A new book methodically peels back the layers of China's statistical machine to provide new insights into the nation's burgeoning economy
For some, wading through Chinese economic data is like wrapping your head around the Talmud. The credibility of the data itself often invites skepticism from observers both inside and outside China. Yet there's little choice but to rely on the official numbers. And China's regular data dump in the middle of each month moves markets in a way that few countries can. If the market has little faith in Chinese statistics, then why all the focused attention? How does one make sense of Chinese data and its idiosyncrasies?
Many of the answers can be found in the eminently useful Understanding China's Economic Indicators, a new book from Tom Orlik, economic journalist/columnist for the Wall Street Journal. (According to his bio, Orlik has earned the unique distinction of having one of his essays on Chinese statistics be required reading by the National Bureau of Statistics staff.) This is not a "big argument" book on China, but one that methodically peels back the layers of the Chinese statistical machine to yield insights on what the data mean, how they're collected, and what the current shortcomings are. You want to know how the Chinese calculates GDP and fiscal revenue, that's chapter two. You want to know about the country's gold and foreign exchange reserves accumulation, flip to chapter five. Still don't quite understand the composition of China's consumer price index? Don't feel bad, no one really does, as you'll discover in chapter seven. This book is the story of a year with Chinese economic data.
I particularly liked the opening vignette that described a gaggle of Chinese and foreign journalists awaiting the announcement of the 2009 fourth quarter GDP. The anticipation was palpable, torturous seconds ticked by as each reporter is poised to pounce on the final revelation of the figure to phone back to their editors--the economic press in China is all cut-throat competition. And hallelujah, it's 10.7% year-over-year growth, which put the annual growth at 8.7%. Yes! China got the 8% it promised it would deliver at the beginning of the year. In Zhongnanahi, Wen Jiabao smiled and sipped some oolong tea (OK, I made up this last part). Sure, it is admittedly a tad bit nerdy, but in just the right way, especially if you're someone who's really into Chinese economic data (like moi).
So what of the credibility of Chinese data? Orlik takes a similar view to what I argued in response to Megan McArdle's dispatch last year that appeared more about highlighting Hayek than understanding how the Chinese stats system actually functioned. Orlik concludes:
The reality of China's economic data today is not the crude controlling hand of the Politburo dictating the GDP growth figure. It is an increasingly reliable and comprehensive set of economic indicators that remain compromised in some areas by the difficulty of measuring a rapidly changing economy, imperfect surveying methods, a recalcitrant sample set, and continued political sensitivity surrounding some numbers. The system is not perfect. Some data points are more reliable than others. But neither is it a farce. As shown by the mad scramble for the GDP data in the State Council Information Office and the bilions of dollars that are traded instantly on its release, the shortcomings in the data are no impediment to the market reaction.
China has certainly come a long way since the Great Leap Forward days, when complete fabrication of grain production volumes to serve political goals resulted in one of the worst man-made famines in modern history--a point that Orlik discusses at some length. Top policymakers and leaders now rely on numerous data to assess the economy and determine the best course for policy. The very realities of governing a large and dynamic economy requires much less tolerance for outright falsities. Of course, the statistics system still plays catch-up to an economy that is sprinting ahead of it, making the data far from perfect.
Some were surprised by one of the Wikileaks cables that caught Vice Premier Li Keqiang mocking his provincial-level GDP figures as unreliable. It shouldn't have been a surprise. Since the late 1990s, using electricity consumption as a proxy for economic activity has remained a fairly normal practice at both the central and local levels. Relying on "proxy indicators" for GDP growth is one way by which the central leaders counter what they know to be potential local-level doctoring--or "add water" (加水) in Chinese parlance--of their stats, leading to inflated GDP and other growth metrics. Orlik explains some of these proxies in detail.
One reason that electricity consumption has correlated relatively well with economic growth is because industry is by far the largest consumer of power, at perhaps 70 or 75%. As the last decade has been basically defined by China's hyper industrialization phase, capturing a large enough slice of industries--which are massive energy guzzlers--meant you had a rough, but imprecise, picture of the broader economy. The key question over the next decade is whether this correlation breaks down, as China aspires to restructure its economy toward a less industry-led growth model. That is indeed a major pillar of the 12th Five-Year Plan.
If China succeeds in the transition, I suspect Orlik will have to publish an updated edition of his guide to Chinese economic data.
Damien Ma is a fellow at the Paulson Institute, where he focuses on investment and policy programs, and on the Institute's research and think-tank activities. Previously, he was a lead China analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk research and advisory firm.
The First Lady took to the stage at the Democratic National Convention, and united a divided hall.
Most convention speeches are forgotten almost before they’re finished. But tonight in Philadelphia, Michelle Obama delivered a speech that will be replayed, quoted, and anthologized for years. It was as pure a piece of political oratory as this campaign has offered, and instantly entered the pantheon of great convention speeches.
Obama stepped out onto a stage in front of a divided party, including delegates who had booed almost every mention of the presumptive nominee. And she delivered a speech that united the hall, bringing it to its feet.
She did it, moreover, her own way—forming a striking contrast with the night’s other speakers. She did it without shouting at the crowd. Without overtly slamming Republicans. Without turning explicitly negative. Her speech was laden with sharp barbs, but she delivered them calmly, sometimes wryly, biting her lower lip, hitting her cadence. It was a masterful performance.
When something goes wrong, I start with blunder, confusion, and miscalculation as the likely explanations. Planned-out wrongdoing is harder to pull off, more likely to backfire, and thus less probable.
It is getting more difficult to dismiss the apparent Russian role in the DNC hack as blunder and confusion rather than plan.
“Real-world” authorities, from the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia to FBI sources to international security experts, say that the forensic evidence indicates the Russians. No independent authority strongly suggests otherwise. (Update the veteran reporters Shane Harris and Nancy Youssef cite evidence that the original hacker was “an agent of the Russian government.”)
The timing and precision of the leaks, on the day before the Democratic convention and on a topic intended to maximize divisions at that convention, is unlikely to be pure coincidence. If it were coincidence, why exactly now, with evidence drawn from hacks over previous months? Why mail only from the DNC, among all the organizations that have doubtless been hacked?
The foreign country most enthusiastic about Trump’s rise appears to be Russia, which would also be the foreign country most benefited by his policy changes, from his sowing doubts about NATO and the EU to his weakening of the RNC platform language about Ukraine.
The pressures of national academic standards have pushed character education out of the classroom.
A few months ago, I presented the following scenario to my junior English students: Your boyfriend or girlfriend has committed a felony, during which other people were badly harmed. Should you or should you not turn him or her into the police?
The class immediately erupted with commentary. It was obvious, they said, that loyalty was paramount—not a single student said they’d “snitch.” They were unequivocally unconcerned about who was harmed in this hypothetical scenario. This troubled me.
This discussion was part of an introduction to an essay assignment about whether Americans should pay more for ethically produced food. We continued discussing other dilemmas, and the kids were more engaged that they’d been in weeks, grappling with big questions about values, character, and right versus wrong as I attempted to expand their thinking about who and what is affected—and why it matters—by their caloric choices.
Psychologists have long debated how flexible someone’s “true” self is.
Almost everyone has something they want to change about their personality. In 2014, a study that traced people’s goals for personality change found that the vast majority of its subjects wanted to be more extraverted, agreeable, emotionally stable, and open to new experiences. A whopping 97 percent said they wished they were more conscientious.
These desires appeared to be rooted in dissatisfaction. People wanted to become more extraverted if they weren’t happy with their sex lives, hobbies, or friendships. They wanted to become more conscientious if they were displeased with their finances or schoolwork. The findings reflect the social psychologist Roy Baumeister’s notion of “crystallization of discontent”: Once people begin to recognize larger patterns of shortcomings in their lives, he contends, they may reshuffle their core values and priorities to justify improving things.
The Democratic chairwoman had few supporters—but clung to her post for years, abetted by the indifference of the White House.
PHILADELPHIA—As Debbie Wasserman Schultz made her unceremonious exit as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, what was most remarkable was what you didn’t hear: practically anybody coming to her defense.
The Florida congresswoman did not go quietly. She reportedly resisted stepping down, and blamed subordinates for the content of the leaked emails that were released Friday, which clearly showed the committee’s posture of neutrality in the Democratic primary to have been a hollow pretense, just as Bernie Sanders and his supporters long contended. She finally relinquished the convention gavel only after receiving three days of strong-arming, a ceremonial position in the Clinton campaign, and a raucous round of boos at a convention breakfast.
Stock-market crashes, terrorist attacks, and the dark side of “newsworthy” stories
Man bites dog. It is one of the oldest cliches in journalism, an acknowledgement of the idea that ordinary events are not newsworthy, whereas oddities, like a puppy-nibbling adult, deserve disproportionate coverage.
The rule is straightforward, but its implications are subtle. If journalists are encouraged to report extreme events, they guide both elite and public attitudes, leading many people, including experts, to feel like extreme events are more common than they actually are. By reporting on only the radically novel, the press can feed a popular illusion that the world is more terrible than it actually is.
Take finance, for example. Professional investors are fretting about the possibility of a massive stock-market crash, on par with 1987’s Black Monday. The statistical odds that such an event will occur within the next six months are about 1-in-60, according to historical data from 1929 to 1988. But when surveys between 1989 and 2015 asked investors to estimate the odds of such a crash in the coming months, the typical response was 1-in-10.
Donald Trump’s Republicans are becoming the party of blue-collar white voters, as college-educated white voters slip away.
The reshaping of the two parties’ coalitions under the blast-force pressure of Donald Trump’s iconoclastic candidacy may reach unprecedented heights in 2016, the first polls released after the GOP convention suggest.
National surveys released on Monday by CBS and CNN/ORC show the gap between the preferences of whites with and without a college education in the 2016 presidential race soaring to a level unmatched in any recent election. In both surveys, Donald Trump has opened a commanding lead over Hillary Clinton among whites without a college degree. But even after Trump’s own convention, the two surveys show him running no better than even, or slightly behind, among whites with at least a four-year degree.
For the party elders, day one of the convention was about scolding the left back together.
Against a restive backdrop, the party’s top lieutenants were forced into the role of prime time peacemakers, tasked with encouraging Democratic unity in a party that has only lately acquiesced to tenuous detente. They did so through a combination of alarmist truth telling—borne from the reality of a Trump-Clinton matchup that has lately gotten tighter—and cold-water scolding about party division—driven equally by frustration and exhaustion.
Physicists can’t agree on whether the flow of future to past is real or a mental construct.
Einstein once described his friend Michele Besso as “the best sounding board in Europe” for scientific ideas. They attended university together in Zurich; later they were colleagues at the patent office in Bern. When Besso died in the spring of 1955, Einstein—knowing that his own time was also running out—wrote a now-famous letter to Besso’s family. “Now he has departed this strange world a little ahead of me,” Einstein wrote of his friend’s passing. “That signifies nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Einstein’s statement was not merely an attempt at consolation. Many physicists argue that Einstein’s position is implied by the two pillars of modern physics: Einstein’s masterpiece, the general theory of relativity, and the Standard Model of particle physics. The laws that underlie these theories are time-symmetric—that is, the physics they describe is the same, regardless of whether the variable called “time” increases or decreases. Moreover, they say nothing at all about the point we call “now”—a special moment (or so it appears) for us, but seemingly undefined when we talk about the universe at large. The resulting timeless cosmos is sometimes called a “block universe”—a static block of space-time in which any flow of time, or passage through it, must presumably be a mental construct or other illusion.