Ha-Joon Chang is a formidable critic of orthodox, free-trade economics and a true exponent of the art of political economyby Michael Lind / September 22, 2010 / Leave a comment
23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang (Allen Lane, £20)
The washing machine changed the world more than the internet. That is one of a number of provocative assertions made by the economist Ha-Joon Chang in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism.
The washing machine and other household appliances have transformed the way that modern people live—not least by -liberating women from assigned roles in performing time-consuming household chores. Nor does the internet look that impressive compared to the telegraph, which reduced the time it took to transmit a message across the Atlantic or North America by a factor of 2,500, from two weeks in the early 1860s to a few minutes. In contrast: “The internet reduced the transmission time of a 300-word message from ten seconds on the fax machine to, say, two seconds, but this is only a reduction by a factor of five.”
This counterintuitive capsule argument is the exception to the rule in the book. Most of the “things” to which the chapters are devoted are better described as “themes” than “things.” “There is no such thing as a free market” (Thing one), “Equality of opportunity may not be fair” (Thing 20). In his latest book, Chang, an expert on economic development who teaches at Cambridge University, continues the polemic against what George Soros calls free-market fundamentalism that he waged in his earlier books Kicking Away the Ladder (2002), winner of the Gunnar Myrdal prize, and Bad Samaritans: Rich Nations, Poor Policies and the Threat to the Developing World (2007). The format chosen by Chang is suited to bite-size morsels of information like the washing machine-internet comparison, but it becomes -awkward when he tries to make complex arguments with references to other sections. Recognising this, he provides the reader with “7 Ways to Read 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism” in the preface: “Way 1. If you are not even sure what capitalism is, read: Things 1, 2, 5, 8, 13, 16, 19, 20 and 22.” This inadvertently -introduces an element of surrealism, as if The General Theory of John Maynard Keynes had been rewritten by Borges.
On the other hand, we live in an era of short attention spans, and readers on plane journeys could profit from dipping at random into this book. Chang has made many…