Pthe progress of economic thought is made in three stages; first they laugh at you, then they fight you, then they ask you to write a quirky book explaining your ideas to a mass audience. Ha-Joon Chang has been working hard to provide an alternative to neoliberalism for two decades now, ever since his book Kicking Away the Ladder pointed out that low taxes, free trade and deregulation just aren’t the way most rich countries had developed. He has now reached the pinnacle of the profession; a fun little book of essays (some of them expanded and expanded versions of columns for FT Magazine), reaffirming the case against the Washington Consensus through recipes.
The recipes aren’t likely to worry Yotam Ottolenghi – one example is Monkfish in Curried Clam Broth, which simply says “Monkfish, served in Curried Clam Broth”. Instead, they act as starting points for the economy. Curried clam broth leads to consideration of the spice trade, then to the Dutch East India Company, then to limited liability companies in general, and to suggestions on how corporate governance reform might help sustain long-term investments in green technology.
This gives the book the smell of a collection of sermons. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; a good short sermon with some interesting thoughts and a sharp moral point is a vastly underrated form of entertainment for a Sunday morning. But some of them work much better than others: the spice-to-shareholder-value train of thought unfolds well enough, but elsewhere the narrative shifts from chicken to the welfare system with all the elegance of a Eurovision key change.
Chang says up front that that’s what he’s going to do – that it’s not a book on food economics per se, but a restatement of his basic arguments, with culinary anecdotes functioning as treats to keep the reader interested. And they are, on the whole, excellent anecdotes. Chang was born in Seoul in the 1960s and came to the UK for college in the 80s. So his life and career has encompassed not just the explosion of British food culture (he confirms, to an audience that might have forgotten how awful and bland things were), but also the development of South Korea from a poor country – an industrialized state to the global economic and cultural power it is today today.
This development obviously shaped Chang’s outlook – in chapters with titles such as Noodle and Banana, he sketches the story of his home country’s rise, emphasizing its protection of infant industries and its strict regulation of multinational corporations. Interestingly, it also seems to have shaped the Korean relationship with food. Because one thing that stands out in Edible Economics, which is more absent in Chang’s earlier books, is that development is hard. There is a tendency among left-wing economists to replicate neoliberal boosterism in reverse; to suggest that a different policy mix with more regulation and redistribution could act as a silver bullet as well.
As Chang points out, the fact is that places like Korea have grown through sustained investment. And “investment” here means “non-consumption”: long decades to go by. He explains that chocolate was a rare commodity on the black market in his youth. Protecting infant industries means not having access to every good under the sun and accepting that you are going to have to spend years driving terrible locally made cars for Hyundai and Kia to have time to climb the tech curve.
In a book containing such a variety of food recipes, it is somewhat ironic that this is suggested as more or less the only recipe for economic development – domestic demand austerity, industrial planning and protection, directed loans by the state and, above all, a focus on high value-added manufacturing. Chang is fairly quick to rule out alternative economic models – those based on commodity exports or services. Chang’s once unorthodox preferred growth model is now close to an “anti-Washington” consensus and, like all such consensuses, has weaknesses. More seriously, there’s little engagement with the idea that economic growth itself might be the problem, and that tackling climate change isn’t just a matter of finding the right incentives for investment. . But it’s a good book. As in a Church of England sermon, it is easy to laugh at the naive way in which the dots are sometimes introduced, – “In a very real sense, isn’t the carrot rather like a system of patents?” but it may also be precisely what keeps them in mind.