Chrystia Freeland

The three questions of global importance

Chrystia Freeland
Jun 21, 2012 20:49 UTC

Tolstoy may have been right about families – “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – but the opposite of his famous first line is true when it comes to countries: The world’s disparate unhappy nations are very much alike when it comes to the causes of their unhappiness.

That’s not immediately apparent – austerity-strangled Greece, cheap-money America and military-ruled Egypt are all exhibiting quite different symptoms. But it is no accident that so many of the world’s economies are sputtering at the same time, or that so many people around the globe are angry.

One reason for the synchronized gloom, of course, is the synchronization of the global economy. But the world is suffering from more than a shared summer cold. Rather, we are all, both together and apart, trying to figure out three big questions. Our answers to them will shape the 21st century.

The first is how nation-states fit into a globalized world economy. Different countries are wrestling with different versions of this problem. Small states with their own currencies and open trade policies have just endured a version of the Asian crisis of 1998, and they have come to similar conclusions – survival requires a fortresslike national balance sheet and export-led growth. That’s why Baltic leaders, these days, sound an awful lot like Southeast Asian ones.

The rub, as Lawrence H. Summers, the former U.S. Treasury secretary, likes to point out, is that there are no Martians. Export-led growth can’t work as a policy for the whole world: Someone needs to be the net importer.

Close families, closed labor markets

Chrystia Freeland
Jun 15, 2012 14:44 UTC

Close families and flexible labor markets don’t go together. That’s the conclusion of a fascinating paper by a quartet of transatlantic economists. Their work should be required reading for all European politicians and for the economists and pundits around the world who seek to advise them.

One truth universally acknowledged in Europe today is that the countries of the south need to overhaul their labor markets: Rigid rules on hiring and firing and on the minimum wage are blamed for the high unemployment and subpar economic growth in these states.

Economists are right to point out that inflexible labor markets exact a high economic toll. So why has there been such resistance in countries like Spain and Italy to changes that would create more jobs and stronger growth? One classic answer is the ability of vested interests – workers who do have protected jobs – to defend their own cushy deal at the expense of everyone else. Another is political dysfunction.

The euro zone, slow-motion crashes and Latvia

Chrystia Freeland
Jun 7, 2012 21:30 UTC

Spending time with top European policymakers at the moment is scary and slightly nauseating, like the final, slow-motion moments before a car accident, when you can see precisely both how you will probably crash and what it would take, if only you could force your paralyzed muscles into action, to swerve to safety.

That’s why Christine Lagarde, the formidable French chief of the International Monetary Fund, told me this week that she wants to lock Europe’s dithering leaders in a room and leave them there until they figure things out.

“If I was able to do one thing, I would lock them in a room, take the key and let them come up with a comprehensive plan,” Lagarde said, when I asked what her fantasy scenario was for Europe. “I’m sure they can make it. I know the fundamentals are solid. The numbers on an aggregate basis are good. And, as I said, we have to take the key because they cannot escape unless and until they’ve firmed up the plan. But they can do it.”

Does government have a role in the 21st century?

Chrystia Freeland
May 31, 2012 19:50 UTC

The big economic question in much of the world today is usually framed as the fight between advocates of austerity and advocates of growth. But another way to view the debate is as a contest between those who think that 21st-century government can be effective and those who don’t.

Indeed, some of America’s most outspoken capitalists have begun to fight the “Buffett Rule,” which would set a minimum tax level for millionaires, and other calls to raise taxes for those at the very top, with the argument that money is best left in the bank accounts of the superrich because they are more effective at using it than the state is.

“I’m a job creator. I’m one of the guys who can help us out. I’m a Silicon Valley guy who can invent and create,” T.J. Rodgers, chief executive of Cypress Semiconductor, told me. “If you tax me more, I will either give less to charity or I will fund venture companies less, or I will sell the stock in my own company or other companies I own, like Intel and Google. I will do one of those three things to return the money to the government.”

Taxes: How low can you go?

Chrystia Freeland
May 24, 2012 20:11 UTC

Are your taxes too high? When Gallup asked that question in April, tax month in the United States, 46 percent said they were. An additional 47 percent said their taxes were “about right.” Just 3 percent said their taxes were too low.

This campaign season reflects that result. Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, is offering a 20 percent tax cut for everyone. Given the mood of the conservatives in the United States today, that may not surprise you. But even President Barack Obama, who is routinely described as a socialist by his opponents, is peddling a plan under which 99 percent of Americans would pay less than they did under the last Democrat in the White House, Bill Clinton.

This bipartisan agreement that the overwhelming majority of Americans should pay lower taxes than they did in the 1990s is remarkable for many reasons. For one thing, we are constantly hearing – and it is true – that U.S. politics is more polarized than ever. But unless you are a member of the 1 percent, on this core issue there is a lot more consensus than you might think. Political strategists on both sides, it turns out, know how to read poll data.

Equal rights and the U.S. economy

Chrystia Freeland
May 18, 2012 01:17 UTC

Are equal rights good for the economy? Campaigns against discrimination, like the battles for women’s rights and civil rights in the 1960s and the fight for gay marriage equality today, are usually framed as struggles for justice.

We think of these issues as entirely separate from economic concerns and sometimes as even running counter to them. Equal pay legislation and rules against discrimination have often been opposed by business on the grounds they would raise costs.

But there is actually a powerful economic argument for equal rights. If you believe that talent isn’t determined by gender, race or sexual orientation, but is instead a roll of the genetic dice, then the most productive society will be the perfectly fair one. A society that is blind to gender, race and sexual orientation will choose the best person for the job – not just the best white, straight man.

Obama and the politics of party unity

Chrystia Freeland
May 10, 2012 22:23 UTC

The world, particularly the world economy, is pretty vulnerable at the moment. The recent French and Greek elections, and Germany’s unpredictable response to their results, have again raised the specter of a crisis in the euro zone that Robert Rubin, a former secretary of the U.S. Treasury, told me this week could be far worse than the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Nor is everything fine in the United States, where disappointing job numbers for April have set off fears that the economic recovery may be weakening.

Yet, at a time when the global economy is so fragile, and in a year when it had been billed as the only election issue that matters, the United States has spent the week focused on same-sex marriage, which President Barack Obama explicitly endorsed on Wednesday after a dance of the seven veils by other members of his administration.

This focus on social issues when so much else is awry can be perplexing to outsiders: Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir V. Putin’s press secretary, memorably sneered about the mixed-up U.S. priorities in a recent conversation with David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker.

Colonial America: How Swede it was

Chrystia Freeland
May 3, 2012 21:52 UTC

America used to be Sweden: According to new research, the America of the Founding Fathers was ‘‘more egalitarian than anywhere else in the measurable world.’’

That’s an important finding, and one that will surprise most Americans today. Both inequality and American exceptionalism are high on the national political agenda. One idea that brings those issues together is the belief that Americans have an exceptional cultural tolerance for income inequality. Unlike Europeans, the thinking goes, most Americans are confident that they are ‘‘soon to be rich.’’ As a result, the conventional wisdom has it, Americans in the middle look up to their 1 percent and are loath to tax them.

But historical research by the economists Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson shows that when it comes to inequality, this American exceptionalism is an inversion of the conditions that prevailed at the time of American Revolution. In that era, which is so often invoked in today’s political and social battles, America was the world’s most egalitarian society – and proud to be so.

The Triumph of the Social Animal

Chrystia Freeland
Apr 24, 2012 15:37 UTC

BERLIN — Does fairness matter? As France prepares to elect a president this spring and the United States gets ready to elect a president in the autumn, that old philosopher’s chestnut is gaining tremendous real-time political relevance.

Economics, by contrast, hasn’t traditionally been much concerned with fairness. Instead, economists have based their analysis on “Homo economicus,” a model human being who is perfectly rational and perfectly guided by self-interest.

The financial crisis of 2008 made it hard to believe in a world of perfectly rational actors, even when they earn million-dollar salaries and have advanced degrees. Now, a growing body of research is challenging the second part of the definition of Homo economicus — that he is guided purely by self-interest.

The rise of lousy and lovely jobs

Chrystia Freeland
Apr 12, 2012 21:56 UTC

More bad news for the middle class: When the economy recovers, jobs in the middle won’t. That is the conclusion of an important new study that connects a long-term trend in the labor market with the business cycle of recession and rebound.

Nir Jaimovich, an economist at Duke University, and Henry E. Siu, an economist at the University of British Columbia, take as their starting point one of the most important continuing changes in Western developed societies. That shift is what economists, most notably David Autor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have called the ‘‘polarization’’ of the job market. Maarten Goos and Alan Manning, extending the research to Britain, have more colorfully dubbed it the dual rise of ‘‘lousy and lovely’’ jobs.

Their point is that, thanks to technology, more and more ‘‘routine’’ tasks can be done by machines. The most familiar example is the increasing automation of manufacturing. But machines can now do ‘‘routine’’ white-collar jobs, too — things like the work that used to be performed by travel agents and much of the legal ‘‘discovery’’ that was done by relatively well-paid associates with expensive law degrees.