Monthly Archives: August 2010

The conservative economic counter-revolution associated with the names of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher began some three decades ago. The Great Recession almost certainly marks its end. What follows will be something different, though how different it will is still unclear. This is a good opportunity to assess the broad economic consequences of that revolution.

For the sake of simplicity, I focus on gross domestic product per head in the six biggest high-income economies: the US; Japan; Germany; the UK; France; and Italy. (I also use the Conference Board database. These data are in purchasing power parity (Elteto-Koves-Szulc (EKS) method).)

There is much more to performance than GDP per head. These data ignore the distribution of income, which is of crucial importance, especially for the US, where a very large proportion of additional income seems to have accrued to the wealthiest. The data also ignore the underlying causes of changes in GDP per head: changes in output per hour, in hours per worker and in employment. Even so, they are revealing.

The single most important point from the chart on relative GDP per head is that the US remains where it has been for over a century: the most productive large economy in the world. At its peak, in 1991, Japan’s GDP per head reached 89 per cent of US levels. It then fell substantially in the 1990s. United Germany, France and Italy also experienced substantial relative declines in GDP per head over this period. The UK was the only one of these five countries to have achieved rising GDP per head, relative to the US, since 1990. This surely suggests that reforms led by American and British policymakers did bear some fruit.

The chart on growth of GDP per head elaborates this picture somewhat. The UK and US had the highest trend growth of GDP per head between 1980 and 2009. (All-German data are unavailable for the entire period.) But there are other interesting events: first, there is a progressive deceleration in trend growth: only Japan achieved faster trend growth in GDP per head between 2000-07 (that is, before the recent deep recession) than it did in the 1990s; second, the US growth deceleration in the most recent periods is marked, with growth in GDP per head only at the same rate as Japan between 2000 and 2007 – so much for the magic of the Bush-era tax cuts – and also between 2000 and 2009; third, GDP per head grew at less than 1 per cent a year in Germany, France and Italy in the most recent decade.

At first glance, then, the conservative revolution seems to have achieved some improvements in the previously lagging US and UK economies. But the magic potion started to lose effectiveness in the 2000s, particularly in the US.

The more interesting question, however, is how far this improved performance of the US and UK will turn out to have been a blip. There are two reasons for believing this. 

Update: Read Martin Wolf’s response to readers’ comments

It is summer – a good time to ask a big question. So I intend to ask the biggest question in political economy: what is the role of the state?

This question has concerned western thinkers at least since Plato (5th-4th century BCE). It has also concerned thinkers in other cultural traditions: Confucius (6th-5th century BCE); China’s legalist tradition; and India’s Kautilya (4th-3rd century BCE). The perspective here is that of the contemporary democratic west.

The core purpose of the state is protection. This view would be shared by everybody, except anarchists, who believe that the protective role of the state is unnecessary or, more precisely, that people can rely on purely voluntary arrangements. Most people accept that protection against predators, both external and internal, is a natural monopoly: the presence of more than one such organisation within a given territory is a recipe for unbridled lawlessness, civil war, or both.

Contemporary Somalia shows the horrors that can befall a stateless society. Yet horrors can also befall a society with an over-mighty state. It is evident, because it is the story of post-tribal humanity that the powers of the state can be abused for the benefit of those who control it.

In his final book, Power and Prosperity, the late Mancur Olson argued that the state was a “stationary bandit”. A stationary bandit is better than a “roving bandit”, because the latter has no interest in developing the economy, while the former does. But it may not be much better, because those who control the state will seek to extract the surplus over subsistence generated by those under their control.

In the contemporary west, there are three protections against undue exploitation by the stationary bandit: exit, voice (on the first two of these, see this on Albert Hirschman) and restraint. By “exit”, I mean the possibility of escaping from the control of a given jurisdiction, by emigration, capital flight or some form of market exchange. By “voice”, I mean a degree of control over, the state, most obviously by voting. By “restraint”, I mean independent courts, division of powers, federalism and entrenched rights.

This, then, is a brief background to what I consider to be the problem, which is defining what a democratic state, viewed precisely as such a constrained protective arrangement, is entitled to do. My short answer is that this is precisely what politics must be about.