Deja Voodoo–Trump’s Tax Reform


October 20, 2017

Deja Voodoo–Trump’s Tax Reform

by Joseph E. Stiglitz*

http://www.project-syndicate.org

A Trump administration staffed by plutocrats – most of whom gained their wealth from rent-seeking activities, rather than from productive entrepreneurship – could be expected to reward themselves. But the Republicans’ proposed tax reform is a bigger gift to corporations and the ultra-rich than most had anticipated.

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NEW YORK – Having failed to “repeal and replace” the 2010 Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), US President Donald Trump’s administration and the Republican congressional majority have now moved on to tax reform. Eight months after assuming office, the administration has been able to offer only an outline of what it has in mind. But what we know is enough to feel a deep sense of alarm.

Tax policy should reflect a country’s values and address its problems. And today, the United States – and much of the world – confronts four central problems: widening income inequality, growing job insecurity, climate change, and anemic productivity growth. America faces, in addition, the need to rebuild its decaying infrastructure and strengthen its underperforming primary and secondary education system.

But what Trump and the Republicans are offering in response to these challenges is a tax plan that provides the overwhelming share of benefits not to the middle class – a large proportion of which may actually pay more taxes – but to America’s millionaires and billionaires. If inequality was a problem before, enacting the Republicans’ proposed tax reform will make it much worse.

Corporations and businesses will be among the big beneficiaries, a bias justified on the grounds that this will stimulate the economy. But Republicans, of all people, should understand that incentives matter: it would be far better to reduce taxes for those companies that invest in America and create jobs, and increase taxes for those that don’t.

 

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After all, it is not as if America’s large corporations were starved for cash; they are sitting on a couple of trillion dollars. And the lack of investment is not because profits, either before or after tax, are too low; after-tax corporate profits as a share of GDP have almost tripled in the last 30 years.

Indeed, with incremental investment largely financed by debt, and interest payments being tax-deductible, the corporate tax lowers the cost of capital and the returns to investment commensurately. Thus, neither theory nor evidence suggests that the Republicans’ proposed corporate tax giveaway will increase investment or employment.

The Republicans also dream of a territorial tax system, whereby American corporations are taxed only on the income they generate in the US. But this would only reduce revenue and further encourage American companies to shift production to low-tax jurisdictions. A race to the bottom on corporate taxation can be prevented only by imposing a minimum rate on any corporation that engages in business in the US.

America’s states and municipalities are responsible for education and large parts of the country’s health and welfare system. And state income taxes are the best way to introduce a modicum of progressivity at the subnational level: states without an income tax typically rely on regressive sales taxes, which impose a heavy burden on the poor and working people. It is thus perhaps no surprise that the Trump administration, staffed by plutocrats who are indifferent to inequality, should want to eliminate the deductibility of state income taxes from federal taxation, encouraging states to shift toward sales taxes.

Addressing the panoply of other problems confronting the US will require more federal revenues, not less. Increases in standards of living, for example, are the result of technological innovation, which in turn depends on basic research. But federal government support of research as a percentage of GDP is now at a level comparable to what it was 60 years ago.

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While Trump the candidate criticized the growth of US national debt, he now proposes tax cuts that would add trillions to the debt in just the next ten years – not the “only” $1.5 trillion that Republicans claim would be added, thanks to some growth miracle that leads to more tax revenues. Yet the key lesson of Ronald Reagan’s “voodoo” supply-side economics has not changed: tax cuts like these do not lead to faster growth, but only to lower revenues.

This is especially so now, when the unemployment rate is just over 4%. Any significant increase to aggregate demand would be met by a corresponding increase in interest rates. The “economic mix” of the economy would thus shift away from investment; and growth, already anemic, would slow.

An alternative framework would increase revenues and boost growth. It would include real corporate-tax reform, eliminating the tricks that allow some of the world’s largest companies to pay miniscule taxes, in some cases far less than 5% of their profits, giving them an unfair advantage over small local businesses. It would establish a minimum tax and eliminate the special treatment of capital gains and dividends, compelling the very rich to pay at least the same percentage of their income in taxes as other citizens. And it would introduce a carbon tax, to help accelerate the transition to a green economy.

Tax policy can also be used to shape the economy. In addition to offering benefits to those who invest, carry out research, and create jobs, higher taxes on land and real-estate speculation would redirect capital toward productivity-enhancing spending – the key to long-term improvement in living standards.

An administration of plutocrats – most of whom gained their wealth from rent-seeking activities, rather than from productive entrepreneurship – could be expected to reward themselves. But the Republicans’ proposed tax reform is a bigger gift to corporations and the ultra-rich than most had anticipated. It avoids necessary reforms and would leave the country with a mountain of debt; the consequences – low investment, stalled productivity growth, and yawning inequality – would take decades to undo.

Trump assumed office promising to “drain the swamp” in Washington, DC. Instead, the swamp has grown wider and deeper. With the Republicans’ proposed tax reform, it threatens to engulf the US economy.

*Joseph E. Stiglitz, recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2001 and the John Bates Clark Medal in 1979, is University Professor at Columbia University, Co-Chair of the High-Level Expert Group on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress at the OECD, and Chief Economist of the Roosevelt Institute. A former senior vice president and chief economist of the World Bank and chair of the US president’s Council of Economic Advisers under Bill Clinton, in 2000 he founded the Initiative for Policy Dialogue, a think tank on international development based at Columbia University.His most recent book is The Euro: How a Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe.

 

The Demise of Dollar Diplomacy


October 17, 2017

The Demise of Dollar Diplomacy

by Barry Eichengreen*

http://www.project-syndicate.org

Pundits have been saying last rites for the dollar’s global dominance since the 1960s – that is, for more than half a century now. But the pundits may finally be right, because the greenback’s dominance has been sustained by geopolitical alliances that are now fraying badly.

WASHINGTON, DC – Mark Twain never actually said “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” But the misquote is too delicious to die a natural death of its own. And nowhere is the idea behind it more relevant than in discussions of the dollar’s international role.

Pundits have been saying last rites for the dollar’s global dominance since the 1960s – that is, for more than a half-century now. The point can be shown by occurrences of the phrase “demise of the dollar” in all English-language publications catalogued by Google.

The frequency of such mentions, adjusted for the number of printed pages per year, first jumped in 1969, following the collapse of the London Gold Pool, an arrangement in which eight central banks cooperated to support the dollar’s peg to gold. Use of the phrase soared in the 1970s, following the collapse of the Bretton Woods system, of which the dollar was the linchpin, and in response to the high inflation that accompanied the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter in the 1970s.

But even that spike was dwarfed by the increase in mentions and corresponding worries about the dollar starting in 2001, reflecting the shock of the terrorist attacks that September, the mushrooming growth of the US trade deficit, and then the global financial crisis of 2008.

Yet through all of this, the dollar’s international role has endured. As my coauthors and I show in a new book, the share of dollars in the foreign-currency reserves held by central banks and governments worldwide hardly budged in the face of these events. The greenback remains the dominant currency traded in foreign-exchange markets. It is still the unit in which petroleum is priced and traded worldwide, Venezuelan leaders’ complaints about the “tyranny of the dollar” notwithstanding.

To the consternation of many currency traders, the value of the dollar fluctuates widely, as its rise, fall, and recovery in the course of the last year have shown. But this does little to erode the attractiveness of the dollar in international markets.

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America First–Then What is Future of the US Dollar in the Trumpian Era?

Central banks still hold US Treasury bonds because the market for them is the single most liquid financial market in the world. And Treasury bonds are secure: the federal government has not fallen into arrears on its debt since the disastrous War of 1812.

In addition, US diplomatic and military links encourage America’s allies to hold dollars. States with their own nuclear weapons hold fewer dollars than countries that depend on the US for their security needs. Being in a military alliance with a reserve-currency-issuing country boosts the share of the partner’s foreign-exchange reserves held in that currency by roughly 30 percentage points. The evidence thus suggests that the share of reserves held in dollars would fall appreciably in the absence of this effect.

This under-appreciated link between geopolitical alliances and international currency choice reflects a combination of factors. Governments have reason to be confident that the reserve-currency country will make servicing debt held by its allies a high priority. In return, those allies, by holding its liabilities, can help to lower the issuer’s borrowing costs.

Here, then, and not in another imbroglio over the federal debt ceiling this coming December, is where the real threat to the dollar’s international dominance lies. As one anonymous US State Department official put it, President Donald Trump “does not seem to care about alliances and therefore does not care about diplomacy.”

South Korea and Japan are thought to hold about 80% of their international reserves in dollars. One can imagine that the financial behavior of these and other countries would change dramatically, with adverse implications for the dollar’s exchange rate and US borrowing costs, were America’s close military alliances with its allies to fray.

Nor is it hard to imagine how this fraying could come about. President Donald Trump has painted himself into a strategic corner: he needs a concession from North Korea on the nuclear-weapons issue in order to save face with his base, not to mention with the global community. And, for all of Trump’s aggressive rhetoric and posturing, the only feasible way to secure such a concession is through negotiation. Ironically, the most plausible outcome of that process is an inspections regime not unlike the one negotiated by Barack Obama’s administration with Iran.

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Visualizing the Size of the U.S. National Debt

How big is the U.S. National Debt?

The best way to understand these large numbers? We believe it is to represent them visually, by plotting the data with comparable numbers that are easier to grasp.

Today’s data visualization plots the U.S. National Debt against everything from the assets managed by the world’s largest money managers, to the annual value of gold production.

1. The U.S. national debt is larger than the 500 largest public companies in America.
The S&P 500 is a stock market index that tracks the value of the 500 largest U.S. companies by market capitalization. It includes giant companies like Apple, Exxon Mobil, Microsoft, Alphabet, Facebook, Johnson & Johnson, and many others. In summer of 2016, the value of all of these 500 companies together added to $19.1 trillion – just short of the debt total.

2. The U.S. national debt is larger than all assets managed by the world’s top seven money managers.
The world’s largest money managers – companies like Blackrock, Vanguard, or Fidelity – manage trillions of investor assets in stocks, bonds, mutual funds, ETFs, and more. However, if we take the top seven of these companies and add all of their assets under management (AUM) together, it adds up to only $18.9 trillion.

3. The U.S. national debt is 25x larger than all global oil exports in 2015.
Yes, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Russia make a killing off of selling their oil around the world. However, the numbers behind these exports are paltry in comparison to the debt. For example, you’d need the Saudis to donate the next 146 years of revenue from their oil exports to fully pay down the debt.

4. The U.S. national debt is 155x larger than all gold mined globally in a year.
Gold has symbolized money and wealth for a long time – but even the world’s annual production of roughly 3,000 tonnes (96 million oz) of the yellow metal barely puts a dent in the debt total. At market prices today, you’d need to somehow mine 155 years worth of gold at today’s rate to equal the debt.

5. In fact, the national debt is larger than all of the world’s physical currency, gold, silver, and bitcoin combined.

That’s right, if you rounded up every single dollar, euro, yen, pound, yuan, and any other global physical currency note or coin in existence, it only amounts to a measly $5 trillion. Adding the world’s physical gold ($7.7 trillion), silver ($20 billion), and cryptocurrencies ($11 billion) on top of that, you get to a total of $12.73 trillion. That’s equal to about 65% of the U.S. national debt.

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To get there, Trump’s administration will have to offer something in return. The most obvious bargaining chip that could be offered to make the North Korean regime feel more secure is a reduction in US troop levels on the Korean Peninsula and in Asia in general, With that, the US security guarantee for Asia will weaken, in turn providing China an opportunity to step into the geopolitical breach.

And where China leads geopolitically, its currency, the renminbi, is likely to follow.

*Barry Eichengreen is Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former senior policy adviser at the International Monetary Fund. His latest book is Hall of Mirrors:The Great Depression, the Great Recession, and the Uses – and Misuses – of History.

China’s Xi Jinping–The World’s Most Powerful Man


October 17, 2017

THE ECONOMIST

China’s Xi Jinping–The World’s Most Powerful Man

Xi Jinping has more clout than Donald Trump. The world should be wary

Do not expect Mr Xi to change China, or the world, for the better

Print edition | Leaders

Oct 14th 2017

One-man rule is ultimately a recipe for instability in China, as it has been in the past—think of Mao and his Cultural Revolution. It is also a recipe for arbitrary behaviour abroad, which is especially worrying at a time when Mr Trump’s America is pulling back and creating a power vacuum. The world does not want an isolationist United States or a dictatorship in China. Alas, it may get both.

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Two Giants of Asia–Xi and Modi–Friends or Foes

AMERICAN Presidents have a habit of describing their Chinese counterparts in terms of awe. A fawning Richard Nixon said to Mao Zedong that the chairman’s writings had “changed the world”. To Jimmy Carter, Deng Xiaoping was a string of flattering adjectives: “smart, tough, intelligent, frank, courageous, personable, self-assured, friendly”. Bill Clinton described China’s then president, Jiang Zemin, as a “visionary” and “a man of extraordinary intellect”. Donald Trump is no less wowed. The Washington Post quotes him as saying that China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, is “probably the most powerful” China has had in a century.

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Mr Trump may be right. And were it not political suicide for an American president to say so, he might plausibly have added: “Xi Jinping is the world’s most powerful leader.” To be sure, China’s economy is still second in size to America’s and its army, though rapidly gaining muscle, pales in comparison. But economic heft and military hardware are not everything. The leader of the free world has a narrow, transactional approach to foreigners and seems unable to enact his agenda at home. The United States is still the world’s most powerful country, but its leader is weaker at home and less effective abroad than any of his recent predecessors, not least because he scorns the values and alliances that underpin American influence.

The President of the world’s largest authoritarian state, by contrast, walks with swagger abroad. His grip on China is tighter than any leader’s since Mao. And whereas Mao’s China was chaotic and miserably poor, Mr Xi’s is a dominant engine of global growth. His clout will soon be on full display. On October 18th China’s ruling Communist Party will convene a five-yearly congress in Beijing (see Briefing). It will be the first one presided over by Mr Xi. Its 2,300 delegates will sing his praises to the skies. More sceptical observers might ask whether Mr Xi will use his extraordinary power for good or ill.

World, take note

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On his numerous foreign tours, Mr Xi presents himself as an apostle of peace and friendship, a voice of reason in a confused and troubled world. Mr Trump’s failings have made this much easier. At Davos in January Mr Xi promised the global elite that he would be a champion of globalisation, free trade and the Paris accord on climate change. Members of his audience were delighted and relieved. At least, they thought, one great power was willing to stand up for what was right, even if Mr Trump (then President-Elect) would not.

Mr Xi’s words are heeded partly because he has the world’s largest stockpile of foreign currency to back them up. His “Belt and Road Initiative” may be puzzlingly named, but its message is clear—hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese money are to be invested abroad in railways, ports, power stations and other infrastructure that will help vast swathes of the world to prosper. That is the kind of leadership America has not shown since the post-war days of the Marshall Plan in western Europe (which was considerably smaller).

Mr Xi is also projecting what for China is unprecedented military power abroad. This year he opened the country’s first foreign military base, in Djibouti. He has sent the Chinese navy on manoeuvres ever farther afield, including in July on NATO’s doorstep in the Baltic Sea alongside Russia’s fleet. China says it would never invade other countries to impose its will (apart from Taiwan, which it does not consider a country). Its base-building efforts are to support peacekeeping, anti-piracy and humanitarian missions, it says. As for the artificial islands with military-grade runways it is building in the South China Sea, these are purely defensive.

Unlike Vladimir Putin, Russia’s President, Mr Xi is not a global troublemaker who seeks to subvert democracy and destabilise the West. Still, he is too tolerant of troublemaking by his nuke-brandishing ally, North Korea (see Schumpeter). And some of China’s military behaviour alarms its neighbours, not only in South-East Asia but also in India and Japan.

At home, Mr Xi’s instincts are at least as illiberal as those of his Russian counterpart. He believes that even a little political permissiveness could prove not only his own undoing, but that of his regime. The fate of the Soviet Union haunts him, and that insecurity has consequences. He mistrusts not only the enemies his purges have created but also China’s fast-growing, smartphone-wielding middle class, and the shoots of civil society that were sprouting when he took over. He seems determined to tighten control over Chinese society, not least by enhancing the state’s powers of surveillance, and to keep the commanding heights of the economy firmly under the party’s thumb. All this will make China less rich than it should be, and a more stifling place to live. Human-rights abuses have grown worse under Mr Xi, with barely a murmur of complaint from other world leaders.

Liberals once mourned the “ten lost years” of reform under Mr Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. Those ten years have become 15, and may exceed 20. Some optimists argue that we have not yet seen the real Mr Xi—that the congress will help him consolidate his power, and after that he will begin social and economic reforms in earnest, building on his relative success in curbing corruption. If he is a closet pluralist, however, he disguises it well. And alarmingly for those who believe that all leaders have a sell-by date, Mr Xi is thought to be reluctant to step down in 2022, when precedent suggests he should.

Reasons to be fearful

Mr Xi may think that concentrating more or less unchecked power over 1.4bn Chinese in the hands of one man is, to borrow one of his favourite terms, the “new normal” of Chinese politics. But it is not normal; it is dangerous. No one should have that much power. One-man rule is ultimately a recipe for instability in China, as it has been in the past—think of Mao and his Cultural Revolution. It is also a recipe for arbitrary behaviour abroad, which is especially worrying at a time when Mr Trump’s America is pulling back and creating a power vacuum. The world does not want an isolationist United States or a dictatorship in China. Alas, it may get both.

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “The world’s most powerful man”

The Economic Case for China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative


October 14, 2017

The Economic Case for China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative

by Shang-Jin Wei*
https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/china-belt-and-road-economic-case-by-shang-jin-wei-2017-10

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In recent years, many of the world’s most influential countries have turned inward, with politicians promising protectionism, immigration restrictions, and even border walls. But, to achieve stronger economic growth and development, the world needs initiatives focused on building bridges – initiatives like China’s Belt and Road.

NEW YORK – Since 2013, China has been pursuing its “Belt and Road” initiative, which aims to develop physical infrastructure and policy linkages connecting more than 60 countries across Asia, Europe, and Africa. Critics worry that China may be so focused on expanding its geopolitical influence, in order to compete with the likes of the United States and Japan, that it may pursue projects that make little economic sense. But, if a few conditions are met, the economic case for the initiative is strong.

As a recent Asian Development Bank report confirms, many Belt and Road countries are in urgent need of large-scale infrastructure investment – precisely the type of investment that China has pledged. Some, such as Bangladesh and Kyrgyzstan, lack reliable electricity supplies, which is impeding the development of their manufacturing sectors and stifling their ability to export. Others, like Indonesia, do not have enough ports for internal economic integration or international trade.

 

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The Belt and Road initiative promises to help countries overcome these constraints, by providing external funding for ports, roads, schools, hospitals, and power plants and grids. In this sense, the initiative could function much like America’s post-1945 Marshall Plan, which is universally lauded for its contribution to the reconstruction and economic recovery of war-ravaged Europe.

Of course, external funding alone is not sufficient for success. Recipient countries must also undertake key reforms that increase policy transparency and predictability, thereby reducing investment risk. Indeed, implementation of complementary reforms will be a key determinant of the economic returns on Belt and Road investments.

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President Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One  Road Initiative  aims to knit together Asia, Europe and Africa through land and maritime corridors that collectively encompass a set of countries representing about 65 percent of the world’s population and one-third of its total economic output. China plans to spend roughly $150 billion a year to advance the initiative through infrastructure projects ranging from railways and roads, to ports and pipelines, to power plants and telecommunications networks.

For China, the Belt and Road investments are economically appealing, particularly when private Chinese firms take the lead in carrying them out. In 2013, when China first proposed the Belt and Road initiative, the country was sitting on $4 trillion in foreign-exchange reserves, which were earning a very low dollar return (less than 1% a year). In terms of China’s own currency, the returns were negative, given the expected appreciation of the renminbi against the US dollar at the time.

In this sense, Belt and Road investments are not particularly costly for China, particularly when their far-reaching potential benefits are taken into account. China’s trade-to-GDP ratio exceeds 40% – substantially higher than that of the US – owing partly to underdeveloped infrastructure and inadequate economic diversification among China’s trading partners. By addressing these weaknesses, China’s Belt and Road investments can lead to a substantial increase in participant countries’ and China’s own trade volumes, benefiting firms and workers substantially.

This is not to suggest that such investments are risk-free for China. The economic returns will depend on the quality of firms’ business decisions. In particular, because efficiency is not the primary consideration, Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) might purse low-return projects. That is why China’s SOE-reform process must be watched carefully. Nonetheless, while the Belt and Road initiative is clearly driven partly by strategic objectives, a cost-benefit analysis shows that the economic case is also very strong – so strong, in fact, that one might ask why China didn’t undertake it sooner.

Even the United States and other countries may reap significant economic returns. A decade after the global financial crisis erupted, recovery remains weak and tentative in much of the world. Bold, large-scale infrastructure investments can provide much-needed short-run stimulus to global aggregate demand. The US, for one, is likely to see a surge in demand for its own exports, including cars, locomotives, planes, and high-end construction equipment, and financial, accounting, educational, and legal services.

In the longer term, the new infrastructure will ease logistical bottlenecks, reducing the costs of production inputs. The result will be higher productivity and faster global growth.

If Belt and Road projects are held to high environmental and social standards, significant progress can also be made on global challenges such as climate change and inequality. The more countries choose to participate in these projects, the better the chance of achieving these standards, and the greater the global social returns will be.

In an era when some of the world’s most influential countries are turning inward, talking about erecting trade barriers and constructing border walls, the world needs initiatives focused on building bridges and roads, both literal and figurative – initiatives like the Belt and Road strategy.

 

Sustainable Development Goals Achievable?


September 28, 2017

Sustainable Development Goals Achievable?

by Andrew Sheng and Xiao Geng*

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/sdgs-global-cooperation-trump-un-speech-by-andrew-sheng-and-xiao-geng-2017-09

The SDGs were always bound to meet strong headwinds, owing to technological disruption, geopolitical rivalry, and widening social inequality. But populist calls for nationalist policies, including trade protectionism, have intensified those headwinds considerably.

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US President Donald Trump’s recent speech at the United Nations has gotten a lot of attention for its bizarre and bellicose rhetoric, including threats to dismantle the Iran nuclear deal and “totally destroy” North Korea. Underlying his declarations was a clear message: the sovereign state still reigns supreme, with national interests overshadowing shared objectives. This does not bode well for the Sustainable Development Goals.

Adopted by the UN just a year before Trump’s election, the SDGs will require that countries cooperate on crucial global targets related to climate change, poverty, public health, and much else. In an age of contempt for international cooperation, not to mention entrenched climate-change denial in the Trump administration, is achieving the SDGs wishful thinking?

The SDGs were always bound to meet strong headwinds, owing to technological disruption, geopolitical rivalry, and widening social inequality. But populist calls for nationalist policies, including trade protectionism, have intensified those headwinds considerably. Simply put, populations are losing faith that the global development orthodoxy of good governance (including monetary and fiscal discipline) and free markets can benefit them.

With all of the advanced countries confronting serious fiscal constraints, and emerging markets weakened by lower commodity prices, paying for global public goods has become all the more unappealing. Budget cuts – together with accountability issues and new technological challenges – are also hurting those tasked with delivering good governance. And markets increasingly seem to be captured by vested interests.

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Economic outcomes often have their origins in politics. Harvard Law School’s Roberto Unger has argued that overcoming the challenges of knowledge-based development will demand “inclusive vanguardism.” The democratization of the market economy, he says, is possible only with “a corresponding deepening of democratic politics,” which implies “the institutional reconstruction of the market itself.”

Yet, in the US, the political system seems unlikely to produce such a reconstruction. Harvard Business School Professors Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter argue that America’s two-party system “has become the major barrier to solving nearly every important challenge” facing the country.

Political leaders, Gehl and Porter continue, “compete on ideology and unrealistic promises, not on action and results,” and “divide voters and serve special interests” – all while facing little accountability. A forthcoming book by University of San Francisco Professor Shalendra Sharma corroborates this view. Comparing economic inequality in China, India, and the US, Sharma argues that both democratic and authoritarian governance have failed to promote equitable development.

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There are four potential combinations of outcomes for countries: (1) good governance and good economic policies; (2) good politics and bad economics; (3) bad politics and good economics; and (4) bad politics and bad economics. Other things being equal, there is only a one-in-four chance of arriving at a win-win situation of good governance and strong economic performance. That chance is diminished further by other disruptions, from natural disasters to external interference.

There are those who believe that technology will help to overcome such disruptions, by spurring enough growth to generate the resources needed to mitigate their impact. But while technology is consumer-friendly, it produces its own considerable costs.

Technology kills jobs in the short term and demands re-skilling of the labor force. Moreover, knowledge-intensive technology has a winner-take-all network effect, whereby hubs seize access to knowledge and power, leaving less-privileged groups, classes, sectors, and regions struggling to compete.

Thanks to social media, the resulting discontent now spreads faster than ever, leading to destructive politics. This can invite geopolitical interference, which quickly deteriorates into a lose-lose scenario, like that already apparent in water-stressed and conflict-affected countries, where governments are fragile or failing.

The combination of bad politics and economics in one country can easily produce contagion, as rising migration spreads political stress and instability to other countries. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, there were 65 million refugees last year, compared to just 1.6 million in 1960. Given the endurance of geopolitical conflict, not to mention the rapidly growing impact of climate change, migration levels are not expected to decline anytime soon.

The SDGs aim to relieve these pressures, by protecting the environment and improving the lives of people within their home countries. But achieving them will require far more responsible politics and a much stronger social consensus. And that will require a fundamental shift in mindset, from one of competition to one that emphasizes cooperation.

Just as we have no global tax mechanism to ensure the provision of global public goods, we have no global monetary or welfare policies to maintain price stability and social peace. That is why multilateral institutions need to be upgraded and restructured, with effective decision-making and implementation mechanisms for managing global development challenges such as infrastructure gaps, migration, climate change, and financial instability. Such a system would go a long way toward supporting progress toward the SDGs.

Unger argues that all of today’s democracies “are flawed, low-energy democracies,” in which “no trauma” – in the form of economic ruin or military conflict – means “no transformation.” He is right. In this environment, reflected in Trump’s embrace of the antiquated Westphalian model of nation-states, achieving the SDGs will probably be impossible.

*Andrew Sheng, Distinguished Fellow of the Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong and a member of the UNEP Advisory Council on Sustainable Finance, is a former chairman of the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission, and is currently an adjunct professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing. His latest book is From Asian to Global Financial Crisis.

*Xiao Geng, President of the Hong Kong Institution for International Finance, is a professor at the University of Hong Kong.