How the Market Is Betraying Advanced Economies


April 16,2016

How the Market Is Betraying Advanced Economies

coyle6_Michel StoupakNurPhoto via Getty Images_yellow vests

As lifestyles in the world’s developing economies improve drastically, many in the advanced economies are seeing their well being deteriorate – a trend that automation will only exacerbate. Without fundamental change in the framework of public policymaking, it is difficult to imagine a prosperous future in these societies.

 

CAMBRIDGE – Despite ever-improving conditions for millions of people around the world – documented by entities like the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data and highlighted by scholars like Steven Pinker – popular discontent is on the rise in many places. The reason is simple: whereas the first trend is being driven by low- and middle-income countries, the second is concentrated in high-income countries.

Apr 9, 2019 Joseph E. Stiglitz thinks it’s his attacks on the truth-seeking institutions that underpin economic prosperity.

Throughout the developed world, conditions for many workers are deteriorating, with no recovery in sight. Income inequality is near historic highs, wealth inequality is even higher, and economic insecurity is widespread.As the United Kingdom tears itself apart politically and constitutionally over Brexit, many of its citizens struggle with low-quality jobs, inadequate housing, and poverty so severe that they rely on food banks. France’s Yellow Vest protests have been hijacked by violent extremists, but they reflect real grievances about the growing challenge of maintaining living standards. In the United States, the Economic Report of the President touts the supposed elimination of poverty, but life expectancy does not decline in a prosperous country.In short, the post-World War II social contract in many of today’s developed economies is breaking down. And even more uncertainty and insecurity are on the way, as new technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics take root.Though the pace and scope of the next wave of automation is impossible to predict with precision, the impact will be profound. Like other digital technologies, AI and robotics will boost the value of some skills while reducing the value of others. And, by , extensive algorithmic decision-making risks amplifying existing inequalities further.It is impossible to uninvent technology. But we should not fall into the trap of technological determinism. The forces that drive structural economic change are always refracted through policy decisions, which can help ensure that technological innovations contribute to a more prosperous future.

Given the depth of the transformation ahead, however, it is not just the policies themselves that must change, but the very framework on which they are based. This means abandoning the idea – which has shaped public policy for more than a generation – that the “market” must be the organizing principle for collective decision-making.

The market, in this sense, is an abstraction – one that has little to do with actual markets, which are social institutions as varied and multitudinous as Leo Tolstoy’s unhappy families. It embodies the assumption that, overall, we secure the best economic outcomes if producers compete to respond to the desires of individual consumers (in line with their purchasing power). And its performance is measured according to the number of contemporaneous exchanges taking place.This is to be the best metric. For one thing, it does not account for the depreciation of assets, from houses in California destroyed by wildfires to insect species at risk of extinction. It also fails to account for the fact that a growing proportion of exchanges in the digital economy involve “public goods,” consumption of which is non-rivalrous (the good can be shared by any number of people without being depleted).But there is an even more fundamental problem with assessing an economy’s welfare according to the satisfaction of individual choices. As the late William Baumol pointed out, if you assume that economic agents are independent, you will conclude that independent choices maximize their well being. This is circular reasoning.In fact, economic agents are not as independent as the conventional wisdom would have us believe. People’s consumption preferences are not discovered through introspection and then upheld permanently; they are shaped socially and change over time. In the age of social media “influencers,” this may be truer than ever, with turbocharged network effects amplifying the impact of one individual’s choices on others.Likewise, in production, there is far-reaching potential for economies of scope and scale – potential that grows even larger in high-tech domains. This means that one firm’s production decisions affect production by others in the same market.The conceptual underpinnings of policymaking need to be updated to reflect this economic reality. For starters, governments need to recognize that their decisions shape the structure of production, and develop strategies to support particular strengths in production (through innovation policies or procurement frameworks) or to address weaknesses (in areas such as skills). Economists like Dani Rodrik and have led the way in proposing ways to think about modern industrial strategy.Governments must also improve the opportunities available to those left behind in today’s fast-changing economy. This means ensuring that all citizens have access to quality public education, public transportation and broadband infrastructure, adequate health care, and decent housing. Such basic services are more important than income subsidies, because they are public goods, which the market – where decisions are made by aggregating individual demand – will not provide.The organization of millions of interdependent individuals in a technologically complex society will always be difficult to manage. With productivity flat-lining and public anger growing, it is clear that existing policies are not up to the challenge. Without a new approach, it is difficult to imagine a prosperous future for Western societies.

 

  • WmC Mantis  

    Is Diane Coyle trying to tell us that economic policymakers should be doing more to ensure a continually rising mean household quality of life? If so, she could have done it in fewer words.

 

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Who understands our times, Bernie or The Donald?


April 13, 2019

Who understands our times, Bernie or The Donald?

by Fareed Zakaria.com

https://fareedzakaria.com/columns/2019/4/11/who-understands-our-times-bernie-or-the-donald

There are many explanations for Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory in this week’s election that have to do with Israel’s particular situation — its economic boom, stable security climate and the prime minister’s political talent. But he is also part of a much larger phenomenon: the continued strength of populist nationalism around the world — and the continued inability of left-of-center parties to respond to it.

Image result for BERNIE AND TRUMP

 

The case for populist nationalism goes something like this. It’s a nasty world out there. People are trying to take our jobs, undermine our security, move into our country. The cosmopolitan urban elites don’t care; they benefit from these forces. So we need a tough guy who will stand up for the nation and against the liberals in our midst.

In some variant or another, this is the argument made by Netanyahu, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi, Viktor Orban, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Jair Bolsonaro, the Brexiteers — and, of course, President Trump.

In 1972, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote that nationalism “expresses the inflamed desire of the insufficiently regarded to count for something among the cultures of the world.” He placed the roots of modern nationalism in Germany, a country obsessed with finding its place in the sun. But the sentiment — a kind of victim mentality — can be found in almost all modern variations, even among rich and powerful nations.

Look at Putin’s claim that Russia has been pushed around by the West since the Cold War, the Chinese obsession with their humiliation since the opium wars, the Israeli right’s complaint that the world is biased against Israel and Trump’s constant refrain that all foreigners — from Mexicans to Chinese to Europeans — take advantage of the United States. These leaders promise to rectify the situation and restore their countries’ proper standing in the world.

Trump’s embrace of the word “nationalism” illustrates the simultaneous attacks on domestic elites (with their politically correct language) and on perfidious foreigners. “We’re not supposed to use that word,” Trump said in October. “You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, okay? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist. Nothing wrong. Use that word. Use that word.”

When asked the next day what he meant by the term, Trump responded, “I love our country. And our country has taken second fiddle. . . . We’re giving all of our wealth, all of our money, to other countries. And then they don’t treat us properly.”

Netanyahu, for his part, has long argued that Israel deserves a much better “place among the nations,” a phrase that was the title of his 1993 book that argued for a robust Israeli nationalism that is aggressive and unapologetic. Though Israel’s strength and security have grown immeasurably, as its historical enemies — Saudi Arabia and Syria, among others — have either become buddies or basket cases, the argument that the world is against it has somehow persisted.

In fact, despite the pose of victim hood adopted by most of these populists, nationalism is probably the most widely held ideology in the world today. Which American politician today does not speak up for the United States? The real debate is whether nationalism should be informed and influenced by other values such as liberty and equality and, if these two sets of values conflict, which one should be preferred. That’s why the most ardent capitalists — from Friedrich Hayek to Milton Friedman — have always been in favor of globalization and economic freedom above nationalist protections and controls.

The danger for liberals is that they underestimate the power of these raw, emotional appeals. For centuries, liberals have assumed that nationalism was a kind of irrational attachment that would grow weaker as people became more rational, connected and worldly. In fact, Berlin wrote, like a twig that is bent in one direction and has to snap back, as globalization grew in its reach, nationalism would be the predictable backlash.

Populist nationalists understand the core appeal of their ideology. I recently asked a Bolsonaro supporter whether the Brazilian president’s economic policies (which are free-market-oriented and reformist) or his cultural nationalism was the key to his appeal. The supporter’s answer: Nationalism is the party’s core; the economics is simply about efficiency and growth.

Meanwhile, liberals in the United States still don’t seem to get it. The Democratic Party continues to think the solution to its woes is to keep moving leftward economically. This week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) revealed his new Medicare-for-all plan, which was immediately co-sponsored by four other presidential candidates. The plan will probably require an additional $2 trillion to $3 trillion in annual tax revenue.At the same time, Trump tweets about the Democrats’ love of “open borders” and insists he will protect the country and enforce its laws. What if Trump understands the mood of our times better than Sanders?

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

 

Liberalisation and empowerment the path to Malaysian prosperity


March 25, 2010

Liberalisation and empowerment the path to Malaysian prosperity

Author: Editorial Board, ANU

https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2019/03/25/liberalisation-and-empowerment-the-path-to-malaysian-prosperity/

It’s nearly a year since the Malaysian people overwhelmingly cast aside the domineering, divisive and corruption-riddled government of Najib Razak for an alternative led by Mohamad Mahathir that promised renewed focus on the people’s interests. The new Pakatan Harapan government undertook to restore good governance, raise the bar for ministers and civil servants, recover embezzled funds and deliver them back to Malaysians as cost of living relief.

A view of a building site beneath the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 18 February 2016 (Photo: Reuters/Olivia Harris).

Translating rhetoric into action has thus far proven an uphill battle for an inexperienced government accustomed to life in opposition. It’s struggling to turn the vision into concrete reforms, as it tries to navigate a hostile upper house and entrenched vested interests. Progress has been confined to a handful of easy wins and the multiplication of committees to continue decades-old debates about well-understood policy failings. Malaysians are becoming restless for the government to deliver on the promise of a ‘New Malaysia’ that secures livings standards regardless of ethnicity.

Efforts to deconcentrate centralised power structures and break up state monopolies are central to reinvigorating the economy. This will enable more effective governance and help tackle endemic corruption. Malaysia’s Federal Government commands over 88 per cent of total government revenue and expenditure (the share is closer to 50 per cent in federations like Australia and the United States), leaving almost 170 states and local authorities with limited resources to address local needs. Imperious policymaking from the administrative capital of Putrajaya coupled with non-elected local governments bedevil the effective delivery of local services including law enforcement, education and healthcare.

This week’s lead article by Wing Thye Woo argues that ‘[g]rowth requires state governments that are empowered to plan and implement their own development strategies’. This would require a significant shift from the highly political allocation of development finance that penalised opposition-led states under the former government.

Government-linked corporations (GLCs) dominate the Malaysian economy and that needs to change. GLCs command a majority share of market capitalisation and key sectors of the economy including natural resources, utilities, construction and finance. Policies that reinforce GLC dominance stifle innovative and dynamic small and medium enterprises and competitiveness.

As Woo says, ‘GLCs may perform well in theory, but they don’t in practice — officials inevitably use them for political patronage and personal corruption. GLCs are political creatures, not economic instruments … Downsizing the state-related sector through privatisation is necessary for economic efficiency, political accountability and income equality’.

The government has acknowledged the problem but has been tentative in its approach to this critical reform. Its first substantive policy announcements and budget provided a major setback, reinforcing the role of GLCs in ethnic Malay development strategies and increasing government dependence on GLC dividends. It’s unclear whether the government now has the clout and political fortitude to pursue a privatisation and competition agenda.

Decentralisation is more than just government ownership and power-sharing; it encompasses a shift in the mentality of government from one underpinned by heavy-handed direction to one of empowerment. This requires the creation of institutional and regulatory environments that empower people to shape the policies that affect them, private business and entrepreneurship to fuel the engine room of economic growth, and all levels of government to deliver an enabling environment in which private actors flourish.

Empowerment means replacing ethnic discrimination with inclusive approaches to policy making, lifting up all low-income households. It means constructing a tax and transfer system that reduces rather than perpetuates inequality and cost of living pressures, positively reshaping the social contract between taxpayers and government. And it requires liberating the education system from the mechanistic, dictatorial, one-size-fits-all approach that has prioritised a one-eyed conception of nation-building over the development of inquisitive and adaptable minds.

Effective governance starts with a recognition that meaningful reforms may not please everyone but if done well can benefit all. It requires the strength of conviction to stay the course in the face of interest group pressures, avoiding discouraging U-turns like abandoning intentions to sign the United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. It entails more than a solitary sugar tax to raise funds for development and social welfare when the tax revenue share of GDP is a third of the OECD average. And it requires delivering substantive reforms to education in the light (or in spite) of next month’s special task force report.

The government’s recent by-election defeat in Semenyih provides a wake-up call that its support among middle-class Malaysians depends on improving its performance not on disparaging its predecessor. That means harnessing the electorate’s heightened expectations towards charting a more prosperous course for the economy, governance and for the Malaysian people.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

 

Decentralisation the best bet for Malaysia’s growth

Author: by Dr. Wing Thye Woo, Sunway University

Malaysia’s burgeoning middle class has high expectations for future economic development. But the nation won’t escape the ‘middle-income trap’ and won’t have socially-inclusive growth under current government policies. A range of reforms that deliver decentralised decision-making is needed to build the knowledge-led economy to propel Malaysia to the next level of development.

A view of the Kuala Lumpur city skyline in Malaysia, 7 February 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin).

Malaysia’s current policy framework has its roots in the 1970 New Economic Policy (NEP) and its socio-political counterpart ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ (Supremacy of Malays). NEP has succeeded in building a large Malay middle class that is informed, skilled and confident about its identity. But it’s also well aware that these two policies rooted in the past are not capable of transforming Malaysia into a developed nation.

To meet these aspirations, reform is urgently needed in three key economic areas. Each area requires a common reform component: the careful entrenchment of decentralised decision-making.

First, the state’s administrative structure inhibits innovative policymaking and prevents effective oversight. The federal government is much larger and more cumbersome than state governments and has disproportionate power.

Image result for The Malaysian economy

Contrasting budgets and spending power reveal the imbalance between federal and state governments. The federal government has legal authority to impose income and sales taxes. But state governments must rely on land-related transactions and fees on small-ticket items like hawker licenses for independent revenue. The provision of most public services is done through branches of federal ministries operating at the state level.

State expenditure is determined by fiscal allocations from the federal government to state governments, and the amounts allocated depend on political considerations. Under the former Barisan Nasional (BN) government, opposition-controlled states received budgetary allocations that were proportionately much smaller than BN-controlled states. State governments are banned from borrowing to finance development projects, and that means they are unable to raise revenue to build the infrastructure needed to clear production bottlenecks in local industries.

Image result for The Malaysian economy

Growth requires state governments that are empowered to plan and implement their own development strategies. Effective decentralisation requires each state government to have its own civil service. States will also need much larger shares of tax revenue, based on factors like developmental stage and tax revenue contribution. They should also be allowed to borrow to finance local infrastructure projects — with the commitment that there will be no federal bailouts — and be invested with significant responsibilities that are currently held by federal ministries.

The second key task is reforming government-linked corporations (GLCs). GLCs are crowding out the private sector, reducing economic dynamism. They also enable corruption that increases income inequality.

GLCs may perform well in theory, but they don’t in practice — officials inevitably use them for political patronage and personal corruption. GLCs are political creatures, not economic instruments.

Competition between GLCs and private firms is intrinsically unfair and harmful for overall growth. No matter how inefficient GLCs are, they can always count on government bailouts. They undermine economic dynamism by buying up their more efficient private competitors. Worse still, they prevent the development of a dynamic Malay business community by pulling capable Malays entrepreneurs away from starting private businesses and into cosy, life-long GLC jobs.

Downsizing the state-related sector through privatisation is necessary for economic efficiency, political accountability and income equality. The only two considerations in choosing buyers should be the size of the bid and the promotion of industry competition. A well-prepared and transparent privatisation process is more important than a speedy one.

The third key economic reform task is diversifying and expanding the banking system. The financial sector’s monopoly structure damages economic performance and worsens income inequality by suppressing the operations of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

The 1997 Asian financial crisis convinced the Malaysian government that the banking system would be less prone to crisis if regulators could more easily monitor them. The result was the forced consolidation of smaller banks into 10 big banks in 2000.

This action made state investment companies the controlling shareholders in most commercial banks, effectively creating a state-owned banking monopoly. These banks are slow in adopting better payment practices and providing new financial products, shoddy in their treatment of small retail customers, and biased in lending towards GLCs. The small number of banks and the extent of state control in the largest banks are to blame.

One serious defect of the bank consolidation was that Malaysian SMEs began experiencing difficulties in getting capital from the large banks, replicating the international experience that SME financing comes mostly from small and medium-sized banks. In response, the Malaysian government established the state-owned SME Bank in 2005. But the SME Bank is not meeting the sector’s capital needs. It also has the highest non-performing loan ratio in the banking industry. The slow growth of the SME sector means new Malay bus­­­inesses are not emerging and the distribution of income is worsening.

Reforming the banking sector will mean allowing private small and medium-sized banks to exist again, reducing the government’s bank share holdings, and removing restrictions on foreign banks and their activities.

The NEP is essentially ‘Ketuanan Centralisation’ (Supremacy of Centralisation) in the economic sphere, manifesting as ‘Ketuanan Federal Government’ in governance, ‘Ketuanan GLC’ in production, and ‘Ketuanan Monopoly Bank’ in finance.

NEP cannot mobilise the entire brain-power of Malaysia for knowledge-creation because it prevents entrenchment of excellence in socio-economic institutions, and induces brain drain and capital flight. For Malaysia to escape the middle-income trap, ‘Ketuanan Centralisation’ must be purged from the public policy framework to make way for knowledge-led growth.

Wing Thye Woo is President of the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia and Director of the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development at Sunway University and Professor of Economics at the University of California at Davis; he holds adjunct academic positions at Fudan University and Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

 

 

Malaysia’s ideological disease terrorises all the same


Aren’t we tired of supporting leaders and government who do not have a clear and comprehensive understanding of sustainability? In Malaysia, we are destroying the environment, as if there is a Planet B we can move to.

Malaysia’s ideological disease terrorises all the same

March 24, 2019

by Dr. Azly Rahman

http://www.malaysiakini.com

 

COMMENT | My previous column warning of inciteful preaching, which reached 30,000 readers in three days, was removed from Facebook for “violating community standards.”

As if there is a contagious ideological disease plaguing those who do not understand what the message of peace looks like. Somebody didn’t like my message of peace. Fine. I’ll continue writing. I’ll continue to wage peace using the internet, still a powerful medium of dialogue.

Image result for j. ardern of new zealand

There was some consolation though: Such a beautiful Friday prayer session I saw live from New Zealand. Poignant and filled immensely with the message of peace. Such a beautiful display of respect and love by New Zealanders  including Prime Minister J. Arden being there to comfort Muslims who lost their loved ones.

In a 2017 study on the “most Islamic country in the world,” New Zealand was at the top spot, and Saudi Arabia in comparison, was 47th in the list. This is the meaning of an Islamic state and the Islamicity of it: social justice, human rights, sustainability and personal freedom – the antidote to terrorism, to ideological diseases.

Religious aggression

I thought of this question this week: of peace, conflict, and the root cause of terrorism, as well as where the country is going to when it comes to environmental degradation.

How shameful America is when it comes to gun control laws, compared to New Zealand’s ban on assault rifles.

Of course, the issue is complex because it is about rights: to bear arms, and how American are so institutionalised about amendments that protect this and that right. But I do believe that gun control begins with parents banning toy guns in the house – violence need not be a plaything.

We are living in a world where a contagious disease of a different kind exists: ideology. Of the link between consciousness, culture, and economic conditions. This manifests in violence that has become more structural or unseen, engulfing the minds of the masses.

Consider the advancement of terrorism in our region, as Islamic State moves its operations to Southeast Asia. Poverty and lack of exposure to liberal education are the main causes of the rise of terrorism. Address these, as they contribute to the advancement of this ideological disease.

My advice to Muslims: Preach not about Islam if you still have a poor understanding of the wisdom of it. Of the concept of the four branches of knowledge, shariat-tariqat-hakikat-makrifat. Just live a life based on that.

If every Muslim preaches to himself/herself and to the family first, we don’t need preachers preaching jihad.

Private religion. The thousand-year-old Holy War seem to be reenacting globally in newer forms and styles, with the semiotics and semantics of terror. And now, we want to bring back IS fighters, lack the will to prosecute polluters and harbour hate preachers. What’s wrong with us?

Environmental aggression

Consider the environmental terrorism we are witnessing. Of what happened recently in Pasir Gudang.

Malaysians need to know the companies that pollute rivers and dump waste. They need to also know which powerful people own them. The pollution in Pasir Gudang could have killed dozens of schoolchildren and citizens. Which company is responsible?

The government should go after companies that pollute and poison the rivers, as well as the ones that destroy our rainforests and mangrove reserves. Name the companies involved in destroying our environment and which powerful and wealthy people own them.

The media should be more active in exposing the interlocking directorships of these corporate criminals destroying us. Name the company that dumped poison into Sungai Kim Kim near my hometown. Who owns it? Johoreans want to know!

Unless the Pakatan Harapan government doesn’t care, it must help citizens fight ecological terrorists – the companies that destroy our environment. States such as Johor seem to be ravaged by mindless industrialists who do not care about environmental impact.

Aren’t we tired of supporting leaders and government who do not have a clear and comprehensive understanding of sustainability? In Malaysia, we are destroying the environment, as if there is a Planet B we can move to.

Parent action groups in Malaysian education and NGOs must help parents and citizens in Pasir Gudang go after those responsible. Our children must be given the right to demand a saner, cleaner, and safer planet.

Economic aggression

As we speak, we are reading more about how gung-ho our economic plans are. Bordering on economic terrorism, a nucleus in this contagious ideological disease.

You pour in billions of ringgit into Kedah, for example, and let East Malaysia continue to live in poverty?

Is this the new regime’s smartest developmentalist ideology? Or the same old system of patronage? I grab power, I design projects, my party members benefit. This ideology of developmentalism is not sustainable if it continues to create haves and have-nots in society.

Worse, these projects created and monopolised by politicians are to ensure their children will be well-fed for seven generations. A shrewd Machiavellian will have the different groups fight over crumbs and illusions, while he orchestrates the biggest robbery.

Race and religion

While all these racial and religious issues are being played up, huge businesses dealings are being made by politicians. As usual.

We have to teach the masses to see beyond false consciousness, to identify this contagious ideological diseases. In Malaysia, politicians use religious preachers as spiritual trouble makers, to blind the people of real race and class issues.

Terrorism can only be eliminated when all religions are seen as equal and practical, and class divisions and poverty ended.

The more you give power and your ears to the TV preacher, the more he’ll become big headed. All television evangelists wish to make money, whether you call it Peace TV or God’s Cable Channel. Big business for the gullible.

Today, everybody wants to push their own truth, not knowing that everyone is a truth in itself to be constructed. At my age, the dialogues of religion, spirituality, existentialism happen only within me, bored I am of public forums on truth.

All religions need not be defended if the devotees keep their understanding to themselves and enjoy the journey. You bring in a radical preacher into your country, he’ll bring his country’s violent conflict to mess up your society.

Politicians hiding behind the gown of religious fanatics and hate speech champs have no moral direction. Vote them out! Let us continue to support each other in fighting hatred and hate speech. Begin at home. Educate for basic respect for others.

Wage peace

What is the root cause of terrorism? The manufacturing and creating of deadly crises, so that the global arms industry – of light arms to massive smart bombs – may flourish.

Poverty, rock-logic religion, the lack or total rejection of liberal education, and for the inciters, power to influence and the huge appetite to be megalomanic preachers – these are the root cause of the ideological disease.

Power given by the ignorant and powerless to worship those who are masters of deception, perception, and religious and ideological militancy – this is what fuels the deadly cells of violence. That contagious ideological disease we’ve been talking about.

But today, my heart goes to those in Christchurch massacred after Friday prayers. By a terrorist. By a force growing larger than the IS, in due time: white supremacist terrorists. A global contagious ideological disease finally been diagnosed as how it should be.

Wage peace, not war. Contain the ideological diseases spreading like wildfire. This is rent we must pay for living in this increasingly violent world.


AZLY RAHMAN is an educator, academic, international columnist, and author of seven books available here. He grew up in Johor Bahru and holds a doctorate in international education development and Master’s degrees in six areas: education, international affairs, peace studies communication, fiction and non-fiction writing. He is a member of the Kappa Delta Pi International Honour Society in Education. Twitter @azlyrahman. More writings here.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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Business as usual: regime change and GLCs in Malaysia


March 14, 2019

Business as usual: regime change and GLCs in Malaysia

By Dr. Edmund Terence Gomez

https://www.newmandala.org/business-as-usual-regime-change-and-glcs-in-malaysia/

 

  • Edmund Terence Gomez is Professor of Political Economy at the Faculty of Economics & Administration, University of Malaya. His publications include Malaysia’s Political Economy: Politics, Patronage and Profits (Cambridge University Press, 1997), Political Business in East Asia (Routledge, 2002), The New Economic Policy in Malaysia: Affirmative Action, Horizontal Inequalities and Social Justice (National University of Singapore Press, 2013) and Minister of Finance Incorporated: Ownership and Control of Corporate Malaysia (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2017).

    When Pakatan Harapan unexpectedly secured power after Malaysia’s 14th General Elections (GE14) in May 2018, voters expected the coalition and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to dismantle an extremely well-entrenched government–business institutional framework that had contributed to extensive clientelism, collusion, nepotism and embezzlement. After all, the institutionalisation of more transparent and accountable governance was a Pakatan campaign pledge.

    However, barely nine months after taking control of government, Pakatan appears to be re-instituting the practice of selective patronage in the conduct of politics and through the implementation of public policies. In this inter-connected domain of public policies and selective patronage, government-linked companies (GLCs) will play a key role.

    The core institutions employed by the Barisan Nasional coalition and the hegemonic party at its helm, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), that allowed for extensive profligacy are what are collectively known as GLCs. These GLCs are, in fact, a complex ensemble of statutory bodies, foundations, trust agencies, investment enterprises, a sovereign wealth fund, as well as companies, with representation in a wide array of industries. These institutions, controlled by the central and 13 state governments in the Malaysian federation, officially function primarily as “enablers” of domestic firms, to nurture a dynamic privately-owned enterprise base. But GLCs also constitute an estimated 42% of total market capitalisation of all publicly-listed firms. 67 quoted firms can be classified as GLCs, as the government, through various institutions, has a majority equity interest in them.

    Federal ministries, under the ambit of cabinet ministers, also control a vast number of quoted and unlisted GLCs that do a variety of things, including promoting development of strategic economic sectors, redressing spatial inequities by developing rural areas and industries, and financing research and development to drive industrialisation. However, of the 25 ministries in the federal cabinet in 2017, before the fall of Barisan, three in particular, the Prime Minister’s Department, Ministry of Finance (MoF) and Ministry of Rural and Regional Development (MRRD), had control of a huge assortment of companies that were deployed to channel government-generated rents to UMNO members and well-connected businesspeople.

    At the state level, different public institutions own GLCs through the states’ chief ministers, through holding firms known as Chief Minister Incorporated (CMI). CMIs establish companies to undertake activities in specific constituencies to mobilise electoral support. Party members are liberally appointed as directors of these GLCs, a major source of political financing as their stipends are used for political activities. Through the CMIs, what had emerged was the fusing of bureaucratic and party apparatuses, allowing politicians to selectively channel government resources in a manner that would help them consolidate or enhance their political base.

    Another factor shaped modes of GLC development: a communal perspective to policy implementation, in keeping with the government’s longstanding affirmative action-based redistributive agenda to transfer corporate equity to the Bumiputera (Malays and other indigenous groups). However, rents meant for poor Bumiputera were hijacked by UMNO members. Eventually, these GLCs became sites of political struggles among elites attempting to consolidate power through patronage, a reason why critics have persistently excoriated them as inefficient and loss-making concerns.

    Interestingly enough, this GLC framework became entrenched in the economy as well as the political system during Mahathir’s long 22-year reign as prime minister, from 1981 until 2003. Other key figures who shaped how this political–business nexus evolved while they served with Mahathir previously include then-Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin (1984–1990), now his economic advisor, and Anwar Ibrahim (1990–1997), then and now the designated prime minister-in-waiting. By the time of GE14, this GLC structure had become so huge—and so abused by Barisan—that Mahathir himself described it as a “monster”.

    Despite Pakatan’s promise of a new approach to shaping Malaysia’s political economy, experience thus far suggests a surprising degree of continuity. Rather than give up an appealingly effective lever for consolidating power, Pakatan leaders seem inclined to borrow the same tools on which Barisan had so detrimentally relied.

    Power struggles, persistent patronage

    Soon after Pakatan formed the government, a disturbing series of events occurred. Shortly after the election, Prime Minister Mahathir inaugurated the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MEA), led by Azmin Ali, deputy president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), Anwar’s party. Even before GE14, PKR was mired in a serious factional row, reportedly due to problems between Anwar and Azmin. Meanwhile, Mahathir is widely thought to be uncomfortable with transferring power to Anwar, who he had removed from public office in 1998.

    Image result for Anwar. mahathir and Azmin

    A PKR insider insists that the party is split into two factions, one loyal to party supremo Anwar Ibrahim and the other to deputy president Mohamed Azmin Ali.

    The newly-minted MEA took control of numerous GLCs from the Ministry of Finance (MoF), under the jurisdiction of Lim Guan Eng, leader of the Democratic Action Party (DAP). In this discreet shuffling of GLCs between ministries, Malaysia’s only sovereign wealth fund, Khazanah Nasional, was channelled from MoF to the Prime Minister’s Department, under Mahathir’s control. The government did not explain why these GLCs were shifted between ministries, but MoF’s enormous influence over the corporate sector has been significantly diminished. Under Barisan, the Prime Minister had also functioned as the Finance Minister, a practice Mahathir had started in 2001, but Pakatan, while in opposition, had pledged to ensure the same politician would not hold both portfolios.

    Even though Khazanah was under the Prime Minister’s Department, Mahathir appointed himself as its chairman, which is, by convention, the practice. The convention also is that the Finance Minister serve on Khazanah’s board of directors. Instead, Minister of Economic Affairs Azmin was given this appointment. The appointment of Mahathir and Azmin as Khazanah board members was contentious as Pakatan had pledged in its election manifesto that politicians would not be appointed as directors of government enterprises.

    Next, in September 2018, Azmin’s ministry convened a Congress on the Future of Bumiputeras & the Nation. Mahathir stressed at this congress the need to reinstitute the practice of selective patronage, targeting Bumiputera, a plan his economic advisor, Daim, endorsed. The following month, when Pakatan, through the MEA, released its first public policy document, the Mid-Term Review of the 11th Malaysia Plan, it emphasised the Bumiputera policy as being imperative. In the past, GLCs have been central to government efforts to advance Bumiputera interests.

    Meanwhile, numerous ministers began actively calling for the divestment of GLCs, an issue also in the 2019 budget. Subsequently, when Khazanah began reducing its equity holdings, including in CIMB, Malaysia’s second largest bank, rather than seeming simply a step toward the larger goal of scaling back government ownership, this divestment raised the question whether it marked the commencement of a transfer of control of key enterprises to well-connected business people, even proxies of politicians, a common practice by UMNO in the 1990s. In fact, in ensuing debates about such divestments, the question was raised whether such divestments were an attempt to create a new influential economic elite, even oligarchs, who could check politicians in power in the event of a leadership change.

    Then, another contentious issue occurred. Minister of Rural & Regional Development Rina Harun, of Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), appointed politicians from her party to the boards of directors of GLCs under her control. Under UMNO, this ministry had persistently been embroiled in allegations of corruption, undermining the activities of its GLCs that had been created to redress spatial inequalities and reduce poverty. The practice of patronage through GLCs to draw electoral support was rampant under this ministry as its enterprises have an enormous presence in states with a Bumiputera-majority population. So important is this ministry, in terms of mobilising electoral support, that it was always placed under the control of a senior UMNO leader. Hence, the minister’s directorial appointments suggested a worrying trend of continuity of irresponsible practices of the old regime.

    In December 2018, Bersatu leaders openly declared their intent to persist with the practice of selectively-targeted patronage. At its first convention after securing power, when its president, Muhyiddin Yassin, declared that “Bersatu should not be apologetic to champion the Bumiputera Agenda”, his statement was enthusiastically supported by members, suggesting an element of opportunism, even self-interested rent-seeking, in the party. UMNO leaders had made similar arguments in the past to justify state intervention, including through GLCs, a process that they abused to transfer government-generated rents to party members, to the detriment of poor Bumiputera. These trends suggested that Bersatu’s primary concern was its immediate need to consolidate power, not instituting appropriate long-term socioeconomic reforms, which might do less to muster support.

    The problem of instituting real change

    All told, then, these specific, sometimes discreet, steps since GE14 have called into question the extent of political economic reforms expected of Pakatan, based on its own manifesto. Moreover, under Pakatan, by its own admission, the volume of state intervention in the economy will still be substantial. Industrial development will be fostered through GLCs, as will attempts to nurture dynamic domestic Bumiputera-owned enterprises. Worryingly, what is absent is a coherently-structured industrial plan to cultivate entrepreneurial private firms. There is similarly no roadmap to reform these GLCs, or even to get them to target specific core industries requiring heavy capital investments and extensive research and development funding to rapidly industrialise the economy. Since politicians will control most of these GLCs as directors, they will determine the recipients of rents distributed to nurture domestic enterprises.

    The current state of play raises an important question about an interesting phenomenon: what happens, in terms of dismantling rent-seeking and patronage and instituting reforms to curb corruption, when a new regime comprises politicians who see this framework as a mechanism to consolidate power? A link between two core issues remains in place after regime change: elite domination and the continued practice of selective patronage, legitimised by advocating race-based policies that are to be implemented through GLCs. Under UMNO, elite domination was obvious, with Barisan component members subservient to then-Prime Minister Najib. In Pakatan, a multi-party coalition, Prime Minister Mahathir and Daim appear to have disproportionate influence when it comes to decision-making on core issues, though the parameters of their power remain unclear.

    Meanwhile, elite domination of the economy at the state level varies as several different parties are in power. State governments are controlled by UMNO, Bersatu, PKR, DAP, Parti Warisan Sabah, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB). The latter two parties have long governed Kelantan and Sarawak respectively, while Bersatu and Warisan are new parties run by UMNO factions, though ostensibly with a reformist agenda. The governance dynamics of these parties in these state governments will differ, specifically in terms of how they employ GLCs, further indicating the ubiquity of these enterprises in the economy. These GLCs have persistently been used to distribute different types of rents such as financial aid, contracts, permits, licences, etc., to party members as well as others in the electorate in key constituencies. Even with regime change, the presence of covert networks of power created through GLCs in these states is unlikely to be reformed, thus contributing to continued serious wastage of scarce resources.

    There is plainly no clear method to the madness of how the new federal or state governments employ GLCs. Different sets of political and business elites operate at the national and state levels. In fact, before GE14, business elites were known to be creating ties with politicians in both UMNO and Pakatan parties, specifically PKR and DAP. Meanwhile, in Sarawak, wealthy businessmen had long since begun entering politics, even getting elected as parliamentarians, thus giving them access to federal government leaders. This diversity in political–business ties, where government institutions figure, is an indication of how complex the GLC problem has become. However, GLCs remain an opaque form of state intervention in the economy. And, since there is little public knowledge of GLCs, the opacity of these enterprises has allowed for their abuse by politicians.

    Fragile state and political economic outcomes

    Since Pakatan is a coalition of parties led by politicians who coalesced only because they had a common agenda—the removal of Najib from power—what prevails in the post-GE14 period can be described as a “fragile state”. This fragility is also because of the uneasy relationship between Mahathir, who leads the second-smallest party in Pakatan, and his long-time-nemesis-now-political-ally Anwar, who leads the party with the highest number of parliamentary seats. PKR, however, is ridden with serious factionalism, including an uneasy truce between Anwar and Azmin, who apparently is closely associated with Mahathir.

    What is emerging is new forms of power relations through the unhealthy circulation of political elites from the old regime into Pakatan, as well as alliances between leaders from different parties in this coalition. UMNO parliamentarians are lining up to join Bersatu, a quick route back to power for them after their unexpected ouster. By co-opting them, Mahathir’s new party can swiftly fortify its extremely weak base in Bumiputera-dominant states. Bersatu’s co-optation of discredited UMNO members is, however, seriously undermining support for Pakatan among the urban middle class, as well as Mahathir’s credibility. In fact, there has been recent talk in the public domain that a no-confidence motion against Mahathir as Prime Minister may be tabled in the March sitting of parliament, led apparently by leaders within Pakatan. Because of this complex situation of political in-fighting, there is much fear that politicians in power may move to create, through the divestment of GLCs, powerful

    Since a structural framework that allowed politicians to exploit institutions in various ways to serve vested political and economic interests remains in place, a key question has emerged. What are the possible political outcomes to this situation, in which contending elites in the new regime struggle to consolidate their respective power bases? Political outcomes can involve protecting the property rights—through ongoing and much-needed institutional reforms—of business elites who acquire privatised GLCs, thereby preventing expropriation of these companies by the government in the event of a change of premiership. Political outcomes can also entail endorsing entitlements that give one large segment of society privileged access to government-generated rents, as is already actively occurring. Inevitably, a related issue is the necessity of targeted race-based policies. These policies serve as a mechanism to retain patronage-based networks and consolidate power bases. This approach can, however, stymie domestic investments by non-Bumiputera, a serious and persistent problem during Barisan’s rule.

    Ironically, it was these forms of unproductive government–business networks that Pakatan had promised to dismantle when in opposition, in order to forge a “New Malaysia”. This New Malaysia was supposed to be devoid of race-based political discourses and policies, with the GLCs deployed to promote equitable development and redress social inequities. The GLCs were not to be led by politicians who have no clue how to utilise them productively in the economy. These pledges have been broken. Evidently, consolidating power is more important for Malaysia’s new political elites than restructuring an economy in dire need of reform.
    itutions, has a majority equity interest in them.
    The core institutions employed by the Barisan Nasional coalition and the hegemonic party at its helm, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), that allowed for extensive profligacy are what are collectively known as GLCs. These GLCs are, in fact, a complex ensemble of statutory bodies, foundations, trust agencies, investment enterprises, a sovereign wealth fund, as well as companies, with representation in a wide array of industries. These institutions, controlled by the central and 13 state governments in the Malaysian federation, officially function primarily as “enablers” of domestic firms, to nurture a dynamic privately-owned enterprise base. But GLCs also constitute an estimated 42% of total market capitalisation of all publicly-listed firms. 67 quoted firms can be classified as GLCs, as the government, through various institutions, has a majority equity interest in them.

    At the state level, different public institutions own GLCs through the states’ chief ministers, through holding firms known as Chief Minister Incorporated (CMI). CMIs establish companies to undertake activities in specific constituencies to mobilise electoral support. Party members are liberally appointed as directors of these GLCs, a major source of political financing as their stipends are used for political activities. Through the CMIs, what had emerged was the fusing of bureaucratic and party apparatuses, allowing politicians to selectively channel government resources in a manner that would help them consolidate or enhance their political base.
    Another factor shaped modes of GLC development: a communal perspective to policy implementation, in keeping with the government’s longstanding affirmative action-based redistributive agenda to transfer corporate equity to the Bumiputera (Malays and other indigenous groups). However, rents meant for poor Bumiputera were hijacked by UMNO members. Eventually, these GLCs became sites of political struggles among elites attempting to consolidate power through patronage, a reason why critics have persistently excoriated them as inefficient and loss-making concerns.
    Interestingly enough, this GLC framework became entrenched in the economy as well as the political system during Mahathir’s long 22-year reign as prime minister, from 1981 until 2003. Other key figures who shaped how this political–business nexus evolved while they served with Mahathir previously include then-Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin (1984–1990), now his economic advisor, and Anwar Ibrahim (1990–1997), then and now the designated prime minister-in-waiting. By the time of GE14, this GLC structure had become so huge—and so abused by Barisan—that Mahathir himself described it as a “monster”.
    Despite Pakatan’s promise of a new approach to shaping Malaysia’s political economy, experience thus far suggests a surprising degree of continuity. Rather than give up an appealingly effective lever for consolidating power, Pakatan leaders seem inclined to borrow the same tools on which Barisan had so detrimentally relied.

    Power struggles, persistent patronage
    Soon after Pakatan formed the government, a disturbing series of events occurred. Shortly after the election, Prime Minister Mahathir inaugurated the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MEA), led by Azmin Ali, deputy president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), Anwar’s party. Even before GE14, PKR was mired in a serious factional row, reportedly due to problems between Anwar and Azmin. Meanwhile, Mahathir is widely thought to be uncomfortable with transferring power to Anwar, who he had removed from public office in 1998.
    The newly-minted MEA took control of numerous GLCs from the Ministry of Finance (MoF), under the jurisdiction of Lim Guan Eng, leader of the Democratic Action Party (DAP). In this discreet shuffling of GLCs between ministries, Malaysia’s only sovereign wealth fund, Khazanah Nasional, was channelled from MoF to the Prime Minister’s Department, under Mahathir’s control. The government did not explain why these GLCs were shifted between ministries, but MoF’s enormous influence over the corporate sector has been significantly diminished. Under Barisan, the Prime Minister had also functioned as the Finance Minister, a practice Mahathir had started in 2001, but Pakatan, while in opposition, had pledged to ensure the same politician would not hold both portfolios.
    Even though Khazanah was under the Prime Minister’s Department, Mahathir appointed himself as its chairman, which is, by convention, the practice. The convention also is that the Finance Minister serve on Khazanah’s board of directors. Instead, Minister of Economic Affairs Azmin was given this appointment. The appointment of Mahathir and Azmin as Khazanah board members was contentious as Pakatan had pledged in its election manifesto that politicians would not be appointed as directors of government enterprises.

    Next, in September 2018, Azmin’s ministry convened a Congress on the Future of Bumiputeras & the Nation. Mahathir stressed at this congress the need to reinstitute the practice of selective patronage, targeting Bumiputera, a plan his economic advisor, Daim, endorsed. The following month, when Pakatan, through the MEA, released its first public policy document, the Mid-Term Review of the 11th Malaysia Plan, it emphasised the Bumiputera policy as being imperative. In the past, GLCs have been central to government efforts to advance Bumiputera interests.
    Meanwhile, numerous ministers began actively calling for the divestment of GLCs, an issue also in the 2019 budget. Subsequently, when Khazanah began reducing its equity holdings, including in CIMB, Malaysia’s second largest bank, rather than seeming simply a step toward the larger goal of scaling back government ownership, this divestment raised the question whether it marked the commencement of a transfer of control of key enterprises to well-connected business people, even proxies of politicians, a common practice by UMNO in the 1990s. In fact, in ensuing debates about such divestments, the question was raised whether such divestments were an attempt to create a new influential economic elite, even oligarchs, who could check politicians in power in the event of a leadership change.
    Then, another contentious issue occurred. Minister of Rural & Regional Development Rina Harun, of Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), appointed politicians from her party to the boards of directors of GLCs under her control. Under UMNO, this ministry had persistently been embroiled in allegations of corruption, undermining the activities of its GLCs that had been created to redress spatial inequalities and reduce poverty. The practice of patronage through GLCs to draw electoral support was rampant under this ministry as its enterprises have an enormous presence in states with a Bumiputera-majority population. So important is this ministry, in terms of mobilising electoral support, that it was always placed under the control of a senior UMNO leader. Hence, the minister’s directorial appointments suggested a worrying trend of continuity of irresponsible practices of the old regime.
    In December 2018, Bersatu leaders openly declared their intent to persist with the practice of selectively-targeted patronage. At its first convention after securing power, when its president, Muhyiddin Yassin, declared that “Bersatu should not be apologetic to champion the Bumiputera Agenda”, his statement was enthusiastically supported by members, suggesting an element of opportunism, even self-interested rent-seeking, in the party. UMNO leaders had made similar arguments in the past to justify state intervention, including through GLCs, a process that they abused to transfer government-generated rents to party members, to the detriment of poor Bumiputera. These trends suggested that Bersatu’s primary concern was its immediate need to consolidate power, not instituting appropriate long-term socioeconomic reforms, which might do less to muster support.

    The problem of instituting real change
    All told, then, these specific, sometimes discreet, steps since GE14 have called into question the extent of political economic reforms expected of Pakatan, based on its own manifesto. Moreover, under Pakatan, by its own admission, the volume of state intervention in the economy will still be substantial. Industrial development will be fostered through GLCs, as will attempts to nurture dynamic domestic Bumiputera-owned enterprises. Worryingly, what is absent is a coherently-structured industrial plan to cultivate entrepreneurial private firms. There is similarly no roadmap to reform these GLCs, or even to get them to target specific core industries requiring heavy capital investments and extensive research and development funding to rapidly industrialise the economy. Since politicians will control most of these GLCs as directors, they will determine the recipients of rents distributed to nurture domestic enterprises.
    The current state of play raises an important question about an interesting phenomenon: what happens, in terms of dismantling rent-seeking and patronage and instituting reforms to curb corruption, when a new regime comprises politicians who see this framework as a mechanism to consolidate power? A link between two core issues remains in place after regime change: elite domination and the continued practice of selective patronage, legitimised by advocating race-based policies that are to be implemented through GLCs. Under UMNO, elite domination was obvious, with Barisan component members subservient to then-Prime Minister Najib. In Pakatan, a multi-party coalition, Prime Minister Mahathir and Daim appear to have disproportionate influence when it comes to decision-making on core issues, though the parameters of their power remain unclear.
    Meanwhile, elite domination of the economy at the state level varies as several different parties are in power. State governments are controlled by UMNO, Bersatu, PKR, DAP, Parti Warisan Sabah, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB). The latter two parties have long governed Kelantan and Sarawak respectively, while Bersatu and Warisan are new parties run by UMNO factions, though ostensibly with a reformist agenda. The governance dynamics of these parties in these state governments will differ, specifically in terms of how they employ GLCs, further indicating the ubiquity of these enterprises in the economy. These GLCs have persistently been used to distribute different types of rents such as financial aid, contracts, permits, licences, etc., to party members as well as others in the electorate in key constituencies. Even with regime change, the presence of covert networks of power created through GLCs in these states is unlikely to be reformed, thus contributing to continued serious wastage of scarce resources.
    There is plainly no clear method to the madness of how the new federal or state governments employ GLCs. Different sets of political and business elites operate at the national and state levels. In fact, before GE14, business elites were known to be creating ties with politicians in both UMNO and Pakatan parties, specifically PKR and DAP. Meanwhile, in Sarawak, wealthy businessmen had long since begun entering politics, even getting elected as parliamentarians, thus giving them access to federal government leaders. This diversity in political–business ties, where government institutions figure, is an indication of how complex the GLC problem has become. However, GLCs remain an opaque form of state intervention in the economy. And, since there is little public knowledge of GLCs, the opacity of these enterprises has allowed for their abuse by politicians.

    Fragile state and political economic outcomes
    Since Pakatan is a coalition of parties led by politicians who coalesced only because they had a common agenda—the removal of Najib from power—what prevails in the post-GE14 period can be described as a “fragile state”. This fragility is also because of the uneasy relationship between Mahathir, who leads the second-smallest party in Pakatan, and his long-time-nemesis-now-political-ally Anwar, who leads the party with the highest number of parliamentary seats. PKR, however, is ridden with serious factionalism, including an uneasy truce between Anwar and Azmin, who apparently is closely associated with Mahathir.
    What is emerging is new forms of power relations through the unhealthy circulation of political elites from the old regime into Pakatan, as well as alliances between leaders from different parties in this coalition. UMNO parliamentarians are lining up to join Bersatu, a quick route back to power for them after their unexpected ouster. By co-opting them, Mahathir’s new party can swiftly fortify its extremely weak base in Bumiputera-dominant states. Bersatu’s co-optation of discredited UMNO members is, however, seriously undermining support for Pakatan among the urban middle class, as well as Mahathir’s credibility. In fact, there has been recent talk in the public domain that a no-confidence motion against Mahathir as Prime Minister may be tabled in the March sitting of parliament, led apparently by leaders within Pakatan. Because of this complex situation of political in-fighting, there is much fear that politicians in power may move to create, through the divestment of GLCs, powerful business elites or even oligarchs to check other political elites.
    Since a structural framework that allowed politicians to exploit institutions in various ways to serve vested political and economic interests remains in place, a key question has emerged. What are the possible political outcomes to this situation, in which contending elites in the new regime struggle to consolidate their respective power bases? Political outcomes can involve protecting the property rights—through ongoing and much-needed institutional reforms—of business elites who acquire privatised GLCs, thereby preventing expropriation of these companies by the government in the event of a change of premiership. Political outcomes can also entail endorsing entitlements that give one large segment of society privileged access to government-generated rents, as is already actively occurring. Inevitably, a related issue is the necessity of targeted race-based policies. These policies serve as a mechanism to retain patronage-based networks and consolidate power bases. This approach can, however, stymie domestic investments by non-Bumiputera, a serious and persistent problem during Barisan’s rule.

    Ironically, it was these forms of unproductive government–business networks that Pakatan had promised to dismantle when in opposition, in order to forge a “New Malaysia”. This New Malaysia was supposed to be devoid of race-based political discourses and policies, with the GLCs deployed to promote equitable development and redress social inequities. The GLCs were not to be led by politicians who have no clue how to utilise them productively in the economy. These pledges have been broken. Evidently, consolidating power is more important for Malaysia’s new political elites than restructuring an economy in dire need of reform.

       

The Case for a Bold Economics


March 12,2019

The Case for a Bold Economics

Although economists are well positioned to imagine new institutional arrangements, their habit of thinking at the margin and sticking close to the evidence at hand encourages an aversion to radical change. But, when presented with new challenges, economists must envision new solutions – as a new group is determined to do.

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/bold-evidence-based-economics-by-dani-rodrik-2019-03

 

CAMBRIDGE – At the end of 1933, John Maynard Keynes sent a remarkable public letter to US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR had taken office earlier that year, in the midst of an economic slump that had pushed a quarter of the labor force into unemployment. He had launched his ambitious New Deal policies, including public works programs, farm subsidies, financial regulation, and labor reforms. He had also taken the US off the gold standard to give domestic monetary policy freer rein.

Image result for keynes and FDR

Keynes approved of the general direction of these policies, but also had some sharp criticism. He worried that FDR complicated the economic recovery effort by broadening his policy agenda unnecessarily. FDR was doing too little to increase aggregate demand and too much to change the rules of the economy. Keynes took particular aim at the National Industrial Recovery Act, which, among other things, greatly expanded labor rights and fostered independent unions. He fretted that the NIRA would sap business confidence and weigh on the federal bureaucracy, without making a direct contribution to recovery. He wondered whether some of the advice FDR was getting “is not crack-brained and queer.”

Image result for american default book

Keynes did not think much of FDR’s economics, but at least he was a sympathetic critic. Because much of the New Deal ran against the prevailing economic orthodoxy, FDR’s policies had little support from leading economists of the day. For example, as Sebastián Edwards explains in his fascinating recent book American Default, the predominant view among economists was that breaking the dollar’s link with gold would create havoc and uncertainty. The only bona fide economist in FDR’s “brain trust” was Rexford Tugwell, a little-known 41-year old Columbia professor who did not even teach graduate students.

Will economists prove more helpful today, at a time when the challenges we face are nearly as pressing as those during the Great Depression? Unemployment may not be a severe problem in most advanced countries currently, but large segments of the labor force seem cut off from economic progress. Record levels of inequality and poor earnings prospects for younger, less educated workers are eroding the foundations of liberal democracies. The rules that underpin globalization are badly in need of reform. And climate change continues to pose an existential threat.

These problems demand bold responses. Yet, for the most part, mainstream economists seem preoccupied with marginal fixes – a tax-code tweak here, a carbon tax there, perhaps a sprinkling of wage subsidies – that leave untouched the structures of power underwriting the rules of the economic game.

Economists can rise to the challenge by adopting a broader vision. Last month, I joined a group of prominent economists to launch an initiative that we have called “Economics for Inclusive Prosperity” (EfIP). From labor markets and finance to innovation policies and electoral rules, the goal is to advance ambitious policy ideas that pay much closer attention to inequality and exclusion – and to the power imbalances that produce them.

As Suresh Naidu, Gabriel Zucman, and I explain in our “manifesto,” neither sound economics nor convincing evidence support many of the dominant policy ideas of the last few decades. What has come to be called “neoliberalism” is in many ways a derogation of mainstream economics. And contemporary economic research, appropriately deployed, is in fact fully conducive to new ideas for creating a fairer society. Economics can be an ally of inclusive prosperity. But it is up to us economists to convince our audience of the merits of these claims.

Our network is made up of academic economists who believe new ideas can be developed without abandoning scientific rigor. The catchphrase of our day is “evidence-based policy.” Accordingly, our policy briefs are based on empirical analysis, using tools of mainstream economics. But, for us, an “evidence-based” approach is not one that reinforces a conservative bias in favor of policies at the margins of existing institutional arrangements; it is one that encourages experimentation. After all, how can we develop new evidence without trying something new?

Markets rely on a wide range of institutions to create, regulate, and stabilize them. These institutions do not come with predetermined forms. Property and contracts – the most elementary institutions required to make markets work – are legal constructs that can be designed in any number of ways. As we grapple with new realities created by technological innovation and climate change, questions about the allocation of property rights among different claimants become crucial. Economics does not provide definite answers here, but it supplies the tools needed to identify the relevant tradeoffs.

A common theme running through our initial set of policy proposals is the power asymmetries that shape the functioning of the contemporary global economy. Many economists dismiss the role of such asymmetries because there is little scope for power under conditions of perfect competition and perfect information. But in the real world that we examine, power asymmetries abound.

Who has the upper hand in bargaining for wages and employment benefits? Who dominates markets and who must submit to market forces? Who can move across borders and who is stuck at home? Who can evade taxation and who cannot? Who gets to set the agenda of trade negotiations and who is excluded? Who can vote and who is effectively disenfranchised? We argue that addressing such asymmetries makes sense not only from a distributional standpoint, but also for improving overall economic performance. Economists have a powerful theoretical apparatus that allows them to think about such matters.

Although economists are well positioned to develop institutional arrangements that go beyond what already exists, their habit of thinking at the margin and sticking close to the evidence at hand encourages an aversion to radical change. But, when presented with new challenges, economists must envision new solutions. Imagination is crucial. Not everything we try will succeed; but if we do not rediscover the value of FDR’s credo – “bold, persistent experimentation” – we will certainly fail.

  • Faruk Timuroglu  

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  • krempep @yahoo.com