Feb 20th 2009

Shaky Social Contracts

by Robert Skidelsky

Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is Professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University, author of a prize-winning biography of the economist John Maynard Keynes, and a board member of the Moscow School of Political Studies.

LONDON - "Enrich yourselves," China's Deng Xiaoping told his fellow countrymen when he started dismantling Mao Zedong's failed socialist model. In fact, elites everywhere have always lived by this injunction, and ordinary people have not minded very much, provided that the elites fulfill their part of the bargain: protect the country against its enemies and improve living conditions. It is this implied social contract that is now endangered by economic collapse.

Of course, the terms of the contract vary with place and time. In nineteenth-century Europe, the rich were expected to be frugal. Conspicuous consumption was eschewed. The rich were supposed to save much of their income, as saving was both a fund for investment and a moral virtue. And, in the days before the welfare state, the rich were also expected to be philanthropists.

In the opportunity culture of the United States, by contrast, conspicuous consumption was more tolerated. High spending was a mark of success: what Americans demanded of their rich was conspicuous enterprise.

Societies have also differed in how wealthy they allow their elites to become, and in their tolerance of the means by which wealth is acquired and used. One dividing line is between societies that tolerate self-enrichment through politics, and those that demand that the two spheres be kept separate.

In Western countries, politicians and civil servants are expected to be relatively poor. In most of the rest of the world, a political career is regarded as a quasi-legitimate road to wealth. But the broad conclusion remains: wealth is conditional on services. When the services fail, the position of the wealthy is threatened.

In the current crisis, popular anger is - no surprise - directed against bankers. Their speculative frenzies ruined shareholders, customers, and the economy. Anger has come to focus on banking executives' huge compensation packages, composed largely of bonuses. Rewarding success is acceptable; rewarding failure is not.

Governments face a dilemma. Big banks cannot be allowed to fail; but the public expects bankers to be punished. Few will be ruined or imprisoned. But the banking system is sure to be re-regulated, as it was after the Great Crash of 1929-1932, when President Franklin Roosevelt promised to drive the money changers from the temple.

The global economy's downturn increases countries' political risk to varying degrees, depending on the severity of the shock and the nature of the implied social contract. Political systems in which power is least controlled, and the abuse of wealth greatest, are most at risk. The more corrupt the system of capitalism, the more vulnerable it is to attack. The general problem is that all of today's versions of capitalism are more or less corrupt. "Enrich yourselves" is the clarion call of our era; and in that moral blind spot lies a great danger.

Despite efforts to give it precision, estimating political risk is not an exact science. It requires political theory, not econometrics. Forecasting models, based on "normal distributions" of risk over short slices of recent time, are notoriously incapable of capturing the real amount of risk in a political system.

One of the "safest" political systems of recent times was President Suharto's regime in Indonesia. Suharto came to power in 1966, establishing a quasi-military dictatorship and encouraging Indonesians to "enrich themselves." Despite the depredations of his family, enough Indonesians did so over the next 30 years to make his rule seem exceptionally stable - until the East Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998 sent the Indonesian economy into a tailspin, triggering violent riots that forced Suharto out.

Similarly, few regimes seemed more stable than that of the Shah of Iran, another long-term ruler, who, having bankrupted his country, was forced to flee the fury of a mob in 1979.

The lesson is clear. Autocracies, which are much praised for their decisiveness, and for guaranteeing "law and order," are paper tigers. They appear immovable until the moment they are evicted by popular anger. In face of economic failure or military defeat, their emperors turn out to be naked.

In such situations, the great advantage of democracies is that they allow a change of rulers without a change of regime. Failure discredits only the party or coalition in power, not the entire political system. Popular anger is channeled to the ballot box. In such countries, there may be "New Deals," but no revolutions.

In estimating political risk today, analysts must pay particular attention to the character of the political system. Does it allow for an orderly transition? Is it competitive enough to prevent discredited leaders from clinging to power? Analysts also must pay attention to the nature of the implied social contract. Broadly speaking, the weakest contracts are those that allow wealth and power to be concentrated in the same few hands, while the strongest are built on significant dispersal of both.

Deepening economic recession is bound to catalyze political change. The Western democracies will survive with only modest changes. But strongmen who rely on the secret police and a controlled media to maintain their rule will be quaking in their shoes. Even Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, who built his power on populist anti-Americanism, must be praying for the success of US President Barack Obama's stimulus package to lift his falling oil revenues.

The big countries with the highest political risk are Russia and China. The legitimacy of their autocratic systems is almost entirely dependent on their success in delivering rapid economic growth. When growth falters, or goes into reverse, there is no one to blame but "the system."

Igor Yurgens, one of Russia's most creative political analysts, has been quick to draw the moral: "the social contract consisted of limiting civil rights in exchange for economic well-being. At the current moment, economic well-being is shrinking. Correspondingly, civil rights should expand. It's just simple logic." The rulers in Moscow and Beijing would do well to heed this warning.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

If you wish to comment on this article, you can do so on-line.

Should you wish to publish your own article on the Facts & Arts website, please contact us at info@factsandarts.com.

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Aug 10th 2022
EXTRACT: "Central banks are thus locked in a “debt trap”: any attempt to normalize monetary policy will cause debt-servicing burdens to spike, leading to massive insolvencies, cascading financial crises, and fallout in the real economy. ---- With governments unable to reduce high debts and deficits by spending less or raising revenues, those that can borrow in their own currency will increasingly resort to the “inflation tax”: relying on unexpected price growth to wipe out long-term nominal liabilities at fixed rates."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACT: ".... the likelihood is that Biden, who spent his life as a senator, played a central behind-the-scenes role in turning Manchin around and keeping the Democratic Party Senators together on this pared-down version of Build Back Better. Biden’s legislative accomplishments, not to mention his administrative ones, will likely end up being very impressive for the first two years of his presidency. ------ In matters of climate, every ton of CO2 you don’t put into the atmosphere is a decrease in how hard life will be for our grandchildren. They will have reason to be grateful to President Biden and the Democratic Party if this bill becomes law."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Right-wing media outlets including Fox News, One America News (OAN), Newsmax, and talk radio are grossly abusing the right to free speech and are causing profound, if not irreparable damage to our country at home and abroad. They have been engaged in these deliberate practices of spreading poisonous misinformation all in the name of free speech." ---- "A team at MIT, analyzing propaganda techniques in the news, underscores the use of logical fallacies – such as strawmen (the misrepresentation of the other’s position), red herrings (the provision of irrelevancies), false dichotomies (offering two alternatives as the only possibilities), and whataboutism (a diversionary tactic to avoid directly addressing an issue). ---- Whataboutism is worth considering more closely because it is becoming ubiquitous among Republicans – perhaps this is not surprising given that it is certainly Trump’s “favorite dodge.” It is one of the fundamental rules by which he operates: when you are criticized, say that someone else is worse. In an interview with Trump, Bill O’Reilly states the obvious fact that “Putin is a killer,” and who can forget Trump’s response: “There are a lot of killers. You got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?” That is classic whataboutism. And it is also of course all over Fox News’ most popular line-up."
Jul 24th 2022
EXTRACTS: "For three hours, against the unequivocal advice of his counsel, friends, and family, Trump purposefully and steadfastly declined to give the mob he had summoned any signal to disperse, to exit the building peacefully, or to simply cease threatening the life of his vice president or other members of Congress." ------ "Trump is corrupt to the core, a traitor who deserves nothing but contempt and to spend the rest of his life behind bars because he remains a menace to this country and an existential threat to our democratic institutions."
Jul 21st 2022
EXTRACT: "For some countries, diasporas also are not new. Just ask the Russians. For three-quarters of a century, Stalin’s NKVD and its successor, the KGB, kept close tabs on expatriate Russians, constantly worrying about the threat they might pose. And now, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s security service, the FSB, is continuing the tradition. According to recent FSB estimates, almost four million Russians left the country in the first three months of this year. Obviously, FSB statistics are hard to verify. But the sheer magnitude of this year’s departures is striking."
Jul 20th 2022
EXTRACTS: "We need leaders who will be honest about our problems in the short, medium, and long term. We are becoming poorer than our neighbors, with our per capita growth and productivity lagging behind theirs. We confront surging energy prices, soaring inflation, and public-sector strikes. Our fiscal deficit is uncomfortably high. Our influence is diminished. Far from recognizing these challenges, let alone proposing sensible solutions, the candidates to succeed Johnson are trying to win votes with reckless proposals like ever-larger tax cuts." ----- "There is one exception. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak refuses to abandon the notion that expenditure should bear some relationship to revenue. "
Jul 13th 2022
EXTRACT: "Looking ahead, five factors could make today’s energy crisis even worse. First, Putin has opened a second front in the conflict by cutting back on the contracted volumes of natural gas that Russia supplies to Europe. The goal is to prevent Europeans from storing enough supplies for next winter, and to drive prices higher, creating economic hardship and political discord. In his speech in June at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Putin made his reasoning clear: “Social and economic problems worsening in Europe” will “split their societies” and “inevitably lead to populism … and a change of the elites in the short term.” ...... As it is, Germany is now anticipating the need for gas rationing, and its minister for economic affairs, Robert Habeck, warns of a “Lehman-style contagion” (referring to the 2008 financial crisis) if Europe cannot manage today’s energy-induced economic disruptions."
Jul 5th 2022
EXTRACT: "Fortunately, I am not alone in claiming that the survival of democracy in the US is gravely endangered. The American public has been aroused by the decision overturning Roe. But people need to recognize that decision for what it is: part of a carefully laid plan to turn the US into a repressive regime. We must do everything we can to prevent that. This fight ought to include many people who voted for Trump in the past."
Jul 2nd 2022
EXTRACT: "The Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit described this succinctly in his book On Compromise and Rotten Compromises. In “politics as economics,” material interests are “subject to bargaining, everything is negotiable, whereas in the religious picture, centered on the idea of the holy, the holy is non-negotiable.” This, then, is why politics in the US is now in such a perilous state. More and more, the secular left and the religious right are engaged in a culture war, revolving around sexuality, gender, and race, where politics is no longer negotiable. When that happens, institutions start breaking down, and the stage is set for charismatic demagogues and the politics of violence."
Jul 2nd 2022
EXTRACT: "...EU enlargement is essentially a political decision by member states, based on a multitude of considerations that sometimes include dramatic events. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is such a turning point."
Jun 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "Most market analysts seem to think that central banks will remain hawkish, but I am not so sure. I have argued that they will eventually wimp out and accept higher inflation – followed by stagflation – once a hard landing becomes imminent, because they will be worried about the damage of a recession and a debt trap, owing to an excessive build-up of private and public liabilities after years of low interest rates." ----- "There is ample reason to believe that the next recession will be marked by a severe stagflationary debt crisis. As a share of global GDP, private and public debt levels are much higher today than in the past, having risen from 200% in 1999 to 350% today (with a particularly sharp increase since the start of the pandemic). Under these conditions, rapid normalization of monetary policy and rising interest rates will drive highly leveraged zombie households, companies, financial institutions, and governments into bankruptcy and default."
Jun 28th 2022
EXTRACT: "It is tempting to conclude that today’s central bankers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Maybe if they sit tight, they will ride out the storm. Then-Fed Chair Paul Volcker was Public Enemy Number One in the United States in the early 1980s, when he squeezed post-oil-shock inflation out of the system with double-digit interest rates. But in his later years he was revered, and became a national treasure, called on to advise successive presidents in any financial emergency. ----- But central bankers would be wise not to assume that their reputations will automatically recover, and that the status quo ante will be restored. We live in a more disputatious age than the 1980s. Public institutions are more regularly challenged and held to account by far less reverential legislators." ----- "Moreover, former central bankers have joined the chorus of critics. Former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke, breaking the unwritten rule not to reproach one’s successors, has said that today’s Fed made “a mistake” by responding slowly to inflation. And Bailey’s immediate predecessors, Mervyn King and Mark Carney, have weighed in, too, with challenges to the BOE’s policy. The fabric of the central banking fraternity is fraying."
Jun 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "Public opinion in Belarus remains firmly against involvement into the war with Ukraine. Moreover, according to a Chatham House survey, 40% of Belarusians do not support Russia’s war, compared to 32% who do, while around half of those questioned see predominately negative consequences of the war for Belarus (53%) and for themselves (48%). The Belarusian military and security services are also aware of the determined and skilful resistance that Ukrainian forces have put up against Russia and the risks that they would therefore be running if they entered the war against Ukraine. This, in turn, means that the risk to Lukashenko himself remains that he might lose his grip on power, a grip which depends heavily on the loyalty of his armed forces." ---- "Ultimately, Belarus may not be on the brink of being plunged into war quite yet, but its options to avoid such a disaster are narrowing."
Jun 20th 2022
EXTRACT: "Russification (the policy of enforcing Russian culture on populations) appears to be being reinforced by ethnic cleansing. Last month the Ukrainian parliament’s commissioner for human rights, Liudmyla Denisova, informed the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, that 1.3 million Ukrainians, including 223,000 children, had been forcibly deported to Russia."
Jun 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "If Trump had his way, then Vice-President Pence would have also broken his oath to the constitution and derailed the certification of electoral votes. Our continued existence as a Republic might very well have hung on Pence’s actions that day. The mob’s response was to call for Pence to be hanged, and a noose and scaffold was erected apparently for that very purpose. What was Trump’s reaction when he was told that the mob was calling for Pence’s summary execution? His words were: “Maybe our supporters have the right idea.” Mike Pence “deserves” it."
Jun 10th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Speaking to journalist Sophie Raworth on the BBC’s Sunday Morning show recently, former war crimes prosecutor Sir Howard Morrison, now an advisor to the Ukraine government, highlighted the dangers posed by the negative – often insulting and dehumanising – statements made by some Russian politicians and media personalities about Ukraine and its people." ---- "The conditions and attitudes described by Morrison have existed for centuries: Russians have viewed Ukrainians as inferior since before the Soviet era." ----- "And, as Morrison said, stereotyping and denigrating a people as inferior or lacking agency makes atrocities and looting more likely to happen, as we are seeing in Ukraine."
Jun 9th 2022
EXTRACT: "Unless Russia realises that the west is willing and able to push back, a new, stable security order in Europe will not be possible. Concessions to Russia, by Ukraine or the EU and Nato, are not the way to achieve this. That this has been realised beyond Ukraine’s most ardent supporters in the Baltic states, Poland, the UK and the US is clear from German support for strengthening Nato’s northern flank and a general increase in Nato members’ defence spending."
Jun 8th 2022
EXTRACT: "Highly civilized people can turn into barbarians when demagogues and dictators exploit their fears and trigger their most atavistic instincts. Rape, torture, and massacres often happen when soldiers invade foreign countries. Commanding officers sometimes actively encourage such behavior to terrorize an enemy into submission. And sometimes it occurs when the officer corps loses control and discipline breaks down. Japanese and Germans know this, as do Serbs, Koreans, Americans, Russians, and many others."
Jun 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "Like Metternich, Kissinger commits the fatal error of believing that a few wise policymakers can impose their will on the world. Worse, he believes they can halt domestically generated change and the power of nationalism. Many years ago, this is what Senator William Fulbright termed the “arrogance of power.” This approach failed in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It is also doomed to fail in Russia and Ukraine." ------ "Not surprisingly, Kissinger misunderstands Russia. He appears to believe that, because Russia has been an “essential part of Europe” for over four centuries, it is therefore fated to remain so for the foreseeable future.The claim is completely at odds with history." ---- "Finally, Kissinger misunderstands the implications of his own analysis for Western relations with Russia. “We are facing,” he said, “a situation now where Russia could alienate itself completely from Europe and seek a permanent alliance elsewhere." ---- "But what’s so bad about Russia’s isolating itself from Europe and becoming a vassal state of China? "
Jun 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "According to the latest figures from China’s National Bureau of Statistics, China’s population grew from 1.41212 billion to just 1.41260 billion in 2021 – a record low increase of just 480,000, a mere fraction of the annual growth of eight million or so common a decade ago." ----- "China’s total fertility rate (births per woman) was 2.6 in the late 1980s – well above the 2.1 needed to replace deaths. It has been between 1.6 and 1.7 since 1994, and slipped to 1.3 in 2020 and just 1.15 in 2021."