Global value chains

I’m very excited, as perhaps only an economist could be, by a new (and free) VoxEU e-book, The Age of Global Value Chains: Maps and Policy Issues. As the first sentence in the foreword states: “The study of global value chains is the only way to fully understand the nature of today’s geographically dispersed production and trade.” This understanding is being extended by new sources and uses of data, the World Input-Output Database in particular – the e-book has an appendix describing this.

GCVs front cover

The book divides into a descriptive first part (including a look at network structures) and a second part looking at the impacts of the increased specialisation in production across national borders. These impacts in turn are divided between the macro level (including productivity, wages and jobs) and the effects at the level of firm organisation. If I have one complaint (without having read the book yet) it is that there is no essay looking at global value chains from the perspective of urban economics, and the sub-national clustering of specialised supply chains.

Still, it’s a mild complaint about a book to say there should be more of it. I’ll be reading this one eagerly, all the more so as there are troubling signs that world trade growth is slowing. And, as I argued in my post on the FT’s The Exchange, that could be related to the global productivity puzzle.


Economics of empire – then and now

I’ve enjoyed reading Tristram Hunt’s T, out now in paperback. It’s a clever prism on British imperialism, taking a tour of major colonial cities and using a period in their history to explore the wider politics and economics of colonialism, and the cultural relations between the “mother country” and her colonies as expressed in architecture and urban design in particular.

[amazon_image id=”014104778X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Ten Cities that Made an Empire[/amazon_image]

The geographic and historical tour starts in Boston in the late 18th century (the Revolutionary War), then Bridgetown, Barbados (looking at slavery and the triangular Atlantic trade), Dublin (and the painful relationship between the two countries), Cape Town (as the base for the extension of Empire), Calcutta (early Indian adventurism by the East India Company), Hong Kong (the opium wars), Bombay (the apogee of Victorian Empire), Melbourne (and the distinctive characteristics of an Anglo-Saxon colony), New Delhi (and the independence movement) and Liverpool (where Empire ended on 22 April 1981 when Tate & Lyle closed its refinery and the docks stood empty, Tate & Lyle blaming EU membership and the change in trading patterns that involved).

The wide perspective makes very clear the commercial interests driving the politics of imperialism, from the slave trade to the exploitation of Indian cotton supplies and the market it provided for cheap Lancashire textiles, and the eastern triangular trade of Indian opium to China, Chinese luxuries to Britain and British manufactures to India. I can’t read anough about the Lancashire cotton industry for obvious reasons & have on my wish-list.

[amazon_image id=”B00PYY1AQU” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism[/amazon_image]

There was also a *fabulous* In Our Time recently about the Lancashire weavers standing (at great cost to themselves) with the Union and the slaves during the American Civil War – Abraham Lincoln presented a statue to Manchester afterwards, in recognition of the support.

Lincoln in Manchester

Lincoln in Manchester

Modern globalization is driven just as much by drugs, arms and slavery, or people trafficking as we now call it; but these are veiled and never discussed in policy conversations, although of course the financial and professional support these trades require is big business. Nor do economists analyse it much; after all, you can’t download the data from the internet and run it through Stata. I often think we should take this illicit global economy far more seriously.


Adventures in international finance

by Ed Conway is a rattling good read. It is of course about the Bretton Woods conference in 1944, which laid the foundations for the post-war international economic arrangements, and the part they played in the stability and growth of that remarkable 30 years.

[amazon_image id=”1408704927″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Summit: The Biggest Battle of the Second World War – fought behind closed doors[/amazon_image]

I picked it up expecting a book going over familiar territory. Only last year I read Benn Steil’s excellent  . However, The Summit is well worth a read even by Bretton Woods afficionados. It combines terrific storytelling with new archival material.

And what a story! You get a real sense of the physical location – the book starts and ends with the hotel – and the bustle of a huge international conference, meeting everywhere, people huddled in corners. Keynes called it a “monstrous monkeyhouse.” The hotel owner got so fed up with the delegates and the confusion that he threw everybody out before the treaty was entirely ready. Nobody had read every page and the stage was set for much further wrangling.

The characters are extraordinary, from Keynes (who comes across as more unlikeable the more one reads about him) to China’s H.H.Kung, the drunken Russians, the (probably) Soviet spy and chief American negotiator Harry Dexter White, and the obstreperous Indian delegation (some habits die hard…). The book quotes the then UK ambassador to the US commenting on Keynes’ manner: “He was really too offensive for words and I shall have to take measures.” Also amusing is the personality clash between Keynes and Lionel Robbins, another self-confident economist in the British delegation.

It’s always good to be reminded that alongside the debates about economic theory and practicalities, personalities, politics and the vagaries of history shape our institutions.

This would be a terrific introduction to international monetary matters for students, an enjoyable way to dip into some of the economic debate before getting started on it in earnest. And for everybody, it’s not only a good read but good background for reflecting on how international finance is ordered – or not – today, and what it took in 1944 to bring about a different kind of agreement.



Inside shipping

I’ve loved reading  by Rose George. It’s been out a while – this was the new paperback. It’s a superb piece of reportage by somebody who is obviously a very thorough and careful researcher. The shipping industry fascinates me – it has at least since I read the now-classic  when it was first published, and realised how interesting and complicated this industry, the circulatory system of the global economy, actually is. As this book’s subtitle puts it, it’s the invisible industry that brings you 90% of everything.

[amazon_image id=”1846272998″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Deep Sea and Foreign Going: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Brings You 90% of Everything[/amazon_image]    [amazon_image id=”0691136408″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger[/amazon_image]

George covers issues ranging from the economics of freight shipping in general, the flagging out system, the race to the bottom in the workers’ pay and conditions, the surge in piracy in the Indian Ocean and its economics, the damage done to sea life especially whales by the big ships, the rubbish in the oceans,the the carbon footprint of the shipping industry, and more.The piracy chapter is particularly fascinating as a piece of economic analysis, including the bargaining that goes on over hostages – and there are many more of these than you realise, it’s just that a high proportion are Chinese or Indian seafarers.

It includes masses of detail, the sign of a true observer. Why is it still a tradition to knit woolly hats for seamen’s missions? What do marines do on the naval vessels patrolling the Indian Ocean when they’re not doing fighting stuff? How do you spend empty days at sea out of range of mobile masts and the internet? Who needs bribing with what as the vessel makes its way through the Suez Canal? What languages are used in on-board announcements when the crew is as globalised as can be?

Highly recommended, especially as a holiday read, and even more so if you’re off on a boat somewhere.


Butterflies and hurricanes

I received a copy in the post this weekend of , and what to do about it by Ian Goldin and Mike Mariathasan. I’d read the book in draft and it’s a thought-provoking and rather alarming account of some of the vulnerabilities arising from interconnected global systems. Exhibit number one is the financial crisis, I suppose, made significantly more severe by the criss-crossing and largely unmonitored links between banks and shadow banks in many countries. The book also discusses global supply chains, infrastructure, ecology, public health and the social risks arising from inequality (this last obviously written well before Piketty-mania).

The growing complexity in each if these areas is well-documented. The title is a riff on the well-known butterfly effect whereby a small initial disturbance in a complex system with feed-back loops can rapidly lead to large and unexpected results – the flap of a butterfly’s wings in one place leads to a hurricane somewhere else entirely. It has become a defect because our governance systems haven’t remotely kept pace with the changes of the past 25 years. Connectivity has led to complexity has led to systemic risks – but policies address only local risks.

The final chapter asks how to start managing the new risks, without wholly answering it – although to be fair it would take a new book for each of the previous chapters to set out ay detail about what to do. The authors do not want to reverse the interconnectedness, although they acknowledge that some people might prefer that. They call instead for more global management of risk, more awareness of the new kinds of risk on the part of all policymakers and businesses everywhere – better risk measurement, transparent communication about the dangers and the policy uncertainties, gearing economic policies towards giving people incentives to take more account of the personal risks they face, clear definition of legal responsibilites, and contingency planning.

This all seems perfectly sensible. Will it happen? I think the most sobering section of the book talks about the way the post-World War II global governance changes, the ‘Bretton Woods moment’, came about as a result of the cataclysm of total war. The book ends on a very optimistic note:

“With better management, there is the potential for all citizens to share in our world’s magnificent achievements, the most impressive of which could be yet to come.”

But I ended up feeling daunted. Anyway, both pro- and anti-globalizers should read it.

[amazon_image id=”0691154708″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Butterfly Defect: How Globalization Creates Systemic Risks, and What to Do about It[/amazon_image]