The rise of populism has rattled the global political establishment. Brexit came as a shock, as did the victory of Donald Trump. Much head-scratching has resulted as leaders seek to work out why large chunks of their electorates are so cross.
The answer seems pretty simple. Populism is the result of economic failure. The 10 years since the financial crisis have shown that the system of economic governance which has held sway for the past four decades is broken. Some call this approach neoliberalism. Perhaps a better description would be unpopulism. Unpopulism meant tilting the balance of power in the workplace in favour of management and treating people like wage slaves. Unpopulism was rigged to ensure that the fruits of growth went to the few not to the many. Unpopulism decreed that those responsible for the global financial crisis got away with it while those who were innocent bore the brunt of austerity.
Anybody seeking to understand why Trump won the US presidential election should take a look at what has been happening to the division of the economic spoils. The share of national income that went to the bottom 90% of the population held steady at around 66% from 1950 to 1980. It then began a steep decline, falling to just over 50% when the financial crisis broke in 2007.
Similarly, it is no longer the case that everybody benefits when the US economy is doing well. During the business cycle upswing between 1961 and 1969, the bottom 90% of Americans took 67% of the income gains. During the Reagan expansion two decades later they took 20%. During the Greenspan housing bubble of 2001 to 2007, they got just two cents in every extra dollar of national income generated while the richest 10% took the rest.
The US economist Thomas Palley says that up until the late 1970s countries operated a virtuous circle growth model in which wages were the engine of demand growth. “Productivity growth drove wage growth which fueled demand growth. That promoted full employment, which provided the incentive to invest, which drove further productivity growth,” he says.
Unpopulism was touted as the antidote to the supposedly failed policies of the postwar era. It promised higher growth rates, higher investment rates, higher productivity rates and a trickle down of income from rich to poor. It has delivered none of these things.
James Montier and Philip Pilkington, of the global investment firm GMO, say that the system which arose in the 1970s was characterised by four significant economic policies: the abandonment of full employment and its replacement with inflation targeting; an increase in the globalisation of the flows of people, capital and trade; a focus on shareholder maximisation rather than reinvestment and growth; and the pursuit of flexible labour markets and the disruption of trade unions and workers’ organisations.
To take just the last of these four pillars, the idea was that trade unions and minimum wages were impediments to an efficient labour market. Collective bargaining and statutory pay floors would result in workers being paid more than the market rate, with the result that unemployment would inevitably rise… read more: