Our new cold war

I grew up in the 1980s at the height of Reagan’s arms race with the Soviets, wars in Central America, Iran-Iraq and Afghanistan, and propaganda campaigns that portrayed “the other” as greedy capitalists or colorless apparatchiks (depending on what side of the Wall you were looking at). 

1989 marked the beginning of the end of that Cold War, with the 1991 dissolution of the USSR as a definitive end point in the rivalry between capitalism and command-and-control economies. Capitalism dominated the 1990s nearly everywhere (Cuba, Ethiopia and North Korea were a few exceptions) as the Chinese, Russians and many other “Marxist-Leninist” political systems gave more space to free markets while withdrawing from state capitalism.

Improvements in living standards helped many people (and especially the poor) who had suffered the consequences of dogma, but these results did not last very long or accelerate everywhere, as new problems emerged. To understand why, I need to introduce a framework.

In 2006, Douglass C North, John Joseph Wallis, and Barry R. Weingast published “A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History” [pdf], one of my favorite papers (later expanded into a book) on political economy. In it, North et al. explain two different political-economic equilibria. In a “natural state” a “limited access order” persists in which political power is used to create economic (monopoly) power and thus rents (super profits) to those lucky enough to control such economic entities. Citizens, workers and entrepreneurs suffer in these circumstances from shoddy goods, low wages, and a lack of opportunities, respectively. (This system is also known as one of crony capitalism.)

In the other equilibrium is an “open access order” in which political and economic power are separated, meaning that someone with economic power cannot use it to gain political power (and vice-versa) due to a robust set of institutions that promote competition rather than cronyism. Open access orders are responsible for strong economic growth and legitimate political rule because those with good ideas are able to prosper while idiots with famous last names cannot get ahead. Only a handful of countries have strong systems of open access because it’s very tricky to break the “iron grip” of politicians on commerce and businesspeople on politics. (North et al. hypothesize that a transition might occur when rulers decide that rules are a good way to protect their wealth from their greedy successors.)

This paper has helped me think about governance and markets for several years. It explains why Trump — a fraud and cheat — is so dangerous as a leader: He uses his political power to enrich himself and his cronies. The paper also explains the “interesting” struggles in Russia and China between  those newly rich who want to keep their wealth and those with political power who want to take it. Putin has returned to its natural state after the failed liberalizations of the 1990s. Xi has welcomed the rich into political cooperation but also strengthened State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) against domestic and foreign competition.

So these ideas lead to my point of this post, i.e., that we’ve begun a new Cold War between populists who favor limited-access capitalism (state-led cronyism) and liberals who favor competitive, open access capitalism. On the populist side we have the corrupt governments of Hungary, Turkey, Iran, Egypt, China, Brazil and most of the world. On the liberal side are Scandinavian countries, Singapore, and Canada where markets are (mostly) free and fair. In the middle are countries that are advancing (the Baltics, South Korea, Germany), falling (the US), or struggling (Mexico, southern Europe, et al.).

My one-handed opinion is that populists will continue to tell citizens that they are “the best” and foreigners (and their “unfair trade”) are dirty while those same “leaders” enrich their cronies and destroy national wealth while liberals struggle with citizens mislead by get-rich fantasies promulgated by insta-celebrities and populist propaganda. Although I am sure that populists will impoverish citizens, I am not so sure what will happen when citizens see past the lies. Will they revolt as the French did in 1789 and the Romanians in 1989? Will they attack foreign scapegoats? Will they just get poorer? No matter their action, I know from North et al.’s framework that populism will ultimately lead to economic stagnation and a further separation between the haves and have-nots. Sad.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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