The Mumbai consensus
They call economics the dismal science, but Larry Summers, one of its pre-eminent public practitioners, is anything but dull. That penchant for intellectual controversy means he hasn’t always won popularity contests, but he is unfailingly stimulating, as he proved in a speech in India last week, when he hit on one of the biggest issues in the world economy today, and coined a snappy catch-phrase to describe it: the “Mumbai Consensus”.
The Mumbai Consensus, Summers said, is “people-centric.” He contrasted it both with the Washington Consensus, the U.S.-led, free-markets-and-democracy formula that seemed to have conquered the world after 1989, and with the Beijing Consensus, China’s state capitalist approach that today is winning fans in emerging markets and in some developed ones.
Summers thinks the real model to watch is India’s, the world’s largest democracy. Partly because of its political system, India’s economic rise has been powered as much by the voracity of its domestic consumers as it has by the country’s push into foreign markets. That’s a sharp contrast with China, where the focus has been on working for the rest of the world, while the Chinese people, who are poorer on average than those of Albania or Jamaica, nonetheless save more than half of their GDP.
What makes the idea of the Mumbai consensus, and of people-centric economic growth, so powerful is that the smartest and most politically potent critique of global capitalism right now is that it isn’t delivering for the middle class.
We are living in an age of unprecedented economic prosperity: since the 1970s the world economy has been growing at a faster pace than at any other time in human history, and billions of people have been lifted out of poverty as a result. Yet a perversity of this global boom is that it has benefited the super-elite most of all.
That is apparent most starkly in America, where 23.5 per cent of total income in 2007 went to the top 1 per cent, but it is also the case in countries with a more generous social safety net, like Canada and the UK. It is happening as well in communist China, where the gap between the rich and poor is as great as it is in the U.S., and in other emerging market powerhouses, including Russia, and, yes, India. (Income inequality has been falling in the fourth BRIC, Brazil, but that may partly be because it has historically been so high. Today it remains far greater than in the U.S.)
This unequal return on globalization is a pretty good key to understanding domestic political battles in most countries around the world. That’s true in authoritarian China, where, according to the state-run China Daily, the key concern of the Communist Party as it debated its twelfth five-year plan this week was “the widening wealth gap”. That is also true in the United States, where the rage of the Tea Party, with its proudly anti-elite heroines, is largely animated by anger that the American middle class is losing out.
Income inequality is high in India, too – Raghuram Rajan, the Indian born and educated University of Chicago economist pointed out in a 2008 speech in Mumbai that India was second only to Russia in its number of billionaires per trillion dollars of GDP. But Summers is right to assert that India’s rise out of developing world poverty has been “people-centric”: both an engine and a consequence of India’s ascent has been a surge in consumption that extends deep into the income distribution.
For America and the rest of the developed world, there’s still a catch: people-centric growth is easier to achieve in countries where the people are cheap relative to the rest of the world. Consider IBM, which highlighted 29 per cent growth in the BRICs when it reported third quarter earnings this week. IBM’s engagement with the emerging markets is not just about exports: in 2003 IBM employed 9,000 people in India; today, 75,000. By contrast, since 2003 IBM has laid off 30,000 workers in the US, where it now has 105,000 staffers, just a third more than in India.
Summers, who has been worrying aloud about the hard-hit US middle class since well before the credit bubble burst, is painfully familiar with this problem. Identifying the Mumbai Consensus is a first step towards a solution, but alone it won’t be enough.