Edible Economics by Ha-Joon Chang review – a different set of recipes – The Guardian

by | Oct 19, 2022 | Financial

Edible Economics by Ha-Joon Chang review – a different set of recipesThe Korean economist takes aim at the neoliberal order of low taxes and deregulation through the unlikely medium of food ‘In chapters with titles such as Noodle and Banana, Ha-Joon Chang sketches out the story of his home country’s rise.’ Photograph: AsiaDreamPhoto/Alamy‘In chapters with titles such as Noodle and Banana, Ha-Joon Chang sketches out the story of his home country’s rise.’ Photograph: AsiaDreamPhoto/AlamyProgress in economic thought comes 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 at providing 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 simply wasn’t the way that most rich countries had developed. Now he’s reached the summit of the profession; a fun little book of essays (some of them extended and expanded versions of columns for FT Magazine), restating the case against the Washington consensus through the medium of recipes.The recipes are not likely to give Yotam Ottolenghi much cause for concern – an example is the one for monkfish in curried clam broth, which just says “monkfish, served in a curried clam broth”. Instead, they act as jumping-off points for the economics. Curried clam broth leads into consideration of the spice trade, and then to the Dutch East India Company, and then to limited liability companies in general, and to suggestions about how the reform of corporate governance might make it possible to sustain long-term investments in green technology.This gives the book the whiff of a collection of sermons. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that; a good short sermon with a few interesting thoughts and a sharp moral point is a greatly underestimated form of entertainment for a Sunday morning. But some of them work much better than others: the train of thought from spices to shareholder value runs along quite smoothly, but elsewhere the narrative shifts from chicken to the welfare system with all the elegance of a Eurovision key-change.Chang does say upfront that this is what he’s going to do – that this isn’t a book about the economics of food per se, but a restatement of his core arguments, with culinary anecdotes functioning as treats to keep the reader interested. And they are, by and large, excellent anecdotes. Chang was born in Seoul in the 1960s and came to the UK to go to university in the 80s. So his life and career have encompassed not only the explosion of British food culture (he confirms, to an audience that might have forgotten, just how ghastly and bland things used to be), but also the development of South Korea, from a poor semi-industrialised state to the global economic and cultural powerhouse it is today.That development obviously shaped Chang’s outlook – in chapters with titles such as Noodle and Banana, he sketches out the story of his home country’s rise, with an emphasis on its protection of infant industries and close regulation of multinational corporations. Interestingly, it also appears to have shaped the Korean relationship with food. Because one thing that comes through in Edible Economics, which is more absent in his Chang’s previous books, is that development is difficult. There’s a tendency among leftwing economists to reproduce the boosterism of the neoliberals in the opposite direction; to suggest that a different policy mix with more regulation and redistribution could act as just as much of a silver bullet.As Chang points out, the fact of the matter is that places such as Korea developed because of sustained investment. And “investment” here means “non-consumption”: long decades of doing without. He explains that chocolate was a rare, black-market commodity in his youth. Protecting infant industries means not having access to every good under the sun, and accepting that you’re going to have to spend years driving terrible locally made cars so that Hyundai and Kia have time to climb the technology curve.In a book containing such a variety of food recipes, it’s a bit ironic that this is suggested as more or less the only recipe for economic development – domestic demand austerity, industrial planning and protection, state-directed lending and, above all, a focus on high-value manufacturing. Chang dismisses alternative economic models – those based on commodity exports, or on services – rather quickly.Chang’s preferred growth model, once unorthodox, is close to being an “anti-Washington” consensus these days, and like all such consensuses, has weaknesses. Most seriously, there’s little engagement with the idea that economic growth itself might be the problem, and that curbing climate change isn’t just a matter of finding the right investment incentives. But this is a good book. As with a Church of England sermon, it’s easy to chuckle at the artless way in which the points are sometimes brought in, – “In a very real sense, isn’t the carrot rather like a patent system?” but that might also be precisely what makes them stick in the mind. Edible Economics: A Hungry Economist Explains the World by Ha-Joon Chang is published by Penguin (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.TopicsEconomicsSouth KoreaBusiness and finance booksFood and drink booksreviewsReuse this content …

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