Monday’s Reserved Judgements (and Satisficing Hopes)

Or, some Monday links on central banks, manners over matters and hard-boiled decisions

That bond salesman from the Jazz Age was right. Reserving judgement, at least sometimes, allows for a fairer outcome. Take for example the Brick film (2005), a neo-noir detective story set in a modern Southern California high school. Here in Greece it made some ripples, then it was forsaken for good. Not sure about its status in the US or elsewhere, but “overlooked”/ “underrated” seem to go with it in web searches. I agree now, but when I first watched it, its brilliance was lost to me ( and no, it was not allegedly “ahead of its time”, as some lame progressive metal bands of late 90s hilariously asserted when they zeroed in sales…).

The theatrical release poster – source

The film’s peculiarity was obvious from the titles. A couple of gals left the theater like 10’ in. My company and I were baffled for most part, by the gritty atmosphere. And I have not even begun with the dialogue. The language was something from off the map. As late Roger Ebert noted:

These are contemporary characters who say things like, “I got all five senses and I slept last night. That puts me six up on the lot of you.” Or, “Act smarter than you look, and drop it.”

You see, the whole thing was intended to serve tropes, archetypes and mannerisms from the hard-boiled fiction of 1920s-30s. A manly man vs crime and (corrupted) government, and so on and so forth. We went there, un-f-believably how, clueless about all these. We did, however, make a recurring joke from the following lines:

Brendan: You and Em were tight for a bit. Who’s she eating with now?
Kara: Eating with?
Brendan: Eating with. Lunch. Who.

Seen in this light, everything made sense to my gusto. Anyway, seems that reserving judgements not only does better assessments, but also protects the lazy unaware.

Now, I have previously indicated that I have a soft spot for the “technology of collective decisions” that are central banks. I usually reserve my judgements on them, too. This comment summarises recent developments, including a few interesting links:

In which the Rich Get Richer (Economic Principals)

A new paper by Carola Binder examines central bank independence vis-à-vis a technocratic – populist merge in the age of digital media:

Technopopulism and Central Banks (Alt – M)

The author argues that central banks, supposedly the bastions of technocratic approach, tend to “respond” (i.e. be nudged by and directly appeal) to a perceived “will of the people”, as it is expressed on-line or via events like the “FED Listens” series. This bend acts as a claim to legitimacy and accountability, in exchange of trust and extended discretion, leading to a self-reinforcing circle almost beyond the democratic election process. In other words, not quite the “Bastilles” contra “modern Jacobinism” (to remember how Wilhelm Röpke deemed independent central banks in 1960). A way out could be made, concludes the author, by introducing of a rule-based monetary policy.

Central banks, as institutional arrangements developed mostly during the 20th century, share a common mojo and tempo with the FED. They gradually assumed more independence, and since the emergence of modern financial markets, (even more) power. This rise has been accompanied by increasing obligations in transparency and accountability, fulfilled through an ever-expanding volume of communication in terms of hearings, testimonies, minutes, speeches etc. This communication also plays a role in shaping economic actors’ expectations, a major insight that transformed our understanding of macroeconomic outcomes. Andy Haldane talks all these, along with other delicious bits, in an excellent speech from 2017 (his speeches have generally been quite something):

A Little More Conversation A Little Less Action (Bank of England)

Plot twist: The endeavor of more communication has a so-so record in clarity, as documented by the rising number of “education years” needed to follow and understand central banks’ messages. The same trend goes for the pylons of rule of law, the supreme courts, at least in Europe. We certainly have come a long way since that time at the 70s, when a former Greek central bank Governor likened monetary decisions to a Talmudic text, ok, but we are not there yet.

As a parting shot, let us return just over a year back, when the German Federal Constitutional Court delivered a not exactly reserved decision (5 May 2020) about the European Central Bank’s main QE program. The FCC managed to:

  • scold the top EU Court for flawed reasoning and overreach in confirming the legality of the program in Dec 2018 (the FCC had stayed proceedings and referred the case to the Court of Justice of the EU, for a preliminary ruling in Jul 2017. Europe’s top courts are not members of the Swift Justice League, apparently).
  • indirectly demand justifications from ECB, which is beyond its jurisdiction as an independent organ of EU law, by
  • warning the German public bodies that implement ECB acts to observe their constitutional duties, while
  • effectively not disrupting the central bank’s policy.

Notorious FCC, aka Bundesverfassungsgericht – source

The judicial b-slapping provoked much outcry and theorising, but little more, at least saliently. The matter was settled by some good-willed, face-saving gestures from all institutions involved, while it probably gave a push to the Franco-German axis, to finally proceed in complementing monetary policy measures with the EU equivalent of a generous fiscal package. The rift between the EU and the German (in this case, but others could follow) respective legal orders may never be undone, though. If anyone feels like delving deeper into the EU constellation, here is a fresh long slog:

Constitutional pluralism and loyal opposition (ICON Journal)

I don’t. But then again, maybe I will act smarter than I look.

Nightcap

  1. Paul Krugman and public urination Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  2. Federal-republican earth constitutions (pdf) Daniel Deudney, TGSWP
  3. Right-wing folk politics Chris Shaw, Libertarian Ideal
  4. Why autocracy in Russia always fails Rodric Braithwaite, Spectator

Nightcap

  1. The difference between Europe and America Aron & Holland, Duck of Minerva
  2. The difference between Britain and America Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  3. Why didn’t the Habsburgs federate? Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  4. What is the best book about Argentina? Adrian Lucardi, NOL

Nightcap

  1. Lessons on internationalism from Carl Schmitt Mark Weiner, Open Society
  2. Populism (and its violence) is here to stay Mark Kukis, Aeon
  3. How 2020 kicked classical liberalism’s ass John McGinnis, Law & Liberty
  4. An excellent essay on Christianity and the West Andrew Klavan, City Journal

Nightcap

  1. Hayek and Cassel on the Great Depression David Glasner, Uneasy Money
  2. Giving Trump the OJ treatment Thomas Knapp, WLGC
  3. Liberalism in Brazil Lucas Berlanza, Econ Journal Watch
  4. Brazil will not become Venezuela Bruno Rosi, NOL

Nightcap

  1. A conservatism that’s multiethnic, middle class, and populist Ross Douthat, NY Times
  2. Most legal commentary is dumbed down and misleading Ken White Popehat
  3. A social-democratic federation in a multiethnic state Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  4. The radical leftist origins of the “self-help” movement Jennifer Wilson, the Nation

Nightcap

  1. Libertarians and localism Lauren Hall, RCL
  2. The emerging world order (pdf) Michael Lee, Survival
  3. The last jihadi superstar Thomas Hegghammer, War on the Rocks
  4. A Canadian-American merger? J Dana Stuster, Foreign Policy

New Zealand’s elections and the geopolitics of the Pacific

Introduction 

The convincing victory of Jacinda Ardern is important for more than just one reason. First, the 40 year-old Ardern’s centre-Left Labour party has won convincingly — securing 49% of the vote, and securing 64 seats in the 120 seat assembly. Ardern has delivered the biggest election victory for her party in half a century. The victory gives Ardern and her party the opportunity to form a single party government.  

Second, while there is often talk of a right-wing political discourse being dominant globally, it is important that a center-left leader has won. Many commentators of course would argue that New Zealand is a small country, with a small population of less than 5 million – and that not much should be read into the electoral result.

Third, Ardern’s successful handling of the Covid19 pandemic, along with other women leaders – including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing Wen, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen – has been acknowledged globally. A study published by the World Economic Forum and The Center for Economic and Policy Research makes this point and has cited some of the reasons for the success of the these leaders. The success has been attributed to the fact that all these leaders were quick to react to the crisis. 

Fourth, at a time when the world is becoming insular, the New Zealand PM has been firmly pitching for open immigration policies, has taken a strong stance vis-à-vis Islamophobia (something which leaders of other liberal democracies have failed to do), and repeatedly argued in favor of a more inclusive society. In March 2019, shootings at a Mosque in Christchurch by white supremacists had resulted in the killing of 50 people. Ardern, while expressing solidarity with members of the community, donned a head scarve, or hijab, and this gesture was appreciated. In her victory speech the New Zealand PM stated that the world is becoming increasingly more polarized and that “New Zealanders have shown that this is not who we are.” 

The New Zealand PM has her task cut out on issues related to the economy (the economy had shrunk by 12% in the second quarter thanks to the impact of the lockdown). Like other countries, there have been many job losses. Some of the sectors which have witnessed job losses, such as retail, hospitality, and tourism – employ women (according to some estimates a whopping 90% of people who have lost jobs are women). Some commentators also believe that the Labour government has not been able to deliver on key promises related to housing, child welfare, and the economy. There is also an argument that Ardern’s first tenure was not transformational, and after her win the expectations from her will be much higher.

Foreign Policy Challenges  

New Zealand, in spite of being a small country, is important in the context of foreign policy issues. There are two important dimensions: New Zealand’s ties with China, and as a part of the 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

As far as New Zealand’s ties with China are concerned, there are various layers to the bilateral relationship. Jacinda Ardern’s government has largely gone along with other 5 eye countries when it comes to the issue of allowing Huawei entry into New Zealand’s 5G network. On issues pertaining to Hong Kong, the Uygurs, and the South China Sea too, New Zealand has taken a firm stance vis-à-vis Beijing. After the imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, New Zealand suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, and it also made revisions with regard to its policy on military and dual-use goods and technology exports to Hong Kong, subjecting the city to the same as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). 

During her speech at the China-New Zealand Summit, Ardern said: 

As you know, this has come to the fore recently around developments like Hong Kong’s new security law, the situation of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang province, and Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Organisation.

Like its neighbour Australia, New Zealand has also been taking cognizance of increasing political interference in its domestic politics, via governments, political parties, and universities. There has been bipartisan support for taking measures to check the same. Some policies have been introduced with regard to political donations as well as Foreign Direct Investment. 

At the same time, New Zealand has a close economic relationship with China and this is strong reiterated by figures. In 2019, China accounted for a staggering 33% of New Zealand’s dairy exports, over 40% of meat experts and contributed to 58.3% of international education earnings (it is estimated that in 2019, 87% of New Zealand’s service export earnings from China came from education-related travel and personal tourism).

While there has been a shift in New Zealand’s approach vis-à-vis China, officials have also repeatedly made the point, that it will not blindly toe any other country’s stance vis-à-vis China. 

CPTPP

Another important foreign policy component of New Zealand is as member of the 11-member CPTPP. Along with other countries, New Zealand worked towards keeping supply chains going in the midst of the pandemic. For instance in April, New Zealand sent a first plane load of essential supplies to Singapore. (This included commodities like lamb and beef which were sent by a chartered plane.)

New Zealand and other CPTPP members have also been working to resume essential travel, while Singapore opened a travel bubble with New Zealand on September 1, 2020 (which means that quarantine-free travel will be allowed). 

New Zealand and its neighbour Australia, another member of CPTPP, have opened an air bubble too (though this is one-way as yet only passengers from New Zealand can travel to Australia). The bubble currently is applicable only to two Australian states New South Wales and the Northern Territory.

Conclusion  

In conclusion, the election result is important not just in the context of domestic politics, but in sending a message that there is space for centrist and inclusive politics and that it is not necessary to have a Strong Man image cultivated by many right-wing leaders. It is also important to bear in mind that liberal democracies, which respect diversity, are in a far better position to provide an alternative narrative to that of China. Apart from this, while the shortcomings of globalization do need to be acknowledged and addressed, inward looking economic and immigration policies need to be firmly rejected.

Nightcap

  1. Accumulation and its discontents (“stuff”) Astrid Van Oyen, Aeon
  2. How the U.S. won the war against Japan? Mark Perry, NY Times
  3. On right-wing populism and democracy John Lloyd, Quillette
  4. Has self-awareness gone too far in fiction? Katy Waldman, New Yorker

Nightcap

  1. On the “Muslim Game of Thrones” series Atif Baloch, DW
  2. Why secession, separatism, and disunion are the most American of values Rebecca Onion, Slate
  3. A history of America’s exceptional idea Jonathan Leaf, Modern Age
  4. Populism is a feature of globalization, not a bug Angelos Chryssogelos, Noema

Nightcap

  1. This is your US Constitution on drugs Ilya Shapiro, National Affairs
  2. The early years of Communist Party rule Ian Johnson, NY Times
  3. Why Leftists prefer and even encourage “cancel culture” Chris Bertram, Crooked Timber
  4. The rumour about the Jews Francesca Trivellato, Aeon
  5. New light on the dark interwar years Tony Barber, Financial Times

Tuesday links

  1. Economics is [only] one way of reflecting on the times
  2. Those revenue-raising early central banks
  3. Trumpism after Trump (too much straw)
  4. Never reason from a fatality rate
  5. The collapse of the ancient Roman tax base
  6. Multilateralism is alive and well (in the Indo-Pacific)

Nightcap

  1. Erdoğan and Turkey’s missing 30 million Selim Koru, War on the Rocks
  2. The rise of extreme politics in a federation Daniele, Piolatto, & Sas, VoxEU
  3. China hasn’t lost Europe just yet Michito Tsuruoka, Diplomat
  4. What is “God” even supposed to mean? Ed Simon, LARB

Brazil’s economy after the pandemic

I wrote an article on the path to economic recovery in Brazil after the pandemic. The article was published by Instituto Monte Castelo, a Brasilia-based think tank, and it is in Portuguese. Here is a summary of the key points.

Brazil’s economy is overwhelmingly interventionist, as shown by its progress (or lack thereof) in data compiled by the World Bank in its Doing Business studies, or Heritage’s Foundation Index of Economic Freedom, or the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report. As predicted by theories of economic interventionism (more recently, Robert Higgs and Sanford Ikeda; but, classically, Ludwig von Mises), a time of crisis invites more government intervention or, remarkably at certain historical junctures, disintervention.

From a free market perspective, what can be done?

Brazil’s situation is, to a certain extent, a reflection of the global scenario. A global crisis was bound to happen, given the unrealistic inflation of asset prices in global financial markets, reflecting the artificial propping up of the major economies around the world by injections of money and credit, as well as increased public spending after 2009. COVID-19 triggered it, but it was the tip of the iceberg. Brazil suffered from capital outflows and its currency devalued sharply against the US dollar.

In terms of how the external scenario reflects on Brazil, the only thing that can be done is decrease the level of risk in Brazil’s economy, or maintain interest rates on a level that reflects the amount of risk in the economy (given that Brazil’s Central Bank has been cutting rates throughout the year). The fact that the President is fighting with his cabinet and with the other branches of the government also reflects poorly in terms of political risk.

However, there is a lot that can be done in terms of the domestic scenario. The economic crisis resulting from the pandemic also reflects, in part, a change in consumer preferences and in how things will have to be done safely to avoid contamination. This means that some businesses will not thrive as much (restaurants, for example) and that other industries will incur in much higher costs to operate more safely. This disequilibrium would have happened regardless of government-mandated restrictions, and alert entrepreneurs will spot a chance to obtain gain by creating value for their consumers and clients.

However, it’s much harder to shut down inefficient companies, fire people, and open new ones, and hire people, in a heavily interventionist economy such as Brazil’s.

Shutdowns and other government imposed restrictions, especially on the local level, are making things worse. Brazil’s case is one of a milder shutdown. The government is offering a small compensation package for the trouble, but not much compared to the “stimulus” packages in Europe and the US. This probably reflects a more sober approach by Brazil’s Central Bank. However, on the one hand small businesses struggle to get access to credit due to the red tape, so this favors large companies and will concentrate the market in the long run. There’s also an idea of propping up airline companies and other inefficient businesses. This, in my view, would be a mistake. But lobbyists will line up to get their share of the cake.

The path to economic recovery in Brazil will necessarily have to involve local and federal deregulation, cutting lots of red tape, and major tax reforms. Labor laws have been made more flexible a few years ago, and the current administration managed to pass a massive pension reform that will reconfigure some of the public debt. However, this is not enough. Deeper reforms to cut public spending on a more permanent basis will have to be proposed, and the federal government will have to work harder to signal institutional and political stability and predictability.

The challenge is that the current administration can’t get reelected in 2022 with very little to show in terms of the economy, and the effects of the reforms proposed above will only become clearer in the long term. The temptation is to do just what the US seems to be doing – anti-trade nationalism to punish a foreign scapegoat, or the abstract scapegoat of ‘globalism’, appease some of the cronies with monetary and fiscal populism, red herrings making the population and the media focus on culture wars, etc. But this temptation is to be expected according to the economic theory of interventionism. Whether it will be overcome, only time can tell.

Brazil will not become Venezuela

Judge Sérgio Moro has left the Bolsonaro government. Chosen to be Minister of Justice, Moro achieved prominence for leading the Carwash operation that took several corrupt politicians to jail, including former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Moro’s departure exposes a very serious weakness within the Bolsonaro government, and in the medium term, it will lead to the weakening of the government and the country. According to Moro, his departure is due to attempts by President Bolsonaro to unduly interfere with the Federal Police. Bolsonaro countered the accusations, but the scenario remains shaky for the president. If Moro is speaking the truth, and if he can substantiate what he said with material evidence, this can lead to impeachment and even arrest of the president.

It is important to remember how Bolsonaro came to power. Going back a few decades in the past, Brazil emerged from a military dictatorship in 1985. The years since then have been called the New Republic by Brazilian analysts. One of the most relevant leaders of this period was Fernando Henrique Cardoso. As finance minister (1993-1994) of the Itamar Franco government (1992-1994) and later as president (1995-2002), FHC led a series of reforms that made the country’s economy, previously marked by developmentalism, freer. FHC was succeeded by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010). Historically a radical socialist affiliated with the Workers’ Party, Lula came to power in 2003 promising a moderate government. To a large extent, this promise was kept, but the Lula government was soon hit by serious allegations of corruption. These complaints continued under the government of his successor, Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016), who ended up being impeached in 2016. Because of his corrupt actions as president, Lula ended up arrested by Sérgio Moro in 2018. Despite the moderate tone of Lula and Dilma as presidents, throughout their time in power, both signaled measures that resembled their party’s most radical years. This nod often sounded like a threat that both could trigger the bases of their party to take radical measures as was seen in other South American countries that had elected left-wing governments, especially Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. Lula went so far as to declare that in Venezuela under Chavez there was an “excess of democracy”.

It was in the face of multiple corruption scandals and the threat of a radical turn to the left that Jair Bolsonaro gained prominence. For many years an inconsequential politician from Rio de Janeiro, Bolsonaro gained fame with his stripped-down and even pimp language. As early as 2014, he began to be welcomed throughout Brazil under the shouts of “myth” for the open way in which it criticized the “left”. He soon became a popular phenomenon. Although many analysts doubted his viability as a candidate, he ended up winning the presidency.

Unfortunately, Bolsonaro is far from a classic liberal or a Burkean conservative. A retired army captain, he entered politics to defend the interests of his fellow soldiers. In addition, he has always defended Rio de Janeiro’s military police officers, who are constantly accused of human rights abuses. Finally, Bolsonaro has always declared himself an uncompromising admirer of the Military Dictatorship (1964-1985). Although he showed no signs that he would like to extinguish democracy in Brazil (as many analysts on the left feared), he was also unable to see the many damages that the military did to the country during their years in power.

In his practice as president, Bolsonaro shows himself to be an impatient man, unable to respect the bureaucratic procedures of a liberal democracy. Worse than that, if Sérgio Moro’s allegations are true (and there is good reason to believe that Moro is not a frivolous man), Bolsonaro is trying to control the Federal Police to avoid investigations against his eldest son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, accused of corruption and involvement with militias. There are good reasons to believe that, with the departure of Sérgio Moro, the Bolsonaro government has come to an end.

Fortunately, as Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment demonstrates, Brazil is not Venezuela. Despite its many setbacks and weak record as a liberal democracy, the country still stands out in South America for its record of solid institutions that survived even during anti-liberal governments. Although imperfectly, Brazil has the institutions expected from a classic liberal democracy: division of powers, a bicameral legislature, a supreme federal court, and (at least formal) independence between the powers. Unfortunately, there are high levels of corruption in all of these spheres, largely due to the great attributions of the state provided for in the 1988 Constitution. Much is expected of the state, and the state controls an immense amount of resources. It is said that a thief was once asked why he robbed banks. “Because that’s where the money is,” was his reply. Likewise, there is a good reason why many people enter politics in Brazil.

There are crucial reforms that need to be made in Brazil if the country is to become a viable democracy. Fortunately, many of these reforms have been made in the past. Since its independence from Portugal in 1822, the country has, at least superficially, classic liberal institutions. Never has a head of government in Brazil dared to govern without a constitution, as was the case in other South American countries. Bolsonaro’s impeachment, if confirmed, will be a major blow, but it will not destroy Brazil. But it also shows that, more than populist politicians, Brazil needs leaders who will lead it to a deeper liberalism. Popular support for this type of reform exists, but it is contrasted by the desire for a “myth”.