the Sanmenxia Dam cite 300,000 migrants. But the longterm effects on individuals, families, and communities have been perhaps even more severe. The project was designed without strong geological or hydrological expertise, and it has failed fundamentally to achieve the intended goals of the project. (Journalist Xie Chaoping was arrested in 2010 for writing a sober appraisal of the failures of Sanmenxia in The Great Relocation; link.)
 
French scholar Florence Padovani has studied the topic of involuntary relocation in China in detail. Her contribution to Forced Migration and Global Processes: A View from Forced Migration Studies provides quite a bit of factual background on the important hydraulic relocations. Here is Padovani’s definition of forced migration:

Forced migration, as it is understood here, involves populations which are uprooted by development programs. These individuals are internally displaced; even when they move thousands of kilometers away from their birthplace, they remain inside national borders. (92)

And here is her summary description of the relocation of population for the SMD project:

The way resettlement was implemented in the SMD case is typical of the way the government at that time considered people to be displaced. The authorities, from top to bottom, adopted the same line of action in a unified rhetoric. As for the resettlers, they did manage to raise their voices through very traditional ways, such as petitioning the central government …, but also through street demonstrations and even physical fights. …  We can summarize resettlement policy during the revolutionary period by the following points: First, the vast majority of displaced people were rural dwellers, mainly farmers. Second, they were not involved in preliminary assessment projects and were informed of the government’s plan at the last moment. Host communities were not involved in resettlement plans either, so some serious conflicts erupted when newcomers settled on their land. And third, displaced people were not well compensated and their relocation was not well planned, leading to their impoverishment. (97)

Padovani’s ethnographic study of Three Gorges Dam emigrants in the Shanghai region sheds much light on the human consequences of forced migration in China (link). This research provides a report of interviews with a few dozen migrants in the Shanghai region.The great majority of displaced people are farmers. So their life prospects following a move are bleak. They need access to land, secure housing, and access to unskilled employment. And none of these  are in ready supply in most destinations. More intangibly, they need access to kinship networks and mutual aid societies of the kind that were available in their home communities. But forced migration has thoroughly shattered those sources of mutual aid. So the lives of these million-plus migrants have not been made more hospitable as a result of the project. 

The disintegration of the social network due to forced migration means that the ‘domestic order” (local and personal ties), “civic order” (equality and solidarity), and “market order” (economic performance) have to be rebuilt. (107)

image: The Chinese Dust Bowl, The Walrus (link)

Yellow River communities have experienced another wave of resettlement in the past thirty years, this time along the upper reaches of the river in Gansu and Inner Mongolia, in response to the combined pressures of development and desertification. Irrigated farming communities have been uprooted multiple times as local authorities have sought to make use of scarce land and water resources. (Benoit Aquin’s photo essay on this region in The Walrus is a great exposure of these dustbowl conditions.)

Reading the story of these massive dam projects and their state-sponsored programs of involuntary resettlement illustrates some of the perverse processes of development that James Scott describes in Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Scott doesn’t consider modern Chinese examples, but he finds a raft of critical problems of environmental impact, social disruption, and human suffering associated with major water projects in other countries. His summary thoughts seem to apply to China’s development experience as well:

I believe that many of the most tragic episodes of state development in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries originate in a particularly pernicious combination of three elements. The first is the aspiration to the administrative ordering of nature and society, an aspiration that we have already seen at work in scientific forestry, but one raised to a far more comprehensive and ambitious level…. The second element is the unrestrained use of the power of the modern state as an instrument for achieving these designs. The third element is a weakened or prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans. (88-89)

(Here is an earlier post on Scott’s critique of state-driven modernization projects; link.)

The Sanmenxia Dam is an unmistakeable failure; siltification and massive pollution have turned out to be irresolvable problems along the length of the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River. Experts are now calling for the removal of the dam altogether. There are very strong indications that the TGD is likewise an environmental and social disaster, though this is still not completely resolved. And for the several million people who were forcibly relocated, the Three Gorges Dam has often turned out to be a catastrophic turning point in their personal lives.

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Adelman on Albert Hirschman

 

 

Jeremy Adelman’s detailed and illuminating biography of Albert Hirschman in Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman is an excellent example of intellectual biography. Even more, it is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the development of social science theories and frameworks.

Born to a professional Jewish family in Berlin in 1915, Hirschman’s life bracketed the most searing nightmares of the twentieth century. Hirschman was an anti-fascist activist as a teenager, leaving Berlin for France in 1933. He was an intellectual from the start, with curiosity and originality driving his quest for ideas and knowledge. But equally early he was an activist, with political convictions and allegiances that gave him the courage to resist fascism in every way he was able to. In France he pursued a doctorate in business (as the only French program he could enter), while continuing his anti-fascist activism.

One part of the interest of this biography is the engagement in war and revolution into which his historical situation and political sympathies led Hirschman. He fought as a volunteer in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Returning to France he found himself as a volunteer in the French army, but was quickly demobilized following the defeat of France by Germany in 1940. He then had an intense half year of clandestine work in Marseille helping arrange escape from France for leftist intellectuals, refugees, and the occasional stranded American. He himself managed to emigrate to America in 1940 by landing a Rockefeller fellowship at Berkeley; but he then enlisted in the American army within weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. So in a brief few years Hirschman served in three armies fighting fascism. He spent months in Algiers as an enlisted man, was assigned duties as a translator behind the American lines in Italy, and wound up serving as translator in Rome for the German general who was the first to be charged for war crimes by the American army. (The general was found guilty of these crimes and sentenced to death.) And on Hirschman’s return to America his career was mysteriously blocked at various points by suspicions and innuendos that came to play a role in his confidential security dossier in Washington.

While living in France (and later in fascist Italy as an American soldier) he became closely acquainted with some of the most interesting activists and political thinkers of Europe. Among the intellectuals who passed through the escape channels Hirschman helped to maintain included “Hannah Arendt, André Breton, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Siegfried Kracauer, Wifredo Lam, Jacques Lipchitz, Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel (the serial wife of composer Gustav Mahler, architect Walter Gropius, and novelist Franz Werfel), Heinrich Mann, Walter Mehring” (171).

So Hirschman’s life is inherently interesting. Hirschman combined reflection and activism in ways that were much deeper than most intellectual figures were called upon to do.  (Arthur Koestler’s life has quite a few parallels; link.)

But I find Adelman’s biography interesting for another reason as well. Adelman does a remarkable job of explicating the originality and edginess of Hirschman’s thought, from his service in the Federal Reserve Bank in Washington and efforts at European reconstruction, to his advising role in Columbia, to his mid-life success in gaining entree to elite American universities (Berkeley, Yale, Columbia, Princeton) and the emerging field of the theory of development. Adelman works through the combinations of personal, contextual, and intellectual influences that helped to shape Hirschman’s imagination as a social scientist, and this makes for very interesting reading.

There are many insights in Hirschman’s work. But particularly fundamental is a point that Adelman underlines again and again: Hirschman’s inherent skepticism about the claims of grand theory in social science and public policy. It was a skepticism about the idea of a social science aspiring to the exactness of the natural sciences; about the idea of comprehensive predictive theories about complex social processes; and about the hope of having a unified social scientific theory that could drive policy towards an optimal solution. Against these hopes, Hirschman emphasized the importance of hands-on experience of the complex processes we care about (economic development, for example); he emphasized the value of small and partial theories for limited aspects of the social world; and he celebrated the value of examining the particular rather than seeking always for the generalizable. In Adelman’s words,

This eye for particulars and their meanings imprinted itself on Hirschman, who was already questioning History’s “laws” and searching for a spirit that was more epic because it was open to chance and to choice. (111)

Adelman traces this crucial intellectual disposition to a number of different influences: Hirschman’s brother-in-law, the Italian physicist and activist Eugenio Colorni (murdered by fascist thugs in Rome in 1944); the writings of Hayek; and his own experience as an observer and practitioner of economic change in Columbia (in international trade and in economic development).

To Otto Albert, the conversations with Eugenio drew his attention “to what we call the small ideas, small pieces of knowledge. They do not stand in connection with any ideologies or worldviews, they do not claim to provide total knowledge of the world, they probably undermine the claims of all previous ideologies”. (114)

The Big Idea, which Hirschman associated with the “claim to complete cognition of the world,” claimed “to explain multi-causal social processes from a single principle.” The alternative was “the attempt to come to an understanding of reality in portions, admitting that the angle may be subjective.” (116)

Here is Adelman on the influence of Hayek:

Hayek got at something Hirschman felt strongly: the need to acknowledge the basic limits to the “intelligibility” of our complex world. Leaders were wont to claim complete knowledge when they did not have it and thus to squash the individual’s ability to make adjustments “to changes whose cause and nature he cannot understand.” Hayek’s vision of spontaneous, unguided, and hidden forces at work presumed an inscrutability about life that Hirschman shared, in which its ironies, paradoxes, and the possibilities of unintended consequences provided the underlying engines of change. (238)

Perhaps most important, Hirschman was persuaded by the bad experience of the dogmatic, ideological theories of both right and left in the 1930s of the importance of modesty and open-mindedness in one’s convictions about how the social world works. This becomes one of the key elements in Hirschman’s main academic work, his critique of modernization theory and unified central planning as foundations for the policies of agencies like the World Bank and the IMF.

What comes out of this skepticism about the grand theories of the economists or political scientists is a more pragmatic and experimental approach to policy. Rather than building complex plans that presuppose a detailed knowledge of causation and inter-connection of causes, we should instead take pragmatic steps that seem to be pushing the system in the right direction. In the case of Columbia, this meant favoring the developments of entrepreneurs and businessmen in their individual efforts rather than supporting grand schemes of reconstruction and capital investment. He favored multiple strategies, “not a single road to change” (274).

Instead of a “propensity to plan,” Hirschman advocated a “propensity to experiment and to improvise”— a spirit missing from the council and whose absence deprived all sides from actually learning from experience precisely because the planners were so convinced that it was not they who had to be converted. After all, they were “experts.” (323)

The result, in contrast to expensive, expansive, intellectually seductive general plans and combined assaults, was a piecemeal approach targeting the scarcest of all variables. This was the premise of “unbalanced growth,” a term he eventually abandoned because he did not want his work positioned only as an alternative to a mainstream. (347)

Also interesting is the fine interpretation that Adelman offers of Hirschman’s first two books, National Power and the Structure of Foreign Trade and The Strategy of Economic Development. The first was a great disappointment to Hirschman, since he had hoped that it would launch his academic career and reputation in the United States; while the second achieved exactly the kind of success he had hoped for with the first. But in hindsight, the first book seems to have as much importance as the second. It lays out a powerful and rigorous argument for the ways in which nationalist and fascist regimes were able to use the “soft power” of trade alliances to achieve their goals. The inequalities of bargaining position that exist between bilateral trading partners create the opportunities for highly coercive actions by the more powerful. This argument still seems relevant in the global trade environment in which we now live. It also propelled the argument towards a de-nationalization of world affairs — a historical development that came to life to some extent in the establishment of the European Union.

Adelman, a professor of history at Princeton, has also edited a forthcoming collection of some of Hirschman’s work, The Essential Hirschman. Both these works are truly valuable, and particularly so for social scientists who have realized that their disciplines need the kinds of independent and cross-sectional thinking that Hirschman was so good at.

(I have a happy memory of meeting Albert Hirschman at a conference on poverty and development at the Woodrow Wilson School in 1990. He was very generous with his ideas, his critical suggestions, and his encouragement.)

Change in peasant China

Image: Shanxi countryside

In 1978 China’s government initiated a major change in the agricultural economy. It began a rapid transition from communal agriculture to the household responsibility system, which returned the responsibilities and incentives associated with farming to the farmer rather than the commune. This was the beginning of the market-friendly reforms that led to the transformation of agriculture, industry, and transport in a remarkably short time.

These market-oriented reforms have also stimulated a continuing economic revolution in China, with growth rates exceeding 10% in many years and an intensive period of infrastructure build-out (roads, high speed rail, telecommunications).

Much has transpired in the Chinese countryside since 1978. Rural incomes have risen; significant numbers of rural people have transitioned from farming into better-paying market and logistical activities; and many millions of young people have exited the countryside in search of work in manufacturing and construction. On balance, how has this tumultuous 35 years affected the quality of life for China’s rural population?

In 1990 William Hinton offered his own predictions about the effects of the rural reforms in The Great Reversal: The Privatization of China, 1978-1989. Hinton believed the future was dire for China’s peasants, as they would be squeezed by market forces into even lower-productivity farming techniques and the wealth of the countryside would be extracted by urban elites. Hinton was a continuing supporter of collective agriculture because he believed it permitted economies of scale and more reliable support for the welfare of the people in the countryside. It seems that no one in China continues to advocate this view.

Deng Xiaoping took a different perspective. He believed that all of China would benefit from the accumulation of wealth created by market incentives. His famous words — “To get rich is glorious” — legitimated the workings of the market in creating inequalities. And he evidently believed that these processes of economic growth and market incentives would be good for the rural sector as well as the urban sector.

So how has it worked out? How has China’s agricultural economy performed in the past three decades? Is China food-self-sufficient? Have rural people gained income? Is rural poverty falling significantly? What is the trend in the quality of life of China’s rural populations? And what happened to the range of income inequalities in the countryside?

Here are a few important data points.

First, it appears to be true that China has made rapid progress in reducing poverty in its population. According to Li Xiaoyun’s tables below, just under 13% of China’s population lives in extreme poverty at incomes lower than $1.25 per day in 2011. (The next three slides are taken from an extensive presentation on China’s poverty strategies by  Professor Li Xiaoyun, China Agricultural University; link.) This is a dramatic reduction from an estimate in excess of 80% at this level in the late 1970s. This means that rural incomes have risen substantially since 1978.


Moreover, there have been nationally coordinated programs of poverty alleviation that have been supported by meaningful levels of central and provincial resources.

 
The central government has attempted to target its poverty alleviation efforts towards the most backward regions in the country. 
 
 

Here is a very interesting poverty map for Yunnan Province in the southeast part of the country (link):

 

Second, it is also true that China’s income inequalities have increased sharply during the same period. The share of income flowing to the poorest 40% has fallen from 20% to 14% from 1990 to 2009. Studies indicate that the Gini coefficient for income inequality has risen sharply during that time. It seems likely that wealth inequalities have increased even more. Here are charts documenting the rise of income inequalities in China from the 2005 China Human Development Report (link):

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The following figure documents the overall rise in urban/rural income inequalities in China since 1997 extending the data represented in Fig. 2.2 above through 2010 (Liu M., link). Interestingly, this graph suggests that urban/rural inequalities leveled off in about 2003.
 
 

Third, food security has improved. China is a net exporter of rice (link) and has substantially increasing its production of pigs and poultry, and it has not suffered famine or extensive malnutrition since the Great Leap Forward famine of 1959. Nutritional levels throughout poor areas have improved in the past twenty years, although there are still significant levels of underweight or stunted children under 5 (fig. 3.14, CHDR 2005).

What has been less visible to the western public is the dynamics of life quality that these changes have created in the countryside. What is needed is disaggregated studies of quality-of-life indicators like education, health, nutrition, and longevity. World Bank reports and China’s own major statistical reports do not highlight these kinds of data. However, the UNDP has prepared six triennial reports on China’s performance with respect to the Human Development Index (link), and it turns out that Chinese researchers are in fact doing careful work on the task of measuring these characteristics in rural areas. Three leading Chinese scholars focused on poverty alleviation (Wu Guobao, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; Liu Minquan, Peking Univerisity; Li Xiaoyun, China Agricultural University) provide a good snapshot into a world of policy research currently underway in China.

How are the government’s pronouncements about poverty alleviation viewed by the Chinese public? I had a very interesting conversation with a man in his thirties in Taiyuan, Shanxi on this question. He is employed in a semi-professional job. His view was very skeptical. He believes the government says it is working toward helping the poor and reducing inequalities, but he doesn’t think these efforts are very broad. His view is that anti-poverty programs are directed towards just a few locations and a relatively small part of the rural population. And he thinks it is very unfair that the inequalities between rich and poor are increasing so rapidly. When I asked him what he thought the greatest problems were that China faces, he listed these: a one-party state that gives ordinary people no voice in the issues they care about; a lack of freedom of expression; and the unfairness of increasing inequalities between rich and poor. This was a very frank assessment by one person which perhaps sheds some light on how many young people are thinking in China today.

(Here is a 2003 volume on poverty alleviation in China published by the Development Studies Network in Australia, including a number of valuable research articles on the subject; link. The China Health and Nutrition Survey conducted by the Carolina Population Center and the National Institute of Nutrition and Food Safety at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention is also a valuable data source; link.)

 

How is “work” socially constituted?

How does “work” take shape in an advanced manufacturing and service economy? Is the division of labor a natural outcome of technology, or is it the result of a concrete set of social processes involving the strategies and interests of several groups? What kinds of social processes determine the bundle of skills, knowledge, and training that go together to represent a job classification? How is the suite of tasks and activities assigned to a given job arrived at?

Here is a brief description from the Bureau of Labor Statistics of one specific skilled job function within a factory environment, the millwright (link):

Millwrights install, dismantle, repair, reassemble, and move machinery in factories, power plants, and construction sites. Millwrights typically go through a formal apprenticeship program that lasts about 4 years. Programs are usually a combination of technical instruction and on-the-job training. Others learn their trade through a 2-year associate’s degree program in industrial maintenance. Employment of millwrights is expected to decline 5 percent from 2010 to 2020. Despite declining employment, job opportunities should be good for those with a broad set of skills in machine maintenance.

Here is a description of a low-skill job function, the hand laborer and material mover (link):

Hand laborers and material movers transport objects without using machines. Some workers move freight, stock, or other materials around storage facilities; others clean vehicles; some pick up unwanted household goods; and still others pack materials for moving. Generally, hand laborers and material movers need no work experience or minimum level of education. Employers require only that applicants be physically able to do the work. Employment of hand laborers and material movers is projected to grow 14 percent from 2010 to 2020, as fast as the average for all occupations. Job prospects should be good because the need to replace workers who leave the occupations should create a large number of job openings.

And here is a highly skilled industrial job, the mechanical engineer (link):

Mechanical engineering is one of the broadest engineering disciplines. Mechanical engineers design, develop, build, and test mechanical devices, including tools, engines, and machines. Mechanical engineers need a bachelor’s degree. A graduate degree is typically needed for promotion into managerial positions. Mechanical engineers who sell services publicly must be licensed in all states and the District of Columbia. Employment of mechanical engineers is expected to grow 9 percent from 2010 to 2020, slower than the average for all occupations. Job prospects may be best for those who stay abreast of the most recent advances in technology.

So how is it determined which tasks are assigned to which classifications? And what social processes determine which individuals receive the right kind of training to qualify for any of these jobs?
 

One researcher who has contributed a lot to this issue is Charles Sabel in Work and Politics: The Division of Labour in Industry and The Second Industrial Divide: Possibilities For Prosperity (with Michael Piore).  Sabel’s work is particularly insightful in the light it sheds on the sociological processes and structures through which the bundles of skills needed in individual workers are determined and then transmitted through a training regime. Here is how Sabel frames the problem I’m interested in here:

This is an essay about the reasons industrialists create different kinds of factory jobs, about why workers put up with these jobs when they do, and about what they want when they do not. It shows how workers’ ideas of self-interest, born of the principles of honor and dignity they bring to the factory, can be transformed by workplace struggles. And it shows how these struggles, colliding or combining with conflicts in the larger society and between nations, can reshape technologies, markets, and factory hierarchies. (Work and Politics, 1)

Notice the most fundamental idea being advanced here: that the natures of work, jobs, and implementation of technology are all the result of active back-and-forth negotiations over time between workers and owners.  The structure of work doesn’t follow from a certain level or kind of technology; instead it is the result of an extended “game” in which the players seek out definitions of work and technology that suit them. Workplace struggles “reshape” technologies and jobs, and the division of labor is a socially mediated and historically conditioned reality.

This chapter argues that the capitalist organization of production creates clusters of jobs offering workers systematically different opportunities for the use and acquisition of skills, and for regular employment. The capitalists create jobs of various types, and the worker tries to find one suited to his ambition. (31)

Essentially the labor process is defined by several constraints, imperatives, and interests.  Products can be made for use and for sale in a market through a variety of combinations of tools, skills, and labor.  By subdividing tasks, economists and managers since Adam Smith have recognized that it is possible to increase efficiency or quality or both. And profit-oriented owners and managers have recognized that skilled workers can demand more for their services than unskilled workers.  So pursuing a combination of specialized tools and machines with repetitive, unskilled labor has been a profit-maximizing strategy since Henry Ford began experimenting with the assembly line.  “Fordism” is a specific economic and technological system, involving factory production for a mass market, specialized tools and machines, and mass unskilled labor.

There are many alternatives that exist for defining skill regimes that would get the job done for a given level of technology and organization. The Fordist regime separates workers into a low-skill group where only a minimal amount of training is required and the worker’s activities are limited to a repetitive and simple set of actions, a smaller group of high-skill technicians, and a group of supervisors who oversee the activities of both groups. In this Fordist regime the low-skill workers are not expected to exercise independent judgment or to function as creative problem-solvers. The high-skill technicians are assigned a greater degree of independence and scope for problem-solving. 

But, as Sabel observed in an important 1985 article with Jonathan Zeitlin (“Historical Alternatives to Mass Production”; link), the Fordist regime is not the only solution possible for advanced science-based production. There were alternatives. One such alternative is a high-skill, high-independence paradigm where ordinary production workers employ much more sophisticated skills and knowledge to carry out the production process. Here is how they describe their central argument:

Mass production — the combination of single-purpose machines and unskilled labour to produce standard goods — has been throughout this century the undisputed emblem of industrial efficiency. No more. Powerful currents of technological change are stirring up this sedimented lesson of the past. The development of numerically controlled machine tools which can be programmed to perform many different tasks automatically; the spreading use of such machines in highly competitive small firms in industries as diverse as engineering and textiles and regions as distinct as Baden-Wurtemberg and Emilia-Romagna; the increasing capacity of some large firms in Japan, West Germany, and the United states to switch production rapidly from product to product; the creation of new jobs which blur the distinction between skilled and unskilled work — all these churn up established understandings of modern production methods. Engineers and managers take increasingly seriously the possibility that economic success in the future may depend on the flexible use of multi-purpose or universal machines and skilled labour to make an ever changing assortment of semi-customized products: a system that reverses the principles of mass production. (133)

The Volvo production system illustrates this regime. This approach bundles the market advantages associated with flexible production with a skills regime that focuses on teams of producers with advanced and flexible skills and an extensive degree of production independence.

These questions are pressing today for two important reasons. First, many of the “good” jobs that existed in the United States in manufacturing have either disappeared or have suffered major reductions in compensation. Moreover, the manufacturing jobs that are returning to the US are coming back at much lower rates of pay.  And jobs have disappeared for reasons that are very consistent with Sabel’s argument: companies have made deliberate, strategic decisions to de-skill labor within their operations and to offshore some parts of the production process. Or in other words, companies have restructured work to increase profits. That is the logic of a capitalist economy.

Second, most observers accept the idea that worker productivity in the future — and therefore worker compensation — will be determined by the level of knowledge and skill the worker possesses. High skill and high knowledge production adds a lot of value to the product, and is compensated accordingly. But companies have a choice to make, whether they adopt production processes that depend on a smaller number of high-skill and high-pay workers, or processes that depend on a larger number of low-skill, low-pay workers.  And the company is of course aware of the terms of bargaining that exist with regard to these two groups; the high-skill group is more able to exercise influence in the bargaining process and thereby increase its compensation more rapidly.  Deskilling of the production process is therefore a tactical choice on the part of the employer.

This line of thought seems to have disjunctive consequences, neither of which is promising for the future of the American middle class: either companies will restructure their activities to incorporate a higher mix of high-skill workers in substantially smaller numbers; or they will continue to expand activities around a low-skill model while exercising substantial downward pressure on wages.  And this implies that employment growth will be slow, or else there will be more robust jobs growth in low-pay jobs leading to a falling standard of living for the majority of workers.

(Here is a post on Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio’s version of this kind of analysis in The Jobless Future: Second Edition.)

The talent supply chain

The talent supply chain

I had an interesting discussion with a senior executive of Kelly Services that provided some very striking new perspectives on the world of work. Kelly Services is a global workforce solutions company, providing temporary and medium-term workers with a very wide range of specialized skills (link). One thing that was particularly striking is the fact that Kelly provides advanced technical and scientific expertise to corporations and government agencies as independent contractors. In fact, according to their website they have over 11,000 scientists and engineers available for placement. On any given day they have placed roughly 150,000 workers around the world, and are administering another 100,000 or so who are provided by independent contractors. So Kelly Services has a strong real-world knowledge base about the talent needs of the current global economy.

The most striking part of our conversation is this. Our traditional thinking about a job and a career is badly out of date. We think of the normal work situation as fulltime longterm employment in a specific location and with a salary and benefits. But this situation isn’t even the majority situation anymore. We know that a lot of employers don’t offer benefits, but that isn’t the big news. According to this executive, almost half of workers in the US economy are self employed or part-time or temporary. These workers don’t have benefits usually, and they don’t have job security. What they have is a specific set of talents to sell in a national or global market, and their standard of living depends entirely on the value of this set of talents.

Think of the crowdsourcing system that has gained some visibility recently. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk system is an example (link), and InnoCentive provides an example for problems at a higher level of difficulty (link). Here is how it works. A company has a problem to solve. It formulates a clear and unambiguous description of the problem and posts a prize for the first one or two people who come up with a solution. There are an unknown number of people who are earning their livings through his kind of work.

Or think of this challenging idea. A company like Kelly can reposition itself as a “talent chain management” company. They enter into contract with a large corporation to take on some or all of the company’s talent supply needs, from custodians to junior accountants to research scientists. The company is relieved of the costs of recruitment, human resource management, benefits, and sometimes supervision. The company gets high quality work at the time and place it needs, and Kelly manages the process. (Here is a report from the Wharton School on “Talent on Demand” (link).)

So what are the foreseeable social consequences of these changes in the ways that work and talent are mobilized? Several are quite straightforward. These developments imply a rapid deepening of inequalities in the future between people with good education and training and those without. As governors in many states are saying, high school dropouts won’t find decent jobs in the future because they haven’t cultivated the skills and talents that bring a high rate of return. And as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says on every possible occasion, all workers need some post-secondary education or training. Simply a willingness to show up and perform repetitive labor won’t support a decent life. 

But this also has consequences beyond income. If more and more work is performed by private contractors and freelance individuals, the elements of the social security net that have traditionally been provided by employers will be gone — retirement contributions, healthcare insurance, longterm disability insurance, etc. All of these would need to be funded by the individual or socially through national insurance plans. Self-funding works for workers at the high end of the salary range; but it doesn’t work for people at the lower end. 

These tendencies are at work already. The growing separation between incomes in the top end of the distribution and the lower quintiles reflects these tendencies; so does the shrinking labor market for “good” manufacturing jobs; and so does the declining percentage of employers who offer health insurance to their workers.

So the conclusions are stark. Encourage all young people to invest in their educational opportunities; make sure that these opportunities are provided for rich and poor alike; but prepare for a world in which there is more and more deprivation for the bottom 60% of society. Progressives will want to address this coming crisis of poverty and deprivation directly by reinforcing the safety net and improving educational opportunities for disadvantaged people, and conservatives seem more willing to ignore or even justify the inequalities that we will see. But one way or another, it’s hard to see where the opportunities for a “middle class” life will come for more than half of society.

(Kelly Services has created an iPad app called Talent Project (link).  The app provides a portal into a collection of research papers and data on the future of work.  There is a mountain of interesting data and research on the talent economy here.)

Contingent pathways in Eurasian history

Economic historians and historians of Asia have been deeply involved in a debate with long roots: Why did modern economic development occur first and most consistently in western Europe in the seventeenth century, and why did China not capitalize on its many advantages in the early Qing Dynasty to take the lead?  Those advantages included advanced scientific and medical knowledge; extensive population; and an effective central state governing a vast population.

There has been a strong case made by a group of historians led by Ken Pomeranz, Bin Wong, and James Lee that this way of characterizing world history embodies a host of misconceptions, including the idea that there is one best pathway to modern economic development (link).  Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. and Wong’s China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience led the way in this line of thought.  And this group also challenges the idea that the Chinese economy was backward in 1600; instead, they argue that agriculture was comparably productive and that the standard of living in China was also comparable to the standard of living of working people in western Europe.  This group argues that more specific features of the historical setting led to the “great divergence,” including New World metals, the labor power of slaves, and the fortuitous geographical location of deposits of coal in Great Britain.

Bin Wong and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal took up this line of thought in Before and Beyond Divergence: The Politics of Economic Change in China and Europe.  They disagree with a number of the positions defended by Pomeranz and Wong, and they argue that Late Imperial China was in fact a conducive business environment for modern economic growth, and that it possessed long-distance credit institutions that would have been comparably effective in supporting the expansion of business activity in China.  But if it wasn’t differences in the economic environment that brought about divergent pathways in Europe and China, then what was the cause of divergence?  They point to a new factor: the political and military competition that Europe experienced and China did not (link).

Prasannan Parthasarathi brings a new voice and new perspective into this extended debate (Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not: Global Economic Divergence, 1600-1850).  He focuses on India rather than China, and he argues against a number of the historiographic premises that infuse the current debate.  In particular, he challenges the idea that there must be some small number of important structural or institutional differences that explain the great divergence — the acceleration of modern growth in Europe and the continuation of pre-modern institutions and slow growth.

Parthasarathi takes the view that there is no single large factor that accounts for differences in economic development among Europe, China, and India.  He argues instead for a large number of contextual and contingent factors that were present in the three settings, leading to significant differences in development.

More critical for the arguments of this book, however, are findings that the economic “situation” or context shapes the decisions, choices and actions of individuals. These advances in economic thinking indicate that divergent paths of development need not imply — nor require — deep differences in economic institutions, for context matters.
The approach to divergence taken in this work moves away from seeing economic development in the eighteenth century in binary terms, as either leading to modern industry or its failure. Instead, it points to the existence of plural paths of change, which were the products of the pressures and needs that the dynamic and diverse economies of Europe and Asia faced. (1)

Parthasarathi offers an innovative set of methodological principles for comparative economic history.

First, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were a variety of economic and political goals which produced plural paths of development. Second, different paths of economic change were the products of human agency and choice, and were shaped by social, political and economic context. … Finally, there is a political dimension to economic life. State actions were critical in determining paths of development in both Europe and Asia from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. (9)

He finds that two pressures in particular account for a lot of the difference in development between Europe and Asia.

The first emanated from the global trading system, in which the position of Europeans was very different from that of both Indians and Chinese. …

The second pressure that differed across Europe and Asia lay in the realm of ecology, specifically in the supply of wood. While Britain and parts of France and central Europe faced shortages of wood, which was essential for fuel, building material and countless other uses, Scandinavia and Russia had plentiful supplies. Similar differences existed in Asia. (10)

Like Pomeranz and Li in the case of China, Parthasarathi finds that the standard of living in Bengal was comparable to that of England in the eighteenth century. He provides estimates of “grain earnings” for weaving labor in Britain, South India, and Bengal in mid-eighteenth century: 40-140, 65-160, and 55-135 lbs. per week (table 2.4). The ranges for both Indian wage estimates are higher, not lower, than Britain. This challenges the “immiseration” thesis that powered the Malthusian and Smithian interpretations of Asian economies. (Parthasarathi concedes that the estimates of real wages across countries are exceptionally difficult for the early modern period, and that Robert Allen’s estimates of Indian real wages are substantially lower.)

Parthasarathi also argues, surprisingly, that more recent price data about finished cottons show that Indian cottons did not enter the English market so strongly because they were cheap, but because they fulfilled specific market needs for higher quality textiles.

In many markets around the world Indian cottons were more expensive than locally made cloth. This was the case in Southeast Asia where low-quality cotton cloths were manufactured in large quantities, but higher-quality Indian cottons, despite being more costly, were in great demand. (34)

In the late seventeenth century consumers in Europe embraced the cotton textiles of India for their beauty, convenience an d fashionability. (89)

But European manufacturers were fast to imitate Indian cottons:

The future was to be with cotton, however. From its home in the Indian subcontinent, the art of turning the cotton boll into cloth of extraordinary beauty, comfort and versatility migrated to Europe.Imitation in the seventeenth century led 150 years later to Western Europe becoming the center of the world’s cotton manufacturing. The migration of this industry marked a great transformation in the global economy. (89)

This transformation involved several processes of great importance, including technology transfer and innovation and expansion of the slave trade.

Parthasarathi’s treatment of the role of scientific and technical knowledge in India is particularly important. Parthasarathi finds that the status of science and technology in India was substantially different than the standard narrative would have it. In Mysore, for example, he finds:

There is extensive evidence for a push towards agricultural improvement, with policies designed to expand irrigation, bring fertile land under cultivation and promote the adoption of valuable cash crops, including sandalwood, sugar and black pepper. A sophisticated system of revenue incentives was designed to meet these aims. In addition, under Tipu Sultan, efforts were made to improve the breeding of cattle, which were critical not only for agricultural operations, but also for the transport of goods and military supplies. The push for improvement in Mysore also extended to manufacturing. The European-style military that Mysore sought to create required the expansion of metal-working facilities, especially iron. In the 1780s, orders were issued for the construction of twenty new iron-smelting furnaces within the kingdom. Mysore also developed a major armaments industry, which cast cannon in both brass and iron. (207)

The stereotype of Indian “backwardness,” like its cousin view of Chinese “stagnation,” is not grounded in the facts.

Parthasarathi’s book is detailed and careful; but more importantly, it pursues economic history through a new lens. The reader is led through parts of the story that are familiar — the importance of coal for Britain, for example — but is then challenged to look at these developments in different ways. Parthasarathi offers a number of surprising but carefully supported claims: India’s cotton industry was substantially more sophisticated than the standard account would have it. The standard of living for Indian workers was comparable to that of English workers. The policies of the states of Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire had substantial effects on the nature and course of development. Pursuit of scientific and technical knowledge was an explicit priority for the states of India from the seventeenth century forward (186). Better history of science is needed in Indian history.

Almost all of these findings challenge one or another part of the standard narrative of economic development across Eurasia.  Parthasarathi’s work is an important contribution to the debate.

China’s rural transition

Roughly half of China’s population is still rural, living in villages and towns and dependent primarily on farming. In 1985 that percentage was about 76%, so there has already been a massive transformation of China’s economy and society towards greater urbanization. (Albert Nyberg and Scott Rozelle treated this process in an important World Bank publication, Accelerating China’s Rural Transformation.)

There are two basic processes through which urbanization can occur. Rural people can migrate to cities, or cities can grow up around rural people. Both processes have been underway for thirty years in China. Estimates vary, but approximately 210 million migrants work in Chinese manufacturing and construction industries, and the vast majority of these men and women are from rural origins. The percentage of migrant workers in urban industries is staggering; W. K. Chan reports in Wuhan, for example, that 43% of manufacturing workers and 56% of construction workers are non-Hukou migrants (link).  But almost all of China’s cities have also sprawled out into their peripheries, into what was previously farm land and villages. This is true in Shanghai and Suzhou, Wuhan, and hundreds of other major cities. 

The “urban development” part of the story has forced displacement of farming villages from their land, as farm land is absorbed into factories, power plants, development zones, and other urban uses. This is one of the most potent sources of protest in China today. Some portion of that population finds employment in the industries that follow this development — in the vast assembly plants of Foxconn, for example in at least nine cities in China. (Foxconn was actively recruiting thousands of workers in Chengdu during a recent visit there.)  Another portion is subsidized for some period of time by the government in compensation for the loss of their farm land and occupations.

In the medium term, Chinese agriculture is shedding workers, and the rest of the economy needs to grow enough to employ this part of the population. This is part of the urgency that policy makers feel for sustaining very high rates of economic growth.

One portion of the population that is least likely to make a smooth landing in the new economic conditions is the elderly. China faces a major social issue in a growing population of aging farmers, and the circumstances of this group are predictable: in need of health care, short on pensions, and often separated from their children who have migrated to better conditions in cities. (Here is a World Bank report on this subject; link.)

So my question here is a simple one: what is the theory of rural-to-urban transition under which the Chinese leadership is operating? There are a range of possible theories:

  • Help employment in industrial and construction activities grow as fast as workers and farmers are expelled from the rural economy, so their standard of living rises overall.
  • Grow rural industry and high-value specialized agriculture so rural people can remain in place.
  • Plan for an extended time during which a much more extensive social safety net will be provided in the form of income supplements, subsidized healthcare, and retirement income until “surplus rural population” can be absorbed by the urban economy.
  • Hope for the best and trust to market-based adjustments.

There is a rural development strategy that would actually make the problem more acute: 

  • Stimulate rapid improvement in the productivity of agriculture. As a unit of rice is produced more productively, it requires fewer units of labor. So the net result of productivity improvements in agriculture is a drop in rural farm-based employment even as it increases income to the individual farmer.

Here is one answer to the question of theory of rural transition that is based on Chinese government policy thinking in the late 1990s. The following analysis is contained in the Nyberg-Rozelle 1999 World Bank report, Accelerating China’s Rural Transformation, based on close cooperation with the Institute of Rural Development in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. This close collaboration suggests that it intends to express then-current ideas about strategy and policy within the Chinese government.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic, the leaders of China have been preoccupied with one overarching goal; the modernization of the nation. Our [Chinese] vision for the early part of the 21st century perceives the rural economy as an integral part of this modernization effort, with equitable increases in income, and the elimination of poverty, achieved in large part by transferring rural labor to the urban−industrial economy—all accomplished in an environmentally sustainable manner. We envision an enormous government effort in transforming its role into an investor for public services and goods and fostering a market environment—enabling individual farm and nonfarm producers, consumers, and traders to make more efficient decisions and improve their welfare. 

In pursuit of this vision, two issues remain central to the government’s rural development objectives: food security and poverty alleviation. China has made remarkable progress in meeting these goals; the economy, including the rural sector, has grown at phenomenal rates during the reform period. The growth of food supplies has exceeded the growth of domestic demand and China exports horticultural, livestock, other agricultural, and aquacultural products. The growth of rural industry has been an important element of recent growth as the rural economy continues to diversify. Increased productivity and income growth have reduced the massive pre-reform poverty problem, improved the standard of living of most residents, and launched the structural transformation of China from a traditional rural to a modern society.

This summary involves some of almost all the options mentioned above — improvement of farm productivity, growth of urban jobs, growth of rural industry, and establishment of a more extensive safety net. In practice, however, it seems that the government has given the greatest emphasis in its economic policies to the growth of urban jobs and out-migration from the rural sector.

In their 2003 report “Scenario Analysis on Urbanization and Rural-Urban Migration in China”, Shenghe Liu, Li, and Zhan (researchers at the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences) summarize Chinese policy thinking on the rural question in these terms:

It has becomes a common consensus that the most headachy “agriculture, farmers and rural areas” (three nong) problems in China are unable to be solved by farmers themselves, inside the agriculture sector and rural areas. Promotion of the urbanization process is needed to help more rural surplus labor forces seek employment in non-agricultural activities and in cities and towns, serving the purpose of reducing the agricultural population, improving agricultural productivity and increasing the farmers’ income. In summary, reducing rural population through active promotion of urbanization is considered to be the only best way to make farmers rich. Thus, the prospects and scenarios of China’s urbanization and rural-urban migration are bound to have tremendous impacts on its agricultural development and policy making.  (link)

Or in other words, Liu, Li and Zhan reiterate the idea that rural-to-urban migration is a key part of Chinese policy for improvement of income and wellbeing in the rural areas.

Here is a short clip summarizing a study by the Institute for Rural Studies at Central China Normal University, finding that the Gini coefficient in the countryside has increased significantly. It also makes the point that a very large component in the growth of rural incomes is remittances from migrants who have found higher-paying jobs in manufacturing and construction.

Here are some resources available on the web on the subject of rural transformation in China.  A very useful treatment of the issue is Francis Tuan, Somwaru and Diao’s working paper for the International Food Policy Research Institute (link). Scott Rozelle et al have a very useful paper, “The Evolution of China’s Rural Labor Markets during the Reforms,” that focuses on the opportunity and challenge of increasing non-farm labor in rural areas (link). A useful resource on urban-to-rural migration is a slide presentation by Kam Wing Chan from 2008, “Internal Labor Migration in China: Trends, Geographical Distribution and Policies” (link). Chan is also the author of Cities with Invisible Walls: Reinterpreting Urbanization in Post-1949 China.

Chinese authors are writing about the human side of these transformations — rural poverty, migrant insecurity, the difficulties of urban life for poor people. Here is a book by Xin Zhang, whose title is loosely translated by a friend as An Analysis of Social Classes in China. I wish I was able to read it.

Many capitalisms?

Professor Luciano Segreto lectured in Michigan this week on the subject of a comparison between US and European capitalisms.  Segreto is professor of International Economic History, Financial History, and the History of Regional Economic Development at the University of Florence.  His lecture was fascinating in many ways, but of special interest here is whether there is one capitalism or many.  Segreto’s view is that there are multiple capitalisms that have been implemented in various countries — England, France, Germany, Italy, the United States, and Japan, to consider a short list; and that these systems of political economy differ in significant ways.  He identifies different structures of the markets, different relations between technology and economic development, and significantly different ways in which finance and banking systems have been implemented as important dimensions of difference across these systems of political economy. 

The idea that there are distinct versions of capitalism is not a new one. Peter Hall and David Soskice’s Varieties of Capitalism: The Institutional Foundations of Comparative Advantage looks at recent work on the important institutional variations that exist across existing forms of market economies.  Charles Sabel’s historical investigations of alternative pathways of capitalist development represent one important line of thought on the question, and Frank Dobbin’s investigation of the different ways that the technology of the railway were incorporated in Britain, France, and the United States represents another important line of thought.  For Sabel the distinctions have to do with the ways in which skilled labor and workers were incorporated into the political economy (World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization (Studies in Modern Capitalism)link); for Dobbin it is the differences in political culture defining the role of state involvement in central economic institutions that made the largest difference (Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Agelink).

In listening to Professor Segreto I was drawn to a different way of analyzing the differences across historically realized capitalisms in the past century and a half.  We might imagine that there are three “attractors” that define a modern capitalist political economy: the values associated with the market and independent decision making by corporations and entrepreneurs; the value associated with the establishment of regulations protecting the common good and the safety and health of the public; and the value associated with securing the welfare of the whole population, involving a social security system and a willingness to redistribute income and wealth through taxation. This suggests the following diagram:

 Graph of capitalisms

The graph is offered only for the purpose of illustration of the idea. I have included the country’s 2011 HDI (link) and 5-year growth rate (link), but I don’t have data to allow scaling of these economies according to the three dimensions mentioned here.  But I’m sure that a capable graduate student would be able to come up with some available measures to do a much more rigorous job of pacing national economies in this tri-polar graph.  Measures of regulation might include degree to which key industries like energy, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and food are effectively regulated by independent agencies. Measures of welfare-state commitments would include breadth of health system coverage, unemployment coverage, old age coverage, and percentage of GDP devoted to social programs.  And measures of free markets might include the degree to which companies can make choices unencumbered by regulations on safety, labor relations, market concentration, etc., as well as the effective rate of corporate taxation.

The United States and the United Kingdom seem to be on the low side among OECD countries in terms of both effective regulation and commitment to social welfare principles; Russia and China seem to afford quite a wide scope of business freedom but limited regulation of environment and safety and limited commitment to a social safety net; Sweden, France, and Germany have substantially greater commitment to effective state regulation of industry and to a high social minimum; Greece seems to have had high social welfare commitments but relatively low regulation of industry; and so forth.

We might label the three extremes of the diagram as “unencumbered business/corporate system,” “technocratic state,” and “social welfare state.”

It is significant that the political ideology of the right in the United States has for the past three decades waged a determined struggle against two of the poles of this analysis — regulation and social welfare policies.  Under the legislative and executive influence of politicians with this “small government” ideology, the political economy of the United States has been pushed further and further into the corner of untrammeled free market activity by corporations and individuals. Along the way the idea that government serves as a key guarantor of the public good has dwindled in importance.
 
Is this a useful way of characterizing the political economies of the contemporary world? And how would readers readjust the locations of the twelve economies listed relative to the poles of the diagram?

Woodward Avenue

How does a rust belt city relaunch itself? How can the stakeholders of Detroit, Cleveland, or Milwaukee begin to reinvent their cities and get on a track that leads to greater prosperity, health, and educational attainment that can eventually result in opportunity and quality of life for the urban majority? 

The factors that led to Detroit’s crisis were extended and multiple — loss of manufacturing jobs, white flight, collapsing city revenues, sudden decline in the public school system, city government mismanagement and corruption, and state and federal neglect, to name several. And the crisis has extended over many decades. Tom Sugrue documents that the seeds of decline began earlier than the standard narrative — white flight was well underway in the 1950s (The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit). The 1967 uprising was a major punctuation mark in the process, but it was an effect as much as a cause of the decline.

So what can be done today? A key part of the puzzle is bringing good jobs back into the city. This is why there has been so much excitement about the decisions by Compuware, Quicken Loans, and Blue Cross/Blue Shield to relocate their headquarters back into the city. The impact is substantial — something like 10,000 jobs have been brought back into the city, with more to come. Along with the jobs comes a flurry of collateral developments — student interns who come to love the city, demand for housing, new restaurants and cafes along Woodward, and a significant multiplier of jobs associated with these new service businesses.

There is a lot of purposiveness in these business developments, with a good portion of civic-mindedness in the mix. These business leaders wanted to make a difference in the city of Detroit, and their decisions about where to locate their companies help to carry this out. There is a deliberate effort on the part of this group of new-economy business leaders to attract innovative companies to the corridor. Detroit has a long tradition of creativity and the arts. Business leaders want to extend this tradition in the direction of innovative high-tech startups that can take root in Detroit. The goals for the Madison Building restortation illustrate this goal — beautiful open-design space for innovative companies that should strike synergies in the coming years. Twitter opened a Detroit office in the building in the spring.

It’s not simply Michigan chauvinism to say that Detroiters are resourceful. This is an important resource for the future for the city. But the people of the city need some concrete things in order to turn their talents into success — jobs, healthcare, decent education, and better urban transportation.

A leading land use planner for one of the auto companies offered a theory about Detroit’s eventual recovery to me about ten years ago. His theory was that the key to success is the recovery of tens of thousands of professional jobs in the core of the city. At its peak in the 1950s he estimated that there were perhaps 150,000 such jobs in the city of Detroit, and this constituted an economic engine for the city through direct and indirect economic effects. At the low point in the 1990s he estimated that this number had fallen to perhaps 20-30,000 jobs — not enough to support the development the city needed. He projected that if the city could return to 80-90,000 well-paying professional jobs, almost all its other problems would be solvable.

The steps taken by major and small companies in the past five years to locate their operations downtown are a very significant step towards that goal. It seems likely that the three major relocations into the city have resulted in 8-10,000 jobs in the city, and these workers are adding a lot to the vitality of the city as well.

So that’s part of the reason why Woodward Avenue is a happening place today. There are appealing cafes along the street serving lunch to workers in the Compuware Building, there is Motown music blasting from an informal market across the street, and there is a sense of a lively urban environment. What will it look like in ten years?

Michigan’s recovery?

The Mackinac Policy Conference brings forward something new this year — optimism. The state of Michigan has been hammered in the past eight years by the upheaval of the auto industry and the national trauma of the global financial meltdown. Unemployment has been substantially higher than the national average, the city of Detroit has hemmorhaged deficits, and the state’s levels of support for higher education, K-12, and community health have plummeted.

The annual policy conference of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce has reflected a lot of this bad news for the past eight years. This year, though, the mood seems to have changed. There is optimism being expressed that Michigan is on the road back to growth and a higher level of prosperity. Presidents of the University of Michigan, Wayne State University, and Michigan State University talk about the impact created by university research (about two billion dollars annually, producing lots of new discoveries and patents). The Governor talks about reform of government and a business-friendly environment thanks to several recent tax reforms, and talks about the importance of education at all levels. And business leaders, including Bill Ford Jr., talk about the recovery of Michigan’s businesses and innovative manufacturing. Michigan has the foundations in place for a more prosperous future. 

So how much credibility does this new optimism have? A few measures are certainly positive. The state’s unemployment rate is dropping to almost the national rate, about 8.5%. There has been a degree of jobs recovery, though still only a fraction of the 800,000 plus jobs the state has lost. Engineering and medical discoveries are finding their way into new businesses from Detroit to Ann Arbor to Houghton. The state’s budget is somewhat more favorable than in previous years, including a likely increase in higher education funding by several percent. 

And yet it is also true that several factors are unchanged or even worse. As the Governor mentioned, eight Michigan cities are “distressed,” with emergency managers or consent agreements in place. The inequities suffered by the state’s African-American and Latino populations in health, education, and employment continue unabated and often unnoticed. The unemployment rate in Detroit is astronomical, especially for young people. Municipal tax revenues have plummeted because of changes in state revenue sharing and across-the-board declines in property values. And the state still has a low rank when it comes to college educated adults. The tax reforms created by the Governor and Legislature were certainly business-friendly, but they were regressive in the extreme, with significant reductions in services for the elderly and the poor. And the Citizens Research Council frankly states that it isn’t possible to assess the net effects of the tax reforms on jobs and quality of life. 

So the interesting question for me is to consider how much of the currently more favorable trajectory can be attributed to wise decisions and plans by policy makers and business leaders, and how much is simply the result of a new roll of the dice in the national economy. So far I haven’t been convinced that there are high-octane strategies for growth, either nationally or regionally. There are some circumstances that clearly impede growth and economic recovery — corruption, unmanageable bureaucracy, predatory actions by powerful private actors, and cronyism, to name several. So addressing these frictions impeding economic development makes logical sense. Likewise, promoting education and talent is surely favorable to economic progress, and enhancing the infrastructure (roads, rails, bandwidth, airline hubs) surely helps too. But Michigan has done almost nothing in the second group and little in the first group. 

So once again, is there a basis for confidence in thinking we now have a set of policies that are steering us in the right direction? Is there a basis for optimism about the effects of our policies and priorities? I’m not so sure. 

It is interesting that the keynote speech at Mackinac was by Tom Friedman, presenting the main ideas of his current book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. And though he insists that his view is optimistic at the national level, it’s hard to square that with the substance of his argument. He argues that the global interconnected world requires constant re-creation of ourselves and our practices, especially in the economic sphere; and that the US is not rising to this challenge. This doesn’t really sound like optimism. 

The path I’d like to see our state pursue is one that respects the demands of social equity as well as growth, so all Michiganders benefit from the progress we seem at last to be experiencing. That will require more explicit choices than we’ve made to date. And it will require re-investment in social goods that have been reduced in recent years. 

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