Paper #2 (Li)

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Please hand in a hard copy in class on Friday, February 12, 2016.
Mock Con ==> Due Monday, Feb 15, 2016.


This paper asks you to pull together material from our readings and class discussions, using Li’s Village China as your primary source. For reference, here is an overview of our models: Contracts Memo.

Key Chapters:

I suggest that you skip Chapters 5 and 6. Chapters 3 and 7 are likely less important. So: Chapters 1, 2 and 4 and Chapters 8 through the Conclusion. Before you read anything in detail note the chapter titles, in Part Three for example they are team strategies, life cycles, and agricultural growth. Likewise skim all the subheadings and look at the tables and maps. Once you develop a theme, use the book’s index, too!


Popular Interpretation

The common view of agriculture under Mao – the 1955-1980 era – stresses the insidious role of incentives. To put it bluntly, the popular claim is that agriculture under Mao Zedong 毛泽东 was an unmitigated disaster, with China constantly on the brink of a food crisis. Then came the “land to the tiller” reforms in the early 1980s, under Deng Xiaoping 邓小平. These were an unrivaled success, and represent 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. Peasants were fated to endless poverty.

Your Argument

Is the world really that simple? Play “devil’s advocate”! Argue that (at least since the Great Leap Forward 大跃进) agriculture slowly improved, and that improvements were accelerating at the time that collectivization ended. Do not focus on incentives; that invites building a straw man argument that either incentives don’t matter, or they’re all that matter. Neither is supportable. Instead, argue that factors other than incentives were primary.

Think! 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 determines output in (rice) agriculture in addition to incentives? The Li book is replete with examples of the impact of non-labor inputs, prices, comparative advantage, technology, and other elements that affect output.

Think production functions. If we want to go beyond our simple Q=f(K,L) – which we very much want to do – then in the case of rice agriculture what would you put inside? Yes, you still need labor, but “K” is not particularly helpful. What specifically is used in growing rice that is the product of investment? More important, we know that you need more than two inputs. What else do you need to get a good crop of rice? If your family has a vegetable garden, what is required (or at least commonly used) beyond a backyard and “the sweat of your brow”? What do you shop for in the gardening section at Lowe’s or Home Depot? Anyway, the basic construct of a production function can help you focus on a theme that is narrow enough for a good paper.

Remember that this is a paper, so you need a single, clear theme. You may choose to provide an overview in your introduction, and indicate other factors or arguments that you choose not to discuss. If the first sentence of your paper doesn’t state your theme, then the last sentence of your introduction should do so. Then for the remainder of your paper you need to focus on your one factor. To reiterate: the introduction is where you put your choice in context.

Your conclusion should extend your discussion. You may have chosen to focus on something where you knew how to make a clear case, had numbers from the book, and so on, but which you believe was less important that some other factor. You may want to point to what happened in the decades after the key 1960-1990 era. The one thing you should not do is summarize the content of the paper or repeat what you said in the introduction. That’s bad form in a short paper, an insult to the attention span of the reader.


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. Keep an electronic copy as backup.

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! 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. Poor prose often reflects 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. If you find your prose turgid, check that you are on topic!

The paper ought to be filled with concrete examples, evidenced by quotes, numbers and references to Village China. Use inline citations and an end-of-paper bibliography, not footnotes and not endnotes. [So your citation should be something like (Li, 14) with the last name and page number, 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) … can now contract many inputs (Guo et al. Table 4)

Guo, Hongdong, Chen Ji, Songqing Jin, and Zuhui Huang. “Outsourcing Agricultural Production: Evidence from Rice Farmers in Zhejiang Province.” 2015 Agricultural and Applied Economics Association & World Agricultural Economics Association Joint Annual Meeting, July 26-28, San Francisco, California. Draft of June 2015.
Hessler, Peter. Country Driving. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.
Huang, Jikun, Keijiro Otsuka, and Scott Rozelle. “Agriculture in China’s Development: Past Disappointments, Recent Successes, and Future Challenges.” In China’s Great Economic Transformation, edited by Loren Brandt and Thomas G. Rawski, 467–505. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Li, Huaiyin. Village China under Socialism and Reform: A Micro History, 1948-2008. Stanford University Press, 2009.

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 seldom three and never four. 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.)

Let me repeat a final time: it’s hard to write a short paper if your theme is vague or unduly broad; it’s unnecessary to write a long paper if you have a crisp, clear topic.