We are lurching from crisis to crisis

The cost-of-living crisis is not just a question of increasing prices. The reason the current inflation can be considered such a crisis is that the UK has not been creating enough wealth for people to afford these higher prices. And while the recent dislocations and disruptions caused by the lockdown reopenings and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have had a huge impact on prices, the British government still seems incapable of acknowledging that things were not going well economically both before the war and before the pandemic.

Even when the current rapid pace of inflation eventually slows, many households will still be struggling to meet those higher prices of essentials like food and energy. And even if those particular costs began to subside, many people would continue to live on the edge, until the next shock sends them deeper into privation. These scenarios reveal that today’s cost-of-living crisis is not just a product of price increases.

Why have the increased costs become so unbearable for so many households? Why is there so little capacity at an individual, business or societal level to cope with these price spikes? Without addressing these historical issues underlying the current hardship, we are likely to see a continuation of crisis management rather than a durable fix.

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The end of the American century

Many believe that the war in Ukraine will reverse or bring an end to globalisation. However, this is not the first time that globalisation has been declared dead. Obituaries were published after the financial crash of 2008, after the Brexit vote in 2016 and after the election of President Trump in 2016. Yet more obituaries were penned following the pandemic lockdowns and the accompanying disruption of global supply lines.

When a phenomenon is repeatedly declared dead, only to repeatedly survive, it should raise questions about the usefulness of the concept used to describe it. That certainly goes for the concept of globalisation. World economic developments simply do not follow an either / or, more-or-less logic of globalisation or de-globalisation.

In order to understand today’s economic developments, it is better to start not with globalisation, but with the idea that the world economy is always in flux – that the balance between international and national is always changing. We can therefore ask: which features in the world economy are likely to be magnified or sped up by Russia’s invasion and why? The most important impact will be the acceleration of the existing fragmentation within the world economy, both at the regional level and at the national level.

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The fundamental flaw of Levelling Up

For a long time ‘Levelling Up’ was widely derided as a slogan in search of a policy. With last week’s much-delayed Levelling Up White Paper, we now have lots of policies – 400 pages of them. However, the search to identify the essential causes of lower levels of prosperity and growth in some parts of the UK has missed the mark.

Aspiring to raise living conditions for all, with an emphasis on the most deprived, is a worthy goal. But turning hope into an effective plan needs to start with ‘the why’ to identify successfully ‘the what’ that needs to be addressed. For all its length, the white paper fails to unearth what’s been holding back local, regional and national growth and prosperity. The government continues to evade the fundamental driver for deficient living circumstances countrywide – namely, an economy that has been stuck in depressed conditions for half a century.

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The fatalism of the inflation debate

When it comes to the misery of falling living standards, we don’t need a fevered and fatalist debate around rising prices and some short-term counter-inflationary devices, but a proper plan for economic growth. The wealth from rising productivity is the only reliable source of durable prosperity. Moreover, it would allow society to deal better with material disruptions of the sort we have had to endure over the past two years of restrictions and lockdowns.

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Who will save Britain from its never-ending slump?

The huge hole at the centre of the Autumn Budget goes beyond any of the fiscal measures announced. The substance of the statement made clear that this government’s bold talk about economic renewal does not translate into a serious pro-growth plan that might address the fundamental challenges of low investment and poor productivity.

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