2015 Fall Li Paper

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Please hand in a hard copy in class on Monday, October 12, 2015.


This paper asks you to pull together material from our readings and class discussions to date, with Li’s Village China as your primary source, supplemented by the “Living” video and class discussion. For reference, here is the Contracts Memo from class.


Standard Interpretation

The standard view of agriculture in the 1960-1990 era stresses the role of incentives. To put it bluntly, the claim is that agriculture under Mao was an unmitigated disaster, with China implicitly constantly on the brink of a food crisis. In contrast, “land to the tiller” reforms in the early 1980s were an unrivaled success, a powerful story of the triumph of markets over socialism. In this black-and-white depiction, incentives under collectivization were poor, institutions unworkable, planning a failure, and production teams a disaster. Again, implicitly food was scarce, and Chinese ate at best poorly.

Your Argument

Play “devil’s advocate” and argue that (at least since the Great Leap Forward) agriculture slowly improved, and that improvements were accelerating at the time that collectivization ended. Do not go to the opposite extreme of arguing that incentives were irrelevant; instead, argue that other factors were primary. Remember, if incentives were “it”, then we should have seen (i) strong growth before Mao came to power, (ii) no growth under collectives, that is, until a year or two after the implementation Household Responsibility System (HRS), (iii) then a big spurt, and (iv) then no growth – after all, the shift to the HRS was a one-time event!

Is that in fact what happened? To approach this issue analytically, you first need to marshal data from the Li book! What was the time path of improvements in livelihood? in agricultural output? Second, what mattered in addition to incentives? — examples might include non-labor inputs, prices, comparative advantage, technology, and other elements that might affect total agricultural output. Remember that this is a paper, so you need a single clear theme. That is, while you may choose to provide an overview of the landscape in your introduction, for the remainder of your paper you need to focus on one factor. The introduction then is where you put your choice in context.


The paper (as per the syllabus) is to be cleanly presented (double-spaced, 1″ margins, 11-12pt font, a blank line to separate paragraphs, a properly formatted bibliography) and handed in as a hard copy with a backup to your drop-box in Sakai.

Get someone else to edit your penultimate copy (including, but not limited to, proofreading). The CommCenter is another (indeed, near-ideal!) alternative. If you can get them to critique your argument, great! To that end, someone in the class is ideal as they will be better able to offer substantive comments on your argument and examples. Do acknowledge their contribution!

An economics paper is not an exercise in creative writing, nor should it employ the wooden, formulaic prose of a physics paper. Make sure that you (i) do not use passive voice and (ii) avoid informality (contractions) and excessive formality (the royal “we” suggests it is not your own work, and hence is in violation of the Honor Code). Make sure that (iii) paragraphs really are – anything beyond a half-page is suspect – that (iv) sentences are not run-ons (anything that continues beyond 3 lines lines almost surely is), and that (v) you don’t rely on spell-check, which for example fails to distinguish “lead” from “led”. In general, poor prose hurts your grade, plus it often reflect the lack of a clear argument: it’s hard to write crisp sentences and proper paragraphs when you’re not sure what you want to say.

The paper ought to be filled with concrete examples, evidenced by quotes, numbers and references to Huang et al and especially Village China. Use inline citations and end-of-paper bibliography, not footnotes and not endnotes. Add the (first) last name with the first citation, and thereafter only the page number, until you switch sources. For example:

…from Sancha to the hospital … (Hessler 159) … after his fever broke (175), … new rice cultivars of the Green Revolution in Qin Village … (Li 235) … contracts (Huang 470).

If you draw on a class handout or lecture notes, insert that in the bibliography as well, with the handout title or lecture title and date or blog page. See my lists of readings on WordPress for one format for your bibliography; the links to “Citation Styles…” on the Leyburn home page contain others.


Your paper should have a clear theme, a question that you will answer (or otherwise argue), outlined in an introduction. That typically requires one paragraph, sometimes two, but never three. Then make your case, which will likely require at least three but seldom much more than five pages. At the end state your conclusion, again the better part of a page. It should not reiterate your introduction – that may (sometimes) be acceptable for a book, but never for a short paper. A good length will thus be about 5 pages, plus your name, proofreader acknowledgment, pledge and the bibliography and any tables or graphs you might append. (While tables are not necessary, economists do like to see numbers.)

In sum, it’s hard to write a short paper if your theme is vague or unduly broad; it’s counterproductive to write a long paper if you have a crisp, clear topic.