NEW YORK – The relationship between politics and economics is changing. Advanced-country politicians are locked in bizarre, often toxic, conflicts, instead of acting on a growing economic consensus about how to escape a protracted period of low and unequal growth. This trend must be reversed, before it structurally cripples the advanced world and sweeps up the emerging economies, too.
Obviously, political infighting is nothing new. But, until recently, the expectation was that if professional economists achieved a technocratic consensus on a given policy approach, political leaders would listen. Even when more radical political parties attempted to push a different agenda, powerful forces – whether moral suasion from G7 governments, private capital markets, or the conditionality attached to International Monetary Fund and World Bank lending – would almost always ensure that the consensus approach eventually won the day.
In the 1990s and 2000s, for example, the so-called Washington Consensus dominated policymaking in much of the world, with everyone from the United States to a multitude of emerging economies pursuing trade liberalization, privatization, greater use of price mechanisms, financial-sector deregulation, and fiscal and monetary reforms with a heavy supply-side emphasis. The embrace of the Washington Consensus by multilateral institutions amplified its transmission, helping to drive forward the broader process of economic and financial globalization.
Incoming governments – particularly those led by non-traditional movements, which had risen to power on the back of domestic unease and frustration with mainstream parties – sometimes disagreed with the appropriateness and relevance of the Washington Consensus. But, as Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva demonstrated with his famous policy pivot in 2002, that consensus tended largely to prevail. And it continued to hold sway as recently as almost two years ago, when Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras executed an equally notable U-turn.
But after years of unusually sluggish and strikingly non-inclusive growth, the consensus is breaking down. Advanced-country citizens are frustrated with an “establishment” – including economic “experts,” mainstream political leaders, and dominant multinational companies – which they increasingly blame for their economic travails.
Anti-establishment movements and figures have been quick to seize on this frustration, using inflammatory and even combative rhetoric to win support. They do not even have to win elections to disrupt the transmission mechanism between economics and politics. The United Kingdom proved that in June, with its Brexit vote – a decision that directly defied the broad economic consensus that remaining within the European Union was in Britain’s best interest.
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