Saturday, October 15, 2011

Great Convergence after Great Divergence?

Greg’s mill was part of a revolution in industry that would profoundly alter the world’s pecking order. The new technologies—labour-saving inventions, factory production, engines powered by fossil fuels—spread to other parts of western Europe and later to America. The early industrialisers (along with a few late developers, such as Japan) were able to lock in and build on their lead in technology and living standards.

The “great divergence” between the West and the rest lasted for two centuries. The mill at Styal, once one of the world’s largest, has become a museum. A few looms, powered by the mill’s water wheel, still produce tea towels for the gift shop, but cotton production has long since moved abroad in search of low wages. Now another historic change is shaking up the global hierarchy. A “great convergence” in living standards is under way as poorer countries speedily adopt the technology, know-how and policies that made the West rich. China and India are the biggest and fastest-growing of the catch-up countries, but the emerging-market boom has spread to embrace Latin America and Africa, too.

[…]Economic catch-up is accelerating. Britain’s economy doubled in size in the 32 years from 1830 to 1862 as increased productivity spread from cotton to other industries. America’s GDP doubled in only 17 years as it overtook Britain in the 1870s. The economies of China and India have doubled within a decade.

This is cause for optimism. An Indian with a basic college education has access to world-class goods that his parents (who might have saved for decades for a sputtering scooter) could only have dreamed of buying. The recent leap in incomes is visible in Chinese cities, where the cars are new but the bicycles look ancient, and in the futuristic skyline of Shanghai’s financial district.

[…]No country, or group of countries, stays on top forever. History and economic theory suggest that sooner or later others will catch up. But this special report will caution against relying on linear extrapolation from recent growth rates. Instead, it will suggest that the transfer of economic power from rich countries to emerging markets is likely to take longer than generally expected. Rich countries will be cursed indeed if they cannot put on an occasional growth spurt. China, for its part, will be lucky to avoid a bad stumble in the next decade or two. Emerging-market crises have been too quickly forgotten, which only makes them more likely to recur.

[…]The force of economic convergence depends on the income gap between developing and developed countries. Going from poor to less poor is the easy part. The trickier bit is making the jump from middle-income to reasonably rich. Can China and others manage it?

For more, read The Economist’s special report on catch-up. Dani Rodrik argues that convergence is not automatic and it might not happen altogether any time soon. He argues that convergence depends on bridging the productivity levels/gap. And exploiting it needs sustaining rapid structural change in the direction of tradables such as manufacturing and modern services. But, the policies that successful countries have used to achieve this are hard to emulate.