Opinion

Edward Hadas

The economic lessons from Scotland

Edward Hadas
Sep 17, 2014 11:34 UTC

Adam Smith, one of the leading figures of the 18th century Scottish intellectual enlightenment, liked free markets and restrained governments. The 21st century campaigns for and against a Scottish political liberation show that governments have acquired an economic importance which Smith could hardly have imagined.

If the government’s economic role was as limited as Smith would have liked, the debate preceding the Sept. 18 independence referendum would mostly have been about national identity and the advantages and difficulties of becoming a small country in a big world. The economy would hardly be an issue, since only the most rabid Scottish nationalist would accuse the English of cruelty in that domain.

In fact, though, the purely political issues seem less important than the question of what might be called political economy: would a Scottish government with full regulatory, fiscal and monetary control make the nation richer? The answers differ, of course, but there is a shared assumption that the government is right at the centre of the economy.

In a way, that is quite right. The remit of modern governments runs through the entire economy. They regulate, adjudicate and motivate. They are the largest employers and purchasers in any country. They run complicated welfare states. They build infrastructure, protect private property and make key investments. Their deficits help keep the economy on an even keel.

For Scotland, however, most of that hardly matters. This referendum is politically momentous, but economically nothing like the 1990 East German parliamentary election, in which voters chose to abandon the communist model for the West German social market. The Scottish nationalists are not planning any radical alterations to a British system which works pretty well.

Russia-Ukraine conflict shows money isn’t the root of all war

Edward Hadas
Sep 3, 2014 15:17 UTC

RTR44SRA.jpg

Many people think politics is really a branch of economics. When the United States invaded Iraq in 1991, the common cry was that it was all about oil. On the same thinking, rich countries were indifferent to the brutal civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – which has cost 5.4 million lives, according to the International Rescue Committee – because the economic stakes were too low to matter. This economic reductionism goes on in developed countries too. Pundits and pollsters argue that elections are won and lost above all else on the economy.

Such ideas can be traced back to the philosopher Karl Marx. He believed that material considerations motivated everything people do, including how they are governed. In modern surveys, people routinely say that the desire for better jobs or higher incomes is not what drives their voting behaviour. On Marx’s view, these respondents are either lying, or in denial. They may not realise that economic discontents and aspirations drive their action – and all of history.

Followers of this dialectic should be disconcerted by current events. Only a die-hard Trotskyite could see economic issues behind the conflicts in Ukraine and Iraq.

Do autocrats and strong economies go hand in hand?

Edward Hadas
Aug 15, 2014 08:52 UTC

RTR42E7T.jpg

By Edward Hadas

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Are authoritarian governments bad for the economy? Turkish voters do not seem to think so. On August 10, Tayyip Erdogan won an absolute majority in the country’s presidential election. Observers say that the country’s increasing prosperity is a big part of his AK Party’s appeal. Erdogan is not the only popular authoritarian around. Viktor Orban, who reportedly endorsed “illiberal” government, wins similar majorities in Hungary. If Russia had an election today, President Vladimir Putin would win big. And Xi Jinping, who seems to be making one-party rule in China more authoritarian, would undoubtedly triumph if the government bothered with elections.

The success of such leaders irritates many Americans and Western Europeans, who believe that genuine multi-party democracy is the natural political arrangement in the modern world. Clearly, though, most voters in some countries want authoritarian leaders who tolerate no effective opposition and who impose their vision on the nation.

A corporate abdication of corruption

Edward Hadas
Jun 4, 2014 14:39 UTC

By Edward Hadas

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Allegations of corruption did not exactly cost King Juan Carlos the Spanish throne, but they probably played a role in his decision to abdicate. A popular desire for change was fuelled in part by claims of a 5.6 million euro fraud by his son-in-law, Inaki Urdangarin, who denies any wrongdoing. The resulting dynastic change may be considered a sign that corruption has become less acceptable. That would be a misreading.

Actually, it is hard to decide whether corruption is waxing or waning globally, because the concept is hard to define. A Danish anti-corruption group’s explanation captures the ambiguity: “Corruption is a broad term covering a wide range of misuse of entrusted funds and power for private gain… A corrupt act is often – but not necessarily – illegal. In handling corruption you will often face grey zones and dilemmas.”

Russia and the unreliable West

Edward Hadas
Mar 12, 2014 16:13 UTC

The revival of East-West tension over Ukraine looks thoroughly geopolitical. But the context is bad economics. In the last century, Russia was damaged by flawed ideologies which originated in the West. And today it is damaged by Western economic policy.

It is easy for Western Europeans and Americans to look down on the Russian economy. Since the breakup of the USSR, the nation’s real GDP per person has increased at a 3.9 percent annual rate. That is a modest accomplishment for a middle-income country with a great deal of resource income. While Ukraine’s 1.7 percent growth rate is even worse, Armenia, Poland and Romania have all grown faster than Russia.

Now look at it from the other side: what the West has given Russia. There are good things, from markets for energy exports to many types of sophisticated technology. However, these positives are dwarfed by two disastrous ideologies in the past and two selfish and hostile policies in the present.

The then and now of pensions

Edward Hadas
Jan 16, 2013 14:50 UTC

What is the right size for pensions? That question can be approached in two ways: “then” and “now”. Pensions, and other economic arrangements to support elderly people, may be considered repayments for what they did back then, when they were young. Alternatively, these payments may be considered as a share of output right now. In rich countries, the two approaches are in conflict. The “then” logic, which is based on promises made long ago, supports higher pension payments than the “now” logic, which is mindful of rapidly ageing populations. Politicians struggle to find acceptable compromises between the two approaches.

Until 60 or 70 years ago, politicians did not have to worry much because governments played a minimal role in supporting the few people who lived long enough to be unable to earn their keep. The elderly mostly relied on their own families for support. Moralists provided a “then” justification for this obligation: children had a duty to the parents who gave life, the young owed the old more than could ever be repaid for the provision of nurture and wisdom.

Philosophers and religious teachers often claimed that the duty of children to parents was as natural as that of parents to their children. However, many people must have remained unpersuaded. Otherwise, the injunction would not have been repeated so often in such solemn tones.

Candidates as consumer products

Edward Hadas
Nov 21, 2012 15:06 UTC

Barack Obama did not win the election because more Americans thought he would be a better president than Mitt Romney. More Americans voted for the incumbent than for the challenger, but it is Obama’s superior campaign organisation, and not his personal appeal, that deserves most of the credit. In particular, his product managers were better than Romney’s at using the technique of “data mining”.

The technique, pioneered by supermarkets, is conceptually simple: measure everything and tweak as necessary. In practice, it is a delicate affair. Suppose a popular soft drink has 4 percent higher sales when it is stocked next to a salty snack than when healthier raisins are its shelf-neighbour. Should shelf locations be swapped? There are many variables: the effect on sales of salty snacks and raisins, the profit margins of the different products, and customers’ sensitivity to any price changes. Most of the effects are tiny, but the study of millions of data, including a large number of computer simulations, can increase a retailer’s revenue and profit by a few percent.

In elections, data mining can bring votes to candidates and can increase the supply of contributions which pay for vote-gaining advertising. The work is detailed. Time magazine reports that the Obama campaign carefully tested how much more likely undecided voters in each close state were to yield to the blandishments of local rather than to out-of-state volunteers. The superiority in detailed computer work – “We ran the election 66,000 times every night”, as one expert explained to Time – probably gave Obama a few more percentage points of votes than Romney. It was the margin of victory.

Sloth and the Big Honest State

Edward Hadas
Jul 18, 2012 14:01 UTC

There is only one good, proven, way to organise a political economy in the modern world – and that’s via the Big Honest State. Right now, one key aspect of the BHS is under serious threat.

What is the BHS? As the name suggests, it is large. In quantity, the various organs of a BHS account for 30-60 percent of GDP. In quality, the state dominates education, health care, industrial policy and the financial system. The BHS is also trustworthy. Its official bureaucracies are expected to be, and mostly are, meritocratic and dedicated to the common good. A BHS, though, is far from the total government of fascists and communists. One of the defining facets of the BHS, indeed, is that it works alongside a vibrant non-state sector.

The basic BHS model has been adopted in all advanced economies and it is aspired to by most leaders in almost every developing country. Universal adoption is easy to explain: the BHS works well. It has delivered a reasonable mix of prosperity, protection and social support. It has proved remarkably sturdy. Since the Second World War, no BHS country has had collapsed into chaos, become impoverished or suffered fundamental social breakdown. The system is also popular with voters, even if many government-hating Americans hate to admit it.

What’s really wrong with Europe?

Edward Hadas
Mar 14, 2012 15:14 UTC

The euro zone debt crisis shows that something is seriously wrong with Europe. But what is it?

Most financial professionals think the problem is economic. They have long considered continental Europe something of a mess – slow GDP growth, inept governments, smothering regulation and a culture that doesn’t “get” markets. European residents seem equally gloomy, especially about the economy. In the most recent Eurobarometer survey, 71 percent of respondents did not expect the crisis to be over two years hence.

The economic worries of both financiers and citizens are misplaced. Even if the slow patch does last a few more years, the European economy will continue to do what a modern economy is supposed to do. European consumers are basically as well off as Americans after adjusting for longer European holidays and different lifestyle choices. There is probably greater justice in the distribution of incomes and consumer goods in Europe than in the United States. The euro zone’s low trade deficits – less in total since 1990 than the United States ran in the last six months – suggest that Europe is globally competitive. Europe probably has a worse unemployment problem than the United States, but national governments are belatedly trying to remedy that.

It’s not always the economy, stupid

Edward Hadas
Jan 11, 2012 15:38 UTC

“It’s the economy, stupid.” The words date from Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, but the basic idea that political shifts are the visible manifestations of hidden economic developments was first articulated by Karl Marx, who wrote before the word “economy” had its current meaning. When he declared, in 1848, that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” the notion was truly revolutionary. It has become a commonplace. Pundits ferret out economic causes for everything, politicians strive to present voters with economic good news, and careful studies show that economic trends influence elections.

Like most often-repeated generalizations (“Germans are orderly” or “an army marches on its stomach”) the claim that politics is fundamentally about economics has some truth to it. But I think pundits, politicians and voters would all benefit from a bit of revisionism. It’s not always the economy, and when it is, politicians cannot do much about it in a hurry.

Start with the expert commentators. I’m thinking of the people who confidently declare that the Arab Spring was caused by the increased cost of food. Or the ones who explain the poor performance of Vladimir Putin’s party in the recent Russian parliamentary election as a reflection of stagnating average incomes. The invasion of Iraq? It was the oil, stupid. The rise of anti-immigrant parties in Europe? Look no further than the job market.

  •