“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”- Opening paragraph from “A Tale of Two Cities”
In 1973, E.F. Schumacher wrote a book entitled Small Is Beautiful. The book was well reviewed and was read by many people concerned with the global ecological disaster, but perhaps it was a bit ahead of its time.
That was after all the time of agribusiness and the widely held idea that “big is always better.” That in turn was integral part of a positivist approach which believes that progress is inevitable, it is always scientific and what comes at the end and is most modern is always the best of all possible worlds.
Now we are more likely to be persuaded by those who insist, as Schumacher did, that a more localized decentralized approach to economics may be the more sensible and humane approach.
The question arises: why is that? Quite simply because economic globalization has taken center stage while global warming is often derided and ignored, more often than not by those who are supposed to be our leaders. Some say that globalization actually began with the era of Western colonialism and imperialism and it is unstoppable like the idea of progress. Closer to us, in modern times, while welcomed and seen as a panacea at its inception in the last quarter of the 20thcentury, it has by now transmuted into a great debate on whether globalization is capitalism at its most pernicious or a promising way to reduce poverty world-wide. The sad truth is that while wealth has been increased it has mostly gone to the one per cent on top of the economic pyramid while the poor and middle class have seen no economic process.
Laissez-faire liberal capitalists of various stripes and assorted entrepreneurs searching for world-wide market opportunities a la Trump naturally support globalization and argue that becoming part of the world economy is the only chance for developing countries and those living in abject poverty at grasping economic opportunities and lift themselves out of poverty. They see absolutely nothing wrong with globalization per se; at best they suggest some reforms in its methods and its side effects on regional cultures. They may pay lip service to regional cultures and even religious heritages and tradition while at the same time deriding them as retrograde but necessary superstitions to keep the people docile and exploitable (hence Marx critique of religion as the opium of the people), but essentially they have reduced human beings to mere consumers within the global market place.
As William James used to quip: do not pay attention to what people say, pay attention to what they do and you will know what they really believe in. People willing to ruin reputations and impugn the professional integrity and career of their critics for an ideology reveal with their ad hominem attacks better than with their scholarly treatises the extreme measure to which they are willing to resort to in defense of their pet unexamined ideology.
And that may indeed be the reason why, on the other hand, the protesters believe that globalization is merely an excuse for big business to run roughshod over the developing world. For them “free trade,” so called, simply enables multinationals to dominate developing markets and push out local enterprise. They call for alternative ways of reducing poverty that prioritize environmental and human rights. They argue that by reducing ancient heritages and cultures to their lowest common denominator one dissolves most conflicts and distinctions among them and trivializes them.
The protesters, who have been at it for the last twenty years or so are convinced that Global capitalization is all about getting the rich to be even richer. They cite examples such as this: ten years ago a US company director got 40 times the wages of an average blue collar worker – their wages are now over 400 times as much. Just 400 families have more than half the world’s theoretical wealth. Yet calling this insanity is sneered at. Capitalism requires expansion, there has to be year on year growth, and that’s simple math: if you must expand your economy by an average of 3% a year, in a hundred years you need to consume in a day what we currently consume in a year.
In the world of culture a dichotomy seems to exist between the world of science and that of the liberal arts and the humanities, something I have written at length in previous articles. Indeed, a novel by a great novelist such as Dostoyevsky or Joyce, or a poem by Dante or Shakespeare represents a world rooted in numerous particularities where people from different backgrounds encounter one another and are trying to connect and influence each other; a world complicated by memories and ambitions and multiple connections and displacements. It’s a world wherein its unique rounded characters refuse simplifications.
On the other hand, what Globalization with its reductionistic tendencies seems to produce is the disembowelment of the complexity of world cultures, forcing their differences into the blender of consumerism and accumulation of wealth, to then regurgitate shallow formulaic platitudes, reducing the narrative of those cultures and their heritage of millenarian religious traditions, to a singular outcome; that of universal consumerism and happiness, Disney or McDonald or soccer games style, where business need not be responsive to the people or to truly democratic institutions but to the happiness of its shareholders. This is achieved by moving factories and businesses to the cheapest labor markets and keeping pays low.
According to this severe critical view, history has taught us that globalization means only one thing: the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Corporate globalization and financial globalization without a buttressing ethical value system which sees the unity of humanity and its nexus to the earth, inevitably becomes dominated by greed and the profit motive. The critics also point out that those societies with the highest standard of living are those which allow some degree of capitalism, but combine it with a strong sense of social justice as exemplified by their social programs designed to help the less privileged and the least fortunate. The richest country in the world may not necessarily be the country with the highest standard of living. It appears that the element of distributive justice, whether it is taken seriously or it is simply ignored and considered unimportant, makes all the difference
Obviously there are two contrasting ways of looking at Globalization and the question arises: are the two views irreconcilable or is a synthesis of sort possible? While the developing world needs help from the developed world, does such help have to come at the price of pollution and unsustainable technologies under the title globalization? Does globalization have to imply that transporting goods and foodstuffs thousands of miles using valuable fossil fuels and creating massive pollution is a good thing? It appears that Globalization as envisaged by the visionless current world leaders and economic pundits measuring wealth and ignoring justice is likely to damage the developing world more than help it.
What the developing and the developed world need are initiatives that allow countries to be self-supporting and less dependent on the vagaries of world exchange rates, transport costs and international sanctions. However those promoting world trade and entrepreneurial capitalism do not want this, they want to the developing world be dependent on to their technologies and trade tie-ins. The problem is not free trade as such, but the unfair way with which it is implemented. It is apparent to any dispassionate observer that far from upholding the principles of democracy, the exigencies of commerce has served often to thwart them. All one has to do is recall that Britain’s colonial adventures in India, China and the East Indies were perpetuated by what was felt to be an inalienable right to force nations half way across the world to trade with them on their own terms.
Some have suggest that socialism is the solution, but socialism is often seen historically tied to the ideology of communism, adhered to by China’s ruling party, and this despite the fact that it is practiced in genuinely democratic countries in Scandinavia as well as in most industrialized democratic countries of the world which have social services that can only be characterized as socialistic, including the US which has social programs such as Social Security, Welfare benefits, Unemployment benefits, Medicare, Medicaid etc.
The Chinese are out to prove that democracy is not necessary for material prosperity; it is mere frosting on the cake, never mind Marx’s injunction that power ought to always proceed from the people, that is to say, from the bottom up and not from the top down. Hence ideological cultural battles invariably and regularly ensue and as it can be expected they become not part of the solutions but part of the social problems of our global village.
In point of fact, the battle between capitalism and anti-globalization, socialism, communism and all the other -ism’s one can think of is quite pointless – none of these ideologies stand up in extremis. A harmonious balance between regulation and freedom in the markets seems to be the only way forward to benefit all with at least a minimum of egalitarianism and distributive justice while preserving and enhancing freedom and democracy.
There is one glaring example that can be brought to bear to better illustrate the unfair business practices of the developed world toward the developing one. Both Britain and the US make strenuous efforts to sell cigarettes to poor countries. They give no health warnings against smoking as they do by law in their own countries. One can easily imagine how the precarious health services of these developing countries are going to cope in 20 year time with all the smoking related diseases we in the West are imposing upon them. I suppose that at that point in time the rapacious entrepreneurs of our brave new world will get busy selling them expensive medicines manufactured and developed in the West.
The major issue with globalization seems to be that corporate chairmen have power without representation. One of them is all set to become the next US Secretary of State. If we were to think of consumerism as a new political idea, corporate chairmen are the politicians, advertisements are the party broadcasts or propaganda, and the products are the manifesto. The result as advertised is happiness, fulfillment and wealth for everyone concerned. Donald Trump has promised as much to the ignorant and gullible and many are now waiting for the check in the mail. Good luck!
This analysis points to the fact that in effect we live in a semblance of democracy but in reality we live in a deterministic universe wherein we have been reduced to consuming automatons and our personhood and our very humanity has been robbed. It is now impossible to vote a corporation out of power. There is something fundamentally wrong in this situation. Branding globalization protesters as “anarchists” playing at revolution, as the media tends to do, will not lead to any solution either. Schumacher made similar points in the above mentioned book.
In this article I have simply outlined the problematic of Globalization as presented by those on opposite sides of its analysis. Those readers who may wish to further deepen their knowledge and even attempt a solution to the conundrum would be well advised to peruse a seminal and influential article by Steven Weber, Naazneer Barma, Mathew Kroenig and Ely Ratner titled “How Globalization Went Bad” which appeared in Foreign Policy of Jan/Feb 2007.
In conclusion let me say this on the present perplexing and ambiguous age of globalization, the era of the so called interrelated “global village” with its Facebook and Twitter and the Internet: it is both the best of times and the worst of times. The outcome, I suppose, will depend on how well we can hold together in our mind those two contrasting notions and wrap them around our minds as a paradox. I sincerely doubt that logical positivists and assorted entrepreneurs will be of much help here, but I would suggest that the novels of a Dickens or a Dostoyevsky, not to speak of sages and philosophers, may provide some hints on how best to bridge the chasm.
Rebalancing Act: China’s 2022 Outlook
Authors: Ibrahim Chowdhury, Ekaterine T. Vashakmadze and Li Yusha
After a strong rebound last year, the world economy is entering a challenging 2022. The advanced economies have recovered rapidly thanks to big stimulus packages and rapid progress with vaccination, but many developing countries continue to struggle.
The spread of new variants amid large inequalities in vaccination rates, elevated food and commodity prices, volatile asset markets, the prospect of policy tightening in the United States and other advanced economies, and continued geopolitical tensions provide a challenging backdrop for developing countries, as the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects report published today highlights.
The global context will also weigh on China’s outlook in 2022, by dampening export performance, a key growth driver last year. Following a strong 8 percent cyclical rebound in 2021, the World Bank expects growth in China to slow to 5.1 percent in 2022, closer to its potential — the sustainable growth rate of output at full capacity.
Indeed, growth in the second half of 2021 was below this level, and so our forecast assumes a modest amount of policy loosening. Although we expect momentum to pick up, our outlook is subject to domestic in addition to global downside risks. Renewed domestic COVID-19 outbreaks, including the new Omicron variant and other highly transmittable variants, could require more broad-based and longer-lasting restrictions, leading to larger disruptions in economic activity. A severe and prolonged downturn in the real estate sector could have significant economy-wide reverberations.
In the face of these headwinds, China’s policymakers should nonetheless keep a steady hand. Our latest China Economic Update argues that the old playbook of boosting domestic demand through investment-led stimulus will merely exacerbate risks in the real estate sector and reap increasingly lower returns as China’s stock of public infrastructure approaches its saturation point.
Instead, to achieve sustained growth, China needs to stick to the challenging path of rebalancing its economy along three dimensions: first, the shift from external demand to domestic demand and from investment and industry-led growth to greater reliance on consumption and services; second, a greater role for markets and the private sector in driving innovation and the allocation of capital and talent; and third, the transition from a high to a low-carbon economy.
None of these rebalancing acts are easy. However, as the China Economic Update points out, structural reforms could help reduce the trade-offs involved in transitioning to a new path of high-quality growth.
First, fiscal reforms could aim to create a more progressive tax system while boosting social safety nets and spending on health and education. This would help lower precautionary household savings and thereby support the rebalancing toward domestic consumption, while also reducing income inequality among households.
Second, following tightening anti-monopoly provisions aimed at digital platforms, and a range of restrictions imposed on online consumer services, the authorities could consider shifting their attention to remaining barriers to market competition more broadly to spur innovation and productivity growth.
A further opening-up of the protected services sector, for example, could improve access to high-quality services and support the rebalancing toward high-value service jobs (a special focus of the World Bank report). Eliminating remaining restrictions on labor mobility by abolishing the hukou, China’s system of household registration, for all urban areas would equally support the growth of vibrant service economies in China’s largest cities.
Third, the wider use of carbon pricing, for example, through an expansion of the scope and tightening of the emissions trading system rules, as well power sector reforms to encourage the penetration and nationwide trade and dispatch of renewables, would not only generate environmental benefits but also contribute to China’s economic transformation to a more sustainable and innovation-based growth model.
In addition, a more robust corporate and bank resolution framework would contribute to mitigating moral hazards, thereby reducing the trade-offs between monetary policy easing and financial risk management. Addressing distortions in the access to credit — reflected in persistent spreads between private and State borrowers — could support the shift to more innovation-driven, private sector-led growth.
Productivity growth in China during the past four decades of reform and opening-up has been private-sector led. The scope for future productivity gains through the diffusion of modern technologies and practices among smaller private companies remains large. Realizing these gains will require a level playing field with State-owned enterprises.
While the latter have played an instrumental role during the pandemic to stabilize employment, deliver key services and, in some cases, close local government budget gaps, their ability to drive the next phase of growth is questionable given lower profits and productivity growth rates in the past.
In 2022, the authorities will face a significantly more challenging policy environment. They will need to remain vigilant and ready to recalibrate financial and monetary policies to ensure the difficulties in the real estate sector don’t spill over into broader economic distress. Recent policy loosening suggests the policymakers are well aware of these risks.
However, in aiming to keep growth on a steady path close to potential, they will need to be similarly alert to the risk of accumulating ever greater levels of corporate and local government debt. The transition to high-quality growth will require economic rebalancing toward consumption, services, and green investments. If the past is any guide to the future, the reliance on markets and private sector initiative is China’s best bet to achieve the required structural change swiftly and at minimum cost.
First published on China Daily, via World Bank
The US Economic Uncertainty: Bitcoin Faces a Test of Resilience?
Is inflation harmful? Is inflation here to stay? And are people really at a loss? These and countless other questions along the same lines dominated the first half of 2021. Many looked for alternative investments in the national bourse, while others adopted unorthodox streams. Yes, I’m talking about bitcoin. The crypto giant hit records after records since the pandemic made us question the fundamentals of our conventional economic policies. And while inflation was never far behind in registering its own mark in history, the volatility in the crypto stream was hard to deny: swiping billions of dollars in mere days in April 2021. The surge came again, however. And it will keep on coming; I have no doubt. But whether it is the end of the pandemic or the early hues of a new shade, the tumultuous relationship between traditional economic metrics and the championed cryptocurrency is about to get more interesting.
The job market is at the most confusing crossroads in recent times. The hiring rate in the US has slowed down in the past two months, with employers adding only 199,000 jobs in December. The numbers reveal that this is the second month of depressing job additions compared to an average of more than 500,000 jobs added each month throughout 2021. More concerning is that economists had predicted an estimated 400,000 jobs additions last month. Nonetheless, according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, the unemployment rate has ticked down to 3.9% – the first time since the pre-pandemic level of 3.5% reported in February 2020. Analytically speaking, US employment has returned to pre-pandemic levels, yet businesses are still looking for more employees. The leverage, therefore, lies with the labor: reportedly (on average) every two employees have three positions available.
The ‘Great Resignation,’ a coinage for the new phenomenon, underscores this unique leverage of job selection. Sectors with low-wage positions like retail and hospitality face a labor shortage as people are better-positioned to bargain for higher wages. Thus, while wages are rising, quitting rates are record high simultaneously. According to recent job reports, an estimated 4.5 million workers quit their jobs in November alone. Given that this data got collected before the surge of the Omicron variant, the picture is about to worsen.
While wages are rising, employment is no longer in the dumps. People are quitting but not to invest stimulus cheques. Instead, they are resigning to negotiate better-paying jobs: forcing the businesses to hike prices and fueling inflation. Thus, despite high earnings, the budget for consumption [represented by the Consumer Price Index (CPI)] is rising at a rate of 6.8% (reported in November 2021). Naturally, bitcoin investment is not likely to bloom at levels rivaling the last two years. However, a downfall is imminent if inflation persists.
The US Federal Reserve sweats caution about searing gains in prices and soaring wage figures. And it appears that the fed is weighing its options to wind up its asset purchase program and hike interest rates. In March 2020, the fed started buying $40 billion worth of Mortgage-backed securities and $80 billion worth of government bonds (T-bills). However, a 19% increase in average house prices and a four-decade-high level of inflation is more than they bargained. Thus, the fed officials have been rooting for an expedited normalization of the monetary policy: further bolstered by the job reports indicating falling unemployment and rising wages. In recent months, the fed purview has dramatically shifted from its dovish sentiments: expecting no rate hike till 2023 to taper talks alongside three rate hikes in 2022.
Bitcoin now faces a volatile passage in the forthcoming months. While the disappointing job data and Omicron concerns could nudge the ball in its favor, the chances are that a depressive phase is yet to ensue. According to crypto-analysts, the bitcoin is technically oversold i.e. mostly devoid of impulsive investors and dominated by long-term holders. Since November, the bitcoin has dropped from the record high of $69,000 by almost 40%: moving in the $40,000-$41,000 range. Analysts believe that since bitcoin acts as a proxy for liquidity, any liquidity shortage could push the market into a mass sellout. Mr. Alex Krüger, the founder of Aike Capital, a New York-based asset management firm, stated: “Crypto assets are at the furthest end of the risk curve.” He further added: “[Therefore] since they had benefited from the Fed’s “extraordinarily lax monetary policy,” it should suffice to say that they would [also] suffer as an “unexpectedly tighter” policy shifts money into safer asset classes.” In simpler terms, a loose monetary policy and a deluge of stimulus payments cushioned the meteoric rise in bitcoin valuation as a hedge against inflation. That mechanism would also plummet the market with a sudden hawkish shift.
The situation is dire for most industries. Job participation levels are still low as workers are on the sidelines either because of the Omicron concern or lack of child support. In case of a rate hike, businesses would be forced to push against the wages to accommodate affordability in consumer prices. For bitcoin, the investment would stay dormant. However, any inflationary surprises could bring about an early tightening of the policy: spelling doom for the crypto market. The market now expects the job data to worsen while inflation to rise at 7.1% through December in the US inflation data (to be reported on Wednesday). Any higher than the forecasted figure alongside uncertainty imbued by the new variant could spark a downward spiral in bitcoin – probably pushing the asset below the $25000 mark.
Platform Modernisation: What the US Treasury Sanctions Review Is All About
The US Treasury has released an overview of its sanctions policy. It outlines key principles for making the restrictive US measures more effective. The revision of the sanctions policy was announced at the beginning of Joe Biden’s presidential term. The new review can be considered one of the results of this work. At the same time, it is difficult to find signs of qualitative changes in the US administration’s approach to sanctions in the document. Rather, it is about upgrading an existing platform.
Sanctions are understood as economic and financial restrictions that make it possible to harm the enemies of the United States, prevent or hinder their actions, and send them a clear political signal. The text reproduces the usual “behavioural” understanding of sanctions. They are viewed as a means of influencing the behaviour of foreign players whose actions threaten the security or contradict the national interests of the United States. The review also defines the institutional structure of the sanctions policy. According to the document, it includes the Treasury, the State Department, and the National Security Council. The Treasury plays the role of the leading executor of the sanctions policy, and the State Department and the NSS determine the political direction of their application, despite the fact that the State Department itself is also responsible for the implementation of a number of sanctions programmes. This line also includes the Department of Justice, which uses coercive measures against violators of the US sanctions regime.
Interestingly, the Department of Commerce is not mentioned among the institutions. The review focuses only on a specific segment of the sanctions policy that is implemented by the Treasury. However, it is the Treasury that is currently at the forefront of the application of restrictive measures. A significant part of the executive orders of the President of the United States and sanctions laws imply blocking financial sanctions in the form of an asset freeze and a ban on transactions with individuals and organisations. Decrees and laws assign the application of such measures to the Treasury in cooperation with the Department of State and the Attorney General. Therefore, the institutional link mentioned in the review reflects the spirit and letter of a significant array of US regulations concerning sanctions. The Department of Commerce and its Bureau of Industry and Security are responsible for a different segment of the sanctions policy, which does not diminish its importance. Export controls can cause a lot of trouble for individual countries and companies.
Another notable part of the review concerns possible obstacles to the effective implementation of US sanctions. These include, among other things, the efforts of the opponents of the United States to change the global financial architecture, reducing the share of the dollar in the national settlements of both opponents and some allies of the United States.
Indeed, such major powers as Russia and China have seriously considered the risks of being involved in a global American-centric financial system.
The course towards the sovereignty of national financial systems and settlements with foreign countries is largely justified by the risk of sanctions.
Russia, for example, is vigorously pursuing the development of a National Payment System, as well as a Financial Messaging System. There has been a cautious but consistent policy of reducing the share of the dollar in external settlements. China, which has much greater economic potential, is building systems of “internal and external circulation”. Even the European Union has embarked on an increase in the role of the euro, taking into account the risk of secondary sanctions from “third countries”, which are often understood between the lines as the United States.
Digital currencies and new payment technologies also pose a threat to the effectiveness of sanctions. Moreover, here the players can be both large powers and many other states and non-state structures. It is interesting that digital currencies at a certain stage may present a common challenge to the United States, Russia, China, the EU and a number of other countries. After all, they can be used not only to circumvent sanctions, but also, for example, to finance terrorism or in money laundering. However, the review does not mention such common interests.
The text does propose measures to modernise the sanctions policy. The first one is to build sanctions into the broader context of US foreign policy. Sanctions are not important in and of themselves, but as part of a broader palette of policy instruments. The second measure is to strengthen interdepartmental coordination in the application of sanctions in parallel with increased coordination of US sanctions with the actions of American allies. The third measure is a more accurate calibration of sanctions in order to avoid humanitarian damage, as well as damage to American business. The fourth measure is to improve the enforceability and clarity of the sanctions policy. Here we can talk about both the legal uncertainty of some decrees and laws, and about an adequate understanding of the sanctions programmes on the part of business. Finally, fifth is the improvement and development of the Treasury-based sanctions apparatus, including investments in technology, staff training and infrastructure.
All these measures can hardly be called new. Experts have long recommended the use of sanctions in combination with other instruments, as well as improved inter-agency coordination. The coordination of sanctions with allies has escalated due to a number of unilateral steps taken by the Trump Administration, including withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal or sanctions against Nord Stream 2. However, the very importance of such coordination has not been questioned in the past and has even been reflected in American legislation (Iran). The need for a clearer understanding of sanctions policy has also been long overdue. Its relevance is illustrated, among other things, by the large number of unintentional violations of the US sanctions regime by American and foreign businesses. The problem of overcompliance is also relevant, when companies refuse transactions even when they are allowed. The reason is the fear of possible coercive measures by the US authorities. Finally, improving the sanctioning apparatus is also a long-standing topic. In particular, expanding the resources of the Administration in the application of sanctions was recommended by the US Audit Office in a 2019 report.
The US Treasury review suggests that no signs of an easing are foreseen for the key targets of US sanctions. At the same time, American business and its many foreign counterparties can benefit from the modernisation of the US sanctions policy. Legal certainty can reduce excess compliance as well as help avoid associated losses.
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