Archive for the Category Neoliberalism


Zombie ideas that just won’t die

This post is loosely related to themes such as “The Great Stagnation” and “The Complacent Class”, to cite two recent books by Tyler Cowen.  Also loosely related is Scott Alexander’s epic blog post Meditations on Moloch.  And perhaps “The End of History”.

As time goes by, neoliberalism seems more and more like a immovable force.

Think about it.  The Great Recession seemed to completely discredit neoliberalism.  All the most fashionable intellectuals on the left and the right say so.  Entire governments on the left (Syriza), center (Five Star), and right (Trump) are elected to replace neoliberalism with something better.  Socialism, nationalism, whatever.  The British vote to leave the EU.

But neoliberalism is like the zombie that cannot be killed.  Syriza can’t do much of anything, and Trump’s only major achievement is an ultra-neoliberal corporate tax cut.  Here’s today’s FT:

In practice, Mr Grieve himself has said another referendum is the “only” route to stopping Brexit.  What the advocate-general’s opinion does is open the legal path. Indeed, on Tuesday analysts at JPMorgan doubled their estimate of the possibility of “no Brexit” to 40 per cent — while halving the probability of “no-deal” in early 2019 to 10 per cent.

Are hardline Brexiters worried that no-deal is off the table?

Not outwardly. “It’s full steam ahead,” said one pro-Brexit Tory, who predicted the government would lose Tuesday’s meaningful vote by a margin of 40.

However, supporters of Mrs May’s deal argue that Brexiters have trapped themselves and that parliament, in which a majority favours soft Brexit or no Brexit, is now in control.

“They’ve completely messed it up,” said one Tory MP. “I’m coming to the conclusion that they wanted the [2016 Brexit] referendum only as a way of protesting.”

What!?!?!  There’s still a 40% chance that Bryan will win his bet?  That’s crazy.  It’s as if NIMBYism also applies to entire policy regimes.  No new economic policy regimes in my backyard!  The British public is like that accountant in the Monty Python routine.  They wanted DRAMATIC CHANGE, just so long as nothing in their life actually, you know, changes.  “We want to be like Singapore!” . . .  “Well, maybe not, perhaps we could first try Norway.” . . .  “Er, don’t rush me.”

I never got the Trump phenomenon until I figured this out.  Re-read the last six words of the FT quotation.

I’m a neoliberal, and thus am thrilled with this state of affairs.  But I’m uneasy because I don’t understand why I’m winning.  So what gives—why is neoliberalism so hard to kill?  I await an explanation from my commenters.

PS.  Here’s what happened in 1968, fifty years ago.  First men to orbit the moon.  The Tet offensive in Vietnam.  Two assassinations of US political leaders.  Revolutionary activity in countries all over the world (Mexico, China, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, etc., etc.) Race riots and student riots in the US. The 747 airplane launched.  Two thousand miles of interstate highway are built—in one year.  Friedman’s natural rate hypothesis. The ATM, 911 lines, and air bags invented. Kubrick’s “2001” released. The White album and Beggar’s Banquet. Fifty years later we have what?  What happened this year? The stupid fight over Kavanaugh?  You might argue that there are all sorts of cool technological developments occurring now.  OK, but consider this:

[Engelbart] went on to considerably more significant accomplishments, including the computer mouse, the graphical computer interface, text editing, hypertext, networked computers, e-mail, and videoconferencing, all of which he demonstrated in a legendary “mother of all demos” in San Francisco in 1968.

That’s from a book entitled “How to Change Your Mind”.  Which modern equivalent of Doug Engelbart came up with that many neat ideas this year?

I miss 1968.

I’m bored.


The loudest apologists for global neoliberalism

Back in 2016, the Trumpistas told us that the economy was a disaster.  Trump himself talked of economic “carnage” in his inaugural address.  When people pointed out that unemployment had recently fallen from 10% to 4.6%, they said those numbers were meaningless, and that the actual unemployment rate was as high as 30% or more.  We were told that the real issue was the huge trade deficit, which was decimating the American economy.  Those who pointed to “phony unemployment data” and ignored the trade deficit were nothing more than apologists for global neoliberalism.

Today the Trumpistas insist that the economy is in superb shape even though, as Tyler Cowen points out in a recent post, imports are surging and the trade deficit is getting larger.

I actually don’t have any big problem with Trumpistas saying the economy is in good shape, as long as they acknowledge that they have become the loudest apologists for global neoliberalism.  If they aren’t willing to acknowledge that fact, then what basis do they have to insist that the economy is in great shape?  RGDP growth?  It was just as fast around 2014-15.  Unemployment?  It fell from 10% to 4.6% even before Trump was elected.  Stocks?  They soared dramatically higher under Obama.  The big Trump issue is and always has been the trade deficit.  That’s how he wants to be judged, and that’s how I’ll judge him.

So Trumpistas should either take credit for continuing Obama’s policy of selling out to global neoliberalism with a policy of big trade deficits, falling unemployment, and soaring stock prices, or else keep their mouths shut.

PS.  The Financial Times makes the following claim:

Even if Mr Trump were gone tomorrow, nobody today in the US could run for president and win on a “let’s go back to the 1990s” platform. Laissez-faire trade and globalisation in general are under fire in the US (as well as in Europe and any number of developing countries).

Where is the evidence for this claim?  Why can’t we go back to the 1990s?  Polls show that support for free trade agreements is stable over time, and that young people and minorities are far more supportive of free trade than older people.  Why is it assumed that our future is inevitably more protectionist?  Aren’t the young and minorities our future?

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The Complacent Century

Looking backwards, it’s possible to see a number of turning points in the political zeitgeist.  America moved toward (left wing) liberalism around 1964, then swung back toward (right wing) neoliberalism in the late 1970s, and then toward nationalism in recent years.  And these were worldwide trends, with nationalism also on the rise in Europe, Russia, Turkey, India, China, Japan, and many other places.

Tyler Cowen pointed me to an article that suggests another turning point, which many people missed at the time.  The new millennium ushered in an Age of Complacency:

The eminent political economist Ross Garnaut says the Great Australian Complacency, as he calls it, took hold of the political system from 2000. This locates it halfway through the Howard era.

How can he be so specific? Because, after John Howard and Peter Costello enacted their landmark reform of the tax system in 2000, they lost interest in further reform, on Garnaut’s reckoning.

And this marked the end of not only Howard-Costello reforms but an entire generation of near-continuous reform efforts that started in the years of the Hawke-Keating governments.

As is so often the case, people put far too much weight on specific local factors when thinking about these changes.  Thus America’s move toward liberalism was not triggered by the Kennedy assassination, nor was the neoliberal era triggered by the elections of Thatcher and Reagan.  These were worldwide trends.

The Aussies have done very well in recent decades, and have a right to be complacent.  But the same thing happened in the US.  Here is government spending as a share of GDP, which rose sharply after 2000:

I know what you are going to say; “That’s due to special factors—G/GDP rose due to the 2001 recession and 9/11.

There is some truth in that, but it’s not the whole story.  G/GDP did not fall back when we recovered from the recession.  And indeed both Bush and Gore were promising bigger government than Clinton—the country was getting tired of neoliberalism by 2000.  Soon we would have Sarbanes-Oxley, a big new Federal education program, and a massive expansion of Medicare.  And that was under a GOP President—once Obama took office we moved even further towards big government.  And yet if you read pundits on the left all you hear about is endless “austerity”, which is nowhere to be seen in the data.

The UK was not hit by recession in 2001, nor was it impacted by 9/11.  But at almost exactly the same time the Labour Party got tired of austerity, and began rapidly boosting government spending:

You need a trained eye to read these graphs properly.  The G/GDP ratio usually tends to be somewhat countercyclical, rising during recessions and falling during booms. The sharp rise in the UK’s G/GDP ratio after 2000 was an exception, and is a tell tale sign that fiscal policy was dangerously out of control.

This might suggest that neoliberal reforms require economic distress, so that the public will see the need for changes.  But of course the economic distress of the 1930s led to the exact opposite—the rise of statism.

Rather, it seems that neoliberal reforms require both economic distress and a perception that the problem is caused by bad government policies.  The stagflation of the 1970s is one example.

Neoliberal reforms can also be triggered when countries are doing poorly relative to their neighbors.  Thus back in 2004 the Germans compared their 11% unemployment rate with the 5% rate in the UK, and concluded that excessively high labor costs were the problem.  This led to one of the last successful policy reforms of the neoliberal era.  Today, those amazingly successful reforms are politically unpopular in Germany

PS.  Over at Econlog I comment on the two (rumored) new Fed picks.

Argentina, Chile and China

Scott Alexander recently linked to a graph showing PISA scores by country and by income deciles within countries. Three that caught my eye were Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. These are three countries with populations of Western European descent, and are also the only three countries in South or Central America with per capita GDPs above $20,000.  But the Southern Cone does appalling bad at taking PISA exams, scoring among the lowest of all countries on the list.  Argentina is even lower than (much poorer) Brazil and Tunisia, something I would not have expected.  Argentina also scores extremely low on indices of “Economic Freedom”.

Argentina’s an interesting case to think about.  It’s a sort of composite of the worst of Chile and the worst of China.  Chile scores extremely high on economic freedom, the only developing country in the top 10 (unless Estonia is viewed as developing).  Argentina ranks 156 out of 180.  China’s sort of the opposite of Chile.  It ranks pretty low on economic freedom (#111), but (probably) pretty high on PISA scores.  I say “probably” because the scores being reported are for Shanghai, which is definitely smarter than the average Chinese city or village.  Indeed Shanghai scores above any other country in the world, including high achieving city-states like Hong Kong and Singapore.  Nonetheless, based on other studies I’ve seen, I am confident that China would still do pretty well on a more national PISA exam.  Perhaps about at Vietnam’s level.  (Vietnam is roughly comparable to Finland, and far above the US, UK or Sweden.)

So Chile and China each have one good trait and one bad trait.  Argentina has the bad trait of each.  Argentina’s a classic example of a glass half full/half empty situation.  From one perspective, you might expect Argentina to be rich.  It’s mostly settled by Western Europeans (I think it might be the most Western European country in all of North and South America), and those countries are usually pretty developed.  But Argentina’s per capita GDP seems to be either lowest in the world for ethnic Western European countries, or second lowest (I had trouble getting racial data for Costa Rica.) A hundred years ago it was among the world’s richest countries.  It has a world-class port, and rail lines fanning out across some of the world’s most profitable farmland.  It’s got lots of mineral resources.  It’s technically sophisticated, completing Latin America’s first nuclear power plant way back in 1974.

Chile’s population is also primarily Western European, but considerably less so than Argentina.  Chile also scores very low on PISA, but not as low as Argentina.  And of course Chile has far more economic freedom.  (Just to complete the Southern Cone, Uruguay is in between the two in terms of education and economic freedom, and also GDP/person.)

China is poorer than the Southern Cone.  But that may be misleading; as it’s clearly growing faster and hasn’t reached the “middle income trap” that the Southern Cone seems to have reached.  China’s high PISA scores are consistent with the high scores in other ethnic Chinese/Japanese/Korean/Vietnamese areas, but NOT other parts of Asia.

I’d like to claim that some combination of economic freedom and PISA scores explains wealth, but I see too many exceptions.  Mexico scores higher than Argentina on PISA tests, and also far higher on economic freedom, but is poorer.  Why?

Sweden is much richer than Finland, despite doing dramatically worse on PISA, and being fairly similar on economic freedom.  Maybe the answer here is that PISA and “economic freedom” don’t always measure what we might assume.  Take the Heritage Economic Freedom Index.  Argentina is down there with countries like Uzbekistan, New Guinea, Niger, Haiti and Afghanistan.  I don’t know about you, but if I were opening a new winery, I think I’d prefer the Mendoza area to Afghanistan or Niger.  Indeed reading the Heritage description of Argentina makes me wonder why it ranks so low. As far as PISA scores, I wonder if they measure the sorts of skills required for a modern economy.  According to The Economist, Swedes are the most computer literate of this set of countries, despite scoring relatively low on PISA tests.

Screen Shot 2017-02-18 at 8.21.06 PM I do think both the Heritage rankings and the PISA scores are correlated with what we think they measure (which might be ease of starting businesses and keeping the wealth you create for the Heritage index, and ability to do complex jobs for PISA).  The question I have is whether the outliers we see, such as Argentina and Sweden, are due to flaws in these two metrics, or because there are other factors that influence development, which go beyond economic freedom and intelligence/education.

At the bottom, I have (IMF) estimates of GDP per person in 2016 for the top 91 countries.  A few things worth noting:

1.  The US continues to be inexplicably rich.  Among “normal countries” (i.e. not oil rich, tiny, multinational dominated and/or city states) only Switzerland scores higher.  And number three (Netherlands) is more than 10% lower than the US.  We are no longer top 10 in economic freedom, and our PISA scores are mediocre.  So why are we so rich?  Because we are large?  But lots of small Northern European countries are high on the list.

2.  Spain finally surpassed Italy, after many decades of gradually catching up.  Wait, wasn’t Berlusconi going to Make Italy Great Again?  Seriously, I wonder if a combination of population density and regulatory complexity make if much harder to do major projects in Italy than Spain, like large new real estate developments.  Can anyone confirm?

3.  South Korea is now very close to overtaking Japan.  That may be partly due to the fact that Koreans have lower taxes and work more hours.

4.  China finally overtook Brazil, and it looks increasingly like they will overtake Mexico by 2030, (allowing me to win my bet with Talldave.)

5.   Malaysia overtook Greece and will soon overtake Portugal.  It seems increasingly likely that Malaysia will escape the “middle income trap”.

6.  There used to be a lot of articles about how the former Soviet bloc’s transition to capitalism had failed.  But there are now 5 former communist countries that are richer than Greece and Portugal, with the Czech Republic leading the way.

7.  All you need to do is look at countries #31 to #35 to realize that GDP/person (PPP) can be extremely misleading.  I wonder about some of the figures.

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It was the best of times, it was the second best of times

This is the golden age for Planet Earth.  Here is the FT:

We first asked whether young people were happy with their lives. We found that in emerging economies young people tend to be far happier than in the west: 90 per cent of Indonesians and 78 per cent of Nigerians said they were happy compared with just 57 per cent in Britain and France.

They also tend to be more optimistic. The countries with the highest proportions of young people who think the world is getting better are China, India and Nigeria; those where the highest proportion think the world is getting worse are France and Italy. The emerging economy exceptions were Argentina and Brazil, where young people are as gloomy about the future as they are in Europe.

The economic boom in the emerging markets is really starting to pay dividends in terms of human happiness.  Consider:

1.  In most of the world things are getting better at a rapid pace.

2.  Even better, the areas that are struggling, like France and Italy, are mostly already very affluent countries enjoying the “second best of times”.

3.  Even better, there are good models for these laggards, right across the border in Germany, where lots of jobs are created for young people.

4.  Even better, France and Italy are democratic countries that can freely choose the German model.

5.  Even better, we know that Germany’s success is not just cultural (although culture plays a role), nor is it based on trade surpluses that cannot be replicated worldwide.  Germany was a failed economy as recently as 2005, with 11% unemployment, despite it having the same culture and a huge trade surplus.  It was the labor market reforms of 2004 that brought success to Germany.  France and Italy can do the same, as long as they reject right-wing populism and embrace neoliberalism.  (Go Macron!)

But this is just the tip of the iceberg; there is far better news in the FT survey:

Young people in emerging economies are emphatic supporters of liberal values — even when those values run contrary to the laws of their country. In India and China more than half of young people think that same-sex marriage should be legal. Around three-quarters of young people in India, Brazil and China support equal rights for transgender people — more than in France and Japan.

Overwhelmingly, young people believe that men and women should be treated equally — with the greatest support for such values in the very different societies of Canada and China. Even in India, more than nine out of 10 young people support the principle that men and women should be treated equally — marginally higher even than in the UK and the US. We can no longer generalise about conservative developing countries and more liberal developed countries.

For all the concern about religious conservatism and polarisation, it is heartening that two-thirds of young people have close friends from other religions, and less than a fifth say a person’s religion is an important factor when deciding whether or not to be friends with them. Even in countries where this figure is highest — for instance India (29 per cent) and Indonesia (31 per cent) — two-thirds do not think a person’s religion is an important consideration when forming friendships.

Liberal attitudes are the key to progress.  The liberal attitudes of young people in the emerging markets bodes well for continued progress.

Members of Generation Z born in emerging economies are more likely to travel and forge friendships in other countries — on and offline — than any previous generation. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that they broadly agree with their contemporaries in the west on a host of personal and political issues, with some notable exceptions (Nigeria is a category of its own for religious conservatism) and, if anything, are greater supporters of the international order. With the growth of nativism around the world, it’s reassuring to know that the generation who will inherit the earth are, in most part, liberal globalists.

The future of the world has never been brighter.

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