Wednesday, February 10, 2010

$123 trillion by 2040?

Robert Fogel writing in Foreign Policy magazine, makes a case for a $123 trillion (that's actually the piece's title) Chinese GDP by 2040. This gives it an incredible $85,000 per capita GDP.

Spectacular claims like this naturally grab my attention, but the article predictably struck me as falling far short of that promise. His supporting arguments contain little that is really new-he points simply to improvements in education and labor productivity, while pointing to ways in which Chinese output, private initiative and consumerist tendencies may have been underestimated. Interesting, to be sure, but hardly a convincing case that China will repeat its performance over the last thirty years in the three decades to come-a questionable proposition given the evidence seen to date, as well as China's considerable internal problems (ecological, social, political) and a little thing called the law of diminishing returns, all of which suggest the curve flattening long before that point (even if China is left with a relatively high standard of living).

However, it is far from the only questionable stat on offer. Fogel estimates that this would give China forty percent of a Gross World Product of $300 trillion (which would make today's First World income levels the average)-which presumes the sustenance of a scorching hot 5 percent a year global growth rate for the next thirty years.

Fogel offers even less explanation for this more subtly introduced, but almost equally spectacular claim. The world sustained something like this through the 1960s, admittedly, but that was a different and much briefer period, and even before "the Great Recession," the prospects for a repeat were dim. Indeed, he offers at least one good argument against it. While the U.S. also does well in his projection (tripling its GDP to some fourteen percent of the global total he predicts, a feat requiring it to reenact its spectacular post-World War II boom), he predicts European stagnation, actually wasting a quarter of his space rehashing the familiar claims of Euroskeptic conservatism, denigrating Europe's relatively labor-friendly economic policies, and heaping disdain on the Europeans for their preference of leisure time to the more extreme forms of consumerism, and their low birth rates (though to his credit he acknowledges China's demographic issues as well).

For a corrective, one should probably check out Minxin Pei's "Think Again" article, which offers a lucid refutation of the kind of hype Fogel promotes. (Also recommended to those willing to consider Pei's argument is a 2006 piece in the same magazine by Pei on corruption, waste and elite irresponsibility in China.)

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