Michael Pettis on rising trade tensions

With Donald Trump’s apparently escalating trade war very much in the news, here are some wise words from Peking University’s Michael Pettis, taken from the final pages of his 2013 book The Great Rebalancing – Trade, Conflict, and the Perilous Road Ahead for the World Economy (p.192-194). They seem particularly relevant right now.
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The good governance illusion

Democracy, accountable and transparent government, low levels of corruption, the rule of law, stable property rights, pluralism: we tend to think that these are all highly desirable in any society.

In poor countries, they are often absent, but at least some of them are present in many rich ones. It seems to follow that they should be encouraged in the former as a way to encourage development. After all, if richer countries have these characteristics, they may be part of the development process.

This wishful thinking provides a foundation for the ‘good governance’ agenda propagated by the World Bank and other international institutions during the 1990s and into the 2000s. It was argued that domestic political reforms in the direction of good governance in poor countries would provide the institutional environment conducive to the efficient working of markets and thereby promote development. Continue reading

The School of Life on capitalism

Another short video from The School of Life, this time on capitalism. I like this series, partly because their main focus is not so much on the pure economics of each subject, but instead covers some of the historical, political, social and philosophical aspects.

The video concludes by describing the mixed blessings of capitalism: its extraordinary productive capabilities on the one hand, and its frequent neglect of workers and provision of goods based on what is profitable rather on human need. But it ignores any kind of discussion on the solution to these dilemmas: should we reform the system, or encourage its replacement?

Journeying through the world of economics: a personal note

2018 marks 24 years since I first took an interest in what is sometimes referred to as the ‘dismal science’. Not a particularly notable landmark, though it is more than half my life. And I certainly have not spent all that time with my nose in books about economics, although I have spent quite a bit of it like that, maybe more than is good for me.

Apparently it was the Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle who coined the phrase dismal science in the 19th century. I am sometimes inclined to agree, when observing a malfunctioning economy and its malfunctioning stewards in government and business. But more often I am prepared to be optimistic that we can find solutions to the problems of humanity. Some of them might even come from studying economics!

Keynes looked forward to a time when the economist’s role in society would be akin to that of dentists, as humble, competent fixers of minor problems. Notwithstanding a call from the UK’s current environment secretary during the campaign for Brexit to pay less attention to experts, economists and their ideological categories of supply, demand and growth have become extremely powerful and accepted, even if with passivity, resignation or incomprehension. Continue reading

Adam Smith, profits and civilisation – a brief intro

Another brief video from the School of Life Political Theory series, this time on Adam Smith, widely thought of as the founder of modern economics. Smith is included in the school of classical political economy, employing an interdisciplinary analysis, and focusing on class and the role of government among other elements of the emerging industrial economy.

Nowadays he is often co-opted by the right in order to make the case for free markets and individualism as the source of wealth creation.

Interestingly, the video does not mention either. It does focus on another important idea, that of specialisation in production, also known as the increasing division of labour. On the one hand, this is a source of growth in productivity and wealth, but also leads to reduced meaning in the lives of ordinary workers.

Smith’s two most famous works are The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The latter is often neglected in discussions of Smith, but it made the case for man as a complex social being as much as one interested in personal gain. A clear idea of both sides of humanity are required in considerations of how to achieve the greater good.

The video seems to leave a great deal out, particularly in terms of economics, but also includes political and philosophical ideas that I had not really considered, so it is worth taking a few minutes to watch.

Karl Marx – an intro

Following last week’s brief introduction to Keynes, here is one for Karl Marx, along the same lines. This year is the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth and his work remains important to an understanding of the modern world.

I found this video interesting as it contains some ideas and perspectives on Marx that I hadn’t come across before, so it is well worth viewing.

As the narrator explains, much of Marx’s writing was on capitalism rather than what should replace it, at least in any detail. His magnum opus, Capital, is hard-going but remains an extraordinary achievement, while his and Engels’ earlier work, The Communist Manifesto, is pretty short but also very much a fiery and passionate diatribe.

Marx praised capitalism’s productive powers and, remarkably, predicted that it would sweep the world. He was also its foremost critic, and the video does a good job of outlining many of the flaws he identified.