How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Regions


This book is about how fast or not economic transformation is achieved. It argues there are 3 interventions the government can take to influence this process: maximize output from agriculture with highly intensive household farming (pushing up yields and outputs to its highest level which primes demands for goods and services), direct investment and entrepreneurs towards export-oriented manufacturing as it makes use of the limited skills of labor by working with machines and technology (subsidies should incentivize spending in technology and manufacturing), and interventions in the financial sector to focus capital on intensive small scale agriculture and manufacturing development. The state’s role is to keep money targeted at a development strategy which gets the highest rate of technological learning, giving the highest rate of return, and helping the country grow as sustainably as possible, improving the lives and outcomes of everyone .

The Rabbit Hole is written by Blas Moros. To support, sign up for the newsletter, become a patron, and/or join The Latticework. Original Design by Thilo Konzok.

Key Takeaways

  1. Agricultural
    1. Agriculture is the place to start with up-and-coming countries because the vast majority of their people are tied to the land. Structuring incentives so that these people can prosper creates the foundation for further economic success 
    2. By approximately evenly dividing up the land amongst the peasants and incentivizing a maximization of output (rather than profit), yields go through the roof which helped pay and feed these families. It allowed everyone to compete on an approximately equal footing and everyone believed they had a chance st success - which they did. This "gardening" approach is the most appropriate way to think about and structure agricultural societies early on as it can make full use of all the available labor. Surprisingly, these smaller plots owned by the farmers had far greater yields than many plantations - busting the myth of efficiency in large scale agricultural operations
    3. The political elite tend to be out of touch with the agricultural peasants and therefore undervalue and under-appreciate their power and ability to help the economy 
    4. If you want industrialization, first fix agriculture
    5. Even a total outsider can tell the difference between a plot of land tended by an owner vs. a tenant
    6. A consistent application of these policies across different cultures and regions is a stark reminder that geography is not destiny 
    7. Farmers laid the foundation for industrialization and their household savings provided the base to build factories and later the market for the goods these factories made. Taiwan is the prime example in this case as many factories were built in rural areas and many farmers became industrial entrepreneurs. Indonesia and the Philippines are the negative examples - they nationalized land before the farmers could build up wealth and plantation inefficiency took hold. In addition, loopholes in policies so the rich could amass massive land holdings, put the poor at a disadvantage and worsened conditions
    8. Besides owning the small fields, the farmers need the extension, marketing, and credit to progress 
    9. As rural laborers begin moving into higher paying industrial and service jobs, farming needs to rebalance from productivity towards profitability - shifting towards more mechanized farms away from gardening plots. The countries will need to specialize at this point, moving away from farm protection and subsidies and to a niche they can compete in. This shifts money to this area and gives other poor countries the chance to follow the same playbook 
  2. Manufacturing 
    1. If there is one thing economic history can teach us is that there are no economic policies or laws which are sound forever 
    2. Manufacturing helps local people learn skills and to leverage the machines which they initially import, increasing productivity. Local entrepreneurs know the local market but they must compete with international firms in order to continue improving and to survive long-term without protection 
    3. Government must incentivize - through protection and subsidy - their rural entrepreneurs so they can get into large scale manufacturing rather than service industries at this phase. They must have export discipline - proving that their goods are competitive on a global stage and thus merit subsidies to grow.
    4. The government shouldn't pick winners as much as weed out losers. South Korea did this which is why they ended up with one or two massive companies in each sector without explicit state investment or control. Protectionism hurts in the short term but helps economies evolve and it’s people learn useful skills and in the long term is beneficial
    5. Growing economies typically start industrialization with textiles later moving on to steel, shipbuilding, food stuffs, petro-chemicals, and eventually cars other heavy industry
    6. While Taiwan what is the exemplar in land redistribution, South Korea took over as the exemplar of industrialization - setting up their entrepreneurs to have to compete with international markets and companies by providing enough subsidy and protection to let them grow, learn, and thrive
    7. It is interesting to look in hindsight that Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan accomplish their amazing feats with no, or at least very few, trained economists. They simply followed the model of early America and later Germany 
    8. Government must not ask entrepreneurs to innovate for moral reasons. Rather they must accept and incentivize their animal spirits so that they can innovate, industrialize, and develop the country as is needed for their own benefit and for the benefit of all
    9. More than ever, firms are able to flourish if they have the right state industrialization policies in place. Hyundai was able to flourish and become one of the world's most successful car manufacturers from an unpromising start and a family with no automotive experience thanks to the favorable Korean policies 
    10. The goal is technological learning which hopefully leads to internal, domestic innovation. While land reform and infant industry regulations are difficult, there are no better options. Technical and technological progress equates to economic progress and history has shown that these difficult but necessary steps must be taken 
    11. Big business is incredibly important. There are smaller countries with big firms which have gotten rich but never the other way around. However, government must continuously restrain their entrepreneurs or else you end up with oligarchs like in Russia or SE Asia
  3. Financial
    1. Bank deregulation and removal of capital controls too early hurt developing economies such as Thailand or Indonesia. The agricultural and industrial sectors must be ready before these financial policies are enacted. Several different monetary and fiscal policy approaches have led to success but they all had the right policies, pointing at the right targets 
    2. In the Philippines, private banks would lend to the rich entrepreneurs at favorable terms which of course help them but didn’t help the country develop at all. However, ultimately what led to the downfall of economic collapse of the Philippines was their lack of export discipline which would have provided them with export loop feedback so that they could continuously improve and better compete on a global stage - improving their technical know-how across the country
    3. Korea and the Philippines both borrowed extremely heavily and were in a lot of debt but Korea used that money to improve the technology and scale to a global level where the Philippines did not
    4. Malaysia pumped too much money into real estate and the stock market instead of directing it towards industry. They tried to skip a step in order to compete and out do Singapore but this eventually led to an economic collapse and stagnated technological progress 
    5. Capital allocation must be tied to industrial policy and export performance or else capital will be deployed in low return investments. Government must incentivize and cajole entrepreneurs towards manufacturing and international markets. The financier is not the economic savior some suggest but responds to the environment around him which the government helps create. Foreign funds must not be allowed in too early and deregulation can only happen once manufacturing is humming and technological progress is underway 
    6. Banking systems are so effective because they respond to central bank policy which is controlled by government policy. It is a simple and effective method, easier to to control than bond and stock markets
    7. There is no good understanding today of when a country should deregulate 
  4. China 
    1. China first tried the mass scale agriculture approach but soon realized it was ineffective so they transitioned to the gardening approach which greatly helped feed and put to work hundreds of millions. They also abandoned an approach where they would try to come up with everything internally and opened up trade to buy, borrow, and steal the best inventions and processes rather than trying to come up with everything internally
    2. Chinese government has always been paranoid of being at the mercy of necessary food stuff importers. They have taken away a lot of farmland dedicated to these grains in the past decade and may soon change the policy so they secure enough food to be continue to be independent 
    3. It is yet to be seen if China's close control of oligopolies can help the economy long term. So far they have been able to strike a balance between control and allowing the entrepreneurs and employees to profit 
    4. China has a heavy bias to public and state owned enterprises rather than private companies. 
    5. People worry about shadow banking systems which lend to wealthy citizens outside the direct view of the government in order to seek higher returns but this has existed in one form or another in every developing country. Whenever government policy favors agriculture and industry over finance, shadow finances will pop up
    6. China’s financial policies are not as loose as many think if taken into context of Japan and Korea in similar stages, the size of their economy and the make up of their assets, and the fact that little money is owed externally. They are making great technological progress with the money they’ve borrowed but the best days of industrial-led policy development have passed so they will need to be more efficient moving forward. It is China’s size and not necessarily their innovative policies which have shaken the world. It does not yet have any world renowned firms and, if it is to take the next step developmentally, must improve its institutional policies 
  5. Other
  1. One of the key lessons when analyzing failed states is that they are isolated, closed off, and do not trade or interact with external countries. It has shown to be very hard, if not impossible to thrive if you are not open and trade with other countries 
  2. There is a weaker than expected correlation between education and rise in GDP. Most education occurs on the job and within firms rather than in school settings making industrial focus extremely important. If there is no industry to serve as a vehicle for learning, formal education may go to waste 
  3. Demographics, political pluralism / democracy are very important but is not touched on at length in this book 
  4. Rule of law is not one of the pillars for economic development but it is for overall development 
  5. Broadly, there are two types of economics. The first is akin to an education for developing countries in which the people require the skills needed to compete with their global peers. It requires nurture, protection, and competition. The second is more focused on efficiency and is applicable for more developed countries which needs less state intervention, more deregulation, freer markets and a larger focus on profits. The question is not if there are two but when they meet and how to best transition between the two. Where certain economically developed countries have fallen flat is that they fail to continue to evolve and develop. No policy is good forever and things must change. In addition, economic development is only one leg of the stool. Freedom, rule of law, environmental health, and individual autonomy are equally important and are needed for any country to prosper
  6. There is no significant economy who has evolved successfully out of policies of free trade and deregulation from the get go. They require proactive interventions - namely in agriculture and industry that foster early accumulation of capital and skill 

What I got out of it

  1. For developing countries, the best way to prosper is to first redistribute land so the people can use gardening style agriculture to feed themselves and save some money, then government's must create subsidies and protective policies so that internal industry can grow and flourish with the goal of increasing skill and technological know-how so that future innovation can happen, then finance comes into the picture and must be used to further direct these two areas effectively and sustainably

In the Latticework, we've distilled, curated, and interconnected the 750+book summaries from The Rabbit Hole. If you're looking to make the ideas from these books actionable in your day-to-day life and join a global tribe of lifelong learners, you'll love The Latticework. Join us today.