City-States over Nation-States?

My friend Ram forwarded me the first of the four-part lecture by Lim Siong Guan for the Institute of Policy Studies – Nathan annual lecture series. The first lecture was titled, ‘Accidental Nation’. It is worth going through. The full lecture is available here. Mr. Lim mentions a paper by Sir John Glubb: ‘Fate of empires and search for survival’. The extracts he cited were interesting. The paper is available here. I am yet to read it. I hope this is the paper he referred to.

My wife found an interesting article in the ‘Comments’ section below the newspaper report that carried his speech highlights. That article suggests that the future belongs to City-States rather than nation-States. I don’t buy that. Not that I have done much research into it. Nor do I claim myself to be an expert in such matters. I am grateful to be educated.

From the article, I learnt about the unclaimed land between Croatia and Serbia and also about Patri Friedman, the grandson of Milton Friedman.

But, I do believe that modern nation-States would last longer than the ancient Roman Empire, perhaps.

Humans need anchor these days. They have come a long way from their nomadic hunter-gatherer days. Back then, there were no identity markers such as religions and groups. Now that we have them, it is difficult to go back to that ultimate ‘libertarian’ world.

Even those who enjoy the freedoms that cities afford but nation-States don’t – the highly educated foot-loose global citizens who feel at home in all global cities rather quickly – would ache for the protection and security that nation-States afford when technology and other threats make their livelihoods and lives that much less secure.

So, it is good to have competition for today’s Nation-States. But, I am not prepared to wager on their demise. Not soon.

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10th anniversary awards

On the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 (it began in 2007), we have a few awards to give.

The top prize for market efficiency goes to the Eurozone BB rated BofA Merrill Euro High Yield index whose yield is the same as that of the U.S. Treasury index of BofA-Merrill. [Link]. See chart below.

european high yield

Second prize goes to the Bank of Japan for becoming the market all by itself – both the buyer and the seller – in Japanese stocks and thereby enhancing the working of the market mechanism itself! [Link]

Third prize goes to the Swiss National Bank for becoming the buyer of first and last resort for FAANG stocks. 20% of its Reserves are held in U.S. stocks now! [Link]. From central planning of interest rates to public sector ownership of public markets!

Fourth place should go to investors themselves – who can still teach a trick or two to these central banks.

An $800 million subprime auto bond sale from Westlake Financial Services Inc. last week was priced at some of the highest valuations — as measured by the extra yield the notes offered compared with the benchmark rate — since 2014, the analysts wrote in a note Monday. The portion of the security rated BB, or two steps below investment grade, offered the least additional yield for a deal of its size and rating on record. Demand for the offering was strong enough to increase its size from a planned $700 million. [Link]

Asia in the fast lane?

In a piece, he wrote for ‘Project Syndicate’, Prof. Kaushik Basu, former Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India made the following prediction:

in 50 years, I predict that the world economy is likely (though not guaranteed) to be thriving, with global GDP growing by as much as 20% per year, and income and consumption doubling every four years or so. [Link]

I am happy to take the other side of the bet, if there is one.

But more than that, what caught my eye was this:

From 1500 to 1820, according to data collected by the late Angus Maddison, the world’s annual growth rate was just 0.32%, with large sections of the world experiencing no growth at all….Industrial Revolution, which lifted average annual global growth to 2.25% from 1820 to 2003?

The Angus Maddison database at the website of Groningen Growth and Development Centre did not give me information for the year 1500. Second, it only gave me per capita GDP for individual countries and regions measured in 1990 PPP GK (Geary-Khamis) dollars. The Excel sheet I could download had information starting only from the year 1820 (see link above).

On that basis, world per capita GDP (1990 GK $) experienced a CAGR of 1.27% from 1820 to 2010. Asia’s number 1.26%. For the world, the pre-WW I (1820-1913) growth rate was 0.84% and post-WW I (1913-2010), including the war periods, the growth rate was 1.69%. Double.

For Asia, the difference is more striking. The comparable figures were 0.15% and 2.34%.

It gets even more interesting if one split the data into two periods, 1820-1950 and 1950-2010. For the world, the growth rate in per capita GDP (in 1990 GK $) for the first 130 years since 1820 was 0.84% per annum. For the next 60 years, it was 2.21%.

It is more striking for Asia. The comparable figures are 0.10% and 3.84% respectively. Amazing speed of growth and catch-up. Put it down to Japan and China, post-1950. Roughly, the first thirty years from 1950 was the story of Japan and the next thirty years, it has been the story of China. What comes next? Who comes next?

Stuff that caught my attention (STCMA) – 23 May 2017 edition

MINT Edit on Conventional politicians and why they are useful

Philippine President says China President threatened war if Philippines explored South China Sea for oil

President Trump’s speech at the Arab-Islamic-American summit

Tulsi Gabbard not pleased with Trump speech in Saudi Arabia.  A sample here.

Spanish government debt again above 100% of GDP

Key achievement of ‘Department of Economic Affairs’: Improvement in India’s macroeconomic stability – say it again, please?

Ministry of Finance of the Government of India has discontinued the mid-year economic appraisal and the monthly economic reports too have not been updated since August 2016. Pity.

Anil Padmanabhan on the political significance of the GST Council meeting in Srinagar

Scott Greet in ‘Daily Caller’: The Predictable catastrophe of firing James Comey [Link]. I checked out his tweets last night. Seems worth following.

Populists-nationalists: their inevitability and their usefulness

After I published this piece on America tearing itself apart in Medium.com this morning, a friend flagged this G-30 lecture by Raghuram Rajan last month.

I thought that the flow was somehow not there in the speech. I can understand that at one level. He is trying to understand the world. It is work in progress for him and for all of us. It is not a facile topic.

Issues he flags are very well documented, by now. For example, I had blogged extensively on the Chairman’s letter of M&T Bank. Not many could have explained the situation better.

On answers, Raghu is very thin. But, that is not his fault. Societies always figure out what not to do. But, what to do is the tricky question. That takes much longer to evolve and involves luck and extreme circumstances.

In a sense, that is what populists-nationalists offer: ‘Extreme Circumstances’. Yes, they would fail to solve the problem. One cannot redistribute without growing the pie.

Populists-nationalists will probably not grow the pie. Of course, it is a different matter that the globalists grew the pie but also grew debt much more than that. So, perhaps, one could argue that they have a worse record!

But, that said, I do agree that eventually populists-nationalists would fail. They would neither succeed in re-distributing nor in growing the pie for THREE reasons: One is what I said earlier. There are no easy answers. Second, they have to face the constant backlash from those who feel threatened and who are losing their privileges. Taking the country and the world back from them is not going to be easy at all. Status quo and incumbency have their advantages.

Third and perhaps most importantly, sometimes it is impossible to undo and ‘restore’. [Even Microsoft Windows 10 does not do that properly despite users having the theoretical option of doing so.] There is no second chance. Once something is lost, it stays lost.

However, they (populists-nationalists) do serve one useful purpose. They serve as a rallying cause. A lightning rod. Humans and nations always need the ‘other’ – an Opposition/opposing force – to survive and focus minds. The ‘others’ impart a sense of urgency to the problems that have festered for long and they help focus minds on the problem.

Once we know that their answers are not the right answers, the rest of us are compelled to come up with solutions that are better than what they offer. Of course, it would involve sacrifices – sacrifices of the privileges that elites have gotten accustomed to and grown to take for granted.  But, they will have come to the conclusion by then that they are better off making those sacrifices for the sake of preserving the chance to remain in the game and re-gaining those privileges again.

That is the very useful purpose that populists-nationalists serve.  That is why I had argued that populists-nationalists were not only inevitable but that they would well be necessary for the world to arrive at its answers, eventually. For now, we are a long way off from this seemingly happy ending.

Twilight – continued

The article by Christopher Caldwell (see my earlier post, ‘Twilight’) had set me thinking. I sent the following email to my friend Niranjan who had forwarded the article to me:

Made for a thoroughly scary, disturbing and engrossing reading!

I am really surprised that the world has not imploded. That is the good news. The bad news is that it is still to be played out. It is coming.

I really doubt if any of us have answers to stop the Doomsday Clock from moving towards midnight. The clock will strike 12. IT is a matter of time.

Another friend who read the piece concurred on my assessment of the article and engaged in an email discussion on some of the issues such as hostility to outsiders (identity as the market, as he put it) as a consequence of economic hardship faced by the locals.

This was my response to him:

Identity is part of the mix, no doubt. But, it is part of the capital over labour imbalance that started with the collapse of the Bretton Woods in 1973. Monetary ‘rules of the game’ were abandoned. ‘Growth at all costs’ became the policy goal. Central banks’ discretionary money and the liberal use of debt contributed to economic growth, relentless rise in asset prices. Those who have assets benefited. Those who did not, simply became more indebted. Then, this ‘growth at all costs’ meant globalisation.

That was the second leg – or the second pillar of ‘growth at all costs’ – of the 1970s regime change in both purpose and paths. Globalisation meant offshoring and outsourcing plus immigration. It helped countries like India and, in a far bigger way, China. Both are mostly the stories of the new millennium: Y2K and China’s WTO entry were signature launchpad of the western malaise.

The third leg is the Western hubris induced political regime change in the Middle East that has brought waves of immigration – especially that of Muslims. The fourth leg of this is Islam itself with its ‘they are with me or they are against me’ binary attitude towards the rest of the world and the various acts of terrorism committed by terrorists.

The fourth leg has been greatly amplified by the wave of political correctness that is sweeping through Western societies – I wonder if I can trace the genesis and the driving spirit of it – is it guilt or is it fear or both or is there something else?

My logic above takes me in the direction of fixing the ‘root cause’ – going back to the old monetary rules of the game that would, in turn, reverse the other legs – particularly economic inequality.  Company leaders and, more generally, businesses would go back to doing genuine product and process innovations rather than gaming stock prices and their compensation through labour retrenchment and squeezing out labour compensation. If they do, loyalty and motivation might return boosting productivity and employment. A virtuous circle could set in and, who knows, it could starve terrorist organisations of recruits. May be, I am being too optimistic.

There was one crucial difference about the post-World War II period that lasted up to the early Seventies. Economic growth was easier to come by, because it was catch-up growth, reconstruction and rebuilding and all of that. Demographics were favourable in the West. Climate change was not a factor that militated against the burning of coal and other hydrocarbons, etc.

So, will merely restoring the ‘monetary rules of the game’ help? Well, perhaps not. But, we can only change things that we can influence and change. What else can we do? That might work. After all, the law of unintended consequences can work in a virtuous way too.

The twilight

They also give an explanation for the rise of the National Front that goes beyond the usual imputation of stupidity or bigotry to its voters.

When France’s was a national economy, its median workers were well compensated and well protected from illness, age, and other vicissitudes. In a knowledge economy, these workers have largely been exiled from the places where the economy still functions. They have been replaced by immigrants.

Paris’s future seems visible in contemporary London. Between 2001 and 2011, the population of white Londoners fell by 600,000, even as the city grew by 1 million people: from 58 percent white British at the turn of the century, London is currently 45 percent white.

In Paris and other cities of Guilluy’s fortunate France, one often encounters an appearance of civility, even consensus, where once there was class conflict. But this is an illusion: one side has been driven from the field.

Never have conditions been more favorable for deluding a class of fortunate people into thinking that they owe their privilege to being nicer, or smarter, or more honest, than everyone else. Why would they think otherwise? They never meet anyone who disagrees with them. The immigrants with whom the creatives share the city are dazzlingly different, exotic, even frightening, but on the central question of our time—whether the global economic system is working or failing—they see eye to eye.

Three years after finishing their studies, three-quarters of French university graduates are living on their own; by contrast, three-quarters of their contemporaries without university degrees still live with their parents. And they’re dying early. In January 2016, the national statistical institute Insée announced that life expectancy had fallen for both sexes in France for the first time since World War II, and it’s the native French working class that is likely driving the decline. In fact, the French outsiders are looking a lot like the poor Americans Charles Murray described in Coming Apart, failing not just in income and longevity but also in family formation, mental health, and education. Their political alienation is striking. Fewer than 2 percent of legislators in France’s National Assembly today come from the working class, as opposed to 20 percent just after World War II.

The real divide is no longer between the “Right” and the “Left” but between the metropoles and the peripheries. The traditional parties thrive in the former. The National Front (FN) is the party of the outside.

Hollande government’s legalization of gay marriage, which in 2013 and 2014 brought millions of protesters opposing the measure onto the streets of Paris—the largest demonstrations in the country since World War II.

France’s antiracist Pleven law, which can punish speech, passed in 1972. In 1990, the Gayssot law criminalized denial or “minimization” of the Holocaust and repealed parts of France’s Law of July 29, 1881, on Freedom of the Press. Both laws are landmarks in Europe’s retreat from defending free speech. Suits against novelists, philosophers, and historians have proliferated.

Nobody wants to be thought a bigot if the membership board of the country club takes pride in its multiculturalism. But as the prospect of rising in the world is hampered or extinguished, the inducements to ideological conformism weaken. Dissent appears. Political correctness grows more draconian. Finally the ruling class reaches a dangerous stage, in which it begins to lose not only its legitimacy but also a sense of what its legitimacy rested on in the first place.

These are the extracts from the brilliant review-essay by Christopher Caldwell of the books by Christophe Guilluy written in French with the latest being Le crépuscule de la France d’en haut (roughly: “The Twilight of the French Elite”) – ht Niranjan Rajadhyaksha. The full essay – a MUST READ, in my view – is here.

Read Andrew Sullivan’s piece on what Macron means. He too refers to the Caldwell essay.