Lack of Property Rights in Land Keep Chinese Farmers Poor

(p. A6) XIAOXIHE, China — Every year, the message is the same: the government will fix China’s left-behind countryside through a raft of reforms. This year was no different, with measures meant to help farmers move to cities, educate their children, and invest in improving their land.

But every year, the gap between village and city remains stubbornly wide. Many blame this on the fact that farmers are not allowed to own land, a policy that goes back to one of the founding decisions of the Communist revolution.

In Xiaoxihe, a rolling eastern Chinese region of rice paddies and fishponds, farmers speak of land ownership as something so improbable that it defies imagination.

Dai Jialiang, a 69-year-old farmer, grows rice and vegetables on a small plot of land his family leases from the government. That means that Dai’s family has made a modest living off toiling the land but their gains are limited.

“Ownership is not possible in China,” Mr. Dai said. “Socialism doesn’t allow that.”

. . .

The party has long argued that one of traditional China’s main problems was that land was concentrated in the hands of landlords. After taking power in 1949 it introduced a violent campaign that killed up to two million farmers labeled “landlords.” State ownership of land became a nonnegotiable policy and farmers had to work in state-run collectives.

What farmers in this area came up with in the late 1970s was a plan to break the collectives back into the old family plots of land. Ownership stayed with the state but farmers were allowed to farm their plots as they saw fit as long as they paid a tax, usually in grain, to the government. Anything else they produced was theirs.

Suddenly motivated, farmers set records in grain production, while opening up orchards, vegetable plots and fishponds. Starvation, always a risk during the Communists’ first 30 years in power, disappeared.

National leaders endorsed this system but made sure that land stayed in the state’s hands. Farmers eventually got 30-year contracts over their land. When that ran out about a decade ago, they were extended another 30 years.

. . .

According to popular accounts of Chinese economic history, the nearby village of Xiaogang is where the household-contract system began in 1978. There, a large museum features dioramas showing how farmers almost starved to death under the Communists until they secretly subverted their policies — the unwitting implication being that only civil disobedience can effect change.

For the full story, see:

Ian Johnson. “Barred From Owning Land, Chinese Farmers Miss Spoils of Growth.” The New York Times (Friday, September 27, 2019): A6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was last updated on September 28 [sic], 2019, and has the title “Barred From Owning Land, Rural Chinese Miss Spoils of Country’s Success.”)

Spectrum Property Rights Allowed Wireless to Flourish

(p. A15) Economic activity is increasingly conducted wirelessly, under a regulatory regime developed nearly a century ago—one that favors well-heeled incumbents and does little to encourage efficient use of the spectrum. The difficulty that new entrants face in securing spectrum, along with a system that locks in existing technology, chills investment in next-generation infrastructure.

Given the exciting promise of today’s technology, how did we end up hamstrung by such a backward regulatory regime?

. . .

Mr. Hazlett cites as an example the 1930s-era drama surrounding FM radio. From the start, FM had much better sound fidelity than AM—and so threatened existing AM networks operated by NBC, CBS and AT&T’s wired long-distance telephone network. These companies used the Federal Communications Commission to hamper the development of FM and succeeded in having it moved to a different band after World War II. This rendered all existing FM equipment—purchased by consumers at no small expense—useless and limited stations’ transmission power such that their audiences became too small to sustain a competitive business. So distressing was the episode that the father of FM radio, Edwin Howard Armstrong, ended his own life in 1954. The sad saga was merely an early example of the FCC exhibiting the “capture theory” of regulation, according to which regulators and legislators enact rules nominally in the public interest but in fact designed to enrich specific interest groups.

. . .

Mr. Hazlett devotes a substantial portion of his book to arguments for reforms, the most promising of which rest on the Nobel Prize-winning work of British economist Ronald Coase. Coase showed that, absent transaction costs, well-defined assets will wind up in the hands of the entities that value them most. By assigning property rights to frequencies—thereby turning them into assets and enabling the pricing mechanism—immense value can be created from the more efficient employment of bandwidth. For years, the concept of treating bandwidth like property and distributing it through competitive auctions seemed like a pipe dream. In the 1970s, two FCC commissioners said that the odds that this approach would be adopted “were equal to ‘those on the Easter Bunny in the Preakness.’ ” Well, the Easter Bunny won, and in 1994 the FCC started auctioning wireless licenses.

. . .

. . . for consumers and the public, “The Political Spectrum” is a good reminder of how far we have come. Today few economists question the benefits of well-defined rights, flexible use and auctions. That we are debating how to implement these ideas, rather than whether to do so, is reason for cautious optimism about our wireless future.

For the full review, see:

Gregory L. Rosston. “BOOKSHELF; Unlocking the Airwaves; In regulating radio, the FCC enacted rules nominally in the public interest, but which actually enriched specific interest groups.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, July 17, 2017): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 16, 2017, and has the same title as the print version.)

The book under review is:

Hazlett, Thomas W. The Political Spectrum: The Tumultuous Liberation of Wireless Technology, from Herbert Hoover to the Smartphone. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017.

Huawei “Spent All Their Resources Stealing Technology”

(p. B1) On a summer evening in 2004, as the Supercomm tech conference in Chicago wound down, a middle-aged Chinese visitor began wending his way through the nearly abandoned booths, popping open million-dollar networking equipment to photograph the circuit boards inside, according to people who were there.

A security guard stopped him and confiscated memory sticks with the photos, a notebook with diagrams and data belonging to AT&T Corp. , and a list of six companies including Fujitsu Network Communications Inc. and Nortel Networks Corp.

The man identified himself to conference staff as Zhu Yibin, an engineer. The word on his lanyard read “Weihua”—an accidental scramble, he said, of his employer’s name: Huawei Technologies Co.

. . .

(p. B6) A review of 10 cases in U.S. federal courts, and dozens of interviews with U.S. officials, former employees, competitors, and collaborators suggest Huawei had a corporate culture that blurred the boundary between competitive achievement and ethically dubious methods of pursuing it. Continue reading “Huawei “Spent All Their Resources Stealing Technology””

“Seek Truth from Facts”

(p. A15)  . . . 2019 . . .  marks the anniversary of the result of a . . . defiant protest—one that will receive little attention in or out of China, even though it launched the economic reforms that kick-started the country’s rise.

Forty years ago this spring, corn farmers in Xiaogang village, in the central province of Anhui (where Pearl Buck set “The Good Earth”), reported a grain yield of 66 metric tons. This single harvest equaled the village’s total output between 1955 and 1970—but for once the figure was not exaggerated. In fact, villagers underreported their actual yield by a third, fearing officials would not believe their record haul.

What caused this massive spike in production? A new fertilizer or hybrid seed? Better equipment? A catchy, rhymed propaganda slogan? No; Xiaogang’s farmers were starving. After taking power in 1949, China’s Communist Party had effectively abolished private land ownership, grouping farms into “people’s communes” subservient to the state. By 1978 villages were crippled by quotas that seized most of what they grew for redistribution.

Continue reading ““Seek Truth from Facts””

Private Property Unleashed Innovation

(p. A17)  Enlightenment philosophers recognized that the crown, guild, church and village sometimes acted as rent-seekers stripping away the rewards for work, thrift and innovation, and in the process inhibiting productive effort and progress. The Enlightenment established the principle that labor and capital are private property and not communal assets subject to involuntary sharing, and thus unleashed the explosion of knowledge and production that drives human flourishing to this day.

Extraordinarily in America, the crown jewel and greatest beneficiary of the Enlightenment, political movements are afoot that seek to overturn the individual economic rights secured in the Enlightenment and return to a medieval world of subjects and subjugation.

For the full commentary, see:

(Note:  the online version of the commentary has the date 9.)

Chief Justice Marshall Held That Corporations Were Citizens

(p. C4) How did corporations come to possess some of the most fundamental rights of individuals? They never marched on Washington. Instead, they have fought to win their rights in the Supreme Court–and in the process have been unexpected innovators in constitutional law.
The first Supreme Court case on the rights of business corporations was decided in 1809–nearly a half-century before the first case on the rights of African-Americans. Far from an oppressed minority, the Bank of the United States, which brought the case, was among the richest and most powerful corporations in the new nation.
After opponents in Georgia imposed a tax on the Savannah branch, the bank claimed a constitutional right to challenge the tax in federal court. Article III of the Constitution, however, guaranteed the right to sue in federal court only to “citizens.” In one of the neglected landmarks of American law, the legendary chief justice John Marshall held that the Constitution must be read expansively to include corporations.

For the full essay, see:
Adam Winkler. “What Rights Should Corporations Have?; The business world’s ‘artificial persons’ have long fought to win the same constitutional protections as citizens.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, March 3, 2018): C4.
(Note: the online version of the essay has the date March 1, 2018.)

The essay is based on the author’s book:
Winkler, Adam. We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights. New York: Liveright Publishing Corp., 2018.

Jason Potts Offers Advance Praise for Openness to Creative Destruction

What explains innovative dynamism? Art Diamond has written a fantastic book exploring how strong property rights, not innovation systems, should be the basis of modern innovation policy. He has done a great job in setting out the case for a classical liberal approach to innovation and technology policy, and carefully counters many of the common arguments supporting interventionist policy models. The book is full of lucid and compelling case studies and will be popular among innovation scholars and policy-makers.

Jason Potts, Professor of Economics, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), Director of Blockchain Innovation Hub at RMIT. Author of The New Evolutionary Economics, and other works.

Potts’s advance praise is for:
Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming June 2019.