Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

China, technology and the U.S. middle class

Chrystia Freeland
Feb 15, 2013 16:27 UTC

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 12, 2013. Jason Reed/REUTERS

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech this week confirmed it: The pre-eminent political and economic challenge in the industrialized democracies is how to make capitalism work for the middle class.

There is nothing mysterious about that. The most important fact about the United States in this century is that middle-class incomes are stagnating. The financial crisis has revealed an equally stark structural problem in much of Europe.

Even in a relatively prosperous age — for all of today’s woes, we have left behind the dark, satanic mills and workhouses of the 19th century — this decline of the middle class is more than an economic issue. It is also a political one. The main point of democracy is to deliver positive results for the majority.

All of which is why understanding what is happening to the middle class is urgently important. There is no better place to start than by talking to David Autor, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Autor is one of the leading students of the most striking trend bedeviling the middle class: the polarization of the job market. That is a nice way of saying the economy is being cleaved into high-paying jobs at the top and low-paying jobs at the bottom, while the middle-skill and middle-wage jobs that used to form society’s backbone are being hollowed out.

But when I asked him this week what had gone wrong for the U.S. middle class, he gave a different answer: “The main problem is we’ve just had a decade of incredibly anemic employment growth. All of a sudden, around 2000 and 2001, things just slowed down.”

Hong Kong thriller, globalization and the campaign

Chrystia Freeland
Aug 16, 2012 15:58 UTC

We all know it would be virtuous to spend more time pondering the implications of globalization and the intricacies of high finance. But these aren’t always the most enticing subjects to study, especially in the languid, fading days of August. For an easy-listening approach to two of the most important themes of our time, you could do worse than devote an evening to the film “Supercapitalist,” a new financial thriller set in Hong Kong.

The most immediately striking take-away from “Supercapitalist” is the moral hierarchy it imposes on business. The only truly virtuous capitalists are the technologists – hard-working, creative and focused on innovations that will help ordinary people as well as the bottom line. Next best are the makers of real things, in this case a logistics company. Worst of all are the financiers, a treacherous, murderous bunch who care only about making money even if the price is human lives.

In light of the public attitude toward bankers, those who work for Mitt Romney should watch this film and talk to its star and screenwriter, Derek Ting. That’s because Ting has made a film that raises some provocative political questions, but his personal agenda is entirely artistic: He set out to tell “a universal, human story.” His ethical ranking of business, with the money changers emphatically at the bottom, is an instinctive choice, not an intellectual one. That says a lot about current views on the subject, even on one of the world’s most energetic capitalist frontiers.

The economy’s ‘China Syndrome’

Chrystia Freeland
Feb 2, 2012 23:00 UTC

Mitt Romney’s thumping victory in the Florida primary this week is bringing us closer to a Romney-Obama face-off in the autumn. While we do not know for sure if Romney will clinch the Republican nomination, if he does, we can already say what the central question in November will be: Is the United States one nation under God, or has it become a country where the government needs to secure a better deal for the 99 percent?

We know Romney’s view. In a television interview last month, he explained: “When you have a president encouraging the idea of dividing America based on the 99 percent versus 1 percent — and those people who have been most successful will be in the 1 percent — you have opened up a whole new wave of approach in this country which is entirely inconsistent with the concept of one nation under God.”

Meanwhile, in his State of the Union address, the president opted explicitly for the 99 percent perspective. Restoring their fortunes is “the defining issue of our time,” he said. “No challenge is more urgent. No debate more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

The revolutionary significance of job growth

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 1, 2011 20:18 UTC

It was striking to hear how encouraged both Klaus Kleinfeld and Dominic Barton sounded when Chrystia asked them about the effects of the recent turmoil in the Middle East on the business environment there. Barton believed the regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt were “the dawn of a new good thing that’s occurring” and noted that it is likely that new capital will come into these countries as a new leadership emerges. Kleinfeld, whose company is in the process of building the world’s largest integrated aluminum system in Saudi Arabia, said that Alcoa is still very comfortable in the region and that the only surprises with their Saudi partners have been positive surprises. For Kleinfeld, the most assured way to bring about stability in a region plagued by unrest is to have businesses come in and create jobs:

If there’s one thing that the Middle East needs particularly for the young — as well as well-educated people — it’s jobs. And it does it in a region which typically has not had much of an economic growth around Ras Azzour. So that’s all very, very good. And not just for us as a company but also for the region. And it’s gonna have a stabilizing as well as a kind of uplifting, positive element

Like Saudi Arabia, China has a large population that accepts a level of repression so long as the leadership can deliver economic growth. Barton, a China expert who headed McKinsey’s Asia operations before ascending to the consultancy’s top spot, said that he did not think that dissent in China would spillover and create a Middle-East-style uprising because the Chinese Communist Party has been able to stay on top of job growth. He had an interesting anecdote about McKinsey’s study on the effectiveness of China’s stimulus plan that illustrated the leadership’s obsession with maintaining growth:

GE’s Immelt speaks out on China, exports and competition

Chrystia Freeland
Jan 21, 2011 20:31 UTC

UPDATE — Since I wrote this column early on Thursday morning, my prediction (in the final paragraph), that we would today hear more about Immelt and his ideas on how to create U.S. jobs has been vindicated: President Obama this morning appointed Immelt to lead his outside panel of economic advisers. To hear more from Immelt, watch my exclusive interview with him here.

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For Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, the 130 year-old American industrial behemoth, the financial crisis marked the end of the age of America’s economic dominance.

“I came to GE in 1982,” Immelt told me this week in Washington. “For the first 25 years, until the bubble crashed in 2007, the American consumer was the definitive driver of the global economy.” But Immelt said the future will be different. For the next 25 years, he said, the American consumer “is not going to be the engine of global growth. It is going to be the billion people joining the middle class in Asia, it is going to be what the resource-rich countries do with their new-found wealth of high oil prices. That’s the game.” A lot of that game will be played in China. At a moment when it is compulsory on the American right to pay homage to the exceptionalism of the United States, Immelt, a life-long Republican, is matter-of-fact about China’s inevitable rise.

What’s good for the world is bad for the U.S. and China

Chrystia Freeland
Nov 12, 2010 15:12 UTC

This fall, much of the United States seemed to have settled on a narrative for the country’s struggle to adapt, after a debilitating financial crisis, to a post-industrial and post-unipolar global economy: China and its undervalued currency are largely to blame.

Proof that this was a nationally compelling storyline came during the acrimonious midterm election campaign. U.S. politics have rarely been more polarized, but complaining about China was something both parties could agree on.

John Boehner, the presumptive new Republican Speaker of the House, attacked the Democrats for “a stimulus that shipped jobs overseas to China instead of creating jobs here at home.” Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who hung on to his Senate seat and his job as Majority Leader, accused his Tea Party opponent Sharron Angle of being “a foreign worker’s best friend” for supporting corporate tax breaks that helped businesses outsource jobs to China and India.

Why emerging market countries have an edge

Chrystia Freeland
Oct 29, 2010 13:29 UTC

Tony Hsieh and Sanjay Madan wrote the program to create LinkExchange over a weekend. Before the following weekend, they had more than a dozen websites participating in their ad-sharing network. Over the next several weeks they worked frantically on the project. They refined their business in real time, learning—quickly!—from their mistakes. Less than a year later, the Harvard grads were offered $1 million (U.S.) for the company. Less than a year after that, they sold it for $265 million.

That was 1996. Since then, this story of development on the run has become commonplace. Hacker culture is now part of the broader culture: “beta test” is in the dictionary, and we accept innovative, albeit imperfect, beta releases even from multibillion-dollar global behemoths such as Google. We’re prepared to accept flaws because the tech revolution is progressing so quickly that it is usually better to be fast, and possibly wrong, than to try to be perfect and end up being slow. By the time your flawless product is released, it will likely be obsolete.

Technologists aren’t the only people operating in a rapidly changing, uncertain environment. Thanks both to the tech revolution and to globalization, that is true of all of us, including our governments. But, as Nobel-Prize winning economist Michael Spence argued at a private equity conference in Quebec City this week, emerging-market governments seem to be better at dealing with an unpredictable, volatile world than Western ones. They are like Silicon Valley entrepreneurs—willing to act swiftly, even if it means making mistakes. Leaders in the West are more like Detroit, reluctant to make bold moves until it is too late.

Lessons from Beijing

Chrystia Freeland
Oct 27, 2010 14:52 UTC

Following her chat with Glenn Hutchins at the Quebec City Conference about how globalization is changing corporate strategy, Chrystia interviewed NYU Economics Professor A. Michael Spence about how globalization is bringing about structural change in the world’s leading economies.

Spence, a 2001 winner of the Nobel Prize, chairs the Commission on Growth and Development, a multilateral effort to determine the practical conditions developing nations need to implement in order to achieve high growth. Given his expertise in emerging markets, it comes as no surprise that he thinks their future is bright. Spence was impressed with emerging markets’, especially China’s, brisk comeback following the capital flight and collapse in world trade that resulted from the financial crisis, and he thought they would be able to sustain their current growth rates:

American policymakers — and other Nobel Prize winners – are far less impressed with China’s resurgence, which they view as the result of the malevolent Chinese policy of keeping the yuan undervalued. Spence, however, argued that a one-off revaluation of the sort Washington demands will not only be bad for China, since it will destabilize most of the country’s export-oriented businesses. But it would also be bad for the global economy, since China is the engine for growth in large parts of the world. Instead, he said, China should focus on finding a way to make necessary structural changes while sustaining growth:

Chinese authoritarianism does not guarantee prosperity

Chrystia Freeland
Oct 21, 2010 20:01 UTC

On a recent trip to Hong Kong Chrystia recorded a podcast for the American Chamber of Commerce in China, about an op-ed she published in the Washington Post this summer that critiqued China’s economic system of state capitalism.  Chrystia, invoking a recent speech from Mike McFaul of the National Security Council, tells the Chamber that while the Chinese system succeeded in raising the country out of the lowest rungs of poverty, there is no historical evidence that suggests it can turn China into a rich nation:

My argument, and as it turns out quite independently, Mike’s argument, was we have to be really careful about thinking that authoritarian regimes are better at modernization, and one reason why we have to be careful is there is some historical evidence that says that authoritarian regimes can be quite good at the early stages of modernization.  They can be pretty good at that brute force moment when you’re dragging and economy out of being an agrarian society into industrialization.  What we haven’t seen yet—and as we look across the world, across histories—we haven’t yet seen that an authoritarian state is able to move an economy to the next level, and in fact what we’ve seen is that even in those countries where an authoritarian state successfully led an industrialization effort, as the country got richer and the economic transformation that needed to be achieved was more complex, what you actually have had happening is democratization.  There are some Asian countries that are a really good example of that.  I think South Korea is perhaps the best one.  […]  What we don’t have evidence of is that the state capitalist model… works in a really rich country.  All the countries that are really rich are democracies.

Chrystia also elaborates on a topic she touched on in her original op-ed, namely economic historian Joel Mokyr’s thesis that the same centralized, authoritarian decision-making process which foreigners marvel at today actually caused China to miss out on the Industrial Revolution centuries ago:

Bread and circuses—but real issues, too

Chrystia Freeland
Oct 15, 2010 14:03 UTC

As the U.S. mid-term elections approach, it is easy to despair about the quality of this country’s political debate. Christine O’Donnell, the surprise Tea Party-backed Republican candidate for the Senate seat in Delaware, has captured the nation’s attention with her opposition to masturbation and a campaign ad in which she assures voters that she is neither a witch nor a graduate of Yale University. Here in New York, Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino, running for the governor’s office, has made his contribution to the carnival atmosphere by discussing his rival’s “prowess” and urging reporters to investigate whether he was a faithful husband.

Part of my job at the moment is appearing as a commentator on other people’s TV shows. Viewed from the green room or the studio, America’s political discourse can look particularly grim. I sometimes find myself in the role of finger-wagging, middle-aged scold calling for a discussion of global financial imbalances, rather than the latest juicy scandal or mockable example of political foot-in-mouth disease. TV producers, I’m afraid, find this schoolmarmish persona as unappealing as my kids do — and given the juicy alternatives available it is hard for me to blame them.

But the campaign trail has always been as much about providing a circus as it is about bread and butter issues. And, dipping just below the froth of the cable sound bites and the blogosphere, I’ve realized this campaign is actually revealing a country that is struggling seriously and passionately to come to grips with the very big issues it faces.

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