Lessons from the East Asian Economic Miracle

Origins: How Did the Boom Start?

  1. Invest the trade surplus from food into light industry, i.e. textiles — this is a business where the main input is unskilled labor, so any poor country with a port and a smidgen of capital is, presto, the global low-cost leader.
  2. Invest the trade surplus from that into heavy industry (at first: steel and basic chemicals; eventually heavy machinery, cars, specialty chemicals, electronics).
  3. Relentlessly push your heavy industry to export; sell products that can compete globally, even if you’re taxing your population to subsidize your exporters.
  4. On that note: use aggressive financial repression; force people to save a high proportion of their marginal product (i.e. standards of living can rise, but should rise a lot less than GDP); direct that money into industries with economies of scale.
  5. Once you are the scale leader in a scale-driven industry, you can relax. But only a little! Now you have to worry about somebody else copying you. Japan’s world-beating steel industry got copied by South Korea, and their car industry faced competition there, too; Japan also lost their lead in electronics to China.

Case Study: Japan

  1. Japanese legislators could introduce their own bills, but these tended to get voted down. MITI could also suggest bills, which tended to get passed with near-unanimity. That Japanese Diet in the postwar period looked less like the US Congress than it did the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union. Once the legislators saw the bill, it was as good as law. In MITI and the Japanese Miracle, Chalmers Johnson argues that this was an efficient system because the legislators “reigned” (they were the public face of government, and enjoyed the electoral consequences of policy decisions) while bureaucrats ruled (i.e. they made the actual decisions).
  2. A study of the family trees of prominent Japanese people showed that high-level MITI employees tended to have more socially-prominent fathers-in-law than fathers. MITI, in other words, was where ambitious and upwardly-mobile young men wanted to work. Why bother getting rich when you can get powerful instead?
  3. There are no fewer than three novels about Shigeru Sahashi, a powerful MITI vice-minister. One of them got turned into a TV show. Imagine The West Wing, but the hero works at the Department of Commerce.
  1. Bureaucrats would pressure banks to make loans and pressure companies to add capacity.
  2. They’d subsidize companies based on export volume — in other words, a company didn’t have to be profitable, but it did have to compete.
  3. As companies scaled up, the subsidies dialed down. Sometimes this was due to international pressure (although they were adept at dodging that; when Japan finally stopped directly subsidizing exports, they started allowing exporters to depreciate equipment faster, which, for a profitable company, is economically equivalent to a direct subsidy).
  4. Once the industry reached viable scale, they’d rationalize capacity — merge competing firms, shut down inefficient plants — and move on to the next.

Case Study: South Korea

Would you buy millions and millions of new cars from this man?
  • Startups often sell to other startups at first. Salesforce did this in a big way; Y Combinator is a sort of Zaibatsu that gives startups instant access to a few hundred good customers.
  • Below-market salaries and big options packages make employees hard to poach, mimicking the effects that lifetime employment and government-sanctioned monopolies have on employee incentives.
  • Small group of people has no politics. Ten people working on a project is pretty apolitical. Fifty who come from the same extended social network and also share the same crazy mission will also be fairly apolitical.
  • There’s no immediate need to turn a profit, but intense need to show growth. A startup that gets valued at 30x sales in one round and 5x sales at IPO has a similar cadence of external cashflows to a steel company that starts out getting 50% of its revenues from export subsidies and matures with 95% of its revenues from real customers.

Inflation: When It’s Not So Bad

  1. Population growth driven by agricultural reform, which helped them escape the Malthusian trap and expanded family sizes (South Korea’s population grew by 2–3% per year throughout the 60s).
  2. A set of cultural norms that strongly encouraged young people to support their parents.

Corruption: Also Not So Bad

IP Piracy: Great Artists Steal

Financial Repression

Banks Over Bonds

Policy Implications for the US


  • I started with Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans, which is a great place to start if you’re a fan of free trade and love to argue. Chang’s book is mixed; there’s some good analysis, a little bit of “I got mine,” especially with respect to industrial espionage, and a couple dubious statistics.[10] But for an overview of the free trade skeptic’s case, it can’t be beat.
  • A less partisan but more persuasive work is Joe Studwell’s How Asia Works. This one’s a masterpiece: in-depth profiles of both successes (South Korea) and failures (Malaysia), full of great lessons. My case studies draw heavily from this book. One of my favorite details, from a chapter on how a corrupt democratic process stymied the Philippines: they once had an election in which Marcos spent so much money buying votes that it literally triggered a balance of payments crisis.
  • The Park Chung-Hee Era: I came away from this book with a lot more respect for Park, who was clearly one of the great statesmen of the twentieth century — a century that, considering the challenges it presented, was sadly lacking in greatness and statesmen.
  • MITI and the Japanese Miracle. Like no other book I’ve read. It’s like Carlyle, but instead of the Great Man theory of history it’s the Great Bureaucracy theory.
  • Alexander Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures. Sadly, there is not a hip-hop version available (“You say you fear a tariff/But the Brit is who you’ll scare if/You raise your nation’s output/and they learn too late what’s afoot.”)
  • Friedrich List’s The National System of Political Economy. An economist who set out to refute Adam Smith. Prussia implemented this, the Meiji government in Japan cribbed from it, and Park Chung-Hee cribbed from them. He couldn’t have known that the ultimate result of his work was Volkswagen and BMW losing market share to Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai.
  • Clashing Over Commerce is a wonderful history of trade policy. As is traditional in US history, there was a lively intellectual debate over the proper approach to trade policy, which had nothing whatsoever to do with how Congress ultimately behaved. In industrial policy terms, academia and the media manufactured soundbites, which were a low-margin, easily-copied product in which it’s hard to get a durable competitive advantage.




I write about technology (more logos than techne) and economics. Newsletter: https://diff.substack.com/

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Byrne Hobart

Byrne Hobart

I write about technology (more logos than techne) and economics. Newsletter: https://diff.substack.com/

More from Medium


The rise and fall of Tesla.

An attack on California solar benefits that affects us all

Parallels between the world today and the inflationist period of Weimar Germany