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Money: 5000 Years of Debt and Power- Book Review

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Michel Aglietta, most famous as the cofounder of the regulation school of economics, has written Money: 5000 Years of Debt and Power.  As the title suggests, it’s a bold exploration of the history of money and, by extension, finance in general.  The book demonstrates that money not only shapes economics, but society itself.

Aglietta starts off by giving a brief history of money and commerce.  He dispels the myth of the prehistoric bartering system of the “pre-money” era of humanity that everyone was taught in school.  There’s no archaeological evidence that bartering was ever the standard for commerce.  As the book title reminds us, items such as shells have been used from antiquity as a currency in societies that haven’t mastered metalwork.  The start of the Bronze Age around 5000 years ago ushered in both a rapid rise in industrialization and the use of metal coinage as a form of payment for increasingly large and cross-border transactions.  A coin’s makeup of gold or silver determined its value in a manner that served as a consensus in the ancient world.

Over time however, money became more complex due to war and trade.  Indebted men often had to end up selling their wives, children or themselves into slavery to pay off their debt.  Thus,  “[Athenian statesman] Solon carried out the first monetary reform. This was an effort in Athens before the end of the 6th century B.C., in an effort to alleviate the poor peasants’ debts to the landowners.  According to Plutarch’s account, Solon reduced the value of these debts by 30% by devaluing the drachma by this same proportion.”  Monarchs started to unilaterally re-value their currencies or mint lower-quality coins to fit the needs of the state.

One of the foremost determinants of currency value in the pre-modern era was the availability of gold and silver.  If a ruler lost access to mines or the means to buy precious metal, then financial disaster would likely ensue.  Conversely, striking gold literally would be the same as striking gold metaphorically.  Britain, France and especially Spain became fabulously wealthy in the colonization era by stealing gold and silver from Africa and the Americas.

Ironically, this “dual standard” of gold and silver would also create instances of incredible currency volatility.  Spain brought back so much silver from the Americas that it massively deflated the value of silver, which ultimately caused lasting economic harm to Spain.  Too many or too few coins in a country’s circulation can have ripple effects around the world.

Thus, Dutch and British economists started to move the global market towards the scriptural system during the Enlightenment.  Increasingly complex financial instruments, such as interest-bearing business loans, were developed by merchants in Amsterdam and London.  “A purely metallic [bullion] system creates money on the basis of a pre-existing and prior source of wealth: the metal that has already been extracted from the ground.  On the contrary, the creation of scriptural money by issuing debts transferable to third parties is only valid if these debts can ultimately be settled. They’ll only be settled if the issuer has acquired some value that allows it to honor the debt.  Money is thus created on the basis of anticipated future wealth.”  Modern finance was thus born, fuelling colonial commerce and industrialization.

The book spends the bulk of its attention exploring the post-WWII “Bretton Woods” era of finance, in which the gold standard was replaced by the current supremacy of the US dollar.  This has had profound impacts on everything from diplomacy to Third-World development to Middle East conflicts via the “petrodollar”.  Dollar primacy in the global economy walks hand-in-hand with the US’ laissez-faire attitude towards the regulation of banking institutions and other market actors.  Aglietta expresses some reservations with this status quo.  For instance, he writes, “The tendency towards growth in international capital movements hasn’t had a positive effect on long-term growth… Studying a wide sample of developed and emerging countries, Dani Rodrik & Arvind Subramanian have shown that opening finance up internationally had no effect from 1985-2005.  More recent Bank for Internat’l Settlements studies conducted by Stephen Cecchetti and Enisse Kharroubi have even suggested that the opening up of finance had a negative effect on global productivity.”

With the Great Recession and the current political and currency instability in the US, Aglietta argues that the world needs to move past the dollar standard.  Certain millennial economists might offer up cryptocurrencies as a savior for global commerce.  Aglietta is bearish on this proposal; he writes, “Bitcoin is nothing but a disembodied monetary instrument… detached from any notion of the public good and disconnected from any sovereign authority that might guarantee its liquidity and perennial endurance. Bitcoin maintains the illusion of a virtual community through the networks of those who promote & exchange ideas about it, but it is not supported by any hierarchically organized banking system overseen by a central bank or by a clearing system that would allow the lasting sustainability of payments to be guaranteed.”  The euro could arguably be suitable replacement for the USD, but Aglietta is likewise pessimistic.  He writes extensively about the limitations of the euro and the European Central Bank.  Since the euro is a non-sovereign currency, it has severe limitations in terms of revaluation and addressing financial crises, among other issues.  He’s slightly less pessimistic about the renminbi.  For an interesting overview of the renminbi’s long-term prospects as a global currency, read the final chapter of this book, then compare it to the Renminbi chapter of George Magnus’ RED FLAGS.

His proposal is for a system called Special Drawing Rights (SDR).  It’s essentially a global Central Bank that sets universal banking standards, ensures liquidity in cases of a recession or depression by acting as a last-resort lender for national banks and offers better access to credit for developing countries.  Many of these problems were supposed to be addressed during Bretton Woods negotiations and later by the formation of the IMF; Aglietta writes about why these initiatives failed.

Aglietta firmly lays out the case for the centralization of authority in MONEY.  He bemoans the impotence of current banking institutions and the competing exchange rats and financial policies of different nations.  On the climate crisis, Aglietta writes, “Biodiversity and climate change are the two great environmental fields that appear as public goods and are therefore impossible to substitute for forms of capital produced according to market-based incentives.”  He expresses optimism in a future where markets are regulated more efficiently and there’s a lot more coordination between different banks and nations to address financial crises and manage inflation and exchange rates.

Russell Whitehouse is Executive Editor at IntPolicyDigest. He’s also a freelance social media manager/producer, 2016 Iowa Caucus volunteer and a policy essayist.

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Economy

Future Economy: Micro-Manufacturing & Micro-Exports

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Recovery now forces economies to emerge as dynamic entrepreneurial landscapes; today, the massively displaced working citizenry of the world may not return to old jobs, but with little help slowly shifting towards entrepreneurial startups as new frontiers to create economic independence and increased local grassroots prosperity. Today, the latest global influences of trendy entrepreneurialism optimizing available options like high quality “Micro-Manufacturing” and high value added “Micro-Exporting” now common discussions on the main streets of the world.  Although, this is not an easy task, but still very doable for so many and promises local uplifts. Smart nations are awakening to such bold notions and entrepreneurial driven agencies mandated to foster local economies are using virtual events to rise up with global rhythm and rich contents.

 Therefore, the blueprints and new models of today on upskilling SME exporters and reskilling for better-designed manufacturing, nation-by-nation and city-by-city are mobilization ready ideas to optimize abandoned talents. Nevertheless, such upskilling and reskilling of masses demands already skilled leadership of most of the gatekeepers of local economic development venues. 

Furthermore, global competitiveness has raised the bar and now only high quality value added goods and services traded for the wide-open world. The conveyer belts of technology and zoomerang culture of virtual connectivity flourishes platform economies. Missing are the advanced skills, complex problem solving and most importantly national mobilization of entrepreneurialism on digital platforms of upskilling to foster innovative excellence and exportability. SME and Startups must advance on global thinking, optimize access, and maximize image and quality superiority to reach the farthest markets with deeper pockets.

This is not an easy task. Methodical progressions needed. Study how Pentiana Project tabled advanced thinking on such trends during the last decade. Export Promotion Agencies, Chambers of Commerce, Trade Associations and most SME and midsize economic developments bodies all called for bold and open debates. For fast track results, follow the trail of silence and help thought leadership to engage in bold and open debates and give them guidance to overcome their fears of transformation.

Small enterprises must now open to new world of 200 nations and 10,000 cites

Micro-Exporters: Upskilling Startups to think like global exporters; the pandemic recoveries across the world coping with a billion displaced all have now critical needs of both upskilling and reskilling. Upskilling is the process of learning new skills to achieve new thinking. Reskilling is the process of learning new skills to achieve new performances. What is exporting, how to start at micro-levels and how to expand globally with technology are new challenges and promising options.

Micro-Manufacturers: Reskilling Startups to think like smart manufacturers; the real goals for startups to enlarge and base thinking on reskilling for “real value creation” becomes mandatory. How to start by thinking better, design quality with creative global age strategies and advance?  Advanced Manufacturing Clusters in various nations will greatly help, but understanding of global-age expansion of value offerings with fine production is a new art and commercialization to 200 nations a new science.

The future of economies, The arrival of Virtual leadership and Zoomerang culture is a gift from pandemic recovery, although at infancy, the sector will not only grow but also alter global commerce for good. Once successful the traditional advertising and marketing models dying, direct access live interaction is now far superior to mass-mailing and social media screaming.  The zoomerang impact of global thought leadership now forcing institutions to become armchair Keynote speakers and Panelists to deliberate wisdom from the comfort of their homes round the clock events has arrived.

The Difficult Questions: Nation-by-nation,when 50% of frontline teams need ‘upskilling’ often 50% of the back-up teams need ‘reskilling’ so how do you open discussions leading to workable and productive programs? Each stage challenges competency levels and each stage offers options to up-skill for better performances. Talent gaps need fast track closing and global-age skills need widening. New flat hierarchical models provide wide-open career paths and higher performance rewards in post pandemic recovery phases. When executed properly such exercises match new skills and talents with the right targeted challenges of the business models and market conditions. The ultimate objective of “extreme value creation” in any enterprise must eliminate the practices of ‘extreme value manipulations”.

First Three Steps:  In order to mobilize a startups revolution along with a small medium business economy, start by identifying 1000 to 10,000 high enterprises anxious to grow for national global markets. To quadruple exportability, select a small leadership team, from local trade Associations, Economic Development Bodies and Chambers of Commerce responsive to calls of upskilling and reskilling as critical steps. Suggest roundtable discussions to reach local, national or global audiences to spread the message. Explore such superior level debates to mobilize local businesses.  Most importantly, such mobilizations are not new funding dependent they are deployment hungry and execution starved. Futurism is workless, uplifting mental powers towards better value-added production of goods and services will save economies.  Optimize zoomerang culture and use virtual events to raise the bar on thought leadership. The world is moving fast and best to join the pace.

The rest is easy

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Portugal’s crisis management: “Economic patriotism” should not be tied to ideological beliefs

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The economic policy of the Hungarian government has provoked fierce criticism in the last decade, as it deviated from the neoliberal mainstream and followed a patriotic path, putting Hungarian interests in the foreground. While many link this style of political economy to the conservative position of the Orbán-government, in Portugal, a left-wing administration followed a similarly patriotic line to overcome the symptoms of the Eurozone crisis, showcasing that economic patriotism is not tied to ideologies, but is merely responsible thinking.

The catastrophic path of austerity

According to the theory of austerity, the government by implying austerity measures, “puts its finances in order”, hence the state does not become indebted and consequently investors’ confidence in the economy returns. However, if we think about what we really mean by austerity (tax increases, wage cuts, budget constraints, etc.), even the theory itself sounds counterproductive. Not surprisingly, this theoretical counter productivity has been demonstrated in practice in several cases.

One of the best examples is the case of Portugal, which along with Greece and other Southern-European nations was probably hit the hardest by the financial crunch. While all of the “GIPS” (Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain) entered a steer recession, Portugal somehow managed to overcome it more successfully than its regional peers, but before that, it felt the bitter taste of neoliberal structural reforms.

Although the case of Portugal was not as traumatic as the ones of its Southern-European counterparts, in order to keep its debt under control, stabilize its banks and introduce “growth-friendly” reforms, Lisbon negotiated a € 78 billion bailout package in 2011, in exchange for a rigid austerity program aimed at the 2011-2014 period, orchestrated by the European Commission (EC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank (ECB), the infamous “Troika”.

The neoliberal recipe did not differ much from that of Greece, and the then ruling Passos Coelho conservative government faithfully followed the structural reforms demanded by the “group of three”: working hours increased, number of bank holidays fell, holiday bonuses were abolished, wages and pensions have also been cut by 20 per cent, while public spending on health and education was drastically cut, and due to escalating privatizations, public assets have also been sold off quickly.

Despite the fact that by 2014 the country’s budget deficit as a share of the GDP had fallen to 4.5 per cent from the staggering11.2 per cent recorded in 2011 and the current account showed a surplus – as domestic demand fell apart, forcing companies to export –Portugal was still on the brink of social and economic collapse.

Public debt soared to more than 130 per cent of the GDP, tens of thousands of businesses went bankrupt, unemployment rose to 17 per cent and skyrocketed to 40 per cent amongst the youth. As a result, many talented Portuguese fled abroad, with an estimated 150,000 nationals emigrating in a single year.

The post-2015 turnaround

Things only began to change in 2015, when the Portuguese elected Anotnio Costa as Prime Minister, who was the mayor of Lisbon under the years of the crunch. Shortly after his election, Merkel encouraged the center-left politician to follow the neoliberal prescription proposed by the “Troika”, while her Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, underlined that Portugal would make a “serious mistake” if it decided not to follow the neoliberal doctrine and would eventually be forced to negotiate another rescue package.

Not being intimidated by such “threats”, Costa ditched austerity without hesitation, restored working hours, cut taxes and raised the minimum wage by 20 percent in the course of just two years. Obviously, his unpopular position made him crush with Brussels, as his government allowed the budget deficit to reach 4.4 per cent, compared to the agreed 2.7 per cent target. However, in May 2016, the Commission granted Costa another year to comply, and since then Portugal has consistently exceeded its deficit targets.

Tourism also largely assisted the post-15 recovery, to which the government placed great emphasis, so that in 2017 the number of visitors rose to a record high, reaching 12.7 million. Concurrently, Portugal has significantly improved the international reputation of its businesses and products, which contributed to increasing the country’s export revenues and attracting foreign investment.

Furthermore, Costa has raised social spending and at the same time planned to invest state revenues in transport, environmental infrastructure and energy, initiatives that could be extremely beneficial, as they would not only significantly improve the country’s sustainability, but also boost job creation, something that yet again indicates how important public investment is to an economy.

Additionally, Portugal has become an undervalued tech-hub, with plenty of start-ups offering good employment opportunities in addition to fostering innovation. The government with several initiatives, seeks to create a business-friendly ecosystem for them, under which they can thrive and boost the economy to the largest extent. It is thus not surprising, that Portugal has been the fastest growing country in Europe when it comes to the number of programmers.

Finally, one of the Costa’s top priorities, has been to lure back emigrated Portuguese who moved abroad during the crisis. To this end, tax cuts are offered to Portuguese citizens who choose to return home.

In a sum, since Costa stepped into office, Portugal has undergone a rapid recovery: economic growth has returned, unemployment has fallen radically, the public debt was also set on a downgrading path, while the budget remained well-balanced despite the increased spending, with Costa himself explaining that “sound public accounts are compatible with social cohesion”. Even Schäuble acknowledged Portugal’scrisis management, by actually calling Mário Centeno – the finance minister of the Costa government – the “Cristiano Ronaldo” of finance ministers.

Of course, not everything is bright and wonderful, as the country has emerged from a large crisis, the effects of which cannot be eliminated in just a few years. Public debt is still amongst the highest in the EU and several other challenges lie ahead for the South-European nation, especially by taking into consideration that the world economy just entered yet another crisis.

Furthermore, according to many, it was not Costa who led the recovery, but Portugal passively benefited from a strong recovery in Europe, falling oil prices, an explosion in tourism and a sharp drop in debt repayment costs. Indeed, it has to be taken into account that Portugal entered the recession in a relatively better position than many of its spatial counterparts and the relatively high quality of its domestic institutional infrastructure and policy-adaptation capacity aided the previous government to efficiently complete the memorandum of understanding (MoU) as early as 2015. Nevertheless, this is not a sufficient reason to discredit the post-2015 government’s efforts and justify the harsh austerity measures implied by the Troika. Taking into account that austerity never really provided decent results, it becomes evident that Costa’s policies were quite effective.

Economic patriotism should not be connected to ideologies

While in the case of Hungary and Poland “economic patriotism” has been fiercely criticized despite its prosperous results, this spite tendency has been an outcome of strong politicization in economic policy analysis. Even though the political context is verily important, it is also crucial to interpret economic policy independently, in order to take away valuable lessons and identify mistakes. Political bias is not a fortunate thing, as it is absolute and nullifies debate and hence development.

The case of Portugal is a perfect example, as it provides sound evidence, that a patriotic economic policy can be exercised by governments from all across the political spectrum and that the notion should not be connected to political and ideological beliefs. The left-wing Costa-government with its policy-making demonstrated that a solution always exists and that requires a brave, strong and decisive government, that pursues its own plan in the interests of the ‘patrie’, regardless of its positioning.

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The Question Of Prosperity

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Galloping economic woes, prejudice, injustice, poverty, low literacy rate, gender disparity and women rights, deteriorating health system, corruption, nepotism, terrorism, political instability, insecure property rights, looming energy crisis and various other similar hindrances constrain any state or country to be retrograded. Here questions arise that how do these obstacles take place? How do they affect the prosperity of any country? No history, geography, or culture spawns them. Simply the answer is institutions that a country possesses.

Institutions ramify into two types: inclusive and extractive. Inclusive political institutions make power broadly distributed in country or state and constrain its arbitrary exercise. Such political institutions also make it harder for others to usurp rights and undermine the cornerstone of inclusive institutions, which create inclusive economic institutions that feature secure property rights, an unbiased system of law, and a provision of public services that provide a level playing field in which people can exchange and contract; it also permits the entry of new businesses and allow people to choose their career. On the contrary, extractive political institutions accord clout in hands of few narrow elite and they have few constrains to exert their clout and engineer extractive economic institutions that can specifically benefit few people of the ruling elite or few people in the country.

Inclusive institutions are proportional to the prosperity and social and economic development. Multifarious countries in the world are great examples of this. Taking North and South Korea; both countries garnered their sovereignty in same year 1945, but they adopted different ways to govern the countries. North Korea under the stewardship of Kim Il-sung established dictatorship by 1947, and rolled out a rigid form of centrally planned economy as part of the so-called Juche system; private property was outlawed, markets were banned, and freedoms were curtailed not only in marketplace but also in every sphere of North Korea’s lives- besides those who used to be part of the very small ruling elite around Kim Il-sung and later his son and his successor Kim Jong-Il. Contrariwise, South Korea was led and its preliminary politico-economic institutions were orchestrated by the Harvard and Princeton-educated. Staunchly anticommunist Rhee and his successor General Park Chung-Hee secured their places in history as authoritarian presidents, but both governed a market economy where private property was recognised. After 1961, Park effectively taken measures that caused the state behind rapid economic growth; he established inclusive institutions which encouraged investment and trade. South Korean politicians prioritised to invest in most crucial segment of advancement that is education. South Korean companies were quick to take advantage of educated population; the policies encouraged investment and industrialisation, exports and the transfer of technology. South Korea quickly became a “Miracle Economy” and one of the most rapidly growing nations of the world. Just in fifty years there was conspicuous distinction between both countries not because of their culture, geography, or history but only due to institutions both countries had adopted.

Moreover, another model to gauge role of institutions in prosperity is comparison of Nogales of US and Mexico. US Nogales earn handsome annual income; they are highly educated; they possess up to the mark health system with high life expectancy by global standards; they are facilitated with better infrastructure, low crime rate, privilege to vote and safety of life. By contrast, the Mexican Nogales earn one-third of annual income of US Nogales; they have low literacy rate, high rate of infant mortality; they have roads in bad condition, law and order in worse condition, high crime rate and corruption. Here also the institutions formed by the Nogales of both countries are main reason for the differences in economic prosperity on the two sides of the border.

Similarly, Pakistan tackles with issues of institutions. Mostly, pro-colonial countries are predominantly inheritors of unco extractive politico-economic institutions, and colonialism is perhaps germane to Pakistan’s tailoring of institutions. Regretfully, Pakistan is inherited with colossally extractive institutions at birth. The new elite, comprising civilian-military complex and handful aristocrats, has managed to prolong colonial-era institutional legacy, which has led Pakistan to political instability, consequently, political instability begot inadequacy of incentives which are proportional to retro gradation of the country.

Additionally, a recent research of Economic Freedom of the World (WEF) by Fraser Institute depicts that the countries with inclusive institutions and most economic freedom are more developed and prosperous than the least economic free countries; countries were divided into four groups. Comparing most free quartile and least free quartile of the countries, the research portrayed that most free quartile earns even nine times more than least free quartile; most free quartile has two times more political and civil rights than least free quartile; most free quartile owes three times less gender disparity than least free quartile; life expectancy tops at 79. 40 years in most free quartile, whereas number stands at 65.20 in least free quartile. To conclude this, the economic freedom is sine quo non for any country to be prosperous, and economic freedom comes from inclusive institutions. Unfortunately, Pakistan has managed to get place in least free quartile.

In a nutshell, the institutions play pivotal role in prosperity and advancement, and are game changer for any country. Thereby, our current government should focus on institutions rather than other issues, so that Pakistan can shine among the world’s better economies. For accomplishing this highly necessary task government should take conducive measures right now.

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