The Great Debate©: Is There a Role for Manufacturing Led Growth?

by Dani Rodrik, Project Syndicate, and Ajay Shah

Editor’s note: There has been further discussion of the Rodrik assertion that there will be no more manufacturing led growth miracles by a number of economists at the Economist.

No More Growth Miracles

by Dani Rodrik

A year ago, economic analysts were giddy with optimism about the prospects for economic growth in the developing world. In contrast to the United States and Europe, where the growth outlook looked weak at best, emerging markets were expected to sustain their strong performance from the decade preceding the global financial crisis, and thus become the engine of the global economy.

Economists at Citigroup, for example, boldly concluded that circumstances had never been this conducive to broad, sustained growth around the world, and projected rapidly rising global output until 2050, led by developing countries in Asia and Africa. The accounting and consulting firm PwC predicted that per capita GDP growth in China, India, and Nigeria would exceed 4.5% well into the middle of the century. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company christened Africa, long synonymous with economic failure, the land of “lions on the move.”

Today, such talk has been displaced by concern about what The Economist calls “the great slowdown.” Recent economic data in China, India, Brazil, and Turkey point to the weakest growth performance in these countries in years. Optimism has given way to doubt.

Of course, just as it was inappropriate to extrapolate from the previous decade of strong growth, one should not read too much into short-term fluctuations. Nevertheless, there are strong reasons to believe that rapid growth will prove the exception rather than the rule in the decades ahead.

To see why, we need to understand how “growth miracles” are made. Except for a handful of small countries that benefited from natural-resource bonanzas, all of the successful economies of the last six decades owe their growth to rapid industrialization. If there is one thing that everyone agrees on about the East Asian recipe, it is that Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and of course China all were exceptionally good at moving their labor from the countryside (or informal activities) to organized manufacturing. Earlier cases of successful economic catch-up, such as the US or Germany, were no different.

Manufacturing enables rapid catch-up because it is relatively easy to copy and implement foreign production technologies, even in poor countries that suffer from multiple disadvantages. Remarkably, my research shows that manufacturing industries tend to close the gap with the technology frontier at the rate of about 3% per year regardless of policies, institutions, or geography. Consequently, countries that are able to transform farmers into factory workers reap a huge growth bonus.

To be sure, some modern service activities are capable of productivity convergence as well. But most high-productivity services require a wide array of skills and institutional capabilities that developing economies accumulate only gradually. A poor country can easily compete with Sweden in a wide range of manufactures; but it takes many decades, if not centuries, to catch up with Sweden’s institutions.

Consider India, which demonstrates the limitations of relying on services rather than industry in the early stages of development. The country has developed remarkable strengths in IT services, such as software and call centers. But the bulk of the Indian labor force lacks the skills and education to be absorbed into such sectors. In East Asia, unskilled workers were put to work in urban factories, making several times what they earned in the countryside. In India, they remain on the land or move to petty services where their productivity is not much higher.

Successful long-term development therefore requires a two-pronged push. It requires an industrialization drive, accompanied by the steady accumulation of human capital and institutional capabilities to sustain services-driven growth once industrialization reaches its limits. Without the industrialization drive, economic takeoff becomes quite difficult. Without sustained investments in human capital and institution-building, growth is condemned to peter out.

But this time-tested recipe has become a lot less effective these days, owing to changes in manufacturing technologies and the global context. First, technological advances have rendered manufacturing much more skill- and capital-intensive than it was in the past, even at the low-quality end of the spectrum. As a result, the capacity of manufacturing to absorb labor has become much more limited. It will be impossible for the next generation of industrializing countries to move 25% or more of their workforce into manufacturing, as East Asian economies did.

Second, globalization in general, and the rise of China in particular, has greatly increased competition on world markets, making it difficult for newcomers to make space for themselves. Although Chinese labor is becoming more expensive, China remains a formidable competitor for any country contemplating entry into manufactures.

Moreover, rich countries are unlikely to be as permissive towards industrialization policies as they were in the past. Policymakers in the industrial core looked the other way as rapidly growing East Asian countries acquired Western technologies and industrial capabilities through unorthodox policies such as subsidies, local content requirements, reverse engineering, and currency undervaluation. Core countries also kept their domestic markets open, allowing East Asian countries to export freely the manufactured products that resulted.

Now, however, as rich countries struggle under the combined weight of high debt, low growth, unemployment, and inequality, they will apply greater pressure on developing nations to abide by World Trade Organization rules, which narrow the space for industrial subsidies. Currency undervaluation à la China will not go unnoticed. Protectionism, even if not in overt form, will be politically difficult to resist.

Manufacturing industries will remain poor countries’ “escalator industries,” but the escalator will neither move as rapidly, nor go as high. Growth will need to rely to a much greater extent on sustained improvements in human capital, institutions, and governance. And that means that growth will remain slow and difficult at best.

# # #

The Widget Illusion

by Ajay Shah

The role of manufacturing

I agree with a small element of Dani Rodrik’s argument, but mostly for different reasons. Rodrik says:

Except for a handful of small countries that benefited from natural-resource bonanzas, all of the successful economies of the last six decades owe their growth to rapid industrialization.

I have seen this kind of thinking among some policy makers in India also: that industrialisation is somehow special and good when compared with services. I would question this proposition, that I term `the widget illusion’. What matters to a country is having sophisticated firms that have a high marginal product of labour. We should not care whether this happens in services or in manufacturing. If anything, the opportunity to do it is perhaps better in services.

India is a good example of a country which embarked on its catchup by connecting into globalisation late: from 1991 onwards. It was probably the last country in the world to shed autarkic policies. This has given a remarkable growth acceleration. Sustained growth of 7 per cent is pretty good by world standards. These achievements have been significantly driven by services production in India within global supply chains (whether within production facilities owned by global MNCs who are operating in India, or contracted-out by global MNCs to Indian firms). If your null hypothesis was that industrialisation is essential to growth, then you would not have predicted what happened in India, where manufacturing was hobbled by an array of policy mistakes.

This illustrates the limitations of manufacturing-focused thinking, which seems a bit out of date in today’s world economy where most output is services. Agriculture and manufacturing have wilted away in the consumption of the global representative agent: to succeed in the world economy today requires prime attention upon services.

Rodrik says:

Consider India, which demonstrates the limitations of relying on services rather than industry in the early stages of development. The country has developed remarkable strengths in IT services, such as software and call centers. But the bulk of the Indian labor force lacks the skills and education to be absorbed into such sectors. In East Asia, unskilled workers were put to work in urban factories, making several times what they earned in the countryside. In India, they remain on the land or move to petty services where their productivity is not much higher.

As Rodrik points out, there are important gaps between the skills of the great unwashed masses in India versus China, where elementary technical training reached a larger mass of humans. In addition, China did better on core economic policy choices about (a) Removing protectionism; (b) Removing barriers to FDI; (c) Building hard infrastructure; (d) Labour law and (e) Rationalising taxation.

What policy advice would flow from this? India should not have have made these six mistakes in economic policy (low training for the masses, protectionism, barriers to FDI, weak investments into infrastructure, labour law and mistakes in tax policy). At the same time, this does not recommend a bias in favour of manufacturing. It is hard to discern a meaningful choice about emphasising services versus manufacturing in Indian economic policy. Participation in all global production is good. Governments should remove all barriers that inhibit global integration whether in goods or in services – e.g. the six mistakes in Indian policy sketched above.

A paragraph earlier, Rodrik says:

To be sure, some modern service activities are capable of productivity convergence as well. But most high-productivity services require a wide array of skills and institutional capabilities that developing economies accumulate only gradually. A poor country can easily compete with Sweden in a wide range of manufactures; but it takes many decades, if not centuries, to catch up with Sweden’s institutions.

I would point out the contradiction: “A poor country can easily compete with Sweden in .. manufactures” but earlier it was asserted that the gaps in Indian skills inhibited India’s ability to compete with Sweden in manufactures.

Doing things that push skills and institutional capabilities

I would go further to say that it is good to go after fields which require a wide array of skills and institutional capabilities.

I am reminded of Ricardo Hausmann’s `Good Cholesterol’ argument about financial globalisation as opposed to mere FDI. When a poor country operates in an institutional vacuum, foreign investors are uncomfortable, and the only thing that can happen is FDI. To obtain financial flows, the country has to build institutions: laws, regulators, property rights, and so on. This is a good thing! A country that gets to FDI and gets stuck there should ponder what is going wrong. In similar fashion, no country aspires to have low-wage production; every country wants to understand the secret sauce through which a part of the labour force can earn high wages by world standards.

As a country rises out of poverty, it is essential to build up skills and institutional capabilities. If policy makers hinder services and/or favour manufacturing, there is a greater chance of being stuck in low skills and low institutional capabilities. I am not proposing industrial policy in favour of services. I am only proposing the absence of industrial policy; we should avoid a `widget illusion’ and foster more global integration without trying to push towards one industry or another.

In India, with 7 per cent growth, GDP doubles every decade. As a thumb-rule, I feel that a comprehensive transformation of skills and institutions is required across each doubling of GDP, which is roughly each decade for India. A country that is stuck in low-skill manufacturing will find it difficult to achieve the reinvention of this `soft infrastructure’ of the mind. If policy makers tried to push a country towards doing low end grunge work, it would be harder to obtain these repeated transformations of institutions and the furniture of the mind, which would lead to growth decelerations.

As an example, in the article New wave of deft robots is changing global industry, John Markoff says:

Foxconn has not disclosed how many workers will be displaced or when. But its chairman, Terry Gou, has publicly endorsed a growing use of robots. Speaking of his more than one million employees worldwide, he said in January, according to the official Xinhua news agency: “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.”

The project of economic development requires sophisticated interactions between firms and workers. The laws, human rights and management practices that are required when dealing with humans are different from those required when running a firm with `one million animals’. I would hence argue that it is limiting for a country to focus on the political, legal and institutional requirements to produce a la Foxconn. It is better to confront the complexities of high skill, high wage production, and to build the environment for this to happen: in the political and legal system, in management practices of firms, and in the power structure embedded in a conversation between two citizens who are co-workers within a firm. Services production is a valuable learning ground where the complex management practices that involve high skill humans can be learned.

The new world of manufacturing

Rodrik correctly points out that manufacturing has become more sophisticated in recent years. This has some fascinating dimensions:

  • The rapid improvements in capabilities and declining costs of robots.
  • The rise of open source design coupled with 3-d printers. If a 3-d printer in the US fabricates a part close to its usage in an assembly line, while the labour-intensive design work (“services”) that controls the 3-d printer is done in India, does this entail manufacturing or services work in India?
  • The world economy is likely to be in a low interest rate environment for a long time, which will encourage capital intensity worldwide (robots, 3-d printers), thus blunting the value of low wages.

Momentous changes are afoot, which challenge our traditional notions of manufacturing versus services. To some extent, we are even seeing some manufacturing go back to the US.

Things that might ‘go wrong’

Finally, Rodrik talks about reduced willingness in the West to tolerate unfair tactics like the Chinese exchange rate regime. I would generally consider this to be a good thing, both for developing countries and for the world. In any case, the Asian ‘Bretton Woods II’ episode seems to be subsiding. As an example of the disenchantment with exchange rate distortions: From 2004 to 2007, India debated exchange rate rigidity, and walked away from it.  The links between undistorted exchange rates and growth have not been adequately emphasised in the discourse. A developing country builds up inferior skills and institutional capabilities by exporting under a subsidised exchange rate: it is better to force firms to confront the market price and achieve the productivity required to participate in globalisation when facing an undistorted price vector.

He worries about a rise in protectionism in the West, but we have to admit that the 2008-2012 experience has been pretty good in this regard: by and large the West has not succumbed into protectionism. In 2008, all of us worried about Smoot-Hawley. Today, things seem to be be going well.

Conclusion

In summary, I would argue that we should avoid a `widget illusion’. There is nothing special about manufacturing or industrialisation: as long as people in India get high wage jobs, this is good. Getting there requries deep integration into the world economy, which includes policy battlefronts such as:

  • Openness to the Internet
  • Use of English
  • Inbound and outbound FDI
  • The array of cross-border financial services that are the enablers of complex globalised production of both goods and services
  • Globalisation-compatible tax policy on both trade and finance
  • The absence of either protectionism or mercantalism
  • Fostering high quality human skills, and
  • Infrastructure.

To the extent that globalised production of goods and services happens in areas which involve high skills and complex institutional development, this is a bonus, since any high growth country needs a rapid pace of reinvention of laws and institutions.

Most of this is the old orthodoxy. Policy makers worldwide are generally focused on these issues, as they should be. From the 1960s onwards, dirigisme has generally subsided, with the twilight of policies like fixed exchange rates, industrial policy, capital controls, protectionism, etc. These key lessons remain intact in the 21st century.

Other Posts from these Authors:

Dani Rodrik
opinion blog
Ajay Shah analysis blog opinion blog

About the Authors


rodrikDani Rodrik is a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a leading scholar of globalization and economic development. His writings are a compelling combination of international and development economics, history, and political economy, and often challenge prevailing orthodoxy about which policies best promote growth. His most recent book is The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy.


Dr. Ajay Shah is a Professor at the National Institute for Public Finance and Policy (New Delhi) holding a Ph.D. in Economics (University of South California) and B.Tech in Aeronautical Engineering (I.I.T. – Bombay). His hard cover book “India’s Financial Markets: An Insider’s Guide to How the Markets Work” is available at Amazon, and pens his thoughts on Ajay Shah’s blog. Econintersect cannot begin to summarize Dr. Shah’s impressive resume, which includes being listed in the Top Ten Economists in India. Stay in touch: Email: ajayshah@econintersect.com


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