The economic origins of the populist surge
Comment of the Day

June 30 2017

Commentary by Eoin Treacy

The economic origins of the populist surge

Thanks to a subscriber for this article by Martin Wolf for the Financial Times which may be of interest. Here is a section:

The four most adversely affected of these economies in the long term were (in order) Italy, Spain, the UK and US. Post-crisis, the most adversely affected were Spain, the US, Italy and the UK. Germany was the least affected by the crisis, with Canada and Japan close to it.

It is not surprising, then, that Canada, Germany and Japan have been largely immune to the post-crisis surge in populism, while the US, UK, Italy and Spain have been less so, though the latter two have contained it relatively successfully.

Thus the rise of populism is understandable. But it is also dangerous, often even for its supporters. As a recent report from the European Economic Advisory Group notes, populism may lead to grossly irresponsible policies. The impact of Hugo Chávez on Venezuela is a sobering example. At worst, it may destroy independent institutions, undermine civil peace, promote xenophobia and lead to dictatorship. Stable democracy is incompatible with a belief that fellow citizens are “enemies of the people”. We must recognise and address the anger that causes populism. But populism is an enemy of good government and even of democracy.

Eoin Treacy's view

Mrs. Treacy was at the endocrinologist for a check-up this week, everything was fine but he made a comment which really stuck with me. He said too many people want to treat the number rather than the patient. It occurs to me that central banks tend to do the same thing. 

They look at inflation numbers and growth numbers and manage interest rates and money supply to try get the number the number they are looking for. However they seem to pay little attention to the dislocations they create in the market, how their policies contribute to the widening gap between who benefits from asset price inflation and those who do not. 

That also helps to explain why they always seem to be worrying about overheating right before the next recession. Treating the number rather than the patient explains why central banks never seem able to avoid recessions while their actions regularly precipitate them.  

The rise of populism is therefore a response to the hollowing out of the middle class through offshoring, globalisation, quantitative easing, asset price inflation and the rising cost of what are in many cases essential services like healthcare and education. The USA and UK are indeed the thin edge of the wedge in this regard with the main question being how well other countries will hold out as their two major economic centres adopt more populist policies. 


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