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Lunch With
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Lunch with Ha-Joon Chang at Sala Thong, Cambridge

20 August 2015

The celebrated economist is on a mission to help the masses understand economics. We spoke to the author of 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism over lunch at Sala Thong in Cambridge.

Ha-Joon Chang introduced himself with a shake of the hand, sits down, orders a pot of Chinese green tea with jasmine flowers, places a copy of his popular book Economics: A User’s Guide on the table, signs it and offers it to me with both hands. “A gift for you,” he says with a smile, before removing his wire-framed spectacles and wiping them with a faded burgundy cloth. He will repeat this process at regular intervals over the next 30 minutes, until the food, which is to be a surprise selection of dishes from the chef, arrives and he has something else to do with his hands.

It is a Monday afternoon, and we’re sitting at one of half a dozen or so mostly unoccupied tables in Sala Thong, a cosy Thai restaurant the economist says he visits “very often”, due to its close proximity to his office at the University of Cambridge, where he’s a reader in the Political Economy of Development. Chang, who has a full head of salt and pepper hair, displays a warm demeanour and certainly looks at home as he pours himself the first of many bowls of tea and relaxes into his seat.

Published in 2014, Economics: A User’s Guide was the book used to relaunch Penguin’s Pelican imprint, the famous and much-loved series of non-fiction titles originally introduced in 1936 to help people build an understanding of the world for the price of a packet of cigarettes. It is the distinguished South Korean economist’s fifteenth book, and it’s publication followed that of other popular and titles including 2010’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, 2008’s Bad Samaritans and 2002’s Kicking Away the Ladder.

Economics: A User’s Guide is the latest weapon the 51-year-old Cambridge academic has utilised in his war against economic ignorance and, if sales figures are taken as the measure of success, it is a battle he is currently winning. Ha-Joon estimates that collectively his books have sold 1.8 million copies, with the most popular, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism – which by mid-2016 will have been translated into 40 languages – accounting for around three quarters of a million of those sales.

Chang was born in Seoul in 1963, when the South Korean capital was still in the early, turbulent stages of its journey towards economic prosperity. His mother was a housewife who had taught English in a girl’s school before she married. Chang’s father worked in the Korean Ministry of Finance, and Chang says he lived quite a comfortable life.

“I never lived in poverty myself, but I was growing up in a very poor country. You could walk round the corner and see abject poverty with your own eyes,” he says. “But at the same time the economy was growing at 10 percent. The country was becoming prosperous. Even comparing when I was a primary school student to when I was in high school the country was unrecognisable. So it was quite an exciting time in many ways.”

It was in high school that Chang’s father, a trained lawyer who earned a PhD in economics studying part-time while working as a civil servant, suggested to the 15-year-old that economics might be an interesting field to go into. But, he says, his father didn’t push him and wasn’t really his main motivation.

“The huge change going on around me was the prime motivator,” he says. “On the one hand you had all this tremendous progress in terms of the standard of living, cities growing like bamboo shoots after the rain, as we say in Korea. You would visit a place and return six months later and there would be a new town. This transformation was really fascinating. On the other hand, even though the country’s economy was growing quickly, you still saw poverty, workers were striking and farmers were demonstrating. I wanted to understand what was really going on. In the end what drove me was my desire to understand the real world.”

The young Chang attended Seoul National University, where he studied for an undergraduate degree in economics. But he didn’t see any correlation between the picture of a country prospering thanks to free market economic policies painted by his professors and the turmoil of a society “drenched in conflict”.

“What made me look for different approaches [to understanding the economy] was that the economics I was taught at university in Korea was so abstract,” he says. “I started looking for ways to learn different types of economics that were more realistic, and at that time Cambridge struck me as the right place.”

When Chang arrived in Britain in 1986, having never before travelled outside of South Korea, he spoke only basic English, and the picture of England he had formed in his head was based on the novels of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie he loved to read. “The impression I had from reading detective novels was that all Brits lived in manor houses and got murdered, street urchins running around delivering messages for Sherlock Holmes,” he says with a chuckle that suggests he’s not being entirely serious. “It was a complete culture shock.”

But Chang recovered from the initial jolt and went on to earn first his Masters and then his PhD. For the latter, he worked with the distinguished Marxist economist Robert Rowthorn, developing a heterodox view of economics.

“Unfortunately, people have always wanted to believe that there’s one truth and that’s what you and everybody should believe,” he continues. “If other people don’t believe it, you either persuade them or persecute them.”

Our food starts to arrive. “Oh, wow,” exclaims Chang, as half a pineapple filled with fried rice and plump pink prawns, a plate of chicken coated in chilli paste and sprinkled with cashew nuts and a bowl of noodle soup topped with half a dozen slices of duck are placed on the table.

The waitress wedges three more dishes into what little space remains: three crispy, golden corn cakes; a row of light and crunchy prawn tempura; and a whole seabass swimming in a lemongrass, chilli and coriander broth. Chang asks for chopsticks and sweet chilli sauce, and we both tuck into our feast – much of which Chang, explaining that he hates to see food wasted, will later have bagged up to take home for his dinner – with gusto.

Chang has told previous interviewers that he doesn’t believe some of his fellow economists have much respect for his work. Something I find hard to believe for a man who appeared on Prospect magazine’s prestigious World Thinkers list in 2013 and has sold more than a million books.

“There are a sufficient number of my professional colleagues who take me seriously, but the majority don’t, because I don’t publish in the top journals, where you have to use a lot of mathematics and take the neoclassical approach [to economics],” he says.

This is one of Chang’s major bugbears: the refusal by his fellow economists and many politicians to even countenance the idea that the current economic paradigm might not be perfect – that it might be worth considering other ideas.

“It goes back to the reason I do economics: to contribute to the real world, to make human life better,” he says, a prawn poised in the grip of his expertly handled chopsticks. “Increasingly I’ve come to realise that unless you open up the subject to the general public, economics is in danger of becoming similar to Catholic ideology in the Middle Ages.”

“The intellectual fight I am facing is with simplification,” he says. “It’s always nice if you can simplify things. In the old days, the socialists used to say, ‘capitalism is evil’, ‘capitalists are bad people’, ‘abolish capitalism and everything will be fine’. How simple is that? Beautiful, eh? A solution to all problems in one blow, and of course it doesn’t work like that. It’s the same with free market economists, they say, ‘liberate the market forces and everything will be taken care of’. Once again the realities are quite messy, complex. It’s a great challenge, because how do you make things simple so that people understand without simplifying the underlying message? That is something I struggle with all the time.”

It’s certainly no easy task Chang has set himself, but through his popular books, regular lectures and a mass media profile buoyed by regular columns for respected titles such as The Guardian and the Financial Times, he has managed to make that connection with the general public. He says that he currently receives two or three e-mails a day from readers – some simply thanking him for placing an understanding of such a seemingly impenetrable subject within their grasp, others asking questions. “Ninety percent of the time I reply,” he says, explaining that the other 10 percent of emails contain questions so complex they would require another book to answer.

But Chang is not just the author of several popular books on economics, and despite his non-partisan nature, he has had an effect on economic policy. He has consulted major international organisations such as the World Bank, the UN and the Asian Development Bank, and his ideas have been taken on board by national governments in countries including Namibia and Ecuador.

“Those are the things that I live for,” he says. “Then I can see I am really making a difference to the real world. I live by the saying of the Italian Marxist political thinker Antonio Gramsci that we need to have ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’,” says Chang. “I fully accept the world is difficult to change and there will be a lot of resistance, maybe due to the interests of some powerful groups, maybe out of sheer reluctance of many people to try new things. You have to be fully aware of that, but if you don’t aim high, you will never change anything.”

We have been talking for almost 90 minutes and the food, which we have been attacking for almost an hour, has started to disappear at a slower rate. Things are winding down. So, after ordering an espresso for myself and some more hot water for Chang’s pot of tea, I ask him about his family. He married his wife, Hee-Jeong Kim in 1993, shortly after finishing his PhD, and they have two children: a daughter, Yuna, who is in the second year at the University of Oxford, where she is studying history; and a 15-year old son, Jin-Gyu. “They are typical children, whatever their dad does is embarrassing, boring,” he says.

Fortunately, the public disagrees with his children, so is he working on a follow-up to Economics: A User’s Guide?

“That book was something special,” he says. “I would never try to write anything like that again. I suffered so much. When I was in the final phase, one day I was sitting at the desk for 15 hours, and then the next day 14, and I realised I have never worked that hard in my whole life – not to do my PhD, not to get into university, no, never. I’m pleased that it came out quite well, but I don’t want to do it again.”

He hasn’t completely dismissed the idea of writing another one, though, as long as it’s not as mammoth a task as the last one, but he does worry about repeating himself. “Maybe I will write another book, maybe I won’t,” he concludes.

I suggest a detective novel in honour of his literary heroes: Conan Doyle and Christie. Perhaps with an economist as the main protagonist?

“Oh no, that would be really boring,” he scoffs. “Death by numbers. You kill someone by quoting an endless stream of statistics.”

Words: Gareth Rees / Images: Rebecca Rees

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