Xi’s Micromanaging “Zero Covid” Policy Hurting Chinese Economic Growth

(p. A1) Earlier this year, Xi Jinping issued brief instructions to education officials in Beijing. China’s leader wanted to reform the country’s $100 billion private tutoring industry, which the state worried was helping well-to-do families gain advantages for their offspring and creating anxiety among families that couldn’t afford the help.

Education officials drafted a plan that included new limits on tutoring for children up to the equivalent of ninth grade, said people familiar with the effort.

The plan was too soft, Mr. Xi said, in a one-sentence note to the education ministry, according to the people.

Scrambling to please him, the ministry expanded the limits to include students up to the equivalent of 12th grade. In addition, it required all private education companies to re-register as nonprofits.

The more extreme rules, issued in July [2021], triggered panic selling that erased tens of billions of dollars from the value of education com-(p. A14)panies listed on U.S. and Hong Kong stock exchanges. Officials from the China Securities Regulatory Commission hastily scheduled meetings with foreign investors to calm them down, according to people familiar with the conversations, and promised that Beijing would consider market impact before introducing future policies.

The episode is just one example of Mr. Xi’s evolving management style as the Chinese president consolidates control of the world’s second-largest economy. He is widely considered the most powerful Chinese leader in a generation. He is also a micromanager who intervenes often, unpredictably and sometimes vaguely in policy matters big and small.

. . .

Behind the scenes, many officials question some of Mr. Xi’s decisions.

In late July [2021], a Covid-19 outbreak caused more than 1,200 infections after months of nearly zero reported cases. Some central government officials, eyeing other countries, suggested it might be time for China to stop its strategy of pursuing “zero Covid” and learn to live with the virus, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

Mr. Xi was furious, said people familiar with the issue. In a note to underlings, he asked if officials were becoming “lax and numbed” in fighting the virus, according to these people and to state media reports. “Zero Covid” would remain the policy.

Local officials intensified their efforts. In late October [2021], they locked more than 30,000 visitors into Shanghai Disneyland and forced them to undergo Covid-19 tests after one customer tested positive. Authorities temporarily shut one of China’s biggest container ports after a single case, hurting global supply chains.

China’s economic growth slowed to 4.9% in the third quarter from the previous quarter’s 7.9% rate. Economists have said China’s zero-tolerance pandemic measures, including lockdowns of residential compounds and cancellations of public events, are likely to have a significant impact on China’s growth if they don’t succeed in snuffing out the virus soon.

Some local government officials have warned against “excessive pandemic prevention” measures, according to speeches quoted on websites. Yet officials keep pressing, fearful they might be punished if a Covid-19 case emerged in their area.

. . .

Mr. Xi later “personally planned, personally proposed, personally deployed and promoted” the development of Xiongan, a new “eco-city,” out of farmland about 60 miles from Beijing, according to state media, and urged state firms to move there. Despite billions of dollars of investment, it hasn’t matched the quick success of Deng-era special economic zones such as Shenzhen.

To comply with the new regulatory regime for after-school tutoring this year, education companies have laid off tens of thousands of employees, including teachers. Given the impact on the industry, officials have been enforcing the rules on tutoring for children only up to the equivalent of ninth grade—as originally proposed.

. . .

“Some only act when the party’s central leadership has instructed them to do so,” Mr. Xi said in a speech to the party’s top disciplinary officials last January, made public only recently. He complained that many officials aren’t competent to deal with complicated issues, and that if he didn’t issue so many instructions, little would get done.

“I issue instructions as a last line of defense,” he said.

For the full story, see:

Josh Chin. “Xi Jinping’s Style: Micromanagement.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021): A1 & A14.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed years, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the December 15, 2021, and has the title “Xi Jinping’s Leadership Style: Micromanagement That Leaves Underlings Scrambling.”)

No Clear Evidence That Tornadoes Are More Frequent or Intense Than 40 to 60 Years Ago

Damage from tornadoes depends on the strength of buildings, which depends on broad economic growth. To reduce harm, the level of economic growth matters as much or more than the frequency and intensity of tornadoes.

(p. A12) Some studies have concluded that as global warming advances, driven by the burning of fossil fuels, favorable conditions for severe storms in the United States will increase this century.

. . .

It remains less certain as to whether those increasingly severe storms might lead to more tornadoes. These complex events are harder to model, and so far there doesn’t appear to be clear evidence that, for instance, tornadoes have changed in frequency or intensity over the past 40 to 60 years.

. . .

“We might not know exactly how climate change is going to affect tornadoes going forward, but we do know that there are lot of things we can do to protect people today,” said Stephen Strader, a disaster scientist at Villanova University.

. . .

“There are always two sides of the coin when it comes to disasters,” Dr. Strader said. “There’s the climate itself, but there’s also society vulnerability. We can work to address climate change, but we shouldn’t lose focus on what we can do today to improve survivability against these extreme events.”

For the full story, see:

Brad Plumer, Winston Choi-Schagrin and Hiroko Tabuchi. “As World Warms, Bracing for More Extreme Weather.” The New York Times (Saturday, December 18, 2021): A12.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 17, 2021, and has the title “Examining the Role of Climate Change in a Week of Wild Weather.”)

Malnutrition of Poor Is Reduced More by Economic Growth Than by Ending Climate Change

Source of graph: online version of WSJ commentary quoted below.

(p. A17) The Paris climate agreement is projected to keep 11 million more people in poverty come 2030 than otherwise would be. If the Glasgow climate conference in November leads to the adoption of much stronger climate measures, policy makers will raise that total to 80 million additional people in poverty by 2030, which will inevitably cause even more malnutrition deaths.

Climate change deserves our attention, but policy makers need to be realistic. What really protects the world’s poor from malnutrition is getting out of poverty. It’s not expensive climate regulations.

For the full commentary, see:

Bjorn Lomborg. “Climate Change Barely Affects Poverty.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, October 7, 2021): A17.

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated October 7, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)

“The Best Recipe for Economic Growth Is” Freedom and Opportunity

(p. C3) Migration has been central to the American story since the beginning. In the early 19th century, New Englanders left the rocky soil of Massachusetts for the more fertile Ohio River valley. During the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, farmers fled Oklahoma for California. In the early 20th century, millions of African-Americans left the Jim Crow South to find work in the factories of northern cities. Through the 20th century, mobility was an American tradition: In every year between 1950 and 1992, according to the Current Population Survey, more than 6% of Americans moved across county lines.

In recent years, however, the engine of American migration has been grinding to a halt. People often move to get ahead, which makes mobility a reasonable measure of economic dynamism. So it’s a troubling sign that since 2007, geographic mobility has dropped by one-third, with fewer than 4% of Americans changing counties annually. The reason is clear: In the most prosperous cities and regions, insiders have figured out how to use regulations, laws and institutions to make life easier for themselves and harder for everyone else. In the process, they have made the U.S. a far less dynamic society.

. . .

Most important, we need to stop thinking of growth as a zero-sum game. Today, insiders worry about getting their share of the pie instead of growing the economy for everyone. The best recipe for economic growth is the traditional American one: freedom, combined with robust investment in opportunity for the least advantaged.

For the full commentary, see:

Edward Glaeser and David Cutler. “The American Housing Market Is Stifling Mobility.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, July 17, 2021): C3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date September 2, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)

The commentary quoted above is based on the authors’ book:

Glaeser, Edward L., and David Cutler. Survival of the City: Living and Thriving in an Age of Isolation. New York: Penguin Press, 2011.

Chinese Local Governments Run Up $6 Trillion in Debt, Partly to Build Giant Statues and a Full-Size Replica of Titanic

(p. B1) To officials in her corner of China, the statue of Yang Asha, a goddess of beauty, serves as a tribute to the rich culture of the local people and, they hope, a big draw for sightseers and their money. To many others in China, she is another white elephant in a country full of expensive monuments, gaudy tourist traps and wasteful vanity projects that draw money away from real problems.

Those critics point to the statue of Guan Yu, a general from antiquity, in the city of Jingzhou, where he also towers higher than the Statue of Liberty and wields an enormous polearm called the Green Dragon Crescent Blade.

They point to the Jingxingu Hotel, a 24-story wooden building with lots of empty balconies and open spaces but few actual rooms — and it has not accepted guests beyond a few tourists who come to gawk.

They point to the construction of a full-size, $150 million replica of the Titanic in a reservoir deep in China’s interior, 1,200 miles from (p. B5) the ocean.

. . .

Singling out the $38 million Jingxingu Hotel and the $224 million Guan Yu project, which also included an elaborate base and surrounding park, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development ordered on Sept. 29 [2020] that communities may not “blindly build large-scale sculptures that are divorced from reality and the masses.”

Chinese government officials have long prized big projects. China now has four-fifths of the world’s 100 tallest bridges, more miles of ultramodern expressways than the American interstate highway system and a bullet-train network long enough to span the continental United States seven times. Those projects have employed millions of people and helped fuel the country’s breakneck growth.

But local officials borrowed heavily to fund those projects. Estimates put the amount of local debt as high as $6 trillion, raising fears of financial bombs lurking in the ledgers of far corners of the country.

Beijing has doubled down on further investment spending this year in an initially successful bid to shake off an economic hangover from the outbreak of coronavirus in China last winter.

Yet with each passing year, as projects are built in ever-more-remote places, the economic kick from each project becomes less and less. China is on track this year to add debt equal to four months’ economic output while its economy grows by an amount equal to less than two weeks’ output.

Local government borrowing “is still out of control,” said Gary Liu, an independent economist in Shanghai.

For the full story, see:

Keith Bradsher. “As China Battles Poverty, Colossal Projects Draw Ire.” The New York Times (Fri., Nov. 27, 2020): B1 & B5.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 26, 2020, and has the title “A Soaring Monument to Beauty in China Is Stirring Passions. Mostly Anger.”)

Maple “Sugaring Is a Sticky Business,” but Has Low Barriers to Entry and Is Highly Scalable

If you were a long-term maple sugarer, you might have expected the pandemic to boost your business. People at home under stress would be likely eat a lot of comfort food. And you would have been right about that–the average American has gained more pounds than usual over the pandemic. But as you were congratulating yourself for your foresight, you might have noticed that the supply of maple sugar was increasing because many staying at home during the pandemic decided that collecting maple sap outdoors was a safe, relaxing, and edifying way to bond during a pandemic.

Who can foresee all of the exogenous events, and the decisions of others, that will influence the success or failure of our dreams? The best we can do is to be broadly curious, to be always alert, and to make nimble adjustments. (A great relevant book is Adner’s The Wide Lens.)

(p. D4) Stress-baking and panic shopping. Vegetable regrowing and crafting. Now we can add another hobby to a year of quarantine trends: backyard maple sugaring.

Among the many indicators that it’s on the rise: a run on at-home evaporators and other syrup-making accouterments. A surge in traffic and subscriptions to maple-syrup-making websites and trade publications. And, of course, lots and lots of documentation on social media. (The Facebook group Backyard Maple Syrup Makers added some 5,000 members, almost doubling the number of people in its community, in the past year.)

Tapping maple trees and boiling the sap into syrup — known as sugaring — isn’t a new hobby. What’s unique about this year is the influx of suburban and urban backyard adventurers fueling these maple sugaring highs.

. . .

Because sugaring is a sticky business — and boiling sap indoors can mean resin all over the walls — many backyard amateurs turn to small-scale, hobby-size evaporators like the ones sold by Vermont Evaporator Company in Montpelier, Vt. The company said its number of customers had doubled in the past year.

. . .

Peter Gregg, the founder of The Maple News and the maple sugaring classifieds, The Maple Trader, isn’t surprised that sugaring supplies have been selling out. He saw his print subscription increase over 14 percent, he said, and his website traffic increase by 50 percent this year — a quite uncommon phenomenon for a maple-themed newspaper.

“The biggest sugarers in Vermont started in their backyards,” Mr. Gregg said. “Sugaring is great because you can start out doing it in your kitchen but you get the bug and you keep growing and growing, adding more and more taps, buying more and more equipment, and trying to get bigger and more efficient.”

For the full story, see:

Colman, Michelle Sinclair. “Maple Syrup Making Also Boomed as a Pandemic Hobby.” The New York Times (Thursday, April 8, 2021): D4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date April 7, 2021, and has the same title as the print version. Where the wording in the online version differs from the wording in the print version, the passages quoted above follow the print version.)

The Adner book that I mention above is:

Adner, Ron. The Wide Lens: A New Strategy for Innovation. New York: Portfolio, 2012.

Mundell Thought Low Taxes Nourish Entrepreneurs

(p. B11) Robert A. Mundell, a Nobel Prize-winning economist whose theorizing opened the door to understanding the workings of global finance and the modern-day international economy, while his more iconoclastic views on economic policy fostered the creation of the euro and the adoption of the tax-cutting approach known as supply-side economics, died on Sunday [April 4, 2021] at his home, a Renaissance-era palazzo that he and his wife restored, near Siena, Italy.

. . .

. . . he provided intellectual grounding for lowering the top tax rates on the rich, whose advocates rallied under the banner of supply-side economics and won over many right-leaning politicians and policymakers in the United States, Britain and elsewhere while drawing the scorn of more progressive economists, who disputed the notion that cutting taxes for the wealthy was the best way to spur economic growth.

“Supply-side economics made the argument that steeply progressive tax rates reduced the size of the pie to be distributed,” Professor Mundell said in a 2006 interview with the American Economic Association. “The poor might be better off with a smaller share of a larger pie than with a larger share of a small pie.”

To encourage a growing economy, he argued for keeping the maximum tax rate under 25 percent. “The stimulus and rewards of the entrepreneurial group must be fed and nourished,” he said in a 1986 interview.

His ideas were promoted with evangelical fervor in the 1970s particularly by Arthur Laffer, an economist who became known for the “Laffer curve,” postulating that lower tax rates would generate higher government revenues, and Jude Wanniski, an editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal, whose opinion pages took up Professor Mundell’s cause after a series of lunches and dinners at a Lower Manhattan restaurant, Michaels 1, which were later described by Robert Bartley, The Journal’s opinion editor, in his book “The Seven Fat Years” (1992).

For the full obituary, see:

Tom Redburn. “Robert Mundell, a Father of the Euro and Reaganomics, Dies at 88.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 6, 2021): B11.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated April 6, 2021, and has the title “Robert A. Mundell, a Father of the Euro and Reaganomics, Dies at 88.”)

The book by Bartley mentioned above is:

Bartley, Robert L. The Seven Fat Years: And How to Do It Again. New York: Free Press, 1992.

China’s Economic Surge Not Shared by Consumers and Small Businesses

(p. B1) Factories are whirring, new apartments are being snapped up, and more jobs are up for grabs. When China released its new economic figures on Friday, they showed a remarkable postpandemic surge.

The question is whether small businesses and Chinese consumers can fully share in the good times.

China reported on Friday that its economy grew by a jaw-dropping 18.3 percent in the first three months of the year compared with the same period last year. While the figure is steep, it is as much a reflection of the past — the country’s output shrank 6.8 percent in the first quarter of 2020 from a year earlier — as it is an indication of how China is doing now.

A year ago, entire cities were shut down, planes were grounded and highways were blocked to control the spread of a relentless virus. Today, global demand for computer screens and video consoles that China makes is soaring as people work from home and as a pandemic recovery beckons. That demand has continued as Americans with stimulus checks look to spend money on patio furniture, electronics and other goods made in Chinese factories.

China’s recovery has also been powered by big infrastructure. Cranes dot city skylines. Construction projects for highways and railroads have provided short-term jobs. Property sales have also helped strengthen economic activity.

But exports and property investment can carry China’s growth only so far.

. . .

(p. B3) A slow vaccination rollout and fresh memories of lockdowns have left many consumers in the country skittish.  . . .  When virus outbreaks occur, the Chinese authorities are quick to put new lockdowns in place, hurting small businesses and their customers.

. . .

Families continue to save at a higher rate than they did before the pandemic, something that worries economists like Louis Kuijs, who is head of Asian economics at Oxford Economics. Mr. Kuijs is looking at household savings as an indication of whether Chinese consumers are ready to start splurging after months of being stuck at home.

“More people still seem to not go all the way in terms of carefree spending,” he said. “At times there are still some lingering Covid concerns, but there is perhaps also a concern about the general economic situation.”

. . .

Mr. [Jinqiu] Li, who is recently married and has a baby at home, is still choosing to save instead of spend. He had planned to work for the family business, but it has been hit by the pandemic and he doesn’t think there is much opportunity for him if he stays.

“The whole family has some sense of crisis,” Mr. Li said. “Because of the pandemic and because of family business, I have a sense of crisis.”

For the full story, see:

Alexandra Stevenson and Cao Li. “China’s Gain Is Hardly Felt by the People.” The New York Times (Friday, April 16, 2021): B1 & B3.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed first name, added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date April 15, 2021, and has the title “China’s Economy Is Booming. Shoppers Are Skittish Anyway.” The quote starting “More people” appeared in the print, but not in the online, version of the article.)

Productivity Pessimist Robert Gordon Becomes More Optimistic

(p. A2) After a decadelong drought, worker productivity might be about to accelerate thanks to pandemic-induced technological adoption, which could lift economic growth and wages in coming years while staving off inflation pressure.

. . .

Robert Gordon, a professor at Northwestern University who has studied productivity and living standards during the past century, said productivity growth slowed after 2005 because the payoff from computers faded and new inventions such as smartphones and tablets didn’t revolutionize business operations. In 2015 he had predicted productivity growth of only 1.5% a year over the next 25 years. Recent developments have made him more optimistic, and he expects annual productivity growth of about 1.8% this decade.

A shift toward e-commerce should push up productivity by eliminating workers needed in bricks-and-mortar stores, Mr. Gordon said. Videoconferencing should also help, though the public-transit sector could offset some of the gains because buses and rail transit will carry fewer riders, he said.

. . .

Remote work could deliver a one-time 4.7% lift to productivity after the pandemic, though a large share of the growth will stem from shortened commutes that government productivity data won’t fully capture, according to a working paper from Stanford University’s Nicholas Bloom and co-authors.

For the full commentary, see:

Sarah Chaney Cambon. “Productivity Looks Ready to Pick Up.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 5, 2021): A2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 4, 2021, and has the title “U.S.’s Long Drought in Worker Productivity Could Be Ending.”)

Gordon’s pessimistic old views were most fully expressed in his much-discussed:

Gordon, Robert J. The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.

The working paper co-authored by Bloom is:

Barrero, Jose Maria, Nicholas Bloom, and Steven J. Davis. “Why Working from Home Will Stick.” Working Paper, April 1, 2021.

Still Plenty of Fruit to Pick from the Tree of Science

Some pessimists have argued for imminent economic stagnation on the grounds that technological progress depends on new scientific knowledge and that we already pretty much know all there is to know about science. One way in which they are wrong is that the process of scientific discovery still has a long way to go before we fully understand the world. (If C.S. Peirce was right in saying that truth is the result of infinite inquiry, then we will never fully understand the world.)

(p. A1) Evidence is mounting that a tiny subatomic particle seems to be disobeying the known laws of physics, scientists announced on Wednesday, a finding that would open a vast and tantalizing hole in our understanding of the universe.

The result, physicists say, suggests that there are forms of matter and energy vital to the nature and evolution of the cosmos that are not yet known to science. The new work, they said, could eventually lead to breakthroughs more dramatic than the heralded discovery in 2012 of the Higgs boson, a particle that imbues other particles with mass.

“This is our Mars rover landing moment,” said Chris Polly, a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, in Batavia, Ill., who has been working toward this finding for most of his career.

The particle célèbre is the muon, which is akin to an electron but far heavier, and is an integral element of the cosmos. Dr. Polly and his colleagues — an international team of 200 physicists from seven countries — found that muons did not behave as predicted when shot through an intense magnetic field at Fermilab.

The aberrant behavior poses a firm challenge to the Standard Model, the suite of equations that enumerates the fundamental particles in the universe (17, at last count) and how they interact.

“This is strong evidence that the muon is sensitive to something that is not in our best theory,” said Renee Fatemi, a physicist at the University of Kentucky.

. . .

(p. A19) For decades, physicists have relied on and have been bound by the Standard Model, which successfully explains the results of high-energy particle experiments in places like CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. But the model leaves many deep questions about the universe unanswered.

Most physicists believe that a rich trove of new physics waits to be found, if only they could see deeper and further. The additional data from the Fermilab experiment could provide a major boost to scientists eager to build the next generation of expensive particle accelerators.

For the full story, see:

Dennis Overbye. “A Particle’s Tiny Wobble Could Upend the Known Laws of Physics.” The New York Times (Friday, April 16, 2021): A1 & A19.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was updated April 9, 2021, and has the title “A Tiny Particle’s Wobble Could Upend the Known Laws of Physics.”)

My point at the start of this entry is directly relevant to my argument in the first half of the last chapter of:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.