The BRI in Malaysia

Yeseong writes*

China’s influence on other countries is hard to grasp so this post focuses on President Xi’s biggest and most ambitious foreign policy: The Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI. The BRI is an effort to link some 70 countries through a trillion dollars of investment in roads, ports, pipelines, roads, and other infrastructure. Xi claims that this initiative will work magic like the ancient silk routes, opening “windows of friendly engagement among nations, adding a splendid chapter to the history of human progress.”

Malaysia supported BRI under the rule of the former Prime Minister Najib Razak. Malaysia signed deals for infrastructure to be funded by the Chinese state-owned and commercial banks. The people of Malaysia supported these deals as they had nothing to lose from more jobs, and better infrastructure. They believed the BRI would help the economy and raise their quality of life.

Yet, the new government, led by PM Mahathir Mohamad, did not feel this way. The former government was corrupt, and Mahathir believed that Najib began unnecessary ventures the country could not sustain, which led to the cancellation of $22 billion of BRI projects for rail links and gas pipelines. As a cautionary tale, consider that Pakistan borrowed from Chinese commercial banks until it needed an IMF bailout.

There are clear opportunities and risks involved with the Chinese effort to bring countries together. A successful BRI would improve Eurasian trade connectivity, boost the economies of developing countries, and raise living standards for millions of people. On the other hand, trade processes might be hindered by cumbersome policies; large infrastructure projects may be ineffective due to many reasons including corruption (which is the case of Malaysia under Najib Razak); and accumulating debts in developing participants may be on an unsustainable level. Some also worry that the BRI is an excuse “to establish a comprehensive system to shape the world according to China’s interests.

Bottom Line: China’s BRI promises investments to link numerous countries. It would be wonderful if the BRI’s promises materialized, but the reality is different. Thus, countries need to be careful of BRI risk, as Malaysia discovered with corruption and excessive debts from unnecessary projects.


* Please help my Growth & Development Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, etc. (Or you can just say something nice 🙂

Microfinance: Is it a trap?

Jeroen writes*

Microfinance (MF) was invented in the 1970’s as a means of uplifting the poor. Since then, it has been widely pursued by NGO’s and even international organizations such as the World Bank. Its inventor, Muhammad Yunus, even earned a Nobel Prize for it. But does microfinance really deliver on its promise? Or are there adverse effects that outweigh its benefits? This post will examine microfinance’s effect on entrepreneurs’ prosperity. In the blog’s one-handed tradition, I will be fairly biased, in that I zoom in on a drawback of microfinance: displacement effects.

Displacement refers to when microloan entrepreneurs crowd other business out of the market, as Milford Batesman argues in his book Why Doesn’t Microfinance Work? Displacement occurs when microfinance entrepreneurs compete with other small businesses over limited jobs for self-employed workers in developing nations. Exceptions to this rule exist, such as in newly formed Bosnia-Herzegovina, where many unemployed were highly educated and could therefore perform a wider variety of tasks. However, in many developing countries, such as Bangladesh, MF workers stick to jobs like farming, craftmanship or keeping a small shop.

This competition has two adverse effects for workers in the sector. First, it pushes prices down. For example, more barber shops open, but the demand for haircuts hasn’t necessarily changed. Thus, as illustrated in the figure below, the supply curve moves outward and prices drop. Second, the new barber shops steal away customers from the old barber shops. Even though the quantity demanded of haircuts rises slightly, that quantity has to be shared among more workers. The result of both these mechanisms, is profits decrease, as Honohan discusses.

Price falls as microloan entrepeneurs enter the market. Source: Batesman

The shrinking of profits due to displacement has two implications. First, it is a key limitation to many studies examining MF’s economic benefits, as Honohan points out. Second, it means that capital accumulation for the poor becomes much harder.  Microfinance advocates themselves admit that capital accumulation is key to poverty alleviation. They use anecdotes of entrepreneurs that put their profits into their children’s education, or the expansion of their business. Displacement undermines this ability.

The story of rent reduction seems to be one of collective-action failure. Microfinance benefits individuals who take a microloan and start a business. However, it hurts all workers in that business by pushing their profits down.

One might object to the displacement argument, that microloans can also be used to make investments that boost productivity, thereby boosting the profits made by businesses. Honohan provides an example of this: a trader buying a bike, making him faster (and more efficient) than other traders on foot. Here, the bikeless trader is outcompeted and replaced by a more efficient service (i.e. creative destruction). There is no literature about how these productivity loans compare to the loss of profits for entrepreneurs. However, I would argue these examples are less frequent. Micro-finance loans tend very small, typically around $27. This is often enough to buy the basic supplies for a business, but not to make additional investments. Thus, entrepeneurs might use microcredit to improve on the margins (i.e. buying a bike), but it is uncertain whether this will create enough value to compensate for profits lost due to displacement.

Bottom line: Microfinance can reduce entrepeneurial profits and thus slow the poor’s rise out of poverty. From this perspective, Microfinance looks more like a trap than an escape.


* Please help my Growth & Development Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, etc. (Or you can just say something nice 🙂

Brazil’s new direction: Bolsanaro

Tom writes*

Brazil experienced high growth from 2000 until 2014, when the country was suddenly in an unprecedented recession. Although the country’s GDP showed some recovery in 2017, Brazil elected far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro as president in a response to “rising crime and two years of political and economic turmoil”. As what follows will suggest, the election of Bolsonaro is not so much a result of the stagnation of economic growth, as it was rooted in the lack of development following the past decades’ growth.

To assess economic development, Sen and Nussbaum’s capabilities approach will be used as a definition to measure economic development in Brazil. Two of his most important political promises that explain why Bolsonaro gained so much support are his plans to fight corruption and reduce crime rates. The former deals with capability 10A, the political aspect of control over one’s environment, whereas the latter aims at tackling violations of capability 3, bodily integrity, and capability 10B, the material component of control over one’s environment. One might argue that a tougher policy on crime even relates to the first capability, life, in a country where homicide rates are among the highest in the world. The lack of economic development is also visible in the extreme income inequality and the over 23.3 million Brazilians, over 10 percent of the population, living below the poverty line, which inhibits almost all aspects of human development. This also explains why many people from minorities, such as people of colour and women, voted for him, despite his countless insults; they are overrepresented in the poorest groups of Brazilian society. It is important to note here, though, that many of Bolsonaro’s plans will probably not enhance human development as defined by Sen and Nussbaum, the argument is rather that the reason why people voted for him, are the obviously lacking aspects of development that he addresses.

What gave to rise Bolsonaro, however, started five years before his presidential election, in 2013, when all across Brazil, people took to the streets “with a range of demands from affordable public transportation to fixes to the government bureaucracy”. These demands are rather aimed at enhancement of quality of life than at quantity and seem to have more to do with development than growth. Popular discontent in Brazil was mainly centred around issues of development, but many of them are related to economic growth issues, such as stagnation and a drop in inflation that threatens the position of the middle class.

At the same time that development is lacking, the prospects for economic growth in the next years are also critical, especially since Bolsonaro, in an attempt to recover Brazil’s economy, wants to break most economic ties with China, while trade with China grew with 4000% between 2000 and 2013, largely contributing to Brazil’s economic growth. The irony is that at the same time that the ‘Trump of the Tropes’ wishes to copy Trump’s strong anti-China economic policy, it was exactly this American trade war with Beijing that has boosted Brazilian exports to China.

Bottom line: The rise of Bolsonaro as Brazil’s new president is rather a response of human development falling behind for years than just a response to the lack of economic growth between 2014 and 2016.


* Please help my Growth & Development Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, data sources, etc. (Or you can just say something nice 🙂

Is mass consumerism a choice?

Floris writes*

We all know we live in a consumerist society, but what are its origins and did it develop naturally? This post explains the surprising influence of Freud on our consumerist society. It all started at the 1929 Easter March in New York when a group of women lit their cigarettes— an act publicly unacceptable at the time, and even considered rebelliously feminist. For many, including the women, the lighting of their cigarettes seemed to indeed be part of a greater struggle for power; the Women’s Liberation Movement. However, few were aware that the actual intention behind the action was for the American Tobacco Company to increase cigarette consumption among women. These women were paid by Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, to light their “torches of freedom”— the cigarette became symbolic of women’s freedom. I argue firstly that this event marked only the beginning of the implementation of Freudian psychoanalysis as a tool used to promote consumerism in America, and that still today, we are living in a society full of passive consumers.

In part one and part two of the brilliant documentary The Century of the Self, we see how Freud’s ideas were employed in order to create a mass consumption society. Freud believed that humans are irrational, governed by their subconscious fears and desires. Bernays, through his work as a Public Relations Counsellor to American corporations, applied these theories in his advertisements. These ads appealed to people’s innermost desires, leading them to consume more. For example, Bernays suggested to remove an egg from an instant cake mix which consumers had to add in themselves. He believed this would help eliminate the sense of guilt housewives felt for not having made a cake themselves from scratch. This seemingly simple change had the desired effects and sales increased massively. This strategy turned people into passive consumers. However, this passivism turned into activism when people began to notice and discover the selling strategies and conditioning. In 1962, awareness increased especially after celebrity and high-profile psychoanalyst patient Marylin Monroe committed suicide.

In part 3, it is shown how corporations in the 60s and 70s turned activism into a new kind of consumerism based on individual rather than mass needs. During the 60s, an alternative psychoanalytical perspective regained popularity, it was originally developed by Wilhelm Reich who believed the opposite of Freud. In his view, humans are good in and of themselves and that society repressed their inner selves which made them violent and mentally unstable. He argued that people should express their fears and desires which would allow them to be freed of the conditioning and control by society. This created individuals with individual desires, which meant the end of mass consumerism and a problem for corporations who couldn’t sell their mass-produced homogenous products to individuals. But then a different psychologist, Abraham Maslow, argued that people’s different desires could be categorized in a hierarchy of needs. This meant that corporations could now develop products based on categories in the hierarchy of needs. Therefore, the products seemed highly personalized which emphasised the feeling of individuality in consumers, which made them buy them.

By the end of the century, society had experienced an ideological shift from a mass consumerist society to an individual consumerist society which allowed companies to supply products for ever-changing needs which allowed consumerism to flourish like never before. A report by the US Department of Labor and Statistics [pdf] looked at consumption statistics in the US between 1901 and 2003. From 1918-19 to 2002-03 household expenditures grew from around $1,500 to roughly $41,000. On top of that, from 1959 to 2001, consumer spending on non-essential goods and services increased from 4% to 9.3%.

Today, nearly 50 years later, we are still living like passive consumers. From 2003 to 2017 US consumer spending increased from $41,000 to $60,000 a year. The only exception being a slight drop in the years after the financial crisis of 2007-08. Consumer spending on non-essential goods and services as a percentage of total spending also increased. From 2001 to 2011 this grew from 9.3% to 11.2%. Therefore, not only do we see a persistent but a growing passive consumerist society that over a time period of nearly 100 years was fabricated through Freudian psychoanalysis.

Bottom line: We are still passive consumers in society, influenced through the theories of psychoanalytic thinkers.


* Please help my Growth & Development Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, data sources, etc. (Or you can just say something nice 🙂