Straight talk from Dani Rodrik

The legion fans of Dani Rodrik will love his new book, Straight Talk on Trade. I’m one of them, and massively respect him for warning all the rest of us economists about the political economy consequences of globalisation long before these became obvious. As he writes in the last chapter of this new book, looking at recent voting trends in many countries,  “It is dawning on economists and policymakers that they severely underestimated the political fragility of the current form of globalization…. This backlash was predictable.” He has the sombre pleasure of having predicted this for a couple of decades now.

Regular readers will find many of the thoughts in Straight Talk familiar from previous books such as The Globalization Paradox and Economics Rules, and from papers such as Rodrik’s work on ‘premature deindustrialization‘. The new book updates the issues for the present context of the political success of anti-globalizers, nationalists, statists. It argues that there is little evidence of a major retreat from economic integration, and that the rhetoric and headline measures are a useful safety valve. “What looked to contemporaries like damaging protectionism was in fact a way of letting off steam to prevent an excessive build up of political pressure. … [W]e need to place the requirements of liberal democracy ahead of those of international trade and investing.”

I’m in two minds about this line of argument. It is undeniably true that the dogma of globalization gave cover to a lot of toxic practices, from financialization and speculation to multinational tax avoidance. However, I fear the protectionist, nationalist rhetoric will create its own reality – I found the argument in The Weaponization of Trade by Jack and Rebecca Harding persausive on this. Nor am I as sure about the ‘continued resilience of the nation state’ – and see its potential fracture as a dangerous moment.

On the questions of domestic economic policy and industrial policy, though, I’m 100% with Rodrik’s argument. He points out that the policies labelled ‘structural reform’ (econ jargon for politically very difficult measures) “were only loosely correlated with turning points in economic performance.” There are no silver bullets. Rather, growth take-offs “were associated with a targeted removal ofkey obstacles to growth rather than broad liberalization and economy-wide reforms.” Measures need to be targeted, and political capital and administrative resource needs to be focused on areas where there will be an early return. “In economies that suffer from multiple distortions, small changes can make a big difference.” The best policy advice is to experiment, and try local institutional innovations.

Reflecting on the lessons of past growth take-offs and failures leads into a section on the role of economics and economists – some of this familiar from Economics Rules. Economists must pay more attention to politics if they are giving policy advice, he argues, and in particular to the scope for political innovations – ideas that can durably relax political constraints and enable measures that make people better off without threatening political upheaval. Or in other words, enable the capture of efficiency gains while more or less protecting the economic rents of existing elites. Rodrik draws an interesting parallel with technological innovations, and the role of policy entrepreneurship, learning by doing, learning by experimentation, copying, serendipity and not forgetting the role of crises. “Taking ideas seriously renders the notion of interests slippy and ephemeral. Interests are not as fixed as other economists, such as Daron Acemoglu, suggest. People may need a new idea to appreciate their interests in a different, more accurate, light. “Raising the profile of ideas would also help alleviate the tension that exists today between political economy on the one hand, and normative economics and policyy analysis on the other.”

Looking at the current political context, some new ideas are surely needed, especially when it comes to global trade and investment. Rodrik has written elsehere about the need for New Rules for the Global Economy, and argues again here that the conventional policy suggestions will fail.

Straight Talk ends on a potentially optimistic note, however: “If one lesson of history is the danger of globalization running amok, another is the malleability of capitalism.  … It was not tinkering and minor modification of existing policies that produced these achievements [the New Deal, Bretton Woods], but rather radical institutional engineering.” If big, bold ideas can be implemented, the liberal democratic order may be reinvigorated. Looking at the present crop of politicians, this is only a slightly comforting thought, but I for one will take that sliver of comfort.


True wealth

Klaxon: this week sees the publication of National Wealth: What is Missing, Why It Matters, edited by Kirk Hamilton and Cameron Hepburn. The book is a collection based on the Wealth Project, itself a follow up to work by the World Bank on measurement for sustainability. As sustainability inevitably involves thinking about the future, there is a need to measure an economy’s stocks of different kinds of capital assets rather than current income or consumption flows (which is what our GDP lens does).

I have a chapter in the book about the political economy of moving to a new framework of economic indicators from the current system of national accounts. This is a shift analogous to changing a global technical standard, in which enough key participants have to make the move to tip everyone else into following suit. I conclude, though, that for this to come about there has to be enough consensus about what new standard to move to, which is still a work in progress. There’s a proliferation of dashboards and alternative indices. We need just one framework to get the shift.


Knowledge as a public good – honest!

Yesterday was the meeting of the European Advisory Board of Princeton University Press, of which I’m a member along with some very distinguished people from other disciplines. It’s always inspiring to see the Press – my own publisher – making such a success (in terms of numbers of books sold, revenues and global reach) of high quality, peer reviewed books with an emphasis on accessibility to non-academic readers. (In fact, on the tube on the way there as I stood looking around the carriage, there were at least half a dozen people within sight reading books. I think physical books are baaaack bigtime, and the figures seem to agree.)

We had a discussion about the obvious: what do Brexit/Trump/dislike of facts and experts imply both for universities and for a scholarly press? David Runciman made the point that we academics see ourselves as producers of knowledge, a public good in a knowledge economy. The votes suggest half the public doesn’t agree, whether they are right or wrong.

He also strongly criticised the ‘impact agenda’ which is now part of the Research Excellence Framework. I somewhat disagree with this, as it seems entirely healthy for academics to have to think about the outside world and how their work meshes with it. I do agree with David’s point that the way ‘impact’ is interpreted in practice favours the London universities, Oxford and Cambridge, as people are often expected to demonstrate their ‘impact’ through contacts with “elite networks of influence” (in his words). In the UK, they are massively London-centric. However, if so many citizens fail to see any positive spillovers from academic work – knowledge production – it’s all the more important to think about how to improve and demonstrate impact in ways that don’t centre on influencing Whitehall and Westminster.

An eminent political scientist, David said the book he was turning to to understand political trends is Democracy for Realists. I must add it to the ‘to read’ pile.41pmvn6eael


The moral consequences of economic decline?

In his FT column today, the ever-thoughtful Tim Harford has written about the dangers of moving into a zero-sum world, with the economy heading into a post-Brexit recesssion and in a political atmosphere which is already a game of grievances and blame. The column cites a wonderful book, Benjamin Friedman’s (2005) . I’m biased, as Ben was my thesis adviser, but I do believe it to be a truly important book, especially for anyone also concerned about sustainability.

The book asks whether economists are right to care about economic growth, and finds the affirmative answer in political economy and the inter-relationship between growth and institutions. I wrote briefly about the book in 2012, worrying then about the rise of political extremism. Looking at the book again today, I am struck by its warning about the adverse consequences of withdrawing the state from social support, and its concern about the distribution of the benefits of economic growth. This now looks very prescient.

“Broadly distributed economic growth creates the private attitudes and public institutions that foster, not undermine, a society’s moral qualities,” Ben writes. “At the outset of the twenty first century, America’s problem is not unemployment. It is the slow pace of advance in the living standards or the majority of the nation’s citizens.” Rising living standards – for all – make societies more open and democratic. Unfortunately we in the UK seem likely to be testing what happens when living standards are falling, and the already-have-nots find they have even less.

[amazon_image id=”1400095719″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth[/amazon_image]


It’s all about GDP

Who would have thought economic statistics would become such a hot topic? Certainly not me when I decided a couple of years ago to write a book about GDP for non-specialist readers. It isn’t as if GDP has lacked for critics. Over the decades there have been both environmentalist and feminist critiques, not to mention the blossoming interest in the direct measurement or targetting of happiness or subjective well-being. Still, there is a new wave, more focused on the political economy and historical context of the policy focus on GDP growth and rankings. There are (at least) two conferences on statistics over the next few months, following a joint RES/RSS/IFS conference earlier this month. Surely the scholarly debate, like the policy interest reflected in the Bean Review, is a precursor of change?

The latest book I’ve read is Matthias Schmelzer’s . The book begins with what has become familiar territory, the development of the forerunner of GDP and the system of national accounts in world war II, building on pioneering work by Colin Clark and Simon Kuznets. What became GNP (and GDP) differed crucially from these pioneers’ ideas, however, by moving away from a clear relationship with economic welfare, and embedding Keynesian macroeconomics. As Schmelzer writes: “The emergence of macroeconomic policies based on such theoretical constructs as consumption, demand, savings, investment, expenditure and their relationships made the rigorous measurement of these aggregates a public necessity, reaching far beyond the mere interest in the comparative wealth of a country and the different production factors.”

[amazon_image id=”1107130603″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Hegemony of Growth: The OECD and the Making of the Economic Growth Paradigm[/amazon_image]

The book provides a distinctive focus by exploring in detail the role of the OECD in the spread and normalisation of the new accounting standards and, by the late 1950s or early 1960s, the adoption of GDP growth as a policy target. The organisation’s forerunner, the OEEC, had been the distributor and overseer of Marshall Aid throughout Europe. The American administration had, as it still does, great influence over its approach. The heating up of the Cold War led the Kennedy Administration to insist on the centrality of growth, making GDP as much a weapon of the Cold War as it had been of the Second World War. Schmelzer says: “The public acceptance of economic expansion as a political goal, as well as the active support of influential societal groups such as capital, labour or the press, had to be actively produced.”

He goes on to describe how orienting the OECD around the goal of growth took it steadily into areas of policy previously not linked to the economy at all, such as science policy and education. In addition, through the aid donors’ club at the OECD, the Development Assistance Committee, the idea became firmly embedded that economic growth and development were essentially the same. Through both geographical reach and policy expansionism, the book portrays the OECD as a key organisation in shaping the ‘growth paradigm’ – even though it also, paradoxically, also gave birth to the earliest, and influential, critique of ‘growthmanship’ in the shape of the Club of Rome report.

The book ends by speculating that the famous ‘hockey stick’ of exponential growth might be about to become an equally familiar S-curve because of ‘secular stagnation’, not least because of environmental limits. Schmelzer argues that GDP growth is part of the paradigm of ‘high modernism’ so brilliantly described in Seeing Like A State. The ‘hegemony of growth’ may be ending; it is certainly changing as the context has changed so dramatically. My money is on the idea of growth being transformed in order to measure better sustainability and economic welfare, but this is exactly what all the new wave of scholarship is investigating. The outcome will be just as contingent and negotiated through political and historical processes as the emphasis on GDP growth was in the first place.

This book provides an interesting perspective on the GDP debate; I hadn’t previously registered the importance of the OECD’s role in particular. The author has clearly dug deep into the archives and provides a lot of fascinating material, shedding new light on what is steadily becoming increasingly well explored territory. There are other new books for the non-specialist out on this subject. I have reviews on two out soonish, Ehsan Masood’s (in Nature) and Philipp Lepenies’ (in the Journal of the History of Economic Thought).

[amazon_image id=”B01FKTBW3O” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Power of a Single Number: A Political History of GDP by Philipp Lepenies (2016-04-26)[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”B019G14YKK” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Great Invention: The Story of GDP and the Making and Unmaking of the Modern World[/amazon_image]

These titles join an older batch of general titles; not only my own but also Zachary Karabell’s , Dirk Philipsen’s , Lorenzo Fiaramonti’s , Sen, Stiglitz and Fitoussi’s .

[amazon_image id=”0691169853″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”1451651228″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”0691166528″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Little Big Number: How GDP Came to Rule the World and What to Do about It[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”1780322720″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Gross Domestic Problem: The Politics Behind the World’s Most Powerful Number (Economic Controversies)[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”1595585192″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Mis-Measuring Our Lives[/amazon_image]

And there are more. Morten Jerven looks at African economic statistics in . Brett Christophers addresses the measurement of finance in . Expect more to come!

[amazon_image id=”B00FKYOLGU” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Poor Numbers: How We are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do About it (Cornell Studies in Political Economy (Paperback)) (Paperback) – Common[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”1444338285″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Banking Across Boundaries (Antipode Book Series)[/amazon_image]