DannyQuah

Making large things visible to the human eye

Category Archives: Asia

Economics, Democracy, and the New World Order

Some of us wake up every morning to find ourselves living in a society where economic opportunity is unfairly distributed, where a narrow social elite is given everything while others endure harsh deprivation. If we live in such a society, every morning our soul yearns for a system better than that we’re in.

We might live in a society where discrimination is rife, where government cronies are handed plum benefits, where extractive elites plunder national wealth.

We say we want out of that system. We ask only for a level playing field, for a system that is fair, open, and transparent, a system that practices meritocracy.

The Way the World Went

If what I’ve just described resonates with you, the good news is the world has your back. The world wants for you what you want for yourself, and indeed more and more of the world has been on that delivery run for now a quarter of a century. Twenty five years ago the Soviet Union collapsed, bringing on what some observers announced as The End of History. The wisdom that emerged was that only liberal democracy and free-market economics remained viable as ways successfully to organize society. What could be fairer, more open, and more transparent than a political system that declared all people equal in the process of selecting a leader – one person, one vote? What could be more meritocratic than a system where whether you succeed or fail is decided by a free market blind to social status, not by some prejudiced official looking over your family connections?

Liberal democracy and free-market economics are both structures that appeal to technologists and designers. In theory they have an apparent emergent intelligence that seem magical to many: You install rules in the system; you turn on the system; you stand back, and you watch it execute to the best outcome possible for the system. If a disturbance perturbs the system, the rules in place allow innovation, flexibility, and adaption, and the system self-stabilizes to a new best outcome.

The US, the UK, and other economies on both sides of the Atlantic to varying degree practice these principles. Indeed, many observers consider that TransAtlantic Axis to be where such principles are held safe, to be passed on to others. Thus, even though membership in the club of successful economies would be open to all, it was there, the TransAtlantic Axis, from which success would unfurl. And, indeed, that happened big-time.  By one reckoning, world democracies numbered only 45 in 1970, their number ballooned to 115 by 2010.

Then the World Changed Again

But then history decided it wasn’t quite finished with humanity. First, the 2008 Global Financial Crisis struck. From exactly the TransAtlantic Axis, waves of financial collapse lashed outwards until 12 months after, in the wreckage, world financial markets had fallen by US$26tn (half of annual world GDP), an estimated additional 34mn people had been thrown into unemployment, and the world financial system was on the brink of collapse. The orthodoxy of free-market economics morphed into a witch-hunt for those who dared still to suggest that market competition might produce anything other than banks too big to fail (and therefore just too big) or grotesquely unfair distributions of well-being across citizens.  All the good things that free-market economics brings – the rich variety of consumer goods, competition that lowers prices, innovation that improves the lives of people – seem to have been forgotten or unjustly dismissed.

But then, for the purposes of this narrative, something even worse happened:

China poised to pass US as world's largest economic power this year.  Financial Times, 30 April 2014

China, the world’s largest one-party autocracy, far outside the orbit of the TransAtlantic Axis, will imminently become the world’s largest economy, overtaking the US which had held that position for over 140 years. Not just that, but over the last three decades China lifted over 600mn people out of extreme poverty, while inequality in the West got so bad, the income share of the population’s top 1% recently reached heights not seen for a century.

Top 10 contributions to world growth: 2007-2012. GDP evaluated at market exchange rates

Top 10 contributions to world growth: 2007-2012. GDP evaluated at market exchange rates (Source: IMF World Economic Outlook, April 2012)

Over the course of the Global Financial Crisis many observers had remarked how in their view China grew only because the West imported and therefore when the West underwent austerity, China’s economy would be devastated. Yet between 2007 and 2012 it was China that added most to the resuscitation of the global economy, more than 3 times the contribution of the US.

German exports to the rest of the world

German exports to the rest of the world (Source: IMF Direction of Trade Statistics, 2011)

Germany, Europe’s most successful economy in this time, continued to grow — even with the collapse of its exports to its European neighbours and to the US, historically its largest export market outside of Europe — precisely by selling to China and the rest of Developing Asia.

The Great Shift East, 1980-2050

The Great Shift East, 1980-2050. Source: Quah, Danny. 2011. “The Global Economy’s Shifting Centre of Gravity.” Global Policy 2 (1) (January): 3–9

In the last 30 years the rise of the East, not just China, has pulled the world’s economic centre of gravity 5000km out of its 1980s TransAtlantic moorings, into the Persian Gulf. If growth trajectories continue in the 700 points on Earth used for this calculation then the world’s economic centre will soon come to rest on the boundary between India and China, 10 timezones east of the world’s traditional pole of economic power.

None of this was supposed to happen. Twenty years ago this year, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world’s most influential economist wrote:

“From the perspective of year 2010, current projections of Asian supremacy extrapolated from recent trends may well look almost as silly as 1960s-vintage forecasts of Soviet industrial supremacy did from the perspective of the Brezhnev years.”

Yes, by 2010 those economic trends were indeed found to have given inaccurate extrapolation, not from their having been too optimistic, but instead the opposite.  They have been too modest.

China and the rest of East Asia of course rely on markets, after a fashion. What they have not done was buy whole-heartedly into the notion that you get economic prosperity only through ballot-box driven electoral democracy. Hugh White, the former senior official in Australia’s Department of Defense, said what many were thinking when in September 2013 he considered varied foreign policy stances that might be taken by his then-incoming Prime Minister and concluded:

“Abbott’s conservatism also inclines him to be uneasy about modern China. Like many people in the West—and not just conservatives—he finds it uncomfortable that China could grow so quickly and become so powerful despite its authoritarian one-party political system. That challenges his deeply held ideas about the ascendency of democratic principles, which had seemed so decisively validated by the collapse of communism elsewhere in the world.”

What Happened?

Wasn’t national success only guaranteed by a mix of liberal democracy and free-market economics? Have both planks of the end of history just fallen away? How have Chinese and other Asian systems been able to innovate and to adapt when others, those arguably the more likely to succeed, have instead failed to be as robust?

Make no mistake, China’s system has been truly flexible and adaptive. As Eric X. Li reminds us, China is a country that has taken on a dramatic range of innovation: radical land collectivization, the Great Leap Forward; the Cultural Revolution; privatization of farmlands; Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms, modernisation, and urbanisation; Jiang Zemin’s opening up Chinese Communist Party membership to private businesspeople. High-level official and party leadership posts previously for life have been replaced by those with term limits and mandatory retirement by 70, a sensibility that not even university professors keep, despite the academic profession’s insistence on ideas always having to be fresh and innovative.

Lessons

Obviously, any serious study on such large issues I’ve described will demand great rigour and considerable detail. Moreover, history from here on out might decide to lurch once again in an unexpected direction. Either way, however, I would shy away from concluding that one system or another is necessarily better than the other. My own hunch is there are multiple pathways to prosperity and success: the evidence, it seems to me, indicates that. Trying to say once and for all that one system is best (or even the least bad) is almost surely foolish. And while it sounds authoritative to pronounce one system or another “not sustainable”, it should be apparent to everyone that, simply as a matter of logic, such a statement can never be proven wrong. No system in history has yet been shown to be indefinitely sustainable.

Where this discussion gets somewhere more concrete is instead the following. Too often, “liberal democracy” and “free markets” become simply code and catch-phrase to stand for all the bright shiny things someone wishes to have but does not.

Democracy has, ultimately, meaning far more noble and important than simply, say, access to the ballot box. Instead, what it should stand for is this: Every government, every ruler must be daily insecure. Every government, every ruler must every day understand their power to be built on the shifting sands of the will of their people. And they must daily strive to advance the well-being of those people.

By this measure the state in China and other officially autocratic economies throughout Asia are already more democratic than many observers might think.  By this same measure many ballot-box electoral democracies fail.  Every time we read yet another account of how China’s leaders desperately need the economy to grow at more than 7% a year, so enough jobs can be generated for their hundreds of millions of new workers, that’s not a creaking oligarchy desperately hanging on to power.  Well, of course, it might be.  But it might also be simply what’s called advancing the well-being of one’s people.

This does not change how Europe will continue to be the liberal anchor of the world, even as the economic centre shifts East.  But it does say alternative internally self-consistent forms of liberalism might emerge in response to different circumstances.

In contrast, however, parts of our current global system carry hypocritical and damaging inconsistencies.  While the TransAtlantic Axis seeks to disseminate democratic ideals throughout the world, today’s system of global governance built on US benevolent hegemony is itself deeply undemocratic. For the last 50 years our world has chosen as its leader from only among the richest and most powerful of nation states. That leader has not only status and wealth beyond those of all others, it wields unrivalled political influence and military superiority beyond imagination. As leader, it operates with effectively no counterbalance on the international stage.

In brief our current world order is built on the leadership by military and economic power; that world order pays no mind to how well that the global leader serves humanity. US hegemony in the current world order is a system of leadership that is truly and deeply undemocratic.

This is why a simple graph of China’s economic overtaking the US or the world’s economic centre of gravity hurtling to ten timezones east of Washington DC is so disconcerting to the TransAtlantic political elite. If US hegemony in the current world order will soon have neither economic nor political legitimacy, does that hegemony simply become despotism?  Why should it remain?

More than 50% of humanity lives here.

If the world were a democracy this is where it would make decisions of global significance. From an idea due to Ken Myers.

From a point in the South China Sea, roughly in the same timezone as the world’s economic centre of gravity, draw a circle 4000km in radius. This is a tiny circle, comprising only 25mn sq km of land, only one-sixth of the planet’s land area. Yet, this circle contains more than half of humanity. If we want to construct a new world order with democratic legitimacy and economic strength, let’s begin here, with fresh ideas, and see where that takes us.

(This post also appears on Davos WEF and Global Policy; it is an adaptation of the talk I gave at TEDxKL on Saturday 09 August 2014.  It draws on ideas in many debates I have had with Prof M. E. Cox, including that at LSE on Monday 04 August 2014.)

Adam Smith and little fingers

Adam Smith taught modern economists that global governance is hard because, among much else, for most people, losing a little finger is worse than the deaths of hundreds of millions in places far away, like China.

China is big

China is big

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thing is, though, what happens when it’s China where the little fingers are – because China becomes the world’s economic centre – and “far away” is somewhere else, far away?

The world needs new leadership not from those whose lives have been easy, but from those whose lives have been hard.

Malaysia finds itself more and more in international news headlines. No one needs to tell ordinary Malaysians how their daily lives fill to overflowing with myriad concerns and challenges. The nation’s political leadership is challenged and changed with lively ongoing debate. Malaysia’s people unite in the face of adversity and national tragedy, and in national sporting triumph. Increased international competition and a global consciousness in its people; finite oil and gas and other rapidly-depleting natural resources; a promise of ever greater national unity that many feel has failed: there is no room for political and economic complacency.

If the world were a democracy, this is where  decisions would be made on matters of global significance.    (Idea from <A HREF="http://techno-anthropology.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/the-valeriepieris-circle.html">Kenneth Myers, The Valeriepieris Circle, May 2013</A>.)

If the world were a democracy, this is where decisions would be made on matters of global significance. (Idea from Kenneth Myers, The Valeriepieris Circle, May 2013.)

Malaysia’s stock of talented and hardworking people want their economy and their fellow citizens to succeed. But they struggle daily in circumstances they consider unfair and unjust. This is a nation that sees ethnic, religious, and urban-rural fracture. It sees heated parliamentary debate that tests the noble ideals of democracy, at the same time that it witnesses manipulation of the ugliest of populist instincts, and allegations of high-level corruption and wrong-doing.

And Malaysia’s place in the world?  Malaysia today invests more in Africa than does China.  In London commercial real estate, Malaysia is a bigger presence than is China.  Even as China intends US$1tn in trade with ASEAN by 2020, it is Malaysia that remains China’s largest ASEAN trading partner, with bilateral trade continuing to rise 16% a year.

What about incidents such as the MH370 tragedy and their impact on Malaysia’s state relations generally, but with China in particular?  Angela Merkel might have been irritated with the US for its bugging her cellphone, but Germany did not declare Transatlantic war as a result.  The US became global hegemon through building inclusive collaborative state relations with those around it.  So too if China is to become the benevolent leader of nations that is a global hegemon, that will be through China’s continuing to build relations of trust and cooperation with countries like Malaysia.

Malaysia is a full-service, one-stop shop, middle-income level developmental experience.

It is appropriate then that the eyes of the global community are transfixed on what happens here. Malaysia sets an example—good or bad—on how the rest of humanity will need to deal with the great challenges of the coming century.

The rest of the world sees hope in Malaysia, not because life and progress here have been easy, but the opposite, in how Malaysia has met its challenges. Today hundreds of countries around the world face the middle-income trap, a slowdown in economic progress before the country reaches maximum potential: What has made Malaysia believe it is successfully escaping the Middle-Income Trap?

Today nations the world over confront the racial and social tensions from sharp income inequality. What in Malaysia’s political complexion allowed it four decades ago to roll out its national dream, a New Economic Policy that would eradicate poverty regardless of race and that would eliminate the identification of economic function with ethnicity? If Malaysia has lost its way in that struggle, how have its leaders and its people together fought back, to keep alive that national dream?

How has Malaysia continued to succeed following the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, with global financial systems in disarray? In this time Malaysia has kept secure its credit systems, ranked in 2014 first in the world in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business survey. Malaysia has simultaneously maintained a no. 6 ranking for well-developed and secure financial markets and a no.8 ranking for low burden of government regulation, both in the 2014 World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index. How did Malaysia do this?

In 2013 Transparency International ranked Malaysia worst in 30 countries surveyed for bribery. The same year the Asia-Pacific Fraud Survey Report Series ranked Malaysia worst in the region for corruption and bribery (alongside China, Indonesia, and Vietnam): how will Malaysia’s leadership deal with this challenge?

So, to repeat, why is Malaysia the focus of so much international attention? Because Malaysia has had to confront problems that are in extreme those everyone else needs to deal with as well. The example Malaysia sets is key, not only for its internal political dynamics but also for its external relations.

Emerging economies in general and the East in particular realise they can no longer run unthinkingly on Western models of propriety, policy, and governance. Even the West today does not run on Western models of propriety, policy, and governance.

The world has grown economically and financially unstable because its historical global hegemon has gone missing in action. The US is no longer the fount of legitimacy; it is no longer benevolent builder of inclusive international systems. The US has failed on the world stage, partly from the rise of the East, partly from its domestic political paralysis. But this vacuum in world leadership has not met useful replacement. Instead, in this uncoordinated and leaderless world, political leaders pay mind ever more only to short-term national interests, ignoring how their actions inadvertently destabilize the global economy.

With Malaysia as an important hub, the ASEAN region today faces these same challenges of cooperation and leadership. ASEAN seeks ever greater consolidation towards an ASEAN Economic Community by 2015. ASEAN’s concerns might be regional rather than global, but the problems are identical to those faced by a world economy that is uncoordinated and leaderless. The danger is how the benefits to regional economic integration and cooperation might be sacrificed on the altar of national expediency, as member states attempt to engage with domestic populations showing ever greater political clout, ever more visible political dissatisfaction, and ever greater sensitivity to the need for the benefits to economic growth being distributed equitably.

How has Malaysia dealt with these tensions internally, and how has it remained hopeful for successful development towards a first-world country? How is Malaysia navigating regional relations across groups unified neither by political vision nor ethnic affinity?

Today Malaysia sits on a cauldron of profound, history-changing domestic dynamics. It sits on a hub of critical regionalisation in a period when the world economy is dramatically shifting.

The world needs new political and economic models of success and leadership, not from those whose lives have been easy but from those whose lives have been hard. Malaysia needs to step up to that challenge. Its success will be good for its people and for the world.

(Adapted from the author’s “Malaysia – Why the World Wants In“, The Edge, 17 March 2014)

 

Global hegemony. In one picture.

Global hegemony could, first of all, be about leadership in the world economy: doing the right thing at home, coordinating the actions of your friends, restoring growth to the Transatlantic economies.

Or, alternatively, it could be about representing the world’s peoples, one person one vote as in any electoral democracy — to elevate the sum total of good for humanity:

Sometimes these two do not coincide.

Draw a circle 4,000km in radius around Hainan Island in the South China Sea. The land area carved out is only 25 mn sq km, or one-sixth of the world’s total land area.  More people, however, live within that circle than outside.  The world’s median voter?  Here’s where she lives.

(Graphic is derived from Kenneth Myers. The Valeriepieris Circle. May 2013.)

Global Tensions from a Rising East

Will the East slow before it counts? Is the East only big enough to be culpable but not mature enough to be responsible?


[TEDxLSE - Danny Quah - Global Tensions from a Rising East, 17 March 2012]

Today I want to talk to you about the rise of the East, the shifting global economy. Most of us, at different levels, are aware of such changes going on around us. We might have heard about how all iPhones, while lovingly designed in California, are actually manufactured in Shenzhen China. We might have heard about how the Eurozone looked East for rescue on its sovereign-debt problems. We might have read newspaper editorials reflect on how the decade since 9/11 has been one where the three most important words for the US have emerged to be, no, not “major terrorist attack” but “Made in China”.

The questions I want to explore with you are two: Will the East slow down before the East can matter for the world? In the current economic crises that have haunted the world since the mid-2000s, that some have blamed on Asian Thrift and the resulting global imbalances, is the East only large enough to be culpable but not mature enough to be responsible?

The fact is undisputed that the developed economies continue to hold the world’s primary spheres of political influence: Thus, the reasoning goes, if the rise of the emerging economies — the Great Shift East — challenges anything in the global order, that challenge can be only apparent and its perception only transient. The emerging economies’ fast growth is nothing more than their picking low-hanging fruit, i.e., doing the easy things that allow economic development. Emerging economies will slow long before they count. After all, with the export-oriented development strategies that so many emerging economies have undertaken, if the developed countries were to stop consuming and importing, surely growth in the emerging economies would grind to a halt.

In this presentation, I will address two broad sets of issues. First, what are the already-extant contours of the Great Shift East, and what is the likelihood of their reversal? I will conclude that those changes are more pronounced and more entrenched — and thus less reversible — than might at first appear and certainly so when compared to other recent historical episodes. This holds enormous promise for improving the lot of humanity: the Great Shift East will continue to lift out of deep absolute poverty hundreds of millions of the world’s very poorest people.

These changes, however, take nothing away from how it is the developed countries that will remain the centre of global political influence. As a result the Great Shift East will produce massive global economic and political misalignment: the world’s economic and political centres of gravity will separate and drift further apart. And that, in turn, will raise staggering challenges: these latter comprise the other focus of my presentation. How will the global political system adjust to these ongoing economic changes on the scale that have already occurred and will almost surely continue?

How we miss the Great Shift East

Many well-known facts are, in actuality, false. One such is how the Great Wall of China is humanity’s only construction visible from outer space.  Another is how Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake.”

The Great Shift East, 1980-2050

The Great Shift East, 1980-2050

Conversely, many facts actually true are obscure and misunderstood. For some of these facts, that fate is perhaps well-deserved, as a number of scientific truths cannot even be stated in everyday language. Certain other facts that nearly everyone considers obvious or well-known have boundaries that are indistinct and, as a result, unhelpfully permit both hyperbole and scepticism. One of the goals of research should be to map out those boundaries, so that both intellectual understanding and policy debate can be based on evidence rather than speculation.

The Rise of The East is one of those well-known but misunderstood facts. Sufficiently many books, newspaper articles, and TV programs have carried this meme to where hardly anyone can now plead ignorance of it. But enough ambiguity remains, so observers are free to project onto the idea both their best hopes and their worst fears. Not helpful in this regard is where characterizations of this Great Shift East — caricature, stylized, divorced from hard empirical evidence, insufficiently accurate — impersonate as fact. These simultaneously fan alarm, invite ridicule, and risk credibility.

A concrete and straightforward illustration of the Great Shift East is, therefore, both helpful and needed. “The Global Economy’s Shifting Centre of Gravity” provided just that in the clearest and most direct way I could write down. I am pleased that others — on a panel of scholars and practitioners both — think I have done a good job with the idea.
GPPN Best Article Prize

Considerable previous research had, of course, already been published on the empirics of economic growth. However, that more traditional research focused on countries’ per capita incomes—because that’s what theoretical models of growth sought to explain—and eschewed location, co-movement, and national identity, in favor of anonymized subscripts in a statistical cross section. By maintaining a discipline of empirical research only when driven by theory, arguably, economics took its eye off what really mattered in the shifting global economy, leaving that big picture instead to political scientists, international relations scholars, and investment bankers.

In some of my earlier work on the cross section of country growth, I was even told to take out economies like China or Singapore, because they were obviously outliers and unrepresentative. But being outliers and unrepresentative, it struck me, was exactly why they were interesting. While “The Global Economy’s Shifting Centre of Gravity” had a simple goal, it also got to bring back in all these other considerations of why the global economy needs to be understood as an entirety, not just as a bunch of economies taken in isolation. Otherwise, it was like trying to understand cloud formation by studying water molecules.

We now know that in a rush, the world went from being centred on the Transatlantic Axis, with BRICs merely a catchphrase, to where the BRICs conceit became a primary organizing principle for high-level international policy making, multi-trillion dollar portfolio investment, and geopolitical analysis. But, caught in that same rush, the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, significant although it already was on its own, provided tabula rasa for revisionist interpretation: The 2008 Financial Crisis morphed to be merely Transatlantic, rather than Global. The 2008 Financial Crisis reflected the Decline of The West, simultaneous with the Rise of The East. The 2008 Financial Crisis was caused by global imbalances resulting from Asian Thrift, i.e., East Asians’ newly endowed with the financial clout but not the political maturity to be responsible in their management of international trade.

As historical reality unfolded, so too grew fear, uncertainty, doubt, and pushback.  The German Marshall Foundation’s 2011 Transatlantic Trends survey found the majority of Americans reckoning Asia more important than Europe to their national interests, with the proportion rising as high as 70% among Americans aged 18-34. But the same survey also found that 63% of Americans viewed China as an economic threat, i.e., double the number who considered China an economic opportunity.

Dinner with Foreigners

Asians themselves remain sharply divided on the Great Shift East. On the one hand, thinkers like Kishore Mahbubani have long argued that the world’s policy-making has unhelpfully lagged a reality where the East is rapidly growing in importance. On the other hand, Eastern decision-makers have continued to look West for all levels of engagement. Powerful Eastern sovereign wealth funds remain enamoured of investment in locations around the Transatlantic Axis even as Western governments look back at them with suspicion. I know smart, articulate Singaporeans who turned down Ivy League universities to go instead to Beida, but a majority of Asians still more highly value education in the West, whether for the liberal arts training or the business and social connections. At a much lower level of financial commitment, the Wall Street Journal just this month described a dating agency that charged Chinese women US$600 to meet Western men who got to sign up for free (the ad actually said “Foreigner”, but few people I spoke to thought that included Indonesian or Filipino men). What Great Shift East when all the exports are just one way?

The political scientist and international relations scholar Joseph Nye speaks of nations having “soft power”, in contrast to the hard power of obvious economic or military strength. “Soft power” is the ability to convince others to want the same thing you want, without buying them off or threatening to shoot them. While economic power has indeed moved, the important tokens of soft power, and thus of geopolitical balance, remain firmly moored and continue to attract. Soon the economic center of the world will be 10 timezones east of where its political center remains. This misalignment is historically never propitious, whether geopolitical in the sense of Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of Great Powers, or within countries where it often manifests in conflict between ethnic or religious groups.

The Great Shift East, therefore, is even more than usual a work in progress. Measuring it — making a large fact visible to the human eye — is just a first item of business.

OFA – Be a little foolish, be a little different

PFS to celebrate its 200th year

PFS to celebrate its 200th year – from The Star newspaper

When I left Penang for university in the US, I also left Penang Free School before the school year ended. I felt I did so without disrupting much the life of the School: I wasn’t editor of the School magazine. I wasn’t Break Monitor, Class Monitor, Traffic Warden, House Prefect, or School Prefect. I didn’t captain any School sports team. In some subjects, I would usually get close to failing marks — ok, not in “some subjects” but in Art, specifically. Fellow students who were my seniors would routinely reject my writing submissions to school publications for my being too flippant (I had to look up what “flippant” meant the first time I heard back from one editor). School teachers would openly warn me in class for being disruptive, every so often. Fellow students who were my seniors and who trained with me in gymnastics would ask me why I kept coming back as I never seemed to get any stronger, faster, or better.

At PFS I hadn’t failed at everything. But I wasn’t a remarkable student at PFS. In the eyes of people in charge, I was in the middle of the pack. That felt about right to me as that’s where most people are, generally. Where I’d not done well at School, I figured perhaps those things didn’t matter.

I’m now Professor of Economics at the LSE. My CV makes plain what that involves. But compared to when I was a PFS student, I have also had to do a few things where I have felt a little more exposed — no longer so much middle of the pack — and that are less obviously associated with my job but perhaps more interesting. These are not typically things that come with being a Professor. So I undertake added risks when I take them on.

Before thousands of graduating university students and their families, for three years as Head of Department for Economics at LSE, I announced the names of fresh graduates and congratulated them as they undertook the last of their university rites. Over decades of teaching and travelling, I lectured to tens of thousands of people — in New Zealand, Beijing, Southeast Asia, the Gulf, and nations in between all the way through to North and South America. CNN, Reuters, Bloomberg, and the BBC tell me they broadcast to hundreds of millions of people worldwide — so I could potentially have spoken to some reasonable fraction of that many people each time I’ve appeared on TV or radio from London.

My research has, over the years, varied from the extremely mathematical and obscure on the one hand, to the politically more visible on the other. As a consequence, I’ve gotten feedback on what I do from many different segments of society. Some of my writings have been translated into 18 different languages. What I work on now, the rise of the East in the global economy, gets more than usually varied reactions. Some tell me to hide away this work:

‘Americans, as is, are already paranoid enough, just short of trumping up a shooting war with China. Can you please tone down your “research”, and better yet file it in your basement and wait for 50 years before publishing them? Please let the world be a more peaceful place.’

counts among the gentler of messages I regularly receive. Other feedback can be slightly more encouraging.

Not that I think I have to be ready for my own shooting war, but I also train regularly in taekwon-do, now as a second-dan blackbelt. Five years after I started taekwon-do here in the UK, I managed to fight my way to being runner-up in sparring at the British championships and I managed to become British champion in patterns.

When I correlate the things I do now that draw for me the greatest sense of achievement with what I’d previously done well at PFS, I’m struck by how orthogonal these two sets of attributes are. At PFS I’d excelled in mathematics and science, but that is now only a small part of what I need to do to be a productive contributing member of the community. What matters more instead? A good sense of of what is artistically compelling and linguistically convincing. A political awareness of what ought to matter to people in international society. Articulatenesss in writing and speaking, and an ability to debate effectively. Physical acuity and a feeling of confidence and security in my own skin.

What is strange is that those characteristics I now find most valuable are the same as those where PFS had challenged me most and found me most wanting, exactly those areas I’d been most dismissive of when I’d been at PFS (they were only “soft skills”).

Perhaps PFS does this to everyone, although in different ways. PFS is an educational institution of such deep and profound historical achievement, it ferrets out those areas where you the student need most to build, and then it challenges you there. How you respond — do you turn your back and say it’s all meaningless; do you say, let me learn so I can be better — is up to you.

At PFS, as in most of life, you only get one go-round. You can make that one pass-through be everything to you, or you can make it mean much less. On the one hand, this lesson I’ve learnt about PFS as an institution is awesomely frightening: no one there is going to give you easy answers but you can be sure they’ll be there to ask you the hard questions. On the other hand, this realization is staggeringly optimistic: PFS challenges each of us to leave as better people than when we began at the School. And by being a little foolish — admitting we don’t know everything even as we don’t pander to everything old people say they want us to be — we can each indeed end up a little better.

(This appears in FIDELIS, the 200th anniversary commemorative book of the Old Frees Association.)

Take back from those even poorer

What -ism is it when you castigate your top 1%


From: Vanity Fair, May 2011

and try to aid your middle class …

How the US lost out on iPhone work
From: New York Times, 22 January 2012

… by taking back from those even poorer elsewhere in the world.

From: Asia Development Bank: Asia’s Poor. Financial Crisis? Every day.

A small proposal to rebalance the global economy: Just let China grow

Many take as fact that the current pattern of global imbalances — large and persistent trade deficits and surpluses across different parts of the world, eventually unsustainable — is due to China and the rest of East Asia consuming too little and saving too much. Since the global economy is a closed trading system, trade deficits and surpluses across all national economies must sum exactly to zero always. Therefore, that one part of the world saves too much and thereby runs trade surpluses means other parts of the world — notably the US — must be running trade deficits.

However, just because deficits and surpluses are tightly inter-connected does not mean that trade surpluses in China, say, have been responsible for US trade deficits: absent further information, causality could well have flowed in the opposite direction. Moreover, China’s high savings might be dynamically welfare-optimizing for its citizens — for instance, private enterprise in China might find self-accumulation the only way to generate investment funds — and, at the same time, only minimally if at all welfare-reducing for already-rich US citizens. Finally, it might be that global imbalances should best be viewed not as a bilateral (US-China) problem but instead a multi-lateral one.

Be all that as it may, many US policy-makers focusing on US trade deficits and China’s trade surpluses urge policy actions against China to rebalance the global economy. Those policy actions include punitive tariffs against Chinese imports and tagging China a currency-manipulator — and thus moving it yet further from official free-market status. Some observers remark that without such external pressure, China will find it domestically too difficult to shift away from its reliance on export promotion, infrastructure investment, and restrained consumption towards a more balanced growth path (e.g., Michael Pettis, Nouriel Roubini, Martin Wolf).

The problem: To raise China’s domestic aggregate demand, especially consumption. The difficulty: China’s consumption cannot increase quickly enough to compensate for the shortfall in aggregate demand should both investment and exports decline. The danger: a hard landing for China and the global economy.

I want to suggest that such a re-direction need not be that difficult. My proposal: Let China grow rich as quickly as possible. Why might this do the trick?

Regional incomes in China

First, consumption within China is already rising faster than both income and investment, provided that we look at those parts of China where incomes per head exceed US$8,800 (Figures 1 and 2). Of course, China’s current per capita income overall now is only US$2200, less than 6% that of the US. What this suggests, however, is as China’s income grows, its overall savings rate will naturally fall. The right policy is to encourage growth, not adopt punitive actions that might retard that growth.

China's regional consumption

Figure 2a China’s regional consumption

(I took Figures 1-3 from a term paper that Daisy Wang wrote for my course Ec204 The Global Economy at the LSE-PKU Summer School, August 2011. The underlying data are from China’s National Bureau of Statistics.)

Second, as John Ross reminds us, investment too is aggregate demand. But, third, continuing to increase China’s investment in, among other things, infrastructure and transportation can help further as it allows those western, poorer regions in China (again Figure 2) better to integrate both nationally and globally, and thus become richer through raising demand and productivity.

China’s regional investment

Figure 2b China’s regional investment

While many observers make much of China’s high investment to income ratio, it is useful to note that that ratio is high not just because its numerator is being driven up, but also because the denominator remains so low. The right state variable for dynamic analysis in a neoclassical growth model is capital per head, not capital per unit of income. And here (Figure 3):

China's  per capita investment

Figure 3 China’s per capita investment

we see how China still has a long way to go on the upside.

Finally, Figure 4:

“The Chinese led the way in the rush to the Boxing Day sales, flocking to department stores to grab designer goods”, The Times of London, 27 December 2011

Figure 4: “The Chinese led the way in the rush to the Boxing Day sales, flocking to department stores to grab designer goods”, The Times of London, 27 December 2011

However much anyone might doubt those China statistics I used above, auxiliary evidence shows that rich Chinese consumers have no difficulty increasing consumption.

The evidence I’ve described doesn’t of course say that global imbalances can be easily erased through just more economic growth in China. However, the algebraic signs of the required relations seem to me to point at least in the right direction. Careful work to quantify these effects might end up showing that their magnitudes aren’t large enough. But, as far as I know, that calibration has not been done, which makes me wonder why some observers can be so certain that China’s current growth trajectory can only exacerbate global imbalances.

When China becomes rich, that will also dramatically lower inequality in the world — globally, the difference in incomes per head across nations overwhelms that across individuals within a single country. No one I know arguing for a more egalitarian society also says that that push for equality should stop at their nation’s borders and be kept from applying seamlessly across humanity’s 7 billion.


Also:

  1. “A small proposal to rebalance the global economy:  Just let China grow” EconoMonitor, 30 December 2011
  2.  “China’s growth could address imbalance”, China.org.cn, 02 January 2012
  3.  “Just let China grow”, The Edge Malaysia, 09 January 2012, p. 64
  4. 恢复全球经济平衡的一个小建议:让中国尽快变得富有, Blog.Sina, 13 January 2012
  5. Reprinted “A small proposal to rebalance the global economy:  Just let China grow”, Global Policy Journal, 11 October 2012

Prof M. E. Cox on “A new world economic order? Views from the LSE”

At the turn of the millennium in a building overlooking London’s Fleet Street, Jim O’Neill and colleagues at Goldman Sachs sat chewing on BRICs. Was BRIC just a clever catchphrase to explain where global investment prospects looked promising? Did it make good marketing sense to take a stance explicitly on Brazil, Russia, India, and China — with the risk that one’s views might then get obviously challenged by events? Why not simply dust off a variant of some broad generalization, say, “emerging markets”, and be done with it?

However the discussion went, in the event, the decision was to go ahead and proclaim BRICs the new global growth frontier.

In the decade since, the BRIC conceit has gone from strength to strength. It has figured not only in multi-billion dollar financial investments, but also—and perhaps even more importantly—in geopolitical analysis and international policy debate. The BRIC idea is now familiar to school-children worldwide, from Australia to Argentina — young people who were not yet born when the terminology was first hatched. In the reality (rather than just the idea) driven in part by charismatic leadership in different parts of the BRICs and in part by China’s staggering success in economic growth, poverty reduction, and export prowess, BRICs have robbed the US of its 21st-century unipolar moment, rewritten the rules of East-West global engagement, and reshaped the world’s patterns of trade, the world’s distribution of economic activity, and the world’s landscape of poverty.

The Economist newspaper: Asia's Economic Weight, 25 May 2010

The Economist newspaper: Asia's Economic Weight, 25 May 2010

Scholars of International Relations, International History, Global Governance, Management, and World Politics likely saw the coming shape of these new challenges far sooner than did other disciplines. Those scholars had grown up intellectually already familiar with Paul Kennedy and the rise and fall of great powers, with the Cold War struggle between East and West, with the promise of the US’s unipolar moment in global history. Such events and ideas had primed those scholars to grasp quickly the significance of BRICs.

In the guest post that follows, my good friend Professor Michael Cox of LSE’s International Relations Department describes a convergence between international relations, history, management, international development, and economics to help us understand the post-BRIC economic and political state of the world. He shows how putting together rigorous ideas from cross-disciplinary social science — something the LSE seeks to do more than perhaps any other academic institution in the world — we get better insight on the global economy. For me, his essay is more than just a description of what the LSE does; his essay establishes why to understand the new world economic order, it is essential to traverse many different social science disciplines.


“A new world economic order?  Views from the LSE” by Prof. M. E. Cox, December 2011

Memory can often play  tricks on even the most intelligent of  human beings, especially in an age of rapid unexpected change when all the  normal signposts have been removed or simply washed away by the tides of history. Certainly, for those who have grown up over the last ten,  turbulent years, the world today  is a very different looking place to what it was  back at the turn of the century. Indeed, inconceivable though it may seem now, most of us in the developed West were then in the best of moods – riding high on the back of three great revolutions in international affairs.

The first and most important of these  revolutions was of course the  final triumph of the  market in the wake of the global collapse of the centrally planned  alternative at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the nineties. Initially Poland and Central Europe, then Russia,  and finally even  ‘communist’  China,  discovered that they had no alternative but to   join the only economic club in town – the one run by the West, organized on western principles, and according to critics,  largely designed to further the interests of the West. Nobody liked to say it too loudly at the time for fear of sounding “triumphalist”.  But for many during the heady days of the 1990s it really did seem as if the West was  “best” and would, for this very obvious reason,  remain the axis around which the world would rotate for the foreseeable future.

The second great core assumption – born of a much longer revolution in world affairs – related to the United States, that most ‘indispensable’  of nations which instead of doing what all other great powers had done in the past (that is decline) did quite the opposite. In fact, the core belief  after the end  of the USSR was that we were now living in what Charles Krauthammer called a  “unipolar   moment”,   one which he felt  would endure for a great deal of time:  in part  because the US  could lay claim to  the most efficient economy in the world;  in part because it had constructed   the  greatest military ever known to man;  and in part because none of the other powers in the world   – China included – had any chance of ever catching up with the United States. A new Rome was sitting on the Potomac and hardly anybody, save the oddball and the eccentric,   doubted its capacity to remain the shining city on the hill for many decades to come.

The third important revolution was the one that had changed the face of Europe in 1989 when communism ignominiously collapsed leaving hardly anything behind it  except a lot of pollution, many unwanted tanks, and plenty of useless factories producing things that nobody wanted  to buy. The end of the Cold War was undoubtedly Europe’s great chance,  and its leaders back then – Jacques Delors in particular –  enthusiastically grabbed  at the  historic opportunity. What they created was impressive to say  the least. Indeed, by the beginning of the new century, Europe was becoming a serious point of global  reference  equipped with its own  currency, the largest market in the world, a lot  of  new members (not all of them perfect to be sure),  and the outlines  of a ‘Common Foreign and Security  Policy’ that would soon make it a major  player on the international stage. Even some Americans bought into this new vision, including, significantly,  Charles Kupchan former Director for European Affairs in the Clinton administration. America would not be the dominant  actor in the 21st century he opined. Nor China or the Islamic world. Rather the future belonged to an integrating, dynamic and increasingly prosperous   Europe. The next century was  its  for the taking.

How and why this optimism verging on the hubristic  turned into its opposite in the years between  2000 and 2010 has already been the subject of much feverish analysis and speculation. But at least  three  broad explanations have been advanced to help us think seriously about what Time magazine not long ago  characterized  as the  ‘decade from hell’.

One  explanation,  favoured by most by historians and social theorists,  relates the fall from grace to the much earlier triumph of the West and the extraordinary lack of caution this then seemed to induce amongst  most western policy-makers. Indeed,   having  won so much over such a long period of time stretching right back to the deregulating 1970s through  to  the  hyper-globalizing 1990s,  nothing now looked to be impossible. And  even the impossible now seemed achievable. The liberation of Iraq? No  problem said the all-powerful Americans with their invincible military machine.  Constant economic growth?  Easily achieved on the back  of cheap money  and ever more complex  financial instruments. Everybody a home owner?  Why not,  even if it meant a pile up of  unsustainable debt?  Economic crises? A thing of the past.  And the future?  Not perfect of course. But at least as perfect as it was  ever going to be in an imperfect world. Happy days were here again and nobody was prepared  to listen to naysayers like Dr Doom (aka Nouriel Roubini)   or his foreign  policy counterparts who warned that America’s unnecessary “war of choice” in Iraq would end up costing the US its international standing, a lot of blood,  and  a vast amount of  treasure ($3 trillion so far).

A second large explanation  connects more directly to  changes in the shape of the world  economy. Here,  Goldman Sachs does appear to have got it right back in 2001 when it predicted (against the then prevailing  orthodoxy) that the future belonged to the emerging  BRIC economies – Brazil, Russia, India, and of course,  China.  But what  Goldman  did not predict  however was  the sheer speed with which this shift was to take place and the  main  reasons why it did so. Goldman recall worked on a twenty five,  even a fifty  year time line: it also assumed steady growth for all countries in the international economy. What it did not anticipate  was firstly  the pace of China’s rise and the   impact this then had on the rest of the world economy; and  secondly  what happened  to the international financial system in  2008 when the established western economies suffered  a series of  smashing body blows. It was this ‘Black Swan’ event more than anything else that was to be the real turning-point. Before then the EU  and the US could legitimately claim  that they continued to represent the future. After 2008,  such a claim sounded frankly spurious.

The final reason for the great shift  had  less to do with economic shifts  and  more  with politics and  a  marked change in the capacity of governments to manage the world around them. Whether this happened  because of a decline in quality of the  political class, or because the world was becoming almost impossible to manage anyway,  remains a  moot question.  The fact remains that as the new century wore on it was becoming increasingly clear that  the West in particular was   facing a set of challenges to which it  simply did not have any easy answers. And nowhere was this becoming more apparent than  in that once “steady as she goes”, rather unexciting place,  known as the   European Union. The crisis began slowly but then accelerated most rapidly after 2008 leaving a trail of failed governments  in its wake (at least eight fell between 2008 and 2010). Nor was this all. As governments fell and the crisis deepened,  not only did belief in the European project  begin to ebb,  but  many began to wonder about normal politics itself. The situation was not much better in the United States either. Indeed, having elected a rather impressive man to the White House  in 2008,  three years on ordinary Americans were beginning to lose faith in the political process and  a belief in that very American idea that the future would always be better than the past.

We  live  in other words   not just in ‘interesting times‘,  but  in quite extraordinary times where few in the West  now  appear  to  have much confidence any longer in the notion of the West;  where policy leaders on both sides of the Atlantic realize how limited their options are;  where a once imperial America now talks in  humbling  terms of ‘leading from behind’ and adjusting to a new multi-polar world order;  and where few have any idea at all about what the seismic economic changes now taking place in the world economy  will mean for either global prosperity or international stability.

Time therefore to take time out to reflect on how these multiple and most unexpected changes  will impact on  the global political economy and the  business world. At least five questions need to be answered –  and will be,  we hope, in three innovative  courses to be delivered at the world famous LSE Executive Summer School in June 2012:

  1. Professor Saul Estrin and Professor Danny Quah,  A Shifting World Economy:  Business Strategies to Thrive
  2. Dr Andrew Walter and Dr Jeff Chwieroth,  Global Finance in Crisis: Causes, Consequences, Futures
  3. Dr. Gianluca Benigno and Dr. Keyu Jin (and guest lecturer Nobel Laureate 2010, Prof. Chris Pissarides), Macroeconomic Challenges of Global Imbalances

The first  question  – very much in the LSE tradition of drilling down into core issues – has to do with  the basic cause or causes  of our current crisis. Here one can pick from a variety of explanations –  some broader  ones as  suggested above;  other of a more specific economic character rooted in an out-of-control system  of  deregulated financial markets, global imbalances, cheap money, extensive home ownership, and  growing income inequalities; a world  moreover where  governments  before the crisis either did not seem  to understood what was happening, or  even if they did, did not have the power or the instruments at their disposal  to do much to change  the course of history.

The second question relates to the past, present and the future of the world economy. Here the biggest question of all is to what degree is this particular crisis different to those that have happened at regular intervals since World War II?  And if it is different, then why should this be so? Furthermore, why has it since proven so difficult to reform a system that has caused so much economic dislocation? Why moreover has it has proven so  difficult for  the West to get out of the crisis? Certainly, there seem to be  very few optimists around in the West just now. Indeed, one of the most striking  things about the present crisis is that whereas people can’t stop talking about it in the West, in countries like China and India they wonder what all the fuss is about – at least for the time being.

The third  question concerns governance at both national and international levels.   There are, as all three courses reveal,  many fascinating issues raised by the present economic conjuncture. But one of the most critical  has to do with the way in which world manages – or tries to manage – an increasingly integrated globalized economy where states still matter a lot,  but where  decisions taken  by  ‘markets’  seem to matter a whole lot more. This in turn raises  many more  questions,  not the least important of which is whether or not governments have very much power at all; and in turn whether they are willing  to give up what power they have  to construct some  new financial architecture which is far more in tune with the modern age?

The fourth question relates  to that very simple but all-important issue: who wins and who loses in the new world economic order? The  “rest”  we are told look set to be winners;  and amongst the “rest”,  Asia and China in particular  seem to be especially well placed to take advantage of the new world in the making. Yet there is still a  very long way to go before we can talk of a permanent power shift.  Even rising China it is suggested in these courses has to take care. After all, its prosperity upon which many countries in the international economy now depend,   also depends on the international economy remaining buoyant and economically dynamic too.

Finally, all three courses question the idea that there are  simple explanations of ‘why we are  where we are’  today.  They are also united in insisting that there is no easy way forward. Nor to continue are they  at all   certain that the world will become either a more stable or  a more equal place in the future.  All they can   promise  is  to get those who are trying to make sense of a  rapidly shifting global economy to at least base their thinking and  their decisions – and those of their companies – on rigorous analysis; one which takes as its point of departure the inescapable  fact that while  businesses today are  confronted with very real opportunities, these are  presenting themselves in a  world where the  economic challenges are as real and as serious as anything we have seen since the 1930s.

Professor Michael Cox teaches in the  Department of International Relations at the LSE. He is also  Co-Director of LSE IDEAS and Academic Director of Executive Summer School. His main work more recently has focused on the changes in US foreign policy in an age of globalization and the impact of the financial and economic crisis on the balance of power. His most recent books include Soft Power and US Foreign Policy and  The Global 1989: Continuity and Change in World  Politics, both published in 2010. His next book will be a second edition of  his  co-edited and highly successful Oxford University Press textbook, US Foreign Policy.  This will appear in  2012.

 

Also:

  1. “BRICs have robbed the US of its 21st-century unipolar moment, rewritten the rules of East-West global engagement, and reshaped the world’s patterns of trade, the world’s distribution of economic activity, and the world’s landscape of poverty”, D. Quah, LSE Comment and Opinion, January 2012
  2. “We live in quite extraordinary times where few in the West  now  appear  to  have much confidence any longer in the notion of the West”, M. E. Cox, LSE Comment and Opinion, January 2012
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