Last weekend saw 2018’s first big conclave of the global economic policy-making elite at the Spring meeting of the International Monetary Fund’s governing board in Washington, DC. The world’s central bankers, finance ministers, and investors gathered to hear the global financial watchdog’s latest update on the state of the world economy.
The news was positive. World GDP growth is forecast to be just under 4 percent both this year and next – stretching the global expansion into its eleventh year. China and India, the great juggernauts of the emerging world, should grow at around 6.5 and 7.5 percent respectively. The US – the largest economy in the world – will start to benefit from President Trump’s opening of the fiscal floodgates, and as a result, seems set to break the 1991-2001 record for its longest postwar expansion. Even in Brexit-beleaguered Britain, the unemployment rate has just hit its lowest level since 1975.
Yet rather than reveling in this bonfire of the economic record books, expert opinion in the US capital – like the public mood across many much of the West – was strangely full of foreboding. Amongst the general public, statistics such as those just quoted seem curiously at odds with the lived experience of a joyless recovery hallmarked by austerity and uncertainty. The experts themselves have more faith that the numbers reflect reality. But amongst the professional forecasters too there is a nagging sense that the good times cannot last – that there is another downturn just around the corner, and that the longer we go without a recession, the more likely it is that there will be one next year.
Are these fears of false progress and impending doom misplaced, or are we indeed living in a fool’s paradise? Where does this mismatch between perception and reality come from? The answer is to be found, I think, in two critical features of the global recovery since 2008.
I explain what they are in my latest article in the New Statesman, available here.
Is economics a science? It’s an old question – and in my view, not a terribly useful one. Yet there is of course a reason why it never stops being asked.
Physicists have discovered the universal laws governing energy and motion, and as a result can tell us with scarcely credible precision how to land a man on the moon. Economists, by contrast, can’t even agree on why the last financial crisis happened, let alone what we should do to prevent the next one – and that’s despite the fact we wrote the rules of finance ourselves. Real sciences make progress. Economics, on the other hand, seems to go round and round in circles.
Needless to say, this embarrassing situation irritates economists more than anyone else. As a result, over the past several decades, mainstream economics has attempted to assimilate itself ever more closely to the culture and methods of the natural sciences. These days, self-respecting economists express their theories as mathematical models, not in words. Advanced statistical techniques are deployed to test hypotheses and so resolve the answers to empirical questions. If possible, experiments are designed and conducted. A few of the most avant garde researchers have even gone so far as to rebrand their research groups as “labs”.
Whether these developments represent a long-overdue reform of the methodology of economics, or just the symptoms of a chronic inferiority complex, they have certainly dealt a mortal blow to one formerly central area of the economics curriculum: the history of economic thought. If, after all, economics is a science, there is no more point in reading the economists of prior ages than there is in engaging with Aristotle on biology or mugging up the theory of phlogiston.
The publication of Linda Yueh’s The Great Economists: How Their Ideas Can Help Us Today is therefore a fascinating event for anyone interested in economics. For this is a book which, as it title suggests, openly champions the value of studying the leading economic thinkers of the past. You can read my review of it in the New Statesman here.
In the good old days before Brexit and the global financial crisis, politics was all so simple. The western liberal democracies had reached the “End of History”. So far as old conundrums such as ideology and identity were concerned, nobody really cared much any more. All that mattered now was to ramp up material prosperity. “It’s the economy, stupid”, as Bill Clinton apocryphally said.
It all sounds rather naive now, of course. Two and a half decades on from President Clinton’s bons mots, the world’s developed economies are wealthier than ever — indeed, more than 70 per cent larger in real terms than they were in 1992. Yet far from having achieved a nirvana of political stability, they are racked by a social strife and ideological conflict unseen in many decades.
Where did Clinton’s confident verdict go wrong? It is the Ur-question of our era, and the political convulsions of the past decade have ushered in a golden age of popular social and economic analysis intended to explain why an expanding economy is not by itself enough.
The Growth Delusion, a new book by the FT’s Africa editor David Pilling, offers a new and intriguing entry-point to this momentous debate. You can read my review of it for the Financial Times here.
The great American financial historian Charles Kindleberger used to say that after six decades of meticulous research into the origins of speculative bubbles, he had concluded that there was but a single constant: “There is nothing so disturbing to one’s well-being and judgement as to see a friend get rich.”
Well: if any of you have friends who got in early on Bitcoin – the price of which has quadrupled in the last six months – you must be suffering from a severe loss of mental equilibrium.
Yet it is worth looking past Bitcoin as the latest get-rich-quick scheme, and focusing instead on the deeper drivers of the global fascination with the crypto-currency phenomenon. For if he were still alive, I am sure that Professor Kindleberger would judge Bitcoin to represent the ground zero at which three of the most important historical forces at work in the world today converge.
I explain what they are, and why Bitcoin might save – rather than displace – the traditional financial system, in an article in The Daily Telegraph published on December 5, 2017.
Another month, another impressively low unemployment number, but another flaccid inflation print. No wonder the US Federal Reserve is baffled.
Modern macroeconomic theory depends upon the famous Phillips curve, and its pressure cooker model of the inflationary process. Let the economy run too hot, and inflation is sure to follow. Let the pressure drop too low, and wage and price growth will ease.
Yet in the US, unemployment is at multi-year lows but inflation is nowhere in sight. In the UK it is hardly better. In Japan it is even worse.
Across the developed economies, the Phillips curve has gone ignominiously flat. The world’s leading central bankers are scratching their heads.
I explain why older and less fashionable theories of inflation may be a more useful guide to the future in today’s circumstances in an op-ed in the Financial Times published on July 28, 2017.
Forget (if you can) 50 Shades of Grey: Tim Harford has a new book and BBC World Service radio series out exploring 50 Things That Made The Modern Economy.
One of these 50 things is the humble tally stick – a little-known curiosity of medieval monetary history which turns out to have much to teach us about both the nature of modern finance and how we think of it.
The episode – which like all of Tim Harford’s writings and broadcasts is concise, witty, and comes strongly recommended by me – is available online here.
My own book Money: The Unauthorised Biography is kindly mentioned as a source – and you can watch me giving a talk about the topic here if you are interested in following the story a little further.
It’s the young wot won it!
All right, I know – Labour didn’t actually win the election. Nevertheless, it certainly felt like a loss for the Tories; and it’s equally certain that young people turned out in large numbers, and that age was one of the only characteristics reliably associated with the way people voted.
What is it that the young want from their representatives – and are the policies on offer from either main party likely to provide it?
I ask these questions in my latest article in the New Statesman. It is available here.