The Real Roots of Populism

Liberal democratic values are once again under siege, and the path paved by Keynes and Roosevelt is still the only way out. We should follow it

La democracia política era suplantada por la democracia del consumo

28 de julio 2016


Montevideo – Out-of-control globalization has destroyed jobs, caused middle-class incomes to stagnate, and deepened income inequality. In response, angry voters are turning to populist politicians. Without a radical shift away from liberal economic policies, populism will be unstoppable.

This narrative is simple and increasingly popular. It is also dead wrong.

Precisely because populism – whether leftist (Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Podemos in Spain) or rightist (Donald Trump in the United States, the National Front in France) – is ugly, menacing, and destructive, its growing strength calls for nuanced explanation. A weak grasp of causes will lead to ill-conceived solutions – at which point populism truly may become unstoppable.

One problem with the emerging conventional wisdom is that it mixes three sets of factors that should be kept separate for analytical and policy purposes. Product-market deregulation and falling trade barriers belong to what academics call microeconomics. Destabilizing international capital flows and self-defeating fiscal austerity (Exhibit A: the eurozone) are part of macroeconomics. Lower transport costs and new labor-saving technologies fall under the rubric of exogenous structural change. Lumping all three together as globalization only causes confusion.

This confusion was evident two months ago, when the International Monetary Fund published a piece that was greeted as the final nail in the coffin of “neoliberalism” (an empty label that can encompass whatever bugbear a critic wants to rail against on that particular day). Yet the Fund was only saying what, at this point, is pretty obvious. Unregulated international capital movements can be destabilizing. Large inflows appreciate currencies, reduce competitiveness, and destroy jobs; sudden outflows cause those appreciated currencies to crash, bankrupting local financial institutions and requiring costly bailouts at taxpayers’ expense.

Moreover, added the Fund, fiscal austerity can backfire. Cutting useful expenditures or raising distortionary taxes reduces the supply of goods. It also shrinks overall demand, which is fine when the economy is overheated, but devastating when the economy is depressed and a liquidity trap (Exhibit B: the eurozone again) prevents monetary policy from doing the heavy lifting. If growth slows enough, the ratio of public debt to GDP can end up rising, despite austerity.

So macroeconomic mistakes are costly – in terms of growth, jobs, and income distribution. That’s the bad news. The good news is that, by imposing intelligent capital controls (as Chile did in the early 1990s and other countries have done since), an economy can enjoy the benefits of free trade in goods and services with less destabilizing capital mobility. For nearly a decade, the IMF has been acknowledging that controls are a useful policy tool – a change of heart that I lauded back in 2011.

Likewise, misguided fiscal austerity is neither unavoidable nor inextricably linked to globalization – especially the smart kind that moderates short-term capital movements. Closed economies also can have fiscal crises, and open economies can avoid them if they follow the right policies.

The key is to be Keynesian throughout the economic cycle: pursuing expansionary policies when growth is slow; tightening to reduce public debt (and thus create room for future expansion) when activity is buoyant. Fiscal rules can help make such behavior politically palatable.

So there is no need to throw out the baby of a liberal international economic order with the bathwater of bad macroeconomic policy. Economies open to foreign goods and technology can develop the tools to mitigate volatility and defend jobs. Europe, laboring under a common currency, a half-hearted banking union, and an unnecessarily tight fiscal policy, has chosen to abandon those tools. That choice was neither preordained nor one that the rest of the world should imitate.

The other problem with the conventional wisdom’s simplistic link between globalization and populism is that it gets the timing wrong. Whatever the causes, average wages in the US have been stagnant since the 1970s. As Daniel Gros has pointed out, the wage gap between highly educated workers and the rest has been roughly constant in Europe (and declining in the United Kingdom) over the last decade. And in countries like Belgium, France, and Spain, the unemployment rate was at or above 10% for long periods in the 1980s and 1990s. But there was no outbreak of nativist populism back then, and there is now. Why?

The answer has everything to do with politics. And politics, as former US House Speaker Tip O’Neill liked to say, is always local.

Elites in Western countries discredited themselves by permitting the financial excesses that helped trigger the Great Recession and by being slow – particularly in Europe – to deal with the social consequences. Next they underestimated the effect that unfettered migration and the perceived weakening of the nation-state would have on the sense of “us” – the people with whom we share a destiny and of whom we ask sacrifices (one of which is paying taxes).

Harvard’s Ricardo Hausmann has pointed out that the British choose to have four different football teams (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland), even though having one united team might keep them from losing to tiny Iceland, as England did in the recent European Cup. No wonder, then, that – viewing the choice this way – the UK opted for Brexit.

Now Western political elites are making another mistake when – seemingly cowed by the populists – they fail to mount a full-throated defense of liberalism’s virtues. UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pathetic efforts on behalf of the “Remain” campaign ahead of the Brexit referendum, and his inability (one might say unwillingness) to confront the Brexiteers’ many untruths, is a case in point.

In the 1930s, thinkers like John Maynard Keynes and political leaders like Franklin Roosevelt, with brave and eloquent words still worth quoting, discarded capitalism’s mindless orthodoxies in order to save the liberal democratic order. One world war and tens of millions of deaths later, they succeeded.

Today, liberal democratic values are once again under siege, and the path paved by Keynes and Roosevelt is still the only way out. We should follow it.

Andrés Velasco, a former finance minister of Chile, is Professor of Professional Practice in International Development at Columbia University.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.


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Andrés Velasco

Economista, académico, consultor y político chileno. Fue ministro de Hacienda durante todo el primer gobierno de Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010). Es director de Proyectos del Grupo de Trabajo del G30 sobre América Latina y Decano de la Escuela de Políticas Públicas de la London School of Economics and Political Science. Sus textos son traducidos por Ana María Velasco.