Author: Joshua Tanchel, Deloitte Australian start-up technology companies are finally getting some of the attention that they deserve from the government, media and big business. With increasing momentum in the sector, Australian start-ups need to be aware of all of their potential expansion opportunities. Instead of just looking to expand into the U.S and European…
Evaluating the record of achievement of a government is deceptively difficult. Too often such assessments make insufficient allowance for inherited starting conditions, the impact of circumstantial events or do little more than reflect one’s underlying political views.
A more subtle challenge is overstating the significance of government action — for good or ill.
As the pungent 18th century English commentator, Dr Johnson, memorably put it:
Of all that human hearts endure, how small that part, That laws or kings can cause or cure
This past week, many people have been reflecting on the record of Barak Obama’s two-term administration. Among the thoughtful pieces I’ve read, the one that impressed me most was Martin Wolf’s assessment of Obama’s economic legacy.
Wolf is a globally influential journalist with the London-based Financial Times. He starts out by emphasising that Obama came to office in 2009 in the depths of the Global Financial Crisis with the US economy in free fall. This was not of his making and, equally, the remedial work was not all his doing (the Bush administration had already begun the task).
Nevertheless, the Obama administration took decisive action with a strong fiscal stimulus (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), backed the stabilising influence of the Federal Reserve and rapidly stabilised and re-booted both the financial and auto industries.
On the negative side of the ledger, he failed to make any significant inroad into the dramatic worsening of economic inequality in American society, he did nothing to arrest the long term decline in male participation in the workforce, labour productivity fell steeply while he was in office and he did not pursue the companies and individuals whose extravagance or malfeasance ignited the crisis with any great vigour.
As in most other domains, the power of government over a modern economy is easily exaggerated. But in times of crisis – when confidence is the most precious commodity – governments are more consequential than usual. Wolf’s summary judgement that Obama’s administration succeeded in rescuing the US economy and laying a solid foundation for those who came after him, is one I find persuasive.
A recent article by leading US-based China scholar, Dali Yang, tells a powerful story about the evolution of China’s political economy. The outlines of China’s truly spectacular economic progress are familiar: it has been leaping forward to become the world’s second largest economy in the world, to have the largest foreign reserves and the second largest defence budget.
The political consequences of this economic change are less understood. Among an array of great insights, four points stood out of Yang’s essay for me.
First, one in seven of China’s richest people are delegates to the National People’s Congress or members of the Consultative Committee of the Communist Party. Who would have predicted that the Party would so spectacularly become the “handmaiden for wealth accumulation by capital and families of the party elite”?
Second, there has been a massive expansion in the number of young Chinese accessing higher education. Not counting those who studied abroad, in 2014 more than 7 million students graduated from local tertiary institutions – more than ten times the figure for 1990 and at least two and half times a comparable figure for the United States.
Third, with the rise of local stations and the explosion of digital media, viewership of prime time news on CCTV has dropped dramatically, especially among the young.
Fourth, notwithstanding increased popular support for the country’s political leadership under Xi Jinping, more educated people trust the government less (even in the countryside).
As Yang puts it in closing, authoritarian developmentalism is not a stable equilibrium. He doesn’t mean that the CCP regime is currently unstable, but it does mean we need to be clear-eyed about the mounting challenges of sustaining CCP rule in the face of a slowing growth trajectory and rising expectations among a citizenry that has access to more information and is asking more questions than ever before.
China’s particular circumstances are unique, but the social and political challenges unleashed by sustained economic development are anything but. You can read Yang’s full argument here; it’s well worth it.
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