“THE absence of good institutions and transparency in public undertakings, government procurement, and … the design of public policy has the potential to shake investor confidence” is how economist Shankaran Nambiar sums up the macroeconomic conditions of Malaysia.
In his latest book, Malaysia in Troubled Times, which compiles Nambiar’s articles in newspapers between 2014 and 2016, he deftly articulates his positions on issues. He grapples mainly with the question of “where is the economy headed towards”, which he asks numerous times across his pieces, an evident sign of his deep concern over the trends taking place in the country.
Nambiar articulates what many observers of Malaysian issues have struggled with: despite our economy not hitting negative growth, not being in danger of defaulting on sovereign debt and the fact that the central bank having adequate reserves to cover shortfalls, he states clearly that yes, indeed, we should still exercise great caution with respect to the Malaysian economy.
And why so? Various pieces indicate why observers should be worried – an outflow of foreign funds, the sharp decline of oil prices, which has in turn led to a growing federal fiscal deficit, and … “doubts on the efficacy of government linked companies”.
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The challenges facing Malaysia stretch beyond our borders, and here Nambiar wades through regional waters to help readers understand the dynamics behind the now-dead Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, the Regional Cooperation Economic Partnership, and the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, which he highlights is indicative of China flexing its muscles in the region.
Malaysia, he says, “has a special, valuable relationship with China, which places it in an excellent position to help establish a stable security landscape in the region”. Of course, the “special relationship” we have with China would now be interpreted in a very different light today, given the many bilateral deals Malaysia has now signed with China. Apart from arguing for how ASEAN can build itself up as a stronger regional pact, it is also refreshing that he brings in Asean-India economic ties and goes on to push for greater Malaysia-India improvements in trade and investment, which apparently our neighbours Singapore and South Korea have put a lot more effort in than we have.
Above all, Nambiar is a faithful believer of Keynes, whom he quotes several times in the book, saying that “positive expectations and ‘animal spirits’ spur aggregate demand and economic growth”, and that “at the moment it seems that the animal within the economy is wounded”. He cleverly works his critique of the economy through metaphors such as these, but stops short of blatantly dismissing any efforts being made by policymakers to improve the economic conditions of the country. He could also have done more in providing solutions to what he considers to be ailing our economy.
Despite the nuanced tone of his writings, it is clear that he harbours silent frustration with public policies and their implementation in Malaysia. Although the book focuses mainly on technical economic matters, Nambiar also ventures into “getting the big picture right”. He questions Malaysia’s dismal performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). He emphasises the importance of good public transport, education, human resource development and healthcare. And perhaps most importantly, he questions whether our politicians and policymakers are truly connected with the economy “as experienced by traders, technicians, taxi driver and executives”.
It is now almost two years after one of Nambiar’s pieces titled “Do we need to create scenarios for a future Malaysia?” and yet it seems even more imperative to do so today. With the elections near, this is what policymakers ought to do. And if they are not, then citizens ought to instead, and demand that their representatives pave the way for the right future to actuate.
An imagined future has to be one that, Nambiar argues, goes beyond motherhood statements like “being united in diversity and sharing a common set of values and aspirations” that he considers merely “dreamy visions of the future”. One has to concretely build scenarios based on concrete issues such as income distribution, incorporating input from a “constraint approach” (what are the stumbling blocks?) as well as a “global basis approach” (how does Malaysia fit into this matrix based on global trends?).
It is on this note that the book hits the nail hard on its head. Nambiar’s voice that constantly urges and pushes for the creation of the “spirit of this big picture” reminds us that simply, there is none of this presently that so inspires. His is a thoughtful, objective and incisive perspective of a nation that could be much more – and his desires for a better, more productive, wealthy Malaysia are evident.
Policymakers and politicians serious about addressing challenges to the Malaysian economy would benefit from a thorough reading of Nambiar’s book. They should also take heed of his advice that in thinking of the long-term, they must be “realistic about the present state of affairs”. This would be a good first starting point.
The likely victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential election has elicited a global sigh of relief. At least Europe is not going down the protectionist path that President Donald Trump is forcing the United States to take.
But advocates of globalization should keep the champagne on ice: protectionists and advocates of “illiberal democracy” are on the rise in many other countries. And the fact that an open bigot and habitual liar could get as many votes as Trump did in the US, and that the far-right Marine Le Pen will be in the run-off vote with Macron on May 7, should be deeply worrying.
Some assume that Trump’s poor management and obvious incompetence should be enough to dent enthusiasm for populist nostrums elsewhere. Likewise, the US Rust Belt voters who supported Trump will almost certainly be worse off in four years, and rational voters surely will understand this.
But it would be a mistake to conclude that discontent with the global economy – at least how it treats large numbers of those in (or formerly in) the middle class – has crested. If the developed liberal democracies maintain status quo policies, displaced workers will continue to be alienated. Many will feel that at least Trump, Le Pen, and their ilk profess to feel their pain. The idea that voters will turn against protectionism and populism of their own accord may be no more than cosmopolitan wishful thinking.
Advocates of liberal market economies need to grasp that many reforms and technological advances may leave some groups – possibly large groups – worse off. In principle, these changes increase economic efficiency, enabling the winners to compensate the losers. But if the losers remain worse off, why should they support globalization and pro-market policies? Indeed, it is in their self-interest to turn to politicians who oppose these changes.
So the lesson should be obvious: In the absence of progressive policies, including strong social-welfare programs, job retraining, and other forms of assistance for individuals and communities left behind by globalization, Trumpian politicians may become a permanent feature of the landscape.
The costs imposed by such politicians are high for all of us, even if they do not fully achieve their protectionist and nativist ambitions, because they prey on fear, inflame bigotry, and thrive on a dangerously polarized us-versus-them approach to governance. Trump has leveled his Twitter attacks against Mexico, China, Germany, Canada, and many others – and the list is sure to grow the longer he is in office. Le Pen has targeted Muslims, but her recent comments denying French responsibility for rounding up Jews during World War II revealed her lingering anti-Semitism.
Deep and perhaps irreparable national cleavages may be the result. In the US, Trump has already diminished respect for the presidency and will most likely leave behind a more divided country.
We must not forget that before the dawn of the Enlightenment, with its embrace of science and freedom, incomes and living standards were stagnant for centuries. But Trump, Le Pen, and the other populists represent the antithesis of Enlightenment values. Without blushing, Trump cites “alternative facts,” denies the scientific method, and proposes massive budget cuts for public research, including on climate change, which he believes is a hoax.
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The protectionism advocated by Trump, Le Pen, and others poses a similar threat to the world economy. For three-quarters of a century, there has been an attempt to create a rules-based global economic order, in which goods, services, people, and ideas could move more freely across borders. To the applause from his fellow populists, Trump has thrown a hand grenade into that structure.
Given the insistence of Trump and his acolytes that borders do matter, businesses will think twice as they construct global supply chains. The resulting uncertainty will discourage investment, especially cross-border investment, which will diminish the momentum for a global rules-based system. With less invested in the system, advocates for such a system will have less incentive to push for it.
This will be troublesome for the entire world. Like it or not, humanity will remain globally connected, facing common problems like climate change and the threat of terrorism. The ability and incentive to work cooperatively to solve these problems must be strengthened, not weakened.
Openness is the key to rapid economic growth and prosperity–Joseph E. Stiglitz
The lesson of all of this is something that Scandinavian countries learned long ago. The region’s small countries understood that openness was the key to rapid economic growth and prosperity. But if they were to remain open and democratic, their citizens had to be convinced that significant segments of society would not be left behind.
The welfare state thus became integral to the success of the Scandinavian countries. They understood that the only sustainable prosperity is shared prosperity. It is a lesson that the US and the rest of Europe must now learn.
When a policy is applied for more than four years, and consistently fails to produce the intended result, it is tempting to declare it a failure. Critics of Japan’s economic stimulus declare exactly that. They are wrong. So-called Abenomics has not failed, and it should be sustained, not abandoned.
Critics of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic policy, which aims to combine monetary and fiscal stimulus with structural economic reforms, make a simple case. Abenomics began in the spring of 2013. It was supposed to revive growth and end two decades of on-and-off deflation. Four years later, the Bank of Japan’s preferred measure of inflation is up by 0.1 per cent on a year ago. It follows, the critics say, that the medicine has not worked.
It has indeed proved hard to ignite inflation in Japan. Since the financial crisis, low inflation has been a problem everywhere, from the US to the eurozone to the UK. But the simple diagnosis of failure ignores how much Abenomics has achieved, the difficult backdrop to these achievements, and the reality that the stimulus was much smaller than its critics imagine. Growth, running at an annualised 1.2 per cent, has been well above Japan’s underlying rate every year save 2014. The unemployment level is at a 22-year low of 2.8 per cent — and that figure understates how tight Japan’s jobs market has become. Every shop and restaurant in Tokyo seems to have a “positions vacant” sign, and many are scrapping 24-hour opening to save labour. Yamato Transport, the country’s largest logistics company, is raising prices for the first time in 27 years in a deliberate attempt to cut volumes to a level its network can handle. Rather than cutting costs, chief executives spend their time working out how to hire and retain staff.
After more than two decades when labour was cheap and abundant, Japanese companies are finding ways to cut back, reducing their lavish service standards rather than raising prices. But this can only go so far. Japan is primed for inflation. The struggles of the stimulus must also be weighed against the global economic backdrop. The plunge in 2014 in commodity prices, followed by the 2015 slowdown in emerging markets, leading to a sharp appreciation of the yen, were a terrible environment in which to generate inflation. Only with the election of Donald Trump as US president, and the subsequent rally in the yen above ¥110 to the dollar, is the global economy once again a support. Of all the obstacles to success, the worst was self-inflicted: a 2014 rise in consumption tax from 5 to 8 per cent. In theory, Abenomics involved a fiscal stimulus. In reality, this only ever happened for a brief time, in 2013. Over the past four years, Japan has significantly tightened fiscal policy. The predictable result was to halt momentum towards higher prices.
Recently, the Abe government has realised its mistake and loosened the purse strings a little. It should continue to do so, ignoring foolish and arbitrary fiscal targets, until inflation finally does pick up. There have been policy failures over the past four years, but they all involved too little Abenomics, not too much. To break Japan’s deflationary mindset for good may take several more years. Workers are slow to demand higher pay and employers are reluctant to offer it. But that does not mean the effort to restore inflation has failed. Rather, it has made significant progress, in a difficult environment, where the policy’s champions often failed to act when needed. The prize is a revived Japanese economy.
“…any suggestion that the renminbi may one day rival the dollar and seriously threaten the greenback’s dominance within the international monetary system remains wishful thinking. The renminbi is moving in the right direction, but much more needs to be done to make it into a pillar of this multi-currency system.”–Paola Subacchi
At times of big turmoil, currencies take the hit, but economic transformation can also create currency winners. Nowhere is this more apparent than when we compare the prospects of British sterling and China’s renminbi.
Between February 2016 — when the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU) was announced — and the end of January 2017, the sterling fell by 14 per cent against the US dollar. Then, at the beginning of October, when the UK government appeared to signal a preference for a clear break with the EU — a ‘hard Brexit’ — the sterling dropped again by 6 per cent.
As the British government is serving notice on the membership of the EU, it is not yet clear what the future relationship will look like. Will Britain remain a member of Europe’s single market? Or will it embrace a totally independent trade policy to maintain control at its borders?
Currencies not only reflect geopolitical dynamics, but also patterns of trade and debt. A weak currency is not much help for an economy that imports more than it exports. The UK has a significant deficit in its current account — roughly, it consumes more than it produces — at almost 6 per cent of GDP. Of course, a weak currency would lower the prices of exports, but only if these goods are produced with limited inputs from imports.
In a world of global supply chains this is questionable. Even assuming that a weak sterling would help shift the UK model of growth from domestic demand to exports, this adjustment will take time and is unlikely to cushion the adverse impact of Brexit on real GDP growth in the next few years.
The ‘hard Brexit’ option, by reducing market openness, will affect investors’ confidence, have an adverse impact on capital inflows and undermine growth. If the UK becomes less attractive as an investment destination, and stricter immigration policies cause the labour force to shrink, then Britain may find it difficult to attract the quantity of foreign capital and labour necessary to sustain a domestic demand-driven economy.
The sterling remains in the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights (SDR) basket of international reserve currencies. To some extent the sterling has been a proxy of British global influence: on the way down, but still ‘punching above its weight’. But the sterling’s protracted weakness coupled with the inclusion of the Chinese renminbi in the SDR basket — in effect from the beginning of October 2017 — may result in downgrading the pound when the composition of the basket is reassessed in 2020.
If currencies are an expression of national sovereignty, they also epitomise the limits of such sovereignty in an open economy. Exchange rate dynamics tend to reflect divergences between domestic politics and global markets. Thinking that domestic policy making can be insulated from the rest of the world, so that no coordination or cooperation is needed, is deeply fallacious. The sterling’s troubles are a reminder that foreign investors have an indirect say — and interest — in how a country is managed.
The inclusion of the renminbi among the currencies that compose the SDRs — the US dollar, the euro, the yen and the sterling — is a ‘milestone’ for China, as International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde said when she presented the IMF executive board’s decision on 30 November 2016.
The renminbi’s inclusion recognises the work that China’s monetary authorities have done in the last five years to push the renminbi’s transformation into an international currency — a currency that can be used to invoice and settle international trade and that is traded in international capital markets. The outcome of this process has been remarkable: approximately 25 per cent of China’s trade is now settled in renminbi — it was less than 1 per cent in 2009.
In addition, the inclusion somehow addresses the contradiction that China has faced for years: being the world’s second largest economy and the largest exporter without a currency that reflects that role. For years the dollar has been the currency used in China’s trade and investments, and this is still largely the case. This has suited China well throughout its transformation from a poor and isolated nation into an industrial powerhouse that is well integrated in regional and international supply chains.
But China’s dollar dependence no longer reflects Beijing’s ambitions for playing a more engaging and assertive role in international economic and financial affairs and governance. If ‘great nations have great currencies’, to paraphrase Nobel laureate Robert Mundell, then it is understandable that the Chinese leadership would push to turn the renminbi into a ‘great currency’.
Finally, and even more critically, being part of the SDR basket implicitly recognises the role that the renminbi, going forward, can play in the international monetary system. The hype that has surrounded the IMF decision — the SDR made headlines beyond the financial press, perhaps for the first time since its creation in 1969 — should not obscure the fact that the development of the renminbi is not a linear process, even if it is heavily policy-driven, and there is no guarantee that progress will continue at the same remarkable pace. The renminbi remains a currency with limited international circulation because of obstacles that are still in place to constrain capital flows into and from China’s domestic market.
This is not the case for trade transactions, where the renminbi has been fully convertible since 2001 when China joined the World Trade Organisation. But what is the incentive for foreign businesses to hold renminbi if liquidity is constrained and therefore so are investment opportunities?
To make the renminbi into an international currency that foreigners want to hold as a store of value the Chinese leadership needs to continue the pace of reforms. Top of the list is the exchange rate and the abandonment of the system where the central bank intervenes every time the value of the renminbi moves outside a pre-determined range. Until foreign investors believe that the renminbi is liquid and trustworthy, any suggestion that the renminbi may one day rival the dollar and seriously threaten the greenback’s dominance within the international monetary system remains wishful thinking. The renminbi is moving in the right direction, but much more needs to be done to make it into a pillar of this multi-currency system.
Paola Subacchi is Director of Economic Research at Chatham House, London, and the author of The People’s Money: How China Is Building a Global Currency (Columbia University Press, 2017).
Today’s populist movements are all following a similar economic prescription, and governments in Hungary, Poland, and the US are giving the world an early dose of what the future may hold. Will voters swallow the medicine, or will they soon start seeking a second opinion
For at least the past year, populism has been wreaking havoc on Western democracies. Populist forces – parties, leaders, and ideas – underpinned the “Leave” campaign’s victory in the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States. Now, populism lurks ominously in the background of the Netherlands’ general election in March and the French presidential election in April and May.
But, despite populism’s seeming ubiquity, it is a hard concept to pin down. Populists are often intolerant of outsiders and those who are different; and yet Geert Wilders, the far-right Dutch populist leader, is a firm believer in gay rights. In the US, Trump’s presidential campaign was described as an anti-elite movement; and yet his administration is already practically a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs.
While today’s populist resurgence comes from the nationalist right, some of the leading populist exponents in recent decades – such as Venezuela’s late president, Hugo Chávez – were firmly on the left. What they share is a zero-sum view of the world, which necessitates the creation of scapegoats who can be blamed for all problems. Moreover, because populist leaders claim to embody the uniform will of a mythical “people,” they consider democracy to be a means to power, rather than a desirable end in itself.
But populists have more in common than an obsession with cultural boundaries and political borders. They also share a recipe for economic governance, one that Project Syndicate commentators have been tracking since long before today’s brand of populism began dominating the world’s headlines. Guided by their insights, we can begin to understand the origins of today’s populist resurgence, and what is in store for Western countries where its avatars come to power.
Diagnosing the Problem
Given populism’s many faces, is it really possible to identify a root cause? For Warwick University’s Robert Skidelsky, it is no coincidence that the two major political upheavals of 2016 – the Brexiteers’ success in last June’s referendum and Trump’s election victory – occurred in “the two countries that most fervently embraced neoliberal economics.” The US and the UK’s economic model over the past few decades, Skidelsky observes, has allowed for “obscenely lavish rewards for a few, high levels of unemployment and underemployment, and curtailment of the state’s role in welfare provision.” And this widening inequality, he writes, “strips away the democratic veil that hides from the majority of citizens the true workings of power.”
But Gavekal Dragonomics Chief Economist Anatole Kaletsky sees another dynamic at work, and offers “several reasons to question the link between populist politics and economic distress.” For starters, he points out that “most populist voters are neither poor nor unemployed; they are not victims of globalization, immigration, and free trade.” Having analyzed Brexit exit polls and voter-survey responses, Kaletsky concludes that “cultural and ethnic attitudes, not direct economic motivations, are the real distinguishing features of anti-globalization voting.”
At first blush, these arguments may seem incompatible; but their disagreement is really only between ultimate and proximate causes. For Skidelsky, “It is when the rewards of economic progress accrue mainly to the already wealthy that the disjunction between minority and majority cultural values becomes seriously destabilizing.” Likewise, for Kaletsky, “The main relevance of economics is that the 2008 financial crisis created conditions for a political backlash by older, more conservative voters, who have been losing the cultural battles over race, gender, and social identity.”
Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel warns against focusing exclusively on “the bigotry in populist protest” or viewing it “only in economic terms.” The fundamental issue, he argues, is “that the upheavals of 2016 stemmed from the establishment’s inability to address – or even adequately recognize – genuine grievances.” And, because these grievances “are about social esteem, not only about wages and jobs,” they are difficult to disentangle “from the intolerant aspects of populist protest” – namely, anti-immigrant sentiments.
Nobel laureate economist Edmund Phelps also links populist voters’ anger to their loss of dignity in the larger political economy. As the share of US employment in manufacturing has steadily declined, blue-collar workers, Phelps notes. “have lost the opportunity to do meaningful work, and to feel a sense of agency.” In other words, “losing their ‘good jobs’” meant losing “the central source of meaning in their lives.” And while many of the lost manufacturing jobs were replaced with new jobs in new sectors, as Oxford University historian Margaret MacMillan cautions, nuanced economic arguments “cannot counter the unhappiness of people who feel marginalized, undervalued, and scorned.”
A Democratic Disease
Princeton University’s Jan-Werner Mueller, who published a highly regarded book about populism last year, has identified such “feelings of dispossession and disenfranchisement” as “fertile ground” in which populist politicians can sow seeds of resentment. And, in an earlier commentary that long predated the current news cycle, Mueller explained that, “Populism cannot be understood at the level of policies; rather, it is a particular way of imagining politics.” Above all, he observes, the populist imagination is inherently divisive: “It pits the innocent, always hard-working people against both a corrupt elite (who do not really work, other than to further their own interests) and those on the very bottom of society (who also do not work and live off others).”
In its more virulent forms, populism can be thought of as being akin to an autoimmune disease, whereby democracy gives rise to forces that attack it. Andrés Velasco, a former finance minister of Chile, laments that the nature of representative democracy can create an impression that politicians are “distant and untrustworthy.” The “rhetoric of modern democracy,” he writes, “emphasizes closeness to voters and their concerns.” But elected representatives cannot spend all of their time interacting with constituents when they have a duty to govern. When this dissonance between rhetoric and reality becomes “too glaring,” Velasco notes, “political leaders’ credibility suffers.”
This loss of trust leads disaffected citizens to put a premium on perceived authenticity. So, “although populist policies reduce overall economic welfare,” Velasco notes, “rational voters choose them because they are the price of distinguishing between different types of politicians.” In fact, such a willingness to suffer further economic pain in order to avenge elite betrayals and strike back at scapegoats may be a defining element of today’s populist resurgence.
Populist leaders in Hungary and Poland, who are currently advancing their own brand of “illiberal democracy,” seem to have staked their governments’ future on this presumption. As Central European University’s Maciej Kisilowski points out, it may not even matter that “the high economic costs of illiberal democracy are already apparent.” These countries’ electorates, Kisilowski surmises, “may regard economic stagnation as an acceptable price to pay for what they want most: a more familiar world where the state guarantees the dominant in-group’s sense of belonging and dignity, at the expense of ‘others.’”
Sławomir Sierakowski of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw provides further support for this point. When Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) returned to power in Poland a year ago, many assumed that it would quickly fail. Instead, it has succeeded, because Kaczyński mastered the politics of “two issues near and dear to voters: social transfers and immigration,” Sierakowski explains. “As long as he controls these two bastions of voter sentiment, he is safe.” Of course, given the PiS government’s politicization of the courts, the civil service, and the press, the same cannot be said for Poland’s democratic institutions.
A Populist Placebo
But how long can populist governments sustain generous transfers in the absence of strong economic growth? The answer will depend on how long their supporters remain convinced that they can have their cake and eat it – which is precisely what former Brexit leader and current British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson promised to Leave voters. Indeed, as Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs observed just after the Brexit vote, “Working-class ‘Leave’ voters reasoned that most or all of the income losses would in any event be borne by the rich, and especially the despised bankers of the City of London.”
Given the UK economy’s unexpected resilience last year, the populists probably feel vindicated. But, though most economists misjudged “the immediate impact that the United Kingdom’s [vote] would have on its economy,” writes Chatham House’s Paola Subacchi, “a gloomy long-term prognosis is probably correct,” given British leaders’ desire for a complete break from the European Union’s single market and customs union.
Such delayed effects can create an alibi for unsustainable policies, which, according to Velasco, is precisely “how economic populism works.” For example, the approach that Trump seems likely to take – tax cuts, growth-stimulating measures, and protectionism, with little thought given to inflation or public debt – is untenable, and will ultimately fail. But, as Velasco puts it, “‘Ultimately’ can be a very long time.” And that can give populist governments more staying power than many observers assume. “Populist policies are called that because they are popular,” he notes. “And they are popular because they work – at least for a while.”
In the meantime, populist leaders can pursue policies favored not only by their base, but also by many of their opponents. In the whirlwind of his first days in office, for example, Trump fulfilled his campaign promise to abandon the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This, Princeton University’s Ashoka Mody believes, was actually a welcome move, given that “international trade agreements, propped up by powerful interests, have become increasingly intrusive.” Similarly, before Trump’s election, Harvard University economist Dani Rodrik called for a rebalancing “between national autonomy and globalization.” In Rodrik’s view, it should go without saying that “the requirements of liberal democracy” must come before “those of international trade and investment.”
Trump’s promise of corporate tax reform has also wide appeal beyond his electoral base. For Harvard’s Martin Feldstein, who chaired President Ronald Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, current legislative proposals to overhaul the US’s outdated tax system could “have a highly favorable impact on business investment, raising productivity and overall economic growth.” Assuming that Trump, working with congressional Republicans, can strike the right policy balance, he will have bought himself some time with the business community.
Princeton University economic historian Harold James makes a related point, arguing that “the economics of US populism will not necessarily fail, at least not immediately,” owing to the US’s “uniquely resilient” position in the global economy. “Because [the US] has historically been the global safe haven in times of economic uncertainty,” James notes, “it may be less affected than other countries by political unpredictability.”
A Turn for the Worse
But even if Trump can extend his honeymoon, James does not discount the possibility that “today’s contagious populism will create the conditions for its own destruction.” One way that could happen, argues Benjamin Cohen of the University of California, Santa Barbara, is if the US loses its “exorbitant privilege” as the issuer of the dominant international reserve currency. If Trump “pursues his protectionist promise to put ‘America first,’” Cohen writes, “investors and central banks could gradually be impelled to find alternative reserves for their spare billions.”
Trump’s version of economic populism could also face a reckoning if it results in a new boom-bust cycle – one that could end in a period of stagflation around the 2018 US congressional elections. Just before the election, Feldstein warned that “overpriced assets are fostering an increasingly risky environment.” Given that the US economy is already at full employment, with an inflation rate near 2%, Trump’s planned fiscal stimulus could push it into overdrive, and force the Federal Reserve to raise the federal funds rate.
Such a scenario would certainly worsen the plight of Trump’s constituency of white working-class voters in America’s former manufacturing heartland. But so, too, would his trade proposals, which could easily precipitate trade wars with China, Mexico, and other trading partners. Trump has told displaced blue-collar workers to blame trade deals and competition from imports for the loss of their jobs. But, “with productivity gains exceeding demand growth” worldwide, Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz points out, America “would have faced deindustrialization even without freer trade.”
Given this, Trump’s prescription of trade protectionism, Stiglitz says, will only “make all Americans poorer.” One reason, explains former World Bank Chief Economist Anne Krueger, is that imports create and sustain jobs, too. The irony of Trump’s proposed import tariffs is that they threaten American exporters. Many export-industry jobs, Krueger points out, exist because inexpensive imports enable American manufactures to compete domestically and abroad; and “exporting to the US gives foreigners more income with which to buy imports from the US and other countries.”
Simon Johnson of MIT also fears such a lose-lose scenario. If Trump starts taxing imports, Johnson argues, “the cost per job will be high: all imports will become more expensive, and this increase in the price level will filter through to the cost of everything Americans buy.”
Botching the Operation
Other Project Syndicate commentators have pinpointed a deeper flaw in populist economics, apart from any specific policy proposal: recklessness. Populists often overplay their hand by flouting legal, economic, or political conventions, or by exerting inappropriate influence in markets to try to funnel benefits to their supporters. In fact, according to a classic study of economic populism in Latin America by Sebastián Edwards of UCLA and the late Rüdiger Dornbusch of MIT, it is standard populist practice to show “no concern for the existence of fiscal and foreign exchange constraints” in the pursuit of faster growth and redistribution.
New York University’s Nouriel Roubini suspects that Trump may be similarly tempted to interfere inappropriately in currency markets. As his stimulus measures push up the value of the dollar, Roubini says, “Trump could unilaterally intervene to weaken the dollar, or impose capital controls to limit dollar-strengthening capital inflows.” But if Trump is too reckless with his “damage-control methods,” already-wary markets will succumb to “full-blown panic.”
Mody, for his part, sees serious risks in Trump’s interference in corporations’ practices and business decisions. By bullying companies over Twitter to keep jobs based in the US (or to punish them for dropping his daughter Ivanka’s clothing line), Trump has already begun to undermine “the norms and institutions that govern markets.” And in Phelps’s view, Trump’s Twitter interventions, combined with his deregulation agenda, risk entrenching corporatism at the expense of the innovation and competition necessary to sustain economic dynamism and income growth.
The Search for a Cure
With populist movements leaving political establishments reeling, could a positive counter-populist economic policy agenda soon emerge? The Nobel laureate economist Michael Spence sees an opportunity in disaffected voters’ rejection of an insufficiently inclusive economic-growth model. “With previous presumptions, biases, and taboos having been erased,” he writes, “it may be possible to create something better.” Likewise, for Stiglitz, Trumpism’s silver lining is that its opponents are experiencing “a new sense of solidarity over core values such as tolerance and equality, sustained by awareness of the bigotry and misogyny, whether hidden or open, that Trump and his team embody.”
An implicit argument running through many Project Syndicate commentaries is that the only prophylactic against economist populism is more aggressive redistribution. As Rodrik puts it, populism – and poor governance generally – emerges when elites prove unwilling to “make adjustments to ensure that everyone does indeed benefit” from the existing economic model.
Behind recent, large-scale rejections of the “system” is a widely shared sense among certain groups of voters that the “establishment” has subordinated citizens’ interests to cosmopolitan goals such as globalization, immigration, and cultural diversity. Most commentators agree that economic shocks such as the Great Recession or the eurozone sovereign-debt crisis are neither necessary nor sufficient to explain the rise of populism. Rather, populism is more a response to prolonged economic malaise, deteriorating living standards, declining trust in established institutions, and a common perception that incumbent leaders have feathered their nests at the people’s expense.
These are complex economic and political problems for which populism offers fancifully simple solutions. Efforts by the media to move the populist mind have proved counter-productive, and will likely continue to do so.Those opposed to the populist cure will have to come up with an equally powerful alternative, or look on helplessly as economic uncertainty and despair overwhelm the patient.
*Robert (Lord) Skidelsky, Professor Emeritus of Political Economy at Warwick University and a fellow of the British Academy in history and economics, is a member of the British House of Lords. The author of a three-volume biography of John Maynard Keynes, he began his political career in the Labour party, became the Conservative Party’s spokesman for Treasury affairs in the House of Lords, and was eventually forced out of the Conservative Party for his opposition to NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999.
View from above of the Bank of England. The central bank of the UK manages the sterling currency and regulates financial transactions. Banker to Central Banks.
Early last month, Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England, blamed “irrational behavior” for the failure of the BoE’s recent forecasting models. The failure to spot this irrationality had led policymakers to forecast that the British economy would slow in the wake of last June’s Brexit referendum. Instead, British consumers have been on a heedless spending spree since the vote to leave the European Union; and, no less illogically, construction, manufacturing, and services have recovered.
Haldane offers no explanation for this burst of irrational behavior. Nor can he: to him, irrationality simply means behavior that is inconsistent with the forecasts derived from the BoE’s model.
It’s not just Haldane or the BoE. What mainstream economists mean by rational behavior is not what you or I mean. In ordinary language, rational behavior is that which is reasonable under the circumstances. But in the rarefied world of neoclassical forecasting models, it means that people, equipped with detailed knowledge of themselves, their surroundings, and the future they face, act optimally to achieve their goals. That is, to act rationally is to act in a manner consistent with economists’ models of rational behavior. Faced with contrary behavior, the economist reacts like the tailor who blames the customer for not fitting their newly tailored suit.
Yet the curious fact is that forecasts based on wildly unrealistic premises and assumptions may be perfectly serviceable in many situations. The reason is that most people are creatures of habit. Because their preferences and circumstances don’t in fact shift from day to day, and because they do try to get the best bargain when they shop around, their behavior will exhibit a high degree of regularity. This makes it predictable. You don’t need much economics to know that if the price of your preferred brand of toothpaste goes up, you are more likely to switch to a cheaper brand.
Central banks’ forecasting models essentially use the same logic. For example, the BoE (correctly) predicted a fall in the sterling exchange rate following the Brexit vote. This would cause prices to rise – and therefore consumer spending to slow. Haldane still believes this will happen; the BoE’s mistake was more a matter of “timing” than of logic.
This is equivalent to saying that the Brexit vote changed nothing fundamental. People would go on behaving exactly as the model assumed, only with a different set of prices. But any prediction based on recurring patterns of behavior will fail when something genuinely new happens.
Non-routine change causes behavior to become non-routine. But non-routine does not mean irrational. It means, in economics-speak, that the parameters have shifted. The assurance that tomorrow will be much like today has vanished. Our models of quantifiable risk fail when faced with radical uncertainty.
The BoE conceded that Brexit would create a period of uncertainty, which would be bad for business. But the new situation created by Brexit was actually very different from what policymakers, their ears attuned almost entirely to the City of London, expected. Instead of feeling worse off (as “rationally” they should), most “Leave” voters believe they will be better off.
Justified or not, the important fact about such sentiment is that it exists. In 1940, immediately after the fall of France to the Germans, the economist John Maynard Keynes wrote to a correspondent: “Speaking for myself I now feel completely confident for the first time that we will win the war.” Likewise, many Brits are now more confident about the future.
This, then, is the problem – which Haldane glimpsed but could not admit – with the BoE’s forecasting models. The important things affecting economies take place outside the self-contained limits of economic models. That is why macroeconomic forecasts end up on the rocks when the sea is not completely flat.
The challenge is to develop macroeconomic models that can work in stormy conditions: models that incorporate radical uncertainty and therefore a high degree of unpredictability in human behavior.
Keynes’s economics was about the logic of choice under uncertainty. He wanted to extend the idea of economic rationality to include behavior in the face of radical uncertainty, when we face not just unknowns, but unknowable unknowns. This of course has much severer implications for policy than a world in which we can reasonably expect the future to be much like the past.
There have been a few scattered attempts to meet the challenge. In their 2011 book Beyond Mechanical Markets, the economists Roman Frydman of New York University and Michael Goldberg of the University of New Hampshire argued powerfully that economists’ models should try to “incorporate psychological factors without presuming that market participants behave irrationally.” Proposing an alternative approach to economic modeling that they call “imperfect knowledge economics,” they urge their colleagues to refrain from offering “sharp predictions” and argue that policymakers should rely on “guidance ranges,” based on historical benchmarks, to counter “excessive” swings in asset prices.
The Russian mathematician Vladimir Masch has produced an ingenious scheme of “Risk-Constrained Optimization,” which makes explicit allowance for the existence of a “zone of uncertainty.” Economics should offer “very approximate guesstimates,” requiring “only modest amounts of modeling and computational effort.”
But such efforts to incorporate radical uncertainty into economic models, valiant though they are, suffer from the impossible dream of taming ambiguity with math and (in Masch’s case) with computer science. Haldane, too, seems to put his faith in larger data sets.
A Towering Figure in Economics–Lord Keynes
Keynes, for his part, didn’t think this way at all. He wanted an economics that would give full scope for judgment, enriched not only by mathematics and statistics, but also by ethics, philosophy, politics, and history – subjects dropped from contemporary economists’ training, leaving a mathematical and computational skeleton. To offer meaningful descriptions of the world, economists, he often said, must be well educated.