Research Findings That Don’t Surprise Me
| Peter Klein |
The Institutional Causes of China’s Great Famine, 1959-61
Xin Meng, Nancy Qian, Pierre Yared
NBER Working Paper No. 16361, September 2010
This paper investigates the institutional causes of China’s Great Famine. It presents two empirical findings: 1) in 1959, when the famine began, food production was almost three times more than population subsistence needs; and 2) regions with higher per capita food production that year suffered higher famine mortality rates, a surprising reversal of a typically negative correlation. A simple model based on historical institutional details shows that these patterns are consistent with the policy outcomes in a centrally planned economy in which the government is unable to easily collect and respond to new information in the presence of an aggregate shock to production.
It is said that when the Nobel Prize in economics was first established, prizes were given for using economics to teach people things they didn’t already know, e.g., that economic growth might increase inequality, that depressions are caused by central banks, that macroeconomic stabilization policy doesn’t work, etc. Now, prizes are given to economists who teach other economists things that regular people already know — politicians are self-interested, you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket, institutions matter, different people know different things, etc.