Julian Glassford is a UK-based multidisciplinary researcher and social entrepreneur.
If 2016 taught us anything, it’s that faith in the system and its capacity to enhance the human condition is breaking down. In order to avert a potentially catastrophic loss of confidence, something has to give.
Bottom-up pressure for remedial reconstitution must now be met with top-down contractarian rebalancing of public and private stakeholder interests. Now is the time for real “one-nation” governance, and for figureheads to show fresh willingness to lead by example, placing public good over private gain.
Nothing short of the above will suffice if the liberal order is to survive. Populations have wised up, and the anti-plutocratic/technocratic backlash we are seeing cannot be dispelled except through far-reaching proactive and genuinely progressive endeavour. Quasi-revolutionary parties and protest movements of the left – from Washington to Warsaw – may be in (temporary) disarray, but now is not a time for complacency.
Key opinion leaders have just about come to terms, by now, with the fact that status-quo politics will no longer cut it with the masses. But the big question remains: how should such a cultural crusade translate, in policy terms? As a young economist, I may not have all the answers, but I would suggest that concerted attempts to address the following five areas may be considered key.
Firstly, we must proactively address the sense in which the ‘invisible hand’ of globalisation has hollowed out domestic industry, backhanded economies into structural lopsidedness, and palmed off somewhat socially and economically burdensome mass immigration as “vital to prosperity”. As the arch-critic of neoliberalism, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz suggests, the “rules of the game” are in dire need of change.
Notwithstanding the above, interlocutors should understand that the not-so-invisible hands of policymakers are somewhat tied. Sweeping technological advancement and unsentimental economic laws of comparative advantage cannot be wished away. Nor can we risk materially undermining the associated historic enhancement of global interconnectivity and productive capacity. Donald Trump et al should take note – saying that complex interdependence renders quasi-mercantilism a minefield is an understatement. So too are attempts to compel big business to invest in a rusty belt – as retro chic as that may be.
Secondly, we need a suitably liquid, stable, and sustainable system of finance that works for all. Members of the “hoi polloi” can, today, expect to be fined £100 for the noble “crime” of tossing a chip at a hungry pigeon. Casino bankers, on the other hand, continue to throw fistfuls of “chips” (client funds) at comparably ravenous roulette tables (trading desks) but may expect, conversely, to be rewarded handsomely for this ignoble “enterprise”. Stress tests and systemic risk may have improved on paper, but old habits die hard.
Let’s drive justice and competition back into banking, stimulate the development of novel investment platforms, and work to lower barriers to entry/growth faced by small businesses – in terms of access to finance, as well as more broadly.
Thirdly, we should acknowledge that – despite the laudable advancement of national minimum wages and efforts to curtail retrograde employment practices like (exclusive) zero-hour contracts – fairness in the system remains a work in progress. Across much of the developed world, real wages have still yet to recover to pre-2008 crash levels. Although timely tax breaks have provided compensation in some places, the number of working families living in poverty has risen considerably. In Europe, the ballooning “just about managing” (JAM) demographic has further borne the brunt of post-crunch programs of fiscal austerity and the “cost of living crisis”. Little wonder, then, that quite so many should feel all at sea.
Governments must, as an antidote, refocus on helping to ensure that pay and incentives are equitable and commensurate with employee performance. Relatedly, whilst always taking care, of course, to support employers and minimise fiscal drag, we must redouble and multilateralize our efforts to tackle those circumventing, undermining, and corrupting the (employment/tax) system.
Fourthly, it will be important to continue to work to deliver greater equality of opportunity, and to enhance participation via “pre-distribution”, going forward. At a minimum, this means providing young people with support through crucial early-life development, a rounded education, and improved access to fit-for-purpose apprenticeships and internships. Regionally-focused strategic investment in (preventative) health and social care, (affordable) housing and childcare, and (transportation and communications) infrastructure may also be considered important levellers.
Finally, at the individual psychological level, there is considerable mileage in targeting personal productivity and recourse to the thrifty resourcefulness, stoic pragmatism, and community mindedness of previous generations. Prosperity, security, and social belonging, are, after all, generally integral to broad improvements in the human condition, and periods of relative financial hardship and austerity are frankly unavoidable.
Philosophically awkward as the prescribed remedy may be, the fact is that the ills of myopic, laissez-faire neoliberalism can be treated effectively with a healthy, albeit measured, injection of prescient libertarian paternalism – i.e. certain social-purpose behavioural approaches. As the British Prime Minister recently wrote, we must rise to the challenge of “shaping a new economic approach that works for everyone”. Although the scale and complexity of the task ahead may be intimidating, incumbents have little choice but to pursue it.
In the context of the interconnected looming low-growth trap, coming interest-rate rises, and a latent financial crisis, displaying even a hint of “business as usual” intransigence would be a major tactical error. The political mainstream has surely already handed anti-establishment movements quite enough ground as it is. Ceding further territory to resurgent quasi-Rooseveltian ‘New Nationalism’ on the one hand, and so-called “socialism of the 21st century” on the other, is plainly not an option.
In view of the gathering storm clouds of a dark post-liberal dystopia, now is not the time to abandon either the ship or its wheel, but instead to embrace the rain, and prepare for the choppy ride ahead. Let us take the opportunity to remind ourselves what real progress means and rededicate ourselves to its cause.