Compare for example an apparel factory filled with sewing machines to a steel mill. The steel mill may have to operate for several decades to pay for itself. In a rapidly growing developing economy economic output per worker will often double in a decade or less. The steel mill might need to run for thirty years to pay for itself and make a decent profit. By the end of the thirty years the country's per person output might have doubled three times and therefore be eight times as high. If the steel mill was appropriate for the economy at the beginning of the thirty years, it is not likely to be appropriate at the end of the thirty years. But if it was appropriate for the end of the thirty year period it would be too sophisticated for the workers to operate when it was first built.
Advanced industrial nations like the USA, Japan, Germany, France, and the UK typically grow two percent a year per person, or as economists say per capita. With compounding this means that output doubles roughly every thirty five years. At that rate, it takes about one hundred and five years to double three times. Now imagine a factory in 2015 being run with the equipment of 1910. The equipment would be obsolete and the output would be low. Or imagine workers in 1910 trying to use equipment built in 2015. They would probably just break it, or be unable to maintain it.
If a country is doubling its output every ten years, and China has done it even faster than that, it is growing at three and a half times the typical growth rate for very advanced countries. So in some sense trying to use equipment installed thirty years ago is similar to an advanced country using equipment that is 105 years old.
So the advantage of sewing underwear with sewing machines is clear. When wages rise enough that you need to look for lower wages, you can pack up the sewing machines and move to a new country, or simply junk the sewing machines. Both the moving and the junking is more difficult and expensive if you own a steel mill.
What the above analysis suggests is that while lack of savings, or unstable governments and the fear of expropriation may be part of the story, there is another reason rapidly developing economies avoid heavy investment and it can not be solved by a change in government policy, or an increase in Third World thrift. It is growth, rapid growth, that is the difficulty that discourages the heavy investment and makes light industry a key element in rapid growth.
A key point, at least in the past, is that there were a limited number of these low skilled, light industrial jobs. The people in the First World usually only wear one pair of underwear at a time. This limited the growth of the developing world. It also limited the growth of the countries that were strong in light industry, if they grew too fast they would begin to lose factories to other countries. Furthermore it also limited the growth of the countries that could not compete in light industry, and had to wait their turn.
As China moves up the food chain to more sophisticated industries we are seeing vast numbers of low skilled jobs raining down on the poorer countries. Hopefully, this will relieve the constraints that have held other developing countries back.
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Last updated April 2, 2018
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