What are the right policies for the post-Covid-19 economy?
This is a question that is not just urgent, but important. If you read the analyses produced by the International Monetary Fund, World Bank or leading central banks, it is all about monetary and fiscal policies. They qualify their models by saying that we must conquer the health issue first; then they recommend that governments spend without worrying about deficits and central banks provide liquidity without worrying about inflation. Sounds like manna from heaven?
All these policy recommendations are from generals fighting the last war, without realising that we are repeating the greatest mistake of the 2008/09 global financial crisis, which is to not reform structurally, but to paper over problems by printing more money using quantitative easing.
The trouble with structural reforms is that they are too many and too systemic — what we call super-wicked problems. Neoliberal neoclassical economists tend to assume that the economy is inherently stable and that shocks to the system will eventually revert to equilibrium, like Humpty Dumpty.
What these policymakers forget is that the current system has become totally imbalanced socially, ecologically, financially, politically, morally and pandemically. As any doctor will tell you, fix the cause, not the symptoms. We cannot get to the right prognosis because the diagnosis is wrong or seriously flawed.
First, there is no rational solution for what has become an emotional or traumatic situation. When more than half of mankind has experienced lockdowns with fear of life and livelihood, and a million people may die this year from coronavirus, including a quarter million in the richest and most powerful nation alone, no one is thinking straight. Everyone is lashing out at someone else — blaming China, foreigners, the establishment, and even having family fights.
Second, the pandemic added fuel to inequality wounds that were already sore. The world is becoming more and more unequal in terms of income and wealth. Technology has accelerated that by cutting out many old jobs and creating jobs for the few with access to know-how.
The pandemic showed that fewer of the rich die because they can isolate at home and remain online. The poor do all the underpaid essential jobs that are in crowded situations and most exposed to infection. In the meantime, irresponsible leaders like US President Donald Trump and Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro deny the science, give mixed messages and allow hundreds of thousands of their citizens to die needlessly.
Third, the young like Greta Thunberg are in revolt over climate change, and yet because they do not have the experience to organise, the world continues to blithely slide into a warmer climate, with rising sea levels, worsening floods, droughts, locust swarms and the like.
The mess we are in is man-made, and even if it is tough, we should be able to get out of it by using our brains, rather than wanting to fight like Alphas in a burning forest.
If it sounds complex, the issue from a cosmic (system-wide) perspective is actually fairly simple.
Globalisation (in the form of trade, investment and spread of ideas and knowledge) is mostly win-win. Since individual economies are too small to get economies of scale and produce everything they need, free trade under fair exchange is beneficial to most, but creates local inequalities that only domestic policies can take care of. There is no global government to sort out local and regional imbalances. All politics is local, which is why the real way to think about politics is glocal — think globally and act locally.
Herein lies the downside. If you cannot get your local act together, you can blame the foreigners and enter into an arms race by either taking resources from the foreigners or taxing them (in the form of tariffs or protectionism). In this nuclear age, any arms race is the road to mutually assured destruction because each country would be spending on arms and national security that do not address the domestic inequality issues, making them worse because scarce resources are used for defence instead. An aircraft carrier costs US$13 billion (RM54.2 billion) and carries nuclear bombs that cost roughly US$50 million each. The race to war is a lose-lose for all.
A 2020 study showed that even a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan could throw enough soot into the stratosphere to cool the global mean temperature by 1.8°C and cut precipitation by 8% for at least five years, resulting in a global drop in the production of maize and wheat by 13%, affecting food availability in 71 countries with a population of 1.3 billion people. Imagine nuclear wars between the US, China or Russia!
In short, either we die from gradual climate warming, or we die faster from even small nuclear wars. This is violence by slow or fast motion — enough to make a pacifist out of me. I understand why violence happens, but if violence escalates into nuclear war, we should be talking rather than fighting.
How can we get out of this mess? The only rational way is to work together and find amicable solutions to alleviate most inequities for man and nature. This is of strategic importance. We can rule out global government, as geopolitics is out of our control. But at the local level, there is much we can do as individuals, family, clan, community, village, town, city or state.
Success is relative, but failure is polarising. When the world is getting richer, everyone feels good. But as we enter into a lose-lose recessionary spiral, the polarisation between rich and poor is cast in black-and-white, good-versus-evil or them-versus-us terms. Fighting gets us nowhere. Strategy is always cast as how to overcome rivals but, actually, even how to get to be friends takes good strategies.
As we all know from personal experience, we have to work at relationships, with give and take. Narcissistic individualism is selfish; how we compromise to arrive at social good is key to our own existential future.
The first stage of any good strategy is to talk, not to fight. Beginning the conversation, however painful, is itself a healing process. As Julius Caesar said, “Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered), but war-like Rome ended up “fini”. Conquering self is more the Asian way.
Tan Sri Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective