Thursday, 31 July 2014

Economic Recovery and the Politics of Slow Growth

When the economic pie stops expanding, everyone wants their fair share and politicians are unfortunately only to keen to oblige

Slow economic growth is like hot weather – people become easily irritable and argue a lot.  This because, while economic growth makes it easier for everyone to feel better off, the opposite is true when the economy stagnates.  A sluggish economy leads to a shift in focus from creating more wealth to dividing up whatever is already there.  This creates fights over resources with people mostly looking out for themselves. 

Politicians pander to such self-interest among voters and constructive policy making goes out the window.  Voters are get all hot and flustered as the economic recovery since the global financial crisis has proven anything but balmy.  With the outlook for the economy not looking so bright for years to come, politics may continue to get people steamy under the collar.

Politics turns cold

Democracy is the best political system we have for ensuring the implementing of policies for the common good.  Politicians get elected by pushing a package of measures that the majority of voters believe will make them better off.  When times are good, policies tend to be aspiration in promoting economic growth with some resources also going to the less well off.  But things are not going so well, the focus of voters narrows to their own specific well-being.  As such, voters become less generous in terms of social spending and immigration while wanting the government to do more for them. 

The result is that politics become short-sighted and politicians pick more policies that target their own particular support base.  Honest assessment of the economic ills are typically in short supply while voters grow increasing frustrated as timid government policies can only provide limited relief.  Many voters have been tempted with the false hopes of more extreme policies offered by populist politicians.  However, turning back time with less government or less globalization will only create bigger problems rather than providing answers. 

The political infighting comes at a bad time for many developed countries who are increasingly feeling the heat of global competition.  This process was already underway with the rise of China and other emerging economies and the global financial crisis has been a further setback.  The narrow-minded politics currently prevailing in many countries will further hasten the relative decline of the West.  On top of this, government action is also hampered by economic theory that argues for less intervention in the economy

Still sweating it out

It is more than a tad ironic that it is now more than ever that positive and proactive government measures are needed more than ever.  This is because government has traditionally been the guardian of the long-term health of society.  The government has even more to offer at a time when businesses are not investing and gains in productivity (output per worker) are proving hard to come by.  Higher productivity is the main route to increases in wages and consumer spending at a time when low skilled work is carried out in developing countries.   

Yet, as described above, governments have been more of a hindrance rather than helpful with regard to the economy.  A push for austerity has dominated in many countries such as the UK despite going against the grain of economic theory.  In the place of increasingly distracted politicians, central banks have take centre stage in reviving the economy (which comes with its own problems).  With minor squabbles often dominating politics, it may take time before governments and voters are ready to sweat over the big issues.  Like a muggy summer that never seems to end, the combination of economic and politic malaise is not a problem that will go away any time soon.

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