13 Facts You Didn't Know About Economics

19/06/2014 17:03 | Updated 19 August 2014

1. Economics was originally called 'political economy'

Economics is politics and it can never be a science. Yet the dominant neoclassical school of economics succeeded in changing the name of the discipline from the traditional 'political economy' to 'economics' at the turn of the 20th Century. The Neoclassical school wanted economics to become a pure science, shorn of political (and thus ethical) dimensions that involve subjective value judgments. This change was a political move in and of itself.

2. The Nobel Prize in Economics is not a real Nobel Prize

Unlike the original Nobel Prizes (Physics, Chemistry, Physiology, Medicine, Literature and Peace), established by the Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel at the end of the nineteenth century, the economics prize was established by the Swedish central bank (Sveriges Riksbank) in 1968 and is thus officially called the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. Members of the Nobel family are known to have criticized the Swedish central bank for giving prizes to free-market economists of whom their ancestor would have disapproved.

3. There is no single economic theory that can explain Singapore's economy

This is what I call the 'Singapore problem'. If you read the standard account of Singapore's economic success in places like the Economist or the Wall Street Journal, you will only hear about Singapore's free trade and welcoming attitude towards foreign investment. You will never hear about how almost all the land in Singapore is owned by the government, while 85% of housing is supplied by the government's housing corporation. 22% of GDP is produced by state-owned enterprises (including Singapore Airlines), when the world average in that respect is only about 9%.

To put it bluntly, there isn't one economic theory that can single-handedly explain Singapore's success; its economy combines extreme features of capitalism and socialism. All theories are partial; reality is complex.

4. Britain and the US invented protectionism, not free trade

Britain had the most protected economy in the capitalist world in the late 18th and the early 19th century. Much of this protection was provided in order to promote British manufacturers against superior foreign competitors in Europe, the Low Countries (what are Belgium and the Netherlands today) in particular.

The US went even further. Taking inspiration from British protectionist policy, Alexander Hamilton, the first Treasury Secretary of the US (that's the guy on the ten-dollar bill) developed a theory called the 'infant industry argument' - the view that the government of an economically backward nation should protect and nurture its young industries until they 'grow up' and can compete in the world market. Hamilton died in 1804 in a pistol duel, but the US adopted protectionism in the 1820s and remained the most protected economy in the world for most of the next century.

5. Free trade first spread mostly through un-free means

Free trade spread around the world throughout the 19th century. But its spread mostly owed to something that you would not normally associate with the word 'free' -force, or at least the threat of using it. Colonisation was the obvious route to 'unfree free trade', as the colonial masters forced the subjugated countries to open up their trade completely. But even many non-colonized countries were forced to adopt free trade. Through 'gunboat diplomacy', they were forced to sign unequal treaties that deprived them of, among other things, tariff autonomy (the right to set its own tariffs). The most infamous unequal treaty is the Nanking Treaty that China was forced to sign in 1842, following its defeat in the Opium War, but all the Latin American countries, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey's predecessor), Persia (Iran today), and Siam (today's Thailand), and even Japan were subject to such treaties .

6. It was arch-conservative Otto von Bismarck who introduced the first welfare state in the world

Contrary to what many people believe, the welfare state was originally a 'rightwing' invention. It was the arch-conservative Otton von Bismarck who first introduced it. Bismarck hated socialism, but he wasn't an ideologue. He basically figured out that if you don't provide a minimum safety net to workers, they will be persuaded by the socialists. So he kept workers happy by creating the first welfare state in the world. This suggests that, contrary to their own self-image, those who want to destroy the welfare state may be the biggest enemies of capitalism.

7. Capitalism did best between the 1950s and the 1970s, an era of high regulation and high taxes

Despite what we hear these days about the detrimental economic effects of high taxes and strong government regulation, the advanced capitalist economies grew the fastest between the 1950s and the 1970s, when there were a lot of regulations and high taxes.Between 1950 and 1973, per capita income in Western Europe grew at an astonishing rate of 4.1% per year. Japan grew even faster at 8.1%, starting off the chain of 'economic miracles' in East Asia in the next half a century. Even the US, the slowest-growing economy in the rich world at the time, grew at an unprecedented rate of 2.5%. Per capita income for these economies collectively have since then managed to grow at only 1.8% per year between 1980 and 2010, when they cut taxes for the rich and deregulated their economies.

8. The internet was invented by the US government, not Silicon Valley

Many people think that the US is ahead in the frontier technology sectors as a result of private sector entrepreneurship. It's not. The US federal government created all these sectors.

The Pentagon financed the development of the computer in the early days and the Internet came out of a Pentagon research project. The semiconductor - the foundation of the information economy - was initially developed with the funding of the US Navy. The US aircraft industry would not have become what it is today had the US Air Force not massively subsidized it indirectly by paying huge prices for its military aircraft, the profit of which was channeled into developing civilian aircraft.

9. Before tax and welfare spending, Germany and Belgium are more unequal than the US

Before tax and transfers, quite a few European countries, like Germany and Belgium, are more unequal than the United States. Only after tax and transfers do they become a lot more equal. These examples show that it is possible to fundamentally re-shape a country's inequality through progressive taxes and the welfare state. Despite what many people say, inequality is not a natural phenomenon, like an earthquake or a hurricane, beyond human control.

10. Finland, one of the most equal countries in the world, has grown faster than the US

Not only is there a lot of evidence showing that that higher inequality produces more negative economic and social outcomes, there are quite a few examples of more egalitarian societies growing much faster than comparable but more unequal societies. Despite being one of the most equal societies in the world, more equal than even the former Soviet bloc countries in the days of socialism, Finland has grown much faster than the US, one of the most unequal societies in the rich world.

11. The 'lazy' Greeks are the hardest working people in the rich world after South Koreans

In the ongoing Eurozone crisis, the Greeks have been vilified as lazy 'spongers' living off hard-working Northerners. But they have longer working hours than every country in the rich world apart from South Korea. The Greeks actually work 1.4 and 1.5 times longer than the supposedly workaholic Germans and Dutch. Italians also defy the myth of 'lazy Mediterranean types' by working as long as Americans and 1.25 times longer than their German neighbours. These numbers show that the problem of the Mediterranean countries in the Eurozone is one of productivity, not work ethic.

12. Switzerland and Singapore are not living off banking and tourism alone

Many people argue that we have entered a post-industrial world, in which 'making things' is not very important, as service industries have become the engine of economic growth. They cite Switzerland and Singapore as examples of service-based success stories. Haven't these two countries shown that you can become rich - very rich - through services, like finance, tourism, and trading?

Actually these two countries show the exact opposite. According to the UNIDO data, in 2002, Switzerland had the highest per capita manufacturing value added (MVA) in the world - 24% more than that of Japan. In 2010, Singapore ranked the first, producing 48% more MVA per capita than the US. Switzerland ranked the third.

13. Most poor people don't live in poor countries

Currently, around 1.4billion people - or about one in five people in the world - live with less than $1.25 per day, which is the international poverty line (below which survival itself becomes a challenge).

But most poor people do not live in poor countries. Over 70% of people in absolute poverty actually live in middle-income countries. As of the mid-2000's, over 170 million people in China (around 13% of its population) and 450 million people in India (around 42% of its population) lived with incomes below the international poverty line. These show the enormity of challenges that the two most populous countries face.

This post is based on Ha-Joon Chang's latest book, Economics: The User's Guide, which is available in stores now