For example, take the belief that seems to be common in the developed world that relatively high levels of wealth are a given, a natural state of affairs. Would anyone contest that this belief is firmly entrenched? Whilst some might argue about the distribution of the wealth, for example arguing that true wealth should see more even distribution, they would still proceed from an assumption that there is and will be a relatively high level of wealth for distribution. I have now been blogging for several years, and have been thinking about economics for longer, and have not found any examples which do not proceed from an assumption that the developed world should just somehow be more wealthy. Even when articles bemoan the rise of China, they do so on the basis that, somehow, it is a natural place/position/state of affairs that the developed country should, well...... just be more wealthy.
The articles that worry about the sliding position of the developed world are the most interesting. They have a sense that 'something must be done', and often they will offer their policy prescriptions to fix the problem. It does not matter whether the author is left or right leaning, the aim is to maintain the relatively high levels of wealth in the country under discussion. With the right tweak of policy here, tweak there, all will be fixed. They assume that the natural position of relative wealth might be maintained, if only we could just do x, y or z.
Most of the readers of this blog seem to be well informed about economics. As such, I ask you to think about the many articles you read, and the assumptions that underpin them. You will find an assumption that the developed world not only is naturally more wealthy than the rest of the world, but also should be more wealthy than the rest of the world. There are some exceptions, in particular on the left, that the developed world is somehow sinful for being wealthier, and that the developed world should actively redistribute its wealth to the poorer parts of the world. Even here, we see an assumption of natural wealth.
The problems with the assumption of natural wealth, and that the developed world should be more wealthy is that it is just that; an assumption. It is treated like a natural force, and a right that is dictated by some kind of natural law. The problems is that there is no natural law, and no right that can be supported or defended in any way whatsoever. When a less well developed country pulls itself up by its metaphorical boot straps, sees rapid economic development, and contests for a position in the top tier of wealthy countries, there is no natural force that might stop them, or reverse the ascent. Instead, there are the complexities of the trillions of individual purchase decisions, the choices of individuals in economic entities such as firms, regulators, and policy makers.These are the real forces at work in economics, rather than some unseen and non-existent forces and rights.
I too have been guilty of the assumption that the developed world should be more wealthy. Like many others, I have argued that the developed world should act to defend its position as 'wealthy', including offering my own solutions. In some respects it is wrong-headed. There is no real reason why any particular country should be more wealthy than its neighbours, if the people of each country are equally as hard working and innovative. It seems that, in this situation, there can be no justification for one country being wealthier than another. There are, of course, situations where a particular country is just blessed, as in the examples of the oil resources available to countries in the Middle East. Putting it crudely, they just do not have to work as hard as others. Resenting such good fortune is, of course, pointless and sometimes such blessings also turn out to be a curse.
However, the world is not so simple as I paint it here. It assumes a world of competition between economic entities, based upon hard work and innovation. However, there is another competition at work, and that is the competition of systems; systems of how society is ordered. At one extreme we have what might be described as a something like a fascist state; China. All ideas that are imported into the country are subject to 'sinification', so China's system is uniquely Chinese. I use the word fascist therefore in a very loose way as the nearest equivalent. It would then be tempting to say that, on the other side, we have liberal, democratic and free market countries of the developed world. It would be a neat narrative of black versus white, but it does not hold.
However, the latter categorization is nevertheless partially true. With differing degrees of dysfunction, the developed world is democratic, and to different degrees 'liberal'. I say dysfunctional, because democracy is not working well. The system is failing. There are certain types of dysfunction that I will put to one side here, such as the shocking amount of money that is necessary to compete for the US presidency (albeit that such problems also relate to my area of concern). My concern is rather with the dysfunction of the electorate.
A significant economic challenge has developed, and that challenge is very real. We have seen a significant shift in the economic structure of the world. It has been assumed that what we are witnessing is a game of 'catch-up', in which countries such as China are seeking to chase after the on-going growth of wealth in the developed world. The idea that 'surpass' might take place is only in aggregate, not at the level of individual wealth. However, the developed world is not growing in wealth, but seeing a diminishment of wealth. The developed world is on a down escalator, even whilst the developing world is on the up escalator. As I have pointed out recently, those on the up escalator now face their own problems, but to assume that they will not continue upwards and the developed world downwards would be complacent.
It is here that I return to the dysfunction of the electorate and the question of liberal democratic and free market. In the developed world, the electorate have been seduced by the idea of the natural right to wealth in their own country. They know that there are now challengers to their position of wealth. They cannot avoid seeing this reality. Even those with the most passing interest in economics will be aware that the world has changed. Faced with the challenges of a new economic structure, instead of facing the new competition, electorates have demanded that the world remains unchanged. However, demanding that the world remains unchanged does not make the world unchanged. All that has happened in response to this demand, is that the politicians have responded to the demand by developing a pretense that the world is unchanged. Happy days are just around the corner. But the corner continues to be elusive. So what is the pretense?
The pretense is that we still operate in a world of free markets and that the world has not changed. Of course, it has never been the case that markets have ever been truly free, so we are talking about degrees of freedom. The point is that, since the economic crisis came into view, the marketplace has come to be dominated not by market signals, but monetary and fiscal policy of governments. Governments have always had a role in the marketplace, but underlying market signals could still (mostly) be discerned from the noise created by government. This is no longer true. More pertinently, it is now being recognised, even in conservative organisations like the Boston Consulting Group, that current policy is simply impossible to sustain. They are blunt; they call current policy in the developed world a 'ponzi scheme'. This is just one extract from the report, and the content will be no surprise to regular readers of this blog:
Intensifying International Competition and Rising Inequality. Globalization has brought the promise of economic prosperity to billions of people around the world. But it has also contributed to tougher international competition and the creation of new inequalities of wealth and income in the developed world. The growth in the global labor force continues to put pressure on labor costs in developed economies. At the same time, globalization is leading to increasing inequalities in income and wealth within countries, as some groups (such as investors) benefit more from increased globalization than others (such as manufacturing workers).In the last passage, they capture the problem of democracy, and why it is that the response of governments is to pander to demands. All of the new workers who have entered the global workforce are not going to go away. The advantage of capital over labour will not disappear for a long time. This is the reality and no amount of propping up of demand, printing of money or borrow and spend will make this reality disappear. Demanding a standard of living will not make it so.
Income statistics highlight this development: between 1979 and 2007, the income of the average U.S. household grew by 62 percent. Over the same period, the income of the top 1 percent of households grew by an extraordinary 275 percent and the income of the rest of the top 20 percent grew by a slightly above-average 65 percent, while the income of the remaining U.S. households grew by less than 40 percent. The incomes of the lowest quintile grew by only 18 percent.
Inequality increases the risk of social unrest and declining support for capitalism and a free society. As University of Chicago economist and former IMF chief economist Raghuram Rajan points out, “Ultimately, a capitalist system that does not enjoy popular support loses any vestige of either democracy or free enterprise.”
When starting this blog, I was largely a lone voice. The economic crisis was called a financial crisis, with a suggestion that, with bailouts, and some largess from central banks, the problems would disappear. They have not. They have simply been magnified. I argued for the idea that the world had entered a world of 'hyper-competition' and that is still where we stand. I am no longer a lone voice in this, and the BCG report is just one of the more 'conventional' sources that has finally recognised the changes that have taken place. The problem was not, as I have always argued, some isolated financial crisis, but a shocking change to the world economy - to the very structure of the world economy. Globalization was more than a word, but was a description of an accelerating revolution. On my bookshelf, I have a long unopened book on globalization; even when I read it several years ago, it appeared fanciful and arrogant. It now seems positively quaint. So here we are now in a world of hyper-competition. I will highlight a quote from the BCG report:
Fortunately, there is still time to act. But leaders from all social sectors—government, business, organized labor, environmental and other stakeholder groups—need to act decisively and quickly in order to secure future economic prosperity, social cohesion, and political stability. It is in the nature of Ponzi schemes to collapse suddenly, without warning. No one knows what event may send the developed world and the global economy as a whole back into crisis.They get what I did not get when I first started writing this blog. The absurdity of a ponzi scheme continues till it doesn't. The magic of a ponzi scheme is that they can sustain themselves for so long, before the weight of the fraud finally topples them. I thought that people would see through it much earlier because, in reality, it has always been in plain sight. People just had to choose to see it. And that is the problem. When confronted with reality, we (the electorates, the policy makers, the economists, the politicians) choose to look away. A while ago, I saw a film about the Madoff ponzi scheme (sorry, I forget the name), and the most striking point in the film was the stubborn refusal to see what was in plain sight. It is the same situation in the developed world economies. After all, it can run a little longer, and we will be ok, won't we?
Note: I did think about posting this after Christmas. It is not full of festive spirit, after all. However, when is the best time for bad news? I am not sure. So, I end here by wishing that you all enjoy Christmas, and only give thought to economics after enjoying Christmas with your families. On Christmas day, I will raise a glass of appreciation to all the regular readers of the blog, as it your interest that keeps me posting. Thank you, and have a great Christmas.