Size and Politics

Small is beautiful, but also dangerous. That is the central insight in Darius Ornston’s 2018 book. Even good governance can go bad. Consensus makes it easier for a society to work together in facing the challenges presented by world markets. Backed by powerful social groups, political leaders can fend off adversity, compensate losers, agree on how to organize or reorganize machines and labor, and invest in the physical and human capital necessary for future prosperity. This insight will be obvious to anyone familiar with Peter Katzenstein’s classic works. What Ornston adds to Katzenstein’s argument is a cautionary note. The same consensus Katzenstein celebrated in his analysis of small states and world markets also makes it easier for political leaders to misallocate scarce resources and delude themselves and their followers into feeling safe when they are not. Finland’s embrace of Nokia and Iceland’s addiction to banking are good illustrations. Unfortunately, in both cases, the social requirement for conformism can drown out even the most constructive criticism or warning. Success and failure arise from the same dense networks that facilitate deliberation and reinforce trust.

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Europe’s Complicated Democracy

Europeans are heading to the polls now in one of the world’s largest and most complicated democratic experiments. Moreover, these European elections are probably the most consequential we have seen since Europeans started voting directly for members of the European Parliament in 1979. This is a good opportunity to think hard about how Europeans are represented, how they make their decisions about voting, and what kind of Europe is on offer. Three recent books suggest new and important lines of argument. Christina Schneider shows that much of the responsiveness of Europe to the voters actually takes place through the Council of the European Union; Jennifer Fitzgerald reveals how votes on the extremes are more likely to be local than national, even if they have an anti-European tinge to them; and Sergio Fabbrini argues that many of the tensions we see surrounding the European project could be resolved if we just changed the way we think about constitutional federalism. These arguments are challenging and sophisticated in ways that much of the commentary that surrounds the European elections tends not to be; they are also counterintuitive. Now that everyone is focused on Europe, it is a good time for some well-grounded, lateral thinking.

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Trouble at the Fed (and Elsewhere)

As U.S. President Donald Trump starts asking about whether he can fire the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, it is time to start asking how strong the protections are for politically independent central banks.  The answers are alarming: Trump is not the only one challenging central bank independence; he is also not the most successful.  Indeed, the challeges are widespread and they have been growing for some time.  That is reason enough to pick up Paul Tucker’s book Unelected Power — which was recently named by Foreign Affairs as one of the top books published in 2018.  If you want a taster, my review of Tucker’s book from Survival is below.  The punchline is that while people are right to be concerned that Trump would violate the independence of the Fed, that does not mean either the Fed or any central bank should be left entirely to its own devices.

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Soft Law, Hard Ideas, and Borrowed Credibility

International political economy used to be about wealth and power.  Now the sources of influence and control are more subtle.  Governments choose to follow rules that are not enforced, they sign onto policies recommended to them by foreign nationals (or even ‘citizens of nowhere’), and they invite powerful non-state actors to assume control over crucial economic sectors, finance in particular.  Three recent books explain why this is so.

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Historical Memory and the Crisis in Europe

The fast pace of change in European politics has everyone focusing on current events.  Behind the scenes, however, politicians are manipulating how we view the past. Since change requires some kind of baseline or benchmark for us to appreciate its magnitude, we need to be very careful about how our memories are curated. The new ‘normal’ is only normalised when we forget just how far we have travelled and when we stop remembering (or appreciating) the lessons we learned through harsh experience.

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The Changing Relationship between Finance and Politics in Europe

The turmoil that struck Italian sovereign debt and bank equity markets on Tuesday, 29 June, is a stark reminder that the potential for another crisis is real, even if not imminent.  Important parts of the firewall that separates banks from sovereigns remain incomplete – and central bankers remain vulnerable to political influence as a consequence.  Two recent books help illustrate why.  One, by former Cypriot Central Bank Governor and Leicester University Professor Panicos Demetriades, reveals the limits of central bank independence.  The other, by University of Denver Professor Rachel Epstein, explores the interaction between banks and markets.

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Rigid Theories and Adaptive Markets

It is no secret that the economics profession is struggling to learn the lessons taught by the recent crisis. Two new books show where that thinking is headed. The End of Theory, by Richard Bookstaber, emphasizes the importance of focusing analysis on the world as it is, rather than on a more formal universe that is easier to model.  Adaptive Markets, by Andrew Lo, explores how much we could benefit from learning to tap the potential of modern finance.

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