Sunday, 31 January 2010

Memo to Martin Wolf - India and China show that to maintain support for globalisation reliance on 'trickle down' needs abandoning

In his blog from Davos Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator of the Financial Times, notes: 'I am listening to Lawrence Summers as I write. He has emphasised that we cannot maintain global integration if it is seen as a source of domestic disintegration. This tension - that between the global economy and domestic politics - is a central challenge of our time. It affects everything we try to do.'

Martin Wolf is a very strong supporter of global economic integration for reasons he set out in Why Globalisation Works and numerous other writings. The danger he warns against is that popular backlashes in favour of protectionism will undermine the process of global economic integration. In the US and a number of European countries popular sentiment in favour of protectionism has increased - although its effect on those who make economic policy, as regards the most important issues, is as yet far more limited.

For slightly different reasons to Martin Wolf this blog is also strongly in favour of the process of global economic integration and against protectionism. The reason for this is that division of labour, followed by investment, is the most powerful force in economic growth and in the modern era participation in increasing division of labour is necessarily international in scope. Preventing popular, indeed any, backlashes in favour of protectionism is therefore an important question.

In dealing with this issue Martin Wolf could reflect on the difference in sentiment between India and China on the one hand and the US and Europe on the other. In India a government pledged to take the country down the strategic path of integration in the international economy was re-elected with a convincing mandate. In China, as anyone who visits the country knows, popular support for the 'opening up process' (official terminology for the country's orientation towards globalisation) remains high. The contrast in popular mood between India and China on the one hand and the US and Europe on the other is therefore striking.

Part of this difference is, of course, the much more rapid growth of India's and China's economies compared to Europe and the US. However, simply rapid growth is not sufficient to maintain popular support for international economic integration - and while the US and European economies have been expanding less rapidly than India and China they were, prior to the current recession, still growing.

The former BJP government in India achieved rapid economic growth but was tossed out of office by the electorate. Entirely rationally the population will not support globalisation if this merely yields higher GDP figures recorded in statistical works,. They will support globalisation only if it delivers better living standards for them. The majority of India's population considered the BJP's rapid economic growth had not delivered for them and therefore voted against the government.

The strategic concept of the new Congress government under Manmohan Singh was, and remains, 'inclusive growth'. It aimed at rapid growth, using global economic integration as a key means to achieve this, but did not rely on 'trickle down' to make sure the mass of the population shared in its benefits. Conscious programmes of redistribution of resources to rural areas, and less well off sections of the population, were part of the bedrock of 'inclusive growth'.

It is also notable in China that Hu Jintao's 'harmonious society' has included direct measures to redistribute the benefits of growth to those who were not previously perceived as having gained sufficiently. In China's stimulus package to confront the international financial crises, price reductions on consumer durables were targeted on rural areas, the government has reintroduced free education, a major expansion of the health care system is taking place, large scale investment is taking place in the less well off inland provinces etc.

In short, both India and China have abandoned 'trickle down' as the method of ensuring all share in the growth produced by international economic integration.

In the US and Europe, on the contrary, the movement has been towards greater reliance on unfettered free markets. The evidence shows, however, that unfettered operation of the market increases inequality sharply. The most notable result of this is that median wages in the US have relatively stagnated for two decades at the same time as relatively sustained economic growth occurred - it is necessary to look no further than this to understand populist backlashes in the US. In the US the gap in income and wealth between the bottom and top of society has widened greatly, as it has in Britain. The US and Britain by relying on 'trickle down', by the operation of the free market, have therefore sharply increased inequality - and, in the case of the US, deterioration of the economic situation for significant layers of the population has occurred.

India and China, in short, have abandoned 'tickle down' while the US and Europe have embraced it. In India and China support for strategic global economic integration remains high. In the US and Europe a backlash against it has developed.

Martin Wolf, in his entirely justified argument against the US and Europe embarking on protectionism, can therefore consider the contrast in the popular mood in India and China. It may indicate why, to maintain popular support for globalisation, the US and Europe also need to abandon reliance on 'trickle down'.

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This article originally appeared on the blog Key Trends in Globalisation.

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